Tag: maverick composer

Andy Akiho: Inside The Instrument

Having a conversation with Andy Akiho is a lot like listening to his music; it’s a high-energy adventure bursting with ideas and full of all sorts of serendipitous synchronicities. The first of these synchronicities is that Andy lives on Monroe Street in Lower Manhattan, which is where we met up with him. This is the same street where John Cage lived when he wrote many of his important compositions for prepared piano and percussion ensembles, idioms that have played a significant role in Andy’s output since Cage is one of his heroes. And perhaps an even more extraordinary coincidence is that Cage wrote those pieces at the same age that Andy is now and that Andy only discovered all of this after he moved to Monroe Street.

Of course, while Andy’s earliest compositions were scored for percussion ensemble and one of his most significant pieces to date is the solo prepared piano tour-de-force Vicki/y, the instrument that has figured in Andy’s music more than any other is the steel drum. As it turns out, around the same time that Cage was creating his landmark prepared piano and percussion ensemble works in the late 1930s and early 1940s, musicians in Trinidad started incorporating struck pieces of metal into their ensembles, eventually tuning discarded industrial oil containers and thus was born the steel drum.

But again, Andy becoming obsessed with steel drums also happened somewhat by accident. He was initially attracted to hip-hop and rock—his older sister played in various bands—when he was growing up in South Carolina. But at college, also in South Carolina, he got exposed to an extremely broad range of approaches to percussion including bebop and West African drumming, and then a couple of his teachers introduced him to steel drums. After he graduated, he went down to Trinidad to immerse himself further and was hooked for life.

Andy eventually found himself in New York City arranging music for weddings in the Caribbean-American community for large ensembles of steel drums. But he wanted to expand his timbral palette and find a way to combine steel drums with other instruments. Another chance encounter, a conversation with his former classmate Baljinder Sekhon, convinced him to audition for the Bang on a Can Summer Residency Program and to apply to Manhattan School of Music to pursue a master’s degree. He was accepted to both and found some formidable mentors in David Cossin and Julia Wolfe, with whom he eventually also studied composition privately.

The rest, as they say, is history. Though not completely. Andy’s story is still being written. He is still trying out new ideas and is open to discovering other approaches. He’s eager to write more vocal music, as well as score a film. But he still usually begins almost every composition he writes—whether it’s a string quartet or a concerto for two ping pong players and orchestra—by tinkering around with ideas on the steel pan. But not always, as he explained:

I’ll do other things, too, like I’ll go to an instrument I can’t play, like a piano, and come up with material and then apply that to the pan. I try to do it all different ways. But I do want to say it’s not weird to me; it’s weirder to me to think about a guitar, even though that seems like it’s more linear. If I try to pick up a guitar and try to think of melody, or learn it, or understand where the notes for the chords are, I’m a mess. At the same time, I accidentally discover some things that I wouldn’t do on the pan because I’ve been playing it for so many years. You go to certain comfortable places. Taking yourself out of that comfort zone can bring new life to the vocabulary.

May 10, 2018 at 1:00 p.m.
Andy Akiho in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded in Akiho’s apartment in Two Bridges, Manhattan
Video and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  I was thrilled when I learned that you live on Monroe Street because this is where John Cage once lived.

Andy Akiho: A year after I was here I found that out doing a paper at Princeton about his Sonatas and Interludes that he’d lived here. He was the exact age I was when I was doing the paper.  So I felt really connected somehow. He’s one of my heroes. I’ve always felt that way, but especially now. It was like “You’ve got to be kidding me, because [Monroe Street]’s only three blocks long.

FJO:  But sadly, the building where he lived is no longer there.

AA:  I walked over to see.  It’s a school now, I believe.

FJO:  He was forced to move when the building was torn down in 1953.

AA:  Oh, I didn’t realize that.

FJO:  But it’s interesting that you didn’t know about this until after you moved here. It’s quite a coincidence, since during the years he lived here he wrote most of his prepared piano pieces and many of his pieces for percussion ensemble—and both the prepared piano and percussion ensembles have figured very prominently in your own music.

AA:  I’ve always been influenced by those pieces, even before I was a composer.

FJO:  I’d like to learn more about the period before you were a composer. I know that you were trained as a percussionist, but how did you become interesting in being a musician in the first place?

AA:  My older sister practically raised me; she’s almost exactly ten years older than me.  And when she was a teenager, she was like kind of a rock star.  She never took it too seriously, but she had a double bass and a drum set and she was playing in bands. I wanted to be like her, so she would teach me drums.  And that’s kind of how I started.  I think I was around nine or something, but then I got a little obsessed with it. So by the time I got in middle school and then high school, I drummed all the time.  I couldn’t read music, but I was trying to drum, starting with drumlines and then I started learning to read notes more in college.

FJO:  And you have a couple of performance degrees as a percussionist.

“I was kind of obsessed, so I just majored in percussion.”

AA:  There was such a gap. I never thought I was going back to school. I went to University of South Carolina. That’s where I grew up and I just went to college where I grew up. I was very fortunate to even have an opportunity to go to college back then. I was kind of obsessed, so I just majored in percussion. But I got involved in a lot of different ensembles—everything that had to do with drumming: playing West African drums, steel pan, orchestra, band, a little bit of everything.

FJO:  I was wondering about how you first got involved with steel pan because I wouldn’t necessarily associate steel pan with South Carolina.

AA:  It was a really awesome time when I was in school there.  It was just a lot of new opportunities and a lot of great influences. We had a Professor Chris Lee who was really into West African drumming and steel pan and going to Trinidad.  And my professor down there, Jim Hall, was really into that, too.  So they had a steel pan program. Around the time when my colleagues and I went to school, we were really into different things.  I was the steel pan guy, one guy was the jazz guy, and another guy was more the composer-percussionist.  We were all different, but while we were there, we were into everything.  I was probably even more into West African drumming then; my goals and plans were to go to Guinea like a lot of my friends did.  But for some reason, I really got into pans, and then I went to Trinidad a lot, especially right after undergrad.

FJO:  So you studied with players in Trinidad.

AA:  When I was finishing up, I also did a student exchange program. I went to North Texas for a year and I got really into bebop. I wanted to play steel pans with that.  I think it was the combination of being really inspired by the jazz musicians out there and being inspired to bring something new to steel pan, then going to Trinidad and playing with large orchestras and feeling that energy.  It was like a full orchestra of these things; it was symphonic. I played I guess the equivalent of a violin in the orchestra for the steel pans.  Everything was taught by rote.  I remember one year I learned my part from like basically the “cellist.”  That’s how well they knew everybody’s parts.  And these are like crazy, intricate things. It was almost easier to learn by rote than reading because you feel the rhythms different.  It’s really internal.

Andy Akiho's Spiderweb fourth and fifth lead steel pan

FJO:  So, perhaps a dumb question, is there a consistency from steel pan to steel pan about where the different notes are?

AA:  No, that’s a really good question.  There is, but there’s a lot of differences, too.  There’s a tradition of so many changes. For example, my steel pan is called a tenor pan, but it’s actually soprano range.  It starts from middle C, and it goes to about the F above the treble staff.

FJO:  Is it fully chromatic?

AA:  Fully chromatic.  In Trinidad, they normally start on the D above that, because they can pierce through the orchestra more.  So for range, and to play with 30 others—any of the altos, the “cellos,” the bass—it actually sounds better orchestrationally and acoustically in a different range.  Mine’s called a Spiderweb fourth and fifth lead, so it’s a circle of fifths, upside down from the diagrams you see in schools.  My C is right next to me, and then it goes in fourths and fifths.  But that’s a newer invention.  It’s probably 40-ish years old now, 40 or 50.  Before that, there was an Invader’s lead, and on that the octaves aren’t even next to each other.  It’s incredible how it’s set up. There’s like this random F-sharp right in the middle. But it actually sounds better, because of the way the overtones work.  But it wasn’t as practical as a learning device, because it was just everywhere.  And they have other pans.  I wrote a steel pan concerto for Liam Teague, and his is completely different. So I took a picture of his, and wrote the notes and put it up on the wall to work out something idiomatic.  His is a completely different pan and he’s the only one in the world that plays that one.  But they’re all about the same range.

FJO:  So no one else could play the piece you wrote for him.

AA:  No, I’ve played it.  I always had it in mind that I wanted it to work on both.  So it was more like if I was doing something with four mallets, I just wanted to make sure he could reach it, that it was physically possible.

FJO:  Another thing that’s really fascinating about the placement of the notes on all these steel pans is that they don’t go left to right from low to high like many instruments around the world or even from low in the middle to high on opposite ends like African koras or mbiras.

AA:  Well, if you’re thinking in patterns or shapes or colors, it’s just another platform.  Like with the human language, we might structure a sentence different: you put the verb first or you put the noun first. It’s the same kind of thing.  I feel fortunate that when I was first learning how to read pitches, it was the same time I was learning how to play steel pan. I was quicker at learning pan than I was at marimba or piano, because it just came to me; it was all right there.  With marimba, I got so worried about missing a note that’s a millimeter off.  But with the pan, I just felt like it was all right there, and I just felt really comfortable.  So it made sense to me more.

FJO:  The tactile element of it is very interesting. The other thing I wonder about, too, is that because of the way it’s patterned, it probably gets you to think about different combinations of notes than you would if you were creating from a piano or a marimba.  People always talk about how Chopin’s music is so pianistic; it’s really based on the tactile experience of him sitting at a piano and working through ideas. As a result, certain kinds of figurations emerge in that music which are directly based on how the instrument is designed.  Same with like Paganini on the violin, Jimi Hendrix on the electric guitar, Ravi Shankar on the sitar, all the great virtuosos who created their own music.  But because steel pan has this other way of setting things up, when you then take those ideas and work them out for other instruments, say, writing for a string quartet, since steel pan is in the DNA of how you think, it creates a different kind of music.

AA:  Exactly. That’s why I feel very fortunate that I can come up with material on the pan for other instruments.  I recently wrote a clarinet quartet piece for David Schifrin and there’s a whole movement that’s a clarinet solo.  I wrote it all on pan.  Then I worked out phrasing and slurs, but it was all on the pan first.  Hand written, then I adapted it to clarinet. But I didn’t change the notes or anything.  So it was really coming from that place. I wrote a saxophone quartet one time, and it was all written on the pan.  All the parts.  As was my first string quartet.

“You go to certain comfortable places. Taking yourself out of that comfort zone can bring new life to the vocabulary.”

I’ll do other things, too, like I’ll go to an instrument I can’t play, like a piano, and come up with material and then apply that to the pan.  I try to do it all different ways. But I do want to say it’s not weird to me; it’s weirder to me to think about a guitar, even though that seems like it’s more linear. If I try to pick up a guitar and try to think of melody, or learn it, or understand where the notes for the chords are, I’m a mess.  At the same time, I accidentally discover some things that I wouldn’t do on the pan because I’ve been playing it for so many years. You go to certain comfortable places.  Taking yourself out of that comfort zone can bring new life to the vocabulary.

FJO:  You mentioned earlier that when you were in school there was a composer-percussion guy and you were the steel pan guy, but you became a composer-percussion guy, too.  When did that happen?

AA:  I looked up my friend Baljinder Sekhon and he was going to Eastman after we were roommates in undergrad. After we finished, I moved to New York eventually, this was within a few years, and he moved to Rochester to study composition.  He started taking that more seriously than percussion.  And while he was up there, I was here playing on the streets and playing in weddings in the Caribbean community.  I was also arranging for these steel orchestras in Brooklyn.  I would arrange stuff for like a hundred players, but it was only steel pans.  I loved it, but I felt like I wanted to experiment a little more with timbres.  I’d love to write for a violin one day, or cello. But I didn’t know anybody. I remember calling him one day in January, and I was like, “Man, it would be kind of cool to write for other instruments.” And he was like: “You got to go back to school, because you don’t know one classical musician in New York.”  I’m like: “No, I only know the Caribbean community.”

So he told me about the contemporary performance program they started in 2007 at Manhattan School [of Music].  I’d been out of school for over six years by then. I hadn’t read a sheet of music in six years.  I was just playing gigs and trying to make it as a steel pan artist in the city.  When he told me about that program, he also told me about [the] Bang on a Can [Summer Residency Program]. I found some old footage of me seven years ago in college playing and I submitted that. I had like two days to submit it and I didn’t know what I was submitting it to.  I just knew it was cool because he did it.  And I got lucky.  I got to do that, and then I went and auditioned at Manhattan School. I had to relearn marimba and relearn percussion. I went and auditioned there and that’s where I met classical musicians. And I was really inspired because I was around a great group of really hungry and inspiring musicians.  So I just started writing for them.  It was just very organic.  It wasn’t like I’m going to try to study composition.  But at that same time, I was fortunate enough to be able to study with Julia Wolfe outside of school.  So I was in school as the contemporary percussion guy, playing with all my friends in that program and then I was able to write for them in a very awesome experimental laboratory in school there.

A view of the "office" part of Andy Akiho's apartment which includes a posted of Bruce Lee, a MIDI keyboard on its side, a computer terminal, some music stands, and handwritten scores.

FJO:  Nice.  The earliest piece you list on your website, Phatamachickenlick, predates all of that. I’ve looked at part of the score, but there’s no audio for it. Is that your first piece?

AA:  I guess officially, yeah.  I mean, that was my drumline days.  I used to skip class in high school and just go in the woods with a snare drum and play for hours.  That just came out of me playing with my friends, coming up with rudimentary solos.  It’s not a good piece. I didn’t ever think of it as a composition or anything.  It was just like: “Hey, play this.”  I could write out the rhythms, because I knew rhythms, but I couldn’t read notes back then or anything.

FJO:  But you’ve got a score of it on your website.

AA:  Yes.  It’s fun.  I think literally everything I’ve ever written is available, unless it was like some random assignment like: “Hey, write for your friends in one hour for tomorrow.”  Maybe I should take that down, but I’ve kept it up there.

FJO:  So do people actually order it?

AA:  Yeah, I got two orders yesterday.  But that’s also a coincidence, because not many people do. I always feel bad. I’m like: “Man, I hope they don’t think this is like a real piece.” But it is what it is.  It’s a duet; it’s a rudimentary snare drum duet that I wrote in my hard core drumline years.

FJO:  And then there’s another really early piece for much bigger ensemble called Hip-Hopracy.

AA:  I consider that my first composition.  I definitely didn’t consider myself an aspiring composer or anything.  I just wanted to write a piece for my senior recital at University of South Carolina.  So I wrote it for all my friends I was telling you about.  We were a really tight crew.  And I was like: “I’d love for you all to play on my recital.” So I wrote for the whole percussion department and wrote each individual part based on them.  It was more like Duke Ellington style.  Like you’re the right guy, you’re the right gal.  My girlfriend at the time was in a hip hop dance class.  She was a dancer.  So they choreographed it; it was a kind of collaborative thing.  We were always working with dancers.  It was just a way to end my recital and a fun way to be creative.  What’s funny is that piece is like Cage or Lou Harrison, but I didn’t even know really what that was back then. I knew when I studied it, or when I played in percussion ensemble, getting those influences. It’s written for ceramic bowls. I’m still writing for these same bowls.  I literally have like ten sets right here.  I remember going into stores back then and picking out the right pitches, then I based the piece off of those.  I just found sounds; it was just a natural way to do it.  I could do that before I could write on a piano, for sure.

A group of ceramic bowls in back of a sampling keyboard.

FJO:  So that piece is more like Cage and Harrison than hip hop, even though you titled it Hip-Hopracy.

“I grew up on rock and hip hop, and probably everything else except classical music.”

AA:  I just called it that because it was for a hip hop class. It wasn’t trying to do anything. But I grew up on rock and hip hop, and probably everything else except classical music. I never grew up listening to Beethoven or anything. I do now.

FJO:  So you didn’t have a connection to so-called classical music.  But what you wound up doing was finding a way to incorporate the ideas that you had into the medium of writing down music that other people play, which is kind of an odd way of doing music to most of the world.  You said before that you wanted to write for violin.  You thought it would be cool.

AA:  I guess it’s not that straight forward, even though I said that.  It was more that I wanted to experiment with pan, mixing with other timbres, whether it’s a ceramic bowl or a violin. I just wanted to have a bigger playground to work in and different timbres to explore.  It wasn’t just for the sake of doing it or trying to write for strings.  I really enjoy just working with any kind of new timbre combination, so it actually felt very natural and organic.  It didn’t seem that odd to me because at first, it was to write pieces for myself to be able to play with friends.  It was almost like being in a rock band when you’re a teenager: “Let’s come up with some material.  I got these ideas. Hey, you play this on the bass.” That kind of thing.  But I was old enough to know that I need to be pretty clear about it.  I was pretty aware that the notation had to be pretty clear.  So I learned as I was doing it.  I didn’t know what I was doing, but I would meet with friends, and be like: “Hey, what’s the range of this?  What’s possible?  Can I write a few things down? Can I record a few things?” I would learn how the instruments worked based on having to do it.

FJO:  So some practical things about making these instrument work together—two things immediately come to mind if you’re combining strings and pan. There’s finding the appropriate acoustical balance, getting the volumes right, so there are questions of where to position everyone.  Are there things that work, things that don’t work?  And then there’s the whole question of intonation. How closely do the pans match the pitches of the other players?

AA:  With pan, there are so many overtones that I think it can blend with any family of instruments.  And if it’s tuned really well, I think there’s a lot of potential for that.  It’s funny because I think about these questions more now than I did then.  Then I was just naïve and just going for it.  And I think that was more exciting sometimes.  I didn’t think about intonation.  I didn’t think about balance, or any of that.  I was just like: “Let’s just do this.” I didn’t have anything to lose, either.  It wasn’t like I had a commission deadline.  It was like: “Oh, we’re going to have a concert at school; let’s put something together.”  It was a lot of experimentation without any pressure of it having to work.  And for some reason, sometimes it worked better.  It was not a fatal mistake if you do something wrong.

FJO:  So what would be something wrong?

“I do things wrong all the time.”

AA:  That’s all subjective. I don’t know. I do things wrong all the time.  In the first piece I wrote at Manhattan, I just literally tried to do everything.  There was a huge fan that a trumpet played through.  There was a 16-foot pipe that the trumpet played through and it bounced off the walls.  And a contrabass flute—the first time I wrote for flute, it was for contrabass flute, alto flute, and regular flute—plus trumpet, steel pan, percussion, piano, and bass clarinet.

FJO:  Yeah, that sounds like a real practical piece.

AA:  And we were also shattering glass everywhere.

FJO:  I didn’t notice that piece on your website.  That one’s not up there, is it?

AA:  I’m not sure.

FJO:  So you didn’t put everything up.

AA:  I might have, if I had the parts, then it’s up somewhere.  Or I have to find the parts maybe.

A page from a handwritten score by Andy Akiho.

FJO:  So the next step after writing these pieces to play with friends is that you started writing pieces that you were not playing in.  How did that whole transition happen?

AA:  This was all a very compact year.  This is 2007 and it was all pieces that I played in.  And in 2008, I got into the Bang on a Can [Summer] Festival, as a composer this time.  My first year was as a performer.  I somehow faked my way in.  Got lucky.  Then I wrote all year.  And, I don’t know, for some reason they let me in as a composer in 2008, and the instrumentation they gave me didn’t have myself in it.  It was for the performer fellows. The first time I didn’t write for myself was that piece.  It’s called to wALk Or ruN in wEst harlem.  I don’t even think I started it on the pan.  It was a really interesting exercise for me.

FJO:  So you started composing it in your head.

AA:  No, I played around the piano.  I remember I experimented a lot with the vibraphone, and I was messing around with rubber bands a lot back then.  I put these rubber bands on there.  And I just kind of improvised for hours and hours, then I started to record myself.

FJO:  But you eventually rearranged that piece for percussion ensemble.

AA:  Yeah, that was for the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.  Dave Hall, who runs the percussion department there, asked me to write a new piece. But it was a very short timeline and I wouldn’t have had time to rewrite a brand new piece.  He was really into harlem, so somehow we came up with the idea to just make a new arrangement of it. But I didn’t want it to be just an arrangement. So I was like, “Let’s take the same music, but I’m really going orchestrate it, not just make it work, not just take the clarinet part and put it here.  Just rework the entire piece.” The piano part is pretty much exactly the same, though.  That’s the one thing I kept.  I spent a day with them working out some of the kinks, and then they performed it, and they did that video and I thought it came out really nice.  It was really great.

FJO:  I think so, too.  What’s interesting is that it’s clearly the same piece, you can hear the melodies and harmonies, but it has a different flavor somehow.

AA:  Yeah, definitely.

FJO:  The timbres really shape what you’re hearing.

AA:  Yeah, it’s so important.  I mean timbre and rhythm are the world I live in.

FJO:  That’s the mindset of a percussionist.

AA:  Yeah, I guess so.

FJO:  Another key ingredient is the tactile element. Of course playing any instrument is a tactile experience but there’s something about percussion that heightens that aspect, I think. And I would venture to say that your sensitivity to this tactile element informs how you write for other instruments. One example that is particularly striking to me is the two-harp piece you wrote for Duo Scorpio, Two Bridges. It’s totally unexpected, because it isn’t what harp music usually sounds like, because you approach the harps like percussion instruments, which is why I think it’s so cool.

AA:  Oh, thanks.  I met with them many times.  The harp or the piano, anything I can touch and feel, even strings, they’re the closest thing to percussion to me.  If I can start to understand it and wrap my head around it, I feel I can work with that instrumentation better, so I was lucky.  I was up at Avaloch Music Institute up in New Hampshire and I was finishing up my piece for Duo Scorpio, and there was a harp duo there, a different harp duo.  They went out to lunch one day, and I was like: “Can I mess around?  I might use some credit cards and stuff.  Is it cool?”  And they were like: “It’s cool.”  They knew I would respect the instruments, and I wrote the whole first movement in like an hour or two.  I videotaped myself just playing on these techniques, messing around with a finger cymbal, a chopstick—I created that first movement just from this experimental place.

It’s also kind of parallel to bridges being built.  We’re in [the] Two Bridges [neighborhood] right now, and that’s what the piece is about.  So the Brooklyn Bridge is those kind of industrial sounds. But then the second movement is all harmonics. I met with them and learned all I could about how that technique worked—the best kind of range for it. And they taught me how the pedals work. And then in the third movement, I just tried to put everything together.

Andy Akiho under the Manhattan Bridge.

FJO:  Now the titles for the first and third movements are numbers.  Are those the years those bridges were built?

AA:  I think the years that they were officially opened.

FJO:  But that one in the middle that’s all harmonics you called “Audio Sun.”

AA:  I just pictured being in the middle of the East River—it would be kind of gross.  But if you were down there, playing these bridges as if they were harps, the reverberations you would hear underneath the water would be very echo-y. I had to try to capture that.

FJO:  There’s a guy named Joseph Bertolozzi who makes music from playing on actual bridges.

AA:  Oh, that’s cool.

FJO:  But you’ve come up with this other idea, using the harps as a metaphor for the bridges. It’s also really effective and just beautiful.

AA:  Aw, thank you.

FJO:  But it’s interesting because I heard the piece way before I saw the video of the performance, so I didn’t know how a lot of those sounds were being made because I couldn’t see it. It still totally worked as abstract music thing.  Another piece of yours along those lines is Vicki/y, the piece you did for Vicky Chow.

AA:  It was inspired by Vicky Chow and Vicki Ray.  When I was at Bang on a Can in 2007 as a performer, Vicki Ray did a masterclass on preparation, and it reminded me of learning about this in undergrad with Cage and stuff.  So it brought all that back.  She was showing us that you could bow the strings and you could pluck them. Then she showed us the dime and I was just blown away with the way the dime sounded woven in between the three strings in the piano.  That stuck with me.  After that, when I started school at Manhattan, I met Vicky Chow.  She’s phenomenal.  I was always inspired by her being able to play in an ensemble and I learned from her and a lot of the other musicians in that program.  And then that next year, I wrote a piece based on those techniques.

FJO:  So you didn’t come up with the dime thing.

AA:  No, I didn’t.  Though, what was crazy is I really couldn’t find examples of that.  I was influenced by Vox Balaenae by George Crumb.  That blew me away, too, but I was trying to find examples. I didn’t really see anything, so I really credit Vicki Ray for showing me that.  And what I tried do is I experimented with exactly where it was. I found out if you pushed [the dime] all the way up the sound board, or whatever the end of where the strings are, it keeps the fundamental, but it has crazy overtones, so it’s basically like a gamelan or like a steel pan.  It’s like a super-saturated steel pan.  So I felt at home writing for that, and then I just based the whole piece on that.  It’s only on eight pitches, but I didn’t want to create it all to be about that.

“A lot of people think I’m trying to do novelty things, but it’s really the world I live in where I feel I can create the most.”

A lot of people think I’m trying to do novelty things, but it’s really the world I live in where I feel I can create the most.  It’s not just a cool effect. A lot of people will think it’s like trying to be some kind of gimmick, but it’s really just where I feel at home.  So I did that and I experimented with it.  I created this scale that was like a palindrome, and worked around with that.  I remember finishing the last page—it was all hand written back then—and handing it to Vicky about two hours before the concert at the Stone.  I think it was November 1st, 2008.  I remember handing her that last page and she killed it.

FJO:  Yeah, her performance of that piece is awesome. But before we leave the dime thing, dimes are so thin. I’m curious if you experimented with other coins: quarters, nickels.

AA:  I think I did, but I realized really quickly that even a penny’s too big.  It will touch the other strings.  Even a dime sometimes can be too big.  I did a piece for Anthony de Mare, an adaptation of the prologue of Into the Woods by Sondheim. There are two dimes and a poster tack. I remember we recorded up at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the dime was actually too big.  It was touching the other strings.  I remember going to a car shop when we went on lunch break and they were soldering stuff and welding. I found some washers and I was like, “Hey man, can you take a millimeter off this?”  We just needed a little less than a dime.  Zzzzzhh.  I went back and it worked perfectly, because it was thin enough. It was as thin as a dime, and it worked, and it kept the fundamental without making the other pitches ring, too.

FJO:  I thought you were going to say you went to a convenience store, got some change and tried other dimes, since they’re not all necessarily exactly the same.

AA:  That’s true.  Yeah. But I needed to take off more than just the little nuances.  For some reason, the strings were thin in that model of piano.  I never really had that problem with dimes before.

FJO:  Interesting.  Once again, this is another thing that no one would know if they only experienced it on an audio recording. Now, with Vicki/y, I heard Vicky Chow’s recording of it before I knew how any of those sounds were made and I hadn’t seen a score for it, but then I saw the video for it you posted online which lets everyone in on its secrets. It was really interesting to actually see how the sounds were being created, but the video is actually so much more than that; it’s almost like a pop music video.

AA:  Oh, thank you.  Gabriel Gomez did that video and did a really incredible job.  He’s a friend of Vicky’s, and she really loved the work he did before.  He works in all kinds of mediums.  Definitely not just music.  He did a really cool film with Robert Black, and we were just blown away, and we all kind of hit it off when we first were talking.  We set up a Dropbox folder and put a bunch of videos in that inspired us, just random stuff, not necessarily music videos and photos, and a description of what I was thinking with the piece, and he just came up with this very beautiful narrative.

FJO:  One of the details I love about this is that it’s clearly her performance, but it’s your piece, and the film weaves you into it as the composer; you’re like this like creepy bystander.

AA:  I know.  I’m such a creeper in that film.  It’s hard to watch that, because it’s hard to see me on something like that.  But Vicky’s an incredible artist. She came up with that transfer.  It was just a really beautiful concept. We filmed some of it in New Haven, in East Rock Park, and we saw this blue heron.  And then he incorporated that in the film, too.

The white piano we used in the end of that is the one I found on 131 and Broadway, when I lived in West Harlem.  I lived on 133 and Broadway and found that piano outside of a church; I saw it there for like two days.  So I went and asked.  I was like: “What are you guys doing with this thing?”  And they were like: “You can take it.” I never owned a piano in my life.  I pushed it up the hill, right by the 1 train, on these really crappy wheels that were all rusted.  Luckily my building had an elevator.

Every note had three notes because every string was so out of tune.  A friend of mine was in town from West Virginia that tunes pans.  He tuned the piano; it was the first time he was tuning a piano.  So then I had that piano, that same white piano, and that’s how I wrote Vicki/y.  I wrote it on that primarily.  I was messing with it.  It was a cool piano.  And I would just put the dimes in and everything.  So then we were like: “We got to use this in a video.” It was living in New Haven because I was there for two years and my landlord let me keep it up there in the house that she owned.  I called her to say we’re going to do a video and we want to finish it up here. So we took that piano out of there, did the video at East Rock Park and then we left the piano there.  We left it in the woods.  I don’t know why.  We just thought it would be cool.  But then my friend Sam and his friend Molly wanted to get the piano, so it’s in Brooklyn now, I think.  They got it the very next day.  They got a U-Haul and got it.  So that piano has seen a lot.

FJO:  You don’t have a piano here, except for a Schoenhut toy piano.

AA:  I write with that a lot.

Andy Akiho's Schoenhut toy piano

FJO:  And you also have a big digital keyboard.

AA:  Yeah, there are like seven MIDIs all around.  They just sample.  They get the job done.  I have to picture the orchestra sometimes, the range, like okay, I know the trumpet’s here, I know the trombone, I just kind of picture it and sometimes I work with scales.  Like I have one up there, and it’s got a million stickers with Sharpie notes all over it.  So I can’t even really use it right now.  It’s got duct tape; it’s for me to know where I am.  I was creating on that for one particular piece.

FJO:  Interestingly the thing that those keyboards are probably least good at is working on stuff that’s for an actual piano because you can’t prepare them.

AA:  Oh yeah.

FJO:  You can’t stick dimes in them, or if you do it’ll sound like something else.

AA:  I’ll sample it.  But if I do that, I’ll work at a real piano, and sample each note, and then plug it in there.

FJO:  I have two thoughts that grew out of what you were saying about being this creepy bystander in that video.  Composers who write music that other people play usually just sit in the audience.  You are kind of a bystander.  You’re not part of the performance. But you came from this background of playing music, and all of a sudden you’re now this guy who like lurks in the back.  You wrote the piece, but to a lot of people who aren’t knowledgeable about this stuff, it’s difficult to understand what that means.  Who’s that guy?  What did he do?  Oh, he wrote the piece.

AA:  Oh, right.

FJO:  What does that mean?  I thought that video really effectively captured that relationship.  There’s this transference in the video of that tattoo, which seems like a really nice metaphor for what happens when someone interprets music you wrote down.  The music is transferring to somebody else who realizes it and makes it into sound.

“I could write all day, but it takes a life of its own through the performers—the way they interpret it.”

AA:  It’s also the importance of the performer bringing the piece to life. I could write all day, but it takes a life of its own through the performers—the way they interpret it.  Even more so with pieces where they’re in charge of picking out the timbres.  In that piece, with Vicky and the preparations, the subtlety of moving things a millimeter or two makes a big difference.  There are so many parameters.  I guess you could say that with every piece of music, but I felt that especially with that piece, and working with Vicky, like it was really written for her.

FJO:  We talked about the video being really effective, but you’ve posted extremely well-done videography of performances of many of your compositions.  The video of Duo Scorpio performing Two Bridges is also really tremendous.  And then there’s even a fascinating video for to wALk Or ruN in wEst harlem which is this really intense and disturbing silent film about human trafficking.  Overall you’ve really set a high visual standard for how you present your music to the world online, which is unusual in our community I think.

“I can’t sing ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ without going off key.”

AA:  Well, I grew up on MTV.  I would stay up for anything from Yo!  MTV Raps to Headbangers Ball, back when MTV was videos all day long. Most Wanted, I was so into that.  I think I’m more visual than, than aural.  I learn things visually more.  Even when I’m writing music, it’s visual; it’s synesthetic.  I think in shapes and colors way more than I do the actual pitches.  I’m kind of tone deaf.  I can’t sing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” without going off key.  It’s pretty rough.

FJO:  We might have to make you sing that now.

AA:  You don’t want me to do that.  That could be dangerous. This is like so masochistic, but I used to take singing lessons just to try to get develop my ear.  I was always the worst in ear training classes and I was super self-conscious about it, so it made it even worse.

FJO:  This might explain why there hasn’t been a ton of vocal music in your output.  There’s that really cool piece for loadbang based on haikus. That’s such an oddball ensemble.  And none of them play an instrument that’s necessarily tactile.  Right?  It’s brass and winds and then a singer.  That’s totally taking you out of your comfort zone.

“I love being out of my comfort zone, so my comfort zone is being out of it.”

AA:  Right, but I love being out of my comfort zone, so my comfort zone is being out of it. I also wrote a piece called NO one To kNOW one, in 2009-2010 and that was one of my only pieces with vocals.  And the piece I was telling you about that I wrote at Manhattan School that had a soprano.

FJO:  Right. And NO one To kNOW one is really interesting because at the end, she’s rapping.

AA:  Yeah, I never thought of it as rap, but I guess maybe I grew up on that a little bit. I was just thinking of a rhythmic way to say these words, but I wasn’t like I was going to try to mimic rap music and then people started calling that a rap.  I just wanted to mimic the rhythm that was going on, and when I wrote the lyrics, it just all fit together naturally.  I messed with the lyrics, and then came up with the rhythm and how that would be set, and then came up with the music, and it just kind of morphed.

I want to write for voice a lot more. I got more of a taste for that doing an opera this past summer.  Writing my first real aria was really great.  It really grounded me.  It was a nice roadmap and a relief to have some kind of structure to write with and to try to interpret words.  The opera is the first time I wrote with somebody else’s words. For loadbang, I wrote the words because I felt uncomfortable writing to somebody else’s words.  Same with NO one To kNOW one and the MSM piece.  Even though I don’t know how to work with words really, I felt more comfortable doing that. I’m not misinterpreting somebody else’s words for them to be upset with me.

FJO:  To take this back to the music videos of your music, it’s fascinating how detailed they are in the way they show how specific sounds are being made, whether it’s the close up of the dime in Vicki/y or the swipe of the credit card against the harp strings in Two Bridges.

“I enjoy seeing where these sounds come from.”

AA:  If I go to a show, I enjoy seeing where these sounds come from, learning and being inspired by that, and not to say: “Hey, this is how to do it.”  But just to share that experience, to get as close to a different experience from going to a live show, a different experience from listening to a record, and a different experience than watching a music video.  What was interesting about the videos you brought up, especially the harlem video is that I was thinking it’s gonna show the rubber bands, but he went in a completely different direction.

That was Michael McQuilken.  We’ve worked together a lot on a lot of videos, and I feel like we’re on the same wavelength on a lot of things.  I’ve always been very inspired working with him.  He’ll just take something and run with it.  It looked like I wrote the music to his film, but it was completely backwards. He sent me a treatment for every second.  I was living in Italy at the time. I remember reading this and I was just blown away.  What’s funny about that piece is it’s my most programmatic piece.  Usually it’s very abstract, and people try to ask me what it’s about, and I have no idea because they all think it sounds programmatic.  But with that piece, literally every sound has a story behind it.  I mean like: that was a siren; that was me running into a taxi; that was the door slamming; that was the emergency room beeps at the hospital.  I even sent him a treatment of what every sound meant when you listen to this CD.  And then he sent me one back, he’s like: “Man, I’ve been talking with my wife and we want to present this story.”  And she starred in the film, Adina. It was incredible what they did with that.

FJO:  It’s amazing. This is what music and film can be when there’s a real synchronicity.  And it’s interesting that the music existed first.  Because obviously most of the time in the film industry, the music gets written later. There are people who are masters at this.  The music fits the film so well and feels completely seamless, but to make the film fit pre-existing music is a whole different process.

AA:  I know.  He deserves so much credit for doing that.  He’s also a really amazing musician, just incredible artist all around.  We’ve taken other pieces like Prospects of a Misplaced Year, The World Below, where you’re super hyper into it, or NO one To kNOW one, where you’re seeing every single technique.  You’re seeing how the sounds are made on the exact opposite spectrum, even the Duo Scorpio piece, he directed that as well.

“The goal is to really feel like you’re in the instrument.”

The goal is to really feel like you’re in the instrument.  That’s something you can’t even get at a live show, unless you invite an audience on stage while you’re playing.  I’ve tried to do that before, too.  I got a little bit of that from being in Trinidad where you have like 50 people right up on you. Some are judging you, but most are really into it.  They’re two inches from you.  They’re almost in your instrument while you’re playing.  There’s just so much energy in that and I enjoy when you can get a little bit of that in a music video.

FJO:  So in a way, is that the ideal way to experience the music?  You have two CDs out.  Obviously, no one can see anything when they hear the CD.

AA:  No I just think it’s another experience. Most of the time if you’re listening to a record or CD, you’re just enjoying the sounds. I like having multiple ways to experience something, whether it’s a narrative or whether it’s just aurally, or a combination of both.

FJO:  Well to get to this idea of narrative, I didn’t know that every sound has a specific story behind it in to wALk Or ruN in wEst harlem.  Music is so abstract. If you’re writing a film score or a score for a ballet, or you have words that someone’s singing or a narrator, you have this other element that gives you the story line.  Music on its own is not going to really do that, most of the time.  Or at least, you might have an idea of what the story is, but someone hearing it is going to come up with something totally different. Ironically that film about human trafficking, which was set to to wALk Or ruN in wEst harlem, is really the only time so far that you’ve worked with a bonafide story board in film, even though it was created after the piece was. So have you thought of ever doing a more typical kind of film scoring project?

AA:  I definitely want to do that, without a doubt.  I don’t think I necessarily want to be a full-time music movie composer, but I would love to do film.

FJO:  You were involved with a staged production which I only saw little snippets of, based on Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo. There are multiple narrative layers to this, Brecht’s play obviously but also the actual life of Galileo, the historical figure, as well as the specifics of that particular production. I imagine that those were all layers that theoretically determined, at least to some extent, what direction your music went in.

AA:  Definitely, and that felt a little bit like composing for film, too.  [The director] Yuval Sharon had a lot of specific ideas; it was his baby.  He really understood what each scene represented and he knew what he wanted for every part, which was a challenge for me, too, because I’m used to coming from a very abstract space, and I had to be disciplined and learn how to really work with somebody who kind of knew what they wanted.  It felt like writing for a movie, but it also inspired me to want to do those kind of collaborations more, because they’re bringing a whole other angle that I would never have thought of.  That piece was interesting because I found out about it while living in Rome, and was sitting in the exact spot where Galileo demonstrated the telescope to the Pope in 1611. I met Yuval on Skype who knows I was sitting in the spot in my studio.  And he was telling me about the project, and I was like: “Wow, this is crazy.”

FJO:  That’s like living on Monroe Street and finding Cage.  It’s trippy.

AA:  Yeah.  I don’t know, man.  Maybe we’re in The Matrix or something.  It’s like too many coincidences right now.  It’s just weird how the world works like that.  Especially in New York.  A friend, Freddie Harris, whom I used to play with down in Trinidad a lot—on the second day I moved to New York, in 2003, I run into him.  And he lived in Miami.  He didn’t even live here at that time.  I run into him.  I hadn’t seen him since Trinidad.  Kendall Williams, do you know him? He’s an excellent composer.  He’s at Princeton now, and he was at NYU.  I hadn’t seen him in probably eight years or something.  We played next to each other in Trinidad, for Phase II, in 2003.  And then I run into him at LPR and he was studying with Julia Wolfe.  Another steel pan composer starting to study with Julia.  Neither one of us grew up in that path to either do classical music or become a composer.  We both played pan next to each other in Trinidad.  There’s like a 160 players in that band and we happened to be the ones.

A traditional Japanese bamboo masu for drinking sake surrounded by small knicknacks depicting cats.

