Ysaye Barnwell, pt. 2

JD: I used to be the Organist at a church in Oakland, CA. One day I told the pastor that I wanted to sing a particular Spiritual during the service, since there was no choir that day. She told me that would be inappropriate since the African-Americans in the congregation might take offense at me singing their music. My response was that I don’t have to be Lutheran to sing Bach! And why should I not be allowed to sing the Spirituals I grew up with (in Virginia)? How do you feel about that?

YB: The word “appropriation” comes to mind. I’m not sure how I feel about that word, but I know that I’ve experienced mis-appropriation. That’s where people do not know the innards of a song. The clearest (and most awful) example is when people say: “Oh, it was a ‘Kum-Ba-Yah’ moment!” 

A friend of mine’s mother died. She had requested three songs at her funeral, one of them being Kum-Ba-Yah. The priest, at the church where the funeral was to be held, said that it was inappropriate to sing Kum-Ba-Yah because it was a camp song, not a liturgical song. My friend was crushed and asked me to talk directly to the priest. So I called him up and explained to him that Kum-Ba-Yah is the most sacred invocation that we have in African-American culture. So, in the end, I just lead the song, improvisationally, while everyone was walking out. 

Mis-appropriation happens in a number of ways: When songs, which we hold dear, get sung in strange situations, sometimes the delivery is almost comical, sometimes it’s quite sincere. But often people don’t have a frame of reference about what the song was intended to be and intended to do. 

It’s very important to look at lyrics. For example, look at “Let us break bread together:”

Let us break bread together on our knees,

Let us break bread together on our knees.

When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising sun,

Oh, Lord, have mercy on me.

What??? That song is about Islam coming to the New World!

JD: Ah!!! One faces the rising sun when one faces East and prays to Mecca! That never dawned on me.

YB: There’s all kind of stuff in these lyrics! Many of the spirituals are about the Master/Slave relationship. We still sing these in church all the time even though many African-Americans don’t know what these words mean. We do it as a matter of course. My sense is that a lot of pieces get sung without the singer knowing there is a deep meaning behind the song. When that happens, the person feels free to do it in any style they want. There is a resentment that happens even if we don’t know the deep meaning, because we sense that something is not quite right.

JD: Another example of that is the hymn Lift High the Cross. The refrain says “the love of Christ proclaim ‘till all the world adore his sacred name.” That’s about British imperialism; and it was written at the height of the British Empire. And has that militaristic beat to it.

YB: Wow! Yes. It’s important for us, when we go to the music of other cultures, to understand the etymology.

JD: What I believe we are talking about is the power music has, in and of itself, that we need to connect with.

YB: Yes

JD: We can’t just do it because it’s a pretty tune, or we remember hearing our grandmother singing it. We have to think about what a piece of music is saying, and whether it is expressing who we are. It means not taking anything for granted. It’s not: music as entertainment.

YB: EXACTLY!

JD: Music is a tool.

YB: There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole;

There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul.

What is sin-sick? And who are the wounded? The sin-sick are the slave masters. The wounded are the slaves. And Jesus says that there is a thing (a balm) that can heal all of that stuff.

JD: You’ve got to write a book about this!

I had the joy of going to college with Moses Hogan. He was the most brilliant pianist at Oberlin the entire four years I was there. After college, he sort of burned out of that piano world and went back to New Orleans where he eventually started directing choirs, and then, eventually, became the leading arranger of African-American spirituals in the world. I re-connected with him on one of his trips to California, a few years before he died. I was really struck, at the time, how the Spirit can work through him, through each of us, completely without our foreknowledge, and help us touch countless lives. 

Clearly the Spirit works through you in the millions of lives you have touched as a musician. As musicians, I think we have this very special role. “To heal the sin-sick soul.” We are here to be an instrument of healing for those who are hurting, and to challenge those that are doing the hurting (many unwittingly). Perhaps our task is to help people understand the patterns that lead to hurt.

YB: I think the interesting thing about the Sweet Honey concerts is that it caused audiences to look at lyrics and texts differently. I want people to have a new frame of reference, a re-interpretation of music. You pay attention to Bob Dylan lyrics because you know he was talking about something.

