Perspectives of Robert Morris
An Interview by Payton MacDonald

This interview was published in 21st Century Music, Vol. 8/12 (2001).

PM: To get started, tell me a bit about your most recent project, Playing Outside. I understand this work is for various ensembles and is played in a park. Is this the first time you've written something like this?

RM: Yes it is, with respect to location. However, for the US bicentennial I was commissioned by the Yale Band to write a work for five wind ensembles lasting an hour to be played in the Yale Commons, a large eatery for graduate students at Yale. The planning of the entire piece, called "Indifferent Voices," involved not only determining a structure for the piece, but also working out the rehearsals and logistics ahead of time. My pre-compositional preoccupations were similar in Playing Outside, but the scale is larger. The piece is 100 minutes long and played in ten locations at Webster Park outside of Rochester, New York. The musicians independently move from one location to another within the 100-minute time-span of the piece to form different ensembles, and sometimes they play in transit from one place to another. This obliged me to choose appropriate and accessible locations, work out a matrix of how much time it takes to walk from one location to any other, determine the set up of instruments and voices in each location, and so forth. And there is a huge musical super-structure, which holds everything together.

PM: Why did you decide to write a piece like this? I know you spend a lot of time outside, hiking and experiencing and thinking about nature. I also know John Cage's work has been influential on your thinking. Are these influences present in the work?

RM: I'm not sure I ever make a decision to write a piece; either some idea pops into my head (but may stay dormant or transform over time, even years), or I'm asked to write something. In this case, the idea came to me while hiking in Webster Park in the summer of 1996 with a friend. We were mapping a rather intricate network of ski-trails just for fun and it occurred to me that since I compose music with a counterpoint of unfolding successions of musical association, cross-relation, and process--something I have often described using the metaphor of a garden with multiple paths walked differently on each visit--why not make a piece where this would be literally reflected in the space in which the music was performed? Time could be literally space.

In addition, Webster Park has an interesting quality that seemed to invite my musical sensibilities to inhabit it. I had had such feelings when I first started hiking seriously in 1989 in Arizona where the look, feel, and character of the natural terrain of the dry desert seemed to reflect my own personality so prominently I felt my insides had been arrayed outside before me for all to see. I also felt as if I had just been released from privation, as if coming home after a long, bitter absence, a joy of connection, a joy of finding a vast space in which one could roam freely from one beautiful place to another. I had already noticed this connection of place to music to person in certain works of other composers, such as Bartok's "outdoor" and "night" musics and in Beethoven's Pastorale and Seventh Symphonies. And I've always been very moved by Chinese and Japanese landscape painting and scrolls. Many of my works have titles that betray these influences: Strata, Night Sky Scroll, Terrane, Meandering River, Badlands, and so forth.

Of course, John Cage's work in all of its imaginative re-affiliations of sound to life has been an important, but perhaps a more intellectual influence. After reading Silence and listening to his "Indeterminacy" and "Lecture on Nothing" in 1961, I was moved to read the Buddhist and Taoist literature that had influenced him. Later I got quite serious about Buddhist thought and its connection to music, but in different ways from Cage. For many years I practiced meditation regularly, which changed the whole way I regarded the world of music and what music could be.

PM: There are obviously many factors that contributed to the creation of this piece, more perhaps than you could realistically communicate to an audience via program notes. This raises two questions in my mind. First, are there program notes for the work and if not are you concerned that the audience might not understand the full background for the work? Second, somewhat unrelated, what do these ideas and the piece mean to you in light of the terrorist attacks on September 11? I just read an article in Time in which the notion of art and especially entertainment is viewed as undergoing a reevaluation of sorts due to a perceived shift in the American psyche since the terrorist attacks. Do you see this? What does this mean to you?

RM: To answer your first question, there are program notes, a statement on how to enjoy this piece--since it will be a novel experience for most of the audience--and an essay on the work's aesthetic dimensions, all three of these available on a specially designed web site, and the first two printed in the program given out at the performance. As you imply, there is always much more to a piece of music than what can be communicated in words. The purpose of program notes is really only to get the head pointed in the right direction, so to speak, so one doesn't miss something simply because one didn't know where (or how) to look.

On the second question, I can't know what the horrible and infamous events of September 11 will bring to our culture and art. One thing is probably true, that our artistic involvement will be more serious. Another is that censorship may be thought justifiable on the basis of providing safety and security to Americans. (This has been an argument on the right for some time.) In such times it's hard to believe in the power of music and the other arts to influence current events and provide a basis for wise action. But we must remember that those of us who make things of beauty and significance should continue to do it, for the highest products of people should not be forgotten in the rage to punish and revenge or in the grief of loss and death. That's what has happened to the people who planned and executed this unspeakable violence and disruption.

