Tag: modernism

The Syncopated Stylings of Charles Wuorinen

When the arguments were over, only a few famous composers younger than Milton Babbitt and Elliott Carter remained committed to old-school high modernism. Two of the best were Peter Lieberson and Charles Wuorinen. Lieberson died in 2011 at 64, Wuorinen turns 80 on June 9.

They were easy to bracket because they were friends, had a similar circle of New York City advocates, and shared something of an aesthetic trajectory inspired by the late music of Igor Stravinsky. Both Lieberson and Wuorinen had met Stravinsky in person and Vera Stravinsky asked Wuorinen to “finish” sketches from her late husband, which became his A Reliquary for Igor Stravinsky.

Stravinsky had jumped into the twelve-tone pool after the passing of his rival Arnold Schoenberg, and his last great work, Requiem Canticles, is as instantly charismatic as dodecaphony has ever been. While the early works of Lieberson and Wuorinen are relentlessly esoteric products of the hardcore Babbitt school, at some point both followed Stravinsky’s lead into comparatively accessible territory. Lieberson worked on softening the lyric line, culminating in glorious song cycles for his wife Lorraine Hunt-Lieberson, and Wuorinen took on the challenge of creating modernist composition informed by perceptible pulsating rhythm.

Wuorinen’s “perceptible pulsating rhythm” was a return to ragtime.

In his way, Wuorinen’s “perceptible pulsating rhythm” was a return to ragtime. Before Babbitt and Carter, American formal composition frequently contained the echo of Scott Joplin, a patron saint of Charles Ives, Conlon Nancarrow, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, and Leonard Bernstein.

This ragtime perspective also fit with the Stravinsky influence, as Stravinsky found syncopation a natural source for his cubist phrases. Perhaps Stravinsky’s Movements for Piano and Orchestra is close to Babbitt’s rigorous discontinuity, but much else in the Stravinsky canon has a taste of ragtime, especially after he emigrated to America. Ebony Concerto (written for the Woody Herman band) is still one of best pieces in the conventional European concert idiom scored for jazz ensemble, and Stravinsky’s late non-tonal Agon (made famous by the George Balanchine ballet) is full of syncopation.

Wynton Marsalis says of The Rite of Spring: “Stravinsky turned European music over with a backbeat. Check it out. What they thought was weird and primitive was just a Negro beat on the bass drum.” If we pressed Marsalis further, he certainly would add there’s actually no “just” about that “Negro beat.” Asking musicians who are most comfortable with the European tradition to play with a groove is dicey territory. For that matter, composers themselves have seldom allowed a drummer to make up their own part.

Film composer Howard Shore had this to say about his experience trying to find an authentic “feel” for the soundtrack for Ed Wood:

Beatnik dance music—a conga player and a bongo player. At the time I recorded the score there were no studios available in Los Angeles…We ended up going to England—I recorded the score with the London Philharmonic—and it was very fortunate that we did. The British percussionists were so square, but it was the perfect sound! The bongo player was English! He was a good player and a good musician, just a little square, a little straight. In Los Angeles, they probably would have been too hip. As soon as I heard this English guy, I thought, oh, we’re so lucky to have this guy play this bongo track.

This “a little square” place is important to the soundscape of 20th-century American formal composition. It isn’t as rhythmically profound as jazz or hip hop (or another dozen American musics); it is simply basic syncopations and polyrhythms played “correctly.” The outsized pop version is found in musical theater. Leonard Bernstein is the emperor of that uninitiated energy—West Side Story is never better than when done by a college group—but a dollop of that “naive swing” has been a factor in many good performances of American concert music from Ives onward.

To bring this back to Wuorinen: the default setting of high modernism is Very Serious Indeed. Wuorinen’s post-Stravinsky “perceptible pulsating rhythm” pieces are Very Serious, but they also ask for European-style concert musicians to drive syncopations in a reasonably straight line, or at least straight enough for Wuorinen to claim they are “a hip-swinging wing-ding” (his comment on the finale to the Third Piano Concerto).

YouTube is full of smart kids nailing difficult Wuorinen scores.

Honestly, it is as goofy as hell but remains a pleasure to listen to, especially for those who want to clear their ears out with some proper atonality once in a while. Like West Side Story, these pieces are well suited to talented college students who are reveling in their vitality: YouTube is full of smart kids nailing difficult Wuorinen scores.

For my own private 80th Wuorinen birthday celebration, I’ve been repeatedly listening to four works from the early ’80s, when he seemed to give high modernism a proper injection of “ragtime.” I imagine the composer’s smile hanging over the proceedings like a 12-tone Cheshire Cat.

A collection of Wuorinen LPs and CDs on top of a digital keyboard.

The Blue Bamboula (1980)

Wuorinen has four pieces with “Bamboula” in the title. This is a tip of the hat to Scott Joplin’s notable predecessor Louis Moreau Gottschalk, who’s once-famous “Bamboula” from 1848 is a fantasy on two Creole themes.

Commissioned by Ursula Oppens, The Blue Bamboula is, in Wuorinen’s words, “A single-movement piece in which I tried to respond to Oppens’s request that the work embody the spirit of an earlier work of mine, the Grand Bamboula of 1971.” Amusingly, a quote from Tchaikovsky is fed through the modernist meat grinder. Carla Bley told Amy Beal, “To me, the piece Blue Bamboula with Garrick Ohlsson playing it, is the best piece of piano music in the world.” At one point I had a playlist of the Ohlsson and Oppens performances in rotation. Both are beautiful. (This was before the comparatively recent Molly Morkoski issue, which is also excellent.) It didn’t take long before my ears tuned up enough that I could follow the narrative smoothly: The whole work might be seen as a move from C to D-flat, and Wuorinen even gives a few repeat signs near the end.

Admittedly, if you aren’t intrigued by the style to begin with, the surface of The Blue Bamboula may still seem incoherent. It’s possible that high modernism is mostly for fellow professionals. Steve Swallow said about Carla Bley: “She has perfect pitch and can sing the notes in the voicing of incredibly dense harmonies. I’ve heard her do this to music of Charles Wuorinen, perhaps her favorite composer.”

New York Notes (1982)

Violinist Miranda Cuckson suggested I listen to this piece, which has attained the status of a classic. There are two excellent recordings. It’s common at colleges, and was one of the earliest pieces rehearsed by the important new music group eighth blackbird. For his 60th birthday it was played by the New York New Music Ensemble at the Kaye Playhouse, and for his 75th, the composer conducted it at the Guggenheim.

New York Notes refers to New York New Music Ensemble, who commissioned the work, but it is also the title of a book by celebrated New Yorker critic Whitney Balliett: New York Notes: A Journal of Jazz, 1972-1975. I doubt Wuorinen was attempting to make a connection to Balliett, but nonetheless there are many pretty jazz chords in Wuorinen’s chamber piece. Of the Wuorinen I know, New York Notes is the closest to Peter Lieberson, who was perhaps the greatest American master of sensuous, “jazzy” atonality.

There are many pretty jazz chords in Wuorinen’s chamber piece.

Wuorinen writes, “The six members of the ensemble (flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, percussion) are all engaged in virtuoso play, but I also think of their music as comprising three duets of the related pairs of instruments, as well as six solos.” This explanation may obscure the real fun of New York Notes, which is simply that almost all fast-moving material is doubled. Usually “duets” in new music-speak means conversation and counterpoint, but not here, where “duets” literally means, “play the exact same material.”

For the first recording with New York New Music Ensemble, Daniel Druckman does a herculean job of managing all the percussion himself. On the later version with the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, there are two percussionists and a few intriguing “cadenzas” from computer generated sounds.

It might be a stretch to say that New York Notes is “grooving,” but the rhythmic excitement is palpable. The phrases are usually in obvious duples like sixteenth notes and the occasional triplet. Wuorinen told Tim Page in 1989: “From my vantage point, it is a little difficult to say what’s happened—I’ve just kept on scribbling…. [but] my use of rhythm is more periodic, more regular, more intimately related to the background pulse than it used to be—which is a long, complicated, and rather pompous way of saying that the beat is clearer.”

In New York Notes, that clearer beat powers near-vamps in the low registers and near-bebop at the top, perfect for the city of jazz, subways, and skyscrapers.

Piano Concerto No. 3 (1983)

It’s a hell of a thing. Garrick Ohlsson begins with an intense toccata that barely lets up. The percussion enters, tentatively at first, then swarming the pianist. A hypnotic slow movement gently pulses away before the coruscating finale. Like New York Notes, duples and doubling are major features: The piano plays almost the whole time and various sections of the orchestra double the piano exactly, especially in the outer movements. (This must have been a real help in rehearsal!) The language is of course atonal, but there are plenty of harmonic puns: The first movement ends with G major over D minor, the last ends with G minor over D major.

As mentioned above, Wuorinen calls the finale “a hip-swinging wing-ding.” The rhythmic excitement is perfectly judged. It’s not too square, but there’s just enough “beat” to feel propulsion.

It’s interesting to compare Peter Lieberson’s Piano Concerto played by Peter Serkin from the exact same vintage. Lieberson’s harmonies speak more naturally; they are perhaps more glamorous and “Stravinskyian” in the best sense, but Wuorinen has the syncopated edge. I have tried to listen to as many of the 20th-century piano concertos as possible, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Lieberson’s First and Wuorinen’s Third are two of the best.

These composers were producing this great music on a reasonably well-lit platform. Ohlsson and Serkin were and are two beloved pianists, accompanied on record by Seji Ozawa/Boston Symphony and Herbert Blomstedt/San Francisco Symphony respectively. Lieberson’s concerto was commissioned for the Boston Symphony centennial, Wuorinen’s piece commissioned by a consortium of five orchestras. Both works were given technically insightful rave reviews by Andrew Porter in The New Yorker.

It is just barely possible that future young players will be able to put up a performance of Lieberson 1 or Wuorinen 3 as easily as Beethoven or Rachmaninoff. Time will tell.

That was then. At this point it is hard to imagine either concerto entering the general repertory, but I presume both composers were taking the long view and hoping to create music that will give at least a few people pleasure in perpetuity. The virtuosity of new music performers keeps improving (a process partially kickstarted in New York by the Group for Contemporary Music founded by Wuorinen and Harvey Sollberger in the early ’60s), and I suppose it is just barely possible that future young players will be able to put up a performance of Lieberson 1 or Wuorinen 3 as easily as Beethoven or Rachmaninoff. Time will tell. At this moment Wuorinen’s public face, a grouchy, “you kids get off my lawn” personality—a personality he seems to have had for decades, if not his whole life—has probably done harm to his status as an essential composer.

Before the performance of Brokeback Mountain this past Monday night, Miranda Cuckson quickly introduced me to Mr. Wuorinen in the foyer of Jazz at Lincoln Center. The conversation went like this:

EI: Hello! I’m a fan.

CW: (grumpy) Hello.

EI: I have the score to your Third Piano Concerto in my bag.

CW: (less grumpy) Well, that’s an antique.

EI: It seems like some of the same material is used in Spinoff.

CW: (smiling) Yes! That’s true. I totally ripped off the Concerto for Spinoff. That was the same year.

EI: Well. Thanks for all the music. You’ve written so much.

CW: (grumpy) It’s not so much. I’m 80 and there are 275 pieces. But I do work all the time.

Spinoff (1983)

Patrick Zimmerli told me about this piece in 1992, so I searched out the Speculum Musicae 15th anniversary LP.  Spinoff remains something I play for jazz students who are interested in combining modernist notes with pulsating rhythm. It’s only six minutes. For the first minute, the violin and bass sound like “normal” discontinuous modern music, but then Howard Shore’s beatnik conga enters and all bets are off. And, yes, a few of the lines are exactly the same as from the first movement of Piano Concerto No. 3.

It’s appropriate to compare Spinoff to another valuable item for jazz students, All Set by Milton Babbitt. Spinoff might be a bit dorky, but All Set is more dorky. If this admittedly subjective judgment is true, it’s because the beatnik conga in Spinoff holds the thread together more convincingly than Babbitt’s fragmented drum set notation for All Set.

Spinoff might be a bit dorky, but All Set is more dorky.

Congas star in Spinoff, but over the years Wuorinen has written for the full percussion arsenal extensively—and well. In the liner note for his mammoth Percussion Symphony, Wuorinen says he likes drums not just for clarity, but for a “very ancient, layered set of associations, reaching well back into our distant past. Thus, modernity and antiquity are pleasingly conjoined.” Daniel Druckman (who recorded New York Notes for one percussionist) has said of Wuorinen, “He’s one of the two or three most important people for us in terms of central works and stretching the limits of what the instruments can do.” (See also Tyshawn Sorey’s note below.)

The only professional recording of Spinoff remains the first by Benjamin Hudson, Donald Palma, and Joseph Passaro. It’s good (especially from Palma, who can play jazz), but upon finally looking at the score for the first time last week, I’ve realized that some of Wuorinen’s obvious syncopations could and should be articulated more clearly.

Big Spinoff is a fun amplification of the work for Alarm Will Sound, which does justice to the “finger snapping” moments in the piece. AWS Artistic Director Alan Pierson explains, “AWS got excited about the idea of arranging it years ago. The propulsive energy and driving rhythms felt like a great match for us. We actually originally proposed doing the arrangement ourselves (Stefan Freund was gonna do it) and asked Charles’s permission. But he said he wanted to do it himself! And we love the result.”

Peter Lieberson’s note to the original LP is now hard to find. After recapping Wuorinen’s relationships to Igor and Vera Stravinsky, Lieberson offers the following observation:

Spinoff is itself replete with little homages: one cannot help but hear echoes of L’Histoire du Soldat, the music from scenes one and two, with the characteristic “breathy” rhythm of the violin against the regular pizzicati of the bass acting as a refrain throughout. The ending sounds like a pitched version of L’Histoire’s and there are other smoky echoes in the congas from Ebony Concerto. Because Wuorinen’s voice is strong and recognizably his, such homages are agreeable adornments to the direct and exuberant discourse.

If I’m arguing that Spinoff is at least a little bit goofy, there’s no way to leave out Cicadas of the Sea’s excerpt of Spinoff with vocalese and hand puppets.

I have been re-listening to early ’80s Wuorinen because I’ve kept these pieces in rotation over the last 25 years. Since then, he hasn’t given up on a syncopated style—indeed, that aspect has proven perfect for several dance commissions—but among other things there has been an abundance of vocal music and an overt engagement with early European composers like Machaut and Josquin.

Opera might be the one place where a civilian can enjoy rigorous atonality.

At Rose Theater for Brokeback Mountain, there were several audience members in cowboy hats and jeans, apparently doing a kind of cosplay based on the hit movie. I hope they enjoyed the opera as much as I did. High modernism is a fabulous fit for the classic operatic themes of sex and death: indeed, I think opera might be the one place where a civilian can enjoy rigorous atonality as much as a professional. Unlike some reviewers, I didn’t find Brokeback overbearing or contrived. Indeed, there was a lightness in orchestration that suited the sparse set and simple story. There were even many comic moments… I mean, let’s face it, the meeting of cowboys and 12-tone music is already absurd and amusing. In the final analysis, I have only one criteria as to whether an opera is good: I need to be crying by the end, and Brokeback Mountain passed the test.

A common interpretation of Schoenberg’s Moses Und Aron is that Schoenberg thought of himself as the mute prophet Moses, offering the glories of 12-tone music to a society mostly deaf to his vision. When the lonely rancher in Brokeback Mountain swears fidelity to his dead lover, it was easy to imagine the last remaining high modernist Charles Wuorinen promising continued fealty to his beloved palette of uncompromising sounds.

Coda: With a canon as large as Wuorinen’s, it only makes sense that responses to his work will vary widely. On a hunch, I sent Tyshawn Sorey my piece and asked him if he found Wuorinen relevant. He replied:

“In my view, not only is Wuorinen totally relevant to me, but his works should be considered relevant for anyone who is interested in the study and presentment of contemporary music! Wuorinen’s music has a very direct relationship to my life in several ways. I’m mostly familiar with his 60’s and 70’s work, both as a performer and as a listener. Not so much his music from, say, the late 80’s up to now, except for New York Notes, which I really like. Since we’re discussing his 1980s music, it was also a wonderful experience preparing his Trombone Trio (1985) for performance by myself on tenor trombone and two other professors at William Paterson University from the New Jersey New Music Ensemble (a sub-group from the New Jersey Percussion Ensemble), but further opportunities to rehearse and perform the piece together fell through due to insanely crazy schedules. I’d still play that piece in a heartbeat if a pianist and percussionist would ever want to do it with me!

“But if you want to talk about the side of Wuorinen’s work I admire most, then I should mention being one of the percussionists in an exhilarating, life-changing performance of Ringing Changes (1969), a staple in contemporary music literature along with the incredible Percussion Symphony (1976), which as far as I’m concerned should be considered a ‘standard.” Even though the music itself is not nearly as rhythmically complex or discontinuous as his earlier pieces, these works are fascinating on every level—the last section of Ringing Changes featuring the tubular bells, for example, is probably some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard anywhere. It brought me to tears, playing the tubular bells in that section. That sound world was revolutionary for its time, and so full of life!

“It should also go without saying that I am very much in love with his earlier, more ‘rhythmically disjunct’ pieces—the ones that really did it for me were the Piano Variations, Flute Variations I & II, all of the 60s Concertos, the First Piano Sonata (Robert Miller’s performance is for me the definitive performance of this masterwork), Time’s Encomium, Arabia Felix, String Trio and the list goes on and on… And last (but certainly not least) there is my favorite composition of his, Janissary Music, which I think is one of the most virtuosic works ever to exist for one percussionist alone. The performance of this piece exemplifies a whole different kind of complexity and rigor; it’s not ‘new complexity’, and it’s not even trying to be that—it’s simply Wuorinen’s genuine compositional language. Hell, it’s new complexity done Wuorinen’s way! The percussion writing is full of extreme rigor and technical fluidity as well as some mesmerizing moments. That music truly ‘grooves’ in its own way, and doesn’t sound rhythmically ‘square’ at all! After happening upon the original CRI LP record of the piece at the William Paterson Library, I asked the genius percussionist Ray Des Roches (for whom Wuorinen composed this piece) what was it like for him to prepare this piece. He then informed me that it was so difficult to play, that it took him over a year to learn it! (This—coming from one of the most revered, pioneering figures ever to exist in the performance of contemporary music—was quite the news to hear! Des Roches’s classic recording also remains definitive!)

“I continue to listen to Wuorinen to the very present day. In fact, I was recently blasting and sort of ‘dancing’ along to one of his pieces in my car in downtown New York while waiting on a friend… folks stared, but I didn’t give a damn who was staring at me because the music excites and inspires me to move. The music is both “serious” and enjoyable, to my ears. I like to sit and read the scores, and sometimes I like to just listen and enjoy it to my heart’s content—it is totally possible to do this. Wuorinen remains a huge influence in my own work, both in terms of the rigor with which he deals with pitch selection and form, as well as the sense of melodic and rhythmic gesturing that is evidenced in all of his compositions. One of the greatest to ever do it, in my opinion!”