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Christopher Cerrone: Everything Comes From Language

There have been many composers who have been deeply engaged with literature. Perhaps the most famous examples are Anthony Burgess and Paul Bowles, whose novels overshadow their nevertheless formidable achievements in musical composition. While composer Christopher Cerrone has not written any original prose fiction or poetry, at least not that he’s shared with the outside world, he approaches his own musical compositions in much the same way that a writer weaves a literary narrative.

“I try to have people learn how to hear the piece via the order of events,” Cerrone explained when we visited his book-filled Brooklyn apartment. “The more it goes on, the more it’s about the memory of the thing. I lean more towards the linguistic as a composer in that I’m interested in language that’s understandable, perceptible, and followable. If I’m not following my own story musically, then it’s not interesting to me.

Aside from offering a model for his compositional syntax and aesthetics, literature is also the primary inspiration behind almost every piece of his music. In addition to the work that has garnered Cerrone his greatest amount of attention thus far—the site-specific multimedia adaptation of Italo Calvino’s novel Invisible Cities, which was a finalist for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize in Music—he has created solo and choral works derived from texts as diverse as Tao Lin, E.E. Cummings, and the 18th-century Zen Buddhist monk Ryōkan. But even the lion’s share of his instrumental output has been triggered by literary references—a stanza by Erica Jong fueled his single-movement violin concerto Still Life; a passage from a poem by Philip Larkin provided the title and something of an abstract program for High Windows, his concerto grosso for string orchestra; and a quip by Bertolt Brecht inspired his 2017 orchestral work Will There Be Singing premiered this past May by the LACO.

“It’s always so funny what comes out of texts,” Cerrone exclaimed. “The most pretentious way I ever put it is that verbosity is ontology for me. It has to be heard as words, and thought of that way, for it to exist.”

Given Cerrone’s profound empathy for language, it’s somewhat surprising that he chose music instead of literature as the outlet for his creative impulses.

“I don’t have that kind of keen observational sense or that keen psychological sense that I think really great writers have,” he acknowledged. “As much as I love words, the ability of music to have the emotional, the visceral, and immediate pre-psychological impact won out.”

Still, he makes an effort to pick up a book and read at the start of every day before he settles in to work on his musical projects.

“We all probably wish we read more, but I try to put an hour in in the morning, whatever’s going on. And the periods where I do that are the really fecund creatively for me, and they always affect how I think in a really great way. Days when I wake up and check my email and check my text messages and go on Twitter are probably less creative.”

September 27, 2017 at 1:00 p.m.
Christopher Cerrone in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Video and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  It seems to me that words are almost as important to you as sounds.

Christopher Cerrone:  I’m a very verbal person. I grew up thinking I was going to become a writer before I decided to become a composer.  I was always surrounded by books as a child, and I was read to constantly.  I remember my mother used to not just read to me as a child, but also just make up stories.  So I think that perceiving the world through words is just very deeply embedded inside of me, both in my music and in my notion of how music should work.

FJO:  But even though you thought you’d be a writer, music ultimately won out.

CC:  The genuine answer is that it became very clear to me that I had more of a talent for music than words.  I loved words and I loved writing, but I wasn’t a fiction writer. I’ve noticed that my fiction-writer friends are unbelievable observers of people.  It’s almost a little scary to have a fiction-writer friend, because you’re like, “When am I going to wind up in one of those stories?”  I never was that kind of person.  I loved reading and I loved observing things, but I don’t have that kind of keen observational sense or that keen psychological sense that I think really great writers have.  At the same time, I was constantly obsessed with music, always listening and curious about what made the music work.  I remember taking a music theory class in high school and thinking it made so much sense.  As much as I love words, the ability of music to have the emotional, the visceral, and immediate pre-psychological impact won out.

“The ability of music to have the emotional, the visceral, and immediate pre-psychological impact won out.”

FJO:  Nicely stated.  But, of course, if words are all about their meanings, and they mean specific things, how can they not provoke an emotional reaction?  They’re all about being comprehensible.  Whereas music isn’t, and yet it is, on another level.

CC:  I remember reading somewhere that a different center of the brain processes words in song and words that are read. This kind of makes sense. One of my favorite scenes from the movie Annie Hall is when [Woody Allen]’s with that Rolling Stone reporter played by Shelly Duvall and she quotes “Just Like a Woman”: “She breaks just like a little girl.”  It sounds so trite.  If you listen to Dylan, your heart breaks because it’s such a beautiful song.  But if you hear someone say it, it sounds dumb.  So I think that combination was always what was interesting to me: the meaning of text and the meaning of words, but also the ability to process it in purely emotional terms.

FJO:  The thing about music is that it gets its meaning only by the associations we attach to it.  Words operate much differently. Right now we’re talking to each other and every single word we’re using is a word that each of us has said before many times and have also read and written many times, which is why we’re able to understand each other.  You can’t do that with music.

CC:  I think you can.  I was teaching a composition lesson a couple of days ago in Michigan. I had this student who is very talented, but to me the music sounded too much like other music I’ve heard before.  So I said to him that all music exists on some kind of spectrum, from something that involves nothing you’ve ever heard before to music that sounds exactly like everything you’ve ever heard before. I think all great music exists somewhere along that.  In music, you’re speaking a language of things heard already.  You’re just rearranging it in a way that is unique.  You use sonorities that have been heard before, like I use major chords.  But even if you don’t use major chords, everything is along the lines of some kind of reference.

FJO:  But curiously I think that with language, and by extension literature, the spectrum is slightly different. You can’t really have something that functions in a literary way that’s completely new words that you’ve never heard before, even though the Dadaists and later experimental writers attempted this.

CC:  Right.

Two bookshelves filled with books.

FJO:  The big revolutions that sent shockwaves through all the artistic disciplines in the 20th century are related to each other. In visual art, it was about escaping representation. And in music, it was the so-called emancipation of dissonance. In literature, the parallels to those developments would be things like stream of consciousness, automatic writing, concrete poetry. While a lot of people like to say that contemporary music didn’t catch on with a large audience because most people didn’t want to hear those dissonant sounds, those sounds are much more a part of our collective culture at this point than a novel like Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans.

“All music exists on some kind of spectrum, from something that involves nothing you’ve ever heard before to music that sounds exactly like everything you’ve ever heard before.”

CC:  Yeah, it’s a rough read.  I’ve not finished it.  It’s so true.  I think that’s interesting because it gets to the idea that works of art teach you how to experience them. My favorite works of art are works that teach you through the process of seeing them.  This is what I try to do in my music through the course of forms. I try to have people learn how to hear the piece via the order of events. The more it goes on, the more it’s about the memory of the thing. So yeah, it’s funny, I think I lean more towards the linguistic as a composer in that I’m interested in language that’s understandable, perceptible, and followable.  If I’m not following my own story musically, then it’s not interesting to me.  Not that there can’t be moments of surprise, but the surprise is also part of the language.

FJO:  Well that’s the thing.  Surprise comes because if you know these chords and it suddenly goes somewhere different from progressions you’ve heard before, that gives the music an element of surprise.

CC:  I also think it’s interesting to be a composer and to have grown up in an age where that’s all happened already, all the revolutions. The Berlin Wall has fallen and so has the musical Berlin Wall, so you’re sitting there and you’re like, “Okay, there is nothing I can possibly imagine that could be accomplished through just the act of radical revolution in music.”  Maybe it’s possible, but to me that’s not what’s interesting.  There are so many things that are built totally out of noise, out of a completely impossible to understand vocabulary—or not impossible to understand, but that wall had already been pushed up against to such a point even within the aesthetics of modernism.

People are more interested now in theater and things that are actually more familiar. I remember seeing [Helmut] Lachenmann give a lecture in New York. Apparently every time he meets some player, they’re like, “Oh, Mr. Lachenmann, hear this sound.”  And it would be like krrr-krrrr-, and he’s just like, “Okay, that’s great.” Even he thought it was silly that people would walk up to him and give him new weird sounds.  This isn’t what I do as an artist.  I’m not just trying to make the weirdest sound possible.  I’m trying to make music and art, so I think as a composer I’m much more interested in building a language that is as broad as a linguistic thing. I have so many things in my vocabulary as a composer, which are all syntheses.  How much can I import into my language as a composer and still have it be consistent?

FJO:  I came across a piece of yours recently which I had not before that I was floored by—the Violin Sonata. But it’s somewhat of an outlier in your output.

CC:  Is it an outlier?

FJO:  Well, in the most obvious way, it’s an outlier because your pieces are almost inevitably inspired by literature and have these beautiful evocative titles. Whereas calling something a violin sonata merely tells listeners about the form and instrumentation of the piece.

CC:  That’s a good point.  The funny thing about it is I almost feel like it’s poetic.  The poetic reference of a violin sonata is what the point of that is, more than anything else.  It’s obviously not a sonata in the classical sense. It has sort of a superficial resemblance to it but, to me, what was interesting about that whole thing was the idea of the poetic notion of these two people on stage playing these instruments.  That’s why I called it a sonata more than anything else.  I do know though that there was a concert program recently that was all my music, and I was like, “Oh, you should have included my Violin Sonata.  It would have been a nice thing on that concert.” And [the person who put the concert together said], “Oh, I hate sonatas.” So I think that the piece turned off at least one person by having that title.

FJO:  Wow!  Yet he might have had a completely different reaction had you given the piece some beautiful, unique, evocative title, because words automatically trigger previous associations.

CC:  Right.

FJO:  But the words “violin sonata” also trigger associations. It gave him a very specific message, and that message was the history of every other violin sonata that’s ever been written by every other composer.  And had you previously written three other pieces that you called violin sonatas and you called this the fourth, those words would immediately reference the fact that you had done this same kind of piece three times previously.

CC:  I can’t even imagine that.  It was definitely a one-off calling something a sonata.  It was really funny, I remember my friend Timo Andres had a piece done at the New York Philharmonic, a piano concerto, and it’s just called The Blind Bannister. Apparently the New York Philharmonic insisted upon stylizing it Piano Concerto No. 3, “The Blind Bannister.”

“It just felt almost oddly romantic to call something a sonata.”

I think most composers are a bit reticent to throw out these titles.  But for me it was actually very much about the poetic notion of a sonata and writing a piece for these two people who happen to both be—more than most of the people I write for—immersed in the classical repertory in a really specific way.  It’s not like it’s ironic.  It just felt almost oddly romantic to call something a sonata.

FJO:  I didn’t know that story about Timo’s piece; that’s really interesting.  I see the title Piano Concerto No. 3, and I am immediately curious about the earlier two if I haven’t heard them yet. So, for me, giving something such a title is as much autobiographical as it is associative with previous music history. It makes you want to know the pre-history of where the composer came from for that piece, almost to the point that it can’t live independently the way a piece with a beautiful title can.

CC:  I almost feel like calling a piece Violin Sonata was maybe unfair to an audience because it’s almost like me saying, “If you know all my works, you know I never give titles like this.”  I don’t have a bunch of sonatas.  I have literally one sonata.  Since every other piece has an evocative, poetic title, you almost know that on some level that this title has a kind of layer of evocation as well. This is unfair because obviously not everyone knows all my pieces, or any of my pieces.

FJO:  I tried to get to know them all over the past couple of weeks.  We’ll see how far we get talking about all of them!  But the other thing I thought about, before we move on from the Violin Sonata, in your notes for it you wrote that you’ve avoided calling pieces sonatas because you didn’t want to be part of that chain of influences.  Your music exists outside of that, but once you give a work such a title, it forces the comparison.

CC:  I felt like it was time for me, that I felt comfortable. To sort of side swipe your answer, there was this interview with Morton Feldman late in his life, and I found it to be such an interesting interview because he talks about Steve Reich. He was at that point in his life when he finally came out admitting that he sort of loves Steve Reich, but he talked about the instrumentation. I wouldn’t say it was disparaging, but Feldman’s thing was that the instrumentation is the piece.  A Feldman piece might be for piano, flute, and percussion. It will have this incredible combination, and it’s so beautiful and it achieves an otherworldliness. Whereas Reich is like, “Alright, I’m finding an ensemble.  It doesn’t matter.  No one cares about me anyway.  So there’s going to be two clarinets, and four singers, and a million percussionists, so it’s going to be amplified.”

I think that that Reich tradition is the one that I felt more comfortable in initially as a composer because of the lack of history and being able to find my own combinations. Importing ideas into more classical ensembles is something that I’ve done more lately.  It’s somewhere my career has gone.

A wall filled with framed pages of scores by John Cage

In addition to admiring Morton Feldman, Cerrone also has a great fondness for another New York School composer, John Cage, and an entire wall of his apartment is lined with framed pages of Cage scores.

FJO:  There’s also the practical matter of writing for a so-called classical ensemble; these tend to be ensembles that there are many of.  If you write for your own particularly created ad-hoc group, it’s possibly the only group that has that specific instrumentation and can therefore be the only group that can play the piece.

CC:  That’s true.

FJO:  How many ensembles are there with two clarinets and lots of percussion? By necessity, Steve Reich formed his own ensemble and worked with musicians he knew, but later in his life, he also began writing for more standard ensembles. The piece of his that won the Pulitzer, Double Sextet, is a piece for a “Pierrot plus percussion” sextet. Of course, he doubled all the parts, which is the thing he does, but it’s a standard ensemble. When people now want to put together a performance of, say, Music for 18 Musicians, they have to put a special ensemble together, whereas there are tons of “Pierrot plus percussion” ensembles out there already; Double Sextet can be played by any of them.

CC: I’m sure there’ve been a million performances of Double Sextet.  On the other hand, I think he was really smart in the pieces that were for these larger combinations.  He more or less wrote evening-length works.  So you can justify doing Music for 18 [Musicians], because that’s the concert.  If it was an eight-minute piece for the Music for 18 Musicians instrumentation, I think it would never get performed.

FJO:  It’s interesting that you bring up Feldman when you talk about the Violin Sonata because, as you said, the instrumentation was the piece for him, and toward the end of his life the titles he gave pieces would just be what the instruments are.

CC:  Oh yeah, like Piano, Violin, Clarinet.  Well, that’s the thing I was tapping into almost with the sonata thing.  It’s a poetic thing about these instruments—the poetic potential of just sound.  A big part of the spectrum of where I sit as an artist is the sound thing from Feldman plus this allusive thing in literature. Get those two things together and you more or less have my music.

FJO:  But the other thing about your sonata is that I think it’s very carefully not referencing other sonatas.  That’s not what it’s about.

CC:  No.  Definitely not.

FJO:  It’s about referencing the techniques required by virtuosos who play together and referencing this idea of a duo.  This might have not even been a conscious thing on your part and perhaps it’s even something I inferred that isn’t even there, but the only thing that I heard in the Violin Sonata that associates it with any other music is at some point toward the middle of the end of the first movement, I heard things that sound like ‘80s power pop chords.

CC:  Yeah.  Totally. I always call it the Springsteen section.

FJO:  Ha!  How did that wind up in there?

CC:  It was really funny because I remember Rachel [Lee Priday] at the premiere introduced it that way, and I thought, “Don’t say that.”  But it’s so true.  I think I should just own it.  More and more I’m interested in bringing everything in my world as an artist into my music, and that includes pop music for sure.  I grew up on a diet of it.  I recently discovered the Björk album Vespertine, which is amazing and maybe my favorite now. But I had never heard it, because when I was 18, I decided I was going to become a composer, so I decided to only listen to classical music and never listen to any pop music ever again.  The extremism of the 18-year old, I think, is kind of a funny, beautiful thing.  But I realized I’d never heard that album because between 2002 and 2005, I didn’t listen to any pop music; I sort of just immersed myself in classical music entirely.  And then I was like, “Wait a minute.  This is dumb.  I love all this music.”  I was just being really absolutist and silly, but I have holes from that period.

“When I was 18, I decided to only listen to classical music and never listen to any pop music ever again.”

Anyway, I think that for me the thing is to bring in as wide as possible a reference of things that I love. It’s not ideological.  It’s just like the whole piece sets up that moment; it’s an extremely stretched out version of just three pop chords.  You’ve got all these natural harmonics.  They’re all sounding pitches on the violin, open string harmonics.  They’re all super tonal because harmonics on the strings of an instrument that’s tuned in fifths are going to be tonal.  So when you compress them all into a single moment, it just becomes one, four, and five chords.  It’s literally just chords that came out of the overtone series on a violin, but I love the idea of the reference to kind of a pop song, too.

FJO:  I want to unpack your decision to avoid listening to pop music in the early years of the 21st century. By then, the schism between so-called pop and so-called classical music was less pronounced. It seems like those walls were coming down, certainly in terms of what other composers were writing.  So it seems weird that you were putting the walls back up.

CC:  I went through a series of musical rebellions in high school.  I studied piano, classically from a young age, and I played jazz. I was starting to compose, and I played electric guitar and bass.  I played a lot of music of all different kinds; I was very immersed in all kinds of music.  I think that there was this weird thing where I just had the ultimate rebellion into conservatism by accident, because I’d heard all this post-noise, post-rock music. I was listening to Godspeed You! Black Emperor in high school and at some point, I thought this is actually kind of like classical music.  As I went further and further into long form things, I weirdly wound up back at the other end. I think it was also that I grew up on Long Island, which feels like I grew up in basically a cultural wasteland.  There was no culture really at all.  Capitalism fills the holes of the suburbs with more capitalism, so there was commerce and there was popular art, which I’m not denigrating at all, but there was no sort of serious visual arts because it’s a place that’s sort of cut off, other than from New York City, and it sort of relies upon New York City. It has never developed a culture of its own really, except for a few odd places here and there.  So, unless you go to New York City, you don’t see orchestras, you don’t see classical music.  You don’t go to museums, and you don’t see theater.

FJO:  Even though the Hamptons has this big gallery scene?

CC:  Yeah, I guess so. But I wasn’t sophisticated enough as a 17-year old to know about the gallery scene in the Hamptons.  But I was literate.  I think that’s actually why I have this great love of literature; it was the one thing you could really get deep into since you could get books.  There was actually a great independent bookstore in my town which was my favorite place. Amazingly, it’s still there and it’s still an independent bookstore.  Anyway, I think that the notion of becoming a classical composer was this gigantic rebellion against Long Island and the American notion of suburbia. So I think as a result of that gesture, I went really far with it. I was an insufferable, pretentious 18-year old who was like, “I only listen to Beethoven.”  Then I chilled out a little bit and became a little bit less insufferable and learned to remember that I love all kinds of music.

Three superimposed scores are propped up on Cerrone's piano, Stockhausen's Klavierstucke XI, an original composition, and a Beethoven sonata.

FJO:  So when you cut everything else off, were you only listening to older music?

CC:  I was discovering at that point.  As an 18-year old on Long Island, access to contemporary music is extremely limited.  My library had a couple of Kronos Quartet CDs, so I do remember hearing the first tracks of that famous Black Angels disc.  I was like, “What is this?  This is so discordant.”  But I think the first music I really loved was actually more like the neo-romantic tradition. I still think there are some really great pieces in that tradition.  And then I discovered Lutosławski and Ligeti. What I loved about that music and what I still love about it is its mix of influences.  And I discovered minimalism.  Then I discovered Cage and European Modernism, and I went backwards from there. I had teachers who were encouraging me to discover more and more; that was really, really lucky.

FJO:  Did you listen to music from other cultures at all?

CC:  I think that was an even later thing, the period where people were just dumping stuff from hard drives onto hard drives. I think probably somewhere through the middle of college I discovered gamelan and then I discovered gagaku and West African drumming. That was all probably later in my development, but it was obviously hugely influential.  I discovered American shape-note singing.  It’s such an incredible tradition.  It really sits with me.  And I discovered Sardinian music. That moment when you could just dump anything from a hard drive onto another was an amazing moment.  I mean, it also ruined the music industry, but there was a moment where you just could discover anything.

FJO:  Getting back to the comparisons between how music and language function.  We’re saying all these words to each other in a language we both grew up speaking and the words flow naturally without us having to consciously stop and think about each one. Certainly that happens in music when people immersed in an idiom improvise together and respond to each other’s phrases in real time. But when you’re alone writing a novel or creating a notated musical composition designed for other people to perform, there’s a lot of pre-meditation that goes into that process even though a lot of what comes out is also the result of a subconscious absorption of things you have either read or heard or both.

CC:  I feel that way absolutely.  I’ll come up with something and it will feel really original, and then I’ll realize it’s just a half-remembered version of something I heard 15 years ago.  I think that 18-to-22 period is such an important period. I read somewhere that your brain is the most malleable at that point.  It’s like a sponge, and you just absorb everything. I was genuinely very curious, but I was also very lucky to have access to a lot of stuff. I remember my teacher in college, Nils Vigeland, would give me a list every single week with 15 pieces.  I’d run to the library and study everything.  That was the moment for me to discover a ton of stuff.  And I think all that is subconsciously in my vocabulary as a composer.

FJO:  You’ve actually composed a piece that seems like an attempt to turn into musical sounds the way our brains process memories—Memory Palace.

CC:  I’m surprisingly un-premeditated as a composer.  I don’t plan as much as you might think.  I just sort of keep going, and then I work backwards to make it seem that I planned it.  That piece is for no real traditional percussion instruments.  They all have to be made.  So since I was stripped of the possibilities of traditional instruments, I thought I guess I better, like, think back on all the times that I didn’t really have an instrument and had 12 beer bottles left over from a party and filled them up with different amounts of water and we made a song out of it.  It started as improvisation with a friend and electronics, and it just kind of went from there.

FJO:  I think it really captures what you described earlier as a pre-psychological, emotive moment. But, because of the indeterminate elements you’ve put into this score, the fact that performers must make their own instruments in order to realize it, it becomes very personal and very specific to whomever is interpreting it. So I wonder how divergent performances have been and how representative you feel they have all been of your intentions.

CC:  How do I put this?  There’s a moment when pieces stop being something you wrote almost and they start to become part of the repertoire. That is the most amazing feeling, but it’s a very strange feeling when you see something so far from where you conceived it.  It’s a surprisingly fixed piece in terms of the pitch choices being notated, but I think that the sounds, the colors, are the most interesting part—the timbres.   I remember one person, his house was being demolished.  He moved and he saved all the wood from his deck and took the wood for that piece out of it.  That’s so cool.  And I was at this party recently, and this guy I happened to have corresponded with, whose son is a percussionist, came up to me and said, “I want to thank you.  My son played Memory Palace and we made the instruments together.  We don’t really have that kind of relationship.  But since he had to do it, I helped him and it was this really big bonding experience.” That is probably one of the more meaningful things that anyone has ever said to me about my music.

“It’s a very strange feeling when you see something so far from where you conceived it.”

FJO:  That’s beautiful.

CC:  It’s something I’m sure I’d do with my own dad, although we argue when we build things together.  [The electronic component of] that piece literally had a set of wind chimes I recorded that are in my parents’ house still.  I was digging really deep with that piece. I think that that’s been the process for me as an artist, generally speaking. The thing that’s really hard is to emotionally strip yourself down to exposed places, but that will yield something powerful.

FJO:  Interestingly, the two pieces we talked about in detail so far, the Violin Sonata and Memory Palace, are both very much about you having an idea and then running with it.  Those ideas were not things you got from somewhere else, although as we’ve been saying, nothing exists independently; everything comes from something.  Still, you had no guide to take you on a path; whereas, with the majority of the pieces you’ve written—obviously all of your vocal pieces but even many of the instrumental ones—the inspiration will come from something that is concrete that already had existed in literature, whether it’s a novel or a set of poems.  So I’m wondering, in terms of what you just said about stripping yourself down emotionally to find this essence, how do you work within something that already exists to find the thing that’s you?

CC:  I think it’s as simple as the way you read a book and you relate to it.  You don’t have to be like that person to relate to it.  I’m reading this book by Teju Cole right now, and he’s a Nigerian-American writing about his experiences. Obviously that’s not an experience I relate to, but I still relate to the book.  And I still relate to the things he says and does in the book.  I think that’s true of most of the texts I’ve dealt with. I’m sure I have a very different experience than most of the writers I set. You can still relate to them, and they become about you anyway. People have commented on how my interpretation of works tends to become about me.  It becomes about how I feel when I read something, and so I think it’s the same kind of emotional thing.  It’s just filtered through someone else’s text.

A paperback copy of Teju Cole's novel Open City rests on top of a page of Cerrone's music manuscript.

FJO:  So I want to dig deeper into reading and its importance for you—how much you read, where you read, what you read, how you find things to read, and when that moment comes and you start pondering whether or not you can turn it into a piece of your music.

CC:  I try to read in the mornings, as much as I can, but it varies, honestly.  We all probably wish we read more, but I try to put an hour in in the morning, whatever’s going on.  And the periods where I do that are the really fecund creatively for me, and they always affect how I think in a really great way. Days when I wake up and check my email and check my text messages and go on Twitter are probably less creative.  People usually recommend things to me, and I’m always lucky to either hear someone or, as I’ve had some really great experiences of late in different residencies, literally meet the author, get to know the works of my author friends. I have a lot of very literate friends, and I grew up in a family that reads a lot.

“Days when I wake up and check my email and check my text messages and go on Twitter are probably less creative.”

Starting from there and then outward, it’s always just some sort of random connection. Some people say it’s so much easier to write a piece based on a text because you have that guide structurally and that’s half true.  But the part they don’t talk about is the volume one goes through to find a source text. The research aspect of it is insane. For every poem I set, I read 500 poems.  This one is too long, or this one doesn’t quite get the feeling right.

FJO:  So what’s the “Aha!” moment when you’re reading something?  Is it the very first reading and you’ll say, “Oh, this really grabs me.  I hear things in my head; I hear sound.” Or will you come back to something after reading it a few times and internalizing it, and then decide you can do something with it?

CC:  More often than not, it’s usually pretty immediate.  When you read a poem and you’re like, “Oh, okay, clearly.”  And it’s usually the length.  “This is short.  Great.“ So that’s often the “Aha!” moment.

FJO:  Like those peculiar Bill Knott poems you set, which I knew nothing about before I heard your Naomi Songs, even though Knott had posted them all online. How did you discover his writing?

CC:  I have this friend who’s the most crazily literary person and he dumped a ton of stuff on my hard drive that he found on the internet.  Those Knott poems are so great, right?  I found them, and he died a year later, and it was like, “Oh God, how am I going to get the rights to these?  Who even executes his estate?” But I found the person who had written his obituary in The New Yorker and he managed to put me in touch with his executor, and he was super nice about it.  Then there are certain authors. For example I love Lydia Davis, but I feel that so many composers have done such brilliant things—David Lang, Kate Soper.  There are just all these great pieces with Lydia Davis texts. I don’t need to be the fifth person to write one. She’s brilliant and great, but there’s something about the discovery; one hopes that in the world that we’re in, the texts I use are often discoveries for people.

“One hopes that in the world that we’re in, the texts I use are often discoveries for people.”

FJO:  I remember when I first learned about Lydia Davis. I was the music person on a multi-disciplinary panel many years back, and the literary person on that panel was trashing the short stories of Lydia Davis because they’re way too short and undeveloped. This person seemed to treasure long, dense work. But that negative reaction actually made me want to seek out her work and read it, and when I did I instantly fell in love with it, too. At that point, nobody in the music community seemed to know who she was, and in the back of my head I thought it would be really cool for her writing to be set to music.  Then everybody else did it!

CC:  Poor Lydia probably gets these emails every week: “Can I use your text?” I learned about Lydia Davis because I heard Kate Soper’s piece, and I thought, “Oh my God, this writing’s amazing.”  But maybe since I had my moment with that already through music, it was less interesting to me to try to do the thing again.

FJO:  Then why Italo Calvino?

CC:  Yeah, he’s well known.

FJO:  Very well known, definitely not a discovery. And yet his writing inspired several pieces of yours.  Most obviously Invisible Cities, your weird, wacky, magical, wonderful piece that’s more than a setting of this pre-existing thing, but which was obviously inspired by it.

CC:  Calvino to me is so inspiring as an artist, and I think he was the person who helped me discover how to become the composer I wanted to be, much more than any composer. He’s such an amazing writer obviously, and I read quite a few of his books.  Some were funny or cute. Well, not cute.  That’s the wrong word.  He would have hated that.  But they have a lightness to them.  He loved the word lightness and talked about the word lightness a lot.  Invisible Cities had that, but it also had a little bit more depth and a little more emotion to me.  It read very emotional to me.  I don’t know if others read it that way.

I cared and still do care about structure so much—interesting, complicated structures. But I’m also interested in writing music that hopefully people think is beautiful and sensuous and lyrical. So I read that book, and I thought to myself that this is a writer who can accomplish lyricism and also complexity, but not how complexity has come to mean unpleasant somehow.  Not that people actually think that, but I think there is this sort of subconscious subtext with difficulty.

“To me, Calvino’s complicated and complex, but he’s not difficult.”

To me, Calvino’s not difficult. He’s complicated and complex, but he’s not difficult.  To me, he’s effortless, and giving the illusion of effortlessness was so important.  So I read his books, and I’m like, “This is what I want to do as a composer.”  It was such a moment for me.  And so I definitely wanted to make things out of his amazing works.

FJO:  So the idea of doing a piece that’s experiential, that sort of breaks the fourth wall and takes place in multiple locations, breaking the space-time-proscenium continuum of how we experience music theater pieces, where in the process of creating this did that become how it was going to be done?

CC:  Well, I was writing this piece obviously through grad school, and I didn’t really know what it was going to be in a sense.  I knew that the text was sort of the anchor. The text is all based directly from the novel. But I knew that this was not an opera in the sense of we’re going to go ahead and tell a traditional story.  This was a piece that is a meditation.  And I knew it needed something very, very unconventional.

I had applied for the VOX Workshop at New York City Opera, and it was accepted into it. That’s where I met Yuval Sharon and we became friends. We did this workshop, and that was the culmination of me realizing what it was. It was originally scored for orchestra and it had all these opera singers, and it was just not right.  I knew there was something there and I kept going with it, but I knew that the version of the piece was not the right version at all.  So I pared it down to a chamber ensemble—a sort of unusual chamber ensemble in the Reich tradition of having multiple pianos and percussion in the group.  And it sort of kept going and I still didn’t know what it was. I had this workshop at this thing called the Yale Institute of Music Theater; Beth Morrison was producing it at the time.  She literally said something along the lines of “I don’t know who would be the right person to direct this.  It would have to be someone with a crazy, out-there vision.  Maybe someone like Yuval.”  It was really funny.  I’m like, “Well, that would be great.” And so when he moved out to L.A. and he called me, I had come to the conclusion that this should not be a staged piece.  It should have people all over the place, all over throughout the hall.  It was going to be amplified, and it was going to have movement, and that’s all I had at that point.

So Yuval comes to me with this idea, “What if we do it in the train station with movement and using headphones so you can hear everything perfectly, but the experience is flexible?” I think I said yes immediately.  Then I can do all the sound design stuff too, and I can have all sorts of crazy amplification ideas.  That’s where my work was going already anyway.  The idea of the train station was entirely his, but it seemed perfect. I think it was actually sort of at the behest of Chad Smith from the L.A. Phil.  They had done the overture and Yuval was sort of casting around what to do, and Chad suggested what about this piece.  And Yuval’s like, “Of course, I know this piece from VOX.” And it was kismet!

FJO:  You mentioned sound design, which is interesting given your years of avoiding listening to pop music. After all, so much of what pop music recordings are about is their sound design, whereas people whose work comes out of the so-called classical music tradition rarely think in terms of shaping recorded sound objects and bringing certain things out in the studio.

CC:  Something that was revelatory for me was that when I went to graduate school, I was randomly assigned to work in the recording studio.  I didn’t really know anything about electronic music at that time.  I got a C in electronic music in college.  It was my only C and was sort of a badge of honor.  But then I started working with microphones, and that was the moment where everything started to spill back into my life in terms of technology. I got really interested in technology and sound design.  I realized that I sort of hate how classical music has been recorded, one mic 50 feet away from the orchestra, no EQ-ing, incredibly loud and incredibly quiet at different times.  That was the moment where we started doing Invisible Cities. So I’m working with Nick Tipp, our sound designer, and I was like, “Oh, let’s compress this and let’s have these really quiet moments be really loud.” There’s whispering, and the whispering’s super loud.  I got to make a studio album live, and it was incredible to me.  Actually learning how to do it was incredibly important.

FJO:  That surrealness of loud whispers mirrors the surrealism of Calvino.

CC:  Absolutely.

FJO:  So you were able to put your own stamp on it, but that text is what guided you.

CC:  Yeah, 100 percent.  Everything in the opera comes out of the book.

FJO:  So what happens when you set a writer who is completely different, like Tao Lin, whose poems are the basis for your song cycle I Will Learn To Love A Person? Or maybe in your opinion, he’s not so different.

CC:  He could not be more different.

FJO:  Yet his words speak to you as well, and they’ve brought out music from you.

CC:  I spent more or less three years in and out working on that opera. My identity was formed around it as an artist and as a composer. So for the next vocal piece—it was literally the next, it was the first vocal piece I wrote after that—I was like, “Okay, I love Calvino; he’s a genius.  But I need the complete opposite now.”  Calvino is semi-contemporary; the book is from the ‘70s. But I wanted to do something written, like, last year.  I’ve noticed that whenever composers set texts, they always tend to refer to something much older. If they’re not setting Auden or Whitman, they’re setting 20 or 30-year old things.  I didn’t really know anything about contemporary poetry, and so I sort of dove in.

I had this friend of a friend who was a poet.  She’d written this article about this movement called the New Sincerity.  I think the term New Sincerity came out of this David Foster Wallace article called “E Unibus Pluram.” It’s the opposite of E pluribus unum. He was talking about irony and postmodernism and how television absorbs it. I think he was very ahead of his time in that regard.  I see the internet as the same thing.  TV was not a big deal compared to how crazy the internet is in our culture. The final rebels will be ones who dare “single-entendre principles.” I love that quote so much.  That was where that movement sort of took its “Invictus” from.  I was very interested in that movement, because it was something I was really relating to at that time in my life, writing music that does not have a sheen of a postmodern irony around it.  I wanted something that was very direct.  So my friend Jen Moore wrote an article on two poets, Matt Hart and Tao Lin.  And I saw these Tao Lin poems and I was like, “Oh, this is perfect.”  They’re basically song lyrics.  Sometimes people struggle with the tone of his poems, which is very hard to pin down—sort of ironic, but also funny, sweet, and sensitive. There is this one poem, which I love and I almost set. I decided against it. The last line is “I AM FUCKED,” existentially in capital letters, 43 times in a row. I loved how Tao Lin was just really direct and really honest.  I loved how he exposed himself in those poems emotionally, so I thought isn’t this kind of wildly rebellious to have a song cycle where people actually discuss deep-seated fears and pains, but not in a sophisticated way.  Just like, “I am this.”

FJO:  I know his novels more than I know his poetry.  His novels are so twisted.

CC:  Oh, like Eeeee Eee Eeee

FJO:  My favorite one is Richard Yates, which appropriates names of teen stars for its main characters but isn’t actually about them.

CC:  Oh yeah, Dakota Fanning.

FJO:  And Haley Joel Osment. The whole novel is basically a G-chat between these two characters whose names seem to just be there for the sake of irony. Because of that, I find it somewhat incongruous that he gets lumped in with the New Sincerity. To me his novels seem completely ironic.

CC:  I would say that that’s somewhat true.  Taipei, his most recent book, is, I think, the closest to being emotionally direct.

FJO:  I haven’t read that one yet.

CC:  It’s super good.

A paperback copy of Tao Lin's novel Taipei is on the top of a stack of books.

FJO:  But another one of his novels, Shoplifting from American Apparel, is also super ironic.

CC:  Yeah, definitely, I think he’s still grappling with irony. I think everyone’s grappling with irony all the time.  The poems are the most direct thing he wound up writing.

FJO:  You mentioned David Foster Wallace and I see Infinite Jest on your bookshelf.  That one’s hard to hide because it’s so huge.  But you’ve not set him.

CC:  There are tons of writers I love who I did not set.  They tend to be verbose.  And they feel complete.  I don’t think there’s anything you can do.  The thing about writers that I set is that there has to be room in the text for more.  Another poet who I feel that way about, and he’s one of my favorite poets, is Frank O’Hara.  I don’t know if there’s anything you could do to a Frank O’Hara poem that would make it any better than what it is.  It feels complete; everything’s there.  So I wouldn’t want to set his poetry, even though I love it, you know.

“There are tons of writers I love who I did not set. They tend to be verbose. And they feel complete.”

FJO:  And besides, if you were setting David Foster Wallace, what would be the musical equivalent of a footnote?

CC:  We’ll come back to this later!

FJO:  Literature has obviously been key to the pieces of yours that have texts, but it has even informed many of your completely instrumental pieces like High Windows, the gorgeous string orchestra piece you wrote for the String Orchestra of Brooklyn, which you named after a line from a poem by Philip Larkin.  How did that play out?  Did you read the poem and decide that, instead of setting it, it would influence you musically in other ways?

CC:  Usually there’s some kind of synchrony.  Titles come at all different points in the composition process.  Sometimes it’s like, “Bam, that’s it.” Then sometimes it’s like, “This was what I was doing.”  That is often an equally powerful thing to me. And sometimes you’re just desperate and you really need a title.  Usually it’s pretty rare that I have a really clear premeditated notion of what I’m doing when I’m starting a piece.  Usually it finds itself over the course of a piece.

FJO:  So how did the title come about for Will There Be Singing, particularly leaving off the question mark?

CC:  That was really funny.  I remember I got a number of questions about that. Is there a question mark?  And I’m like, no.  “Will there be singing.”  Not, “will there be singing?”

FJO:  But that also comes from somewhere—from Bertolt Brecht, though obviously in translation. Although he’s the guy who also came up with the line “Is here no telephone?” in English for Mahagonny.

CC:  And “Oh, don’t ask why.”

FJO:  I think there’s a question mark in Brecht’s original.

CC:  Yeah, and I think the Brecht line is actually: “Will there also be singing?”

FJO: It’s interesting that the source was Brecht, since it’s essentially making a political statement about our time. There’s a famous anecdote about Brecht in East Germany after the war.  He’d written plays that were censored and couldn’t be staged, and someone from the West interviewed him about it and asked, “Since you’ve always been a force for freedom of expression, how can you live in this society where they’re censoring your work? “ And he said, “Well, that means they read it!”

CC:  Oh, Brecht.  So clever.

FJO: So what’s the actual story with the title?

CC:  That one was pretty clear from the beginning.  I started writing that piece in January 2017 when the world felt like it had fallen apart.  I knew that quote and I emailed it to Martin Bresnick the day after the election.  This has to be the mantra.  It was really funny because this is also how I know Yuval and I are artistic soul mates: he was obsessed with the same quote, and sent out something about that quote in a newsletter with The Industry.  So we’re clearly in the same zone.

The piece starts with chords that are me feeling anxiety about the world.  They are just harsh chords and it goes from there.  But it doesn’t feel like a political statement because I don’t know if I’m interested in making political statements. If you haven’t made your mind up about Donald Trump, I don’t think my orchestra piece is going to convince you one way or the other.  It’s more just a reflection of the times that we’re in and who I am as a person at this moment.

FJO:  It’s now almost nine months later and the world still feels like it’s falling apart, but it does seem like there will still be singing no matter what.

“Verbosity is ontology for me.”

CC:  Seems that way.  I’m starting this new piece right now. It’s always so funny what comes out of texts.  The most pretentious way I ever put it is that verbosity is ontology for me. It has to be heard as words, and thought of that way, for it to exist. There’s an inscription that was an epigraph to another book of poems by this writer John K. Samson by this guy named Tom Wayman: “Weak things have power.” Democracy can only exist when we are weak, when we are fragile, because then we want it to be democracy and not autocracy.  It’s something I’ve been really connected with lately. What is the opposite of Donald Trump?  It’s someone who admits their fragility.  This is a person who can’t ever admit fragility, and the response to any kind of thing is anger.  In a sense, while I deeply empathize with the anger of so many people in the world right now against him, admitting your own fragility as a person is the political statement that I want to make.  I’m a flawed person, and I want to express it. I have fears. I have anxieties and I have pain.  That, to me, is the way forward.  The way forward is not people screaming at each other.

