Tag: Pulitzer Prize winning composer

Kevin Puts: Keeping Secrets

Banner for Episode 20 of SoundLives showing Kevin Puts during a rehearsal at the Metropolitan Opera

Composer Kevin Puts takes pride in keeping secrets, both by being understated in his interactions with people and by never initially giving away all the goods in his music, preferring, as he explained to me last month when we chatted for a about an hour over Zoom, “to keep something in reserve so that there’s a payoff for the attentive listener.” Nevertheless, during the course of our conversation he revealed some fascinating secrets about many of his compositions including his latest opera The Hours (which received its world premiere on November 22 at the Metropolitan Opera), his first opera Silent Night (for which he received the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in Music), his Symphony No. 3 (which was inspired by Björk), and Contact (his triple concerto for Time for Three which just won the 2023 Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition).

Puts’s opera The Hours received an extraordinary lavish production that most composers can only dream of. It featured a huge cast headlined by three top operatic stars–Renée Fleming, Joyce DiDonato, and Kelli O’Hara–plus a gargantuan chorus which frequently takes center stage. When the production was announced it seemed to come out of nowhere, but it was in the works for five years. It grew directly out of Puts’s previous collaboration with Fleming, Letters From Georgia, a five moment song cycle based on letters that the painter Georgia O’Keeffe wrote to her husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz. After Fleming announced she was no longer focusing on standard operatic repertoire and wanted to devote her energies to singing new roles, Puts casually asked her if she’d be amenable to singing in an opera if he wrote one for her. Within weeks she suggested an opera based on The Hours, a complex narrative that interweaves stories of women in three different time periods which had been a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel as well as a successful Hollywood film. Puts, who had read the book and saw the movie and loved them both, said that he instantly “could imagine the kinds of things that you could do on the operatic stage that are not possible in a book or in a film.” Soon thereafter she mentioned the idea to Peter Gelb who was immediately excited about a work that could star three major box office draws. Curiously, these three women don’t actually sing together until the very end of the opera. Even though the entire opera is building toward that moment, Puts admitted that he didn’t compose that material until very late in the game. As he explained, “What I used to do is I would compose where I’m going before I got there, and actually that’s something I don’t do anymore. … Getting there was something I had to earn as a composer.”

Gelb was amenable to Fleming’s suggestion of commissioning Kevin Puts after listening to a recording of Puts’s first opera Silent Night, a work which also juxtaposing three different story lines involving groups of soldiers from Scotland, France, and Germany who come to a brief truce in 1914 during First World War. Based on the screenplay for the multilingual film Joyeux Noël which in turn was based on real life events, it was an ideal opportunity for Puts to demonstrate his skills in setting words in multiple languages and, since one of the German soldiers is an operatic tenor, it also gave Puts an opportunity to show off his ability to compose music that evokes the lush sound world of late Romantic operas.

The other two operas that Puts has composed thus far are based on The Manchurian Candidate, a fascinating political thriller written in 1959 that has been adapted twice for the screen and seems extremely relevant to our current zeitgeist, and Elizabeth Cree based on a Victorian-themed whodunit by Peter Ackroyd, which also allowed Puts to create music that enhances the impact of surprise through introducing new sonic elements. While Puts’s compositional approach is well suited to the operatic stage, it is also how he constructs his extremely effective concertos and symphonies which for him can also be narrative despite being abstract instrumental works. In fact, his first two symphonies were both cast in a single movement so that they would have the same impact as a motion picture which is a continuous experience from start to finish.

“As has been noted many times, there’s a cinematic quality to my music,” Puts acknowledged. “In fact, I love film, and not just film music, but I love film itself. I think with those single-movement pieces, I thought, ‘I want to make an unbroken narrative arc like a film.’ Why should we have to stop?”

But Puts changed his approach with his Third Symphony, a three movement work that was inspired by hearing Björk’s 2001 album Vespertine although it does not use any of her music and is completely original. He got the idea for the piece while he was a fellow at the American Academy in Rome and an art historian also in residence there was watching a music video of Björk on television.

“I’m not up-to-date on a lot of things that are going on, like pop music,” he admitted. “But this is gorgeous! So beautiful timbrally, gorgeous string textures and choral textures. And I really liked the shapes of her voice, the melodic quality of her singing in relation to the oddness and the transparency and the fragility of her singing, and sometimes power as well in relation to this sonic world around her. So I want to do something with it. I want to react to this in my own way. I was interested in making this kind of swirling sound world circling around the melodic ideas of the piece and to have the melodic ideas just in some sense be an imitation of her vocal style, and that’s really all it is. I wasn’t really interested in using melodies. … More just reacting to the sound world of that album.”

Puts just received the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Classical Composition for Contact, a triple concerto he wrote for Time for Three, a string trio that blurs the lines between classical music, Americana, and pop. “Most of the writing of the concerto for Time for Three was done before we went into isolation,” he recalled. “Then we just continued to work on it. We edited, we revised, we tried things out, we added and subtracted and I reorchestrated quite a bit.”

But despite being composed for a group whose usual fare is rooted in the here and now, Puts took the group on a very different musical journey even though it could not been conceived in any other time but in our own.

As he explained, “You probably know this quote from Rachmaninoff. He said, ‘I tried to embrace the music of my time and I feel like a ghost walking among the living.’ I just feel like I sort of do what I do. The sort of things I do as a musician and a composer are so deeply ingrained. They’re such a huge part of who I am. They’re the things that really excite me, and often, the very, very simple things, as you can hear in the music … It’s just truly what I find most exciting about the music I love, these simple, beautiful moments that probably end up being almost nothing on the page, but what they do to me emotionally is fantastic.”

Not worrying about whether your music fits in with the current moment and being true to who you are is also the advice he gives other composers, both as a composition teacher at the Peabody Institute and as the director of the Minnesota Orchestra Composer Institute.

“I just feel like what’s going on right now in this moment, of course you should be open to whatever’s going on, the zeitgeist, but I would just look at all of music that you’ve heard, that meant something to you from the very beginning, and feel like it’s okay to incorporate all of that and to sort of build a voice from all of it and have that be the part of you that remains inviolate to all these pressures that exist right now in the world, all the transparency that exists through social media, that feels like there’s no private space now. I would make your music your private space and the place you can do the things you believe fervently in and that you’re most emotionally connected to. That’s certainly been my approach to things over the how many years I’ve been doing this.”

Raven Chacon: Fluidity of Sound

Banner for the Raven Chacon episode of SoundLives featuring a photo of Raven writing music on a piece of score paper.

When Raven Chacon was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music in April for his composition Voiceless Mass, quite a lot of attention was given to the fact that he was the first Native American ever to receive this accolade. He is also perhaps the most experimental composer to get the nod, and that is true even considering that previous honorees include Henry Brant and Ornette Coleman. But while his idiosyncratic graphic scores are stunningly original in their conception and have been recognized as works of visual art in their own right (several are in this year’s Whitney Biennial), they have a larger social purpose.

“I think a lot about people who didn’t have the privilege to come up in an academic music setting or western music education,” explained Chacon when we spoke over Zoom earlier this month. “I think about the students I teach on the reservation and their lack of access to classical music, or western music education. Even having an instrument is a privilege for students out there. And so a lot works that I’ve made, especially these graphic scores, they’re done because they want to include more people. They aren’t these kind of esoteric languages that are hidden from everybody and they’re also not open interpretation kind of documents either. They have a language that is shared with people who want to contribute to their meaning, to add to the possibilities.”

The ideas that generate Chacon’s often highly experimental sound results are charged stories with deep implications about ecological concerns or social justice, such as Tremble Staves, an immersive work about the environment created for the San Francisco-based duo The Living Earth Show, or American Ledger No. 2, a visceral aural as well as visual response to this nation’s shameful history of enforced repatriations which received its world premiere in the parking lot of the Oklahoma Eagle in the Greenwood District of Tulsa.

“It’s thinking about this space that is existing in a city where there’s folks who don’t have privileges and resources,” Chacon said of the latter work. “Also talking about the policy of forcing native peoples from other tribes into Oklahoma. Once these minoritized communities become successful, such as the black community of Tulsa in the early 20th century, they were then driven out. Were forced out. And so sonically, I was interested in seeing what this system does. Does it create chaos? Does it create organization? Does it create a steady beat? Does it create voice? What happens inside of this?”

To hear Chacon speak of sonic experimentation this way makes his often intentionally inaccessible-sounding music extremely accessible. His occasionally jarring sonorities are always a means to an end. It isn’t always something that even he himself finds pleasant to listen to as he acknowledged when talking about his wind band composition American Ledger No. 1:

I can’t say that I particularly like the sound of the chopping of wood. I was thinking about this as an instrument and realizing I didn’t think it was a good way to make music. And I had to work with that. I had to think if I’m just making music that should be something that I like to listen to. And even if it’s a sound that nobody likes to hear, I wanted to weigh the meaning of what it could mean. And so in the case of American Ledger 1, the chopping of wood signifies the building of ships. It signifies the building of the colonies that happened in the place after the ships arrived. And it has the potential to talk about then cutting down those buildings–chopping them down with an axe, lighting them on fire. A matchstick is another instrument I use in American Ledger 2 and in Tremble Staves. And I do like the sound of a match being lit. That, on the strike pad, is a beautiful sound.

One of the most extreme examples of this is his early composition Report in which an ensemble of eight people fire shotguns according to a precisely notated musical score. His feelings about that work now and around whether to let future performances of it occur in an era when mass shootings occur somewhere in the United States every week, are understandably extremely complicated.

Because societal awareness is so central to Raven Chacon’s aesthetics as an artist, he has proven to be a natural collaborator, often placing himself in situations where few composers would feel comfortable. For the opera Sweet Land, which was produced by The Industry just before the pandemic lockdown began in 2020, he immersed himself in a total collaboration with another composer, Du Yun, both contributing their own music as well as harmonizing, orchestrating, and further developing ideas of each other. His collaborative sensibilities were on display most recently in the score he composed for Jesse Short Bull and Laura Tomaselli’s documentary film, Lakota Nation vs. United States, which just received its premiere screening at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival.

“I appreciated not being in the foreground for anything,” Chacon said. “I appreciated being able to reach into archives of things that I have that didn’t fit my normal music. You know, like Baroque fugue or something, why couldn’t that end up in the documentary about the Lakota nation, you know? Because we’re contrasting different times of American history. And sometimes the placement of just music you don’t expect is going to add to telling that story of that conflict. What we’re talking about throughout this documentary is conflict, encroachment. … That was how I approached it because again the last thing I wanted to do was bring new age, reverbed wooden flutes to this score. That’s what’s expected. And so the producers and directors had known my music, and that’s what they wanted. They wanted noise. They wanted the things that one does not associate with native people. Because to do so, might place them in the past. And we’re talking about an ongoing disrespect of Lakota treaties and people that something had to bring it at least into now and into what’s going to happen tomorrow.”

Raven Chacon in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded Wednesday, June 8, 2022 at 10:30 A.M. over Zoom
Additional voiceovers by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Raven Chacon Wins 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Music

Raven Chacon and a segment of one of his musical scores.

Raven Chacon has been awarded the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Music for Voiceless Mass. The annually awarded $15,000 prize is for a distinguished musical composition by an American that has had its first performance or recording in the United States during the previous year. The work, which premiered on November 21, 2021 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was commissioned by WI Conference of the United Church of Christ, Plymouth Church UCC, and Present Music and composed specifically for the Nichols & Simpson organ at The Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist in Milwaukee. The Pulitzer citation describes it as a “mesmerizing, original work for organ and ensemble that evokes the weight of history in a church setting, a concentrated and powerful musical expression with a haunting visceral impact.”

“I’m absolutely honored that this work was awarded,” said Chacon (b. 1977), a Diné artist born in Fort Defiance, Navajo Nation, Arizona, and currently based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the first Native American composer ever to receive the prize. Chacon also serves as a member of New Music USA’s Program Council. “Thank you to Present Music of Milwaukee for commissioning Voiceless Mass, and making a live performance and recording possible when the relentless obstacles of the pandemic were preventing collaborations across all communities. The composition was a site-specific commission for Present Music’s annual Thanksgiving concert. As an Indigenous artist, I make a point not to present my work on this holiday, but in this case I made an exception.”

Also nominated as finalists for the 2022 music prize were: Seven Pillars, an 11-movement evening-length work for percussion quartet by Andy Akiho created for Sandbox Percussion which received its premiere at Emerald City Music in Seattle, Washington, and with eyes the color of time, a 32-minute work for string orchestra by Anne Leilehua Lanzilotti, which was commissioned by the String Orchestra of Brooklyn which premiered on August 6, 2021 at the Tenri Cultural Institute in New York, N.Y. (You can watch and read a NewMusicBox conversation with Akiho here and read a series of NewMusicBox articles written by Lanzilotti here.)

The jury for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Music was: Alex Ross (chair), Patrice Rushen, and previous Pulitzer Prize winners John Luther Adams, Du Yun, and Tania León.

The announcement of this year’s Pulitzer Prizes was made online by Pulitzer Administrator Marjorie Miller via a stream posted on the Pulitzer website which can also be streamed on YouTube.

INDEXED: What we’re reading when we read about Lamar’s Pulitzer Win

Ever since Pulitzer Prize Administrator Dana Canedy announced Kendrick Lamar’s win in the music category a bit after 3 p.m. on Monday, news outlets and social media have been alight with hot takes and existential reflections. As the first artist working outside the classical-ish field (with a couple more recent nods to jazz) to snag the prize, the selection of Lamar’s album DAMN. seems to have signaled a lot, both in terms of the parameters of the Pulitzer itself going forward and regarding some larger cultural shifts when it comes to art and gatekeeping.

For those looking for drama, the anxiety and the undercutting were quickly found in the expected Facebook feeds and comments sections. The background on how DAMN. came to be considered among the submitted entries came to light before the day was done.

Nearly 48 hours later, it remains a hot topic in newsrooms across the country, despite being crowded into the chaos that is the daily political news cycle in 2018. We’ve indexed some highlights below.

Kendrick Lamar and the Shell Game of ‘Respect’ (The Atlantic)
The first non-classical, non-jazz winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Music needs the accolade less than the accolade needs him.

With Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Win, The World May Finally Be Catching Up to Rap (Pitchfork)
Rappers usually speak of the Pulitzer facetiously…boys from the hood are never Pulitzer winners. Well, until [Monday].

What Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Means for Hip-Hop (The New Yorker)
Doreen St. Félix considers how Lamar’s historic milestone—becoming the first hip-hop artist to win a Pulitzer Prize for music—figures in the grander, affected consecration of blackness within élite spaces.

What the classical-music world can learn from Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer Prize (The Washington Post)
Alyssa Rosenberg chats with composer, writer, and performer Alex Temple.

This Year’s Other Two Pulitzer Finalists on Losing to Kendrick Lamar (Slate)
Some classical fans are furious that the rapper won. The guys he beat are thrilled.

Kendrick Lamar Shakes Up the Pulitzer Game: Let’s Discuss (The New York Times)
Zachary Woolfe, the classical music editor of The New York Times, and Jon Pareles, the chief pop music critic, discuss the choice.

Personally, while assembling this index I got the biggest boost out of just spinning the album again—in reverse this time. David Lang, can you tell us which version jurors were listening to?

Did we miss a good take? Drop a link below.

Paul Moravec: The Whole Range of Human Emotion

Paul Moravec in Central Park

Shakespeare’s plays, a novel by Stephen King, and personal letters from American soldiers written in wartime have all served as inspiration for compositions by Paul Moravec, and not only as texts for vocal works. Moravec fashioned three of the five movements of his most widely performed piece, the 2004 Pulitzer Prize-winning instrumental quartet Tempest Fantasy, around iconic Shakespearean characters from The Tempest—Ariel, Prospero, and Caliban. And even when there is no discernible literary reference, as in such generically titled pieces as his recent Violin Concerto (which was recently released on CD by Naxos), Moravec claims there is always “a kind of musical narrative” at work even if it does not have a precise verbal meaning.

“I can’t describe to you a coffee cup in musical terms,” Moravec acknowledges when we visit his Upper West Side Manhattan home. “I can draw you a picture of a coffee cup and you can say, ‘Well, that’s a coffee cup.’ But I can’t do that musically. What I can do is to capture and project emotion: joy, sadness, the whole range of human emotion. Whether or not you as an individual listener receives it in that way or understands what I’m saying, that’s a whole other matter, but that’s what I’m trying to do as a composer. All of these pieces have emotional narratives of one kind or another, whether it’s an abstract piece or programmatic piece.”

Given Moravec’s aesthetic proclivities, it is natural that he has been drawn to opera, but what’s perhaps somewhat surprising, given his attachment to Shakespeare, is that his latest opera—which will receive its world premiere in Minneapolis later this month—is based on The Shining by Stephen King.

“This was not my idea,” he confesses. “This idea came from Minnesota Opera. They said, ‘How’d you like to make an opera out of the novel The Shining?’ And I said, ‘Wow, what an idea!’… The Stephen King book is actually very operatic….It’s also about the three things that, in my view, drive opera: love, death, and power. It has all three of those elements on steroids. For all of the drama, the action, the horror, the ghosts, the Overlook [Hotel], and all these wonderful aspects of the novel, it’s really a very moving story about a family trying to stay together under extraordinary circumstances.”

Stephen King’s supernatural psychological thriller gave Moravec an opportunity to explore a broad sonic palette which includes passages of musique concrète. Although he has often been categorized as a neo-romantic composer, Moravec’s early Devices and Desires is a Synclavier-realized collage of samples of cars starting, a telephone ringing, and clocks ticking. An even more elaborate exploration of sampled clocks serves as an otherworldly counterpoint to the instrumental music he fashioned for Eighth Blackbird in his composition The Time Gallery.

to Moravec such experimentation is never an end unto itself

“I’m fascinated by the technology of sampled sound and the fact that anything that can be recorded can become the stuff of musical composition,” he beams. “I can remember being up at the Columbia University Electronic Music Lab splicing tape; it’s like The Flintstones when you think about it. Now we’re in the age of The Jetsons, where anybody sitting at their own Mac or sitting on the train or wherever can fashion these remarkable musique concrète creations digitally.”

But to Moravec such experimentation is never an end unto itself. In fact, no music should be.

“I don’t think that music is really about music,” he posits. “I think that music is about something else….We as creators, as composers and musicians, spend our whole lives trying to get the right sounds. It’s very, very difficult and we fine tune the sounds till we get just exactly what we want and so on. But that’s not really what music is about. What music is really about is love and sorrow and the whole range of human emotion—making audible the whole range of human existence and human life. I’m interested in sound only to a certain extent, to the extent that it gets me to where I want to be in terms of my musical storytelling, my musical narrative. That’s the importance of sound to me.”