Scott Johnson: The Cultural Version of DNA Mixing

In his landmark scientific comparison of music and language Music, Language, and the Brain (Oxford, 2008), cognitive neuroscientist Aniruddh D. Patel states that “[s]peech and music involve the systematic temporal, accentual, and phrasal patterning of sound” and that “there are numerous points of contact between musical and linguistic melody in terms of structure and processing. For example, the statistics of pitch patterning in a composer’s native language can be reflected in his or her instrumental music. Furthermore … melodic contours in speech and music may be processed in an overlapping way in the brain” (from pp. 177 and 238).

All of this seems like it should be incredible fodder for composers, as well as anyone concerned about the relevance of music. And indeed, the histories of music and language have been very deeply intertwined throughout history in cultures throughout the world. In fact, Steven Mithen, in his provocative 2006 book The Singing Neanderthals, went as far as to posit that music and language share a common root in a pre-historic proto-communication he named “Hmmmmm” (“Holistic, manipulative, multi-modal, musical and mimetic”), diverging into separate realms only much later in our evolutionary process.

So perhaps it was inevitable that in the late 1970s a then 20-something named Scott Johnson transcribed four phrases from one side of a telephone conversation he had recorded, and then played those phrases on an electric guitar—an experiment which several years later became his breakthrough musical composition John Somebody. After all, for centuries drummers throughout West Africa have performed on instruments called “talking drums” which so effectively mimic the meter and intonation of spoken language that they were traditionally used to convey complex linguistic messages across great distances. In the earliest book-length study of Chinese music in English (Foundations of Chinese Musical Art, written in Shanghai in 1936), John Hazedel Levis demonstrated the clear relationship between the pentatonic melodies of traditional Chinese instrumental music and the pitched inflections of the Chinese language.

Admittedly the relationship between music and language in Western music has been somewhat more oblique, as anyone who has listened to an incongruous musical setting of a text can clearly attest. Yet, similarly, part of our perception of a text and melody working really well together is the result of a perceptible relationship between the two. Apart from putting music to words, taking actual speech and transmogrifying it into music—Johnson’s initial electric guitar experiment—was not something completely without precedent in this part of the world either. Snippets of speech make cameo appearances in several of the classics of 1950s musique concrete, Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry’s Symphonie pour un homme seul (1949-50) and Edgard Varèse’s Poème électronique (1958) being among the most memorable. And in Steve Reich’s earliest phase compositions—It’s Gonna Rain (1965) and Come Out (1966)—tape loops of recorded speech fragments are transformed into elaborate musical counterpoint. All of which Scott Johnson acknowledged, along with several other influences, when we visited him in his media-saturated apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

“There was plenty of voice use,” remarked Johnson. “But I don’t think it was rhythmic in this particular way. That’s one thing Steve brought to it. And, although in some of those early concrète things the voices appeared within a pitched context, they didn’t do the transcription thing, which is pretty much what I brought to it. … People talk a lot about Steve Reich’s Different Trains, which happened after he’d heard John Somebody, but as a teenager I’d heard his loop pieces. He did not go to the idea of transcribing the pitches and turning it into instrumental music, but there was that kind of sonic quality of layers, so that was an influence. Then there’s the call and response idea from the blues. And then there was Messiaen, which was a really direct and obvious thing: write down the bird songs. I’ll write down the human songs. So I would say that those three things kind of collided one afternoon.”

But it turned out to be several years before Johnson’s playing of those four speech-derived melodies became John Somebody, a rare occurrence of a piece of so-called “serious music” that has an unmistakable sense of humor.

“It’s about this guy who’s a forgettable person,” Johnson explained. “In the second movement, he’s stumbling. That’s actually me going, ‘I just thought of something; what did I think of?’ In the next movement, women are laughing at him. Then in the final movement recap, it’s sort of a joke about male insecurity to a great degree. That’s partly why the use of the big, macho, power chords to me was always funny. It’s metaphorical, whether or not you get the metaphor.”

It was also a lot more than just an attempt to turn spoken language into music, as Johnson described it.

“I was working very hard to get synchronization, which was the opposite of what Steve did. There’s a 25-foot loop on John Somebody in ‘Involuntary Song 3.’ It’s the one with the fake operatic voice. Underneath that, there are five pitches of ‘hahs’ [laughing sounds]. I made the chord structure by turning them on and off as the chords went by. Any two ‘hahs’ would create the implication of a major chord or a minor chord, so I had to synchronize those multiple loops with this 25-foot tape loop. I still remember it was two and a quarter inches for a whole note. And I was putting sixteenth inch pieces of leader in there, so that I could the run the whole thing in sync with other tracks. It was absolutely insane. This is the kind of thing you could do in two days with Pro Tools. But that was the technology at the time, and it was brand new—multi-track tapes at home.”

Taking recordings of fragments of speech, transcribing them into instrumental melodies, and then harmonizing them provided Johnson with rigorous compositional techniques. But it still allowed him to reference popular culture, as well as the sonorities of contemporaneous popular music (e.g. the electric guitar), which was something he felt he would have been prevented from doing had he written high modernist music according to the compositional training he eschewed. Yet, ironically, he soon realized his methods shared a surprising kinship with serial music.

“You have those notes and you’ve got to deal with them,” he acknowledged. “If you’re a serialist composer, here comes that A-flat. You have to use it. You cannot leave this room until you have said A-flat. I found that what the speech transcription thing did for me is a similar kind of thing. It makes you jump through hoops. … In the late ‘80s, I had a couple of pieces where, after realizing this similarity with being tied to these voices, I literally made a 12-tone row and did the retrograde, retrograde inversion, the whole thing. I made strict melodies and then harmonized them tonally, and ended up with a harmonic language that is not that dissimilar from where I am now. I did it to prod myself, but I was not really interested in this totally constructed, totally logical, totally interrelated artwork that I think the serialists were interested in. In some ways, I’m more of a collagist or a hybridist, the surrealist idea of dissimilar objects jamming up against each other and something happens.”

Johnson also continued to explore the correlation of speech and music in a variety of compositions, but in the last 25 years several of these pieces have taken on much larger narrative arcs, often with social and political implications. How It Happens, a massive work for string quartet and the pre-recorded voice of American journalist I. F. Stone completed in 1994, is a seething commentary on globalization and xenophobia since the Cold War era. The (once-again extremely timely) Americans, from 2003, uses the voices of three recent immigrants to address the complexities of national identity in a multicultural society. Mind Out of Matter (2009-2015), Johnson’s most ambitious composition to date which has recently been commercially released on CD by Tzadik, uses samples of speech by Tufts University-based philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel C. Dennett to craft a sprawling instrumental oratorio for chamber orchestra about human consciousness and the evolution of religious beliefs. It’s super heady stuff, but it’s also extremely satisfying as a musical experience.

“I read a book by Dan Dennett called Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and I was very much blown away by it,” said Johnson. “It actually answered a lot of questions about the evolution of music. … It shed a lot of light on things that I had been trying to say about why people join the groups they do and why certain ideas survive, like high modernism. … Then I heard his YouTube videos and realized that he had this fabulous melody-generator of a voice … probably the best sampled-speech source that I’ve bumped into.”

March 1, 2018 at 2:00 p.m.
Scott Johnson in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded in Johnson’s home on Manhattan’s Upper West Side
Video and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri: We’ve talked with each other many times over the years, but here we are having a conversation that’s being recording and will be transcribed, edited, and published for people to read—which I’m calling attention to since it’s somewhat analogous to the way that you’ve created many of your musical compositions. You’ll record or obtain conversations or speeches of some sort, transcribe them into musical notation, then mold it into music.

Scott Johnson: Well, these begin from two very different positions. Some of the pieces, especially this most recent one with the philosopher Daniel Dennett, initially starts with a lecture from a book of his called Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. He’s explaining how supernatural ideas are a natural outgrowth of the way our brain works, and then they become an outgrowth of the way societies work. In that case, I was starting with words that were already prepared. I edited and pieced things together, moved things around. But this was to some extent a pre-cooked meal. Then I went up to Boston [to record him] and got a few things that I wanted to complete the piece. On the other hand, there are other pieces—like, for starters, John Somebody—where I essentially went over to a friend’s house and had her call someone up on the phone, and I recorded her side of the conversation. I did that again for a piece called Convertible Debts. I went to a number of friends and I asked them to call someone up and ask for a favor. When people ask for a favor, they get a little squirmy; they get self-conscious and their voices kind of go up. So I got better melodies due to people’s nervousness.

So, yes, you’re right. The speech-sampling pieces, which are at least maybe half of the music I write, always begin with some pre-existing something. But I may or may not know what that pre-existing something is going to be when I have somebody just talk on the phone. I don’t know what they’re going to say. Although, afterwards, I of course know what they said. So I can pick and choose.

FJO: Over the last decade, there’s been a great deal of published research, as well as hypotheses, about the differences between music and language as sociological phenomena and their origins. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Steven Mithen’s book, Singing Neanderthals.

“Music and language have certainly diverged, but they still find each other.”

SJ: Yes, but it’s been years since I read it. He has an interesting theory about these being outgrowths out of the same root, that they were related in the same way that chimps and gorillas grew into different things. Language and music grew into different things. I think that in listening to people speak, I can still hear things. One of the early things that I noticed is that when people want to convey certainty, they settle on a low pitch. That’s the newscaster’s way of letting you know that it is an authoritative statement. And everybody’s familiar with question-speak. Then when people are trying to convince you of something, they can get very animated. Of course, there are all the facial gestures that go with that, but these have musical corollaries. There are things that are in between. A preacher is a perfect example. In some religions, some of them actually do start singing. I actually had a grandfather who was a Lutheran minister in Wisconsin, and when he would get to banging the pulpit, there was a sense of repetition in his phrasing and pitch choices. Actually, that’s another thing that people often do when they’re trying to convince you of something. They will repeat a point, then they’ll vary it, and then they’ll give you another example, and they’ll hit that same note. So yes, music and language have certainly diverged, but they still find each other.

FJO: So far, we’ve only been talking about English and the acculturated habits that English language speakers have, like raising the voice at the end of a question. But that’s not a universal phenomenon. All languages do similar things, but not the same thing.

SJ: There are slight variations, but it’s really basically all off the same root. Different cultures have different habits, but they’re all operating on the same hardware. Actually, Dan Dennett has an interesting thing in his new book where he refers to people’s minds; he talks about installing things in your necktop—like a desktop. Everybody in different cultures gets different versions of this installed. But some things are universal. A mother always uses that soft voice to sing to their infants. Guys looking for a fight kind of sound the same. You don’t have to be from that culture to know when somebody’s coming at you. Or when somebody’s smiling at you. There are a set of human behaviors, and they get channeled by culture.

FJO: Of course, one way they get channeled—and a way that makes it even closer to what we think of as music—is that some cultures developed so-called tonal languages, like Chinese or various West African languages such as Yoruba. Among certain peoples in West Africa, there is a clear relationship between the tonal language they speak and the music they create—they’ve even developed a performance practice on talking drums that directly mimics speech. I think it’s the ancestor of your music, because it’s turning words directly into music in a similar way.

SJ: Yeah, it’s a parallel. Like I said, everybody’s got the same hardware here. There are a number of things you can do with it. Tonal languages are apparently very difficult to learn. Some cultures don’t do anything with tone. But there are still variations on the uses that people can make of pitch. In English, we make uses of pitch in question-speak. Going up at the end of a sentence is a cultural habit that developed. Why did it happen? I actually have my own theories, but it doesn’t matter. Once a thing happens, it becomes imitated, and it gets passed on. That’s how human culture works. Basically in one sense it’s Darwinian; certain practices survive because they are copied more often. Although the difference between the regular Darwinian kind of unconscious evolution and the kind of evolution that humans do is that humans are conscious and they have more ability to choose than a dog. But I don’t think we have as much ability to choose as we think we do. Many years ago, to point out the fact that we are to some extent programmed by our culture, I would say, “We invent the sentences, but we didn’t invent any of the words.” I must have said this to Laurie Anderson, and she said, “We didn’t invent a lot of the sentences, either.” Think of all the political arguments you’ve had. So much of it consists of us repeating back what we heard yesterday—maybe in slightly different words, a mutation, but it’s not as if we thought that up. Sometimes we like to present it as if we thought that up, and that is also human nature: people putting their imprint on the viruses that are passing between us and other human beings.

FJO: So to take it directly to music: obviously, if you’re composing music based on the 12-tone equal-tempered scale that the West largely agrees on, all those notes have already been heard. All the possible chords you could make with those notes have also been heard. Maybe these notes and chords can be put together in new ways similarly to how we use pre-existing words to form new sentences, but only somewhat. And if you’re using musical instruments that someone else built and that other people have used, all those timbres have already been heard, too.

SJ: Right. There is possibility for novelty and, in our kind of new music world, it’s almost a fetish and a point of pride to say that you’re the first person to do this thing or that thing. And indeed, inventions occur, or else we’d still be trying to light that fire in the rain and having a hard time with it. But inventions are usually informed by an inheritance. I think there are mainly two kinds. There are variations on pre-existing structures and habits. All the chords and the notes that you’re talking about. Then there are inventions that are hybrids where you get inspiration from outside your field. When I started doing John Somebody, I studied visual art. I remember feeling at that time—this was in the conceptual art era in the late ’70s—that there was more inventiveness and more surprise in the visual arts than in the music world. One of the things I wanted to do when I settled on being a composer was to have some of what I used to call the gee-whiz factor, this sort of delight in something new which is naturally an interesting thing. Not only in music, but in most cultural products or habits, there’s always an interplay between comfort zone and familiarity—which is to say your inheritance from the culture—and surprise and invention. Both of those things can come up with very pleasing results: the piece of music that makes you cry because it pulls all the familiar strings; then the piece of music where you go, “What is that? I have never heard that before.” Of course, both familiarity and surprise can also go very wrong, which accounts for all of the boredom that we have felt and “If I had a gun, I would shoot myself right now in the middle of the concert.”

“There’s always this interplay between inheritance and invention.”

So there’s always this interplay between inheritance and invention, but different subcultures have really different attitudes about what constitutes a nice mix. I was about to say popular music is more inheritance and familiarity, but that’s actually not true. Think of classical music lovers, the kind of people who get mad if you’re not doing Schubert. One thing that’s always bothered me about the classical music world and the new music world is that we have a tendency to consider ourselves to be superior beings who are more aware and more conscious of what we’re doing, more inventive and less structured by what we think we’re supposed to do. Then there’s that old tendency to sneer at popular music. Popular music in general is structurally simpler, but it’s not more imitative or less inventive. There are people like Jimi Hendrix who come along and Radiohead. Again, it’s back to the idea that humans are always using the same hardware. I think the mix of inventiveness to inheritance is probably going to play out to some kind of a bell curve medium, pretty much among any group of people in any culture. Some cultures are very rigid and you don’t have as much inventiveness. Our culture prizes inventiveness and I think it’s a good thing. But then again, I’m a product of our culture.

FJO: The gee-whiz moment in your output is certainly John Somebody, but that didn’t suddenly appear out of nowhere. So how did you get to the point of thinking of speech as a possible source for melody?

Scott Johnson Explains the Genesis of John Somebody

SJ: Well, I came to New York to be a visual artist. I was going to give up music. I’d studied both. I had also played electric guitar in bar bands in Madison, Wisconsin; I played with different groups and I loved those sounds. But at that moment, I thought there was no chance to put that into serious music, classical music. I couldn’t figure out how to do it, so I decided to quit music, which I then later on failed at quitting. One influence from popular music is call and response—the singer sings something and the guitar would imitate it. I would imitate what just happened. That kind of call and response is common throughout all kinds of musical cultures.

When I became a visual artist, I started doing installation pieces and performance pieces, and I used tape. I would chop and edit together, in real time, from a reel-to-reel to a cassette. I’d stop and start the reel-to-reel and came up with this very choppy stuff. I read William Burroughs, and John Giorno was around at this time, too. This was the late ’70s, and there was an awful lot of this in the visual art world and related worlds in downtown New York. There was a lot of work with video tape and audio tape, and it all seemed like a new playground. And it was a playground I was kind of familiar with from doing music. But I found I was unable to ignore the pitches. I would make these tapes and eventually I just started paying a great deal of attention to the structure. I would have drone sounds. I have one thing where I would pitch-shift ringing telephones and create these kind of swooping sounds underneath these shattering, chopped up voices. At that point, it was almost like rhythm and melody. I was halfway to music. Then I was just collecting some source material. I went home [with a recording I made of a] painter named Judy Rifka, who was a friend of mine. There were these four phrases that sounded very melodic. And I realized, wait a minute, these sound really good on a guitar. So I wrote them down. By the way, I found the piece of paper with the first writing down of those four phrases [that wound up in John Somebody]. I have to show it to you.

The original sheet of music notation paper containing Scott Johnson's musical transcriptions of four phrases of spoken conversation that eventually became the basis for his composition John Somebody.

The original sheet of music notation paper containing Scott Johnson’s musical transcriptions of four phrases of spoken conversation that eventually became the basis for his composition John Somebody.

FJO: Wow.

SJ: But I ignored it for two years, because I was busy doing other things. Then finally I said, “Okay, I’ll do that transcription thing.” I actually performed a sort of drone-y version of it at the Mudd Club once before I started really structuring it; that would have probably been in 1979. Probably 1976 or ‘77 is when I first got the idea of writing it down. I know that because I remember the loft that I was living in on the Bowery, and I remember thinking, “Oh, this is a fun idea. I’ll get around to it someday.” Eventually I did get around to it. And that’s that. In terms of sources, I’d say there were really three things. People talk a lot about Steve Reich’s Different Trains, which happened after he’d heard John Somebody, but as a teenager I’d heard his loop pieces. He did not go to the idea of transcribing the pitches and turning it into instrumental music, but there was that kind of sonic quality of layers, so that was an influence. Then there’s the call and response idea from the blues. And then there was Messiaen, which was a really direct and obvious thing: write down the bird songs. I’ll write down the human songs. So I would say that those three things kind of collided one afternoon.

FJO: So here’s something that I find so interesting. You said you were in Madison, Wisconsin, playing in bar bands, but since you couldn’t integrate what you were doing in those bands into composition, you were going to give up music. Why didn’t you pursue playing in bands and try to become a rock star?

SJ: Oh, it was really clear that that was not of interest to me. I mean, it was fun. And it still would be fun to get up and play a tune once in a while. Actually that’s how I started picking up guitar again. Laurie Anderson is someone I knew through the art world, and I was in her first band. She had a jukebox in a gallery show at the Holly Solomon Gallery, and we made a bunch of tunes for Laurie’s art show to put on her jukebox. And I used to play with Rhys Chatham, Peter Gordon, people like that.

