A conversation in Melinda Wagner’s home in Ridgewood, New Jersey
March 10, 2015—11:00 a.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu
Although most of the music she composes is completely abstract, Melinda Wagner still crafts her music in such a way that it reflects her personality and she hopes that that comes across.
“I’m not trying to tell a story in terms of being programmatic,” she opined when we visited her at her home in northern New Jersey. “I really do try to tell a purely musical story. I like to think that I carry an idea throughout the course of the piece and that the idea is transformed and there’s some kind of life lived. … I rely on instinct because, for the most part, I just know what notes should come next, even though I often cannot explain exactly why I know. And the resulting music says a lot about who I am—it’s as much a part of me as my brown eyes, my dislike of liver and marzipan, my love of potato chips, etc. So I’d like to think that listeners get to know me through my music because many of the important decisions in my work … are made without relying consciously upon intellectual constructs of some kind, but as a result of going with my gut.”
Though her melodic and harmonic vocabulary is firmly and unmistakably rooted in the sound world of modern music, Wagner’s principal role models have been the iconic classical music composers of the past, particularly Johann Sebastian Bach—from whom her obsession with counterpoint originates—and Beethoven, whose drama and intensity still sounds new. But Wagner also pays a great deal of attention to the music of our own time, particularly the music of younger composers at the start of their careers. An early boost for her own compositional trajectory was receiving three ASCAP Foundation Young Composer Awards. She is now frequently called upon to adjudicate those ASCAP awards, as well as many other panels.
“Every year I listen to literally hundreds of brand new pieces by mainly young composers,” Wagner explained. “It’s actually been wonderful work to do, because I know what’s going on with emerging composers. … When I’m listening, I want to yearn for the future of the music. I want to build up my own expectations of what might happen. I’m happy when those expectations are foiled, if they’re done sensitively or cleverly, and when the expectations are met that’s even better. But in any case, I want to yearn for that future, rather than simply luxuriating in the present of the piece. And I think a lot of listeners simply are happy to luxuriate in the present of the piece. For me, that’s a mistake. If I can’t go beyond that, then the piece probably won’t be a part of my life in the future because it’s not engaging those different ways of thinking. It’s not engaging memory, which informs my expectations of what will happen. … My favorite music, by other composers, is that which carries me away and touches my heart.”
Most fans of contemporary music first became aware of Melinda Wagner when she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1999 for her Concerto for Flute, Strings and Percussion.
“I was really unknown beforehand,” Wagner remembered, although she had already received a Guggenheim Fellowship (in 1988) and the young composer awards. Although Ellen Taaffe Zwilich and Shulamit Ran both preceded Wagner in winning the Pulitzer, at the time it was still quite unusual for a female composer to receive the award. (While gender parity has admittedly still not occurred with these awards, the balance has improved tremendously in the 21st century; only 15 years in, the number of women who have won the award already matches those from the entire 20th century!) The world has also changed in many other ways since Wagner received that accolade. Nowadays complete recordings of award-winning works often appear online only minutes after the awards are announced. Wagner’s Flute Concerto was thankfully recorded and commercially released by Bridge Records not too long after its win and now, as a result of recent developments in secure online publishing, it was possible for Melinda Wagner’s publisher, the Theodore Presser Company, to make the score available to post to social media networks and embed on other websites. Still most of her success, according to her, has been through building personal relationships with individual musicians who then have spread the word about her music:
I have found—Facebook, social media notwithstanding—that what still works is word of mouth. I got a performance of [my Sextet] back in the day when we were using cassette tapes. I think somebody from that group happened to mention to a person in another group, “We just played this piece that I liked. It’s a new piece. You might like it. Here, try it. Contact Melinda Wagner.” And it’s still true. At least my commissions have come about that way. For instance, years and years ago, American Composers Orchestra played an early orchestra piece of mine called Falling Angels. My friend Kathy Rife happened to be playing viola in the orchestra and she went home and told her husband Joe Alessi, “There’s this piece that I liked a lot. So you might think about commissioning her.” This was many years ago when Kurt Masur was still conducting the orchestra. So it took a while. It has to go through a lot of channels. It actually took years. But finally the commission for the Trombone Concerto did come through. Your professional life is to make human contacts. I, for one, don’t place a lot of value on websites.
Admittedly, Wagner’s rigorous and deeply considered scores are not readily adaptable to the kind of instantaneous consumption that usually makes the rounds on Facebook and Twitter. But they offer significant auditory rewards to attentive listeners.
“I think it’s just who I am,” said Wagner. “My responsibility towards a listener is to be as clear and articulate as possible given my language and my vocabulary.”
Melinda Wagner’s composition studio.
Frank J. Oteri: There’s a wonderful quote of yours on the website of your publisher, Theodore Presser: “Ultimately I want listeners to know me. I want them to hear that while I enjoy the cerebral exercise, I am led principally by my ear and my heart.” I’d like to get a sense from you what that means since, after all, we are here to get to know you.
Melinda Wagner: Well, I’m going to give you a lot of very vexing answers because they’re not going to really answer your questions. But I will try to clarify a little bit. When I write music, I always try to take risks. I always go to a place that’s scary for me. It’s almost like making a confession. I’m really pouring my soul out onto the page. It’s wonderful if someone listening to my music could really hear that somehow my music sounds like my personality. On the other hand, it’s so hard to compose music that I don’t do anything a whole lot more than just struggle to get the notes on the page.
When I was a little kid, we did a lot of camping. On long summer car trips with my family, my mother entertained us by playing a musical game. There was no “I Spy” or “20 Questions” for us! She’d sing the first few notes of a made-up tune, and my brother and I would either complete it with our own tunes or continue by adding another antecedent phrase. The trick was to make it go as long as possible, creating a kind of musical exquisite corpse. Although I no longer have my mother to pitch me tunes, I continue to work this way—certainly a big reason why I always start with melody. I continue to make things up as I go along, which is fun and scary.
When my composing is going well, I find myself swept up by the music, outside of real time—I hum and buzz along on a level that can only be described as emotional. The music is leading me by the nose rather than the other way around. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this optimal experience “flow.” I think he was on to something. While this is my favorite way to work—the resulting music feels like me—it is also when I am at my most vulnerable. I am not relying principally upon craft, but upon some other, indescribable prime mover, and there is a certain amount of risk-taking involved.