Christopher Cerrone talking in his apartment.

Chris Brown: Models are Never Complete

Despite his fascination with extremely dense structures, California-based composer Chris Brown is surprisingly tolerant about loosely interpreting them. Chalk it up to being realistic about expectations, or a musical career that has been equally devoted to composing and improvising, but to Brown “the loose comes with the tight.” That seemingly contradictory dichotomy informs everything he creates, whether it’s designing elaborate electronic feedback systems that respond to live performances and transform them in real time or—for his solo piano tour-de-force Six Primes—calculating a complete integration of pitch and meter involving 13-limit just intonation and a corresponding polyrhythm of, say, 13 against 7.

“I’ve always felt that being a new music composer, part of the idea is to be an explorer,” Brown admitted when we chatted with him in a Lower East Side hotel room at a break before a rehearsal during his week-long residency at The Stone.  “It’s so exciting and fresh to be at that point where you have this experience that is new.  It’s not easy to get there.  It takes a lot of discipline, but actually to have the discipline is the virtue itself, to basically be following something, testing yourself, looking for something that’s new, until eventually you find it.”

Yet despite Brown’s dedication and deep commitment to uncharted musical relationships that are often extraordinarily difficult to perform, Brown is hardly a stickler for precision.

“If you played it perfectly, like a computer, it wouldn’t sound that good,” he explained. “I always say when I’m working with musicians, think of these as targets. … It’s not about getting more purity.  There’s always this element that’s a little out of control. … If we’re playing a waltz, it’s not a strict one-two-three; there’s a little push-me pull-you in there.”

Brown firmly believes that the human element is central and that computers should never replace people.  As he put it, “It’s really important that we don’t lose the distinction of what the model is rather than the thing it’s modeled on. I think it’s pretty dangerous to do that, actually.”

So for Brown, musical complexity is ultimately just a means to an end which is about giving listeners greater control of their own experiences with what they are hearing. In the program notes for a CD recording of his electro-acoustic sound installation Talking Drum, Brown claimed that he reason he is attracted to complex music is “because it allows each listener the freedom to take their own path in exploring a sound field.”

Brown’s aesthetics grew out of his decades of experience as an improviser—over the years he’s collaborated with an extremely wide range of musicians including Wayne Horvitz, Wadada Leo Smith, and Butch Morris—and from being one of the six composers who collectively create live networked computer music as The Hub. Long before he got involved in any of these projects, Brown was an aspiring concert pianist who was obsessed with Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto which he performed with the Santa Cruz Symphony as an undergrad. Now he has come to realize that even standard classical works are not monoliths.

“Everybody in that Schumann Piano Concerto is hearing something slightly different, too, but there’s this idea somehow that this is an object that’s self-contained,” he pointed out.  “It’s actually an instruction for a ritual that sounds different every time it’s done.  Compositions are more or less instructions for what they should do, but I’m not going to presume that they’re going to do it exactly the same way every time.”

Chris Brown’s first album was released in 1989, ironically the same year as the birth of another musical artist who shares his name, a Grammy Award-winning and Billboard chart-topping R & B singer-songwriter and rapper.  This situation has led to some funny anecdotes involving mistaken identity—calls to his Mills College office requesting he perform Sweet Sixteen parties—as well as glitches on search engines including the one on Amazon.

“These are basically search algorithm anomalies,” he conceded wryly. To me it’s yet another reason to heed his advice about machines and not to overly rely on them to solve all the world’s problems.

Chris Brown in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded at Off Soho Suites Hotel, New York, NY
June 22, 2017—3:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu.

Frank J. Oteri:  Once I knew you were coming to New York City for a week-long residency at The Stone and that we’d have a chance to have a conversation, I started looking around to see if there were any recordings of your music that I hadn’t yet heard. When I did a search on Amazon, I kept getting an R & B singer-songwriter and rapper named Chris Brown, who was actually born the year that the first CD under your name was released.

Chris Brown:  Say no more.

FJO:  I brought it up because I think it raises some interesting issues about celebrity. There is now somebody so famous who has your name, and you’ve had a significant career as a composer for years before he was born.  But maybe there’s a silver lining in it. Perhaps it’s brought other people to your music who might not otherwise have known about it—people who were looking for the other Chris Brown, especially on Amazon since both your recordings and his show up together.

CB:  These are basically search algorithm anomalies, but the story behind that is that when the famous Chris Brown started to become famous, I started getting recorded messages on my office phone machine at Mills, because people would search for Chris Brown’s music and it would take them to the music department at Mills.  They would basically be fan gushes for the most part.  Sometimes they would involve vocalizing, because they were trying to get a chance to record.  Sometimes they would ask if he could play their Sweet Sixteen party.  There were tons of them.  At the beginning, every day, there were long messages of crying and doing anything so that they could get close to Chris Brown in spite of the fact that my message was always a professorial greeting.  It didn’t matter.  So it was a hassle.  Occasionally I would engage with the people by saying this is not the right Chris Brown and trying to send them somewhere else.

It’s a common name. When I was growing up, there weren’t that many Chrises, but somehow it got really popular in the ‘80s and ‘90s.  Anyway, these days not much happens, except that what it’s really meant is kind of a blackout for me on internet searches.  It’s hard to find me if somebody’s looking.  Since I started working at Mills, the first thing that David Rosenboom said to me when I came in is there’s thing called the internet and you should get an email account.  Everybody was making funny little handles for themselves as names.  From that day, mine was cbmuse for Chris Brown Music.  I still have that same email address at Mills.edu.  So I go by cbmuse.  That’s the best I can do.  Sometimes some websites say Christopher Owen Brown, using the John Luther Adams approach to too many John Adamses.  It’s kind of a drag, but on the other hand, it’s a little bit like living on the West Coast anyway, which is that you’re out of the main commercial aspect of your field, which is really in New York. On the West Coast, there’s not as much traffic so you have more time and space.  To some extent, you’re not so much about your handle; you still get to be an individual and be yourself. I could have made a new identity for myself, but I sort of felt like I don’t want to do that.  I’ve always gone by Chris Brown.  I’ve never really attached to Christopher Brown.  Maybe this is a longer answer than you were looking for.

FJO:  It’s more than I thought I’d get. I thought it could have led to talking about your piece Rogue Wave, which features a DJ. Perhaps Rouge Wave could be a gateway piece for the fans of the other Chris Brown to discover your music.

CB:  I don’t think that happens though.  That was not an attempt to do something commercial.  I could talk about that if you like, since we’re on it.  Basically, the DJ on it, Eddie Def, was somebody I met through a gig where I was playing John Zorn’s music at a rock club in San Francisco and through Mike Patton, who knew about him. He invited Eddie to play in the session and he just blew me away.  I was playing samples and he was playing samples.  I was playing mine off my Mac IIci, with a little keyboard, and he was playing off records.  He was cutting faster than I was some of the time.  Usually you think, “Okay, I’ve a got a sample in every key. I can go from one to the other very quickly.”  He just matched me with every change.  So we got to be friends and really liked each other.  We did a number of projects together.  That was just one of them. He’s a total virtuoso, so that’s why I did a piece with him.

FJO:  You’ve worked with so many different kinds of musicians over the years.  From a stylistic perspective, it’s been very open-ended.  The very first recording I ever heard you on, which was around the time it came out, was Wayne Horvitz’s This New Generation, which is a fascinating record because it mixes these really out there sounds with really accessible grooves and tunes.

CB:  I knew Wayne from college at UC Santa Cruz. He was kind of the ringmaster of the improv scene in the early ‘70s in Santa Cruz.  I wasn’t quite in that group, but I would join it and I picked up a lot about what was going on in improvised music through participating with them in some of their jam sessions.  Wayne and I were friends, so when he moved to New York, I’d sometimes come to visit him.  Eventually, he moved out of New York to San Francisco.  I had an apartment available in my building, so he lived in it.  He was basically living above us. He was continuing to do studio projects, and this was one of them.  He had his little studio setup upstairs and one day he said, “Would you come upstairs and record a couple of tracks for me?” He played his stuff and he asked me to play one of the electro-acoustic instruments that I built, so I did.  I didn’t think too much more of it than that, but then it appeared on this Electra-Nonesuch record and there was a little check for it. It was my little taste of that part of the new music scene that was going on in New York.  Eventually Wayne moved out and now he lives in Seattle. We still see each other occasionally.  It’s an old friendship.

FJO:  You’ve actually done quite a bit of work with people who have been associated with the jazz community, even though I know that word is a limiting word, just like classical is a limiting word. You’ve worked with many pioneers of improvisational music, including Wadada Leo Smith and Butch Morris, and you were also a member of the Glenn Spearman Double Trio, which was a very interesting group.  It’s very sad.  He died very young.

CB:  Very.

FJO:  So how did you become involved with improvised music?

CB:  Well, I was a classically trained pianist and I eventually wound up winning a scholarship and played the [Robert] Schumann Piano Concerto with the Santa Cruz Symphony. But I was starting to realize that that was not going to be my future because I was interested in humanities and the new wave of philosophy—Norman O. Brown.  I got to study with him when I was there, and he told me I should really check out John Cage because he was a friend of Cage’s: “If you’re doing music, you should know what this is.”  So I went out and got the books, and I was completely beguiled and entranced by them.  It was a whole new way of listening to sound as well as music, or music as sound, erasing the boundary.  So I was very influenced by that, but almost at the same time I was getting to know these other friends in the department who were coming more out of rock backgrounds.  They were influenced by people like Cecil Taylor and the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the free jazz improvisers.  These jam sessions that Wayne would run were in some way related.  There were a lot of influences on that musical strain, but that’s where I started improvising.

To me, improvisation seems like the most natural thing in the world.

I was also studying with Gordon Mumma and with a composer named William Brooks, who was a Cage scholar as well as a great vocalist and somebody who’d studied with Kenneth Gaburo. With Brooks, I took a course that was an improvisation workshop where the starting point was no instruments, just movement and words—that part was from the Gaburo influence.  That was a semester of every night getting together and improvising with an ensemble.  I think it was eight people.  I’d love if that had been documented.  I have never seen or heard it since then, but it influenced me quite a bit.  To me, improvisation seems like the most natural thing in the world. Why wouldn’t a musician want to do it?  Then, on the other side of this, people from the New York school were coming by and were really trying to distinguish what they did from improvisation.  I think there was a bit of an uptown/downtown split there.  They were trying to say this is more like classical music and not like improvisation.  It’s a discipline of a different nature.  Ultimately I think it’s a class difference that was being asserted.  And I think Cage had something to do with that, trying to distinguish what he did from jazz.  He was trying to get away from jazz.

I didn’t have much of a jazz background, but I had an appreciation for it growing up in Chicago. I had some records.  At the beginning I’d say my taste in jazz was a little more Herbie Hancock influenced than Cecil Taylor.  But once I discovered Cecil Taylor, when I put that next to Karlheinz Stockhausen, I started to see that this is really kind of the same. This is music of the same time.  It may have been made in totally different ways, and it results from a different energy and feeling from those things, but it’s not that different.  And it seems to me that there’s more in common than there is not.  So I really never felt there was that boundary.  So I participated in sessions with musicians who were improvising with or without pre-designed structures. It was just something I did.

Once I discovered Cecil Taylor, when I put that next to Karlheinz Stockhausen, I started to see that this is really kind of the same.

The first serious professional group I got involved with was a group called Confluence.  This came about in the late 1970s with some of my older friends from Santa Cruz, who’d gone down and gotten master’s degrees at UC San Diego. It was another interesting convergence of these two sides of the world.  They worked with David Tudor on Rainforest, the piece where you attach transducers to an object, pick up the sound after it’s gone through the object, and then amplify it again.  Sometimes there’s enough sound out of the object itself that it has an acoustic manifestation.  Anyway, it’s a fantastic piece and they were basically bringing that practice into an improvisation setting.  The rule of the group was no pre-set compositional design and no non-homemade instruments.  You must start with an instrument you made yourself and usually those instruments were electro-acoustic, so they had pickups on them, somewhat more or less like Rainforest instruments.  The other people in that group were Tom Nunn and David Poyourow.  When David got out of school he wanted to move up to the Bay Area and continue this group.  One of the members of it then had been another designer, a very interesting instrument maker named Prent Rodgers.  And he bailed.  He didn’t want to be a part of it.  So they needed a new member.  So David asked me if I’d be interested, and I was.  I always had wanted to get more involved with electronic music, but being pretty much a classical nerd, I didn’t really have the chops for the technology.  David, on the other hand, came from that background.  His father was a master auto mechanic, from the electrical side all the way to the mechanical side. David really put that skill into his instrument building practice and then he taught it to me, basically.  He showed me how to solder, and I learned from Tom how to weld, because some of these instruments were made out of sheet metal with bronze brazing rods.  I started building those instruments in a sort of tradition they’d begun, searching for my own path with it, which eventually came about when I started taking pianos apart and making electric percussion instruments from it.

So, long story short, I was an improviser before I was a notes-on-paper composer.  That’s how I got into composing.  I started making music directly with instruments and with sound.  It was only as that developed further that I started wanting to structure them more.

FJO:  So you composed no original music before you started improvising?

CB:  There were a few attempts, but they were always fairly close to either Cageian influence or a minimalist influence.  I was trying out these different styles.  Early on, I was a follower and appreciator of Steve Reich’s music. Another thing I did while I was at Santa Cruz was play the hell out of Piano Phase.  We’d go into a practice room and play for hours, trying to perfect those phase transitions with two upright pianos.  I was also aware of Steve’s interest in music from Bali and from Africa. These were things that I appreciated also.

FJO:  I know that you spent some time in your childhood in the Philippines.

CB:  I grew up between the years of five and nine in the Philippines.  It wasn’t a long time, as life goes, but it was also where I started playing the piano.  I was five years old in the Philippines and taking piano lessons there.  I was quite taken with the culture, or with the cultural experience I had let’s say, while I was there.  I went to school with Filipino kids, and it was not isolated in some kind of American compound.  I grew up on the campus of the University of the Philippines, which is a beautiful area outside of the main city, Manila.

FJO:  Did you get to hear any traditional music?

Being an improviser is a great way to get into a cultural interaction.

CB:  Very little because the Philippines had their music colonized.  It exists though, and later I reconnected with musicians at that school, particularly José Maceda, which is another long story in my history.  I’ve made music with Filipino instruments and Filipino composers.  One of the nice things about being an improviser is that collaboration comes much easier than if you’re trying to control everything about the design of the piece of music, so I’ve collaborated with a lot of people all over the place, including performances before we really knew what we were doing.  It’s an exploratory thing you do with people, and it’s a great way to get into a cultural interaction.

Chris Brown in performance with Vietnamese-American multi-instrumentalist Vanessa Vân-Ánh Võ at San Francisco Exploratorium’s Kanbar Forum on April 13, 2017

FJO:  I want to get back to your comment about your first pieces being either Cageian or influenced by minimalism.  I found an early piano piece of yours called Sparks on your website, which is definitely a minimalist piece, but it’s a hell of a lot more dissonant than anything Reich would have written at that time. It’s based on creating gradual variance through repetition, but you’re fleshing out pitch relations in ways that those composers wouldn’t necessarily have done.

CB:  I’m very glad you brought that up.  I think that was probably the first piece that I still like and that has a quality to it that was original to me.  From Reich I was used to the idea of a piece of music as a continuous flow of repetitive action.  But it really came out of tuning pianos, basically banging on those top notes of the piano as you’re trying to get them into tune. I started to hear the timbre up there as being something that splits into different levels.  You can actually hear the pitch if you care to attend to it.  A lot of times the pitch is hard to get into tune there, especially with pianos that have three strings [per note]. They’re never perfectly in tune.  They’re also basically really tight, so their harmonic overtones are stretched.  They’re wider than they should be.  They’re inharmonic, rather than harmonic, so it’s a kind of a timbral event.  So what I was doing was kind of droning on a particular timbre that exists at the top of the piano, trying to move into a kind of trance state while I was moving as fast as I can repeating these notes. The piece starts at the very top two notes, and then it starts widening its scope, until it goes down an octave, and then it moves back up.  It was a process-oriented piece.  There wasn’t a defined harmonic spectrum to it except that which is created when you make that shape over a chromatically tuned top octave of the piano.  It didn’t have the score.  It was something that was in my brain.  It would be a little different every time, but basically it was a process, like a Steve Reich process piece, one of the earliest ones.

FJO:  So when did you create the notated score for it?

CB:  Well, I tried a couple of times, but it wasn’t very satisfactory. I made the first version for a pianist who lives in Germany named Jennifer Hymer. She played it first probably around 2000. Then 15 years later, another pianist at Mills—Julie Moon—played it, and she played the heck out of it. So now there is a score, but I still feel like I need to fix that score.

FJO:  I think it’s really cool, and I was thrilled that there was a score for it online that I could see. You also included a recording of it.

CB:  I just don’t think the score reflects as well as it could what the piece is about.  I always intended for there to be a little bit of freedom in it that isn’t apparent when you just write one set of notes going to the next set of notes.  There has to be a certain sensibility that needs to be described better.

FJO:  Bouncing off of this, though it might seem like a strange connection to make, when I heard that piece and thought about how it’s taking this idea of really hardcore early minimalist process music, but adding more layers of dissonance to it, it seemed in keeping with a quote that you have in your notes for the published recording of Talking Drum, which I thought was very interesting:  “I favor densely complex music, because it allows each listener the freedom to take their own path in exploring a sound field.”  I found that quote very inspiring because it focuses on the listener and giving the listener more choices about what to focus on.

CB:  I think I still agree with that. I’m not always quite going for the most complex thing I can find, but I do have an attraction to it. Most of the pieces that I do wind up being pretty complicated in terms of how I get to the result I’m after, even though those results may require more or less active listening. I was kind of struck last night by the performance I did of Six Primes with Zeena Parkins and Nate Wooley. The harmonic aspect of the music is much more prominent and much more beauty-oriented than the piano version is. When I play the piano version, it’s more about the intensity of the rhythms and of the dissonance of the piano, as opposed to the more harmonious timbre of the harp or the continuous and purer sound of the trumpet; the timbre makes the way that you play the notes different.

An excerpt from Chris Brown, Zeena Parkins and Nate Wooley’s trio performance of Structures from Six Primes at The Stone on June 21, 2017.

FJO: But I think also that this strikes to the heart of the difference between composition and improvisation.  I find it very interesting that you’ve gravitated toward these really completely free and open structures as an improviser, but your notated compositions are so highly structured.  There’s so much going on, and in a piece like Six Primes, you’re reflecting these ratios not just in the pitch relations, but also in the rhythmic relationships. Such complicated polyrhythms are much harder to do in the moment.

CB:  Of course.  But that’s why I’m doing it. I’m interested in doing things that haven’t been done before.  I’ve always felt that being a new music composer, part of the idea is to be an explorer.  Sometimes that motivation is going to get warped by the marketing of the music or by the necessity to make a career, but that was always what I was attracted to about it. From the first moment that I heard Cage’s music, I said, “This is an inventor.  This is somebody who’s inventing something new.”  It’s so exciting and fresh to be at that point where you have this experience that is new.  It’s not easy to get there.  It takes a lot of discipline, but actually to have the discipline is the virtue itself, to basically be following something, testing yourself, looking for something that’s new, until eventually you find it.

I’ve always felt that being a new music composer, part of the idea is to be an explorer.

This is the third cycle of me learning to play these pieces. At first, I just wanted to know it was possible. And next, I wanted to record it. This time, I’m looking to do a tour where I can perform it more than once. Each time I do it, it gets easier. At this point, I’m finally getting to what I want, for example with 13 against 7, I know perfectly how it sounds, but I don’t have to play it mechanically. It can breathe like any other rhythm does, but it has an identity that I can recognize because I’ve been doing it long enough. It seems strange to me that music is almost entirely dominated by divisions of two and three. We have five every once in a while, but most people can’t really do a five against four, except for percussionists. There are a lot of complex groupings of notes in Chopin, but those are gestures, almost improvisational gestures I think, rather than actual overlays of divisions of a beat. Some of this is influenced by my love and interest for African-based musics that have this complexity of rhythm that is simply beyond the capability of a standard European-trained musician, actually getting into the divisions of the time and executing them perfectly and doing them so much that they become second nature so that they can be alive in performance, rather than just reproduced. It’s a big challenge, but I’m looking for a challenge and I’m looking for a new experience that way.

An excerpt from Chris Brown’s premiere solo piano performance of Six Primes in San Francisco in 2014.

FJO:  So do you think you will eventually be able to improvise those polyrhythms?

CB:  Maybe, eventually, but I think you have to learn it first. The improvising part is after you’ve learned to do the thing already.  Yesterday I was improvising some of the time. What you do is you start playing one of the layers of the music. In Six Primes part of the idea is you have this 13 against 7, but 13 kind of exists as a faster tempo of the music, and 7 is a slower one.  They’re just geared and connected at certain places, but at any one time in your brain, while you’re playing that rhythm, it might be a little bit more involved in inflecting the 13 than the 7. Sometimes, when things are really pure, you get a feeling for both of them and they’re kind of talking to each other.  As a performer, I would say that that’s the goal.  It’s probably rarer than I wish at this point.  But the only way you can get there is by lots of practice and eventually it starts happening by itself.  I think it’s the same as if you’re playing the Schumann Piano Concerto.  You’re not aware of every gesture you’re making to make that music.  You’ve put it into your body, and it kind of comes out by rote.  You know you’re experiencing the flow of the music, and your body knows how to do it because you trained it.  So it’s the same with Six Primes, but it’s just the materials are different and the focus is different.

An excerpt from Chris Brown's piano score for Six Primes

An excerpt from the piano score for Six Primes © 2014 by Chris Brown (BMI). Published by Frog Peak Music. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Reprinted with permission.

FJO:  And similarly to listen to it, you might not necessarily hear that’s what’s going on.  But maybe that’s okay.

CB:  Yes, that goes to the quote that there’s a multi-focal way of listening that I’m promoting; the music isn’t designed to have one focal point. It’s designed to have many layers and that basically means that listeners are encouraged to explore themselves. It’s an active listening rather than that you should be listening primarily to this part and not aware of that part.

The music isn’t designed to have one focal point.

FJO:  In a way, this idea of having such an integral relationship between pitches and rhythms is almost a kind of serialism, but the results are completely different. I also think your aesthetics, and what you’re saying about how one listens to it, is totally different.

CB:  I wouldn’t say it’s modeled on that, but I do like the heavy use of structure. It’s a sculptural aspect of making music. I do a lot of pre-composition. This stuff isn’t just springing out of nowhere. Six Primes actually has a very methodical formal design that’s explained in the notes to the CD. The basic idea is that you have these six prime numbers: 2, 3, 5, 7, 11, and 13. Those are the first six prime numbers. They’re related to intervals that are tuned by relationships that include that number as their highest prime factor. I know that sounds mathematical, but I’m trying to say it as efficiently as possible. For example, the interval of a perfect fifth is made of a relationship of a frequency that’s in the ratio of 3 to 2. So the highest prime of that ratio is a 3. Similarly, a major third is defined by the ratio of 5 to 4. So 5 is the highest prime. There’s also the 2 in there, but the 5 is the higher prime and that defines the major third. There are other intervals that are related to it, such as a 6 to 5, which is a minor third, where the 5 is also the highest prime. And 5 to 3, the major sixth, etc. Basically Western music is based around using 2, 3, and 5 and intervals that are related to that. Intervals that use 7 as the highest prime are recognizable to most western music listeners, but they’re also out of tune by as much as a third of a semi-tone. Usually people start saying, “Oh, I like the sound of that. I can hear it. It’s a harmony, but it sounds a little weird.” Particularly the 7 to 6 interval, which is a minor third that’s smaller than any of the standard ones that Western people are used to, is very attractive to most people but also kind of curious and possibly scary. When you take it to 11, you get into things that are halfway between the semitones of the equal tempered chromatic scale. And 13 is somewhere even beyond that. Okay, so there are all these intervals. The tuning for Six Primes is a twelve-note scale that contains at least two pitches from each of these first six prime factors, which results in a total of 75 unique intervals between each note and every other one in the set.

The cover for the CD of Six Primes

Last year, New World Records released a CD of Chris Brown performing Six Primes.

FJO:  Cellists and violinists tune their instruments all the time and since their instruments have an open neck, any pitch is equally possible. The same is true for singers. But pianists play keyboards that are restricted to 12 pitches per octave and that are tuned to 12-tone equal temperament. And since pianists rarely tune their own instruments, 12-tone equal temperament is basically a pre-condition for making music and it’s really hard to think beyond it. As a classically-trained pianist, how were you able to open your ears to other possibilities?

CB: It was hard. It was very frustrating. It took me a long time, and it started by learning to tune my instrument myself. The first thing was what are these pitches? Why do I not understand what everybody’s talking about when they’re talking about in tune and out of tune? I’m just not listening to it, because I’m playing on an instrument that’s usually somewhat out of tune. Basically pianists don’t develop the same kind of ear that violinists have to because they don’t have to tune the pitch with every note. So I was frustrated by my being walled off from that. But I guess not frustrated enough to pick up the violin and change instruments.

While I was an undergraduate and started getting interested through Cage in 20th-century American music, I discovered Henry Cowell’s piano music, the tone cluster pieces, and I loved them.  I just took to them like a duck to water, and I got to be good at it.  I had a beautiful experience playing some of his toughest tone cluster pieces at the bicentennial celebration of him in Menlo Park in 1976. I really bonded with that music and played it like I owned it.  I could play it on the spot. I had it memorized.   The roar of a tone cluster coming out of the piano was like liberation to me.

FJO:  And you recorded some of those for New Albion at some point.

CB:  That came out of a concert Sarah Cahill put together of different pianists playing; it was nice that that came out.

FJO:  It’s interesting that you mention Cowell because he was another one of these people like Wayne Horvitz who could take really totally whacked out ideas and find a way to make them sound very immediate and very accessible. It’s never off-putting, it’s more like “Oh, that’s pretty cool.” It might consist of banging all over the piano, but it’s also got a tune that you can walk away humming.

CB:  I like that a lot about Cowell.  He’s kind of unaffected in the way that something attracted him. He wrote these tunes when he was a teenager, for one thing.  But he wrote tunes for the rest of his life, too.  Sometimes he wrote pieces that have no tune at all.  The piece Antimony, for example, is amazingly harsh. There’s definitely some proto-Stockhausen there, but it’s not serial.  I think that the ability to not feel like you need to restrict yourself to any particular part of the language that you happen to be employing at the moment is something that is really an admirable achievement.  There’s something so tight about the Western tradition that once you start developing this personal language, you must not waver, that this is the thing that you have to offer and it’s the projection of your personality, how will you be recognized otherwise? I think that’s ultimately a straightjacket, so I’ve always admired people like Cowell and Anthony Braxton. Yesterday I was talking to Nate Wooley about the latest pieces that Braxton is putting out where he’s entirely abandoned the pulse; it’s all become just pure melody. He’s changing.  Why do we think that’s a bad idea?  Eclecticism—if you can do it well and can do it without feeling like you’re just making a collage with stuff you don’t understand—is the highest form, to be able to integrate more than one kind of musical experience into your work.

FJO:  It’s interesting that you started veered into a discussion about discovering Cowell’s piano music after I asked you about how you got away from 12-tone equal temperament. Most of Cowell’s music was firmly rooted in 12-tone equal, but he did understand the world beyond it and even tried to explore synchronizing pitch and rhythmic ratios in his experiments with the rhythmicon that Leon Theremin had developed right before he was kidnapped him and brought back to the Soviet Union.

CB:  I was definitely influenced by [Cowell’s book] New Musical Resources. As I read about the higher harmonics and integrating them into chords, I would reflect back on what it sounds like when you play it on the piano.  It is very dissonant because of the tuning.  And I realized that.  So I thought, “Well, okay, he just never got there.  He didn’t learn to tune his own piano, maybe I should do that, you know.” I get that some in Six Primes, I think, because there’s an integral relationship between all the notes. Even though the strings are inharmonic, there’s more fusion in the upper harmonics that can happen.  So these very dissonant chords also sound connected to me.  They’re not dissonant in the same way that an equal tempered version of it is.  They have a different quality.

I’m also noticing from the other piece we played the night you attended that was using the Partch scale, if you build tone cluster chords within the Partch scale, you get things that sound practically like triads, only they buzz with a kind of fusion that you can only have when the integral version of major seconds is applied carefully.  You get all kinds of different chords out of that.  It’s wonderful.

FJO:  Now when you say Partch scale, we’re basically talking about 11-limit just intonation, in terms of the highest primes, since the highest prime in his scale is 11.

CB:  Right, but it’s more than that. He did restrict himself to the 11-limit, but he didn’t include everything that’s available within that.  He made careful, judicious selections so that he could have symmetrical possibilities inside of the scale.  It’s actually more carefully and interestingly foundationally selected than I knew before I really studied it closely.

FJO:  But he worked with his own instruments which were designed specifically to play his 43-note scale whereas you are playing this score on a standard 7-white, 5-black keyed keyboard.

CB:  I took an 88-key MIDI controller and I was using it to trigger two octaves of 43 notes.  So I’ve mapped two octaves to the 88 keys. It winds up being 86, but it is possible to do that. I’m thinking in the future of figuring out a way to be able to shift those octaves so I’m not stuck in the same two-octave range, which I haven’t done yet, but that’s kind of trivial programming-wise.

FJO:  Of course, the other problem with that is the associations the standard keyboard has with specific intervals.

CB:  You have to forget that part, and that’s why I didn’t do it in Six Primes.  And also, if I’d done it on an acoustic piano, it really messes up the string tension on the piano.

FJO:  Julian Carrillo re-tuned a piano to 96 equal and that piano still exists somewhere.

CB:  Yeah, but you can’t re-tune it easily, let’s put it that way. And it loses its character throughout the range because the character of the piano is set up by the variable tension of the different ranges of its strings.

FJO:  But aside even from that, it changes the basic dexterity of what it means to play an octave and what it means to play a fifth.  Once you throw all those relationships out the window, your fingers are not that big, even if you have the hands of Rachmaninoff.

CB:  It becomes a different technique for sure. I’m not trying to extend the technique. What I’m doing with this is essentially I’m making another chromelodeon, which was Partch’s instrument that he used to accompany his ensemble and to also give them the pitch references that they needed, especially the singers, to be able to execute the intervals that he was writing.

FJO:  Well that’s one of the things I’m curious about.  When you’re working with other musicians obviously you can re-tune the keyboard.  You can re-tune a piano, you can work with an electronic keyboard where all these things are pre-set. But the other night, you were working with a cellist who sang as well and an oboist.  To get these intervals on an oboe requires special fingerings, but most players don’t know them.  With a cello there’s no fretboard, so anything’s possible but you really have to hear the intervals in order to reproduce them.  That’s even truer for a singer.  So how do those things translate when you work with other musicians, and how accurate do those intervals need to be for you?

CB:  Those are two questions really.  But I think the key is that you’ve got to have musicians who are interested in being able to hear and to play them.  You can’t expect to write them and then just get exactly what you want from any musician.  Until we wake up 150 years from now and maybe everybody will be playing in the Partch scale so you could write it and everybody can do it!  That’s a fantasy, but I think we’re moving more in that direction.  There are more and more musicians who are interested in learning to play these intervals and all I’m doing is exploiting what’s there.  I’m interested in it.  I talk to my friends who are, and they want to learn how to play like that and that’s what’s happening.  It’s a great thing to be able to have that experience, but it’s not something you can create by yourself.  You have to work with the people who can play the instruments.  For example, you mentioned the oboe. I asked Kyle [Bruckmann] what fingerings he’s using.  “Shouldn’t I put this in the score?”  And he said, “Most of the time what I’m doing is really more about embouchure.  And it’s maybe something that’s not so easily described.”  So it comes down to he’s getting used to what he needs to do with his mouth to make this pitch come out; he’s basically looking at a cents deviation.  So I’ll write the note, and I’ll put how many cents from the pitch that he’s fingering, or the pitch that he knows needs to be sounded.  He’s playing it out of tune with what the horn is actually designed to create and he’s limited in the way that notes sound.  He can’t do fortissimo on each of these notes.  He’s working with an instrument that’s designed for a tuning that he’s trying to play outside of.  It’s crazy. But so far, I would say it’s challenging, but not frustrating so much if I’m translating his experience correctly.  He seems to be very eager to be able to do it, and he’s nailing the pitches.  Sometimes I test him against my electronic chromelodeon and he’s almost always right on the pitch. He’s looking at a meter while he’s playing.  It’s something that a musician couldn’t have done 10 or 15 years ago before those pitch meters became so cheap and readily available.

More and more musicians are interested in learning to play these intervals.

FJO:  James Tenney had this theory that people heard within certain bands of deviations. If you study historical tunings like Werckmeister III, the key of C has a major third that’s 390 cents. In equal temperament, it’s 400 cents which is way too sharp since a pure major third is 386. You can clearly hear the difference, but a third of 390 is close enough to 386 for most people.

CB:  I always say when I’m working with musicians, think of these as targets. If you played it perfectly, like a computer, it wouldn’t sound that good. For example, last night, we had to re-tune the harp to play in the Six Primes tuning. Anybody who knows about harp tuning realizes there’s seven strings in the octave and you get all the other notes by altering one semitone sharp or flat on one of those strings. So it was a very awkward translation. Basically we had a total of 10 of the 12 Six Primes pitches represented. Two of them we couldn’t get. And the ones that we had were sometimes as much as 10 cents out, which is definitely more than it should be to be an accurate representation. But again, this is where the loose comes in with the tight.

In certain cases that wouldn’t work, but in a lot of cases it does. A slight out-of-tuneness can result in a chorus effect as part of the music, and I like that; it gives a shimmer. It’s like Balinese tuning. If that’s what we have to accept on this note, well then so be it you know. It actually richens the music in a way. It’s not about getting more purity. That’s what I feel like. There’s a thing I never quite agreed with Lou Harrison about, because he was always saying these are the real pure sounds. These are the only right ones. But they can get kind of sterile by themselves. He didn’t like the way the Balinese mistuned things. But from all those years of tuning pianos, I love the sound of a string coming into tune, the changes that happen, it makes the music alive on a micro-level. It’s important to be able to hear where the in-tune place is, but to play around that place is part of what I like. I don’t expect it to be perfectly in tune. Maybe it’s because I play a piano and on the extreme ranges of the piano, you can’t help that the harmonics are out of tune. They just are. There’s always this element that’s a little out of control, as well as the part that we can master and make truly evoke harmonic relationships.

FJO:  Now in terms of those relationships, is that sense of flexibility and looseness true for these rhythms as well?  Could there be rubatos in 17?

I don’t expect it to be perfectly in tune.

CB:  Yeah, I think that’s what I was saying about being able to play the rhythm in a lively way.  They can shift.  They can talk to each other.  Little micro-adjustments to inflect the rhythm.  If we’re playing a waltz, it’s not a strict one-two-three; there’s a little push-me pull-you in there. That’s how you give energy to the piece.  I think that it’s hard to get there with these complex relationships, but it’s definitely possible.

FJO:  So is your microtonal music always based on just intonation?  Have you ever explored other equal temperaments?

CB:  I’ve looked at them, but they don’t interest me as much because I’m more attracted to the uneven divisions than to the even ones.  Within symmetrical divisions, you can represent all kinds of things and you can even make unevenness out of the evenness if you like.  But it seems like composers get drawn to the kind of symmetrical kinds of structures, rather than asymmetrical ones.  Symmetry is fine, but somehow it reminds me of the Leonardo figure inside the triangle and the circle.  It’s ultimately confining.  I like the roughness and the unevenness of harmonic relationships.

FJO:  We only briefly touched on electronics when you said that you had a rough start with it as a classical music nerd. But I was very intrigued the other night by how Kyle Bruckmann’s oboe performance was enhanced and transformed by real-time electronic manipulations the other night in Snakecharmer, and was very curious after you mentioned that you had figured out how to make this old piece work again. I know the recording that Willie Winant made of that piece that was released in 1989, but to my ears it sounds like a completely different piece.  I think I like the new piece even more because it sounds more like a snake charmer to me this time; I didn’t quite understand the title before.

CB:  There are three recorded versions of that old piece.

FJO:  That was the only one I’ve heard.

CB:  They’re on the Room record.

FJO:  I don’t know that record.

CB:  Okay, that was rare.  It was a Swiss release.  But that’s kind of an important one for me in my development with electro-acoustic and interactive music. I should get it to you.  Anyway, the basic idea is any soloist can be the snake charmer, the person who’s instigating the feedback network to go through its paces and sort of guiding it.  Probably the strangest was when Willie did it because he can’t sustain.  He’s basically playing percussion, and he’s just basically playing whatever he hears and interacting with it intuitively.  But another version of it was with Larry Ochs playing sopranino saxophone so that’s probably closer; you might hear the relationship there.  It’s more the traditional image of the snake charmer.  It sounds an awful lot like a high oboe; that was a good version.  There’s also the version that I performed, singing and whistling as the input.  Those were three different tracks, but they all start out in a similar way.  Basically the programming aspect is that it goes through a sequence of voices.  And each of those voices transposes the input that it’s receiving from the player in different intervals as the piece goes on.  So there’s a shape of starting with a high transposition going down to where it’s no transposition and below and up again.  It’s a simple sinusoid-type shape.  The next voice comes in and does the same thing with a slightly different rhythmic inflection, then two voices come in together and fill out the field.  That’s the beginning of Snakecharmer in every version so far.  There are about six different voicing changes which are in addition to transposing in slightly different ways to provide rhythmic inflections.  They only respond on the beat. Whatever sound is coming in when it’s time for them to play, that’s the sound that gets transposed.  There are four of these processes going on at once.  Once again, it’s that complexity going on in the chaos created by these different orderings, transpositions of the source.  The other thing is the reason it’s a feedback network is that there comes a point where the player is playing, the sound responds to it, and then the sound that it responds with is louder than what the player’s doing, and that follows itself.  So you start getting a kind of data encoded feedback network that I think of as the snake, an ouroboros snake that’s eating its own tail.

FJO:  How much improvisation is involved?

CB:  Quite a bit.  I’ve never provided a score. I just tell the person what’s going on and ask them to explore the responsiveness of the network. Usually I’m tweaking different values in response to what they’re doing, so it’s a bit of a duet.

FJO:  Taking it back to Talking Drum, you have these notes explaining how people are walking around in this environment. There are these field recordings, and then there are musicians who are responding to them.  I can partially hear that, but I’m not exactly sure what I’m hearing.  Maybe that’s the point of it to some extent.

CB:  That’s not quite right.  We have the recording called Talking Drum.  That is a post-performance production piece that uses things that were recorded at different Talking Drum performances.  That uses field recordings.  In a performance of Talking Drum, there are no field recordings. Basically, the idea is that there are four stations that are connected with one MIDI cable. That cable allows them to share the same tempo. At each of the stations is a laptop computer, and a pitch follower, and somebody who’s playing into the microphone. So, the software that’s running is a rhythmic program I designed that I can give a basic tempo and beat structure to that can change automatically at different points in time, but that also responds to input from the performer, the basic idea being that if the player plays on a beat that’s a downbeat, that beat will be strengthened in the next iteration of the cycle. It basically adjusts to what it hears in relationship to its own beat cycle. The idea of the multiplicity of those stations where that’s happening, is that they are integrated by staying on the same pulse through the cable. The idea is that the audience is moving around the space that this installation is in and the mix they hear is different in each location. As they move, it shifts. It’s as if they were in a big mixing console, turning up one station and then turning down the other. What I was trying to do was to create a big environment that an audience can actively explore in the same way that I’ve talked about creating this dense listening environment and asking people to listen to different parts on their own. That actually came about from the experience of going to Cuba in the early ’90s, and being at some rumba parties where there were a lot of musicians spread out in different places. I wandered around with a binaural recorder and I recorded the sound as I was moving. Then when I listened to the recording, I was getting this shifting, tumbling sound field and I thought: “There’s no way you could ever reproduce this in a studio. It’s a much richer immersive way of listening. Why can’t I use this as a way to model some experience for live performance or for live audiences?”

