Thomas Hampson: Singing American Songs
Baritone Thomas Hampson describes his unending fascination with American art songs.
[Ed. note: This conversation between American baritone Thomas Hampson and Richard Kessler, then the Executive Director of the American Music Center, was originally published on the American Music Center’s website on August 1, 1998. It was the second in a series of interviews entitled “Music In The First Person” published in the year before the launch of NewMusicBox on May 1, 1999. “In The First Person” served as the model for one of the primary components of NewMusicBox which still continues on the site as “Cover.”]
RICHARD KESSLER: What attracts you to American song?
THOMAS HAMPSON: I think the first thing is, really, what attracts me to song? Song is such a huge and fascinating world, and I never quite understand, especially with “art song,” why it seems to be such a “specialist” idea. To me, song is such a natural mix of thought and symbols expressed through words — poetry — encased in a musical framing that becomes something quite different from either music or a poem. I don’t know why people think that it’s so difficult to be “into” the world of song, or involved with it. Maybe they don’t. But the fascinating part of song — and this is especially true of American songs — is that it immediately becomes a diary of experiences and emotions.
American song especially fascinates me. I consider American song to be comprised not only of American poetry and American music; but it is also incredibly dependent on the social, historical, or literary issues of the epoch that has borne the music and poetry.
Sometimes there are great ironies between poetic sources and compositional sources. When I think of 19th-century poets in 20th-century musical hands, it’s really quite fascinating. Sometimes the music updates the poetry, but most often, it just goes to the heart of the emotion or intellectual effort of that poem, and it transcends time. That’s why I think song is somehow a diary that illuminates our own experiences as human beings, while at the same time reflecting particular times in our nation’s history where an awakening process, the maturation that we’ve been going through for the last couple of hundred years, is particularly poignant.
RK: What about the performer’s issues, the intimacy of performing song in recital? How is that different from being on-stage in front of one or two hundred people?
TH: Well, there is quite a difference, but it’s a difference of emphasis, really. One is macro, one is micro; one is the private thoughts of an individual, and the other is a portrait of the individual in a particular circumstance. I don’t see how you can separate them; it just depends on what you are articulating at that time as a performer.
The performance could portray, in a theatrical sense, the inside life of a character. For instance, if I sing the Winterreise, I may very well convey the kind of private emotion of, say, a character in a Wagner opera. Not the Wanderer, but any one of those characters. Or, conversely, if I’m doing songs that reflect personal thoughts and emotions, my character could turn around and take on a role more suited to a larger opera.
Singing songs would do well as a more substantial study for young opera singers. I think that ballad narration — telling a story or articulating specific emotions so that you almost have to set up your own drama — is an especially valuable and fascinating experience for singers in preparation for the theatrical experience. In the theatrical experience, you are just one part of a larger picture — you’re working in an ensemble situation with other artists, other colleagues, a conductor, and a producer. But in this type of experience, I’ve always found it interesting to define the private, personal story of the character I’m playing. If I’m singing Posa, I think: What sort of shoes does he have? What books has he read? What kind of schooling did he have? What kind of wife did he have? And that’s where background materials can become very interesting, especially for operas that are historically founded, like Don Carlos.
It’s a fun intertwining of both worlds, and, clearly in song, you have a greater expanse of emotion: very quiet; very loud; very dramatic; very personal. Sometimes you sing in the first person, sometimes in the third person, sometimes even in the second person; it can be quite interesting.
RK: I’m going to continue to ask you about American music, but first I’d like to say that I particularly enjoyed your Aaron Copland album with Dawn Upshaw and the SPCO. I love that album; I listen to it regularly.
TH: Well, I appreciate that. I love the album, too. We had a lot of fun doing it and unfortunately, we haven’t worked with Hugh Wolff since. But that was a wonderful experience, and they’re a great band. He had a deft touch. It was fun.
RK: And in your success with the music of Stephen Foster, you, in some ways, highlighted him toward the end of this century in ways that certainly no one else had, and sort of brought him back out to the forefront.
TH: Well, it’s funny; people like Deems Taylor, for instance, were really at the forefront — let’s not forget this guy. I think the fun thing about Foster is that if you say “Stephen Foster,” everybody sort of jumps to an immediate conclusion. He’s really — and I think I’ve used this metaphor before — the trunk of the tree. His life is interesting, and yet the most interesting thing about him is that he probably wasn’t very interesting. It’s really quite astounding what a strange personality this boy had, but he articulated for us a kind of naïve separation from reality, an escape. I think he was more of a musical genius-locus than people give him credit for. I don’t think it’s a huge genius, but there’s a genius in the directness of his music. I think the sentiments that he articulated are more endemic to the 19th century for all races, not only the “white salon balladeer.” He carried an enormous impact for the African-Americans, as well as the Irish immigrants and Scottish immigrants. In a lot of ways, he articulated the immigrant longing in this country as immigrants became citizens.
RK: Well, he offers an opportunity for people to begin to understand that particular time through song. The interesting thing is that people readily head towards books to begin to understand or examine history. They often don’t see that music can present that to them, as well. Foster stands for that. He’s such a potent entry point to that time.
RK: Which other American composers interest you?
