An Interview with Barrymore Laurence Scherer

  • READ an excerpt from A History of American Classical Music by Barrymore Laurence Scherer.

  • LISTEN to the full interview.

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    TREVOR HUNTER: A question that has to be answered when writing about anything as nebulous as American classical music is where to begin. Now your narrative started in a place that I wouldn’t really have expected, which is with the European invasions of the Americas and Ponce de León in Florida, specifically. But some of this early material is the most compelling in the book. What made you set sail, as it were, from that point?

    BARRYMORE LAURENCE SCHERER: Well, it sounds so cliché, but we have to begin at the beginning. We have to begin somewhere. In other words, we started out as a land mass that had an indigenous people on it, indigenous peoples. Those peoples had music, because music is such a natural thing; I think it’s with everybody at the cradle. However, it wasn’t written down. It wasn’t a concert music tradition yet. And the only way we were to have our Ned Rorem and Aaron Copland and any of these guys was for someone to come over and transplant a tradition that had already been started in Europe. So for me the story of American music is the story of a transplanted fruit that is put into this wonderfully nourishing soil and grows and flourishes and undergoes tremendous changes and one of the important points that I did want to make was the certain curve.

    When you ask the man or the woman on the street what American music is, nowadays, who knows what you’d get. They could say rap. They could say Gershwin. They could say Leonard Bernstein. They could say any number of things that are American. But what I have seen in my study of this history has been this curve. You start off with a foreign introduction—people who come bearing their own music on ships. And you have this curve in which first we prove to the Europeans, who are our fathers, that we could actually write music. Then we start trying to figure out how we can write music that sounds “American,” and I put that in quotes. Today, I’m thinking that it’s very, very difficult to describe precisely what American music is in the contemporary arena because we are now completely international. We have a great number of foreign-born composers—Bright Sheng, Tan Dun—who have brought with them their own backgrounds and are working in America, have an American consciousness, but are still blending and vitalizing a number of different strands.

    TH: Now you were just talking about how American classical music was essentially rooted in the European tradition and how it’s evolved. At the end of the book you also mention that now American music is actually going back and influencing European traditions. In what ways do you see that happening?

    BLS: If we go back to the beginning of the 20th century, the American music that was an absolute bombshell in Europe was, I believe, when John Philip Sousa and his band were doing one of their European tours and they brought some ragtime to Europe. That created an enormous craze. We start with our more indigenous music and our more popular music. It wasn’t concert music that was the influence; it was the dance music, because dance rhythm is so important throughout the ages. Whether it’s a Bach suite, or a French suite, an English suite, or whether it’s ballet or an opera, dance rhythms give a sense of period, of time. Ragtime goes to Europe. After ragtime you get jazz, you get Dixieland. And then you get, of course, Gershwin and the whole sense of a much more swinging time. So our music was the more popular music that was influencing Europe.

    And today, are we only influencing? I think that there’s now, more than ever, this give and take. We are bringing music over. We are sending music out. Composers travel everywhere. Film has been an enormous messenger. Film has been a great transmitter of American ideas. Film music has also had a wonderfully persuasive effect on music, because I think a lot of people listening to a film will gladly sit through the kind of music that can be dissonant, that can be very mysterious, possibly disturbing. But because there’s a dramatic underplay, it’s behind the scene. There’s something happening on the screen; they don’t notice that they’re listening to something that is particularly contemporary, edgy, give it any name you want. If you were to take that film music out of the film and sit certain audiences down in front of it and say, “Listen to this,” they’d suddenly have to concentrate on it without anything happening before their eyes and they would say, “Boy, that’s really tough to take.”

    TH: Well, that begs the question then, from me, at least: you write in your book that more audience-pleasing opera has had much more staying power in the American classical music scene. Yet at the same time there’s a dramatic underpinning there that can be occurring with more dissonant music that just hasn’t caught on, whereas it has in film. Why is that?

    BLS: Contemporary opera makes certain demands, even greater than film, because the music in opera is the primary element. Yes, there is the drama. And from the beginning of opera it was the drama through music. Now people will go to John Adams’s opera Doctor Atomic and be greatly disturbed. The music is definitely disturbing. It’s a disturbing subject—the atomic bomb and its development. It’s by no means a traditional operatic libretto, or even a story or subject if you’re thinking in terms of La Traviata. But, you have to concentrate on the music. It’s not a screen; the camera angles don’t change, if you’re thinking strictly in terms of being in an opera house. It is a staged performance, and the music in an opera is still the most important thing, whereas music in a film is incidental music. It is the ally of the drama, but it is not the end product of the drama. The film would be less good without the music, but the film could survive without it. And people hear the music only in a secondary way, so they’re much more open because they’re concentrating on the plot, on the dialogue, on whether they wish the actress would undress or not. But it happens in opera, too, nowadays, especially with Barihunks and others, you know, why don’t they undress? But the idea of film, the image is the important thing, the music is part of the whole show, whereas in opera, even the most contemporary opera, we go with an expectation that the music is going to be paramount, and we expect that music to carry us away.

