Robert Morris Interviewed by Puaxy Gentil-Nunes

This interview was published in Tema newsletter Associacao Brasileira de Teerie e Analise Musical, Ano 3, n.3 2019 (4-9).

PGN: I would ask you to talk about your work as a composer and how it relates to your academic and theoretical works, especially in the creative process.

RM: Let me answer you by recounting the start of my music life. I commenced improvising on the piano before I took lessons at age 8. When I began to play pieces and to learn music notation, my immediate impulse was: why don't I make my own music? After all, if I could improvise, I could write down music as well. The realization that the emotion and power of music could be transmitted via notation so other people could play what a composer made up astounded me. This recognition of the relation between quality and quantification (music sound/feeling and notation/cognition)--to within the interpretation of performers—is the basis for my trust in compositional theory. Nevertheless, I have noticed that many other composers whose music I admire and respect do not share this trust.

When I began my career as a composer in the mid 1960s, the field of music theory did not yet exist as a distinct musical discipline. At that time and previously, if a composer took a job in a university music department or music school, s/he also taught music theory classes. Research into musical structure was considered (systematic) musicology. By 1975 things began to change; the advent of PhD degrees in music theory and composition supported by the assertion that music theory was a singular, independent research discipline with its own methods and pedagogy (bolstered by internal strains within musicology) led to the present situation in the US where composition, musicology, music theory, music criticism, and ethnomusicology are considered separate and more or less non-overlapping disciplines. (This meant that composers no longer taught music theory courses except perhaps counterpoint and orchestration.) Furthermore, each of these fields have bifurcated further, so that within composition there is concert music, electronic/computer music, experimental music, film music, etc.—although some composers are active in more than one of these sub-directions.

These changes during my lifetime have made it more difficult for my contributions to music to be known as integral and interconnected. Thus, I have been variously considered a composer, or a music theorist, or an ethnomusicologist. But the heart of my musical passions and practices is composition, and it has been nourished and expanded by my work in other fields. In addition, my interests in science, mathematics, and non-Western philosophy have also influenced and advanced my musical thought and aesthetics.

I continually composed music before and after I entered into music theory research. In fact, it was not until five years after I had completed my DMA degree in composition (with a cognate in ethnomusicology), that I wrote my first paper in music theory with Daniel Starr: "The Structure of All-Interval Series" Journal of Music Theory 8/2. My composition Not Lilacs, for trumpet, alto saxophone, piano and drums, of 1973 (written in my 30th year) was the breakthrough composition that initiated the concepts and procedures that have since guided my compositions. Before that work, my compositions were structured in various non- and/or semi-systematic ways, working without concepts such as arrays, pitch taxonomies, and partially ordered sets.

My compositional aesthetics were also stimulated by my encounters with non-western music, as I will explain more fully below. When I look back, I see that John Cage and Milton Babbitt were my main compositional influences—and not only their music, but their ideas and aesthetics. I was also attracted to composing with non-teleological forms, moment form, music as process, enunciated by composers such as Elliott Carter, Gyõrgy Ligeti, and Karlheinz Stockhausen. These influences have led me to compose music that can be experienced in many different ways in analogy to the architect who designs a garden that can be enjoyed in many different ways, satisfying the diverse needs and desires (including contemplation) of the people who visit it. I have come to the conclusion that all I should expect from the listener to my music is unbiased attention. Of course, I welcome informed understanding as well.

From my ethnomusicological studies, I have come to regard different forms of music as different musical languages, each having its own phonology, morphology, syntax, and semantics. This explains why listeners don't immediately “understand” a music new to them. (Note, these musics might be different traditional or popular musics in addition to new forms of Western art music.) When learning a new spoken or written language, it takes time to learn the vocabulary and syntax; and similarly for musical languages. Among other things, this explains how music evolves over time and how different musics can influence and acculturate each other. Essentially, music is not a universal language but a universe of languages.

