Audio Clips

Text Excerpts


Copland Ellington Joan LaBarbara

David Del Tredici

John Harbison

Tania Leon

Scott Lindroth

Virgil Thomson

Aaron Copland

Charles Ives

Virgil Tomson [New!]


Mel Powelll David Lang
Ellen Taaffe Zwilich


Excerpts from interview, Joan LaBarbara with Libby Van Cleve
17 February 1998, New York City.

L. SoHo at that time was still incredibly raw. There were places to play and perform, but they were more like storefronts. There were a few galleries that were opening, but it was still a pretty industrial neighborhood. I did a big solo concert at Washington Square Church, in January of '75. I could check that date. It's either '75 or '76; I think it was '75. And I did an experimental performance piece called Hear What I Feel, which explored, in public, one of the experimental situations that I put myself in to try to discover new sounds. I taped my eyes shut, with masking tape and cotton balls, and sat for an hour before the performance in an isolated space separate from the performance space. I had six glass dishes that had been set up on a little table, and had an assistant who could choose what to put in those glass dishes, the idea being that the audience could see what was in the dishes. The only stipulation that I gave was that the substance should not crawl and shouldn't injure me, so that I didn't have any kind of fear aspect that was worked into that. So it wasn't like a Artaud theater experience. [laughter] And then, when the concert began, I was led out into the performance space--still with eyes taped shut--and touched the various substances, and tried to give an immediate vocal response. Not trying to identify what it was, but trying to just react.

L. Why did you need to have your eyes taped an hour before the concert?

L. Because as a seeing person, we get information from our eyes, from our ears, from touch, from smell. And if I eliminated that sense, my assumption was that the other senses--particularly hearing and touch--would be heightened. I also didn't touch anything for that hour. And once I started doing this piece--in repeated performances--I started to keep a journal about what happened during that hour. So that the piece really started when I taped my eyes shut: what happened to the ears, what happened to the mind, what happened to the various senses. You know, your ears start to reach for information at a certain point into this period of time. And certainly, if I had extended the time period, I would assume that the senses might even have been heightened further. But it was very enlightening, that period of time.

V. Were you, at the time, interested in meditation?

L. Somewhat. I had, several years before that, gotten into Transcendental Meditation. I did that. I did yoga. But I wasn't thinking of that, necessarily, as a meditation. I was thinking of it more as an experiment, and I was using the heightened awareness of the performance situation to get that kind of excitement, that energy that goes into performance. So I used both the sensory deprivation and the excitement and energy of performance to generate some of these sounds.

I got lots of wonderful responses to that piece. Laurie Spiegel came up to me afterwards and said two things: She said it was so emotional that it made her cry. And the other thing she said was, "But the synthesizer can already make those sounds. Why are you working so hard to make them?" And I thought, "Well, [laughter] what have we learned here?" We learned a little bit about Laurie and what she hears. But what I learned was that people responded to that piece on several levels. First of all, there's the gut reaction to the poignancy of someone being led out into the performance space and being so vulnerable in that situation. And then being able to use that vulnerability. And what I was trying to explore was: not only did I want to see if I could startle myself into making a new sound, but I also wanted to get to a pre-verbal communication--where the audience was responding to me, to my sounds, on a level that had nothing to do with words, that had to do with pure communication. Just using the voice to make that leap and that jump.

V. Very interesting, given all the interest you'd had in words and in poetry. Instead it's: "Let's just cut to the chase here." [laughter]

L. Cut to the chase, get rid of the words, and see where we can get just with the pure sound and pure emotion.

V. This is a great segue into another topic that I want to ask you about, which is the notion of a feminine aesthetic. Right now you described something very emotional: relationship to the body, having a sense of vulnerability. It's so hard to make generalizations, but I think that these are things that would be considered a feminine viewpoint. Would you consider that a feminine piece?

L. I didn't. I thought it came out of, in a way, a lot of my experience with performance art, with the kinds of things that I was seeing as I would perform in Europe--Joseph Beuys and various happenings. I was coming into contact with the Fluxus musicians, composers, and writers who were dealing with concepts, conceptual art -- and I didn't really think of it in a gender way. I tried not to think of things in a gender-specific way, at that point in time. Although Carol Webber and I did have some conversations that I can recall, about looking [forward] to a time when women were not going to have to be so tough to get where they needed to go. That we were breaking ground for our younger sisters, who would come along and not have to be quite as tough as we felt we had to be.

A later excerpt:

V. We're preparing for a break, but I wanted to ask you more about Hear What I Feel. What was some of the stuff that was put in the bowls? [laughter]

L. As I said, I didn't make the choices of the stuff. The stuff was chosen by whoever I had chosen to be the assistant.

V. Oh, sure. It had to be a complete surprise.

L. It had to be a complete surprise. And so what was always interesting to me was to find out what these people would choose. And one of the most interesting things was sea urchin.

V. Oh, uni? Like the stuff that you eat? Sushi?

L. Yes, the stuff that you eat, right. [laughter]

V. It's almost foul enough to do the wiggling thing though. [laughter]

L. When you stick your fingers in it, it was the kind of thing that you could keep trying to break down, and it would only break down into smaller and smaller component parts of the thing itself. Not like other kinds of substances, which would become more liquid or gelatinous or something. This stayed itself. [laughter] So that was one thing that I remember, very specifically. There were other things like tinfoil, little crackley things, Jell-O.

V. Pudding, yogurt, something like that?

L. Yeah, substances like that. I have a notebook somewhere about all of these things: about my journeys, about what I thought about in the hours ahead of time, and then who the assistant was, what substances they had chosen. I really made a very careful collection.

V. Where are those journals?

L. They're out in Santa Fe, in my stacks and stacks of stuff. [laughter]

V. Someday, somebody might want to find it. So it's always good to get that on tape. So actually deciding what goes in the bowls and what order it goes in, is part of the design?

L. That's part of the piece--very definitely--so that the assistant then had a great deal to do with the shape and nature of the journey, as it were, of the piece.

And later, after our sushi lunch (when no one ordered uni!)

