Counterstream Radio is your online home for exploring the music of America’s composers. Drawing upon New Music USA’s substantial library of recordings, our programming is remarkable for its depth and eclecticism. The station streams influential music of many pedigrees 24 hours a day. Keep listening and discover the sound of music without limits. Click here to open Counterstream Radio.
To make something beautiful is revolutionary (not low class, not easy, not a sign of low intelligence). Last year I wrote an article about my approach to music for Heresies [No. 3, p. 37, 1980]. In it, I said that “the relationship of feminism to my work and the evolution of the form of my music are in violent flux.” They still are, but the dust is settling.
I once believed that the concept of the music was more important than the sound.
The idea that beauty is revolution is a revelation to me. I once believed that the concept of the music was more important than the sound, that the politics of the notation was more important than the time limits of the rehearsals and therefore, more important than the sound of the performance… that the numerological equivalents for the instruments were the determining factor for instrumentation… that pitch must be explicit and rhythm improvised… that if the composer says it is so, two string players and two lighting technicians can be a string quartet… that any composition must be consistent throughout and that internal change in the piece showed lack of compositional concentration… that more than three chords in one piece meant confusion or commercial music or both… and on and on. It is a very liberating feeling to come back to my childhood definition of composition, i.e., writing down inspirations. I’ve rediscovered the part of my brain that can’t decode anything, that can’t add, that can’t work from a verbalized concept, that doesn’t care about stylish notation, that makes melodies that have pitch and rhythm, that doesn’t know anything about zen eternity and gets bored and changes, that isn’t worried about being commercial or avant-garde or serial or any other little category. Beauty is enough.
And of course, it’s a problem, too. At different times in my life I have looked out and decided that Grieg’s music was the most beautiful… that Schoenberg’s music was the most beautiful… that Cage’s music was the most beautiful… that Oliveros’s music was the most beautiful. Now I feel as if my own music is the most beautiful, and the feeling is one of having jumped off the cliff with my wings on. I don’t know if they are going to work, but it’s too late now. This deciding about the “most beautiful” is necessary, and I think composers make decisions like this all the time. How else could they choose a style to work in and stick with it for fifty years?
Beauty means perfect to me, but it also has an additional meaning having to do with being pleasurable, rather than painful. Beauty is hard to make. The making is painful, and involves a certain amount of craft, and a relaxation of the part of the brain that says, “Don’t write that. X wrote those four notes in 1542 or 1979 or 1825 or whatever period you are worried about being influenced by.” You have to say yes to what comes out. You can scoot it around a bit, but the basic material that jumps out of you is you. If you say, “That sounds like a raisin commercial,” you are telling yourself you are trashy. You are allowing others to tell you what real art is.
Musical careers have a lot to do with class and money, but they don’t influence society’s acceptance of the music.
Real music soars above class society. Musical careers have a lot to do with class and money, but they don’t influence society’s acceptance of the music, after the stuff has been broadcast to the people. Composers are people who create music—not concepts, not machines, not posters, not parties. It takes just as much (maybe more) intelligence to invent a synthesizer or to make a crowd-pleasing poster for your concert, as it does to make beautiful music. But doing those other activities does not make you a composer, though they may add to your career or savings account. Being a composer of playable music still does not guarantee beauty. That’s a problem you have to solve for yourself.
Beauty got a bad name sometime after the First World War. Musical craft (ear training, orchestration, the real reasons for voice leading, etc.) was hardly even taught in the 1960s and ‘70s, probably because of the revolt against a tradition that could allow the war in Vietnam to happen. Beauty seemed a low value in relation to life itself. But life goes on and ugliness and lack of skills and nihilism are no excuse. The destruction of the world would not improve social conditions, and making painful, ugly music will not redistribute the wealth.
Ugly music will not redistribute the wealth.
Beauty is a revolution of the spirit. The euphony of the animating principle of humanity has the revolutionary power of healing, expanding, and revitalizing. Life is worth living and beauty is worth making and, in relation to current attitudes, these ancient ideas are radical. They are capable of making certain people swoon. If you think beauty is counter-revolutionary, ask yourself if you think mutilation improves the state of mind of the depressed.
History teaches us that no matter how meticulously we plan, something unexpected will inevitably occur. And if we take the exact opposite approach to careful preparation, which is to completely embrace serendipity and “go with the flow,” life can be an amazing adventure. Take, for example, the life of Kentucky born and raised composer Beth Anderson.
The only child born to constantly quarreling parents who raised her on a family farm between Mt. Sterling and North Middletown in Montgomery County, Anderson did not have a great deal of access to music early on. But her grandmother, who lived on the other side of the county, owned a Mason and Hamlin upright piano which fascinated Anderson so much that she was given a toy piano for Christmas at the age of three. Just before her seventh birthday, her parents sold the farm and the family moved to the town of Mt. Sterling. Shortly thereafter her parents divorced, and as a consolation, Anderson started piano lessons with a local teacher in town; one of the first pieces she learned to play was Scarf Dance by Cécile Chaminade. Around that time she also began to write short piano pieces as well.
“I really was thrilled to find out that there existed in the universe at some point a woman who wrote music,” Anderson acknowledged when we visited her in her apartment across the street from the Brooklyn Museum. But perhaps an even more significant chance encounter than the one with Chaminade was finding a copy of John Cage’s book Silence in the Mt. Sterling Public Library some years later when she started high school. As she remembered, “I fell in love with Cage, and then I read every book that he said to read. I looked up every name. I used it as a catalog of what to care about. He was my guy.”
Against Anderson’s wishes, she acquiesced to her mother’s plan for her to attend the University of Kentucky and again, as luck would have it, John Cage and Merce Cunningham showed up there for a week-long residency in 1968. That initial encounter with Cage validated her own compositional instincts, and she decided to leave Kentucky and head to the West Coast. But once she was in California, she tried to randomly connect to Lou Harrison and soon discovered that pure happenstance doesn’t always yield the best results, as she told us:
I had a friend who had a friend who was driving a race car, and he had to be down in the Aptos area, where Lou lived, at a very early hour. He dropped me off at six o’clock in the morning, and I walked up and knocked on the door. I hadn’t told them I was coming, because I didn’t know I was coming until the night before and I didn’t have the phone number. So I just knocked on the door, and Bill Colvig, Lou’s companion, got up and let me in, and went to start water for tea, and went to talk to Lou, to get him up and come talk to me, because I explained what I was there for. Lou was clearly not having it. He didn’t want to get up. He didn’t know who I was, or why I was there bothering them at dawn. Eventually he came out and we had a little conversation and a little tea. … But he wasn’t at all interested in being my teacher. … That was my experience of Lou in 1969. And then, in ’74, I met him again at the Cabrillo Festival, and … then we were friends. But before that, I think I was just this crazy girl that showed up on his doorstep at dawn.
Still, once she was at Mills, pure chance led her to study with Terry Riley, who had only just begun teaching, and Robert Ashley. Infectious melodies and conceptual work inspired by text would be hallmarks of Beth Anderson’s own compositional style.
Beth then relocated again, to New York City, where she co-edited the legendary Ear magazine, spearheaded various initiatives to promote the music of female composers, and served as a piano accompanist for numerous dance companies while she continued to write pieces that explored converting the letters of a text into musical pitches and left the durations up to the performers. Eventually though, she abandoned this experimental approach and began to compose works that showcased unabashed tunefulness and regular rhythms. And yet, all this music is also the result of a form of serendipity, albeit one that is admittedly more controlled, as she elaborated:
I write little shreds and tatters and then figure out how to have more of this and less of that, and cut them into each other. I can write a whole section that was actually on a drone, like on a C, and then another whole section that was on F. Then I would cut them into each other, and I would suddenly have tonic-subdominant, tonic-subdominant, but they were from actual different pieces of music. People hear them and hear the harmonic movement, but it wasn’t really movement. It was just cut-ups.
Our own encounter with Beth Anderson this past month was also, by and large, a product of chance. Back in January at the Chamber Music America conference, I ran into her and she mentioned that she was writing her memoirs. Then in March, she sent me an email to ask if I knew of anyone who’d be willing to read them through for her before she attempted to approach book publishers. Since I love to read, I volunteered, and she showed up unannounced at my office to hand deliver a copy. On a whim, I started reading it on the subway that same evening. I was so compelled by her story that I couldn’t put it down and I finished the 258-page manuscript within a couple of days. I had known Anderson for many years and had heard a great deal of her music. I was always intrigued, but didn’t fully grasp it on some level. Yet after reading the story of her life, everything finally made sense—the shift in compositional style, the seemingly “normal” sounding music that becomes less and less normal the more carefully you listen to it, all of it.
“I wasn’t into planning,” she explained. “I didn’t seem to understand the concept, and I still sort of don’t. I mean, I brought you that book the other day, and you were totally surprised. I just sort of drop in.”
April 6, 2018 at 1:00 p.m.
Beth Anderson in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded in Anderson’s apartment in Brooklyn
Video and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu
Frank J. Oteri: We’ve known each other for a very long time, but I feel like I know you so much better now after having read the first draft of your memoirs. So thank you so much for letting me into your world that way. It was a fascinating trip, and it has helped me to understand so much more about you and your music than I did before. And it also inspired me to want to talk to you about it. Many people like to feel they know something about the composers whose music they care about, but it isn’t always positive. The more I’ve learned about Wagner, the less I’ve wanted to hear his music.
Beth Anderson: There is that. But sometimes it’s fun to know something about the person. I want my music to be paid more attention to. I felt like I’d sort of dropped out. It’s nice to have another way to engage an imaginary public by talking about my life. Obviously, if nobody reads it, it won’t have any positive effect on the number of people that listen to my music, but if a lot of people do, then maybe it would.
FJO: I do think when people know more about a composer, whether it’s some detail about that person’s life or even just a photo, it is possible to have more empathy with that composer’s music. I think this was a fundamental idea that led to the creation of Meet The Composer in 1974. If we want people to think composers are relevant to our world we must show that the people who actually create it represent the broad and diverse community we live in. One of the things that struck me in your memoir was how you learned about Cécile Chaminade while you were still a beginning pianist. I think that set you on a path that you might otherwise not have followed if every composer you studied had been an old dead guy.
“I really was thrilled to find out that there existed in the universe at some point a woman who wrote music.”
BA: I really was thrilled to find out that there existed in the universe at some point a woman who wrote music. That was cool. But it took a long time to find another one. They just did not show up in my practicing Bach, Beethoven, and Liszt, until I found Pauline Oliveros. And there was a big space between Chaminade and Oliveros.
FJO: But before you learned about Pauline Oliveros you also studied with Helen Lipscomb and learned that she was also a composer.
BA: But the only things I’d ever heard of hers were a trio and her teaching pieces. She did not have a big concert output, as far as I knew. I think that either the music is lost or somebody else besides me has it. One of her relatives sent me the Trio—that same trio, as though it were her whole output—and wanted me to be the keeper of it because I was the only person they could find on the internet who mentioned her name, which is tragic. I had hoped that the University of Kentucky would have her stuff, because she lived in town forever.
FJO: Even though there was this long time between finding women who wrote music, I was struck by something you wrote about your mindset at the time you had discovered Cécile Chaminade: you didn’t realize at that point—because why would you as a little girl growing up who just learned a piece composed by a woman—that there was this really huge disparity between the performances of music by male and female composers.
BA: And the availability of their music—until the ‘70s, when that set of three records came out called Women’s Work. It was sitting in the window of a big book and record store on Fifth Avenue [in Manhattan]; I was walking down the street and I almost fell over myself. My God! Women composers. So cool. There just weren’t any records. I had found Chaminade in a John Thompson book, and I didn’t find anything except Scarf Dance. It’s not like you could go down to the Mount Sterling Public Library [in Kentucky] and find Ruth Crawford Seeger or anybody else. So it was very exciting. It took a long time for that stuff to start coming out, and the musicologists are doing a great job bringing it forward, inch by inch. But Jeannie Pool, a friend of mine from the distant past, was trying to get a master’s writing about women composers, and her committee told her that this was not something that was appropriate.
FJO: What reason did they give her?
BA: There weren’t any primary sources. There wasn’t any music. They thought that it was unimportant and that she wouldn’t be able to find any stuff to write about. So she put out a little booklet about women composers which was very nice. She got a master’s eventually, but in California with different people. I’m not sure what she actually ended up writing about. But in New York, she was definitely told not to do it.
FJO: That’s terrible. To return to the Mount Sterling Public Library and the things that you did manage to find there in your formative years, it’s interesting how deeply some of the things that you found so early on stuck with you—like John Cage’s book Silence. You grew up in Kentucky, which is where bluegrass music began. You do seem to have an affinity for similar harmonies in your own music from many decades later, yet—as far as I know—you were not directly exposed to any of that music. You wrote about an uncle who loved opera.
