17 Dec 2009
An Interview with John Fitz Rogers
John Fitz Rogers is presently an associate professor of composition at the University of South Carolina School of Music.
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"Although there are now more people on this planet than there have ever been before, there are fewer dramatic voices. Something is wrong with that equation. I thought there needs to be some sort of helping hand so that dramatic voices don’t fall through the cracks in the system as they advance through their various stages of development."
John Fitz Rogers is presently an associate professor of composition at the University of South Carolina School of Music.
His work is diverse and widely appreciated, with commissions from orchestras, chamber ensembles, and choruses. He studied composition at Oberlin, Yale, and Cornell. We spoke via Skype on November 25, 2009.
TM: Where did you grow up? What was your exposure to music as a child? Did you have uncles that played the violin or wrote Broadway tunes?
JFR: I grew up in central Wisconsin. Like a lot of middle class families, we had a piano in the house, and my sisters took piano lessons when I was small, so I was exposed to music at a fairly young age. My father was a graphic artist and designer, and was interested in visual art, so there was an interest at our house in the arts in general. At a very young age I was curious about the piano and started messing around, and started playing hymn tunes that I had heard in church. I would come home and plunk them out on the piano. My parents were surprised at that, and thought “Let’s sign the kid up for piano lessons.” I started lessons around age four or five.
TM: What church did you go to?
JFR: It was a Lutheran church and fairly small. At one point, my family and I attended an evening Lenten service when I was a child. The organist played the old hymn Abide With Me. I remember it was a magical experience where they then turned out all the lights and sung the hymn in unison by candlelight. I came home that night and played the tune as best I could on the piano. Right before I graduated from college, my father, who had created his own style of calligraphy, presented me with a plaque with the first three verses of the hymn, a beautiful way of recalling my musical beginning.
TM: Where did the family come from? Were they originally from Wisconsin?
JFR: My father was originally from Texas. Our roots go way back—my sisters have done a lot of genealogical research on the Rogers family, and traced the family back to England. My mother is of German ancestry. We don’t know that much about her side of the family, but my grandfather on my mother’s side homesteaded in Canada for a while and lived in the Dakotas around the time they became states. My parents met during WWII, in the Navy.
TM: What was your hometown like?
JFR: I grew up in Stevens Point—it’s a small town, but it has a university. I studied with a very kind and giving piano teacher when I was small. She was a terrific teacher for young students. Later, when I was in high school, I started studying with a professor from the university. About that same time I started creating my own music as well, and expressed an interest in learning how to compose. My parents were very supportive of this, and not only helped find a piano teacher at the university who was willing to take on a high school student, but also a composition professor. I guess I was about thirteen when I started studying composition. My first teacher was only at the university for a year, and we spent the year working on basic theory, harmony, and notation. He left, and then I studied with Gerald Plain, a composer who had just won the Prix de Rome and returned to the US and taught in Stevens Point. He introduced me to a wealth of music—played me reel-to-reel tapes of Berio, Stockhausen, Boulez, as well as his own music. It was an incredible experience for a kid in a fairly rural area. He then went off and taught at Eastman. A really interesting person and composer.
TM: What is the name of the university?
JFR: University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point. It’s part of the state school system. I played with the university jazz ensemble when I was in high school too, and studied piano with a pianist on the faculty named Michael Keller. As a kid, I was exposed to a lot of great repertoire at a relatively young age. This was in the late seventies—I graduated from high school in 1981.
I spent a fair amount of time at the public library as well, checking out records and scores. I remember stumbling on Rite of Spring on my own—I suppose a lot of people remember the first time they hear that piece. At the time I was listening to a lot of Led Zeppelin, and I thought “this is the same kind of music.” I didn’t make a huge distinction—I thought “Well, this is rock music in its essence.” I was also very interested in jazz, and was gigging in the area with people who were twenty or thirty years my senior, and delved into arranging a little.
TM: Were you playing commercial music, for weddings and bar mitzvahs?
JFR: It ranged from that kind of thing to little jazz quartets and quintets. Because it was mostly rural, there weren’t many people who were playing jazz piano in the area, even though I wasn’t very good by any professional standard. But I was exposed to a lot of jazz in high school—I listened to Charlie Parker quite a bit—mainstream bop.
TM: Scott Lindroth, a composer who’s also from Wisconsin, mentioned the effect of the big bands that do clinics in high school gymnasiums. Was that something that you were exposed to as well?
JFR: A little—at the time, I was at least as interested in jazz as I was in classical music. When the big bands came through, I would definitely attend, and they would do clinics on occasion—sometimes I got to play in master-class situations.
