An Interview with Robert Morris
K: What are your earliest memories of musical experiences? What intrigued you most about music?
This interview was published in 1991 by the League of Composers-International Society for Contemporary Music, Boston Section, Inc. Copyright © by Robert Kyr. All rights reserved.
M: I remember listening to pieces that I really liked; I listened over and over to them. I had a little 78 that was yellow, a 7-inch record, and there was a great piece on it called "The Pied Piper of Hamlin."
K: I remember that.
M: You had the same one? You know what that was?-- it was the last movement of the Orchestral Suite in b minor for flute and strings by Bach. At that time, I just thought that it was incredibly beautiful and I didn't understand why I reacted the way I did, but I had a very strong response to it. And there was a record album called "Sparky's Magic Piano." It's really funny that we're talking this way...notice how these musical experiences are totally media-conditioned. That's interesting because you usually think that a young, budding composer is going to be sitting at the piano or going to a concert, and yet, here were these kids' records that were educational and trying to make music fun as well.
K: I'm intrigued...what was "Sparky's Magic Piano" about?
M: It was about a kid who was practicing the piano and his piano came alive and he was able to play magically. It was a trick! The piano was actually doing the work but it looked like Sparky was really great. The thing I liked about the record, though, was the music that was being played. There was a good range of pieces including the Rachmaninoff Prelude in c# minor arranged for piano and orchestra, which had a big effect on me...I liked the chord changes very much. Later, of course, I found that they had names, Neapolitan, augmented sixth chords, things like that.
K: I think it's interesting that all of these memories are related to classical repertoire.
M: Absolutely. My background is totally classical. Almost all of my friends have had a background in rock or jazz or came to music at a much later date than I did, but my first musical recollections were totally in the classical domain. My mother is from Austria and she brought with her a heritage of European music-- "This is the good music and I want my children to understand it." Although I don't remember it, she tells me that when we'd go to somebody's house, I'd always sit and play the piano. I do remember, though, when I discovered the third! I was about five years old-- it was a very pleasing sound. I remembered that if I hit one note, then skipped one and played the next, I could get this really good sound. I have a few other memories like that, too. Most of them are about harmony, which is interesting, because when I listen to a new piece, the first thing I care about or notice is whether the harmony is sophisticated or not.
K: In that regard, which music did you enjoy the most at first?
M: I took to Romantic music pretty quickly. Later on, though, I found that I also liked counterpoint very much. I liked counterpoint because of the way that things went together. That was interesting because the musical elements were separable and then you could warp all of these lines and times and spaces into each other and put voices together. That was a different kind of experience from harmony and I was very affected by it, too; I was escaping the boundaries of space and time. When composers say that music is a temporal art, I think that's true, but what is most fun in music is when you know that there are connections that are non- temporal. You can compare them with the unfolding of the piece again-- you can compare the drama of the unfolding with the relationships that you remember. This idea is not captured by only considering that something happens first and then something else...
K: It's interesting to hear how intrigued you were with counterpoint...You never knew this, but during the time when I was studying with you at Yale, I once overheard you improvise a fugue in the style of Bach. I had never heard anyone do that so perfectly-- how did you learn to do that?
M: That gets back to my childhood, too. When I started playing piano, I liked music, but I never thought, "I'm going to be a composer when I grow up." My parents said, "All the other kids in the neighborhood take piano, you've got to take it, too." So they bought a 75-dollar upright piano . They put it downstairs and immediately I sat down and was fascinated, and I began to figure out what to do, which notes to put together. And my mother said, "This sounds very much like Shostakovitch!" Later, I found out that she was telling me in a nice way that it really didn't make much sense to her. There was a guy in the neighborhood who taught piano-- it was sort of a generic situation-- and my mother said, "You'll study with him." The minute I started to play piano and learn the simplest musical notation, I immediately said, "I'm going to do this, too-- I want to make up music, I don't just want to play it." In fact, this led to my improvising, but of course, I couldn't write down everything that I played. By the time I was ten years old, I knew a lot of music and I was getting scores out of the library. I would get a Beethoven Sonata, which was way beyond me technically, but I'd go to the piano and try to play through it, even though I could hardly read it. Sometimes I would just improvise my way through the passages that were too difficult. I had recordings of these pieces and I would listen to them and say, "Isn't that great!" Then I'd go to the piano and look at the score and try to play it. But I really didn't understand the need to notate music beyond preservation and prescription. One day, I had this wonderful "Ah-ha!" experience...I said to myself, "You know, I don't have to play from the score, I can read it while I'm listening to the music." This was extremely important to me because it suggested that the music notation was abstract in some way and it wasn't just a matter of where to put your fingers. This idea of keeping my fingers, my mind, and my ear together seemed very logical and as I got older, I continued to improvise things. Somebody would come over and say, "Oh, you play piano...do you know any Mozart?" Then I'd say, "Well, I don't know any piece by heart, but Mozart goes something like this...What do you think?" And I got better and better. By the time I was twenty, I had made a hobby of improvising and I still do it to this day. I get a lot better when I teach counterpoint, which I had the opportunity to do about two years ago, as I did when I taught at Yale.
K: Yet, improvising fugues is not a skill that many people have today...
M: Well, organists do. A lot of organists can do it-- it's not so rare and in the old days, it was required. The thing is to improvise fugues that are interesting, though!
K: That's the point and your improvisation was an interesting fugue, as I remember...
M: Sometimes you get inspired, just like anything else, you know...
K: Did it come more out of the study or the love of the music?
M: All of those things. And I think that I have a talent for it, that's all. It's probably because I started to play when I was so young, to get notes through my fingers; improvising is just a natural way for me to work. For example, I still compose near a keyboard. I may not touch it for hours when composing, but I feel very reassured that it's there. Sometimes, I will actually use it, though. My wife tells me that I sing and hum while composing and sometimes hardly touch the notes. Still, I feel that I have to get my manuscript paper over to the piano. It's reassuring...
K: Do you compose at the piano regardless of instrumentation?
M: Yes. In fact, I used to play orchestral transcriptions...that was strange...the pitches that I'd play would vividly remind me of the instrumental sounds. I could hear the sounds of those instruments as I was playing. It was a way of developing my aural memory through my fingers. During my studies at the Eastman School of Music, they would give us a keyboard chart at our desks so that we could practice while someone else was doing the real thing. I found I could hear internally anything that I could play on the keyboard chart. I think that the keyboard thing is very intimately connected to my musicality.
K: And with composition?
M: Yes. That's probably the reason that I still compose with the keyboard at hand. When I was younger, I'd see people sitting in the library quietly composing and I'd wonder how they could do that. Many people tell you that you should only compose at a desk, but I was reassured when I found out that Stravinsky composed at the keyboard.
K: What about improvisation? Were your improvisations only classical or did you play jazz as well?
M: No, I never did. Actually, I was thinking only recently of taking lessons from a student at school who is a very good jazz pianist...he put up a sign on a bulletin board that tempted me. I know enough jazz harmony to do something already, but to really play something with other people that would be suave and cool...I'd be embarrassed to do that right now. On a good day I can get close though, and for years, I've been practicing certain kinds of Indian music on the piano, which is somewhat self-defeating because there are certain aspects of it that can't be transcribed into discrete pitches.
K: I remember a concert at Yale when you played an Indian-style improvisation with David Mott...
M: Yes...it was called Radif...but everything was written out in that piece. Actually there are three Radifs, which I wrote in the early 70's. (The title comes from from the Persian Radif, which contains the entire repertory of classical Iranian music.) The first one is a set of six melodies, each one lasting about 30 minutes. These melodies are played in canon...it's a kind of minimal piece...they use only six notes. The second Radif is a set of canons in four voices-- the canons are very strict and the number of notes in them vary from three to six. The third Radif is a set of drones.
