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Bryce Dessner is the first person we have ever featured on NewMusicBox who glowingly talked about both Paul Simon and Helmut Lachenmann. Like many of the most inventive creative musical minds of the early 21st century, Dessner does not compartmentalize music into different genres. However, it is clear that he has learned different lessons from his immersion into different kinds of music-making and that these lessons have made him a stronger musician, whether he is writing songs and playing lead guitar in the indie rock band The National, co-scoring the soundtrack for the motion picture The Revenant, or composing a double piano concerto for the Labeque sisters.
“I find scores to be a very advanced form of technology,” he opined during our hour-long conversation with him at the Archives of the New York Philharmonic immediately after a rehearsal for his composition Wires (for which he joined the orchestra on electric guitar for three consecutive nights in between their performances of Tchaikovsky and Sibelius). “With digital music, or sequence music, whether it be using Pro Tools or GarageBand or Ableton, or whatever, everything is based on patterns and loops,” he elaborated. “With a score, you see very clearly how to defy that. You can write across the bar and the sense of form is much more fluid and asymmetrical. In that way, in fact, I use score a lot in the band to create some of those details. We’ll write a song that’s basically doing the same thing for four minutes, but then I’ll look at it in a score and I’ll create patterns and motion in it that maybe would have been hard to see if I was just playing an Ableton loop or something.”
But scores can also impose limitations, as he then acknowledged. “Right now I’m in a season of needing to liberate myself from … that kind of isolation of looking at music and manuscript, and to be closer to instruments and to this idea of sound and the physical relationship of when I’m hearing notes played, I’m also feeling the bodies playing them. This physicality of music obviously translates the most when I’m on stage with my instrument. … So the balance of those things, maybe to capture that kind of lightning or that physical energy and then put it into a composition, has been something that’s really evaded me but has also excited me at times.”
Bryce Dessner has never been content to rest on his laurels. He’s always eager to explore something different. When he was asked by Sō Percussion to create a companion piece for David Lang’s The So-Called Laws of Nature, he wound up creating a new instrument for the members of that quartet to perform his visceral Music for Wood and Strings. Similarly, The National’s song “Lemonworld,” from their breakthrough album High Violet, was a by-product of Dessner messing around in the studio and tuning his guitar “all the way down until the strings were almost flub.” While he was composing Wires, the piece he performed with the New York Phil, he literally wrote himself “emails every day with large caps saying, ‘NOT ALLOWED TO DO THIS’” in order to try to “break old habits.”
“Part of why I’m drawn to doing this is because I’m still learning,” he explained. “I’m trying to be humble about my art and to be open to trying new things and also to say, ‘I don’t think I know.’ I’m dialing in deeper to what my true voice is and not being scared to try things.”
Dessner’s fearlessness about taking risks coupled with his openness to and fluency in so many different kinds of music have made him an ideal ambassador, not just between musicians from different backgrounds, but also with audiences. This has made him an ideal music curator, a role he has had at Knoxville’s Big Ears Festival in 2010, at the Cincinnati’s MusicNOW Festival, which he founded, since its inception in 2006, and most recently at a NY Phil Nightcap concert last month. Ultimately, the experiences that Bryce Dessner has acquired and now shares as a musician are valuable life lessons that can be applied to all human interactions.
“I’m happy to be a kind of diplomat if people need me to be,” he said. “I find when you come into a room with judgment towards someone who is different from you …, you automatically cancel out all kinds of exciting possibilities that can happen.”
I learned more about electric guitar from Steve Reich than I did from Jimmy Page.
We kept failing in trying to write a Nirvana-sounding song, so I just decided to just tune that guitar all the way down until the strings were almost flub.
In Europe we’re all just a bunch of Americans.
I love hearing the personality of a player and what they bring to it.
I do love American string band music, American folk music, even some early country stuff.
The 21st century is less about ideology, at least in music.
More and more I see people leaving cities, giving up living condensed in a pressured environment where you have crazy stress trying to pay your rent and nowhere to rehearse.
If one were looking for an official “monument” among musical responses to 9/11, one might expect to find it in John Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls. Commissioned by the New York Philharmonic early in 2002, it was written to be performed at a concert scheduled for September 18 that year, very close to the first anniversary of the attacks. The timing was a coincidence: the concert had already been planned with an original program of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Yet on realizing the date, the orchestra wrote to Adams to request a commemorative piece to replace the Stravinsky. (The fact that September 2002 also marked the official beginning of Lorin Maazel’s tenure as the orchestra’s music director only added to the significance of the occasion.) The orchestra had already found a public role for itself in the wake of the attacks, offering consolation to the people of New York in a remarkable performance of Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem on September 22, 2001, that replaced the scheduled gala opening of the 2001-02 season with a benefit concert for the families of firefighters, police officers, and rescue workers, and in the actions of individual members, who had given ad hoc performances to mourners at the Ground Zero site.
Yet for all this, Adams’s piece is far from a typical monument. It may have garnered all the prizes available to it from the American musical establishment—including the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Music, and (in its recording by Maazel, the New York Philharmonic, New York Choral Artists, and the Brooklyn Youth Chorus) the 2005 Grammy Awards for Best Classical Album, Best Orchestral Performance, and Best Classical Contemporary Composition—but it sets itself apart from the declamatory, official statement. Instead, On the Transmigration of Souls turns toward the listening subject, opening up a contemplative space that seems to serve the needs of a mourning, traumatized listener more than to offer narratives of heroism, national redemption, or even vengeance. The attacks themselves—although present in many other examples of 9/11 music—are conspicuous by their absence; the closest allusion is the text “I see water and buildings,” the last words of one of the attendants on American Airlines Flight 11, which crashed into the North Tower.
The piece turns toward the listening subject, opening up a contemplative space that seems to serve the needs of a mourning, traumatized listener more than to offer narratives of heroism.
The work’s construction is well documented but worth reviewing. As well as the orchestra, Adams uses a chorus and a pre-recorded soundtrack. The text, which is divided between the singing chorus and spoken recordings on the soundtrack (made by Adams’s friends and family), is compiled from the handwritten missing persons signs that sprang up in huge quantities around Ground Zero in the days after the attacks (photos of which were taken by the New York Philharmonic’s archivist, Barbara Haws), and the short “Portraits in Grief” obituaries that the New York Times ran every day for more than a year after, each one a miniature of someone who had died in the towers. The soundtrack contains a further layer: recordings of New York, made by Adams in the early hours of the morning walking round the city. This is played back through speakers placed around the audience, mixed with the sounds of the orchestra, to create an immersive musical experience that surrounds its listeners rather than simply broadcasts to them from the stage.
The tone of Adams’s work—contemplative, non-dramatic, focused on absence rather than presence—prefigures Michael Arad and Peter Walker’s Reflecting Absence memorial park, opened on the World Trade Center site on September 11, 2011, two vast square pools with surrounding waterfalls, sunk 30 feet into the footprint of the original towers. It also echoes Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC (1982), one of the most successful of all contemporary memorials. Cut into the ground, giving it a minimal vertical profile, Lin’s memorial comprises two long wedges of black granite (each around 250-feet in length), which meet at their widest edge at an angle of about 120º. The black walls are highly polished and reflect the image of their viewers. They are inscribed with the names of the 58,253 US veterans killed in the war, arranged in chronological sequence.
The immersive style of Adams’s piece also relates to Lin’s memorial. Much like Lin’s mirror-like granite, Adams’s field-recorded, spatially distributed soundscape folds the listener into the work. Spatiality radically subjectivizes music, since (unlike the flatter, theoretically “even” projection from the stage) everybody’s experience will genuinely be different depending on their seating position. There is no “ideal” position from which to hear, and therefore no projected ideology of right or wrong, definitive or flawed. (It’s worth noting, however, that in practice this aspect of the piece initially troubled Adams: of the work’s premiere he writes that “some listeners found themselves uncomfortably close to a loudspeaker while others, being too far away from the nearest one, barely could make out what was coming from them.”)
Likewise, there is no “right” way to engage with Lin’s memorial. Too large to take in at once, it must be viewed in a combination of detailed attention and generalized scanning. To witness the whole thing is to take part in an active experience that requires at minimum a walk along its 500-foot length. Despite the inclusion of a 60-foot flagpole at the memorial’s entrance and Frederick Hart’s bronze sculpture Three Fighting Men (both mandatory additions not included in Lin’s original design), Lin’s memorial does not privilege one reading over another: part of its success lies in the fact that it can be read as both an indictment of war and a tribute to its fallen heroes.
The use of names is important in both contexts. As Erika Doss suggests, within a memorial context, naming first and foremost creates a sense of social unity: “to be named is to be acknowledged.” Lists of names are a prominent feature of contemporary memorial art, and great attention is paid to matters of sequence and inclusion or exclusion. (Should attackers be listed among the dead, for example? They aren’t in On the Transmigration of Souls.) Inclusion of a name can personalize a work of memorial and deepen its affective power. But names also enable lists, which provide a neutral ordering logic that can counter the “shattering disorder” of atrocity and trauma and that claims those names as a unified body. Adams steps gingerly between these poles. His soundtracked text, softly looping and layering names and appellations (“My sister,” “My brother”) echoes minimalism’s history, from the counting patterns of Glass’s Einstein on the Beach to the looping speech of Reich’s It’s Gonna Rain, Come Out, and My Name Is. It also recalls the recitation of names that takes place on occasions such as the anniversary of 9/11. But Adams’s music is not completely passive: it responds to those names, giving them individual identity through changes in harmony and orchestration, so that they are not subsumed into an undifferentiated mass.
It is a quietly complex work; its underlying concept is, I believe, one of Adams’s most sophisticated.
The idea of the mass remains part of the aesthetic of Adams’s work, however, just as it is part of Lin’s. He has described how his initial difficulty in beginning the piece was overcome after watching amateur footage of the New York attack and seeing the clouds of paper falling from the top of the towers: “an image of millions and millions of pieces of paper floating out of the windows of the burning skyscraper and creating a virtual blizzard of white paper slowly drifting down to earth. The thought of so many lives lost in an instant—thousands—and also the thought of all these documents and memos and letters, faxes, spreadsheets and God knows what, all human record of one kind or another—all of this suggested a kind of density of texture that I wanted to capture in the music, but in an almost freeze-frame slow motion.” This is almost an image of the sublime, in which the sheer number of documents and the mass of data they contain overwhelms and, in turn, becomes a means to absorb and come to terms with the horror of that day. This sensation is reflected in Transmigration’s use of document masses—the missing persons signs, the Portraits of Grief obituaries, the list of names—and its orchestration, “refracted and rendered into particulate matter.”
Adams’s combination of soft orchestration, gentle harmonic palette, slow tempo, and steady intonation of phrases—“We will miss you … We all love you”—can verge on the sentimental: the mass can become too personalized. And the composer himself has expressed misgivings about the success of the work’s surround-sound element, something that may have been better achieved through more radical means. Nevertheless, it is a quietly complex work; its underlying concept is, I believe, one of Adams’s most sophisticated. Its greatest success lies in its adaptation of minimalist tropes of immersion, massification, documentation, looping, and repetition to create a neutral space that can record without moralizing. My next posts will prise open the function and limits of minimalism to commemorative music by comparing two contrasting but closely related examples.
1. John Adams, Hallelujah Junction (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2008), p. 266.
2. Erika Doss, Memorial Mania: Public Feeling in America (University of Chicago Press: Chicago and London, 2010), p. 150.
3. New York Philharmonic, “Interview with John Adams,” available at https://www.earbox.com/on-the-transmigration-of-souls/ (originally posted to New York Philharmonic website, 2002).
Composers who are still in their 20s and early 30s have arguably never been as prominent as they are right now. But what will happen to them when they turn 40? Or 50? The future is impossible to predict with any certainty, though there will likely be many different scenarios—some composers will remain very strongly in the public eye, others will remain active though less visibly so, and a few will probably drop off the radar altogether. In, say, the year 2036, many listeners might be more focused on the young composers of their own time, some of whom have not yet been born. (I won’t even venture a guess as to what kind of interface those listeners will employ to hear this music.)
But only a generation ago, most composers were ignored until they turned at least 40—orchestras would not program their music, opera companies would not commission them, publishers refused to sign them, radio stations would not play their recordings (if there were recordings), and on and on. In a field that has long been dominated by tried and true repertoire, taking a chance on someone who had not been sufficiently vetted was long deemed too much of a risk. Of course, the history of Western classical music has had some very famous exceptions to this paradigm and the boy wonder Mozart remains the standard-bearer for many music lovers. But again, what if Mozart had lived beyond the age of 35? Would that have changed the way we think about his music today? This question, of course, is completely unanswerable. (At least, we will know how today’s wunderkind composers will fare twenty years from now—in 2036!)
All of these questions were on my mind when, after many years, I finally had a chance to have a long talk with Michael Torke in his small studio apartment overlooking the United Nations where he spends a little less than half of the year. (The rest of the time he’s based in Las Vegas.) Torke is someone I have known and whose music I have admired for decades. And once upon a time—actually back when we were both in our 20s—he was a towering figure in the new music community. At the age of 21 and while he was still an undergrad at Eastman, Torke’s Ceremony of Innocence—a 22-minute quintet—was performed at Tanglewood. Another one of his undergrad compositions, Vanada, received its premiere at Amsterdam’s Concertgebouw. Early into his first year of grad school at Yale, a major international publisher—Boosey & Hawkes—began courting him. Then after dropping out of Yale and moving to New York City, a whirlwind of activities occurred in rapid succession. An orchestra piece of his was performed at Carnegie Hall and he ssigned with Boosey. At 25, he became the de facto composer-in-residence for the New York City Ballet, and before he turned 30, he was given an exclusive contract on a major international recording label, London/Decca’s Argo imprint (which was owned by Universal Music Group), and the CDs they issued of his music were in regular rotation on many classical radio stations all over the world. While Torke was still in his early 30s, which was around the time I first met him, an opera of his was televised in the UK and he was even commissioned to write an orchestra piece for the opening of the Olympics in Atlanta.
“There was a lot of attention towards me,” Torke acknowledges at the outset of our free-ranging conversation. “I’m in my 50s. I’m not quite one foot in the grave, but it does kind of feel like it’s all over. I’m glad that the royalties will pay my bills and that I have enough new work, but boy, it sure seems like a different world we’re living in.”
But of course it’s far from all over. About a month ago I heard a new recording featuring David Alan Miller conducting the Albany Symphony Orchestra in two recent Torke concertos. I was floored by the music and was determined to finally have a chat with him about it in front of a video camera. In these works, Torke seamlessly synthesizes the frenetic pop-savvy process-driven post-minimalism of the music for which he first became known (pieces like Vanada, as well as The Yellow Pages, Bright Blue Music, Slate, and—a piece I still treasure more than almost anything—Four Proverbs) with an expansive romanticism that is more akin to standard repertoire classical music. This is the music that had been his first love growing up and he actually first attempted to incorporate such a sound world into his own musical vocabulary back in the 1990s, but was ultimately not satisfied with the results.
“I wrote a piano concerto that I called Bronze,” he remembers. “I performed it myself at Carnegie Hall and then I wrote something that Lincoln Kirstein commissioned, Mass. Both were kind of regressive, because I thought I wanted to write a piece that sounds like it’s in that era. Why not? You know, we live in a post-modern time where history means nothing. And if they’re doing it in the visual arts, we should do it. Those pieces, of course, failed miserably.”
There have been many other transformations for Torke since that time as well. At the dawn of the 21st century, after releasing five all-Torke CDs, Decca/London discontinued Argo. Suddenly all of Torke’s recordings were out of print. It took him a few years, but by 2003 he was eventually able to license and re-issue them all on his own Ecstatic Records label, an outlet that serves as the repository for most of the subsequent recordings of his more recent music. In 2004, he completely severed his ties with Boosey & Hawkes, becoming fully self-published through his own company, Adjustable Music. Torke’s emergence as a completely DIY composer might ultimately prove to be a prescient business decision now that the music business has changed so much.
“All those industries have collapsed,” he claims. “Boosey is a ghost of what it was. If you’re a composer signed by Boosey, the kind of promotion that they would do for you today is a fraction of what they did for me back in the ‘80s. They worked hard on my behalf and I’m so grateful. It was just thrilling what they did. … And at one time, there were the big record labels. They still exist, but thanks to the digital revolution that all has collapsed, too. … There were these big institutions that were gatekeepers and it was highly criticized, because there were the select few and if you were a Boosey & Hawkes composer, you were suddenly promoted around the world. If you had a record contract, people knew of you. If you didn’t, what options did you have? So it seemed really undemocratic. It seemed unfair. It seemed like there were tastemakers making these decisions that could be wrong. It seemed almost corrupt. Now we have the democracy of the digital world. Everyone is on equal footing. The problem with that is that who are the tastemakers?”
