Tag: polystylism

Roberto Sierra: Globalizing Local Experiences

A man in a tweed jacket with glasses in Manhattan

Composer Roberto Sierra frequently likes to tell the story of how, when he was growing up in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, he would hear Pablo Casals playing his cello on television while salsa recordings of the Fania All-Stars blared outside on the street. Most of Sierra’s music—which spans numerous works for soloists, chamber ensembles, and orchestra as well as his massive Missa Latina—has forged a synthesis of these two musical realms. But the question of what kinds of music are local or global is more complex than it might initially seem.

Conceptually, one might argue, Western classical music is tailor-made for global promulgation since a score written in country A in year X could theoretically be rendered equally well by musicians in either country B in year Y or country C in year Z.  But, of course, thanks to the advent of recording technology well over a century ago, those folks in A, B, and C can now easily listen to each other.  As a result, any locally made music has the possibility of reaching a global audience.  In fact, the salsa Roberto Sierra was hearing in Vega Baja was actually recorded in New York City, whereas Pablo Casals moved to Puerto Rico when Sierra was a young child and lived there for the rest of his life.

However, as Sierra pointed out when we met up with him in a hotel room before a performance of his music in New York City later that evening, “the heyday of classical music is Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, and I think they were still very much localized.”  But Sierra went on to explain how the elevation of certain repertoire has made it extremely difficult for the vast majority of composers.

It’s very difficult for any composer, even German composers nowadays, because you have to live with that notion of something that was great and something that is not able to be great anymore.  And for the others living in America, or in Latin America, wherever we are, we’re thinking, “Oh my God, we are outside of this canon of great masterpieces of humanity.”

But Sierra—who initially left Puerto Rico to study with György Ligeti in Hamburg in the late 1970s, went on to serve as the composer-in-residence of the Milwaukee Symphony in the 1980s, and has been a member of the composition faculty at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, since 1992—doesn’t bother himself with following a lineage or adhering to a zeitgeist. His piano concerto Variations on a Souvenir sounds like it could have been written in the 19th century while his Second Piano Trio uses a tone row as well as the strict clave rhythm but doesn’t really sound either dodecaphonic or Afro-Cuban.

I always thought and I always commented to other colleagues: You think Boulez is looking over your shoulder, and you’re waiting for his approval or disapproval?  In fact, these people do not care what you write.  If you’re writing something so that the powers that be will approve of you, composers do not; composers are self-centered!  They’re only thinking about their own stuff.  So write your own stuff.  …  I don’t even have Ligeti looking at me.

Roberto Sierra in conversation with Frank J. Oteri at the Park Central Hotel in New York, NY
November 13, 2018—2:30 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Rediscovering Ives’s Legacy

Nearly every day while I was growing up, I passed by a small house on Mountainville Avenue in Danbury, Connecticut. I’d see it from the school bus or in the distant background from the Rogers Park baseball field. It was just part of the landscape, along with the middle school and the nature pond and the food truck that always parked near the ball field. At no point during those years did I find it important that the house was the birthplace of Charles Ives, an American musical icon.

As I got older and began to compose, I began to understand why all of my local music teachers talked so much about Ives. It wasn’t what I suspected growing up, that he was a middling-famous composer who happened to have been born in our town. No, they kept talking about Ives because he really is that important.

An historical photo of Main Street in Danbury, CT

Unlike the American composers of the Eurocentric generation before his—such as Amy Beach, Arthur Foote, Ives’s teacher Horatio Parker, and the rest of the Boston Six—Ives drew his musical materials wholly from American sources. His father, George, was a bandleader, and as a child, Charles had extensive exposure to marching bands and to the folk tunes that later became a major component of his music. If you want to analyze how Ives uses folk materials in his music, you have a trove of works to choose from. His usage of folk materials is the beginning of a long tradition in American music of using found musical materials as the inspiration for a piece or a key section of a piece. This can be traced eclectically from Ives to Florence Price’s Negro Folksongs in Counterpoint to Aaron Copland’s use of “Simple Gifts” in Appalachian Spring to George Crumb’s American Songbook to Robert Beaser’s Mountain Songs. Of course, this phenomenon is not unique to America. Composers throughout history seem to have had a penchant for plucking musical materials from their original habitats and transporting them into new and interesting environments.

Other composers at the time were also writing music with titles that resembled Ives’s Concord Sonata or Three Places in New England. But those works were informed by the European romantic tradition that American composers were steeped in throughout the 19th century.  Ives’s music fuses American folk materials with experimental techniques like polytonality, quotation, and quartertones. His polystylistic compositions can be filled with piano clusters one moment, then feature a rip-roaring folk tune he’d heard as a kid in the next, and then move into a combination of the two.

Ives’s polystylism has had a profound influence on the American music written today, which is incredibly polystylistic.

Ives’s polystylism has had a profound influence on the American music written today, which is incredibly polystylistic. As a composer, I might draw influence from Joseph Schwantner, a Coldplay song from 10 ten years ago, and a Jewish folk song all in an attempt to create on coherent musical narrative within a single piece. Recently, a composer I know did the same by combining Appalachian bluegrass music with serialism, another combined audio of Hillary Clinton’s concession speech with minimalist loops for clarinet and piano distorted by electronics, and another co-curated a project called Yeethoven, which melded Kanye West’s album Yeezus and Beethoven. It seemed normal that they did this, and the reason is that there’s a precedent for it in what Ives did in his music. Our efforts are just a modern-day extension of what he pioneered. You might think that the elements my colleagues and I are combining would sound much more disjointed to modern ears and tastes than Ives’s combination of tone clusters and American folk melodies, but in fact his works were probably even more jarring to audiences 100 years ago. They did not have the benefit of several generations of polystylistic music. Today, with much thanks to Ives, we do.

Polystylism isn’t only a popular compositional tool, it is integral to the identity of American music. It is uniquely suited to our extremely diverse country. This country is a big place with an enormous range of ethnicities, backgrounds, religions, and people with very different experiences. Our music, if it is to truly represent the country, has to reflect this diversity. Polystylism partakes of what makes America uniquely great. When composers take elements of diverse experiences and combine them in new and interesting ways, it is a musical rendering of what we recognize and celebrate as contemporary American culture.

Polystylism is integral to the identity of American music.

What makes this so artistically appealing? There’s no objective answer, but I have a hunch. When Ives incorporates both musical and non-musical elements of the American experience into concert music, he transports people to familiar yet iconic experiences. Ives’s music is a surrealist reflection of his world. That can be artistically thrilling, but there’s also a deeply emotional core to his musical rendering. His music is emotionally appealing because it’s really about our ancestors and what they felt making a new life in a vibrant, chaotic, unruly new country. It is truly an incredible experience for me to drive through Danbury listening to Ives, knowing how profoundly the landscapes I’m looking at influenced the music I’m listening to. Today’s polystylism, like Ives’s, is about us as a society. It draws its enormous energy from its depiction of how it feels to live in our world. Polystylism gives composers the ability to take concrete elements of our culture and incorporate them directly into our concert music in order to make people experience those cultural elements, and maybe think about them differently. That power is at the heart of the tradition Ives has handed down to us.

The narrative power of this phenomenon profoundly moved me when I first began to reflect on it, as a result of a piece I wrote a few years ago, titled Dawn. While northern Fairfield County is known for Charles Ives, we’re also associated with a recent tragedy: the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012. For the families of those who lost loved ones, it is an unspeakable pain to which my words could not possibly do justice. One of the people who lost her life that day was Dawn Hochsprung, whom I knew as an assistant principal at Rogers Park Middle School when I was a student there from 2000 to 2003.  The event was shocking and upsetting on a deeply communal level.  It became routine to see two people talking in the supermarket suddenly begin sobbing.  At our local Starbucks, where one of the student teachers had worked part-time as a barista, her co-workers put up a small shrine in her memory. We all struggled to come to terms with the horror of what had happened in a place we had considered safe.

That fall, I had been studying Ives’s legacy and growing more fascinated by his compositional techniques. I had begun working on a piece called Echo in Rogers Park, a violin sonata I would complete the following spring, which quotes Ives’s Songs My Mother Taught Me. At home in Connecticut in the days after the shooting, I began to think about how Ives would have responded in this situation. How might he have translated all that he was thinking, feeling, and simply enduring into music? At that moment, he became more than just a famous composer with whom I happened to share a hometown. He became a role model for me, not just musically but philosophically. My feeling—and I say this knowing that accomplished Ives scholars might disagree—is that he would have responded by writing one of his enigmatic “questioning the universe” pieces, like The Unanswered Question. And whatever he wrote, it would have been inherently about some aspect of this experience.

My own answer was to write Dawn, which is dedicated to Dawn Hochsprung. The piece honors her for her heroic actions that day, which were consistent with a stellar educational career in which her students always came first.  There have been many memorable and emotional moments throughout this piece’s life. The moment that is germane to Ives’s philosophy happened shortly after I finished the piece. When I was a student at Rogers Park, I was part of the National Junior Honor Society, and Dawn Lafferty, as she was known then, ran the program with her soon-to-be husband, George Hochsprung. In June 2013, Rogers Park decided to honor Dawn Hochsprung as part of its annual National Junior Honor Society ceremony. They asked if Dawn could be performed, and with the help of The Juilliard School, I arranged for a group of conservatory students to perform it. After the concert, parents came up to all of us to thank the performers and myself. One parent, a middle-aged man wearing baggy jeans and a grey t-shirt who had clearly just come from work, made an impression I’ll never forget. Through tears he told me he wasn’t a classical music guy and had never expected to like a classical piece, but that he was moved and thanked me for writing the piece for “all of us.” At that moment I realized that composers have a role to play in making people think and feel more profoundly about the world around them. Dawn isn’t a polystylistic piece in a musical sense, but it is in tune with a philosophy to which polystylism belongs. What resonates with me personally about Ives’s music isn’t just his polystylism, but that polystylism is a beautiful means to an end: to make his fellow community members think about the world around them. I hope that when people hear Dawn, they think about the good that Dawn Hochsprung did, and that she gave her life—not just those awful last moments, but days and weeks and years—to what she thought was the most important thing in the world:  teaching and nurturing children, and giving them a safe place to grow.

Composers have a role to play in making people think and feel more profoundly about the world around them.

I’ve been inspired since that moment with that parent not only to make music that is connected to American culture, but to re-connect with the musical community from which I came. Dawn resonated with this community because we all have this one thing in common, being from this place. I wish the shooting had never happened and that Dawn didn’t exist. The world would be much better off with those 26 people still here, but I do think horrific events like the Sandy Hook shooting ended up strengthening our communal bonds. It made me want to strengthen the Ives tradition in the place where it was formed. So in 2014, I went back to the Danbury Music Centre, a place where I had spent a lot of time growing up as a percussionist. The DMC, which has a pleasant communal feel to it that I can only describe as similar to that which pervades the third movement of Ives’ “Violin Sonata No. 4, is a community music organization like no other I’ve encountered anywhere in America. It has remarkably endured for over 80 years. The staff has held on to letters from Ives’s wife, Harmony Twitchell and Marian Anderson, another Danbury native, was on their board for several years. Perhaps most remarkably, the DMC has stayed to true to its founders’ intent: to offer frequent free concerts and events to the community, which today include performances featuring the organization’s three orchestras, two choirs, an annual Nutcracker Ballet, and—in addition to a host of other annual programs—an entire summer festival.

Two violinists rehearsing in preparation for the Ives Concert Series.

Musicians rehearsing in preparation for the Ives Concert Series.

This summer festival will now feature a new annual event that I am launching called the Charles Ives Concert Series. I’m proud to serve as its artistic director and even prouder to be doing it at the Danbury Music Centre. The DMC’s commitment to serving Danbury reminds me of the way Ives incorporates his experience of the town into his music. Both the composer and the organization share a civic-minded, democratic ideal about the role of music in our lives, that our community has its own musical identity to be cherished and carried on. When the idea of the Charles Ives Concert Series occurred to me, I quickly realized I was not solely thinking of a name, but rather a measure of philosophical guidance. The philosophical underpinnings of the series go beyond Ives and his music in an attempt to capture his vision for American concert music. What I find most inspiring about the DMC is its unwavering dedication to the values inherent in Ives’s vision for American music: carrying on this old tradition not just of classical music, but of Danbury’s classical music, which of course is completely intertwined with Ives. In return for its dedication, Danbury has cherished and carried the DMC for more than 80 years. I’ve come to think that expanding concert music in America has to involve lifting up all of the little organizations all over America that do the grassroots work, like providing kids their first orchestral opportunities, as the DMC did for me, or helping to bring communities together through the arts in the wake of tragedies like Sandy Hook.

Accordingly, the DMC feels like the perfect place to launch a series with Ives as the philosophical underpinning. In addition to Ives’s own music, The Charles Ives Concert Series will present music that relates to the Ives philosophy, such as music from all periods that transcends the traditional boundaries of classical music of its time by borrowing other cultural elements. We’ll honor what is perhaps Ives’s greatest legacy by unabashedly championing of the works of today’s American composers. We will set our polystylistic music within a polystylistic series.

In the two years leading up to this official launch, I’ve directed a program at the Danbury Music Centre called the Danbury Chamber Music Intensive (CMI) which brings emerging musicians to Danbury for a week as artist faculty; they work with local aspiring musicians through chamber music coaching, rehearsals, and performances. These artists have also performed a series of concerts throughout that week, formerly known as the CMI Artist Concert Series and now officially the Charles Ives Concert Series. In the last two years, we’ve programmed more than 25 American composers, almost all of them living, and the program has created a hunger across the Danbury community for new American music. Grounding our concerts in the Ives philosophy has led us to tap into a long-held community tradition, which is generating an excitement I believe can power a concert series. Through his music, Ives communicates to us his belief that composers have a role to play in shaping how we think and feel about our culture. Danbury’s community, still carrying the Ives tradition all these years later, is yearning for American composers to play that role.

Paul Frucht (photo by Masataka Suemitsu)

Paul Frucht (photo by Masataka Suemitsu)

Paul Frucht is the artistic director of the Charles Ives Concert Seres. A 2015 recipient of a Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, his music has been performed by the American Composers Orchestra, American Modern Ensemble, Juilliard Orchestra, Milwaukee Symphony, and San Diego Symphony among others. He holds a Master of Music Degree from the Juilliard School, where he is also a Doctoral of Musical Arts Candidate.

John King: It All Becomes Music

John King standing against a wall covered with a few branches.

About a month ago I was surfing through my Facebook news feed. Being afraid of rabbit holes, I tend never to do this very attentively or very frequently, but nevertheless something wound up catching my eye. It was just two lines, not even parsed into a proper sentence, about a recent performance. Even though I see tons of these every day, this one probably stood out because it included an image from the score. I was immediately drawn to it because there were no bar lines and it was just a single vocal part that was almost entirely in monotone. Then I noticed the post was from the eclectic composer John King and it had a link to his website. I loved several string quartets by King that I heard Ethel perform over a decade ago, both live and on recordings, and I also remembered an earlier, rather bizarre “double opera” that he had co-written with Polish composer Krzysztof Knittel which premiered at the Warsaw Autumn in 1999. But I had never before seen any of his scores. So I took a deep breath and clicked on the link to his website.

A screen capture of a John king Facebook post featuring an excerpt from a musical score preceded by the following text: "recent premiere of "The Park" by Loadbang....this excerpt entitled "larry" named after one of the denizens of Tompkins Square Park...]"

What I found there astonished me for a variety of reasons. I knew that he embraced a wide variety of styles—from Cagean indeterminacy and post-minimalism to rock, blues, and free improvisation. But I was hardly prepared for all the other kinds of music I found there: canons for chorus, orchestral pieces, a North Indian classical raga exposition, Baroque imitations, and numerous experimental operas. That was just the tip of the iceberg. Not only could I not believe how much music he had written—for example, 14 pieces totaling some six hours of music just last year—but also how open he was about all of it, including a piccolo concerto he composed when he was in high school. Everything was there with no hierarchy other that chronology. It was one of the most interesting composer websites I had ever visited. I had to talk to him for NewMusicBox!

Normally I prepare for these talks by attempting to listen to every single related scrap of music I can get my hands on. But there was no way I could do this with John King’s work; there was just too much of it. What was the secret to his being so immensely prolific and also so non-judgmental about it all? What could the rest of us learn from his equanimity?

I’m still not sure I got conclusive answers to these particular questions after spending a couple of hours with him at his home in the East Village, right across the street from Tomkins Square Park, which for him is a muse.  In fact, if anything, I walked away with even more questions. But I did leave there feeling inspired and more excited than I have in quite some time about the creative process. Our conversation was periodically drowned out by construction taking place in the neighborhood. Somehow that seemed appropriate though.  Initially Molly and I deliberated about how to proceed and what we might do to minimize the disturbances. King, however, was completely nonplussed by any of these additional unwanted sounds. For him it just added another sonic element, one that could potentially lead somewhere that was interesting. He told us stories about how birds chirping outside his window became part of one of his compositions. Occasionally he’d even point out moments when a hammer hit was synchronous with one of his syllables. Being so open, even to what others would perceive as noise or interruption, is perhaps as open-minded as you can be musically.

A conversation at John King’s apartment in New York City
June 15, 2016—10:00 a.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri: Might it be too noisy for us to talk?

John King: I think we should just treat it as New York.

FJO:  True, and considering that indeterminate sound is actually an important part of your aesthetic, the random construction sounds might actually be appropriate.

JK:  I remember John Cage speaking about car alarms and store alarms in the ‘70s.  That store alarm always went off on a Friday evening at six, and it would be going all weekend long because the people wouldn’t come back.  I remember Cage saying that for a while it sort of got to him, but then the way he managed it was to imagine where the sound was coming from. He just thought about the spatialization of that alarm—it’s on, say, 17th Street, between Fifth and Sixth Avenues.  Then the unnervingness of it would just disappear for him.  Sometimes I try to do that.  Sometimes I’m successful.

FJO: For me, when I can hear slight variations over time, it goes from being this constant, annoying thing to being music.

JK:  Right, you can all of a sudden concentrate on the overtones or the inconsistent nature of the pitch.  Yeah.  And it becomes music. We all know and love The Stone, but it’s on a very busy corner and some people want there to be complete silence before the beginning of a piece or before the beginning of a concert.  I had a residency there last year and some of the greatest moments in my own music were when the string quartet faded out and the sound of a car faded up and then the car faded out and the string quartet kept going.  So, for the experience of the music and the environment in that particular moment, I think it’s fine.  For recordings probably not, because you want those to be a little bit more indicative of the piece.  When people listen to that recording and a fire engine goes by, that becomes part of the sound world.  But I don’t think of it as a distraction; I think of it as an addition.

FJO: But since a lot of your scores involve indeterminate elements, there are often elements of surprise to the realization of what you’ve put on the page.  So when you say that you want a recording to be more indicative of the piece, what exactly is the piece?

“I’ve been fortunate to have some pieces done many times, so we can hear many, many versions of the same piece. It’s like looking at a globe or a sphere and just turning it and turning it or pulling it, like it’s taffy; you see it’s still the thing, but you’re seeing all these different possibilities within it.”

JK:  For quite a while at least some elements within almost every single thing that I’ve written have been chance determined.  That to me is opening the door to all kinds of experiences. I’ve been fortunate to have some pieces done many times, so we can hear many, many versions of the same piece. It’s like looking at a globe or a sphere and just turning it and turning it or pulling it, like it’s taffy; you see it’s still the thing, but you’re seeing all these different possibilities within it.  The hammer downstairs just hit on one of my syllables, so that makes it beautiful for that second, that accident, that simultaneity. It’s all beautiful.

