Michael Tilson Thomas: Making Anything Sound Good

Michael Tilson Thomas: Making Anything Sound Good

Michael Tilson Thomas
Interview Excerpt #9

FRANK J. OTERI: In all your time traveling, conducting various orchestras and composing, do you have time to listen to music? Do you spend time listening to recordings? I know that you’ve said that you believe that a recording should be listened to five times and then self-destruct.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Well I think like everybody, there are a few CDs which become a part of one’s life. And for me, most of those are chamber music, early music, some vocal music. Because since everyday I’m rehearsing a lot of music, and I also study a lot of music so that there are so many musical ideas that it’s not my idea of relaxation to go home and listen to music.

FRANK J. OTERI: And you certainly wouldn’t listen to a piece that you’re working on…

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: No, I wouldn’t do that. I might late in the evening listen to something like the Tallis Lamentations of Jeremiah or the Josquin Pange Lingua, or something from the Libre Vermel, or some recordings of Balinese bamboo gamelan or something like that. Something that’s completely outside of what I’ve done. Of course I have certain heroes in American pop music, like Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro particularly, whose humanity still means a great, great deal to me.

FRANK J. OTERI: I know you were once an avid record collector and would bring records to Leonard Bernstein of various rock bands, and soul groups…

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Folkloric things too. Lot of things from other musical cultures. We enjoyed listening to those things.

FRANK J. OTERI: Do you listen to any recent rock bands at all? Do you keep up with that world at all?

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: When I’m driving I do. I tend to just sort of sweep through the different FM rock and roll channels when I’m in the car. I don’t tend to listen to it at home so much. And I listen to some of the hip-hop channels. There are some groups, incredible groups that are so much more interesting, that are really kind of out there that I have this problem of trying to find "What are those groups?" Because of course especially in San Francisco there are amazing radio stations playing VERY obscure, wonderful stuff. It’s hard to say that between 4:17 and 4:23, there was something on–what was it? But, it’s exciting, it’s, it’s still fun and interesting. I think, with respect to pop music, it’s a little sad that elements of melody and harmony have kind of declined. You know maybe sometime in the 70s, maybe into the early 80s it sort of peaked, and that now that this music is about all kinds of invention, but the invention seems to be more in other areas. You know very, very complex production. The whole rap thing. It will be interesting to see in the course of time whether that music actually will sustain, because the great old pop tunes became standards because a lot people could do them. They didn’t have to be done in just that arrangement.

FRANK J. OTERI: Does anybody do cover versions of other people’s raps?

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Undoubtedly, there are a few isolated examples, but also does it become something that people sing at home? Or are they ever going to get back to that point… There are certain songs that mean so much to me, that are so perfect and some of those are by people like Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, Carole King, a lot of the rhythm and blues songwriters.

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