The cover for Chris Brown's CD Talking Drum.

In 2005, Pogus Productions issued a CD realization of Chris Brown’s Talking Drum

FJO:  It actually reminds me of when I first heard Inuksuit, the John Luther Adams piece for all the percussionists.  It was impossible to hear everything that was going on at any one moment as a listener. That’s part of the point of it which, in a way, frustrates the whole Western notion of a composition being a totality that a composer conceives, interpreters perform, and listeners are intended to experience in full like, say, the Robert Schumann Piano Concerto. Interpretations of the Schumann might differ and listeners might focus on different things at different times, but it is intended to be experienced as a graspable totality, and a closed system. Whereas creating a musical paradigm where you can never experience it all is more open-ended, it’s more like life itself since we can never fully experience everything that’s going on around us.  But I have to confess that as a listener I’m very omnivorous and voracious so it’s kind of frustrating, because I do want to hear it all!

Compositions are more or less instructions, but I’m not going to presume that they’re going to do it exactly the same way every time.

CB:  Sorry! I think that’s part of the Cage legacy, too. You don’t expect to have it all and what you have is a lot.  Everybody in that Schumann Piano Concerto is hearing something slightly different, too, but there’s this idea somehow that this is an object that’s self-contained.  It’s actually an instruction for a ritual that sounds different every time it’s done.  But I think the ritual aspect of making music is something that really interests me and I would hate to be without it.  Compositions are more or less instructions for what they should do, but I’m not going to presume that they’re going to do it exactly the same way every time.  Maybe some of them think they do, but I don’t think performing artists do that really. It’s mostly about making something that’s appropriate to the moment even if it’s coming from something that’s entirely determined in its tonal and rhythmic structure. That to me is what makes live music always more interesting than fixed media music.  It’s actually not an object.  It’s not something that doesn’t change as a result of being performed.   Of course, fixed media depends on how it’s projected.

FJO:  Perhaps an extreme example of that would be the kinds of work that you do as part of the Hub—electronic music created in real time by a group of people who are physically separated from each other yet all networked together but it’s really there’s no centralized control and that’s kind of part of the point of it.

CB:  That’s right.  The idea is to set up the composition process, if you can call it that. It’s not really the same as composing, but it’s a designing.  You’re designing a system that you believe will be an interesting one for these automated instruments to interact inside of.  What we do is usually a specification; each piece has verbal instructions about how to design a system to interact with the other systems.  Then we get it together and get them working and they start making the sound of that piece which is never the same exactly, but it’s always recognizable to us as the piece that it is, because it’s a behavior. I would say within our group we get used to the kinds of sounds that everybody chooses to use to play their role in the piece, so it starts to get an ad hoc like personality from those personal choices that each person makes.

An excerpt of a networked computer performance by John Bischoff, Chris Brown and Tim Perkis (co-founders of the legendary computer network band The Hub) from the Active Music Series in Oakland’s Duende, February 2014.

FJO:  In terms of focusing listening, and perhaps you’ll debate this with me, it seems that, as listeners, we’re trained to focus on a text when a piece has a text. If someone’s singing words, those words become the focal point.  I hadn’t heard much music of yours featuring a text, but I did hear your new Jackson Mac Low song cycle the other night.

CB:  I don’t write a lot of songs, but when I do I find it’s usually a pleasure to work with a pre-set structure that you admire; it’s like you’re dressing up what’s already there rather than having to decide where it goes next.  Of course, you’re making decisions—like what is this going to be, is it going to be different, how is going to be different, how is it going to be the same?—but it’s nice to have that kind of foundation to build on.  It’s like collaboration.

FJO:  I thought it was beautiful, and I thought Theresa Wong’s voice was gorgeous. It was exquisite to hear those intervals sung in a pure tone and her diction was perfect, which was even more amazing since she was simultaneously playing the cello. But, at the same time, the Stone has weird acoustics.  It’s a great place, but it’s a hole in the wall that isn’t really thought out in terms of sound design so it was obviously beyond your control. I was sitting in the second row and I know Jackson Mac Low’s poems. So when I focused in, I could hear every word she was pronouncing. But I still couldn’t quite hear the words clearly, as opposed to the vocals on Music of the Lost Cities where I heard every word, since obviously, in post-production, you can change the levels. But it made me wonder, especially since you have this idea of a listener getting lost in the maze of what’s going on, how important is it for you that the words are comprehensible?

Music of the Lost Cities from Johanna Poethig on Vimeo.

CB:  Maybe it’s just me, but even in the best of circumstances, I have trouble getting all the words in songs that are staged.  Maybe it’s because I’m listening as a composer, so I’m always more drawn to the totality than I am just to the words.  Most regular people who are into music mostly through song are very wrapped up in the words.  But I’m not sure Mac Low’s words work that way anyway.  I think they are musical and they are kind of ephemeral in the way that they glow at different points.  And if you don’t get every one of them, in terms of what its meaning is, it’s not surprising.  It’s kind of a musical and sonorous object of its own.  So I guess I’m not exceptionally worried about that, although in the recording, I probably do want a better projection of that part of the music than what happened at the Stone.  I was sitting behind her and I was not hearing exactly what the balance is.  In the Stone, there are two speakers that are not ideally set up for the audience, so it’s not always there the way exactly you want it to be.

FJO:  So is this song cycle going to be on the next recording you do?

Most regular people who are into music mostly through song are very wrapped up in the words.

CB:  I hope we’re going to record it this summer, actually.  It’ll be a chance to get everything exactly right.  I’m very pleased that people are recognizing the purity of these chords that are being generated through the group, but there hasn’t been a perfect performance yet.  Maybe there never will be.  But the recording will get closer than any other one will, and that’ll be nice to hear, too.

FJO:  It’s like the recording project of all the Ben Johnston string quartets that finally got done. For the 7th quartet, which was over a thousand different intervals, they were tuning to intervals they heard on headphones and using click tracks in order to be able to do it. And they recorded sections at a time and then patched it all together. Who knows if any group will ever be able to perform this piece live, but at least there’s finally an audio document of what Ben Johnston was hearing in his head.

CB:  I think that’s really a monumental release.  Ben Johnston’s the one who has forged the path for those of us trying to make Western instruments play Harry Partch and other kinds of just intonation relationships.  It’s fantastic.  But I think the other thing that seems to be true is that if you make a record of it, people will learn to play it.  For example, Zeena and Nate the other night, in preparation for that performance, I was sending them music-minus-one practice MP3 files so that they could basically hear the relationships that they should be playing.  It helps a lot.  Recordings also definitely help to get these rhythmic relationships. I often listen to Finale play them back, just to check myself to see if I’m doing them correctly.  A lot of times, I’m not.  It drifts a little bit.

FJO:  But you said before that that’s okay.

CB:  But I want to know where it’s drifting.  I want to know where the center is as part of my learning process.  I use a metronome a lot, and I use the score a lot to check myself, and get better at it.

FJO:  You’ve put several scores of yours on your website. Sparks is on there.  Six Primes is on there.  And there’s another piece that you have on there that’s a trio in 7-limit just intonation—Chiaroscuro. Theoretically anybody could download these scores, work out the tunings for their instruments and play them.

CB:  Sure. Go for it. But they’re published by Frog Peak, so they can get the official copy there. I would like to support my publisher. Because of the way that my compositional practice has developed, a lot of my scores are kind of a mess. I had a lot of scores, but I haven’t released them because they’re kind of incomplete. They often involve electronic components that are difficult to notate, and I haven’t really figured out the proper way to do that. Where there are interactive components, how do you notate that? I’m not that interested in making pieces for electronics where the electronics is fixed and the performer just synchs to it. There’s only one piece I’ve played where I really like doing that and that’s the Luc Ferrari piece Cellule 75 that I recorded where the tape is so much like a landscape that you can just vary your synchronization with it.

FJO:  It’s interesting to hear you say that because back in 1989, you said…

CB:  Okay.  Here it comes.

FJO:  “I want electronics to enhance our experience of acoustics and of playing instruments.  Extending what we already do, instead of trying to imitate, improve upon, or replace it.”

A model is never a complete reading of the world.

CB:  Yeah, that was important.  That came out at a time when the industry was definitely moving towards more and more electronic versions of all the instruments, usually cheap imitations.  Eventually those become personalities of their own, but it seems to me they always start like much lesser versions of the thing they’re modeled on.  Maybe it has something to do with this idea of models.  We’re moving more and more into a virtual reality kind of world and I think it’s really important that we don’t lose the distinction of what the model is rather than the thing it’s modeled on. I think it’s pretty dangerous to do that, actually.  The more people live in exclusively modeled environments, the more out of touch they’re going to get and probably the sicker they’re going to get because a model is never a complete reading of the world.  It’s a way to try to understand something about that world. If you’re a programmer, you’re always creating models.  In a sense, a synthesizer is modeled on an acoustic reality. But once it comes out of the box into the world, it’s its own thing.  It’s that distinction I’m trying to get at.  I think we’re often seduced by the idea that the synthesized thing will replace the real thing rather than the synthesized thing just becoming another reality.  That’s why I’m interested in mixing these things:  singing with the synthesis. Becoming part of a feedback system with a synthetic instrument embraces that into a space and into a physical interaction. That seems to be more of a holistic way of expanding our ability to play music with ourselves, with our models of ourselves, with each other through models, or just seeing the models execute music of its own.  The danger comes when you try to make them somehow perfect an idea of what reality is and it becomes the new reality instead of becoming just a new part of the real world.

Mike Johnson: Thinking Plague

Mike Johnson

The deaths last year of Keith Emerson and Greg Lake, who were two thirds of the progressive rock power trio Emerson, Lake and Palmer, elicited a great deal of renewed attention in the mainstream media for their once extremely popular but frequently maligned synthesis of rock and classical music. ELP’s grandiose and virtuosic performances—as well as those of other popular “prog” outfits such as Pink Floyd, Genesis, and Yes—reflected the zeitgeist of the 1970s—a time when rock went from being the soundtrack of teenage rebellion to something far more ambitious and, to its detractors, unbearably self-indulgent. But while so-called progressive rock was an attempt to create a music that went far beyond the trappings of rock, there were other even more ambitious musicians working within the rubric of progressive rock that wanted to take that music even further—exploring not just the structures and harmonic language of classical music, but also the rhythmic complexity and tonal instability of contemporary and avant-garde composers. Among the most successful and long-standing of such groups is the Robert Fripp-fronted British band King Crimson (which has included in its various line-ups some musicians from the United States since its early 1980s incarnation). Even more experimental are the German band Can (which was formed by composition students of Karlheinz Stockhausen) and the short-lived Henry Cow (which was rumored to have been named after maverick American composer Henry Cowell, but actually wasn’t), whose personnel included English guitarist Fred Frith who is currently a professor of composition in the music department at Mills College.

Prog rock in its various guises (both mainstream and fringe) was predominantly a European phenomenon, although many of its innovations can actually be traced to Americans such as Brian Wilson (of the Beach Boys) and Frank Zappa. However, in 1978, as the heyday of punk led most music fans to dismiss prog as bloated and irrelevant, two guys in Denver, Colorado, came together to form a prog cover band inspired by an unlikely combination of Yes and Henry Cow. Those two guys were multi-instrumentalist/recording engineer Bob Drake and self-taught guitarist/composer Mike Johnson, whose heroes were not just Steve Howe (of Yes) and Jimi Hendrix but also Shostakovich and William Schuman.

“I heard Stockhausen just a few times,” Johnson recalled when he visited us at the New Music USA office in late January. “I remember I had a record of Xenakis, which was literally the sound of fire burning being filtered for two sides of an album. And I thought, ‘Hmm, I could do that.’ But I guess I’m old fashioned. I believe in my heart of hearts that you can make bigger emotional impacts on listeners if you plan it musically, as opposed to setting up events or preparing things and then letting them happen. … I’m looking for these dramatic kinds of builds and decrescendos, and things emptying out, things getting sort of nostalgic, things getting very intense—that’s Shostakovich, or my favorite, William Schuman, a good New Yorker. That’s extremely high art in my mind.”

Pretty soon after Drake and Johnson’s initial rehearsals, they stopped playing covers and by 1982 they had enlisted a classically trained vocalist and morphed into a vehicle for performing Johnson’s own complex compositions, scored for a rock band instrumentation, playing their first gigs in venues in and around Denver in 1983 under the name Thinking Plague.

“I don’t think we dealt in genre terms when Bob and I were doing this early on,” said Johnson. “Later, if people asked me, I’d say we were trying to combine 20th-century harmonic sensibilities with a rock band. I still don’t know what to call it, and I don’t much care.”

While not initially successful with local audiences, they labored on in the recording studio, self-releasing an eponymous debut EP in 1984 and pressing only 500 copies of it.

“We made this horrible, crappy, cheap pressing with a really nondescript industrial-looking label on it,” remembered Johnson. “We didn’t know anything about shopping it. We didn’t think that it was shoppable. … We didn’t think we could get on a label because we didn’t know what label we could possibly get on. We didn’t think that anybody would take it seriously.”

But some important folks did take it seriously, including the legendary New Music Distribution Service, which took 30 of those 500 copies, Henry Cow’s former drummer Chris Cutler whose own independent label/distribution service Recommended Records stunningly took 200 copies, and—perhaps most importantly—Wayside Music, the mail-order retailer that also runs Cuneiform, a label whose roster includes pioneering electronic/minimalist composer David Borden and the iconic free jazz innovator Wadada Leo Smith. Though the band has gone through tons of incarnations since then—Johnson is the only original member of Thinking Plague—Cuneiform has been the band’s label ever since.

Thinking Plague’s ninth album, Hope Against Hope, was just released on February 10, 2017, and it is every bit as uncompromising as its predecessors. To realize Johnson’s musical conceptions, the musicians in the band—like members of a contemporary classical music ensemble—read from fully notated scores. Because of its instrumentation and volume, it still sounds somewhat like rock but it is light years away from popular music.

“I don’t really understand the mainstream music industry,” Johnson opined. “I don’t quite know what they do and how they do it. I don’t even understand why anybody listens to that music. It’s like I’m a person from another planet, as far as I can tell, where all this is concerned. But when it comes to music that’s more serious, that’s got more depth to it, I don’t know how anybody manages to make a living. … I’ve never gotten a grant for this band. It does seem that there are not many grantors who have a word for what we do musically. Their tendency, because you’re going to hear electric guitars and drums, would be to call it rock music. … But as to how much money there is in any of it, nobody in Thinking Plague has ever made a living from the music. Nobody. Not me. Not anybody else. We’re a dot-org phenomenon. As a matter of fact, my Thinking Plague website is a dot-org website. There was no pretense that this was going to be commercial, so I figured better call it what it is. It’s not for profit.”

Mike Johnson in conversation with Frank J. Oteri at New Music USA
January 27, 2017—11:00 a.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  You’re pretty much self-taught as a composer and a guitarist, but you actually studied classical music as well as electronic music. I think these studies definitely wound up informing what you do, both as a composer and as a guitarist, so I’m interested in what you thought you were going to do back then, versus what you wound up doing.

Mike Johnson:  Well, it really goes back even before that.  When I was very little, my uncle gave a record to us—to my mom I guess, because my dad had no interest whatever in any kind of symphonic music but my grandfather on my mom’s side was an aficionado.  So my uncle gave her an LP of Copland’s Billy the Kid with Appalachian Spring on the other side.  I must have been three the first time I heard that—me and all my brothers got sucked in.  This would have been the ‘50s when doo-wop music was on the radio.  I didn’t listen to the radio; I was oblivious.  But then I sort of discovered that my mother had some other classical records so I was listening to Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, and some Bach.  There was even a Shostakovich piece in there mixed in on a compilation that I guess was on a 78.  I didn’t know what it was, but I thought it was cool. I sort of forgot about all that later.  I went to school and the English invasion took place. All of a sudden, everybody—even my brothers—were all agog and excited about the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.  And that’s where I went.  I got sucked into that after some resistance.  Then my brother got a guitar, and they gave me a guitar for Christmas.  He got an electric guitar that my cousin didn’t want, so they gave me a cheap acoustic guitar just to keep me quiet.  There was this big trapezoidal box under the Christmas tree and I was like, “What in the world is that?” I was 11 years old.  So when I opened it up I said, “What do you want me to do with this?”  Because there were no music lessons in my family. My mother had had piano lessons as a kid and hated them, so she just decided her kids weren’t going to do that.  More’s the pity is all I can say, again and again.  But by the time I was 13, I taught myself to play guitar.  My brother had sort of learned some, but I passed him right up.  I was a lead guitar player in a rock and roll band with a bunch of guys that were 18 years old, because I was tall for my age.  Then at some point my older brother went off to college. By that time we were living in Colorado.  He came back for a break once with an armload of records. One of them was Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, one of them was Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, and one of them was Benjamin Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem.  There was something by Prokofiev—I forget what—and maybe one or two others.  And he just said, “These are great; you’ve got to listen to these.”  And he left them with me.  Anything my brother said, I did.

“I had this simultaneous epiphany with the very beginnings of progressive rock plus a reintroduction to 20th-century symphonic music.”

About the same time I started hanging out with these guys and we’d go down in this guy’s basement and play records. These guys turned me on to King Crimson.  So I had this simultaneous epiphany with the very beginnings of progressive rock plus a reintroduction to 20th-century symphonic music. Those things worked into my psyche and I didn’t really know what the heck to do with it.  I was trying to play rock and roll and be a high school student, and I managed to get through high school but I didn’t know what to do with myself.  I wasn’t interested in studying.  I didn’t read music.  I’d never had any lessons. It had not been a supportive family situation where your mom is going, “Oh, you’re interested in that?” It wasn’t like that in those days.  It was just a bunch of boys, and we lived in North Carolina and it was the ‘50s and early-‘60s.  So it was all about “shut up, get out of the kitchen, go outside, play football, we’ll call you when the food’s ready.”  Basically that was the parenting. I didn’t think of myself as a prospective music student.  I’m completely self-taught.  Everything was by ear.  But I was very interested in this stuff that these masters were doing, and I couldn’t figure it out.

FJO:  So what did your family wind up thinking when you actually became a musician?

MJ:  My parents, as far as I can remember, never saw me perform anywhere.  Not when I was in teenage bands, you know, playing like Beatles, Stones, and Kinks.  Not later when I was playing whatever it was, like early-‘70s rock and roll music. They didn’t view being a musician as a meaningful, viable option, particularly being a rock and roll musician.  It was just something that they didn’t believe was legitimate in any way, shape, or form, even though my dad loved Chet Atkins and certain kinds of popular music as well as lots of guitar-type music.  But rock and roll wasn’t acceptable.

Both my older brothers went to college and became engineers.  That was considered how you go.  So I was like, what do I do?  In the meanwhile I got a letter from Uncle Sam saying that the Marines needed a few good men. It was 1970 or ‘71 and the draft lottery was still going on.  I knew that my number was up, because they picked a certain amount of birthday numbers every year and mine was pretty low on the list. So I knew that I was going. My older brother had already gone in because he lost his college deferment.  I ended up spending four year in the U.S. Navy during which time I played guitar a lot.  I actually honed my skills probably more than any other time, sitting around playing scales and copying my hero then, Steve Howe of Yes.  I was trying to learn to play like that.  Before that it had been three-finger blues licks and Jimi Hendrix was my God.

FJO:  Were you ever in any of the Navy bands?

“I never did get any kind of credentials in music.”

MJ:  No, because you had to be a good player to be in those.  I couldn’t read a note of music.  I was a Navy patrol plane radio operator chasing after submarines in the Cold War.  I was a lonely, enlisted man, but I went all over the world.  I was in Iran.  All kinds of stuff.  But I didn’t want to be there.  I figured I’d get the GI Bill out of it at least.  All my friends back from high school were doing things.  It was a tortuous kind of experience for me, but I came out of the Navy with some equipment and a lot more chops. Then I moved back home.  I became a music major at the local city college, but they only had classical guitar or all the usual classical stuff; I was an electric guitar player and I didn’t want to play classical guitar.  So I took all the theory classes, the history classes, sight singing and reading, all the usual first two-year and some of the third-year music classes, and then some general classes.  Then I just wandered away from school because I was playing in bands and I needed to do other stuff. At one point I was playing six nights a week in a really skanky lounge band, from 9 to 2 every night.  I literally fell asleep at one point while playing some song.  I found myself in the next song and didn’t remember how I got there.  But it was paying the bills.  I went back to school later, in the ‘80s.  Thinking Plague was already a thing.  I took a different major and finished a bachelor’s degree.  Then I went back to school later after that.  But I never did get any kind of credentials in music.

FJO:  So, to go back to when you started playing in various bands—I imagine these were basically cover bands. You were not doing any of your own music.

MJ:  Not at all.  Not a bit.

FJO:  So how did you make the transition to doing your own music?

MJ:  Well, when I was getting turned on to all of this 20th-century symphonic stuff, I was in bands with these guys who were turning me on to King Crimson, ELP, Yes, Genesis, and a lot of other bands that were way more minor than that.  So I was just all aflutter with all these possibilities, but I didn’t know what to do about it. I had another band with the same guys a little later and I started trying to write some tunes kind of in the flavor of what I thought was Yes, but I didn’t really have the chops at the time to do that sort of thing.  Subsequently to that—I must have been 18 or 19 and working some kind of stupid job—some friends of mine started a band. They were doing covers of progressive rock tunes and, in some cases, they were arranging them a little bit.  I hung out at a rehearsal and they were working on this one tune. They wanted a middle part and they didn’t know what it was.  I just had this idea jump in my head, and I started saying, “Here, bass, you play this.”  And then I heard this kind of thing. “Guitar player, you play this.”  I built this part for them right out of my head, just talking to them; they started playing it and they used it.  That was the first example of me actually writing something in the genre that worked.  It was really angular and tritone-y

But nothing came of that because that’s when I started getting letters from Uncle Sam.  I was just messing around. I didn’t know what I was doing, but they thought it was pretty cool.  The seed was there, but I had to learn to believe I could do it and had to find a path that I thought was legitimate.  When I was in the Navy, I was living with a friend at one point and trying to write some stuff.  A lot of stuff had a 12-string, and I was doing finger picking, so it sounded a little bit like Mahavishnu [Orchestra] and there was stuff that sounded a little bit like Genesis with maybe a little bit more science fiction-y sounding chords.  A lot of this stuff is recorded, very low quality, but it exists.

Then I was in a music store in 1978 in Denver and saw a little note on a bulletin board: “Seeking musicians who are into Henry Cow and Yes.” So I called the number, and it turned out to be Bob Drake.  We started a proggy cover band that never got out of the basement despite eight months of rehearsing, but he and I hooked up. After that we were hanging out and doing wacky stuff on cassette decks. It was about 1979 or ’80 and we were recording some stuff which I would call early proto [Thinking] Plague kinds of music.  There was at least one tune that never had any words, but it had a part A and a part B and a noise section, and that exists too, if you twist my arm hard enough; it was called “Doppelganger.”

Then I remember sitting down at a little table in the little kitchen where I was living in 1980 and writing this tune “Warheads” which ended up on the second Thinking Plague record some years later. That was when I think of [Thinking Plague] as officially being born; me and Drake did a four-track reel-to-reel demo of it with us singing and no keyboards and all kinds of wacky noise going on.  That exists, too, by the way.  Then by about ’82, we put together a band of sorts to try to play some of these songs, and I was coming up with more stuff.  Basically I had written the songs that I wrote for our first LP.  Then Bob put together a couple of wacky things and our singer at the time put together a zany little tune, and we had enough [material] for a record.  But we had no idea what to do.  We sat for a year trying to figure it out. We didn’t know anything about shopping it.  We didn’t think that it was shoppable to some record label, although we were getting Option and all these other magazines in the ‘80s that were printed on cheap newsprint and which were chock full of ads from record labels and distributors. DIY independent recording was huge. We didn’t think we could get on a label because we didn’t know what label we could possibly get on.  We didn’t think that anybody would take it seriously.  So I talked to my oldest brother, who was the most staid, settled, and established member of the family, and he ended up loaning me enough money to press 500 copies. We made this horrible, crappy, cheap pressing with a really nondescript industrial-looking label on it.  And we hand spray painted the album covers and stuck a little insert in that we had printed.  I think we shrink wrapped them, but maybe we just had plastic sleeves that we put them in.  Then we managed to contact Wayside Music [a mail-order retailer that also runs Cuneiform].  They took some of them.  And we contacted Recommended Records.

FJO:  I know that Cuneiform reissued the first two Thinking Plague albums on a single CD many years later, but I didn’t realize that your relationship with them went all the way back to the beginning.

MJ:  All the way back to 1984.  We got on their maps, even though at the time I thought we’re just nobody, small fry.  We also sent music to New Music Distribution Service, which was in New York. They were famous for not paying people, so we never saw anything from them, but they took 30 copies.  Then Chris Cutler at Recommended took 200 copies and boom.  That was the year we established contact with some important people in the future.  And by that time, I was thinking to myself, “I am the writer in this band.”  Drake was the producer-arranger aesthetic vision guy.  But I was writing. I was putting together the notes and the chords and the rhythms.  And the words, too.

The members of the band Thinking Plague in 1987.

The members of Thinking Plague in 1987. Back row (left to right): Bob Drake, Mike Johnson, Eric Moon (Jacobson), and Lawrence Haugseth; front: Susanne Lewis and Mark Fuller. (Photographer unknown, photo courtesy Mike Johnson.)

FJO:  I definitely want to talk with you about words, but first I want to riff on something you just said vis-à-vis not knowing what to do with this stuff or who would take it, and you making a connection to Cuneiform and, for better or worse, to New Music Distribution Service.  We talk all the time these days about being in a post-genre environment, but during that period, roughly from the late-’70s to the early-’80s, labels formed like Cuneiform which released rock that was on the fringe as well as contemporary classical stuff and experimental jazz.  And New Music Distribution Service distributed all this music without making distinctions between all of these things.  These folks loved all of this stuff.  It was all part of this larger umbrella of new music. In terms of what you were doing, you refer to it as rock and coming out of performing in a rock band, but you were listening to all these other kinds of music. So you were poised to enter this proto-post-genre environment.

“I knew that what I was doing was informed by the 20th-century symphonic music, but I was never into the avant-garde.”

MJ:  From way back when I was a teenager, I had this idea because I was listening to the ‘70s prog stuff, but for the most part they didn’t sound like 20th-century music.  They sounded like 19th- or even 18th-century music combined with rock instruments. I had this idea of using a rock band to somehow communicate content or the essence of what these symphonic 20th-century guys were doing.  I was interested in those kinds of polytonal or atonal harmonies and some of those odd rhythms, not just getting in 7/8 and staying there, but using changing meters as part of what you actually compose with as opposed to just laying down a framework that you now have to work on. The real composers use time and pitch as variables in expressing what they’re trying to express.  This was all very germinal for me at the time, but it was in the back of my mind that this is what I wanted to do and did ten years later.  So I was 27, 28 years old when I started moving in that direction and figuring out how to do it.  I had to get the proggy stuff out of my system; I had to stop wanting to emulate the prog bands of the ‘70s.  Henry Cow and the Art Bears helped me to do that—Art Bears in particular, and the last Henry Cow album, Western Culture. I was agog at it and it was inspirational for me.  It showed me so many possibilities.  So I wanted to do something more like that.  That’s when the roots of Thinking Plague really took hold.  So I knew that what I was doing was informed by the 20th-century symphonic music, but I was never into the avant-garde, like Stockhausen, and later on I was never into minimalism and the pure aleatoric music of John Cage.  I was into the dramatic, heavy stuff that those composers from the first half of the 20th century were doing, because I was so moved by it.

FJO:  That’s funny because I hear elements of Stockhausen and even Philip Glass from time to time on Thinking Plague records.

MJ:  Well, I have a little section called the Philip Glass moment in one of my tunes, but it was definitely a “Philip Glass moment.”

FJO:  It’s on one of the later albums so we’ll get to that in a bit, but even early on I hear musique concrète elements and I know that you had studied electronic music. But maybe that was not in your initial conception of the material and came more from Drake during post-production.

MJ:  Drake never studied anything as far as I know, other than just what he listened to.  When I was living in California, I had one electronic music class.  It was taught by Alan Strange and it was definitely out there.  It was a junior college class out in the Bay area, basically an appreciation class, but it opened my mind and made me very interested.  So there was a piece of that.  Early on I would try to write these scores, because when I went to school the first time, I learned how to notate.  I never learned to read music well, but I learned how to read music on paper without having to perform.  I learned how to write music.  I would draw shapes and say, “This is going to be a synthesizer.” So I had these graphic things going on in the midst of my muddled notes.  I was envisioning this kind of electronically enhanced rock music—this was before techno or any of that stuff came out.  I was still sort of thinking ‘70s style. And then, as you say, Drake was just into sound and noise.  He and I were both inspired by Fred Frith’s prepared guitar stuff, so we did hours and hours of tape loops of scratching and assaulting pickups with paper clips and files and stuff like that.  And we had a band that got together and we would improvise for two or three hours doing all this stuff with tapes.  We recorded a bunch of it and most of it we’d just throw it away.  We would do it maybe as a transition or as something in the middle of a piece.  We’re going to go into some noisy, weird place and then we’re going to emerge on the other side of it.  But there was never any conscious thinking about the avant-gardists per se because we didn’t really listen to them.  I heard Stockhausen just a few times. I remember I had a record of Xenakis, which was literally the sound of fire burning being filtered for two sides of an album.  And I thought, “Hmm. I could do that.” But I guess I’m old fashioned.  I believe in my heart of hearts that you can make bigger emotional impacts on listeners if you plan it musically, as opposed to setting up events or preparing things and then letting them happen.  I also believe that human beings can listen to anything and if they listen to it enough times, they’ll begin to build the associations even if it’s the sound of dirt falling on totally random insects, whatever.  If you listen to it enough times, you’ll begin to hear patterns and your brain will make associations that were never there.  That’s what humans do.  But my preference always is to hear it in my head and guide what’s going on.  To plan.  It’s more old fashioned in that I’m looking for these dramatic kinds of builds and decrescendos, and things emptying out, things getting sort of nostalgic, things getting very intense—that’s Shostakovich, or my favorite, William Schuman, a good New Yorker.  That’s extremely high art in my mind.

FJO:  But Shostakovich and William Schuman both conceptualized their music, then wrote it down mostly for other people to play, whereas in a band situation you have a group of people coming together and it’s way more collaborative.  It might be your tune and your chords and your words, but then it’s Drake’s drumming or whichever singer you have at any given time, what she brings to it.  It’s what the reed player brings to it and the post-production. It’s all these levels.  So in rock or other music that is created in a group situation and that is crafted in a recording studio, the urtext usually winds up being the produced album. Of course this music is also performed live in concert, sometimes very much like the original recording but also sometimes very different from it. I know that you made a point in the press release for your latest album that even though many things on it are multi-tracked, everything could also be done live.  So I wonder what the urtext is for you.

MJ:  Obviously the score.  But it wasn’t always like that—only since about 1990. Before that there were rough scores, sometimes just scribbles in a book that I took to a rehearsal where I said, “Listen to this. Here play this; try this. We could stick this with that and we’ve got a song.”

An excerpt from Mike Johnson's musical score for

An excerpt from Mike Johnson’s musical score for “The Great Leap Backward” (which is featured on the new Thinking Plague CD, Hoping Against Hope)
© 2017 Malaise Music. Reprinted with permission of the composer.

(MJ:) The stuff from the ‘80s was written out, but it wasn’t necessarily finalized. I would generally write a primary bass part and I’d write the guitar parts and keyboard parts and I would sometimes write a vocal line, but there were never drum parts for it. For the first two records, I basically wrote the vocals lines and the words as I recall, except for one song by the lead singer on the first album, and then another song by the lead singer on the second album.  For one of the songs on the first album, “How to Clean a Squid,” all the words are literally out of a cuisine magazine.

FJO:  Yeah, that one is really bizarre; I love it.

MJ:  It is bizarre.  The drummer brought in that idea.  He had this magazine and he gave it to the singer, and she went and figured out how to put it on top of the song we were working on.

FJO: I hope the recipe wasn’t under copyright.

MJ:  Well, it was changed sufficiently enough.  I like the part: “Turn body sac inside out.  Turn body sac inside out.” We repeated it several times.  “And clear away any grit or tissue.  And clear away any grit or tissue.”  That was just a Dadaist kind of thing, an Absurdist kind of a thing.  We were into that.  But over time, my tendency to want to compose started taking up more of the air in the band.  By the time we did our third album, In This Life, I had pretty much written all the music, but I didn’t have finished vocal parts and I didn’t have words.  I collaborated with our singer at the time, Susanne Lewis, to do that.  For me, it was always a burden. I would write the music and I didn’t have the words yet.  Sometimes I didn’t have the vocal lines.  Or I did have vocal lines, but no words.  That’s a real problem.  You’re taking this structure and you sing, we need to put some syllables onto this that work. I had it sort of partly structured.  I had motifs.  I had names of songs that I wanted to use.  But I didn’t have any words for them.  So I presented all this to her and let her go.  And that album is the result.

FJO:  One of the songs on that album is completely by her, both words and music.

MJ:  She contributed a song.  And then she made decisions like what the vocal line would be in the song “Love,” because I didn’t have a vocal line for that song.  So she just took the top note of the little chords that were going on and made a little melody out of it, which made perfect sense.  And I said to myself, “Why didn’t I think of that?”  It all worked out pretty well.  Her particular musical personality and style, and her whole underground ‘80s background—that Lydia Lunch/Nick Cave flavor—definitely comes across, but it becomes a new thing in that context.  She does a lot of indefinite wandering pitch things. Sometimes it sounds like: can’t she sing the notes? But she definitely is doing everything on purpose.  That woman could nail notes.  Wonderful ear.  It took some getting used to, but then it became like, “Wow, I love what she does.” Some of our fans either love her or can’t listen to it, but she found something. We got lucky on that album in terms of collaboration.

But then the band flew to pieces basically after we put that out. The key players moved, even though we just got onto Recommended Records and we had our first CD.  It was the first RēR CD that was manufactured in the States.  And it was one of the first that was CD-only, because in those days people would make an LP and they would make a CD.  Anyway, I thought, “Wow, we could do something with this.”  We were all working stiffs.  Bob Drake was working for a guy who had a mobile car wash, a truck with a big tank on the back, and they’d go around and they’d wash people’s cars in parking lots in the middle of winter.  Drake was in blue jeans full of holes and crummy sneakers that were full of holes and wet. It was 20 degrees and he got peanuts.  He would go home and he would have generic spaghetti with tomato paste for his supper.  That’s part of the reason he went to L.A. because he was tired of starving to death.  He thought he could parlay his engineering skills into an actual engineering job, which he did.  Susanne wanted to go off to New York because I think she thought New York was the place where her artistic tendencies and vision could be fulfilled. But I just stayed there.  Anyway, we ended up putting together a few shows with some airlines involved, some long distance rehearsing with Dave Kerman and Bob Drake coming from L.A., driving in and then driving back after spending a week in a basement rehearsing.  We were developing and practicing stuff, but then it really fell apart.

FJO: There’s something I don’t want to lose in your referencing of Lydia Lunch—which is something I definitely hear in her vocals, too, so I’m glad that you confirmed that.  Lydia is definitely on the punk end of the musical spectrum. We talked about the divides between rock and classical music, but at that time—from the late ‘70s through the early to mid ’80s—there was also a real schism between the people who were into more proggy things and people who were into more punky kinds of things.

“The proggers were called dinosaurs.”

MJ:  Absolutely. The proggers were called dinosaurs.

FJO:  But now if you listen back there are lots of musical connections between the two. It’s sort of like that famous Stephen Sondheim comment when he was asked what the difference between opera and musical theater is, and he said it’s the venues that they’re performed in.  The biggest difference between prog and punk might have been that they had very different audiences. If you listen to a Public Image Ltd record, it sounds very prog.

MJ:  But it’s very different from the Sex Pistols.

FJO:  That’s true.  But Gang of Four was also very proggy and, only a few years later, so was Sonic Youth.

MJ:  I actually played with those guys a couple of times.  We opened for them in Denver in ’87 in some big old, noisy, echo-y theater and then I had another little band that opened for them in Denver in ’86 or something like that.  I had no trouble communicating with them. They were cool guys.  But they were as loud as loud can be.  The best way to listen to them was outside the building through a wall.  That’s what I got to do once—behind the stage, through a wall. You could hear everything.  You could hear all the weird frequency bending and shifting. But back to your point, I think that in the ‘70s, one of the things about the progressive rock bands was that they allegedly had a level of virtuosity playing their instruments and a lot of the music was about showing off that virtuosity and making big, long songs that were involved and had lots of parts and would get quiet and get loud and blah, blah, blah, stuff like Genesis’s “Supper’s Ready.”  Then the punks came along and it was all like: No. Two-minute songs. Three chords.  Everything’s loud, and we’re yelling. And they were bitching with us because they thought we were pompous. I was calling myself we because I was into the prog thing, even though I wasn’t one of those people officially.  It felt like it was a countercultural revolution.  We were throwing out things we learned and going back to the beginning.  We were actually going back to the ‘60s, just crude rock and roll, except we were trying to be a little bit more crude and the players were even worse.  That’s how I felt, but it quickly changed.  It quickly looked to me like this ethic of rebellion and destruction was literally a wave that passed through and, in its wake, it left the new wave as opposed to punk. And new wave immediately started getting more technical and strict. Then a lot of people, like Peter Gabriel, made this transition. Then The Police came along, and the musicianship levels started recovering quickly.

FJO:  But by the time Thinking Plague officially became a band and started releasing recordings, prog was a dirty word.

MJ:  Yes.  Absolutely.

FJO:  I remember living through that.  The rock critics turned prog into a dirty word, even though you could clearly hear prog elements in some of the punk stuff.

MJ:  But you couldn’t call it that.

FJO:  Right, but you did. Or did you?

“I read something that said, ‘Thinking Plague RIO,’ and I said, ‘What the hell’s that, a town in Brazil, right? Uh, whatever.'”

MJ:  I don’t think so.  I don’t even remember what we called ourselves. I don’t think we dealt in genre terms when Bob and I were doing this early on.  I just knew that my influences were everything from Henry Cow and the Art Bears to Genesis and Mahavishnu, to Shostakovich and so on.  I just knew that was what I was interested in.  And Bob was kind of this enthusiastic “yeah, let’s do it” guy who would do anything but who had a Rickenbacker bass—still does—and he was a Chris Squire devotee. He liked lots of other stuff, too.  He was a huge Henry Cow fan, so that threw him very left of the normal field of what most people listen to.  So we stopped thinking about genres. I was always saying, “Well, this song is kind of like King Crimson” but he didn’t know about it.  He didn’t listen to King Crimson and didn’t care.  So we just didn’t deal in that.  We let other people label us. The first time I ever heard this term RIO was in the ‘90s.  I read something that said, “Thinking Plague RIO,” and I said, “What the hell’s that, a town in Brazil, right?  Uh, whatever.”  Then I read more and I tried to figure out what they were talking about, Rock In Opposition, but there were no musical descriptors in it, so I thought, “How come they’re grouping us with everything from Samla to Stormy Six plus Henry Cow?  We don’t really sound like any of that stuff.” If you don’t like Henry Cow, that doesn’t mean you won’t like us.  It’s what I always dislike about categorization: taking a bunch of things that are different but are similar enough to put into this box so that all the people that don’t like one of those things in that box automatically don’t like any of the things in the box.  That’s why I objected to it.  Later, if people asked me, I’d say we were trying to combine 20th-century harmonic sensibilities with a rock band.  Sometimes I would use the term progressive rock, but that’s not really how I’d looked at it although I was informed by that.  Frankly, I admired a lot of the musicianship of that.  When I heard the term avant-progressive, I said, “Yeah, that’s probably the most accurate I’ve heard.”  Whatever.  I still don’t know what to call it, and I don’t much care.

