Michael Tilson Thomas: Making Anything Sound Good

Michael Tilson Thomas
Interview Excerpt #7

FRANK J. OTERI: I wanted to talk a bit about your work as a composer and how that informs your conducting and how your conducting informs your composition. Now you’re obviously so super busy, it’s very hard to find time to compose music. But I really enjoy your Whitman Songs a lot and I really enjoy Agnegram. I believe that being a composer has informed a lot of the decisions you’ve made about repertoire. A lot of your advocacy comes from being someone who understands this music from the other side of the composer…

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: I hope so, I mean of course my whole history as a composer was really as a child, that’s what I mostly did. I improvised and played my own music. Then as I got involved with the whole avant-garde world, I tried to create music which was in that sort of musical language. I did create some musical pieces in that sort of musical language, but that really is not me. My music is a continuation of the whole Yiddishkite-American Broadway intelligentsia sort of way of thinking about things. And finally, I’ve been able to get back to a place in my life that it’s clear to me what my music is about. So therefore, in these last years, I’ve been doing more pieces again and I’m now in the process of changing my life quite radically. I’m not going to work in the summer. I’m not going to perform in the summer anymore and see if I can get myself into a schedule of every year having a block of time to turn out one or two new pieces.


MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: So, that’s a commitment on my part, but all the way along, I would say that as I was looking at pieces by new composers, or by dead composer or premiers, whatever, that certainly I had a sense of looking at the piece and seeing a certain design in the piece and seeing the decisions that were happening and being very aware of focusing the performance in such a way as to make those issues clear and in some cases, perhaps avoid some of the pitfalls that were inherent in the piece. Many composers with whom I’ve worked with the most happily, Steve Reich, Steve Mackey, just to name two, David Del Tredici, I mean I keep thinking of others, were composers with whom I talked about these pieces as they were being created. And I wouldn’t say that I unduly influenced the creation of those pieces, but I was enthusiastic. I was a kind of spirited cheerleader, saying: "That’s wonderful; that’s a great idea…" or something like that. Certainly if they asked questions about if something would be better in this meter or that meter or you know which way would you like to cope with these problems and I was of course very happy to be a part of the process, but I think just that I was interested in the pieces even before they came into existence was an important thing ‘cuz gosh knows, I know my own writing. You get to this point and you’re not sure which way to turn or how economically or extravagent the solution should be. There are always so many possibilities and it can help very much to have the ear and the advice of a colleague whose instincts you trust.

FRANK J. OTERI: And certainly as a composer, you’ve done things that have grown out of your experience as a performer. You know what works with an audience. And I thought it was wonderful how you were saying at the end of Viva Voce that we often forget that music is entertainment, that it is show business in part. And what I thought was so wonderful, to get to a detail in Agnegram, the whole piece is based on this notion that I love to call "pitchtalk," where you have the letters of pitches on the staff spell out something, so in a way, it’s very formulaic and very structured and very mathematical, but it’s a very audience friendly piece!

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: It’s a romp basically.

FRANK J. OTERI: So what kind of projects are you working on? Are you writing that trombone concerto you mentioned?

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: That will happen, but I think this summer I’m going to be completing a cycle of songs I’m writing for Renée Fleming and then working on also a kind of keyboard and winds and percussion thing that has strangely come into existence. [laughter] Sometimes these things have a way of just appearing. I can’t control it.

FRANK J. OTERI: After the hearing the Whitman cycle, I’m very curious to hear you do an even larger scale work, like an opera. Is that something that you might consider at some point?

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: I would consider writing an opera, but my God, I’d have to really take, that’s sort of like a taking a year or two off to write something like that. I have certain ideas about how a piece like that would need to look. There are many things about opera I love and many things about it that make me very impassionate and I need to try to figure out a way to solve some of those things. But, singable music, even if it’s written for instruments, is a very big part of my way of thinking. As a pianist, I can get all the help over the keyboard at producing very virtuoso, abstract gestures. But finally what’s interesting for me is what sticks with you. I think there is a gestural sense in music whether it’s connected with the melody or harmony or whatever it is, rhythm certainly, that can stick with you. In the old days, Olly Knussen and I used to amuse each other by singing late Stravinsky pieces. You know, you could sing through the Huxley Variations or The Flood. Because as abstract as they are, they have a very clear profile of what the large gesture of the piece is. That’s very important to me for music to have that or for my own music to have the possibility of being able to sing it, by which I mean singing or making your way through the musical gestures of the piece from beginning to end is very important. And I give my music this sort of trial by bathtub. I mean, I sing the music in the bathtub or the shower or as I’m walking and if I can sing it, if I can follow its contours straight through, then I know that I’m on the track that I need to be. And if I come to a point that I say "ah, er, um, what happens there, how do I," if I can’t find it anywhere in my voice, or in my ability to snap my fingers, or whatever, then I think "uhhh, well, that’s gotta be revisited; that’s not quite right."

FRANK J. OTERI: This is something that I think the best music of anytime has, the ability to be singable and to be memorable, to flow naturally. Somebody may hear it and maybe somebody who isn’t very adept musically can’t hum it back precisely, but there’s some kind of reminiscence of it.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Right, something sticks in you.


MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: For me it’s very important what remains after the music has stopped. When the silence returns, something happened to the listener because of hearing that music. And there is some residue of the music somewhere in them. In their hearts or in their minds and certainly in their memories is a very good place for it to be. I still remember hearing the Berg Violin Concerto for the first time and even from that first performance, I of course remembered that ländler tune that is the end of the first and the last movement. And the haunted mood of it. Much of the rest of the piece was of course beyond my ability to appreciate or take in, but nonetheless, those few little moments that even that first time I can think "Ahh, wow" that’s beautiful brought me back to that piece and made me recognize that the composer was saying something which was enormously relevant…

FRANK J. OTERI: Well yeah, the Berg Violin Concerto, a perfect example of a piece that operates on so many levels. I remember the first time I heard the Berg Violin Concerto and the opening violin melody stuck in my head. That was a 12-tone row and voilà and there it was, but it was singable. And, it’s very difficult to be able to succeed on that level, to write something that has that intellectual rigor, but at the same time is so emotional. I remember it and you remember it because it’s heart wrenching.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Sure, now of course you’re talking somebody who is to me one of the great masters of music of all time. In what I’m doing, I’m trying to write this music that is a kind of reflection of the way life feels to me and the way I’m mostly going to do it is by writing something which on the surface doesn’t seem to be that big a deal, doesn’t seem to be that serious, but perhaps inside of its ingenuousness has a bit more to say than people would at first suspect. That’s the kind of piece I’m trying to create.