Tag: crossover

Nathalie Joachim: Stepping Into My Own Identity

Nathalie Joachim

It’s hard to believe that our sit-down talk with composer, flutist, and vocalist Nathalie Joachim was a mere 23 days ago. So much has changed in the world for everyone. I imagine that many of us have now spent weeks sheltering in place—if we have been lucky—in our own homes with no foreseeable end in sight in order to protect ourselves and each other from the further spread of a deadly pandemic that has already claimed thousands of lives around the globe.

But I have to remain confident and believe that Nathalie’s exuberant, forward-looking attitude about music-making and her inspiring comments about how she came to follow her creative path still represent our collective future. It’s something I believed about her music the first time I encountered the debut album of Flutronix, her duo with Allison Loggins-Hull, nearly a decade ago which I then described as “a strong case for a post-stylistic, post all-powerful-single-auteur-driven music, one that allows multiple voices to share in the shaping of a music that is equally indebted to and comfortable in several musical lineages.”

At that time, and in fact until our conversation on March 7, I had no idea how Nathalie and Allison met or how they decided to make music together. It was fascinating to find out that they actually discovered each other via MySpace and that when they finally met in person they immediately decided to collaborate.

“So that day Flutronix was born,” Nathalie remembered. “Our rapport with one another was super natural. Not supernatural, but it was very natural! We just sort of hit it off. Sometimes you just meet your people and you know. And Allison was that for me. We just shared that instinct. Immediately we were like, ‘Alright, well there’s no music for two flutes and electronics or two flutes and beats. Who’s writing that music?’ Right away, we were like: ‘Alright, we better get to work, because if we’re going to play some concerts, we need some music to play.’ We started writing music right away.”

It was a sea-change from Nathalie’s experience as a classical flutist studying at Juilliard.

“If you’re a performer, it becomes a little bit harder for you to engage as a composer at this school,” she explained. “That wasn’t something that I could do within the curriculum, because I would have had to formally audition to do that. And up to that point, it had never even occurred to me to call myself a composer, even though I was experimenting with writing music. I had a deep interest in exploring different styles. I was doing a lot of song writing with my grandmother, but unless I could formally present someone with a score of mine, I just wasn’t going to be studying composition at that school, at that level. Not to mention the fact that the people who claimed that title of composer did not look like me, did not live like me, and did not write the music that was coming into my brain.”

Still, she concedes that her time at Juilliard, which began in her childhood as a student in the Music Advancement Program through the Pre-Collegiate Program and progressed through her undergrad years, has provided her foundation as a musician. No matter what genre of music she finds herself involved with (or, more to the point, what genre other people might assign to her), she acknowledged that her in-depth study of classical music “informs my understanding of every other musical style that I engage in.”

In fact, she confessed that at one point in her career an internal “obligation … to the classical world” she was feeling led her to question whether the music she was engaged in was “serious” enough. At the same time these thoughts were tugging at her, she received an email out of the blue from Lisa Kaplan from Eighth Blackbird asking her if she’d be interested in auditioning to be a member of that celebrated contemporary music ensemble. Although she was just beginning to receive commissions to compose works for other musicians and Flutronix continued to be an important focus in her musical life, she auditioned, got the gig, and moved to Chicago.

“It was an incredible experience,” she said. “But for me it was very challenging. … I was the only one who came to the group with this kind of band identity with Flutronix, if we’ll call it that. My sort of alter ego. And I’ve got this composition work that’s starting to brew and I come with this different music education background, but I also was so challenged right away with touring; you kick up with what that schedule is. Everybody else in the group, when we weren’t on tour, they were home with their families, taking a rest. Not that anyone’s taking it easy in that group, but I was just fitting in these other parts of my career in the midst of that. So I was ridiculously busy. I almost was never at home when everyone else was at home. I was really working constantly around the clock to succeed in all of these other ways. I think I didn’t realize how much everything else would take off at the same time that I joined the group.”

During her last two years with 8bb, Nathalie began developing Famn d’Ayiti, her most significant musical undertaking to date. A celebration of her Haitian heritage, this song-cycle cum sonic documentary cum concept album ties together multiple strains of her composite musical identity, merging her classical training, her singing traditional folksongs with her grandmother, and even her early explorations of audio production and sound design. It received rave review from “classical” music critics and even managed to fetch a Grammy nomination in the “World Music” category.

“It was interesting to have ended up in a category that I think no one else saw me popping up in,” she admitted. “I’m committed at this point in my life to making music that is true to me. And so I’m happy for it fall into whatever box it needs to.”

  • Not to date myself, but I happened to be on MySpace when I was in my first year of grad school at the New School.

    Nathalie Joachim
    Nathalie Joachim
  • There’s no book that you’ve read and there’s no piece that gets printed in the newspaper that doesn’t also have an editorial eye that’s not the writer’s.

    Nathalie Joachim
    Nathalie Joachim
  • I was allowed go to Tower Records and to Ollie’s, which used to be an old Chinese restaurant, and Barnes and Noble.

    Nathalie Joachim
    Nathalie Joachim
  • When I first arrived at Juilliard, I knew very clearly in my mind that I did not want to be an orchestral musician.

    Nathalie Joachim
    Nathalie Joachim
  • The people who claimed that title of composer did not look like me, did not live like me, and did not write the music that was coming into my brain.

    Nathalie Joachim
    Nathalie Joachim
  • My family in Haiti was often like: It’s strange that anybody even pays you to make music. We all make music. Everybody makes music. That can’t actually be your job. It’s just who we are.

    Nathalie Joachim
    Nathalie Joachim
  • We felt it was important for us to lean into more of a commercial side or pop side of what we were doing, because at that time we were still getting this questioning eye from classical corners.

    Nathalie Joachim
    Nathalie Joachim
  • I had this piece of my brain tugging at me that’s like: Are you a serious musician still?... Right at that moment, in my inbox comes this email from Lisa Kaplan of Eighth Blackbird asking me to audition...

    Nathalie Joachim
    Nathalie Joachim
  • I gained a lot of respect for composers.... What piqued my interest most was this opportunity to engage with other artists in a different way.

    Nathalie Joachim
    Nathalie Joachim
  • It’s not really about the finished product. The premiere of the work is the beginning of the life of the work.

    Nathalie Joachim
    Nathalie Joachim
  • In America we seem to be absurdly attached to needing something to fit into a box.

    Nathalie Joachim
    Nathalie Joachim
  • So much of my career has been spent in classical music, so it was interesting to have ended up in a category that I think no one else saw me popping up in.

    Nathalie Joachim
    Nathalie Joachim

Towards the end of our hour with Nathalie, we talked about what was to be the next live performance of Famn d’Ayiti at the extraordinary Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, where she was also scheduled to appear on a panel about defying genre, organized and moderated by New Music USA’s own Vanessa Reed. Obviously neither of those events happened, since the 2020 Big Ears Festival was one of the many casualties of the waves of cancellations that hit the performing arts community in the past few weeks. Nevertheless, we decided to include that part of the conversation after a section break at the very end of this transcript to reflect on what might have been and what we must continue to hope will be again after we get past the current hiatus in all of our lives.

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.

Michael Jackson-Themed Orchestra Piece Wins ASCAP Nissim Prize

Vincent Calianno sitting at a desk and staring at a large orchestral score manuscript.

Vincent Calianno

Vincent Calianno has been awarded the 36th annual ASCAP Foundation Rudolf Nissim Prize for The Facts and Dreams of the World According to Michael Jackson, a 12-minute work for orchestra. Selected by a panel of conductors from among 170 entries, the Brooklyn-based Calianno will receive a prize of $5,000. The jury also awarded Special Distinction to Matthew Browne of Ann Arbor, Michigan, for Kill Screen, a 5-minute work for wind ensemble.

In his program notes for this year’s Nissim Prize-winning piece, Calianno wrote, “The Facts and Dreams of the World According to Michael Jackson is a set of four proverbs (aphorisms, cautionary tales, apothegms) for orchestra. Conceptually, the germ of the piece comes from a dream I had some time ago: In my dream, a terminally ill Michael Jackson commissions an architect to construct a large mausoleum with gardens and galleries within its complex labyrinthine interior. This piece neither celebrates nor lampoons the real Michael Jackson’s public persona or music, but nonetheless reflects upon the gifts, experiences, and wisdom we leave behind to our loved ones when we are laid in the earth.” (An audio recording of the piece can be streamed here.)

