24 Aug 2010
Robert Baksa — An Interview by Tom Moore
Robert Baksa is a name that is well-known to lovers of contemporary chamber music, with a hundred chamber works to his credit.
Robert Baksa is a name that is well-known to lovers of contemporary chamber music, with a hundred chamber works to his credit.
He is a long time resident of New York, where he was born, but due to childhood asthma, spent much of his childhood in Arizona. The last decade has seen numerous CDs dedicated exclusively to his work, including a 2003 disc including the three sonatas for flute and piano performed by Katherine Fink and Elizabeth DiFelice, and a 2009 disc by the Heim duo with Christine Bock of chamber music for flute, viola and guitar. We spoke by telephone on March 9, 2010.
TM: Where were you born and raised? Was your family musical?
RB: I was born in New York City. My family had just come over from Hungary about four years before I was born. My mother was actually an American citizen, because she was born in Ohio. The rest of her family was waiting to gain citizenship, and the grandmother decided that she was ready to die, and the family had to go back to Hungary, because Grandmother wanted to see her grandchildren. As it turned out she lasted another five years, and by that time the war had broken out and nobody could get out of the country. My mother grew up in Hungary, and as long as she could go back to the US before she was eighteen, she would retain her citizenship, which is what actually happened.
With regard to musicality, my mother wanted very much to study music when she was a child but she was so nearsighted that she could not see the music with a violin under her chin. She was also a wonderful artist — she wanted to be an artist, but her mother died when she was only eleven or twelve and in rural Hungary she had no choice but to leave school and take care of the kids. Her two older brothers were trained as violinists, and in fact when the whole family came to the United States they had a Hungarian Gypsy orchestra, which I have a very clear memory of when we were still in New York.
I was very precocious — my mother told me that I started to talk when I was nine months old. One of the first things I ever asked for was the Widdavals (the Merry Widow Waltz). Music really excited me. The recorded music that my parents brought over from Hungary was the classics — I remember Brahms symphonies, excerpts from Johann Strauss operas. That was very early in my life. I got excited by music, and would jump and dance around the room. Unfortunately, I was asthmatic. One of the first things that the doctors said to my parents was “Get a piano and sit this kid down”. So at a very early age I was working on the piano. I remember that I would bring my little friends in and make them sit down while I improvised pieces for them. The whole idea of creating music came very, very early for me. My piano teacher was driven to distraction because I would never play the lessons the way that they were written, especially if there was a dissonant passing tone. I would get outraged, and say “this is wrong!” and refuse to play the music as it was written.
The asthma was pretty serious, and they told my parents that if they didn’t move me to a drier climate I might not survive. We packed up when I was about four or five, and moved to Arizona, so I grew up in Tucson.
TM: Please say a little more about the family in Hungary. Where was the family from?
RB: It may have been Gyor. I have never been to Hungary, and don’t know too much about it, because once we had moved to Arizona, the whole milieu of the family and friends who were Hungarian disappeared from our lives. My father, I think, was born in Nyregyhaza. He and my mother met via correspondence. She went back to Hungary after they had corresponded for a while, and they actually only met on the day that they were married. His biggest gift was antique repairing. When we moved to Arizona, where people didn’t have antiques at that time, that was a big disadvantage for us. We didn’t even get a piano there until I was eleven or twelve, so I didn’t have the chance to develop into a good pianist as far as technique was concerned. I did play well enough, and worked my way through college as a dance band pianist. I even did a short gig as a cocktail pianist once I was out of college, but basically my training through junior high, high school and college was as a violinist. However, I really didn’t like the instrument, and when I came back to New York on my own, in my early twenties, I just put the instrument aside, and with very few exceptions, never played again. I was convinced that everybody in New York was practically a Heifetz, so I didn’t want to compete with that. I could probably have made a good living as a pit violinist for the Broadway shows, but it was a decision I made, and that was the end of it.
TM: Was the family Jewish?
RB: No — as a matter of fact, my great-grandfather was a Hapsburg duke who also happened to be a Catholic priest, so we are all illegitimate.
TM: A very complicated story…I asked since there were many Jews who had to leave Hungary at that time.