JD: Where is music going now? I’m concerned that 99% of the music that is happening today happens through electronic speakers. Alice Parker told me that we don’t need Music Directors anymore; we need Song Leaders.

YB: Alice and I are working on a project together, for the past four years. The goal is to teach people to be Song Leaders. Alice and I have different backgrounds and approaches to this subject. I’m more steeped in the oral tradition; Alice comes from the other end of that spectrum.

JD: Why do we want people to be engaged in music?

YB: Because music forces our breath to come together. You breathe together; your hearts beat together. It draws us into community in ways that we aren’t even aware of. There’s something about rhythm, I believe, that pushes our blood flow in the same way. 

I stayed up half of the night watching the television following that dreadful shooting in a music venue in Paris. And at some point, someone started to sing the “Marseillaise.” That was the moment when they reclaimed their courage. Everybody joined in! That’s the best example of how music makes us strong and announces who we are. Music defines who people are at any moment in time. I will never forget that. 

That’s why I do what I do.

Sir András Schiff

Jonathan Dimmock: I want to start by thanking you for speaking out against Orbán and the Hungarian government. It was a very courageous act, and puts you in the category with Casals, Bernstein, and Masur! These great artists believed that there is no separation between art and politics.

András Schiff: Not so courageous! But thank you.

JD: How do you see the relationship between us, as artists, and our association with beauty, and the world of politics, with its role of making society a better place to live in? Is there a relationship? And how do they intertwine?

AS: There is an obvious relationship. In my opinion, they are inseparable. We are part of society. We always have been in one way or another. The artist always contributed to society. He was dependent on society – whether it was the royal court, or the Medici family in Florence, or the Church. Nothing could be more wrong than to say to the artist: “Shut up, and do your art without looking to the right or to the left.” We would have to live in an ivory tower, unaware of all that is around us – all the injustice! We have to speak up even if we believe we are of very little significance, as individuals, in what we can do. Together, it does contribute to something larger. All of those little drops of water in the desert! Altogether something can take shape. It can give courage to people.

I also don’t look at art as just something that is beautiful. Art is also reality. Music is not always beautiful. Sometimes it’s terrifying. But still, it always gives hope.

Look at perhaps the most human of composers, Beethoven. He suffered so much, but I never find depression in his music.

JD: Anger sometimes.

AS: Anger, but no self-pity. He embraces mankind and gives a shining example of how to overcome adversity.

JD: Or another example, Bach! His was not an easy life. There were many disagreements with employers. And yet he created an unbelievable testament to joy and praise. It’s quite striking to me.

AS: Well not only economically was his life difficult, having all of those children running around would have been a huge distraction. What sort of inner peace he must have had!

Art, and music in particular, can be an example to politics and society, to liberty and democracy. If you take great music, certainly all notes are important, but some are more important than others. At a given point, when you play chamber music, you are often in a leading position, then a secondary position. It changes from moment to moment. You have to give up your ego for a higher goal. This can serve as an example.

And this is why I believe education is so crucial. If children don’t play an instrument, then they should all sing. If they sing in choirs, it’s a better education than sports. In sports there’s a winner and a loser. But with music, we don’t oppose each other, we strive towards a common goal.

JD: I’m very interested in your book, Music kommt aus der Stille. I’d like to know your thoughts about using music not as entertainment but as a tool, either to find one’s way into the soul of mankind or as a tool to help people.

AS: I completely oppose the idea of music as entertainment. Probably there is such a thing, but I don’t want to know about it. Yes, the listener should have a good time. But there’s much more to it than that. It should be a learning experience for both the performer and the listener. It would be good if, after a concert, people go away thinking and contemplating. “What have we heard; what have we learned? How can we translate this into other spheres of life?”

Of course many composers have written divertimenti (entertainments). But quite often – such as Mozart’s divertimenti for string trio – it’s a colossal masterpiece with volumes of things to think about.

JD: Do you think the venues we have used, the concert hall, recital hall, living room, and church, might shift because of modern technology? Where is all this headed?