Calianno has a diverse catalog that includes opera, large ensemble works, chamber, and electroacoustic music, as well as video works. His long-standing interest in visual media has led him to compose music for short and feature-length films and the silent cinema, as well as for his own film and media work. Recent compositions include When I Dream, Some Letters Fall Out Of My Mouth To Make a Word, which was premiered by the International Contemporary Ensemble, and Bone Chinoiserie and the Alabastard Cowboy for Ensemble 39. Other performers who have commissioned and performed his music include The New York Miniaturist Ensemble, Artifact, The Oberlin Contemporary Music Ensemble, The UIUC New Music Ensemble, The University of Illinois Symphony Orchestra, and The Greater Buffalo Youth Orchestra, as well as members of the JACK Quartet, eighth blackbird, and Callithumpian. His media and silent cinema works have been exhibited and performed at such venues as The Banff Centre (Canada), Huddersfield University (U.K.), National Taiwan Normal University (Taiwan), The Juilliard School, and Merkin Concert Hall (NYC). Calianno was a 2015 participant in the ASCAP Foundation Columbia University Film Scoring Workshop.

The judges for this year’s Nissim Prize were: Gemma New, music director of the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra in Ontario, Canada, associate conductor of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra, principal conductor of the Camerata Notturna, and director of the Lunar Ensemble; Gerard Schwarz, music director of the All-Star Orchestra, music director of the Eastern Music Festival in North Carolina, and Jack Benaroya Conductor Laureate of the Seattle Symphony; and Diane Wittry, music director of the Allentown Symphony (PA), artistic director and conductor of the Ridgewood Symphony (NJ), artistic director (USA) for the International Cultural Exchange Program for Classical Musicians through the Sarajevo Philharmonic (Bosnia), and artistic director for Pizazz Music and the Pizzaz Symphony Orchestra.

Dr. Rudolf Nissim, former head of ASCAP’s International Department and a devoted friend of contemporary composers, established this annual prize through a bequest to The ASCAP Foundation. The prize is presented annually to an ASCAP concert composer for a work requiring a conductor that has not been performed professionally.

Hindustani Music: Cultural Collisions (and Washing Machines)

sequence of old Coinslot washing machines

Photo by Brad Perkins (via Flickr

My apartment in India had three balconies, one for each bedroom in the house. The back balcony, which could only be entered through a single door from its accompanying bedroom, housed the washing machine we all used. When I washed my clothes, I would quickly shuffle through my roommate’s bedroom out to the balcony, mindful not to linger, and I would return when I was absolutely sure the cycle was over so as not to continually disturb her. One day, many months later, my roommate offhandedly asked me, “Don’t you love that little song the washing machine plays when it’s done?” I had no idea what she was talking about—I had never been there to hear it. So the next time the washing machine stopped, we listened.

To my great astonishment, the song was “Die Forelle.” On our balcony, in South Delhi, there was a single machine that both played the music of Franz Schubert and had a special setting for washing saris. I was completely flabbergasted. How did this Indian appliance company decide to use an iconic German art song to signal the end of a spin cycle on its washing machines?


Incidents like this fascinate me endlessly. These unlikely collisions between the two musical cultures I inhabit bring up so many questions for me about musical perception: What do people from one musical culture hear in the music of another culture? What makes a particular piece of music resonate with someone who is not familiar with its tradition or context? What features of the music are most prominent to someone from another musical culture, and how different are those from the features that are prominent to someone within the musical culture? More broadly, how much of our aesthetic association with specific music comes from repetition and reinforcement within our musical culture, and how much is simply hard-wired into us as humans? While I certainly don’t have answers to these questions, I am deeply curious about them.

There have definitely been multiple attempts, both in Hindustani and Western musical culture, to match musical gestures with codified aesthetic profiles. The Doctrine of Affections (Affektenlehre), an early baroque theory most clearly described by musicologist Johann Mattheson (1681-1764), uses ancient rhetorical gestures as a basis for portraying specific emotions and moods in Baroque music. Wagner’s leitmotifs also often aim to codify and shape the sonic experience by creating a specific association with an extra-musical element, whether a character or a more abstract mood, a technique that has since been appropriated in Western film music. In Hindustani music, the theory of rasa, which originates from ancient Indian dramatic practices, outlines nine emotional states which serve as the basis for Indian musical aesthetics. Additionally, the time theory of raag dictates a specific time of day each raag can suitably be performed, determined by the accidentals (in Western terms) of the notes it contains. However, none of these theories can fully circumscribe aesthetic practice in the music, nor are they appropriated ubiquitously, even during a specific time period or location; their scope is limited. To this day, neither Hindustani nor Western art music has a comprehensive aesthetic doctrine that underpins its music entirely.

Even if there are no explicit aesthetic rules that dictate exact musical choices in either culture, it is undeniable that each music still has distinctive ways of painting a particular aesthetic picture which is instantly recognizable to people within that cultural context. While it is fascinating to examine what those methods are within each musical culture, it has been even more fascinating, for me, to compare aesthetic depictions inter-culturally. There are certainly techniques that have similar aesthetic effects across cultures. (I know exactly what you’re wondering, so I will say that, to the best of my knowledge, raags with a lowered 3rd are generally considered more melancholy than raags with a natural 3rd [2].) And there are certainly subjects that are portrayed similarly in both cultures. But even more telling are the points where the aesthetic portrayals of a subject are vastly divergent.
One of the most striking examples of aesthetic divergence I’ve found is in the portrayal of the season of spring. For most Western musicians, the very mention of the word might call up Vivaldi’s “Spring” from The Four Seasons, or Beethoven’s Spring Sonata—the ambient sounds of chirping birds and babbling brooks, portrayed onomatopoeically through music, have a long and established association with the season. (Even Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, which has a very different aesthetic profile, could be considered to be more about the Rite than about the Spring.)

In Hindustani music, the hearkening of spring is portrayed by Raag Basant. The word basant (buh-SUNTH) literally means “spring” in Hindi, and it is one of the main raags that represents the season. Take a listen to how Basant sounds:


Below is the aroha/avaroha (ascent and descent) of the raag [1]. It ascends rapidly, beginning on a #4, and proceeding to a b6 and a high b2 before sinking into the tonic note. The descent is much windier than that ascent, and only after reaching the lower tonic does it reach back up to the natural 4th for a fleeting moment before returning to the #4, which precipitates the final descent.
Music notation for Raag Basant
The first time I heard the raag, I was completely confused by its aesthetic. It didn’t align with any part of my conception of the typical Western portrayal of spring. I just couldn’t connect the two perceptions of the same phenomenon in my mind. While the Western perception of spring is light and airy, the Hindustani perception felt dark and sinewy. If the Western spring was painted in pastels, the Hindustani spring was painted in cool, bold colors. Are these aesthetic profiles addressing two different views on the same season, or is the perception and, consequently, the musical representation of the same natural phenomenon just completely different in each culture? While years of pondering this question have certainly led me to formulate my own theories, I still have more questions than I have answers.

Like most people who speak multiple languages, I often find that the way I most want to express a thought uses words that are in a different language than the one I’m currently speaking. I feel this musically, too. This is why I love moments of cultural collision, like the incident with the washing machine. One little sliver of a different culture can be embedded seamlessly in the fabric of another. But that little sliver can also be a window, slightly ajar, begging to be opened. How I wish the Indian women washing saris on their balconies knew that they were listening to the digitized version of a beautiful Schubert art song. I wish people who sing the Bollywood song “Itna na Mujhse Tu Pyaar Badha” knew the tune at its inception, as the melody to Mozart’s 40th Symphony. (See below, and lest you think it’s just a melodic coincidence, listen until 0:49—besides the final augmented 6th, it’s all there!)


In my own music, I aim to leave the windows cracked open in the other direction by embedding little snippets I love from the raags of Hindustani music, particular phrases that I find strikingly beautiful and unique. While those phrases certainly can’t capture the entire breadth and depth of the culture, I hope that they will give Western audiences a little taste of the musical culture and will leave them wanting to explore it further.

Exploring these different methods of aesthetic expression across cultures can only increase our expressive palette as musicians. It can offer us opportunities to engage with another culture through its unique musical depictions, and it can also allow us to explore a wider range of methods of aesthetic expression, to increase our repertoire of ways of knowing [3].

*

1. This is as close to an ascending and descending scale as a raag gets.
2. There are, however, raags that have both lowered and raised 3rds, which I think brings about a whole other aesthetic in Hindustani music. I would be curious to see how these raags are felt in an exclusively Western context.
3. This last phrase, “repertoire of ways of knowing” is not my own. It was coined by Dr. Peter Rojcewicz, who specializes in holistic education and was a humanities professor at Juilliard when I studied there in the early 2000s.

Pablo Ziegler: Making the Music Dance


A conversation in Ziegler’s Brooklyn apartment
June 13, 2014—11 a.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Tracing the origins of tango is nearly as impossible as tracing the origins of jazz or determining the earliest string quartet. Claimed as a national tradition by both Argentina and Uruguay, even its most prominent early musical exponent, Carlos Gardel, purported to be from each of these countries at different times in his life. But now, tango—which was named a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2009 as the result of a joint proposal by these two nations—belongs to the whole world. Musicians from Finland to Japan compose and perform music in this genre, putting their own spins on it; some have even mixed tango with electronica and DJs.

