Tag: new opera

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

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

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

How do we engage beyond cultural appropriation?

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

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

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

Travels to Mexico

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

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

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

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

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

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

A photo of the nearly extinct Kautesamai.

A photo of the nearly extinct Kautesamai.

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

Nejma Nefertiti holding a microphone.

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

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

Travels to Iraq

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

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

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

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

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

Travels to Venezuela

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

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

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

Mama C during the International.

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

Artivism as Decolonization

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

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

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

Mario Luna at a podium with Gizelxanath Rodriguez

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

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

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

Multifaceted but Direct

It was my son, Dylan, who first told me about Morel. I had just been liberated from the trial of reading Finnegans Wake. The Invention of Morel, a slim novella by the Argentine writer Adolfo Bioy Casares, seemed like a refreshing change of pace.

Throw away any source material that isn’t public domain and start again.

I had hoped to adapt Finnegan as a new opera for Long Beach Opera, who put up a production of my Tell Tale Heart in 2013.  They had so much fun with that, that they decided to commission a new piece. But the biggest challenge of Finnegan turned out to be James Joyce’s estate, notorious for saying no to everything. They put up too many hurdles (in Euros) for us to clear.  New lesson learned for my compositional process: throw away any source material that isn’t public domain and start again.

Which is what I did. I breezed through The Invention of Morel on the first reading. Written from the point of view of an anonymous fugitive hiding on a deserted island, the novella eventually introduces a strange group of tourists and the enigmatic Morel, who has developed an invention of devastating power. It’s a quick read but a deeply emotional one. I could feel and hear music as I read it—generally a good sign for opera. I was particularly drawn to the work for the fun of its intricate little puzzle of a story spiked with mad passion. For an opera, you obviously need that mad passion, something so emotionally charged that people must sing of their anguish rather than speak it. Morel has that emotional urgency and for extra flavor it’s also a sci-fi black comedy in a period setting. Finding material that is multifaceted in its elements but direct in its story line is what it’s all about for me.

I could feel and hear music as I read it—generally a good sign for opera.

The process of converting this hundred-some page novella into an opera was very much accomplished in collaboration with librettist Jonathan Moore, with whom I’ve worked on past operas and who knows a bit more about dramaturgy than I do. First, we broke down the entire story, talking through the individual beats of each character and the major plot points of the arc. Then we digested pages of the novella and turned them into dialogue. The last stage involved turning that story and dialogue into the libretto, where you have a rhyming scheme and rhythm, and setting it to music, down to the nitty gritty details of which syllable hits which note of the melody. Jonathan and I make a great team, as his expertise falls more in the high-concept dramaturgy at the beginning of that whole process, and I’m more comfortable where the rubber hits the road at the libretto end. I believe we ultimately went through almost 50 rewrites by the time we had gotten it into a performable state.

The Chicago Opera Theater production of The Invention of Morel (Photo by Chris Thoren)

(Left to right) Andrew Wilkowske (as The Fugitive) and Lee Gregory (as the narrator) from the Chicago Opera Theater production of The Invention of Morel.

We departed from the source material in a couple of big ways. First, we shifted the time period forward about 20 years, from the 1940s to the 1960s. We thought it would heighten the drama to have the action take place in that post-nuclear world with all the resulting political upheaval going on in South America at the time. We also modified the science behind the titular “invention” of Morel. Mr. Casares’ gadgets would never have worked so we replaced his technology with more credible principles that were proven to be true by Star Trek.

Without revealing too much, I will say that a major theme in the libretto is about aberrations in the passage of time. Since music is all about time, such aberrations are reflected in the music.  That could mean a lot of repeated motives and patterns. I went so far as to strategically insert a scratchy, broken record sound effect in the score to flag some of these time anomalies. It was fun trying to get that sound out of a little chamber orchestra.

The main challenge has been getting the flood in my head down on the page in the orchestra’s language.

Since I started writing “classical” music, the main challenge has been getting the flood in my head down on the page in the orchestra’s language. It’s a communication, and the mission is to make it clearer and more perfect so the musicians can look at the page and know exactly what to do. After 30 years of chewing on scores, there is progress. The orchestral players in Chicago picked this one up very quickly, and I did a workshop with the Long Beach crew who also picked it up quickly — so I must be learning orc!

The orchestra pit for Chicago Opera Theater production of The Invention of Morel (Photo by Chris Thoren)

Andreas Mitisek leads Fulcrum Point New Music Project in the orchestra pit for Chicago Opera Theater production of The Invention of Morel.

The music itself arrives as a God-given torrent. It just arises naturally from turning the pages of the story. The work is in harnessing it all to make it serve the plot. Innovation isn’t necessarily a goal for its own sake, but rather, something that arises spontaneously from problems that need to be solved. In my experience, there have been revelations that came to me when, “Darn, I’m here and I need to get there, so I’ll try something bizarre because I’ve tried everything else…” and that leads to a serendipitous reinvention of music in some way.

Once the story and libretto are all figured out, having that music come relatively naturally is a gift for which I’m grateful. There’s training, technique, and experience involved with making music work for you, of course, but the meat of it is instinct. A lot of it came to me from two decades as a hired-gun film and television composer—learning how to dig into a story and find specific musical language. The underlying literary material, the mechanics of the characters: those are all things in the physical realm that you have to deal with. The actual tunes, the music that comes welling up from the soul, that’s the gift that just comes naturally, and the vocation is to shape it and put it on the stage.

[Ed note: The Invention of Morel received its world premiere in 2017 in a production by the Chicago Opera Theater, a co-commissioner of the opera along with the Long Beach Opera which will stage the west coast premiere on March 17, 2018; there are two additional performances on March 24 and 25. – FJO]


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.

Stefania de Kenessey: 20 Years After Rewriting History

On March 20, 1997, composer Stefania de Kenessey launched the first Derriere Guard Festival at The Kitchen, a shrine to cutting edge performance in New York City. It was a bold move for a festival whose explicit goal was “to return to long-forgotten, long-abandoned ideas rooted in history and tradition” since “abstract painting, fractured architecture, free-form poetry and dissonant music, concepts which had once been revolutionary, eventually evolved into the status quo.”

I still remember the disdain this festival elicited from folks on seemingly opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum—the so-called “uptowners” and the so-called “downtowners.” People sometimes point to the first Bang on a Can Festival in 1987, which paired works by Babbitt and Reich, as the death-knell of the upown/downtown divide, even though these composers didn’t interact with one other. I personally like to think NewMusicBox, which launched in 1999, helped bring the two sides together. But the first time these sides seemed to actually agree on anything was in their hatred for the Derriere Guard two years earlier.

Why did they hate it so much? Were they offended? I still remember the stationary for the press release whose logo is accurately described in one of the few reports of that first festival that still appears online as “a hand shielding a pair of buttocks.” (My search for a JPEG of that logo has thus far been in vain.) Or were they somehow afraid of what de Kenessey and her compatriots were claiming in their promotional materials at the time? (E.g. “Musical modernism has been a failure: in spite of determined attempts by established musical institutions, by intellectuals and by critics, the newly configured aesthetic – music as organized, structured sound – did not take hold among the listening public.”)

Just as the uptown/downtown cold war has long since thawed, twenty years later, this too all seems like water under the bridge. And the Derriere Guard’s ringleader, Stefania de Kenessey, is now extremely inclusive in her own aesthetics, which we discovered when we visited her in her Upper West Side apartment last month. We also learned that her favorite teacher was Milton Babbitt!

“I can support somebody who’s writing noise or grunge music or electronica or whatever,” said de Kenessey who, in addition to her own compositional activities, is the program director for the contemporary music program for the Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at The New School. “When I go to concerts, or when I listen to the work that’s being done, it’s just all over the map.  Stylistically it’s wonderful.  I love it.  I love the variety.  But I don’t get the feeling that there’s kind of—what I was calling earlier—a lingua franca of new music.  Some people embrace pop.  Some people still embrace serialism.  Some people embrace dissonance.  Some people embrace consonance.  Some people embrace the European idea of a narrative kind of music.  Some people think that it should really be kind of cyclical and non-narrative.”

According to de Kenessey, the current range of new music has rendered the Derriere Guard movement no longer necessary, which is why even though there was a big 10th anniversary celebration of the launch of the movement a decade ago, there were no events to mark the 20th anniversary earlier this year. Music history has moved on and so has de Kenessey.

In fact, since the dawn of the 21st century, de Kenessey has embraced percussion—in fact, a drum set sits proudly next to a grand piano in her apartment—and in the past few years she has gotten extremely interested in electronic sound reproduction.

“There is a genuine difference between electronically mediated sound and acoustic sound,” de Kenessey explained.  “I don’t know what I think about that divide yet, but certainly 20 years ago electronically mediated sounds were just not that good.  They were not that pleasing.  But the technological advances that have occurred in the last two decades are phenomenal.  So the quality of sound you can make now, even with relatively simple software and relatively inexpensive speakers, is just phenomenal.  One of the things I’m doing right now is I’m teaching myself Logic Pro, and the next couple of projects I’m going to work on are going to be using electronically created and electronically mediated sound.”

As for the more polemical aspects of the Derriere Guard, these too seem to have been tempered somewhat in de Kenessey’s thinking.

“I didn’t have a strict ideology,” de Kenessey maintained.  “It was not like you had to write music in a certain way or to paint in a certain way.  The idea was simply to let these new kinds of artistic endeavors have a place to flourish … I really just wanted to kick down some walls and open up some venues.  Why could only dissonant, harsh, terrible things be represented in The Kitchen?  It’s not monolithic.  You don’t have to dress in black any more to enter its halls.  That’s partly why I had Tom Wolfe there in all white.  I’m being silly here, but you know what I mean.  It’s just to allow a kind of a multiplicity of voices to be honored in a way that I don’t think was as routine as it is today.  I really do think that the establishment itself has been more fragmented in its understanding of what is possible, and what is honorable and interesting to support. You’re much more likely now to go to a concert and hear new pieces on it of very different stylistic bents.  Thirty years ago, it would have been a pretty safe bet what you might have heard.”

September 15, 2017 at 11:00 a.m.
Stefania de Kenessey in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Video and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri: Last month it suddenly dawned on me that this year marks the 20th anniversary of your Derriere Guard movement.

Stefania de Kenessey:  I know! When you sent me that email, I was actually flummoxed to realize that—that it’s been since ’97 that it started.  It’s hard to believe how time passes.

FJO:  The world was a very different place in a lot of different ways, but I still remember distinctly how angry certain people in the new music community were when you launched the first Derriere Guard Festival. And it was people on many different sides aesthetically, both folks coming from the so-called uptown and the so-called downtown. People on both sides who could never agree on anything agreed that what you were doing was outrageous.  And they seemed really upset about it.  Why do you think that what you were doing made them so upset?

The Derriere Guard “wasn’t about having an ideological vision that I wanted to impose on the musical community.”

SdK:  I’m not quite sure.  It was meant to be both a serious and a humorous gesture, but not an antagonistic one which is part of the reason I held it at The Kitchen.  The whole point of having it at The Kitchen was to show that this is a kind of avant-garde.  So my only point in the Derriere Guard, besides to have a sense of humor, as the name indicates, was to really open doors to a kind of music that was just not able to be represented in the way that I thought it deserved to be represented.  I never wanted to change the uptown aesthetic.  I never wanted to change the downtown aesthetic.  It wasn’t about having an ideological vision that I wanted to impose on the musical community, by any stretch of the imagination.  I just thought it was time to allow certain other kinds of music, that were not getting their fair share, to also be heard.  That’s it.  End of story.  That was the only point of the festival.  And I thought we did it.  And it was fun.

FJO:  From around that same time there was a British visual art movement called Stuckism. Were you aware of these folks?

SdK:  No, much to my shame.

FJO:  It’s a very interesting parallel to this.  It was started by a painter who calls himself Billy Childish. He’s a bit of a prankster.  According to the official story of all of this, in the late 1980s he was dating a now very famous conceptual artist, Tracey Emin, and she told him that his paintings were stuck in the past.  Apparently she yelled, “Stuck! Stuck! Stuck!” He wanted to return visual art to portraiture, landscape painting, and other kinds of things that she and many other of his contemporaries thought was anachronistic. So he decided to call what he was doing Stuckism.

SdK:  Oh, that’s funny.

FJO:  Yes, and when he wrote a Stuckist Manifesto and organized exhibitions of Stuckist artists in London, everybody in the British art world was completely incensed by it, so it definitely does seem to me related to what you were doing to some extent. I think in both cases, people in certain corners of the so-called avant-garde perhaps felt a little bit threatened about all of this even if you just said that wasn’t what it was about.

SdK:  I mean, it certainly wasn’t my intention for it to be threatening or ideologically prescriptive.  I just always thought that the idea of a so-called avant-garde that is ensconced at, say, Lincoln Center or the Whitney Museum, is an oxymoron.  Right?  I mean, it doesn’t mean it’s not great art or not great music, but it’s not avant-garde if it’s at Lincoln Center.  Right?  By definition.  The avant-garde should be somehow at the edges, pushing the envelope.  And you cannot be doing that if you’re embraced and supported by the very establishment. So to begin with, I think we need to have a sense of humor about the term avant-garde and reconsider its meaning.  Also, modernism had a very, very powerful and deservedly very strong influence in the 20th century, but it was not the only way to think about music and not the only way to write music.

I myself studied with Milton Babbitt, so it’s not like I don’t respect or know something about modernism. I think he was a brilliant, brilliant exponent of it.  But it also left certain kinds of music and music-making by the wayside.  I think in any kind of revolution it’s important to—what’s that old cliché—don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. For me, that was the idea of certain kinds of melodic constructions, certain kinds of relatively simple and consonant, beautiful harmonies.  It’s not impossible to imagine a music which is modern and forward-looking that still uses those “old-fashioned” features.  Right?  One of the things I tried to do with the Derriere Guard, and one of the things I really do believe in, is that the act of using melodies, the act of using consonant harmonies, is not in and of itself a political statement.  It is not right wing.  It is not left wing.  It’s not forward-looking.  It’s not backward-looking.  It can be what you make of it.  And you need to let people simply work in that idiom if they choose to.  You just need to give them a space in which to do it.  And I think 20 years ago, it was difficult to find that space.  There were very few venues that would support that.  To be writing the kind of music that I was writing, or to be painting the kinds of canvases that my painter friends were painting, or writing the kinds of poetry that had meter and narrative that my poet friends were doing was thought to be sort of off the beaten path or slightly crazy.

“History will tell what becomes favored by audiences.”

Ten years ago, it was maybe a little eccentric. And I think now it’s absolutely acceptable to do it, even if it’s not part of the establishment necessarily these days, which is why I don’t need a 20th Derriere Guard Festival.  We needed one 20 years ago, just to make a statement.  Then we had a 10th anniversary festival to kind of recap, or remember what we had done. But now I feel like it’s in the air.  We’ve accomplished what we wanted to do, which is simply to create a space where this kind of work can happen and can be acknowledged.  That’s it.  History will tell what becomes favored by audiences; you cannot predict which way things will go.  But you have to give a multiplicity of voices and a multiplicity of styles space.  I think that’s a laudable thing to do and it shouldn’t be threatening.

FJO:  But there are some provocations in the Derriere Guard’s original mission statement. To quote from it:  “Concepts which had once been revolutionary, eventually evolved into the status quo.  In such a situation, the most proactive, radical act was simply … to return to long-forgotten, long-abandoned ideas rooted in history and tradition.”

SdK:  I haven’t looked at that mission statement in 15 years at least.  But yes, it can be radical to do something as simple as write something with a beautiful melody in C-minor.  The trick is how to make it not simply a replica of the past.  I have no interest in simply returning to the past.  I don’t want to be put back in a corset.  That’s not my idea of revisiting history in any meaningful sense.  But it doesn’t mean that you can’t necessarily use certain elements selectively and intelligently from the past, that those are crasser techniques that aren’t valid in this day and age.  If you look at so-called popular music, it has never abandoned those kinds of historically grounded precepts that so-called art music didn’t abandon necessarily, but certainly pushed to the side for a long time.

FJO:  It’s hard to claim that tonality was long forgotten and long abandoned when there were a bunch of really significant composers in America in the last century who never actually abandoned tonality.

SdK:  Right.  And at the time of the Derriere Guard Festival, I remember some people saying what we need to do is write an alternate history of 20th-century music, because in fact it was not simply the 12-tone school that evolved and went in certain directions.  There was always an alternate history that was not being sufficiently acknowledged, or sufficiently supported.

FJO:  Samuel Barber was a tonal composer and for a while was one of the most successful composers in America.  When the new Metropolitan Opera House opened, he was the composer who got the commission to write a new work to inaugurate it. So it wasn’t like it wasn’t supported by the establishment.

SdK:  But that was in the ‘60s.

FJO: Even after that, Ned Rorem, who never abandoned tonality, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1976.  But I take your point to some extent—to read music history, to take a look at it from the way that historians write it, it’s too messy for there to be multiple paths. So when Arnold Schoenberg was coming up with the 12-tone theory and Josef Matthias Hauer was doing so independently of him, other Viennese composers, like Franz Schmidt and Karl Weigl, never abandoned tonality.  Richard Strauss certainly never did. Nowadays some people like to claim that Richard Strauss is the forefather of post-modernism.  They’ve retroactively claimed him so that there could be a larger narrative arc of history, and I suppose that’s the role of historians.  But reality is much messier. That said, maybe I’m making inferences here, but I did think that 20 years ago you were trying to make an historical statement. That mission statement certainly feels like a manifesto to some extent.

SdK:  Well, I think it was very important to establish that there should be a place for a kind of music—and in the other arts as well—which uses these techniques from the past in ways that were hopefully not repetitive of the past. We were really interested in moving music and the other arts forward in a way that was not being done, or was not being acknowledged—I thought at the time—in a way that it deserved, to be just let loose to blossom and to flourish.  So yes, I was trying to be provocative in that sense.  Sometimes you want to give history a little kick, to kick it forward a few inches.  One of the senses that I’ve always had is that in the 20th century we came to value innovation as the hallmark of genius.  You always have to be doing something new and something that has never been done before.  I wanted to establish the idea that maybe you can do something that really is genuinely new by simply using things that have been done. When I do my 20th-century history course at The New School, once we get to the end of all these things that have been done in terms of innovation, one of the most unkind assignments I can give to my students is to ask them to go and write a piece using a technique that no one has thought of.  It’s really damned difficult to come up with something.  Right?  What do you do that’s innovative at the end of a century where innovation per se has been one of the focal points of development? It becomes a different kind of problem, right?

“We came to value innovation as the hallmark of genius.”

History is a messy thing, and it’s very messy when you’re in the midst of it.  It’s very difficult to see clearly.  And I think one of the important things to do is not to be monolithic about it. Especially at this moment in history there’s such a multiplicity of styles and such a multiplicity of voices.  It’s particularly incumbent on us to have that broad palette available and supported.

FJO:  And history also keeps getting rewritten.

SdK:  Sure.

FJO:  Curiously, of all people, Arnold Schoenberg who established the 12-tone system and is hailed as an innovator and a torchbearer for the avant-garde, famously claimed that Brahms was a progressive composer.  Yet in the 19th century, the path that was considered progressive versus the path that was considered retrogressive was Wagner versus Brahms.

SdK:  Right.

FJO:  Schoenberg basically rewrote that history and said that if you analyze the organic structure of the way Brahms’s themes developed, it was really a more forward-looking idea than what Wagner was doing, which was just wandering around aimlessly without any structural underpinning.

SdK:  Well, that’s one way of understanding it.  Another one is to understand the end of the 19th century as not actually being bifurcated quite the way that it seemed to be.  The differences between Wagner and Brahms are in some ways radical and in some ways not at all.  It really depends on historic stance and historic understanding.  And those do change with time.  There’s no question about that.

Stefania de Kenessey talking with Frank J. Oteri.

FJO:  So I’ll be a provocateur.

SdK:  Go, go, go.

FJO:  It might be possible then with the hindsight of history, maybe even 20 years from now, to say that the music that you were composing back in 1997 and have continued to write up until now and the music of serial and post-serial composers, plus the music of the minimalists as well as the followers of John Cage—maybe all of this isn’t as different as we think.  They might sound very different, but maybe they’re not all that different.

SdK:  Well, I think you’re right in some sense.  I think the surfaces are obviously quite different.  So there are genuine differences to be claimed.  But I also think that the multiplicity of styles, and the search for what I would call a lingua franca in music, is certainly what unites everybody in the 20th century, or even the beginning of the 21st century.  There is no commonly spoken or commonly understood musical idiom. So if you meet somebody and they say, “Oh, I’ve been listening to music,” or “I’m writing a piece,” the first question is “What kind of music?  Is it classical?  Is it pop?”  Then if it’s pop, what pop? It’s the first question.  I don’t think that would have been the first question in the 18th century or even the 19th.

“A commonly spoken musical language is not one we can take for granted anymore.”

The sense of having a commonly understood or a commonly spoken musical language is not one we can take for granted anymore.  That’s both a blessing and a curse.  The blessing is that we can know about music from the 12th century to the 20th.  I know something about African drumming and something about classical Indian music.  The sheer volume of information that’s available to people is staggering. And you can’t do all of those things simultaneously, so you have to make choices.  But that availability of huge amounts of stylistic information is wonderful.  On the other hand, it also means that we’re all searching, because you either do what your teacher told you to do, or demonstrated as what to be doing, or you have to go out on your own and start questing for something that makes sense to you.  So there isn’t that possibility that was probably much more common in past centuries, and probably in other cultures as well, where you’d enter a tradition—you’d learn from your teachers and you’d continue that tradition.  You’d make innovations, but within that tradition.  That’s no longer true.

FJO:  In terms of historical lineage, it’s interesting to look at composers from the generation before us who were apostates to modernism, like George Rochberg or David Del Tredici. They were both castigated for returning to tonality when they first did, even though they’ve both become iconic.  I think part of why it was so shocking to people is they were both such good serial composers, so they were members of the faith who had defected so it was really heavy. I’m curious about this in terms of your development. I knew that you went to Princeton and that you were at Yale before that.  And when you were at Princeton, you studied with Babbitt.  So were you a 12-tone composer back in the day?  Did you start off writing this kind of stuff?