RB: We had many Hungarians who came to visit us in Tucson at the time of uprisings in the 50s. I think anybody who could get out of Hungary did so, Jewish or not. When my mother came back to the USA in order to retain her citizenship, she was working as a domestic servant, and there was an older Jewish couple — he was a chef, and she was a chief pastry chef — who worked in various resorts around the country. They took her in as a kind of daughter, and they were the only grandparents that we ever knew, since our actual grandparents had died long before we were born. So I have always had an affinity with Jewish people, but am not Jewish.
TM: Please talk about your days playing for dances.
RB: I was a scrawny kid, with thick, thick glasses, about as geeky as anyone could be, I wasn’t cool, but they always hired me to play the dance jobs, so I must have been doing something right. I am not very fond of jazz, and people tell me that all it would take would be to spend more time with it. But having worked my way through college as essentially a jazz pianist, I can attest to the fact that it didn’t work. I am very involved with putting down the right notes in a composition. Jazz has so much to do with the energy of the performer, a lot more to do with the energy of the performer than with getting the notes right. All of these improvisational things can be interesting, but not if you are involved with writing the right notes. What I admire is a composer who can write a few simple notes, and it just takes the top of your head off. I got to know the music of Chopin when I was in my early teens, about the time that we got a piano in Arizona, and having heard it on recordings, I went to the music store to look at the sheet music. I would think “Is that all it is?” I couldn’t quite figure out what made it so wonderful. It seemed to have little to do with those notes, and something to do with Chopin having put those notes down, whatever it was that came out of his personality.
TM: What you said about not playing the notes on the page at your lessons is a story that I have heard from numerous other composers. You were a working musician by the time you were in your teens. At what point did you decide that you were a composer?
RB: When we got a piano, I simply bought music paper and started to write music. At the same time, I was studying in school to be a commercial artist. Throughout my years of high school there was a definite pull in one direction or another. As a matter of fact, I had a series of cartoons published on a weekly basis in the Arizona Star, and people would say, “Is that your dad that does the cartoons?”, and I would cheerfully say “No, that’s me!” That was a real decision for me to make — which one would win out. I always loved music more than art, but I had a feeling that perhaps I wouldn’t be able to make a living as a composer…very prophetic! I pushed the art for a while, but by the end of high school I realized that my heart really was in music.
At that time, the music that attracted me was by a man named Leroy Anderson. People don’t often remember who he is, though they still play and sing his Sleighride at Christmas time. I did a lot of short novelty piano pieces in that style. I was also very interested in film music, especially music for the big biblical spectaculars, because they had such lush, brilliant orchestration. This was all before I had had any kind of training as a composer. When I went to college I became friends with the guy who was the filmmaker at the film bureau of the University of Arizona. He gave me the chance to score a bunch of documentaries that he was making. We would record most of them with the University Orchestra, and so I had considerable opportunities to learn orchestration in a “hands-on” way by writing for film, which was invaluable. While I was still in high school, the musical director for a big spectacular called Cinerama Holiday came to Tucson because he was doing a big documentary about Arizona. He gave me a little bit of money and asked me to write a short theme, which would be performed by the school orchestra in the film. Just by chance, while we were rehearsing or recording it, Ferdie Grofe was in the audience. Not so many people know his Grand Canyon Suite anymore, but it was wonderfully popular. He said “I was dozing off, and I heard your music!” He was really quite taken with it. Unfortunately, they didn’t use it in the final cut of the film. This was in the late fifties.
When I got the chance to do those documentaries, I sent one of my film scores to Miklos Rozsa in Hollywood. One of my favorites among his scores was Quo Vadis. He was most complimentary. He wrote me back that the music was “extraordinarily well-written and well-suited to the subject matter.” It seemed as though it would be a good opportunity to go to Hollywood and study with him. We corresponded for a while, but when I went to Hollywood to visit an aunt, he was in Europe and I couldn’t reach him. Somehow the idea of going to the West Coast got put aside. I thought the best place for a serious career would be the East Coast. In 1961 I went to New York after having been in Tanglewood for the summer.
TM: How was Tanglewood in 1961?
