Who Is Bunita Marcus?
The story of Bunita Marcus has been one of new music’s great mysteries. Read the interview…
“Bunita Marcus’s music is extremely refined, professional and decided in its pureness. It is like touching a flower, which you fear will fall down into pieces, but then it turns out to be a very strong plant. No wind can blow it away.”
—Louis Andriessen, November 1986
“Two Pianos and Violin by Bunita Marcus…is made up nicely just like the ocean is made up of many patterns of sounds, which is sometimes increasing or sometimes decreasing, is very beautiful—just like the designs on a Persian carpet.”
—Toru Takemitsu, March 1981
“Marcus has composed a uniquely personal and boldly designed music whose unhindered pacing and invented shapes create an almost hallucinatory response in the listener.”
—Morton Feldman, January 1983
It has been a fascinating experience to discover the music of Bunita Marcus. A rare symbiosis of mind and spirit, it’s very intellectually stimulating as well as really engaging emotionally. But at this point in time, listening to much of it is nearly impossible. Only one piece of hers has ever been released on a commercial recording in this country, a CRI CD that had been out of print for many years, although luckily, it is finally available again through New World Records. And custom CDs featuring rare recordings of some of her compositions can be obtained directly from from her own website. Yet only a couple of decades ago, her compositions had been presented by some of the most prominent outlets for new music—the Darmstadt Festival, the ISCM World Music Days, the Bang on a Can Marathon—and various pieces of hers had been performed by major new music practitioners, including Eberhard Blum, Robert Dick, Francis-Marie Uitti, Aki Takahashi, Lisa Moore, Margaret Leng Tan, the Kronos Quartet, the Cassatt Quartet, the California EAR Unit, and the Netherlands Wind Ensemble.
The story of Bunita Marcus has been one of new music’s great mysteries, one that few have explored, although hopefully that will be changing in the coming years. Performances of her music are finally beginning to happen again, and a recording of her startling Music for Japan was released in Europe earlier this year. In addition, Bunita Marcus is the subject of a doctoral dissertation by composer Jenny Olivia Johnson who kindly provided us with an original essay this month derived from her research into Marcus’s oeuvre.
Upon hearing Adam and Eve, the work of hers that appears on that CRI disc, I was immediately struck both by its similarities to and differences from the music of Morton Feldman. Many people will have heard Bunita Marcus’s name without ever having heard a note of her music, since one of Feldman’s most widely performed solo piano pieces is a work titled For Bunita Marcus. Feldman wrote several such pieces in his later period, and his other dedicatees—Samuel Beckett, Frank O’Hara, Franz Kline, Philip Guston, Willem De Kooning, John Cage, Christian Wolff, Stefan Wolpe—are some of the most significant figures in 20th-century literature, art, and music. As I started to search for clues and discovered more about Bunita Marcus’s connection to Feldman, I began to wonder if perhaps she might be the Lee Krasner of music. Might her relationship to an American icon, like Krasner’s to Jackson Pollock, have also been one that was mutually influential? Could her seeming marginalization today and lack of recognition as an important creator in her own right have also been a by-product of the gender politics that has played into so much of how cultural canons become codified?
It turned out to be far more complex than that. Bunita Marcus’s connection to Feldman, as well as to John Cage, proved to be the oasis in an often very disturbing biography which is thoroughly documented in her own music. It is a deeply moving narrative and ultimately one that proves the resilience of human creativity and artistic expression.
(Conversation transcribed by Julia Lu and then condensed and edited by Frank J. Oteri and John Lydon)
FRANK J. OTERI: The first time I heard your name was not because of your own music, but because of Morton Feldman’s solo piano composition For Bunita Marcus. I had gotten interested in Feldman because I was already interested in the other people he named pieces after: For Samuel Beckett, For Franz Kline, For John Cage. All of these people fascinated me. But I had no idea who Bunita Marcus was.
BUNITA MARCUS: Morty was my biggest fan. He talked about me everywhere he went and so everywhere I went afterwards, people acted like they already knew me.
And some of them liked me and some of them didn’t like me, based on what he said. A lot of my friends were saying to Morton, “Look, why don’t you let Bunita just be the person she is? Let her music stand on its own, and don’t get involved in it.” But I think he didn’t want to lose me. That was the big thing. So he kept hanging on to me any way he could. And in the end, we became family. We called our relationship family because we were so close. Even though he got married, we were still as close as we always were. And Barbara, his wife, and I were very close friends, so it made everything very acceptable. At the wedding, I did Barbara’s makeup. It was really a good time. At the same time, a week later, we found out about him having inoperable cancer. He had surgery, and we thought the cancer was in the stomach, and it was going to be O.K., and they could remove it. Then it was found to be inoperable, and from there, everybody knows the story.