SdK:  Never.  I always admired it.  I always knew about it, but I have never written 12-tone music and never desired to do so.  I almost went and studied with Rochberg.  I went to Princeton for a variety of reasons, but one of them was they kept asking me to come. Finally I went and I was interviewed by Milton Babbitt.  And I said “I’m very honored to be asked to study here, but why should I come here of all places to get my Ph.D.?  I write very tonal music. I’m not particularly interested in 12-tone music or electronic music, and I kind of doubt that that will happen to me in the next couple of years.  So why should I come here?”  And he looked at me, and he said, “Well, for a couple of reasons.  One, I think you’re very talented.  Two, if you come here, you will find that we spend as much time talking about Bach and Brahms as we do about Schoenberg and Webern.  And three, if you come here, I will take you under my wing.”  So that was a very, very nice offer and not to be refused.

At the same time, I had applied to other places.  The other place I was considering was Penn where George Rochberg was teaching.  He was the one that people were pushing me to study with. I decided not to go to Penn for two reasons.  One, it was just a master’s program at that point, and they weren’t funding it the same way. Princeton made me a very generous offer.  But the other reason, the more substantive one, was that when I spoke with George, he said that he had returned to tonality, but he felt—and he felt very strongly about this—that tonality was in some sense finished and the only thing that could be done with it was to imitate tonal examples from the past.  He really wanted to write a Beethoven movement, a Bartók movement, a Stravinsky movement, a blues.  He wanted to sort of mimic those styles and was not interested in the conversation that I had with them.  We talked for quite a while about trying to figure out a way to go through those and come up with an individual, distinct style.  And for better or for worse, I’ve been trying to do that most of my life.  I didn’t want to just write a pseudo-Beethoven quartet. That’s absolutely necessary to develop skill, but then you want to try to move beyond that and develop what you think is your individual voice, and he was not really interested in that.  He really saw the return to tonality as an homage to the past.  I wanted to think of the return to tonality as moving forward into the future.  I’m mincing words here, but I think you understand what I mean.

FJO:  It’s so interesting because one of the things I found striking about your music when I first heard it—and the same is true for Michael Dellaira and Eric Ewazen, whose music you also featured in that initial Derriere Guard Festival—is that it doesn’t smack of irony; it doesn’t sound like post-modernism.  It isn’t about referencing.  It isn’t like Schnittke or how tonal melodies reappear in the Alice pieces of David Del Tredici.  I think David has moved beyond that in his own music, to like a full-fledged, almost kind of crazed other path that history could have taken beyond romanticism now, in the music he’s writing in the last, say, 25 years or so, but his initial re-entrance to tonality was aesthetically similar to what Rochberg was doing at that same time.

SdK:  I tried to position it as something post-post-modern.  There was modernism and then post-modernism, which returns to the past but kind of ironically. The same thing happened in architecture.  You get columns again, but they’re in the wrong place.  Things of that sort.  The question for me is: How do you build new buildings which may have columns, but in a more organic way?  How do you write music which may have melodies and harmonies that somehow represent elements of the past, but in a novel way, rather than in an ironic or pastiche manner?  So that was the idea.  That’s why I focused on those kinds of composers, rather than paying homage to clearly incredibly talented composers like Ned Rorem or David Del Tredici or to the minimalists who kind of opened up the door that I think the Derriere Guard was then able to open up further, if that’s the right metaphor.

FJO:  But even though the music itself is not ironic, calling it Derriere Guard spelled G-U-A-R-D, and having as your symbol a little cartoon of a butt, was a bit ironic.

SdK:  Yeah, of course.  Well, I think it was hard for me to have a movement which is not really a movement. I didn’t have a strict ideology.  It was not like you had to write music in a certain way or to paint in a certain way.  The idea was simply to let these new kinds of artistic endeavors have a place to flourish. There are huge divergences between the music of Eric Ewazen and Michael Dellaira and myself and all sorts of other people.  And that’s good.  That’s fine.  That’s wonderful.  I don’t have any problem.  It was just to give a place for that music to flourish. So to give it a serious term was going to give it a kind of ideological credence that I was not looking for.  I really just wanted to kick down some walls and open up some venues.

“You don’t have to dress in black any more.”

Why could only dissonant, harsh, terrible things be represented in The Kitchen?  It’s not monolithic.  You don’t have to dress in black any more to enter its halls.  That’s partly why I had Tom Wolfe there in all white.  I’m being silly here, but you know what I mean.  It’s just to allow a kind of a multiplicity of voices to be honored in a way that I don’t think was as routine as it is today.  I really do think that the establishment itself has been more fragmented in its understanding of what is possible, and what is honorable and interesting to support. You’re much more likely now to go to a concert and hear new pieces on it of very different stylistic bents.  Thirty years ago, it would have been a pretty safe bet what you might have heard.

FJO:  Depending on what neighborhood you were in.

SdK:  Exactly.  That’s what I mean.

FJO:  Yet if you have a concert and you call it a new music concert, you shouldn’t know what you’re going hear.

SdK:  Right.

FJO:  If you know what you’re going hear, then how is it a new music concert?

SdK:  Right.

FJO:  That, in fact, is ironic.

SdK:  Yeah.

Stefania de Kenessey standing in front of a red staircase.

FJO:  Alright, so to get to this place, you never wanted to write 12-tone music.  Yet you studied someone who is hailed as the father of total serialism. That’s another irony. So few of Milton Babbitt’s students actually pursued his compositional path. And he didn’t want them to. He wanted people to pursue their own paths.  He wasn’t interested in creating clones.

SdK:  Yes.

FJO: He was so open minded.  He was also obsessed with Broadway theater music.

SdK:  And Chinese food.

FJO:  Yes, and baseball.

SdK:  Right.

FJO:  But by the time you were studying with him, you were already well on your path. So when did you first start writing music?  When did you get this idea in your head that you wanted to be a composer?  How did you discover this music?  You and I are roughly the same generation; classical music of any kind wasn’t something that was necessarily nearby when we were growing up.

SdK:  Well, yes and no.  I grew up mostly in the States, but I was actually born in Budapest.  When I was three-years old, my mother decided I was too skinny.  The pediatrician told her to make sure I got regular exercise, so she enrolled me in a rhythmic gymnastics school in Budapest, which was part rhythmic gymnastics, part ballet, part modern dance.  And there was a little old lady at the piano.  Probably not as old as I now remember her being from my vantage point.  She sat at the piano and played music with which I just fell in love when I was three.  And I remember literally falling in love.  I still remember to this day that whenever we weren’t doing exercises I would crawl underneath the piano and just let the sounds wash over me.  And from that day on, two things happened.  One, I started to be able to hear music in my head that I hadn’t heard in those classes.  My recollection is they were either two or three times a week for either two or three hours.  So it was a lot of stuff going on, and lots of music.  I also started to pay attention to what she was playing.  She was playing from real scores.  She never improvised. It turned out to be mostly 18th- and 19th-century stuff.  Some 17th-century repertoire as well.  So following that, I also made my parents let me audition for a music school founded by Zoltán Kodály, so I grew up on Bartók and Kodály. By the time I was 10 or 11, I knew some Schoenberg, some Webern, Shostakovich, and some Stravinsky. So to me, a lot of the discoveries that my peers were making in college about music—the radical music of, say, 1900 to 1930—was part of my lingua franca growing up as a child.  So there was to me nothing particularly revelatory or difficult about dissonant music.

FJO:  Yet you weren’t attracted to it.

“I didn’t fall in love with Schoenberg and Webern.”

SdK:  I wasn’t as attracted to it as I was to the other kinds.  So like I said, it is our blessing and our curse that we have available to us a huge of palette of sounds.  And you might have to make some choices because you can’t do all things all the time.  For me the choice was that I fell in love with the music of, say, Monteverdi and Mozart in ways that I didn’t fall in love with Schoenberg and Webern.  I admire Schoenberg and Webern.  I teach them all the time.  It’s not for lack of respect or lack of understanding, but what I love is just a different kind of music.  And that was always part of my upbringing.  So my path is a little bit different from the typical path because of that particular history.

FJO:  Well, to take it back to the years you were studying, and even the years leading up to formation of the Derriere Guard, to aspire to write music that sounds like, say, Rachmaninoff would have been considered old-fashioned.  Right? Yet to write music that sounds like Webern would not be considered old-fashioned.

SdK:  Right.

FJO:  But this is ridiculous because A, they were contemporaries, and B, they’re both long dead.

SdK:  Correct.

FJO:  So they’re both the past.

SdK:  Yes.  You’re absolutely right.  That’s why I try to have a sense of humor about it.  That’s why it’s the Derriere Guard with a humorous name because some of the things we do, if you think about it in a more sophisticated way, don’t make any sense.  They’re just sometimes silly.  Music of the ‘20s is long, long gone, no matter what style it was in.  And the ‘30s and the ‘40s.  And now even the ‘60s and the ‘70s.  I have lots of students who are really proud of themselves because they know some things from the 1960s.  That’s amusing.

FJO:  So in terms of your own music—

SdK:  —I always wrote tonal music.

FJO:  Was there any resistance to it with composition teachers you had?

SdK:  Yes, always. All my composition teachers except for Milton Babbitt.  Sooner or later, they’d say, “This is wonderful, but for the next class, or next lesson, would you be interested in bringing in something along the lines of—” and those lines were typically what they’d been doing.  So that’s why Milton was my favorite teacher, by far. I would bring him, say, a piano trio, and we’d sit down and he’d say, “That transition from the first theme to the second theme, when you’re moving from C to G-flat, do you think that transition is long enough given the harmonic terrain you’re trying to traverse?”  We’d sit and talk about that.  It was absolute heaven.  It really was.  He helped me to think about my music on its own terms.  And that’s the best thing a composition teacher can do is to help, in so far as possible, each composer develop his or her own individual voice.  You can only do that by working on the thing that they are trying to produce.  And working on making that better.

FJO:  It’s interesting that you mention a piano trio, because one of my favorite earlier pieces of yours is a piano trio called Traveling Light.  It’s a gorgeous piece.

SdK:  Oh, that’s very sweet.  Thank you.

FJO:  But what I find even more interesting about it than thinking it sounds gorgeous is that there is harmonic motion in it that I don’t think could have been written in the 19th century.

SdK:  Well, that whole piece is actually modal.  It’s technically in A-major, but it’s got two sharps, so in fact it’s not in A-major in a conventional 19th-century sense.  There are, of course, composers in the 19th century who wrote modal music—Fauré is the prime example of that—but they typically don’t take those harmonic constructions and use them in functional ways.  So one of the things I was doing back then, if I have to explain it theoretically, is taking modal harmonies and modal chords and creating a sense of functional harmony using them.  There are no tonic-dominant relationships.  There is no V-I cadence in that entire piece, for instance.  So instead of veering right towards the dominant, it keeps going leftwards towards the subdominant.  The harmonic motions are always off if you’re measuring them by 19th-century standards.  So yes, in some ways there’s no way that could have been written in the 19th century and that’s exactly what I was playing with.

FJO:  And that was your idea of finding a new path.

SdK:  Well, it was my way of finding a new path at that time.  But yes, I was trying to find a new path.  And I was having great fun with it because I thought I was doing something that nobody had done before.  It was fun.  On the surface of it, it doesn’t sound “radical” or “new” in any sense.  It’s, you know, a piano trio.  Nobody opens up the piano and plays with the strings inside, the violin is just played with the bow. There’s no novelty in that sense.  But I think in fact I had a great time with it because I wrote this long piece where there are no normative harmonic relations among the themes or the instruments or the overall progression.  I had a great time, and I still think it doesn’t duplicate the past even as it participates in the past.  So it’s at least my way of trying to take elements from the past and really shoving them into the future.

FJO:  I’d like to unpack something else you were saying. You said you had no interest in doing serial music.  You also said you had no interest in doing electronic music.  It seems to me that your aesthetics at that time, and the aesthetics of the Derriere Guard overall, were about more than just re-embracing tonality.  You kind of hit on this when you said that nobody is going inside the piano.  The aesthetic was about focusing on certain instrumental sonorities that, even though they are very much still with us, had been developed in the past and also intentionally not using electronics.  Is that a fair assessment?

SdK:  I think that’s fair to say, though again, this is where things do evolve.  Most of the music I’ve written in the last 20 years has been for acoustic instruments and standard instruments.  There’s no question of that.  But in part, that was because there is a genuine difference between electronically mediated sound and acoustic sound.  So that’s number one.  I don’t know what I think about that divide yet, but certainly 20 years ago electronically mediated sounds were just not that good.  They were not that pleasing.  But the technological advances that have occurred in the last two decades are phenomenal.  So the quality of sound you can make now, even with relatively simple software and relatively inexpensive speakers, is just phenomenal.  One of the things I’m doing right now is I’m teaching myself Logic Pro, and the next couple of projects I’m going to work on are going to be using electronically created and electronically mediated sound.

FJO:  Really?

SdK:  Yes, absolutely.

FJO:  Wow.

“The quality of electronically produced sounds was not great. My analogy was always the difference between frozen peas and fresh peas.”

SdK:  So things do change, and they do shift.  Again it wasn’t so much ideological, I just wanted to make sounds that I considered to be really beautiful.  I felt the quality of electronically produced sounds was not great.  My analogy was always the difference between frozen peas and fresh peas.  I eat frozen peas when I need to.  I will dunk them into something. But if you can get fresh peas, it’s just a world of difference.  And now the difference to me is much, much less.  It’s almost imperceptible at times, so I think we’re entering a new terrain, I actually do, which is why it’s always difficult to predict the future.  You never know.  And anybody who pretends to is being silly.

FJO:  But, of course, the other schism is between using electronic sounds to mimic the sounds that we’re already familiar with versus electronic sound offering the possibility to create entirely new sounds.  Maybe new is the wrong word here, but rather sounds that exist on their own terms rather than trying to replicate and never quite getting right things that are already done so well on acoustic instruments.

SdK:  No, I think we are entering a new world of sound.  I think it’s going to be possible—it is possible—to create new sonorities that are, by my standards, very beautiful, but are not replications of standardized sounds. Actually one of the genuine revelations I had this summer is I went to Prague for the first time, and I heard a performance of Figaro in the house that Mozart premiered Don Giovanni in. The revelation to me was that the combination of instruments in the pit—and it was not a large pit—and the voices on the stage was the most perfect combination of Mozart-ian sounds I’d ever heard.  It became clear to me that he really was writing music for that medium.  The voices didn’t have to be loud.  The orchestra didn’t need to be large in order to sound absolutely plush and full.  And the interplay between them was acoustically perfect.  Mozart really was writing for the medium.  One of the things that has inspired me to do is to start to think about writing for the medium.  And frankly, a lot of my music is being heard on computers and computer speakers these days, or on film scores, or even the opera that I wrote, The Bonfire of the Vanities, which we’re now editing so it can be viewed in a theater or shown to opera companies as a filmed product.  A lot of the sounds that we listen to and create are actually being mediated electronically and at the same time, I’m not writing for that.  And that’s a mistake.  So I’m working on actually moving in that direction.

FJO:  That’s so interesting.  Well, one of things that triggered this thought for me was hearing what Artis Wodehouse did with your solo piano piece Sunburst on a Disklavier.  It was extraordinary.  It really worked, but it became a slightly different piece than how I first heard it—performed on a grand piano, which is how you originally conceived it.  Perhaps because of the associations we have with player pianos as antique curiosities, anything that resembles that sound world sounds like it’s from another era. So even though she was using a very contemporary technology on a piece that embraces the harmonic vocabulary of an earlier era, it conjured an earlier technology which actually made it sound older to me than when I heard it performed on a piano.

SdK:  Interesting. That’s funny. The Disklavier itself is an unusual thing if you think about it as an object—a piano that is a piano, but not really a piano.  So it occupies a very strange space in sort of aesthetic or philosophical terms in the history of instruments.

FJO:  But it also made me wonder what kind of a piece you might write had you written something that was originally intended for that medium.

SdK:  Well, it should be different.  I think it should be different.  I didn’t write it specifically for that, so I don’t know what I would do, but yes.  I think I need to start being more responsive to changes in the medium, or the media that are available to me.

FJO:  The other thing about the Derriere Guard aesthetic that perhaps I’m just inferring is it also has to do with performance practice to some extent, the performing aspect of how people play this music and what your preferred sound is for the way this music is played.  And it seems to me that a lot of the music that I’ve heard on recordings and in live performance, it’s really about embracing the performance techniques of players who play the standard repertoire and using performance techniques that are specifically associated with that, like singing with vibrato or playing instruments with a lot of rubato instead of singing with a pure tone or being metronomically precise. So it seems that part of your aesthetic in the way this music is performed is that it is probably more ideally served by players who play older repertoire than people who are “contemporary music specialists.”  Is that fair?

SdK:  That’s absolutely correct.  You’ve hit the nail on the head.  For me, the music needs to breathe in certain kinds of ways, so metronomic exactness of rhythm or tempo is not something that suits the music particularly well.  That’s also part of the reason why I’ve gravitated more and more towards working with singers, because singers take for granted that what they do is inflected by the meaning of the text that they’re singing.  So they will not hesitate to take an extra breath here or to stretch something out there because the emotional context or the word requires it.  Whereas, an instrumentalist might.  And you cannot put in, at the end of every phrase, that it’s the conclusion of a phrase, so make it sound like like the conclusion of a phrase.  Let it just pull back a little bit.  You can’t put those kinds of instructions in the score constantly.  It’s intrusive, and it also takes away the immediacy of the performance, the heat of the moment.

One of my favorite anecdotes about Beethoven is that he was reported never to have performed his pieces the same way twice.  That’s an extraordinary thing.  He was performing his own music.  Presumably, he knew how it went.  But in the heat of the moment, each phrase is going to be slightly different.  And sometimes the fortissimo might be much louder than the others.  And if it is, that might influence a quiet moment coming up.  So if you’re going to have a live performance, let the human being really inflect that live performance.  What I do with that once I get to start writing electronic music is actually particularly interesting.  Because that’s where you set up your tempo and everything is kind of precise in a way that human beings aren’t.  Or they strive to be, but you know, they have to work at it.

A manuscript for a vocal setting by Stefania de Kenessey sits on top of her piano next to a sheet with the text she is setting.

FJO:  And if you’re going to be doing electronic music and incorporating singers into that, you would probably want to use amplification for the singers.

SdK:  Probably.

FJO:  The technique of singing with a microphone is so different.

SdK:  Completely different.

FJO:  Vibrato doesn’t come across too well when it’s amplified.

SdK:  But I’m not a huge fan of vibrato either. I don’t particularly love those big, hooty voices that you hear at the Met.  I understand they’re needed to carry into the stratosphere, but I much prefer smaller voices and more pure, clean tones.  So that I’m totally okay with. But the question of how to make the time a little bit malleable to match the singers is one that is a very complex and vexing one and one that I haven’t solved.  The next opera project, which is just really in its infancy although I have a call to my librettist this afternoon, is we want to write a piece where I would write the score electronically and then we would have the singers sing on top of that for live performances.  How we do this yet, I don’t know.  So don’t ask me.  The details will be figured out, but we are moving in a different direction and in that direction specifically. But I don’t have the answer yet; I’m sorry.  That’s why it’s fun to be an artist because you set up a problem and you work with it. I have this goal, so it’ll keep me busy for the next couple of months.

FJO:  So you say you gravitate toward vocal music because singers know how to respond to a text. I also wonder if you also gravitate toward vocal music because having a text makes the music that much more directly communicative to people.

“To analyze one’s own motivations is the most difficult thing in the world.”

SdK:  Could be.  I don’t know.  To analyze one’s own motivations is the most difficult thing in the world. On the other hand, I would say for the first 10-15 years that I was out in the world and producing music, it was all instrumental.  I wrote piano trios and sonatas, a clarinet quintet and a string quartet—all instrumental stuff.  I’m actually a latecomer to vocal music, in terms of the trajectory of my own career.  I really come out of that Germanic tradition of motivic building and construction.  I moved into the vocal realm, and now I sort of write music on, if anything, the Italian model. I hate these nationalistic labels.  They’re not particularly useful.  But the idea is of these beautiful melodies that you can kind of remember, even sing, engagingly and with pleasure.  But it’s taken a long, long time to have come to that.

FJO:  But interestingly, you mentioned a clarinet quintet. It’s called Shades of Darkness. And your piano trio is named Traveling Light.  You didn’t call any of your pieces, say, Piano Sonata No. 4.

SdK:  Yes, except I did, and then one of my early mentors, Richard Hundley—I had a couple of lessons with him—said, “You’ve got to put different titles on these, otherwise they’ll never catch on.”

FJO:  I agree with him.

SdK:  So I went back, and I listened to my pieces again, and I thought, “What are titles that would actually exemplify what this might be about to a listener?” Originally it was just Clarinet Quintet in G-minor, opus whatever, 13.  Suite for Oboe and Piano.  Not Magic Forest Dances.  All of them had plain, vanilla titles.

FJO:  And opus numbers, too?

SdK:  Yeah.

FJO:  Wow.

SdK:  Yeah.  Because that’s what serious composers did back then.  And around 1990, I stopped numbering because it just got too complicated. I couldn’t care less anymore, and I started giving them titles anyway, so I stopped.  I have no idea where my oeuvre stands.

FJO:  Well, to go back to something you said earlier about the language of music and this desire in the 20th century to constantly innovate and come up with a new idea. One of the functions of art, whether it’s a poem or a painting or a piece of music, if you’re presenting this for an audience, for viewers, for readers, it’s got to communicate in some way.

SdK:  Right.

FJO:  So how does that communication happen for the person receiving the work? If I picked up any of the books on your shelves, I’d be able to read them since they’re in English and I’ve spoken and read English all my life. But if one of those books was in Hungarian, I’d be lost since I don’t speak Hungarian.  I wouldn’t get much from it. I’d just be seeing random combinations of letters. Music is sort of tricky because it doesn’t mean anything specific, so we have to metaphorically attach meanings to it, which I think is part of why titles are important.

SdK:  It helps.

FJO:  Yes, and it helps because it grounds it in a way that makes it more comprehensible. But there’s a larger kind of communication here as well, which I think the whole idea of Derriere Guard was trying to tap into, the idea about having recognizable chords and discernible melodies.  It seems to me that part of that was about wanting to communicate more?  But that’s something you haven’t said yet.

