Tag: multiculturalism

Teaching Inequality: Consequences of Traditional Music Theory Pedagogy

A pair of eyeglasses and a pen on top of pages of music notation.

The musical case against rap is that in my view and the view of my music theorist father who went to music school, there are three elements to music. There is harmony, there is melody, and there is rhythm. And rap only fulfills one of these—the rhythm section. There’s not a lot of melody and there’s not a lot of harmony. And thus, it is basically, effectively, spoken rhythm. And so it’s not actually a form of music, it’s a form of rhythmic speaking. And thus, so beyond the subjectivity of me just not enjoying rap all that much, what I’ve said before is it’s not music. (Ben Shapiro, 9/15/19)

During a recent episode of The Ben Shapiro Show Sunday Special, Shapiro invoked the authority of his “music theorist” father who went to “music school,” in order to dispel, in seemingly objective, fact-based fashion, the idea that rap is music. Shapiro’s criteria for what qualifies as music is absurd and his assertion that rap fails to meet this criteria is likewise absurd—but this is largely beside the point. The objective of these bad faith arguments isn’t necessarily to win or lose, but rather to perpetuate the notion that rap-as-music merits debate. Even entertaining the question undermines the legitimacy of rap by setting it apart from other musical styles about which we couldn’t imagine having such conversations.

We must reject Shapiro’s attempt to leverage the prestige of academia to do his dirty work for him. At the same time, we must consider the implications of his appeal to music theory. Shapiro wants us to focus on what music theory and music school suggest about rap-as-music—we should instead ask what his invocation of these institutions suggests about music theory pedagogy. Within these institutions, what do we learn about who and what is valued, and why?

Although the majority of undergraduate students do not listen regularly to Western art music, the standard theory curriculum continues to privilege it at the expense of all other styles.

Western art music is not a universal language. It does some things well, other things not as well, and many things not at all. And yet, although the majority of undergraduate students do not listen regularly to this style of music, the standard theory curriculum continues to privilege it at the expense of all other styles. Given this disconnect, how can we justify our near-exclusive reliance on traditional pedagogy, especially in situations where it isn’t necessary to do so? What biases do we create in our students when we declare Western art music to be mandatory knowledge for anyone pursuing formal studies in music? What biases does this reveal in us?

Let’s start with names.

Names create hierarchy. A course title like Music Theory 1: Diatonic Harmony explicitly designates harmony as the most important element of the course. Nor is this harmony in the general sense, but harmony specific to Western art music. There’s a real danger of elision, whether in perception or practice, so that music theory becomes just about harmony. Discussions of melody often come folded into larger discussions of harmony. The standard textbooks, despite grand gestures towards complete, everything-you-need-to-know musicianship, devote almost no attention to rhythm, beyond strict issues of notation. Other critically important musical elements, such as improvisation, timbre, and post-production, fail to make any meaningful appearance. This unwarranted prioritization of harmony as the essence, if not the totality, of the music theory core curriculum shapes the reality of what, within academia, is considered music, or at least music worth studying.

Western art music is not a universal language.

A myopic focus on Western art music severely distorts what music is and what music can be. The standard pedagogy relies on a value system whose metrics are based on subjective preferences but passed off as objective truths. Western art music is declared, without adequate justification, to be the necessary tool for understanding music at the most fundamental level. The construction of a musical hierarchy with Western art music at the top, until recently considered the only music that merited institutionalization, perpetuates the idea of worthy music and unworthy music.

The construction of a musical hierarchy with Western art music at the top perpetuates the idea of worthy music and unworthy music.

These are decisions made by people, no matter how compellingly they’re framed as divine decrees or natural phenomena, no matter how long-standing their historical pedigree. Teaching Western art music without acknowledging issues of canon-formation, cultural colonization, exclusion, and erasure ensures that these problems will continue. We are not exempt from interrogating the standard theory pedagogy, nor are we absolved from blame when we choose not to. The emergence of new musical styles and new technologies of music production are inconsequential—Western art music continues to be prioritized at the expense of all other modes of music creation. We need to understand this unwarranted privileging within the context of white supremacy.

White supremacy is the systemic centering of whiteness. It builds on an incorrect assumption of white racial superiority and functions to uphold white privilege. Whiteness is defined as the standard against which and on whose terms all others are measured and invariably fall short. When white is designated as normal, those who are not white are forever deemed not normal, no matter how hard they work or what they accomplish. Restricting the definition of white supremacy to a collection of bigoted individuals overlooks the myriad ways that institutionalized power in this country, whether social, political, legal, economic, or cultural, reinforces the primacy of whiteness.

Western art music is not a universal language.

A curriculum based nearly exclusively on the music of dead white European men is not politically neutral.

A curriculum based nearly exclusively on the music of dead white European men is not politically neutral. The only reason Western art music is the benchmark by which other styles are validated or repudiated is because whites made it so. When Beyonce’s triads are as legitimate as Beethoven’s, reproducing without critique a system that excludes black music from the basic theory sequence is a political choice. This denial of the legitimacy of black music contributes to the ongoing denial of the legitimacy of black people. Injustice unchecked remains injustice.

We need an antiracist music theory classroom, one that de-centers Western art music in favor of a polystylistic approach. Students need a broad musical foundation to prepare for advanced studies in the particular styles relevant to their interests and projected career paths. An antiracist approach to music theory recognizes that Western art music is not the pinnacle of human achievement, but simply one among many equally valid forms of artistic musical expression.

The stylistic evolution of any language depends on whose voices are seen as legitimate, on who is allowed to participate. That many of us have only recently become aware of just how pronounced the disparities in representation are within music theory testifies to the extent we have internalized the biases behind them. We who are white, who hold a disproportionate number of jobs in academia, tend not to notice whiteness because it is what we expect to find. This is a problem. Our condemnation of Ben Shapiro’s racist words does not absolve us of our own participation in and perpetuation of a racist pedagogy that normalizes whiteness. We must divest ourselves of the false conception that music can exist in a vacuum, devoid of context, independent of the people and the processes integral to its production. We must do better.

Western art music is not a universal language.

We need an antiracist music theory classroom, one that de-centers Western art music in favor of a polystylistic approach.

As educators, we must be able to speak not just about what we teach, but also about why we teach it. We must ask ourselves who benefits from the current system, and who is harmed by it. A diverse student population in the classroom is not a prerequisite for concern about diverse student experience. Education is never politically neutral. As teachers and as students, as mentors and as mentees, our job is to question, to engage, to grow. We must all participate in our own education. We must all point out the ways that inequality and oppression manifest in what is presented as objective truth. The way things are is not the same as the way things have to be. We are each accountable for disrupting this narrative.

This is the first in a two-part series. The second essay will provide resources and suggestions for ways that we can begin incorporating justice initiatives into our music theory pedagogy.

Building a Solidarity Economy through Revolutionary Music: the Making of Mirror Butterfly

Over 50 people gathered in a room in front of a banner for the Mesopotamian Water Forum

Bertolt Brecht famously proselytized that “Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it.” But how can art be that hammer, and not simply representational? One solution is to work in dialogue with actual social movements and create spaces where activists are at the center of the creative and economic processes behind the creation of new work. Our play Mirror Butterfly is the outgrowth of our collaboration with three women activists fighting at the intersection of ecology, anti-imperialism, and women’s liberation. Its purpose is to work with both their ideas and the living movements they were a part of to imagine and create a new world. We interviewed Reyna Lourdes Anguamea (of the Yaqui nation based in Sonora, Northern Mexico), Azize Aslan (of the Kurdish Freedom Movement), and Mama C (a veteran of the Black Panther Party, now doing community work and homesteading in Tanzania).

How do we engage beyond cultural appropriation?

How do we engage in this dialogue beyond cultural appropriation? A turn to saxophonist-composer Fred Ho guided our own work in this respect. Ho held as a specific antidote to the exploitive appropriations of Third World cultures by Western artists that Ho called the “three Cs” of intercultural respect: “Credit, Compensation [and] Committed anti-imperialist solidarity.” He also argued that, in order to achieve true multicultural expression, it was necessary to “liberate oneself from the bourgeois individualist artist-as-hero-genius of simply using ‘sounds’ for self-expression (self-gain)” and to take every opportunity of “giving back in all the ways we can (from our sincere friendship, admiration, and love to supporting and participating in the fight against all forms of imperialism and imperialist-supported assaults).” (“Fred Ho: Artist Comments.” 29 Oct. 2006, quoted in David Kastin, “Fred Ho and the Evolution of Afro-Asian New American Multicultural Music.” Popular Music and Society 33, no. 1 (February 1, 2010): pp. 1–8; also available online.) In the paragraphs below, we will show how Fred’s three Cs guided our work at every step in our process to create a piece that had both creative and economic solidarities guiding its creation and dissemination.

Reyna Lourdes Anguamea (center) with Benjamin Barson and Gizelxanath Rodriguez

Reyna Lourdes Anguamea (center) with Benjamin Barson and Gizelxanath Rodriguez.

Travels to Mexico

We wanted to create a work that truly crossed borders and built international solidarity, so, in 2018, we traveled to Obregon, Mexico, to develop the plot and language with Yaqui activists. The Yaqui nation is one that we have had relationships with for years. (I, Gizelxanath, am of Yaqui descent.)

The Yaqui people inhabit the valley of the Río Yaqui in the Mexican state of Sonora and in Arizona. They are notable for their successful resistance to the Spanish conquest—they were one of the few First Nations to retain their autonomy and were even celebrated by United States General William Sherman as the “Spartans of the Americas.” The majority of the Yaqui nation still lives in Sonora despite more than a century of forced relocation intensified under Porfirio Díaz and current attacks on their ancestral water source, the Yaqui River. The ironically named “Independence Aqueduct Pipeline” has diverted so much water from their territory that today thousands of Yaqui people suffer from gastrointestinal problems due to water scarcity and pollution.

We were aware of the intensity of oppression the Yaqui people had been enduring, but when we visited, its scale and immediacy eclipsed what we had imagined. A leading Yaqui activist and spokesperson, Mario Luna, has been fighting the water extraction of the Yaqui river for decades. When we visited, we learned that the threats on his family’s life, both verbal and physical, had increased to the point that he was forced to install barbed wire and cameras.

The resilience of the Yaqui community against the provocations of the Mexican state made us reflect on our commitment as artivists.

The resilience of the Yaqui community against the provocations of the Mexican state made us reflect on our commitment as artivists. We were inspired by artists such as the Mexican/Chinese-American performance and multimedia artist Richard Lou, who has been committed to the practice of border art for over twenty years. Our artivism was fueled by a “commitment to a transformation of the self and the world through creative expression” in which arts can help us imagine and construct a world beyond borders, exploitation, and racial, gendered, and environmental oppression. It took on an existential intensity that was difficult to be prepared for. We encountered conditions that were truly challenging for the Yaqui people, as well as a warmth and hospitality that felt revolutionary. We asked ourselves many questions: What would a collaborative work look like in this context? Would it be documentary-based, dramatizing the struggle against water usurpation? Should the piece foreground the formation of the National Indigenous Congress (CNI), an anti-capitalist council of 68 different indigenous nations? In terms of story, how concrete or surrealist would it be? Did it need to follow the logic of linear plot and linear time—or linear music, for that matter?