Since Not Lilacs, the technical and the intuitive interact; one implies the other. For instance, a musical idea such as a chord or texture might come to me while hiking in the woods, and with it, the technical means to realize it; or a technical idea about registral distribution will suggest an animated musical conversation. In other words, theory begets composition and vice versa. But there is one more step: In addition to my music, I write articles and books about the technical side of composition.

Readers interested in an extensive account of my compositional ideas and aesthetics can read my book: The Whistling Blackbird: Essays and Talks on New Music published in 2010 by The University of Rochester Press.

PGN: Your research on compositional design and the formalization of the compositional processes is referential and gave the post-tonal theories an unprecedented direction for creative applications. I would ask you to talk a little about the actual process of organizing this remarkable work.

RM: While some of my work in music theory has been under the rubric of the analysis of 20th-century music, my main contributions have been in compositional music theory. Compositional theory is essentially speculative, since the primary concern is for general, open-ended principles of composition, not simply descriptions of how existing pieces are structured. The analyst, by contrast, is not necessarily interested in how pieces might be made, but in how existing pieces can be construed. The term "music analysis" connotes the practice of "reducing" a piece to an archetype or "explaining" it as a set of concepts; but there are other ways to describe or explicate pieces of music. I have often called all of these methods including analysis music appreciation.

We may also distinguish between compositional theories that are object oriented and those that are concerned with transformation and process. Naive presentations of serial and set theory for students, usually found in theory textbooks, tend to concentrate on musical entities such as rows, motives, sets, and rhythmic patterns rather than on the transformations that relate them. Allen Forte's theories have been seen as concerned with musical entities and their categorizations as contrasted with David Lewin's approach, which emphasizes transformations between entities, a concern that stems from his conception of musical intervals as transformations. In my view, the valorization of transformation over entity, or vice versa, is largely ideological, especially when this binary opposition is aligned with others such as noun versus verb, passive versus active, and Cartesian versus Phenomenological. For, while groups of transformations act on musical entities, it is the changes in an entity's content and order that allow us to infer that a transformation is afoot.

My interests in compositional theory were stimulated by the writings of Babbitt, Forte, George Perle, Pierre Boulez, Stockhausen, Iannis Xenakis and other progressive composers and theorists. I saw that these theories, while often thought to be about different aspects of new music, were actually facets of a larger frame of reference that centered about the structure of musical transformations. I also noticed that many key musical terms like pitch, rhythm, inversion, chord, or ordering were being used without clear definitions leading to vague and even contradictory assertions about musical structure. Moreover, I and other composer/theorists began to understand that ordinary music notation and terminology were no longer adequate to describe and explain what were truly radical and/or revolutionary musical orientations and investigations. This led to an interest in the application of modern mathematics to music as well as the use of computer programs to implement such new research.

My main concern was to better understand how pitch and time-point classes and their transformations figured in composition. To accomplish this, I divided pitch relations into three spaces: contour space, pitch space, and pitch class-space where pitch-class relations must be clearly articulated in pitch, contour and time if they were to function as musical syntax—that is, to be heard or that one can learn to hear it. By hear, I mean that X can be heard to be a Y in the context of Z. Some composers do not desire or expect their methods of composing to be heard; their methods are only necessary to generate a piece.

So, my first book, Composition with Pitch-Classes: A Theory of Compositional Design (published in 1987 by Yale University Press), began with discussions of the structures of contour and pitch space in separate chapters. Then I took up the structures and transformations of unordered, partially ordered, and ordered sets of pitch-classes (under transposition, inversion, and multiplication by 5 and 7 as well as rotation and retrograde order relations). I unified much of the previously published information on pitch-class relations as well as new concepts by the use of invariance matrices and mathematical groups. The heart of my book is concerned with the construction of compositional designs—that is, multi-dimensional arrays of pitch-classes that can be used to compose music. With different constraints on the criteria for forming an array, we have different approaches to composition. The last part of the book discusses three temporal spaces that are isomorphic to the three pitch spaces. Sequential time is isomorphic to contour space; measured time is isomorphic to pitch space; cyclic time (of 12 beat-classes) is isomorphic to pitch-class space. I also show how aspects of sequential time models other non-pitch dimensions of music, such as timbre and texture. In addition to the idea of a composition design, I introduced the idea of "compositional space" in an 1997 article called "Compositional Spaces and Other Territories," A compositional space is a network of relations that specifies the syntax that drives the progress and form of a composition or improvisation. A compositional design can function as compositional space, but it only one many other types of (out-of-time) configurations of pitch-classes.

