Tag: contemporary opera

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

Bright Sheng sitting in front of his grand piano

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Bright Sheng, composer
  • Everything we do is autobiographical.

    Bright Sheng, composer

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

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


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

Ungendered Voice Types for a New Century

Two singers clutching each other

Operatic Voice Classification for the 21st Century is a multi-part series exploring the ever-changing system of voice type in classical singing through a transgender lens. The first installments delved into how types are gendered and why opera needs ungendered voice types to move forward. The previous article laid out my thoughts on how to create an ungendered system and this final installment will draw conclusions and provide practical advice for all those involved in creating new opera.

A quick reminder that all experiences expressed here are mine and do not reflect those of transgender and/or nonbinary people in general. Everyone has their own story to tell, and this is mine.

Using the elements of type that I established in my last article (range, flexibility, and timbre), I’ve laid out a rudimentary map for creating new terms. I want these terms, especially the timbre-related ones, to be less binary and more open to personalization. I’ve only included a few that I think will give an idea of where this system could be headed.

If you’d like to skip ahead to practical ways to implement inclusivity within the current voice types, you can go straight to the end of the article. Otherwise, let’s dive in and put this new system to the test!

Ranges 1-12: A role’s general range will fall within one of these numbered ranges, which start at the lowest note and move up in range as the numbers go up (diagram below). While a role can only have one number designation (with optional upper or lower extension added as a modifier), a singer can occupy more than one numeral range. For example, a singer who previously identified as a contralto could now be a 7-8, or they could be just a 7. Both are equally valid and allow for a more personalized description of type. [Ed. Note: When this was initially published on NewMusicBox, there was an accidental notational error in ranges 5 and 6 which has subsequently been corrected here.]

The first six of Aiden Feltkamp's numerical range designations (1-6): singers designated as "1" can sing from E2 to G3; singers designated as "2" can sing from G2 to D4; singers designated as "3" can sing from A2 to E4; singers designated as "4" can sing from A2 to G4; singers designated as "5" can sing from B2 to B4; and singers designated as "6" can sing from C3 to C5.
The final six of Aiden Feltkamp's numerical range designations (7-12): singers designated as "7" can sing from F3 to C5; singers designated as "8" can sing from A3 to E5; singers designated as "9" can sing from B3 to G5; singers designated as "10" can sing from D4 to B5; singers designated as "11" can sing from G4 to C6; and singers designated as "12" can sing from B4 to F6.

I realize that numbers are a bit sterile, especially for something as artistic as opera and as unique as voice, but they could be replaced with words. The challenge is to find words that are descriptive but without the built-in prejudice from earlier voice type systems.

The challenge is to find words that are descriptive but without the built-in prejudice from earlier voice type systems.

Lyric/Flexible: This denotes the singer’s ability for fast movement. Singers who are flexible would be able to sing roles with moderate flexibility or high flexibility. Singers who sing roles labeled with “no flexibility” would take the adjective “lyric.” I realize that “lyric” is already part of the Fach system and has a slightly different meaning, but I’m at a loss for a better term for this aspect of the voice.

Dramatic/Light: These timbre descriptions relate directly to the size of the voice and what size orchestra/ensemble is best suited to it. While an established opera’s composition year/era would likely supply this information on its own, this designation could be helpful for new works and for singers themselves.

Steely/Warm/Bright/etc: These descriptors can be personalized to the singer and are more useful in singer descriptions than role descriptions. A producer or composer could prefer a particular timbre for a role, but this should only be used as a suggestion.

Let’s put this all to work in a few examples. Using this system, here are the types for the following roles:

  • Königin der Nacht (Mozart): flexible dramatic 12
  • Kate (Griffin Candey): lyric 10
  • The Rose (Rachel Portman): lyric 10 with lower extension
  • Cherubino (Mozart): lyric 9
  • Le Prince Charmant (Massenet): lyric dramatic 5 with lower extension OR lyric dramatic 10 with upper extension
  • Tonio (Donizetti): flexible light 12
  • Robert Oppenheimer (John Adams): lyric dramatic 4 with upper extension
  • Don Giovanni (Mozart): lyric 4

Each singer needs to classify themselves, but just for this sake of this example, I’ll use this system to classify a few living opera singers:

  • Diana Damrau: warm flexible dramatic 10-12
  • Angel Blue: flexible dramatic 9-11
  • Stephanie Blythe: warm lyric dramatic 8-10
  • Marijana Mijanovic: steely flexible light 7-9
  • Lawrence Brownlee: warm flexible light 5-6
  • Jonas Kaufmann: warm lyric dramatic 4-6
  • Samuel Ramey: flexible dramatic 1-4

I realize that this new system is just as prone to prejudice as any. I’m just hoping that with a clean slate, we’re able to eliminate some of the built-in gendering in the current types.

This article is more of a thought experiment than an industry change.

Since this article is more of a thought experiment than an industry change, I don’t want to end without lending some practical advice. So, how can you, a composer/producer/opera maker, create a more inclusive and expansive space for artists?

Nicholas Wiggins as Robert Schumann, Aumna Iqbal as Clara Schumann. Photo by Aiden Feltkamp (OperaRox Productions)

Nicholas Wiggins as Robert Schumann, Aumna Iqbal as Clara Schumann. Photo by Aiden Feltkamp (OperaRox Productions)

Accessible Auditions

If you want the most diverse pool of applicants, you need to eliminate barriers. Do you have an audition fee? If so, why? How could you find a way to eliminate or absorb this into your operating budget?

If you want the most diverse pool of applicants, you need to eliminate barriers.

Even better, do you need to have live auditions? If not, how can you set up remote auditions? I personally love casting from recordings and personal interviews. Just don’t require super HD recordings, because that also creates another barrier.

Diverse Audition Panel

Who is judging the auditionees? Do you have a panel that’s diverse in experience, demographic, and style? If not, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of unconscious bias. Build a panel from people you trust but who don’t always agree with you. Panelists should interrogate others’ reasons for liking one person over another. Is it a real issue, preference, or unconscious bias?

Confront Your Unconscious Biases

We all carry unconscious biases with us. The best way to counteract their less-helpful side is to spend time on self-reflection. Identify your unconscious biases and keep them in mind as you make decisions. You can learn the basics of unconscious bias in this article and you can test some of your own biases at Harvard’s Project Implicit.

Leave the Gender Police at Home

We all carry unconscious biases with us.

If you find yourself thinking or talking like a black-and-white character from Pleasantville, you’re probably being the gender police. We don’t need the 1950s and its outdated gender roles; leave them at the door when you’re judging auditions, if at no other time.

A screenshot of a Jan 27, 2019 9:06pm retweet by BAD WITH MONEY BOOK (@gabydunn) which reads: "Legit nothing in the script that says Roger isn't in a wheelchair!" plus the text of the original tweet from Alison Young (@Foreverayoung): "You wish you could see this version! @RENTonFox #RentLive"

Think Outside the Box

Have you ever seen a tomboy Zerlina? Or a goth Barbarina? (I have, actually, and I loved it.) How about a bisexual Tamino? If you can think outside the box about these characters, you can also think outside the box on the artists who play them. We don’t need cookie-cutter opera singers – we need artists. But they’ll only thrive and perform if they’re hired to do so. Don’t settle. Instead, imagine.

Start Trends Instead of Following Them

Create the future of opera that you want to see and stick to it. People will be drawn to good and inclusive art.

Thank you to everyone who made it this far! Let’s keep this conversation going and move toward a more inclusive and vibrant future for opera.

 

Ellen Reid: More Than Sound

A woman sitting on a blue couch

“Would you ever say any concert is just about the sound?” Ellen Reid asked me when I met with her in Brooklyn a few days after the final PROTOTYPE performance of her opera p r i s m.

That question might initially seem odd coming from someone who defines herself as both a composer and a sound artist—someone who pays close attention to sound, whether it’s the careful spatial positioning of objects in an installation or slightly changing the instrumental forces accompanying voices to make listeners think they’re hearing different music. Yet that question made total sense to me after attending two live performances of her music the previous week—the aforementioned emotionally traumatic yet life-affirming p r i s m and the powerful, politically charged choral work dreams of the new world.

Although the music was extremely compelling in both works, it was clearly conceived to be just one of many elements that went into these multisensory experiences. In the realm of contemporary opera, audiences are now accustomed to watching a theatrical experience unfold that is every bit as significant as the pitches in the arias that are being sung, so in that sense p r i s m is not unique. (It is unique rather for the way that the story does not unfold in linear time, and how the music helps to skew the storyline’s altered chronology.) Concert presentations of choral pieces, on the other hand, are usually always focused exclusively on the composer despite the pedigree of the text being set. Yet Reid made it clear in her comments before the performance of dreams of the new world, as well as in our conversation, that her music was just one of the elements that went into creating this piece. For those pre-performance comments, as well as during the bow she took at the end of it, Reid was joined by both her librettist Sarah LaBrie and Sayd Randle, who served as the work’s lead researcher and dramaturg.

“We came up with the concept together,” Reid explained. “We were all involved in each other’s work, and I think that that’s a really honest thing that happens in the craft of making music. I guess in all performative mediums, but especially in more theatrical mediums with a story.”

Reid’s collaborative generosity is extremely refreshing and comes from an extensive background in composing for film soundtracks and incidental music for theater, as well as living for two and a half years in Thailand where she immersed herself in traditional musical practices.

“The amount of people that it takes to make a work of art is enormous,” Reid elaborated. “We have put a certain amount of weight on different parts of those things to make some of them seem more important, but they couldn’t happen without the other ones. … I think one reason that I’m really set on featuring my collaborators is that I’ve done a lot of work in other mediums where composers are not the first artist. … [To me,] it feels more like a constellation.”

  • The amount of people that it takes to make a work of art is enormous, but it’s usually credited to one person.

    Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
  • Would you ever say any concert is just about the sound?

    Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
  • You can’t ever watch anything for the first or second time if you’ve made it.

    Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
  • I think it’s not that rare, especially for women, to start writing a little later.

    Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
  • I grew up going to see different art things, but one thing that I didn’t see often was concert music.

    Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
  • One of my entry points into opera was when I was living in Thailand working with Thai classical opera.

    Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
  • I was obsessed with figuring out how I could make a song that sounded sad to every person in the world.

    Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
  • Composition has to do with notes. And sound art has to do with how you hear.

    Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
  • Everything’s in response to everything else.

    Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist
  • People who want to be playwrights want to be in the driver’s seat. And in opera, you’re not.

    Ellen Reid, composer & sound artist

Reid’s instinctive team spirit, as well as her awareness that sound always exists alongside other sensory stimuli, even informs music she creates that would otherwise be perceived as purely “instrumental” or “abstract,” words put in scare quotes here because they’re not particularly adequate descriptors for Reid’s output. For example, even when writing a piece for orchestra, Reid will write tempos a certain way based on her mindfulness of what the conductor will look like during its realization.

“I think there’s an element of choreography and theater in how everything is interpreted as a viewer,” she explained.

Reid seemed to imply that she would be composing for orchestra again in the near future, but since it had yet to be officially announced, she would not offer us any further details about the project other than to acknowledge that whatever she writes will inevitably be informed by the visual realities that occur during the process of a large group of people making music as a result of someone’s baton movements and/or hand gestures.

“It has to be. They’re front and center: a dancer conductor.”


Ellen Reid in conversation with Frank J. Oteri at the home of Sarah Baird Knight in Brooklyn, NY
January 14, 2019—1:30 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Adapting an Ever-Changing System

A nonbinary person wearing a suit laughing

Operatic Voice Classification for the 21st Century is a multi-part series exploring the ever-changing system of voice type in classical singing through a transgender lens. The first installments delved into how types are gendered and why opera needs ungendered voice types to move forward. The final installment will draw conclusions from this and previous conversations to provide practical advice for all those involved in creating new opera.

A quick reminder that all experiences expressed here are mine and do not reflect those of transgender and/or nonbinary people in general. Everyone has their own story to tell, and this is mine.

We’ve phased out castrati…

A study of opera history quickly reveals the continually shifting nature of voice classification. We’ve phased out castrati, created distinctions such as mezzo-soprano and bass-baritone, and added modifiers to each to create the Fach system. Just as more recent classification has built upon older systems, I believe we can make tweaks to the current system to create one that’s more inclusive, descriptive, and wholly separate from binary gender identities.

Granted, we could keep classification as it is and attempt to strip the gender expectations from it. But, as I discussed in the last installment, it’s hard to change associations built into an established system. It’s worth considering changes or something entirely new, if only to allow for a more immediate adoption and implementation.

An ideal updated system would serve singers, composers, and producers. The goal is to create more flexibility for singers, a more usable tool for composers, and more detailed information for producers when it comes to casting and programming.

An ideal updated system would serve singers, composers, and producers.

I encourage everyone to engage me in this conversation. My suggestions aren’t a be-all and end-all or even completely polished. I propose these next few ideas with as much openness and enthusiasm as possible. I’ve spent far too much time thinking about this and not enough time writing. I’m afraid of leaving something out, of missing an important piece of the puzzle and exposing myself to an exorbitant amount of criticism, but I’ll push forward regardless.

The way I see it, the most important elements of voice type are range, flexibility, and timbre.

Range

Obviously, the lowest and highest notes sung within a role are the basis for its type. That’s easy enough to delineate and notate. But anyone familiar with the operatic singing voice will know that there are additional factors to consider. A full lyric soprano and a coloratura mezzo may have the same range in terms of low and high notes, but how they navigate that range, and how often they’re in different parts of that range, are what differentiate their voice types and the roles written for their voices.

That said, I find it extremely helpful to have a range listed for each new role. At the bare minimum, that would indicate the highest and lowest notes of the role. At best, it’ll also indicate where the role generally sits and the frequency of the use of the extremes. This could be a graphic or text-based element placed at the front of the score with the role list. I’ve included a simplistic example of what could be included by the composer, using the title character of Griffin Candey’s Sweets by Kate as a model. The first measure is the role’s entire range and the second shows where the role sits most often within that range.

Music notation showing the complete range (eb' to b'') as well as the range of the majority of the notes (b' to g'') for the role of Kate in Griffin Candey’s opera Sweets by Kate

A more common example is Cherubino from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. With the range laid out in this way, it’s easy to see why producers can choose from sopranos, mezzo-sopranos, and countertenors when casting for this role.

Music notation showing the complete range (b to g'') as well as the range of the majority of the notes (b' to f'') for the role of Cherubino in Mozart’s opera Le nozze di Figaro

Another idea that I find helpful comes from my composer friend, David Howell. He thinks about repertoire ranges like an NFL draft or product recommendations: “If you sang X, you would probably also like Y.” This would be especially helpful for new operas. A singer could easily determine a role’s general fit before digging into the opera in its entirety. The implementation of this is more suited to range and flexibility than timbre, since timbre is less tied to a singer’s ability to sing a role and more dependent on a producer’s preference, the performance venue, and the instrumental ensemble available.

David Howell thinks about repertoire ranges like an NFL draft or product recommendations.

To continue with the example above, if you sing Kate in Sweets by Kate, you might also sing: Pamina in Die Zauberflöte (Mozart), Musetta in La Bohème (Puccini), Gretel in Hänsel und Gretel (Humperdinck), Nanetta in Falstaff (Verdi), Young Alyce in Glory Denied (Cipullo), The Rose in The Little Prince (Portman), and Helen in The Great God Pan (Crean).

Ranges could be standardized and then identified; these classifications could be as simple and clincial as numbers or as interesting as new names. Singers could exist within multiple established ranges to show their voice’s unique abilities and propensities. As I delved into in earlier installments, labels could remain as they are but without the expectation of gender, or completely new terms could be created. As a compromise, new standardized ranges could join the already-standardized types. However, I’d push for a new set of labels for ranges.

Flexibility

I define flexibility as the role’s tendency to have fast and/or moving (running or jumping) notes. The terms “coloratura” and “lyric” are currently in use for this aspect, but I believe we could be more specific.

My suggestion would be something akin to three categories: no flexibility, moderate flexibility, and high flexibility. Lyric roles would fall within both “no flexibility” and “moderate flexibility,” while most coloratura roles would be labeled “high flexibility.” For example: Countess Almaviva in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro would fall into “moderate flexibility,” but Rosina in Il Barbiere di Siviglia would carry the “high flexibility” label. Then, the same character in John Corgliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles would be labeled with “no flexibility.”

Timbre

This is where, for me at least, things get interesting. It’s the most subjective aspect of a voice, and therefore the least helpful in creating “types.”

Timbre is the most subjective aspect of a voice, and therefore the least helpful in creating “types.”

I think we can keep many of the Fach system’s descriptors in relation to timbre. A light lyric or a dramatic makes sense, no matter what voice type it’s modifying. It really comes down to giving names for ranges and then adding modifiers for flexibility and timbre.

An important aspect of timbre when creating new roles relates to the instrumental ensemble’s size and the density of the orchestration. The dramatic voice types emerged as the operatic orchestra changed throughout the Romantic period (and beyond) and signify a particular size in the voice. Since dramatic voices aren’t the necessary norm for new works, it would be helpful to include a size indicator within the timbre labeling system.

Timbre and Gender

Even though almost all the words we use to describe an operatic voice’s timbre (warm, steely, heavy, bright) are ungendered, timbre is where I personally find it most difficult to disentangle gender from type.

Timbre is where I personally find it most difficult to disentangle gender from type.

My major hang-up relates to the difference in timbre in the treble range between cisgender women and cisgender men. This most likely stems from my past as a mezzo-soprano and my tendency to listen to both cisgender women and cisgender men singing the same repertoire. There’s a quality to a cisgender man’s voice in the high treble range that immediately genders it for me.

Granted, this is a personal issue and not necessarily a systemic one. I didn’t notice my own gendering of the voice until I first heard Marijana Mijanovic’s recordings a few years ago. Her performance of Cesare (Händel) reminds me so much of a cisgender man’s voice that I had to question everything I already thought about the gendering of the physical vocal mechanism and its inherent ability to create certain sounds.

As my own voice box began to change, my concept regarding the difference between a “male” and “female” approach to shared notes diverged again. (I use quotation marks here, because, as I delve into in Part 2, gendering body parts is problematic and inaccurate.) I’d expected the change from my “female” voice box to a testosterone-affected one to be more like learning how to play the violin after playing the cello. Instead, it’s much more like giving up the cello for the trumpet.

The jarring difference makes it both easier and harder to separate my voice, and therefore all voices, from a binary gender structure. It’s harder, because it’s re-enforcing my idea that the voice-owner’s gender does affect the core sound, but it’s easier because my voice is even less binary than before. As I explained in Part 2, the voice’s gender reflects the gender of its owner, so my voice has always been nonbinary; but now that it has physically transitioned (an irreversible and finite process in the case of my voice box, but not my body), it has entered a space that far less voice boxes occupy and this fact re-enforces the need for a system that’s less reliant on gender.

One of the ultimate goals of this new system is to allow for a character’s description to determine the gender of the role, rather than the gender of the performer. This will not only free up composers and librettists to create gender-diverse characters, but it will allow more versatility in roles for all singers regardless of their gender identity and a wider range of choice for casting directors and producers.

I’ll pull this all together in the next, and final, installment of this series. In the meantime, I’d like to make a quick announcement.

The voice is unpredictable and incredibly unique to each person.

Since starting this series, my voice has changed again. I’ve left my tenor days behind me, and I’m now fully entrenched in the bass-baritone range (below). If I’ve learned anything through this process, it’s that the voice is unpredictable and incredibly unique to each person. I want to find a way to mirror that individuality in a specific, detailed, and helpful way. This series is just one step in that direction.

Music notation showing Aiden Feltkamp's current vocal range (G to e')

Barbara White: A Plea for Compassion

Thanks to the rise of the #MeToo movement, our society is beginning to be more aware and sensitive about how gender inequities have resulted in long overlooked and unpunished—and, in many cases, tolerated and even encouraged—scenarios of harassment and assault throughout our society. The focus on these toxic abuses of power has led many of us in the music community to look more carefully at ourselves, at our own work, and the work we admire and advocate for. It has caused us to ask some profound questions that take it far beyond the realm of questioning direct personal physical and verbal abuse. Why do we venerate various composers and interpreters over others? How is our repertoire chosen? Who are the composers who are included and who are excluded and why?  In the case of works that are presented on musical stages or that include a narrative text, there’s an extra layer; we’ve begun to more closely examine what stories we are choosing to tell and why.