    TH: This book is published by Naxos and not only contains a sampler CD but also contains a link to a website where there are over 165 tracks, all of which are referred to in the book. How did this access to actual audio while writing a music history effect how you not only conceived the book but also the style of it?

    BLS: Something that I love is teaching. And for me to be before people and bringing them something that they may not have known before or they knew something about and needed to know more, to make it stimulating is the ultimate pleasure. Naxos started out with this American Classics series of CDs, and we’re moving on to something like 200. These American Classics have covered such an enormous range of American music, and I remember long before this book was even broached I was receiving these things and I thought, my god, here is Wuorinen, here is Rorem, here is Henry Hadley, Gottschalk—the whole range of American music from the 19th century to the late 20th century and into the 21st century is being covered here and presented in a way that was very hard to find years ago.

    When they asked me to write this it started out with a 4-CD set. The real history of this was a sort of overview in which I wrote an essay and I submitted the essay and they liked it so much they said, “We’ll publish the essay and the 4 CDs,” but they said, “Would you like to write this as a whole book? You know, expand this?” And I said this would be wonderful because when I was doing the essay, you know, there’s only so much I could say and so much was being left by the wayside. Now, I could delve into it even more so that the book is more than twice the length of the essay, possibly almost three times the length of the original essay. They never said cut anything; they just said this is fine, you know, write. And I essentially had to choose everything that’s on the website and on the CD.

    When it came to the CDs, I wanted to make sure that if you didn’t read the book, you could actually put the CD on and play a program of music that would be stimulating. There would be contrasts; there would be as many things as possible on it, but you could put it on for pleasure. And at the same time I wanted these things to give people tastes. Naxos and I had agreed that there would be no mere excerpts, where it fades out in the middle of something. That they would have to be either complete works or—if it’s a multi-movement work—a complete movement, so that there was a shape. And this was a great challenge but also a great pleasure; you know, who shall stay and who shall not?

    The book does not contain musical excerpts in print, because unfortunately we’ve come to a point at which not as many people actually read music. There are many people who are passionately involved with it who don’t read it. And with contemporary scores, some of these things dealing with the pushing against the barriers of sound, the notation is not anything recognizable anymore. And this has been going on since John Cage and since Henry Cowell, where it doesn’t look like notes on a staff. Music on a page is fine to look at, but music only exists when it’s played and so this gave me the chance to write about music and for the reader to be able to go with my descriptions and hear it, and then hopefully be interested to hear something else.

    TH: Now you just mentioned Henry Cowell and, to jump back into the book, something that was really striking to me reading this history is just how out of left field Cowell and Ives seem.

    BLS: You mean in their time? In their day?

    TH: In their time. Absolutely. And what is it about this country that fostered that? Where did that come from?

    BLS: We had out-of-left-field people a long time ago. I think that when you start as far back as somebody like Anthony Philip Heinrich, the dawn of music in Kentucky. There’s an incredible bunch of works that he was writing in a log cabin in relative wilderness, and it’s music that sounds like Weber or Haydn. I mean, it’s amazing to think, he had no recordings—he had only scores, if he had them—and he’s writing at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century; he lives until roughly the civil war period. He was writing these relatively complex works—he was called the American Beethoven because there were people who thought that he was completely mad. So 200 years ago we had our out-of-left-field guys. Before Abner Doubleday was even inventing baseball, they were out of left field. And I think there always was this sense. You had your academic people who were trained in Europe, or they were trained by Europeans—MacDowell, John Knowles Paine, Horatio Parker, Hadley, Chadwick. I cover this seriously, because they wrote some very beautiful music, but they were writing in a tradition and they were writing not to be iconoclastic.

