Tag: polystylism

Carman Moore: Curiosity Is the Strongest Engine

A conversation at Moore’s home in New York City
June 13, 2013—3:00 p.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video Presentation by Molly Sheridan

Back in 1994, people started playing “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” a game in which people try to figure out how anyone who has ever appeared in a Hollywood film connects to the actor Kevin Bacon. If there were a music version of such a game, it could very well be “Six Degrees of Carman Moore” since Moore—in a career spanning decades—connects to everyone from Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen to John Lennon and Aretha Franklin.

As a music critic for The Village Voice (a job he started in the 1960s while still studying composition at Juilliard with Luciano Berio and Vincent Persichetti), Moore was the first in an illustrious line of composers who covered the contemporary music scene for that paper—before Tom Johnson, Greg Sandow, and Kyle Gann. In 1968, together with Kermit Moore and Dorothy Rudd Moore (who were husband and wife but not related to Carman), Noel DaCosta, and Talib Rasul Hakim, he founded the Society of Black Composers (SBC). During its brief three years of existence, SBC produced an eclectic series of concerts and lecture tours which helped to establish the careers of several important African-American composers, including Olly Wilson, Wendell Logan, Adolphus Hailstork, and Alvin Singleton, who has remained Carman Moore’s lifelong friend. (In 2005, Moore wrote the text for Singleton’s choral work TRUTH.) In the early 1970s, Moore wrote lyrics as well as the string arrangements for a solo album by Felix Cavaliere (from the rock band The Young Rascals); a song Moore wrote with Cavaliere, “Rock and Roll Outlaws,” appeared on an album so titled by the British group Foghat. Moore’s own music first received a huge amount of attention in January 1975 when successful premieres of two orchestra commissions were performed by the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic less than 24 hours apart. The following month, Dell published a book by Moore about the iconic blues singer Bessie Smith.

In the 1980s, Moore’s Skymusic Ensemble—a group which evolved out of years of informal improv sessions at the legendary Judson Memorial Church in New York—toured everywhere from Geneva to Hong Kong, including a stint at Milan’s La Scala Opera House to perform Moore’s score for a dance choreographed by Alvin Ailey, Goddess of the Waters. Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, Moore wrote music for many noted choreographers—including Garth Fagan, Anna Sokolow, Donald Byrd, Elaine Summers, Cleo Parker Robinson, and Ruby Shang—as well as film scores for several PBS documentaries. Moore’s elaborate Mass for the 21st Century, first presented by Lincoln Center Out of Doors in 1994 in a performance featuring Cissy Houston (Whitney’s mother), has since been presented at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Cape Town, South Africa. Among Moore’s most recent pieces is the Concerto for Ornette (inspired by Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics) which the New Juilliard Ensemble premiered, with Coleman in attendance, in September 2011.

Yet despite this broad and impressive range of accomplishments, Carman Moore—unlike Kevin Bacon—is not a household name. In fact, many people are unaware of him even within the contemporary music community. Part of this might have to do with the fact that when Moore was first coming up the ranks, the uptown vs. downtown battlefield was all ablaze and Moore wrote music that was somehow too downtown for uptown as well as too uptown for downtown. He also unapologetically embraced jazz and pop and every possible hybrid musical style. As he explained when we spoke to him in his cramped but homey apartment in an old building smack in the midst of all the high-rises that litter the Lincoln Center area, musical “crossover” does not have to be a by-product of opportunistic marketing, but is an authentic response to the world we now live in:

I think the concept of crossover is key to the American experience. It’s just not only in crossing over the Atlantic and the slave ship, but it’s just happening all the time. Living in New York City, you’re constantly listening to somebody else’s language and looking at somebody else’s face, looking at mixes. And it’s hard not to be amazed about some of the results of that. The only thing I can tell people relative to that is the things that seem to be crossing over, make sure you know where they are crossing over from. So it also takes you back to the study of roots of all kinds. You keep finding yourself plunging back into the beginnings of worlds.

Another reason that Moore might not be better known can be traced to his own reticence to walk down the traditional career paths that composers take. By nature, he’s a non-joiner. He’s never signed a record contract or a publishing arrangement. He has also not been particularly adept at self-publishing and self-releasing his own work. As a result, very little of his music has been publicly available. At the same time, away from the perpetual scrutinizing gaze of official arbiters of taste, as well as fans who sometimes deem every deviation from an established stylistic pattern to be a misstep, Moore’s music has been able to evolve on its own terms.

I don’t have much follow through. I think I must have been avoiding it. At the end of the performance in San Francisco, a Deutsche Grammophon guy showed up backstage and put a contract in front of me. And I swear to god, I didn’t sign it. I’ve thought about that ever since. Maybe it’s because I was a child of the ‘60s, I just didn’t trust being famous in that way. It actually may have helped me to not get locked into whatever it was I was doing at a particular time. … I did have the sense that a lot of the people I was writing about as a critic had gotten trapped in having a fandom that expected them to keep writing the same way. They didn’t seem to be able to dodge that bullet. I just didn’t want that to happen. I could have gotten stuck writing gospel in symphony orchestra pieces or something, I don’t know.

However, Carman Moore has begun making a more conscious effort to get his music out into the world. Downloads of recordings for many of his compositions are now available through his own website. In August 2009, former Maine state politician and jazz bassist Kyle W. Jones presented the first Carman Moore Music Festival on the remote Swan’s Island, located off the coast of Maine. But the latest edition of the festival will take place in New York City at the West Park Arts Center (October 18-19, 2013). Highlights include a repeat performance of The Quiet Piece (which premiered in May 2013) and a brand new dramatic song cycle about the wide-reaching effects of child abuse called Girl of the Diamond Mountain, which Moore composed jointly through improvisation with Danish vocalist/lyricist Lotte Arnsbjerg. Perhaps now that stylistic hybrids and a DIY sensibility have become par for the course for many of today’s most successful composers, Carman Moore will rightly be seen as a true pioneer of 21st-century American music.


Frank J. Oteri: In your autobiography, you say two things about being an artist which are somehow contradictory, yet also complimentary. You assert that an artist is a rebellious individual, someone who strikes out on his or her own path no matter what people think. At the same time, you speak to the importance of an artist being a force for bringing society together.

Carman Moore on the Street

Carman Moore on the Street.
Photo by Lotte Arnsbjerg.

Carman Moore: Beneath the surface, what the creative artist does is bring society together to think in a new way. I have a piece in my Mass for the 21st Century which is called, “I Want to Think in a New Way.” I don’t know if it was sour grapes, but we just came through a period in music composition when many composers were totally happy to chase away an audience that would get and love what they’re doing.
Once I was in my teacher Luciano Berio’s place over in New Jersey and Karlheinz Stockhausen was there, so I interviewed him a little bit. I was writing for the The Village Voice at that point. And I said, “What would you do if people started to really like your music and really understood it and really got behind you?” And he said, “Well, I’d have to rethink myself. I wouldn’t like that at all.” Berio, on the other hand, didn’t have that problem. He was really fascinated with the Beatles and their being popular and what that meant. And that they were writing really good music. I mean, anybody with ears could hear that they were really musical and that something was special happening there. So he did some variations on Beatles pieces for Cathy Berberian, who was then his wife. He thought it was sort of fun. Stockhausen went on to explain that he had sat in stadiums with the Hitler Youth where everybody was singing the same song and enjoying singing together. That really put him off. I think he was really torn.

FJO: Of course Stockhausen witnessed firsthand how popularity and conformity led to one of the worst horrors in human history. Which is why, as you make clear in your book, that it is just as important to be a rebel as it is to bring people together. That reminds me of something else you wrote: “Everything society at the time said I wasn’t supposed to do, I had to try. Everything I thought society had already decided about me because of my race, I had to subvert.”

CM: Well, the whole business of trying things out was just mainly about me trying to gain some self-knowledge. I grew up with a family that totally adored me. My grandma just couldn’t get enough of me. I lived in Elyria, Ohio, and she lived in the next town five miles away—Lorain, Ohio. Somehow I’d get on the bus and go down there to visit her, and I would walk onto her porch, and she’d say, “There he is. I worship the very ground you walk on.” I hadn’t done anything. So I was used to that, to just being appreciated. I didn’t encounter a lot of race prejudice, but I knew it existed and I had read about it. There were fables around, spread by white culture, like black people could not run distances. Obviously before I was born Jesse Owens had already proven that black people could run sprints. And then the Ethiopians and the Kenyans showed up. So I wanted to try some things that are supposedly identified with white people, like tennis, just to see if there was some reason I would not be a good tennis player just because I was black. I was curious about myself relative to the world.

FJO: And you’re still playing tennis, and you’re apparently pretty good at it.

CM: Yes and I have won championships. But I’m not great anymore; I have sore knees after I play for a little while.

FJO: This curiosity about who you are relative to the world ties into your involvement in music as well, because at the time there were also certain assumptions about who played certain kinds of music. There was definitely a supposition, at the time you were first getting involved in music, that if you were African American you would be involved with jazz and not with classical music. And while your music certainly debunks any definition of genre, it is not really jazz.

CM: Right. Truth to tell, my mother was a marvelous classical player, but she also played boogie-woogie and Duke Ellington’s pieces a lot. She just loved them. And she talked about Art Tatum. But she played classical music on the radio. She’d play the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on Saturday afternoons. It sounded great. So by the time I was aware that I was supposed to be doing something, I was already doing something else, you know. I was already totally enamored of so-called classical music. But I love jazz.

FJO: But while you immersed yourself in jazz as well as classical music, you never identified as a jazz musician.


Louis Armstrong (left) and Bob Thiele (middle) with Carman Moore (right)

CM: No, because I actually never learned an instrument that I could [play jazz on]. I learned the trumpet a little bit, but they needed a French horn player in high school. So I took up the French horn. And cello. The literature was very specifically classical, so I just followed that where it led. I studied at Oberlin Conservatory, which was a few miles away. I took lessons there in French horn from Martin Morris, who was the second chair in the Cleveland Orchestra, and cello lessons from someone whose name I can’t remember anymore, who was a student there. And I studied conducting with Cecil Isaacs. So I went into that music naturally. It wasn’t an example of my deciding to try classical music because I’m not supposed to. I was already there.

FJO: What about writing music criticism? Back then, and even to this day, most of the people who are writing about music in this country are white. That’s actually true for jazz as well as for classical music.

CM: Yeah.

FJO: I find it fascinating that there was such an “anything goes” attitude in the early days of The Village Voice. What a different publication it has become today! But you became their first new music critic, long before Tom Johnson, Greg Sandow, or Kyle Gann, which I think a lot of people today are not aware of. I’m curious to know how that happened.

CM: My first touch with The Village Voice was entering an annual poetry contest that they had. I was studying at Juilliard. So I entered a couple poems in there, and Marianne Moore was one of the judges. I won second place. At any rate, I went to the Voice, and I said, “You don’t have anybody writing about new music here.” And so they said, “Would you like to?” I mean, they weren’t paying anybody anything serious, so I said, “Sure, I’d really love to start.” And so I started. I found that it was really exciting writing about music because that way I could study music all around town and go to concerts for free. One of the first things I did was write an obit on Henry Cowell who had just died.

FJO: At that point Leighton Kerner was already there.

CM: Right. But he just wrote about opera and the regular fare. So I started with just new music, but I started adding other things. Popular [music] was really happening. So I said I’d like to add that. And jazz. So I started a column called “New Time” in which I’d just write about whatever I wanted to.

FJO: So they weren’t covering pop music at all at that point, or jazz?

CM: Well, not that I knew of. They started covering pop music sort of informally during the time I was there. Richard Goldstein and Robert Christgau had started seriously writing about popular music.

FJO: But that was also after you were already there.

CM: Right.

Carman Moore's Studio

Carman Moore’s studio set up, like most composers nowadays, includes a digital keyboard and a computer. Photo by Molly Sheridan.

