Composer and pianist Billy Childs shares the impact of the pandemic and systemic racism in America on his creativity and how he returns to his writing process with practice and persistence. Billy speaks candidly about the pressure he puts on himself to create and perfect his craft, how his musical brain is constantly processing the world around him, and the healing nature of artistic experience.
July 31, 2015—11:00 a.m.
Video presentations and photography (unless otherwise stated)
by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu
As most folks love to opine, throughout most of music history the majority of composers were also prodigious performers and nowadays composer-performers once again seem ubiquitous. This time around, though, it is in large part because the act of parsing music-making into different stylistic categories has largely eroded. But through most of the 20th century, we lived in a musical environment where the Socratic notion of one person/one job reigned mostly unchallenged and the boundaries that separated various genres often felt impermeable. Despite that, some musicians went against the grain and eked out careers in multiple musical roles, as well as in many different kinds of music. But few have done so as successfully as André Previn who—as a composer, conductor, and pianist—has been equally comfortably making music in and for concert halls, jazz clubs, opera houses, Broadway theaters, and the silver screen for three quarters of a century.
Still, Previn is not one to rest on his many laurels–and there are many! A trio recording featuring him on the piano was the first jazz album to sell more than a million copies. He won back-to-back Oscars for his Hollywood work and garnered eleven Grammys for classical recordings he conducted. In 1998, he received a Kennedy Center Honor for his lifetime achievement as a conductor and composer of orchestral music and opera. Now in his 80s, Previn is composing more prolifically than ever before in his life, yet he comes to composition with a great deal of humility.
“I can’t take myself that seriously,” Previn says at the onset of our visit with him in his Upper East Side apartment. “I love writing and I’m very serious about it, but when it’s over, it’s over. It’s not for the ages. I can’t visualize anybody doing my pieces 50 years from now. I’m just glad if they do them Wednesday.”
And yet, the voluminous amount of music that Previn has been writing in recent years is getting performed quite a bit, all over the world.
“I’m very aware of how lucky I am now,” he says with a grin. “When I first started composing, nobody wanted to know. Now, if I write a piece and I let certain orchestras and certain soloists know that I’ve written it, they all want to do it. Well, not all, but a great many of them. All these orchestras that suddenly are doing my pieces amaze me. They don’t care whether it’s new or old or whatever. It’s just a piece of music they haven’t played, which is really the healthiest thing in the world.”
Not caring whether something is old or new has actually been a hallmark of Previn’s current compositional language, something he has acknowledged many of his colleagues are somewhat baffled by.
“John Harbison said you write these big pieces, and all the things that have happened in the last 50 years are absent, like they never happened,” Previn admits. “I said, ‘I can’t explain that. I don’t know.’” For me, music has to be an emotion and my emotions don’t react well to mathematical formulae.”
But surprisingly for a polymath who has been so deeply involved in jazz and motion picture soundtracks and who even wrote a Tony Award-winning Broadway musical with Alan Jay Lerner starring Katharine Hepburn, Previn has no interest in creating some grand polystylistic musical synthesis for the 21st century.
“I never thought of bringing it together; I see no particularly connective tissue between those things,” Previn confesses. “Very serious jazz, I don’t much like. … It’s a well-known fact that the worse the movie, the more music there is. If you have a really idiotic movie, the music never stops, because the poor producer says, ‘Do something.’ So, we all make a noise. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t wonderful scores, but it’s not music that interests me anymore—at all. … There are many Broadway shows I wish I had written, or wish I could get my hands on, but it’s not a lasting ambition with me. I’d rather write an opera.”
Previn, however, also doesn’t like to repeat himself, and he has already composed two highly successful operas—A Streetcar Named Desire and Brief Encounter—both based on classic 20th-century plays.
“I’d write a light opera, for instance,” he offers somewhat cagily. “Tom Stoppard and I are about to start working on a one-act opera. I can’t discuss it, because he doesn’t want me to.”
But we discussed plenty of other things. Not only did we get into extensive details about many of his compositions, we also talked about many other composers and interpreters. He charmed us with some extraordinary anecdotes–including how, when he was a teenage piano prodigy, he got thrown out of Ernst Toch’s home as well as how, many years later, he was able to mollify Olivier Messiaen during a tense rehearsal with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. We could have stayed for hours, but he had more music to write.
Frank J. Oteri: You’re writing so much music these days. The only composer I can think of who has been as prolific as you have been at your age is Elliott Carter. For years, he wrote extremely slowly, but he sped up after he turned 80. When I asked him about what changed, he said that he had finally figured out how to write Elliott Carter’s music.
André Previn: That’s very sweet. But also [when we get older] we are all suddenly more aware of the finite term of life and, you know, you want to get it done. I have to make up for lost time because I did not compose seriously for many years. So now in the last ten years I suddenly thought, “Get moving!” I write very quickly and that helps.
FJO: So how long would it take you to write, say, a 25-minute concerto for soloist and orchestra?
AP: That’s a kind of generality. I wrote a harp concerto. I don’t know a goddamn thing about the harp really, so that took a while—but a 25-minute piano, violin, cello, or viola concerto? I don’t know, probably about a month.
FJO: That’s a very short amount of time.
AP: Well, it’s not very good either. My problem and my flaw, if I can pinpoint just one, is that I don’t re-write. I hate re-writing. Once I’m done, I put it away, and it’s over with for me except if I make a mistake in terms of the technical use of the instrument. I once wrote an impossible double stop for viola. I just suddenly wasn’t thinking; the player would have to cripple his hand. So then I’d re-write it—or leave it out; that’s even better! I can’t take myself that seriously. I love writing and I’m very serious about it, but when it’s over, it’s over. It’s not for the ages.
FJO: Not for the ages?
FJO: So the reason you’re fighting against time to write all this music isn’t to ensure a legacy.
AP: Well, that’s an interesting point. When I say not for the ages, I can’t visualize anybody doing my pieces 50 years from now. I’m just glad if they do them Wednesday, which is why I can only write for someone specific. I don’t like to write into the void. I like to know who’s going to play it and where and all that. Then it helps me; it helps me a great deal. I wrote an awful lot for Anne-Sophie Mutter. I know her sound and I know what she can do best. That makes life much easier. I wrote a piece last year—a concerto for trumpet, horn, tuba, and orchestra, which was a commission from Pittsburgh because they had three big stars. That was great fun for me because I don’t play any one of those things. I couldn’t tell you the positions of the trombone and all that, but I have them in my ear, and it helps a great deal that I’ve conducted so much because the sound of instruments and the sound of the combination of instruments are not alien to me at all. I know what I’m doing at the piano, but I don’t write piano music very much.
FJO: Since you mentioned the Triple Concerto, one of the things I find so interesting about the pieces that you’ve been writing is how many of them are pieces for multiple soloists and orchestra. It’s interesting to hear you say that you’re not interested in whether they’re performed 50 years from now, because writing for multiple soloists is somewhat impractical in terms of getting a piece into an orchestra’s season.
AP: Well, it would be impractical if the triple were like the Beethoven Triple, because that’s three [hired] soloists. But a piece for trumpet, tuba, and horn—every good orchestra has three of those good people in them, and the same with the winds. Sitting in the chair you’re sitting in last week was Andrew Marriner, and he said, “We’re all so glad you’ve written a clarinet sonata, a clarinet concerto, and a clarinet quintet. We don’t have enough music. So it’s always wonderful to get somebody to write something.” That’s really the case with those double and triple concertos, because the principals of good orchestras want that, and it’s very unlikely that management would hire three big stars to play those things.
FJO: I think my current favorite of your double concertos is the one for violin and double bass, and that one definitely feels like a star vehicle.
AP: Oh yes, of course, they’re soloists. That was a straightforward commission. The bass player, Roman Patkoló, is a genius player. Anyway, Anne-Sophie wanted a piece for him, and she’s always practical. So she said, “Write me a fiddle part in it because it’ll be easier to place.” And so I did, and he was very nice about it. He said, “Everything is terrific. I love it. But this octave is a little weird for me.” So we changed that. But that’s not because he didn’t like it. It was advice, and I was glad to get it.
FJO: In terms of being practical, these days a lot of people say that one of the most practical things you can do as a composer if you want a piece done a lot is to write for wind band.
AP: I did that.
FJO: The piece is only a year old and already nine different wind bands have done it. That’s amazing.
AP: Nobody’s more amazed than I am, especially since I’m not really a wind band expert. How do I know what trills are possible on a baritone horn? Nobody learns that. But I liked fooling with it. Then when it came out and the sonorities were nice, I was very pleased. And I must say, at Eastman at the premiere, the kids—and by kids I mean between 18 and 25—they could play like demons. They read that stuff as if were the Simple Symphony by Ben Britten. It was really impressive, and I enjoyed hearing them a lot.