A conversation in Moravec’s apartment in New York City
April 13, 2016—3:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri: A lot of your pieces have some kind of literary inspiration and even the ones that don’t are often extremely narrative in some way. So much so that listening to your music often feels like a form of reading, a deep immersion into a storyline.

Paul Moravec: I’ve written about 150 pieces and some of them are programmatic or they refer to literary texts. A lot of them are not programmatic at all—sonata number one, wind symphony whatever. But all of them, I think, have musical narratives. That’s what they all have in common. I very often think in terms of neural-cognitive narratives that exist in the central nervous system. So whether or not there are literary associations—for example, many of my pieces involve Shakespeare and Shakespearean themes—there is a kind of musical narrative that I’m very concerned with.

FJO: So when you read, does it inspires you to write music?

PM: Sometimes it does, as in the case with Shakespeare. I wrote a piece called Tempest Fantasy which is inspired very directly by my favorite play, which is Shakespeare’s The Tempest. I saw a production in the late ‘90s at the Public Theater with Patrick Stewart, which was fantastic, and that very definitely inspired me to write that piece, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004. That piece has been very good to me. Shakespeare has been my silent partner, so to speak, on a number of projects.

FJO: Including a pretty recent choral piece that just came out on CD.

PM: Right. A piece called Amorisms, which was a ballet commission. And what I did was take single quotations about love from Shakespeare’s plays and set them each in a separate movement. There are five movements. One of the things I discovered about ballet is that if you have too much text going on in the composition, and if it’s an intricate or complicated text, it actually interferes with the ballet. The audience will be thinking, “Wait a minute. What’s that interesting line?” They’re following the text. So I decided to keep the texts to a single line repeated over and over again. Once they got the idea, they could concentrate on the dancers.

FJO: And the literary inspiration for your new opera premiering in May in Minnesota is also literary, although it’s quite different from Shakespeare—Stephen King’s The Shining.

PM: This was not my idea. This idea came from Minnesota Opera. They said, “How’d you like to make an opera out of the novel The Shining?” And I said, “Wow, what an idea!” This would never have occurred to me, actually.

FJO: Had you read the book?

PM: I knew about the book, but I didn’t actually read it until they mentioned it to me. But I knew it was different from the famous Kubrick [film] adaptation, so I knew that it was going to be different from the get go. The Stephen King book is actually very operatic. There’s a lot of warmth in it; the principal character, Jack Torrance, is in some ways very sympathetic. It’s the kind of story that draws the reader in because the reader identifies with him and thinks, “There but for the grace of God go I. This could have happened to me.” That is very operatic. It’s also about the three things that, in my view, drive opera: love, death, and power. It has all three of those elements on steroids. For all of the drama, the action, the horror, the ghosts, the Overlook [Hotel], and all these wonderful aspects of the novel, it’s really a very moving story about a family trying to stay together under extraordinary circumstances. And that is super operatic. That’s what attracted the librettist Mark Campbell and I to this story, and this is what we’re going to put on stage.

FJO: I think that it’s possible to interpret the book, as well as the movie, in a number of different ways. The paranormal, supernatural, and horror elements of it could all be explained away as psychosis. The opera seems to lean more toward a psychological interpretation rather than a supernatural one.

PM: Well, there are two ways of viewing the supernatural. One is that the supernatural is real; that these ghosts actually exist. And the other is that all of these ghosts and supernatural happenings and “shining” itself are really just projections of Jack Torrance’s imagination. So what we did was to get into the imagination of the protagonist. He tells the story, or rather his central nervous system tells the story to the audience. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, it doesn’t matter. What we’re doing is to tell the story through this character. And yes, it could all be taking place in his imagination.

FJO: In a way, because of that, I get the sense from just perusing the vocal score of the opera that it’s not a horror opera so much as it’s a tragedy.

PM: I think that what attracts me more to this story is the emotional resonance of the piece; that it is about love. It is about genuine emotion. It’s a dynamite story. Stephen King is a great storyteller.

FJO: But the tricky thing about setting a story that is so famous, and probably even more famous because of the film, is how deeply it has seeped into our mass consciousness. It’s part of our popular culture.

PM: One could describe it as an iconic film that Kubrick adapted from the book. But I think the book is an icon, too, in and of itself.

FJO: Yes, but because of that, people might walk in with certain expectations about it that they wouldn’t necessarily have when they hear, say, your Violin Concerto. As a creator wanting people to experience your own original piece, how do you deal with this legacy—the reception history of the novel and the film? The people who might compare the singer singing Jack Torrance to Jack Nicholson?

PM: I don’t know what to say to that. We’ve been very clear from the get go, and we’ve made a point about it, that we’re adapting the novel. By the way, you know that there are at least two film versions of The Shining. There’s the Kubrick adaptation, which came out in 1980. Then there was the version that Stephen King himself was involved in in the late ‘90s; it was an ABC mini-series. I think it’s about six-hours long. It goes into much more detail, and it’s a lot closer to the book. Now we’re doing our own adaptation in the operatic genre, which is a completely different genre. So each of these iterations of the story, partly because of the differences in the genres, are going to be rather different from one another.


FJO: I want to probe a bit more your saying that the emotional content was what primarily attracted you to that story. But I want to take it to instrumental music. You’ve written quite a bit of vocal music, but you’ve also written a considerable amount of non-vocal music, where you’re not dealing with setting words, so there’s no discernable syntax that someone can latch onto. You said you’ve written programmatic pieces, but there’s still an unresolvable debate among people about whether specific meanings could be conveyed through the abstract medium of music when there are no words involved.

PM: Music is a non-representational art. I can’t describe to you a coffee cup in musical terms. I can draw you a picture of a coffee cup and you can say, “Well, that’s a coffee cup.” But I can’t do that musically. What I can do is to capture and project emotion: joy, sadness, the whole range of human emotion. Whether or not you as an individual listener receives it in that way or understands what I’m saying, that’s a whole other matter, but that’s what I’m trying to do as a composer. All of these pieces have emotional narratives of one kind or another, whether it’s an abstract piece or programmatic piece.

all of these pieces have emotional narratives of one kind or another, whether it’s an abstract piece or programmatic piece.

What I can say about a programmatic piece—for example a piece inspired by The Tempest, which I turned into the Tempest Fantasy—is that Shakespeare absolutely influenced the structure of the piece. How I wrote it and a lot of the details of the piece are absolutely tied up with Shakespeare and drama and literature and so on. You can’t necessarily hear it in the music because there are no words to it and there’s no reference to it. But I also think the piece has to speak for itself on its own terms. It cannot rely on any literary association or any non-musical association. The musical logic has to be baked into the piece itself. It has to be structural; it has to make sense on the basis of its own musical logic.

You and I spend our lives trying to figure it out. It’s really hard because music is essentially an abstract language. It’s completely made up out of whole cloth. It’s very hard to make these things work structurally, but it has to be that way. I do, however, think that knowing what motivated a composer to write a piece—the literary associations, etc., that the composer might bring to that piece—can be an enhancement in the listening process. I think that that can help. But I’ll go back to saying the work itself has to convince a listener by its own musical logic and in its own musical terms. This is also true of opera. As you know, it’s an immensely complex, collaborative art form. But in the end, in my view, all problems in opera are musical problems. It’s ultimately music that’s driving the agenda and that’s making it work or not. This is not, by the way, true of musicals necessarily, but certainly for opera it’s definitely the case.

FJO: You made a very interesting remark in a talk you did in 2010 with Greg Simon and Dan Kellogg in Colorado that’s posted online, something I thought was very poignant about who you’re writing your music for. What you said was, “I write for myself as a listener.” And then you said that you ask yourself, “Would I buy a ticket to this? Would this be something I would go to and get excited about?” When you write music you’re in a dialog with that inner audience member, that inner listener. I think this is very different from someone who says, “I don’t care about an audience; I’m writing for myself.” You’re not writing for yourself so much as you’re putting yourself in the position of being the listener for the piece.

PM: Right.

FJO: And it’s interesting in terms of audience preparedness, because you also said the piece has to work on its own terms. But when you give a piece a title, you’re already giving listeners an association. I would contend that a piece like Tempest Fantasy is going to affect listeners differently depending on whether: a) they’re paying attention to the title; b) they know the title and they know what it’s referring to in a superficial way; or c) they have a deeper relationship—they’ve read or have seen productions of The Tempest. These three scenarios will result in three very different kinds of interactions with the piece. And I’ll posit a guess that someone who has seen a production of The Tempest, maybe someone who’s seen that Patrick Stewart production at the Public, will come the closest to what you’re intending to convey.

PM: As I said, I would describe these associations as an enhancement of the experience, but the necessary condition is that the piece has to work in and of itself, not knowing the title or anything else like that.

FJO: I’m going to bring up a piece you probably haven’t thought about in a very long time, an early electronic piece you composed called Devices and Desires.

PM: That was a long time ago.

FJO: This piece was constructed from various found sound elements, which allowed you to make very specific references to certain things—cars starting, a telephone ringing, clocks ticking. These are things you can’t do in instrumental music. So even though so many people think of electronic music as an even more abstract medium than most other forms of music, it can actually be more representational, at least it was in the way that you worked with it.

PM: Sure. Sampled sound is a whole other matter. I’m fascinated by the technology of sampled sound and the fact that anything that can be recorded can become the stuff of musical composition. I think it’s absolutely amazing, and of course it’s possible only since we’ve had recording. I can remember being up at the Columbia University Electronic Music Lab splicing tape; it’s like The Flintstones when you think about it. Now we’re in the age of The Jetsons, where anybody sitting at their own Mac or sitting on the train or wherever can fashion these remarkable musique concrète creations digitally. In The Shining, we’re using a lot of really cool sound effects to bring the Overlook Hotel to life. Musique concrète is very much a part of this production. But you could use it in any context. I used this idea of recorded sound, clocks ticking, in a piece called The Time Gallery which I wrote for Eighth Blackbird. I added all these recorded sounds and so on to help to tell the various, very programmatic stories that I’m telling in that piece.

FJO: So, would it be fair to say that using these enhancements, using musique concrète and sampled sound, is a way for a composer of abstract instrumental music to make music less abstract.

PM: Yeah, I never thought of that, but it’s quite possible.

FJO: I never thought of it until I listened to that early electronic piece of yours. As luck would have it, I’m currently reading a book which is an ethnography of IRCAM, if you can imagine such a thing.

PM: What’s it called?

FJO: It’s called Rationalizing Culture: IRCAM, Boulez, and the Institutionalizing of the Musical Avant-Garde. The author is Georgina Born who, prior to becoming an academic, played in the experimental British rock band Henry Cow. Anyway, she talks about the aesthetics of the people involved with IRCAM, who have a very different aesthetic from yours and from mine, but there’s a great quote she has about musical sound and meaning that ties into our discussion: “Music is a logogenic, unrelated to language, non-artifact, having no physical existence and non-representational. It is a self-referential, aural abstraction. This bare core must be the start of any socio-cultural understanding of music since only then can one build up an analysis of its social-cultural mediation.” I thought that quote was really weird because almost immediately after reading it, I came across Devices and Desires. I listened to it and thought, “This is the one piece that Paul Moravec wrote that could have possibly been done by somebody at IRCAM.” And yet it probably wouldn’t have been, because it’s so much about narrative. It’s taking these technologies and subverting what the Modernists wanted to do with them, which is to further abstract things, to explore sound for the sake of sound. Instead, you made it less abstract.

PM: I don’t think that music is really about music. I think that music is about something else. We can’t always articulate what music is about. If we could, then we would just write an essay about it. And then we wouldn’t have to write the piece. But it expresses the otherwise inexpressible. It’s a very mysterious language and we get into the whole question of whether it is a language at all. I think it is, in an abstract sense. In any event, I’ll go back to what I was saying before, which is that music isn’t really about music. It’s not the end-all and the be-all of the whole transaction.

There’s a great word that Hitchcock used to describe a device in one of his movies. It’s called the MacGuffin. My understanding of the MacGuffin is it’s what all of the characters care about, but that we don’t care about. So for example, to use a non-Hitchcock example, in Casablanca, it’s the letters of transit that trigger the action at the beginning of the narrative. All of the characters in Casablanca are trying to get letters of transit. That’s the MacGuffin. We don’t care about the letters of transit; we care about what the people feel as they try to get them. So, in a certain sense, sound is the MacGuffin in music.

We as creators, as composers and musicians, spend our whole lives trying to get the right sounds. It’s very, very difficult and we fine tune the sounds till we get just exactly what we want and so on. But that’s not really what music is about. That’s the MacGuffin. What music is really about is love and sorrow and the whole range of human emotion—making audible the whole range of human existence and human life. I’m interested in sound only to a certain extent, to the extent that it gets me to where I want to be in terms of my musical storytelling, my musical narrative. That’s the importance of sound to me.

FJO: Then why write a piece called Clarinet Concerto and another one called Violin Concerto? Why use such abstract titles that only refer to what these piece are formally?

PM: Well, for the Violin Concerto, something sang in me and was trying to get out, so I spent time articulating it musically, working very hard to get the right sounds and so on. But it’s to the end of doing something else. I’m after a bigger game than just pretty or beautiful sounds. By the way, I hope that it’s beautiful; I want to make beautiful things, but that’s not my ultimate intention. I’m trying to achieve something beyond that which I can’t describe. You just have to listen to the piece, and it either makes sense to you or it doesn’t.

FJO: I think it’s an extremely beautiful piece, particularly the second movement. I think it’s one of the most moving things of yours I’ve ever heard. But you’ve just said music isn’t ultimately about sound, and what strikes me about that piece, as a listener, is how beautiful it sounds. And that’s all that it’s about. You didn’t give listeners any other associations by giving it a name like Tempest Fantasy, or Circular Dreams, or The Time Gallery. So all we can think of is what it is: a composition for violin soloist and orchestra.

PM: But in creating a beautiful effect in sound, I like to think that it takes the listener to another level of experience, which I can’t describe. Beautiful music is the medium that opens the door to an elevated feeling of existence, of joy. I think that’s the difference between a work of art and a work of entertainment. I think that a work of entertainment can be very beautiful, but entertainment is really about taking a person out of themselves for a certain amount of time. We all need that psychologically; we all need to release and to get out of ourselves. Art tends in the opposite direction. Art takes us into ourselves. After an experience with a great work of art, we’re actually changed in some sense. For me, beauty in a work of musical art can do that.

FJO: When you call something a violin concerto, you’re associating it with every other violin concerto that’s ever gone before. Some people might think, “How does this stack against the Brahms, the Tchaikovsky, or the Beethoven?” But that’s a very specific set of listeners who know that repertoire, just like the very specific set of listeners and readers who would have seen productions of The Tempest. Whereas everybody is aware of the passage of time. So calling a piece The Time Gallery might have greater reach. Similarly Circular Dreams, since we all dream or at least we hope we sleep long enough to have a dream. Penderecki originally used the title 8’37” for his Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima. It’s a much more effective piece with the revised title. All those strange sounds—the quartertone clusters, the screeching of the bow playing behind the bridge—sound like the atomic bomb is falling. But that title was an afterthought. It only came to Penderecki after he heard the premiere. Could it be that by not giving a piece some kind of descriptive narrative title, you’re allowing listeners to create their own narratives?

PM: I’m sure that’s quite possible. I don’t disagree.

FJO: Curiously, the Clarinet Concerto has a fascinating backstory to it, but listeners wouldn’t know it from the title.

PM: David [Krakauer] wanted me to write a klezmer concerto, and I said to him, “I’m an Episcopalian. I don’t know if I know how to do this.” And he said, “You’re Slavic. Close enough. Same vibe, you know.” In any event, I did not try to write a klezmer concerto. What I did was to write a virtuoso piece that uses what David does so brilliantly. But in using the techniques that he’s developed with his neo-klezmer style, it ends up referring to some klezmer things. So there are these certain little eastern European things in it, but that’s not intentional. Krakauer’s one of the most amazing musicians I’ve ever heard. And it’s been such a joy to work with him on several projects.

FJO: Both of these concertos were written for players you’ve worked with a lot. In fact, Maria Bachmann, for whom you wrote the Violin Concerto, has been one of the most dedicated champions of your music, and has played many of your pieces going all the way back to another abstractly title piece, the Violin Sonata. It begs the question of what role these players have had in inspiring you.

PM: Well, it’s a great thing for a composer to write a piece knowing what, to some extent, it’s going to sound like. My long association with Maria Bachmann, for whom I’ve written at least a dozen pieces now including the Violin Concerto, has been a tremendous help to me and an inspiration because when I sit at the piano and try to work out the notes, I know exactly what it’s going to sound like on her fiddle, what exactly she does, and I write to her strengths. For example, among other things, her amazing, very high lyrical playing on the e-string. It just sounds spectacular. Not all violinists can do that as well, so there’s a lot of that in my Violin Concerto and that’s because I was writing for her. It’s a little bit like being able to write a play when you know that Al Pacino is going to be speaking your lines. You know right away that you’re in the world of this guy who looks a certain way, talks a certain way, slopes across the stage the way he does, and so on. That’s tremendously inspiring, and it’s extremely helpful to composers to write for their friends.

FJO: That level of specificity, though, goes against the game composers play with immortality: writing notes on paper that exist as a recipe that then gets made into a piece of music by a group of performers in city X on date Y, then again, in city Z on date Q with different people for a different audience and yet is the same piece. It has to translate, no matter who’s playing it. If these pieces are to have a life, they have to have multiple interpretations which will all be slightly different from each other, but will somehow still be “The Piece.” Tempest Fantasy has been played by many different groups at this point. Performances of it by two different groups have been posted to YouTube, and neither is the group that premiered and recorded it. And now there’s a second CD recording of it, with yet another ensemble, on the new Delos disc that also includes Amorisms. This piece is clearly becoming repertoire. But I wonder how that plays into your expectations based on the associations you’ve had with the original people for whom you wrote the piece. What is your reaction as a composer when you’re confronted with a second, or third, etc., interpretation of a piece?

PM: I wrote a piece called Brandenburg Gate for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and they premiered it at Carnegie Hall almost ten years ago. Of course, famously, it’s a conductor-less orchestra, and they’re absolutely fantastic. But then I heard it done with a very good group called Symphony in C, which is, by the way, the same orchestra that did my Violin Concerto that we’ve been talking about. Rossen Milanov conducted it, and the element of having the conductor coordinating everything made a different impression. In a certain sense, as much as I’d admired and loved what Orpheus did, having the conductor control everything made a difference; the piece made more sense to me, even though I wrote the piece originally with Orpheus in mind and with those wonderful four soloists in mind. I had worked very closely with them trying to get the sounds that they can bring to the piece. But what Rossen did with the Symphony in C made more musical sense ultimately.