One recent dramatic musical work that asks a lot of these questions is Weakness, a mostly one-woman opera composed by Barbara White which premiered, presciently, six years ago this month. For Weakness, White chose to set an old Celtic legend about a spirit woman named Macha whom a despotic king forces into a fatal race with his horses despite her begging him, as well as the entire community, to spare her.

“What ends up happening is that there is no empathy,” Barbara White explained when we visited her at her home in Princeton, New Jersey.  “She is scapegoated, subjected to abuse.  It has a real patriarchal aspect to it. There is a woman with gifts, and it’s a problem for this king.  He has to stomp her out, and no one helps her.”

But in her telling of this story, White was very aware of Carolyn Abbate’s assertion that female opera characters are often victims, and so she wanted to tell this story somewhat differently than it would be told in a more conventional opera presentation. Macha is the only singing character. The king’s lines of are actually spoken by the conductor!  Other significant characters, such as Macha’s husband—who in a moment of bragging caused the king to be aware of her and ultimately demand her compliance—is a speaking role for one of the dancers. The community is represented by other dancers, but the members of the audience are also made to feel like they are members of this community as well, which ultimately does nothing to help Macha.

According to White, “It’s very easy to be a bystander.  It happens a lot.  The problem is that a bystander is passive and is watching, doing nothing, not acting.  In the theater, that is what the bystander is expected to do.  So it was really interesting to me to think the audience becomes complicit in the story. … Many side with a perpetrator over a victim because all a perpetrator asks of you is that you do nothing.  A victim asks you to do something—to speak, to stand up, to challenge. … The moment where she addresses the audience is her final plea.  It’s a plea for compassion.”

Although Weakness is the largest-scale project that White has ever created, it—like most of her compositions—is extremely intimate. There are only four musicians in the ensemble, and she chose to write a role for herself playing clarinet in it. In so doing, she made herself as uncomfortable as she was trying to make the audience:

One of the hardest things that I’ve ever performed is in that same spot that I was talking about. There’s a pairing of a singer and dancer playing the same character.  While the singer is indicting the audience, the dancer is appealing to different people on stage—the non-speaking, non-singing, movement chorus and the King.  Then she comes and appeals to the musicians.  Relatively late in the process, it became apparent that … she’s appealing to us.  And we’re not playing at the moment.  So what do we do?  I asked the choreographer, and she said, “Just look at her heartlessly.”  And so we did.  That was so difficult. I had to put myself in the position of the non-sympathetic bystander, the one who was not doing anything.

The deeply personal nature of so many of White’s compositions explains why she has predominantly created music for soloists or small ensembles. Many of these works—such as the solo piano piece Reliquary, which explores the fragility of human memory, or her contribution to Dominic Donato’s tam-tam project Desire Lines—were tailor made for their intended performers, which she acknowledged is “the opposite end of the spectrum from [writing for] orchestra.” In the last five years, White has also immersed herself in performing regularly with musicians who have very different musical backgrounds from her, such as the traditional Cape Breton guitarist Charles MacDonald, with whom she plays in a duo called Fork & Spoon.

On top of all of these musical activities, White retains a busy schedule teaching undergraduates and graduate students at Princeton University, where she has now taught for 20 years. While most of her students “really have a sense of adventure and a sense of commitment,” her own personal compassion has enabled her to be an ideal mentor.

“There is perhaps something of a permission giving,” she noted. “A very common thing with composition students, no matter how joyful they are, is of course to have this kind of fear: ‘Can I do this or not?’ It’s enjoyable to me to see what they bring up. At 12 o’clock, someone will come in and say, ‘I think I’m repeating too much.  I think I should repeat less.’  Then the next person will come in and say, ‘I think I’m changing too much.  Should I repeat more?’  That tickles my fancy, for sure.  And, as much as I love trained musicians, I actually am fortunate that I get to do a lot with people who aren’t trained musicians. That’s really special to me. I teach an undergraduate freshman seminar called ‘Everyday Enchantment,’ which has to do with everyday experience and art making and where the boundary is.  Is there one?”

Her desire to instill curiosity and risk taking is also an important component of her latest composition, a children’s ballet called The Wrong Child, inspired by yet another Celtic folktale, which will be performed by Northeast Youth Ballet and Boston Musica Viva on March 11:

I’ve been intrigued to be writing for a young audience. … I thought about that a lot in reshaping the story.  For example, how dark and brooding can it be?  Another thing that I delighted in was the idea of bringing in sounds that are maybe not traditional classical sounds, but ones that we know as experimental sounds.


February 8, 2018 at 2:30 p.m.
Barbara White in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded in White’s home in Princeton, New Jersey
Video and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

FJO:  Every piece of yours that I’ve ever heard is either a solo piece or for chamber ensemble. Even your biggest composition to date, Weakness, which I want to talk about quite a bit but not just yet, is scored for relatively small forces. You haven’t really written for orchestra, and it seems like that’s a conscious choice.

BW:  Well, way back in 2000, I did a project for Continental Harmony where I was asked to write a march for the band and the local orchestra.  It ended up turning into an overture for the orchestra with a march at the end.  We called it the detachable march, so that the band could also play it [on its own].  The really unusual experience for me was that not only was it a march for the band, but it was actually marched to: it was played in a Fourth of July parade in 2000.  But that’s the only time I’ve written for band.  I’ve done a little bit for chamber orchestra, but nothing bigger except for that piece. (Raging River, Rolling Stone is the orchestra piece, and it ends with The Roll Stone Marches.)  I think this came about quite naturally in that I was drawn to smaller groups and a kind of intimacy in the music.  I like to know the names of everybody who’s there. And it’s even gotten more intimate than that: I’m working really closely with people right now, getting to know their particular way of playing, and doing pieces that other people couldn’t sub for.  I go almost to the opposite end of the spectrum from orchestra in that way.

FJO:  Of course, the closest you can probably be to any musician is to yourself, and relatively early on you wrote a solo clarinet piece for yourself, No Man’s Land, which you have described as a “homecoming.”  There are things in that score, like certain non-standard fingerings to get certain specific off-kilter sonorities, that a lot of classically trained clarinetists might not want to do.  Asking players to do something that subverts their training can make them feel concerned that an audience might think that they are not good musicians.  I wonder if anyone else has ever played it and what that was like.

BW:  That’s an interesting question to me.  I did not expect anyone else to play it.  In my clarinet music there are pieces I write for me to play that I don’t expect others to play.  This does not mean that I won’t permit it, but I just don’t expect it to happen because it comes out of what I do.  It’s really inefficient to put these pieces together, so I wouldn’t expect someone who’s more of a classical player to engage with that material, even to deal with the notation.  Nevertheless, it has happened.  I’ve had two or three different people contact me about that very piece, No Man’s Land.  I’ve heard one other recording of it, and it was good.  And somebody contacted me just a few months ago who wants to do it on a Masters recital. So I provided the music and said just let me know how it goes.

But you’re right.  There are the microtonal things and the moaning things.  Another one that did come out of No Man’s Land and went into other pieces was this kind of squawking sound that you might remember in the last movement.  I put that in another piece and was working with one ensemble where, first of all, I felt very understanding if the clarinetist didn’t want to do that.  In rehearsal, I was explaining how to do it, and I provided a sound clip and so on, and the clarinetist just wasn’t doing it.  I let go of it, but we got to the performance and there was this squawking sound.  So it did come out, but just not in rehearsal.

As for it being a homecoming, I had an injury and couldn’t play much when I was young, in my 20s. Then when I started playing again, the instrument didn’t have baggage for me. I was discovering it anew and not taking for granted how things should sound, what fingerings to use, what’s pretty, as you said.

FJO:  I think the fact that you were coming to the instrument afresh after a long hiatus makes it different than many of the repertoire classics by composer-performers which are really mostly concerned with showing off the idiomatic virtuosity that is possible on a given instrument—whether it’s the Paganini Caprices or Liszt’s etudes or pretty much anything by Rachmaninoff or, for that matter, even much more contemporary things. One of the benefits of writing for instruments that you can’t play, like Beethoven writing his late string quartets or David Rakowski writing all those piano etudes, is that it can push the envelope of what an instrument can do.

“I’ll sometimes hit a wrong note and like it.”

BW:  I think it can go either way. I’ve sometimes felt fortunate that I’m a bad pianist; I’ll sometimes hit a wrong note and like it.  I’ve wondered if I had more facility with the piano if that wouldn’t work for me—which is not to say anything about anyone else’s facility. If you have chops, it can allow you to explore, but if you don’t have chops on a given instrument, you might have a tabula rasa.  But that may or may not be appreciated by the performer who ends up playing it!

FJO:  But you found a way to give yourself a tabula rasa as a composer for your instrument.

BW:  That also comes into play in my sort of quasi-trad music experience. I do tend to play clarinet in a way that has lots of inflection. It’s not pristine, continuous, beautiful sounds, but I do like that type of playing and I’d been missing that. One way that it came out was that I started playing in a quasi-trad music context. In Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, I have a duo called Fork & Spoon, with a guitarist, and we play tunes. I still have these squawks and bent notes and so on in our tunes, but it’s also encouraged me to play things more “straight” sometimes, and I really have liked doing that as well.  One that I’m very fond of is based on the Beethoven settings of Scottish Songs. I’ve wanted to find the original songs, which may or may not be possible.  One is “The Lovely Lass of Inverness.” It just happens, not surprisingly, that there’s an Inverness nearby in Cape Breton because there’s a deep Scottish heritage there.  Anyway, I looked at the song and basically took out the chromatic notes and approximated what I thought the original might have been and made a new song out of it.  I turned “The Lovely Lass of Inverness” into “The Lonely Lark of Central Park,” and we play that in a set with other truly trad tunes.  With my background, being new to trad music and not being really in that scene, I liked being able to “recuperate” Beethoven a little bit; it was enjoyable.  So I like playing that tune.

Barbara White sitting in her studio with her upright piano in back of her.

FJO:  We’ll talk more about Fork & Spoon in a bit, but first let’s go back to this bifurcation you mentioned about clarinet pieces you write for yourself and clarinet pieces you write for other people. I think perhaps that strikes to the heart of your decision to focus on being a composer, since someone who primarily identified as a performer might not necessarily think in those terms.  I’m curious about how and when and why composing got the upper hand.

BW:  I think it was that I was being asked to write pieces for ensembles and I wasn’t part of those ensembles.  I remember times, 10 to 20 years ago, where I would long to play and say, “I’d really like to make space for a project that I would play.” Gradually occasions arrived where I could play.  It’s nice that you mentioned No Man’s Land, which is almost 20 years old now. That’s on my first CD, but then on my next CD I didn’t play, even though I had premiered one of the pieces [Small World]. I wanted someone else to play it for real on the recording.

FJO: “For real”? Hearing you say that definitely proves that composing got the upper hand.

“What got me back into playing was actually working with the shakuhachi.”

BW:  I caught myself saying that. It wasn’t maybe the best way to put it.  It was a piece that had some klezmer-y things in it.  The inflections that I was using I could do, but I don’t play klezmer music.  So I thought it would benefit from a clarinetist who practices every day.  And the other thing with that piece is that it was written, again, for people who were an ensemble.  That was Larry Passin and Nancy Zeltsman; they were doing a project with clarinet and marimba.  I wrote the piece for them to play, but I played the premiere to test it out.  It was natural that they would play it in the end.  So there isn’t a dramatic story there, but what has happened is in various projects I did start playing again.  It’s been a much bigger part of my life in the last five years or so, maybe longer.  What got me back into playing was actually working with the shakuhachi.  I wanted to learn that instrument, just to experience it, and part of doing that led me to think, “This is the hardest instrument ever.  It’s very gratifying to struggle with and I want to keep playing it, but I already know how to play the clarinet a little bit.”

FJO:  It has been an interesting path, going from writing pieces for yourself to play, to writing pieces for others to play who you know, to writing for people who you might not know, to working more directly with players you do know and sometimes also play in the ensembles with. To jump the gun a bit chronologically, you’re actually playing in the instrumental ensemble for the most recent recording of your music, which is devoted to your magnum opus Weakness, which we’ll also talk more about in a little while. But obviously, when somebody asks for a score, and you send it off and say, “Let me know how it went,” you’re not really connected.  How does that feel, since you obviously want the connection?

BW:  Well, I think it makes a big difference how old the piece is.  I do feel somewhat protective of my pieces sometimes. It might be tempting to aim for as many performances as possible, and that can be great if there’s a piece that any number of people can play.  With that piece you mentioned, No Man’s Land, it is about 20 years old now.  So I don’t feel so protective of it.  And I’m happy especially if it’s younger people who are exploring repertoire and find that piece and are interested in it and want to grapple with the notation.  We end up having the experience and connection we have, so I guess I take for granted that there are going to be projects where I know the people and we’re making something anew.  But once a score is out there, it will also find its way to people and that’s great, too.

FJO:  Well, I also wonder about that in terms of the choices of ensembles that you work with.  You have a piece called Five Elements that’s a standard piano quintet. It could easily be grouped on a program with pieces by Brahms or Dvorák.  But you tend not to write for those kinds of ensembles.  In the repertoire of yours that I know, I don’t know of a single piano trio or string quartet.  You have a violin-piano duo, which is a really cool piece.  But there are a lot of pieces for the so-called Pierrot ensemble, which is more an ensemble of our own time, so there isn’t this heavy weight of the distant past. Still, if you write a piece for, say, piano trio, there are a zillion piano trios out there who could potentially play it. Whereas if you write a piece that’s scored for clarinet, violin, and marimba, like your piece When the Smoke Clears, how many of those groups are out there?

BW:  Right. However, sometimes groups arise, not necessarily formed as a formal group, that will continue.  It’s funny you mentioned piano trios, because I do have one and it has had just one performance. That is one that I feel could travel more.  It’s still intimate, but I think it’s more gregarious than some of my other pieces.  But you’re right.  It often has to do with who asks, and whether the project feels like it appeals. One piece that fits what you’re talking about is a piece for two bass clarinetists and two percussionists [Repeat After Me]. It is a dance score, and fortunately I had the opportunity to choose the instruments.  There aren’t too many ensembles like that, but it has been done by other people.  It was really gratifying that Sqwonk, the bass clarinet duo, recorded it.  I hadn’t gotten around to recording it myself yet and then I heard from Jonathan Russell—who was a Princeton graduate student and bass clarinetist—that Sqwonk wanted to record it.

FJO:  I was going to interject before when you were trying to get that clarinetist to make a squonk in rehearsal that now we even have groups that are named that! I think we’ve come a long way. There are a lot of performers now who want to take the ride, people who just want to do the wacky, out there stuff.  It’s a very different world from the more established chamber music ensembles like, as we were talking about earlier, piano trios, whose bread and butter is being presented on concert series where they’re expected to play the Archduke Trio.

BW:  Hopefully Ravel once in a while.

FJO:  The balance is tricky.  But most of your music tends to be performed on new music concerts.  It doesn’t live alongside older music so much.

BW:  I think that’s largely so.  The piano quintet you mentioned was commissioned for the Philadelphia Orchestra’s Chamber Concert Series.  So the rest of the program was older music.  And my piano pieces will be on concerts with older music.  But you’re right.  Usually if a Pierrot ensemble is involved, it’s going to be recent music.  Related to what you’re saying, I think probably—not surprisingly—the traditional “ensemble,” so to speak, that comes up the most is solo piano, which actually feels a little foreign to me.  But I enjoy getting into the space of writing for it.  Eric Moe is premiering a new piece that will be performed with some older music for sure.  And maybe some newer music, too.

FJO:  He’s a composer, and he performs mostly new music, so you’re probably not going to be the only living composer on that concert.

BW:  Right.

FJO:  But certainly, for the people in our field who write orchestra music, they wind up being in this position where they share the program with all dead composers and many people in the audience might not even know or care about the new composer on the program, so they’re dealing with the potential disappointment of the audience as well as the potential hostility of players who are used to playing a certain repertoire.  That’s a very different world from the one you’re in where you know everybody’s name.

BW:  Sounds like Cheers. [Laughter] Although there’s almost an analog to that for me, which is that when I interlope or interfere in the world of shakuhachi and in the world of Cape Breton music, I am often putting something in a program that stands out from the tradition.

Several of Barbara White's flute including a pennywhistle and a shakuhachi.

FJO:  But the other part of it is I think it affects the music that one winds up writing for those instruments. For example, you mentioned the piano as being the most traditional thing you’ve written music for. It’s an instrument with a huge historical repertoire. When people see a piano, before they hear a note of whatever music is being performed on it, they already have a context for what they’re hearing. Same with a piano trio or a string quartet. But they’re probably not going have as fixed a notion for, say, a solo percussion piece.

BW:  True.

FJO:  So does that affect what you write when you write for solo piano?

BW:  I think it might.  Not counting a student piece, I’m imagining that I have three piano pieces.  And the middle one doesn’t do that so much, but the first and third ones do to some extent.  It has to do with thinking about the specific player, too.  I have two pianist colleagues I’ve worked with a lot.  Of course, I’m about to hear Eric play a new piece, but if I think of the other two—Geoff Burleson and John Blacklow—they’re very different temperamentally.  So for Geoff, I would tend to write something that’s very omnivorous and might have some kind of vernacular—for lack of a better word—aspect to it.  For John, I would tend to write something that’s very concentrated and contemplative.  This is not to say that each of them does not have the other aspect, but it’s the gestalt that comes to the fore when I’m writing for them.  So I think that’s part of it.  In the piano piece I just wrote for Eric, I didn’t expect it to be so much about traditional music, or about repertoire, but it ended up being that way.

Eric asked for a short piano piece, and I was about to say, I don’t know if I can do this right now!  Then I had an idea for the piece.  I’d been thinking a lot about ice, because I went to Newfoundland in June 2016 and had the great experience of encountering what I will call an iceberglet.  I tended to call this “my” iceberg. Basically it was a piece of an iceberg that floated in and out from shore, and eventually it broke into pieces and then all of a sudden, it was literally in front of the house where I was staying.  I audio recorded it—and I plan to do something with that—but I was thinking about it in terms of the piano. The idea of icy frozen sounds was with me. But then, as I was working on the piece, I started to think about Schubert.  Ice and tears, and brooks babbling and so on.  So the piece has this kind of thing where there’s ice that melts, and after it melts, it’s Schubert.  It seems very organic.  I couldn’t have predicted that.  I didn’t set out to write something that refers to Schubert.  And it doesn’t have a quote exactly.  It’s more as if it messes with his syntax.  The other reason that that came about very likely is because I was teaching music theory at the time, and we were working on Schubert song cycles.  And that was what was in my imperfect memory, so it just emerged.

FJO:  I’m trying to imagine how the piano conveys the sound of ice melting. Maybe it’s a loud chord prolonged by the sustain pedal? We can attach these meanings to something abstract like that in a piece of music, but unless you tell people that’s what it is before they hear it, they’re not necessarily going to perceive it that way on their own.

BW:  The relationship was with high and sharp, crystalline sounds with a lot of decay. So things that were very still and steely, so to speak.  But sure, it could be a fire burning at a camp site to somebody else.

FJO:  Now, the piano is not your instrument, but you have a piano here.  So do you test out stuff? What’s your process?

“I like to get physically involved in the music.”

BW:  I do use the piano, but it really depends on the piece.  If I’m writing for percussion, I will often sort of tap things out.  I like to get physically involved in the music.  If I’m writing for clarinet, I will use my clarinet.  And I can get around a flute.  But what I’ve been doing more recently, partly because of the instruments I work with, is mockups. For my opera Weakness, I made a blackmail mockup: if anyone wanted to threaten to release it to the world, they might be able to get some money out of me.  I even sang some of the parts; I’m not a singer.  There were some really high wailing sounds.  I did those just to show the singer what the idea was.  Particularly working with the shakuhachi, that’s what really led me in that direction, occasionally playing things myself but even taking things that I’ve recorded from a player, and so on.

FJO:  I know that physical gesture is also an important component for you in forming your music, but it’s something I’ve hardly been aware of as a listener since I’ve experienced almost all of your music on recordings rather than in live performances. So important aspects of pieces such as your song cycle Life in the Castle or the piano quintet Five Elements, which we’ve already touched on briefly and which was inspired by martial arts, are somewhat lost on me. How did movement—dance, martial arts—play into the creative process for those two pieces and perhaps others as well?

