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It has been exactly ten years since I came back to Hong Kong from the United States, now that I think about it, and the three and a half years I spent there were truly life-changing.
It was in 2003 when I was 18 and first had the ambition to be a composer; this idea totally came from nowhere. I remember it was a normal school day, and during the break I bumped into a schoolmate (who is now a very fine pianist). I told him enthusiastically, “I want to be a composer.” But for an ordinary school kid who had very narrow training in music (singing in choir and playing the violin for almost ten years), the journey to becoming a composer was bumpy.
The three and a half years I spent in the United States were truly life-changing.
Back then I was what we call in Hong Kong a “science” student, taking physics, mathematics, and computer science at school. The main reason why I chose the sciences was because I was told that the better students always study science, but I struggled. Rather than going to lessons, I would instead go to the soccer field, computer room (for gaming), music room, and sometimes to karaoke during school time. I was glad that my high school teachers “allowed” me to do so. Many years after graduation they told me that they knew I’d be better off involved in the arts, so they let me spend my time how I wanted, in order not to waste more time.
Near the end of form 6 (equivalent to grade 12 in the US system), most of my classmates had already planned where and what to study after graduation, and one day a friend of mine told me that he was going to study in the United States, starting from community college. Day after day he kept telling me stories about the “American dream,” and I thought my dream of being a composer could possibly come true. I went home and told my parents about my decision to study abroad—after a few fights with them, I flew to the United States on December 1, 2013, and enrolled in De Anza College, a community college in Cupertino, California.
I was very excited to begin my college life, because I had the chance to select the courses that I was interested in. During my one and a half years of study at De Anza, I had taken almost all the music courses offered. It was the first time in my life I had such an extensive education in music, and more importantly, with very welcoming lecturers. I remember it was Robert Farrington who taught me about jazz, Ronald Dunn taught world music, and Dan Mitchell was my music appreciation instructor. My fundamental knowledge in music theory came from Dr. Paul Setziol, who was crucial in the earliest stage of my composition career. I learned to write counterpoint and four-part harmony, plus I also did a few composition exercises under his guidance. He was kind to offer additional help outside the classroom, and he gave me suggestions on university selections when I was ready to transfer.
Aside from Dr. Setziol, I was glad to meet Loren Tayerle, the conductor of the De Anza Symphony. Not only did he place me in the concertmaster position for a year, he also loaned me his own violin. In the few semesters that I played in the orchestra, I had the chance to premiere new works, which was a brand new experience for me. A similar thing happened with the Vintage Singers, a chamber choir in De Anza, in which the conductor Roger Letson often programmed an interesting mix of old and new works—from Purcell to Lothar Bandermann, a California South Bay-based composer.
Lothar’s wife, Billie Bandermann, was my vocal teacher at De Anza. When I first came to the United States, I originally planned to have my major instrument be violin, but it was Billie who persuaded me to become a tenor. She was very kind to offer me free vocal lessons at her place while I was preparing materials for my transfer application. Sometimes she would even prepare breakfast for me when she found me very hungry during a lesson, and helped me in my audition tape recording.
After a careful consideration of the offers I had, I transferred to the University of California, Berkeley, in 2005 with the Regent and Chancellor’s Scholarship. Before I left De Anza, Dr. Setziol reminded me that the environment and pace in Berkeley would be much quicker than at De Anza, and he urged me to work hard and stay strong.
The learning atmosphere at Berkeley was very different, and the first few lessons were quite disastrous. I could barely understand the materials covered in class, particularly during David Pereira’s harmony lessons. I had to spend extra hours at the library every day to study Bach’s four-part harmony, as well as to read all kinds of music theory reference books. But after a few weeks of struggle, I began to understand harmony in a more thorough way, and the knowledge acquired is still very useful now—not only in terms of composition, but also in terms of how I teach it to others at the university.
As a voice major, there were times when I had to spend four days a week singing in the University Chorus and the Chamber Chorus, and another day for a major lesson with soprano Susan Gundunas. The training in the choir affected me a lot, especially in terms of the mentality of being a musician. Prof. Marika Kuzma, the conductor of the above mentioned choirs, often emphasized the importance of punctuality, preparation, and professionalism. This disciplined way of training later supported me through my down times. When none of my works were performed publicly during the first few years after my graduation, I was still able to keep on composing.
Other than my vocal training, I spent most of my course credits taking composition-related courses. My interest in writing music began with Prof. Cindy Cox’s “Twentieth-Century Harmony” course, in which she introduced many ways of how composers of the 20th century composed. That was also when my interest in set theory began (and even some of my recent works are still based on set theory). I later continued to take her year-long course “Music Composition,” and began to write my own music. During that time, I was still very much affected by the music I heard on the radio. (To improve my English, every day on my way to school I used to listen to the radio and repeat line after line what the broadcasters said.) My earliest works in 2006 strongly resemble cartoon music—or, more precisely, what I now call “Looney Tunes music.” The title of my very first composition was A Chick on a Stick, a solo clarinet work with a duration of roughly two minutes emphasizing some major seventh chords and portamento. After that I wrote another programmatic work for violin and piano, The Mat and the Course, portraying the catching game between a cat and a mouse.
I was nervous to present my works to Prof. Cox during tutorial sessions; she would ask questions about my choice of pitches, structure, and many other musical parameters. One time I told her my musical preference, and she told me that “composers need to be aware of what we listen to.” She encouraged me to listen to more kinds of music, because what we listen to often affects what we write—perhaps she wanted me to move on from the cartoon style to something else. During her course, we were required to keep a listening journal. I still remember one day I was listening to a Takemitsu’s work on an LP (though now I’ve forgotten whether it was Tree Line or Autumn). I was so puzzled by the music and I wrote in my journal, “I don’t understand his music, the notes are all written randomly.” Now it seems like such a naive comment. I am glad that my ears have been improved over the years.
My work gradually evolved into a more avant-garde style, ranging from my only attempt involving twelve-tone techniques to a more Lutosławski-inspired style of writing in 2007. It was always fun to try something new, because at the end of the semester Prof. Cox would invite professional musicians to read our works and give comments. (I still keep those recordings now.) Concurrently, I was also taking Prof. Jorge Liderman’s counterpoint course. Prof. Liderman was one of those “blackboard” teachers who would write anything that came to mind on the board. He strongly emphasized the importance of musicality, and he would either sing or play the lines he wrote on board on the piano—and that is also what I do now while teaching. His way of teaching was very consistent. Every time we were asked to write a fugue, we would need to compose at least three different fugal subjects. He would comment on each of them, and recommend that we work further on one of them. There was one time he blamed me for writing “cliché” subjects, and insisted that I write another three. I was surprised that he found out these three “cliché” subjects were all written in a hurry during Prof. Richard Taruskin’s history class.
It was also my privilege to have studied orchestration with Prof. John Thow, whose lectures were always inspiring. He was a strict teacher who demanded we memorize many pages of information right at the beginning of the semester. I remember that we had a quiz on the French, German, Italian, and English terms for all the orchestral instruments and various instrumental techniques during the second lecture. It was difficult at that time, but the knowledge acquired is still very useful today. Prof. Thow has great understanding in the use of instruments, and he could come up with all kinds of different ways to score even a simple major chord. Sometimes he would bring in professional musicians to demonstrate instrumental techniques, and he allowed us to write simple passages to explore the possibilities of each instrument. What I remember most from him was that he said if one day we can only take two scores with us, we should definitely pick Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé and Stravinsky’s Firebird, because one can hardly find better orchestrated works. In fact, Daphnis et Chloé was the very first full score I bought in my life. We were all shocked by the news of Thow’s death in 2007, during the second semester of my final year while we were preparing for the orchestra reading session.
I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in 2007 and returned to Hong Kong to pursue Master’s and doctorate degrees in composition at the University of Hong Kong, under the supervision of Dr. Joshua Chan. My stay in the United States was short, but it not only equipped me with the fundamental skills I need as a composer, it also provided me chances to witness how the teachers I studied with respect their professions. I could have included many more stories, but they would only tell more of how much I have learnt from these teachers during the early stage of my composition career. Currently I am still working hard for my composition career, and I am sure there will be more interesting stories that I can tell later.
Austin Yip’s works have been performed worldwide, including at festivals he attended such as ISCM, Asian Composers League Festival & Conference (ACL), and the International Rostrum of Composers. His major commissioners include Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, Radio and Television Hong Kong, and the Hong Kong Arts Festival. His works have been published and recorded by ABRSM (UK), Ablaze Records (USA), Navona Records (USA), and Hugo Productions (HK). He holds a Ph.D./ M.Phil. in music composition from the University of Hong Kong, and a B.A. from the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently a lecturer at the Hong Kong Baptist University. Austin Yip’s music will be performed at the DiMenna Center in New York City on April 8, 2017 as part of a concert devoted to recent works by Hong Kong-based composers.
As a teenage whiz kid growing up in Israel, Avner Dorman was simultaneously drawn to music and physics, studying the score of Stockhausen’s Gruppen and taking college-level mathematics courses by the age of 15. Although to this day he credits his science and math background with how he conceptualizes music, Dorman the composer was deeply moved by music’s emotional resonance from very early on and was quickly drawn to postmodern aesthetics, starting with his 1995 Concerto in A for piano and strings, a work he completed at the age of 19 which is still in his active composition catalogue and is available on a recording released on Naxos.
Dorman’s earliest works made him something of a superstar in his home country. By the ripe old age of 25, the top Israeli orchestras were performing his music and he became the youngest composer ever to win the Prime Minister’s Award. But rather than basking in the glory, Avner decided to apply to graduate school overseas and he wound up here in the United States. At first it was a bit of culture shock.
“In Israel, if you put on a concert it’s in the paper,” he opined when we met with him in early January at the office of his music publisher, G. Schirmer. “I remember the first time I had some concert that wasn’t listed [in The New York Times], I was like, ‘Why wasn’t it listed?’ And people said, ‘Why do you think you should get listed? They list six concerts and that’s it. There’s like a thousand today.’ I couldn’t quite fathom the size and variety that goes on here.”