K: That's the one that you played...
M: Right... David Mott played Radif I with three other saxophone players while Ken Singleton conducted a special arrangement of Radif II and III I made for the occasion, which was the last concert of my music while I was on the faculty of Yale. Actually, Radif I. is a very slow transformation of one song into another. The reason I say "songs" is because I used a passage of a South Indian composition that I knew and I changed it very slowly until it evolved into a different Indian tune. I thought very carefully about how the density of transformations should occur and how quickly the notes should change and which ones should change and how much rest should be inserted at any point. The idea was to keep the melodies vivid and motivic, even though something would suddenly drop out. I heard a piece by Steve Reich a few years later in which a similar technique was used but in "the small" and not in "the large." I think that I always enjoyed these early minimal pieces, such as Terry Riley's In C, because they reminded me of some of the great stuff you get in non-Western music, although the scales are not the same. I wrote another one of these pieces, called Three, Four, Five, in which there are hemiolas of three, four, and five units but in different domains. So if the pitch curve is a five pattern and the rhythm is a three pattern, then the duration pattern would be a four...I did all of the permutations of that. That piece can be played by any instruments and when you have six or seven people playing these rhythms, the result can be very, very complex and delightful; I love to hear that kind of thing. This also brings up something else related to these pieces--I have no problem with a piece that doesn't have any development in the sense of climax as long as it's interesting; it might be sonically interesting with nothing more to listen to than a chord and its timbre. In other cases, it might be very complicated and noisy, but there are things to hear within that. For example, I remember Hal Freedman's piece-- he folded up Wagner's Ring cycle so that it was only four minutes long! He recorded all of it and then played half of it against itself and so on, until he had only four minutes of it. I was really fascinated in listening to this because you would hear an entire soprano aria as only a few notes (or screams)...and most of the stuff became noise, what sounded like the tumult of a huge crowd. And yet, I enjoyed that piece very much because it was permeable enough to hear through. People may find all of this curious, though, because now I'm known primarily for my work in serial music...
K: When did you first become interested in music of non- Western cultures?
M: I must backtrack a bit to answer you. My compositional career is weird...I had no composition teacher until I studied at the Eastman School of Music and before that, I became interested in modern music...Schoenberg...Webern...Berg-- I read an essay by Mosco Carner on Berg's Violin Concerto before I ever heard it...that's how I first learned about twelve-tone technique. It was a very inspiring account, although now I see it as sort of silly in a way. I was quite interested in it when I was ten or twelve years old and I experimented a little with serial things, but I found that I really didn't like it. When young composers try this, they are often so concerned with pitch relations that they forget about rhythm and timbre...and they write some very dull music as a result. I immediately saw that and my attitude was that there was this great music around and it would be years before I could ever approach composing something like it, so if I found out about a technique that I couldn't manage, I would just not use it. I always took that view--I never presumed that a technique of composition or an idea was so special that just using it would guarantee the quality of the music.
K: What contemporary music did you listen to in your teens?
M: I was influenced by almost all the 1930's and 40's contemporary music-- Bartok was very special for me, for example.
K: What about Schoenberg and Webern?
M: I liked Webern much more than Schoenberg at first, because Webern is more [registrally] harmonic, especially his Symphony, Op. 21, which is a wonderful piece. It only occurred to me after maybe twenty hearings without a score that the pitches in the first movement don't change their octave for quite a while. And I thought, "That's probably why I like it, because it's like a zone of harmony." I didn't realize that initially, but only after many listenings. (When I look back at what I didn't perceive, I'm just aghast that I was sitting there presuming to be a composer and yet missing so much...but I didn't hear it then...I didn't have any instruction and no one told me how to listen to this music.) I knew all of the ideology about serial music because you could pick up a copy of Die Reihe in Pattelson's Music store in New York and read about how great it was to be a serial composer and all that. But that seemed pretty alienating, too, and I remember thinking, "I must be stupid because I don't understand all of this." Later on, I found out that it was simply because these ideas didn't make much sense, but before that, I assumed it was me. I was much more interested in trying to work out some sort of connection between neo-classicism and Indian music. I became interested in Indian music simply because my piano teacher's wife was a dancer who did modern dance and modern dancers were especially interested in non-Western music at the time, especially in the intricacies of Indian dance. In the late 40s there was a troupe of dancers and musicians from India under the direction of Uday Shankar and were pretty successful in the West--in fact, Ravi Shankar was in that group as a teen-ager. Many of the people in the avant-garde (the musical underground) thought that they were really fantastic. My piano teacher's wife was one of these people and she had a few records and also a book by Alain Danie'lou, called North Indian Music, I believe. She loaned me all this stuff and I read and listened and was very impressed, but I didn't think it would ever influence me very much.
K: And when did it?
M: When I finally got to Eastman, I found that these scales that I had read about in Danie'lou were very interesting and could be used in composition. I began to fool around with them and by the time that I was 18 or 19, I had a way of "polyphonizing" these things and putting them into Western forms. Probably most people heard this music as being Mid-eastern in some strange way but a lot of people liked it nevertheless--my composition teachers were very encouraging.
But then, I began to be influenced by European composers...you know, it was the hip thing to do then...and also by Milton Babbitt, because some of his music was coming forth and Perspectives of New Music had just published its first issue and I read some of that. I remember reading Babbitt and having difficulty understanding it at first, but then I found that if I read it enough, it began to get clearer (unlike Die Reihe).
K: And did you experiment with serial procedures?
M: Yes, for a brief time, but then I went to the University of Michigan and the atmosphere was totally different...many of the graduate students were involved with theater music and improvisation. Since I always liked improvisation it was a natural for me, of course, and so I went in that direction for awhile. And I went to Tanglewood under the banner of people like Morton Feldman and Christian Wolff...I found that music to be very nice. I should say here that I never disliked any of the other kinds of musics that were around...I always found new music interesting, but a lot of it wasn't what I wanted to do then. At Michigan, there was a program in ethnomusicology and since I was interested in Indian music, I took a few courses to see what the rest of the world's music was like and it was overwhelming--many of the ideas that were half-formed and inchoate in my own thinking were brought out in beautiful relief in non-Western music. So many of the sounds that contemporary composers were trying to create were to be found in the traditional musics of the world. That was encouraging but also little daunting to think that you had to work so hard to be new and yet it was old.
K: How much work did you actually do in ethnomusicology?
M: I wrote some papers on Indian music and did some work on Japanese music and I transcribed music. After I got through my doctoral exams at Michigan, I went to the University of Hawaii and met some more people who were involved in ethnomusicology. Then suddenly I got this job at Yale...it was sort of a fluke. Don Martino had just left to go to the New England Conservatory and so the Yale job opened up. I had applied to many departments--while I was working in Hawaii, my first wife would sit at home and write letters for me that said, "Hello, I'm Robert Morris and I'm finishing up my doctorate at the University of Michigan...I'm looking for a job...what do you think?" It was really funny--I got back a lot of responses. I never thought that this ploy would work, but it did, and I got two job offers as a result, one of which was from Yale.
K: But did you actually teach at the University of Hawaii?