BA: My uncle hated country music and my mother hated country music. I wasn’t allowed to listen to the Mount Sterling radio station, which actually had people from the hills coming down doing live singing on the radio there. That was discouraged. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a live bluegrass concert. I’d hear it in movies or something, but that’s about it. The music I was aware of was popular music, and piano music [I was studying], and stuff from the ‘20s, ‘30s, and ‘40s that my mother sang, so it took a while to get around to other stuff. And hymns. I was big on church music at the time, because they paid me to show up and play.
FJO: And yet for whatever reason, I hear some kind of relationship between your music and bluegrass, as well as the older music from which bluegrass derived, old timey music. And yet it was not because you were immersed in it.
BA: Well, I love folk music. I was a big Joan Baez freak. My favorite song was “Old Blue.” I used to have a big old dog named Blue, and she and I used to sing it together. Every time you say the word blue, she would howl. So, it was a chorus.
FJO: I was struck by your list of the three earliest songs that you remember hearing: “Love and Marriage,” “Lover, Come Back to Me,” and Rosemary Clooney singing “This Old House.” What about those three songs stuck with you?
BA: I think it was the ideas behind the songs more than the actual tunes, because my parents were so busy getting divorced and re-married, and we did live in an old house, then we lost the old house so there were a lot of house and divorce stories going on in my life.
FJO: And music became central to your life after their final divorce from each other.
BA: That’s what I got. I finally got that piano. My grandmother’s piano came to live with us.
FJO: But even before that, you had toy instruments and you tinkered with them. It was almost like you were set up to become an experimental music composer.
BA: I used to think that all those toy instruments ruined my ears as a child because I was clearly set up to become a microtonal composer. Those things are so far off, especially the harp. That was awful. It jangled and circled around a pitch; the strings were colored rubber bands. It was a bad instrument.
A very young Beth Anderson with her kitty at Sideview Farm in Montgomery County, Kentucky c. 1954. (Photo by Marjorie Celeste Hoskins Anderson, Beth Anderson’s mother, courtesy Beth Anderson.)
FJO: So, looking back to the very beginning of you creating your own music, you obviously experimented with the toy instruments. But there’s no surviving music composed for them by you. Did you know about the John Cage toy piano suite?
BA: Not yet, but I performed it on my MFA recital and various moments after that. I love toys.
FJO: But perhaps it was only when you started taking piano lessons and had to learn to read music that other people had written that you consciously started thinking about creating your own things.
BA: Yes, I thought it was fun to write stuff down. As soon as I got a pad of music paper, I was off, not that anybody thought it was a good idea. It takes away from your time practicing, and everybody wanted me to practice more and write less.
FJO: Your mother played the piano, but it was basically a hobby for her. Yet it seems to me that from pretty early on there was this idea that you were going to be a musician.
BA: Well that’s what I thought, but every year my mother would say, “Do you want to quit?” It cost her money and it was money she didn’t wish to spend, and she didn’t see any reason for me continuing on with this. She wanted me to have piano lessons, the way she wanted me to have ballet and tap. She wanted me to have a certain grace, what little girls are supposed to have who grow up and marry doctors or whatever. But she didn’t expect it to be a career, and she was mildly appalled that I kept at it, and at it, and at it. It was not a good thing. Unlike Prokofiev’s family, who kept pushing and pushing. His family was so helpful. Mine was not.
FJO: But since you were an only child, I think that in some ways music became a kind of surrogate sibling to you, a constant companion.
BA: Well, it certainly gave me something to entertain myself with that didn’t require other people.
FJO: But it’s interesting that even though your family didn’t want you to do music, they thought that playing piano was better than writing music.
BA: Well, according to my teachers. My mother didn’t care one way or another. She just was hoping I would quit. She wanted me to play the flute, because she saw that as social and getting out of the house, and doing something with other people, so she was willing to keep paying two dollars a month for the flute forever.
FJO: As it turned out, you wound up playing flute for years in wind bands, even in college. A very big part of your formative experience with music was playing in wind bands.
BA: And marching band was my primary exercise for many years. That was the world’s most exhausting activity as far as I could tell.
FJO: It also exposed you to a lot of repertoire that you might not have been exposed to otherwise. Certainly much different repertoire than the piano music that you were playing.
BA: Yes. If I had been a good enough flutist, I could have eventually played in the orchestra at Henry Clay. But I wasn’t one of those two girls. We had a sea of 30 flutes. The fact that I was eighth chair was pretty good; they had some really good flute players.
FJO: So your school had an orchestra as well as a wind band?
“The fact that I was eighth chair was pretty good; they had some really good flute players.”
BA: Yeah. And Henry Clay in Lexington had a really good symphonic band. We marched in the Cherry Blossom parade in Washington one year with the cherry blossoms falling from the sky. It was so magical. Definitely the best experience I ever had with marching.
FJO: And you stayed with it for years and years, even after you could have done other stuff! What was the appeal?
BA: Well, in college as a music major, you had to have an ensemble activity, and I could already play flute. So I just stayed with the band instead of switching to chorus. Not that I didn’t sing in chorus. I was also in Madame Butterfly one summer. I was one of those girls in a lavender kimono with an umbrella. I liked singing, but I stayed with the band.
FJO: One thing that I find so incongruous about your early musical studies is that when you were studying the piano you were basically playing music exclusively by old dead men, but in band you were playing newer music, undoubtedly including some music by living composers, though probably not stuff that would have sounded like Webern and Stockhausen.
BA: No, but there was Persichetti. There was an awful lot of Leroy Anderson, and The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and Sousa, and re-writes of Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. I don’t know why that seemed to come year after year with those clarinets going forever and ever.
FJO: The reason I bring this up is that it seems so whacky that it was one of your early band teachers who first introduced you to 12-tone music. That seems like a very odd person to be the person who did that.
BA: Mr. [Richard] Borchardt. Well, he was a special guy. I wish I knew more about him. He’s not with us anymore. It was [during] a summer band clinic of some sort—we were practicing the 1812 Overture and there was some kind of little composition class. I, of course, got involved with that, and he chose to teach us how to do 12-tone music. I thought that it was the coolest thing in the world. So I wrote this quartet right away, and he put it on the show with the 1812 Overture. That was kind of a fun side by side.
FJO: Does that piece survive?
BA: Possibly. But it’s not in Finale, I’ll tell you. And I don’t know where it is.
FJO: So you won’t be taking it out to show us.
BA: I’m hoping not to. It wasn’t a great a piece, but it was hilarious because it kept being performed. There was a wine glass at the end that was supposed to break, but it never broke.
FJO: Yeah, I love that story. It’s what actually made me want to hear the piece.
BA: With the wine glass hitting the metal and not breaking, just going thump.
FJO: Maybe you should try it again with a cheaper wine glass.
BA: Oh, I think that’s the point. It was cheap, and therefore it wouldn’t break. It was too tough. It bounced. You have to get an expensive, really elegant one.
FJO: One that could cost more than hiring a musician to throw it! But aside from the curiosity factor of the wine glass at the end, there isn’t a lot of 12-tone band music. So it’s notable that the person who wanted to put you in that direction was a band person.
BA: Well, I taught for Young Audiences a little bit. It’s a lot easier to teach something that’s coding or that has a system than to say, “Give me your heart,” in a clarinet solo to a child who doesn’t know what their heart is or even how to write for clarinet for that matter. So it was much easier to tell us, “Take these notes, put them in some weird order, and then turn them upside down” and stuff. You could talk about it, so it’s easier to teach.
FJO: Considering how much band experience you had, it’s surprising that you didn’t wind up writing more band music.
BA: The only other thing I did was a Suite for Winds and Percussion, and that was a re-write of music I wrote for a film score. I just took it and turned it into that because Robert Kogan, who had an orchestra in Staten Island, had asked for apiece that would not use his strings because the strings weren’t very strong at that point. So he wanted me to just use the rest of the people. So it’s not exactly a real band; it’s for orchestral winds and percussion.
FJO: An orchestra minus the strings, like the first movement of Bartók’s Second Piano Concerto. Curiously though, in addition to being turned onto 12-tone music by your band director and then writing a 12-tone band piece, when you were enrolled at the University of Kentucky, one of the legendary band composers, John Barnes Chance, taught there. His Second Symphony and his Variations on a Korean Folk Song are really terrific pieces. But I suppose that by the time you got to study with him, your head was somewhere else.
BA: Yeah, I was into Webern and Cage. I really wasn’t trying to hang out around Korean folk songs. I was going in a different direction. I wanted to know about electronic music desperately at that point, and he made fun of that. He thought it was humorous. He could do it, it’s just that what he was doing it with was so basic that it was absurd. It was useful for the theater department, but it wasn’t exactly something he would call his music.
FJO: So what made you so curious about electronic music? How did you even become aware that it existed?
BA: I don’t know. Maybe John Cage talked about it in his books. I got to UK (University of Kentucky) when I was 16 and started working in the music library. I was reading Source, and I had a wonderful music history teacher, Kathleen Atkins. She played Tod Dockstader in class. That was my introduction to real electronic music, music that took faucets dripping and turned it into something else. I love Tod Dockstader! He doesn’t seem to be the big hit to everybody else that he was to me. Then I started hearing everybody else. Kathy wanted to build an electronic studio at UK, and they wouldn’t give her the money. So I left. When I went back to school, I went to Davis, and they had an electronic music studio, and I studied with Jerome Rosen. I think his level of interest in electronic music was trying to help us learn how to make advertisements using electronic music, because he was always assigning things that were 30 seconds or one minute. He didn’t want to hear a ten-minute electronic piece. He wanted to hear some tiny little gem that would somehow excite him. Then, of course, I finally got to Mills, where they had much more space and an interest in bigger pieces and different styles.
FJO: Let’s stay for a little bit longer at the University of Kentucky and those early years before you went to California. You were able to learn about Tod Dockstader, which is amazing because that music was not very widely distributed at the time. It wasn’t available everywhere, but it got to you. John Cage’s Silence, which was published by Wesleyan University Press, also reached you.
BA: In high school.
FJO: Which is amazing. And also Source Magazine.
“I fell in love with Cage, and then I read every book that he said to read.”
BA: They had a great a music library. They used to have a lot of money for it, and now they’ve got more, because there’s some lady down there in Kentucky that supports a lot of things, including that music library. The last time I was down there, I went over to see what was up, and it’s gorgeous. They have every periodical, even Fiddle Tune News; it’s that big. They’ve got all of it. And it’s not like when I was in NYU; I would go to look up a magazine and somebody had stolen half of the issues. I couldn’t find the whole run of anything. There were just huge holes in their collection. I hope they fixed that. But UK didn’t have that problem. They had a lot of stuff.
FJO: So if somebody was interested, they could find these things and go down that route. They could know that these things exist. That’s really important in terms of developing a sense and a knowledge base, finding that stuff on your own rather than just being told about it. I think it was really important for your personal development that you found those things on your own.
BA: Well, I fell in love with Cage, and then I read every book that he said to read. I looked up every name. I used it as a catalog of what to care about. He was my guy.
FJO: And then by dumb luck, pure serendipity, you go to the University of Kentucky, and he has a residency there.
BA: He shows up, and then I dropped out of school. And I come back and he’s there. He was at Davis for a term. It was freaky and wonderful.
FJO: One of the big revelations to me in reading your memoir is that your life has been this chain of seemingly pure accidents that completely flow into each other. You take these sudden turns and then you’re somewhere else, but it seems totally natural even though it’s totally unexpected. Interestingly, it’s similar to a lot of your music, which has been described by other people as collage oriented. I think that word doesn’t give an accurate sense of what it is, because when you think collage, you think these things don’t belong together, but in your music they do. It’s like they’re carefully woven together, even though they’re not connected. So you don’t realize that they shouldn’t work together, but they do, and it’s kind of the same way your life has unfolded.
BA: And the quilt.
FJO: Yes, exactly, we’ll get to that, too, in a bit. You initially didn’t want to go to the University of Kentucky, but your mother wanted you to go there. You wanted to go somewhere else because you were interested in John Cage. But then suddenly Cage was at the University of Kentucky.
BA: And the only reason I didn’t study with Ned Rorem was because I forgot to ask him to hang out and wait for me. The only reason I didn’t study with Pauline Oliveros is because I got a ride past her when I was hitchhiking. I always say, “Well, that’s the universe.” The universe was just going with it, whatever it was. I wasn’t into planning. I didn’t seem to understand the concept, and I still sort of don’t. I mean, I brought you that book the other day, and you were totally surprised. I just sort of drop in.
FJO: And now here we are talking. This happened the same way! It’s interesting that you also had read Ned Rorem pretty early on, around the same time you were reading Cage. I think of Rorem as a radical composer in a lot of ways, but a lot of people didn’t, especially at that time. They thought he was an old-fashioned composer because he never gave up tonality and he never gave up writing beautiful melodies. There was a real braveness to sticking to his guns and writing the music he wanted to write. And you learned about him and his music relatively early on. So in addition to all the avant-garde experimental music you were learning about, you also had a role model for going against the grain and writing really beautiful music, which is what you ultimately wound up doing.