AS: I’m not a pessimist. A lot is being said about the crisis in Classical music. There are as many or more concerts than before. I’m only worried about the quality of the actual listening. But people come by the thousands to hear Classical music today. Compare that to the age of Bach. It’s perhaps 100,000 times more popular now than it was then. But as we improve technology and the other tools, it is imperative to use these tools in an intelligent way. So, as good as recorded music is, it’s not the real thing. People will always want to hear and see the real thing. It’s an event. It’s a one and only event each time. Each day is a different performance; we are not machines. 

So the venues play an important role. We often play in huge venues, like Davies Concert Hall here. It’s wonderful for Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang, but it’s not right when you play a Schubert Impromptu. But having said that, even in a huge space you can create the illusion of intimacy.

AS: The Church (Catholic & Lutheran) contributed tremendously to the develop of Western art. Bach’s main goal was to write for the glory of God and for the community. That’s why I consider him the greatest: because he has no ego. It’s not about himself. Even Mozart and Beethoven considered writing for God as the highest goal.

JD It seems to me that both Mozart and Beethoven saw themselves as servants to the music. The music is foremost, and they serve that.

AS: Absolutely. And you can see it in the Mendelssohn Lobegesang that we’re doing right now. The second movement is an intimate chamber piece. And then you have the glorious sacred movements interchanging with the worldly elements. Bach did this in his Cantatas and Passions – These pieces are full of secular elements and dances. Instrumental pieces go hand in hand with the sacred.

It would be very good if works like that were written again. 

JD: Certainly Arvo Pärt led a whole generation in that direction.

AS: Yes, that’s true.

JD: Music being ephemeral, do you ever wonder what happens to the sound as it goes out from the instrument you’re playing, whether that be a piano or an orchestra, and reaches the audience? How is it perceived? In a way this is a ridiculous question because there is no answer. But is “what happens” a question you ever ponder?

AS: Yes. I believe that each sound we ever produce is preserved somewhere in the universe, or cosmos. I wouldn’t call myself a religious person, but I am a believer of sorts. I don’t believe in materialism. If materialism was a valid philosophy then we couldn’t explain art. Physicists can explain sound, of course. But great scientists know that, at a very high level, there is a certain poetry in science and in mathematics. 

So, for me, music-making is the imagination and the realization of making a sound. In order to make that, you must first have imagination. Then you convey that onto the instrument, coupled with the techniques one develops in order to realize our craft. 

I try to listen to the beginning (and you will know this, as an organist), the duration, and the end of a sound. What happens at the end of that sound? I think it goes out into the universe, into the cosmos, and it’s there! It also comes to the individual listeners. But the individual listener interprets the sound; this is their freedom. That’s the beauty of it. We don’t have to command the listener. The listener has the ability to associate.

With all the arts, each person has his or her interpretation, what a picture or a poem reminds them of. It’s all different. But nowhere is it more abstract than in music. That’s the beauty of it.

JD: We have a special privilege, as musicians, because we are caretakers of the soul. That’s a responsibility that I feel almost every time I play. On some small level, I am helping people make a connection, even a transformation, that they might not otherwise. It’s a weighty responsibility, but a joyous responsibility.

AS: Yes!

I love Indian classical music very much. They are great artists. And one of the great Indian musicians once told me: In our culture, we never play a note without Divine inspiration. It’s our responsibility. 

I try to learn from that. Before you produce a note, a sound, think about that!

JD: Hazrat Inayat Khan’s book, The Music of Life, talks about how musicians in India play music based on their spiritual attainment, as opposed to their technical mastery. So, in my case, that would mean I wouldn’t dream of playing the Bach Passacaglia until I had some depth of life to express. It’s that concept. And I’ve always thought that was such a beautiful concept. Yes, we have to have technical mastery; but that’s not the goal. 

Thank you for sharing your ideas with me, and especially for the opportunity to work together in the Concert Hall.

AS: It’s been my pleasure!

John Rutter and Tim Brown

In the summer of 2017, I had the distinct privilege of visiting John Rutter in his country home. John is widely recognized as the most popular, and the most published, choral composer of our day. We were joined by my longtime friend and colleague, Tim Brown – one of the great choral conductors of the British Isles. Both Tim and John are formerly Directors of Music at Clare College, Cambridge, and as such, truly brought choral singing to a very high bar worldwide.