We decided we could and should not make these decisions alone. We met the director of the Yaquis Museum, Reyna Lourdes Anguamea, also a Yaqui lawyer and cultural guardian, and asked her what a meaningful staged work would look like that spoke to the Yaqui struggle and the alternative proposed by the CNI. She gave us the idea for how we should shape our jazz opera. It would revolve around the cry of a sacred endangered insect, the Kautesamai, otherwise known as the four-mirrored butterfly. This insect is in danger of going extinct due to the prevalent use of pesticides in the area and the vanishing of the Yaqui river ecosystem. Inspired, we were also immediately concerned: we did not want to profit off her ideas. Following Ho’s principles of “Three Cs” we agreed that the proceeds of the album—all of them—would fund the Yaqui radio station Namakasía Radio, which coordinates the efforts of social movement activists. Thus our audience was able to participate in a solidarity economy across borders, supporting indigenous activists and water defenders they never would have had contact with otherwise. The project would be named Mirror Butterfly: the Migrant Liberation Movement Suite, and the piece’s main character would be the Kautesamai. In this way, we created both a creative process and an economic process which connected Yaquis and our base in North America in a way that could lay the foundation for alliances in years to come.

A photo of the nearly extinct Kautesamai.

A photo of the nearly extinct Kautesamai.

In someways, however, the work had only begun. In dialogue with our United States-based collaborators, Ruth Margaff, Nejma Neferiti, and Peggy Myo-Young Choy, and in conversations, study sessions, and interviews with our Yaqui collaborators, we began to create our story. We were encouraged by Reyna and others to think globally, considering other experiences of communities on the front lines of environmental struggle. With that in mind, we decided we would also tell the stories and freedom dreams of the Kurdish Freedom Movement. Like the National Indigenous Congress and the Yaqui River Defense Group, this movement offered a different form of governance that came from democractic traditions outside of Western liberalism: rotating non-hierarchical leadership, communal economics, the prevalence of women in leadership roles, and the defense of water and ecosystems as paramount.

Nejma Nefertiti holding a microphone.

EmCee Nejma Nefertiti of Afro Yaqui Music Collective performing at the MWF.

The Kurdish people, based in Syria, have witnessed an historic exodus of their people—over five million refugees have left the nation in a conflict several analysts have linked to climate change and ecological catastrophe. Given that our work aims to raise up the voices of environmental protectors who are building solutions that reverse the destruction wrought by capitalist economics and climate change, this felt like a natural step.

Travels to Iraq

Our intention with the jazz opera was to highlight the economic and social alternatives proposed by activists living in migrant-sending regions across the world.

As part of the development of Mirror Butterfly, we spent a lot of time “building” politically, emotionally, and artistically in order to create something organic. Our intention with the jazz opera was to highlight the economic and social alternatives proposed by activists living in migrant-sending regions across the world—alternatives that, if embraced, could create stable and life-generating communities rooted in social justice. With that in mind, we connected with Azize Aslan, a revolutionary economist and member of the Kurdish Freedom movement. Overlooked in the Western press, this remarkable revolutionary movement has liberated huge sections of Rojava and implemented “democratic confederalism,” which converges with ecosocialism through decentralization, gender equality, and local governance through direct democracy coordinated through communal councils. This is a big break from their lives under the Baath regime, where for several decades it was forbidden to plant trees and vegetables, and the population was encouraged by repressive politics and deliberate underdevelopment of the region to migrate as cheap labour to nearby cities like Aleppo, Raqqa, and Homs.

Azize, like our Yaqui comrades, shared with us a philosophy of nature, which greatly influenced Mirror Butterfly. We interviewed her about her violently mobile life in which the Turkish state, as with the Baath regime, consistently disrupted the social bonds and entire communities of the Kurdish people. On the move, her family was forced to perform wage labor in hazelnut fields when their subsistence farming basis was destroyed. Eventually her community was forced to move to the megalopolis of Antalya, where nature was “othered.” The story of the sacred Kautesamai, on the brink of extinction, spoke to her, and her stories helped us created another character in the jazz opera, the stoneflower.

Through Azize and her comrades, we were able to travel to Kurdistan, Iraq, in 2019 to present Mirror Butterfly at the Mesopotamian Water Forum (MWF), where the jazz opera resonated with attendees. (We still have not had the chance to perform it in Mexico.) The MWF was organized and attended by over 180 water activists from the Mesopotamia region and other countries in order to provide a civil society-led plan to restore disrupted hydrological cycles, which have created conditions of severe water scarcity in the region. One of the outcomes of this conference was internationalizing the campaign to prevent the flooding of the ancient city of Hasankeyf, whose population is predominantly Kurdish. Much of the city and its archeological sites are at risk of being flooded upon the completion of the Ilisu Dam, which Turkey is rushing to construct despite mounting pressure, as part of its indirect war against Kurdistan. There is currently a campaign underway to pressure Turkey to stop the construction of this weapon, which we support.

We were deeply moved by the Kurdish organizers’ commitment to feminism and ecological justice, but more generally it was clear that we were in the middle of a broader Middle Eastern environmental movement with cross-class, cross-national, and cross-ethnic linkages. We learned about widespread protests against dam construction by farmers in Iran, which was connected to the labor movement, and that young Iraqi environmentalists had petitioned on behalf of an Iranian environmental-labor activist while he was in solitary confinement. We told those we met about the Yaqui struggles, which they were interested in, and we were treated to food, hookah, and even invited to return to canoe down the Euphrates river as part of revitalizing ancestral Iraqi boat-making traditions. In April in northern Iraq, this is what our solidarity looked like: smoking hookah, working on the ground with the people, getting to know them, making music with them. These connections at the intuitive level are part of what being an artivist is about.

Travels to Venezuela

Two years ago, before we had begun Mirror Butterfly, we had travelled to an Afro-descent Maroon community in Veroes, Venezuela, to attend the First Ecosocialist International. The International was attended by more than 100 social movement leaders from across the world. There, these leaders developed a 500-year plan of action for the survival of the planet and the human species. The participants included representatives of Indigenous social movements and ecological radical movements from five continents.

As we were building our jazz opera, we reached out to an inspiring woman and activist who had been present at the International; her words and spirit, in turn, further helped shape Mirror Butterfly. When we met Mama C, a former Black Panther now living in Tanzania, we did not know we would someday work with her on Mirror Butterfly—we had not even conceptualized this work yet.

Mama C standing the middle of the floor with seated onlookers, many children surrounding her.

Mama C during the International.

Then, last year, after a collaborative concert in New York City between Mama C and Afro Yaqui Music Collective, which we are a part of, we asked her if she would like to be one of the participants in the construction of our jazz opera about climate change, matriarchal women warriors, and the revolution of all of our relations—with Earth, the climate, the very concept of gender. She agreed, creating a character for the show based on the mulberry tree, her favorite. At one point, she told us about her love for music. It is the music of Kansas City, the historical continuum of blues, jazz, and gospel, which contains rhythms of resistance that have animated struggle and self-determination for generations. We composed an aria in her honor with these influences in mind.

Artivism as Decolonization

We envision a world without a single authorial voice dominating a vision beyond accountability or relationality.

We envision a world without a single authorial voice dominating a vision beyond accountability or relationality. Mirror Butterfly is both a piece of experimental theatre and a standalone album that brings audiences into dialogue with the radical solutions that have been devised by regions experiencing environmental crises sparked by industry and international capital: water protection, ecological transformation, community-based economics, and depatriarchalization. There are multiple levels to the work, but colonization took five hundred years to bring us here, and we will need at least five hundred years to build out of it. To get there, we feel the practice of artivism offers the potential for holistic transformation.

Our experiences developing the piece showed us one path of what artivism looks like. An artivist is someone who can put aside ego, comfort, privilege, and even language difficulties to break bread and truly learn from those on the other side of empire. An artivist might travel across the world without a gig in mind or even a clear objective only to learn and possibly build international awareness of a struggle. As artivists, we look for ways we can change the consciousness of members of the collective and audience members, as well as build connections. One of the ways we did this was to organize a speaking tour with Mario Luna alongside our album release, where he educated audiences about the Yaqui struggle and its interconnection with the defense of life and water across the world.

Mario Luna at a podium with Gizelxanath Rodriguez

Mario Luna speaking to an audience with Gizelxanath Rodriguez at Ginny’s Supper Club in Harlem, New York. The speaking tour was coordinated with performances of the Afro Yaqui Music Collective celebrating the album release of Mirror Butterfly.

Our own artivism took the form of creative and collaborative interaction on the basis of “the work”: talking about issues with the locals, learning from them, and creating work together—all with the intention of facilitating and strengthening international coalitions that articulate and construct an alternative future. These organizations, which go beyond governments and NGOs, built from civil society and the knowledge of the people on the ground, can help bridge social movements and forge organic resistance to the neofascisms of today in order to build the Maroon communities of tomorrow.

[Note: Parts of this essay have appeared in Howlround Theater Commons and have been reprinted here with permission.]

Bright Sheng: My Father’s Letter and Bernstein’s Question

Bright Sheng sitting in front of his grand piano

We’ve been wanting to talk with Bright Sheng for years, but given his teaching schedule at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and his commitments to participate in performances of his music either as a pianist or a conductor all over the world, he has been difficult to pin down. But when we finally met with him on Presidents’ Day in his pied-à-terre across the street from Lincoln Center, it proved to be worth the wait.

I have long been eager to talk with him about several of his compositions, particularly his works for the orchestra and the operatic stage which were inspired either by ancient folktales or extremely unsettling contemporary topics or a combination of the two. I wanted to know the back story of the work that put him on the map, H’un (Lacerations), which is a searing orchestral composition inspired by the Cultural Revolution he lived through in the People’s Republic of China. I was very curious about his sympathetic portrait of Madame Mao, one of that tragic epoch’s masterminds, in his opera of the same name, as well as his more recent hyper-romantic Dream of the Red Chamber based on one of the most celebrated classical Chinese novels. I also wanted to know why he claimed that his first opera, The Song of Majnun, which is based on a 12th century Persian love story, was in some way a response to the Tiananmen Square incident and his feelings that he’d never be able to return to his homeland.

  • Music at least expresses one thing if nothing else: the emotions or mood.

    Bright Sheng, composer
  • I often like to say that I’m 100% Chinese and 100% American.

    Bright Sheng, composer
  • In Shanghai, I had a tutor who came to the house and taught me piano every week. But when I went to Tibet people really didn’t have enough food.

    Bright Sheng, composer
  • I really think Boulez destroyed a generation of composers.

    Bright Sheng, composer
  • I was extremely lucky because I met Leonard Bernstein when I was a student at Tanglewood.

    Bright Sheng, composer
  • I’ve strived through the years to achieve this long phrase... I felt the gesture of that long phrase versus Chinese phrases.

    Bright Sheng, composer
  • Your work has to reach the audience.  You have to touch them emotionally.

    Bright Sheng, composer
  • I am drawn to ill-fated loved stories. Over the sleeve romanticism is part of me.