TH: Well, I’ve come across so many interesting ones. I’m fascinated by Charles Griffes. He is still not very well known, but I think the quality of his songs is pretty spectacular. I know his German output better than anything else, but I think he had a lot of French influence. And again, here we come to the diary idea. The reasons why Griffes went from German expressionism into French orientalism were numerous. For one, we can’t forget the tremendous impact of Admiral Perry’s opening of the Far East. This had a huge influence on everyone from Mahler to Van Gogh. A new exotic atmosphere came into play. But also, when the war really hit, even World War I, it was a such nasty time. German was forbidden to be sung in the opera house. And the songs that Griffes had been writing up to that point were based on Heine, Uhland, and Goethe texts, as well as those of his colleagues, like MacDowell. MacDowell was dead by then, but Griffes just stopped in his tracks. There were no more German texts, so they shifted into English and Fiona MacLeod, and into French symbolist, Debussy-esque kind of music. I’m giving a general explanation here, but these things didn’t happen in isolation. Especially in American song, there are always contemporary social historical perspectives that are reflected either through the composer’s eyes, or through the text that the composer then sets. So, it always has sort of a diary feel about it, and Griffes is no different. I think Griffes is fascinating.
Of course, I adore Charles Ives, and I’m amused by him. I think the real study of Ives’s songs is still to be done. I think that it’s unfair, if not unwise, to simply treat him as a block. Although, I would probably say that about every composer. I get so tired, in talking about song in whatever country, of making reference only to the composer. I think it’s wrong, unfair, and limiting in terms of the musical language that the composer found. And Ives is no different. There are a lot of songs that Ives wrote to simply send out to people who didn’t know the difference. And that’s when I get interested in how that worked, because some of the songs are just complete bullshit. He would then write a note that basically said, “If you take this song seriously, then you’re probably stupider than I am.” It’s really quite funny. And there’s also a diary element there, because there are a lot of very personal and ironic remarks that Charles Ives, in his sort of self-deprecating and certainly cynical humor, is sending out in his publications. Rather than just having this 114 book of his, I think someone should just tear it apart and make Italienisches Liederbuch-style dialogues out of different subjects. I tried it once with Dawn Upshaw in a recital; we did and it worked very well. It was fun.
In other early 20th-century music, I think John Duke is a fantastic American composer, and all too unknown. I’m also very fond of John Alden Carpenter, as well as composers like Haggemann. I don’t want to get into a pyramid listing of American composers, but I think Virgil Thomson is a completely forgotten master of the song genre. There are so many songs out there, but the disparate quality is curious: there are a lot of composers who have written some good songs, but there are very few composers who have consistently written good songs. And some of that is not their fault. Some of it is endemic to the period that the composer belonged to. Ernst Bacon wrote some very good songs, and he wrote some very silly songs — silly meaning not great — though they might have been taken more seriously in their time.
There are a couple of wonderful female composers. Elinor Remick Warren is one of my favorites. She wrote fantastic oratorios that I’ve recorded, and also some terrific songs. “We Two” by Walt Whitman is a fantastic song. Also, Celius Dougherty .What was fascinating about doing the Walt Whitman album was going through all sorts of different composers. There are just all sorts of jewels out there. But I think they belong to a particular context, and that’s what I’ve been trying to concentrate on in my programming, and in how I look at American song. I look at it more through epochs and themes and literary circles than through any one composer’s eyes. Even as much as I love Samuel Barber and Charles Ives, I just don’t think that a whole evening of any one composer’s music would do them justice. I think an American composer is always more interesting in the context of either his or her own period, or when paired with a completely contrasting voice. But that’s part of the American spirit anyway — to show where the round side of the edge is, and vice versa. As a culture, we’re always sort of mesmerized by opposites.
2. The New Repertoire: A Paradigm Shift
RK: The core standard repertoire for opera has not expanded significantly since the early part of this century. The same could be said for the orchestral repertoire, where any consistent expansion seems to have ended in the 1950s. What strikes you most about this? Do you think that the coming years will see more new works fully embraced by artist organizations and, most importantly, audiences?
TH: I do. I think there’s a lot of good news out there right now. I actually think the avant-garde is something very exciting and accessible. I’ve certainly listened to a great deal of the avant-garde music and have had some experience as a singer. We’ve got some fantastic songwriters lurking out there. John Musto is fantastic. Ricky Ian Gordon, Stephen Paulus, Richard Danielpour, Mr. Brewbaker (Daniel), and John Adams — I’m so crazy about John Adams. I think the minimalists broke the mold. They were the first ones to really shake us up and say, “Yes, there is something completely different out here to be had.” Steve Reich started all of that, and then, of course, Philip Glass. If I have a wrong historical perspective, please forgive me — I’m just a stupid singer!
Something very exciting started happening in the late 1970s and early 1980s that broke us out of what seemed to me to be a backwards-looking, self-defeating academic fight. There just seemed to be such a huge exploration of theories, from about the 1930s to the 1960s, that broke the music scene down into polemics and schools. Sometimes some very interesting things happened, without a doubt, but most of it was probably brain food more than emotional food. And song probably belongs more to emotional substance than to intellectual substance. Now, that betrays a certain personal attitude. But what’s happened now, with breaking out of different schools of thought — with the polytonalities, polyrhythms, and even polymotivations of thoughts, and the way the poems are structured and set to music — reinstates the value of melody, which I think is inextricably linked to the life of song. And when I say melody, I mean that we have better ears now. We now recognize things as melody that we perhaps wouldn’t have recognized in the 1950s. It’s curious that Samuel Barber, who was so vehemently chastised as old-fashioned and unnecessarily romantic, is now recognized as an absolute genius for his melodic writing, and certainly for voice leading and counterpoint, as well. The man was just true to a different calling. He’s probably having a much stronger impact now than he did during his lifetime.
