Tag: maverick composers

From Folk Song to the Outer Limits of Harmony—Remembering Ben Johnston (1926-2019)

A Caucasian man with his head titled, glasses and a white beard

I first saw Ben Johnston when I was a student at Oberlin, maybe 1976. The composers at the big Midwest music schools were in continual rotation as each other’s guest composers, which in itself was an amazing education. Ben lectured and played a recording of his Fourth String Quartet, based on the song “Amazing Grace.” He was a Quaker-bearded, good-humored, gruff, not very talkative fellow, and there was a peculiar contradiction, I think we all sensed, in this composer who had invented his own pitch notation and 22-pitch scale and written a score nearly black with ink using all these crazy polyrhythms of 35 against 36 and 7 against 8, 9, and 10 – all at the service of an old folk song anyone’s grandmother could sing. Conservative versus avant-garde was how we divided the music world up at that time. Where the hell did this fit?

Ben Johnston sitting and writing on a piece of music paper.

Ben Johnston in 1976.

Forty-odd years later, several of them spent working with him, I still think there’s an essence to Ben that in the current musical climate can only be seen as a paradox: he was a down-to-earth, populist visionary. I truly think that he thought there were no limits to what pitch and rhythm relationships musicians could learn to play, as long as the approach to the difficulties was gradual and intelligible. Famously, the third movement of his Seventh String Quartet contains more than 1200 pitches to the octave. It is structured around a 176-note microtonal scale that glacially traverses one octave over 177 measures, and, written in 1984, it remained on the page until the Kepler Quartet recorded it a couple of years ago. But it is carefully written so that if the players can get their perfect fourths and seventh harmonics in tune, they can creep securely, interval by interval, through this free, gridless, infinite pitch space – astronauts of harmony, floating beyond the gravity of A 440. The conceptual achievement leaves Boulez and Stockhausen in the dust. Moment by moment, the music can sound as mild as Ned Rorem.

The conceptual achievement leaves Boulez and Stockhausen in the dust.

Ben had a strange mind, and I say that up front only because he often frankly said so. He thought he had some kind of mental disorder, possibly caused by being taught to meditate wrong by the Gurdjieff cult in the early ‘60s – this is what he repeatedly told me, even in interviews. He was always trying various remedies. When I studied with him privately in 1983-86 (post-doctorate), he was on medication that made him very quiet. He would look at my score for fifteen minutes without speaking, and then say something incisive and profound. A few years later he was controlling his problems via diet. I went to a conference with him, where I was going to interview him onstage: the night before, he kept me up until two in the morning, talking nonstop. His Catholic priest in Champaign-Urbana recommended he go to a Zen temple in Chicago, and so for a couple of years that’s where he and I met, and I started going through the Zen services with him. Those were wonderful, and the lessons afterward took place in a blissful haze.

Ben Johnston in 1962

Ben Johnston in 1962

I do think that, whatever was strange about Ben’s mind, it was what made his music possible. At age twelve, attending a lecture on Debussy, he was introduced to Helmholtz’s On the Sensations of Tone, the foundational treatise on acoustics that first appeared in English in 1875. He spoke about it as though it confirmed for him what he already sensed: that the music we play has something wrong with its tuning. At age 17, after a concert of his music, he was interviewed by the Richmond Times Dispatch (where his father was managing editor, admittedly), and predicted, “with the clarification of the scale which physics has given to music there will be new instruments with new tones and overtones.” This was 1944. Harry Partch’s Genesis of a Music wasn’t even published yet. By 1950 Ben was in grad school at Cincinnati Conservatory, and someone gave him a copy of Partch’s then-new book, with its outline of his 43-tone microtonal scale and perceptive history of the vicissitudes of tuning over the centuries.

Thrilled to find another musician who shared his misgivings about tuning, Ben wrote to Partch asking to study with him. Partch, who once wrote that he would “happily strangle” anyone who claimed to have been his student, took him on as an apprentice and repairman instead, and so Ben went to live for six months on Partch’s ranch in Gualala, California. Partch liked to have only young men in his orbit, and was affronted when Ben’s wife Betty arrived in tandem, but Betty Johnston was a powerhouse, and eased her way into Partch’s reluctant affections. Ben later wrote that Partch

could have wished for a carpenter or for a percussionist… But he had one thing he had not counted on: someone who understood his theory without explanation, and who could hear and reproduce the pitch relations accurately.

Ben Johnston, wearing a jacket and tie, sitting outside with Harry Partch in 1974

Ben Johnston with Harry Partch at Partch’s home in 1974.

Ben’s preternatural ability to hear and reproduce exotic intervals was the one intimidating thing about studying with him. My brain not being strange in the same way, I spent years training myself to hear eleventh harmonics and syntonic commas using primitive digital technology, and to this day I would never attempt to coach an ensemble to play one of his string quartets. When I came to his house he liked to play me whatever he was working on. Once, in the early weeks, it was a piece for trumpet and piano called The Demon-Lover’s Doubles, of which he played me the piano part. His piano was tuned for maximum consonance in G major with some peculiar pitches outside that diatonic scale, and as he started, it seemed like an oddly homespun, tuneful little piece. Then, magically, his piano started going sourly out of tune and got weirder and weirder, and I was thinking, “Man, you’d think Ben would tune his piano.” Finally, of course, he returned from his modulations into distant keys, and in G major the piano sounded fine again. I just remember sitting there thinking, “Huh.”

In that experience is the alpha and omega of Ben’s vision. What fascinated him, I think, was how vastly just intonation and the higher harmonics expand the range of consonance and dissonance, in both directions. You can have so many flavors of harmony: triads purely in tune, edgy Pythagorean triads, chords with exotic upper harmonics, dark chords from a subharmonic series, excruciating chords specifically out of tune by a comma here or there, bell-like chords related by higher harmonics, grating seventh chords with deliberately mismatched ratios, tight clusters – the route from purity to noise is no longer a line but a large three- or four-dimensional space.

One of Ben Johnston's pitch charts.

One of Ben Johnston’s pitch charts.

Many, many microtonal composers, I think, are looking for a total alternative to our tuning system, total exoticism, experimenting with how far we can adapt to new intervals, adding new complexities beyond what twelve-tone music provided. Ben wasn’t. Ben was never disappointed in the major triad. For Ben, the tonal music system that we’d developed over the last few centuries was a template, a first draft, a worthwhile approximation, but only a fragment of the universe he could hear. Seventeenth-century theorists like Marin Mersenne and Christiaan Huygens had argued for including the seventh harmonic as a consonance; Giambattista Doni (c. 1594-1647) wrote music using the eleventh harmonic. Theoretically, Ben goes back to that era and accepts those arguments. Keep the system, but add back in what was prohibited. Thus, unlike the general run of modernists, he could envision a brave new world without ever having to reject or exclude anything.

Cage and Xenakis may have wanted to reinvent music, but Ben saw a way to keep the foundation and keep building.

And so we have “Amazing Grace,” which so anchors one of the most avant-garde works of 1973 that the audience can hum along with it the first time they hear it. Also the sentimental old tune “Danny Boy,” which gradually emerges from the last-movement variations of Ben’s Tenth Quartet, and the folk song “Lonesome Valley” which is the subject of his Fifth Quartet, and the folk tune in The Demon-Lover’s Double. Cage and Xenakis, whom he knew well, may have wanted to reinvent music from the ground up, but Ben saw a way to keep the foundation and keep building.

Ben Johnston with The Kepler Quartet in 2015

Ben Johnston with The Kepler Quartet in 2015 (Photo by Jon Roy).

What’s amazing about his use of old folk tunes is how devoid of nostalgia it is. He’s not like Charles Ives, with “Beulah Land” faintly heard above the dissonant chords below; there is no modernity with which the songs’ innocence is contrasted. His “Amazing Grace” grows step-by-step from five pitches to twenty-three as though all those pitches were implicitly in there to begin with – which I imagine to his ears they were! It is difficult, probably, for most of us new-music types to take “Danny Boy” as seriously as he did, but for him it was simply a familiar item of our culture from which new implications could still be drawn. He didn’t have to renounce the naïve perspective on music to see through to the other side of the musical universe. And this is why some of Ben’s works will always appeal even to people who don’t like abrasive modernism.