By moving from Tel Aviv to New York City, Dorman went from being a big fish swimming in a little pond to trying to stay afloat in the music equivalent of an ocean. Dorman, however, was enrolled in The Juilliard School and his principal teacher there was John Corigliano, to whom he remains extremely grateful for helping him realize his own compositional identity.
“You only learn who you are when you’re not where you grew up,” said Dorman. “Early on, people often would mention the Middle Eastern flavor of my music. In Israel no one ever said that because other people are so much more extreme about it. So [that] was a big revelation. The other thing—and this I credit John for very, very deeply—is that I remember he would always say, ‘You’re very emotional and expressive, and you’re not afraid to express emotions in your music.’ … Since then, I’ve come in touch with it more and more and I think having him as a guide for several years really helped me understand who I am.”
But for Dorman, finding out who he was as a composer has never meant remaining in any particular aesthetic comfort zone. His music is constantly evolving and he is constantly challenging himself to go places where his music has never gone before—even sometimes to places that are decidedly uncomfortable. A prolific instrumental composer who has created numerous works for soloists and orchestra, particularly for less standard instruments such as mandolin and percussion, Dorman has begun to deeply explore vocal music. Last year, he completed his first opera, Wahnfried. It received its world premiere at the Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe in Germany on January 28, 2017, and will remain in repertoire there through May. Aside from the fact that Dorman’s artistic collaborators, Lutz Hübner and Sarah Nemitz, wrote the libretto in German and he is not fluent in German, Wahnfried poses many other challenges for the 41-year-old Jewish composer. Not only is the opera the story of the notorious late 19th-century anti-Semite Houston Chamberlain, another one of the opera’s characters is Adolf Hitler.
“Hitler met with [Chamberlain], and that’s actually in the opera,” Dorman explained. “If you listen to Hitler’s speeches, there are direct quotes from his book. I actually transcribed some of his speeches as musical notation … and that’s the music that he’s singing. … I am aware that some people from Israel might be offended by this, but I think they would be mistaken. I’m obviously not advocating my own death and my family’s death. Who would do that? But I think it’s an important part of history that is rarely told and that needs to be told. I definitely think it is a politically charged piece. Even more so today than it was when I wrote it. I do think, especially in this era, that one of the mistakes is not to say things. We need to know that racism and hatred are a feature of humanity. It’s in our language. These things exist and they catch on like wild fire. When you don’t counteract and contradict them, they will continue to grow. I think as artists we have the opportunity to make a statement that will be heard.”
Avner Dorman in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
at the New York City offices of G. Schirmer
January 6, 2017—1:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Frank J. Oteri: You became pretty prominent as a composer when you were still a teenager and some of the pieces you wrote back then are still in your active catalogue. In fact, some of your earlier works have even been commercially recorded. There are two CDs devoted exclusively to your music out on Naxos, and one of them contains a piano concerto you completed when you were only 19 and the other contains your first two piano sonatas.
Avner Dorman: My first piano concerto was from when I was still a teenager, but those piano sonatas are from my early 20s.
FJO: You were still really young. That’s many years ago. If people discover you through these recordings, they’ll hear this music before they’ll hear more recent pieces which haven’t been recorded yet. So I wonder, now that you’re a slightly older composer, how you feel about those pieces being an entry point that a lot of people will have for your music. Do they represent who you are still?
AD: I think in certain ways they do and in certain ways obviously not. If you just look at the outer stylistic layer, their harmonic language, then certainly the first sonata and the early piano concerto are not stylistically how I write now. I don’t even know how to describe what they are, but they are not the language that I use now. But I think some of the deeper levels are still the same, like the energy that these pieces have and—maybe—this idea that music stems from the base up. A Baroque concept of harmony and a little bit of a physics-related concept of harmony is already in there. I think I always was thinking about harmony like that. And in all these pieces, there are a lot of elements from popular music and non-Western music—again, not in the same way, but I think that’s still there. To a degree they obviously don’t represent me now, but they represent a time in my life and a stage in my development. So I don’t have a problem with people finding them first. If someone went to see my most recent work, especially a lay person, they would probably have a hard time figuring out that this is the same composer, but I think that’s a very common thing, so I don’t have an issue with it.
I know some composers withdraw a lot of pieces later on. I had actually written a lot of pieces before those pieces and had withdrawn them. But I do feel like these pieces [that you mentioned] work well, even after a long period of time. To a degree, I don’t think I could write them now; I just couldn’t do it. So I almost feel like that person that wrote them deserves not to be put aside, even though I’m not that person anymore. I do feel that they have artistic integrity and are rich enough that they merit having their own life. That being said, I obviously hope that what I’m writing now, and what I’ve written since, has more to offer because otherwise I did my best when I was 20. And that wouldn’t be great.
FJO: Very fairly stated. You remind me of this wonderful quote from Thomas Pynchon. In the ‘80s, he authorized the publication of a group of short stories he wrote back in his early 20s, before he wrote his first novel. He contributed a new introduction where he wrote that though there are some good things in these stories, he wouldn’t have written them today. But that young writer also deserves a chance to be read. There was this wonderful line that was something like, “I like the young me. I’d even go and have a beer with him, but I probably wouldn’t loan him money.”
AD: I would subscribe to that. Also, I would say, the first concerto and the first sonata are very neoclassical and sometimes people think it’s because I was still studying. But in high school, I studied [Messiaen’s] Turangalîla and [Stockhausen’s] Gruppen very deeply, and I had written some pieces that were all cluster harmonies and collectional concepts. Then—I was still playing Prokofiev, Mozart, and Bach—at some point I wanted to try to write something neoclassical. That’s how these pieces were actually born, like after knowing some of the avant-garde and experimenting with that. I actually felt like that would enhance my abilities as a composer. So I think they’re less naïve than someone might imagine. At 19 you’re young, but if you started writing when you were 10 or 12, or even 15, you’ve had several years. I was lucky enough to go to an arts high school where my theory and composition teacher was very well educated about Schnittke. I also got to know more recent scores. I think he was roommates with David Lang at Yale, so I knew David Lang’s music when I was in high school. So I wasn’t that naïve, thinking, “Oh, let me write something in A-major.” It was really more like I want to try to do this.
FJO: It’s interesting to hear you name drop Schnittke because I don’t think of those early pieces of yours as being necessarily neoclassical as much as being postmodern.
AD: Right, the result is more postmodern than neoclassical. But at the time I didn’t know that. I didn’t quite know what postmodern meant yet, although I did know of David Del Tredici. I didn’t know his music, but my teacher in high school did mention his name when he heard my concerto. So, again, I think it’s not by accident that I ended up studying with John Corigliano.
FJO: You were saying that your harmony is derived from physics. You majored in physics as well as music, so your physics studies actually paid off.
AD: Certainly, and I was even more involved in math and physics than a double major would be here. I was in a special program at Tel Aviv University which lets you focus on different areas that generally you wouldn’t be able to focus on. The amount of math and physics that I had taken was like being a math-physics major at a major university, and not a double major; it was even more extensive. For the ability to conceptualize music, I think that knowledge has been invaluable. Like managing patterns over long periods of time—it’s the big question for a composer, right? It’s also the question of math. In my mind, they’re almost the same. To play around with numbers and to write a piece of music are very, very, very close. So yes, I think it really did pay off.
FJO: So getting the double degree was actually complimentary to your composing. It wasn’t like you majored in physics in order to mollify your parents when they balked at you saying that you wanted to be a composer.
AD: Well, my parents—especially my father—wanted me to study physics and math because it was more practical, but I was kind of a prodigy in math as a little kid. I was already taking mathematics classes at the university level when I was 15. A lot of my friends growing up ended up being in start-up companies and making enormous amounts of money. So my father, who was professional musician, had very high hopes that I would not be a professional musician and that I would be a computer programmer.
I got into this program at Tel Aviv University which allowed me to do both. It was a very competitive program, but there was no tuition and they gave you a stipend. I couldn’t say no to that. Basically, for four or five years the university took care of it all. I still had to work, but it was too good to pass up. Then when I started studying, the math and physics classes were very challenging but it was very rewarding. I like this stuff. So yes, I think it paid off and I think that program and that structure was very good for me as a person, because it was so free. I could pick and choose courses from different parts of the university and skip certain requirements—all the things that they don’t like to let you do. I will only thrive if I can do it a little differently and not have to go through all the steps that everyone has to go through. That program is designed for people who are little off track—that the university feels have potential to contribute intellectually, but who don’t exactly fit the mold.
FJO: So, the physics shaped the music to some extent.
AD: Again, to me, math and music are so intertwined that I will sometimes sketch a piece as a series of numbers. And to me notation is a graph. So I can’t completely distinguish. I don’t know that I have as clear a distinction of where one begins and where one stops. The great thing about music is it’s so emotionally connected; physics not as much. I think that’s why music is such a holistic thing—the entirety of my being is involved.
FJO: Well, it’s interesting in terms of what we were talking about earlier—neoclassicism and postmodernism versus the high modernism you were studying, things like Gruppen. When people think of modernism, whether it’s the music of the integral serialists or practitioners of indeterminacy, or even the earliest pieces by the minimalists as well as the microtonalists—what all these various –isms have in common are a systemic approach that involves mathematical stuff.
FJO: But I think what postmodernism did—and co-relationally postminimalism as well, since you mentioned David Lang—is that it went beyond the mathematical procedures shaping the music. So it’s very weird, given your own compositional aesthetics, to hear you say that music is very close to math!
AD: Yeah. I think my music is definitely postmodern—anything that is sort of the middle brain, social, emotional, all that stuff. I think what people were reacting against with modernism is that to a lot of people it sort of ended up being cold and separate from the human experience. But I also find that there’s something really beautiful and rewarding about pure mathematical structure, and I think that goes back forever if you go back to Guillaume de Machaut or even Perotin. Ockeghem is one of my favorite composers. Mathematically it’s beautiful, and then musically it’s just sublime. That combination, at least for me, is where the transcendence of music comes, when these two elements meet, like they do in nature. You look at the stars and planets, and they’re both beautiful and also just incredible to think about.
