Mason Bates, pt. 3 (final)

JD: Back when we started this, you were talking about story. Do you ever think through the kind of “story” you’re trying to conjure up, or communicate? Or is it looser than that?

MB: Well, it really depends on the piece. I’m way more programmatically driven than a lot of composers. Maybe it’s not that fashionable to do that anymore.

JD: Well, look at Mass Transmission. That has text, and a really tender story, and the mother/child relationship, and the technology breakthrough. But I would say that the story is not about the technology, even though that’s the context. I would say that it’s about love between a mother and a daughter. The attempts to communicate when another person is extremely far away created the possibility of seeing the heart-connection, the tenderness to the piece. In spite of all the rhythmic demands of it, to me it’s about tenderness.

MB: Absolutely! Any time you’re singing a text, you have a literal story. But there can be gradations to that. Alternative Energy is a purely symphonic piece (although it does have electronic sounds which allow me to bring in some content). That piece is a kind of story of energy through the Ages. Musically, I wanted to take bigger and bigger propulsive orchestral textures and blow them into the next movement. The “energy symphony” aspect of the piece is as much in service of the musical goals of the piece as vice versa.

There might be something simple, on a musical level, that is important to include (at least from my perspective as the composer) to help create the narrative. For example, I have a movement of a piece that is called “Aerosol Melody Hanalei.” Essentially the idea was: What if you have a melody that evaporates at cadence points? So, I thought, “How can I make that happen?” The idea of a dreamy context, like sitting on the North shore of Kauai, and you just hear a melody, and it kind of disappears. That became woodwinds doing kind of a bend-y line at cadences. String harmonics envelop them and float away. But it’s the clarity of a mini-drama that I like to have in any musical piece.

If a piece is only about spitting out a note into another note, (and I used to do that plenty, like many composers), then it all starts to feel very small-scale to me. I like narrative, whether it be a literal narrative, or whether it be a mini-musical narrative.

JD: Do you have any thoughts about the increase of fear in the world? There are pervading questions about becoming isolationist, or not, will there be a revolution, etc.? Does music have a role in this?

MB: I really grapple with that question about how music and the Arts can respond to political events. To be honest, for a long time I felt like the more overtly political a piece of music gets, the less interesting it is for me, personally, because the political message becomes so distracting.

JD: And it becomes dated.

MB: It becomes incredibly dated. So, in my work, I like to take a more dramatic approach to themes. In Liquid Interface, it began as a kind of water symphony. Like La Mer but in a more dramatic approach to water – where we start with ice, and glaciers melting in the Antarctic, including recordings of glaciers calving. Then we see that, all the way through each movement, the world gets hotter. Then we get to water on a micro-level, including “Katrina” – the New Orleans movement, and music of evaporation. You can see this in the form of the piece, and certainly in the narrative of the symphony where every movement gets warmer. This is a response to climate change. But I don’t know if I’m the one to be able to integrate a political message into a piece. I think all we can do is impact people.

JD: It brings up the question of whether we can help people find beauty in a world that is increasingly ugly, brought on by our social and political situations. Can we be the healing balm, the solace, for this problem? Is it something we need to do intentionally, or does it just happen?

MB: I like what you said about it! Just providing the depth of experience is, in itself, very powerful. I think there are ways to respond to things without hitting it directly on the head. I’m working on a piece right now for the Kennedy Center. the 100th anniversary of JFK’s birth is this Spring (2017). I’m taking the approach which is a hybrid political/poetic approach. Namely, look at his moon-shot speech. The idea that we can do things that are completely impossible. We can solve climate change; we can address racial issues. In his case, it was: We can walk on the moon. And I thought, why don’t I find some American poetry that also looks to the moon, and looks at the idea of voyage – then collide those. So I found an incredible poem by Walt Whitman, “Passage to India,” that starts by saying: Isn’t it incredible that we have technology that can take us to India. He ends up talking about a passage to the moon! JFK’s speeches will be trailing this narrative. The singer will be singing “Oh, sail forth!”

To me, that’s the way I can handle the question that we can all actually accomplish things if we have vision. And hopefully, when the listener hears that work, they will be reminded that there are things that we’ve done that are basically impossible. And if we have the vision, we can do it.

Mason Bates, pt. 2

JD:  Your Steve Jobs opera, how have you worked with the production staff about these concepts?

MB:  It has to start with the libretto and story.  One thing that Mark Hamill, the librettist, and I wanted to do is to have a non-linear, almost pixelated presentation of the life of Steve Jobs.  We didn’t want this to be another bio-pic movie.  We wanted to drop into various parts of his life, all of which connect to the idea of a man who wants to simplify our communication with beautiful devices.  But life doesn’t look like this; it’s much messier.  You might have cancer.  You might have a daughter out of wedlock.  You might have employees you don’t like.  So the idea of a pixelated narrative was one element of the story-telling, but how this gets into the production is that there’s a huge electronic component.  Every character has a very different sound-world.  Steve Jobs might be quick-silver electronica and acoustic guitar, whereas his wife might be oceanic strings, and the Spiritualizer is like an electronic nirvana of prayer bowels and windchimes and things.

The piece kind of begins and ends in the garage, one’s creative space.  In Silicon Valley, the garage is a mythical studio.  And it begins with that.  And as we see the young Steve Jobs, and his adopted father, who is a mechanical engineer, work together, we realize that the garage walls are blowing apart, and they become projection surfaces that, throughout the piece, build different scenes.  They’re a creative space that you work in.  You can project that to become the different scenes throughout your life.  So from the electronic sounds, to the complicated projection surface, down to the telling of the story, we’re trying to bring new story-telling to Opera.

JD:  When we create things, we’re fully engaged in the act of creation itself.  But do you ever think about what you hope people will take home with them following a concert?  How it makes them feel, think, etc.?