My subsequent work on various categories of rows, types of segmental invariance, single-normed weighted-aggregates, non-aggregate combinatoriality, affiliated set-classes, pitch-class canons, double-aggregate structures, all-hexachordal/pentachordal/tetrachordal chains and rings, Mead tiles, and the like stemmed in part from my first book as well as work by other theorists. Such researches also served my compositional needs, usually implemented by computer programs to generate and/or enumerate types of entities and transformations to be used in composition.

PGN: Could you give us your insight into the situation of contemporary music concerning the concert music business and the context of the academy?

RM: At present in the US, music as a whole is partitioned into various niches. (Some of the niches were defined by market research and have been used to promote music.) Contemporary music is part of "classical music", and it divides into various orientations according to aesthetic, technical, and pragmatic criteria. There are therefore many different forms/styles/directions of new music evolving at once, each asserting its independence but also being influenced from the others. Since the beginning of this millennium, groups and organizations mainly run by composers and performers have sprung up mainly in large cities—some of lasting influence. A recent trend has been the formation of various summer camps and institutions where new music is taught and played. Most of these institutions have tuition fees and few fellowships. Other than this, contemporary music is more or less supported by academic institutions such as music departments, music schools, conservatories, computer music studios, and a few "centers" for new music.

Young composers now publish their own music, produce high quality sonic and video recordings, and distribute and promote their music over the internet. They have no need for publishing houses or record companies; and reciprocally, such music firms have no desire to try to sell recorded or printed music that doesn't make a lot of money in a minimal amount of time. Thus, the music business doesn't have much to do with new music with the exception of licensing organizations like BMI and ASCAP that pay composers when their music is performed. On the other hand, the music business does promote "classical", pop, sacred, and dramatic musics. Of course, a few composers of a rather conservative cast are able to secure commissions for orchestral music. The composition of music for civic and religious use (for chorus, band, and smaller ensembles) is another set of niches that may yield monetary security.

Perhaps the main problem for new music composers is that their music, no matter how highly lauded, does not enter the canon of classical music.

PGN: Your work includes substantial references to the Second Vienna School and all serial posterior advances, but also to Eastern music (please correct me if I am wrong). How do these two (or, perhaps, other) dimensions dialogue inside your works and your creative process?

RM: I will answer you autobiographically. I became aware of non-Western music before I even knew about the traditions of serial music. My piano teacher's wife (Rose Krevit, a dancer well aware of many forms of non-western dance) heard me improvising before one of my lessons and told me it sounded a bit like Indian music. She immediately and generously loaned me a few recordings (78 rpm records) and a book on north Indian classical music. This music immediately spoke to me. At the about same time (1957), my grandfather (on retirement from work as a court stenographer) took a long trip to Japan and returned with all kinds of souvenirs, including records of Japanese and Chinese pop, classical, and religious music, and books on haiku and other facets of Japanese culture; he gave these items to me a few years later. As a result, my curiosity for non-Western music broadened to include recorded music from Iraq, Egypt, Iran, Sub-Saharan Africa, India, Bali, Japan, China, and various non-western tribal and ritual musics. At the same time, as a young composer, I was immediately drawn to new music, especially compositions by Igor Stravinsky, Béla Bartók, Paul Hindemith, Edgard Varèse, Alban Berg, and Anton Von Webern. (Oddly enough, most of Arnold Schoenberg's music did not appeal to me then.) I was also aware of new recent music of Stockhausen and Boulez and the developments of electronic music. Drawn in many directions at once, my own compositions vacillated from neo-tonal to non-tonal.