FJO: Since you brought up early music composers, I definitely hear in your music a deep dialogue with music history—with standard repertoire, a canon that spans a thousand years in Europe and has spread out to the rest of the Western world, the stuff we call “Western classical music” for lack of a better term. At the same time, I hear much less of a dialogue with the so-called avant-garde. In fact, I think you’re music is decidedly about not being avant-garde. Is that fair to say?
AD: I think I have some pieces that do that, but generally those pieces don’t get played that much. I don’t know why. In my first string quartet, for example, there are a lot of extended techniques. But for me, it’s a very personal piece and emotionally very loaded. I wrote it in memory of a very close friend who died in a motorcycle accident.
I do feel that the avant-garde is part of our musical history and I certainly don’t avoid it intentionally, or haven’t thought about it like that. But I also think that—and this is the other side of the postmodern and postminimalist movement—there is a social aspect to music. If the music is such that people don’t listen to it, then it is marginalized. I feel like in my catalogue, partly that’s just what happened—pieces that are in dialogue with the avant-garde are less appealing—but maybe not. I don’t know. It’s hard for me to say. I would have to maybe think about it more. I do think my new opera does perhaps do that more. I think opera allows for more extremes.
FJO: We’re going to eventually get to the opera, I promise. But while we’re still talking about your early days—you mentioned it in passing, but we didn’t really bring it up specifically—I’m curious about how you feel growing up in Israel shaped who you are as a composer. It’s a society steeped in thousands of years of tradition yet, at the same time, it’s relatively a newly recreated country. And, as a result of the number of European émigré musicians who moved to Israel, there are deep connections there to Western classical music. However, in another sense, it’s kind of a brand new frontier. So I wonder what it was like for you to be involved in the classical music there.
AD: I would say that I think one of the unique things about growing up in Israel is how much geographically you are at the center of the Arab world. Israeli popular music, which is what I mostly heard growing up, is this kind of blend of Arabic and Western popular music. I certainly think that has influenced me in a very deep way. I think a lot of my pieces have those elements in them. And I think my interest in rhythm, to a great degree, is because of that—because I grew up in a place where the rhythms that you heard come from Arabic and North African, even Indian music. It’s a different rhythmic world. People here hear it, but as an imported element. Obviously, I didn’t hear it in a traditional context all the time, but it’s so prevalent there that you’re steeped in it. Also, a lot of the early experiences that I had working in music were crossovers with Arabic music, popular music, and traditional Jewish music. It’s a small country and a very small market, so if you want to survive when you’re young, you just have to do all these kinds of things. Even in the army, my job was to be an arranger for bands and orchestra, so I got to work in a lot of genres and types of music that I don’t think you would encounter elsewhere, because it is in the Middle East.
My family is from Europe and I grew up in a very central European household, but in Israel. So I think that is also a big influence on me personally. The new music scene there is very European. If you go to a new music concert in Israel, you might not know that you’re not in Germany. A lot of the composers are still very close to Paris, Darmstadt, and Frankfurt—all those influences. Personally for me, the immigration from the former Soviet Union was very influential. My main teacher in Israel came from the country of Georgia.
FJO: Ioseb Bardanashvili.
AD: Meeting him and starting to work with him was definitely a turning point in my life. He brought in a lot of knowledge and expertise. Georgia is even more of a different place than Israel, and just this point of view was so distinct and so unique. I think he was the person who encouraged me to focus on my point of view. Your point of view is the most important thing. I remember he heard my piano concerto, the early one, and he said, “I can see your face in this piece. This is you. That’s your point of view. Never forget it. You’ll be tempted to try to be someone else.” Here we talk about “finding your voice.” But to him, the idea is that it’s your point of view. He always talked about it in cinematic terms, like being a cinematographer who is invisible to the viewer but who makes the most difference in the movie. It’s the person who gives you the point of view. I think that really helped me to be more focused on my point of view when I’m composing. It’s something I feel that you have to recreate from piece to piece. So he was a huge influence on me. Going back to your question about the avant-garde, he would always say, “Why do you only use major and minor chords? What about a cluster here and there?” And we would argue about it. I’m still very close with him. He’s an incredible human being and an incredible composer.
FJO: Now in terms of the reception history of your music, when you were a young composer in Israel you were essentially a superstar. You were the youngest person ever to receive the Prime Minister’s Award. You were named composer of the year by the second largest paper in Israel. Your music was played by the nation’s leading orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic. It was as high as you could go. You said it was a very small community, but you were more than a big fish in a little pond. You were as big a fish in that small pond as you could be.
AD: It was really shocking. I think within a matter of four weeks, all of these things you mentioned and a bunch of other prizes just happened. I won this award and that award, and then “we want to play your piece here,” and “we want you to be composer-in-residence for this orchestra.” It all happened at once. I was obviously quite happy, but nothing really changed in the world. You know, I didn’t write any new pieces during those four weeks. It just happened. And that was actually the point where Bardanashvili and my father both told me I should probably go somewhere else—some big cultural center—and get my doctorate to grow more.
The Ellef Symphony, for which I won most of these awards, was played in a dress rehearsal. My score reading professor was an incredible character who was a pianist for the Bolshoi, I think, before he moved to Israel. He was a really odd character, but we got along very well and he was a fantastic teacher. I remember he came to the dress rehearsal and we went out. Everyone was so excited, but he said, “Well, you know, if you think about your career as a staircase, you’ve made the first step. You are now on the first stair. That’s a big step, you’re now a real composer. But now you have all these other steps to take.” I’m grateful that the people around me were smart enough to realize that that was the opportune moment for me to go somewhere else where I could develop more and make larger connections. In a small market, you can be really successful quickly. But there’s nothing else left. It’s like, what’s going to happen tomorrow? What are you aiming for? It was great, but where do you go from here? It’s a very challenging market to be in. It’s a very small country with a lot of geopolitical issues, obviously. I’m not telling any secrets. I think I was very fortunate that people around me were saying that this was my moment to leave and get another perspective.
FJO: In terms of risk taking, you went as far beyond being a big a fish in a little pond as you could to swimming in an ocean—the New York City music scene is much bigger than a pond.
AD: You want me to regret it?
FJO: By no means! You’ve done well. You came here to attend Juilliard, which is a world-famous school, and you studied with John Corigliano, who is an extremely famous composer and was a very important mentor for you. But I still wanted to point out that, aside from it being a great opportunity for you, it was also a big risk, at least initially.
AD: Yes, it was a big risk. There was a financial risk, too. I actually had founded a startup company before I came to the United States. I got some venture capital and I was still running it for the first couple years when I was at Juilliard. The company eventually closed down but I’m pretty sure that, had I stayed in Israel, we would have had a better chance to survive. It was a music software company and, I think, a very interesting concept, but maybe too early in those days. Maybe the technology was not ready. Maybe we didn’t have enough money. I don’t know. Maybe had I stayed it would have worked out. I will never know. So, yes, I risked a lot. But I think for me, being in a place where there are so many other composers and so many other points of view and so many organizations, I feel like I needed that challenge and that dialogue. I thought that I would grow and expand my horizons.
People around me were worried that I would be frustrated staying in a small pond and that, as a person, it wouldn’t be the best thing for me. I wasn’t someone who was ready to take on a big job and become a power player in that scene. Some people really like that and some people did that and do very well. I’ve always wanted to focus on composing. I’m fairly certain that, had I stayed there, I wouldn’t have had as much time and energy to dedicate to the work and I wouldn’t have had the same opportunity to engage with other composers and get feedback from conductors. At Juilliard, one of the great things is that you work with such good musicians and you get feedback from them. That’s not to say that the Tel Aviv University music department is not strong; it’s very strong, but it’s much smaller.
You’ll probably find it funny, but one of the first things that shocked me about New York is how difficult it is to get a listing in The New York Times. In Israel, if you put on a concert it’s in the paper. There’s no question. I remember the first time I had some concert that wasn’t listed, I was like, Why wasn’t it listed?” And people said, “Why do you think you should get listed? They list six concerts and that’s it. There’s like a thousand today.” I couldn’t quite fathom the size and variety that goes on here. But again, why not take on the challenge? I’m always up for a challenge.
FJO: And you found a way to thrive here. We talked about you going to Juilliard and studying with John Corigliano. Here we are in the office of his publisher which is now also your publisher, G. Schirmer, one of the world’s leading music publishers. You were signed by them almost twelve years ago, just a month after you turned 30. So ultimately, coming here was the right decision. But I think it’s important to remember the moments of uncertainty. We talked about ways that growing up in Israel shaped your music. Do you feel like coming here changed your music?
AD: I do. And I think it took me a long time. People would ask me what the most important thing that coming to New York or that studying with John Corigliano did for me, and I didn’t know exactly. But I think now I have enough perspective. One thing is that you only learn who you are when you’re not where you grew up. So, if you grew up in a small town in, I don’t know, rural Pennsylvania, it’s only when you move to New York City that you realize that you’re from a small town in rural Pennsylvania. Before that, you know it theoretically, but you don’t really understand it. Early on, one of the things that happened here was that people often would mention the Middle Eastern flavor of my music. In Israel no one ever said that my music had a Middle Eastern flavor because other people are so much more extreme about it. But it’s there. So I think learning who I am from people who are not from exactly my background was a big revelation. The other thing—and this I credit John for very, very deeply and it took me a long time to understand what he actually meant—is that I remember he would always say, “You’re very emotional and expressive, and you’re not afraid to express emotions in your music.” I was like, okay, but he felt that was really important. You should listen to your emotions and think about them and start from the emotion. That’s why I wouldn’t say it starts from the numbers for me. They’re a huge part of me, but I think emotion and expression is a huge part of me as well. And I think that’s something that he saw very clearly and helped me come in touch with more. Since then, I’ve come in touch with it more and more and I think having him as a guide for several years really helped me understand who I am. So I think to a great degree, I was able to know myself much better because I wasn’t in my original environment.
FJO: I’m going to throw out an assumption I’ve had and see where it goes. An early orchestra piece of yours, which was in fact a piece that the Israel Philharmonic played under Zubin Mehta, is Variations Without a Theme. Variation form is one of the most common forms in Western classical music. But, as we had been saying, Israel, while connected to European traditions, is also somewhat removed from them and has its own traditions, some going back millennia even though it was built anew in modern times. It’s an old place, but it’s also a new place. So you’re taking variations, this time-honored form, but you’re doing variations that are completely unlike what we think of as variations. Your variations are without a theme. They’re homeless. There’s almost a diaspora quality to it. Am I reading too much into this?