These days, Torke maintains a careful balancing act between writing music and getting it out into the world. As he explains:
When I have a new release, I send it with personal letters to the music directors of 250 classical radio stations. And they write back and say, “We loved hearing from you. We’ll take a listen.” And then when it’s on the radio six to twelve months later, I see it on my BMI statements. There still is money there. And that helps also because, who knows, some choreographer’s driving down Highway 1 in California, and they hear it and then that might lead to some dance piece that would have grand rights. So the publishing is still really important in classical music. And I’m still able to monetize it to the extent that I can make a living at it. … I would say it’s probably three-fifths composing and two-fifths doing the business side. I keep a stopwatch so I keep track of all of this.
It’s a sobering wake-up call about the real life of a composer who is still at the top of his form and wants to remain in the game. And while it’s a far cry from what many composers initially experience in the ceremonies of innocence through which they are first welcomed into the music community—that first big award, the initial commission, the early critical raves—it is the future for the overwhelming majority of people who write music. But still, if there’s a way to get it to reach people, like the early works of Michael Torke so convincingly did and like his recent works should, it is totally worth it.
Michael Torke in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
at Torke’s Tudor City pied-à-terre in New York City
September 28, 2016—1:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Frank J. Oteri: These days there’s a ton of attention being paid to younger composers—both in terms of how many of them are being commissioned by high-profile institutions and how many are covered in what’s left of the media. Once upon a time, composers never seemed to be paid attention to until after they were 40 years old, more likely 50. Although you were the exception to that rule—you were a super star in your early 20s. But now you’re in your 50s.
Michael Torke: I feel disconnected from everything. That might be partly because of the decisions I’ve made. I don’t have a teaching position. I’m not married. I’m not raising a family. I live in two places. Whenever I’m in Las Vegas, people think I don’t live in New York. And when I’m here, all my Las Vegas friends forget about me. You can be kind of incognito, which serves me well because I like privacy. I like to work on my projects. Promotion is something I find really grating. I don’t really like to do that. Maybe I’m just getting old.
I was unaware of the fact that everyone is heralding young composers. This is news to me, but maybe it helps explain things. When thinking about conductors, I knew that there was this cult of the young. And so maybe that does relate to what you’re saying, the cult of the younger composers. Here I’m in my 50s. I’m not quite one foot in the grave, but it does kind of feel like it’s all over. I’m glad that the royalties will pay my bills and that I have enough new work, but boy, it sure seems like a different world we’re living in. We live in a new century, a new time. Maybe this is one reason that there’s a lot of attention paid to the younger generation, if that is true. I’m not really complaining, it just feels different.
When I was in my 20s, there was a lot of attention towards me. I remember at the time what some people said when Boosey & Hawkes decided to sign a younger composer. This was at a time when they weren’t doing that. They had done some recent signings—it was around the time when they got Leonard Bernstein and Elliott Carter. Steve Reich was maybe the youngest one that they were looking at.
This is one of the earliest press photos of Michael Torke.
FJO: Aside from it being extremely out of the ordinary that they found you so early, though, what is perhaps even more unusual I think, now decades later, is the actual music you were composing at that time. It is very strong music and of course you still acknowledge it and it still gets performed, but you were still a student when you wrote some of it, like Vanada.
MT: I was an undergraduate at Eastman. Then I went to Yale for one year and I wrote The Yellow Pages and Ecstatic Orange, and then after one year, I came to New York and got out of graduate school. Not that I hated school, although I was tired of it, but there were things that were happening—Boosey & Hawkes, New York City Ballet wanting to do stuff, commissions were coming in. So I thought I could try making a career of it in the city that I wanted to be in.
FJO: So, to step back. There are only two pieces in your catalogue prior to Vanada: the solo piano piece, Laetus, which I’ve studied the score of although I’ve never heard anyone play it; and Ceremony of Innocence, which was played at Tanglewood and won a BMI Student Composer Award. Those couldn’t have been Opus One and Two. What were you doing before that?
MT: I started composing at age five and had private lessons starting from about seven. I was writing pieces all the way through. When I was the bassoonist in our youth orchestra in Milwaukee, I convinced the conductor to have me write a piece for them. And he was like, “O.K., we’ll do it!” That was in my youth of being very pushy with everything. I remember they were doing the Bartók Third Piano Concerto and I said, “So the soloist comes in the week before. I know the piece. How about I come in and rehearse with you?” “Oh, you’d do that for us?” So I got to do it. I was always doing things like that—pushing and pushing and pushing. Maybe that’s the difference today, just being off in another orbit.
So I was writing pieces. Most of them were chamber pieces, but the first orchestra piece was the one for that youth orchestra. They played it and it got a review in The Milwaukee Journal. It was kind of cool. I was in high school. Then I went to the Interlochen Music Festival for two summers, ’77 and ‘78, and wrote pieces there. One composition won all the awards that you could win as a teenager. I would enter and so the name was starting to get around. Then I went to Eastman. But all of those pieces were kind of juvenilia. They were written in a kind of a neo-classic style. I love Stravinsky and Bartók. I remember my first day at Eastman [being asked], “What composers do you like?” Stravinsky and Bartók is what I used to say. And they’re still favorite composers of mine. That hasn’t changed. But the music has changed.
FJO: So you didn’t say Chaka Khan.
MT: No, that came later. I was a classical music nerd and didn’t know a lot about pop music, so when I started listening to it seriously, in about junior to senior year at Eastman, I thought about it in a different way from my classmates who grew up with pop music. That was kind of why it made such an impact.
FJO: But how could you grow up in the United States in the ‘70s and not hear pop music?
I was a classical music nerd and didn’t know a lot about pop music, so when I started listening to it seriously I thought about it in a different way.
MT: I did, obviously. Everyone does. But I didn’t take it seriously. I thought that there was this dichotomy—classical music was the real stuff and popular music was the stuff that you hear on the radio and on TV all the time. I wanted to be a serious guy. That was how I thought as a 14-year old. Then when I was at Eastman, I thought about things like why is it that so much contemporary music, especially touched by modernism, seems to come at the ear at a distance [stretches his hand far away]. It’s way out here and you think about it, and then you enjoy it. And then I said, if you listen to Tchaikovsky, it’s here [moves his hand closer toward him]. You think about it, and you enjoy it. And if you listen to pop music, it’s here [moves hand right up to his face]. That seems to be a quality that is important. So we should embrace whatever that is. That was the thing that got me going.
FJO: It wasn’t also the excitement of the actual sound of the music you were hearing?
MT: Well, yeah. I don’t know quite what makes it here [gestures hand in front of his face again]. It’s very presentational, and it’s short. It doesn’t develop, and it’s disposable. Those were qualities that I admired, but I wasn’t interested in disposability. I wasn’t interested in non-development. Modernism taught us that we have to find new ways to express things, even if they’re difficult to hear. And I was thinking popular music isn’t difficult to hear and yet it seems to resonate with the culture. So, why is difficulty a virtue? I didn’t understand that.
FJO: I’m not sure I know what that word disposable means. I’m not sure that those folks who were doing it would have considered what they’re doing to be disposable. And certainly now, 50 years later, the music of Elvis and The Beatles has probably continued to resonate with people more than any of the other music that was written at that time.
MT: One could say that those are the exceptions, but in classical music, all this stuff that survived from the 19th century were the exceptions, too. So, you can’t make that argument. But I think that if you were a songwriter in the 1970s and you were writing a lot of songs, you wanted to get into the Top 40. You wanted to make a lot of publishing money. Then three years later, if it was never done again, that wouldn’t bother you. That was the nature of the business. Whereas, I don’t think anyone writing a symphony would say, “Oh, I hope I hear it twice, and I hope I never hear it again.” Or let’s say, if you never heard it again, that would bother you. You would say, “Well, maybe that symphony isn’t working.” So I think there was a difference.
FJO: It’s very funny you say that. Lewis Spratlan, who won the Pulitzer Prize in the year 2000, said to me back then that after he got a performance of a piece of his he would move on to the next piece and not worry about the older pieces. He was somebody who really did not push his music, although he has always been extremely dedicated to his craft and is extremely skilled at what he does. Some of these pieces are extraordinary, and people have only started to become aware of them since he won the Pulitzer. There were very few recordings of any of his music before that.
MT: So maybe it didn’t bother him.
FJO: I don’t think it did. In fact, the piece that wound up winning the Pulitzer was something that he wrote in the 1970s for an opera company that folded and so it was never done. A quarter-century later, a concert version of the second act was performed by Dinosaur Annex in Boston and that’s how he won the Pulitzer, but it was due to the advocacy of Scott Wheeler, who had been one of his students, not him.
MT: But here’s the difference. When that guy in the ‘70s was trying to write Top 40 for radio, he was interested in one thing. Not artistic expression. He was interested in money. Lewis Spratlan wasn’t interested in money. He was interested in artistic expression. And those are two big differences.
FJO: Wow, I think there were plenty of songwriters who cared more about artistic expression than money.
MT: Like James Taylor, he’s interested in expression. O.K., you’re right. But I do think all of those guys had a more commercial edge. Even The Beatles, when John Lennon had ten years of doing his solo work, he was like, “Why don’t I have a number one hit?” And I thought, “You don’t need a hit; you’ve accomplished everything.” Then I realized, “Oh, it’s because he’s doing commercial music.”
FJO: Well, did he want the money from the hit or did he want the popularity?
MT: It’s different, but it goes hand in hand. Again, that isn’t something the classical guys are thinking about. Fandom? I mean, maybe the younger composers are today. Maybe Verdi did. But is anyone writing to have millions of people throw themselves at you? That’s a different impulse, isn’t it?
FJO: You don’t think that Stockhausen was all about having fans, and the cult of personality?
MT: I do think that modernism had this great alliance with fashion in a kind of weird way, so yes. But anything post-modern, I don’t know. Maybe I have to think more about it. I do think that there are different impulses going on. I like that you’re challenging me.
FJO: Alright, let’s accept it for what it was in your mind back then. So you have this epiphany. All of a sudden you’re listening to this music that’s here for you and is very immediate. And you think that as a composer, you need to do this, too—not out of an interest in being rich and famous, but simply to write a really good piece that reaches people in an immediate way. So what did that mean to you as a composer? How did that change what you were writing?
MT: It meant that we needed to hear what was going on, rather than think about it. Other composers have said this better than me. I was hugely influenced by minimalist composers like Reich and Glass. They said, “I want to write something with a key signature. I want to write something with rhythms you can understand. I want to write something where the melodic contour could be easily understood.” These are things where the elements of the music are much closer.
FJO: For Glass and Reich, it was essential that the structure of the piece was audible. Back in the so-called classical period, most pieces had very discernible structures. It got very complicated in later generations, but if you grew up with that music and were immersed in it, you could always tell when the themes come back in a Haydn symphony. But I think Glass and Reich took that idea of an audible structure much further by the way they used repetition—a phrase getting longer and longer in Glass’s early music or two voices going out of phase with each other in Reich. You can hear that happening even if you’ve never studied music theory. What you were doing with your early pieces is a fascinating extension of that concept—repeating a phrase and then making one or a few notes in it a half-step sharp or flat by changing keys, which alters where the melody sits in relation to the tonic center. It’s a completely new approach to harmonic modulation.
MT: You can modulate by taking your material and going up a fifth. That’s transposing. But what if you had all the same notes on the staff, but just changed the key signature? That would throw off all the intervals, because you’re introducing differences in the seven steps of the scale. The half-steps are now falling in different places. It’s a small change. If you went through the cycle of fifths by just changing the key signatures rather than changing the notes, you would come up with something that you could hear and that would be something a little bit different—fresh, or whatever you want to say. So that was the idea. Again, it was trying to find a new way to put notes together that didn’t need to be explained. It’s fun to explain it, but it could be heard right away.
FJO: The time when you were writing that stuff, we now look back on it historically and describe it as post-minimalism. But when you were doing this initially, you were still a student and minimalism still wasn’t really looked on favorably in many academic establishments. It was talked about disparagingly, if at all. I wonder how aware you were of other composers who were trying to take the next logical step after minimalism.
MT: Was I aware of it? Well, insofar as I was aware of John Adams’s music. At the time, he was said to be a second generation minimalist. You remember that? I think it’s really funny, because we lump them all together now. Well, maybe we don’t. Anyway, I wasn’t aware of what other people were doing so much. My idea was to invent new ways to put notes together. I didn’t care if anyone else was doing something; I just wanted to do my own thing. That was the point of view.
FJO: So how did your composition professors react to that? I remember reactions to minimalist-inclined music at Columbia when I was an undergrad. It mostly wasn’t friendly.
MT: Well, I went to places that were very open-minded. Remember, at Eastman, you got a different teacher every year. There was a visiting professor who was very resistant and that’s a story we can tell off-camera. But, in my senior year when I was working on Vanada, I had Christopher Rouse as a teacher and he was a huge influence in shaping that piece. I originally had that opening material and then I went into a softer kind of slower second group, and he said, “Why do you go into a new tempo? It should all just be one thing.” One tempo, one idea, monothematic, and I thought, “That is a strong idea. I’m going to do it.” I have Chris to thank for that. It actually has nothing to do with minimalism, even though you might say that it does. It was unifying the focus of what I was trying to say. And so, thank you Chris.
FJO: What’s so interesting about this is his own compositional aesthetics are very different from yours. He writes very expansive music. But I suppose, now that I think about it, his music has an insistency that relates it to what you ultimately did in that piece, at least conceptually if not aurally.
I thought that if you want to make a career, if you want to get out there, focus in on your strengths.
MT: Yeah, our music sounds very different, but you can trace back the similarity of focus and drive. Then at Yale working with Jacob Druckman, he just loved everything that there was. One of the great educators, so open. I had another teacher who said, “Well Michael, let’s concentrate on your weaknesses. I see you haven’t written any vocal music. I see you haven’t written for solo cello. Why don’t you do that?” And I remember thinking, because I was always so arrogant, why would you focus in on your weaknesses? That didn’t make any sense. I thought that if you want to make a career, if you want to get out there, focus in on your strengths. Then I thought, well, as an academic, for education, he is saying a very prudent thing. But as someone who wants to strike out, you can see why I would be resistant. That’s why I only lasted a year at Yale.
FJO: Now, were you there at the same time as—
MT: Julia Wolfe. We were classmates. I didn’t know her that well. She was always friendly. I didn’t really make any friends that year. It was kind of a solitary year. But she was always filled with wide-eyed energy. We never got that close, but I always liked her.
FJO: What’s so interesting is that you, Julia, Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Aaron Kernis are all roughly contemporaneous and you all went to Yale. Even though you all have distinctive compositional voices, you were all responding to similar things.
MT: Maybe some.
FJO: Well, for starters, the idea of taking minimalism somewhere else. And then you all had an openness to popular music and finding ways of incorporating aspects of it into your own music on your own terms.
MT: I think that’s right.
FJO: I think that it was the zeitgeist. But this was obviously before there was a Bang on a Can and there was no codification of this kind of eclecticism.
MT: Right. David, Aaron, and Michael were all just a little bit older. At the time when I graduated from Eastman, I had an offer to go to Columbia. And remember, my dream was to live in New York—that was the end all, be all. So of course I’m going to accept Columbia. And everyone said, “No, you’ve got to go to Yale. That’s where the things are happening.” People like David Lang, who I knew from Aspen and we overlapped at Tanglewood together in 1983.
FJO: When Ceremony of Innocence was performed there.
MT: That’s right. David said, “You’ve got to go to Yale. Are you out of your mind?” So, at the last minute, I called back Yale and said, “Is your offer still standing? And if is it, I’d like to come.”
FJO: Was Martin Bresnick the connector for everybody? Or was it Jacob Druckman?
MT: They were both talked about as being people you should work with. But at the time, Jacob was the king of the new music world. He was writing an opera for the Met. He was the composer-in-residence with the New York Philharmonic and was running the Horizons concerts there. It seemed like he had his finger on the pulse of everything. What I didn’t know was how open-minded and enthusiastic he was about everything. I thought, “Well, he’s kind of a neo-Berio guy with his music,” but no—his music was one thing; his world view was really wide.