FJO: To get back to music with lyrics, you’ve written a lot of pieces in direct collaborators with writers, which is considerably different than, say, setting Shakespeare, who can’t disagree with the way you’re setting his words.

PM: Right. Whew. Yeah, it’s a good thing.

FJO: Anyway, it makes me curious about the level of give and take that happens when you’re dealing with a living collaborator.

PM: I’ve had very happy experiences with Terry Teachout, with whom I’ve now written three operas, and we’re about to premiere a cantata this weekend at the Bach Festival Society in Winter Park. He’s a joy to work with. In the process of collaboration, if it’s really going well or even when you have a disagreement, or you run into a snag involving the words, I’ve had the happy experience of actually coming up with something better simply because we talked about it and just took it to the next level.

That’s certainly been the experience with Mark Campbell in writing The Shining. I would email him or call him up or we would actually talk in person, believe it or not, and I would say, “I’m having trouble with this line, or this moment doesn’t work. Can you help me out?” Very often, I’m glad to say, we came up with something that was much better than what we had originally. So it keeps compounding. That’s the great thing about working collaborations: you come up with better solutions as you go along. Mark and I are now going to write a big oratorio about the Underground Railroad for the Oratorio Society of New York at Carnegie Hall in 2018. These will be found texts, actual historical records that Mark will fashion into a narrative.

There’s another project like that. I’m working with Ted Kooser, a former Poet Laureate of the United States and a Pulitzer Prize winner, who lives out in Nebraska. He wrote a book called The Blizzard Voices in which he took actual survivors’ accounts of the blizzard of 1888 in the Midwest, in particular around Omaha, and fashioned it into a modern text about trying to survive this unbelievably terrible Old Testament Biblical disaster. Ted stepped back and he said, “I give you carte blanche to fashion what you have of mine and make it into a libretto.” I borrowed texts from the Bible and made it really into a kind of Old Testament oratorio à la Handel or Mendelssohn and Ted said, “Okay, fine.” I’ve been lucky with my collaborators. They’ve all been great.

FJO: Your collaboration with Terry Teachout is somewhat unusual because at first you didn’t know him personally, but he was one of your biggest advocates early on among music critics. It’s really weird to go from being written about by somebody to writing stuff with that person.

PM: Yeah, unfortunately, he can’t write about me anymore because of conflict of interest. But I remember—this must have been over 25 years ago—he called me up and left a message and said, “Would you call me?” And so I did. He picked up the phone and I said, “Hi, I’m Paul Moravec.” And he said, “Who are you?” We’ve been friends ever since and great collaborators.

By the way, this thing that we’re doing this weekend for the Bach Festival is a tribute for their conductor John Sinclair. It’s his 25th anniversary and there’s a big celebration. So Terry had the idea of making an ode to music. One of the things I like about this is that it’s a community event. There’s a lot of warmth, generosity, and good cheer. I feel like a useful citizen; I feel like a participating member of society. This is immensely gratifying to me.

FJO: The world of composing music can sometimes feel so rarified, so these kinds of community engagements are extremely important in terms of making the music more relevant to the communities we live in.

PM: Participating in a civic and community event, I think, goes back to my upbringing as a boy chorister in the Episcopal Church. You might know that the Episcopal Church is the Anglican Church, and there’s this tremendous literature and discipline that the English have had through the English men and boy choir tradition. I was lucky enough to have that in my life, growing up in Buffalo and in Princeton. From the age of ten, participating in a ritual that has great importance to people was hard-wired into my thinking. Somehow in my mind, I got the idea that music and ritual and community participation are all one. They’re all connected somehow. In some ways, they’re indissolubly linked. And I’m sure that comes out of my youth. By the way, also from a very young age, I was a professional musician. I think I got $1.16 a week when I was ten years old, which is tremendously impressive to a kid. Of course, it’s all been downhill since as a composer! But I remember because of that I had to get a social security card at the age of ten. I know it sounds silly, but the impressions that a ten-year old gets live on. Sometimes I still feel like I’m 16 years old, except when I try to go running, then I realize I’m not that age anymore. But emotionally I feel very much the same way.

FJO: Well, to counter what you just said about it all being downhill from there, I would say that it’s definitely gone uphill. I mean, here we are meeting in April. On Monday, they’re going to announce the winner of next year’s Pulitzer Prize. I think it would be pretty fair to say that although you had some significant commissions and performances before receiving the Pulitzer, there was an imprimatur that award gave you that—to repurpose a metaphor you used earlier today—opened doors in a really important way.

PM: Oh, absolutely. My being awarded the Pulitzer Prize in ’04 was absolutely a game changer. There’s no question about it. I wasn’t unknown before that, but it was nothing like after that. It was really like night and day. It made a big difference. I don’t know if that’s necessarily true for other people, but that was certainly my experience. And it definitely opened doors. It gave me opportunities that otherwise I probably would not have had. It changed my life. But it didn’t make me a better composer because nothing can make you a better composer except hard work.

FJO: Why do you think that award has such an impact?

PM: I think the Pulitzer Prize has cache in society because it’s essentially a journalism prize. The Grawemeyer is a big deal, but who knows what a Grawemeyer is? It just doesn’t have the same reach. When the Pulitzer Prizes are announced, it goes out all over the world. Everybody’s instantly famous because it’s the media. And these five or six categories of music, literature, etc., sort of ride on the back of it. This year is the centenary of the Pulitzer Prizes, so I got an invitation to this celebration at the Newseum on Pennsylvania Avenue [in Washington, D.C.] at the end of January. My wife Wendy and I went down and saw that it’s really all about journalism. I think I was the only composer there besides Roger Reynolds. We didn’t see anybody else. There were hardly any writers. There were a few poets. There were lots of political cartoonists.

FJO: Everybody has this idea that the Pulitzer is this secret cabal and nobody knows how it works, but anyone can enter even though it traditionally always went to somebody who had a big publisher, probably because the big publishers made sure always to enter the required materials by the deadline. You have a publisher, but you actually entered the piece yourself, which is something anyone could and should do.

PM: Yeah, and then I forgot that I’d sent it in. It was early April 2004 and it was spring break from my job at Adelphi University where I’m a professor, and we thought, “Let’s go off to Sicily.” So we did. We were in the town of Taormina, and my wife’s assistant at work called from New York saying that there was a leak in our apartment and the super was freaking out. Then she said, “And so what do you think about the prize?” And I said, “I don’t know. What prize?” “You know, the Pulitzer Prize. You won the Pulitzer Prize.” And I said, “I didn’t know this.” This, by the way, was before cell phones were ubiquitous and even the internet was sometimes hard to get to; it was before all this technology had come of age. It really was quite possible not to know this. So we checked online, and it was in fact true. I couldn’t believe it. I was floored, partly because I’d completely forgotten that I’d sent in the piece. It was a happy day.

Remembering Steven Stucky (1949-2016)

Steven Stucky

Steven Stucky

A note from Ed Harsh, President and CEO of New Music USA:

A special sadness spread quickly over the new music community earlier this week as word of Steve Stucky’s death spread. There has already been much written and there will be much more to come. Steve’s rare combination of qualities, beginning with his musical genius but extending far beyond, touched so many people. Wisdom, humor, erudition, humility. He brought these and so many more to all that he did.

Following our custom on NewMusicBox, we asked a close colleague of Steve’s to write a memorial essay. Christopher Rouse succinctly sums up what an extraordinary friend and role model Steve has been to so many of us. We encourage you all to add your own thoughts and remembrances in the comments section below.

For New Music USA as an institution, it would be hard to overstate Steve’s impact. He served brilliantly as our Vice Chair, bringing clarity and perspective accompanied always by support and inspiration. Perhaps most fundamentally, he was one of the truly indispensable colleagues who turned two organizations, the American Music Center and Meet The Composer, into one. New Music USA wouldn’t be New Music USA without him. He’ll always hold a very special place in our hearts.


In 1973, when I first enrolled in the master’s program at Cornell University, my fellow composers spoke often about Steven Stucky, who had begun his graduate work there the year before but who was then serving two years in Iceland as a member of the US Air Force. There was universal admiration for him both as a composer and a person. Hearing a piece of his – the Quartet for clarinet, violin, cello, and piano – told me that he was indeed a composer of special gifts. Already evident were the fastidiousness and elegance that would come to characterize his mature work. When he returned to Cornell, Steve and I became fast friends, jawing about virtually every conceivable subject and sometimes playing extended frisbee or softball games on the Quad.

That close friendship continued until February 14 of this year, when he suddenly passed away after a three-month battle with brain cancer. Those of us close to him knew of his struggle but expected – hoped? – Steve would be with us longer. I had last spoken to him about a week earlier, when his spirits seemed high and his fighting spirit strong. The one consolation was that he died peacefully in his sleep.

His achievements as composer and writer have been extensively chronicled elsewhere, as have the achievements of the many Stucky students who have gone on to remarkable careers in their own right. The greatest testament to him is the extraordinary outpouring of grief on the Internet upon his death. So many had deep feelings for him. He had an astounding intellect, but perhaps more important were his warmth, graciousness, and generosity of spirit. He gave unstintingly of his time to many organizations; perhaps even more important, he did the same for his friends and his students. Every young composer who had the opportunity to work with Steve carried away memories that would last a lifetime, not only in terms of the valuable instruction they received but also through the example he set as a humble and caring human being.

He was the most centered friend I have ever had. Even in the most difficult times of his life he maintained his usual friendly and calm demeanor. I don’t recall ever seeing him show anger or stress. Though his heart might be breaking, there was never self-pity nor any demonstration of emotional excess in his behavior. His family meant the world to him, and his marriage to Kristen Frey Stucky brought him enormous joy and peace over the last several years of his life, as did his ongoing close relationship with his two children, Maura and Matthew.

I don’t think I’m alone in seeing Steve as the sort of person we all wish we were. Even had he lacked the musical genius he did in fact possess, his way of living his life and treating all with kindness and respect would have been a model worth emulating for anyone. Loved by so many, we have lost not only a great composer, but the dearest of friends. I wonder how we will be able to go on without him.

John Harbison, Christopher Rouse, and Steven Stucky

John Harbison, Christopher Rouse, and Steven Stucky at the 2012 American Academy of Arts and Letter Ceremonial

A Letter to Leslie Bassett (1923-2016)

Anita and Leslie Bassett with Gabriela Lena Frank and Paul Yeon Lee

Anita and Leslie Bassett with Gabriela Lena Frank and Paul Yeon Lee in February 2012.

My dearest mentor, my teacher, my role model, my Leslie:

I miss you like crazy. It’s been a few years since we last talked, a total insanity considering how often in my daily life, I still hear your words of counsel from our music lessons of old. I can see the way your hands used to hold your knees when you laughed while seated, head back and eyes closing in mirth at some bit of mischief I would jaw off, nervous and eager to amuse. I remember your distinctive walk, frail and steely both, across worn carpet to the treble-bright piano in your studio, thick music score in hand. When I was over early at the house, you and beautiful Anita would fry up corn pancakes while discussing a marvelous new clarinetist who bled “for his composer and played like it was his last breath!” These days, when I hear the clarinet, I swear, in a fit of quasi-synesthesia, that I’m tasting corn…

The love that a student has for her teacher is a special one. I was not a child when, in the ’90s, you stepped out of retirement for a brief stint to become a mentor for a few lucky students at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In fact, I was already experienced and cognizant of the usefulness of having someone to idealize and be guided by, especially a composer so widely revered and respected. I even expected it. What I hadn’t expected was to be consistently wowed—humbled really—by your humanity. Honestly, I can’t imagine the wellspring of personal experience and patience you reached into when assessing the counterpoint and orchestration of my well-meaning but so very naïve scores, those earliest attempts to tease out a voice as a Peruvian-American with Chinese and Lithuanian Jewish forbearers, as a woman with hippy-feminist roots, and even as a disabled individual. Although you were from a certain era of “old school” American men that might not have been surrounded by the most diverse peers, you easily talked with me about the most volatile of subjects affecting me deeply as a young composer: Racism and “playing the race card,” cultural tributes vs. cultural parasitism, ambition in one’s career and ambition in one’s personal artistry, sexism, and the distracting, god-awful noisy politicization of it all. I was well aware of taking up the time of a man who had been a young soldier in one of the world’s ugliest wars, who later experienced what no parent ever should in losing a young child, and whose own face was startlingly altered after fighting serious illness. You still believed in teaching and writing great music, and that made me even more devoted.

Knowing well how your eyes shone to work with performers who played from the gut, leaving it all out on the stage, I remember putting my fingers to work in the only meaningful gesture I could think of to properly thank you when I left school: recording your complete piano and piano/violin works on a CD. It was a Frank family affair with my sweet mom, the stained glass artist, designing a cover to your specs and with my father, the Mark Twain scholar, editing the booklet texts. (I couldn’t figure out a role for my scientist brother.) In the recording sessions, I threw myself into the heady mix of tonality and atonality that was your hallmark, wrestling with the terse lines that needed to suddenly sprawl, or pulling symphonic colors out of the Steinway borrowed from the Detroit Symphony. Definitely, for a brief time, I caught the bug that unjaded new music performers have: Wanting an esteemed composer’s approval so bad, it’s like needing benediction from the pope.

You taught even when you didn’t mean to. Introducing me to the joys of Wallace and Gromit? Priceless. Gamely working a tough piece of jerky I offered when I forgot that chewing was difficult, an embarrassing faux pas? Likewise priceless. Playing hopeful yet gentlemanly matchmaker between me and a platonic male composer friend, declaring others to be “boobs?” So, so, so very priceless.

If I had stayed in better touch these past few years, I would have been able to tell you that said platonic male composer friend and I are still dear to one another while both happily married to others. I would be able to tell you that my career landed fine, and I think it will continue on all right. I would tell you that I absolutely did kick to the curb my illness and its ensuing “wellness” regime of surgeries and radiation. I would tell you about playing your Preludes piano suite in a men’s prison and them loving its craggy unyielding modernity; that, as you advised, I have a tough skin against bad/ignorant reviews but a necessary skeptical eye towards the good; and that I’ve bought land to raise Peruvian alpacas not far from where you grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, son of a pig farmer. I would tell you that having lived into my middle years now, I appreciate better how steadfastly you held onto your values as artist, teacher, colleague, father, and husband: Simply put, a man of integrity and honor. Most of all, I would tell you that I it pains me that performances of your beautiful music had slowed in recent times—an injustice—but that I would, nudged once again into action by your leaving us, do what I could to remind the world of your musical legacy.

You knew me as an atheist, more by circumstance than intentional design, but I confess that there is the rare occasion that someone gives me pause. I feel their incandescence, and I’m at a loss to explain their excellence in ordinary terms.

Rest in peace, my teacher, Leslie dear. I will always be missing you tons.



Gabriela Lena Frank, Leslie Bassett, and Paul Yeon Lee

Gabriela Lena Frank, Leslie Bassett, and Paul Yeon Lee.

Melinda Wagner: It’s Just Who I Am

A conversation in Melinda Wagner’s home in Ridgewood, New Jersey
March 10, 2015—11:00 a.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

Although most of the music she composes is completely abstract, Melinda Wagner still crafts her music in such a way that it reflects her personality and she hopes that that comes across.

“I’m not trying to tell a story in terms of being programmatic,” she opined when we visited her at her home in northern New Jersey. “I really do try to tell a purely musical story. I like to think that I carry an idea throughout the course of the piece and that the idea is transformed and there’s some kind of life lived. … I rely on instinct because, for the most part, I just know what notes should come next, even though I often cannot explain exactly why I know. And the resulting music says a lot about who I am—it’s as much a part of me as my brown eyes, my dislike of liver and marzipan, my love of potato chips, etc. So I’d like to think that listeners get to know me through my music because many of the important decisions in my work … are made without relying consciously upon intellectual constructs of some kind, but as a result of going with my gut.”

Though her melodic and harmonic vocabulary is firmly and unmistakably rooted in the sound world of modern music, Wagner’s principal role models have been the iconic classical music composers of the past, particularly Johann Sebastian Bach—from whom her obsession with counterpoint originates—and Beethoven, whose drama and intensity still sounds new. But Wagner also pays a great deal of attention to the music of our own time, particularly the music of younger composers at the start of their careers. An early boost for her own compositional trajectory was receiving three ASCAP Foundation Young Composer Awards. She is now frequently called upon to adjudicate those ASCAP awards, as well as many other panels.

“Every year I listen to literally hundreds of brand new pieces by mainly young composers,” Wagner explained. “It’s actually been wonderful work to do, because I know what’s going on with emerging composers. … When I’m listening, I want to yearn for the future of the music. I want to build up my own expectations of what might happen. I’m happy when those expectations are foiled, if they’re done sensitively or cleverly, and when the expectations are met that’s even better. But in any case, I want to yearn for that future, rather than simply luxuriating in the present of the piece. And I think a lot of listeners simply are happy to luxuriate in the present of the piece. For me, that’s a mistake. If I can’t go beyond that, then the piece probably won’t be a part of my life in the future because it’s not engaging those different ways of thinking. It’s not engaging memory, which informs my expectations of what will happen. … My favorite music, by other composers, is that which carries me away and touches my heart.”

Most fans of contemporary music first became aware of Melinda Wagner when she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1999 for her Concerto for Flute, Strings and Percussion.

The cover for the CD featuring Melinda Wagner's flute concerto (Bridge 9098) which is just white text against a blue background listing details of the record and the other piece on the disc, a work by Poul Ruders.

The Bridge Records CD release of the world premiere recording of Melinda Wagner’s 1999 Pulitzer Prize winning Flute Concerto was released in 2000.

“I was really unknown beforehand,” Wagner remembered, although she had already received a Guggenheim Fellowship (in 1988) and the young composer awards. Although Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and Shulamit Ran both preceded Wagner in winning the Pulitzer, at the time it was still quite unusual for a female composer to receive the award. (While gender parity has admittedly still not occurred with these awards, the balance has improved tremendously in the 21st century; only 15 years in, the number of women who have won the award already matches those from the entire 20th century!) The world has also changed in many other ways since Wagner received that accolade. Nowadays complete recordings of award-winning works often appear online only minutes after the awards are announced. Wagner’s Flute Concerto was thankfully recorded and commercially released by Bridge Records not too long after its win and now, as a result of recent developments in secure online publishing, it was possible for Melinda Wagner’s publisher, the Theodore Presser Company, to make the score available to post to social media networks and embed on other websites. Still most of her success, according to her, has been through building personal relationships with individual musicians who then have spread the word about her music:

I have found—Facebook, social media notwithstanding—that what still works is word of mouth. I got a performance of [my Sextet] back in the day when we were using cassette tapes. I think somebody from that group happened to mention to a person in another group, “We just played this piece that I liked. It’s a new piece. You might like it. Here, try it. Contact Melinda Wagner.” And it’s still true. At least my commissions have come about that way. For instance, years and years ago, American Composers Orchestra played an early orchestra piece of mine called Falling Angels. My friend Kathy Rife happened to be playing viola in the orchestra and she went home and told her husband Joe Alessi, “There’s this piece that I liked a lot. So you might think about commissioning her.” This was many years ago when Kurt Masur was still conducting the orchestra. So it took a while. It has to go through a lot of channels. It actually took years. But finally the commission for the Trombone Concerto did come through. Your professional life is to make human contacts. I, for one, don’t place a lot of value on websites.

