Musical Multiplicities in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries
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Among the most notable attributes of music since 1900 is the diversity of simultaneous musical approaches. Performers and composers explore the repertories they champion and provide insights into their distinctive approaches. Max Morath, along with William Bolcom and Joan Morris, address dimensions of ragtime, while Jay McShann and George Shearing each reflect on the essence of jazz. Composers Carlisle Floyd, John Cage, Jennifer Higdon, Chen Yi, and Zhou Long, offer insights into their processes of musical creation and the art of sound.
Since we are still close in time to the music of the past 125 years or so, it is difficult if not impossible for us to see the “big picture” of what has happened recently and is still happening in Western music. Even though Baroque music, for instance, has many sub-styles, we have a general sense of what “Baroque” means. For much of the music of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, however, we can only look at individual trees or groves, not the entire forest.
As music grew more complex harmonically and structurally—one thinks of Mahler’s enormous symphonies and Wagner’s music dramas, which require entire evenings for complete performances—it also grew less complex. For example, in the USA during the 1880s and 1890s, some composers strove to create music with immediate popular appeal. As Max Morath demonstrates, and as composer-performer duo William Bolcom and Joan Morris explain, ragtime piano pieces and songs were two important popular forms; so were vaudeville songs; so were songs drawn from various musical stages. With its distinctive syncopations (in which melodic notes and chords don’t line up rhythmically with accompaniment notes and chords), ragtime quickly became both famous and infamous—the latter attitude prevalent among conservative concert-goers. The blues, based largely on certain chord progressions, grew increasingly familiar.
Both ragtime and blues overlapped to some extent with early jazz. Perhaps the most original American art form, jazz began sometime in the late nineteenth century, probably in Louisiana; the first famous jazz musicians came from New Orleans. A difficult genre to describe, early jazz combined elements of African American, African Caribbean, and Western European music. Almost all early “jazzers” were African Americans; their performances depended largely upon improvisation, and most of them performed exclusively in ensembles, including the “big bands” of the 1920s, 1930s, and early 1940s. Early jazz was more or less “popular” in sound and reception, but after the 1930s jazz became a kind of “art” music that featured ever more complex harmonies and paid less attention to familiar pop-song melodies.
During the early 1920s, jazz was taken up by popular white composers and performers, George Gershwin (1898–1937) and cornetist-composer Bix Beiderbecke (1903–1931) among them. Especially in the form of “big band” dance music or “swing,” jazz rose to national prominence until the bands began to break up during the 1950s (Ragtime also served briefly as dance music.). During the 1930s and early 1940s, however, jazz was transformed by a small number of black artists into bebop: virtuoso and harmonically sophisticated music at once cerebral and passionate. Pianist and bandleader Jay McShann discusses the birth of bebop and “Kansas City” jazz, while the late pianist and composer George Shearing explains the classical as well as popular song and “cool” jazz influences in his own work.
Other musicians chose a very different direction, eschewing even suggestions of the “popular.” Some of them became true iconoclasts, attacking conventional notions of what Romantic and Modernist music could be. Arnold Schoenberg and his disciples practiced highly systematic dodecaphony, or twelve-tone compositional procedures. Other, quite different innovators were George Antheil, John Cage, and Harry Partch (1901–1974), all of whom experimented with new sounds and musical “circumstances” (or performance venues). Still others, including George Crumb, continue to experiment today. As Cage himself relates, audiences often became perplexed when they encountered his radically unfamiliar musical utterances. Nevertheless, Cage has become almost a household name, at least among modern-music fans.
Twentieth- and twenty-first century composers have often combined stylistic elements to create their own, distinctive compositional voices. Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah references the folklore of the Southern States. In Cold Mountain, Jennifer Higdon conflates symphonic sounds with echoes of Appalachian music. Chinese-American artists Chen Yi and Zhou Long explain in their joint interview how they combine Chinese musical traditions with Western genres and instruments. Nor is this all: today, musical genres continue to proliferate. So-called rock music has given birth, in one way or another, to such varied styles as glam rock, alternative rock, and metal music. Today hip hop, yet another product of African American artists, continues to influence genres beyond itself.
William Everett and Michael Saffle
Max Morath: “Livin’ the Ragtime Life!”
John C. Tibbetts
5 June 1993, Lawrence, Kansas
Initially improvised by piano - players, ragtime was a syncopated form of the military march. Between c. 1896 and c. 1920, thousands of rags were composed mostly by African American artists, including Scott Joplin (1867/1868–1917) and James Scott (1885–1938); other important composers included Joseph Lamb (1887–1960), who was of Irish descent. Keyboard gestures employed in ragtime were adapted to a variety of dances, including cakewalks and even a few foxtrots; ragtime rhythms also figured in stride piano -playing, the novelty piano numbers of the 1920s, and compositions by Debussy , Stravinsky , and other so-called art composers. Revived for the first time during the 1940s, ragtime underwent a second and longer-lasting revival during the 1970s, when Joplin’s opera Treemonisha (1910) was performed for the first time in 1973. Joplin’s music was featured in The Sting (1974), a major Hollywood motion picture, and E. L. Doctorow’s 1975 novel Ragtime enjoyed considerable popularity and became the basis for a highly successful Broadway musical in 1996.
JOHN C. TIBBETTS : What follows is an account of my witnessing Max’s performance of his one-man show, “Livin’ the Ragtime Life” , in Liberty Hall, Lawrence, Kansas. Permission for publishing this account courtesy of Max Morath.
It’s show time. On stage, flanking the grand piano, its raised lid draped with a tasseled coverlet, is the Edison cylinder machine at stage left and a chair and table and hat rack at stage right. An offstage voice is heard: “The right time is ragtime, sung by Max Morath, Edison Records.” Strains of music, the words scratchy and tinny, emerge from the gramophone:
Lights full up. Max briskly strides onstage in a natty grey suit with a red bowtie and matching pocket kerchief. Without missing a beat, he takes up the song in his clear, declamatory voice:
After tossing off a few more lyrics, he moves to the hat rack, doffs his straw hat, and launches into a few brief remarks about our tendency to dismiss Edison’s “miracle” of recorded sound as something by and for “old fogies.” No,” he declares, “those are young people you’re listening to. Kids. Popular music has always belonged to the kids. Ragtime was America’s first popular music …rag time. Two words in those days.”
Moving to the piano, he belts out his signature tune, “Living the Ragtime Life,” composed in 1900 by Gene Jefferson and Bob Roberts:
Applause. Up from the keyboard, Max takes a bow. “Think about it,” he says, “it’s been almost a century since Gene and Bobby left their Indiana home to follow a ragtime dream. And here I am, living the ragtime life, still. Has it changed? Show business stays the same—late hours, hotel rooms, booze, tawdry women…” A pause. “I love it! … [applause] It’s our music that labels our history … more than our wars; more than our politicians!”
For the next ninety minutes Max commands the stage, moving from keyboard to easy chair and back, delivering an easy flow of music, patter, historical detail, and amusing anecdotes. His timing is razor-sharp, every detail carefully honed and polished. He delivers a brief chronology of American social history, from the Chicago World’s Fair to World War I—“hardly the Good Old Days!” He performs a series of musical demonstrations devoted to different entertainers and their styles—including performances of Eubie Blake’s The Charleston Rag, a medley of Prohibition songs (does anybody remember Ernest R. Ball’s Saloon?), a tribute to the influential music publishers John Stark of St. Louis and to composer James Scott of Kansas City. Then, Scott Joplin. After playing Joplin’s Easy Winners , Max quips: “Joplin published his Easy Winners in 1901, the same year the American Federation of Musicians, our union, passed a unanimous resolution condemning ragtime and urging members not to play it!” Pause. “If you think that’s weird, the following year the teamsters came out against trucks!”
The place of turn-of-the-last-century women in one of Morath’s recurring themes. A famed entertainer named May Irwin scandalized the nation at the turn of century with rowdy syncopated songs like The Money Song (“If you don’t have any money / Don’t you bother coming ‘round”), and she appeared in a sixteen-second Edison film called The Kiss that elicited outrage from the pulpits. Many white women, moreover, introduced ragtime sheet music into the parlors of middle-class America. One of them, eighteen-year old composer Adaline Shepherd [1883–1950] wrote the Pickles and Peppers rag, which became the campaign song of William Jennings Bryan’s 1908 Presidential bid. Bryan lost.
Max continually rejects the nostalgic haze that has accrued around ragtime. He admits, however, that, “if I could go back in a time machine, I’d visit Big Tom Turpin’s Rose Bud Café in St. Louis. Maybe Scott Joplin would be there, or James Scott from Kansas City, or Eubie Blake. Tough competitors. Maybe on this time machine [gesturing at the piano], we can hear Joplin himself at the Rose Bud, playing this …” [followed by a rather melancholy performance of Joplin’s Solace].
Finally Max produces with a flourish an antique piano roll. He inserts it into the piano, settles himself back on the bench and engages in a musical “dual”: first the roll, then his fingers. Past and present, recorded and “live,” back and forth, separate and together. They “talk” to each other, as it were, finishing each other’s musical sentences.
Applause. And more applause. Max bows and exits the stage—but not before bestowing an affectionate gesture to the Edison gramophone.
William Bolcom & Joan Morris: Ragtime Song—“It’s What Our Lives Have Become!”
John C. Tibbetts
5 June 1993, Sedalia, Missouri, and 4 October 2016, Ann Arbor, Michigan
In 1988 William Elden Bolcom won the Pulitzer Prize in Music for 12 New Etudes for Piano. The composer of many other works—including three operas , nine symphonies, twelve string quartets , and several concerted works for strings and piano—Bolcom was named Ross Lee Finney Distinguished University Professor of Composition in 1994 at the University of Michigan ; in 2006, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts. Nevertheless, Bolcom is perhaps best known for his collaboration with wife and musical partner, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris , and for their joint recordings of ragtime , vaudeville, and popular songs by brothers George and Ira (1896–1983) Gershwin ; by Richard Rodgers (1902–1979) of musical theater fame; and by “crossover” artist Mike Stoller , who—together with Jerry Leiber (1933–2011)—helped shape 1950s rock ’n’ roll.
Born in Portland , Oregon, Joan Morris taught a cabaret class at the University of Michigan from 1981–2009. She joined other musicians in a 2004 performance of her husband’s Songs of Innocence and Experience ; in 2006 the Naxos recording of that performance earned four Grammys for her and her husband, including Best Classical Album of the Year.
These conversations began at the Scott Joplin Ragtime Festival in Sedalia, Missouri in 1993, and concluded in the home of Bolcom and Morris in Ann Arbor , Michigan.
JOHN C. TIBBETTS : Bill, you may be the most prominent composer these days to have written ragtime .