FJO: Just as your music starts getting paid attention to in the so-called real world, you drop out of school and you move to New York, but then it seems like all these significant milestones in your career start happening all at once. The commissions from the New York Youth Symphony and the Brooklyn Philharmonic, so you have a performance of your music at Carnegie Hall and another one under the direction of Lukas Foss, who was extremely influential. You’d already had your music performed at Tanglewood. Soon after that, Boosey & Hawkes approaches you. Then New York City Ballet enters the picture. Things that other people wait decades to have happen in their lives seemed to happen to you in only six months.
MT: The other component, which was a little bit later, was when Decca Records decided to do the imprint of Argo and Andrew Cornall took an interest in me. Imagine a guy coming to New York, taking you out for dinner, and saying, “We’d like to record all your music.” That will never happen again. It never happened before. It’s ridiculous and of course, relatively speaking, that was short lived—from ’89 until maybe you could say ’97—but still it was so crucial for getting the music out. Another thing that happened in 1985 right when I got to New York was the ISCM World Music Days. Do you know that festival? Is it still going on?
FJO: I’m now on their executive committee.
Imagine a guy coming to New York, taking you out for dinner, and saying, “We’d like to record all your music.” That will never happen again.
MT: Oh, good. Congratulations. I have to thank them because they picked Vanada to be done at the Kleine Zaal at the Concertgebouw. It was the first trip I ever made to Europe. This was in October of 1985, and what I learned later was that Boosey & Hawkes heard about it and they were there at that concert. That was one of the key things making them interested. It was a real turning point, which I didn’t know. I just was excited. It was a good performance, I was excited to be in Europe; I met a lot of people there. But that was key.
FJO: This is great to hear. Ellen Taaffe Zwilich credits the performance of her String Quartet at the 1976 ISCM World Music Days in Boston, which was the only time it ever happened officially in the United States, with putting her music on the map. It’s very interesting to hear how many people’s careers were established this way. Of course, you know that Boulez’s Le Marteau Sans Maître was premiered at the World Music Days back in the 1950s and so was the Berg Violin Concerto, in 1936, the year after Berg died?
MT: Are you serious? I didn’t know that. That’s huge.
FJO: You’re in illustrious company.
FJO: And it’s interesting that this is what put you on the radar of Boosey & Hawkes.
MT: There’s also another element. I went to the MacDowell Colony for the first time in June of 1984. This is before I started Yale. And who should be there among the composers but David Del Tredici, whose music I admired. To me, he was a superstar. At the time, he was a celebrity in my mind. I just couldn’t imagine I’d be in the same room with David Del Tredici. We played four-handed piano together. And I was like, boy he’s so friendly. What I learned was that David Huntley at Boosey & Hawkes said to David Del Tredici, “Can you secretly get some scores of Michael’s? We want to look at them, but we don’t want to ask him because we don’t want him to know that we’re interested.“ And so David said, “Could I have some scores?” I said, “Sure, why not?” So that was happening behind the scenes. It’s weird, because that would have been before ISCM, so I don’t know how it was that they had first heard my music.
FJO: I imagine someone from Boosey & Hawkes attended the ASCAP Young Composer Awards and BMI Student Composer Awards ceremonies. Reps from the major publishers still attend them. And you won both of these awards. Ceremony of Innocence won. Someone probably also showed up at Tanglewood when Ceremony of Innocence was performed there.
MT: Yeah, that could be. And then Vanada won, too.
FJO: Often pieces win these awards before they ever get performed. Did Vanada win before or after it was played at ISCM?
MT: It won before it was played.
FJO: That’s probably why they showed up at ISCM, to hear it.
MT: Yeah, maybe.
FJO: Very interesting. I want to talk about the recordings, but I want to stay with publishing and with orchestral performances a bit more, because all this happened before you were 25. Nowadays, as I said at the beginning of our conversation, everybody’s programming emerging composers, but back then it was really not the way business was done.
MT: Certainly in classical music, there was so much emphasis on the older people doing it. So that was unusual from the publishing point of view. But then Peter Martins went to Boosey & Hawkes and said, “Who is the young Stravinsky?” That was, I think, what he said. Well, there is no young Stravinsky, but they said, “We’re interested in this person who we are now representing. Take a listen.” So he purposely asked to work with someone young. O.K., that’s outside of music, but there was always interest in youth, because if you have a relationship with someone young that can last, it’s like putting a young judge on the Supreme Court, it’s going to last for a long time. You know, it’s a good investment.
FJO: But maybe part of why that was happening and maybe why a lot of young composers then weren’t being paid attention to is because the whole self-publishing thing hadn’t yet exploded. The internet wasn’t around for most people yet.
FJO: So if you wanted to reach someone like Peter Martins at New York City Ballet—
MT: You couldn’t.
FJO: Unless you were at Boosey & Hawkes or Schirmer, which had established relationships with all these key tastemakers.
MT: And you couldn’t reach Boosey & Hawkes. I had a friend whose dream was to be a Boosey & Hawkes composer. He said, “Michael, don’t even try. If you make a submission, it’s going to go nowhere. I’ve tried a million times. I have the best connections through Ned Rorem and all of that.” I didn’t know there was all this behind-the-scenes stuff. I never wanted to be with a publisher. Steve Reich and Philip Glass said the only way you’re going to make it is to start your own ensemble and work your ass off for 20 years, and if you’re lucky, at age 40, you might get some attention. And that was what I wanted to do. So when Boosey & Hawkes finally came knocking officially, I thought, “Do I even want to talk to them? Because that isn’t the game plan.” But they said, “We can do a lot of stuff for you, and in Europe, too.” And I thought, “How can I say no to that?” So I said O.K.
FJO: But other tastemakers were already paying attention to you as well. The endorsement of Lukas Foss was significant; you were an untested composer and you were given the opportunity to write for an orchestra. What’s even more interesting, though, is when young composers get a break to write a first orchestra piece it rarely sounds like their subsequent music since they’re still finding their way. Yet those early orchestra pieces of yours, Ecstatic Orange and Purple, sound fully formed. They’re remarkably consistent with your compositional language—clearly extending minimalism on the one hand, clearly acknowledging standard repertoire music, while also embracing the immediacy of pop music and unabashed tunefulness. These are qualities that people associate with your music to this day, but you were only 24 years old at the time.
MT: Well, I look at it as not really being fully formed at all. I was just sitting around experimenting. But to the extent that those pieces are still played today, that probably means that they take up some kind of musical real estate. So I’m grateful that those pieces landed so well.
FJO: The other thing that’s so unusual about these pieces is the whole backdrop of associating different types of musical content with color.
MT: Synesthesia is this phenomenon of mixing the senses in some primitive part of the brain. In my case, I experience color when I hear music. I hear it in keys and pitches. So therefore, the prerequisite is having perfect pitch so that when you hear something you know what key you’re in. Whether it is a hyper-association I developed at age four or five when I first started listening to music or whether it truly is a physiological phenomenon of truly mixing up the senses, I don’t know. Did you read Oliver Sacks’s Musicophilia? I’m in it.
If you write a piece in D major that never modulates, but the piece is only six or seven minutes long, that isn’t some great accomplishment. Try doing that if it were 55 minutes long.
There’s still a lot of investigation into all of this. Sometimes in my interviews, I put down the whole notion of synesthesia because how it informed my music is very different from what the scientific and musical community who want to talk about synesthesia think. If I think that D major is blue, to me that’s irrelevant to the world. In fact, it’s indulgent. So what. Big fucking deal. When I was in school, someone taught me that the way to create form is to establish some kind of concept of a room. Then you move out of the room, and then you come back in it. Sonata form is that way. You have the exposition, the development moves out, and the recapitulation is coming back to that center. But I said, wait a minute, if you’re at a great party on Saturday night, why would you ever leave the party? So the idea is why do we need modulation? Therefore, if D major is blue, and I want to write a piece in blue that never modulates, then what you’re doing is you’re celebrating the non-modulation, so you can call it Bright Blue Music as a way to say something about the form. That’s what my idea was. But they don’t want to talk about that. They want to talk about what it’s like to experience blue. To me, the actual physiology of it is of no interest at all. To me, it’s the form, whether those pieces work by never modulating. I don’t know. Modulation is one of the great tools we have as composers. I don’t believe that it’s some great virtue to never modulate. I love modulating. At the time, I was just working on something. I can be very self-critical. If you write a piece in D major that never modulates, but the piece is only six or seven minutes long, that isn’t some great accomplishment. Try doing that if it were 55 minutes long.
When Torke was in his 20s, he explained on Japanese television how his unusual perception of synesthesia relates to his music.
FJO: But it’s interesting that you were exploring harmonic stasis as well as changing keys without transposing melodies around the same time.
MT: Well, I was thinking about modulation, I guess. Or the lack of it.
FJO: A piece like The Yellow Pages keeps changing keys. It would be a rainbow if you were going to give it color name.
MT: Well, the truth is it’s anchored in G major, which is yellow. It modulates, but it comes back. It clearly in my mind is yellow. Again, these are semantic concepts where I would see if I could make it relate to music. They’re not always consistent. It was just the way that it got me to put notes together.
FJO: Ha, I didn’t realize there was a synesthetic connection with the title. I thought it was a goof on the fact that the Yellow Pages is a phone book that goes through all different kinds of companies in the same way that you’re going through every key.
He was saying don’t write tonal music. I have no patience for that kind of directive.
MT: It’s a musical alphabetical order, so it is like the Yellow Pages. And it’s written in G major, which for me synesthetically is yellow. Also, I had a professor at Yale who said if you go into the pawnshop of tonality, you pay a steep price. Well, I just did. If you went to a pawnshop, all the pages would be yellowed because they would be old. So that was my little quip on that professor. Because what he was saying is don’t write tonal music. I have no patience for that kind of directive, so I was making a joke—an inside joke.
FJO: The other interesting thing about The Yellow Pages is that it is a piece that you kept thinking about ten years after you initially wrote it when you added two additional movements to it: Blue Pages and White Pages, which is weird because The Yellow Pages was a fully formed piece and was already out there getting performed by different ensembles. But the goal was to create something even more significant, a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts—The Telephone Book. It’s interesting how seamless those three movements fit together even though in the intervening ten years your compositional language had evolved.
MT: Thank you, but I don’t know if all three work. There was a dance piece made to all three movements, and that’s when I thought maybe it does work. But there was some resistance, since The Yellow Pages does its own thing. Why bring in these other things? It’s almost like when you make a movie sequel—come on, that’s just a cynical thing of trying to cash in on all of that. I think that even my publisher, Boosey & Hawkes, was a little resistant.
FJO: I think this idea of playing out a process three different ways is an innovative way to deal with the structure of a multi-movement piece. So many of your early compositions are single-movement pieces. But there’s another early piece that you originally conceived as a multi-movement piece, Slate, in which you present the exact same material untransposed in four different keys. It takes the concept of TheYellow Pages to yet another level.
MT: There was joke behind it, too. Because while working with City Ballet, what I realized is that choreographers listen to the ictus of everything. They listen to the attacks. I said arrogantly that they’re not really listening to the harmonies or what’s actually going on in any kind of horizontal way. That’s a terrible thing to say, because it’s untrue. They listen to the essence of the music, and they make creative, beautiful pieces for dance. But in my arrogant state, I said, “What if I wrote four movements where all the attacks were exactly the same, all the orchestration was the same, everything was exactly the same, except I changed the harmonies just slightly?” That would force a choreographer to concentrate on the harmonies because everything else is the same. Lincoln Kirstein heard that piece, and he said, “Now that’s an idea.” That’s what led to him wanting to work with me. He commissioned the Mass and also he had commissioned another ballet that didn’t happen—he wanted Puss in Boots to be done, but that fell to the wayside.
FJO: But Slate has lived on as just one of the four movements which is one of the great disappointments for me as a listener since it destroys the whole form of the piece.
MT: Well, that was in ’89 and around that time Decca came calling. And Andrew [Cornall] said, “O.K. Michael, it’s an interesting concept. We’ll record one of the movements. I guess maybe the first movement would be the best one to record.” I said, “Couldn’t you record all of them, and even separate them on an album?” No. That was, you know, God speaking from above. So that’s what we did.
FJO: Well, now you have your own recording label.
MT: I could do it.
FJO: Do it. Please.
MT: Thank you, because I kind of thought that idea really failed big time. I didn’t know whether it was worth doing.
FJO: It’s totally worth doing. I’ve looked at the score. At one point, many years ago, I even convinced you to give me a MIDI-mockup of it and I’ve listened to it. It would be great to hear it with actual musicians.
MT: All right, I’ll work on that.
Curiously, even though the recording of Slate that was released on the very first all-Michael Torke CD on London/Decca’s Argo Records only featured one of the four nearly-identical movements of the piece, the cover for that recording, reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s famous silkscreen portraits of celebrities, consists of four identical images of Torke against four different color backgrounds.
FJO: Since we’re talking about something you perceived as a failure, even though I don’t think it is, I’d like to get back to this teacher who told you to concentrate on your weaknesses. I’m really glad that teacher told you to write vocal music and that you eventually did since some of my favorite pieces of yours are the vocal ones, especially Four Proverbs. I still hear those tunes in my head more than 20 years later.
MT: Wow. Thank you.
FJO: Part of it is that the melodies are really catchy and they repeat. But another reason I think is that my brain is trying to process how you matched syllables to pitches, which is very peculiar.
I have these invented ways to push the notes around that I want people to be aware of; I want them to hear it.
MT: The idea was that I have these invented ways to push the notes around that I want people to be aware of; I want them to hear it. So you have a little flag attached to every note with the syllable from a proverb, which has incredible meaning, and then they get all mixed, but then they come back together. I thought that those flags would help the listener’s ears, the reinforcing nature of a word being attached invariantly to a note. I thought that that would be self-reinforcing and help matters. If there’s this notion of an additive process in music, what about adding not from the beginning but adding from the end where it’s the last syllable, the last two syllables, and the last three syllables working up this way, so it gets more and more in focus. That was one thing I played around with. I played around in the second proverb with the notion of something Robert Morris taught me at Eastman of three levels of hierarchy where mathematically you can have something going at its original duration, and have something happen the exact augmentation above it, and then four times the original where there’s this property where the attacks all line up. It’s a mathematical thing that he showed me. And I thought that would work in my music because you could actually hear that.
FJO: Even though there’s all this math behind it, it’s really effective prosody. You can also hear every word, even if they don’t quite make sense when they’re jumbled up.
MT: Another piece, Five Songs of Solomon, is kind of like the Slate idea. I asked Margaret Lloyd, “Which are your two best notes in your range?” And she said, “The E-flat in the top space of the treble staff and the A-flat a fifth below.” So I wrote the same song five times using those intervals. Everything is the same formally, but they’re all in slightly different keys. It’s exactly like Slate. When you hear it, it sounds like French salon music, but then, by the time you’re on the third song, you’re like, “Wait a minute! What’s going on in the meta-thing?” Then you hear the overall architecture, which I hope is satisfying.
FJO: Let’s get back to that record company deal with Decca. How did it happen?
MT: I don’t know exactly, except that this is the story that I always say: The invention of CDs gave a false feeling to the big record companies that they were more successful than they really were—especially in classical music, because everyone replaced their vinyl with CDs. And all of those big companies said, “Wow, we’ve got a great business. Now that we have all this extra cash, let’s do a new music imprint.” And Andrew Cornall, who was one of the big Decca producers at the time, said, “I want to run that.” And so he was given Argo. And he said, “I want to identify some British composers and American composers.” At the time, he identified two Americans—Aaron Kernis and me. And he identified Mark Turnage and now I can’t remember the other guy. You would know him.
FJO: Graham Fitkin.
MT: Yes. And it seemed like at the outset there were only four composers he was interested it. Then it got bigger and bigger. He branched out to people like Michael Daugherty, Julia Wolfe, other people got involved, over in the U.K. even more. But I don’t know how he got interested in it. Did Boosey give him stuff? I had no relationship to Decca or to him. He was a complete stranger to me. Once we started working together, it was fabulous. We’re still friends. The Concerto for Orchestra that I wrote for the Liverpool Philharmonic in 2014 was because of him saying, “We want to do some big commissions, so we’ll go to Michael. I worked with him years ago.” That’s how that came about.
FJO: Wow. The important connections you establish early on are often the ones that help you throughout your career. A lot of these connections developed because you were a house composer with one of the biggest blue chip music publishers in the world and then had this record contract with one of the world’s largest media conglomerates. But the world has changed and these once seemingly all-powerful publishers and record companies have a lot less influence. At the same time, you’re now self-published and run your own record company.