TM: Often what people listen to as teens remains as vital, even forty years later. You mentioned Led Zeppelin. Did you also listen to progressive rock?
JFR: Not much. My rock world revolved around Led Zeppelin. When I got to college I was listening to things like Talking Heads as well, but by that point I had made the decision to study classical music and became more interested in that.
TM: The Seventies were huge in terms of fusion, with things like Mahavishnu.
JFR: That’s something I might have been exposed to a bit in high school, but I was much more interested in Bird, Tatum, Miles Davis, Coltrane—swing as well as bebop and modal jazz in the Sixties.
TM: How did you decide to continue with composition at the university level?
JFR: After the year that I spent studying with Gerald Plain, he left Stevens Point, and I was looking for another composition teacher. He had recommended a colleague, Bruce Wise, who taught at the University of Wisconsin in Oshkosh, about a ninety minute drive away, and this was before I had my driver’s license. Once or twice a month my father would drive me to Oshkosh, and sit in the living room while I had a long composition lesson. At a certain point the conversation turned to whether I would pursue this in college, and it never occurred to me that I would pursue anything else—I was very focused on music.
I also had a couple of wonderful summers that I spent at the National Music Camp in Interlochen. That was a formative experience in many ways, because I realized that even though I was a good, competent pianist, hearing the students there, some of whom were considerably younger than I was, who were real virtuosos, real prodigies, made me realize that I had greater aptitude and more interest in being a composer. All of this narrowed down the places where I would apply to school, and Oberlin felt like a good fit for me.
TM: What was the focus when you were there?
JFR: I not only had an excellent musical education, but it’s a liberal arts college as well as a conservatory. I was part of a double degree program that allows students to get degrees from both the conservatory and the college, and I majored in composition and also had individual major that focused on contemporary art and aesthetics. I took classes in philosophy, art, history, literature, and of course, music.
We had well known composers visiting Oberlin—Cage, Xenakis, and Jacob Druckman, who I eventually studied with at Yale. For someone coming from a small town, it was an eye-opening experience.
TM: The downside of the conservatory can be hours spent in the practice room, with no time for broader pursuits, and it sounds like that was not the case at Oberlin.
JFR: Not at all. My parents and teachers in high school urged me to avoid that situation—not to go to a conservatory and just study music. Education abroad, liberal arts education, was important, and that is a principle I still adhere to. I encourage my students to read all kinds of books, to travel, to go to art openings and dance performances, to expose themselves to the wider world of art and ideas.
TM: What was the political atmosphere like there at the time? I imagine Oberlin to have been a particularly liberal spot in the Midwest.
JFR: Yes, that’s true, though the activism of the Sixties and Seventies had died down a bit by then. The emphasis was on learning.
TM: Were you still involved with jazz?
JFR: My focus had turned more toward classical music by then.
TM: You mentioned Jacob Druckman. Was that the factor that brought you to Yale?
JFR: I interviewed at Yale during my last year at Oberlin, but finances became an issue, and I wasn’t able to go directly on to graduate school. I took a number of years off, wrote a little bit of music. I lived in Boston for a while, where I sang in the Tanglewood Chorus. And I built furniture. I had gotten interested in woodworking and cabinetmaking, and toyed with the idea that I might become a furniture maker. I had a modest shop building things on my own—I wasn’t apprenticing myself to anyone.
Then in 1989 I made a decision—I want to continue with music, it’s just in my DNA, and this is what I want to pursue. I reapplied to Yale, and interviewed with Martin Bresnick and Jacob Druckman. They recalled that I had not been able to attend for financial reasons, and generously re-accepted me back into the program.
TM: Were there important experiences musically in Boston in the 80s?
JFR: I sang in the Tanglewood Chorus—we premiered a piece by Donald Martino, and I sang everything from Bach to Beethoven to Poulenc to Mahler with excellent conductors. I’ve always loved choral music—particularly Renaissance music—and I still sing on occasion. But with the Tanglewood Chorus, I would sometimes bring the orchestral scores to rehearsals in addition to the choral music. I had an opportunity not only to see how the orchestra worked, but how conductors rehearsed the orchestra, which was a good learning experience. I also went to concerts around the city. Around that time the Soviet Union was opening up, and there was a festival of Russian composers [Making Music Together] in Boston, all these composers who were barely known in the West—Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Shchedrin—these incredible composers all came to Boston. It was mindblowing!
TM: Under the auspices of Sarah Caldwell, as I recall. Let’s move on to Yale. You must have had fabulous fellow students there at that time.