Admittedly, Wagner’s rigorous and deeply considered scores are not readily adaptable to the kind of instantaneous consumption that usually makes the rounds on Facebook and Twitter. But they offer significant auditory rewards to attentive listeners.

“I think it’s just who I am,” said Wagner. “My responsibility towards a listener is to be as clear and articulate as possible given my language and my vocabulary.”


Photo of a desk with piles of manuscripts, a lamp, and a bookcase.

Melinda Wagner’s composition studio.

Frank J. Oteri: There’s a wonderful quote of yours on the website of your publisher, Theodore Presser: “Ultimately I want listeners to know me. I want them to hear that while I enjoy the cerebral exercise, I am led principally by my ear and my heart.” I’d like to get a sense from you what that means since, after all, we are here to get to know you.

Melinda Wagner: Well, I’m going to give you a lot of very vexing answers because they’re not going to really answer your questions. But I will try to clarify a little bit. When I write music, I always try to take risks. I always go to a place that’s scary for me. It’s almost like making a confession. I’m really pouring my soul out onto the page. It’s wonderful if someone listening to my music could really hear that somehow my music sounds like my personality. On the other hand, it’s so hard to compose music that I don’t do anything a whole lot more than just struggle to get the notes on the page.

When I was a little kid, we did a lot of camping. On long summer car trips with my family, my mother entertained us by playing a musical game. There was no “I Spy” or “20 Questions” for us! She’d sing the first few notes of a made-up tune, and my brother and I would either complete it with our own tunes or continue by adding another antecedent phrase. The trick was to make it go as long as possible, creating a kind of musical exquisite corpse. Although I no longer have my mother to pitch me tunes, I continue to work this way—certainly a big reason why I always start with melody. I continue to make things up as I go along, which is fun and scary.

When my composing is going well, I find myself swept up by the music, outside of real time—I hum and buzz along on a level that can only be described as emotional. The music is leading me by the nose rather than the other way around. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this optimal experience “flow.” I think he was on to something. While this is my favorite way to work—the resulting music feels like me—it is also when I am at my most vulnerable. I am not relying principally upon craft, but upon some other, indescribable prime mover, and there is a certain amount of risk-taking involved.

I can only hope that listeners will be similarly swept up, that they will experience my music—its narrative, me!—on some kind of emotional level, if only momentarily. My favorite music, by other composers, is that which carries me away and touches my heart.

FJO: But how can a listener infer what your narrative is? Music is abstract. It’s not verbal, so it doesn’t have specific meanings. It can only have associative meanings through acculturation. If the desire is to get people to know who you are, how do you do that through instrumental, wordless music?

MW: Recently, I mentored a group of young composers at a week-long festival of concerts, readings, and seminar discussions. While presenting my own work, I described myself as an “intuitive” composer who devotes very little time to pre-composition. Later in the week, one of the young composers commented that using the word “intuitive” when describing one’s process is, in her assessment, lazy and sloppy! I must admit to being amused by this—I sincerely do not know a better way to describe my work.

Here’s the thing: I use my knowledge of craft, and I use reasoning—an intellectual way of manipulating my materials—when I’m having a hard time with the piece, when I’m stuck. When my work is humming along, however, I operate on a purely gut level; important decisions are made instinctively—indeed, sometimes I consciously override the more “reasonable” path in favor of my “gut” choices. And sometimes that doesn’t work out, alas.

So, what does “instinct” mean anyway? It refers to an innate pattern of behavior or decision-making that does not rely upon reasoning. For me, as a composer, I rely on instinct because, for the most part, I just know what notes should come next, even though I often cannot explain exactly why I know. And the resulting music says a lot about who I am—it’s as much a part of me as my brown eyes, my dislike of liver and marzipan, my love of potato chips, etc. So I’d like to think that listeners get to know me through my music because many of the important decisions in my work, while certainly informed by what I’ve learned, are nonetheless made without relying consciously upon intellectual constructs of some kind, but as a result of going with my gut.

I spend a lot of time and care working on the shape of a piece, in particular the building of the climax. In many pieces I try very hard to have restraint and patience, and I care about building the pacing correctly—not having things happen too soon or too late. I think that does say something about me; I’m patient and I care about the timing of things. Also I can be very raucous in my music. There’s a lot of it that’s very noisy. I think that says something about me and my life here across the street from a hospital with sirens going all the time. Plus I’m married to a drummer, my son is also a drummer, and it’s an old rickety house so it’s always quite noisy. I think that does come out in music, and that says something about my life.

a marimba wih a tambourine on a music stand in back of it

Of course, one of the benefits of being married to a percussion is having access to all those instruments!

I like very much that the repose in my music is hard won and also intense because of the music beforehand that’s been so noisy and dense and full of action. It has a lot of peaks and valleys. I like a really dramatic narrative; I’m really a drama queen. I’m a very sensitive person and I react very intensely to everything.

FJO: I love how the pitches of the wind chimes outside your house found their way into your piece Wick, which Harold Meltzer wrote about in his booklet notes for your Bridge CD.

The cover for the all-Melinda Wagner CD (Bridge 9345) featuring a photo of Melinda Wagner holding a score and Joe Alessi holding a trombone.

Bridge’s all-Melinda Wagner CD features her Trombone Concerto along with Wick and her Four Settings for soprano and chamber ensemble.

MW: It did and I wasn’t really aware of it at the time. But once I realized that that’s what was playing on my subconscious, I really listened more carefully and tried to notate some of what was happening. That’s very unusual for me, though, to do something that connected to the real world. I don’t usually try to do that. All of my talk about sirens and so on, I’m not really aware of it. I don’t hear them anymore. It’s only when I go back and hear a recording of a piece that I might say, “My gosh, there’s a lot of stuff going on in there.” Maybe that’s because I have to try so hard to drown it out when I’m upstairs working.

FJO: I’m reminded of that famous anecdote about Verdi writing the comic opera Un Giorno di Regno at the same time his wife and their two children died. It’s impossible to hear what he was going through in that music. Music is weird that way. But if your music is telling your story, then it theoretically might be possible for listeners to get some sense of what you were doing the year you wrote the Trombone Concerto, or at least how you were feeling, by hearing the piece.

MW: No, they wouldn’t. I realize I’m contradicting myself. You know, I have this noisy life, so my music tends to be a little bit noisy. On the other hand, I don’t think someone could know what I’m experiencing at the time. I think they might know more about just my general personality, but not something I’m going through. I’ve composed during very bad times and powered through it and the music doesn’t sound dreadful and dark necessarily. I mean there’s Beethoven and there’s Beethoven’s Eighth; his later symphonies are often very ebullient, but I don’t think he was a happy man at that time. So you can hear what my life is like, but no, you can’t really.

I told you it was vexing. A mentor of mine paid me what I consider to be the highest compliment—he said, look, Mindy, we composers, we’re all sort of crazy. You’re crazy and your music is crazy. It sounds like you. I know that doesn’t sound particularly like a positive comment. But I really took that as a high compliment, because whatever weird quirky stuff is going on with me somehow comes out in the music. I hope. I wouldn’t want my music to sound generic and just skillfully wrought; I like it to be painterly. I want to hear the brush strokes.

A group of framed photos of Melinda Wagner and members of her family

A variety of family photos sit atop the piano in Melinda Wagner’s home.

FJO: That’s a very nice analogy, and it makes me curious to learn more about your process of working on a piece. Despite being intuitive, there isn’t this mad flurry of working on a piece and then, suddenly, there it is. I get the sense that it’s a much longer and more meticulous process.

MW: Absolutely.

FJO: So, what is the working process, the gestation of a piece and how it comes together?

MW: Well, first of all, my process has changed a lot, and I think that’s true for everyone who’s going about it honestly. Your process evolves as your life changes. But generally I will spend a few weeks just listening to a lot of music—of all kinds. I’m not predisposed to any type. I’m just warming my ears up, and also getting ideas. We don’t work in a vacuum. Then I always approach a piece through melody. That’s my gateway. Whether I use it or not, a melody will suggest different paths and ways to go. I might shelve it later, but it gives me a springboard. So my second step is to write some melodies and fool with them, write some counterpoint to sort of get the juices going.

A page of orchestra score manuscript showing some flute and bassoon melodies.

An orchestral work in progress by Melinda Wagner.

The first few weeks I find to be most tortuous. I just don’t know what it is yet. That’s a very scary place to be. It’s a little bit like being blindfolded and feeling your way in the dark. Then hopefully somewhere around maybe a third of the way through the piece, it starts to suggest to me what it might do in its future. That’s always a great moment for me because I make a list of things that are going to happen. Whether I actually get to those things or not is immaterial. But I do have the carrot then at the end of the stick, something to go towards, which I don’t have in the beginning necessarily. When I tell people that I’m an intuitive composer, that’s what that means. I don’t have any kind of form in mind at first, but it comes to me kind of gradually over time.

FJO: So your composition studio is upstairs. The piano is down here. Do you walk back and forth or do you avoid the piano entirely?

MW: Well, I have an electronic piano upstairs with headphones so I don’t bother anybody. But it depends on the type of music I’m writing. If I’m writing for a small group, I use the piano more. But when I’m writing for an orchestra, where I really need to think about big gestures, I have to go in the other room so I’m not even looking at it, because the visual aspect of that keyboard I find very distracting. I’m a pianist, so if I start to get too involved in details in an orchestra piece by sitting at the keyboard, then I won’t see the forest for the trees. So I go into the other room, and I conduct through the piece. I have the pages tacked onto my wall and out on the floor, so I can walk through the piece. I do that for all my music, but mainly for orchestra music. I try to stay away from the keyboard until a later time, to check pitches and so on.

A photo of an electronic keyboard with a chair in front of it.

The electronic keyboard that Melinda Wagner keeps in her studio.

FJO: When you say you have it all out and then you check pitches, is it all hand written?

MW: All pencil and paper.

FJO: Whoa.

MW: Yeah.

FJO: None of that notation software?

MW: No.

FJO: Wow.

MW: I have the software. I have Sibelius. I have notated various things on it. But I don’t like playback. I don’t like the sound of it. And I don’t like the way it crowds me in, so I just don’t prefer to work that way. So yeah, pencil and paper, lots of erasing, very old fashioned, antediluvian.

FJO: No quills though?

MW: No. No ink.

Pages of a manuscript of an orchestral score on a wall.

Pages of a manuscript of a new orchestral score cover one of the walls of Melinda Wagner’s composition studio in her home.

FJO: So, to get back to what you said about listening to lots of music before you begin working on a piece, when you started the Flute Concerto, did you listen to a bunch of other flute concertos or is your listening not ultimately related to what the piece is?

MW: No, I didn’t listen to a lot of flute concertos, mainly because of the instrumentation I had chosen. It’s a smaller orchestra: no winds or brass. It’s the sound that Paul Dunkel wanted. The closest thing I could find was Bernstein’s Serenade, which I did listen to. I listened to Bartók and music that had a little more intimate quality to it. I don’t particularly like the sound of that pairing, flute and big orchestra. And I’m not sure it’s been handled well. It’s a strange kind of pairing, don’t you think? The flute is not a heroic sounding instrument, whereas violin or piano are out there beating the odds.

FJO: That’s probably why there are a lot more piano concertos and violin concertos. In terms of what’s found its way into the repertoire, you can count the flute concertos on the fingers of one hand. Of course, there have been lots of them, but they just haven’t had that longer life. But to get back to your process of listening, do you save lists of things you’ve listened to before you work on a piece? And might knowing what you had listened to be helpful to a listener of the piece you eventually write afterwards?

MW: I don’t think so, because what I’m trying to do is to get the sound of the ensemble, not the sound of their notes, not their melodies, not their harmonies. When I wrote the new Brandenburg piece for Orpheus, of course I went back and listened to Brandenburg Four, because that was the one that had been assigned to me. But also I wanted the sound of that group in my head. I’m trying to get used to the sound so that I feel comfortable in it when I start. It’s not really a style that I’m after. I could go listen to Beethoven or Mozart. It wouldn’t matter. I’m just trying to get warmed up to a particular ensemble.


FJO: So it’s for the same reason that you avoid the piano, so that the piano—even looking at it—doesn’t influence where you go. You want the instrumentation to dominate where your mind goes.

MW: Right.

FJO: That makes sense. So then what is ideal for a listener to have going in, in terms of preparation? What do you want the listener to get out of the experience? If you want to express your emotion, who you are and your personality, what can the listener do to work toward getting that from you?

MW: Well, I’m not sure they can prepare themselves and work at it before they come to hear my music. I would say I think my strong suit is narrative. But I’m not trying to tell a story in terms of being programmatic. I really do try to tell a purely musical story. I like to think that I carry an idea throughout the course of the piece and that the idea is transformed and there’s some kind of life lived. As you listen to the piece, you hear a transformation of some kind. I would be happy if a listener can follow the idea through, through its life and through its various dramas and travails, and somehow be excited or saddened, whatever, by the various things that happen to the idea. If that is something that a listener can get, by listening to my music, I will be very, very happy, whether they like it or not. They might not like the piece, but if they were able to stay with it, what I’m aiming for is that narrative.

FJO: Now in terms of the big narrative arc, you have written several major works for soloist and orchestra—concertos. That’s a form that’s gone back hundreds of years at this point, and there have been all these sociological theories about what concertos mean, like the individual versus the society. So does that come into play in terms of the narrative you’re trying to tell?

MW: No, I didn’t think about that at all. I think one thing that makes my concertos a little different is that they really are orchestra pieces. The orchestra is very, very involved; they’re not there to just float the soloist. And likewise, the soloist sometimes is an ensemble player in those pieces, playing along with the orchestra. That was something I had a lot of fun with; it’s not really concerto-like at least in the traditional sense of the word.

This is getting into another topic, but with my trombone piece, I was backstage a lot and the brass guys have their room back there. Brass people are very serious. They all are like that. And they have their refrigerator with their comforts and they hang out there. So I thought it would be really great to have them poke fun at [the trombone soloist] Joe [Alessi], and have a lot of interplay between Joe and his section. That was something I thought about a lot, not so much with the other pieces, but I really wanted them to actually laugh at him musically. So there are some spots where he is echoed a lot. I did think about that kind of human interplay in that piece.


FJO: One thing I realized in recently revisiting all three big concertos of yours—the piano concerto Extremity of Sky, the Flute Concerto, and the Trombone Concerto—is that all of them begin with the soloist playing alone, which is atypical. It’s not unprecedented, but it’s not the way concertos were done back in the day.

MW: Right. Earlier I was saying I start a piece with melody, so some of that just has to do with my process in general. I start with a melody. With the Flute Concerto though, I was really stuck for a while on how to start. I started over and over again with some kind of orchestral introduction, and I just couldn’t get started. Then I was walking down the street from the grocery store and I thought, I will start with a fanfare, a flute fanfare all by itself. I knew that was how I was going to start the piece. It just came to me. It was such a relief. I knew it was an unusual thing for a concerto to start that way, but it gave me my gateway. You don’t think of a flutist playing a fanfare.

FJO: It’s also a way to combat this idea that the flute is overpowered by the orchestra.

MW: Right.


FJO: Now the other part of this narrative thing in terms of telling a story is that you can perhaps direct a listener to think a certain way about a piece of music through a title, but a lot of your pieces don’t have titles that necessarily offer that window in. Extremity of Sky is a beautiful name and it’s very evocative. I’m not going to comment on the beauty or lack of beauty of the name Trombone Concerto.

MW: I know; it’s pretty generic.

FJO: So what leads to a piece getting a beautiful title versus a title that just tells you musically what it is?

MW: I get asked this a lot, actually. I think all composers get asked about their titles. I don’t come up with the title first. Doesn’t David Lang famously come up with his title first? And they’re very, very clever titles. I don’t come up with titles until the very end. And sometimes it’s like, “Oh shoot, I have to come up with a title.” It’s not something that has led me by the nose.

But somewhere in the middle of composing that piano concerto, 9/11 happened. Joel Connaroe, who at the time was the head of the Guggenheim Foundation, wrote all of the fellows this absolutely beautiful letter and he referred to a line from the third act of King Lear about the extremity of the skies. I had to use that. I remember going into the city two months after 9/11. New Yorkers are famously blasé about skyscrapers; it’s only the tourists who look up at the big buildings. But I found that New Yorkers were looking up constantly; every time a plane went by it was just terrifying. And I thought that this is an extremity of the sky for New Yorkers, the sky has taken on this new meaning. So when I read that phrase, I started getting gooseflesh. This is not to say that it actually describes anything in the piece. But it was just what was happening to all of us at that time. A lot of artists had to deal with it in their creative work at that time, how to digest something so horrible. That’s what I was experiencing at that time.

FJO: But it’s interesting that it doesn’t refer to anything specific.

MW: No. It doesn’t, and I didn’t want to try. I didn’t even want to go there, to try to portray some horrible thing. There is a little spot in it where there is some sort of little girl music. That was more about my daughter. I was thinking of her friend who lost her dad that day. We lost a lot of people here in this area. So that was the only spot where I sort of indulged a little bit. I don’t think I would have been capable of doing anything else.


FJO: So deciding whether or not something has a title, if it’s time and there’s no other title, then it’s Trombone Concerto.

MW: I can’t remember so much deciding about Trombone Concerto, but I did spend a lot of time thinking about the names of the movements. Those are very descriptive of the resulting music. But why “Trombone Concerto”? It’s probably not a very meaningful discussion because I frankly don’t remember why I didn’t choose something more interesting.

FJO: Well, I don’t mean to imply that it’s not interesting because the title does something else. And here’s where I want to go with this. When you’re writing for orchestra, it’s very different than writing for a chamber ensemble. You tend to be writing for people who are mostly doing standard repertoire. That’s pretty much the majority of what they do, unless it’s BMOP or the ACO. So you’re writing music that has to cohabitate with much older music. When you call something a concerto, you’re automatically giving the audience an association. You’re saying what kind of a piece it is and, most likely, where it goes on the program—after the first piece, before intermission. There are all these conventions, like if you call a piece a symphony, that’s the second half, although contemporary composers rarely get to be on the second half of the program.