FJO: But what happened with your piece is one of the realities of our music scene today. A piece that’s only a year old has already been done by nine different groups. And I imagine it’s going to be done by a lot more, although in a couple years, they’ll probably say it’s an old piece and that they’d rather play something new. But that’s the world of wind bands. It’s the exact opposite of what happens with an orchestra. I can’t imagine a new piece of orchestra music being done by nine different orchestras.
AP: Orchestras tend not to do that. They also get jealous of who else is doing it. But I have a double concerto for violin and cello, and that’s been done a lot. And the cello concerto I wrote for Daniel Müller-Schott—he called me two nights ago from Tokyo where he had done it twice. He was going from Tokyo to Rio, which is quite a jump—and he hates airplanes, too. Anyway, I said to him, “Are you playing it in South America again?” He said, “Oh yes, 20 times.” That’s really terrific, and I was seriously grateful.
But this always amazes me and amuses me in a kind of weird way. I read about the premiere of Rosenkavalier. In the first year, it was done by a 150 companies. Think about that. That doesn’t happen anymore. The whole business of the performance of music is so different now, so different even in the relatively short time that I’ve been around. But when you say it’s an old piece, I know what you mean. It’s quite true. I’m guilty of that too. I say, “Well that’s an old piece; I wrote that five years ago.”
When I was running the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, I had Milstein as a soloist, and I was doing an English festival—not with him, but the weeks following. There was a double concerto for violin and viola by Tippett which was, as far as I could tell, impossibly hard. So I went to our concertmaster, Fritz Siegel, who was a wonderful player, and I said to him, “How would you do this?” He said, “You got me. I have no idea how you even attack this particular passage. Would you mind if I asked Milstein.” I said, “Not at all.” So he went and said, “How would you play this?” And Milstein looked at it and he said, “I wouldn’t! I wouldn’t go near it; it’s impossible and it’s not worth it.” And Fritz said, “But I’ve got to play it.” And he said “Why?” And he really tried to stop him from playing it because it was too difficult. And I know what he means, too, because it wasn’t worth quite the effort that would have to go into it. So soloists have a tendency not to [play much new music]. With the exception of Anne-Sophie, I must say, who’ll play anything you put in front of her. Gil Shaham is another one who can play anything.
FJO: In terms of playing anything you put in front of her, there are so many violin concertos in which the violin soars way over the orchestra, but I can’t think of any other piece that’s as full of ledger lines as your first violin concerto—it’s practically a sopranino violin part.
AP: Anne-Sophie said to me, “Write a lot for me way, way upstairs; I love playing up there.” I said, “Fine.” The piece ends with the highest practical note on the violin.
FJO: But when I listened to the recording of this and followed along with the score, I couldn’t help but wonder who else will ever be willing to play this.
AP: I don’t care.
FJO: You don’t care?
AP: No. Really. But when I teach—which is not very often, but at Tanglewood and what not—I know that the technical know-how of the students now is way bigger than it used to be. They all have technique to burn. I remember I paid some compliments to a young fiddle player, and Anne-Sophie kind of brushed her aside. I said, “She plays all the notes.” And she said, “Honey, everybody plays all the notes nowadays.” She’s got a point. Things don’t seem as daunting technically as they used to.
FJO: So maybe that Tippett Double Concerto isn’t so hard any more.
AP: That’s possible.
FJO: And nowadays there are all these dedicated new music players in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and all over Europe who can play the trickiest as well as the most impossibly notated stuff anyone could possibly imagine.
AP: I read today about a premiere of a new opera by Wolfgang Rihm. It’s evidently fearfully difficult. But I also know Wolfgang very well, and he doesn’t think about that. He just writes down what he wants to write down. It’s like Strauss’s famous remark when, at the first rehearsal of Till Eulenspiegel, his horn player said, “Excuse me Doktor Strauss, this can’t be played.” And Strauss said, “I write it; you play it.” Quite right, too. And it’s been played.
FJO: I want to return to something you said a little earlier that I didn’t jump on at the moment, but I’ll jump on it now—you haven’t written that much for piano.
AP: That’s quite right. I don’t know why. I can’t answer that. I wrote some variations which Manny Ax played for a while, but I don’t write for the piano very much.
FJO: Perhaps this ties into the piano being your instrument and you wanting to write for other people. But you have certainly written significant piano parts in some of your chamber pieces, like your sonata for clarinet and piano as well as your songs.
AP: My accompaniments to songs tend to be a little difficult. I just finished eight songs for Renée Fleming and her pianist, poor girl, she was here, and she said, “Maestro, these are really hard.” And I hadn’t thought of that. I mean, I thought of it, but I thought if I can play them, anybody can play them.
FJO: So, let’s take a piece like your latest sonata for violin and piano, which also has a formidable piano part. Did you write this music for you to play yourself?
AP: That second violin sonata, which I like very much, was for Anne-Sophie and her accompanist, Lambert Orkis, and he plays brilliantly. He said, “God, did I have to practice that!” And I felt like saying, “Well, it’s tough.” But he can play it. A lot of people can play it. They can all play everything now. But if I write for the piano, I tend to let my fingers wander and I’ll write it down. I don’t do it the other way around, which is better. But when I write for any other instrument—clarinet, trumpet, whatever—I don’t have the facility with which to test it. So I write whatever I can think of. And that helps a lot.
FJO: So in terms of your process for all of these pieces, you write to paper from your head. You’re not sitting at a piano working on stuff beforehand.
AP: No, but I have to be honest with you. After a certain amount of time, I will go to the piano to test it out, to play what I’ve written and see if it sounds the way I hope it will.
FJO: This gets into the whole dichotomy of pre-compositional structural design versus intuition. You were a prodigious improviser at the piano, an active jazz pianist for many decades. You could sit at the piano and invent stuff. But that’s a very different process than hearing something in your head, putting it down on paper, and then testing it at the piano.
AP: Oh yes. Ellington said that good jazz is instant composition, which is exactly right. But again, I don’t think about it in terms of preparation versus intuition and all that. I’m just sitting there playing. I don’t take it so textbook seriously. I read Charles Rosen’s book; it’s remarkable, but man, some of the language really throws me because I don’t know what he’s on about half the time. He attributes certain philosophical aspects to what he’s written or what he’s played that it would take you longer to figure out than it would the piano part.
FJO: So this whole idea of, say, a string quartet as a metaphor for a family, or a concerto as a metaphor for an individual versus the society—you don’t think about these kinds of things.
FJO: Do you think in terms of sonata form?
AP: Yes, I do. And I also love variations. But I don’t find it difficult to think in sonata form. I found a book a couple of months ago—Beethoven’s book on figured bass. Did you know there was one?
AP: I didn’t either. I can say clearly and decidedly that I didn’t understand a word of it, but I thought I better. So I started working on it, and of course it made sense. But again, I’m not much of a researcher. Yehudi Wyner is very fond of saying, “This time when the theme comes, it’s an F-sharp and not an F because that day his wife had a cold.” I say, “What are you talking about? He’s a composer. What if he just liked the F-sharp?” “That’s not good enough.” I said, “Yes, it is.” And we had a terrible fight.
FJO: So there are no hidden ciphers in any of your scores.
AP: No, the best I could do is maybe say this F-sharp is here because I’ve used F already. But I don’t mean it to imply that everything is instinct. It isn’t. I work very hard. But I don’t believe in writing music to suit a theory. The other way around maybe, but this is why I will never be a 12-tone composer.
FJO: It’s interesting to hear you say that, since so much music during the 20th century—which you’ve been active as a musician through—was dominated by various –isms, whether it was serialism, minimalism, post-minimalism, totalism, spectralism, indeterminacy, or microtonality. There were all these different camps, but you managed to stay clear of all of them.
AP: Well, maybe that’s ignorance. But, on the other hand, that lapses over into performing, too, because I know a couple of the early music champion conductors who have 7,000 theories about why you can’t have vibrato here and you can’t do this. They are very great specialists in that, but give them a chance to conduct Swan Lake, and they’re off and running. They want to. So I’m not so sure that it’s ingrained.
FJO: Well, I guess what is ingrained in you is that you’ve been immersed in music since you were a child.
FJO: And so you’ve heard and interpreted so much music in addition to your own, that all of it is very deep within you. It’s second nature. So while you might say that you didn’t initially understand Beethoven’s figured bass book, you probably have internalized all of Beethoven’s solo, chamber, and orchestral music from your experience as an interpreter. You might not be a scholar of it per se, but it seeped in in a profound way—the same with pretty much all of the standard repertoire through to Richard Strauss, whom you’ve also mentioned today.
AP: Sure. I can’t argue with that, that’s perfectly true. And the music that I love, I love no matter who’s playing it. That’s a kind of a wild statement, but people who say they can only listen to Brendel’s Schubert are missing quite a lot. So when I read in certain very intellectual reviews that “this phrase shouldn’t be that fast” or “this should be softer,” first of all, says who? Second of all, they don’t ever seem to say, “But my God, it’s beautiful music!” They get stuck on how it’s played. And how it’s played is not that important, I don’t think.