FJO:  But by the ‘90s the word progressive had been rehabilitated.

MJ:  Right. The so-called resurgence.

FJO:  Although after the band fell apart there was this long hiatus in the ’90s.  There was almost a decade where Thinking Plague didn’t really function.

MJ:  Except for what I was doing.

FJO:  I’d like to know more about that.  I know that you were involved with other groups.  I know that you played with Dave Kerman’s 5uu’s.

MJ:  I toured Europe for 2 months with them in 1995.

Mike Johnson playing guitar with Dave Kerman on drums and Bob Drake on bass

Mike Johnson (left) as a sideman for 5UU’s performing with Dave Kerman (drums) and Bob Drake (bass) in Grenoble, France, 1995. (Photo by Laurent Angeron, courtesy Mike Johnson/.)

FJO:  But you never recorded with them.  You were also part of this other group, Hamster Theatre, and you actually made several albums with them as a side man while your own projects were kind of on the back burner.

MJ:  I never stopped working on it, or thinking about it.  People moved away in ’89-’90, but we did a few more gigs in ’90 and we had plans. We had songs in the works.  I would send recordings to Bob or we would get together.  At one point, I went out and spent a week with Dave Kerman and Sanjay Kumar, who was the 5uu’s keyboardist, and Bob, in Bob’s little Burbank house behind the house, a little backyard house.  Dave put blankets over his drums, because we couldn’t make too much noise.  And we spent the week working up one of these tunes that I had sketched out in a book.  But I came to find out later somehow that we weren’t all on the same page about what this project was about.  I thought we were working on a song and it’s probably going to end up on a Thinking Plague record.  I didn’t know, but I thought so.  But I wasn’t sure what was going to happen, if there was going to be another Thinking Plague record.  It turns out that at least Kerman, and maybe Drake, were thinking this is a new project.  It was a song called “This Weird Wind” and it’s on the In Extremis record.  It sounds like if Yes tried to keep going in the direction they were going in when they did Relayer.

FJO:  When I listened to it again recently, I made a note to myself that it sounded to me like a bizarre amalgam of Yes and the more experimental moments of The Beach Boys.

MJ:  I never thought of that.  Okay.  But anyway, there was another song, “Kingdom Come,” which was something that I had written in the later part of the ‘80s.  It was sitting on paper.  I made a really awful sounding sequence of it on a synthesizer that I had that you had to step program everything in really tediously.  It sounded horrible. I played it for Bob and he hated the way it sounded.  He couldn’t get excited about the song, so for the longest time it just languished.  But I was going to get this song done.  So I sent Kerman a chart and I sent him that tape, I guess.  He learned the drum parts.  Then we flew him back to Denver, went into a studio, and recorded the drum tracks.  I got another bass player who reads to come in and just play direct-in bass, really clean tones.  Then I just built the tracks.  Bob was never on it because he never showed any interest in it.  He was in L.A. doing all this other stuff, but that song got assembled despite that.  Then we had this song which we ended up calling “Les Etudes d’Organism” which was based on an earlier thing.

FJO:  It sounds like an expansion of the track “Organism” from In This Life that Fred Frith appears on.

MJ:  And there was one before that called “Etude for Combo” on the second album.  We took themes from that and then themes from “Organism” and put them together.  We were trying to figure out a way to make a live performance piece that incorporated this stuff.  We called it “Etude for Organism” and we worked that up in the basement at another place in 1990.  Then we performed it in Boulder and we played it in L.A. once.  It was a little bit rougher, but the parts were sort of all there—this whole big wacky thing with all these silly tunes and big, huge sections.  Bob was determined to finish that.  And we recorded some of it.  He recorded drums, bass, and a lot of other stuff in a big studio he was working out of there in the middle of the night.  I recorded stuff in Denver and I took the sax player into a nice studio to record.  Then we put the tracks together.  It wasn’t finished until ’94 in terms of mixing.  Shortly thereafter, both Kerman and Drake were in France. I was still thinking maybe there’s another chance for this thing, but now that they were in France it got a lot harder.  The internet was not really a thing at the time.  So I went and I spent a lot of time there, but by the end of that I knew this thing was dead.  There’s no practical way with them on the other side of the ocean and there was not enough momentum or interest on their part.  So I came back home and thought about it for a while and finally thought, “I’m going to reform this.” I had four other tunes sitting that I had worked up on Finale that I wanted to record, plus there was “Les Etudes” and “This Weird Wind” sitting in the can—I couldn’t stand over 20 minutes’ worth of music sitting in a can.  This had to get out somehow.

FJO:  As long as we’re talking about the material that eventually surfaced on the In Extremis album, is “Behold the Man” the track that has what you described as the Philip Glass part?

MJ:  Exactly.  We called it the Philip Glass part.  That was a joke.

FJO:  Before we leave this moment when you were finding a way to reform Thinking Plague, I think there’s an interesting distinction between the earlier and reformed groups. While it’s true that in the original line-up it was primarily your material compositionally, the end product was the result of a real collaboration involving several people.  But with the re-formed Thinking Plague and everything that’s been happening since, it’s really been your band.

The members of the band Thinking Plague in 1990.

The members of Thinking Plague in 1990 (clockwise from lower left): Mike Johnson, Shane Hotle, Susanne Lewis, Mark Harris, Dave Kerman, and Bob Drake. (Photo by Andy Watson, courtesy Mike Johnson.)

MJ:  That’s really true, and the musicians would tell you that.  I became the overseer.  The only way to get the music done was to just do it.  More and more, the only way to get what I wanted was to do it myself.  I was getting more invested in each piece, and I wanted to make sure that it fulfilled what I wanted to get from it.  My experience with other people had always been that it’s a compromise and that things get watered down, so it misses the mark a little bit.  Sometimes, certainly, there’s synergy, and sometimes it’s so much fun, but for the serious stuff when I wanted to really mine a vein, I found that I needed to do it alone.

FJO:  Well I’m going to make a conjecture, and I could be totally wrong about this. We don’t really know each other and I’m reading into your life story.  But it seems like it’s a reaction to that almost decade-long period, where the band was in hiatus and you were essentially a side man in 5uu’s—

MJ:  —Just briefly—

FJO:  —and Hamster Theatre—

MJ:  That was about the same time that the new Plague was formed.

FJO:  Yes, but I wonder if going from being a de facto co-leader of a group to spending your time being a side man in other people’s bands made you think that you really needed to grab the helm and be the leader of your own thing once and for all.

MJ:  I would say it was more the departure of Drake in particular, but also Kerman. Kerman was a strong personality.  You care about what he thinks; he’s got incredible ideas and he was enthusiastic. But he was gone, too.  They were just gone—physically and mentally.  But I was still invested in this thing.  I felt it hadn’t fulfilled what it was trying to do.  It hadn’t reached what I thought it could reach. I had no idea what it was gonna do, but I had to keep trying.

In terms of being a side man, I didn’t do that so much. I decided I needed to get out a little bit.  Dave Willey contacted me and asked if I would be willing to play guitar with this project of his.  So I said, “Sure, I’ll give it a shot.”  I showed up and it was pretty weird; it took a few rehearsals to feel comfortable.  There was some quick personnel shuffling and then it settled into a thing and it started to work.  Then it got better and better and pretty soon, by ’97, ’98, I was pretty invested, but it was definitely not what I would normally do.  It was much more charming and humorous or sweet sometimes, and a little weird, a little out there.  Sometimes it got really out there because Dave’s got this streak of “RIO” and it’s pretty big.  But that wasn’t really it. It was just the desire that had already been there to fulfill this thing so if nobody else was going to help me do it, then I was going to do it.

The members of Thinking Plague in 2003.

The members of Thinking Plague in 2003, left to right: David Shamrock (ex-Sleepytime Gorilla drummer/composer), Matt Mitchell, Dave Willey, Deborah Perry, Mark Harris, and Mike Johnson. (Photo by Rick Cummings, courtesy Mike Johnson.)

FJO:  And curiously, you not only played in Dave Willey’s band Hamster Theatre, he wound up playing in Thinking Plague as well.

MJ:  Well, that was a case of needing a bass player. I knew Dave Willey from ten years before, about ’88 probably.  As a matter of fact, he was good friends with Deborah Perry, and when Susanne Lewis took off to New York, Deborah Perry came down with Dave.  Dave brought her down to our little rehearsal basement, and she tried out with Thinking Plague in ’89.  After we did In This Life and Susanne was gone, I was very interested but Bob Drake didn’t like her voice.  He still doesn’t like her voice.  So that didn’t happen.  But I knew Dave was a guitar player.  I didn’t know he was a bass player.  When I got in his band, he was playing guitar, accordion, keyboards, and everything else.  Then I got a taste of what he could do on bass, and I was like “Jesus!” I also realized from playing his music that I didn’t understand how musically deep and capable he was.  So I asked him and he said, “Sure, I’ll try it.”  Then it wasn’t too big of a leap to say to myself, “Well, I need a singer, what about his friend Deborah?” And she was willing to try it as well.  The first song we did was “The Aesthete.” She had a cold and we did it anyway; I think it came out pretty well.  This was after me trying to work with Janet Feder.  She’s a prepared classical guitarist from Denver.  She was recording on RēR for a little while.  She does neat stuff and she’s done some stuff with Fred Frith.  She sings a bit, so I tried to get her to sing.  It was the song “Maelstrom.”  She actually recorded the opening vocal tracks.  I decided, “Nah,” but she made an effort.  She did alright, but I didn’t think it was going to work.  Then Deborah came along and she had a real ability to nail pitches and to find the notes.  And she did homework.  She studied her parts.

FJO:  Since we’re talking about singers, you’ve been referring to all the Thinking Plague music as songs.  One of my pet peeves is that we’ve reached a point in our history where we call every kind of piece of music a song so it has rendered the word meaningless.  A lot of the things on the Thinking Plague albums I don’t think of as songs.  For starters, many things are much longer.

An excerpt from Mike Johnson's musical score for the instrumental composition

An excerpt from Mike Johnson’s musical score for the instrumental composition “Gúdamy Le Máyagot” (which is featured on the Thinking Plague CD, A History of Madness)
© 2003 Mike Johnson. Reprinted with permission of the composer.

MJ:  I call them art songs.

FJO:  Okay, but you also said that a lot of time the vocal lines and the words will come much later than your original conception.  They start as instrumentals.  And yet in every incarnation of Thinking Plague you’ve always included a singer, though there are instrumental tracks on many of the albums. Even though you’ve always been the leader of the group, whether de facto or total, you’ve never sung. In fact, with one exception where you featured a male singer, it’s always a female singer.

“I’m always writing guitar parts that are at the very limit, much of the time, of what I can play.”

MJ:  Well, I never thought of myself as a strong singer.  I still don’t, although I can sing.  I do sing in other things sometimes.  When I was young, I was a backup singer in rock and roll bands.  But I was never strong; I have a soft voice and I have a fairly limited range, although I can do falsetto.  I’m in a Beatles band right now, just for money.  It’s money and kind of fun.  We do realistic versions of Beatles recordings, and I have to sing so I do it.  But, for Thinking Plague, my hands were full.  I’m always writing guitar parts that are at the very limit, much of the time, of what I can play, so the vocalist is a full-time job on its own for the most part.  The thing about having a woman developed over time.  I began to feel that since the music was oftentimes so male, so angular, so mathematical sometimes, and so challenging and difficult, even off-putting, that if you placed a woman’s voice—and not some kind of growling or in-your-face blues or disco singer—but the idea was to have this little human heart that you could latch onto in the middle of this maelstrom of music that’s going on.  And I think it works.  It gives something for more normal listeners to latch onto.  The human thread that goes through this music, which for a lot of people would not be a nice place to be traveling.

FJO:  But it seems to me that there’s something else going on with having a singer who is singing lyrics. From the very beginning there were lyrics that were clearly political, such as “Warheads.” And almost everything on the last three albums has a political bent.

MJ:  Definitely.  Absolutely.

FJO:  So, if vocal lines and lyrics are often an afterthought, I’m wondering where these things came from.  Obviously, this band was originally formed in the early ’80s during the first term of Ronald Reagan.  That has been called a great era for punk, which is essentially protest music.  Some people have suggested that there could be a real re-flowering of punk now given the current political climate.  Even the title of your new album, Hoping Against Hope, feels particularly timely though I know that you had already finished the album and had given it that title before the election.

“It is important for my artistic activity to make some commentary about what’s going on in the world.”

MJ:  Yeah, I know.  It was named well before, even before the campaign. And it was floating around as a possible name quite a long time before that, because the times just felt like that to me.  Part of it was, after the last album, Elaine and I were talking and she said, “Can we do something that’s maybe a little bit more hopeful?  Can we do something that offers some solutions or hope?”  And I said, “Sure, if we can figure out how to do that.”  Well, we didn’t really do that very well, but it made me think about trying to do that a little.  I’ve never been able to go with a direction that’s just celebrating or joy and I have felt for a long time that it is important for my artistic activity to make some commentary about what’s going on in the world.  Part of that is my work background.  Since the ‘80s, I have been working in human services programs, like working with the homeless, helping people to get shelter, helping people to get jobs.  Then I worked with poor students to help them deal with all the issues that were keeping them from being able to be successful.  I had a day career out of this, and I was good at it.  That informed my music, because when I went back to college after the music stuff, I took a lot of social science classes—politics and sociology and all this kind of stuff.  My perspective definitely moved left, and I’ve been there ever since.  The cliché is that as men get older, they get more conservative.  Me, I’m moving left.  I’m left of left now.  I don’t even know where I am.

Warheads” was in response to the Iran hostage crisis.  There was a wave of Islamophobia that came to the country then, like ’79 and ’80, and I was appalled by it. So I made a comment about that, and I got my younger brother, who fancies himself a poet, to write some lyrics with me and so the lyrics are pretty abstruse. But there’s this one part that deals with warheads and the board of trustees are counting up their funds, warheads are counting their guns.  This all struck me at a time when our society seemed a lot more peaceful: there wasn’t gun violence all the time; we were not at war.  But it struck me as ugly and that something needed to be said.  I didn’t really try to make much in the way of political statements. The song “Moonsongs” has a kind of environmental pagan slant, using pagan things as kind of an angle for the earth, not that I was on a pagan kick.

Then, with In This Life, Susanne was in charge of the words basically.  “Run Amok” is about when you have too many rats in a cage and their behavior starts to alter and they try to eat each other and kill each other.  That’s what I felt was starting to happen on the planet.  Every now and then, somebody goes nuts and kills a bunch of people.  It was rare in those days; now it seems to be every other day on the news.  I really think that parts of this society are now running amok.  All I did was give Susanne this title and tell her what I was thinking.  She took it and did her thing with it.

Then when it got to the phase where I was fully taking the reins, “Kingdom Come” had a definite angle that way.  “Dead Silence” also has an environmental angle. And A History of Madness had its own themes, but they’re not unrelated.

FJO:  “Blown Apart” definitely has a political agenda.

MJ:  “Blown Apart” is a good example.

FJO:  And on Decline and Fall, there’s “Sleeper Cell Anthem,” which is intensely frightening.

MJ:  It was supposed to be.  The message was about who are really the terrorists here.  “We are your daughters, sisters, and wives.”  We’re the terrorists.  We’re creating the terrorists.  We’re creating the terror that’s creating the terrorists.  Then on the new album, there’s a song about drones and execution from the skies called “Commuting to Murder.”  I didn’t realize how timely that was.  I wasn’t watching it at the time.  People are seemingly being arbitrarily eliminated from on high without due process and without concern for collateral damage because it’s so important to us that we eliminate this Abu blah-blah-blah guy here.  That was the one thing that I most objected to about Obama’s administration, the reliance on that.  In general, I’m not disinterested in abstract poetic expressions that come from deep in the soul.  But, in the absence of anything that’s hit me in the face, I had a certain level of anger and disappointment that I wanted to be expressed through the music.

The members of Thinking Plague, all with their mouths open, in 2011.

Thinking Plague in 2011 (left to right): Robin Chestnut, Dave Willey, Mark Harris, Elaine, Mike Johnson, and Kimara Sajn. (Photo by Rick Cummings, courtesy Mike Johnson.)

FJO:  So, to attempt to tie this all together.  You create very sophisticated music, but you perform it with a rock band, which is a medium that’s been very central to our popular culture for more than half a century at this point.  In addition to the very sophisticated music, your songs frequently have super charged political lyrics.  By getting these messages out, through what is essentially a popular medium even though the kinds of things you’re doing go against the spirit of most of what is popular, are you hoping this music is going to change people’s minds?  What’s the goal in terms of changing the listener?  Can the listener be changed?  What’s the purpose of making art that has this charged message?

“I had a certain level of anger and disappointment that I wanted to be expressed through the music.”

MJ:  I honestly don’t know.  After this last election, I’m not sure I know anything.  You have to consider who listens to this music.  They are all over the map politically, but they tend to be educated so the differences are not usually cultural at a level that’s just hopeless.  So I always think maybe somebody will be—as opposed to converted—awakened about something, because a lot of guys that are into progressive music are sort of apolitical.  They don’t like to deal with it.  They want to deal with fairies and dragons, or with magic, strange mysterious glories.  I’m trying to hit them with some gritty realities, but not in an overly literal, strident way.  It’s a little bit subtle, I’d like to think, a little bit indirect.  You have to read it and think about it.  You have to actually pay attention, notice what the themes or the words are.  But I keep thinking that somebody will be like, “Oh, that’s interesting.  They’re talking about drones.  I better think about that.  I’d better look and see if I can find out what they mean.”  So it’s kind of like saying, “If you’re listening to us, if you’re following us, if you like what we do, here’s something that we think you ought to think about if you listen hard enough and you care enough.”

But I don’t really have any expectations that it’s going to have any impact.  You know, I wish.  First of all, we don’t reach enough people, not as many as we could, and they are all over the world. There’s never that many on the ground in any one place. But if you influence somebody, they talk to somebody else and turn them on to something.  If it influences their thinking about social or political issues, great.  I don’t know what else to write about really.  I wrote a song on A History of Madness, which was a love song of sorts.  But there were some other songs on there that had a humanity theme.  So it’s always something about man’s inhumanity to man, the stupidity, the selfishness.  Right now the list is so long of adjectives that you can talk about with things that should be addressed.  It does seem like a lot of people are addressing them.  So, in a way, it’s a hopeful thing.  I like to say it can only get better, but I’m afraid that may not be true.  There’s a lot to write about right now.  I’m not a political activist who’s going to spend a lot of time working on issues in that way.  My mission in life is to do music, so I feel like I’m obliged to have these kind of messages in the music, but not like strident marching songs.

FJO:  It’s interesting to me that from the beginning up to this day, in the year 2017, Thinking Plague has always been about making albums that are these larger statements.  There are pundits who claim that a lot of people don’t listen to albums anymore.  They listen to individual tracks and everything gets mashed up.

“If you influence somebody, they talk to somebody else and turn them on to something.”

MJ:  Right.  They don’t download whole albums.  They download single tracks.

FJO:  It’s great that you have a label that’s so invested in you.  I didn’t realize it went all the way back to the ‘80s, but I know they’ve reissued your whole catalog.  To have your whole catalog in one place is tremendous—to have that support, and for albums to be carefully recorded, produced, designed, and released. But it’s sort of weird, because the economics of all of this is shifting. How do you survive in this environment if what you want to do is make records?

MJ:  Well, like I said, I had a day career.  And, in as much as I am rather moved on in years now, I managed to retire from that. I was working for a state community college system, so I have a state pension, one of those things that our current president would probably just as soon eliminate.  But it’s based on investments, my whole existence is tangled up in the dirty money that I sometimes write about or I’m going to write about.  And I figure that’s okay; we should extract whatever we can from them.  I had to spend many years earning that.

I hear all the time from our label that they are struggling.  They have made all of our records available on Bandcamp.  You can go and you can listen to everything.  Most of the older ones have now finally gone out of print because it is not cost effective to press them and sell them anymore, because they don’t sell enough and you have to be able to manufacture so many in order to have economies of scale. So it became impractical for them to do that.

“I don’t really understand the mainstream music industry.”

I don’t really understand the mainstream music industry.  I don’t quite know what they do and how they do it.  I don’t even understand why anybody listens to that music.  When it comes to music that’s more serious, that’s got more depth to it, I don’t know how anybody manages to make a living from recorded music.  They say, “Oh, you’ve got to go out and play.”  Yeah, if you’ve got a wide enough appeal, I guess.  And if enough people have heard you.  I don’t think going out and playing will make you very much money if they haven’t heard recordings of you first.  So we’re at a kind of weird impasse.  The ready availability of music in electronic form has made it basically too easy to get, and now it’s not worth much.  People have gotten used to the idea of not paying much for it.  I remember counting my pennies together until I had a couple of bucks and could go by a Beatles LP.  I would listen to it until there was no vinyl left on it.  You have to wonder if there is something about people’s psychology: if they pay something for it, do they value it more?  Because they don’t seem to value it much now, except for those few people who actually care about the sounds coming into their ears and what it does to them, emotionally and otherwise.

Of course, there are so many people that love music, but they love it in different ways at different levels.  It seems that for so many people now, music is just a background thing.  It needs to keep a certain part of their brain busy, so they have it going in their ear buds as background all the time and it’s on shuffle, and they don’t really care what it is.  And they listen to MP3s; they don’t care about high fidelity.  They don’t care about really in-depth audio detail. It’s much less about what’s going on with the notes. It’s just a little hook melody and this over-processed drum groove and some pitch-corrected vocal parts.  I don’t know what to think about all of that. I don’t know where it’s headed. But I do think that in its current model, it is unsustainable.  I don’t know if I’ll be able to continue making records.  I’ll have to make them myself or they’ll become electronic downloads only.  I’ve had some guys say, “You should go hi-res.”  But sooner or later, somebody will figure out a way to pirate that as well.  But that’d be great.  Let’s make the audio product something that’s really worth something—you really need to pore over it and listen to it.  Everything that we do in the recording industry is reduced to 16 bits, no matter how it was produced before that.  If it wasn’t, then the files would be too gigantic for most people. There are a certain number of techie guys that would download it all night onto their computer and love it that way.  But most people want to put it on a player on their phones.

FJO:  But there is a different economy that operates for a lot of the other music we’ve talked about— avant-garde music and even the music of people like William Schuman.  All of that stuff doesn’t exist in the marketplace.

MJ:  Of course.

FJO:  And it never has.  It exists either as the result of private funding or through grants from foundations or governments. Shostakovich, for better or worse—definitely worse under Stalin—was a state-sponsored composer. Over the past half century, jazz has also been embraced by the funding community and that has allowed it to continue to thrive now that it is often no longer remunerative in the marketplace.  But that hasn’t happened with rock. We talked earlier about that moment in the late 1970s and early ‘80s when labels like Cuneiform and networks like New Music Distribution Service equally embraced avant-garde music that stemmed from classical music, free jazz, and fringe rock. There was no internet back then, but all of it is what we’d call dot-org music. Certainly what Thinking Plague does is dot-org music in the same way as the music of, say, Stockhausen, Xenakis, Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, Ornette Coleman, Wadada Leo Smith, etc.

MJ:  I totally get that.

FJO:  So might this music continue to exist if it’s somehow subsidized?  Could that be the way to make it keep going?

“Nobody in Thinking Plague has ever made a living from the music.”

MJ:  Well, it’s interesting that you bring that up.  I’ve never gotten a grant for this band.  The closest I can say I’ve come is a Kickstarter campaign that succeeded—not on a gigantic scale, but enough to make it work.  I’m looking at some grants that would help us to be able to travel. There’s a RIO festival in Japan that has some money issues, but if I can get a grant they’ll bring it back to life, just for us to go play at it.  So right now I’m trying to figure out where the band is going to be, in what condition. Our singer is completing her master’s degree in music.  She’s still trying to figure out what she wants to do when she grows up and she’s 46. God bless her. I can relate. It does seem that there are not many grantors who have a word for what we do musically. Their tendency, because you’re going to hear electric guitars and drums, would be to call it rock music.  So then we’re not eligible for these jazz things.  I’m not sure how many, but there may be cracks that we could squeeze into.  We’ve got a horn player, so does that make us jazz?  I almost got us invited to the Vancouver Jazz Festival.  Almost.  So this is something I need to look into.  But as to how much money there is in any of it, again, nobody in Thinking Plague has ever made a living from the music.  Nobody.  Not me.  Not anybody else.  There’s never been that kind of income from the music—not even in 1985.  Certainly not from In this Life or In Extremis, which was probably our best received record and the biggest explosion for us.  It didn’t change our situation at all.  We’re a dot-org phenomenon.  As a matter of fact, my Thinking Plague website is a dot-org website.  There was no pretense that this was going to be commercial, so I figured better call it what it is.  It’s not for profit.

The members of Thinking Plague in 2009.

The members of Thinking Plague in 2009, front (L-R): Mark Harris and Mike Johnson; back: Dave Kerman, Kimara Sajn, Elaine di Falco, and Dave Willey. (Photo by S. Navarre, courtesy Mike Johnson.)

Mary Ellen Childs: Engaging All the Senses

Mary Ellen Childs sitting on a bench on a street filled with plants

While the music of Mary Ellen Childs has a distinctive and recognizable sound, she has long been interested in engaging the other senses as well. Perhaps this is because, when growing up, she was actively involved in dance and theater in addition to playing the flute and piano. In fact, she was choreographing musicals at her high school before she ever composed a note because writing music, at the time, felt “too mysterious and too unattainable” to her. To this day, her experience as a choreographer informs both her own music and the advice she gives when teaching composition.

“I really feel like doing choreography were my first lessons in composition,” she says. “Although the materials are different, the general concepts are the same. When I teach composition, I take that point of view, too. We’re really looking at how to create something that has interest and coherence and surprise.”

Perhaps the area where Childs’s background in dance is most pronounced is in her music for percussion ensemble. She first got interested in composing for percussion as a graduate student at the University of Illinois. “I started to notice how interesting it was to watch percussion players when they played,” she remembers. “They always moved in really interesting ways. … Using movement with percussion is the easiest of all, if you’re going to really exploit movement, because percussionists’ playing technique is already very physical.”

But what Childs ultimately wanted from percussionists went even further than what they usually do. She wanted to them to perform in immersive pieces that are as much about sight and touch as they are about sound. Most of what she wanted couldn’t be effectively communicated through music notation so it needed to be learned through an intensive rehearsal process. So she wound up forming her own ensemble, CRASH, by initially hiring one percussionist and two dancers.

“The reason I wanted dancers was because I knew I was going to have to work in rehearsal and ask the players to remember what they did from one rehearsal to the next,” she explains. “I was worried that if I brought in three musicians that they might say, ‘Where’s my notation? Where’s my score?’ It worked really well because I had one percussionist who really knew how to work with rhythm, and then I had two dancers who really knew how to work with movement and how to work from memory, so I didn’t have to convince anybody of anything.”

CRASH’s idiosyncratic repertoire includes Hands, a piece performed exclusively by the players’ hands, and Click, in which the players navigate a series of movements across three sets of claves—playing their own as well as each other’s instruments. According to Childs, “Part of the rehearsal process is figuring out who’s the active strike and who’s the passive strike—where exactly in the air is that going to be so that you don’t end up either missing, or hitting someone’s knuckle, which is very painful and has happened. You want to minimize that because it’s not pleasant.”

Though Childs acknowledges that it was not very practical, the most unusual piece that CRASH performed involved a series of three exercise bicycles that were turned into musical instruments—the pipe-cercycle (which incorporates organ pipes), the xylo-cycle (in which triggered mallets strike a series of xylophone-like bars right above the handle bars), and the string-cercycle (in which the pedaling motion triggers a variety of strings, including a ukulele and a cello). She is currently reworking another piece originally created for CRASH called Sight of Hand which involves baseball coaching signals turned into percussion. If all goes according to plan, the piece will be performed at a minor league baseball park in August in between innings at a St. Paul Saints game:

The point is having the piece and the live game be part of the same event, then taking all that material and making a piece out of it that exists on video to put my baseball percussion movement into the context of real game plays happening.

Another idea she has been wanting to flesh out for years is a way to merge a musical experience with an olfactory one. Our discussion about the relationship between scent and sound got so involved that we will publish it as an independent post later this month.

However, while engaging other senses has been key to many of Childs’s compositional ideas, listening is still primary. Even though for the premiere of Dream House—her evening-length work for the string quartet ETHEL—incorporated projections on seven different video screens scattered around the space, Childs insisted that the sonic material was foregrounded. “Visual imagery can take over so easily and make music an accompaniment,” she opined to her collaborators. “How are we really going to keep this so that, if anything, the visual material is the accompaniment to what you’re hearing?” Similarly, when composing the music for Wreck, a full-evening dance piece choreographed by Carl Flink for the Black Label Movement, she insisted on creating music that would stand on its own rather than “shrinking violet music.” One of my personal favorite compositions of hers will always be Kilter for two pianos, a work I only know through a recording. Though from its title alone it’s clear that it is inspired by motion, it is sonically ravishing.

A conversation at New Music USA
May 6, 2016—2:30 p.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri: The conversations we have with composers and interpreters for NewMusicBox are inevitably always about sound, because that’s primarily what people think of when they think of music. That’s what’s foregrounded, and certainly that’s pretty much the only aspect of music that people experience when they listen to a recording. But I still remember the first performance I saw of your ensemble CRASH during the Meet The Composer’s THE WORKS marathon in Minneapolis in 2002 and how mesmerized I was—not just by what I was hearing, but by what I was seeing, both of which were the result of the tactile connectivity of the performers. This body of work clearly aims to be about more than just sound.

Mary Ellen Childs: I’ve certainly written a lot of pieces that are concert pieces or that now primarily exist on recordings, and those are certainly first and foremost sound and pretty much only that. But I also think I’m very attuned to all the senses and to what the total experience is for someone, especially if it’s a live performance. If you’re there with the musicians, your ears are engaged, but your eyes are also working. All the senses are working. I don’t do so much anymore, but I produced a series of concerts where I thought about the whole experience for the audience from the time they walked in the door. Really paying attention to that, you make certain choices about what the lighting is like when people walk into the theater, how the musicians enter and exit the space, or what happens between pieces—what’s the pacing of that time so that things don’t sag in between and you lose the audience’s attention?

I think that’s just part of my makeup. Maybe it has to do with the fact that I grew up not only playing the flute and piano, but also dancing and working in the theater. In fact, not a lot of people know this, but I used to work as a choreographer before I was writing music. Then when I started writing music, it felt like there was a natural pull for at least some of my music to be in collaboration with choreographers. So I was still keeping one foot in the dance world, although this time as a composer. It was really from all that experience that I started writing movement into percussion pieces. That’s kind of the short arc of how all that came about. Using movement with percussion is the easiest of all, if you’re going to really exploit movement, because percussionists’ playing technique is already very physical. They’re already ready and willing to do all different kinds of things and play all different kinds of instruments. And, for the most part, percussionists are open to a new playing technique that they might learn for a specific piece. So working with percussionists has all those things built in. To write special sticking patterns or to setup the instruments in a certain way or set them up around the space and put the players on wheels—that’s all something you can do in the percussion world.

FJO: Most people play instruments before they start composing, but I had no idea that you had been a choreographer also. What made you decide that you wanted to write music?

MEC: In my heart of hearts I was always interested and curious about it, but it felt intimidating. It felt like you either just knew how to do it or you didn’t. It was like a channel. I grew up on classical music, and so the composers who were revered were often like Mozart, writing operas when he was a teenager. So it just felt too mysterious and too unattainable. On the other hand, choreography seemed like I could figure that out. I could figure out how to move and, with the somewhat limited dance background that I had, I could make things up. Why not? It felt like something anybody could do. And so I did.

FJO: It’s so funny to hear you say that, because to me choreography is perhaps the most mysterious art of them all. Maybe that’s because I’ve made up songs since I was nine, but I never knew how to move around properly. And the folks who think music notation is complicated probably have never seen Benesh notation or Labanotation, which seem more arcane than hieroglyphics. I don’t understand that stuff at all.

MEC: I don’t either, and most people don’t. That’s certainly not a part of being a choreographer for most people. But I don’t know why it felt so attainable to me. Maybe in part because I saw my older sister do it, so I thought, “Well, I can do that, too. Why not?” I also used to do things to get inspiration. I would go to the public library, which was right down the street from where I went to high school on the shores of Lake Michigan, and I would check out these big picture books of dance. I would look at a still photo and I would imagine how they got to that moment and what happened after that moment. I would just imagine from a still shot what the movement around it might be.

FJO: If you’re a dancer, coming up with your own movements makes sense. It’s analogous to playing the piano or the guitar and then improvising and creating your own music. From there it branches out. That’s certainly what happens for a lot of composers: they’ll play an instrument and eventually write something for themselves to play, and then suddenly they write something for other people. But when you write music, it seems like that can grow into something else. You can take a solo piece and then arrange it for string quartet or even an orchestra. But how do you go from one person moving to, say, people moving? As a spectator, I’m never sure what to watch when I’m watching dancers. If I focus on one person I’m losing the larger totality, but if I’m always looking at everyone I lose the details.

I really feel like doing choreography were my first lessons in composition. And I drew upon it when I started writing music, because although the materials are different, the general concepts are the same. When I teach composition, I take that point of view, too. We’re really looking at how to create something that has interest and coherence and surprise.

MEC: But it’s not that different for music. I really feel like doing choreography were my first lessons in composition. And I drew upon it when I started writing music, because although the materials are different, the general concepts are the same. When I teach composition, I take that point of view, too. We’re really looking at how to create something that has interest and coherence and surprise. I probably should tell you what kind of choreography I was doing. I wasn’t doing modern dance masterpieces that came out of nothing. When I started choreographing, I was choreographing the high school musicals and the swing choir. There was already a framework in which what I was doing had to fit, and I had a lot of information given to me when I was creating dance steps—something had to be communicated or something had to happen, and there was already music selected that this had to go with.

FJO: So I think I understand your transition to composing music and why you continued to be involved with dance as a composer, but I wonder when you realized that music itself could incorporate movement, that writing a piece of music could be more than just the notes.

MEC: Let me think about that. When I was in graduate school at the University of Illinois, I took a class in composing for percussion that was taught by a composer and a percussion instructor, both of them together. That’s when I started writing for percussion. I think somewhere around that time, I started to notice how interesting it was to watch percussion players when they played. Whether it was the timpani player or one of the other percussionists at the back of the orchestra or somebody in a new music ensemble, they always moved in really interesting ways.
But the very first piece that I wrote that had movement written into it is a piece called Still Life, which is for three drummers playing nine drums and gongs. The drums are placed in a palindromic line up, so that the center is a small drum—I think now I use a small tom—and then on either side of that, there’s a bass drum, but they’re placed vertically on stands, absolutely vertically, which is not how you’d ever see a bass drum placed for playing. Then moving outside of that on either side, there are two more toms of varying sizes, and on the end of the setup on either end, there’s a wind gong. So the players stand. Player one is in the center and plays the inside of the two bass drums and the center drum, then the two outside players have mirror image setups where they’re each playing the outside of each bass drum, two toms, and a gong. I was able to do things with sticking patterns that would require the outside players to move in one direction or the other direction, and I asked the inside player to do sticking patterns that might be crossing arms. When I was writing it, I was really thinking about how these sticking patterns are going to force the players to move in a certain way.

FJO: Does the music sound different than it would have if they weren’t moving around that way?

MEC: No. In fact, I had written out the diagram and when I went to the first rehearsal, they had already rehearsed a bit. The players had taken the bass drums and laid them flat. They said, “Oh yeah, we put them flat because it’s easier that way.” And so I had to say, “Well, this is not just about the ease of playing, but it’s about how it looks.” We had to have a little discussion, and we turned the bass drums up and of course it’s very, very, very different.

FJO: Sure, but in terms of the question of it sounding different, they might be able to get it to sound the same way doing something else, but certainly the perception of the person watching it is going to be different, and that’s where the other senses come into play.

MEC: The way a piece sounds and how the listener will absorb it is actually different depending on what they’re seeing, even though the sound doesn’t change. If you were listening to an audio recording, that might change. But if you’re live in the performance space and watching it, you actually absorb it differently based on whether it’s under fluorescent lights or whether it’s in a little intimate pool of light that’s really a bit dim. And it’s different based on how the performer is moving. So I do think that makes a huge difference.

FJO: And you use the word palindromic, which is a word that I love and a structural concept that I frequently gravitate toward, so I’m already fascinated by this. You know, composers have created musical palindromes for many centuries, but most of the time you can’t hear that the pieces are palindromic. That famous Machaut motet, Ma Fin est Mon Commencement—My End is My Beginning—is the exact same music whether you play it forward or backwards, but if you weren’t told that and didn’t examine the score with your eyes—

MEC: —You wouldn’t hear it. Right.

FJO: And I doubt many people can hear Webern’s palindromes. But when you create a situation with these percussionists, and you have a palindromic setup and they’re doing this kind of thing, people see it. And they can infer what they’re hearing from what they’re seeing, so you’re able to create certain kinds of symmetries and formal patterns that you might not be able to do if people were left to their ears alone.

MEC: That’s right, although the piece of music itself is not a palindrome. That’s totally unrelated. But visually, there are these mirror image things. And I think maybe one example in that piece—there’s a place where there’s a two-against-three pattern between the two outside players, and they’re playing with one mallet. So one is doing two, and the other is doing it in three. And I think if you put your attention there, you can see that very clearly.

Later on, after that piece was done as a concert piece, I also created a 16-monitor video wall out of it that took the component parts of the piece and broke them up across 16 screens in a square, so you could really focus in on some of that material highlighted in another way by juxtaposing over the top another set of patterns. That’s when I could take that two-against-three pattern and put those two arms, hands, and mallets next to each other so you can see that as you’re hearing it, which makes a really big difference. It’s a very simple example of how what you’re seeing might affect what you’re hearing. I think it’s usually much more subtle and complicated, but that’s a very simple, straightforward example of how what you see changes how you hear or reinforces what you hear or draws your attention to what you hear.

FJO: There’s also a communal aspect to this that I find really interesting. I’m thinking back to the piece Click which, I think, is the first piece for CRASH.

MEC: Um, well Still Life is a piece that CRASH does and Click actually predates the group as well, but we call it CRASH’s signature piece because that is the piece that’s been done and done and done and done and done.

FJO: There’s also a piece called Crash. Is that how the group got its name?

MEC: Yes, there is a full-evening piece called Crash.

FJO: Before we get into the specifics of how the ensemble got put together, I want to talk with you about the communal performance aspects of Click. It’s interesting that the group that originally performed Still Life initially wanted to move the drums and play the piece more conventionally. That would completely miss the point of Click, which is so much about the players playing each other’s sets of claves. The whole piece seems to be about the sharing of resources.

MEC: I never thought of it as a sharing of resources exactly. I don’t know really where that idea came from, though I remember when I got it. But I also want to say, there is some of that sharing of resources—as you call it—in the marching band world where you might see a drummer reach over and play another drummer’s drum.