M: Yes, for a year...it was a replacement job at first, but then they wanted me to stay. As beautiful as it was to live there, it was no place for a composer who wanted to get somewhere. There were only a few composition students each year and a pecking order on the faculty, so if you were lucky, you got to teach composition for a few minutes every five years or so. Most of it was teaching theory, which didn't bother me, but I was much more interested in composing and I still am, of course. So I went to Yale and at that time, I was still heavily into improvisation and I helped to run a performance group called Interface. We did mainly avant- garde kinds of musics, but I began to learn more about serial and twelve-tone theory and other kinds of schema for thinking about pitch relations. By the time I was there for four or five years, I was very keen on this. At the same time, though, I was beginning to work on this music about acculturation that I mentioned before. It had to do with taking different kinds of musics and putting them together. In a sense, it was what I was working on in my own head- -I had all of these different models of musics...how could these be accommodated? Despite my origins, I never thought that the only great music was Western, but, I did like a lot of older music, such as Beethoven and Brahms, and a lot of contemporary music, too. Even though there were so many other kinds of music that I really liked and these musics seemed so different, I wanted to put this all together somehow so I eventually wrote a trilogy of pieces, one of which was a 45-minute electronic piece, called Thunder of Spring over distant Mountains. The title comes from a line in the Waste Land by T. S. Eliot, whose ideas about the relation of the individual to the tradition resonated with my own experiences and ideals. In Thunder, I put seven pieces of Southeast Asian music together so that one piece transformed into another via electronic techniques such as filtering, modulation, envelope following, . After this, I wrote a set of five miscellaneous pieces which includes Not Lilacs, a jazz twelve-tone jazz piece. And there's a piece for two pianos, Variations on the Variations of Quadran Pavan and the Quadran Pavan of Bull and Byrd, based on the three related pieces from the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book put together and inter-transformed in various ways-- and there's a piece percussion quartet (with tape) that was based on change- ringing and Javanese gamelan-like structures (Bob's Plain Bobs)...and one of the pieces was recorded, Motet on Doo- dah, an isorhythmic motet for flute, bass and piano. After that, I wrote a huge wind ensemble piece for the Yale Band called In Different Voices (another title from Eliot), which was written for the bi-centennial. It had hundreds of different references to music of all types. To write it, I remember boning up on all kinds of music; for instance, I spent two days listening to dixieland recordings and then I tried to write something that sounded like it...in all, it turned out pretty well...I enjoy listening to that piece. Somebody came up to me after the performance of it, which is about an hour long, and said, "Well, what is it like for the whole world to be organized according to your ideas for an hour?" Shortly after that, though, I began to get interested in another way of proceeding.
K: How did the players respond to your jazz-influenced music?
M: I have one experience that I'd like to focus on in detail. When Not Lilacs was first played-- it's written for a trumpet, alto sax, piano, and drums-- the players were all familiar enough with jazz to do a good job and had no problem reading the music accurately. They enjoyed playing it. The piece is fairly successful in that it keeps the jazz idiom going throughout and yet it's quite intricate with respect to twelve-tone technique. It turns out that the properties of the row (the famous Mallalieu row) have embedding properties that resemble the different structural levels in tonal materials-- that's what gives the piece a certain tonal depth, even though it sounds atonal on the surface. The distinction between tonality and atonality is much better replaced by the difference between hierarchy and association. All music has some degree of hierarchy and some degree of association. Atonal and twelve-tone music works more on association than hierarchy, although it doesn't necessarily have to, and tonal music initially works more on hierarchy, but certainly has associations (motivic behavior), too. There's a lot of talk in theory now about these differences, but to me, they are just features that can occur in different amounts in different kinds of structures. So I wrote Not Lilacs and the premiere was to be at a concert called "Yale Composers Under the Influence of Jazz." Several of my friends were real jazz players and had had real jazz players play their music and they would do what was essentially "Free Jazz," improvisational things (a bit tamer than say, Cecil Taylor or Anthony Braxton). Certainly a lot of people liked that kind of music then and here I had this piece that was a sort of be-bop piece...old-fashioned or passe by the standards of a jazz audience of the early 70's. Well, they did my piece first and the audience just raved over it...I was very surprised because I thought that people would see it as a curiosity or something. I found out later, though, that most of them thought the players were improvising; they hadn't realized that it was all written out! The next piece on the program was a "real jazz piece" and the audience was lukewarm. In fact, my piece was reviewed well and the others were thought to be too strange...but those were the true jazz pieces and mine was a synthetic piece.
K: You seem bothered by this...
M: It worried me considerably because something was wrong here-- if the true music was not being accepted by the jazz audience then something was wrong with the whole set-up. Second, during the performances of In Different Voices, people tried to identify the pieces and styles in it rather than listening to how the musics interacted. That bothered me a lot, too because it became a sort of one-upmanship in the audience..."Oh, I know that, it's Japanese gagaku," and the next person was supposed to say, "Wow, how do you know that?..." All of this rather than simply listening to what it was. Third, what happens when you have a person listening who doesn't appreciate one of these musics? After studying ethnomusicology and listening to many different kinds of music for many years, I became poly-musical, a musical polyglot. It became fun to fool around with many languages in a piece, but we all know that if there was a book written in five different languages where all the languages were equal and all the connotations of the languages came into it, then it would be very difficult to find many readers for the book. I was concerned about that.
K: So you found that in the 70's there was a problem of perception in regard to the poly-musical nature of your output.
M: It was a matter of understanding what I was doing in bringing all of these styles together.
K: ...not only within a single piece, but in your output as a whole, from piece to piece...
M: Absolutely...and what they would hear was only an abridged or translated version of what I intended and there was no way to rectify this except to get them to listen to the music that I knew...to listen to it and then come back to my music. Well, that's a lot to expect of an audience!
K: You were asking them to share your influences and to process them in a similar kind of way...
M: So I said, "There's got to be some way to do this that's different. What I need is some general way in which I can have all of these cross-relations and connections between different things while at the same time being in one sphere rather than many." Then I could preserve the relationships that were among styles and musics within the parts of a piece and still maintain the work's unity. This would close off a piece from other pieces, but internally, it would reflect the relationships that exist externally among pieces. I think that Carter's music took the same move with respect to Ives, who often put different kinds of musics together. Carter fractures a form in a different way...the first and second movement of a certain type of form are reconfigured or you hear two different duets at once or four different personalities simultaneously. Rather than doing what Ives does-- someone plays Swanee River, another plays a Fritz Kreisler piece, and another something more modern-- Carter has different kinds of materials which have different rhythms and are differentiated according to criteria which make sense in a larger context. He doesn't just grab things from different places, which is a lot of fun, but he tries to integrate things into the whole. And that's what I was trying to do, too, in my own way, although at that time I didn't really know many of Carter's pieces well.
K: Does this line of thinking relate to your work in twelve- tone theory?
M: I started to work in twelve-tone theory because I knew Dan Starr, who was a computer programmer and a pretty good one. Early in his career--he was about fifteen or so--he had generated all of the all-interval twelve-tone rows and he told me about this. I found that interesting and we started to work on understanding all- interval series so we wrote computer programs to generate them and to look at their particular properties. In doing that, I came across the twelve-tone row that I used in the Not Lilacs piece. The experience of finally getting the all-interval series in some sort of order raised some questions about this very limited, but interesting group of musical entities. This led to the writing of an article, which Dan and I published in the Journal of Music Theory--I did this in part because we had done the work and Yale was breathing down my neck to publish (articles). Then I became involved in studying combinatoriality as a result of composing Not Lilacs. During the process of its composition, I had become aware of many new techniques that I had never encountered anywhere else for producing aggregate formation among related rows, so we started to write about these structures and expand upon them. At Norfolk, during the summer of 1974, Dan and I wrote up a draft of our paper and then presented it at Yale in the fall. Subsequently, it was published by Perspectives of New Music, but in 1980-- it took 6 years for it to get out, even though we had done the work earlier. In 1976, Dan went off to Princeton and did some remarkable work on his own, and I became less influenced by him and worked on my own, too.
K: How did your working together influence your actual process of composition?