AD: That’s an interesting thought. In the Ellef Symphony, the main theme is the same note repeated four times and then a rest. I was trying the old Beethoven thing of “can you write with a smaller and smaller and smaller motif?” So then I was like, I don’t want a motif at all. I don’t want a theme. In variations, most of the interest is not in the theme. We love variations and sometimes the theme is nice, but really it’s because the variations are interesting, what you do with the material. It’s almost like it’s what you do despite the material that is so interesting. Take the Musical Offering; the theme there is not a very good theme. You know, the king wrote it, whatever. But it’s what Bach did with it, despite the theme, that makes it a great piece. That was my impetus for that piece: just throw it out, why do I need to deal with a part that bogs me down. In the variation process, I’ll just play with elements of music.
The other thing is that variations are short and they change often. It’s like 50 seconds later—boom, we’re doing something else. I find that very exciting. I don’t feel I need to be committed to a certain texture, to a certain idea, to a certain aesthetic. The postmodern part of me loves variations, because I don’t need to justify why three measures after I started one idea, it’s like—whup—we’re doing something completely different. Obviously the challenge is to make a piece like that coherent, but being so mathematically oriented, that’s usually not the challenge for me; that usually almost happens on its own. So the more I stretch the boundaries, I think it usually works out better than when I try to work in a box. I understand why some composers need that. If you’re like a Jackson Pollock personality, you need the box. But if you’re very mathematical, then maybe the box will happen on its own.
FJO: Alright, I’ll try another one. You’ve written a ton of concertos.
FJO: Once again, it’s another centuries-old, Western classical form. And while you wrote a piano concerto very early on and a violin concerto more recently—two most often used solo instruments in concertos—you seem to be more drawn to instruments that are more outside of what we think of as being soloists with an orchestra. You’ve written several pieces which feature percussion soloists, as well as a piccolo concerto, which is not very common. Saxophone concertos are getting more common, but it’s an instrument that’s not typically associated with the orchestra so it is also an outlier. And one of my favorite pieces of yours is your mandolin concerto, definitely an outlier to the orchestra. In a way, it’s an interesting sonic metaphor for growing up in a somewhat outsider place in terms of Western classical music that’s also partially inside because of all the European immigrants. But do you think of these concertos that way, or am I just inferring it?
AD: I don’t want to make this disappointing. I love writing concertos. It’s perhaps the medium that comes easiest to me. I don’t know if it’s because I started out as a pianist and played a bunch of concertos, or maybe it’s because of my affinity for Vivaldi. Concertos are easy for me to write and to conceptualize. I think part of the reason that I’ve written all these concertos for unorthodox instruments is that these instruments are beautiful and there’s so much to do with them that hasn’t been done. But partly it has to do with basic market demand. With Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!, [the percussion duo] PercaDu were colleagues of mine at the academy in Tel Aviv and they just nagged me to write something for them. That piece developed into the concerto. A piccolo player asked me to write for him fairly early in my career. First, he wanted it to be a piccolo and harp sonata. I’d written the first movement, and I called him up and said, “You should come hear this, I think it’s a concerto. I don’t think it’s a sonata. I want to make it into a concerto.” That’s how that piece came about. The Mandolin Concerto started in a very similar way. Avi [Avital] wanted a piece for mandolin, harpsichord, and harp. And I said, “Avi, I love your playing and I appreciate that you like my music, but I don’t think I’m the person to write that piece. I think Henze should write that piece, or Webern, like someone with that sensibility. I think it could be beautiful, but I just don’t see it myself. Why not something with a string quartet, a little concerto with string quartet?” And we made that work. Then it became a real concerto. I asked him to bring me recordings. Avi gave me stuff from Russian and Brazil, and bluegrass; mandolin is prevalent everywhere in the world. In Israel, it has a really interesting history as well. There are a lot of mandolin orchestras in Israel. It was a social-political move of the government in the ‘50s to help educate immigrants, especially from poorer backgrounds. They would have the kids study mandolin so parents could work. It was kind of a real socialist thing. So yes, I’m fascinated with these unusual or non-traditional instruments, and with all of these soloists. But partly it’s just that these people want to play solo concertos. There’s no Tchaikovsky marimba concerto and no Brahms mandolin concerto.
FJO: But there is a very famous Vivaldi Mandolin Concerto.
AD: Yes, and I’m a big fan of Vivaldi. Some people don’t appreciate it, but I really do like his music. But yeah, there aren’t that many [mandolin concertos]. There also aren’t that many saxophone concertos; there are more, but there’s no canon so there’s an opportunity there. The thing with piano concertos and violin concertos is that you’re always in dialogue with the past to some degree, because you’re writing an old genre. And you’re always in competition. The orchestra world has to be driven by a lot of considerations. It’s difficult for a piano concerto to get played a lot, but a lot of soloists are coming to me for these kinds of concertos. I’m not the only one, obviously. Percussion concertos are a big driver of new orchestral works.
Also, when you’re writing a concerto, you can write longer pieces than the regular seven-to-ten minute orchestral commission and you have the soloist as your partner. When they get to the first rehearsal, they know the piece really, really well. With Avi, he knows it so well and most orchestras can probably read that piece at this point off the page because there’s a recording and YouTube. Any orchestra can also basically read Spices, Perfumes, Toxins! It was not like this at the premiere. It’s not an easy piece, but as it gets into the rep, then the conductors can hear recordings. It just becomes much easier and the soloists bring so much with them. You can count on the soloists to help the orchestra learn the piece more quickly, so that’s a very helpful thing.
FJO: And it is one of your most widely performed pieces at this point.
AD: The two percussion concertos are, definitely. I think each one of them has exceeded a hundred performances. That’s a lot.
FJO: And for both of those pieces, I think it also helps that you gave them such evocative names. Instead of just calling it Double Percussion Concerto No. 1, it’s Spices, Perfumes, and Toxins!, which actually immediately conjures up the Middle East, though perhaps once again I’m reading too much into this.
AD: Spices, Perfumes, Toxins! is definitely sort of a Middle Eastern piece. The first movement is based on an earlier piece of mine that I wrote just for PercaDu. The goal was to write a piece that really reflects young Israeli culture. If you go and analyze that first movement, a lot of the rhythmic aspects of that piece are actually drawn from South Indian music, but the flavor of it is very Middle Eastern, I agree, and that was the idea of that title as well.
FJO: And for the other one, Frozen in Time, the movements are all named after different continents and inspired by their musical traditions. We were talking before about how we’re formed by local influences, but for this piece the entire world’s music was your playing field.
AD: Right. That was from Martin Grubinger when we started talking about this piece. He said, “You’re from the Middle East, but your family is from Europe and you live in the States. You’re kind of a citizen of the world.” His perspective actually got me thinking about that concept for that piece. Again, that’s one of the reasons I love working so much with soloists: the exchange of ideas is very fruitful. When I write a concerto, I insist on meeting with the soloist and seeing them play in person. Recordings don’t do the same thing. There’s something about the physical presence of a person: the way they move, the way they hold their instrument. Often when I’m composing, I imagine them playing the piece. And when I orchestrate, I always imagine an actual orchestra on stage. I’m always thinking—back to physics—about the physical manifestation of the piece. I don’t know how other people do it. When I teach, I always find that students, as long as they’re thinking of composing or orchestrating as pen to paper, it’s very difficult for them to do it well. Once I imagine a specific stage with a specific orchestra and a specific soloist, I’m actually doing the work that I want to do. I’m actually thinking about reality and not about just page and paper.
FJO: Early on we were talking about successes and risks. You’ve actually managed to have a career as a guy who writes music for orchestra, which is something that is elusive to many others. There are tons of composers who maybe have only one orchestral piece in their catalogue, or it’s not even part of what they do or aspire to do. There are many composers who write well for large ensembles who work outside of the orchestral sphere entirely and instead write music for wind band where it is not uncommon for a piece to get played a hundred times. You have not yet written for wind band.
AD: No, but Spices, Perfumes, Toxins! has been arranged for band.
FJO: But by someone else.
AD: Yes, by someone else, by my wife. And she did a great job! It was premiered by the Musique Militaire Grand-Ducale in Luxembourg, and it was also done by some other bands in Europe. And I think San Jose State did it last year. There are talks of other American bands that want to do it as well. There was a graduate student in North Texas who arranged my piece Astrolatry for band. I’m hoping to work with him to make a few adjustments and get it performed again, maybe at my college. I find that world very interesting, first of all because the ensemble is so rich. Bardanashvili always says that strings are like the canvas of the orchestra and winds are the colors. So when you’re writing for orchestra, you’re designing the canvas and then on top of that you add the colors. The wind symphony is all color, so to me it’s a very attractive ensemble—also for the fact that you can have basically as many percussionists as you want, which is always a struggle for me with the orchestra.
My percussion parts for orchestral pieces are like these little books. I wrote a piece for the Cleveland Orchestra that was premiered last year. It’s a seven-minute piece, and the percussion score is very thick. The percussionists there did a phenomenal job, obviously, but they’re not used to seeing stuff like that. Partly it’s because I love writing for percussion—the rhythmic and color aspects of percussion are so central to my writing. I will often write six parts and just somehow squeeze them into three, because you only get three plus timpani. So I find the band world really fascinating, and I would love to write for the band word. But I feel like it’s a completely different market and I just haven’t had experience with it. I can say this: when they played Spices, Perfumes, Toxins! with the wind symphony, it almost sounds the same; it’s very difficult to tell that it’s a different piece. Some things bands are really good at—like rhythmic things and accents, because they play a lot of marches and a lot of them play more popular music. And of course John Corigliano often talks about the amount of time that they rehearse, which means you can actually write differently for a band.
Because I’ve written so much for orchestra, I think at this point I can write what I want to hear in a way that is very practical. And I think that’s one of the hardest things to learn as an orchestral composer, because you write your first piece and someone’s played it, but then the phone doesn’t ring. So how do you actually learn to be good at orchestrating and all the endless details common to orchestral composition? How do you make it practical? How do you get better at that? By having written a lot for orchestra, I’m much more confident that I can do that work.