SdK:  Sure.  I mean it’s the only reason to write music, for me. It’s not for my drawer or to create a construction of sounds in a particular way, but to communicate to audiences and to move them.  To give them beauty.  To give them pleasure.  To make them think.  All of those things.  I think one of the big problems—I won’t say failures, but one of the serious problems—of 20th-century art music is that it left its audience behind.  And it was not because audiences weren’t trying.  I think the notion in the ‘20s and ‘30s that audiences simply needed to be educated by hearing more and more of this music and being exposed to it, then they would come around, didn’t prove to be true.  There is something about certain kinds of music which are just too difficult, too dissonant, too problematic. If they communicate, they communicate something to an audience that audiences are not able to take in.  So I do think the problem is how to reach audiences, and if we don’t have an audience, then there’s no point in writing music. If nobody’s listening, what are you doing?

FJO: Now you’ve done a lot of vocal music.  You’ve done this beautiful setting of poetry by Dana Gioia.

SdK:  Oh, thank you.

FJO:  The second song in that cycle was another example where I thought, “Okay, this couldn’t possibly be 19th-century music, because it’s filled with all these ninth chords.  Then it ends with this blaring ninth.  That would have been considered tonally unstable.  But to our 21st-century ears, which have lived through a century of pop music where for a decade every song was nothing but major seven chords, those chords aren’t unstable at all.

SdK:  Right.

FJO:  Tonality and how we perceive music is really associative and experiential, much like language.

SdK:  Okay.

FJO:  We can communicate with each other because these are words we’ve heard before and that we’ve said before, so there’s no problem communicating. I think we underestimate how music can function that way, too.  There is this kind of associative listening.  You hear something going a certain way, and you’re able to follow it because you’ve heard other things that did it.  Then when it goes somewhere different, like when you subverted harmonic relationships in Traveling Light

SdK: —No leading tones.

FJO:  Yes, you can follow that, because you were expecting it to do certain things from other pieces you’ve heard.  Whereas, if you have a piece that’s in a totally new system, someone who is listening to it is not going to hear what’s new about it because there’s no associative listening that they can go back and say, “Oh, well this references that, but then does something else.”

SdK: That’s true.  Although I actually was just speaking about this to a friend of mine.  One of the interesting things to me now is that the popular music that we’ve been listening to for the last 20, 30 years is this constant amalgam of both what we would call tonal music and modal music.  Half the songs have leading tones, but half of them don’t.  They just have flats.  I think for listeners today, they’re equivalent in a way that they weren’t equivalent to me when I was a child.  I could really hear tonality and tonal music, blues, driving rock and roll, and Eastern European folk music, as all really somehow distinct.  But I think they’re no longer distinct to contemporary ears.  And that speaks to your point that the reference points are very different today.  In that sense, they’re more open and more engaged.  But tonality still persists.  There is something about those damn triads and the fifths. It’s hard to get rid of that stuff as being somehow elementally pleasurable.  And I think elementally pleasurable and intelligent should not be opposites.  I think they can be combined and really innovative in interesting ways.

FJO:  So then who’s the audience for this music?

“There’s a thirst for a kind of new music that has some of the sophistication of the past, but is also fresh sounding and speaks to contemporary concerns.”

SdK:  I would love for it to be a relatively broad audience, not just the few thousand who would go to concerts.  Obviously not the millions and millions who have never heard Beethoven or Monteverdi.  But something in between. I do think there’s a large group of people in between who’ve heard music of the past, of the classical canon, but feel that it’s very, very distant.  And the only other kind of music they know is pop music of, say, the last 30 years.  Maybe some jazz from the ‘30s, stuff like that.  I think there’s a huge gap and a huge opening, a thirst for a kind of new music that has some of the sophistication of the past, but is also fresh sounding and speaks to contemporary concerns.  So that’s my goal.  Whether one meets that goal is another question or another story.  But that’s certainly the audience that I try to speak to.

FJO:  So, I’d like to talk about your opera, Bonfire of the Vanities, which was based on a very famous book.  And that book was also made into a famous movie, so theoretically it’s something that has a hook for the general public.

SdK:  That’s partly why I was interested in it and, of course, I loved the novel.  I don’t think there was a single chapter when I wasn’t bent over with laughter.  Although, you’d be surprised. I would say people 35 and over have heard of it, but the younger generation has not heard of the book—or the movie, for that matter.  So again, times are changing.  They really are.  The book doesn’t have the kind of resonance for younger people that it does for me or our generation.

<Bonfire of the Vanities, the opera, trailer footage (excerpts from concert 2-10-14) from Burgeon & Flourish, LLC on Vimeo.

FJO:  Another thing I thought is that when you set a text, whether it’s poetry or a storyline that’s been adapted into the libretto for an opera, there are certain things in the original work that help guide where you go musically.  When I learned that you were writing an opera based on this novel, I was slightly surprised. I initially thought that Bonfire of the Vanities is very urban and gritty and quite far away from your sound world, but it actually isn’t. People’s immediate association with operatic singing in a tonal context is with the 19th century, the gilded age. People nowadays don’t sound like that. However, that sound world also has specific class associations and that’s actually a big part of what that book is about. So I’m wondering if that was an ingredient in terms of you wanting to write music that reflected the status of these characters in some way.

SdK:  I wanted to write an opera along the lines of, say, Carmen, which has some terrific tunes and has a nitty-gritty series of events.  In Bonfire, there’s a black kid who eventually gets run over and he dies. It’s a horrible story on some levels, but it’s still ironic and satiric and makes fun of the upper class.  And I thought that’s the kind of story that doesn’t get told very often in opera.  How cool would it be to write an opera that is in some sense very operatic.  The soprano has to do pianissimo high Cs.  It has all those trappings, but also is going to attract people who don’t normally come to the world of opera and sort of pull them into this world that’s more sophisticated than the kind of music that they listen to outside the opera house.

So, in that sense, the conjunction of differing kinds of class or stylistic endeavors was deliberate.  And I also used a trap set in that, for instance.  Not in all the numbers, but a bunch of them have drums, and it kicks into rhythm the way good rock and roll does at appropriate moments.  Again, I’m toying with how to maintain a level of contrapuntal and structural sophistication that I associate with music of the past, but bring it into the present, or the future, with both sonorities—drum sets and singing styles—that are a little less operatic.  And subject matter that is entirely contemporary and can resonate with contemporary audiences. So I don’t know if that answers your question or not.  But in that sense, it’s a stylistic blend of different things that are associated with different classes.

FJO:  That definitely answered it.  I was struck when we walked into the apartment.  I saw the grand piano and I saw the trap set.  That was the first thing that I noticed.

SdK:  That’s me.

A grand piano and a drum set are side by side in Stefania de Kenessey's living room.

FJO:  People talk about the 20th century and say Schoenberg emancipated dissonance, but I think the larger thing that happened in the 20th century was embracing percussion on equal terms to other instrumental sonorities.  When I went back and I listened to your two 9/11 memorial song cycles, I was struck by very prominent foregrounded percussion in both of those cycles.  And, once again, I thought to myself that there’s no way anyone could say this music could have been written in the 19th century, because it wouldn’t have been.  People would not have foregrounded percussion that way.

SdK:  Right, the European tradition doesn’t do that.  Correct.  Yeah.  And that’s a real mistake. Again, I’m coming relatively late to this.  It’s just been the last 10-15 years that I’ve been doing this.  But yeah, the rhythmic component of music—which is so important and such a source of pleasure by the way, raw physical pleasure—is not a part of the European canon.  There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be.  Just because you have a drum set doesn’t mean you can only do a groove.  One of the things I was working on in those songs, and in other works as well, is to use percussion in a way that actually goes along with the narrative arc that I’ve created.  It’s not just a groove that you start and then you know exactly where it’s going to end three minutes later.  The idea is to progress along with the rest of the musical material.  But that’s eminently doable.  There’s no reason why that can’t be done.

FJO:  Nowadays you are teaching, so you’re now in the position with students that Milton Babbitt was in with you.  You mentioned that you present Schoenberg and Webern in your music history class.  In terms of teaching composition, what paths are your students taking?  Do you try to guide them in certain ways?  Or let them be themselves?  How do you do for them what Milton did for you and what maybe the others didn’t do for you in terms of not being supportive?

SdK:  First of all, I really believe you have to let individual voices blossom on their own because just teaching them to be me, when I barely know who I am, is a difficult proposition and not particularly useful.  But I also believe in teaching techniques.  Craft is important.  You have to know what you’re doing at that basic physical level.  What I try to do more than anything else is to teach them to problematizes, or think about issues that are relevant in any kind of music.  For instance, in the spring, I’m going to be teaching a composition and analysis class.  And the analysis will be to make them listen to certain kinds of music, and look at certain kinds of compositional devices or problems.  And sometimes they’re very simple, but they’re things they don’t think of.

“You have to let individual voices blossom on their own.”

For instance, I ask them to listen to Debussy’s Afternoon of a Fawn and it turns out of course that the flute melody is never presented the same way. Well, the first two iterations are almost identical, but none of the others are.  So the first thing they have to do is write a melody which begins the same way, but goes in five different directions.  That’s something which problematizes an issue: What is melodic construction like?  It makes them acquire craft, because you have to be able to write a melody in five different, very distinct ways, but it also enables them to write music in any style or genre they like.  It’s not prescriptive. It can be rock-ish.  It can be electronic-ish.  It can be classical-ish.  I don’t care about the -ish.  Look at melody and melodic shape and what it means to vary it considerably and what it does to narrative structure long term, if you have melodies that progress in different ways.  So that’s one way of encouraging people to write music which I don’t think makes them write music like me or like Debussy, or like anything else.  It enables them to develop their own style, even as they learn certain kinds of technical abilities.  And that’s just kind of emblematic of the kinds of things I do.  I set up compositional problems for them, and then ask them to solve it in their own voice, and then I help them in their own voice.  But the compositional problem also lifts it out of the realm of personal expression. At some point, you want to express yourself, but you also want to just be able to make mistakes—try out stuff and goof around, try this and have that fail, and just develop a sense of craft.  So I’m very, very eager to do that, and I stress that a lot.

FJO:  Have you ever had any students who’ve wanted to write atonal or 12-tone music?

SdK:  Not too many is the honest answer.  You have to remember, I’m teaching at Eugene Lang College, not at Mannes College of Music.  Some of them go into music history or music theory or composition, but many of them wind up going into popular music, either as producers or performers or creators.  They tend to veer in that direction.  Not exclusively, but they tend to.

FJO:  I’m curious though, what your advice would be to a composer who did want to go in that direction.  Could you be the Milton Babbitt for that person?

SdK:  Absolutely.  I mean, if I can be, if I can support somebody who’s writing noise or grunge music or electronica or whatever, which are not my daily bread and butter, I certainly can do 12-tone music.  So yes.  The example I just gave you of writing a melody that goes in five different directions; that could be a 12-tone exercise easily.  In terms of the kind of aesthetic precepts that students bring with them, I think it’s very important to let them experience those and enrich them and let them blossom.  Otherwise, you’re getting in the way and not helping.

FJO:  So to the larger question, to return it full circle, you said there is no need to do a 20th anniversary of Derriere Guard. So, do you feel people’s perceptions have changed about what new music means?

SdK:  Which people?

FJO:  People, the community, the audience for it. I mean, what does new music mean now?

SdK:  I don’t know.  I’m being facetious in answering because I think it’s a very confusing and confused time.  I think new music can kind of mean almost anything these days.  Which is both wonderful and terrifying, because it can mean anything.  I think in some ways a lot of possibilities have opened up, but I’m also less and less sure that new music as a concept is as meaningful as it was, say, 20 years ago.  So I’m not sure.  I’m not sure what’s happening with what we mean by new music.  I’m not sure what’s happening with concert music or art music.  It’s a very interesting and difficult time.

FJO:  You know, we’re almost 20 years into a new century at this point, a new millennium. When we look back to the year 1917, Schoenberg and his followers were saying that the 19th century is the past.  For us, the 20th century is that now.

SdK:  The past.  Right.

FJO:  So, are there hallmarks of the 21st century that are distinct from the 20th?  Could we now say, “Oh well, that’s stuff that was called new music, but that’s actually old music.  And new music now is something else.”  Are we there yet?

SdK:  I don’t think so.  I think from my vantage point at least we’re still in that phase of what I would call post-post-modern experimentation—of trying to find something that kind of unifies us all.  And I don’t think we’ve come to that point.  Maybe we never will.  Maybe that’s the future.  Or maybe there are only going to be different kinds of new musics.  That’s also possible.  I don’t know.  When I go to concerts, or when I listen to the work that’s being done, it’s just all over the map.  Stylistically it’s wonderful.  I love it.  I love the variety.  But I don’t get the feeling that there’s kind of—what I was calling earlier—a lingua franca of new music.  Some people embrace pop.  Some people still embrace serialism.  Some people embrace dissonance.  Some people embrace consonance.  Some people embrace the European idea of a narrative kind of music.  Some people think that it should really be kind of cyclical and non-narrative.  I don’t have the sense, at least right now, that we’re any better at finding an answer to how to combine those things than we were, say, 10-15 years ago.

FJO:  So earlier, when we were talking about the difference between Brahms and Wagner and how we can now see the similarities. Maybe we can’t say that yet with all of the music that’s happening now, but I imagine one day somebody might.

SdK:  Yeah, you were saying that earlier.  I think that’s possible.  But I do think that perhaps the range of sounds that we’re exploring today is larger than the range of sounds being explored between Brahms and Wagner.  I mean, you could put those guys in the same room and describe the parameters with which they worked.  If you tried to do the equivalent for all the new music today, you would need a stadium to house all those parameters.  So I think you are right to some extent, but I also think the playing field has increased and has gotten so large—again, that’s one of the blessings and one of the curses of our era is that there’s so much variety out there that’s possible. There’s a huge variety of sonorities, and approaches to sonorities, and approaches to audiences, and to subject matter.  So I don’t have that sense of clarity or even of semi-clarity that I would say I can impose on the world of Brahms and Wagner.

FJO:  And then when you open it up to other genres—is the word genre even relevant to 21st-century music?

SdK:  Right.  I don’t know.  I suspect not.  I think we’re seeing a genuine revolution in all sorts of ways in music.  Again, partly because of the wealth of sounds that are available to us and are known to us, and partly because the way in which we make sound is less and less the way sound used to be made, which is by learning to play acoustic instruments.  I’m always struck by my students: I give them 24 hours and they will return with a passable version of a pop song very nicely produced.  They may not play any instrument or sing.  They don’t have any music notation.  They don’t play an instrument, never have played guitar, piano, anything.  They know how to manipulate sounds via Ableton Live or Logic Pro or whatever program they’re using.  So it really is a different world out there, and I’m not quite sure how all these pieces fit together yet.  I really am not.

FJO:  But part of the whole Derriere Guard aesthetic was about not wanting to lose the things of the world before all of this.  The sound of a violin.  The sound of a piano being played on the keys.  Sounds that are not amplified.  Where does that fit in with this new world we’re now in?

“The great beauty of Bach or Beethoven or Brahms is that it’s just as pleasurable to my brain as it is to my heart and ears.”

SdK:  Well A, I’m not sure, but B I don’t think that stuff will ever disappear.  The love for that will certainly never disappear.  There’s no question of that.  To what extent that will be a major centerpiece of artistic endeavors, it’s hard to say. There’s less and less support for high art—I hate that term, but there it is.  So I don’t know to what extent that will flourish any more than in a corner.  There’s always the danger of it being turned into a museum piece. For me, part of the beauty of that old tradition is certainly the sound of a violin or the sound of a piano, but it’s also a level of what I would call complexity married to beauty in kind of a 50-50 melt. Obviously I can’t actually demonstrate quantifiably that it’s 50-50.  But for me, the great beauty of Bach or Beethoven or Brahms is that it’s just as pleasurable to my brain as it is to my heart and ears.  It’s really a 50-50 combination of those two.  And that is the thing that’s crucial to me in my music.  How one does that—it’s not uninteresting, but that’s not the question for me; it is how to maintain that.  And to me personally, that’s the important thing, and that’s what I try to do in Bonfire of the Vanities: write something that on the surface has some beautiful melodies and really transports you into the worlds of these people.  But if you listen, it actually has a kind of complexity to it that would not be embarrassing if it were played after a Mozart opera.  I’m trying to do both, and that to me is the heart and soul of all of what I think cannot be or should not be jettisoned from the history of Western music.

Avner Dorman: Point of View, Personal Choice, and Duty

Avner Dorman on a Manhattan rooftop

As a teenage whiz kid growing up in Israel, Avner Dorman was simultaneously drawn to music and physics, studying the score of Stockhausen’s Gruppen and taking college-level mathematics courses by the age of 15. Although to this day he credits his science and math background with how he conceptualizes music, Dorman the composer was deeply moved by music’s emotional resonance from very early on and was quickly drawn to postmodern aesthetics, starting with his 1995 Concerto in A for piano and strings, a work he completed at the age of 19 which is still in his active composition catalogue and is available on a recording released on Naxos.

Dorman’s earliest works made him something of a superstar in his home country.  By the ripe old age of 25, the top Israeli orchestras were performing his music and he became the youngest composer ever to win the Prime Minister’s Award. But rather than basking in the glory, Avner decided to apply to graduate school overseas and he wound up here in the United States.  At first it was a bit of culture shock.

“In Israel, if you put on a concert it’s in the paper,” he opined when we met with him in early January at the office of his music publisher, G. Schirmer. “I remember the first time I had some concert that wasn’t listed [in The New York Times], I was like, ‘Why wasn’t it listed?’ And people said, ‘Why do you think you should get listed?  They list six concerts and that’s it.  There’s like a thousand today.’ I couldn’t quite fathom the size and variety that goes on here.”

By moving from Tel Aviv to New York City, Dorman went from being a big fish swimming in a little pond to trying to stay afloat in the music equivalent of an ocean. Dorman, however, was enrolled in The Juilliard School and his principal teacher there was John Corigliano, to whom he remains extremely grateful for helping him realize his own compositional identity.

“You only learn who you are when you’re not where you grew up,” said Dorman.  “Early on, people often would mention the Middle Eastern flavor of my music.  In Israel no one ever said that because other people are so much more extreme about it.  So [that] was a big revelation.  The other thing—and this I credit John for very, very deeply—is that I remember he would always say, ‘You’re very emotional and expressive, and you’re not afraid to express emotions in your music.’ … Since then, I’ve come in touch with it more and more and I think having him as a guide for several years really helped me understand who I am.”

But for Dorman, finding out who he was as a composer has never meant remaining in any particular aesthetic comfort zone. His music is constantly evolving and he is constantly challenging himself to go places where his music has never gone before—even sometimes to places that are decidedly uncomfortable. A prolific instrumental composer who has created numerous works for soloists and orchestra, particularly for less standard instruments such as mandolin and percussion, Dorman has begun to deeply explore vocal music. Last year, he completed his first opera, Wahnfried. It received its world premiere at the Badisches Staatstheater Karlsruhe in Germany on January 28, 2017, and will remain in repertoire there through May. Aside from the fact that Dorman’s artistic collaborators, Lutz Hübner and Sarah Nemitz, wrote the libretto in German and he is not fluent in German, Wahnfried poses many other challenges for the 41-year-old Jewish composer. Not only is the opera the story of the notorious late 19th-century anti-Semite Houston Chamberlain, another one of the opera’s characters is Adolf Hitler.

“Hitler met with [Chamberlain], and that’s actually in the opera,” Dorman explained. “If you listen to Hitler’s speeches, there are direct quotes from his book.  I actually transcribed some of his speeches as musical notation … and that’s the music that he’s singing.  … I am aware that some people from Israel might be offended by this, but I think they would be mistaken.  I’m obviously not advocating my own death and my family’s death.  Who would do that?  But I think it’s an important part of history that is rarely told and that needs to be told.  I definitely think it is a politically charged piece.  Even more so today than it was when I wrote it.  I do think, especially in this era, that one of the mistakes is not to say things.  We need to know that racism and hatred are a feature of humanity.  It’s in our language. These things exist and they catch on like wild fire.  When you don’t counteract and contradict them, they will continue to grow.  I think as artists we have the opportunity to make a statement that will be heard.”

Avner Dorman in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
at the New York City offices of G. Schirmer
January 6, 2017—1:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  You became pretty prominent as a composer when you were still a teenager and some of the pieces you wrote back then are still in your active catalogue.  In fact, some of your earlier works have even been commercially recorded. There are two CDs devoted exclusively to your music out on Naxos, and one of them contains a piano concerto you completed when you were only 19 and the other contains your first two piano sonatas.

Avner Dorman:  My first piano concerto was from when I was still a teenager, but those piano sonatas are from my early 20s.

FJO:  You were still really young.  That’s many years ago.  If people discover you through these recordings, they’ll hear this music before they’ll hear more recent pieces which haven’t been recorded yet.  So I wonder, now that you’re a slightly older composer, how you feel about those pieces being an entry point that a lot of people will have for your music.  Do they represent who you are still?

AD:  I think in certain ways they do and in certain ways obviously not.  If you just look at the outer stylistic layer, their harmonic language, then certainly the first sonata and the early piano concerto are not stylistically how I write now.  I don’t even know how to describe what they are, but they are not the language that I use now.  But I think some of the deeper levels are still the same, like the energy that these pieces have and—maybe—this idea that music stems from the base up. A Baroque concept of harmony and a little bit of a physics-related concept of harmony is already in there.  I think I always was thinking about harmony like that.  And in all these pieces, there are a lot of elements from popular music and non-Western music—again, not in the same way, but I think that’s still there.  To a degree they obviously don’t represent me now, but they represent a time in my life and a stage in my development. So I don’t have a problem with people finding them first.  If someone went to see my most recent work, especially a lay person, they would probably have a hard time figuring out that this is the same composer, but I think that’s a very common thing, so I don’t have an issue with it.

I know some composers withdraw a lot of pieces later on.  I had actually written a lot of pieces before those pieces and had withdrawn them.  But I do feel like these pieces [that you mentioned] work well, even after a long period of time.  To a degree, I don’t think I could write them now; I just couldn’t do it.  So I almost feel like that person that wrote them deserves not to be put aside, even though I’m not that person anymore.  I do feel that they have artistic integrity and are rich enough that they merit having their own life.  That being said, I obviously hope that what I’m writing now, and what I’ve written since, has more to offer because otherwise I did my best when I was 20.  And that wouldn’t be great.