RB: I think that I was very intimidated by the whole experience, because there were not a whole lot of heavies in the musical world who had come to Arizona where I had studied. Most of the other students at Tanglewood had studied with important composers at important eastern conservatories. Because of the way the curriculum at the U of Arizona was structured, I was an education major — I think everybody had to be. I got a degree in composition, but only a bachelor’s degree. The first teacher that I studied with there was a man named Robert McBride. If you look very hard you might find a piece of his recorded somewhere. He was a big, folksy man — very laid-back. During the time I studied with him, he might have made a few suggestions, but mostly he said “All right. Go on with this now.” The other man that I studied with, who was the orchestra director at the time, Henry Johnson, was someone whom I had a lot of respect for. I was always under his elbow because I was the section leader of the second violins. But we argued all the time about composition. He would say “this is not consistent”, and I would say “Yes, it’s consistent”. I was never an easy student — I always had my own ideas.
When I went to Tanglewood, I had hoped that I would study with Copland, because Copland had been out in Arizona, and was in fact instrumental in getting me to Tanglewood, but I was assigned to Lukas Foss instead. Unfortunately Foss and I just had a basic personality conflict. I couldn’t write anything during the six weeks that I was there. I first played him a piano sonatina, which is a small work. All he had to say was that I didn’t used enough of the keyboard at the higher end. I thought to myself “I know that it’s there — if I want to use it, I’ll use it….” He also said “You are obviously very fond of Ravel”, and I was not fond of Ravel. So for me he had two strikes against him from the start. Foss was the best-known teacher that I ever had, but I don’t think I gained anything from studying with him. You have to be more willing to listen to somebody else than I was at the time. Or if I had felt more compatible with him it might have been a different experience.
One of the things that has struck me in thinking about what has happened with me over the years is that there seems to have been a certain pressure from teachers to expand one’s language, be more experimental, try new things. When I left Tanglewood, and moved back to New York, I wrote a large string piece, a piece which I am very proud of to this day. Unfortunately, it has never been performed. Stokowski was interested in the piece but he died before he could schedule it. I sent it to Copland, and he simply wrote it off — he said “this is irrelevant”. This is not the way to treat a creative person, I feel, especially since I have always demonstrated a certain technical level in my work. I have a letter somewhere from Ned Rorem where he says “Obviously you have technique to burn.” Copland, before he stopped writing, was getting into more dissonant music, and trying all kinds of systems. The big problem for me is that I have never liked that music, I don’t respond to that music. I listen to these pieces again and again, thinking that something will finally grab me and interest me — and it doesn’t happen.
When I was in college, I took out the scores, and listened to all the Bartok string quartets, and was blown away by them. But I found, later in my life, that the more I heard them, the less I found them satisfying. I know that many people might think that is a sacrilegious thing to say. But I find those pieces ugly, I find very little beauty in them, and I don’t see the point in forcing myself to write in a way that is incompatible with what I like to hear and with what I like to write.
After that wonderful compliment I got from Rozsa, I sent him some of my chamber music, but he had lost interest in me. Today, a lot of people are going back to tonality and seeing what they can come up with, as a natural expression of what they want to say. I was doing that all along. I tried once to write a twelve-tone piece, but when I took out all the notes that I absolutely hated, it was in G minor….the handwriting was on the wall.
My experience of music is not only intellectual. I love things that are cleanly written — with lots of correlation between every part in the accompaniment, the inner voices, the melodies — but beyond that, it has got to have an emotional impact other than angst which is all I get from atonal music. One of the things that has always surprised me when I talk about it to other people in the field is that when I hear very, very dissonant music, with no resolutions, my stomach tightens up. It’s a visceral experience for me. I don’t understand how people can sit at a concert or in front of a speaker, and not be affected like that. We know that the whole universe is nothing but vibrations. The strongest vibrations of the overtone series produce the triad. If you have very dissonant music, what you have is very jumbled vibrations hitting the ear. Beyond a certain point, it becomes noise. This has always been very immediate for me, and I get less and less patient with music that doesn’t pay attention to that reality.
In the 1930s, when he wrote all those sonatas, Hindemith’s music became much more harmonious and lyrical. He still used his system, but the music became more transparent and less dissonant. After Salome and Elektra, Strauss started to write music that just melts you when hear it. Here were two master technicians, who came upon the idea that one doesn’t have to “push the envelope” all the time contrary to what everyone else was promoting.