Photo of Piazzolla's Second Quintet standing

Astor Piazzolla with his Second Quintet at their 1978 début in the Auditorium de Buenos Aires. Pictured left to right: Oscar Lopez Ruiz, Héctor Console, Pablo Ziegler, Piazzolla, and Fernando Suarez Paz. Photo courtesy Pablo Ziegler.

Although the origin of tango itself remains elusive, tango as a global phenomenon that incorporates and absorbs a broad range of influences can be attributed to the vision of the eclectic Argentinian composer and band leader Astor Piazzolla (1921-1992). Piazzolla, who fell in love with jazz during his teenage years in New York City, began incorporating saxophones and electric guitars into his music in the 1950s. A student of Alberto Ginastera and Nadia Boulanger, he also composed tango-based works for chamber ensembles and symphony orchestra, as well as for more than three dozen films. Considered an avant-garde radical at first, Piazzolla went on to become an international sensation, and since his death his compositions have become extremely popular among classical instrumentalists. The results have been extremely mixed since the performance practice of this music goes far beyond just reading the notes on the page. For over twenty years, the person who has been the de facto source for the interpretation of Piazzolla’s music has been Pablo Ziegler, who served as the pianist in Piazzolla’s final quintet for over a decade and appeared on such seminal albums as Tango: Zero Hour, Tristezas de un Doble A, and La Camorra.
An important composer of nuevo tango in his own right, Ziegler, who now lives in Brooklyn but is constantly traveling to perform all over the planet, has a particularly strong affinity for improvisation. No two performances of his music are ever the same and he is constantly reworking and re-arranging his compositions even as he writes new ones. He encourages musicians to find their own voice whether he’s working with jazz greats like Regina Carter, Stefon Harris, Joe Lovano, Branford Marsalis, and Paquito D’Rivera or performing his arrangements with classical musicians such as Emmanuel Ax, Christopher O’Riley, Orpheus, or the members of the Wellington Chamber Orchestra, who he had just played with in New Zealand when we spoke with him. For Ziegler, having more freedom makes the music more exciting:

I always tell musicians: You’re free to change whatever you like. I can give you some examples of the way to phrase, but if you feel something different, just play. Probably it’s fantastic. That’s one of the ways that I’m learning also from the musicians, too. Sometimes they’re playing and I like it that way. It’s a very open way to play music. If I bring some Beethoven piano concerto, everybody knows the way to play that kind of music, which is very strict. But with this music, we have to feel it and do something different. I’m giving them that chance.

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Frank J. Oteri: One of the ways you explore variety in your music is that you lead at least five different groups.
Pablo Ziegler: Probably more than that. Now I discovered another group in Wellington, New Zealand. I was playing with a chamber orchestra there just a couple of weeks ago and the leaders, the string leaders, play together as a string quartet and they know my music very well. But after a rehearsal one night, I went to some club where there’s an amazing guy playing accordion. For that reason, I invited him to play one tune, “Oblivion,” [with us] for an encore. He’s an incredible musician and has very good taste. Usually I play with bandoneón, which is what Piazzolla played. But no matter what instrument you play, if you have good taste, you make everything sound beautiful. That is the person that we are always looking for.
FJO: In one of your groups you feature a cello; another one has electric guitar and drums.
PZ: Yes. And in October in Japan [my group will be] a classical piano trio with piano, violin, and cello; that’s it. I’m very excited about all these combinations because I came from the classical world but, at the same time, from the jazz world.

Photo of young Ziegler playing white grand piano

Ziegler performing a classical concert at the age of 15 in the Ciudad de Caseros Concert Hall in Buenos Aires, 1959. Photo courtesy Pablo Ziegler.

I was studying in the music conservatory for ten years. I got my degree from there. I suppose, after that, I was preparing for a classical piano career, going to competitions. But suddenly I discovered jazz music and, at the age of 15, I started to play jazz. So I said bye-bye to classical competition and whatever.
Now I’m very happy that happened to me, because I could play in different ways. I think of all those classical piano players, competing [over] who is playing “La Campañera” or “The [Flight of the] Bumblebee” the fastest, repeating the same program for years. I was interested in jazz and then in composition, so I became a kind of crossover guy in between tango music, jazz music, and classical music.

Photo of Ziegler peering at a score

Ziegler looks at one of his scores. Photo by Molly Sheridan.

FJO: Your career path was somewhat unusual. You were already relatively established as a composer—you had written scores for films and television—when you became the pianist in Astor Piazzolla’s quintet. You were successful in your own right, but you wound up becoming a sideman in someone else’s group and you did that for more than a decade.
PZ: Yeah, it was a lot. Astor Piazzolla was a genius—not only as a composer, but also as a bandoneón player. Incredible. I remember all my ten years playing with Piazzolla in Europe, since the very first time in 1979 through 1988. Whenever we went to Europe and played in a new town, we were a little afraid since this is contemporary tango. But, year by year, that music became very, very hot.
I was composing before I was playing with him, but Piazzolla changed my mind in the way to compose, about your country and your experience, not composing a kind of universal music with no roots. But after Piazzolla, when I started to compose new music, I was thinking of my life and my memories, the happiness or sad moments that I had in Buenos Aires.
After Piazzolla dissolved the quintet, I created my own group without bandoneón, a quartet with piano, bass, guitar, and drums—like a jazz quartet. And I was composing new tango compositions for that quartet. My idea was that if I played with bandoneón, it would have to be someone who played with me only as a guest. But when Piazzolla died, the Argentine embassy, that was supporting a world-wide tour, said I had to have a bandoneón for Piazzolla’s pieces. That was a step back for me. When Piazzolla died, he became very famous worldwide, especially in the classical world.

Photo of Ziegler's original quartet

Pablo Ziegler’s New Tango Quartet in 1989: Horacio Lopez (percussion), Ziegler (piano), Quique Sinesi (guitar), and Oscar Giunta (bass). Photo courtesy Pablo Ziegler.

FJO: That’s what always happens. In classical music, when you die you’re famous, but rarely when you’re alive. And now every classical player wants to play his music.
PZ: You’re right. Finally this music went more to the classical side than the jazz side, which is why I’m now creating more music for these kinds of classical groups—piano trio, string quartet with piano. But I really like to improvise in all my groups. Even with the guys in the classical world, it’s one of the fresh elements that you can add to this music.
FJO: You’ve actually worked with quite a few really important jazz players, too. You’ve performed with Branford Marsalis, Paquito D’Rivera, and Joe Lovano—
PZ: Many times with Regina Carter; she fits fantastic with that. The blend that we have with her! And she loves to play.
FJO: Last year I heard you with Stefon Harris.
PZ: He’s tremendous.
FJO: You said that any musician, if they play tastefully, can perform this music. Are there instruments that don’t work for tango? Could a brass quintet play tango?

CD Cover for Ziegler's Amsterdam Meets New Tango

Amsterdam Meets New Tango, Pablo Ziegler’s CD with the Metropole Orkest, released in 2013 by Zoho Music.

PZ: Everything can work. If I can write a very good arrangement, then everything happens. One of my last CDs was with the Metropole Orchestra. It’s kind of crazy crossover between my music and jazz. I was very happy to have that CD in my career with that beautiful orchestra.
FJO: The first track on that disc, “Buenos Aires Report,” is really on the edge; it’s perhaps even more intense than the performance you’ve done of it with your smaller groups.
PZ: Yeah, yeah. It’s intense. I was working with a jazz arranger for that who usually works with the Metropole. I gave him my quartet or quintet arrangement, but I worked very closely [with him].
FJO: So those were not your arrangements; they were done by somebody else?
PZ: It was my arrangement. I told this guy, I’m going to give you my arrangement for the quintet or quartet. You have to orchestrate that, not adding something. And it was exactly in the form of my arrangement.
FJO: So would you say something like, “I want to have flute over here”?
PZ: No, they were very free, but they sent me all the arrangements and I said, “Oh, this is interesting. I like it. Just print it.” That’s it. We rehearsed with the Metropole for one week. It was a very intensive rehearsal with a British conductor, a very young guy. He’s very good; he knows that orchestra very well. It’s a superior orchestra; it’s like 80 or 90 guys. And this music for them was very challenging. There’s a tune called “Blues Porteña” which has kind of a tango groove with some blues. But the final rehearsal was very good. And that CD is take one, because it was the concert night. Netherlands Television shot the whole concert. When they sent it to me and I heard it, [I said], “This is fantastic. We have to do a CD with this!” It was a long negotiation, more than one year, because it’s very big. But finally we did it.
FJO: So when you do other gigs with orchestras, do you use those same arrangements?
PZ: No, I have my classical arrangements, the arrangements that I did for my CD called Tango Romance with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. That is the music arrangement I played a couple of weeks ago with the Wellington Chamber Orchestra.