I can only hope that listeners will be similarly swept up, that they will experience my music—its narrative, me!—on some kind of emotional level, if only momentarily. My favorite music, by other composers, is that which carries me away and touches my heart.
FJO: But how can a listener infer what your narrative is? Music is abstract. It’s not verbal, so it doesn’t have specific meanings. It can only have associative meanings through acculturation. If the desire is to get people to know who you are, how do you do that through instrumental, wordless music?
MW: Recently, I mentored a group of young composers at a week-long festival of concerts, readings, and seminar discussions. While presenting my own work, I described myself as an “intuitive” composer who devotes very little time to pre-composition. Later in the week, one of the young composers commented that using the word “intuitive” when describing one’s process is, in her assessment, lazy and sloppy! I must admit to being amused by this—I sincerely do not know a better way to describe my work.
Here’s the thing: I use my knowledge of craft, and I use reasoning—an intellectual way of manipulating my materials—when I’m having a hard time with the piece, when I’m stuck. When my work is humming along, however, I operate on a purely gut level; important decisions are made instinctively—indeed, sometimes I consciously override the more “reasonable” path in favor of my “gut” choices. And sometimes that doesn’t work out, alas.
So, what does “instinct” mean anyway? It refers to an innate pattern of behavior or decision-making that does not rely upon reasoning. For me, as a composer, I rely on instinct because, for the most part, I just know what notes should come next, even though I often cannot explain exactly why I know. And the resulting music says a lot about who I am—it’s as much a part of me as my brown eyes, my dislike of liver and marzipan, my love of potato chips, etc. So I’d like to think that listeners get to know me through my music because many of the important decisions in my work, while certainly informed by what I’ve learned, are nonetheless made without relying consciously upon intellectual constructs of some kind, but as a result of going with my gut.
I spend a lot of time and care working on the shape of a piece, in particular the building of the climax. In many pieces I try very hard to have restraint and patience, and I care about building the pacing correctly—not having things happen too soon or too late. I think that does say something about me; I’m patient and I care about the timing of things. Also I can be very raucous in my music. There’s a lot of it that’s very noisy. I think that says something about me and my life here across the street from a hospital with sirens going all the time. Plus I’m married to a drummer, my son is also a drummer, and it’s an old rickety house so it’s always quite noisy. I think that does come out in music, and that says something about my life.
Of course, one of the benefits of being married to a percussion is having access to all those instruments!
I like very much that the repose in my music is hard won and also intense because of the music beforehand that’s been so noisy and dense and full of action. It has a lot of peaks and valleys. I like a really dramatic narrative; I’m really a drama queen. I’m a very sensitive person and I react very intensely to everything.
FJO: I love how the pitches of the wind chimes outside your house found their way into your piece Wick, which Harold Meltzer wrote about in his booklet notes for your Bridge CD.
MW: It did and I wasn’t really aware of it at the time. But once I realized that that’s what was playing on my subconscious, I really listened more carefully and tried to notate some of what was happening. That’s very unusual for me, though, to do something that connected to the real world. I don’t usually try to do that. All of my talk about sirens and so on, I’m not really aware of it. I don’t hear them anymore. It’s only when I go back and hear a recording of a piece that I might say, “My gosh, there’s a lot of stuff going on in there.” Maybe that’s because I have to try so hard to drown it out when I’m upstairs working.
FJO: I’m reminded of that famous anecdote about Verdi writing the comic opera Un Giorno di Regno at the same time his wife and their two children died. It’s impossible to hear what he was going through in that music. Music is weird that way. But if your music is telling your story, then it theoretically might be possible for listeners to get some sense of what you were doing the year you wrote the Trombone Concerto, or at least how you were feeling, by hearing the piece.
MW: No, they wouldn’t. I realize I’m contradicting myself. You know, I have this noisy life, so my music tends to be a little bit noisy. On the other hand, I don’t think someone could know what I’m experiencing at the time. I think they might know more about just my general personality, but not something I’m going through. I’ve composed during very bad times and powered through it and the music doesn’t sound dreadful and dark necessarily. I mean there’s Beethoven and there’s Beethoven’s Eighth; his later symphonies are often very ebullient, but I don’t think he was a happy man at that time. So you can hear what my life is like, but no, you can’t really.
I told you it was vexing. A mentor of mine paid me what I consider to be the highest compliment—he said, look, Mindy, we composers, we’re all sort of crazy. You’re crazy and your music is crazy. It sounds like you. I know that doesn’t sound particularly like a positive comment. But I really took that as a high compliment, because whatever weird quirky stuff is going on with me somehow comes out in the music. I hope. I wouldn’t want my music to sound generic and just skillfully wrought; I like it to be painterly. I want to hear the brush strokes.
A variety of family photos sit atop the piano in Melinda Wagner’s home.
FJO: That’s a very nice analogy, and it makes me curious to learn more about your process of working on a piece. Despite being intuitive, there isn’t this mad flurry of working on a piece and then, suddenly, there it is. I get the sense that it’s a much longer and more meticulous process.
FJO: So, what is the working process, the gestation of a piece and how it comes together?
MW: Well, first of all, my process has changed a lot, and I think that’s true for everyone who’s going about it honestly. Your process evolves as your life changes. But generally I will spend a few weeks just listening to a lot of music—of all kinds. I’m not predisposed to any type. I’m just warming my ears up, and also getting ideas. We don’t work in a vacuum. Then I always approach a piece through melody. That’s my gateway. Whether I use it or not, a melody will suggest different paths and ways to go. I might shelve it later, but it gives me a springboard. So my second step is to write some melodies and fool with them, write some counterpoint to sort of get the juices going.
An orchestral work in progress by Melinda Wagner.
