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Bruce Adolphe
13 Sep 2010

Bruce Adolphe: An Interview

Bruce Adolphe, born and raised in the New York area, a student of composition at Juilliard in the sixties and seventies, has an impressive body of work commissioned by artists known on every continent, and was chosen by the Music Library Association to write a piece for brass (Triskelion) marking the sixtieth anniversary of the Association, premiered by the American Brass Quintet at the national meeting in Indianapolis in February, 1991.

Bruce Adolphe: An Interview

Interviewed by Tom Moore


We spoke by Skype on April 28, 2010.

TM: Please talk about early influences. Was there music in your family? How did you get started?

BA: There wasn’t a lot of music in my family in terms of performing or writing, but my parents were avid, and I would say semi-professional, folk dancers, so they had a record collection that included folk music from all over the world. It was very high quality. I danced with them when I was a kid quite a lot, so there was a physical and visceral relation to music. I had a cousin who was a good jazz pianist, but aside from that, not really — there was not particularly music in the family. The invitation that I felt came more from Leonard Bernstein on TV, and Victor Borge — that period when a lot of people my age, growing up in the sixties, were turned on by Leonard Bernstein. I took it very seriously. In fact, when I was ten, I did a tour of elementary schools on Long Island, playing piano and reciting Peter and the Wolf, because I thought that I should do outreach also.

TM: Where did you grow up?

BA: Primarily on Long Island — West Hempstead, Long Island.

TM: Inside the Greater New York cultural sphere.

BA: My parents did take my brother and me into the city, and we primarily saw theater, and some dance. When I got a little older, I wanted to see concerts, so that became part of it. I had not been taken to concerts until I started to ask for it.

TM: How did they get involved with folk dance? I don’t usually think of “professional” and “folk dance” as things that go together.

BA: They were semi-professional. They were teachers. By semi-professional I mean that they got hired to teach folk dance during the summer. I think it was my father’s passion, and my mother learned to do it to keep up with him.

TM: Was there a particular type of dance?

BA: It was quite varied — they did American dancing, dances from Ireland and Scotland, Israel, Italy, Bulgaria, Romania, and Russia.

TM: We often think of dance as separate from music now, but there were certainly composers who were trained dancers, such as Leclair, who first studied dance, and then went to Italy to study violin.

BA: It’s not that way now of course — it would be very hard to find a dancer-composer — not that there isn’t one, but I can’t think of anybody…

TM: What was your first instrument?

BA: Piano. I also asked for a piano — we didn’t have one in the house. I was playing on a table, so they got me a toy piano. We had a parakeet — I mention that because the parakeet used to rip the keys off the toy piano. Eventually we got a real piano, and we also got a parrot — a larger bird. Not in order to rip the keys off — just a coincidence. My family has always had birds. I still have that parrot — he is forty-five years old now.

TM: What languages does he speak?

BA: He sings operatic selections and jazz. He says only a handful of words, but he sings very well. His name is Polly Rhythm.

TM: Was it you that trained him in opera?

BA: I didn’t try to train him — he just learned to sing immediately, within three or four months of his coming to our home, because I was listening to a lot of opera and vocal recordings. I was always into that, even as a little kid. It was among the first things that he ever heard, so I guess he thought that that was what he should be doing.

TM: I am reminded of the story about the parrot who is taken to the synagogue…

BA: I know all those parrot stories.

TM: …and refuses to sing on Rosh Hashanah…

BA:…because he want to increase the odds.

TM: You started on piano…

BA: …but I did study a lot of other instruments. I played the clarinet for five or six years, and then I decided to change to the bassoon. I played the bassoon for maybe ten or twelve years before stopping that. I played folk guitar and classical guitar a little bit; I played standup bass in a jazz band. I didn’t play it in a classical sense, because I didn’t have any lessons on it at all. I figured out how to get around on it when I was a young teenager and I played it in a big band. In my teenage years I tried lots of instruments, and took lessons on many instruments just to see what it felt like. I took viola lessons, I took a few cello lessons, I took flute lessons. Because of the bassoon, I found it pretty easy to get around on the English horn, but I never really played the oboe. I was very interested to try instruments out, and found myself renting them from the school, or borrowing them from people who had spare instruments.