FJO: What’s also interesting about your stint at The Village Voice is not only were you the first person to write about new music there, you were a composer of new music who was writing about it. At that time, people like Harold Schonberg at The New York Times said that if you wrote about music not only should you not have a public career as a musician, you also should not be friends with other musicians. There was a strongly held belief that there were too many conflicts of interest. You would somehow taint the objectivity of your criticism, as if criticism could ever be objective. So did you find any conflicts in being on both sides and how did you handle them?

CM: I certainly thought about it a lot. Of course Robert Schumann had done it a hundred and whatever years previously. But I think it held me back a little bit, because I wasn’t as aggressive about pursuing my career as a composer as I might have been if I were hard put to get some things done. But very soon I even reviewed pieces by some of my Juilliard teachers. It was sort of a challenge to just react to a piece, take some notes, be good at writing in the dark, and then just put on the blinders and write and see what comes out. I didn’t pan any of my teachers. But I would choose something in a concert that I liked better or say, “I have a problem with this,” or “I didn’t really get this.” Hugo Weisgall had an opera called The Stronger. I didn’t love the opera, but there were a couple of arias that I liked, and so I spoke about them first, and then trashed the rest.

FJO: I can’t imagine you trashing anything.

CM: Well, I didn’t really.

FJO: But to play a Harold Schoenbergian devil’s advocate here, might you have written bad reviews of pieces by your teachers if they hadn’t been your teachers?

CM: Well, I might have been a little more negative. But truth to tell, my teachers were Luciano Berio, Vincent Persichetti, and Hall Overton, who was my first teacher. And I loved their music. So I didn’t have any problem there.

FJO: What about people who might be potentially performing your music?

CM: I didn’t worry about that much. I wrote for the Voice until about ’75 or ’76 when I really got tired of making the deadlines. I got lots of performances during the ‘70s. I was getting more performances than I really had time for. So I didn’t send things out much. It was many years that passed before I even understood how much composers typically send their stuff around. But as a result of reviewing these people, one of the really great things that happened for me as a composer was I was just able to try out my own sense of my own work against all this stuff I was hearing. I was hearing everybody’s work, not just in contemporary classical music, but in jazz and pop and everything. And I discovered the fascination—which I still have—of getting into somebody else’s mind. In other words, being a listener and turning myself over to the composer and to the musical experience, and letting it have its way with me. I would just take notes on how my listening experience was going. Then once a year, in my column, I would always remind people that I am just a listener who has a lot of experience. I encouraged everybody to go listen to music, to turn themselves over to the experience, and then respond. That is criticism, as far as I’m concerned.

Carman Moore's Piano

Carman Moore’s upright piano is littered with scores of composers he deeply admires such as Haydn and Debussy. Photo by Molly Sheridan.

One of the reasons I enjoyed being a music critic was just that experience of taking that voyage into somebody else’s way of thinking. Now I think it scares a lot of people because they think that they’ll get kidnapped mentally and never come back. But I like the idea of seeing where somebody else is coming from, and how they got to these notes. Now very often, in my criticism of somebody’s work, it’s clear that they got there fraudulently. But fraudulently means that they just were afraid to let me really hear what they would really like to do with this material. Or they just wanted to impress the listener with how much they know and how complicated they can be. And it ended up that their music would sound like a mess, even with some people of talent. It’s like a novelist who has a few obviously really potent and interesting characters that they force to behave a way in which those characters would not behave. So a lot of my criticism was simply judging that.

FJO: But overall it seems that most of the criticism you wrote was positive.

CM: Well, when I decided what I was going to hear, I didn’t go to something that I sort of suspected was going to be a mess and would waste my time. So in that sense, I also was being my own ideal listener. A listener wouldn’t choose to go to hear something that they think is going to be crap. Usually, when I would go to something that I would think I would not like to hear as the result of somebody else saying, “Oh, you gotta hear this thing,” I’d go and be disappointed. Maybe that was their thing and not my thing. But it is quite possible that you could start getting it after a while.

FJO: This brings us to that loaded word—crossover. Nowadays, among most people in the critical community as well as others who are—for lack of a better term—the gatekeepers in the music business, that word is mostly used as an insult. It is pejorative. If something is labeled crossover either it lacks authenticity or it comes out of a really cynical commercialism—a crass attempt at appealing to different markets without really understanding any of them. But for you, the word is all-encompassing and all-embracing. You use it to describe your ethnicity, because your ancestors were Native American and European as well as African. You also use it to describe your own music, and it’s even the name of your own autobiography.

Moore, Sachs, Coleman

Carman Moore, Joel Sachs, and Ornette Coleman at Juilliard following the premiere of Moore’s Concerto for Ornette.
Photo by Pearl Perkins.

CM: I think the concept of crossover is key to the American experience. It’s not only in crossing over the Atlantic and the slave ship, but it’s just happening all the time. Living in New York City, you’re constantly listening to somebody else’s language and looking at somebody else’s face, looking at mixes. And it’s hard not to be amazed about some of the results of that. The only thing I can tell people relative to that is the things that seem to be crossing over, make sure you know where they are crossing over from. So it also takes you back to the study of roots of all kinds. You keep finding yourself plunging back into the beginnings of worlds. For example, tap dancing apparently was a mix of Irish step dancers with ex-slaves laying out railroad track. It was just an African-American rhythmization of things that the Irish guys were doing. It happens all over the place. In the ‘60s, some of my African-American pals were saying white people don’t have a right to be playing this music, they’re not playing this music right, whatever. It’s crazy because if it’s authentically produced, authentically composed, and authentically put out there, it’s fascinating.

The Mystery of Tao

The opening page of Carman Moore’s The Mystery of Tao for string trio and synthesizer.
© 2001 by Carman Moore and reprinted with his permission. Click image to enlarge

FJO: It’s interesting that both your own music, as well as what you wrote about music, has been so concerned with breaking the barriers between styles and labels. Some people claim that it’s basic human nature to put labels on things in order to understand them better. But I would dare say that putting labels on things is a particular trait of people who are in the business of writing criticism—whether it’s music criticism, art criticism, or literary criticism. All these names of movements come from somebody writing about them and giving them names as a kind of shorthand. Then the marketers run with it. If you like this, you’ll like that. But, of course, if you’re writing “new music” or writing about “new music,” all that means is that it’s new. The term doesn’t connote any particular pedigree. But people have always made assumptions about pedigree, especially during the late ‘60s within the realm of what we call—for lack of a better term—contemporary classical music. That was the heyday of uptown vs. downtown.

CM: I covered both sides and I actually wrote in both styles, just to see what it felt like partly. I actually used to live at what was called the Judson Student House, which was connected to Judson Church, which is still on Washington Square. It was a wild time to be there. Among other things, I had the key to the church, and they had a big organ up there. I used to go there and just sort of improvise with people. I started forming my group, the Skymusic Ensemble, from some of those first things. Some people were just banging on bottles and stuff like that. I discovered that you could just take off and you don’t have to have a tune. You don’t have to have chords or anything. You just sort of find the music. I later discovered that it’s better if you write some things down, some guide posts.

Carman Moore Righteous Heroes

The first page of the manuscript score for Carman Moore’s Righteous Heroes: Sacred Spaces.
© 1987 by Carman Moore and reprinted with his permission.
Photo by Pearl Perkins.

Then I was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to write Wild Fires and Field Songs which is, in effect, a three-movement symphony. That was after having interviewed Pierre Boulez. We got into discussing improvisation, and he said, “You wouldn’t invite somebody over to watch you take a piss, would you?” That was what he had to say about improvisation as such. But at any rate, I wrote that piece virtually at the same time as I wrote Gospel Fuse, which is a work for gospel quartet. The lead singer was Cissy Houston when we did it with Ozawa and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. I was just finishing that and the Philharmonic wanted to commission me to do this other piece. They’re worlds apart. And I just loved that. That was really exciting. Of course, Gospel Fuse was a crossover piece, because it was a two-movement work for symphony orchestra and gospel quartet.

FJO: That was the piece that was originally supposed to be done by Aretha Franklin

CM: Exactly. But I think there were people around her—I call them goons—who wouldn’t let her pick up the phone. I needed to be able to go back and forth with her. So at any rate, I kept composing, and finally—talk about crossover—Peter Yarrow [of Peter, Paul & Mary] popped up in the class I was teaching at the New School downtown; it was an orchestration class. He didn’t come to it very often, because he was always on the road. But we became good friends, and he was good friends with Seiji Ozawa. So at any rate, that commission came about through that. And then I told you about the Boulez one. It’s not 12-tone, but it invades his world of sound. I just really love the challenge of doing that over here, and doing this over there, and trying to make them wonderful.

It turned out that Gospel Fuse was scheduled for one day in February, and then I was called not long after that and found out that the New York Philharmonic had scheduled Wild Fires and Field Songs for the very next night. Now, the odds against that are infinite. So at any rate, I finished the two pieces and started rehearsing. It suddenly occurred to me that I could bomb on two coasts at the same time! I could just be clearing the tomatoes off my face from San Francisco, and get a fresh batch in New York City. But they both turned out really great.

FJO: Taking into account the time differences, you had only about 19 hours to get back to New York from San Francisco.
CM: I also had to be at that last rehearsal in New York. So that was a red eye flight back to just go to the rehearsal. So I was a mess, but it was beautiful.

FJO: No tomatoes?

CM: No tomatoes. No, no, no, no. Kudos! I had become friends with John Lennon and at the New York performance he showed up in the lobby before the performance with May Pang, who I think he was sort of going with at that time. Then Yoko Ono shows up from the other direction with this guy. I was with my then wife. And there the six of us were, in the lobby downstairs, just before the beginning of this concert. And John said, “Do I look okay? I’ve never been to one of these before.” He had this sort of black suit on. And I said, “You’ve never been to a symphony concert before?” “No.” He had an “Elvis Lives!” button on and I said, “I think you’re gonna enjoy this.”

FJO: You also played music with John Lennon, too, right? But none of it got recorded.

CM: There was one evening I wanted to interview Yoko for I forget which album of hers. So I brought my little cassette recorder in. They were living in the Village at that time; that was just before they moved uptown. At any rate, I put my recording device down on the table. It definitely was not one of these digital items of today; it would run out at a certain point. So she and I were talking and talking and talking, and he would break in every now and then, and say, “Yoko, you know, the man’s trying to help you. You know, don’t turn everything into bloody circuses.” Because she said, “Why don’t you take the page and cut it down the middle and put me on this side and John on the other.” So that went along and, of course, John is passing a joint. I wasn’t paying any attention. I was just trying to be polite. Well, I was more than polite by the end of that thing. I got all my stuff down and the tape recorder ran out. And he said, “Would you like to jam?” I said, “Sure, right.” They had two rooms—it was sort of like a loft space, but it was on the ground floor: a great big room in the front, then a great big bedroom. He had a pump organ there. He got out his acoustic guitar, sat on the bed, cross-legged, and off we went. I remember it was great music. But, obviously, even if I had wanted to record it, I had run out of tape.

FJO: I’ve known you and have known about your music for years, but the thing that keeps amazing me about all these stories—you being the first person to write about new music for The Village Voice, you having premieres by the San Francisco Symphony and New York Phil conducted by Ozawa and Boulez less than 24 hours apart, you jamming with John Lennon—is that despite you having all these connections to people who are household names, you yourself are not a household name. Yet you connect to all these things that are central to the story of music of the past century. You could say, “O.K., people who write contemporary classical music are not household names any more. We’re no longer living in the era where someone like Aaron Copland would be on the cover of Time magazine.” But your music embraces so much more than that, so that’s not it. It’s somewhat provocative to ask why that is, and it’s probably something you can’t answer. But it just seems to me, given all these anecdotes, that you ought to be much more famous.