FJO: But most people still don’t know your story.
BM: Yes, Bunita Marcus is quite a story, a bigger story than the composition of music, actually. I’m lucky to be alive. I grew up in the Midwest. I left my home at 17, but music saved me. It saved me from the violence of my home. I taught myself piano at 8; I taught myself theory at 10; I started composing when I was 13; I started playing the bass clarinet when I was 13.
In Madison there were so many great groups that you could play in as a youngster—orchestras, Dixieland bands, and wind ensembles. And I played in all of them and the adult groups. My teachers would put me in the adult groups because they needed a bass clarinet player, too. I grew up listening from the inside of the orchestra, so all of my music is very up-front. You’ll never find a foreground and a background in my music. It’s all primary material. And I think a lot of that comes from being a young player, and playing everything: classical, jazz, anything.
I had a huge reputation in the ’80s. I wrote a lot of very strong works and in every one of my works I tried to develop a new abstract language for the work. I didn’t really go back to old material. I was always reinventing abstract language. At the same time, I wanted to engage the listener emotionally and intellectually. In the ’80s, not many people did that. You were either uptown or downtown, but you weren’t in between. And I was sort of in between.
During the ’80s I also produced the Salon Concert series with Francesco Clemente. These concerts were just for New York’s artistic community—artists, musicians, poets, actors, filmmakers, anyone creative. My idea was to premiere one new work at each concert and have a long intermission where everyone could talk about the music. We used the best performers, the Kronos often played there, Aki Takahashi, The Bowery Ensemble, Eberhart Blum, and Paul Zukofsky were all introducing new works. It was very successful and after five years it had grown to such a point where it was unwieldy. Francesco and his wife Alba had twins that year, and we all moved on to other things.
FJO: There’s a comment that you made in one of your writings at that time about how all creatures in the world besides humans are always listening.
BM: In order to communicate.
FJO: But also, as you pointed out in that comment, to be on the look out for possible prey and to protect themselves against predators.
FJO: Humans rarely associate an element of danger with the listening experience, at least not consciously. I don’t know if you intended it to be interpreted that way, but it immediately made me think about the pieces you were writing at the time you made that comment, pieces like Music For Japan, The Rugmaker, and Corpse and Mirror. All of those pieces have a real element of danger in them, and there were even warnings to audiences prior to performances. This is so much more than most listeners allow music to be in their lives.
BM: Well, I don’t have any other choice, because I’ve lived a dangerous life.
I know now that all of my pieces have been autobiographical, even Two Pianos and Violin. At that point in my life, I was trying to decide between two men in my life: my husband and Morton Feldman. And I was the violin. I wasn’t aware of this when I was writing. I’m never aware when I’m writing. This happens because of my compositional process: it comes from somewhere very deep and I just trust it and I go with it, even if it takes me places I don’t want to go. Even if I write music that embarrasses me, or will make me ill. There’s a page in Music for Japan that I cannot listen to without feeling like I want to scream. When I wrote it I was feeling that way.
The Rugmaker is probably the most notorious autobiographical piece. And after they finished playing the piece at Darmstadt, the Kronos and I came onstage, took our bows, and left—half of the audience yelling “Boo!” and the other half yelling “Bravo!” David Harrington, being the person that he is, said, “Let’s go back onstage.” So we walked back out onstage, and it just made the racket louder. The audience was so divided. We did not have a warning because we did not know what it was about yet. The warning came later when the Kronos put it on their radio series, The Kronos Hour. That’s the first time we had to start putting warnings before people heard it, because people listening to public radio want to hear a nice string quartet and not be so upset that they’re going to break down and have to call their psychiatrists. And it did happen. At what we called a “preview” before the premiere in Darmstadt, at the Nieuwe Muziek Festival in Middelburg, the Kronos played and women came up to me weeping afterwards. They didn’t know why; they were just so affected by the piece. I didn’t understand it, either, and it took me about five years from writing that piece to where I actually began remembering my father coming into my room and violating me. So I started adding that to my program notes, and people would come up to me and say, “I feel so bad liking your piece when I know where it came from.”