L. Since we ended the other tape with what was in the dishes of Hear What I Feel, I want to talk a little bit about the involvement of the assistants in the piece. Yes, they chose the substances that went into the dishes and, therefore, had some directing element involved with where the piece would go.

Excerpt from interview, David Del Tredici with Vivian Perlis
16 December 1996, New York City.

P. Those Joyce works--the texts that you used, and the works that were serial and twelve-tone--but in your own way--

D. They sound twelve tone. They're in the dissonant mode of the day.

P. Do you feel that you were doing that because you were being a good boy in terms of the kind of composer you were supposed to be--

D. No, absolutely not. Totally not. I wrote them with the same passion, totally passionate pieces that came out of instinct. It was just that I was excited by dissonance. And they're actually not at all like other atonal music of the time. The further you get from them, they sound--compared to tonality--they certainly are atonal. It's just that--

P. They have a very gutsy, direct sense to the listener. They're not intellectualized--

D. I hope so. I always think that the intellectual has to be in connection with some other visceral thing. I was following my instinct, but when my instinct went towards tonality, the whole tonal system, not just a chord or two, or not like Berio in Symphonia where something would emerge and then go away, in and out of a sort of dissonant string of notes. I started to have tonality--tonic, dominant, subdominant, and feel thrilled about writing it. That was the odd thing, I was feeling so thrilled. Like, what--? And I finally had to go with the thrill. I had to actually trust that it felt the same as it did when I wrote atonal music. So, for me it's got to be OK. I don't know what anyone else is going to think of it, but this is what's coming out.

P. It actually, for a time, surprised you ,what was coming out?

D. Very much so.

P. Do you think that the Lewis Carroll choice, the text itself, had to do with a style of writing?

D. On the surface it did, because it was a new set of emotions. I like that humor, charm, whimsy, rather than angst--German expressionism. But what attracted me to Lewis Carroll was the man. I didn't know Lewis Carroll. He was a man with a secret life. He had this secret illicit passion for little girls that was sexual. He found a way to hide it and be loved. And he did that through his books. So it was exactly a parallel for me. I found a way to hide being gay through my music, which was loved. That was it. And I didn't realize this until after I was well into it. Because I think, why do I like Lewis Carroll so much? I had no idea why I had this connection. It just was there. It's like your hand, you don't question it, it was simply in place, and I just had this feeling whatever he wrote, I could set to music. It didn't matter. And I think a lot of composers have that identification, like Lorca and Crumb, Heine and Schumann--some sympathetic thing. So for me and Carroll, that was it. A man with a secret life. And who knows what it was about. It was unclear, but it was very alive and very forbidden.

P. All of those intricate ins and outs--things that you found-- that are not on the surface of the story.

D. At that time, tonality was forbidden. Although this was not conscious. It was just an instinctual thing. It's interesting, I never thought about this, but my being gay had a lot to do with my whole development as a tonal composer and with my attachment to Lewis Carroll. Without that secrecy thing that I sensed between the two of us, who knows?

P. But also, from what I know of you and your personality--the whimsy, the fun-loving spirit, and also the two composers that you have mentioned, Milhaud and Aaron [Copland]. This sense of--not agonizing. Aaron used to say, "Agonizing is not my thing."

D. That was one of the great things about how Aaron was so helpful. He was another role model. Music could be natural and unagonized. He was terrific. Because I would be teaching at Harvard where everybody was agonizing. And then I'd go visit Aaron. Here he was, the best in the world, and he wasn't agonizing. He was saying it was just fun.

P. That's very much a part of your personality, it seems to me.

D. And he reinforced that. That's probably why we got along.

Excerpt from interview, John Harbison with Vivian Perlis
30 September 1997, Terrytown, NY

P. More recently was the Cello Concerto-- H. For Yo-Yo [Ma}.

P. For Yo-Yo.

H. Yeah. Interesting that Yo-Yo and I had never worked together, though we've been in the same city all these years. I've known him since he was an undergraduate. I don't know. That piece I think is a real Yo-Yo piece. It was done at Aspen by David Finkel who played it very differently. I understood then that other soloists were going to be able to do quite wonderful things with it. But I was drawing a real portrait of Yo-Yo, some of which he was uncomfortable with. He didn't like the Chinese element. He said, "I'm a Western musician."

P. That's interesting.

H. But since then I think he's become more at home with it, because I know there's a Bright Sheng piece now that he plays that's very into his origins. But I think at this point, then, he was not expecting something like that. But it was a fascinating experience working with Yo-Yo. Yo-Yo is a remarkable musician. He's very quick, but he left the absorption fairly late, so he scared me a little bit. Eventually, he was catching up to it, but he is amazingly quick.

P. Does it make a difference to you--in terms of the way you write a piece--if you know who you are writing for?

H. I always like to know or imagine. Even with the opera, even when I wasn't sure who was in the cast, I kind of took a clue.

P. But you don't know with Gatsby who will be in the cast--

H. Well, I didn't know while I was writing it.

P. --but you have a sense.

H. I had a sense. Well for instance for Myrtle, I hoped that Lorraine would do it--Lorraine Hunt. And I was really writing for Lorraine. I know her voice. And she is going to do it. But just having the model was great. She will do it. She's signed now. But I didn't know at the time; It was just a perfect image for that part physically, the way she looks, the way she sounds--it was just great to have. It's a small part but a really crucial part, and the more specific it is, the better.

P. But similarly with the Flute Concerto.

H. Ransom. Yeah, I had Ransom [Wilson] in mind. Ransom had declared that it was his last piece as a flutist, so I thought I'd better give him something athletic to play, but yeah. And also, very much, with the Violin Concerto of course, which is Rosie's [Harbison] piece.

P. Well, coming towards the end of the century, we not only have the Copland Centenary but--

H. We sure do.

P. How do you feel about being the of good citizen of American music that you continue from other composers, and how do you feel about helping younger composers?