JFR: I feel fortunate that at every stage in my education I have been in supportive environments and worked with excellent people. Both Bresnick and Druckman were wonderful. Amazing ears, amazing composers, amazing teachers…they brought in composers-in-residence, and I learned a great deal from my fellow student composers there as well. I also had the opportunity to study West African drumming for a year. It was a very intense, but productive and educational two years.
TM: Could you say a little about the works you were writing while you were at Yale?
JFR: Graduate school was a period of focus and discovering my own voice as a composer. At Yale I realized a number of things about my music: first and foremost that I think melodically and harmonically, and that I hear tonally. My music became more tonal than it had been at Oberlin. Plus my interest in jazz and exposure to West African music as well as the music of Ligeti and Nancarrow sparked a continuing interest in polyrhythm and polytempi. Many of my pieces explore the idea of rhythmic and textural complexity over relatively clear tonal harmonies. But my two years at Yale and four years at Cornell were a period where I figured those things out and who I was as a composer. Despite my early start, maybe I was a bit of a late bloomer.
TM: Did the school have a particular focus?
JFR: Diversity was something characteristic of Yale and Cornell, and something also true of Oberlin. The composers in the program wrote very different kinds of works. Some were more interested in minimalism, or wrote sparse Feldman-inspired music, some had jazz or rock influences—Yale and Cornell were supportive environments that didn’t impose stylistic restrictions. As a teacher I also don’t put restrictions on my students—I just try to help them figure out and refine what they are doing.
TM: Is there a piece from Yale that you would like to highlight?
JFR: I wrote a small piece for soprano, oboe, and guitar, which was a step along my path in distilling harmony and melody. It’s called Last Words, and is based on a poem by James Merrill.
TM: What is the idiom of the work?
JFR: It’s short, about six minutes. It’s a melodic piece, with the oboe acting as a plaintive voice against the soprano, a work that found a good focus. At that time my interest was in finding clarity in my musical expression. That is still a central concern.
TM: Take us on to Cornell. You studied with Steven Stucky and Roberto Sierra.
JFR: Again, it was an opportunity to work with first-rate composers, and composers who are not just fine composers in their own right, but also fine teachers. Stucky and Sierra also have great ears, and had different takes on things. Students benefit from having people with different opinions and aesthetic backgrounds critique their work.
TM: Contemporary American composers seem to be faced with multiplicities of styles, where the composer can choose from styles ranging from Randall Thompson to Schnittke to John Adams….all the music from the entire twentieth century is present as possibility, and at the same time Americans don’t seem to be concerned with what it means to “be” American in their music, unlike composers from other countries, who may be tempted to have a “national” expression contrasting with the hegemonic power of the United States.
I was interested to hear what you said about your double major at Oberlin, because there are few works in your catalogue that are abstract – they all seem to have some sort of meaningful title or literary reference. There are probably not so many composers who reference Boethius, for example.
JFR: Maybe not [laughs].
TM: Often the extra-musical reference may be film, but for you it seems to be literature or philosophy.
JFR: Titles are invitations to people, a way to access your work—they’re not meant to be all-encompassing. I think a lot about titles in order to have something that gives the listener a way to enter into a piece.
I look at the question of style and voice obliquely in the sense that my own musical voice and style is a product …. I am an unrepentant melodist and harmonist. That’s just how I think about the music. An important part of my education was coming to terms with that. The kinds of musical techniques I use in service of that vary from situation to situation and from piece to piece. But one thing you will hear in all my works of the last fifteen years or so is a focus on melody, on clarity of form, and for me that is a central concern as a composer: finding the clearest and most emotionally expressive way of getting to whatever musical idea I’m working with. Everything counts, and everything is in service of some sort of emotional expression. I don’t expect a listener to share the same feeling that I have about a piece. And I also don’t worry that I have to write something that sounds exactly like my last piece so that people can recognize that it’s a Rogers work. My preoccupations as a composer are more in the areas of line and harmony, transparency of form and expression. Less about whether the thing that I am writing sounds new, however one might define that. I think many composers fall into two basic groups anyway: those who blaze new trails, and those who synthesize disparate things in new ways. I don’t think either group makes more or less compelling music. And while some of my work has pushed the envelope a bit, I’d say I generally fall into the latter category.
TM: You mentioned clarity of form—how does a piece take shape for you? Is there an idea that leads to a form, and then you fill in the form? Music can be designed architecturally or grow organically…which direction would you say it goes for you?