FJO: Another part of your experience with orchestras which we haven’t even begun talking about is that you now also have an active career as a conductor, and not just of your own music. You’re the music director of CityMusic Cleveland. That’s another of way of honing your craft writing for an orchestra since you actually get many practical takeaways from directly working with an orchestra.
AD: Right, and you learn things the score never tells you—which pieces and which things actually work well in first rehearsal. This is something I’ve learned as a composer, but even more so as a conductor. You learn on the job that some things that look great on paper and sound great in all the recordings are actually not very practical. I did the Mozart Haffner Symphony. It’s a piece I love. I’ve known it forever. I thought, “Oh, this is gonna be a walk in the park.” But it’s so difficult to put together. It’s so difficult to play. It’s very transparent. Mozart never writes anything that doesn’t have to be there; this is one of the things people admire him for. But that means if anyone plays something wrong, there’s no one else to cover. On the other hand, Rossini is the most practical composer. Everything that you put in front of an orchestra, it just sounds great. It plays itself. We did the Dvořák Violin Concerto. The balance is so difficult in that piece, but how do you know until you actually do it? And the same goes for Ravel. Ravel is always quoted in orchestration books, but there are so many things that Ravel wrote that orchestral musicians actually change. In Alborada del Gracioso for example, there’s a place where the second violin is pizzicato, and it’s divided. One half is playing on the quarter notes, and the other half on the off beats. But they just play all the notes. No one divides it, as far as I can tell. How would you know that? When you’re studying Alborada, you’re like, “Oh, that’s a good idea. I understand why he does it. I will do that too.” But it’s actually a mistake.
So, as I conduct more and get to know the pieces from the actual practical point of view, I think it makes a huge difference. Also, I’ve worked with so many different conductors, some of the greatest in the world. Having conducted myself, I feel much more at ease now working with conductors. I have much less angst about saying things. I know what it feels like to be standing there and moving your hands and thinking that’s really not what I wanted, but that’s what came out. This idea that whatever comes out of the orchestra is what the conductor wants, it’s not true. Sometimes you do something, and it’s just not what you wanted. So as a composer, if you say that probably should be like this not that, the conductor may say, “Yeah, that’s what I wanted.”
I’ve learned that that’s much more of an integral part of the process and sort of a natural thing to have happen all the time. Conducting has been great learning, especially for orchestration. The best way to learn orchestration is to conduct. Obviously it takes some time to study scores and it takes away time from composing, but I think it’s worth it.
FJO: Also, CityMusic Cleveland is an organization that has a very significant community agenda. It isn’t about doing a concert series in a concert hall that people from around the city of Cleveland come to. It is about going into the communities directly and serving different groups of people. There really is a mission to build audiences. You were saying early on that if music is not reaching people, why do it? I think what they’re doing ties very neatly into that.
AD: My first experience with CityMusic was when they played my piece Uzu and Muzu from Kakaruzu, which is a piece for kids based on a beautiful Israeli children’s story. It’s all about building bridges and resolving conflict. They did it and I went and did outreach work for the orchestra. I went to inner city Cleveland schools; I talked with kids and did presentations. I love doing those things. I also did that in Miami last year for the Cleveland Orchestra. I very strongly feel that that’s one of my missions in life. So the more I can do that, the more I will do it. I narrated some of the concerts, too. It really is in my heart and soul to bring art and music to people who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to have these experiences. CityMusic’s concerts are free and we go to churches all over Cleveland. Your local church, so it’s a place you’re comfortable in. And during intermission, the musicians talk with the audience and there are cookies; it’s a very community-oriented experience. I think that partly why they decided to hire me as their music director is because I do share that mission very, very deeply and very dearly. And the orchestra is so good. Some people make the assumption that if you’re going to do that, then maybe you sacrifice some of the musical integrity. But that’s not the case. The orchestra is really a top notch ensemble. The atmosphere in the orchestra is also very special, because a lot of the people playing in the orchestra do it for the mission, not for the gig. We rehearse more than most orchestras. We usually have four, three-hour rehearsals, plus a dress. And then we perform five times. So by the last concert, we’ve been through the music a lot. I’m very encouraging of collaboration during rehearsals as much as is possible in an orchestral setting, so I think the musicians in the orchestra really take ownership of the orchestra. That’s not always the case.
FJO: The kind of community engagement you’re describing sounds similar to what you did when you served as the composer-in-residence with the Stockton Symphony through the Music Alive Program that New Music USA administers in partnership with the League of American Orchestras. I think what was particularly noteworthy about doing outreach activities there is that it was a deeply troubled community. There’s a lot of talk at orchestral conferences about how to make orchestras more relevant to people’s lives; there you were, actually on the front lines.
AD: That was an incredible experience. By the end of the residency, I think 7,000 students heard the concerts and another 5,000 students heard some form of presentation or were somehow engaged by the orchestra. There must have been some overlap, but we’re talking probably near 10,000 elementary school students in the Stockton area. And yes, it’s a city that went bankrupt and that has great divisions and economic gaps and a lot of social problems. In some of these schools, you come in the morning, and you see the kids eating their breakfast, because their parents don’t have money for breakfast. I didn’t know that was the case. I didn’t know this is how things are in some places. Yet you start talking about how to write music—I showed them that in Uzu and Muzu there’s a diatonic row, a row of seven notes that are from C major. I showed them all the permutations and I showed them how the theme is built from that. And these kids got up and they started making up their own tunes. And other kids were singing in the retrograde. They get it. You see that their minds expand and their hearts calm down. Music has that ability to engage people in a very healing way and in a very developmental way. We need to give them all the tools that we can so they grow as much as possible.
As musical institutions, that’s a great goal. Stockton [Symphony] is another example of a very small orchestra that is both high quality and that took on this giant project. I was in awe of how they manage to produce so much outreach and I think I only spent three week there, maybe four weeks, during that year. That was a big production to reach that many students. And I got letters from students. They sent me drawings that they made. Some schools put on their own pieces that the kids made based on the story. They made up stories and they acted them out and played. They actually created these musical stories. It’s so heartwarming to see that you can touch lives in this way. It makes everything so much more a part of the world.
The tendency as a composer is to lock the door and say see you in six months; it’s such a solitary experience. There’s nothing more solitary than composing a piece of music. Of course, I enjoy that. But I think in order to be a complete human being, giving to the community is very enriching for me, and obviously I think it’s our duty, or my duty at least, to do these things. I grew up in a place where everything was basically available. We can’t just take it for granted.
FJO: In terms of engaging communities and sending messages through your music, sitting on this table with us is the full score of your first opera. You’ve written vocal music in the past, but not a ton. In fact, there’s only one vocal piece of yours that I ever heard, a setting of Psalm 67 from pretty early on. So I don’t think of you as a vocal composer. Last year, I know that you wrote a big choral piece which I’m eager to hear at some point, but writing an opera is even more ambitious. And with vocal music, once you attach words to something, you get into this whole other area of meanings and emotions and telling stories directly. And the story you chose to tell here, for your first opera, which is being done in Germany—
AD: —in German!
FJO: Yeah, which is not a language you’re fluent in. But what seems even more peculiar is that you’re an Israeli-born, Jewish composer and you wrote an opera that’s being premiered in Germany about this guy who was an anti-Semite who inspired Hitler. That’s kind of mad.
AD: Well, this is where we start the therapy session. I’ve had a lot of time to think about this. I think from my point of view, to write this is very natural. It’s a funny thing. I grew up in an Israeli household, but three out of four of my grandparents came from Germany. Two of them were born in Germany, one was born in Israel but moved to Germany. During the ‘30s they moved to Israel. So German culture and German music were a very central part of my home upbringing. Nietzsche, Goethe, we had all the books at home and they weren’t in Hebrew. Growing up, I played a ton of Bach and Beethoven sonatas, Brahms, Schumann. It’s like if you asked someone here where they are from. “I’m American.” Where did your family come from? “Well, they came from Italy and Spain.” My family came from Germany. So I’m Israeli, but my family came from Germany. Then this same culture that produced all these things that I identify with very deeply produced the same thing that was trying to very effectively kill all of the people that I am a part of religiously. That’s a huge paradox to grow up in. So I think that this story fascinated me. This guy was not just an anti-Semite, he was one of the first people to put together a racial theory that, on the basis of so-called modern science, distinguished the bloods of different people—between the top Aryans and the bottom Jews. Not only did he do that, but when you read his book, The Foundations of the 19th Century, he starts from the individual. He says really what drives history is individuals. Like the genius individuals. Who is a genius individual? Wagner. Beethoven. So not only did he make this up, he made it up with my biggest heroes. I wanted to understand why this became so popular. His book was a huge best seller. Not just in Germany, but in Russia, in England, in France, and in the United States. It was huge, and this guy is completely forgotten by most people today. How did this happen? I felt like this is an opportunity to understand a little bit more, because the history books start with when Hitler came to power. But this guy wrote his book in the 1890s. This guy divorced his first wife and married one of Wagner’s daughters. He became the head of the Wagner household. He ran Bayreuth, and got rid of all Jewish influence and socialist influence in Bayreuth.
And he was very influential in the German government during World War I. Hitler met with him, and that’s actually in the opera. Hitler revered him, and Hitler quoted him. If you listen to Hitler’s speeches, there are direct quotes from his book. The intellectual, pseudo-scientific, brainwashing ideas brewing there that people bought into are where racism starts. This is where hatred starts. Of course, anti-Semitism existed in Germany and in Europe for thousands of years. But I think what drew me to this story was to understand. We don’t play Wagner in Israel. To me, it’s an abomination. How can we not play Wagner in Israel? But, of course, I understand. And yet, did Wagner really mean this stuff? So this has really been an opportunity to get familiar with a part of this history. And I think it’s very relevant. I think it’s more relevant now than I thought two years ago. Racism is not gone.