FJO: That’s an interesting opinion coming from somebody who was a conductor for decades.
AP: [laughs] Well, of course, except in the case of me! No, I just think that people who say I can’t listen to Toscanini’s Beethoven—which for instance Colin Davis said and I know why and all that, and I don’t disagree with him all the time—it’s a great piece, interpreted a certain way that does not happen to please the certain person who is reviewing it. But it doesn’t lessen Beethoven any. It doesn’t matter. Yet still, I was in a record shop in Munich with Anne-Sophie, and there was a woman—a nice lady, about in her 40s—who said, “You have a series of packages of the complete works of Bach. I’d like to see that.” And the woman at the cash register said, “With who playing?” “I don’t care.” Well, Anne-Sophie and I almost fainted, because it was an interesting way to buy a record, but on the other hand, if you wanted to be complimentary, you could say she loved the music so much she didn’t care who played it. But that’s not quite the source that warrants that.
FJO: No, unless she wanted to get familiar with the repertoire.
AP: Well yeah, that’s right. But the complete anything I find dangerous anyway.
FJO: Now to take these comments about the open-endedness of interpretation back to your own music, you said that you write for specific people so there’s a specific sound that you’re going for.
FJO: But when you write a score and let it out into the world, it becomes this thing that theoretically anybody could play in any country and at any time if they have the requisite technical facility to pull it off—and sometimes even if they don’t. There’s sort of a built-in anonymity to it in the sense that they’re playing what’s written on the page to serve the composer who created it and it’s important for that composer’s identity to come across first and foremost which is why that woman could go into a record store and say, “Hey, I want Bach.” Bach is obviously not there; he didn’t make records. But he is there in these notes he put on the page that the interpreters playing his music translate.
FJO: After looking at a number of your scores I was curious about how much control you are willing to let go of in terms of pieces. What is sacrosanct? What isn’t?
AP: Oh, a lot of it is not. I mean, I want the notes played, but how they’re played—if you have a good soloist, whether it’s a second oboe player or a great pianist—really doesn’t matter. If it’s a good musician, let them alone. See first what he’s up to. I’ve had people like flute players who play [Prélude à] L’Après Midi [d’un faune] and I think, “Where did they get that from?” But I liked it, and it made me admire the piece even more. So when I write something and it is interpreted in a way that I had not thought of, very often I’ll like it. I won’t prescribe it, but I will like it. On the other hand, I don’t like arrangements very much. You know, when people say, “Yes, but this is easier with two hands instead of one” or “I’m going to go up a tone.” No. That I don’t like!
FJO: So if someone were to do a song of yours in another key.
AP: Well, wait a minute. If we’re going to talk about singers, that’s a whole different world.
FJO: O.K. I’m going to save vocal music for later. Let’s stay with instrumental music for now. If someone were to take your clarinet sonata and say, “I want to do this on viola.” The Brahms clarinet sonatas are also done on viola. Would you have a problem with that?
AP: Yes and no. I would not have a problem because it’s nice to have somebody play the music. But I would have a problem because it’s not what I thought of.
FJO: Now one of the things I find interesting, in getting back to this second violin sonata, is you leave a lot of dynamics up to the players, which I found fascinating given your decades as an interpreter, both as a pianist and as a conductor. I was quite surprised that you were willing to let that go.
AP: Well that’s interesting. I don’t leave it up to orchestra players because they have to play all that I’ve written down. But I must say that the really good interpreters that I’ve written for—like Anne-Sophie, Yo-Yo Ma, or Yuri Bashmet—if they suddenly say, “This would be wonderful if it were pianissimo and senza vibrato,” I’ll say, “Well, try it.” And if I like it, fine. So I don’t mind that.
FJO: But that’s the thing about the way we disseminate music that is notated. You talked about the early music conductors being really scholarly about a work. A hundred years from now, they’re not going to be able to call you up. So, how are they going to know what to play? Your urtext might be missing some important detail like a dynamic marking. Maybe they’ll have access to a recording, but recordings can only tell you so much. Then again, at the very beginning of this conversation you said that that’s not really of interest to you.
AP: Well, I think that a hundred years from now, there will be just as many good musicians as there are now. They’ll have their own opinion, and that’s O.K. with me.
FJO: You mentioned earlier that you will never be a 12-tone composer, to which I responded that you have pretty much stayed clear of all the –isms of 20th-century music. Even though your music is very much of our time, it sometimes sounds as if all this other stuff that happened didn’t happen for you, in a way.
AP: You know who said exactly the same thing about me was John Harbison. John Harbison said, “You write these big pieces, and all the things that have happened in the last 50 years are absent, like they never happened.” And I said, “I can’t explain that. I don’t know.” For me, music has to be an emotion and my emotions don’t react well to mathematical formulae. On the other hand, I admire a pupil Schoenberg had called George Tremblay. He wrote good music, and I like some of the rows that he invented very much. One of them I stole blind. But when I hear somebody like Boulez, who has a phenomenal mind, say that he finds Puccini tawdry. Well, fine. But it moves me. The last act of Bohème or the beginning of Turandot are irreplaceable for me. And the more they go for the throat in the interpretation, the better it is for me. I love it.
FJO: And talk about a great orchestrator.
AP: Oh? You know, as an orchestrator myself, I take a look at some of the Puccini opera orchestrations, and there’s nothing on the page for Christ’s sake. There’s so little written down, but it’s perfect. It’s absolutely perfect. I think that he wanted to have an emotional impact, and he certainly was successful at it. When people say, “Well yes, but at the same time, you had so-and-so and so-and-so and they were much more intellectual”—fine. I know that Elliott [Carter] said that he would call any place purgatory that played Rosenkavalier. It’s a funny line, but I don’t understand it. I don’t understand it because Rosenkavalier is irresistible for me. There are moments I don’t like—Baron Ochs and all that—but that’s neither here nor there. I think you have to surrender to music as it’s played, not on a cheap level but on the level of being emotional about it, which is why I love Rachmaninoff. I adore Richard Strauss, and this is why I like the Berg Violin Concerto more than I do, let’s say, Elektra. I wish I had a really textbook or lecture-worthy reason for this, but if music doesn’t get to me, to put it bluntly, it doesn’t exist for me.
FJO: Well to further riff on John Harbison’s comment about the last 50 years being absent in your music, one of the most important things that has been happening in music during the last 50 years, and something that you have been involved with for the last 70 years, has been jazz.
AP: Yeah. Sure.
FJO: You mentioned the piano variations you wrote for Manny Ax which were based on Haydn. To my ears that’s actually is the most modernist-sounding music you’ve written.
AP: I haven’t heard it in years.
FJO: But there’s an even earlier piano variations that you recorded back when you were a teenager that you called Variations on a Theme which you probably also haven’t heard in years. It was coming out of stride piano, but it also hinted at Debussy and Hindemith. It’s wonderful. It’s one of my favorite things of yours.
AP: Well that’s nice. Thank you.
FJO: I felt like you were continuing the path that Bix Beiderbecke took with In a Mist, the only solo piano recording he ever made shortly before he died so young. He was never able to follow up on that really organic synthesis of jazz and classical music, but it sounded like you were and that you had possibly gone even further with it.
AP: Well, but you see, if I were to pick up a pencil and say, “I’m now going to write a jazz-influenced piece,” you’d have a bigger point than you have. But I don’t do that. If it comes out, it comes out. It’s the point I’ve made all along in our conversation today. Sometimes I write a phrase and I suddenly think, “Well, this would be nice if it were phrased like a jazz phrase.” But I don’t set out to do it. It’s so interesting that even in jazz, new things are looked askance. I personally don’t understand what Ornette Coleman was about. The fact that Lenny Bernstein got up in the audience at Birdland and ran up to the stage and kissed him is beyond me. O.K., be that as it may. I know that my father was a good musician, but not professional. He was a lawyer. I played him some Charlie Parker records once, and he thought it was a looney child blowing ad libitum into a plastic saxophone. He couldn’t hear it. He just couldn’t hear it. And I find it intensely moving. So again, it depends on what you grow up with. The heroes of your youth remain the heroes. For me, my goodness, could Art Tatum play the piano, and Oscar Peterson!
AP: And certainly Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were major people. On the other hand, Ellington’s music is wonderful, but I’d rather hear the Basie band, because the Basie band is really basic.
FJO: It’s really about groove.
AP: There used to be a black Baptist church near where I used to live in Bedford Hills and they had a chorus that I absolutely adored. And I took Ray Brown, the bass player, there once and I was jumping all over the place. I loved it so much. And he said, “You’re an idiot, man. If you had them play what they’re singing on instruments, you’d have the Basie band.” Of course, he was right. So there are all kinds of jazz available for admiration, just as many as there are of classical pieces, I think.