MT: All those industries have collapsed. Boosey is a ghost of what it was. If you’re a composer signed by Boosey, the kind of promotion that they would do for you today is a fraction from what they did for me back in the ‘80s. They worked hard on my behalf and I’m so grateful. It was just thrilling what they did. I didn’t even know all the things they did for me. My arrogance just took it all in stride. And at one time, there were the big record labels. They still exist, but thanks to the digital revolution that all has collapsed.
FJO: But from being on Decca, you got radio airplay all over the United States—and I imagine all over the world. It put you on the map with large audiences even more than the orchestra and ballet commissions did. Now there’s also a shift in how the media works. So reaching an audience requires a completely different strategy, one that hasn’t really been figured out yet despite what some spin doctors claim. Still, some folks today can’t believe the way things used to happen.
There are so many billions of people doing billions of things. What’s good? What’s bad? I don’t know.
MT: That was the way the world worked. There were these big institutions that were gate keepers and it was highly criticized, because there were the elect few and if you were a Boosey & Hawkes composer, you were suddenly promoted around the world. If you had a record contract, people knew of you. If you didn’t, what options did you have? So it seemed really undemocratic. It seemed unfair. It seemed like there were tastemakers making these decisions that could be wrong. It seemed almost corrupt. Now we have the democracy of the digital world. Everyone is on equal footing. The problem with that is that who are the tastemakers? Who are the ones pointing to what you should hear? I miss going into Tower Records and having, just in the pop world, the new releases. I knew what to listen to. How do you follow pop music today? I don’t even know. Maybe that’s because I’m old. Maybe you can just surf around on YouTube. But there are so many billions of people doing billions of things. What’s good? What’s bad? I don’t know. That wonderful democracy that we all speak about, I wonder if that goes hand in hand with art, because we’re always trying to make distinctions in art and we had a lot of help in the old century.
FJO: The other part that we haven’t talked about yet is how to make money in this new environment. You have your own publishing company. You have your own record company. Are you able to sell recordings and scores?
MT: Yeah. I was lucky because I was set up by the old system where the monetization of what I was doing enabled me to concentrate on composing. I could make a living at it. Remember that this digital revolution was gradual. So, as I was learning about the business, I learned how to monetize what I was doing better and better. A simple thing like having works going forward from 1992 be my copyrights—rather than Boosey & Hawkes’s copyrights, but they would administrate them—was huge in terms of turning the money around. But I just didn’t know that. I learned the whole do-it-yourself thing on the job. So I had a publishing company in 1992. That was before any of this stuff we’re talking about, so I was set up for that. But then it occurred to me that I actually could do better than Boosey & Hawkes administrating my copyrights if I had a boutique guy like Bill Holab do it. That happened as late as 2004 when I was saying no to Boosey even being an administrator. And the whole recording thing? What’s great is that everyone can make perfect records. Everyone and their aunt and their aunt’s dog can do that. That’s really great. But no one cares anymore. And there’s certainly no money in it. So why we make recordings today is as a promotional tool.
The one thing that’s left with recorded music is radio. Because BMI pays very well with radio. Better than ASCAP. So when I have a new release, I send it with personal letters to the music directors of 250 classical radio stations. And they write back and say, “We loved hearing from you. We’ll take a listen.” And then when it’s on the radio six to twelve months later, I see it on my BMI statements. There still is money there. And that helps also because, who knows, some choreographer’s driving down Highway 1 in California, and they hear it and then that might lead to some dance piece that would have grand rights. So the publishing is still really important in classical music. And I’m still able to monetize it to the extent that I can make a living at it.
FJO: Now I wonder about the kinds of things that you can do now that you’re on your own and don’t have any gatekeepers telling you what to do, like the kinds of pieces you can write. You wrote this massive piece for ten pianos a couple of years ago, which I imagine is the kind of piece that a publisher would have rejected out of hand. “Are you out of your mind? We’ll never be able to get another performance of that! It’s a one-time deal, so we can’t invest our resources in publishing that.”
MT: Yeah, right. The fact is that you don’t have to worry about things like, “Well, we can’t engrave that because no one’s ever going to do it.” It’s already engraved by the time I put the double bar by virtue of the great programs like Sibelius that I use. But I think even more important than that, which I’m saying in a kind of lopsided way, is that you can do these deals with these funky outfits like this woman who has this zany ten-piano group in Miami and has no money. How did she hear of me? She was the rehearsal pianist at the workshop for my Metropolitan Opera commission. That’s how we met. She called me up a year later and said, “I have this idea for ten pianos.” I said great. She raised a little bit of money, and I said the way to make it work is that we’re going to record it right then and there. We’re going to record the concert, but we’re going to do a patch session, and I want the rights to that recording to put on my label. And so we did a deal. I can do the piece, which I thought would be fun, and I could have the recording. I thought it would an easy piece to monetize. Think about it. Every music school, how many pianos do they own? There’s a piano in every practice room. What would it take to move ten pianos into one room? Nothing. What would it take to get ten pianists? There’s 50 pianists at every music school. It should be played across America in every conservatory. It hasn’t yet, but why couldn’t it?
FJO: Because most pianists are trained to be soloists and they don’t want to play with anybody else.
MT: Yeah, well, that kind of idea is going down a little bit.
FJO: O.K. there are other things. You’ve written a bunch of band pieces and have issued them as a series. The big publishers have now caught up with the band world, but once upon a time they totally ignored it and focused mostly on trying to get performances with big orchestras and opera companies. But the band world offers incredible opportunities for composers in terms of getting multiple performances, multiple recordings, and simply selling lots of sets of scores.
MT: It’s huge and there’s tremendous respect for composers who are doing it well. They’re like heroes, the real great practitioners like Frank Ticheli or John Mackey or Eric Whitacre. But I write these weird pieces that are rhythmically difficult, and band directors say, “Oh, I like the sound of it.” But then they start rehearsing it and then they don’t want to play it. I have a piece called Bliss that just was re-recorded because I revised it. I sent it to 347 band directors across the country. That’s me doing what a publisher used to do. And ten percent wrote back. One percent said that they might like to play it. And I think I got maybe three or four rentals. A friend pointed out that that’s success. But I thought I would write this—okay, somewhat challenging—piece that every university band would want to play. And it didn’t quite work out. So, is that a failure? No. Do I stand by the piece? Yes. But as far as capitalizing the band market as a way to monetize what we’re doing, I think I’ve failed.
FJO: Writing personal letters to 347 band directors takes a long time. That’s a lot of time to be taking away from writing music.
MT: Well, if you don’t, you can’t write music. As my friend Jim Legg once said, you can’t write music 24 hours of the day. If you don’t have a wife who’s demanding time and you don’t have children’s diapers to change and you don’t have a teaching job, there’s no excuse not to do this stuff.
FJO: So what’s the balance?
MT: I would say it’s probably three-fifths composing and two-fifths doing the business side. I keep a stopwatch so I keep track of all of this.
FJO: I just heard the new recording that the Albany Symphony did of two of your recent concertos even though you don’t call them that.
MT: That’s true, but that’s what they are.
FJO: These piece reminded me about a dichotomy that started happening in your music about 25 years ago. Back then it seemed like there were two different Michael Torkes. There was the Michael Torke who did this very-much-part-of-the-zeitgeist, rhythmic, post-minimalist stuff that I personally found very appealing as a composer since it connected to things that I was interested in. But then there was this other Michael Torke who was really interested in the standard repertoire and wanted to write really lush, romantic music. Back then there were these distinct polarities, but I think in these pieces you’ve finally merged these two strands somehow.
MT: If that’s the case, then I’ve finally solved one of the biggest problems of my life, because I think that you’ve identified it. In 1990, I wrote a piano concerto that I called Bronze. I performed it myself at Carnegie Hall and then I wrote something that Lincoln Kirstein commissioned, Mass. Both were kind of regressive, because I thought I wanted to write a piece that sounds like it’s in that era. Why not? You know, we live in a post-modern time where history means nothing. And if they’re doing it in the visual arts, we should do it. Those pieces, of course, failed miserably. They were highly criticized. Boosey & Hawkes did that, too. So, by 1992, when I wrote the first piece after that little period, which was Music on the Floor, I remember Steven Swartz said, “He’s back to his rigorous style.” And I thought, “O.K., you tried something and it doesn’t work. You have the humility to say we all fail, and you move on.”
Pianists need repertory. They’ve run out. In the past, composers fulfilled those needs. Now we’re off doing other things and we say we can never appeal to them.
But look at the industry. There are incredible piano concertos that all the great soloists play in all the cities and with all the orchestras. And yet you know, in the Janet Malcolm piece on Yuja Wang that just appeared The New Yorker, she said that she wants to branch out now and maybe play the Messiaen Turangalîla. Well, that’s not a concerto. It’s good that she’s doing pieces like that, but what she’s really saying—between the lines—is “I’ve run out of pieces to play. What else am I supposed to do?” What if someone could write something that is fresh and well-orchestrated, that audiences can get excited about, pianists want to play, and conductors respect, meaning the notes are well put together? It’s not like you’re going to try to imitate Brahms or Gershwin. All the intellectuals will say, “You can’t just cop another style.” What if you write it in such a way that people say, “That’s his style”? You’re fulfilling this thing. Pianists need repertory. They’ve run out. In the past, composers fulfilled those needs. Now we’re not. We’re off doing other things and we say we can never appeal to them. You write some turgid piano concerto or some experimental thing that everyone respects, but who wants to play it? It may sound cynical, but I’m trying to do a very hopeful thing.
FJO: It’s so funny to hear you say that since, when we began this thing, you said that you’re in this little corner off to the side. It sounds like you’re totally in touch with what’s going on.
MT: I think to have the impulse of trying to write for that industry is out in left field; I don’t know if there’s another composer thinking that way.
FJO: But if it’s not about being that ‘70s pop songwriter that you don’t want to be who is trying to have a few hits and make money, what’s the reason for doing it?
MT: So you’ve connected all the dots, Frank. I’ve even thought of that. What would happen if pianists did play Three Manhattan Bridges and it was circulated in the concert halls around the world? And there was a 15-year phenomenon where I made a lot of royalties. Then after that, it was kind of forgotten because maybe I wrote a new concerto or there are other composers doing even better things. That wouldn’t be so bad. Because after all, 15 years from now, I will be 70. And maybe I’ll have slowed down. That might be a nice run. So maybe I’m thinking exactly like the ‘70s Top 40. And so maybe that’s the way to go.
Part of the time Torke was composing Three Manhattan Bridges was in his New York studio which has this view of the 59th Street Bridge.
A conversation in the downtown Brooklyn home of Ned Rothenberg
October 27, 2014 — 2:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Video recording and photography by Alexandra Gardner
Transcription by Julia Lu
In the era of Twitter and the incredible shrinking attention span, describing a composer such as Los Angeles-born and Berkeley-based Paul Dresher is a tough challenge. For five decades, he has done work in at least three distinct musical streams with equal vigor and equally significant results.
Hearing an LP of Terry Riley’s In C that he bought for a quarter from a sidewalk vendor on Berkeley’s famed Telegraph Avenue back in 1968 was a transformational experience that led to his composing a formidable body of solo, chamber, and orchestral pieces. These works take the basic ingredients of classic minimalism—a strong sense of tonality, catchy melodic hooks, and regular pulsation—but use them in ways that are much less process driven. What came to be known as post-minimalism—a term that has been used since the 1980s to describe composers as diverse as John Adams, Michael Torke, Janice Giteck, Paul Lansky, Mary Ellen Childs, and Daniel Lentz, as well as the late William Duckworth and Elodie Lauten—was already anticipated by Dresher’s 1976 This Same Temple for two pianos, the earliest piece of his that has been commercially recorded. Since that early groundbreaking work—which was championed by Katia and Marielle Labèque, as well as Steve Reich who arranged for its first New York City performance—Dresher has continued to develop and refine this compositional approach. A series of intensely beautiful compositions such as the 1981 cantata Night Songs, the 1982 string quartet Casa Vecchia, Channels Passing (a personal favorite from that same year scored for seven instruments and later expanded for chamber orchestra), the 1989 violin-piano-percussion trio Double Ikat, the 1995 solo piano tour de force Blue Diamonds, the 1998 violin and piano duo Elapsed Time, a 2008 orchestral score for the ballet Thread, and his brand new Family Matters for cello and piano have continued along that path. As he explained it when we met up with him during the final stretch of his East Coast tour:
It was almost as if what I heard on that record [of In C] was music that I sort of had vaguely imagined and sort of dreamed about, but I’d never in any way ever had any idea how it could be manifested. … I took that sense of minimalism and some of those procedures of minimalism, but I always felt like I wanted to go beyond the procedures and use them as the details of the music, to have larger things going on that were not as inevitably the result of some process that I had determined in advance of the composition. Often those things had a more dramatic kind of shape, as opposed to the music being very steady state. … I wanted to sort of increase that sense of drama, by increasing the time, and bringing in some things which at that point, I think, hadn’t typically been used in minimalism, particularly bass motion.
Yet to describe Dresher solely as a post-minimalist is insufficient. Coming of age at the same time as rock music did had a huge impact on Dresher, who abandoned the piano to take up the electric guitar at an early age. While rock ultimately proved to be too limited a playing ground for his musical aspirations, its visceral energy has been a key ingredient in his black box music theater collaborations with singer-playwright-performance artist Rinde Eckert.
Perhaps one of the reasons that Dresher has never been able to work within the aesthetic constraints of what could be commercially viable rock is because of the third musical realm he has steadfastly pursued all these years—highly idiosyncratic, improvisation-based music often involving instruments of his own invention, electronics, and—in recent years—alternate tunings. There is a direct through-line from his earliest guitar-triggered electronic soundscapes—like Liquid and Stellar Music (1981) and Dark Blue Circumstance (1982)—to works like In the Name(less) (2002) and Glimpsed from Afar (2006), both duos for his own quadrachord (something of a giant tabletop sub-bass guitar) and Don Buchla’s marimba lumina (a MIDI controller from which a percussionist can trigger a broad range of samples). While most of these experimental pieces were created expressly as a platform for his own performance, five years ago he fashioned a vast poly-sensory environment for Steven Schick called Schick Machine for which there is no score per se and which is a cross between music, theater, and installation art.
Aside from maintaining these three distinct compositional strands, Dresher also actively performs with his own ensembles, both the Electro-Acoustic Band he formed a decade ago and the smaller Double Duo with which he recently completed a tour that took him to five states. These groups not only play his music, but have actively commissioned and premiered works by John Luther Adams, Eve Beglarian, Martin Bresnick, Bun Ching Lam, David Lang, Steven Mackey, and Roger Reynolds, among others. “I really like being inside another composer’s new work,” Dresher explains. “So when I formed the Electro-Acoustic Band, the idea was I wanted to play other people’s music; I wanted to give a resource to other composers that was similar to what I felt I needed—a band of musicians who could credibly play idioms that were not just in a classical style, who could play rock and roll, … who could improvise.”
Performing the work of others has immersed Dresher in an even broader range of aesthetics than the ones that have shaped the three different paths his own music has continued to take throughout his career. Though those three streams initially seem stylistically incongruous, there’s actually quite a bit of common ground in his work, especially in comparison with all the music by others that he has performed. That’s probably because, according to Dresher, all composers, whether they’re conscious of it or not, are writing for an ideal listener. Whether he’s creating a fully notated piece of post-minimalist chamber music, a poly-stylistic score for an intense musical theater work, or an idiosyncratic experiment for one-of-a kind instruments of his own design, he’s always operating with the same basic assumptions about his audience.
I think that my principal responsibility as a composer is to control the experience of time for the listener. They are following the progression of time as I am trying to stay in control of it. That requires a degree of familiarity; you can’t understand something if it’s 90 percent completely new information. I think the neurology of how the human consciousness works and how you can follow ideas is that you have to have a certain amount of familiarity, and then you have to have a certain amount of newness. That ratio is a complex assumption that a composer has to make about how they’re going to keep their listener engaged.
The cover of New Albion’s original all-Paul Dresher LP, issued in 1984, featuring Channels Passing and Night Songs (NA 003; reissued in 1993 on the CD Dark Blue Circumstance NA 053).