TM: Could you talk about a piece of chamber music from your production that comes from this period in the early 1960s?
RB: When I got back to New York, I did not have a piano for a long time. I had to sneak into a local church to use the piano (because I have always written at the piano, at least to start a piece). I wrote a lot of small choral pieces, and a lot of songs. I wanted to go back to school, because I only had the bachelor’s degree but there was no money for that. I had done chamber music in college, but with the exception of one piece, those are forgotten items which I have either lost or discarded by now.
I don’t feel that I really started to write my mature works until about 1970, 1972. Within a few years, I wrote the Oboe Quintet, which is still very much on the boards and the Octet for Woodwinds which has been very popular. Many people have criticized me over the years for being too backward-looking, but I have three pieces which I wrote as a teenager which are still published and still being performed. That says something. Arthur Cohen, who used to head Carl Fischer, used to say that he expected a good choral work to have a five-year shelf life, but the choral pieces that I wrote in the sixties are still selling. Choral music is not doing so well these days, because people will buy a single copy and make photocopies, and the number of choruses has certainly diminished, but I have several things that have continued to sell for forty years. In the song area, people say that they are always hearing my songs in recital (another problem, because students go to the library and photocopy one song). There’s a lot of music out there being done all the time. This is very different from composers in the university system, with their comfortable pensions, which makes it very easy for them to be in line for grants, commissions, and awards. It’s very frustrating for me, because my music doesn’t sound difficult. It’s easy to understand, and the effect may be that not too much is happening. But when a performer starts working on it, he realizes that it’s not easy music at all. My Bagatelles, which I was just going to show a pianist friend — have pages that are thick with notes. One reviewer compared them to Bach inventions. If you give a piece like that to someone who has to listen to forty-seven entries for a contest, it may not make much of an impression on the first hearing. But there won’t be a second hearing, because they have got too much to go through. So I’ve had bad luck with the contest business.
TM: But you have had good luck with performers who pick up the score and continue into the piece.
RB: Yes, there are many performers who have been very supportive over the years. Oddly, some of them did not like my stuff when they first heard it. Always a mystery to me.
I made my living as a music copyist in New York for about forty years. That has gone by the wayside, since now every composer has their own software on their computer. Every once in a while I will still pick up a job. Because of the fact that I had been an art student, I had a wonderful hand for copying, and that was very valuable to me for a long time. Once I switched over to doing it on the computer, I would never pick up a pen again. What a boon that was!
TM: Perhaps you would like to say a little about your operas.
RB: In about 1967 I wanted to do an opera. When I was in college, I had a book called Fifteen American One-Act Plays, and one of the pieces in there was a play by Edna St. Vincent Millay called Aria da Capo, which is not very often done. I think it’s kind of an awkward play in a way, but it certainly cried out for music. So that was my first opera. I entered it in a contest for one-act operas for children. It wasn’t necessarily a play for children, but it was a chance to perhaps get somewhere with it. I didn’t win the first prize, only the second, largely, I’m sure, because there is a double murder in it. But it did get the attention of the Metropolitan Opera Studio which was connected to the big house. They had a stable of young singers who would do performances in the schools. I don’t recall if they did anything from the winning opera, but they did parts of my Aria da Capo, and the singers liked it so much that they went to the director of the studio and said “Why don’t we commission this guy?” That was exciting. My eyes were full of lots of zeros after the dollar sign. I got a call from the director who said “Well, Mr. Baksa, the Lincoln Center committee doesn’t know who you are, so they have given a commission to someone better known than you. But if you will accept five hundred dollars, we will give you a commission as well.” That’s how I came to write Red Carnations. Unfortunately they only did a few performances before the new regime came in and got rid of the Studio. The Studio no longer exists.
I decided that I needed to orchestrate the new piece. At first they had told me they wanted a few instruments, but once I started the piece, they said, no, no, no, just piano, so I had to go back and redo it with piano accompaniment. My mother managed to find a little money, which allowed me to take the time to orchestrate the piece.