    But somebody like Ives grew up post-Civil war. He’s born in 1874; he’s an exact contemporary of President Hoover and his father was a bandmaster. And his father used to sit him down at the piano and play a tune in two keys. This is the 19th century. He’d play a tune bitonally because he wanted to stretch Ives’ ear. Nobody was doing this. And Ives grew accustomed to this—it didn’t sound strange to him. It sounded like great fun. You know, he’s from New England. What do they offer a farmer when he’s out tilling a field? They bring him a glass of switchell, which is vinegar and water, possibly with sugar, maybe not. It isn’t lemonade because lemons are too expensive. So in a place that is busy plowing fields full of flint and rocks and drinking vinegar and water and having clam chowder without the cream because you might not be able to get it, here is Ives finding that his father’s exercises in playing a hymn in two keys is so much fun that he then takes it to his own church. And you can just see him, because he was a sweet looking guy when he was young. It’s a Sunday, he’s playing who knows what hymn, and he suddenly switches into B-flat and A-flat at the same time, or B-flat and B-major and the choir is singing along with him and suddenly they don’t know what they’re hearing and he’s just having a ball.

    So this was not supposed to be frightening; this was supposed to be fun. And he talks about the old village bands that would play. And they had natural instruments and weren’t always practicing right. They weren’t all that good by modern band standards and he realized this, but this was spicy. When they would be sour, they were tart, and that tartness was the kind of thing that really appealed to him. So Ives was out of left field not because he wanted to upset people, but because he just wanted to stretch things. He studied with Horatio Parker at Yale and he had great respect for Parker as a teacher, but he was not fond of his music. And he used to refer to all of this as the music of the library: plush, elegant, lovely music. But it was not for him. He wanted something flintier, more fun, more unexpected.

    Cowell is another person—an upbringing that’s rather strange. His parents went their separate ways. He was unbelievably intelligent, and he was unbelievably well read. He collected butterflies, he collected rare plants, all of this because he had had these jobs trying to make a buck as a young man. He learned literature. He learned botany. He learned all these different things. And he learned music. And he, too, was completely under the spell of the expansion of the ears. There’s a piece I have of Cowell, The Banshee, where Cowell really invented the prepared piano, long before Cage was forced to figure something out in order to get music to give that dance company. Cowell had done that 25 years before, because he was thinking about taking this instrument that everybody knew so well and giving it a new voice. And what he does with The Banshee, it’s the simplest thing. He’s using the bass strings that are wrapped with wire—it’s like it’s a rat’s tail—and you stroke those strings and what you get is this absolutely unearthly sound. It’s program music really; it’s like Berlioz except that it is definitely 20th century, and it raises the hair on the back of your neck because it is terrifying. A banshee is a spirit that in Irish lore will stand before the house of a dying man or a dying woman and shriek and wail, and it’s a terrifying thing.

    He writes a whole treatise on tone clusters with a whole theory of how you can organize them just the way you would organize chords with leading tones, and you can name them; they’re not just noise. So Cowell takes these sounds and uses them to this incredibly expressive purpose. And yes, they’re “out there.” By the time Cowell comes along, Ives, of course, had been composing, and his music was not being played or it was being played very infrequently. It wasn’t well known. It wasn’t familiar. They were out of left field because they were adventuresome, really adventuresome. To them everything was worth experimenting with and some things you keep, some things you don’t. It’s a matter of just not being afraid.

    TH: So we’ve talked about these composers with an interest in expanding their ears and these more traditional composers, and certainly you talk about more popular-minded composers like Zez Confrey. Now all these have been brought under the umbrella of classical music in America in your book. And you even talk about Stephen Sondheim, for instance. In any historical narrative about the subject, the author will decide what is classical, what is not classical, what relates to it. How did you decide what to do? How did you decide to, for instance, include Sondheim, but not jazz?

    BLS: There was a good deal of choosing in this. Certainly I was guided in part by what was in the American Classics discography, but from the very start of the project Naxos said do not limit yourself to what is on the CDs. And I said I couldn’t have because there are so many things that are not on or are not yet on.

    It’s a funny thing about classical music. What we call classical, I also call concert music because people have a certain expectation of a concert. But classical music today often means music that was once popular, commercial, but is no longer. That includes the Broadway works of Gershwin. That includes the operettas of Jacques Offenbach, which were considered by some people to be the next step to musical hell, you know. If you were to compose an operetta you were lost, you were just lost. Music frequently that has had its commercial day and is no longer able to bring in the same kind of income has often become classical because it’s a different union scale for recording, for performance.

    Now with somebody like Stephen Sondheim, whom I mention in here, it’s because a very strong part of the narrative in the early 20th century is American operetta, American musical comedy, American musicals, musical plays. And this I felt was a part of the ongoing tradition of dramatic music in America because we always were trying to write operas, and I go in some detail into the rather sad story of American opera. You know, one of the earliest American operas, the first one that was actually published in America, was called The Disappointment. What better title to give it in the early 19th, the late 18th century, because that’s just what American composers of opera were going to experience for some time?

