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The American Mavericks Concert Series
 

 

 

ALAN BAKER: So let's just start out and you can think back, and just describe kind of what the local reaction was to the series. I mean it seems like a very successful thing, and it really caught peoples' imagination.

JOSHUA KOSMAN: It was, I think it came as a surprise to everybody really, quite how well the whole thing went over. Let's go back a little further with this: Michael Tilson Thomas took over the San Francisco Symphony in 1995, and one of the things he did in the first season, in addition to making a big stand about programming, one American piece on every subscription program all season long, which was pretty cool, was that then he took this June spot, which in the past had been devoted to things like a Beethoven festival (laugh) and you know, I think there was a Mozart festival one year, I mean, nothing very urgently necessary in the musical ecosphere, and he said "Well let's devote this to a program of American Maverick music"… this was the summer of '96, and he got the Grateful Dead in there and collaborated, and it was a lot of attention given to that, and really one of the high points of that festival was this afternoon long, sort of house party that he ran with Meredith Monk, and other people of similar ilk. People came and went, and it was very free form and welcoming and a lot of exciting music got done. Steve Reich was there as I recall, and some other people as well. And then as the years went on, each June would bring some other kind of festival.

There was a Mahler festival one summer, there was a Stravinsky festival, there was kind of a hodge podge festival (laughs) that got thrown together in the wake of this long strike that had come mid- season. So there were all of these thematic festivals, but then always in the middle of it, there was this one, weird, sort of Maverick afternoon, harkening back to that first afternoon house party, where everybody had had such a grand time. Umm, and it was interesting, because there would be a Mahler festival, which was

All Mahler, oh and of course we have the American Mavericks afternoon, cause that's what we do every June. So there was this kind of a little bit of a thread of continuity from season to season, and then after five years of this, in the summer of 2000, Michael decided to go back again for another round of the American Mavericks, and I think there was great trepidation on the part of some people, certainly within the organization.

I used to hear in my office, at the paper, they would call me and say, "I don't know if we're going to be able to sell all these tickets, what can we... can you talk this up in the pages of the paper? Can you, ya know, ahh we're very apprehensive in the marketing department" ya know, who are always in a tizzy in any case because that's the nature of marketing departments. Umm, and here comes the schedule of the thing and sure enough it's all this kind of music that um, really is geared towards a very specialist new music kind of audience. We've got Morton Feldman. We've got Milton Babbitt. We've got a whole evening of Steve Reich, who was a little wider audience, but they're not the San Francisco Symphony subscriber audience, right? We've got an evening of Lou Harrison, who again is sort of well known by that point.

Lucas Foss, and John Cage, and all these things, and nobody was really sure how this was going to play.

And, one of the things that was interesting to me about this was that right from the beginning, it was clear that the mood of the city, and the mood of the subscriber ship, and the mood of the audiences in Davies Symphony Hall had changed dramatically over the course of five years. And that one of the things that Michael had said he was going to do when he came in had really happened, and that was… and he said this when he first started out, he said he wanted to get the orchestra's audiences and subscribers, and the city's musical population to the point where they really trusted him to take them on an adventure that they might not otherwise be willing to embark on. That they would say, " Lucas Foss, huh, Morton Feldman, huh, well ahh, " not to caricature it but " I don't usually go for this contemporary stuff, but Michael says its interesting so I'm going to give it a try."

And by God, that is exactly what happened so that, by the time, after five years of his championing this music in various ways, not only in these June festivals but in the regular season as well. He had built up a reserve of trust, and sort of, he had built up a reserve of trustworthiness. So that his word really counted for something, and people would say, "Well alright, I'll give this a shot." And, over and above all the musical delights, that went on in that hall during that festival, one of the really amazing things, was to sit among audiences that you knew were made up in part of people who couldn't believe they had gotten there, and who couldn't figure out why we're as astounded to be there as anyone with a more developed taste in new music was to see them there. We sort of said it was as if we were saying to them, "What are you doing here!" and they said, "I don't know, Michael said it would be fun, and it is fun! I'm having a wonderful time!"

I was just talking just yesterday with someone who's a new music aficionado who was just describing that exact experience, of being at one of those concerts, and sitting next to an older woman who had bought the ticket by herself, and was clearly not a new music regular, and he said "So, how did you come here?" and she said, "Well, Michael Tilson Thomas seems to kind of, he said it would be fun, and I trust his judgment on these things."