The truth of the matter was the Kronos had been asking me for a piece for three years. I could not imagine writing harmony or something really cohesive like a string quartet, so I kept saying no to them. I remember being in L.A. at a festival—it must have been about ’85 at that point—and David said, “When are you going to write a string quartet for us?” I realized that he’s not going to keep asking me this question: One of these days, they’re just going to drop me. So I said, “Get me a good premiere, and I’ll get you a good piece.” He said, “How about Darmstadt,” and I said, “Perfect.” And so, that’s how it started.
I went home, and I had talked to my father. Morty tried to encourage me, and I kept saying to him that I hate my parents. And he said, “You gotta get to know your parents as adults.” So he encouraged me to have more conversations with my parents because his relationship with his parents changed as he got older. Well, I talked to my father, and he told me that when he was five years old, he really wanted to play the violin. The family was poor—it was back in the Depression—and there were no little violins for anyone to play, but his uncle was a great violinist. So I had this image of my father as this poor little five-year-old boy in love with the violin and never having a chance to play it. And so that’s how I began the piece. The piece starts out with all these sweet feelings a child would have for their parent: innocence, unconditional love. And as I worked through the piece, creepy things started happening. I didn’t know what these creepy things were, but I’m not a person to throw material out. I really believe that if it comes to you, it needs to be there. So I decided O.K., I’m just going to let the creepy stuff build, and build, and build, and build until it reveals itself. And so it revealed itself in a huge, angry section and then essentially a rape afterwards. That’s how the piece ends. And all through the rape, you still hear the little voice of the child. It’s very quiet, yet no matter how loud the rest of the stringed instruments are, you can hear this quiet voice. It never goes away. People were shocked. Even the Kronos were shocked. They said, “You really want us to play that soft? No one will hear it.” I said, “Oh, yeah. People are gonna hear it.” And indeed, you do hear it. Jenny Johnson has now taken this and written a dissertation about it, on music and trauma.
FJO: Allowing your music to go to places you might not have consciously wanted it to go might have ultimately been what brought back all your memories that had been subconsciously buried.
BM: In about 1989 or ’90, I started having very strange feelings, and I couldn’t explain them to anyone. I started having flashbacks to sexual abuse. The first flashbacks I had were to my grandmother abusing me. It was very disturbing. I went to a therapist, and she diagnosed me with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and a few other conditions. But she could only see me one hour a week, and it was just not enough. I was being flooded with memories coming out very fast. So I started looking around the city, and I found a psychiatrist—the president of his organization—who worked with post-traumatic stress disorder. And I spoke to a number of people in the organization, and they recommended this guy. So I went to him, and a nightmare began. In the course of trying to recover memories from my childhood, this man also tried to take over my life. He would call up people, friends of mine, even people like David Lang, and say, “You are not a good friend of this person; stay away from her.” And he refused to let me compose.
The hardest thing for me in all of this was not to be able to write music. I think the biggest crime that was committed was that I could not write music for 15 years. And I was at my prime. I was 40 years old. This is when people write their best music. This is when people start getting job offers at universities. They start getting big time performances.
FJO: But ultimately finally being able to compose music again is also what healed you and brought you back into the world and made you into the person you are today. And that started with an amazingly simple, tender, and beautiful piece for solo piano, Sugar Cubes, which John Cage got you to write and which took you years to complete.
BM: John Cage saved me. I went to him right when I started having the flashbacks, and I said, “John, I can’t compose anymore. I don’t know what to do. I can’t focus long enough to concentrate.”
I would concentrate for 14 to 16 hours straight on these pieces that I used to write. That is unbelievable concentration. The whole day would go, and I would just be lost in the piece. But now, I couldn’t do anything. John said to just write little pieces. He said, “What’s that they give horses to get them to do tricks?” I said, “Sugar cubes.” He said, “Yeah, give the composer in you some sugar cubes.” So I totally took this literally. I went out, bought a box of sugar cubes, and put them on a nice little plate on the piano. And I said, “O.K., simple: Cage. C-A-G-E. These are the only notes I’m going to use in this piece, and it’s all going to be quarter notes. It can’t be simpler.” And so I start this piece out, and it’s all counterpoint. I love counterpoint. I studied species counterpoint when I was a teenager and I apply it to everything: orchestration, every aspect of composition. I recorded what I had written so far of the piece and I went to John and played it for him. He didn’t have any equipment. Somebody had to go outside and find a cassette recorder and bring it in, so he could listen to this cassette of my piece. He really liked it and he was very encouraging.