    Bright Sheng, composer
  • I always wanted to kill Mao, but I can’t kill him in real life. So I want to kill him in my opera.

    Bright Sheng, composer
  • Everything we do is autobiographical.

    Bright Sheng, composer

But what I did not anticipate was how deeply Sheng is concerned about directly moving audiences in whatever format or style he is working in and how passionate he would be about sharing what led him to his aesthetic positions. An early epiphany was his being sent to Tibet during the Cultural Revolution years and discovering how important participating in musical performances was to people there even though they didn’t have enough food to eat. Even more impactful on him personally was a ten-page letter from his father, who had relocated to New York City while Sheng was still a student at Shanghai Conservatory, warning him not to assume he’d be able to eke out a musical career if he immigrated to the United States. But, perhaps what was most significant was his tutelage under the legendary Leonard Bernstein who lavished praise and disdain with equal aplomb.

My father was asking: “Why does a society support art, or a musician, or a composer? Why should society? The society needs food and needs people to fix their cars, but they don’t need a composer. Why is this important?” Bernstein asked the other side of question: “What is your responsibility as an artist if you asked the society to support you?” I think the answer is actually very simple. Your work has to reach the audience. You have to touch them emotionally. Touch their nerves. Touch their emotions. Then you did your work and can say, “Hey, support me.”


Bright Sheng in conversation with Frank J. Oteri in Sheng’s New York City apartment
February 18, 2019—12:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Bun-Ching Lam: Home is Where You Park Your Suitcase

Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

Born in Macau, educated in Hong Kong and California, and now dividing her time between Paris and upstate New York, Bun-Ching Lam has created a fascinating body of music that is shaped by her multicultural life experiences as well as her sensitivity to a wide range of instrumental sonorities and extreme curiosity.

“I’m always curious, and I try anything at least once,” she told us when we visited her at the home of baritone Thomas Buckner, with whom she had been rehearsing in preparation for the New York premiere of her recent song cycle Conversation with My Soul, based on texts by Lebanese-American poet and painter Etel Adnan. (The performance, with the Tana Quartet, will take place at Roulette on November 16 as part of Buckner’s Interpretations series, celebrating its 30th anniversary this season.)

Macau, she acknowledged, was a challenging place for an aspiring concert music composer since, when she was growing up, live performances of classical music were extremely rare. But thanks to her father and some friends who owned classical music recordings, she was able to learn about the repertoire. At the same time, she immersed herself in many other kinds of music, from traditional Cantonese folksongs to the local jazz of Dr. Pedro Lobo to discovering the Beatles on the radio. And she learned how to play many different musical instruments, from the Chinese yangqin to the baritone horn (which she played in a school band) to the accordion. But soon her primary focus was playing the piano, although she admitted that she preferred improvising to practicing: “Maybe that’s the beginning of my composition.” Still, she enrolled as a piano major at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Lam’s composing activities did not officially begin until she came to the United States as an exchange student. She spent a year at the University of Redlands in California, where she was exposed to a wide range of experimental approaches under the tutelage of Barney Childs.  But after she returned to Hong Kong, she won an art song composition competition, which helped pay off her debts and momentarily led her to think that composing was lucrative. When she decided to pursue a graduate degree, she enrolled at the University of California, San Diego, and wound up studying composition with Bernard Rands, Roger Reynolds, and Pauline Oliveros. Unlike her peers, she did not come in with a huge portfolio of works, but within only a few years, Lam began creating music in a distinct, personal style. One of her early works from this time—Bittersweet Music I for solo piccolo—remains one of her most frequently played compositions.

“One of the things that I already had was an idea about what I think music is,” she remembered.  “And I haven’t really changed style. I’m always old fashioned because I like melodies. Even now, writing melodies is not fashionable. I’ve never been with any fashion.  I’m always out of fashion.  When you’re always out of fashion, you’re always in fashion because fashion is a very stupid thing.  … I don’t want to be Mahler.  You cannot be Mahler.  I don’t want to be Respighi, either.  I want to be me.”

Being Bun-Ching Lam means creating music slowly and carefully. She rarely composes more than one work per year. And although she claims that with each piece she’s “starting from scratch,” every gesture is meticulously shaped, with an end result that blurs different aesthetics seamlessly. She frequently juxtaposes instruments as well as texts from East Asia and the West, as well as from the Middle East.

“It’s all available,” she explained.  “Just like nowadays, you don’t just eat Chinese food.  You eat Thai, Afghani, what have you, because everything is available, so why not use it?”


A conversation with Bun-Ching Lam at the home of Thomas Buckner in New York City
October 8, 2018—12:30 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Frank J. Oteri:  I’ve wanted to talk to you for years, but now seems a particularly apt time since the world is currently going through a very strange period of resurgent nationalism and xenophobia. More than most composers I can think of, you are so polynational, both in terms of your life and your music, to the point that I don’t think what you do could have existed if you did not have this range of experience in so many different places.

“I have a different perspective than someone who has been stationed in one place and stayed there forever.”

Bun-Ching Lam:  Absolutely.  I agree with you. Because I’ve lived in all these places, I’m familiar with so many different cultures.  I speak five languages. None of them well, of course.  But yes, I have a different perspective than someone who has been stationed in one place and stayed there forever.

FJO:  You were born and raised in Macau, which is a very unusual place already.  It, in itself, is a multicultural oasis.  When you were growing up, it was still ruled by Portugal.

BCL:  Yes, until 1999.  My piano teacher was Macanese, so our lessons consisted of Cantonese and English, because I don’t speak Portuguese but she’s speaks very good Cantonese. And then from her, I also learned a lot of English.

FJO:  So Portuguese is not one of your five languages.

BCL:  No, at that time, we had resistance about learning the colonist language.  But I should have learned Portuguese, because then I could read Pessoa in Portuguese.

FJO:  The majority of the population of Macau is Cantonese-speaking Chinese, but the colonial rulers were Portuguese. These are two very different cultures.  But because both the Chinese and the Portuguese there were separated from their motherlands, in some ways they both developed their own cultures.

BC:  The Portuguese who were there they called Macanese.  They don’t really speak the same Portuguese as the people in Portugal; the language has changed.  They have their own subculture and their own patois that the Portuguese don’t know.  And they have poets.  Actually I have a piece where I have used that particular language called Macau Cantata. It uses all the different languages that have passed through Macau.  The famous Chinese poet and playwright Tang Xianzu was in Macau. We all know his Peony Pavilion. He has this description of Macau as the first place where East and West meet. And then [Matteo] Ricci; he went to China and he was stationed in Macau, because that was the only place that you could get access to the mainland. It’s a fascinating place.  In comparison to Hong Kong, Macau actually has its own genuine culture that is very different from any other place.  Of course Hong Kong also has its local culture, but it’s very different.  And, even now, you can go from one place to the other with no problem.

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FJO:  So I’m curious about how you first got exposed to music growing up in Macau.  Before you started studying piano, what were you listening to?  I have this strangely packaged CD that I got years ago that’s a collection of music from Macau that has a recording of your Saudades de Macau on it. But it also includes piano music by Father Aureo Castro and dance music by Pedro Lobo.

BCL: Pedro Lobo! We called him Dr. Lobo.  Every day at 12 o’clock, the radio program had his band on, which played a kind of jazz music. They also had a lot of pop musicians from the ‘50s. And Father Aureo—actually I was just in Macau not too long ago and it was the 55th anniversary of the music school he founded, so they had all kinds of activities and also played his music.  I was invited to do a lecture for the little kids.  It was a lot of fun.

“Listening to classical music was difficult, because there would be one concert a year.”

So I heard all that, and I also heard Cantonese music and The Beatles. Everything. I loved rock music.  But actually listening to classical music was difficult, because there would be one concert a year of classical music.  I had friends, so we borrowed records.  And my father loved music and had records of classical music.  The first concert I heard was Jean-Pierre Rampal playing the flute.  I didn’t hear any real live orchestral music until I was 16, when I went to Hong Kong for the first time.

FJO:  How much traditional Chinese music were you exposed to in Macau?

BCL:  Oh, there were all kinds of things.  And I also played a little on Chinese instruments.  I played the yangqin and the moon-shaped lute, but never very well. Then I played in the school band. I started out as a conductor, and then I learned to play baritone horn, because nobody wanted to play it, so I played it.  And I learned to play accordion in one day; I had to go on stage the next day.  So that was a lot of fun.

FJO:  So you were playing wind band music?

BCL:  Yeah, and we had our own transcriptions.  I actually arranged certain things.  I was 14 or 15. That was interesting because I got to learn various instruments.  I know how to play “Home, Sweet Home” on any instrument, but not very well.

FJO:  There have been at least two other composers with international reputations besides you who are from Macau. A lot of people probably don’t realize that Xian Xinghai was born in Macau, even though he became a very iconic composer in mainland China because of his role in the revolution and his Yellow River Cantata was turned into a piano concerto during the Cultural Revolution. It’s still played all the time.

BCL: He died very young.

FJO:  And then there’s Doming Lam, who I think is a very interesting composer.

BCL:  Absolutely, but he basically lives in Hong Kong.  Then he went to Canada for a while. He never really lived in Macau.

FJO:  I think in order to establish a career for himself, he had to leave Macau and go somewhere that had a larger musical scene.

BCL:  Macau is a very, very small place.  And it’s very hard to stay there forever.

FJO:  So you left Macau to study piano in Hong Kong.  But at that point, you still were not thinking of writing music.

“I just improvised; I never practiced.  Maybe that’s the beginning of my composition.”

BCL:  No. I wrote some little songs, and one time I sent one to a magazine but I never heard from them.  Since I don’t like to practice piano, I improvised.  I didn’t have a piano at home, so I practiced piano at school, right down in the hallway, and people would come and pass by.  My father wanted to make sure that I practiced, so he had a teacher [check in on me] and he had a little book.  Each time after I finished practicing he would say, “Very good” or “It doesn’t seem to be very good today.” But since he didn’t know anything about music, I’d just play some things, I just improvised; I never practiced.  Maybe that’s the beginning of my composition.

Bun-Ching Lam

FJO:  So many different biographies of you state that you didn’t actually start writing music until you arrived in the United States.

BCL:  Right.

FJO:  So I thought, even though you were born and raised in Macau and you studied in Hong Kong and eventually started spending a great deal of your time in France, since you started writing music here, if anyone feels the need to make any kind of nationalistic claims about your identity as a composer, a strong case could be made that you’re an American composer.

BCL: I could be.  I don’t know who I am. Sometimes in one of those ISCM things, they will say I’m a Portuguese composer.

FJO:  Really?

BCL:  Because I was born and raised in Macau. I don’t know what composer I am.  I’m just me.

FJO:  But your serious exposure to contemporary music happened in Hong Kong.  I know that you met Richard Tsang when you were there.

BCL:  Well, we were in the same class.  We were buddies. He started to write music first, and I was just a piano player.  The first time I had contact with contemporary music was when I was in the fourth year.  My piano teacher said, “You should play Schoenberg.” I actually found it quite ugly.  I was doing Opus 11.