So he brought in new audience, as well as changed the existing audience, so that they trusted him enough to go wherever he felt like it.

Yeah, Yeah exactly, and um, and it was wonderful some of these concerts to see the young punks, and the older subscribers sort of in the same audience. The first night of the festival I remember I overheard some guy looking around at a couple of these pierced and tattooed kids, who were sitting and say, "This is not the usual blue hair audience, this is a different kind of blue hair audience". (laughter)

So, do you think that this has more to do with this being San Francisco, and the audience being open to it? Is it MTT alone? Why did it work?

That's a very good question, and I don't know how to, it's hard to really know how to control for that, I don't know that…. I have a doubt that Michael could have done something like this in another city. I have a doubt that another conductor could have done as well here. There really seems to be a kind of symbiosis between... among let's say… the conductor of the orchestra, and the audiences that is really rare to see, and if you talk to people, not just in this city, but around the world… I was talking with Sir Simon Rattle for an interview the other day and he said, "Oh, you know, this relationship between conductor, and orchestra, and city is something that we feel envious of and admiring of all over the world. So, I don't know, maybe it is irreproducible. But I bet it's not unapproachable, and that something of a similar sort could be done elsewhere, by other people if they cared to take it up.

The, you know, I know that if you try to storm into an orchestra and make those kinds of changes, that you're in a really, I would assume that a conductor's in a really risky position, because orchestras are notorious for, you know, not really wanting to be pushed around, or… maybe that's not the right way to phrase it, but you know what I'm saying? How did he work with the orchestra to get them, cause its not just the audience.

Yeah, um, well, I don't have any first hand knowledge of that. I wonder if you should try to get some sense from… but I think that um… I have to feel that it's, in many ways, a similar process. Michael's a very seductive person. I mean personally, and artistically, and in the ways that those two combine, I mean he really… he really… I think has brought the orchestra along in the same way that he brought the audience along.

OK. Good. Now maybe we should talk a little bit about some of the high points from the series. If you want to reference your notes, or whatever, but just… What are the high points, that just stick out for you musically, as far as performance, but then also artistically as far as the choices that were made?

Yeah, OK. Well, um. I would say in many ways, the opening night concert really set the tone for the entire festival, and it was a very interesting, and somewhat controversial undertaking, because one of the things that happened was you had this sort of group be in, performance of Terry Riley's piece "In C" And, there was a lot of conflicting emotion around the way that was done, and whether that was a good idea. I mean the fact that he, this was the second half of the program, the first half was fairly straightforward musical undertaking. There was some great stuff, but we can talk about that in a minute. The first half was a fairly straight forward musical undertaking, and then the second half was, he had sort of invited in anybody who wanted to bring an instrument along, and everybody was gonna play this piece "In C" from 1964, and for those who don't know this piece, it's a very important piece, by some reckoning, sort of the beginning of musical minimalism as a procedure, and a way of writing music.

What it consists of is 53 small musical, melodic fragments, some just a couple of notes, some 5, 6, 8, 10 notes long, and they're given sequentially, and over a single repeating, steady rhythmic pulse which is played on the piano, usually by a repeated note C, everybody in the ensemble, which can be any size, and of any instruments plays the first fragment over and over in strict time, as often as they want. Each person does it as often as he or she feels is appropriate, and then at some point when the spirit moves them, you move on to the second fragment, and you play that repeatedly, some number of times. And of course, everybody gets out of phase rather quickly, but ideally the rhythmic pulse is maintained very strictly, Each of these pieces was written so that it is clearly in the key of C major, but then in a way the kind of spreads out to include adjacent keys and adjacent notes, so that it starts in a very pure concentrated C major, and then the sense of the key area kind of spreads and diffuses a little and finally returns to them.