I also knew that other artists had similar problems, which they handled in similar ways. Like Matisse at the end of his life. Matisse had this heart condition, I guess it was. All he could do was cut out shapes of colored paper, but what he did with colored paper was unbelievable. To be an artist means you do what you have to do no matter how you can do it. You just do it.
John Cage died a couple months later. I couldn’t finish the piece. I was just heart broken. And in 1998, the piece was still sitting there. That was after I had gotten rid of my crazy psychiatrist. I take the Jewish holidays very seriously. I met Morton Feldman on Yom Kippur, and he didn’t even know it was Yom Kippur. I just mentioned that I was fasting and he said later he thought I was a hippie. On that day I always try to tidy everything up for the year, spiritually and otherwise, and I needed to finish this piece. So I said, O.K., today I finish the piece. What happens in this piece, which is this very sweet kind of counterpoint, is a little lopsided and unexpected at times. And it hardly ever goes off of one staff. I started writing counterpoint that started breaking the rules. Every note I wrote broke more rules. I was like leaping to and from dissonance, leaping to perfect intervals, leaping to imperfect intervals, crossing voices, I mean everything you could do wrong, I was doing. It just got worse and worse and worse, until the piece ended. But for some reason, it ends beautifully. I guess I knew the rules well enough; I knew which ones to break. That’s all I can say. And now it’s very popular. A lot of people are playing it. Aki Takahashi is playing it all the time. She really loves it.
FJO: It’s also extremely practical in ways that some of your earlier pieces, as wonderful as they are, have not been. I’m thinking again of Two Pianos and Violin, and the piece that you have described as the first piece where you felt you were expressing your own voice compositionally, Oboe, Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Trumpet, Trombone.
BM: Morton Feldman did one very valuable thing for me, and that was to teach me to write the music I was actually hearing in my head. And not what I thought I was hearing, or what I wanted to hear, or what I planned to hear. The first piece I wrote that way was called Oboe, Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Trumpet, Trombone. This work actually started out as a string quartet. And every week, I would take it into Feldman, and he’d look at it and say, “Let’s look at this violin line here. What instrument really plays a line like this?” And I’d think, an oboe. And he’d say, “Yeah. I think this is an oboe line.” So then I changed the violin part to an oboe. And we worked this way with all the melodies and all the lines and all the textures. At one point, there was a tuba in there. It just kept changing instrumentation until we ended up with this really odd instrumentation.
I think after that, there was nothing to learn, except to learn his notation, which is brilliant, and I love it, and I use it, and I’ve developed on it myself in my own notation.
FJO: In your introductory notes for Two Pianos and Violin, you wrote that the work began as a duet for violin and piano, which is a combination that is much easier to navigate.
BM: Again, I had no choice. I was supposed to be writing a piece for violin and piano, demonstrating my skill as a graduate student. But I kept hearing two piano parts. It was driving me crazy and I didn’t know what was going on. One morning I woke up and I just realized it’s for two pianos and violin. Obviously, it’s not an either-or situation. It’s both. The trick was to get the right sort of metric notation to make everything float. After I wrote that piece, many people copied it. There were lots of pieces at SUNY Buffalo for two pianos and clarinet, two pianos and this, two pianos and that. I remember hearing a piece for two pianos and clarinet which completely fell on its face. And the reason it fell on its face was because everybody was counting together. If everybody’s counting together, it’s imbalanced essentially. But if everybody is on the same beat, but playing different meters in different worlds, then they can co-exist. And that’s what happens in my piece. They co-exist. And sometimes things line up a little bit, and sometimes they’re not lined up exactly.
In 1981, Two Pianos and Violin was the first choice of the jury for the ISCM World Music Days. This was a great opportunity for me, and a great shock because I had stopped entering my pieces in any competitions; I decided they were all rigged. I don’t even know who entered my piece into this competition. But the performance there was so bad. At times the violinist was eight measures apart from the other instruments. And the violinist would play loud when it said soft, soft when it said loud. I stood up and booed. Then the audience was applauding, but at a certain point, they called for the composer. So I just turned around to the audience, and looked at them and bowed. That’s all I could do. But Aki Takahashi and I have played this many times and in many places. When I was in Tokyo in 1983, the ISCM had a world exposition there and they wanted us to repeat the piece with Aki and I playing. They had the most beautiful pianos I ever saw in my life, two Steinway Ds. You didn’t even have to touch them; they played themselves. I never felt like I was playing the whole time at all; something magical just happened.