BA: Well, Cage and Rorem went different places. But I thought they were both radicals, and I fell in love with Rorem’s stuff through playing for singers. At UK, that was their idea of modern music, Vaughn Williams and Ned Rorem. And the stuff was gorgeous. What’s not to like? And of course, his books were hilarious and wonderful. I wanted to go to Paris. I wanted to know all these wild and crazy people.
FJO: I feel like Rorem’s influence has even found its way into the writing style of your memoir. You’re just telling the story of your life the way he did, in a very honest and sincere way.
BA: I just don’t know some other way to do it. I haven’t read his books since I was very young, so I don’t think I actually tried to go in that direction. I’m just doing it the way I know how.
FJO: In terms of not planning, it’s very interesting how this played out in terms of possible role models you could have had as teachers. Cage was a certain kind of a role model. So were Pauline Oliveros, Ned Rorem, and Lou Harrison, a composer who found a way to be experimental and beautiful at the same time, writing music that was really original but also very immediate and very moving. And you tried to connect with Lou Harrison when you came to California, but it didn’t quite work out.
BA: [My then composition teacher] Richard Swift and I talked and clearly I wasn’t interested in writing 12-tone music when I was studying with him and that’s what he wrote. So you would think we would not go together as a great teacher-student duo. So he thought that I would like to study with Lou Harrison, and he said, “Why don’t you go see him?” I didn’t have any money to figure out how to get there by paying for the bus, but I had a friend who had a friend who was driving a race car, and he had to be down in the Aptos area, where Lou lived, at a very early hour. He dropped me off at six o’clock in the morning, and I walked up and knocked on the door. I hadn’t told them I was coming, because I didn’t know I was coming until the night before and I didn’t have the phone number. So I just knocked on the door, and Bill Colvig, Lou’s companion, got up and let me in, and went to start water for tea, and went to talk to Lou, to get him up and come talk to me, because I explained what I was there for.
“I was just this crazy girl that showed up on his doorstep at dawn.”
Lou was clearly not having it. He didn’t want to get up. He didn’t know who I was, or why I was there bothering them at dawn. Eventually he came out and we had a little conversation and a little tea, and he agreed with me that perhaps I would enjoy meeting the gardener at UC Santa Cruz that Cage talked about in his books and that yes, in fact there were communes in the hills around Aptos and Santa Cruz and that, if I hitched around, I’d eventually find somebody that would take me to one of these places. But he wasn’t at all interested in being my teacher and having me come and sit at his knee. And Bill—I didn’t know anything about building instruments. I thought it would be fun, but I was starting from zero. I’d never built a bird house, much less anything else with wood. So they just sent me on my way after a couple of hours, and I hitched down to the beach to wait for the guy to come pick me up at the end of the day. And that was my experience of Lou in 1969. And then, in ’74, I met him again at the Cabrillo Festival, and he really liked my piece, and then we were friends. But before that, I think I was just this crazy girl that showed up on his doorstep at dawn.
FJO: That doesn’t seem like a good way to make a first impression.
BA: But if the universe spoke to him and said, “Yes, take this girl and help her,” then something could have happened. But the universe failed to so speak and so duh.
FJO: At least he woke up and spoke to you.
BA: Yes, that was very kind. And Bill was terrific. He really tried.
FJO: Your first encounter with Pauline Oliveros was also really bizarre.
BA: Yes. I’d been wanting to actually meet her for a while. I created this independent study with Nate Rubin at Mills, so I was going to interview Pauline and write a paper about her. Once again, I got some crazy ride down to San Diego, and these people took me to a Salvation Army for some reason. They wanted to buy something, and in there I found this big scroll. It was a paint by numbers scroll of a toreador and a bull. I bought this thing for a dime, and I thought. “Oooh, this is so cool. I got this thing about a bull, and I’m going to see this woman who’s so brave and tough.” I thought it was a great simultaneity, and I went to see Pauline. They dropped me off at her house, and I went in. She was expecting me; I had written her a letter. But she had a concert that night, and on the days of concerts, she did not talk. So there she was not talking, for the whole day, and I spent the whole day in her house. She had this huge cage with multiple birds in it, and they were squawking. Then the women from her women’s ensemble were there. They were cooking things to serve at the end of the concert. So there were the birds, the other women, and the cooking, but Pauline never said a word the whole day I was there. So I wrote the paper about that.
FJO: But at least you did let her know in advance that you were visiting her. So it wasn’t like your first encounter with Lou Harrison. So perhaps by then you had learned your lesson.
BA: Well yes, I had managed somehow by 23 or something to figure out you might want to send a letter. And, in fact, I did bring her some of my really early, awful music, and she turned the pages. She didn’t say a word, but she looked, and I gave her copies of them. And she smiled at me. That was fine. That was sufficient.
FJO: So how did you first become aware of Pauline Oliveros? Was that at the University of Kentucky also?
BA: Yeah, at UK, she was on the flip side of [the LP recording of] Come Out by Steve Reich.
BA: And Kathy Atkins played it for us in music history class.
BA: And, you know, it wasn’t that I was so wild about the piece; I was so wild that a woman composer exists, another one. Here’s another one!
FJO: Parallel to your life as a composer, you’ve been a strong advocate for women composers. During your student days, you put together a festival. Then when you first came to New York—I know I’m jumping ahead here—you were the co-founder of a project called Meet The Woman Composer and got the blessing of John Duffy, who had only recently founded Meet The Composer.
Julia Smith (left) presenting the National Federation of Music Clubs Award of Merit for contributions to women in music to Sorrel Hays (center) and Beth Anderson (right) for Meet The Woman Composer in 1977. (Photo courtesy Beth Anderson.)
BA: Well, Bob Ashley basically set up that first festival, but he told me I was in charge. He’d already decided who he wanted to invite. It was a cool array, and you could not find three more distinct people—Vivian Fine, Pauline Oliveros, and Charlotte Moorman. That was a great group. Then when I came to New York, Doris Hays, now known as Sorrel [Hays], was soon to be starting this thing, but she wanted me to do it with her at the New School. She got all the funding from John Duffy for that. Apparently his organization had not existed long, so the idea that he would give us most of his money for the year was really astounding. He was very supportive. We did those evenings—10 or 15, I don’t know anymore—of all those women. And all these musicologists came and wrote articles about them, so it was useful to do. Then [many years later], B.C. Vermeersch at Greenwich House wanted me to do a women composers series at Greenwich House, and that went on for ten years. So, yes, I liked the idea of putting together concerts of women’s music because it’s not heard as much as people currently think it is.
FJO: There are organizations like IAWM, which I think does a lot of really tremendous work, but I know some younger composers who do not want to identify themselves that way. “I’m a composer and I happen to be a woman, but I’m not a woman composer. There’s no need for this.” Then you see something like the announcement of the Cleveland Orchestra’s 2018-19 season. There’s not a single piece by a woman on it. It’s been that way year after year. Same with the 2018-19 Boston Symphony season. It seems pretty clear that there’s a real problem.
BA: You think?
FJO: If there shouldn’t be concerts of just women composers, why are there so many concerts of just men composers?
“There are piles of music that should be performed that aren’t.”
BA: All the time. Or a whole festival, like a hundred composers, and two of them are women. They think they’ve done a big thing, that they’ve got two. That’s ridiculous. Somebody was telling me that he taught composition in Australia and all of his students were women. I don’t know, are men getting out of the field because it’s so badly paid? One wonders. Aaron Copland used to say there were no women composers, which is crazy, or that there were no good ones. None that have been properly educated. There are piles! The Baltimore Symphony apparently has been doing all these statistics, and women are just a very, very small percentage. If you take the ratio of men to women among living composers that are performed by the big orchestras in this country, it’s 85 to 15. It’s not great, but it’s not terrible. But if you take the amount of women that are performed, dead or alive, it’s like one percent. Think of all the wonderful women that are dead that have written fabulous things I would love to hear, for the very first time, like Mary Howe. Usually orchestras are good at holding onto the past and presenting that. There are just piles of music that should be performed that aren’t.
FJO: Part of the reason things are the way they are, which rarely gets spoken of, is the economics of it all—the economics of obtaining the music, as well as the time for rehearsing it. I’m a big fan of the music of Louise Farrenc, a 19th-century French composer who wrote three symphonies, as well as the first-ever piece for piano and wind quintet. That alone should earn her a place in the repertoire.
BA: I played a lovely trio of hers once.
FJO: It’s wonderful music. But there are no modern editions of the symphonies. You can get them from one place that charges a crazy rental fee. Then, since the players don’t know the piece, they’ll need more time to learn it. But if they just played Brahms again, they’ve already played it a million times so they can rehearse it only twice and it’ll sound pretty good. Playing an old unfamiliar piece is kind of the same as playing a new piece. Worse, because then it goes to the marketing department and they don’t know the name.
BA: But Henze, which you can imagine would take quite a bit of doing to get on, they will rehearse that to the ends of the earth. They will rehearse anything big that’s dissonant and difficult. They understand that they have to rehearse that, and they’re willing to do that for the guys. But if it’s just a beautiful piece by an antique composer who happens to be a woman, it’s too much of a struggle. You just can’t keep doing the Beethoven Third all the time—lovely piece, but enough.
FJO: Do the Farrenc Third instead!
BA: Florence Price, also. There are so many people.
FJO: I’m very happy to hear you saying this because as important as it is to do music by living composers, if we really want to learn about the full history of music, we need to pay attention to historical women composers as well and embrace them as part of the canon, if we’re going to have a canon.
BA: Instead of an AK-47.
FJO: So how to advocate for this stuff? One issue is making sure that there are editions that are not only available but also affordable. A lot of the older music is now showing up on sites like IMSLP.org, so it is possible to easily obtain some of this music. But then there are also rules to consider. Musicians in most professional orchestras will only play from parts where the paper is a certain size; you can’t just print things out on 8 ½” by 11” sheets, because that’s too small.
BA: Well, that explains why my pieces aren’t performed because they’re only 8 ½” by 11” paper. I can make them bigger. No problem.
FJO: You definitely should. Which is a good segue to get us back to talking about your music and how you came to write the music you write. Connecting with Lou Harrison and Pauline Oliveros ultimately didn’t work out, but you did study for a time with both Terry Riley and Robert Ashley.
BA: I studied with Terry Riley the first semester he was at Mills; he was new to teaching. Terry taught me what was called cyclic composition, which was South Indian singing. He sang and then we sang. It was just copying, which was the teaching method of the time. But I loved the fact that there was a tal—a rhythm, a beat. Cage was sort of against it. He didn’t like regularly recurring meters, and Terry was trying to figure out what you could do within the meter that was interesting. Terry kept using scale steps and putting things together in interesting ways. The whole thing came out sounding very beautiful, because it had this beautiful big drone underneath it.
“I kept hanging on to this thing that I kept seeing as a process that Robert Ashley kept saying wasn’t a process.”
My oratorio Joan had a big A drone underneath it, partially for the singers so that they could find their pitches relative to the A. That was my plan. Not so easy, but it gave them an A at least. So Terry had a big effect on me, but not right away. I kept hanging on to this thing that I kept seeing as a process that Ashley kept saying wasn’t a process. I was coding words. I like changing one thing into something else, layering things like sedimentary rock. I like to have the same thing done different ways, so that the text that you would hear somebody singing would be changed into the pitches for the instruments, then the meaning of the text would be another text. They’d all be layered, or there’d be some weirdo video thing that would explain the text as another layer. I like layers. Anyway, Mr. Ashley did not see that as a process. I guess he saw it as a layered collage, which is certainly a way you could think about it.
FJO: It sounds like a process to me. I’m very curious about this idea of turning letters into pitches and being so focused on pitch, but not so much on rhythm.
BA: The rhythm was improvised by the player. But I was giving them the pitches and the rules. I would have some rule like, if you leap up from A to E, and got to the end of the word, then you would come back down a half step, then go on to the next word.
FJO: There were also pieces where you’d have certain pitches drop out over time. You’d begin with all these pitches, and eventually have way fewer.
BA: That was a modulating coding system designed just for Joan. It started with just the white notes on the piano from A to A, and then you kept decoding the same text, but you kept using one less letter from the alphabet until you ended up with just A-B-A-B-A-B, B-B-B-B. A-A-A-A. And AAAA.
FJO: This also sounds similar to what you did in a later piece that you wrote for solo ocarina called Preparation for the Dominant. You have a bunch of pitches in the beginning, but then fewer as time goes by. You have this sort of attrition of pitch.
BA: Do I?
FJO: That’s how it sounded when I heard it. I think it’s a very interesting idea, and I think it also sounds really good. There’s a rigor to it, but there’s also a freedom to it at the same time, which is maybe why Ashley didn’t think of it as a process. But the best processes are the ones that allow you to do your own thing with them.
BA: Yeah, like Schoenberg actually broke his own rules. I love that.
FJO: Exactly. And there are parallel fifths in Bach if you look hard enough for them.
FJO: Rules only get you so far, but then you need to make music with them. Maybe that’s something that the folks who were so obsessed with process-oriented music in the mid-century lost track of, the process is a means to an end, but not necessarily an end in and of itself.
BA: That sounds reasonable.
FJO: Well, it certainly seems to be the way that your music has played out.