WILLIAM BOLCOM: In the 1960s a lot of us were starting to chafe at the “International Fellowship Style”1 as we used to call it: the [compositional methods of the] post-Webern period, which is the way you should write—you haven’t heard that before?—or the guys wouldn’t give you a hearing. Still true, by the way. To a great extent if you wanted to get a Guggenheim [Fellowship], you’d better go with the flow or forget it. Unless, of course, if you happen to be somebody known as a maverick, and then they have to give it to you, but only grudgingly. I got tired of hearing it! I suddenly found myself getting involved with Scott Joplin, and it felt so liberating to write tunes in A-flat Major with four flats and harmonies you could understand. That could also have been nostalgia, and I suppose it was considered—and still is—considered by the establishment as copping out. But it’s because we didn’t follow that party line.
What was it about Joplin that attracted you?
The reason, I guess, that Joplin was such a good transition toward a more open attitude toward musical style was because he was so good. The details were so good; they bear scrutiny. Like Chopin mazurkas, rags are a body of music that people think they can do themselves. I delighted in them because I could sit down and write in two-four, in key signatures, and have [tonic] cadences at the end! The voice leading, the way they’re made, is so good. And so there was a whole spate for about ten years when a bunch of us were writing a lot of rags. Bill Albright [1944–1998] and I started exchanging our little pieces in the mail. Like sending postcards. It felt so good after being a card-carrying Modernist all those years!
I love the titles of your rags: “Incinerator Rag,” “The Tabby Cat Walk,” “Serpent’s Kiss”—
—Eubie Blake loved that one!2 He always asked me to play it!
Then there was your “Poltergeist Rag.” Do you remember what John [Graziano ] said about it?
He said something like, “Bill must have written it when they had a sale in accidentals at K-Mart one day!”
[laughs]: Be afraid, be very afraid! You know, I still get rags sent to me by young guys who want to write a rag. Maybe they’re a good way to get a person started to be careful about writing. It’s a good exercise; maybe I should get people to write rags as beginning exercises for a student.
JOAN MORRIS: My piano teacher in Ann Arbor said that when young kids of eleven or twelve—she has students of all ages—when they’re beginning to lose interest, and when the practicing is getting to them, she’ll give them a rag; and they get all excited because the rhythm really turns them on. They’re working on something that’s difficult harmonically, but it’s all in the service of this rhythm.
It’s hard to realize now that there was a time when Joplin’s rags weren’t well known at all!
BOLCOM: Yeah, in 1967 few people even knew who Scott Joplin was. Many of the jazz folks dismissed him as “academic.” To them he seemed stiff, somebody you didn’t fool around with. I mean, the notes were there. I knew The Maple Leaf Rag, but that was about all. My friend, Norman Lloyd, then head of the music division for the Rockefeller Foundation, mentioned a Joplin “ragtime” opera called Treemonisha. I was intrigued. No one, not even at the Library at Lincoln Center, had it. But Rudi Blesh, my colleague at Queens, told me he had the piano-vocal score and that it was absolutely charming. T.J. Anderson, an African-American composer, and I worked out a performing version with a theater orchestra of sixteen pieces as a kind of “home-made” opera. Then I went to Vera [Brodsky] Lawrence, who was working on a big [American composer Louis Moreau] Gottschalk [1829–1869] project, and played her some Joplin rags. She decided that collecting Joplin’s rags and staging his Treemonisha would be her next project. Meanwhile, I had already gotten hold of some of Joplin’s rags from Max Morath. I talked with Josh[ua] Rifkin about them and he recorded three albums for Nonesuch in 1970. Between that, the movie The Sting, and the heroic work of our good friend, Max Morath—well, the rest is history.
How exciting it must have been to see Treemonisha in a full-scale stage spectacular!
[pauses and looks to Morris for confirmation]: Lawrence acquired the royalties from the Joplin estate, which accrued to her own benefit. She wanted the opera “big.” But then, somehow, the charm gets lost. It needs to be done small.
Some time during all this, the two of you begin performing ragtime and vaudeville songs together.
MORRIS: Bill and I met in 1972, and we gave our very first concert in New York on 5 January 1973. So when we came to Sedalia, Missouri—Joplin’s home town—in 1974, that was really one of the first occasions that we performed together.
BOLCOM: I think that might have been your maiden voyage doing Pineapple Rag .
MORRIS: It sure was. I can remember the utter terror I felt when I was standing back stage and going over the words, like a mantra. There really is no time to breathe in that song. Now I don’t have as much fear about it, because I’ve done it so many times. Someone said, “My god, that’s really a weird song!” And is, too! It was a weird one to start with!
But it was good, because it prepared me later for all those Cole Porter [1891–1964] “list” songs, where you don’t have to time to think.3
Who wrote the lyrics for Pineapple Rag?
It seems to have been a fellow named Joe Snyder. The music came out in 1909 and the lyrics a year later. Not many people are singing these things any more. Joplin wrote lyrics, too. He wrote the words to one of his earliest songs, The Ragtime Dance . You have words like—[half sings and recites]
Oh my! Razors! I hardly need remind you that, in an age of cultural diversity, lyrics in songs like seem shocking. Is that a problem for both of you? How do you deal with that?
BOLCOM: That’s the trouble with many ragtime songs. And that’s the thing people are very tough about, words like “razors,” “coons” [i.e., African Americans], “niggers.” My feeling is that either you don’t perform these songs at all, or you perform them when everybody understands the [cultural] context. I don’t know, my feeling—and I think Joan agrees with me—is that we’d rather not do the song. About ten years ago we used to do one of the old Babe Conners numbers that May Irwin performed quite often, called “The Bully Song.” Which is full of just exactly that kind of thing.
Is that the same May Irwin who appeared in an early Thomas Edison short called May Irwin’s Kiss ?
MORRIS: I believe so. Irwin was very popular around the turn of the century. But what’s been forgotten is that she introduced the syncopated song in a Broadway musical. She also introduced probably the most famous song of the century, “After the Ball” [by Charles K. Harris (1867–1930)]; she had her own stage company; and she sometimes sang what was called “Negro dialect.” Here she was, a white woman, popularizing “coon” songs as early as 1895.
BOLCOM: Which is where we get her “Bully Song.”
MORRIS: Right. We performed things like that at the Yale Cabaret and all the black students came up to us afterward and said, “Oh, thank you! We’ve always wanted to know what they [coon songs] were like.” The only real problem you’d have today would be from a certain kind of white liberal who gets upset about political correctness. It isn’t the people involved that seem to object. To me we’re talking about a form of political bigotry.
Eubie [Blake] used to talk about being called an “Uncle Tom” for doing this kind of material. They’ve really got a nerve, if you ask me, getting upset [even though they have nothing to do with] the people that actually suffered through it at the time. I don’t think you can have a healthy attitude about these things unless you can see what was there. Now, I think you should at least have the courtesy to say, “This is the way it was; this is not the way we are now. But look at it, don’t be afraid of it.” Let’s get rid of the shame; let’s look at it for what it was. Let’s not have this false Mrs. Grundy attitude: “Oh, we can’t touch that.” If you sweep it under the carpet, you’re just going to be dealing with fear and anger because you haven’t faced up to it.
When people object, do you make any apologies for performing these songs?
BOLCOM: You’re bound to have some people object. I would imagine if you did it, even here [in Sedalia], you’d have to preface it by saying, “Listen, this is the way it is, we’re going to do it unexpurgated. Stop wincing and get used to the fact that this is the way your grandfathers used to do it.”
Does it break your heart, though? Because there must be some songs you’d love to perform, but somehow feel reluctant to.
MORRIS: Yeah, you bet. The one Bill mentioned, the “Bully Song,” it’s a great character song. About this big black guy who who’s not scared of anybody since he’s stronger than anybody and carries that dangerous razor. And then his enemy [half sings, recites]—
—you get such a charge out of being somebody else! But you can’t do it now, you know.
BOLCOM: It’s very frustrating. If you were going to perform it here, you’d have to do it in quotes. I do feel that the time has come for people to put aside their fears and realize that’s what people were like [before World War I, when these songs were being published]. But they won’t; and they’re just trying to justify their squeamishness. Music, any music, has no real race or ownership. No one “owns” ragtime. Once it’s out, it’s in the world and then it’s for everybody.
The following transpired in the Bolcom-Morris home in Ann Arbor , Michigan.
MORRIS: Retirement—if that is what it is—is still busy for both of us. Bill’s 1992 opera McTeague was just revived in February at Landestheater Linz. A program of Bill’s Cabaret Songs, co-written with Arnold Weinstein, was performed in April at Manhattan’s Café Sabarsky. Two months later Bill’s Trombone Concerto was given its world premiere by the New York Philharmonic, led by Alan Gilbert, with soloist Joseph Alessi.
BOLCOM: Yes, and some other new works are on the way. I just finished a new piano rag for Joan. It’s called Contentment. Nothing showy; more like a Joplin rag.
TIBBETTS : I understand you’re working on a new opera, Bill.
BOLCOM: It’s based on Dinner at Eight . Mark [Campbell] is working on the libretto. It’s not based on the classic MGM film, with Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery, and John Barrymore. I had to sign a paper saying we would not use certain things from the film. I went back to the Edna Ferber/George S. Kaufman play, which was produced a year earlier [Opened on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre on 22 October 1932]. Unlike the movie, it’s a serio-tragedy, more edgy, a little darker. I plan to open it on March 11 next year  at Ordway Hall in St. Paul.
MORRIS: And I’m working on a new book, An Actress Who Sings. In a way, I’ve been working on it for forty years. It’s been difficult to find time for it while we’re on the road; but now that we’re slowing down and thinking of retiring, I’m going to finish it. I’ll mix in my research into performing instructions and notes with anecdotes about our career and the many people we have met and worked with along the way.
BOLCOM: By the way, Joan and I are planning to perform The Pineapple Rag again at Ann Arbor at the Kerrytown Hall and then later in New York City at the Metropolitan Room. Reading through our interview with you a few years ago, John, is prompting us to take on the song again. It’s part of our agenda these days to not perform so often, but only selectively.
Jay McShann: “I Crashed the Notes!”
John C. Tibbetts
2 January 1987, Kansas City, Missouri
During the 1930s and 1940s, the so-called Kansas City jazz style emerged, combining upbeat blues with a flexible, increasingly harmonically complex improvisatory style. Its legacy was soon felt in the bebop movement led by Charlie “Bird ” Parker (1920–1955). A thriving, wide-open town under the benign dictatorship of “ Boss” Tom Pendergast (1872–1945), pre-World War II Kansas City was a crossroads for the Union Pacific and Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe railroads, and a temporary home for the “ territory” bands that restlessly crisscrossed the Midwest . Many of the city’s night clubs , dance halls, brothels, and vaudeville houses passed into legend, including the Reno Club, the Paseo Ballroom, the Cherry Blossom, and the Hi Hat, but several remain in the 18th and Vine Historic District , including the Gem Theater and the Blue Room.