Wagner’s son Siegfried was most likely gay, so one of the things that happens in the opera is that there’s a big scene where the main character, Houston Stewart Chamberlain who wrote the book, catches him with a lover in the garden. He pays off the lover to go away and then covers it up. These ideas that still plague society were there a hundred years ago. Sometimes I think it’s perhaps easier for people to look back and be like, “Oh that’s really bad. Let’s be better than that.” That’s one of the things that the opera taught me. I didn’t think two years ago it would be very relevant, but now people talk about neo-Nazism again. These tendencies in society are not eradicated.
FJO: So Hitler actually sings in your opera.
FJO: And you’re staging this in Germany where Mein Kampf was banned for decades?
AD: It’s now a best seller again.
FJO: But the Germans are very aware of this horrible history to the point that they’re very concerned about people being swayed, as they had been, by a charismatic figure. I’ve looked at films from that time and I don’t understand how he could have possibly been perceived as charismatic, but he was by millions of people. So to put his persona on a stage and have him sing, there is a potential danger in making him somehow iconic, since that is what opera does with characters. What are Hitler’s melodies?
AD: That’s the context of the whole opera. Houston Stewart Chamberlain is not as famous, but he’s a vile, despicable human being. There’s just no other way to say it. We actually cut some of the worst things, but there are pretty racist, awful things sung in this opera. It’s all very grotesque. When people ask me what genre is this opera in, I would say that the pieces that it speaks with from the past are Shostakovich’s The Nose, Ligeti’s Grand Macabre, some of the staged pieces by Mauricio Kagel. That’s the world that this piece is in. It’s different, obviously, but it’s very grotesque and absurdist.
So, yes, it celebrates these people, but in a very mocking way. The opera does not advocate for these points of view. I think it’s very clear, both from the libretto—which I think is brilliant—and the music. Also I would say that I think that has always been my way of dealing with the Holocaust. I always had to make jokes. I always had to think about it with some humor because it’s just too horrific to actually think about. In Israel, there’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, and you go to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum. Even thinking about it now, it’s just too much to handle. So I think humor and irony and absurdism—like Bulgakov, his spirit is in this opera, this out-of-this-world grotesque—is my way of dealing with it.
Specifically to Hitler, to answer your question, I actually transcribed some of his speeches as musical notation, because he was really a composer as an orator. He was a brilliant orator. He starts and then he waits and he builds up in pitch and lengths, the number of words. If you ever watch a speech by him—which is a very bad feeling but I had to do it—when he gets to the climax, it’s always like very high and then some word, the Jeeeews, he will say as a very long word. And he will basically yell it. I actually transcribed some of his speeches. And that’s the music that he’s singing. It’s actually from the intonation of his speech; it’s actually Hitler. Weirdly enough, some of the motivic structures that I found in his speeches are related to the scene in the first act when Houston Stewart Chamberlain first comes up with his racial theory. By complete coincidence, but that ties in really beautifully. The first time that this guy comes up with the racial theory is the same motive that Hitler ends up using for his big scene.
It was very tough to write the end of this opera. The ending is very harsh. It’s very evocative of death and death camps and not in a very beautiful way, but a very artistic way. I ended up thinking about the three last scenes of the opera as the beginning of the next one, which is the one where World War II happens. I wrote it like the beginning of another opera, because that was the biggest block I had in the whole process. What are you going to do with Hitler? How do you sit down and write notes that Hitler is going to sing? That was really tough.
FJO: So you’re going to write a second opera about this?
AD: I don’t know, but that was how I imagined it. If there was a sequel, this would be the beginning of that sequel, so then I don’t have to think of it as an ending so much, which was very hard. I think also transcribing Hitler’s speeches was a way to deal with what to write for Hitler. At the end of that scene, he’s like, “I’m going to have the Reich for a thousand years.” It’s very optimistic, but not.
FJO: Now in terms of being a big fish in a little pond, an opera in which Hitler has a singing role probably could never have been done in Israel, I would imagine.
AD: No, I don’t think so. It would mean a lot to me if it will ever be done in Israel. I am aware that some people from Israel might be offended by this, but I think they would be mistaken. I’m obviously not advocating my own death and my family’s death. Who would do that? But I think it’s an important part of history that is rarely told and that needs to be told. There are a bunch of quotes from Wagner, so maybe because of that, they won’t play it.
FJO: Obviously this is a very socially charged work. We talked about the emotional qualities of music, and what Corigliano said to you about you challenging emotion in your music. And also what Bardanashvili said to you about having your identity in a piece. And then the work you did in Stockton and now with CityMusic Cleveland, interacting with the communities and how important that is to you. A final observation, a lot of people are talking about these days being the beginning of a new era that’s very uncertain. So what is the role of a creative artist in such a society? What is our responsibility as artist citizens? When you say that you had to tell the story of this opera, I feel you’re touching on that.
AD: Obviously this is a very personal choice. When I say I feel this is my duty, I really mean my duty. Is it another composer’s duty and responsibility? It’s not. I don’t feel like that’s anyone’s choice, but for themselves. With a piece like this, you have a captive audience for two hours and you get to design the whole experience—which is, I think, the most exciting thing about writing an opera; there’s not going to be a Sibelius symphony on the second half. I think it’s an opportunity, if not a responsibility, to say something. I definitely think it is a politically charged piece. Even more so today than it was when I wrote it. I do think, especially in this era, that one of the mistakes is not to say things. We need to know that racism and hatred are a feature of humanity. It’s in our language. These things exist and they catch on like wild fire. When you don’t counteract and contradict them, they will continue to grow. I think as artists we have the opportunity to make a statement that will be heard.
The problem for most people is that if you’re sitting home and you hear some personality, politician, celebrity, or whoever, talk on TV or on the radio and don’t agree, what are you going to do? I guess today you can put it on your Facebook and in your Twitter. Great. But if you write an opera, or you write a symphony, or you release a recording, or you get interviewed, you can say these things and maybe more people will take notice. When someone comes to the symphony and they hear a piece and it has a message like this, maybe it touches them in a different way, because they get an hour off from their crazy and busy life and the music touches their emotions. Maybe it reminds them, you know, I was once a child. We all have love and compassion; that’s the other feature of humanity. Everyone has a certain element of prejudice and not being tolerant, even without being aware of that. But we all also have love and compassion and care about the people around us in our communities and beyond. So I think we do have an opportunity to raise these questions and to make people think and to encourage people to think, and to encourage people to feel and maybe not go in those directions even when it’s tempting. So I do think artists play that role in society. Historically it’s basically been proven that the last step before the really horrific steps is when that role is blocked by the government. In those societies where the government says to artists, “You can no longer speak your mind,” that’s one step before genocide and war and the massive imprisonment of people. That’s the moment that people really need to worry about. Like the Nazi government felt that certain artists, like Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, were a threat to the country. That shows us that we shouldn’t underestimate our ability to influence. Hitler was afraid of Brecht. So Brecht had some power there. Stalin was afraid of Shostakovich. Well, obviously Shostakovich was afraid of Stalin. Not to get too into current politics, but you see it now with the inauguration and who was not willing to perform, and who was willing. It’s a big deal. It’s a big deal when an artist who is invited to do something, says, “You know what, for you, I won’t do it.” That’s always a big deal when artists say, “I won’t support this kind of rhetoric.” I think we have power, or at least there’s some opportunity and possibility, that we can affect the world positively as long as it’s not blocked by the government. Obviously we’re not there, but I think we shouldn’t be afraid. But again, that’s me. I completely respect people who feel like music is separate and shouldn’t have anything to do with anything else. It’s their choice.
Although she has been a fixture of the Windy City’s music community for five decades, composer/pianist Shulamit Ran was born and raised in Israel. A child prodigy, she trained with two of the most significant Israeli composers—Paul Ben-Heim and Alexander Boskovich. But at the age of 14 she received a scholarship to study at the Mannes College of Music in New York City, so she immigrated to the United States where she became a protégé of Elliott Carter and Ralph Shapey. Shapey’s mentorship ultimately led her to the University of Chicago where she has served on the composition faculty since 1973.
As was Carter, Ran is a voracious reader, an acute observer of visual art, and a deep listener of the classical music repertoire. Many of her compositions have been inspired by earlier creations in various artistic mediums. During her monologue with music for us at the NewMusicBox Live! event during the Ear Taxi Festival this past October (the final of three such presentations, following Andy Costello and Nicole Mitchell), Ran recounted the genesis of two of her compositions.
One was her 2010 solo viola composition Perfect Storm which takes, as a point of departure, a brief solo viola phrase in Luciano Berio’s Folksongs. (Violist Doyle Armbrust was on hand to play the original Berio passage as well as substantive excerpts from Ran’s work.) The other was her 1969 song cycle based on Nelly Sachs’s collection of Holocaust-themed poetry O The Chimneys. As Ran recounted, the work was haunted by her memory of hearing bells on the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. It was a day that was originally going to be been a joyous day for her. On November 22, 1963, Ran had been scheduled to play her Capriccio for piano and orchestra with the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Leonard Bernstein as part of his televised series of Young People’s Concerts. Instead the day is now forever remembered as a day of national tragedy.
But according to Ran, music’s greatest power is its ability to transcend whatever is its source of inspiration and to communicate to listeners in a visceral way that is unlike any other medium.
“In its essence it’s ephemeral,” she explained. “It is abstract. It is not made out of words (except when words form the sound material), and it is not about visual imagery, and yet it speaks! It speaks in remarkable ways and can move us to tears, leave us dumbstruck with emotion, and bring us to a sense of being joyous at being alive. … Music seems to have the capacity to bring time to a standstill. It’s an illusion, but at the same time it’s a miracle.”
Henri Lazarof, photo courtesy Theodore Presser Company
Nobody but members of my family have ever held such a prominent place in my life for such a long period of time as Henri Lazarof. It was 1964, now 50 years ago, late in my second year at UCLA and my first year as a music major. I was studying harmony with a very ordinary professor, who shall remain nameless; it turned out he only lasted about another year at the university anyway. I had already met my future wife, Dolly, who was in Lazarof’s harmony class. She told me that I needed to change teachers, that something extraordinary was going on there, in spite of the fact that she occasionally came out of the class in tears. Her first semester class had begun with thirty students; it ended with eight. Lazarof was brutal, demanding total commitment, but they were really learning something.