TM: I think that’s a very interesting story, because so often people happen to end up with the instrument that their parents happened to put in their hands, or even if they do choose an instrument themselves, there can be such an economic incentive to keep on playing the instrument you have that people may not end up with the instrument that is “right” for them.

BA: The only thing that I really play is the piano, which I never stopped playing during that whole time, but I really enjoyed doing that. I took voice lessons too — I just always wanted to try everything. Composing started when I was around ten, and it was always part of my identity for myself that I was a composer. Eventually I didn’t have time to do anything but play the piano and compose, and do occasional conducting. And a lot of teaching of course.

TM: What was it that motivated you to get started writing down music?

BA: I didn’t have any clue that it was strange — I started writing things down when I was eight or nine, and by ten I was very serious about it. I luckily had a piano teacher who always wanted to hear what I was writing. She wasn’t a composer, but she was always interested, and made a few comments. When I was ten or so, she told my mother that she had better find me a real composition teacher. So I studied with various people when I was ten, eleven, twelve.

TM: Was that through an institution in New York?

BA: In the beginning I guess the idea that my family had was to go to Long Island-based universities that we could get to easily, and I took some lessons at Hofstra and at C.W Post, both of which were colleges in Nassau County. At Hofstra at the time there was a man named Herbert Deutsch. I know he is still around and still composing. I took lessons with him when I was twelve and thirteen, and then didn’t see him for years, until last year when I went to speak at a college in Pennsylvania, and he was there visiting as well. I studied with him, and then with other people, but I had very few lessons because I didn’t find it as interesting. Then I went to the Juilliard Pre-College division, and there I studied with Lawrence Widdoes, who would later become a friend of mine, a few years down the line, but when I began to study with him I was very young — fourteen or so.

I got to Juilliard as an undergraduate when I had just turned sixteen, so I was a very young undergraduate, and there I studied with Persichetti and Milton Babbitt. I also became very close to Elliott Carter while I was there — although I didn’t officially study with him, we spent a lot of time talking about music.

TM: You were a composition major as an undergraduate? Was that common? How many comp majors were there?

BA: I wouldn’t say it was common, but they did have the program, and there were a handful of people in it. It was a nice program — there was a Composer’s Forum, and private lessons, and lots of opportunities, if you were aggressive about it, to get your music performed by the students. I also played piano in some ensembles. I played in the new music ensemble, and I still played bassoon, which I played in some chamber music. The one thing that I did that was extremely unusual when I was a Juilliard student was that I somehow got myself entangled in the Drama division, which was brand new. It started while I was there. The first group of drama students included students who were hand-picked to make sure that it was successful, who were young professionals. David Ogden Stiers was there, and Patti LuPone, and Robin Williams. No one knew who they were yet, but the first group was very carefully selected. They had gone around the country looking for very talented young actors who might want some serious training in the classics, and some help with their careers.

I got to know some of them, and also started writing music for the drama productions, and did that for the entire time that I was there. That led to a lot of interesting connections, and I learned a lot. I eventually decided that just writing music for its own sake, whether chamber music or opera (I have written quite a lot of opera, actually) was more satisfying. Writing music for theater and film, which I did a little bit, was not as satisfying, because I didn’t feel in control, and the music was not the main issue.

TM: I was just reading an interview with Elena Kats-Chernin, who spent a long time writing theater music in Germany. One of the things that she observed is that while she was writing theater music, she was writing pre-recorded music to go along with the production. Was that the case for these productions at Juilliard.

BA: Yes, most of the time it was. I would watch the production, discuss things with the director, we would figure out, as if it were a movie, even though the actors were live, where would the music go, we would record it with Juilliard students, and then they would play it back from the booth. That happened almost all the time. We did one show that had live music, but that is because there was so much live singing in it that it was practically a musical, even though it wasn’t when we started working on it.

But most of the time it was pre-recorded. That’s how a lot of theaters were working at the time, and many still do.

TM: To Kat-Chernin, the fact that it was pre-recorded was almost an invitation to move from music to sounds, to sonoplasty or sound design.