MB:  This is an interesting question because I can remember when I was a younger composer, at Juilliard, the idea of considering the listener’s experience was almost taboo!  I was coming in at the end of the period of the listener-be-damned!  John Corigliano transformed that for me.  He would say, “Let’s think about how this will impact the listener.”  My first response was, I don’t want to pander to the lowest common denominator.  And he said:  It’s not like that at all.  If you’re writing a piece of music, everything is going to turn on the way the theme is transformed.  You better make sure that that’s perceptible!  If your theme is buried under a lot of orchestration, or if it’s not a very clear theme, your entire musical experience is not going to happen.

So, first of all, what is perceptible?  Basic question.  But that transforms outwardly to:  What are you trying to accomplish?  What do you want the take-away to be?  I think what I found is that I really enjoy the element of surprise, and the psychology of expectation, that music offers us, that a lot of other artistic forms don’t.  Visual arts is kind of, you see it: there it is.  But you give someone a piece of music that starts to unfold in a certain way.  Maybe it’s rhythmically based, or minimalist.  I love the idea that then you can go into a deeper space.  Once you have the listener with you, you can take that deep dive. So I believe you want to take the listener to all manner of deep experiences.  But you have to engage the body.  You have to be visceral.  Whether that be through harmony, rhythm, or perceptible, clear, melodic material, otherwise you won’t get there.

JD:  I’m reading a book about the way the body stores trauma.  And it’s all well and good to discuss things with psychologists, but if we don’t release the stored energy in the body, it stays there.  Which makes a lot of sense.  This piggy-backs on what you’re saying:  That if you don’t engage the body, you’ve missed the golden opportunity.  Engaging the mind, soul, and heart, is paramount, but if you can also engage the body, you have a more powerful tool at your disposal.

MB:  Think about something like jazz.  I’m so fascinated by it.  It’s the most complicated harmony you can get, that you still feel.  I love 12-tone pieces, and serial composers.  But no matter how complicated those frameworks are, you don’t really feel them!  Often, you don’t even hear the 12-tone row.  But with jazz, you have these amazing artists doing incredibly complicated things with harmony, and you can FEEL that.  It’s a complex experience, and yet it hits you as a human being.  That’s important.

JD:  Maybe that’s what the riot was about after the premiere of Rite of Spring.  It’s such a visceral piece, and it’s engaging the body (at that point in history, perhaps for the very first time).  It unleashed something, inside, that kind of frightened people about themselves!

MB:  I think the Russians are the best at doing this.  If you listen to some of the great ballet scores, they have this quality that’s practically etched!  The music, whether it be the Nutcracker, or the Rite of Spring, the material is so vibrant that it leaps off the page.  Not just the choice of the notes but the character of it.  When you shackle that power of the etched Russian sound to the very radical harmonies, I think it did provoke people to get up and scream and yell.  On the one hand they were so moved by it, and on the other hand, they were so frightened.

JD:  Like holding a mirror really close to your face!

And your music, the way you use beats!  I can’t listen to your music and sit completely still as if I’m meditating or something.  It pulls me in on a physical level. You’ve built that signature in your music.

MB:  Well it’s something buried in American music.  Gershwin’s infectious rhythms and French harmony are also incredible.  I always like the Yin and Yang.  If you have something that is incredibly infectious, it’s nice to take the plunge.  If you take a piece like Alternative Energy which SFS recorded here a couple years ago, it’s very much propelled by a bluesy recollection of Henry Ford in the late 19th century (junkyard percussion, fiddle).  But by the time you get propelled into present-day Chicago, and you get this massive particle accelerator waking up around the audience, swirling around, you’ve really been taken on a journey further than you expected.  You really need the visceral elements of music, rhythm and harmony, and very perceptible, clear melodic material to get to that deep space.  I think the challenge is always that Bernstein question of:  It needs to be fresh.  Can it be powerful and absolutely inevitable and still original?  And that’s what I spend so much time doing in my studio, throwing out material that’s possibly beautiful or interesting, but it’s already been there.

to be continued …

 

Mason Bates, pt. 1

Mason Bates, Musical America’s 2018 Composer-of-the-Year, is a breath of fresh air in a room that is often accused of lacking ventilation! Mason is, at once, edgy yet traditional, intuitive and insightful, curious and experimental, and more willing to test the preconceived boundaries of the concert stage than possibly any composer before him. Small wonder that he is the number two most performed American composer! His performances are a mixture of DJ and symphony orchestra, electronics and acoustical instruments working in sync – in a way that has never been done before. Mason has found a way to take the immovable quality of most electronic music and then be able to humanize it, by his participating in performances as a DJ.

Mason and I had the opportunity to spend some time together in Brazil, performing his work, Mass Transmission, together. A little later, we met for this interview, as he was putting the finishing touches on his stunning new opera, Steve Jobs.

Jonathan Dimmock: Mason, lI’m trying to look inside music, what it’s attempting to “say” to us, and where it’s going as an art form.  What’s your take on what it is that you feel you, yourself, are trying to say.  You’re melding the DJ technique with Classical musicians.  Your technique is eye-opening to me.  It’s thinking outside of the box.  How did you come to this?  And where do you think music may be headed?  What is it we try to find when we play or compose music?

Mason Bates:  What’s interesting to me is the different perceptions people have. I feel there’s a real continuity between the programatic composers of the 19th century, Berlioz, Wagner, Liszt, who were searching for new sounds as a way to tell a narrative.  A lot of people hear electronic dance music and recognize that there is something continuous with composers like Gershwin, who brought jazz and classical music together.  I actually like that ambiguity.  For me, the missed opportunity would be if this is only about the crossover between classical music and electronica.  Because what we do in classical music, that doesn’t exist in other kinds of music, is a kind of deeper listening – which is not to disparage classic rock, blues, or jazz – but the detailed resolution, and the listening perception is a lot deeper.

