|An interview with Charles Amirkhanian
Listen to the interview (76:04s)
ALAN BAKER: [Charles] Ives was seen as kind of the first true American composer. Why is that so?
CHARLES AMIRKHANIAN: If you go back to 1920, there was a kind of feeling among American musicians that composers should study in Germany or France to be able to learn how to do it right. In Europe one learned where to put the notes, what the harmonies are, and what kind of counter-tonal procedures are okay. Up through the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, most of the composers who were taken seriously in the United States in the classical music field did just what they were instructed to do, and they didn't really depart from those standard procedures until the 1920's. Then you had composers like Dain Ruchaird, who is a Frenchman, and Edgard Varèse, also from France, both active in New York with their societies of new music that they founded to oppose the kind of standard orchestral fare that was given by the New York Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony and so forth.
I think it's interesting to realize that, at that point in time, Charles Ives had composed everything significant that he ever wrote, and he literally stopped composing after 1918 until his death in 1951. But his music was discovered and revived in the mid 1920's by Henry Cowell who began, with the support of Ives' personal fortune, to produce magazines and concerts and 78 rpm discs under the name of The New Music Society. The New Music Edition, which you could subscribe to as a magazine, was sent to you once a month, and it had scores of all these very radical composers who were departing from the traditional Germanic expression that they had grown up with.
Meanwhile, you had a number of American composers going to Paris to study with Natalie Boulanger, and those were the composers who ended up writing neo-classical music in the 1940's. They were composers like Aaron Copland; I think the Mavericks turned out to be the composers who didn't study with Boulanger, by and large. They were people like Carl Ruggles, Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell, and John Cage who for better or worse, were somewhat self taught until they encountered Schönberg in Los Angeles. Arnold Schönberg, of course, was the direct antithesis of the Stravinskyian expression of the Boulanger School.
Instead of working with very dynamic rhythms, as in the "Firebird" and "Right of Spring", that later influenced the minimalist movement in America, you had composers who were working in this new Germanic tradition of Schönberg, in which counterpoint and the use of dissonance was extremely important. Henry Cowell's periodicals and his recordings largely dealt with two strains: composers who were making music that was influenced by this systematized approach of Schönberg and the great intellectual and dissonant music that he was famous for; and the composers who were interested in non-western European music. That is to say, composers who were interested in Indonesian music, music from India, music from Africa, and what those other cultures had to offer in the way of inspiration.
I find it interesting that Schönberg comes up in that . . .I don't really . . . I know that Cowell studied with Schönberg for a bit, right?
And Cage, and Lou.
But it seems . . . it seems an odd thing. Here's a man who created a system that seems very rigid, and not to really accept all these kinds of wild things that these composers that you just mentioned in association with him . . . I mean, as a teacher had he really furthered their work, considering the apparent at least external differences in approach?
I think Schönberg didn't really teach the twelve-tone system to most of his students; he taught standard composition. But for those in the American Mavericks group who went to see him and work with him, that would include John Cage, Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell, umm . . I think what they got from their exposure to him was the idea of creating their own world, their own system of working very methodically. Cage, for example, began to compose music in which he had rhythmic structures that were mirrored in the formal layout of his music. Thus, measures that were accented with rhythms of two, three, four, two and four would also appear as the overall structure of the piece. He must have gotten that idea, in part, from the music of India where rhythm mirrors the structure. Perhaps he was also thinking of Schönberg's desire to codify something that would have its own internal integrity and would be therefore impervious to critical defeat. (Laughter) It would be easily analyzed and explainable, and it would have its own logical beauty. Very much like the way Bartok uses the golden mean in his structures, Cage uses rhythmic tonal patterns from India. He was inspired, I think by Schönberg's systemization to create his own works. Of course, the result sounds nothing like Arnold Schönberg, but it doesn't sound European either. It sounds like American Maverick music.
Many of the resources are different . . .the raw materials that are used methodically. Is that why they sound so different?
The instrumentation was completely different. In the percussion pieces you're using instruments that weren't even considered instruments by Schönberg and Brahms. As early as 1931, Varèse composed "Ionization", which was a piece for only percussion instruments. Shortly thereafter, works with percussion were published by Cowell in "The New Music Quarterly". Lou Harrison and John Cage also began writing percussion music. This was a huge movement that went on for many, many years before all these composers turned to other medias of expression.