FJO: The thing that finally prompted me to talk to you was total serendipity. I was scrolling through my Facebook feed and there was a post mentioning some piece of yours that included an image from the score. It looked interesting, so I followed the link which took me to your website. When I got there, I was floored by how much music there is on it and how much of it was created in a relatively short amount of time.  I’ve followed your work for years, but I had no idea how much stuff you’ve done.  Last year you wrote 14 different pieces which total over six hours of music. That’s an incredible amount of work.

JK:  Well, it was a productive year, I guess. A lot of that music was for dance companies. I have what I consider to be the great fortune and opportunity of working with choreographers, which began in college at CalArts, the California Institute of the Arts, where I graduated in 1976.  Then I moved to New York, but I kept up relationships with some of those people and I also formed new relationships. Then I sent a cassette to John Cage.  He wanted to come over and listen to some of my stuff and that led to a commission from Merce Cunningham, and then that led to an almost 25-year association while I worked with other choreographers, too.  I’ve worked a lot with a choreographer named Kevin O’Day.  Each time someone says, “Do you want to write a piece for this choreography that I’m working on?”—and a lot of them are evening-length pieces—I go, “Well, sure.”  Then I say what I’m interested in. “I want to write something for choir and string quartet.”  “Okay.  Great.  Why don’t you do that? We’ll work with a young people’s choir in Mannheim, Germany, and we’ll get students from the Hochschule and have them be the string quartet.”

Then live electronics. I have a long-evolving electronics scenario that works through chance, but for every piece I can go in and change and manipulate little things, and then it becomes the electronics environment for that particular piece. Then some other piece will come along and I’ll continue the evolution of that particular way of manipulating, processing, and locating sound.

I’ve got these other ideas for this other long series of pieces called Free Palestine that I started in 2013. I’m still writing them.  I get an idea and for some reason the string quartet is the ensemble that I go to for fulfilling an idea.  I’ll have an idea for a compositional structure or a compositional motive or what I sometimes call an epiphany, and it somehow crystallizes into the string quartet.  So I write a lot of string quartets for that reason.

FJO: Part of that I’m sure grows out of your being a string player.

JK: Yeah, I’m sure.  And I use improvisation. I played violin for a while, very poorly, and now I play viola very poorly.  But I play the instruments, so the physicality of working out some things, getting the fingerings, feeling how the bow works—I do have that visceral, physical connection in parts of the creative process so then I can go, “Oh man, this feels great.”  And then it goes right into the piece.

FJO: So pieces evolve from playing around with ideas physically before you get to the page?

JK:  Well, that’s the way it works sometimes. Then other times I’m just walking through Tomkins Square Park, which is a great source of inspiration.  I just walk and often how things are put together comes from free, mindless thinking.  I’ve been working with a way of organizing time, which I call time vectors. I used that in the piece for six pianos that was done last year at Knockdown Center called Piano Vectors—six Steinway Ds in 40,000 square feet of space. I had this idea of how to organize them temporally and that’s where I began. Not a note was written.  I went through the whole thinking process of how it was to work with just time, like how to fill the time, and then from there it got more crystallized and I got to the actual notes for the piano and how it was going to be put onto the page.  Most of that was chance determined, then some of it was also a kind of physicality at the piano, with me playing.

John King leaning on a fence outside Tomkins Square Park.

FJO: This compositional process seems somewhat reminiscent of the micro-macrocosmic rhythmic structures that John Cage was composing with before he started using chance and which, in fact, led him directly to compose using chance: having a larger-scale structure of the piece in place before there are any specific notes.

JK:  Right.  The pre-composition or meta-composition, the composition before the composition, the overriding way things are organized.

FJO: So, maybe this is a silly question, but with a piece that lasts a relatively long amount of time—let’s say an hour—how long does it take to compose it?

JK:  Well, sometimes it doesn’t take very long at all.  It can take a couple of weeks or a month. Piano Vectors was the first piece that I fully realized within these time structures that I call vectors.  Then from there, there was a series of string quartets that were written, and then I also thought, “Well I’m going to write a string orchestra piece.”  Then I wrote a brass ensemble piece, because I was thinking about that, then a piece for percussion quartet. It’s like what Cage used to do with Fontana Mix. It can be done by itself, with Aria, or with Concert for Piano and Orchestra, because the system that he used to create one was the system he used to create all of them, so why can’t those things be played simultaneously?  The piece could be an hour long or 25-minutes long or an hour and a half long.  All those things are able to be accordionated—stretched or compressed—yet the structure, which to me is the overriding thing, is maintained.

FJO: Certainly the most extreme example of this that I can think of is the performance of Cage’s piece Organ2/ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible) in Halberstadt, Germany.

JK:  They’re still doing it…

FJO: They’re going to be doing it for 639 years.  But obviously he didn’t spend more than six centuries composing it.  Theoretically you could have a structure for something that lasts six hours, but maybe it took you only an hour to work it out.  Is it possible for the process of creating one of your pieces to actually be shorter than the realization of it?

“It’s surprising what happens when the mind has to get ideas together and you have to have something within a deadline. I can’t be like, ‘Is it a b-flat or a c-natural?’ All those things are gone—all those kind of self-doubts, self-criticisms.”

JK:  I don’t know if I’ve ever experienced that.  I taught at Dartmouth.  I took over Larry Polansky’s composition seminar for one semester.  I did these things with the graduate students that I called lightening composition.  If you play chess, you know what lightning chess is—it’s super fast.  You go with what you know, whatever your experience is with chess.  I had them do that with compositions, just as a way to kick start some ideas.  I gave them 15 minutes to come up with a piece.  I did it myself, too.  I never like giving students anything that I don’t participate in myself.  It’s surprising what happens when the mind has to get ideas together and you have to have something within a deadline.  A lot of people say, “Uh oh, I’ve got this deadline.” But I think, “Wow, I’ve got this deadline.”  You know, it’s got to be there.  I’ve got until Monday morning to finish it.  Great.  Because that means that I can’t be like, “Is it a b-flat or a c-natural?” All those things are gone—all those kind of self-doubts, self-criticisms. You just have to go with what you believe is coming from you as purely and as transparently as possible, and just do it.

FJO: So then do pieces ever get revised?

JK:  Sometimes they do.  The more notated the piece is, the more likely it is to be revised.  Some of the Free Palestine pieces were very open in terms of their interpretation. Then when we got into rehearsing them and then finally recording them, I had to do more arranging to make sure that everything worked.  So I took away some of the openness, but that was more pragmatic. I don’t think I’ll edit them.  But sometimes pieces change.

FJO: So, 14 pieces last year.  Six hours of music.  A productive year.  But I was just using 2015 as an example. It seems like you’ve been almost equally prolific every year for at least the past decade. How much time do you spend composing music in a given week?

JK:  Well, if I’m not traveling and don’t have something else going on, if it’s a week that’s just more or less a normal week and I’ve been commissioned to do something, I would guess between six and eight hours a day, sometimes more and sometimes a little bit less.  But I don’t divide the week into five days with two days.  I divide the week into seven days.

The upright piano in John King's apartment which has books of scores by Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus.

FJO: And, in terms of inspiration, you mentioned to me before we were on camera that the piano you have here is a little bit beat up which could be a good thing—it could take you out of pre-conceptions about what a piano is supposed to sound like. I see a laptop over there and I saw some recording equipment in another room. So I imagine that this is your composition studio as well as your home; this is where you create your music.

“I don’t divide the week into five days with two days. I divide the week into seven days.”

JK:  Yeah.  There’s a little, mini-studio that I use, but even that. I remember—I think it was last year or it might have been the year before—I worked on some poetry of Wang Wei, who’s a Tang-era poet, a really beautiful poet, and he was also an artist and a kind of a political consultant to various people.  So I’m in there working on the piece, and it was eventually going to be for soprano and then myself on viola and Robert Dick on flute, and with live electronics.  But I’m in there working on it, I think it was April, and there were all these birds singing back there.  So I just threw out a microphone and grabbed some of the birds singing and tried to bring that into the piece. And that did become part of the piece.  Then when I was editing the piece, I remember wanting to make sure the bird sounds were there, but then the bird sounds were outside, too, and also inside what I was editing, so that was an interesting process of hearing what inspired something and then hearing where it ended up.

FJO: You’re able to create amid construction noise and birds singing—that’s all potential compositional fodder. So do you ever go off to artist colonies?

JK:  Well, I’ve had the good fortune of being at three residencies this past year—in Florida, Venice, and Bellagio, Italy.  That focuses you there for a certain amount of time and focuses the work that you can do there.  But New York is very inspiring, too, in terms of walking through the park.  I hear great things both from the park and what’s buzzing around inside.  I think both are great experiences.

A window in John King's apartment.

FJO: I’d like to take it all the way back to the past. Your website is an incredible time portal and archive of almost everything you’ve ever done.  I couldn’t believe it!

JK:  1972 is, I think, the earliest.

FJO: You included a piccolo concerto that you wrote when you were in high school. You included an image from a page of your manuscript.

JK:  And a very poor recording made on a cassette player.  Remember those cassette players that had one red button? It was my mother’s cassette player. I can still remember the piece. It’s in a very rudimentary baroque style.

FJO: And then there was this six-minute piece for guitar and piano that survives only on the recording from, I think, 1973.  I’m trying to remember.  It was hard for me to keep track of it all.  You might finally be the person who defeated me.  I always like to listen to everything somebody does before I talk to that person.  But with you I couldn’t possibly do it.  I would have wound up spending the rest of my life just listening to your music.

JK:  I’m so grateful and fortunate. Tony Kramer, a friend of mine from Philadelphia, looked at my old website and said, “You’ve got to get this organized and get it together.” And he helped support that new website.  It took many, many months.  I went back to reel-to-reel tapes and cassettes.  I digitized it all.  I remember putting a cassette into the machine.  I hit play and I didn’t know if the whole thing would come off the spindle—that was the age of some of these recordings!

FJO: But to me the most interesting thing about it is that you decided to include all this stuff, even something you wrote in high school.  You still have a sense of it being you and you’re O.K. with it being out in the world representing you. And yet, there are some things that appear to be missing.  You posted a String Quartet No. 2, but there isn’t a No. 1.

JK:  There’s also a String Quartet No. 3.  I stopped numbering after three.

FJO: Right.  But what happened to No. 1?

JK:  I do have the score somewhere.  It was written in what they call a gap year now, between high school and my first year of college.  I was not in school, but I was studying with a composition guy in Minneapolis.  He introduced me to Lutoslawski. I used to take people I liked and treat them as models.  I would write something that was sort of in that style to say this is what I liked and this is what I didn’t like.  Then I’d retain what felt like my own voice.  So that first string quartet was such a piece. It was written on manila manuscript in pencil and I never got a string quartet to play it.  But I still have it.

FJO: But you haven’t put a thing about it on your website. Why did that piece get left out, when you were open to everything else?

JK: I tried to find pieces that had some audio. I don’t think there’s anything there that doesn’t have either audio or video.  But I guess I should maybe scan it or something.

FJO: Now in terms of having it all out there, you include recordings and a page from the score. You don’t put up full scores, which means that people have to contact you to get the materials if they’re interested.

JK: Yeah.

FJO: So do people contact you about some of these older pieces?  Has having this resource given you this opportunity?

JK: Well, to a certain extent.  I do sometimes get string quartets that want to get the score for this piece called HardWood which, again, began as a piece for the Pennsylvania Ballet for Kevin O’Day’s choreography.  That was at the time that ETHEL was forming, and they performed it as a piece for the ballet.  Then they really liked three of the movements, so I said you can treat those like a concert version because it was, I think, a 25- or 30-minute-long piece.  They made it into a 15-minute suite. And that piece is the one that most people contact me about because it’s got this blues movement that’s got some really driving stuff in it.

FJO: What if someone came to you and asked to do that piccolo concerto?

JK: Wow, all that stuff that’s on paper with my pencil looks like I was drawing these big fat notes.  And the pencil is kind of smeared a little bit. I was so into Bach and all this stuff at the time.  I don’t know who would want to play that piccolo concerto. But if somebody did, I’d put it together.  I have the score. I bound it with twine.

FJO: One of the things that I thought was so sweet—it’s not as old as those pieces, but it goes back quite a ways—is a piano sonata after Mozart that you wrote for your mother’s 70th birthday.

JK: Oh yeah.

FJO: Once again, it’s totally unlike any other work of yours that I know.  But you put it up along with everything else anyway.

JK: I also wrote an adagio for my father—I think for his 80th birthday.  He really likes Wagner and the high Romantics. It’s not really Wagnerian, but it’s in that world.  It’s for a string orchestra, but I didn’t have the strings, so it’s just a sampler version of the string orchestra piece.  My mother used to tell me that they would listen to it at top volume.  Yeah.  Why not?

FJO: So you grew up in a household with parents who appreciated classical music.

JK: Yeah, my mother was a pianist, and we usually heard her play just at Christmas time, because she would play Christmas carols.  I played guitar in a rock band and they weren’t too happy about that, for many reasons.  But then I took up violin and started playing rudimentary things.  My mom and I played duets together and that was really fun.  My father loved to listen to music.  They had season tickets to the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra, and they were members of the Walker Arts Center and the Guthrie Theater.  So those were the places where I got my initial [exposure]. I remember seeing a Bertholt Brecht play for the first time—I was probably 14 or 15—at the Walker.  And I was just so blown away.  It was The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui. It had projections and went slam back and forth between 1930s Chicago and Nazi Germany, and I was this kid going, “Wow.  This is so cool.”  And I saw touring operas at this place at the University of Minnesota called the Northrup Auditorium.  Madame Butterfly was my first opera.

John King's kitchen. A table with flowers and some bananas, a bookcase, and a wall filled with framed photographs.

FJO: Were you writing your own things yet at this point?

JK: I was.  When I first started playing violin, I had a friend in high school who played viola.  And I was studying counterpoint.  I wrote all these canons, because canons were these cool things that if you just kind of did them and followed all the rules—that my teacher was always correcting me about—you had a little composition. So I wrote lots of canons for her and me.  In high school, I was in a free education program where you could choose your own classes.  Those were the days of Summerhill.  It was an educational system out of England where kids were given the opportunity to make their own curriculum.  You decide what you want to do with your time, and so I studied violin, piano, and counterpoint.  And I was in a rock band, so that was part of my curriculum.  I was also reading Plato and studying Chinese history, but all on my own.  I just decided to do those things.

During that time, I also helped organize the talent show. So the rock band played and I played these little funny canons for violin and viola. There were people that were there studying tap dance. And I wrote some stuff for brass ensemble.  I was getting into Stravinsky, too.  I was experimenting with polytonality. The band teacher hated my music.  He would make fun of it in front of the band.  He would come over to the piano and play two chords that were meant to be played together.  And he would bang on them and say, “This is how you’re supposed to sound.  This is how he wants you to sound.  Isn’t that pretty?  Isn’t this nice?”  And of course, he got a laugh from everybody.  But I said, “Yeah, that’s how I wanted this.”

FJO: Good for you.  I love how some of these early crystallizing moments stayed with you. Just a few years ago, you wrote this piece for chorus that’s a three-part canon which was totally breaking rules and, in so doing, you created these wonderful textures. It’s canon your way.  And that can be traced all the way back to those violin-viola duets.

JK:  Yeah.  It’s still hard for me to write parallel fifths.  There’s a big feeling of freedom to have parallel fifths or parallel octaves or things like that, because all that stuff was driven out of me.  It was counterpoint from the 1600s on, all those rules.  But yeah, those structural things like canons or how to unify a piece of music, it’s still there.

FJO: One thing that I find that’s so interesting about your story is that you were immersed in this world of playing violin and viola and in string quartets.  But you also had another foot in this world of the electric guitar and playing in a rock band.  Of course, they’re not really separate worlds.  And in the music you would later come to write, they definitely aren’t separate worlds. There are passages in string quartets of yours that sound like deep Delta blues and even hard rock.  Then there are things with electric guitar that almost sound baroque.  I came across a piece of yours called Dance Piece that sounds like square dance music, but it was done with all electronic instruments—electric guitar and synthesizers. It’s totally out of context for those instruments, yet it totally works.  So there are no walls that compartmentalize music into different genres for you. It’s all one big continuum; even within a piece, it can suddenly go from one thing to another.

“My mother liked me playing violin, but she didn’t like me playing Jimi Hendrix.”

JK: In high school, I was playing in two or three bands simultaneously.  I was getting as much playing as I possibly could.  Chicago blues was what gave me my inspiration.  Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton were my big idols, so I was learning their stuff and playing their stuff.  My mother liked me playing violin, but she didn’t like me playing Jimi Hendrix.  She tried to ban Jimi Hendrix in the household, but I said no.  She had heard these things about what he did and what he stood for and all that. But I was not copying that; I was just listening to the music and playing in bands.  Later on I played on and off in blues bands here in New York for years and years.  It was that period in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s when the electric guitar also could become an instrument—as were lots of jazz and rock instruments—for pure improvisation, free noise, and noise that was mixed with all sorts of other elements from the universe.  It was not just about one thing. Let’s put everything together.  Let’s have there be a continuum where there are no walls, no borders. One thing just flows to the next as quickly or as slowly as you want to make them.

Another recent piece that’s on the website that’s just for guitars is Requiem for Eric Garner. I had discovered Erik Satie, probably through Cage.  Then I found these pieces that had no bar lines—Ogives.  So immediately I loved it—1880s and no bar lines!  And then I read that ogives are things in Notre Dame [Cathedral], the kind of arcs that were used.  Satie went in there and just got inspired by l’Ecole de Notre Dame composers and he wrote this thing.  And it’s just so beautiful.  If I transpose it a little bit, I’ve got it all on the guitar.  So I learned those, and incorporated that. It goes from Ogives, then 11th century, then back to root pedals and strangeness with the guitar.  It’s all lots of fun.

The sun reflected in John King's glasses.

FJO: I have a notation question regarding your electric guitar music.  The tradition of writing for string quartets is an old tradition, and it is very clearly and very precisely notated, down to all the articulations and bowings. You can break that down in various ways and open it up, and you get all sorts of other things.  But with electric guitar, there are elements of performance practice that notation really hasn’t caught up with, like settings for amps and pedals that are so individualized. All the great players have a very personalized sound on the instrument. If you want someone to recreate your sound, there is a great deal of information you’d need to convey that isn’t part of standard musical notation.  How much of an issue is that for you?

JK:  Well, I think that if any guitar player were to pick something up, I think they’d just have to have the recording and take it from there.  I have another piece called White Buffalo Calf Woman Blues. I think the recording is up on the website.  I got an email from a guitar player in Italy who said he wanted to play that piece and did I have the music for it?  Well, I didn’t. I didn’t have the sheet music for it because it was kind of an improvised piece.  But then I said, “If somebody wants to play it, I’ll put it together.”  And you know, it can be put together. Some things were written out and then there were some areas that were improvisational.  But something like tone—guitar players are so particular about that, so to notate it would be like telling the guitar player to throw that away. So I wouldn’t want to be too precise with that kind of stuff; I would encourage the player to change the settings.  I have this kind of guitar, I have this kind of amp, and I have these kinds of pedals.  Maybe I’ll try this version of it.  If then out from that someone wants to interpret it various ways, I think that’s just a great thing.

But when I do string quartet music or orchestral music, I try to really go through and make sure that everything is correct about the bowings and things like that.  But then you go to rehearsals, and you hear the string players go, “Let’s take these bowings and let’s not take those bowings.” If they feel like they can get the grit, the beauty, or whatever the musicality is that they find in it with a different bowing, I’m fine with it.  I’m not really into saying, “This is the way it has to be.”  I’m not that kind of guy.

“I’m not really into saying, ‘This is the way it has to be.’ I’m not that kind of guy.”

FJO: With an orchestra, the more precisely something is notated, the less rehearsal time it requires.  As soon as you give people choices, they have to take time to debate what they’re going to do in terms of those choices. Because they’re on a clock, they’re forced into certain kinds of music-making paradigms.

JK: That’s exactly right.