We’re not just listening for sound.  We don’t want to use classical instruments as merely a production element.  It’s not a techno-track.  We’re trying to tell deeper stories.  So when I look at, say, Symphonie Fantastique, and all the crazy, exotic orchestral effects that tell that story, that love story, I see a way to do that kind of thing, 150 years later, using digital technology.  Not only can you bring in beats of electronica and techno, but once you have the speakers involved, you have to ask where the sound is coming from, and what is the content that is attached to this sound.

So, in Mass Transmission, yes there are a lot of beats that push the piece forward, but I wanted it all to come out of the source material of the piece – which, in that case, was radio history.  While my own electronic background came out of my work as a DJ, and my interest in electronica, I think what I realized after a few years of integrating, was that there’s actually a connection to older symphonic music history on the level of form and content, sounds and narrative.  And that’s something that I really don’t think is explored today in contemporary music where we’re in a world of more process-based stuff, like minimalism, post-minimalism, post-serialism.  That concept is about taking your material to generate other things.  But a lot of people aren’t asking the questions that were asked in the 19th century: namely,  how can we use this massive form, the symphonic form, to tell stories, to tell narrative.  I think that’s a fascinating opportunity for music.

JD:  Regarding deeper listening and telling stories, this is not only what separates classical music from other kinds of music in general, but it also explains why people criticize our music by saying they wouldn’t want to listen to it on the radio.  The radio is for background!  To tell a whole story requires being present.  So that brings up an interesting question:  As we have a society that increasingly is unable to be present, because of social media and decreased attention spans, what do you think the ramifications might be for us as Classical musicians?

MB:  This makes what we do endangered.  People who are used to 140 characters, or 6-second videos, may never be able to penetrate a 35-40 minute symphony.  On the other hand, I like to look at it more optimistically.  It really makes what we do more valuable and rare.  It’s like a hand-written note today – a hand written thank you note.  When you get a hand-written note, you think: What a gentleman!  Because that’s basically gone extinct because of email.  I think the classical experience can be a bit of a refuge from the world that we are living in now.  Going into a concert hall and being able to have that incredibly deep, visceral listening experience that doesn’t really exist in many other kinds of music, gives us a leg up.  The challenge is that it has to be attached to thoughtful production.

I do think that, in order to engage new listeners, we do have to think about the way we present format.  Here we are at Davies Hall right now, where the San Francisco Symphony can present some real visionary material.  Between New World and SFS, and You Tube Symphony, and Sound Box, it’s extraordinary! But the format is the key!

I have a couple of analogous projects:  Mercury Soul, which is a club show that has classical music integrated into it. The other is Music now with Chicago Symphony, and at Kennedy Center where I have a series called Jute Box.  The basic goal is the same, which is to take the program book and bring it into the 21st century.  (Essentially it hasn’t changed for hundreds of years.). And to define a 3-dimensional way of presenting information to people.  The key is that we never want to give up that thing which is most valuable in our world, which is that deep listening experience.  If we just play covers of Beatles tunes, or videos over classical music, that’s not going to work.  But if you can put a frame around classical works, whether it be lighting or video, and then when people start playing, you direct their attention absolutely to that performance.  That’s totally cool!

JD:  Even the way we dress!  We wear 19th century garb on the Davies Hall stage.  Where do you see the visuals going in the future?  How will people be experiencing the music?  Do you think it will be more and more like Soundbox, almost a nightclub setting?

MB:  Well, if it’s a symphonic situation, as opposed to chamber music plus, then you really have to reckon with symphonic concert halls.  I still think there’s a huge amount we can do to bring production into the concert hall, and bring social platforms into the concert hall.  At the Kennedy Center, I’m working on a series called “De-Classified,” which is in the concert hall.  Social hangs are organized in the lobby.  Then you go into the concert hall where there is immersive lighting and video-cinematic program notes.  The challenge is that we’ve all become such instinctive critics of production, because we’re Americans and watch tons of movies.  If you don’t do that very well, it can look like a PowerPoint.  So you have to spend a lot of resources on it.

I think there are a few ways to spend money in Classical music now that actually transform the format, the experience, the program book, and the lighting, It sounds superficial, but it really helps the listening experience if you can go into a magical theater space where things are dark, and the orchestra gets illuminated, and maybe if you know all about Brahms, but maybe you learn a little bit more because there’s a video interview with the pianist that’s going to play the concerto.  Then you a learn a little bit from their perspective.  And of course we have the benefit of editing.

JD:  It’s actually an ancient concept because the medieval cathedrals were intended to engage all five senses.  In the concert hall, we’ve taken this down to one dimension:  namely sound.  While we do it really well, not everyone can think in just one dimension anymore.

MB:  There are unbelievable forces allied to conspire against this change.  Some of them are psychological barriers.  Some are real; some not.  Most orchestras have a complicated relationship with the people who do the program books, with the advertising, etc.  And there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t find a way to tastefully incorporate sponsorship into projected program notes, or lighting.  But you start to get a lot of resistance from these institutions, or you get, on the development side, “well our older subscribers aren’t going to like that.”  I get so frustrated with institutions underestimating the adventurousness of their older patrons.  Sure you might get some initial resistance, but what they want to see is a lively experience that can be sustainable.  Having it be immersive, and having information being almost ambient, so that you catch it while you’re getting a drink, before you learn a little about it on a projected surface, that’s the way we doubled or almost tripled our audience in the Chicago Symphony’s Music Now program.  We would have 1000 people come in on a Monday night to hear concerts kind of like Soundbox.  Up from 300 when we started.  There was a creative blend of immersive production and projected program notes, and also partying with local DJs to give music before and after the concert, making sure the crowd was aware of things.  But it’s never going to happen going inch by inch, changing one thing at a time.  You really have to re-think the whole experience.