I knew how to play guitar, and I was pretty good at it. As far as rock and roll, I could have been a contender. But it just wasn’t what I wanted to do. It just wasn’t intellectually demanding enough. But I love the sounds. This was the problem that I had with music in general. The stuff that I was interested in intellectually—the classical world—was not of my time and place, or else it was of my time and place and it was high modernism, which I tried and tried but I did not fall in love with. As opposed to the music that I had a more emotional relationship to, which I played playing electric guitar. But I got bored.

FJO: But we’re talking about the mid-‘70s. This is the era of Robert Fripp and Brian Eno, whose music is pretty intellectual.

SJ: Oh, I know. And I like that stuff fine, but one thing I used to notice is it almost never breaks the five-minute limit successfully. That’s about how long those structures will work. But I also didn’t like 19th-century music particularly. I liked it better as I grew older and I began to understand how innovative and brilliant these people were. When I first heard it, I had no music background, by the way. I came to classical music and this stuff as a teenager under my own steam. That music was of another era, and it didn’t really speak to me. It gradually began to as I began to understand what went into it and the structures behind it, but it didn’t sound right to my Midwestern, American, rock and roll, guitar-playing ears. On the other hand, I actually remember the first time that I got really excited about classical music. My teenage hippy friends and I were getting stoned and we listened to The Rite of Spring. You’ve probably talked to a dozen composers who said, “That was my first piece.” It was mine, too, just like everybody else.

FJO: That’s interesting, because people talk about this divide. This is something David Lang has talked about. For composers over a certain age that piece is The Rite of Spring, but for composers who are younger, and I would lump you in the younger category, it would be In C.

SJ: Oh yeah, but I didn’t hear In C until shortly thereafter. I was a teenage Frank Zappa fan and his records had a quote, “The modern composer refuses to die.” The Edgard Varèse quote. Who’s Edgard Varèse? So I went and I got that gray record that everybody had. That was also early on.

FJO: And it’s also another precedent. Varèse used speech as music in Poème électronique.

SJ: Oh, yes. Exactly. That wonderful moment. But the use of speech in concrète music was nothing new at all.

FJO: But it certainly predates the Steve Reich tape-looped voice pieces [It’s Gonna Rain and Come Out].

“Steve [Reich] … was an influence on me, and I was proud to have re-influenced him.”

SJ: Well yeah, Steve got something from that. But then what Steve got out of his voice pieces was not the train of thought that led to Different Trains. It was the train of thought that led to the phase pieces and 18 Musicians. That was his immediate thing, and for more than ten years that’s what he did. He didn’t do the transcription thing until after he heard John Somebody. When that first happened, I felt great. He was an influence on me, and I was proud to have re-influenced him. Think of Manet. He was not embarrassed about being influenced by Monet. He was an older painter who was paying attention. He didn’t make up those late paintings of his. He borrowed a lot of it, and they’re good. So there. That’s the way I try to look at it. Anyhow, yes, there was plenty of voice use before that, but I don’t think it was rhythmic in this particular way. That’s one thing Steve brought to it. And, although in some of those early concrète things, the voices appeared within a pitched context, they didn’t do the transcription thing, which is pretty much what I brought to it. So, back to where I started, these genres are social constructions to some extent. Nobody invented them. You might invent this variation, or that variation, but you probably would not have invented that had there not been a precedent that got you halfway there.

FJO: So you were recording these snippets for an installation, and suddenly you realized these recordings of speech were tunes.

SJ: They sort of became that. The very first ones were more textural. My first attempts were sort of chattering and textural.

FJO: There’s a piece you include in the works list on your website called Home and Variations. It’s from 1979 and it’s the earliest piece you list, but you didn’t include a sound snippet of it.

SJ: I forgot about that. I did it with these French dancers in a dance company at L’Espace Pierre Cardin, this big performance space right off the Champs Elysées. That was my first trip to Europe. It was sort of amazing, because here was this experiment I had done being done in this prestigious space. It’s been all downhill since then, by the way.

FJO: Okay, so you came to New York and decided you weren’t going to do music, and in a few years you get invited to do this thing for Pierre Cardin.

SJ: I didn’t know where it was going to be performed. I got it through a choreographer friend of mine named Charlie Moulton, who was in the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. We used to actually go to Chinatown, play pool, get really sharp on our pool, practice some dance steps on the way over to a bar called Barnabus Rex—which was a fabulous artist bar in the ‘70s—and then we would walk in and we’d be the sharpest dancers and pretty good pool players. It was a very fun thing for a 23-year old to be doing. So Charlie knew this choreographer, Susan Buirge, and sent her to me.

Anyway, it was completely vital to coming up with John Somebody. It did not have transcription, but that’s where I did the other innovative technique of John Somebody. I’d take a mono-loop and run it onto a multi-track recording. Then I would run other mono-loops onto other channels of that multi-track recording using a variable speed control to hand-synch the tracks. I would run it for a while, and then I would pick the spot on the multi-track tape where it was most in synch and make a multi-track loop out of that. I would end up with a multi-track loop with these synchronized tracks that I had laboriously laid together. Then I would mix them out, turning different channels on and off. I had a little hand mixer made with on and off buttons and faders. Before I would mix these things out, I would do little exercises: buttons with my fingers, faders with my thumbs, moving them up and down, and I would make a plan. I could actually show you. I have graphic scores for John Somebody for how to mix out the voice tracks. Then I would do takes until I got it just so. But basically I invented this for this lost piece called Home and Variations. I think I have a reel-to-reel tape, but it’s from the ‘70s. It probably would turn to dust if you tried to play it, which is an unfortunate side effect of the environmental movement. They used to make audio tape with oil from whales. They stopped and started using synthetics, then ten years later discovered that all the tapes were falling apart, which is why you’ve heard of people baking tape. So those tapes are probably lost. I don’t know. It hardly matters to me.

Some of the Scott Johnson's archival tapes of his compositions.

Some of the Scott Johnson’s archival tapes of his compositions.

FJO: It mattered enough to you to include it in the works list on your website.

SJ: Sure, because having it listed on my website is what caused you to ask this question.

FJO: Exactly.

SJ: And actually I’m glad you brought that up. I’d totally forgotten. That was a vital link in making John Somebody. I was working very hard to get synchronization, which was the opposite of what Steve did. There’s a 25-foot loop on John Somebody in “Involuntary Song 3.” It’s the one with the fake operatic voice. Underneath that, there are five pitches of “hahs” [laughing sounds]. I made the chord structure by turning them on and off as the chords went by. Any two “hahs” would create the implication of a major chord or a minor chord, so I had to synchronize those multiple loops with this 25-foot tape loop. I still remember it was two and a quarter inches for a whole note. And I was putting sixteenth-inch pieces of leader in there, so that I could run the whole thing in sync with other tracks. It was absolutely insane. This is the kind of thing you could do in two days with Pro Tools. But that was the technology and at the time, and it was brand new—multi-track tapes at home. You know, The Beatles only had four channels.

FJO: So if someone wanted to reconstruct that, now that we have samplers, does it live on a digital file that somebody could get from you?

SJ: No, but the complete mix exists. I’ve considered at times rebuilding it. I actually have all the original loops. They’re sitting in a cardboard tube in the other room, and I’m sure they’re not okay. But I do have the eight-channel home master tape, and then I have the 24-track tape where we ran my eight-channel tape on to it. The 24-track tape is probably still functional and could be fixed. But it’s really fun writing new music. I spent months and months doing the Pro Tools editing on this new piece, Mind Out of Matter, and there is not a note out of place. I’m really happy with the recording. But if you ever hear me talking about doing that again, please tie me to a chair until I get over it, because it is really not fun. Writing music is fun and that’s what I want to do when I get up in the morning. So maybe I’ll never rebuild John Somebody.

Johnson's graphic score for operating the mixing board for "Involuntary Song 3" in John Somebody.

Johnson’s graphic score for operating the mixing board for “Involuntary Song 3” in John Somebody.

FJO: Have there been people who want to perform it?

SJ: Oh, people have performed it. The end result of all of this was initially a stereo tape, and now I have a stereo track. People can buy the solo part and the track from me and give it a performance. In the ‘90s, Lincoln Center sent John Somebody around to public schools in the region. I was busy and I didn’t want to pull my chops back up for this. So I found this wonderful guitarist named John Herington who’s now the lead guitarist for Steely Dan. He’s a fabulous guitarist, better than me. I found him through some musicians I’d known who do a lot of session work.

Those musicians were the Borneo Horns—Steve Elson, Stan Harrison, and Lenny Pickett who plays in the Saturday Night Live Band—which were David Bowie’s horn section from the Let’s Dance tour. They had played in a rock big band I had in the early ‘80s. It was like a guitar band with three saxophones. That music never was released. This is an interesting thing about our world and its pretensions for being not like the popular music world. After John Somebody, I did this rock big band, and no one was interested. The popular music world is not the only place where it’s dangerous to shift your focus, to change what you’re thinking about, and to try something new. So that’s a period of my music that was lost. There’s also some work from the late ‘90s that’s mostly disappeared. One of those pieces, The Illusion of Guidance, is still around, because I recorded it myself. It was written for the Bang on a Can All-Stars.

“I’ve complained about modernism a lot, but it informs my musical world.”

I wrote a number of pieces in that period that were kind of thornier, a little more dissonant and complex. It really paid off because I’ve complained about modernism a lot, but it informs my musical world. It’s actually better than tonal music at doing certain things. It’s better at conveying anxiety. As a matter of fact, the only inroads that high modernist atonal music made into popular culture are in scary movies, which is an interesting commentary on human nature and how we react to musical materials. How much of it is innate? How much of it is learned? Interestingly enough, when I was at Bellagio, there was a psychologist who showed me this study of weeks-old infants. They’d play them a melody, harmonized in parallel thirds, on a synthesizer. Then they would play them the same melody harmonized in clusters on the same synthesizer. About two-thirds of the time, when they did the clusters, the infants would start crying. They had not been taught not to like atonal music, so there’s something else going on in the nervous system. Anyhow, the interesting thing about that thornier music I did is that I felt like it broadened my harmonic palette. Then I put it to work in pieces like Americans. Mind Out of Matter is where it really came into focus. I feel like it gives me a broader palette of expression. It allows access to certain moods and associations. One example I often give is any good modernist composer can do a better storm than Beethoven, because they’ve got materials that work better for creating that sense of ominous disorder.

FJO: Since you brought up coming to terms with high modernist music, there’s a very important concept behind a lot of that music—certainly serial music—that isn’t very different from minimalism. In both cases, composers are generating larger temporal structures from a very small kernel, whether it’s the small rhythmic or usually tonal melodic cell in a minimalist piece or a combinatorial hexachord or a time-point set derived from that.

SJ: Well yeah, it’s the Beethoven Five mythology.

FJO: It’s also the function of those little snippets of speech in John Somebody.

SJ: I always have thought of the speech transcription thing as some sort of odd corollary to 12-tone music, which I don’t like to do, but it is an interesting problem. You have those notes, and you’ve got to deal with them. If you’re a serialist composer, here comes that A-flat. You have to use it. You cannot leave this room until you have said A-flat. I found that what the speech transcription thing did for me is a similar kind of thing. It makes you jump through hoops. The interesting thing about Mind Out of Matter is I never cheated. These words drip around and there’s a lot of glissing, but I always made a reference in the harmonic accompaniment to whatever pitches were going on, which caused me to modulate constantly, sometimes at a really rapid pace. It led to harmonic events that I might not have otherwise come up with. And I was very happy with it.

“I always have thought of the speech transcription thing as some sort of odd corollary to 12-tone music.”

In the late ‘80s, this is again some music that was never recorded, I had a couple of pieces where, after realizing this similarity with being tied to these voices, I literally made a 12-tone row and did the retrograde, retrograde inversion, the whole thing. I made strict melodies and then harmonized them tonally, and ended up with a harmonic language that is not that dissimilar from where I am now. I did it to prod myself, but I was not really interested in this totally constructed, totally logical, totally interrelated artwork that I think the serialists were interested in. In some ways, I’m more of a collagist or a hybridist, the surrealist idea of dissimilar objects jamming up against each other and something happens. This relates to my idea of getting inspiration from outside of music. A lot of my reading of evolutionary psychology, which I got really involved in in the ‘90s, eventually led me to this Dan Dennett piece. I would just go looking for ideas that weren’t about music. It didn’t matter if there was an absolute connection. I certainly was in no way doing scientific research, but I was being inspired by scientific research.

One of Scott Johnson's bookcases which also contains a hat and various knick-knacks.

FJO: So for pieces like The Illusion of Guidance or Rock, Paper, Scissors, which as far as I can hear don’t have any extra-musical, linguistic associations, how were the pitches determined? How was the material constructed? Was it intuitive? Was there a system?

“It’s the system of what Scott likes.”

SJ: When we were working on Mind Out of Matter, the Alarm Will Sound pianist John Orfe—who’s also a composer and is very good at both of those things—asked me about some of the harmonies. “They’re fairly interesting. What’s the system? How do you come by these harmonies?” My answer is that there is no system. It’s what Scott likes and wants to hear next. That’s that. I have the input that I’ve had from the world. I have the habits that I’ve developed on my own. I have my preferences. Occasionally I will set up structures to push me around—like in Rock, Paper, Scissors, there’s one movement in the center where I had a nine-note row. And the opening of it is some fairly strict three-voice counterpoint, if I remember. I haven’t heard it for a long time. It’s plain old-fashioned counterpoint, using these nine notes with retrograde inversions and the whole nine yards, because it was kind of fun. It is not more admirable than anything else I’ve done. The fact that it was strict is not anything that I find to be particularly inspiring beyond the boundaries of that piece. So I guess the answer is it’s the system of what Scott likes.

FJO: Earlier in this conversation you were talking about how you were attracted to the sound world of rock and playing the electric guitar, but high modernism ignored this music and so you felt that there was no way to make a connection. But in your own work you are using tropes from both rock and high modernism.

SJ: I found the connection. Exactly. The point is that I solved my college problem. I think oftentimes composers—and artists in general to some extent—spend their lives solving something that really bothered them early on. The problem we were talking about of how to fuse popular music and various classical inheritances, this drove me away from music. Solving it pulled me back in. Part of what allowed me to was, within a year of when I got there, I had met Philip Glass. He was playing keyboard and I was playing guitar in a piece of Peter Gordon’s at The Kitchen. Suddenly I ran into these people who had found ways around this high modernist conundrum of making a music that’s not the only thing that’s currently respectable. None of them were engaged in popular music to the extent that I was, although now there are a lot of people who are, but I felt like I’d been given permission. I saw Philip just last month, and we were talking about how John Cage loomed so large when he was a young composer. He still loomed fairly large when I arrived here, too. But I remembered a quote from Philip, that John Cage gave him permission. Philip and these guys gave me permission, even if they weren’t doing popular music. There was tonality again. There was rhythm again. And although I’m not a minimalist, some of my best friends are. It’s gone through a lot of mutations, but minimalism has certainly been the dominant outcome of the old Downtown.

“The high modernist problem is a case of sexual selection.”

Even though I was here to be a visual artist, I had been beginning to play guitar again just because I knew how. And it exposed me to people who, even if they weren’t solving my particular problem, were avoiding the thing that was stopping me from solving my problem. In other words, they were finding a way around the road block of high modernism—which, by the way, I really began to understand in the ‘90s when I began reading about evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology and Darwinism. There’s a thing that happens in the biological world called sexual selection. The high modernist problem is a case of sexual selection. Sexual selection is what gives the peacock its gigantic tail. This tail is not a benefit for the exterior environment. This tail actually endangers that peacock. But the peahens like it. It’s a way of showing off, like the exaggerated antlers of an Irish elk. They’re now extinct because they couldn’t run away from people in the forest. They kept running into trees. But these were things that helped them mate. These things that hurt you in the larger environment, helped you produce offspring, because they were attractive to the little circle of female Irish elks. Well, what is reproduction for a cultural item? Schools. Students. Admirers. What gets you the admirers in music? Musicians are like jocks. I can run faster than you. I can play those notes. I am more complex than thou. So how do you reproduce? You become exaggeratedly complex. We have contempt for dumb stuff. You know, dumb rock and roll, dumb popular music. So how do you reproduce as an intellectual composer? You get rid of every hint of popular music. You get rid of everything that Brahms or Beethoven or Bach would have done at the drop of a hat, which is to quote folk tunes, to quote popular dances. What is a Baroque suite? It’s what drunk people do on Saturday nights. Sarabandes and gigues and so forth. So that’s what happened with high modernism. I compare it to the koala. The koalas’ ancestors were generalists. They could eat all kinds of plants. Koalas can only eat eucalyptus, and they can only live in the eucalyptus forest. High modernists can only live in the academy or scary movies. This is a species—there again, the biological metaphor. You think of a train of thought or a genre as a species. It lives in an environment. If it specializes, and that specialized environment becomes threatened, it will go extinct. So in a way, this returning of the influences of popular music is not a transgression against the Western art tradition. It’s actually a reinstitution of something that was always present as Western art music evolved. And it’s also always present in the art musics of every other culture as well. Ragas referred to musics that might be made by less skilled people. There is my rant.

Scott Johnson explains how the high modernist problem is a case of sexual selection.

FJO: So John Somebody was a watershed moment. But I think you’ve had a second one.

SJ: What’s that?

FJO: How it Happens—and the reason why is that up to that point, you were exploring the musical implications of speech, but the specific words themselves were not necessarily important in terms of their specific meaning as words. You may disagree with me on that.

SJ: The words of John Somebody were not serious, nor were the words of Convertible Debts, which actually happened about the same time as How it Happens, now that I think of it. I was going back and forth between those two pieces. Convertible Debts was the funny piece. But, you’re right. How it Happens is really a narrative.

FJO: John Somebody and Convertible Debts are funny because you’re only getting one side of a conversation. It’s enjoyable, but in a way, it’s frustrating because we don’t completely know what it’s about and it doesn’t matter.

SJ: No it doesn’t. It’s sort of metaphorical. The one thing that I’ve never heard anybody notice is that John Somebody has this humorous arc. It’s about this guy who’s a forgettable person, and in the second movement he’s stumbling. That’s actually me going, “I just thought of something; what did I think of?” In the next movement, women are laughing at him. Then in the final movement recap, it’s sort of a joke about male insecurity to a great degree. That’s partly why the use of the big, macho, power chords to me was always funny. It’s metaphorical whether or not you get the metaphor, but it’s not really a narrative.

FJO: It was primarily about you finding the music in the language. Then when you reached this other point, you chose language and made music happen from it so we’d pay more attention to that language as language. Not just as the tunes that come out of it, but what I.F. Stone is actually saying.

