Five Questions with Ned Rorem



Photo by Josh Mitchell

On the publication of The Ned Rorem Reader.

Molly Sheridan: To start, you’ve been really prolific as a composer and as a writer, so I’m curious what you think are some of the most important things you’ve created, whether that’s a work of prose or a work of music?

Ned Rorem: It’s not for me to review my own work and it’s not for me to assess my own work, so I can’t answer that question. I’m a composer who also writes, as opposed to a writer who also composes, and I wouldn’t presume to say what’s the most important or valuable thing. A lot of the things that I’ve done in the past that I thought were marvelous aren’t and there are other early pieces I’ve done, the songs for example, I wish I could do that now, but I did it then so I can’t do it again necessarily.

Next question.

Molly Sheridan: Is there or has there ever been an overall theme that you’ve been trying to express either in your prose or in your music?

Ned Rorem: [Pause] No. And I don’t know what music expresses. Prose is something. The two things are rather unrelated. As I always like to say: If the arts could express each other we’d only need one art, so music and prose are not the same thing. Music doesn’t have any meaning, and if it does no one can prove it. By meaning I mean intellectual meaning. And it certainly can’t mean specific things like Tuesday, or Jennifer, or green, or it can’t even mean general things like death or the wind. People can say it does but we only know it from what they say in words. So music is arguably the most persuasive and moving of the arts but nobody knows quite why. And as for my prose, about 50 percent of it is autobiographical in one way or another so it expresses what I’m thinking at the moment, but I also did a memoir so it’s what I was thinking in the past decades too. But I wouldn’t say that there is an overall thing that I’m trying to express. I don’t know if you could get an artist to tell you that. He would simply express the truth as he knows it, but he wouldn’t be able to define it except through his works. The work defines itself.

Molly Sheridan: Some composers have tried to explain their themes to me in words, but others just say to listen to the music…

Ned Rorem: When composers tell me these things my mind sort of wanders. I’m not really interested in what they say about their work since their work speaks so much louder than they do.

Molly Sheridan: Talking a little bit about your diaries. You must have shifted at some point when as you were writing them you had the foreknowledge that they would likely be published. Did that change what or how you wrote?

Ned Rorem: Yeah, definitely. Because when I first was writing the diaries, I mean, anything that anybody writes is for an audience. You’re writing it for an audience even though the audience might be yourself ten years later. But once I realized that all this madness was going to published and that future diaries were likely to be published, I took not necessarily a different slant about the text but about my style and so forth and I think that my prose got a little bit more tailored and careful. Not in the theme or what I was trying to say, but in the way I was saying it. At the same time my music got a little bit more adventuresome, so that the “good Ned” of the music and the “bad Ned” of the diaries crossed each other in a mirror so to speak and interchanged, but again I say that with hindsight and I think I’m still pretty much the same.

Molly Sheridan: Did you miss not having a diary that you were writing more for yourself?

Ned Rorem: No. I don’t write all that much anymore. I’ve said almost everything I have to say, in both music and words. But I’ll probably continue as long as people ask for it.

Molly Sheridan: One last question. Of the composers who are coming up, is there anyone whose work you are especially interested in following?

Ned Rorem: Let me say first in general that I think that the state of music, serious contemporary classical music, is very threatened. I think the whole world is becoming so vulgarized, so commercialized. I’m hard put to even name a composer writing in France today, let alone Japan or Hungary. But I think that America with all of its vulgarity is the most interesting country today. So that’s the general.

Specifically yes, although young people are notorious for not knowing anything about anything, the ones that I’ve seen know a lot about a lot of things. I know handpicked kids from the