FJO: While you have written for orchestra, it’s not a ton of what you do.  I imagine that’s probably because you prefer for there to be more freedom with the players.

JK: This is again something that is on the composer.  What kind of freedom do you want, and how much time are they going to have to digest it and to be able to understand it and do something with it?  That means the notation has to be really clear.  You can’t waffle at all about things and you have to be maybe like, “I want them to do this, this, and this, but maybe I should just have them do this and this.”  Go into those things, and then they’ll get it more precisely.  With these things that I call time vectors, I’ll try to explain it to the musicians and they’ll play through it once or twice. Then I’d say, “That one thing that you did, you’re not understanding what I meant.”  A clarification comes, and then they get it.  But you’re right, it’s about time.  It’s about being on the clock. If it’s an orchestra, how many orchestras in colleges or conservatories work with a digital clock? How much experience do they have with it and when are they going to use it?  Maybe no orchestras will ever want to do a piece that’s on a digital clock or that has anything but bar lines in it.  How much music do they get that has no bar lines?  How long will it take?  But then what happens if the players come out and they say, “Oh yeah, I’ve done that 50 times before; this is nothing to me.  Let’s go.  Let’s explore this.  It says that I can choose any articulation.  Well great.  Let’s do it”?  If someone were to commission me to do an orchestra piece—and it’s been done, but in Mannheim, Germany—usually what I do is I end up in 4/4, trying to put it into that kind of configuration. I get the sense that things are changing, but I don’t know how fast it’ll change.

FJO: Well, I’d love for you to explain time vectors to me.

JK: Okay, well I’ll explain it by way of where it comes from.  The first piece that I did for the Cunningham company was for a dance called Native Green.  The music was called gliss in sighs, and it was written for an electric prepared violin.  John Cage hooked me up with Max Mathews.  Max was making all these electric violins. The violin that he gave to me was so cool; every string had a separate microphone on it.  The way the Cunningham company works is they have speakers all over the theater.  So by making a broken chord across those four strings, you make the sound go around the auditorium.  It was just so beautiful. Playing a double stop, we had sounds coming from two sides of the auditorium.

“With time vectors, the direction is that you begin after or before a certain time and you end before or after another time.”

That was the first piece where I began to use time as the way things were organized.  I had a grouping of material—what I called a time window: Like from zero to 30 seconds, this can take place.  From 30 seconds to 45, these materials can be improvised or used.  That’s how it worked.  Cage later had those things that he called time brackets, where you had to start within a particular window; that was the way that time was organized.  With time vectors, the direction is that you begin after or before a certain time and you end before or after another time.  So, you can think of it this way: You have to begin after zero and end before 30.  You have to place this material within that.  Then, another kind of vector is you have begin before a certain time and end before a certain time.  Another way is that you have to begin before a certain time, and end after a certain time.  And the last vector, the last possibility, is you have to begin after a certain time and end after a certain time.  So I give you a musical phrase, and I say this has to fit like this, or you can stretch it here, or you can compress it here, or you can place it here, or it could become the entire piece sometimes.  Or it could be that you’d have to stretch those three notes if you wanted to be really extreme with your interpretation of these time vectors.  You can play three notes over the entire duration of the piece.  Or you can place it here, or place it there, stretch it this way, or compress it that way.  Have it fall at this particular point, have it fall within another particular point, but within these chance-determined timing points.

FJO: So you were doing this before Cage’s Number Pieces?

JK: Well, what I call the time windows thing was done before them.  But the idea of how to stretch these vectors was after.  It was maybe four or five years ago.

FJO: So would you say that that grew out of the influence of the Cage Number Pieces?

JK: I’m sure it did. And because of being with Cunningham, we played this pretty famous piece of his called Four3, which is based on chance-determined reworkings of the Erik Satie 24-hour piece Vexations. Cage took the cantus firmus, and he made all these different single lines where the pitches are chance determined, either above or below the cantus firmus. The rhythmic element of the cantus firmus is intact, but it is stretched out over a minute and a half or two minutes.  I used to play it for a while with David Tudor.  The last time I saw Cage was after a performance of that that I’d done with David Tudor at City Center.  When you’re playing that piece, you put yourself in this very interesting mind frame.  You get the piece of music that you’re about to play, but very little. There are maybe 16 or 18 different phrases you can choose, and so you get ready to play and then you look at the clock, and you look at the time score, and you think, “Okay, is this between 35 and 45?  Yes it is, so I can begin now. And then how long do I have play?  Well, I have to make it last until one minute, or until one minute and 20 seconds, and so I have to stretch it out.  I’m going to end at 1:20.  I’m going to go to the very end.” And you make that decision, then you play, and then you end.  So it puts you in a place where you really have to be focused. David Tudor’s doing his version of it and I’m doing my version of it. I’ve also played it with Christian Wolff and with David Behrman. You’re a performer and you’re also completely an audience.  You’re somehow aware of what’s happening around you.  You’re not reacting to it, but you’re aware of it.  That always fascinated me about that piece.  You have to be totally invested in that decision that you make.  “Okay, I’m going to do this one.  I’m going to do it here.  I’m going to do it for this length.”  But then what’s happening?  What else is out there in the world that’s co-existing with this thing, with this decision that I made?  That experience was really fascinating.

A small painting leans against one of the window panes in John King's apartment.

FJO: When you mention being the audience you open up a whole other Pandora’s box full of questions. We talked about how performers respond to the score, but not really about how audiences respond when they’re hearing things. How much concern do you have about audiences knowing how these pieces were put together? What does an audience coming to this music need in terms of advance planning, if anything at all, to really experience what you’re doing?

JK: Well, in those kinds of pieces, I think if an audience understands that they don’t have to understand the particulars of how the time’s being organized, but that the organization of the sounds that they’re hearing, the simultaneities, is chance determined, then what they gain from their experience is unique and totally valid. What do you hear? What is interesting to you? What do you notice? What those things are is completely valid and the best is if someone is sitting next to you and hears a completely different thing. That’s fine. It’s the experience you bring to it, then what you get out of it is valid. But there are also pieces that I’ve written that have more of an emotional or dramatic trajectory.

FJO: Your string quartet AllSteel immediately comes to mind. Once someone reads that you composed half of the movements of the piece before 9/11 and the other half afterwards and that the before and after movements alternate, there’s no way to un-know that information. It becomes a very significant part of the listening experience.

JK: But I don’t how much there are connectivities with the more abstracted time organized pieces. At the performances of Piano Vectors at Knockdown Center, the audience was just wandering.  It was like an installation. People would park themselves in different places. One person fell asleep under one of the pianos. They were constructing their own journey through these expanses of music that were done at different times and different ways. Those kinds of pieces I think are the ones that are the most open to the individual creating their own experience and getting from it what they notice. But there are other pieces that have a program or a beginning inspiration behind them that does impact the way they’re experienced, like Requiem for Eric Garner or the Free Palestine pieces.

FJO: I’d like to continue talking for a bit about AllSteel. It’s interesting to me that before 9/11 you were writing a certain kind of music but that afterwards it was a completely different kind of music. You’ve described it as the point where the 20th century ended and the 21st century began. It somehow changed the music you were writing. So I wanted to explore what exactly you meant by that.

JK: The piece was a commission. Some ideas I was gathering before, but I sat down on September 10 to begin the piece. It was a Monday. I remember going through those four movements and writing a good minute or two into each of those four parts. The beginning was this groove that I had in my head. I knew that there was going to be a very kind of sleazy blues thing from a pizzicato cello. Then I had this other kind of technical thing that I was going to use in the fourth movement. I really had a lot of it planned out. Those four movements were pretty well in place. Then 9/11 happened and I just couldn’t go ahead with it as planned, because it was pretty aggressive. So I wanted those other movements to be reflective and I think it did well for the piece.

FJO: There’s another string quartet of yours that has even a greater variety of musical styles co-existing together, 10 Mysteries, but I don’t have the same kind of window into it that I do with AllSteel because of your comments about that piece. These kinds of back stories are certainly helpful to me as a listener, but I wonder how important they are to you?

JK: Well, I remember 10 Mysteries was one of the pieces that I also wrote when I had this idea of the convergence of composed music, indeterminate music, and improvised music. I wanted those three things to be present, but you couldn’t tell what was what.  I called it the trilogic unity—having these three ways of making music be so connected that it was a unified thing.  I would like an audience to know, to the extent that they are able to understand, something that’s written down is going to be the same thing every time but there’s also something that comes purely spontaneously from improvisation and then other things that were embedded into the music with indeterminacy.

“I had this idea of the convergence of composed music, indeterminate music, and improvised music. I wanted those three things to be present, but you couldn’t tell what was what. It’s like you make a reservation at a steak house. And just before you get in the door, you think, ‘I feel like having a vegetarian burger down the street.’ Then on the way there, you run into a friend whom you haven’t seen in 20 years who just happens to pass by, and he says, ‘Let’s go have a drink.’”

I had this metaphor that I said once in a composition class.  It’s like you make a reservation at a restaurant.  It’s a steak house.  You plan it in advance: Friday I’m going to go to this steakhouse.  And just before you get in the door, you think, “I feel like having a vegetarian burger down the street.”  A spontaneous thought comes in.  I determined to do this, but now I’m going to do that.  Then on the way there, you run into a friend whom you haven’t seen in 20 years who just happens to be in town, who just happens to pass by, and he says, “Let’s go have a drink.”  Three kinds of ways of interacting with the world.  I just wanted to put that in the music somehow, that little compression of possibility.  Let’s put those close together so they’re always present.  That’s what I was trying to do with that piece.

FJO: Now how my brain works is that you messed with my head by calling this piece 10 Mysteries even though it only has nine movements. Where’s the tenth movement?

JK: I know. I threw off everybody with that. At the very end of the piece, it finishes and the quartet just holds—if it’s done live—for 30 to 45 seconds because I wanted there to be a moment where people would just collect all that at the end, all the stuff going on in people’s experience.  So the tenth mystery was what happens in the listener when the piece is finished.  It’s like the seventh direction for Native Americans. There are seven directions: north, south, east, west, up, and down, and then there’s where you are.

FJO: Another piece of yours that has thrown me off somewhat is The HeartPiece, which you co-created with the Polish composer Krzysztof Knittel for the Warsaw Autumn festival at which it was described as a “double opera.” I’m not sure what that means.

JK: There’s this great text by Heiner Müller called Herzstück and it has two characters in it: A and B. I was at the Warsaw Autumn performing with a friend of mine—Krzysztof Zarebski—who is a performance artist. He’s good friends with Krzysztof Knittel, a composer who lives in Warsaw.  I remember speaking to him about this crazy idea I had: “What if we were to write a double opera, kind of like an exquisite corpse. We take this text, and we do different things with it. You do your version, and I do my version, and we just go back and forth. And we’d use a string quartet.” He played electric keyboards, I was playing guitar, and then the singers would be David Moss, who’s a friend of mine, and he knew a well-known Polish soprano, Olga Pasisniek, who was open to doing something really wild and crazy. So that’s how we did it. We had some disagreements; it wasn’t like [John Cage and Lou Harrison’s] Double Music, so we had to come up with some kind of structural agreements, and then we just put it together.  I thought of that A-B text being like the structure for how the piece would be composed: A-B composers. The text is very open and it’s very funny. A could be a man and B a woman.  It could be two men; it could be two women.  It is without any gender, though people have their own thoughts about how that could be.  We put it together very quickly before we played it in a small theater in Warsaw and, fortunately, we did two performances.  And it was done for Polish TV. The set was designed by Krzysztof Zarebski. The string quartet was inside this big tent made out of paper. They start playing, then they poke through the paper and it reveals them as the paper is torn apart. It was an all-female string quartet called Dafo.

FJO: Doing that project seems to have opened up a whole other world of you. Since then you’ve composed a bunch of these weird kinds of operas that are experimenting with texts in a completely different way. Or works that play with narrative or a lack of narrative, like impropera, where the text and the staging also have indeterminate elements. This has now become a central part of what you do.

JK:  It is. For me, that fascinating juncture of staging, lighting, text, and music is what opera is supposed to be. It was done in a certain way in the Baroque period, and different ways as we’ve gone along in history. But both the team of Brecht/Weill and Cunningham/Cage took the idea of staging in kind of similar ways. They wanted to treat the music separately from the text. They wanted to treat the text separately from the stage design. The stage design with a Brecht piece wasn’t meant to be naturalistic: “Oh, we’re really in someone’s room.” Instead, it took the opportunity of staging something and saying, “Let’s put a cow skull on the top of a pole and that will represent what goes on in this room.” The audience wasn’t being told how to think. The audience was encouraged to think about what goes on in that room, not because it’s got chairs and sofas, but because it’s got a cow skull on the top of a stick.  That puts people in a slightly different place.

Another opera that I did was called Dice Thrown. It was based on this Stéphane Mallarmé poem.  Mallarmé was very particular about where the words appeared on the page, what font they were in, whether they were italicized or bold. I found it at the end of a collection of poetry by him.  When I opened the book for the first time, I looked at it and I said, “This is a musical score.”  And when I looked at his notes, his introduction to it, he said that it is like a piece of music.  The space on the page is meant to be like silence.  The way that the words are written is meant to be like how they could be read.

A page from a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé that uses space and various types of typography.

I looked at this and I said I just had to do something with it.  So I took the text apart.  I put all the italicized words together, because that’s a kind of a narrative, even though it stretches from top to bottom.  And then there’s the title—it’s also embedded from the beginning to the end of the poem.  I just used that as this rich inspiration for how the music was done.  I also had video incorporated in ways that exemplified that, and I divided the stage similarly to Cage’s Europeras.  He divided the stage into 64 parts.  I didn’t want to get that complicated, so the stage was divided into 16 squares. Every time the piece is played, there’s a projection behind the audience that shows where the singer is singing from.  They look at the score, which has a time code as well as a stage breakdown.  “I sing Aria One from this place tonight.  Then I’m joined.  There’s a chorus. The three singers can occupy these parts of the stage.”  There was a choreographic element. They had all the negative space—any place the singers weren’t occupying, that’s where a dance movement could be done.  Steve Koplowitz was the choreographer.  He had to do choreography for his six dancers that could exist in one square, or along the strips, or along the back, like he had to have it be mobilized and transformable, so that it fits every night. We did two different performances, and each performance has a kind of an A and a B part.  We’d do a version at the beginning and then a version at the end, so that the audience could experience two passes at this way of organizing material.

The set design people and even the choreographer didn’t think that it was possible in the beginning.  It happened when everyone understood how it was to be organized.  It was beautiful and seamless, and everything about it worked. You just had to make sure that everything’s organized, and people understood.  The singers understood, “I might sing this aria tonight.  I might not.  I might someplace else.  I might sing it from this part of the stage. It might last two minutes, it might last six minutes, but I have to make it go along with all the different variations that are possible.”

John King reading a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé that inspired his opera Dice Thrown.

That was one of those things where all those elements were organized completely separately, but then unified in the performance itself. The audience can notice, “Oh that word was projected on the back wall, and something else was sung, but I made a connection between this appearance that was projected and what the person was singing in French simultaneously with that projection.”  Maybe the dancers were doing something that, again, emphasized something for this person, but the person here didn’t get that, they got something else.  That was how I organized that opera.

“For me, that fascinating juncture of staging, lighting, text, and music is what opera is supposed to be.”

Theatrical work is of great interest to me. With the most recent micro-operas that I did, lighting was also a big element.  Chance-determined lighting. Getting that incorporated into the piece and noticing what happened. Getting reactions from the audience about how they experienced that. I will hopefully do many, many more of these.

FJO: We’re now almost at the halfway point of this year, and you’ve already written three pieces—an hour of music. Maybe you’ve written more, but you haven’t gotten them on your website yet. What are you working on next?  Are there going to be more operas? How far in advance do you plan the next thing you’re doing?  Do you know what the next six months are going to be?

JK: I know that there are certain things that I’m hoping to realize. I’ve had a project in mind for quite a while. I’ve worked with the Brooklyn Youth Chorus a lot. And I’ve made contact with a choir in Ramallah, Palestine. I have contact with people at a place called Culture Hub—that’s the new media part of LaMaMa Theater.  They do multi-site performances, which they call telematic performances. I’ve written a choral piece that’s similar to a lot of the stuff that I’ve written for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus based on a poem by Mahmoud Darwish, who was a great Palestinian poet. I’m hoping that I can get these two choirs to sing together at some point. The idea of a choir in Brooklyn singing a piece or two of theirs for the choir in Palestine and the choir in Palestine singing a piece or two of theirs for the choir in Brooklyn, and then having them sing something together is something that I’m hoping to do in the next six months. The music is finished. It’s now just the technology that we’re waiting on to get everyone to be able to talk to each other. I’m also working on a piece for the Belgrade Philharmonic with my partner Aleksandra Vrebalov. We’re working on the entire piece together without divisions of responsibility, trying to create a work without identifiable “creators” but blended so well that even we won’t be able to tell who wrote what! Plus the recording of the Free Palestine string quartets is another thing that will have to be edited, probably in the fall. Those are the main things right now.

FJO: So never a free moment. I know you drink lots of coffee.

JK:  Café Bustelo.

A can of Cafe Bustelo on the kitchen counter in John King's apartment.

Muhal Richard Abrams: Think All, Focus One

Muhal Richard Abrams sitting in front of the New Music USA mural (created by the staff at New Music USA in 2015)

Muhal Richard Abrams

A conversation at New Music USA
January 15, 2016—2:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Although very early on in our conversation Muhal Richard Abrams adamantly denied ever being anyone’s teacher, I learned more during the hour I spent talking to him than I had in most of my music classes. And yet, I feel like it’s almost impossible to adequately communicate what it is exactly that I learned. At the risk of sounding like a Zen koan, that is precisely what I learned.

Let me attempt to explain. To Abrams, there are no boundaries. Any label we put on something—fixed composition vs. spontaneous improvisation, group vs. individual, even old music vs. new music—is artificial and limits possibilities. From his vantage point, all dualities are contained within each other. All improvisations are compositions and all compositions begin as improvisations. A solo performance can inhabit multiple personalities and an orchestra can be the embodiment of a pluralistic individualism. As for old and new, “None of it’s real because the situation that is characterized as old often times is revisited and found to be useful for some future purpose. And something new can be visited and found that is reminiscent of something that’s old.”

Though an iconic figure in the history of jazz, the 85-year-old composer/pianist also eschews the word jazz since it only describes certain aspects of his music.

“The word jazz can be confusing,” Abrams points out. “But if we say music, it could be anywhere. It’s just music. The next question, what type of music? Okay. No type of music. Just sound.”

And indeed over the past seven decades, Abrams has created music that some listeners might categorize as blues, Latin, classical, and all kinds of jazz from swing to bop to free. He’s even experimented with electronic music.

“That came about because sound can be produced in any way that you feel that you’d like to produce sound,” Abrams explains. “It’s just electronic sound. … But sound, that’s the thing, because before music can be called music, it has to be harnessed and structured from sound. Music is a by-product of sound. Sound is the thing. Sound.”

While the music he has created is extremely individualistic, it is also the by-product of his humility and deep sense of community. I titled this feature “Think All, Focus One,” which is the name of one of his most fascinating explorations involving electronics, the closing track of an album released 21 years ago on the Black Saint label. It’s as succinct and definitive a summation I can conceive of for a creator whose life’s work embraces and reconciles such a broad range of aesthetics.

This Spotify playlist containing over seven hours of music by Muhal Richard Abrams merely scratches the surface of his immerse and highly varied discography.


Frank J. Oteri: There’s a beautiful quote by you at the end of your liner notes for a record that came out in 1987 called Colors in Thirty-Third which I think sums up your belief system about music: “May the past, present, and future be ever before us as one.”

Muhal Richard Abrams: Well, I think I was trying to be in any time. I was thinking infinitely, if that’s possible. And I believe it is. Whatever I said could be in any time because it applied to what I feel is your essence, your inner focus.