JFR: It depends on the piece, but it’s usually a combination of both. For example, if I have a commission for a ten-minute piece, I know that I have a ten-minute frame to work in. If the instrumentation is specified, I know what instruments I have to work with. I think of composition as a process of the piece becoming more and more in focus, more and more of what it wants to be. Form and content—it’s difficult to tease those two things apart. The way I come to a good sense of how a piece is shaping up is just through hard work—living with the material, thinking about it, sketching, trying things out. I’m a great believer in hard work and revision. Along the way, shapes, durations, basic harmonies, lengths of things—the formal aspects of the piece—begin to take hold, but I usually find it helpful to have some general idea of those things early on. Whether or not that gets jettisoned along the way is a function of the material that I am working with.
TM: One of the pieces that struck me was The Arc of Winter. It reflects what you said about being a melodist, since it has this very long line for the clarinet. Could you talk a little about the work?
JFR: That was a piece commissioned by the University of South Carolina to commemorate September 11, 2001. The concert was meant to be about a year after that. Initially, it was supposed to be an orchestra piece, but as I thought about it and about an event of that magnitude, I didn’t want to try to write a “9/11 piece.” It seemed impossible to even attempt it. I thought about it, and I talked to the administration that was commissioning the work, and I asked if it was alright to do something a little more modest, because I didn’t know how to approach something that could address such a traumatic event. I had the idea of a solo clarinet line set against the string choir as a way of personalizing a voice—the clarinet is an instrument that I have always been drawn to, along with strings in general—in a sort of public lament. It’s meant to be something more personal than commemorative—but the piece has a trajectory that ends on an uplifting and hopeful note—the strings and the clarinet go to their very highest ranges toward the end of the work. That is The Arc of Winter—the arc of grief—for me. It’s meant to be more intimate, rather than a public accounting of that event.
TM: It’s interesting to hear that, because it is a very striking piece. It makes perfect sense once you mention the genesis, but there is nothing explicit about it.
JFR: I guess I don’t like musical works that are too obvious. I like subtlety [laughs].
TM: One of the most successful works for 9/11 is perhaps the work by John Adams [On the Transmigration of Souls], possibly because it is American in referencing Charles Ives….Could you talk about other recent pieces for orchestra?
JFR: I just finished a seven movement work titled Magna Mysteria for solo soprano, chorus, and chamber orchestra. It’s based on Latin texts from Boethius as well as various Psalms. At the moment I’m working on a concerto for two pianos and orchestra for the South Carolina Philharmonic, that will premiere about a year from now. The soloists will be Marina Lomazov and Joseph Rackers, two colleagues and friends of mine who are husband and wife and also an incredible piano duo. But over the last several years I’ve mostly concentrated on writing chamber music.
TM: Is there a particular chamber work you would like to focus on? I know there is a large production.
JFR: It ranges from a piece for two marimbas and click tracks to other pieces that are on a CD which came out a year ago called Once Removed [Innova Recordings]. I also wrote a song cycle called Songs of Time and Tide, five songs on the poetry of Rabindranath Tagore. It was written for my colleagues Tina Stallard [soprano] and Lynn Kompass [piano], both of whom were new mothers at the time. I feel inspired if I have a personal connection to the people that I write for—it helps me creatively. I liked the idea of, rather than writing a Sturm und Drang cycle or something about unrequited love, writing these songs. Tina had told me about Tagore and poems of his that relate to childhood. I thought that was a wonderful idea—a set of songs not just about childhood, but also about the passage of time.
TM: Do you sense a middle period coming on musically as a composer? Are your interests different than they were 30 years ago?
JFR: I have no idea—I will leave it for someone else to decide whether there’s a Rogers middle period. But I hope there’s a late period!
TM: We left you at Cornell - where did you go from there?
JFR: I moved back to Boston and taught for a few years at the Longy School of Music.
TM: You were teaching composition?
JFR: I taught composition and theory. It’s a school that’s split between a college/graduate division and a very strong preparatory program. The level is high, with a number of faculty who perform in the Boston Symphony. I had a composition seminar there, and taught harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration. In 2000 I joined the faculty at the University of South Carolina.
TM: So you now are a Southern composer.
JFR: I’m not sure what that would mean. My interests as a composer remain the same—but USC is a terrific school, as is the School of Music. I’m fortunate to have excellent students as well as great colleagues.
TM: Do you have large projects that you haven’t yet had a chance to address? An opera, or symphonic work?
JFR: All of the above. I have an idea for an opera, but I also enjoy having opportunities to write orchestral music. Orchestration is something that I very much enjoy teaching. For me, the orchestra is a big sonic playground, with endless toys and combinations of toys to play with. I also have chamber projects I’d like to start on, but for the moment, I’m focused on finishing the double piano concerto.