FJO: A few years after that you composed a rather unusual and very beautiful solo piano piece for Aki Takahashi based on the Beatles’s song “Julia.” In some ways it’s very different from all the other music of yours that I’ve heard.
BM: That’s because Aki is so special and Lennon’s “Julia” was so special. It was Aki’s idea to have contemporary composers write their own versions of Beatles songs. She proposed this idea to me in my kitchen one day. Immediately I asked If I could do Julia, I was already hearing it in my head—a counterpoint of voices dancing around the melody. I loved the Beatles, grew up with them and felt particularly close to this work of John Lennon because it was about his mother who had just died. I had an aunt who was like a mother to me and saved my life many times growing up. She was my Julia and my inspiration. The opening chord progression was absolutely beautiful as were the imagery of the words: seashell eyes, sleeping sand, windy smile. So this is where I began, this is the opening of the piece, a chord, a spoken phrase, another chord, another spoken phrase, and so on. I immediately went into the counterpoint from there, the counterpoint I had heard in my kitchen that day. What happens next is the melody undisguised, accompanied by a flourish of left hand activity that floats so beautifully you are hardly aware of its difficulty. I loved and respected “Julia” so much that anything I tried to do to it just destroyed it. It was too perfect. And I loved its perfection and tried the best I could to make a piano composition that would respect and amplify the true feelings of Lennon’s “Julia.” I didn’t want to get in its way. It was not about me or Aki, it was about John Lennon’s creation and I wanted to respect that.
FJO: There’s a story about you and Aki that strikes to the heart of what you were talking about earlier: music emanating from a subconscious place that you allow to happen.
BM: Yes, where does music come from? I went to Darmstadt in ’86 and ’88. And I always thought it was great to be able to present a lecture to all the other composers there from all over the world. You could ask them anything you wanted. So the first question I wanted to ask was where music comes from, and they got really annoyed with me. They expected me to write things on the blackboard and draw charts and everything. But I was asking this question: where does music come from? Well, there was a little debate. Some people said this is not an important question. Some people walked out. But in the end, it seemed to me that 95 percent of the composers in the audience felt that the music came from them. They heard something, and they wrote it down. Or they got an idea, and they wrote it down. This is not my experience. When I sit down at the piano, I am like a channeler. I channel music. I get into a state where sound starts coming to me. And now I’m to the point where I don’t even have to check the sound on the piano. My fingers will actually just go and play what I hear in my head. Then I write it down. You get to that point after a while. I usually just use the piano to double check things, especially to check register—do I have my pitch in the right octave and things like that.
One day Aki was staying overnight at my place. I was sleeping in the living room by the piano; I gave her the privacy of sleeping in my bedroom. Early in the morning I wanted to compose. And I couldn’t compose because I didn’t want to wake her up. So what I did was I wrote down the melody I was hearing on a piece of paper. And within 20 minutes, Aki walks out into the living room and says, “Were you playing the piano?” And I said no. She said, “I heard the piano.” I said, “No, I was composing though.” I said, “What did you hear?” And she sang the tune that I had just written down. That blew me away. But it got me thinking, because I think there is a stream of music that is always flowing. It flows along with history and time and everything else that makes up our existence. And I think sometimes musicians tap into this stream of music.
When I compose, I use a technique that John Cage taught Morton Feldman and Morton Feldman taught me, and I really think is a great way to go. What I do is I put myself into this state of emptiness, and I allow the sounds to come to me. Now obviously, they’re coming from my subconscious or somewhere. I don’t know where. If everything’s autobiographical, it must be subconscious, I suppose. And when the sound comes, I write it down, and sometimes I have difficulty, like in the beginning of Adam and Eve. I was writing that for the Xenakis Ensemble and Aki was the pianist. But what I was hearing in the piano part were a B-flat minor arpeggio, an A minor arpeggio, and A-flat minor arpeggios. I’m thinking, “What is this doing in my music? It doesn’t work. It doesn’t fit. It can’t be right.” And yet when the rest of the parts were put in, it was absolutely perfect. But I felt guilty writing it for Aki because she was such a great pianist. Shouldn’t I write her something better? But actually it takes a lot of skill to play those arpeggios.
FJO: I found it so fascinating to discover that around the time you composed Adam and Eve, you were also writing about music for Elle magazine. I thought it was pretty unbelievable that Elle magazine ran an article by you about Paul Dresher, Mary Ellen Childs, and Joan La Barbara.