M: In addition to benefiting from Dan's fecund mind, I learned how to use a computer to help solve technical problems in composition. While at the University of Pittsburgh (1977-80), I spent a good deal of my time learning more advanced aspects of computer programing and working out the general theory of pitch-class relations that I later wrote up in my book, Composition with Pitch-Classes: A Theory of Compositional Design. I got into a habit of working on a piece, of seeing some interesting structural thing, generalizing the structure mathematically, and working out the details and/or exploring the resulting compositional space with a computer, and then publishing the work as music theory. Pieces such as my Allies for piano duet (1979), or Cuts for large wind ensemble of 1984, yielded new ideas about the relation of pitch-class structure to compositional realization. The more I did this, the more insight I got into the really deep ramifications of the twelve-tone universe. There are only twelve tones there, but their sets, permutations and combinations are quite vast. There are all kinds of interesting relationships among these entities, so it's like a huge garden or perhaps, like a haunted house in which you discover all of these unexpected connections between things. It's a magical place in a way. And higher mathematics begins to show you things about this universe that you didn't realize. These are behind the scenes in the music-- you might not hear them in the processes of the music, but they allow you to do things that you couldn't do otherwise. In my later music in the 80's, the music got more conservative in one sense and more radical in another-- more radical, because I was no longer concerned with the aspect of musical gesture as being formative in form. I was more concerned with harmony, for instance, and harmony is like a place or space or a frozen time moment. A piece of music can be static...it doesn't have to go anywhere; it is a set of possibilities that you can follow in different ways. It's a world to be explored and that's the role of the listener. The composer creates very interesting exploration routes, but he or she doesn't send the tour guide in to tell you which ones to take. So there's a lot of fun for the listener if he or she is willing to get up from laying in the easy chair and get out there and explore the music as he or she is hearing it. There's so much to hear...so many fascinating relationships and cross- relationships that you can listen to. It's very much a matter of the listener's activity.
K: Do you feel that most of your listeners are able to relate to your music in that way?
M: I notice that many people who hear my music find it hard to get into that mood. In fact, a lot of classical music really allows the listener to sit back, while the composer muscles his or her way in and tells the audience how to listen by bringing out tunes (Schoenberg wrote Hauptstimme and Nebenstimme above various lines in his scores) or by setting up figure/ ground relations which can't reverse. All of those things can severely limit the potential listenability of a composition, but at the same time, they make it easier for the audience to go into it because now there is a guide or signposts. A good balance between richness of association and guide is what people like in a composition...they don't want too much of one thing or the other. I tend to feel that the guide aspect becomes a problem when it gets in my way. For example, suppose you go to some foreign country. It might be nice to have a guide or a driver, but after awhile you don't want him or her around anymore because you feel confident enough to explore on your own. That's the point I've reached in composing--I don't want to tell people what to do as much as I want to invite them to listen.
K: And how do you invite them to do that?
M: A piece of music is like a public park or a garden where one puts a lot of energy into the design of the thing to make it interesting...there are fountains and hedges and there are gardeners who take care of the flowers and there are some wild parts and some places that are very civilized where food is served. You know, you work all of this out...but when a person goes into this space, he or she doesn't have to visit its parts in any particular order...the piece is waiting for the listener to explore it. The reason that can happen in my music is because I know so many interesting things--interesting to me-- about twelve-tone music and set theory and that enables me to build a tremendous number of possibilities into a composition...more than I might consciously imagine.
K: And how have your listeners responded to this approach?
M: Nowadays, when somebody knows a piece of mine very well, he or she often tells me things about the piece that I didn't think of myself...but I'm not surprised, they are usually side effects of other decisions. I don't concern myself with trying to follow up every structural detail in what I am composing, but I know that if I do certain kinds of things, there will be many ways to hear and construe them. I would rather do that than say, "Now, I want everybody to hear this." However, just like in our garden, there are places of unity where there is only one thing happening. In some gardens, there is pavement and in other places, there is no pavement at all. So there are places in a piece which have only one major function and that is useful psychologically to help the listener to find places of repose, place markers of reference. If everything is alike everywhere, then you don't have much variety and what I want is a variety of terrain.
I think that this view of composition is not particularly unique to me. Many composers have their own ways of talking about this. For instance, I find Milton Babbitt's music is very much along these lines, although some of his commentators try to make it out to be much more of a linear narrative. Joe Dubiel will talk about a piece of Babbitt as narrative and I don't think that he is wrong...it's all there and it's great because you hear how Dubiel hears it and he hears in very insightful ways. But that's not all there is to it for me-- there are many different ways of hearing pieces and I find that enjoyable. I feel very close to some composers who share these ideals and yet, Babbitt has never made analogies like this. All he says is that he wants his music to be as rich as possible. I guess that I'm saying the same thing, but I'm just being more explicit about it or finding some analogy to explain it. (My wife says the garden imagery is fine, but when people actually hear one of my pieces, it's as if the garden were on Pluto!)
K: Earlier, you mentioned that you are no longer composing pieces that directly reflect your studies in ethnomusicology...
M: World musics (for lack of a better term)...
K: ...is that influence no longer apparent in your work?
M: Well, yes and no. The idea of using the music in a quotational way is certainly no longer what I'm doing.
K: When did that stop?
M: I wrote a piece called Three Encores in 1977-- the first one is a piece based on a Grey code which is called On/Off and it was written for a pianist friend of mine named Bob Wierich. It's sort of a twelve-tone piece. The second movement is a piece that is like a South Indian composition (raga: Bhairavi; tala: Misra Chapu) and the third one resembles a Brahms Intermezzo, written for the pianist/composer, Gary Smart, who was my student at the time. I intended the three of them to be used to round out a program as encores. It would be fun if somebody played the third one, for instance, and a listener said, "Oh, that's a piece that I don't know by Brahms." These pieces were also encores to the period during which I worked with world musics. After that, I found that the pieces I was writing weren't even inspired by the Western music that I knew, because you can't find these twelve-tone or set theory concepts in older Western music either. (Exceptions are my piano piece of 1983, Four Voices in Three Voices, which has a sort of neo-classic agenda, or my Ordre for harpsichord (1982), a set of character pieces with names refering to works by Rameau and other Baroque compositions.) You can conceive of a line of compositional thinking that increases exponentially from the late nineteenth century through Schoenberg into Babbitt or Boulez or Stockhausen or any of these serial composers. This evolution extends the modes through which you can express musical information moving away from the idea of trying to control specifically the way a listener hears. Nevertheless, there was a reaction against this development in the 60's...Penderecki's and Ligeti's music. Their music was received very well, because there was an emphasis on providing one very strong way to hear through a piece. Sometimes there's only one way, but it's very strong and if you're looking for that, then you really like this music. To me, personally, I find such pieces hard to listen to, because I'd rather listen in other ways. Although I consider my music to be part of the "line," I still think of my music as being traditional enough; after all its to be played in concert halls or on records and CD's...I don't see my music as needing a new kind of performance space, except for the electronic pieces. In those, you really need good speaker placement, because of the things I'm doing with space, movement, and timbre (luminescence of the sound). Almost all of the other music that I write fits into the category of concert music in the old sense of the word, though. Of course, there were many composers in the 60's, myself included, that questioned the whole thing and invented new environments for listening or involved the audience totally in the listening experience by having them control the performance.
K: Would you say that your music has become more specialized over the past few decades and perhaps narrower in scope?
M: Actually, I consider what I'm doing now to be the more expansive in some ways. In my music of the last ten years, I am more greatly concerned with sonic and cognitive aspects. For me, that makes it much richer and I feel a sense of progress. I know a lot more about what I want to do and how I want to go about doing it and I have very specific ideas about how to proceed. From another point of view-- from the amount of references to other musics, for instance-- it must seem like I've become more concentrated and specialized, but I don't feel it that way. The period in which I wrote music related to all of the world musics was very important to me and I still love non-Western music and listen to it often...but I don't feel compelled now to make it my own like I did then. I went through that period and felt my way through the music and found a way of putting it together, but what I really wanted to do was to achieve a richness through integration. Now I'm doing that in a much more direct way and with more of a Western background...so it might be more possible for people to comprehend the difficulties of my music from a Western point of view than it was for them to learn the other four or five kinds of music languages. I'm not saying that the music I write now is more accessible, though.