I think that the fact that you could go to a junkyard and pick up automobile parts and tin cans and make music with them was a kind of American rebellion of not borrowing ideas from Europe; rather Americans were inventing things totally unique to the west coast composer. The significance of that rebellion starting on the west coast is important. It might be in part due to the fact that these composers were all in touch with each other, as they were all living there. But perhaps it was even more due to the fact that they weren't doing anything for money; they were not getting paid for any performances. Their own very modest means prevented them from doing anything more radical, like having expensive instruments built for them. It's also very useful to consider the climate in which they were working in, which was of course, the depression. There just wasn't a lot of money for funding anything, let alone the arts. I can imagine these guys living off of mushrooms that they found outside of their cabins in Carmel, putting together groups of instruments and playing works that they would write for each other to perform on concerts with non-professional musicians in some cases, who could read rhythms, but perhaps couldn't play violins very well. They made a conscience choice to do that. They could have written chamber music, but they found a way to make something completely new and to do it with flair. At one point, John Cage and his ensemble were featured on the cover of Life Magazine in the early 40's and suddenly his career was launched as he moved across the country from the west coast to Chicago and then to New York. By the time he gets to New York, you know, people are aware that this insane guy was coming their way. He immediately began to write music for the prepared piano, which he had been doing on the west coast, and held concerts that a lot of people attended. Subsequently, commercial recordings began to be released in the late 40's, and he was off and running.
How did the John Cage of the west coast differ from the John Cage of New York once he got there?
He began to be in contact with many of the visual artists from Europe who had moved to the United States during the war. That would include Oscar Fischinger, the visual artist who lived in Los Angeles and with whom he collaborated on films. Then there was the Bough House Artists in Chicago and the abstract expressionists in New York. Cage was always very conscious of the visual arts scene, and his friends were artists like Jasper Johns. The people who took him seriously as a composer were not particularly exclusively the musicians. It was only when Virgil Thompson began to write favorable reviews of his music that he was taken more seriously by actual acknowledged composers, if you can imagine that. I think the biggest change for Cage happened after he had gone through a period of writing imitations of Eric Satie. He wrote with very sparse, very plain, open harmonies. He began to study Zen Buddhism with Suzuki and became aware of the concept of attention all of the time to sound. You close your eyes and you listen to whatever is there, and that is how you meditate. Well, for Cage, that became a way to compose. He began to realize that structured music that people intentionally wrote up was often not much better than just closing your eyes and listening to whatever came up in various points of time as you pay attention. So he began to write using chance operations to imitate that situation and therefore, various sounds would appear in time, having no rhythmic structure, no metric structure, just appearing whenever each thing told them to appear. He that did on the east coast; that was a big change that happened in his career that was simultaneous with his moving to New York.
This new approach led to a very infamous piece: 4'33.
The piece by John Cage in which a pianist sits at a keyboard and opens and closes the cover to indicate the beginning and end of the first movement, the second movement, and the third movement, but never makes any intentional sound, was premiered out doors in the early 50's at Black Mountain College. And of course, there was so much sound as David Tudor performed this piece, there was sound from the frogs and the crickets and so forth, that the point was very well made that there is no such thing as silence. I think the mileage that critics have gotten out of making fun of this piece is incredibly inappropriate because here was a philosophical statement produced in a brilliant form that enabled people who were paying attention at a concert to realize exactly the point he was trying to make. The fact that it's easy to make fun of the piece doesn't negate the fact that it was in and of itself a perfect model for what he was trying to propose. I think that the works that Cage wrote in chance operation form over the last forty years of his life really are of a completely different order and require a different kind of expectation from the audience. They are more difficult for audiences to appreciate. But the fact that very few people have copied Cage's idea of using chance operations indicates how much ego there is in composers and their intentions. I think it's also very interesting to remember that Cage, who had studied with Schönberg, who had the twelve-tone system for his music, probably felt when he discovered the chance operations procedure, that he had out-Schönberged Schönberg. I wouldn't be surprised if that crossed his mind.
Let's back up and talk about west coast composers. They're the inventors.