That’s certainly not to deny that Ben’s music could be thorny. He kept writing twelve-tone music, in just intonation, and I once asked him why. He replied, “Well, I had learned all that theory, and I didn’t want it to go to waste.” Since he said almost everything with a slight smile, I’m not sure I ever knew when he was kidding. His Sixth Quartet draws the principle of endless melody from a twelve-tone row that consists of the first six non-repeating harmonics of D and the first six subharmonics of D#. The row matrix for the piece contains 61 different pitches. Even though it uses a twelve-tone row, though, each hexachord is actually a tonality in itself, so you do hear the harmony shift back and forth between major and minor – or between otonalities and utonalities, as we microtonalists say. At the time I wrote a rave review of the Sixth Quartet for the Chicago Reader and Ben said, “I think you like that piece better than I do.”

One piece I analyzed had some repeated pizzicatos in the cello that didn’t fit into the structure, and I asked him where they came from. He looked, and said, “Oh, that was to give the audience something to listen to while I worked out this contrapuntal problem.” That was a lesson: that the composer and the audience could want different things from a piece, and that both could be satisfied.

The composer and the audience could want different things from a piece, and both could be satisfied.

As with Partch, I also insist that Ben should get credit for his rhythmic innovations as much as for his microtonality. In the Fifth Quartet “Lonesome Road” floats above a bobbling sea of polytempos, and in the Fourth Quartet there’s a long rhythm of 35 against 36 (analogous to what we call the septimal comma), involving different meters in the various instruments. Back when I was younger and smarter, I once successfully parsed it, but I’ve never figured it out again since. He was a great proponent of Henry Cowell’s theories that pitch and rhythm, both being number based, could be developed analogously and in the same directions – that was the principle, of course, of his first hit tune, Knocking Piece, which became a percussionist’s standard. That he was focused on extending musical language in terms of both pitch and rhythm has limited his influence among the mass of composers who think there’s nothing new to be done in those directions, but when we’re ready he’s left us a foundation for a radically new music.

Ben never proselytized for microtones or just intonation. He imposed no stylistic dogma. Like so many American experimentalists, he himself was stylistically multilingual: he wrote chance music, twelve-tone music, conceptualist works, a musical, and a surprising amount of his output is in a neoclassic vein, with standard forms like sonata-allegro and variations. Neo-romanticism, I think, is the only idiom he avoided, which is not to say his music couldn’t be deeply moving; he just wasn’t sentimental. In 1983 I asked to study privately with him because I loved his music (I never attended the University of Illinois where he taught for 35 years), but I didn’t want to get into microtonality, which seemed like too much work. That was fine with him, but at my first lesson he looked at a chord I’d written and remarked how beautiful it would be if tuned properly, and he reeled off the ratios. With a shock I realized I understood just what he was saying. It was as if a huge iron door had slammed shut behind me. I was in his world and couldn’t go back.

I didn’t need to. The microtonal notation he invented opened the universe to me, and I learned to think in it fluently. My own microtonal music, more single-minded and homogenous than his (not to mention more cautious – god, that Seventh Quartet!), inherited his worldview of microtones as an extension of tonality rather than an alternative. I would be remiss here if I failed to mention another of his microtonal students, Toby Twining, who, in his Chrysalid Requiem (2002), developed Ben’s ideas into one of the most impressive feats of musical architecture ever perpetrated, incredibly complicated yet unearthly beautiful. That’s a legacy.

Ben Johnston as a child driving a toy car.

A 10-year-old Ben Johnston in 1936. He was already eager to explore.

I remember once in Ben’s medicated days we had him over for dinner, and he played solitaire obsessively while we were preparing dinner. After he retired we visited him in Rocky Mount, where Ben and Betty, equally strong characters, practically barked at each other, but clearly with no lack of affection. He was a crucial link between me and several other people I didn’t meet until later, all of whom were devoted to him: Bill Duckworth, Neely Bruce, Bob Gilmore. I last saw Ben in 2010 at a microtonal conference. He could barely get around. After I delivered a paper about his music he tottered up to say “thank you,” and I replied, “No, thank YOU!” He looked up from his walker with a big grin and gruffly growled, “YOU’RRRE WELCOME!” That meant the world to me: I needed him to acknowledge how much he had done for me. A few years later I called to tell him that he appeared as a character in Richard Powers’s novel Orfeo, about the University of Illinois’s music department in the 1960s. His mind was deteriorated by Parkinson’s, and the next day his caretaker called me saying Ben was under the impression that some kind of copyright infringement had taken place and he needed a lawyer. I set his mind at rest and assured him it was a compliment.

And once when I was a young, new home-owner with a lawn to keep up, I was driving Ben somewhere and we passed a vacant lot covered with blooming dandelions. I made a slighting reference to the plant, and Ben just said, “But they’re awfully beautiful, aren’t they?” That was a lesson too. He was a lovely soul, and a caliber of musical mind we will not see again.

Ben Johnston and Kyle Gann c. 1994 (Photo by Bill Duckworth)

Ben Johnston and Kyle Gann c. 1994 (Photo by Bill Duckworth, courtesy Kyle Gann)

Eve Beglarian Wins 2015 Robert Rauschenberg Award

The Foundation for Contemporary Arts (FCA), a nonprofit arts organization founded by John Cage and Jasper Johns, has announced that composer Eve Beglarian is the recipient of their third annual Robert Rauschenberg Award which includes an unrestricted cash prize of $35,000. (The two previous awardees were choreographer Trisha Brown and the late composer Elodie Lauten.)

In this NewMusicBox interview from 2011 (you can read the entire transcript here), Beglarian gleefully proclaimed that she will exploit the resources of any compositional method if it takes her music where it needs to go and, as a result, she has created some of the most stylistically diverse music of our poly-stylistic era.

In addition, FCA has announced that dancer, choreographer, and filmmaker Yvonne Rainer is the inaugural recipient of a newly established Merce Cunningham Award which in its inaugural year has been awarded to Yvonne Rainer who will receive $35,000 as well. FCA will fund the inaugural 2015 award but beginning in 2017 an endowment gift from the Merce Cunningham Trust will support the award. This new award joins two other permanently endowed awards at FCA: the annual Rauschenberg Award and the biennial John Cage Award (which last year was awarded to composer Phill Niblock). The Cunningham Award will be a biennial, by-nomination grant given in recognition of outstanding achievement in the arts that reflects the creativity and spirit of Merce Cunningham. As part of the 2015 awards cycle, FCA has also announced 14 Grants to Artists in the disciplines of dance, music/sound, performance art/theatre, poetry, and visual arts, each of whom will also receive $35,000. The awardees in the music/sound category are composers Ellen Fullman, Zach Layton, and Missy Mazzoli; composer Cynthia Hopkins is among the performance art/theatre recipients along with Mallory Catlett and Jim Findlay. The other 2015 recipients are: poets Julie Patton and Tony Towle; visual artists David Diao, David Hartt, and Xaviera Simmons; choreographers Melanie Maar and Will Rawls, and the Minneapolis-based Body Cartography Project.

Mormon Music after the “Mormon Moment”

Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Organ

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir (Public domain photo via Wikimedia.)

The lead-up to the 2012 U.S. presidential election seemed to be the apex of what some called the “Mormon Moment,” with story after story in the news about various aspects of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS or Mormons). But even outside of the national electoral spotlight, Mormon politicians and entrepreneurs and thinkers (as well as crooks and crackpots) continue to make headlines. Furthermore, Neon Trees frontman Tyler Glenn, a former Mormon missionary, recently came out of the closet in the pages of Rolling Stone, convert Gladys Knight is on Broadway, and married Mormon Jeff Zausch recently ventured into the wild, in the buff (and with a woman not his wife) on Naked and Afraid – to name just a few. “Mormon Studies” has emerged as a serious academic discipline on university campuses and even the Mormon share of the teen lit market continues to expand. Maybe it wasn’t a moment; we’ve just reached critical mass. I’m old enough to remember when even a passing reference to Mormons in the media became fodder for breathless foyer chat in my own LDS congregation on Sundays; now it’s weird if there’s not a Mormon on So You Think You Can Dance.

CD cover for Gladys Knight's Another Journey

Gladys Knight’s most recent album, Another Journey was released in 2013.