The CD cover for Colors in Thirty Third (Black Saint, 1987)

Black Saint released Muhal Richard Abrams’s Colors in Thirty-Third in 1987

FJO: So many people describe music as either being “old music” or “new music.” But sometimes the lines can be very blurry. For example, in jazz, changes in style happened very rapidly; the transition from swing to bop and then cool and free all happened in a relatively brief period of time. Your music incorporates elements from all of these styles. For you, it’s all part of the language. And your music tells us that we can do it all.

MRA: Well, it’s partly human language. We can’t separate ourselves from other human beings because we are expressing ideas and all human beings express ideas. I may express it through a musical continuum and a poet may it express through literary continuums, but it’s basically the same thing because when we confront the whole idea of movement or rhythm, all these different sections or areas have rhythm in common, you know. And human beings have rhythm and breathing in common.

So, in reference to people saying this is old or this is new, if it’s old for you, then it’s old for you. If it’s new for you, it’s new for you. But those are just terms that are useful to describe the particular mood that that person or those people are feeling. None of it’s real because the situation that is characterized as old often times is revisited and found to be useful for some future purpose. And something new can be visited and found that is reminiscent of something that’s old. Take women’s fashion or men’s fashion. We see it every day. You know what I mean? And we certainly see it in music. Why is it that Beethoven and Bach are current and present today and valid today? Why is Duke Ellington still extremely important? When we view him as an individual creator, there’s a lot to learn. We’re observing an individual’s output, and I think the fact that we are all individuals for some reason or other is the basis of real education.

FJO: When you started to answer my previous question you said that you express things in music that other people express in poetry. Before we began taping our conversation we were talking about visual art, which is another avenue for personal expression. What caused music to be the thing that you expressed yourself in throughout your life? How did you come to music?

MRA: I expressed myself in the visual arts first, though certainly not long enough in terms of a practice. I was attracted to all of it at the same time. But I applied myself to the visual arts and then music took over. That’s it. It just took over.

FJO: Was there any kind of crystallizing moment of hearing something?

MRA: I think I started remembering something. I think that’s what it was. In the visual arts also, I was remembering something because it didn’t seem like I had to learn it. It certainly required practice, of course. Everything requires practice because if you don’t practice, then you’re kidding yourself, in terms of developing and receiving really great ideas. I started remembering things and my musical memory started to dominate. It’s the best way I can explain it. It just started to dominate, so I just put the bulk of the practice in music.

FJO: Was there a lot of music in your household when you were growing up?

Cover for Eddie Harris's 1970 Atlantic album Instant Death

One of the most unusual entries in the Muhal Richard Abrams discography is his appearance as a sideman for Eddie Harris’s funky 1972 Atlantic album Instant Death.

MRA: I grew up in Chicago, and there was music all around. It was a blues center. I listened to all kinds of that. I grew up around Muddy Waters and all those guys. And there were a lot of great jazz musicians. And a lot of those great jazz musicians played classical music. So I was impressed with all of it. Then I got a chance to listen to regular so-called classical music. I was enjoying and appreciating that, and having the desire to learn how to compose all sorts of music because my training was like a street improviser. I learned to play standard tunes and what not like that. But I always held two situations at the same time: making up things and being with things that were made already. It all was happening at the same time.

FJO: One of the things that I find so fascinating about your development is that playing the piano and composing music are both things that you pretty much did without a teacher.

MRA: Oh yeah.

FJO: This is pretty extraordinary. Of course, there have been others who have done that, but there aren’t too many of them, especially not many who have taken it to the level that you have. But what’s ironic about that is that you have been an important mentor to so many other people, both your contemporaries and musicians from younger generations, yet you yourself had no such mentor.

MRA: I can certainly identify some people that I associated with that were older than I was around Chicago. I certainly learned a lot from them. But I don’t claim to be a teacher. I never have claimed to be a teacher. If someone claims that they’ve learned something from being close or around me or associated with me, that’s fine. Those kinds of things happen through association, but mentor or teacher? If people want to apply those terms, fine. But I don’t think of myself in that way. I love sharing and collaborating with people, young or old. There’s something to learn from each person’s individualism, and if I’m associating with you, then your individualism can tell me something that I don’t know anything about. And my individualism can possibly do the same for you, because we all, as individuals, have something that no one else has. As I tried to state earlier, I think that’s the basis of the real human education.

FJO: Well, one of the things that’s so transformative about small group improvisatory music—call it jazz or whatever you want to call it—in its history in America is that it is such a human music because it is about people spontaneously creating together and reacting to each other. So you can hear someone’s individuality, and it leads you down a certain path, and then they hear what you did, and it leads them down a certain path, and it’s this wonderful, fluid conversation between individuals.

MRA: We have used the word jazz, but any type of description of music, especially the word jazz, can be confusing because, like we spoke of earlier, some people say they like the old or that this is new and the word jazz has stuck with a lot of people as a certain type of activity, so it can’t describe anything past that for those people. But if we say music, it could be anywhere. It’s just music. The next question, what type of music? Okay. No type of music. Just sound. You know, because that’s what it is. Sound. Before it’s even organized into any kind of continuum that we would call music, it’s just sound. As we speak here, I certainly feel that every serious practiced output that has come about since the beginning of time, is good—and valid. A style name limits the scope or the focus and that turns out to be unfair to quite a number of people.

FJO: Jazz has certain associations for people and so does classical. It was interesting to hear you say “so-called classical.”

Cover for the 1981 album Duet featuring Muhal Richard Abrams and Amina Claudine Myers.

In 1981, Muhal Richard Abrams joined forces with Amina Claudine Myers for an album of duets for two pianos that explores a wide range of musical styles.

MRA: It’s the same. You’re putting a restriction on a vast area of activity. And, by the way, you alluded to the fact that one could learn from the other. Classical music is the same thing. It’s written composition, of course, but the great composers did a lot of improvising, too. All of them. When you play their music, you can tell. It’s not just mechanical. Rachmaninoff sat down and played ideas at pianos. I’m sure he did that. Then he said, “Well, I’ll make this a piece.” Certainly Chopin must have done that. But they were well-trained musicians, so they knew how to handle the material of harmony, rhythm, and melody, because you hear all those things. It’s just too human in its feeling and its activity to be strictly mechanical. As a composer, if you give me a score pad I could just sit right now—I don’t need to have a piano or anything—and I can just write; I don’t have to know what it sounds like. I know how to structure it. That’s one way. If I sit down at the piano and start playing and say, “Yeah, I like this. I’ll write this down.” That’ll sound a little different. So I’m sure in their case, they improvised a lot of things. But it’s quite different from a person that has had the experience of improvising as a focus; theirs was compositional as a focus.

FJO: So to take an improvisation and turn it into a composition, the lines can often be very fluid and very blurry, as they ought to be. And I think they always were, as you’ve said. But what are things that make something that was spontaneously conceptualized in the moment into something that could theoretically be something that you’d want to repeat and do the same way other times, again and again? What gives it that essence of compositionality? How does it go from being an improvisation to being a composition?

The cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's album Afrisong.

Muhal Richard Abrams’s 1975 album Afrisong is a collection of seven of his solo piano improvisations.

MRA: I can’t speak for anyone else, but I think what I’ll say is probably pretty similar in each case. Some things you want to keep for several reasons, but one of the main reasons is that you learned something from doing this. You were enlightened by it. So you want to keep it because it might have constituted an area where you solved something that you might have been having questions about. Let me try this. Let me see what this is like. Oh, I think I’ll write it down. Sure.

FJO: So when did that first start happening for you?

MRA: It always happened.

FJO: But you said that when you first started making music, you were improvising.

MRA: But I was doing that too, though.

FJO: So you were writing stuff down? How did you come to learn music notation?

MRA: Well, I came to a point where I wanted to be more technically enlightened about composing, so I started to study on my own. I remember they had these harmony books. They’re teaching people harmony out of a book. I’ll just go buy the books, and I’ll read the books. And so I just see what it is. I didn’t need the teacher. No disrespect to the teachers, it’s just my kind of feeling. I’ve always had a kind of feeling that I could teach myself if I could find the information somewhere because I had the patience to spend the time to try and learn it no matter how difficult the learning curve.

FJO: But there’s also another kind of learning that happens from working relationships. For many musicians, working as a sideman in someone’s group has been an analogous experience to being that person’s student. And there were all these great musicians you played with when they came to Chicago—like Max Roach and Dexter Gordon. This had to have been a learning process for you.

MRA: Oh yeah, on the stage—listen, that was it! You didn’t go up on the stage unless you could really complement the scene.

FJO: So how did those opportunities come about? How did Max Roach learn about you?

MRA: Mostly through Joe Segal, the person who had a venue called the Jazz Showcase. He had it at different clubs and things, but he really started with having jam sessions at Roosevelt University, so we would all participate in jam sessions. Then he started to bring in national and international entertainment and would hire us as sidemen for the people that were coming. That’s how that came about.

FJO: You attended Roosevelt briefly.

MRA: Very briefly. I was searching for a learning path. However, I found that I didn’t really need that either.

FJO: Well, there’s a quote from you I came across where you said you wanted to go there to learn about the music, but what they were telling you about the music wasn’t the same as what you were experiencing.

MRA: It was very basic, and I was performing more advanced type things than they were. But let me be fair to them. You know, if teachers are going to teach, they start with the basics. I don’t blame them for not having different information than I had from actual playing in the street. But, like I said, what I did decide is that the same literature that they had there to teach me, I could just get the literature and teach myself. That way, the pace by which I would learn the literature could be a pace that I would set. It would take me six months to learn that a triad has a positive and a negative, but you could learn that in two days.

FJO: I wish there was some recorded documentation of your performances with Max Roach.

MRA: No, we didn’t record. I performed with him, and it was great. That was some education. That was like a Ph.D.

FJO: And Dexter Gordon?

MRA: Same. And Sonny Stitt.

FJO: I’m also intrigued that you worked with a really great singer who’s not as well remembered now as she should be—Ruth Brown.

MRA: Yeah. Believe it. And Percy Mayfield. You remember Percy Mayfield’s “Please Send Me Someone to Love”?

FJO: What do you feel you got from working with Ruth Brown?

MRA: Her feeling was so great. It was a challenge to present the right complement every night. Just basic things. But my experience in Chicago around blues and different forms like that came in handy. I was ready to do it.

FJO: One thing that I hear, and I was wondering if you will agree with me or not, is I find your piano playing so melodically rich; the melodies just soar. It almost sounds like singing at times. Some pianists are really rhythmic, or percussive, or really big on harmonies, but I feel that your pianism is a very melodically flowing pianism.

MRA: Yeah, I guess it is. I don’t know. I feel a lot of worlds all at the same time and respect for a lot of worlds, even the percussive world sometimes. I do that, too. Actually, I think what it is for me is I’m composing. I think it’s basically that. I’m composing. And for me, there are two ways of composing: writing it on a paper and improvising. So when I’m playing the piano, it’s improvised composing or composed improvising. The memory of what you’ve been and what you are and whatever you will be comes out.

FJO: None of what you did with Max Roach, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Stitt, Percy Mayfield, and Ruth Brown got recorded. But you did record with a group called Modern Jazz Two + Three.

MRA: Oh yeah. It was the first recording I ever made.

FJO: I’ve been trying to track down that record for a very long time, but somebody posted one of the tracks on YouTube—a composition of yours called “Temporarily Out of Order.”

MRA: George Coleman reminded me of that piece a couple years back. He used to play it. He sang it. I’m surprised that he remembered it.

The cover for the 1957 album Daddy-O Presents MJT+3

The first recording on which Muhal Richard Abrams appears is the 1957 Argo album Daddy-O Presents MJT+3. It was briefly re-issued on CD in Japan in 2002.

FJO: It’s got a great melody and some interesting chord progressions, but what strikes me about it is how different it is from what you started doing very soon afterwards with the Experimental Band. I don’t know the whole album, but judging from that one track, wonderful though it is, it is not experimental music. So what led you to go from straight-ahead type playing to wanting to really be open to the full range?

MRA: I was always that way. It’s just that I came to a point where I needed to express the more open type approach. You know, you evolve. So I came to that point and, because I was seeing it all the time through writing original pieces, I just decided to open it up. There were a couple of musicians around Chicago who agreed with that. And we just started opening things up.

FJO: But what’s interesting about what happened in Chicago with you and the other musicians there is that it was very different than similar developments with free music in New York and Los Angeles at the time. While you were opening things up, as you say, you remained mindful about earlier history and also about contemporaneous popular music. It was never experimental for the sake of being experimental. It was really about just having this open view, as we’ve been saying before, of being mindful of the past, the present, and the future all at the same time rather just making music for the future and forgetting about the past.

MRA: Well, I don’t even think that’s possible. People could fancy themselves doing what you just said, but I think basically people were trying to be composer-improvisers and the main generator was the individualism of each person. That is very important because I believe that individualism resulted in a scene with quite a few very strong individuals, like those that came out of the AACM. They were very strong individuals because they were encouraged and presented with a situation that asked them to present their individualism in concert. So there was a constant challenge to meet those challenges.

Cover for the 1985 Muhal Richard Abrams Black Saint album View from Within

On Muhal Richard Abrams’s 1985 Black Saint album View from Within, styles range from straight-ahead hard bop to free jazz, Latin, Chicago blues, and even contemporary classical music.

FJO: Since the past, present, and future are all a continuum, I’m going to jump decades ahead and then we’ll jump back. In the ‘80s you released a record with a very interesting title—View from Within. There’s an incredibly wide range of music on there. One track is Latin music. Another one is a full-on Chicago blues.

MRA: That’s right.

FJO: There’s also material on there that sounds like classical music, as well as stuff that sounds like straight-ahead jazz. But what’s interesting is that you describe all this as a view from within as opposed to the view from outside.

MRA: I’ve kept a better balance by respecting other things. Somehow it balances me to do that. Learning from another individual’s information—that’s extremely important.

FJO: Now in terms of balancing, to bring it back to the 1960s, your second LP—Young at Heart/Wise in Time—is like two completely different records. You reminded me of it when you were saying that sometimes you also get all rhythmic and percussive. There are sections on the ensemble side, Young at Heart, that are throbbing and really intense, especially in the interplay between you and the percussionist, Thurman Barker. But the other side, Wise in Time, is a beautiful, lush, at times almost Rachmaninoff-esque piano solo.

The cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's album Young at Heart / Wise in Time (Delmark, 1969)

Muhal Richard Abrams’s 1969 Delmark album Young at Heart / Wise in Time is ideally suited to the LP format since it consists of two very different side-long tracks: a composition for ensemble and a sprawling solo piano improvisation.

MRA: Well, listening to people like Art Tatum, and also Rachmaninoff, it was sitting down getting a feeling of how the piano sounds as a complement to all these people. That’s all it was: Rachmaninoff, Chopin, Art Tatum, Monk. Just sitting down and being musical in that way, to explore how the piano can sound. I think that’s probably what happened in that instance.

FJO: It’s a perfect listening experience on an LP because you have the two sides, whereas on a CD or an online stream you don’t get that same sense of duality.

MRA: It was limited, but yet not.

FJO: Now, in terms of the composition-improvisation divide, how much was worked out in advance and how much was completely spontaneous.

MRA: The piano solos were improvised. Period.

FJO: Completely improvised?

MRA: Yes, that’s what I’m saying—just sitting down and respecting the fact that it’s important to make an effort to be musical and to explore, as best you can, how the piano can sound. So that’s a compliment to Rachmaninoff, Beethoven, Chopin, Monk, Duke, and also one of my first influences on piano, King Fleming. I just mentioned him because he needs to be mentioned. He was the first pianist I heard who was a jazz pianist and was classically trained. The way he played the piano, he was aware of the piano sounding in a combination of manners—jazz and classical, all at the same time. He listened to a lot of people who were like that: Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum. But I think King Fleming’s influence as to how a pianist should sound hit me first and early, because he was the first pianist that I’d gotten close to who could play like that. And he had a large band, and the arranger who orchestrated for that was a trumpet player, Will Jackson. I need to mention him, too. I learned a great deal from both of these gentlemen. I learned performing in a jazz band from King Fleming and writing for a jazz band from Will Jackson. They’re both deceased now, but I think that other people should know about them.

FJO: Curiously, on your first recording date as a leader, in addition to playing piano, you also played clarinet.

The cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's first album as a leader, Levels and Degrees of Light (Delmark, 1967)

On Muhal Richard Abrams’s recording debut as a leader, the 1967 Delmark album Levels and Degrees of Light he plays clarinet in addition to playing piano.

MRA: Well, I just feel musical with anything that I would apply myself to. I wanted to play the clarinet, so I just picked up clarinet and respected the fact—I practiced clarinet. I certainly didn’t stay with it as long as I could have, but I stayed with it long enough to do what I needed to do in terms of when I did perform with it.

FJO: And I imagine that it gave you other ideas that you might not have gotten on the piano, because of the different physical relationship it requires, producing sound with your breath.

MRA: It’s a different feeling because it’s a different mechanical manipulation. Sure.

FJO: This multi-instrumentalism is a hallmark of AACM members. In terms of the beginnings of the AACM, you were its founder as well as its first president. You were the person who brought these people together. But notions of hierarchy seem antithetical to you, as well as to aesthetics of the AACM overall; so how did that work?

MRA: There was no hierarchy. We all agreed to agree; sometimes we agreed not to agree. But we certainly agreed to contribute to each other’s efforts to express one’s individualism. And that was the basis of it.

FJO: So how did that whole thing come about?

MRA: Well, I had organized a band called Experimental Band, which was a precursor of the AACM. I needed a place to try out some of the newly learned things that I was educating myself about in terms of music through my studies. I needed a place to express those things. They were more open things. They weren’t things that you’d play in jazz clubs. So I organized what I called the Experimental Band. The musicians could come and experiment with composition and improvisation. We were of like minds. And so from there we came to a point where I collaborated with three other musicians to create a formal association based on the same idea. That’s how the AACM came about.

FJO: It began from a group, but it’s not a performing group per se. It’s sort of a composer collective, but it operates in a different way than most composer collectives. It came from this idea of not playing in clubs and finding alternative venues for this kind of music, but it’s not a venue in and of itself.

MRA: We presented our own concerts. We also created the venue for producing the music or, rather, for presenting the music. We created a venue through just renting a space and presenting the concerts. In other words, it was a total effort. We weren’t looking for a place to perform the music. We created a place to perform the music. And so it was all one.

FJO: There are two things that could be strong motivators for doing this. One is what you had said about making music that wouldn’t work in a club. Or maybe it was music that the club wouldn’t want necessarily because it didn’t fit with the definition of music the people at the club were interested in presenting or that they felt the audience expected from that club. But there’s also another motivator which is about creating a space for the kind of listening that is most appropriate for this music. To really be able to focus on it requires a different kind of space than a club.

MRA: Well, no. Not really. Let me say this. It could have been played in clubs. In fact, we did. We were in residence every Monday night at a club. We played the way we played, and the place stayed packed with people who wanted to hear what we were doing. So it could be played in clubs. It was just that it wasn’t regular gig music. People come to hear standard things. But certainly we played in several clubs and the night we played was the night that people would come to hear what we would do. So it could be played anywhere. In Chicago, it was like that. It could be played anywhere in the city.

FJO: The reason I wanted to talk about it now is because the world 50 years ago is quite different from the world today in terms of venues. Nowadays, people who doing the most experimental kinds of things want to go back and play in clubs and suddenly clubs have become an even more tolerant space; whereas a half century ago there were more limits on what you could do. I think the notion of what is possible in a club now is very different.

MRA: Certainly you go to clubs here in New York now and you might hear anything because it’s wide open to individualism. I think that is the real factor that brought this type of situation to the fore, because individualism is not something that’s strange. You know what I mean? People today expect to hear an individual doing an individual type of presentation.