Henry Cowell was kind of a child protégée who lived in a modest home in Menlo Park, and when he was very, very young, he was sent across on a ferry three or four times a week to study with Charles Seeger, who was then a professor at the University of California. Seeger was a very open minded kind of guy, and he realized that he had a tiger by the tail with Cowell, and he sort of gave him his head to experiment with as a composer. Cowell began to write pieces based on Irish mythology, which was his ethnic background and an interest of his parents. Cowell wanted to create a kind of music that was very expressive and very powerful, but also very unconventional. He played this music on solo piano in various venues, particularly ladies musical clubs and community concerts. He loved I think the exhibitionistic element of doing something really wild in front of a bunch of scandalized classical music appreciators. And so, Seeger's encouragement certainly had a hand in making him feel like he had permission to do all of this. When Lou Harrison and Cowell met in San Francisco, I think Lou was pretty much in awe of Cowell's achievements and began to follow him around and try to learn from Henry's experiences, which by then included a trip to Russia to play his music there, and concerts in Europe, in Paris, and London, and all over the western European continent. It must have been very liberating for Lou Harrison and for John Cage to meet a guy like Henry Cowell, who had had actual acclaim for being a radical and a radical west coast American, before they actually began to work with him. The fact that all of these guys started building unconventional instruments and working with things like brake drums and thunder sheets and gongs that were repeatedly struck while being dropped into a tub of water so that the pitch changed, was probably one of the functions of their just being in contact with each other. Harry Partch's contributions, which involved particularly getting away from the equal tempered scale of western Europe and the grand piano, were accomplished only by building his own instruments. And so, oddly enough, it was Partch who told Lou Harrison that he should build instruments later in life out of metal. Partch had done it in wood, so why didn't Lou do it with bars of aluminum in order to get tuned gallons that could be playing blues music in just intonation. Partch didn't have any idea of how to work with meta, but Bill Coleby did because of his background in electrical work.
Lou was already into metal at that point? He just wasn't building his own, is that the deal?
That's right, yeah.
Let's shift gears and talk about Antheil.
One of the things that I like so much about "The Ballet Mécanique" is that it was written by a 24-year-old American kid from Trenton who was living in Paris. The "Ballet Mécanique" of George Antheil was probably the most radical piece written to that date in western classical music in that it used the kind of Stravinskyian ideas of displaced accents and unexpected syncopations in combination with the wild orchestration, which involved not only a player piano and live pianists, but also a big battery of percussion: bass drums, gongs, cymbals, sirens, doorbells, and, did I say airplane propellers? Well, they were there too. (Laughter) And when this gets cranked up and rolling, it is one of the most thrilling things you've ever heard. It is also one of the compositions which predates the use of noise in music, I think, because the bass drum and airplane propellers and doorbells--these things are instruments, they are sounds that we think of as being kind of non-pitched and very aggressive.
Antheil, who was quite a showman and himself on the exhibitionistic side as a pianist and composer, really got a lot of mileage out of this particular combination. What drove it all was the player piano- - the instrument that had a kind of relentless, obsessive quality to it, and on which he could do tremolos that were perfectly measured. The rolling of the chord on this instrument was very fast and very precise. He also insisted that the xylophonists also follow his orchestration very closely on this mechanistic and very fast patterning. I think one of the reasons the piece was so successful in Paris in the mid-twenties was that in Paris you had xylophones that could be played like keyboards. You played, as a performer, on the keyboard and then, instead of striking a hammer against a piano string, the keys activated xylophones that could keep perfect time with this very fast player piano part. When it was played in 1927 in Carnegie Hall, I doubt that it could have been played that fast because xylophonists just couldn't play that fast in those days, the technique wasn't up to the level of today's technique. So therefore, the piece was roundly booed and considered a failure. It had been built up in the newspapers as being something that was going to imitate a factory or a construction sight, and it sounded just like music.
It really was a disappointment because of all the pre-concert publicity. Now, Antheil had conceived of this originally as a work for sixteen player pianos to be synched up, when he realized as he wrote the piece that it was impossible to get any two player pianos to play at the same speed. So what did he do? He had one player piano playing the basic roll, which contained all of the music of the piece, and then he doubled that and amplified it with four or eight live pianos. In the case of Carnegie Hall, he had ten, I think. This gave a big full piano sound, but it didn't produce the kind of speeds that he wanted, because human performers just couldn't play that fast. The metronome marking in the score is absolutely insane; it's probably 150 beats to the minute. If you think of a marching band as normally marching at 120 beats to the minute, and then speed up that marching band so they're going very, very fast, it gives you the idea of what each individual beat would be, and then he subdivided that into sixteenth notes and thirty-second notes. This was just impossible to play at the speed he wanted. For the American Mavericks Festival, the performance conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas was just an amazing feat because the composer, Paul Lehrman, had arranged the music by digitizing the entire player piano score and distributing it over sixteen Yamaha player pianos.