The conversation that follows took place in 1987 in McShann’s Kansas City home. I am indebted to the late Dick Wright , jazz historian at the University of Kansas , for arranging the meeting. McShann had just received news that the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) was planning a ceremony to designate him as an American Jazz Master and award him a stipend of $20,000.
JOHN C. TIBBETTS : Jay, how long have you been playing?
JAY MCSHANN: Well, I’ve made the three-score, or whatever.
What were your impressions of Kansas City when you first arrived in 1936?
When I came to Kansas City, the town was wide open, jumpin’, no curfew, and joints stayin’ open twenty-four hours [a day]. You’d see the porter come in about 6:30 or 7 in the mornin’, and we’d just move over to one side while he cleaned up; and when he finished, we’d move back over where we was [and keep playing]. You’d see guys on the street during the spook breakfasts, waitin’ to catch the streetcar, with their dinner buckets, you know, and they’d hear that blowin’ and they’d come in and order a drink. By noon, they’d never gotten to work, still sittin’ and still tastin’.4 Meanwhile, we’d be playin’, Maybe just start with two or three players but finally end up with ten or twelve in a real jam session. The piano players got worked real hard. Maybe you’d have lots of horns waitin’ to play, but there’d be just one piano player, goin’ all the time! That killed piano players, drummers and bass men!
When was this?
When I came to Kansas City, this was already goin’ on. Any time you have a town that’s wide open you gonna find all the chicks there, you gonna find all the pimps there, you gonna find the gamblers, the musicians coming from north, east, south and west. It makes for good times. And everything just moves. You could go from club to club, the Lone Star, the Sunset, the Subway, the Reno Club where [William James (“Count”)] Basie [1904–1984] was.
When you arrived in Kansas City, how aware were you of the so-called “Kansas City” style?
Here’s what you were hearing; you got these cats comin’ from all over. And every time a new cat would come in, we’d ask, “Who’s this new cat in town? Bring him down to the session. We’d find out what the cats from the West Coast was doin’. So when he sits in and blows, we all had our eyes on him. And when he hears the other cats here in town, he’d say, “This is some different stuff.” Then, when cats from the Midwest would go east, they’d take their own thing there. Bands were passin’ through, comin’ and goin’ all the time. I wasn’t real conscious of that; I was just tryin’ to play. I’ll say this, when I got to Kansas City, I hadn’t heard anything like it. Joe Turner [1907–1990] and Pete Johnson [1904–1967], doin’ what they were doin’. Pete would play for about twenty minutes with the rhythm section, and Joe would sing for about twenty minutes. Then another ten minutes from each—and that was the first set! And that just excited me, and I would just stand there with my eyes bugged out. I didn’t realize that Joe was just rollin’ those words right off his head. I hated to go to bed for fear I was gonna miss somethin’. I was just glad to be there and sit and just listen. We all listened to each other.
Your band had that great rhythm section, with Gus Johnson on drums and Gene Ramey on bass.
Oh, we played lots of other places, too. I understand both of them are in New York now . We got together a few years ago and had sort of a reunion, you know?
Tell me about Charlie Parker .
We were both so young, not even out of our teens! Parker was the kind of person you remember! [laughs] He was a lively person. He loved to live. And he wanted to get everything he could get out of life. He was burnin’ all the time, like me. But he had me beat! I first heard him in a club with a sound I had never heard before. He was already blowing it hard. He sat in with me and blew with Harlan Leonard’s band, too. But I think he always felt more comfortable with me. My first recordings were all with Parker . We hit it big in New York at the Savoy [Ballroom]. But all that was over when the Army drafted me and Parker moved on.
What about that nickname “Bird”?
We were drivin’ to a job in Nebraska when our car struck a chicken. Charlie yelled, “Back up! You hit a yardbird!” He got out and carried it on to Lincoln, where he cooked it and ate it all!
That’s the story?
That’s the story.
You talk about the boogie-woogie style. How would you describe it?
You take Pete Johnson. He did a lot of boogie-woogie; he was one of the greatest.” [plays and riffs with the right hand over a rock-solid left hand] There’s different ways you could play that left hand to get a different feel, fast or medium slow, like the old days with [boogie-woogie stylist] Mama Yancey [1896–1986].
I notice you have no hesitation in playing two notes together.
That’s right. That’s another thing I liked about Pete; he could just crash those notes.
Crash the notes?
Yeah, you can get those notes close together and crash them. Like you’re trying to slide in and out of the notes [demonstrates with his right hand].
More than a few musicologists go nuts trying to break down those dissonances!
You just play your cards, number the notes, all the way from 1 [i.e., the tonic] to the dominant seventh. Downbeat magazine one time broke down Ben Webster’s chords and sent them him to check for accuracy. Ben took one look and said, “I can’t play that!” But he had played it! Your two hands are like an orchestra, and when you’re doin’ a single, you can play with your right hand like the brass and the left like the percussion.
How did Moten Swing become a Kansas City trademark tune?
That’s been around a long time. It was a tune that Bennie Moten [1894–1935] wrote and Basie played. The idea for it was what we always did, where we’d take one number off another number and them combine them. They took Moten Swing off You’re Drivin’ Me Crazy. [plays Moten Swing and gradually merges it with the pop standard] We’d start with one and move on into the other.
When did you start doing your own vocals?
I wasn’t doin’ any vocals at all for a long time. During the time I had my band, I always liked good singers, like Walter Brown [1917–1956] and Al Hibbler [1915–2001]. I found Walter in a little club in Kansas City. He was a great blues singer and Al was a great ballad singer. So I had all I needed! But on a lot of my jobs, some of the guys in the band would say, “Go ahead and sing!” So I did, more and more, on into the 1950s. I realized I could do some jiving on my own with the vocals. Just enough to get by. I believe Nat [King] Cole started singin’ like that. I guess my singin’ is no different than my playin’.
Why do they call you “Hootie”?
Oh, I hadn’t been in Kansas City very long when I knew the bartenders were always trying out new drinks on the musicians. Somebody asked the bartender to fix me a new drink he’d been talking about. So he fixed me a 3-2 [i.e., 3.2% alcohol] beer and put alcohol in that beer,5 and it got really cold, with all that foam runnin’ down the outside. He passed it over to me, and it tasted so good I really hated to turn it down. The guys knew that was gonna happen. So finally they said, “Are you ready to sit in and play?” I’d say, “Yeah,” but when I got ready to get up, I couldn’t get up! So they started calling me the cat that got “hooted.”
Let’s talk about the NEA stipend you just received.
Right now, all I’ve heard is that there’ll be a presentation of some kind this year. I’m glad they looked out for me. Past folks that have been honored I believe are [composers] Dizzy [i.e., John Birks] Gillespie [1917–1993], Roy Eldridge [1889–1960], Jo Jones [1911–1985], and Thelonious Monk [1917–1982]. The two with me this year are Cleo Brown [c. 1907–1995] and Melba Liston [1929–1999]. I was with Cleo a couple of years ago in Denver at a party. She was at one of these retirement homes. She’s into these church things, now, and she played piano for some gospel. But then, before we left, she broke down and did some boogie-woogie for us [laughs]; and she’s still got that left hand workin’ beautiful. Melba’s a fine trombonist who was around Kansas City a lot. She was with Diz for awhile.
Melba’s an educator, a teacher, right?
I believe so. That’s right. As for the money, I’ll believe it when I see it! That’s always the best buy. And then I’ll start making plans. Maybe I’ll just take it easy. The last ten or twelve years I’ve been all over the world with my music.
Will you write a book?
Well, I’ve been workin’ on some stuff. There’s a guy [at the] University of Minnesota wrote me a couple of days ago, wantin’ to know what I’m gonna do; so we’ll see what happens.
So I guess you’ll be looking back at pictures and letters and things you’ve kept?
Oh, no! I’m the worst in the world! [laughs] But I’m workin’ on getting some things together.
And your music will just keep on keepin’ on, won’t it?
No other way to go.
George Shearing: “‘Classical,’ ‘Jazz’—Don’t These Musics Call upon One Another as Parts of a Larger Idea?”
John C. Tibbetts
10 October 1987, Kansas City, Missouri
This conversation transpired on the Folly Theater stage in Kansas City prior to his evening concert.
JOHN C. TIBBETTS : You find much in common between classical music and jazz.
GEORGE SHEARING: Yes, indeed. Because, you know, music is music is music. And then there’s rock and roll! No, no, I’m sorry. But you know, everything, whether its jazz or classical music must have architecture, it must have direction. I think if Johann Sebastian Bach were alive today, he’d be a marvelous jazz musician.
What happened to “freezing” music on the page?
Something had to be done to preserve a text.6 Think of all the various and sundry additions and alternatives that were going around. So musical rules became stricter. “Thou shalt nots” came into being. No more consecutive fifths!7 [laughs] You finally get to the point where the poor student coming out of school is totally inhibited and is afraid to put his hands on the keyboard unless he’s got something [printed] up in front of him. I know, my wife is a musician, but I can’t get her beyond the first four bars of “Autumn in New York!” Only the jazz musician feels free [today] to improvise and swing the music.
Which, in a way, is what you are doing when you bring classical elements and quotations into popular songs . I remember how delighted I was to hear you quoting Frederick Delius [1862–1934] in Berkeley Square.
Ah, right. [On Hearing the] First Cuckoo in Spring. Well, Delius is really one of my very favorite composers, along with other English composers at that time, like [Australian composer and ethnographer] Percy Grainger [1882–1961].
Well, Delius and Grainger would have approved, wouldn’t they?
I think so. I think so. In fact, when my wife was working one day with the New York Philharmonic doing the Bach B-minor Mass, some of the players during the intermission asked me to do something on my own. So I played the Kerry Dances .
Why in the world did you do that?
Well, I played the Kerry Dances and used it with as a fugue subject from the opening of Bach’s Kyrie. So it became, you see, the Kyrie Dances! You have in the left hand the Kyrie [hums] and in the right the tune from Kerry Dances. [sings]
A knowledgeable audience must have had a ball with that!
Yeah. It was fun. I do that all the time in the clubs when I know there’s a classical table there. I’ll do it, and they’re the only ones who laugh and the rest of the room is, shhh! You know, shush!
Any more examples of this sort of thing?
Sure, the so-called American Songbook is ripe for that.8 I’ve always gotten a kick of out of weaving counterpoint around “Easy to Love.” And I’ve always loved the second movement from Rachmaninoff’s Second [Piano Concerto], which goes nicely with Tenderly. I’ll work in Debussy and Ravel whenever I can. And Poulenc: There’s a lovely Perpetual Movement [No. 3] that I use in “On the Street Where You Live.” Do you know “It Never Entered My Mind,” a great Rodgers and [Lorenz] Hart [1895–1943] standard? Well, a little Satie [the first Gymnopedie] goes with it beautifully! There’s “Taking a Chance on Love,” which has always had for me the stately tread of a Bach Chorale Prelude. And How Insensitive by [Brazilian composer] Antonio Carlos Jobim [1927–1994] seems to evoke one of the Chopin preludes—the No. 4, I think.