FJO:  Very fairly stated.  You remind me of this wonderful quote from Thomas Pynchon.  In the ‘80s, he authorized the publication of a group of short stories he wrote back in his early 20s, before he wrote his first novel. He contributed a new introduction where he wrote that though there are some good things in these stories, he wouldn’t have written them today. But that young writer also deserves a chance to be read.  There was this wonderful line that was something like, “I like the young me.  I’d even go and have a beer with him, but I probably wouldn’t loan him money.”

AD:  I would subscribe to that.  Also, I would say, the first concerto and the first sonata are very neoclassical and sometimes people think it’s because I was still studying.  But in high school, I studied [Messiaen’s] Turangalîla and [Stockhausen’s] Gruppen very deeply, and I had written some pieces that were all cluster harmonies and collectional concepts. Then—I was still playing Prokofiev, Mozart, and Bach—at some point I wanted to try to write something neoclassical.  That’s how these pieces were actually born, like after knowing some of the avant-garde and experimenting with that.  I actually felt like that would enhance my abilities as a composer.  So I think they’re less naïve than someone might imagine. At 19 you’re young, but if you started writing when you were 10 or 12, or even 15, you’ve had several years.  I was lucky enough to go to an arts high school where my theory and composition teacher was very well educated about Schnittke. I also got to know more recent scores.   I think he was roommates with David Lang at Yale, so I knew David Lang’s music when I was in high school.  So I wasn’t that naïve, thinking, “Oh, let me write something in A-major.”  It was really more like I want to try to do this.

FJO:  It’s interesting to hear you name drop Schnittke because I don’t think of those early pieces of yours as being necessarily neoclassical as much as being postmodern.

AD:  Right, the result is more postmodern than neoclassical.  But at the time I didn’t know that.  I didn’t quite know what postmodern meant yet, although I did know of David Del Tredici.  I didn’t know his music, but my teacher in high school did mention his name when he heard my concerto. So, again, I think it’s not by accident that I ended up studying with John Corigliano.

FJO:  You were saying that your harmony is derived from physics. You majored in physics as well as music, so your physics studies actually paid off.

AD:  Certainly, and I was even more involved in math and physics than a double major would be here.  I was in a special program at Tel Aviv University which lets you focus on different areas that generally you wouldn’t be able to focus on.  The amount of math and physics that I had taken was like being a math-physics major at a major university, and not a double major; it was even more extensive.  For the ability to conceptualize music, I think that knowledge has been invaluable. Like managing patterns over long periods of time—it’s the big question for a composer, right?  It’s also the question of math.  In my mind, they’re almost the same.  To play around with numbers and to write a piece of music are very, very, very close.  So yes, I think it really did pay off.

FJO:  So getting the double degree was actually complimentary to your composing. It wasn’t like you majored in physics in order to mollify your parents when they balked at you saying that you wanted to be a composer.

AD:  Well, my parents—especially my father—wanted me to study physics and math because it was more practical, but I was kind of a prodigy in math as a little kid.  I was already taking mathematics classes at the university level when I was 15.  A lot of my friends growing up ended up being in start-up companies and making enormous amounts of money.  So my father, who was professional musician, had very high hopes that I would not be a professional musician and that I would be a computer programmer.

I got into this program at Tel Aviv University which allowed me to do both. It was a very competitive program, but there was no tuition and they gave you a stipend.  I couldn’t say no to that.  Basically, for four or five years the university took care of it all. I still had to work, but it was too good to pass up.  Then when I started studying, the math and physics classes were very challenging but it was very rewarding.  I like this stuff.  So yes, I think it paid off and I think that program and that structure was very good for me as a person, because it was so free.  I could pick and choose courses from different parts of the university and skip certain requirements—all the things that they don’t like to let you do.  I will only thrive if I can do it a little differently and not have to go through all the steps that everyone has to go through.  That program is designed for people who are little off track—that the university feels have potential to contribute intellectually, but who don’t exactly fit the mold.

FJO:  So, the physics shaped the music to some extent.

AD:  Again, to me, math and music are so intertwined that I will sometimes sketch a piece as a series of numbers.  And to me notation is a graph.  So I can’t completely distinguish. I don’t know that I have as clear a distinction of where one begins and where one stops.  The great thing about music is it’s so emotionally connected; physics not as much.  I think that’s why music is such a holistic thing—the entirety of my being is involved.

FJO:  Well, it’s interesting in terms of what we were talking about earlier—neoclassicism and postmodernism versus the high modernism you were studying, things like Gruppen.  When people think of modernism, whether it’s the music of the integral serialists or practitioners of indeterminacy, or even the earliest pieces by the minimalists as well as the microtonalists—what all these various –isms have in common are a systemic approach that involves mathematical stuff.

AD:  Yes.

FJO:  But I think what postmodernism did—and co-relationally postminimalism as well, since you mentioned David Lang—is that it went beyond the mathematical procedures shaping the music. So it’s very weird, given your own compositional aesthetics, to hear you say that music is very close to math!

AD:  Yeah.  I think my music is definitely postmodern—anything that is sort of the middle brain, social, emotional, all that stuff.  I think what people were reacting against with modernism is that to a lot of people it sort of ended up being cold and separate from the human experience.  But I also find that there’s something really beautiful and rewarding about pure mathematical structure, and I think that goes back forever if you go back to Guillaume de Machaut or even Perotin. Ockeghem is one of my favorite composers. Mathematically it’s beautiful, and then musically it’s just sublime.  That combination, at least for me, is where the transcendence of music comes, when these two elements meet, like they do in nature.  You look at the stars and planets, and they’re both beautiful and also just incredible to think about.

FJO:  Since you brought up early music composers, I definitely hear in your music a deep dialogue with music history—with standard repertoire, a canon that spans a thousand years in Europe and has spread out to the rest of the Western world, the stuff we call “Western classical music” for lack of a better term.  At the same time, I hear much less of a dialogue with the so-called avant-garde.  In fact, I think you’re music is decidedly about not being avant-garde.  Is that fair to say?

AD:  I think I have some pieces that do that, but generally those pieces don’t get played that much.  I don’t know why.  In my first string quartet, for example, there are a lot of extended techniques. But for me, it’s a very personal piece and emotionally very loaded. I wrote it in memory of a very close friend who died in a motorcycle accident.

I do feel that the avant-garde is part of our musical history and I certainly don’t avoid it intentionally, or haven’t thought about it like that.  But I also think that—and this is the other side of the postmodern and postminimalist movement—there is a social aspect to music.  If the music is such that people don’t listen to it, then it is marginalized.  I feel like in my catalogue, partly that’s just what happened—pieces that are in dialogue with the avant-garde are less appealing—but maybe not.  I don’t know.  It’s hard for me to say.  I would have to maybe think about it more.  I do think my new opera does perhaps do that more.  I think opera allows for more extremes.

FJO:  We’re going to eventually get to the opera, I promise.  But while we’re still talking about your early days—you mentioned it in passing, but we didn’t really bring it up specifically—I’m curious about how you feel growing up in Israel shaped who you are as a composer.  It’s a society steeped in thousands of years of tradition yet, at the same time, it’s relatively a newly recreated country.  And, as a result of the number of European émigré musicians who moved to Israel, there are deep connections there to Western classical music. However, in another sense, it’s kind of a brand new frontier.  So I wonder what it was like for you to be involved in the classical music there.

AD:  I would say that I think one of the unique things about growing up in Israel is how much geographically you are at the center of the Arab world.  Israeli popular music, which is what I mostly heard growing up, is this kind of blend of Arabic and Western popular music.  I certainly think that has influenced me in a very deep way.  I think a lot of my pieces have those elements in them.  And I think my interest in rhythm, to a great degree, is because of that—because I grew up in a place where the rhythms that you heard come from Arabic and North African, even Indian music.  It’s a different rhythmic world.  People here hear it, but as an imported element.  Obviously, I didn’t hear it in a traditional context all the time, but it’s so prevalent there that you’re steeped in it.  Also, a lot of the early experiences that I had working in music were crossovers with Arabic music, popular music, and traditional Jewish music. It’s a small country and a very small market, so if you want to survive when you’re young, you just have to do all these kinds of things.  Even in the army, my job was to be an arranger for bands and orchestra, so I got to work in a lot of genres and types of music that I don’t think you would encounter elsewhere, because it is in the Middle East.

My family is from Europe and I grew up in a very central European household, but in Israel.  So I think that is also a big influence on me personally.  The new music scene there is very European.  If you go to a new music concert in Israel, you might not know that you’re not in Germany.  A lot of the composers are still very close to Paris, Darmstadt, and Frankfurt—all those influences.  Personally for me, the immigration from the former Soviet Union was very influential.  My main teacher in Israel came from the country of Georgia.

FJO:  Ioseb Bardanashvili.

AD:  Meeting him and starting to work with him was definitely a turning point in my life.  He brought in a lot of knowledge and expertise.  Georgia is even more of a different place than Israel, and just this point of view was so distinct and so unique. I think he was the person who encouraged me to focus on my point of view. Your point of view is the most important thing.  I remember he heard my piano concerto, the early one, and he said, “I can see your face in this piece.  This is you.  That’s your point of view.  Never forget it.  You’ll be tempted to try to be someone else.”  Here we talk about “finding your voice.” But to him, the idea is that it’s your point of view. He always talked about it in cinematic terms, like being a cinematographer who is invisible to the viewer but who makes the most difference in the movie. It’s the person who gives you the point of view. I think that really helped me to be more focused on my point of view when I’m composing.  It’s something I feel that you have to recreate from piece to piece.  So he was a huge influence on me. Going back to your question about the avant-garde, he would always say, “Why do you only use major and minor chords?  What about a cluster here and there?”  And we would argue about it.  I’m still very close with him.  He’s an incredible human being and an incredible composer.

FJO:  Now in terms of the reception history of your music, when you were a young composer in Israel you were essentially a superstar.  You were the youngest person ever to receive the Prime Minister’s Award.  You were named composer of the year by the second largest paper in Israel.  Your music was played by the nation’s leading orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic.  It was as high as you could go.  You said it was a very small community, but you were more than a big fish in a little pond.  You were as big a fish in that small pond as you could be.

AD:  It was really shocking.  I think within a matter of four weeks, all of these things you mentioned and a bunch of other prizes just happened.  I won this award and that award, and then “we want to play your piece here,” and “we want you to be composer-in-residence for this orchestra.”  It all happened at once.  I was obviously quite happy, but nothing really changed in the world.  You know, I didn’t write any new pieces during those four weeks.  It just happened. And that was actually the point where Bardanashvili and my father both told me I should probably go somewhere else—some big cultural center—and get my doctorate to grow more.

The Ellef Symphony, for which I won most of these awards, was played in a dress rehearsal. My score reading professor was an incredible character who was a pianist for the Bolshoi, I think, before he moved to Israel. He was a really odd character, but we got along very well and he was a fantastic teacher.  I remember he came to the dress rehearsal and we went out.  Everyone was so excited, but he said, “Well, you know, if you think about your career as a staircase, you’ve made the first step. You are now on the first stair. That’s a big step, you’re now a real composer.  But now you have all these other steps to take.”  I’m grateful that the people around me were smart enough to realize that that was the opportune moment for me to go somewhere else where I could develop more and make larger connections. In a small market, you can be really successful quickly.  But there’s nothing else left.  It’s like, what’s going to happen tomorrow?  What are you aiming for? It was great, but where do you go from here?  It’s a very challenging market to be in.  It’s a very small country with a lot of geopolitical issues, obviously.  I’m not telling any secrets.  I think I was very fortunate that people around me were saying that this was my moment to leave and get another perspective.

FJO:  In terms of risk taking, you went as far beyond being a big a fish in a little pond as you could to swimming in an ocean—the New York City music scene is much bigger than a pond.

AD:  You want me to regret it?

FJO:  By no means!  You’ve done well.  You came here to attend Juilliard, which is a world-famous school, and you studied with John Corigliano, who is an extremely famous composer and was a very important mentor for you. But I still wanted to point out that, aside from it being a great opportunity for you, it was also a big risk, at least initially.

AD:  Yes, it was a big risk.  There was a financial risk, too.  I actually had founded a startup company before I came to the United States.  I got some venture capital and I was still running it for the first couple years when I was at Juilliard.  The company eventually closed down but I’m pretty sure that, had I stayed in Israel, we would have had a better chance to survive.  It was a music software company and, I think, a very interesting concept, but maybe too early in those days. Maybe the technology was not ready. Maybe we didn’t have enough money. I don’t know. Maybe had I stayed it would have worked out.  I will never know.  So, yes, I risked a lot.  But I think for me, being in a place where there are so many other composers and so many other points of view and so many organizations, I feel like I needed that challenge and that dialogue.  I thought that I would grow and expand my horizons.

People around me were worried that I would be frustrated staying in a small pond and that, as a person, it wouldn’t be the best thing for me.  I wasn’t someone who was ready to take on a big job and become a power player in that scene.  Some people really like that and some people did that and do very well.  I’ve always wanted to focus on composing.  I’m fairly certain that, had I stayed there, I wouldn’t have had as much time and energy to dedicate to the work and I wouldn’t have had the same opportunity to engage with other composers and get feedback from conductors. At Juilliard, one of the great things is that you work with such good musicians and you get feedback from them. That’s not to say that the Tel Aviv University music department is not strong; it’s very strong, but it’s much smaller.

You’ll probably find it funny, but one of the first things that shocked me about New York is how difficult it is to get a listing in The New York Times.  In Israel, if you put on a concert it’s in the paper.  There’s no question. I remember the first time I had some concert that wasn’t listed, I was like, Why wasn’t it listed?” And people said, “Why do you think you should get listed?  They list six concerts and that’s it.  There’s like a thousand today.” I couldn’t quite fathom the size and variety that goes on here.  But again, why not take on the challenge?  I’m always up for a challenge.

FJO:  And you found a way to thrive here.  We talked about you going to Juilliard and studying with John Corigliano. Here we are in the office of his publisher which is now also your publisher, G. Schirmer, one of the world’s leading music publishers.  You were signed by them almost twelve years ago, just a month after you turned 30. So ultimately, coming here was the right decision. But I think it’s important to remember the moments of uncertainty.  We talked about ways that growing up in Israel shaped your music.  Do you feel like coming here changed your music?

AD:  I do. And I think it took me a long time.  People would ask me what the most important thing that coming to New York or that studying with John Corigliano did for me, and I didn’t know exactly.  But I think now I have enough perspective. One thing is that you only learn who you are when you’re not where you grew up.  So, if you grew up in a small town in, I don’t know, rural Pennsylvania, it’s only when you move to New York City that you realize that you’re from a small town in rural Pennsylvania.  Before that, you know it theoretically, but you don’t really understand it.  Early on, one of the things that happened here was that people often would mention the Middle Eastern flavor of my music.  In Israel no one ever said that my music had a Middle Eastern flavor because other people are so much more extreme about it.  But it’s there.  So I think learning who I am from people who are not from exactly my background was a big revelation.  The other thing—and this I credit John for very, very deeply and it took me a long time to understand what he actually meant—is that I remember he would always say, “You’re very emotional and expressive, and you’re not afraid to express emotions in your music.”  I was like, okay, but he felt that was really important.  You should listen to your emotions and think about them and start from the emotion. That’s why I wouldn’t say it starts from the numbers for me.  They’re a huge part of me, but I think emotion and expression is a huge part of me as well.  And I think that’s something that he saw very clearly and helped me come in touch with more.  Since then, I’ve come in touch with it more and more and I think having him as a guide for several years really helped me understand who I am.  So I think to a great degree, I was able to know myself much better because I wasn’t in my original environment.

FJO:  I’m going to throw out an assumption I’ve had and see where it goes. An early orchestra piece of yours, which was in fact a piece that the Israel Philharmonic played under Zubin Mehta, is Variations Without a Theme.  Variation form is one of the most common forms in Western classical music.  But, as we had been saying, Israel, while connected to European traditions, is also somewhat removed from them and has its own traditions, some going back millennia even though it was built anew in modern times. It’s an old place, but it’s also a new place.  So you’re taking variations, this time-honored form, but you’re doing variations that are completely unlike what we think of as variations.  Your variations are without a theme.  They’re homeless.  There’s almost a diaspora quality to it. Am I reading too much into this?

AD:  That’s an interesting thought. In the Ellef Symphony, the main theme is the same note repeated four times and then a rest.  I was trying the old Beethoven thing of “can you write with a smaller and smaller and smaller motif?”  So then I was like, I don’t want a motif at all.  I don’t want a theme.  In variations, most of the interest is not in the theme.  We love variations and sometimes the theme is nice, but really it’s because the variations are interesting, what you do with the material.  It’s almost like it’s what you do despite the material that is so interesting.  Take the Musical Offering; the theme there is not a very good theme.  You know, the king wrote it, whatever.  But it’s what Bach did with it, despite the theme, that makes it a great piece.  That was my impetus for that piece: just throw it out, why do I need to deal with a part that bogs me down.  In the variation process, I’ll just play with elements of music.

The other thing is that variations are short and they change often. It’s like 50 seconds later—boom, we’re doing something else. I find that very exciting.  I don’t feel I need to be committed to a certain texture, to a certain idea, to a certain aesthetic.  The postmodern part of me loves variations, because I don’t need to justify why three measures after I started one idea, it’s like—whup—we’re doing something completely different.  Obviously the challenge is to make a piece like that coherent, but being so mathematically oriented, that’s usually not the challenge for me; that usually almost happens on its own. So the more I stretch the boundaries, I think it usually works out better than when I try to work in a box.  I understand why some composers need that.  If you’re like a Jackson Pollock personality, you need the box.  But if you’re very mathematical, then maybe the box will happen on its own.

FJO:  Alright, I’ll try another one. You’ve written a ton of concertos.

AD:  Yes.

FJO:  Once again, it’s another centuries-old, Western classical form. And while you wrote a piano concerto very early on and a violin concerto more recently—two most often used solo instruments in concertos—you seem to be more drawn to instruments that are more outside of what we think of as being soloists with an orchestra. You’ve written several pieces which feature percussion soloists, as well as a piccolo concerto, which is not very common.  Saxophone concertos are getting more common, but it’s an instrument that’s not typically associated with the orchestra so it is also an outlier.  And one of my favorite pieces of yours is your mandolin concerto, definitely an outlier to the orchestra.  In a way, it’s an interesting sonic metaphor for growing up in a somewhat outsider place in terms of Western classical music that’s also partially inside because of all the European immigrants.  But do you think of these concertos that way, or am I just inferring it?

AD:  I don’t want to make this disappointing. I love writing concertos.  It’s perhaps the medium that comes easiest to me.  I don’t know if it’s because I started out as a pianist and played a bunch of concertos, or maybe it’s because of my affinity for Vivaldi.  Concertos are easy for me to write and to conceptualize.  I think part of the reason that I’ve written all these concertos for unorthodox instruments is that these instruments are beautiful and there’s so much to do with them that hasn’t been done.  But partly it has to do with basic market demand.  With Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!, [the percussion duo] PercaDu were colleagues of mine at the academy in Tel Aviv and they just nagged me to write something for them.  That piece developed into the concerto.  A piccolo player asked me to write for him fairly early in my career. First, he wanted it to be a piccolo and harp sonata. I’d written the first movement, and I called him up and said, “You should come hear this, I think it’s a concerto.  I don’t think it’s a sonata.  I want to make it into a concerto.”  That’s how that piece came about.  The Mandolin Concerto started in a very similar way.  Avi [Avital] wanted a piece for mandolin, harpsichord, and harp.  And I said, “Avi, I love your playing and I appreciate that you like my music, but I don’t think I’m the person to write that piece.  I think Henze should write that piece, or Webern, like someone with that sensibility.  I think it could be beautiful, but I just don’t see it myself. Why not something with a string quartet, a little concerto with string quartet?” And we made that work. Then it became a real concerto.  I asked him to bring me recordings.  Avi gave me stuff from Russian and Brazil, and bluegrass; mandolin is prevalent everywhere in the world.  In Israel, it has a really interesting history as well. There are a lot of mandolin orchestras in Israel.  It was a social-political move of the government in the ‘50s to help educate immigrants, especially from poorer backgrounds. They would have the kids study mandolin so parents could work.  It was kind of a real socialist thing.  So yes, I’m fascinated with these unusual or non-traditional instruments, and with all of these soloists.  But partly it’s just that these people want to play solo concertos.  There’s no Tchaikovsky marimba concerto and no Brahms mandolin concerto.

FJO:  But there is a very famous Vivaldi Mandolin Concerto.

AD:  Yes, and I’m a big fan of Vivaldi.  Some people don’t appreciate it, but I really do like his music.  But yeah, there aren’t that many [mandolin concertos].  There also aren’t that many saxophone concertos; there are more, but there’s no canon so there’s an opportunity there. The thing with piano concertos and violin concertos is that you’re always in dialogue with the past to some degree, because you’re writing an old genre.  And you’re always in competition. The orchestra world has to be driven by a lot of considerations.  It’s difficult for a piano concerto to get played a lot, but a lot of soloists are coming to me for these kinds of concertos.  I’m not the only one, obviously.  Percussion concertos are a big driver of new orchestral works.

Also, when you’re writing a concerto, you can write longer pieces than the regular seven-to-ten minute orchestral commission and you have the soloist as your partner.  When they get to the first rehearsal, they know the piece really, really well.  With Avi, he knows it so well and most orchestras can probably read that piece at this point off the page because there’s a recording and YouTube. Any orchestra can also basically read Spices, Perfumes, Toxins!  It was not like this at the premiere. It’s not an easy piece, but as it gets into the rep, then the conductors can hear recordings.  It just becomes much easier and the soloists bring so much with them.  You can count on the soloists to help the orchestra learn the piece more quickly, so that’s a very helpful thing.

FJO:  And it is one of your most widely performed pieces at this point.

AD:  The two percussion concertos are, definitely. I think each one of them has exceeded a hundred performances.  That’s a lot.

FJO:  And for both of those pieces, I think it also helps that you gave them such evocative names. Instead of just calling it Double Percussion Concerto No. 1, it’s Spices, Perfumes, and Toxins!, which actually immediately conjures up the Middle East, though perhaps once again I’m reading too much into this.