What follows is our interview together delving into matters about the future of music-making, what choral music is all about, and other matters.

Jonathan Dimmock: I’m interested in talking about the heart of what music is, why we do what we do, and perhaps even looking at what the future of music may look like. The early days Western music came from a place of emotional expression – both the sacred world, and daily life in the secular world. Then, in the 19th century, we broke off into choral groups becoming separate and having their own identity outside of the Church. Then in the 20th century, this split became even more pronounced; and the Church’s survival into the future started to become a real question. Also, in the 20th century, we decided that music could be about an intellectual construct, regardless of whether it speaks to the heart. 

John, I would say that you may be the greatest melodist alive – which brings a lot of heart back into church music and the concert hall. So, I wanted to ask what your thought is about how music is evolving. Also, now that we are understanding the neuroscience of how music can be used as a tool to help society, I’d love to know your thoughts about that and how it may or may not inform your work.

John Rutter: I’m happy to give you some personal pointers from my own experience. I was once advised, at a young age, by a music director named Edward Champman, himself formerly a composition student of Charles Wood in Cambridge. Edward knew that I wanted to write music and also that I felt overshadowed by my classmate, John Taverner (clearly some sort of a genius). He gave me this advice: Don’t worry about what everyone else is writing; write the music that is in your heart. I always thought that was very good advice, and it stayed with me. This was the 1960s when the Avant-Garde was in full flower. And while I’ve always been fascinated by what’s happening on the cutting edge of music, I knew that wasn’t my particular gift. 

I think I’m half composer and half song-writer. And as the 19th century became the 20th century, in the world of concert music, a melodic gift was no longer wanted! Up until the 1880s, you wouldn’t have lasted 10 minutes as a composer if you didn’t have a melodic gift! But then, as other things began to develop instead, like the exploration of texture, sound world, structure, links with poetry, etc., in a way, melody crept out of the room and took refuge in the world of operetta, musical theater, Johann Strauss, jazz, folk, and eventually pop music. Melody is still alive and well, it’s just living somewhere else!

I always liked the idea of a tune. For me, a good tune is like a vector that can carry the message of the text right into the heart of the listener. If you want to make a text real to a listener, a melody is quite a good way of getting it there. 

So, not wanting to give up writing melodically, I found that choral music and church music was a place where I could do just that; and people were quite happy to have it. The critics were quite vocal that my music was out of step with what everyone else was doing, but I think those voices have died down now. (I mostly write the sort of music that doesn’t get reviewed by critics, anyway. My judges are now my fellow musicians, performers, audiences.) I’m certainly interested in contemporary art form music, but I’m not likely to start writing that way.

JD: Well the current neo-Romantic period we’re in has a great deal of interest in lushness.

JR: Sure. We are in the post-everything age; you can go whichever way you want.

When I grew up, in the immediate aftermath of WWII, Germany, which had had such an extraordinary musical tradition, was very much in ruins musically (as well as every other way). Composers like Stockhausen said he never wanted to hear a military march again, as long as he lived. When he was a child, this music was broadcast through loudspeakers on the streets of Germany! Germany ended up making a fresh start, not just with democracy but also with music. Boulez did the same in France. In Britain, there also needed to be a fresh start. 

In the mid-20th century, Vaughan Williams and William Walton had the dominant positions. Conducting was dominated by old men. This was particularly frustrating to the younger generation, represented by the brilliance of Benjamin Britten. I think a number of composers became disheartened. And our BBC also turned to “cleaning out the stables” in the William Glock era. He controlled music in the 1960s, transforming the Proms concerts series and the entire profile of music on the BBC. This station is very important – not really analogous to anything in the States.

So, I lived in a time of great turbulence and new beginnings. It’s been an exciting time! I’ve steered my course, not motivated by a career, but by an inner drive to write music. It’s found its niche.

JD: Do you find, when you are writing, that you’re trying to say something; or is music just music?

JR: If it’s strictly instrumental, I think music is music is music. I’m not trying to be like Shostakovich and tell the history of Russia within a symphony. But when I’m setting words, the main thought in my mind is to serve that text. Then I’m thinking about serving the performers and the occasion the piece will be part of. I like to get a mental picture of how the piece might fit in to its first performance. I try to enter in to the text and serve it, musically.