It was wonderful to hear all of these pianos clacking away at the same time in combination with the xylophonists and the percussionists and the people playing the sampled airplane propellers and the sampled doorbells, which now we have a way of making do with in the Hall in a much more expedient way. In Antheil's day, they brought in actual motors and airplane propellers. In his early version of the piece, he used a siren. When the piece ended, the siren was supposed stop, but it went on for a minute, because he forgot that sirens can't just stop on a dime. Those little fire engine sirens, when you crank them, it takes them a long time to cease their sound. It was a very anti-climactic ending in the New York performance, but with the use of samplers today, we can correct all of that.
During the San Francisco Symphony performance, the hammers and strings of one of the player pianos was shown on a large video screen above the audience. And at one point, in the third movement, when all the pianos are going and they're just burning up with energy, one of the sixteen player pianos burned out its solenoids and absolutely just imploded and couldn't handle the number notes anymore. Ironically, it was the one that was being shown on the screen in the Hall. It was great to look around the Hall and see people's mouths drop open as the music continued, but one piano that they were looking at on the screen had stopped. It was fortunate that, of the sixteen player pianos, the sound of it was so loud and confusing that you couldn't tell that one had actually stopped firing. You know, fifteen out of sixteen isn't bad.
Talk a little bit about him being an exhibitionist and kind of self-styled bad boy. Tell me more about his personality and his personal life.
When George arrived in Europe for a concert tour in 1922, mind you he was born in 1900 so he's in his early twenties, he realized that his image as an American concert pianist was going to be pretty marginal, because Europeans didn't take Americans seriously as concert pianists. What he did was to have a very flamboyant kind of presentation on stage, and the music that he wrote for himself to play- -things like the Airplane Sonata and the Jazz Sonata--all of these things kind of played off on his being an American. At that time, the image of Al Capone was very much in the minds of the Europeans, and he would play up this by wearing a holster and having a revolver inside his coat pocket. At one concert in Budapest, he removed the gun and put it on the rack of the piano and informed the guards in a very loud voice to lock the doors, so the audience couldn't get out. He said that you could hear a pin drop through all of his music. It was the one time that there were no violent interruptions and he wasn't forced to wait for the audience to calm down at the end of each piece.
So it was effective.
Yeah. And the crowd he hung with in Paris was stacked with creative minds. I think for Antheil, the people who appreciated his music, were the visual artists: the poets and the writers. He actually was very close friends with Man Ray and with Brach, Picasso, James Joyce was a very close acquaintance, and Sylvia Beach who ran Shakespearean Company-the bookstore, above which he lived. She actually acted as his kind of postmistress. That is to say, when he went out of town on a concert tour, she would answer his mail and take care of his business affairs. He and Boski, his wife, who was Hungarian, lived in an apartment above Shakespearean Company where Hemingway and all the expatriate American writers would come to congregate and talk about art and life. Among them was Ezra Pound who wrote a book called Antheil and the Treatise on Harmony. Pound, who was then involved with Olga Rush, a violinist, had Antheil write violin sonatas for Olga to play. Olga played the violin, George played the piano, and on some occasions Pound would turn the pages on stage for the performances.
There's a wonderful violin sonata called "The Violin Sonata Number Two" with drums, which Antheil often performed with Olga. And in it, the pianist moves from the piano bench to two tom-toms and concludes the piece by playing a kind Moroccan or tango rhythm in concert with the violin, somewhat reminiscent of "L'Histoire du Soldat" of Stravinsky. That's one of the pieces of music that for forty-five or fifty years was absolutely lost, because Antheil's widow did not allow it to be performed. George didn't want it performed, because it would remind people of his days in Paris when he wrote "The Ballet Mécanique", which had become a kind of albatross around his neck as a composer as of the 1950's when he was trying to reestablish himself. It wasn't until 1970 or so when I met Mrs. Antheil that she allowed me to go into her cabinet and pull out some of these scores. In 1970, when I was working as music director of KPFA radio in Berkeley, we gave a concert of his music at the University of California. It was a complete sell out. A senSatieon. And so his revival was launched.
What kind of music was he putting forth in the period where he was trying to rebuild his reputation? What did he write? Is the "Jazz Symphony" part of that?
No, that was from the Twenties.