CM: I’ve thought about this a lot. I don’t have much follow through. I think I must have been avoiding it. At the end of the performance in San Francisco, a Deutsche Grammophon guy showed up backstage and put a contract in front of me. And I swear to god, I didn’t sign it. I’ve thought about that ever since. Maybe it’s because I was a child of the ‘60s, I just didn’t trust being famous in that way. It actually may have helped me to not get locked into whatever it was I was doing at a particular time. But that’s a question I have wrestled with ever since. Then when I started the Skymusic Ensemble, a lot of my work couldn’t be played by anybody else but them.

FJO: But in that era there were many composers who primarily wrote music for their own ensembles to play, and they gained quite a bit of notoriety from it—Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Meredith Monk. Even to some extent Charles Wuorinen and Harvey Sollberger forming the Group for Contemporary Music was a do-it-yourself initiative and actually helped get their music out there. Also self-publishing and releasing your own recordings was definitely an ethos that started in the ’60 and lasted throughout the ‘70s. You were certainly part of that generation, but back then you didn’t really release much of your music. That same ethos is pervasive once again nowadays, and thankfully now you’re actually releasing a lot of your music.


Alvin Singleton (left) with Alex Shapiro (middle) and Carman Moore (right) in 2011.
Photo by Norberto Valle, Jr.

CM: I’m finally getting there. Somebody who’s been helping me a lot is Alvin Singleton. He’s a marvelous composer and a dear friend of mine.

FJO: In the last few years there has even been an annual Carman Moore Music Festival.

CM: There’s a friend of mine who is not only a bass player, but also a lawyer and a state senator from Maine, who is just nuts about my music, so he has been doing everything he can to foster it. He’s the one whose idea it was to have a Carman Moore Music Festival. I would never think of doing a thing like that. But it’s about to happen again and there will be several pieces done on it. This time, two days of this will happen in New York City. At any rate, I’m very excited about the music I’m writing right now. I just did a piece called The Quiet Piece for the Skymusic Ensemble with a guy doing Tibetan singing bowls plus a marvelous dancer.

FJO: I’m very eager to see and hear those live performances. I’m also very excited about the recordings that are finally becoming available of a lot of your earlier pieces. For years the only music of yours that was available commercially was one piece that had been released on a Folkways compilation in the 1970s and another piece on one side of a CRI LP. And Folkways and CRI were hardly commercial labels.

CM: I know. I recognize that this has been my path. My path has been avoiding things, and that’s all I can think of, because fame has avoided me. Over at the Philharmonic, they have portraits of every composer [they’ve worked with] going back to Tchaikovsky. I happen to be in between John Cage and Charles Wuorinen! I’ve gone back to listen to some of that early stuff, and I’ve said, “Wow!” But I do remember having been such a perfectionist at that time that I wouldn’t let anything come out that wasn’t, not only written perfectly, but performed perfectly. It was a big mistake. I could have gotten world famous easily, any time in there. I recognize that now.

Carman Moore String Trio

The opening page of Carman Moore’s String Trio. © 2007 by Carman Moore and reprinted with his permission. Click image to enlarge

FJO: Terry Riley’s story has many parallels with yours, I think. He did sign a contract with a big record company. Columbia Records put out two albums of his music and another one with John Cale. But they wanted another record and then he resisted the career path. He ran off to India to study classical Indian singing, to become a disciple rather than a star. But at that time there seemed to be only two paths. There was either the downtown do-it-yourself path of starting your own ensemble or the uptown path of teaching at a university and making connections to ensembles and larger institutions that way. But you taught also. You had your hands in all these different things, and yet you somehow remained an outsider, which goes back to the very beginning of this conversation—doing it your own way instead of doing things the way others say you should.

Carman Moore in Central Park.

Carman Moore in Central Park.
Photo by Lotte Arnsbjerg.

CM: It may come out of that mindset. Who knows? I mean, I did have the sense that a lot of the people I was writing about as a critic had gotten trapped in having a fandom that expected them to keep writing the same way. They didn’t seem to be able to dodge that bullet. I just didn’t want that to happen. That’s the only sort of conscious thing I can think of relative to that. I could have gotten stuck writing gospel in symphony orchestra pieces or something, I don’t know. I feel I’ve lived a lot of different lives. I’m fascinated with many paths. My curiosity is probably the strongest engine running inside me.

FJO: Well, you know, there’s another part to it, I think, as well. It’s interesting that you didn’t bring this up, but I’m going to. I mentioned Terry Riley because I also see a commonality in terms of his egolessness. There’s a lack of a drive in a way that I think comes from a sense of community, the other part of that original dichotomy between being an individual and then being a part of a community. You also actively collaborate with other composers. You’ve written lyrics for other people’s music. You mentioned Alvin Singleton. You did the libretto for Truth. You did lyrics for a whole album by Felix Cavaliere from The Young Rascals. You’ve been willing to take a more back seat role, not that writing lyrics is a back seat—some people identify with lyrics more than music and there are famous lyricists—but getting famous as a lyricist doesn’t seem to have been your motive in those collaborations.

CM: I’m very sure of myself. It’s the truth of the matter. But I’ve thought about this question a lot. I come from a large family. There are eight children. I’m the oldest. I very often had to just make sure everybody else got fed. I had five sisters. So I may have been taught to make sure that everybody else got their stuff before I come in because I might step on somebody.

FJO: So in terms of paths to take, what to do, what not to do, do you feel you have advice to offer other composers?

CM: No, because it depends upon what you are capable of. The key thing, I think, is to find some way to figure out what you’re capable of relative to what you’re trying to do. There are a series of things people should find out about themselves as they emerge, and therefore they should try out things that they don’t know about, because those are the roads that you need to go down. So there are two roads: One is to go down the road of your strengths, the other is to go down the road of your weaknesses and see what that sounds like. And don’t pretend.

One thing I discovered while composing early on was that there were stretches when I’d be composing, I’d write something and listen to it, and I’d get embarrassed. But I discovered soon after that, that those are the important parts. That’s you. When I would feel embarrassed, I was in a situation in which I was not defended. I was sort of hung out to dry. As I came up, those two schools—the uptown and downtown—were strong. And they sounded and behaved in particular ways. As I was writing my music, I was aware of this. And of course, because of being a critic, I heard everything, so I knew what people were doing. But there were stretches in which I just didn’t sound like either of those things. Those were ones in which I was slightly embarrassed about it. Maybe this is not very professional, but I would go ahead and write it and have it performed, and see what it sounded like. And that was good. So I say to emerging composers and to people who want to compose: When you hit one of those spots, check it out. It may be because you have no business writing that, but it may be that’s your voice.

Making Brownies

Carman Moore at home making brownies in his kitchen. Photo by Pearl Perkins.

Polystylism in Pop

Something interesting is happening in pop music right now. But to talk about it, I first have to talk about academic music—yes, academic music—for just a moment. But feel free to skip to the bit about Janelle Monae and Daft Punk if you like.

When I was a composition student at the University of Michigan about ten years ago, I was very excited about polystylism and eclecticism. Within that department, there was a very explicit and rather self-conscious effort to bring together “high” and “low” forms of music, and to try and put them on more of an equal footing. The result was a kind of scattershot invocation of a variety of musical influences and references, careening unpredictably from style to style like a bumper car in a centrifuge. This kind of music could be incredibly exhilarating or extremely frustrating, sometimes both at the same time, but at the time I loved it. William Bolcom was the composer on faculty most engaged with this kind of thing, but it was definitely on everyone’s mind.
Now, polystylism seems almost like a historical footnote. Even some of the composers most commonly associated with the movement, like Alfred Schnittke, turned away from it in their late careers. In fact I’m not sure it even qualifies as a “movement” so much as a set of disconnected impulses that happened to roughly coincide in time—a case of convergent evolution that is now on the brink of extinction.

To be sure, eclecticism is alive and well, but in different forms. In new music now, you’re more likely to see a more specific kind of eclecticism, where influences and references are carefully selected rather than sprayed with a machine gun. In general, this seems like a smarter and more successful tactic, one that makes it far easier for a composer to develop a distinctive voice (that ever-valuable commodity).

But I think there are also deeper, thornier issues behind the near-disappearance of polystylism. For one thing, I don’t think it was ever very effective at doing the cultural work it purported to accomplish. Rather than erasing or blurring distinctions between “high” and “low” art, instead the jarring juxtaposition of styles often seemed to reinforce these boundaries. In theory, it was a well-meaning attempt to move away from the idea of the composer as a figure who stands outside of pop culture. But in practice, the facile and entitled way composers often invoked pop culture cemented this outsider status. In other words, all styles (regardless of cultural origin) were seen as fair game for the (usually white, male, highly educated) composer to make use of, comment on, modify, and/or judge. (For better or worse, the finale of Bolcom’s Songs of Innocence and Experience has always been the quintessential example of this for me. Sure, ending your magnum opus with a reggae song is a brilliantly gutsy move, in a way. But that doesn’t change the fact that, in the end, it’s not a very good reggae song.)

Okay, I’m going to talk about pop music now!

I want to contrast this academic, problematic kind of polystylism with the kind of polystylism that is happening in pop music today (though I don’t think anyone is really calling it that). One of the common complaints about current pop music is that it’s all hopelessly retro, and that we haven’t seen anything genuinely new in about 20 years. Pop music is eating its own tail. The irony is that this kind of self-aware self-referentiality is exactly what was prized and heralded as a savior of concert music a few years ago. Additionally, by commenting on pop culture from within, pop music polystylism may be capable of expressing certain things that concert music polystylism can’t.

Certainly pop music is concerned with a narrower range of styles than concert music—styles that more naturally harmonically and rhythmically connect to one another. Pop music production has also evolved to a point where it’s possible for a mix to feature an almost overwhelming number of independent sonic layers. Janelle Monae’s “Q.U.E.E.N.” is a great example of this, seamlessly transitioning from a guitar riff that recalls “Beat It”-era Michael Jackson, to slinky synths that wouldn’t be out of place in a vintage Prince song, to a laid-back ’90s R&B beat that features Erykah Badu, etc. This is all undercurrent—subtext, maybe—until the final minute of the song, when Monae “flips it” and makes it clear that this was what she was trying to do all along. “Categorize me, I defy every label,” she sermonizes over Motown strings. Lyrically referencing Marvin Gaye, she recasts Gaye’s social commentary as something current, ongoing, and more broad, encompassing gender as well as race and class. She’s able to do this because this is her musical heritage—she’s not an outsider looking in.

The situation with Daft Punk’s already ubiquitous new album, Random Access Memories, is a little more complicated. The album evokes a huge swath of music from the ’70s and early ’80s, and at first listen this seems to be the goal—to create a convincing simulacrum of the light-hearted, fun, danceable music of that era. In the pursuit of this goal, Daft Punk were also in a unique position to enlist the aid of contemporaries from that period, figures like Nile Rodgers, Giorgio Moroder, and Paul Williams.
But there’s also a palpable strain of melancholy that runs through the album, something that suggests that this kind of nostalgia may be more sinister than it first appears. On the bizarre and mesmerizing “Touch,” featuring lyrics and vocals by Williams, styles are nested within styles, linked by a series of sonic reveals that are at first captivating but are almost exhausting by the end. Williams sounds drained by it too: “A door behind a door / Touch, where do you lead? / I want something more.” It’s almost Gnostic in its perpetual search for a “more real” reality, suggesting that this quest for true authenticity might be doomed from the start.

Although authenticity might be out of reach, accuracy is not, and I wish that more concert music composers would adopt Daft Punk’s meticulousness when exploring other styles, rather than the casual, slapdash referentiality that comes so easily. Granted, not everyone has access to the finest studio musicians in the land, but we are privileged in other ways, and we ought to use that privilege responsibly.

Are You Putting Me On?


Image courtesy of Bigstock.