K: So you've managed to strike a balance between complexity and accessibility in this way...
M: Every piece is different, of course, but there's also another issue here and that is how one relates to the performer in a piece. Some of my recent music is quite difficult to play...more so than most of my earlier pieces. However, the difficulty must produce something that is worthwhile in the end. There's a lot of music that's very hard to play that just doesn't have that effect. Sometimes it's composed by a computer throwing out numbers and often it is unplayable...there are some performers, of course, who can do it, but it may take two months or so for a more average type of performer and then you don't know what to do with what you've got in your hands. The reverse case is a difficult Chopin piece-- you may work two months on that (and it's just as hard as the other work), but then for the rest of your life, you've got things to say with it. That's probably the most important thing that I need to think about in my music--how to make sure that when I compose something hard to play or difficult to understand that it's worthwhile after one has practiced it and got it right.
K: Do I hear a plug for computer-realized music?
M: That's why computer music is cool...because you avoid that question totally. You just ask the computer to do it. There's no issue of having to ask a person to work on it. That's one of the most attractive things about it, except of course, that then you disassociate music from people and that makes it harder for the audience to listen to the sound relations as such. Most of the time when people listen to music, they watch the performers musically interacting and reacting, and that gives them an idea of how a piece feels and how it goes. When you take the performer out of that, you must have a good deal of sophistication and knowledge about sound and structure in order to comprehend what's happening. (The same thing goes on when people listen to non-Western music and don't understand the instruments or the vocal techniques. They have the same response-- "This just sounds weird!" They don't know where to place their experience, what is the performance context for the musical sounds.) I think that composers really write for performers and not for the audience. The listener's connection is to the performer. That's good, because it gives the performer a responsibility that the composer cannot usurp. In the kind of pieces that I like to write, the performers role is to find ways in which they can project different degrees of richness. A poor performance would not only be an inaccurate one; another evil would arise if a person wanted to project only one thing. For example, there are some performers of Bach who insist on bringing out the tune at every entrance of the fugue subject...even at the expense of the other voices. That would be a problem in the performance of my music.
K: Would you make any other analogies between these aspects of your music and the performance of classical repertoire?
M: Early music-- Bach and earlier-- is inspiring to me because there is a polyvalence in the ways that the various parts go together. The music isn't so directed by one voice or by a homophonic conception. As a result, each performer has an interesting part. Most of the theories that we have about musical structure and evolution are about music written for the "tour guide" kind of situation in which the composer is in charge and the rise and fall of a composition follows a certain gestural strategy. And we have some pretty good theories about that...Leonard B. Meyer's or James Tenney's theories...some of David Lewin's stuff...all of them are very useful in understanding that kind of thing. And Schenker's theories are good to show how a chain of things can be embedded at different levels. You have different levels of speed and complexity but they are presented in sequence, very much like speech presents many levels of meaning but one phoneme at a time. In music, though, it's possible to have many different things happening at once. For that reason, it's very hard to formulate a theory of musical perception or gesture. There must be some theory that can be developed, but it must be a very different kind of theory from these other ones. If I live long enough (or if I stop composing), I'll probably work on that.
K: If you were to have a dialogue between your "composer self" and "theorist self"...
M: That's what I'm doing now, actually!
K: I know, but if you were to continue this dialogue with the theorist asking questions of the composer, would conflicts arise and how would you deal with them? I'm also going to ask you about the reverse situation, when the composer asks the questions and the theorist answers them...
M: I think of the theorist as a physicist and the composer as an engineer. It's useful to think that way because you know that engineers work on projects and ideas for all kinds of consumption, not only for other engineers to work with, but to design T.V.'s and hoes and screwdrivers, to help people do things. I look at composition in that light--composition is the use of theoretical principles of musical organization to arouse feeling or to express beautiful things or to create music to be used in ritual or in a folk context or for any of the million uses of music. It is helpful to distinguish between the uses of music and the theories that help you to orient your music toward a particular use. When the composer talks to the theorist, he is full of ideas about what he's going to do with this music, but when the theorist talks to the composer, he says, "Look, these facts and relations are all I have to offer you." The composer may not be very satisfied with that! The theorist has to work hard to develop something that is useful. I think the give-and- take that you're asking about is something that goes on all of the time. I've been in situations where I've wanted to write some music-- I just felt that I wanted to write something for a performer because I liked the way that person played--but I couldn't do it, because I didn't have any way of thinking through a technical question or understanding it. That's when my theorist failed. On the other hand, there were other times when my theorist had really good ideas but I couldn't find any use for them, so they sat on the shelf. I have lots of ideas about pieces that I haven't ever put into real pieces because I haven't found the right contexts for them. That can be simply a technical matter. You may be dealing with some sort of perceptive situation that you can figure out as a theorist, but you can't find a medium that will efficiently reproduce that perceptive thing. In the electronic medium, for example...there was Varese waiting for the electronic medium to come along because his ideas had outstripped what he could do with instruments. And then, there's the one who develops the concepts the theorist can use. That individual is the mathematician who constructs and elaborates abstract structures in and of themselves. That's a great interest of mine...I have a layman's interest in mathematics. I know something about the more exotic branches of mathematics that are very interesting and useful in composition. But I'm hardly well-trained, though, even at the under-graduate level in mathematics. I know enough math so that it doesn't intimidate me and therefore I have help when I am thinking very abstractly about musical processes and materials. The theorist isn't the person who thinks up this abstract stuff, but rather, the theorist creatively connects abstract ideas to possible realizations in music, while the composer does the work to get things realized as real music. I see the creative side of theory and composition as working hand-in-hand...certainly, these two people are not really at war with one another, but they control different aspects of the creative process.
K: ...but sometimes, they do have disagreements or debate issues which are raised by one or the other...
M: I don't see it that way. The main thing that happens in me is that if one can't produce, the other waits. It may be frustrating, but usually there isn't a fight where the theorist says, "You must do this..." and the composer answers, "...but...but..." Or maybe you're referring to something else that is a little like this, the creative vs. the critical. Now that's a different issue and that happens both in the theoretical and compositional parts.
K: Perhaps like the relationship between the anima and animus, as discussed by Jung?
M: I guess so. What I'm thinking about is that one might have a very fertile mind, but one may not know how to temper that flow so that it is useful or to temper it so that you have something that is characteristically even and balanced. Some people are very fluid, but have trouble producing results. These are often "idea people" and when it comes to working the details out, it's harder for them. Then there are the other kind of people who are very good at implementing and fitting the result to the question, but have a harder time discovering new ways of thinking about ideas and new ways of conceptualizing. I think that this happens both in the compositional and the theoretical domain. The critical side of the equation is the person who is worried about getting it to work right ("No, that's not good enough") and the one that is the more creative side might babble like a brook but has to be tempered. I have both of those sides to me. Most of the people who know me as a theorist think of me as making careful distinctions among concepts and not accepting anything but that. That's not really my theoretical side, though, that's just what they think theory is about. On the other hand, people who know me as a composer see me as being a little crazy (that's true, too) and yet I'm very critical when I'm in my compositional mode as well. The two sides aren't really so diverse, it's just that they play different roles in the process. It is true, though, that many people don't make the distinctions that I make and perhaps they are a bit arbitrary--there's a holistic or holographic way in which I could talk about myself and then it would be more natural not to make these distinctions in the first place...but you asked me to make them, so I did.