None of the issues my piece raises or the experiences it provides are changed by the terrorist attacks. In fact, Playing Outside might offer solace to those who are concerned that the world has become unsafe and treacherous. We have war monuments that we keep in mind in times of peace; we also need monuments to peace and beauty in troubled times. Not that my piece is a monument, but I hope it will help remind people of their connection to the world of living things, sentient or not.

PM: You said that our future artistic involvement might be more serious. Does this imply that much of the current artistic work in America, especially in American universities, is not serious? Or are you thinking in broader terms, including television and radio and rock concerts, etc.?

RM: Well, by serious I meant two things. First, music and art may take on a more somber and considered tone. For instance, here in Rochester last week a benefit concert sprung up for the Red Cross in memoriam the victims of Sept. 11, put on by the Rochester Philharmonic with a volunteer chorus. 250 people showed up to sing. And the music was "classical"--the Mozart Requiem. (It interesting how classical music tends to play a role in commemorating events of national importance.) In any case, we will probably see many creative people addressing the terrorist attacks and/or their implications in their work. Second, the distinction between art and entertainment may not be as blurred as it has been in the last few years.

What is "serious music" and where does it reside? That depends not on time, place, style, function, or reward, but on intention. So there's serious music everywhere, if you are willing to look for it. Institutions that sell and/or promote music often want to bill it as entertaining, accessible, exciting, fashionable, and so forth, no matter what the music is actually like. This has created a climate where music that is created to literally satisfy these upbeat criteria is more likely to be supported. There's an old joke about the fish merchant that gives a big discount on a certain kind of flounder. When people come back and tell him the fish tastes terrible, he replies, "Oh, those fish are for selling, not for eating."

PM: That's funny! That's been my impression of a lot of new music I've heard recently. I've noticed how much effort some of the performers and composers expend making their work seem like the "next" thing. Do you see careerism as a prominent aspect of your student's agendas? Are things any different now than when you were a student?

RM: Things are very different. When I was a student, the route for a young concert music composer was: get performances, reviews, and published. Musical journalists still held sway over composers' future. Publishers edited, engraved, distributed, and found performances of their clients' music. Performances and recordings, however, were about as difficult or easy to secure (depending on the location, influence, style of music, and so forth). The idea of an academic composer was not much of an issue--many composers took jobs as theory instructors, while avant guard composers tended not to have academic or teaching jobs. In any case, composers' compositional careers were forged in the musical and/or intellectual market-place, largely outside of academe.

Since then, at least in the United States, the situation for concert music has radically changed. Music publication is almost defunct so composers perform, publish and record their own music. The quality of reproduction is as good or better than any commercial publishing house or recording company. Music journalists rarely champion composers--of course, there are few exceptions. They have become more or less passive and ineffectual and the intellectual and literary level of musical journalism has fallen severely. Most new music composers are employed in academic venues of some sort these days. This connection gives them access to a potential audience and tools of their trade. It is not very well known that certain prominent composers who have remained independent of the academic world have often been supported by patrons or are independently wealthy. Of course there are a few successful composers who can live off the proceeds of their own symphonic music by writing music for "kiddie concerts" and other "outreach" functions or setting up consortia among civic orchestras. Other composers have careers as performers or conductors, but not as many as in past years.

Many would say that the present represents the failure of concert music to support its contemporary composers. Most young composers take a more positive view. They see the scene as wide open for entrepreneurial action. This might look like careerism, but it is simply a way some composers have chosen to adapt. Because they must publish, record, promote their music themselves, they have control of their music's presence and influence in the many layers and partitions of present-day musical culture. Some composers protect their music from commodification; others can sell as hard as they like. All must contend with the power of image to promote their music. Many are effectively using the Internet to get their music out and to publish their views.

PM: How do you get your music out to the public? What are your feelings about the promotion of your own work? Is your present approach different than in the past?

RM: I don't actually often bring my music to the public directly. It usually gets there through the efforts of performers and musical institutions. However, I do have a web site, publish my own music and CDs, and sometimes organize concerts, either alone or with others. I have been known to write and give lectures on my stuff. Once in a while I go after a grant or commission.

