In Conversation with Walter Simmons
An interview with the author of Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers.
Molly Sheridan: With a multi-volume project proposed, of which this volume is the first, you’re obviously quite dedicated to this subject matter. What are your own personal/professional motivations for this?
Walter Simmons: My motives are really stated in the book’s introduction: I have been passionately drawn to the music of these composers—whom I call “20th-century traditionalists”—since I was a teenager. Having studied it pretty intensively over the years, I became tired of the superficial, simplistic way this repertoire is treated in most reference books and other musicological texts. I believe that these composers deserve to be taken seriously, which means that their entire outputs need to be analyzed, digested, and assessed, and then discussed from that perspective. That is what I am trying to do in my series.
MS: Why these six representatives? Who were you most disappointed not to be able to include?
WS: The six composers chosen for Voices in the Wilderness—Bloch, Hanson, Giannini, Creston, Barber, and Flagello—are all neo-romantics. The subsequent volumes in the “Twentieth-Century Traditionalists” series will deal with other stylistic subdivisions. The only neo-romantics I would have liked to include but didn’t are still living. I made the decision to include only deceased composers, because I really wanted to have their entire outputs to deal with. A secondary reason for this decision, to tell you the truth, is that I have become fed up with composers whose music I have written admiringly of complaining essentially that my writing isn’t “admiring enough.” One composer (who shall be nameless) complained, when I described his gift for melodies that are irresistibly “pretty,” “if you can’t call it ‘beautiful,’ I’d rather you say nothing at all.” That sort of did it for me.
Interestingly, most of the reviews of my book have commented favorably on the fact that I don’t extol the virtues of these composers without reservation. Each of them has weaknesses as well as strengths, and some works are less effective or less fully realized than others. Part of “taking them seriously” means facing these realities squarely, and I don’t shy away from doing this. But it is hard for living composers to be “objective” about this sort of thing.
MS: You mention that you had some personal contact with the composers, like Creston (the section we’ve excerpted here). Any anecdotes to share?
WS: So many, I wouldn’t know where to begin. Originally, I had planned to include my personal impressions and reminiscences of the composers in Voices. But then I decided, it’s one thing to tell anecdotes about well-established composers, but another to do so with composers I’m trying to draw positive attention to. It’s usually after a composer becomes established that anecdotes are of any interest and begin to appear. I’m afraid I have to say, after many decades in this business, that composers tend not to be the most wonderful people—they’re not the type who win “humanitarian” awards, but no one cares about that if their music turns out to be great. I think that the shrewd reader of my book will pick things up from “between the lines,” so to speak.
MS: When you’re at a party and you see a colleague cringing over the term neo-romantic, how do you counter their perceptions/prejudices?
WS: Well, to tell you the truth, this doesn’t happen very often anymore. Thirty-five years ago, when I was doing my graduate work in theory and musicology, it happened quite often—among faculty and other students—and I was quite belligerent about it and relished every opportunity to shoot down such people to the best of my ability. However, in recent years—no doubt partly because I am in more control of whom I spend my time with—I rarely encounter this sort of thing. The most common reaction I get is along the lines of, “It’s about time someone did what you’re doing.” In fact, it was just this sort of encouragement that I was receiving from many sources that finally led me to make the commitment to undertake this project.
MS: Since you preface the book with an argument that these composers have been locked out of the academy, what sorts of lessons do they offer today’s composers and students? What have we missed?
WS: I’m not sure I fully understand what you’re asking here, but if I do, I think the main lesson (one that is hardly original, yet needs to be re-learned by every generation) is that musical fashion is transitory—what is “in” today will be “out” tomorrow, and vice versa. But “real” composers ignore fashion and follow only their inner truths. Another lesson—equally unoriginal—to be learned from the days of serialist hegemony is, you can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all the people all of the time. Also, that “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is a metaphor that never loses its relevance.
MS: Speaking of, you classify Carter as a serialist, which is unusual. Why?
WS: Although Carter may not have embraced strict serial procedures, I think that he has been influenced by serialist principles of compositional control and, most importantly, by a general vocabulary of sounds that, in a broad sense, associate him with that group of composers.
MS: You cite modern music trends of mid-century as the reason for audience decline. How does this differ from other modern performing arts as far as their relationship with public?
WS: As many before me have pointed out, people go to the theater chiefly to see new plays—old ones are called “revivals.” Ditto new movies, new novels. And the reactions of audiences are clearly taken into consideration when new productions are planned. It’s largely in music where the central diet consists of “revivals,” and where new pieces are presented with little concern for audience reactions—at least this was the case 40 years ago, maybe less so today.
MS: I like your argument that it’s not a race to a musical end point. When you survey the scene today, do you think that’s as much of an issue as it was during the height of serialism? What should our artistic goals be?
WS: No, this “linear progress” fallacy does not seem to be as much of an issue today as it was 30-40 years ago—this is a change I heartily welcome! I think the main goal of art is to comment meaningfully—through whatever medium—on the central issues of the human condition: love/hate, mortality/immortality, God or the absence thereof, anguish/exaltation, and the myriad subtleties that these issues touch upon. Others may feel differently, but this is what I value, this is what I look for, and this is what offers meaning to my life.