H. Part of my teaching mania these days is because I really love knowing what young composers are doing. And I have chances to help them out. I'm very much in touch with certain performers that I can send things to. Part of the satisfaction that I've had over the last few years is having some very young students whose music I was able to get into circulation in situations which were very good for them and I think good for them to be heard in. These opportunities are opportunities for me as well as them because I really feel that, as a teacher, my idea is that they should be as good composers as one can imagine. I don't seem to yet have any of those things I've sometimes recognized in certain teachers, that discomfort when they get off their things--it doesn't really bother me. And I think--though I have real worries and anxieties about some things I do--I think that as a composer I have a lot of weaknesses and blind spots and so forth, but as a teacher, these days I feel very confident. I feel like, if I was a psychiatrist I would get the top dollar because I see maybe thirteen students a week in Aspen and there's not really one of them that I feel I haven't said something useful to. Which is a question of confidence, and experience and a certain sense of willingness to do it, which I haven't always had. So in that area of my life it all fits together; that is to say, helping some young composers to have opportunities, not necessarily people I teach but people I think are worthwhile. At this point it feels very natural. I try to get a relationship which enables me to back off as well as to lead at times. So I think this is a part of my life that I feel very good about. I think the worst of it is that teaching and going on juries and stuff requires a certain bureaucratic or business side--correspondence and filing--which is intrusive and not very much part of the artistic process. But otherwise, it's a real bonus. I'm really surprised at some of my colleagues who say, "Oh, I hate these juries and stuff." Well, they are terrible, and one realizes that you never get enough chance to make a real judgement and so forth. But the other side of it is that unless some people who are informed do this, that the young people don't get a fair shake. And they don't get the sort of variety of ears listening to them that is going to give at least some of them a chance sometime. And I think it's really important. I also remember the years when I was just coming out of school--the sense that cracking these very big structures was difficult. And getting someone to actually listen to something that you work on was almost impossible. And I've always felt that that's one of the best uses of my time. Also, I think if you don't know what's going on you risk insulating your own work too much. I think the time for that is maybe in your seventies or eighties when you really can't change much anyway. But until then, it's good to know what's happening.

P. And then there is a real curiosity on your part to hear young composers.

H. Sure, I'm really interested. My friend Fred Lehrdahl and I always have the same reaction when we're together on one of these juries. We're either excited and happy at the end of the day if we've heard something good that we didn't know about. Or we're dissapointed because that's what we thought we would get out of it. But what we're hoping for is that we'll hear something stimulating and convincing which makes us feel just generally optimistic.

P. You being President of the Copland Fund following Jacob Druckman, you've had some of the same kind of sense of commitment and curiosity and interest in young composers. It's a very good spot for you.

H. I've watched Jacob very closely and to me he was an ideal. He's broader, actually in the more deep sense, broader than I am. He was genuinely wide open. But his attitude seems to me to be absolutely the right one; that is, don't make any snap judgements that might close off an avenue, which I think he was absolutely right about. And then he was also very concerned to make sure that there was wide representation of many, many strands because it's hard from a given historical perspective to know which ones are going to be valuable and which won't. And also you just have to go by your own ears, you know. If you are arrested by something, it's important to go with it and not worry too much about how it fits with what you expect. But I think it's really difficult. We have so much production going on in a very, very unremunerative world. So much is being produced, and we're judging things on one minute of a beginning, which is significant, but not enough. And yet, we, with this very imperfect set of systems, we're really hoping that artists will develop and have opportunity. And it's almost impossible. On the other hand, a lot of us try to hang in because I think we remember how hard it is to start out.

P. Do you think looking back at the century--and this is kind of a big question for just a couple of minutes that we have--will be an American musical century?

H. Yeah, I think it will--but I think it will also be a time when the possibilities of concert music and the advantages and opportunities of concert music will become evident to, if not a wider public, a more intense public. I think, we went through the worst, which is the period where popular culture seemingly swept everything away. And we have generations now--almost thirty years of our public--which were not exposed to, I would say, the most important aspects of concert music. But I think that's really coming to an end, and part of what's come to an end is that the particular impulse of the '50s which created the pop music which we now have, seems to be waning and many of the best talents and minds in music are looking much more into concert music as a fulfillment of their own interests. And if we can hang in and not apologize for and not water down what we do, we will come to a point where all around the world, we will have much, much more hold on an informed public than we do now. I just think we need to weather the immediate storm and not panic, and not try to make what we do sound like and look like anything else, which is the real danger we're running now: not that what we have is going to be forgotten, but that we will be presenting something that's not worth people's attention. And I feel pretty good about this. I feel a real turnaround.

Excerpt from interview, Tania Leon with Jenny Raymond
13 November 1998, New York City.

R. Was there a defining moment that arrived that you knew that your destiny was as a composer?

L. No--necessity, because I could not use the time more effectively than I'm using it now if I had to continue with the piano. I would have to devote hours, practicing and being sure that my technique is impeccable, even though technically I can sit down and play. When I was becoming a pianist, my training was eight hours playing daily. It's something that my fingers haven't forgotten. And I have played. When was the last concert that I did, when I played the Shostakovich Piano Concerto and, from the piano, conducted the orchestra? If I know that I'm going to do that, two or three months before I have to go back and put hours into the piano to do a performance the way I demand a performance now. It's another consciousness, another maturity.

One thing I could tell you is that becoming a composer--not only the aid of those that guide you from the very beginning--one of the things that I always did is study other composers. I feel that I have studied with so many people. I definitely have studied a lot with Stravinsky. For that, Mahler; for that, even Lutoslawski. Now I study a lot of the pieces of Ligeti, Boulez, Messiaen. I study everybody, and that's what I love about conducting because that's why I study. When I study the most is when I'm conducting something because I'm a total detective, and that's when you see technique a lot. I see the technique, I see ways of coloring, I see personalities, shapes, graphics, architecture, space, culture. For me, it's not that people overtly said: "I am going to explore the Spanish culture in this score." Or "I'm nationalistic because I was born in Spain."