So then, with LDS names popping up everywhere else, where, in this enduring Mormon Moment, are the Mormon composers? That’s a tricky question. Eminent composer and historian Michael Hicks identifies a number of the most prominent figures, at least through the 1980s, in his authoritative history of music in the LDS Church. Glen Nelson, a polymath LDS impresario/publisher/librettist who runs Mormon Artists Group in New York, keeps tabs on current Mormon composers internationally and actively promotes their work. In other words, such a thing exists.

Cover of book Mormonism and Music

It’s been over a decade since the University of Illinois Press published Michael Hicks’s book, Mormonism and Music.

But until fairly recently, the Mormon composers who were known as such weren’t, frankly, all that known outside of Mormon circles. Conversely, those who were more well-known as composers weren’t readily identified with their native religion. Who were these composers whose music (and/or whose Mormonism) had gone unrecognized? And who were the Mormon composers today whose work warranted attention from the wider musical world?
So interested was I in answering this question that I actually undertook a years-long fieldwork project, going so far as to secure employment in the School of Music of the church’s flagship university. (No, that wasn’t really the impetus for my relocation to Utah and Brigham Young University, but it did nonetheless put me in the position of the ethnomusicological “participant-observer”: I hear Mormon composers making or talking about music all day long—quite often, through the walls of my office.)
But before considering the music of my colleagues and their contemporaries, a brief history is in order.

Mormon Composers?

Mormonism is a relatively young religion, which means questions of literal, proximate historicity dominate notions of belief and identity for most Mormons; whereas adherents of other religions are somewhat insulated from the seeming outlandishness of their faiths’ miraculous claims by expanses of time and layers of accumulated history and myth, Mormons’ supernatural stories are less than two centuries old. It’s one thing to believe (or “believe,” in whatever way suits) that God appeared to Moses on a distant mountain thousands of years ago; quite another believe that he also appeared in 1820 to a fourteen-year-old boy in the woods four miles north of I-90 in western New York. As a result, many who were raised in the faith but have become doubtful or agnostic about its claims or disenchanted with it organizationally seem less inclined to maintain an explicit sense of Mormon identity than do, say, less-observant Jews. (Hollywood, for example, is lousy with lapsed Mormon actors, but you don’t hear Ryan Gosling or Amy Adams talking about their Mormon pasts nearly as much as Jon Stewart or Sarah Silverman talk about Judaism.)

Sacred Grove Entrance

Palmyra, New York, site of Mormonism’s origins. (Photo CC by Jake from Flickr via Wikimedia.)

Mormonism has produced a handful of notable composers who have worn their religion on their sleeves, as it were. Several of the most important Mormon composers of the 20th century worked for church institutions, answered commissions for church productions, and composed works that conveyed explicit religious messages or drew on scriptural or church-historical narratives. But despite some fleeting bursts of notoriety, most of these composers did not have a profound and lasting impact on the wider musical world. On the other hand, a few other composers from Mormon backgrounds have garnered greater attention and exercised significant influence, but that influence hasn’t been perceived as being particularly Mormon because they have not presented themselves to the world as “Mormon composers” per se.

Curiously, though, it seems to me that some of the composers least connected with the institutional church and least interested in explicitly articulating anything particularly Mormon through their music are those who have incorporated, on the molecular level of compositional practice, certain techniques and aesthetic mindsets most resonant with the more mystical strands of Mormon imagination. Conversely, those composers who have enlisted music most explicitly in the articulation of Mormon identity—who draw on Mormon historical and scriptural themes, such as Leroy Robertson, Crawford Gates, and Merrill Bradshaw—seem to have adopted musical languages without any sonic devices particularly identifiable as Mormon. As the musical proselytizers of their faith, they have tended to employ neoromantic tonality as a musical lingua franca.
Mormons, Music, and the Quest for Normalcy
Mormonism in the 19th century was marked by its strangeness. Joseph Smith’s followers fled persecution in New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois before establishing their secluded Zion in the Salt Lake Valley. Their additional books of scripture, their unorthodox cosmology, and their practice of polygamy until around the turn of the 20th century all reinforced their outcast status. However, in the 20th century, Mormonism made a dramatic and concerted effort to establish itself as part of the American mainstream, and music played an enormous role in this effort. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir, an outsized version of the traditional church choir, was eventually heard on millions of radios and television sets. A generational succession of Mormon family musical groups rose to fame, including the Kings, the Osmonds, the Jets, and several family shows in Branson, Missouri. This echoed Mormons’ increasing presence in politics and industry. An image of Mormonism emerged that not only was compatible with the prototypically “normal” American nuclear family, but in fact exemplary of it. (Indeed, some argued that Romney’s electoral prospects were diminished by his projection of a seemingly caricaturistic—and caricaturistically Mormon—midcentury, white, American hypernormalcy.)

Osmonds in 1973

The Osmonds in 1973. (From a CC photo album by Heinrich Klaffs on Flickr.)

Mormons have always zealously sought to embrace the identity of the “peculiar people” described in scripture—a chosen group destined and designed to remain apart from the rest of society to some degree. But at the same time, the church’s proselytizing aspirations and sophisticated media efforts try to establish an outward identity that resonates with the lives of potential converts. Mormonism simultaneously seeks both to fit into and to distinguish itself from the world. “Mormons want to be totally different and also totally normal,” my friend Jacob Baker, a Mormon philosopher, once quipped. “We’re the teenagers of religions.” This dual identity can be discerned in the musical works of Mormonism’s favorite sons (and the wayward ones, too).

Music was central to the Mormons’ effort to “make the desert blossom as a rose” during their settlement of Utah and nearby regions in the second half of the 19th century. Stories abound of pioneers taking great pains to transport musical instruments across the plains while leaving so many other belongings behind.  (My own family tree includes a great-great uncle, John Grimshaw, a multi-instrumentalist who took a liking to the xylophone but, unable to find or afford one in rural southern Utah, used his perfect pitch to carve one out of wagon wheel spokes.) Converts from abroad were encouraged to bring music with them when they emigrated, and a handful of second- and third-generation Mormons made a reverse trek for conservatory training in Europe or the eastern U.S., several of them at the New England Conservatory. Early efforts at cultural cultivation produced a number of local legends in the early 1900s. Evan Stephens (1854-1930), an early director of the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, penned dozens of hymns and other works. B. Cecil Gates, a grandson of Brigham Young, composed several choral and orchestral works, including an oratorio on the story of Mormon founder Joseph Smith titled The Restoration and a Christmas cantata, The Shepherd’s Vision.

Evan Stephens

Evan Stephens, hymn composer and early Tabernacle Choir conductor. (Photo in the public domain.)

Despite provincial notoriety, however, LDS composers struggled to attain a degree of recognition beyond Mormondom. One exception was Leigh Harline (1907-1969), a Utah native who more or less circumvented local validation by leaving Utah directly after college and establishing a career as one of Hollywood’s prolific composers; he scored dozens of films, including Snow White and Pinocchio for Disney. His authorship of “When You Wish Upon a Star” alone likely guarantees his status as the most-heard Mormon composer, even thoughfor the most part he operated outside of Mormon musical circles. Arthur Shepherd (1880-1958) likewise transcended local acclaim. After his studies at the New England Conservatory, he was coaxed back west to establish an orchestra in Salt Lake City. He composed a number of ambitious works while in Utah, including piano sonatas, concertos, symphonies, and the Overture Joyeuse, which garnered praise and landed performances in prominent national and international venues. But Shepherd’s general avoidance of explicitly Mormon themes in his music drew some criticism at home; eventually, after leaving Utah once again to become the assistant conductor of the Cleveland Symphony, he left Mormonism altogether. He maintained some connections with Mormon musical circles, however, which guarded his place on the internal cultural roster of prominent Mormon artists even after he left Utah to seek his artistic fortunes elsewhere.