BA: I didn’t do that, because the directors that I was working with (this was during a very short period of time for me, from age nineteen to twenty-four) had very specific desires, and my job was to fulfill them, somehow or other. It was fun. They knew where they wanted music, and knew what they wanted to accomplish with it, and sometimes would even tell me what kind of music it should sound like, and would discuss the instruments — it was very detailed. I enjoyed doing it quite a lot, and it led to my writing some film scores for public television and documentaries. Then I basically got completely out of that before I was thirty, because I didn’t need it — I had two operas produced before I was twenty-five, and when the operas were produced I began to feel like writing for theater was really second-class, and just didn’t want to do it any more.

TM: Looking back at the late sixties and early seventies with hindsight, that was a particularly adventurous time in terms of esthetics. In some sense, we haven’t gotten anyplace close to as adventurous since 1975, say. Something about the culture changed. You were studying with Persichetti and Babbitt, who have very different approaches. Please say a little about the musical environment of the time.

BA: Yes, it was a great time. Before I get into that, neither Persichetti nor Babbitt wanted me or any of their students to write the way they wrote, or to imitate them. They were both very open and flexible, and wanted to see one’s ideas, and encourage people, and challenge — there was no sense of a school that had to be followed.

The feeling at the time was that practically anything was possible. Boulez came to Juilliard when I was there, and was at the Philharmonic while I was there. I went to a lot of rehearsals. The Rug Concerts happened, where they pulled out the seats from Avery Fisher and put rugs everywhere. Some of the composers who were making a big splash when I was a student were Berio, Xenakis, and of course Babbitt himself was doing some very interesting work at the time, and Mario Davidovsky. There were the beginnings of interactive tape music with live performance, and synthesizer-generated music. There was a lot of new technology which now seems dinosaur-like. But the emphasis was on composition, not on the technology. There was a lot of experimental singing going on, with people like Cathy Berberian, Jan DeGaetani, and people who wanted to do everything. And George Crumb was really coming into his own when I was a student. I had some exposure to him at Aspen. I probably wrote one or two pieces that sounded like Crumb when I was eighteen or so.

The feeling with Berio and Crumb — I am leaving out a few people — was that we were on the verge of something. The whole Polish thing was happening… and Elliott Carter, as he still is, was turning out lots of music. At Juilliard Carter was a very powerful figure, because he wrote so much, and there was always a major premiere happening.

It was exciting between Crumb and Berio, and the other extreme with Babbitt and Davidovsky — those names somehow sum up what I was thinking about at the time, although I don’t write like any of those people. As a student I was pulled in all these different directions.

Berio had a very big influence on me. He had just taught at Juilliard, but left before I got there. I sent an analysis of his piece Circles to him in Italy by mail, and he wrote a really nice note back to me.

It was a wonderful time to be a student — that is for sure. I don’t want to generalize, but a lot of students come to composition now, and their main background, until they are exposed to something more interesting, has been film scores. This was not at all true for our generation. I have met people who want to study composition very seriously, who are in their late teens and early twenties, and they don’t know contemporary music, the music of the twentieth century and the twenty-first century, very much, unless it’s a film score composer. People might even refer to John Williams as a serious composer.

TM: I recall speaking with Milton Babbitt a few years ago, perhaps five or ten years ago, and he remarked that his composition students had never heard the Beethoven symphonies, by and large, which seems remarkable.

BA: It’s an interesting comment, but it’s different than saying that they don’t know Stravinsky. When we were kids, for a very long time before, and for a while after, it was typical that someone who wanted to be a composer was playing an instrument quite well, and had played in a youth orchestra, or had played chamber music, and was familiar therefore with Beethoven and Mozart. Probably they had practiced Bach, and thought it was amazing, and they were aware of Ravel and Debussy, but they also had heard Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring and perhaps Schoenberg’ Verklärte Nacht, or something later, like Pierrot Lunaire, and maybe something by a living composer like Berio or Crumb. This is the reason that someone wanted to write music. For me, I wanted to write when I was ten because of Stravinsky. A little bit of Gershwin, a few other people, maybe Copland — but I was listening to that as a child. Someone had given me the recording of the Rite of Spring as a present, thinking that this was the right thing to do for me, and it was. I loved the Story of a Soldier as a child.