What kind of nationality has George Crumb? He was born in America, and he was influenced by Asia and Spain. What kind of nationality is Bizet, if he is able to write Carmen? What is the nationality of the music that is so different from Satie? The term "nationalist"--first of all, I have a lot of trouble with labels. I'm totally anti-label. It's based on training because everybody has called me so many things. What can I tell you? It's a question of identity. What is my identity to other people? How do they see me? Do they see me? Do they hear me? Do they watch me? Every time I read a different article, I have a different category. Now, the latest thing is Afro-Cuban. The first time that I heard that term, I was announced to an audience by a colleague of mine. I was totally surprised that this colleague of mine chose to say something like that. What is this all about?

Cuban music is comprised of many influences--Amerindians, has to do with the indigenous people that were there by the time Mr. Christopher Columbus arrived. Then the entire Spanish conquest and all the Spanish people that come to Cuba from different regions of Spain. You can also say all the Spanish people sound like [singing rhythmically]. No. You have different regional situations, with different rhythmical emphasis, with different melodic contours. You have in the north of Spain all this Moorish type of influence; you can connect that to some part of Egypt. All of that comes to Cuba. Then to Cuba come all these incredible--I'm telling you--the forced labor that is imported from Africa. All of these different people come from different regions of Africa, too, with their different inflections--rhythmical inflections also.

R. --of language or of music?

L. Language, music, traditions. And this is happening already with the Spanish people, remember. So therefore they're coming with all of these, too. This melange, this minestrone begins. Then you have the importation of all this migration that comes from the east part of the hemisphere. I'm talking about the Caribbean, with the migrations of the Haitians that come to Cuba because they're fleeing their own revolutions. These Haitians have been dominated or conquered or whatever you want to call it by the French, so they're coming with a French influence into Cuba.

The last migration that arrived in Cuba at the turn of the century is the Chinese, who are coming with all of these aspects of the five-tone scale. That is the Cuban music. You can find all of that in the music. It's amazing. So therefore, what I feel right now is that in one of the aspects of promotional, commercial appeal to audiences, in order to make it exciting, labels emerge. However, the importance of the contributions of the Africans into the music of Cuba that has to do with the polyrhythmia have been always explored.

Ligeti is studying that polyrhythmia. Berio has studied the polyrhythmia. Steve Reich has studied that polyrhythmia, coming out of a central aspect of Africa--the music of the Pygmies. If you listen to that music, you say: "Oh, my dear!"

R. Don't you feel that rhythm has a stronger cultural association than melody?

L. No, I don't think so. I think they both are there. Otherwise, what are you going to do if we're going to talk about rhythm and cultural associations, what do you do with a waltz? What do you do with a tango? What do you do with the fact that, yes, we use the bandoneon or the accordion or all of these instruments in the tango, which are not from Argentina? They were imported from Austria. What do you do with the Hindus when they need that drone in there? That also comes from another importation.

In other words, we, as cultural people--for me, culture are solutions to life. A group of people start molding what we call culture. But what is the difference between rap and country music? It's a culture in a specific region that molds something, and that something might be actually put together by a lot of different influences that come from way, way, way back.

Therefore, the Cuban phenomenon is that that is Cuban music. But in Cuba they don't separate Afro-Cuban. If you have Afro-Cuban, what is the name of the other one?

R. Cuba-Cuba?

L. What do you do with the bolero? Where does the habañera fit? Tell me, when Bizet put the habañera in the Carmen opera, did he call it Afro-Cuban? It has the same connotation of, let's say--there's a very big difference between Ravel's Bolero and what we think a bolero is nowadays. Where is that exoticism that is in the Bolero? Where is that coming from? Where did he hear it? Is that French? We know it's not French.

In other words, I think there is an incredible confusion, an incredible need for creating a product for the people to digest a product and say: "Ooh, it's exotic." Could you imagine? The Cubans, and you sway your hips, and babaloo. Come on! It's a very interesting situation that as a person that happened to be born there and have dealt with this from the point of view of studying the music and trying to study this the same way that I've studied Schoenberg--

R. Did you go back to study the music? It was something that you were born with, and it was in your ears, but is it something that you find yourself going back to study the folk music or to actually find patterns?

L. Now I have studied it because it supports some of my findings in the music of Beethoven or the music of Bach.

R. In its contrast or in its similarities?

L. It's not about contrast. I'm saying that, from the point of view of Bach, he emerges with his own sounds and his own rhythms; out of also applying dances of his period or dances that are already dead; they are not danced anymore by the time he's writing. So he's using his own popular flavor of folk, of his own culture, in his music. We have distilled the whole thing in such a way that all of a sudden, his music comes from heaven. We don't want to hear those traces in there.

Same thing in the music of Beethoven. There's dance in his music. There's the dance of his period. It's the connotation of whichever harmonic environment he wants to create in there that is a traditional harmonic environment, plus his personality, plus the rhythms that are the rhythms that he knows how to command because that's what he is, that's what he speaks, that's how he moves.

R. And patterns that he knows.

L. Exactly. That is his music. But we don't talk about the folk element or the cultural element in the music of Beethoven or the music of Brahms. Come on!

All of these different things that we are talking about now, at the end of our century, is something that to me is very interesting. Do you know why? Because these are issues that I have been forced to look at because of all those labels and all those things that I have been accused with and try to defend my own identity by establishing: This is what I want to do, this is the way I want to write, and the rest will be history someday. That's the only thing.

But I don't think that whatever I do is all exotic, or that exotic as someone might think it is. It depends. I speak with an accent, so my music might have an accent, which might not be understood by many people. And if the accent has to happen to be roots or folklore or whatever you want to call it at some point, fine. That's okay.

That's how I define this type of situation. I think that labels--going back to the Afro-Cuban thing--is selling short what the whole thing is about.

Excerpt from interview, Scott Lindroth with Libby Van Cleve
9 February 1997, New Haven, CT.

V. There's a lot of speculation about the internet and how that might affect music in the future. Do you have any thoughts about that?

