An interview with the author of Sondheim on Music: Minor Details and Major Decisions
Amanda MacBlane: I know that this book is part of a larger project that you’ve been working on at the Library of Congress and I was wondering if you could start by explaining how this book came about from the other work you’ve been doing.
Mark Eden Horowitz: Well, that’s not really true, or it’s not exactly how I would put it. Part of my job here at the Music Division is to work on both acquiring and processing special collections, which are usually the papers of either a composer or a performer. My specialty is American musical theatre so most of the collections that I’ve worked on have been those collections, and I’ve been talking with Sondheim for a long time about his papers coming to the library. He had agreed, and the plan is that they will be bequest to us. It occurred to me that in preparation for someday (hopefully many, many years in the future) when the collection comes to us, I really wanted to have some explication from him about it—when people are looking at his manuscripts, what they should know about his process and what the things meant. So that was when I applied for a grant to do these interviews and I got it and he agreed to participate. We’ve never really done anything exactly like this before and I don’t know if we’ll ever do anything exactly like this again, although a colleague now has done something similar with Roger Reynolds. I think Reynolds has also planned to give us his papers—in fact, he’s started to—and I know that my colleague has done a series of interviews with him and I think that was inspired, at least in some part, by my project. So it would be great if we could do more things like this, but I don’t know that there are a lot of musical theatre composers who require this, where it would be as fruitful as it is with Sondheim. I’ve worked on the Richard Rodgers collection here and as much as I would’ve loved the opportunity to interview him, I don’t know that he thought about the process with the same intellectuality that Sondheim does.
Amanda MacBlane: After all, we have to remember that Sondheim is a Babbitt student! He definitely has a strong base in theory.
Mark Eden Horowitz: Yeah.
Amanda MacBlane: So how did you go about preparing for these interviews?
Mark Eden Horowitz: I spent three days in New York and was given free access to his manuscripts and I went through them a box at a time and made notes and photocopies as I saw things that I was curious about. It was literally, “I wonder what that meant?” or “I think I know what that means, but I’m not sure” or things that looked interesting or surprised me—anything like that. So that was the first step, and then I came back and started organizing what I’d done and started coming up with questions. I also wrote to several people soliciting their input, people who I thought were the kind of people that I hoped that ultimately this book would serve—musical directors, conductors who specialize in musical theatre. I guess one of the surprises was that I got very little response from that. But in the end, I had about 25 pages worth of notes (mostly questions) that I took with me when we went to do the interviews, and I would spend probably an hour each morning before we started pulling the boxes and using post-its so the manuscripts would be ready as we started and so I could go as quickly as I could through the things and find them. Then I just did the interview. But I think the thing that I did best was listen. As I think I said in the intro, if he had something that he wanted to say, I would do my best not to interrupt and I would just sort of nod encouragingly and try and get him to talk as much as possible. So much of what was said had nothing to do with the questions that I prepared, or sometimes things came out of what he said or if I didn’t understand or wasn’t clear I would try to get him to clarify something. So that was the basic process. Then, when I came back to the library (there was no idea that this would be a book) but wanted to transcribe them, just because I thought it was important to have a transcription. And the more I transcribed the more I thought that this was information that would be of value to a wider range of people. My greatest hope is that it will be read by a next generation of composers who will be inspired and try different and new things because of this. Then I found a publisher and Sondheim agreed. And the best thing then was that he was wonderful at going over the transcripts and improving them.
Amanda MacBlane: Yeah, I liked all the little notes that he would write in. “After reflection, I feel that this note actually meant this.”
Mark Eden Horowitz: [laughs] Well, most of that stuff was actually at the time, most of the corrections are very specific things that, if he couldn’t remember a certain word, or just wanted to make sure that what he was saying was as clear as possible. So it was sometimes things like, “you could read these notes as _____” is what he said, and in the corrections, “You can read down these notes as _____,” just so it’s clear what direction you were going. I mean some of it was just very minute stuff like that, just to make sure that it was absolutely understandable. And I think there’s no better copyeditor in the world, he also added and deleted commas and things like that.
Amanda MacBlane: And certainly for a book that is so heavily theory-based it reads so smoothly. This book is incredibly complete in a lot of ways. For the interviews, I know that you said that you weren’t able to get to the earlier works just because of time and resource restraints, but they really are dealt with in a lot of ways. And the details on the shows you do address are incredibly rich. Now, the “Songs I wish I’d written” list is something that is really fascinating to me. Where did the list came from?