RK: You know, it’s interesting that you mention Steve Reich and Philip Glass. I interviewed Steve Reich just a couple of weeks ago.
TH: That must’ve been fascinating.
RK: It was! Steve’s career emerged not through the music world, but through the art world. He got his first breaks in the 1960s through art galleries, where, in some ways, the otherwise established music world was inaccessible to him. All of a sudden, he was able to key into another audience. The audience at the galleries seemed open to hearing something different.
TH: He also had a tremendous break, of course, with the electronic world as well.
TH: I’ve had a couple of long conversations with Luciano Berio about this subject, and also about Steve Reich, of whom he’s very fond.
RK: Yes, he was at one point a student of Berio’s. There’s a remarkable anecdote where Berio was looking over some of Reich’s work, and Reich was sort of struggling to write tonal music. He had still been experimenting with atonal work, and was just beginning to find his voice as a composer. Berio just looked at the score and said, “If you want to write tonal music, why don’t you just write tonal music?”
TH: Yeah, exactly! That’s sounds like Luciano. If it’s a good tune, write it!
RK: I’m going to ask a question that’s off the beaten path, but it’s been provoked by something you said. Earlier you spoke about melody. I think you are certainly correct that melody is emerging more than ever before in contemporary concert music, but in pop music, melody appears to be less important than ever before. In rap music and other forms like ska, it seems that melody and harmony take a back seat to rhythm.
TH: Well, I would have to agree with you. I find it in some ways amusing. What’s happened is that the musical structure of pop music has become infinitely less interesting than it was in the 1970s. Think of what Steely Dan was writing — Asia — and even Blood Sweat and Tears or Fleetwood Mac. Fleetwood Mac! I went to High School listening to Fleetwood Mac’s “Bare Trees,” which was one of those earth-shattering albums! It’s unbelievable! These guys were writing serious music. Even Eddy Gomez, the fantastic jazz drummer, is a Juilliard graduate; and a lot of these guys are Juilliard hacks — and I mean that in the best sense of the word.
RK: I understand that. I’m a Juilliard graduate.
TH: But what irritates me a little bit — or perhaps I find it curious — is that a lot of this music on Broadway which is getting raves and winning Tonys is just simply innocuous. People look at a Jerome Kern score and say, “What am I supposed to do with this heady music?” and I just find that absurd.
And then there is the whole rap movement. I mean, if you actually want to get to rap, then go back and look at the Monteverdi madrigals. Every generation probably thinks themselves a little too clever, and I do think one of the great challenges at the end of the 20th century is, in fact, to discover the humility of tradition. We take ourselves so seriously, and assume that everything that we come up with is really cutting-edge and has never been done before. That’s just not true. Maybe it’s because we haven’t paid attention to historical perspectives. We think that all of our political problems are so unique. Sometimes I wonder if we haven’t sort of thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Although, jazz has certainly gone its own way. I think that jazz has probably had the most significant effect on classical music over that last fifteen or twenty years of any type of music.
RK: It’s remarkable.
TH: I think it’s fascinating; it’s wonderful. And the Americans embrace it. Over here in Europe, they’re still fighting the battle of Schoenberg and Stravinsky. But it’s getting better. EMI is doing a huge competition to help contemporary composers, and there’s going to be big play-off in April. I’ll go sit on a jury and we’ll decide what piece works best. The fun part is that there are three CD’s with nine different composers and their works — some people I’ve never heard of, and some people I have. When I sit and listen to these different musical ideas, it is curious that with practically all of them, the thing that immediately grabs you — and this goes back to your point — is the manipulation of pulse. That manipulation either accents or “detoxifies” the harmonic ingenuity. But in some ways, it seems to grab people more, and it seems to be more accessible. We’re living in a time when that seems to be more relevant than harmony. I’m not sure what else we can do with harmony within the system that hasn’t already been done; there’s nothing shocking left.
RK: I agree.
TH: And maybe that’s actually good, because I think that audacity for the sake of audacity is pretty boring. It’s like Confucius saying that boredom is the endless search for novelty. It may very well be that we’ll finally give up on that and actually start trying to articulate the human experience through music again. Who knows?
3. Arts Education Programs and the Future of Music
RK: Well, some of these things run in cycles. But pop music is another story. There was an recent article in The New York Times about pop music and the recording industry. It said that kids who are purchasing albums today may purchase the debut album of an artist, but are not necessarily interested in becoming a fan; they won’t necessarily pick up the second or third CD of a given band or solo act. It also said that the promotion of pop music had become focused on individual songs, rather than on albums and the development of careers. Some of the reason that they believe this was happening is that the corporations that own the record companies are not willing to allow the companies to spend the resources necessary to develop the artist’s careers. In the case of a Bruce Springsteen, it took a number of albums for him to start to make it; that’s probably the case for most artists. This is a profound change in the pop world, but it also says something more general about people listening to music.