BA: I like that.
FJO: I only know Joan from the keyboard version that’s on the Pogus CD of your music.
BA: Which had one performance consequently.
FJO: But there was also the performance at Cabrillo of the original version.
BA: KPFA has a recording, and probably Other Minds has it now, because Charles Amirkhanian was in charge of all that. They also have the original She Wrote from Gertrude Stein’s 100th birthday concert in ’74. I was complaining online recently, “This should be somewhere, and I’ll never hear it again.” And Charles wrote me back and said, “Oh! Cut it out. I’ve got it. You can hear it by clicking here.” They probably have Joan somewhere, too.
FJO: It would be so great for that to be out in the world.
BA: Well, you know, it is kind of afflicted by those naked guys, the timpani players, that ran through the middle of it and made the whole audience laugh and carry on. The idea that the critic Robert Commanday thought that that was something in the piece was particularly bizarre.
FJO: Well, how would he know?
BA: I don’t know. Everybody else talked to me—the man from the Santa Cruz Sentinel, as well as the critic from the Tribune. So they knew. But Commanday didn’t ask. He was a don’t ask, don’t tell kind of guy.
FJO: There has been this crazy idea in music criticism that if you talk to the musicians performing a piece or the composer, you’re somehow tainted and you’re going to be influenced so you’re not going to have objective criticism.
BA: I hate that.
FJO: And heaven forbid you’re friends with these people, or worse, that you actually perform or compose music yourself.
BA: Or that you actually know something about it. Now you’re supposed to have a degree in American studies, and you’re supposed to have a general drift of the culture, but you’re not supposed to actually know anything about it. I think that’s appalling. I loved it when Eric Salzman and Virgil Thomson, people who actually wrote music, wrote music criticism. You would know what their biases were, because you’d go listen to their own music. And you could see it. But if you have somebody that has a degree in sociology writing about music, then you don’t even know that their favorite composer is Philip Glass. I used to think that they should list their favorite composers at the top of their columns, so that you would know. Well, if they like this, this, and this, then there’s no big surprise that they didn’t like that. I thought it would be very helpful. But the only way you could get that sense of bias would be to read them for a long time. Then you would see over time what they liked, and what they didn’t like. But I don’t think that there’s a lot of purity.
When I moved to New York, Mr. [John] Rockwell was the best friend of my friend Charles Shere. They had both done symphony or opera broadcasts together in San Francisco. Charles stayed on the West Coast, and John came to New York. When I moved here, Charles said, “You’ll have to meet my wonderful friend John Rockwell.” So I called him up the moment I arrived, and I said, “I’m a friend of Charles, and I’m a composer. I would love to meet you.” And he said, “Oh yes, come to tea.” Then the next day, he called back and he said, “Are you moving to New York?” And I said yes. And he said, “Well, then I can’t talk to you.” And that was that. He wanted to continue that purity, that separation of church and state somehow. But I think that it’s a poor thing. I think you need to talk to composers—especially if you can’t read music or can’t play an instrument. That wonderful man from TheWashington Post, Joseph McLellan, said that he wrote a guitar piece so that he would have the experience of having written something. He could actually play an instrument, and they shockingly allowed him to write criticism for TheWashington Post. But he mainly reviewed parties. Apparently he was the social guy. He went to five parties a week, and then they also let him review concerts.
FJO: You also had a career as a music journalist yourself. You were involved with Ear magazine in its formative years. I’ve always considered Ear one of role models for NewMusicBox.
BA: Well, it is certainly the same kind of exhaustive experience that you’re never done. You do this one, and then the next one’s coming up and how can you get people to give you the stuff that you need for the next issue. I used to have to go over to people’s houses and stand over them, waiting for people to write their articles because people wouldn’t do it. They would say, “Oh, yeah. I’ll do it.” And it wouldn’t happen. But basically Ear was about promoting. I’m not sure we ever wrote anything negative. I can’t remember if we did. But we were boosters for sure. And we were saying, “This is what’s happening. Isn’t this fun? Come play with us.”
FJO: And Ear also had this very key idea that the people involved in making the music should be the spokespeople for it, which I think is a very important thing and a very different model from the separation of church and state, the armchair critic who can’t talk to you if you’re someone he or she might potentially review. Well, it was almost always he, always a man.
BA: Well, there aren’t a lot of women critics.
FJO: But then you had an experience of actually writing criticism that wasn’t exclusively positive when you wrote about the entire New Music America festival.
BA: Oh, that was a disaster. I didn’t mean harm, but I think I was thoroughly hated. The Kitchen never recovered from that, although some people thought it was a great thing because I was the only person that reviewed everything. And not just the concerts, but also the [panel discussions of the] Music Critics Association, which I found really intriguing. I loved hearing the critics read their papers, not having practiced them. They didn’t see performing as something you might want to rehearse. But anyway, Reports from the Front was something I created because I wanted to participate in the festival at The Kitchen in ’79, and I didn’t think that anybody would see it as negative because I was just saying whatever came into my mind. It was so clear that it wasn’t thought out and it wasn’t directed in a negative way. I was trying to describe stuff, and compare stuff to other performances of the same pieces. I thought I was so unimportant that nobody would take it badly, but people did. It angered the whole downtown scene in one fell swoop, in nine days.
FJO: And it also angered the music critics, right?
“I never think about—or never have thought about—consequences.”
BA: Oh yeah, there was that. There were so many times in my life that it would have been a good idea to be quiet, or to just not be there. But I never think about—or never have thought about—consequences. I think about it a little bit more now at this age than I did at that age.
FJO: Despite the lesson of Pauline Oliveros being silent the whole day.
BA: Yes. She sure is a great teacher. I should have paid more attention.
FJO: Before we completely leave California and keep talking about your life in New York, I was curious if you were at all connected with any of the extremely innovative things that were happening in so-called pop music there at the time. Not only was it a golden era in terms of the amazing things people were doing with electronics, plus early minimalism and all the conceptual pieces, California was the epicenter of psychedelia. Were you connected to any of that music? Were you aware that it was happening?
BA: I listened to pop music from ’57 to ’69. Acid rock like Steppenwolf and Blue Cheer—I loved that stuff. But, by then, I was over the edge into Stockhausen and Cage, so that was the direction my listening went.
FJO: All of the seismic shifts in your life feel somehow connected. There was the move from Kentucky to California. Then the move to New York. Those are physical, corporeal things. But there’s another event that happened once you were in New York, which is perhaps the most important shift of all—how you thought about yourself as a composer. And I think that it relates to your dabbling in music criticism. You reached a point where you decided to write music that was intentionally pretty as opposed to something that adhered to some high concept. You approached it initially with an almost revolutionary zeal, being an advocate for beauty. I think it’s possible to hear all of your work as a related continuum, but at the time it seemed like a huge chasm.
BA: I don’t really understand it myself. I know that I was doing this kind of thing. I came to New York, and even in my second concert at The Kitchen in ’79, I was still decoding the word “skate,” all the possible definitions of the word skate [in my composition Skate Suite]. But I also did songs that were actually freely written. At the same time, part of it was [flutist] Andrew Bolotowsky’s influence that everything had to be on staves. If I wrote music on staves the way he wanted it done, I had to assign the rhythms, so that took away the player’s improvisatorial input. I could have coded the rhythms, but I didn’t. I just did them freely. I was still decoding pitches [from words], but then I made up my own rhythms.
Then I met Michael Sahl, and he had very powerful opinions about harmony. His music was very harmonically centered, even more than it was melodically. He was big into this heavy jazz piano, bass, and drums kind of feeling underneath it that I never really got into. I liked cutting up and collaging things, but he still had an influence.
“I want to see you turn on a dime, schizophrenically, and be somewhere else.”
Some people see my music, that’s now in Finale, and when they see the cut-ups they want to finish and stop [the phrase]—lift the bow, then go on. Even though I don’t put a fermata over it, people want to do that because they were taught to do that. But some of my pieces have so many cut-ups in them, if you do that, a five-minute piece becomes a ten-minute piece. It just drags deathly into the ground. That’s the absolute opposite of what I want. I want the thing to lie against itself. I want to see you turn on a dime, schizophrenically, and be somewhere else. So, don’t do that people!
FJO: When a performance of your music is seamless, the effect can be similar to the hemiolas in Brahms or even Carter’s metric modulation; the sudden shifts are very satisfying musical surprises. In some ways, it’s like looking very carefully at the patterns that are sewn on quilts. Quilts have these purposeful incongruities in them because they’re made by human beings so you will get these things that don’t quite line up, and that’s the joy of what a quilt is.
BA: Especially a crazy quilt. There’s a whole lot of different patterns of quilts that are traditional, historic, antique patterns. But those aren’t the ones that are the most interesting to me. I like crazy quilts best.
FJO: Well, one of my all-time favorite pieces of yours is this big solo piano piece, Quilt Music. I assume you gave it that name because you heard that connection.
BA: Yes, it’s like a swale for piano, because the quilt is just another word for that. It’s equivalent to me. Anyway. Yes, I’m glad you like it.
FJO: Tell me more about how it’s put together.
BA: I have no idea. I’d have to get the score and stare at it. You know, it’s old. I mean, it’s long ago and far away.
FJO: Alright, but since you said it’s like a swale, I’m curious. At some point, you started calling pieces swales.
BA: In 1984. That’s the year that the horse named Swale won the Kentucky Derby, the first Saturday in May. And I never heard the word before, so I looked it up in the dictionary. At the time, I was writing a string quartet, and I thought that was a great name for it. I wanted to dedicate it to Mr. James Roy, because he had been so kind to me. He worked at BMI, and he was a friend I could go talk to in the middle of the day without an appointment. He was another one of those people I could drop in on for no reason, and he would see me. So I named it Pennyroyal Swale. I wanted to use his name somewhere in there.
That’s how the first one came to be. Then I wrote another one that Dave Soldier’s string quartet played the first time. The next year they wanted to do another one, so I wrote one for Rosalie Calabrese [who was the manager of the American Composers Alliance]. I named it Rosemary Swale. Rosemary is actually an interesting herb because you can use it to cook and it’s also some kind of an ingredient in the fixative in perfume. Practical and artsy and that’s Rosalie. So Rosemary Swale was that one. And then there got to be lots more.
FJO: So what is a swale for you musically?
BA: Well, that is a collage. There’s no question. I write little shreds and tatters and then figure out how to have more of this and less of that, and cut them into each other. I can write a whole section that was actually on a drone, like on a C, and then another whole section that was on F. Then I would cut them into each other, and I would suddenly have tonic-subdominant, tonic-subdominant, but they were from actual different pieces of music. People hear them and hear the harmonic movement, but it wasn’t really movement. It was just cut-ups.
FJO: But not every piece of yours since then is called a swale. I thought it was very interesting to hear you just say that Quilt Music is a swale, even though you didn’t call it one. What distinguishes swales from the non-swales? I know there was a piece of yours, The Eighth Ancestor, that was performed during the ISCM World Music Days that predates your first swale, but it has a similar form to them.
BA: It was cut-ups. It was from like ’79 or ’80, so I didn’t have the word yet. But I was definitely doing cut-ups, and part of cut-ups comes from not having the time. I wasn’t the kind of composer that took three notes and made it into a symphony. I wasn’t interested in developing the theme and making variations. I was working all those jobs for dancers, so I would write down things that I had just played while they were teaching the next thing. I was just writing like a crazy person while they were teaching the next thing, looking at them out of the corner out of my eye so I’d know what to play next. Then at the end of the day, I would have piles of these little scraps of paper. I would take them home and try to figure out how to connect them, or just connect them or cut them up. Then I could make them into pieces.
FJO: So when you were playing piano for all those dance classes, you were just improvising?
FJO: Luckily you were able to remember and reconstruct a lot of that music.
“I would suddenly have tonic-subdominant, tonic-subdominant, but they were from actual different pieces of music.”
BA: Well, I think I was a pretty boring dance accompanist, but I did do it for 20 years, so apparently I got away with it. I had certain kinds of things that I did in F, and certain kinds of things I did in B-flat, A-minor, and D-minor; that stuff would just spool out. I had massive amounts that I could play forever—pliés in D-minor, across the floors in B-flat.
FJO: Do you think that working with all those dancers might have led you to create music that had a more regular rhythmic pulse. You mentioned that Andrew Bolotowski wanting you to write music using standard notation is what led you to give up this idea of having improvised rhythms, but you were already forced into creating things that had regular rhythms when you were working with these dancers because that’s what they needed.
BA: For sure.
FJO: Could that have had an impact on why your music went the way it did?
BA: Absolutely. Years and years of banging out things in three, or four, or six, or twelve, unless you work for Merce Cunningham, in which case all bets are off.
FJO: You also wrote the songs for a couple of Off-Off-Broadway musicals in the early 1980s, which is a genre that prizes catchy melodies. When I was 16, some high school classmates and I rented out the Carter Hotel Theatre for a week and presented a musical I wrote, so I was very intrigued to learn that one of your musicals, Elizabeth Rex: or, The Well-Bred Mother Goes to Camp, ran for nearly a month there.