Orchestral score excerpt from Ziegler's composition "El Empedrado"

An excerpt from Pablo Ziegler’s orchestral arrangement of his composition “El Empedrado.” © 1997 by Ziegler Music Publishing (ASCAP). All rights reserved and reprinted with permission.

FJO: Nowadays we’re all connected and we have easy access to just about anything, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that someone with no background in this music will automatically be able to feel it.
PZ: For that reason I work very hard with orchestras, teaching and coaching them in the way to play the music. All the music is written. I preserve some parts to improvise, but all the articulation is there. I was working three days like crazy with this orchestra. They are very good. But it’s not easy. In some tunes, it’s not easy to understand how the tango groove works with that kind of composition.
FJO: Obviously, for a smaller group, it’s much easier to get the right energy. That’s much harder to pull off when a whole string section is playing the same thing.
PZ: Of course, [even with] poco, più o meno, poco più, blah, blah, blah. This is hard. I know it’s hard for them to dance with me when we play together. But we were playing together.
FJO: But it seems that you don’t conceive of your compositions with a specific instrumentation in mind. “La Reyuela” was the first piece of yours that I fell in love with when I heard it on your album Bajo Cero, scored for just piano, bandoneón, and guitar. Then I heard other recordings of it that you did with different combinations, and they work, too. And I know you’ve also published a solo piano arrangement of it.
PZ: Yes.

Excerpted piano score of Ziegler's La Rayuela width=

FJO: But I wonder about a piece like “La Conexión Porteña.” I can’t imagine it any other way than with that really dissonant electric guitar. For me, that’s one of the key ingredients of it.
PZ: I have [it for] my Classical Quartet with
Hector Del Curto on bandoneón, Jisoo Ok on cello, and Pedro Giraudo on bass. So I have a cello instead of a guitar. And the cellist plays deeee dah dah. I’m learning also from my musicians. “How do you do that? Can you show me?” I discovered the position for that minor second interval for cellists. It’s fantastic. And right now I’m arranging “La Conexión Porteña” for two pianos.
FJO: Really?
PZ: Yeah, I found a way. I was practicing for my two-piano program. I’m going to play two-piano arrangements again with Christopher O’Riley. We’re going to start the rehearsals next Monday and Tuesday here in Steinway Hall. I [wanted to] add a new piece. So I’m in the middle of the two-piano arrangement. I don’t know if it’s going to be ready on time, but we can play it in the future.

Photo of casette of Ziegler's album Conexion Portena

Ziegler’s original New Tango Quartet made the first recording of “La Conexión Porteña” which was issued on cassette by Sony in 1991. Photo by Molly Sheridan.

FJO: So how far can you go and have it still be tango?
PZ: I think the Metropole CD is really far away! I remember playing a couple of the tunes on one of the Buenos Aires radio [station’s] tango programs. I told the announcer, who is a very good friend of mine, “I’m bringing something new, but probably your audience is going to kill you.” He played it, but he said, “This is really, really far [out].” I was laughing. This is a new thing. I don’t know. I love contemporary music. I studied composition with guys who were writing really contemporary music.
FJO: So what pieces of yours are the most influenced by what you would consider to be a contemporary music sound world?

CD cover for Buenos Aires Report

Buenos Aires Report, Pablo Ziegler and Quique Sinesi with Walter Castro, released in 2007 by Zoho Music.

PZ: On that [Metropole] CD, “Desperate Dance.” And on [the CD] Buenos Aires Report, another is “Buenos Aires Dark.” We recorded that CD in Europe with my trio: Quique Sinesi on guitar, [Walter] Castro, and me. That trio started more than ten years ago. We had the intention to play just as a piano and guitar duo in Europe, but our manager from Europe started to say, “Everybody’s asking if you’re going to bring some bandoneón player.” So finally we invited Castro. And that really was working fantastically. The final result was very, very good. The people were very happy to have this kind of small trio. The seven-string guitar is kind of a bass guitar plus a regular guitar, so it’s like a quartet with just three musicians.
FJO: To follow up on this idea that you’re taking this music way out, I find it interesting that the name of one of your groups has been called the Classical Tango Quartet. I imagine that’s because there’s a cello in the group, which sounds like “classical music” and there are no drums. But when tango aficionados hear the term “classical tango,” they might think they’re going to hear something that sounds like Carlos Gardel.
PZ: Yeah. I know. I had a long conversation with my managers about how we can put in the mind of the presenters that this is really different music. [Ed. note: The group is now called Quartet for New Tango.] The audience for the traditional tango is not the same audience for this kind of music. We are closer to classical and contemporary jazz than traditional tango. Usually I don’t play in tango festivals because it’s not my place.
FJO: But listeners should be able to hear that your music clearly derives from the earlier tango tradition in much the same way as, if you listen deeply to John Coltrane and the generations of players who have established the sonic paradigm for contemporary jazz, you could still hear the influence of Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and other earlier jazz.
PZ: Of course.
FJO: Yet when Astor Piazzolla first started performing nuevo tango, which your own music is an extension of, he was treated the same way that conservative jazz listeners treated Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor, and others when they started to play free jazz.

DeJohnette, Malviccino, Gillespie, and Ziegler

Jack DeJohnette, Horacio Malviccino, Dizzy Gillespie, and Pablo Ziegler meet up at an airport in 1985. Photo by Astor Piazzolla, courtesy of Pablo Ziegler.

PZ: They didn’t accept it. It was a big change, to move tango from the dance floor to the concert stage. That was Piazzolla’s idea. It’s the same as with Glenn Miller or Tommy Dorsey. They’re beautiful arrangements for dancers. Everybody was dancing. Even me, when I was young. But suddenly bebop appeared and the music was far away from that for dancers. Piazzolla was bebop. He invented something different. But he had very good teachers—Alberto Ginastera. Come on!
FJO: And Nadia Boulanger.
PZ: Yes.
FJO: Plus, something that people talk about a lot less, although he was born in Argentina and wound up back there as an adult, he grew up in New York City. So his formative musical influences as a teenager were happening here in the United States.
PZ: [He heard] more jazz than tango. He really wanted to be a pianist, not a bandoneón player. But his father was a strong influence and gave him this small squishy black instrument. Thank God. He was an amazing bandoneón player.
FJO: And although he was initially considered a radical, 20 years after his death he is embraced as a classic. So what began as something avant-garde is now a tradition that you’re in the position of upholding. Over the last 20 years there have been people who are making music that is in some ways even further away from tango’s origins than what Piazzolla and you have done. I’m thinking of groups like Tanghetto or Gustavo Santaolalla’s Bajafondo, which mix synthesizers, sampling, and heavy beats with tango.
PZ: Well, everybody has the right to mix and do these kinds of experiments. I remember the first time that I heard The Gotan Project, a group from Europe. A Berlin radio program put this on and said, “What do you think about this?” I said it was like disco music with bandoneón and some DJs.
FJO: Well, what’s interesting is that as radical as it sounds initially, in some ways it’s actually very old fashioned, because it has made the music into dance music for a new generation.
PZ: Of course, it’s fantastic that people can dance again the tango in this way. Disco tango. It’s dance music. But that is not music for the concert stage. That’s my opinion. Or my feeling.
FJO: You’ve talked about your music being for the concert hall, but could people dance to it?
PZ: Yes. Here in New York, there are a lot of milongas every night. And I discovered in one of these milongas they have a ballroom for traditional tango and another ballroom for modern tango. So one of my pieces could work for dancing [there]. I think you can dance to some of my first compositions. But I have a lot of tunes now that have asymmetrical rhythms—seven, or fifteen. I don’t know if they can dance to that. It’s more O.K. for classical ballet.
FJO: I know you’re performing with classically trained dancers this summer at the Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival.
PZ: I’m going to have some collaboration with the Paul Taylor Dance Company, playing with them one of the works that Paul Taylor did with Piazzolla’s music. I think it’s a very good experiment. I love that. Many years ago at a contemporary dance festival in Genoa, we were playing with a group of contemporary dancers and it was fantastic. I also had a really good experience with Piazzolla and the prima ballerinas from La Scala in Milan. We had those guys working with us for one week.
FJO: Now in terms of working with a dance company, there’s always some difficulty for dancers to work with live musicians, especially when the music includes a lot of improvisation. I find this very strange since before there were recordings, dancers always had to find a way to work with live music. But dancers nowadays are used to rehearsing with very specific musical cues.
PZ: It’s impossible to repeat exactly. We are going to play in our way. But the people from this dance company are very excited to do this with live music, because it’s going to change something in the way they dance, so I’m very happy to do this now with Paul Taylor.
FJO: It’s interesting that in addition to performing your own compositions, projects involving the music of Piazzolla are still among your most significant musical activities since you’re considered by many people to be the source for this music.
PZ: Yes, probably, because I played ten years with this guy. I know exactly in what way the musicians, any musician, can play it. What is the exact way to play his music? Piazzolla was very contradictory. [Sometimes] he was playing fast, some tunes, and I’d say, “Why we are playing so fast?” And he’d say, “I don’t like that tanguero rhythm—slow.” But I prefer that kind of groove.