FJO: I’m also curious about this in terms of recording and how most people experience music. We didn’t really talk about listeners so much in this, like the ideal listening experience for somebody hearing what you or what other people associated with the AACM do. I don’t expect you to speak for the others, but to speak for yourself. What is an ideal listener in terms of focus on the music? Should the person be paying full attention? Could the music just be in the background? So many people nowadays walk around wearing headphones and listening to music as they’re going through their daily routines. Is that an okay way to experience this music versus being completely focused on it and having it speak to you— and have only it, ideally, speak to you?

Cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's 1995 New World CD One Line, Two Views

Another provocatively titled Muhal Richard Abrams recording is the 1995 New World album One Line, Two Views which once again demonstrates Abrams’s penchant for reconciling seemingly opposing aesthetics.

MRA: Well, let me ask a question. How many different ways can a person decide to concentrate? I think that question asks many other questions. If a person is concentrating and seriously listening, it could be through earphones walking down the street. I wouldn’t even attempt to try to say what would be the ideal situation or where a person should listen to music. I think they make that choice. But the fact that there are people who seriously want to listen to certain kinds of music—well, they’ll do it anywhere, even through earphones. You know what I mean? They’ll do it anywhere, if that is convenient for them, and they’ll just do it whenever they find a convenient time to do it. I think that’s the answer, because people are listening to all sorts of things and I think a lot of them are quite eclectic, too. I mean, they’re listening to all kinds of stuff.

FJO: Well, if they listen to you, they’ll be hearing everything.

MRA: [laughs] I don’t know about that.

FJO: To bring it back to those early AACM years, you were such an important voice in the Chicago music scene, and yet in the mid-1970s you moved to New York City and have been here ever since. What made you uproot yourself?

MRA: What can I say? It was just time to move. Chicago is a great place, but New York is a different kind of place. The intensity and the challenge is quite constant. I guess it was just time for me to do that. You’re swimming in a pond and sometimes you go where it feeds into the ocean.

FJO: You came to the ocean, but a lot of the things that you did here were similar to what you had done there. In New York City, you were a major force in developing the loft concert scene. So to some extent you brought a Chicago idea to New York.

Cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's album 1-OQA+19

The somewhat cryptically titled 1-OQA+19, Muhal Richard Abrahms’s first album as a leader recorded in New York City (in November and December of 1977) and featuring four other AACM alumni (Anthony Braxton, Henry Threadgill, Steve McCall, and Leonard Jones), is definitely a continuation of the ensemble music he was involved with in Chicago.

MRA: Well, I don’t know about that, but I didn’t intend to function in any other way except for the way I was functioning. I have to include other people, of course, but we all came to do what we do: presenting concerts, same as we’d been doing in Chicago. Now we’re in the ocean; we do it according to this space.

FJO: It was such a vital time for this music, but now, 40 years later, a lot of that scene has disappeared or has changed very fundamentally. Back then Roulette was a loft. It was Jim Staley’s apartment. Now it’s an official, street-level concert venue. It’s amazing that we finally have such a venue that’s dedicated to new, exploratory music. That’s wonderful. But I also think we might have lost some of the personal, home-grown, DIY quality that we once had when so many of these concerts were taking place in people’s own homes. With the way the real estate market has played out, the way demographics have changed, we probably can no longer have such a scene in quite the way that we had it back then.

MRA: You hit it on the head when you said real estate market. There’s a reason for that. The real estate requirement for higher rents caused people to just give it up in terms of maintaining those venues. It happened to quite a few, without naming them, as I’m sure you know. But with Roulette, his [Jim’s] perseverance in terms of what he wanted to do paid off, which is great.

FJO: But what’s interesting is now he’s got this great space, but it’s not a loft anymore. It’s something else. It’s a fabulous something else, but it’s a different listening modality. It doesn’t have the same intimacy. It can’t.

CD cover for the 2005 Pi release Streaming featuring Muhal Richard Abrams and George Lewis

The 2005 duo album Streaming, released on Pi, is a truly collaborative effort between two old friends and musical co-conspirators, Muhal Richard Abrams and George Lewis.

MRA: Well—and I’m sure you know this—you have to upgrade. You’re asking people for money, so you have to put it on a level where you can use that kind of money you’re asking for, if you’re fortunate enough to make those kind of contacts. But I think the music itself or the idea of the music and the presentation of the music hasn’t changed. At Roulette, they present a great variety of musical approaches. If anything, he expanded, but I suppose it has to be what it is in terms of physical structure in order to accomplish what it is that they want to do. If you do something for ten years, you say, “I want to do it again for the next ten years; however, I want to levitate and do it like this.” Things just have to grow. There’s a nostalgic feeling in reference to vinyl records and CDs, there’s a nostalgic feeling for the lofts and whatnot like that, but I think that the musical content in the lofts is still at play. It’s just not in the lofts.

FJO: So, for you, where are the ideal places where you would like to either play music or have your music played by others to be heard?

MRA: Oh, I don’t have any except for the AACM concerts. We’re still producing those concerts. But Roulette is a good place for having things done that are not AACM-type presentations. And Tom Buckner’s series does quite a few good things. I mean, I like seeing some things on his series that otherwise maybe wouldn’t be on an AACM series, some compositional things. I’ve done some things on his series. There are a few venues in Brooklyn. I don’t function in Brooklyn, so I’m not in touch with those other venues, except for Roulette. But they have other venues around that seem to be pretty consistent in presenting written and improvised music.

FJO: To bring it back to your music again, my all-time favorite piece of yours is The Hearinga Suite. I feel it has a foot in both of the worlds we’ve been talking about: that of composed improvisation and improvised composing—so-called classical music and so-called jazz. It’s a fluid interplay that is both at once—informed by both, yet neither. It’s its own thing. So I wanted to talk to you a bit about it and how it came into being. Do you feel it represented a turning point in your music because of its scale, both in terms of its length and the number of players involved in it?

MRA: No, I was always like that. I mean, it’s just happening. It’s a project that I did at that time, but in terms of the musical ingredients, they were always there. The idiom, the compositional makeup of the piece, that’s just me in that.

FJO: What does the word Hearinga mean?

MRA: It’s an expression, like a song—Hearinga—like a name or something. It has nothing to do with the music, but it’s an expression that is used to speak in reference to the music.

FJO: I thought it was about hearing, because it’s “hearing”-a. I thought you gave it the title as a way to focus listeners on hearing this multiplicity.

The cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's The Hearinga Suite (Black Saint, 1989)

The Hearinga Suite, arguably Muhal Richard Abrams’s most ambitious work, was released by Black Saint in 1989.

MRA: That’s great, because certainly I intended for the title to provoke thought and wonder. But the intention was to bring a thought from the listener that would require the listener to deal with the listener’s self. You see what I’m talking about? It’s hard to explain, but I mean—it’s like I’m thinking and I’m looking at the table. I’m thinking about the table, and all of a sudden I’m seeing shapes within myself and getting questions and answers about something that I might not have been thinking about at all.

FJO: The individual movements go in so many different directions like, for example, “Conversations with the Three of Me.”

MRA: Oh yeah, that’s the piano thing.

FJO: I love that title, but there are so many more than just three of you.

MRA: Well, hey, right. But that’s rather metaphysical and also quite mundane at the same time. I used three improvised approaches.

FJO: So what are they?

MRA: There are three different moods, but they’re not moods that are separate. They’re played like a sonata. You play this slow, you play this a little fast, and then you play this fast. But it’s not exactly that type of thing because everything is improvised on the spot. The name came after the performance. All names come after the performances.

FJO: You also use a synthesizer on it.

MRA: That’s one of the moods.

FJO: Certainly there are things that can be done on synthesizers that are impossible to do on a piano or with other instruments. Even by the mid-1980s when you made this music, electronic music was largely a new sound world. So what brought you to use synthesizers, and do you feel that changed your language in any way, musically?

MRA: Well, let’s think of it this way: we’re actually talking about sound. We’re talking about music, but we’re talking about sound. So that came about because sound can be produced in any way that you feel that you’d like to produce sound. And that’s it. It’s just electronic sound. That’s the difference. There’s electronic sound, then the two piano sounds—three moods. Three of me, you know, a conversation with the three, so there’s an electronic part, and then there’s two different moods for the piano. So that’s the conversation, you know what I mean? But sound, that’s the thing, because before music can be called music, it has to be harnessed and structured from sound. Music is a by-product of sound. Sound is the thing. Sound.

FJO: You went even deeper into exploring electronic timbres in the ‘90s with “Think All, Focus One.” That’s probably my favorite of your electronic improvisations. It’s from another extraordinary album with a really great title: Think All, Focus One.

The cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's album Think All, Focus One (Black Saint, 1995)

In addition to six compositions for septet, Muhal Richard Abrams’s 1995 Black Saint album Think All, Focus One contains a fascinating synthesizer improvisation.

MRA: Well again, here I have a provocative statement which has nothing to do with describing the music. It’s a statement that is intended to provoke, but not for control or anything. It’s just meant to provoke. It’s a feeling that comes together in that statement. You know what I mean? Think all, focus one. And I know what I get from it, but I don’t know what you might get from it.

FJO: Well what I think I got from it is that there’s all sound out there available to you, and you should be mindful of all of it: all styles, all possibilities of what you’re doing on any instrument, the whole breadth, the whole line between complete spontaneous improvisation to fully worked-out composition, as well as the rhythms and the melodies of all cultures. But despite thinking of all of that, you must be an individual.

MRA: That’s very good. That’s a nice compliment to the title, I must say.

The cover for Muhal Richard Abrams's 2001 Mutable CD, The Visibility of Thought

In 2001, Mutable released a disc devoted to Muhal Richard Abrams’s notated compositions called The Visibility of Thought which includes performances by baritone Thomas Buckner, pianist Joseph Kubera, and the string quartet ETHEL.

FJO: Now when you write music for other people to play—like, say, the music you’ve composed for groups like the Kronos Quartet or ETHEL who performed a piece of yours for baritone and string quartet with Thomas Buckner, or the orchestra pieces you’ve written that have been performed by the American Composers Orchestra or the Janacek Philharmonic—these are situations where the musicians are working from written musical scores and they are performing this music without you. I imagine there is no improvisation in any of this music.

MRA: No. It’s written.

FJO: How does it feel to be apart from the music and for it to be fixed in that way?

MRA: Well, I’m improvising all the time, and I’m composing all the time. It’s the same thing. It’s the application that’s different. I am applying the approach to this orchestra with a written presentation, but it’s the same process. The difference is in the sense that I can make a certain kind of a texture with fifty strings. Four French horns can make a certain kind of texture. So I’m dealing with respect for the orchestra. That’s a component. I have elected to respect this instrument called the orchestra. And the possibilities of sound that can be gotten from treating it in a certain compositional manner.

FJO: But when you do something for an ensemble of improvising musicians, they bring their own individualism to the table.

MRA: I insist on it.

CD cover for the 2015 ECM CD Made in Chicago

Though released under the name of percussionist Jack De Johnette, this extraordinary live recording from a 2013 Chicago Jazz Festival concert in Millennial Park (which was released on ECM in January 2015) is truly a group effort by all the members of the quintet which also includes Henry Threadgill, Larry Gray, Roscoe Mitchell, and Muhal Richard Abrams.

FJO: And you’ve performed as a sideman with others and you bring your individualism to them.

MRA: That’s right.

FJO: But when you’re writing a piece for orchestra, the whole idea is that it’s all on the page. They’re following the notes, and then they’re following the conductor’s interpretation of those notes. There’s a lot less room for self-expression.

MRA: Well, but there’s room for self-expressions, plural. You follow what I mean? People who are adept at playing classical music, I mean really great orchestra people, interpret musical symbols in a manner that can conjure up all sorts of pictures and panoramic images in terms of what you feel and what you hear when you hear a piece played by a really good orchestra. The way they interpret what you put down, that’s another element. You’re getting a plural of individualism, a pluralistic individualism, as a result of all these people playing together and playing with each other. There’s something that happens with them. There are certain people that couldn’t play with them because they wouldn’t be able to transfer that, they maintain the orchestra feeling for whatever is going on. It’s very important to them. In those great orchestras, it’s very important what happens among them. And that’s the other element. See? So you’re getting this plural individualist situation that goes on with them. It’s hard to explain because I think that the whole situation of individualism is transferable in terms of what a situation might be in terms of numbers of people.

FJO: So would you be okay with them taking a lot of liberties with something you’ve written down? How much can they change it and have it still be your piece? How much give and take is there in that process?

MRA: But the orchestra doesn’t change. The conductor might want to—

FJO: Speed it up?

Cover for the 2010 Mutable CD Spectrum

The 2010 Mutable CD Spectrum features a performance of Muhal Richard Abrams’s orchestral composition Mergertone, a work commissioned by the Ostrava Days festival and premiered there in 2007 by the Janáček Philharmonic conducted by Petr Kotik.

MRA: Yeah, he might, but he doesn’t really change it, because if something sounds one way going at a slow tempo and you speed it up, then it’s a different mood. You discuss that with the conductor. And any changes, certainly a good conductor will consult with you before he make them; he’ll ask and make suggestions. And if you say, “No, leave it,” he’ll just leave it like that. So there’s always that collaboration. I mean, it’s a rare moment when a conductor will go off on his own, because he’s endeavored to interpret what the composer has written.

FJO: The structure is so large, so it requires a different way of working. There’s so little rehearsal time, so even if you wanted there to be room for improvisation in that context, there wouldn’t be enough time to make that work. Plus a lot of these musicians don’t have experience with improvisation and feel uncomfortable with it. But would you want to create such a piece?

MRA: No. To ask people who don’t improvise to suddenly improvise, it’s been my experience, you don’t get a great result. And it’s not the fault of the people. They’re great musicians and great on their instruments, but you’re asking them to do something that they don’t do! That doesn’t work out too good. You have to approach that situation differently. If you want improvisation, then you bring improvisation with you, so they don’t have to deal with it. And mix it.

FJO: The last thing I wanted to talk about with you is that on all your recordings, going back decades, there’s always a line stating how to obtain scores of this music. I wonder how many people have contacted you for scores and if they have then gone on to perform that and what those performances have been like.

MRA: Oh, I can’t speak to that. I don’t quite know what they do with it. They can do what they want with it. I don’t ask that they do anything when they get it. But usually they’ve listened to a recording and they try to stay as a close or true to what they heard. You know what I mean? Some people may change it, but what can you do? I don’t have any requirement beyond what I ask of myself.

Lainie Fefferman: Strength In Numbers

Lainie Fefferman is very much the opposite of the solitary, Romantic-era figure that many picture when they think of a composer. Describing herself as a “funny, nerdy, energetic person,” Fefferman freely admits that she doesn’t work well at home alone and is far more productive working in a bustling coffee shop or on a train. In fact, she gathers so much energy from being around other artists that she founded Exapno, a community center for new music in Brooklyn. For a monthly membership fee, musicians are given 24-hour access to the space, where they can compose, rehearse, and perform in a community-oriented environment. While she claims that she started Exapno for purely selfish reasons—so that she could have a place to work in the company of other artists—it continues to generate collaborations and serves as a point of entry into the New York City new music scene for musicians representing a great diversity of backgrounds and influences.

The Pirate's Daughter (sample)

Score sample from The Pirate’s Daughter, written for ETHEL.
© 2012 Lainie Fefferman. Used by permission.

Fefferman’s other great love besides music is math; she teaches a “Math and Music” course at St. Ann’s School in Brooklyn and revels in introducing her students to the music of composers such as Steve Reich by revealing the numeric patterns inherent in the pieces. While she doesn’t necessarily use math to create rigorous formal structures in her own work as Xenakis might, she says that “there’s an aesthetic to the math that I like, and I think it’s the same (on a very meta-level) as the aesthetic to the music that I like. I like things that are minimal, unexpectedly simple, and surprisingly powerful… In math and music I think it’s really striking how you can take these tiny little ideas, and they can explain huge reactions.”

This aesthetic can be heard clearly in Here I Am, Fefferman’s most recent large-scale work (not to mention her Princeton Ph.D. thesis). Written for the ensemble Newspeak with Va Vocals (Martha Cluver, Mellissa Hughes, and Caroline Shaw), it features nine settings of what Fefferman considers “the wonkier bits of the Old Testament.” She says she chose the texts that she has been thinking about over and over for years, and that writing pieces is for her a way to dig deeper into the material in an effort to figure it out for herself. She pulled freely from her own varied musical tastes to create Here I Am, and the combination of beautifully uncluttered music with simple yet effective staging and lighting creates a powerful musical—and theatrical—experience.

Befitting her personality, Fefferman’s own music is highly movement-focused, and all of her compositions, whether scored for bagpipe and electronics or string quartet, radiate a sense of joyfulness. “Whenever I start writing, I think I get frustrated with myself if it doesn’t have motion and energy. Even in still passages I like having a sense of tension and release that translates in the ear to a forward-thinking feeling. Someday I’m going to have to write a sad, slow, hopeless passage, but I’m not there yet!”

Sounds Heard: Janice Misurell-Mitchell—Vanishing Points

While nowadays it’s pretty much common practice for music to be poly-stylistic, it’s still somewhat rare for music to completely internalize multiple musical languages from various genres and spew them back out into something that is ultimately untranslatable into anything else besides itself. But the music of Chicago-based Janice Misurell-Mitchell seems to do just that, seamlessly weaving elements from high modernism with jazz, Latin, blues, and even funk into an amalgam that is completely its own thing. Vanishing Points, the second retrospective disc of her music from the Southport Composers Series, collects six of her chamber music compositions spanning four decades.

The disc’s opening track, Agitación, is an ideal introduction to her extremely catholic approach to style and form. A roughly 16-minute work from 2005 scored for two pianists and two percussionists, it begins with almost a Latin tinge, albeit supporting a cascade of angular figurations. While the Latin feel grows less and less pronounced with each passing measure, it retains that music’s feeling of regular pulsation, but then that too drops off. Then, at about 3 minutes in, it starts to manifest a bonafide cool jazz aura, with a timbral combination of piano, vibes and drumset that sounds almost suggestive of MJQ, albeit if a young Cecil Taylor had subbed for John Lewis. The music grows somewhat dreamier with more subdued piano lines, as if John Lewis reclaimed the piano chair, but that too soon falls by the wayside. At about 6 minutes in, the Latin feel returns, now seeming fully in Afro-Cuban clave, though the harmonies continue far afield from anything you’d hear on most salsa albums.  But then the ensemble breaks down, allowing individual instruments to have brief, less rhythmically centered solos. Toward the end, a clear jazz groove briefly reappears, but so do other musical elements. At times various percussion thwacks—on instruments that fall outside of 12-tone equal temperament—even wink at Harry Partch. All in all Agitación is a remarkably fluid processing of multiple stylistic streams into something that is completely organic and unified—a defining piece of early 21st century music!

The other works are also intriguing for their polyglot sensibilities. The earliest work on this album, Vanishing Points/Quantum Leaps from 1977 (though revised in 2011), is a hefty and heavy, three-movement piece scored for clarinet and piano trio—the same forces that Olivier Messiaen used in his Quartet for the End of Time. But whereas that famous work exploits the combinatorial possibilities of various subgroups within the quartet for contrast and great emotional intensity, Misurell-Mitchell mostly keeps the full ensemble in play but revels in how the same material (intervals, rhythmic figures) appears to sound different depending on which instruments are foregrounded. According to Seth Boustead’s detailed program notes for the recording, the work—as is suggested by its title—is “concerned with perspective and … how the listeners perceive the development of musical material.”