I must say I find promotion the least satisfying of my compositional activities. I'm much more interested in composing and writing about music. I also have some other academic interests that need concentration and effort: Indian music scholarship and the study of Buddhist and other Indian, Japanese, and Chinese philosophy. Being a Co-Editor of a major composition journal takes some time. But, of course, promotion is a necessity. I find it problematic since I hate pushing my work on others, convincing them of its value and importance, or trying to negotiate via quid pro quos. Composers who do the hard sell turn me off. My underlying personality is somewhat retiring and even shy, and I need to protect my privacy--otherwise I find it hard to create work I like. Until recently, I didn't have that much time for promotion, but since I am no longer teaching graduate music theory students, I have adequate time to pursue theory research, compose, and market my work.

PM: To continue the discussion of the artist/audience relationship, how would you describe your music in words? Some of our readers might not be familiar with your work yet; what could you say that might give them some idea of what your music sounds like? (Keeping in mind, of course, the old adage that writing about music is like dancing about architecture...)

RM: I was in a similar situation in 1992 when I was stopped by a state patrolman for speeding on the way to a concert premiering one of my compositions for computer generated sounds. He asked why I was going fifteen miles an hour over the speed limit. I explained I was a composer going to hear the first performance of a piece and I had left late for the dress rehearsal--really a sound check, but I didn't think he'd understand the difference. He got curious and said, "So you're a composer? What kind of music do you write?" I did my best to answer and came up with, "Have you heard of Stravinsky? Well, go in that direction a lot further." (I got a ticket nevertheless.)

To say what any music is "like" is always a problem. While it's useful to get onto the same page and state I write in some style or manner, or for so and so forces, it tends to characterize one's music generically, and usually according someone else's category system. Furthermore, I am not really interested in providing a baseline for what distinguishes one's work from others; nor do I like to use a via negativa approach and say what my music is not like. Rather I want to point out what's particular about my work, for the proof's in the pudding anyway, otherwise the description could stand for the work. So again, as I said before, anything I would say about my work would be to direct attention in an appropriate way, and about a particular piece, not my entire output. But in order not to disappoint you I'll cite a little essay that a wrote to accompany a recent piano piece called "Meandering River." I hope it's not too long for this interview context. You'll note it does not describe the style or sound of the piece.

I'm not thinking of a large river. Mine is modest, flowing in the heart of the woods. You won't find it on a map. I like to stand near the place where it mysteriously emerges from an underground spring and watch it flow away.

There are only a few ways to get to the river without bushwhacking. The ruts of an old logging trail will lead you in; another way follows a path overgrown with high grass. Once you have found the river, it's difficult to follow its course. Its serpentine twists, dividing into alternate tributaries, creating island clusters, confounds the expert hiker, who must negotiate the banks of gnarled roots and slippery mosses and look out for tiny frogs and other creatures. There's no real danger though; the worst is embarrassment: falling in some scum-filled water. Better to get in and swim or float.

No matter where you go, from the source to where it empties into a lake or a larger river, you can't find the river's beginning. It is always flowing no matter where you go or when you get there. In some places the flow is strong and supple, good for rafting. Calmer when widest, there remain little eddies, which cause the leaves and insects to circle rather than progress downstream. There are jutting rocks here and there, violently splashed by spring water. The same rocks sit quietly among damp pebbles and stones in the later summer drought. Momentary rays of sunlight illuminate otherwise undistinguished patches of muddy water or washed out grass.

The river tells no story. If you want a story you can listen to the conversations of friends who visit on the weekends, or the stories told by campers late at night. You can make up stories about river sprites and forest gods, or the lives of the animals you might glimpse if you stay very still for a long time. These stories will not have plots that start or end if they are truly inspired by the river. And it doesn't matter if you tell your stories or keep them to yourself.

The river is always changing. It takes some time to appreciate that it never repeats. You might feel loss if you think on a time when the river was beautiful. You might feel impatient if you were hoping for the river to do something special. But you will get used to these feelings; besides, there are always surprises. Memory will fail, so you return again and again, but each 'again' is new."

PM: That's very lovely. I'm thinking that might be a nice place to end the interview, but I'm wondering what you've thought about over the years that you've always wanted to be asked about. Or maybe you've never wanted to be asked about anything! If you were interviewing yourself what would pique your curiosity?

RM: That's a question I've never been asked. Of course, the only answer is "I don't know"; but it brings up an important point. We can never know what others will ask or receive from us or our music, but certainly we hope the discourse will be interesting and useful. Moreover, even we cannot know what we will ask or receive from our own music and thought--that we can never know it from the outside--and so we will never have an "objective" or stable way to evaluate it, no matter how hard we try. The process of making it makes it impossible to receive it as if we didn't make it up. "I don't know" is why aesthetic solipsism is impossible.

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