TH: Well, that’s a huge subject, and I think it’s endemic not just to the pop world, but also to the book world. I heard the exact same argument on “Book Span” — great authors saying, “Well, if I were under the same kind of stress that young authors are under today!” Investing in careers and talent is no longer interesting in the book industry or the pop industry, and that’s also exactly what is happening — what has already happened, to a great degree — in the classical industry.
A lot of it is due to an overriding belief that if someone is business-clever or understands the ebb and flow of bottom-line charts, that somehow that’s more important and responsible than any hobby they may be into, be it reading books or listening to music. I think we’re experiencing a flip of the needle kind of thing. We’ve gone to the drastic other side where the bean counters are suddenly dictating the form of the business. And yet those same bean counters wouldn’t even have a job if they hadn’t been inaugurated by people with a great romantic spirit of wanting to try to record music, write music, or write books. I do think that the needle is going to flip back a little bit; not because I’m such an optimist, because I’m probably not. I like to sort of grovel in melancholy like anyone else! But I honestly think that we’re in a very exciting time right now, a hot bed of innovation. With the “everything goes” mentality, someone is going to spring up with something very clever in terms of uniting interesting songwriters and music writers with publications and distributions.
We’re going to crack the paradigm problem. The old paradigm is certainly being shifted and it’s causing some tremendous pain, some of which you’ve already articulated. But at the same time, we are going push through it. We are going to do something new. We’re going to put something better together. We’re going to figure out a way to get record sales up by getting the prices to go down, and if the distribution is correct, we can do it. It is going to take a certain amount of readjustment to the notion of education and of normality, certainly.
And some of the great old sacred cows may have to go. You earlier referred to the lack of change in the symphonic and opera repertoire, which to some extent is true. But if there has been a change, a significant change or new breath, it has certainly happened in the last five or ten years. And that’s very exciting. One of the reasons that the time for innovation is so ripe is that we’ve actually had more new operas written now than fifteen or twenty years ago. I know of more new operas being written now, and they are truly operas in the American operatic sense.
RK: Well, one of the questions, especially for us at the American Music Center, is that there’s been a tremendous amount of commissioning, particularly over the last half of the century, yet the number of works that have entered the repertoire is remarkably small. Why?
TH: It is curious: I’ve been part of some interesting Uraufführungen (world premieres) and you sit there and say, “Well, is this going to become part of the repertoire?” I think everybody’s excited to have that first shot, to have that first listening, but it is similar to the Danielpour piece (Elegies): it’s a very good piece, but is it necessarily going to be something that someone else is going to want to do? Part of the problem is that the orchestra of the next organization has to say, “Aha! This is a great piece our public wants to hear.” Yet even if that’s the case, the organization has no bells and whistles to sell it with. So everything about the piece becomes more determined than the piece itself. That belies a marketing mentality cancer that we’ve got to break. That’s the paradigm that has to shift. Are we selling subscriptions series to people, or are we providing people with the repertoire they want to hear that season? There’s a big problem there.
RK: I went to a performance recently of Joseph Schwantner‘s Concerto for Percussion, which I believe is a remarkable piece of music. I immediately thought that this work could easily become standard repertoire. But you really hit the nail on the head: there are questions of marketing paradigms, of audiences vs. individuals. There are issues of audience development.
TH: Well, this is what happens when you take the guts out of a little arts education program, which is what America used to have; programs where free and open dialogue for elementary and high school music students was not only offered but also was considered viable, valuable, and interesting. You didn’t have to become a musician, and you didn’t have to be particularly intelligent, but you sang songs, you listened to things, you might have been taken to concerts and music programs. But now, all those programs have been cut. Nobody can afford them anymore.
In Spokane, WA, where I come from, I wonder if they bus kids in to afternoon rehearsals of the symphony. In whatever city it might be, I can imagine the two things that would happen. One: the schools can’t afford the gasoline for the buses. Two: the kids are so incredibly unruly that they honestly don’t know how to behave in a rehearsal. They think that the opera house or the symphony center is the same place as the cinema, where they can leave popcorn on the floor. Another problem is that the minute you say rehearsals, the orchestra unions come in and say, “Wait a minute. If you’re going to have kids listening to rehearsals, that means there has to be one extra rehearsal, because it has to be a real performance, as well, and it has to be top-quality.”
If we don’t have a radical shift in the basic attitude toward what a normal hearing experience is, and the intrinsic value of it, then it’s going to be the short road. And that does give me some concern. Arts education is no less valuable as a collective training than school sports. It’s just as important to explore the imagination through literature, poetry, and song as it is to develop young bodies, and develop attitudes of teamwork and a team mentality through sports. And I have absolutely no grind against sports.
RK: It’s not an either/or.
TH: Exactly, it’s not an either/or. But the people who are cutting the programs are making it into an either/or. It always comes down to the “bottom line” problem. But the real bottom line is that every major genius personality in the 20th century — even dear Stephen Hawking, who wasn’t always terrifically handicapped in his life — has been a romantic, liberal arts-dedicated, renaissance-thinking person. Einstein’s letters contain some of the most beautiful thoughts, not only on the intimate details of his very fascinating personal life, but also on the importance of humanity, great imagination — and that the only thing limiting us is how we limit ourselves. Yet, we take all of that away from students and say, “Oh, no. They have to learn the bytes and the bits, and run laps and play baseball. Other things like music and languages are just nonsense. That’s hobby time.”