FJO: You said that you didn’t understand what Ornette Coleman was about, but I tracked down and listened to a recording you made with someone who had been doing some pretty radical things with jazz a few years before Coleman started promulgating harmolodics—a composer, arranger, and bandleader named Lyle “Spud” Murphy.
AP: Oh my God. Yeah.
FJO: You were the pianist in his big band.
AP: On one record.
FJO: It’s actually the most out jazz piano playing I’ve ever heard from you, particularly on a track called “Fourth Dimension.”
FJO: And it’s wonderful.
AP: I don’t think I’ve heard it since we left the studio.
FJO: That was in 1955.
AP: Oh please.
FJO: What attracted me to it is that he claimed what he was doing was 12-tone jazz. In fact, the title of the album is Twelve-Tone Compositions and Arrangements. As soon as I saw that title, I wanted to hear the record.
AP: You got me. I didn’t hear that.
FJO: I don’t hear it either. It’s very chromatic though. They use all the intervals, so I guess that’s what he meant by 12-tone, as opposed to any kind of systemic serial ordering.
AP: If that’s what enticed him to write, then he’s right. It’s perfectly O.K. I don’t care what you call music.
FJO: I’d like to talk with you some more about what you were starting to say about there being a generation gap for likes and dislikes, when you described your father’s inability to appreciate Charlie Parker.
AP: As I told you, my father was a musician. When I was a kid, the Los Angeles Philharmonic played one of the first performances of the Bartók Concerto for Orchestra. Well I went, and I was floored. I thought it was the most ingenious, happy, wonderful piece I knew. I went home full of excitement and I said to my father, “I heard the most wonderful piece.” He asked what it was and he didn’t know it. But he said, “If you’re that excited by it, they’re doing a repeat performance of it tonight. I’ll take you.” So, I said, “Great.” And we went and we heard it again. And at the end of it, this old gentleman with a German accent said, “Well, it’s not the Eroica.” At that point, I kind of sank in my chair, and I thought, “It’s not supposed to be the Eroica. It doesn’t try to be the Eroica. Why should it be the Eroica?” But he was serious; he didn’t think it was that good, so forget it.
The same thing happens with jazz. But the very, very serious jazz, I don’t much like. I can’t think of anybody right now who’s doing it, but I never thought that Boyd Raeburn was that impressive. It’s a lot of dissonances. On the other hand, I don’t like the Preservation Hall Jazz Band; that’s too primitive for me. I don’t like folk music very much. I certainly hate Hawaiian music, or any of those things.
FJO: Really. I’m a huge fan of Sol Ho’opi’i, an incredible Hawaiian guitarist who made a bunch of dazzlingly virtuosic recordings in the 1930s. He might change your mind.
AP: Yeah? Well, I’ll have to hear it. I don’t know. On the other hand, do you know Conlon Nancarrow’s music?
FJO: Yes, of course.
AP: Isn’t that wonderful?
AP: No matter how off the wall that gets, I’m impressed and I love it. And I also get a big charge out of it. I think it’s wonderful. I couldn’t duplicate it, but it’s wonderful. It is quite amazing how different ears receive different music. You know what I mean? I do not particularly like Saint-Saëns’s music, but my goodness, he was a great musician. You know, talk about writing fast and a lot, and if I hear somebody good playing Saint-Saëns—whether it’s a violin concerto, or cello or piano, or even one of the symphonies—it impresses me. I love it and I’d love to hear that again. Whereas the more scholarly of my colleagues say, “I don’t want to hear that again.” Why not? Because it’s not the Eroica?
FJO: It’s interesting when you say Saint-Saëns, because the music of his that I really treasure is his chamber music. And I actually feel it has a connection to your output, since he too wrote a great clarinet sonata and a really formidable bassoon sonata.
AP: And that wonderful septet. Isn’t that fun?
FJO: Absolutely. But, to bring it back to how people come to determine what they like and what they don’t like, the folks who say that something is not the Eroica are a curse to anyone who wants to write a piece of music, because we’ve got that history behind us.
AP: That even floored Brahms before his First Symphony. He didn’t want to write Beethoven’s Tenth.
FJO: And, as you said, it’s true for jazz too—anybody getting on a stage or a club who is trying to do something new on the saxophone or on the piano faces the same dilemma as anybody writing a new piece of music—whether it’s a string quartet or a new orchestra piece. You’re inevitably going to get compared to the stuff that came before that people have heard and think is great. That’s not to deny that it is great, but it’s been heard so many times before that people know it and accept it as great without having to determine that for themselves, so it’s very difficult to compete with; something new doesn’t come pre-approved the same way.
AP: I know what you mean. When I did Turangalîla with the Chicago Symphony, they hated it. Oh God, did they hate that piece! And the old man was there, Messaien. After the first movement, which is considerable, I said to him, “Is there anything you want in this?” And he said, “Well, could it be a little more pink?” And I said, “A little more pink? You mean, plus rose?” “Yes.” Then I turned to the fiddle and I gave him a look that would have wilted a gorilla, you know, and I said, “The composer would like it to be more pink.” And Sam, the concertmaster, turned around to his section, and he said, “Boys, more pink.” And that was it. It was great. It was a wonderful way out because what he was saying really is, “Screw you. Are you kidding?” But, he got what he wanted.
AP: Even with me, they could play it. My God, they could play anything. That last movement is so rhythmically complicated; it’s like The Rite of Spring times two.
FJO: But you raise an important issue in terms of how to most effectively negotiate with players in order to overcome their resistance to playing a new—or at least a relatively new—piece of music.
AP: Well, there are always people in the orchestra who will feel that way, but they’re usually in the minority. But I’m very aware of how lucky I am now. When I first started composing, nobody wanted to know. Now, if I write a piece and I let certain orchestras and certain soloists know that I’ve written it, they all want to do it. Well, not all, but a great many of them. All these orchestras that suddenly are doing my pieces amaze me. They don’t care whether it’s new or old or whatever. It’s just a piece of music they haven’t played, which is really the healthiest thing in the world. That’s what happens in Tanglewood. I had a piece called Owls, and the student orchestra played it, and they didn’t know if it was modern or old-fashioned or tricky or whatever. It was just a piece. There it was in front of them, and they played it. It’s wonderful.
FJO: I know you said that there are no secret messages in your music, but there’s something that’s been baffling me. I can’t figure out your title Octet for Eleven. I was rummaging through the score thinking, “O.K., it’s for eleven players but maybe only eight people ever play at once, and that’s the trick.” But there’s a tutti where all of them are playing. So what does the title mean?
AP: A corny joke. That’s all it is. The joke is that there is no octet for eleven people. I like tricky titles. I also like Honey and Rue. I like all that stuff. I just thought it’s an octet, yes, but I did put an extra bass in it and this and that, so let’s call it Octet for Eleven. I hate to disappoint you, but there’s absolutely nothing behind that.
FJO: I wanted to follow up on the comment you made earlier about early music conductors not wanting vibrato based on historical considerations. There’s also a question of intelligibility when it comes to sung text. One of the things that’s so striking to me about your two operas is that you can always hear the words that people are singing, which is not true for many operas sung in English.
AP: I’m probably very annoying to singers, because I want to be able to hear the words. There are all kinds of technical things. I’m not much for putting one syllable on 14 different notes the way it can be done. I like one note per word, you know. Then very often I’ve said to singers whom I even admire or adore, “Could you sing more oratorio and less opera?” They all know what I mean, and they usually comply. I don’t like terribly operatic singing. It disturbs me; I don’t understand the words and, unfortunately, I sometimes think it’s funny. I like operatic singing, but it depends on what opera, you know. I find some of the most admired operatic singing, which is Wagner, alien to me. I find it too aggressive and I think it’s tough on the voice; it’s certainly tough on the words. On the other hand, if you do Pelléas or Manon or Wozzeck, then it’s worth having whatever they bring to it. In A Streetcar Named Desire, I knew that Renée [Fleming] had three big arias, but none of them are really huge operatic arias. And besides, Renée is much too smart to ever put the voice to purposes that it wasn’t meant. The same thing with Elizabeth Futral in my other opera, Brief Encounter—she’s a wonderful singer. But she started out in full cry, and I said, “Don’t do that. I’m always going to fight you on that. Can you kind of calm it down?” And she did instantly, and it was ten times as good for me. Whether it really is or not, I don’t know, but that’s one of the privileges I take hold of as the composer. I want it sung the way I want it sung.
FJO: Well, an opera is supposed to be telling a story on stage. You mention Wagner. Things happen so slowly in those operas. In a way, they have to because if they didn’t, you wouldn’t know what was going on. But both Streetcar and Brief Encounter are fast and action-packed. Words need to be flying back and forth, so a long melisma wouldn’t deliver it; it would be completely wrong. I think you did precisely the right thing.
