Tag: music influenced by literature

Elena Ruehr: Turning Emotion Into Sound

 

Ever since I heard the Cypress Quartet’s first recording of three string quartets by Elena Ruehr over a decade ago, I was entranced by her music. And after hearing the Boston Modern Orchestra Project’s 2014 recording of works of hers inspired by paintings of Georgia O’Keefe and David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, I made a mental note that I needed to talk with her for NewMusicBox one day. This fall turned out to be an ideal time for us to finally connect. Her opera Cosmic Cowboy, created in collaboration with librettist Cerise Lim Jacobs, just had a successful three-performance run at Emerson College, and Guerrilla Opera will give the first performance of another Ruehr opera, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage, created with librettist Royce Vavrek, at MIT in February. Plus her Ninth String Quartet is receiving its world premiere the first weekend of November.

It’s a remarkable amount of activity after the last two and a half years of pandemic-related cancellations. But Ruehr was nevertheless extremely active during that period, composing over 30 new pieces, some of which were even performed during that time, either in virtual concerts or masked up in controlled environments. Ruehr’s prolific output is a by-product of her maintaining a consistent composing schedule (five hours every day from Noon to 5:00pm) as well as her never-ending inspiration from the visual arts and her constant reading (four books a week), plus her desire to communicate with listeners.

“Beauty is really important, but also accessibility,” she opined during a Zoom chat we had in late September. “I’m sure that your average non-classical musician isn’t gonna necessarily like what I do, but I think most people who like classical music, even standard classical music, will find that the music that I write is something that they can approach. And that matters to me. That’s important to me.”

All the other details that go into creating a piece–whether its her fascination with combinatorial diatonic pitch sets (an influence from serial music that sounds nothing like serialism) or how she sonically interprets O’Keefe paintings and novels like Cloud Atlas and Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto–are ultimately much less important for her than the emotional impact she hopes her music will have on listeners.

“I write it not caring whether you know the references, because it’s the emotional transference of one thing to another, and that’s the thing that I hope that the people who are listening get,” she explained. “If they have the references, it enriches it. But, if they don’t, the emotional thing is hopefully contained in it. … I try to make a sound out of the emotion that I’m feeling. And when I say ah yes, I captured it, then I write it down, and then I work on it. So it’s all about turning emotion into sound. As far as I’m concerned, that’s my job; that’s what I do.”

Her love for O’Keefe makes a lot of sense. (“She was doing representational art at a time when abstract art was sort of the thing. … Her story gave me courage to do what I wanted to do, which I think is more representational and less abstract, or more narrative and about expressing emotion.”)  But sometimes the things that have inspired her are quirkier. She actually attributes her attachment to writing for string quartet as well as her music’s polystylistic inclinations to hearing the Beethoven and Bartók quartets when she was a little girl and mixing them all up, erroneously thinking that they were all composed by someone named Bella Bartók, a female composer!

From that formative mash-up, she went on to immerse herself in Medieval and Renaissance music, minimalism, world music, and even pop. Now it’s all part of her compositional language.

“Anything that I like, I will just incorporate or steal, or whatever you want to call it,” she said with a grin.

We had a very pleasurable hour chatting about all these things and I felt it could have gone on much longer. But I made sure we ended before Noon so she could embark on another composition.

Christopher Cerrone: Everything Comes From Language

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CC:  Right.

Two bookshelves filled with books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CC:  Is it an outlier?

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

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

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

CC:  Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A wall filled with framed pages of scores by John Cage

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

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

CC:  That’s true.

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

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

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

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

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

CC:  No.  Definitely not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FJO:  That’s beautiful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FJO:  Then why Italo Calvino?

CC:  Yeah, he’s well known.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CC:  Absolutely.

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

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

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

CC:  He could not be more different.

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

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

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

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

CC:  Oh, like Eeeee Eee Eeee

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

CC:  Oh yeah, Dakota Fanning.

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

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

FJO:  I haven’t read that one yet.

CC:  It’s super good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CC:  We’ll come back to this later!

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

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

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

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

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

CC:  And “Oh, don’t ask why.”

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

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

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

CC:  Oh, Brecht.  So clever.

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

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

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

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

“Verbosity is ontology for me.”

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

Christopher Cerrone talking in his apartment.

Bernard Rands: Complex Beauty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BR: That is right.

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

Some of Rands Library

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

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

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

FJO: That’s extraordinary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BR: Yeah, I did.

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

BR: Right. Well, it’s become scary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BR: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vincent score

A portion of a manuscript page from Bernard Rands

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rands_Workdesk

From the work desk of Bernard Rands

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

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

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

BR: Oh, in that sense.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BR: Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BR: No, it’s true.

FJO: You can hear them all.

BR: You can.

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

BR: Yeah.

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

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

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

Rands Sketchbook

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

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

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

BR: We do, a lot, yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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