Art history is, of course, the worst. We wonder why they need to be able to look at a painting and tell if it’s from the 15th or the 17th century. “Giotto was certainly an interesting guy, but how can he justify his existence for me in 1997?” Here is that societal conceit I was talking about. And this year, so many people are saying, “Well, what relevance does Franz Schubert have for me today?” To me, that is one of the most audaciously “respectless” questions!
RK: It’s a tremendous conceit of the times.
TH: Well, yes. My responsibility is to ask the question, “What relevance do I have to Franz Schubert?” And it’s not just because I have so much respect for him. I feel that we have a responsibility to understand those that have been here before us. We’re not experiencing anything new — the paradigm is different; the context is different, the tools are perhaps different — but the motivation is still there. You still get up and put one leg in your trousers first and whether it’s a toga or a pair of Calvin Klein jeans, it doesn’t matter. This is something Joseph Campbell was treating. All of these things find a tremendous fruition in music and literature. And then you get to the intimate, boiling down to song. And I think all of these huge things that we are talking about, are in fact, endemic to song in its final form. And that’s what poetry is. The language of that, and music is the context in which that dialogue and that manipulation of poetic context becomes so fascinating. Nothing, as far as I’m concerned, lives in isolation. It just doesn’t. But that’s the false mentality of academia. That’s exactly what the problem is. We keep thinking that, by grinding on things tighter, in marketing or otherwise, by defining it closer and getting more specific — even the critical world is doing this to us — that we’re going to come to a greater illumination. We’re not. We’re going to come into building neighborhoods with these ubiquitous cul-de-sacs of big houses. That’s what we’re getting into, and that’s very dangerous. That’s one of the most exciting things about the web, because the web has just blown that wide open.
RK: And it will continue.
TH: Absolutely. And, of course, there’s the problem of trusting what’s on the web, but that will weed itself out to some extent. Criticism will become more ubiquitous, which is very useful because it should then become a point of dialogue and not a point of polemic. That’s what criticism used to be. This sort of table-waving beckmesserian attitude that we have in general criticism today is so unhealthy.
RK: It’s less a part of a process helping to further define a field; it’s no longer a means to an end.
TH: No, it’s a means unto its own end.
RK: Absolutely. But I do want you to know that you’ve given us some tremendous quotes about arts education and the need for it. The good news about arts education today is that the support for it is growing tremendously. Programs are being restored in ways that are much better than what had been there before: the integrated curriculum approach, a liberal arts humanities-based approach to the arts where kids are exploring, learning, creating in music, in theater. There are many truly remarkable things taking place, such as the increasing number of artists are going into the classrooms, supporting and extending learning.
TH: Recently, I collaborated with the “I Hear America” singing tape. The idea is to get the video in schools and libraries across the country as back-up material. They said, “Yes, well, back-up material is fine, but we’d like to develop it with you as a teaching tool.” So, Carla Maria [Carla Maria Sullwold is Hampson’s personal assistant] and I are having those kinds of discussions with WNET and some other forums — similar to what you’ve been talking about.
RK: The best definition I ever heard of curriculum was: a way of life. And there’s always the question of how one enters the curriculum. What kind of entry points exist for students at various ages so that they can digest and incorporate this material, make it their own.
RK: I read that you had received an award over at the National Arts Club, and you had given a speech about the power of the imagination. At that point I knew that I had a book that I was going to send to you, written by Maxine Green, who is going to do an essay for the American Music: In The First Person. She’s a professor emeritus of Teachers College, one of the people who created the Lincoln Center Institute, and a true leader in exploring the role of the imagination in education and life: how the imagination is activated, how to connect with it. Maxine’s book is titled: Releasing The Imagination: Essays on Education, the Arts, and Social Change
TH: I’d love to have it.
RK: I’ll send it off.
4. The New Audience: Visual + Aural
RK: Recent studies have indicated — and these studies have been widely disseminated — that audiences for opera are not only growing but getting younger. What do you attribute this to?
TH: Yes, isn’t that exciting news? Well, perhaps we are seeing some of the success of these arts programs taking hold. Talking completely as a lay person here, I get the feeling that, not only is there a general fascination in opera, with the circus attitude of it, or “phenominality” of it all — it’s a huge art form — but I honestly think that there is also a reinvigorated interest in the dramatic context and theatrical experience within the musical realm. In some ways, we may very well be seeing some of this rejuvenation in opera because of a boredom with the rather platitudinous works that have been happening in music theater lately. I would like to believe that there is an instinctual need for substance that goes in waves. There’s a group mentality that’s going on, especially in the States, that says, “No, there’s got to be something else that is more reflective, that is deeper, that is more intense, that has something more to offer.” And opera does offer a theatrical music experience so complex and enriching because, it requires you to think and feel on several different levels. I’ve never really understood why people have thought that opera was inaccessible. I don’t think it’s inaccessible — I think it is sometimes difficult to understand.
What is also curious is that the studies show that people who go to concerts are not necessarily likely to buy records, but that people who buy records probably will go to a concert. In other words, the souvenir buyer is not really of prime importance to the record industry. It also hints at the distinct difference between the electronic experience and the visual experience. To me, the only worthwhile-ness of all this media is that it highlights the visual experience: the orchestra tunes up, the lights go out, the curtain comes up, and you’re into it.