BW: Well, Life in the Castle was meant to underscore dance, but I have a more roundabout answer. More recently, when I started working with shakuhachi, it confirmed an experience I had had with the clarinet, of just how potent the physical experience of playing the instrument is.  Shakuhachi is not a stadium rock band instrument—though it has been for some, actually.  But generally, it’s a very private, intimate instrument that has often been played alone.  There’s something about the way that the different sounds are made where the use of the fingers and the breath become very pronounced.  For example, if you finger a note different ways, that’s not considered an alternate fingering.  They’re actually different things, and you’ll get very different sounds.  You wouldn’t do the same kind of thing you’d do on the clarinet, with forked fingerings.  So going back to the piano quintet, Five Elements, I it might be right to say that the physical gesture was important in that that’s how I learned about the five elements.  There’s a qigong exercise or activity called five elements that cycles through the different elements.  The way that works conceptually is really interesting to me and stays with me all the time.  But I think that I was thinking more imagistically by the time I got to that music, rather than gesturally.

FJO:  I know that you studied taiji at some point.

BW:  Yes. Pretty rigorously.  But at that point I was doing qigong more.  Here’s something maybe related to what you said earlier: Eric Moe wrote the liner notes for one of my CDs and he talked about movement in stillness, and stillness in movement.  That is something that is always there with me.  It actually relates to the yin yang symbol. If it’s black and white, you have a black squiggle with a white dot and a white squiggle with a black dot.  Each half contains a bit of its opposite.  So it’s this idea of duality, but also relationship.  That was very much part of what I thought about in that piece.  There might be a lot of activity on the surface with slow harmonic movement.  Or there might be really quick harmonic movement with a slow gestural thing happening.  That comes into play also in this interesting journey I’m having with the shakuhachi and with Cape Breton music in that in some ways they might sound very opposite.  Cape Breton music has a Celtic aspect to it.  There are jigs and reels, and strathspeys, and so on. There’s a lot of fast music with a lot of ornamentation and so on.  Shakuhachi music tends to be slow, especially the honkyoku repertoire that interests me the most, but it also has a lot of ornamentation.  With shakuhachi, I’m always joking—but it’s sometimes true—every note lasts a minute, but there’s a lot happening in that note.  So it’s a stillness with a lot of movement in it.  And then if I take Cape Breton music, with the Celtic-Scottish-Irish influence, jigs and reels that repeat with lots of eighth notes usually, there’s also a kind of compactness to the syntax that makes it seem still in a way.

FJO:  I didn’t realize this until what you just said, but the first movement of No-Man’s Land is actually called “Pibroch,” which is an example of a type of traditional Celtic music that’s as slow as shakuhachi repertoire.

BW:  Good point.

FJO:  And you wrote this long before you became enamored with either of those traditions.

BW:  Interestingly though, the way that I came to that title was through the Ted Hughes poem called “Pibroch,” which if I remember correctly, begins:

The sea cries with its meaningless voice
Treating alike its dead and its living

So the idea of a cry was very much there.  But then, of course, I did learn about Highland bagpipe music, so that was in there, too.

A bas-relief in Barbara White's kitchen.

FJO:  So, in terms of the inspiration, you said a little earlier, some allusions to Schubert subconsciously wound up in your new piano piece because you had been teaching his music in a theory class. Similarly, you were reading Ted Hughes and his poem became an element of the music you were working on. A piece of yours I really love, Learning to See, is all about trying to make musical connections for experiences that you had looking at visual art. The CD very nicely reproduces some of those images, and your notes talk about Brancusi and Eva Hesse and my favorite detail: your referencing of a John Cage piece because Jasper Johns incorporated the manuscript of it in one of his collages. But if a listener didn’t know any of that, if they didn’t read the notes or just happened to hear it on the radio, they might not hear any of these references. Is that okay?

BW:  Sure, that’s fine.  My original request was not to list the artists in the program notes, so it’s just my titles, but not who the artists were.  And then as time passed, I’ve been flexible about whether to do that or not.  Particularly when I was putting together Apocryphal Stories, I was bringing together things of interest to me that were so specific.  I really didn’t expect anyone else to get what those were, these collage moments of obscure references.  It’s very gratifying that you know the story about Perilous Night, but I certainly wouldn’t expect that.  And it’s also not trying to prove anything about those things.  I’m not saying, “Aha, I found Perilous Night and now I’m bringing it back and this shows something about Jasper Johns.”  It’s more a kind of curio, to explore this unexpected juxtaposition.

FJO:  It’s interesting that you didn’t want people to know initially, because I think that’s what’s so cool about this piece.

BW: I’ve had some surprising experiences with it being done without the information. Also, even if people have that information in the program, they might not look at it.  Right?

FJO:  Right.  Of course.

BW:  So there have been instances where people either didn’t have the information, or didn’t take it in, and I got really insightful comments. The point isn’t so much that they were positive comments, but they might have been really interesting observations on the music—and not necessarily from people who are all that informed about contemporary music.  So I’m always happy when that happens.  And I often think that a big part of that can be performance.  A really fine, persuasive performance can draw people into something that might seem alien otherwise.

FJO: But I do think if someone knows the back story, the listening experience is even richer.  I know that it was for me, so I’m glad that you’ve allowed those liner notes to be out there. To take it one step further, has the piece ever been performed in an art gallery?

BW:  I don’t think so.  That is about my most-played piece, so I might not be able to remember every single performance.  But I think not.

FJO:  For me it’s always important to know what’s behind something, to find out anything that could offer a window into it.  Similarly with your piano piece Reliquary, the idea that there are these echoes of other pieces in it that are only partially remembered, in terms of their accuracy, is something to latch on to when listening to it.

BW:  I hesitate to be so categorical, but even without that much extra-musical apparatus surrounding the music, there could be things in a piece that are intended that don’t get across.  It’s something I talk to students about. A composer can have an idea of what a piece is doing, and maybe that’s not heard because we might not be projecting it so much.  Similarly, I’m always going to have these associations of a narrative in the back of my mind, or a visual image, or something like that. I’m happy to share that, but I don’t expect people to have the knowledge I do.  At the time I was doing Apocryphal Stories, I was a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute and gave a presentation, the same way the scholars did.  A historian said, “Oh, your work is not unlike what I do.” And I said, “Okay, yes.  There’s some excavation and some research.”  So I love doing that.  I love having the opportunity to explain and explore and give the background of a piece.  I just don’t expect it to happen every time.  There are going to be performances that don’t bring that in.

FJO:  Novels are perhaps the most direct way to communicate as an artist, but oftentimes someone writes a novel and many people read it and they still don’t get what the author had intended. It’s something that can’t really be controlled.

BW:  Exactly.

FJO:  Although, to take it to literature, when you set a text, there are things that you can control.  For Life in the Castle, you set a bunch of poems about mirrors, so you did things in your music—pardon the pun—to mirror that. Then, in Enough Rope, you also set all these wonderful Dorothy Parker poems and the music you set to these is quite different.  So when you have a text, how important is it for you to bring out that text and how deeply does that text shape what you create?

BW:  With the Dorothy Parker texts, because they have meter, that made a big, big difference.  And also, simply the tone of the poems. What does one make of this arch, wry kind of projection that is sometimes more than that?  That was a big part of it.  There is wit in her poems, but really out-there wit.  Some of the lines still stick with me.

Drink and dance and laugh and lie,
Love, the reeling midnight through,
For tomorrow we shall die!
(But, alas, we never do.)

I was particularly interested in the “zingers” at the ends of her poems, so that very much influenced the form.  So for the one [I just recited which is] called “The Flaw in Paganism,” I used a lot of ornamentation to make the voice dance and laugh.  Then there’s one poem that uses the word “yes” in an erotic way, so I took advantage of that.  And there are some high, florid parts, which doesn’t make it any easier for her to sing.

FJO:  Of course, the tricky thing with writing something very high and busy for a soprano is it can affect the intelligibility of the words. How important is it to you that the words are not just heard, but understood, in so far as we can affect what someone else understands?

BW:  That’s a big question. There’s another direction I’ve gone in that you might know less about. I’ve also used texts that are more everyday.  I wrote a series of pieces for Dominic Donato’s tam-tam project and they got worked into an evening-length theater program called Desire Lines, which I played in as well, along with him.  One of them sets George Carlin.  And there are fortune cookies.  There’s a Zen text, which is kind of wry also.  And there’s also a passage from Bertrand Russell.  Take a guess about what I used from George Carlin.

FJO:  The Blue Food?

BW:  Nope.  I don’t know that one.  It’s the Seven Words.

FJO:  Oh, right.  Of course.

BW:  It might be the shortest piece I’ve ever written.  It’s about 20 or 30 seconds long.  It’s just the clip of George Carlin saying, “You know what they are, don’t you, the seven words you can’t say on television?”  Then he utters the words, and Dominic, the tam-tam player has to race across the stage and bang the gong so we don’t hear the words.  It’s very much about this idea of erasure and danger. The danger I put into the piece is if he doesn’t make it in time, we hear one of these words.  So that affected how I wrote the piece.  That was a case where the text was very significant.

FJO:  I love the idea that you set it up for a mistake. Did he always get there on time?

BW:  He did, but you can hear a little bit of the “sh…” at the beginning of a word that has been in the news lately.

FJO:  For the largest piece you’ve composed to date, Weakness, you set your own text, but it is based on a very old Celtic folktale, which is both beautiful and creepy. I’m curious about what led you to that.

“A bystander is passive and is watching, doing nothing…”

BW:  There’s actually an interesting story to this.  There was an opera project going on at Princeton.  I was invited by Scott Burnham, who was the chair of the department at the time, to participate in this and compose an opera.  I was thinking about different stories to work on, and I had this funny serendipity.  I missed a meeting about the opera project because I went on a road trip to Chicago to take a workshop in Celtic mythology taught by Tom Cowan, from whom I’ve learned a lot of these stories.  And he read this story.  The version he read was from Marie Heaney. She has a wonderful book called Over Nine Waves.  It’s a stunning and startling story to hear.  It’s so rare for me that this is the case, but this was a moment that changed my life. He got to the point in the story where the Goddess, who has become human, is pleading, for the third time I believe, to be helped.  She’s been overpowered by a king and her life is at stake.  And she says, “Will no one help me?”  As he read that, it was very potent, and I actually saw something very specific, which was the Goddess, as she was facing the people in the story . . . I saw her breaking the fourth wall and facing the audience.  I started to see this as way of addressing the way that bystanders see mistreatment and violence.  It’s very easy to be a bystander.  It happens a lot.  The problem is that a bystander is passive and is watching, doing nothing, not acting.  In the theater, that is what the bystander is expected to do.  So it was really interesting to me to think the audience becomes complicit in the story.

FJO:  For the purposes of people who might not know the story, it might be nice for you to tell it.

BW:  It’s not an easy story.  Interestingly, the man I learned it from—Tom Cowan, whom I mentioned—told me later that he would always read the printed text from Marie Heaney when he told the story.  It took a while for him to decide to tell the story impromptu, or to write his own version of it.  This story has a real power to it.  I’ve felt it through the years that I’ve known it and worked on it.  I don’t have a good word to say this.  I don’t want to say I’m superstitious about it, but the power of the story is not lost on me.  It has had reverberations that have been very loud, let’s say.  The context in which Tom teaches the story is the idea of sovereignty over oneself—we tend to hear about that in terms of dynasties and nations—but the idea here is that sovereignty is not about being in control, but being in charge.  One of the things that Tom talks about is that there are people who cannot be in control: children, prisoners, people who have great constraints on them. But if we’re not in control, we can still be in charge.  It has much to do with what happens when you are really stuck and something terrible is happening.  And you really don’t have a way out.  How do you still retain your sovereignty and your personal authority, and perhaps dignity?  You might lose, but you still retain that sovereignty.

So the story has to do with a spirit. We might call her a Goddess, but I’d call her a spirit who assumes human form. The inspiration for this is that she sees a man whom she fancies and wants to get know him.  So she shows up at his place, and he doesn’t know where she’s come from.  His name is Crunnchu; she is Macha.  One of the mysterious and I think charming parts of the story is that she makes him dinner.  So I put into my opera that they wash the dishes afterwards.  There’s this kind of very everyday aspect to this story.  In addition, there’s something very marvelous about her, which is that she runs.  In my opera, she’s spied upon by him, and he says, “Wow.  What’s she doing?  She’s running.”  She’s very fast, so she still retains some superhuman qualities.

Anyway, they live happily, and sometime later Crunnchu, the husband, is called away to a gathering, which might be a political gathering or a festive gathering.  There are different versions of the story.  And she is worried about him going, because she does not want people to know about her.  In my version she says, “Do not speak my name.  Do not tell anyone I’m here.”  And yet he goes to this gathering despite her warnings, and the King is there.  There’s a race involving the King’s horses, and everyone is expressing delight at the speed of the King’s horses.  And before he knows what he’s doing, apparently, Crunnchu yells out, “My wife can run faster than the king’s horses!” And that’s where all hell breaks loose.  The King does not want to hear this.  The King wants his horses to be the fastest.  So the King insists that Macha be brought to him and that she race his horses.  In my version, and also in the originals, she issues pleas.  She pleads to her husband not to go to this gathering and not to talk about her.  Then she pleads with the King to let up on this requirement that she run the race.  Then eventually she pleads with the bystanders. That is the spot I was talking about. This to me is the real kernel of the story.  Another part of the story is that in all the tellings of the story I know, except mine, she is pregnant.  So although she would win the race, who knows what would happen when she runs a race while she’s about to deliver a child?

What ends up happening is that there is no empathy.  There is no help.  She is scapegoated, subjected to abuse.  It has a real patriarchal aspect to it. There is a woman with gifts, and it’s a problem for this King.  He has to stomp her out, and no one helps her.  So she runs the race.  In my version, she expires but she possibly goes back to her goddess-spirit form.  The ending is not just her crumpled on the ground.  There’s more that comes afterward that returns to the spirit realm.

FJO:  But she wins the race.

BW:  Yes, she wins the race, but at great cost.

FJO:  And ultimately also at great cost to the community because she put a curse on them.

BW:  Yes.  There’s some interesting research on the story.  She says that for seven generations they will be cursed. When the men go into battle, they will be doubled over with pains.  Some research actually associates these men being afflicted with—or even imitating—women’s experience of menstruation. Men are visited by this kind of bodily interruption and incapacity.  In my version, I worked with that curse idea a little bit.  It seemed to me that she didn’t need to curse them.  They’d already done it themselves by ceding humanity to dominance, ceding compassion to abuse.  So there’s a line in my opera where she says, “They say that I cursed them.  But no, they cursed themselves.”  One could say she’s speaking from the future, but because she’s a spirit again, she’s speaking through non-linear time.

A bookcase in Barbara White's studio.

FJO:  The interesting thing about all of this is that she always has agency.  She always retains power. She chose the man. She won the race. And the community was cursed because they did not offer to help her. They might have destroyed her corporeally, for that moment, but ultimately she won.

BW:  Yes.

FJO:  I think this portrayal is very emblematic for the current moment in our history. It’s very much a #MeToo story in that it’s speaking truth to power and overcoming.

“Female opera characters are often said to be victims.”

BW:  There’s actually a scholarly resonance for this for me, which is from Carolyn Abbate’s book, Unsung Voices.  Female opera characters are often said to be victims.  She proposes that—at least in some cases—they can be “undone by plot yet triumphant in voice.”  I was thinking about that, that the spirit nature of the Macha character does endure.  So it might be that she goes back to spirit world.  It might be memory, like we were talking about before.  It might be something more impressionistic.  I was very much questioning the notion of triumph as I wrote it.  We don’t always get what we want.  I had had cancer a bit before.  It’s not the main issue in the piece for me, but something that that and other experiences can teach is that being super tough doesn’t necessarily mean you win the race.  It was very poignant to me, and again kind of chilling, that she’s a Goddess and she still loses.  She wins the race, but she doesn’t win.

FJO: She, of course, loses the happy life she had with the man that she chose to be with.

BW:  And in many versions, she actually dies. We’re not always going to prevail.  This is very personal, but the opera has to do with an earlier experience. I don’t know if anyone would guess this, but this idea of a woman being overpowered actually has to do with sexual abuse for me.  I deliberately did not make that explicit.  I have a lot of pieces that deal with something or other, health issues for example, that is not made explicit, but it does grow out of an experience of that.  The moment where she addresses the audience is her final plea.  It’s a plea for compassion. My subtitle for that is The Indictment Aria.  Because she is damning them there: “Is there no one among you who will help me?”  A really interesting historical association with that moment is the McCarthy hearings.  The famous line of Joseph Nye Welch, “Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?” To me, it’s very much like that scene in the opera.  You mentioned the #MeToo movement.  We see demeaning treatment, disparagement, and degradation of others. It’s very easy and very common to let that happen.  It takes a lot more to stand up.

There’s a wonderful writer on trauma, Judith Herman.  She talks about the Vietnam Memorial, which of course was controversial and has its own particular character. She says, we do not have a monument for rape victims.  There is a kind of bifurcation between public and private trauma. Of course, the trauma of war also has its secrecies, particularly in the past.  But things like spousal abuse, domestic abuse, sexual assault, and so on, often are hidden.  This very recent historical period has changed that a lot.  But that’s generally been the way it has been treated.  The other thing she says that is really important in terms of bystander-dom is that many do side with a perpetrator over a victim because all a perpetrator asks of you is that you do nothing.  A victim asks you to do something—to speak, to stand up, to challenge.  So when I think of bystander-dom, I always think of what she’s written about it.

FJO:  It’s interesting that you found a way to prevent the audience from siding with the perpetrator, in this case the King, since only the victim, Macha, has a singing role.  The conductor speaks some lines as the King and there are other ancillary characters, but it’s essentially a one-character opera, a monodrama for Macha.

BW:  That’s really interesting.  There is the husband, but he’s a dancer.  There’s one singing character, and then there’s this breaking not only of the fourth wall, but of the conventions of performance, where the conductor talks.  I was thinking this morning about something that a colleague said to me about the dangers of politicized work.  I wouldn’t call mine political exactly, but we’re often presented with a story, and the composers identify themselves with the good and they’re showing the evil.  They’re indicting the evil.  That was actually something I thought about in that I wanted the shakuhachi to be associated with the spirit, for good reasons—inspiration, respiration, and so on, the kind of Goddess-like otherworldly qualities of the shakuhachi. Then the instrument that would be associated with the man who betrays his wife was the clarinet, which I was playing. I deliberately did that.  I put myself in the position of being the betrayer.  I wasn’t playing the role exactly, but I did not want to say, “I’m a force for good and out there are all these evil people.”

One of the hardest things that I’ve ever performed is in that same spot that I was talking about. There’s a pairing of a singer and dancer playing the same character.  While the singer is indicting the audience, the dancer is appealing to different people on stage—the non-speaking, non-singing, movement chorus and the King.  Then she comes and appeals to the musicians.  Relatively late in the process, it became apparent that—I’m on stage next to the shakuhachi player, Riley Lee—she’s appealing to us.  And we’re not playing at the moment.  So what do we do?  I asked the choreographer, and she said, “Just look at her heartlessly.”  And so we did.  That was so difficult. I had to put myself in the position of the non-sympathetic bystander, the one who was not doing anything.

FJO:  And the audience is indicted for doing nothing, but if someone in the audience stood up and said stop they’d be ruining your performance.

BW:  But that’s the right thing to do.

A set of miniature houses is on one of Barbara White's shelves.

FJO:  So the period when you were creating this piece, which is based on a Celtic folktale, was roughly around the same time that you started deeply immersing yourself in Celtic folk music, but the music for Weakness isn’t noticeably Celtic—at least to me.

BW:  Well, I’d always been interested in and had responded positively to, Celtic music. I did a dance piece in graduate school where the choreographer used a myth told by Yeats, and so I explored some of the music then.  So when I was working on Weakness, people assumed that there was Celtic music in it.  Not a bad assumption, but nah, there was a Japanese flute instead; that’s how it worked.  After that was done, I was still very much working with Celtic stories, but I wasn’t thinking at all about Celtic music.