MW: Well, you don’t want people to leave at intermission!

FJO: But that’s the thing. You’re setting up an association for listeners, letting them know that it is part of this tradition. I do think that a lot of people who attend a concert need that frame. They’ll hear, say, a Rossini overture and in the second half maybe Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. And then there’s this new piece that sounds nothing like either of them. But the new piece still has to cohabitate with these older works. What do we do to make it sound like it isn’t the odd thing out? Or maybe we want it to sound like the odd thing out. I don’t know.

MW: I think saying it’s a concerto is helpful, because it’s kind of an aid in a way for the composer. What you’re doing is you’re setting up a bunch of expectations which can either be met or not, and when they’re not, that makes the piece interesting and it’s intriguing to the listeners. So yes, I would in a roundabout way say sure, I think concerto is a useful title the way that a symphony is not these days. I mean, a symphony for some reason is much more general in terms of what to expect when you hear a piece. When you see that it’s called symphony, you don’t know exactly what to expect. You just know you’re going to hear a big piece.

FJO: On the second half of the program.

MW: I don’t think I would ever call any of my music a symphony, but concerto is fine.

FJO: But the other kicker with calling something a symphony is that it’s not only a symphony, it’s like Symphony No. 6. It comes with this number, so it’s not only calling to mind all that music of the past that had that title, it’s also calling to mind your own past, what you’ve done before it. It’s somehow a cumulative group of works. Every time I come across a composer I haven’t heard before and I hear, say, his or her Symphony No. 3, I always think, “Where are the others? I’ve got to hear one and two first.” This gets to a larger question, how people hear this music and finding the right access points for it. With an orchestra, it’s trickier than just about everything else, because new orchestra pieces don’t get redone a lot of the time. They’ll be a commission. If you get lucky, it’s a consortium commission and a group of orchestras do it. But they’re in different cities, so it’s different audiences. So the opportunity for the same audience to hear that piece again, if it’s not recorded, is really hard.

MW: I know. And I’m an idealist. I have to keep hoping that things will change. I sort of miss the old days—the old days I never lived—when people would buy four-hand piano music and learn the symphonies that way, like Haydn and Mozart symphonies. Then they might be lucky enough to actually hear it live. That’s the way I learned Haydn Symphonies. I played four-hand piano music with my mom. That was great fun, but also incredible, because you were actually learning all the inner voices and really getting the piece in your veins. Recording, fortunately and unfortunately, is really the way to go. And it’s been that way for such a long time. But as we all know, recording is frozen. You can still hear the multiple layers of a piece if it’s a really wonderful multi-layered piece. You’ll hear things the second time around that you didn’t hear the first time around and the third time around and so on. But the actual interpretation is frozen. It’s set, and that’s unfortunate. I think it would be great if we could hear many live performances. Because the beauty of writing music is that your piece is completed by the players. It’s not completed when you write your double bar. It’s completed by the players who hopefully rehearse it and they own it, and it’s different every time it’s played. Sometimes when there’s a low pressure system, the tempos will be a little bit slower. If you have a very nervous conductor whose metabolism is very high, it might be a faster tempo. Everything affects the way a performance happens. And I think that’s a very beautiful thing. So it’s really unfortunate that we have to rely on these frozen artifacts. But I’m very happy we have them. And YouTube has been great even though the sound quality is terrible. It’s a great way to get those live performances that you wouldn’t ordinarily get to see.

FJO: Now, the other part to this is that the more times people hear a piece of yours the more they will get from it.

MW: Well, I hope so. It’s been very difficult for me because my music is of a style that is not readily accessible to a great mass of people. So, it doesn’t travel easily; it travels, but it travels sort of in a nice loping pace. We’re not going to hear hundreds of performances of any one of my pieces. Not that I know of, anyway. But, as I said, I’m an idealist, and I keep hoping for what is the perfect world. That’s all I can do because otherwise, what’s the alternative? I am who I am. And I have to write what I write. Otherwise, what’s the point?

FJO: It’s very frustrating, though, because there haven’t been many recordings of your music that are commercially available, and there are so many pieces of yours I’ve never heard that I’d love to hear, like the piece you wrote for Skitch Henderson and The New York Pops.


MW: If you email my publisher Theodore Presser, they always send out recordings if you request one.

FJO: But could any ordinary person hear it? I know about perusal materials for someone who expresses an interest in performing a piece or in writing about it, but what about some random person who is just a fan. How do we reach those people?

MW: It’s regrettable that those pieces haven’t been commercially reproduced.

FJO: Of course now, we’re in this weird zone where recordings are still being commercially produced, but they’re not really thought of the same way that they once were even though they are still happening all the time. I think the people who are the prognosticators of doom about this must not get the mail we get every day. There are piles of recordings still coming out. That said, it’s much harder for recordings of new orchestra pieces since they are so expensive to produce.

MW: Oh my goodness, yes. It’s very thorny and, with all due respect, the local unions are decades behind the technology. Whether you can actually get a recording, even an archival recording from orchestras, is in question all the time. Those of us who write orchestral music have all had that experience of being sent home without any recording, or being sent home with a recording that has white noise in it every ten seconds, which is insulting and also makes it unusable even for private use. The composer falls through a crack there.

FJO: Yet what’s weird is that although they’re not willing to give composers a recording, there’s now this whole phenomenon where someone in the general public who has no connection to a performance or a recording will simply grab something and post it to YouTube without clearing the rights for it. And there it is. Once again, the composer who asks for a recording from the orchestra didn’t get it, but the composer was not asked to give his or her consent to a performance that’s on YouTube that may or may not be an accurate rendering of his or her piece.

MW: That’s right. I had that very thing happen to me. I was traveling and I said to some musicians, “I’d like you to hear this piece.” And they said, “We already have; we’ve heard the whole piece.” This was before I even had an edited recording. Someone in the audience had [recorded it with] their cell phone. That’s very common. It happened to have gone all over the internet amongst this one community of players. Yet if I had posted the music, I could have really gotten in trouble. But I see the players’ point of view. Here are all of these free recordings being shared all over the place and they’re not getting compensation either. So I do see that side of it. It’s a very slippery slope.

FJO: It’s weird because on the one hand, we want everybody to be remunerated, but in terms of getting people aware of the new piece, we want to get the sound of this stuff in people’s ears so that it isn’t something shocking that doesn’t fit with the rest of the program. I think it’s more an issue for orchestra music than for chamber ensembles or all these groups that do a lot of new music all the time. Those groups have audiences that know that that’s what it is when they go to hear those pieces. There’s a whole audience for that in a way that there isn’t for new orchestra music.

MW: Orchestra is really tough. And many of them are having hard times now staying afloat and they need the fannies in the seats. They need to sell the tickets. There are all kinds of considerations outside of music that are coming into play, and that makes it even tougher. So yes, orchestra music is tough. Yet ideally you should have pieces that really make the circuit and have it be a part of a repertoire. That’s the other problem of second performances with any group. Ideally an orchestra would commission a new piece, premiere it, and then take it on tour and play it many times again. You would hope that that would happen. Orpheus is one orchestra that’s been extremely supportive of their new pieces. They do everything possible to perform that piece on tour and there were several performances in Carnegie Hall. They really want to get to know the piece and that’s really the way it should happen.

FJO: But of course their structure is completely different. They are a chamber orchestra, so they’re smaller, plus there’s no conductor and their administration is all players. It’s artist-led as opposed to the top-down structure that is the typical orchestra administration paradigm.

MW: And they have a lot of financial support. They have a good endowment and a good board. Orpheus is a great role model, even for larger orchestras.

FJO: Despite all these challenges of writing for orchestra that we’ve been talking about, it’s clearly something you not only excel at but actually want to do.

MW: I love writing for orchestra. The most rewarding kind of project for me is an orchestral project. It’s also the hardest and it takes the longest. It requires a lot of practical work after the piece is done, with preparing the score and the parts and all of that. It’s enormously expensive. It’s funny. When I was a kid, I swam competitively. Anyone in their right mind would choose freestyle as their prime stroke, but I chose butterfly, which I couldn’t even really do at the time. It is the most strenuous stroke and the most difficult to conquer. I’ve always been that way. I choose the hardest sport. I really do prefer writing for orchestra, and I realize it’s the hardest thing for all kinds of reasons. It is what it is. What can I tell you?

FJO: But in terms of recognition, you received a Pulitzer Prize for an orchestra piece.

MW: And the piece has gotten around a bit, which is very nice.

FJO: Do you think that winning that prize opened doors that otherwise would not have been opened?

MW: For chamber pieces, I received some commissions that maybe wouldn’t have come about had it not been for that. But the next large, substantial works that I wrote—my Piano Concerto and then later my Trombone Concerto—were both in the works before the Pulitzer happened.

FJO: In an ideal world, you should have been commissioned by orchestras all over the country to write concertos after winning that.

MW: Again, we’re back to idealism. Yes, I think that should happen to anybody who gets any kind of recognition like that. People should really shore up the composer and ask for new works. Does it happen with the other winners? I don’t know. I think the problem for me was that I was really unknown beforehand. The fact that all of a sudden here’s this name that no one had ever heard of was perhaps a scary thing for some possible commissioners. I really don’t know the answer to the question, although I do agree it would have been nice if a lot of commissions had come in, but it’s not necessarily something I want everybody to be dwelling on. There were some things, a couple of which I had to turn down.

FJO: The Pulitzer, of course, is a special case because, since it is primarily an award for newspaper journalism, every newspaper cares about it and so any composer who wins gets his or her name splattered in every newspaper in the country. And that means there’s this automatic publicity that travels far beyond our own community. Getting recognition through all these other panel-adjudicated awards is often how composers wind up on the radar of folks who make the decisions about who to program and who to commission in the first place—going all the way back to the BMI Student Composer Awards and the ASCAP Young Composer Awards (now called the Morton Gould Awards). The ASCAP Young Composer Award was one of your earliest accolades and you now frequently adjudicate those awards. So I thought your perspective on all of this was particularly relevant.

MW: I do a lot of panel work. So every year I listen to literally hundreds of brand new pieces by mainly young composers. It’s actually been wonderful work to do, because I know what’s going on with emerging composers. It’ a gift to be able to do it.

Cover for the innova CD boxed set American Masters for the 21st Century featuring white and black text overlayed on an abstract painting.

Melinda Wagner’s 1989 Sextet, which appears on the Society for New Music’s 5 CD-set American Masters for the 21st Century, is the earliest of her works available on a commercially released recording.

FJO: And in terms of doors opening, it was not too long after you received an ASCAP Young Composer Award that the Society for New Music performed your Sextet, which is the oldest piece of yours I know. That was really the very beginning of significant recognition for your music. The Society for New Music has been one of the great champions. But how does any composer get a track record where an organization that has a lot of respect has given its seal of approval? How do you reach that point where you go from emerging to “O.K., we know this person. We’re going to commission this person to do something.”

MW: I have found—Facebook, social media notwithstanding—that what still works is word of mouth. You bring up this Sextet. I got a performance of that back in the day when we were using cassette tapes. I think somebody from that group happened to mention to a person in another group, “We just played this piece that I liked. It’s a new piece. You might like it. Here, try it. Contact Melinda Wagner.” And it’s still true. At least my commissions have come about that way, through word of mouth. For instance, years and years ago, American Composers Orchestra played an early orchestra piece of mine called Falling Angels. My friend Kathy Rife happened to be playing viola in the orchestra and she went home and told her husband Joe Alessi, “There’s this piece that I liked a lot. So you might think about commissioning her.” This was many years ago when Kurt Masur was still conducting the orchestra. So it took a while. It has to go through a lot of channels. It actually took years. But finally the commission for the Trombone Concerto did come through. And it was purely through word of mouth. I’ve found that most of those commissions have come to me that way. Your professional life is to make human contacts. I, for one, don’t place a lot of value on websites.


FJO: I didn’t know that story about the Trombone Concerto. Of course, my first assumption had been that it had come about because of the Pulitzer. I remember thinking at the time, “That’s great, but they should have played the piece that won the Pulitzer as well.” But after you said it was already in the works, my second guess was that since it’s a trombone concerto, somebody there obviously heard your amazing brass quintet—which is one of my favorite pieces of yours—and thought, “She really knows how to write for those brass instruments. Let’s commission her to write a concerto for a brass instrument.” But that’s not how it happened, either.

MW: That would have been a more expected route you’d think.

Cover of American Brass Quintet CD American Visions featuring a photo of a canyon

One of Melinda Wagner’s most effective works is the Brass Quintet she composed for ABQ in 2000 which they recorded on their 2003 CD American Visions.

FJO: But the fact that it’s ultimately about people, I think, is key. And it harkens back to something you said earlier, which I think is very poignant, about music being completed by the players who bring it to life in performance. We can record one performance and listen to it again and again, but it’s not the same as having tons of performances by different people who each bring something different to it; even the same people performing a piece many times bring something slightly different to it each time. And this is why writing chamber music is so important, I think, because there are so many more opportunities for that to actually happen. Sure, you don’t get as wide a range of colors that you’d get with an orchestra, but I think you get a deeper level of something that is ideally what we all want with all of our pieces.

MW: It’s much more feasible with chamber groups. That’s for sure. Earlier you mentioned Wick, which is certainly in the repertoire of the New York New Music Ensemble who commissioned it. They performed it many times and recorded it. So that’s their piece, they have made it theirs, and they definitely own it when they play it. That’s the ideal.


FJO: Writing a solo piece might be the best opportunity to create something that can really have a life, because it’s just one person and if that person puts it in his or her repertoire and really works it, then that’s the sweet spot. I bring this up because I was really smitten with your solo piano piece Noggin after I heard Marc Peloquin perform it at Tenri earlier this season. In fact, it’s what convinced me that it was finally time for us to have this long overdue conversation.

MW: Thank you. That’s a much easier piece to peddle around. There are a lot of pianists who are very good out there. The piece has already taken on a life, and it’s not a very old piece—I think it’s two years old and it’s already gotten quite a few performances —so that’s been a very nice thing. I’m very happy about that. But it’s an easier situation.

FJO: Getting back to what you were saying about the piano earlier—you’re a pianist, and this is a solo piano piece. So did you work on it at the piano?

MW: I did. I can actually play it, very slowly. But I did play. I worked right at the piano when I was doing that, which is a little dangerous actually, because I’m not a professional pianist. I would not be able to go out on stage and play the piece, and one doesn’t want to compose just for one’s own abilities since there are better musicians out there.

FJO: You’ve also written a very nice solo guitar piece. I see a ukulele on one of your shelves, but I don’t think that you play the guitar.

MW: Not at all. But I did work with a guitar in my lap, because I wanted to make sure that some of the chords I was after were actually reachable. So it was very helpful to have the instrument with me. I don’t play the guitar and that was a little scary at first, but I would do it again because I ended up really enjoying it.

FJO: So does that piece have an ongoing performance life?

MW: Yes, it has, although that’s a little more difficult. The guitar is such a subtle instrument. You usually don’t see a solo guitar piece on a program. I don’t anyway. And it’s only three and half minutes long, which makes it kind of a special case. But I have had some lovely performances. One of them, which I like very much, is on YouTube.

FJO: That is a very nice performance. We haven’t yet talked about vocal music, which is interesting given all of our conversation about narrative and meaning. Music with sung words is the one realm in music where you can actually tell a story that people are going to instantly get, because we’re verbal creatures. I know you’ve set some really wonderful poetry—Emily Dickinson, Denise Levertov, and Robert Desnos—in your song cycle Four Settings. But I found it very strange that you gave the piece such an abstract title. Normally a vocal piece will have a very evocative title that comes from a title or maybe a line in one of the poems. It’s almost as if, since you were setting a variety of texts, you didn’t want to give one text weight over the others.

MW: Right. I suppose I could have come up with a more descriptive title, but I think you’re right—I really wanted to give the highlight to the individual poems. I don’t remember thinking about it too long. It would have been really hard to come up with a title for that because the reason I chose that collection of poetry had to do with light and darkness, shade and sunlight, those contrasts which are somewhat poetic sounding, I suppose, but I’m not a poet. So I didn’t think I was up to the task of coming up with a poetic, more personal sounding title. Four Settings is descriptive; it tells the listener what they’re going to hear. I wanted to set these poems. That’s what I did and I just sort of left it at that.


FJO: The other thing it implies, I think, is that they are settings, your own interpretations, not the only possible interpretation.

MW: That’s right. It’s certainly not, especially with regard to Emily Dickinson. Composers love to set Emily Dickinson. There are other approaches. So I think that was behind my choosing a title like that.

FJO: So, other kinds of projects involving a narrative—Four Settings is the only vocal piece of yours that I know, although you have also written several pieces for chorus. Would you want to write an opera?

MW: I don’t think so.

FJO: Why not?

MW: I’m comfortable writing for voice and choral groups, but I’m just not—I don’t think I have a very good answer for that. It’s just not been at the forefront of my mind to write an opera. Look, it’s so hard to get orchestra music played. I think an opera is yet another difficult path.

FJO: Even worse because the big opera houses are set up pretty much to do only older repertoire not just in terms of their overall design but also in the whole way they market what they do to audiences. Sometimes we’re lucky and they deign to do a new piece, maybe one a year, or one every five years—look at the Met’s track record which is absolutely horrendous. So if you’ve written an opera, even if you’re lucky enough to get a production of it somewhere, what do you do after that? And it takes years to write an opera, so it’s a huge investment for a composer to make given the likely potential returns.

MW: That’s it. So opera has not been something I’ve lusted after.

FJO: Of course, now we’ve entered what many folks believe is a golden age for smaller-scale operas, black box opera. There are a lot of adventurous people out there who are finding ways to make this work. So I think it’s an exciting time.

MW: I think that’s very exciting, too. And I love heavily-produced chamber pieces where there’s a visual element, or costumes, or some of it is scripted and staged. And there are all these young ensembles out there that are willing to do it. That I’m very intrigued by. I would go there in some future project.

FJO: We’ve talked about all these different idioms—orchestra music, chamber music, vocal, choral, opera. And every piece of yours I know—whether it’s something large like the Trombone Concerto or a smaller-scale piece like the Brass Quintet or Noggin—has been tailor made for its forces. And it’s clear from how you’ve described your creative process that you really make sure that it is. But, at the same time, it’s also really important to you that the music reflects who you are, which can be a difficult balancing act.