RK: Yes, well, audiophiles spend exorbitant amounts of money. There’s a particular adjective: palpable, the “palpability” issue. How palpable? How close is a recording, even though it can never be close enough? How close is it to the real thing? How palpable is it? And the continued quest to get the next digital to analog converter or the next set of speakers or sub-woofer that will make it closer…
TH: I go in the other direction. I’m still hooked on some of those great old LP’s. I know they’re collector’s items. I’m a huge old-time audio nut.
RK: There’s very little that sounds better, there’s no doubt about it.
TH: Exactly. What’s fun is to pit the best of the old against the best of the new. The best of the old always wins. The most extraordinary experience I’ve ever had in my life was with a fantastic 4-track stereo, with a reel-to-reel tape of some of those Chicago Symphony performances that then came out on living stereo. To hear them on 4-track tape, reel-to-reel tape — I think London put them out then — was unbelievable. You really heard the third cellist sniffling because he had a cold. They created an incredible stereo picture with that huge boom mike on top of the conductor — back when the conductors had to know something about balance.
RK: Well, those Mercury recordings, some of them, let’s say Kubelik and the Chicago Symphony, are absolutely remarkable. They are just now getting re-released on CD. This is what people continue to hope that the digital medium will become, something closer to the analog medium. But again, yesterday there was another article in The New York Times — it may have been the same article we were talking about earlier — that talked about the Lincoln Center Library removing its LP collection because things are now on CD.
TH: I think that’s a huge mistake. It’s not even a matter of the hiss; because most people don’t hear it. It’s just that a lot of people don’t think it’s valuable to hear the air of the hall. And that’s exactly what I want to hear; that’s what’s exciting to me! It’s kind of like what Mahler said about music. He said most of what music has to do with is not in the notes, and I just find that so absolutely revelatory.
RK: Unfortunately it’s something that many people are confused about.
TH: But I think we’re living in a time of a — God forbid the phrase — new age consciousness, because every generation is itself an inherently new age. I mean, I do happen to be very esoterically inclined, but I think there probably is a new age. I don’t know if you read the book Generations, but it discusses an interesting paradigm that comes back every few hundred years. We are now coming to a search for depth and context, a sort of “where’s the meat” attitude, that is splashing into the arts, and is certainly splashing into American music. I think we’re on the brink of some really interesting developments. All the horrifying numbers are pointing to something else we haven’t quite figured out yet.
RK: Yes, it’s hard to see what’s coming, but there are interesting things developing. How do you feel the new technologies will alter the way music is created, performed, and accessed?
TH: Well, I think this is an interesting take, because your question is actually more about how technology has affected the way that music is performed. And certainly technology, especially in the recording industry, has always been the saving grace of numbers. I mean, let’s not forget that the LP marketed in the 1970s, or actually the early 1980s, was just about to become extinct. There were huge problems, and then, all of a sudden, here came this digital process with these little silver disks, and of course, it was amazing. It made everybody’s systems sound fantastic. But as to how it has affected the creation of music, you would have thought that it would’ve given birth to more composers, because records theoretically should’ve become more ubiquitous. What is curious is that what the digital process and CDs have actually done is opened up the archives. A lot of things were simply not “hearable” anymore. There were radio programs and LP’s that would never have been listened to which suddenly turned into this great phenomenon of “never released, never heard before recordings from some Tuesday in 1944.” And that’s exciting.
Somehow, I feel that this, too, is part of this paradigm shift that I’m talking about. We’ve got to hook up all of these things to make them useful, not detrimental. In terms of record sales, why should Abaddo with a new Beethoven necessarily be a competition to Furtwängler or Mengelberg. It should be instead an extension, a dialogue. But criticism is still caught up in marketing and still caught up with, “What’s the best Beethoven cycle?” Part of the reason that they do that is to sell donuts, and another part is because nobody is really concentrating on what Beethoven was doing. They are instead concentrating on the performance of Beethoven. Again, it comes back to the question of what relevance Beethoven has for me in 1997, and we’ve got to shift that the other way around.
Technology should’ve had a liberating effect on composers, as well, but the problem with technology is that we’re still somewhat captivated by the event of the production, rather than what’s being produced. Then it’s back to the mentality of “the first performance of something in New York is not going to be interesting in Los Angeles,” because, God forbid, its already had it’s first performance in New York.
It seems that the new technologies have had an influence on electronic music, though I don’t know anything about it. I’m not particularly a friend of synthesizers. For me, electronic music is, for the most part, too accurate. I really like the plus-minus quotient of any note that’s being played. The electronic reproduction of music, either visually and aurally or just aurally, is something that cannot be underestimated. We will have to see.
The Internet and also Internet broadcasts with FM broadcasting are going to have a huge effect, no doubt, and probably a positive one. It’s most likely going to first have an amazing effect on licensing. What it also might very well do is reinvigorate radio across the country, which I think is vastly needed.
RK: Well, yes, a different form.
TH: Exactly. And then you also have something that’s a bit more ubiquitous, and I think that the more ubiquity you have, the greater the listening experience, which in turn, fortifies new composers.
5. The Internet: A Launching Pad for New Music
RK: I’ve been toying with the idea of launching a competition of music written for the Internet. I’ve mentioned it to people and they’ve said, “Well, what exactly does that mean?”
TH: My thoughts exactly.