K: How would you describe your period of greatest compositional conflict? Did you ever have a compositional crisis from which you thought you might not surface?
M: There were two, actually. The first was when I was a freshman student at the Eastman School. As I said, I had no composition teacher and I had been learning by myself. I got to Eastman and I knew a tremendous amount of music...more than most of the other people my age. I was given a lot of credit for it, too, but I met many other creative people who did things in ways that I didn't understand. Until Eastman, since I was naive and alone, I thought, "Everyone does things my way." In other words, I didn't think of others as being different from myself. It was sort of silly, but I just didn't and so when I saw that there were so many different ways that things could be done, it put a doubt in my mind as to my own authenticity. For a long time, I had great trouble composing. I would go to compose every day and nothing would come out right. Being at professional school of music, I also got the sense that this was for real and composition was no longer a hobby that you did behind the scenes. Now you were going to put all of your energy into this and if you failed at it, then it would be the end.
K: What years were these?
M: I was about eighteen...I had written about fifteen or twenty pieces by then which showed some degree of sophistication, although some of them weren't very good at all. One time I came in to a composition lesson with a twelve-tone piece-- I had just experimented a little with it--and my teacher, John LaMontaigne, said, "Oh, a twelve-tone piece," and he took me over to the other side of the room and continued, "Now, I want you to tell me from memory everything that you wrote on the page." I was annoyed and I said, "You never asked me before to do anything like this." I later understood that he was extremely concerned about what might happen to you if you weren't clear about everything that you were doing. Well, when I could recount to him everything I had done he actually sighed with relief but there was also a bit of reluctance in his reaction, maybe that he wasn't able to dissuade me from composing with twelve-tones. While I appreciated his concern, at the same time, it made me very worried about what I did hear. Also, John would come in and announce, "Now we're going to play this piece"-- we'd be in a lesson and we'd try to read through an Ockeghem Mass in the old clefs and I could hardly do it while he would be just humming along! That made me feel like I didn't know what I was doing. That really made one test oneself. Such experiences amplified the feeling that I didn't have the right to be connected with truly musical people, and I had been more or less isolated until I went to Eastman. I got over it by living through it; I finally discovered that people could appreciate my music and that John was trying to get me to work as hard as possible. I was up against the wall in a way that I had never been before.
K: And the second conflict?
M: It's hard to pinpoint that...but I'd say that it was at the end of my period at Michigan just before I went to Yale. All of a sudden I was hitting the academic big time, although I had gone through a rigorous program at the University of Michigan--but I didn't get a Ph.D. there, I got a D.M.A., which was sometimes considered a lesser degree. Of course, Michigan was very defensive about their D.M.A. so the faculty made sure that all of their D.M.A. students had it as tough as their Ph.D. candidates. In fact, all doctoral students took the same exams. It was a tough exam sequence and we were all scared to death as everybody is who goes through that. I came out on top of it somehow and went away to teach, but when I went to Yale, all of a sudden really well-known composers were my colleagues--Mel Powell, Don Martino, and later, Penderecki and Druckman...I felt very funny about it. I was intimidated, but that wasn't so much the problem, it was that I was in a period when I was working with improvisation and indeterminacy in composition. When I was at Michigan, there were many people there who were like-minded and I would write these pieces that were very open and there would be composers and performers who would be interested in performing this music, so we'd play it.
K: Were you pleased with the result?
M: ...things worked out well! I would say, "This is really nice. You don't have to notate very much. You just have to indicate a form scheme and/or process." It was very much like free jazz improvisation...you have a "head" and some other information, and then everybody does their thing and you're in synch. A nice result happens and while you thought it up, but everybody involved is responsible for the result in a primary way. I like a shared role very much, which is different from the way I do things now. I was also trying to experiment with different kinds of notation in order to get at issues of timbre and instrumental expansions. I was exploring the idea that if you changed notation, you would put a person into a zone where he or she would have to reconsider even the simplest idea about how notation affects playing. That would be liberating and we might get a new kind of music out of that. All of these ideas were floating in my mind. I picked up a lot of them in thinking about what Cage had suggested. Of course, it was stuff that I didn't talk to my composition teachers about. They thought that if you did such things, you were negating your own individuality. Of course, my teachers, Ross Lee Finney, Leslie Bassett, and Eugene Kurtz, were very helpful and supportive in other domains. The composers of my generation were raised on the idea that music should be "authentic" and you should find your own voice. Once you did that, you were a bona fide composer and you were to keep that voice. You might write a range of music, but it would always have your particular stamp on it.
K: ...the old "defend the castle" idea...
M: Sure. It seemed perfectly plausible to me, because I liked the music which I could identify as coming from a particular composer. I could say, "That's Beethoven or this is Bartok," because there was a special character to it. But there was this story of John Cage that I used to think about often-- a pianist who was playing something and her teacher said, "Stop trying to over-interpret this, just play it!" So the student said, "But I'm trying to express myself through the music." And the teacher said, "Look, you want to know about self-expression, get a piece of paper and a pencil and sign your name." After this the teacher remarked, "Now that's self- expression!" Even your signature is a means of personal identification, you don't have to think about "personality," it just happens naturally, .
K: ...so improvisation obviously has the stamp of individuality as well...
M: Yes!...and I have another story along those lines. I got a chance to go to Tanglewood on a fellowship. It was divided into two factions: the people who were from Princeton and Columbia and Yale, who were on the side of serial pitch relations, and the "left wing" people who were interested in theater music and improvisation...I was on the left wing. Martino and Gunther Schuller were the teachers that year and I studied with Schuller. He didn't find what I was doing very interesting and although he was kind and helpful, I could tell that it wasn't his cup of tea. What happened, though, was that I was going to rehearsals of an improvisatory piece of mine, Sangita '67, which was being played by very good Boston performers. These people had to improvise by following a curve or choosing certain notes from a collection, but they just didn't know what to do. They said to me, "We want to play this well, but how?" I'd say, "Kind of make up something that follows the given contour." I'd tell them what to do and illustrate it myself, but they couldn't find a way to make it really interesting and musical when they did it. I was getting very worried about this performance because it was not happening and yet these players were playing other pieces of music very well. I began to think that there was something the matter with me. At the same time, the players wanted to do well and by the time the performance came around, it wasn't so bad, but it wasn't what it was at the first rehearsal when I had the piece done at Michigan. At Tanglewood, the audience really liked my piece very much, because they thought it was relaxed and informal as opposed to being "hepped-up" and all that. So there was this mismatch when the audience liked something that didn't please me...then I worried about why techniques that had worked with other musicians didn't work in this situation.
K: But didn't your approach depend very much on the skills of the musicians that you were working with?
M: Of Course! What I didn't understand was that I had simply reached a different body of players. What I had been doing was very, very dependent on the players who were around. I could either go in that direction and find people in various places who would know how to perform my music or I could return to more traditional notation to get what I wanted. In general, I found that when I had people play pieces which had any degree of indeterminacy, I was often unhappy. I wouldn't like exactly what I'd heard. I knew that there was a realm of possibilities that was quite wide and any of it would be fine, but I couldn't get the players to find that realm. Or sometimes they'd hit it and sometimes they wouldn't. They didn't understand how to parse the things that I wanted and my notation was not helping them do it, although it was designed to do so. So I began to consider the fact that I really wanted my music to go a certain way. For a long time, I tried to find ways in which I could have some degree of variability. I finally gave that up, because it was better to give performers one way to do something (which was acceptable to me) rather than to give them many ways, some of which would be "wrong" from my point of view. And if you have five or six players in an ensemble, it can go "wrong" quite often. During the period in which I was battling with these issues, I was very worried about the directions that I had taken and if they were right.
K: What years were these?