ADSpices, Perfumes, Toxins! is definitely sort of a Middle Eastern piece. The first movement is based on an earlier piece of mine that I wrote just for PercaDu. The goal was to write a piece that really reflects young Israeli culture.  If you go and analyze that first movement, a lot of the rhythmic aspects of that piece are actually drawn from South Indian music, but the flavor of it is very Middle Eastern, I agree, and that was the idea of that title as well.

FJO:  And for the other one, Frozen in Time, the movements are all named after different continents and inspired by their musical traditions. We were talking before about how we’re formed by local influences, but for this piece the entire world’s music was your playing field.

AD:  Right.  That was from Martin Grubinger when we started talking about this piece. He said, “You’re from the Middle East, but your family is from Europe and you live in the States.  You’re kind of a citizen of the world.”  His perspective actually got me thinking about that concept for that piece.  Again, that’s one of the reasons I love working so much with soloists: the exchange of ideas is very fruitful.  When I write a concerto, I insist on meeting with the soloist and seeing them play in person.  Recordings don’t do the same thing.  There’s something about the physical presence of a person: the way they move, the way they hold their instrument.  Often when I’m composing, I imagine them playing the piece.  And when I orchestrate, I always imagine an actual orchestra on stage.  I’m always thinking—back to physics—about the physical manifestation of the piece.  I don’t know how other people do it.  When I teach, I always find that students, as long as they’re thinking of composing or orchestrating as pen to paper, it’s very difficult for them to do it well.  Once I imagine a specific stage with a specific orchestra and a specific soloist, I’m actually doing the work that I want to do.  I’m actually thinking about reality and not about just page and paper.

FJO:  Early on we were talking about successes and risks.  You’ve actually managed to have a career as a guy who writes music for orchestra, which is something that is elusive to many others. There are tons of composers who maybe have only one orchestral piece in their catalogue, or it’s not even part of what they do or aspire to do. There are many composers who write well for large ensembles who work outside of the orchestral sphere entirely and instead write music for wind band where it is not uncommon for a piece to get played a hundred times.  You have not yet written for wind band.

AD:  No, but Spices, Perfumes, Toxins! has been arranged for band.

FJO:  But by someone else.

AD:  Yes, by someone else, by my wife. And she did a great job! It was premiered by the Musique Militaire Grand-Ducale in Luxembourg, and it was also done by some other bands in Europe.  And I think San Jose State did it last year.  There are talks of other American bands that want to do it as well.  There was a graduate student in North Texas who arranged my piece Astrolatry for band. I’m hoping to work with him to make a few adjustments and get it performed again, maybe at my college. I find that world very interesting, first of all because the ensemble is so rich.  Bardanashvili always says that strings are like the canvas of the orchestra and winds are the colors.  So when you’re writing for orchestra, you’re designing the canvas and then on top of that you add the colors.  The wind symphony is all color, so to me it’s a very attractive ensemble—also for the fact that you can have basically as many percussionists as you want, which is always a struggle for me with the orchestra.

My percussion parts for orchestral pieces are like these little books.  I wrote a piece for the Cleveland Orchestra that was premiered last year.  It’s a seven-minute piece, and the percussion score is very thick. The percussionists there did a phenomenal job, obviously, but they’re not used to seeing stuff like that. Partly it’s because I love writing for percussion—the rhythmic and color aspects of percussion are so central to my writing.  I will often write six parts and just somehow squeeze them into three, because you only get three plus timpani.  So I find the band world really fascinating, and I would love to write for the band word.  But I feel like it’s a completely different market and I just haven’t had experience with it.  I can say this: when they played Spices, Perfumes, Toxins! with the wind symphony, it almost sounds the same; it’s very difficult to tell that it’s a different piece.  Some things bands are really good at—like rhythmic things and accents, because they play a lot of marches and a lot of them play more popular music. And of course John Corigliano often talks about the amount of time that they rehearse, which means you can actually write differently for a band.

Because I’ve written so much for orchestra, I think at this point I can write what I want to hear in a way that is very practical.  And I think that’s one of the hardest things to learn as an orchestral composer, because you write your first piece and someone’s played it, but then the phone doesn’t ring.  So how do you actually learn to be good at orchestrating and all the endless details common to orchestral composition?  How do you make it practical?  How do you get better at that?  By having written a lot for orchestra, I’m much more confident that I can do that work.

FJO:  Another part of your experience with orchestras which we haven’t even begun talking about is that you now also have an active career as a conductor, and not just of your own music. You’re the music director of CityMusic Cleveland. That’s another of way of honing your craft writing for an orchestra since you actually get many practical takeaways from directly working with an orchestra.

AD:  Right, and you learn things the score never tells you—which pieces and which things actually work well in first rehearsal.  This is something I’ve learned as a composer, but even more so as a conductor. You learn on the job that some things that look great on paper and sound great in all the recordings are actually not very practical.  I did the Mozart Haffner Symphony. It’s a piece I love. I’ve known it forever. I thought, “Oh, this is gonna be a walk in the park.”  But it’s so difficult to put together.  It’s so difficult to play.  It’s very transparent. Mozart never writes anything that doesn’t have to be there; this is one of the things people admire him for.  But that means if anyone plays something wrong, there’s no one else to cover.  On the other hand, Rossini is the most practical composer.  Everything that you put in front of an orchestra, it just sounds great.  It plays itself.  We did the Dvořák Violin Concerto.  The balance is so difficult in that piece, but how do you know until you actually do it?  And the same goes for Ravel.  Ravel is always quoted in orchestration books, but there are so many things that Ravel wrote that orchestral musicians actually change.  In Alborada del Gracioso for example, there’s a place where the second violin is pizzicato, and it’s divided.  One half is playing on the quarter notes, and the other half on the off beats.  But they just play all the notes.  No one divides it, as far as I can tell.  How would you know that?  When you’re studying Alborada, you’re like, “Oh, that’s a good idea.  I understand why he does it.  I will do that too.”  But it’s actually a mistake.

So, as I conduct more and get to know the pieces from the actual practical point of view, I think it makes a huge difference.  Also, I’ve worked with so many different conductors, some of the greatest in the world.  Having conducted myself, I feel much more at ease now working with conductors.  I have much less angst about saying things. I know what it feels like to be standing there and moving your hands and thinking that’s really not what I wanted, but that’s what came out.  This idea that whatever comes out of the orchestra is what the conductor wants, it’s not true.  Sometimes you do something, and it’s just not what you wanted.  So as a composer, if you say that probably should be like this not that, the conductor may say, “Yeah, that’s what I wanted.”

I’ve learned that that’s much more of an integral part of the process and sort of a natural thing to have happen all the time.  Conducting has been great learning, especially for orchestration. The best way to learn orchestration is to conduct.  Obviously it takes some time to study scores and it takes away time from composing, but I think it’s worth it.

FJO:  Also, CityMusic Cleveland is an organization that has a very significant community agenda.  It isn’t about doing a concert series in a concert hall that people from around the city of Cleveland come to.  It is about going into the communities directly and serving different groups of people.  There really is a mission to build audiences.  You were saying early on that if music is not reaching people, why do it?  I think what they’re doing ties very neatly into that.

AD:  My first experience with CityMusic was when they played my piece Uzu and Muzu from Kakaruzu, which is a piece for kids based on a beautiful Israeli children’s story.  It’s all about building bridges and resolving conflict.  They did it and I went and did outreach work for the orchestra.  I went to inner city Cleveland schools; I talked with kids and did presentations.  I love doing those things.  I also did that in Miami last year for the Cleveland Orchestra. I very strongly feel that that’s one of my missions in life.  So the more I can do that, the more I will do it.  I narrated some of the concerts, too.  It really is in my heart and soul to bring art and music to people who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to have these experiences.  CityMusic’s concerts are free and we go to churches all over Cleveland. Your local church, so it’s a place you’re comfortable in.  And during intermission, the musicians talk with the audience and there are cookies; it’s a very community-oriented experience.  I think that partly why they decided to hire me as their music director is because I do share that mission very, very deeply and very dearly. And the orchestra is so good.  Some people make the assumption that if you’re going to do that, then maybe you sacrifice some of the musical integrity.  But that’s not the case.  The orchestra is really a top notch ensemble. The atmosphere in the orchestra is also very special, because a lot of the people playing in the orchestra do it for the mission, not for the gig.  We rehearse more than most orchestras.  We usually have four, three-hour rehearsals, plus a dress. And then we perform five times.  So by the last concert, we’ve been through the music a lot.  I’m very encouraging of collaboration during rehearsals as much as is possible in an orchestral setting, so I think the musicians in the orchestra really take ownership of the orchestra. That’s not always the case.

FJO:  The kind of community engagement you’re describing sounds similar to what you did when you served as the composer-in-residence with the Stockton Symphony through the Music Alive Program that New Music USA administers in partnership with the League of American Orchestras. I think what was particularly noteworthy about doing outreach activities there is that it was a deeply troubled community. There’s a lot of talk at orchestral conferences about how to make orchestras more relevant to people’s lives; there you were, actually on the front lines.

AD: That was an incredible experience.  By the end of the residency, I think 7,000 students heard the concerts and another 5,000 students heard some form of presentation or were somehow engaged by the orchestra.  There must have been some overlap, but we’re talking probably near 10,000 elementary school students in the Stockton area.  And yes, it’s a city that went bankrupt and that has great divisions and economic gaps and a lot of social problems.  In some of these schools, you come in the morning, and you see the kids eating their breakfast, because their parents don’t have money for breakfast.  I didn’t know that was the case.  I didn’t know this is how things are in some places.  Yet you start talking about how to write music—I showed them that in Uzu and Muzu there’s a diatonic row, a row of seven notes that are from C major.  I showed them all the permutations and I showed them how the theme is built from that.  And these kids got up and they started making up their own tunes.  And other kids were singing in the retrograde. They get it. You see that their minds expand and their hearts calm down. Music has that ability to engage people in a very healing way and in a very developmental way. We need to give them all the tools that we can so they grow as much as possible.

As musical institutions, that’s a great goal.  Stockton [Symphony] is another example of a very small orchestra that is both high quality and that took on this giant project.  I was in awe of how they manage to produce so much outreach and I think I only spent three week there, maybe four weeks, during that year. That was a big production to reach that many students.  And I got letters from students. They sent me drawings that they made.  Some schools put on their own pieces that the kids made based on the story.  They made up stories and they acted them out and played.  They actually created these musical stories.  It’s so heartwarming to see that you can touch lives in this way.  It makes everything so much more a part of the world.

The tendency as a composer is to lock the door and say see you in six months; it’s such a solitary experience.  There’s nothing more solitary than composing a piece of music.  Of course, I enjoy that.  But I think in order to be a complete human being, giving to the community is very enriching for me, and obviously I think it’s our duty, or my duty at least, to do these things. I grew up in a place where everything was basically available. We can’t just take it for granted.

FJO:  In terms of engaging communities and sending messages through your music, sitting on this table with us is the full score of your first opera. You’ve written vocal music in the past, but not a ton. In fact, there’s only one vocal piece of yours that I ever heard, a setting of Psalm 67 from pretty early on.  So I don’t think of you as a vocal composer.  Last year, I know that you wrote a big choral piece which I’m eager to hear at some point, but writing an opera is even more ambitious.  And with vocal music, once you attach words to something, you get into this whole other area of meanings and emotions and telling stories directly.  And the story you chose to tell here, for your first opera, which is being done in Germany—

AD:  —in German!

FJO:  Yeah, which is not a language you’re fluent in.  But what seems even more peculiar is that you’re an Israeli-born, Jewish composer and you wrote an opera that’s being premiered in Germany about this guy who was an anti-Semite who inspired Hitler.  That’s kind of mad.

AD:  Well, this is where we start the therapy session.  I’ve had a lot of time to think about this.  I think from my point of view, to write this is very natural.  It’s a funny thing.  I grew up in an Israeli household, but three out of four of my grandparents came from Germany.  Two of them were born in Germany, one was born in Israel but moved to Germany. During the ‘30s they moved to Israel. So German culture and German music were a very central part of my home upbringing. Nietzsche, Goethe, we had all the books at home and they weren’t in Hebrew.  Growing up, I played a ton of Bach and Beethoven sonatas, Brahms, Schumann. It’s like if you asked someone here where they are from.  “I’m American.”  Where did your family come from?  “Well, they came from Italy and Spain.” My family came from Germany.  So I’m Israeli, but my family came from Germany.  Then this same culture that produced all these things that I identify with very deeply produced the same thing that was trying to very effectively kill all of the people that I am a part of religiously.  That’s a huge paradox to grow up in.  So I think that this story fascinated me.  This guy was not just an anti-Semite, he was one of the first people to put together a racial theory that, on the basis of so-called modern science, distinguished the bloods of different people—between the top Aryans and the bottom Jews.  Not only did he do that, but when you read his book, The Foundations of the 19th Century, he starts from the individual.  He says really what drives history is individuals.  Like the genius individuals. Who is a genius individual?  Wagner.  Beethoven.  So not only did he make this up, he made it up with my biggest heroes.  I wanted to understand why this became so popular.  His book was a huge best seller.  Not just in Germany, but in Russia, in England, in France, and in the United States.  It was huge, and this guy is completely forgotten by most people today.  How did this happen?  I felt like this is an opportunity to understand a little bit more, because the history books start with when Hitler came to power.  But this guy wrote his book in the 1890s.  This guy divorced his first wife and married one of Wagner’s daughters.  He became the head of the Wagner household.  He ran Bayreuth, and got rid of all Jewish influence and socialist influence in Bayreuth.

And he was very influential in the German government during World War I.  Hitler met with him, and that’s actually in the opera.  Hitler revered him, and Hitler quoted him.  If you listen to Hitler’s speeches, there are direct quotes from his book.  The intellectual, pseudo-scientific, brainwashing ideas brewing there that people bought into are where racism starts.  This is where hatred starts.  Of course, anti-Semitism existed in Germany and in Europe for thousands of years.  But I think what drew me to this story was to understand. We don’t play Wagner in Israel. To me, it’s an abomination. How can we not play Wagner in Israel?  But, of course, I understand.  And yet, did Wagner really mean this stuff?  So this has really been an opportunity to get familiar with a part of this history. And I think it’s very relevant.  I think it’s more relevant now than I thought two years ago.  Racism is not gone.

Wagner’s son Siegfried was most likely gay, so one of the things that happens in the opera is that there’s a big scene where the main character, Houston Stewart Chamberlain who wrote the book, catches him with a lover in the garden. He pays off the lover to go away and then covers it up. These ideas that still plague society were there a hundred years ago.  Sometimes I think it’s perhaps easier for people to look back and be like, “Oh that’s really bad. Let’s be better than that.”  That’s one of the things that the opera taught me.  I didn’t think two years ago it would be very relevant, but now people talk about neo-Nazism again. These tendencies in society are not eradicated.

The cover for the full orchestra score of Avner Dorman's opera Wahnfried.

FJO:  So Hitler actually sings in your opera.

AD:  Yes.

FJO:  And you’re staging this in Germany where Mein Kampf was banned for decades?

AD:  It’s now a best seller again.

FJO:  But the Germans are very aware of this horrible history to the point that they’re very concerned about people being swayed, as they had been, by a charismatic figure.  I’ve looked at films from that time and I don’t understand how he could have possibly been perceived as charismatic, but he was by millions of people. So to put his persona on a stage and have him sing, there is a potential danger in making him somehow iconic, since that is what opera does with characters. What are Hitler’s melodies?

AD:  That’s the context of the whole opera. Houston Stewart Chamberlain is not as famous, but he’s a vile, despicable human being.  There’s just no other way to say it.  We actually cut some of the worst things, but there are pretty racist, awful things sung in this opera.  It’s all very grotesque.  When people ask me what genre is this opera in, I would say that the pieces that it speaks with from the past are Shostakovich’s The Nose, Ligeti’s Grand Macabre, some of the staged pieces by Mauricio Kagel. That’s the world that this piece is in. It’s different, obviously, but it’s very grotesque and absurdist.

So, yes, it celebrates these people, but in a very mocking way.  The opera does not advocate for these points of view. I think it’s very clear, both from the libretto—which I think is brilliant—and the music. Also I would say that I think that has always been my way of dealing with the Holocaust.  I always had to make jokes.  I always had to think about it with some humor because it’s just too horrific to actually think about.  In Israel, there’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, and you go to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum. Even thinking about it now, it’s just too much to handle. So I think humor and irony and absurdism—like Bulgakov, his spirit is in this opera, this out-of-this-world grotesque—is my way of dealing with it.

Specifically to Hitler, to answer your question, I actually transcribed some of his speeches as musical notation, because he was really a composer as an orator.  He was a brilliant orator. He starts and then he waits and he builds up in pitch and lengths, the number of words.  If you ever watch a speech by him—which is a very bad feeling but I had to do it—when he gets to the climax, it’s always like very high and then some word, the Jeeeews, he will say as a very long word.  And he will basically yell it.  I actually transcribed some of his speeches.  And that’s the music that he’s singing.  It’s actually from the intonation of his speech; it’s actually Hitler.  Weirdly enough, some of the motivic structures that I found in his speeches are related to the scene in the first act when Houston Stewart Chamberlain first comes up with his racial theory.  By complete coincidence, but that ties in really beautifully.  The first time that this guy comes up with the racial theory is the same motive that Hitler ends up using for his big scene.

It was very tough to write the end of this opera.  The ending is very harsh.  It’s very evocative of death and death camps and not in a very beautiful way, but a very artistic way. I ended up thinking about the three last scenes of the opera as the beginning of the next one, which is the one where World War II happens.  I wrote it like the beginning of another opera, because that was the biggest block I had in the whole process. What are you going to do with Hitler?  How do you sit down and write notes that Hitler is going to sing?  That was really tough.

FJO:  So you’re going to write a second opera about this?

AD:  I don’t know, but that was how I imagined it. If there was a sequel, this would be the beginning of that sequel, so then I don’t have to think of it as an ending so much, which was very hard.  I think also transcribing Hitler’s speeches was a way to deal with what to write for Hitler.  At the end of that scene, he’s like, “I’m going to have the Reich for a thousand years.”  It’s very optimistic, but not.

FJO:  Now in terms of being a big fish in a little pond, an opera in which Hitler has a singing role probably could never have been done in Israel, I would imagine.

AD:  No, I don’t think so.  It would mean a lot to me if it will ever be done in Israel.  I am aware that some people from Israel might be offended by this, but I think they would be mistaken.  I’m obviously not advocating my own death and my family’s death.  Who would do that?  But I think it’s an important part of history that is rarely told and that needs to be told.  There are a bunch of quotes from Wagner, so maybe because of that, they won’t play it.

FJO:  Obviously this is a very socially charged work.  We talked about the emotional qualities of music, and what Corigliano said to you about you challenging emotion in your music. And also what Bardanashvili said to you about having your identity in a piece.  And then the work you did in Stockton and now with CityMusic Cleveland, interacting with the communities and how important that is to you.  A final observation, a lot of people are talking about these days being the beginning of a new era that’s very uncertain. So what is the role of a creative artist in such a society?  What is our responsibility as artist citizens?  When you say that you had to tell the story of this opera, I feel you’re touching on that.

AD:  Obviously this is a very personal choice.  When I say I feel this is my duty, I really mean my duty.  Is it another composer’s duty and responsibility?  It’s not. I don’t feel like that’s anyone’s choice, but for themselves.  With a piece like this, you have a captive audience for two hours and you get to design the whole experience—which is, I think, the most exciting thing about writing an opera; there’s not going to be a Sibelius symphony on the second half. I think it’s an opportunity, if not a responsibility, to say something.  I definitely think it is a politically charged piece.  Even more so today than it was when I wrote it.  I do think, especially in this era, that one of the mistakes is not to say things.  We need to know that racism and hatred are a feature of humanity.  It’s in our language. These things exist and they catch on like wild fire.  When you don’t counteract and contradict them, they will continue to grow.  I think as artists we have the opportunity to make a statement that will be heard.

The problem for most people is that if you’re sitting home and you hear some personality, politician, celebrity, or whoever, talk on TV or on the radio and don’t agree, what are you going to do?  I guess today you can put it on your Facebook and in your Twitter.  Great.  But if you write an opera, or you write a symphony, or you release a recording, or you get interviewed, you can say these things and maybe more people will take notice.  When someone comes to the symphony and they hear a piece and it has a message like this, maybe it touches them in a different way, because they get an hour off from their crazy and busy life and the music touches their emotions.  Maybe it reminds them, you know, I was once a child. We all have love and compassion; that’s the other feature of humanity.  Everyone has a certain element of prejudice and not being tolerant, even without being aware of that.  But we all also have love and compassion and care about the people around us in our communities and beyond.  So I think we do have an opportunity to raise these questions and to make people think and to encourage people to think, and to encourage people to feel and maybe not go in those directions even when it’s tempting.  So I do think artists play that role in society.  Historically it’s basically been proven that the last step before the really horrific steps is when that role is blocked by the government. In those societies where the government says to artists, “You can no longer speak your mind,” that’s one step before genocide and war and the massive imprisonment of people.  That’s the moment that people really need to worry about.  Like the Nazi government felt that certain artists, like Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, were a threat to the country. That shows us that we shouldn’t underestimate our ability to influence.  Hitler was afraid of Brecht.  So Brecht had some power there.  Stalin was afraid of Shostakovich.  Well, obviously Shostakovich was afraid of Stalin.  Not to get too into current politics, but you see it now with the inauguration and who was not willing to perform, and who was willing.  It’s a big deal.  It’s a big deal when an artist who is invited to do something, says, “You know what, for you, I won’t do it.”  That’s always a big deal when artists say, “I won’t support this kind of rhetoric.”  I think we have power, or at least there’s some opportunity and possibility, that we can affect the world positively as long as it’s not blocked by the government.  Obviously we’re not there, but I think we shouldn’t be afraid.  But again, that’s me.  I completely respect people who feel like music is separate and shouldn’t have anything to do with anything else.  It’s their choice.