It is true that when I guest-teach at various universities — not at Juilliard — this doesn’t really happen at music schools like that — but at university departments where there are kids majoring in composition, they seem to have a giant gap, both in classical music history, and in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. People might know Philip Glass, and they might know a few people who are in the super-mainstream, but they don’t know who have been the primary forces, or who is doing the interesting thinking right now. I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon, because I am not — I am pretty positive about what is going on, and I have had some great students. I think this is the natural result of a bombardment of technologies, where everything comes into your home, and commercial pressures have created a very pop-culture environment. Television has really taken over people’s lives. That’s why things are the way they are. There’s a glut — you can find anything in a second — and so it’s hard, if you are young, and your parents are not musicians, to know what to listen to.

* * * * * * * * * *

TM: What was it that happened after this period that transformed an exploratory culture, or to put it another, took us from modernism to post-modernism?

BA: I think that there were many, many factors (and I think we have now entered a new phase, by the way). Among them would be the fact that a lot of the teachers of our generation were very involved with a Stravinsky/Schoenberg approach. Even though there were people like Berio and Crumb, most of the teaching was slanted toward Schoenberg, and atonalism and serialism, etc. That was thought to be what you did at a university, at a music school. There was a natural reaction against that, because people did not grow up knowing that music, and were more attracted to trying different things. What we think of as modernism is unfairly linked to expressionism and a few other movements. Even before that, neo-classicism could easily be called post-modernism. I have a saying, which I hope you won’t take seriously, which is that “post-modernism is nothing new”. It has always been the case that people are reacting to the past. Every time there is a moment of experimentalism, the generation that follows is trying to make sense of what has come before, and they often look further back, to a few generations before, rather than the one that they grew up being influenced by. I don’t think that it is so unusual. What made it unusual was the rise of pop culture in the media at the same time, plus the disappearance from the public schools of good music programs, or indeed any music programs, in many cases. So what you had was the first generation of parents who didn’t care about instrumental music, or know about it, because they themselves didn’t have it. They only got their music from radio and TV, and their kids did also. It was more difficult to expect to have a music-focused culture to grow up, where experimentalism, or at least serious thinking about music, was part of society. People went to the movies, or watched TV, and had not studied an instrument. Without the hands-on experience of playing an instrument, the likelihood of taking music seriously has greatly decreased.

There has been a rise of community music schools to take on some of that burden, but you have to pay for that — it’s not free, as part of your public education. A good thing has been the independence produced by the internet. It’s bad and good, but the good part has been that everything is available, everything can be published quickly, things can be put up and listened to, so there’s a sense of independence which has caused major trouble for the major companies. In some respects it is good that things have gotten down to a smaller scale again, and people without a lot of money can have a CD, and everybody can hear it. It’s harder to make money from it, but it is easier to distribute and disseminate information. If you are interested to hear music from another culture, or music that is not well-known, or an individual that is carving a new path, you can find it and listen to it. It’s difficult that things cost 99 cents, or are free — that’s not so good.

TM: I recall the ethos of the early seventies being that it was hip to be into what was interesting, or different, or challenging, whether it was the music of Charles Ives that was being rediscovered at that time, or Messiaen, or Sessions, who is someone who is completely forgotten at this point, or Davidovsky. And then it became hip to be square.

BA: Part of this is the fact that it would be hard to rebel against that, without going in the opposite direction. Wall Street parents get a hippie, but that hippie might have kids that go work on Wall Street.

TM: Please say a little about what you might consider your opus one.

BA: It’s an interesting question. There are some little ones and some larger ones. There was a very small piece, my Oboe Quartet, for oboe, violin, viola, cello, which, perhaps because it was my first piece that was not performed at Juilliard , but professionally, got a lot of attention for me, got a nice review in the Times. It’s not a major work, but it got a lot of attention. I got a publishing offer right away. That made me feel like a professional composer, even though I had been writing for public TV documentaries and theater — it was nice to have a piece of chamber music that people were playing. The Oboe Quartet is still out there, and people play it, but I don’t relate to it at all, except as a memory. That perhaps was an opus one.