SJ: Yes exactly, as content. It was about something. Again, Convertible Debts is sort of a halfway step because it’s about people’s interactions. By the way, the name is a kind of financial transaction, or financial vehicle. I had people ask a favor. It was about obligation between people. But again, it was not explicit. That was never said; whereas, in How it Happens, I.F. Stone is saying this about that. That was new.

FJO: It’s a tragedy that there’s no integral recording of it; only parts of it are scattered on three different Kronos recordings.

SJ: All three of those pieces together are half of the piece. There’s about another half hour. They didn’t record the very opening of the piece. There’s a very short little movement before “It Raged” and then there’s a big long movement, like 20 minutes, that’s mostly instrumental. There’s only a little bit of voice at the front and the back. I thought of it as the opposite of a choral movement in a symphony: suddenly the voice leads. Here the voice suddenly leaves. Then there was yet another movement that they didn’t do. Well, that’s what happened. I had no control over it. When they put the pieces on separate CDs, the idea was that was going to be a way of defraying the expense of a complete recording, which never happened. These things happened away from discussions with me. This is what happened between them and the record company. It’s too bad. No other quartet has stepped forward. The big movement has a lot of complex MIDI percussion and some synthesizer and sampler, and all of that could be done live with three keyboards and a percussion quartet, if I adapted and wrote the MIDI percussion out for live players. I’ve even thought about recording that version separately. But, again, there’s always new music to write and that’s always more fun. I hope maybe someday I can hear that piece, but somebody’s got to pay for that. With my own resources, I’d rather write something new. I don’t know if that’s me turning my back on myself or the right or the wrong thing to do. I have actually proposed this to quartets a couple times, but nobody’s taken me up on it. It needs a quartet.

Scott Johnson outside on his roofdeck.

FJO: There’s another piece from almost a decade later that almost feels like a synthesis of Convertible Debts and How it Happens, since it has elements of humor but also has a very clear political narrative: Americans. And wow is that piece timely to the current moment.

SJ: Oh, it kills me. This piece has only been performed once in Europe, in Milan, and there was one complete performance in America at a college. Two movements got done at Miller by Juilliard students with me playing guitar, because Juilliard didn’t have any guitarists. The thing about that piece is it’s the voices of immigrants from China, Afghanistan, and Romania. This was right smack in the middle of George Bush invading Afghanistan, and there’s a person talking about her conflicting feelings as an American and an Afghani. Now with the whole Syria business in Europe and the sort of crypto-Fascist uprisings here and in Europe, the whole issue of immigration is even more pertinent than when I wrote the piece.

At this moment, I’m writing a companion piece for the same instrumental ensemble with no samples. Part of the reason it hasn’t gotten played is because the sampling pieces require a click track, but also because it’s one of my weird ensembles. I write these pieces that have instruments that I like in combinations that don’t exist in standard ensembles. This is for sort of a rock rhythm section—guitar, bass, drums, piano—plus viola, clarinet, and saxophone. When I was writing it, I thought you could probably go to any small city anywhere in the Western world and find these instruments; it just seemed resonant to me. But in a way I’ve immunized myself against performances. But now I’ll have this new piece, that’ll be 20-minutes plus. Americans is 20-minutes plus. Now there’s almost a concert you can flesh out with some smaller pieces. That’s what I’m going to do next year. I just want to hear the damn thing again.

FJO: So there are times when you care about an older piece.

SJ: I care about all of them. I recognize that everything I’ve done is part of everything that I’ve done after it—whether I liked it or even if I didn’t like something, I like it because it taught me a lesson. You learn from your successes and your mistakes. It’s not that I don’t care about these older pieces. It’s that there are only so many hours in a day. That’s why I stopped performing basically. I like guitar, but I love writing. So who wins?

FJO: So since you mention mistakes, are there any pieces of yours that you would consider mistakes that are out there in the world?

“There’s no such thing as something that’s all good or all bad.”

SJ: The problem with that question is it’s an on and off switch. There’s no such thing as something that’s all good or all bad. There are pieces that have mistakes in them. There are pieces that I’ve revised. If something really bothers me, I fix it.

FJO: So what’s a mistake?

SJ: A mistake is a thing that doesn’t please me.

FJO: But you’re going to change over time.

SJ: Well, you’d be surprised at how consistent my likes and dislikes often are. There are pieces that I would never write today, but that I still like for what they are. I finally made a proper score of an old guitar piece that was everybody’s favorite. It’s called Juggernaut. I think I should play it again if I do this concert. It was very minimalist and it’s got a sort of a whacky, semi-improvised guitar hero thing in the middle, all this stuff that was really great for my 29-year-old self or 26-year-old self, whatever. I wrote this about the time I was starting John Somebody. Probably 1979. I wouldn’t do anything like that now, but it’s a great piece. It’s nice. I like it. But there are other things that could use a fix. Occasionally, I’ll go back and I’ll fix things. In Mind Out of Matter, there’s one movement where I shuffled things around after the premier at Montclair because I didn’t feel it was working well enough. Indeed, it’s better. And there’s a gigantic movement in Mind Out of Matter, 26 minutes or something. I called it my Mahlerian sprawl. It is the direct descendent of this mysterious, lost, 20-minute, mostly instrumental piece from How it Happens which I did go back and revise ten years after I wrote it because there was this thing that just always bugged me, this area that didn’t work. It needed to get from there to there a little bit better. I hadn’t heard it for ten years and when I listened to it, I had the same reaction. The same criticism I had early on.

“The point of music is to be enjoyed, not to be held up as an opportunity for people to assess you.”

Scholars like to see this, that, and the other thing; you’re not supposed to fix old things, because it’s somehow more honest. I don’t give a damn. The point of music is to be enjoyed, not to be held up as an opportunity for people to assess you. That gets back to what I was saying about the sexual selection thing, composers doing things simply because it will help their reputations or make them appear to be whatever it is they wish to appear to be. If I make mistakes and if I catch them in time, I’ll fix them.

FJO: Well, you spent a lot of time working on Mind Out of Matter.

SJ: Not consistently. It happened over the course of six years. From like ’09 to ’15. I think I finished it in December, but that last year I spent only two months writing. I spent a couple of months in ’15 adding a movement. Earlier that year I’d done some cues for a documentary film about Daniel Dennett by a Polish filmmaker. I realized two of them had speech stuff in them, and they were absolutely perfect. I started out this piece not thinking it was going to be all about religion; it was going to be more generally about Darwinism. So here I had some stuff that not only mentioned Darwin, it actually said the title of the big piece. It had Dan Dennett saying, “Mind arising out of matter,” words which had not actually appeared in the piece called Mind Out of Matter. So adding the new movement added a year to the inclusive dates of the piece, but it was only about two or three months of work. Also in the course of that six years, I had a year off when I recorded and I made the Americans CD. I recorded that and did all the editing myself. I did a concert in New York. I also wrote another piece based on a Beckett play for the Cygnus Ensemble.

In other words, this was not non-stop. There were also several family members lost during those years. This is a thing that will take you away from your desk for a little while. It happened over a long period of time, and actually coming and going is something that I think helped the piece, because it’s a very big piece. That’s my longest ever and length creates different problems than shortness. Remember we were talking about Brian Eno and all these other really creative people in the popular music field that, as I said, rarely break the five-minute barrier because those structures have a hard time getting longer. The same thing happens when you go from your typical 15-minute new music piece to an hour and a quarter. I had a lot of time off to think about it and come back to things. And what you’ll notice about this piece is there are some movements that have a general character throughout, but most of them have a whole lot of variation. They’re more like a landscape. There’s the foothills. There’s the flat parts. There’s the mountains. I think of music very often in terms of topography, especially since I started backpacking and hiking and going in the mountains, which actually gave me one of my favorite metaphors for why I gradually came to like older, European composition. It’s like being in the mountains. You turn a corner and you see something you hadn’t expected. You never know quite what’s coming. They’re changing the channels, usually within every minute, sometimes several times a minute. Whereas minimalism I think of as the seashore, the beach, or the Great Plains, or a vast vista. That’s the experience you have with repetitive music. But I find I often like the sort of “Aha” experience of hiking in the mountains. That’s what I like about Beethoven.

FJO: Before we started recording this conversation, you claimed that you’re the slowest composer and you were showing me these charts where you worked out every single pitch for every syllable you used in Mind Out of Matter.

SJ: I did it for each movement. These are 11 by 17 pieces of paper, totally black with words and the notes attached to each syllable, and there are a dozen sheets. But before I even made those, I had to make an idea of what each movement was going to be about. Before making a movement, I had my source files in Pro Tools. I would go through and pick out the samples onto a different track. Then there would be another track where I would actually sculpt the particular samples and download them into a file. Then I would go through and I would write the pitches of absolutely every word, every syllable in that entire 75-minute piece. So what you’re seeing there is not actually the beginning. That’s the second stage of the preparatory work. Then it goes to Finale where I write into a computer file instead of writing on paper; since the late ‘80s, I’ve written directly into a score program.

Several of the 11 by 17 pieces of music manuscript paper containing Scott Johnson's transcriptions of Dan Dennett's speech.

Several of the 11 by 17 pieces of music manuscript paper containing Scott Johnson’s transcriptions of Dan Dennett’s speech.

FJO: But since you start by using Pro Tools and ultimately write the music directly into Finale, why do you work out all the pitches by hand? Why didn’t you do that in Finale, too?

SJ: Because it’s too much of a pain in the neck. First off, in Finale, you have to have rhythm. Look at those pieces of paper. Almost never is there a stem or a beam.

FJO: Maybe you should try using Dorico.

SJ: I should not use Dorico. I should not use anything that’s going to force me to invest time in learning a new program. I’ve gotten so good at Pro Tools I hate myself for it. It’s not as much fun as writing music. That’s that. But, in any case, this way [notating by hand] I can erase things, and the other thing is the pitches aren’t always exact, so I can make little gliss lines, or I can make stems that indicate the syllables, and then a line that indicates that it’s moving up like this. I can write little parenthetic things up top. Little arrows up and down for when it’s a quarter tone. Mostly I don’t fix pitches. But if it’s a quarter tone, then I will maybe resolve it if it’s a held pitch. If he’s moving through it, maybe I won’t. In Pro Tools you can adjust pitch.

FJO: So you’ve never tried leaving the microtones in there?

“I try to restrict myself to that which I can do a good job of.”

SJ: Sometimes I do, but the point is that I’m writing for tempered instruments. There’s really no advantage in having them be out of tune, unless it’s a gliss or a blue note. Singers and instrumentalists do this all the time. And voices do it. But when he’s speaking, I don’t want it to be out of tune because the instruments are right with him and I don’t really want that quarter tone to happen between the bass clarinet and the voice. I just don’t, sorry. I know you write microtonal music, and this is not a personal insult. It’s just I don’t know anything about it. I’m not competent. I prize competence, and so I try to restrict myself to that which I can do a good job of. I don’t take on a giant field like microtonal music without homework. And I’m not willing to do the homework. I use microtones with the knowledge of someone who played blues guitar.

FJO: Of course with Mind Out of Matter, as well as with How it Happens, you were dealing with recorded speech that had already existed before you had the idea of creating a piece of music out of it. This is a bit different from John Somebody or Convertible Debts, where you actually initiated the recordings of the spoken language you eventually turned into music. What about Americans?

SJ: Those were recorded for a book about Queens. They approached me to make a CD to be inserted in with this book. It was called Crossing the Boulevard. So these were existing recordings that had been transcribed. Basically they were made for printed matter. I was an after-thought. I agreed to do it with the agreement that I could use this material for a concert piece.

FJO: So the people who were recorded didn’t know you were doing this?

SJ: Oh no, I actually did interact with them after. One of the pieces is in Romanian. It’s a guy who’s a Romanian DJ, giving his spiel about oldies. So I had to call him up and ask him about some Romanian words. I actually spoke with all three of them.

FJO: And they were all fine about what you were doing with their words?

SJ: Sure. They had already signed up for the book, and this was in the same spirit. This is an attempt to tell the story, to tell their story. I was simply telling their story in yet another medium.

FJO: So how involved was Dan Dennett in the process of creating Mind Out of Matter?

SJ: I [first] got in touch with Dan in 2002, before this piece started. We had corresponded because I wrote a rather extensive, 15,000-word, essay called The Counterpoint of Species. I read a book by Dan Dennett called Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and I was very much blown away by it. It actually answered a lot of questions about the evolution of music. He speaks not only about Darwinian evolution, but also the evolution that happened on a cultural level, which is partly Darwinian and partly, as he now says, intelligently designed by the only intelligent designer in the universe that we know of, which is humans. It shed a lot of light on things that I had been trying to say about why people join the groups they do and why certain ideas survive, like, as we said, high modernism. Why does this very isolated thing evolve out of a thing that once upon a time was very broad-based? There are reasons why these things happen. At the center of everything I’ve always done is: why can’t we get our vernacular music world back in the serious music? My point has always been that the source of the thing does not matter; it’s what use it’s put to that matters. This is a really basic Darwinian principle. The birds’ feathers began the same way that we get our head of hair. They were for heat. Gradually they evolved into these things that control flight. In other words, evolution uses whatever is available for purposes that were not dreamt of wherever it started. This is a thing that answers a whole lot of questions about music. And I ran into it when I read Dan.

“Dan Dennett is … probably the best sampled speech source that I’ve bumped into.”

So I wrote that essay and Nick Brooke, a fellow composer who had met Dan at Bellagio, said, “You should send this to Dan Dennett.” So I sent it to him, and he wrote back and said, “Could you send me five copies to give to my colleagues?” I was very happy this intelligent person that I admired found some value in this, and we corresponded on and off for a while. Then I heard his YouTube videos and realized that he had this fabulous melody-generator of a voice. He spends his life in front of people and he knows now how to not put them to sleep. He’s not only very organized in his presentations, which certainly helped me structurally in constructing the piece, but he’s also funny and lively, and probably the best sampled speech source that I’ve bumped into.

So we’d known each other, but we’d never met. Then, because he happened to be in town, we met at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is where that piece got performed many years later. But, in any case, at some point, since I liked the ideas so much and he was such a good source, I just proposed to him, “May I make this piece?” And he said yes and sent me his lecture for Breaking the Spell, his book about religion. I was initially going to have that be one of a couple of different sections in this piece. But at some point, I realized there’s so much more material than I’m going to cover; I need to focus. The Darwinian ideas come out in the course of this. He has a very clear view of the world, and it comes out regardless of what he’s talking about.

When I was a couple years into it, I went up to Boston because I had certain things I wanted to get. The last movement, Awe, is basically the stuff that I went to Boston to get out of him. It’s about the sense of wonder and the value of a scientific, empirical outlook, an atheistic outlook that appreciates the world without any gilding of the lily. So Dan has been in on this all along. I’d sent him stuff and he never made any suggestions about structure or about how to go about anything. We had corresponded for a while, and he knew he could entrust it to me.

FJO: One final observation—you’ve talked about serious music now existing over here and vernacular music now existing over there, and that serious music should embrace the vernacular again. A lot of younger composers, people younger than both of us, don’t think of themselves either as serious composers incorporating vernacular music or vernacular composers incorporating elements of serious music. They don’t see a distinction between them.

SJ: They do see a distinction; they say that they don’t. I see an external distinction: genres are real things in the world, fuzzy boundaries and all. My desire to put these two things together comes from my desire to use what I like about music. What I like about music comes from these different places. I’ve been doing this endeavor going on 40 years now. When I started doing this, there was such opposition to it that I had to constantly talk about this. By the way, I met the New Amsterdam people when I gave a talk about this stuff at Yale, while they were still grad students. This was one of the places where I realized that I could stop talking about this so much because everybody in the room already agreed with me. Ten years before, that was not the case. What they’re doing is blending the music that they like, regardless of its source, and I’m totally on board with that. I don’t really see an ideological distinction between us. The nice thing is they don’t have to talk about it. Essentially I helped to create an ecosystem where that is not a pair of horns you have to wear or claws you have to have out. The musical ecosystem now, thanks to a number of Boomers who rebelled against what we were faced with when we were growing up, has created a situation where these guys didn’t have to fight that fight. That fight is kind of over. Well, it’s not over, these battles still trickle on, but it’s not crucial. You don’t have to talk about it. You can avoid it. I don’t think there’s a difference of perception between myself and this younger generation of people of how one goes about writing music and where one gets it from. If you look at younger composers, there are many who sound like rockers. Some of these people sound more minimalist, some have much more high modernist or a more dissonant quality in their music. These things are all mixed up. Some of them lean more towards this source or more towards that source.

“One of my hopes is that everybody starts mating with everybody else to the point where it’s not so easy to figure out who to hate.”

What’s interesting is that socially they don’t really have to talk about it, because the person who got more of this in their genome is okay with the person who has more of the other thing in their genome, because they’ve all got a little bit of each thing in their genome. It’s the cultural version of the DNA mixing that happens in modern cosmopolitan cities. One of my hopes for mankind is that everybody starts mating with everybody else to the point where it’s not so easy to figure out who to hate. The musical DNA has happened that way. It’s not so easy for them to figure out who to hate, so hopefully they’re not bothering with it so much. One of the things I’m proud of is to have helped, among a number of other people, to gradually push the goalposts a little bit in that direction such that it’s possible to have that attitude. I’m happy that the fight I always had to fight is an artifact at this point.

A couple of plastic dinosaurs and old photos surrounding some of Scott Johnson's electric keyboards.

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Carter’s Continuing Presence

Elliott Carter passed away on November 5th, 2012 at the age of 103. It took me several years to adjust to a musical world without Carter’s living presence. This was in part because there still was so much recent music to catch up with: Caténaires, Sound Fields, Two Controversies and a Conversation, String Trio, Tintinnabulation, and the Double Trio, constitute a highly abbreviated playlist of the musical riches of Carter’s last decade. By the 21st century, I had become so accustomed to being surprised and delighted by the freshness and daring of new Carter works from a composer well in his 90s, and then amazingly, into his 100s, that it took some time to accept that this seemingly inexhaustible musical adventure had finally come to an end. Five years after Carter has left us as a human presence, it is time to assess his continuing musical presence in the still-young 21st century.

Elliott Carter in the 20th Century

Before assessing the significance of Carter’s music in the 21st century, I will first summarize the achievements from his most innovative and influential 20th century period, from the late 1940s through the late 1970s.

Carter’s notable musical innovations center on the following techniques: metric modulation, a set-class approach to harmony, extra-musical (especially literary) conceptions of musical structure, stylistic individuation of musical parts, and simultaneous presentation of stylistically distinct musical movements. Two crucial educational experiences informed this work: Carter’s personal association with Charles Ives in the mid-1920s and a rigorous course of training with Nadia Boulanger in the early 1930s. The friendship with Ives put Carter directly in touch with an early 20th century modernist project that embraced experimentation, multiplicity, and a hybridization of “high art” and vernacular musical styles that Carter ultimately found problematic. Studies with Boulanger developed Carter’s mastery of the two fundamental organizational principles of European tonal music: harmony and counterpoint.