What Happens When Composers Make Opera

As part of the New York Opera Fest this past June, I led a collaborative conversation at Hunter College’s Ida K. Lang Recital Hall featuring some of the most prolific and interesting composers, librettists, and singers working in New York’s new opera scene:

James Barry – composer
Lauren Buchter – composer
David Cote – librettist
Daniel Felsenfeld – composer
Elisabeth Halliday – singer and co-founder of Rhymes with Opera
Joan La Barbara – composer and singer
George Lam – composer and co-artistic director of Rhymes with Opera
Jessica Meyer – composer and violist
Pamela Stein Lynde – composer, singer, and founder of Stone Mason Projects
Stefan Weisman – composer
David Wolfson – composer, librettist, and music director

The idea behind the talk was to get a sense of the challenges and opportunities that composers face when they set off on their new opera project. Prior to the actual conversation, I sent a questionnaire to the participants to gauge some of the experiences they have had making new opera. I found that the initial responses in the conversation grouped together under four main ideas: collaboration, process, vision, and quality. Our conversation together was framed by these big ideas and also by the request to reference as much as possible everyone’s real experiences making work. We had a wide-ranging and light-hearted exchange buoyed by a wealth of different experiences, opinions, and attitudes.

Aaron Siegel: We’re going to jump right in and start talking about collaboration. David [Cote], you had some very interesting things to say about collaboration.  You said that the composer may not be the king that he or she was in centuries back, but they still make the project live and breathe. They have maximum impact but must have support and preparation. My question for you is: what does it mean for an opera to live and breathe?

David Cote: I think that most operas begin with a composer and a librettist, whether that’s the same person or two different people. Maybe with a producer or a commissioning person who has a particular idea or subject that they want them to write about. Who knows where it starts? Or it might just start with those two writers together.

I am working with Rob Paterson on an opera called Three Way. We’re working on the third act right now, which is set at a swinger party. It has a lot of recitative in the first ten minutes, and it has a lot of different sections to it, even though it’s only a fifty-minute opera. And then there was a whole recit section that I realized, after we worked on part of it, had to go because we had already had a bunch of recit—we already knew who these characters were, and the music needed to drive the car. So that was a case where, dramaturgically, I just cut whole pages out of the libretto because the music has to drive this now.

Daniel Felsenfeld: I’m going to just quibble with the metaphor a little bit. There’s certainly nothing you said I disagree with, but it’s performers and directors who actually make an opera live and breathe. All the writers do is put things on paper. I would say that it’s not alive until it’s on bodies.

AS: I heard some composer/performers squirming at that. Do you guys feel that way? Is that your responsibility to bring the piece to life?

Elisabeth Halliday: Yes. I appreciated the earlier point about the commissioner and the performer being one and the same. I think that often the commissioner lays the groundwork for what they’re looking for, but also can be the source of inspiration. Both the composer and the librettist, if they’re in a vacuum writing a piece for a soprano, they’re going to feel very differently than if they’re writing a piece for Pam Stein Lynde, knowing what she can do. So there’s a bit of a circular aspect to a lot of music that’s happening now: it’s commissioned, then the process, and then it’s ultimately realized by the person or the group that began the process.

Pamela Stein Lynde: Yeah, I’d agree with that as well. I think it’s really important not to let any one person in the process be at the helm all the time. In order to create something that’s an organic experience artistically for the audience, it has to be something that was created by all parties involved.

Lauren Buchter, Jessica Meyer, Pamela Stein Lynde, and David Cote at Hunter College’s Ida K. Lang Recital Hall (June 2016)

Lauren Buchter, Jessica Meyer, Pamela Stein Lynde, and David Cote

DF: When I’m writing the operas I’ve had the luxury to write, I like to put Pam Stein Lynde’s name in the score, rather than Soprano or Soprano Two. If a composer can kind of get in touch with the idea that this is going to be performed, and that it is ultimately nothing without the people who make it happen, I think that is a really beautifully symbiotic way of approaching it.

AS: James [Barry], I’m going to ask you to chime in here. In your comments to me, you said that you thought the impact of your leadership as a composer on the overall shape of the piece was one of inspiring your collaborators, performers, your creative/technical staff, to bring the highest caliber of artistry to the production and to create an opera that resonated with them. How do you know when a piece has resonated with your co-collaborators? What does that look like? How does that look for you?

James Barry: I think we’ve all written music that we don’t feel confident about. And it just doesn’t go very well. It doesn’t feel very good. And sometimes, you come up with an idea on a project that people really take to. With Smashed, the Carrie Nation Story, that’s what I felt like. Everybody really gave one hundred percent all the time. And I think that’s where the success came from. It was kind of raunchy and had a lot of bad language. And there was also a lot of improv built into the show, so it was different every night. And I think that’s why people—this cast at least—very much enjoyed rehearsals and performing on stage.

George Lam: I just worked on this opera about Dolly Parton even though I am not a huge fan of hers, and it has been ten years in the making. One of my singers, Robert Maril, is a big Dolly Parton fan, and I had worked with Robert for a long time. I said, “All right. So what would it be like if, as a composer…” and I’m sort of being an actor in that sense, I’m sort of slipping into a character of you, Robert, and pretending that this might be a project that would be interesting. I want to write about fans of Dolly Parton. And that was the germ of it. So, to start a conversation about making a piece with asking questions, or doing oral history, or figuring out how to talk with people that are going to be the audience for this piece. I think those are the things that make me resonate more with the process, and also hopefully with the artists.

Jessica Meyer: I feel like a lot of the sounds that I’m creating usually come from what inspires the performer. For instance, I wrote a piece for Amanda Gookin of the PUBLIQuartet. When I see her on stage, she’s at her sunniest and happiest when she’s improvising and slapping the heck out of a cello. I know that when I write for her, those things need to be in here. And so the song cycles I’ve been writing for singers, I’m really starting from a place of “what text really resonates with you?” Send me poetry that you love. And then we usually find something that we’re really both excited about, that both matches the kinds of things that I usually write, and then what the singers really want to sing. And so I guess that’s when that magic vibration happens, when you’re just excited, and you can’t ignore enthusiasm. And that’s the actual nucleus of a project. It’s a great place to go.

AS: Elisabeth, you said something that I thought was very interesting. You said that while you put a crude emphasis on composer/performer collaboration, you’ve also found it important that, once you get to the production, that the composer hand the reigns over to the director. What does it mean to hand over an opera? What does that look like? How do you do it? Do you have a meeting where you hand a box of stuff to someone?

EH: Well, of course, when you think of opera that isn’t new music, all these operas that have been performed for hundreds of years, the composers are not involved because they’re dead. And everyone’s comfortable with that concept. We reinterpret operas that have been around for a while. But I think once you bring in living composers, there’s this shift that happens where I think a lot of people have an assumption that since the composer is alive, they should have sort of ultimate say over their creation. But I think often there’s a blurring of roles between composer and librettist, and then director.  Where does one end, and the other begin?

I think for us [at Rhymes with Opera] it has been a question of figuring out what works best for us. Because of course, librettists have a right to their own interpretation. And of course, composers do as well. For us it’s definitely an ongoing process, but we’re interested in working with directors. And for us that seems to mean that at some point, the vision is handed over in a box, or a Dropbox…

DC: I’m in the middle of a process right now with Rob [Paterson] doing this opera for Nashville Opera, and we had a workshop recently. It was really interesting. I feel like this idea of process and collaboration has several phases. Right now, we’re in the process of trying out a new piano vocal [score] with our cast. And when they’re like, “Oh, can I change this note here? I can hit that higher,” we’re like, “Great, okay, write it in.” Or, “That phrase is a little awkward.” “Okay, let me rewrite it.” And so you’re collaborating. You’re inspiring them. They’re inspiring you. It’s a terrific, bubbling process. But to me, it’s all leading to a point—and this is a really terrible, terrible phrase we use, and it’s very uncreative and anti-process—where the score is singer-proof and director-proof, you know? Where basically we deliver you the box, and the idea works. It has bones. And it’s not just some sort of amorphous thing that you can set wherever you want. It is what it is.

Aaron Siegel, Stefan Weisman, and Joan La Barbara at Hunter College’s Ida K. Lang Recital Hall, June 2016

Aaron Siegel, Stefan Weisman, and Joan La Barbara

Joan La Barbara: For me, the initial impetus is what it is I’m dealing with. What’s the inspiration of the piece? How do the techniques that I have developed work into that? How much traditional singing do I want to use, as opposed to non-traditional singing? I’m also now struggling with trying to get outside the issue of just writing for myself, and trying to write for other singers. How much do I want them to be able to replicate some of my techniques? How much am I willing to move out of that situation and really write for a larger section of the vocal population? Not just the ones who can do some of the techniques that I do.

I’m in the process of writing a piece for the Young People’s Chorus of New York City. When we went into one of the first rehearsals, I came in with drawings. And Francisco Núñez, who is incredibly generous, said, “Wow!” [Laughing]. But I said, “Just relax.  This is just part of my process. I will get to the point of turning my drawings into more traditional looking notation.” Which I have done. And so that’s been a really fascinating thing for him to come to grips with. And for me to come to grips with, as a composer, that I have to create something that other people can look at and make some sense of.

AS: I guess one question for you all, but specifically for you first, Jessica, is what’s the right time for a composer to influence the direction of the piece in this process that we’ve started to discover here? Obviously there are different varieties of this. But for you at least, what’s the right time?

JM: As a violist, I’ve been part of the whole chamber opera renaissance, the black box opera thing that’s happening. And I’ve noticed that there are these moments where the music has been workshopped, the opera is just a couple days away, and there are just some things that are still not working. And people are arguing about it. But the composer isn’t really involved in that moment anymore.

And so when I started thinking about the first opera I was going to write, as I’m reading a short story, I’m already thinking of the material I want on the stage. The dance is going to go like this. People are going to go in and out. I’m already thinking this way. When I started talking to other composers, “Well, what happens when you write opera?” some said, “First someone writes, you come up with the idea, and then someone writes the libretto, and then hands it to you.” And I’m like, “What do you mean?” I feel like the composer should be part of the process all the time.

DF: Sometimes the composers are out of the process, because this is the third production of their piece and they don’t care anymore. And sometimes, there is the moment where they say, “We need to fix this. We need a new aria.” And it’s very much more like, “Go to the hotel room and write the big number.” And it is so different. This is what I love about opera: there is no opera. There’s no one thing that’s opera. There are a bunch of little strings and strands, and we are a healthy representation of just the way you kind of get around the big system.

But the point is that we are not just redefining opera. We’re up here trying to redefine the way people perform, make, sing, produce, compose, and write librettos for opera. Because it’s up for grabs. It’s the Wild West at this point.

EH: I would love to just briefly negate what I had said previously, by saying that I think something that is often lacking is the luxury of time. If we had the time, we would absolutely get your composers with your singers and your librettists, and then you bring in your director, and then the composer comes back, and then maybe the librettist comes back, and then the director comes back, and it could be this really beautiful, beautiful thing, where there is maybe no ultimate timeline and it’s just this wonderful collaboration and revision. The problem is that we have two weeks for production and day jobs. And I think that’s what’s driving this compartmentalization of roles, rather than a feeling that artistically there should be a separation between the different processes.

AS: Let’s talk a little bit about this notion of vision. It’s not meant to be one thing. Right? Someone doesn’t have a crystalline vision and then try to create it. But I think one of the things that happens when you’re working in a collaboration is there’s kind of a push and pull around what it is that you’re actually doing, right? What is it that you’re creating? What does it look like?

JLB: The difficulty is that I have to raise all the money. I have to write the grant applications. I have to find a venue. So I have to cover all bases, which is difficult. I would love to have an opera company come to me and say, “Okay, we’re going to give you a shot at doing your thing. How can we manage to support what you want to do, and your vision?” And they let me build a team, and say, “We’ll give you x amount of dollars to do it.” Boy, would I love that. That’s not the position that I’m usually in. So I’m generally in the driver’s seat, as it were. Not comfortably, but that’s what I’ve had to do.

David Cote, James Barry, and David Wolfson at Hunter College’s Ida K. Lang Recital Hall, June 2016

David Cote, James Barry, and David Wolfson

David Wolfson: When you have a final draft, the objective is to make it reflect not necessarily a single vision, but a range of visions, so that any given group of singers and directors who looks at it will come up with new ideas. But they’re not going to be like, “Oh! Well this is a farce,” when in fact it was meant to be something else. So then I think the idea of a vision, because it has to then go through performers and directors, is probably better thought of as a range of visions. A spectrum maybe.

AS: David [Wolfson], you write that, because you write your own libretti, that for you the shape of the music is hovering in the back of your mind from the very beginning. And this is something that I can relate to, because I really feel strongly that it’s a delight as a composer to write and imagine music at the same time, and not have those things be ordered. When you have the words and you have the music in your mind, and you’re in the process of transferring them into something that other people can see and work with, what else is in there? How are you processing all the things that are interacting in your head?

DW: The most difficult part of that is translating it to a stage picture. I very much live in words and live in music, and my first attempts in this direction were very static, physically—you know, talking heads. People sitting around talking to each other. I was lucky enough to have directors work with these things and discover that there was more that could be done  than I had originally thought about. That was a big lesson for me. I’m trying to incorporate this idea into the things I’m working on now.  There are people in space, and people do things. Panelists notwithstanding, they don’t just sit around and talk to each other.

DF: I don’t want to have a vision, because that means I’m going a little crazy—like an actual vision is like a visitation. But I think my job is to have a stage vision so I have at least done due diligence in thinking this is something that can be staged. And then to either tell the director, or never tell the director, depending on the director, but hopefully it’s someone I trust.

AS: I want follow up with Stefan [Weisman] on that same point, because one of the things that he said, which relates directly, is that he actually finishes the music before any real staging has been settled. So the director and designers have carte blanche to do their work. I wondered what you thought about that?

Stefan Weisman: I’m just a composer. So I write the music, and I am okay with letting other people do their job. It doesn’t mean I don’t have a vision or don’t have an opinion. I work a lot with Dave Cote and sometimes we make something and I wonder, how is that actually going to happen? And it’s nice to see it come to life. And if I don’t think it’s working, I can say so, but I’ve been humbled many times by people saying, “What’s your role and what’s my role?” And it’s an interesting process, that kind of collaboration.

Aaron Siegel, Stefan Weisman, Joan La Barbara, Elisabeth Halliday, and George Lam at Hunter College’s Ida K. Lang Recital Hall, June 2016

Aaron Siegel, Stefan Weisman, Joan La Barbara, Elisabeth Halliday, and George Lam.

AS: We haven’t really talked about audience tonight at all. And I think that’s fine. But I want to just touch on it a little bit here, because something that Pam said made me think about that. You said that, more or less, composers are basically performers, educators, writers, producers, multimedia artists—that’s just the nature of the beast right now. And then you said that “because these artists are multitasking, they’re doing many things, wearing many hats, that it leads to a less segmented artistic process, and ultimately a better audience experience.” I’m really interested in what you mean by that.  How does a multitasking artist, someone who’s wearing multiple hats behind the scenes, impact on the experience of the people who are there to see the work?

Pamela Stein Lynde: One of the issues that I’ve had as an audience member is having the experience dictated to me. I want to create something where the experience is a little bit more open-ended and interpretive for the audience. I feel that when you have a process that’s more organic, and you have people working in a very even way, and people doing a lot of different jobs at once, you end up with a product that’s a little bit less segmented and more organic, and maybe more sincere, because of that. I would hope, at least.

EH: Well, I know that in Rhymes with Opera’s sordid past, we’ve had one or two experiences where we’ve controlled the music, and we’ve done a concert, park and bark type event.  But we decided to get some visual artists involved, because that’s what you do in contemporary music, when you’re not having any blocking. But we didn’t have the communication between the two groups, so we sort of showed up to do our music, and they showed up to do their visuals. The two had nothing to do with one another, and the vision was lost.

Missy Mazzoli: Communication, Intimacy, and Vulnerability

Missy Mazzoli in her composition studio.

A conversation at her home in Brooklyn, New York
February 17, 2016—2:00 p.m.
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Missy Mazzoli first appeared in NewMusicBox ten years ago when she kept a daily blog for us about her experiences as a participant in the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute. That week-long orchestra boot camp offers emerging composers intensive workshops with musicians and a performance of their music on a subscription series concert entitled Future Classics which is also broadcast live. The piece of Mazzoli’s that was featured was These Worlds In Us, which was also her very first piece for orchestra. In the opening salvo for that NewMusicBox blog series, she expressed concern about how her music, which is “based in communication, intimacy, and a touch of vulnerability,” would “translate to an orchestra.”

As it turned out, These Worlds In Us was a huge success and has continued to be performed by orchestras across the United States as well as in Europe. (It will be performed this month in Akron, Ohio.) And, over the past decade, she has also written additional orchestra pieces that have been performed by the Detroit Symphony, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the Albany Symphony. When we spoke with her in her Greenpoint apartment, she had just returned from a Music Alive: New Partnerships residency with the Boulder Philharmonic which culminated in a performance of her Sinfonia (for Orbiting Spheres).

“I still feel like I’m asking the same questions,” she said, “and, with each piece, finding different answers to the question of how to bring an intimate, vulnerable, human experience to a situation like working with an orchestra, which is a little bit disconcerting and I feel kind of disconnected as a composer for a couple different reasons.”

But writing for orchestra forms only a small part of her compositional output. There’s a brand new solo piano piece of hers on Michael Mizrahi’s forthcoming CD (which will be released on March 26) and an older solo piano piece on Lisa Moore’s new disc. A few weeks before heading to Colorado, she was in Brazil for a whole concert devoted to her chamber music. She fronts Victoire, something of a cross between an indie rock band and a chamber ensemble, which is about to record its sophomore album. Plus her latest opera, Breaking the Waves, based on the Lars von Trier film, will be staged by Opera Philadelphia next season.

“I’m still in the beginning phases of my career where I am taking commissions and jumping at opportunities to work with whomever,” Mazzoli acknowledged during our talk. “So it’s really about taking whatever is brought to me and making it something that I’m excited about.” And though she is clearly excited about a very wide range of musical activities, they share a common core. “The thing that I can say consistently inspires me is human beings. It’s not nature as much as it is just me being inspired by human beings trying to live their lives. And, in the case of my operas, human beings trying to live their lives under insane, impossible circumstances.”

The thing that we have been most excited about, however, is that a piece of her choral music, Vesper Sparrow has been chosen to be performed during the 2016 ISCM World Music Days in Tongyeong, South Korea. Mazzoli’s piece will be presented alongside works by composers from Australia, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Latvia, the Netherlands, Slovakia, Taiwan, and the United Kingdom, on a March 28 program featuring the Ansan City Choir conducted Shin-Hwa Park. Vesper Sparrow originally appeared on Roomful of Teeth’s 2015 disc Render, a recording that received a New Music USA project grant, which led to the composition’s submission in the ISCM’s call for scores for the 2016 WMD.

“When I wrote it I never imagined anyone else singing it, because it had to be written so quickly and it was so particular for this group,” Mazzoli claimed. “But I’m open to different interpretations. I like the Sardinian aspect of it and I like that there’s a recording that these singers will hopefully listen to, even just to get an idea of what the piece is about and the character. But do they need to have that precise sort of like nasally intonation that the Sardinian music has? Not necessarily. I think that the piece is the notes and the rhythms and the texts. And all that translates on the page.”

Frank J. Oteri: The main impetus for our talk right now is that your choral piece Vesper Sparrow will be performed during the 2016 ISCM World Music Days in Tongyeong, South Korea, at the end of March. But you have a lot of other stuff going on as well. You just came back from a weeklong Music Alive: New Partnerships residency with the Boulder Philharmonic, which culminated in a performance of your Sinfonia, and only a few weeks before that you were in Brazil performing a concert of your chamber music. I read in The New York Times this week that Opera Philadelphia will be staging your new opera Breaking the Waves next season, and Michael Mizrahi’s latest solo piano CD, which is being released in a couple of weeks, includes a piece of yours.

Missy Mazzoli: Lisa Moore also has a piece of my mine on her new album.

FJO: Really? Another piano piece?

MM: Yeah.

FJO: Wow, so there’s some considerable activity with your solo piano music as well as your choral music, your chamber music, your orchestral music, plus opera. You’re writing many kinds of things and you’re getting pulled in many different directions. Is there any kind of music you would not want to write?

MM: I really can’t think of it. But, you know, so many of my opportunities are not necessarily my choice. I’m still in the beginning phases of my career where I am taking commissions and jumping at opportunities to work with whomever, so it’s really about taking whatever is brought to me and making it something that I’m excited about. But it’s hard to imagine something that would come my way that I wouldn’t be excited about.

FJO: You haven’t written a band piece yet, as far as I know.

MM: No. And I’m not terribly excited about it, but that’s not to say that I wouldn’t do it. I think, under the right circumstances, it could be really fun.

FJO: Or a solo organ piece?

MM: Again, you kind of need someone; it’s hard to just write a solo organ piece and just throw it out into the universe. I really would want someone to come to me and say, “I’m going to perform this 20 times, and I’m really excited.” So we’ll see.

FJO: Or a sound installation?

MM: I would love to do a sound installation. I could do one in my living room; it would be awesome, but it would be only for me. So I’m definitely open to that, too. It’s hard, though, writing all these operas lately. I’m working on one for Opera Philadelphia; it’s co-commissioned by Opera Philadelphia and Beth Morrison Projects. And I’m working on another one that will be announced really soon. I’m also dealing with performances of my first opera, Song from the Uproar. Opera can take over your life. So I feel like while all this other stuff is happening, really when I sit down to write, the operas are my focus. That’s been an interesting shift. Usually I’m working on ten different things at the same time, but for the last couple of years, it’s been like this one massive piece.

FJO: The first piece of yours I ever heard was an orchestra piece, These Worlds In Us, soon after we first met, which was ten years ago. Then the piece was chosen for the Minnesota Orchestra Composers Institute, which is a really extraordinary program. You wrote a series of blog posts for NewMusicBox about your experiences at the Institute that year. I decided to reread them all last week, and I came across a fascinating couple of sentences from your very first post.

MM: I’m afraid.

FJO: You shouldn’t be; they’re great. They were about your concerns about the experience right before the Institute got under way, and they are extremely heartfelt. The sentences are: “My music is based in communication, intimacy, and a touch of vulnerability. How does this translate to an orchestra?” Now, ten years later, your music has been performed by lots of orchestras, including the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Detroit Symphony and, most recently, in Boulder. So I wonder what you think about those sentences. Vulnerability is discouraged because of how the rehearsal process works. And, at this point, how do you deal with an orchestra’s inherent lack of intimacy?