You don’t see this sort of thing as a stunt?
Not at all! Yes, I have fun with it, but really, don’t these musics sort of “call upon” one another? Parts of a larger idea?
Just a year ago , you partnered with Barry Tuckwell , possibly the finest horn player in the world.
I met Barry at a concert in London. I was playing Mozart in the first half and he was playing in the second half. I admired him very much. And just as I went to meet him, there was a knock on my door, and there was Barry! We got to talking away about various things, and he said, “Look, when it comes to giving me an encore, why don’t we play that number that you made with Richard Russell Bennett [1936–2012], based on music by Jerome Kern [1885–1945]?” We worked it out. And then afterwards, we both said, “Why don’t we make a record?” That’s how it happened. George Shearing & Barry Tuckwell Play George Shearing. Says it all! We had a string quartet join us on some of those tracks.
Please talk about your classical training.
I wouldn’t exactly call it that. I was born in Battersea, a London suburb, and at first just memorized tunes I heard on the radio and picked them out on the piano. After some lessons from a local teacher, I studied with a blind teacher at the Linden Lodge School. That was between the ages of twelve and sixteen.
Was that difficult, or awkward?
It wasn’t until I was twenty-one that I really forced myself to learn Braille music.9 There are no staves and no clefs. We have the same six dots in Braille for letters, music, and everything else. You have only a bunch of combinations of six or fewer dots. It’s not music notation, per se.
When did you realize that you did not have to be confined to the printed page, braille or otherwise? I mean, you must have a natural ear. Or can you develop an ear?
You can develop your ear to a point, but I don’t know whether you can develop it to the point where somebody plays a ten-note chord and you can play it right after them. And I could do that. Somebody hits a chord, bang, bang, and you know, all ten notes. I think it’s kind of a gift. And my music teacher, in case I didn’t realize it, said to my parents when I was sixteen, “Further study of classical music with this young man would be a waste of time. It’s obvious that he’s going to become a jazz pianist.” But I’ve kept on doing both. I learned a lot in the clubs listening to Teddy Wilson [1912–1986] and [composer and pianist] Fats Waller [1904–1943]. Sometimes I was allowed to play along with some of the visiting American musicians, like [composer and saxophonist] Coleman Hawkins [1904–1969]. And later after coming to America, there were times with many of the major symphony orchestras throughout the country here. Mozart and Bach concerti and stuff like that.
Are you ever tempted, perhaps playing a Mozart concerto , to add your own cadenzas right on the spot?
I resist the temptation—sometimes! I remember once I had a thirty-bar memory lapse. And I turned my left ear to the orchestra and improvised in the Mozart style around the chords that I heard the orchestra playing. Until my memory came back. It was the most nerve-wracking experience I’ve ever had in my life.
But, with all apologies to Mozart, I bet it was the highlight of the evening.
I tried to pay as much homage and respect to Mozart as I can. I’ve done it a number of times. Nowadays I don’t practice much, unless I have a concert like that coming up. I don’t learn from braille anymore. I learn from listening to tapes. I do not suggest to the parents of blind children, though, that they have another [pianist-song writer] Ray Charles [1930–2004] or George Shearing on their hands. “Oh boy,” they say, ”he put his hands on the piano twice today!” But, you know, maybe the kid has a tin ear. Blindness has nothing to do with musical gifts. The only benefit I can see is that if you are forced to gather information that’s less available to you than it would be to a sighted person, you will cherish it more, memorize it longer, and pick it up as soon as you can.
My father, who was a jazz musician back in Kansas City’s great jazz days, cherishes the small jazz combo that you formed, beginning in the 1950s.
The Quintet? That started in 1949. It was almost an accident, really. I had been working in the clubs on 52nd Street in Manhattan, when at the last minute I had to form a new group for a recording date. My clarinetist [Buddy DeFranco] was unavailable, and I added Chuck Wayne on guitar and Margie Hyams on vibraharp to our bass player John Levy and drummer Denzil Best. Yes, it was something fresh and mellow to what we then called “bop.” Two of my own hit songs came from those early days: “September in the Rain” and “Lullaby of Birdland.”
What is “Birdland” really about? And just what was—or is—Birdland?
Birdland was a club owned by Morris Levy. It was named after your own Kansas City great, Charlie “Bird” Parker. Levy wanted a theme song for his nightly radio broadcast from the club. [The melody] came to me quickly. I tell everybody the whole thing took only ten minutes to work it out. It became a bebop standard, you know.
And you sing it, sometimes!
Let’s just say that [composer as well as singer] Mel [Tormé; 1925–1999] has allowed it, on occasion!
Will the Shearing Quintet sound ever come back?
No, it won’t come back. When I broke it up in 1978, I said it would only return if Standard Oil or Sinatra wants it! Standard Oil never did come through, though Frank Sinatra did; so we played for two weeks in Carnegie Hall with Frank. And we played for a week in Boston with Frank and we’ve done some benefit [concerts] together.
In fact, one of those benefits I believe was for a cancer foundation.
That’s right. For the Sloan-Kettering Fund we raised two million dollars in one night. Luciano Pavarotti and Frank and I.
In addition to making wonderful music, what kind of an extra kick do you get, knowing that you’ve contributed to a cause like that?
Not only did I realize that I was giving my services to a very wonderful cause, but I was presented with the most wonderful citation. [It came] in a beautiful leather box, and a beautiful leather book bound in the box, and it was given by the Rockefellers. Frank came out and said, “I’ve been blind a number of times in my life [!], so I’ll read it for you.” It was in print as well as Braille!
You mentioned Mel Tormé a minute ago. What of your work with him? If there is a pop-song equivalent today to the art song, your work with Mel would have to be it. When did that start?
Thanks are really due to George Wein, the JVC Jazz Festival impresario. It used to be called “Newport Jazz,” and then “Cool Jazz,” then JVC. I think George paired us together first in 1976 at Carnegie Hall. We first met when I was playing at a club in San Francisco. I remember hanging out with Mel until three and four in the morning, talking about mutual interests in classical composers like Delius and Debussy. I’ve always felt that Mel is the greatest all-around talent in the business. I can’t imagine a more compatible musical partner. It is like a musical marriage, and we literally breathe together during our performances. Our workload together has increased immeasurably as the years have passed. And, it’s a joy, ’cause that man, if I changed one chord tonight, he would change a note to go with that chord. This is how these “Berkeley Square” and “It Might as Well Be Spring” things come about. They’re never the same two nights running.
In other words, your ear is as much attuned to him as to your instrument. So, when do you rehearse with him?
Maybe the day before a gig.
That’s it. I call us two bodies with one musical mind.
Magnificent. What about an album from George Shearing in which you pair up with Mel Tormé for a number of Christmas Carols , like you did for a PBS television special?
Yes. Yes, I’ve wanted to do it for the longest time. I hope I can sell Carl Jefferson of Concord on the idea one day. How about swinging Away in a Manger to Brahms’s “Lullaby”?
Carlisle Floyd: “My Own Approach Is to Create a Completely True, Credible, Dramatic Life on the Stage”
John C. Tibbetts
September 1991, Kansas City, Missouri
A graduate of Converse College and Syracuse University, Carlisle Floyd joined the piano faculty at Florida State University where he later received a Distinguished Professor award; his other prizes include a Guggenheim Fellowship, induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters , and the National Medal of Arts, presented to him by President George W. Bush. Critic Joshua Kosman praised Floyd as “one of the living masters of contemporary American opera”—this on behalf of Floyd’s most famous opera Susannah (1955), today second only to Porgy and Bess in popularity and number of performances. Floyd’s other operas include Of Mice and Men (1970) and Cold Sassy Tree (2000).
This conversation transpired in 1991 as Floyd was assisting in the preparation of Susannah for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City.
JOHN TIBBETTS : How did Susannah come to pass? Sounds Biblical, doesn’t it?
CARLISLE FLOYD: [laughs] Appropriately enough! Well, it actually came to pass, as you say, in 1955 at Florida State University, where it had its first performance. Actually, its first professional premiere was one year later in New York. Although, in a sense, the one at Florida State University in Tallahassee was professional in that the two leads were imported, Phyllis Curtin in the title role and Mack Harrell as the Reverend Olin Blitch. Curtin then went on to do it at the New York City Opera.
How soon did you know that Susannah would achieve its currency and popularity?
I don’t think I really had any idea. I remember my mother saying to me, “Son, did you expect so much to come so quickly from it?”
And you said to her … ?
I said, “No,” although I have to admit it was being considered by the then-existing NBC Opera Company, which was the first television opera company, the brainchild of Samuel Chotzinoff for production before the [New York] City Opera did it. Their concern was that because of its regional flavor it would really have a currency only in about three southern states, which of course has not quite turned out to be the case since. I think by now it’s probably been performed in most of the fifty states.
I think you estimate 650 performances … and counting?
Well, that’s not an estimate, that’s an actual count!
And as a World’s Fair opera, in Brussels in 1958?
It was selected after it had had its New York premiere and was in the repertoire of the New York City Opera for four years running. A production was mounted expressly with the idea of taking it to the Brussels Fair. And it’s one of those things that went through all of the bureaucratic channels before the State Department sent it over as its official American entry in the field of opera.
Before we discuss the plot, please say something about Susannah’s American theme and setting.
The story’s hardly restricted to one or two Southern states. Many people in unlikely places tell me it evokes memories of their childhoods. It goes into a very strong fundamentalist strain, a religious fervor, throughout our country—whether Missouri Lutherans, the Mormons, or the Seventh Day Adventists. I must emphasize, though, that this story is a more general take on a kind of puritanical fundamentalism that crosses the country really.
What about the plot of Susannah?
It’s set against the background of a revival meeting, an evangelical meeting, in the mountains of Tennessee.10 It opens with a square dance and we see that the church wives are jealous of Susannah’s beauty. A newcomer to the community, the Reverand Blitch. asks her to dance. The next morning Susannah, who is a very spirited, strong-willed young mountain girl, is discovered very discreetly and privately taking her bath in the nude in on a creek near her own house. Four elders are looking for a baptismal creek because of the new evangelist’s revival meeting. Because of their inability to control their feelings after discovering her, they brand her as lecherous, as evil. She’s told she must make a public confession concerning allegations that she has seduced one of the members of the congregation. There’s a deadlock between this very, very strong-spirited mountain girl who refuses to acknowledge any guilt, and the concerted efforts of the community to extort a public confession from her. Olin Blitch offers to pray for her soul, but he succumbs to the weakness of his flesh and seduces her. She later says, simply, she is “too tired for it to make any difference.” Susannah’s brother Sam murders Blitch and the community tries to drive Susannah out of the valley. She defies them with a shotgun. They retreat.