BA: Oh my God. That’s so fun. Isn’t it now the Cheetah Gentleman’s Club? The Carter Hotel was the dirtiest hotel in America. This was not an impressive venue, but it was very close to Broadway!
FJO: Are there recordings of those shows?
BA: Well, there certainly are shreds and tatters of the words and music, but the people on stage were not hired for their musicality. They looked like the part.
FJO:Elizabeth Rex was about this woman who tries to get her daughter not to be a lesbian, so she takes her to see a priest and it turns out that he’s secretly gay.
BA: I love it, but now there’d be all these questions about whether it’s making fun of priests fooling around with the altar boys. And it was pre-AIDS. But it was a very funny show, and I think it could be done as a period piece. We’ll see if somebody might want to do it. And Fat Opera could definitely be done as a cabaret show. It doesn’t need to be done as a musical.
FJO: All in all, I think you wrote three musicals.
BA: Yeah, the first one [Nirvana Manor] has a cast of 20, so that was huge.
FJO: To return to the piece of yours that was performed on the ISCM World Music Days. It was interesting that the piece was chosen by one of the adjudicators at the time, Fred Rzewski, based on what was a misunderstanding of your intentions in the piece. He thought that your return to totality and regular rhythms was a form of irony.
BA: I think he thought it was political, because he’s very political.
FJO: But in a way, it was political, I mean, you wrote a manifesto on why you aspired to write music that was beautiful that is very political.
BA: But it wasn’t Communist. It wasn’t Stalin, Mao, whoever, and it wasn’t Hindemith—Music for Use. It was just me doing what I did. Michael [Sahl] taught me actually at the ISCM to go around saying, “Je fais la musique de la petite femme blanche”—I make the little white girl’s music—as a defense against people saying you have no craftsmanship; you’re not sophisticated. This was the response I got from people there, so I was trying to let it fall off of me like water from a duck.
Michael Sahl and Beth Anderson in 1979. (Photos courtesy Beth Anderson.)
FJO: But there was someone in the audience who did like the piece, a very significant Belgian composer.
BA: Yes, Boudewijn Buckinx, whom I love. But he was far away in a booth. It wasn’t apparent to me that there was anybody there who liked that piece except Michael and me.
FJO: However, despite your feeling such negativity from most of the people there, you stuck to your guns and you stayed on this path, undeterred by what these folks or anyone else thought about your music. And now, decades later, there are four CDs out in the world that are devoted exclusively to your music and several pieces of yours included on other recordings, including orchestra pieces. It’s not as much as it should be and I know it’s not as much as you wish, but all in all, it’s a pretty good track record compared to the trajectory of many other composers.
BA: Well, I really wanted the CDs out so that these pieces wouldn’t just exist in my head or on these falling apart tapes from the distant past. I thought I was going to die at the time, so I really wanted them out before I died. I didn’t think my husband was going to put them out afterwards.
FJO: I know that you were quite sick several years ago.
BA: Yes, but “she recovered!” So onward. But yes, I very glad that the CDs are out, and I would like to do more, but I haven’t organized it yet. My husband assures me that I should not do CDs, that nobody’s buying CDs, which is certainly true. I should only make things for streaming. But then how do you send a CD to a radio station if you don’t have a CD?
FJO: We’re living in a very weird transitional time. A lot of people claim they have the answers, but I don’t think anybody really knows where it’s going. I’m personally thrilled that you made sure these CDs got released. Of course, people stumble upon music online all the time these days, but I love the idea that it is also possible that somebody could chance upon one of these recordings in, say, a library in some small town in Kentucky.
FJO: It could change that person’s life, just like stumbling upon a book by John Cage changed your life. The same is true with these memoirs you’ve written, which is why I think it’s important that they are published at some point.
“There are not a lot of memoirs of women composers out in the universe, despite Ethel Smyth doing like 12 or something.”
BA: There are not a lot of memoirs of women composers out in the universe, despite Ethel Smyth doing like 12 or something. It seems like there’s a space for that in the universe potentially. And somebody could find the book. It’s like I found Eric Salzman’s book on 20th-century music and all these other books that were so important to me as a child. Even when you’re not living in the center of the universe, you can find books and recordings in libraries. I’m a big library person.
FJO: But of course now with the internet, anybody can find anything anywhere, apparently.
BA: If you know what to look for. The thing about libraries is, you would fall across them because it was red or something. I read all the books in the Mount Sterling Public Library on theosophy because every one of them was a bright color. I’d see all these old books, and there’d be a bright red one or yellow or blue or green. On the internet, you need to know what you’re looking for a little bit.
FJO: Hopefully people will find your music online through reading and seeing and hearing this talk that we’ve just done.
A conversation in Spiegel’s Lower Manhattan loft
September 9, 2014—3:00 p.m.
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan and Alexandra Gardner
Transcription by Julia Lu
People often speak about computers and technology as though these things are completely antithetical to nature and tradition, though this is largely a false dichotomy. Electronic music pioneer Laurie Spiegel began her musical life as a folk guitar player and has never abandoned that music. But she fell in love with machines the first time she saw a mainframe tape-operated computer at Purdue University on a field trip there with her high school physics class and has been finding ways to humanize them in her own musical compositions and software development ever since. She sees a lot of common ground between the seemingly oppositional aesthetics of folk traditions and the digital realm. In fact, when we met up with her last month in her Lower Manhattan loft crammed full of computers, musical instruments, and toys of all sorts, she frequently spoke about how in her world view the computer is actually a folk instrument.
“The electronic model is very similar to the folk model,” she insists. “People will come up with new lyrics for the same melody, or they’ll change it from a ballad to a dance piece. Nobody can remember what the origin is. There is no single creator. … In the way that electronic sounds go around—people sample things, they do remixes or sampling, they borrow snatches of sound from each other’s pieces—the concept of a finite fixed-form piece with an identifiable creator that is property and a medium of exchange or the embodiment of economic value really disappears … in similar ways. … Prior to electronic instruments, you had to go through the bottleneck of written notation. So electronic music did for getting things from the imagination to the ears of an audience what the internet later did for everybody being able to self-publish, democratizing it in ways that obviously have pros and cons.”
A realist as well as an idealist, Spiegel is well aware of the cons as well as the pros of our present digitally saturated society. “[W]hen I was young,” she recalls, “You had a great deal of time to focus on what was happening in your mind and information could proliferate, amplify itself, and take form in your imagination without that much interruption from outside. … Our culture is at this point full of people who are focused outward and are processing incoming material all the time. Would somebody feel a desire to hear a certain kind of thing and go looking for it? Would they hear something inside their head and want to hear it in sound? It seems that people are fending off a great deal now. The dominant process is overload compensation: how can I rule out things that I don’t want to focus on so that I can ingest a manageable amount of information and really be involved in it. Information used to be the scarce commodity. Attention is now the scarce commodity.”
The imagination is very important to Spiegel. It is what has fueled her pioneering sonic experiments such as her haunting microtonal Voices Within: A Requiem from 1979 or her landmark 1974 Appalachian Grove created at Bell Labs soon after she returned from the mountains in western North Carolina where she traveled with “my banjo over one shoulder and my so-called ‘portable’ reel-to-reel tape recorder over the other shoulder, listening to and enjoying older music and the culture that comes from early music.” It is also why she created the Music Mouse computer software, a tool that transformed early personal computers such as the Mac, Atari, and Commodore Amiga into fully functional musical instruments and idea generators for musical compositions. It also led her to create a realization of Johannes Kepler’s “Music of the Spheres,” the 17th-century German astronomer’s conversion of planetary motion into harmonic ratios; this electronic score and a song by Chuck Berry is the only music by living composers that was sent into outer space on the two Voyager spacecrafts. (Although Spiegel insists that her realization, which was included as part of “Sounds of the Earth” rather than “Music of the Earth,” is not her musical composition.)
But perhaps even more important to Spiegel than the imagination is emotional engagement. “I always wanted to make music that was beautiful and emotionally meaningful,” she explained. “The emotional level is the level at which I am primarily motivated and always have been. I’m still the teenage girl who, after a fight with my father, would take my guitar out on the porch and just play to make myself feel better. That’s who I am musically. I kind of knew what I liked as a listener, and what I liked was music that would express emotions that I didn’t have a way of expressing, where somebody understood me and expressed in their music what I was feeling in ways that I couldn’t express myself. So, to some degree, I think I see the role of the composer as giving vicarious self-expression to people, although at this point, with the technology we have, there’s no reason for anybody who wants to make music not to be able to.”
Laurie Spiegel’s equipment in 1980. Photo by Carlo Carnivali, courtesy Laurie Spiegel.
Frank J. Oteri: The meta-narrative of electronic music, and technological developments overall, is that we went from big anti-personal mainframe computers that took up entire buildings to home computers to handhelds and even smaller. Laurie Spiegel: And I went that whole journey. I started using punch cards and paper tape. The first computer I ever saw was at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana, when I was in high school. I went down there for a weekend and they had a tape-operated computer on which I attempted to do an assignment for my high school physics class. In this class there was me and just one other girl. All of the others were guys, and the teacher really thought we didn’t belong there. It was just so weird. But I always loved science. FJO: But before you got involved with making music with electronics, you were a guitar player and the acoustic guitar is one of the smallest, most intimate instruments that one can play by oneself and have a full sound, all alone. So it seemed to me like there’s a connection between that and how electronic music came to be made on smaller and smaller devices. LS: Personal and private are important aspects of music to me. When I was little, I started with a plastic ukulele which was even smaller. Then my grandmother, who was from Lithuania, played mandolin, and she gave me a mandolin when I was maybe nine years old or so. That had the advantage that I could keep it under my bed and take it out at night and play it quietly with nobody hearing me playing it. I had the total freedom to just improvise and make stuff up. I don’t think I even told anybody when she gave it to me. It was like my secret instrument, my private means of expression – whereas the piano in the living room was this large, sacred object where everybody in the house heard you and didn’t necessarily want to hear kids practicing. The guitar was similarly private, and I could play it in my room. The freedom of not being heard, for a person who’s basically somewhat self-conscious, is really important, and so is the portability.
Despite having computers and other electronic musical instruments from half a century scattered throughout her loft, Laurie Spiegel still loves to play the guitar.
I used to take the guitar with me everywhere I went during high school, college, young adulthood, up until I hit classical music circles and discovered that a lot of the people who were studying music, and were the best at it, didn’t seem to do it for personal enjoyment. They were so serious about it. In the folk music-type circles and improvising circles, people would bring their instruments with them and people jammed all the time. But once I hit Juilliard, I didn’t find that people really did that kind of stuff. They didn’t improvise. They were seriously working on their trills. And they were seriously working on their performance pieces. It wasn’t integrated into their lives the same way as for amateurs who really love music. I guess I still regard myself somewhat as an amateur, just doing it for the love of it really, which is the technical definition of that word. I’ve always been an improviser too, which electronic instruments were perfect for because you were actually interacting live with the sound in electronic music; whereas, when I write music on paper, for instruments, I don’t get to hear it, or not for a long time, or not while I’m working on it. Of course, that’s no longer true because all the notation software now let’s you hear stuff while you’re working on it, and you know that a rhythm isn’t what you meant right away. But in the old days, when I was learning notated composing, it was in your head. FJO: It’s interesting that that came much later for you though, long after you were playing music. LS: I was playing music, I was improvising, I was making stuff up, and at a certain point I wanted to learn to write things down so I wouldn’t forget them. So I started trying to teach myself to write stuff down. One of my roommates in the house that I lived in pointed out to me that they call that composing. You make things up and write them down. I was living in England and studying philosophy and history, doing a social sciences degree basically. I said, “No, I’m not composing. I’m just writing things down so that I don’t forget them. I’m not a composer.” But eventually it became undeniable, and composing took over. FJO: And so the social sciences became less of a concern for you once music took over? LS: No, it never really went away. I’m still very interested in politics, sociology, economics, statistics, anthropology, psychology, all that stuff, and animals. I’m a complete sucker for animals. FJO: But it was still a transition. You were at Oxford and then you were studying with John Duarte. LS: In London, during the second year that I was over there. He was probably the perfect teacher for me. He had a partly classical, partly folk, and partly jazz background. He taught me counterpoint and theory and a bit about composing, as well as classical guitar. Once a week I would take the train into London for the weekend and spend a whole day in his house. And we stayed in touch. Much later, when he was in his 80s, he started to learn to use personal computers and began doing his composing directly into the computer. It was amazing. He was an English composer not obsessed with avant-gardism, firmly rooted in some kind of folk—folk is not a general enough word, but a grassroots sense of musical meaningfulness, or maybe it is more accurate to say he was connected to tradition very organically and naturally in his music, like quite a few other British composers. I identify with that.
Laurie Spiegel in the early 1970s. Photo by Louis Forsdale, courtesy Laurie Spiegel.