A friend of mine who was a manager for singers said “Let’s show Aria da Capo to David Lloyd”, Lloyd was a prominent American Tenor who was at the time the director of the Lake George Opera. David got excited, and said “we’ll do it this summer.” But that was a problem because the season had already been programmed, and so I actually only got one performance of it, as a part of a gala. But I said, OK, let’s go with this, because they always brought a new work into Manhattan, at Hunter College. Unfortunately, Hunter disbanded their program, and it never came into New York.
I heard about a contest, which was looking for entries, and I entered the score and waited and waited. After a year, I called, and learned that the conductor/adjudicator had lost the score, so I never was part of the contest. This was some kind of good luck, right?
By this time I had become friends with Richard Woitach, who was one of the assistant conductors at the Met, and one of their best coaches, too. He was working at the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia, and suggested that we do a performance there, with piano, not a fully-staged performance, more of a reading, but it was staged. They loved it so much so that they performed it again in the spring of the next year. I had hoped that they would do a full performance, staged at the Walnut St. Theater, but it never went anywhere.
Many of the people that I showed Aria da Capo to didn’t want to take a chance, because it was a one-acter, and calling for at least a thirty-piece orchestra. About this time many arts organizations were beginning to find fundraising more difficult. I had already added a prologue to the work and decided to reorchestrate it for a chamber group. I was able to complete that about a year ago. Now it has eleven instruments in the orchestra, and five characters, so it should be an evening of opera suitable for smaller companies.
Next chapter: For the opera that the Met commissioned, Red Carnations, I went back to the book with the one-act plays. I found a little throwaway play about a couple that meet at a costume party, and make plans to meet at a city park. But they are not sure that they are going to recognize each other — that’s where you get the “red carnations”. I had orchestrated it for a chamber group. At the time I had been doing copying of a Haydn opera for Michael Feldman and the St. Luke’s orchestra. Michael liked the piece and agreed to do the premiere of the orchestrated version. The Orchestra of St. Luke’s used to rehearse in downtown Manhattan, in St. Luke’s Church, which is where they got their name. They found that the kids from the school next door would come into the rehearsals and sit entranced. Michael decided to form an organization called The Children’s Free Opera of New York to showcase this opera that I had written, and they did it twenty-five or thirty times, would take it out to various places in the city, or to Town Hall, and would bus kids in. About the same time there was a small opera company in Baltimore, the Minnikin Opera, which toured it as an introduction to opera for two years. Unfortunately the publisher who was handling the piece went belly-up. For a number of years I had no representation for Red Carnations at all. I was able, because I had already formed my own publishing company, to take everything back, and make a deal with the Theodore Presser Company, and since that time the work has been used by the Dallas Opera as an introduction to opera. Santa Fe used it for their apprentice tours as well, There were also some smaller companies which presented it as part of their regular seasons. But I really haven’t had anyone pushing on the work, which is a shame, because you can do it easily with piano, and the kids and adults love it. When I met my singers at a recent production in Hudson, the tenor said “You write so beautifully for voice”. It’s been a frustration that I haven’t had an agent to help get this piece produced more often.
When I came to New York I showed a bunch of my work to someone who was very important at Boosey and Hawkes, and he engineered a couple of careers for fledgling opera composers, some of whom became rather well-known. He said to the management of Boosey, “Let’s take this guy on — I think he is going to be a comer”, but within a few weeks he left Boosey, and we were never with the same house again, so I never had that somebody who would be really pushing my work. So much of what happens with new music comes through your university position, or the teachers that you have worked with, who probably sit on the boards for prizes or foundations. Anybody can say they are a good composer. We need to have another voice singing our praises.
TM: You mentioned the new CD with several of your works, including Celestials.
RB: Some time ago Bret and Annette Heim recorded Celestials and contacted me. We kept in touch. Since I am not a guitarist, I am always happy to an instrumentalist check over what I have done, since writing for guitar is no easy matter. After some time Bret said “We’d like to do a whole album of your work”, since by that point they had also performed the Sonata for Flute and Guitar. So they made a second recording of Celestials along with two sonatas for guitar and Journeys which they commissioned. This last piece added viola to the flute and guitar duo. The first recording they did of Celestials was wonderful but having lived with the piece for some time, the second is even more beautiful…even more of a living thing.