In my second year, I went to University of Redlands as an exchange student. I was there only for one year and then I went back to Hong Kong to finish my degree there. But I wanted to learn about contemporary music, so I was playing in the new music ensemble and we were doing Cage and Barney Childs—he was the teacher.  And I learned electronic music. I just wanted to be exposed to different things.  One time, we did this John Cage thing and different music happened at the same time.  I said, “This is fun.”  That was actually in my first composition course. I studied with Barney, and I wrote a piece called Theme and Variations on a Chinese Folksong.  That was my first composition. In each variation, the style changes. Some of it sounds like Hindemith, but it sort of progressively gets more away from the tonal. It [uses] a simple tune [sings melody].  I don’t even know what the name is, but I always liked that tune.

FJO:  Do you still have a manuscript of it somewhere?

BCL:  I don’t think so.

FJO:  Maybe it’ll turn up somewhere.

BCL:  In the Yale Library.  Everything turns up there.

FJO:  Or at the Sacher Foundation.

BCL:  I doubt it very much.

FJO:  So with so many places that have been part of your life, do you consider any place to be home?

“I think home is where you park your suitcase.”

BCL:  Well, I think home is where you park your suitcase.  Your root is somewhere else.  But if I carry my root with me, it’s just dangling. It never goes anywhere; it’s just where I am. Nowadays people always say the DNA.  The DNA’s there.  So it doesn’t matter where I live.  The Chinese say, “When the leaves fall off, it goes back to the root.”  Maybe one of these days I will want to go back to live in Macau, because it’s true, each time I go back there, there’s a certain kind of familiarity.  Or if I go to China. Deep down, I’m certainly Chinese. Therefore, to answer your question, I’m a Chinese composer.  I always say, “You’re once Chinese, you’ll always be Chinese.”  That’s how I think.  Somehow it’s because of how I was brought up.  Certain kinds of Confucian thinking are ingrained in me, even though I like Chuang Zhu and Lao Tzu much better; that part of the philosophical outlook on life is ingrained.

FJO:  Well, if there’s anything that more pieces of yours have in common than anything else, it’s an association with Macau. And even in the last ten years, you’ve written three works that reference Macau. Aside from the Macau Cantata, which you mentioned, there’s also Five Views of Macau and Scenes from Old Macau.

BCL:  Definitely I like Macau, but there’s also a practical reason.  I was a composer-in-residence in Macau.  They wanted me to write Macau this, Macau that.  So I think of myself like the Respighi of Macau. I’m actually tired of it, so I’m no longer composer-in-residence.  Still, the next piece I’m working on is for the Macau Youth Orchestra.  It’s more interesting to see how I can relate to the young people.

FJO:  To get back to your formative years, I’m curious about what happened next after you wrote that first piece of music when you were studying with Barney Childs. You went back to Hong Kong, but you obviously got the composing bug since not long after that you came back here to pursue a graduate degree in composition.

BCL: I had borrowed some money from the school and I was totally broke. Then the last year there was a composition competition for songs and the prize was pretty high.  Richard Tsang was also applying for it, so I thought maybe I should write a song. Then if I win, I guess I can pay back my loan.  That’s how I started.  It was a very short song. I hid in the practice room and I was looking at all the French chansons. I found some harmonies and I made this song up.  Then I entered and I won.  So I said, that’s great.  It’s very lucrative being a composer.

FJO:  That’s very different from most people’s experiences.

BCL:  Well, that was the only time that I really won some money.  I’m still waiting for my MacArthur, but I’m not holding my breath.

FJO:  Yeah, they just announced this year’s winners, so maybe next year.

BCL:  Right, it’s great.  Fantastic.

FJO:  But okay, you won this competition and you paid back the loan.

BCL:  And I went to America.

FJO:  In order to pursue a degree in composition?

BCL:  No. I went to UC San Diego for a master’s and at that time they had a track system where you had to do different things.  I picked piano of course, because I applied as a pianist, and then they had theoretical study, and then there was some sort of extended technique.  But since I don’t like history because I don’t remember anything, I said, “Okay, I’ll try composition.”  At first, I was at the undergraduate composition seminar and Bernard Rands was the teacher.  So I wrote a piece for solo flute.  That was the assignment.  Everybody had to write a piece for solo flute.  And then the next assignment was a duet.  You add another line on top of that piece, so it would be a duet for two flutes.  I said, “Wow, by the time I’m 70, I will be writing a symphony.”  But then in the second quarter, I got promoted into the graduate seminar.  But I really didn’t have a portfolio.  All the people already were composing since they were born.  I was just a beginner.

FJO:  You were a beginner, but you were already studying with Bernard Rands.

BCL:  Well, he was employed to teach there, so he had to teach anybody.

FJO:  But you ultimately wound up studying composition with a lot of other very interesting people as well. We’ve actually done talks with quite a few of the people you studied with—Bernard Rands, Roger Reynolds, and Pauline Oliveros. They are so different from each other.

BCL:  Exactly.  And there was another person I studied with, Robert Erickson, who was totally different [from all of them].  I was in all of their seminars.   For me, it was fantastic that I got to learn from different people.

FJO:  And what’s fascinating is, although you came in without a portfolio of compositions in the beginning, within five years you were writing pieces that clearly have a distinct compositional identity, and which are still receiving performances, like the piccolo solo Bittersweet Music from 1981.  Of course, it helps that there isn’t a lot of solo piccolo repertoire.

BCL:  That’s right.  That’s why I pick those weird things to do.

FJO:  It’s a good idea to write a piece that can have that kind of circulation.  But still, it seems really unusual to me that you were able to create something that is so fully formed so soon after starting to write music.

BCL:  I don’t know.  I have no idea.  I think that one of the things that I already had was an idea about what I think music is.  And I haven’t really changed style. I’m always old fashioned because I like melodies. Even now, writing melodies is not fashionable. I’ve never been with any fashion.  I’m always out of fashion.  When you’re always out of fashion, you’re always in fashion because fashion is a very stupid thing.  Can you imagine now everybody is wearing bell bottom pants. That was in the 1960s. So now you have to get rid of all your skinny pants? Why would you want to do that?  The only people who make money are the people who manufacture it!

“When you’re always out of fashion, you’re always in fashion because fashion is a very stupid thing.”

Music is the same thing.  It was fashionable to write 12-tone music.  Now nobody writes 12-tone music except a few people in California, which used to be anti-12-tone music.  And now it’s all environmental—the cosmos and all those things.  Once it was fashionable to be Chinese, like 10 or 20 years ago. Now it’s fashionable to be Finnish or some other up-north people like Iceland, which is fantastic because everybody has something to offer.  So I like it.  I think it’s a great time.  People are open to different things.  But when you’re open to different things, other things get shut off.

Bun-Ching Lam

FJO:  So, would it be a fair assessment to say that you primarily compose by intuition, or is there some sort of secret system behind the pieces you’ve written? What causes a piece to get formed the way it does?

BCL:  I don’t know.  It’s getting progressively more difficult for me to write.  I’m writing a short piece now.  I love strange combinations, and this piece is for shakuhachi, recorder, an oud, a theorbo, and a kugo, which is a harp.  And I’m just racking my brain about how to make it work.  With each piece I’m just starting from scratch.  When it happens, it happens.  That’s why it takes me a long time to write a piece, because I don’t know what I’m doing.

FJO:  So would you say you come up with the idea of what the combination of the instruments is first, and then it leads you in a certain direction?

BCL:  Yes, but that happened to be the group that commissioned it.  There’s no repertoire; you just have to make it up.

FJO:  Interesting.  One of the things I find so fascinating about your work is how it embraces so many different cultural traditions. You’re Chinese and you’ve written a lot of works that involve Chinese instruments, as well as Chinese instruments in combination with Western instruments.  But you’ve also written works for Japanese instruments.  You mentioned this new piece has shakuhachi.  Plus you’ve written for gamelan, which is Indonesian, and for Middle Eastern instruments.  The entire world’s sounds are fair game.

BCL:  I think so.  It’s all available.  Just like nowadays, you don’t just eat Chinese food.  You eat Thai, Afghani, what have you, because everything is available, so why not use it?  I’m always curious, and I try anything at least once.

FJO:  Yet at the same time, and I guess this strikes to the whole notion of fashion, there’s a huge movement nowadays where people believe if you’re not from a culture, you can’t really understand that culture and what the larger meanings of things are from that culture, and therefore you shouldn’t be appropriating them.

“I’m always curious, and I try anything at least once.”

BCL:  Right.  That’s a big discussion. Like if you’re not black, you shouldn’t write about black culture. I don’t know.  I have no answer.  I’m not stealing; I’m just borrowing. And I’m not appropriating, because if I’m writing for shakuhachi, I’m not trying to be Japanese, or if I write for string quartet, I’m not pretending to be European.  So I don’t see any reason not to do it.  But you have to do it with respect. If as an American, you just write music that sounds like gamelan music and there is nothing really different, then maybe that could be a question.  I could be wrong.

FJO:  One thing that’s so interesting about your approach is the ways things blur together. By combining these different sound worlds, the result is music that would not have been possible from any of those places in isolation. I was listening again this morning to your song cycle Nachtgesänge, which is based on poetry by Friedrich Hölderlin. You use such an unusual combination of instruments.  You included a koto, which is Japanese, and also a saxophone, which though of European origin really came into its own in the USA. Hölderlin has been described as the most German of German poets, but you set his poetry using sonorities from all over the world. And in doing that, his poetry becomes—

BCL:  —something else. Yeah.  But I didn’t choose the instrumentation. It was for the CrossSound Festival in Alaska.  They have those players and so I chose that, but I have to find a rationale for how to combine these instruments, not only because of sound. I live with a German so that makes it work, I think. But actually the thinking is quite Chinese, because of the classification of the instruments by material.  I was thinking there’s wood, there’s brass, there’s metal, and then there’s something that’s neutral to combine them all together.  And the reason is because Hölderlin is a fantastic poet.  I also made a book with that text with some of my etchings. I learned about Hölderlin and this whole German Romantic world—how they expressed words was just fantastic, just the sounds of them. I just love it.

FJO:  So German must be one of your five languages then.

BCL:  Yes.  I understand almost everything, but when I speak everybody laughs because I just don’t say things the same way. But it’s grammatically correct, usually.

FJO:  If the unusual instrumental combinations you write for are the result of the people who are commissioning a work from you, you obviously don’t have a lot of say in that. But what if there was a combination that you felt wouldn’t work for your music?

BCL:  Then I just don’t accept the commission.

FJO:  So there have been times you’ve turned down commissions.

“Since I write slowly, sometimes I just have to say, ‘Sorry, I can’t do that.'”

BCL:  Yes, since I write slowly, sometimes I just have to say, “Sorry, I can’t do that.”  I still haven’t written a woodwind quintet.  It would be kind of fun to do, but that’s also very difficult because you right away think about these bad woodwind quintets that have been written.

FJO:  But the text is something that you usually choose, I imagine, although I know that you wrote a setting of Heinrich Heine for Tom Buckner, whose home we’re in now, because it was something that he wanted, so you chose that text as a gift to him.