When I talked to Lazarof about transferring into his class, he made a typically sarcastic comment to the effect that it was because I wanted to be with my girlfriend. He also informed me that I had better be at a very high level if I was to join the class in the second year. My first day in his class, he devoted the entire hour to testing me, mostly musicianship skills, in front of the rest of the class. At the end of the session, he told me I could stay. Good thing.
He absolutely drove us all to our individual limits. After harmony, I was with him for pretty much every other important course I took. After I graduated, he saw to it that I received a full fellowship to continue through to my doctorate, always completely under his mentorship.
During those six years, I saw him occasionally reduce grown men to tears. He certainly left a wake of students dropping his courses in favor of easier professors. To be one of the few still standing at the end was quite a source of personal satisfaction.
He believed in working very hard to develop the tools a composer needs. For example, he knew every instrument inside and out, and insisted that we all learn them at least as well. It was difficult to argue with such an approach. During my years of intensive work with him, he served as my main source of knowledge and inspiration, and as a role model. He lived what he taught.
For several years after my period of study, whenever I wrote something I would always think, “What would Lazarof say about this?” After some years, though, when my own individual style finally took over, I no longer wanted his approval, and we were less and less in contact, though always occasionally in touch. In 1982, Dolly and I hosted a surprise fiftieth birthday celebration for him, our co-conspirator being his colleague and our “other” mentor, Robert Tusler (who is still doing well at age 93!).
Unfortunately, Lazarof’s later years went from unhappy to tragic. He was never a collaborator. He never joined any of the usual composers’ organizations—in fact, he purposely avoided them. This did not exactly endear him to other composers. He increasingly went his own way, without much interaction with the rest of the composition world.
Then came something much more serious: Alzheimer’s. At a concert celebrating his 75th birthday, he didn’t even recognize me. At that time, I didn’t know of his affliction, and it obviously upset me. When I came to know the reason, I felt both better and worse. It was complicated. We were only occasionally in touch after that, and it was increasingly difficult.
Almost a year ago, someone close to him caught me after one of my lectures for the LA Philharmonic, telling me that Lazarof’s condition had deteriorated to a child-like existence. That such a spirit, such an intellect, could be thus reduced was devastating. I can only hope that his last year was peaceful. He was truly an amazing musician and teacher.
Henri Lazarof’s Musical Lineage and Legacy
Muzio Clementi (1752-1832)
John Field (1782-1837)
Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) and Alexander Dubuque (1812-1898)
(Glinka studied very briefly with Field; Dubuque studied extensively with Field)
Mily Balakirev (1837-1910)
(Balakirev studied informally with Glinka, but more with Dubuque)
Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)
Ottorino Respighi (1879-1936)
Fernando Germani (1906-1998)
Goffredo Petrassi (1904-2003)
Henri Lazarof (1932-2013)
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Edward Applebaum, Stephen Beck, Don Davis, Brad Ellis, Burton Goldstein, David Evan Jones,
Daniel Kessner, David Lang, Ellsworth Milburn (1938-2007), Mark E. Wilson
Mere months after fleeing Europe for the United States, the composer Ernst Krenek visited the home of George Washington in Mount Vernon. “I was moved to tears hearing the tolling of the bell on a gunboat that passed by way down on the Potomac,” he wrote. “What a world of strength and beauty was irrevocably lost to us who are walking around among its august remains.”
That Washington moment might seem strange for an Austrian-born composer of Czech descent, but Krenek felt the gap between past and present as acutely in Mount Vernon as he did in Vienna. His hometown, and the locus of the culture he had held most dear, had succumbed to the Nazis and was no place for a composer of jazzy operas and atonal music. “I had become a preferred target of the rapidly increasing barbarian tribe of German supermen,” Krenek wrote in his memoirs.
Today, those memoirs languish practically unread at the Library of Congress. Though penned in English, they have only been published in an out-of-print German translation. The memoirs aren’t even listed in the library’s catalogue. (An intrepid librarian discovered them for me in the stacks.) Call up ML95.K83, and you will come face-to-face with a large box containing over a thousand typed pages, divided into six tattered envelopes. Each envelope bears the label: “This must not be opened before fifteen years after my death.”
Krenek was a man of many contradictions in a century full of them. He hoped to succeed Mahler as a great symphonist, but became best known for an opera about jazz (the 1927 Jonny spielt auf). He was rejected by the Nazis for being a radical and by the postwar avant-garde for being a conservative. Constantly adapting to new circumstances, learning new musical languages to fit the times while pushing to new creative heights, Krenek seemed one step behind the curve, unable to catch up with the speed of the 20th century.
Reading the memoirs while listening to a new boxed set of the composer’s five symphonies—recorded over the past two decades by the North German Radio Philharmonic Hanover and released in May by CPO—helps rekindle Krenek’s world of strength and beauty, revealing the tumultuous life and searing music of an unjustly overlooked composer.
Krenek’s life and music inform us about the cultural heritage of Vienna, but perhaps more importantly about what happened to that legacy when Hitler forced a generation of artists and intellectuals into exile. Two of Krenek’s five symphonies were composed after he arrived in the United States, and they reflect his turbulent years as a émigré. Though some exiles felt, as Arnold Schoenberg famously put it, “driven into paradise,” in the case of Krenek it was a paradise in which his name, once heralded in the 1920s, was largely and unfairly neglected.
Krenek began writing his memoirs in 1942 in St. Paul, Minnesota. He thought himself near death, and fervently documented in English his childhood in Vienna, his twenties in Berlin, his return to his home city, and its downfall in the 1930s (born in 1900, Krenek died in 1991, making him an almost exact contemporary to Aaron Copland).
The memoirs move at a luxuriously slow pace, but are rife with insights into the cultural life of 20th-century Europe. In Vienna, Arnold Schoenberg was seen as a “local lunatic, a pure crank of no significance”; in Germany, Paul Hindemith obsessed over miniature trains; and in France, Igor Stravinsky insisted that Krenek eat salad with olive oil to gain the affections of women. Unfortunately, the memoirs conclude in 1937, leaving scant details about his American life.*
The memoirs also provide a gaze into Krenek’s own multifaceted identity, one that would acquire even more intricacy when the composer went into exile. “I am neither Czech nor German, and being Austrian appears to practically every living person as an artificial abstraction,” he wrote.
Krenek’s five symphonies mirror the complexities of his persona and the upheavals of his life. His First Symphony premiered in Berlin in 1921, heard by Wassily Kandinsky and Walter Gropius; his Fifth was premiered in 1950 by the Albuquerque Civic Symphony, and heard by, well, the residents of New Mexico.
In his early twenties, having relocated from Vienna to Berlin to follow his teacher Franz Schreker, Krenek composed his first three symphonies. They are a remarkable feat: over two hours of seething, post-Mahlerian grandeur, written in under two years. The First Symphony, a single movement broken into eclectic sections, is murkily atonal, with sudden fugal outbursts—a young man demonstrating his command of traditional counterpoint. The Third is a lighter work, though it still packs a punch.
Of this early trio, it is the Second Symphony that most intrigues. In 1922, Krenek fell in love with the youngest daughter of Gustav Mahler, Anna, whom he married and divorced in less than a year. Krenek dedicated his Second to Anna. He writes in his memoirs of his skepticism towards the idea that personal matters could inspire great music, but this symphony is one of his most towering works.
Hovering between Romanticism and modernism, it is a weird piece from its very opening, an ethereal duet of violins and plinking celeste. The music rises to massive climaxes that suddenly dissolve into mist before chaotically rushing forward to the next explosion. There is a sardonic streak throughout, channeling the other great post-Mahler symphonist of the day, Dmitri Shostakovich (who himself may have been inspired by Krenek’s music). One hears a fully formed musical personality—Krenek’s lifelong balancing act between reverence and cynicism.
The 25-year break between the third and fourth symphonies did not bode well for a composer hoping to succeed Mahler, as both symphonist and family member. But Krenek abandoned the genre when his opera career took off with the success of Jonny spielt auf, which briefly made him one of the most famous composers in Europe. Combining elements of jazz and late romanticism, Jonny was a surprise hit at its Leipzig premiere in 1927, and went on to tour Europe. A tale of a black jazz violinist who helps liberate a composer from esotericism, it became a kind of fable for the wild culture and loose morals of Weimar-era Europe, and a pioneering work in the cutting-edge genre of Zeitoper.
In the wake of sudden fame, Krenek found himself at what he called an impasse, unwilling to continue down the path of populist opera. He turned towards Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone system, ideas of which he gleaned from the composer’s disciples, since he was not allowed into the Schoenberg’s inner circle after a nasty battle earlier in their careers.
Neither the jazz-celebrating Jonny nor his subsequent twelve-tone turn ingratiated Krenek with the Nazis. Thugs disrupted performances of his music in Vienna and Munich, and rumors that he was Jewish (he wasn’t) led to cancelled concerts. Krenek had the unique position of being a composer who could be indicted as both an American-pandering populist and a mathematical formalist: the very ideal of the Nazi conception of degenerate art.
When Hitler annexed Austria in 1937, Krenek was in Brussels. He frantically applied for a visa and sailed to the United States. Over the next decade, he moved from university to university, started cranking out his memoirs, and composed a startling amount of music.
The final two symphonies, written in Albuquerque and Los Angeles in the late 1940s, harken back to his youth in Berlin. Despite Krenek’s engagement with twelve-tone techniques throughout his American career, both works are freely atonal, and less forbidding than much of his later output.
The Fourth is elegiac, even Copland-esque in its opening woodwind lament, though it still retains Krenek’s quintessential acerbity. As in the earlier symphonies, moments of utter weirdness puncture the music, like a lurching crunch of brass in the finale, a bleak revision of the Fanfare for the Common Man.
If the Fourth represented Krenek’s attempt to make his style more accessible, he didn’t tweak it enough. It premiered at Carnegie Hall, but the present recording is the first performance of the work in nearly sixty years. The Fifth, Krenek’s briefest symphony, reclaims some of the classicism of his earliest works, ending with a mordant fugue that recalls his first attempt in the genre.