Another Mormon trained at the New England Conservatory, Leroy Robertson (1896-1971), managed to gain a degree of international attention, albeit short-lived, for an explicitly religious work, the Oratorio from the Book of Mormon. Robertson’s completion of the work coincided roughly with the arrival in Salt Lake City of conductor Maurice Abravanel, who encouraged Robertson to put the finishing touches on it so he could program it. Having established a successful conducting career in Europe and at the Metropolitan Opera, Abravanel had ambitions to elevate the Utah Symphony from the community group it was at the time—an admirable but still amateur result of Arthur Shepherd’s earlier efforts—to a world-class orchestra. The cultivation of local music, and local good will, was part of his strategy. The Utah Symphony, along with a choir from the University of Utah, premiered Robertson’s Book of Mormon Oratorio in 1953 for an enthusiastic crowd. And as the symphony and Abravanel’s stock rose during the ensuing years, their increasingly impressive discography came to include two critically acclaimed recordings of Robertson’s oratorio, one for Vanguard (1961), the other for Columbia Masterworks (1978). Despite a few performances outside of Utah, however, the work did not find a wide and enduring audience.

Book of Mormon Oratorio LP cover

In 1978 Columbia Masterworks released an LP recording of Leroy Robertson’s Oratorio from the Book of Mormon performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and the Utah Symphony conducted by Maurice Abravanel.

Robertson wrote in a generally tonal style, but with dramatic chromaticism, heavy doses of exoticist modality, and a Wagnerian modulatory and thematic flow–a sound that embodied his serious ambitions and modern training, but that also fell within the aesthetic reach of his co-congregants. This general sensibility was adopted and further developed by one of Robertson’s pupils, Crawford Gates, best known for his score to the Hill Cumorah Pageant, an enormous spectacle based on stories from the Book of Mormon and staged near the church’s birthplace in Palmyra, New York. While pursuing his doctoral degree at the Eastman School of Music in nearby Rochester, Gates was enlisted in 1953 to create a new, original score to accompany a reworkedscript for the production (and to replace the old soundtrack, which had been cobbled together from recorded excerpts of Wagner and Tchaikovsky). The result was a colorful and bombastic 78-minute orchestral and choral work, pre-recorded with dialogue overdub (lip-synced and pantomimed by the cast of hundreds) and played through loudspeakers for thousands of viewers. Gates was enlisted to update the production again when the script was reconceived in 1987.

This has made Gates one of Mormonism’s most-heard composers (probably second only to Harline’s Disney work). Upwards of 100,000 people see the show during the pageant’s week-long run each summer. Moreover, one of Gates’s most iconic leitmotifs has found an unexpected life beyond the pageant’s seasonal run. As part of their research for the hit Broadway show Book of Mormon, creators Matt Stone, Trey Parker, and Bobby Lopez attended the pageant, which explains the moment in the song “I Believe” when, on the words “I am a Mormon,” the melody mirrors almost exactly the brass fanfare that opens the pageant, listed here as Prelude No. 2 in the concert version of the piece. (This was pointed out to me both by my BYU colleague Michael Hicks, who reviewed the musical (see p. 233), and by my wife, who heard the theme hundreds of times during the seven years we lived near Palmyra.)

A subsequent generation of LDS composers, many of them musical descendants of the New England Conservatory Mormons, have composed works in a generally similar neoromantic vein. Merrill Bradshaw, a student of Gates, penned The Restoration, an oratorio on Mormonism’s founding. A number of others, including Sam Cardon, Kurt Bestor, and Merrill Jenson, have prolifically applied their cinematic, neoromantic styles to music for film and television, and many younger LDS composers create music for various media and video games.  Even as pulpit sermons warn against the questionable morals proliferating in entertainment media, Mormonism seems to produce more than its share of media-makers.

Still, most of these composers comprising what we might call the “Mormon mainstream,” though known among Mormons and, to an extent, within the commercial music industry, are for the most part neither well-known among the general public nor much-discussed in the wider art music world. I suspect that a centuries-long collective yearning for normalcy produces music that is likewise “normal.” This works well in the commercial realm, or for devotional music meant for believers, or for in-house media or proselytizing purposes, but it’s difficult to simultaneously blend in with a crowd and stand out from it. One might say about musicians what Mormon feminist historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich said about women: well-behaved composers seldom make history.

Music and the Mormon Mystical

While mainstream Mormons primarily made music for Mormon audiences (or what they saw as potentially Mormon audiences) or found footing in the commercial music industries, a number of 20th century composers from Mormon backgrounds who left the church’s orbit went on to develop more distinctive musical voices. Furthermore, certain exploratory conceptual interests shared among a handful of these composers suggest that they each gathered certain creative seeds from their early lives and developed those ideas musically, long after leaving behind the religious observances, ritual culture, and other trappings of their childhood religion. The fact that these ideas did not emerge from any actual dialogue between these composers suggests a deep and primarily unconscious influence that took root in their formative headspace.

Several years ago during my graduate studies I attempted to contact the composer La Monte Young in hopes of interviewing him for a term paper I was writing. While conducting research for a seminar on music and cosmology, I discovered that Young had been born into a Mormon family in southern Idaho; I had also come across comments in interviews and liner notes suggesting that his native religious background had informed the eclectic spirituality of his music. My own Mormon-corridor provenance, coupled with my keen interest in minimalism and the relative dearth of scholarship on Young, made his life and music an appealing research topic.

 La Monte Young. Photo by Betty Freeman. (From NewMusicBox’s Betty Freeman Photo Gallery.)

La Monte Young. Photo by Betty Freeman. (From NewMusicBox’s Betty Freeman Photo Gallery.)

Getting him on the phone proved to be a challenge. (For all his focus on stasis, drones, and repetition, anyone who has called him knows that his voicemail message is an extended exercise in through-composition.) Finally, after several messages and attempts over the course of a few weeks, someone answered the phone. (I would realize later it was Young’s life partner and collaborator, the visual artist Marian Zazeela.) She recalled from my voicemail message that I was interested in Young’s Mormon background and wanted to know how serious I was about the topic. “What do you know about Mormons?” she asked. When I divulged that I was actually Mormon myself, her voice changed registers. “Oh, that makes things interesting,” she said. “Let me get him on the line.”

Thus began a decade-long dialogue about music, minimalism, and Mormonism, eventually leading to my doctoral dissertation and a monograph on Young’s life and works. My initial interest in Young’s Mormonism arose from his reference, in a handful of writings and interviews, to the Mormon cosmological emphasis on eternity and infinity—an interest echoed in the immense scope and cosmic patience of his works, as well as the mystical titles with which he labeled and described them. This early influence, he said, laid the foundation for his later mystical and musical explorations, particularly his intensive study of North Indian music. He affirmed this at the outset of our very first in-person interview, speaking about himself in the third person:

There’s no question in my mind … principles of Mormonism did play an enormous influential role in the shaping of La Monte Young and his music.
These concepts of eternity, that souls would be able to reunite, these kinds of concepts were especially intriguing to me. And so there’s no doubt in my mind for even a milli-nothing that they didn’t influence my first work with long-sustained tones and certainly my ideas that things could last for a long time. And sure, I was also gradually becoming acquainted with Eastern thought, but this probably began in the mid-’50s sometime, with reading haiku, and reading the Tao. But it was like something that was an old friend because of the way it had already been introduced to me in Mormonism.

As I examined his music more closely, particularly his magnum opus, The Well-Tuned Piano, and his and Zazeela’s ongoing sound and light installation, the Dream House, I discovered that another arguably Mormon element was at work in them, even though Young had not explicitly identified it as such. Young believed that his intense focus on musical materials at the most granular, fundamentally acoustical level allowed him to use sound to achieve a kind of psychoacoustic transcendence. The pathways that he described between the physical and metaphysical worlds traced a route that, I believed, hearkened back to one particular but utterly pervasive aspects of the Mormon worldview: the idea that there’s an ontological continuum between the mortal and spiritual worlds, and that glimpsing the divine meant to discern the inherent materiality of spirit and the inherent spirituality of matter. (In my book, I explore how this notion has influenced various figures in Mormon culture, from apostle and amateur astronomer Orson Pratt to preeminent acoustical innovator Harvey Fletcher, to a slew of LDS science fiction writers.) For Young, that meant transcending the symbolic or associative nature of musical gesture and, through highly esoteric tunings and other psychoacoustical methods, seek to embody divinity in a more direct way through sound. As I pursued this line of thought, Young pointed me in the direction of a couple of other composers that used related approaches to tuning and acoustics, both of whom, he had learned only a short time before, were also raised Mormon.