BM: Elle magazine decided in 1988 that they were going to change the focus of the magazine and they were going to bring in more arts. One editor in charge contacted me and said, “Would you write about music for us?” And I said sure. And they let me pick my subjects. And I pretty much picked my price, too, and they paid very well. They paid much better than music. And I could have expenses. I could fly to New Music America and stay in a hotel and interview people and take them out to lunch, have photographers come and photograph them—all of this for new music. So I was delighted, and I wrote a number of articles. The last article was going to be on women composers. We had this image of a line of women composers going all the way across two pages. And I was going to really talk about women composers being the composers of the 21st century. That was my theme. But in the magazine business, things change very quickly. And at this point, the photography department took over. They wanted a photograph of every single female composer before they would allow me to write the article. They had some idea that these women were horrible, ugly, terrible, I don’t know what. But just the fact that I was getting this kind of censorship really made me want to leave. Then the editor that invited me there left. So I just left. They paid me for the article anyhow, a kill fee, but I never wrote it. I wish I could have. But they were just being outrageous.
FJO: Writing about other people’s music is ultimately about putting yourself on the line as a listener. So I’m curious to hear your thoughts about the listening experience as it relates to both you as a listener and how other people listen to your music, especially given your statement about how the other creatures in the world are always listening.
BM: I listen to everything. I love being in nature. I have always loved being in nature. I go on months-long canoeing trips into the wilderness—get away from the world—and this is where I really listen. You hear all the communications going on between the animals. They are communicating. It’s very clear. They talk to each other. Birds talk to each other all the time, all these animals, even beavers. We camped once by a beaver hut, and the beavers would get out in the middle of the night and they would slap their tails. It was really, really loud—the biggest sound you’ve ever heard, a warning to other beavers that there were humans around. I got so interested in it that I hired an on-location film person to go up into northern Minnesota and Canada and record all these different sounds that I wanted, because I was going to make a musique concrète piece out of these sounds. He recorded some amazing sounds for me. I spent a lot of money on it. I still have the tapes. But I never could finish the project because that’s when I got ill. But I’ve found it very difficult to listen to recordings. I only like live performances.
I listen “intellectually,” which I wouldn’t call academically, because I make a distinction between what is academic and what is intellectual. I am an intellectual; I am not an academic. And a lot of artists are intellectuals, but not many artists are academics. So I don’t try to analyze the piece or anything like that. I listen and I act like a sponge. I let the music just come over me. I’m totally submissive and let it do whatever it’s going to do. And if it does some magic to me, I remember it. I remember the composers, I remember the performers, I go back, I congratulate them, and new relationships develop because of it.
FJO: So ideally, what do you want listeners to your music to be experiencing? It was interesting talking before about this warning for the string quartet. You obviously don’t necessarily want to exclusively entertain them. You want to take them somewhere else. Where do you want to take them, and how do they get there?
BM: I want them to listen the way I listen. I want them to really just absorb the experience. Now, some of the experiences where the warnings come up, of course, that’s going to be difficult. And I don’t know if it’s cathartic for a survivor to hear it or not. It might not be. I wouldn’t recommend it to a survivor. Especially the piece I’m writing now. I don’t write entertaining music, do I? I used to. I’m very entertaining when I’m improvising on the piano or the bass clarinet, but that’s not composing. And I couldn’t compose for the bass clarinet for a million years, because it was my instrument and I thought like a performer and not like a composer.
But now I’m writing a piece for bass clarinet, orchestra, and tape. This piece is called Sacred Souls and it’s dedicated to the victims of child abuse, but I want to really expand that to include anybody that suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, which are all our young soldiers coming home now, all the victims of war. Even people that have severe car accidents get post-traumatic stress disorder. It’s a real thing that happens in your head, and it’s very disabling. It happens to me: I’m sitting talking to someone like I’m talking to you right now, and I get a flashback. And it may be a horrible, horrible, horrible flashback, but I can’t say anything about it. I have to keep my smile going. I have to keep the conversation going. I’m able to do this now. There was a time I wasn’t able to do this. I’ve had a great psychiatrist to help me with this and I want people to understand it. This is what people go through, and it’s an ongoing process. It doesn’t ever really go away. And I think now we really have to acknowledge it. It wasn’t really acknowledged in the Second World War, and a lot of people came back very badly hurt and they took it out on their families or in other ways. They shot themselves.