It was a very good piece, and that was from "The Ballet Mécanique". In the late 40's and throughout the 50's--he died in 1959 at the age of just 58--he wrote music that was more romantic. It was very much Russian influenced by Prokofiev and Shostakovich, that kind of expression. It always had terrific energy and he had the most wonderful touch at writing middle movements that were very serene and also poignant. He was also good at waltzes. Henry Brant, who studied with him privately, said that George could improvise a waltz at the drop of a hat and often would do four or five in a sitting. Henry finally asked him permission one day to transcribe some of them while he was improvising them; always said that George could have been the American waltz king if he had wanted to.
The "Jazz Symphony" was composed in 1925 and was premiered in Carnegie Hall by the W. C. Handy Orchestra. Antheil, who had always been interested in jazz, decided that he wanted to write a piece that was different from the French composers' take on jazz. Various composers in Paris were writing jazz influenced pieces, but Antheil wanted to write a really gutsy one that had what he remembered as being the kind of seamy underside of this expression, this style that was so emblematically American. There are some amazing licks in this piece: banjo solos, a wild piano part that Antheil himself played, and lots of crazy figurations in the brass and woodwinds. But it's quite a beautiful piece to hear played well and especially by an American orchestra with an American conductor like Michael Tilson Thomas.
Let's talk about [Conlon] Nancarrow.
I think the player piano was looked upon by a lot of composers as the first music computer that was practical, which could be used by composers to manipulate sound in a way that a human couldn't. When you consider that Stravinsky, Antheil, Ernst Hooke, and Alfredo Casella, and many composers in the 1920's were brought into the Playola Company or other player piano companies and asked to create music just for the player piano, the idea of this instrument being used for something other than ragtime tunes or bar room entertainment becomes a really important point. This resource is used by composers who, as they investigate it, find out that they don't have to sit down at the piano, play a piece, and have a pencil tick onto the blank roll where the hole should be punched, rather, they can present a score to the person who punches the holes to have the score realized exactly as they would like. Many composers began to embellish the original conception of their music and to make it seem like a fuller realization by adding a fifth hand to the music.
By the time we get to Conlon Nancarrow in the late 40's, you find a composer who is frustrated with performers; he's writing difficult music that's kind of influenced by Stravinsky but not easy to play, and he's living in Mexico City where a lot of players weren't quite a good as some of the New York Philharmonic players, and he's frustrated. He decides to try to punch some scores of his "Piano Sonatina" and various other pieces for string quartet and see what it would sound like on a player piano. As he does this, he realizes that he doesn't have to restrict himself to what a human could play. He could be composing things that a human could not play, and then punch the holes into a player piano rolls, and have then a roll that will simply replicate what his original conception was. Then he realized that he didn't have to have the rhythms be in regular 4/4 time or even any rational relationship of numbers. He could have one voice in the music in one tempo, and another voice in another tempo, and another voice in another tempo. By altering the mechanism of the hole-punching machine, he was gradually able to do any possible thing that the player piano can do.
Well, what are the limitations? The limitations are that you can only play let's say eighteen notes at one moment, because if you play more than that, the vacuum suction gives out and you can't play any notes at all. So you have to restrict yourself to, let's say, eighteen notes at a time. That's one restriction. Other restrictions are that you can't play other instruments. You can only play the player piano. Everything you do will come out on one of the strings of the player piano. If you're playing too fast, you won't hear everything, because it'll just be a blur. So, what does Nancarrow do? He puts pieces of metal over the hammers or pieces of hard leather, and makes it sound more like a harpsichord, so the articulation is audible to every member of the audience in a very fast piece with many voices at different tempe. This is a contribution that implies the existence of computers and electronic music and all sorts of later developments. You also hear in the early music of Elliott Carter, how much he's indebted to Nancarrow's invention, with his use of variable tempe in each voice of a string quartet. Nancarrow's influence and his music had a profound effect, and it wasn't until the 1980's that he came out of Mexico and actually appeared in another country to show what his music could do. That was a story in and of itself.
Maybe you should talk about his personality and why he hung out in Mexico and didn't really want to take part in these . . . because people wanted him to perform. They wanted to hear it. But he didn't want to take part. Is that fair?
Nancarrow had been a member of the Lincoln Brigade that had fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. He had been wounded in action and was taken back to the United States eventually. His passport was taken away, because he was a subversive. Then he was drafted and he got really angry. He said to himself, "Well I'm good enough to be drafted, but I'm not good enough to have a passport. I don't really think that this is fair and I'm going to move. I'm going to Canada or Mexico." He looked at the situation in Mexico with Cardenas as president, a communist. He decided to move there and take his chances with the Mexican culture, and he lived there for the rest of his life, establishing himself as a kind of hermitic presence in the middle of this bustling city, one of the largest in the world. He was amazingly active as a subscriber to various music magazines and a purchaser of all sorts of things from 78 rpms from India and Africa, to books on every subject in music and beyond.
