Annie Gosfield: Ghosts in the Machine
Frank J. Oteri: You’ve done a lot of work with dance. How do those collaborations work?
Annie Gosfield: Choreographers and composers could have the best of intentions, but the relationship between music and dance usually isn’t equal. It’s a very visual medium and choreographers are used to having music that serves the dance. It’s been gratifying, but it can also be challenging, because you have to accept the fact that you’re not just writing music; you’re writing music for dance. It’s not a situation where I could ever say, “I think the jeté is coming too soon.” It can be totally thrilling to see beautiful choreography set to your music—it certainly brings it to life in a different way than writing just chamber music does. Still, I think there’s nothing wrong with not having an additional visual component. There’s so much emphasis on multimedia projects and video now, and though I think there’s a lot to be said for multi-media collaborations, we can’t forget that just going to see a concert can be really exciting, too.
FJO: Or listening to a recording. You have three beautifully packaged and recorded CDs out on Tzadik which are great calling cards for your work. If someone were to come to your music through those recordings, never having heard your music live, is that an equally valid way to partake in what you’re doing?
AG: Yes, I think my Tzadik CDs are a very good representation of what I do. John Zorn, as executive producer, has had some input on the repertoire on each CD, and he has helped me with some excellent choices. I think it’s important to see things live, but it’s great to have those CDs out as well.
FJO: Who do you think of as the ideal audience for this music when you’re creating it or performing it? Does a consideration about the audience even come into play for you?
AG: I don’t think very much about the audience. In general people are much more open about music than we credit them for. There’s a real trend to try to sell people on new music, to try to market it, and kind of codify and commodify it. I think in a lot of ways that’s unnecessary. If it’s interesting new music, it’s going to stand on its own and it’s going to be interesting to a lot more people than we expect. I don’t think people are as scared of new music as we think.
FJO: Yet new music often seems so marginal to the society at large.
AG: In a lot of ways new music is marginal to society at large, but I think that’s something we can work with. When I was starting out in the ’80s and ’90s composing music, there was no pie in the sky. There was no promise of making great money or getting famous. I think there was much less competition among composers because the feeling was that everybody was in it for the music. Nobody was going to get particularly rich. People were working in record stores, or working for organizations. It’s been important for me to try to maintain that ideal. I still think that nobody is going to get fabulously wealthy. You might land a good teaching job or get into film music where there’s more money to be made. I feel very lucky to be making a living just writing music. But I think I’ve gotten to that point by writing what’s really important to me and not trying to second-guess an audience. In general, people respond to what it is that everyone does that’s unique and genuine and well-crafted. So, it’s also important for me to always have time to develop a piece. Sometimes that means turning some work down, because I work slowly. I would make a very bad hack; I can’t just crank it out. Even though a lot of my music sounds noisy and cacophonous, it’s very carefully arranged. I can still be surprised at how labor-intensive the process can be.
FJO: Are you interested in ever writing for an orchestra?
AG: I’m actually writing a cello concerto for Felix Fan with the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra conducted by Kent Nagano, which is very exciting for me. But that has been a really interesting process because I’ve written a lot of music for cello in recent years, but the instrumentation is a wide expansion. I’ve gone from solo, duo, trio, and quartet. The solo cello piece was written for Joan Jeanrenaud; I learned so much about the cello from her. Nowadays, a lot of people ask me if I’m a cellist, which is probably because I’ve had the chance to write music for some great cellists who have left their mark on my music. At the moment I’m also working on a chamber cello concerto for the concert at Merkin in May, which is for string quartet including cello, bass, percussion, and piano. It’s kind of a perfect instrumentation; it’s been really fun to write for. So, it’s just been this odd succession of pieces that has been growing in forces with each piece.
FJO: So will the cello concerto involve microtonality in the orchestra, retuning, samplers, or other electronics, or is it a straight-ahead orchestration?
AG: I think what we’re going to do is have part of it for a conventional cello and part of it for an electric cello. This way if we want to experiment with scordatura and electronics, it will be with a separate instrument, so it will be very easy. Part of the problem of combining acoustic and electronic instruments is that you can wind up with a situation where it’s harder to get the work performed or where your rehearsal time is devoted to technical rather than musical issues. So, I’ve learned a lot in recent years to pare it down. The most important thing is to write the piece that you believe in and the piece that you want to hear, but you have to consider problematic issues as well. For years I wouldn’t write a piece for acoustic instrument and tape or CD or whatever format it happens to be at the moment. And after years of writing music that uses a sampler or a computer program that becomes archaic after a couple of years, I wrote Lost Signals and Drifting Satellites. It just seemed kind of elegant and simple to be able to write a piece for violin and tape. Sometimes the easier methods work.