It’s certainly a far cry from typical grand opera’s exotic settings and characters.
Well, “grand opera” is a term that I get a little impatient with, because there are only a few real grand operas. Turandot, maybe, and the second act of Aïda. What people overlook with Aïda is that the other three acts are quite intimate. Certainly, people think of opera as being exotic, something far away, not really dealing with flesh and blood human beings.
Please describe the musical profile of Susannah. Are there arias and hummable tunes?
Well, actually, there are plenty of those! “Ain’t It a Pretty Night?” is a long psychological working through of a young girl who wants to find out what life is like beyond the mountains; at the same time she’s concerned that if she leaves, she won’t be able to get back to the things she loves about her home. And there’s Susannah’s second act aria, “The Trees on the Mountain,” which is far darker and more elegiac, but which has proven to be very popular. And from there into my use of very recognizable folk tunes. Folk elements appear all the way through the piece, including the hymns in the revival meeting, although they’re all original, both words and music. I use them to suggest immediately the flavor of a place and also what’s going on.
Of course, your own Southern upbringing suggests that you were steeped in this kind of music and mood.
Well, yes, my father was a minister in the Methodist church. Of course, the kind of evangelical meeting I’m dealing with in Susannah is on a much more primitive level than anything he was ever involved with.
Did you get caught up in that fervor sometimes?
Not caught up, exactly; I mean, my reaction to revival meetings as a child was what I think most people’s is, and that was really one of abject terror. It seemed the whole thrust of the sermon in a revival meeting was to simply frighten people into something they think must be “salvation.” I didn’t intend my revival meeting in Susannah to be a parody in any way. It’s not a caricature; it’s a very solemn and, I hope, a terrifying scene.
I’m thinking of the rich atmosphere of your opera. Has anybody ever staged it in Tennessee in an outdoor theater, maybe on a summer night?
Nobody. I did stage it myself about three years ago, in Knoxville, for the Knoxville Opera. Of course there are references to Knoxville in the text, when Susannah sings about the world outside of the mountains.
Which of your other operas are available on recordings today?
None at this point! Recordings of complete operas are like hen’s teeth in this country, because of the enormous expense involved through [musicians’] unions. I experienced this with my opera, Willy Stark [All the King’s Men], which was done ten years ago [i.e., in 1981] on PBS’s Great Performances. I knew we’d have to pay very high union costs to the orchestra. But what really stunned me was the expense of the copyists who prepared the orchestral parts, something the average audience member isn’t even aware of, but which is very expensive. The copyists had to be paid twice—this time for the television production as opposed to the stage production, although they only worked once. Bottom line: the best time to record an opera is when it’s in production, so then you save rehearsal costs for the orchestra and the singers. There have been moves to record Susannah, and there’s a very serious one right now. [The opera has since been recorded.]
So: how can you make a living as an opera composer? Is it possible?
Probably my operas have been performed a great deal more often than those of any other American opera composer. But it’s a very uncertain income: one year it can be very large and the next year it can fall off. I started out, of course, in a university and went into the professional music world, which is backwards from the way most people do it. I have been in both worlds ever since.
That’s really important today, combining the academic with the professional.
We have to look at academic support as a modern-day version of the old patronage of nobility. Opera never paid for itself except in the late seventeenth century, when it was popular entertainment. But the point is, it’s an expensive art form; and in the past we had the nobility or the wealthy families to underwrite expenses. Now, that kind of refuge for composers and artists is in universities, where it is possible to earn a livelihood while practicing their art professionally.
John Cage: “I Noticed Rather Quickly that People Were Having Difficulty with My Work!”
John C. Tibbetts
12 April 1988, Kansas City, Missouri
Among the many movements in twentieth-century music are several highly experimental styles, including minimalism , aleatoric or “chance” music (in which performers choose what to play and when to play it), “ ambient” music (in which surrounding sounds, often drawn from nature, are incorporated into compositions), computer-generated “art music,” and performance art (in which place and audience largely govern what happens). Of these movements, minimalism occupies a somewhat ill-defined place. Often associated with Philip Glass and Terry Riley , minimalist and “chance” composers often insist that “less is more,” that music can and even should be constructed of a very few subtly changing harmonic or melodic patterns.
Composer John Milton Cage, Jr. studied with Schoenberg and Henry Cowell (1897–1965); he also worked closely with choreographer Merce Cunningham (1919–2009), with whom he lived for much of his life. A proponent of aleatoric music , Cage pioneered experiments with ambient sounds in musical or quasi-musical contexts. His most famous work , 4´33 ˝ (generally called “Four Minutes and Thirty-three Seconds”) consists both of a pianist playing nothing and of the sounds made by audience members during the piece’s duration. Cage was also important in the fields of electroacoustic music and the use of prepared pianos and toy pianos in concert compositions. Cage’s Europeras , a “light- and soundscape” opera in five parts (sometimes identified as “five operas”), exemplifies the composer’s fascination with indeterminacy.
The following conversation took place in Vanderslice Hall on the campus of the Kansas City Art Institute .
JOHN C. TIBBETTS : Let’s talk about your life in the arts. I understand that two of the great influences on your work are Satie and Arnold Schoenberg .
JOHN CAGE: Well, I’ve had many, many guides. They were two of them.
Do they represent two opposite positions in your approaches to music?
They’re two different centers. I don’t think they’re opposites, because each one was so unique. I never met Satie but was in my teens when I first heard his music.
What was it about this gentleman—
—that made me like him?
Well, if you love someone or something, are you able to say what it was that attracted you? I don’t think so. Just anything about that person pleases you, and that’s my case with Satie. You know, he wrote all kinds of music, even at the age of forty, he went back to school to study counterpoint. And his music has a great deal of variety. And even at the end he was writing, well, Mercure and Relache; and those ballets introduced the use of popular tunes, and this was found shocking by many of the young composers who had taken him as master. They called him the maitre d’Arcueil.11 But he was able to change music much more profoundly than others did. Most people find one way to do things and stick with it, but he didn’t do that. That may be why I like him so much, because I’ve done that myself. Not all of my pieces have no sounds in them.
You did study with Schoenberg , though. Was that when he taught in Los Angeles?
He was first at home in Hollywood, and then he gave lectures at USC [University of Southern California]; later he was at home in Brentwood and he taught at UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles]. The reason I mentioned his homes is that he taught at home, too. And I went to all of his classes, whether they were at home or in the schools. When I first went to him asking him to teach me, I told him I couldn’t give him any money. He said, “Will you devote your life to music?” and I promised that I would. I remember one day at USC he was saying, in front of a large class, “My purpose in teaching you is to make it impossible for you to write music.” I literally worshiped the man. When he said that he wanted to make composing impossible, I determined to do it even more than I had determined before.
Which of your works had he encountered before he died?
None, as far as I know. I think he heard about my work, because he was asked by the conductor Hermann Scherchen whether he had any interesting American students. And he said, no, there weren’t any; but then he smiled, and mentioned my name. He said, “Of course he’s not a composer, but he’s an inventor.”
What kind of reception did you have with your concerts?
When I gave concerts during the 1940s, and even a bit into the 1950s, I had to persuade people to come to them! [laughs] And I did all the—I designed the programs and the announcements and everything. So. I took advantage of everything I could to somehow get an audience. I used to be able to get a hundred people to come and listen.
I understand you have recently composed an opera.
The first performance was in Frankfurt, in Germany a few months ago. I think it was the third of December. It was supposed to be in November, about the fifteenth, but the opera house burned. It burned, and I don’t think anyone really knows how it actually happened. The story that was publicized, printed in the newspaper, was that someone had come from East Berlin, and being hungry and poor, climbed into the opera house to find some food; and finding no food decided to build a fire at the very point where a smoke alarm would not work. It’s clearly an unbelievable story.
That seems indicative of the great number of conflagrations that have sprung up in your wake over the years!
Well, it was dramatic!
What’s the name of your opera?
Europeras: One and Two, which are the words “Europe” and “opera” put together. People say it’s really the same work in two parts, but that’s not true because it has different singers. It’s two different pieces. And the time lengths are different. The first one is slow and the action is less concentrated than in the second one. It’s an extension of the way I worked for years with Merce Cunningham, where we bring about a separation of the music in the dance, so that each one exists on its own, and together they make an interpenetration in time. And here that’s extended to all the other aspects of theater, including the lighting.
Has it been performed in the United States?
It will be in July, they say. In Purchase. It’s outside of New York. It’s part of what’s called Summer Fair, or the Pepsi Cola Festival. We’re heaving several festivals in New York now, in the summers, all over the city of New York, and not just indoors, but outdoors, too.
Did it ever upset you when your listeners, or maybe some of them, reacted negatively to your works?
No, I thought that was very encouraging. Because I knew that if they all liked it, that I was probably doing the wrong thing. I didn’t have a very high regard for—what shall I say?—I like people, but I notice that they don’t like experiences that they haven’t had before. So many of them have trouble with new experiences. So, if they don’t have trouble then it can’t be very new, don’t you think?
But hostile critics: was it difficult for you to withstand their barbs, their negative energies?
Well, I got used to it rather quickly. You see, my first concerts were given at the Cornish School in Seattle. I had given a few private concerts at home, so to speak, in Santa Monica, but the first public ones, where tickets were sold and all, were in Seattle. And I noticed rather quickly that people were having difficulty with the work; and that that was a way of knowing whether or not I was going in a new direction. Each audience became a kind of thermometer of whether I was doing my proper work, which was, I thought—because of my father perhaps—to find something new. I didn’t really think of myself, and Schoenberg didn’t either, as someone who had something to say in the way of expressing himself. I’ve never been interested in self-expression. I’ve been interested in invention and discovery. And now that I’m older, I’m afraid I have to confess that I keep on discovering the same thing all the time. I don’t really discover anything that I didn’t already discover. It’s very strange.
[Speaking of an installation in Cage’s honor at the University of Kansas ]: Never did the term “found object” more literally apply than to arrowheads and fossils!
Mmm. I have a garden in New York, and I think that this has been noised about that I’m a kind of magnet for stones.
We’re in a garden, all right—a garden of sights and sounds, right here! There’s a typewriter chattering away, there’s some explosion sounds, phones ringing in the distance, a wall plastered with words and random numbers, etc.
As you come into the entrance, you hear the sounds and patterns of light. It’s very lively. You don’t see or hear things very clearly. There’s a kind of smokiness, or absence of sharp edges everywhere, so you feel that you are dreaming rather than being wide awake. The letters and words are not an alphabet but a fantasy. It’s poetic. It puts you in a kind of—well, it made tears come to my eyes.
It seems ironic that we have to come here to appreciate the sounds that are really all around us in everyday life.