Pablo Ziegler performing with Hector del Curto, Pablo Aslán, Claudio Ragazzi ,and Paquito D´Rivera at the Jazz Standard on December 13, 2002. Photo courtesy Bernstein Artists.

Pablo Ziegler performing with Hector del Curto, Pablo Aslán, Claudio Ragazzi, and Paquito D’Rivera at the Jazz Standard on December 13, 2002. Photo courtesy Pat Philips.

What is the way to play this new tango? I remember the first time that Piazzolla gave me a piano part and said you are free to change it. So that’s what I did. I know the way to bring that to my groups or to classical musicians. It’s not in the sheet music; it’s in his recordings. If you play with sheet music, playing [just] everything written, it’s really a bore, because you don’t know the way to do something different with that, to create some kind of fresh rhythms. It’s the way to move accents, the articulation when you play, and the very fresh manner, very tender with no rush. Most of the classical players play very square and rush. That happens in the very first moment when I start to rehearse with classical musicians. And I stop and say, “Try to dance with me.” I show them the way to dance, even to my music. That is the way to play also, to dance, because the music is going to be more accessible, tender, and fresh.
FJO: But you can’t put that on paper.
PZ: I can put that on paper. In my arrangements, I try to put it in. But I always tell musicians: You’re free to change whatever you like. I can give you some examples of the way to phrase, but if you feel something different, just play. Probably it’s fantastic. That’s one of the ways that I’m learning also from the musicians, too. Sometimes they’re playing and I like it that way. It’s a very open way to play music. If I bring some Beethoven piano concerto, everybody knows the way to play that kind of music, which is very strict. But with this music, we have to feel it and do something different. I’m giving them that chance.

2-piano score excerpt of Ziegler's Places

An excerpt from the score of the two-piano arrangement of Pablo Ziegler’s composition “Places.” © 2000 by Ziegler Music Publishing (ASCAP). All rights reserved and reprinted with permission.

FJO: It really sounds like it’s about feeling it physically, rather than just understanding it intellectually with your eyes.
PZ: I think it’s the same as with Chopin’s music, when he was composing mazurkas, this kind of Polish music. It’s in three-four, but the way you play it is in four; there’s some kind of delay. It adds to this music some kind of space, a little breath in between those rhythms; that is the way to play this music.
FJO: There are people who say that in order to play jazz authentically it has to come from the blues, and that if you don’t have that in your background, you can never really understand how to play this music.
PZ: For that reason the jazz musicians in the United States are really unique compared to jazz in Europe. American jazz musicians have this, their roots are the blues.
FJO: Is there something similar for tango?
PZ: Being an Argentinian player is different than being an American player. If you were born in Buenos Aires, you know how the people walk and talk. It’s tango music. You can see that music in the streets. That is really important in the transmission [of the music]. It is not the same if an American jazz player is playing my music [rather] than an Argentinian guy. But there are very good professionals, and I love this kind of crossover. We are playing music with a lot of roots. It’s very interesting to mix that.
FJO: Well it definitely turns it into something else. That is how music evolves. In fact, here we are sitting in Brooklyn, very far away from Buenos Aires. You have now been living here for a long time, even though you travel around the world so much you basically are living everywhere on the planet at this point. But the audiences you are playing for—whether here or in Japan or Italy or wherever else you’re playing this year—aren’t necessarily going to have that background of walking on the streets of Buenos Aires either.
PZ: No, of course. But when you play in your authentic way, the audience [claps hands once] gets it. They catch something. I know that.


FJO: One could argue that there is a kind of universality to nuevo tango at this point. But I wonder, even though Piazzolla encouraged you to embrace your roots instead of writing music that is—as you put it—universal, something without a firm basis in any particular culture, could you ever imagine writing or playing music that wasn’t culturally specific? Could you imagine playing or writing music again that was not somehow connected to tango?
PZ: That’s a good question. I was composing some kind of malambo music, which is a folk music. I’m not experienced in folk music, but I know the way to write this kind of stuff. But I don’t want to compose in that way because you have to live in the countryside to be part of that music. It’s really different than tango music, which was born in the city. Tangos are urban music, just like jazz. We have the same roots; it’s music that’s coming from the city.
FJO: There are all sorts of other styles of music happening here in Brooklyn right now. Could you see yourself responding musically to any of those scenes?
PZ: I grew up in Buenos Aires. I know that way. My father was a violin player, besides the other things he did, and when he was young he was playing tango music with his violin. And when I was a kid, my father was teaching me the way to play all the traditional tango tunes. So that means the tango music was inside me; I grew up with that music.
FJO: So has being here all these years had any impact on your music at all?
PZ: Of course. Playing with different jazz musicians and classical musicians here has had a big impact on my music. But I’m still trying to try to preserve those roots and playing with that groove. And that works with audiences.

A pile of Ziegler's published scores lies on the floor in his apartment next to a fan.

Photo by Molly Sheridan.

Carman Moore: Curiosity Is the Strongest Engine


A conversation at Moore’s home in New York City
June 13, 2013—3:00 p.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video Presentation by Molly Sheridan

Back in 1994, people started playing “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” a game in which people try to figure out how anyone who has ever appeared in a Hollywood film connects to the actor Kevin Bacon. If there were a music version of such a game, it could very well be “Six Degrees of Carman Moore” since Moore—in a career spanning decades—connects to everyone from Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen to John Lennon and Aretha Franklin.

As a music critic for The Village Voice (a job he started in the 1960s while still studying composition at Juilliard with Luciano Berio and Vincent Persichetti), Moore was the first in an illustrious line of composers who covered the contemporary music scene for that paper—before Tom Johnson, Greg Sandow, and Kyle Gann. In 1968, together with Kermit Moore and Dorothy Rudd Moore (who were husband and wife but not related to Carman), Noel DaCosta, and Talib Rasul Hakim, he founded the Society of Black Composers (SBC). During its brief three years of existence, SBC produced an eclectic series of concerts and lecture tours which helped to establish the careers of several important African-American composers, including Olly Wilson, Wendell Logan, Adolphus Hailstork, and Alvin Singleton, who has remained Carman Moore’s lifelong friend. (In 2005, Moore wrote the text for Singleton’s choral work TRUTH.) In the early 1970s, Moore wrote lyrics as well as the string arrangements for a solo album by Felix Cavaliere (from the rock band The Young Rascals); a song Moore wrote with Cavaliere, “Rock and Roll Outlaws,” appeared on an album so titled by the British group Foghat. Moore’s own music first received a huge amount of attention in January 1975 when successful premieres of two orchestra commissions were performed by the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic less than 24 hours apart. The following month, Dell published a book by Moore about the iconic blues singer Bessie Smith.

In the 1980s, Moore’s Skymusic Ensemble—a group which evolved out of years of informal improv sessions at the legendary Judson Memorial Church in New York—toured everywhere from Geneva to Hong Kong, including a stint at Milan’s La Scala Opera House to perform Moore’s score for a dance choreographed by Alvin Ailey, Goddess of the Waters. Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, Moore wrote music for many noted choreographers—including Garth Fagan, Anna Sokolow, Donald Byrd, Elaine Summers, Cleo Parker Robinson, and Ruby Shang—as well as film scores for several PBS documentaries. Moore’s elaborate Mass for the 21st Century, first presented by Lincoln Center Out of Doors in 1994 in a performance featuring Cissy Houston (Whitney’s mother), has since been presented at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Cape Town, South Africa. Among Moore’s most recent pieces is the Concerto for Ornette (inspired by Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics) which the New Juilliard Ensemble premiered, with Coleman in attendance, in September 2011.

Yet despite this broad and impressive range of accomplishments, Carman Moore—unlike Kevin Bacon—is not a household name. In fact, many people are unaware of him even within the contemporary music community. Part of this might have to do with the fact that when Moore was first coming up the ranks, the uptown vs. downtown battlefield was all ablaze and Moore wrote music that was somehow too downtown for uptown as well as too uptown for downtown. He also unapologetically embraced jazz and pop and every possible hybrid musical style. As he explained when we spoke to him in his cramped but homey apartment in an old building smack in the midst of all the high-rises that litter the Lincoln Center area, musical “crossover” does not have to be a by-product of opportunistic marketing, but is an authentic response to the world we now live in:

I think the concept of crossover is key to the American experience. It’s just not only in crossing over the Atlantic and the slave ship, but it’s just happening all the time. Living in New York City, you’re constantly listening to somebody else’s language and looking at somebody else’s face, looking at mixes. And it’s hard not to be amazed about some of the results of that. The only thing I can tell people relative to that is the things that seem to be crossing over, make sure you know where they are crossing over from. So it also takes you back to the study of roots of all kinds. You keep finding yourself plunging back into the beginnings of worlds.