Before exploring what these techniques got for Carter, let’s move back before the Cello Sonata and the String Quartet No. 1, which together represent a deliberate move away from a musical style that Carter later described as deliberately simplified in order to be more appealing to general American audiences. Carter’s most crowd-pleasing effort along these lines is the Holiday Overture (1944), which fuses an American nationalist style with strong contemporary European influences, most obviously from Paul Hindemith, but with occasional Stravinskyan flourishes as well. (The influence of both Hindemith and Igor Stravinsky is felt rather more strongly in the Suite from Pocahontas of 1939.) While the language of the Holiday Overture is largely pan-diatonic, and considerably more consonant than Hindemith’s music, there are occasional flirtations with polytonality and cross rhythms that hint at the modernist direction that Carter ultimately decided to pursue.

Elliott Carter, wearing a suit, in profile (1942).

Elliott Carter in 1942.

The Holiday Overture nicely articulates a key inflection point for Carter near the middle of the 20th century, poised between populism vs. modernism, and between American nationalism vs. the European avant-garde. The compositional sequence of the Piano Sonata (1945-46), to the Cello Sonata (1948), to the String Quartet No. 1 (1951) chronicles Carter’s movement toward both a permanent embrace of Modernism in respect of the first schism, and a dynamic balance between American and European elements in respect of the second schism. As a result, many American listeners would consider Carter’s mature musical style to lean European, especially when compared with such composers as Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Leonard Bernstein, Virgil Thompson, William Schuman, Charles Ives, or even John Cage, while European composer Pierre Boulez said that he liked Carter’s music because it sounds so “American.” In the 21st century, the question of music nationalism may seem rather trivial (or perhaps takes on new meanings), but nationalism was a question of great concern to many early to mid-20th century composers, such as Béla Bartók, Igor Stravinsky, and Carlos Chavez, as well as many of the American composers just mentioned.

Returning to musical innovations, the technique most firmly associated with Carter is metric modulation. While Carter did not invent the technique, he employed it with much greater depth and scope than any prior composer. Metric modulation involves a redefinition of the tempo, based on metrical relationships. A simple example is shown below.

An example of a metrical modulation from triplets in 4/4 time to 8th notes in 7/8.

For the listener, there is no change in the speed of the repeated notes. However, the change of tempo allows for groupings (such as the 7/8 bar shown) that are difficult or impossible to notate at the prior tempo. This allows for fluid destabilization of a tactus, and as mentioned in the previous section. The avoidance of a constant, regular tactus is a defining feature of Carter’s post-1940s music.

Carter’s focus on set-based harmonies matures in the String Quartet No. 1, with a harmonic language that hinges on the two all-interval tetrachords, shown below. (An all-interval tetrachord provides every interval class from 0 to 6. By contrast, a whole-tone tetrachord can only provide interval classes 0, 2, 4 and 6.)

The two all interval tetrachords: 0156 (e.g. C-C#-E-F#) and 0137 (e.g. C-Db-Eb-G)

Carter’s interest in set-based harmony led him to write his Harmony Book, enumerating every possible chord in the 12-tone system. The focus on pitch sets (chords in Carter’s terminology) would have been informed by Arnold Schoenberg’s 12-tone method, and especially the partitioning techniques of Anton Webern. Equally plausible precedents include the fascination with new chordal sonorities exhibited by such composers as Alexander Scriabin and Franz Liszt. Carter’s work with pitch sets in the early 1950s puts him ahead of major publications on the subject, such as Howard Hanson’s Harmonic Materials of Modern Music (1960), Milton Babbitt’s  “Set Structure as a Compositional Determinant” (1961), and Alan Forte’s The Structure of Atonal Music (1973). Carter’s adoption of pitch sets as determinative of his harmonic language permanently foreclosed the quasi-tonal harmonic language of the Holiday Overture. Additionally, it gave him a powerful tool for individual and group differentiation within larger ensembles.

Carter’s use of extra-musical literary sources of inspiration motivates his concept of a musical score as a “play,” with stylistically individuated characters. Quotations from inspirational poetry preface such important orchestral scores as the Concerto for Orchestra (1969) and A Symphony of Three Orchestras (1976), clearly articulating that Carter’s works are not mere technical experiments, but harbor ambitious expressive intent as well. The stylistic individuation of musical parts is most strongly introduced in the opening of the Cello Sonata, where the pianist mechanically pecks out a clock-like rhythm while the cello follows a lyric and expressive melody that floats in a different tempo from the piano. The ending of the fourth movement demonstrates that the character roles can be reversed, even though the two parts seem optimized for the inherent character of the cello (a singing instrument) and the piano (a percussion instrument). At the same time, this introduction of the idea of stylistic individuation makes a clear link to earlier classical music, going back at least as far as Mozart, whose music demonstrates a clear differentiation between melody and accompaniment lines.

Leonard Bernstein and Elliott Carter looking over a score.

Carter with Leonard Bernstein in 1971 in Philharmonic Hall during a rehearsal for a New York Philharmonic performance of the Concerto for Orchestra (photographer unknown; courtesy Elliott Carter Centenary)

Carter’s stylistic differentiation of individual parts breaks free from its classical precedents in the String Quartet No. 2 (1959), where each part is assigned its own rhythmic profile and repertory of intervals. The construction of not just differentiated lines or even differentiated types of music, but individuating each musician as a “character” in a musical play is Carter’s mature conception of instrumental differentiation that will present itself repeatedly throughout his music from the 1960s forward. The obvious predecessor in this regard is the comical character “Rollo” in Charles Ives’s String Quartet No. 2. But a key difference from Ives’s approach is Carter’s wariness of slapstick humor in music; Carter feels that it’s too facile and too easy to bring off.

Finally, the simultaneous presentation of stylistically differentiated movements extends the idea of stylistically differentiated individual parts. This strategy is first clearly and comprehensively articulated in the Concerto for Orchestra (1969). Carter then radically rethinks the spatial and formal architecture of the string quartet with his String Quartet No. 3 (1971), where different musics interpenetrate and move through each other at different speeds, styles, and densities. Carter recommends spatial separation of the two duos in performance of this quartet to further articulate the different musical streams. The superposition of different kinds of music (slow and fast) had already been heard in the String Quartet No. 1, but No. 3 applies this as a principle for structuring the entire piece. A precedent for this superposition of different musics is found in the music of Charles Ives, in such works as Central Park in the Dark and the Symphony No. 4.

What truly distinguishes Carter’s music is the intensity, passion, expressiveness, and sheer power of his musical creations.

Having surveyed Carter’s technical innovations, I must emphasize that his reputation derives not just from these innovations. After all, 20th century art was inundated with technical experiments of every kind. What truly distinguishes Carter’s music is the intensity, passion, expressiveness, and sheer power of his musical creations, which are all girdled by a commitment to compositional rigor and extreme exploration of technical possibilities. As Carter himself observed, creating one’s own language is a special prerogative of the 20th century composer. But that composer must then communicate clearly using the language that s/he created. Carter’s mature set of technical concerns clearly identifies him as a 20th century modernist. But he did not jump on every modernist bandwagon. Key 20th century musical research areas that Carter completely avoided include electronic music, aleatoric music, and microtonal music. And despite a constant concern for multiplicity, Carter studiously avoided the pastiche approach of post-modernism. Carter even more studiously avoided the fixed tempi and mechanical repetitions of minimalism. It may have taken 50 years for Carter to discover and integrate his core compositional concerns, but from that point forward, for the next 53 years, Carter could not be budged from his compositional edifice. He continued to write Elliott Carter’s music twelve years into the 21st century, a period in which the dominant compositional trends seem to be at odds with Carter’s compositional ethos.

Elliott Carter in the 21st Century

Elliott Carter sitting in the audience.

Elliott Carter at a rehearsal for Two Controversies and a Conversation during the NY Philharmonic’s Contact Series in June 2012. (Photo by Ed Yim.)

Yet Carter’s music is alive and well five years after his death in November 2012. Just in 2017, Carter’s two major publishers, Boosey & Hawkes and Associated Music, reported 52 performances of Carter’s music, 10 of them orchestral performances, including multiple performances of Carter’s 1998 opera What Next? This record of performances would be an impressive showing for a living composer. For a deceased composer, it is a serious vote of confidence in the continued relevance of the music. Many more performances are scheduled for 2018. Looking at reported performances of orchestral music from 2012-2018, there is further evidence of a sustained presence for Carter’s music, with a combined report of 127 performances of works for full orchestra. (Those performance do not include works such as Sound Fields and the Clarinet Concerto, which are for smaller forces.)

These statistics on Carter’s posthumous orchestral presence are great news of course. At the same time, I have some reservations, based on my own assessment and categorization of Carter’s orchestral music. Following our earlier discussion of Carter’s technical progress as a composer, I categorize the orchestral music up through the Minotaur Suite (1947) as Carter’s populist period. The Variations for Orchestra (1955) is a transitional work, not a populist work, but also not yet possessed of the orchestral maturity on display in the Piano Concerto completed one decade after. The period from 1964 to 1976 contains, in my view, the pinnacle of Carter’s writing for full orchestra, comprising the Piano Concerto, The Concerto for Orchestra, and A Symphony of Three Orchestras. The period from 1986 forward, starting with the Oboe Concerto, is what I consider Carter’s post-pinnacle orchestral period. While “post-pinnacle” might sound pejorative, for a composer of Carter’s rank, a descent from his pinnacle still leaves the work in a state of excellence. And to be clear, this view is restricted to the orchestral music. The main distinction I want to make here is that the three works of Carter’s orchestral pinnacle all represent “crisis” pieces, struggling to extend Carter’s language, and then express himself musically with the greatest force possible. Both the Concerto for Orchestra and A Symphony of Three Orchestras were composed within the sweet spot of Carter’s initial and most rigorous development of his primary rhythmic, formal, and harmonic innovations, especially in the superposition of multiple movements articulated by harmony, speed, and musical character. The Piano Concerto is an even more special piece, perhaps unique among Carter’s work, where he seems almost not himself, given the darkness, violence, and political despair articulated in the piece. Each of these pinnacle works would require its own essay to begin to unpack the technical and expressive force of the works; for now, I simply assert their primacy, and allow the reader to either agree with my assessment or not.

Of 127 reported orchestral performances, 21 were of Carter’s populist music, 7 of the transitional Variations for Orchestra, 2 of “pinnacle” music, and 97 of “post-pinnacle” music.

According to the above categorization, of the 127 reported orchestral performances, there were 21 performances of Carter’s populist music, 7 performances of the transitional Variations for Orchestra, 2 performances of pinnacle music (one each of the Concerto for Orchestra and A Symphony of Three Orchestras), and 97 performances of post-pinnacle music. Given that the post-pinnacle period comprises 26 years, and given that Carter’s productivity markedly increased in that period, and finally given that there is usually more interest in a composer’s more recent music, it is not surprising that the majority of performances are in the post-pinnacle period. And again, I must stress that there is wonderful orchestral music in what I am calling the post-pinnacle period. Instances (2012) has great wit, some fine and original gestures, some obsessive intensity toward the end, and a very lovely coda, with the piano speaking in single tones against the ensemble, in what might be an echo of the Woody Woodpecker-like piano notes of the Piano Concerto. But Instances is not as soul-crushing as the Piano Concerto, or as ambitiously world-building as the Concerto for Orchestra or A Symphony of Three Orchestras. Instances is a fine and elegant vehicle—a bicycle. The pinnacle orchestral works are Sherman tanks.

Those readers who share my assessment of the pinnacle orchestral works will also share my disappointment that they represent a mere two out of 127 Carter orchestral performances discussed here. In addition to the number of performances, there is an interesting story in the location of the performances. A total of 31 of the orchestral performances took place in the USA. Ten of these performances were from the populist period, four were of the transitional Variations for Orchestra, one was of the pinnacle work Concerto for Orchestra, the remaining 16 performances were of post-pinnacle works. Five of those were of Instances, all clustered in 2013, the year after the composition of the work.

The music of one of America’s most celebrated composers received well over twice as many performances in Europe as in the USA.

By contrast, 76 orchestral performances took place in Europe (including the UK), with the remaining performances taking place in South America, Australia, and Canada. Nine of the European performances were of Carter’s populist orchestral music. One pinnacle work, A Symphony of Three Orchestras, was performed, two performances of Variations for Orchestra were given, and the remaining 64 performances were of post-pinnacle works. Thus, in the six-year period starting from 2012, Carter’s final year, the music of one of America’s most celebrated composers received well over twice as many performances in Europe as in the USA. Music from Carter’s populist period comprises approximately 32 percent of the USA performances, and approximately nine percent of the European performances. These statistics speak to the well-known conservatism and risk-aversion of American orchestral programming, compared to that of Europe. Given the spirit of boldness and innovation in American musical cultural production that has given us John Cage, Steve Reich, The Sonic Arts Union, computer music, disco, and of course Elliott Carter, the general timidity of the American orchestra is a regrettable lacuna. At the same time, we should single out the 2013 Concerto for Orchestra performance given by the American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, under the direction of Leon Botstein. The American Symphony Orchestra and Botstein cannot be praised highly enough for bringing challenging, seldom performed music to the public, but their project remains the exception that proves the rule in American orchestral programming.

Helen Carter, NYC Mayor Ed Koch, Elliott Carter (at podium) and Henry Geldzahler, NYC's commissioner of cultural affairs at City Hall in 1978.

Although there have been considerably more performances of Elliott Carter’s music in Europe than in the United States, Carter is one of the few composers to be officially honored by our government. In addition to being feted at the White House by Ronald Reagan as one of the first 12 recipients of National Medal of Arts in 1985, Carter was also honored in 1978 at New York City’s City Hall by then Mayor Edward I. Koch (left of Carter who is at the podium) and Henry Geldzahler, NYC’s then commissioner of cultural affairs (far right). Carter’s wife Helen (1927-1998) is standing to the left of Koch.

Carter’s Legacy

Having demonstrated the viability of Carter’s orchestral music, which is by far the most difficult instrumental medium in which a composer can achieve lasting success, there is a much more vital performance environment for Carter’s chamber and solo music, which is performed at a considerably higher rate than the orchestral music. Within this repertory, certain focal points may be predicted. For example, the five string quartets seem to be on track for canonical status, having been championed by both top generalist string quartets like the Juilliard Quartet and Pacifica Quartet, and by new music specialist quartets such as the Arditti Quartet and the JACK Quartet. Within that corpus, I would further highlight the first and third quartets as the two “crisis” pieces—the standouts in the collection that take an experimental technique to its outer limit. String Quartet No. 1 delves deeply into the problem of metric modulation as a basis for large-scale formal organization and String Quartet No. 3 attacks the problem of simultaneous unfolding of different movements, taking its textures closer to the edge of chaos than any of his music with the possible exception of the finale to the Double Concerto. Carter’s solo piano piece Caténaires has established itself as a showpiece for competitions, as beautifully demonstrated in this performance by Sean Chen. (Multiple performances of this work are easily found on YouTube.) Many other fine “musical selfies” of Carter’s solo pieces adorn YouTube, such as this dramatic reading of Figment III, performed by James Oesi.

Carter’s legacy may be found in the work of his students.

Another aspect of Carter’s legacy may be found in the work of his students. I will next consider the music of one of Carter’s most prominent students, Jeffrey Mumford, since Mumford openly and gratefully acknowledges Carter’s influence. Jeffrey Mumford first became enamored of Elliott Carter’s music during his college years, and studied privately with Carter during 1980-83. Mumford’s music shares the following general concerns with Carter’s music: multiplicity, stratification and conversations between instruments or groups of instruments, and temporal variety. One readily hears in Mumford’s instrumental writing a long-line approach to melodic invention that is distinctly “Carterian.” One also hears a fondness for simultaneous unfolding of materials at disparate tempi, along with a general avoidance of motoric rhythms (though with a bit more openness to regular rhythms than Carter). Mumford’s music exemplifies how some important elements of Carter’s compositional practice can be adopted, while others are left on the table and other non-Carterian elements enter the compositional project. Mumford intriguingly acknowledges both jazz ballads and the rich harmonies of disco as important influences. In Mumford’s cello concerto of fields unfolding . .  echoing depths of resonant light from 2015, written for Carter in memoriam, all of these elements are on display. The long, flowing, directional cello lines interspersed with double-stops and harmonics for emphasis are very Carterian. But the lush, shimmering diatonic string backings are something that Carter would have never written.

Joel Chadabe, Alvin Curran, Tod Machover, Jeffrey Mumford, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

Five of the more well-known composers who studied with Elliott Carter (pictured from left to right): Joel Chadabe, Alvin Curran, Tod Machover, Jeffrey Mumford, and Ellen Taaffe Zwilich

Despite shared musical concerns, and some similarities in musical language between Carter and Mumford, there is a dramatic element in Carter’s ethos that often leads to sudden outbursts of explosive violence in his music, which is decidedly not a part of Mumford’s musical personality. Mumford instead invests more heavily in lyricism, beauty, and lushness, resulting in a more personal, private sensibility than that of Carter’s music. I consider this private sensibility to be a quality of particular importance for 21st century classical music, and for that reason, in addition to its general excellence, I highly commend Mumford’s music to the attention of the reader.

Mumford’s lush, shimmering diatonic string backings are something that Carter would have never written.

The legacy of a composition teacher is not just in knowledge and technique imparted, but also in more intangible conveyances. Jeffrey Mumford shared the following statement regarding Elliott Carter, “His class and elegance are a gift to us all, and the legacy of the depth and intelligence of his music will live on far into the future, as successive generations discover it. Words cannot express the gift he has given me in my focus and journey as an artist. Words also cannot express how much I miss him.”

Moving Forward the 21st Century

Elliott Carter standing in front of a bookcase (1982).

Elliott Carter in 1982 in front of one of the many bookcases in his New York apartment

While Carter’s reputation is unassailable, we now live in a musical world in which Carter’s music is of the recent past, not the present, somewhat analogous to the position of Johannes Brahms’s music in the early 20th century. Fundamental aspects of new music culture are changing, where recognition as a “great composer” may take on new meanings. A few factors to consider:

1. The increasing prominence of composer/performers

The music of composer/performers tends to emphasize materiality with little room for the abstractions of modernist composers like Carter.