He had a huge library of books on the perception of time. There were books on various subjects in philosophy, psychology, science, and books on tea and coffee, and all sorts of things that he wanted to study. All this was being financed by a bit of his family money from Arkansas. His father had been the mayor of Texarkana and had a successful business. His wife, Annette Stephens, who was wealthy, was also able to help him purchase whatever he needed to study. So, here you had this incredible incubation going on with this guy in this fabulous library.
He hung out with people like Juan O'Gorman, who was the muralist who made beautiful murals that were enormous constructions. There were also various political people and George Oppen, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet who at that time was living in exile from the McCarthy investigations. His life was one of great inwardness. Eventually, he was discovered by John Cage and by Gordon Mumma, and various other people, and his music began to be circulated for the first time in the late 60's.
And you eventually played a role in that too, right?
Eventually I became involved, because I had heard some of his music at a concert in Ghirardelli Square that the Merce Cunningham Company was doing. I went up to Gordon Mumma and said, "What is this music?!" And he said, "It's by Conlon Nancarrow, you know." And I said, "No, I don't know." And then a Columbia recording of some of his studies came out, and I was completely floored. So when Carol Law and I decided to get married, we got in our Volkswagen and drove to Mexico City for our honeymoon. We visited with this man who refused to let himself be interviewed. I was the new music director at KPFA and I wanted this to be my first interview. He said, "Nothing doing!" He was very, very secretive and kind of not interested in exposing himself to possible criticism. I think that was a big fear- -that people would immediately dislike his music because, when you hear it in his studio, it's very loud and very aggressive, and it sounds amplified. Everybody thinks it's amplified. After giving us various exotic forms of alcohol and taking us to a restaurant that had no background music because he didn't believe in Muzak, Nancarrow was stalling, obviously, because we were trying to get into his studio.
Here we had come all the way from San Francisco in a Volkswagen beetle that had broken down several times, and the man wasn't going to let us hear his music. Finally I said, "now let's go hear some of your player piano music," and he said "all right." By that time he'd had a couple of drinks, and he was relaxed enough to let us go into the studio. But as we entered the actual studio, which had a huge double door that was padded, for sound proofing, he stiff-armed Carol and he said, "No, you can't go in. Just Charles." Carol was stunned and she said, "Why not?" And he said, "Women never like my music. They always get too frightened, and children too." And she pushed him out of the way and said, "I'm going in!" And that was the last objection we had from Conlon. Here was a guy doing all this very quietly, totally unrecognized, and he was one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century.
Naturally I took some of his recordings back to recording companies to see if we could get someone to issue them. The Columbia LP, which was briefly in print, was no longer available. I had the darnedest time; nobody was interested. I sent it to Tracy Stern at Nonesuch and to the end of her days, she would say that that was the biggest mistake she ever made . . . that she didn't do the Conlon Nancarrow project. Fortunately, I was able to propose it to Thomas Buckner who was starting a new record label in Berkeley called 1750 Arch Records, which was the address of his concert hall. It was a beautiful building, designed by an architect as his own home. Tom had purchased the building and was using it for weekly concerts that KPFA was broadcasting. In the course of discussion with him, I found out that he was starting a record label. He said, "why don't you propose some things you'd like to do?" So I gave him a list of fifty things I thought should be recorded, and he chose the most expensive project, which was to fly me and Robert Schumaker, his engineer, to Mexico City to record all of Conlon Nancarrow's music.
We got down there and worked on the project for a week. This was in 1976 or 77, I guess. We brought back the recordings, and we started to issue one LP at a time until we had all four LP's out. By the time the third one came out and was distributed in Europe, Ligeti, the famous European composer, was in the FNAC Record Store in Paris, and was looking under his own name to see what they were carrying of L-Ligeti, and comes across this N-Nancarrow disc, and picks it up and takes it home, and writes me a letter saying this is the greatest discovery since Ives, congratulations! That, of course, became the quote on the next record jacket, and subsequently they became very good friends. They both had similar interests in cross-rhythms and how you get one rhythm in one tempo to interlock with another rhythm, another melody, and another tempo. This idea of complexity with a kind of pulse to it that drew in the listener rather than repel them, was what they were both after. They found the source of it in West African music, just as Steve Reich had found it for his own music with Ghanaian drumming.