I think more and more people are hearing the environmental sounds and enjoying them. You know, one of the first ones to make publicly clear that that was a pleasure was Henry David Thoreau. I recall a remark by [Canadian pianist] Glenn Gould to the effect that the act of listening to the sounds, such as the sounds that are coming in the window now, is in fact a musical pleasure. It’s been that way for me all along. People ask me what music I prefer, and I tell them, no music at all. Just what happens to be audible wherever I am.
So that expression “hunter of sounds” that’s been applied to you may not be quite correct. Because you don’t have to hunt for sounds; they’re already all around us.
No, but you have to pay attention.
Audiences for your 4´33˝ , for example, may have been startled to realize that the sounds they were listening to came not from the piano up on a platform, but from themselves.
I understand there are people in Woodstock, where that piece was first played by David Tudor [1926–1996], who are still angry. I’m told that by the widow of Henry Cowell, who lives there. She lives in a suburb of Woodstock.
And those are probably the same people who were angry at Cowell’s Banshee!
[laughs] I think so. But, along with the people who are angry, there are many people who, you know, enjoy what has happened to music. I think music has become more— more open, particularly to noises; and there are many listeners, now, who are more in the same way.
The idea that you could be called a member of an avant garde strikes me as odd, because there’s a very common-sensical aspect to your approach to life and art.
“Common-sensical.” I like that!
Is that a word? I’m not sure.
I like it. It’s so close to “nonsensical!” I think nonsense is much more—well, it’s more engaging than, you know, than sense. They teach it in the universities in Japan, did you know that?
Yes. A Professor of Nonsense went all the way from Tokyo to Toronto as a guest to give some lectures on “Nonsense” there. [Pauses and goes over to the window, looks out, ears cocked to the sounds below – the tinkling sounds of a passing ice cream truck can be faintly heard].
What are you—
—I’m listening to the ice cream truck! [returns to his chair] I once wrote some music like that … for a toy piano. You know, the ones we play as children? Back to this whole notion of common sense. My father was an inventor. He liked the idea of common sense. And he objected to things like the square root of minus one. I grew up around machines, but I was always frightened of electricity. I was afraid I would get a shock. I must have gotten one right off the bat, so that I didn’t want to have any more!
How long ago was that?
While I was a child and still living at home, in Los Angeles. We had a beautiful big bungalow, which I remember as being big, and surrounded by roses, arbors of roses. Recently I was taken to visit that house and I found that it’s now in a kind of slum area, and it also looks much smaller. As people get older they become less tall, and apparently the houses we used to live in also shrink. It’s just amazing.
Maybe that’s more a fault of our perspective than the world, huh?
Well, it’s something. It’s very surprising. We have actually no clue—of course, we were smaller then, so things looked larger.
Now, at the age of seventy, what’s your perspective on things?
I’m going on seventy-six now. My birthday was on 5 September .
How does the world look to you now, bigger, smaller?
It looks more and more interesting. I’m always astonished at the things that I didn’t take time to be interested in when I was younger. And if by circumstances I get an experience of the things of which I had no experience, I see that there’s that much more; and the implication is that there are countless things to be interested in.
I love that kind of child-like sensibility—that before we learn languages and musical systems, words, colors, sounds are vivid and alive all on their own. Have you ever heard the marvelous quote by Chesterton when he came to New York in 1922, stood in Times Square amid all the flashing lights of the city, and said, “What a garden of wonders this would be for someone who did not know how to read”?
How true that is! A matter of perception. That reminds me of a painter in Virginia, where I was last week, who invited me there, who makes paintings from high points in Manhattan. He treats what he sees as though he were not in a city at all, but in a mountain range or in some natural spot. It’s a strange idea.
Jennifer Higdon: “Yes, I’m a Hunter of Sounds!”
John C. Tibbetts and William Everett
15 March 2017, Kansas City, Missouri
What follows here is taken from observations presented by Ms. Higdon before various groups of students at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music and Dance, where she was a Barr Institute Laureate.
JOHN C. TIBBETTS and WILLIAM EVERETT : Let’s regard this moment as a snapshot in time. What’s up with you at this very moment?
JENNIFER HIGDON: My Viola Concerto is now finished and there’s a CD just out on Naxos. And there’s an Oboe Concerto and a tone poem I call All Things Majestic. I wrote it for the Grand Teton Festival in honor of our National Parks.
Any works in progress?
I’m finishing a Tuba Concerto right now for the Pittsburgh Symphony, Royal Scottish Orchestra and Curtis; and I’m about to start a little brass concerto for three trombones and tuba. After that’s a chamber opera for Opera Philadelphia.
What of Blue Cathedral? Did you have a plan at the outset, how to structure the opera?
I wasn’t sure how it was going to unfold because I don’t use established forms. I write instinctively. I think about what sounds sound interesting, what sounds cool, and how can you build that into something that’s interesting for the performers and the audience. But, yes, I had to have some sort of logic for the order of the solos. I thought, “Well, I’m the older sibling, so I’m going to bring the flute solo in first and then my brother’s clarinet solo, since he is a year and a half younger than me.” And then I have the violin join in. In the slower middle section there are a whole lot of solos for individual players, and this is where I think of all the kids at Curtis, where I teach.
How about the selection of the color “blue” for the title?
My brother’s middle name is Blue. He had been given the name by my dad, he said; in case he ever wants to be an artist, he could go by “Blue.” So, I was thinking about Andy’s middle name. And I was thinking about blue sky and the image of a cathedral.
Why a cathedral?
In a way, the cathedral is a touchstone in our lives, you know, for baptisms, weddings, funerals, sometimes fellowshipping, gatherings with people that you know, or maybe you don’t know. Also, my brother had been living in Baltimore at the time on Cathedral Street. As for the music, I didn’t want the pieces to sound too “square,” you know? Normally, music is in 3/4, 2/4, 4/4, maybe 6/8, but I made the crazy decision to put it in 5/4, which is unusual. If you’re used to 4/4, you don’t think about that extra beat. Pop music is [almost] always in 4/4. You know where the strong beat is going to be, but having the 5/4 there gave the music a floating quality. None of the players are sleeping through the piece, I can tell you, because they must count! Andy was a visual artist, and so I imagined floating in from the church at the back entrance all the way up toward the front.
Your music seems to build and build, until—
—actually, until all the instruments and the rhythms start aligning, and there’s a brass fanfare, and it just explodes, all sixteenth notes, the equivalent of flying up toward the roof; and then the roof opening and flying into the sky. So, you see, I also realized that this piece was not about dying but about living. My brother Andy would have preferred that I look at life that way. So I knew there was going to be some sort of climactic point, and that brass fanfare would be like an opening of the roof. I remember thinking, “The horns sound so cool when they’re up high, so at the loudest point I want to make this moment the top of a horn line.” To write that I had to back up and write the measures leading up to that. Horn players need the line to ascend. It’s cruel and unusual punishment to make them just suddenly pop out like that. The four horns have that kind of a confident liftoff moment. But where do you go from there? It just felt like the right thing for that piece was to bring the sound back down from that climax, to take it back to those opening textures.
Would you describe how you got those effects, almost of “celestial” music?
You’re flying up in the stars, but what would that sound like musically? I remember the moment: I’m staring out the window of my place in Philadelphia and someone had given me a little box of Chinese bells. I wondered, “Can I put that sound into the piece?” I wanted a kind of ethereal sound, and so, these bells come in very quietly, emerge out of the instrumental texture just a little bit, and they go right up until the end. And there are a bunch of little percussion instruments playing clock-like patterns at the end.
And there’s this weird effect of a piano playing just a little out of tune.
The way I got this sound was to put a small screw between two of the different pitches [i.e., strings], to give the piano a slightly out-of-tune sound, so it sounds like a clock you’re hearing in the distance.12 Because my brother was thirty-three when he passed away, I [also] put thirty-three gongs in there, like a little Morse code, as if to say, “Here, Andy, here’s your piece.”
What was the public premiere like?
For the performance at Curtis, they engaged Robert Spano, who’d been my conducting teacher at Bowling Green. He told me that he loved the piece and wanted to record it, so the next year I went down to Atlanta and we recorded the work. When that commercial CD was sent out to radio stations, news about the piece spread. It took three years between the first performance and the next series of performances beyond Atlanta. But before long, orchestras started calling and asking about that piece. We’ve now had, I think, about 800 performances of the work.
I can’t help but wonder if what you heard in concert at all was like what you had been hearing in your head?
I think at the time that I wrote Blue Cathedral I probably was 60% accurate in anticipating how the music would actually sound. So now I’m much more practiced in being able to figure out what I’m going to hear. Even though I’ve worked with orchestras a lot, combining the sounds, trying to figure out how these things collect together, I still have to project in my head what is it going to be like in a hall? And the momentum, the tempo, varies a lot with how many instruments you are using. A small ensemble’s thinner sound changes everything. It’s a bit of a guessing game, especially in the early stages when you’re writing. You’re always trying to figure out, “Will this work, and what does it sound like?” And the piece also changes depending on when you’re working with professionals or if it’s a junior high band!
Hearing the sounds you produce in Blue Cathedral reminds us that the orchestra of today is a very different animal from orchestras of 150 years ago. Is there a “contemporary” orchestra, as opposed to the “classical” orchestra of the past?
Well, the “Great Beast,” as I call any orchestra, has changed a bit over the centuries, particularly in the improvement of some instruments and the addition of new ones, like saxophones. The percussion sections today are huge. The string instruments have gotten a little bit better. String players can afford better bows and that makes a big difference in the sound. The flutes have also improved. We now have multiple-size tubas, and that makes a big difference in the repertory, whether you’ve got the low end or the high end of the tuba. I shiver when I think about what Beethoven must have heard, because the playing was not good and the instruments were not as good. I believe that players today have gotten so much better.
Yesterday, you told a student that you were a “hunter of sound.”
Yes, I’m a hunter of sounds. I’m always listening for new sounds. I mean, literally. If someone drops something, my brain automatically thinks, “Was that metal, was it wood? How far did it fall? What is the thing it hit?” I mean, we had an incident amongst the composers who were going into a restaurant and someone dropped their keys accidentally down a grate, and people were like, “Oh, no, the car keys!” I said, “It sounded like they dropped ten feet!” And everyone stopped and they’re like, “How can you tell?” In my music I’m always layering sounds, and finding ways to boost the sound. For instance, there may be a trumpet solo that needs a little reinforcing without the listener realizing what’s happening. I’ll have the flute play maybe an octave down, or in unison. People can’t hear the flute, but it thickens the sound a little bit. Like a chef looking for the right spice.
You’ve said that you worry your young students suffer from what you call a “Masterpiece Complex.”