FJO: So that’s a very different experience from then enrolling in a composition program at Juilliard, of all places. LS: Yeah, well, I was completely not expecting the dominance of the post-Webernite, serialist, atonal, blip and bleep school of music. I wasn’t interested in that. I mean, I knew what I wanted to learn. I wanted to learn harmony, structure, form, process, history, and repertoire, lots of stuff. But it wasn’t really considered cool to be interested in learning to write tonal music. I remember a teacher—who shall remain nameless—who, when I brought in a piece in E minor for guitar, said, “Hmm, key signature. Doesn’t mean for sure that you don’t have any musical imagination, but it’s not a good sign.”
It was so much more uptight then. I was in a way intellectually prepared for it because at Oxford there was a comparable phenomenon going on. The logical positivists were in charge talking about how many definitions can dance on the head of a … whatever. I was more interested in phenomenologists and Asian philosophy, and all kinds of stuff that was about the opposite of the dominant philosophers at Oxford at the time. Logical positivism is divorced from gut feelings, which were my personal link to music. As a teenager, when I was miserable I would take my guitar out on the porch and play and express my emotions. And when I heard great classical repertoire, it could vicariously express emotion for me. And so music was really about emotion. It was also about structure, because I love structure. That’s the computer programmer in me. So the things that I was most attracted to in music were slightly at odds with the music that was in with the dominant power structure when I went to Juilliard.
Then there were also all these child prodigies wandering around. I already had finished a degree in the social sciences. I was older, which made me immediately suspect because it’s a highly child prodigy-oriented atmosphere; if you weren’t discovered by 12, you were a has-been. But there were a number of things that saved me from giving up and going crazy. One was that through electronic music I was able to create music people could hear and I became active in the Downtown scene while I was still up there. And people liked my work. I played music in other people’s ensembles, played guitar or banjo or whatever for Tom Johnson and with Rhys Chatham. I would do these filigree patterns, and Rhys would do these long drone-like lines against the stuff. That balanced it. Also I was making a living. I got a job with a small company that did educational films and filmstrip soundtracks. I composed all of their soundtracks for, I think, three and a half years or about that, and it paid decently. And again, when you do soundtracks, all that really matters is emotional content, and to a lesser degree the style. It’s the opposite of the aesthetic that was dominant uptown with Boulez, Wuorinen, and Milton Babbitt, although I liked Milton and a lot of these people. I was friendly with and hung out with the Speculum Musicae people, but our musical tastes were just in contrast to each other. FJO: But your primary teacher at Juilliard was Jacob Druckman, who was really all over the map aesthetically. LS: Yeah, boy, Jake was amazing. I was also his assistant and spent a lot of time in his house up in Washington Heights. I proofread the parts for Windows. He let me use his extra studio time when he wasn’t using it at the Columbia Princeton Studios, so I got to know Vladimir [Ussachevsky] and Otto Luening pretty well, and of course Alice [Shields] and Pril [Smiley]. I have a reel of pieces I recorded up there that at some point I’ll transfer and see what they sound like. FJO: I’d love to hear those! LS: I also studied with Vincent Persichetti, who was a wonderful teacher. He really did his best to try to help each of his students find themselves individually and learn to make the music that they personally wanted to make. He didn’t push you in any direction. He didn’t want to create a clone of himself, unlike some of the teachers there, and he was great. And I also had some lessons with Hall Overton, who appreciated that I was one of the very few students there who could improvise and enjoy it. But at the same time, I was going downtown to meet Mort Subotnick and visit his studio when it was still upstairs from the Bleecker Street Cinema. I fell in love with the Buchla, so I was doing that too. I was doing all of these different kinds of music at once. Unlike most people who might be immersed in the atmosphere of Juilliard, it was one of the places that I was active musically, but it wasn’t the place. It didn’t dominate me.
Laurie Spiegel with various synthesizers and reel-to-reel tape recorders in the 1970s. Photo by Louis Forsdale, courtesy Laurie Spiegel.
FJO: You played piano, but it wasn’t your major instrument. LS: No, I had to kind of begin to learn piano because it was useful for theory, harmony, and composing and studying. And I love the repertoire, but it wasn’t like anything with strings on it, which attracted me like a magnet. But pianos—I mean, I love them, but they came later. FJO: But in terms of compositional paradigms, a keyboard configuration creates a certain kind of mindset. I want to discuss this more when we talk about the Music Mouse software you developed and your algorithmic compositions. If you think in terms of a seven-five keyboard, whether you’re improvising on it or even composing in your head and coming from a keyboard-oriented background, certain patterns are going to emerge. And if your frame of reference is a guitar fret board, other kinds of things are going to happen. LS: If philosophically you’re a determinist, you could say that absolutely everything is algorithmic, but we do have a sense of free will and we do have the perception that we’re making decisions. But yeah, you could argue that if everything is deterministic, including the workings of the mind, then all music is algorithmic.
That seven-five pattern you see on the keyboard is only visible there because it’s the structure of the diatonic scales that we hear. It’s a pattern within the musical model our culture is dominated by. It’s not that pattern, but how it fits the hands, and the habits of the hands that become actual reflexes, that can be limiting. They can become so ingrained that they keep the imagination from roaming. That happens with the guitar fretboard too, though with different patterns, and with an instrument such as “Music Mouse” too, I suppose. Each instrument somehow biases our music in its own unique direction. Some composers manage to transcend those kinds of habits, some compose away from any instrument, others invent new instruments. But the physiological interface is sort of an algorithmic constraint all on its own, and I would think there are also similar cognitive constraints.
Some of the analog synthesizers in Laurie Spiegel’s loft.
FJO: You were telling me when we spoke the other day that there was a music composition teacher who was so upset with you because if his students used Music Mouse he wouldn’t know if they were coming up with their own music. So when you mentioned falling in love with the Buchla, I remembered that when we did our talk with Morton Subotnick he said that he was very determined to avoid the standard piano interface, that it was very important for him not for it to have that interface in order to free people’s creativity, that you would have to deal with the instrument in a completely new way. Otherwise the paradigm would force you into familiar patterns. LS: I believe that was some of Schoenberg’s rationale for coming up with the 12-tone system, too. It breaks you out of all of your customary habits and the patterns that are ingrained. Every time I pick up the guitar, my hands tend to fall into patterns of things that I’ve played before, which can be good. But you are looking for something new when you’re composing, unlike when you’re just performing. Yeah, that was one of the wonderful things about the Buchla versus the Moog and Arp and other early electronic instruments. It was modular and there was no keyboard, and so you really worked with timbre and texture and sonic shapes and architectures, as opposed to falling into melody and harmony. FJO: You came to these various pieces of equipment and you’ve done new things with them, but you also wrote music that was instantly beautiful. But beauty is also something that is in part acculturated. LS: I always wanted to make music that was beautiful and emotionally meaningful. It was out of fashion to do that. A lot of people were simply trying to avoid doing that at the time, whereas I was willing to go for it. Newness was being pursued for its own sake. FJO: You even composed a short piano piece that addresses the whole history of music and shows a way out of that. LS: Oh, The History of Music in One Movement. FJO: I love the program note you included in the score and how even though the music is inspired by all these periods in history, every note of it is yours. There are moments that almost get into sort of a modernist place, but it doesn’t end there. Writing something like that when modernism was acknowledged as the final phase in music’s evolution was very brave. LS: That piece was one of the most fun composing experiences and one of the most interesting that I’ve ever had. At every point when I was writing something evocative of a certain period, I had to sort of try to feel through what it would feel like to need to go on to break through into what happened in the next period. I had to want the freedoms that the next musical era took. There are many transitions in there. The hardest part of writing that was that horrible little place where I did an actual pair of serial rows that retrograde and invert against each other and that sound so ugly and harsh to me. For historical accuracy, I thought I really had to put that in. And at that point in the piece, it says “Oh my God, we can’t do this,” and it retrogrades back and it takes a different direction and kind of goes off into a sort of Impressionist-tinged blues, and then into minimalism, texture, pure sonic fabric. But of course, when we wrote that, we hadn’t yet gotten to “post-minimalism”, whatever that means.
FJO: Musicologists point to the late ‘50s and early ‘60s as the beginnings of minimalism, but the ‘70s were really when it had its greatest impact with audiences. In fact, its full flowering seems to have gone hand-in-hand with the sudden availability of electronic instruments. This is also true for other kinds of music that were evolving at that time, like prog rock. LS: Electronic instruments gave people the freedom to create works and sound on an unprecedented scale. Prior to electronic instruments, you had to go through the bottleneck of written notation. You had to go through the bottleneck of a limited number of orchestras with very conservative tendencies, because they had their subscribers to please. Electronic instruments were a great democratizing force. That’s one of the reasons why you began to see so many more women composers because you could go from an idea for a piece to the point where you could actually play it for another human being. I mean that had been true all along if you limited yourself to writing only for the instruments you played yourself. But when it came to writing things on an orchestral scale of sonority, to be able to realize something and then play it for other people all on your own was a brand new phenomenon. So electronic music did for getting things from the imagination to the ears of an audience what the internet later did for everybody being able to self-publish, democratizing it in ways that obviously have pros and cons. The economic models of these various ways of getting something from the inside of my mind to the inside of someone else’s mind, for whom it would be meaningful, have been completely upset and will have to settle down differently. Analog electronics were revolutionary, and now the digital ones are also. It’s amazing how quickly so many changes have taken place and they’re very disorienting to a lot of people, understandably.
Laurie Spiegel at the McLeyvier Music System, an early digital synthesizer with a computer terminal, in the early 1980s. Photo by Rob Onadera, courtesy Laurie Spiegel.
About what you asked, minimalism and electronic instruments, it was liberating for us players of plucked instruments and pianos to work with sustained tones. Instead of composing additively, but writing down one tiny sound at a time, we could start with a rich fabric of sound and subtractively sculpt form into it, or we could set up a process and let it just slowly evolve on its own. FJO: The other big change happened with how those electronics were situated. In the early stages you had to be attached to some kind of university system or, if you got lucky, you could afford a Moog or a Buchla. LS: One the things that I think made the ‘70s a really special period was that electronic instruments were too expensive for most people to own one. Sure there were people who had their own—Mort had one, Suzanne Ciani had one, a lot of rock groups could between them get one. But for a lot of us, the way to get access to electronic instruments was through shared studios. There was PASS—the Public Access Synthesizer Studio—which later evolved into Harvestworks. There was the NYU Composers’ Workshop. There was WNET’s Experimental TV Lab where I was a video artist in residence for a while, though I ended up really not doing much video but doing sound tracks for everybody else’s videos. There was Mort’s little studio, and its community of people upstairs from the Bleecker Street Studio. The Kitchen was another one. The Kitchen started as a center for video and then expanded into music. So there was community. There were interactions between people. People would meet each other and they would get ideas and bounce ideas off each other and work together in ways that I would think must be much more difficult to achieve now that everyone has an extremely powerful studio—beyond our wildest dreams back then—in their bedroom or sitting on their desk. To be working in the studio and, okay, I’m coming in and Eliane Radigue is just finishing up, and she shows me what she’s doing. Then she watches me put up what I’m doing, and then when I’m done, Rhys Chatham comes in and he’s like, “Oh, you could do this and this, and by the way, you know, we’re trying this; do you want to come and play with us?”—I mean, things just happened between people and I think that made the ‘70s a really special period, the fact that there were so many shared studios where people worked together, interacted with each other, commented on each other’s work, and helped each other with their work, as opposed to everybody sitting by themselves in their rooms with their computers.
Spiegel at work in the era of mainframe synthesizers. Photo by Emmanuel Ghent, courtesy Laurie Spiegel.
FJO: Even some companies, like Bell Labs, became hotbeds of activity for composers at that time. LS: Well, there was no place like Bell Labs. You can’t really even consider it a company. Bell Labs was pure research with a level of autonomy given to each person working there that probably no longer exists anywhere. There was no need to do anything with any commercial buy in. You could do whatever you were interested in, everyone was brilliant, and everyone was interested in stuff. You didn’t last that long or do that well at Bell Labs if you weren’t self-motivated and a self-starter. You were expected to have your own ideas and be able to realize them. I’m still in very close touch with my friends from that lab. We email all the time and toss ideas around. I just don’t know if there is any other place quite like that, although I think places like Apple and Google like to think they have the level of freedom that they had at the lab. I’ve never really been around them on a work-a-day basis to find out. FJO: I love that they would just let artists come and do their thing.
Robert Moog, Laurie Spiegel and Max Matthews. Photo courtesy Laurie Spiegel.