The composer/performer model has been a norm throughout much of classical music history. In the 20th century, a tendency toward specialization led to the non-performer/composer, and alternative hybrid models emerged, such as composer/teachers and composer/theorists, who do not perform music, or at least do not devote much focus to performance. Carter, Roger Sessions, Milton Babbitt, and Brian Ferneyhough are prominent exemplars of the non-performer/composer. A shift in emphasis towards performer/composers in the early 21st century has emerged, featuring musicians whose roots are as performers who then gravitated towards composition. As composers, their music seems, for lack of a better word, performative in emphasis, since they are composing for instruments on which they regularly perform. Theo Bleckmann, Todd Reynolds, Jane Rigler, Pamela Z, and Michael Lowenstern are notable exemplars. Notable 20th century precursors to this model include Robert Dick, Diamanda Galas and Joan LaBarbara. On being awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize, Caroline Shaw famously remarked, “I don’t really call myself a composer.” Instead, Shaw is a multi-talented instrumentalist and vocalist who also composes music. And her music is written for performers with a directness that is in contradistinction to the modernist approach to instrumental writing. Shaw’s compositional practice is a far cry from that of Arnold Schoenberg who, when told by a prominent violinist regarding his new Violin Concerto that he would have to wait for a violinist born with six fingers, Schoenberg replied, “I can wait.” The music of composer/performers tends to emphasize the materiality of performance and sound in a directly experienced and expressed manner, with little room for the notation-based abstractions of modernist composers like Carter.

2. Radical proximity

It would seem that our culture of Internet-based music will stimulate a very different kind of musical intelligence that that of Carter.

On the internet, any music that can be uploaded as a recording is just a click away. There is a profound overload of available music, coupled with a pervasive awareness of this overload. In such a diverse, densely populated musical world, the revolutionary impact of music from the early 20th century, such as Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps or Schoenberg’s Pierrot lunaire seems impossible today. Classical pieces that come to prominence today seem to do so for a very short period, before disappearing from the public ear. These works do not have the subversive impact of the radical early 20th century pieces discussed above, or even radical mid-century interventions like John Cage’s 4’33”. Given that the disruptive and interventionist aspect of those early modernist works was so essential to stimulating the young Elliott Carter’s imagination, it would seem that our culture of Internet-based music will stimulate a very different kind of musical intelligence that that of Carter. Instead of those massive early 20th century cultural impacts, we now have interstitial reverberations, quiet and difficult to trace, with long tails.

3. Erosion of the high art/low art distinction

A distinction between high art music and vernacular music was a prerequisite for Carter’s music to develop as it did.

Carter’s concern for high culture doesn’t seem very possible in the early 21st century. Instead, this is an era of hybridity. Jeffery Mumford’s shared influences of Carter’s music and disco is emblematic of 21st century classical music. The composer who also has a band (even if that band is a new music ensemble) is more the rule than the exception today. This is a cultural world that is aligned with composers such as Nick Didkovsky, Missy Mazzoli, Eve Beglarian, Annie Gosfield, and Elliott Sharp. The enforcement of a distinction between high art music and vernacular music, which was essentially a prerequisite for Carter’s music to develop as it did, no longer holds much credibility. Although Carter’s ideas can continue to propagate in the internet space of hybridity, the space for single-strain incubation of high-art projects is severely diminished, compared to that of the 20th century.

Concluding Thoughts

Carter seems to have sensed some of these 21st century cultural issues surprisingly early. In a 1990 interview with Jonathan W. Bernard, discussing his state of mind in the late 1960s during the composition of Concerto for Orchestra, Carter stated, “The whole question of the time we are living in, and whether it’s the end of a period, is something that has hung over us all, I think, for a long time, and this is a very meaningful thing to me in that piece…You see, I lived through that particular period of modernism that has now somehow become either classic or God knows what, but it still is very vivid to me. The whole question of what high culture is is something that remains profoundly disturbing and perplexing.”

Carter’s magnificent creative thought patterns are no longer ours.

The beautiful thing about music is that there’s always room for new voices. We don’t have a limited amount of storage space to house statues of our musical gods, where after it fills up we need to toss out some gods to make room for new ones. Carter has earned his place in the pantheon, and will surely remain there for the foreseeable future. At the same time, we have definitively moved beyond his period of modernism, and are now in a very different cultural place. We living composers can admire and learn from Carter’s work, but the task before us now is to develop a musical culture that would seem increasingly weird, alien, disturbing, and perplexing to Carter. His magnificent creative thought patterns are no longer ours.

Elliott Carter with Igor Stravinsky at the Galerie International on Madison Avenue, NYC May 1, 1962

Elliott Carter with Igor Stravinsky at the Galerie International on Madison Avenue, NYC May 1, 1962

Throughout November 2017, NewMusicBox is marking the fifth anniversary of Elliott Carter‘s death with a series of posts exploring his life and legacy. This content is made possible with the generous support of the Amphion Foundation‘s Carter Special Projects Fund.

Bernard Rands: Complex Beauty

A conversation at Rands’s home in downtown Chicago: January 4, 2012—2:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Bernard Rands navigates a variety of dualities both in his music and in his personal life. For someone approaching 80-years old, he is amazingly youthful and vigorous. While this in some part might be attributable to his marriage to a much younger composer, Augusta Read Thomas, it is also because he is steadfast in his routines and is constantly seeking and engaging with new ideas. Every night between 2:00 and 4:00 a.m. he breaks up his sleep to read for two hours. He also constantly looks at art and listens to recordings as well as live performances. It helps that he resides in one of the world’s great cities—Chicago—and that he lives just down the street from both the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Yet his home is also bursting with shelves stocked with art monographs, scores, and books of all kinds; it’s the kind of place one could spend weeks in and never feel the need to leave. Despite his home seeming so rooted, Rands has never lived in one place for a very long time. Since coming to the United States in 1975, he has been based in San Diego, Philadelphia, Cambridge, and now the Windy City.

All of this inevitably shows up in his music, not just the intense love for literature (perhaps best manifested in his landmark Canti Trilogy) and painting (his Van Gogh-inspired opera Vincent, which was produced at Indiana University last year), but also his simultaneous adherence to traditions and the need to move away from them. On the one hand, his music clearly has come out of the milieu of European high modernism—he went through Darmstadt and was championed by Boulez and Berio early on. Yet at the same time he has a great love for earlier music and keeps his ear attuned to music of other genres as well—at one point in our talk he brought up the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. At times, his own music can be unapologetically tonal.

Some of his European colleagues have claimed that coming to America might have somewhat softened his modernist rigor. But Rands will have none of that:

That acerbic rough-tough composer that I used to be in the ‘60s has gone to America and sold out. Not at all! I can write Canti d’Amor; why shouldn’t I? They’re for my wife. Why should I not make a love song for my wife of all people? I don’t think one has to feel obliged to the resonances of the Second Viennese School in order to be able to do that. These two [the non-tonal and the tonal] are interacting all the time, whether it’s a harmony or a rhythmic cell, a timbre or a gesture. Music has always been that way. Otherwise, we would have used up its resources a long time ago.

Despite such firm aesthetic convictions regarding his own music, he strives to always be completely open when he listens to other people’s music.

When people say, “I don’t care for that” or “I don’t want to waste my time on that,” it’s because they have a notion that somehow it should belong to them without any preconditions. And that’s not what the phenomenon of music is. […] I’ve been rewarded and surprised by being determined to be in the composer’s corner.

He deserves the same from listeners to his own music. While he never writes based on wanting to satisfy an audience (an audience isn’t monolithic after all), he is always aware of the listener.

Most things in human experience are accessible if you’re willing to access them. […] I believe that the person who’s going to come on that bitterly cold February night, pay above the odds for the ticket, to listen to my music, is coming toward me for some reason, which I don’t need to know about, and maybe they can’t define it. But when they come together with what I’ve made, I want them to hear another human being talking to them who’s not superior, not inferior, just another person who cares about beauty and expressivity, and spiritual things which, again, are hard to define.

My two-hour conversation with Bernard Rands completely raced by. I left wishing I could have talked to him for several hours more, but filled with ideas that will probably take me a lifetime to completely think through.

Frank J. Oteri: I was surfing around your website over the holiday break, and I came across a remarkable video interview with you done at the New York Philharmonic where you were talking about listening to music and being open to what you hear. You said something that really resonated with me. You said if you hear a piece of music and you don’t initially like it, you think that maybe you weren’t really paying attention. That’s a remarkable statement. It has taken me decades to allow whatever I hear to be what it is and not let my own ideas get in the way. So hearing you articulate this makes me very curious about your process of listening to music.

Bernard Rands: Augusta [Read Thomas] and I listen to a lot of music. She is an avid consumer of music of all kinds. I’m not quite as relentless in my listening as she is. But we tend to have a routine in the sense that we work hard during the day. We’re up early in the morning, working in our respective studios. And then come 5:00 or 5:30, we gather in the kitchen—I love to cook—and we put on the stereo. Since both of us are bombarded with CDs from colleagues and young composers who want us to listen to their music, I think we get a pretty good picture of the spectrum, including pop music and jazz. There are no restrictions on what we listen to in that sense.

Everyone on this planet has music of some kind, which suggests—or even proves I would say—that it comes from a basic human necessity. Music fulfills many different functions in people’s lives. The second thing is that if you and I go to a concert and sit next to each other, and let’s say that there’s a piece that we’ve both known since our childhood—whatever composer, it doesn’t matter—we can’t tell each other what we just heard. We got all the information. It was by this composer, it was for this instrumental ensemble, it lasted such and such, I’ve heard it this number of times, and so on. But after that, it’s a very private experience you’ve just had of that music, and it’s a very private experience that I’ve just had. I think outside of one’s God, there is nothing that’s more intimate and private than listening to music. This phenomenon, which is ubiquitous, is one of the most private aspects of communication that we can experience. [Sometimes] we don’t enjoy it the first time, or it may be couched in an aesthetic position which we’re not familiar with. So I’ve always made myself go back again and again. I’ve been rewarded and surprised by being determined to be in the composer’s corner. And if in the end I’m left hanging dry, I have a lot of other things to do, and there’s a lot of other music to listen to. But generally speaking, over the years, it’s been a very rewarding attitude to the way we’re involved with this phenomenon.

FJO: So when you talk about being in the composer’s corner—I love that phrase—what exactly does that mean as you’re hearing the piece of music?

BR: Let’s assume that it’s a new piece, first of all, because that’s where we come across the more sharp-edged sets of relationships. I go with an open mind, an open heart, and open ears, and what I mean by being in that composer’s corner is he or she is in charge. They are going to communicate with me, and I’m going to be willing to take whatever comes from them. And try to understand—as you well know, we don’t understand even the phenomenon of understanding in that sense. But I’m not antagonistic. I’m not irritated. I’m full of expectancy. I’m expecting to be pleased in the general sense, so I think the listening process becomes a much more enjoyable one. Now if it’s a repertoire piece that I’ve known since I was a boy, again, the fact that it still exists and is current in the sense of the performance repertoire suggests that it has a lot in it, much more than I’ve ever discovered before, even if I’ve played it, or if I’ve read every scholarly analysis of it. Because in the end, we never come to a performance or to the listening of music in the same condition ourselves. If I listen to something tonight, it’s very different from if I was listening right now in the afternoon. And as the years go by, and now I’m kind of rumbling my way up to 80, I find that this experience of music for me is so life giving. Well, it is my life. It’s what I do.

FJO: Now, what I find fascinating about how you describe the act of listening is that, in a way, you’re giving yourself over. It’s an act of submission.

BR: Yes, it is. That’s a good way of putting it.

FJO: But it’s an act of submission that you said at the onset of this conversation could even be done while you’re preparing dinner. How focused are you when you’re listening to music and doing other things?

BR: Well, I’ve cut my fingers a few times while chopping by not being attentive. But seriously, why I detest so much of the public bombardment of sound and music in all circumstances is that it trivializes it. If you’re going to put on a CD of your choice, then there’s a reason for putting it on—because you want to listen to it. The fact that you may be chopping vegetables and half your fingers with it, I don’t think gets in the way. We all have our favorites of what we prefer to listen to at certain times: what prompts us to take this CD off the shelf of the Chopin Preludes, as opposed to the Mahler 5th, or in my case some Tudor period church music, which I absolutely adore. Or it may be a CD that’s just come in that morning and Gusty says, “Let’s listen to it. Let’s listen to whoever it is and see what they’re doing.” Dylan Thomas once said in a sort of a prelude to a reading that his poems are dedicated to the glory of God, and he’d be a damn fool if they weren’t. You can imagine his bravado voice saying that. And therefore any willing listener is voluntarily cornered. But that’s basically what it is. You put yourself in a situation. Why I detest so much of the interference of music in public spaces is that it is an interference with one’s own state of being, and I resent that.

FJO: In that same Philharmonic interview, you said that it’s sort of a canard when people talk about audiences, because the audience is not a monolith.

BR: No, it is not. We don’t know who they are anyway.

FJO: But even if you can’t know who your audience is, what sort of expectations do you have for your ideal audience?

BR: That they would come in an open-minded, open-eared manner, but then they would listen intently. Of course that’s an art that one has to develop for oneself. When people say, “I don’t care for that” or “I don’t want to waste my time on that,” it’s because they have a notion that somehow it should belong to them without any preconditions. And that’s not what the phenomenon of music is. Listening is not just a casual affair. It’s an active process in which you set your mind and your attitude to being receptive. This ties very much into the compositional process, because what is it we’re doing when we’re putting down these hieroglyphs which are then turned into a whole sound world by musicians? We’re trying to create a—let me just put it so simply—a succession of sound events which have an internal logic, which, irrespective of the historical period, lead the ear. The best music that I know of any period is that which gets hold of the ear right in the first measure, and doesn’t let go.

FJO: Now two other realms that are beyond music (while we’re in this remarkable library of yours) that have a similar hold on the attention, although with different senses: reading literature and looking at visual art. Both are extremely important to you, and both inform a great deal of the music you’ve composed.

BR: That is right.

FJO: So using that same question I began with for music, I’m curious about the amount of time you devote to reading and looking at art, and how these other realms connect back to your music.

Some of Rands Library

This is just a small portion of the art books in Bernard Rands’s home.

BR: Just because at an early age I decided I am a composer is no excuse for sitting around waiting for long distance calls to come from up there with inspiration. I’ve developed from a very early age and continue and will until I can’t do it anymore, a very strict, disciplined routine of work. I’ll elaborate on that in a moment. But once that’s in place, and I’m satisfied in the given time that I have in a day to address my work in the solitude of my studio, then I love to [look at art]. I live across from the Art of Institute of Chicago. I only have to walk 200 yards, and I can wander around there, whether it’s in the Asian section or the current exhibitions and so on. When I visit other cities, I’ve made an effort to see the treasures of the art world wherever I’ve been and I lived in Europe for many years in the early part of my life.

From the point of view of reading, I came from a very poor family. My father was a janitor, born in 1897, totally without any formal education, but he had a God-given gift for being intelligent. He served in World War I, which was when he was 16 and 17—my God, in the trenches in Belgium—and he came home. He joined what was a movement at that time called the WEA, Worker’s Education Association, and he would go to classes after his day’s work, which were long days very often. He would use the local library and read about politics, not much literature. Even when I, as an undergraduate, would come home from university at vacations, almost the first question he asked was, “What have you been studying?” because I read literature and philosophy at the same time as reading music. And I would say so and so. And he would say, “Oh, and what did you think of…” He’d read it! The other thing is that he read to me every night, although I’m sure he was dog tired after a long day of working hard. He read not only the boys’ stories that one might to a child, he read poems to me. I had no idea what the poems were about at that early age. But I loved the sound of his voice, and I could hear the difference between poetry and prose, a child’s story. My father was a good reader. You can hear and you can tell the difference when somebody reads it nicely. So it was inculcated into me. Then I spent the rest of my childhood years waking up in the middle of the night with a book half open on my chest, and I still do it. I read between two and four every night. I sleep and by the time I get to two o’clock now I have to read. I read for two hours and [after] I sleep for another two hours, then I get up and work two hours.

FJO: That’s extraordinary.

BR: It’s a crazy life. Augusta’s even worse. She gets up at three in the morning or four, when I’m still reading. I hope this is not too trivial for you.

FJO: No, of course not; I love this. But to bring it back to music, you talked about the sort of inadvertent exposure to music all around us and how people will put on a CD and it is a choice. And yet, they won’t focus on it. For me, there really is an exact parallel between listening to a piece of music, whether it’s on a recording or live, and opening a book.

BR: Oh, definitely. I absolutely agree. Yeah, there’s an interconnection. The idea of putting on a CD and then getting in the shower, it’s a little bit pointless. The CD plays on its own to an empty room until you come out and towel off and so on. It’s a waste of music.

FJO: But with a book, you can’t really do those other things at the same time. People think that it’s something requiring more attention just because it’s physically impossible to look at a book and, say walk. Although the pianist Richard Goode has often walked holding a book in his hand, reading it while attempting to go somewhere. I’ve done that myself a few times; it’s a good way to have an accident. But to connect this to the other things you were saying about music, you mentioned that two people sitting next to each other hearing the same music can have a completely different experience of it. I would argue though that two people looking at a painting are probably having a different experience, too, or people reading the same poem.

BR: Yes, absolutely. But in the literary world, it’s a little more constrained. There’s a preciseness of vocabulary: it means this; it doesn’t mean that. Even with all of the metaphor and poetic use of language, there’s still a relatively constrained aspect to the written word and to language in general. Whereas, yes, standing next to someone looking at the same painting, I absolutely agree that what one is seeing and what one is understanding of what it is saying can be varied and way beyond the obviousness of what’s contained within the frame.

My Le Tambourin Suites are about six paintings and drawings of Van Gogh, but I didn’t want to do another Pictures at an Exhibition. That’s not the intention. I analyzed those paintings and drawings to the nth degree in terms of everything that constitutes a visual art activity. That is: form, color, density, harmony of colors, counterpoint of movements—the same terminology we use in music. You don’t see sunflowers like that! What’s so fabulous about Vincent van Gogh, and why it’s been a lifelong preoccupation with me, is that he painted to see the world in his mind, not the world as it is, or in the reality of normal observation. The world in his mind made him so different, and made the paintings so different from anybody else’s. When you think of that in terms of the sonic domain in which we work: what is the sound in my mind, not what it ought to be but what is in my mind.

One of the things that sometimes bothers me about some new music is I find it generic, and I want to know who that person is. Why don’t you say something? Stravinsky never taught, and I’ve forgotten now who asked him—it’s probably one of the conversations with Robert Kraft—“If you had been a teacher, what would you expect of your students?” And he said, “That they would surprise me.” Now, to surprise that old bugger would be somewhat difficult. But you know, it has to leap off the page and be something other than what’s technically possible.

FJO: I want to get back to what you said about not wanting to create another Pictures at an Exhibition. Music being so abstract, the minute you give it a title or affix a program note to it, you are changing the way people perceive it since language has such an influence on how we experience things. I want to tell you a very silly and embarrassing anecdote. You’re originally from England, so when I first heard your London Serenade, I didn’t read the program notes and I assumed it was about London. I didn’t realize you had composed it for Ed London. This is what words do. And so as a result I assumed I was hearing allusions to things in your music that probably aren’t there, because I attached the wrong associations to it.