FJO: And certainly also in many traditional African groups, like the Chopi Timbila mallet percussion ensemble pieces, where you have many people playing on the same mallet instrument and they’re playing interlocking patterns. If one person was out of step, it would throw the whole thing off.

MEC: I was not the first person in the world to think about how visual and aural things go together. There were hundreds and hundreds of years and cultures that thought that way, and so there are lots of musical traditions, especially percussion with visual things or marrying percussive dance and rhythm.

FJO: Probably the closest thing we have in Western classical music to that is piano four-hand repertoire.

MEC: Oh, yeah. Right.

FJO: But, as far as I know, you’ve never written a four-hand piano piece.

MEC: That could be an interesting thing to exploit visually, too, with crossing hands, or intertwining, something like that. But I don’t have a four-hand piano piece, just the two-piano piece Kilter.

FJO: Which is a really great piece.

MEC: Oh, thank you.

FJO: Kilter is word we tend only to use when we talk about the negation of it, being off kilter.

MEC: Exactly.

FJO: So I imagine that there is sort of a motion and a balance idea within that piece, too.

MEC: Definitely, there’s a motion. I was really trying to get at, well, just what you said. It’s a word that’s usually only used in a phrase that means it’s negative. So I was really playing with those two things. Something and its complement. Something and its opposite. And I find that has been something that has recurred and recurred in my work. I think the interplay of seeming opposites is something that interests me a lot. And that’s where Kilter came from.

FJO: To bring it back to Click, what I find so interesting about it is how effectively it realizes a physical process. First you play your instrument, then you play someone else’s instrument. It really is about the group and coming together.

MEC: Absolutely. It’s very much about the group. That’s one of those pieces where it’s really hard for the players to rehearse on their own, although they tell me that when they absolutely know their own part they can sort of do it on their own. But it’s very much about how you interact with the others; it’s not just about putting your stick that way. It’s about putting your stick that way to hit someone else’s stick. So there’s all that sort of figuring out in rehearsals—where’s your stick going to be and when—because the other thing about a piece like Click that is not something percussionists usually deal with, is that you’re often aiming for a striking surface that isn’t there yet. The striking surface is often in motion, too, so part of the rehearsal process is figuring out who’s the active strike and who’s the passive strike—where exactly in the air is that going to be so that you don’t end up either missing, or hitting someone’s knuckle, which is very painful and has happened. You want to minimize that because it’s not pleasant.

Click is one of those pieces that has ideas that have continued to spin off into more and more possibilities. I actually have a couple of other Click-style pieces, and I put together a whole of evening where Click-like material came back as the connecting thread. But those pieces we haven’t done since. That was probably in about ’92, ‘93, ‘91, somewhere in there. It did feel like I could keep mining this material. There’s another piece I did with CRASH called Talking Stick which also uses only sticks as the instruments and, in that case, we used drum sticks. The main figure in that is this thing that I saw one of my players do in rehearsal one day during a break, and I said, “Show me what that is; there’s a piece in there.” That’s how that piece got started. One stick rests against the cheek, and this becomes the resonating cavity. And then the other stick hits the end of that stick. Then as your mouth opens and closes, you get a change in pitch. That’s why it’s called Talking Stick. That’s the recurring theme that comes back, that talking stick pattern. Then there are all kinds of other things that you do with sticks—whether it’s on the floor, or tossing and hitting them, or making sculptural patterns out of them. So that was not a Click-like piece, but it has some similarities with it.

FJO: So, in order to do pieces like that, you formed your own ensemble. I imagine this isn’t the kind of stuff you could put on a piece of staff notation and hand to some group somewhere.

MEC: No, you can’t. That’s right. I actually experimented with notation early on with the history of Click, but it was so complicated to try to get it all down on paper that it wasn’t worth it. Notation should be something that assists in the communication between composer and performer. And what I was finding with the notation I was trying to get down on paper was that it was something that would take the performers much longer to take off the page and into sound and movement when I could just say to them, “Hold your claves like this and do this.”

Notation should be something that assists in the communication between composer and performer.

And that was quick, so that really became the score, with some kind of an outline. I would name the various patterns, so that we could talk to each other without always having to refer back to the number on the outline. I could say, “Start at the triple patty cake” or “Let’s go from the everybody cross.” But this would be meaningless to anybody else except for me and my group, who have that language in common that we’ve created. Since then, after the fact, now I’ve gone back and I’ve written out some pretty detailed notes for each part. But they are sort of a combination of prose-style language and maybe some rhythms written out. They’re meant to be used in conjunction with a video of my group performing it. They’re also never to be put up on a music stand with your eyes glued to it because that’s just wrong for so many reasons. They’re just meant to be referred to. As other groups learn Click, I want them to be memorizing from day one and not be thinking, “First I’m going to read off the page, and then I’m going to take it into my memory from there.” No, this has to be right into movement and sound from the very beginning. Your eyes have to be available.

FJO: There are people who assume that if something doesn’t have a score on the page, that it’s improvised. But this isn’t.

MEC: No, not at all. I think this is one place where my dance background had a big influence, maybe without me even completely thinking about it. You don’t really write down dances for the most part. As a choreographer you may have some notes for yourself, but they exist in the dancer’s memory and maybe now on film or video so that there’s a record of it. But let me back up.

The very first version of Click was at the Yellow Springs Institute in Pennsylvania. I was there for a week with Relâche. That would have been about 1988, if I remember correctly. Because I had the ensemble for half a day, I could work on several ideas. I had them there in the room with me as I was working. So I wrote an instrumental piece for them that was completely written out and which became Parterre. Then I had this idea to do the piece with claves, and I knew I had to have at least three people to make it work. And the three people were the percussionist in the group, Flossie Lerardi if I remember her name correctly, Laurel Wykoff who was the flute player, and Guy Klucevsek who was the accordion player. So I had the three of them, and I think I created maybe just the first minute or minute and a half of the piece. It was really because I had access to the musicians while I was composing.

Then I went home and I knew I wanted to continue with this idea, so I thought I’d have to bring people in for rehearsal. This is not a piece that I could compose in my head and write down and send off to players like I might with a string quartet. So I hired one percussionist and two dancers to be in rehearsal with me to create the piece. The reason I wanted dancers was because I knew I was going to have to work in rehearsal and ask the players to remember what they did from one rehearsal to the next. And I thought, “Well, that’s how dancers work. They’ll get it immediately.” I was worried that if I brought in three musicians that they might say, “Where’s my notation? Where’s my score?” Even if it was just from this rehearsal to the next rehearsal. So that was the reason, and it worked. It worked really well because I had one percussionist who really knew how to work with rhythm, and then I had two dancers who really knew how to work with movement and how to work from memory, so I didn’t have to convince anybody of anything.

FJO: For me, one of the most fascinating of those CRASH pieces is Hands, which doesn’t use any instruments at all. It’s just the body. And because it’s based on such a primal, human activity—just using people’s hands—I imagine other people who see this being performed might think it is something we all could do, but then the minute you start paying attention to it, you realize, it’s actually pretty hard.

HANDS by Mary Ellen Childs from Mary Ellen Childs on Vimeo.

MEC: You know, that piece was a really surprising thing for me. I think it’s only like three or four minutes; it’s very short. It was part of a much longer evening that was all about percussion in various ways, and it felt to me like just a little kind of a filler thing, like something that I was going to use for that purpose and then completely forget about. But somehow that piece has taken off. There are some groups who’ve taken it into their repertoire and have just played it and played it and played it. And it gets this big response that has always surprised me.

FJO: Well, I think it’s because it’s just so basic.

MEC: It is basic.

FJO: The one thing that audiences are allowed to do during Western classical music concerts is use their hands and clap at the end. But here they are being used to make the content of the music that you’re experiencing without any other filter. Yeah, they hit chairs at some point. But mostly they’re hitting each other. And there’s something very satisfying about that.

MEC: Why does that capture people’s imagination? I don’t understand it. But I think that I understand what you’re saying. I’ve done at least one other body percussion piece, Sight of Hand, which sort of draws from clapping games and hamboning and baseball coaching signals turned into percussion, but it’s a little more complex and varied than Hands is.

FJO: I haven’t heard it or seen it, but I’ve read about it and was very curious about it. It’s a new piece, right?

MEC: Oh no, this is from 1998 or ‘99.

FJO: That’s weird, because one of the sites I went to said it was from 2016.

MEC: Oh, what that could be is now I’m going to do a version of this piece with the St. Paul Saints minor league team.

FJO: A-ha! I want to hear about that.

MEC: Yes, so if all the funding comes through—that’s a big if right now—then we’re going to do the piece at the Saints’ game in August of this year. The St. Paul Saints are a minor league team, you know, serious baseball. But there’s also a very fun atmosphere. There are always other things going on in between innings or in the stands. So I had this idea to do the piece that is influenced by baseball coaching signals there at a game. And then we’re also going to shoot video, live at the game, to capture game plays and crowd responses. We’re going to have a second day of video where we can setup some specific shots with Saints players and coaches and my players, and then create a little percussion music video out of it. So that’s the 2016 project.

FJO: There are all these connections yet disconnections between music and sports: the virtuoso, superhuman performers and the ritual of the event—whether it’s a concert or a game that an audience goes to and witnesses. Both sports and music also engender a rabid fandom. Plus there’s a ton of jargon that’s very specific to those two realms. And, as the guy who’s on the music side of this rather than the sports side, I’m always sort of envious of how sports can be as specialized and even as erudite as we are, and still millions of people care about this. So if we could reach sports fans and show them how similar our worlds are, I wonder if this piece is the kind of piece that could do that.

MEC: I don’t know. We’re just in the middle of conceiving how this is going to work in the stadium. It’s actually a pretty quiet piece; body percussion is not going to read very far, though visually maybe it will. We’re also going to work with a group of usher-tainers—they call them—there, people who are hired to be part of the entertainment, and they’re great. I’m going to have them learn just a few of the patterns out of our piece, so that they can participate. We’re going to amplify it in that way. Instead of three players, I’m going to have seven of my own people, and then we’ll probably have about 10 or 12 or so of these usher-tainers. So we could have a pretty big group doing some of these body percussion patterns.

FJO: No amplification?

MEC: I don’t know. I’ve got to think that through. Like I said, we’re still in the planning process. We might see if we can do something on their jumbotron, which would just be a little snippet—certainly not the whole piece—so that everybody can see and hear it that way. But a baseball stadium is not a concert hall, so this is not going to be the kind of performance where people are going to have their attention focused on this piece that, even at four and a half minutes, is still pretty long. We’re never going to get four and a half minutes of an audience’s attention. So we’ll have to conceive of it a little bit differently: breaking it down into component parts; doing a little bit here, going over to that part of the crowd and doing another bit; interacting with a vendor; getting it all on camera.

FJO: Why do you think that it would be so difficult to get them to focus on your piece? They’re certainly capable of being totally focused on the game.

MEC: Right, but they will never give us four and a half minutes. The time between innings—they told me—is two minutes. And they have a lot of stuff going on in that two minutes. So even if we had the whole time between two innings, we couldn’t do the piece. And we probably will only get a fraction of that out on the field with everybody’s attention.

FJO: They couldn’t work extra time into the schedule just to make it work with your piece? Why not give them a little more than two minutes between innings?

MEC: I doubt it, and that’s not really the point of this. The point is having the piece and the live game be part of the same event, then taking all that material and making a piece out of it that exists on video to put my baseball percussion movement into the context of real game plays happening. So I don’t know. We’ll see how it all comes together.

FJO: Another thing that interests me about all of these projects we’ve been talking about is that even though you work very closely with the performers, you’re not actually performing. But you are so involved in the rehearsal process. That becomes tricky if you have pieces that are being done, say, all over the world.

MEC: Well, there are now percussion groups who do my pieces and I’m not part of that rehearsal process. So that does happen now. Early on, I felt extraordinarily protective of these pieces and I did not want anyone else to do them unless I could go and coach it. Then after a while, I just didn’t feel as strongly about that. I think maybe because there were some groups who learned the pieces and put their own mark on them, because every group is going to do it a little bit differently. Even if the rhythms are exactly precise, their quality of movement is going to be a little different. One might have a more precise feel to it, another one might have a little bit more lyrical feel, just based on what the movement qualities of the performers are like. So I got more curious and interested in having performers take on these pieces. And I did find ways where I could convey the information from my written notes plus a video of my program. Now sometimes I even do Skype rehearsals where I can be at a rehearsal enough to see what’s going on and give them some coaching from my own home studio, which often works better.

FJO: But some things would still be very difficult to do without your involvement, perhaps most of all the music you wrote for these crazy bicycle instruments.

MEC: There were three of them, and they’re no longer in my studio. I donated them to the Schubert Club Musical Instrument Museum. So they’re now in the museum in St. Paul. I hear that they are wildly popular because, at the museum, they allow people to get on and ride them. They’re actually musical instruments powered by exercise bicycles that were created for my group by Norman Anderson, a visual artist in the Twin Cities. A lot of his visual art uses old musical instrument parts and a lot of it runs on small motors. These beings that he creates move and make sound. They sort of come to life and each have their own personality and idiosyncrasies. So I was really fascinated by Norman’s work and I asked him if he would create a piece that I could use with my group. The moment I asked him, I had envisioned something that moves and comes to life, but in some way also has some space in it, both literally and figuratively for my group to play along with them or to interact with this thing coming to life. So Norman said sure and started working on it. Then he called me up one day and he said, “I got an idea. I was driving through my alley and I saw someone had put out, to be taken away, an old exercise bicycle. I know I could find a couple others, no problem.” And he does—many of his materials are found items. So he said, “What if I did three pieces that each were powered by an exercise bicycle?” And so I said, “That sounds like fun. Let’s go for it.” Then we started talking back and forth about what the sounds were going to be for each and so we landed on one that was the pipe-cercycle, which uses organ pipes as its sound and physical material. Then there’s the string-cercycle, which is all strings of various kinds. A little ukulele in the front, a cello in the back, some other resonating strings that Norman created. And then the xylo-cycle, which has xylophone-like bars right above the handle bars and a kind of a music box-style cylinder with screws sticking out of it. When you pedal, it will turn and trigger the mallets over the top of the xylophone-like bars. That’s how those three pieces came about.

Tri-Cycles by Mary Ellen Childs from Mary Ellen Childs on Vimeo.

FJO: There’s actually been a significant history of writing music involving bicycles. In the early 1980s there was an audio artist based in Arizona named Richard Lerman who created an outdoor piece called Travelon Gamelon that was recorded by Folkways and which is now available from the Smithsonian. Before that, one of the earliest musical efforts by Frank Zappa that attracted some notoriety was a film score he wrote using bicycles. He even performed a selection from it on network TV in 1963. It was a few years before he became a famous rock musician; he was announced as being an avant-garde composer.

MEC: Okay, that I did not know.

FJO: It’s pretty wacky. And just last year I heard a piece by Ruby Fulton during the SONiC Festival that involved a bicycle. For some reason bicycles keep reappearing in musical contexts, but in the trajectory of your work, I think, it’s yet another example of calling attention to the physical process of making music.

MEC: The piece I just described didn’t start out being about bicycles. It was about invented musical instruments and how a human can interact with them. But it ended up being about bicycles.

FJO: Now that you’ve donated the instruments, does that mean the piece is out of CRASH’s repertoire?

MEC: We did it one more time, at the museum—must have been the fall of 2014. That was the last time it’s been done. Occasionally I would use the xylo-cycle in concert. But frankly, those instruments were sitting in my studio for a good decade unused. They were hard to get in and out of my house and were difficult to transport. You could not fly them anywhere, so they could really only be used pretty close to home. And what I realized after I got the pieces and started working with them is they’re not well suited for a concert-style performance, unless we started working with a sound engineer. If I had gone to the next stage with that piece, I would have done that. Because they don’t balance very well. Some things are too quiet to really hear, and you have to accept the fact that the sound of pedaling is going to be part of the piece because the bikes themselves are noisy. What I also found about these instruments is that they’re best suited for a more installation-style performance. You can do some very interesting things with them to create kind of an atmosphere or a mood or a sound world. But to shape a musical arc over a period of time, which is what you want to do in a concert setting, was difficult to impossible.

If I was going to continue with those instruments and those pieces, I think I probably would have added some other instruments, singers, texts, or something like that. Plus a sound engineer to finesse all those materials in a way that was going to be fully satisfying if you really have a rapt audience in front of you, rather than an installation work where people are kind of walking through. The performance that I did with my players was meant for a gallery or an installation. People do come and actually pay attention for the whole time. And the players are dressed in our usual black suits, and then they wear bowler hats. They get off the bikes and they do other things with them. I don’t know what will happen to it in the future.

FJO: Now once again, I imagine that there are some written instructions, but no score.

MEC: There are some written instructions, and that is the score. That piece actually does have a fair amount of structured improvisation in it. If I had the time or the resources I’d work that even more, but it certainly is not one of those pieces that anybody else is going to do because the instruments are so specific and so is the process of putting it together, as we discovered when recreating it ten years later. But as I said, I would sometimes take the xylo-cycle out and use it as a little solo piece in the context of a bigger CRASH concert.

FJO: Did you ever get on the bike and play it, or was it always one of the players?

MEC: It was always one of the players. There was a period of time during CRASH concerts when I would do little cameo performances. I thought of them as my Alfred Hitchcock moments—you know, you blink and you might miss me. But no, I never really performed in that group. I haven’t performed in a long time.

FJO: Thankfully, in the last decade, two really significant, large-scale compositions of yours are now available on commercial recordings. Dream House is an extremely beautiful piece that very effectively weaves the sound of a live string quartet with an electronic sound environment. But in some ways I feel I don’t completely know the piece because I only know it from the audio recording and it was created as part of a much more multisensory and omnidirectional experience involving multiple video screens. I’ve only seen a few snippets of that posted online.

DREAM HOUSE by Mary Ellen Childs from Mary Ellen Childs on Vimeo.

MEC: The original piece was conceived as a full-evening piece for live string quartet. It was written for ETHEL and some sound montage interwoven into some of the movements, and then multi-image video.

The theme of the piece was construction and destruction and how those two things are so intertwined; one just doesn’t exist without the other. It’s not that one’s good and one’s bad—although sometimes we think of them that way. It’s not that we prefer one over the other. I chose to take the roof off my house to build my studio up. That was destroying something so that I could create something else.

It was also about cycles of time, and then rhythms of work. The video sometimes filled the performance space, but sometimes was as small as a single flower in a window pane of a relatively very small image. It wasn’t meant to be a 2-D, single-screen rectangle behind the players where you see the image. I really wanted the projected imagery to be able to use the space. I think we had seven projectors used in different ways in the course of the evening. And then the lighting design was also a very integral part of the whole performance because after all, video projection is projected light. The lighting designer used and also picked up on some of these same images that were in the video and physically in the space. It was meant to be a blending of what’s projected and what’s a real image. Then we used quadrophonic sounds so that the sound could also envelop the audience. But I have to say that though that was the original performance and how the piece was conceived, I also wanted the piece to stand on its own musically. That was where it started. My videographer worked from the music. I wasn’t writing music to existing film; it was actually the other way around. And we really talked a lot with my collaborators about how to keep it so that the music is really the primary experience, because visual imagery can take over so easily and make music an accompaniment. How are we really going to keep this so that, if anything, the visual material is the accompaniment to what you’re hearing?

FJO: So it was a deliberate decision to issue Dream House on CD in order for the music to stand on its own, rather than to release it on, say, a 5.1 Surround Sound DVD?

MEC: Yeah, I’ve been thinking about this lately. I don’t know how you’d recreate the experience, except to restage the whole thing and have a live audience, just because of how the lighting design worked. If you were to take this experience of the video and flatten it down to one screen again, that goes against what the original experience was like. The only way to experience that piece again would be to restage the whole thing, which has not happened. I would be happy to have it happen, but it hasn’t happened.

FJO: Wreck also has a ton of extra-musical elements. It was created for dance and I saw just a little snippet of video that the dance company put up online, but again, I really only know the music because it was released as an audio recording.

MEC: Well, that happened because Carl Flink—a choreographer whose group is Black Label Movement—was creating a full-evening piece called Wreck. It was about an oar boat on Lake Superior that sinks and the crew knows they’re not going to survive. They end up in the last airtight compartment. It’s a rather dark piece. This is not a true story. But it’s about facing death and also about the power of that great lake.

There was another composer who was slated to do it who tragically died very unexpectedly at the very beginning stages of the work. So that’s why Carl came to me. He had already started working on the piece. My schedule was such that, by the time I was really ready to write it, much of the choreography had been created. He was still ordering pieces and making final decisions, but I came to it pretty late in the game, so I was writing to existing dance. I felt very much like I was scoring a film, and that’s really how I approached it. But I told Carl right away, “If you need to have me mirror your phrases musically and work with your phrase structure, that’s not what I’m going to do.” And he said, “No, no, no, I don’t work with music like that at all.” So I felt very freed up to create a sonic environment for the dance to exist in. But I did find ways where, through musical decisions, I could coordinate with the dancers, because it was going to be performed to live music, so the live performers could cue off the dancers.

This can’t be shrinking violet music. It can’t be wallpaper music. It can’t be background music. This had to be music that makes its own very powerful statement.

Of course, what your perception will do when you’re hearing something and seeing something is that you’ll make the connection that the two were meant to happen in time at that moment, even when they weren’t. I don’t know if that makes sense. I was kind of talking in the abstract there. But I said to Carl early on, “The movement you’ve created is so strong, I think this needs to have very powerful music that goes along with it that stands on its own, that doesn’t take second place to the dance. If that sounds appealing to you, that’s what I will give you. This can’t be shrinking violet music. It can’t be wallpaper music. It can’t be background music. This had to be music that makes its own very powerful statement and can be an equal partner with the dance.” And so again, I think that’s why it works on the recording without the dance. But the recording is not the dance piece from beginning to end. When we did the recording, there were some pieces we didn’t put on the recording. It was like releasing a film score; you order the pieces in a different way to make the recording a satisfying experience. So although it’s the same material, the dance performance and the recording are two different, both satisfying, experiences I hope.

FJO: One of the things that I find curious about both of these pieces is that even though they are large-scale and immersive, they’re both chamber music. You’ve never done a thing like this for a very large ensemble. Of course, working with an orchestra imposes a regimented and quite limited rehearsal process. I also imagine that you couldn’t tell orchestra players to move around, or to have video screens scattered around them on stage.

MEC: Well, yeah, I think that’s a part of it. The kinds of things that I do take a little more rehearsal time. But there’s always a limit to rehearsal time. When I did Click, I counted up how many rehearsals I had over the course of a year. There were like 38 or 40 rehearsals. And that was to create the piece and, of course, the players were learning it at the same time. But in our world, that’s pretty hard to come by. And I don’t think that I’ll ever do that work that way again. The kinds of things that I’m talking about take a lot of rehearsal time. That’s probably why Dream House hasn’t been done again, because it would take a lot to get that piece up on its feet again. We’d have to redo a little bit of the video. You need special equipment. You need to rebuild these set pieces. Simple, but they need to be rebuilt to fly in and out. We’d need very high powered projectors. These are also not pieces that tour very easily. They don’t get multiple performances very easily.

As for orchestras, there are just some practical considerations. It’s just going to be harder to do something like that with a professional orchestra. So if I were to do it, I’d have to think about it very differently. Could something have as much impact that wouldn’t take a week of technical rehearsals in order to pull off? And as far as the movement pieces, it’s just harder with other instruments. I’ve experimented with it a little bit. Percussion is so ripe for using movement. With other instruments, you can’t change the playing technique in the same way. It isn’t as physical to begin with, so it’s just harder to do.

I haven’t actually done new pieces for CRASH in 15 years. That’s a whole body of work that exists, and when CRASH travels it tends to be this existing work. But how I’ve incorporated other elements has kind of evolved a little bit. Eventually I starting to be interested in scent, Dream House came several years after the work that I was doing with CRASH, and that was using multi-image video and lighting design.

Last fall I did a piece at the Farnsworth House, which is a Mies van der Rohe-designed house in Plano, Illinois, about an hour and a half west of Chicago on the Fox River. And it’s this beautiful, historic, all-glass house. I was commissioned to write a piece inspired by the house and performed inside the house as part of the Chicago Architectural Biennial. So I got to spend some time in the house and absorb it. Then I wrote the piece based on what I had experienced, knowing the performance was going to take place in the house, to feel what the audience would feel to be in a space like that and see what they see because it’s glass and so the outdoors and the indoors blend so much. For that, I started feeling like the space itself was my collaborator. I’m really interested in doing more of that, writing for an already existing space. I’d like to do something with the night sky—the night sky is sort of, again, my collaborator, my existing other element. The audience’s experience would be of the music, but in this particular space, in this particular moment seeing the stars or looking out. And it’s not meant to be performances where you’re sitting in chairs, facing the musicians, and your visual focus is on the musicians. So it’s, again, using and thinking about space in a different way.

Mary Jane Leach: Sonic Confessions

A conversation at Leach’s home (a former Catholic church) in Valley Falls, New York
November 6, 2015—12:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography (unless otherwise stated)
by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

More than 20 years after being in the audience for a concert by the New York Treble Singers devoted to the music of Mary Jane Leach, I still have vivid memories of it. It was one of the most magical performances I’ve ever experienced. While the breadth of a full SATB chorus was missing (all of the singers were sopranos), it was more than compensated for by the depth of focus on a specific segment of the pitch continuum. Perhaps more significantly, although there were only eight singers on the stage it sounded like many, many others. Eager to hear this music again as well as anything else by Leach I could find, I tracked down Celestial Fires, the one CD of her music available at that time (on Phill Niblock’s XI Records) and was delighted when a second disc, Ariadne’s Lament, was issued by New World Records a few years later.

Since then I got to know Leach personally and, as a result, came to understand how her music works. The peculiar acoustic phenomena I witnessed during that first concert were largely the byproduct of beats (a ringing pulse that throbs in your ear when two pitches are only a very small interval apart from one another) and of the additional sum and difference tones that occur when certain combinations of pitches sound together, based on the prominence of particular harmonics in any given timbre. There’s a particular presence when those additional “ghost” tones result from pitches produced by the same instrument or voice, e.g. the eight sopranos of the New York Treble Singers. So, as I came to know more of Leach’s music and chanced upon pieces for four bass clarinets, seven bassoons, or nine oboes, it all started to make sense. But it was only when we went to visit with her at her home, a decommissioned Roman Catholic church in a small town about a 30-minute drive from Albany, that her process became crystal clear.

“How loud it is, the pressure that you use, and moving in a space changes it drastically,” she explained. “It wasn’t until I wrote the piece for bass clarinet, 4BC, that I really started playing around with specific sound phenomena and I did that tediously. I recorded tones on tape, then I just kept over-dubbing and combining them—what do four unisons sound like? What does it sound like when you add this note? What does it sound like when you add that note?”

Multiples pieces (works scored for an ensemble consisting exclusively of the same instrument or for a soloist performing along with previously recorded multitracks of him- or herself) form a considerable percentage of Leach’s compositional output. Leach has also compiled a massive database of multiples pieces written by other composers and has made it publicly accessible via her website. One of Leach’s favorite multiples pieces by another composer is The Holy Presence of Joan of Arc, a 1981 tour-de-force for ten cellos by African-American proto-post-minimalist Julius Eastman (1940-1990). So entranced was she by this piece when she first heard a recording of it, and was subsequently so stymied in her efforts to find a score, that she devoted years of her life to tracking down scores and recordings of as much of Eastman’s music as she could (much is lost forever), shepherded New World’s seminal 3-CD Eastman collection Unjust Malaise, and co-authored (with Renée Levine Packer) Gay Guerrilla, the first book-length study devoted to Eastman which will be published on December 15, 2015. Devoting so much time to the music of someone else took its toll on her own composing and she was forced to put on the back burner one of her most ambitious projects—a multilayered opera based on the original Ariadne myth (in which Ariadne emerges as a feminist hero rather than a somewhat clueless victim). Now that the book is done, she’s wholeheartedly plunged back in. In a strange way, the two projects (Eastman and Ariadne) are somewhat similar in that both are an attempt to right an historical wrong.

As she pointed out, “So much of myth is political—a lot of times justifying why the people who are occupying your country are there, like a lot of political-ness we’re going through with the Middle East and everything like that. This explains how Theseus, who was like a rapist-solider, could be transformed into the hero and how Ariadne could be transformed from a queen-goddess figure into like this girl who gave up everything for the first cute guy who came by.”

As for why she got so deep into salvaging Julius Eastman’s musical legacy, she mused, “I felt like someone who witnesses an accident—you want to move on, but you know you have to stay because you’re not sure if someone else is going to come by and help. I feel like I realized how dire the situation was and that something had to be done before too much more time passed because the more that time passes, the harder it is to track down the music.”

Leach has been a firebrand for social justice since at least the age of 11 when she was labelled a heretic by a minister after pursuing and ultimately winning a debate during her Sunday school class. Given that bit of history, it might seem strange that she’s spent the last decade living in a church, but as she was quick to point out, being able to immerse herself in a church’s extraordinary acoustics on a daily basis has been extremely satisfying.

“Churches always sound good, you know?” she beamed with a slightly mischievous grin. “I was looking for a quiet place to live upstate and I found this the first day I started looking. […] I clapped and sang, and said, ‘Wow, I want this.’ And it was the cheapest thing I’d looked at too, believe it or not. So yeah, I’ve an affinity for spaces like this and there is, I think, a kind of a spiritual thing going on.”


Mary Jane Leach standing outside the entrance of the church she lives in; a stained glass window is visible through the door.

Mary Jane Leach welcomes us to her home.

Frank J. Oteri: For years I’ve always felt that much of your music has almost a—for lack of a better word—sacred quality.

Mary Jane Leach: Hmmm, maybe spiritual is a better word.

FJO: Okay, but the reason I specifically used the word sacred is because there’s something about your music that sounds somehow not of this realm. You hear it and it transports you. I certainly feel that way when I listen to your music, and I identify that same feeling with a lot of sacred music traditions from around the world, whether it’s Vedic chanting or polyphonic masses from the Renaissance period. Your music seems to be channeling a similar energy. And, lo and behold, you actually now live in a church.

MJL: Yeah, I have a history with churches. My mother was a church organist for a while and we lived next door to a church when I was in grade school. We’d go in during off hours and I’d lie on the floor and absorb the sounds while she played the organ. That was kind of a start. Then I lived in a church in Cologne for a couple of years. And churches always sound good, you know? So I was looking for a quiet place to live upstate and I found this the first day I started looking. The real estate agent said, “Let’s just check it out.” And I said, “If it has an organ, I really want it.” And so we got here, and we had no idea it was going to be as big as it is. It is pretty big. And we walked inside, and I clapped and sang, and said, “Wow, I want this.” And it was the cheapest thing I’d looked at too, believe it or not. So yeah, I’ve an affinity for spaces like this and there is, I think, a kind of a spiritual thing going on. But it’s not just churches. There’s this same kind of ambience in, say, Grant’s Tomb, which they ruined once they put those central columns in the cylindrical rooms and put in the flag display cases; it took away that sweet spot. Friends and I would always go there and play around with the acoustics, but once they renovated it they spoiled it for that.

FJO: There are also places in Grand Central Station that are that way.

MJL: Yeah, and the tunnels under Central Park. Almost any tunnel is like that.

Mary Jane Leach playing a church organ.

Mary Jane Leach testing interval combinations on an organ. (Photo courtesy Mary Jane Leach.)

FJO: But in terms of how it relates to you and the music you write, it was interesting that as soon as I said sacred, you pointed out that you preferred the word spiritual because, at least from what I glean from knowing you all these years, your music is decidedly not religious music.

MJL: No. That’s why it’s so ironic that I’m in a church. I’m pretty anti-religion, or anti-organized religion, for the obvious reasons. I was actually branded a heretic in sixth grade Sunday school. There were a series of debates and I took the anti-Christian side. It was going on for maybe three weeks or more. I began bringing in adults and cross examining them and everything. And the minister gave a sermon about me—how I might have won the debate, but I’d lose in life. I wasn’t really listening to him; I was too busy going through the hymnals singing songs to myself. But when I was about 30, it kind of dawned on me what had happened, and I realized that I’d avoided getting into arguments with people because I subliminally realized I’d been branded as a heretic for getting in an argument and winning it. That’s a pretty heavy thing to lay on an 11-year old.

FJO: But it’s interesting that as an 11-year old you channeled that out by thumbing through the hymnals. Even though you weren’t attracted to the dogma, you were attracted to the music.

MJL: Oh, definitely. I even have a hymnal downstairs. There’s some really good music there. I think a lot of people wouldn’t go to church if they didn’t like the music so much.

FJO: So is church music what first got you interested in music?

MJL: Not really. I mean, I sang in choir and played in band and stuff. But I hadn’t really thought about being in music until my senior year of high school. I had wanted to be an architect, but back then you could openly discriminate against women. I went to interview at Cornell and the guy literally told me that they didn’t accept women because they would just get married and drop out. Now they might have the same policy, but they would never say it to your face. Then he said, “What do you do?” And I realized that I played music all the time. Well, I thought, maybe I should go into music. I started it in college, and I had a very bad teacher, so I became a math major, and then I became a theater major sophomore year. But while working at a summer equity Shakespeare festival doing theater, since I was a musical person, I would be asked to play Elizabethan music. So I got into music through that, which is why it was so interesting for me to do Dowland’s Tears, because Dowland was one of my gateway composers, besides Bach.

I didn’t start writing music until I guess freshman or sophomore year in college. You know how in [music] theory [classes] you get to write examples? Every time my examples got played, everybody kind of perked up. So through music theory class, and then theater, I got into writing music. In theater you do everything, whether you’re qualified or not. Writing music was just something I started doing and I sort of took it from there. I grew up in Vermont and we didn’t know that there was such a thing as composers back then. Seriously.

A reproduction of photo from a newspaper of 12 uniformed young people playing clarinets.

This tattered clip from the Montpelier-Barre Times-Argus contains one of the earliest music-themed photos of Mary Jane Leach as a member of the clarinet section of her middle school band. Can you find her?

FJO: Dennis Báthory-Kitsz hadn’t started organizing the Vermont Composers Day yet.

MJL: No. He came to Vermont the year I left, in 1977. The cultural highlights were high school band concerts and things like that. Vermont is very cool now. There’s a lot of good music going on. But there wasn’t when I was a kid.

FJO: But somebody was writing pieces for that high school band.

MJL: Sousa! Actually one of the highlights was the All-State Festival, when we did a band arrangement of a Bach piece. I really liked that. But I wasn’t exposed to much classical music at all. More jazz and pop and folk, stuff like that. I still have a lot of friends in folk music and bluegrass.

FJO: : The earliest piece of your music that you list on your website is Note Passing Note, which is from 1981—four years after you left Vermont. It’s a piece that already clearly has your aesthetic signature as a composer. Was there earlier work from those intervening years that you don’t want to put out there because you feel it doesn’t quite represent who you are? What was the moment when you felt that you had begun writing your music?

MJL: Actually, the way it started was learning from happy accidents. A lot of things that I’ve come to do came about because of accidents. I was in this group with Charlie Morrow, Daniel Goode, and a bunch of other people called the New Wilderness Ensemble. There were also a lot of people who weren’t musicians or composers and there were funky instruments, so we were always having tuning problems; it drove me nuts. I had just started playing bass clarinet. I’d always played clarinet before, but I started bass clarinet. I really wanted to make sure that it wasn’t me who was playing out of tune. I had a tape machine, so I thought I could sing a note in what singers call a straight tone and tape that, then play my bass clarinet and see what happens, see if I can play in tune and stay in tune.

Then I began playing. I’d go off pitch a little bit and it would start beating. I’d never experienced that before. At first, I thought I’d broken my speakers. But then I realized what was going on and that was kind of the beginning of what I’m interested in—working with sound phenomena, which also might be tied into that whole spiritual thing because it’s tied into frequencies and something intrinsic in the physical world. One of the earliest pieces that I did was Note Passing Note. I envisioned it for two taped parts, one coming out of each speaker, and then I’d do a live part. I went into the recording studio and I realized that I had written these parts where I sang a note for three minutes without breathing and I knew exactly what I wanted it to sound like; it hadn’t occurred to me that I’d have to breathe.

Ever since then, I’ve organized my pieces around the breath. A lot of people who’ve heard my early music say it sounds a lot like Phill Niblock. And it does, except that he cuts out all of the breaths and it ends up almost more electronic sounding. That’s big—tying it into something physical like the breath. I always put in breaths now, especially with long pieces, as much for keeping the pulse going. There were times where I could have extended a note for longer, but I want the attack of an entry so that the pulse doesn’t become mushy, which also helps if you have tape pieces and you want to know where you are. If it’s just this long drone, it’s impossible to keep it in synch.

FJO: It’s interesting hearing you say that it all goes back to the breath, which is something that some composers ignore at their peril. Of course, singers are always conscious of their breathing. If singers can’t breathe, they can’t sing.

MJL: And they’ll let you know about it, too.

FJO: But this is also true for instrumental music. Obviously wind instruments have to deal with the same physical reality of needing to breathe between phrases, but I think there’s even a better flow in music for stringed instruments when players are able to synchronize phrases with their breathing. Of course, you don’t need to be conscious of that breath when you are playing a stringed instrument, but I think there’s something transcendent than can happen when you are.

MJL: It keeps it human, for lack of a better, more profound word.

FJO: But you came to this aspect of composing through performing, because it was a physical phenomenon you discovered both in your own voice and, I imagine, also when you played clarinet and bass clarinet.

MJL: Definitely.

FJO: I’m curious about how some of things that you started to realize were happening when you were performing wound up becoming so important to you as a composer—the beating, difference tones, and other sounds that occur that are not actually played by the performers.

MJL: I guess the first piece that dealt a lot with beating was Note Passing Note; the way that I performed it was walking through this space, between the speakers, manipulating the sound. I wasn’t trying to get any specific combination of difference tones. I was just bathing in the sound. How loud it is, the pressure that you use, and moving in this space changes it drastically. But it wasn’t until I wrote the piece for bass clarinet, 4BC, that I really started playing around with specific sound phenomena and I did that tediously. I recorded tones on tape, then I just kept over-dubbing and combining them: What do four unisons sound like? What does it sound like when you add this note? What does it sound like when you add that note? I basically built up the piece that way.

An excerpt from the musical score for Mary Jane Leach's composition 4BC for four bass clarinets.

Excerpt from 4BC. Copyright © 1984 by Mary Jane Leach, Ariadne Press (BMI). International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Bass clarinet is a little different than almost any other instrument because it has the third partial come out more. So that piece works specifically—there’s a continual combination tone happening on top, then there are sometimes lower ones that are happening. That’s the only one where I had something so continuously happening. But the more I kept working, the more I knew what was going to happen. So I wrote a piece, which is kind of the next piece in that cycle, for alto flute and my voice called Trio for Duo, and I discovered that my voice basically sounded exactly like the alto flute. So I exploited that sound quality of my voice and the alto flute sounding so similar. I can tell because I can hear Barbara [Held]’s breath and her attack on the flute, but otherwise I wouldn’t know who was who.

FJO: What’s interesting about that piece is that you were dealing with another musician. It wasn’t just you anymore.

MJL: Right.

FJO: One of the peculiar things about music is that even though it is an art form that consists of sounds, it’s transmitted—at least in the Western classical tradition—through visual notation. Aural ideas get communicated visually and the goal is for those ideas to be replicated by somebody else as faithfully as possible to the original conception of the composer. But a lot of what you have been exploring all these years exists beyond the kinds of sounds that notation was designed to convey in a precise way.

MJL: Yeah, I know.

FJO: So how do you convey that information to someone else to get them to do what you want them to do?