So… It's a very simple piece, but it's open to a lot of different kinds of realizations, and what Michael decided to do, was have everybody bring an instrument and it was a kind of "In C" hootenanny. ... And for those who felt very strongly about the piece's status as high art, I think there was some… there was a feeling of being a little bit affronted, and a feeling that I understood, and shared to some extent. Because it really is a piece, it's not Kumbaya. It's not something you can just sit down, and sight-read your way through. There was a little prep session, and then everybody kind of went through the piece, each segment once, and kind of got it in there fingers a little bit, and then there was a big projection screen at the front of the hall, where the score was displayed in huge type, and it kind of rolled up, as we went from one section to another, it kind of rolled past. But let's face it, what we were doing here was several hundred people, kind of sight-reading, a piece that is not as easy as you might think. And it sounded like it. I mean it wasn't...it was not a really solid, great, performance of the piece, and that was too bad in a way.

On the other hand, as I wrote in the paper, it was an exercise in communitarian grooviness. It was really great! There were people sitting around, students from the conservatory, and people who had brought their flutes and their trumpets, and people who were singing, and people who were partaking, and there was a sense that…. There was a sense, and in a way, maybe the artistic merits of the piece had to be sacrificed for that one evening to get this point across, that, new music really was something acceptable. That new music really was something accessible, and not this kind of arcane, priestly undertaking that could only be handled by, you know, a hieratic caste of performers.

The other thing that was memorable on that opening night concert was a performance of a piece by Morton Feldman called "Piece for four pianos" and Feldman's music is one of those really rare jewels that just doesn't get heard enough because it's so… well if I say it's difficult, that gives the wrong impression. It's actually incredibly simple on the surface. Very little happens. It's always very soft, very slow, long stretches of music in which almost nothing happens, and then a chord will…. The piano will play one chord, and then there's two notes, and then there's a long silence, and then there's another two notes. ...The silences are as beautiful as the chords that he chooses, and the notes that he chooses, and the combinations of the notes. And of course, it takes a very particular kind of setting for that music to really do it's magic, and this was one.

So it was really great to…I don't think Feldman's music has ever been performed on a San Francisco Symphony program.. I don't know that to be true, we should look that up or something. (laughter) So there was this very spare, very lovely sort of night music I felt, and also on that same program, sort of almost from the other end of the stylistic spectrum was "Philomel", this wondrously extroverted, and sort of high intensity piece for tape. electronic tape and soprano by Milton Babbitt, which was done by Lauren Flanagan for whom there simply are no technical hurdles too daunting to be overcome, and she gave… This was a performance where I guess we could say the far left and the far right of the new music spectrum kind of met around the back. It was as though for one evening all of those divisions disappeared. It was an illusion, look, stylistic differences do exist, and they do matter, but for that one evening it was as though the entire audience was just exploring this world together, and the musical politics suddenly ceased to matter.

It's not easy to do.

Yeah.

That's cool, and I haven't heard that performance of hers yet. Any other performances, or landmark pieces you'd…

 

Yeah, another memorable concert was by Steve Reich and musicians, his performing ensemble, and there were two pieces on the program. One was the first part of a piece, a trilogy of music theatre pieces that was then in progress. Ultimately called "Three Tales", this was Hindenburg which is the first chapter, the first installment of his, sort of, quasi-luddite rant against modern technology, but on the first half was a performance of "Music for 18 Musicians" which really is one of his two most revelatory and magnificent pieces, and one of the great pieces of the last half of the 20th century, and a piece that no matter how many times you hear it, always turns up something new, and something remarkable, and strange and beautiful. The chance to hear it live is always a gift, and to hear it played by his ensemble, who've been doing it for twenty five years now, and in the same way that dance pieces are sort of created by and with the dancers who originally do them, that's a piece that really exists partly in the performances by this very ensemble.

A couple of years ago, somebody got a grant… somebody at the publisher got a grant to give some graduate student in composition somewhere money to sit down and create a performing score of "Music for 18 Musicians" so that groups like the Ensemble Modern who have now recorded it, and other performing groups could play the piece independently, and he told me that until that time, the performing material were these pieces of paper that said things like "Gary goes over to where Steve is", "Steve takes over the marimbas here", so there is some kind of really fundamental way in which the piece is joined to these particular performers. So it was great to have them there.