There were three operas in a row, that didn’t launch a career — I don’t like that word — but opened a path. In 1978 I wrote an opera, though it wasn’t performed yet, called The Telltale Heart, a one-act opera based on the Poe story. I just deposited it at the American Music Center library — I had no idea what to do with it. It was a vocal score for singers and piano, and I had not done anything about instruments.

I was asked to consider writing something for free, but a great opportunity, for the 92nd Street Y in New York, an opera on a Jewish subject. After all sorts of false starts, I found a librettist with a fascinating subject, which was the story of a Jewish actor murdered by Stalin. It was called Mikhoels the Wise. That was being produced in 1982. While I was working on that opera, John Moriarty, who was the opera director at the New England Conservatory and also the Boston Conservatory, called me up, and said “I am doing a program of scary one-act operas, and would like to do your Telltale Heart. Can you send it over here?” He didn’t know that it would be a premiere, that it had never been performed, and that there was no orchestra. I was very young, and didn’t want to let him know that right away. So I said “of course I will send it. Can you give me a week to get the materials together?” I sat down, and this was pre-computer, orchestrated it by hand, made an orchestra score and all the parts, and sent it to him five days later. Luckily it was only one act, because I was still working on the other opera. That’s the kind of maniac I was at the time. I am a little bit like that now, but with a computer it’s very easy. I work very fast. Until the computer came along I used to have a giant callus on the finger that presses against the pen, because I wrote all day and all night long for years and years and years.

So I had two operas premiered in 1982 — one in Boston, and one in New York. Both of them got attention, and some critical acclaim. I did another opera the next year, The False Messiah, also for the 92nd Street Y, and that was something that they had never done before. I still wasn’t getting a commission, but I had my expenses paid, and got a professional production, so that was fine, since I was still in my twenties. After that, from 1983 on, I don’t think I ever had a year without a whole slew of commissions. That was a huge change — 1982 and 1983.

TM: The False Messiah is about Shabtai Zvi, yes?

BA: Even though there is a great book by Gerson Scholem, and it’s an important piece of history, Shabtai Zvi is not known, because there was an effort to expurgate his name and story from Jewish literature. People were embarrassed and ashamed that there was a false messiah, but it’s a fabulous story. There was another opera on the subject, which I didn’t know about, written much earlier than mine, by Alexandre Tansman, a friend of Stravinsky. I discovered it more than a year after my opera was produced. I got hold of the score. I didn’t really like the opera very much, since it was essentially in the style of Debussy, but not by Debussy. But many of the characters were the same, and the outline of the story was close enough to be freaky. I was glad not to have known about it before I started writing, because that might have put a crimp in my energy.

TM: How does it work musically for you as a Jewish composer writing about Jewish topics?

BA: In 82-83 it was the first time that I had addressed any Jewish subject matter, and it was the subject matter that led me to think about what Jewish music is. Those two operas brought me a lot of other people wanting me to write music on Jewish subjects. I then got a commission to write a piece about the Holocaust, which led to an oratorio called Out of the Whirlwind. I took actual melodies, or fragments of melodies, and texts written by survivors of the Holocaust, and created an oratorio — it’s for two singers and large wind ensemble — that was all new music, but with raw material drawing from these sources. I wrote a few other smaller Jewish pieces, and then made a conscious decision to stop doing it, because I didn’t want to get pegged. I was using a bit of klezmer, which nobody else was doing at the time. About three or four years later there was a huge klezmer revival, which was funny, because while I was doing it I didn’t see it going anywhere. One of the musicians in the orchestra for both of the operas, the clarinetist, was David Krakauer, who had not played any klezmer yet, except for one opera by David Schiff, and my two operas, which had some klezmer. He said “this klezmer stuff is really interesting — I am going to look into it.” I feel like I managed to inspire, tangentially, someone who is now at the head of the klezmer movement. He is a good friend of mine now.

TM: The degree to which one can in the context of American culture, if one is Jewish, reflect on the Jewish experience, and whether one has to do that in some kind of veiled way, which is so often the case, or if one can do it explicitly, is an interesting question. You look at all sorts of American culture and think “this is so clearly a metaphor for this Jewish experience…” How often do people who are farther removed from Judaism in America get that that is what it’s about?