AP: And also, Streetcar is one of the great American plays. It really is. It’s wonderful. But it is not a play where you want to linger over every syllable. I got confused by Antony and Cleopatra because Sam Barber is one of my favorite composers, but he’s very fond of putting a syllable onto four or five notes. By the time four or five notes have gone by, you don’t know what the first one was. If he were more aware of getting the words into the auditorium, that would not happen. But I can’t argue with Sam Barber, because he’s a great composer.
FJO: Well, with Vanessa it really worked. But once again, that’s a story with few characters and long, drawn-out action, whereas Antony and Cleopatra is this giant pageant and there’s a lot going on. So it’s much harder to process.
FJO: It’s important for the music to fit the story it’s going with. Still, no matter what, if you’re writing work for an opera house there are certain conventions that singers conform to, as well as conventions that audiences expect or things that the halls that are built for these things serve best. It’s a catch-22 for American composers. Tons of composers are now writing operas, but not everyone wants to write things that sound like operas. For a long time, you could never get a new American opera programmed; thankfully that has changed. But, in part because of this exile from the opera house, composers turned to other outlets and there’s a whole tradition of a vernacular American opera—the music for Broadway theater. In musicals the words always get across, but you’re not necessarily dealing with singers who can sing music off the page in the same way.
AP: You mean, like Marc Blitzstein?
FJO: Blitzstein is an excellent example. There are many others. You, in fact, also wrote a Broadway show, Coco.
AP: Yeah, but it was a straightforward Broadway show.
FJO: Admittedly, the technical demands you placed on singers in it were nowhere near the level of your operas. Katharine Hepburn would have never been able to sing the role of Blanche Dubois!
AP: She couldn’t sing Coco either. Oh God, that was brutal. When she finally quit after a year, we got Danielle Darrieux. It was the first time Alan Lerner and I knew we had written a musical, because you could hear the words and the melodies. And she was charming.
FJO: But it didn’t last because she wasn’t the box office draw that Hepburn had been.
AP: No. It didn’t last at all. Everybody wanted Hepburn. I didn’t blame them. She’s wonderful. But, in a musical, I don’t know.
FJO: So that experience turned you off to writing another Broadway musical?
AP: It depends on what the subject matter is. There are many Broadway shows I wish I had written, or wish I could get my hands on, but it’s not a lasting ambition with me. I’d rather write an opera. I’d write a light opera, for instance. Tom Stoppard and I are about to start working on a one-act opera. I can’t discuss it, because he doesn’t want me to.
Broadway now is so different. When I was a young man, Broadway wasn’t owned by Walt Disney. And all these ridiculous, foppish, stupid musicals that are on now! They’re not interesting musically or visually or anything. Well, Lion King is. But the goal of a Broadway opera is completely different now, I think. I don’t think that Rodgers and Hart, or Jerry Kern would be such a smash now.
FJO: I recently went to see The Visit, which was the last show to make it to Broadway that John Kander wrote with Fred Ebb before Ebb died.
AP: Really? I didn’t know that.
FJO: It only lasted a couple of months even though the cast was headed by a Broadway legend, Chita Rivera. It was a fascinating show, but it might have been a little too serious for the current climate on Broadway.
AP: On the other hand, the musical based on The Shop Around the Corner was one of my favorite musicals. It’s absolutely charming and not at all too serious. But it was not funny. It was witty. And there again, it didn’t last that long. St. Louis Woman is also a wonderful show. I like Broadway musicals, but I tend not to go for a whole bunch of reasons. First of all, the mystique that goes with it makes me nervous. And then $200 a ticket makes me nervous. I come from the day when a Broadway show was five bucks.
FJO: I remember when it was 12 bucks, but now tickets at the Metropolitan Opera can be even more expensive than Broadway tickets. So, in that sense, it’s not different.
AP: No, but you know going in what you’re going to hear. You know, if a ticket for Wozzeck is $200, well, you spend it because you want to hear Wozzeck, not because you wonder how this is going to be.
FJO: Not if you’re going to a performance of a brand new opera. That’s as risky as going to a new Broadway show.
AP: Well, I have no answer for that. New music, generally speaking, is looked askance at.
FJO: Of course in creating a new piece, it can help assure an audience that they’re going to see something of consequence when they know that it is based on something that they know is of consequence. It’s perhaps the next best thing to knowing that the Eroica is on the program, to come back to that conversation. It’s probably why there have been so many operas based on pre-existing literary classics. You certainly are always drawn to great literature. You mentioned Streetcar being one of the great plays. In Brief Encounter, you were also working with great material—the original play by Noël Coward, as well as the David Lean film. And you just mentioned a new project with Tom Stoppard, with whom you’ve worked before, who is a famous, highly respected playwright. But even your songs—you’ve set Emily Dickinson, Toni Morrison, Michael Ondaatje. These are all top-shelf people. When I did a talk with Ned Rorem, he said the reason why his songs are good is that he only sets the best texts.
AP: He’s probably right. I also love the prose that I set by Isak Dinesen. It’s a terrific paragraph and very touching. I’m not about to set music to drivel; it doesn’t interest me. I like Theodore Roethke, and there’s quite a lot that needs to be set.
FJO: Now there was an Italian novel you were going to make into an opera. What happened to that?
AP: What happened is that the man got greedy and sold it to a higher bidder, long after we were in discussions about it. So it never happened.
FJO: So someone else did an opera?
AP: I think it was played once in Topeka or something. But it didn’t work.
FJO: Of all the texts that you’ve set, that was the only text and the only author I hadn’t heard of.
AP: It’s a very strange novel, but very good. But no, it didn’t happen. The man— you couldn’t blame him. He just suddenly got an incredible offer and the poor bum said “Sure, anything” and took it away from us.
FJO: So in terms of other things that you want to write. You mentioned Brahms waiting so long to write a symphony based on feeling paralyzed by the weight of what had proceeded him in the genre. Is that the same reason you haven’t written one?
AP: Yeah, I’m just scared of it.
FJO: But you’re not scared of operas or concertos?
AP: It’s that first page. I can’t deny that. I don’t want to face it. But I probably will; if I get old enough, I’ll write one.
FJO: Now, one area that we haven’t touched on yet at all is that you spent years writing scores for motion pictures. I think that was probably an excellent training ground for writing music that pushes a narrative forward.
AP: Oh, I don’t. It’s a well-known fact that the worse the movie, the more music there is. If you have a really idiotic movie, the music never stops, because the poor producer says, “Do something.” So, we all make a noise. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t wonderful scores, but it’s not music that interests me anymore—at all. And I mean, I did it; I wrote for some 50 movies. But I could not face as an ambition, years from then, writing music which would be played while Debbie Reynolds spoke. What would interest me as a composer is if they still made those big swashbucklers. You know, The Sea Hawk or something—that’s fun. I’d love to do that with a great big Strauss orchestra—eight horns belting away. But the normal score now? It doesn’t interest me at all. I admire Johnny Williams. He’s very good at what he does, and he writes very good themes. Now, Anne-Sophie made him an offer. She said, “Why don’t you write me a concerto?” And he said, “Oh, I don’t write that kind of music.” And she said, “Yes, you do. You write beautiful themes.”
FJO: But he wrote a trombone concerto?
AP: Did he?
FJO: It’s a pretty solid piece.
AP: He also wrote a bassoon concerto, which I like very much. Anyway, he back pedaled on that, but she kept asking and just recently he said, “Look, I’m not going to write one. I’m just not. I can’t do it. I haven’t got the background for it, and I don’t think I want to.” And she said O.K. But she said to me, “This is silly, because I’d play it everywhere.” I’ve known Johnny ever since we were both rehearsal pianists at a ballroom dancing school on La Brea Avenue. We used to take turns playing “Blueberry Hill.” Oh boy. Anyway, I don’t think he is willing to gamble with his own talent. He’s wonderfully talented and a tremendous orchestrator, but he doesn’t believe it. And a big piece—it’s a lot of pages. I don’t think that he has belief enough in his own talent, even though he has more than enough talent to do it.
FJO: Maybe it’s taking him too far out of his comfort zone in terms of the context.
AP: Comfort zone? He’s a millionaire.
FJO: I mean his comfort zone creatively.
AP: Oh, sure.
FJO: What I find so interesting about the trajectory that you have taken as a composer is that you seem to be always doing things you haven’t done before. You became really successful as a jazz pianist; one of your albums was the first jazz record to sell a million copies. But you started writing Hollywood scores. After you made your mark doing that, winning four Oscars, you wrote a Broadway musical. After all that, you started writing for orchestra, then opera. Last year you finally wrote a wind band piece. So you’re always purposefully escaping your own comfort zones.