    I chose by thinking in terms of the major issues of serious music, the major issues of what audiences will normally hear. I avoided a lot of jazz. I refer to jazz, but I didn’t really write about jazz because jazz is a tremendous subject and it requires a tremendous knowledge, I feel, of its ins and outs, and there are so many extraordinary books about jazz already that I didn’t think I could contribute anything to this literature. And so, I thought, I will stick with concert music and what is generally understood to be mainstream, or experimental, or whatever you call it, because this is the music of our history. But some people may feel it arbitrary that I didn’t include jazz. I just felt that it was something that would pushed me in a direction that I wouldn’t be able to get back from. So to those who miss it in the book, I apologize, and to those who don’t worry about it, continue reading.

    TH: Now, we’ve talked about several composers here today. And you talk about a great many composers in the book which is just under 230 pages. One of the ways that you’re able to fit so much into that space is because you don’t concern yourself with composers’ psychology much, which a lot of other books on the subject certainly do. It’s more of a concern with historical perspective and their output. Why did you choose this method? Was it space?

    BLS: There were a number of scopes. Space is always a criteria; one nowadays always has to squeeze a great deal into what is too small a space. However, my feeling for this book was I wanted to do two things. I wanted to spark, to generate curiosity, intellectual curiosity. I wanted to make people know, first of all, names. That people exist. That composers exist. That their music is out there. I was less interested in a book with historical scope. I’m a journalist, and I can feel when a subject is going too deep to get out and move onto the next thing.

    You mentioned the psychology of the composers; in many instances that would have taken me off track and would have bogged me down. I wanted more to give people this sense of the overriding picture from that first printing press in Mexico City where one of the earliest publications is a book of music, the musical settings of the mass going back to the 16th century. And this arch of the way we developed as a musical country and just to let people know, to let them read and say, “I’ve never heard of this guy, I never heard this music. Let me listen to something. Let me hear it on the CD. Let me go to the website. Let me go to a concert. Let me just hear this.” So the choice was to go deeply into everybody and have to cut all those names back or to let people know about as many composers as possible and as many works of music. At the end, obviously, I just wanted to get as many people in—in fact, I kept saying, “Wait, wait. Hold, hold, I’ve just discovered somebody else that I want to put in this, I’ve got to listen to this. I’ve got to listen to that.” I wanted to represent the widest possible number of composers and their works that I could get into these pages.

    TH: Now bringing up the very wide degree or the very great amount of composers that we have had, a very common theme that you brought out in your book seems to be a frustration with the lack of performances. For instance, you brought up that the New York Phil didn’t program an American work until its fifth season. How has this perceived neglect shaped the American composer’s psyche?

    BLS: Well, certainly in the old days, I mean, there was a period around 1900, 1920 when the traditionalist composers, the Chadwicks, the Hadleys, were being performed—in terms of how many performances there were of music, period. How many orchestras we had and how many organizations were there actually to perform music? They were given a remarkable amount of time. They were known. Also, their music was published in a way—their shorter works, their songs, their smaller pieces were played at home and they were familiar names. Henry Hadley was voted the most important and familiar composer in America at one point around 1920. I think what happens post-war, post-World War II, is you have the rise of experimental music. You have the university composers, who were way off the mainstream. We were existing through an age of mannerism, where the music was meant to be listened to only by those who were “in”, those peers, the other composers, other musicians trained in the manner, in the techniques, whatever it was. This music was actively being produced, I mean, written or works for tape, works for electronic things and most audiences, season audiences to symphony concerts or to any concert season, didn’t even know they existed; they were in a small circle.

    I think that for a long time in the later 20th century many composers were not interested in whether people heard their music. They were interested in whether they were producing, whether they were expressing what they needed to express. This has changed in the past 20 years now. You have this accessibility—the neo-romantics, call them what you will. There has been a tremendous turnaround in music by the younger group of composers. Some of them aren’t even that young; they’re now in their 50s and they are writing music that, if it’s not tonal, the sounds, the shapes, the language, is much more straightforwardly appealing to an audience. And this kind of music, whether it’s Corigliano or whether it is Alan Hovhaness —there’s a composer whose work deserves so much greater familiarity. I mean, these gigantic wonderful symphonic works of his that are absolutely stunning—the orchestration is so beautiful, and the musical ideas, the thematic material is often absolutely stunning. And yet, by and large, he’s just not as well known as he ought to be.