When I started out studying composition with John La Montaine (1920-2013) in my freshman year at the Eastman School of Music, my interests turned away from experimental conceptions to mastering advanced skills in music theory and composition. My interests in Indian music came to the fore, and for a time I composed a number of pieces incorporating (something like) Indian ragas and rhythmic cycles in a neoclassical style. But by the end of my undergraduate studies, my interests returned to more progressive, non-tonal, and often serial music. Nevertheless, my experiences with non-Western music did not remain completely latent, for in my graduate student years, I studied ethnomusicology at the University of Michigan (1966-69).

Studying non-Western music confirmed how really different these musics were from those of the western classical tradition and that my fascination in my high-school years had been partially exotic. But the connection between new music and non-western traditional music was also now verified: that many new trends in (experimental) western classical music were actually traditional aspects of other cultures' music; intricate melodic ornamentation, microtones, extremely fast and slow tempi, heterophony, rhythmic complexity, timbral composition, and new functions for music, were to be found in various mid-eastern, African, and Asian musics dating back hundreds of years. I began to see all music involved in huge network connected by various degrees of similarity and correspondence, yet partitioned into different musical languages. This led to a kind of compositional crisis for me. How could I connect my own western-oriented musics into this vast ocean of music?

My solution was to spend three years (1973-6) composing music that variously combined and transformed music from many times and places. The three parts of what I deemed the Acculturation Trilogy consist of: (1) a 45-minute, four-track electronic piece called Thunder of Spring over Distant Mountains (1973) based on seven pieces of south-east and east Asian music; (2) a set of five chamber pieces including Not Lilacs mentioned above; and (3) In Different Voices, an hour-long composition for five wind ensembles, commissioned by the Yale Band to be played in their American Bicentennial concert in 1976. All of these works explored processes of musical acculturation and change in different ways. I have written about this period of my compositional development in "Remembering Rapport," The Open Space Magazine 12/13, 2011.

This period of musical exploration coincided with my then new enthusiasm for music theory, which indeed did initially center on developments in serial music. So I returned to western music and wrote new pieces as I described above. However, many of the new theoretic principles were influenced by Arabic, Indian, Indonesian, Japanese, and early Western music; even the surfaces of my music after 1976 are subtly guided by temporal and ornamental qualities of Eastern music, not to mention modern jazz.

Since 1997, I have contributed to the study and analysis of Carnatic music of south India. This work also involves compositional theory intended to develop a theoretic foundation for counterpoint and harmony for Indian music, but without disturbing the qualities of Indian ragas. See "Ravikiran's Concept of Melharmony: An Inquiry into Harmony in South Indian Ragas," (with Chitravina N. Ravikiran) Music Theory Spectrum, 28/2, 2006 and "Recent Developments Coordinating Melody and Harmony." Journal of the Music Academy, Madras, 2018.

PGN:As a composition teacher, what is your assessment of the output of the new generations of composers?

RM: In my 50 years of teaching composition, there have been some changes. When I was a student most student composers played a classical music instrument like piano, violin, etc., provided them with knowledge and feeling for Western art music. Nowadays, many composition students start out as rock or jazz performers so that they do not have much experience with or knowledge of classical music. Young composers also tend not to know much about 20th-century music, except that to which they have been topically exposed. Some students' music reflects the current styles or trends. Right now, many students are attracted by noise composition and/or spectralism. However, there are others whose music might have been composed 100 years ago. Seeing students mature by expanding their knowledge and skill, eventually developing an authentic voice, is always a source of joy.

But one thing has remained invariant: the number of truly inventive and imaginative composers remains small.

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