This is what happened.  I had been chained to this piano in this room for a couple years writing an opera.  I hadn’t had a lot of chances to travel, so I just had this idea: I’m going to take a road trip.  So I got on a very handy internet map—I love how you can zoom in and out and see where you are in any kind of resolution—and as I was looking at the map, I thought, “I haven’t really been much in the South.”  So I started looking south and I said, “Nah.”  Then I said, “I’ve always wanted to go back to Montreal.  I visited there on a band trip in high school.”  So I looked up Montreal.  Then I kept going east on the map.  And I remembered that one friend in particular, but others as well, had visited Cape Breton Island.  I didn’t remember much of what they told me about it, but I just said, “Hmm, that might be the place to go.”  My reason for going there had nothing to do with music.  I did know there was music there, but I’m sure I wasn’t really thinking about Celtic music in Cape Breton.  Really what I was looking for—and this might sound sacrilegious for a composer—was not having any music for a while.  I intended to go sit on rocky cliffs, take in the ocean sounds, and so on, after doing Weakness.  So that was my intention, and I booked a reservation at an inn on the island and was getting ready to go, and then I looked on the website and saw that they were having a music camp there the day I arrived.  I literally did say, “Oh, damn.” However, I couldn’t say no to a music camp in Cape Breton, so I went over to New Hope, Pennsylvania, and bought a tin whistle for $20 and went up to this camp.  It was a 48-hour camp, and it was run by an organization I’ve worked with in various ways since then, called Kitchen Rackets.  I went to this camp for a weekend and—I’ve already said this once today and I don’t often say this—it changed my life. I ended up learning a little bit of tin whistle, but then I sort of stuck around.  I went and sat by the ocean.  I made some field recordings that worked their way into the [Weakness/Macha] CD.  I did some recordings with musicians I’d just met that were in the background of the sound design for Tom Cowan’s [spoken word] story version of Macha [on the CD].

But that wasn’t my impulse for going there at all.  And yet there was this connection.  The other thing I thought about at the time was that after doing this very large, ambitious full-contact thing—where I wrote the music and the libretto and I played in it—was it seemed like the right thing to do was to sit in someone’s living room with a pennywhistle, to move to this very humble, unassuming direction.  But through doing that, I did start playing in the musical community there and that stuck.

A framed map of Cape Breton Island.

FJO:  So since the organization that organized the camp and whom you’ve worked with since is called Kitchen Rackets, is that the reason for naming your duo Fork & Spoon?

BW:  Yeah, a little bit. There’s a tradition where they have what they call kitchen parties. I think this might be true in Irish traditional music, too, but certainly in Cape Breton. The musical tradition there is astonishing.  It’s as if people are born with fiddles in their hands.  And there are lots of fiddles, fewer wind instruments.  It sometimes happens that people aren’t quite sure what instrument I’m playing when I have a clarinet.  And that is not at all to say that people are uninformed, because they are very informed about the fiddle.  It’s just a different kind of economy and ecology of instruments there.  So there is this old tradition of kitchen parties where people would play all night.  There’s even a song written about that: “For the second time since we got up, it’s getting dark again.”  That’s a line from a song about people playing for days at a time.  This is a really informal, family-oriented, multi-generational, and very, very good amateur tradition—in other words, people aren’t necessarily making careers or trying to get paid to play, but they play beautifully. So it happens again and again that I meet people who aren’t showing that they are musicians or talking themselves up, and then you hand them a mandolin and you fall over when you hear what they do with it.

So yeah, it was maybe subconscious, maybe just serendipity, I’m not sure, but I’ve ended up working with Fork & Spoon.  Kitchen Rackets is an organization that promotes local music.  They run the camp and other events as well.  With Fork & Spoon, we’ll sometimes host an evening jam session or something like that.  We play in pubs.

He’ll say, “I can’t believe you can write that down.” And I’ll say, “I can’t believe you don’t have to.”

Fork & Spoon is my duo with a Cape Breton guitarist, Charles MacDonald.  We started playing together more than five years ago and over that time have worked out a repertoire. There’s a little bit of traditional Cape Breton music, but mainly warping it to make our own kind of music.  And some of the exchanges we have go like this.  He will say to me, “I can’t believe you can write that down.”  And I’ll say, “I can’t believe you don’t have to.”  And then I will write a tune, thinking it’s very traditional, and I’ll say, “I wrote this tune; it’s so normal.”  And he’ll say, “That tune’s really weird.”  So it was just this really interesting cross-fertilization. The ways that we meet are really fascinating to me and very nourishing.

FJO:  So how much of your compositional stuff has seeped into these other musical activities and vice versa?

BW:  There are some things that are separate.  There are some things that blur.  My first impulse would be to say they stay kind of separate, but that’s not entirely true.  I’m just thinking of a tangent. There’s a beautiful recording by Jordi Savall of Celtic music.  There are two volumes, and around the time I started to travel to Cape Breton, I got this recording.  He plays these tunes on his early music instruments. Many of them are written down.  They’re by composers like O’Carolan and J. Scott Skinner.  There is actually a notated, sort of closer-to-classical part of this tradition, and that’s something I relate to.  But when I work with Charles in Fork & Spoon, because he plays by ear, I usually start out doing a tune that will have chord changes.  The thing that amazes me is that if I were playing traditional music per se, he can play any tune. He knows them all. But say he didn’t know it—he can hear eight bars and then on the repeat he’ll play all the right chords.  In addition to that, he doesn’t just play the chords, he really plays the tune.  It reminds me of Max Roach, how he didn’t just play his pattern, but he really played the composed tune.  So when I’m working with Charles, I definitely take that into account.  For example, I did some funny meters. It wasn’t just that it was 7/8, but it was shifting meters. When I played it for him, it turned into syncopation for him.  So if we want to actually do funny meters, instead of syncopation that gets normalized, we’ll have to work that out.

But a project that did blur things was a setting of five Celtic airs for clarinet and shakuhachi, originally with obbligato piano, but then this turned into a piece for Fork & Spoon and the shakuhachi.  So now I’ve got this kind of funny trio going.  It was partly inspired by my colleague Riley Lee, who likes Celtic music.  He particularly likes O’Carolan’s music, and I did use one O’Carolan tune. And I like really slow airs.  A lot of the time when one hears Cape Breton music, there is a lot of fast music happening.  But, of course, there are slow things, too.  So between working with the shakuhachi, and with Riley and his interests, and my own interests, I ended up feeling like I had an excuse to spend more time with the slow tunes.  Around the same time I was exploring these two duos, I had asked Riley to play some pieces with me. This got this started in a funny way in that he was in Weakness.  I cast him first, by the way.  I cast the shakuhachi first in my opera because he was the Goddess.  So we were rehearsing Weakness, and he had a concert coming up the next week playing pieces of my students.  I’d arranged that. And he said, “Do you want to put something on the concert?” And I said, “Well, it’s in ten days.  I don’t know.”  I don’t normally do this, and it sounds almost haphazard, but literally backstage, or in the ten minutes or two hours between rehearsals, I would come into this room and try to write something for him and me to play.  This is a case where circumstances made me do something I wouldn’t have maybe done otherwise. I took one of his traditional honkyoku pieces and made a part for me to play with it.  I’m almost like a reverb unit for him.  It is its own piece, but it really has this relationship to shakuhachi tradition.  So I’d begun working with him in a duo and thought about other pieces we might do, and we started thinking about a CD project.

At the same time, more or less, I started playing in this duo with Charles. So I had these two duos and then I ended up combining them into a trio.  So basically if I put it in containers, there’s a CD project with shakuhachi and clarinet, Riley and me.  Then there’s a CD project with Fork & Spoon, Charles and me, guitar and clarinet.  And then each of them is visiting the other CD for one piece.  So we have two trios that we play.  One is the set of Celtic airs, Farewell to Music.  The other is an original that I composed based on a piece that Riley does with a Hawaiian slack key guitarist.  I totally loved it and I asked his permission to arrange it for Fork & Spoon, and what I ended up doing—which was better because we all got together—was I arranged it for all three of us.  Well, it’s not an arrangement; it’s actually a riff taking off from his piece, but there are some parts that would be direct references.  So that’s been very special, and only through knowing these two people and playing with them would I have written this piece, Passage of the Herons.  We keep trying to say what genre it is.  It’s maybe folk at one point, even—we thought—new age, since it’s melodic with chords, very pretty and very flowing.  Not that I wouldn’t want to write music that fits that description, but the particular shape of this piece is something that really could only have happened with those two people in the room.

Traditional Japanese shakuhachi musical notation.

FJO:  To tie some loose ends together here, it’s very exciting to hear you talk so ecstatically about making music in these very different traditions and learn how liberating and inspiring it has been for you. At the same time, in addition to this being something of an alternative stream to your other—I hate to use the word “regular”—compositional activities, you also train composers at Princeton University which is something you’ve now done for 20 years.  So how do you encourage them to look at a map and take a trip to an unexpected place that will change their lives? How do you instill that serendipity and sheer joy?

BW:  That’s a good question.  My first impulse to answer that question is to say I don’t need to; they already have it.  I’m fortunate that the students I work with, both undergraduates and graduate students, really have a sense of adventure and a sense of commitment.  I see a lot of real pleasure and satisfaction that they express.  But there is perhaps something of a permission giving.  I was talking to a graduate student yesterday about a dissertation—which is still creative work, though not composing.  I did literally say to this student, “You can do this your way.  You don’t need to fit into what you think a dissertation is.”  It was someone with a jazz background, and this person has strengths coming from that background—a really strong ear and not needing notation, so I didn’t want them to feel compelled to fit into some other kind of music analysis mold.  That does happen.  A very common thing with composition students, no matter how joyful they are, is of course to have this kind of fear.  “Can I do this or not?” It’s enjoyable to me to see what they bring up. At 12 o’clock, someone will come in and say, “I think I’m repeating too much.  I think I should repeat less.”  Then the next person will come in and say, “I think I’m changing too much.  Should I repeat more?”  That tickles my fancy, for sure.

“It is helpful for me to just say yes to them.”

And, as much as I love trained musicians, I actually am fortunate that I get to do a lot with people who aren’t trained musicians. That’s really special to me. I teach an undergraduate freshman seminar called “Everyday Enchantment,” which has to do with everyday experience and art making and where the boundary is.  Is there one?  And so on.  The students in that course do all sorts of interesting projects, and particularly because they’re freshmen, I figure it is helpful for me to just say yes to them. You can do something with words.  You don’t need to be a poet.  You can make art out of food.  That’s okay.  And they do.  They end up doing performances.  They do things outdoors and try to get people to interact with them. I don’t think of professoring as all that somber.  Teaching introductory music theory has more somberness to it, but luckily a lot of my classes are pretty freewheeling.

FJO:  Of course, the world of academia has changed so much. I doubt if Roger Sessions would put in his bio that he won a photography competition for coffee.

BW:  Are you saying someone did that?!  Yeah, that is true.  Sometimes I think about when I was born and how that affected me. I am just old enough to have experienced, not Sessions per se, but the end of high modernism and partly because of where I was, I was hanging onto that for longer—at Harvard. Then when I went to graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh, it was really very different. Mathew Rosenblum was writing pieces that had drum set and microtones, and Eric Moe was working with synthesizers and wailing sounds, and so on.  So I had an interesting journey through the landscape of what music is.

The way I’m thinking of that most these days is in my teaching.  I’m currently teaching what used to be called “Music Since 1945.”  I took a course by that name, and there’s a Paul Griffiths book by that name which is now in its third edition.  And I’ve taught it before.  I told my students, I last taught this course in 2000, and they were stunned by that.  And I said, “Yes, you were being born then!  I understand that.” So you can imagine, at some point, we’re going to hit this critical-mass moment where this has to be two courses.  But even to think of how I taught a course that went basically between 1945 to maybe 1998; 20 years later, there’s 20 more years of music.  It’s really fascinating to try to think about what music they need to hear about.  There’s something liberating in that there is so much history now that you know you can’t cover everything.  And I found myself thinking very seriously about the matter of the canon, which has been discussed by scholars for decades now.  I was inspired in part by a recent essay by Anne Shreffler where she pointed out that the canon is not innocent. In terms of giving students permission, allowing for delight, and so on, the last sentence in my course description is: “Whose music is it?” I was thinking very much about what this tradition is.  Where do its boundaries lie?  Who’s been brought in?  Who’s been left out?  Going back to the title, “Music Since 1945” is a problematic title now.  When I was in graduate school, we would have taken for granted what we meant by “music.”  But now that could be any music, and that’s a good thing that we have this more ecumenical view.  So I changed it to “Music After Modernism” and thought very much about: Do I include the important pieces because they’re the important pieces?  Who decided they were the important pieces?  And did they keep being thought of as the important pieces because we’ve said so?  So it’s really interesting.  I’ve been looking at some anomalous composers and pieces.  I’ve been thinking about alternate examples.  It’s fascinating even to think of a linear narrative.  How true is a linear narrative that we would make?

FJO:  Well, you say 1945. Earlier you were talking about Max Roach.  That was the year he recorded the Savoy Sessions with Charlie Parker that are now legendary, but those recordings are probably not mentioned in the Paul Griffiths book about music since 1945.

BW:  Yeah.  He’s not in my syllabus either, but I can tell you what I did on my first day.  I explored things from 1945.  I chose a bunch of things that I was going to play in a row, but I ended up making a kind of mashup, if that’s the right word.  There was a little bit of the Spellbound score.  Then there was Stravinsky’s Babel, which no one knows, but I bet you do.  Then a little bit of Walter Piston’s Sonatina for Violin and Harpsichord.  Then Nat King Cole, the Andrews Sisters, and Bing Crosby.  Then Spellbound again.  Just think of all these things happening at that time!  And there’s more—Daughters of the Lonesome Isle and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” are also from 1945.  Well, I might have fudged some of them, but they’re basically from around that time.

FJO:  Get Charlie Parker in there next time.  And Max Roach!

BW:  Yeah. The reason Nat King Cole was in there specifically is because he was playing Rachmaninoff.

FJO:  Before we stop recording this conversation we should probably talk a little bit about the ballet that’s premiering in Boston in March.

BW:  Let’s see.  This piece [The Wrong Child] was commissioned by Boston Musica Viva.  Boston Musica Viva does a family music concert every year, and they often work with a group called the Northeast Youth Ballet, which is based in Reading, Massachusetts.  I grew up in North Reading, Massachusetts, so it’s kind of neat that this is my old neighborhood.  The choreographer, Denise Cecere, runs the ballet and the conservatory associated with it.  It’s a youth ballet of really skilled people.  I’m excited to see what they’re going to be doing.  It’s a big piece in terms of needing to think about story and interacting with dance, and so on.  Again, as in Weakness, I wrote a text. You might not expect that there would be a text, but it has narration.  That will be done by Joyce Kulhawik, who is a beloved Boston personality and who I remember from when I was growing up.  There’s some kind of homecoming about that.  And it’s another Celtic story.  This one is Welsh, and it’s a story that’s well-known, at least among people from that area. It’s about the birth of Taliesin, who was a real poet, a historical figure whose poetry exists—we have manuscripts of some of it.  But he’s also mythical figure. The story has to do with the birth of the poet and inspiration and shape shifting and initiation.

I’ve been intrigued to be writing for a young audience. I’ve had some interactions with young people, but not in a family concert exactly, at least not in a while.  So I thought about that a lot in reshaping the story.  For example, how dark and brooding can it be? The choreographer has helped me with that a lot.  But another thing that I delighted in was the idea of bringing in sounds that are maybe not traditional classical sounds, but ones that we know as experimental sounds.  I’ve worked in some references to other pieces—most notably Henry Cowell’s The Banshee.  There’s this moment where a raven gets stung by a bee.  Then the piano makes this wailing sound, and then the next line, crucially coming after, is “The raven wails like a banshee.”  I liked the idea of young people hearing this banshee sound. Who knows if they’ve heard Henry Cowell yet?  Maybe.  I don’t know.

A view of the second floor of Barbara White's house in Princeton.

Thea Musgrave: Where The Practicality Comes In

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t write unnecessarily difficult things.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FJO:  Was it an orchestra piece?

TM:  I absolutely don’t remember.

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

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

Thea Musgrave’s composing desk.

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

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

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

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

TM:  Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FJO:  The Pythagorean comma.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thea Musgrave sitting across from FJO.

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

TM:  Of course.

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

TM:  Using quotes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

FJO:  But an American wouldn’t.

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

FJO:  Yes.

TM:  Everybody does.

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

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

FJO:  You do hear it a lot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TM:  Nothing like that.  Just laziness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

FJO:  You can’t rewrite history.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FJO:  You would have changed it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FJO:  That also needs to be reissued.

TM: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

FJO:  I wish I could have seen that.

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

FJO:  Fantastic!

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

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

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

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

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

FJO:  You just did.

TM:  Right.  I cheated.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TM:  Oh wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FJO:  That’s fantastic.

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

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

In the Name of “Research”

In June, my evening-length opera Three Way will have its New York premiere at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, after having received its world premiere with Nashville Opera. The piece consists of three one-act comic operas for eight singers and twelve instrumentalists, with a brilliant libretto by David Cote. The stories involve a woman and her android lover; a BDSM session between a dominatrix and her client; and a swingers party, complete with masks, robes, and frisky behavior.

Several questions that are usually on everyone’s minds when they hear this short description are: “Is this a ‘sex opera’?” “Does the title really mean a threesome, like a ménage a trois?” And, naturally, “What did you do for research?”

I’ll get to these questions in a moment, but first, a little background.

Our goal was to create a relatable opera on contemporary subjects that doesn’t rely on shock effect, blatant nudity, or victimization; there are plenty of composers, librettists, and indie opera presenters doing that already. We wanted to use sexuality as the “in”: a topic that might intrigue a wider audience, maybe even get someone to attend their first opera. Getting people in the door is key. Opera companies spend a lot of time and money on productions, so you’d better be absolutely sure that they aren’t wasting money on you.

Opera companies spend a lot of time and money on productions, so you’d better be absolutely sure that they aren’t wasting money on you.

As an aside, when deciding whether to adapt a pre-existing text or to create something entirely new, there were many factors to consider. Opera companies are obviously eager to fill the house every night and want to commission works that will have longevity. On one hand, creating entirely new stories that cannot be easily referenced by concertgoers is incredibly risky. On the other hand, using a pre-existing text (a novel, for example) as the basis for a libretto can be very expensive. We chose to take a chance and create a new libretto. After all: if the music is brand new, it’s always nice to have an original libretto as well.

Each act engages in a subtle dialogue with a classic work from the repertoire. We set out to write an opera firmly within the operatic tradition—foregrounding narrative, character, and conflict, and containing 12 distinct arias! My personal goal was to create an opera that is rich and complex; full of leitmotifs, chromatic yet melodic, and with engaging recitative and witty lyrics, which David provided. From the beginning, we wanted to craft an opera that is as engaging to the ear as it is to the mind and heart.

We took a chance by creating something that could be viewed as too risqué, but there are many classics that are similarly provocative—including several warhorse operas. From Mozart (Don Giovanni) to Bizet (Carmen) and Strauss (Salome), there’s no shortage of sexual obsession or excess in the classic repertoire. The main difference is that ours is in English and contemporary, so it’s more visceral than work in Italian or German from one or two hundred years ago. Shocking subjects and language can often hide behind the veil of a foreign tongue and historic settings. Furthermore, we don’t actually use nudity or (much) obscene language. It’s a PG opera in R-rated clothing.

Before discussing the research that went on behind the scenes, it makes sense to give a brief outline of each act. The acts are designed to function as both a full-evening set and individually.

Act I, The Companion, is about Maya (soprano) and her live-in lover Joe (tenor), a biomorphic android. Joe caters to Maya’s every need, but she wants more spontaneity, more realism. After tech worker Dax (baritone) from Dream Companions performs an upgrade, Maya regrets the new, aggressively masculine Joe. This opera is faintly inspired by Act I of Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann, the “Olympia” episode. Only here, a woman has fallen for a “wind-up” man.

Safe Word (Act II) is about the relationship between a dominatrix (mezzo) nicknamed Mistress Salome and her prickly businessman client (bass). Here, the music contains musical references to, yes, the Strauss opera Salome. As you may guess, in this sexy but dark opera, things take a violent turn. Our dominatrix is in the tradition of opera “femmes fatales.”

The final act, Masquerade, takes place at a swinger party where three couples and their hosts explore the boundaries of sexual expression. But this party is different: all the guests must put on masks and robes and not say their names. The confusion and excitement that results prompts shyness in some and boldness in others. The influence here is Mozart’s Così fan tutte, the classic about love, disguises, fickleness, faithfulness, and losing yourself to find yourself. (It’s also in the operatic tradition of masked balls, explored by composers as diverse as Verdi, Nielsen, and Johann Strauss II.)