BR: Is that a sin? I take your point, but there’s something else I would like to say which may or may not lead us on. It so happens that one of the fundamental principles of my own aesthetic position is the juxtaposition of opposites. The history of 20th century music has been the fierce defense of certain positions. But in London Serenade, I begin with a completely tonal melody followed by something that is not essentially tonal, and juxtapose the two, transforming both of them as they go along until they resolve. And in a sense, it demonstrates that rather than being opposites, they are in fact totally related, because we only have 12 pitches after all.

I know that my music is being misunderstood in another way than the one you just described. That acerbic rough-tough composer that I used to be in the ‘60s has gone to America and sold out. Not at all! I can write Canti d’Amor; why shouldn’t I? They’re for my wife. Why should I not make a love song for my wife of all people? I don’t think one has to feel obliged to the resonances of the Second Viennese School in order to be able to do that. These two [the non-tonal and the tonal] are interacting all the time, whether it’s a harmony or a rhythmic cell, a timbre or a gesture. Music has always been that way. Otherwise, we would have used up its resources a long time ago. But it seems to be an inexhaustible phenomenon. I don’t mean to sound hokey, but I think there’s a spiritual quality about this phenomenon. In our listening, our relationship to it and what it does to us, maybe having to go through a juxtaposition of opposites, always implies, of course, a transformational process that’s leading the ear to wherever it has to go.

I know them more intimately than anyone else, but I think anyone willing to probe every work of mine, in both listening and in an intelligent assessment of what they are, would find that everything I’ve done relates to those two fundamental principles of an aesthetic. And they are not, in the way I use them, necessarily original. I don’t stay up at night worrying about being original in that sense. I’m much more interested to relate to predecessors in one way or another because the idea that somebody found it worthwhile to explore suggests that it maybe has more potential even now than it did earlier. And if people listen to my music with those thoughts in mind, I think they’ll very quickly at least be able to make contact. We hear so much about music being made accessible. Well, most things in human experience are accessible if you’re willing to access them. Commentators on my music have said that they detect a lyrical and often melancholy quality. I know in my own personality there is that streak of melancholy. But I don’t go looking for it, and I don’t go looking to be lyrical, or dramatic. I don’t find that lyricism and dramaticism are mutually exclusive. I think that’s a nonsense idea; as so many opera composers demonstrated, they’re beautifully integrated.

FJO: So this question of accessibility and lyricism versus a negative term that gets used all the time to describe music that isn’t lyrical—gnarly, I kind of like the word. I want to reclaim it. Gnarly is a positive word. But gnarly versus lyrical versus beauty leads us to an interesting area. I don’t know the music that you wrote when you were very young, the music you wrote in Europe. I’d love to hear some of it at some point. But I know that you composed some indeterminate pieces and some wildly experimental pieces and that you went through Darmstadt.

BR: Yeah, I did.

FJO: That’s coded language nowadays. When people say Darmstadt, that means scary new music.

BR: Right. Well, it’s become scary.

FJO: But, I think the other side of that is while there are some people who are afraid of that stuff, there are also people who are so immersed in it and who arguably might be afraid of lyricism, who might be afraid to write, play, or listen to something that’s beautiful. You’ve been speaking of opposites. In essence, what you’re talking about is complex beauty. It’s about finding the complexity in beauty and the beauty in complexity.

BR: It’s a very good question Frank, and I appreciate it because there’s no one simple answer. So I’ll try to address it in a number of ways. Part of my early study and training was through the mill of the avant-garde sectors in Europe: Darmstadt, Donaueschingen, Graz, and so on, and luckily in London. Though I didn’t live in London, I was frequently there and very well aware and friendly with many of the composers who were doing new things. So, yes, I was interested to explore aleatory possibilities as a part of an evolving aesthetic, which was not as well formed then as it is now. You called it indeterminate, but everything I notated is determined. How you juxtapose them becomes another question of performance practice.

I was attracted mostly to the Italians, at a time when the German thought in new music was dominant. Stockhausen, and even Boulez for all of his Frenchness, was nevertheless thought-wise coming very much from Adorno. I was attracted to Dallapiccola, Luciano Berio, Bruno Maderna, Luigi Nono, because in all of their musics, as different as they are, there is a—can I use the term?—Italian lyricism. What is it? What does it mean? But it’s there, there’s no question about it, and maybe it stems from the operatic tradition, which has permeated Italian life for two or three centuries. These things are made manifest in a very overt way in the theater.

So I listened to the lectures and talks and so on in the various avant-garde centers, but I always kept my own attitude toward them, even when I heard something that really opened my ears and my mind. I remember once, at one of the lectures that Boulez gave in Darmstadt, he began in German. He was very fluent in German, but he said, “I’m going to have to give this lecture in French because everything that I want to talk about has…” And he began with a conjunction of a verb: je forme, tu transformes, il deforme, nous conformons, vous conformez, ils conforment. And from that, he just elaborated like he was composing at a high speed, like a brilliant jazz improviser. All of it, of course, notated and strictly written word for word. I loved experiences like that, even though he was not fundamentally influential on me musically, except that he performed my music, which was one of the greatest influences one can have with a person of that ability and dedication.

FJO: I’m a little surprised to hear you say that Boulez did not have a direct influence on you. I had certain associations with his music growing up; I suppose we all do at this point. But recently when I’ve listened to his music after so many years, I’m now hearing a lyricism that I think pervades all of it in a way that’s not Germanic at all.

BR: You’re right. It’s not Germanic in the musical outcome. It’s the theoretical stand, and historically, one has to understand what it was: the post-war years, total disaster in Europe, and the determination to start again. I agree that’s very true of Boulez. Now it’s a more leisurely, extrovert lyricism; Sur Incises, for example, is constantly flowering and blossoming in a Rimbaud or Proustian kind of way.

FJO: The other connection between you and Boulez is how important poetry is to both of you. I actually hear a connection in his works for solo singer and ensemble with your Canti trilogy.

BR: Yeah.

FJO: But you’ve done something very unusual in the Canti trilogy that is unlike most text settings of poetry I can think of by any composer. A composer will generally focus on one poet in a cycle, or maybe a set of poems that are connected. But what you’ve done is you’ve created this phenomenal encyclopedic collage of numerous authors, as well as numerous languages. There’s nothing quite like it and what’s interesting to me about it is I’m not fluent in all of those languages. So I’m left baffled by it. There’s a layer that’s incomprehensible, unless I’m following along with a translated libretto. Yet I can tell that if I knew the languages, I wouldn’t have to follow along, because I can hear every single word. So even though it’s a dense polyglot, intertextual thing; your music is in the service of the words that you’re setting.

BR: It’s true. Again, the juxtaposition of different languages is an aspect of the aesthetic: they are opposites, but then I try to find the linguistic components of each language, which actually relate the sound world of each. Many of the connections are carried through in the instrumental domain, not necessarily always in the voice. And of course, all of the texts in each of the three [cycles that comprise the Canti trilogy] do conform to the idea of the moon and the sun and eclipses, so there is a thematic narrative, in a sense. But my intention was not to just paint pictures of the moon and the sun and so on. Every poem that I finally settled on, I dismantled; complete destruction, if that’s the right word: all of its rhythms, all of its rhymes, all of its internal rhymes, and so on and so forth. And then I reassemble it, because then what I’m dealing with is not just a poem about this by this author or that author; I’m dealing now with musical material, which is inherent in the poem itself. There are many poets I love to hear reading their own work. As you know, quite a number of my years were spent in Wales and I speak the Welsh language. Why I love to hear Dylan Thomas read is because he makes it come alive like music.

FJO: I’d love to understand more about the differences between the chamber and orchestral versions of these three cycles.

BR: The vocal line remains absolutely the same in the chamber and orchestra versions, but they’re not the same pieces. One is not just an orchestration of the other, or a reduction of the other. Not at all. Let’s say in the chamber version, before there’s any intention to make an orchestra version, you have a five-note chord, which is perfectly fine for an orchestra. But what if you add one more note to that chord? Where does it go? Does it go here? There? There? There? There? There? If you add two, where do they go? And, if you add more, and you start to change the harmonic implication, you’ve got a very different environment for the voice to perform exactly as it would in the other version, but now we have an extension of the juxtaposition of, not opposites, but differences that are very important.

FJO: It would be amazing to hear all six together.

BR: What I really would like is all three orchestral versions in one program. That’s so far not been possible. They’ve all been done singly, and we’ve done quite a few programs in which the three chamber versions were done.

FJO: I want to go back to something you said much earlier in the conversation when I was talking about those early pieces of yours, which I had described as indeterminate, and you made a distinction between aleatory and indeterminate. Because, you said, everything is determinate. It surprised me that there could have been random elements in any of your music, because one of the things that seems to be a hallmark of all of your music is attention to precise details, perhaps more in orchestration than anything else. Your music seems to be very concerned with really precise sonorities, which now seems contrary to what you were just saying about the two different versions of each of the Canti pieces.

BR: Well, my early music, starting from Tre Espressioni in 1959, is very precise. But the third movement has this space-time notation; it’s not in a regular metric ordering. You know, you have to put yourself back in the 1960s. Although all throughout my college years I’d written 12-tone music and generally ascribed to that, I was never entirely comfortable that it could serve my purposes. In saying that, I’m not faulting it as a way of working because the evidence is very clear from those who espoused it from the beginning, but it didn’t suit my purposes. I found it constraining; possibly it’s an indication of my own lack of ability to be inventive in that way. But we were all in a sense looking for, not a way out of it, but a way of building on it somehow. And that involved an almost destructive element, which were the aleatoric possibilities of John Cage and Earle Brown. I was very close to Earle, and over the years became close to John. My music was going in an entirely different way than theirs, but I could search through that freedom for something else that I was looking for. What has happened since is interesting, because after that, I started to become more and more precise, but not necessarily completing the circle back to the earlier years; it’s a different kind of precision now.

Vincent score

A portion of a manuscript page from Bernard Rands

I love the orchestra. I grew up with orchestras as a child. I grew up with the Halle Orchestra with Barbirolli. And in my hometown in England, every week I would go to rehearsals. I went to every concert I could possibly get to. I was very lucky; my teacher in high school would get tickets for me. In a way, that formed the basis of what I do with the orchestra now. And that has evolved over the last 50 years.

When I was a student, one of the professors I had said that if I was going to be a composition major I had to play a string instrument. It didn’t matter how good a pianist I was, or if I played the organ. I had to learn a string instrument. So dutifully, every week, I went for my violin lessons. By the time I’d done a couple of years of very unwilling effort, I would sit in the back of the student orchestra. When it got difficult, I just rolled the air. Drop in on the whole notes, so as not to spoil everybody else’s efforts. But what it gives you from inside the orchestra is very different from sitting out and listening to it. I have an attitude, which is not to assign to these wonderful players things for them to do, but to engage them in what I want to do, which is why I’ve always had very good relationships, even with cantankerous orchestras and even when I’ve been conducting myself. They know that I respect what they’ve done since I was yay high and that I want to engage their abilities into my musical intentions.

We have a beautiful piano [in the apartment], but I just have a[n electric] keyboard [in my studio]. I don’t work at the piano. For me, it sounds like a piano, so I cannot write for orchestra by writing at the piano. I just cannot. That’s not what I’m hearing. I’ve trained myself to hear everything.

FJO: But if you were working on a piano piece, then would you work out things on a keyboard?

BR: I will, yes, but again, I don’t need it as prop for that. You start being pianistic.

FJO: There’s always the constant danger of being too idiomatic, or not idiomatic enough. Well, what does idiomatic mean? It means somebody can play it.

BR: You know Milton [Babbitt]’s definition? Idiot-matic.

FJO: And, of course, you know, if you haven’t practiced piano in a long time, you’ll be limited by your own pianism.

BR: Exactly. But if you write for a soloist, like I’ve been writing for Jonathan Biss, he’s going to be the person playing the music. So once I knew I was being commissioned to write for him, I listened to all of his recordings and whenever there was a chance to hear him [live]. I was sending him parts of the manuscript as we went along. Then he came here and we started working. Such a different, wonderful attitude, because he knows that I was talking to his strengths, as well as trying to find my own individuality in what I was doing.

FJO: Another aspect of how you create music is that sometimes ideas gestate over a very long period of time. This is an aspect to your composition of the Canti Trilogy that we didn’t really dwell on; the three—or actually six—works that comprise it span about a dozen years. Your opera Vincent evolved over an even longer time.

BR: Absolutely. It began in 1973, and it was only finally performed this [past] year, in April of 2011.


From the work desk of Bernard Rands

FJO: As I look at your studio table, I see it is filled with a variety of pieces of your music, all different kinds of things. Do you normally have a variety of projects that you’re in the middle of concurrently?

BR: No. Only one. I’ve enough problems dealing with one. I have a tendency to take things off the shelf, pile them up until they almost fall over, then I have to spend a week putting everything back again. Otherwise, it’s total chaos in here. I’m much more orderly than that in my thinking.

FJO: Well, if Vincent had a 30-year gestation period, you obviously worked on so many other pieces of music in between.

BR: Oh, in that sense.

FJO: So I’m curious about how your initial ideas morphed over time with the result of writing other pieces. Obviously the Tambourin suites foreshadowed Vincent. But then your musical ideas concerning Van Gogh actually evolved into what is in fact a narrative opera.

BR: Well, of course, one is bringing into play the literary. J.D. McClatchy’s libretto for this opera is, I think, superb. It was an inspiration from beginning to end. He’s a wonderful poet. I had done an enormous amount of research on the work, the life, and the letters of Van Gogh over the years. And I handed McClatchy a sheaf of thoughts and ideas which he used. But on the other hand, he went to a point which I think informs the entire opera, and that is that Vincent was a religious fanatic, which is something most people don’t know or don’t care about. The opening line is When I feel the terrible need for religion, I go out and paint the stars. Painting the stars was not for him just an illustrative act, it was searching for this spiritual connection with God which permeated his short life.

But, back to your point, an opera is all consuming. In this case, there were some aborted efforts to commission it earlier on. And being the stubborn person that I am, I turned down opportunities which, if I had pursued them, would have led to a production earlier. But I could sense in the conversations, and even in the near contractual talks, that we were not on the same page. This is the one piece in my life in which I will not make any compromise of any kind. And those opportunities passed, and so it took that length of time. Once the commission was issued, I sat down and started working as soon as J.D. had provided a couple of scenes from the beginning. And in 15 months of pretty hard labor, I wrote the entire opera, being able to draw on the reserve that had been built up over the years.

With the Canti trilogy, I did the chamber version of Canti Lunatici first with the intention of doing the orchestra version. This commission came shortly afterwards, so I did it for the BBC. Canti del Sole came the other way around; I’d started on the chamber version and Jacob Druckman, who was then the composer-in-residence with New York Philharmonic called me and said, “I know you have this project going, is there any chance we could have the orchestra version of Canti del Sole?” Now who’s going to say no to the New York Philharmonic? So I did them the other way around, which became fascinating. Since again, it wasn’t just what kind of reduction you can make, but which notes do you take out of this chord, completely the reverse process. With Canti dell’ Eclisse, I did do them almost simultaneously. That’s the only time that I’ve actually worked on two pieces, but then they’re not. They are two pieces, but they’re not. I know it’s crazy.

FJO: So then, working methods—you’ve got this wonderful, large drafting board that you work on. But I’m curious, in terms of not being able to do two things at once. You obviously are not going to finish a piece in a day, especially not a big piece. So there are distractions. There’s going to concerts, shopping, cooking meals, chopping your fingers while you’re cooking and listening to music at the same time, all this stuff that gets in the way. Life forces all of us to deal with a million things at once. The composer John Luther Adams has spoken to me about going on music fasts: when he’s working on a piece of music, he doesn’t listen to any other music. I find that impossible to do and we’ve had big debates about this over the years.

BR: Interesting. A large part of my so-called career has been involved in institutions and universities. So you devote part of your time to a specific activity, which may or may not feed back into your creative thinking and process. At its best, it does. And quite startlingly sometimes, but generally speaking, one doesn’t undertake it for that purpose; it’s a service one’s performing for a different function. That’s why I think a work routine of X number of hours, which would not allow other distractions in, is so important. It is for me, anyway. Even when I was teaching, I used to get in trouble with my colleagues because they’d say, “It must be Monday; Bernard’s here.” Well, that’s because the rest of the week, I’m composing. I made it very clear to all of my colleagues in all of the institutions that I worked in that I don’t live in the university. I will come in and I will teach my students to my utmost capacity, but I will not be distracted from what I do. So get used to the idea that I am a composer. But even when we listen casually at dinner-preparing time, I’m not distracted or influenced in that way. I don’t have models, but one of the shocks that I remember was when again, in an interview with Stravinsky, he said what you just hinted at. When he’s composing a particular work, he surrounds himself with works of the same nature. I thought, it was almost a blow to my adoration of him. Well, this genius, why the hell does he need all those other pieces? A mass, for example. So he has a mass from the 16th century, and a Haydn mass. His idea was that he wanted to condition his thinking about the spirituality of a mass. He wasn’t looking for a model. He didn’t want to imitate anybody else. And you know, his other comment, when he said, “I steal.” He didn’t steal a note of anybody else’s music. What he meant was that having understood the underlying principle of a work by another composer, that it is then public property. That it’s in the public domain. The rest is cheating. Get the principle, then make your own music.

FJO: This is reminding me of the piece you wrote for the centenary of Carnegie Hall [Ceremonial III]. You talked about how that music was a response to all of the music that had ever been played there. And I thought to myself, as I was listening to it: You might have done it, but I don’t hear allusions to any specific music; it’s completely yours.

BR: That’s the point I’m making. Whatever feeds into it goes through the grinder, through the mill, in such a way that it’s completely transformed. I was thinking Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Horowitz, but in the end, all that does is to help focus on the special nature of that commission, the location, and what would be worthy of that from my point of view.

FJO: But I don’t hear Judy Garland or Sinatra or even Horowitz in what you wrote.

BR: Well, I think there’s an essential difference between models and influences. Now, models tend to be something that one chooses to look at in detail and understand and, like Stravinsky, understand what the principle is. That’s a model. I don’t think Stravinsky was influenced by any of the composers that he was surrounding himself with. Except in the more general sense that there’s a contrapuntal nature to this, or there is a particular harmonic flow to that.

When I was young, I first got to know Luciano Berio, and lived in his house, and toured Europe with him and copied his music for him. There’s very clearly an input into me from that and from him. But while we remained absolutely close until he died just three or four years ago, I don’t think my music sounds like Berio. So that was an influence which helped me formulate my aesthetic stance rather than saying that, you know, Circles was influential on my percussion writing.

FJO: I’m standing on shaky ground here because I don’t know your earliest pieces. I only know the pieces that you’ve written since you’ve lived here. It was interesting to hear you describe people saying, “Oh, you moved to America and became softer; you’re not writing hardcore music anymore.” Because from what I can glean, your full flowering as a composer happened here in the United States.

BR: Yes.