MJL: Well, in the case with Barbara, it’s just the nature of the instrument. I originally did a longer version of the piece with Barbara. Then Newband wanted to do it, but when I got ready to perform it with [Newband’s flutist] Stephanie Starin, they said, “We never do pieces over ten minutes.” So I revised the piece a little bit. Stephanie performed it with me and she created the sounds, but she didn’t realize they were happening. She called me one day when she heard it on the radio, and she said, “I’m hearing all of these high pitches. Is it distorting? Is there something wrong with my radio?” Even though she had produced the sound, she didn’t know that that was the point of the piece.

FJO: So you don’t explain it in the score? You just notate it and what happens, happens?

MJL: Yeah, because it does happen. There is a difference, though. I know people who write things by just adding up the frequencies or subtracting them. But I found that that actually doesn’t really work. It works in principle, in theory, but not in actuality. It really takes trial and error. Of course, panning changes things as well. Not so much in those early pieces where the parts had basically the same thing happening, but in pieces where there’s more of a bass part, and each part has its own range of notes.

One thing I did want to mention is that conventional Western notation is kind of like algebra, but the reality is more like calculus, where you have the variables and they’re constantly changing. So even though you think you know what it looks like, a lot of people only hear what they see on the page. There’s actually a lot going on that either people don’t hear or they’re unaware of. For me and for people who write music the way I do, the scores look deceptively simple. But performers find out that there’s a lot more. It doesn’t sound as simple as it looks and it’s not as easy to perform because you have to have spot-on intonation. I’ve had students at Manhattan School and Mannes both perform my piece for trombones. I think at first they thought it was kind of insulting to be playing all these whole notes, but then they found it wasn’t all that easy because you have to have a really good sense of rhythm and you have to have a really good sense of pitch. It’s almost an endurance thing. You know, it’s very difficult.

An excerpt from the score of Mary Jane Leach's composition Bare Bones for four trombones.

Excerpt from Bare Bones. Copyright © 1989 by Mary Jane Leach, Ariadne Press (BMI). International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: But I want to play devil’s advocate a bit here, maybe at the risk of being labeled a heretic. Clearly these are the phenomena that you’re curious about and this is what you want to have happen. You notate them as simply as possible, and these sounds occur which makes your score actually clear to some extent. But shouldn’t you make it a point in the performance materials to tell people that these sounds will occur and that that is what you’re actually after, especially if someone as versed in new music as Stephanie Starin thought that there was something wrong with her radio or with the recording? Or are you also going for an element of surprise with the performers? Is that part of aesthetic?

MJL: No, no, no. I think by now people know what to expect. But Stephanie wasn’t familiar with my work, and I hadn’t done that much work in that realm before.

FJO: But what about those students at the Manhattan School and Mannes? They might not know what to expect because they’re young musicians and they’re probably getting exposed to your music for the first time. They don’t know all of the composers who are out there and they probably never encountered a score like this. They’re making their initial judgments based exclusively on what they’ve experienced before, so all they see is a bunch of whole notes and they have no idea that it’s really so much more than that.

MJL: I can’t remember now, but usually I have some kind of paragraph or instructions with scores that explain what I’m looking for so that people don’t freak out. I’m not trying to put anything by anybody. But I’ve actually found that people don’t even need to be instructed. Stephanie was sort of an outlier, because I think everybody else hears what’s going on.

FJO: I shudder to say this because I obsessively dote on program notes, whether they’re for my own pieces or if I’m asked to write them for other composers’ pieces, but musicians often don’t read the program notes; they just go straight to the score. So if it’s not written directly on the page they’re playing from, they probably won’t see it.

MJL: Well, sometimes I do put it on the page. I’ll put a little asterisk on the bottom of the page. But one thing that kind of evolved from that was that when I finally got a notation program, I was able to write pieces for instruments I didn’t play. The bassoon was the first one that I was able to do that for. I did experiments to make sure certain things were actually happening using MIDI playback. Then I did a little test with multi-tracking, just to make sure that my MIDI playback was being realistic in terms of what to expect. And it worked. What I was able to do with this was that instead of just having one combination note, or difference tone, patterns started happening. I would play certain combinations of notes, and all of a sudden other patterns would be happening naturally. So I thought, “Well, what I’ll do next is notate that and see what that will do with the rest of the notes happening.” I would listen for patterns that would happen and notate them, then go on to the next thing to see what would happen with that.

Mary Jane Leach at her work desk with manuscripts, an electric keyboard and a computer monitor in the background.

Mary Jane Leach working on a score in her former New York City apartment. (Photo courtesy Mary Jane Leach.)

FJO: It’s somewhat in the same spirit as Alvin Lucier’s experiment in I Am Sitting in a Room but a completely different way of approaching it.

MJL: It’s almost the opposite of that.

FJO: From there it makes sense that you were so attracted to this whole notion of writing for multiples of the same instrument.

MJL: It was also practical because it’s easy. I originally was doing pieces that I could do and I had access to a four-track and then an eight-track machine. That was how that evolved; I could perform it. Bam! It wasn’t until, I think, 1987 when I was talking with Dora Ohrenstein, and she said, “These pieces that you have for eight-track tape, you could get eight singers to perform it.” It never occurred to me. So I became a choral composer after that.

FJO: So all those vocal pieces were conceptualized as pieces for yourself?

MJL: Not all of them. Green Mountain Madrigal I wrote for myself. Ariel’s Song I wrote for myself. Mountain Echoes, I didn’t write for myself because it would have been really complicated to do because it has all these dynamic changes and that would be hard to do one track at a time. But I did Bruckstück for myself, too.

A shelf full of boxes containing reel-to-reel tapes.

In a side room, there’s a shelf filled with reel-to reel tapes of some of Mary Jane Leach’s multiples compositions.

FJO: Wow, is there a recording of that with just you?

MJL: There is, but it’s kind of gotten corrupted; there’s a hum in it. I made an eight-track version at STEIM in Amsterdam, but I was using used tape and I think there’s something that just didn’t quite work. Something over time has intruded on it, so it’s not really useable. I might be able to go some day and try to doctor the tapes, but I’m not sure.

FJO: It would be amazing to hear the difference between that and it being done by a group of singers.

MJL: Well, the really nice thing about working with live singers is that you have the breath and you don’t have that kind of rigidity that you have with tape, especially when you’re doing one part at a time. Sometimes I would just do parts of parts at a time, depending on the range. Green Mountain Madrigal was the first eight-track tape piece that I did for myself. And I learned a couple of things: I learned that I had to tune everything to one pitch and not change halfway through. Originally everything was in C. Then I changed it to F, so I tuned everything to F. People like George Lewis and Jim Tenney would notice those things. And the same thing happened with the bassoon piece when Shannon [Peet] recorded it. We had only three hours to record. I mean, like no time. And she said, “I don’t think I can start playing the low note first. I’m afraid I’ll blow my lip out.” And I was like, “I really think you should.” “No.” So she recorded the octave first. And then bless him, Jim Tenney said to her, “It’s out of tune, Shannon.” So we went back and redid it later, and tuned to the lowest note and then it was okay.

Then there’s one other thing I was going to say about recording, which is really interesting. When Barbara and I recorded Trio for Duo, we did it all in one long take because it’s all overlapping. There was one note that we hit a lot, which was the resonant frequency of the room. It was so disorienting because all of sudden I was singing, and then, when you sing that one note, it felt like the room had just filled with Jello and you were swimming in it. It was the weirdest thing, and it was very disorienting.

FJO: But I imagine that none of these works are really improvisatory.

MJL: No.

FJO: If they were, and you found that resonant note during a performance, it could totally change the shape of the piece.

MJL: Well, I had an interesting experience. It’s not quite what you’re talking about, but similar. I was doing this performance at Franklin Furnace. I was doing more experimental performance art things at that time and I was playing my bass clarinet without the mouthpiece, I think, or without the reed, and someone was projecting animation on me. I’m part way through the performance and I hear people chuckling. I’m thinking, “Hmm. I didn’t think I was doing anything very funny.” So I just kind of stopped, and I realized there was a dog in the next building that was howling. So I started playing with the dog. I did a little riff and then he would do a little riff. Then I would do another little riff. At the end, Bill Hellerman came and said, “Where’s the tape?” He didn’t realize it was happening in real time. He thought I arranged this thing and it was part of the piece. [That dog was] one of the most sensitive musicians I’ve ever worked with. He really was! He knew when to stop. Then he would listen, and then he would do something. It was this back and forth thing.

FJO: But you could never recreate it. It was a one-time deal.

MJL: And I thought the concert was recorded, but it wasn’t. I’d give anything to hear that tape.

The flyer for Mary Jane Leach's Franklin Furnace performance featuring a photo of MJL playing bass clarinet and wearing sunglasses. The poster includes the following text: "MARY JANE LEACH - COBY BATTY - PHYLLIS BULKIN - VOCALS - CLARINET - ANIMATION - FRANKLIN FURNACE 112 FRANKLIN ST. MAY 5 8:30 $2.50"

The original flyer for that Mary Jane Leach performance at Franklin Furnace.

FJO: You’ve created a lot of pieces of music for multiples of the same instrument. And on your website you also have a list that you have compiled of all the pieces you have been able to find out about that other composers have written for multiples of the same instrument.

MJL: I’m way behind on that list.

FJO: Still, there’s no other resource like it. A multiples piece is actually a very peculiar kind of piece of music.

MJL: Well, there’s more than one type of piece. There’s the type of piece that I write, which is interested in exploring the timbre of the instrument. And then there’s the type of piece that’s written for flute festivals or cello festivals where everybody gets together and plays but they’re not interested in the sound phenomena, per se; they’re just interested in having a piece that ten of them can play together.

FJO: Sure. But the thing that’s even weirder about these pieces is where they fit in terms of scale vis-à-vis solo, chamber, and orchestra pieces. If a multiples piece is done by one player and all the other parts are pre-recorded, then it’s a kind of solo piece. But it’s a solo piece that is much more than just the solo since the one has become many. However, if it’s done, as you described, at a festival with a bunch of people, it’s almost orchestral in that when you get beyond a certain number of folks there will need to be a conductor, and sometimes these pieces are enormous—like Henry Brant’s piece for 80 flutes, Wendy Chambers’s piece for 77 trombones, or Anthony Braxton’s piece for 100 tubas. Yet since it’s all the same timbre, the music is not really orchestral in terms of timbre variance and also there’s always one person to a part. So then, perhaps, it’s a strange kind of chamber music. So multiples pieces share qualities with solo, chamber, and orchestral pieces, but ultimately they really are their own thing. And despite you making a distinction between your pieces and the kind of multiples pieces that get done at festivals and instrument conventions, I imagine a piece like, say, Feu de Joie, which was originally done by a solo bassoonist playing against six pre-recorded bassoon tracks, could be just as easily done by a group of seven bassoonists. It would be a somewhat different phenomenon, since it would involve seven different people and everyone has a slightly different tone. But would that be a fair representation of it? Or does it need to be done by one person over-dubbing multiple times?

MJL: Interesting that you should mention this because I have this piece for nine taped flutes and a live solo part called Dowland’s Tears. It was originally conceived just to be a recording. Manuel Zurria was putting out a CD of pieces around the theme of the Lachrimae of Dowland, and he was asked me if I’d be interested. This struck a chord since Dowland was a gateway composer for me. So I wrote this piece for nine taped flutes and sent it to him. I wrote it pretty quickly for me, and I didn’t hear from him for a couple of days. And I’m thinking he probably hates it. A couple days later, he wrote me, and said, “I love the piece. I’ve recorded it, and I made a video to go with it and I’m performing it three times next month.” So, at that point I really needed to write him a solo part, because I don’t like these music-minus-one things where the live part always sticks out like a sore thumb or doesn’t stick out at all. You know, it’s kind of submerged. So I like to always have the taped parts be uniform and then have a little flexibility in the solo part so it can float over the other parts.

But recently it has been performed by four different groups of ten flutists. It was first performed in Finland at a flute festival. Camilla Hoitenga conducted it. Then it was performed in Amsterdam with Eric Lamb playing the solo, and they repeated it in Cologne in September. Then it was performed in Canberra at the Australian Flute Festival. It worked a lot better than I thought it would actually.

An excerpt from the musical score of Mary Jane Leach's composition Dowland's Tears for 10 flutes.

Excerpt from Dowland’s Tears. Copyright © 2011 by Mary Jane Leach, Ariadne Press (BMI). International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: Were you there for all of those performances?

MJL: Only the one in Cologne. And that was interesting because it was performed in the church that I lived in [previously]. Eric’s a phenomenal player. He was pulling people along with him kind of like that thing you do in tai chi when you harness, you pull along the slow people and you slow down the fast people. There was this interesting kind of ebb and flow going on with him and some of the performers; it was really interesting to watch and sonically it worked pretty well, too.

Photo of 13 people, many holding flutes.

Mary Jane Leach (far left) with the ensemble of flutists who performed her Dowland’s Tears in Cologne. (Photo courtesy Mary Jane Leach.)

FJO: Do the exact same acoustic phenomena occur when pieces like this, which you conceived for a single live musician and a speaker system, are performed in real time by a group of live musicians who are separated on stage from one another?

MJL: Yeah. And sometimes things happen that I don’t even expect. For instance, I had written Ariel’s Song to perform myself, and I did make a tape of it. But when the [New York] Treble Singers started performing it, I listened to a tape one time, and there was this part where I thought they came in early. But what happened was that there was an actual sound phenomenon that started happening that I’d never counted on. So sometimes more happens rather than less happens.

FJO: And that’s okay?

MJL: Yeah, it’s fine. I’m not a tyrant. I love having things happen that I didn’t expect. I don’t want things to be controlled enough that nothing happens. You want to make sure something happens. But if more happens, I’m happy with that. Sometimes you can learn a lot from musicians.

FJO: So aside from these extra things happening that you are okay with, could something happen that you wouldn’t think was okay? What would constitute something that would just be a bad performance?

MJL: Okay, I’ll tell you. During Dennis [Báthory-Kitsz]’s festival in 2001 in Vermont, he wanted to have my 4BC. Lots of times when I would perform it, I would usually perform it with slides so that it wasn’t just listening to a tape; there’d be slides and then I would also play a note that was happening to emphasize it. So there was this guy who said he would do it. I said, “Just play what you hear.” You know, the notes that you hear. But he was hearing some kind of jazz thing. It was torture, because he was listening to a different drummer I guess. You have to be really specific with some people. When I said play whatever you’re hearing, I didn’t mean play what you’re imagining you’re hearing. That was a really awful experience.

Then another time—Godfried-Willem Raes has the Logos performing center in Ghent and also teaches at a conservatory in Brussels. In Belgium, it’s kind of weird. They have a conservatory in Brussels and then they have a conservatory in Ghent. But all the clarinetists go to one place and all the tuba players go to another. So they have this imbalance of instruments, and they’re always looking for pieces that can be played by all of their tuba players. So he had my piece for bass clarinet performed by tuba players. And of course it didn’t work because the overtones are totally different on a tuba. Those poor guys. You play for 19 minutes without breathing, I mean without a rest, and nothing was happening. At the end of the tape the last guy went “Boo bwooph.” Their lips were blown. And I’m sure they thought, “Well, what is this all about?” It wasn’t the piece at all. And it was programmed by Godfried, who’s a clarinet player, so he should have known.

FJO: They just went ahead and did this without asking you?

MJL: Yeah. It was just a student performance, though; it wasn’t a concert performance.

FJO: Right, but they somehow got the score.

MJL: I think I had left the score with Godfried when I’d done a concert there one time.

FJO: Well, this seems like a good place to transition to where I’d next like to take our conversation and that’s to pieces for variable instrumentation—which in some ways are the exact opposite of multiples pieces. In a piece for a group of bass clarinets, you can explore certain sonic phenomena that are specific, which won’t occur if the music is played on different instruments instead. But in a piece that could be played by any combination of instruments, you don’t know what you’re going to get. And yet, your piece Lake Eden, which could be played by any combination of instruments, still clearly sounds like your music.

MJL: I wrote it for Relâche. We were doing this summer institute that was at the Charles Ives Center, even though it really had nothing to do with Charles Ives. Anyway, musicians would have maybe an hour or so of rehearsal. Then they would perform it. So I had to write a piece that didn’t need a lot of rehearsing and a couple of the musicians weren’t really great readers. I was intrigued by Terry Riley’s In C, but the thing that I didn’t like about it was it just keeps building and building; I wanted a little bit more of an ebb and flow. So I had different sections; it was kind of a perverted rondo. I had whole notes that could be either three, four, five beats, so things wouldn’t always line up vertically. But—I don’t know if anybody knows this—the phrases that I used were basically the same phrases that I used in 4BC. But they were all over the place—in different ranges, whereas in 4BC all the notes were just within an augmented fifth.

FJO: But to the question of variable instrumentation—it was originally done at Relâche’s summer institute, but it’s been done in different places since then with different combinations of instruments. There’s a wonderful performance of it posted to YouTube that was done in Boston earlier this year. The thing about In C is that no matter what instruments you use to perform it—whether it’s six pianos, a wind band, or a rock band—it’s always the same piece somehow. The same thing seems to be true for Lake Eden. So I wondered, since so much of what your music is about is the specific acoustic phenomena that happen as a result of timbre, how is it still so clearly your music even when you take timbre specificity out of the equation?

MJL: I don’t know why it still sounds like me. I guess because I used the same process. I used the same process that I did for 4BC. The phrases are literally the same. I just plucked them out. So it just kind of shows you that everything can be reduced down to very little in the end. If you look at Beethoven, he uses the same rhythm all the time; he does it in such a way that you don’t even realize that he’s using the same rhythm throughout the entire movement. How can you reduce something down to its bare essence then realize that something that seemed like there was so much there is actually not a lot? I don’t know. It’s a good question, but I don’t know if I have an answer to that.

FJO: In a way, it’s what makes the piece so fascinating. Because even though the bass clarinet piece didn’t work on tubas, Lake Eden is designed to theoretically work for any combination of instruments, arguably even an ensemble of just tubas. So why does it work? And are there ways in which it wouldn’t work?

MJL: I had had certain restrictions in terms of how many times you repeated something in a pattern of going back and forth. I’d say do this four times, or five times. When it doesn’t work is when the performers have ignored the timing restraints. Then it just kind of mushes off into sort of not my piece at that point. The only time it didn’t work the way I like it to work was because it had gone on too long. In the Downtown Ensemble, Phil Corner always loved to extend things beyond what you thought they should be. So the piece became kind of flabby.

FJO: Phil Corner recently released a recording of his performances of Satie all performed at speeds that sound four times slower than anyone else has ever played them.

MJL: Oh my God!

FJO: They’re incredible performances, and they’re fascinating even though they are totally unexpected. That’s Corner’s aesthetic, which is really pure minimalism. But while your pieces share a lot of sonic common ground with minimalism, especially in terms of surface sonorities, perhaps they’re ultimately not minimalist in conception.

MJL: I would say maybe a couple of the early pieces were minimalist in conception, but not since then. Is there such a thing as musical DNA? I don’t know. Maybe you could test all my pieces and they’d have the same DNA. That’s something I’d never really thought about all that much. I should have.

FJO: No, you’re doing stuff that works. Don’t think about it now; keep doing what you’re doing! Even though I’d still like you to describe your process.

MJL: Well, I’m going to sound very flaky because it’s very organic and the pieces kind of create themselves. No matter how much I want to plan them ahead, they kind of write themselves. The way I write is almost like knitting. In knitting, if you drop a stitch, you have to rip everything out to the point where you dropped the stitch. I write very slowly note by note, and I don’t write things in sections and then insert things. If I write too fast, sometimes I will just lose the thread and I’ll have to go back to the point where I lost the musical impetus.

A stained glass window

One of the windows in Mary Jane Leach’s home.

FJO: Since so much of it is rooted in acoustics, how much of it is done by testing at a piano or with your own voice and how much of it is done in the abstract, hearing it all in your head?

MJL: Actually I do it all on computer with MIDI playback.

FJO: That’s how you test things?

MJL: Well, yeah, except that now I’ve tested things so much that I pretty much know what’s going to happen. I’ve done all kinds of studies: What do two of the same instrument sound like when they play in unison? What do three sound like? What do four sound like? What do five sound like? What do six sound like? What happens when one of them plays another note? What happens if it’s in the middle, in terms of panning? I’ve gone through all the permutations. After a while you kind of know what’s going to happen, so you don’t have to keep doing studies. It’s like doing scales. You do them mindfully for a long time, and then after a while you just can do them. It just becomes second nature.

FJO: You’re almost saying the exact opposite of what so many composers have said about MIDI. For you, MIDI actually does replicate the things that you want to hear.

MJL: And it’s pretty reliable, too.

FJO: But tons of folks say stuff like, “Don’t get a false sense of how these instruments behave by using MIDI.”

MJL: Well, the only thing that doesn’t really work are glissandos. I’ve been working with glissandos a lot lately, but that I have to just leave to my imagination. Of course, glissandos are going to vary by performer anyway, so it’s probably good that I’m not wedded to an idea of what it’s exactly going to sound like. But I pretty much know what it’s going to sound like at this stage of the game. Still, MIDI is really valuable to me. I wouldn’t have been able to do a lot of stuff if it hadn’t been for it. The only thing that is frustrating is I wish you could get it to do syllables. They don’t even have really good vocal samples. I know what it’s going to sound like, but I know it’s going to sound better than what it sounds like in the MIDI playback. But with instruments, it’s pretty reliable. Especially the ones that are sampled instruments. When I wrote the piece for bassoon, I had a little Casio thing and I programmed in the sounds so that it would have a certain harmonic profile like the bassoon had. It wasn’t a sampled sound; it was a digitally created sound. But it still worked.

FJO: Some instruments sound better than others. The winds generally sound pretty good.

MJL: Clarinet doesn’t.

FJO: Yeah, but you’re more sensitive to that since you’re a clarinetist.

MJL: But I think most people agree that the clarinet doesn’t sound very good in MIDI.

FJO: Cellos sound dreadful I think.

MJL: Yeah.

FJO: But the piano, surprisingly, sounds okay—better than you would think it would, given the complexity of its sonic envelope. Perhaps this would be a good time to talk a little bit about your piano concerto. We’ve been talking about all these pieces for odd one-of-a-kind combinations—seven bassoons, eight treble voices. Most of the time, if you’re writing music that’s done by other people and not by you, you’re reliant on ensembles that have a more standard instrumentation—string quartets, wind quintets, orchestras, SATB choruses. Before we started recording, you were telling me that you came to writing choral music from writing pieces you overdubbed with your voice and that now those pieces are done by choruses quite a lot. But they’re not standard choral pieces, because they were created through this other means.

MJL: Yeah, and it’s very interesting because, for instance, when the Treble Singers perform one of my works on a program of their own, and not on a program that’s all my music, it usually takes them about half a piece to get into gear. If it’s an all-Mary Jane concert, they don’t have any problem with it. But when they have to shift, because it takes a certain kind of intense concentration to sing, it really takes about half a piece for them to get in the groove and sound okay.

A conductor and ight sopranos singing in front of music stands at a church.

Virginia Davidson conducting the New York Treble Singers during their September 1995 concert devoted to the music of Mary Jane Leach at the Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. (Photo courtesy Mary Jane Leach.)

FJO: That could be a big problem in a concert. Maybe it always needs to be the first piece on the program so that they’re in that mindset from the onset rather than coming out of singing something else. It’s rare that you have an opportunity to have an all-single-composer concert. If it’s a new music concert, your piece has to co-exist with a bunch of other new pieces that can all be in completely different compositional languages, which could make it harder for both the players and the audience to latch on to any of it. But most of the time, if you’re writing for a standard ensemble, your new piece has to co-exist mostly with old pieces. If you’re writing for, say, orchestra, your piece is almost always going to cohabitate with standard repertoire; your piece will get played alongside Mozart and Beethoven or Brahms and Tchaikovsky. And the musicians will play it and the audience will hear it in the context of that older, much more well-known music. Orchestra music is very different from music for ensembles of all the same instrument and also very different from open scores that any instrument can play. Orchestra music is very much about all the different instruments having specific, often regimented roles. You’ve written a piano concerto. That’s a standard form with a long history behind it. I’ve only heard the MIDI version of your piece, but I found your approach to orchestration very unusual in the way that melodies transfer from instrument to instrument and, as a result, can be perceived differently. There are some other orchestra pieces that do that, but it’s somewhat unusual to use the orchestra as a palette that way.

MJL: Well, Beethoven does, but on a lesser scale. He might have the flute, the oboe, and the clarinet play something, but he doesn’t go through the whole range of the instruments. In the second movement of the Seventh [Symphony], he has that little phrase that goes between the instruments. And I got the idea for that little opening riff from a Mozart concerto because [my piano concerto] was originally going to be performed on a concert with a Mozart concerto. But then I just let all the winds have it. Not the brass or anybody else. It seems like such a natural thing to do.

FJO: But in most concertos, the focus is usually mostly on the soloist.

MJL: Yeah, which I didn’t do very much.

FJO: It’s sort of an anti-concerto.

MJL: That’s because it was such a short piece. I wanted to use the orchestra and the piano doesn’t interest me that much, even though I love playing it. So I didn’t want to have this whole big piano show-off thing and then have the orchestra play for two minutes. I wanted it to be part of the ensemble. Maybe we can do another movement where the pianist gets to do a little bit more. A version of it was done about five years ago.

FJO: It had a different title at that time.

MJL: Yeah. It was just a place holder. And they recorded it, but the engineer erased it before it had been transferred. I was not a happy camper about that. It was supposed to be performed this September in Bari, but it’s been postponed until May. I’m going to get to go, too; since I was already there [when the festival was cancelled], they’re going to pay my transportation.

FJO: That’s nice. That’s like the rainbow at the end of all the clouds with this piece—an accidently erased recording of the premiere, a cancelled performance after you’d made the trek to Italy to hear it.

MJL: I know. And the conductor—I knew that he had conducted at the Met and things like that. So I thought he was just a standard conductor. But it turns out he was the conductor for the premiere of [Morton] Feldman’s Neither. So when he said that it was an intense experience conducting it, now I can say he probably meant that and that it wasn’t because he was such a traditional conductor that this probably was kind of weird for him. And he knows the flute player from Rome that I’ve been working with.

Mary Jane Leach playing a grand piano in a church.

Mary Jane Leach playing the piano at home. (Photo by Jon Flanders, courtesy Mary Jane Leach.)

FJO: When you write a big piece, you have to be so dependent on all these other people. There are all these variables. It’s a far cry from the very personal way you developed your compositional language—working by yourself with a tape recorder or working with individual musicians. You have such a wide range of sonorities to choose from, but other aspects are much narrower.

MJL: Not having very much rehearsal time, too. So you can’t write something that’s so complex that it can’t be performed, or performed well.

FJO: But one of your long in-progress projects is extremely ambitious—the Ariadne opera, and I imagine it would have to rely on tons of people.

MJL: Well, actually not tons. A lot of singers and then a string quartet.

FJO: So you’re not going to orchestrate it beyond that?

MJL: No.

FJO: I suppose for practical purposes?

MJL: But also I like string quartet and voice; I think it’s a nice combination.

FJO: I agree. I’m curious about what drew you to the various versions of the Ariadne myth and specifically wanting to deal with earlier versions, which is much different than the famous myth we’ve come to know.

MJL: In some of the early pieces, I was dealing with the traditional myth, and then I came across Carolyn Heilbrun, a feminist writer who also wrote mystery novels under the name of Amanda Cross. One mystery book centered on this famous author who, à la James Joyce, had this magnum opus like Ulysses, but his was [based on] Ariadne. So I got really interested in that. Daniel Goode and Ann Snitow knew Heilbrun, so they put me in contact with her and I asked her, “Do you have any recommendations or further information?” She said, “Everything I know, I put in the book.” So I was left on my own to do some research.

I started looking into all the earlier Greek texts about Ariadne, or just even things that would apply to my imagination of what was going on. It was very fascinating because so much of myth is political—a lot of times justifying why the people who are occupying your country are there, like a lot of political-ness we’re going through with the Middle East and everything like that. This explains how Theseus, who was like a rapist-solider, could be transformed into the hero and how Ariadne could be transformed from a queen-goddess figure into like this girl who gave up everything for the first cute guy who came by. It’s been a long, long project.

FJO: What’s the goal for it?

MJL: I hadn’t worked on it for a while. I was realistic enough that I didn’t want to spend years writing a piece and getting one performance of it. So I’d been writing it in discrete sections so each section could be performed on its own. I just kind of got back into it because I had been involved in putting out this CD of Julius Eastman’s music, and then editing a book on him, and that has been very time consuming, so I had gotten sidetracked from the Ariadne project. But when I was in Italy this summer at Civitella Ranieri, I got back into it, so I wrote another piece in the cycle and half of another one. So now I’m kind of gearing up for that. I really like what I wrote, if I might say so myself. I’d kind of forgotten about it, because other things had come up, like the piano concerto, but I’m getting back into it now.

FJO: One of the reasons I’ve always really identified with you is all the advocacy work you’ve done for other composers, so I’m glad you brought up the Julius Eastman project and the difficulty of making time for your own work while you were immersed in that. This has been a strand in your life all along. You were in charge of XI Records where you produced all these extraordinary recordings while at the same time trying to create your own work in that space. To a lesser extent that multiples database you put together is another example of your advocacy.

MJL: That’s how the Julius project started; I was looking for his piece for ten cellos. So that was how I got sucked into finding his music.

FJO: What’s interesting about your advocacy for Julius Eastman is that it has taken him to a whole other level. His music has started to reenter the canon largely through the work that you did to bring this stuff out into the world. You were involved with the 3-CD Julius Eastman set on New World Records that was released ten years ago, and you wrote a huge article for us about him at that time. Since then there have been all these performances and now there’s a book. This person who was literally a footnote in history—not even a footnote—has emerged not only as an icon to several different groups of people but as a major figure of the latter half of the 20th century in America, a groundbreaking proto-post-minimalist composer.

MJL: Post-minimalist before there was minimalist.

FJO: Right. Exactly. And someone with a very unusual life and personality. But part of it is you knew Julius Eastman.

MJL: Yeah, but not very well. I didn’t hang out with him a lot or anything like that.

FJO: So what made you so committed to getting this music out into the world, serving his legacy and doing justice by it?

MJL: Well, I really loved that cello piece. That was the piece that I knew. I was teaching at CalArts. They wanted me to teach a course on real instruments, because so many of the composers there were dealing with computer and electronic music. I thought a good way would be to do pieces for multiples, so you could luxuriate in the sound of ten cellos or seven bassoons. It was fairly easy for me to track down the master of the tape [of Julius’s cello piece] because the cassette that I had been given was part of a radio program. And at the end, it gave the engineer’s name, and the names of all of the performers. And the engineer was an old boyfriend of mine, who recorded Green Mountain Madrigal and 4BC and some other things. So I contacted him and he had the tape, but he didn’t have the score. I thought it can’t be that hard. It turned out that it was very hard, but I was stubborn.

Then, Bryan Rulon made me aware of how Julius’s music had disappeared. It had literally been thrown out on the street. I felt like someone who witnesses an accident—you want to move on, but you know you have to stay because you’re not sure if someone else is going to come by and help. I feel like I realized how dire the situation was and that something had to be done before too much more time passed because the more that time passes, the harder it is to track down the music. I’d also made a commitment to New World [Records] because I mentioned trying to find his music and they were really interested in him. I felt I’d given my word. Then when the CD came out, various people tried to take credit for it, as you know. I kind of bristled at that, but just kept things going and kept waiting for someone to pick up the baton and do the next step, but so far nobody has.

There was just a weekend symposium in Philadelphia by the Bowerbird. Some of us were older, white people who knew Julius and then there were some younger black people—musicians, historians, theater people, and intellectuals. Jace Clayton was there, and he said, “I’m having a real problem with all these white people talking about these pieces.” And I said, “Well, I would love someone to do it. I don’t see anybody picking up the slack. If you want to do it, that would be great.” I was kind of annoyed at that because what’s the alternative—not doing it?

A page from a manuscript of a musical score by Julius Eastman featuring indeterminate notation for singers, trombone, and flute.

Mary Jane Leach was very eager to show us the most recently rediscovered Julius Eastman manuscript, the score for his 1970 composition Thruway.

FJO: But I wonder, to bring it back to your work: when you get so involved with another project, when are you able to let go and get back to your own music?

MJL: Well, I pretty much have at this point. People contact for me for various questions, photos, or scores. That’s not so difficult. But I pretty much stopped. It was very interesting because we had a big deadline for the galleys for the book the day that I left for Italy. So it was like a real dividing line. It was like, okay, I’m done with that. Now I’m going to take care of myself and be selfish and write my own music. Let somebody else worry about it. But it’s hard to say no sometimes, because I would hate to have it fall through the cracks again. I want somebody to take over who would just do it and not just six months later be bored and let it slip.

FJO: Throughout our conversation you dropped suggestions about people who were gateway composers for you—John Dowland and Bach. Since your piece Bruckstück was inspired by Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony—

MJL: —Whom I didn’t like until I wrote that piece! There’s this visual artist, Jack Ox, who did a whole series of paintings based on an analysis of Bruckner. I can’t remember if it was just the Bruckner Eighth, but I was commissioned to write a piece to go with a gallery opening of the paintings. I’d never liked Bruckner much because this guy who had really weird musical taste loved Bruckner, so I figured I wouldn’t like him. I know, it’s sad. My musical experiences are contemporary music and early music; I’ve been kind of working my way into the middle. So the kind of music that everybody knows is the music I know the least. So I didn’t start off liking Bruckner. I got to like him. I didn’t dislike him, I just thought I wouldn’t like him.

An excerpt from the musical score of Mary Jane Leach's composition Bruckstuck for eight female voices.

Excerpt from Bruckstück. According to the performance notes, “Everybody should sing the same vowel. A series of vowels can be decided on, so that the whole piece isn’t sung using only one vowel sound. Each note should be held for its entirety with entries clearly articulated – not staccato, but clear, so that the rhythm and pulse of the piece is
evident. Phrases have been indicated primarily so that breaths won’t be taken in the middle of
them.” Copyright © 1989 by Mary Jane Leach, Ariadne Press (BMI). International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: It’s interesting that this music was inspired to go with an exhibition of visual art that was created based on Bruckner. The music inspired the art, and then the art inspired this other piece of music that tropes back to that other music. But you mentioning this also gives us the opportunity to talk about something that you hinted at earlier, and that’s the video art that you’ve created to go along with your music. How important is the visual to the perception of the aural for you?

MJL: It’s really not important; it’s just an added element. I think the pieces can stand on their own. When I performed just solo concerts, I think the visuals helped because it just wasn’t one person performing with tape, there was something for people to look at. One thing that ties into my whole process was that I spent a summer working with theater gels. You can cut them in two and they fit perfectly in slide projectors. One summer I mounted all the commercially available gels and I put them in “chromological” order. It was a little like doing the sound studies. Once I’d done it, I knew what combinations of colors and saturations would happen; the same thing that happens in light and in color happens in music; you combine two colors and you get a third color. All the primaries in color have their secondaries in pigment and the secondaries of light are the primaries of pigment and vice versa.

FJO: It’s like visual difference tones!

MJL: Yeah, and saturation and volume change that way, too. It’s interesting, when I first moved to New York, I was working off Broadway as a lighting technician. There was this wonderful lighting designer named Arden Fingerhut and we had lots of talks about how much music and lighting have in common. One of my best friends since junior high school is a lighting designer, too, and the first time he went to one of my concerts where I used handmade, painted slides, he goes, “You’re doing lighting.” Not everything I do with visuals is color based, but I do work with slow dissolves and how things gradually change or transform into something else.

FJO: Will video projects be used for the final composite Ariadne opera?

MJL: I haven’t thought of that all. I’m thinking visually, but more like as a costume designer or a set designer because I have a theater background. But not the lighting or color combinations yet.

FJO: There has to be a production of it first. And, of course, you have to finish writing the piece.

MJL: I also want to direct Measure for Measure. It’s one of my dream bucket list things to do.

FJO: Another project that’s going to take away time from composing.

MJL: Yeah, but it’s creative.

A couple of pots and a tea kettle sit on top of a stove, various containers and other kitchen paraphernalia are to the right of it and on a shelf above it.

And yes, there’s a kitchen in the church, too.

Come Away – Ezra Sims (1928-2015)

Ezra Sims at work composing wearing a dealer shade, seated at a desk with a manuscript score.

At around 9:30 at night on January 30, Ezra Sims passed away in his sleep, lovely and soothing (as the Whitman goes), after a heroic struggle against the infirmities that had plagued him for the past few years. His frustration was palpable, his suffering devastating, but still, I couldn’t help but snicker when he would complain to his doctors about his failing mind—which, even at what he felt was diminished capacity, could pull the first sentence verbatim from a book he’d read 15 years earlier. Or remember a theme from a Schumann Symphony or the graceful nuance of a particular turn of line or phrase from, well, just about anything. I always felt like I should have an encyclopedia and a dictionary handy when I talked to Ezra, but it would have taken a staff of ten to keep up with him.

The Sextet (1981) was the first Sims piece I played: a Dinosaur Annex performance in the Spring of 1982, with Janet Packer, Anne Black, Ian Greitzer, Ken Radnofsky, and Tom Haunton. During one of the rehearsals, once I lifted my head up enough to hear what was going on around me, I discovered this was no mere new music piece, as Ezra would say, but a turmoil: churning, vital, sensual, bouyant, joyful, painful—life itself, in sound. This new music seemed to fill its lungs with the same air I did, and changed my circuitry forever.

Only where love and need are one,
and the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future’s sakes.
—Robert Frost, “Two Tramps in Mud Time”

His home at 1168 Mass Ave was a nexus for all of us, a place so saturated with airborne yeast (empty beer bottles) that Ezra left his dough on the kitchen counter to rise on its own. Those of us touched by the force of his personality and culture rose as well, lovingly—not always very gently—mentored by this fussy, brilliant man. He touched us all and he kept in touch with everyone: piles of letters written in his heavy hand signed with his graceful initials (the same which adorned his gorgeous handwritten scores), admonishing notes, phone calls, dinner parties, excursions to museums, more admonishing notes, long walks, mushroom hunting, New Year’s cards, lunch invitations —none of his communications ever trivial and always, in later recounting to friends, a glue which held us all together. There were some dubious soups, with mushrooms discovered on some rotting log in Cambridge which would spark conversations about John Cage, Tanglewood, Merce Cunningham, the Judson, John Herbert MacDowell, a tsunami of cultural connections—all the while wondering quietly whether or not you would live to see the next sunrise. Are you sure these mushrooms are OK?

After his move to Hurley Street, things were much the same. Ezra was amused by a neighborhood fool dog, the crazy landscape innovations next door, the abundant spring flowers, the fish place, and cockles, and we were satisfied by the musty comfort of the same old books, the art, and Ezra himself at the table In the days to come, perhaps we lost a little in the indirectness of email, the brittle replication of computer scores instead of the nuanced calligraphy of his older ones, but we were older, too, with families and jobs. The world changed: a harsher, glancing light that grates against the Turner-esque glow of Ezra’s harmonies. Not so much dissonant as nostalgic, mourning the loss of a civility that now seems archaic rather than heroic.

Ezra leaves us each with set of quotes. On the occasion of peeling off his sarong at a dinner gathering: “I hope no one minds a naked host.” On the occasion of being served brown rice at a Japanese restaurant: “Had I known it was that sort of place, I shan’t have come.” At a rehearsal of Lee Hyla’s String Trio at his house, popping his head in the door: “That intonation will not leave this house!” While he was reviewing recording takes, the successive phone calls: “How could you?”, “What on earth happened? How could you?”, “What happened?” He worried about us, gossiped about us, complained, criticized, corrected, and over time for me, became a refuge.