So, back to the earlier questions: Yes, this is definitely an opera with adult themes, but it’s more complex than that. The title references a sexual activity, obviously, but also playfully alludes to the three different acts that highlight diverse yet related experiences. For example, in The Companion, Maya asks Dax if he’d like to have a threesome with her and Joe, the android, and he declines, saying that he prefers “organic, like your type, organic.” Masquerade features a conversation about a threesome between three characters, Larry, Jessie, and Tyler, and even a dream-like orgy scene (no nudity, we promise!), so there’s that. In Safe Word, the gender dynamics become extremely fraught between the dominatrix and her cis-male heterosexual Client, who dresses up like a little girl to be disciplined. Each piece tries to complicate and interrogate the social “scripts” that inflect modern sexual behavior and gender norms. A gender nonconforming couple in Three Way whimsically muses: “Hetero. Gay. There’s always a third way. Or a fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh way!”

By now, you’re probably wondering: Do we actually know what we’re doing? Have either David or I ever experienced anything like what we’re writing about? Have we slept with sexbots, been whipped by a mistress in a BDSM dungeon, or attended a swinger party? Are either of us members of the trans community? What right do we have to dramatize such potentially sensitive subject matter—with humor and melody, no less?

Like any good creative team, we did our research. The Companion was the easiest in that respect. We are both around the same age, so we both grew up absorbing the same sci-fi books and movies, and are both deeply involved with technology in our daily lives, so this part wasn’t as difficult. We have both absorbed plenty of books and movies that reference these subjects, whether 2001: A Space Odyssey, books by Isaac Asimov, or movies like Terminator and Blade Runner. David being David, and ingenious, included plenty of clever references in the first act—virtual Easter eggs for nerdy, sci-fi types like ourselves.

For Safe Word, David interviewed Melisa Febos, a former dominatrix and author of the critically acclaimed memoir Whip Smart. Of course, the Internet is extremely useful for figuring out the correct terminology and for viewing real dungeons. Interestingly, right before the premiere with Nashville Opera, we were granted a tour of a BDSM community dungeon in Nashville, and we gave a talk to its members about our opera. It was a fascinating experience. The club was immaculately clean and orderly, and the energy of the space was friendly and inviting. They even had a meeting room specifically used for lectures and sex-positive discussions. In the end, at least 40 people from that scene attended our opera, and they really enjoyed it. In fact, the owner of the dungeon emailed us later and stated that we did a great job of representing their world correctly. It doesn’t get much better than that!

Finally, for Masquerade, in the name of “research,” my wife Victoria and I went to an actual swinger masquerade party. There were more than four couples at the party, but for the sake of the structure of the opera, as well as practicality (more singers, more money), we stuck to four couples in Masquerade. The folks we met at the party were incredibly nice, and, as in the opera, from all walks of life. No one was forced to do anything they didn’t want to do, and it was, in many ways, similar to the opera. Some people were down to earth, some more formal, some were experienced swingers, others were “newbies,” and so on.

David and I talked constantly about whether the situations we presented were realistic or not. If something didn’t ring true to the characters or the rules of our world, we tried to address it. Not that we treated the opera like a documentary or an academic treatise, but we wanted people who have had these experiences leaving the theater feeling like these stories might actually be somewhat plausible.

Having said all this, I don’t necessarily think we needed to experience every situation we wrote about firsthand, or be the characters, in a method-acting sense. I think there’s too much of that these days: the notion that you shouldn’t write about the BDSM scene unless you’ve actually been a domme or a sub; or that you can’t write about being a soldier if you haven’t been on the front lines; or that if you’re a straight, white, cisgendered male of European descent, you can’t write a story about lesbians, a postgender couple (like our Kyle and Tyler in Masquerade), or Mexican immigrants crossing the border. Artists who are good at their work will bring the characters and situations to life without needing to be the characters. If the work succeeds, audiences will empathize and identify—while maintaining critical distance. As the Roman playwright Terence put it, “I am human, and nothing which is human is alien to me.” Of course, as we show in The Companion, it’s hard to tell what being human is anymore.

Artists who are good at their work will bring the characters and situations to life without needing to be the characters.

In the end, what really matters is people leaving the theater after a great evening, having enjoyed the work. There are plenty of laughs, but also moments of melancholy, weirdness, even terror—you know: opera. If they really like it, maybe they’ll tell their friends and attend more opera themselves—new ones or classic titles. Maybe all of that research will pay off; we’ll find out this June at BAM.


Three Way received its 2017 premiere in a co-production by Nashville Opera and American Opera Projects, as well as developmental support from American Opera Projects’ Composers and the Voice and First Chance programs, Fort Worth Opera’s Frontiers program, and Opera America’s Repertoire Development program. More details about the June 15-18, 2017 production at BAM Fisher, including ticketing information, is available on the website for the Brooklyn Academy of Music.


Robert Paterson holding a bowl and a mallet

Praised for his wonderful sense of color, as well as for embracing beauty and lyricism in his vocal music, Robert Paterson was recently named The Composer of The Year by the Classical Recording Foundation with a performance and celebration at Carnegie’s Weill Hall. His music has been on the Grammy ballot yearly and was named “Best Music of 2012” on National Public Radio. His works have been performed and professionally recorded by over one-hundred orchestras, chamber groups and choirs, and he’s been fortunate to win many awards for his work, in virtually every classical genre. He lives in New York City with his wife Victoria, a professional violinist, and their son Dylan, and is the artistic director of both the American Modern Ensemble and the forthcoming Mostly Modern Festival.

“Where Is Evil?” (a reaction to anatomy theater)

Ed Note: David Lang and Mark Dion’s 75-minute anatomy theater sparked a great deal of critical commentary following the LA Opera’s world premiere performances of this Beth Morrison Projects production at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater (REDCAT) in Los Angeles in June 2016 and again during its subsequent New York premiere at BRIC House during the PROTOTYPE Festival in January 2017. Boston-based pianist, poet, and artist manager Oni Buchanan was so deeply affected by the performance she attended in New York City that she felt compelled to add her own observations which she shares here.—FJO

The new chamber opera anatomy theater by David Lang and Mark Dion provides layer upon layer of revelation—each peeling back from the opera’s heart like the transparent mylar overlays from an old anatomy textbook.  The opera, set in early-18th century England, follows the trajectory of a young murderess, starting with her public hanging and continuing through the spectacle of her public dissection in which the parties involved hope to demonstrate “scientifically” that her evil is corporeally writ within her.

The most immediate confrontation leveled by anatomy theater upon its audience proves to be the confounding experience of witnessing outright, unflinching, center-stage misogyny.  The objectification of the female body can’t get more literal:  Lang, Dion, and director Bob McGrath position a completely naked female—a corpse, no less—as the physical (and topical) focal point of the opera, laid out on a wooden pallet in the center of the stage.  The second ghastly understanding comes from feeling the tsunamic power of abstract fear which drives the action of the opera.  However coolly cultivated the applause of the bourgeois dissection spectators, however aggressive the swagger of the showman executioner, however dispassionately objective the assessments of the so-called anatomical “specialists”—it is ultimately the all-consuming, irrational fear saturating a society of great inequality which allows the horrors of this narrative to occur, to be “justified.”  Not simply gender inequality, but vast economic inequality as well—the murderess comes from poverty.  Take one imaginative step outward to include racial and religious inequalities as well, and the picture begins to look unsettlingly familiar, as Lang and Dion fully intend.  And the alarming present-day familiarity of an opera based on outdated early 18th-century anatomical practices and spiritual beliefs leads to what might be the most disturbing, subversive act of the opera:  Lang and Dion lead the audience through a normalization process that allows us to accept atrocity incrementally until suddenly we find ourselves staring at a spotlit fully-naked, blood-drenched female corpse emptied of its central organs and about to be carted out to “the back gate” for further “auction[ing] under the moonlight.”  How did we get here?


Let me briefly pause to consider how I got here, which should also serve to contextualize my remarks that follow.  Coming from a childhood in which my exposure to television and media was drastically limited, I encountered a very steep learning curve in college where I had to cultivate—almost from nothing—the ability to access critical distance from media, and from movies in particular.  In grade school, my exposure to media consisted of one TV show per week (an honor which was bestowed upon Knight Rider), as well as the incomprehensible splurge of stringently limited Saturday morning cartoons accompanied by French toast on TV trays (Dungeons & Dragons and Ghost Busters being the high points of these sessions).  Probably since it wasn’t an animation, I experienced Knight Rider in particular with edge-of-my-seat intensity.  There was no real person called “David Hasselhoff” or any modified Pontiac Firebird Trans Am; actors and props did not exist for me.  There was only Michael Knight and KITT.  I experienced danger and surging adrenaline in real time with them, making split-second decisions, skidding around corners at top speed, and escaping impossible situations when the alternative was death.  As might be expected, I had no critical distance to understand “parody,” and when I was accidentally exposed (in first grade, in the basement of my cousins’ house during an unsupervised hour of Thanksgiving) to an extensive excerpt of a horror spoof involving a serial killer who targeted a group of cheerleaders with rhyming names (Pandemonium), I suffered nearly unendurable nightmares for the decade to follow.

Fast-forward to my first year as an undergrad, when a group of friends thought I might like to see The Piano, being a pianist myself.  Inevitably I became so immersed in the narrative, so intrinsically aligned with Ada McGrath (no idea who Holly Hunter was), that when her jealous husband axes her finger at the dramatic high point, I involuntarily let out a blood-curdling scream in the theater, not even knowing it was me who was screaming.  Over a decade later, despite plenty of “media conditioning” in the intervening years, I almost started puking inside a theater during Pan’s Labyrinth and had to walk out midway sobbing uncontrollably.

I offer this background to inform what follows.  Because what struck me as maybe the most telling barometer of how insidious and how deceptively crafted anatomy theater was—was that somehow I was able to sit through it.  A film director friend of mine texted me, “I wish I could have been there to watch you watch a woman be dissected.  That seems satisfying.”  How had this improbability come to pass, when a dentistry-obsessed cheerleader murdered with her own electric toothbrush still haunts my days?  How did David Lang and Mark Dion structure the music, pace the narrative, juxtapose the tonal shifts, overlay the absurdities and the acts of violence—how did they achieve the sleights of hand that would be necessary to enable anybody, let alone me, to stay in their seats and be both witnesses and participants in all the gore, the misogyny, the incredible injustices?  In a way, Lang and Dion deafened us all with the blaringly immediate vulgarity and loudness and ham-fisted manipulation, serving almost to distract from the actual lethal maneuvering under the surface.  I was so horrified at my ability to navigate the opera that I actually went back to a second showing to see if I could track the layers of architectural construction, the kinds of “duck and weave” moves Lang and Dion exploited, that could make such an outcome possible.

Anatomy Theater excerpt from Beth Morrison Projects on Vimeo.

SPOILER ALERT: Sarah Osborne (Peabody Southwell), the murderess at the center of the story, has committed the crime of suffocating her husband and both her children.  In a meta-move, Lang/Dion/McGrath don’t allow us, the ticket-purchasing audience, to enter the performance hall and settle in before the show.  Instead, we are led into the theater as part of the execution procession of the opera’s narrative, with the executioner roughly shoving and restraining the convicted woman along the way, bystanders jeering, and all of us coolly walking behind, amusedly participating while also scouting out our seats.  Already, Lang and Dion allow us, the audience members, to establish a nice comfortable distance.  The opera calls us out on it throughout, so we feel sufficiently accused, but never quite implicated.  Perfect, we were all put through the grinder just enough; our dues are paid.  Even Lang and Dion are winking while pointing: isn’t this a great rhetorical device?  Sarah Osborne implores us at the beginning of her confession, “Let pity move your hearts,” then describes the harrowing circumstances that led her to “extinguish” her husband and (instead of mother) “smother” each of her young children in turn.  Nevertheless, her guilt has already been decreed, and in a swift inexorable matter of minutes, a hood is muscled over her head, a noose tightened around her neck, and with a blunt shove, her motionless body swings limply before us.  How did we get here?  “Justice!  Is!  Delivered!” announces the executioner, and signals the audience to applaud, which we do.

Why isn’t the opera already over?  The main character is dead within the first five minutes. However, as the executioner Joshua Crouch (Marc Kudisch) points out, it’s not enough to convict Osborne for her “most heinous of crimes…that of being poor and desperate…that of being born a woman.”  And it’s not enough to execute her.  We aren’t finished with her yet—and not being finished, not having any kind of boundary where we can be satisfied and allow our endeavor to come to a close, is one of the most gruesome problems placed before us by Lang and Dion’s opera.  As Osborne’s painful account detailing the unjust and unbearable conditions of her life remains apparently insufficient to explain her actions, we the survivors are left looking for a more grandiose motivator, and settle upon the abstractness of “evil.”  How can we explain the presence of evil?  Where does evil come from?  Can we locate a corporeal source, a physical manifestation of this hideous motivator, that we might protect ourselves from it going forward?  If the source of evil lies in Sarah Osborne’s body, specific to the female form, how can we control that form and thereby suppress the threat of the evil that women carry within them?  Thus begins the exploration of the opera’s central aria: “Where is Evil?” as well as the breathtaking misogyny intertwined with the interrogation.

And thus opens the “dissection theater” with its “fresh quality female”!  Crouch, the executioner-turned-emcee, parades the body onto the stage, fully covered in a sheet.  He reveals the body incrementally, first unveiling the head.  We recognize Osborne—is it really her, though?  A mannequin of her?  A wax likeness?  Is there really going to be a dissection?  How is Lang going to accomplish this?  How realistic will/can it even be?  And thus begins our incremental acceptance of what follows.  Soon Crouch pulls the sheets back from Osborne’s legs, stroking them with loathsome arousal.  Is Lang really going to go there?  He just did.  Well at least the rest of her body is covered, other than her head and her legs.  Her body could be clothed, for all we know.  Crouch keeps peeking under the sheet which covers her chest, shuddering with desire and commenting on the rareness of such a young, “fresh and exemplary” female body.  Not long after, he tears off the sheet covering Osborne’s torso, revealing her to be utterly naked from the waist up, as well as from the thighs down.  Is Lang really going to go there?  He just did.  Well, her pelvic area is still covered.  “At least her pelvic area is still covered!” we think, as we recover from the shock of her upper body being completely naked and exposed before the audience.  Who auditioned for this role anyway?  Well, we haven’t ruled out the possibility that the body may still be a wax mannequin, after all.

Crouch now makes a bombastic introduction of the highly-reputed anatomist and scholar, Baron Peel (Robert Osborne), who makes his bloviating entrance by belting out, “Presently, I shall reveal (“and explicate!” interjects Crouch eagerly) the instruments necessary.”  Crouch lifts each of the “15 instruments” in turn, gesturing lewdly with each one toward the female corpse, and announcing them one by one (“The knife! The probe! Bone nippers!” Actually, to my count and re-count, there were only 14 instruments, but we were all too distracted to notice).  Classical hand-drawn anatomical illustrations are gorgeously projected across a giant scrim separating the main action of the stage from the audience (yet another dermis, yet another deflection into beauty traced artfully over brutality).  Meanwhile, the Igor-like Ambrose Strang (Timur), Peel’s assistant, has lurked onto the stage and has begun to prepare his various steel trays and buckets in the corner.  Where did HE come from?  Too late; Strang turns toward the audience and launches into the thick of the song, with himself and Crouch reverentially echoing Peel’s assertions (“Presently!…He shall reveal!”).

The absurdity and cognitive dissonance have gotten so over-the-top by this point that the audience is teetering at a breaking point.  Lang has to make an artistic decision. Does he pull back? Does he relentlessly push ahead?  What happens next defies expectation and yet is the fully logical extension of what has preceded.  Lang directs the “Presently, I shall reveal” song toward the pinnacle of campiness, of (dare I say) “gallows humor.”  The three male characters, spaced evenly across the stage, launch into a lunatic hybrid of the song, reminiscent of a cross between Pachelbel’s Canon and Madonna’s “Vogue.”  Each man is spotlit in quick succession, sings the word “Presently!” and strikes a pose, over and over, faster and faster, all in perfect 4/4 time, outlining harmonies.  Are Lang and his creative team really going to go there?  They’re going there right now.  They’re there.  We’re all laughing, kind of bemused and marveling at the same time.  This is really happening.  The body is still right there, center stage.  In an appropriately satirical stroke of luck, the performances of anatomy theater are sponsored in part by Tofurky.  How did we get here?

Now begins the dissection of the corpse, and our repugnant voyeurism alongside.  Conveniently, the pallet is raised and tilted toward the audience to make sure that all of us can rubberneck.  “Where Is Evil?”—the central song of the opera—introduces the endeavor to discover the exact physical location of evil through a thorough examination of the three major organs of Osborne’s body:  her stomach, spleen, and heart.  This whole while, the corpse has lain statuesque and pristine, a voiceless onlooker to the men’s assertions of authority and expertise.  Now back to business.  Somehow the loony, spotlit trio of “Presently” provides the momentum and disorientation needed for the audience to swallow the fact that the dissection is going forward.  We’re game.  Blood and entrails follow.  A lot of blood.  An intestine pulled out so endlessly and grotesquely that audience members are groaning and covering their eyes.  One audience member actually leaves the theater to vomit in the restroom, then returns.  Organs are removed, held up to the light, squeezed, cut into pieces, weighed, examined, “intimately interrogated.”  Peel orders Strang to “bring forth the chest riches” and the heart is cut out of Osborne’s body.  We still hope it’s a wax body, even though the glossy shine of the now blood-drenched torso appears to reveal what can only be Peabody Southwell breathing.

Without proselytizing whatsoever, without any kind of reflection among the characters (in fact, because of their lack of self-awareness), Lang and Dion examine in persuasive and grisly detail the very fine boundary between objectivity and inhumanity.  What is the distance between the physical and the spiritual, “the heart” and “the heart”?  “Let pity move your hearts,” Osborne had pleaded.  After the physical heart is removed from her body, Osborne’s corpse draws in a gasping breath and exhales the words, “My heart…”  Another gasping inhale, then “My heart…” again, exhaled in a scalar melody.  A third “My heart…” and one recognizes the melody as itself a dissection from a 2001 song of Lang’s called “i lie,” written for women’s chorus.  I am overtaken by Lang’s fascinating move to extract the vital melodic line, a coronary artery perhaps, from another body of women, and allow it to re-animate this female corpse.  Osborne gathers her breath and delivers a ravishing elegy for her heart (“This was the heart that in my youth was open”) while Strang delivers the stats: “271 grams…unblemished and without corruption.”

Inevitably, when Osborne’s stomach, spleen, and heart are found to be perfect specimens, with no evidence of evil or malformation of any kind, Peel announces that the uterus must be removed and examined, the uterus, the “very seat of hysteria…filled with animal vitality.”  He tears the remaining pelvic cloth from her body, and Osborne lies fully exposed, all her privacy literally stripped away.  Is Lang really going to go there?  He just did.  We knew from the beginning he would.  We were waiting for him to get there, we, the complicit “Gentlemen” of the paying audience.  Let’s fast-forward.  The uterus reveals only perfection, the formal “dissection theater” comes to a close without locating the physical seat of evil, all four characters sing a glorious rendition of “Where Is Evil?” this time with Peel pointing outward to specific members of the audience rather than at Osborne’s corpse: “There it is.  There.  There it is.”  Great, we get it, we already got it, and Lang/Dion use this conclusion-facade as a deceptive cadence of sorts.  Lang’s opera has come to a close, and yet, the action of the opera continues after it ends, with Crouch issuing an invitation to the Gentlemen of the audience to “meet me by the back gate” for “further inspection of the parts…that haven’t yet been removed.”

Whether we have met Crouch by the back gate or not, eventually we all wend our way home humming “Where Is Evil?” to ourselves.  The opera metastasizes through our real-time physical landscape.  Sure, there’s our complicity in participating in the narrative, but after all, it’s a piece of art, and that bait and switch was part of the show.  But at some point over the course of our homeward commute, the hitherto unidentified and most insidious journey Lang and Dion have led us on comes blistering to the surface.  Through their pacing of the putrid, excruciating action, through their measured dosages of barbarity cut with slapstick, somehow they were able to feed us the whole rank slopbucket.  Each one of us ingested it.  And that revelation of our own individual ability in the very real world—beyond our intention and our professed morality and even our full awareness—survives as the “final” (and yet ever-expanding) horror of anatomy theater.  The various processes of rationalization we yielded to begin to dawn on us.  Sure, this was a piece of art, but what else could we accept, not quite cognizant we were accepting it?  Lang and Dion take their outrageous risks pitch-perfectly, lowering our guard all the while.  Nothing dogmatic, only the actions speaking for themselves, drenched in satire, drenched in blood.  How did we get here?  How did I get here?  Moving from the dissection theater to the theater of a present world narcotized by the toxic elixir of fear and complacence, I am led by the performance to ask, “Who am I?  And what am I capable of?”