There have indeed been a great number of John Cage concerts, festivals, articles, and discussions throughout the world in 2012 in celebration of his centennial and I can certainly relate to experiencing a bit of Cage fatigue, especially here in New York where the din of Cagean noise has approached a veritable roar. However, what I have a difficult time relating to is the completely cynical rejection of Cage and his legacy that the composer Daniel Asia conveys in his article “The Put on of the Century, or the Cage Centenary” published on January 3 in The Huffington Post. In this rather mean-spirited piece, which begins by noting that this year (2013) marks the 100th birthday of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, Asia repeats many of the standard criticisms of Cage’s music that have been made from the beginning: that it is non-developmental, it lacks form and structure, it lacks meaningful pitch relations, it lacks tension and release, etc. He also asks the question: “While Cage is being feted this year among my musical colleagues almost as much as Stravinsky, why should this be so, and what does it mean?” The author goes on to recapitulate a bit of 20th-century music history in making the antiquated case for the supremacy of “the tonal enterprise” (i.e.: harmony and counterpoint), seemingly dismissing the entirety of modernism in the process.
I am no proselytizer for modernism, but at least I accept that it happened and that our music and culture have been forever altered by it. Nothing is essentially wrong with the “tonal enterprise,” but most of us acknowledge that in the aftermath of the tumultuous 20th-century, we live in a dramatically expanded field of possibilities. Not only do we now have a range of idioms and languages such as atonality, aperiodicity, serialism, jazz, heavy metal, gamelan, gagaku, Chinese opera, punk rock, mountain music, electronic and computer music, sound art, field recordings, noise, balloons, bird songs, sirens, mechanical instruments, MIDI controllers, free music…you name it, but we also have a whole universe of approaches to form and structure. To rely only on the traditional recipe of hierarchical relationships, the play of consonance against dissonance and the ultimate resolution of expectations, is to live in the past.

Which brings us to Cage: I believe I am in good company when I assert that John Cage is our country’s most important and influential musical thinker. It would take much more time and space for me to fully make that case, but suffice it to say that Cage revolutionized music in such a way as to make it possible for anyone to make any music they imagine. His example of openness and acceptance of diversity has inspired many to become involved in music, and perhaps most importantly, through both his own work and his proselytizing on behalf of a great many neglected or unknown composers, he essentially defined our understanding of a distinctly American musical identity. While we here on these shores are undoubtedly rooted in Western civilization, we are a decidedly multi-cultural and free-thinking nation, and as we have come to recognize, many of us identify as much with the East, the Americas, Africa, and “other” as with European ideals. Our homegrown musical culture makes this clear by its vast diversity. To ignore the complexity of our situation is foolish.

Now I don’t expect everyone to endorse or emulate Cage and his aesthetic, although a little more love for his Sonatas and Interludes would be nice—it’s probably his greatest work! (Check out Maro Ajemian’s 1951 recording first issued on Dial Records and later by CRI. Wow!) It would in fact be in keeping with his very ethic of openness and acceptance of diversity to follow your own path (he often said as much). But I do expect composers working today, especially in America, to have at least an understanding of what Cage means and why he is important. How an American composer and professor, Daniel Asia in this case, living and working in the western states no less, could still have no real understanding of or interest in a composer who is arguably our greatest and most influential figure is, well, surprising. The bigger question for me is why this should be so and what does it mean?

Sounds Heard: Amos Elkana—Casino Umbro

Like many 21st-century composers, the American-born, currently Israeli-based Amos Elkana has a complex national identity. He was born in Boston but grew up in Jerusalem. However, at the age of 20, he returned to the United States to pursue degrees in musical composition and jazz guitar (at NEC and Berklee, respectively). He later continued his training in France and Denmark and subsequently returned to Israel, but he crossed the Atlantic again to immerse himself in electronic music at Bard College, working under the tutelage of, among others, Pauline Oliveros, Larry Polansky, George Lewis, and the late Maryanne Amacher. Now back in Israel once again, Elkana’s compositional aesthetics are a clear by-product of his internationalism which includes a very strong American influence, particularly in its stylistic eclecticism. Casino Umbro, a new disc recently released on the American label Ravello Records (a subsidiary of the New Hampshire-based PARMA Recording Company), offers a generous cross-section of Elkana’s music—including chamber, orchestral, and vocal pieces—spanning 1994 to 2010. (For completists, Ravello has additionally released a track containing Elkana’s quirky 2005 double reed duo Plexure which is available exclusively from iTunes.)

The first track on Casino Umbro features a work of the same name which is also the most recent of the pieces collected here. But although its title is Italian for “Umbrian Noise” and the piece was composed during Elkana’s residency at Umbria’s Civitella Ranieri, it is—to my ears at least—the most immediately American sounding of all the works included on this disc. Scored for an unusual ensemble which combines past and present sonorities (two bass viols and a harpsichord versus violin and piano plus a flutist who doubles on modern and Baroque flutes), Casino Umbro is reminiscent of the exciting 1996 collaboration between the Common Sense Composers Collective and the San Francisco-based period instrument group American Baroque, as well as more recent efforts by composers associated with Bang on a Can. The seamless weaving of references from widely divergent chronological eras, rather than being jarring, are somehow comforting—after going through such a multifaceted musical history, we can now reap the sonic benefits of all of it and Elkana does so ecstatically.

In contrast, his second string quartet (composed in 2004) is much more a musical response to the music of the recent past—the 20th century. It is constructed based on a carefully plotted permutational system that has a kinship with the serial methods of Schoenberg but which is decidedly not 12-tone; rather, informed by fractal geometry, Elkana’s derivational tone matrixes allow for transformations of any collection of pitches, including repeated notes—something anathema to orthodox dodecaphonists.
The single-movement clarinet concerto Tru’a from 1994 is inspired by the shofar calls during the Jewish high holy days. Elkana’s wildly virtuosic solo clarinet part, convincingly delivered on the recording by Richard Stoltzman, shouts, sings, and dances, at times calling to mind the freneticism of klezmer and at other times the impassioned squawks of free jazz. It is set against an orchestral backdrop that hints at the timbre painting of ‘60s European composers such as Lutoslawski and Ligeti, as well as the rumblings of an Ashkenazi synagogue congregation which in Israel, as Hebrew University Professor Ruth HaCohen points out in her program notes for the disc, are frequently accused of being noisy.

But perhaps the most unexpected juxtapositions occur in Elkana’s 1998 song cycle Arabic Lessons, scored for three sopranos, flute (doubling piccolo), trumpet, tenor saxophone, cello, electric bass, and drum set. By settings the polyglot poetry of Michael Roes—in German, Hebrew, and Arabic—for three equal voices, Elkana finds a common musical ground for elements that uneasily share space. For modern day Israelis, many of whom are either survivors of or descendants of the Nazi Holocaust, the German language is still emotionally troubling; the ongoing stalemate between Israelis and Palestinian Arabs has created a society of mutual fear and distrust. In confronting the unsettling memories of the past and the lingering quagmires of the present through music that is alternately viscerally off-kilter and ravishingly beautiful, Elkana offers a path to the future that has eluded generations of politicians from all sides.

For the notationally curious, Elkana has made PDFs available for every one of his scores on his website. Hopefully the new CD and the instant availability of performance materials will spark a greater awareness of Elkana in the country in which he was born and largely shaped as a composer.

Conrad Cummings: In Conversation With My Peers

A conversation at Cummings’s Chelsea apartment
December 6, 2012–9:30 a.m.
Transcribed by Amanda MacBlane
Videotaped by Alexandra Gardner
Video Presentation by Molly Sheridan

Composing music is usually a solitary act, but Conrad Cummings is by nature a very sociable person. This has drawn him into some of the most fascinating collaborative projects, such as the political satire Photo-Op whose text is by the painter James Siena, the provocative Positions 1956 for which he partnered with operatic librettist and Tony-nominated Broadway lyricist Michael Korie, and—perhaps the work that has occupied him for the longest time thus far—The Golden Gate, an extraordinary opera based on a novel in sonnets by Vikram Seth that seamlessly weaves together first and third person narratives. But even when he is writing pieces which don’t have words, such as I Wish They All Could Be…, which exists both in versions for solo piano and for chamber ensemble, or Zephyr’s Lesson, in which a quartet of instrumentalists is joined by otherworldly electronically-generated sine waves, Cummings views the act of composition as a form of conversation both with the music of his contemporaries as well as with composers of the past.

“When I’m writing it’s in conversation with my peers,” Cummings explains. “And I really try to think of all those 18th and 19th and 20th century people as not so different from us, trying to write something that makes sense to them and to make a living. I try not to deify the past and I think that makes it easier to have a conversation with it. I think there are probably a lot of composers who still are a little in the ‘classical music religiosity/awe’ thing, in awe of greatness and therefore you can’t really talk to it because it’s too big and too impressive and so you have to separate yourself and create your own private garden. I just like talking to them all.”

Cummings’s personal level of engagement has made him open to an extremely broad range of aesthetics, all of which inform his music—Baroque flourishes meet rock and roll rhythms meet rigorous computer synthesis (he actually trained at IRCAM) meet cheeky allusions to Brahms, Schoenberg, and even Michael Jackson. Being such a generous and omnivorous listener has also made Cummings a treasured teacher to generations of younger composers who studied with him at Oberlin and now at Juilliard.
“I like to think that I’ve helped them to trust their own instincts, to trust where they want to go,” says Cummings. “I’ve moved obstacles out of their way when I could. I’ve suggested ways to find a door when they’re pounding their heads against a brick wall. I’ve created an environment where they feel safe to try things and where they feel like they can really plumb into the deepest part of themselves and that they’ll be safe and they don’t have to put a façade of correctness or theoretical underpinning or whatever the thing is that protects you from revealing your own self in music.”

Being able to reveal himself in his music took a long time for Cummings. While he grew up in San Francisco in an eclectic environment that included hearing Janis Joplin at the Avalon Ballroom, studying Beethoven piano sonatas with a Schnabel protégé, and living with a step-father who choreographed dances to music by Boulez and Stockhausen, Cummings did not realize at first that all of these elements shaped who he is.
“It probably took until I was 30 to realize that those experiences were both a part of me and that they actually could inform each other,” Cummings acknowledges. “I was lucky enough to grow up with a lot of different things going on around me, and part of coming into them on my own was figuring out how to integrate them. … The first opera I did … was a commission from Oberlin; they all thought I was crazy. … The whole thing was in da capo arias. Totally diatonic. … I remember showing that score to Jacob Druckman, who’d been a very important teacher for me, and he looked at it with a great deal of puzzlement and said, ‘Conrad, I see nothing of you in this.’ And I was like, ‘Jacob, this is the first thing I’ve ever written that I feel is totally me.’ … When I started my ensemble and I started doing concerts at The Knitting Factory, my academic colleagues thought that I’d gone hopelessly pop and The Knitting Factory referred to me as the Professor. The part of the outfield that I ended up in didn’t have a firm position in either of these camps.”

Things have certainly changed since then and the outfield that Cummings once occupied now feels like almost mainstream.
“One thing I’ve noticed that’s heartening is that stuff that I did 15 or 20 years ago that seemed to perplex a lot of my colleagues, now people just seem to get,” Cummings says. “I have on some level a feeling that I may have been out there, you know, a little bit off in left field but I have way more company there now.”

Being in the company of Conrad Cummings is as delightful as it is thought-provoking. On the chilly December morning we visited him for this interview for NewMusicBox, he welcomed us with hot coffee and gourmet donuts before regaling us with so many fascinating anecdotes about his life and his work. Refreshingly he was just as interested in hearing about what we were up to as he was in sharing his own story. And we continued chatting long after we stopped filming. It was, after all, a conversation…


Frank J. Oteri: There seems to be a duality in your music. There are clear references to the past—a harpsichord here and there, a recitativo, chord progressions that give a very Baroque kind of sound. Yet at the same time there’s a love of technology, new things, the future. And then in terms of topics that you choose to be inspired by, it’s very much the present. So you’re engaging with the whole arc—past, present and future—so I wonder if that’s what you feel is the compositional zeitgeist for right now or if, rather, you are pushing against it in some ways.