AP: Absolutely. I’m a big believer in that. But I think for a composer to suddenly decide, “O.K. I’m now going to write a piece for 12 gongs,” it’s not really an interesting idea. I sat next to Wolfgang Rihm at one of the Siemens Prizes a couple of years ago. They give annual awards to young composers, and they had two of them there. One of them had written a piece for 12 unaccompanied E-flat clarinets. Can you imagine that noise? It was beyond belief. Halfway through, I turned to Wolfgang and I said, “Am I crazy, or is this just a piece of shit?” And he said, “Oh, it’s not good enough to be a piece of shit.” Just to be different isn’t good enough anymore. It just isn’t. It’s like the young instrumentalists who can play everything you put in front of them but not necessarily with understanding.
I like trying something new. I like it very much. I wrote a nonet—double string quartet and bass—just now. It hasn’t been played yet. It’s going to be premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in two months. And Anne-Sophie called me and said, “The first movement isn’t long enough; can you write me a cadenza?” But I’d done that [before]. So then I thought she had that wonderful bass player in the nonet. So I said, “Why don’t I write you a cadenza where you are all over the place and he never stops playing anything but pizzicato? That might be interesting.” And she said, “Really?” And I said. “Really, I think so.” And she said, “Good.” So I’m working on it. I have no idea whether it’s any good or not, but it’s something I haven’t done.
FJO: So that’s actually an example of you going back into a piece and changing it!
AP: Well, adding to it. But only under the threat of “we won’t play it.”
FJO: That’s a big threat. To bring this full circle: in the beginning I referenced Elliott Carter’s flippant comment about writing faster in his old age because he had learned how to write Elliott Carter’s music, but he actually wasn’t writing the same music at all; he was actually writing things that were completely unlike his earlier things.
AP: I love that 20-minute opera he wrote.
FJO: What Next?
AP: Yeah, wasn’t that good? I’m not a big Elliott Carter believer, but that was wonderful.
FJO: Learning how to write the music that you write is the opposite of taking a challenge, the opposite of doing something new. So you don’t want to write a piece you’ve written before. You may not necessarily want to write for twelve E-flat clarinets or eight gongs, but you want to do something different. You’re not going to write a straight-ahead violin cadenza, because you already have written one. Of course, the most effective composers are always balancing what they know they do well with taking on new challenges.
AP: If I were still working with films, which I haven’t done now since the mid ‘60s, I would probably fall back on certain clichés that I know work since I don’t want to spend a lifetime at it. Johnny Williams wrote in Tanglewood in the bungalow next to mine, and then he’d have his orchestrator [Herbert Spencer] come up and he’d hand him whatever he was working on. Johnny handed him something that looked like Meistersinger for God’s sake, and he said, “Let me explain this to you.” Herbie looked at the music, and he said, “No, I know this one.” The orchestrator didn’t mean any insult at all, but it was funny. I could see where he could take that very badly. But on the other hand, it was probably true. It was probably done on purpose. If you write movie music, you’re never given enough time, and they don’t want to hear anything brand new anyway. So it is very likely to be things that they’ve done before. You can always tell a Korngold score. You can always tell a Rózsa score. You can always tell an Elmer Bernstein score, because it’s watered down Copland. When Elmer Bernstein got a western to do, he’d say, “Oh yeah, I did Magnificent Seven. Let’s do that again.” There’s nothing wrong with it. It worked very well. It’s interesting music. You’re not going to wrack your brain thinking of novelties in a medium that doesn’t require it anyway. A very good film composer used to be a man called Jerry Goldsmith—brilliant and interesting music.
FJO: You did all these different kinds of things as a composer—jazz, film music, Broadway, opera, orchestral music. You also were very active as a classical pianist and, of course, as a conductor, leading some of the world’s top orchestras—the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the London Symphony. But these activities have been separate worlds. If anybody was ever in a position to come up with some kind of grand synthesis of music in our time, which would be music that somehow connected all of these things, it would be you. To that end, you did in fact make some wonderful recordings of all your original music for quintet featuring Shelly Manne, Red Mitchell, and Jim Hall with you and Itzak Perlman. It seems completely incongruous that these people played together. And yet it really works.
AP: Yes, it works.
FJO: But it’s an anomaly. For the most part, it seems like you’d rather just perfect each separate strand rather than bring them together.
AP: I never thought of bringing it together. I see no particularly connective tissue between those things. I wrote a jazz album for J.J. Johnson and myself and a rhythm section, and the producer of the record, Irv Townsend, said, “Would you guys try playing ‘Mack the Knife’?” Well, that was the day when everybody did “Mack the Knife,” and both J.J. and I went, “Hmmm.” And I said, “I’ll tell you what, J.J. I’ll comp in G-flat, and you play it in C, and then we’ll turn it around.” It’s always in both keys; it’s that Petrushka thing. And we did it and everybody said, “God almighty, what a sound!” There’s nothing to it. You know what I mean? We just played it. We didn’t think about it. I think that it’s important that you don’t spend forever thinking about why you write something. Just do it.
This is out of left field, but Sinclair Lewis gave a lecture. I think it was at Harvard. After huge applause and all of that, he said to the very full auditorium, “How many of you want to be writers?” A great many raised their hands. And he said, “Why aren’t you home writing?” That’s good, isn’t it?
FJO: I heard a variation of that story, only it was Kurt Vonnegut who gave the speech.
FJO: But he was a lot nastier to everybody, at least according to the version I heard. Maybe Vonnegut stole the line from Sinclair Lewis, but he embellished it. He was invited to give a talk to a group of aspiring writers at a university, so he went up to the podium and began by saying, “How many of you want to be writers?” And after almost everyone raised their hands, he shouted, “So why the fuck are you sitting here listening to me? Go home and write.” And then he walked out. That was the entire speech.
AP: But that’s too rough. Walking out is beyond the pale. It’s interesting that you used that language.
FJO: Well, I was just using the language he used.
AP: I understand. When I was at Eastman, there were two afternoons of question and answer. There were about 800 kids at each one, and the questions were very good because they weren’t all complimentary. They were all over the map. On the second day, a young man got up in the back and said, “When you worked in films, did you work in Los Angeles?” “Yes,” I said. “Did you ever a meet a German émigré composer called Ernst Toch?” I said I was taken to play for him by David Raksin, who was a friend of mine. “What happened?” he asked, and I said:
Well, the old gentleman made me improvise and then made me read something at the end of which he said in this kind of station house accent, “You haff no talent.” First of all, I don’t think it’s the right thing to say to a 16-year old. The other thing is that if he had said, “I don’t like the way you improvise,” that’s fair enough. Or “I don’t like the way you play.” Fair enough. But “You have no talent”? That’s a little heavy for me, because I didn’t agree with that.
And the kids did a collective intake of breath, huuuhhh, because they identified with that moment. And the young man said, “Did you answer him?” And I said, “Yes.” And he said, “What did you say?” I said, “Fuck you.” This was from the stage of this conservatory. The poor dean turned green with fear, you know. And I said, “Wait a minute. They’ve all used that word. They all know what it means.” It was the biggest round of applause I have ever received from students.
FJO: But how did Toch react to that?
AP: Oh well, he threw me out. But I’m still glad I did it.
video presentation by Molly Sheridan
For pianist/composer/bandleader Andy Milne, making music that navigates seamlessly between musical genres is not just the by-product of a personal theory of what the music of today could and should be. Being an astute listener to the world around him and playing in a wide array of styles throughout his career has enabled him to operate fluently in all of them. When we met up with him in a practice room in the jazz department of New York University, which is located far away from the central campus in a freshman dormitory, Milne spoke in great detail about how he has come to his polyglot musical vocabulary, opining that being open to a variety of influences and finding your own identity within them are ongoing processes.
“To the best of my abilities I try to operate in a post-genre mind set,” says Milne. “But I can’t escape certain tendencies I think I have based on the various experiences that have contributed to how I think and how I play and how I can understand and process music. Of course I’m always hoping that can continue to evolve and expand and grow and enrich me. You get to a certain point where it’s really up to your own tenacity and discipline to ensure that that exists with any kind of weight.”
According to Milne, collaborations between hip-hop and R&B artists he was hearing in the late ‘90s are what initially inspired him to form his group Dapp Theory in which he has incorporated elements of that blending into a jazz context. A decade and a half later, it is territory he continues to mine. The group’s performance at the Chamber Music America conference back in January was the first time a rapper appeared on one of CMA’s showcases, although the person doing the rapping, John Moon, was billed as a “percussive poet.” It was an extremely effective presentation, which also went further than most in challenging definitions and comfort zones.