Oni Buchanan

Oni Buchanan is a poet, pianist, and the founder and director of the Ariel Artists management company. As a poet, Buchanan is the author of three poetry books to date — Must a Violence, Spring, and What Animal. Buchanan toured as a solo pianist for over a decade, and ArpaViva Recordings has just released her fifth album, Hierosgamos.

Paul Moravec: The Whole Range of Human Emotion

Paul Moravec in Central Park

Shakespeare’s plays, a novel by Stephen King, and personal letters from American soldiers written in wartime have all served as inspiration for compositions by Paul Moravec, and not only as texts for vocal works. Moravec fashioned three of the five movements of his most widely performed piece, the 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning instrumental quartet Tempest Fantasy, around iconic Shakespearean characters from The Tempest—Ariel, Prospero, and Caliban. And even when there is no discernible literary reference, as in such generically titled pieces as his recent Violin Concerto (which was recently released on CD by Naxos), Moravec claims there is always “a kind of musical narrative” at work even if it does not have a precise verbal meaning.

“I can’t describe to you a coffee cup in musical terms,” Moravec acknowledges when we visit his Upper West Side Manhattan home. “I can draw you a picture of a coffee cup and you can say, ‘Well, that’s a coffee cup.’ But I can’t do that musically. What I can do is to capture and project emotion: joy, sadness, the whole range of human emotion. Whether or not you as an individual listener receives it in that way or understands what I’m saying, that’s a whole other matter, but that’s what I’m trying to do as a composer. All of these pieces have emotional narratives of one kind or another, whether it’s an abstract piece or programmatic piece.”

Given Moravec’s aesthetic proclivities, it is natural that he has been drawn to opera, but what’s perhaps somewhat surprising, given his attachment to Shakespeare, is that his latest opera—which will receive its world premiere in Minneapolis later this month—is based on The Shining by Stephen King.

“This was not my idea,” he confesses. “This idea came from Minnesota Opera. They said, ‘How’d you like to make an opera out of the novel The Shining?’ And I said, ‘Wow, what an idea!’… The Stephen King book is actually very operatic….It’s also about the three things that, in my view, drive opera: love, death, and power. It has all three of those elements on steroids. For all of the drama, the action, the horror, the ghosts, the Overlook [Hotel], and all these wonderful aspects of the novel, it’s really a very moving story about a family trying to stay together under extraordinary circumstances.”

Stephen King’s supernatural psychological thriller gave Moravec an opportunity to explore a broad sonic palette which includes passages of musique concrète. Although he has often been categorized as a neo-romantic composer, Moravec’s early Devices and Desires is a Synclavier-realized collage of samples of cars starting, a telephone ringing, and clocks ticking. An even more elaborate exploration of sampled clocks serves as an otherworldly counterpoint to the instrumental music he fashioned for Eighth Blackbird in his composition The Time Gallery.

to Moravec such experimentation is never an end unto itself

“I’m fascinated by the technology of sampled sound and the fact that anything that can be recorded can become the stuff of musical composition,” he beams. “I can remember being up at the Columbia University Electronic Music Lab splicing tape; it’s like The Flintstones when you think about it. Now we’re in the age of The Jetsons, where anybody sitting at their own Mac or sitting on the train or wherever can fashion these remarkable musique concrète creations digitally.”

But to Moravec such experimentation is never an end unto itself. In fact, no music should be.

“I don’t think that music is really about music,” he posits. “I think that music is about something else….We as creators, as composers and musicians, spend our whole lives trying to get the right sounds. It’s very, very difficult and we fine tune the sounds till we get just exactly what we want and so on. But that’s not really what music is about. What music is really about is love and sorrow and the whole range of human emotion—making audible the whole range of human existence and human life. I’m interested in sound only to a certain extent, to the extent that it gets me to where I want to be in terms of my musical storytelling, my musical narrative. That’s the importance of sound to me.”


A conversation in Moravec’s apartment in New York City
April 13, 2016—3:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri: A lot of your pieces have some kind of literary inspiration and even the ones that don’t are often extremely narrative in some way. So much so that listening to your music often feels like a form of reading, a deep immersion into a storyline.

Paul Moravec: I’ve written about 150 pieces and some of them are programmatic or they refer to literary texts. A lot of them are not programmatic at all—sonata number one, wind symphony whatever. But all of them, I think, have musical narratives. That’s what they all have in common. I very often think in terms of neural-cognitive narratives that exist in the central nervous system. So whether or not there are literary associations—for example, many of my pieces involve Shakespeare and Shakespearean themes—there is a kind of musical narrative that I’m very concerned with.

FJO: So when you read, does it inspires you to write music?

PM: Sometimes it does, as in the case with Shakespeare. I wrote a piece called Tempest Fantasy which is inspired very directly by my favorite play, which is Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I saw a production in the late ‘90s at the Public Theater with Patrick Stewart, which was fantastic, and that very definitely inspired me to write that piece, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004. That piece has been very good to me. Shakespeare has been my silent partner, so to speak, on a number of projects.

FJO: Including a pretty recent choral piece that just came out on CD.

PM: Right. A piece called Amorisms, which was a ballet commission. And what I did was take single quotations about love from Shakespeare’s plays and set them each in a separate movement. There are five movements. One of the things I discovered about ballet is that if you have too much text going on in the composition, and if it’s an intricate or complicated text, it actually interferes with the ballet. The audience will be thinking, “Wait a minute. What’s that interesting line?” They’re following the text. So I decided to keep the texts to a single line repeated over and over again. Once they got the idea, they could concentrate on the dancers.

FJO: And the literary inspiration for your new opera premiering in May in Minnesota is also literary, although it’s quite different from Shakespeare—Stephen King’s The Shining.

PM: This was not my idea. This idea came from Minnesota Opera. They said, “How’d you like to make an opera out of the novel The Shining?” And I said, “Wow, what an idea!” This would never have occurred to me, actually.

FJO: Had you read the book?

PM: I knew about the book, but I didn’t actually read it until they mentioned it to me. But I knew it was different from the famous Kubrick [film] adaptation, so I knew that it was going to be different from the get go. The Stephen King book is actually very operatic. There’s a lot of warmth in it; the principal character, Jack Torrance, is in some ways very sympathetic. It’s the kind of story that draws the reader in because the reader identifies with him and thinks, “There but for the grace of God go I. This could have happened to me.” That is very operatic. It’s also about the three things that, in my view, drive opera: love, death, and power. It has all three of those elements on steroids. For all of the drama, the action, the horror, the ghosts, the Overlook [Hotel], and all these wonderful aspects of the novel, it’s really a very moving story about a family trying to stay together under extraordinary circumstances. And that is super operatic. That’s what attracted the librettist Mark Campbell and I to this story, and this is what we’re going to put on stage.

FJO: I think that it’s possible to interpret the book, as well as the movie, in a number of different ways. The paranormal, supernatural, and horror elements of it could all be explained away as psychosis. The opera seems to lean more toward a psychological interpretation rather than a supernatural one.

PM: Well, there are two ways of viewing the supernatural. One is that the supernatural is real; that these ghosts actually exist. And the other is that all of these ghosts and supernatural happenings and “shining” itself are really just projections of Jack Torrance’s imagination. So what we did was to get into the imagination of the protagonist. He tells the story, or rather his central nervous system tells the story to the audience. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, it doesn’t matter. What we’re doing is to tell the story through this character. And yes, it could all be taking place in his imagination.

FJO: In a way, because of that, I get the sense from just perusing the vocal score of the opera that it’s not a horror opera so much as it’s a tragedy.

PM: I think that what attracts me more to this story is the emotional resonance of the piece; that it is about love. It is about genuine emotion. It’s a dynamite story. Stephen King is a great storyteller.

FJO: But the tricky thing about setting a story that is so famous, and probably even more famous because of the film, is how deeply it has seeped into our mass consciousness. It’s part of our popular culture.

PM: One could describe it as an iconic film that Kubrick adapted from the book. But I think the book is an icon, too, in and of itself.

FJO: Yes, but because of that, people might walk in with certain expectations about it that they wouldn’t necessarily have when they hear, say, your Violin Concerto. As a creator wanting people to experience your own original piece, how do you deal with this legacy—the reception history of the novel and the film? The people who might compare the singer singing Jack Torrance to Jack Nicholson?

PM: I don’t know what to say to that. We’ve been very clear from the get go, and we’ve made a point about it, that we’re adapting the novel. By the way, you know that there are at least two film versions of The Shining. There’s the Kubrick adaptation, which came out in 1980. Then there was the version that Stephen King himself was involved in in the late ‘90s; it was an ABC mini-series. I think it’s about six-hours long. It goes into much more detail, and it’s a lot closer to the book. Now we’re doing our own adaptation in the operatic genre, which is a completely different genre. So each of these iterations of the story, partly because of the differences in the genres, are going to be rather different from one another.

[s4wmlt]

FJO: I want to probe a bit more your saying that the emotional content was what primarily attracted you to that story. But I want to take it to instrumental music. You’ve written quite a bit of vocal music, but you’ve also written a considerable amount of non-vocal music, where you’re not dealing with setting words, so there’s no discernable syntax that someone can latch onto. You said you’ve written programmatic pieces, but there’s still an unresolvable debate among people about whether specific meanings could be conveyed through the abstract medium of music when there are no words involved.

PM: Music is a non-representational art. I can’t describe to you a coffee cup in musical terms. I can draw you a picture of a coffee cup and you can say, “Well, that’s a coffee cup.” But I can’t do that musically. What I can do is to capture and project emotion: joy, sadness, the whole range of human emotion. Whether or not you as an individual listener receives it in that way or understands what I’m saying, that’s a whole other matter, but that’s what I’m trying to do as a composer. All of these pieces have emotional narratives of one kind or another, whether it’s an abstract piece or programmatic piece.

all of these pieces have emotional narratives of one kind or another, whether it’s an abstract piece or programmatic piece.

What I can say about a programmatic piece—for example a piece inspired by The Tempest, which I turned into the Tempest Fantasy—is that Shakespeare absolutely influenced the structure of the piece. How I wrote it and a lot of the details of the piece are absolutely tied up with Shakespeare and drama and literature and so on. You can’t necessarily hear it in the music because there are no words to it and there’s no reference to it. But I also think the piece has to speak for itself on its own terms. It cannot rely on any literary association or any non-musical association. The musical logic has to be baked into the piece itself. It has to be structural; it has to make sense on the basis of its own musical logic.

You and I spend our lives trying to figure it out. It’s really hard because music is essentially an abstract language. It’s completely made up out of whole cloth. It’s very hard to make these things work structurally, but it has to be that way. I do, however, think that knowing what motivated a composer to write a piece—the literary associations, etc., that the composer might bring to that piece—can be an enhancement in the listening process. I think that that can help. But I’ll go back to saying the work itself has to convince a listener by its own musical logic and in its own musical terms. This is also true of opera. As you know, it’s an immensely complex, collaborative art form. But in the end, in my view, all problems in opera are musical problems. It’s ultimately music that’s driving the agenda and that’s making it work or not. This is not, by the way, true of musicals necessarily, but certainly for opera it’s definitely the case.

FJO: You made a very interesting remark in a talk you did in 2010 with Greg Simon and Dan Kellogg in Colorado that’s posted online, something I thought was very poignant about who you’re writing your music for. What you said was, “I write for myself as a listener.” And then you said that you ask yourself, “Would I buy a ticket to this? Would this be something I would go to and get excited about?” When you write music you’re in a dialog with that inner audience member, that inner listener. I think this is very different from someone who says, “I don’t care about an audience; I’m writing for myself.” You’re not writing for yourself so much as you’re putting yourself in the position of being the listener for the piece.

PM: Right.

FJO: And it’s interesting in terms of audience preparedness, because you also said the piece has to work on its own terms. But when you give a piece a title, you’re already giving listeners an association. I would contend that a piece like Tempest Fantasy is going to affect listeners differently depending on whether: a) they’re paying attention to the title; b) they know the title and they know what it’s referring to in a superficial way; or c) they have a deeper relationship—they’ve read or have seen productions of The Tempest. These three scenarios will result in three very different kinds of interactions with the piece. And I’ll posit a guess that someone who has seen a production of The Tempest, maybe someone who’s seen that Patrick Stewart production at the Public, will come the closest to what you’re intending to convey.

PM: As I said, I would describe these associations as an enhancement of the experience, but the necessary condition is that the piece has to work in and of itself, not knowing the title or anything else like that.

FJO: I’m going to bring up a piece you probably haven’t thought about in a very long time, an early electronic piece you composed called Devices and Desires.

PM: That was a long time ago.

FJO: This piece was constructed from various found sound elements, which allowed you to make very specific references to certain things—cars starting, a telephone ringing, clocks ticking. These are things you can’t do in instrumental music. So even though so many people think of electronic music as an even more abstract medium than most other forms of music, it can actually be more representational, at least it was in the way that you worked with it.

PM: Sure. Sampled sound is a whole other matter. I’m fascinated by the technology of sampled sound and the fact that anything that can be recorded can become the stuff of musical composition. I think it’s absolutely amazing, and of course it’s possible only since we’ve had recording. I can remember being up at the Columbia University Electronic Music Lab splicing tape; it’s like The Flintstones when you think about it. Now we’re in the age of The Jetsons, where anybody sitting at their own Mac or sitting on the train or wherever can fashion these remarkable musique concrète creations digitally. In The Shining, we’re using a lot of really cool sound effects to bring the Overlook Hotel to life. Musique concrète is very much a part of this production. But you could use it in any context. I used this idea of recorded sound, clocks ticking, in a piece called The Time Gallery which I wrote for Eighth Blackbird. I added all these recorded sounds and so on to help to tell the various, very programmatic stories that I’m telling in that piece.

FJO: So, would it be fair to say that using these enhancements, using musique concrète and sampled sound, is a way for a composer of abstract instrumental music to make music less abstract.

PM: Yeah, I never thought of that, but it’s quite possible.

FJO: I never thought of it until I listened to that early electronic piece of yours. As luck would have it, I’m currently reading a book which is an ethnography of IRCAM, if you can imagine such a thing.

PM: What’s it called?

FJO: It’s called Rationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Boulez, and the Institutionalizing of the Musical Avant-Garde. The author is Georgina Born who, prior to becoming an academic, played in the experimental British rock band Henry Cow. Anyway, she talks about the aesthetics of the people involved with IRCAM, who have a very different aesthetic from yours and from mine, but there’s a great quote she has about musical sound and meaning that ties into our discussion: “Music is a logogenic, unrelated to language, non-artifact, having no physical existence and non-representational. It is a self-referential, aural abstraction. This bare core must be the start of any socio-cultural understanding of music since only then can one build up an analysis of its social-cultural mediation.” I thought that quote was really weird because almost immediately after reading it, I came across Devices and Desires. I listened to it and thought, “This is the one piece that Paul Moravec wrote that could have possibly been done by somebody at IRCAM.” And yet it probably wouldn’t have been, because it’s so much about narrative. It’s taking these technologies and subverting what the Modernists wanted to do with them, which is to further abstract things, to explore sound for the sake of sound. Instead, you made it less abstract.

PM: I don’t think that music is really about music. I think that music is about something else. We can’t always articulate what music is about. If we could, then we would just write an essay about it. And then we wouldn’t have to write the piece. But it expresses the otherwise inexpressible. It’s a very mysterious language and we get into the whole question of whether it is a language at all. I think it is, in an abstract sense. In any event, I’ll go back to what I was saying before, which is that music isn’t really about music. It’s not the end-all and the be-all of the whole transaction.

There’s a great word that Hitchcock used to describe a device in one of his movies. It’s called the MacGuffin. My understanding of the MacGuffin is it’s what all of the characters care about, but that we don’t care about. So for example, to use a non-Hitchcock example, in Casablanca, it’s the letters of transit that trigger the action at the beginning of the narrative. All of the characters in Casablanca are trying to get letters of transit. That’s the MacGuffin. We don’t care about the letters of transit; we care about what the people feel as they try to get them. So, in a certain sense, sound is the MacGuffin in music.

We as creators, as composers and musicians, spend our whole lives trying to get the right sounds. It’s very, very difficult and we fine tune the sounds till we get just exactly what we want and so on. But that’s not really what music is about. That’s the MacGuffin. What music is really about is love and sorrow and the whole range of human emotion—making audible the whole range of human existence and human life. I’m interested in sound only to a certain extent, to the extent that it gets me to where I want to be in terms of my musical storytelling, my musical narrative. That’s the importance of sound to me.

FJO: Then why write a piece called Clarinet Concerto and another one called Violin Concerto? Why use such abstract titles that only refer to what these piece are formally?

PM: Well, for the Violin Concerto, something sang in me and was trying to get out, so I spent time articulating it musically, working very hard to get the right sounds and so on. But it’s to the end of doing something else. I’m after a bigger game than just pretty or beautiful sounds. By the way, I hope that it’s beautiful; I want to make beautiful things, but that’s not my ultimate intention. I’m trying to achieve something beyond that which I can’t describe. You just have to listen to the piece, and it either makes sense to you or it doesn’t.

FJO: I think it’s an extremely beautiful piece, particularly the second movement. I think it’s one of the most moving things of yours I’ve ever heard. But you’ve just said music isn’t ultimately about sound, and what strikes me about that piece, as a listener, is how beautiful it sounds. And that’s all that it’s about. You didn’t give listeners any other associations by giving it a name like Tempest Fantasy, or Circular Dreams, or The Time Gallery. So all we can think of is what it is: a composition for violin soloist and orchestra.

PM: But in creating a beautiful effect in sound, I like to think that it takes the listener to another level of experience, which I can’t describe. Beautiful music is the medium that opens the door to an elevated feeling of existence, of joy. I think that’s the difference between a work of art and a work of entertainment. I think that a work of entertainment can be very beautiful, but entertainment is really about taking a person out of themselves for a certain amount of time. We all need that psychologically; we all need to release and to get out of ourselves. Art tends in the opposite direction. Art takes us into ourselves. After an experience with a great work of art, we’re actually changed in some sense. For me, beauty in a work of musical art can do that.

FJO: When you call something a violin concerto, you’re associating it with every other violin concerto that’s ever gone before. Some people might think, “How does this stack against the Brahms, the Tchaikovsky, or the Beethoven?” But that’s a very specific set of listeners who know that repertoire, just like the very specific set of listeners and readers who would have seen productions of The Tempest. Whereas everybody is aware of the passage of time. So calling a piece The Time Gallery might have greater reach. Similarly Circular Dreams, since we all dream or at least we hope we sleep long enough to have a dream. Penderecki originally used the title 8’37” for his Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. It’s a much more effective piece with the revised title. All those strange sounds—the quartertone clusters, the screeching of the bow playing behind the bridge—sound like the atomic bomb is falling. But that title was an afterthought. It only came to Penderecki after he heard the premiere. Could it be that by not giving a piece some kind of descriptive narrative title, you’re allowing listeners to create their own narratives?

PM: I’m sure that’s quite possible. I don’t disagree.

FJO: Curiously, the Clarinet Concerto has a fascinating backstory to it, but listeners wouldn’t know it from the title.

PM: David [Krakauer] wanted me to write a klezmer concerto, and I said to him, “I’m an Episcopalian. I don’t know if I know how to do this.” And he said, “You’re Slavic. Close enough. Same vibe, you know.” In any event, I did not try to write a klezmer concerto. What I did was to write a virtuoso piece that uses what David does so brilliantly. But in using the techniques that he’s developed with his neo-klezmer style, it ends up referring to some klezmer things. So there are these certain little eastern European things in it, but that’s not intentional. Krakauer’s one of the most amazing musicians I’ve ever heard. And it’s been such a joy to work with him on several projects.

FJO: Both of these concertos were written for players you’ve worked with a lot. In fact, Maria Bachmann, for whom you wrote the Violin Concerto, has been one of the most dedicated champions of your music, and has played many of your pieces going all the way back to another abstractly title piece, the Violin Sonata. It begs the question of what role these players have had in inspiring you.