L. I have a few thoughts. The big buzz word is, of course, this random access or interactive performance: writing pieces in which the audience can in some way determine the outcome of the piece, or the order in which things happen, or musical decisions. That might be fun. I find that to be, though, a very low key kind of engagement with music. There's a real privilege a composer has or a performer has when you're up on stage. And I think there's certain expectations created by that setting, where an audience wants to be told something interesting or shown something that's interesting, and that it's a responsibility of the performer and composer to have something interesting to say. That can be an incredibly powerful experience for everyone involved, and I'd hate to see that dismissed -- or at least devalued -- because of what technology makes possible. So, I'm not saying that things are not going to develop along this way where this is a more interactive approach, but it's just not as intense of an involvement with the medium, and I find that it winds up actually diffusing, and you're not as engaged. You're more spaced out, and it's a more mindless kind of involvement, more of a way of killing time than it is like a really important way of changing the way you experience time, which is what can happen in a musical performance. So, I'm not that excited about the technology in this way. I think in terms of sharing information it's terrific.

In that sense, being able to browse a library or documents anywhere in the world, I think that's fantastic, very useful in a pragmatic way. But, I still prefer to read a book than I do to read a computer screen. And I prefer to hear things in a live performance than I do hearing it on a CD. So I think that that experience is very special. And I'm hoping with the way technology is developing, that people will realize just how special that experience is--the only place you can really find it is in a concert hall.

V. Interesting, because on the one hand there's been talk about how the internet--and all the potential developments that it might imply--could radically change the economy of music, and it could change the sociology of music--all kinds of speculation. But what you're saying, and I would tend to agree with you, is that there is something really special about that live concert hall.

L. Yes. Or any live performance setting. It doesn't have to be a proscenium stage, but it's more of the idea that there is a certain privilege that the performer has and that the composer may have in that setting, that I think an audience enjoys. They enjoy being able to hear something very compelling. There's that expectation and hope--whenever you go to a concert, there's that hope you're going to have an experience like that. And that is what stays with you much longer than surfing on the internet or channel surfing on the TV or flicking between tracks on a CD. There's something about it when you're there with a bunch of other people in the audience, if the piece is really good, that kind of concentration and engagement with the piece. There's just nothing like it. It's a palpable experience. There's no other place you're going to get that. And I think I value that more and more as technology proceeds in the direction it is going.

V. Let's talk about Big Band, the orchestra piece. There are a number of things that are interesting to me about it. I've had a look at the score, and because I'm your personal friend, I have a tape--but I also have special, secret information on you which is that you like to do math problems when you're falling asleep at night. When I saw the score, I thought the score looks like the score written by somebody who does math problems for fun. [laughter]

L. Well math is not really the word for it, but there are some number games, and this is something that I've enjoyed doing with my pieces all along--from Relations to Rigor back in 1986-87. I've enjoyed using numbers to control some parts of the piece, usually rhythm, and that's what happens in Big Band. I set up a scaffold--a big rhythmic scaffold that is rather arbitrarily derived from numbers. It's not even that I have a particular expressive intention by wanting to work with numbers or picking numbers to give me a particular expressive result. I like the arbitrary quality of numbers, that there's nothing inherently musical about them--at least the way that I treat them--and I enjoy then the challenge of having numbers shape my musical ideas. That's just fun for me--I guess that would be the word. Because I have my own musical inclinations anyway. This gives me a channel into which to direct those inclinations and winds up surprising me just in terms of how I would do something if I were trying doing it completely intuitively. It comes out, I think, better, or maybe more surprises--more twists and turns--when I try to match that intuition with some kind of constraint imposed by numbers.

V. So the numbers are applied to the rhythm only.

L. In this case, yeah. I just apply them to rhythm. I don't really have much trouble coming up with notes; I feel fine about just winging it in the pitch domain, but I enjoy the more detailed construction of rhythm.

V. So, if you can think back to what you were thinking as you were writing this piece--how did the compositional process come about? Did it start with the grid with the numbers system--or...?

L. No, I start off actually getting some gestural ideas, maybe some little melodic kernels, or a rhythmic pattern that I might want to have my numbers absorb in some way. I work on those two aspects of the piece separately. I think about what I can do with numbers rhythmically on the one hand. And then on the other hand, I'm just out there sniffing around for an interesting melody, a riff, something that catches my musical interest--again, that would engage me intuitively--because without that, without the intuitive engagement, I wouldn't really know what to do with the numbers.

So, that's the thing that I always have to balance--not to let the numbers get the upper hand. It actually brings up some issues, because earlier I was very happy to just let the numbers completely determine the piece in some way. And that would be like Relations to Rigor, where I knew how many measures it was going to be, rhythmic articulation, how that was going to work, and it was that nice feeling of writing a piece and knowing, "Well I'm three-fifths of the way through." I could be very precise about it. I think it gives the piece a particular character--rather obsessive, direct--it knows where it's heading, and it's just moving in that direction, and it's not looking left or right. It just has its sights set and it's not going to digress.

Since that time I've become more interested in trying to figure out how to digress in my music, and yet hang on to some of these formal games, like using numbers to be part of the piece.

Big Band, in some ways, takes a more rigorous approach to rhythm than I had taken in years in the pieces in between Relations to Rigor and Big Band. But the numbers are not so much an end in themselves; they're a means to an end. I use them on much more of a contingent basis. I'll use them in one way for one section of a piece, but then I'll cut them off when I want to go on to something else. So I let my own will and intuition decide, "Well, that's enough."

And I have more specific things that I want to get out of the numbers. That is if I want to build--as in Big Band--several sections are constructed to be long, gradual accumulations, and I find that having that kind of rhythmic scaffolding really helps me plot out how things are going to accumulate, because a lot of the details are decided already with the rhythmic scaffolding. I can then make the bigger decisions about how the orchestration would grow, how the registers would change. That way it just gave me a comfortable cushion that I could sit on, and then leave myself to my intuition to make these bigger decisions on how to shape the big expressive gestures that I wanted to have come through.

V. How much is that typical for your compositional process--or for your compositional process recently? How typical is it that you decide to have one thing very organized and other things you allow yourself to be intuitive with?