BA: What I was involved in was very explicitly based on Jewish subjects, and I pulled in references to various kinds of Jewish music. Different people will hear those references, or not, but the subject was very obvious. It’s hard to know, and you always run the risk of someone thinking that it’s too Jewish, or someone else thinking that it’s not Jewish enough. I did actually see that all the time.

Years after I wrote this music, in the late 90s, I got a call from the Milken Foundation, who were doing a hundred CDs of Jewish culture, and they wanted to make a CD of some of my Jewish music. They produced a recording on Naxos of one scene from Mikhoels the Wise, the oratorio Out of the Whirlwind, and a set of Ladino songs that I wrote for Lucy Shelton. It won a Grammy for the producer, along with four other CDs in the set. I didn’t think that I would ever get a recording of two of those pieces, because Out of the Whirlwind is gigantic, with many players and a weird combination of instruments. The Grammy was a wake-up call, that I was getting older, and that much time could go by and it didn’t seem like anything, and at the same time it reminded me that I had dropped all that Jewish identity — I have done almost nothing with it since then.

TM: Talking about the seventies recalls that stylistic divide between downtown and uptown…your music is certainly not downtown, but it doesn’t sound uptown either.

BA: Good — I have lived both uptown and downtown. I lived in Soho for twelve years, and I live on the Upper West Side now. If you were ask “which am I?” I would have no answer for that.

TM: And it clearly sounds like American music.

BA: To hear that you really have to know what you are listening to, but yes, I think that’s true. The most American thing that I have ever done is an opera called Let Freedom Sing, that was produced last year. It’s the story of Marian Anderson, and involves spirituals, and Schubert, and Bach, and jazz. The idea was that it would be touring to high schools, and perhaps to younger schools, and would tell her story to an audience that needs to hear it, but doesn’t know about her. It needed to appeal to them musically. I decided to incorporate quite a lot of the music that she sang, but also to give it modern rhythmic energy. It was very successful in Washington DC, and in Maryland, and a few other places. We are trying to bring it to New York. We have people that are interested, but it is hard to raise money with the present economic situation, but I think it is going to happen. The New York Public Library is interested to give venues, and the Opera Guild is interested to try to help us get it going. The Bank Street College of Education is going to write a curriculum for the opera that would help high schools and middle schools relate to the story, and understand the Civil Rights movement , and who she was. The libretto is by a woman called Carolivia Herron, who is phenomenal. She had not written a libretto before, but it is brilliant.

TM: To switch directions here, when I talk to composers, I often find that they may fall into two schools — one an architectural school, in the manner of the architect Oscar Niemeyer, who may sketch out some curves, and the whole project has the details filled in from those few, basic, Matisse-like lines…

BA: with cones, and swirling shapes, very round…

TM: …and the other approach, perhaps more organic, where you begin with a seed, or a character, and the structure arises from the ground up. Which approach would you take?

BA: You are asking if I start out with an overall structure, or allow detail to accumulate into a structure.

TM: Yes.

BA: I do both of those things, back and forth. I divide the way that I think about music into a two-part process, and the two parts don’t have to happen in a particular order, but they happen at separate times. There is being in the sound world of it, and not thinking about anything but the sound, and the complete opposite, which is more intellectual, like an editor, who is very critical. When I am the critical editor I think about large-scale structure a lot, and I think about how everything is going to fit together, and try to get a vision of the whole thing. When I am just composing in the moment I tend not to think about that, and think about each moment of sound, and how it gets from one thing to the other. Those two things go back and forth, because I don’t think that I would get a successful piece if I only did one of them. I know which one I am doing, and I don’t let them interfere with each other.

For example, I have just finished today, this morning, a short piece for the Brentano String Quartet. I was in the composing mode, thinking about what the piece sounds like, at the moment that I was in. I wrote about three minutes of music, and then I went back. I got to the ending, and went back into the other mode, as if I were my own teacher, or my own consultant. I got very critical about the ending, thinking that it had taken a slightly wrong direction, and had some thoughts about readjusting the piece. I went through it, removed a few things, opened up a few measures, and made a decision about how I would correct, in a sense, both the ending and some of the places in the middle that needed to be in better proportion. After I decided that, I put blank measures in on the computer in all those places, though not a specific number. Then I went back into the other mode, into writing in the moment, feeling what the performance would be like, feeling like I was in the audience, feeling like I was playing the first violin part, or the cello…and then stopped again and went to see how that was going.