PM: Well, it’s a great thing for a composer to write a piece knowing what, to some extent, it’s going to sound like. My long association with Maria Bachmann, for whom I’ve written at least a dozen pieces now including the Violin Concerto, has been a tremendous help to me and an inspiration because when I sit at the piano and try to work out the notes, I know exactly what it’s going to sound like on her fiddle, what exactly she does, and I write to her strengths. For example, among other things, her amazing, very high lyrical playing on the e-string. It just sounds spectacular. Not all violinists can do that as well, so there’s a lot of that in my Violin Concerto and that’s because I was writing for her. It’s a little bit like being able to write a play when you know that Al Pacino is going to be speaking your lines. You know right away that you’re in the world of this guy who looks a certain way, talks a certain way, slopes across the stage the way he does, and so on. That’s tremendously inspiring, and it’s extremely helpful to composers to write for their friends.

FJO: That level of specificity, though, goes against the game composers play with immortality: writing notes on paper that exist as a recipe that then gets made into a piece of music by a group of performers in city X on date Y, then again, in city Z on date Q with different people for a different audience and yet is the same piece. It has to translate, no matter who’s playing it. If these pieces are to have a life, they have to have multiple interpretations which will all be slightly different from each other, but will somehow still be “The Piece.” Tempest Fantasy has been played by many different groups at this point. Performances of it by two different groups have been posted to YouTube, and neither is the group that premiered and recorded it. And now there’s a second CD recording of it, with yet another ensemble, on the new Delos disc that also includes Amorisms. This piece is clearly becoming repertoire. But I wonder how that plays into your expectations based on the associations you’ve had with the original people for whom you wrote the piece. What is your reaction as a composer when you’re confronted with a second, or third, etc., interpretation of a piece?

PM: I wrote a piece called Brandenburg Gate for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and they premiered it at Carnegie Hall almost ten years ago. Of course, famously, it’s a conductor-less orchestra, and they’re absolutely fantastic. But then I heard it done with a very good group called Symphony in C, which is, by the way, the same orchestra that did my Violin Concerto that we’ve been talking about. Rossen Milanov conducted it, and the element of having the conductor coordinating everything made a different impression. In a certain sense, as much as I’d admired and loved what Orpheus did, having the conductor control everything made a difference; the piece made more sense to me, even though I wrote the piece originally with Orpheus in mind and with those wonderful four soloists in mind. I had worked very closely with them trying to get the sounds that they can bring to the piece. But what Rossen did with the Symphony in C made more musical sense ultimately.

FJO: To get back to music with lyrics, you’ve written a lot of pieces in direct collaborators with writers, which is considerably different than, say, setting Shakespeare, who can’t disagree with the way you’re setting his words.

PM: Right. Whew. Yeah, it’s a good thing.

FJO: Anyway, it makes me curious about the level of give and take that happens when you’re dealing with a living collaborator.

PM: I’ve had very happy experiences with Terry Teachout, with whom I’ve now written three operas, and we’re about to premiere a cantata this weekend at the Bach Festival Society in Winter Park. He’s a joy to work with. In the process of collaboration, if it’s really going well or even when you have a disagreement, or you run into a snag involving the words, I’ve had the happy experience of actually coming up with something better simply because we talked about it and just took it to the next level.

That’s certainly been the experience with Mark Campbell in writing The Shining. I would email him or call him up or we would actually talk in person, believe it or not, and I would say, “I’m having trouble with this line, or this moment doesn’t work. Can you help me out?” Very often, I’m glad to say, we came up with something that was much better than what we had originally. So it keeps compounding. That’s the great thing about working collaborations: you come up with better solutions as you go along. Mark and I are now going to write a big oratorio about the Underground Railroad for the Oratorio Society of New York at Carnegie Hall in 2018. These will be found texts, actual historical records that Mark will fashion into a narrative.

There’s another project like that. I’m working with Ted Kooser, a former Poet Laureate of the United States and a Pulitzer Prize winner, who lives out in Nebraska. He wrote a book called The Blizzard Voices in which he took actual survivors’ accounts of the blizzard of 1888 in the Midwest, in particular around Omaha, and fashioned it into a modern text about trying to survive this unbelievably terrible Old Testament Biblical disaster. Ted stepped back and he said, “I give you carte blanche to fashion what you have of mine and make it into a libretto.” I borrowed texts from the Bible and made it really into a kind of Old Testament oratorio à la Handel or Mendelssohn and Ted said, “Okay, fine.” I’ve been lucky with my collaborators. They’ve all been great.

FJO: Your collaboration with Terry Teachout is somewhat unusual because at first you didn’t know him personally, but he was one of your biggest advocates early on among music critics. It’s really weird to go from being written about by somebody to writing stuff with that person.

PM: Yeah, unfortunately, he can’t write about me anymore because of conflict of interest. But I remember—this must have been over 25 years ago—he called me up and left a message and said, “Would you call me?” And so I did. He picked up the phone and I said, “Hi, I’m Paul Moravec.” And he said, “Who are you?” We’ve been friends ever since and great collaborators.

By the way, this thing that we’re doing this weekend for the Bach Festival is a tribute for their conductor John Sinclair. It’s his 25th anniversary and there’s a big celebration. So Terry had the idea of making an ode to music. One of the things I like about this is that it’s a community event. There’s a lot of warmth, generosity, and good cheer. I feel like a useful citizen; I feel like a participating member of society. This is immensely gratifying to me.

FJO: The world of composing music can sometimes feel so rarified, so these kinds of community engagements are extremely important in terms of making the music more relevant to the communities we live in.

PM: Participating in a civic and community event, I think, goes back to my upbringing as a boy chorister in the Episcopal Church. You might know that the Episcopal Church is the Anglican Church, and there’s this tremendous literature and discipline that the English have had through the English men and boy choir tradition. I was lucky enough to have that in my life, growing up in Buffalo and in Princeton. From the age of ten, participating in a ritual that has great importance to people was hard-wired into my thinking. Somehow in my mind, I got the idea that music and ritual and community participation are all one. They’re all connected somehow. In some ways, they’re indissolubly linked. And I’m sure that comes out of my youth. By the way, also from a very young age, I was a professional musician. I think I got $1.16 a week when I was ten years old, which is tremendously impressive to a kid. Of course, it’s all been downhill since as a composer! But I remember because of that I had to get a social security card at the age of ten. I know it sounds silly, but the impressions that a ten-year old gets live on. Sometimes I still feel like I’m 16 years old, except when I try to go running, then I realize I’m not that age anymore. But emotionally I feel very much the same way.

FJO: Well, to counter what you just said about it all being downhill from there, I would say that it’s definitely gone uphill. I mean, here we are meeting in April. On Monday, they’re going to announce the winner of next year’s Pulitzer Prize. I think it would be pretty fair to say that although you had some significant commissions and performances before receiving the Pulitzer, there was an imprimatur that award gave you that—to repurpose a metaphor you used earlier today—opened doors in a really important way.

PM: Oh, absolutely. My being awarded the Pulitzer Prize in ’04 was absolutely a game changer. There’s no question about it. I wasn’t unknown before that, but it was nothing like after that. It was really like night and day. It made a big difference. I don’t know if that’s necessarily true for other people, but that was certainly my experience. And it definitely opened doors. It gave me opportunities that otherwise I probably would not have had. It changed my life. But it didn’t make me a better composer because nothing can make you a better composer except hard work.

FJO: Why do you think that award has such an impact?

PM: I think the Pulitzer Prize has cache in society because it’s essentially a journalism prize. The Grawemeyer is a big deal, but who knows what a Grawemeyer is? It just doesn’t have the same reach. When the Pulitzer Prizes are announced, it goes out all over the world. Everybody’s instantly famous because it’s the media. And these five or six categories of music, literature, etc., sort of ride on the back of it. This year is the centenary of the Pulitzer Prizes, so I got an invitation to this celebration at the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue [in Washington, D.C.] at the end of January. My wife Wendy and I went down and saw that it’s really all about journalism. I think I was the only composer there besides Roger Reynolds. We didn’t see anybody else. There were hardly any writers. There were a few poets. There were lots of political cartoonists.

FJO: Everybody has this idea that the Pulitzer is this secret cabal and nobody knows how it works, but anyone can enter even though it traditionally always went to somebody who had a big publisher, probably because the big publishers made sure always to enter the required materials by the deadline. You have a publisher, but you actually entered the piece yourself, which is something anyone could and should do.

PM: Yeah, and then I forgot that I’d sent it in. It was early April 2004 and it was spring break from my job at Adelphi University where I’m a professor, and we thought, “Let’s go off to Sicily.” So we did. We were in the town of Taormina, and my wife’s assistant at work called from New York saying that there was a leak in our apartment and the super was freaking out. Then she said, “And so what do you think about the prize?” And I said, “I don’t know. What prize?” “You know, the Pulitzer Prize. You won the Pulitzer Prize.” And I said, “I didn’t know this.” This, by the way, was before cell phones were ubiquitous and even the internet was sometimes hard to get to; it was before all this technology had come of age. It really was quite possible not to know this. So we checked online, and it was in fact true. I couldn’t believe it. I was floored, partly because I’d completely forgotten that I’d sent in the piece. It was a happy day.

Royce Vavrek: So Many Juicy, Amazing Words

Royce Vavrek sitting down in front of a graffiti-strewn wall.

A conversation at Vavrek’s apartment in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, NY
December 4, 2015—12:00 p.m.
Video presentation and photography
by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

While an extremely wide range of composers are writing operas in the United States today, many of these disparate operas share an important trait—a libretto written by someone who was born in Alberta, Canada: Royce Vavrek. Dog Days and JFK (which both feature music by David T. Little), Angel’s Bone (with music by Du Yun), 27 (featuring music by Ricky Ian Gordon), and Song from the Uproar (music by Missy Mazzoli) are only a handful of the projects he has been involved with in the last five years. The gregarious Vavrek at first seems like an unlikely candidate for the mysterious, and regretfully somewhat anonymous, profession of writing opera librettos.

“I don’t know how I made this career,” he acknowledges to us during our talk with him in his Bushwick apartment. “I’m legitimately only writing libretti. Aside from doing a couple of classes at different universities and one-offs, I’m not working in any other capacity. I’m making no money besides from writing libretti and lyrics.”

Though words have become his primary focus, Vavrek also sang, played piano, and even composed music when he was growing up. Given such an immersive background in music, it’s surprising that his own musical ideas don’t sometimes get in the way when he is collaborating with a composer.

“My words do not have a musical idea attached to them, or at least very, very, very rarely,” he explains. “I always find that my words are a container and the music is always additive. … My principle job is to write exciting words that really ignite the imaginations of my collaborators. … My skill level compositionally is not at the level that David T. Little or Missy Mazzoli or Du Yun are composing at, so I think that I leave the composing for the masters. That being said, I am working on a musical where I am co-writing the music. There is music in me, but I tend to focus on the words because I feel like that’s where my true strength lies, especially within the operatic medium.”

Though nowadays many people don’t think much about Francesco Maria Piave (the man who wrote the libretto for La traviata) or Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy (the team that created the words that Bizet set for Carmen), Vavrek is quick to point out that audiences for contemporary opera are aware that the composer is not the only person responsible for the final product in this truly collaborative idiom. According to him:

Especially when you have a living librettist, it’s easier to understand that there are two or more people who have come together to create a work. Similarly, a lot of our work is being developed with strong dramaturgical hands—whether it be a dramaturge proper or a director who has very clear ideas as to how he or she wants to stage something. Not only is the librettist an equal partner, but the librettist, composer, and the director often in my experience are really becoming this trifecta, creating initial productions that are the most dynamic manifestations of what the work needs to be.

*
Frank J. Oteri: So many different composers are writing operas these days, and they are often really making us rethink what opera is and what it could be, as well as what a new audience for opera could be. But despite this wide variety of musical voices, so many of these operas have librettos by you. It’s the one common ingredient in all of this stuff. How do you get involved with all these different projects, and how do you balance them all?

Royce Vavrek: I’m a very curious human being, and I’ve been extremely lucky. I just meet really inspiring people who have led to meeting other inspiring people. For instance, one of my first outings in the operatic world was a presentation at Carnegie Hall. David [T. Little] and I did a 20-minute chunk of Dog Days that was commissioned by Dawn Upshaw and Osvaldo Golijov. Missy Mazzoli was at that presentation, and she gave me a flyer and said I should come see her Song from the Uproar. So at this big event in my life, I managed to find another collaborator. Little happenstances like that in this community led to a really healthy family. I continue to identify people that I just have to collaborate with, whom I have to be in dialogue with and marry my voice with theirs because I find their music so singular and exciting. One of the most amazing things about classical music right now is that every composer I’ve worked with has such a completely different language. So each collaborator and I have a particular tract—it’s almost as if each different collaboration is a completely different road that I’m traveling on. And that makes it so exciting.

FJO: But how do you balance them? It seems like you’re working on several of these at the same time, which I can see being very schizophrenic.

RV: I tend to have a major project and then smaller projects. I try not to do too many big, full-length operas concurrently, although I’m sure that there will be a time when that is impossible. But even though my projects are so disparate in form and content, I think that if you did look at my libretti, you would be able to find particular things that would suggest that they are a Royce Vavreck libretto. So while I do have my hand in a lot of different honey jars, they all contain elements of me. It’s interesting to see the different things that sort of link them together. There are these elements that do seem like they are of a time in my life and of a general wavelength.

FJO: So you mentioned working on Dog Days with David T. Little and then meeting Missy Mazzoli. It seems like her project had already started without you, and then you came into it. So I imagine some projects begin with nothing and then you and the composer with whom you are collaborating create a piece together, but for others someone brings you in to work on a project they’ve started, or maybe you also interest somebody in a project you want to work on.

RV: One of the more interesting and exciting things about opera is just how projects begin. For Song from the Uproar, Missy had composed a good portion of the piece and asked me to come and complete the libretto. So I not only had Isabelle’s language—Isabelle Eberhardt is the subject of the opera—but I also had Missy’s interpretation and her music. So there was a way for me to provide my voice, to marry my voice with all of these different elements. But that piece was very particular in that there was a good foundation to leap off of and to create a full-length work based on a seed of an idea.

FJO: So then your answer to the classic question—what comes first, the words or the music?—would be that it really depends.

RV: I would say that, 99 percent of the time, words come first. I’m sure that there will be situations coming up where music comes first, and music dictates lyrical content, but it does seem like for an opera, the words need to inspire the musical landscape—the dramatic landscape of the classical music.

FJO: Until I had read Heidi Waleson’s feature about you in Opera News this past April, I didn’t realize you had studied composition, as well as piano and voice.

RV: As a very young kid—not even in college, but yes.

FJO: So you wrote music?

RV: Yes.

FJO: Do you still write music? And if you don’t, what made you stop?

RV: My skill level compositionally is not at the level that David T. Little or Missy Mazzoli or Du Yun are composing at, so I think that I leave the composing for the masters. That being said, I am working on a musical where I am co-writing the music. There is music in me, but I tend to focus on the words because I feel like that’s where my true strength lies, especially within the operatic medium.

FJO: So I’m curious how you came to realize that strength. You were initially studying piano, voice, and composition, not libretto writing. How did you first find words, or did words find you?

RV: I took piano lessons and composition lessons in high school and I was in a choir. I was also really involved in the theater. I had a drama teacher who basically gave me the small budget that was allotted her class, and I wrote something like 17 plays in high school. We took them on the one-act play festival circuit, so I had this sort of practical playwriting education. And I was in love with movies as a kid. That was my window into the outside world growing up on a farm in northern Canada. I was just so in love with international and American independent cinema, especially of the ‘90s. I applied to Concordia University in Montreal and did my undergraduate degree in filmmaking, but then picked up a creative writing second major. So writing has been such a huge part of my life. Even when I was three years old, I remember my mom would take dictation; she would write down stories that I told her.

Telling stories has always been this innate thing that I’ve been participating in. As human beings, we tell stories all the time. So it makes sense that music and storytelling, which were both such a huge part of my life, are now married. I did my master’s degree in musical theater writing. So I do sort of have libretto training. That was more book writing and lyric writing—a libretto is a slightly different animal, but it is very much related to musical theater writing.

Then right after my master’s degree, I did the American Lyric Theater’s Composer Librettist Development Program and that really set my career on this track. It provided me with the mentorship and the foundations of writing opera, and it also introduced me to my first collaborators. David T. Little actually came to my final concert and learned about my work through that program. Then it was just this snowball effect, really—meeting all these amazing, young composers who all want to tell stories. That’s sort of the lowest common denominator of all of us: we’re all interested in telling stories through music and words, and some of us through dance and through prose. So it just feels like we’re all coming together because we want to tell stories.

FJO: I’d like to unpack this dichotomy between musical theater and opera. Once upon a time opera and musical theater existed in very different spaces, the works were created by different sets of composers and lyricists-librettists, productions employed completely different singers using completely different vocal techniques, and things were performed for totally different audiences. But that’s not completely true anymore. The walls separating operas and musicals have come down quite a lot. So I found it somewhat peculiar to hear you say that you’re writing music for a musical, but you leave it to the masters to write music for operas. In your mind there must still be a difference.

RV: Well, there is and there isn’t. Musical theater often uses popular music to tell the stories, and I think that I am able to work within some of the popular musical languages. Whereas classical music just seems—I don’t want to say more serious, but there is something. But I think that our job is to blur those lines even further. I love musicals. I love, love, love, love that form. That was what I was raised on—cast recordings of 1776, Sunday in the Park with George, Follies, and Shenandoah, one of my other favorite musicals. I’m desperate to contribute to that medium. But I do think that opera and musical theater are both doing many of the same things. They’re both telling stories through music predominantly.

That being said, I do think the label helps identify what and where the venues are. What would 27, the opera I wrote with Ricky Ian Gordon, be like if we had theater singers doing that? Is this something that a theater singer would be capable of performing, or is it just meant for classically trained vocalists? That’s another big concern. Who do we intend to perform it, how and where, and why do these pieces exist and in what form? I think that what Beth Morrison does so beautifully is she says operas don’t need to be done at BAM or the Met. Operas can be done in all these cool venues. They can and should be done at the Met, and they should be done at BAM, but there are alternative homes that are even more exciting and more appropriate for certain pieces.

David [T. Little] also grew up with musical theater as a language that was really important to him. So you’ll see trinkets of more musical theater-y elements in Dog Days for instance, or in Vinkensport. Then there are moments in Du Yun’s Angel’s Bone that also have sort of musical theater-y things. I think that we’re using the best things about musical theater and the best things about opera and creating a middle ground. I also think that we’re extremely excited about the drama, about the theater of opera, so we are really trying to create dynamic works that feel alive, trying to define what opera in the 21st century is and what it’s going to be. I think that that’s a great opportunity for this community of artists that I work in. We get to put a flag in the ground and say this is what we want opera and musical theater to be going forward.

FJO: One of the problems with opera performance today is that most of what is performed in the big opera houses is very old repertoire. A lot of these works are great theater as well as great music, but I think the big opera houses promote the musical aspects over the dramatic ones, to the point that you see posters for Verdi’s La Traviata and the name of the librettist, Francesco Maria Piave, rarely gets mentioned. Same with La Bohème. Everyone thinks of Puccini, but who thinks about Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa? Lorenzo Da Ponte gets a little more credit for the operas he wrote with Mozart, but that’s probably because he is known for other reasons—like coming to America and founding the Italian department at Columbia. Whereas in musical theater history, Hammerstein is as famous as Rodgers, in terms of public awareness. So as someone who walked into the world of opera with a background in musical theater, do you feel like you’re an equal player and do you feel that audiences now have come to this position where they can see a work as being the creation of the composer as well as the librettist?

RV: I think that’s another example of how we are borrowing from musical theater where we understand that if the composer didn’t have a words person, they would be writing symphonies. Especially when you have a living librettist, it’s easier to understand that there are two or more people who have come together to create a work. Similarly, a lot of our work is being developed with strong dramaturgical hands—whether it be a dramaturge proper or a director who has very clear ideas as to how he or she wants to stage something.

Dog Days, for instance, was created in a room with Robert Woodruff, David, and myself. It felt very organic that the three of us came together to identify how that piece was going to be structured. We went through beat-by-beat to make sure that everything was sound and that we all had had a say as to how the work was going to unfold. With Breaking the Waves, we had two dramaturges in the room for our initial workshops and now we have a director named James Darrah, who is really hands-on and is guiding us in the most beautiful way and pushing us to try to make this project as theatrical and separate from the film—using the narrative of the film, but creating our own version of the story. So I think that is an example of how not only the librettist is an equal partner, but the librettist, composer, and the director often in my experience are really becoming this trifecta, creating initial productions that are the most dynamic manifestations of what the work needs to be.