James Tenney came from a long line of Mormons, and, like Young, explored the subtle and entirely uncharted creative potential in highly specialized acoustical explorations. Works such as For Ann Rising and Critical Band became pillars of an approach I came to call “Acoustical Positivism.” Though Tenney spoke of his music in far less cosmic terms than Young did, he nonetheless recognized a certain poetic transcendence in the scientifically precise manipulation of sound—and, in my limited communication with him, expressed intrigue at the possibility of its connection to long-latent religious ideas. Another figure, Erv Wilson, descended from Mormons who settled in northern Mexico. He never became a well-known composer in his own right, but remains a highly influential and innovative tuning theorist and instrument builder. He’s reported to have imposed some of his musical ideas upon the LDS missionaries who would occasionally visit to try to coax him back to church. The longer I pursued this line of research the more I would hear from friends, colleagues, and composers about other Mormons (mostly lapsed or former ones), whose musical explorations took them into the realms of microtonality, alternate tunings, and psychoacoustics.
Surprisingly, after a decade of research on Young and his fellow ex-Mormon acoustical positivists, Young stridently distanced himself from the frontier mysticism of his childhood Mormonism, and began recasting his autobiography almost exclusively in terms of his relationship with his longtime guru of North Indian singing, Pandit Pran Nath. He withdrew support for the publication of my book, even going so far as to enumerate his complaints on a website, drawastraightlineandfollowit.com. (Lesson to young musicologists writing about living composers: reserve your domain names.) As I’ve outlined in my responses to his complaints here and here, Mormonism’s public perception changed dramatically during the gestation of my book on Young: the mystical aspects that I believe sparked Young’s early imagination became overshadowed by its increasing association in the public eye with American social and political conservatism. In other words, Young’s autobiographical retreat from Mormonism was a response to the nature of its public arrival.

Mormon Music Post-Mormon-Moment

Perhaps the plateau of the Mormon Moment means that LDS musicians may have transcended the century-long quest for normalcy. Pop star and Killers frontman Brandon Flowers has become famous for his outlandish couture and commanding stage presence, even while dropping subtle lyrical and on-screen shout-outs to his religion (such as the obvious Joseph Smith pose, based on a familiar Sunday school illustration, at the climax of the “Only the Young” video). The Duluth band Low, formed by Mormon husband-and-wife team Alan Sparhawk and Mimi Parker, present a twist on the Mormon family band model. Their version of domestic “normalcy” is not cosmetically flawless and clean-scrubbed in the Osmond mold, but gritty and unglamorously cool. Parker even seems to offer a critique of stereotypical Mormon female domesticity: she sometimes plays the drums standing up, as if stirring pots in a kitchen.

Photo of band Low inside church

Low (left to right): Alan Sparhawk, Mimi Parker, and Steve Garrington.

Mormon pop musicians seem inclined not only to subvert their faith’s homogenous cultural stereotypes, but to likewise challenge pop music’s libertine clichés. In recent years, Provo, Utah, has become an unusually successful incubator for bands—many of which have launched careers from Velour, an all-ages venue with so relaxed and reverent a vibe that the rowdiest crowd member might well be a toddler in footy pajamas. Velour also recently recognized the significant overlap between Provo’s art music and pop music scenes by hosting a performance by Gavin Ryan (full disclosure: a former student) of John Luther Adams’s 70-minute solo percussion piece, The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies.

Percussionist Gavin Ryan in performance

Gavin Ryan performing The Mathematics of Resonant Bodies for solo percussion by John Luther Adams at Velour, Provo, Utah, June 30, 2014. Photo by Mindy Burton. Used with permission.

Mormon composers in the art music world today also seem to have entered into an era of post-normalcy. In 2004, Mormon Artists Group (MAG) produced an eclectic piano suite titled Mormoniana, consisting of individual pieces by sixteen different LDS composers, each inspired by a different piece of visual art by an LDS painter or photographer. The collection included pieces by the formerly “mainstream” and traditionally devotional neoromantics, such as Crawford Gates and Robert Cundick, alongside rather more experimental contributions, such as a pointillistic rumination by composer/punk rocker/skateboarder Lansing McLoskey and an electroacoustic work by Todd Coleman. In an essay accompanying the collection “Toward (and Away From) The Mormonistic,” Michael Hicks suggested that if there’s a “Mormon style,” it is to resist identifying any particular style as such. “What is most delightfully Mormonistic about the visual and musical art presented here is that it is all over the aesthetic map.” He suggests that this is not a new, revolutionary type of Mormon culture, in rebellion against a century of assimilation, but rather a return to an older, less acquiescent Mormonistic attitude. He cited as his authority what was known in the 19th century as the “Mormon Creed,” a saying that appeared regularly in print, and, in one case, in stained glass in a temple: “Mind your own business. Saints will observe this. All others ought to.”

McLoskey in front of an elevator

Lansing McLoskey. (Photo by Raniero Tazzi, used with permission.)

I read Hicks’s essay years before returning to Utah, and wondered at the time if his claim, and Nelson’s project, was less a reflection of actual culture than an exercise in wishful thinking—a well-intentioned but overly optimistic effort to imagine an artistic climate more eclectic and diverse and accepting of difference than could reasonably be expected from a culture in which wearing a blue Oxford to Sunday services, instead of a white one, carries a hint of rebellion. I still wondered when we made the move west.Shortly after our arrival, I received an invitation to one of the regular house concerts hosted by one of my new colleagues, Christian Asplund, a composer, multi-instrumentalist, and tireless champion of experimental music and free improvisation. I was astonished to discover the ambitious and innovative music being made there by faculty, students, and visiting artists, in a living room in one of Provo’s quietest neighborhoods, for a shoulder-to-shoulder audience eating potluck from paper plates. By the end of the evening, Asplund was singing madly and passionately into the open grand piano while alternately playing the keyboard, manipulating children’s toys arrayed atop the strings, throwing ping-pong balls into the instrument’s interior, and noisily dropping handfuls of ball bearings onto the concrete floor.

Christian Asplund, part II of Let it Spin (2007)

In my new job I ended up in an office across the hall from Neil Thornock, whose soft-spoken demeanor veiled his capacity for creating utterly ferocious sounds with the least-soft-spoken of instruments. I became acquainted with the newest electroacoustic works of Steven Ricks, which draw variously on Mormon history, Thomas Pynchon, and Buddhist mysticism. (Full disclosure: I ended up writing the notes for these pieces on his Bridge release, Mild Violence.) I discovered Michael Hicks’s own music, having previously known him primarily for his prodigious music-historical work. And I was almost immediately befriended by David Sargent, the composer who, perhaps as much as any other, might be considered the grandfather of this new eclectic phase in Mormon art music. A student of Merrill Bradshaw at BYU during the 1960s, Sargent went on to complete graduate studies at the University of Illinois, then returned to BYU as a professor and mentored subsequent generations of composers (including most of the current faculty).

CD cover for Steven Ricks's Mild Violence

In 2008, Bridge Records released an all-Steven Ricks CD, Mild Violence.

It turns out Mormons have had a hand in contemporary music in other ways as well. Another colleague, Tom Durham, oversees the Barlow Endowment for Music Composition, which commissions numerous works and sponsors one of the major annual composition contests in the United States. Biotech entrepreneur and arts advocate Glenn Cornett, a BYU alum, runs Spectrum, which has become one of New York’s cutting-edge new music venues.

Karl Gottfried Brunotte

Karl Gottfried Brunotte

Some of the most interesting developments in Mormon music, however, will be the ones brewing far from the Mormon Corridor and completely apart from the church’s musical institutions. An Australian-American music advocate, Glenn Gordon, organizes and promotes events and publications. Glen Nelson (yes, the Glens of Mormon music become tricky to track) has identified and networked with several LDS composers from Europe, most of whom are as yet unknown in American circles. From a friend who regularly attends the Stockhausen summer courses, I learned about the German LDS composer Karl Gottfried Brunotte, an eccentric regular there.