LS: Well, they did and they didn’t. The arts were a little on the hushed side because of their regulated monopoly status, and moving into the ‘70s, they began to be under attack by the various powers that wanted to divide “Ma Bell” into a number of small, separate, competing companies, which ultimately did happen and was a great loss in my opinion. They were under a certain mandate; there were a number of considerations. One was that everything they did should be oriented to communications research. So when they came up with Unix and the C language, they just gave them away for free. Another was that they were not really supposed to be doing digital communications so much, I think, as improving existing analog telephone service. I’m not really that sure. I wasn’t in the managerial level of the lab. Max Matthews was, though; he was a fairly high-up person. He ran twelve sub-departments that did all kinds of amazing stuff: acoustic research, speech synthesis and analysis, non-verbal communications, various cognitive studies like studies of the characteristics of long-term versus short-term human memory and stereopsis, and in vision the study of eiditic memory. You would just walk around or ask whoever happened to be at the coffee machine when you were getting a cup of coffee: “What do you do?” and they would tell you something absolutely fantastically fascinating that they were very much into. It was an amazing place. FJO: In addition to music, you were also doing video work at Bell Labs. I love the name of the program you worked on there. LS: VAMPIRE! (Video And Music Program for Interactive Realtime Exploration.) It was a system that could only be used at night. That was the mandate. We artist types could use the computers during the hours during which they were not in use for legitimate Bell Telephone research. FJO: I think my favorite work of yours from that period though is that gorgeous Appalachian Grove. LS: Yeah? At that point I had a graduate research fellowship starting in I think ’73 at the Institute for Studies in American Music with Wiley Hitchcock, whom I greatly admired. Anybody who hasn’t read his book, Music in the United States: An Historical Introduction, should read it. He put me back in touch with and made me feel better about my banjo playing and the folk level, which had been basically kind of ridiculed in some of the other circles I’d been in during that era.
Laurie Spiegel playing the banjo in October 1962. Photo courtesy Laurie Spiegel.
I had just been down in the mountains in western North Carolina—with my banjo over one shoulder and my so-called “portable” reel-to-reel tape recorder over the other shoulder—listening to and enjoying older music and the culture that comes from early music. I mean, music from Europe went into those hills before the Baroque era and evolved on its own there, amazing music. I had just come back from there when I did Appalachian Grove and wanted to capture some of the feeling of being down there.
The wonderful thing about being surrounded by scientists, and not being in a computer music studio in a music department, is that a lot of scientists really love music. They are unabashedly lovers of fine music that’s meaningful in all the ways that I find music meaningful. They go to classical concerts, and they play instruments themselves. They love music the way ordinary people do. Whereas, something happens when you put music into an academic context in which down the hall is a science lab where everything has to be provable and rationalizable. You begin to get pieces where every note needs to be able to be explained, a certain level of self-consciousness begins to be laid on a musical experience. I’m not saying that always happens, but it seemed to be a tendency in academia during that period which was not present at Bell Labs. FJO: What’s nice about the re-issue of your first album, The Expanding Universe, that came out last year is that we can finally hear all of the compositions you created at Bell Labs. LS: Well, most of them. I did an awful lot of stuff. Two and a half hours, or a little more than that, was all we could fit on two CDs. FJO: Only a tiny portion of that material was issued on the original LP, which curiously was released by the folk music label Philo. LS: Another thing that I keep harping on is that the computer is a folk instrument. One of my favorite subjects in college had been anthropology. You have all these various techniques of going into an alien society and trying to figure out what’s important. One of the techniques is to try to figure out the cultural premises, the rock bottom assumptions that members of that culture would make. So I took a look at a number of different distribution media for music: classical concert venues; grassroots organizations like community sings; bands and church groups; parlor music, music that is done at home with people gathering around a piano singing or playing guitar together; and electronic media—photography, radio, and electronic music. I looked at the characteristics of the music that is disseminated by each of these methods and certain patterns begin to fall out.
The classical model is a finite piece of music with a fixed form that is attributable to one creator—Beethoven, for example. But the electronic model is very similar to the folk model. You have material that floats around and is transmitted from person to person. It’s in variable form; it’s constantly being transformed and modified to be useful to whoever is working with it, the same way folk songs are. People will come up with new lyrics for the same melody, or they’ll change it from a ballad to a dance piece. Nobody can remember what the origin is. There is no single creator. There’s no owner. The concept of ownership doesn’t come in. In the way that electronic sounds go around—people sample things, they do remixes or sampling, they borrow snatches of sound from each other’s pieces—the concept of a finite fixed-form piece with an identifiable creator that is property and a medium of exchange or the embodiment of economic value really disappears in both folk music and electronic and computer music in similar ways. FJO: But certainly in the earliest era of electronic music, there would be these musique concrète and studio-generated electronic music tape pieces that are even more fixed than a piece by Beethoven because not only is there one piece, there’s only one interpretation of it because the interpretation is a fixed form.
Laurie Spiegel with her analog synthesizer and reel-to-reel tape recorders in 1971. Photo by Stan Bratman, courtesy Laurie Spiegel.
LS: That was pretty much true back when electronic music could only be disseminated on reel-to-reel up until cassettes were invented, since you had to actually own two reel-to-reel machines to make a copy and very few people did. You would have tape concerts where you could play pieces for people or it might get on the radio or a record as a medium of dissemination. But once there were cassettes, you started to get people doing mixes and overdubs, excerpting things and chopping things together. Not a lot of people did the kinds of techniques that had been used in classic studio technique—lots of splicing and cutting—on cassette. To edit a cassette tape is pretty unusual. Then when you got digital recording, the first wave of digital excerpting was samplers before personal computers and the internet made other ways more feasible. The business end of the music industry is trying very hard to make everything identifiable and institute royalty systems and stuff. But I think, even though I’d benefit from receiving royalties, it’s to some degree a losing battle and a superimposition of a model that no longer really fits. We don’t have a new model yet that provides economic support back, but maybe we don’t need one–because music production is so much cheaper and faster. FJO: I definitely want to talk more about these issues with you, but let’s get back to Philo. It’s really unusual for them to have released an LP of electronic music. That record proves in a way that the divide between folk music and electronic music was a fake war that was created in part by the media overblowing some people’s negative reactions to Dylan plugging in at 1963 Newport Folk Festival. LS: Well, I was a folk person and a banjo person. The lowest, most grassroots technology and the most sophisticated electronic technology you would think would be diametrical opposites, but the fact that you can make music independently at home, and make music locally with other people in an informal way without any of the traditional skills such as keyboard skills and music notation, that’s a great commonality. FJO: And some of the popular rock groups at that time were also doing some very sophisticated stuff with electronics. LS: Pink Floyd. FJO: Perhaps even more so some of the German groups like Tangerine Dream and Kraftwerk, many of whose recordings were purely electronic music without vocals or anything else. There isn’t that much of a sonic difference between some of their music and some of the stuff on the Expanding Universe LP. LS: Yeah, there is and there isn’t. In a way, it’s almost closer to minimalism. I’m thinking the earlier Terry Riley pieces like Poppy Nogood and In C, which are pretty much open form. My pieces tend to actually be relatively short and have pretty clear forms and the processes in them tend more toward melodic evolution than repetition. FJO: But in terms of the surface sound, I think the music on that LP could appeal to anybody who’s a fan of Tangerine Dream, and having that recording appear on Philo rather than one of the labels that was releasing electronic music that had been created in university settings, like CRI, seems like a reaching out to this broader audience.
Laurie Spiegel playing the electric guitar at a NAMM showcase in Anaheim in the late 1980s. Photo courtesy Laurie Spiegel.
LS: I have been in multiple musical worlds simultaneously throughout most of my career. I haven’t lived in the classical world, although I still totally love classical music, probably really the best. But none of those labels would have had me. Philo were willing. And then Rounder took it and kept it right up until Unseen Worlds Records put out the CD re-release. I mean, listen to Appalachian Grove and Patchwork and Drums. They’re clearly closer to a grassroots, folk sensibility than they are to any of the post-Webernite composers. But I did get it through personal connections that were more in the folk world. I had a roommate for about 14 months, Steve Rathe of Murray Street Productions, who was at that point working for NPR. He decided to move to New York and stayed here “for 2 weeks” until he could find a place, which turned into 14 months, which was actually great. I like him a lot. And he connected me up with Philo. He went to them and said, “You gotta hear this stuff.” That’s how that really happened. He still invites bunches of people over to his loft to just have an old fashioned country music evening with banjos and fiddles, and I play banjo or fiddle or guitar at those. FJO: You’ve never gone over to one of these things and played with Music Mouse. LS: No. Music Mouse doesn’t work like that. I have jammed playing Music Mouse, but it doesn’t lend itself well to playing with other people, because it tends to not be good for standard chord changes. FJO: Now in terms of how worlds opened up, I’m curious about how your music wound up getting sent into outer space on Voyager.
The gold-plated Sounds of Earth Record containing Laurie Spiegel’s realization of Johannes Kepler’s Harmonices Mundi and its gold-aluminum cover (left). Photo by NASA (Public Domain). A copy of this record was sent into outer space on both the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecrafts in 1977. The cover was designed to protect the record from micrometeorite bombardment and also provides a potential extra-terrestrial finder a key to playing the record. The explanatory diagram appears on both the inner and outer surfaces of the cover, as the outer diagram will be eroded in time.
LS: I was visiting friends up in Woodstock on a lovely summer’s afternoon, and somehow a phone call got forwarded to me and they said, “We’re with NASA, and we would like to use some of your work for the purpose of contacting extraterrestrial life.” And I said, “What kind of a crank call is this? If you’re really from NASA, send something to my address on NASA letterhead. Okay, goodbye.” And they did, which really surprised me.
There are a number of algorithmic works. One type might start with a truly logical progression that generates the information for a piece. Another kind is to use the patterns we find in nature and translate those into the auditory modality, like the Kepler piece [which is what was put on Voyager]. Kepler of course didn’t have the means to do that back in the 16th century. But we do. FJO: And so you realized that. LS: Yeah, yeah. Ann Druyan, Timothy Ferris, and Carl Sagan liked it for the opening cut on the Sounds from Earth record. There are two records on Voyager. One is Music from Earth. It’s not in the music part. It’s in the Sounds from Earth. FJO: That’s always bothered me. LS: No. It really is simply a translation into sound of the angular velocities of the planets. It’s a transcription really. I don’t think of it as a composition. It’s an orchestration I did, and I think I did a good one, because I have listened to some other ones and they seem rather dry and academic sounding; whereas, I somehow, being me, managed to get some sense of feeling into the ways that I mixed it and the pace at which I let it unfold, and the decisions I made such as only including the planets that were known during Kepler’s times instead of all of the planets we later came to know. FJO: There was an LP that came out of another realization of Kepler’s Harmony of the World in the late ‘70s, and in that realization the other three additional planets discovered after Kepler’s lifetime were represented as percussion tracks. There is some similarity between that recording and what you did. LS: It’s the same solar system. FJO: But still I hear your sensibility in your version somehow. LS: But it’s not an original piece by me. If anybody composed it, it was Kepler who created this score, or as Kepler would have said, “It’s a composition by God rendered audible to man,” although I don’t know if he really believed in God. His mother was almost burnt at the stake as a witch. FJO: That leads us into this whole question of who can claim compositional ownership of algorithmic compositions. LS: Well, if the piece is generated by a process then whoever creates the process you would think composes the piece. It gets more complicated when it’s an interactive algorithmic situation. I have never called Music Mouse an algorithmic music generator. It’s interactive. It’s an “intelligent instrument”, an instrument with a certain amount of music intelligence embedded in it, mostly really by a model of what I would call “music space” – music theory, rhythmic structures, and orchestrational parameters that one can interact with. If someone composes with that, to some degree, it’s a remote collaboration because there is certain decision making I put into that program that they’re stuck with. And the rest of it is up to them. So there is decision making from both me and them, in that the computer is really almost passive. I would say it only does what you tell it to in simple situations like Music Mouse. In complex situations such as the entire world internet system, things become so complex that things will happen that the system was not instructed to do. But that’s on a different scale from a program where you actually describe a process of music generation, or a program such as Music Mouse, where if you do exactly the same thing you will always get exactly the same result, as with other instruments.
Music Mouse running under the STEEM Atari STe Emulator on a Windows Vista PC. Photo courtesy Laurie Spiegel.
FJO: Allow me to play devil’s advocate. LS: Go for it. FJO: Even if you’re creating music on a piano, there are things that are built into that piano that sort of predetermine the kind of things you can do with it. LS: Sure, each instrument really does have an aesthetic domain. You obviously can’t do the same music with a flute and with a harp. But you say that you could hear my sensibility in the Kepler. You probably hear a related sensibility when you listen to my piano pieces or my orchestral writing. FJO: Yes. LS: So the medium interacts certainly with the individual person expressing themselves through the medium. It’s sort of a collaboration between a structure and a person. FJO: Well, the reason I’m bringing this up is the story you told me last week about a music composition teacher being upset with you because your software made it difficult for him to know if his students were actually composing the music he assigned them to write. LS: I wrote Music Mouse for my own use, and then I showed it to people and they wanted copies of it, and then they showed it to people, and it got to the point where more people wanted copies of it than I could sit down and explain how to use it to and so I wrote a manual. Then it kept snowballing, and it needed a publisher, so I gave it to Dave Oppenheim at OpCode to publish. And then a lot more people had it. At one point, later when Dr. T’s Music Software were publishing it, Music Mouse was bundled with [Commodore] Amiga computers, and something like 10,000 copies of it shipped. A lot of people used that program.