The other great element of the program was the chance to hear George Antheil "Ballet Mécanique". "Ballet Mécanique" was a piece that was first done in 1926, and really was sort of conceived for in excess of what the technical possibilities were. It was for something like 12 or 16 player pianos all linked together. And player piano technology in the 1920's wasn't even remotely up to what Antile sort of envisioned for this massive industrial soundscape. Not only the player pianos, but a battery of percussion, and airplane whistles, and propellers and sirens and foghorns, and all this kind of musique concrete paraphernalia. And so finally in the last couple of years, with disclaviers and computer driven technology, they were really able to get 16 player pianos reliably going in sync. At least in theory, because in fact, at the event, some number of the pianos, I forget how many, did go belly up, and sort of dropped out and said, "I can't handle this".

But still, even with the lack of some of the player pianos holding up their end, it was an amazing experience. Not the most profound or most original musical composition ever written I think, but just a sort of a spectacle whose boldness and effrontery were hard to resist. You couldn't not be impressed by the way this sort of took the audience by their lapels and shook us.

Maybe we can talk a little bit about, just the, not necessarily the success of the series, but you've got a good body of knowledge to pull from after hearing so much music, and writing, what makes American music American? And if you want to relate it to the series that's fine, but what is American Music? Why does the maverick tradition stand out? Do the two go hand in hand, or are they separate?

That's a very good question. I'd be actually inclined to separate the notion of a maverick composer from American Music, because there are American composers who are not mavericks, and some of them figured on the American Mavericks concert for reasons that eluded me. Aaron Copland being the most notable one. And conversely there are maverick composers from elsewhere, and actually Michael recognized that fact I think last December, when he did two weeks of subscriptions. One was American Mavericks, which included Henry Brant's "Ice Field", and pieces by Varèse, and Villa Lobos for some reason. But then another program called Italian Mavericks which included I thought very aptly the music of Giacinto Scelsi, an Italian composer who really…

Look, nobody exists in a vacuum, really, but you listen to the music of a composer like Shelzy, and you say "A: Where is he getting his stuff from? He's just pulling it out of his own imagination, there doesn't seem to be any very obvious precedent for it, and B: It's not clear where it leads in a kind of historicist view of some kind of mainstream musical narrative, in which one composer begets the next. Scelsi's pieces really sort of stand alone, they don't obviously lead to anything, and it's my belief that in some way the music of Olivier Messaen is a similar kind of thing, I mean there are…People take some ideas, and you can see where he gets some of his ideas, but at the same time, that's music to my way of thinking is really maverick in the sense that it owes no loyalty to any established ideas about how to go about being a composer. And I think there's a, in that sense to take about a maverick tradition is almost contradictory. That what we really want to talk about when talk about Maverick composers are people who deliberately and proudly stand outside any clear tradition

I have a good example who's music actually didn't figure into this festival, would be Harry Partch. With his bizarre menageries of homemade instruments, and idiosyncratic musical tunings and so forth. In a way, the godfather of them all is still Charles Ives, who more than anybody else I think explored the idea of what it meant to write music that was not indebted to anybody else's ideas about what it meant to be a composer. And I say this not withstanding the fact that he wrote these pieces called "Symphonies" and he wrote these songs that are good old Schubertian songs in their gross external forms, but really he kind of made up his own idea about how he was going to go about it, and the thing about Ives…

I keep waiting for the inevitable sort of revisionist scholarship to come out, that really he got all of his ideas from someone else… and it hasn't happened. He really does stand still as the progenitor of all of these kinds of things, and the people who follow in that tradition, people like Lou Harrison, whose music has figured very strongly here in San Francisco in the mavericks' festival. People like Henry Cowell, people like Steve Reich in a sense, and other composers are getting not the specific musical ideas from Ives, but a kind of an example of how to be a composer in the world.

I mean, artists have those two distinct kinds of modelings, you say " I look to so and so for the musical influences that shape my musical world, but I can look to this other person for a model of how to be a composer in the world, even if the musical influence isn't as strong, and I think a lot of people in the last hundred years in this country have looked to Ives as a model for, as a paradigm for how to be a composer independently of whatever structures there are in place.

There are a lot of great composers who haven't taken that model, and I think Copland is one. I'm not sure that Copland… to call Copland a maverick is really a useful sense of that term. A great composer, a brilliant composer, an innovative composer, probably one of the great American composers of the 20th century, but still operating within the existing institutional structures of American musical life.