MW: Here’s the thing. My music is really difficult. While I think it is idiomatic, it is difficult to put together. There are lots of tempo and meter changes. It’s not music that plays itself or can be easily put together with one and a half rehearsals. But Beethoven is difficult. Brahms is difficult. I’m sure it wasn’t easy to put together [their music] when those pieces were new. I’m sure they had more than one and a half rehearsals in those days. I know that sounds kind of hard-assed or something, but that’s what I hear, and I don’t think that’s indulgent. I think it’s just who I am. Does one consciously go into a new project with the aim of writing easy music? Yes, we’re all asked to do that, for instance when we write for an amateur orchestra, which is fine. It serves no one to be willfully obscure. But to change a style solely for the sake of getting more performances—talk about slippery slopes! You’re really selling your soul to the devil if you start doing that.

FJO: And if you want people to understand who you are from your music, you can’t write anything but who you are.

MW: Exactly. They wouldn’t be hearing who I am and what I’ve worked on all these years. I think my responsibility towards a listener is to be as clear and articulate as possible given my language and my vocabulary. I don’t like it when my point of view is considered self-indulgent, because we all are after voice. When you find a voice, or continue looking for it, it is what it is.

FJO: So to turn this around, I’m curious about the things you admire in other people’s music, both of our time and from the past. But first, the composers from the past. I poked around the house while we were setting up the recording equipment, and I saw all these standard repertoire scores on the piano.

A pile of scores of Schubert, Mozart, Czerny, Beethoven, and J.S. Bach

All those scores…

MW: I’m very respectful of where I came from, and that is definitely from having been brought up with the standard repertoire—Bach and Mozart and Beethoven. That’s how I came to the piano and so it’s really where I started. Take Bach for instance. I have his 48 preludes and fugues on the piano here. Do you remember several years ago when there was that silly contest of who was the best composer on earth?

FJO: Of course the winner of these contests is never anybody alive, never a woman, and never an American. It makes my blood boil.

MW: I know; it was very silly, but sort of entertaining to see it as it unfolded. Bach ended up being the winner. It’s not like I was rooting for him, because I thought the contest was kind of silly, but Bach for me is someone I return to because all of the drama and beauty and excitement and angst in that music is built into the notes. You don’t have to have dynamics. You don’t have to add some kind of contrived interpretation. I think the best performers of Bach are the ones who stay out of the way and are technically accurate and yes, musical, but I think Bach performances where players are adding another element of drama are not the best performances. So I return to Bach because the peaks and valleys and the shape are the bricks and mortar of the music. I’m always going back to Bach to figure out how he does that. It’s fascinating to me. My work is very informed by Bach and Beethoven, too, whose music is so narrative. He uses anticipation and expectation and surprise so much and he’s obviously pushed the envelope formally; I go back to Beethoven all the time.

FJO: I definitely have always heard the Beethoven influence in your music, the shifts, etc., but I remember when your Orpheus commission was first announced. At first I thought it was a very unusual choice, because I didn’t immediately associate your music with Bach and Baroque sensibilities. Your music is very much about color and contrast, which is almost the exact opposite of steady state. However, after I started looking at your scores more in-depth I realized that all of your music is ultimately about counterpoint. But you’ve taken it to very different ends which goes back to the very beginning of our conversation where you said you don’t listen to music for the style but for something else, to get those timbres in your head so that they become second nature. And so I guess it’s the same thing with Bach. You’re getting maybe the—I don’t want to say technique—but maybe the tools.

MW: The tools. Yes. Well, all my music is contrapuntal. That’s the way I work. So it was sort of a no brainer for me to approach the piece that way. That is a major tool in my work.

A Schirmer score of Bach's Well Tempered Clavier sits atop a Steinway baby grand piano.

A score of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier sits atop the Steinway baby grand in Melinda Wagner’s home.

FJO: I wanted to take this into a discussion about mentoring other composers. Obviously Bach and Beethoven is the music that has mentored you. You had mentioned earlier that you look at tons of pieces by young composers. I’m wondering when you go through all this music, what are you listening for—well, actually, what you’re looking for since you’re looking at scores? What are you aiming to find in someone’s compositional voice? This sort of ties into what you want listeners to hear in your music—what do you want to hear and experience in someone else’s music?

MW: Let’s talk about the bigger issue here and that would be what brings me back to a piece of music, let’s say, a second time, a third time, [across a] lifetime? We all know that music is unique in that it is both temporal and completely abstract. I find that fascinating, the fact that music is sounded, it’s evanescent. It completely disappears after it’s sounded. It’s like a puff of smoke; it’s in the air. And yet, it’s really so very, very powerful. I’ve thought a lot about that. I think that when we really listen carefully to music, what’s happening is that we’re bringing into the present of every piece of music both our recollection of the past of that piece as well as our expectation of what’s happening, of what might happen in the future of that piece. So we’re really listening in three tenses at once, if we’re listening carefully.

When I’m listening, I want to yearn for the future of the music. I want to yearn for it. I want to build up my own expectations of what might happen. I’m happy when those expectations are foiled, if they’re done sensitively or cleverly. And when the expectations are met, that’s even better. But in any case, I want to yearn for that future, rather than simply luxuriating in the present of the piece. And I think a lot of listeners simply are happy to luxuriate in the present of the piece. For me, that’s a mistake. If I can’t go beyond that, then the piece probably won’t be a part of my life in the future because it’s not engaging those different ways of thinking. It’s not engaging memory, which informs my expectations of what will happen. So if I’m listening to a piece that is concerned only with wowing me in the moment, I’ll be wowed and I will listen a second time, but it will not likely hook me if that’s it.

I know that’s a huge intangible. It really is. But that’s really my criterion for listening to music. So I like music that takes risks. I like to hear hearts on sleeves. The music I don’t like to listen to is music that has relentless ugliness. I’ve used scratch tones in my music, but to hear it unendingly—almost abusive of the instrument, which I know is de rigueur these days—I don’t care for personally. This is a personal taste. I don’t care to hear that for many moments on end. When it comes to contests, that’s difficult, particularly with the ASCAP contest, because there are so many applicants—800, 900 people apply to that, so you have to have two levels of judging. First just to winnow out those great numbers of pieces that aren’t really eligible. And you don’t get very much time with a piece at all.

I’ve had this discussion with young composers all the time. Teachers used to say in the old days, “Write a piece that has great cymbal crashes and lots of drama and excitement in the beginning.” That’s a big danger because, first of all, how do you make a piece work with that? You can, but to follow up and actually make a whole piece with that kind of opening is really challenging, especially if you’re a little bit inexperienced. There was a while there where we would hear or look at a lot of these pieces that opened with great bravado and you know, drama, and then boom, the bottom would fall out. So that would be something we’d look for, if the bottom didn’t fall out. We’re talking about minutes of sifting through a score so you can see what’s happening. You can see if the composer’s going to back it up. The piece that did back up that big opening would be a piece that would rise to the top.

I think it’s important to grab the judge—or any listener—in some way. I don’t think it’s necessarily with a brake drum or a cymbal crash or a great flourish of sound, but sure, you have to grab the listener in some way. There’s nothing that smacks of pandering in that at all. I mean, what’s the point if you’re not going to grab the listener in some way. I’m glad to say that the ways that composers can do that are very many and varied. It doesn’t have to sound like movie music. If there is a climax, then this is another thing. If we see a big moment in a piece, it’s very important to see that the composer has worked for it. I certainly have heard a lot of music where there are a lot of stops pulled out. But compositionally, I think that it needs to be tended to and earned.

FJO: That really is what distinguishes the first listen from the second listen or the third.

MW: You know, after a while, if you’re an experienced listener, you really do hear through that pretty quickly. The other thing is strings of pretty chords. I’ve heard so many pieces that are lush and beautiful, but they’re chords that have nothing really to do with one another even if they’re I-IV-V-I. There’s some missing element in a lot of that music. That’s very hard to describe, but when it’s done well, it’s absolutely delicious. But not everyone can do it well, to—again—make one yearn for the future of the piece, to yearn for the next chord rather than simply enjoying the one that you’re hearing at the moment.

FJO: You taught composition for a number of years, but you don’t have a regular teaching job anymore.

MW: No, but I do a lot of masterclasses, so I get students for a couple of days, which is lovely.

FJO: Does that work fuel your own creativity or is it just a way of giving back?

MW: I love working with young composers. I really adore it. I always benefit from hearing their ideas and their music. I really am so lucky to be able to do this once in a while. When you’re teaching, you have to know the subject matter so thoroughly, because you have to know it well enough to be able to explain it to someone in very clear, simple terms. That’s a discipline one has to learn when one is teaching—I know what I know or I know what I like, but describing it to someone else, or explaining how you feel, even about your own music, is something that you really have to think about. So I think working with young composers and talking about music, I really have to go inward and think very carefully about what I really mean. So it does cause me to reflect a lot. And hearing their ideas, as I said, is very beneficial to me; it keeps me on the ball.

Manuscript pages on the wall, on a shelf, and scattered over a rug on the floor.

Another view of Melinda Wagner’s studio showing pages of manuscript paper scattered all over the room.

Caroline Shaw: Yes, a Composer, but Perhaps not a Baker!

A conversation in Shaw’s studio apartment in New York City
February 9, 2015—11:00 a.m.
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

When Caroline Shaw’s Partita for Eight Voices won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013, a great deal was made of the fact that she was—at age 30—the award’s youngest-ever recipient (beating out the previously held record of Charles Wuorinen, who was 31 at the time he received the award in 1970) and was just at the start of her musical career. (Never previously studying composition formally, she had only enrolled in Princeton’s doctoral program in composition in 2010.) The fact of Shaw’s newcomer status to the scene seemed to be even more pronounced by her reluctance to embrace the word composer, identifying instead as a musician.

For many younger musicians the word composer has connotations that are antithetical to the collaborative nature of a lot of today’s music making. But Shaw’s reticence to embrace the word has a different motivation. Equally active as a singer (in Roomful of Teeth) and a violinist (in ACME), Shaw was more concerned about accurately describing her musical life, which has many parts and is a delicate balance. Now two years later, when we met up with her in her tiny studio apartment a few blocks away from Times Square, she is more comfortable with the word composer though she still believes that musician is a more appropriately inclusive moniker.

Yeah, I am a composer. I’m also a lot of other things, a lot of other nouns. So I feel like if there was going to be one noun that was used, it doesn’t seem like the right one. It’s just a matter of taxonomy, the way things are categorized. It wasn’t necessarily a reaction to not wanting to relinquish the control, because—come on—we’re all a little bit obsessive. Musician just encapsulates what I am a little better, I think.

Nevertheless, Shaw’s compositions are central to her musical identity and, in recent years, she has been venturing far beyond works that she has created for her own performance. Her vocal and string playing background has undoubtedly resulted in her ability to create highly idiomatic and particularly effective music for voices (such as her Its Motion Keeps created for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus) and string quartets (including Entr’acte, which the Calidore Quartet has been touring this season). But equally fascinating are her solo piano piece Gustave Le Gray, which takes as its departure point one of the Chopin mazurkas, and a percussion quartet scored for flower pots called Taxidermy (written for So Percussion) which evokes the sound world of Javanese gamelan. Later this month, the Cincinnati Symphony will premiere Shaw’s Lo, her first composition for orchestra.

Still, the level of specificity and fixedness that are de rigeur when working with orchestral musicians is somewhat antithetical to Shaw’s personal compositional aesthetic.

It was the most foreign thing I’d ever done. Everything has to be in the score. … There’s something about this concept of baking versus cooking on the stove. If you write a piece where you have to notate everything and you give it away and you can’t touch it anymore, it’s like baking. You hope you followed the recipe exactly, and the chemistry’s exactly right. Then you can’t touch it anymore. But I do like the idea of following a recipe from some great chef that you like, David Chang or Julia Child, but you also can make it a little bit more like what you want. You change the sauce a little bit; you sort of trust the ingredients. … It’s why I guess I gravitate to smaller groups and people who don’t want you to have everything on every note. … When I have the choice to put information in a score or not, there’s always a careful thought about whether it’s necessary. If I didn’t put this here, would it give a sense of freedom to the performer to do something informed by the rest of the music? And is there enough other information there to give them a context to make a decision that they feel excited about?

Shaw found a way around the requisite notational strictness of writing for the orchestra by writing herself into the piece and creating a part for herself that is more open-ended, more like stove-top cooking than baking.

The solo part is just vaguely written out, only the parts that they really need. A lot of it is left open. And some parts I’m actually going to play with the first violins the way you would with a Mozart concerto where you have the option of playing the tutti parts. You know, I didn’t think that I would ever write for orchestra. But I’m glad to have had the opportunity. … I do think that there’s a changing relationship between composers and performers now. People are really giving a little bit more trust to each other than in the past. And I like that.

It was great to have an opportunity to talk about a broad range of topics with Caroline Shaw—performance practice, sashimi, painting. Shaw is remarkably unselfconscious, extremely enthusiastic, and bursting with ideas. It is indeed a great thing for the contemporary music scene that she has become a significant part of it.

Shaw and FJO in conversation

Frank J. Oteri: There are already several really good interviews with you out there which invariably start by asking you about Partita and the Pulitzer. So I don’t want to do that. But you’ve done lots of other fabulous stuff, too. Partita’s wonderful and we’re eventually going to go there, we have to, but I thought it might be more interesting to begin by talking about your solo piano piece Gustave Le Gray. I’m curious about how and why you decided to construct a piece around music by Chopin and how much of his music is actually in your piece.

Caroline Shaw: It actually started out as my Princeton Generals project. At Princeton, there’s this assignment to write a piece responding to another composer, another piece, something that’s really different from what you do. It often ends up being very similar to what you do. We sort of find simpatico elements. There’s something about the way that Chopin changed harmony chromatically, something that Dmitri Tymoczko has talked about. In my work, I found that I’m using a lot of standard I-IV-V, really Baroque, chord progressions, just blocks chords. So I wanted to create a piece that nested around this little Chopin mazurka. It’s the A-minor Mazurka. It starts out almost like “Chopsticks,” and then this perfect, beautiful melody spins out on top of it. I wrote something that starts that way and just creates a little encasing for the piece. You can actually perform the whole Chopin inside of it, or you can perform the piece separately if you want. There are two options. There’s a little seam where you can either seamlessly go back into my piece, or you can open it into the Chopin and close it off from the rest of the piece.

FJO: You’ve predicted my next question. The performance of it by Amy Yang that’s streaming on your website and the performance of it by the Italian pianist Enrico Maria Polimanti that he posted to YouTube are totally different from each other. Polimanti’s version had the whole Chopin.

CS: Yeah, I created a couple little hinges so you can do either one. I would like to do that with other pieces, too, where you write something that just kind of sets you up in this way—21st-century ears, or something like that. You hear it in this different context, then you come out of the piece rather than with applause, with something else. Maybe it’s irreverent to the older piece, but I find it’s actually kind of like having a really nice conversation with a friend.

FJO: In a way, it’s like having a single abstract painting in a room with a bunch of old portraits or vice versa, having one painting that totally doesn’t belong with the others. It results in a really weird space that makes you look at the old work differently and the new work differently, because they’re in a dialogue with each other that they never otherwise would have been. I guess most classical music concerts are like that. If you hear a new piece, it’s surrounded by all these much older and more familiar standard repertoire pieces, and then people are scratching their heads with the new piece thinking, “Why doesn’t it sound like the other ones?“

CS: Often I think it’s hard to find things that speak to each other properly if they weren’t intended to be that way. But sometimes programming can be very thoughtful. There are some projects recently—Michael Mizrahi, David Kaplan, and Timo Andres either commission or write works that are responding to others. David Kaplan has a project where he commissioned, like, ten new pieces responding to Schumann’s Davidsbündlertänze. Everyone’s responding to a different movement of it. It’s cool, because then you can program something with new things and old things. They’re intentionally relating to each other, rather than just this sense of “oh, that was odd.” But I also like the juxtaposition of totally random things right next to each other. It’s the whole shuffle idea on your iPod where you have Mozart, the Cranberries, and Pavement right next to each other.

FJO: Is that what’s on your iPod?

CS: No, those are just things that I happened to have read about in the last 24 hours. Pavement, Cranberries, and Mozart. I don’t listen to Pavement, but I have a friend who does.

FJO: Slanted and Enchanted is a wonderful record.

CS: Oh yeah?

FJO: Anyway, you also mentioned Timo Andres, who did this re-composition of Mozart’s incomplete Coronation Concerto in which the stuff he used to fill in for the missing left hand of the solo piano part doesn’t really sound like Mozart. There’s also Night Scenes from the Ospidale, the project that Robert Honstein did with the Sebastians using Vivaldi.

CS: I played in the premiere of that. Yeah, it’s really beautiful.

FJO: This all feels very much part of our zeitgeist, a real manifestation of postmodernism, like those mashups of Jane Austen novels that have additional characters added in.

CS: It’s like classical music fan fiction, revisiting this older music that a lot of us really love, I think, very sincerely. It’s not in a kitschy or ironic way, like “I’m going to deconstruct this little thing, because isn’t that silly and old so let’s undermine these systems,” at least not in my case or in some of my friends’ cases. These are things that I grew up with and really love, they’re part of—people say my musical DNA. I think that’s a kind of bullshit concept—something that I came from.

FJO: You were talking about the difference between your harmonic palette and Chopin’s harmonic palette just now, the I-IV-V versus leaning into passing chords, almost like jazz substitutions. In your program note for Gustave Le Gray, you described your own music as being like sashimi, whereas Chopin was more like prosciutto and mint.

CS: Oh, my god, that’s a great combination!

FJO: Sashimi is all about the taste of a piece of fish; it’s total immersion in one flavor. Prosciutto and mint are each immersive, but combining them creates yet another experience.

CS: Yeah.

An excerpt from the solo piano score for Caroline Shaw's Gustave Le Gray

An excerpt from the solo piano score for Caroline Shaw’s Gustave Le Gray. © 2012 Caroline Shaw Editions. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: You wrote this piece to get outside of yourself and what you normally do. As a result of doing this piece, have there been more ingredients than just the piece of sashimi in the other pieces you’ve written since then?

CS: I think so. I don’t know if it’s because of this piece, but I did want to try different combinations of harmonies that I’m not naturally attracted to. I like jazz chords with substitutions and slightly meandering things with irregular chord permutations, but there is something beautiful about sashimi. That’s how I often describe the beginning of Passacaglia. I just want to hear one chord, but not in a driving, ‘70s or ‘80s traditionally minimalist way. So not experiencing this one thing in time repeated and repeated, but just singularly. Like one instance. Like a painting, but music is a time-based art, so you kind of have to negotiate this with minimalist tendencies. I don’t know. Are there things that I now do after that that I didn’t before? Definitely. I’ve been trying to push myself a little bit more.

FJO: The title Gustave Le Gray is a bit of a curve ball. “Prosciutto and Mint” would have perhaps been a less cryptic title or maybe “Prosciutto Mint Sashimi.”