FJO: But by the time you arrived in America, you were already an adult and already had a significant career as a composer. Yet you made the decision to come here. What’s interesting is you didn’t go to one place. You’ve been all over the place: California, Philadelphia, Cambridge, Chicago. So, in a way, where you happen to be based isn’t all that important to your overall identity.

BR: It’s a great question Frank, and it’s very observant in the sense that before I finally decided to settle here in 1975, I’d been coming back and forth. I was here for two years, ’66 to ’68, during which time I did travel. I did go to California. I did go to San Francisco, I did go to Chicago. What I liked about it was it is a very stark opposite from Europe. To put it rather crudely, if they don’t like you in San Francisco, you can go to Chicago. If they don’t like you in Chicago, go to New York. You just bugger off and go somewhere else. In Europe, the boundaries are still drawn very closely. So I decided to come back because I felt freer here in that sense. I didn’t have to pretend to want to be part of that. It still exists a great deal in Europe. I mean, if you’re not in Lachenmann’s group, you’re nowhere in Germany. I mean, forget it: You’re wasting your time.

FJO: I’m curious though, if they don’t like you in California, go to Chicago, but we’re one country and Europe is all different countries.

BR: Well, that’s true, but I’ve always felt here a freedom to do what I want, whereas, there’s not necessarily an immediate acceptance of that [in Europe]. I think there are European-conditioned elements in my music which don’t necessarily fit American sensitivities, but nevertheless I think it’s been good for me to be able to expand in ways that I wanted to.

FJO: Well, this takes us back to the Canti Trilogy, because American audiences aren’t going to understand all those languages. That’s a given. There’ll be a handful of people, of course, who will. The audience isn’t a monolith, but you know what I mean.

BR: But yet the audience responses to them have been fantastic. If you provide a program note, and provide all the texts with translations, I think it’s not—

FJO: Sure, but the thing that strikes me about that piece, and this is what I was getting at earlier, it’s the kind of piece where if the text setting wasn’t so completely idiomatic, and so sensitive to every nuance and every detail, people wouldn’t realize it wasn’t. If you’re just following the text, you’re seeing the words, but the thing is you don’t have to follow the text.

BR: No, it’s true.

FJO: You can hear them all.

BR: You can.

FJO: And if you did actually understand those languages, you’d get this amazing experience.

BR: Yeah.

FJO: But a lot of people here can’t, myself included, because we don’t have that background.

BR: It seems to me that every piece of music, irrespective of the historic period, has more than just the obvious. In Canti Lunatici, for example, every time the moon is mentioned, it’s a melisma; it’s a particular melisma which is always related, all the way through. It’s almost like a Wagner leitmotif in a way. There are no changes. That whole piece, with its 13 texts all about the moon, is constantly exploring a kind of lyricism, but it comes out of melismatic writing. The deliberate intention of Canti del Sole was to write an almost 99.5 percent syllabic piece. In Canti dell’Eclisse, it brings the two together because the concern is they’re as different as light to dark, both in the obvious physical world sense and in the terms of poetry: from light to darkness, and from birth to death. I’m biased, but I think if the pieces have claimed any kind of audience attention, it’s because they are more than just the notes on the paper or the texts or the cumulative effects of all of those. There’s an intention that goes beyond that.

All of the truly great music we’ve inherited is more than just the sum total of the parts in that sense. I mean the Jupiter Symphony, for example, which Mozart said he heard in a matter of seconds. Without making any comparisons, as a creative artist you know the totality, but you don’t know what it is yet. And so you have to linearly find it. That takes time, much longer than my definition of people saying, “Are you an intuitive composer, or are you an intellectual designer of sound, an engineer in the sonic realm?” The answer is, well, all of those things.

Rands Sketchbook

Precision fuels intuition: a page from one of Bernard Rands’s sketchbooks

Intuition has to come which strikes you with such an impulse that you grasp its potential without knowing what it is yet. Then when you go to work, to realize that energy and to discover and design what it is, intuition will leave you alone to get on with it until you become unfaithful to it. Why is it that you can go to your studio, have a wonderful day’s work, go to bed thinking “I’ve solved it!” and then you come in next morning and say, “What the hell, somebody’s been in here during the night”? That’s why I have two locks on the door. I had to stop that. Plus the fact that I’m married to another composer. In other words, what you thought was right, is not. And how do you know it’s not right, if it hasn’t been tested yet? I think that’s where the intuition says, “Bernard, that’s not what we intended.” And so you put it in the trash basket.

FJO: Being married to another composer; this is an area we didn’t really touch on. We talked about the distractions of teaching, or the distractions of hearing music, or the distractions of not being able to work on two things at once. You’re both engaged in a very similar realm: writing music that other people play. I imagine you talk about music all the time.

BR: We do, a lot, yes.

FJO: Are there influences that go back and forth. Is this a good thing? Is this a problematic thing when you’re in the middle of a specific piece?

BR: It’s a very reasonable question to ask of two composers who, without being immodest, are relatively successful during the time that we’re working. One thing that is crucially important is our age difference. I’m 30 years older than Augusta. From the very beginning, from virtually our first meeting, I recognized something in the work that she had completed to that point that was different from anything else. I went through dozens of scores for Aspen at that time, or for June in Buffalo. Who is Augusta Read Thomas? Man or woman? I don’t know. Could be either. When we met, I thought, not only is she talented, but she’s also very lovely. And from then on, the first thing she said was, “I do not want to make progress in this profession with people saying that you’re only getting that because you’re sleeping with Bernard Rands.” And I remember saying to her subsequently, a little while after we knew each other more, “You know, Gusty, I think there’ll come a day when people will say Bernard Rands only got that because he’s sleeping with Augusta Thomas.” She said, “Don’t be silly.” Now who’s more in the public consciousness? If you put the top ten American composers, Gusty will be in there somewhere because she has this incredible outgoing attitude to people and to music. I’m much more withdrawn, mysterious.

I was with the Philadelphia Orchestra in the early years that Gusty and I were together; I had a long relationship with Riccardo Muti, as you know. I would put scores in front of him, a pile of them. I put one of Gusty’s in without telling her. I said to myself, it is worthy of his attention. He doesn’t know anything about our relationship. And he got to that score, and he opened it, “Chi è questo? Chi è questo? Questa?” So I put it aside. He chose a piece without my saying a word about who it was. Gusty was all up in flames about it. I shouldn’t have done that. And she got quite—when it was performed—she got quite a lot of poison pen letters from composers who should know better.

What I’m getting to is that in our relationship, we sought out the difference between her professional concerns in any one day, and mine. You know, she’s a very good public servant. I’m a workaholic, but she’s in another realm. So we talk a lot about music, but we don’t talk about the pieces we’re working on until after they’re performed. Even after they’re completed, I would not say to her, “What’s this? I don’t get this bit here, or what are you trying to do here?” Because that would interfere with my willingness to go to the performance and let it be what it is. Once it’s over, she’ll say, “What do you think there, Bernard?”

FJO: It’s fascinating that you keep secrets from each other until the performances.

BR: Anybody who’s ever created anything, no matter how trivial or how distant from ever becoming a masterpiece, whatever that is, for the person who made it, it’s precious. And you have to be very careful not to trample on it in any way. I made that a fundamental premise of my teaching. One of the things that I don’t like, although I’ve done it a number of times, are those short-term residencies at a festival where you talk to students about this, that, and the other. You see them for only a few days. If you really want to be honest with them or critical—and, in a sense, flatten them—you have to be there to pick them up again and help them bounce back from whatever, and learn from it. So it’s much better to teach on a long-term basis. I’ve often said, the only students that I’ve ever really been able to teach were my friends. We were really close friends after a short period of time, because there’s something about the way in which they set about their work that intrigues me. And I want to be able to help them realize, if I can see, what the challenges are. It’s never a case of, “I think you should do this” or ”I think you should do that.”

FJO: Your comment about creation being precious brings us full circle to the very beginning of this conversation when we talked about submitting as a listener, that the best experience that you can get out of listening to something is when you really allow that other person to speak to you in his or her own way, and to accept it for what it is. So, to turn the question upside down what then is the function of the creator? Not to the audience, but to the work itself. What is the obligation?

BR: If you say, “I never think about an audience when I’m working,” people think, “He’s so esoteric.” I don’t mean that. I can only be honest to my instincts and my training and my thought process. I’m very self-critical, to the point of being suicidal sometimes, not in that [literal] sense but it’s so intense that it’s hard to describe. I do this because I believe that the person who’s going to come on that bitterly cold February night and pay above the odds for the ticket to listen to my music is coming toward me for some reason, which I don’t need to know about and maybe they can’t define it. But when they come together with what I’ve made, I want them to hear another human being talking to them who’s not superior, not inferior, just another person who cares about beauty and expressivity and spiritual things which, again, are hard to define. They feel when they’ve listened that they’ve been taken on a journey. I love John Lennon’s notion of a magical mystery tour. Let it go on and be that. I do it because there’s nothing about me that’s any different from any member of an audience in that sense. I may be privileged in this way or that, certainly in terms of training, but if they detect that this is something that’s speaking in an honest, unequivocal way, I think they’re likely to engage with it. It’s not the person who comes to the green room afterwards and starts blabbing, but it’s the person who comes by and touches you arm and says thank you and disappears. You know that they were into it.

Stravinsky Outside Russia

Leon Botstein

Leon Botstein conducting the American Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Matt Dine (courtesy Sacks & Co.)

[Ed. Note: The following is a slightly modified version of an essay, reprinted with permission, that will appear as the program note for an all-Stravinsky concert performed by the American Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Leon Botstein this Friday, January 20, 2012, at Carnegie Hall. The program will include two rarely performed compositions written during Stravinsky’s final three decades in Southern California: Canticum Sacrum and Requiem Canticles. Botstein will additionally lead a performance of Stravinsky’s most famous work The Rite of Spring, written long before he arrived in the United States, as part of the ASO’s Classics Declassified series at Symphony Space in New York City on February 26, 2012.—FJO]

It has become all too commonplace to negotiate the complex and tangled fabric of artistic life in history by constructing an artificial hierarchy—lists of the “best” or “most famous” personages—as if painting, writing, or composing were Olympic contests, adequately judged by a single objective criterion. In reality, at any given time there are many inspired and imposing figures who, despite their ambitions, jealousies, and rivalries, themselves never worried about any top ten or top fifty rankings. And the nature of art-making resists such blunt instruments of evaluation. Nevertheless, for most of the 20th century (if there were indeed to be a contender for the status of the “greatest” 20th-century composer) the honor, as a matter of public perception both in the general public and among professional musicians, would most likely have fallen on Igor Stravinsky. Stravinsky, who, unlike Paul Dukas or Felix Mendelssohn, seems not to have suffered from modesty, self-doubt, or excessive generosity to others, would have been only too pleased. Perhaps the best way to think of Stravinsky’s standing during his lifetime and for several decades after his death in 1971 is to compare him to the place his contemporary, Pablo Picasso, came to occupy in the visual arts as emblematic of the 20th century.

Stravinsky on Porch

Igor Stravinsky on his porch in Southern California. (Photo © Boosey & Hawkes, Inc., reprinted with permission)

The reasons for Stravinsky’s prominence and dominance are many. First and foremost are the range and quality of Stravinsky’s output, sustained over a very long and productive life. Second, Stravinsky was a shrewd and effective promoter of his own music and career. Third is the variety of styles and genres in which the composer worked, from the stage to small chamber music works. Fourth—and perhaps most intriguing—are the prominence and influence he managed to achieve in three very disparate and discrete public spheres and contexts. The first was his native pre-revolutionary Russia, into which he was born in 1882. The second was French-speaking Europe, in France and Switzerland, where the composer lived and worked for nearly three decades before World War II. Stravinsky started his career outside of Russia as a Russian working abroad, and then as an exile. But he ended up as an exponent of contemporary “French” music. Stravinsky spent his final three decades (from 1939 on) based in the United States, where he was regarded initially as partially Russian, but equally French as an exile. Ultimately, by the early 1960s, he came to represent American music, at home in the United States and abroad.

Stravinsky’s career began in Russia, where he studied with Rimsky-Korsakov and where he formed a deep and lifelong artistic and spiritual attachment to Russian folk traditions, the Orthodox religion, the Russian language, and the Russian cultural heritage in music, the visual arts, and literature. The “Volga Boatmen” arrangement for Chaliapin gives evidence of this. In Paris, where he befriended Claude Debussy, Stravinsky exploited the rage for presumed exoticism of all things Russian, and rose to international fame through the success and notoriety of his ballet scores written for the Ballets Russes.

One single date has come to serve as an historic marker for the explosion of modernism onto the cultural scene—a moment in time that seemed to bring the 19th century to a close and usher in the 20th: the May 29, 1913 premiere of The Rite of Spring. In his years in France, Stravinsky came to dominate the musical and cultural scene, taking his place alongside Valery, Gide, and Cocteau (forgetting Coco Chanel in this context) as a luminary. Through Nadia Boulanger, arguably the most important single teacher of a younger generation of composers, many of them Americans, Stravinsky influenced the course of American concert music. In his American years, Stravinsky’s fame and reputation continued to grow, not as an outsider (the way other émigrés, such as Schoenberg, saw themselves), but as an insider in the American scene. In part through his association with Robert Craft, who would become his chronicler and assistant, in his last years Stravinsky was astonishingly productive, writing in a new way, adapting modernist techniques developed by Schoenberg and Webern.

From Stravinsky Requiem Canticles

A passage from the score of Requiem Canticles which demonstrates Stravinsky’s idiosyncratic adaptation of techniques developed by Schoenberg and Webern.
Requiem Canticles by Igor Stravinsky
© Copyright 1967 by Boosey & Hawkes Music Publishers, Ltd.
Reprinted by Permission.
All in all, therefore, one can locate roughly three distinct stylistic periods in Stravinsky’s career. The first was an unmistakable “Russian” phase; Russian influences are obviously audible in the Firebird, for example. This gave way to a form of self-consciously international neo-classicism, not dissimilar from a parallel development in architecture, particularly the work of Le Corbusier. The high point of that period was reached during the late 1920s and early 1930s in Paris. In the years of transition from Russia, great works that mirror the trajectories forwards and backwards in time were written, such as Les Noces (1914/1917) and The Soldier’s Tale (1918). The legacy of neo-classicism formed the basis for the third period (the most audibly modernist period, that of the 1950s and 1960s) when the composer was in the United States, where he wrote among other things, together with W.H. Auden, his operatic masterpiece The Rake’s Progress (1951) and an opera for television, The Flood (1962).

At the same time, just as in the case of Picasso, the shifting stylistic surfaces in each period never masked a consistent distinctive character and quality to Stravinsky’s music. A set of proverbial fingerprints, revealing a unique musical imagination and personality, can be located in all of Stravinsky’s music. Central to Stravinsky’s aesthetic was the belief that in the end music was separate from language, and demanded a formal economy, a structure, and rigorous logic all its own. At the same time, Stravinsky understood his audience and the public. He had an uncanny sense of the theatrical in music and an elegant sense of humor and irony. There was a clarity, transparency, and lightness to his music reflecting a deeply felt aversion to Wagnerian grandiosity and Mahlerian metaphysical pomposity. A lucid rhythmic originality, vitality, and complexity inhabit many of his scores, but the asymmetries and surprises all seem seamless and natural. The discipline of writing for dance taught the composer that the overarching architecture of a work, its musical flow and narrative, could not be obscure. Stravinsky used musical time with uncanny effectiveness, rarely if ever wearing out his welcome with his audience or his fellow musicians. His command of instrumental and vocal sonorities was equally impressive, as was his capacity to make his material memorable. Stravinsky’s extensive output was startling in its consistency in terms of rigor, invention, and quality.

Yet, like Picasso, although Stravinsky’s name and reputation remain in tact, the interest of the public has shifted away from much of his work. The three great ballet scores, The Firebird (1910), Petrushka (1911/47), and The Rite of Spring, are cornerstones of the orchestral repertoire. Many later scores are still heard, but far fewer than one might think or wish. This is especially the case with Stravinsky’s later works. Indeed, many of his mid-career and later works survive on the public stage as a result of his friend Balanchine’s choreography, including pieces not intended for dance, such as the Violin Concerto (1931).

If there is tendency to simplify how we approach the history of music by constructing lists of the “top ten,” there is a parallel allure to the idea that there is some “essential” identity to each composer in terms of his historical roots, so to speak. Bartók becomes quintessentially “Hungarian,” Copland “American,” Debussy and Ravel “French,” and Sibelius “Finnish.” As a result, we turn to Americans for the “best” performances of Copland, Hungarians for Bartók, the French for Debussy and Ravel, and the Finns for Sibelius. This makes marketing easy and lends some hint of authenticity to our experience as listeners, as if there might be some secret spiritual or national bond, framed by blood, language, and soil, between a composer and his music, requiring decoding by someone who shares that bond.


Igor Stravinsky in his study. (Photo © Boosey & Hawkes, Inc., reprinted with permission)

Even when this might plausibly apply to a composer (e.g. Musorgsky as Russian or Smetana as Czech), it assumes some fixed generalized category—Russianness and Czechness that seem to transcend historical change. But what do we make of Stravinsky? Despite his evident identity as a Russian émigré after 1917, this reductive assessment violates not only his own views about the nature of music, but the facts of his career and the range and variety of his compositions. Recourse to the notion of exile, in the case of Stravinsky, only complicates the problem. Rachmaninov was also an exile after 1917. For him the experience of being separated from his homeland was traumatic. He sought to insulate himself in an environment marked by nostalgia. He tried to recreate the atmosphere of his native land when he was in America, England, and Switzerland. Prokofiev, who like Stravinsky found himself abroad when the October Revolution happened, and like Stravinsky sought to make a career in America and France, in part because he felt always in Stravinsky’s shadow, returned to Russia in the mid 1930s. But Prokofiev, unlike Stravinsky, had no spiritual ties to the Orthodox Church and was never a virulent anti-Communist. Stravinsky fit in, in France and America, as a leading and successful participant at the center of musical and cultural life, and never at its margins.

Vladimir Nabokov reinvented himself and became one of the greatest writers in English and one of the most trenchant observers of post-War America. Stravinsky managed to reinvent himself too, not once, but twice: first in France and then in America. Like Nabokov, he used the position of exile to forge a synthesis with his new circumstances and reach in new ways various new publics. The link to the past was never hidden or disavowed (as Kurt Weill attempted). Stravinsky, fortunately for him, unsuccessfully tried to keep his music in circulation in Germany after 1933. Displacement and the necessity to adjust may have been unwelcome but they could still be understood as acts of practicality, not fear or conscience. Exile provided Stravinsky with new remarkable sources of inspiration.

Stravinsky was, above all else, a composer’s composer, for whom music can function in the world in a manner that resists facile typecasting, and whose character reflects a dialogue with the composer’s immediate environment. His ambitions, craft, and influence were international and his identity shifted, at different phases in his career, to transfigure distinct milieus and contexts.