Another reason that Moore might not be better known can be traced to his own reticence to walk down the traditional career paths that composers take. By nature, he’s a non-joiner. He’s never signed a record contract or a publishing arrangement. He has also not been particularly adept at self-publishing and self-releasing his own work. As a result, very little of his music has been publicly available. At the same time, away from the perpetual scrutinizing gaze of official arbiters of taste, as well as fans who sometimes deem every deviation from an established stylistic pattern to be a misstep, Moore’s music has been able to evolve on its own terms.

I don’t have much follow through. I think I must have been avoiding it. At the end of the performance in San Francisco, a Deutsche Grammophon guy showed up backstage and put a contract in front of me. And I swear to god, I didn’t sign it. I’ve thought about that ever since. Maybe it’s because I was a child of the ‘60s, I just didn’t trust being famous in that way. It actually may have helped me to not get locked into whatever it was I was doing at a particular time. … I did have the sense that a lot of the people I was writing about as a critic had gotten trapped in having a fandom that expected them to keep writing the same way. They didn’t seem to be able to dodge that bullet. I just didn’t want that to happen. I could have gotten stuck writing gospel in symphony orchestra pieces or something, I don’t know.

However, Carman Moore has begun making a more conscious effort to get his music out into the world. Downloads of recordings for many of his compositions are now available through his own website. In August 2009, former Maine state politician and jazz bassist Kyle W. Jones presented the first Carman Moore Music Festival on the remote Swan’s Island, located off the coast of Maine. But the latest edition of the festival will take place in New York City at the West Park Arts Center (October 18-19, 2013). Highlights include a repeat performance of The Quiet Piece (which premiered in May 2013) and a brand new dramatic song cycle about the wide-reaching effects of child abuse called Girl of the Diamond Mountain, which Moore composed jointly through improvisation with Danish vocalist/lyricist Lotte Arnsbjerg. Perhaps now that stylistic hybrids and a DIY sensibility have become par for the course for many of today’s most successful composers, Carman Moore will rightly be seen as a true pioneer of 21st-century American music.

*

Frank J. Oteri: In your autobiography, you say two things about being an artist which are somehow contradictory, yet also complimentary. You assert that an artist is a rebellious individual, someone who strikes out on his or her own path no matter what people think. At the same time, you speak to the importance of an artist being a force for bringing society together.

Carman Moore on the Street

Carman Moore on the Street.
Photo by Lotte Arnsbjerg.

Carman Moore: Beneath the surface, what the creative artist does is bring society together to think in a new way. I have a piece in my Mass for the 21st Century which is called, “I Want to Think in a New Way.” I don’t know if it was sour grapes, but we just came through a period in music composition when many composers were totally happy to chase away an audience that would get and love what they’re doing.
Once I was in my teacher Luciano Berio’s place over in New Jersey and Karlheinz Stockhausen was there, so I interviewed him a little bit. I was writing for the The Village Voice at that point. And I said, “What would you do if people started to really like your music and really understood it and really got behind you?” And he said, “Well, I’d have to rethink myself. I wouldn’t like that at all.” Berio, on the other hand, didn’t have that problem. He was really fascinated with the Beatles and their being popular and what that meant. And that they were writing really good music. I mean, anybody with ears could hear that they were really musical and that something was special happening there. So he did some variations on Beatles pieces for Cathy Berberian, who was then his wife. He thought it was sort of fun. Stockhausen went on to explain that he had sat in stadiums with the Hitler Youth where everybody was singing the same song and enjoying singing together. That really put him off. I think he was really torn.

FJO: Of course Stockhausen witnessed firsthand how popularity and conformity led to one of the worst horrors in human history. Which is why, as you make clear in your book, that it is just as important to be a rebel as it is to bring people together. That reminds me of something else you wrote: “Everything society at the time said I wasn’t supposed to do, I had to try. Everything I thought society had already decided about me because of my race, I had to subvert.”

CM: Well, the whole business of trying things out was just mainly about me trying to gain some self-knowledge. I grew up with a family that totally adored me. My grandma just couldn’t get enough of me. I lived in Elyria, Ohio, and she lived in the next town five miles away—Lorain, Ohio. Somehow I’d get on the bus and go down there to visit her, and I would walk onto her porch, and she’d say, “There he is. I worship the very ground you walk on.” I hadn’t done anything. So I was used to that, to just being appreciated. I didn’t encounter a lot of race prejudice, but I knew it existed and I had read about it. There were fables around, spread by white culture, like black people could not run distances. Obviously before I was born Jesse Owens had already proven that black people could run sprints. And then the Ethiopians and the Kenyans showed up. So I wanted to try some things that are supposedly identified with white people, like tennis, just to see if there was some reason I would not be a good tennis player just because I was black. I was curious about myself relative to the world.

FJO: And you’re still playing tennis, and you’re apparently pretty good at it.

CM: Yes and I have won championships. But I’m not great anymore; I have sore knees after I play for a little while.

FJO: This curiosity about who you are relative to the world ties into your involvement in music as well, because at the time there were also certain assumptions about who played certain kinds of music. There was definitely a supposition, at the time you were first getting involved in music, that if you were African American you would be involved with jazz and not with classical music. And while your music certainly debunks any definition of genre, it is not really jazz.

CM: Right. Truth to tell, my mother was a marvelous classical player, but she also played boogie-woogie and Duke Ellington’s pieces a lot. She just loved them. And she talked about Art Tatum. But she played classical music on the radio. She’d play the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on Saturday afternoons. It sounded great. So by the time I was aware that I was supposed to be doing something, I was already doing something else, you know. I was already totally enamored of so-called classical music. But I love jazz.

FJO: But while you immersed yourself in jazz as well as classical music, you never identified as a jazz musician.

Armstrong,Thiele,Moore

Louis Armstrong (left) and Bob Thiele (middle) with Carman Moore (right)

CM: No, because I actually never learned an instrument that I could [play jazz on]. I learned the trumpet a little bit, but they needed a French horn player in high school. So I took up the French horn. And cello. The literature was very specifically classical, so I just followed that where it led. I studied at Oberlin Conservatory, which was a few miles away. I took lessons there in French horn from Martin Morris, who was the second chair in the Cleveland Orchestra, and cello lessons from someone whose name I can’t remember anymore, who was a student there. And I studied conducting with Cecil Isaacs. So I went into that music naturally. It wasn’t an example of my deciding to try classical music because I’m not supposed to. I was already there.

FJO: What about writing music criticism? Back then, and even to this day, most of the people who are writing about music in this country are white. That’s actually true for jazz as well as for classical music.

CM: Yeah.

FJO: I find it fascinating that there was such an “anything goes” attitude in the early days of The Village Voice. What a different publication it has become today! But you became their first new music critic, long before Tom Johnson, Greg Sandow, or Kyle Gann, which I think a lot of people today are not aware of. I’m curious to know how that happened.

CM: My first touch with The Village Voice was entering an annual poetry contest that they had. I was studying at Juilliard. So I entered a couple poems in there, and Marianne Moore was one of the judges. I won second place. At any rate, I went to the Voice, and I said, “You don’t have anybody writing about new music here.” And so they said, “Would you like to?” I mean, they weren’t paying anybody anything serious, so I said, “Sure, I’d really love to start.” And so I started. I found that it was really exciting writing about music because that way I could study music all around town and go to concerts for free. One of the first things I did was write an obit on Henry Cowell who had just died.

FJO: At that point Leighton Kerner was already there.

CM: Right. But he just wrote about opera and the regular fare. So I started with just new music, but I started adding other things. Popular [music] was really happening. So I said I’d like to add that. And jazz. So I started a column called “New Time” in which I’d just write about whatever I wanted to.

FJO: So they weren’t covering pop music at all at that point, or jazz?

CM: Well, not that I knew of. They started covering pop music sort of informally during the time I was there. Richard Goldstein and Robert Christgau had started seriously writing about popular music.

FJO: But that was also after you were already there.

CM: Right.

Carman Moore's Studio

Carman Moore’s studio set up, like most composers nowadays, includes a digital keyboard and a computer. Photo by Molly Sheridan.

FJO: What’s also interesting about your stint at The Village Voice is not only were you the first person to write about new music there, you were a composer of new music who was writing about it. At that time, people like Harold Schonberg at The New York Times said that if you wrote about music not only should you not have a public career as a musician, you also should not be friends with other musicians. There was a strongly held belief that there were too many conflicts of interest. You would somehow taint the objectivity of your criticism, as if criticism could ever be objective. So did you find any conflicts in being on both sides and how did you handle them?