Frank J. Oteri: I still remember my initial reaction thirty years ago the first time I had heard Channels Passing and Night Songs, which had just been issued together on a New Albion LP. I couldn’t get over how intensely beautiful your music was. And it’s something I’ve often thought about many of your pieces since then. Hearing Double Ikat and your new cello and piano duo last night at Roulette, I felt much the same way. So I thought a good place to begin would be to talk about beauty, what it means, if that’s a goal for you, and what you do to attain it. Paul Dresher: Beauty is a complicated subject in all modern art. Culturally I think we had an assumed notion of what beauty was at least through the Romantic and late-Romantic period. Obviously the 20th century in music and in visual art as well really expanded the notion of what was beautiful. And yet I feel that a lot of what I do, and I think the quality that you just spoke of, about beauty, is really almost a 19th-century idea of beauty. I think there are ideas of balance, how ideas flow and transform in a kind of natural way. In many pieces, I use consonance and dissonance in a traditional 19th-century sort of way. The harmonic progressions may not be anything like 19th-century harmonic progressions, but the tension and release issues, the issues of how tension is built, and how that tension is resolved, have many affinities with and connections to Chopin, who happens to be one of my favorite composers. I don’t know if that’s evident in pieces, but it’s some of the music that I constantly turn to and find to be both endlessly new to me and incredibly moving. FJO: As far as there being an expanded notion of beauty in the 20th century, certainly at the time that you were first formulating your ideas as a composer there was a very different attitude about what music—and art overall—should be and what its purpose ought to be. I think these attitudes were very different than earlier notions about creating art to be beautiful, whatever beautiful may mean, as an aesthetic end in and of itself. I don’t necessarily want to say that beauty was devalued. PD: I think it was devalued. But I think maybe a more important goal that includes beauty but not just beauty is for music or art to be powerful. Obviously there are many different ways to be powerful and to make an impact on the person who’s giving themselves over to the experience of the art. Beauty is one of those features. But I think a piece like, say, Glimpsed from Afar—particularly the end, which is very intense and rhythmic—doesn’t partake of beauty in the way I was referring to about Chopin or the connection to the 19th century. It’s very clangorous and very dissonant, but it’s very visceral and that’s a kind of power. That’s also very important to me. I think both exist in my aesthetic world as ways of creating impact and engaging the listener. FJO: Well, the other thing that happened in the 20th century in terms of expanding notions of beauty is that the doors were opened to different cultures, and beauty means different things in different traditions. You describe Glimpsed from Afar as not being beautiful in a Chopin way, and that’s true for a great deal of music that people now can appreciate as being beautiful. The 20th century eroded the concept of there being a single line from which music evolved. And your music has also not evolved in a linear fashion but has actually operated on several very different streams throughout your career. But before we delve into pieces like Glimpsed from Afar, I’d like to continue talking for a while longer about the pieces that do explore beauty in a Chopin way, pieces that—for lack of a better term—people would identify as coming from classical music. These are pieces that most people, I think, would immediately consider to be beautiful and aesthetically appealing unless, perhaps, their only frame of reference was death metal. PD: Or if you’re only listening to Brian Ferneyhough. When I go speak at Stanford, and I’m interacting with Brian’s students, they’re trenchantly opposed to everything I represent because to them it’s so lacking in the kind of complexity that they believe is the principal raison d’être for contemporary music: to give new and continually surprising information that can almost not be assimilated. To overload so that anything about periodic motion, harmonic resolutions, or anything like that is so not a part of the vocabulary. And you know, it’s just not what I do. I’m not interested in that. I’ve studied that music. I’ve never written in that idiom, but I find that idiom has very limited expressive means. I’m actually interested in music having an emotional impact, not just a cerebral impact. I find that the more complex that you intentionally require your music to be, you often reduce the net effect of it on a listener, except perhaps the listeners who need that kind of complexity. But that’s not my ideal listener.
I think every composer writes for an ideal listener. They may or may not be conscious of that, but there are all these premises about how the music is going to be perceived and received, and who their potential audience might be. My audience is not the same audience as I think the audience Brian Ferneyhough writes for. My audience is not necessarily just a professional musician or composer, but a person who actively engages with music and who wants to be taken on a journey. That person may need a certain level of familiarity and a certain kind of progression of the dialogue in the music in order to follow the musical thought and the ideas. So sometimes you’re going to have them follow you, and then you’re going to make a right turn and you’re going to surprise them. But unless they’re following you, that won’t have any surprise. You have to present your materials in ways that you believe your listener—whoever that ideal listener might be—can stay with and engage with. I think that my principle responsibility as a composer is to control the experience of time for the listener. They are following the progression of time as I am trying to stay in control of it. That requires a degree of familiarity; you can’t understand something if it’s 90 percent completely new information. I think the neurology of how the human consciousness works and how you can follow ideas is that you have to have a certain amount of familiarity, and then you have to have a certain amount of newness. That ratio is a complex assumption that a composer has to make about how they’re going to keep their listener engaged. I have certain assumptions that I operate from, and those are maybe the consistencies that you might be perceiving over the course of looking at 35 years of work. You are seeing maybe a consistent sense of what I’m assuming about what is new and what is changing, what is staying the same and what is progressing. FJO: The earliest piece of yours that you still acknowledge is a guitar quartet, but I’ve never heard it; I’d love to one day. PD: It’s very much inspired by In C by Terry Riley. FJO: So from the very beginning you were working with what had come to be known as minimalism. PD: My musical DNA is in minimalism. I think I first heard In C in the fall of ’68. When I came to Berkeley, after I graduated from high school, I made my living playing for spare change on Telegraph Avenue, which was sort of a nexus of the counterculture in the San Francisco Bay Area, Haight-Ashbury being the other one. This was the height of the hippie movement. From whatever money I made, I’d take whatever I needed to buy food and stuff like that and with any spare change I had I would buy used records. There was a guy selling some of his records pretty near where I was playing, and I saw a record there I’d never seen before. He only wanted 25 cents for it and said it was terrible. So I bought it, and it was In C. And it changed my life.
It was almost as if what I heard on that record was music that I had vaguely imagined and sort of dreamed about, but I’d never in any way ever had any idea how it could be manifested. There it was, coming through my really crappy little speakers on my probably $15 sound system. So very shortly after that, I found Terry’s A Rainbow in Curved Air which came out in 1969. Both In C and A Rainbowin Curved Air were very formative [listening experiences], giving me an idea of what music could be. And obviously, A Rainbow in Curved Air is modal and it’s a sort of free form kind of improvisation. This was very much where I was at in my own musical development at that point—nowhere near that level technically, but I was developing my own sort of improvisational style that was very much influenced by that and akin to that. FJO: But the next piece after the Guitar Quartet, the two piano piece This Same Temple that you composed in 1976, is already doing something a little bit different from strict minimalism. It’s already going against some of the formal procedural things to the point that it really is post-minimalist, a term that is often used to describe music that composers had started writing very soon afterwards. John Adams’s China Gates and Phrygian Gates were both from the following year, which is also when William Duckworth began The Time Curve Preludes, pieces that are often described as the beginnings of post-minimalism.
PD: I revised it a tiny bit after the premiere, and then it was done again in ’77. When I finally felt that I could actually write music that wasn’t sort of childish, I took that sense of minimalism and some of those procedures of minimalism, but I always felt like I wanted to go beyond the procedures and use them as the details of the music, to have larger things going on that were not as inevitably the result of some process that I had determined in advance of the composition. Often those things had a more dramatic kind of shape, as opposed to the music being very steady state. Something like, say, Drumming has this very slow evolution, and obviously it builds to these ecstatic points but it builds through a very slow accumulation. I wanted to sort of increase that sense of drama, by increasing the time and bringing in some things which at that point, I think, hadn’t typically been used in minimalism, particularly bass motion. In fact, when Steve Reich first heard This Same Temple, he said something like, “I really like those bass things; you have to do something with that.” And he produced the first performance of that piece in New York in 1979. FJO: Although minimalism is in your DNA, you also studied composition with Robert Erickson, who was very much not a minimalist. PD: That came a little bit later. I started studying with Erickson in ’77. I wrote This Same Temple before I did any formal study of composition. In my childhood, I studied classical piano for like five years and my teacher taught me music theory, too. So I understood music theory and I was inclined in that way, which is obviously what any composer needs to be—a composer has to have an analytical sense. Actually, that aspect of my classical piano studies was probably the most interesting to me. The piano repertory I was sort of lukewarm about, but I liked the fact that you could analyze the music and break it down into these systems. You could break it down into harmonic structures, and you could transpose them, and you could sort of see how music was assembled. That was fascinating to me. Even though the idea of composing didn’t ever occur to me at that point, I think it showed that I had an inclination towards some of the things that a composer typically needs. FJO: I’m curious about other formative things that shaped your musical aesthetic, particularly from other genres of music. PD: When I was allowed to stop taking classical piano lessons when I was about 13, I instantly took up the guitar and started playing folk blues, and listening to people like Lightning Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, and Bukka White. Mississippi John Hurt was a big influence on me. Then pretty quickly I went into the electric blues, both Chicago blues and what was coming from England with the greats like John Mayall, then falling in love with Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton and all those things.
That was an incredibly rich time of musical transformation, both personally and, I think, in our whole culture. I was very much a part of that, and at that point I wanted to be a rock star. I played electric guitar and I was in rock and roll bands. But whenever I was in rock and roll bands, I was always wanting to push the boundary into a kind of approach to instrumental music that just, at that point, was not really there. Rock and roll is usually either about dance or courtship, some form of cultural expression that’s not primarily a cerebral listening experience. It’s more of a group collective kind of merging of energy.
Rinde Eckert, Paul Dresher and Gene Reffkin performing Was Are/Will Be in 1985. (Watch and listen to the performance here.)
FJO: Well it’s interesting to hear you say that because some of the more rock sounding things in your output, like the one-man opera-musical theater pieces you wrote with and for Rinde Eckert, Was Are/Will Be and Slow Fire, are really not that far away from the music of the 1980s King Crimson or— PD: —Talking Heads. FJO: Absolutely. I think anybody that is a fan of that music ought to have loved what you were doing. And similarly anyone who loves your music ought to have loved that music. PD: A lot of people saw that connection. People would come up to me and ask if Talking Heads influenced us, and King Crimson would often be mentioned, too. I think it was of the time. The musical idiom of Slow Fire was intentionally partaking of American popular music of the time. That was part of how we wanted to tell the story of an everyman American character named Bob and his dad. So it made sense that we would use a musical idiom that was in some way a take on Bob’s musical world, the contemporary world that our character would live in. So we consciously made that musical choice, but a different opera or music theater piece could use an entirely different idiom based on what the narrative needs were for that particular project. FJO: But there’s also a slightly earlier piece that you also did in collaboration with Rinde, Was Are/Will Be, that also taps into that same sound world. PD: The character Bob also actually started in Was Are/Will Be, but we made a completely different musical world for him in Slow Fire. I was working with a tape loop system, which is the tool that we used for both those works. It allowed me as a single performer to do multiple layers in live performance. Obviously a tape loop system does repetition. You don’t have to make it be rock and roll, but it is going to be repetitive. That kind of layering on of a bass line, a particular sort of mid-register riff, and then something higher register laid very well in the template for rock and roll structure, and it fits very well with my minimalist inclinations. FJO: But to look back at what these two separate communities—the minimalists over here and the adventurous rock people over there—were doing at around the exact same time, the music is actually quite similar. And they were approaching the performance of it in similar ways, with synthesizers and tape loops.
Paul Dresher with his solo performing operatus in the early 1980s. Photo by Debra Heimerdinger, courtesy of Paul Dresher.
PD: Well, Brian Eno got it from Terry and La Monte and he would tell you that. Then Fripp got it from Eno. But I think Fripp forgot that he got it from somebody else. Sometimes when I would use my tape loop system people would say, “Oh, you’re doing Frippertronics.” I would usually bristle about that a little bit, partly because my system is not at all that. You know, the time lag accumulator is a constant feedback, regenerating system and gradually everything decays over time. That’s the beauty of what Brian Eno did with it in all those wonderful ambient music pieces that he did. But mine is an actual recording studio on a loop. You basically record a track and that stays there. It doesn’t decay. It doesn’t change unless I ask it to change. I can do that, but I mostly used my system as a system of multi-track recordings, layering four, five, six parts at once. So in that sense, it’s technically not like Fripp or Eno, but it still was looping. There was still the inherent repetitive element that I think is the connection that people saw. FJO: I think people made that connection because there isn’t a lot of difference between these allegedly different genres of music. Yet some people get put in this classical music place, and others get put in this popular music place. It seems somewhat pointless to me. PD:Remain in Light is still one of my all-time favorite records. I just thought it was brilliant. The way David Byrne works with Eno and the whole band, the way they assembled that record, the musical material, and the processes that they used were just brilliant. They really inspired me. Obviously there are great grooves in there that make it popular music and make it rock and roll. And in a certain sense, when we did Slow Fire, I think we were partaking of the same well. There are other parts of Slow Fire that don’t really have anything to do with that, but things like “Sleeping with the Light On” really have an enormous amount of affinity with Talking Heads and other things that were going on. Peter Gabriel is another person who was very important; I thought his work in the ‘80s was just stunning. FJO: If only it had reached the radio stations that were playing that stuff, “Sleeping with the Light On” could have been a major pop hit. PD: We had some nibbles from the rock and roll world, but once they listened to it, everyone who was in that world said it was too weird, too operatic. Rinde’s voice is not a pop voice. Rinde’s voice implied the world of opera, and that tended to be something that was difficult for people who were immersed in pop culture aesthetics to think had enough to do with them. FJO: Yet at that same time, Pat Benatar, who was operatically trained, was a big star, and Laurie Anderson actually had a pop single. PD: Right. FJO: But still, I really don’t think opera when I hear Rinde’s voice. He’s really something else. However, I was shocked to discover that he was one of the singers on that New Albion recording of Night Songs. I’ve had that album for three decades and have listened to it constantly over the years, but I never realized that Rinde Eckert was on it. He sounds so different on there than he does in anything else I’ve ever heard him do, certainly very different than the other pieces you did with him which partake of his unique vocal abilities. PD: That’s when I met Rinde. When I’d just got out of graduate school, I got a commission to write a piece for a group that didn’t exist anymore by the time I completed the work. It was for two tenors and soprano. That was Night Songs. A lot of those people who had been core to the group had been transported up to Seattle, to the Cornish Institute where the leader of that group, John Duykers, had become the chairman of the music department and he was going to be in charge of getting this commission produced. He hired me there. And he also hired [the soprano] Tommy [Tomasa] Eckert, who is Rinde’s older sister. Rinde had just finished graduate school at Yale, and hitchhiked or drove across the country and ended up becoming the janitor at the Cornish Institute. But he also directed the opera theater institute we had there. So John brought in Rinde to be the second tenor. When I was writing it, I knew John and I knew I was writing for Tommy, but I thought I was writing it for a different tenor. I didn’t write it for Rinde because I didn’t even know him.
So we met and we enjoyed each other, but it wasn’t until John Duykers asked Rinde to be a part of a collaboration with [experimental playwright and director] George Coates—I think he sensed that Rinde had some unique talents that went beyond what a traditional tenor does—that Rinde and I really hit it off and realized that we had a special chemistry. Then in the course of working with George Coates, Rinde and I were frequently coming up with ideas which were very exciting to both of us that just didn’t fit in with the aesthetics of [Coates’s] theater company. This was a theater company that was kind of inspired by Robert Wilson; there were many elements that weren’t Robert Wilson, but there was a kind of coolness to everything, not developing characters or narrative in any way. So when we both departed from that company, I had collected a lot of those ideas and mined them, and we started to then actively explore those things that we hadn’t been able to do in the George Coates works. That’s how our own work together evolved. So when you heard him in Night Songs, he was just another tenor at that point. I mean, he himself hadn’t [yet] developed anything like the character or ideas that he developed in the course of doing music theater work. That music theater work really allowed him to develop the artist that he’s become. It was really the first step for him, the same way it was the first step for me understanding what collaboration could do and understanding what working with singers could be, which is something that I never imagined I would have done.
The CD cover for Opposites Attract, a collaboration between Paul Dresher and Ned Rothenberg released in 1991 (New World Records 80411.