    Unfortunately many audiences have traditionally been reluctant to hear something they don’t already know, which means they go back for the same things over and over again. There’s even old music that they don’t know; they don’t want to hear it. Or you have the audiences that just don’t want to be afraid. What’s the first thing that somebody asks about a new piece that’s going to be programmed? “Will I be bored?” It’s amazing. People will go to an art gallery and spend their time absolutely up on the most novel art creations. They will go to every opening. They will go to every new show, and they will be absolutely conversant on everything in the art world. But they won’t know about music because music represents time. If you go to an opening, yes, you get your little canapé, you get your glass of wine, and you have your conversation, and you may or may not look at the work. But it’s not demanding that you look at it. Music demands your attention for a specific span of time. And people are afraid to give up their time. They are always afraid, and the thing is, I wrote this book hoping that people will read it and not just not be afraid, but be so curious that they can’t wait to hear something. They’ll either go to a concert, or they’ll listen to the CD, or they will go to the website and listen to these things that I’ve discussed. I’ve tried to keep my own taste out of it because I didn’t want to write a critical volume. I wanted to write a volume that lets people draw their own conclusions. To me that’s so important. As a critic, I remember when I was first starting out and I would be at a concert and somebody would see me writing and they’d say, “What did you think?” and I would explain to them that I never talk about anything at a concert because I have to have my own thoughts and I’m not going to give away what I’m going to do. But I also would say to them, “Don’t ask me what I think, I want to know what you think,” because that’s active participation. Waiting for someone else to tell you what to think, that’s not fun. That’s dictation. I want people to read this and then to go out and draw their own conclusions, that’s the important thing.

    TH: We were talking about this new school, the neo-romantics, or traditionalists, or what have you. And certainly you cover them at the end of the book. But there’s also a great deal of other variety, like the Bang on a Can composers, the people coming out of the New York School tradition, electronic musicians, etc. One of the themes that you bring up early in the book is perceptual relativity, when you’re talking about Varèse, for instance, who at the time seemed so radical and can now sell out Miller Theater. But if the audience is going back to this more traditional, accessible idiom, what does that really say about perceptual relativity? Will this more adventurous experimental music be easy on the ears in 50 years?

    BLS: You know it’s funny. Our ears are constantly being stretched. And as I pointed out earlier I think, a lot of music that people might consider not easy on the ears in a concert—dissonant, brash, angular, spiky, call it what you want —they will gladly listen to it, they won’t even notice they’re listening to it, in a film because they’re concentrating on the film and their emotions are pegged to the plot. But if you wrote a work that was like the film music, you know, completely different, and you played it for them, they might say, “Oh, I can’t listen to that.” Who knows?

    You know, Stravinsky, Bartók, this music was considered unlistenable when it was first produced. When The Rite of Spring was first performed, it created a riot. Bartók, there are still people today who think, “Oh, Bartók, I can’t sit through a whole evening. Oh no, no, no. The Miraculous Mandarin, oh, isn’t that really very loud?” I think that in 50 years, my goodness, when you consider amplification and people with their earphones playing loud heavy rhythmic music and this is how they go through their days, yeah, I do believe that the ears are constantly expanding because The Rite of Spring sounds perfectly mellow to our ears. Exciting. And even melodic. At the same time, I think that people have to understand also that the length of music is important. So many people today who listen to a lot of contemporary rock, they still are geared to the song, whether it’s a structure or just the timeframe of a song. It goes for a certain span of time, so many minutes. Not that many minutes, and then it fades out. Usually. Whereas a piece of concert music is much longer in duration, and it’s the scale rather than the musical language that is the great challenge. I think of the future. Will younger audiences who are so used to the constant shifting of imagery in film and television and video and the relative brevity of pop music pieces, will they expand their willingness to sit for something, to pay attention to something for that long? That’s the question.

    I don’t think it’s so much the musical language. I think dissonance is a relative thing. You know, why did minimalism become so popular originally? I think it was this change from the dissonance of post-war dodecaphony. Minimalism was tonal, very simple chords, and it didn’t make you cringe back in those days. It was easy to listen to. And it didn’t make demands, especially if you could sit back with various other stimuli to help the evening along, whether you smoked it or drank it. It all helped the sensibility. And I think that it does boil down to our constantly expanding willingness to hear combinations of notes, combinations of dynamic levels, and most importantly the span of a piece. The major challenge is if audiences will give their time to listening to a work, not really so much the kind of work it is. I mean, I listen to Varèse now and absolutely I’m thunderstruck by the incredible color, the incredible sounds—it’s so exciting. But you do have to have that willingness. I’m always hoping that people will read what I’ve written and say, “Let me give it a try.” Because those who know me well know what a romantic I am. That’s my natural inclination. But my goodness, listening to so many of these works has been such an absolute thrill because you hear the way instruments are used, you hear the way pitches are combined, and clusters, and, I mean, you can almost taste it, it’s so rich. That’s what’s so fascinating about this music.