There are a couple institutions that are doing that, and there are many that could be doing it, but they feel like they have to justify the change.  Why should it have to be a new series?  Hey, if you go on a Friday night to the National Symphony, you don’t have to learn about it in advance, you can learn about it there.  That’s the experience that you get.  It should be the normal concert subscription program.  It doesn’t have to be a pops event or some special series.  I think the experience can be:  I know if I go to this symphony, that I’ll have a good time, and won’t necessarily need to read a tome of program notes.

JD:  Your Steve Jobs opera, how have you worked with the production staff about these concepts?

MB:  It has to start with the libretto and story.  One thing that Mark Hamill, the librettist, and I wanted to do is to have a non-linear, almost pixelated presentation of the life of Steve Jobs.  We didn’t want this to be another bio-pic movie.  We wanted to drop into various parts of his life, all of which connect to the idea of a man who wants to simplify our communication with beautiful devices.  But life doesn’t look like this; it’s much messier.  You might have cancer.  You might have a daughter out of wedlock.  You might have employees you don’t like.  So the idea of a pixelated narrative was one element of the story-telling, but how this gets into the production is that there’s a huge electronic component.  Every character has a very different sound-world.  Steve Jobs might be quick-silver electronica and acoustic guitar, whereas his wife might be oceanic strings, and the Spiritualizer is like an electronic nirvana of prayer bowels and windchimes and things.

The piece kind of begins and ends in the garage, one’s creative space.  In Silicon Valley, the garage is a mythical studio.  And it begins with that.  And as we see the young Steve Jobs, and his adopted father, who is a mechanical engineer, work together, we realize that the garage walls are blowing apart, and they become projection surfaces that, throughout the piece, build different scenes.  They’re a creative space that you work in.  You can project that to become the different scenes throughout your life.  So from the electronic sounds, to the complicated projection surface, down to the telling of the story, we’re trying to bring new story-telling to Opera.

JD:  When we create things, we’re fully engaged in the act of creation itself.  But do you ever think about what you hope people will take home with them following a concert?  How it makes them feel, think, etc.?

MB:  This is an interesting question because I can remember when I was a younger composer, at Juilliard, the idea of considering the listener’s experience was almost taboo!  I was coming in at the end of the period of the listener-be-damned!  John Corigliano transformed that for me.  He would say, “Let’s think about how this will impact the listener.”  My first response was, I don’t want to pander to the lowest common denominator.  And he said:  It’s not like that at all.  If you’re writing a piece of music, everything is going to turn on the way the theme is transformed.  You better make sure that that’s perceptible!  If your theme is buried under a lot of orchestration, or if it’s not a very clear theme, your entire musical experience is not going to happen.

So, first of all, what is perceptible?  Basic question.  But that transforms outwardly to:  What are you trying to accomplish?  What do you want the take-away to be?  I think what I found is that I really enjoy the element of surprise, and the psychology of expectation, that music offers us, that a lot of other artistic forms don’t.  Visual arts is kind of, you see it: there it is.  But you give someone a piece of music that starts to unfold in a certain way.  Maybe it’s rhythmically based, or minimalist.  I love the idea that then you can go into a deeper space.  Once you have the listener with you, you can take that deep dive. So I believe you want to take the listener to all manner of deep experiences.  But you have to engage the body.  You have to be visceral.  Whether that be through harmony, rhythm, or perceptible, clear, melodic material, otherwise you won’t get there.

JD:  I’m reading a book about the way the body stores trauma.  And it’s all well and good to discuss things with psychologists, but if we don’t release the stored energy in the body, it stays there.  Which makes a lot of sense.  This piggy-backs on what you’re saying:  That if you don’t engage the body, you’ve missed the golden opportunity.  Engaging the mind, soul, and heart, is paramount, but if you can also engage the body, you have a more powerful tool at your disposal.

MB:  Think about something like jazz.  I’m so fascinated by it.  It’s the most complicated harmony you can get, that you still feel.  I love 12-tone pieces, and serial composers.  But no matter how complicated those frameworks are, you don’t really feel them!  Often, you don’t even hear the 12-tone row.  But with jazz, you have these amazing artists doing incredibly complicated things with harmony, and you can FEEL that.  It’s a complex experience, and yet it hits you as a human being.  That’s important.

JD:  Maybe that’s what the riot was about after the premiere of Rite of Spring.  It’s such a visceral piece, and it’s engaging the body (at that point in history, perhaps for the very first time).  It unleashed something, inside, that kind of frightened people about themselves!

MB:  I think the Russians are the best at doing this.  If you listen to some of the great ballet scores, they have this quality that’s practically etched!  The music, whether it be the Nutcracker, or the Rite of Spring, the material is so vibrant that it leaps off the page.  Not just the choice of the notes but the character of it.  When you shackle that power of the etched Russian sound to the very radical harmonies, I think it did provoke people to get up and scream and yell.  On the one hand they were so moved by it, and on the other hand, they were so frightened.

JD:  Like holding a mirror really close to your face!

And your music, the way you use beats!  I can’t listen to your music and sit completely still as if I’m meditating or something.  It pulls me in on a physical level. You’ve built that signature in your music.