Conrad Cummings at Carnegie Halll

Conrad Cummings putting finishing touches on a new piece in front of Carnegie Hall circa 1985, photo by Barbara Petersen.

Conrad Cummings: That’s a lot to think about. One thing I’ve noticed that’s heartening is that stuff that I did 15 or 20 years ago that seemed to perplex a lot of my colleagues, now people just seem to get. I have on some level a feeling that I may have been out there, you know, a little bit off in left field but I have way more company there now. But in terms of zeitgeist, I’m just aware of so many different flavors going on right now. I mean, I think of the Bang on a Can flavor—and I know, that’s a terrible generalization—but, you know, the harder edge, more rock heritage-based music. And then I think about Sleeping Giant, the kids just fresh out of Yale with an elaborate lyricism that I love. I think about Mike Daugherty and Jennifer Higdon, people who are writing big gorgeous orchestra pieces. I think about Aaron Kernis who had an amazing song on last night’s OPERA America Songbook show. Just the scope of what he does—he’s so big and generous with what he does musically. The night before that at the New York Festival of Song there was a new song cycle by Mark Adamo—similarly an emotional and musical and formal and structural bigness. Not a hint of aphoristic standing back, not a hint of aloofness; just there, really present as a musician, as a musical mind for the audience.
FJO: One of the extraordinary things about that comment is how careful a listener you are, how devoted a listener you are to other people’s music, to other composers. You engage with other people’s music more than most composers I know.
CC: I’m really interested to hear that because I’m not aware of that, but I’m happy to hear it. I get fueled by exciting work by my peers and my colleagues. And it may have something to do with what you were talking about, about spanning past into present. I’m a sociable guy, so I like conversations, and I guess when I’m writing it’s in conversation with my peers. And, this is admitting something that I probably shouldn’t admit publicly, but I tell my students this—it’s really good to think of those old masters as just fellow people out there making a living writing music. I really try to think of all those 18th and 19th and 20th century people as not so different from us, trying to write something that makes sense to them and to make a living. I try not to deify the past and I think that makes it easier to have a conversation with it. I think there are probably a lot of composers who still are a little in the “classical music religiosity/awe” thing, in awe of greatness and therefore you can’t really talk to it because it’s too big and too impressive and so you have to separate yourself and create your own private garden. I just like talking to them all.
FJO: You like hanging out in the gardens.
CC: Yeah, I like hanging out in a lot of different gardens!
FJO: I found it very revealing when you said that nowadays you have way more company in terms of people who share your compositional aesthetic and after that when you said that you’re a very sociable person. I’m curious about what thing were like for you before that, when you were, as you put it, off in left field.
CC: Well, I guess my piece I Wish They All Could Be… speaks to it. It’s something I wrote in my 30s, but it was really a response to something I’d experienced as a teenager growing up in San Francisco in the mid and late ‘60s. I had a wonderful German émigré piano teacher, a Schnabel student, and every Saturday I was there doing my Beethoven sonatas with him. I was a very serious pianist and that was very, very important to me. But then Saturday night we were at the Avalon Ballroom listening to Janis Joplin. It probably took until I was 30 to realize that those experiences were both a part of me and that they actually could inform each other. I was lucky enough to grow up with a lot of different things going on around me, and part of coming into them on my own was figuring out how to integrate them.

I Wish They All Could Be Excerpt

The first page of the score for the solo piano version of Conrad Cummings’s I Wish They All Could Be… © 1986 by Conrad Cummings. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: I Wish They All Could Be… is obviously a line from The Beach Boys’ song “California Girls.”
CC: Yeah, exactly. I have to admit that I wrote it a little reactionarily, too. The summer before I’d been an assistant to Philip Glass at the English National Opera for a month and the staging of Akhnaten there and then I’d gone up to Orkney for Peter Maxwell Davies’s festival. So I’d spent a lot of time in the London musical world and I did get the feeling that I was being looked at as a bit of a barbarian, that I was this rough American guy that just didn’t get the right way to behave in proper English musical society. And furthermore, working with Glass?! [gasps] So when I got a commission to write a piece for the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players that they were going to premiere at the Cheltenham Festival in England the following summer, I was like “I’m gonna wear my American-ness on my sleeve.” [laughs] What could be more American than my experience growing up in San Francisco, you know, one foot in Beethoven and Mozart and one foot on the beach? So you know, it’s a piece that is about The Beach Boys and about Mozart and Beethoven and Handel.
FJO: Now, in terms of these divides, these pockets we put things in, I mean, people love to say the distinctions between classical music and popular music and all of the various subgenres of everything were created by marketers in the 20th century. But what you’re speaking to is somewhat different. There’s a certain mentality that deifies a certain kind of music to the point that it’s not allowed to be something that you can be in dialogue with.
CC: That’s exactly it! Yeah, maybe that’s true right now, that it’s easier to have a dialogue with popular music than it is to have a dialogue with classical music of the past. Yeah, maybe still, we may be still in thrall of that excessive reverence.
FJO: But as a creator, even though you’re influenced by popular music, you didn’t pursue doing popular music.
CC: I dreamed of it, but I could never quite put it together. You know, I picked up a guitar, but it didn’t work. Everyone has a fantasy as a teenager that they want to be a rock star. But I couldn’t quite take the step into doing it, so I had to, you know, try to be a rock star pianist I guess [laughs] and then just listen to a lot of rock star music.
FJO: A lot of those aesthetic divides got shattered with the advent of minimalism, but I remember minimalism being a dirty word in the early ‘80s in academic music circles. There were things that you did and there were things that you didn’t do. But you became an academic; you taught composition at Oberlin for years, you still have a relationship with Juilliard, although it’s changed a great deal.
CC: Juilliard is a very altered place right now.
FJO: But, at the time you began teaching composition at Oberlin, you went into the lion’s den with this other aesthetic.
CC: In retrospect if anyone had told me, I would’ve been “Oh, I shouldn’t do that,” but I was foolish enough to just do it and somehow made it work. Oberlin actually turned out to be a great place for that. The program that I joined and that I eventually became the director of was actually much more open than any other academic environment that I’ve ever been around. If it was interesting, you could use whatever materials you wanted and do it in the style you want. It was liberating for me in a way.
FJO: But you did say on the onset that you were in this place and no one else was there and didn’t quite get what you were doing and it seemed to me that you were sort of hinting at—and maybe I’m inferring—your academic colleagues at the time.

Cummings Ensemble at Knitting Factory

Cummings Ensemble at the Knitting Factory c. 1988, photo by Peter Flint Jr.

CC: Well, the anecdote that perfectly sums it up is when I started my ensemble and I started doing concerts at The Knitting Factory. You know, my academic colleagues thought that I’d gone hopelessly pop and The Knitting Factory referred to me as the Professor, so there you go. The part of the outfield that I ended up in didn’t have a firm position in either of these camps.
FJO: Too uptown for downtown, too downtown for uptown.
CC: Yeah, pretty much!
FJO: Now, the other divide is that you’re originally from San Francisco. People always talk about differences between East Coast and West Coast composers. You’ve lived on both coasts. Is there actually a different approach to writing music?
CC: [laughs] Oh the things you remember! Sometimes I feel like the Vampire Lestat because I can remember so many things. There are two things that I can’t believe I can remember actual conversations about: I remember as a 15-year old at Aspen having actual conversations there with my fellow musicians about whether a woman could ever be as strong a performer as a man. This was a serious conversation that men and women, you know, boys and girls, were having in 1963. I can’t believe that I lived so long ago that there were serious conversations like that. Five or six years later, I remember having serious conversations with fellow composers about whether it was possible to write music if you lived in California [laughs]. I can’t believe we had those conversations, but we did!
FJO: But aside from growing up there, California has remained a huge influence for you going all the way back to your Beast Songs, which use texts by the iconic San Francisco poet Michael McClure, all the way up to your recent opera The Golden Gate, which is based on Vikram Seth’s novel set in San Francisco. And yet you moved East, first to Ohio to be at Oberlin and now New York City.
CC: Yeah, well I think I have that particular affection for a place that comes from not living there anymore, so it’s invested with a romance that it might not have if it was a part of my daily life.
FJO: So do you feel you could’ve done the kind of music you’d wanted to if you’d stayed?
CC: Oh, I’m sure. But it’s hard to imagine different paths than what you took. When I finished high school I was planning to go to UC Santa Cruz, which was like trailer parks in the redwood forests at that point; it had just opened. It was all the right philosophy, but Yale happened to be on its new admissions kick and they wanted to be national and they wanted to have a lot of people from public schools and they wanted to have people with unusual traits. And so they came and found me because I’d built a couple of harpsichords and I was also performing harpsichord concerts around. They thought that was weird enough and so they basically said, “Come east and try it out.” Santa Cruz said I could always transfer back but Yale said, “You have really only one chance.” So it was an opportunity. But sometimes I think what if I’d stayed in Santa Cruz? I think the zigzag would’ve been a different zigzag, but I’m pretty sure I would’ve ended up in the same place 15 years later aesthetically and personally.
FJO: But given those aesthetics, how’d you wind up at IRCAM?
CC: Well, there’s another part, I guess. O.K., there’s the Schnabel student piano lessons, there’s the Avalon Ballroom auditorium, me as a 15, 16-year old. There’s also the fact that I basically grew up in my stepfather’s dance studio. He was a modern dancer; he’d danced with Graham and he’d been Louis Horst’s assistant. He came to San Francisco and started a company and a school. And he was a dedicated modernist. So I was hearing Bartók at his studio when I was 7 or 8, and I was hearing Le marteau sans maître. I can practically whistle it because he choreographed it in 1962 or something. Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge was one of the last things he choreographed. This was just part of life. I do admit that I remember as a 10-year old arriving home with my mom from a concert at his studio and asking, “Mom, why does the music he uses sound so ugly?” And she said, “Well, it’s modern music, I think.” [laughs] So, yeah, the reverence with which my stepfather talked about Boulez and Stockhausen was, you know, a big part. And also the fact that he made his own tape collages for his own scores and there he was slicing magnetic tape on the dining room table and assembling stuff, so it all seemed natural. There was a lot of admiration for it. And I love Paris. So I thought, this is a way of going to that part of my tradition and really immersing myself in it and getting to live in Paris for a while.
FJO: Well, if you were an American barbarian in England working with Philip Glass, what on Earth were you at IRCAM?
CC: [Laughs] I was developing my barbarian credentials at IRCAM. It was a great experience. Also part of growing up in San Francisco with a stepfather who’d moved from New York and whose dancers would be two or three years in the company, then POOF! They’d go off to New York to join Paul Taylor or something. So there was always this gravity toward the east. And my mother was an immigrant from Russia as a teenager, so she had this very Eurocentric view of things. So everything was tilting back toward there; it was a pilgrimage. Let’s go and really see what this European experience is about. And the work I got to do there was super exciting and by the end of it I was like, “Oh, I really am American, aren’t I? I really like the anarchic character of our country and its cultural life. I really like the fact that nobody is subsidized so everyone is scrambling. And, you know, no one has been knighted by the president to be THE leader of contemporary music.”
FJO: The leader of contemporary music—Boulez. Did you get to work with him at IRCAM?
CC: We had a few long conversations, that was about it. I worked most closely with Gerald Bennett, who was the head of one of the divisions and we got to work on some very exciting software that surprisingly entered the rest of my life. It was the first experiment in synthesizing human singing voices. There had been a lot of work in computer transformation of singing voices but there hadn’t ever been any effort to synthesize believable singing voices from scratch. And so it involved a lot of study of singer anatomy and singer acoustics. And it turned out to be really useful for writing for voice later. Who knew?
FJO: I know Charles Dodge did those early experiments with computerized speech songs at Bell Laboratories. While what you did with Beast Songs, which was a by-product of your IRCAM period, was somewhat different, I will say that it’s a much more rarified sound world than the sound world that you’ve come to be known for.
CC: I was still finding my way. You know, that was 1979, 1980. I’d only finished my degree at Columbia in ’77, I think. The thing I remember about Columbia was feeling incredibly free while I was a student there. Really feeling like I could write what I wanted to and that I had a lot of support. Then when I finally wrapped up there and about six months later, it was whoa! That was an illusion! I had no idea what freedom was. Now I got it. I had no idea at the time how subtly constrained I was by the expectations and the environment that I was working in. So in a way, my own search for myself started after that. And I guess it was a trajectory from ’77-’78 to the big break, which was 1983. It was only four or five years from the sound world of Beast Songs—which, by the way [laughs], I took around to some of the biggies at IRCAM; I was very proud of it. I thought it was really quite a beautiful piece. And Péter Eötvös said, “Conrad, there are too many repeated notes in this piece. You are doing too many repeated notes.” [laughs] Then I took it to Vinko Globokar and he was like, “Where are the special instrumental effects in this?! You are only using the instruments the way they normally play.” [laughs] Berio said, “Cool piece, I like it,” so…
FJO: Now, one of the things I find really interesting about Beast Songs, in terms of where your aesthetic went after that, is the ambiguity of it. You’re setting these Michael McClure poems which combine words that are comprehensible with invented language—
CC: [simultaneously] They’re mostly these sorts of growls and roars and things. Yeah, yeah.
FJO: —and then you’re setting for a human voice but also this computer voice, which, as you described them in the notes for the eventual recording that came out on CRI, is beyond gender. That also seems to be a running thread. In your opera Photo Op there are two singers—a man and a woman—but their gender is really not the issue. They were just voice types that you were working with and I seem to trace that back to Beast Songs and this whole idea of a genderless voice.
CC: Well, maybe it was something that happened late at night in one of the underground studios at IRCAM. It was a very kind of brain stem experience because you’re constantly refining these sounds that start out as brute, totally electronic sounding sounds and it’s late at night and you’re going through pass after pass. It turns out that there’s a threshold phenomenon and it is really startling. Maybe it takes 15, 20 minutes for the old main frame to chew through the numbers and put out the next 10 or 15 seconds of sound. You’re waiting and then it comes out and, O.K., alright the sound’s getting a little better, and then on the next pass, Oh my God! There’s someone else in the room! There’s this brute, way in the back of your brain, identification: This is my species; this is the sound of my species. And then you think what gender is it? Those are the two things that, as an organism, you have to identify: is it my species is the first question and the second question is, if it is, what gender is it. These are so deep in our neurology. It was really extraordinary to experience them in this brute form. It was like OH MY GOD IT’S HUMAN (and it’s a guy). Or OH MY GOD IT’S HUMAN (and it’s a girl). Then we discovered that you could transition between the two without a moment where you could identify where it changed and we were like “Well, of course we’re gonna do that!”