FJO: In terms of other musicians you’ve collaborated with who’ve pushed you in different directions aesthetically, here we are in the apartment of Ned Rothenberg with whom you also collaborated on that wonderful album Opposites Attract, on which you’re really pushing each other. PD: He’s a close musical and personal friend. And we both loved that about that process and that collaboration. FJO: Everybody nowadays talks about all these younger composers and their “bandsembles” blurring the lines between musical genres, but these walls were actually torn down by your generation. In terms of your own music, however, I wonder how much of the blurring of genres was a by-product of all the collaborative work you’ve done in theater and dance. You mentioned at the onset of this conversation that while some of your pieces aim for beauty, others aim for visceral power, and certainly the earliest works of yours that tap into this rock-like raw energy are these early theater pieces. PD: If I were writing a chamber work, particularly for acoustic instruments, I’m going to acknowledge the tradition of those instruments to some extent. Whereas I think that when working in the collaborative media, whether working with a choreographer or working in experimental music theater like Rinde and I did, I had total freedom to basically partake of anything musically that I had the expertise to handle, and so that often combined popular music and it also frequently brought in world music.
Paul Dresher with the American Gamelan in 1979, photo courtesy Paul Dresher.
I spent a lot of time studying North Indian classical, West African music, and Indonesian music through the ‘70s. That’s also part of my musical DNA. So in those collaborative works, I felt that I could draw on anything I wanted—anything that I could credibly make work was material for that piece. We would then decide as a group if it was relevant to the piece. Slow Fire is a piece that is rooted very much in popular music and in the rock and roll idiom, but that was about the goals of that piece and what our idea was of the musical world of our character. Power Failure, an opera that came after that and, I’ll admit, not a totally successful opera, was very much not in that idiom. It had drums, too, but it really wasn’t a rock and roll piece. It was much more of a classical piece. Again that had to do with the subject matter for the piece and the means by which we wanted to tell our story.
FJO: But another one of your one-person operas, The Tyrant, which you wrote for John Duykers, is also a much more classical piece. PD: Very much so. I wanted to make a repertory-type piece that could be done by any ambitious and hard-working chamber ensemble and a singer who really wanted to devote himself to the character. It was written for Pierrot plus percussion and was actually designed to be a companion piece for Peter Maxwell Davies’s Eight Songs for a Mad King. That was the original commission. We wanted to have them be able to be played on the same program.
FJO: But when you write music for a specific person or a specific situation, rather than simply write a piece for a voice or an instrument that could theoretically be done by anyone anywhere, there are many details that might never be translatable to another performer or another situation. PD: Most of the works that I write now are written for specific performers, like the piece I wrote for Lisa [Moore] and Ashley [Bathgate] and almost everything I’ve done with Rinde and John Duykers. But even though these are very specific performers who lead you and bring certain things that you know they will successfully do, I also think if this is a successful piece, other people will learn how to do this. There’s of course the long tradition in contemporary music of performers pushing the boundary, and what seemed impossible becoming standard. Collaboration with performers is just part of that process. If what you’ve made is powerful and successful, other people will be inspired or required to learn how to do that. FJO: Certainly it’s much easier for me to imagine other cellists and pianists besides Ashley and Lisa performing Family Matters than, say, another singer besides Rinde performing Slow Fire. PD: You know, Rinde and I talked about it, and there are a couple of challenges that would really have to be overcome. I think there are performers; Rinde has inspired people and the level of dramatic opera performance and music theater performance has gotten to a point where I think there could be a young performer who will say, “I want to do that; I’m going to do what Rinde did,” or “I’m going to do it better,” or “I’m going to do it differently.” So that may come about. I think that kind of person could exist. The other problem is that the technology that I used in Slow Fire is live looping technology which was impossible for anyone to deal with, but now with software there are an enormous amount of resources that could actually make that possible. The fact is, though, it’s not notated. On occasion, some sections of the piece were notated, but most of it was just in my hands. It would be an intriguing idea to actually transcribe it. It’s totally doable, because the parts were all the same each night. You know the things that I laid down on a loop were very fixed. I just never bothered to write them down.
But I want Family Matters to be a repertory piece in the same way as Elapsed Time, my duo for violin and piano, which I think is a very successful work and hope can become part of repertory. Family Matters has that potential as well. Yes, I wrote it for two incredibly skilled virtuoso players, so it’s not for somebody who doesn’t want to make a real commitment and doesn’t have a very high technical expertise on their instruments, but I do believe that many other people can play those pieces.
FJO: That same level of virtuosity and commitment is necessary to play, say, Brahms, and lots of people play the pieces he wrote. It has now become music for those instruments rather than music for specific musicians. Perhaps the ultimate form of writing for instruments rather than specific musicians is writing for the orchestra, which you’ve done but not so much—though curiously you recently wrote a concerto for one of the instruments you invented. PD: Well, you know, that’s not my first orchestra piece. That’s probably my fourth. My first orchestra work was a piece called Reaction in 1984, and then I wrote Cornucopia in 1990. There’s also a chamber orchestra piece that’s really a large chamber piece; it’s not an orchestra piece. Then, for the San Francisco Ballet, I wrote a big 30-minute score called Thread. After Thread, I felt that I knew what to do with the orchestra. I understood the orchestra better than I ever had before. Then I was able to think about what I could try that would truly be a challenge to me as a composer. So when the Berkeley Symphony wanted to commission me, I proposed that I would do a concerto for one of my invented instruments and orchestra, and they were very excited about that. Initially I thought I was going to do it for both the hurdy grande and the quadrachord, but partway through the composition, for both practical and musical reasons, I focused just on the quadrachord. Keeping both instruments in tune, and figuring out where they were going to sit on the stage and how to move between them, was just not practical. FJO: But what’s ironic is that you said you want your chamber pieces to become repertory pieces. The orchestra, by its very nature, is designed primarily to do repertory pieces. But you completely subverted your chance at this piece becoming repertoire by writing for an instrument that only you have. PD: Yeah. Go figure. I was just curious. I wanted to see if I could do it, and I wanted to see what would be required, because they don’t speak the same language at all. The intonation issues are enormous. I had to come up with two very different strategies for dealing with intonation in the piece; one was very successful and one was moderately successful. Actually the jury’s out on how successful the second one was because I would be very curious to do this piece with a fully professional orchestra. The two orchestras that have done it [so far] were both semi-professional, a mix of community members and professional musicians and I asked things of the brass that may have been beyond this orchestra’s full command, but might not be in the hands of a fully professional orchestra. I don’t know the answer to that question yet. FJO: It’s also ironic that when you were commissioned you wanted to write a concerto, because you’ve said over the years that the traditional romantic idea of a concerto being a bravado soloist against the orchestra does not really appeal to you as a composer, which is why in the works that you have written that are concerto-like—like Unequal Distemperament for cello and the Electro-Acoustic Ensemble and also another work for that ensemble that you actually called Violin Concerto, the piece that evolved from combining Cage Machine and Chorale Times Two—the soloist and small group are not really in opposition to one another. PD: It’s also team work in this case. We trade roles. I had to solve the problems of integrating the quadrachord with the orchestra. There wasn’t natural common ground. So as the soloist, I had to really expand my technique and, in some ways, make it more conventional in order to make the quadrachord do things that traditional instruments do extremely well, which were very difficult to do on it, like play in equal temperament. So I was constantly in this dialogue of trying to find ways to pull the orchestra towards my world, the quadrachord’s world, and pull the quadrachord towards the orchestra’s world. The first movement is called “Uncommon Ground” because it’s all about trying to resolve these tensions. The second movement is called “A Tale of Two Tunings” because our tunings are radically different, and I had to find ways to modulate in between these two tuning worlds. And the last movement is very much inspired by the end of Glimpsed from Afar. I basically just dispensed with all issues of tuning and just dealt with sound. That movement is called “Louder Faster,” and it’s really about expanding on things that were done in the last five minutes of Glimpsed from Afar and turning it into a ten-minute movement. It’s very intense rhythmically, and very hard driving. Actually, that’s probably the most successful of the movements because I was able to dispense with the difficulties of these two intonational worlds.
Sometimes when audiences hear alternative tunings, they don’t know what they’re supposed to do with it. They sometimes think it’s out of tune even if they understand that there’s an intentional, rational reason with the tunings. That presented a lot of interesting musical challenges, compositionally and then in execution as well. For instance, I basically took three players out of every section of the strings—first, seconds, violas, cellos, and basses—and I had them tune their instruments down 40 cents. Rehearsals started with regular orchestra tuning, and then we’d tune what I called the de-tuned strings down 40 cents. As my melody is moving into harmonic areas that are well beyond equal temperament, they’re picked up by the de-tuned strings. And it worked incredibly well, and those string players, they just had to hear my instrument and they could match my pitch very well. I was so pleased that that part worked. FJO: I’m curious about what your impetus has been to invent instruments, specifically something like the quadrachord.
A drawing of a bonang design from Dresher’s Master’s thesis, decades before he built the quadrachord. Image reproduced courtesy Paul Dresher.
PD: I started inventing musical instruments when I was in high school. It’s about curiosity and about sound. Basically over the years, I’ve learned a lot about which physical material has musical resource potential, so now I can sort of say, “What would happen if we tried this? What would happen if we tried that?” And because I’ve got enough experience, I can ask questions that sometimes have interesting answers.
In the case of the quadrachord, I basically said, “I’m a guitarist and I know what guitar strings do. What if we double that length and see what happens? What happens if a string goes from, say, being three feet long to six or seven feet long?” And so we knocked together this simple way to test that, a slab of wood with some tuning machines and a couple of electric pickups, to see if there was anything there. And there was a lot there. There are some things that you can’t do on a guitar that this thing can do. What if we double that length? So we found a 16-foot 2″ x 6″ and we did the same process. We built some bridges, put some electronic pickups on it, strung some long strings across it, and it was four times what the six-foot long machine did. And I said, “O.K., that’s even more exciting; let’s double that again.” I didn’t have a piece of wood that was 30-feet long, but I had a wall and a staircase that were 30 feet apart in our shop, so I came up with a mechanism that allowed me to put a string from the wall to the staircase and tighten it up and tune it. We put an electric pickup on it to amplify it and it just did one thing. It did one thing that was great. It made this incredible bass sound, and literally a semi-tone was like a whole step away, so it was like walking bass made manifest in physical space, but I couldn’t make it do a lot more. That’s not a real instrument. A real instrument does more than one thing. A real instrument has many possibilities. So I said, “Let’s focus on that 16-foot length.” That’s where the quadrachord came from. I just made something bigger until maybe it became not useful to be bigger, then I found what the useful length was and started to experiment with what it can do musically. I didn’t have an idea what music it would do, I just had a curiosity about the physical phenomena involved. Over the years, I’ve just been mining those potentials and trying to find new ways to bring sound out of it. FJO: But touring with the quadrachord, as you’ve just done this fall, doesn’t seem all that practical. PD: Well, it’s more practical than you might realize. It doesn’t travel in those dimensions. It’s 15 and a half feet long, but it breaks down into a thing that’s a little less than three feet long. It fits into a case that is smaller than a keyboard case. And it takes one person about 40 minutes to set up; [the percussionist in my ensemble] Joel [Davel] and I doing it together takes about 25 minutes, a little less than that to break it down. If he had to move all that percussion in, it wouldn’t be any quicker. Sure, it adds a layer. It’s not the same as a string quartet coming in and sitting down and playing. It’s more complicated than that. But we built that particular version that we have on the tour to be reliable and stay in tune, as well as to be quick and easy to set up.
Paul Dresher & Joel Davel performing on the quardachord (with the marimba lumina in front of them) Photo by John Elliot, courtesy Sue Bernstein/Bernstein Artists.
FJO: But if somebody wanted to perform this music, they’d have to acquire a quadrachord, and you’ve got the only ones. PD: I never even think about that. I never once think or want somebody else to play this. This is my personal playground to experiment with sound. Sometimes I sample the instrument, and samples of the instrument are in some of my chamber music compositions. There they exist in a fixed form that’s duplicable by anybody with sample playback programs. But the physical playing of the instrument is where I get to experiment and where I get to share with the audience the results of those experiments that I think are successful. FJO: So in terms of the compositions for these instruments—we talked about how some of the music you’ve written could be transcribed for other instruments but other pieces can’t be—could you imagine the pieces for these invented instruments being re-arranged for other kinds of instruments, or is it all idiomatic? PD: I can’t imagine the reason for that. I could imagine all kinds of enormous practical difficulties. For instance, in Glimpsed from Afar, there’s a section where I create some loops with plucking where I’m playing the harmonic series. That harmonic series is not in equal temperament. I’m using between the sixth and the tenth harmonics; the seventh is very flat and the tenth is somewhat flat. I guess you could tune a harp to those specific things, and maybe get some sort of representation of that, but I don’t know why I’d want to do that. That music comes out of this instrument. I don’t think that music exists as abstract musical ideas. It really exists in the medium of this instrument alone. And when you get to the last section of the piece—where I do this weird thing with foam, a half capo at a very odd spot dividing the strings in half, and then we drum on the instrument—I don’t know how you’d ever even come close to duplicating what is interesting in that sound. I chose that sound to be a major part of that piece, and it’s something that I honestly can’t imagine getting any other way. FJO: Now the most extreme example of this is Schick Machine, which of course was for someone else to perform—Steve Schick. PD: That is true. Maybe somebody else could perform on that set, but it would become a different piece because Steve brings specific, astonishing skills. Another performer would bring a different set of skills. But those instruments, that set, is the piece. That is the score in a certain sense. Almost none of that is notated. There’s notation about how we built those instruments, because we’ve kept track of that and we did drawings and measurements and tests. But the invention of those instruments is far more what the score of the piece is than what notes are played. FJO: And Schick Machine is extremely visual as well as aural. That’s true to some extent with the music you do on the quadrachord, but less so. You could hear a recording of the quadrachord and just experience it as sound, and you have released some of your music for quadrachord on CD. But interestingly you put out a private DVD of Schick Machine rather than a CD; you made sure the video was there. Experiencing it that way already is very different from the immersive environment that it is live, but at least you can see what it is. I think it would be hard to process if you only heard it.
PD: I’ve absolutely refused to ever even play that music on the radio. Schick Machine almost has nothing to do with music by itself, or sound by itself. It is sound in interaction with image and understanding how the sound is made; even if you see how it’s made, it’s still enormously mysterious. How is that mechanism working? How is this physical thing that I see Steve doing turning into what I’m hearing? You’re still mystified; that’s the power of that piece, the wonder at the combination of Steve’s physical reality, the instrument’s physical reality, and the visual and physical interaction resulting in sound. If you just hear the sound, it’s not the piece. FJO: But considering all the new sounds that are in Schick Machine and the new ways in which those sounds are produced, it seems like those Ferneyhough students at Stanford would at least appreciate that. When you were at Stanford, did you share anything from this piece? PD: We premiered the piece at Stanford, but it had little to do with the music department. FJO: I imagine that there’s a lot more to explore with the particular instruments and timbres that you used in that piece. PD: In the process of working on Schick Machine, I fell so in love with an instrument we call the hurdy grande that we built a new version of it. What’s on the stage of SchickMachine is what we call the prototype. The second version of it is a much more elegant instrument with a really good sound body. Just everything about it is improved. We got together with Steve after we’d finished it and discussed whether we should replace the prototype with this much more refined instrument, but we all said no.
We had no question about it. We realized that Schick Machine is about the process of experimentation and about discovery. It’s not about refinement. It’s about demonstrating to an audience what we really do in the workshop. As Steve says in his little program note, it’s about the id of a percussionist. They have all this stuff in their studio. They have all this junk. They’re constantly trying to find what sound can be eked out of this combination of a Coke bottle, a spoon, and a feather. In the hands of someone like Steve, magic happens. He can get it out of the simplest little bell, and he can get it out of a complex machine like a pipe organ. And that’s what we wanted. It wasn’t about perfection. It was always about the process of experimentation. A different performer would discover different things out of those resources on the stage, and so it would inevitably have to become a different piece. We’ve not actually approached that idea. The piece still tours and I want it to always be with Steve because he’s such an astonishing performer. But it’s an interesting question to think about what another person would do, like what if we let Joel loose on the stage here? It would become a very different piece because he’s got a completely different musical personality. So he would find different sounds than Steve has found, or that I ever found out of it. FJO: You said that you were initially going to include the hurdy grande in the concerto you wrote for the Berkeley Symphony but abandoned it. So what kinds of pieces, if any, have you done with the new version of it that you built? PD: Well, Joel and I perform on it. We’ve been doing some duo performances recently where we do two works on quadrachord—Glimpsed from Afar and In the Name(less), which is on the Cage Machine CD—then we do this work called Moving Parts on the hurdy grande. That’s still very much in evolution right now. We’ve only had that instrument for about two years, so we’re still discovering many things about it. It’s actually quite an astonishing set of sounds that I never really heard before. FJO: But will that music eventually become a fixed-form thing that theoretically other people could do? PD: I guess. Again, it’s going to be one of those highly personal things like the quadrachord is. The quadrachord could be made by other people, and it wouldn’t be that hard to actually make another quadrachord. The quadrachord is an amazingly simple instrument. It’s just a giant slab, basically. It’s like a giant electric bass. There are a few things you have to do carefully, but not much. But the hurdy grande is a much more mechanically challenging bit of construction requiring much higher level shop skills to get it to work. It’s a much more sophisticated and difficult machine to build, so I think to duplicate it would be much harder. FJO: In terms of other performers replicating some of your more idiosyncratic music, I wonder about your early guitar-triggered works like Dark Blue Circumstance or Liquid and Stellar Music. How much of it was actually notated, and could you ever imagine anyone else performing those pieces?