The first few weeks I find to be most tortuous. I just don’t know what it is yet. That’s a very scary place to be. It’s a little bit like being blindfolded and feeling your way in the dark. Then hopefully somewhere around maybe a third of the way through the piece, it starts to suggest to me what it might do in its future. That’s always a great moment for me because I make a list of things that are going to happen. Whether I actually get to those things or not is immaterial. But I do have the carrot then at the end of the stick, something to go towards, which I don’t have in the beginning necessarily. When I tell people that I’m an intuitive composer, that’s what that means. I don’t have any kind of form in mind at first, but it comes to me kind of gradually over time.
FJO: So your composition studio is upstairs. The piano is down here. Do you walk back and forth or do you avoid the piano entirely?
MW: Well, I have an electronic piano upstairs with headphones so I don’t bother anybody. But it depends on the type of music I’m writing. If I’m writing for a small group, I use the piano more. But when I’m writing for an orchestra, where I really need to think about big gestures, I have to go in the other room so I’m not even looking at it, because the visual aspect of that keyboard I find very distracting. I’m a pianist, so if I start to get too involved in details in an orchestra piece by sitting at the keyboard, then I won’t see the forest for the trees. So I go into the other room, and I conduct through the piece. I have the pages tacked onto my wall and out on the floor, so I can walk through the piece. I do that for all my music, but mainly for orchestra music. I try to stay away from the keyboard until a later time, to check pitches and so on.
The electronic keyboard that Melinda Wagner keeps in her studio.
FJO: When you say you have it all out and then you check pitches, is it all hand written?
MW: All pencil and paper.
FJO: None of that notation software?
MW: I have the software. I have Sibelius. I have notated various things on it. But I don’t like playback. I don’t like the sound of it. And I don’t like the way it crowds me in, so I just don’t prefer to work that way. So yeah, pencil and paper, lots of erasing, very old fashioned, antediluvian.
FJO: No quills though?
MW: No. No ink.
Pages of a manuscript of a new orchestral score cover one of the walls of Melinda Wagner’s composition studio in her home.
FJO: So, to get back to what you said about listening to lots of music before you begin working on a piece, when you started the Flute Concerto, did you listen to a bunch of other flute concertos or is your listening not ultimately related to what the piece is?
MW: No, I didn’t listen to a lot of flute concertos, mainly because of the instrumentation I had chosen. It’s a smaller orchestra: no winds or brass. It’s the sound that Paul Dunkel wanted. The closest thing I could find was Bernstein’s Serenade, which I did listen to. I listened to Bartók and music that had a little more intimate quality to it. I don’t particularly like the sound of that pairing, flute and big orchestra. And I’m not sure it’s been handled well. It’s a strange kind of pairing, don’t you think? The flute is not a heroic sounding instrument, whereas violin or piano are out there beating the odds.
FJO: That’s probably why there are a lot more piano concertos and violin concertos. In terms of what’s found its way into the repertoire, you can count the flute concertos on the fingers of one hand. Of course, there have been lots of them, but they just haven’t had that longer life. But to get back to your process of listening, do you save lists of things you’ve listened to before you work on a piece? And might knowing what you had listened to be helpful to a listener of the piece you eventually write afterwards?
MW: I don’t think so, because what I’m trying to do is to get the sound of the ensemble, not the sound of their notes, not their melodies, not their harmonies. When I wrote the new Brandenburg piece for Orpheus, of course I went back and listened to Brandenburg Four, because that was the one that had been assigned to me. But also I wanted the sound of that group in my head. I’m trying to get used to the sound so that I feel comfortable in it when I start. It’s not really a style that I’m after. I could go listen to Beethoven or Mozart. It wouldn’t matter. I’m just trying to get warmed up to a particular ensemble.
FJO: So it’s for the same reason that you avoid the piano, so that the piano—even looking at it—doesn’t influence where you go. You want the instrumentation to dominate where your mind goes.
FJO: That makes sense. So then what is ideal for a listener to have going in, in terms of preparation? What do you want the listener to get out of the experience? If you want to express your emotion, who you are and your personality, what can the listener do to work toward getting that from you?
MW: Well, I’m not sure they can prepare themselves and work at it before they come to hear my music. I would say I think my strong suit is narrative. But I’m not trying to tell a story in terms of being programmatic. I really do try to tell a purely musical story. I like to think that I carry an idea throughout the course of the piece and that the idea is transformed and there’s some kind of life lived. As you listen to the piece, you hear a transformation of some kind. I would be happy if a listener can follow the idea through, through its life and through its various dramas and travails, and somehow be excited or saddened, whatever, by the various things that happen to the idea. If that is something that a listener can get, by listening to my music, I will be very, very happy, whether they like it or not. They might not like the piece, but if they were able to stay with it, what I’m aiming for is that narrative.
FJO: Now in terms of the big narrative arc, you have written several major works for soloist and orchestra—concertos. That’s a form that’s gone back hundreds of years at this point, and there have been all these sociological theories about what concertos mean, like the individual versus the society. So does that come into play in terms of the narrative you’re trying to tell?
MW: No, I didn’t think about that at all. I think one thing that makes my concertos a little different is that they really are orchestra pieces. The orchestra is very, very involved; they’re not there to just float the soloist. And likewise, the soloist sometimes is an ensemble player in those pieces, playing along with the orchestra. That was something I had a lot of fun with; it’s not really concerto-like at least in the traditional sense of the word.
This is getting into another topic, but with my trombone piece, I was backstage a lot and the brass guys have their room back there. Brass people are very serious. They all are like that. And they have their refrigerator with their comforts and they hang out there. So I thought it would be really great to have them poke fun at [the trombone soloist] Joe [Alessi], and have a lot of interplay between Joe and his section. That was something I thought about a lot, not so much with the other pieces, but I really wanted them to actually laugh at him musically. So there are some spots where he is echoed a lot. I did think about that kind of human interplay in that piece.
FJO: One thing I realized in recently revisiting all three big concertos of yours—the piano concerto Extremity of Sky, the Flute Concerto, and the Trombone Concerto—is that all of them begin with the soloist playing alone, which is atypical. It’s not unprecedented, but it’s not the way concertos were done back in the day.