Beast Songs Excerpt

An excerpt from the score of Conrad Cummings’s Beast Songs © 1979 by Conrad Cummings. Text by Michael McClure. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: The sociological and political ramifications of that are very interesting because it challenges the whole notion of male versus female being a binary. Of course, reality is a lot more complex than binaries.
CC: Well, hey, I’m the guy who was quite convinced I was straight for 20 years of my adult life until it finally dawned on me that I was gay, so I’m quite aware of how ambiguous life can be. [laughs]
FJO: So does that inform the gender ambiguity in some of your music?

Photo-Op the interview

From the Ridge Theater production of Photo-Op at the La MaMa Annex, 1992. Photo courtesy of Conrad Cummings.

CC: I don’t know. In Photo Op I wasn’t thinking so much of the ambiguity of gender as I was of the richness of possible relationships. By having a soprano and a baritone singing, delivering stump speeches, more or less, there were so many different relationships that they could have with each other. As the piece came into shape for me, as I was writing it, it can be candidate and opponent, it can be candidate and running mate, it can be candidate and spouse. Now, given the genders, you’ve got at least six possibilities there. The woman can be the candidate, the man can be the spouse or vice versa. The woman can be the president, the man can be the V.P., or vice versa. I liked this shifting sense of who they might be and what their relationships might be to each other. That keeps something very rich in the span of an hour piece while you’re learning what their relationship might be.
FJO: What’s amazing about Photo Op is that you have two candidates and they say the exact same thing.
CC: Pretty much.
FJO: The only thing that is different is their gender. It’s a different vocal range, but they’re spouting the same positions. It’s a wonderful commentary on the idea that although the opposing candidates are supposed to be different, they’re really exactly the same.

Photo Op Excerpt

An excerpt from the score of Conrad Cummings’s Photo Op © 1989 by Conrad Cummings. Text by James Siena. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

CC: You’ll enjoy looking at the video of the UrbanArias production from September because the other thing about it is the piece turns out to be a wonderful invitation to a director because all it says in the score is “soprano, baritone.” So every time it’s been staged, the director has had to come up with identities and a story to project around it. And in this case, down in D.C., it was candidate and spouse. The man was the candidate—a wonderful, wonderful singer with a striking resemblance to Romney—and the soprano was an African American woman who had elements of Michelle Obama but also of Hillary Clinton. And I’ll be damned if they didn’t come up with a fabulous story that just runs seamlessly through it, involving, you know, team work and campaigning together and disillusionment and maybe a scandal and maybe exposure of a scandal and then maybe a terrible opposition of the husband and wife over the scandal and maybe the wife picking up the mantel of the husband’s candidacy and carrying him and then, maybe, the whole campaign organization re-putting themselves into position and then somehow coming out on top at the end, but at what cost?

Photo Op UrbanArias

Laurie Williamson and Michael Mayes in the UrbanArias Production of Photo Op, photo courtesy of Conrad Cummings.

FJO: That’s so different from the piece I know! [laughs]
CC: Right! It was really good that we had some very detailed talks about it with the creative team early on and then I carefully stayed away until the first orchestra rehearsal in the theater. My experience is that when people produce my operas, it’s always a good idea to stay away in the beginning because there are a lot of things that if I saw them early on I would totally freak out. But if I see them later, it’s like, they’ve made them work. They can show it to me and I can see, I never would’ve thought of this but, wow, is it good.
FJO: Now once again, this goes back to the beginning, this is not a typical composerly response to abdicate that much control.
CC: I’ve gotten so much better about that in the last 10 years—that if you’re going to collaborate with people, make your selections carefully. For example, John Henry Davis expressed a lot of interest in being involved in The Golden Gate, but I didn’t pick anyone until I saw someone whose work I saw and thought I can trust. Then I saw several pieces of his, particularly one large production that he did at Avery Fisher. He then directed The Golden Gate workshop brilliantly and was a tremendous part of the creative team doing the rewrite that led up to that. He’s a full collaborator; I let him do his thing. It just seemed so important to pick carefully and then have confidence. And that’s how Steven Osgood has been as a conductor. That’s how the whole team with Bob Wood down in D.C. has been [for Photo Op]. It’s a little bit like being a teacher; it’s a similar impulse. Do you want to micro-control the people you’re working with or do you want to give them what they need to flower most fully as who they are and what they can do? I’ve learned to pick carefully and then allow.
FJO: In terms of your allowing things to evolve, it’s interesting to compare Photo Op and The Golden Gate. In Photo Op, you only identify a male and female character and they sing the exact same things. The Golden Gate is much more elaborate than that, but it also has an unconventional set-up. It’s based on a novel, but it’s a novel written completely as a chain of sonnets, even though they flow so naturally you can sometimes forget that it’s all sonnets as you read it. You’ve done something similar to that in the opera by having the characters both sing dialogue as well as narrate the story around them—you’re actually hearing them sing a novel rather than a play which is weird dramatically but it totally works.
CC: That’s the thing. It does, yeah. Who knew, right?
FJO: It’s evolved over a very long period of time. At first was it going to be a plot driven opera? At what point did it become what it is now?
CC: The book came out in 1986. I read it. I fell in love with it. I got in touch with the author; we got to know each other. I knew I wanted to do an opera about it, but there was no way I could figure out how to do it. So I wrote a series of concert pieces taking fragments of the text. And they went over very well.
Then I saw a teeny little workshop of 20 minutes of a new piece called Gatz done by Elevator Repair Service, an experimental theater company here in the city. It had to do with The Great Gatsby. Three years later, it was a six-and-a-half hour verbatim reading of the entire Great Gatsby, fully staged in an unbelievable way that has now toured the world and, when it finally made it to the Public Theater last year, it was cited as the theatrical event of the year by most critics. You’re aware of the “he saids” and the “she saids” for about the first 15 minutes and then you aren’t at all for the next five-and-a-half hours. Yet you have the beauty and the rhythm and the magic of the book. And I was like, “O.K., there’s my idea!” But I still didn’t quite believe it would work.
I was in a workshop with American Opera Projects and Steven Osgood. We had to prepare a libretto and the night before I was like, “Oh, I don’t know what I’m doing but let’s give it a try.” And we put it out on the table and Ned Canty, a wonderful director, and Mark Steven Campbell, a brilliant librettist, were there and we read it and the two of them looked across to me at the table and said, “You have to write this opera.” And I was like, “What, really?” “Yeah, it’s there.” “O.K.” And what it was was this mixture of third person and first person.

Golden Gate Cast

The cast for The Golden Gate (l.-r.): Kevin Burdette (Phil), David Adam Moore (John), Katrina Thurman (Liz), Keith Jameson (Ed), and Hai-Ting Chinn (Jan). The scene is a bustling Chinese restaurant in the Mission. Photo courtesy Conrad Cummings.

A long process of developing that libretto led me to one really important principle, which is any time any character is describing what another character is doing or thinking it has to also have emotional weight for the person who is saying it. As soon as I figured that out the whole thing really coalesced. It’s paradoxical that it works so strongly, because you would think that the structure where you’re moving in and out of first person, where people are talking to each other but sometimes they’re even referring to themselves in the third person, you would think that it would have a distancing effect, but it just doesn’t seem to. And of course the fundamental reason to do it that way is that there is such music in Vikram Seth’s verse and I absolutely wanted to capture and keep that music. As soon as you start slicing it down to just the dialogue, just the direct quotes, the verbal music’s gone. So you have to have it. It’s about a close group of friends and they’re always saying “did you hear what so-and-so said to so-and-so last night?” You know, they’re always narrating each other’s lives. It’s part of being this really close circle; often people narrate themselves. Often people are like, “Wow, I did that, didn’t I? And then I walked into the room. Yeah, I did, didn’t I?” So it seems like it has resonance.

Golden Gate VS Excerpt

An excerpt from the Vocal Score of The Golden Gate Act One Scene Two © 2006-2011 by Conrad Cummings. Text adapted from the novel by Vikram Seth. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: Now in terms of the music in it, you have a character who’s a visual artist but who also plays drums in a punk rock band. Your music was quite an unusual take on punk rock.
CC: Well, wait ‘til you hear it in the full orchestration! [laughs] It’s really good.