Another view of Paul Dresher performing solo in the early 1980s showing his extensive foot pedals. Photo by Debra Heimerdinger, courtesy of Paul Dresher.
PD:Dark Blue could be easily done. In fact, I just remounted it. I was the composer-in-residence at the Bowling Green New Music Festival, and the gentleman who runs it, Kurt Doles, said, “Is there any way you could do Dark Blue Circumstance?” I hadn’t done the piece for 15 years, and it was not in my technology. But I thought about it and in my spare time while finishing this other composition that we’re premiering in December, when I wanted a break, I started to work on Dark Blue and it actually came together very easily. I realized that it could easily be done by somebody else at this point. Liquid and Stellar is a little bit more complicated, but Dark Blue would be totally doable. I could probably notate it in an hour and a half and make it possible for anyone to do it. FJO: But, for now, neither of these pieces are notated? PD: No. It totally worked just in the process of playing into my tape loop system and listening and thinking about the next layer that was needed, just operating very intuitively. What would go with this? How would I make a transition from here to there? But even when I’m doing it intuitively, I’m doing analysis as I go along, that kind of composition is always a back and forth between an intuitive approach and then analyzing what I’ve decided is worth doing. Why is that interesting? What are the salient things there? What does that suggest about what you might do next? FJO: You played both of those pieces for a number of years, and according to your notes for the recordings, they were eventually in a final fixed form about five years after they were initially composed. But in a way it isn’t a final fixed form because if Dark Blue could be done again, I imagine it would be somewhat different. PD: I think you won’t have any trouble recognizing it as the same piece. I just did it twice, at the Detroit Institute of Art and at Bowling Green, and I think it was very much the same piece. It’s true that a couple of transitions I made differently just because I could do it differently on this technology, which I couldn’t have done before. I did things in certain ways that I couldn’t do on the old original technology so I let them go that direction, but it’s very much the same piece. FJO: It’s ironic that when you write for really old technology, like your new cello and piano duet, you don’t have to worry about it becoming obsolete in ten years, but if you write for any piece of electronic equipment, more than likely by next year something will no longer work or no longer be available. PD: Well, first off, while I’ve always been in a dialogue with technology in my work, it’s almost never about the technology. In my work which uses technology—not all the time, but many of my works do and obviously the big theater works are often very much made possible through technology—the technology is just another tool; it’s just the means by which I can develop a particular idea. It’s not the same as, say, my friends at Mills College who are experimenters and who are pushing the boundaries of technology—they’re interested in putting that actual process in the foreground; they don’t have another musical goal. The actual pushing of the boundary of experimentation is what they want their work to be about. And for me, I might run ten experiments and say nine of them are not interesting because my goal is to do something else with the music, to use the technology to do something that I haven’t heard before but not to put the technology into the foreground; it’s to put that new thing into the foreground that I haven’t heard before. FJO: In a way, you approach technology the same way you approach minimalism. PD: Yeah. It’s part of a tool box, but you still have to have something else to say. The technical procedures and the processes of classic minimalism weren’t wonderful in and of themselves, it was because in the hands of someone like Terry Riley or Steve Reich they made something transcendent out of it. Yes, you could break it apart and say Steve took this motif and then fleshed it out into a giant two-hour-long piece, but that’s not what made it powerful. He brought so much more to those procedures that made it have the impact that it has, same with Terry. FJO: I guess one could argue that all the great pieces of minimalism are in some ways post-minimalist. PD: Well, would you say In C is post-minimalist? I’d say In C is the perfect minimalist piece. The form is so astonishingly simple and so flexible. Every manifestation of it is unique, yet every manifestation is clearly In C. And it’s something magical about that piece, that the simplicity of it yields such rich results. I think that’s the idea of classic minimalism: a simple procedure yielding magnificent flexibility. It’s like evolution or the way DNA works. You take the DNA of a creature and you look at the incredible diversity of forms that come out of a simple recombination. A recombination of simple elements, if done right, can yield astonishing, almost infinite results. I think that’s what minimalism was capable of and that certain works did that. But I think the pieces that adhere to just procedure as their primary motivation rarely have that kind of impact. You can say, well, the procedure is there, and it’s evident, and it’s elegant, maybe, but it doesn’t make anything greater than itself. FJO: And ditto for technology. PD: Exactly the same. Yeah. FJO: But with pieces using technology, there’s this added layer of needing to adapt older works and of finding new technologies in order to make them work if you want to keep playing them or have other people play them. It has now been 20 years since you established the Electro-Acoustic Band. But that ensemble very quickly became about a lot more than just your music, which brings in all sorts of other questions about notation and other composers’ comfort levels with the various and ever-evolving technologies used in that ensemble.
The Paul Dresher Electro-Acoustic Band (pictured left to right): Joel Davel, Karen Bentley, John Schott, Paul Dresher, Jeff Anderle, Gene Reffkin, and Marja Mutru. (Photo courtesy Paul Dresher.)
PD: The conception of the Electro-Acoustic band was always that it would do other people’s music. It was never to be just my music. That came out of a couple of things. My professional life was really launched by the success of those early pieces with Rinde and George Coates, investigating things that had never been done with the combination of theater, music, and projection technology. Then I did a series of music theater works up through about 1992 when Rinde and I did a piece called Awed Behavior, which was not a successful work in my estimation. Some of the music was great and other elements of it were great, but it was not a successful dramatic work. Anyway, at that point I felt like I had spent a little over ten years principally doing work and developing a musical language that was very effective to solve and expand on ideas in the realm of theater and collaboration. But I actually felt that my music as a concert music was stagnating. I had not had the opportunity to ask purely musical questions. So I wanted to return to that and just focus on my own performance and selecting musicians to perform contemporary concert music, but to use things that I learned from music theater—using lighting, very good sound, and also using electronics. And I wanted to make this available to other composers, too.
Back in the ‘70s, I was always in new music ensembles and we played other people’s work. I was in the East Bay New Music Ensemble and I think we may have even done the first performance of American Standard by John Adams in 1975. My Guitar Quartet also premiered on this concert. That’s where John and I met. John came to the concert—he was teaching at the conservatory at the time—and he became a fan of my work and I became a fan of his work. So I had a long history of playing other people’s music. I really like being inside another composer’s new work, the experience of getting to know how another composer is thinking about making new music. So when I formed the Electro-Acoustic Band, the idea was I wanted to play other people’s music, I wanted to give a resource to other composer’s that was similar to what I felt I needed—a band of musicians who could credibly play idioms that were not just in a classical style, who could play rock and roll, who understood other kinds of musical idioms, people who had studied African music or Bulgarian music, or who had played music in black gospel churches—like the great pianist Phil Aaberg, who was the original pianist in that band. And it also involved electronics. The idea of that band was that it would play my music, but would also commission and perform works by other composers who needed either electro-acoustic means or performers who could improvise, if that was what the composer wanted. That was really the goal. We’ve continued now for 20 years and at most a third of the music is mine usually; it’s often less than that nowadays. FJO: Sometimes you’ll do a whole evening devoted to someone else’s music. PD: Yeah. It’s been a wonderful 20 years, but it’s been a tough 20 years. Partly because the band is big, and partly because not all composers really understand what the band does well, so we sometimes get pieces that really are not a good match. But we always play them and our goal is to rehearse so that there’s no way that the composer won’t know they heard their piece. Often with contemporary music you get a first performance, and you don’t really know if you’ve heard your piece because it’s played badly or it’s not understood by the musicians. And so my goal was to have it be a little bit like a rock and roll band. When they go on stage, they’ve been down in the basement and in the garage, they’ve played those songs over and over and over, and they usually know how to put that song across. I wanted to perform new music with that same level of confidence, with that same level of commitment to being sure that the music was being played right. FJO: So what are some of the compositional details of a right fit or a wrong fit? PD: Because we have electric guitar in the band and drum set, some people think that they need to write a rock and roll kind of piece. And not very many composers can really authentically tap into the essence of what’s powerful in rock and roll. But oftentimes, because they see these instruments in the instrumentation of the band, they think that’s what they should do. But if they don’t really have the musical understanding of what rock and roll can and can’t do, that’s going to come across as a simulacra of what rock and roll is. So we’ve gotten pieces that don’t really work, because they’re referring to things that they don’t really understand. It would be like if I tried to write Bollywood music. I might be even somewhat equipped because I’ve studied Indian classical music, but there are aesthetics involved there that will elude me. So I might effectively steal the surface of the music, but nothing below that. FJO: In terms of how it appears on the page, is it about having a more open score or a more precise score? PD: I don’t think it makes a difference. What’s in the composer’s mind makes a difference—what they think is going to work, understanding the implications of the materials that they’ve chosen to work with. If you choose to work with materials that you’re never going to understand because you don’t really have an affinity for rock and roll, or whatever the idiom is, you’re unlikely to make a meaningful statement. There probably are exceptions to that. I’m not sure Stravinsky understood jazz, and I think he probably misinterpreted jazz in lots of ways, but he made fascinating music as a result. That may just be the result of the fact that he was so brilliant and so musical that anything he touched was going to become interesting, but there aren’t that many Stravinskys out there. So I think sometimes we get pieces that a composer undertakes to address certain idioms or materials that they don’t necessarily have enough depth with. FJO: I’d still like to get a better sense of how this plays out in terms of how pieces are notated for the Electro-Acoustic Band, especially after hearing about how the details in everything from your solo guitar-triggered electronics pieces to Slow Fire were pretty much fixed but not in a way that would be readily replicated by people who had not worked closely with you. Take for instance your own Din of Iniquity, the first piece you wrote for the Electro-Acoustic Band. How much of that is precise? How much of that is worked out in performance? PD: It’s pretty much all notated, except at the very end I take a guitar solo that I improvise and I do it differently every time. But everything other than that, until we get to the last minute and a half of the piece, is completely notated and is done precisely the same way.
Now another complexity with any electro-acoustic piece is that the electronic element, as you were mentioning earlier, is a moving target because technology’s constantly evolving. What you used to make a sound 20 years ago may not be available any more and you may not be able to make it any other way. Sometimes a particular sound is an idiomatic result of the programming of a particular piece of hardware, or nowadays software that makes a certain sound. If that’s a sound that your piece depends on, often times the piece has a very hard time having a life beyond the existence of that hardware or software. FJO: But aside from these issues about equipment, how much is notated in scores for this ensemble?
When other composers write for the ensemble, how specific do they get, or should they get? What’s the ideal? PD: It varies. When we worked with Eve Beglarian, whom we commissioned a piece from, she has such technical expertise that she knew exactly how to deal with every element of our band. And even I shared a lot of technology. We had some of the same gear in our racks, so she was able to just give me patches that dropped right into some of our devices and sample sets that were easily translatable to our technology. We just did a big project with Sebastian Currier. Sebastian came out and we spent several days just going through sounds. He would describe what he wanted, and I would get out the keyboard and say, “Is it this that you want?” And he’d say, “I need a little bit more this.” Sebastian’s very knowledgeable about electronics, so he would say, “We need to put a filter on that and we need the filter cut off to be around 2.5k,” or something like that. He didn’t give us a library of sounds to start with. We got together and we worked on the sounds. Though he gave us whole libraries of sounds for the percussion; they had very specific sounds that they were triggering from sample files that Sebastian himself had created. And he created a very multi-layered, very complex work that pushed our resources in some fascinating ways. My percussionist Joel Davel is probably the most adept person in the band with implementing complicated electronic media. We worked together for weeks and then in dialogue with Sebastian on how to get all of Sebastian’s needs met in performance reliably so there wouldn’t be glitches. FJO: But what happens to the piece five years from now? PD: I think Sebastian’s piece actually could be done pretty easily. Nowadays sample technology has broad currency. The operas that John Adams wrote in the 1980s used various Yamaha FM synthesis machines. Those machines became obsolete, and they went through a process. I know this because John’s a friend, and also his engineer Mark Grey is a good friend. Anyway, they went through and sampled every note in every one of the timbres, and sometimes there were hundreds of timbres that John used in those pieces. It was an incredibly laborious process that Mark went through to sample and then write programs so that now, on a computer or on a laptop, whatever, you can get those same sounds. That’s an incredibly labor-intensive and expensive process, because you have to have real professional expertise. But now those sample sets exist, and I think they can be transferred and moved downstream in time and are not likely to become obsolete because they’re recordings. It’s different than using software to make a sound that is constantly modulating and changing. Those kinds of things are very hard to duplicate on a different device or a different piece of software. When you have an actual recording of it, and it’s a fixed thing for a certain period of time, it’s transferrable. Where it’s about this transformation over time, or where there are random things involved, it’s very hard to give it a life past the actual hardware or software that created that sound. FJO: From an aesthetic standpoint, adapting electronic pieces using older technologies in order to make them playable now is not much different from transcribing a piece for one instrumentation to another in order to be able to perform it with the musicians you’re playing with. This was a very common practice in the Baroque period, but has become somewhat anathema in the post-Romantic and Modern eras. As a practical musician, you’ve adapted Channels Passing—which was originally scored for violin, cello, and five winds—for violin, clarinet, two electronic percussionists, and two electronic keyboards so that it could be performed by the Electro-Acoustic Band. And in the concert last night, the percussion part for Double Ikat was performed on a mallet-triggered sampler, the marimba lumina. PD: Well, I think some pieces do exist only in the instrumentation that they were conceived for. And I would actually put Double Ikat in that category. Although I admit that doing it with a marimba lumina—where he’s playing samples of those acoustic instruments that are what its real orchestration is—is a kind of transformation. But to me that’s a practical solution for what we need to do to take a piece that we love on tour, not to have to deal with trying to bring in a large percussion array of marimba, vibraphone, glockenspiel, two gongs, Chinese tom toms, and cymbals. We would get such widely varying quality and we would be spending all our time just trying to solve the problems of the percussion set up instead of the more interesting musical issues of expression. It was a very convenient and practical solution. I also believe in this technology. I believe that this is a viable thing to do. I know some people really disagree with me here, but I really believe that it’s not wrong to use a digital sample of an acoustic instrument. I think that some things can’t be digitally sampled, like a violin. You could never do that violin part on a keyboard playing a violin sample. It’s never going to happen. It’s going to always sound robotic, or awful. Maybe that would be an interesting thing to hear, but that’s not my musical goal, whereas with the percussion it is very possible to make really good quality samples and then to use the sound system in a way to make it sound plausible. You’re not pretending this is something else. And, as you said, it’s clearly still that piece. FJO: But what about Channels Passing? I haven’t heard the Electro-Acoustic Band version of it and a lot of what I love about that piece is the way those seven instruments act together in the original version. It’s only a small group, yet it sounds like a full orchestra at times. So for me that piece is very much about how you combined those particular timbres.
PD: When we do Channels Passing, some of those instruments we can cheat with, you know with samples, but I would never do the violin. Partly because the writing for it is in some ways classically minimalist, I’m willing to do that with a clarinet or a flute. A different kind of line on clarinet or flute might be totally impossible to do with electronic simulacra. But in that piece, it was possible to do the trombone and flute without serious compromise. The cello is more problematic, but again it varies. In another musical context, I would say that’s not possible. You know, my string quartet, Casa Vecchia, could be done by a string orchestra, but it could never be done by synthesizers. FJO: Well it’s interesting that you bring up Casa Vecchia, because although you composed it for string quartet, the only commercial recording ever released of it is a version for string nonet. PD: Yuki Morimoto, the conductor who led that group, Ensemble Nine, fell in love with the piece and he sent me a [demo] recording they made of it. I loved it and gave it to Tom Steenland from Starkland, and he was happy to have that be on his label. So I went to Vienna, and we recorded it there. But I would love to get an actual quartet version of it out there, and I think it would be played probably better now than it was played originally because I think we understand what the material does better now than we might have in 1982 when I wrote it.