I’ve been through the pain. So I want to use myself as an artist and make myself vulnerable as an artist to create this work to show the world that not all parents are good parents and not all children have great childhoods. I am very turned on by orchestrating violence, hatred, betrayal, all the things that I felt coming at me while I was being abused and living in a dysfunctional, abusive family. That’s a big, big challenge, how to do that. I think I can do that. I usually take on big challenges.
I wish I was going to write it for piano so I could write something for Aki Takahashi, but the piano cannot express the emotions of the sacred soul: the child. I really felt after I started getting into the piece, I needed a strong voice. And then it just hit me, the bass clarinet. It’s autobiographical. That was my instrument. I chose it for a reason. It’s been my friend forever, and the bass clarinet can stand up to the orchestra, fight with it, and win. And so I hope that this piece even though there will be maybe very terrifying sections, that in the end, the soul of the bass clarinet will survive. And that it will have a positive ending.
FJO: So do you believe that music has the power to heal people?
BM: Well, I know this sounds weird, but I’m not interested in writing music that heals people, really. That’s music therapy. I really feel I’m creating art. Some art is nice to look at and some art isn’t so nice to look at. And why couldn’t that be true about music too? I remember there was a show in SoHo by David Shapiro, the poet, on melancholy. They were playing this piece of mine, Lecture for Jo Kondo, which is melancholic, too. And they had a Bruce Nauman painting there which was just sort of gray. Nothing else. Just a color. Phil Glass and I were standing and looking at this painting at the same time, and I said to him: Why can’t we do this in music? And if we did do this, would anybody get it—the subtleties, the nuances, the details? That’s where everything happens.
I call myself a post-minimalist, and I think that’s accurate. You’ll find in my work where there’s a lot of repetition, that I tend to repeat things not exactly, but with very, very small changes. And I try to find the smallest change I can that will change the feeling of the music the most. Like in the opening of the piece I wrote for Morton Feldman, the piano piece, …but to fashion a lullaby for you…. The opening is just pages and pages of something that pretty much is the same thing repeating itself, but it’s not the same thing, because there are tiny little things that change. Sometimes there’s a grace note and sometimes there isn’t a grace note, and sometimes a note will go up and sometimes it’ll go down, but basically it’s just a little cell of notes that repeats. But while you’re hearing this cell of notes, if the pianist is playing it right, you go deeper and deeper and deeper into something. And you don’t know what the heck it is, but you can feel yourself sinking into it. I had to feel myself sinking into it in order to write it, and it was very difficult to write because it’s so long, and I had to hang onto that sinking feeling and stay with it as long as possible. Essentially it’s depression. It was my depression over losing Morty. And then all of a sudden out of the top of the piano comes this crazy little theme, twittering around like a little bird flying in the room. And the scene ends, and I bring back the love theme from Adam and Eve. I present it in its most stark fashion on the piano, just very straight-forward and simple. At that point, the minute that ends, you are in another world, because all of a sudden the piece just blossoms. It’s this romantic music and all the feelings that I’ve been holding back are coming out, all the emotions. At the very end I wrote a lullaby, because the piece is called …but to fashion a lullaby for you…. That is actually a quote from him. I dedicated it “to Moichecal,” which was Morton Feldman’s Yiddish name when he was a baby. That’s what his grandmother called him. And the lullaby can stand on its own as a piece. It’s a very beautiful piece. It’s very simple, but it takes you somewhere.
FJO: What I found so extraordinary about the piece in performance when Lisa Moore did it 11 years ago is that there’s this pause before the lullaby.
BM: Oh, yeah, the grand pause.
FJO: What I found so interesting was your instruction to listeners that during this pause they should allow the music to continue in their heads.
BM: They won’t have any choice. They’ve been listening to it.
FJO: What an extraordinary idea! But this is getting back to what you expect from a listener, what you want a listener to do? You’ve said that music is this force that’s somehow beyond you and that it’s this stream. But the stream you’ve taken them to in this piece actually stops. There’s no music being made consciously, but it should continue on in their minds until this lullaby.
BM: You know how I got that idea? I got to a point where the music in my head stopped, and I had this image of a leap of faith. That’s really what it is. It’s a leap of faith. It’s the person on the trapeze flying through the air. At a certain point, they have to let go before they can grab the next bar, and that grand pause is where they are when they let go. So I have, hopefully, prepared the listener for this up to this point, so they really are in some kind of a state that they can float in for a minute or two until they get the lullaby, because there was no way to use music to make a transition to the lullaby.