CM: I certainly thought about it a lot. Of course Robert Schumann had done it a hundred and whatever years previously. But I think it held me back a little bit, because I wasn’t as aggressive about pursuing my career as a composer as I might have been if I were hard put to get some things done. But very soon I even reviewed pieces by some of my Juilliard teachers. It was sort of a challenge to just react to a piece, take some notes, be good at writing in the dark, and then just put on the blinders and write and see what comes out. I didn’t pan any of my teachers. But I would choose something in a concert that I liked better or say, “I have a problem with this,” or “I didn’t really get this.” Hugo Weisgall had an opera called The Stronger. I didn’t love the opera, but there were a couple of arias that I liked, and so I spoke about them first, and then trashed the rest.

FJO: I can’t imagine you trashing anything.

CM: Well, I didn’t really.

FJO: But to play a Harold Schoenbergian devil’s advocate here, might you have written bad reviews of pieces by your teachers if they hadn’t been your teachers?

CM: Well, I might have been a little more negative. But truth to tell, my teachers were Luciano Berio, Vincent Persichetti, and Hall Overton, who was my first teacher. And I loved their music. So I didn’t have any problem there.

FJO: What about people who might be potentially performing your music?

CM: I didn’t worry about that much. I wrote for the Voice until about ’75 or ’76 when I really got tired of making the deadlines. I got lots of performances during the ‘70s. I was getting more performances than I really had time for. So I didn’t send things out much. It was many years that passed before I even understood how much composers typically send their stuff around. But as a result of reviewing these people, one of the really great things that happened for me as a composer was I was just able to try out my own sense of my own work against all this stuff I was hearing. I was hearing everybody’s work, not just in contemporary classical music, but in jazz and pop and everything. And I discovered the fascination—which I still have—of getting into somebody else’s mind. In other words, being a listener and turning myself over to the composer and to the musical experience, and letting it have its way with me. I would just take notes on how my listening experience was going. Then once a year, in my column, I would always remind people that I am just a listener who has a lot of experience. I encouraged everybody to go listen to music, to turn themselves over to the experience, and then respond. That is criticism, as far as I’m concerned.

Carman Moore's Piano

Carman Moore’s upright piano is littered with scores of composers he deeply admires such as Haydn and Debussy. Photo by Molly Sheridan.

One of the reasons I enjoyed being a music critic was just that experience of taking that voyage into somebody else’s way of thinking. Now I think it scares a lot of people because they think that they’ll get kidnapped mentally and never come back. But I like the idea of seeing where somebody else is coming from, and how they got to these notes. Now very often, in my criticism of somebody’s work, it’s clear that they got there fraudulently. But fraudulently means that they just were afraid to let me really hear what they would really like to do with this material. Or they just wanted to impress the listener with how much they know and how complicated they can be. And it ended up that their music would sound like a mess, even with some people of talent. It’s like a novelist who has a few obviously really potent and interesting characters that they force to behave a way in which those characters would not behave. So a lot of my criticism was simply judging that.

FJO: But overall it seems that most of the criticism you wrote was positive.

CM: Well, when I decided what I was going to hear, I didn’t go to something that I sort of suspected was going to be a mess and would waste my time. So in that sense, I also was being my own ideal listener. A listener wouldn’t choose to go to hear something that they think is going to be crap. Usually, when I would go to something that I would think I would not like to hear as the result of somebody else saying, “Oh, you gotta hear this thing,” I’d go and be disappointed. Maybe that was their thing and not my thing. But it is quite possible that you could start getting it after a while.

FJO: This brings us to that loaded word—crossover. Nowadays, among most people in the critical community as well as others who are—for lack of a better term—the gatekeepers in the music business, that word is mostly used as an insult. It is pejorative. If something is labeled crossover either it lacks authenticity or it comes out of a really cynical commercialism—a crass attempt at appealing to different markets without really understanding any of them. But for you, the word is all-encompassing and all-embracing. You use it to describe your ethnicity, because your ancestors were Native American and European as well as African. You also use it to describe your own music, and it’s even the name of your own autobiography.

Moore, Sachs, Coleman

Carman Moore, Joel Sachs, and Ornette Coleman at Juilliard following the premiere of Moore’s Concerto for Ornette.
Photo by Pearl Perkins.

CM: I think the concept of crossover is key to the American experience. It’s not only in crossing over the Atlantic and the slave ship, but it’s just happening all the time. Living in New York City, you’re constantly listening to somebody else’s language and looking at somebody else’s face, looking at mixes. And it’s hard not to be amazed about some of the results of that. The only thing I can tell people relative to that is the things that seem to be crossing over, make sure you know where they are crossing over from. So it also takes you back to the study of roots of all kinds. You keep finding yourself plunging back into the beginnings of worlds. For example, tap dancing apparently was a mix of Irish step dancers with ex-slaves laying out railroad track. It was just an African-American rhythmization of things that the Irish guys were doing. It happens all over the place. In the ‘60s, some of my African-American pals were saying white people don’t have a right to be playing this music, they’re not playing this music right, whatever. It’s crazy because if it’s authentically produced, authentically composed, and authentically put out there, it’s fascinating.

The Mystery of Tao

The opening page of Carman Moore’s The Mystery of Tao for string trio and synthesizer.
© 2001 by Carman Moore and reprinted with his permission. Click image to enlarge

FJO: It’s interesting that both your own music, as well as what you wrote about music, has been so concerned with breaking the barriers between styles and labels. Some people claim that it’s basic human nature to put labels on things in order to understand them better. But I would dare say that putting labels on things is a particular trait of people who are in the business of writing criticism—whether it’s music criticism, art criticism, or literary criticism. All these names of movements come from somebody writing about them and giving them names as a kind of shorthand. Then the marketers run with it. If you like this, you’ll like that. But, of course, if you’re writing “new music” or writing about “new music,” all that means is that it’s new. The term doesn’t connote any particular pedigree. But people have always made assumptions about pedigree, especially during the late ‘60s within the realm of what we call—for lack of a better term—contemporary classical music. That was the heyday of uptown vs. downtown.

CM: I covered both sides and I actually wrote in both styles, just to see what it felt like partly. I actually used to live at what was called the Judson Student House, which was connected to Judson Church, which is still on Washington Square. It was a wild time to be there. Among other things, I had the key to the church, and they had a big organ up there. I used to go there and just sort of improvise with people. I started forming my group, the Skymusic Ensemble, from some of those first things. Some people were just banging on bottles and stuff like that. I discovered that you could just take off and you don’t have to have a tune. You don’t have to have chords or anything. You just sort of find the music. I later discovered that it’s better if you write some things down, some guide posts.

Carman Moore Righteous Heroes

The first page of the manuscript score for Carman Moore’s Righteous Heroes: Sacred Spaces.
© 1987 by Carman Moore and reprinted with his permission.
Photo by Pearl Perkins.

Then I was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to write Wild Fires and Field Songs which is, in effect, a three-movement symphony. That was after having interviewed Pierre Boulez. We got into discussing improvisation, and he said, “You wouldn’t invite somebody over to watch you take a piss, would you?” That was what he had to say about improvisation as such. But at any rate, I wrote that piece virtually at the same time as I wrote Gospel Fuse, which is a work for gospel quartet. The lead singer was Cissy Houston when we did it with Ozawa and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. I was just finishing that and the Philharmonic wanted to commission me to do this other piece. They’re worlds apart. And I just loved that. That was really exciting. Of course, Gospel Fuse was a crossover piece, because it was a two-movement work for symphony orchestra and gospel quartet.

FJO: That was the piece that was originally supposed to be done by Aretha Franklin

.
CM: Exactly. But I think there were people around her—I call them goons—who wouldn’t let her pick up the phone. I needed to be able to go back and forth with her. So at any rate, I kept composing, and finally—talk about crossover—Peter Yarrow [of Peter, Paul & Mary] popped up in the class I was teaching at the New School downtown; it was an orchestration class. He didn’t come to it very often, because he was always on the road. But we became good friends, and he was good friends with Seiji Ozawa. So at any rate, that commission came about through that. And then I told you about the Boulez one. It’s not 12-tone, but it invades his world of sound. I just really love the challenge of doing that over here, and doing this over there, and trying to make them wonderful.

It turned out that Gospel Fuse was scheduled for one day in February, and then I was called not long after that and found out that the New York Philharmonic had scheduled Wild Fires and Field Songs for the very next night. Now, the odds against that are infinite. So at any rate, I finished the two pieces and started rehearsing. It suddenly occurred to me that I could bomb on two coasts at the same time! I could just be clearing the tomatoes off my face from San Francisco, and get a fresh batch in New York City. But they both turned out really great.

FJO: Taking into account the time differences, you had only about 19 hours to get back to New York from San Francisco.
CM: I also had to be at that last rehearsal in New York. So that was a red eye flight back to just go to the rehearsal. So I was a mess, but it was beautiful.

FJO: No tomatoes?

CM: No tomatoes. No, no, no, no. Kudos! I had become friends with John Lennon and at the New York performance he showed up in the lobby before the performance with May Pang, who I think he was sort of going with at that time. Then Yoko Ono shows up from the other direction with this guy. I was with my then wife. And there the six of us were, in the lobby downstairs, just before the beginning of this concert. And John said, “Do I look okay? I’ve never been to one of these before.” He had this sort of black suit on. And I said, “You’ve never been to a symphony concert before?” “No.” He had an “Elvis Lives!” button on and I said, “I think you’re gonna enjoy this.”