“I think [hip-hop] is maybe a different world in the sense that there isn’t as formalized a pedagogy that has existed for a longer period of time within jazz and classical music,” Milne acknowledges. “That separates musical traditions and musical cultural communities by virtue of the fact that they don’t have these same types of institutions. I think there’s still learning, but it gets conducted in a different way. So there’s a blind spot there, but maybe it will get filled in at some point in time—everything changes. It’s taken a long time, I think, even within the scope of various emerging opportunities that continue to exist where jazz and classical music speak together.”
Yet for all of Milne’s embrace of everything from hip-hop and R&B to reggae and folk rock (he has recorded fabulous solo piano version of Bob Marley’s “I Shot The Sherriff” and Stephen Stills’s “Love The One Your With”), he is perfectly fine calling the music he makes jazz. Not only does he not find jazz aesthetically limiting, he is extremely suspicious of musicians who reject the term:
I identify with jazz because it’s the music that I feel the most affinity with in terms of where I came from as a young person listening to music. I wouldn’t want to present myself as someone who listened with the same level of depth to hip-hop even; I didn’t grow up listening to hip-hop. So I would never feel comfortable saying “I come out of the hip-hop experience” in terms of my music.
In recent history there’ve been a few attempts to debunk the significance of jazz. Some people have agendas frankly to just further their careers by trying to call attention to themselves by being very dogmatic about some sort of political position on jazz. If you think about jazz in a very general sense, it’s incorporating improvisation—you don’t even have to get into whether you say it’s got to swing or not. It embraces music from all over the world and it always has, and a big part of it is improvisation.
Would you say that rock music is jazz? I don’t know if there’s the same degree of improvisation. But then again it gets so subjective, because then you can get into what do you consider improvisation. If something is sort of going to be the exact same way every night then it’s not necessarily improvised. There are certain things I want to be the same every night but there are huge sections where I want to have that give and take and that flow that I know the musicians I’ve brought to this can deliver.
Milne, however, concedes that not everything he has done fits comfortably within jazz. One of his most fascinating musical projects thus far has been Strings & Serpents, a collaboration with another jazz pianist Benoît Delbecq, animator Saki Murotani, and two Japanese koto players, Ai Kajigano and Tsugumi Yamamoto. While he and Delbecq improvise throughout, the koto players adhere much more closely to the score Milne composed for them.
Over the past few years, Milne has also begun composing film soundtracks as a result of his friendship with actor Avery Brooks, who is also an accomplished jazz singer and pianist though he is probably most widely known for his seven-year television stint as Captain Benjamin Sisko on the Star Trek sequel Deep Space Nine. When the actor who played Star Trek’s original captain, William Shatner, decided to make a documentary about all the actors who had served as captains in the various Trek incarnations, he queried the musical Brooks about who should do the soundtrack. Brooks immediately recommended Milne. In addition to being hired to score that film (The Captains), this has led to another whole side career for Milne performing at Star Trek conventions.
But Milne’s most recent project, The Seasons of Being, which premieres later this month in Lancaster (Pennsylvania), Baltimore, and New York City, is once again very firmly rooted in his polystylistic jazz sensibilities, albeit with an unusual twist. An hour-long work scored for a greatly expanded Dapp Theory (a total of ten players), it is a by-product of his deep interest in homeopathy:
We all have some form of dis-ease in our existence; often we treat it and often we don’t, but most of us can cope. You can say the word disease, but I think there’s another way of thinking about it by having the accent on it be dis-ease; there’s an uneasiness about something we maybe don’t ever get to or maybe don’t want to get to.
The precursor to even thinking about the idea was my own experience of going to see a homeopath and often he would make these analogies using music. He and I would have these conversations after our sessions and I wondered how I could incorporate that musically.
I began to actively start researching and developing models, figuring out how I would understand a musician from an emotional place and extract information from various people to come up with a model that would help me identify a pathology, as they refer to it in homeopathics. Primarily I’m trying to gear it toward the featured soloist during any given movement. A specific piece might be for the drummer to solo in, so I look at the results of having an assessment of all the intake information I have on the drummer and proceed to think, “What is the musical remedy?”
Video presentation and photography by Alexandra Gardner
I first became aware of Aaron Parks when he was still a teenager. His mother handed me a CD featuring his trio at a gathering of the Jazz Journalists Association. Called The Promise, the disc featured two originals and a bunch of jazz standards. Although listening to the recording was hardly a life-changing experience, Parks’s piano playing was already extraordinarily sensitive and his improvisations had a remarkable fluidity that sounded as if he had a lifelong immersion in this music. This seemed odd given that he hadn’t lived that long up until that point and that he grew up outside of Seattle in the final decade of the 20th century, a time when most of his contemporaries were into grunge rather than straight-ahead jazz.
But Aaron Parks, who recently turned 30, was not a typical kid. He was playing both jazz piano and classical bassoon by age 10. At age 14, he skipped high school to enroll at the University of Washington and, by the age of 17, he was named a National Merit Scholar and a Presidential Scholar in the Arts. Soon after that, he transferred to the Manhattan School of Music, where he studied with legendary pianist Kenny Barron and continued to record albums with groups he led, one a year. Before his 20th birthday, he had released a total of four CDs, the most impressive of which was The Wizard, which consisted exclusively of original material performed by a trumpet/alto sax/piano/bass/drums quintet.
“There are a few of the songs from that record which I still really like,” said Parks when I spoke to him last month at his Brooklyn apartment. “In particular I really like ‘Planting Flowers’; that’s even in my current repertoire. I just pulled it out to give it a go again. [Ed. note: It was part of the quartet set he played at the NYC jazz club Smalls on April 2 and 3.] I feel mostly disconnected [to that music], but I look back every now and then. I smile to myself listening to those old records. … In retrospect, sometimes I feel a little bit goofy about having all of those records out there. The whole child prodigy thing can be dangerous. When everybody around you is sort of telling you [that] you’re special, you’re like, ‘Oh, well, maybe I need to be special.’ It makes you feel like you can’t just be. You can’t just be a person. You need to live up to this idea of the story others have been telling you.”
So despite his very clear abilities and his artistic drive, he decided to sit in the back seat for a while after the fourth of these albums, Shadows (2002), which included a cover of the Radiohead song “Knives Out.” “I knew that I wasn’t ready,” Parks admitted. “I knew that I wanted to get some real experience. I could have kept on going and doing stuff as ‘the young piano guy,’ but I knew that I needed some more depth.”
What wound up happening is the stuff of legend. Trumpeter and composer Terence Blanchard, whom Parks had met only briefly a year earlier, called him up and invited him to attend a live XM radio show moderated by Wynton Marsalis on which Blanchard was scheduled to perform with a group that also featured pianist Chick Corea. Parks skipped his Afro-Cuban Big Band rehearsal at MSM and rushed downtown. It turned out that Corea couldn’t make the gig, so Blanchard asked Parks to play with the group. He wound up being Blanchard’s pianist for five years, touring the world and releasing three albums on Blue Note, among them the 2008 Grammy Award-winning A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina). Although he remained a sideman, each of these albums featured one of his own compositions.
“Terence was really interested in compositions from all the band members,” Parks remembered. “That became one of the hallmarks of that band. Most of the guys wrote music for it, carrying on the tradition of Art Blakey mentoring young musicians. That’s a trip because Terence is such a heavy composer.”
One of the pieces Parks contributed to the repertoire of Blanchard’s group was “Harvesting Dance,” an unusual tune largely derived from the harmonies of Arvo Pärt Fratres. “I like these chords so I think I’ll take them,” Parks acknowledged. “I love Arvo Pärt; he’s one of the deepest. I listen to whatever crosses my path and whatever I feel some sort of connection to. I don’t really make distinctions between genres.”
That open-mindedness has led Parks to participate in a wide array of musical endeavors in the years since he left Blanchard’s outfit, working in groups led by musicians as diverse as guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, drummer Kendrick Scott, saxophonist Justin Vasquez, vocalist Gretchen Parlato, and Danish bassist Anders Christensen in whose trio he played alongside the late Paul Motian. Parks even appears on the indie rock album Dreams Come True, the debut studio recording by CANT, a group fronted by Grizzly Bear member Chris Taylor. But perhaps the most unusual project Parks has been involved with thus far is a collaboration with South Korean-born vocalist Yeahwon Shin and accordionist Rob Curto combining traditional Korean melodies and free improv; they are about to embark on a nationwide tour in support of their debut album Lua ya, which was released last November on ECM. Almost anything is fair game:
I like music and I like songs and I like sounds. … I like to put myself in situations where I’m a little bit out of my comfort zone. I do also want to have some sort of entry point to the music, though. I want to be challenged all the time, but I don’t want to only be challenged in my head. So music which is purely cerebral, or feels that way to me, I don’t tend to have quite as much of an attraction towards. But if it’s cerebral and I can dance to it, or it makes me feel something, there’s more of a chance.