Leilei Tian

Leilei Tian

Another composer poised to take the music world by storm (and Mormons by surprise) is Leilei Tian. She studied at the Beijing Conservatory, continued her training in Sweden, and converted to Mormonism after moving to Paris to work at IRCAM. She has remained in Paris, and has worked steadily to fulfill an impressive string of commissions for major ensembles. Tian’s works are haltingly visceral and overtly spiritual, with echoes of Crumb, Messiaen, Varèse, and spectralism. Although her discussions of her music generally don’t address her Mormonism specifically or directly, she does speak about her music with an air of quiet premonition and humble but matter-of-fact transcendence, with unapologetic confidence in the sympathetic resonance between sound and spirit. Her vision even flirts with a rather Mormon sense of millennial utopia: post-temporal, post-cultural, post-mortal. As her website bio states:

In Leilei Tian’s music… there is no more conflict between tradition and modernity, occident and orient, masculine and feminine, drama and poetry, imagery and abstraction. For her, musical creation is not just a composition of sounds with various techniques, nor a mere esthetical product of a particular culture, but far beyond is the intuitive manifestation of one’s inner experience and content, namely one’s profound philosophical and spiritual expression that is universal and timeless in nature. Her pursuit for transcendental spirituality is the essential source that provides her inspiration, creativity, dynamic and meaning to her artistic works.

There’s Mormonism to be found there, certainly, but more universal than provincial, rendered in new language, and refreshingly and completely unencumbered by any Mormon musical history or Mormon-American cultural accumulation.

Sâdhana (2000) for grand orchestra. © by Leilei Tian. Streamed with permission of the composer.

For all the frontier patriarchs in the Mormon pantheon, for all the local-boys-made-good who returned from the New England Conservatory to write hymns and oratorios and soundtracks, and for all the effort to arrive at the typical, American, nuclear normal, wouldn’t it be something if the first person to embrace the role of Mormon musical mystic turned out to be a Parisian woman from China?

Some Recent Releases of Music by Mormons
Michael Hicks: Felt Hammers—The Complete Solo Piano Works 1982-2010, Keith Kirchoff, piano (Tantara TCD0314FHM)
Felt Hammers CD Cover

Michael Hicks is well-known as a prolific music historian, having authored books on Mormonism and music, psychedelic rock, Henry Cowell, and Christian Wolff. But he is also an active and influential composer. In this volume of solo piano works Hicks demonstrates an idiomatic diversity and nuanced tactility that pianist Keith Kirchoff, in his extensive and eloquent performer’s notes, describes as “music… about gesture.”
Here is Kirchoff’s live performance of one of the pieces featured on the disc, The Idea of Domes:

Lansing McLoskey: Specific Gravity—Chamber Music of Lansing McLoskey
(Albany Records TROY 1443)

Specific Gravity CD Cover

The titular piece in this collection makes reference to the scientific term for the relative density of physical materials. Aptly, the works here seem to explore particularities of sonic materials with an unusual combination of spontaneity and method: the exact feelings of distinctive textures, thicknesses, articulations, and timbres.
In addition to the newEar Ensemble’s live performance of the first movement of Specific Gravity with synchronized score below, the entire CD can be streamed on Lansing McLoskey’s website.

Stephen Anderson: Isaiah (Mormon Artists Group)
Deluxe packaging of flash drive containing Isaiah
Composer and jazz pianist Stephen Anderson composed this ambitious 49-minute oratorical treatment of the writings of the Old Testament prophet (a favorite of Mormons, since their eponymous book quotes him extensively). As is typical of MAG projects (a previous one of which, in the interest of full disclosure, was mine), this piece comes in unusual packaging: the score, audio and video, and documentary writings and essays, all come loaded on a flash drive embedded in a mockup of an ancient Mesopotamian clay press.
Below is the Carolina Choir’s video trailer of excerpts from the oratorio.

Jeremy Grimshaw is the author of Draw a Straight Line and Follow It: The Music and Mysticism of La Monte Young (Oxford University Press) and The Island of Bali is Littered with Prayers (Mormon Artists Group), as well as articles and reviews in numerous publications. He teaches at Brigham Young University’s School of Music, where he also directs the Balinese gamelan and serves as Associate Director for Undergraduate Studies. His current projects include a collaborative paper with Ali Colleen Neff on music, race, and Mormonism in digital media, as well as a libretto/screenplay based on the bizarre story of the Dream Mine, which is located just a few miles from his home in Payson, Utah.

Back to Nature: Tracing the History of an American Classical Tradition

Kyle Gann
Photo by Jordan Rathkopf

READ and watch a conversation with Kyle Gann.

Let us look at two classic anecdotes of American music. The Boston tanner William Billings (1746-1800), described as “a singular man, of moderate size, short of one leg, with one eye, without any address, and with an uncommon negligence of person,” was the most active American composer of choral music in the 18th century. His relationship with his Boston neighbors was marked by respect from certain circles and antagonism from others. In response to one of his concerts, local wags tied two cats together by the tails and hung them from the sign of his tannery, presumably to allow them to duplicate the perceived effect of his music. Unversed in European counterpoint, Billings relied more heavily on simple consonances than his Continental counterparts, and was at one point criticized for not using enough dissonance. In response, he wrote a brief but remarkable choral song entirely in dissonances of seconds and sevenths, to a text of his own:

Let horrid jargon split the air
And rive the nerves asunder;
Let hateful discord greet the ear
As terrible as thunder.

Even after more than 200 years, the piece shocks the ear with its joyous disregard for resolution. Zip ahead about a century and a half, and we find composer Henry Cowell dropping in on his friend Carl Ruggles. Cowell’s own words for the scene cannot be bettered:

One morning when I arrived at the abandoned school house in Arlington where he [Ruggles] now lives, he was sitting at the old piano, singing a single tone at the top of his raucous composer’s voice, and banging a single chord at intervals over and over. He refused to be interrupted in this pursuit, and after an hour or so, I insisted on knowing what the idea was. “I’m trying over this damned chord,” said he, “to see whether it still sounds superb after so many hearings.” “Oh,” I said tritely, “time will surely tell whether the chord has lasting value.” “The hell with time!” Carl replied. “I’ll give this chord the test of time right now. If I find I still like it after trying it over several thousand times, it’ll stand the test of time, all right!”

To this pounding of Ruggles’s dissonant chord, let us add two (pardon the double pun) strikingly resonant parallels: the six-year-old (in 1880) Charles Ives looking for a sound on his square piano to imitate the bang of the bass drum in his father’s band, and finding that only clusters played with his fist did the trick; and the twelve-year-old (in 1909) Henry Cowell playing clusters with his entire forearm in his The Tides of Mananaun, relishing the swirl of clashing overtones that resulted.

From such poundings on pianos and yowlings of cats American music began. Specifically, it sprang from a delight in sounds not found in “correct” European music. Such legends, with their delight in rebelliousness and transgression, are a far cry from the origin story of European music, by which Pythagoras heard four hammers hitting an anvil in the perfect concord C, F, G, C.

Americans, having first come to this continent in rejection of Europe’s social structures, turned to nature in their novels and paintings, and continue to do so in their music. For many, many composers, a return to nature means taking acoustics and particularly the harmonic series as source material. A significant number of the seminal American composers have staked their artistic claims on some constructed paradigm of “naturalness”: Cage’s randomness, Oliveros’s breathing, Reich’s natural processes, Partch’s natural scale, Branca’s rock vernacular stripped down to its basic strum. Most natural of all: banging on the piano keyboard, so beloved of Ives, Cowell, Varèse, Young, Garland.

If it is difficult to find the common thread among all these musics, it is because the American classical tradition gives rise to tremendous individuality, which is both its glory and its curse – curse, because audiences and critics have trouble seeing a tradition whose adherents are so remarkably different from each other. Partch’s music sounds nothing like Cage’s, nor Feldman’s like Nancarrow’s, nor Ashley’s like Branca’s. The gulf that separates Chopin from Wagner is dwarfed by America’s musical panorama. Yet what else would you expect from a culture that so deifies individualism? Why would a classical music tradition grow in America that did not reflect the people’s most basic values?

Most troubling of all—now that the American classical tradition is here, in all its multigenerational maturity and multidimensional splendor, and has already shown itself capable of having an impact on other musics of the world—why has its very existence been so difficult to accept?

Inner Pages:

From California to Alaska: Lou Harrison in Conversation with John Luther Adams

[Ed. note: This telephone conversation between composers Lou Harrison and John Luther Adams was originally published on the American Music Center’s website on April 1, 1999. It was the last in a series of interviews entitled “Music In The First Person” that was published before the launch of NewMusicBox on May 1, 1999. “In The First Person” served as the model for one of the primary components of NewMusicBox which still continues on the site as “Cover.”]