BCL:  Everybody loves Heine.  It was a love song.  It was a present for Kamala and Tom for their wedding anniversary.  But I usually choose the text. I’ve written some Dada songs [with texts] by Hugh Ball.  I just love that silly nonsense; you can make anything out of it.  That was written in 1985, before any big commissions.

FJO:  You are interested in so many things, so you probably read more texts than the ones you wind up setting.  What makes a text cry out to you and make you want to set it to music?

BCL:  Well, I don’t read too terribly much, because I really don’t have that much time.  I’ll just see something. But it has to speak to me somehow; I have to see an image.  For instance, I’m learning French, so I’m paying more attention to French poets.  I also still use a lot of Chinese poems.

FJO:  But the thing that I find so fascinating, to take it back again to that Hölderlin setting, is the text that you choose doesn’t necessarily determine the kind of musical sound world that that text is in.  The idea that a Japanese instrument could be used to bring out the words of Hölderlin is quite interesting. I know that you have done some settings of Chinese poetry using Chinese instruments, but then you’ve also done Chinese settings that don’t use any Chinese instruments at all.

BCL:  Right.  I think the texts I do something with are very universal.  Mostly they are poems about love or about isolation.  Human emotion is common to every culture and every language.  Therefore music is a great way to illuminate those feelings and those emotions.  For instance, there’s one piece at the concert on November 16, which is the 30th anniversary for the Interpretation Series, called Conversation with My Soul; [the text is] by the great poet, painter, and philosopher Etel Adnan.  I wanted to write a piece for Tom and she’s Tom’s close friend; that’s a present for her 91st birthday that Tom did for her.  I wanted to write another string quartet, but I thought it might be easier to add a baritone voice to it and, for me, it was to discover the meaning of her language. Sometimes it’s very obscure, because she’s Lebanese and English is her second language, just like me, so her use of language is very different from people like John Ashbery. And the syntax—sometimes you don’t know where you are!  Just like music, it’s ambiguous; you don’t know exactly what the meaning is.

FJO:  So have you ever set a text in a language that you don’t speak to some extent?

BCL:  I try not to.  It would be difficult to set something in Greek, because it’s like Greek to me.

FJO:  Curiously, one of my favorite pieces of yours is one from very early on, your solo percussion piece Lue.

BCL:  Wow, I didn’t know that you knew my music so well.  That makes me feel happy.

FJO:  Well, I thought it would be interesting to talk about since we’re talking about understanding different languages. To me that piece sounds so idiomatic for percussion, but back in 1983, when you wrote it, I can’t imagine that you would have had a ton of background with percussion instruments.

BCL:  Well, I do hit the table with the chopsticks, once in a while.  I don’t know. You just imagine.  You don’t have to draw a picture; you just know you have to reach from here to there in this time. That was a very extravagant piece.  That piece is not played very much because it costs a lot of money to rent the instruments.  But I was at Cornish, and my wonderful colleagues helped me and somehow it all worked.

FJO:  It’s interesting that it doesn’t get performed much because it’s one of the only pieces of yours that there are two different commercial recordings of.

BCL:  Is that right?

FJO:  There’s the first recording that was released on CRI decades ago and then a more recent one on Mutable.

BCL:  Right.  Well, it’s too expensive.  Nobody plays that.  They don’t want to move those things anymore.  There have been other performances in New Jersey because of a percussion teacher there.

FJO:  Raymond DesRoches.

BCL:  He’s great.

FJO:  You wrote a second percussion piece later on called Klang, which I’ve never heard and would love to hear.

BCL:  There was a commercial recording of it in Europe, but I don’t know how commercial it is, with a great percussionist, Fritz Hauser, a Swiss guy.  He just did a big festival in Lucerne and he commissioned that piece. The great thing is that he always had two bass drums.  I love kung fu books [even though] I don’t read too many of them; [in kung fu] human beings have a way to separate the body. You can have your left trying to control your right, so you try to separate yourself.  So that piece [Klang] is very difficult to play because he has to do all these things. So I had fun doing that piece, but very few people play that piece also.  I think he was the only person who played it.

FJO:  I suppose that’s the opposite of the piece you wrote for piccolo, Bittersweet Music, which many people have performed.

BCL:  Yeah.  Maybe.  It’s short.  And it’s bittersweet, more sweet than bitter.

FJO:  You’ve written three pieces with that title.  The third one is for bass flute, which is a lot less common.

BCL:  Yeah, a lot of people don’t have bass flute, so I don’t think that piece has been played very much.

FJO:  There is at least one video of it online which is really nice.  Another piece that I wanted to talk with you a bit about is …Like Water, which has also been recorded twice.  It’s a trio of Western instruments—violin, piano, and percussion—but once again, it’s such a seamless blur of East and West, Asian, European, and American traditions.  If I didn’t know it was your music, I’d be hard-pressed to figure out where this music came from; I’d have no idea.

BCL:  Oh, that’s great.  Thank you.  I’m from Mars!

FJO:  Though it’s seamless, from minute to minute it goes through so many different stylistic sound worlds, so I’m wondering what your roadmap for that piece was.

“The problem with dance music is that you write something and then it’s too short or too long.”

BCL:  Well, that piece was written for dance.  It was a collaboration with the choreographer June Watanabe.  The problem with dance music is that you write something and then it’s too short or too long.  You can’t just add a couple of minutes here or there, except Stravinsky who just adds more repeats!  She wanted a piece that had something to do with water.  So I just wrote pieces for her. Each day, I wrote one, more or less.  I’d just get up in the morning and say, “Okay, today I’ll write one.” Then one after the other, because I had a deadline.  That helps too, once in a while. Instead of just dreaming about a piece, you actually have to work on it and finish it.  So that’s how it all came about.  And then it was for The Abel-Steinberg-Winant Trio, and they are wonderful musicians; they can play anything.

FJO:  You’ve mostly written pieces for smaller ensembles, but I wanted to talk with you a bit about the orchestra, because you have written several orchestra pieces and have also conducted them. Earlier in this conversation you were talking about writing a piece when you studied with Bernard Rands that started as a solo and then became a duo, and you imagined that it would eventually become a symphony.

BCL:  Well, I still haven’t written a symphony, so I’m still waiting.

FJO:  Do you want to?

BCL:  I don’t know.  It’s too difficult to write a symphony.

FJO:  You’ve written concertos, though.

BCL:  Yeah.

FJO:  Including two pipa concertos.

BCL:  Actually both of them will be performed in Germany at the end of this month, which is very rare.

FJO:  Together on the same concert?

BCL:  Yes.

FJO:  Wow.

BCL:  They’re going to do it three times.  So this is a great treat for me.

FJO:  That’s fantastic.  So are there a lot of performances of your music in Europe?

BCL:  No, not really.  Once in a while.

FJO:  Does it help to be based there a good deal of the time?

BCL:  I don’t think so.

FJO:  So then what led you to spend so much of your time in Paris?

BCL:  The food is better!

FJO:  There’s some pretty good food in New York, too.

BCL:  It’s true, but I don’t live in New York anymore.  I’m kidding, but in terms of ingredients, it’s still better [in Paris].  But that’s not really the main thing; it’s the culture. Since I left New York, Paris seems to be a good city to be in right now.

FJO:   I’ve enjoyed the times that I’ve been there. And, at this point, I imagine you are probably also able to find musicians there who play pipa and shakuhachi and any other instrument you’d want to write for.

BCL:  Well, these other musicians are in Seattle or New York.  I think for the variety of multicultural things, the United States is still the best.  In Germany, there are some people.  Wu Wei is there.  And I just did a piece for a pipa player in Geneva.  There are so many pipa players everywhere now, and they’re all very, very good.

FJO:  Are they all Chinese?

BCL:  Yes.

FJO:  There’s now all this repertoire for Asian instruments that’s part of Western contemporary music, either in combination with Western instruments or just for those instruments, even pieces that are being composed by people who are not originally from Asia. But most of the players are still Asian, even though there are now some really terrific shakuhachi players who are not Asian. With the other instruments, like pipa, that hasn’t happened so much yet.

BCL:  I think it’s going to change soon.  Hasn’t Manhattan School of Music started a Chinese music program?  And in the Midwest, there are centers.  There are Confucius Institutes all over the world.  They all have music programs.  So it’s changing.  It’s going to take a while, but before too long, it might be very cool to learn to play pipa.  The Silk Road is everywhere, so people may want to learn that.

Bun-Ching Lam

FJO:  Now in terms of big projects, you said writing a symphony is very hard.  But you’ve done two rather large music-theater type pieces.  The one that I’m more familiar with is The Child God.  It’s a big piece.

BCL:  That’s only half an hour.

FJO:  Yeah, but many symphonies are about a half an hour, unless you want to be Mahler.

“I don’t want to be Mahler. I don’t want to be Respighi, either. I want to be me.”

BCL:  No, I don’t want to be Mahler.  You cannot be Mahler.  I don’t want to be Respighi, either.  I want to be me.  But Mahler is such a great composer; I’m not in the same league.

FJO:  So what pieces would you want to write if you were given the opportunity to write them?

BCL:  I don’t really have any goal or wish, just what comes to mind. I have to work on this youth orchestra piece.  That will be 25 minutes.  So that can be a symphony.

FJO:  There you go.  There’s your symphony.

BCL:  Yeah, but I don’t want to call it a symphony.  It just has too much implication somehow.  Symphonies, symphonias, everybody playing together—that’s the original definition.  I want to start with number nine, and I will die right away.

FJO:  Well I hope that doesn’t happen.  So don’t write that one yet.

BCL:  Yeah, I’m postponing it.  Until I’m 95, then it’s about time to go.

Always Something New—Remembering Yusef Lateef (1920-2013)


Yusef Lateef and Adam Rudolph live in Milan 2012

Anyone reading this most likely already knows about the unique and deep beauty of Yusef Lateef’s sound. As with all the great musicians, we can recognize him upon hearing the first note. Yusef always said, “The tradition is to have your own sound.” And in fact the Dogon people of Mali have a word, “mi”, which describes the inner spirit of a person expressed though the voice of a musical instrument. When we hear Yusef play, we hear him always playing from the heart. I have witnessed both audience and performers moved to tears by his flute playing. I have heard Yusef play the entire history of the tenor saxophone in one solo. Always the story was deep, more than nine decades of life experience coming through—clear and beautiful. Look and listen: imagination, knowledge, and heartfelt expression are the guiding principles of real freedom.

Yusef Lateef in 2002.

Yusef Lateef in 2002. Photo by Kevin Ramos, courtesy Adam Rudolph.

I first met Brother Yusef in the summer of 1988 when I was living in Don Cherry’s loft on Long Island City, New York. We rehearsed there for a concert of Yusef’s with our group Eternal Wind (myself on hand drums and percussion, Charles Moore, Ralph Jones and Federico Ramos) plus Cecil McBee on bass. I was honored when Yusef asked me to bring my compositions for us to perform; in rehearsal he approached them with real interest and respect. That concert, produced by the World Music Institute, took place at Symphony Space in New York. Yusef had written all new music specifically for the occasion. I realize now that this was how he worked: every performance he did was always all new music. In the ensuing 25 years, Yusef and I performed and collaborated worldwide in many contexts: quartets, octets, with orchestras, and, most often in the last two decades, as a duo. He always brought new music and new creative processes and concepts to each concert and recording date. Yusef said, “With each project I try to do something I have never done before.” I have often reflected upon this; one of many seeds of wisdom that Yusef generously shared. For me, it suggests the idea of three qualities that I value deeply and which I saw Yusef embody in his life and work: creative imagination, studiousness and courage. A couple of personal experiences come to mind that illustrate these characteristics.