FJO: To get back to musical theater, you were listening to cast albums before you ever actually saw a show on stage I imagine.

RV: My parents were really great about exposing me to the arts. My father played the piano, and was in a band with his siblings when they were high school age. So I did have access. I remember seeing Anne of Green Gables – The Musical when I was about five years old. We would go to the community theater, so I saw things like Marvin’s Room and Steel Magnolias. And I was in Oliver when I was ten, I believe, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and The Wizard of Oz.

But I was 20 the first time I came to New York and that was definitely the first time that I had the ability to see something that was professional. Although I did see a touring Les Miz. The first opera I saw when I was 18 at Opera de Montreal was the Cav/Pag double bill and that was sort of just mind blowing. That was also my first operatic CD. So that, especially Pagliacci, has such a huge place in my heart. Then, as a singer, I was doing a lot of competitive musical theater classes and stuff like that at the local music festival and the provincial music festivals. So I was learning about pieces not only through the cast albums but also through singing excerpts.

FJO: I find it amusing to hear you say that if composers didn’t have somebody writing words, they’d be writing symphonies.

RV: I understand that a lot of composers do come up with narratives for their non-narrative pieces—their non-vocal pieces. I don’t want to imply that a symphony doesn’t have a story, because I totally understand that that is not the case.

FJO: Yeah, but where I wanted to go with that is that one of the things I find interesting about the collaborations you have had with various composers is that you not only write operas with them, but you also create song cycles and other kinds of pieces that are intended for performance in concert halls. When you enter the concert hall, you really are entering a zone that is the composer’s domain even more so than in an opera house. I don’t know if people are trained to pay attention to the words as an equal component in those contexts at all. So I’m curious about how some of those projects evolved and what you feel your role is in those projects.

RV: My role is very similar. A lot of concert work is very narrative, so it seems like it’s extremely similar to writing an opera, although I don’t get to have people in costumes running around pretending to be men in dog suits or Gertrude Stein. Am I Born was a Brooklyn Philharmonic commission with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. That was something that was set up by Alan Pierson. He came to David T. Little and said he would love to commission something for what I believe was his first season with the Brooklyn Phil. He wanted it to be Brooklyn specific and, being a Brooklynite, that was a really exciting challenge. So we chose a painting that’s hanging in the Brooklyn Museum and decided we were going to try to bring that to life, to animate that through an oratorio. I structured it similarly to how I would an opera, trying to make it as varied as possible and to take the audience on a 30-minute journey. So while it is different, it really does feel like it is alive in the same way that an opera does.

FJO: Yes, but whereas folks in the new opera community can wrap their brains around the fact that Dog Days is by David T. Little and Royce Vavrek, can folks in the concert world do that with Am I Born? I imagine that most concert programs featuring Am I Born will probably list it as a work by David T. Little and your name will only appear somewhere in the program notes. But maybe it’s not that way.

RV: It’s generally a company thing. For instance, looking at how the LA Phil lists things, often it’s just the composer’s last name with a colon and the name of the piece. But I think that times are changing. It seems like it’s less and less difficult to convince people that the librettist or the lyricist is important. For instance, on the cover of the 27 CD, my name is right next to Ricky’s. And with the Hubble Cantata, my cantata with Paola Prestini, my name is right up there with the name of astrophysicist Mario Livio and the film maker Carmen Kordas, and Paola’s name of course.

It is true that with a concert work, it’s less easy. I guess the concert world is a particular animal; it is harder to become recognized for concert work. But I think that a lot of composers, a lot of my collaborators, understand my contribution and they fight for me. A lot of it comes down to that. It comes down to a composer saying, “This is a collaboration, a team effort, and my collaborator deserves to be mentioned.” Often we’re not even mentioned. So I do think the biggest turn is my contemporaries, my collaborators, my colleagues saying, we understand your contribution and we think that it needs to be honored at least in having your name printed.

FJO: Since you have a musical background and you said that the words come first most of the time, I’m wondering if there have been times after someone else has set your words to music that what the composer did clashes with what you thought it should sound like.

RV: My words, when I write them, do not have a musical idea attached to them, or at least very, very, very rarely. The musical idea will be more general, like I feel like this is a sad song or this a happy song or this is a song that accomplishes this narratively. I would never say that the music is wrong. I don’t even know what that means. If there is music that I just don’t connect with, that’s a bigger problem, but I haven’t ever come across that. I can’t even think of an example of a composer who’s let me down, or who has completely derailed my narrative ideas. I always find that my words are a container and the music is always additive. Or it always has been. I’ll let you know when that’s not the case.

FJO: That’s good. You’re lucky.

Royce Vavrek leaning against a graffiti strewn wall.

RV: It’s so hard to make a career, it really is. I don’t know how I made this career. I’m legitimately only writing libretti. Aside from doing a couple of classes at different universities and one-offs, I’m not working in any other capacity. I’m making no money besides from writing libretti and lyrics. But because it’s such a hard industry to navigate, especially financially, you’ve got to be very serious. You’ve got to be very, very thoughtful, and you’ve got to put the time in. These opportunities are gifts, truly.

We’re all working so hard and trying to use our voices to tell the best stories and make the best music possible; that’s the name of the game. I think that if you’re not contributing in that way, that’s where I might have difficulty. Like if it’s just sort of—I don’t want to say hobby, because I think making music as a hobby is a beautiful thing and I would encourage everyone to do that. But I do think that I work with people who are driven to really contribute to the form and to advance the form, and who do really cool things. We have that potential and, especially with these opportunities we have, it seems like we have this unlimited palette with which to create really dynamic stories.

FJO: So what about the reverse of the music being wrong; let’s flip the coin. Have you ever been in situations where you bring in a text and the composer turns around and says, “That’s not going to work; that’s not singable. I need something else there; this isn’t right.” What I’m after with this whole line of questioning is trying to get a sense of what the give and take is in the collaborative processes that you’re a part of.

RV: It’s not so much that particular words don’t sing, I don’t think. The English language is so eccentric and awesome and there are just so many juicy, amazing words. I’ve never had a composer come to me and say it doesn’t sing. I’ve had a composer say I’m having a hard time figuring it out dramatically or finding my way through it. I always think that there are one thousand ways that one can write a scene. So if that ever happens, I’m more than happy—oh my goodness, send me away and have me re-write. I will try to find another way that will get the best music from you. My principle job is to write exciting words that really ignite the imaginations of my collaborators. So if my words aren’t doing that for you, I’m going to do my damnedest to find other words that do. I can give you an example. The final aria in JFK is one big emotional outpouring before the end of the show. I had written a version of that aria and it sort of sat in the libretto for a good nine months, a year maybe. Then David finally got to it. He had worked all the way up to it, but he just couldn’t find a way to make that particular text work dramatically in that moment. So we worked together, talking about what that moment needed to be, and I think I re-wrote that aria two or three times. It’s infinitely better, and it feels so much more true to the dramatic pulse of that moment. So yeah, I’m so open to re-writing and trying to figure out how to make it work for the composer. Not that I want to concede the medium to the composer, but the music needs to be really, really great. So if I can do anything that will help create really, really exciting, awesome music, then I’m more than happy to oblige.

FJO: It’s interesting to hear you say that you go away and write another text. There’s this cliché—which is totally not true—about Broadway collaborators and how they were portrayed by Hollywood and by promo photos back in the day. I particularly remember a photo of Rodgers and Hammerstein, where Richard Rodgers is sitting at the piano and Oscar Hammerstein is writing words. But probably the reality is they worked separately and then they came together to work out things. For you, at least, it doesn’t seem like it’s ever been that kind of Mickey Rooney, let’s-put-on-a-show thing.

RV: Very rarely. Little edits can be done in the room. For instance, I was just in rehearsal for Angel’s Bone a couple days ago, and there was a section that we all decided needed to have some words replaced. That was something I sort of did on the fly. But I much prefer to go home and just have my time and allow for the words to manifest. I have not yet had the experience where I’ve sat in a room with a composer while they were plunking out melodies and saying, “Does this work?” That seems like more of a musical theater thing. With opera there are so many more moving parts, so it often seems like the composer and I want our time to go away to sort of messy things up—you know, so you can tear things apart and put them back together. But, just to be very good about honoring people’s time, it might not be the best usage of time to sort of sit and pray that something comes out between the two of you. It just seems much easier to go away and make your work.

FJO: So the process of making your work—where and when does all of this stuff take place?

RV: I like to sit on the couch and write, but I really like to get out of town. My Breaking the Waves libretto was written at home in Canada. I went home for three weeks and sat in my mother’s house and watched the Olympics. It was right around the time that the Olympics were going on. So that was my time to enjoy that and get a full draft of Breaking the Waves. JFK was written in this house. For 27 I went up to my dramaturge’s house, up in Hudson, and had a really good draft of that, but I had a week where I didn’t leave the confines of the house. I would just write new scenes, and he would sit there and take me through every line and make sure that all my “I”s were dotted and “T”s were crossed. More and more, I’m really loving the exodus from New York to get work done. That being said, a lot of work has to happen here. It seems like there’s just so much time that is spent away from home. You tend to want to really make the time count when you’re here. I’m here for January. Then I have to go to Germany for the new production of Dog Days. I’m in Fort Worth for JFK; I’m in Philly for Breaking the Waves. The big thing for me is that there are just so many events that happen in New York. I’m working with so many people. I love the work of all of my collaborators and contemporaries and colleagues. So it’s important for me to be a part of that. But that also means that a lot of writing time is gobbled up by events. It is really great to go away and have that time and to be sort of not within the machine that is the New York classical music community, because you want to participate so much. I’m understanding more fully why residencies are so important and why people find that going up to MacDowell, closing that door and having weeks of uninterrupted art creation time, is so beneficial.

FJO: But you can create a libretto while watching the Olympics?

RV: Well, I did not do it at the same time.

FJO: I know several composers who write music while watching television. I don’t get it.

RV: If I did do that, I wouldn’t be watching the TV—it would just be background noise, which I’m guessing would probably be the same thing for those composers. But I don’t have that type of brain that allows me to do two things at once. I cannot split my attention. I love audio books, but I couldn’t listen to an audio book and retain what’s coming in and be able to make coherent thoughts on the page.

FJO: Can you listen to a symphony while writing?

RV: It would all be sort of peripheral, background.

FJO: So silence is the best?

RV: It’s not necessarily the best, but for me listening means you’re actually taking that information in. If I were to listen to a symphony and write, it would just be sort of a blanket of sound behind my process and I wouldn’t really be retaining any of that musical information.

FJO: Or your phrases would wind up being the same phrases of that symphony.

RV: Yeah.

FJO: Then you would have music in your head that went with your words that would not be the same as the music of your collaborator.

RV: I certainly do listen to music while I write, but there are moments when I’m just like aargh, this is overload! I have to turn it off, and I’ll have significant silent writing time. I think my ideal writing situation would be pretty much silence somewhere that’s cloistered to a great extent.

FJO: To follow up on what you just said about listening: you follow the work of your collaborators, and you mentioned the first opera CD you got was Cav/Pag, and I see there’s a Janis Joplin poster here in your apartment. I’m wondering, how much time do you devote to listening to music that is separate and apart from your collaborations, and how does that listening then become fuel for your own creativity?

RV: I listen to so much music. And I watch as many movies as possible, and I do watch a lot of TV. I love taking things in, so that is an extremely important part of my life. I do think that every story you encounter and every piece of work that you even begin to understand becomes part of you, and you carry that. They become lessons.

I was given the opportunity to write about a particular poet that had really informed my work in some way. The poet that I chose was a singer-songwriter named Kathleen Edwards. She has lyrics that I encountered when I was in grad school that completely blew my mind and in some ways have informed my work more than any librettist. My narrative sensibility I think comes from being reared on Lars Von Trier, Neil LaBute, and Wong Kar-wai. I’m able to not mimic them, by any stretch of the imagination, but to allow their ideas to be tools or methods with which to explore my own ideas. I just encountered Benjamin Clementine for the first time. He won the Mercury Prize last week. I’m sure that my work will in some way benefit from, or will be informed by, just this absolute consuming musical world that is swirling around my head right now based on my insistence to continue going through Benjamin’s work.

FJO: And reading?

RV: Oh, my gosh. I read so, so, so much. There are so many people that read more than me, but I feel healthier when I read. I really, really, really do. And I’ve been exploring audio books a lot. I love lying in bed and just listening to hours on end of audio books. It’s impossible for me to read these days and not wonder how I would adapt those works into an opera or music theater form. There’s always something about, well, how would I do that?

Even going to the cinema, there’s something about wanting to be in dialogue and how I would approach this particular narrative. Going back to reading, I read a lot based on books that people recommend because they may want to tackle them in some sort of opera or musical way. But I’m always looking for interesting languages and how people tell stories just for my general narrative health.

FJO: I’m also curious about your intake of visual art. You mentioned the painting at the Brooklyn Museum that inspired Am I Born, and while we were setting up the recording equipment you talked about this photograph behind you that is by the subject of your musical.

RV: Visual art has informed so many of my projects. Thinking about 27, my opera with Ricky Ian Gordon that was commissioned by Opera Theater of St. Louis and premiered in 2014, that piece was all about the art that hung in Gertrude and Alice’s apartment at 27 Rue de Fleurus. In JFK, my opera with David T. Little that was commissioned by Fort Worth Opera and American Lyric Theater, similarly there is an amazing story where there was this woman Ruth Carter Stevenson who knew that Jack and Jackie were only going to have a very limited window in Fort Worth. She decided that because they wouldn’t have time to go to the museums there, that she would bring the museums to them. So she went around and collected a really great sample of the works that were held in Fort Worth and put them all up in their hotel room. Right before the breakfast meeting, Jackie was about ten minutes late, and some people have this theory that she realized that the art on the walls was real—all the paintings and sculptures. The Picasso owl was real. And she was arrested for those ten minutes and that caused her lateness, which is kind of amazing, and this is embedded into the opera. The art becomes these portals into dreams.

So JFK, 27, Am I Born, and the music I’m writing with Ted Shen about Vivian Maier, who was a Chicago street photographer in the mid-20th century. She worked as a nanny and took a lot of pictures of children, but she would also just go to downtown Chicago and New York and take street photos. She certainly was not a famous woman by any stretch of the imagination and she died in obscurity. A young man named John Malouf bought a lot of her negatives in an auction and realized that they were extremely special. He put them online and was encouraged to take those photos offline because they were just so awesome. We are creating a piece that celebrates the mystery of this woman. We don’t really know why she took so many pictures and then didn’t develop them. She was sort of—I wouldn’t say an anti-artist, but she was compelled to take these photographs but then was not really compelled to complete the photographic process, which is really, really cool. Here’s a woman who was taking selfies. Most of her portraits that are so truly beloved are these auto-portraits.

Royce Vavrek on the sidewalk leaning against a metal grating.

FJO: The first work of yours that I saw on a stage was Dog Days, and while I found it totally compelling, I also thought that it was really creepy and really dark—extremely disturbing. You seem like a sunny person. What attracted you to something so grim?

RV: Dog Days was based on a short story by Judy Budnitz that was a little sunnier than our treatment. It was set in the ‘80s, so the Cold War was still on. The foundation of that piece was very much Judy’s, but then it was sort of amplified and heightened and we made it a little bit more grim in concert with Robert Woodruff, the director. But we didn’t set out to write a grim piece. And there are moments of levity and lightness, too, that I think are really funny. It is a hard piece. It’s a heavy piece. I totally understand that. But I also think there’s great life, especially in the Lisa character. I’m writing Breaking the Waves with Missy Mazzoli, which is similarly a rather dark, heavy work. Because of my being reared on international cinema of the late-‘90s and early-2000s, those stories have always spoken to me. There’s always been this desire to tell serious stories about the human condition. Look at Angel’s Bone. That’s not fun and frothy. But also I love comedy, so thinking of David, Vinkensport or The Finch Opera is as frothy and fun as they come. But even that ends with a twist where the final aria is this outpouring of emotion from this one particular character who is releasing his finch and is basically thanking him for years of companionship. So it’s not that I’m not interested in comedy. I haven’t made a concerted decision to tell grim tales, although opera does have the potential to tell those stories in a really, really dynamic and full way. I think that that’s why our artistic impulses often lead us to darker stories. But I think that you’re going to see a lot of comedy, God willing, from me throughout my career.

FJO: Well, definitely not in JFK.

RV: Not JFK, although what David and I have been talking a lot about is our desire for audiences leaving JFK to be grateful and to maybe hug loved ones just a little bit tighter that evening, to understand that life is precious. It doesn’t end with his assassination; it ends with him leaving the hotel. We don’t see the tragedy, but his leaving the hotel is taking him to Dallas, so there is that sense of doom. And the soundscape that David has come up with is extremely varied and there’s something very ominous, especially after the intermission. It really feels like something very monumental is going to happen. The fates are aligning.

FJO: I didn’t realize that the audience never sees his assassination and only gets the hint through what the orchestra is playing when he leaves the hotel. It’s reminiscent to me of what I think is one of the most effective moments in Dog Days—the end where the mother is on the table and there’s a slowly building wall of noise that just blows out your ears by the end. It’s the most intense thing. You never really see what you know is happening, but you know it’s happened. All this stuff is going on, but curiously—and I want to bring this up to you as the librettist—it was all done without words.

RV: But if you look at the libretto for that moment, there is a very particular stage direction. So it’s done with words, but just not sung words. And she does sort of wail a little bit. And she snivels, and she pees. Right?

FJO: In terms of the collaborative process, how did a moment like that get decided upon and who decided it?

RV: The three of us. Judy’s story ends with the dog being shot and eaten. In the dramaturgical sessions that we had with Robert, I remember very clearly he said, “But what happens next?” That was the mind-shattering moment. There were these images that Robert brought up, I believe, about just seeing lions having eaten. I see lions, and I see an act of ablution, and then we went home. We went our separate ways. I came up with sort of the just the general idea, but we didn’t find the washing of the mother with urine until—that was Robert in rehearsal. In the libretto, it talks about how she performs, or she gathers snow and washes her mother’s body. But we decided that water was gone at that point. So what is she going to wash her mother’s body with? In this scenario where there’s nothing, that was very much a directorial find.

I remember reading the stage management report and being like, “Oh, my goodness. What is going on at rehearsal?” I tend to leave rehearsals to the singers and the director and the team for the first few days at least. I like everybody to get their bearings before the writers tromp in. So I was like, “I don’t really know what this is; this seems really wild.” But it is one of the most beautifully heartbreaking moments that I’ve had a hand in creating. I’m so proud of what the whole team came to create in that moment.

FJO: In terms of the hands-on/hands-off thing, you’re traveling around the world. You’ve got productions happening here in New York in January and then in Germany and Texas, all over the place. It’s going to get to the point where you probably can’t be at all of these things. Hopefully there’ll be productions of these works all the time. It’s interesting to hear you say that you wait a little while before you come in. What about the process of letting go?

RV: Oh, I’m so excited for that. I’m finally at the stage of my career where we do have projects that are taking on a life of their own. Dog Days will come full circle. We’re bringing it back to New York as part of the Protoype Festival in January ‘16, alongside the world premiere of Angel’s Bone. But Dog Days after January will have its first new production [in Germany]. So David T. Little is going over and is going to have about a week with them during rehearsals. I’m going to come for opening night. There is something really beautiful in that we feel like we have created the version that we need to oversee. We’ve created one version that was very much hands-on; we were in the room. We worked with Robert to create the production that began at Montclair Peak Performances, then went to Fort Worth Opera and LA Opera, and is coming to Prototype. What we’ve created is a roadmap that is intended to be interpreted in as many ways as possible. So I think that the most exciting thing at this juncture in the life of Dog Days is that it’s open now. We don’t need to be hands-on. We can let other people come up with ideas that will inform the work in ways that we didn’t even imagine.

FJO: And you’re happy with that?

RV: Yes, because in order to make a living and to make a career in the operatic world, your work needs to be done. And I am obsessed and addicted to creating new work. So I need to be able to allow my earlier work to be interpreted in such a way that I can go make new operas with David T. Little and Missy Mazzoli and Ricky Ian Gordon and Du Yun and Josh Schmitt and Matt Marks and all these fabulous people. Missy Mazzoli did say at one point that you’ve just got to hope to God that opening nights don’t happen on the same night. Especially when I’m working on so many different projects, invariably there are going to be things that overlap. But you do your work, and you attend whatever needs your love and attendance. And you hope that everything just sort of fits.