MW: Right. Earlier I was saying I start a piece with melody, so some of that just has to do with my process in general. I start with a melody. With the Flute Concerto though, I was really stuck for a while on how to start. I started over and over again with some kind of orchestral introduction, and I just couldn’t get started. Then I was walking down the street from the grocery store and I thought, I will start with a fanfare, a flute fanfare all by itself. I knew that was how I was going to start the piece. It just came to me. It was such a relief. I knew it was an unusual thing for a concerto to start that way, but it gave me my gateway. You don’t think of a flutist playing a fanfare.
FJO: It’s also a way to combat this idea that the flute is overpowered by the orchestra.
FJO: Now the other part of this narrative thing in terms of telling a story is that you can perhaps direct a listener to think a certain way about a piece of music through a title, but a lot of your pieces don’t have titles that necessarily offer that window in. Extremity of Sky is a beautiful name and it’s very evocative. I’m not going to comment on the beauty or lack of beauty of the name Trombone Concerto.
MW: I know; it’s pretty generic.
FJO: So what leads to a piece getting a beautiful title versus a title that just tells you musically what it is?
MW: I get asked this a lot, actually. I think all composers get asked about their titles. I don’t come up with the title first. Doesn’t David Lang famously come up with his title first? And they’re very, very clever titles. I don’t come up with titles until the very end. And sometimes it’s like, “Oh shoot, I have to come up with a title.” It’s not something that has led me by the nose.
But somewhere in the middle of composing that piano concerto, 9/11 happened. Joel Connaroe, who at the time was the head of the Guggenheim Foundation, wrote all of the fellows this absolutely beautiful letter and he referred to a line from the third act of King Lear about the extremity of the skies. I had to use that. I remember going into the city two months after 9/11. New Yorkers are famously blasé about skyscrapers; it’s only the tourists who look up at the big buildings. But I found that New Yorkers were looking up constantly; every time a plane went by it was just terrifying. And I thought that this is an extremity of the sky for New Yorkers, the sky has taken on this new meaning. So when I read that phrase, I started getting gooseflesh. This is not to say that it actually describes anything in the piece. But it was just what was happening to all of us at that time. A lot of artists had to deal with it in their creative work at that time, how to digest something so horrible. That’s what I was experiencing at that time.
FJO: But it’s interesting that it doesn’t refer to anything specific.
MW: No. It doesn’t, and I didn’t want to try. I didn’t even want to go there, to try to portray some horrible thing. There is a little spot in it where there is some sort of little girl music. That was more about my daughter. I was thinking of her friend who lost her dad that day. We lost a lot of people here in this area. So that was the only spot where I sort of indulged a little bit. I don’t think I would have been capable of doing anything else.
FJO: So deciding whether or not something has a title, if it’s time and there’s no other title, then it’s Trombone Concerto.
MW: I can’t remember so much deciding about Trombone Concerto, but I did spend a lot of time thinking about the names of the movements. Those are very descriptive of the resulting music. But why “Trombone Concerto”? It’s probably not a very meaningful discussion because I frankly don’t remember why I didn’t choose something more interesting.
FJO: Well, I don’t mean to imply that it’s not interesting because the title does something else. And here’s where I want to go with this. When you’re writing for orchestra, it’s very different than writing for a chamber ensemble. You tend to be writing for people who are mostly doing standard repertoire. That’s pretty much the majority of what they do, unless it’s BMOP or the ACO. So you’re writing music that has to cohabitate with much older music. When you call something a concerto, you’re automatically giving the audience an association. You’re saying what kind of a piece it is and, most likely, where it goes on the program—after the first piece, before intermission. There are all these conventions, like if you call a piece a symphony, that’s the second half, although contemporary composers rarely get to be on the second half of the program.
MW: Well, you don’t want people to leave at intermission!
FJO: But that’s the thing. You’re setting up an association for listeners, letting them know that it is part of this tradition. I do think that a lot of people who attend a concert need that frame. They’ll hear, say, a Rossini overture and in the second half maybe Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique. And then there’s this new piece that sounds nothing like either of them. But the new piece still has to cohabitate with these older works. What do we do to make it sound like it isn’t the odd thing out? Or maybe we want it to sound like the odd thing out. I don’t know.
MW: I think saying it’s a concerto is helpful, because it’s kind of an aid in a way for the composer. What you’re doing is you’re setting up a bunch of expectations which can either be met or not, and when they’re not, that makes the piece interesting and it’s intriguing to the listeners. So yes, I would in a roundabout way say sure, I think concerto is a useful title the way that a symphony is not these days. I mean, a symphony for some reason is much more general in terms of what to expect when you hear a piece. When you see that it’s called symphony, you don’t know exactly what to expect. You just know you’re going to hear a big piece.
FJO: On the second half of the program.
MW: I don’t think I would ever call any of my music a symphony, but concerto is fine.
FJO: But the other kicker with calling something a symphony is that it’s not only a symphony, it’s like Symphony No. 6. It comes with this number, so it’s not only calling to mind all that music of the past that had that title, it’s also calling to mind your own past, what you’ve done before it. It’s somehow a cumulative group of works. Every time I come across a composer I haven’t heard before and I hear, say, his or her Symphony No. 3, I always think, “Where are the others? I’ve got to hear one and two first.” This gets to a larger question, how people hear this music and finding the right access points for it. With an orchestra, it’s trickier than just about everything else, because new orchestra pieces don’t get redone a lot of the time. They’ll be a commission. If you get lucky, it’s a consortium commission and a group of orchestras do it. But they’re in different cities, so it’s different audiences. So the opportunity for the same audience to hear that piece again, if it’s not recorded, is really hard.
