An Interview with Robert Morris


For me, performing Bob Morris’s music is a tricky balancing act. The score is very, very specific in terms of pitch, rhythm, dynamics, and phrasing. I suppose most musical scores are, but for me, the experience of performing Morris’s music is special. Here, the key is to adhere to the particulars of the score and still avoid sounding mechanical and listless. In fact, the challenge is not simply to avoid a cold reading of the score’s details, but to use its very specificity to inspire a special kind of sound. The Eastman BroadBand performed Robert Morris’s chamber work Roundelay in programs at the Eastman School of Music on October 31, and at the Cervantino Festival in Guanajuato on November 5. Morris’s notes about the work read:

Roundelay, as the title implies, has a returning feature—a polyrhythmic rocking starts and ends the piece as well as punctuates the flow; another form of return involves the interplay of lighter, transparent passages for one or two instruments, versus thicker, more complex moments for all six instruments. The piece has affinities with an earlier piece (1994) of mine for the same instrumental combination called Broken Concert in Three Parts. In that piece, three pairs of instruments share the same material; in Roundelay, each instrument has its own material, consisting of characteristic gestures, rhythms, and harmonies.

Furthermore, a “roundelay” is a 16th-century song or poem in which a line or phrase is repeated as the refrain. My piece’s rondo-like features are relatively rare in my music. The connection to “broken consort” (another 16th-century musical term) goes back even to earlier works (Traces for flute and piano, and Pari Passu for violin and percussion). In the last 10 years of composition I often write pieces that reflect on aspects of earlier works, a sort-of intertextuality where one piece of music connects with another. This may change the way you hear the referential, earlier piece, too.

Morris has written extensively and beautifully about his own music, and was kind enough to correspond with me about this work.


DH: What do you imagine is the main difficulty in interpreting and performing the piece? Does it call for any special skill or attitude from the players?

RM: Roundelay is moderately difficult for new music players, but not as hard as some of my solo pieces, or those of composers writing in the new complexity movement. The main thing is to play musically with rubato within the pretty specific rhythmic notations found in the score. (In any case, there isn’t much precise homophony or homorhythm in the piece.)

DH: Would an audience benefit from any special preparation before listening to Roundelay?

RM: The program notes will help. But an open mind is the essential requirement. Also, thinking of music as flow, rather than as musical things in certain formal arrangements, gets closer to my intentions. In general, my music is designed so each listener can have a different set of impressions and perceptions of the same piece—like in a garden, where one can take different paths, have different views, and even make different uses of the same place, except my piece is in motion rather than relatively unchanging.

DH: In a 2001 interview with 21st Century Music, you refer to an essay you wrote to accompany a piano piece, Meandering River. The excerpt compares a hiker’s experience of a river—its constant changes, its mossy banks home to insects and frogs—to a listener’s experience of music. In what way does the comparison apply to Roundelay?

RM: This is like the garden metaphor except in Meandering River the experience is a little more rugged, bordering on bushwhacking. All these outdoor images and similes are meant to suggest something of a person’s relationship to the outdoors and to nature itself.

Here’s another way to intimate the same type of experience. Shunryu Suzuki roshi, a Soto Zen master, has said, “Whatever we see is changing, losing its balance. The reason everything looks beautiful is because it is out of balance, but its background is always in perfect harmony.”

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Professor Robert Morris has served on the faculty at the Eastman School of Music since 1980. Before his appointment at Eastman, Morris taught composition, electronic music, and music theory at the University of Hawaii and at Yale University, where he was Chairman of the Composition Department and Director of the Yale Electronic Music Studio. He was also Director of the Computer and Electronic Studio, Director of Graduate (music) Studies, and Associate Professor of Music at the University of Pittsburgh.

Visit Robert Morris’s website for more information about his work. There, you will find the full text of the 2001 interview with 21st Century Music.