MB:  Well it’s something buried in American music.  Gershwin’s infectious rhythms and French harmony are also incredible.  I always like the Yin and Yang.  If you have something that is incredibly infectious, it’s nice to take the plunge.  If you take a piece like Alternative Energy which SFS recorded here a couple years ago, it’s very much propelled by a bluesy recollection of Henry Ford in the late 19th century (junkyard percussion, fiddle).  But by the time you get propelled into present-day Chicago, and you get this massive particle accelerator waking up around the audience, swirling around, you’ve really been taken on a journey further than you expected.  You really need the visceral elements of music, rhythm and harmony, and very perceptible, clear melodic material to get to that deep space.  I think the challenge is always that Bernstein question of:  It needs to be fresh.  Can it be powerful and absolutely inevitable and still original?  And that’s what I spend so much time doing in my studio, throwing out material that’s possibly beautiful or interesting, but it’s already been there.

to be continued …

 

Charles Dutoit

Between the time I conducted this interview and it was written and published, Maestro Dutoit’s career has altered due to revelations from the #MeToo Movement. Many, if not all, of his North American engagements have been canceled. So, why, one might ask, would I post Dutoit’s interview under such circumstances? I do so, while not condoning the sick aspects of people who allow positions of power to be used to attempt control of the bodies of subordinates (I, too, have been a victim of this), but rather, because I believe that human beings are far more complex than the black and white #MeToo version of reality allows. The truth is that all beings have goodness in them; and all beings are flawed. In the case of Maestro Dutoit, I believe he has greatness in him – and much to say to the world, even with his failings.

So I offer our interview for the same reason that I founded The Resonance Project:  because I firmly believe that music heals. Music is made by people, imperfect by nature; but the music, itself, and its affect on the body and the soul, is divine, is perfect.

JD: Whenever I’ve worked with you, here in San Francisco, my musician-colleagues react so positively to the uniqueness of your approach to music. What are your thoughts about that. When you dive into music, are you consciously trying to bring something inside it to life?

CD: Well, a conductor without musicians is nothing. So, much of what you’re describing has to do with the wonderful musicians here.

But the conducting profession, itself, takes a long time to master! I’ve noticed that most younger conductors (through masterclasses I’ve given in Tokyo, Buenos Aires, China, etc.) are learning music through what they’ve assimilated on recordings, YouTube, etc. But to go from this point to being in front of an orchestra and knowing how to solve problems – this is where these musicians will need an apprenticeship of about 15-20 years or so. For my generation, it was very clear a conductor needed 20-25 years, but today, people learn faster.

The conductor reads a score and receives an abstract “thing.” The orchestral score has to be put together from this abstraction. So I work to find out what the composer wanted to do. For example, the program we’re doing this week in San Francisco, music of Ravel, I look at the subtle way that Ravel works to reach perfection. This piece has a text, and the inspiration of the text is extremely subtle how it informs the music. It requires a lot of time to understand, deeply, this technique of Ravel. Then, once I have that, I must communicate it to the orchestra to tell them how to play. They cannot judge, themselves, how much sound to give here or there.

So, my role is to help musicians understand how much sound to make, their role at any given moment, the style of the piece, etc. Then, my job, on the podium, is to show the musicians how to feel the music through my technical ability.

It’s crucial to have enough knowledge to be able to talk to the musicians in a way that they respect you. Quite often, when people think an orchestra is out of tune, it’s really because the balance is off! So I work a lot on getting the balance correct. And this has to be accomplished with a consistent degree of inspiration from me as the conductor. Always try to invite musicians to improve within the context of what you’re working on.

But more mysteriously, there’s The Presence. I met Jean-Louis Barrault, the director of l’Odéon Theatre in Paris. He would do auditions like this: He would tell people to come onto the stage, stop in center stage, look at him, and leave! Not one word! He wanted to see The Presence. It’s very hard to explain this! Some musicians have it. I’m not sure if it’s even possible to develop this. It’s a gift.

Also, the role of the conductor is to transmit to the public. The reason for all of our work, for how the orchestra is controlled, is the communication to the public. Sometimes stopping conducting is better than conducting – because musicians start listening to themselves more!

JD: What I hear you describing is the conductor’s humility. It’s not that you’re forcing anything onto the orchestra; you’re bringing out what the music, and the musicians themselves, wants to say.

CD: Yes. And the public plays an important role as well. When they are captivated by the music, there is absolute silence! You can feel when something mysterious is moving around the room!

JD: Do you see the role of music, itself, to be that of transformation? In that mystery you describe, what do you envision happening to the public?

CD: Well, this depends on where you are. In China, they have a different set of rules, education, expectation. In Germany there’s another set. But clearly the music often touches people, goes to their heart, their soul, even though they don’t know why.

Many years ago, I recall attending a concert with Karajan conducting the Berlin Philharmonic. It was one of those evenings when everyone arrived expecting a great event. It was an outstanding concert. And at the end of the Beethoven symphony, he kept his arms in the air a long time, then left the stage. No one clapped! People around me were in tears. The power of that moment!

But the next day, the same concert, it didn’t work! Funny how that is. It’s hard to explain.

 

JD: If you could venture a guess, based on the sociological changes that are taking place in our society at the moment, how do you think these changes will affect the way we do music in the future? Will the concert hall have the same place in our society?

CD: The question you ask is: How do we view the public of the future? Can we balance the budgets of expensive symphony orchestras? In other words, what’s the business of music for the future?

I find that technology has changed so much that most young people are lacking in education. They have access to tremendous amounts of information. They are well informed; but that does not make them cultured. They don’t want to buy 12 concerts a year to an orchestra season because they don’t even know what they’re doing 24 hours from now, not to mention their travel, etc. And they know that if there’s something really interesting, they can buy a ticket at the last moment. Things are rarely sold out.

Something that is very successful today are the museums. There are lots of people at these museums! Our public, in the concert hall, decreases; but theirs increases.

JD: Music demands a greater length of concentration! I was just in a rehearsal of Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. That piece takes an hour and 21 minutes. With attention deficit issues, it creates a problem for audiences.

CD: Yes! And in addition, our society has become so visually oriented. But people used to go to concerts because of a deep, internal need.

JD: It’s spiritual.

CD: Yes! Exactly.