What I learned from Cage and what I learned from Morty—what I learned he learned from Cage—is very simple: You work one page at a time. You hear the sounds for the page. You hear the sounds for what you’re creating at the moment, and you write them down, and then you copy them. And then you go to the next page. You compose that. Then you copy it. There is no going back to change a theme. There’s no going back to add an instrument. You made a decision. You stick with your decision, and you move forward. And what this does is it gives the piece a sense of inevitability. It really does. Because you are constantly forced—in the process of copying the music—to look at it and deal with it from a lot of different angles that you wouldn’t normally have to do. And you process it. So when you go to write the next page, you’re already kind of a step ahead of yourself.
I don’t know that you can ever write wrong music. I don’t think there is such a thing as wrong music. Francesco Clemente and I used to have this argument essentially because he would paint some absolutely beautiful canvasses and literally would cut them apart and destroy them after he made them. I just thought that was horrible. It’s the European in him, I think. He had an image of himself, and he only wanted to project that image. He didn’t want people to see another side of him, and this other side of him was so beautiful. It was the side that showed his love for his children, it was his side that showed his love for women, things like that. I’d say, “Francesco, I don’t think you have any right to censor your work. Period. I think if you do the painting, it’s your painting. You should stand behind it. Don’t try to hide it from the world.”
FJO: That brings us back to Oboe, Clarinet, Bass Clarinet, Trumpet, Trombone, since you have described it as the first piece that expressed your own compositional voice. What about your earlier pieces? Would you want those pieces to be out there in the world as well?
BM: They’re all good pieces. And you can see the influence of jazz in my work. You can see the influence of all my studies in counterpoint. I wrote a whole series of pieces called Apogee I, Apogee II, Apogee III. They’re essentially for soloists or duets to show off the skills of different performers. And I’ve written a mini-opera for children, which is really a fun piece. Nobody knows about it, and it’s never been played outside of its premiere on my senior recital.
FJO: It’s fascinating to learn that you’ve written vocal music since the only piece of yours I’ve heard that has a text is Lecture for Jo Kondo and in that the text is spoken word and, according to the score, even that is optional.
BM: Yes, there are vocal pieces. But once it comes to using words, I have a lot of trouble. I think I would enjoy writing for voice without too much text, like Morty often did. It was very interesting how he wrote the opera, Neither. Beckett sent him these eight lines of text. He didn’t even read it. He put it on the wall and covered up everything but the first line, and he started composing. He composed that line, then he lowered it to the next line, and he continued, and that’s how he wrote the opera. So he never knew what was coming up. He didn’t have any idea how it was going to end, except that he trusted Beckett.
FJO: It was interesting to hear you say that if you set words, you only want to use a few words, so they don’t get in the way. Words can get people to understand things on a certain level very quickly and effectively. But maybe they can’t take you down to the deeper level.
BM: I think that’s true. But I also feel that there is vocal music in my future. I would love to write choral music, for instance. I started singing late in my life and started studying singing in ’86, and there are singers that I just adore. So I think that’s out there for me. But I think that’s a little bit farther down the line. What’s important to me now and what’s really exciting for me is that when I first got sick I was told by a number of people in the music business that I should not let anybody know about my traumatic past. That to do this would destroy my career. And as I got more and more into therapy, I had this abusive psychiatrist who wouldn’t even let me compose. But my new therapist promised me from the first day I saw him that he was going to get me back to composing, and I kept saying no, it’s not going to happen. It’s never going to happen. You’re never going to get me back there. And indeed he did.
I don’t know if I can say this without getting tears in my eyes, but not composing for 15 years was one of the most horrible things that ever happened to me. And I think if Morty knew that this was going to happen, it would have broken his heart. It definitely breaks my heart. There’s so much lost music that I could have written. I did get a commission from the NEA to write an orchestral piece in 1989 or 1990, but I could never finish it. So I lost that opportunity. I’m 58 years old; there isn’t a CD of my music out there. This is crazy.
But what’s great about what I’m doing now is I can take everything that I’ve learned from my trauma and my work on my trauma, and I can bring that to music. It can be part and parcel of what I’m doing in music. I’m very excited about it because I have very strong emotions, and I really want to get them out.
For me, music represents human experience. That’s what my music is about: the experience of being human. If some aliens came to our planet in the future and wanted to understand what it means to be human, I think they would find it in our music more than any other place.