CS: That would be delicious! Gustave Le Gray was a pioneer photographer in France in the mid-19th century, around the same time that Chopin was the thing in Paris. He was famous for developing a technique to represent clouds in a photograph. It’s kind of a simple idea. But there was something about thinking about creating an image that’s a still image and watching it slowly develop that seemed appropriate for a title.

shaw bookcase vertical

FJO: Well it’s funny, when I started thinking about the title I started wondering if perhaps they knew each other, but I couldn’t find any evidence that they did.

CS: I don’t think they knew each other. Maybe they did. I don’t think that their arts work in the same way—music is so different from photography—but what if you thought about some element of them as overlapping?

FJO: Well, what I thought was that the title was a really subtle way of telling people that what you did compositionally was somehow a sonic photograph of that Chopin mazurka. It’s not the actual Chopin piece but rather a new piece created based on it, just like a photograph of an object is a new object based on that original object.

CS: Yeah! I should probably mention there’s another piece that I wrote, a string quartet called Punctum, which is maybe the origin of my starting to think about the photographic moment and its relationship to music. There’s a Roland Barthes book called Camera Lucida which is a meditation on photography, memory, and nostalgia. He describes these two concepts—the punctum and the studium. The studium is sort of like what the photograph’s about, like a photograph of three people sitting around the table, playing cards, and looking at each other. And you can see a mom, a husband, and a child. So that’s what the photograph is about. But the punctum in that photograph is maybe the man’s tie which is a particular color that’s just really striking, or the way that the little boy is looking off to the side. That’s the moment that actually grabs you and that you remember. I don’t know if that’s related to Gustave Le Gray, but it’s really related to this idea of capturing a moment and trying to identify a slice in time either of music or of a scene.

FJO: Ha, that’s another curveball title, when I heard that title I thought—

CS: Punctum, contrapunctum?

FJO: No, I thought Punkdom, as in The Kingdom of Punk, Sid Vicious in one corner and Joey Ramone somewhere else.

CS: You’re so punk! You’re way more punk than I am.

FJO: Well, I think your piece Taxidermy has a somewhat punk title.

CS: Oh yeah?

FJO: It’s a macabre word. You’ve written that you like the word because it’s somewhat creepy. I think it’s a fabulous and somewhat punkish word to use as a title. But at the same time it seems a bit weird to me that you chose the word for—of all things—a piece for So Percussion.

CS: Well, it’s going back to the idea of the sashimi. You present; you put this here. It’s going to fall down. Presenting one thing—here, this is all we have. It’s not decorated. And I’m going to present it to you again. Like, here’s another piece of perfect salmon. It begins with them playing just these little flower pots. There are no pitch indications, so it’s not about the chord or the harmony. It’s just about one sound versus another sound, a very simple binary. Then other things happen in the piece, and eventually it becomes these two chords that happen. It’s almost like you just have this deer in the headlights look. Like this is all I’m giving you. There’s something awkward about it, something a little bit naked, something macabre, as you said—creepy, funny, quirky, but kind of also grand. You think taxidermy and you think about a giant moose or tiger looking at you that was once this grand creature but now it’s just frozen in time. You’re experiencing it a hundred years later.

Also it came from this idea of the awkward moment. Let’s say you’re on a date with someone and you say, “I’m really into taxidermy.” There’s a pause. It’s awkward.

FJO: That didn’t happen to you, did it?

CS: No, it didn’t.

FJO: And had it happened to you, you wouldn’t have been the one who was into taxidermy?

CS: No, no, no. But one day I’m going to write a great little short story about some meeting of two people. But how do you create that awkward pause in music?

FJO: When I heard that title, I immediately thought the word taxidermy seemed like a really potent critique of classical music. Because in a way, that’s what classical music is: all this focus on things from over a hundred years ago that were once such a big deal in the culture they were created in—grand, like that moose. But now in the 21st century—

CS: —it’s here placed beautifully in the dining room, and we’re eating a lovely meal next to this ancient grand moose. I think you make an excellent point about what older classical music is. Classical music is a broad term that means many things, but to many who are not in that classical music world, it means a particular thing which is a particularly 17th, 18th, and 19th century version of music. And there’s a comfort level in experiencing that music in museum-like situations which I’m actually not critiquing. I love museums. I love concerts where I sit and listen very carefully to something that was beautifully constructed a long time ago. I love that experience. But I think that sometimes there’s not a real awareness and consciousness of what that is and what it means for new music now and what the possibilities are for thinking about older music and thinking about newer music.

FJO: But of all the pieces you could have called Taxidermy, you gave the name to something you wrote for the one kind of ensemble that could never be accused of being musical taxidermists. Percussionists pretty much exclusively perform new music, especially the So guys who either write or commission almost everything they play.

Excerpt from Caroline Shaw's score for Taxidermy

An excerpt from the solo piano score for Caroline Shaw’s Taxidermy. © 2012 Caroline Shaw Editions. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

CS: I was wondering why you thought percussion was an odd choice. Okay, yeah.

FJO: I could see a string quartet being called Taxidermy, maybe something for violin and piano, or, probably most appropriate, an orchestra piece.

CS: I understand your point. I think there might be something more antagonistic than I intend if I called a string quartet Taxidermy. I’m very conscious of the string quartet as this incredibly old form, but I also really, really love it. So I don’t want to poke anyone’s rib. I’m going to stop now.

FJO: Well, before we do, the reason I wanted to bring up those two pieces of yours that we’ve been talking about before anything else is in some way to address what a lot of other people have been saying and writing about you: You’re a new kind of person in our world. You don’t think of yourself as composer. You prefer to be called a musician. Since you’re a singer and play stringed instruments, you write very idiomatically for voices and strings. While your vocal pieces are really well suited to voices and your string works take full advantage of your insider performer knowledge of what these instruments are capable of, Gustave Le Gray is very pianistic even though you’re not out there publicly as a pianist. And Taxidermy is also totally idiomatic even though you are not a percussionist. While it’s true that much of your music has grown out of your relationship to music as a performer, those two pieces clearly didn’t. They came out of something else.

CS: Right. I can relate to the string and the vocal sound very naturally. But I don’t play the piano. I used to play piano, and I can play some percussion, but I wanted to create something that is outside of my natural, physical, musical world. In both cases, they were written for particular people that I knew and so it comes out of their sensibilities. There’s something about So Percussion, their attitude and their quirky, careful relationship to what they do, and their willingness to just play flower pots very gently. The piano piece Gustave Le Gray is written for Amy Yang—who is a pianist far better than I could ever dream to be—and for her particular relationship with the repertoire that she loves, the instrument, and with her older teachers which include Claude Frank. Whether or not it comes from a different place, I don’t know. I’m still kind of figuring out what the music is that I like to write. I guess we all are all the time. Every chance you get is a chance to discover something new about yourself, and writing for something that is less familiar to you is a great way to—as Steve Mackey has said—put your brain into a different shape for the day. So I guess that’s what those pieces did.

FJO: Well, to be a bit of a provocateur here and to get back to this whole notion of taxidermy, in a way, when you’re writing a piece down you’re sort of taxidermizing it to some extent. If you create music that’s for your own performance, you can still play around with it since—after all—it’s yours. Sure, when you write a piece for another ensemble, you have to let it go, but the whole relationship between composers and performers of score-based music is predicated on respecting what is put down on the page since the way the composer is present in the music—even if he or she is not actually participating in the performance of it—is through those written instructions. So in a sense, you have to somehow taxidermize yourself when you write a piece for others.

CS: Oh, that’s an interesting point. I would like to think that one doesn’t preserve themselves strictly in this text form when writing a score. So far I’ve always been able to work pretty closely with the people who perform it. There are many important things when writing music. You know, create a score that represents accurately what you would like, whether it’s different parameters that are easy to represent like pitch, duration, some things about timbre—but timbre is a really impossible one to actually represent. Phrasing sensibility is also impossible to represent. Humor is really hard. You can give little hints of it, but to give someone a sense of your own relationship to this music and your own humor and attitude and how they should approach it is so difficult. And I don’t want that to ever be frozen in time. When I was playing early music, whether it was Corelli, Mozart, or Beethoven, biographies of these composers were important. Did they exactly want this, or is it open? Was it a culture of “you can improvise on this note” or “this is exactly what you should do”?

Caroline Shaw at home.

Caroline Shaw at home.

FJO: I see you’ve got a Baroque violin behind you on the wall.

CS: With a broken string. I perform mostly with Roomful of Teeth now and a little bit with ACME. I haven’t done a gig on Baroque now in a year and a half. I miss it a lot. I love that exploration of a time when there was less information on the page. We actually just did a concert a couple nights ago with Roomful of Teeth and ACME, and I did some arrangements of Purcell. There were no dynamics or tempo indication in the score, so I left it like that. And it was a really great experience of working closely with these two groups. We all know each other’s sensibilities and trust each other to see what comes out of that organic performance practice. What do you do with four whole notes? How can you shape that when the information isn’t strictly given? When I have the choice to put information in a score or not, there’s always a careful thought about whether it’s necessary. If I didn’t put this here, would it give a sense of freedom to the performer to do something informed by the rest of the music? And is there enough other information there to give them a context to make a decision that they feel excited about?

FJO: You’ve hit on something that I think is really a key issue in contemporary music. In the 20th century, a lot of composers felt the need to put articulations on every note in a score, to offer precise instructions about every dynamic level, an exact metronomically determined tempo indication, and so on. But what would have happen if those scores had fewer details? Is Purcell’s music any less worthwhile because those details are missing? On some levels, the malleability of performance and the possibility of variable interpretations are what make a piece of music feel alive and not like a piece of taxidermy.

CS: I agree with all of those things. At the same time, I think it’s a very beautiful artistic gesture to indicate all of those things, like the quality of the accent or a mezzo-forte dynamic. Everything on every note is an incredible human creation. That’s an awesome thing. It’s not the way that I work or that some of the music that I’ve previously played works, so I’m happy to maybe live in that world a little bit more. But I do think that there’s a changing relationship between composers and performers now. People are really giving a little bit more trust to each other than in the past. And I like that.

Shaw's pet fish

Shaw’s pet fish

FJO: I don’t want to sound like I’m only ragging on composers here for over-notating. I think the other part of this phenomenon is that performers came to expect it. I once “under-notated” something and it drove the person playing it crazy. I kept getting phone calls: “What do you want here? How do you want this phrased?” My answer was, “How do you want to do it?” and the player was flummoxed by this.

CS: We haven’t talked about that. Yeah, that’s a terrible bristling reaction.

FJO: This sort of thing is particularly an issue in the orchestral realm where there is usually only time for two rehearsals and the clock is always ticking so anything that’s not precise on the page is perceived as an irresponsible waste of their time. I don’t know what your experience has been working with orchestras or if you’ve had an orchestra piece performed yet.

CS: I just did one! I’ve only done one, and it’s being done in March. And I wrote myself into the piece so I could be there on stage, because I didn’t want to be far away. I just felt weird about it. It was the most foreign thing I’d ever done. Everything has to be in the score. But, at the same time, I know a little bit about what the players’ repertoire is. It’s an orchestra that plays a lot of grand, old repertoire. And they have a beautiful conductor who is French and who specializes in Mozart, so I wrote with that kind of thinking.

There’s something about this concept of baking versus cooking on the stove. If you write a piece where you have to notate everything and you give it away and you can’t touch it anymore, it’s like baking. You hope you followed the recipe exactly, and the chemistry’s exactly right. Then you can’t touch it anymore. But I do like the idea of following a recipe from some great chef that you like, David Chang or Julia Child, but you also can make it a little bit more like what you want. You change the sauce a little bit; you sort of trust the ingredients.

There are so many things to talk about with this. The different kinds of reactions that players give to a composer depending on how much information they’re given goes so deep into what musical community is, who we’re writing for, who’s playing it, who’s listening to it, what the size and the history of the institution is behind the music, how it’s funded, and what the venue is. All these things have such an effect on the way the music is written, even though we like to think that that’s not the case. The idea of writing for a standard ensemble that executes it in this robotic way—I hate it; it’s not the kind of world that I want to live in. It’s why I guess I gravitate to smaller groups and people who don’t want you to have everything on every note. You know, they won’t bristle at that. I have had that one time. It was my first year as a student at Princeton. Well, it wasn’t a bristle-y reaction. It was like, “Well, I could really use more dynamics here.” But I could sense that I lost all trust; the player just didn’t trust me to have done my job and thought I didn’t really know what I was doing. It was hard. So I gave a few more dynamics, but then I said, “You should think of the way that you approach Mozart versus Haydn versus Beethoven. It’s not all the same. It’s slightly different, but there is a general sensibility that you come to that with. It’s how you play four eighth notes in a row; you wouldn’t play them robotically. You would create some kind of shape.” But a quartet has that time, an orchestra does not.

FJO: So where and when is this orchestra piece happening?

CS: March, in Cincinnati.

FJO: Fantastic. How long is the piece?

CS: It’s 17 minutes or so.

FJO: You said you wrote yourself into it, so is it a concerto?

CS: I don’t call it a concerto. It’s a piece for a lot of players, and I’m going to play the violin.

FJO: But are you in the violin section or are you actually a soloist?

CS: Soloist. But actually the solo part is just vaguely written out, only the parts that they really need. A lot of it is left open. And some parts I’m actually going to play with the first violins the way you would with a Mozart concerto where you have the option of playing the tutti parts. You know, I didn’t think that I would ever write for orchestra. But I’m glad to have had the opportunity.

A passage from Caroline Shaw's orchestral score for Lo

A sneak peak at Caroline Shaw’s first orchestral score, Lo. © 2015 Caroline Shaw Editions. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: Well, this gets into this whole musician versus composer thing. I wonder if not wanting to have obsessive control over the music you write is part of what made you reticent to use the word composer to describe yourself, even though you are in fact a composer.

CS: Yeah, I am a composer. I’m also a lot of other things, a lot of other nouns. So I feel like if there was going to be one noun that was used, it doesn’t seem like the right one. It’s just a matter of taxonomy, the way things are categorized. It wasn’t necessarily a reaction to not wanting to relinquish the control, because—come on—we’re all a little bit obsessive. Musician just encapsulates what I am a little better I think.

FJO: I find it weird that people don’t realize that composer is a subset of musician.

CS: Just like there’s a terrible thing that reviews sometimes do: “the musicians and the singers did a great job.” I’m like, oh my god, guys! Basic concepts of classification here.

FJO: But the thing about the word composer that I love is that, unlike artist or writer, it means someone who puts things together. So it really isn’t some super powerful creator who is making something from nothing. The only other field where this word gets used is in perfumery; the people who put different chemicals or essences together to create scents are also called composers.

CS: Oh really? That’s very cool.

FJO: Yeah, so I love the word composer.

CS: Me too.

A passage from Caroline Shaw's score for "Sarabande," the third movement of her Pulitzer Prize-winning Partita for Eight Voices

A passage from Caroline Shaw’s score for “Sarabande,” the third movement of her Pulitzer Prize-winning Partita for Eight Voices. © 2009-2014 Caroline Shaw Editions. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: The music you’ve created for groups that you’re also involved with as a performer—like Partita for Roomful of Teeth—really has been composed in the “put together” sense. The different movements were actually first performed at different times and in different places over the course of a few years and you kept revising it. Many pieces evolve this way, but until the Pulitzer changed their rules a few years back to allow a first recording of a piece from a calendar year to qualify and not just a first live performance, pieces made this way got overlooked. Of course, if you’re gigging and workshopping a piece, there is no one set premiere. Although it blows my mind that even after you won the Pulitzer for it, you’ve still been tinkering with it. So you don’t think of it as a fixed document even now.

CS: I don’t. Most things haven’t been tinkered with, but I did add a whole section to Courante and kind of remixed it. We took that out it recently. It’s just too long. And we change the vowels on things a lot. We felt like that “aaah” last time was feeling a little bit abrasive. It didn’t have the right effect with the audience because they heard it as something aggressive, so let’s make that “aaah” something a little bit brighter and happier and you change the mouth shape just a little bit, and it changes the effect. And we changed the quality of the breaths in Courante. All of the time we’re changing it. And once in a while, we’ll have a sub who comes in and brings in a new idea. So I don’t like to think of it as a fixed document, but there’s definitely a lot of information there that is set. That is a recipe that one can follow, but still cook on a stove. You can still add some pepper, you know.

FJO: So it’s not baked.

CS: Not baked. I can’t say I’m baking it so hard.

FJO: It’s interesting that you said we and not I.

CS: Yes, Roomful of Teeth.

FJO: So even though it’s your music, you feel like the piece belongs to the whole group on some level, the whole group molds it to some extent so in some ways it’s less authorial, less a strict baking recipe where you absolutely must put in those two cups of sugar or it isn’t your cake.

CS: Well, you know, if it needs two cups of sugar, and you’ve put in like one cup of flour, I’ll correct it. I think people definitely look to me to give some suggestion. But as much as I possibly can—and this is true with other stuff I’ve done with the group—I really want to empower people. I would love for them to have suggestions. Unless it’s a terrible idea, I’d love to try it in a performance. If you can create some kind of sensibility among each other that encourages people to come up with ideas and feel empowered to articulate them, that’s what I would like to create.

FJO: Now this can happen very organically and very fluidly if you’re part of a group, or if they’re friends, or if you’ve worked with them. But if you write a piece of music on a page, and it’s out there in the world and somebody obtains a copy of the score in, say, Zagreb or Shanghai, they’re not necessarily going to be able to say, “Hey Caroline, what do you think of blah-blah-blah?” So it’s going to become more like baking than like cooking on the stove.

CS: Yes, that’s true. Then the relationship to the performer is very different.

FJO: And that’s starting to happen with your music now more and more, I would imagine.

CS: Yeah. Then you realize you’ve created something that is just out in the world without you, without the little quirks of your sense of humor and your attitude. Maybe somebody’s watched an interview to get a sense of who you are as a composer and as a person, but if they haven’t and they just ordered the score, they just have this thing. They want to play it. Hopefully you’ve given them something to dig into and to be engaged with and that they will want to shape in their own way. There’s nothing more you can do. You put it in the oven.

But at the same, I think about what you guys do at NewMusicBox. It is this really incredible archive of getting to know a composer. So if you are in Zagreb, and you order a piano piece from someone, you can Google them. It’s not like 20 years ago when you just couldn’t; you just didn’t know anything about anyone. Now you can watch a video. You can get a sense of who they are. You can have a little sense of the biography of someone developing over time. I like to think that that’s what the world is going to look like in 20 years. Getting music, but also being informed by the way that that person’s other music was performed and the way they think about music.