The very first gestures of Dark was the Night, a 1994 work for solo guitar, have an almost a Flamenco tinge, but from there the piece quickly morphs into something couched in a more modernist contemporary music language—replete with cascades of harmonics and angular leaps. But that too is only part of the picture. Later on it feels more like improvisatory folk guitar and by the end it becomes a full on Mississippi Delta blues, slides and all. According to the notes, the inspiration for the piece was “Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground,” a classic gospel-blues by Texas songster Blind Willie Johnson (whose 1927 recording of it was sent into outer space on the Voyager Golden Record!). However Misurell-Mitchell uses Johnson’s tune only sparingly and except for the clear homage at the very end, it is almost completely unrecognizable.

On Thin Ice was originally composed in 1988 for flute and guitar but is presented here in a 1998 arrangement for flute and marimba. It is a relentless, highly contrapuntal interplay spiced with bravura flutter-tonguings. In addition to her compositional activities, Misurell-Mitchell has been active for decades in the Chicago new music scene as a flutist and vocalist, although flutist Caroline Pittman is the featured soloist for the performance on this recording. The disc, however, does include a sample of Misurell-Mitchell’s own remarkable playing—her 2009 solo composition, border crossings at sunset, in which she recites an original poem, plays flute, and sings (sometimes into the flute).

The remaining work on the disc, Deconstruction Blues, is also an arrangement. A 1991 work originally scored for English horn and keyboard synthesizer (in fact, it was commissioned for that combination specifically to counter stereotypes of 18th century double-reed chamber music), this new version from 2012 returns the music to a much more idiomatic context. By scoring it for the much grittier combo of bass clarinet and Hammond B3 organ, Misurell-Mitchell’s off-kilter flights of fancy here sound like a surreal cross between a chamber piece by Ralph Shapey and a Jimmy Smith album from an alternate universe.

This disc of Misurell-Mitchell’s music is dedicated to the memory of her son Gabriel Mitchell (1973-2012), an extremely talented film-maker, visual artist and songwriter who suffered from schizophrenia. There is an online archive of his work which is also very much worth exploring.

Finding the Right Balance

For many music-minded folks in New York City, January is normally a crazy time of the year since this is the month when national organizations such as the Association of Performing Arts Presenters and Chamber Music America always hold their national conferences here. After all these years, and especially after the arrival of the Polar Vortex, you’d think they’d opt for a month with better weather! While I opted to pass on APAP this year, I devoted the entirety of last weekend to CMA which this year offered an extraordinary range of half-four showcase performances by various ensembles—18 in all—as well as a commissioning concert featuring four works which were all created in 2012.

In addition to these conferences, another annual January event of more recent vintage now also looms large—PROTOTYPE, which is a two-week, multi-venue festival devoted to new opera. Now in its second season, PROTOTYPE presented performances of five new works—by Gregory Spears, Kamala Sankaram, Jonathan Berger, Du Yun, and Lina Lapelyté. I attended all of them and was extremely glad I did, except for not being able to rid myself of bittersweet feelings over the irony that thanks in large part to this festival, the 2013-14 concert season, which also witnessed the demise of New York City Opera, felt like NYC’s most vital one for new opera in years.

Before the holidays, I wrote about the gender inequities in classical music which continue to play out in new music and how some organizations are attempting to address this issue. Some folks got so heated up about the prospect of performing repertoire that completely reflected the totality of who creates music that the debate kept raging for a month. The bruhaha on the web this week has been revolving around an incendiary essay by a writer named Mark Vanhoenacker, posted January 21 on Slate, called “Requiem: Classical Music in America is Dead.”

To get a sense of what’s gotten folks—myself included—all riled up, here’s a choice excerpt:

Classical music has been circling the drain for years, of course. There’s little doubt as to the causes: the fingernail grip of old music in a culture that venerates the new; new classical music that, in the words of Kingsley Amis, has about as much chance of public acceptance as pedophilia; formats like opera that are extraordinarily expensive to stage; and an audience that remains overwhelmingly old and white in an America that’s increasingly neither.

[C]onsider the relative standing of classical music. Just 2.8 percent of albums sold in 2013 were categorized as classical. By comparison, rock took 35 percent; R&B 18 percent; soundtracks 4 percent. Only jazz, at 2.3 percent, is more incidental to the business of American music.

It seems to me the problem with some folks’ “classical music paradigm” (as opposed to the music itself) is that it willfully assumes this music to have a role that is somehow separated from the rest of societal discourse. Of course, as Alex Temple so astutely and succinctly pointed out earlier this week: “Denying the social aspect of music-making doesn’t make it stop happening; it just means that when it does happen, you don’t see it.”

What I witnessed this month, both at PROTOTYPE and in the showcases at the Chamber Music America conference, is that some folks understand what it means to pay attention to finding the right balance with respect to diversity—gender, ethnicity, age group, etc.—and in so doing have shown that “new (classical?) music” (why do we even have to label it?) is very much alive. Rather than that balance being in any way a hindrance to “quality,” by paying attention to this broader range, they are putting forward some of the most engaging stuff that is happening right now.

Jennifer Charles in Angels Bone

Jennifer Charles in a Trinity Church concert reading of Du Yun and Royce Vavrek’s Angel’s Bone, an opera about human trafficking which seamlessly merges medieval polyphony, indie rock, and even a bit of Darmstadtian modernism. Photo by Noah Stern Weber, courtesy PROTOTYPE.

The most exciting music being created today is not the product of a single compositional aesthetic or the work of just one segment of the population. (Pick your prejudice and throw it away.) It cannot be contained geographically or be hermetically sealed up in impenetrable genre boxes. What writers like Vanhoenacker get so wrong when they look at statistics is how arbitrarily creative work is carved up to fit into niches that are no longer relevant. (It’s important to point out that in the percentages he shared as proof that classical music and jazz are at the bottom of “the business of American music,” no genre has a majority. That’s a far more significant piece of information which speaks to what music in the 21st century is all about thus far.)

During the question and answer period following a fascinating panel discussion at the CMA conference moderated by Joel Harrison, which also included Missy Mazzoli, Clarice Assad, and Billy Childs, Kevin James said something that I believe is emblematic for our time:

Composers now prefer to be beyond genre. There is no sound that I would not consider. Composers today want that flexibility.

Some of us are still recovering from a century of industry-imposed genres. But when we do, it will potentially be a paradise for a truly new music.

Derek Bermel: Context is Key

A conversation at the New York Office of ASCAP
July 12, 2013—1:00 p.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video Presentation by Alexandra Gardner

He is equally comfortable composing music for cutting edge chamber music groups and symphony orchestras, playing clarinet in a variety of contexts (whether performing a wide swath of repertoire in the resident ensemble of Copland House to jamming with musicians from Jazz at Lincoln Center), singing and playing caxixi in his R&B-tinged band Peace by Piece, or even rapping upon occasion. But whatever genre of music he is engaging in, Derek Bermel is always mindful of its context. Part of this mindfulness comes from Bermel’s deep respect for an extremely broad range of music making, but it is also the by-product of first-hand knowledge about music from many different traditions which he acquired both through extensive academic study and while traveling all over the world.

Derek Bermel

Derek Bermel. All photos courtesy Dworkin & Company and/or Derek Bermel.

The key epiphanies along Bermel’s path to becoming self-aware as a musician reveal a wide array of influences. As a child, seeing the unfamiliar and, at the time, strange-looking name Messiaen on a concert program at a music camp made him hope his own name would be displayed similarly one day. Picking up a copy of Thelonious Monk’s LP It’s Monk’s Time at a local record shop in his home town of New Rochelle (just north of New York City) opened the door on a world of jazz that was even more eclectic than the Bennie Goodman album his grandmother had given him. Hearing Rakim’s “I Ain’t No Joke” for the first time (a rap he can still quote by heart) convinced him that it was possible for music to still be vital, urgent, and innovative at a time when a lot of the new music he heard was, as he describes it, “kind of sleepy.” But perhaps the episode that left the deepest impression on him and gave him the determination to pursue musical composition was having his clarinet teacher Ben Armato, who played in the pit at the Metropolitan Opera and was no fan of new music, tell him: “[E]very note you write is more important than everything I’ve done in my entire life.” While this collection of memories might initially seem completely unrelated, and some of them did not even appear to have direct consequences, these episodes compositely served to codify Bermel’s outlook. As he explains:

[A]s a teacher once said to me, “It’s all grist for the mill.” There’s beauty in so many things, and they don’t have to be the thing that I’m doing. … But I would say that you can’t predict how things will change you. I think it’s just important to keep learning and taking stuff in. Because when you stop learning, if there’s no input, there’s not going to be such a great output either. I hope that I can keep learning.

Bermel’s insatiable musical curiosity is arguably an even more defining attribute of his persona than either his compositions or his clarinet playing. This trait, couple with an adventurous spirit, eventually led him to explore Ireland, Bulgaria, Israel, Ghana, Brazil, and China. All of these journeys have left a deep impact on him that continues to surface in different ways through the numerous channels in which he expresses himself as a musician. But it never degenerates into pastiche because of his concern for context.

There’s something about seeing music in context that is very important for me, and that means playing music in context. Being there and experiencing not only the music, but the things around it: the dance, the way people talk about it, what they’re doing when there’s music. Are there chickens in the background walking around? What’s the situation? Who’s there? What language are they speaking? What is that all about? And I think the reason is because, for me, in this world that we’re now living in—where you can go onto the Internet and find just about any type of music or dance or life experience you want—context is lost. You can see incredible stuff and hear incredible things, but you lose that original meaning. We’re so much closer to everywhere in the world and to so many different styles and ways of thinking about music, yet we’re also much farther because we’re seeing everything through the scrim. I think there’s something dangerous about that because we lose the humanity of making and experiencing music.

An overriding humanism has been at the heart of everything that Bermel does, which extends beyond playing and composing to being an exemplary musical citizen, a quality he has shown in his dedication to mentoring younger composers and in spearheading a variety of innovative programs at the American Composers Orchestra where he was appointed artistic director earlier this year. Bermel’s hands-on approach has made him a fixture in the contemporary music scene for decades. It has also fueled his sense of experimentation, which he describes as “problem solving.” Yet despite his predilection for trying out unusual things, whether it’s exploring the possibilities of a complex rhythm or getting string players to mimic the sound of blues vocals through a combination of slides and microtonal notations, Bermel is ultimately both practical and pragmatic. This is perhaps why he is completely accepting of the reality that certain kinds of musical ideas work better in certain musical situations than others (e.g. you can’t expect an orchestra to play well in 13/8 time under most circumstances). Yet since he is involved in so many different musical genres and curious about so many things, inevitably things sometimes blur.

I do think that genre sometimes does create interesting notions, if only just that it gives you something to rub up against. Because I think the rub is good … I think genre can have uses like that where you can try to push the edges of it and, in doing so, you get kind of a strange, hybrid creature that doesn’t have a name exactly.


Frank J. Oteri: Listening again to the recent discs of your music which contain mostly orchestra pieces, I was actually struck by all of the Charles Ives influence I heard in it; he’s the king of impractical music for orchestra. The last time we ran into each other, you mentioned that you strongly disagreed with what I wrote about having to compromise important elements of one’s compositional voice when writing for the orchestra. We couldn’t really talk about it then, but now we have a perfect opportunity to engage in that debate. Part of what triggered what I wrote was witnessing orchestra musicians discouraging the use of unusual meters during a workshop I had attended. I also know what usually happens when someone attempts alternate tunings in an orchestra context. But I know that you have also written quite a lot of music that explores oddball meters and even microtonality at times. Yet you are totally comfortable working with an orchestra and you are able to get them to play what you write.

Derek Bermel: It’s a tough nut to crack. It’s like one of those Russian dolls which you keep opening and there’s another doll inside. Artists of all types have had to deal with the imagined ideal versus the reality of making things happen in real space and real time, and with real people. Sometimes it creates unique challenges, I think. Sometimes it allows us to find things out about ourselves that are unusual that we didn’t know were there. But those compromises can be painful; they’re like the compromises you make in life, you know. When you find a partner or when you have a kid, or when you have a pet, or when you make friends and think you have irreconcilable differences, somehow you find a way to navigate those. I think that it’s something built into the human condition. So we as artists have to tackle that as well.

You mentioned Charles Ives. One of the things that’s incredible about Ives is how visceral his music is and also how immediate. It’s so much about everyday life, yet at the same time, there’s this abstract quality to his music as well; it’s asking so many difficult questions. It’s hovering on the edge of playability as well as knowability and identifiability as music. It’s out there, yet at the same time, it’s so immediate, especially to Americans, I think, but also to people all over the world. I think now his music has come to that place where he is recognized internationally as the father of a kind of modern school of composing in America. Ives sometimes made a lot of compromises in his music, but sometimes he didn’t. There are two versions of The Unanswered Question. One of them is completely notated and the other is much more spatial. When you look at that, you see that he was struggling with the pieces that he really wanted to have a life and the question of how to make them playable. I learned a lot by studying Ives’s notation of the songs where he chose to leave things free and where he chose to keep things very rigorous.
Same with Gershwin. I mean, there’s that incredible spot in Porgy and Bess where they start to sing to Doctor Jesus. There’s a whole chorus singing and it’s notated freely; he doesn’t write out all the kinds of inflections that he wants. In my own music— more anally some might say—I try to write out all those inflections. But I found inspiration in the fact that Gershwin just left things open, it’s just the note heads. American composers were really trying to figure out how to bring in so many other types of music, other sounds, flavors, and experiences, from the very start. Ives, Gershwin, and Ellington are composers who were really stretching the boundaries of what it meant to write concert music or jazz or anything else. They weren’t really giving it labels. I find that very inspiring. But they were also immensely concerned with being practical, with having their music played again and again, and with finding a way of notating it that meant the most to the players that they were dealing with. In Duke Ellington’s case, of course, you see the names of the musicians written right into the music, which you see in Wynton [Marsalis]’s music, too. They’ve written things that meant something directly to those musicians. If I’m dealing with orchestral musicians, I want to write something that’s going to have the most immediate meaning to them in that moment yet allow them to make the sound that I hope they’ll make, and hopefully with purpose as well. There are so many things that are contradictory that we have to juggle in that moment of allowing what’s in our head to become a reality in sound.

FJO: In terms of those sonic realities, you’ve been deeply influenced by Bulgarian meters, which are really complex. In your solo and chamber pieces, you’ve used these meters all over the place. How do you reconcile how you hear those rhythms in your head when you write for an orchestra, considering that some musicians in orchestras will balk at, say, 7/4 which is a relatively simple time signature compared to the rhythmic groove of some of those Bulgarian folk melodies?

DB: Well, when I studied with Louis Andriessen, one of the things he told me is, “There’s only one real five and that’s Stravinsky in the The Rite of Spring.” I’m not sure I agree with that exactly, having been in many places where people dance in five and seven and all kinds of things. On the other hand, Louis was very concerned with getting things down to an essence. He was not a simple thinker about music. His music, as you know, contains all kinds of polyrhythms, and he loves Bach. And he brings all that to bear in his music, which is very complex. But at the same time, he was very interested in making sure that notation was the simplest that it could be. And he never wanted his students to confuse notation with music.


Derek Bermel engrossed in a score.

Notation is a means to an end. The question you ask is very germane when you want someone to feel a seven which is not really a three plus four or a four plus three, but it’s really a seven. In Bulgaria [sings a few measures here to demonstrate], it’s not really this and then that, or that and then this. It’s kind of a flow between the two. Yet—when dealing with musicians who are trained a certain way out of a specific historical style and who feel music in a certain way, and when there are 70 or 80 of them, and there’s a conductor standing in front of them who’s beating a specific way—if you beat a seven, that means one-two-three-four-five-six-seven, or ONE-two-three, FOUR-five-six…. That’s very confusing. They’re going to have to probably beat that in a way that is intelligible rather than beating it one-two-three-four-five-six-seven, which is really a four and a three. Even though there’s still a big beat there, they’re going to be sub-dividing anyway. So the question is how can you get these musicians to subdivide the way you want, instead of the way they want? Because they will subdivide! It’s kind of like there are certain political issues—which I won’t get into—where I feel like we’re dealing with an abstract question which actually doesn’t address the reality of the way things actually are and what people will actually do in a given situation. Maybe I’m being too vague, but I can think of one very strongly. And I think you know that we as musicians have to deal with the reality. This is how things are and people will subdivide.

I have this orchestra piece, Thracian Echoes, where I notated it one way, then I notated it the other way, and then finally I said, to hell with it. I’m going to make that decision because I found that other people were doing it for me. So one time I did it in 7/8, another time I did it in 7/4, then I finally I said, no, it’s going to be four and three or three and four. And I’m going to have to make that tough decision. And it works better. On the other hand, with a string quartet, I go for it. In chamber music, you can do so many things that you can’t do in orchestral music because you just have more time.

Bermel: Thracian Echoes, page 55

A passage in 7/8 from Derek Bermel’s Thracian Echoes (2002). (Although not every phrase played herein subdivides the measure the same way, Bermel has notated it all as 3/8 plus 4/8 and there is an instruction when this time signature is introduced, on an earlier page in the score, for it to be conducted as 3/8 plus 4/8.) © 2002 by X Pyre Music. All rights for the world exclusively administered by Songs of Peer, Ltd. Used by permission of Peermusic Classical.

I’ve heard people say, “Mahler had 21 rehearsals; why can’t we go back to those days?” Well, first of all, we can’t. That’s an economic reality. But second of all, I think that it’s up to us. It’s exciting to find answers to those pressures. We have to embrace the challenges, or not. But if we don’t embrace them, then we get to the side of Ives that maybe is the toughest part, which is the Ives that’s really hard to play, that people still don’t know how to play, or don’t know what to do with. Maybe that’s the part of Ives that was just too stubborn to change. That’s not so bad. We should have some stubbornness as composers. I’m sure I do. But I think as much as we can, we have to put ourselves in the shoes of the people who have to play it and who want to play it well—who are dying to play this well; whether they’re on the clock or not, they want to do the best they can.

FJO: You also used a lot of microtones in your first string quartet, which is another thing that you can’t really do with an orchestra most of the time.

DB: Well, I actually I think you can! When you say microtones, it makes me think of when I heard Grisey for the first time. I was very intrigued because something really interesting had happened in France which I thought had not happened in a while. Much as I respect Boulez, the music doesn’t speak to me at all. Most of it feels very distant to me. With Grisey and Murail, something was going on, and it was with microtones, but it’s a simple concept, and it’s so beautiful that it took so much complexity to get to realize it.

Bermel: String Quartet, page 5

An excerpt from the score of Derek Bermel’s String Quartet (1991-92) showing his extensive use of quartertones. © 2002 by X Pyre Music. All rights for the world exclusively administered by Songs of Peer, Ltd. Used by permission of Peermusic Classical.

Remember we were talking about the Dr. Jesus section in Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which is very open. One thing that I thought about when I saw that is that I bet I could notate the kind of stuff that they would be actually singing. But it would be a challenge to try to come up with a notation that expresses what people are actually singing, as opposed to Gershwin, who said, “Sing in a gospel style.” If you have string players and they have no sense of what that means, or they have no curiosity about it, you’re not going to get very far if they’re just conservatory trained. But I thought the challenge is interesting because even if I fail—and I will fail—to make a string player sound like a gospel singer, you make a leap and you go to an interesting place. It’s a “What if…?” question. What if you could actually notate what a gospel singer is singing or might sing at that time? I felt like I had absorbed enough of the style from just growing up and sometimes staying over at a friend’s house and going to a black church and taking the music in when I was little. So I had that sound in my ears, and I had been listening to Stevie Wonder and analyzing what he sang. [He sings to demonstrate.] It’s not just the quarter tones, and all those other tiny microtones; he’s actually changing the vowel and the sound is changing. It’s complex, what’s happening there rhythmically, pitch-wise, and texturally. Going into that was very important for me, and it was a way of coming up with a certain kind of musical language. So I did that in the string quartet, and later on I expanded it in a piece like Soul Garden, where I was trying to get the viola to sound like a gospel singer with a background responding, which was a slightly bigger kind of vision of that.

