Michael Tilson Thomas: Making Anything Sound Good

Michael Tilson Thomas
Interview Excerpt #4

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, it’s interesting taking it out of the music ghetto because in so many other worlds, in the art world, there’s a healthier dialogue between old and new. There are museums where you can see the great work of the past all over the world, and there are very lively gallery scenes in many communities where you can see the most cutting edge things. And in the publishing world, you can always buy the classic novels and classic poetry, but also the newest thing. But with our music culture, we lump old masterpieces and "oh we’re scared of that" new music together in a ghetto, and then there’s pop music which doesn’t connect to at all.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Well, musical civilization is certainly under attack partially because of the economics and commercialism associated with it. I have a terrible fear that ultimately, all musical moves will be gobbled up by the voracious maw of backbeat, and that’s all that will be left of music—DUMM, da-DUMM kuta DUMM, which will be a very sad thing. But you know in the contemporary art world, you pose a very interesting conundrum. All sorts of people collect very contemporary art, yet when it comes to the music which is analogous to that sort of art, they are not interested, or perhaps even hostile.


MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Why is that? Is it because, fine if you buy a very avant-garde picture of some sort, first of all, you have a sense that it’s worth something and it will become worth more. So that a lot of people have this oh wow, a lot must be good. Surely it must also partially be because the picture’s there and you can look at it, but you can also decide not to look at it.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well you know that’s interesting.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: But music is totally enveloping. That’s one of the things music does. It surrounds you, it comes right through all of your sound receptors into your neurons. It’s the closest thing to actual experience, actual emotional experience of some sort, which perhaps a lot of people don’t want. And it’s a very curious thing you know that I can sometimes be dining with people who are interested in music and interested in art and they will be talking about their Rauschenbergs and Twomblys, and whoever, whoever. And then when they talk about their musical likes, they’ll say they really like Andrea Bocelli

FRANK J. OTERI: [chuckling]

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: …and they like Kenny G


MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: They mention these things. And I’m somewhat taken aback because I don’t know how I could tell them that the visual equivalent of this sort of music that they like would be something like portraits of Elvis painted on velvet.

FRANK J. OTERI: [laughter]

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: There’s a tremendous disparity and discontinuity between where they are in their art taste and where they are in their musical taste and they don’t perhaps realize that it’s time for them to get past this.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well, you’ve now made me think about this in another way. Years ago, I got into a huge argument with somebody at a music management firm when there was the big Mondrian exhibition at MoMA in New York City. There were lines around the block to see Mondrian. And I said, why not produce a concert at Carnegie Hall of the complete music of Varèse. You’d have a line around the block, too. And she went off. "Music doesn’t work that way." Because you have to sit there and listen to it; whereas, with art you can look at it and walk away. But, if you’re buying a painting, you have to live with that painting in your home for the rest of your life. But a piece of music that’s distasteful on first listening will probably only last about 25 minutes. If you’ve got a painting that is the visual equivalent of something very disturbing in music and you have it in your home–and I never thought about this before–you’re looking at it for the rest of your life. But of course the more you look at something, the more you can explore the exciting things that are in there that you might not see initially. And I imagine if somebody were to hear a piece of music by Varèse fifteen times that was off-putting the first time, by the fifteenth time I think most people would find it beautiful.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Yes, but, you know, a painting by Mondrian, particularly a middle or late work of Mondrian, is a kind of design and it is there and you can look at it and appreciate it, but as I say, you can look away from it. And even if you are living with it, it is an element of the picture of the entire room. It’s more like sound design or something. It’s there. It’s a kind of an environmental element. Now, on the other hand, if you were living in a room with a picture, a more representational picture that showed, some very emotionally bared side of human nature, like for example The Scream by Edvard Munch, I think a lot of people, as much as they admire that picture would find it tough to be in the room with that. And there are tough pictures lots of great artists.

FRANK J. OTERI: certainly Lucien Freud

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS:Francis Bacon… Great stuff, but even as much as I admire his work, I’m not sure I could exist with it all the time. Something in that maybe tells us something about what goes on with music. Yes, Arcana, Hyperprism, whatever Varèse pieces, are these amazing statements, but they are very much in your face. They really kind of get into your nerve fiber and wrench it apart. That’s the ecstatic and violent nature of what they do. That’s not necessarily the experience that people want to live with at home. Moreover, it doesn’t do what certain aspects of pop music do because pop music does the same thing over and over and over again so that you know each song is kind of a particular place. But, of course, with pop music as indeed with a lot of contemporary music, I mean there’s the issue also of how loud it is.


MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Extreme volume in music very often disguises a lack of actually important content. So a lot of music is listened to at such a high volume level you’re just aware of hearing these big assaults of sound. If suddenly you heard that without the amplification, in most cases, you’d say, oh, but it’s just one chord, not even one chord, one sort-of detuned chord. There’s no real melody; there’s no real harmony; there’s no real anything and if someone’s not screaming at the top of their voice "BACK OFF AND GET AGAINST THE WALL" whatever and you say "back off and get against the wall" Wait a minute what are we really listening to? And, although many of my friends in the art world disagree with this, I say that the same thing is really true in contemporary art with scale. We go to exhibitions and we see these huge room-sized metal rectangles with one corner slightly shaved down and we’re supposed to stand in awe of this thing because it’s the size of a freight train. Where if we saw that same piece you know on top of the desk we’d say "Uh, oh, yeah, uh-huh, fine, onward."


MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: You know that’s the equivalent of hearing somebody playing an out of tune g-minor chord at such a level that it would threaten to shatter the features of the presidents of Mount Rushmore.

FRANK J. OTERI: So you have people who are weaned on music that’s like this. And you bring them into the concert hall and you’ve certainly done a better job at bringing these folks into the concert than almost anybody. How does the experience translate? You did a concert with the members of the Grateful Dead at one point, which was great in terms of outreach. But, ultimately, what is the lure? How do you bring in this audience and what do you do to keep them there once they’ve shown up for a concert?

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: The mixture of music is provoking, I mean, it’s highly contrasted, but there’s always at least one piece on the program which is an uncontestable masterpiece. That is to say that the piece pays off big in all departments in its intellectual and emotional power. And in it’s witnessing to a very gripping personal vision. The presence of that piece and then the presence of the other pieces on the program–if all of them, as I say animated by really convincing performances–takes people on a kind of journey even within that concert and now people are accustomed to that idea that the experience will be of that kind of level of intensity and that’s what they seem to like.

FRANK J. OTERI: And have you noticed, I mean it’s hard to look out from the stage when you’re conducting, but have you noticed people coming to more standard programs who are younger people…

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: The audience is getting younger and more people are there. We have a 2700-seat house, we do four programs a week. I think the average attendance is you know 93% or 94%.

FRANK J. OTERI: That’s fantastic.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: It’s really very gratifying. But some people will say you just did these programs. Well, yes, the programs are important and I’m proud of the programs, but mostly I’m proud of the way the San Francisco Symphony plays these programs. Because those programs, if not played with that kind of conviction, would never be able to attract the audience’s attention in the way that they do.