L. Oh boy. Typical. Hmm. I would say I go back and forth. I think there were several pieces in which I did not use numbers at all. I might have some. I think every composer has something on their mind in terms of how to make the piece hang together.

V. What pieces?

L. Oh, for instance January Music would be one where there isn't anything going on with numbers, but I had a gestural idea that I was trying to have always present in the piece--always present in the music, but reinterpreting it as it went along so that it would have so many very different expressive guises. But Big Band marks more of a return to using numbers in a more detailed way. The pieces I'm working on now don't use numbers, but I have other things that take their place. Even if it's not strictly derived from a numerical procedure. So, it's something I'm interested in: reconciling myself with some kind of arbitrary or rigorous constraint and then seeing how that affects the intuitive ideas that I would have anyway.

V. I've always thought listening to your music that there's a finely tuned balance between control and passion--there's passion just waiting to get out--It's ready to burst, but controlled just enough. That's something quite attractive to me.

L. That's one of those comments that I don't really know how to deal with, because it's not like I'm sitting there saying , "Well, I have all this passion, but I'm just going to let these numbers keep the lid on it in some way." It's much more. I mean it works both ways. I think in some ways, the numbers can actually provoke more extravagant, expressive gestures, that I think are more three-dimensional and more finely gradated in a way. There's more texture to them because of the numbers than there would be if I were just doing it intuitively. My guess is that I might paint those gestures with a broader brush, and they might not have as much inner life. And that's what I find exciting about the numbers--that I will imagine things, like I say, using the broad brush, the visceral impulse, the passion, whatever word you want to use for it. But if I can find a way to have the numbers in there as well, it gives those impulses more texture, and I think makes them more persuasive. At least that's what I hope. And I think in the pieces that really work--with the numbers--that can be the case. It will make it more passionate rather than something that is toning things down or keeping them under control.

Excerpt from interview, Virgil Thomsonwith Vivian Perlis
28 September 1977, The Chelsea Hotel, New York, NY

V. Do you visualize an entire work or sketch a work in advance?

T. Practically never.

P. Never? It flows from beginning or from some--

T. I like to make it flow from the beginning, because it hangs together much better that way then if you think of a fine finale and how you are gonna to get there, oh? Because it's much easier in a continuous flow to cut passages where your inspiration is a little weak or where you repeated yourself unnecessarily. It's much easier to cut than to add. Anyway I like to begin at the beginning and go straight on.

P. And I suppose it depends on the work as to whether you have a length.

T. Sometimes you have a length given. In writing for films, you practically always have a series of lengths because the film has been cut finally before you make the music. In that case the length is given. There tends to be something like that very often in working for the ballet because the choreographer may say with regard to the pas de deux for instance--which is likely to be the center of any ballet--"I can make this last five minutes, but much beyond that I might have to repeat myself." So you want to make a nice one to come out in the time that he thinks he can keep it going in an original manner. But if you are writing music out of you own imagination then you have no such limits and you can make it any length that it feels like coming out. I usually let them alone to see what they are going to do, and I can tell several pages ahead when an end is coming--the end of a movement or the end of a whole piece. You can feel it summing up or doing whatever it is that things do before they end.

P. You speak of it as though it had its own motivation rather than yours.

T. You can't manipulate. The best you can do is to take dictation. Now you have to manipulate in certain passages for the kind of music that requires calculation for formal or conventional reasons. You can't write a fugue without previously constructing subjects and counter subjects in such a manner that can be put together upside down and in any position you wish. That you have to figure out, and the 12-tone composers all have to figure out a visible row. You just don't hit on a row by accident. It has to be a row of which the order, as expressed by numbers, is capable of interesting manipulation. There are plenty of occasions in music when you have to calculate, and of course orchestration is practically all calculating. But the ideal situation that you try for--or hope for rather--is one in which you write it down as it comes to you very rapidly, and those are likely to be--well, the most inspired passages, yes.

P. It's very interesting that you say as it comes to you and it's being dictated to you.

T. True.

P. Who is doing the dictating and where is it coming from?

T. I am not a theologian. It might be the Holy Ghost! [laughter] It might be unconscious memory of all the music you ever heard in your life. In any case it's something a little deeper than the surface of your mind, and if you can put the surface of your mind at rest and let the deeper parts come up spontaneously then you get a deeper and more vivid result. Any poet knows that, and any composer knows it. If it all could be figured out how to make art interesting and successful, that would have been discovered centuries ago, and anybody could write a hit tune.

P. Hmmm. But are there particular conditions that make it easier or more conducive for you to--

T. Everybody, I think has to learn his own best working methods. I think it's likely to be between the ages of twenty-five and thirty that one learns those things, and you learn from finding out what you have done well, and also by--you talk to your friends. People don't have the same working methods, and they don't have the same kind of lives, and the reason I think why artist of all kinds are most at home in great art centers is because there they see other artist all the time and find out what the various methods of work are, what kind of food life, exercise life, sex life, reading life, boozing or not boozing, drugs or not drugs--you have to find out for yourself what is a good creative hygiene, and sometimes people find that certain times of day are congenial. Many people, especially when they are young, like to work at night. The night working rarely survives forty, but a great deal of it does go on before that.

P. What about yourself? What is the best mental hygiene for you in terms of productivity--in composition I am talking about.

T. I have to feel good and to be at rest. When I was younger, I found that I worked awfully well in bed. As they say in French, the nervous system is only in repose in bed. But nowadays I don't work so much in bed, although sometimes I do. I can work either in bed or sitting at a table. But I wait for the moment when I sort of automatically reach for a pencil.

P. But some people can wait for that moment and of course it never comes, whereas with you it does.

T. If it doesn't come you're out of luck. But you have to keep on waiting, and if it keeps not coming then you give up the profession.