1. Overture

JOHN LUTHER ADAMS: In a mesostic written in your honor, John Cage compared your music to a river opening into its delta. He wrote: “Listening to it, we become ocean.” I think John was right, your music is absolutely extraordinary for its breadth, its diversity, its sheer quantity, and its constantly exquisite quality. You’re an American master with a remarkable body of work. Last year, your 80th birthday was celebrated with performances all over the world. Some major new pieces, including the Pi’pa Concerto, were premiered. Moving into your ninth decade, you’re still going strong!

LOU HARRISON: Yes, and we just had two more performances of the concerto. One in Seattle, and one with the California Symphony, in the Bay region. There were 2 different virtuosi, and they both went very well. You know I’m a slowpoke — I have a difficult time with things like bowing, metronome marks, and all sorts of decisions. Fortunately, most musicians are kind to me and help, which is a good thing.

JLA: Well, the collaborative relationship with performers is part of the fun, isn’t it?

LH: I’m dependent on it. . . I absolutely need my musicians to help me, and thank heavens they do.

JLA: What are you working on right now?

LH: Well, right now, I’m attempting a revision of my second opera for a possible performance at a SummerFest in New York in ’99 or 2000. It’s a major revision, because the last time, it jumped from being a puppet opera to a full-stage one, and having done that, I discovered it needed arias! So I’m singing arias to myself at this point. We also have to perk up the orchestra a little bit. . . It needs a little bit stronger bass. So we’re changing a lot, and there are a couple of scenes that need to be revised. It’s really a major project. I’ve started on it, and will continue, because I want to leave that opera in pretty good shape.

JLA: So this is Young Caesar.

LH: Yes. There has been the shocking proposal that both (puppet and full-stage) versions be done in this new revision. That’s going pretty far.

JLA: What a delightful proposition!

LH: Yes, it’s something, and we hope it works. So that’s what I’m working on. In the meantime, we’re building a getaway house in Joshua Tree, so I can take a project such as this and very much concentrate on it. What are you working on?

JLA: I just recently completed a wonderful collaboration with Percussion Group — Cincinnati on a concert-length work called Strange and Sacred Noise. It’s been a real peak experience for me, working with musicians who perform at such a high level. (I know you’ve worked with them before, so you know what I’m talking about.) They’ve now given two performances of the entire work, and have just recorded it for New World Records. At Oberlin, Tim Weiss recently conducted the premiere of In The White Silence — a 75-minute landscape for harp, celesta, two vibraphones, string quartet and string orchestra. JoAnn Falletta will give the second performance, next year. And we’re trying to pull together a recording of that work, too.

LH: I think we ought to write into all of our contracts that as composers, we are entitled to at least archival tape. It seems to be a normal thing that should be written in, because it’s sometimes hard to get them. And it shouldn’t be, it should be a natural thing.

JLA: Yes, it’s so important to all of us (especially younger composers), but also to those of us who are not as young.

LH: Especially to me who is aged! And in fact, it may be more important to me because I get absent-minded as I get older, and a tape reminds me of what directions I should put in.

JLA: It’s absolutely true. After all, we’re involved in an oral and an aural tradition. Yes, it has a literature, we do have notation, and some of us work in that way. But I think recordings are an increasingly vital part of what we do — and not only as a documentation.

LH: It’s oral evidence of what we’ve done.

JLA: Absolutely, it helps us establish a performance practice.

LH: That’s what Carlos Chavez said. You know a long time ago, I had a tizzy before one of my premieres. And Carlos looked at me and said, “Lou, for heavens sake, this is only the first performance. AFTER that, you can get tizzy, if you want to.” And I haven’t had a tizzy since.

JLA: You know, I often remember the story you told me once about your Fugue for Percussion.

LH: Well, having read Henry Cowell’s New Musical Resources and the advertisement for the Overtone Series, and knowing that a traditional fugue has tonal levels, I wanted to write a fugue in which that could be expressed rhythmically. So I wrote a theme, but I didn’t know how to do the “is-to’s” and “as-to’s”. John Cage and I were working in San Francisco at that time. We had gone to the beach where there was a wonderful pie shop. So we sat down and had a splendid apple pie, while he explained how to do the math. And that’s how I was able to write it. Still, percussionists have found my slippage occasionally, when I did it incorrectly, and have helped. It’s mostly a problem of crossing the bars. (Which reminds me of when John and I were rehearsing in Mills College, and there was a problem about that. We both said: “Let there be no moaning when we cross the bars.”)

JLA: You know, one of the things that impressed me so much about that story was that initially Stokowski looked at it and said, “This is all very interesting, but it’s not yet playable.”

LH: Yes, that was the word he used: can’t be done yet. And then, by the next year, Tony Cirrone was doing it at San Jose State and invited me over to hear it. Very shortly afterwards, it became a sort of contest-piece, and now, it’s back into ordinary repertoire. People do develop techniques for doing things (It’s quite astonishing, one can confidently write for the oboe above E now. And instrument builders extend things frequently). So things do change, and it sometimes surprises one — happily.

JLA: And very quickly too, in terms of performance practice, and even our own ability as listeners and composers to hear things-our perceptions, you might say.

LH: Oh yes, we have them in spades in our ears. We are as virtual users: audio-visceral.

2. The Twentieth Century

JLA: We’re in a time of extremely rapid change and growth in music, and I remember you once observed that all good things must come to an end… even the 20th century. We’re almost there, and I wonder if now (from the vantage point of the eve of the millennium), you might offer some observations on what you feel have been some of the most significant musical developments of the 20th century.

LH: Well, it’s been a long century, for one thing. And Bill [Colvig] and I were just thinking the other day (he’s 82 now, and I’m going to be next month) that it’s extraordinary what’s happened during our lifetime. We both remembered hearing the first crystal sets on our block. Now both of our names are on Mars, and that’s quite a trajectory from 82 years. We also figured out that during the past 30 years, the population of the Earth has doubled, and we wondered what had happened in the 50 years before our lifetime. Well, it doubled then. So it has had two big doublings since we were born, and that’s quite a lot. And what that means is there are that many more composers and that many more ideas, which makes a happy riot of a party, making it ever more fascinating.

Because of that, plus advances in technology, we are in communication all around the planet, which means that we have musical facilities and ideas which would not have occurred to us before. And now they’re right here in our laps, which is a very good thing. I think Henry Cowell was right: in order to be a 20th-century composer, or even a future one, you have to know at least one other culture well, other than the one you were raised in. So it’s not enough to know just European tradition, or those raised in that tradition, or the Japanese tradition, or whatever. And I think that’s very good advice.

JLA: Certainly a uniquely 20th-century perspective.

LH: Well, to a degree. One does remember, of course, that there were exchanges between the Ottoman Empire and Europeans. After all, they told the people that Mozart wrote Turkish marches. Why? Because the advanced part of the Ottoman Empire was at the gates of Vienna.

JLA: I guess it’s deep within human nature that we are basically inquisitive and acculturating animals. But it is unprecedented that just in the past 50 years, for the first time, we have had the entire world, and the entire history of human cultures at our fingertips.

LH: Yes, and almost all of it! Of course, new discoveries are happening all the time, and they’re utterly fascinating. Theology and archaeology are showing us so much and I absorb as much as I can. Of course, it has dangers, too. We get more dangerous as we accumulate knowledge, and that’s both a sadness and something to control, try to learn to live with, make terms with.

JLA: So, relativity, quantum physics, the science of ecology, mass media electronic technology, two World Wars, all of these things in the mix in the 20th century…?

LH: They do affect us. And I think one of the major items has been the discovery that we can, and indeed are, destroying the planet. That’s quite a problem. I’m a terrible pessimist… I really don’t think we’re going to make it. But every so often, there’s some little ray of hope. Have you read, for example, about the Colombian village Gaviotas? Isn’t that amazing?

JLA: It is indeed.

LH: It’s just astonishing to realize that in a country that is most difficult in terms of militaries, paramilitaries, governments, deaths and murders, etc., there is a little village which no one will touch because it’s done things right! It’s as though some country (I’ve always thought we could do it) just simply totally disarmed and said: “Here we are, come look!” But there they are, totally disarmed, no one touches them, and they’ve developed all sorts of useful things for us around the planet. It’s astonishing and amazing to realize that some people have got it right. It almost brings tears to my eyes to realize that. Particularly to someone who is so old and grounded in pessimism.