MW: I know. And I’m an idealist. I have to keep hoping that things will change. I sort of miss the old days—the old days I never lived—when people would buy four-hand piano music and learn the symphonies that way, like Haydn and Mozart symphonies. Then they might be lucky enough to actually hear it live. That’s the way I learned Haydn Symphonies. I played four-hand piano music with my mom. That was great fun, but also incredible, because you were actually learning all the inner voices and really getting the piece in your veins. Recording, fortunately and unfortunately, is really the way to go. And it’s been that way for such a long time. But as we all know, recording is frozen. You can still hear the multiple layers of a piece if it’s a really wonderful multi-layered piece. You’ll hear things the second time around that you didn’t hear the first time around and the third time around and so on. But the actual interpretation is frozen. It’s set, and that’s unfortunate. I think it would be great if we could hear many live performances. Because the beauty of writing music is that your piece is completed by the players. It’s not completed when you write your double bar. It’s completed by the players who hopefully rehearse it and they own it, and it’s different every time it’s played. Sometimes when there’s a low pressure system, the tempos will be a little bit slower. If you have a very nervous conductor whose metabolism is very high, it might be a faster tempo. Everything affects the way a performance happens. And I think that’s a very beautiful thing. So it’s really unfortunate that we have to rely on these frozen artifacts. But I’m very happy we have them. And YouTube has been great even though the sound quality is terrible. It’s a great way to get those live performances that you wouldn’t ordinarily get to see.
FJO: Now, the other part to this is that the more times people hear a piece of yours the more they will get from it.
MW: Well, I hope so. It’s been very difficult for me because my music is of a style that is not readily accessible to a great mass of people. So, it doesn’t travel easily; it travels, but it travels sort of in a nice loping pace. We’re not going to hear hundreds of performances of any one of my pieces. Not that I know of, anyway. But, as I said, I’m an idealist, and I keep hoping for what is the perfect world. That’s all I can do because otherwise, what’s the alternative? I am who I am. And I have to write what I write. Otherwise, what’s the point?
FJO: It’s very frustrating, though, because there haven’t been many recordings of your music that are commercially available, and there are so many pieces of yours I’ve never heard that I’d love to hear, like the piece you wrote for Skitch Henderson and The New York Pops.
MW: If you email my publisher Theodore Presser, they always send out recordings if you request one.
FJO: But could any ordinary person hear it? I know about perusal materials for someone who expresses an interest in performing a piece or in writing about it, but what about some random person who is just a fan. How do we reach those people?
MW: It’s regrettable that those pieces haven’t been commercially reproduced.
FJO: Of course now, we’re in this weird zone where recordings are still being commercially produced, but they’re not really thought of the same way that they once were even though they are still happening all the time. I think the people who are the prognosticators of doom about this must not get the mail we get every day. There are piles of recordings still coming out. That said, it’s much harder for recordings of new orchestra pieces since they are so expensive to produce.
MW: Oh my goodness, yes. It’s very thorny and, with all due respect, the local unions are decades behind the technology. Whether you can actually get a recording, even an archival recording from orchestras, is in question all the time. Those of us who write orchestral music have all had that experience of being sent home without any recording, or being sent home with a recording that has white noise in it every ten seconds, which is insulting and also makes it unusable even for private use. The composer falls through a crack there.
FJO: Yet what’s weird is that although they’re not willing to give composers a recording, there’s now this whole phenomenon where someone in the general public who has no connection to a performance or a recording will simply grab something and post it to YouTube without clearing the rights for it. And there it is. Once again, the composer who asks for a recording from the orchestra didn’t get it, but the composer was not asked to give his or her consent to a performance that’s on YouTube that may or may not be an accurate rendering of his or her piece.
MW: That’s right. I had that very thing happen to me. I was traveling and I said to some musicians, “I’d like you to hear this piece.” And they said, “We already have; we’ve heard the whole piece.” This was before I even had an edited recording. Someone in the audience had [recorded it with] their cell phone. That’s very common. It happened to have gone all over the internet amongst this one community of players. Yet if I had posted the music, I could have really gotten in trouble. But I see the players’ point of view. Here are all of these free recordings being shared all over the place and they’re not getting compensation either. So I do see that side of it. It’s a very slippery slope.
FJO: It’s weird because on the one hand, we want everybody to be remunerated, but in terms of getting people aware of the new piece, we want to get the sound of this stuff in people’s ears so that it isn’t something shocking that doesn’t fit with the rest of the program. I think it’s more an issue for orchestra music than for chamber ensembles or all these groups that do a lot of new music all the time. Those groups have audiences that know that that’s what it is when they go to hear those pieces. There’s a whole audience for that in a way that there isn’t for new orchestra music.
MW: Orchestra is really tough. And many of them are having hard times now staying afloat and they need the fannies in the seats. They need to sell the tickets. There are all kinds of considerations outside of music that are coming into play, and that makes it even tougher. So yes, orchestra music is tough. Yet ideally you should have pieces that really make the circuit and have it be a part of a repertoire. That’s the other problem of second performances with any group. Ideally an orchestra would commission a new piece, premiere it, and then take it on tour and play it many times again. You would hope that that would happen. Orpheus is one orchestra that’s been extremely supportive of their new pieces. They do everything possible to perform that piece on tour and there were several performances in Carnegie Hall. They really want to get to know the piece and that’s really the way it should happen.
FJO: But of course their structure is completely different. They are a chamber orchestra, so they’re smaller, plus there’s no conductor and their administration is all players. It’s artist-led as opposed to the top-down structure that is the typical orchestra administration paradigm.
MW: And they have a lot of financial support. They have a good endowment and a good board. Orpheus is a great role model, even for larger orchestras.
FJO: Despite all these challenges of writing for orchestra that we’ve been talking about, it’s clearly something you not only excel at but actually want to do.
MW: I love writing for orchestra. The most rewarding kind of project for me is an orchestral project. It’s also the hardest and it takes the longest. It requires a lot of practical work after the piece is done, with preparing the score and the parts and all of that. It’s enormously expensive. It’s funny. When I was a kid, I swam competitively. Anyone in their right mind would choose freestyle as their prime stroke, but I chose butterfly, which I couldn’t even really do at the time. It is the most strenuous stroke and the most difficult to conquer. I’ve always been that way. I choose the hardest sport. I really do prefer writing for orchestra, and I realize it’s the hardest thing for all kinds of reasons. It is what it is. What can I tell you?
FJO: But in terms of recognition, you received a Pulitzer Prize for an orchestra piece.
MW: And the piece has gotten around a bit, which is very nice.
FJO: Do you think that winning that prize opened doors that otherwise would not have been opened?
MW: For chamber pieces, I received some commissions that maybe wouldn’t have come about had it not been for that. But the next large, substantial works that I wrote—my Piano Concerto and then later my Trombone Concerto—were both in the works before the Pulitzer happened.