Tim Brown: It seems to me that singers really want to have melodies and structures that they can grasp easily. It doesn’t matter what anyone does, academically, or what composers do, in the instrumental field to be experimental, we will never develop singers that can sing difficult music.

JR: You’re up against the limitations of the human voice. Tim and I will remember a recording of the Ligeti “Lux aeterna” which was an interesting recording. We came out of it thinking it was rather wonderful. Did the choir enjoy it?

TB: Yes, but that was a recording experience. Giles Swayne taught at Cambridge for a number of years, and I interacted with him a lot. He’s noted for writing music that is quite difficult to perform, including a lot of choral music. And while he was associated with us at Clare College, his choral writing actually became much simpler. I think it was more attractive without being less personal.

JD: Tim, as a conductor, are you conscious of trying to communicate any kind of affect or emotional state, or are you trying to bring an emotional state out of the singers, or are you trying to elicit a response from the people listening?

TB: You’re trying to serve the music. One wants to lift the music off the page, as you feel it, and present it to the audience.

JR: People often ask me about conducting my own music versus conducting other people’s music. For me, I actually prefer conducting music I haven’t written because there’s always the challenge of understanding it. Assuming the piece is written before the era of recording, I love the challenge of trying to tease out what the composer actually means to say. That is not a challenge when you’re conducting your own work.

I think of composers like Herbert Howells, beloved of nearly all church musicians. There are so many things I should have asked him while he was still alive! Questions about ritardando, parts that should stand out, whether the metronome markings are “sacred.” Although he did once say to me: “John, my metronome marks are always wrong. There’s a natural speed to music!”

And George Guest used to say: “Too fast a tempo trivializes; too slow a tempo debilitates.”

TB: I’m usually not interested in conducting something unless there is some emotional “premium” in it for me. Music is more than the correct notes at the correct time. It must have emotional depth.

JD: It seems to me that the whole point of our craft of music is to be able to communicate a level of emotion that text alone can’t do, nor can intellectual puzzling it out. There’s a mystery to it that we become the custodians of.

JR: The greater the music is, the more of it there is to capture in each performance. I haven’t conducted the B Minor Mass that many times, but I’m sure that, if I were to continue to do it, I would notice many things new each time. The one thing that a conductor must have, above all else, is a vision of the music. Even if the players think it’s dead wrong, you must have a vision that you transmit to the performers.

JD: It seems dangerously tempting, today, with the prevelance of YouTube and Spotify, to have duplicate performances of what we’ve heard already on YouTube. I wonder what you both think about the direction music is going. Are there any danger zones – in either the performance or the composing realm?

TB: Well from a performance point of view, recordings are incredibly dangerous. As you say, people tend to immitate recordings rather than create their own interpretation. And as you know, the recording process is cut and paste.

JD: And no longer resembles a performance!

TB: When I listen to recordings from the 20s and 30s, I find them mesmorizing. And the level of concentration was so much higher than it seems to be now. So often today’s recordings are about getting the intonation right and the precision of lining up the parts, yet you lose the raw-ness of the music.

JR: It’s just unfortunate that the CD culture created expectations of technical flawlessness. It irons out the idiosyncracies of different performers because now, people are usually just about 5% outside of the norm of interpretation. No one wants to risk getting too far out of line. In the old days the great virtuosi had very few opportunities to hear one another. You plowed your own furrow. Rachmaninoff went on tour, and Horowitz went on tour, etc.; and they developed their own styles which were not at all alike.

But on the other hand, it’s never been easier for young people to access great performances, or music, from any period. You can’t put the genie back in the bottle. In the field of choral music, there has been an extraordinary improvement in the technical standard you would expect from a choir.

JD: From the American perspective, the recordings from King’s College, from the 60s, probably changed how choral music was perceived in the States. The States has always had a bit of a poor step-sister self-image in the realm of Western Classical music, so there was a great deal of desire to emulate King’s College Choir. The result was both good and bad. The good was that the standards rose dramatically and quickly; the bad was that the shift in awareness of possibilities created a lot of frustration.