But I think there is a crisis in our education. Music has suffered! When I was young, everyone in Switzerland could read music by the time they were ten years old. Everyone sang in choruses.

JD: Do you think that one of our jobs, as musicians, is to create the awareness needed to help improve the world? Or is that too much to ask? Do you, as a beloved public figure, sense the role of telling the world that music can help make the world a better place?

CD: Take a look at El Sistema in Venezuela. The founder was convinced that this program would help create occupations for people. And he succeeded! It’s amazing what they have done there. So this example has been followed in several countries, including in Africa, and in Brazil. They use rustic forms of instruments, but they are making music together.

I only wish we could be better helped by a better educational system, making studying more demanding. Things you learn, before the age of 20, you have for the rest of your life! I would love to see music included in the general education of everyone. Music is the base of everything: rhythm exists in nature, in the human body. Everyone is sensitive to a melodic line.

Alice Parker

Alice Parker, the First Lady of American choral music, invited me to her farm-home in New England, on a crisp Autumn day, to spend time together in an interview. What follows is the beginning of her account of what makes music important in our lives.

When I walked into her living room, scores were piled high on tables and piano, at which point I noticed that she did not have a computer in the room, nor does she compose using one.

JD: I am intrigued that you write out your scores by hand. That reminds of a time when I once had the good fortune of seeing  a page from a manuscript of Johannea Brahms. As I looked at it, I realized I was looking at one of the great moments in musical history: that moment, in his First Symphony, when the lower brass play something akin to a chorale, and then the ‘cello section enters with that extremely beautiful melody we all love. Brahms, himself, had once been leaning over that exact piece of paper, just as I was at that moment! And as I was standing there with goose bumps, I  wondered, 100 years from now, what will people be looking at from our generation of composers? Computer screens?

AP: You’re right! It’s definitely not the same thing. And there’s such personality in the handwriting.

JD: Absolutely! You can see where the cross-outs are.

AP: But you can also see where the phrasings are. There are little, imperceptible spaces where the composer is thinking: “Breathe here.” That’s why the computer stuff looks so awful! It’s too regular.

JD: On a different subject, it was about 38 years ago when I first met you. While I was a student at Oberlin, and the Organist at First Church, you came and led a workshop for that congregation. I’ve got to tell you that, unbeknownst to you, that workshop subtly changed my musical life. The ideas you spoke about, regarding the meaning of music, and why we do it, and who owns music (not just the professionals) – although I knew these things intuitively, to have it voiced was really helpful. You were so nice to me! I asked you, before the service, how I could help you; and you replied: “Well, actually, I was thinking of doing all of this a cappella!” That felt so logical and natural to me. It also opened up, for me, the naturalness of the human voice. I think you embody what makes choral music American – it’s the beauty and simplicity, the non-complicatedness of melody and harmony.

AP: Any group I’m with, I always ask: “How many have had a course in melody?” And not a single hand ever goes up. Everybody has had harmony – as if harmony is the foundation of music. And it’s not! Children don’t sing harmony when they first learn to sing. We have overlooked the study of melody for a couple hundred years.

JD: Another one is: How many have had a course in rhythm?

AP: That’s true, too. And how many rhythms are derived from the way we speak! We can’t really notate what we speak; but we harness music into what the page can do.

JD: Our lives have intersected several times over the years, but currently, you may not know that I’m working on a new nonprofit, called The Resonance Project, which seeks to use music in international conflict resolution. It’s about using music as a tool rather than as entertainment. And in a very significant way, this is the fruit of the seed you planted in me many decades ago. I’m working with a great neuroscientist, Dr. James Prichard, looking at how music (and it’s crucial that it’s LIVE music) can function as a catalyst to create neuroplasticity – a change in brain patterns – that can result in increased altruism or empathy. And on the other side of the equation, if two negotiating people have the same catalyst, what’s the likelihood that they can reach common ground faster? I want to put this on the highest possible stage, namely between world leaders.

When I first tried this out, at Living Room Talks in San Francisco (between Israelis and Palestinians), everyone in the room started crying! And the first thing they said to me was that they had never been in an intimate room with professional musicians making music for them! I must admit, I was shocked by that.

AP: It is so mechanized now. We’re so used that “screen” between us and the music (speakers, usually). And that’s just like writing music in the computer: There’s a screen between you and the music.

JD: The second thing they described was the feeling of vulnerability. Many said: “This music made me want to connect.” Others talked about being transported. Some talked about feeling a healing quality in an otherwise tense environment.

The reason I’ve been wanting to talk with you is that I’m interested in how you wrestle with the meaning of music. What actually happens when we make music? What’s it about?

AP: I’m so lucky that I’ve just had one real job. And it was for two years, right after I had graduated from Juilliard. The last paycheck I got was in 1951! Although I had training as a composer, I felt like I wasn’t a composer because I couldn’t go on to graduate school in composition. In those days, it was all 12-tone music – something that held no allure for me. So that’s why I did choral conducting and went to Robert Shaw. (Which was the luckiest thing in the world.)

I graduated from Juilliard in choral conducting and thought: Well! I’m ready to go out and conquer the world. And the only job I could get was in a high school. That was a huge shock, and a wake up call to what I had thought my future was going to be. I stayed for two years. But I realized I could not be a teacher. (I’d be just exhausted when I got home each day.) And, secondly, I was going to have to learn how to teach if I wanted to pursue that path. So, I went back to New York and continued my piano studies with Julius Herford – a huge influence on my life. He put me in touch with a woman in Summit, New Jersey who was running a music school. This woman, Helen Bender, was a genius of a teacher! And I worked with her for ten years. Every student that studied with her had to attend classes, as well.

Then I got married and had five children in 7 1/2 years, and was a stay-at-home mom for 15 years. My only connection, in those years, with the professional, musical world was doing arrangements for Robert Shaw. I was with Shaw, himself, for one week just before the recording sessions. We would go through the sketches that I had made. He sang them through, every line! He had an approach to music that I had had no idea of from my composition classes.