FJO: You also played music with John Lennon, too, right? But none of it got recorded.

CM: There was one evening I wanted to interview Yoko for I forget which album of hers. So I brought my little cassette recorder in. They were living in the Village at that time; that was just before they moved uptown. At any rate, I put my recording device down on the table. It definitely was not one of these digital items of today; it would run out at a certain point. So she and I were talking and talking and talking, and he would break in every now and then, and say, “Yoko, you know, the man’s trying to help you. You know, don’t turn everything into bloody circuses.” Because she said, “Why don’t you take the page and cut it down the middle and put me on this side and John on the other.” So that went along and, of course, John is passing a joint. I wasn’t paying any attention. I was just trying to be polite. Well, I was more than polite by the end of that thing. I got all my stuff down and the tape recorder ran out. And he said, “Would you like to jam?” I said, “Sure, right.” They had two rooms—it was sort of like a loft space, but it was on the ground floor: a great big room in the front, then a great big bedroom. He had a pump organ there. He got out his acoustic guitar, sat on the bed, cross-legged, and off we went. I remember it was great music. But, obviously, even if I had wanted to record it, I had run out of tape.

FJO: I’ve known you and have known about your music for years, but the thing that keeps amazing me about all these stories—you being the first person to write about new music for The Village Voice, you having premieres by the San Francisco Symphony and New York Phil conducted by Ozawa and Boulez less than 24 hours apart, you jamming with John Lennon—is that despite you having all these connections to people who are household names, you yourself are not a household name. Yet you connect to all these things that are central to the story of music of the past century. You could say, “O.K., people who write contemporary classical music are not household names any more. We’re no longer living in the era where someone like Aaron Copland would be on the cover of Time magazine.” But your music embraces so much more than that, so that’s not it. It’s somewhat provocative to ask why that is, and it’s probably something you can’t answer. But it just seems to me, given all these anecdotes, that you ought to be much more famous.

CM: I’ve thought about this a lot. I don’t have much follow through. I think I must have been avoiding it. At the end of the performance in San Francisco, a Deutsche Grammophon guy showed up backstage and put a contract in front of me. And I swear to god, I didn’t sign it. I’ve thought about that ever since. Maybe it’s because I was a child of the ‘60s, I just didn’t trust being famous in that way. It actually may have helped me to not get locked into whatever it was I was doing at a particular time. But that’s a question I have wrestled with ever since. Then when I started the Skymusic Ensemble, a lot of my work couldn’t be played by anybody else but them.

FJO: But in that era there were many composers who primarily wrote music for their own ensembles to play, and they gained quite a bit of notoriety from it—Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Meredith Monk. Even to some extent Charles Wuorinen and Harvey Sollberger forming the Group for Contemporary Music was a do-it-yourself initiative and actually helped get their music out there. Also self-publishing and releasing your own recordings was definitely an ethos that started in the ’60 and lasted throughout the ‘70s. You were certainly part of that generation, but back then you didn’t really release much of your music. That same ethos is pervasive once again nowadays, and thankfully now you’re actually releasing a lot of your music.

Singleton,Shapiro,Moore

Alvin Singleton (left) with Alex Shapiro (middle) and Carman Moore (right) in 2011.
Photo by Norberto Valle, Jr.

CM: I’m finally getting there. Somebody who’s been helping me a lot is Alvin Singleton. He’s a marvelous composer and a dear friend of mine.

FJO: In the last few years there has even been an annual Carman Moore Music Festival.

CM: There’s a friend of mine who is not only a bass player, but also a lawyer and a state senator from Maine, who is just nuts about my music, so he has been doing everything he can to foster it. He’s the one whose idea it was to have a Carman Moore Music Festival. I would never think of doing a thing like that. But it’s about to happen again and there will be several pieces done on it. This time, two days of this will happen in New York City. At any rate, I’m very excited about the music I’m writing right now. I just did a piece called The Quiet Piece for the Skymusic Ensemble with a guy doing Tibetan singing bowls plus a marvelous dancer.

FJO: I’m very eager to see and hear those live performances. I’m also very excited about the recordings that are finally becoming available of a lot of your earlier pieces. For years the only music of yours that was available commercially was one piece that had been released on a Folkways compilation in the 1970s and another piece on one side of a CRI LP. And Folkways and CRI were hardly commercial labels.

CM: I know. I recognize that this has been my path. My path has been avoiding things, and that’s all I can think of, because fame has avoided me. Over at the Philharmonic, they have portraits of every composer [they’ve worked with] going back to Tchaikovsky. I happen to be in between John Cage and Charles Wuorinen! I’ve gone back to listen to some of that early stuff, and I’ve said, “Wow!” But I do remember having been such a perfectionist at that time that I wouldn’t let anything come out that wasn’t, not only written perfectly, but performed perfectly. It was a big mistake. I could have gotten world famous easily, any time in there. I recognize that now.

Carman Moore String Trio

The opening page of Carman Moore’s String Trio. © 2007 by Carman Moore and reprinted with his permission. Click image to enlarge

FJO: Terry Riley’s story has many parallels with yours, I think. He did sign a contract with a big record company. Columbia Records put out two albums of his music and another one with John Cale. But they wanted another record and then he resisted the career path. He ran off to India to study classical Indian singing, to become a disciple rather than a star. But at that time there seemed to be only two paths. There was either the downtown do-it-yourself path of starting your own ensemble or the uptown path of teaching at a university and making connections to ensembles and larger institutions that way. But you taught also. You had your hands in all these different things, and yet you somehow remained an outsider, which goes back to the very beginning of this conversation—doing it your own way instead of doing things the way others say you should.

Carman Moore in Central Park.

Carman Moore in Central Park.
Photo by Lotte Arnsbjerg.

CM: It may come out of that mindset. Who knows? I mean, I did have the sense that a lot of the people I was writing about as a critic had gotten trapped in having a fandom that expected them to keep writing the same way. They didn’t seem to be able to dodge that bullet. I just didn’t want that to happen. That’s the only sort of conscious thing I can think of relative to that. I could have gotten stuck writing gospel in symphony orchestra pieces or something, I don’t know. I feel I’ve lived a lot of different lives. I’m fascinated with many paths. My curiosity is probably the strongest engine running inside me.

FJO: Well, you know, there’s another part to it, I think, as well. It’s interesting that you didn’t bring this up, but I’m going to. I mentioned Terry Riley because I also see a commonality in terms of his egolessness. There’s a lack of a drive in a way that I think comes from a sense of community, the other part of that original dichotomy between being an individual and then being a part of a community. You also actively collaborate with other composers. You’ve written lyrics for other people’s music. You mentioned Alvin Singleton. You did the libretto for Truth. You did lyrics for a whole album by Felix Cavaliere from The Young Rascals. You’ve been willing to take a more back seat role, not that writing lyrics is a back seat—some people identify with lyrics more than music and there are famous lyricists—but getting famous as a lyricist doesn’t seem to have been your motive in those collaborations.

CM: I’m very sure of myself. It’s the truth of the matter. But I’ve thought about this question a lot. I come from a large family. There are eight children. I’m the oldest. I very often had to just make sure everybody else got fed. I had five sisters. So I may have been taught to make sure that everybody else got their stuff before I come in because I might step on somebody.

FJO: So in terms of paths to take, what to do, what not to do, do you feel you have advice to offer other composers?

CM: No, because it depends upon what you are capable of. The key thing, I think, is to find some way to figure out what you’re capable of relative to what you’re trying to do. There are a series of things people should find out about themselves as they emerge, and therefore they should try out things that they don’t know about, because those are the roads that you need to go down. So there are two roads: One is to go down the road of your strengths, the other is to go down the road of your weaknesses and see what that sounds like. And don’t pretend.

One thing I discovered while composing early on was that there were stretches when I’d be composing, I’d write something and listen to it, and I’d get embarrassed. But I discovered soon after that, that those are the important parts. That’s you. When I would feel embarrassed, I was in a situation in which I was not defended. I was sort of hung out to dry. As I came up, those two schools—the uptown and downtown—were strong. And they sounded and behaved in particular ways. As I was writing my music, I was aware of this. And of course, because of being a critic, I heard everything, so I knew what people were doing. But there were stretches in which I just didn’t sound like either of those things. Those were ones in which I was slightly embarrassed about it. Maybe this is not very professional, but I would go ahead and write it and have it performed, and see what it sounded like. And that was good. So I say to emerging composers and to people who want to compose: When you hit one of those spots, check it out. It may be because you have no business writing that, but it may be that’s your voice.

Making Brownies

Carman Moore at home making brownies in his kitchen. Photo by Pearl Perkins.