Golden Gate FS Excerpt

How Conrad Cummings evokes punk rock in the orchestration of The Golden Gate © 2006-2011 by Conrad Cummings. Text adapted from the novel by Vikram Seth. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: I can’t wait! Then you have the protagonist and his then girlfriend going to hear Schoenberg and Brahms at a string quartet concert, and that gave you an excuse to do tropes on Schoenberg and Brahms that are really hysterical, I think.
CC: Well, it was fun. It was an invitation that I was going to accept.
FJO: But the text also offered you another invitation, which was a loaded gun, because it references Michael Jackson’s song “Beat It.”
CC: Yeah, two characters meet at a disco. “He sees her face across the crowd through Michael Jackson’s taut rendition of ‘Beat It’ shatteringly loud.” So you have to have it, right? At least you have to have some reference to it. There was a little bit of a concern after the workshop that there might be some rights issues in terms of quoting the basic lick from “Beat It” and so I explored it legally. It’s an interesting legal matter. Everyone agrees that it’s fair use. However, it turns out that the way fair use doctrine works legally is it’s the user’s responsibility to defend against any claim of infringement. So while the law says it’s fair use, all the owner has to do is say it isn’t and then you have to defend in court that it is. So the price tag suddenly is like, whoa, I don’t want to get into this. So after some very, very careful research, it turns out that it’s possible to change it just enough—what I particularly enjoyed was inverting the whole pattern [laughs]—that surprisingly it reads as that’s what we’re talking about here. But it’s not the music by any means. There’s our solution.
FJO: It’s it and yet it’s not it.
CC: Yeah.
FJO: So it becomes more like your referencing of punk rock.
CC: It’s not punk rock. It just tells you this is pointing at it. It just seems far more powerful to reference it in a way that has a little bit of my personal stamp on it as opposed to just take it out and drop it in.
FJO: Now that’s been a hallmark once again, the full arc going back to all of these pieces. You know, I Wish They All Could Be… references all of this music without directly quoting any of it. It’s all your own music. And another piece of yours that sort of turns the tables this way is your early electronic piece Zephyr’s Lesson. Here you have this studio electronic piece that because of its subject matter is referencing ancient sounding very simple music. But once again, it’s completely your own music and not any direct quotation from anything. And you’re also totally subverting the whole raison d’être of electronic music with what you did. Back then creating electronic music was about creating music that no human could play, whereas I imagine your piece could be reworked for an instrumental ensemble.
CC: Yeah, now for sure, maybe not so easily back then. Part of the pleasure was that the idea of Zephyr was the god of the west wind that blows favorably on lovers and instructs lovers in the ways of love, that it was nice that the voice of Zephyr was invisible. That the players on stage were being wafted by his voice…but you don’t actually see him.
FJO: Now, in terms of going against a challenge, earlier we talked a bit about going against the grain, being the barbarian. Here you wrote a piece of electronic music that could very well have been done by an acoustic instrument. It was done actually for the sake of making a more dramatic performance rather than for a specific musical end. Did colleagues react to that the way Globokar did with Beast Songs?
CC: Of course. Well, even more about it, Zephyr basically speaks in sine waves and at the time it was considered that everything we’re about right now is richness and complexity of sound. How could you possibly write something that’s just these simple sine waves? And I’m like, “Well, I think they’re really beautiful and I think they really complement the richness of the acoustic instruments.” To have this dialogue between the richness of an actual acoustic flute, in dialogue with a little, wiggly sine wave.
There’s an important piece that you’re probably not familiar with that I’ve got to get you familiar with. It’s called Eros and Psyche and it’s the first opera I did. It was a commission from Oberlin; they all thought I was crazy. They had a 150-year anniversary commissioning program and they very loyally listed every ensemble and every faculty member was invited and I saw Opera Theater, so I said, “O.K.! I’ll write an opera!” And they were like, “What?!” [laughs] But I had a really good relationship with the opera director. We’d worked on a lot of projects already and she was like, “O.K.! Let’s try it! I read Andrew Porter’s review of Peter Sellars’s production of Handel’s Orlando that was happening in Boston. I got on a plane to go see it and came back knowing what my opera was going to be. The Eros and Psyche story, it’s just a beautiful piece of literature actually written in 2nd century Rome that’s thought of as a myth, but is actually some very sweet literature. And as it emerged, the whole thing was in da capo arias. Totally diatonic. At least the vocal lines were. And I thought, “O.K., I’ll go back and I’ll make it properly modern music by what I do with the orchestra.” But then when it came time to do the orchestration, I was like, “I don’t like any of this. I just want these completely transparent triads. This music is going to tell the story in the clearest, leanest way possible.”
They mounted a fabulous production of it and I kept thinking that it was the first time that I’d experienced a real public. You know, when you write in a university setting and you write sort of new music things it’s for a particular group of people who either know you or are one or two degrees of separation away and they’re committed to this particular world. But the experience of having an opera house full of people who were just there to see a show and have them yelling and screaming and going wild over this thing. I had no idea that I could do this. I wanted to do more of it. It was an audience that was everything from aficionados and opera lovers to just people who heard it was a great show and wanted to see it, and it changed things for me. I remember showing that score to Jacob Druckman, who’d been a very important teacher for me, and he looked at it with a great deal of puzzlement and said, “Conrad, I see nothing of you in this.” And I was like, “Jacob, this is the first thing I’ve ever written that I feel is totally me.” [laughs]

Eros and Psyche curtain call

The curtain call from the Oberlin Opera Theater production of Eros and Psyche (1983). Photo courtesy of Conrad Cummings.

FJO: The other thing that’s striking about your taking on writing an opera at that time is that unlike nowadays it was quite difficult for a contemporary composer to get a new opera done anywhere then.
CC: I have to tell you a story about that. So Phil Glass had been a really important advisor through all of this and he looked at drafts of it. He’d been on tour for the two or three months after the premiere of the opera and I was doing what you do to try to get another production. Three months later he comes back from tour and I walk over to his house on 3rd Street. I walk up the stairs and ring the doorbell. He opens the door, I say, “Hi Phil.” He looks at me, looks me up and down. I haven’t said anything other than “Hi Phil” and he says, “I get it. You thought the hard part was going to be writing it the first time. You didn’t realize that getting the second production is far harder, did you?” He saw it just in the look in my face! It was amazing! I hadn’t said a word. He could just tell by how frustrated and discouraged I was.
FJO: So what did he tell you to do?
CC: Oh, write another one. [laughs]
FJO: As opposed to pushing for another production?
CC: Well, yeah, keep it out there, sure, but don’t let waiting for a second production keep you from going on to the next thing.
FJO: Have there been subsequent productions?
CC: Of this piece, no. I keep dreaming of it. It’s a piece that’s good for a school, because it involves the largest possible cast and there’s even a classical ensemble on stage that’s at 432 [Hz], which is a quartertone below modern pitch In the scene where Eros seduces Psyche, it goes back and forth from pit orchestra to the classical ensemble a quartertone higher, a whole series up quarter-tone upward modulations. To make that work, you have to have a fortepiano and a Classical flute and Classical violins probably easier to do at a school, but I’d have no objections if an opera company wanted to do it.
FJO: Wow, I would love this.
CC: And it has the oracle. The Oracle at Delphi sings in the IRCAM computer voice. She’s this wild-haired woman and there’s a speaker behind her onstage and she’s mouthing it. She just goes “Ah ah oo ah ah,” while the character who’s the priest is interpreting what she is saying. And then she goes crazier and crazier and it goes from a super high C to a low G below the bass clef, and it usually brings the house down. [laughs]
FJO: So let’s talk some more about getting an opera done then versus getting an opera done now. It’s fair to say that opera has become the main focus of your life as a composer.
CC: Yeah, I just love it so much. I love the storytelling. I love the scope of it. I love the intrinsically collaborative nature of it.
FJO: Getting back to The Golden Gate, one of the things I find so fascinating about it—and mind you, I only know it through workshop readings—is how dramatically intense it is when it’s done as a workshop reading. Just as the libretto is this thing that’s going in and out of first person and third person, by having it without sets and having the cast mimic sleeping and even seduction scenes standing up is extremely effective. And at some point, you shatter the fourth wall and you no longer worry, the mind fills in the rest of it. In a way I would hate to see it done with a full production because I love that aspect of it.
CC: I think that’s part of the paradox. That given the invitation to fill in with your own imagination what’s happening around these intense relationships, as an audience you become more engaged. And any production of this piece will have that element to it. Don’t worry. There’s never going to be a literal production of it because—it’s not like I wrote it with that in mind, but I was happy to see, as it took shape, that there never would be because there are way too many scenes, ever! And the flow between one setting and another setting is vastly too fast to ever be able to have a physical set trucking on or another thing trucking off. It’s always going to be suggestive, so I think we’re safe.
FJO: One piece that we didn’t talk about yet, which we probably should talk about, is Positions 1956, the opera that you did with Michael Korie, which evolved through a very different process than The Golden Gate where you were working with a pre-existing text. We didn’t talk too much about the process of working with James Siena on his texts for Photo Op and how collaborative that process was, but I take it the project with Michael Korie was a real collaboration rather than getting a finished libretto for you to set.
CC: Well, it felt like a real collaboration, but the latter is closer to what it was. The first part of it we did, the part that’s based on 1950s marriage manuals, we did quite a long time ago. It was a concert piece. And basically, I said, “Michael, I want a 30-minute piece. What do you want to do?” And he said, “I want to do something instructional in nature.” And then he gave me two options. The first one I hesitate to mention here, and the second was 1950s sex manuals. So I said, “O.K.! Let’s do 1950s sex manuals!” And he knew my music well and three weeks later he basically presented me with this brilliant sequence of numbers, every one of which was a sex position. But what the amazing thing is that it actually charted the relationship of a newlywed couple. It appeared to be only instructions, but there was this very powerful emotional narrative running through it. So we always wanted to make a full evening out of it, but we kept scratching our heads. We could never quite figure out how. And then last summer all the stars aligned: he had time, there was a commission from UrbanArias and he was like, “I got it. I got it! 1950s physique magazines. We’ll be in the gym. It’ll be the groom and a tenor will be the trainer and then the third part will be social dancing, the tenor will become the instructor.” I said, “O.K., I’m ready!”

Jesse Blumberg and Amadee Moore in the 2012 UrbanArias production of Positions 1956. Photo by Clinton Brandhagen, courtesy of Conrad Cummings.

Jesse Blumberg and Amadee Moore in the 2012 UrbanArias production of Positions 1956. Photo by Clinton Brandhagen, courtesy of Conrad Cummings.

I had to wait a long time for these lyrics, because two shows that had been put on hiatus for him that are both coming to Broadway next year got un-hiatused about 15 minutes after we agreed to do this project, but when the stuff arrived, I said, “Michael, it’s perfect. There’s not a thing I want to change. Let me just start writing.” He’s the only librettist I can imagine working that way with. Well, actually probably with Mark Campbell I could imagine the same way. And I had to write this stuff really fast, but it was possible because of the dramatic progression through the other two parts—I shouldn’t talk so enthusiastically about my own work, but I can talk that way about Michael’s work. It’s so brilliant, so amazing! And I’m still in awe about what it turned out to be. Because here you have an 80-minute piece that is a sequence of instructions: descriptions of how to have sex, then how to do exercises, and then how to do dances. It’s this panorama of, as he puts it, all the things that fucked us up as kids. [laughs] And it’s also this span of a year in the life of a newlywed couple, trying to work out in the context of this difficult 1950s time, how they’re going to build a life together. And it’s so moving in the end, because they get to something.
FJO: There’s one final area I’d like to talk with you about which will probably take us to another place entirely. You talked quite a bit about different teachers and the reactions they had to you. And you sort of alluded to teaching and working with students, comparing it to letting pieces go when you’re writing an opera. You’ve taught a lot of composers, generations of them in fact, and many of whom have gone on to really do exciting things.
CC: I’ve got to say that my partner Robert complains about it when we travel, “Conrad, yet another one of your former students wants to have dinner? Can’t we just be on vacation?” [laughs] I find it very touching. By the way, he’s a wonderful singer-songwriter: Robert Katz. You should know him.
FJO: But I’m just curious about the seeds that you plant in your students and the role you’ve continued to have in many of their lives. You keep up with your students in a way that’s really admirable. You’ve been such a mentor to them. So I wondered when you talked in the beginning about once feeling alone in left field with your musical aesthetics but nowadays there you have a lot more company, might part of that be because you’ve had all these students to influence?
CC: I absolutely hope not! [laughs] That’d be terrible! That would be terrible. I like to think that the people I’ve worked with over the years have found their own wonderful voices; that I’ve helped them to trust their own instincts, to trust where they want to go. I’ve moved obstacles out of their way when I could. I’ve suggested ways to find a door when they’re pounding their heads against a brick wall. I’ve created an environment where they feel safe to try things and where they feel like they can really plumb into the deepest part of themselves and that they’ll be safe and they don’t have to put a façade of correctness or theoretical underpinning or whatever the thing is that protects you from revealing your own self in music. Those are the things I care about.