Too many students worry that they can’t write a “masterpiece.” They start to write a string quartet and they cry, “Oh, there are [already] these incredible string quartets. Look at these string quartets Beethoven wrote!” So they get paralyzed, they can’t write because they’re worried that what they’re writing doesn’t sound good enough. It’s a creative paralysis. My way of dealing with that is just to keep writing as fast as I can [laughs] and spend so much time writing that it’s like not letting something catch me! I have a healthy respect for the Classical canon, because I realize how much work goes into writing music. It’s torture in some ways. I’m sure for Mozart it was a lot easier, but musicologists have discovered that the romantic idea of Mozart directly putting everything on the page is mistaken. They’ve looked at the layers of ink, and they’ve realized he actually went back and made changes and filled things in.
And today: has there been a breakdown in traditional formulas, like sonata-allegro form, or genres?
Yeah, it’s easier for composers when you’re working in traditional forms than when you’re trying to build something from scratch with no predetermined form. It’s like architecture; there are certain kinds of A-frame houses all over the world because that’s an easy, pre-determined way of doing things. But when you’re trying to make something original that doesn’t have a typical shape or form, it’s actually a lot more challenging. You’re making it up as you go; but the thing still has to work.
Can you take us back to your own student days? Were you a go-getter, a shy-retiring type, what?
Well I grew up in a family of freelancing artists, so I knew I couldn’t be a shy, retiring person in getting commissions! I knew that you had to kind of be on top of everything all the time.
The first time you filled out an employment form or went through Customs at the airport, how did you list your occupation?
Yes, and the conversation always goes: “What does that mean?” I say, “I write music.” They go, “You write music?!? Would I know any of your music?” I go, “I don’t know. Do you listen to classical music?” They say, “Well, I listen to some; are you any good?” I’m like, “Well, I don’t know. I’m not sure how to answer that.”
You yourself are careful to say that between classical and rock there should not be any boundaries.
Yeah, that’s right. There doesn’t have to be boundaries. Other people put the boundaries there. They’re not there in my head. It’s just that mostly classical groups that commission me.
But when you do something like a bluegrass concerto … ?
—which is a “Classical-bluegrass-hybrid” at the request of the orchestra. That’s how it’s been described to me. It’s not bluegrass like [songwriter] Bill Monroe [1911–1996] wrote. I think the guys doing bluegrass are doing it so well, why would I? I may pull in other elements of other musics, but the people who are asking me to write are very specific about it being classical.
Now we come to your first opera , Cold Mountain. You must have poured all your experience into it.
You’ve talked about your own personal contacts with the story. Please explain.
In a way, the story is very familiar to me, although I didn’t realize that until after I had already started the opera project. I was reading the novel through for the fourth time, and I looked carefully at the map in the front, and I suddenly realized that the farm I lived on in East Tennessee was right over the [Great] Smoky Mountains; on the other side was Cold Mountain. So the reason this novel felt familiar to me was because I knew these people, I knew the landscape, I knew their spoken language. But it’s fairly terrifying, because when opera companies mount a brand new production, it usually costs them between one and three million dollars. I’m inexperienced with putting big things on stage that tell a story, and I knew that somebody was spending a lot of money on this and I’d be responsible! It always comes down to the composer. It doesn’t matter whether the set’s great or not, or the scene’s good or not, they always listen to the music, the composer. But having a familiar story was a big thing for me. Now the story has a lot of characters in it, so my librettist Jean Scheer and I culled it down to an outline. My rule going into this was it had to be two and a half hours or less. It could easily have been the Ring cycle over several nights! We tried to pick out characters we thought would be interesting to interact with Inman, the main character.
Were you familiar with the music by Gabriel Yared for Anthony Minghella’s movie version ?
No, but I do love film music.
Are there film composers you like?
Yes! John Williams. He’s one of the few people who get a “star-struck” moment from me! I just got a letter from him, you know. He was with the Philly Orchestra last spring, late in the spring, and I missed him. I asked the orchestra if they would give him a letter. I just wanted to thank him for Star Wars, which was probably the first real “classical music” I got to know. I wrote him and said, “I think you’re the most amazing artist-citizen. Your behavior in the world, in general, has taught me how to be a good citizen to go out into the world. And I’m very conscientious about orchestration because of the way you handled those soundtracks. I must have played them forever, over and over and over again.” I added, “I know that through all the things I’ve done, and even the awards I’ve won, there’s a little bit of you in it.” And he wrote back a week later. I’m like, “Oh, my gosh, it’s John Williams!” I was afraid to open the thing.
You’re a fan!
He was so sweet. He said, “Thank you. Your letter actually meant so much to me.” I know he gets accolades from everyone. If you think about it, his music is probably heard by more citizens in the world than a lot of the stuff we term as classical music.
What of the author of Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier ? Had you read his book?
Oh, yes. He was unfamiliar with opera, in general. He loved music, but something more like mountain and rock music. Opera was a very foreign entity to him. I told him, “Mr. Frazier, I love this novel and I promise I will take care of your characters”; but all the time I’m thinking, “He knows Inman, he knows Ada, and he knows Ruby.” And I’ve got to do a good job with this, making the ten years he worked on that novel come together in two and a half hours.
I understand that Frazier’s based his book on real-life events.
I found out that the Confederate soldier, W. P. Inman, was a real person, one of Frazier’s relatives, who actually went AWOL13 during the war. Apparently, a lot of people were going AWOL, but the Confederate army would take you back if you’d sign up and take a new oath. The story is set in the fourth year of the Civil War. Inman is in a hospital in Richmond. He decides he’s going to go AWOL and walk back to Cold Mountain. He wants to rejoin this young lady he met just before the beginning of the war, Ada Monroe. Although they didn’t get to know each other very well, they quickly fell in love. On the way back, while avoiding the Home Guard, Inman encounters a lot of characters, half of whom are trying to kill him. Another character is Ruby, who comes to help Ada make a living on Black Cove Farm. Ada doesn’t know how to do anything. She’s been raised to speak French, play the piano, paint, write poetry, look at the stars. She doesn’t know how to cook. I mean, she’s completely clueless and starving. Ruby, on the other hand, is a young mountain girl who’s learned to survive. Ruby makes a deal with Ada: she’ll teach her how to farm the land, fix up the barn, make things work, and they’ll grow crops. Later, Ruby’s father returns from the war.
And that’s just the bare bones of the story! How did you come to terms with such a massive project?
When I began designing the opera, I used a huge sketch pad with drawings of each scene which indicated how intense I thought the music would be; and it helped me keep track of all the characters as they went on and off stage. This was so important, because you have to chart how to get them on and off stage, when they have their costume changes, that sort of thing.
A writer gives his characters individual traits and ways of speaking. How do you pull that off in music?
There are a lot of characters and I had to figure out a way to make them have their own distinct sound. What makes Ada sound like Ada, Inman sound like Inman, Ruby sound like Ruby, Stobrod [Ruby’s estranged father] sound like Stobrod? Everyone has a different rhythm of speaking, a different speed of speaking, different diction, etc. For the bad guy, Teague, the leader of the Home Guard, I have “snake-like” sounds, something nasty and kind of pinched. So I like to use a lot of stopped horns, because that’s a pinched sound. Ruby is always nervous, so her music moves at a fast clip, because she’s making lists. I don’t think the audience even realizes this, but the beauty of it is you’ve got these contrasting personalities in the music. Inman described himself as empty, hollow inside, so I took out the middle thirds of his chords, leaving only the interval of a fifth, so you can’t tell if it’s major or minor.
Most writers say their characters sometimes “speak” to them. Does that happen to the composer, too?
Good question. By the time I was into the second act, I knew the characters so well they started telling me what their music was supposed to be. After I started composing in January 2012, these characters never left me. They were in my sleep, every day and every night. Seven days a week I was composing about seven to eight hours a day. And I’d get done at the end of the day; I’d be completely exhausted. I worked on Inman’s death scene for an entire week. I had a physical reaction when I finally had to kill him off at the end, like in the novel. It was horrible! I had spent two years keeping this guy alive, and now it was over for him. So, I began fantasizing: “Maybe he sneaked off through the night, maybe he got out, maybe he went to find Ada.” But no, he had to die. At one point I had to go into the hospital to have my throat checked, because I’d been singing through all the characters. So I asked Frazier, I said, “My god, you’ve been working on this for ten years. Did these people ever leave you alone?” He said, “No, they stay there.” So I have to be careful for the next opera!
A trial by fire, eh?
Two and a half hours is a lot of music! I mapped out on another chart about how many people were singing in each scene, and I talked with the librettist about designing it so we made sure that there was a chorus at the beginning and end of the first act and another two thirds of the way through the second. The volume of sound was critical; we had to know when there were lots of people singing versus maybe a duet and an aria.
You seem to be working with a lot of Appalachian or bluegrass sounds. Are we correct in that?
I wanted a supposedly “authentic” mountain sound, so there are instrumented sections that coincide with the open strings on the violin. And at points where I want a harmonica sound, all three percussionists are blowing the exact same pitches into their pitch pipes. It’s an A, a D, a G, an E. It sounds just like a harmonica coming out of the pit. I remember when I was growing up, I used to go to Old Timers Day in the Smoky Mountains, and they always depended on open strings to make pedal tones,14 which is very typical of folk music. And they would play by ear; I’m not sure any of them actually read music. It was pretty wild to watch them, too, because instead of using a string bass, they would use a broom handle attached to a washtub with a string.15 It’s all handed down, over the generations. These are the weird practical things I had to think about while composing.
What about the violence in a story like this? And lots of gunplay. Can you simulate gunshots with musical instruments, as Aaron Copland [1900–1990] does in Appalachian Spring?
Oh, we used real guns with blanks in them! We calculated the exact number of gunshots we needed. And there was blood, too! We even had one entire meeting about blood, how much blood we’d need, and how much is too much because they put blood packs in the costumes for when people are getting shot. They wanted it to look realistic. So I think we started out with two gallons of blood.
Take us to Santa Fe, where Cold Mountain was premiered. Paint us a scene. Were you there?
It was the most exhausting thing I’ve ever gone through! The tech rehearsals ran from midnight ‘til the wee hours of the morning. There are union rules for who can come into sing what and who has to do the gun training. I’m rewriting things for singers because we’re at a high altitude, you know, trying to figure out what needs to be adjusted in the orchestra, because we were recording it. Believe me, in the fight scenes people would come out gasping for breath because of the thinner air. I’m also learning of the dangers of somebody maybe falling off the set!
Were you on a perpetual search for copyists?
I remember, when I was coming out of grad school, we weren’t using computer programs, so I was trained as a copyist. I did the ink copying, so I know exactly what that’s like and how hard it is on your hands, your back and your eyes. I’m like eternally grateful for computers because I can make quick adjustments in my scores. I remember once removing twenty-eight measures in one of the acts of Cold Mountain, and the computer did the recalculation. It was a scary set.
What do you mean, a “scary set?”