Another fifty years passed, and Krenek wrote much music—electronic pieces, operas for stage and television, choral masterpieces like the Lamentio Jerememiae Prophetae—but not another numbered symphony. He dabbled in American themes: Santa Fe Timetable, a choral work setting the names of various train stops between Albuquerque and Los Angeles; a ballad of the railroads; a set of George Washington piano variations.
Despite his love for American culture, Krenek continued to feel like an outsider. The kind of writing which might have gained him an audience in the United States—the blend of lush early modernism and jazz found in Jonny—remained behind, part of the lost world of late imperial Vienna.
Living in its august remains, he pressed onward and adapted to his new home, even if it was less welcoming than the old. His music went unheard; it is worth resurrecting.
*Those interested can consult John L. Stewart’s 1991 biography of the composer; Claudia Maurer Zenck’s German-language study Ernst Krenek, ein Komposer im Exil; Krenek’s own 1974 Horizons Circled: Reflections on my Music; and two generalized studies, Driven into Paradise and A Windfall of Musicians.
Leon Botstein conducting the American Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Matt Dine (courtesy Sacks & Co.)
[Ed. Note: The following is a slightly modified version of an essay, reprinted with permission, that will appear as the program note for an all-Stravinsky concert performed by the American Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Leon Botstein this Friday, January 20, 2012, at Carnegie Hall. The program will include two rarely performed compositions written during Stravinsky’s final three decades in Southern California: Canticum Sacrum and Requiem Canticles. Botstein will additionally lead a performance of Stravinsky’s most famous work The Rite of Spring, written long before he arrived in the United States, as part of the ASO’s Classics Declassified series at Symphony Space in New York City on February 26, 2012.—FJO]
It has become all too commonplace to negotiate the complex and tangled fabric of artistic life in history by constructing an artificial hierarchy—lists of the “best” or “most famous” personages—as if painting, writing, or composing were Olympic contests, adequately judged by a single objective criterion. In reality, at any given time there are many inspired and imposing figures who, despite their ambitions, jealousies, and rivalries, themselves never worried about any top ten or top fifty rankings. And the nature of art-making resists such blunt instruments of evaluation. Nevertheless, for most of the 20th century (if there were indeed to be a contender for the status of the “greatest” 20th-century composer) the honor, as a matter of public perception both in the general public and among professional musicians, would most likely have fallen on Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky, who, unlike Paul Dukas or Felix Mendelssohn, seems not to have suffered from modesty, self-doubt, or excessive generosity to others, would have been only too pleased. Perhaps the best way to think of Stravinsky’s standing during his lifetime and for several decades after his death in 1971 is to compare him to the place his contemporary, Pablo Picasso, came to occupy in the visual arts as emblematic of the 20th century.
The reasons for Stravinsky’s prominence and dominance are many. First and foremost are the range and quality of Stravinsky’s output, sustained over a very long and productive life. Second, Stravinsky was a shrewd and effective promoter of his own music and career. Third is the variety of styles and genres in which the composer worked, from the stage to small chamber music works. Fourth—and perhaps most intriguing—are the prominence and influence he managed to achieve in three very disparate and discrete public spheres and contexts. The first was his native pre-revolutionary Russia, into which he was born in 1882. The second was French-speaking Europe, in France and Switzerland, where the composer lived and worked for nearly three decades before World War II. Stravinsky started his career outside of Russia as a Russian working abroad, and then as an exile. But he ended up as an exponent of contemporary “French” music. Stravinsky spent his final three decades (from 1939 on) based in the United States, where he was regarded initially as partially Russian, but equally French as an exile. Ultimately, by the early 1960s, he came to represent American music, at home in the United States and abroad.
Stravinsky’s career began in Russia, where he studied with Rimsky-Korsakov and where he formed a deep and lifelong artistic and spiritual attachment to Russian folk traditions, the Orthodox religion, the Russian language, and the Russian cultural heritage in music, the visual arts, and literature. The “Volga Boatmen” arrangement for Chaliapin gives evidence of this. In Paris, where he befriended Claude Debussy, Stravinsky exploited the rage for presumed exoticism of all things Russian, and rose to international fame through the success and notoriety of his ballet scores written for the Ballets Russes.
One single date has come to serve as an historic marker for the explosion of modernism onto the cultural scene—a moment in time that seemed to bring the 19th century to a close and usher in the 20th: the May 29, 1913 premiere of The Rite of Spring. In his years in France, Stravinsky came to dominate the musical and cultural scene, taking his place alongside Valery, Gide, and Cocteau (forgetting Coco Chanel in this context) as a luminary. Through Nadia Boulanger, arguably the most important single teacher of a younger generation of composers, many of them Americans, Stravinsky influenced the course of American concert music. In his American years, Stravinsky’s fame and reputation continued to grow, not as an outsider (the way other émigrés, such as Schoenberg, saw themselves), but as an insider in the American scene. In part through his association with Robert Craft, who would become his chronicler and assistant, in his last years Stravinsky was astonishingly productive, writing in a new way, adapting modernist techniques developed by Schoenberg and Webern.
All in all, therefore, one can locate roughly three distinct stylistic periods in Stravinsky’s career. The first was an unmistakable “Russian” phase; Russian influences are obviously audible in the Firebird, for example. This gave way to a form of self-consciously international neo-classicism, not dissimilar from a parallel development in architecture, particularly the work of Le Corbusier. The high point of that period was reached during the late 1920s and early 1930s in Paris. In the years of transition from Russia, great works that mirror the trajectories forwards and backwards in time were written, such as Les Noces (1914/1917) and The Soldier’s Tale (1918). The legacy of neo-classicism formed the basis for the third period (the most audibly modernist period, that of the 1950s and 1960s) when the composer was in the United States, where he wrote among other things, together with W.H. Auden, his operatic masterpiece The Rake’s Progress (1951) and an opera for television, The Flood (1962).
At the same time, just as in the case of Picasso, the shifting stylistic surfaces in each period never masked a consistent distinctive character and quality to Stravinsky’s music. A set of proverbial fingerprints, revealing a unique musical imagination and personality, can be located in all of Stravinsky’s music. Central to Stravinsky’s aesthetic was the belief that in the end music was separate from language, and demanded a formal economy, a structure, and rigorous logic all its own. At the same time, Stravinsky understood his audience and the public. He had an uncanny sense of the theatrical in music and an elegant sense of humor and irony. There was a clarity, transparency, and lightness to his music reflecting a deeply felt aversion to Wagnerian grandiosity and Mahlerian metaphysical pomposity. A lucid rhythmic originality, vitality, and complexity inhabit many of his scores, but the asymmetries and surprises all seem seamless and natural. The discipline of writing for dance taught the composer that the overarching architecture of a work, its musical flow and narrative, could not be obscure. Stravinsky used musical time with uncanny effectiveness, rarely if ever wearing out his welcome with his audience or his fellow musicians. His command of instrumental and vocal sonorities was equally impressive, as was his capacity to make his material memorable. Stravinsky’s extensive output was startling in its consistency in terms of rigor, invention, and quality.
Yet, like Picasso, although Stravinsky’s name and reputation remain in tact, the interest of the public has shifted away from much of his work. The three great ballet scores, The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911/47), and The Rite of Spring, are cornerstones of the orchestral repertoire. Many later scores are still heard, but far fewer than one might think or wish. This is especially the case with Stravinsky’s later works. Indeed, many of his mid-career and later works survive on the public stage as a result of his friend Balanchine’s choreography, including pieces not intended for dance, such as the Violin Concerto (1931).
If there is tendency to simplify how we approach the history of music by constructing lists of the “top ten,” there is a parallel allure to the idea that there is some “essential” identity to each composer in terms of his historical roots, so to speak. Bartók becomes quintessentially “Hungarian,” Copland “American,” Debussy and Ravel “French,” and Sibelius “Finnish.” As a result, we turn to Americans for the “best” performances of Copland, Hungarians for Bartók, the French for Debussy and Ravel, and the Finns for Sibelius. This makes marketing easy and lends some hint of authenticity to our experience as listeners, as if there might be some secret spiritual or national bond, framed by blood, language, and soil, between a composer and his music, requiring decoding by someone who shares that bond.
Even when this might plausibly apply to a composer (e.g. Musorgsky as Russian or Smetana as Czech), it assumes some fixed generalized category—Russianness and Czechness that seem to transcend historical change. But what do we make of Stravinsky? Despite his evident identity as a Russian émigré after 1917, this reductive assessment violates not only his own views about the nature of music, but the facts of his career and the range and variety of his compositions. Recourse to the notion of exile, in the case of Stravinsky, only complicates the problem. Rachmaninov was also an exile after 1917. For him the experience of being separated from his homeland was traumatic. He sought to insulate himself in an environment marked by nostalgia. He tried to recreate the atmosphere of his native land when he was in America, England, and Switzerland. Prokofiev, who like Stravinsky found himself abroad when the October Revolution happened, and like Stravinsky sought to make a career in America and France, in part because he felt always in Stravinsky’s shadow, returned to Russia in the mid 1930s. But Prokofiev, unlike Stravinsky, had no spiritual ties to the Orthodox Church and was never a virulent anti-Communist. Stravinsky fit in, in France and America, as a leading and successful participant at the center of musical and cultural life, and never at its margins.
Vladimir Nabokov reinvented himself and became one of the greatest writers in English and one of the most trenchant observers of post-War America. Stravinsky managed to reinvent himself too, not once, but twice: first in France and then in America. Like Nabokov, he used the position of exile to forge a synthesis with his new circumstances and reach in new ways various new publics. The link to the past was never hidden or disavowed (as Kurt Weill attempted). Stravinsky, fortunately for him, unsuccessfully tried to keep his music in circulation in Germany after 1933. Displacement and the necessity to adjust may have been unwelcome but they could still be understood as acts of practicality, not fear or conscience. Exile provided Stravinsky with new remarkable sources of inspiration.
Stravinsky was, above all else, a composer’s composer, for whom music can function in the world in a manner that resists facile typecasting, and whose character reflects a dialogue with the composer’s immediate environment. His ambitions, craft, and influence were international and his identity shifted, at different phases in his career, to transfigure distinct milieus and contexts.
Jan 18, 2012
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