Dan Becker Fade (Innova 855) Performed by:
The Common Sense Ensemble
The New Millennium Ensemble
The title of Dan Becker’s album Fade is named after one of its tracks, yet it doesn’t begin to disclose the manic sense of drive present in much of the music. This selection of chamber works composed between 1993 and 2008 suggests that Becker has an “on/off” switch resulting in either intensely energetic music or in work of concentrated repose. There isn’t a lot in-between, but clearly such extremes suit the composer, who according to the liner notes, is consumed by the idea of processes—both musical and otherwise—unfolding around him at all times.
Farthest to the “on” side of the spectrum are his Five ReInventions, which redress the two-part inventions by J. S. Bach in post-minimalist garb and set them for Disklavier á la Conlon Nancarrow at can’t-be-performed-by-normal-humans speeds. Other works that will make you consider skipping your morning coffee are the adrenaline-infused Gridlock, given a focused, enthusiastic performance by the Common Sense Ensemble, the second movement of Keeping Time, performed by The New Millennium Ensemble, and the final work, A Dream of Waking, for NME members Sunghae Anna Lim on violin, and Margaret Kampmeier on piano.
The title track, Fade, falls to the other edge of Becker’s compositional style; it is gentle, delicate music that walks on eggshells, ideal for laying in a hammock on a warm summer day. Similarly, the first movement of Keeping Time is a slowly measured dance through sparkling layers of vibraphone, piano, bass clarinet and strings. The excellent production by Judith Sherman makes all of the evocative works on the album glow, and delivers a satisfying punch in just the right places.
I love repetition. I also hate repetition. I think I’ve always felt this way–at least, I can’t remember a time when things were different. But it’s also true that my musical education and experiences have intensified and complicated this love/hate sentiment. And in the post-(post?)-minimalist new music landscape, repetition is undeniably an important and divisive issue for everyone.
One of the reasons I love/hate repetition is this very divisiveness, the fact that everyone has different preferences and tolerances regarding repetition. Some people can’t stand more than a tiny amount of it, while others can’t get enough of it. In my anecdotal experience, this divide doesn’t seem to be split along the lines of musical education as you might expect. Sometimes tolerances for repetition seem incongruous across genre lines–someone might despise Daft Punk’s “Around the World” and dig Louis Andriessen’s Hoketus (or vice versa) even though the use of repetition is functionally similar. This holds true even in cases where the repetition is the stated reason for the reaction. This exposes a huge fault line in the discussion of “accessibility” in new music. How can universal accessibility possibly be defined when people are so divided on such a fundamental aspect of music, for seemingly purely aesthetic or even arbitrary reasons?
It is common for composers of a certain vintage–Frederic Rzewski, for example–to rail against repetition (while allowing for its usefulness in certain prescribed scenarios). A professor once told me he was deeply concerned about how technology made musical repetition too easy to execute, with the advent of looping, copying, and pasting. I definitely absorbed some of this attitude during my composition studies, and developed an allergic reaction to repetition in my own music that was directly at odds with many of my instincts. The principle of continuous variation, in which nothing directly repeats, seems in many ways “safer” for a student composer who must demonstrate prowess and progress. Unfortunately this means a lot of music gets written out of fear, which can be productive in small doses but quickly becomes poisonous in larger ones.
As I’ve gotten older I’ve become more and more comfortable with repetition as a composer, and I’ve begun to feel that the basic emotion behind repetition is joy. It’s saying, “I like what’s happening now; let’s do that again.” Naturally I find it preferable to write from a place of joy than a place of fear. But repetition can take on a host of other meanings too. It can be extraordinarily difficult to grapple with, as anyone who has performed a lengthy minimalist piece can attest to.
Repetitive music often gets maligned as background noise, encouraging passive listening, but it can also encourage the listener to actually confront the musical materials they’re faced with. In this scenario the simplest figures can contain a world of ideas in the mind of the listener. I can think of no better example of active listening.
It might seem surprising—given all of Caleb Burhans’s accomplishments within multiple musical scenes as well as his notoriety—that it would take so long for a disc devoted exclusively to the musical compositions to be released. Yet when we spoke with him in late July, it was on the very day that Evensong, the first CD to have his name on the spine, was released on Cantaloupe Records. It was also just a few days after his daughter Fiona was born: “It’s rather insane; they’re obviously the two hugest things in my life thus far.” That’s saying a lot for someone who has appeared on stages ranging from Carnegie Hall to Madison Square Garden, has had works performed at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall as well as the Darmstadt International Music Institute, and was the subject of a New York Times profile nearly five years ago.
But after our conversation, it became clear that Burhans does not particularly seek the limelight, preferring to be—as he put it—“a cog in the machine” rather than “standing out front.” This attitude informs his approach to being a performer (he’d “rather play second violin or viola than first fiddle for the most part”) as well as how he creates material for most of his more popular music-oriented endeavors, such as itsnotyouitsme, his ambient indie rock duo with guitarist Grey Mcmurray, which has released three albums thus far. But the rarified world of notation-based music is inherently a non-collaborative process and its denizens expect compositions to come from a singular auteur. Yet while others might feel that writing a fixed score for other musicians to play is a very different process from creating music with others either in real time or in a recording studio, Burhans doesn’t draw distinctions between these modalities and is able to make music effortlessly in each of them. At the same time, however, the lessons he learned from his immersion into so many different kinds of musical experiences have also made him extremely meticulous about the material he puts out into the world, whatever the genre. So for him Evensong had to be far more than merely a collection of music works he composed over the past decade; it had to cohere and flow from track to track as an album.
While being open to such a broad range of stylistic aesthetics, both as a co-creator and as an interpreter could have yielded a compositional voice that is all over the map, Burhans’s approach to the music he commits to the page is remarkably singular and almost austere in its sonic purity:
“I made a conscious decision when I was in my early 20s to write the music I write now. … Because I have so many different outlets for playing different styles of music, I decided that at the end of the day I want to go home and write music that I want to listen to and create on my own. Because I do get to play some really thorny contemporary music and free jazz, when I go to write I want it to be very pristine and very simple.”
Simple, however, is something of a misnomer. Admittedly—compared with a great deal of contemporary music—a typical Burhans score looks relatively straight-forward on the page and a performance of it sounds relatively simple, but appearances can be deceptive. While pieces like his 2005 Iceman Stole The Sun or oh ye of little faith (2008), both scored for chamber orchestra, are largely created from cycles of repeated phrases, the musicians often stress different beats from one another and the various phrases frequently begin in different parts of the measure resulting in an ambiguous sense of downbeat. (See score sample below.) While in his Magnificat and Nunc Dittimus, both for treble voices and organ (2004), the voices mostly move in parallel motion with one another (in Nunc Dittimus they’re actually mostly in unison!), they often go against the rhythmic flow of what is being played on the organ. And then there are the glissandos that permeate all of Burhans’s music and give it a heightened sense of instability. When musicians pull it off it comes across as otherworldly, but doing so requires a high level of concentration as well as musicianship—an attention to subtle details, particularly pitch and rhythmic clarity:
“I’m very, very specific about everything. One of my pet peeves is that people think of glissandi as portamentos and so they do them at the last second; a glissando should last the entire duration of a pitch it’s coming from. I used to write much more dense microtonal music, but I got fed up with having to play pitches for people and say, ‘This is a sixth tone.’ I found that very inaccurate; it would never be the same across the board from player to player. But I found that if I say glissando from this note to this note within this duration, that’s the only way you can actually control that. … I’m very rigorous about keeping things precise…
“It can kind of put me in a bad position with some new music ensembles. When they have a million pieces to learn, they’ll see my piece and think, ‘Oh, It’s in D major and in 6/8—all right, fine; we’ll play through it once.’ Then they get to the concert and totally mess it up, either play it out of tune or forget a repeat. I get that; I’ve been there before. It looks simple, but it takes a different type of focus.”
One of the things that has helped Burhans get what he wants from performers who play his music is that he is so active as a performer himself, so there’s a lot of mutual empathy. As he acknowledges, “Being on the same page with someone else can really open things up not just in terms of execution but also in terms of interpretation.”
But it goes much deeper than that. Three of the seven tracks on Evensong feature Alarm Will Sound, a group he helped found and which he remains very much a part of. Another three feature the Trinity Wall Street Choir, a group he sang with when he first moved to New York City and in which his wife—soprano Martha Cluver—still sings. In fact, the only group featured on the present CD with which Burhans does not have an almost familial relationship is the Tarab Cello Ensemble, who commissioned his lush The Things Left Unsaid which they perform on the disc. But, of course, as an active violinist and violist (plus he also played cello as a teen), Burhans is completely in his element working with string players.
The week we spoke with him was definitely an auspicious one, but the best is undoubtedly yet to come. Aside from a series of eight caprices for electric guitar he created espressly for Mcmurray more than a decade ago that clock in at approximately 90 minutes in total, Burhans’s compositions have tended to be smaller scale. Most of his pieces hover between 5 and 15 minutes. But given his love for the Anglican choral music tradition and his adeptness at writing for voices, a large scale work for chorus seems inevitable at some point in the not-too-distant future. He also expressed interest in writing a full length concerto for itsnotyouitsme and orchestra, an activity that would bring some of the disparate parts of his musical universe even closer together. It will certainly be worth the wait.
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.
While it’s difficult to deny that the instant gratification of being able to listen to something as soon as you learn about it can be very satisfying, it also comes with a downside. It’s a little bit too easy, somehow, and therefore feels inconsequential, threatening to make the music seem more disposable, at least to me. That’s one of the main reasons why I still prefer to listen to music on physical recordings, although I’m probably in the minority about this issue among people who spend a great deal of time online—hence most of the folks reading this. That said, every now and again something that I’ve only been able to sonically experience via digital dissemination captures my full attention. Such is the case with Numbers and Shapes, the 14-track debut album from Rebecca Brandt, a Brooklyn-based composer who is classically trained as a pianist and has also done scores for film and TV.
Though the album also exists as a limited-edition CD, it is primarily available via download and can also be streamed in its entirety on Bandcamp. Bandcamp is not a site I’ve spent much time surfing around as of yet, though that may change after listening through every track on Brandt’s Bandcamp page. It initially came to my attention via an email in which she described each of the tracks as being in “its own little world.” Her name was unfamiliar to me so I felt intrigued enough to visit her website whose navigation has a clever Java script that plays a different chord for every area. So I decided to check out her recording via the email’s Bandcamp link. I know that going through the mishigas of surfing around instead of just following that Bandcamp link in the first place might sound like a counterintuitive approach, but remember I’m the guy who worries about music retrieved too easily being disposable. So I tried to recreate some of the chase and eventual reward I’ve always associated with discovering interesting music.
And the reward is still the music. The opening track on the album, “Staying Silent,” begins in a seemingly New Age vein: soothing piano, wordless vocals. I started to have my doubts. Despite my aim to love all music and fight against personal bias, I still have something of a block when it comes to things like New Age music and smooth jazz. (You can never completely escape the aesthetic prisons that mold you in your formative years.) Thankfully, to sate my aesthetic shortcomings at least, Brandt’s music quickly moves past the New Age sound world as she piles on more and more layers of counterpoint, creating music that instead winds up sounding more akin to one of Phil Spector’s self-described “little symphonies for the kiddies,” albeit without the saccharine lyrics.
“Run” similarly begins in a deceptively simple way, at the onset sounding reminiscent of music that is clearly commercial in its design—literally, it sounds like music that you hear used in commercials (and a realm in which Ms. Brandt has worked). But soon the numerous layers of orchestration gain the upper hand as Glass-ian descending scales propel the music to a place where you are forced to pay attention to it and only it.
But the real surprise comes with the third track, “The Clock Breaks at Three.” Here, the multiple instrumental layers are peeled away and all that is left is piano and percussion. But the fascinating dysfunctional tonality of the piano’s harmonies dispel the need for other timbres. In fact, so disconcerting is the initial juxtaposition of an unrelated harmony in the final two beats of each measure’s six beat rhythmic cycle, I kept thinking the music was in five or seven until I started tapping along with it.
Brandt’s layering returns, however, in “Other Places” which at times calls to mind passages from Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians albeit with a cello riff that is very reminiscent of the ostinato for the opening “Knee Play” of Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach, somehow reconciling two large-scale monuments of 1970s minimalism in only three minutes. “Blackbox,” similarly filled out with multiple orchestration layers as per the earlier tracks on the album, also includes some almost Richard Wright-like synth action of circa 1975 Pink Floyd.
“Jivko” opens with a very recorder-like flute solo, performed by Ashley Bozian-Murtha, hovering over a series of punctuated string trio chords reminiscent of the Beatles’ use of a string quartet in “Eleanor Rigby.” Soon, however, the flute is buried in layers of counterpoint with oboe, English horn, and soprano saxophone, but before it develops further it suddenly ends at barely two minutes in. I could have listened for at least another 20 minutes. The next track, “54,” actually is in quintuple time. It would not be out of place on one of Brian Eno’s ambient recordings, but don’t assume that means that it is consists exclusively of quietly flowing music; some pretty heavy percussive thwacks plus some bass guitar riffs assertively rendered by Benjamin Jacobs intrude on music that starts out deceptively serene.
On the other hand, “Aline’s Song,” in which Brandt’s piano is accompanied only by double bass and Marc Plotkin multitracked on several guitars (acoustic, electric, and bass), might perhaps be too serene for my own aforementioned aesthetic proclivities. Therefore it was my hope that the next track, with its intriguing title “The Twelve Tones,” would take me into somewhat gnarlier terrain. Not quite. The predominantly diatonic and harmonic language herein hardly references the total chromatic, at least to my ears, though in a brief email Q&A exchange with the composer during preparation for writing about her music she actually said it was her “take on the twelve-tone technique created by Arnold Schoenberg, and was written using a twelve tone matrix.” Of course, as composers from Rautavaara to Mikel Rouse have shown, twelve-tone rows can be pretty malleable and so I’m eager to see the matrix she used to generate this piece one day! But whether it’s tonal or dodecaphonic, I thought that the careful layering of the somewhat unusual combination of harp, flute, bassoon, string trio, and double bass was very exhilarating. Notably, this is the first time where there is no keyboard; the composer does not play on this track at all. She returns, however, on “Jewelry Box,” only here she exclusively plays celesta and glockenspiel. I’m a total sucker for both of these instruments, and they work nicely here in an ensemble of string quintet and winds, particularly when the strings are playing pizzicato. At about two minutes in, electric bass and drums enter, morphing the whole compositional edifice she has created into something more overtly pop-oriented. But these concessions to pop music sensibilities are completely eroded in “Phylum” which is scored exclusively for string quartet.
On “Rouge,” Brandt throws a sitar into the mix, performed by the NYC-based Hindustani classical sitarist Indro Roy-Chowdhury, but don’t assume that means that this is an example of Indofusion à la Shakti or George Harrison raga rock. Rather the sitar is just another timbral color for Brandt’s palette of sonorities. In fact, for me the highlight of the track is when everything—guitars and drums, as well as the sitar—drops out and all that remains are Brandt’s sustained Fender Rhodes chords. The most unadorned track in the entire collection, however, is “Kill The Messenger” which is an unaccompanied piano solo performed by Brandt. While the short composition (approximately two minutes) has a Glassworks-era Michael Riesman feel to it, it is somehow less tonally stable. The concluding track, “The Moment” begins as a solo piano waltz with unassuming um-pah-pahs which gradually builds to the largest ensemble assembled for the entire album—the blurb on the Bandcamp page describes it as a 32-piece orchestra but only 15 musicians were listed. It’s still an impressive-enough large ensemble which, through multi-tracking, sounds extremely full. Still, the overall effect sounds more prog-rock than symphonic. It’s mostly an acoustic ensemble, but once you throw in an electric guitar with feedback, that’s the sound that dominates. It also has the last word.
All in all, Numbers & Shapes offers an interesting range of sonic vignettes which navigate between quite a few genres. But the fact that none of these tracks seem beholden to any genre makes them ultimately a new music listening experience, one that I will hopefully encounter again as I wander the web. However, I still hope I can track down one of the copies of the limited-edition CD.
Frank J. Oteri
Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.
Jun 5, 2012
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