JR: I think David Willcocks saw his job, at King’s, as setting a standard. It was because of his military background that he communicated to his choir that they were his brigade. Every time they opened their mouths, they were being judged. As it were, their boots always had to be polished, and their belt shined.

JD: Then the work that the two of you each did at Clare, with the mixed-voice choir, actually seemed to set a new tone for what a mixed choir could be.

JR: It was a very exciting time, Jonathan. Clare was one of three colleges to become mixed – in 1972. Overnight it transformed the chapel choir. Instead of being an all-male group of altos, tenors, and basses, it suddenly had lovely soaring sopranos opening up all new repertoire. My mission, and very much succeeded by Tim, was to prove that there was no reason that adult females can’t do everything that boy sopranos could do.

JD: And that was so necessary, from an American point of view, to get that imprimateur of women and men singing together.

TB: There’s no reason to think that expert mixed choirs are a competition or a threat to men and boys choirs.

JR: And in the real world, by the 1970s it was becoming harder and harder to recruit young boys to become trebles, anyway. And given that probably 80% of liturgical choirs were mixed choirs, we were able to be a bit of a role model. Fortunately nobody torched the Chapel!

JD: I think you both paved the way for that quality of sound; and I really applaud you for it.

JR: The thing is, women can bring an adult sensibility.

JD: It seems to me that the emotional content is desperately needed in most Tudor music. Boys can certainly be taught musical shaping of phrases,;but when an adult can do that intuitively, because they bring their own life experiences to the fore, it seems to me that the music gains.

JR: Well I think it’s lovely to have both options.

JD: I want to talk about sight-reading. Sometimes it can be a bit of a curse if it precludes the possibility of spending real time with a piece of music, sinking into its depths, finding out what it has to say.

TB: Yes! That’s an increasing problem in England because we sight-read so much and are so adept at it.

JR: Well, in the orchestral world it’s all about money; rehearsals cost money. Most of the concerts you hear in London by the leading orchestras, except for the BBC, are working with only one 3-hour rehearsal.

TB: I was listening to an orchestral recording on a drive the other day, and I could imagine that the ensemble did the recording in two sessions; and on repeated listening, it was very obvious that they missed a lot of important details about the music. This is simply because they don’t have time to rehearse.

JD: Our culture is so used to instantaneous results. How are we going to interest young people in learning violin or piano?

JR: You don’t get quick results on a stringed instrument. But to the point about sight-reading in choral settings, our chapel choir system means that one has to get through a lot of music in a short time. It becomes more and more expected that you can Hoover your way through masses, motets, recital programs, etc. Whereas in the days of David Willcocks and George Guest, it was quite rare for chapel choirs to go on tour. But now, it’s commercially, and in terms of the outreach of the college, much more important to travel around, do lots of recital work, and record. That puts pressure on the singers to be able to do things right away.

TB: I must say that this is not true on the continent, where much more time is spent with the music, and there is a noticeable difference each day the ensemble lives with the piece. 

JD: In closing, with the direction choral music is moving, in general, do you think that choral music will detach and become mostly that of collegiate choirs, concert halls, and choral societies of various cities?

JR: It’s certainly true that those developed a big audience for sacred music as Art – music you can put on your stereo and chill out to. Probably church music is heard more often on discs and in concert halls than in church. And in England, there is a split between the music you will hear in cathedrals and collegiate chapels versus the music of the parish churches. Up until the 60s, it was more of a piece, culturally – albeit more elaborate and better done in the cathedrals and collegiate choirs. But now, the parish churches in England have mostly gone towards pop music, evangelical, and “worship songs,” completely different from the music of the cathedrals.  The risk to the cathedrals is that they are an apex without a base to the pyramid. And our cathedrals are all under financial pressure.

TB: In the past, the church was an important patron of the Arts. Composers wrote FOR the church. Now, many of the great composers don’t write for the church, as if it’s too trivial. The language of music has changed. 

JD: When I was young, sacred music was rarely performed in concert halls; but I think now it frequently is. No one thinks twice about this. Which tells me that the “sacred” arts are moving away from sacred spaces and into secular spaces. Very interesting!

You’ve both given me many things to think about. Thank you!

Mason Bates

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.

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.

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.

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.