FJO: In an ideal world, you should have been commissioned by orchestras all over the country to write concertos after winning that.
MW: Again, we’re back to idealism. Yes, I think that should happen to anybody who gets any kind of recognition like that. People should really shore up the composer and ask for new works. Does it happen with the other winners? I don’t know. I think the problem for me was that I was really unknown beforehand. The fact that all of a sudden here’s this name that no one had ever heard of was perhaps a scary thing for some possible commissioners. I really don’t know the answer to the question, although I do agree it would have been nice if a lot of commissions had come in, but it’s not necessarily something I want everybody to be dwelling on. There were some things, a couple of which I had to turn down.
FJO: The Pulitzer, of course, is a special case because, since it is primarily an award for newspaper journalism, every newspaper cares about it and so any composer who wins gets his or her name splattered in every newspaper in the country. And that means there’s this automatic publicity that travels far beyond our own community. Getting recognition through all these other panel-adjudicated awards is often how composers wind up on the radar of folks who make the decisions about who to program and who to commission in the first place—going all the way back to the BMI Student Composer Awards and the ASCAP Young Composer Awards (now called the Morton Gould Awards). The ASCAP Young Composer Award was one of your earliest accolades and you now frequently adjudicate those awards. So I thought your perspective on all of this was particularly relevant.
MW: I do a lot of panel work. So every year I listen to literally hundreds of brand new pieces by mainly young composers. It’s actually been wonderful work to do, because I know what’s going on with emerging composers. It’ a gift to be able to do it.
FJO: And in terms of doors opening, it was not too long after you received an ASCAP Young Composer Award that the Society for New Music performed your Sextet, which is the oldest piece of yours I know. That was really the very beginning of significant recognition for your music. The Society for New Music has been one of the great champions. But how does any composer get a track record where an organization that has a lot of respect has given its seal of approval? How do you reach that point where you go from emerging to “O.K., we know this person. We’re going to commission this person to do something.”
MW: I have found—Facebook, social media notwithstanding—that what still works is word of mouth. You bring up this Sextet. I got a performance of that back in the day when we were using cassette tapes. I think somebody from that group happened to mention to a person in another group, “We just played this piece that I liked. It’s a new piece. You might like it. Here, try it. Contact Melinda Wagner.” And it’s still true. At least my commissions have come about that way, through word of mouth. For instance, years and years ago, American Composers Orchestra played an early orchestra piece of mine called Falling Angels. My friend Kathy Rife happened to be playing viola in the orchestra and she went home and told her husband Joe Alessi, “There’s this piece that I liked a lot. So you might think about commissioning her.” This was many years ago when Kurt Masur was still conducting the orchestra. So it took a while. It has to go through a lot of channels. It actually took years. But finally the commission for the Trombone Concerto did come through. And it was purely through word of mouth. I’ve found that most of those commissions have come to me that way. Your professional life is to make human contacts. I, for one, don’t place a lot of value on websites.
FJO: I didn’t know that story about the Trombone Concerto. Of course, my first assumption had been that it had come about because of the Pulitzer. I remember thinking at the time, “That’s great, but they should have played the piece that won the Pulitzer as well.” But after you said it was already in the works, my second guess was that since it’s a trombone concerto, somebody there obviously heard your amazing brass quintet—which is one of my favorite pieces of yours—and thought, “She really knows how to write for those brass instruments. Let’s commission her to write a concerto for a brass instrument.” But that’s not how it happened, either.
MW: That would have been a more expected route you’d think.
FJO: But the fact that it’s ultimately about people, I think, is key. And it harkens back to something you said earlier, which I think is very poignant, about music being completed by the players who bring it to life in performance. We can record one performance and listen to it again and again, but it’s not the same as having tons of performances by different people who each bring something different to it; even the same people performing a piece many times bring something slightly different to it each time. And this is why writing chamber music is so important, I think, because there are so many more opportunities for that to actually happen. Sure, you don’t get as wide a range of colors that you’d get with an orchestra, but I think you get a deeper level of something that is ideally what we all want with all of our pieces.
MW: It’s much more feasible with chamber groups. That’s for sure. Earlier you mentioned Wick, which is certainly in the repertoire of the New York New Music Ensemble who commissioned it. They performed it many times and recorded it. So that’s their piece, they have made it theirs, and they definitely own it when they play it. That’s the ideal.
FJO: Writing a solo piece might be the best opportunity to create something that can really have a life, because it’s just one person and if that person puts it in his or her repertoire and really works it, then that’s the sweet spot. I bring this up because I was really smitten with your solo piano piece Noggin after I heard Marc Peloquin perform it at Tenri earlier this season. In fact, it’s what convinced me that it was finally time for us to have this long overdue conversation.
MW: Thank you. That’s a much easier piece to peddle around. There are a lot of pianists who are very good out there. The piece has already taken on a life, and it’s not a very old piece—I think it’s two years old and it’s already gotten quite a few performances —so that’s been a very nice thing. I’m very happy about that. But it’s an easier situation.
FJO: Getting back to what you were saying about the piano earlier—you’re a pianist, and this is a solo piano piece. So did you work on it at the piano?
MW: I did. I can actually play it, very slowly. But I did play. I worked right at the piano when I was doing that, which is a little dangerous actually, because I’m not a professional pianist. I would not be able to go out on stage and play the piece, and one doesn’t want to compose just for one’s own abilities since there are better musicians out there.
FJO: You’ve also written a very nice solo guitar piece. I see a ukulele on one of your shelves, but I don’t think that you play the guitar.
MW: Not at all. But I did work with a guitar in my lap, because I wanted to make sure that some of the chords I was after were actually reachable. So it was very helpful to have the instrument with me. I don’t play the guitar and that was a little scary at first, but I would do it again because I ended up really enjoying it.
FJO: So does that piece have an ongoing performance life?
MW: Yes, it has, although that’s a little more difficult. The guitar is such a subtle instrument. You usually don’t see a solo guitar piece on a program. I don’t anyway. And it’s only three and half minutes long, which makes it kind of a special case. But I have had some lovely performances. One of them, which I like very much, is on YouTube.