Virgil Thomson Podcast Transcript

Kelly Yamaguchi: Welcome to a series of podcasts brought to you by Yale University. “Voices of
American Music” features excerpts from interviews in Yale’s Oral History of American Music
archive. This segment focuses on composer, author, and critic Virgil Thomson.
Libby Van Cleve: I am Libby Van Cleve, Associate Director of Yale’s Oral History of American
Music, a unique archive of hundreds of recorded interviews with major musical figures of our times.
The founding director, Vivian Perlis, and I wrote a book and edited CDs based on materials from
the archive. It’s called Composers’ Voices from Ives to Ellington, published by Yale University Press in
2005. It features thirteen composers, among them, Virgil Thomson.
Music: Thomson, Symphony 3, mvt. 2: Tempo di Valzer; New Zealand Symphony Orchestra; James
Sedares, conductor
Vivian Perlis: I am Vivian Perlis, Oral History of American Music Director. In the seventies, I
interviewed Virgil Thomson at his apartment in the legendary Chelsea Hotel in New York City.
Thomson is recognized as one of the leading figures in American music with a career that spanned
the entire twentieth century. His ties with Yale are strong: Thomson’s manuscripts and papers
including correspondence with leading literary and musical figures are held by the Yale University
Library, and at the end of his life, Thomson taught a seminar at Yale entitled “Words and Music”
which later became a book published by Yale University Press. Here is a sample of Thomson
addressing his Yale students:
Virgil Thomson: [Sings "Tiger! Tiger!" Text by William Blake]
Tiger! Tiger! burning bright
In the forest of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
You see, it's just as dramatic as you can make it, because it's a very dramatic text.
Music: Thomson, "Tiger! Tiger!" from Fives Songs of William Blake; Mack Harrell, baritone; The
Philadelphia Orchestra; Eugene Ormandy, conductor
Perlis: Born in 1896, Virgil Thomson grew up in Kansas City, Missouri and spent his early adult
life in the rich artistic atmosphere of Paris. Thomson’s inimitable blend of southern style and urban
sophistication was the result of this unusual combination of Kansas City and Paris.
Thomson: My father's people, who came from Virginia, were also slave owners and Southern
Baptists, and they always took people home from church for lunch, you know, on Sunday. Southern
hospitality and country hospitality was a fact that I was brought up with. Oh, yes. Paris and Kansas
City both had a highly corrupt political background and a rather elaborate religious superstructure.
Whether it was Catholic or Southern Baptist, it's all the same thing.
Music: Thomson, Family Portrait, A Scherzo: Priscilla Rea; London Gabrieli Brass Ensemble;
Christopher Larkin, conductor
Thomson: You see, there is a difference between rebelling at the beginning and rebelling
afterwards. I used to see these French boys who were my age--some a bit younger--and they would
be sent to the Jesuits for high school, and they would make a big rebellion about it, but only after
they'd been there and got out. Only one of them said: "I am not having any of those Jesuits," and he
had to be taken right out. That's the only kind of rebellion that counts, the rebellion that says: "I am
not having any." Rebellion after you've absorbed it all--my heavens, that's just decorative.
Perlis: Virgil Thomson lived in Paris until the Second World War. After his return to New York, he
became music critic for the Herald Tribune. His unique qualities of personality, wit, and intellect
made him an integral part of the New York music scene and an unforgettable character.
Thomson: The fifty percent of the reviewers that are or have been practicing composers are the
ones whose reviews can make sense and in some cases make history. After all we read Debussy and
Berlioz and Schumann. Whereas the polemicists and the historians and the just-smart-aleck writers
go by the wayside. It was proposed to me as a possibility and I said I didn't think they would like it.
I thought I'd be fired right off for offending some big wig around the Metropolitan Opera. No – no
– no, they're used to that, they like it.
And so when I tried it, I liked it and they liked it. Although I made a number of indiscreet
gestures, so to speak, in my first year or two, they didn't too much mind because I was lively. And
because I was a musician, I knew what I was talking about, and I could write. And reviewing is a
writing job. Writing is what you do.
Music: Thomson, Something of a Beauty: A Portrait of Anne-Marie Soullière
Thomson: Composition isn't something you decide. Composition is something you have a
compulsion about. You can decide that you're going to learn to play the piano because that requires
a method and work. You can decide that you are going to master the techniques of composition.
But you cannot decide that you are going to be a composer because the inspiration or the
development may not occur.
If it doesn't come, you're out of luck. But you have to keep on waiting, and if it keeps on not
coming, then you give up the profession.
What am I in business for except to do good work? And by good work I mean work that
pleases me. There is no point in being more or less poor all your life if you have to be also bored.
Music: Thomson, Solitude: A Portrait of Lou Harrison; David Del Tredici, piano
Thomson: I don't view musical compositions as static productions. I view them as in continuous
movement, and one hopes that there is a semblance of something like organic movement there so
that the materials develop and remain related, integrated--in constant transformation perhaps--but,
growing like a plant.
Music: Thomson, Autumn: Promenade; Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra; Ann Mason Stockton,
harp; Neville Marriner, conductor
Thomson: Everybody, I think, has to learn his own best working methods. People don't have the
same kind of working methods, and they don't have the same kind of lives. The reason, I think,
why artists of all kinds are most at home in great art centers is because there they see other artists all
the time, and find out what the various methods of work are; what kind of food life, exercise life, sex
life, reading life, boozing or not boozing, drugs or not drugs. You have to find out for yourself what
is a good creative hygiene.
Music: Thomson, Autumn: Promenade; Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra; Ann Mason Stockton,
harp; Neville Marriner, conductor
Thomson: Poets have a very different hygiene from us. Music takes a sufficient amount of time
that it's awfully hard to get into trouble, especially since you not only take the time to write down
scores, but musicians are practically all performing musicians, too, and you go to rehearsals and you
play music and you give concerts, and all that takes a lot of time in the day, and running around
town, so that music is a busy affair.
The painters are not so busy. They wait ‘til the light is good, and they sometimes paint ‘til
the light goes bad. In a dark city like Paris or San Francisco or something, the light is really good,
say, from about ten to three in the wintertime, and that's long enough for anybody to work. When
the light goes bad, but then they either make love to their model or quarrel with their wife or go out