RK: “What exactly does that mean?” Well, the funny thing is, I’m not sure. And maybe that’s good. Some of the bandwidth issues will begin to be solved so that we’ll be able to access more music in shorter amounts of time. Then all sorts of things will come into play. You’ll be able to access video and audio. There’ll be texts. Who knows what will come down the pike. And my feeling is that I’d like to sort of put this competition out there and leave it open. We would certainly work with some of the technology corporations, and see what composers would come up with. Who knows what it might mean. I don’t know whether we’ll move on this sooner or later, but I’ve been thinking that this is the vanguard of a new era. People will start to access music through their computer and their television, and will begin to create new sounds and merge text and audio and visual elements in ways that might never have been done before.
TH: Well, this is more down my path. To me, the big challenge is actually in reinvigorating what already exists. I’m not sure we need to create a new music, but reinvigorating the catalogue can be done simply through the Internet, with its immediate accessibility of audiovisual material, which connects the dots for people. This is really exciting that you’re able to do what you’re doing on the net; that there’s a whole new kind of cyber world out there. It’s amazing to be able to turn on a new television set and be able to pull up immediate screen information about what you’re listening to and why you’re listening to it. It all has a “connectibility.” You might even be able to also simultaneously pull up some sort of connective visual art, adding another element to the imaginative process. Although it sounds like bells and whistles, it actually could become a more integral renaissance experience. It’s what concert life should be about. It should be tied to any community’s basic connection to their museums and their symphonies. I find this very exciting.
And bandwidth is one thing, but quite frankly all of this can’t happen until we get enough support going from FM stations. I live at the Essex House and I have said to them, “Why can’t you people put together cable radio? When I turn on classical radio and walk around my room, putting my clothes away, why must the signal migrate? What am I supposed to do? Wear an aluminum hat so this doesn’t happen?” It’s absurd! And they agreed. Of course they need to do that, but it’s simply not a priority for them. They said that cost is the first problem since most people don’t even listen to the radio. Look at New York! We’ve got two stations, at best; actually, more like one and a half! What we’re talking about here, of course, when we talk about repertoire, is programming, accessibility, and ubiquity. And so, we’re obviously talking about programmers and radio stations who are just scared to death of anything but Vivaldi‘s Four Seasons. It would be interesting to do a study of some of the major classisal stations-simply to know how many of the symphonies of Mozart or the songs of Schubert they have actually ever played. I understand exactly the mentality and the problems involved; I’m just saying this is the challenge for me.
RK: For years, I have been involved in classical music. But, today I turn on the classical radio stations and recognize few of the pieces! I often marvel at that.
RK: They find the most banal pieces, the things that are really nothing but wallpaper music, because that music might be played in a restaurant as background music, or at a party. As a sort of extension of this subject, Marilyn Bergman is going to do a column for us. During a recent discussion about the nature of her column for In The First Person, she talked about living in an era where people are not hearing as wide a range of music as they did in previous times. Not too long ago, you might have been riding in a car and you’d turn the dial and come across all sorts of musical styles. And, all of a sudden, you might hit on a sound that you’d never heard before and discover something new. And who knows where that might lead you. But in this day and age, she talked about people having their radio stations preset for a lifetime, thus limiting or eliminating their musical discoveries.
TH: Oh, sure. Environmental control.
RK: She also wanted to write about what that means in terms of people perhaps going through a lifetime and never hearing Mozart. That returns to the issue of arts education and the vital importance of being exposed to and participating in many different forms of music, art, and literature.
6. Mentors and Collaborators
TH: Well, along these lines, if you want a great reinforcement to your argument about carrying forth traditions and yet going into the future, I wanted to ask if you’ve been to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and been through the Degas collection.
RK: Yes, I have.
TH: The great artist is contemporary, yet also incorporates aspects of his great mentors. We tend to think that everybody lives in isolation, and should live in isolation. There’s an absolutely ridiculous notion in voice pedagogy that you shouldn’t listen to recordings of singers because, God forbid, you might imitate them! But this isn’t a joke; it’s the prevalent attitude of probably 80% of the voice teachers across the country. I’m about to write a huge scathing letter to the National Association of Teachers of Singing because I finally realize that this attitude is more pervasive than I thought it was. I thought it was just a couple of low-sided individuals, but apparently it’s just become a standard attitude. Have you ever heard of anything so absurd in your life?
RK: Many instrumental teachers deal with music and technique in way that is rigidly separate. They wouldn’t necessarily use a Bach piece to teach both technique and music. Some teachers don’t see technique for what it really is, nothing but a means to an end, the end being the music.
TH: These are the same people that don’t understand that, as fascinating as a triad in its manipulations can be, there’s always a bigger purpose for which a triad exists. And if you can’t play a triad properly, or understand it, then you probably won’t ever get to why it exists. And it’s the same thing with singing. Everybody wants to learn how to sing but why do you want to learn how to sing? What are you trying to say? “Well, uh…whatever I’m being paid for.” It’s crazy.
RK: Well, especially with young kids, children left to their own devices will create music spontaneously. They just start singing.
TH: Yes. People like Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin just fascinate me. I wish I had their kind of talent. I just marvel at what they can bring out of somebody, all of us actually, to help us realize what innate creative spirits we have.
RK: Last week, you premiered Elegies by Richard Danielpour. What was it like to work on that brand new song cycle?