So I began to get feedback back from all manner of people who I didn’t know. The program was in many contexts I had never dreamed it would be in. So I get a somewhat upset letter from a college music teacher telling me that because of my program, he doesn’t know how to grade his students. He can’t tell if they know harmony, or they’re relying on my software for the harmony that they’re using in the compositional exercises they’re submitting to him. What is he supposed to do about that? How is he supposed to grade them? Music isn’t really something that’s supposed to be graded anyway. But yeah, a lot of unexpected and interesting things happened as a result of that program going out in the world on such a large scale.
Floppy discs for two of Laurie Spiegel’s software programs, Music Mouse and MIDI Terminal, as issued in the 1980s. Photo courtesy Laurie Spiegel.
FJO: One of the things that I find fascinating about it is it can help you get out of habits that you had. LS: I used to call it an idea generator. You’re certainly not going to be able to do anything you ever did on a keyboard or guitar, and you will be doing other kinds of things. And you’ll be focusing not on the level of the individual notes, but on the shapes of the phrases and the architecture of the musical gesture. It forces you to conceptualize on a larger scale. Music composing often really bogs down at the level of the note, and people lose perspective and they muddle around. If it’s really beautifully done, you can be utterly fascinated and transfixed by what’s happening on the level of the notes. But you also find an awful lot of pieces that seem to just kind of go on and on and wander around because the person creating them has lost perspective in terms of an overall form. Music Mouse orients you to think on a slightly larger scale of the phrase or the gesture. Of course, you can still wander around, making a mess for a really long time. We’ve all done that. But it’s an improvising instrument and it’s a brainstorming instrument. FJO: In terms of how it affected your own composition process, are there things in your music that are different before Music Mouse and after Music Mouse? LS: Music Mouse had things in common with the various FORTRAN IV and C programs I wrote at Bell Labs, but I can’t begin to say how much the orchestration of electronic sounds that could be dealt with in real time changed in a single decade. I mean, you talk about 1975 when I was doing pieces like Patchwork at Bell Labs. In 1985, I was doing pieces like Cavis Muris and the orchestration of real-time electronic sounds, real-time digital sounds, was just light years more advanced. It’s amazing what happened orchestrationally in that decade with the development of real-time digital audio. FJO: I love the back story of Cavis Muris. LS: I’m very fond of mice actually. There was a little family of mice living in the loft at that point. But the mouse of Music Mouse initially was the mouse input device of the early Apple Macintosh. It occurred to me, when I got my first Mac. It was not the very first one, the very limited 128k. By the 512k Mac, it became usable. So what would be the most logical thing you’d want to do with a mouse-controlled instrument? You would want to push sound around with the mouse. So, it was Music Mouse, and then I just kept refining it and refining it. That’s how it got its name. Now, of course, nobody uses mice. Well, some people still use mice. And of course there are still plenty of real mice. FJO: I still use one, but I also still use a PalmPilot. LS: I always used a trackball, which I guess I would have had to call it “Music Rat,” because it is definitely bigger than a mouse. I was thinking of doing a Rhythm Rat at one point, but I never got that far. There were too many other things going on. I might do a Counterpoint Chipmunk at some point. I don’t know. I would love to get back to coding. It’s just been so busy and the technology changes under me faster than I can learn to keep up with it in my spare time with so many other things always going on.
One of Laurie Spiegel’s current compositional work stations.
FJO: The constant change in technology raises other issues about the future of musicality. Being adept at something because you’ve mastered it over the course of many years is an alien concept to a lot of people nowadays. But in a society where the technology changes at the drop of a dime, it’s really difficult to become proficient in any specific thing. LS: You are right. People used to learn a tool or technique and refine and develop their use of it for the rest of their lives. Now we can’t even run the software we used most just a few years ago. We are always beginners, over and over.
This constant transitioning fits with the attention span of the channel flipper or the web browser. And process of facing the blank page until some creation takes form on it is now rare. More and more of today’s digital tools come up with a menu of selections, like GarageBand. Here’s a library of instruments, pick one—multiple choice initial templates. Do you want to make this kind of piece or that? Things start with “here are some options you can select among” as opposed to starting with something in my mind which I’m hearing in the silence in my imagination. Back in the dark ages when I was young, you had a great deal of time to focus on what was happening in your mind and information could proliferate, amplify itself, and take form in your imagination without that much interruption from outside. You had your mind to yourself. I don’t think kids walk home from school anymore. I don’t know. All parents seem to be hell-bent on making sure they’re safe and picking them up. And they are constantly interacting, with people or with devices or with people via devices.
Our culture is at this point full of people who are focused outward and are processing incoming material all the time. So you’ve got musical forms which are mixes, mash-ups, remixes, collages, processed versions, and sampling, all kinds of making of new pieces out of pre-existing materials rather than starting with some sound that you begin to hear in your imagination. I’m a little concerned about this because there’s just nothing like the imagination—being able to focus inward and listen to what your own auditory mechanism wants to hear—listening for what it wants to hear and what it would generate on its own for itself. You can do processing of the stuff coming at you ‘til the cows come home, but are you going to get something that’s really the expression of your individuality and your sensibility the same way as listening to your own inner ear? Are you going to come up with something original and authentically uniquely you? FJO: But you were saying before that we’ve moved to this point where nobody owns a sound and that reconnects us with much earlier folk music traditions. LS: Well, people still do, but it seems to be very hard to enforce ownership of sounds. FJO: I loved the story you told Simon Reynolds about wanting to listen to an LP you thought you had and when you were not able to find that recording, you made your own music instead. LS: That’s where the piece The Expanding Universe came from. I was looking back and forth through my LPs, and I wanted to hear something like that—not a drone piece, not a static piece, not like La Monte Young, and also not something that was a symphony. It just needed to be this organic, slowly growing thing, and I couldn’t find it, so—do-it-yourselfer attitude—I made one. FJO: So do you think it’s less likely that somebody would do that now? LS: Would somebody feel a desire to hear a certain kind of thing and go looking for it? Would they hear something inside their head and want to hear it in sound? It seems that people are fending off a great deal now. The dominant process is overload compensation: how can I rule out things that I don’t want to focus on so that I can ingest a manageable amount of information and really be involved in it. Attention is now the scarce commodity. Information used to be the scarce commodity, “information” including music of course.
Laurie Spiegel’s loft is an oasis of books, musical instruments, electronic equipment, and toys.
FJO: In terms of finding that original sound, there’s a piece of yours that I certainly think is one of the most original sounding pieces and it’s one of my favorites—Voices Within. It’s also one of the only pieces that you did using alternative tunings. LS:Wandering in Our Time is similar, although not as highly structured as Voices Within. It’s easier to use tonality or modality. Microtonality is hard to deal with. I didn’t use any particular microtonal scale. It was really by feel. FJO: But there’s a real sense of it being another world. LS: It was a very internal world. I keep using the word emotions, but emotionally, subjectively, the kind of unformed sense of experience you can’t even identify or label or describe, but it’s something haunting you inside that you feel music is the way to express. Does that make any sense? FJO: Yes, but the reason I bring it up is because of what you were saying about attention being so hard to come by these days. That piece really struck me because I didn’t have a framework for listening to it since it was so unlike anything else. With technology today and where we are in terms of being offered all these possibilities and having to choose from a set of options rather than striking out on our own paths, I wonder how possible it is for a piece like that to be created now. LS: You wouldn’t have come up with that piece on a keyboard-based synthesizer. It needed a synthesizer without a keyboard. To some degree, all of these computer programs for music out there now are virtually keyboard synthesizers; they all give you a scale. You have to really work to get out of the scales, those normal diatonic scales that are in every software package on the market. There are a lot of assumptions about the nature of music in most of the commercial software. They’re perfectly fine for making music that’s a lot like previous music, but not in terms of finding those places on the edge of what we know where we’re feeling for something that is so subjective and so tenuously there that we can’t begin to describe it. Those kinds of aesthetic experiences in sound are not really what the software that most music is done on today is optimized for. I suppose I’m guilty of using existing software by other people as much as anyone, but you do have to really work to get beyond the assumptions inherent in most software tools for any of the creative arts these days. FJO: In terms of working within conventions, it was fascinating for me to discover Waves and Hearing Things, your pieces for orchestra.
LS: I can thank Jake Druckman for actually giving me an opportunity to, both of those opportunities actually. He agented both of those. Everybody just wants to hear my electronic stuff, pretty much. FJO: But those pieces are extraordinary, too. They’re very interesting musical paths that might not have been intuitive had you not immersed yourself in electronic music. I hear the same kinds of transformations of timbres—an instrument emerges out of a cloud of sound the way that a timbre would emerge in electronic pieces from that time. Yet it’s all done acoustically. LS: But that happens in classical music, too. Much as I would have never admitted it to other kids at Juilliard, I absolutely love Rimsky-Korsakov and how he orchestrates. His orchestration is one of my great inspirations. And I love his orchestration book, too. It’s just really about sound and feeling it, it’s not about instruments ranges or any kind of nuts-and-bolts level stuff. You could say that what he does in some of his orchestrations is virtually electronic. It’s so focused on the sounds that you practically forget that they’re instruments.
Orchestras are great because you have all these timbres—wow! Then again, I love writing for solo instruments, too. Concerts are good, and I’ve enjoyed many concerts, but to me the most important music was always the music that happened at home where I would just pick up my guitar and play it to feel better, or I would sit there and sight read at the keyboard, which I used to love to do a lot, but haven’t had much time for in recent years. Or playing music for just one other person. Or playing music with one other person at home. Writing music that somebody can just put on the piano, trying to write things that are not that hard to play so that more people can play them. I’m not interested in virtuosity. I’m not interested in writing show pieces for concert halls. I’m interested in writing something that someone can sit down and play at home and enjoy the musical experience of playing it. That’s more important for me as a composer, so I tend to write pieces just for guitar or piano, the instruments that I have played the most. FJO: That’s a beautiful statement because so many people talk about getting into electronic music so that they could write music that they weren’t able to get players to play, creating a music that is even too hard for the virtuosos, music that’s beyond human ability. You’re saying the exact opposite. LS: Well, that too. It’s not an either/or. They’re both valid. That’s one of the reasons to do Music Mouse. It’s as close as you can come to playing an entire orchestra live in real time. I have all this timbral control. Nine of the twelve tracks on my CD “Unseen Worlds” were created with just Music Mouse and it was like playing a pretty full orchestra. FJO: So if you somehow had the time to take those pieces and orchestrate them and have them played by actual orchestras, would that be aesthetically satisfying you? LS: That seems like an awful lot of time and work to do something that already exists, as opposed to doing something different if given the opportunity to do something for orchestra. But yeah, that would be interesting. They would be different pieces, I would think. But that would be a lot of work. Well, it might not be. Actually you could automate an awful lot more of the transcription than you used to be able to do. Writing notes down, God, it’s so much slower than playing. That’s partly why I’ve always been an improviser. Jack Duarte, my teacher in London, said “composition is improvisation slowed down with a chance to go back and fix the bad bits”. Or “bad notes,” I think he may have said.
Laurie Spiegel playing the lute in 1991. Photo by Paul Colin, courtesy Laurie Spiegel.
FJO: So we’ve talked about the composer and the interpreter, what about the listener? LS: Well, I think one of my advantages as a composer was that I didn’t accept the identity professionally until I had already grown up as a listener and a player. The emotional level is the level at which I am primarily motivated and always have been. I’m still the teenage girl who, after a fight with my father, would take my guitar out on the porch and just play to make myself feel better. That’s who I am musically. I kind of knew what I liked as a listener, and what I liked was music that would express emotions that I didn’t have a way of expressing, where somebody understood me and expressed in their music what I was feeling in ways that I couldn’t express myself. So, to some degree, I think I see the role of the composer as giving vicarious self-expression to people, although at this point, with the technology we have, there’s no reason for anybody who wants to make music not to be able to. But there really still are levels of ability. Not everybody’s going to be Beethoven or Bach. There still will always be room for truly amazing artists of composition and sound who can do things that other people can’t. It’s just that I really kind of rail against the old dichotomy of the small elite of highly skilled makers of music and this vast number of passive listeners that have no way to actively express some thoughts in music. That seems really wrong to me, and that no longer needs to be the case. But that’s not to say that it isn’t still worth listening, because there aren’t that many truly great works out there, percentage-wise.
In addition to her musical compositions, computer software, and extensive writings about music, nature and many other topics, Laurie Spiegel is also a visual artist. These are two of her Xerographs.
Frank J. Oteri
Frank J. Oteri is an ASCAP-award winning composer and music journalist. Among his compositions are Already Yesterday or Still Tomorrow for orchestra, the "performance oratorio" MACHUNAS, the 1/4-tone sax quartet Fair and Balanced?, and the 1/6-tone rock band suite Imagined Overtures. His compositions are represented by Black Tea Music. Oteri is the Vice President of the International Society for Contemporary Music (ISCM) and is Composer Advocate at New Music USA where he has been the Editor of its web magazine, NewMusicBox.org, since its founding in 1999.
Nov 1, 2014
Subscribe to our newsletter and never miss a beat!