All of these projects have also fed back into his own creations as a composer and bandleader in his own right. Shortly after leaving Blanchard, Parks recorded an album of all originals for Blue Note called Invisible Cinema for which he assembled a quartet of guitar, bass, and drums in addition to himself (here not only on piano, but also on glockenspiel and mellotron). “Harvesting Dance,” the aforementioned Pärt-inspired piece, made a re-appearance here but in a completely new guise. Another one of the album’s tracks, “Nemesis,” showed how deeply he had internalized the ambiguous harmonic language of Radiohead by that point. All in all, this first album as a leader in six years (since the last of his four youthful efforts) was worlds away from the mostly straight-ahead approach of his teens.
“I was pretty consciously trying to make something that didn’t have traditional jazz rhythms,” Parks explained. “I wanted to try to find some sort of rhythm of our time. At the time I was making that record, I had been scouring blogs for tracks by indie rock bands and was hearing all these new textures and different ways of structuring songs aside from a typical jazz thing. People had been doing that for a long time in the [jazz] scene, but for me it was pretty much brand new and I was just discovering it.”
It would be another five years before an additional two albums got released under his name, two albums that are almost polar opposites. One, Alive in Japan, was simply a lo-fi recording of a December 2012 trio date at a club in Japan combining originals and standards that harken back to his roots. He has made it available for free download on Bandcamp where he states, “If for some reason you feel compelled to contribute something, consider donating to a charity in Japan (or elsewhere in the world), or buying someone else’s record with the money you didn’t spend on this one.” The other, Arborescence, is an introspective series of solo piano improvisations recorded in the extremely resonant Mechanics Hall in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 2011 and released two years later on ECM, a label treasured by audiophiles for its pristine sound.
“I was recording it with a friend of mine just to see what happened,” Parks acknowledged. “They were just things that happened. We had the recording equipment up and we were there for a few days. I did all sorts of stuff while I was there: I played some of my pieces, I played standards, and I played a bunch of these improvisations—listening back to it, those were the things that felt the most as if they were being inhabited, like I was fully present for them.”
For Parks, being present in the moment of performance is ultimately more important than creating a great original melody or playing it back perfectly. It’s something he tries to do in whatever context he is put in. And it’s something he wishes more musicians would be given the opportunity to focus on in today’s overextended working environment:
One of the problems with the scene today is everybody is so busy doing so many different things. Most people are pretty proficient at doing a lot of things; you can give somebody some music and they’ll read all of the notes and it’ll be great. But then they’re onto the next gig. I don’t want music to just be information like that. … There’s a focus on being an individual; you’ve got to do your own thing at all costs, being original so to speak. But they focus on that one particular side of what original means. Originality is not only creating something new, it’s also having authentic presence—being fully present in the interpretation of what you’re doing. … I want people who can play a part—inhabiting it fully—and make me believe a melody. I don’t want you to play the melody; I want you to sing it to me. That’s a rare thing.
I’m honored to contribute a series of four blog posts this month on the topic of “Women in Jazz” as we celebrate Women’s History Month in March. Just a few weeks ago, I participated in a panel discussion with fellow jazz women at the 5th Jazz Education Network (JEN) Convention in Dallas. It was interesting to get everyone’s perspective, ranging from the initial “things have gotten much better, it’s just about being a good player no matter what gender or color” to admitting “but I often don’t get access to the same opportunities.” What this tells me is that it’s an uncomfortable topic and there are issues. The good news is that if we do talk about these issues and find solutions, we won’t need any further conversations on the topic in the future. For the four posts this month, I plan to start with a female jazz musician’s perspective (my own) followed by some historical background and selected research facts and conclude with action items to initiate the changes needed.
In 1988, I arrived in the US ready to start a career as a jazz musician. With the support of a scholarship, I was able to complete a master’s degree at the University of Alabama while getting acquainted with my new environment and planning a career path. My boyfriend Peter Kienle (now husband for over 20 years) didn’t seem to have any trouble finding people to play with and the telephone was ringing quite frequently for him with gig offers. Initially, I wasn’t paying attention and just made sure to practice and learn as much as I could.
We are children of the ‘70s and came to jazz via groups like Weather Report, Return to Forever, and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Hence we formed a fusion group with a bassist and drummer from the university (who later became Nnenna Freelon’s regular drummer) and worked up a sophisticated repertoire of originals. I helped set up some dates on the local strip and in the Birmingham clubs and our group, BeebleBrox, became known for cool grooves and intricate compositions. One day during rehearsals, I noticed that the bassist didn’t address his questions about my charts to me, but rather to Peter. He asked Peter what “she” wanted him to play. I realized that it was very difficult for him to communicate directly because everything about me was different. I brushed it off and tried to be like one of the guys, but somehow that didn’t work. Maybe because I wasn’t one of the guys? I finally had to admit to myself that I didn’t laugh about all the same jokes, didn’t use the same slang language, didn’t show off for the girls, and didn’t care very much about competing with others. I loved the process of making music, writing music, and getting it ready to be heard by an audience—the sophisticated harmonic language of jazz, the cool rhythms, the interaction with the audience—but I was not one of the guys. Could that be part of the reason why Peter was playing plenty of casual gigs without even looking and I had to arrange for performances as a leader or tag along as the guitarist’s girlfriend?
That’s when I started to search for role models, others who were like me. As a fan of Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz show on NPR, I looked a bit closer at her history. When she arrived in New York in 1950 together with her new husband, trumpeter Jimmy McPartland, she started her ten-year residency with her trio at the Hickory House. Her first review, from critic Leonard Feather, began by noting she had “three strikes against her: she’s English, white and a woman.” She managed to take exactly those three strikes and use them as the foundation of her extremely successful and long career.
First of all, she grew up in England during the period portrayed in the PBS series Downton Abbey that recently took America by storm. The old class separations were crumbling and a new lifestyle of freedom and personal expression was accompanied by jazz oozing in from the airwaves and the American officer’s clubs. As a result, McPartland became fascinated with jazz as a way of expressing her musical thoughts, but she also had a strong background in classical music and other popular music styles. Her compositions and harmonic language reflected this “English” background and, by embracing her heritage, she was able to contribute her unique voice to the jazz melting pot.
Her second strike was being white. In jazz, this is often seen as a symbol of not being grounded in the culture and musical heritage that initially gave birth to the rhythmic, improvisatory, and expressive characteristics of jazz. She certainly immersed herself in the jazz culture the moment she arrived in the US, and her appearance on the famous “A Great Day in Harlem” photograph as one of a handful white musicians is a testimonial. And even further—for decades she paid her dues by playing for long hours every night in a noisy steak house, accumulating an immense repertoire of songs, and eventually bringing the cultures together by featuring musicians of all color and gender on her Piano Jazz shows.
And yes, there is the third strike of being a woman. Similar to my experience of “not getting the calls,” McPartland realized she had to take charge and create her opportunities. Her long stint as a leader of her trio at the Hickory House is legendary, but furthermore she also created her own record label, Halcyon Records, in 1969, released more than 20 albums under her own name on Savoy, Concord, Jazz Alliance, and her own label (not counting the Piano Jazz recordings), and at the age of 60 launched what would turn out to be the longest running show on NPR. But even more important than learning leadership skills out of necessity was her gift for collaboration. Research does confirm that women naturally tend to collaborate with their peers and work towards a common goal rather than exhibit the competitive nature of male counterparts. When McPartland arrived in New York, she instinctively reached out to peers and created a strong bond with Mary Lou Williams, thus finding an ally and a gateway into the jazz scene. Later on, her collaborative nature inspired the idea of featuring fellow pianists in conversations and duets for the common goal of spreading the word about jazz, so successfully accomplished during more than 30 years of “Piano Jazz.”
Getting to know McPartland’s story gave me courage. I had identified the obstacles in my career path and I had found someone who had successfully overcome these obstacles and paved a path for me to follow. Once I started looking, I discovered women such as Carla Bley, Jessica Williams, Geri Allen, Joanne Brackeen, Mary Lou Williams, Myra Melford, Regina Carter, Shirley Scott, Melba Liston, and many more with established and blossoming careers. Being part of a group gave me the confidence to proceed: to pursue a doctorate under the tutelage of David Baker at Indiana University; to lead my own groups on more than a dozen recording projects and tours around the world; to write music that received a DownBeat Award and that has been featured in television shows; but most of all to teach the following generations to do the same and get their voices heard. I did not find the stories of my role models in textbooks though; I had to seek them out and ask questions. Why are these trailblazers not included in our history canon? Tracing the early history of women in jazz will be the subject of my next post. In the meantime, make a list of your local jazz heroines and find their stories.
Jazz pianist and Indiana University faculty member, Monika Herzig has performed at many prestigious jazz clubs and festivals around the world. Groups under her leadership have opened for acts such as Tower of Power, Sting, the Dixie Dregs, Yes, and more. Her March 2011 DVD/CD combo Come With Me on Owl Studios features a mixture of originals and modern arrangements.