FJO: With the orchestra piece, which affords the least amount of personal interaction with the musicians since there’s so little time to prepare for it, you still wrote yourself into the piece. You didn’t want to let go that much; you wanted to have that interrelationship with these players. I’m thinking also of Its Motion Keeps, your piece for the Brooklyn Youth Chorus. You wrote yourself into that as well. I’m curious about how that all evolved and played out. It wasn’t a group that you had regularly been a part of, but I think they really served what you did extremely well.

A passage from the score of Caroline Shaw's choral composition Its Motion Keeps

An excerpt from the solo piano score for Caroline Shaw’s Its Motion Keeps. © 2013 Caroline Shaw Editions. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

CS: Yeah, they were amazing. I still did get to work with them, so it changed certain things that were a little ambiguous in the score. There’s a little thing that goes nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah, which I can’t really say in the score, but it takes two seconds to describe it. And then you have it. They did an amazing job. I did write myself into that piece, too, because I’m still at the beginning of this writing music for other people. I don’t know what the future will look like. For now I like being there with them. But it’s been done without me playing viola since then.

FJO: So is the viola part optional, or did they bring in someone else to play it?

CS: They just brought in another violist.

FJO: With the Cincinnati Symphony piece, you said a lot of the solo part isn’t written out. What happens if someone else wanted to do it, say, two years from now with the LA Philharmonic?

CS: I just assume that no one’s going to want to do it.

FJO: You don’t want to think that.

CS: I could feasibly write out a part for someone to play. But actually, the Brooklyn Youth Chorus is a great example of that. There’s something written out. Originally it was pretty loose, and I made it up, and still whenever I play it, there’s a whole section that I basically improvise within a certain structure. Some nights I like to build it up here. And then the next night, I just actually take myself out mostly for five bars. But there is a part that’s written out, and if they hire a violist to play it, they can play that. It’s fine.

FJO: So is whomever they hire to play the viola part expected to improvise as well?

CS: [The score] says, “Play this as if improvised.” They could either play exactly what’s on the page or—depending on the person’s background and personality and the way they like to engage with music—they can loosen it up rhythmically. Let’s say they were preparing to play the piece and they saw a YouTube video and said, “Whoa, none of that is the same. There’s a little more freedom here.” So maybe they take a little bit. If they called me and said, “Hey, I’m playing that piece.” I’d say, “Yeah, that whole section in the middle, you can kind of do what you want. This is the basic idea. Don’t play too much. Let them play here; do something that’s tasteful.” And then you don’t know what they’re going to do.

FJO: So how connected are you with performers when they play your music? I know that the Calidor String Quartet just played your Entr’acte at Juilliard. Did you work with them at all?

CS: Well, the cellist in the quartet was a cellist that I played a Mozart quartet with my first year in grad school. We’re good friends, so they sent me a recording before they performed it at the Phillips Collection in D.C. For the most part it was the ideal match, and I was sort of involved. But the quartet has actually been performed by other people and I haven’t been involved and I have no idea how it went. It was written to be a quartet played not necessarily by a new music specialist group, but a group that is used to playing Mozart and Beethoven. I like the piece a lot and I feel good about that quartet being a kind of calling card as a way into my music.

A passage from the string quartet score of Caroline Shaw's Entr'acte

An excerpt from the solo piano score for Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte. © 2011 Caroline Shaw Editions. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: I imagine that’s starting to happen more and more now, the music is slipping away from your ability to shepherd it, which is a good thing but also requires letting go.

CS: Ultimately, it’s a great thing. We have a very short time on this earth. Music is music. It should be out there in the world. People should be excited about playing it. And there shouldn’t be a sense of weird control freakiness that I probably could have. So I’m very happy that it’s going out in the world. Whether or not it’s a problem that I’m not involved, it’s probably better. At a certain point, you can tinker with your recipe to death. I used to paint. You can paint something and just keep on doing it. Then ultimately, if it’s a little bit brown and kind of smudgy, you can’t really work with that anymore. So it’s better to let it be what it is, let it go off, and trust people.

FJO: Well, part of why letting go is hard is the difficulty involved with transmitting new techniques. You were talking about the breathing in Partita and then the Brooklyn Youth Chorus making certain sounds. It reminds me of all the extensive prep work that goes into a performance of a Meredith Monk piece. There’s no adequate notation for a lot of that stuff. So what do you do to get it done by other groups? Several published Meredith Monk scores are accompanied by audio recordings to give interpreters a clearer sense of how to make certain sounds. But even with recording, you don’t necessarily get some of the nuances of how those sounds are made. Her own ensemble workshops her music rigorously. In some ways, your music has gone down that same path—certainly it has with Partita.

CS: Yeah, a little bit. I’ve never actually met Meredith Monk. I saw her one time and I got so nervous, I had to turn around. She’s just an amazing musician. But the thing about her work is that it’s not just about the sound. You could get a recording and imitate the sound. There’s something theatrical about it. It’s like a playwright writing more than words. You give a stage direction and there’s a sensibility to it that is connected to the narrative and the character and what they’re trying to say. I think that is really hard to notate in music. Again, it’s this concept of attitude and humor and the subtleties of that. I think my music is probably much more notated than Meredith Monk’s is. I’m still kind of an obsessive engineer about it. This is where everything goes. But then there are these little, almost theatrical subtleties that have to be passed down orally.

FJO: As you said earlier, notation does some things very well but others not as well. No matter how obsessively you write something down, there’s only so much you can do. We have all these added advantages over, say, Purcell. We’ve increased the kinds of details we can notate. There were no metronome markings back then, for example. And nowadays, as you said, someone can watch a YouTube video of a performance and maybe get something really precise if there’s good camera work to get the shape of someone’s mouth. When Molly talked to Joan La Barbara for NewMusicBox, she also recorded a whole lesson with Joan La Barbara which captured very detailed things about how she produces some of her sounds. So you don’t have to meet Joan La Barbara to learn how to do her stuff anymore.

CS: That’s amazing.

FJO: So when somebody gets, say, a score of Partita, do they get other things with it? What materials do you give somebody to ensure that it’s going to be as close to the recipe as is appropriate without being too controlling, but also have it be what you want it to be?

CS: There’s something that I wrote at the bottom of the first page of the score. I don’t remember the words exactly, but basically it was that no one document should be prescriptive. Be free and live life fully. That’s what I wanted that piece to go out with. The recording is very helpful and the score is very helpful, but ultimately do it the way you would like to do it. The piece was just done last week by Camerata Nova in Winnipeg. It was the first time [another group performed it]. I went out there to work with them, but ultimately they still did things their own way. Tempos were a little bit different. Pauses were a little bit different. The sound of the breath was different. Because every person—every instrument—is different. It’s not like a standardized clarinet, which everyone plays a little differently but the instrument itself is more or less the same. All eight instruments of the eight singers are different.

FJO: This is why I think most listeners really identify with singers more than they do with instrumentalists and why, certainly in pop music, a singer’s performance of a particular song has such a stamp of auteurship on it to the point that we call someone’s version of a song a cover. But we don’t call it a cover when a group performs a Mozart string quartet that tons of other folks have played.

CS: It’s fascinating to hear other versions of a similar thing. I love covers. I mean, that’s another thing. I love YouTube covers of people just doing pop songs. I love this song so much; I just want to sing it myself with my guitar for you. And then it’s a slightly different version.

violin cases

FJO: You’ve done what are essentially covers of some really classic American folk tunes, like “I’ll Fly Away.”

CS: Sort of. That is part of a set of four songs. It was a slight subversive dig at the commercial country music industry. It’s like: please, everyone stop making this glitzy. Just strip everything away. So I wanted to do my cover of it.

Going back to Mozart string quartets, you’re just doing this cover of this thing that somebody else’s band did a long time ago. But I love that there are slight differences. That works if it’s a musical community that enjoys hearing a mix of new things and old things. At a certain point, there’s not enough time in the day to hear all the older things and older new things and newish old things again and again and then also hear more new things. So how do we find a balance between enjoying different versions of stuff, but also embracing things that are entirely new? It’s hard. I think about this a lot, because I would love for there to be more repeat performances of new music. It’s such a shame, whether it’s orchestral or chamber music or electronic pieces, there’s one instance where it’s premiered and then there are very few instances that are shared communal experiences of that piece being done again, either by the same person slightly differently or by another group.

FJO: One way we can hear pieces again and again is through recordings, either hearing a physical CD or LP, hearing it on the radio, or now—more and more—hearing it online. And of course, it was through a commercially released recording of your piece that you won the Pulitzer.

CS: Yeah.

FJO: Thankfully you have SoundCloud embeds of several of your other pieces on your website, since nothing else is out on CD yet. Is there anything else in the works?

CS: There’s a cello and percussion duo, New Morse Code, that has a Kickstarter campaign. [Ed. note: They plan to record Shaw’s piece for them, Boris Kerner.] They’re really great advocates for new music. But that’s the only one I know of that’s going to be officially recorded.

FJO: Having multiple opportunities to hear a piece of music live is probably something that you’ll be addressing in your role as composer-in-residence for Music on Main, since I know that the artistic director, David Pay, is very interested in experimenting with performance modalities and how people hear stuff.

CS: David is definitely interested in how people hear new music and how they have conversations about it, whether it’s before the performance or after. I think the idea of the composer salon, having people just be able to talk about their work and ask questions, is great. There’s a chamber series in Manchester, Massachusetts, run by a couple of friends of mine from school. Every summer they’ve done a new work. They play it at the beginning of the concert, and they play it again at the end. So you hear it twice at the same concert, which I wish was done more often, especially if it’s not a very long piece. That’s something I’ll talk about with David.


By now, you may have heard that this year’s Pulitzer Prize in Music has gone to Caroline Shaw for her vocal work, Partita for 8 Voices. In the recent past, media and musicians alike would take notice at how that year’s winner stood apart from the dusty old names of previous generations. Shaw, however, appears to have so many non-traditional aspects about her that observers are spending most of their time simply rattling off the reasons why she’s not like all the rest–Zachary Woolfe’s New York Times article seemed to enjoy putting her Twitter-made quote “I don’t really call myself a composer” right up front.

While it is easy to point out the many surface-level differences between Shaw and her predecessors in the Pulitzer clubhouse (She’s young–and a ‘she’–and a student–and a performing instrumentalist–and a singer!), I’d like to take the opportunity to make some observations about the piece itself, consider what makes Shaw truly stand out as a composer, and close with some thoughts on the bigger picture from my vantage point out here in the hinterlands of western New York.
Front Matter

“Partita is a simple piece. Born of a love of surface and structure, of the human voice, of dancing and tired ligaments, of music, and of our basic desire to draw a line from one point to another.”

One might be tempted to take Shaw’s statement about the work’s simplicity as a self-aware ruse, but Partita for 8 Voices is, from my perspective, an intentionally simple piece made up of simple materials. Each movement introduces its elements in a straightforward manner that comes across as being both honest and without embarrassment, much like the artwork that inspired the piece.

The “front matter” of the score, where composers give instructions to their performers, does not go into great detail about the construction of the work, but rather nods in several directions to the various ingredients within the score. Shaw’s clear explanation of the various non-traditional notations in the score illustrates the variety of styles that she chose to utilize, including yodeling, Korean p’ansori techniques, Georgian intonation inflections, as well as Inuit throat games and three different styles of Tuvan vocal practice–xöömei, kargyraa, and sygyt. (Check out this YouTube video of Alexander Glenfield for a demonstration of the techniques.)

Finally, another paragraph in the front matter gives insight into the composer’s mindset–not only about the piece itself, but about her thoughts on the limits of printed notation, the use of recordings as interpretive tools, and her own flexibility as a creative artist:

“The 2012 recording by Roomful of Teeth can be considered an essential part of the score. Many sounds and gestures cannot be notated in a conventional way, and the composer encourages drawing on a variety of sources available with today’s technology to realize this piece with other ensembles in the future. However, no single document should ever be treated as ultimately prescriptive. Be free, and live life fully.”

I. Allemande
The first movement, “Allemande”, does not wait to hint at Shaw’s sense of humor; she begins the Baroque dance suite with each singer handing off square dance calls spoken in rhythm to one another while the lowest bass calls out “two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight” (ubiquitous in dance studios throughout the country). Spoken word soon morphs into the first sung musical statement, sung not with text, but rather with standard IPA vowel nomenclature. Ringing with a very bright timbre reminiscent of the Bulgarian Women’s Choir, the initial material is delivered pentatonically, harmonized in open 5ths and set in two uneven phrases before it quickly fades underneath more spoken word statements. The “fade,” in fact, is one of the points of interest, as Shaw utilizes a subtle yet random intonation fluctuation on the penultimate chord, and a separate but equally fascinating technique that the Roomful of Teeth ensemble created called “e.y.s.” or “eat your sound” (described in the score as “a multi-step tongue filter”).

The movement is divided in two parts–the first, longer section alternates between various iterations of spoken word (incorporating text from “Wall Drawing 305”) and variations on the initial thematic material, while a second section, imitative and lyrical, floats freely over shifting drones before finally closing on what should be a straightforward tonic chord made colorful through slight intonation fluctuations. The Pulitzer panel mentioned that “she changes gears so quickly and so easily, and every turn is so unexpected…”, and this movement is a case in point. Shaw actually uses a very limited amount of melodic material throughout “Allemande”, but two aspects of her style keep the elements from becoming stale–variation (she repeats material but continually varies the textures, key areas, affectations, etc.) and drama (for instance, the transition between the first and second section, starting at 2:39 on the Roomful of Teeth track, is very effective in its use of sung rhythmic counterpoint on top of the first instance of harmonic motion with a scalar bass line).

II. Sarabande
Shaw introduces the listener to a relatively unused vocal technique of scooping a hummed pitch quickly down-then-up as a pick up into each one of a series of lush chords; she describes it as an abstraction of a Korean p’ansori articulation. Under the third iteration of the chord progression in the women’s voices, she adds all four male voices in unison with a simple melodic line (above which at least one singer is to freely sing a twisting obbligato line) which leads to a brash new line by the unison men in a very high register–easily one of the most powerful points in the entire work. The movement ends very quietly but with the addition of a repeated motive of harmonics using a Tuvan throat singing technique.

III. Courante
One could be forgiven if one thought the beginning of “Courante”, with it’s extensive use of quick intakes and exhaling of breath, had erotic connotations, but soon enough the elaborate rhythmic interplay between the breaths transforms into something best described as “air percussion” that creates a groove upon which other ingredients are added. As that groove wanes, we are introduced to the only music not composed by Caroline Shaw–a women’s chorale setting of George F. Root’s 1856 hymn “Shining Shore”. This seeming non-sequitur actually works quite well–it’s a contrast with everything that came before it (especially the relatively quick rate of harmonic change)–and after some metric modulation the groove returns at a much faster pace with the chorale on top. After the groove peaks and disappears this second time, the women both sing higher and with more complex chromatic harmonic progressions than in the entire work combined. The men try their best to start the groove a third time, but soon both quartets vocally collapse and dissipate in a fluttering of quick breaths.

IV. Passacaglia
“Passacaglia”, while programmed last in the series of movements, was actually the first movement Shaw composed back in 2009. Shaw mentioned in the Times article that her thought was, “All I want to hear is just one chord.” She does indeed start with a single chord–a D major triad, to be precise–and constructs a simple yet attractive 10-measure chordal progression that evolves each time it repeats with subtle timbral changes, including alternating chest and head voice between two chords, and asking for the choir to “belt” followed by a “pitched exhale.” As the choir divides from four to eight parts, she quietly shifts the harmony to the dominant (followed by a tasty tritone sub of the dominant) while the voices pull apart from their chorale formation to a slightly more complex texture (including throat singing) upon which the spoken word recitation from Lewitt’s work “returns” until the entire ensemble is speaking on top of each other. Slowly the Passacaglia is re-incorporated pointillistically until a short but brilliant transition using “vocal fry” brings back the initial progression in the tonic key at full volume. I mentioned drama before–this spot is by far the most dramatic of the entire piece–and it creates anticipation for a second climax only to pull back at the last second for a quiet yet unresolved conclusion.

Caroline Shaw, Partita for 8 Voices, "Passacaglia" (p. 48). Used by permission.

Caroline Shaw, Partita for 8 Voices, “Passacaglia” (p. 48). Used by permission.

Roomful of Teeth
Before I come back to Caroline Shaw, I’d like to make mention of Roomful of Teeth. Investigating their website, it’s obvious that they have a very special and unique concept for a vocal ensemble. It’s not often that one finds a list of “experts” who have been brought in as coaches over the years to train the singers in the many techniques that Caroline incorporated into her work. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, from the sound of it I would posit that Partita would not–could not–exist without Roomful of Teeth. In the same way that Duke Ellington could not have made his masterpieces without Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonsalves, Cootie Williams, Sam Nanton, and Harry Carney, I’m going to guess that Caroline would not have been able to write such a work without the support and talents of this special ensemble. I say this not to diminish Caroline’s composition, but more to celebrate the fact that collaboration between composer and performer(s) can be so strong as to allow for the creation of something special like this.

When I first heard that Caroline won the Pulitzer, I was pretty surprised—I’ve been trying hard to keep track of living composers for several years now and I will freely admit that I didn’t know her. I was even more surprised, however, when I realized that not only had I heard Caroline play– I’d heard her play a piece of mine. She, along with her colleagues of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME), performed a movement from my string quartet Speedvisions at Joe’s Pub for a Sequenza 21 concert. I had witnessed Caroline in her element–with an ensemble, playing an inner part rather than soloing out front. If one looks at the lion’s share of her work as a violinist and a singer, much of it is within the context of playing in an ensemble, as a member of a team.

I mention this because of a quote that she gave Anastasia Tsioulcas for NPR a few days ago:

She noted that she sent in the piece for Pulitzer consideration—not that she thought that there was much chance of winning, but because she wanted more recognition for Roomful of Teeth’s work. “I thought,” she says, “‘Well, I might as well see what they think.'”

As I mentioned before, Caroline Shaw is different in many ways from previous Pulitzer winners, but it is the sense of enjoyment in being a part of something bigger than oneself that, in my humble opinion, makes her stand out. We composers are ultimately a solitary lot when it comes to our work—’tis the gig, as it were—but that can also engender a tendency to become myopic within one’s own career path. Caroline belongs to the new generation of artists who seem to thrive in a community of their own making, playing in each others’ groups, and helping and supporting one other because they remember when that option did not seem to be possible earlier in their careers. If there’s anything to be gleaned from this gift to Caroline, it’s that this generation has indeed found its place.

This does not mean, however, that I am content to fold Caroline into that generation as one of many. She may not have the assumed pedigree or portfolio that is typical for recognition at the level of the Pulitzer Prize, but she wrote a musical work that, while indeed “simple,” is also touching, playful, and extremely nuanced in its sense of voice and sense of self. Caroline did not win the Pulitzer because of who she is or where she studied, but for the piece of music that she created, and that should give us all hope.