JLA: Well, so perhaps there is hope, after all.

LH: Yes, there is. Let’s hope that there’s hope!

JLA: So what about the future (assuming there is a future for the human race)? Do you have any predictions to offer about the music of the 21st century? Are there any trends or any composers whose work has a particular significance that you feel will have importance in the next 50 years in shaping the future of the art?

LH: Well, I can’t say that, because I think Virgil Thomson was very wise in observing that music changes in movement every 30 years. There’s a new kind of music, at least in Western world. I don’t think that’s true in more stable traditions, such as the Javanese. But it’s like an amoebae: it has moving walls that reach out a little bit, crack here, expand there, and so on. Whereas Western music tends to want to do that awful business of destroying before it creates, which I think is ridiculous. I think the Japanese have it right; instead of tearing down something to put up a skyscraper, just put it here-beside the other thing. Just like we managed to save Walt Whitman‘s birthplace — it was going to be a service station! I’m certainly opposed to the notion that you have to destroy in order to create-that’s ridiculous. Just go about creating.

JLA: And that seems to you to be a particularly Western idea?

LH: I think it is. It’s all mixed up with that love and death Business resurrection, afterlife and all that sort of nonsense at least it seems so to me. I don’t really know where that came from, but you’ll recall that the Romantic period in Europe certainly stressed that sort of thing. And I think we’re growing out of that — (I HOPE SO) — even in the Western world. And that hasn’t even bothered most of the people on the planet, thank heavens.

3. Balancing Two Worlds

JLA: You know, almost as much as your music, your life itself is an inspiration. You’ve been a mentor and a role model for many younger composers — myself included. You’ve done so many different things over the years to support your art, without ever compromising its integrity. I wonder if you have any advice to young composers about that very difficult balance between economic and artistic survival?

LH: Well, I was raised in the era of…let us say, Charles Ives. And that kind of balance when I was growing up was very common. There were practically no foundations in those days. There was no public support. But what you did was to get some sort of job which would support you so that you could do your music. That was the whole point of working! I think that model may survive a little longer than sitting down to write a grant – versus writing a piece. But I do think a certain independence along those lines is a very good thing, and I have no objections to the idea that man is willing to pay for his pleasures. Music is a pleasure, and so is composing and playing it. And anyone ought to have the feeling that they can support that activity rather than insisting that it support them.

JLA: In your Music Primer, you gave a bit of advice which I’ve often come back to over the years, as a sort of touchstone in my own life. The idea was; “Don’t allow yourself to become indebted to the silliness of society. Decide what you can afford to do with your art, and do only that.”

LH: Yes, I think that’s a very sensible notion, even today (and I’m still doing it, by the way). I have many requests, a lot of them are commissions, but I have an increasing need to find new tunings. I would like to build a new gamelan, and I’m having my harps repaired so I can play them more. I don’t necessary have a drive towards doing another symphony, but there are still things I want to do musically and non-musically. I’ve always drawn, painted, and written poetry. I have another book I want to put out, perhaps several of them, and I have some musicological studies that I never finished, which I want very much to do.

And so there’re a lot of things. I don’t feel bound to sit at a desk writing notes all the time (besides, it’s easier to write numbers), so I stick with gamelan for the most part. But I’ll tell you, my hand is getting sufficiently shaky, so I have to use two hands sometimes, to be sure I’m getting it on A instead of G.

JLA: Wow. Are you using larger staff paper?

LH: Yes I am, as a matter of fact. Not quite like Carl Ruggles, who used to have to put it on butcher paper across the room, but I’m getting there.

JLA: Because of the change in your hands, have you changed the computer fonts of your calligraphy?

LH: Yes, because I can’t really do calligraphy anymore. My hand won’t obey me. I do like my letters to look well, so I’ve designed fonts. I just finished another one with Carter Schultz, who is my helper and friend along with these things. We just finished a Roman Rustica which is almost the last of the Roman forms that we hadn’t done. And it looks surprisingly readable. It’s supposed to be the least readable of all Roman fonts, but it isn’t, as it turns out. That was fun to do. I still have a little teasing idea that I want to do another font, and that’ll be my sixth or seventh with Carter. He made a beautiful font out of the letters I used to use when I would address an envelope. A beautiful font called “Lou Casual” out of just those letters. It has the most beautiful letter “U” that I have ever seen; it’s exquisite.

JLA: Well, this is very exciting to those of us who have admired the elegance of your hand over the years to know that it will endure, and that some of us may be able to write in “Lou casual”. How does one get hold of those?

LH: You can get the whole set through Frog Peak, and it’s available for both Mac and IBM.

4. The Future of Music

JLA: I have one more big question that I want to try and ask if I can articulate it, and it has to do with audience and community. My experiences over the last several years have convinced me that there is an audience for new music.

LH: Oh, I agree completely there is.

JLA: I’m glad to hear that I believe that audience is growing in number and sophistication, and that younger people today are especially open to new musical experiences.

LH: I agree with that.

JLA: So that’s cause for hope?

LH: You bet.

JLA: Do you have any thoughts about how we, as composers and performers of new music, can better reach that audience, and strengthen our own sense of community? How do you view the present and future roles of new music ensembles, orchestras, record companies, radios, and the Internet?

LH: Well, I’m not privy to the secrets of the Internet. But certainly the technology is advancing and much can be used from it. I’m sorry that micro-radio stations aren’t yet widely available (unless you have a fast card) through which you could, for example, promulgate your own music. Now you can make CDs for practically nothing (though I don’t prefer them at all over the audiocassette, which I think is an excellent instrument), but those parts of technology are fine. I have never learned Finale, (though people now can do it easily, I never could), and I have no intention of learning it. But that’s another way that people can present the written aspect of music well. It’s not as good as a good hand, but still…

JLA: Because it’s not as sophisticated, is it?

LH: No it isn’t. There’s still a new program called Sibelius, I think? It’s from England and you have to buy a whole lot of machinery to go with it, but apparently it starts from zero, and you can do anything. So that sounds OK, but I myself am much too old to do all this.

JLA: Yes, but the possibilities for self-publishing, for desktop publishing for younger composers are very exciting.

LH: Yes, all that is very good, and the technology is a help. Of course, as for the social aspect of music, I still am old-fashioned enough to think that every community, even the small ones, ought to have a gamelan, because you sit on the floor and play your part, and have a grand time. In fact, you should be able to play every part in the orchestra, which is more than you could say in a Western-style orchestra. I think that’s one of the reasons that the gamelan world is spreading so rapidly everywhere. In fact, not too long ago, I was having coffee with Wen Ten down at CalArts, and he said, “I have to go to Egypt next month.” I said, “Egypt?” He said, “Yes, Cairo.” I asked him why, and he said, “Well, the embassy has got a new gamelan.” And I looked him square in the eye and said, “One more nation falls.” He looks me right back and says, “Yes.” We joke about the cultural imperialism of Indonesia, but who can resist a good gamelan, after all? And the idea that any of us can play it is marvelous!

JLA: I remember with pleasure your coming up here with Bill and several others. You brought the first gamelan to Alaska.

LH: I think so. That was wonderful and we enjoyed that trip so much, John. It was just marvelous.

JLA: This is a bit of a loaded question, but what do you see as the role, in all of this, of an organization such as the American Music Center?

LH: Well, I think of it as a Central information booth. I used to speak of Henry Cowell as American Music’s central information booth; if you had a question, you could ask Henry, and if he didn’t know the answer immediately, he knew who did know it, and a telephone number. I think that sort of role is an important function of the Center. It also serves as a library and a research facility for those trying to find out about what’s new in American composition.

JLA: You know, Cowell was involved in the founding of the Center, and we carry on his tradition of the walking encyclopedia in the form of Eero Richmond, who is truly astounding in terms of the breadth and depth of his knowledge of American music; ask him a question and stand back.

LH: That’s good. I hope it continues with flying colors and lots of success.

JLA: I’m very excited about the future of the organization.

LH: Keep working on those wonderful things you do. And I hope you have many great successes.