M: This was '68 through '70. At that time, I rejected the possibility of being influenced by any of the ethnomusicology stuff that I knew about. I was listening to various musics, and sometimes, I would think, "Well, I can make an interesting piece if I put this idea together with that, but no, that 's not for me to do." I felt that I was intruding into different cultures without a visa and I wasn't myself. You see, I still bought the idea of having to find your own voice. After awhile, the urge to explore world musics became more pressing...it finally came out through my work with tape collages and tape delay systems. I would play different kinds of musics through these systems as experiments. I ended up with a piece, Rapport (1971), in which you improvise your way through a whole bunch of different recorded musics with synthesizers. That led to the acculturation trilogy that I mentioned before. When I finally got to that point, I felt that I was O.K. again as a composer and I've never had such a crisis since. The transition from the acculturated pieces to the newer music that I'm doing now was very gradual...I seemed to know what I was doing and I was very conscious of my choices. I didn't have problems about working in those new ways. The second crisis had occurred when I began moving from where I was at the end of my Michigan experience to having a broader experience with other kinds of musicians in groups. From this second crisis, I learned that if I composed without being so self-conscious about what I was doing, it would come out O.K. I found out through teaching that many student composers have the same problem-- they get to a certain point where they are very, very worried about making the mark and about doing things just right, when actually there isn't anything like that to worry about. They have to let their hair down a little bit and follow something through to the end and be patient with themselves as opposed to worrying about "making it." I find that a lot of composers in their early twenties have this problem. I like to help them over it, because I had this problem, too.
K: Do you consider teaching to be an important part of your life?--are you a composer who teaches out of obligation or who loves to teach or do you find yourself somewhere in between?
M: I'll say different things at different times. It depends on what kind of day I have. I'll tell you a story...there is this friend of mine, who also taught composition at Yale [...]. We parked our cars in the same lot and on Fridays, we got through our day about the same time. I would see him there and I said to him, "Gee, you always look down at the end of Friday...you must have a really long day." And he said, "Aw no, it's not that bad. I only teach three composition students." And I said, "That's still a lot of work," and he replied, "Well, you know, to be honest with you, it really is." And I said, "What's the problem?" "Well, the first one doesn't know whether he wants to come out of the closet and the second one is worried about whether he's going to leave his wife or not...and the third one might commit suicide this weekend..." It is maybe not so obvious but there's a very close relationship that you have with your students in which you learn a lot about their personal lives. Everything is interconnected and so a student might come into a lesson and be not feeling very good about his or her music and that could easily flow over into other aspects of his or her life. When you learn a lot about your students, there can be a lot of emotional baggage, but of course, you're not really a psychiatrist, so you simply try to be friendly and helpful. Your main objective is to help them compose but all of these other things come into it, too. The emotional weight of such lessons can be very, very heavy. I don't resent it, but it's often very hard to do. I like it best, of course, when we talk mostly about music and things are flowing well. That's nice and everybody's happy.
K: ...and what about the perennial question, "Can composition be taught?"...
M: When you think about helping composers, you can take one of two stances. The older school was that you taught what you knew. People came to you because you had certain things to teach. Many people still feel that way-- "I'm going to study with X because she does this stuff that I really like and I want to know how she does it...I want to do something like that, too." That's one attitude. Another reason to study with a composer is merely political. "This person has a lot of clout and if he likes my music, it would probably be good for me to know him." Those are important and basically legitimate reasons to study with someone. But if a student is really looking for help with his or her own projects (as opposed to being like someone else or getting favors), then that's a tougher situation. In the older days, it was really hard to find composer teachers who could do that for you. But it has become a kind of unwritten rule among people who teach composition that you don't push your own stuff, but you really try to figure out how a student is trying to compose and you help him or her. My students often write music which is very different from mine and many of them would disagree with many of the ideas that I have expressed in this interview. However, I've been able to help them because my idea in teaching composition is to find out what they want to do. The advantage for me is that it gives me a lot more insight into different ways of doing things. When somebody spontaneously comes up with a concept that you've never thought about, it can be very enriching. Also, when you have students that are opposed to you and let you have it (and you can't just bop them, of course), then you become sharper about what you're doing. Yet you've got to be very tactful and respond in positive ways. That's very good for one. I've learned from the many students I've taught that there are no set ways that someone composes. Sometimes I think I've seen everything but I know that I'll continue to be surprised as long as there are creative people around My response to composers has been similar to my response to other musics, because they have broadened me rather than making me more narrow.
K: How does it affect you when you don't teach for awhile?
M: A few years ago, I didn't teach for a whole year. When I got back to it, I didn't think that I'd enjoy it at first, because I had valued my free time so much, but I really got along very well with my students that year. It made me realize that I had missed discussing technical things in composition with people. You don't discuss these things with many of your colleagues and it's even rare that you get to give an interview of this length and depth. It's not often that you get to talk meaningfully to anybody about music or if you talk to your friends about it, you talk a lot about the political stuff-- who's who and did you hear about what so-and-so did and how did that person get a performance...you laugh and have a few beers but you never really get down to the nitty-gritty.
K: There's a certain level of intimacy that's shared...that is, if the student doesn't feel that the teacher is pulling a "power trip"...
M: The students that I have now are in their early twenties...they're usually masters and doctoral students. They have a lot of experience composing already and so I feel that I'm talking to another composer rather than teaching in the formal sense. On the other hand, I enjoy teaching real beginners, but there you really have to lay down some fundamentals. You have to say, "Well, look, let's compose melodies and here are some principles of melodic composition." You want to help them do that. But I always like it when they think of some principle that you didn't think of and they present it one day and someone says, "What about this...I tried this!" Great...it shows that they're creative. And it's also wonderful when they argue with you. I like it when students ask pointed questions. In any case, with beginners you need to start with a network of relations and to teach some theory of composition. I guess that I enjoy doing that. With the more advanced students, though, it's really much more open.
K: When you were talking about having to deal with the psychology of the student as well as his or her intellectual needs, it occurred to me that you are also concerned with the spiritual well- being of the student. Do you follow a particular spiritual path in your own life from which some of your teaching stems?
M: That's an interesting question. I have some hobbies--I guess I should put it that way--that I don't talk to many people about. I have a great interest in Buddhist thought. I've done a lot of reading of translations and much of it is not scholarly text, but it's directly in the realm of religion, Sutras and commentaries. I'm particularly attracted to things in Zen Buddhism and that probably dates me as someone from the fifties. Those ways of thinking are very near to my deepest compositional ideas. [...] The reason that Zen Buddhism appeals to me so much is that it really tries to cut away everything and go right to the essence of what Buddhism is, which can be seen in part as the attempt to balance out the problems in the world. And one of the basic ideas of Buddhism is that we have this problem-- we are always wanting things that we can't get. Therefore, we want to stop wanting, but that's very hard to do. You can't stop wanting by wanting to! How do you do it? How do you stop being hungry when you're hungry? That presents a problem to work through. The answer in Buddhism is that you practice meditation and it's not as prayer...it's just a quieting of the mind and some sort of posture is usually connected with it to stabilize the body. You reach a quietness that makes it much easier for you to be accepting and not grabbing at everything. When you do that, it becomes much easier to know who you are and to get a sense of what you want to do in the world and to live with the problems that inhibit you from doing those things. Let me put it this way: my interest in Buddhism as a practice has been very practical and has not been a matter of trying to reach some sort of transcendent state. However, there is this concept in Buddhism called shunyata, which is "emptiness"--you can reach it through meditation and it is the state in which dualism falls apart and "yes" and "no" don't contradict each other...they're just there. This is a very useful state to be in, because it cleans you out. It's like taking a bath after a hard day and you feel refreshed. In this case, you find that you're better able to deal with things and often, you're much more creative in a plainer way. That's another thing that I like about Zen Buddhism...the ordinaryness of it...there's nothing fancy, nothing special about this. Everybody can do it and you can be anywhere in life. You don't have to be a composer or a creative person to get something out of this. It's a levelling process and it does away with class and ethnic differences and all the other kinds of distinctions that separate us and make us worried about each other. I think that it is very salubrious to practice meditation of some sort and to think about these concepts. That has been influential for me in composition...For instance, I don't tend to talk about what emotional states might be aroused through my composition, but rather, I just get down to the nitty-gritty, to putting the notes together and making it as interesting as possible. I prefer to be plain and simple about composition.