Then the piece that I did for myself with Fred Sherry, which was called Coming Together, has no fixed pitches. It’s just glissandi, although, as Fred said, the pitches matter. I mean, he said, “Well, what I like is that the pitches matter, but you never stay on pitch.” It’s about taking your mind off that, as I would say my clarinet concerto is. There’s no way to listen to the clarinet and hear the pitches. You have to hear the contour. And the orchestra’s playing clusters, so you can’t hear the pitches they’re playing. You can only hear the contour where they’re moving. And that is about pitch, but it’s not about pitches, it’s about areas of pitch and larger gestures of sound. What I was interested in developing was a language that did that, and I did that for a certain number of years, and it’s still part of my musical vocabulary somewhere. But I guess I respect composers like Ligeti or Stravinsky who just move on, as did Debussy. You know, they come up with an idea, and they do it, but then move on to another exploration of something else. Hopefully it all remains in my cookbook, but maybe it’s a different kind of food in the next chapter.

BermBermel: Coming Together, last page

The last page of Derek Bermel’s 1999 clarinet and cello duo Coming Together. © 2002 by X Pyre Music. All rights for the world exclusively administered by Songs of Peer, Ltd. Used by permission of Peermusic Classical.

FJO: There was a great comment you made in the talk you did on SoundNotion which I’ll quote: “Almost everything that’s worth it is problematic. What gets me going in composition is having a problem to solve.” I think you hit the nail on the head with what you said earlier about having restrictions. Having to decide if it’s four plus three or three plus four is a problem, but you use what some people might think of as a restriction as a launch pad to create something.

DB: I just take it as a challenge. I don’t know that any of these problems are solvable, but they do bring us somewhere. Attempting to solve a problem may just bring you into the next cul-de-sac. But maybe that’s an interesting cul-de-sac, or it’s an interesting place to be for a little while. And so I probably view composition in that way. I view it as problem solving or a game because, first of all, it’s a way to stop being bored by it. And it’s a way to push myself to explore, to become better, and to try to stay relevant, too. Mathematicians and scientists do this well; they want to stay on top of real problems that a lot of people are dealing with. I try to push myself to find some kind of situation that’s a little uncomfortable. I’m better when I’m slightly uncomfortable. So maybe trekking to all these different places has been partly [about] allowing myself to view things from a vantage point of being an observer because it puts me a little bit as an outsider and makes me have to deal with some uncomfortable truths.

FJO: Taken at face value, that’s a very experimental kind of a statement. But I think you’re more of an adventurer than an experimenter. To some people those words might mean the same thing, but I think they’re quite different. To be an experimenter is to be in a laboratory and chart what happens. Being an adventurer, on the other hand, is going out in the field to see how something plays out. You mentioned your travels, which I want to get into more specifically later. But traveling in a more general sense strikes to the heart of this. Tell me if I’m wrong on this, but I wouldn’t think of you as an experimental composer per se. But I think of you as an adventurous composer. Another aspect of this comes from your being active as a player as well as being a composer—you’re physically involved with performing music as well as creating it. It gives you a different approach. They’re not just notes on a page; you know what’s going to happen with them.

DB: I can’t really say because I don’t have perspective on what I’m doing. I have this skewed perspective of being me, so for me things feel experimental when I don’t know what’s going to happen. I try to put some aspect in every piece that I’m unsure of—unsure of how it’s going to turn out. At least that’s what I strive to do. I think in my better pieces that is probably the case. Although, in the same way, I don’t know which pieces are my better pieces, because—as they say—only time will tell. There are probably some composers who thought that they were experimental who actually were not, or that other people thought in their age were experimental, who actually turned out not to be, and vice versa. So it’s very hard to say. I know that I like challenges, but I don’t have much perspective on whether I’m an experimenter or an adventurer, or both, or neither.

Bermel playing clarinet

Derek Bermel playing clarinet, 2009.

I like to get my hands on the music. I’m kind of a tactile type of musician; I like to feel the way it feels on an instrument. So probably some of that wandering around has to do with wanting the experience of context in performance. I like working with musicians. I’m a social guy, as you know. I can also be very reclusive, too. But I do like the experience of feeling the way music bounces off of other people and the way they respond to it. I think that that’s partly what making music is about as a performer, and for me it’s also true as a composer to a certain extent.

On the other hand, sometimes performance hampers the idea. I like a certain amount of working with musicians, getting in there with them and playing. But then I like to be by myself for a while to try to figure out what happened. I’m a chronic reviser of my own music; sometimes I over-revise if it’s going to be in my catalog. I’m trying to create a catalog of work that says: “This is who I am.” It has many different types of music, but I think in total, it says something. I don’t really want to put anything in the catalog that I don’t feel really good about, so that’s what makes me chronically revise my music until I really don’t have too many problems with it.
As far as being a performer, there’s something about seeing music in context that is very important for me, and that means playing music in context. Being there and experiencing not only the music, but the things around it: the dance, the way people talk about it, what they’re doing when there’s music. Are there chickens in the background walking around? What’s the situation? Who’s there? What language are they speaking? What is that all about? And I think the reason is because, for me, in this world that we’re now living in—where you can go onto the Internet and find just about any type of music or dance or life experience you want—context is lost. You can see incredible stuff and hear incredible things, but you lose that original meaning. We’re so much closer to everywhere in the world and to so many different styles and ways of thinking about music, yet we’re also much farther because we’re seeing everything through the scrim.

I think there’s something dangerous about that because we lose the humanity of making and experiencing music. There’s something that creates this level of irony around music and around life in general when we’re seeing it through a screen. So there’s a lot of work that’s ironic. I appreciate irony as much as anybody else. I mean, life is ironic—period—when we’re living it. And I guess we can live through The Onion and see everything as ironic, but while irony can be powerful, it’s also not very lasting. It means something different for every generation. I don’t know that irony is the answer. One of my friends said to me once, “Irony is cheap.” I don’t know if that’s exactly true, but I think that we’re in danger when we become self-consciously ironic about work, or see it through the screen too much, even if we’re being genuine about experiences that we’ve only seen through the screen. I need to experience things live as much as I can.

And I’m saying that here on a video. Isn’t that ironic? But those are the ironies built into life. I don’t know how much more self-conscious irony is needed. For me, the human experience is something kind of gritty. That can mean gritty like urban gritty, like here in New York, or it can mean gritty like on a farm, or in a cave, or in the air. I don’t know. It’s just that the real experience of life is messy. It’s full of contradictions and complications. It’s not neat on a screen like it’s packaged. And so I want to get at that in music and to get all that messiness of life. I want to be there, not viewing it through another medium.

FJO: For you, being there is also physically playing the music as well as writing the notes. You’ve always done both. You’ve written music that other people play. You play music that was written by other people. And then you play music that you wrote yourself. We always like so say, “Well, once upon a time, all the great composers were also great players and then there was this point where this terrible divide happened.” But in a way it’s a little disingenuous, since most probably identified more as a composer or as a performer. But you’ve always been both. You’re a fantastic clarinetist; you’re fabulous when you’re playing other people’s music. You’re totally on as an instrumentalist, in addition to being a really terrific composer. So do you think of it as a divide? Has it always been that way? Were there periods in your life that you felt you identified more as a player than as a composer, and now do you identify more a composer than as a player? How do you navigate those two identities? Are there two identities?

DB: I probably have more identities than that, but whenever people ask me what I am, I usually say musician. Inevitably the follow up question is, “What’s the name of your band?” I don’t know how Bach identified, but I have a feeling that he might have also identified as a musician. But I won’t speculate about the way he thought. I think that the break occurs with Beethoven where the composer becomes more self-consciously a composer, although he was also supposedly a great performer as well. I wish we had recordings of him playing. Berlioz was not a performer and you can think of other examples, but they’re more isolated. I don’t even know if they thought of themselves more as this than that; they didn’t really think that much about that separation. That’s more of a 20th-century phenomenon, and it probably has to do also with the economics of it all. Before then you just didn’t think about it because there wasn’t really a way to make money as a composer. There was no copyright. And there was no Stephen Foster yet, or a printing press running 24/7. Maybe Brahms was the first who was really making money independently. And then in the 20th century it just accelerated with the advent of composers at universities where they didn’t really need to perform to make a living.

For me personally, I just love being in a room with other musicians and making music. Sometimes I’ve been lucky enough to get a commission from a great performer, but I’ve met most of the best musicians I know by performing with them. I can give an example of just working with the JACK Quartet. I have enjoyed getting to know them by making music with them. We played the Brahms [Clarinet Quintet] and I wrote a clarinet quintet for them. It’s a lot of fun to play with them. That was a real bonding experience. There’s nothing else like it.

Bermel performing with the JACK Quartet

Derek Bermel performing with the JACK Quartet. Photo by Wiek Hijmans

I would say that having a great performer play your music is a different experience than performing with them. There are so many wonderful musicians that I’ve met, like Nick Kitchen and the Borromeo Quartet, Maria Bachmann, Fred Sherry, or all of the folks I’ve met through playing at Copland House. The act of performing with somebody is something you can’t compare to anything else. I’m leaving so many people out. When I wrote for Jazz at Lincoln Center, just getting up there and playing with the guys in the band—it also means something to the players when you get up and play with them. You are coming into their space, and you’re saying we’re all together. We’re all on the same plane, and we’re listening to each other at the same time. It means something very different than them interpreting what you wrote. But I’d say they’re both very deep experiences, and I wouldn’t really want to live without one or the other.

FJO: Though at this point in time you can’t imagine life with one and not the other, but I’m sure that when you were growing up and first learning about music, particularly if you were studying classical music, that playing had to come before composing.
DB: I started playing clarinet when I was seven. But I was playing other things earlier. According to my mom, I was picking out tunes on the organ when I was one or two or something. I don’t remember any of that. But I do remember starting clarinet when I was seven, and then starting to work on jazz piano after that.

Young Derek

Back in the day…

I had started writing when I was eight or something. I think my first pieces were called symphonies, and they were for clarinet and trumpet because my brother played the trumpet and I played the clarinet. I think what I was doing was copying him because he had started composing something. I don’t know why, but of course I just copied him, like you do when you’re a younger brother. But it may have always been in my blood to compose. My dad was a playwright and a translator, so I had this theatrical kind of background. And my mom had studied drama and was a good singer. She could sing a lot of show tunes. The first record I got was Benny Goodman; my grandma gave it to me. When I was 11, my grandmother bought this very beat up piano from a relative. She paid like $400; I think she way overpaid. In any case, I started composing on it immediately. It was actually my cousin’s piano. And he also became a composer later in life. So it was a charmed piano.

But my first real great teacher was my clarinet teacher: Ben Armato, who played for the Met. He taught me so much about paying attention to detail in music. I used to go down to Patelson’s in New York and buy tons and tons of music when I was kid. And one of the things that I bought was the Copland Concerto. I brought it to him; I was going to impress him and play the Copland. I was 14 when I went to work with him. He listened to me play and after about three bars, he stopped me. Then he said, “Let’s work on that.” And we spent the whole lesson on the first four bars—getting them right, thinking about the phrase and the breath. How was I playing it? Was I supporting it? Was I thinking about the line and where the important note in the line was? All these kinds of things. That had a huge impact on me, because it gave me a kind of seriousness and attentiveness to music.

Although he was my clarinet teacher, he was the first person who really made composing music serious for me. When I started to think critically about what I was doing, Ben took me aside one day and said, “I know you want to be a composer. It breaks my heart, because I would love for you to be a clarinetist. But I want you to know that every note you write is more important than everything I’ve done in my entire life.” And that was very moving to me, that a guy who played clarinet in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra would say that to me. And that he felt that way so strongly, even though he didn’t like modern music. I liked Verdi, Puccini, and Bellini, you know, all the great opera composers. But he felt so strongly that the composer was the center of everything. I think that had a great impact on me. Maybe to hear it from him was even more important than hearing it from a composer because he didn’t need to say that.

Baker's Dozen

Derek Bermel (center) singing in The Baker’s Dozen as an undergrad at Yale.

I kept playing throughout high school. And I played in rock bands. Then when I got to college, I didn’t make the orchestra. When I got to Yale, which was where I went to school, I was very upset because I thought I was a great clarinetist. But I didn’t know how to play excerpts. I had no idea. I just went in there and played very expressively and did whatever I wanted. And they said “X.” So then I was left without a major musical thing to do at school, since I thought I’d be doing the orchestra. It left me in a strange place, but again, I think sometimes those limitations bring out something interesting. Everybody was telling me I should try out for an a cappella group because that’s a big thing to do at Yale. So I did. I tried out for a group called the Baker’s Dozen, which ended up being a terrific experience. I didn’t know what I was doing when I went in to audition for them. I think I played and sang “Just the Way You Are,” or something like that. But singing opened up a whole new world of making music to me; that being the primary way of generating sound was very influential for me. I ended up doing lots of arranging, all kinds of stuff from Queen to The Cars to jazz standards, even kind of delving into some folk songs and classical stuff. I was singing with people who sometimes didn’t know how to read music. Or if they read music, they only barely read music. Some of them were quite excellent musicians, too. In my class, by the way, was Lisa Bielawa. We were there at the same time. She was singing in a different group at school. So we’ve known each other for a long time.

FJO: When did you start studying composition? Was composing already at that point a thing you wanted to do as a career path?
DB: Yeah, I had decided when I was 11 that I was going to be a composer. I had already been composing little pieces. I think that I had also been writing poems from when I was very young and doing all those creative things that kids do. But somehow I just thought musically. I was always a kid who didn’t notice what he was wearing, but I remembered what I was hearing. And I would imitate sounds and imitate singers. I was a by-ear person. But then I remember that I went to this music camp, and I went to see a pianist play several movements of the Vingt Regards of Messiaen. I remember looking at the program and seeing Vingt Regards sur l’Enfant Jésus, and then over here, it said Olivier Messiaen. It was a slightly unusual spelling, with all those vowels together. And I remember thinking, “Wow, I don’t know who that is, but whoever that is, I want to do what he does.” It’s a very clear moment to me. It’s funny because people say, “Well, I’m sure you don’t remember when you decided to be a composer.” I say, “No, I remember the exact moment. It was when I saw that guy’s name: Olivier Messiaen. I never forgot it.”

FJO: So you’re 11 and you see Messiaen’s name and think, “I want to do that.” Then you have a clarinet teacher who says, “Any note you write is more valuable than anything I’ve ever done in my life.” And that sort of seals the deal. So you go to Yale and you study music.

DB: Well, there’s one other moment I remember from when I was growing up. I think I was about 12 or 13. I walked into Paul’s Record Hut in New Rochelle. In the bargain bin, I saw a record of a guy who had his head back. He had a hat on, and he was playing piano. He looked like he was almost in pain, and he was sweating. The record was Thelonious Monk’s It’s Monk’s Time. That had a huge impression on me. I had the Benny Goodman record that my grandma had bought me and a couple of other odd jazz records. But Monk was a revelation. So you have this European master Messaien on the one hand, who himself is an incredibly eclectic composer who takes in sounds from everywhere, from birdsong to Hindu chant to Japanese gagaku, then Monk, who had absorbed so many different influences and styles from Debussy to gospel music. Yet both of these composers expressed things in such plain language. It was very simple and straightforward. I think that’s why kids are drawn to both of these composers. And, of course, these were both piano composers, so it was there at my fingertips. I could kind of hear it and imitate it, which I did a lot. I think those were my biggest influences as a kid, as well as listening to a lot of hip hop, which was what was happening in New York. That’s what everybody was listening to growing up, and imitating.

FJO: Hip hop and punk rock. Punk was everywhere.

DB: I think punk was everywhere, but somehow the kids I grew up with in my neighborhood were listening less to punk than to hip hop. My friend Dave knew everything about punk rock. He was listening to the Bad Brains and the Clash. Even the Police had a kind of punk rock sound when they started, and INXS. And when I was 14 or 15 I went to see Suicidal Tendencies at the Ritz in Manhattan. I remember these guys stage diving and I got hit by a boot in the head and went down while people were slam dancing. All my friends had pulled to the back, but I was still there like a dork. And when I was in high school I saw Fishbone. So that was happening at the same time as early hip hop, for sure.

FJO: Both punk and hip hop were movements that started out being all about rejecting any kind of authority and just doing your own thing. Don’t listen to what anybody tells you. But you already had an important mentor, that clarinet teacher. And then you went to Yale, an Ivy League school, which would have been anathema to the whole punk and early hip hop gestalts. You entered into the establishment, and then from there met other people who became very powerful mentors to you, in very different ways, and they informed different aspects of your music. You already mentioned Andriessen, but certainly William Bolcom when you were in grad school, and André Hadju, with whom you studied ethnomusicology when you were in Israel. All of them became a very big part of your identity. And a big part of your own life now is about being a mentor to younger people. You’ve been at Bowdoin all summer.

DB: I always had mentors, and I think actually most people do. It might seem like punk music is DIY, but I’m sure if you ask anybody coming out of that movement, like Iggy Pop or David Bowie, or the guys at Fishbone, or anyone from hip hop, you’ll hear that they have mentors. They may not be obvious mentors. They may not be academic mentors. The mentor may even be someone who is three years older than them, or two years younger than them. I mean, was John Lennon Paul McCartney’s mentor in a way or vice versa, in some cases? It’s hard to say. Jazz musicians all have mentors, same with dancers. And no matter where you find a mentor, whether you find it through kind of a more traditional way like the academy or you go out and seek out somebody that has something that you want, I think it is very important.

Bermel & Bolcom

Derek Bermel with William Bolcom

My mentors have been some very well-established composers like Bill Bolcom, Louis Andriessen, and Dutilleux certainly, and I got some great moments of wisdom from William Albright. They were my composition teachers. On the other hand, as I said, Ben Armato, who was my clarinet teacher, was a mentor. And I followed Mick O’Brien, the pipes player, for several weeks in Ireland, just transcribing what he was doing. It was for a short amount of time, but he had something that I wanted to hear and to get more deeply involved with. And my teachers in Ghana who taught me the xylophone, those are mentors. They had something I thought was beautiful that I wanted to connect with through music, but also the context in which they worked. That was as important to me as the music.

Dutilleux and Bermel

Henri Dutilleux with Derek Bermel

And sometimes that also goes for composers from the past. As much as Nikola Iliev, the Bulgarian clarinetist that I went to study with, is a mentor, so is Debussy. You know, I try, I read what he writes and I try to get into the way he thought about his writing because it’s not that far from what we’re doing. They were also just people trying to figure out how to make music, how to do what they wanted to do, and how to solve those tough problems. When I’ve read Bartok’s letters, I felt there was a kind of commonality with some of the questions that I had. So I try to get deeper into their music.

And hip hop, too, because when I heard Rakim for the first time, that was a revelation, too. I mean, the first thing on that album you hear is:

I ain’t no joke, I used to let the mic smoke.
Now I slam it when I’m done and make sure it’s broke.
When I’m gone no one gets on cuz I won’t let
Nobody press up and mess up the scene I set.
I like to stand in a crowd and watch the people wonder damn.
Think about it then you’ll understand.
I’m just an addict, addicted to music,
Maybe it’s a habit, I gotta use it.
Even if it’s jazz or the quiet storm,
I hook a beat up, convert it in a hip-hop form.

I mean, he just goes and goes. And that’s coming right on top of “King of Rock, there ain’t none higher / Sucker MC should call me sire,” which itself was revolutionary five years before and now sounds elementary. It’s also very powerful, but elementary compared to what Rakim did. And so Rakim just raised the bar. For me, what was so exciting about hip hop was that new revolutions were happening every couple of years. That same year as Rakim is KRS-One, and Public Enemy the next year. Things kept dropping that were incredible and which were moving the genre forward, and that was exciting. As a musician, I gravitated toward it because it was innovative. And it was vital and urgent and vigilant. I think a lot of other music was kind of sleepy. And hip hop was not sleepy. It was just bubbling up. It couldn’t be stopped, you know.