Sounds Heard: Guy Klucevsek—Polka from the Fringe

Decades ago there were several endeavors to commission a bunch of living composers working in a broad range of styles to write short dance pieces for solo keyboard. Perhaps the most famous of these initiatives was The Waltz Project which yielded a collection of 17 solo piano works composed mostly in 1977 by an extraordinary collection of people including—among others—Philip Glass, Milton Babbitt, Roger Sessions, John Cage, Lou Harrison, Joan Tower, and one-time Grateful Dead keyboardist Tom Constanten. The scores were subsequently published by C.F. Peters and, in 1981, Nonesuch released an LP of performances of them by a group of pianists that included Alan Feinberg and Yvar Mikhashoff.

Although that LP has been long out of print and has yet to be reissued on CD, many of those waltzes were re-recorded by Eric Moe, along with some new ones, on a 2004 Albany disc entitled The Waltz Project Revisited. Perhaps even more ambitious was Mikhashoff’s Tango Project. Between 1983 and 1991, he had amassed some 127 tangos by 127 different composers—another amazingly eclectic list including Babbitt and Cage (together again), as well as Chester Biscardi, Carla Bley, Alvin Curran, William Duckworth, Miriam Gideon, and Ralph Shapey. Sadly Mikhashoff succumbed to AIDS in 1993, but a year before his death he recorded 19 of these tangos and a disc featuring those performances was released posthumously by New Albion Records on the CD Incitation to Desire (which was named after Biscardi’s tango).

Guy Klucevsek’s Polka from the Fringe is another one of these projects and is much in the same spirit, albeit with a few twists. Between 1986 and 1988, Klucevsek commissioned a bunch of composers to write polkas for another keyboard instrument, the accordion. While for most people in this country the accordion primarily conjures up oom-pah bands at old beer halls, generations ago it also inspired compositions by Henry Cowell, Paul Creston, and Alan Hovhaness. In Europe the instrument is now regularly used in cutting-edge new music. (There’s actually a substantive list of European avant-garde compositions for solo accordion and orchestra!) But here in the United States there have only been a handful of accordionists who have attempted to explore a broader range of possibilities, though admittedly Pauline Oliveros as well as William Schimmel and Klucevsek—both through their own compositions and commissioning work from others—have done a lot to recontextualize the instrument. Polka from the Fringe, however, is an attempt to get composers to directly engage in the squeezebox’s more quotidian roots.

Selections from the repertoire Klucevsek engendered were originally released on cassette in the late ‘80s and then on two different CDs in the early ‘90s on now-defunct labels. Starkland’s new 2-CD release of Polka from the Fringe has finally made this material available once again and collects it for the first time in one place. All in all, the discs contain a total of 29 tracks written by Klucevsek and 27 other composers. While neither Babbitt or Cage is represented (too bad), the range here is as broad as the Waltz and Tango projects and perhaps somewhat more so since the resulting pieces not only include solo accordion compositions but also pieces for a full polka band (the band’s name is Ain’t Nothin’ But A Polka Band) in which Klucevsek is joined by David Garland singing and whistling, John King on guitar, violin, dobro, and vocals, David Hostra on a variety of basses from stand up to electric to tuba, and Bill Royle on drums, marimba, and triangle, as well as other occasional guest musicians such as violinist Mary Rowell and percussionist Bobby Previte.

The music turns on a dime from track to track. The sheer loveliness of William Duckworth’s Polking Around or Mary Jane Leach’s Guy De Polka conjures up a very different mood from the spikiness of pieces like Aaron Jay Kernis’s Phantom Polka and Mary Ellen Childs’s Oa Poa Polka. I couldn’t get enough of the relentless experimentalism of Daniel Goode’s Diet Polka (a personal favorite), but Peter Garland’s pastoral Club Nada Polka, which immediately follows it on the CD, was nevertheless a fascinating juxtaposition. Many of the composers used the polka as a springboard for out and out zaniness, such as Fred Frith’s The Disinformation Polka, Lois V Vierk’s Attack Cat Polka, or Pontius Pilate Polka by Microscoptic Septet leader Phillip Johnston. Then there’s Elliott Sharp’s Happy Chappie Polka, a visceral minute and a half of punk assaultiveness that should forever put an end to the mistaken belief that polkas are milquetoast. It’s a 1979 piece which predates Klucevsek’s commissions, but it is a very welcome inclusion nevertheless.

In the very extensive booklet packaged with the discs, which includes the complete lyrics for all the tracks featuring vocals (try to sing along), there are informative essays about the genesis of the project by Klucevsek as well as Elliott Sharp. In his essay, Sharp says that he and Klucevsek both found inspiration in a dismissive comment made by Charles Mingus: “Let the white man develop the polka.” I would have loved to have heard what Mingus might have done with polkas. (A Mingus album released only a year before his death completely redefined the Colombian cumbia.) Perhaps an even broader range of adventurous creative musicians will be tempted to tackle the polka after hearing what Klucevsek and his compatriots did with it now more than 20 years ago. Perhaps, better still, the next time someone comes up to you claiming to be able to define new music, tell him or her to listen to these recordings.

Joseph C. Phillips Jr.: Balancing Act

Like most composers these days, Joseph C. Phillips Jr. has to balance creating new music, getting it performed, and surviving. Seeing him on his bicycle returning from the Park Slope school where he teaches music to kindergartners to his Bedford Stuyvesant apartment (where we spoke earlier this month) seemed a very apt visual metaphor for how effectively he navigates through the various parts of his life. It’s a relatively short ride, although admittedly his composition studio in upstate New York, where he does most of his composing on the weekends, is a bit further away.

Phillips has nevertheless been able to accomplish a tremendous amount of work since he first arrived in New York City in 1998. Just two years after relocating here from Seattle, he began conducting his own ensemble, Numinous, as a vehicle for disseminating his own compositions. Within a couple of years after that, he released (on his own label) a CD devoted entirely to his music—Numinous: The Music of Joseph C. Phillips, Jr.—and in 2009, his second disc, Vipassana, was released on Innova. A third (to be released by New Amsterdam Records) will be out next year. Although Numinous—which now comprises 25 musicians, practically a chamber orchestra—has remained the primary performing repository for his music, he has also received commissions to compose works for pianists Simone Dinnerstein and Lara Downes, Face The Music, the University of Maryland Wind Ensemble, and the St. Olaf College Band. And the projects he has embarked on with Numinous frequently contain additional elements. When I spoke to him, he was in the middle of a series of performances of an evening-length work, To Begin The World Over Again, inspired by the writings of Thomas Paine with Edisa Weeks’s dance group, DELIRIOUS Dances. This week, the New York City re-premiere of Ernst Lubitsch’s The Loves of Pharaoh, a 90-year-old silent film which was only rediscovered last year, will feature a newly composed score by Phillips performed live by Numinous at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Yet musical composition came relatively late to Phillips. A self-described late bloomer, he didn’t start composing until he studied piano while pursuing an undergraduate degree in music education from the University of Maryland, a course of study he didn’t embark on until his junior year. As he explains it:

Originally I was a bio-chem major. I was actually that for two years. But I couldn’t see myself being in a lab coat for the rest of my life, so I took a semester off. Then I thought, “O.K., I want to do music.” That was really my first exposure to most everything: Debussy, all the classical, and even the jazz things. I knew Coltrane before, but it was really in-depth when I started the music program at the University of Maryland. It really got me started because that was the first time I learned to play piano. And as soon as I was in there doing piano, I could do my own thing and I started writing my own things from that point on.

Finding out about his original background in lab science explains some of Phillips’s working methods. Numinous has functioned as an extremely malleable composition laboratory for him, enabling him to explore a wide range of instrumentation as well as performance practices and compositional techniques which range from a Steve Reich-ian pulse-driven minimalism to a keen sense of specific timbre combinations reminiscent of big band composer-arrangers such as Gil Evans or Maria Schneider, to a more amorphous Morton Feldman-esque harmonic ambiguity. While the name Numinous might initially evoke a sense of spirituality (the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “numinous” as supernatural, mysterious, spiritual, and holy), Phillips remains committed to a more scientific approach:

I read Carl Sagan’s Contact and there was a chapter called “The Numinous.” And I thought, “That’s what I want to do musically!” I’m not religious; I’m probably an atheist. But for me there’s a whole other thing out there that connects us. People use religions to make those connections, but I have a science background. I love Carl Sagan’s “we all come from star stuff”; that, I think, encapsulates the kind of connection that the universe has. I made a decision that I want my music to represent that.

Since Phillips creates music primarily for his own ensemble, his aesthetic shares much in common with the great jazz composer/bandleaders of the 20th and 21st centuries. But while his music sometimes incorporates improvisation and his ensemble features several prominent jazz musicians (past and current members of Numinous include multiple winds players Ben Kono and Ed Xiques, pianists Roberta Piket and Deanna Witkowski, vibraphonist Nick Mancini, guitarist Amanda Monaco, and trumpeter David Smith), Phillips does not consider himself a jazz composer:

I use people who have the experience of not just classical music because there are times that I want them to do something—whether it’s improvise or have a [certain] rhythmic sense. I want something more fluid that you can’t always write. … I don’t have that angst of “What is my music?” I’m just going to do what I want to do. … Part of it comes from a jazz tradition: people form their own groups. When I moved I felt I wasn’t quite sure where I fit in. I came here because of the BMI Jazz Composers Workshop. I tell people that and people naturally think I might be a jazz composer, but my inclinations have always been more toward classical. I felt for me coming in, it’s not going to happen unless I do it. I’d rather do it myself than go to someone and say, “Can you do this for me?” I couldn’t imagine coming in and going to Orpheus or even Bang on a Can and saying, “Hey, I have these things. Would you be interested?” Not that I was writing orchestral music, but if I came to an orchestra and said, “Hey, will you play my music?”—they don’t care; they won’t know who I am necessarily. But I’m not going to let that stop me from doing the things that I want to do. Now everyone has their own groups; it’s a way to get their music out. I love to write for other ensembles and I have been commissioned by ensembles that I have no connection to, but I also want to keep doing Numinous and expanding Numinous.

Joseph C. Phillips Jr’s very clearly 21st-century music—incorporating a broad range of styles while being ultimately beholden to none—might seem somewhat at odds with his two most recent projects: the dance collaboration exploring the ideas of 18th-century political philosopher Thomas Paine and the newly created score for the 1922 Lubitsch film about ancient Egypt. But for Phillips, history can also be honored through a contemporary approach:

Edisa [Weeks] … had been thinking about doing a project about democracy and I had just read something about Thomas Paine so I said, “How about Thomas Paine?” His words are very timely still and … his words have been used by many people for their own purposes. … Edisa had this idea about contradancing which was big then. So I was listening to contradances and when contradances don’t form the twos, the fours, and the eights, they’re called crooked. So, I thought, O.K. I’m just going to make them all crooked. So you can dance to them, they’re very fun and in the period, but underneath there are mixed meters or maybe some weird harmonic thing. … With the Lubitsch film, there was actually a complete score that was already there but Joe Melillo [at Brooklyn Academy of Music] wanted something different. When I first got the film and watched it, I did watch it with the score, but after that I really didn’t listen to the score; I didn’t want those solutions to be in my mind. I’m very conscious about how I would feel if someone years from now took my score and said, “We want to get rid of that; let’s get this new thing going.” But we’ve had all this history since 1922 of how people approach getting into a film by [musically] adding to or going against what’s going on on the screen. And the history of music since 1922—there’s so much more that can be added. I wanted it to be my music married to what Lubitsch was doing as if I was the one he asked to do this. But people who’ve heard my other music will be surprised when they hear the music for the film.