to the café. But having worked that day, they have a perfectly clear conscience, so they are cheerful
and jolly, and the gay Bohemian life always follows the painters because they are good for the
Musicians give a lesson or play a concert or copy some music or something. You don't see
quite so many of those around in the evening. And the poets and the literary people are all around,
picking up atmosphere or quarreling [laughs].
Thomson: You have to do your practice, keep your health, keep your inspiration, keep your
intellectual contents and your energies, and above all keep relaxed because it can't come through
unless you're relaxed.
When I was younger I found that I worked awfully well in bed. As they say in France, the
nervous system is only in repose in bed. I can work either in bed or sitting at a table, but I wait for
the moment when I sort of automatically reach for a pencil.
Music: Thomson, "Before Sleeping"; Betty Allen, mezzo-soprano; Virgil Thomson, piano
Thomson: If you can put the surface or your mind at rest and let the deeper parts come up
spontaneously then you get a deeper and more vivid result. Any poet knows that, and any
composer knows it. -- I am not a theologian. It might be the Holy Ghost. It might be your
unconscious memory of all the music you ever heard in your life. In any case, it's something a little
deeper than the surface of your mind.
Perlis: Virgil Thomson was one of the first American students of the celebrated French pedagogue,
Nadia Boulanger. From this time on, he formed very definite opinions about teaching composition.
Thomson: The American composer is a university teacher. That has conditioned him in a number
of ways which are possibly beneficial and in some maybe not. Being surrounded constantly by the
university, the whole music thing tends to get over-verbalized, because a university is built around
a library. A university consists of transmitting from one generation to another that which can be or
is written down, because if it isn't written down it's lost anyway. So the library is the repository of
all knowledge, and the idea of the library, the presence of the library and the history of the art and
all the rest of it dominates the music department insofar as that music department is a purely
academic one.
Music: Thomson, Sonata da Chiesa: Fugue
Thomson: The test of a good teacher is: do the students write music? Nadia Boulanger's students,
over a long period of years--hundreds of them have written music. Arnold Schoenberg's students
wrote music. Olivier Messiaen's students write music. Pierre Boulez has had students, but they
don’t write music very much. They perform music.
Any musician likes a gifted student. You can do anything with a gifted student, even let him
go right ahead and learn, which he's going to do if he’s gifted, but the ungifted student--or the
moderately gifted student, as you encounter them in college classes, I didn’t feel was quite my
personal talent. I don’t have that fatherly instinct that pedagogues have or that motherly one that
Nadia had.
I found out very early in my professional life that you can’t follow somebody else’s ideas and
you can’t afford to be a prisoner of group ideas. If you believe in the group ideas, you’re not a
prisoner. But if somebody’s tried to force them on you, then you are a prisoner. And the great
advantage of being young and poor is that you’re not obliged to do anything you don’t want to do.
Perlis: Gertrude Stein was one of the avant garde figures that Thomson came to know while living
in Paris. Their collaboration in the forties on the opera “Four Saints in Three Acts” made history
with its unusual libretto and all-African American cast. The production made them both famous.
Thomson: If one is going to start writing opera seriously or well in a new language, which would
be American, then one had better start, not from a decayed form of the art, which is nineteenth
century opera, but from a primitive form, which is the opera seria. And I've explained this to
Gertrude. You take a serious mythological subject with a tragic ending; you concentrate the
emotional moments into set pieces and the commerce of the play you put into rapid recitative--to
get on with it. Well, that's what we started out thinking we were going to do, but when we started
looking for mythological subjects obviously there were a great many around easy at hand that you
couldn't use at all. The [Isadora] Duncan family had practically a patent on Greece. Richard
Wagner had so completely made Norse mythology his own that competition there was bound to be
fruitless. We said to each other, history could be considered as mythology. "Oh fine," says
Gertrude, "what about George Washington?" And I said, "No, I don't like Eighteenth Century
costumes, they make everybody look alike." And we moved on from there to: I said, "well, the lives
of the saints, that is mythology." Oh, that was just fine. That really kind of clicked with both of us.
She picked out her own saints, which--she is a woman of letters, she can determine her characters.
Music: Thomson, Four Saints in Three Acts, Act IV: Intermezzo; Virgil Thomson, conductor
Thomson: I’ve been something of an éminence grise. I haven’t invented anything. Well, yes, maybe I
have. I haven’t created the career of Philip Glass, but as he pointed out to me, I was doing
minimalist music fifty years before he did.
Music: Philip Glass, Einstein on the Beach; The Philip Glass Ensemble
One, two three, four.
One, two, three, four, five, six.
One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight.
One, two, three, four
One, two, three, four, five, six …
Thomson: I also pointed out to him, as a joke, that he’d had considerable success at writing operas
in Sanskrit, and I’d done perfectly well writing operas in Gertrude Stein.
Music: Thomson, Four Saints in Three Acts; Orchestra of Our Time; Joel Thome, conductor
Text by Gertrude Stein
One, two, three as one, one and one
One, one to be,
One with them, one with them, one with them.
With are with are with with it.
Thomson: Gertrude Stein said it so simply--she said, “If you remember the history of your art while
you are working, your work comes out dead. If you can keep your mind on what you’re writing
about, then it comes out live.” Well, it’s as simple as that, really as simple as that.
Music: Thomson, Four Saints in Three Acts; Orchestra of Our Time; Joel Thome, conductor
Text by Gertrude Stein
There are as many saints as there are saints in it.
How many saints are there in it?
There are saints in it.
Saint Celestine, Saint Lawrence.
There are as many saints
There are as many saints as there are as many saints as there are in it.
Thank you very much.
Kelly Yamaguchi: "Voices of American Music" is a production of the Yale School of Music and the
Oral History of American Music Project. Transcripts of the interviews as well as information and
the performers of the musical excerpts are available at yale.edu/oham. For more information about
music at Yale, and for additional netcasts, please visit music.yale.edu.
Produced by Vivian Perlis, Libby Van Cleve, Stefan Weisman, Jef Wilson, and Keturah Bixby of
OHAM with the help of the staff of the Yale School of Music.


© Copyright 2009 OHAM

Last Updated: 06/15/2009