A scary set has a lot of odd angles painted black, and it goes up two stories, and you’re trying to align with the conductor literally like thirty feet below. And the lights aren’t quite set right so the light’s in your eyes. And you’re in an outdoor venue, and here comes a thunderstorm out of the distance!
Was Cold Mountain recorded for compact disc?
They’re recording it now  for a commercial CD, so you don’t want to mess up. You don’t want to drop the singer off the side of the stage, and you can’t trip, because you might fall and break something. And you’re trying to see the conductor and hear what’s going on with the orchestra. The wind’s blowing a certain way and the temperature changes from night to night, so the sound projects differently. On warmer nights, the sound was more “lethargic,” I guess you could say, and it wasn’t projecting out as far. The thickness of the air affected that. It would take probably a decade to explain all the problems. I got basically no sleep for two months!
Chen Yi and Zhou Long: “We Strive to Combine the Culture and Inspiration of East and West”
William Everett and John Tibbetts
Kansas City, 25 August 2017
A prolific composer who blends Chinese and Western sounds, thereby transcending cultural and musical boundaries, Chen Yi—the Lorena Search Cravens/Millsap/Missouri Distinguished Professor of Composition at the University of Missouri, Kansas City—was inducted in 2005 into the American Academy of Arts and Letters . Born in China, Chen Yi earned degrees from the Central Conservatory in Beijing and Columbia University . Her composition teachers have included Wu Zu-Qiang, Chou Wen-Chung, Mario Davidovsky, and Alexander Goehr. She has received numerous prestigious awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and the Charles Ives Living Composer Award. Her works are regularly commissioned and performed by leading ensembles worldwide.
Born into an artistic family in China, Zhou Long began piano lessons at an early age. During the Cultural Revolution Zhou Long, like his wife, Chen Yi, was sent to a rural state farm. He resumed his musical training in 1973, and in 1977 he enrolled in Beijing’s Central Conservatory of Music; he also attended Columbia University , where he studied with Chou Wen-Chung, Mario Davidovsky, and George Edwards. In 2011 Zhou Long won the Pulitzer Prize in Music for his opera Madame White Snake ; in 1999 he received ASCAP’s Adventurous Programming Award and in 2011 that organization’s Concert Music Award. His music is heard regularly in concert halls around the world.
WILLIAM EVERETT : How would you describe your music?
CHEN YI: My music might be a kind of a combination, with the culture and inspiration from both East and West, and including Western instruments and also Chinese instruments. I also write for chorus, but basically orchestral and chamber works.
JOHN TIBBETTS : And the texts for the choral works?
The texts are mostly sung in Chinese, but many works are sung in English. Because in some universities, when they commission the pieces, they want to learn them quickly, like in a semester. So they may not want to have them sung in a foreign language. But many commissions have come for works to be sung in Chinese, if they want to learn the language. In choral music, like in other vocal works, the language is closely related to the pitches.
WILLIAM EVERETT : Since Chinese is a tonal language?
Right, and so they wanted them to be sung in Chinese. So it’s according to the needs. Sometimes I make the decision. And when the commissions come in and they ask me to write “whatever you want”—and even the text, they don’t limit to any idea or anything—I would choose the poems on my own. The poems are mostly taken from ancient Chinese literature, the old poems.
Why do you choose old poems?
First of all, they are very inspiring. In ancient China you considered the Renaissance men who would be the intellectuals, who wrote the poems, and who would also write choreography. Their poems would go with singing and might go with dancing. They talk about their landscape and eventually about the meaning behind the scenes. So I took those inspirations. And also it’s easier to deal with copyright because if you take somebody else’s words, you have to go back and forth to get permission. Sometimes I write words for my own pieces. And also I could translate all the poems into English to be sung.
Have you written for groups other than choirs, orchestras, and chamber groups?
Yes. The band culture is very popular in the United States, so I have written a lot for band.
Zhou Long , how about the same question—how would you describe your music?
ZHOU LONG: Very similar because we have similar backgrounds. Some critics describe my music as “angular impressionism.” I think that means maybe oil painting with watercolor. My music is also highly influenced by the Tang [Dynasty] culture. This was a flourishing period in history—poetry, painting, and descriptions of music, for no music survives—from roughly 600 to 900. My orchestral work is inspired from the Tang poetry, and some of my choral works and some for voice use Tang poems in Chinese or in English translation. I’ve only done one opera; most of my pieces are for orchestra.
Can you please talk about your opera?
The opera is called Madame White Snake . We started the project in 2006. The librettist [Cerise Lim Jacobs] is an attorney, not a professional writer. She studied comparative literature and later decided to study law at Harvard. She’s an immigrant from Singapore, Singaporean American now. She was a prosecutor in public service for years and then started her own law firm in the New England area and was in practice for thirty-five years. She and her [now] late husband were both crazy about opera, and he purchased an apartment right at Lincoln Center so they could go to the Met. The first thing she wanted to do after retiring was to give her husband a gift for his birthday and came up with Madame White Snake.
Her plan, her dream, was just an aria, not an opera. She tried to find a composer and asked a friend in Boston. I received an e-mail saying this woman was trying to find a composer to write Madame White Snake, an opera. Everybody knows the story; it’s very popular in China and East Asia. In Hong Kong they made a movie of it, and in China they have a television series. It has also been adapted in many different [Chinese] provinces for their own local opera with different dialogue and styles. This is the first English Western-style opera [based] on the story.
JOHN TIBBETTS : Is the story well known in the West?
Not really. But the theme is [like] a Western story: a demon becomes a female human being in love with a gentleman. Now came the reality of how to get it performed. We contacted Opera Boston. Gil Rose, the conductor, was music director. He knew my music but we didn’t know each other personally. The librettist interviewed a dozen composers, Chinese and American, and Opera Boston said, “You have to pick this one.”
CHEN YI: I thought that we should go to New York to meet them. And they listened to all his CDs. His mom was a vocal teacher, a professor at the Beijing Central Conservatory, and he grew up listening to opera. They decided to invite him to write.
ZHOU LONG: The person contacted me first. And I said that maybe we two could work together. But Chen Yi was too busy, and I said I would compose the opera. In 2006 we started to develop the script into four acts. I suggested turning the story into a prologue, four acts, and an epilogue. So six parts for a 106-minute piece. For the style, we wanted a Peking Opera actor, but decided not to because the libretto is in English.
WILLIAM EVERETT : So were you involved with choosing the cast?
Yes. Not only choosing the cast but also fund raising. At first when we talked I told them I don’t want to be involved in fundraising, casting, and interviews. And they decided that “you must.” I don’t have that much time. I attended two major fundraising events. So we raised some money. Like a half million, almost. The whole production [cost] 1.2 million [dollars].
How did you cast the title role?
Most of the professional singers, even if they have new opera experience, when they look at the score they can’t do it. It’s too hard. But in the end we found Ying Huang from Shanghai.
CHEN YI: Her manager brought her to the audition and pushed the librettist and said that she would be a perfect fit. And she herself also was passionate and said, “I know Chinese style.” And although others might be more famous, they might be too tall or their voices not flexible enough.
ZHOU LONG: She had very good experience and made a movie with a French company (i.e., Frédéric Mitterrand’s 1995 film adaptation of Madama Butterfly).
CHEN YI: And also she is a Metropolitan Opera singer. She’s singing main roles.
ZHOU LONG: But she never attended graduate school. She graduated from the Shanghai Conservatory with her undergrad and then began her professional career.
CHEN YI: She made her name in Europe singing. Several people have played this role, and she is thirty-one. She learned the score first. It definitely is hardest for the first person. Others could listen to her recording.
Have there been other productions?
ZHOU LONG: Yes, it had its second production in Boston in 2016.
CHEN YI: The second production was brand new, completely new staging, new sets.
ZHOU LONG: We didn’t ask Huang Ying, because she was in Shanghai. We auditioned four singers; they all dropped. In the end there’s only five weeks left. A young singer [Susannah Biller], in her thirties, had already worked with San Francisco Opera and Houston Opera. She’s very smart. In five weeks she memorized the role.
CHEN YI: More presenters came up for the second production. They loved the stage setting. The Hong Kong Arts Festival will do it in two years. The first production was also done in the Beijing International Music Festival the same year as the premiere because it was a co-commission. When the director of the Beijing Festival met us, he asked Zhou Long, “What are you doing?” Zhou Long said, “I’m writing a new opera for Opera Boston.” And he asked, “What’s the title?” And then he said, “In that case it’s not good. It’s a scary story for a Western audience.” But he said he was interested in co-commissioning the piece, so that’s why he supported the production in Beijing and the Festival paid for the whole production.
The director of the Beijing International Music Festival, Yu Long, is also the music director of the China Philharmonic, the Shanghai Symphony, and the Guangzhou Symphony. And so after this opera we have had some other collaborations with him. He commissioned us to write a large-scale symphony for the Guangzhou Symphony Orchestra, which won the China National Competition First Prize.
Was that something you worked on together?
Yes. Symphony: Humen 1839. It was on the Naxos CD that was the second Grammy nomination for the New Zealand Symphony. That was his commission. He has done our works with the Shanghai Symphony and other orchestras.
More precisely, the dodecaphonic, or twelve-tone, compositional method [I cut the end of this note, since it’s in the introduction to the section just a few pages earlier].
James Hubert (“Eubie”) Blake (1997–1983), musician and composer, was one of many African American ragtime stars.
“Patter” or “list” songs, featuring rapid-fire lyrics and music, are mostly associated with opera and musical theatre.
“Spook breakfasts,” popular events in mid-1930s Kansas City establishments like the Reno Club, featured jam sessions and “cutting” contests for jazz musicians who drifted in and out of such clubs from the early morning hours of Sunday into the next day. Spook breakfasts were recreated in Robert Altman’s 1996 film Kansas City.
Probably a “boilermaker”: a glass of beer with a shot of whiskey or vodka.
Prior to the invention of the phonograph and other recording machines, most music simply disappeared. Hand-copied, printed, or “frozen” music, on the other hand, survived.
“Parallel fifths” (for example, [C - G] moving immediately to [D – A] in the same vocal line or lines) were avoided by many composers from the fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries because they were thought to interfere with proper voice leading.
More often called the “Great American Songbook” and also known as “American Standards”: an imaginary collection of popular songs mostly composed during the 1920s–1950s.
Braille is a form of “tangible writing,” consisting of raised impressions (dots) that can be read with the fingertips.
To some extent the plot of Floyd’s opera parallels the story of Susanna (or Shoshana) and the Elders in the Old Testament Book of Daniel, chapter 13.
Arcueil is a suburb of Paris. The phrase is both respectful and satiric: the “master of a village” rather than of Paris or any other important city.
The result is known as a “prepared piano.”
“Absent Without Official Leave.”
A single sustained note, usually a low note, against which the rest of the music is played. Bagpipes combine pedal tones with melodic lines.
Known as a “washtub bass.”