Mark Eden Horowitz: The story is actually kind of interesting. In our Coolidge Auditorium here we have quite an important concert series that has gone on for many decades and we’ve done many premieres. We did the premiere of Appalachian Spring here and, in fact, it was written specifically for our space. And as the library’s relationship with Sondheim had grown we started talking to him about the idea that we’d like to do a concert and we’d kicked around some ideas and when we were finally trying to narrow it down, we decided we wanted to do something for his 70th birthday. One of the ideas that he had initially been very responsive to was a sort of “Sondheim Introduces…” concert. It was going to present the next generation of songwriters, because we know he’s involved a lot with ASCAP and other organizations and sees things that the younger people are writing. He seemed enthusiastic at first about adding his weight behind some new people that he thought were exciting. So that was an initial idea that he was excited about, when it came time to do the 70th anniversary concert he had decided that there really weren’t enough new, young people that he was excited about to warrant a concert. So, then the idea began morphing to sort of a “desert island” concert. I mean, there’s been so people just doing Sondheim greatest hits events, and we knew that he sat through so many of those that we wanted to do something that would be more pleasurable for him, that he would enjoy. This seemed to be something that he enjoyed and he got involved and just started faxing me with some songs and I started compiling them. He was the one that came up with the title of “Songs I Wish I’d Written” and then decided to add, “at least in part,” and he was very excited about that. So, ultimately, it was a list of 55 total and we selected 15 of them for the concert. So he would give me song titles, and I would get the information about the composer, the lyricist, what show it was, and what year it was and I made this nice listing. What was somewhat frustrating was when the article ran in The New York Times, Sondheim said, “The New York Times asked me if you could send them this list,” which I did and then they published it! So I kind of felt like they stole our thunder a little bit, but that was the source for it. And I think he in no way intends for it to be a complete list, but it’s certainly an interesting one.
Amanda MacBlane: And what choices were you most surprised by?
Mark Eden Horowitz: There were certainly songs on there that I would not have guessed at. There were some that didn’t surprise me at all. I knew he was a big Arlen fan and most of those were great songs, but some of the funnier, lighter songs I was surprised by, like Cy Coleman’s “Real Live Girl.” It just wasn’t what I would’ve associated that with him.
Amanda MacBlane: You’ve obviously been involved in many aspects of Sondheim’s work. You’re trained as a composer, right?
Mark Eden Horowitz: I was a music minor in college, I was a theatre major and I did write a couple of musicals. I mostly studied musical composition, but I regret to say that now I write very little. I think I wrote the first thing in a long time last year, so I don’t want to pretend I’m a composer, but…
Amanda MacBlane: But you certainly have the background to be able to understand this from a composer’s perspective and I am sure that you’ve looked at Sondheim’s music before.
Mark Eden Horowitz: Oh, constantly!
Amanda MacBlane: And I also know that you were involved in putting together productions of his works before you came to the Library of Congress. So after spending three days with him, what new perspectives did you gain on his work, his shows, his ideas, and how he goes about things?
Mark Eden Horowitz: I think that I always knew that there was far more thought and intellect that went into the work than most people realized, but the thing that surprised me—which is that other side of that, which I really hadn’t expected—was when he talks about the unconscious and the subconscious and how that makes things happen or puts things together. That surprised me. I knew that each of his scores had a unique sound, but the idea had not occurred to me before that, as he puts it, he lives in that one world or that one universe for a year or whatever it takes to write a score and he tries to avoid distractions. And it’s hard for him to go back and revise a show because it’s hard to get back into that world and musical language that he had been living in while he was writing it. I found that fascinating and surprising.
Amanda MacBlane: You mentioned before how a project like this might not work with other musical theatre composers, but you’ve been involved as an archivist for a number of composer collections of the biggest names in American musical theatre. Why does something like this work best with Sondheim, and what other steps have you taken with other composers.
Mark Eden Horowitz: The collection I’m working on now and which I’ve been working on now for a few years is Leonard Bernstein and that probably comes closest to what I’ve seen in Sondheim in that there really are sketches that are theoretical. I don’t know if there’s a better way to put it. For most of the other composers’ music manuscripts I’ve seen, the sketches are mainly melodic with occasional notes about harmony, but with Sondheim what seems very unusual is the amount sketching, the amount of accompaniment figure sketching, the amount of playing with ideas and concepts in the sketching. Lenny’s the only one who sort of seems to come closest to that and the surprising thing is there really isn’t that much of it in him. It’s only in certain works that I really find that there is a lot of sketching and playing with musical ideas. Most of his sketches tend to be fairly melodic based. In one of his ballets that I was just working on, there was just page after page of working with rows and with themes, things that I was surprised to see, that I had not seen much example of before in Bernstein. Most theatre composers don’t seem to think about it as intellectually. Most of the sketching—and in no way to belittle it—is just different.
Amanda MacBlane: I really like the point in the book where Sondheim points out that he’s not just the composer and the lyricist, but he also conceptualizes the entire show and he gets frustrated with lyricists and composers who don’t put the accents on words in the proper places. He is so completely involved in all of these shows. He’s really an auteur, which makes him standout in the American musical theatre tradition…So, looking to the future, do you have any more projects that you would like to work on with Sondheim’s work?
Mark Eden Horowitz: [laughs] Well, I plan to keep up with this whole list and discography. Any encounters that I have with him have always been fascinating and revealing. I am trying and hoping to get related collections, so for instance, we’ve been in discussions with Jonathan Tunick, so that hopefully his papers and manuscripts will come to the library. Actually this summer I did a series of videotaped interviews with him. But they are a different kind, so I don’t think they would work as a book, but I think they will be of interest to people who come to study Tunick, including his relationship with Sondheim. I just hope we continue to do more.
Amanda MacBlane: And of course Sondheim’s not done yet…