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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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!"
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?
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--
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
Last Updated: 06/15/2009