For someone who is listening to Nancarrow stuff for the first time, could this be a wall of sound, that's hard to figure out? What are they hearing? What should they listen for to get into it a little bit?
Nancarrow composes mostly by using canons. He takes a long melody line and then plays it and then takes another melody line, which is the exact same as the first, but transposes it to another pitch, and gradually all of these things get played, but at different speeds. So you're hearing the same thing, often in different registers, over and over again building up and layering into more and more complex forms. It's kind of like looking at a snowflake and seeing it crystallize from all different angles. The beautiful colors that result from that are what Nancarrow is after. He is able to stretch your brain into perceiving something musically by judicious use of the register on the piano: is it in the high range or the low range? You can't put two things in the high range at once because they will cancel. But if you start one in the high range, one in the midrange, and one a little lower down, you can hear all of these things at once. It's a thrilling experience.
One other composer that I know you are close with is Lou Harrison. When people talk about him, they do so with deep love and admiration. Why is that?
Well, Lou is a very generous person. He will tell you the most esoteric fact, something you would never have come across in your life, and he will begin by saying, " Well, Charles, as you know . . ." (Laughter) I've always thought that was his most charming feature. (Laughter) Umm. . . but he is the kind of person who is so curious about so many things, that he is inspiring. He is never at a loss for inspiration. In fact, he recently told me that he regretted being such an elder composer because he had enough ideas to last him for 250 years, and what a shame that he wouldn't be able to get to all of these things that he wanted to do.
His curiosity about ancient cultures, and the most recent innovations in science and technology has quite a span. It shows the breadth of a person who reads, more than he watches television, who has tremendous respect for intelligence wherever he can find it. I think that's a lesson for all of us that we badly need.
His music while clearly breaking new ground, especially when you look when some of it was written, is not something that leaves you on the outside. There's something for you even if you don't know what it is you're listening to.
That's right. That's right. Lou's music is approachable in a way that most of the other Mavericks are not. I think there's a certain acceptance that something that's beautiful is okay. I think that there was such a long period of time where music that was inventive was formed to be forbidding, and only the initiated could understand it and should be able to understand it fully. This kind of attitude with Lou's music, that everybody should be able to appreciate it right away was radical in and of itself. It's wonderful that it came from a gay composer, because I think that he recognizes his feminine side and the side that a real man wouldn't recognize and accept. And that may have had an enormous amount to do with how he arrived at this expression, which was accepting beauty as modern, and not shying away from it. So many composers try to write something that no one has ever heard before, and that takes a great deal of tolerance to accept. Lou had this experience in the post World War II period, where he was struggling with his issues of being gay and in therapy for it and had a real nervous breakdown. It was partially because he was living in New York, not in rural California. There was a tremendous kind of pressure from the life of the city and from the ambitions of the people around him and from his work probably at the Herald Tribune to go to concerts and judge them and evaluate them and write reviews and turn them around quickly. I think all of that just came to a head, and you see right away that he began to write the "Suite for Cello and Harp", a very ethereal and beautiful piece, I think influenced by Satie, whom Cage was also interested in at the time. Then there came some of the other absolutely exquisite solo pieces and a lot of the model pieces that became his signature later.
Is it after that breakdown that he moved back to California?
Right away, yeah. He came and began to make a living as a florist and a veterinarian. He did all sorts of odd jobs, anything to get out of New York. Thank god for all of us, because on the West Coast, he's been such a major inspiration to many composers and conductors who've studied with him. And this interest of his in Indonesian music has really spread rapidly amongst a whole two or three generations of students he's had in various colleges like Mills College and San José State University. At first Lou started writing pieces for real Indonesian instruments that were in five or seven tone tunings. Then he decided to build some instruments that actually were tuned in the same way; it had been so expensive to bring Gamelans back from Indonesia.
He worked with his partner, William Colvig, in actually constructing them out of the metal parts that Bill Colvig was familiar with. Bill had worked as an electrician and used a lot of metal pipes as a conduit, and he was very adept at sawing lengths of conduit in metal off to the exact pitch specifications of Lou's scores. He And he did this using an oscilloscope to get the pitch exactly right. He would sit in his workshop with a metal saw and oscilloscope and start cutting until he got it just the right length. Then would be a new Gamelan made of electrical conduit. Those are the instruments that you hear in the "Suite of Violin and American Gamelan". It's American, because it's just conduit from the hardware store and it's also, in this case, in equal temperament with the tuning of the grand piano, rather than an exotic tuning and just intonation. "Suite for Violin and American Gamelan" is one of the most beautiful pieces ever composed in America. It's an astonishing composition.