FJO: That is a very nice performance. We haven’t yet talked about vocal music, which is interesting given all of our conversation about narrative and meaning. Music with sung words is the one realm in music where you can actually tell a story that people are going to instantly get, because we’re verbal creatures. I know you’ve set some really wonderful poetry—Emily Dickinson, Denise Levertov, and Robert Desnos—in your song cycle Four Settings. But I found it very strange that you gave the piece such an abstract title. Normally a vocal piece will have a very evocative title that comes from a title or maybe a line in one of the poems. It’s almost as if, since you were setting a variety of texts, you didn’t want to give one text weight over the others.
MW: Right. I suppose I could have come up with a more descriptive title, but I think you’re right—I really wanted to give the highlight to the individual poems. I don’t remember thinking about it too long. It would have been really hard to come up with a title for that because the reason I chose that collection of poetry had to do with light and darkness, shade and sunlight, those contrasts which are somewhat poetic sounding, I suppose, but I’m not a poet. So I didn’t think I was up to the task of coming up with a poetic, more personal sounding title. Four Settings is descriptive; it tells the listener what they’re going to hear. I wanted to set these poems. That’s what I did and I just sort of left it at that.
FJO: The other thing it implies, I think, is that they are settings, your own interpretations, not the only possible interpretation.
MW: That’s right. It’s certainly not, especially with regard to Emily Dickinson. Composers love to set Emily Dickinson. There are other approaches. So I think that was behind my choosing a title like that.
FJO: So, other kinds of projects involving a narrative—Four Settings is the only vocal piece of yours that I know, although you have also written several pieces for chorus. Would you want to write an opera?
MW: I don’t think so.
FJO: Why not?
MW: I’m comfortable writing for voice and choral groups, but I’m just not—I don’t think I have a very good answer for that. It’s just not been at the forefront of my mind to write an opera. Look, it’s so hard to get orchestra music played. I think an opera is yet another difficult path.
FJO: Even worse because the big opera houses are set up pretty much to do only older repertoire not just in terms of their overall design but also in the whole way they market what they do to audiences. Sometimes we’re lucky and they deign to do a new piece, maybe one a year, or one every five years—look at the Met’s track record which is absolutely horrendous. So if you’ve written an opera, even if you’re lucky enough to get a production of it somewhere, what do you do after that? And it takes years to write an opera, so it’s a huge investment for a composer to make given the likely potential returns.
MW: That’s it. So opera has not been something I’ve lusted after.
FJO: Of course, now we’ve entered what many folks believe is a golden age for smaller-scale operas, black box opera. There are a lot of adventurous people out there who are finding ways to make this work. So I think it’s an exciting time.
MW: I think that’s very exciting, too. And I love heavily-produced chamber pieces where there’s a visual element, or costumes, or some of it is scripted and staged. And there are all these young ensembles out there that are willing to do it. That I’m very intrigued by. I would go there in some future project.
FJO: We’ve talked about all these different idioms—orchestra music, chamber music, vocal, choral, opera. And every piece of yours I know—whether it’s something large like the Trombone Concerto or a smaller-scale piece like the Brass Quintet or Noggin—has been tailor made for its forces. And it’s clear from how you’ve described your creative process that you really make sure that it is. But, at the same time, it’s also really important to you that the music reflects who you are, which can be a difficult balancing act.
MW: Here’s the thing. My music is really difficult. While I think it is idiomatic, it is difficult to put together. There are lots of tempo and meter changes. It’s not music that plays itself or can be easily put together with one and a half rehearsals. But Beethoven is difficult. Brahms is difficult. I’m sure it wasn’t easy to put together [their music] when those pieces were new. I’m sure they had more than one and a half rehearsals in those days. I know that sounds kind of hard-assed or something, but that’s what I hear, and I don’t think that’s indulgent. I think it’s just who I am. Does one consciously go into a new project with the aim of writing easy music? Yes, we’re all asked to do that, for instance when we write for an amateur orchestra, which is fine. It serves no one to be willfully obscure. But to change a style solely for the sake of getting more performances—talk about slippery slopes! You’re really selling your soul to the devil if you start doing that.
FJO: And if you want people to understand who you are from your music, you can’t write anything but who you are.
MW: Exactly. They wouldn’t be hearing who I am and what I’ve worked on all these years. I think my responsibility towards a listener is to be as clear and articulate as possible given my language and my vocabulary. I don’t like it when my point of view is considered self-indulgent, because we all are after voice. When you find a voice, or continue looking for it, it is what it is.
FJO: So to turn this around, I’m curious about the things you admire in other people’s music, both of our time and from the past. But first, the composers from the past. I poked around the house while we were setting up the recording equipment, and I saw all these standard repertoire scores on the piano.
All those scores…
MW: I’m very respectful of where I came from, and that is definitely from having been brought up with the standard repertoire—Bach and Mozart and Beethoven. That’s how I came to the piano and so it’s really where I started. Take Bach for instance. I have his 48 preludes and fugues on the piano here. Do you remember several years ago when there was that silly contest of who was the best composer on earth?
FJO: Of course the winner of these contests is never anybody alive, never a woman, and never an American. It makes my blood boil.
MW: I know; it was very silly, but sort of entertaining to see it as it unfolded. Bach ended up being the winner. It’s not like I was rooting for him, because I thought the contest was kind of silly, but Bach for me is someone I return to because all of the drama and beauty and excitement and angst in that music is built into the notes. You don’t have to have dynamics. You don’t have to add some kind of contrived interpretation. I think the best performers of Bach are the ones who stay out of the way and are technically accurate and yes, musical, but I think Bach performances where players are adding another element of drama are not the best performances. So I return to Bach because the peaks and valleys and the shape are the bricks and mortar of the music. I’m always going back to Bach to figure out how he does that. It’s fascinating to me. My work is very informed by Bach and Beethoven, too, whose music is so narrative. He uses anticipation and expectation and surprise so much and he’s obviously pushed the envelope formally; I go back to Beethoven all the time.