I got to the point that I would sit down to write a solo for one of the people in the chorale, and the piece of paper I was composing on would become transparent. I could actually see the singer singing the line. I was composing for a specific person, sound, and personality. Sometimes people would say to me: “Oh, I just love that line in such-and-such a piece.” And, of course, I just said “thank you, very much.” I never said: Well I wrote it for you!

I look back at those 15 years, now, and recognize that I hadn’t found my compositional voice until near the end of that time! There I was, working with marvelous melodies, and making arrangements for Robert Shaw. And I realized that, if it’s a great melody, all you have to do is get out of its way! It will carry you. I was learning, from Shaw, the craft of composition (that I wished I had learned in college). For example, can you write a counter-melody to “Oh Shenandoah” that is as strong as the melody, itself? And I’m not talking about harmonizing! One has to get out of tonality and return to modality. That way you’re not harnessed with all of those chords.

So, at one point, I felt like I had failed as a composer, failed as a choral conductor, failed as a teacher. All of my training seemed worthless. I was sitting at home giving piano lessons to small children, being a cub scout den mother, and teaching at Riverside Sunday School, etc.

But then I was invited to lead a choral workshop in Illinois, for 700 kids, and discovered that I could handle that! That’s when I began to discover what I had learned from Shaw that was incredibly different from what everybody else was doing. It’s about getting released from the page [of printed music].

JD: What was it, exactly, that you picked up from Shaw, that was different?

AP: He had a conception of vocal/choral sound that was absolutely incredible. It had all the possible ways you could play with it. (Just the opposite of what one gets from the computer play-back.) He kept asking for sounds from the chorus that nobody else had ever asked for. And the reason he could get them is because he had the concept in his head. This was the big thing I got from him. You really have to listen! I call it ‘Primary Listening.’ You’re listening through all the other stuff that’s going on – the pitches, the rhythms, the history, the personalities of the people, and the abilities of the chorus that you’re working with, or the singer that you’re listening to, etc.

What is the right vocal sound that brings this text to life? Music springs from the way we speak. But, of course, music comes first in the development of the brain, and words come later. (Nobody teaches a baby how to sing! I love that. And they breathe exactly right, too!) Everything comes from the human throat, informed first by the heart, and then the mind.

JD: Can you say more about how music is “informed first by the heart, and then the mind”?

AP: When I teach my Fellows Programs, it’s around this very table with 8 or 9 people. The first thing we do is tune. I sing a pitch, and we hold that for two minutes. I say: Listen to this. There’s a composite sound that we’re making in the middle of this table. It’s like a prism that the light catches. It’s not the same all the time. Listen to the differences within it, just when we’re holding it. What happens when you cut out to breathe? Can you hear the change? Or when someone else cuts out? Can you feather-edge those breaths so that they don’t disturb the composite sound? Then I change the vowel and ask them what’s different. I ask if we’re all singing the same vowel, if the transition between the two vowels was smooth, if it feels differently in the head.

So often singers don’t start at the beginning! Working with one note warms up your ears and your mind, and probably your heart, too.

Music is exactly like food. You have to compose for the people around you, the same way you’d cook for the people around you. Music is food for the soul – not just the mind, nor just the heart. (Those are two extremes.) I want to be right in the middle.

JD: I actually think that the Prologue to the Gospel of John is wrong. It says, “In the beginning was the Word.” But I think: In the beginning was the Sound!

AP: The Alaskan Inuits say: “In the beginning was the Song.”

So what music is, going back to your fundamental question, is the language of the emotions. What happens when we sing together the right way – so that we’re giving ourselves to the song, and we become the song? Our personal egos melt. We feel, together, the emotion which the song asks for.

JD: Community building.

AP: Yes. The language of music is designed to help us cut through barriers of hate or disagreement. All too often music is used to numb us rather than enliven us. Dorothy Sayers has a wonderful phrase: ‘to exert power over us instead of awakening the power which is within us.’

I always say that the heart has to come before the mind. We have to feel our community before we let our minds dictate war and destruction. We, as a society, tend to measure things in terms of science and calculation. The Arts are too often absent from the equation. An educator should be the person who opens a door in another person’s mind. It is not about facts. We have failed there!

I was just in Chautauqua leading an event for 5000 people. They were shocked that I didn’t want to use the piano or the organ. But you should have heard the gorgeous singing! All too often, we don’t allow the human voice to communicate. Most people sing hymns by reading what’s on the page, with its four-part harmony. They think that once they’ve done what’s on the page, they’ve done the piece. But they haven’t read the text as a poem!

Here’s my criterion: If I had written the poem, how would I want it to be read? Then that informs what the music should be. Read the words as if you were reading them to a three-year-old child. You have to do it with your whole body. And you have to believe it.

I encourage congregations to read hymns, with the right affect, then sing them. They ‘get it’ immediately that way. You want to make the words work with the tune.

When I worked with Shaw, he might disappear for an hour trying to boil down a counter-melody to the absolute simplest structure. That’s the secret! Use what’s right there inside the melody!

I can take a Spiritual, like “Every time I think about Jesus,” and take it apart so that everyone is singing in different parts, and everyone will start to cry.

JD: What is that emotion?

AP: I think it’s heavenly hurt. Beauty awakens the sense, in us, of our vulnerability as human beings. It’s why you feel like crying when you see a gorgeous sunset, or hear a Bach solo cello suite, or a gorgeous melody, or a little kid singing. So, the first thing you look for in any piece of music, whether Beethoven or Bach or Palestrina or whatever, is: What are these words saying? And what does the music reinforce? Does this give me a hint of what emotions we’re needing to tap into? If I, as a conductor, have clarity as to what emotion I wish to evoke from the group, I can get it. If I’m not clear, or just teaching notes and rhythms, then it won’t happen. The beginning of conducting is intentionality. A person cannot possibly sing a song unless they become the song; and they can’t become the song until they’re in line with what it attempts to evoke.