If it’s a large work, I usually spend a fair amount of time imagining the thing from the large structural point of view, but then I let go of that when I start working, just in case that is not going to work out. I don’t hold myself to a blueprint, but I do think about it.

TM: Your catalog has relatively few pieces which have what we would call generic titles in the library biz. The pieces tend to have literary references, or a title that hints at the contents.

BA: Yes.

TM: Would you say that you start from a concept, or an emotion, rather than putting three or four notes together?

BA: I always start with a concept. I didn’t use to, but I have for many years now. It seems to me that I would like to know why I am writing the piece, what it’s about. Very often the title will come later. But I do like to know why I am writing the piece, because it focuses my attention. I am talking about instrumental music, nothing with a text or a story. The first time I realized how vital that was was with Whispers of Mortality, which is my fourth string quartet, from 1998. I was writing about my wife’s cousin, who was extremely ill, and I was fairly young, and had never done that before. I didn’t usually like the idea of writing about something in my personal life that was upsetting, and then turning it into a piece. In this case I couldn’t help it — I was doing it anyway. I had a commission to write a string quartet, and this is all we were talking about at home. I decided to try to deal with it in the piece, because I figured if that’s what I am thinking about, I should write about it. Interesting things happened. One of them was when I decided that the cello would be the threat of the disease, and the violin the outrage, and the second violin and the viola would be giving a sense of time passing. Though that seems programmatic, I didn’t make it into a program, but used it as a way to define the material, and its relationship to each other. The whole piece started to work that way, and it became a very strong piece — I felt it was stronger than other pieces that had come before it. The reactions of other musicians to it were very powerful, and there were people crying in the audience, even though I didn’t necessarily tell anyone what it was about. I thought there was something very real here.

Then I decided that I would think consciously about what was important to me while I was writing the piece, or before I was about to write something, so that I could repeat that process in terms of making the piece really speak to an issue, speak to a concern that would also communicate to listeners. So basically I have been doing in that in every piece since 1998, in some way or another.

Sometimes I start like that, and I don’t worry about it once I get the material. I let the piece go its own way. But it made a huge difference in what kind of material I write, because I am trying to communicate something, that, for lack of a better expression, I can put into words. I know what I am writing about , I know what the subject is. By the time it becomes musical material, I often don’t need the subject anymore to write the piece, but it was very important to get me to the sound world, and the emotional quality of the opening — things like that.

TM: With a piece of chamber music you don’t need to have a concrete sense of what it is about to know that it’s about something. I think, for example, of the String Quartet no. 8 of Shostakovich…

BA: Of course. I have written a lot about this — I have a book which is full of this discussion, called Of Mozart, Parrots and Cherry Blossoms in the Wind. The chapter that is called And All is Always Now is very much about this issue. Basically I still feel that I like to find something that I am thinking about that is meaningful, and it’s helpful to the audience to have a title. I wrote a piece called After the End, and I don’t think I have this listed anywhere. It was pre-computer, and the parts are not in the greatest condition. It’s a piece for piano and orchestra, but it’s not a concerto. I wrote extensive program notes for the premiere about personal things — a personal relationship, all kinds of things. It was true that I was thinking of these things while I was writing the music, or, I thought of those things in order to find the material, and then I wrote the piece. I decided to write the program notes because everyone I talked with said that the audience would definitely respond to this.

Then it was premiered, with the Jacksonville Symphony, and David Golub was the pianist. In the intermission, after the performance, people came up to me, and it was the most bizarre thing. They would say “I know exactly what you are talking about. When I heard this piece, I thought “this is my life too!” I wanted to say “You’ve got to be kidding! It’s not my life or your life. It’s a piece of music. You’re just listening to the program notes.” But then I thought, “Well, maybe they are right”. It was very interesting for me. I almost wished that I had not given them any notes so I could have seen what their reaction would have been. I need a control experiment.

TM: That’s what people are truly looking for- for someone to tell them about their own lives in a way that they don’t have access to themselves.