Yusef Lateef and Adam Rudolph: Formative Impulses (2003)

In 1995, when Yusef and I were discussing how to approach our second compositional collaboration The World at Peace for 12 musicians, Yusef suggested that for two of the movements I write for half of the instruments, telling him only which instruments I had written for, the tempo and how many bars it was. He would then compose, without seeing my music, for the other six musicians. At the same time, he would compose two other pieces, sending me only which six instruments he had chosen, the tempo and how many bars. So it also became my task to compose for the other six musicians without having seen what he had written. This seemed to me a brilliant and original idea. When we heard the combined music’s in rehearsal, we decided that three out of the four compositions worked, in that they sounded unlike any music we had ever heard before, while serving our expressive intentions.

Adam Rudolph and Yusef Lateef in 1996

Adam Rudolph and Yusef Lateef in 1996

Several years later, Yusef was asked by the Interpretations series to create an evening of music to celebrate his 80th year in a concert at Alice Tully Hall. In addition to asking me to compose some new music for this octet project, Yusef’s new idea was that we co-compose several pieces in a formula of writing alternating bars for the entire ensemble. For example, I would write the first five bars, he would write the next nine bars, I would write the next seven, and so on. The results were surprising, fresh and beautiful, and worthy of inclusion in the concert and the subsequent recording. On both of these occasions, I was inspired by Yusef’s courage and willingness to try completely new and unproven processes even in a major concert setting. And as I reflect upon it now, I wonder – how did Yusef think of these ideas in the first place? Yusef seemed to have no bottom to his wellspring of creative ideas, as anyone who has worked with him will attest.

The first recording I heard of Yusef’s was one of his early forays into an expanded western “classical” orchestration. As a fourteen-year-old growing up on the south side of Chicago, I was excited to be discovering both live and recorded music. I often raided my father’s vast record collection. The Centaur and the Phoenix thus found a regular rotation on my turntable and it still sounds fresh today. When I once asked Yusef about that recording, he told me he wanted to move beyond the codified instrumentation and harmonic materials prevalent at that time and “try something new.”

This amazing inventiveness seems to have always been in Yusef’s character. In the mid-1950s, he was one of the first improvising artists to embrace Middle Eastern and Eastern modes, rhythms, and instruments into his music. When asked about this, he told me that he wanted to have a long career creating music and to do so he would have to study as much about all kinds of music as possible in order to be able to vary his musical palette. Again, words to live by for the serious musician.

Yusef’s art traveled in higher dimensions, transcending medium or style. His telescope of intuition ranged far into deep space, towards new galaxies of thought and musical processes. He often referred to us as “musical evolutionists.” In speaking about his process he said: “When you get rid of one thing you have to replace it with something else.” As I see it, this means first having the courage to abandon something one may have invested years in developing. (In Yusef’s case, that was the harmonic structures that he and Barry Harris refined throughout the 1950s.) Then one must have the imagination to think of a genuinely new approach rooted in a foundation of musical substance and experience. This is no small task. Yusef’s amazingly diverse and inventive musical output of his last 25 years is testimony to his words. In 1985, following his return from four years of teaching, studying and performing in Nigeria, Yusef embarked on a new phase of his creative life. The way Yusef’s music opened up and expanded reminds me of his good friend and fellow evolutionist John Coltrane’s last years. In fact Yusef often quoted one of Coltrane’s favorite sayings: “Knowledge will set you free.”

As I see it, Yusef was a prototype of the modern renaissance artist. He refused to let any outside force define him or his activities. In addition to his compositions that have become central to the contemporary improvisers repertoire of “standards,” Yusef composed dozens of pieces for piano, chamber groups, choirs, and orchestras. He invented and built new musical instruments, carved bamboo flutes, taught scores of students, and published dozens of musical pedagogical studies (of which The Repository of Musical Scales and Patterns stands as one of the most important music reference books of the last 50 years). And this creative outpouring was not limited to music alone. In addition to earning his Doctorate in Education, Yusef painted and wrote two novels, Night in the Garden of Love and Another Avenue (which he made into an opera). He wrote several books of poetry, plays, and numerous articles on subjects ranging from Lester Young and Charlie Parker to Confucius and Martin Buber.

In 1992 Yusef started YAL records, which released over 36 recordings of what he called “Autophysiopsychic” music. He used this term to describe his music, which means “music coming from the physical, spiritual and mental self.” Over the years Yusef asked me to contribute my percussion, electronics, and arrangements to 18 of these recordings. He inspired me to start my own Meta records label and our two labels co-released several collaborative projects including Voice Prints (2013), Towards the Unknown (2010), In the Garden (2003), Beyond the Sky (2001) and The World at Peace (1997). Yusef was a great motivator: he made me aspire to realize my own creative potential. This is a gift I believe he has given to many.

Muhal, Ornette, Yusef, and Adam

Muhal Richard Abrams, Ornette Coleman, Yusef Lateef, and Adam Rudolph at the NEA Jazz Masters Awards Ceremony in 2010. Photo courtesy Adam Rudolph.

Yusef, like all great artists, was never afraid of what others thought. He dedicated himself to following his own muse, cultivating his imagination with lifelong study and fearless experimentation. Although Yusef’s music had deep roots, he never wanted to recreate his past music. He always chose to make music that expressed what interested him in the present moment in his life. In 2010, when Yusef was awarded the NEA “Jazz Masters” award, they asked him to perform one of his older pieces with the Lincoln Center Big Band at the ceremony. Yusef informed them that his older music was not “where he was at” creatively any more. I was honored when a few days later he called and asked me to perform in duet with him for his portion of the evening’s events. The night of the awards Yusef and I stepped on stage following a rousing piece played by the Lincoln Center Big Band. After some moments of silence Yusef blew a solitary note on his bamboo flute. You could hear a pin drop—Yusef had (yet again) brought magic into the house. We continued with Tibetan bells, then moved to the blues via tenor saxophone and hand drums (accompanied by an electronic music tape that Yusef had created), then on into our piano and flute duet. Finally I played the didgeridoo while Yusef sang his rendition of the slave song “Brother Hold Your Light” (I want to get to the other side). Perhaps there had been some in attendance who initially wished to hear Yusef go back and revisit his music of the past. But Yusef wanted to present the person he was, who we were, at that place, at that time—in the moment of the now. Yusef received the standing ovation he richly deserved by an audience that included many of his peers. It was a great evening, and one I shall never forget.

Yusef & Adam at Roulette in 2013

Adam Rudolph and Yusef Lateef shake hands at the end of their concert at Roulette in April 2013, photo by C. Daniel Dawson.

In the fall of 2012 we did our last European tour around Yusef’s 92nd birthday, and in April of 2013 we played our last duet concert at Roulette in New York. Both in his playing and composing Brother Yusef continued to stay creative up to the very end. Only days before his passing he told me about new intervallic ideas he was developing. He sent his fourth symphony to the copyist only a couple months ago. This past October Yusef brought his sound and spirit to a concert of Go: Organic Orchestra at the Athenaeum in Hartford. It was his last public performance.


Adam Rudolph’s Aminita: Yusef Lateef with the Go: Organic Orchestra, recorded live in concert at The Electric Lodge in Venice, CA (2003).

Brother Yusef will continue to be an inspiration to many of us. I consider him to be my most important teacher, not only of music, but also of how to live as an artist and a human being. Over the years he became a true and dear friend. Anyone who spent time with Brother Yusef will testify to his kind and gentle nature. He radiated peace and love. He was a luminous being. To put it another way, as Yusef himself said recently, “Brother Adam, have you noticed the leaves waving to you? It’s okay to wave back.”


Adam Rudolph’s Morphic Resonance featuring Yusef Lateef with the Go: Organic Orchestra, also from the 2003 performance at The Electric Lodge.

Janice Giteck: Music in Mind

A conversation at Cornish College of the Arts, Seattle, Washington: January 31, 2012—7:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Alexandra Gardner
Transcribed by Julia Lu

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Sometimes a composer’s personality can speak volumes about the music she or he writes. Tranquility mixed with pointed curiosity fits both the outward persona of Janice Giteck as well as the character of her work. Her compositions, which focus on chamber music but also include orchestral works and film scores, combine the rigor of Western European musical training with a meld of Buddhist, Hasidic, Javanese, and African influences. Though born in New York, her music clearly fits within the “West Coast” tradition, both because of its sonic nod towards Pacific Rim cultures as well as its sense of spaciousness.

Giteck began moving west as a teenager when her family relocated to Arizona, and she kept traveling in that direction until settling in Seattle, where she has been a professor at Cornish College of the Arts since 1979. From 1962 to 1969 she studied with Darius Milhaud both at Mills College and the Aspen Institute, then, with the support of a grant from the French government, she went to France to study with Olivier Messiaen at the Paris Conservatory. While it might have seemed unusual for a young woman to study composition at that time, she points out that the gender ratio hasn’t really changed that much over the years. “There were, I think three women in the class to about twenty men,” Giteck recalls. “And that ratio stayed the same, no matter what, all the way through school, up to today when I’m teaching.”

Giteck’s constant inquisitiveness—directed both inward and towards the outside world—has led to numerous compositions that grapple with social issues and dramatically affected her life path. Om Shanti for chamber ensemble with soprano, which is dedicated to people living with AIDS, was composed after a three-year period of compositional silence; a silence which led Giteck to study psychology (resulting in a master’s degree and work with patients in a mental hospital), and brought to her musical consciousness an emphasis on the link between mental well-being and music-making. She has also scored seven feature-length documentary films that address social issues, including Emiko Omori’s Rabbit in the Moon and Pat Ferrero’s Hopi, Songs of the Fourth World; her composition Ishi for the Seattle Chamber Players relates the life story of the last Yahi Indian, who became a much-loved figure in San Francisco.

Whether through writing music, discovering what her students think is important to learn in 2012, improvising with fellow musicians, or even waiting through a time of compositional silence, Giteck seems to find her greatest inspiration in the energy of the present moment. “I just have to wait to see what is it that’s going to emerge,” she explains. “And I’m not going to push it. I’m going to see.”

*
Alexandra Gardner: We’re here at Cornish College of the Arts, where you’ve taught for many years. You’ve taught more than a generation of students. Do you feel that you have a particular message to impart to students? For instance, things they should strive to learn or understand when they are composing?