So that’s what you want for your Resonance Project. And your idea of having them listen to a duet or trio is great; but I’ve long believed that our House of Representative should sing folksongs for ten minutes at the beginning of a session.

JD: I agree with you, but I think that might be a very hard sell!

AP: Likely impossible.

JD: What’s the difference between how music affects the listener, the conductor, and the ensemble? Is that something you’ve thought much about?

AP: Heavens yes! It’s so important to talk about these important things. When we are born into this world, we are totally dependent on other people. We’ve already had a chance to learn in utero. The main way of communication that we have, at that stage, is vocal. They have to learn how to see; the brain has to learn to process vision. But what they hear goes directly to the central nervous system, and then to the brain. Emotion! Look at how most people talk when they talk to babies. They use their voice differently. They use a gentler, cajoling voice. The baby can’t speak for a couple of years, but it can sing right away! This is its main avenue of communication.

We may be the first society, in human history, where people no longer sing at home. A lot of mothers no longer sing lullabies to their babies, largely because they weren’t brought up in a family where this tradition was so ongoing, that you couldn’t possibly miss it.

So, the basic thing is that people need to get back in touch with the urge to sing. There is no “audience,” in a way; there are only singers! But, if you need to draw that triangle of composer/performer/listener, the most important element of those three is the listener because everything we learn, initially, is through our ears. And if we’ve been fortunate to have been brought up in a family where there is lots of singing (and it doesn’t matter what is being sung) then we learn the most natural means of expression.

JD: I grew up in a family that had multiple uses for music. One of those was, when we got mad at each other, we had to sit in the corner until we could sing a song. The idea was that you can’t sing a song when you’re mad!

AP: I love that! And it’s so true.

JD: Being someone who has spent a lifetime trying to create the possibility of transformation through music (I basically see myself as an Alchemist). And I realize that it’s only been within the last few hundred years that we’ve had the notion that someone is the performer and others are the listeners – as opposed to everyone being the performer.

AP: Yes, we’ve separated everything; music and dance, music and literature. Think about it: Old stories were sung, improvised!

JD: But the transformative nature of the Brahms Requiem, or Mahler’s Eighth, or a Bach Passion, is something that cannot be communicated as well by amateurs.

AP: When I worked with Shaw, and the old melodies, I had a turn-around about my ideas of the pinnacles of Western music. I believe that the great masterpieces are the folk melodies that get carried from generation to generation. They last, because they are exactly “right,” in a sense. The tunes follow the same laws as energy. Our job is to follow these laws of Energy which underlie the whole physical universe.

As a composer, I try to listen to where a melody wants to go, as opposed to pushing it somewhere. Typically I have no idea where it’s going to lead.

The leader of a choir should know the affect of the piece of music he/she is leading. You have to become the song, yourself. The conductor should project what s/he wants and allow the musicians to buy into it, with their own understanding of the needed affect. When I’m singing, I’m using every aspect of who I am: my mind, my emotions, my breath, my imagination, my spirit/soul, my concentration. What can compare with that? Nothing!

I often feel that I cannot write a piece for “concert” performance because I cannot figure out the need for it. Churches I can understand. With community groups, it’s easy; there’s almost always a reason for the commission. I’m really more focused on chamber music (singers or instrumentalists) than on concert hall settings. I gravitate to these “human” environments. And I strongly dislike lights coming down before concerts. It’s not natural!

When I’m composing, I need to know who the piece is for, the context, the environment, the personalities. I have often said that the vibrant choruses were the Gay Men’s Choruses because they sang as if their life depended on it – and to a certain extent, it did!

JD: As we move more and more into a world of amalgamation (Lutherans don’t “own” Bach cantatas any more than a Catholic person does, and vice versa with Palestrina motets), I often wonder if we’re not losing the ‘thorn in the side’ that gave the music its original character.

AP: Absolutely! 98% of the music we hear over the airwaves has been standardized. It’s been recorded over and over, and edited over and over, and is based in a financial economy. It has very little to do with things that are lasting! The language of “What’s the big hit this year” is a case in point.

I think there will always be a wild number of musical styles available. If we don’t have an artificial standardization going on, there’s a far more likely chance that something real can come through. But I think we really need to cherish the individuality of each national music style – the folk music. (Far too often in this country, we don’t recognize the rich heritage of our folk tradition for what it is.) We also need to harness the standardization process so that it helps the character of the music, and doesn’t serve to create a sameness from genre to genre.

I have a question for you: With your Resonance Project, will a leader from China and a leader from the United States react to the same piece of music?

JD: That’s a question I’ve saddled our neuroscience advisors with. I don’t know the answer as to whether there are universals in the brain that every human being will react to.

AP: There are universals, but I don’t think it’s something that music theorists will be able to discover. When I’m in conversation with people in different countries, I often ask them: “What’s the earliest song you can remember being sung to you as a child?” The human experience is the same everywhere, but the tunes are different because the language is different, the shape of the nasal cavity is different, etc. We need to preserve those differences; but the thing that is universal is the reason to sing.

JD: Do you sense that you are in a spiritual realm when you compose?

AP: I would say that I am channeling. I’m not making up any music. I am listening for what’s going to come through. I can’t start writing until I hear that.

The purpose of religion is to unify us to see that we are very small parts of a much larger whole. Music gives us a glimpse of that. Our words are too limiting. The more we try to define things, the further we become removed from its essence – because you have to leave out the emotional part of the brain.

JD: Thank you, Alice, for sharing your wisdom with all of us!