FJO: I definitely have always heard the Beethoven influence in your music, the shifts, etc., but I remember when your Orpheus commission was first announced. At first I thought it was a very unusual choice, because I didn’t immediately associate your music with Bach and Baroque sensibilities. Your music is very much about color and contrast, which is almost the exact opposite of steady state. However, after I started looking at your scores more in-depth I realized that all of your music is ultimately about counterpoint. But you’ve taken it to very different ends which goes back to the very beginning of our conversation where you said you don’t listen to music for the style but for something else, to get those timbres in your head so that they become second nature. And so I guess it’s the same thing with Bach. You’re getting maybe the—I don’t want to say technique—but maybe the tools.
MW: The tools. Yes. Well, all my music is contrapuntal. That’s the way I work. So it was sort of a no brainer for me to approach the piece that way. That is a major tool in my work.
A score of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier sits atop the Steinway baby grand in Melinda Wagner’s home.
FJO: I wanted to take this into a discussion about mentoring other composers. Obviously Bach and Beethoven is the music that has mentored you. You had mentioned earlier that you look at tons of pieces by young composers. I’m wondering when you go through all this music, what are you listening for—well, actually, what you’re looking for since you’re looking at scores? What are you aiming to find in someone’s compositional voice? This sort of ties into what you want listeners to hear in your music—what do you want to hear and experience in someone else’s music?
MW: Let’s talk about the bigger issue here and that would be what brings me back to a piece of music, let’s say, a second time, a third time, [across a] lifetime? We all know that music is unique in that it is both temporal and completely abstract. I find that fascinating, the fact that music is sounded, it’s evanescent. It completely disappears after it’s sounded. It’s like a puff of smoke; it’s in the air. And yet, it’s really so very, very powerful. I’ve thought a lot about that. I think that when we really listen carefully to music, what’s happening is that we’re bringing into the present of every piece of music both our recollection of the past of that piece as well as our expectation of what’s happening, of what might happen in the future of that piece. So we’re really listening in three tenses at once, if we’re listening carefully.
When I’m listening, I want to yearn for the future of the music. I want to yearn for it. I want to build up my own expectations of what might happen. I’m happy when those expectations are foiled, if they’re done sensitively or cleverly. And when the expectations are met, that’s even better. But in any case, I want to yearn for that future, rather than simply luxuriating in the present of the piece. And I think a lot of listeners simply are happy to luxuriate in the present of the piece. For me, that’s a mistake. If I can’t go beyond that, then the piece probably won’t be a part of my life in the future because it’s not engaging those different ways of thinking. It’s not engaging memory, which informs my expectations of what will happen. So if I’m listening to a piece that is concerned only with wowing me in the moment, I’ll be wowed and I will listen a second time, but it will not likely hook me if that’s it.
I know that’s a huge intangible. It really is. But that’s really my criterion for listening to music. So I like music that takes risks. I like to hear hearts on sleeves. The music I don’t like to listen to is music that has relentless ugliness. I’ve used scratch tones in my music, but to hear it unendingly—almost abusive of the instrument, which I know is de rigueur these days—I don’t care for personally. This is a personal taste. I don’t care to hear that for many moments on end. When it comes to contests, that’s difficult, particularly with the ASCAP contest, because there are so many applicants—800, 900 people apply to that, so you have to have two levels of judging. First just to winnow out those great numbers of pieces that aren’t really eligible. And you don’t get very much time with a piece at all.
I’ve had this discussion with young composers all the time. Teachers used to say in the old days, “Write a piece that has great cymbal crashes and lots of drama and excitement in the beginning.” That’s a big danger because, first of all, how do you make a piece work with that? You can, but to follow up and actually make a whole piece with that kind of opening is really challenging, especially if you’re a little bit inexperienced. There was a while there where we would hear or look at a lot of these pieces that opened with great bravado and you know, drama, and then boom, the bottom would fall out. So that would be something we’d look for, if the bottom didn’t fall out. We’re talking about minutes of sifting through a score so you can see what’s happening. You can see if the composer’s going to back it up. The piece that did back up that big opening would be a piece that would rise to the top.
I think it’s important to grab the judge—or any listener—in some way. I don’t think it’s necessarily with a brake drum or a cymbal crash or a great flourish of sound, but sure, you have to grab the listener in some way. There’s nothing that smacks of pandering in that at all. I mean, what’s the point if you’re not going to grab the listener in some way. I’m glad to say that the ways that composers can do that are very many and varied. It doesn’t have to sound like movie music. If there is a climax, then this is another thing. If we see a big moment in a piece, it’s very important to see that the composer has worked for it. I certainly have heard a lot of music where there are a lot of stops pulled out. But compositionally, I think that it needs to be tended to and earned.
FJO: That really is what distinguishes the first listen from the second listen or the third.
MW: You know, after a while, if you’re an experienced listener, you really do hear through that pretty quickly. The other thing is strings of pretty chords. I’ve heard so many pieces that are lush and beautiful, but they’re chords that have nothing really to do with one another even if they’re I-IV-V-I. There’s some missing element in a lot of that music. That’s very hard to describe, but when it’s done well, it’s absolutely delicious. But not everyone can do it well, to—again—make one yearn for the future of the piece, to yearn for the next chord rather than simply enjoying the one that you’re hearing at the moment.
FJO: You taught composition for a number of years, but you don’t have a regular teaching job anymore.
MW: No, but I do a lot of masterclasses, so I get students for a couple of days, which is lovely.
FJO: Does that work fuel your own creativity or is it just a way of giving back?
MW: I love working with young composers. I really adore it. I always benefit from hearing their ideas and their music. I really am so lucky to be able to do this once in a while. When you’re teaching, you have to know the subject matter so thoroughly, because you have to know it well enough to be able to explain it to someone in very clear, simple terms. That’s a discipline one has to learn when one is teaching—I know what I know or I know what I like, but describing it to someone else, or explaining how you feel, even about your own music, is something that you really have to think about. So I think working with young composers and talking about music, I really have to go inward and think very carefully about what I really mean. So it does cause me to reflect a lot. And hearing their ideas, as I said, is very beneficial to me; it keeps me on the ball.
Another view of Melinda Wagner’s studio showing pages of manuscript paper scattered all over the room.