K: Earlier in the interview, we discussed the issue of fragmentation in society and in the individual-- this can even manifest as a multiplicity of interests that seem to pull one apart. It seems to me that your contact with Buddhism has enabled you to focus yourself in a creative way. What advice would you give to a composer who felt fragmented and was seeking greater creative focus in his or her life?
M: The path is not the same for everyone. To use a Buddhist image-- "There are 84,000 dharmas..." Dharma means many things: law...procedure...thing... concept and idea. It is a mixture of all of these things. Sanskrit and Pali is full of these complicated words with connotations that cut across English. It's hard to give a clear definition of dharma. The idea is that everybody is different from everybody else and in order to get to a good place, you have to go through your own path. In order to help somebody, you can say, "Here's the path I followed...you jump on it if you can, or if you can't, then go to someone else." That's one thing that I could say to that student-- you want to study with me or work with me or talk with me about music, then you should do what I'm doing more or less. Or you can take the other view: you can try and figure out who the student is and try and to help him or her. But you still may end up saying, "You should really study with so-and-so, because they will help you..." I think most of what we're talking about, though, is that people are afraid to be alone. We talked about finding your own voice and all that. The truth behind the glibness is that you really do have to stand on your own two feet and say, "I really like doing this and this is what I want to do." If it involves doing a hundred things, then do them all. If you want to play rock and you also want to study classical music, then do as much as you can do. So, if you are to help someone, it's a matter of figuring out who the other person is. It's the same thing in analyzing music. You only don't do it to prove to yourself that your theories in music are right and the piece confirms them, but rather, you do it to find out what this piece is doing that is different from what you do. You do it to get insight. It's the same thing with a person. You have to ask questions as opposed to laying down the law. That's the way that I would like to be treated by people.
K: What are the main challenges facing young composers today? They're very different today from twenty years ago when you were my teacher at Yale, aren't they?
M: I think that one of the things that worries me about young people today is related to this trend called "post-modernism." I'm really not sure what the term really applies to, except that I would probably say, as you have, that "there are a lot of options available." What I object to is the post modernist's bashing of the great music of the recent past; I don't see musics as being in conflict; these people seem to be confusing ideology with musical experience. Of course, they deny the distinction since they have no understanding of or sympathy for the concept of absolute music. But for me, absolute music is not music without meaning or social connection; its simply music for people who like to listen to sounds and their processes and relations.
And yet, on the other hand, as the post modernists have pointed out, the classical music establishment has made it almost impossible to change anything in that establishment. I mean, there is something called "the cylinder," which is the network of the top orchestras and the top managements and the top players. If you get into that, you've got all of the opportunities that come with it, but, once in it, you can't play outside of the sanctioned repertoire...and a lot of very good players end up doing just that. But there are other players who don't want to fit in, who want to do new things. They are never going to get cylinder support and are never going to become household words. However, these might be the more interesting players, because they're not trapped by traditional limitations.
K: But this "cylinder" that you're talking about consists of only a handful of people, doesn't it?...
M: That's right...but that's what a lot of young people think they want to do. They want to get aboard that...they're trying to reach the stars by way of "the cylinder."
K: ...but you don't fall for that...
M: No, I think that it's pretty much a bogus and problematic thing to be in. If you do get into to the cylinder, you have to be pretty narrow to live within it and not become awfully worried about it.
K: Given a society such as we have now, what might be the ideal, then? What might be a reasonable path to embark upon?
M: If you have a job, you need to make sure that it's a job you want to do. For most composers, that would involve teaching theory and composition, maybe getting involved in computers, too. Those are the people that get jobs now...the people who have some degree of cross-connection and versatility.
K: But the job could be anywhere, as long as the job is what one wants, right?
M: Yes. Exactly. That's the big issue for the young composer today: not to sell out [yet remain flexible and interactive with respect to one's musical invironment]. You have to make music where you are, that's the obvious solution...with your friends...with the opportunities that you have available to you. It's amazing that some people go to a small town or a university community or even a medium-size city and get pretty far in a few years...they can get the choruses and orchestras and many of the interesting performers in the town to play new music and especially their own work. They can have satisfying careers that way. It involves meeting a lot of people and being very gregarious. That's one route. Another one is within the conservatory or university setting where you have quite a few more options, even though you may end up writing music mostly for those within that educational institution's realm. And there are some composers who welcome that...Babbitt sees music schools with good orchestras as the place to do orchestral music as opposed to working with the big orchestras that don't have the necessary rehearsal time. That's interesting as an option. Outside educational institutions there is a dichotomy between the world of music that is practiced in concert halls and the push from popular music that makes money and represents another aspect of society. So there are three options that the composer has to choose from. The conflict that the young composer might feel today is..."How can I integrate these spheres? How can I live in the university and yet maintain contact with the civic aspects of classical music in the culture but not in 'the cylinder' and at the same time, also deal with the popular musics that are capturing the imagination of most of the younger people?"
K: If you could list two or three hopes that you have for the development of music in American culture over the next ten years, what would they be?
M: I'd like to see much more emphasis in the mass media on things that are really intellectually and culturally valuable. That's one of the most important issues but, unfortunately, the mass media has become detached from what it calls "the academic world." I live in an intellectual atmosphere...most of my friends are either musicians or in other branches of learning. I like that very much, but I feel so alienated when I watch television or when I go out on the street. Not because I really feel alienated as a person, but because there is so much going on around me that doesn't touch me at all and I wish that there was some way that television and other media could be used to explore and present what is truly interesting in the world. Is it that the interesting stuff is just for people who are smart and since there aren't too many of them, they can be ignored? I don't think it need be that way at all. The possibilities are tremendous-- during the 60's, I had a lot of hope about this. When I was at Michigan, there were concerts of new music and difficult new music at that. People would come, you'd fill up the house and they'd be really excited about this new stuff and give standing ovations for some of it. In the 70's, I saw a slow but sure decline of enthusiasm in audiences until the early 80's, when it was it its worst. Things seem to be getting a little better now. That was very hard to live through, though--to almost lose hope that new music would catch on and that there would be a decent audience and some respect for it. It has not happened yet.
K: ...and could it still happen somehow?...
M: We need to have much better education and not just musical education. It has to be at all levels. There are so many great things from way in the past that should not be forgotten. At the same time, we have to live in the present world. I had a conversation about ten or fifteen years ago with David Mott. We were joking around on Christmas Day at a party and I said, "Suppose there was a nuclear war and you were involved in a small community that survived. What would you do as a musician?" David said to me, "I would try to get as many people as I could to be as musical as possible. I would teach them to play and make music." And I found myself saying, much to my surprise, "Well, that's good, but I would want to write down the most important things of the past that I could remember. I would give up my career as a creative person to be a scribe." I would want to preserve the music of Bach and Beethoven, mathematical theorems, poetry, philosophy, literature...just so that some of the great things that had been destroyed wouldn't be altogether lost. That was my feeling about it. Maybe this tells you a little more about where I am with respect to musical learning and knowledge. Mass culture has almost totally ignored the past so that there isn't much of it that is on a very high and beautiful and/or intellectual plane. I would like to see that changed...whether or not I can help to change it, I don't know--but I'd be willing to try if I could find a way.
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