Ezra Sims wearing a jacket and tie

All of the characters from one of Ezra’s favorite books, Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons—Feckless the cow, the spooky aunt, the oversexed farm boy Seth, the crazy preacher father who takes off to spread the word (“you miserable, crawling worms….”)— have counterparts in Ezra’s Birmingham childhood. No, not an exact match to the Sims family, but outrageous overtones which made the description of his Birmingham life more vivid, like the music he would come to write years later. His boyhood cow, an “improving” aunt (in that she was bent on raising the cultural standards of those around her), preacher-grandfather AJ Sims, Sister (always Sister, I don’t think I ever knew her name), and the youthful Ezra—bass player, guzzling milk out of the pail, the passionate discoverer of Stravinsky in the local record shop—all fashioned the deep Southern gentility, culinary habits (salt in the coffee?), food preferences (How much milk does he drink? Salt in the coffee? Really?), embedded into the Ezra we grew to love. Together with his friend Arthur, lapping up the pot liquor, feeding the iron pig, savoring the overcooked greens, and exuding an erudite southern poise which, however scandalous the conversation, was expressed with an eloquence that made our young Yankee sensibilities seem cold, lumpy, and crude. And though they knew the difference between Dutch and Polish rudders, the unexpressed secret was all the funnier.

Ezra’s early musical experiences—playing the bass in the school orchestra (because he was big for his age), singing in the chorus—may have taught him his harmonic subtlety, but I’m inclined to be more mystical. He went from Birmingham, through steel mills, Chinese language school, Yale, Mills, and New York encountering a cast of characters and circumstances powerful enough to derail even the most individual soul. But he ultimately came to a place so uniquely his own that it has no siblings, no cousins, no counterparts. His ear made the demands, and once he found the sound his ears sought, he drew the map for us to retrace his steps back to the music traditions he loved. He was not an iconoclast, but a logical evolutionist, who ironically arrived at his destination by a leap of faith.

He did not compromise, and went for years without a performance. It was not easy to find performers willing to undertake the work, but by some miraculous alchemy, Rodney Lister, Scott Wheeler, Toby Armour, Richard Pittman, Boston Music Viva, Ian Greitzer, Janet Packer, Kathy Matasy, Ann Black Diane Heffner—and the loyal cohorts they spawned—brought Ezra’s music to life. And not just the notes, but the music underneath, with its radiance and warmth. Despite his crankiness, and the harshly direct statements he could make, we celebrated his steadfast individuality and his courage. And if we couldn’t quite create our own universe like he did, he inspired us to try. He is a center, a focus, a force of gravity, and will always be so.

But we will miss him.

A young Ezra Sims wearing a flannel shirt

Jerome Kitzke: Stories That Must Be Told

Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
A conversation in Kitzke’s home in New York
December 4, 2014—10:00 a.m.
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

Although his chosen means of expression is music, Jerome Kitzke describes himself as a storyteller. “I think of pieces of music as stories even if they don’t have a text,” he explains during our morning visit to his apartment near the northern tip of Manhattan. “It’s the story of what that composer was feeling, whether they would want to admit it or not. If they say, “I’m writing a piece of pure music, it has no considerations of narrative or anything,” I don’t think that’s possible. They’re affected by what’s going on in the narrative of their lives. And it’ll affect them when they go into the studio to sit at their writing board or at their piano.”

The stories that have most deeply affected Kitzke and which he feels compelled to tell through his idiosyncratic music—a poly-stylistic amalgam of advanced compositional techniques and improvisation—frequently deal with social injustice. An Allen Ginsberg poem about cold war bomb threats serves as a mantra in his 1991 Mad Coyote Madly Sings. The recent American military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan inspired his visceral 2008 Winter Count, which appears on an innova CD devoted to Kitzke’s music that was released last year. A recurring theme in Kitzke’s output has been the plight of Native American peoples. For him, understanding “how the United States came to be the United States vis-à-vis the native nations that were already here” is a way of coming to terms with being an American:

By doing so, I’ve always felt like I’m a better American. I understand the relationships between natives and non-natives more. … I always feel if I reach a number of people with these pieces and it pricks them into exploring some of these issues on their own, then I’ve been successful. I’ve gotten letters and emails from Indian people and non-Indian people alike that have been gratifying in the sense that the non-Indian people have often said, “I had no idea.” And these are really smart people, which is very disappointing and discouraging about our education system. They say, “I had no idea about these issues at that kind of depth.” And I’ve had Indian people who have come up to me in tears and said, “Thank you for trying to bring these stories out into the light in a way that maybe can reach more people.”

Considering his populist inclinations, it might seem somewhat surprising that Kitzke has chosen the rarified world of contemporary music as the platform for his politically charged output. But even though his work reflects a deep understanding a broad range of indigenous traditional music as well as popular culture, the Western classical tradition has been its anchor.

I can talk politics and feel political, but I’m not a politician … What I am is a composer. … How far do these pieces go in terms of reaching people? The classical concert music world is not very far, numerically speaking, right? I mean, there aren’t that many people relative to the number of people that listen to hip hop, rock and roll, and everything else. So the number of people listening to the music we create is very small. But they really are rabid, the fans, which is great. … I was doing rock and roll, and then I was introduced to Beethoven, Bach, Dvorak, and Tchaikovsky. I got completely blown away by the sonic world, but also by the fact that all of that music I was hearing was notated on paper. I became very enamored with the idea of being able to create from nothing something that would be listened to and performed by musicians and heard by an audience, but the method of transferring that from the players to the audience had to do with what you did by writing something on paper. … I loved rock and roll and I still do, but this introduction to notated music just turned me in a different creative direction which I never turned away from.

Kitzke’s obsession with the written score ultimately led him down a singular path where the calligraphic elements are as important as the sonic ones. A page of a Kitzke score is often as stunning as a work of visual art. This is one of the reasons why he continues to create scores by hand rather than use computer notation software. The other is a worldview that values corporeality over technology:

I think the way that people are moving around in the environment now, with their head down as they walk the streets looking at their gizmo, is removing them further from the physical world in a way that’s not positive to me. They’re getting their information and a first look at certain things on that screen, and they’re not looking at what’s around: the architecture, the park, the trees, everything. I don’t think that’s a good thing.


Kitzke score pages in frames on a wall, an electric keyboard, and various native American trinkets.

The space where Kitzke lives and creates his music is completely idiosyncratic but also very practical. An electric keyboard and various native American trinkets on one side, piles of books on the other.

Frank J. Oteri: I was very surprised to see an electric keyboard here since you seem to be somewhat anti-technology. Maybe “anti” is too strong, but it’s definitely not a concern of yours the way it is with so many people these days.

Jerome Kitzke: No. But I do have a MacBook Pro around the corner there, so I have a computer. Actually I didn’t get my first computer—a Gbook, iBook G3 thing, which I also still have—until 2003. I got it because my girlfriend at the time was moving to London. I had gotten a Hotmail account and I would go to the local library to use the computer there to email her. Then one morning I was standing outside waiting for the library to open; it was very cold out and there was a line. And a guy comes out and says, “The boiler’s not working today. We are not opening.” So I was standing there thinking, “Now I’ve got to walk 20 blocks back home. I need to get a computer!” It was ridiculous that I didn’t have one. So that’s why I got a computer. But I’ve come to rely on it in many ways for email and word processing. The thing probably does 150 more things that I have no idea about. I’m not anti-technology, it’s just not my first concern. I do see some things about the advent of the handheld devices that I don’t like, what that’s done to society in general. But they also have really great positive purposes, too. So I see both sides of it. For me, I always base it on do I need this. I got the computer because my girlfriend moved to London, and I needed it. If I ever get a handheld device, it’ll be because I need it. I don’t have a cell phone right now.

FJO: I was thrilled that you had email, since it made it much easier for us to arrange this meeting.

JK: Well, I also have three telephones in this apartment for various odd reasons, but they never ring unless it’s a telemarketer or maybe a family member or some friends who still call on the thing. So email is the way to communicate.

FJO: But there’s no Jerome Kitzke dot com.

JK: No.

FJO: And to this day you write out all your scores by hand.

JK: Right.

FJO: So you don’t really use technology for your music much. Well, I noticed that there are CDs here, so there’s some technology.

JK: Well, yeah. My stereo, the one I had from [the age of] 19—from the early 1970s on—finally died. I had the big speakers, the receiver, the turntable, and the amplifier to play all the LPs I have. I recently got a Crosley turntable; it’s got little speakers in it, but you can also plug in external speakers. So now I can play my vinyl again.

FJO: But the keyboard that you create music on is an electric keyboard.

JK: When I use a keyboard, yeah. Most of the time I write out of my head and just use the keyboard to sort of check on things. That’s changing, oddly enough, which must be a part of the aging process. I’m hearing a little bit less in my inner ear than I used to, so I’m now using the keyboard a little more than I used to. I don’t like this electronic keyboard at all, but it’s a handy tool. It has a jazz organ stop with kind of a Hammond sound and one of my more recent works, Buffalo Nation (Bison bison) , has a big Hammond B3 part, so it was handy to just get those sounds in my ear.

FJO: It’s interesting that you compose mostly in your head because you actively perform your music as well, and with a great many people who perform the music they write, composition tends to grow out of improvisation and physical performance. But you write it and then you start figuring out how to play it.

JK: For the most part. And actually I only perform a couple of my pieces pretty regularly, like The Animist Child, the toy piano piece I wrote for Wendy Chambers in 1994, and The Green Automobile, which I wrote in 2000 for piano. I perform those pieces a lot. The Great Automobile is the kind of piece that came out of a situation. I was at an artist colony. Sometimes if you have a group of people that is small and one of them is a little off, it can really affect the vibe of everybody else. I had a really bad experience at an artist colony in 2000. I wasn’t able to work very well, but I would play a lot of piano. And I was reading Allen Ginsberg at the time, so that piece kind of came out of my sitting there at the piano and speaking the poem aloud and tinkering around on the ivories. But The Animist Child mostly came out of my head. So I do things both ways. Especially more and more, as I said, because I think my inner ear, or my brain, my body, the whole thing is changing, which is interesting. I’ll be 60 in February, and I’m just noticing that stuff changes, as we all do, as we age.

Excerpt of manuscript score for toy piano showing additional notations for percussive effects

An excerpt from the score of Jerome Kitzke’s composition The Animist Child. Copyright © 1994 by Peermusic Classical (BMI). All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: Long before it got appropriated by politicians, the term maverick was bandied about to describe a somewhat disparate group of idiosyncratic American composers from throughout our musical history—
Charles Ives, Conlon Nancarrow, Harry Partch, John Cage, and more recently people like Meredith Monk, Pauline Oliveros, and La Monte Young. All of these composers have created work that doesn’t quite fit in with the categories that existed before for music. They’ve come up with completely new ways of thinking about music as well as realizing their creations. If I were to try to describe you and what you do in a word, that word would be pretty high on my list. And I remember the terrific interview with you that was part of Minnesota Public Radio’s American Mavericks Series, so you obviously were comfortable with that word being used to describe you then. Are you still comfortable with that word? Is it a fair word to use?

JK: I don’t feel any discomfort about it, but I don’t think about stuff like that. The whole labeling of things in art and music has never interested me very much. I’ve been called many things. Being called a maverick composer feels like a compliment in a way, but that’s the extent to which I’ll think about it. I just write what I hear in my head and write based on my experiences in life. A lot of my music comes directly out of my life experiences away from the studio, away from even thinking about art and creativity. I’ve written many pieces that have to do with my perception of the relationship between the Europeans who came to this country and the native nations that were already here. That interaction, now ongoing for well over 500 years, is a fascinating one to me. And I always heard music in those interactions. So for me to write music about those ideas and those interactions, I had to really immerse myself away from any considerations of music—away from the studio and away from the city where I live. I’d spent time out west, weeks and months with people on the Pine Ridge Reservation for instance, where I spent most of my time. Out of those situations, I would then take the feelings I had there.

Let’s face it: everything we do in our life becomes a part of our experience, and it can affect how you then go about whatever it is you’re doing. If you’re creative, if you’re a writer, or even if you’re laying bricks, the way you lay those bricks can be affected by the other things that go on when you’re away from laying those bricks. I’ve been called a storyteller, which I like because I think of pieces of music as stories even if they don’t have a text. It’s the story of what that composer was feeling, whether they would want to admit it or not. If they say, “I’m writing a piece of pure music, it has no considerations of narrative or anything,” I don’t think that’s possible. They’re affected by what’s going on in the narrative of their lives. And it’ll affect them when they go into the studio to sit at their writing board or at their piano.

FJO: Considering this, it’s fascinating that even though you did not come from a Native American background, that Native American themes have been so central to your music—for decades at this point.

JK: For me it has to do with being an American, living on this continent. I feel—and have now felt for over 30 years while dealing with these kinds of issues and writing these kinds of pieces—that one of the outcomes is that I feel I’m going to be a better American by understanding these stories, understanding what actually happened, digging deeper for the truth of the interactions that occurred between these peoples. If you do that, you’ll discover really terrible, terrible stuff about how the United States came to be the United States vis-à-vis the native nations that were already here.

When I was really young, I was kind of being led to believe that there were no Indian people left. The way they were depicted in museums made it seem like they were actually not really a presence anymore; whereas in Wisconsin, where I grew up, there were nearly a dozen Indian reservations right in the state. The city of Milwaukee had many Indian people. You didn’t know it. It was just a hidden kind of thing. I became really interested in trying to write pieces that were not directed to listeners that were native people, although that’s great when that happens, but toward non-native people so they would on their own maybe explore some of these stories a little more deeply than all the stereotypical stories they were perhaps given in grade school about native nations and the relations between whites and natives.

By doing so, I’ve always felt like I’m a better American. I understand the relationships between natives and non-natives more, as rotten as these stories were, and as terrible as the situation still is to this day. Look at what’s going on in New York City right now with the Eric Garner case. The race relations are really not very good. They’re not as good as I think people tend to believe they are. So I just have always felt that I really want people to hear the pieces I’ve done and maybe, as I said, go find their own way into these stories.

FJO: You describe it as though you are an investigative reporter or a documentary film maker, but you’re a composer. That’s a somewhat odd role to have as somebody who’s so concerned about social issues.

JK: If you’ve made the decision to write a piece that deals with some of these issues, you better do your investigating, not take information that you’ve gleaned from one source or write something that’s all surface-y. If you’re going to write a piece about the Wounded Knee Massacre, you better get your ass to Wounded Knee and talk to people there. And not just read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown, which is an okay book but that’s just the tiny surface.

Bookcases filled with books and a toy piano

Piles of books line one of the walls of Kitzke’s apartment as well as a toy piano.

FJO: My point is somewhat larger here. Other people who have become so concerned about these matters channel that concern in a completely different way: by writing some kind of exposé, or making a film about it, lobbying congress, or maybe even getting directly involved in politics or social work. You, however, respond through music. Perhaps you see music as something that can not only accomplish the same things as these other activities but perhaps maybe even accomplish them better.

JK: I don’t know if it could be better. I’d have to think about that. But I can only speak for myself in regard to the question you’re raising. I can talk politics and feel political, but I’m not a politician. If I were a writer, I’d be writing about this stuff. But what I am is a composer. I guess I’m an artist, too. I don’t think of myself in those terms, but if I’m an artist, I’m also wanting to make these statements artfully, in a way that’s not me up on a soapbox ranting. I don’t feel I do that in the pieces I’ve done. I’ve tried not to. There are moments that are incredibly intense about these issues, but I’ve always tried to be more subtle about how I present the material. How far do these pieces go in terms of reaching people? The classical concert music world is not very far, numerically speaking, right? I mean, there aren’t that many people relative to the number of people that listen to hip hop, rock and roll, and everything else. So the number of people listening to the music we create is very small. But they really are rabid, the fans, which is great.

I always feel if I reach a number of people with these pieces and it pricks them into exploring some of these issues on their own, then I’ve been successful. I’ve gotten letters and emails from Indian people and non-Indian people alike that have been gratifying in the sense that the non-Indian people have often said, “I had no idea.” And these are really smart people, which is very disappointing and discouraging about our education system. They say, “I had no idea about these issues at that kind of depth.” And I’ve had Indian people that have come up to me in tears and said, “Thank you for trying to bring these stories out into the light in a way that maybe can reach more people.”

FJO: For me, one of most poignant moments in that talk you did with Minnesota Public Radio was when you recalled a reaction from someone you met on a reservation when you were working on your first Indian piece: “People come and they do things and then they forget about us.” You really took that comment to heart. You did not forget and it became a permanent part of what you did. And your whole compositional trajectory since then has been a kind of giving back, an honoring of that connection that you made there.

JK: Yeah. Not every piece I’ve done in the last 30 years has been about these issues, but there have been about 10 or 12 pieces—and I’m not a prolific composer, so that’s a big part of my output.

FJO: I’m always eager to find out how people come to their mature compositional identities. Certainly there have been pieces of yours that do not deal with Native American themes, but even those that don’t still seem to have either some kind of political overtone or to tell some kind of magical or mythical story. There’s a story attached to every piece of yours I’ve heard. But was it always that way? I know that back in 1980 you won a BMI student composer award for a chorus and orchestra piece called Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but it’s not in your catalog anymore and I couldn’t track it down.

JK: It’s never been performed. It won that BMI prize. I think it needs eight timpanists, four harp players, so it’s one of those “I’m doing this because I can” things. I was 21 when I did it. It was just one of those huge pieces that’ll never get played. To the point though, Rime of the Ancient Mariner was based on the first portion of the Coleridge poem and is a kind of journey.

But even further back than that, to 1970 when I wrote my first piece of music, it came out of considerations of some of the familial themes in John Steinbeck’s The Pearl. I was 15 years old. We were reading that in high school, and my English teacher, Mary Johnson—who is still alive and with whom I’m still in touch, she lives in Wisconsin—asked me, among other students in the class, to write some musical themes based on some of the familial themes in Steinbeck’s book. And I said to her, “What are you talking about? I don’t write music.” I think she knew I played French horn badly in the high school band and orchestra, and I was in rock and roll bands. I had a Farfisa Combo Compact organ. That was my instrument and I was self taught, but I never thought about being a composer. But she saw something and I said, “Oh, okay, I’ll give it a shot.” Lo and behold, I discovered I had some innate talent. The first pieces came out of literature, so that set a pattern for me in terms of being connected to stories and having pieces tell a story, whether it’s actually using material from literature or poetry, or creating an anti-war piece or a piece about Wounded Knee.

FJO: So even back then, you were having musicians talk while they play?

JK: In 1970, no. The first instance of that would have been 1982 or ’83. By the late ‘80s and very early ’90s that really became a part of my language.

FJO: Now, I’m curious about how that plays out when you’re working with other players. You’ve had your own group, the Mad Coyote, for years and with them you can really direct how you want your music to be. But now you mostly write for other people and other ensembles that might have never dealt with a piece that involves that kind of thing. So, what’s that interaction like? Classical musicians really like having a good tone, having it sound wonderful, and getting the notes right, playing really hard music and showing they can really do it with a good tone. But you throw stumbling blocks in their way. You have to play this really hard passage and you have to stomp at the same time or you have to shout out. I know that when Guy Klucevsek recorded a piece you wrote for him that was originally supposed to be a solo, it wound up being a duo with you because he felt he couldn’t do all the additional stuff you’d asked him to do and also play the notes to the best of his abilities.

JK: Breath and Bone is what you’re talking about. Guy had premiered it as a solo. But when it came time to record it—I loved how honest he was—he said, “Look, at this moment in time, I don’t feel like I can do it justice in the recording studio and get everything right.” Would I do the vocal stuff? So we did it as a duo, which opened up a whole other world because we then did it as a duo many times and it works very well that way. Then as he played the piece, on tour all over the world, he got it in his chops and then subsequently recorded it again as a solo on a Starkland release. So it was a wonderful evolution with his eventually performing all the vocals and everything.

When I work with my own group—of course I know those people—they’ll do anything. So I don’t have to worry about that. But if I’m going to do a residency—one time I went and a group was playing a couple of pieces of mine. They were students—really good students on their instruments, but they had no feel for what it meant to shout or to stomp their feet. It just was really hard for them. They could be very dramatic on the clarinet, but very skittish about going “hey!” or “hah!” or doing anything like that. I found what really worked well is if I were there to demonstrate. That seemed to get them over the hump. And then there are some people who just are never going to be able to do it. I’ve had pianists say, “I love your piece Sunflower Sutra; I would really like to do it, but I just can’t do that other stuff in a way that I think would serve the piece well.” So I’ve had both experiences—I’ve gone and people have just been great at it instantly, and many times I’ve had to coax out of them the drama and the ability for them to use their voices and do other things that are extra-musical.

FJO: A lot of this is really about understanding and conveying character, and bringing a text to life orally. It’s about diction and public speaking, but it is also theater to some extent. Instrumental musicians don’t study acting.

JK: I often call my pieces theatrical music, especially when it has a text. Even pieces that don’t have a text are about something—a current event or an anti-war piece, for instance. I still feel these are theatrical because I want the musicians to not just be playing the notes. I try to encourage them to feel like they’re telling some kind of story.

My piece We Need to Dream All This Again from 1993 is about Crazy Horse and Custer. It’s got some vocal things in it, but there’s no text except at the very beginning, where it says Crazy Horse comes to the hill, and at the end, where it says he is in the hills to pray. Everything else is instrumental. But I’ve encouraged the players to read Bernard Pomerance’s book We Need to Dream All This Again or to read other books about Crazy Horse and Custer, just so they understand where I’m coming from and why I would create this piece. That’s a lot to ask of a performer, because it’s only an 11-minute piece. Musicians get hired and think, “Well, I’m just going to do this piece; I don’t want to read a book.” But sometimes they do it, and it’s actually very helpful for them. I also have voluminous program notes often. The pieces can work without that, but I think it’s really great to let people know why I’m doing what I’m doing.

A pile of books on the floor, one (The Earth Shall Weep - A History of Native America) on top of a banjo case

Some of Jerome Kitzke’s books.

FJO: So for an 11-minute piece, you ask people not only to rehearse the music but to read an entire book which could take many, many hours of their time. With an orchestra performance, you’re lucky if you get two rehearsals beforehand that are about maybe a half-hour each. Of course, when you’re writing for a chamber ensemble, you can get a bit more of their time, especially if the piece enters their repertoire and if they take it on tour. Still, this is a lot to ask, and certainly reading and comprehending a book that involves a complex history requires a much different skill set than playing an instrument to one’s maximum potential. But it makes me curious: in a completely instrumental performance, can you tell if somebody has absorbed what these pieces are about? How do you know? What is different about the interpretation?

JK: Wow. That’s a great question. I’ve never even thought about that. Subconsciously I’ve probably thought and just assumed when something’s going really well that they’ve gotten at least some part of the non-musical reason for doing the piece. But I can’t prove that.

FJO: I ask this because some musicians who have performed total serial music have acknowledged that they knew absolutely nothing about the way the music was put together and that they never spent time trying to analyze the music—they just played what was on the page in front of them to the best of their abilities and their interpretations were extremely convincing on a musical level. Maybe they don’t get the back story, but does it ultimately matter?

JK: I think it doesn’t necessarily matter, or it matters from person to person. I mean, there are some musicians who perhaps think a certain way about life in general and they focus narrowly on playing the piano, let’s say. And they do it so brilliantly from some sort of dramatic part of themselves that they can’t necessarily explain, and it works. Then there are others that feel they really love to know what the composer was thinking and do some exploratory work. But you can get the same result, I think.

FJO: But of course when you create music that has an attached social message, if somebody’s not getting the message—and I suppose that’s more for the audience than the interpreters—hasn’t the piece failed? Otherwise, why have the message?

JK: Well, my piece The Paha Sapa Give-Back for four drumsets and piano—it’s a really visceral experience live in the concert hall. I think it’s quite possible for an audience person to lose sight of what the message of that piece is and be completely taken up with it on a purely sonic level. To me that would be a success. If that same person also took in the message about returning the Black Hills to the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe people, it would be a double success. Now I suppose it’s possible, of course, that there’s an audience member that won’t get any of it, and won’t get it and won’t like it.

manuscript score sample showing all parts converge to one line

An excerpt from the score of Jerome Kitzke’s composition The Paha Sapa Give-back. Copyright © 1995 by Peermusic Classical (BMI). All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: Well, I bring this up because so much of what you’ve done has a political point of view—say, for example, your anti-war pieces. This is a huge generalization which I probably shouldn’t make, but I’m going to go ahead and make it anyway. I think it would be fair to say that a majority of the folks who listen to new music are probably going to be more partial to an anti-war sentiment than a pro-war sentiment. You’re preaching to the choir; most of the folks in the audience already agree with you. How do you reach people who don’t? This was a real dilemma for composers like Hanns Eisler and Cornelius Cardew. At first, they both wrote really avant-garde music. But once they got really deep into political causes they felt they had to abandon that kind of music in order to reach a wider audience so they could get their political message across to more people. So Hanns Eisler went from writing 12-tone music to writing popular songs. Cardew went from post-Cagean conceptualism to stuff that sounds almost like Andrew Lloyd Webber. But it doesn’t sound like you do anything in terms of your compositional language to try to have it reach more people. Is that even an issue for you?

JK: It’s a total nonissue for me. I can only write what I hear in my head and hopefully have it be something that’s coming from a really deep emotional part of my interior soul. So it’s gonna be what it’s gonna be no matter what. We talked earlier about how the new music audience is a pretty small group. New York is maybe more provincial in this way. But there are some places where new music audiences are actually quite large and the demographics are very wide. The group Present Music in Milwaukee, for instance—I don’t know if you’ve ever been to one of their concerts or had music performed by them, but it’s quite an experience because the audience is 800 to 1000 people per concert without fail, and it’s mostly made up of non-musicians and non-artistic community members from the Milwaukee area. Present Music has accomplished something there that everybody always talks about wanting to do, which is they have a real audience from the community. It’s a fantastic experience. So when I do an anti-war piece at a Present Music concert, it’s not always preaching to the choir. There are a lot of people there that aren’t necessarily going to have the same view point, I don’t think. How would I know? But even if an audience is small and made up entirely of contemporary concert classical music composers, it doesn’t hurt to have a little sonic affirmation of one’s feeling about being against war. So, it’s okay to preach to the choir, I think.

FJO: In terms of getting your pieces out into the world, there’s more to it than it just being what it’s going to be. There are practical considerations, especially when you write for certain forces. You wrote a chamber orchestra piece a few years back which I haven’t yet heard. There are certain conventions that come along with writing for orchestra; how did you deal with that?

JK: Well, it’s a Kitzke orchestral piece in that there’s a lot of extra stuff that themusicians are required to do. There’s no text involved though.

FJO: Of course those extra elements are what make the work yours. But they also might make it a harder piece to program for an orchestra that’s used to playing music by Mozart, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky. All of a sudden they’re presented with this wacko piece with all of this other stuff.

JK: The piece you’re talking about is the American Composers Orchestra work I wrote called The Fire at 4 a.m., and during the rehearsals, one of the first violinists came up to me and said, “You know, this is great, because it’s really good for us to be asked to do some of this stuff, to step outside of our little safe circles of playing our instruments.” That comment was very gratifying to me. But you raise a good point, like what I mentioned earlier with Sunflower Sutra. The piece requires the pianist to really be an actor as well as a phenomenal pianist. It’s now been played by 12 different pianists around the world, and they’ve done it with different accents which is really interesting. But I’ve also had many comments from pianists who just can’t do it. What I require instrumentalists to do can sometimes be limiting in terms of me having a wider number of performers play the work, so it can be considered a little impractical. But then again, I don’t think about that stuff much, because I just have to write what I need to write and it will go where it goes.

FJO: But there are obviously people that think about that. You have a publisher, Peermusic, so you don’t have to do that part of it, for the most part. But every composer, whether he or she is signed with a third-party publisher or is self-published, has to think of these matters to some extent. These things might be somewhat impractical, but it’s significantly less impractical than a lot of the other music that has been created by so-called maverick composers. There are no special instruments that need to be built for it. There are no new tuning systems or polyrhythms that only a handful of people can actually perform. In fact, quite the reverse—there’s something very immediately physical about your music. It’s very grounded in the earth and very human in a way that I think makes it more practical. And it seems like, at least on a musical level, it has no particular structural axe to grind. It also seems completely intuitive.

JK: Yes, that’s the first place it comes from always. It always will be the reason why I even want to do the piece in the first place. But there are pieces where there are formal things going on that are private to me. I talk about them if someone wants to. I’ve always said a piece often works for me because of what the composer’s thinking about formally. There’s a formal arc. So formal structure is really important to me.

FJO: But you don’t care if an audience hears it.

JK: No, not at all. For instance, Buffalo Nation (Bison bison) , this 90-minute piece that takes 44 people to perform, tells this incredible story about bison with a huge, beautiful libretto by Kathleen Masterson. But it’s essentially a giant rondo form, where this theme comes back seven times, I think, throughout. So I’m a bit of a formalist.

A page from the score of Jerome Kitzke's Buffalo Nation (Bison bison)

The cover page of the score of Buffalo Nation (Bison bison). Music by Jerome Kitzke. Libretto by Kathleen Masterson. Copyright © 2009 Peermusic Classical (BMI). All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: I’m glad you’ve brought up Buffalo Nation, because of all the pieces that you describe as being theatrical, this actually is a piece of music theater.

JK: Right. I tend to call Buffalo Nation and pieces like it in my output theatrical music as opposed to musical theater because that connotes a different kind of world that my music doesn’t fit into. But yeah, Buffalo Nation (Bison bison) is a complete piece of theater that I would love to see done up entirely with all the theatrical elements—lighting, staging, sets, all that stuff. Right now it’s just been done in a concert version.

FJO: It seems like the most natural place for these kinds of pieces would be on some kind of stage. Yet interestingly you usually engage instrumentalists to speak, sing, and shout, rather than actors or singers. You do have some pieces which involve singers, but less so. I wonder if this is because of an aesthetic preference for untrained voices as opposed to trained ones. Perhaps an overly trained voice would somehow reduce the visceral quality that you want it to have.

JK: Up until the early ‘80s, I was writing vocal music. I think the last vocal piece I wrote was in 1985, a setting of Jack Kerouac’s 171st chorus from his Mexico City Blues for voice and doublebass. That’s an actual song the singer sings. And my vocal music before that was the same. After that I just became less enamored with that very stylized, kind of stiff vocal sound of classically trained singers. And I often couldn’t understand what they were singing. Language is really important to me, so I became very interested in the idea of text being spoken with music. There are many pieces like that from the past which I always loved. It’s a great way for the text to always be understood. As long as I did my job properly and didn’t obliterate someone when they were speaking, the language would always be heard.

I’d become very unsatisfied, as I said, with hearing singers sing music where I couldn’t understand the English language they were singing. Sometimes it’s the composer’s fault; sometimes it’s the singer’s fault. So I just thought I might go a different path and just use people and have them be speaking, whether they’re actors or the musicians speaking. Then when Buffalo Nation came around, talking with my librettist, she really wanted to have some songs, and I said okay. So for the first time in many years, probably 30 years or so, I finally set with a singer singing. In this case it was Kurt Ollman, a wonderful baritone. It was fascinating to me because I applied all my thinking in the past 30 years about what it means to set language and have someone sing it versus to just have someone sing the notes you wrote without really caring what the words were. And I think it worked very well. So when the singer sings the songs in Buffalo Nation, you can actually hear what’s being sung. So I’m happy about that.

FJO: So to really be a provocateur here— you said that early on your teacher had you write music. You played the French horn and you’d played in rock and roll bands, but she got you on this path. And we talked about working with singers and you said that you avoided the classically trained voice because it obscured the words.

JK: I know where this is going.

FJO: You know exactly where this is going. Why didn’t you stay doing rock and roll?

JK: Well, I was doing rock and roll, and then I was introduced to Beethoven, Bach, Dvorak, and Tchaikovsky—whom I really like a lot, by the way. I got completely blown away by the sonic world, but also by the fact that all of that music I was hearing was notated on paper. I became very enamored with the idea of being able to create from nothing something that would be listened to and performed by musicians and heard by an audience, but the method of transferring that from the players to the audience had to do with what you did by writing something on paper. I just fell in love with that idea. So, you know, I loved rock and roll and I still do, but this introduction to notated music just turned me in a different creative direction which I never turned away from.

FJO: This is probably why you’re also so attached to the physical act of writing music on paper rather than using a computer and a notation software program to write out your scores.

JK: Right. To this day, I use a mechanical pencil. I used to use ink and vellum and all that. Oh man, I couldn’t do that now. I’m too old. But I use a mechanical pencil and just the sound of the pencil on the paper—I love it. The idea of creating from a blank page to your finished score is still exciting to me. I have a BFA in composition. That’s all I got. I didn’t want to go to graduate school. But I was in school long enough to be introduced to the magnificent music and also the visually stunning scores of George Crumb. That stuff just blew my mind sonically, but also what I saw on paper I thought was just gorgeous. I could feel that guy’s spirit somehow from how he worked on the page. And I said, “That’s for me.”

FJO: Some point before you decided you were able to create music full time, you spent many years working at the American Music Center.

JK: Yeah, I was the curator of the physical collection for ten years. I took care of it. I made sure the boxes were in good shape. I made sure the scores were treated properly. It was fascinating. That was a mountain, a physical monument to creativity. What I liked about the AMC at that time is that there was no quality control. We took everything. It was just fascinating to see how many composers around the country were creating music; you’ll never hear about these people ever.

Page from a handwritten score by Kitzke showing all staves converging

Detail of “Springfield” from Jerome Kitzke’s composition In the Throat of River Mornings. Copyright © 1984 by Jerome Kitzke (BMI). All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Reprinted with permission. For many years, a framed copy of this score page was on display in the reception area at the American Music Center and was featured on the homepage of AMC’s website.

FJO: I’m curious about the impact that it had on you as a musical creator. You saw these scores of George Crumb and you felt some kind of attachment to him. Then you worked shepherding this collection of work by all these people you never met from all over the country. And this is what you wanted to do, to create artifacts like this. You didn’t want to create something that can come out of a machine. What’s missing when you don’t write out a score by hand?

JK: I always say this is just the way I have to do it. When you hear a piece that’s done entirely on a computer and all that, I’m not going to necessarily be able to tell that it was done that way. Sometimes, when you hear something where you can sort of tell a younger composer got enamored with sequencers, you can sort of hear that, but even that—who knows? I’m not sure there’s a difference.

FJO: Last year, a new CD came out devoted to your music, which was the first one in a very long period, and a CD devoted to your music from the late 1990s was finally re-issued.

JK: I re-released it.

FJO: So now there are two full CDs available of your music, but now we’re in this era where nobody’s sure about the future of CDs.

JK: Well, I still like having the physical product. You can hold it and you can open it. I still miss LPs. There were vast amounts of things you could do with the artwork on a record. But you can still open a CD and you can read about the pieces. I’m not someone who likes sitting in front of a computer screen for very long. In fact, I start to feel physically not well when I do that. So I like having the physical object. And I know a lot of people just get all of their information about everything sitting at a computer.

It’s also great to be able to hand a physical thing to somebody, instead of saying just Google me, or go to something-something dot com. There’s a situation with this record, for instance, where there are three pieces on it. One of them, Winter Count, utilizes a bunch of poetry. One of the poems is by Harold Pinter, and there were permission problems. Because of the way we were able to work out the Harold Pinter permission, Winter Count is not available as a download which is a problem for everybody that likes to get everything by downloading; they might see this online and think it only has two pieces: The Green Automobile and Paha Sapa Give-Back. But there’s this 37-minute string quartet for actor, bass drum, and string quartet that they can’t download. You have to actually buy the record to hear Winter Count. I know everyone’s saying that at some point there won’t be anything physical, but I’m not sure if that will actually ever happen.

FJO: It’s interesting to hear your perspective on this idea of taking all of our experience and un-physicalizing it, since you are so physically grounded. I think we need to make things more physical and not less physical.

JK: I agree. I think the way that people are moving around in the environment now, with their head down as they walk the streets looking at their gizmo, is removing them further from the physical world in a way that’s not positive to me. They’re getting their information and a first look at certain things on that screen, and they’re not looking at what’s around: the architecture, the park, the trees, everything. I don’t think that’s a good thing.

FJO: Yet you’ve chosen to live in New York City, of all places. You’re not from here originally. Even though many people talk about this place being an epicenter for new music, in the 21st century there’s really no center for anything. Stuff is happening everywhere and it’s easier to be connected to it from anywhere than ever before. So I wonder what makes this home for you. Why is New York City the place where you’re able to create your work? Why is this place where you decided to be?

JK: Well, I’ve been here 30 years. It had nothing to do with the arts scene here. Some really good friends of mine had moved to the East Coast, so I said, “Oh, I’m going to make a big change; I want to live in a big city for a while in my life and see what that’s like.” So I came here with a bunch of money I had saved in Milwaukee, having worked at Hal Leonard Publishers. This was in the very early ‘80s. I didn’t really start doing anything musical here until 1990 or so. For about six years, I just ate up New York and what it was. But what I started to realize is that the only way I could be here was I had to leave as much as I could. So one of the ways I’ve been able to live here so long is that I go away a lot. I’ve not spent 12 solid months here ever in 30 years. After a certain point, the places I would go to would be artist colonies and I’ve been to many of them. I love them; it’s where I tend to get my best work done. I do most of my composing at artist colonies now. I can work here in New York, but it’s becoming harder and harder for me. Here you are in my apartment; there’s construction on 215th Street. This is a one way circle here, so every vehicle in this area has to go around this corner. It’s a little too noisy here.

A group of rocks and a pouch on top of a native American rug

John Luther Adams Wins William Schuman Award

The Columbia University School of the Arts has announced that John Luther Adams is the newest recipient of the William Schuman Award, a major recognition given periodically over the past three decades. Named for its first recipient, the award, in the form of a direct, unrestricted grant of $50,000, is one of the largest given to an American composer.

In a NewMusicBox conversation with Molly Sheridan in 2011 (which can be read in its entirety here), Adams talked about how he uses composition as a way to explore and understand the world around him, regardless of borders real and imagined.

In the language of the gift establishing the prize, the purpose of the William Schuman Award is “to recognize the lifetime achievement of an American composer whose works have been widely performed and generally acknowledged to be of lasting significance.” It is awarded by the Dean of the School of the Arts at Columbia University. The award was established in 1981. Previous recipients of the award have been William Schuman (1981), David Diamond (1985), Gunther Schuller (1989), Milton Babbitt (1992), Hugo Weisgall (1995), Steve Reich (2000), John Zorn (2007), and, most recently, Pauline Oliveros (2010).

The prize will be awarded to Adams during a three-night tribute presented at Columbia University’s Miller Theatre on October 7-10, 2015. The performances will showcase a trio of New York premieres: Clouds of Forgetting, Clouds of Unknowing (1991-95); In the White Silence (1998); and for Lou Harrison (2003-04). This trilogy of large-scale memorial works, which were written in memory of Adams’s mother, father, and mentor Lou Harrison respectively, will be played by the JACK Quartet and the International Contemporary Ensemble, under the direction of conductor, percussionist, and longtime Adams collaborator Steven Schick.

“I am so excited to be able to celebrate John Luther Adams and his incredible work,” says Melissa Smey, Executive Director of Miller Theatre at Columbia University. “Working with John on the urban outdoor premiere of Inuksuit in Morningside Park was a career highlight for me. During that performance, I watched as young children, dog-walkers, new-music enthusiasts, joggers, and students all came together and stopped to listen to this amazing music in our local park. John’s music connects with people from many different backgrounds, on many different levels. I can’t wait to share more of it with New Yorkers.”

(–from the press release)