One of the things that I was talking with some folks the other day, and they were just bemoaning the fact that our ears seem to follow… music seems to follow other art forms in experimentation and exploration by a great deal. We seem to be much more willing to look at something experimental and just consider it as we are to listen to something that kind of shakes our understanding of what music should be.

Let me make sure I understand what you're saying, that there is a taste for the new in the visual arts that seems to outstrip the taste for the new in music

Yeah

I think that is true, and yeah, I also bemoan that. I think there're a few explanations for that, that all kind of come into play. One is, the fact that music is a time bound art, which means that, if you find yourself in an art gallery in front of a painting that you don't dig, and don't understand, and don't know what to make of, you can, if you choose, walk on. But if you're sitting through a twenty minute orchestral piece that you don't like and don't know what to make of, you're kind of stuck. Maybe that can be beneficial in the long run, but in the short run it means that if you don't really want to expose yourself to that experience, you just don't buy the ticket, or you come later, or you leave early, or whatever audiences do. Because I think that, for instance, there's probably as small an audience… I don't know this, I'm just guessing… I bet there's as small an audience for really difficult obscure, experimental film as there is for experimental music. I could be wrong on that, but that's my guess.

Another thing that's true is that music in the twentieth century, and this has been stated so often in so many different ways that it has the force of a cliché, but I think it's still true, that there really was a regrettable parting of the ways to some extent between composers and their audiences. In the wake of Schönberg's hostility to musical audiences, and the notion of a receptive musical culture, and I think a lot of those ideas came across the Atlantic and have really not been purged yet from our musical landscape.

The notion that music has to be a dialog, that music has to be a two way thing, and it doesn't mean…and that that can be… that that doesn't mean pandering, and it doesn't mean it's easy listening, and that you can expect certain things from listeners, but that you also have to do your part and not be completely self-sufficient. You as a composer is what I mean. I think maybe in some ways the best model for that is a composer who is not in any way a maverick but is one of the great composers of our time; I mean that's John Adams, who I think really understands in a way that not everybody does how to… or let me put it this way… Has mastered the skill, to an extent that very few composers have, of writing music that has intellectual depth that has real artistic substance, and yet at the same time, speaks to a wider audience in a way that is to some extent accessible on a first hearing.

He addresses that directly in "Naïve and Sentimental Music"

Yeah, exactly.

The other thing, when you're talking about just the approach. So Milton Babbitt, his famous, "Who cares if you listen?" article…

The estrangement of the composer from his or her audience is sort of exemplified most notoriously by this article that Milton Babbitt wrote, which ended up being titled "Who cares if you listen?" and we always have to add the proforma addition, that it was not his title, that it was added by a copy editor. It was published in Stereo Review, and which made the argument that, musical composition had progressed in the same way the research in physics or in mathematics had progressed to the point where it was unreasonable to expect a lay audience, a lay listener to understand what was being done by those at the forefront of the research area, and if you accept his premise, there's a certain reasonableness about that. We don't ask mathematicians to make sure to publish their findings in ways that subscriber audiences can understand. If you prove Ferma's last theorum, that's great, and those of us who can get it are going to get it, and the rest of us are going to just have to take your word for it, but of course I think that the analogy is fatally flawed, that music is not a research project. It's not a scientific endeavor; it's not about exploring and uncovering truths that lye latent in the cosmos. It's about creating utterances that only humans can create for other humans, and in this respect there's a nice story that I read some years ago.

In the years leading up to WWII, there was a private project among the high reaches of the British government who were very concerned about the fact that WWI had wiped out an entire generation of British youth, including in particular the intelligencia of British society. Poets, artists, painters, composers, musicians, an entire generation slaughtered by war. And, with WWII on the horizon, there was, somebody got the idea of trying to identify now those artists, and thinkers and writers who ought to be protected in the case of a World War. Lest British culture, fall prey to another such calamity. It didn't happen, word got out that it was happening, and there was an outrage… It was shelved, but what was interesting to me about it was that the scientists found out about it, and what was the scientists' response? You might think they might take the attitude, "Well hey! What about us? What about the chemists? What about the biologists? What about the research mathematicians?" And I wish I could remember who it was that wrote this up, but there was a response from some high-ranking scientists who said, "No, it's alright. Save the artists. If not for Newton, someone else would have discovered Newton's laws, but if not for Beethoven, Beethoven's Ninth would have never been written."


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