FJO: But you didn’t become a rapper.

DB: No, but as a teacher once said to me, “It’s all grist for the mill.” There’s beauty in so many things, and they don’t have to be the thing that I’m doing. But maybe what I can find in listening to hip hop is something very deep and complex that then I can channel into something else. Or maybe not, but it all comes in and it’s hard to predict how it will come out or to control it. David Gompper went to Nigeria and spent three years there. You don’t hear it on the surface of his music, but he will tell you that it greatly changed his life. And what changed his life was not exactly some of the musical structures, but maybe some of the things he learned there and the speed and time—things that might be hard to quantify and might be hard to immediately see on the surface. In my music, those things are more on the surface. But I would say that you can’t predict how things will change you. I think it’s just important to keep learning and taking stuff in. Because when you stop learning, if there’s no input, there’s not going to be such a great output either. I hope that I can keep learning. I know that for some people, teaching itself is a way of learning. I just think that there’s all different ways of learning. And I think we really need to keep that input going.

But I hear what you’re saying, that some people seek mentors out through means that are way more traditional. I didn’t really understand yet what studying composition was when I was at Yale, for the most part. My first composition teacher was Michael Tenzer, who was an ethnomusicologist as well. He studied the Balinese gamelan. And he, like Evan Ziporyn who had been a classmate of his, got very interested and went to Bali. Although I appreciated it, I was less interested in the gamelan and much more interested in African music, having played a lot of jazz by that time. I knew a lot about classical music, but I felt like African music was the other side of jazz that I didn’t understand and didn’t know anything about. I think I always had something in me that very much wanted to go to Africa at some point. So when I found a way to do that, that was important to me.

Working with Michael and seeing the way he had created opportunities for himself, whatever way he could, to get over to Bali and get that beautiful music was the signal to me to go to Africa. I went to study with André Hadju in Israel after my undergrad years. Even though I was studying Jewish music with him, he knew my heart was set on going to Africa. And he really encouraged me to go because he said if you feel very strongly the kinds of impulses as you should, as an American having been steeped in jazz and knowing a lot of black American music, this is important for who you are. And I respect the fact that rather than try to push me towards something that he loved, he wanted me to go toward what I love. I really learned what a great teacher is: somebody who can move you toward most fully realizing who you are and toward most fully getting what you need in order to be whole as a human being and—therefore—as a musician.

Bernard Woma & Bermel playing gyils

Ghanaian gyil master Bernard Woma playing gyil duets with Derek Bermel

FJO: You’re describing Africa as your main focus and priority at that time, but it ultimately became much bigger than that. You spent time in Ghana, which you’ve mentioned, but you also described wandering around with a piper in Ireland, and we touched on you being in Bulgaria. And you were in Israel. Plus you’ve spent a lot of time in Brazil as well as China. You’ve been all over the globe, and all of these things have somehow gotten inside your head and your soul and have become a part of your identity. You talked about wanting to experience these things in their own context. There was also an interesting comment you made somewhere on your blog that’s a further elaboration on that—that you have to find a way to make it your own music. You can’t just take it; you’ve got to make it yours. I’m curious about that process, for African music as well as music from everywhere else.

Bermel playing caxixi in Brazil

Júlio Góes and Derek Bermel playing caxixi in Salvador, Brazil.

DB: We’re in an unusual age now because it’s an age where people talk about appropriation and mixing up things, and then putting it back out there. I guess I’ve always thought it’s important to digest the music that you take in, rather than kind of chewing it a little and spitting it out. It has to somehow become part of who you are. And it has to go through your own particular digestive system. It’s getting a little gross, but for lack of a better word, you’ve got to shit it out. Or let’s put this more delicately, you want to sweat it out. If it hasn’t become a part of all the garbage that you are, and then comes out in that form, it remains at arm’s length from you. Maybe I’m a little less interested in music where I feel that just the surface has been touched and then kind of repackaged into another form. It’s a complicated subject. It’s the subject of our age really, because it’s tied in with all the stuff about YouTube and immediate access to everything and the Internet. Again, it’s that question of viewing things through the screen versus actually going and touching them. I feel like I can make some generalizations about it, yet at the same time I am only speaking about myself, because I can’t look through anybody’s eyes besides my own. So it’s a personal thing. I suppose maybe I shouldn’t make it general, but I should say, that’s what I do. Maybe there are ways of just taking the surface and making something beautiful out of that. I don’t know. But I haven’t been able to find that for me.

FJO: But now there’s an entire generation for whom the entire gamut of the world is the past and it’s not clearly differentiated, whether it’s classical music, jazz, rock, hip hop, traditional African music, bluegrass, salsa, klezmer, Peking opera, you name it.

DB: It’s all available.

FJO: And because of that there are many people creating music now who don’t really make a distinction between, say, alternative rock or jazz or contemporary classical music. Yet you do all that stuff, too, and you came to most of those different kinds of music at around the same time. But because you come from an earlier generation, it’s somehow still in different pockets. You write for orchestra and there are the things that you know you can do with an orchestra. And then you write as well as play chamber pieces where you can wig out in, say, 11/16. But then you also put together a soul band in which you sang called Peace by Piece and you’ve written a bunch of songs for that group. But when you write vocal music that’s performed with an orchestra or a chamber ensemble, the vocals in those pieces don’t sound like the vocals in Peace by Piece. So it’s like your albums would still be in different places in the record store that used to be across the street from here before the Apple store moved in.

DB: Well, I do think that genre sometimes does create interesting notions, if only just that it gives you something to rub up against. Because I think the rub is good, both on the musical level—the rub that you have when you have that third that’s kind of flatted from African music—and also the rub that exists when you’re up against certain kinds of fixed notions of what music should be or is, as Duke Ellington was. Or someone like Meredith Monk, who came out of dance yet created this beautiful kind of very humanistic minimalism—I don’t know how else to express it, but it was like genres rubbing up against each other. Someone like Ellington had so much to say but felt constrained, and he was also trying to make his ensemble stretch and grow. I think genre can have uses like that where you can try to push the edges of it and, in doing so, you get kind of a strange, hybrid creature that doesn’t have a name exactly.


Alan Pierson, Derek Bermel, and Yasiin Bey (a.k.a. MosDef)

I had originally conceived of my piece Three Rivers for a hybrid project at The Kitchen that John Schaeffer commissioned for WNYC; it was one of these strange groups which had people from different genres playing in it. And that was exciting. Sometimes you get pushed into a weird place when you’re working with artists in different genres. And it can be good or bad. I revised that piece many times in order to get it where I wanted it, where it is now. It’s strictly notated, but there’s a kind of malleability to it. Working with Alarm Will Sound and having some of those players improvise at different spots has been exciting for me. But it still feels like it’s in a strange zone, an I-don’t-know-what-you’d-call-it kind of music.

Bermel: Three Rivers, page 63

An excerpt from the score of Derek Bermel’s Three Rivers (2001) containing both fully notated and improvisatory parts. © 2002 by X Pyre Music. All rights for the world exclusively administered by Songs of Peer, Ltd. Used by permission of Peermusic Classical.

Genre can be challenging. I’ve worked a lot with Wendy Walters, the writer, and we’ve written art songs together and an oratorio for the Pittsburgh Symphony. But we also wrote this musical, Golden Motors, that’s now making the rounds. Wendy’s a kindred spirit. She has a kind of flexibility and interest in so many things. She’s a poet. She’s a lyricist. She’s a playwright. She’s an essayist. And she likes poking around between the genres, too. I feel like musical theater is another problem to solve: how to deal with musicians who think of music in a very particular way, in a very beautiful way, in a very structured way, sometimes in a very free way, but yet you have to figure out how to write it down and how to express it to them in a way that makes sense to them, with their background and who they are, which is slightly different from who I am. To me that’s really exciting. I embrace the challenge, although there are maybe disappointments along the way. I mean, Beckett said, “Fail again. Fail better.” You keep failing, but hopefully you do a little better each time.

FJO: You say musical, so are you thinking Broadway?

DB: Well, I don’t know what Broadway means anymore. Broadway means you have to have a lot of money.

FJO: Or someone else does.

DB: And they have to keep putting money into it. So for me, that’s more of a kind of tactic. But yeah, it’s musical theater, and it’s within that genre of singing and structure. That will be the only genre category I would give it. I think it probably has a number of things which will make people say that it’s not musical theater. But that’s true with most of my music, so I don’t worry too much about the labels.

FJO: I was intrigued by something you said earlier about being very careful about your catalog and constantly revising pieces, which you alluded to again when you talked about reworking Three Rivers. But at the same time, I’m overjoyed that unlike many other composers historically who have weeded out some of their earliest pieces, there are some very early pieces that are still in your catalog, like your solo piano piece Turning, which won the ASCAP Leo Kaplan Award for young composers. I also thought it was very brave for you to write on your blog about your very first commission, the band piece, and once again you’ve kept that piece in your catalog.

Bermel: Turning, page 6

An unmetered passage from “Nightmares and Chickens,” the second movement of Derek Bermel’s solo piano composition Turning, which was written during his studies with Henri Dutilleux at the Tanglewood Music Center. © 1995 by X Pyre Music. All rights for the world exclusively administered by Songs of Peer, Ltd. Used by permission of Peermusic Classical.

DB: For better or worse. As a composer, pieces that I’ve written are kind of markers in my life. I suppose my life has probably taken different turns than those of some of my friends who are not composers and who’ve had more normal jobs and lives, who’ve had families and all kinds of things that I haven’t had. So when I think of a certain piece, I think of a certain period in my life. It has a lot of resonance and meaning for me that goes beyond the notes on the page because I remember something about what I was like and what my music was like. Some of that is personal.

Bermel at ASCAP

Derek Bermel in mid thought during our conversation for NewMusicBox. Photo by Alexandra Gardner

As long as people want to play something, I’m basically O.K. with it as long as I don’t think it’s a bad piece. I’ve done revisions on those older pieces and I think they’re the best they can be. People continue to publish and play these pieces, so I feel like I can’t be the architect of my own story. Other people will have to be. I can’t choose which of my works is the most significant. I may like certain pieces better than others, but those are probably, you know, the bad child that nobody else likes, and so I feel defensive and protective of those pieces.

But there are other works that I have not let out there, which are even earlier, because I’ve been writing since I was 11. I mean, you don’t see A Pig up there. A Pig, opus 1, is not there. Nor all the pieces I wrote for my woodwind quintet in high school, nor my first four orchestra pieces which I wrote in high school, where I didn’t even know where to put the violins. I put them at the top of the page. I remember showing that piece to John Corigliano when I was about 21 or 22; he was kind enough to give me a lesson. And he said, “The violins are at the top of the page. Did you know that?” And I said, “Oh.” And he showed me some scores, and I realized. Again, I’m not visual. I had looked at a lot of scores, but I had never picked up the fact that the violins were supposed to be down at the bottom. So a lot of it was just trial and error. I’m just failing better and better.

FJO: Well, I’d like to hear A Pig, opus 1.

DB: I still have all that music somewhere. I’ll try to have DJ Spooky mix it.

Caleb Burhans: Inner Voices

It might seem surprising—given all of Caleb Burhans’s accomplishments within multiple musical scenes as well as his notoriety—that it would take so long for a disc devoted exclusively to the musical compositions to be released. Yet when we spoke with him in late July, it was on the very day that Evensong, the first CD to have his name on the spine, was released on Cantaloupe Records. It was also just a few days after his daughter Fiona was born: “It’s rather insane; they’re obviously the two hugest things in my life thus far.” That’s saying a lot for someone who has appeared on stages ranging from Carnegie Hall to Madison Square Garden, has had works performed at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall as well as the Darmstadt International Music Institute, and was the subject of a New York Times profile nearly five years ago.

But after our conversation, it became clear that Burhans does not particularly seek the limelight, preferring to be—as he put it—“a cog in the machine” rather than “standing out front.” This attitude informs his approach to being a performer (he’d “rather play second violin or viola than first fiddle for the most part”) as well as how he creates material for most of his more popular music-oriented endeavors, such as itsnotyouitsme, his ambient indie rock duo with guitarist Grey Mcmurray, which has released three albums thus far. But the rarified world of notation-based music is inherently a non-collaborative process and its denizens expect compositions to come from a singular auteur. Yet while others might feel that writing a fixed score for other musicians to play is a very different process from creating music with others either in real time or in a recording studio, Burhans doesn’t draw distinctions between these modalities and is able to make music effortlessly in each of them. At the same time, however, the lessons he learned from his immersion into so many different kinds of musical experiences have also made him extremely meticulous about the material he puts out into the world, whatever the genre. So for him Evensong had to be far more than merely a collection of music works he composed over the past decade; it had to cohere and flow from track to track as an album.
While being open to such a broad range of stylistic aesthetics, both as a co-creator and as an interpreter could have yielded a compositional voice that is all over the map, Burhans’s approach to the music he commits to the page is remarkably singular and almost austere in its sonic purity:

“I made a conscious decision when I was in my early 20s to write the music I write now. … Because I have so many different outlets for playing different styles of music, I decided that at the end of the day I want to go home and write music that I want to listen to and create on my own. Because I do get to play some really thorny contemporary music and free jazz, when I go to write I want it to be very pristine and very simple.”

Simple, however, is something of a misnomer. Admittedly—compared with a great deal of contemporary music—a typical Burhans score looks relatively straight-forward on the page and a performance of it sounds relatively simple, but appearances can be deceptive. While pieces like his 2005 Iceman Stole The Sun or oh ye of little faith (2008), both scored for chamber orchestra, are largely created from cycles of repeated phrases, the musicians often stress different beats from one another and the various phrases frequently begin in different parts of the measure resulting in an ambiguous sense of downbeat. (See score sample below.) While in his Magnificat and Nunc Dittimus, both for treble voices and organ (2004), the voices mostly move in parallel motion with one another (in Nunc Dittimus they’re actually mostly in unison!), they often go against the rhythmic flow of what is being played on the organ. And then there are the glissandos that permeate all of Burhans’s music and give it a heightened sense of instability. When musicians pull it off it comes across as otherworldly, but doing so requires a high level of concentration as well as musicianship—an attention to subtle details, particularly pitch and rhythmic clarity:

“I’m very, very specific about everything. One of my pet peeves is that people think of glissandi as portamentos and so they do them at the last second; a glissando should last the entire duration of a pitch it’s coming from. I used to write much more dense microtonal music, but I got fed up with having to play pitches for people and say, ‘This is a sixth tone.’ I found that very inaccurate; it would never be the same across the board from player to player. But I found that if I say glissando from this note to this note within this duration, that’s the only way you can actually control that. … I’m very rigorous about keeping things precise…
“It can kind of put me in a bad position with some new music ensembles. When they have a million pieces to learn, they’ll see my piece and think, ‘Oh, It’s in D major and in 6/8—all right, fine; we’ll play through it once.’ Then they get to the concert and totally mess it up, either play it out of tune or forget a repeat. I get that; I’ve been there before. It looks simple, but it takes a different type of focus.”

One of the things that has helped Burhans get what he wants from performers who play his music is that he is so active as a performer himself, so there’s a lot of mutual empathy. As he acknowledges, “Being on the same page with someone else can really open things up not just in terms of execution but also in terms of interpretation.”

But it goes much deeper than that. Three of the seven tracks on Evensong feature Alarm Will Sound, a group he helped found and which he remains very much a part of. Another three feature the Trinity Wall Street Choir, a group he sang with when he first moved to New York City and in which his wife—soprano Martha Cluver—still sings. In fact, the only group featured on the present CD with which Burhans does not have an almost familial relationship is the Tarab Cello Ensemble, who commissioned his lush The Things Left Unsaid which they perform on the disc. But, of course, as an active violinist and violist (plus he also played cello as a teen), Burhans is completely in his element working with string players.

The week we spoke with him was definitely an auspicious one, but the best is undoubtedly yet to come. Aside from a series of eight caprices for electric guitar he created espressly for Mcmurray more than a decade ago that clock in at approximately 90 minutes in total, Burhans’s compositions have tended to be smaller scale. Most of his pieces hover between 5 and 15 minutes. But given his love for the Anglican choral music tradition and his adeptness at writing for voices, a large scale work for chorus seems inevitable at some point in the not-too-distant future. He also expressed interest in writing a full length concerto for itsnotyouitsme and orchestra, an activity that would bring some of the disparate parts of his musical universe even closer together. It will certainly be worth the wait.

oh ye of little faith... (do you know where your children are?), page 7

Page 7 of the score of Caleb Burhans’s oh ye of little faith… (do you know where your children are?)
© 2008 Burning Hands Publishing (ASCAP). Reprinted with permission of Caleb Burhans and Good Child Music.

Sounds Heard: Jacqueline Humbert & David Rosenboom—Daytime Viewing

Ever since I attended the premiere of Robert Ashley’s opera Improvement—Don Leaves Linda, which is something of a showcase for the voice of Jacqueline Humbert, I’ve been fascinated by how she is able to make cutting-edge avant-garde music sound completely natural, if not downright friendly. In the quintet of voices that has been the basis of Ashley’s operas for decades—an ensemble which also features the otherworldly Joan La Barbara and Thomas Buckner, as well as Ashley himself and his son, Sam Ashley—Humbert’s voice has always struck me as the most immediate and down to earth. But it was pretty much the only context in which I’ve known her voice, the one exception being a 2004 Lovely CD called Chanteuse which features Humbert performing music by a variety of other composers—including Alvin Lucier, Sam Ashley, Joan La Barbara, David Rosenboom, and herself—in addition to two selections by Robert Ashley. From her bio included with that disc, I learned that she trained as a visual artist and worked as a designer of sets, costumes, and graphics, but began her career as a performer on two albums created in collaboration with Rosenboom—My New Music (1978) and Daytime Viewing (1980). Both of these albums have both been long of print, and the latter was only ever available in a limited-run cassette edition.

So I was delighted that Unseen World Records has re-released Daytime Viewing, making it available for the very first time on CD as well as on LP! While it is very much of its time, a by-product of that brief window in the late 1970s and early 1980s when a fusion of experimental music and New Wave created numerous uncategorizable hybrids, it is also very much a harbinger of our own much longer-lasting “indie-classical” zeitgeist where musicians cross freely between musical genres, equally comfortable in all of them.

According to the notes accompanying the disc, Daytime Viewing is “based on the casual analysis of daytime television drama and the audience phenomena such programming addresses.” Having rarely been able to sit through an entire episode of a soap opera, I can’t really speak to Daytime Viewing’s effectiveness in capturing the essence of such fare and the people who watch it. However, even a non-television viewer can imagine the sordidness and quotidian angst of afternoon serials from some of the album’s lyrics, which include such lines as: “He’s starting to sleep in a different place every night,” “Where were you when our dear baby died?” and “Where were you when my moustache began to appear?” evoke both the sordidness and quotidian angst of afternoon serials.

Of the six tracks on Daytime Viewing, two of them—“Bareback” and “Distant Space”—both clock in at under five minutes and could easily be mistaken for quirky pop songs from that time. Had radio stations discovered those songs back when the album was first released, it might have reached a much wider audience. Remember this was the era when Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman” wound up on the charts. In 2013, Daytime Viewing comes across as a blueprint for much of the so-called genre-defying music being made now. It is yet another reminder that no idea is completely new. Then again, it wasn’t even completely new in 1980. Listening to Humbert’s straightforward vocals against a wash of Rosenboom’s electronics calls to mind another such collaboration that occurred decades before that—the recordings of Les Paul and Mary Ford. Despite the wild experimentation of the Paul/Ford sessions, they were widely popular—in the 1950s no less. But hopefully with this re-issue, Daytime Viewing will assume its rightful place as the missing link between those fascinating duos and everything from The Fiery Furnaces’ Bitter Tea to Matt Marks’s Little Death.