BA: When people read a novel or see a movie or experience theater, they know that they will find some aspect of their own experience in there, and if they don’t, it’s very unusual. For a piece of music, I think that a lot of people don’t even ask themselves that when they listen. You don’t walk out of a performance of a chamber work and say “How does this relate to my experience?” But at some level, unconsciously, that is what is happening. That’s one of the reasons that I use titles which might suggest to people that they can think that way.

TM: In fact, the more unconscious it is, the more effective it is.

BA: That’s true. Sometimes a suggested title opens up something, but sometimes it closes something down. It’s a risk. Persichetti called everything Parable, and Berio called everything Sequenza. I was actually present in the room at Juilliard when Persichetti had a Parable for solo viola premiered, and Berio was there, as a guest. He said to Persichetti “I think it’s a wonderful piece, but you should not call it Parable. You should call it Sequenza.”

TM: In the Romance languages both of the words that we have for “talk” both have this storytelling sense. “Parlare” and “parler” come from parabola, parable, and in Spanish and Portuguese it comes from “fabula” (fable). We are not simply uttering words, we are telling stories.

BA: This relates very well to the Brain and Creativity Institute, where I will be composer-in-residence, in Los Angeles, the neuroscience place where Antonio Damasio and his wife, Hanna Damasio, are the lead neuroscientists. Antonio often talks in terms of the construction of a narrative that is happening simultaneously with the actual actions that we take. That’s a simplification, since he gets into the biological aspects, which I am not going to do.

The idea of narrative is what makes us human. Our memories are also fabrications, stories that we tell ourselves. Our memories are not stored — we have to continually reconstruct them so that they fit our story. When we write a piece of music, it also has the sense of spinning a point of view. Even when there is no story, no programmatic aspect, no suggestive title, it is still a narrative based on who we think that we are. If you think of the old question “Do you write for an audience or for yourself”, I write for an audience full of people who are like me.

TM: That’s all we can do. We have to imagine a listener who is like ourselves, because a listener who is not like ourselves is beyond our imagining.

BA: There’s a movie with Oscar Levant, in which he is conducting an orchestra. At the beginning you see only him, and gradually you see that every face in the orchestra is also Oscar Levant, and then everyone in the audience is also Oscar Levant. It’s a great statement.

TM: What’s the new project for 2010 and 2011?

BA: The residency at the Brain and Creativity Institute has a lot to do with the piece that was just premiered last May [2009] by Yo-Yo Ma at the American Museum of Natural History, which is called Self Comes to Mind. Antonio Damasio has written a new book coming out next year [2011], which is also called Self Comes to Mind. I have known him for about fifteen years, and eventually he invited me to be composer-in-residence at a place that doesn’t have any music or musicians. It is connected to the University of Southern California, which does have musicians, and he wants me to design and implement music research there, in ways that will guided more by musicians than scientist, because he thinks that that is missing in the research.

Another purely musical project is a performance in Florence at the Teatro Goldoni in October [2010], which is the European premiere of a piece called Of Art and Onions: Homage to Bronzino, which was premiered at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, to go along with their Bronzino show, but it was commissioned by the Palazzo Strozzi. From what I understand, it is the first time that that the Metropolitan Museum has collaborated with a foreign museum to do anything. Luckily the head of the Palazzo Strozzi heard Yo-Yo Ma premiere my piece, and thought that I should write something they could use about Bronzino. The piece is for madrigal choir, viola da gamba, harpsichord and vibraphone. It’s exciting — the group that is performing is a Dutch ensemble called the Kassiopeia Quintet. They have recorded the complete madrigals of Gesualdo, and I am a Gesualdo fanatic, and good friends with Glenn Watkins, who is the main Gesualdo scholar.

TM: Any other questions I should asked, or areas we should have covered?

BA: I divide my time compositionally between the sort of things that we have been talking about, and writing music for families and children. There’s a company called The Learning Maestros, which I started with Julian Fifer about ten years ago, which is devoted to interdisciplinary education for adults and for children. Let Freedom Sing has become one of our projects, but there are also things about dinosaurs, and Shakespeare, and wind energy, with the idea that really good education should be interdisciplinary, with music and art mixed with science and social consciousness. This company is a platform for me to create stuff with interesting people, and disseminate it to schools and concert presenters and orchestras.

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