MM: Well, I still feel like I’m asking the same questions and, with each piece, finding different answers to the question of how to bring an intimate, vulnerable, human experience to a situation like working with an orchestra, which is a little bit disconcerting. I feel kind of disconnected as a composer for a couple different reasons. You’re dealing with this mass of people—you very rarely get to have individual interactions with the players. You’re flown somewhere and you have two or three rehearsals and then it’s the performances. It’s not set up to have one-on-one pow-wows with your performers, which is what I’m used to.

So this experience I just had last weekend in Boulder was really interesting. They premiered the new version of this piece that I originally wrote for the LA Philharmonic called Sinfonia for Orbiting Spheres. I put harmonicas in the orchestra and also melodicas, the piano that you blow into—I have some around here—and there’s a lot of strange percussion. I really wanted it to feel like this intimate, enveloping experience. The harmonica sounds so vulnerable and so human because these players are not professional harmonica players. They’re professional horn players and clarinetists and they’re just using the length of their breath to play these really simple, almost toy-like instruments. It was so great, but it was a risk for me. I didn’t know how that was going to work in an orchestral context. And I was so happy because I think that it made the experience more intimate for everybody.

FJO: Fascinating. Some orchestras might not be willing to do it. Some players feel very firmly that they should only be required to play the instrument that they’ve spent their lives studying and perfecting making the best possible sound with.

MM: Right, and I respect that. That’s valid. My goal is not to make people look bad. I was really grateful that the Boulder Phil musicians were open to the idea. They might not have liked it—I’m not sure—but they were really great and they wanted to make the piece work. So much thought went into me even writing for harmonica in an orchestra setting. It was not just a whim; it was very considered. There’s this very serious emotional intent that I have. So my strategy with working with the orchestra was to try to get them to understand what I was going for. It’s sort of a music of the spheres feeling, and it was this idea of enveloping the audience in this ether, while all these loops of little melodic fragments were swirling around them. Harmonicas are really like the ether in which everything exists. So once they understood that, I think that they were at least willing to give it a shot.

FJO: An important component of the performance in Boulder was that you were in residence there for a week, so instead of just showing up for a couple of rehearsals and the concert, you had a greater opportunity to connect with the players, so that must have helped that process. I was curious how that experience was different from other experiences you’ve had with orchestras over the years.

MM: In Boulder I did a lot to connect to the audience, but unfortunately I didn’t have so much time to connect with the players, even in a residency situation. I think it’s hard to create that time and space, but I think it’s something worth working towards for all orchestras—to try to create a deeper connection between the composers and the performers. I’ve talked to a lot of my composer friends about this very thing. But it did make a big difference for me, just being in Boulder for a week. I taught for a day at Colorado University. And I performed a concert of my own works at this art space called The Dairy in downtown Boulder. I met with their board. I went to luncheons. I did a stargazing hike where they played my music as people were looking at the stars, because the piece is about the planets in orbit. That was amazing, and it allowed me to have conversations with people about a bunch of different things, and allowed them to have a bunch of different ways to access my music and the work.

FJO: To talk a little bit more about your first orchestra piece, These Worlds In Us, one of the things that struck me about it at the time and every time I’ve listened to it or have thought about it since then, is how ravishingly beautiful it is. Certainly not everything you’ve written is so decidedly and so intentionally pretty, but beauty has definitely been part of your compositional arsenal. It seems to be a conscious aesthetic decision for you, so I thought it would be interesting to talk about that as well as what your view of beauty is.


MM: What does it mean to be beautiful? How much time do we have? I think that what you’re saying is that there’s a lyricism, or that there are elements of that piece and pieces that I’ve written in the last ten years that are sort of conventionally beautiful in a way that most people would say, “Oh, that’s pretty” or “That’s a melody I can hum.” I think that a lot of noise music is beautiful and that it’s pleasing, but I know what you’re saying. There’s a lyricism, and there are these melodies that float around the listener in a way that I think could be described as beautiful. That’s something that has been a part of my language from the very beginning. My goal is to try to draw the listener in with something that is familiar, even just a tiny bit, whether it’s a little repeated melodic fragment or the sound of the harmonica, which is a sound that everybody knows. Most people have picked up a harmonica and have blown into it. We know that sound. So I try to draw people in with something that they can latch onto, but then twist it and present it in a different way, present the melody with a strange chord underneath. Or have the harmonicas be this insistent repeating drone that becomes unsettling. The piece I just wrote for the Boulder Phil becomes very dark at the end. All of a sudden, the harmonica feels like this lone person lost in space instead of this warm familiar sound. So I don’t know. These Worlds In Us was the first orchestra piece that I’d ever written, and it was really daunting. I remember really losing my mind trying to write that piece. And I remember having this thought: I can write a melody. When all else fails, I know I can do that. So I’m just going to do that and not worry about what comes next. And that’s where the theme for the piece came from.

FJO: It’s interesting to hear you say that you want to give the audience something to latch onto, because another constant through line in your music is that there’s always a narrative arc behind it, whether it’s inspired by literature or by personal experience. In the case of These Worlds In Us, it was both: a wonderful poem, which is where the title came from, but also you thinking about your father and his experience being a Vietnam War vet. But these kinds of backstories are hard to decipher in a piece of abstract instrumental music with no vocal line; they hinge on people reading the program notes. How important is it for you that people know those stories?

MM: Sometimes it’s important that they know, sometimes it’s not. Certainly it is with the dramatic work that I’m doing, even in an abstract opera like Song from the Uproar, which does not have a conventional narrative. It’s more like a fever dream. But it’s important to me that people generally understand what’s going on, even in the simplest terms. Other times those stories are just for me. That’s just the way that I conceive of music. I conceive it as a human struggle. I conceive these melodies and rhythms as being characters that are sometimes working together and sometimes in opposition to each other.

In my piece for eighth blackbird [Still Life with Avalanche], the percussionist devours all the other instruments and absorbs all the material. It’s a weird, abstract play that’s being enacted by these performers. Whether or not you know that that’s what I was thinking of in that particular piece doesn’t matter because it just leads to a musical result. The same thing is true with These Worlds In Us and Tooth and Nail¸ the piece that I wrote for violist Nadia Sirota, which is about jaw harp music in Uzbekistan. I don’t really care if people understand all the things going on in this piece because, at the end, it’s just leading me to create a musical structure.

My two composer obsessions this month are Anna Thorvaldsdottir and John Luther Adams. They’re both really inspired by nature. A couple of months ago, I was driving around Death Valley thinking: I wonder if there’s something in there for me. I should get inspired by nature. But the thing that I can say consistently inspires me is human beings. It’s not nature as much as it is just me being inspired by human beings trying to live their lives. And, in the case of my operas, human beings trying to live their lives under insane, impossible circumstances. What do they do? How do they get out of it? How do they relate to each other? That stuff to me is so fascinating and juicy, even as a way to think of non-narrative instrumental music.

FJO: One of my favorite pieces of yours is Magic With Everyday Objects, which you describe in your program notes for it as music having a nervous breakdown. But part of the reason I love it so much is I don’t think you even need that program note. That message gets immediately across in the music. Obviously some narratives are harder to convey than others, some details are just too subtle. I wouldn’t have known the backstory of These Worlds In Us just from hearing the music.

MM: But that doesn’t matter to me.

FJO: There’s another backstory with These Worlds In Us which is a purely musical one. You used the same melodic material in another piece of yours, a piece you wrote for Newspeak called In Spite of All This. And yet, though this material sounds so pretty in These Worlds In Us, it’s decidedly not pretty anymore in the other piece. It’s something else entirely.

MM: I think that’s totally a function of the orchestration. I actually wrote the piece for Newspeak first and then orchestrated it out and changed it to fit into an orchestral context. I think when you move into an orchestral context, I don’t want to say it’s inevitably prettier because a lot of composers don’t think that way, but there’s a certain lushness and a lyricism that happens when you have a full string section, versus just a solo violin. So I think maybe that’s what you’re experiencing. And also, because I had more instruments in the orchestra, I was able to flesh out a lot of the harmonies, and so I think it comes across as this richer, more immersive experience.

FJO: Even though they share the same material, that material is presented so differently to the point that I don’t think they’re the same piece at all. They’re very different pieces.

MM: They share a theme and a structure, but that’s about it. I do this all the time. I steal from myself all the time. I think a lot of composers do, and I think it’s a fallacy that we’re supposed to reinvent ourselves completely with every piece. My boyfriend is a painter and he’s been working on the same series of work for the last year and a half; it’s so fascinating and satisfying to watch that happen. I think of music in the same way. I’ll often use the same material to generate a few different works before it’s completely out of my system.

FJO: You wrote the Newspeak piece back in 2005; I don’t know anything you wrote before that.

MM: Before 2005, when I was 24! Well, it’s funny. The piece that Lisa Moore recorded for an album that just came out two days ago is the earliest piece of mine that is published and available for people. It’s a piece for piano and electronics called Orizzonte. I wrote it when I was 24 for a band that I was in when I lived in Amsterdam; eleven years later, it’s finally been recorded by someone else.

FJO: I have a demo recording of you playing it that you gave me the first time we had lunch together ten years ago.

MM: Oh really? Oh my God… Wow. Well, it went through a bunch of different versions. It started off as an improv experiment and then solidified into something I could play on a concert program.

FJO: I didn’t realize back then that you had been in a band in Amsterdam. So even that early on, you were involved in several different approaches to making music. People still package things into “classical music” or “indie rock,” and you’ve certainly done work that could fit in either category, and many things that have aspects of both over the past ten years, but it seems like you’ve been doing that from what you consider the very beginning of your musical output.

MM: I don’t think about it that way at all. This band in Amsterdam was a great example. Was that a band or was it an ensemble? I don’t know. I got a residency in a squat, and was like: Let’s start a band; we’ll work all week in this squat and then we’ll give a concert at the end. Great. So it’s just people together making music. It was a welcome change for me from just working alone in my room and then delivering pieces to people. So it just sounded like fun. That’s where that came from.

FJO: In some ways Victoire is a band, but it’s also an ensemble. It’s a little bit of both.

MM: I don’t lean towards one or the other. My goal in creating the ensemble was to take the best of what was going on with bands. I wanted to make records. I wanted to tour. I wanted to create a show that was a consistent instrumentation for which I was creating new music, because people were asking me to put on concerts. Our first show was at The Stone, John Zorn’s venue on the Lower East Side. I didn’t want to just bring in a string quartet and then a solo clarinet; it just didn’t make sense programmatically. I wanted to have a consistent ensemble and I wanted to tour the world. I wanted to perform all over the place. That was from the indie rock world. But then I wanted a really virtuosic level of performer. I needed people who were classically trained. I wanted us to be performing music that was written down and that I wrote. So that was coming from the ensemble side of things. So it’s equal parts both.

FJO: Of course there were several models from the previous generation of composers forming their own groups to exclusively perform their own music, like The Philip Glass Ensemble or Steve Reich and Musicians. But you didn’t call it The Missy Mazzoli Ensemble.

MM: Because that seemed pretentious at the time. I don’t think it was pretentious of Philip Glass or Steve Reich, but I think that in the current climate, it just felt wrong. I don’t know. We were taking so much from the band world that I wanted to give it a name that wasn’t my own name.

FJO: But do you think of that music differently than you think of the other music you write?

MM: No, I don’t. Often a piece will start as a commission for someone else, and then I will arrange it to be performed by my ensemble. I took Magic With Everyday Objects, which I originally wrote for NOW Ensemble, and arranged that for Victoire. Then I re-arranged it and it became The Door into the Dark, which was the opening track on our first album. I did that with bits of my opera, Song from the Uproar, too. The opera ends with an ecstatic coda, and I really wanted to play that myself. So I arranged it for Victoire. The music is exactly the same. But even if it’s not the exact same notes, it’s the same level of complexity as all my other music. The biggest difference is really just in the way that it’s rehearsed, because I can try things out with the group, experiment with different synthesizer timbres. I’m obviously not really able to do that when writing for someone else.

FJO: Curiously, the biggest project that has involved Victoire is Vespers for a New Dark Age. The first Victoire album, Cathedral City, was credited to Victoire. Only someone reading the fine print could see that all the compositions were by Missy Mazzoli. But Vespers was clearly identified as a Missy Mazzoli album. So even if you don’t think of there being distinctions, distinctions are being drawn somehow.

MM: Sure. Inevitably. But the Vespers album also included three tracks that are electronic pieces I created myself, with the help of the producer Lorna Dune; it didn’t involve the band. And then there were all these other people involved, like the percussionist Glenn Kotche. Lorna also created a remix of this other piece, A Thousand Tongues. Jody Redhage performed the original version of A Thousand Tongues, and we sampled her voice. So there were a lot of people involved. For me, a Victoire album is the five of us getting in a room and making music together. This felt like so much more, and the unifying thread was me as a composer. So I think it felt right to release that album under my name. It felt more in the lineage of Song from the Uproar, which is the album of my opera that was released two years before.

FJO: It was fascinating to hear you say that there was music you wrote for someone else that you wanted to perform yourself, and so you reworked it and made it into something else. This ties back to an earlier thread in this discussion about communication being the core of your music. Certainly performing is a form of communicating, so being directly involved in a performance is an important way to engage with an audience.

MM: Well, yeah. I love to perform. I was a performer before I was a composer. It’s part of my musical DNA. Initially I was just performing to scratch that itch, just to be able to be in front of people because it’s fun and exhilarating and nerve-wracking in all these great ways. And when I’ve performed, I realized that my connection to the audience was much deeper as a composer when I was in front of them as a performer. You tell people you’re a composer and they have no idea what you’re talking about; they don’t have a sense of what you do every day or what your place is in the world. I found that people were a lot more open and understanding when I was up there as a performer saying, “I wrote this, I’m going to play it for you.”

FJO: So you were a performer before you were a composer?

MM: Well, it all happened when I was super young. I started taking piano lessons when I was seven, so in that sense, I was a performer before I was a composer. I was a kid. But really quickly I started writing music and realized that this is what I need to be doing with my life. I started writing when I was about ten, and there was no question that I was going to go to school for composition. This was going to be my life.

FJO: So you definitely came out of a lineage of classical music.

MM: Oh, yeah.

FJO: So the whole indie rock thing came later. How did that come into your life?

MM: Well, it came into my life from being a kid in a small town in Pennsylvania, which means that I spent a lot of time driving around listening to the radio because there was nothing else to do and music was just a big part of my life. My parents are not musical, but I was moved by all kinds of music in a way that I wasn’t moved by anything else. And classical music in particular—because I was able to play it myself and have that connection—had a huge impact on the way that I process the data of the world. It gave me an identity and it gave me a focus as a kid. So I think I just obsessively latched onto it in this really extreme way.

FJO: I couldn’t help snooping around the apartment when we were setting up, and I noticed that you have a bust of Beethoven on a bureau as well as another Beethoven portrait hanging on the wall. I was a little surprised by that.

MM: Really? He’s the best. I fell in love with Beethoven as a kid. You know, you’re not really exposed to John Luther Adams or Philip Glass when you’re seven and taking piano lessons. I loved playing Beethoven, and I loved learning about his life and realizing that he struggled, that he was constantly trying new things and then discarding things. When I was in school in Boston, I would go to the Harvard rare manuscript library and just dig through Beethoven sketches, most of which have these big Xs on them. It was always very reassuring to see that he was not always happy with what he wrote the first time around.

FJO: Unfortunately nowadays so many composers do everything on computers, so no one can see sketches with Xs on them.

MM: Well, I have a lot actually. I still work a lot by hand and there’s definitely some obsessive scribbling there.

FJO: So, are you going to save those things for posterity, or are you going to be like Brahms and destroy all your sketches?

MM: I save them, but I wouldn’t say I’m saving them for posterity. Who knows? That’s for future generations to decide if I’m still interesting. But I do save them for myself.

FJO: Do you ever find yourself going back to those things that you crossed out and using them?

MM: Not really using them as much as just taking stock of the passage of time. I have filing cabinets full of old manuscripts and notebooks and journals. I like to look back and see like, oh, that’s where I got the idea to start Victoire, to start this ensemble. Or my initial notes for creating Song from the Uproar or Breaking the Waves, which is a project that’s taken over my life. It’s fun to go back and just see the initial brainstorms for those projects.

FJO: So what was the initial brainstorm for Vespers?

MM: I wanted to create my own version of a Vespers prayer service. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to do that without being heavy handed and religious, because I’m not a religious person. But I love the musical form of that prayer service, the idea that it’s a series of invocations broken up by singing. The tradition varies depending on what precise religion you belong to, but it seemed like this great, flexible, inherently musical form. So, the invocation in Vespers is not “Help me, oh Lord”; it’s “Come on all you ghosts.” The lyrics were written by the poet Matthew Zapruder, so it’s all by replacing the sacred text with secular poetry; I was able to hint at the themes of the prayer service without being overtly religious.

FJO: But by subtitling it “for a New Dark Age” it has a kind of ominous undercurrent to it. “Dark Age” is a negative term, even though some wonderful things happened during the original so-called Dark Ages, the Medieval period.

MM: Were there? Was there anything good?

FJO: There was some great music.

MM: Okay. If you’re in the top one percent. Well, that line “New Dark Age” comes from a line in one of Matthew’s poems called “Korea,” where he says, “I know I belong in this new Dark Age.” So, that is a little more uplifting than the phrase “new dark age” alone and that summed up my feelings about being alive. I know that we are kind of in a dark age to some extent. Things are messed up. But I also know that I belong here. You know, this is my time, and I embrace that. So when I read that line, I was like: this really resonates with me. That was the impetus to use his poetry for the entire piece.

FJO: So this poetry existed before you set it.

MM: Yes. And Matthew Zapruder was amazing. He’s also a musician, so I think he understood that I wanted to be really free with which texts I used. He let me draw fragments of texts from a bunch of different books and remix them into lyrics that made sense for the project, each individual set of lyrics. Sometimes they come from a couple of different poems, or a couple different books. But all of it existed before, except I got him to write one new piece; the second track, “Hello Lord,” was a new poem written just for the project.

FJO: That’s interesting. You just described it as the second track rather than the second movement.

MM: Well, I get confused myself with that because this piece is a little complicated. There are five acoustic movements, but then there are these three electronic remixes stuck in there. It’s confusing.

FJO: But the reason I brought it up is I wonder if you think of the recording rather than a live performance of it to be the definitive way to experience the piece. It was initially written for live performance.

MM: It was, but it was also written for recording. I knew I wanted to make this into an album even before I started writing. You spend so much time with an album when you’re editing it and referring to everything as a track. I think that was emblazoned in my memory.

FJO: And clearly, in our time, many more people will have heard the recording than would have been at the original live performance at Zankel Hall.

MM: Exactly.

FJO: But what’s strange about that—maybe this is part of us being in a new dark age—is that even though music gets primarily transmitted through recordings, recordings are no longer a viable economic stream for most people now that so many people are just listening to music online. This hasn’t really sorted itself out, but you clearly still make albums. In fact, one of the reasons you said that you formed Victoire was that you wanted to make albums. So making albums is still important to you.

MM: Sure, it’s important to me. I also like the idea of releasing singles on the internet. Or creating music that’s just for video and releasing that on YouTube. I’m not really precious about the album. I do think though that—as a composer and as someone who grew up listening to records—the natural length of a CD is really satisfying to me. I like the idea of making grand statements, coming out with 40 to 60 minutes of music and saying, “This is my latest statement,” rather than saying, “This is something I made this morning, and here’s three minutes of it.” So I think that there is value and weight to this idea of the album and that that length still has significance. My friend Judd Greenstein, who runs New Amsterdam Records, used to say when he was starting the record label that albums are the new symphonies. And that really made sense to me. There are pieces that can be accepted as a whole or can be broken up into movements, and there’s still a logic to that. So that’s how I think of it now.

The video by Mark DeChiazza of “Wayward Free Radical Dreams” from Missy Mazzoli’s Vespers for a New Dark Age is making its debut on NewMusicBox
FJO: Now, what’s interesting is that in your discography to date, you have pieces on different people’s albums, but the albums that are your albums—the Victoire album, Uproar, and Vespers—are all unified as albums. They’re not like most single composer new music recordings which are usually just a collection of pieces for various ensembles. I guess that’s coming from the same impetus as wanting to form an ensemble with consistent instrument to perform concerts of your music. You didn’t want to have all these scene changes on stage that are really awkward. Of course, in an album those kind of scene changes aren’t awkward, because it’s pre-recorded. But it can still be an awkward listening experience.

MM: Yeah. I don’t know. It just seems a little bit awkward. I’m not against the idea of composers releasing these sort of compilation albums of their pieces, but it just has a different feeling from someone like Philip Glass releasing Glassworks with the Glass Ensemble or Meredith Monk and her Vocal Ensemble releasing something like Dolmen Music, which has a bunch of different pieces on it, but it still makes sense because it’s a consistent instrumentation. That to me felt smoother, so it was what I wanted to do.

FJO: Since we’re talking about making grand statements, this seems like a good place to talk a bit about your operas. Once again, these pieces come out of your love of literature and, in the case of the most recent one which we’ll get to a little later, film. I tried tracking down an opera you did based on a story by Boccaccio, but I wasn’t able to find very much information about it.

MM: I knew you were going to say that! It was sort of an exercise, a workshop kind of thing I did in my first year as composer-in-residence with Opera Philadelphia. It was a collaboration with Mark Campbell, who’s a great librettist. He’s very collaborative and I really loved working with him, but we had some trouble coming up with an idea that worked for both of us. He had come to me with one story, and I sort of tentatively said yes, but I think he could tell that I wasn’t that excited. So then he came back to me and was like, “I think that with you we just need to go dark,” I took it as a major compliment. I was like, “Yes. Do you have any stories about sex or death?” Because I feel like all my interesting work is about sex and death. And he said he always wanted to do something with Boccaccio’s Decameron, to take one of those little stories and work with it. And I ate it up. It’s this story about this woman whose lover is murdered by her brother. She plants his head in a pot and then this basil plant grows up and she sings to it. It’s called the flowering basil. It’s hilarious and dark. There’s love and death and sex and intrigue, all in this little seven-minute mini-opera. I think it is being done in Cincinnati somewhere; I’ll get that recorded and let you know.