TH: Well, I’ve had the privilege, at least four or five times, of being involved with composers as they’re writing something. It’s always illuminating to hear how different people hear music; to hear how the creator hears his own music. And, sort of an extension of that is working with people like Berio or Bernstein, who have such huge intellects. Especially someone like Berio, who, I think, actually sometimes hears the music as a composer and as a musician in his head — both subjectively in his imagination and objectively as far as what’s happening around him. This has a huge influence on him as a conductor, of course. It’s a fascinating process.
Also, to be around people like Stephen Paulus or Conrad Susa is inspiring. Conrad Susa’s operatic performances are especially fascinating because they really make you think about what it must’ve been like back then. Some of these guys were working with Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Verdi recording their works, and you realize what a fluid process it is. The longer something lives, the more importance it takes on — I mean, Mozart operas become something tantamount to the Bible or the Koran. God forbid you should manupulate an eighth note. Of course, now we have schools of thought on how eighth notes of Mozart should be pronounced versus eight notes of sombody else’s.
It seems to me, though, that the disciples of the prophets tend to screw things up a bit. Any creative intellect is essentially some kind of prophet, and it’s always the fluidity and the compromise, the accessibility and the functionality of their creation that seems to preoccupy them more than anything else. The creativity always seems to be part of the process of expression. And as that piece endures, it becomes more a part of the performance tradition, and the expression becomes something that is in juxtaposition to the last expression of that piece. But the first couple of times out, it’s whether or not you actually are playing the piece correctly; you’re simply trying to play what is written.
The process of working with a composer seems to be infinitely more flexible, more filled with dialogue, more loving, more interesting, than what we often do to pieces that are twenty-five years old or a hundred and fifty years old, where it’s more a matter of what school or style the piece belongs to. So, in working with Richard Danielpour, I saw some of the articulation of text and discovered what he was really after. It’s very frustrating for these guys; in fact, I can’t imagine anything worse. Can you imagine trying to articulate what these guys want to say about human experience with a bunch of sticks and dots inside of a bunch of lines? It’s absurd. And that’s why somebody like Mahler says, “Look, folks, it’s about what’s between the notes. That’s what’s interesting in music.”
It was interesting to have conversations with Richard about how I articulate text and use words, and especially the way I feel about language. A lot of our words are more beautiful than we give them credit for. And Richard actually changed some of the notation based upon that, not very much, but some. And that kind of creative dialogue, the flexibility of the search for expression is what rings my chime; is what’s so wonderful about working with contemporary composers.
RK: That’s a beautiful statement, really. I was at the opening night of the The Rake’s Progress, I remember you were also there. I was startled by the performance, it seemed so new and fresh. It seemed like a world premiere, as if it had just been written. I enjoyed it very much.
TH: I did too. I actually felt kind of the same way. Julius Rudel was sitting with me, and I said to him, “Why isn’t this better known?” Well, I know why it’s not better known, but it just seemed to be infinitely more accessible than it used to be. I think the problem has always been the book. As fascinating as it often is, there are some real stretches of the imagination, and some philosophical subjects that just don’t live innately in the piece. You have to know what he’s trying to say, and then see it in a metaphorical context on the stage. And that always involves more work than most opera audiences are willing to do.
RK: Without a doubt.
TH: So they always sort of giggle at the bread machine and chortle at the beard, you know. I thought John Miller’s production was fantastic. The asylum set was like a Hogarth painting come to life — it just drove me nuts.
7. The Sound of Music: Environmental Control and Toys
RK: What are you listening to today?
TH: Well, if I turn on the radio at the Essex House, I listen to whatever’s on. At night I like to listen to jazz. I probably won’t listen to radio performances of operas or symphonies. I tend to be more of an environmental control person in my apartment, meaning that I have CD’s around me all the time. And other than either searching for program ideas or “awaring” myself to a possibility, I don’t listen to very much vocal music. I tend to listen to, in the classical field, probably more piano music than anything. I’m a huge piano freak and have my favorite pianists. I’m wild about Friedrich Gulda which might seem to be a contradiction since I also think that Alfred Brendel is pretty amazing, and of course, the two hate each other.
RK: What stereo equipment are you using?
TH: It’s all very high-end. I’m using a Threshold ClassA pre-amp and amp, Vienna Acoustic speakers, Meridian CD player that is from Great Britian and a SME30 turntable also from Great Britain. What equipment are you using?
RK: Well, I don’t have a turntable. I’ve got a pair of speakers that you can’t buy anymore, called vortex screens that Albert Von Schweikert designed. He now has a new company company, and is hugely successful. I bought directly from him; I think he built them in his garage!
TH: Are these the panels, the tall panels?
RK: No, they’re big boxes — just big dynamic speakers. But they were a great bargain at the time and one of my first big purchases in the audio world. I’m also running a McCormick DNA-1 amp, and a McCormick TLC passive pre-amp. And I’ve got the Parasound DAC2000 — top of the line D/A converter, and the PS Audio Lambda CD transport. That’s the whole thing.
TH: That’s some pretty serious equipment.
RK: It’s nice, considering that when I was younger and couldn’t even afford a boom box. I had to sneak time on my roommate’s equipment!
TH: Well, we certainly support the old theorem: the only difference between men and boys is the cost of their toys.
RK: Absolutely. Well, I really do want to thank you. This has been an absolute pleasure!
TH: We certainly touched on so many subjects. What you’re doing is great and I hope I can help.
RK: Well, you already have. Thank you!