I wanted to take at least a moment and talk about Henry Brant.
I met Henry Brant in 1971 when he came to Berkeley to perform a composition of his called "Kingdom Come" with the Oakland Symphony and the Oakland Youth Symphony. I was struck by the fact that he had the Symphony Orchestra on stage and the Youth Orchestra in the balcony. What a fantastic, antiphonal experience that was. The Youth Orchestra was playing circus music and had all sorts of things like doorbells, right out of Antheil's "Ballet Mécanique". Henry studied with Antheil, so maybe there's a connection. He also used all sorts of slide whistles and fun sounding things. On stage, the regular orchestra was playing 1930 dissonant counterpoint, very serious American avant-garde music of a certain age. The dialogue between these two was really phenomenal. Subsequently, I've been fortunate enough to work with Henry at a music festival I ran in Telluride, Colorado called Composer to Composer, and also here at San Francisco where I presently have a music festival. It occurred to me that it would be good to try to commission Henry to do something larger, and I was successful in getting funds for him to do a small chamber orchestra piece. I spoke about this to Michael Tilson Thomas. He said, "Well, why don't you have him write it for my orchestra?" And I said, "Because it's not a very big commission fee." So I called Henry and I said, " You know the silliest thing happened-- Michael said that he would play this piece, but you'd have to write it for his orchestra." And Henry said, "Fine. I want bass steel drums, and I want an extra this, and a something over there, and so forth, and I want to play the organ too." So I called back Michael. And Michael said, "Fine. Let's go ahead and do it."
Suddenly we had a piece for 95 musicians, two conductors, and all hell breaking loose in the concert hall when it's actually performed. Now, Henry rarely had been commissioned by an orchestra of the talent of the San Francisco Symphony, and with a conductor who understands American music the way Michael Tilson Thomas does. When met Michael, Henry said that his childhood dream was to have been a theatre organist in silent films, and they really hit it off right away. You could tell there was some chemistry there and they were going to have fun together. Indeed, when Henry presented the score to the San Francisco Symphony, it was filled with all sorts of stylistic quotations imitating jazz bands and Trinidadian music and a little touch of Varèse and Ives, music that's stylistically all over the map depending on what part of the hall you've got your head turned toward.
The idea of Henry's is called spatial music. That's what he uses as a term to describe what he does. In spatial music, you have the idea that architecture reflects sound towards the audience from all the facets of the building. People are hearing things in 360 degrees, not just from the front of their faces, on a presentation stage. It gives another level of expression that he's able to work with as a composer. He doesn't use it as a trick; he uses it as an intrical part of the music. If you were to put all those people on stage and have them play their parts on stage, it would be mud, because you wouldn't be able to hear the voices separate in space. In fact, when he was observing the music of composers like Roger Sessions, who would try to put very dense counterpoint into their music and have it all come from the stage, he realized that you couldn't hear half of the parts. That's because there was no separation; one covered the other. He decided to rectify that and expand on it by liberating the orchestra from its positioning; its traditional positioning. He did it very successfully.
Would he just as soon you get up and walk around and listen to it, or is it meant to be experienced from a single viewpoint. . . meaning that everybody's got their own . . .
I think he means for people to be in one fixed position to listen to it. But in certain situations, he's done outdoor concerts where I'm sure moving around would be fine. I mean Henry's done this on barges in Amsterdam on canals with barges full of choruses and instrumentalists moving towards and away from each other. He's really the kind of composer who could do a composition in any place that you put him. The interesting thing about the performance in San Francisco of "Ice Field" was the reaction of the audience. People were just delighted to turn around and see that there was a jazz band on the balcony at the back of their heads, and that the choral chairs were taken up by instrumentalists. A bunch of woodwinds were in the balcony in back of where the orchestra normally sits. Then up on the second balcony, you had the very high instruments: the piccolos and glockenspiels slamming out this really, really intense sound. It seemed to be coming from outside the building; it was so surreal and provocative. I think he has just a great sense of humor. Not too many composers of Henry's generation use humor as an intrical part of their expression, but Henry does. He relishes it, and he loves the idea that all sorts of things are coming at you at once because that's what happens in life. Things aren't easily separated. You may be watching television and somebody calls you, and then the doorbell rings. Well, that's Henry's music. (Laughter)
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