FJO: Boccaccio, though maybe not as widely read as he used to be, is part of the literary canon. On the other hand, Isabelle Eberhardt is not somebody everybody knows about—yet. But she’s a really fascinating figure, such an amazingly headstrong, independently minded person, a real role model from an era where women weren’t, by and large, allowed to be what she was. At the same time, she’s a really tragic figure; she died at the age of 27. How did you come to know about her, and what made you decide to make an opera about her?

MM: I was 23 when I picked up a copy of her journals in a bookstore in Boston, really just completely at random. A new edition had just been published in English, and I was immediately struck by what I read when I opened it up. It just has this tone and this openness that is really strange for travel diaries of that era. You read Pierre Loti or André Gide and they’re writing about going into the desert with 45 servants and having high tea; she had nothing. She was very poor and extremely adventurous and brave, and had these really raw experiences, sometimes amazing experiences. She was one of the first women to witness this particular religious ceremony that happens in the desert where people shoot guns into the sand in this very colorful ceremony. She also experienced extreme poverty and extreme loss. She seemed to live this very extreme life. I was really struck by how she wrote about her sadness in particular. She had 25 different words for being sad.

I knew immediately that I wanted to do something with her life, that there was something in there that was resonating with me. I started actually by just writing songs about her. I would take fragments of her journal and create texts based on the fragments and just write songs. Then it became apparent that it needed to be an evening-length theatrical work. At that point, I brought on the librettist Royce Vavrek to sort of craft the true libretto. But it’s called Song from the Uproar, because it’s her song; this song emerging from the chaos of her life, that’s the song coming out of the uproar.

FJO: There are some interesting parallels between Isabelle Eberhardt and Stephen Crane, whose poem you set in your short piece for Jody Redhage, A Thousand Tongues, which you mentioned earlier. They probably never met each other, since they were based in different parts of the world, but both were tireless adventurers who scoffed at conventions and both died before they were 30, around the turn of the 20th century. It was a very different world than the world we live in now in many ways. Yet in both cases, the music you chose to convey their words is a very contemporary sound world. You didn’t feel the pull to go back into their sound world.

MM: No, because what’s interesting to me was what was going on in their minds, which I think is something that transcends time and place. So I was interested in the things, about Isabelle’s story in particular, that made her story universal, the things that I identified with as a woman living in the 21st century. There’s this constant loneliness, this feeling of being very much in love with her husband but really wanting this independent life. And there’s a conflict between Eastern culture and Western culture, in her own mind; this stuff was really juicy and interesting and is not just about her being in Algeria in 1904. So I wanted a piece that was unmoored from time and place. That’s why I felt free to use electric guitar, electronics, and samples, and that’s why for the production that we did, initially at The Kitchen and later at LA Opera, there’s film with images of things that happened long after her death—people answering telephones and riding in cars. But I think it all makes sense because the story is about this fever dream of a life that she had.

FJO: And in the case of the Stephen Crane?

MM: Well, that was a much shorter text, but I also tried to get at the universal qualities of that poem. He says, “I have a thousand tongues, and nine and ninety-nine lie, though I try to use the one, it will make no melody at my will. It is dead in my mouth.” Who hasn’t felt like that sometimes? It’s this idea that you have these many faces, but which one is your true face and what is the truth? So it seemed to tap into something more universal.

FJO: Compared with these other pieces, Breaking the Waves is much more contemporary. It’s based on a Lars von Trier film that’s set in the 1970s. But you initially didn’t want to do this.

MM: Right. So my librettist, who’s also one of my best friends, Royce Vavrek, came to me and said we should make this into an opera: Breaking the Waves, Lars von Trier’s seminal 1996 film. And I was like, “That’s a great film. It’s already this complete object; why would we mess with it?” Also, at the time, there were a lot of operatic adaptations of films being made, and I just felt like I wanted to try something different. So he left me alone and let me think about it. But I couldn’t get the idea out of my mind. I watched the film again and I was like, “Wow, I can hear music for these people. But it’s not going to be what people expect; it’s going to be very, very different from the film. I really feel like I can make my own piece based on this incredible story.” Once I felt the freedom to separate myself from the film, that’s when the project became real and became very exciting to me.

FJO: Of course, that’s an even bigger challenge. When you’re reading a story or a poem, even if it’s from another era, it’s still a disembodied text that allows you to hear it in your own mind rather than a specific way. But if you’re basing something on a film, that film already comes with its own sound world: the sounds of the actors’ voices as well as the music of the soundtrack in the film. There are all these things already there that you have to strip away in order for it to become your own thing.

MM: It’s true, but less so in Breaking the Waves, since there’s no composed soundtrack for it. There is music in the film—some ‘70s rock tunes by Elton John, David Bowie, and Deep Purple—but there isn’t a score that’s telling you how to feel. I think that that left space for me to create my own music for it. That’s really significant. But still, you’re right, especially with Lars von Trier, you have all these amazing hand held shots, and these close-ups of people’s faces. That is such a part of our experience of that story, just being in the room with these people, in their face, as Emily Watson is crumbling, or in her wedding dress waiting for her fiancé to come on a helicopter. It’s really emotional. How do I keep that in the opera, when it’s a singer who’s a hundred feet away from you in a theater where your eyes can look anywhere? You don’t have to look at her face. And there’s no way that I can make you look at her face, except to have her sing something really awesome. So it’s an interesting challenge that I solved in a couple different ways throughout the opera, since that intimacy is something I wanted to maintain from the film.

FJO: There’s that word “intimacy” again, going back to that comment you made on the blog ten years ago.

MM: Right. I haven’t really changed much. I’m still trying to do the same things all the time.

FJO: Now the initial impetus for this conversation was Vesper Sparrow, the piece being done in Korea. Once again the source of it is literary inspiration, although this time from somebody who’s an exact contemporary of yours.

MM: Well, the thing to know about working with the group Roomful of Teeth, who commissioned and premiered it, is that they have this residency every year at MASS MoCA, the museum in Massachusetts, and they invite composers to come stay with them for two weeks to learn about the group and to learn whatever vocal techniques they’re learning. At the time, they were learning Tuvan throat singing and Sardinian su cantu a tenòre singing. So I would try to learn it with them or try to sing along with them, and I just hung out with them for two weeks. During those two weeks, you’re supposed to write a piece or two for them, and then they perform it at the end. It’s like Project Runway without the snarky competition, where you have to create something very fast and then present it. So I did that and the week before I was going to go, I was thinking, “Wait a second, are they going to sing words? If they’re going to sing words, what are they going to sing?” Thankfully my best friend is a poet, Farnoosh Fathi, so I called her and I said, “Send me the manuscript to your book,” which was coming out that fall—it’s called Great Guns—and she did. I just printed it out and on the train ride up there, I sat and read through all these poems. She was also very open to me taking bits of poems, and cutting out what didn’t necessarily work for voices or was too long. She has this great poem that at the time was called “Vesper Sparrow,” which was later changed to “Home State,” and that’s where the text comes from that happens like three-quarters of the way through the piece.

FJO: But there are also all these other syllables that are not really comprehensible as language. That’s not part of her poem? She didn’t write those syllables?

MM: No.

FJO: Now I’m totally confused.

MM: Yeah, rightfully so. So, in one of the versions of the poem, again I don’t know because she was writing while I was writing the piece and a lot of it changed for the final book, but one of her poems began with the call of the vesper sparrow, which translates something like “hey, hey, now, now, all together down the hill,” or something. We put words to it to remember the call. And so the Roomful of Teeth piece is sort of an explosion of that. It’s like these bird songs initially. And then, halfway though, they just start singing words that come out of nowhere. So it’s this mish mash. Farnoush’s poetry is very lyrical and is free association. There are all these beautiful images that you don’t expect that come in out of nowhere. And that’s what inspired the piece. This text comes in out of nowhere. You don’t expect it. And the connections between the phrases are tenuous, and you’re supposed to come up with that in your own mind.

FJO: Before you told me this story, I had no idea that this came about because Roomful of Teeth was learning traditional Sardinian singing techniques. Yet still, when I first heard it, I immediately associated it with Sardinian traditional music because I have field recordings from Sardinia, and what you wrote sounds remarkably authentic at times. And so when I was trying to figure out the connections I thought, well I know that you come from an Italian background, but you were using a poem by a woman with an Iranian background. I couldn’t make the pieces fit together in my head.

MM: Well, now you know the story, which is that I had to come up with something very quickly and called in favors from friends. But I think the result is something that does capture the spirit of not only the Sardinian singing, but also of Roomful of Teeth itself. It’s like this joyful coming together of people from all these different places, of these very particular voices, and somehow the combination of all of them makes total sense. And this combination of bird song and a strange abstract poem by this Iranian-American poet somehow all comes together and makes sense in this little five-minute piece.

FJO: It was written for Roomful of Teeth, and they made a fabulous recording of it, too. But it’s printed in score and so it’s available for other groups to perform. So it can have a life beyond Roomful of Teeth. And now it’s going to be done in South Korea as part of the 2016 ISCM World Music Days. The singers who are performing it there might not necessarily have the same background as Roomful of Teeth. They might not have had the workshop in Sardinian folk music that Roomful of Teeth had that week. How can they do an idiomatic performance without all of that? How necessary are those elements in order for the piece to work?

MM: When I wrote it I never imagined anyone else singing it, because it had to be written so quickly and it was so particular for this group. But I’m open to different interpretations. I like the Sardinian aspect of it and I like that there’s a recording that these singers will hopefully listen to, even just to get an idea of what the piece is about and the character. But do they need to have that precise sort of like nasally intonation that the Sardinian music has? Not necessarily. I think that the piece is the notes and the rhythms and the texts. And all that translates on the page.

FJO: So to come full circle, we talked about you playing your music yourself with your own group, as well as writing for orchestras where you have very little face time with the musicians. Now here we have an example of a piece that’s out in the world and you may have no face time at all with the musicians. That’s actually a very typical situation with composers whose music is published and gets widely performed. At a certain point, you can’t be everywhere. Your identity has to be conveyed exclusively through those marks on a printed page; that’s how it ultimately lives if it is to become repertoire.

MM: Right.

FJO: That’s the opposite of intimacy, but I guess it’s vulnerable, isn’t it?

MM: It is. And if my only outlet was to make these marks on a page and then deliver it to people who I would never meet, I would be really depressed. I created this band, and I perform, and I write for my friends, and I try to be intimately involved with people who are in the process of performing my music to counteract that, to maintain some sense of control and involvement on every level. In a good way, not in a control freak kind of way, but just to be involved in all aspects of the music making. It’s a little bit scary to send this piece off and have people I don’t know yet perform it. But that’s also really exciting, and I will know them in a few weeks!

Du Yun: No Safety Net

Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan

I still remember the first performance I ever attended of Du Yun’s music. It was a vocal piece on an ICE concert in an East Village performance space. She was the vocalist and at some point she was crawling around on the stage. This might sound somewhat gimmicky, but there was an element of vulnerability to it that gave it a completely different context. It was actually somewhat unsettling. Du Yun likes making herself, and often her audiences, uncomfortable. And for her that discomfort means constantly taking risks.

It’s a far cry from her intensive childhood training as a classical pianist in her native Shanghai where the goal was to interpret standard Western classical music repertoire as precisely as possible. As she explained when we spoke in her apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, despite her proficiency on the instrument, or perhaps because of it, she actually avoids it when composing.

I practiced piano eight hours a day when I was a kid. … My challenge to myself is to write music without the aid of a piano ever, not even checking things. I don’t want to be too comfortable when I write music. When I create, I don’t want to fall back to the safety net that I’ve acquired. So I love feeling like I don’t know how to walk and then find the platform to focus on the next step. There’s a sport where you essentially climb rocks without roping using just your bare shoes. It’s so dangerous, but it’s all about focusing on the next step. My survival mode has always been trying to find my way around things. I was not your typical Chinese good student at all. I got myself in a lot of trouble with teachers. The subversive is always something I’m attracted to, the danger, working against people’s expectations.

Du Yun: scores
Du Yun: Book pile
This desire to constantly search for that next step and to go against the grain is probably why she’s always exploring different musical directions. When we visited with her, a Takemitsu orchestral score sat on her piano alongside a collection of Ray Charles songs. She’s so stylistically omnivorous that attempting to apply genre distinctions to her music is a frustrating exercise in futility. While she has written works that have been premiered by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and Montreal’s Nouvelle Ensemble Moderne, she has also created numerous works involving electronics, a series of uncategorizable performance art pieces, and she’s even released a dance pop album called Shark in You.

Most of the time, the various elements are not clearly delineated. The score for her otherworldly Angel’s Bone, a “chamber opera” she created with Royce Vavrek about a pair of fallen angels who are forced into prostitution, is an idiosyncratic amalgam of church motets, punk, and quasi-European post-expressionism. (In fact, describing it as chamber opera somehow misrepresents it, since it fails to convey that it is also extremely effective musical theatre as well as sacred oratorio, as contradictory as being both at once might seem.) In it, moments of extreme beauty co-exist alongside harrowing sonorities. While her music is a very appropriate soundtrack for Vavrek’s disturbing supernatural story, Du Yun is attracted to all of these sonorities and so it felt perfectly natural to her to combine them.
Du Yun: workspace
Many composers her age create music that seamlessly blurs genres. But unlike composers who grew up in the United States where just about any kind of music seems part of our tradition, Du Yun approaches all traditions as somehow exotic, whether classical, pop, avant-garde, or even the traditional Chinese music that deeply influences so many other Chinese émigré composers. How she first became aware of different musical traditions has allowed her to remain an outsider and has enabled her to absorb a wide variety of influences while remaining completely unique.

I did not grow up completely with Chinese culture, so if my music were to have Chinese culture in it, it would not be a genuine reflection of who I was. I do not want to use that without understanding it. But now it’s something I want to completely explore further. … I grew up with all the Hong Kong pop which was following American pop. But I also practiced a lot of Bach, Mozart, Chopin, and Beethoven. When I was just coming of age, the pub idea was just coming to Shanghai. I was in a reggae band with exchange students from Kenya playing Bob Marley cover songs. Then by 1995, China really opened up. We were totally following American culture. Radio played the Top 40—we knew what was number one on the Billboard chart. But we didn’t hear indie-pop. So I got all these bootleg tapes on the street. You don’t really know if Pink Floyd is cool or not. I bought it just because of the cover and then my mind was blown away. … There was a professor who was very instrumental in bringing contemporary music to us, but there was no collection of new music in the library. Stravinsky would be new. Bartók would be new. Penderecki would be like “Woah!” There were tapes of Penderecki and John Corigliano’s Clarinet Concerto, but we didn’t know those names and didn’t know the hierarchy of who comes earlier and who comes later. It all came at once so it seemed like anything goes. You could just pick what you like and your teacher is not going to tell you what is good and what is not.

Du Yun: shelf
Du Yun: fan
While her Asian heritage did not have a dominant role in her development, she acknowledges that her outlook on life is a direct result of Asian philosophy which offers a more fluid alternative to the either-or mentality that is so dominant in American and most Western societies. According to the traditional Asian world view, there isn’t a right way vs. a wrong way, there are many ways and therefore you can combine them in any way you want.

I don’t see the world in binaries. … Ancient Asian philosophy is about three points. You have this extreme and that and then the middle. The middle is something that is very attractive and intriguing. In life there’s a binary in that you have a birth and you have a death, a beginning and an end, but the process of [living your life] is the third point. If I believe that, how can I believe it’s just a binary? … The world is more of a continuum. I don’t feel the urge to see what is or what is not.

This way of thinking allows for an open-ended aesthetic sensibility that has enabled her to identify with both the “good” characters and the “bad” characters in Angel’s Bone—actually she doesn’t think of any of them in terms of good and bad. Her latest “opera” in progress, Women: The War Within, arguably blurs and ultimately transcends binaries even more than Angel’s Bone has done. It also blurs lines of chronology as well as geography—its four protagonists are Cleopatra, the 7th-century Chinese Empress Wu, Burmese Nobel Peace Prize-winning activist Aung San Suu Kyi, and Hillary Clinton. In the process of working on the music for this she has been immersing herself in Kunqu, one of the oldest surviving forms of Chinese opera, and it has been extremely inspiring to her. “I want to see if I could write like that; it’s so beautiful,” she explained. “My challenge is how I can adapt that.” But don’t expect her music for this to be an amalgam of various Asian traditional musics and Fleetwood Mac. That would be too safe!

Sounds Heard: Michael Ching—A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Michael Ching
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
(Albany/Troy 1507/08)
Performed by:
Opera Memphis
Playhouse on the Square
Curtis Tucker, conductor

Two excerpts from Act One, Scene Two of Michael Ching’s opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream
© 2014 Michael Ching and ℗ 2014 DeltaCapella /Albany Records. Tracks streamed with permission.

“New music,” the term we use as an umbrella for the music we feature on NewMusicBox, is simultaneously a blessing and a curse for the exact same reason—the words in and of themselves don’t really mean anything terribly specific. Music at this point can mean almost anything and the definition of new is also rather malleable; what is considered to be of recent vintage sometimes encompasses material that is more than a hundred years old despite such music not seeming chronologically new. However, many of us seem to parse the new music from the old based on whether or not it’s somehow avant-garde, doing something that no one has ever done before. In our web-search saturated post-post-post-modern era (I might have missed a “post” or two—it’s difficult to keep track), claiming something has never been done before is a recipe for almost instant refutation. A common conception these days is that nothing is “new,” which of course makes a definition of new music where new implies avant-garde even more perilous.

For an artwork to be truly avant-garde—whether it’s a piece of visual art, literature, or music—there needs to be an element of cognitive dissonance upon first encountering it. That’s what the initial audience reaction was to Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, Duchamps’s Fountain, Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, and Stravinsky/Nijinsky ballet The Rite of Spring. But of course all of these works have been with us for a century and have become part of our cultural heritage, so they’ve pretty much lost most of their shock value. In more recent times, high art’s embrace of banality—from Andy Warhol’s iconic Campbell’s soup cans and Yoko Ono’s Painting to be Stepped On to Jeff Koons’s glorification of kitsch—began as an aesthetic provocation but is also no longer particularly disquieting. Even Koons’s output, now the subject of a major retrospective at the Whitney, has entered the mainstream.

Yet despite how difficult it is to be startled by something at this point, that was precisely my reaction to the just-released recording of Michael Ching’s 2011 opera, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. But it’s not startling because its libretto is extreme or confrontational or because the music is in some esoteric stylistic idiom that has rarely been mined in a stage work. After all, the libretto is directly taken from one of the most famous plays by William Shakespeare (not a word has been altered) and the music is resolutely tonal, frequently extremely tuneful, and sometimes borders on pop.

Perhaps the most radical aspect of Midsummer is that there is no orchestra in the conventional sense. Rather every sound made to accompany what the cast sings is made by a 20-member chorus of voices—a “Voicestra.” But that too is nothing new. Aficionados of choral music or doo-wop know that a complete and completely satisfying sound world does not require anything beyond the human voice and fans of Sarah Vaughan might even remember her 1948 hit “Nature Boy,” a clever track made during the musicians’ union’s ban on recordings, in which the singer was accompanied exclusively by other singers imitating instruments. (Singers were not affected by the ban!) In more recent times, Bobby McFerrin has even used the word Voicestra to describe a group he leads made up of twelve singers from a variety of stylistic backgrounds who perform without instrumental accompaniment.

However, perhaps it’s a completely radical new idea to create an entire opera that only consists of singing. Certainly musical instruments have been a key ingredient in opera since the Florentine Camerata established the genre as we know it today at the end of the 16th century. But, although Jacopo Peri and his cohorts claimed their efforts at dramma per musica were an attempt at reviving ancient Greek theatre, they were deeply indebted to a more contemporaneous phenomenon called madrigal comedy which told stories by linking together a series of madrigals sung by a group of singers, sometimes with instruments doubling their parts, but sometimes completely unaccompanied. So opera actually has its source in unaccompanied vocal music. And, in fact, Michael Ching’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream isn’t the only recent opera scored exclusively for voices. Lera Auerbach’s The Blind, which was performed last summer as part of the Lincoln Center Festival, is also completely instrument free.

But whereas for Auerbach the absence of instruments served as an extremely apt sonic metaphor for deprivation (additionally, in John La Bouchardière’s production of her opera, the audience was blindfolded!), for Ching being restricted to just voices seems hardly a constraint. Abandoning instruments has paradoxically allowed him to create an operatic narrative that at times is every bit as opulent as conventionally scored works, and the absence of a large group of people in a pit (and the even larger paraphernalia which they need in order to make sound) gives the opera a lightness and a freshness that makes it instantly appealing and extremely practical as well. Ching, who served as the artistic director of Opera Memphis for nearly two decades before relocating to Iowa in 2010, certainly understands the practicalities of mounting an opera better than most composers. So this recording of the premiere production mounted by Opera Memphis in collaboration with Playhouse on the Square, featuring the combined voices of local groups DeltaCappella and Riva plus an exemplary cast who all sound totally comfortable navigating between operatic, Broadway, and even R&B idioms, will hopefully be the first of many.

As for why it startled me, it was simply totally unexpected. It sounds nothing like what I imagine an opera based on Shakespeare would sound like. And yet it totally works. And again, it’s not without precedent; a Joseph Papp produced radical pop update of Two Gentlemen of Verona featuring a musical score by Hair composer Galt MacDermot fetched the Tony Award for Best Musical back in 1972. Ultimately whether something is “new” in the avant-garde sense is not really important anymore; Ching’s score is compelling from start to finish and rewards with repeated listenings as well. And, perhaps the biggest shock of all to some denizens of “new music,” it’s lots of fun!

Washington National Opera to Mount 3 New 20-Minute Operas

Heatshots of the six commissioned composers and librettists

The three composers (upper row from left to right) John Liberatore, Rene Orth, and Jake Runestad, and the three librettists (lower row from left to right) Niloufar Talebi, Jason Kim, and David Johnston. Photos courtesy of the Washington National Opera.

The Washington National Opera has announced details for the third season of their American Opera Initiative, a commissioning program that brings contemporary American stories to the stage while fostering the talents of rising American composers and librettists. Three teams of new opera composers and librettists—John Liberatore and Niloufar Talebi, Jake Runestad and David Johnston, and Rene Orth and Jason Kim—will premiere new 20-minute operas, each based on a contemporary American story, in a semi-staged concert performance on November 21, 2014 in the Kennedy Center Terrace Theater.
For more information, visit the WNO website.