TM: You seem to have knack for writing for woodwinds, which might be connected to the fact you write so well for the voice.
RB: I try to write music for an instrument that makes it sound good.
TM: That does what it does, rather than what it doesn’t do.
RB: If the performer doesn’t sound good, it doesn’t reflect well on me. But I do seem to have a knack since I have had instrumentalists come up to me and assume that I play their instrument. There was a piece for piano and three winds performed and the oboist said to me “You’re an oboist, aren’t you?” And I’m not. I did have a couple of weeks on almost every instrument when I was in college, but I also make an effort to learn what every instrument does well, and I think that makes a big difference.
TM: I am reminded of the great Telemann, not sufficiently regarded by those who are Bach-worshippers, who made a point of knowing what an instrument did well, and writing for its assets.
RB: I am just getting to know Telemann…of course he was terribly well-known in his day.
TM: He was the most successful composer in Europe, by some standards. Do you have an upcoming project for this year or next?
RB: There might be a recording down South of some of my woodwind and brass chamber music. But funding is so hard to come by these days. There might also be a premiere of a piece for harp and strings which I am really very proud of. In June there is a choral group in Colorado which will do the premiere of a Mass for mixed chorus, a premiere I have waited for for almost forty years. In fact, that work is largely based on music that Copland heard in Arizona when he decided that I had enough going for me to go to Tanglewood to study. It’s a vastly different work, because I used what it had that was good, and tried to make some better connections, rewrite sections…I am a big rewriter. I am always willing to find another solution for things in my work. If you have worked as long as I have, and have written as many pieces as I have — it’s getting close to six hundred pieces, with a hundred pieces of chamber music alone — you are constantly dealing with the craft. It’s very difficult for me not to rewrite things that are already on the boards.
TM: One of the impressive things in your production is precisely the fact that you don’t have the academic luxury of mulling over a piece for year, or else you wouldn’t have an oeuvre of six hundred works.
RB: There’s a point at which what you write down as a start takes over and develops by itself. The craft of putting down the notes, or lollipops as my mother referred to them, has always been very fulfilling for me. I am happiest when I am involved in a piece. In the eighties, things were not going well for me. I had to force myself to get out of bed, and what I did was to plan to write another invention every day or so, so there is a whole set of about thirty-six keyboard inventions from that time — I could always use that to get me going. I used to like to write in the morning, and still do. Making a living would be for the afternoon and the evening, which was not great for my social life, but better for my stomach and rent.
TM: A question about compositional process: does the work come inwards from the structure, or outwards from the details?
RB: It’s hard to answer that. Basically, if I decide what the instrumentation will be, what the character of the instruments will be, then I need to have something in the way of melodic interest to get me going. I have always felt that music is very much like a play. A melody is like a main character. If you don’t have a main character in a play that people know, recognize, and are interested in, they are going to be bored with the play. You can imagine seeing eighty-seven people on a stage wandering in and out, not talking to each, not communicating with each other, or to the audience — how long would a play like that last. I find so much modern music, some of it highly regarded, that strikes me that way. I listen and listen, and it never gels.
TM: There was a movie about a decade ago called Boogie Nights, starring Mark Wahlberg and what I thought notable was that it was a virtuoso exercise in making film with characters that were not attractive, not intelligent, not charming — individuals whom you would not want to spend any time with. I hear you saying the same thing about modern music.
RB: In that instance, that film stood because of that, but you can’t have a repertory made up only of that kind of film. It stands out because it is an example of what not to do.
TM: You mentioned the Mass, and the piece it was drawing upon. What was the original piece?
RB: I had written the original piece in the fifties, which is what Copland heard when he came to Arizona. It was a wholesale rewriting — the only thing that I retained is the opening, period.
TM: Any closing thoughts?
RB: It has not been an easy time for me, because so much of the industry of the promotion of new music is geared toward music in a certain style. It has changed a good deal in recent years but people tend to be interested in younger composers. Without having the resources to promote myself very much, it has been a constant frustration, because I see that people respond to my work. Recently I learned about two acquaintances who were hospitalized with very serious life threatening illnesses. Their spouses told me that all their partners wanted to listen to was my music. That kind of thing makes it all worth while.