Janice Giteck: I’ve been teaching about 35 years, if I count UC Berkeley and Cal State Hayward before I moved here from California. So that’s really more like two generations of composers just about, which is just unbelievable when I think about it. I feel that the sincerity I hear in students’ work is very compelling, and these days there’s such a wonderful urgency about including what is current. Students 20 years ago or so were still trying to really get the classical infusion or transmission into themselves. But now technology has changed our lives completely. Young composers are working at a computer a lot of the time. They can hear immediately what they’ve composed. We all know this is nothing new. So what I try to do is to see how their values are shifting. What they value as being important to know. In a way, I’m letting the students lead me. And that’s actually been the way I’ve always taught. What do you need to know to be able to communicate what you want to communicate? There are still all the basics of theory and harmony. There are some students here who come primarily as electronic music composers, and it’s like pulling teeth to have them become interested in classical harmony. But I think it’s good to have a foundation in what the Western lineage has been. I remember when Jim Tenney came here as a guest years ago, and he was sitting in a theory class, and he said that he thought it was only necessary to study 100 years back in a music school: that if you had 100 years back, that should be adequate for you to have a sense of where things came from (of course, there’d be specialty classes in early music or whatever). And I’ve taken that to heart somewhat. You have to keep going with the times. I like to point out to students what things I think work really well, and things that don’t work well. There was a Bang on a Can concert I went to in New York that was all chamber music, but it was all mic-ed. This was at Symphony Space. And there was a nine-foot grand piano on the stage, and I thought, this is ridiculous, to mic this. Particularly since that piece did not ask for the instruments to be amplified. I’ll give an example like that to students and say, “What do you think about it? Why would you choose to mic an instrument, or not mic an instrument?” Trying to bring those kind of contemporary ideas into the sound of things.

AG: Speaking of teachers, you studied with two of the 20th century’s greatest French composers; Milhaud and Messiaen. What were your experiences like with them, and what do you feel you learned from them that has been particularly important for you?

JG: Well, I feel really, really fortunate. I met Milhaud when I was 16. I went to Aspen in the summer between my junior and senior year of high school. I met Darius Milhaud and he always had a lot going on in his house—many guests and visitors all the time. His classes that he taught were in his house as well. Students were there, kind of in the milieu of whatever was going on. A lot of different types of composers would come through as guests in Aspen. I was getting an exposure to Berio and Britten, Messiaen and Persichetti, and I could just go on. Krenek.

There were, I think three women in the class to about twenty men. And that ratio stayed the same, no matter what, all the way through school, up to today when I’m teaching. It’s pretty much the same still. So that’s been really interesting. However, Milhaud in particular, but Messiaen as well, were very pro-feminist. Very pro-women being strong, creative, passionate musicians. After the years in Aspen, I went to Mills and studied with Milhaud there. And that’s a women’s college, and he had me in his graduate level class from the time I was a freshman. So that was pretty amazing. Again, I was very young in comparison to the other students. But I learned so much by being around him for seven years, all together. To compose what is truly my own. Not to try to sound like other people. To study really hard, but then put it all aside and just write what’s my own. That’s something I’ve internalized as a teacher. Study really hard, and then put it all aside and just write what’s you. With Messiaen, I was only at the Paris Conservatory for one year, and it was very dramatic. There was a class full of French students, and three foreigners, and I was one of the foreigners. Again, I think there were only three women in the class. We had the likes of Xenakis come and talk to us about the LP set of all his music that had just come out. Messaien emphasized rigor—to be very rigorous—but he would be the first person to toss away, you know, 12-tone to a tee. He couldn’t even be pinned down to being a serialist composer, even though it was his early work that changed so much for the composers after him. So, I liked this kind of fresh, non-dogmatic approach to things. And there was also a lot of playfulness. Milhaud had one of those little Legion of Honor buttons that he wore all the time. Messiaen had three different levels, and he wore them all the time. He’d wear these very formal suits, but he’d wear these big flowery shirts, with the lapel open.

AG: Your work incorporates quite a few different types of music. Gamelan, African drumming rhythms—all sorts of different voices appear in your work. How did you come to those and start incorporating them into your compositions?

JG: The very first time I heard gamelan was at a concert of Debussy preludes. Jeanne Stark—a Belgian pianist—brought a small group of people and gamelan instruments into the concert hall. This was at the Museum of Art in San Francisco—this big, cavernous room. For the first 40 minutes of the concert, they just played traditional Javanese gamelan music.

Then they put everything on these carts and wheeled it out, and she sat down and played Debussy preludes. I had never heard a gamelan before in my life and it was like whoa. I had read about this in history books, but I had never heard this connection. And then I had a chance to play in a gamelan in the Bay area at a summer program that the city of Berkeley would run. It’s called Cazadero Music and Arts Program out in the redwood forest. Incredible place. We had the Berkeley Gamelan there every summer. So I started learning gamelan with Daniel Schmidt, who was the director then. He’s also an instrument builder. And then of course, with Lou Harrison being in the Bay area, I would hear concerts of his music and became very enamored by his work. He came up to Seattle in ’79, and the first thing that we did was we built an aluminum gamelan here, à la Lou Harrison, with Daniel Schmidt helping a bunch of faculty build it in the night hours after the furniture shop from the design department was locked and closed. It was the first set of instruments for Gamelan Pacifica. And then one of our students, Jarrad Powell, got very, very interested in gamelan. He graduated from here, went to Mills, studied with Lou Harrison, then went to Indonesia and had a gamelan designed and built, which we now have here. It’s beautiful. So I’ve had gamelan music in my life for over 30 years now.

There was also African percussion at the Cazadero Music and Arts Program, first introduced by Paul Dresher—traditional Ewe music from West Africa. My former husband and I were asked to come here and re-vamp the whole music department at Cornish in 1979, so Paul came with us, and he started some African percussion classes. Then we had a West African master drummer, Obo Addy. I just hung around Obo Addy as much as I could and I would play in his ensembles. It was the greatest way to learn. It wasn’t out of a book. He would teach you the rhythm on your shoulder, and stay there with you until you got it into your body. I feel so lucky to have had those kinds of introductions to the music.

AG: Do you feel that there is a “West Coast” style of composition? When I think of West Coast composers, I think of Lou Harrison, Harry Partch, Terry Riley, names like that. I’m interested to know whether you feel that there is a school of musical thought that is very specific to the West.

JG: Yeah, that’s a great question. Well, I was born in New York; I lived there until I was 13. I studied classical everything. We’d go to concerts at Carnegie Hall. I studied piano, and then we moved to Arizona. The first study I had that was more advanced was in Aspen, which was directed towards Juilliard summer school, so to speak—a European, East Coast way of thinking. When I went to Mills, it was kind of the beginning of that feeling of, well, there really is something unusual in the San Francisco area. And then I would say over the years, I really identified more and more with Pacific Rim and Asian philosophy, certainly in terms of Buddhist practice and the kind of values that one is exposed to so immediately and readily on the West Coast—particularly the Northwest. I became quite close with Lou Harrison on a personal level, and he was always challenging me to be feeling where is it that I’m identifying with, because he also had a very rigorous European training although his heart was in Chinese music from the time he was a little boy. I would say that the spaciousness and the less competitive environment is true of the West Coast. I don’t know that it’s as cutthroat.

Maybe I’m just romantic about it, but there might be a little more space for more kinds of people stylistically on the West Coast. It’s something that the music faculty at Cornish feels very strongly about; to just let people blossom wherever they’re going and that any style is fine. We’ve had students who are doing hip hop and taking on the marketplace. And we have students who are classical pianists teaching little kids piano. Lots of string quartets are getting written here. Every style under the sun. I say that I lean more towards being west coast, but I was so trained with the values of European music, especially studying with Milhaud and Messiaen.

AG: Early in your musical career you wrote the piece TREE for the San Francisco Symphony, but it seems that since then you have preferred to focus on writing music for smaller forces. Is that correct?

JG: I think that I’ve always felt more excited about the kind of intimacies of chamber music than writing for a really big ensemble. I also feel that when I’m working on a piece, I burn so hot that it feels like it could kind of burn me out, you know. I don’t think that it would be that good. I don’t have bad health. I have excellent health. I just feel that working more delicately is where I’ve found my excitement. And some of that is living on the West Coast. I live in the most amazing place. I live on Penn Cove, which is part of the Pacific Ocean. My house is literally right on the water’s edge. And this area of Whidbey Island was inhabited by the Lower Skagit Indians 15,000 years ago. It comes out of the last Ice Age. It’s very exquisite and kind of magical. And the tempo of being there has a huge influence on me.

AG: But you have written some long-form chamber music. Breathing Songs from a Turning Sky is a substantial ten-movement work, and more recently you wrote Ishi for the Seattle Chamber Players, an evening-length work which also has a film component, as well as some theatrics and audience participation. Can you talk a little about Ishi for those who don’t know who he was?

JG: Ishi was the last member of the Yahi tribe of northern California Indians that had been around for between 4,000 and 6,000 years. We don’t really know. He was literally the last person of that tribe and that language. They had been roaming around the foothills of Mount Lassen for many, many years. They spent decades in hiding because they were being hunted down by gold miners. Ishi lived with this small band of people, and he was their doctor, their surgeon, and their spiritual leader. One by one, they all died off, including his mother and his sister, and he left Mount Lassen and made the choice to come into Oroville, which is a little tiny town at the foot of the mountain. He chose to go to try to live, even though he was surrendering to white people in the town. There are photographs from that very day. And this was exactly 100 years ago this year. This is the centennial—in 1912 Ishi stumbled into Oroville. What he did in the next five years was so amazing. He became close friends with Alfred Kroeber, who was an anthropologist at University of California, and one of the first anthropologists to begin to see natives as completely human. Alfred Kroeber took him in, and Ishi decided to go with him and live in the anthropology museum and tell them everything he could possibly tell them through an interpreter who knew the language of the next tribe over. So there was some linkage of the languages. And he became a very beloved and famous person in San Francisco.

Ishi had such forgiveness in him. He became friendly with a surgeon at the University of California medical school. He would go on the rounds with this surgeon to visit patients who were in recovery from surgery. He would chant and sing to them.

AG: Wow.

JG: It was very important to sing to people when they were healing.

AG: That’s amazing.

JG: Yeah, and the doctor would be glad for him to join him.

I recently had a performance of this piece at the Other Minds Festival and when I was in a panel just before the performance, I asked if anybody knew about Ishi. At least 200 people out of at least 350 people raised their hands. So they knew. And afterwards, a few different people came up to me and told me their Ishi stories, including Bob Shumaker, who is an audio engineer. He told me that his stepfather had known Ishi when his stepfather was a little boy. And Ishi would play baseball with the children on the street, because he wanted to learn baseball. So I mean, these stories were still coming down about who this Ishi was who would sit out in front of the museum and make arrowheads for children out of obsidian because he was just so interested in people. He never wore shoes, even to the San Francisco Opera. He went barefoot. He just felt that it was unsafe to go anywhere wearing shoes. So I incorporate that into my piece as one of the few theatrical gestures. The violinist takes off his shoes, rolls up his pants, and walks around the stage and into the audience playing his violin.

Emiko Omori, a filmmaker from San Francisco, and I went up to where Ishi lived his 40 years on Mount Lassen. We went there in February, and it was completely covered with snow, except for Deer Creek, which is where he lived. We filmed for a few days, and Emiko put together a little film that is at the end of the chamber music piece.

AG: Speaking of films, haven’t you’ve scored several over the years?

JG: Yeah, I have enjoyed very much working on this collaborative approach to making something. And with really extraordinary filmmakers. They’ve all been documentaries—I’ve scored seven feature-length documentaries, mostly with folks in the Bay area. I don’t know how we’ve done it, but I’ve lived up here and worked, you know, flying stuff back and forth, and then eventually sending things via computer. Then going to a recording studio up here and having people fly here, back and forth. It’s worked out pretty well. The thing that’s so wonderful about it is that it’s completely different than writing a piece from scratch. If I am invested or interested in the subject of the documentary, I can just pour my heart into it and give everything that I can give as a composer to some purpose, or cause. They’re mostly social issue pieces. One is Rabbit in the Moon, which was a 90-minute documentary made for PBS about the Japanese-American internment during World War II. That was an amazing project working with Emiko Omori, the same filmmaker I mentioned earlier. It was really her personal family story because she was in one of the camps as a little child. It was the political story and the cultural story that was going on amongst Japanese-Americans, all layered together. She trusted me to be the sound component to tell that story, so that’s pretty thrilling.

AG: In everything that you’ve been talking about, the common thread seems to be that your mission is for music, in one way or another, to provide some sort of healing experience.

JG: For me, making music is like a channel, or a language that’s different than words. And it’s very immediate; and it’s very, very personal; and it can connect something that’s deep inside of me outward in an effort to connect, an effort to speak. Music can be healing in a lot of different ways. I see the young rockers and jazzers here at Cornish who are just banging away on the drums, and they just feel so fantastic after they’ve been playing together like that. It’s not meditative or gentle. No, their hearts are racing. I would say that’s healing, in that moment. Music has been used for healing all sorts of neurological problems. There’s the Oliver Sacks book Musicophilia. I mean, it’s just amazing, the things that he’s putting together for masses of people to know about. Babies listening to music in utero and having an immediate association with music of that nature once they’re born. It’s just amazing. It’s a channel. I don’t know that it’s a language. I think it’s a pre-verbal communication.

AG: In addition to your musical training, you have a master’s in psychology, right? That’s a pretty big switch from serious composer life.

JG: Immediately after I wrote Tree, which was a piece commissioned for the San Francisco Symphony, I got a commission to write a piece for viola and orchestra with the Mid-Columbia Symphony Orchestra in eastern Washington. And about halfway through writing that piece, I didn’t have any ideas! It was like this idiot savant had lost the savant part, or something just turned off. I had a copyist (in those days we had copyists). She would come to my house and sit in my dining room, and I would be sitting at the piano, and she’d say, “Janice, I need the next page for the clarinet part.” Or, “I need the next four measures, could you…?” It’s like I literally depended on her ego structure, psychologically speaking, to get me through that piece. It was a complete disaster, as far as I was concerned. And I took the piece, and I put it on a shelf, never to be played again. After that piece, I stopped writing for three years. Completely. Nothing. Zero. And I thought it was over. I thought, I don’t have anything to say in this language anymore. So I decided that I was very interested in getting into therapy and studying my mind more. And I thought, O.K., I’ll go and do that in a very systematic way, as well as going into therapy. So I did. I went and studied psychology for three years and came out of that with a master’s with an emphasis on working with music as a potential link between well-being and communication and music-making. I continued to teach at Cornish, but I also worked part-time for about six years at Seattle Mental Health Institute with very mentally ill folks, developing music programs and working one-on-one with clients and a music group. I was just trying to find out, well, what is the common denominator for all of us humans on this earth. What is it in music? What is it as a communication? How can music help to bridge different people? And so I was studying my own mental health as well as working with these people. I also started playing in a group with three other musician-composers. Two of them had been students of mine, and we would meet once a week, and we would improvise with no form. We wouldn’t talk; we’d play together for about two hours, and that was it. I loved it. It had nothing to do with writing down notes. It was absolutely expressive, and I could practice following people as well as leading people, which I had already been pretty good at as a teacher. But I found the beginning of a whole fresh way of teaching, and of noticing myself. Then after three years, the Seattle Movement Therapy Institute, which had just lost their director to AIDS, wanted a piece from me that could be used for AIDS benefits that was in honor of him. So I wrote Om Shanti, and it flew out of me in about two or three weeks. It’s a five-movement chamber music piece with soprano, and it was very fresh for me. I didn’t think about it much. It just came out, and then I had another like 20-year run after that piece. And now, I’ve been in a silence again for a few years. I don’t know what’s going to happen with that. But it’s very powerful to surrender to it, and see it as part of how life is. It’s not easy. But it’s very powerful.

AG: That’s very interesting. It’s probably healthy to have periods like that where you’re not writing anything, or rather, that you’re not worrying about writing anything.

JG: I crave that silence. I’ve just been asked to write a string quartet by an ensemble in this area, and I would love to. I love string quartets. It’s probably one of my favorite all-time ensemble sounds. It’s just the simplicity and purity of it. I just have to wait to see what is it that’s going to emerge. And I’m not going to push it. I’m going to see.

AG: So you said maybe.

JG: We’re talking about it. I’m also working on a book—it’s a book about composing and about learning composing and about teaching composing. There’s a lot to it already, so I think there will be a book there, after 35 years of teaching. I’ve been encouraged by some of my colleagues to do this book; there’s nothing out there, practically. It’s an interesting time. I have no interest whatsoever in pushing my career out at this point. And I don’t have a feeling of fading, or like something’s over per se; it just feels more spacious.

AG: You have such a different take on existence as a composer than so many people. Trying to figure out what’s going on inside your head seems to have had a positive effect.

JG: Thanks. I’m still trying to figure things out: What am I doing? What is music? Is music the notes that you write on a piece of paper? Or is music the sound that’s made in the present moment connecting with an audience, or with another person? It’s when it’s happening, is what I’m coming to know more. What is a composer? Are we missing something by composing in isolation and then handing it over? Where do we get our juice from? You know, each day when we sit down to work? Where’s that coming from? Are we making music? I don’t know if we’re making music or we’re making something that will then be translated into somebody making music. I don’t know! These are big questions.

Mohammed Fairouz: Cross-Cultural Counterpoint

For people who subscribe to the seemingly irreversible cynicism of our age, music does not have the power to change the world; after all, nothing does. But composer Mohammed Fairouz retains an optimistic outlook as he aspires to create music that carries a larger social meaning. And he has managed to garner an extraordinary array of performances for his deeply charged music all over the country—from over 100 art songs to a nearly 80-minute symphony for orchestra, soloists, and a nearly 100-voice chorus. This is no small feat for someone who is only 26-years old. While at first he attributes such a seemingly endless chain of auspicious premieres to the domino effect of musicians talking to other musicians, he soon acknowledges that the larger purposes behind his music are helping to fuel all the attention it has been getting. According to Fairouz, “Composers who have something very urgent to say have a way of connecting with performers in a very immediate way and with audiences.”

The urgent message that comes across in Fairouz’s music is one of inclusivity and a broadening of cultural horizons. An important source for his music has been his own Arab heritage—he grew up hearing legendary singers Umm Kulthum and Fairuz (no relation) alongside Mozart and Beethoven. He even describes Schubert—with whom he deeply identifies—as an “Arabic composer” because of Schubert’s devotion to the primacy of the melodic line, also a hallmark of Middle Eastern music. But the American-born Fairouz would contend that his aesthetics are more symptomatic of the multicultural society we now live in. Of course, the absorption of multiple traditions has been part and parcel of music making for a century. And in fact, one of Fairouz’s teachers was Gunther Schuller, who famously crossed the barriers between classical music and jazz more than 60 years ago. But in earlier times, creating such music was a political act that attempted to erode socio-cultural barriers as much as stylistic ones, whereas nowadays similar musical mélanges occur because that’s what the world now sounds like, or as Fairouz puts it:

We really don’t have the choice to not live in a cosmopolitan world. For my generation […] being part of the cosmopolis—being an integral voice in the choir—is much more attractive because we’re living in a world where you can get from point A to point B in less than 24 hours. […] I would not have been possible in a different world and a different atmosphere and that informs everything. Mahler had to convert to Catholicism in order to take the job at the Vienna State Opera. That’s really weird, right? We’re getting past that. And culturally and compositionally our scene is reflecting that more and more; it’s reflecting something more inclusive and interesting. […]The optimism of the 21st century is that we’re leading to a more cosmopolitan place where these borders are slowly being dissolved, both musical borders and physical borders.

By while Fairouz is well aware that his compositional path is an inevitable by-product of the zeitgeist, he is still very much engaged with the underlying socio-political agenda for such an aesthetic position. Four Critical Modes, for the unlikely duo of violin and saxophone, is a musical response to cultural stereotyping and misperceptions about identity. Whereas Tahrir, his extremely powerful clarinet concerto for David Krakauer, seamlessly blends Arabic and Jewish traditions and is named after the famous square in Egypt that has been a catalyst for the democracy movement in the Middle East.

When I’m writing in contrapuntal forms, that’s usually because of the analogy those forms have to social meanings. One of my great mentors, Edward Said, borrowed the term counterpoint from music and applied it to critical thought in politics and in society as a way for cultures to exist in a tapestry of counterpoint without any culture giving up its individual sense of beauty or raison d’être but contributing to the greater whole. There’s a way of borrowing that back into music. […] When we get past slogans and we actually engage the dialectic we come into a place where we have a much more inclusive and genuine representation of what the world is.

Yet despite his music’s aesthetic currency, he goes about creating it in a very old-fashioned way. His apartment is littered with handwritten scores and an army of carefully sharpened pencils. But somehow even that comes back to its multicultural inspirations.

I really believe in working in manuscript because it gives me a physical, hands -on connection to the music I’m writing. As someone from an Arabic background, once upon a time calligraphy was the most treasured of all the arts in the Arab world. I feel like I’m connecting to that spirit when I’m taking pencil to manuscript paper and carving out these really pretty figures. It has nothing to do with the content of the music: the sound that you’re generating, but I like to enjoy the process of writing and part of the enjoyment is this calligraphic drawing.

However he makes his music, he’s doing the right thing. Over the past two years, violinist Rachel Barton Pine, clarinetist David Krakauer, the Borromeo String Quartet, Imani Winds, Cygnus Ensemble, Seattle Chamber Players, the Knights, counter)induction, and the Two River Ensemble have all premiered new works by him. In November 2011, Sono Luminus released the first all-Mohammed Fairouz CD; Naxos is currently working on the next one. And the performances keep coming, including an opera (his second) and another symphony (his fourth). But there are projects that he will not take on. Originally the topic of his second opera was the trial of Nazi Holocaust organizer Josef Eichmann, based on the account of Hannah Arendt. But as Fairouz got deeper into the project, he had to stop. “Reading the accounts of the Eichmann trials and what the victims had suffered was so beyond horrific,” he recalls. “I could not make this man sing. For heaven’s sake, why would I make this man sing? I did not want to immortalize him in any way.”

Mohammed Fairouz takes what he does very seriously. He is deeply respectful of his historical precedents, while forging his own path. It is a balancing act that all 21st century composers must navigate.