Bernard Rands: Complex Beauty
A conversation at Rands’s home in downtown Chicago: January 4, 2012—2:00 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Bernard Rands navigates a variety of dualities both in his music and in his personal life. For someone approaching 80-years old, he is amazingly youthful and vigorous. While this in some part might be attributable to his marriage to a much younger composer, Augusta Read Thomas, it is also because he is steadfast in his routines and is constantly seeking and engaging with new ideas. Every night between 2:00 and 4:00 a.m. he breaks up his sleep to read for two hours. He also constantly looks at art and listens to recordings as well as live performances. It helps that he resides in one of the world’s great cities—Chicago—and that he lives just down the street from both the Art Institute of Chicago and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Yet his home is also bursting with shelves stocked with art monographs, scores, and books of all kinds; it’s the kind of place one could spend weeks in and never feel the need to leave. Despite his home seeming so rooted, Rands has never lived in one place for a very long time. Since coming to the United States in 1975, he has been based in San Diego, Philadelphia, Cambridge, and now the Windy City.
All of this inevitably shows up in his music, not just the intense love for literature (perhaps best manifested in his landmark Canti Trilogy) and painting (his Van Gogh-inspired opera Vincent, which was produced at Indiana University last year), but also his simultaneous adherence to traditions and the need to move away from them. On the one hand, his music clearly has come out of the milieu of European high modernism—he went through Darmstadt and was championed by Boulez and Berio early on. Yet at the same time he has a great love for earlier music and keeps his ear attuned to music of other genres as well—at one point in our talk he brought up the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. At times, his own music can be unapologetically tonal.
Some of his European colleagues have claimed that coming to America might have somewhat softened his modernist rigor. But Rands will have none of that:
That acerbic rough-tough composer that I used to be in the ‘60s has gone to America and sold out. Not at all! I can write Canti d’Amor; why shouldn’t I? They’re for my wife. Why should I not make a love song for my wife of all people? I don’t think one has to feel obliged to the resonances of the Second Viennese School in order to be able to do that. These two [the non-tonal and the tonal] are interacting all the time, whether it’s a harmony or a rhythmic cell, a timbre or a gesture. Music has always been that way. Otherwise, we would have used up its resources a long time ago.
Despite such firm aesthetic convictions regarding his own music, he strives to always be completely open when he listens to other people’s music.
When people say, “I don’t care for that” or “I don’t want to waste my time on that,” it’s because they have a notion that somehow it should belong to them without any preconditions. And that’s not what the phenomenon of music is. […] I’ve been rewarded and surprised by being determined to be in the composer’s corner.
He deserves the same from listeners to his own music. While he never writes based on wanting to satisfy an audience (an audience isn’t monolithic after all), he is always aware of the listener.
Most things in human experience are accessible if you’re willing to access them. […] I believe that the person who’s going to come on that bitterly cold February night, pay above the odds for the ticket, to listen to my music, is coming toward me for some reason, which I don’t need to know about, and maybe they can’t define it. But when they come together with what I’ve made, I want them to hear another human being talking to them who’s not superior, not inferior, just another person who cares about beauty and expressivity, and spiritual things which, again, are hard to define.
My two-hour conversation with Bernard Rands completely raced by. I left wishing I could have talked to him for several hours more, but filled with ideas that will probably take me a lifetime to completely think through.
Frank J. Oteri: I was surfing around your website over the holiday break, and I came across a remarkable video interview with you done at the New York Philharmonic where you were talking about listening to music and being open to what you hear. You said something that really resonated with me. You said if you hear a piece of music and you don’t initially like it, you think that maybe you weren’t really paying attention. That’s a remarkable statement. It has taken me decades to allow whatever I hear to be what it is and not let my own ideas get in the way. So hearing you articulate this makes me very curious about your process of listening to music.
Bernard Rands: Augusta [Read Thomas] and I listen to a lot of music. She is an avid consumer of music of all kinds. I’m not quite as relentless in my listening as she is. But we tend to have a routine in the sense that we work hard during the day. We’re up early in the morning, working in our respective studios. And then come 5:00 or 5:30, we gather in the kitchen—I love to cook—and we put on the stereo. Since both of us are bombarded with CDs from colleagues and young composers who want us to listen to their music, I think we get a pretty good picture of the spectrum, including pop music and jazz. There are no restrictions on what we listen to in that sense.
Everyone on this planet has music of some kind, which suggests—or even proves I would say—that it comes from a basic human necessity. Music fulfills many different functions in people’s lives. The second thing is that if you and I go to a concert and sit next to each other, and let’s say that there’s a piece that we’ve both known since our childhood—whatever composer, it doesn’t matter—we can’t tell each other what we just heard. We got all the information. It was by this composer, it was for this instrumental ensemble, it lasted such and such, I’ve heard it this number of times, and so on. But after that, it’s a very private experience you’ve just had of that music, and it’s a very private experience that I’ve just had. I think outside of one’s God, there is nothing that’s more intimate and private than listening to music. This phenomenon, which is ubiquitous, is one of the most private aspects of communication that we can experience. [Sometimes] we don’t enjoy it the first time, or it may be couched in an aesthetic position which we’re not familiar with. So I’ve always made myself go back again and again. I’ve been rewarded and surprised by being determined to be in the composer’s corner. And if in the end I’m left hanging dry, I have a lot of other things to do, and there’s a lot of other music to listen to. But generally speaking, over the years, it’s been a very rewarding attitude to the way we’re involved with this phenomenon.
FJO: So when you talk about being in the composer’s corner—I love that phrase—what exactly does that mean as you’re hearing the piece of music?
BR: Let’s assume that it’s a new piece, first of all, because that’s where we come across the more sharp-edged sets of relationships. I go with an open mind, an open heart, and open ears, and what I mean by being in that composer’s corner is he or she is in charge. They are going to communicate with me, and I’m going to be willing to take whatever comes from them. And try to understand—as you well know, we don’t understand even the phenomenon of understanding in that sense. But I’m not antagonistic. I’m not irritated. I’m full of expectancy. I’m expecting to be pleased in the general sense, so I think the listening process becomes a much more enjoyable one. Now if it’s a repertoire piece that I’ve known since I was a boy, again, the fact that it still exists and is current in the sense of the performance repertoire suggests that it has a lot in it, much more than I’ve ever discovered before, even if I’ve played it, or if I’ve read every scholarly analysis of it. Because in the end, we never come to a performance or to the listening of music in the same condition ourselves. If I listen to something tonight, it’s very different from if I was listening right now in the afternoon. And as the years go by, and now I’m kind of rumbling my way up to 80, I find that this experience of music for me is so life giving. Well, it is my life. It’s what I do.
FJO: Now, what I find fascinating about how you describe the act of listening is that, in a way, you’re giving yourself over. It’s an act of submission.
BR: Yes, it is. That’s a good way of putting it.
FJO: But it’s an act of submission that you said at the onset of this conversation could even be done while you’re preparing dinner. How focused are you when you’re listening to music and doing other things?
BR: Well, I’ve cut my fingers a few times while chopping by not being attentive. But seriously, why I detest so much of the public bombardment of sound and music in all circumstances is that it trivializes it. If you’re going to put on a CD of your choice, then there’s a reason for putting it on—because you want to listen to it. The fact that you may be chopping vegetables and half your fingers with it, I don’t think gets in the way. We all have our favorites of what we prefer to listen to at certain times: what prompts us to take this CD off the shelf of the Chopin Preludes, as opposed to the Mahler 5th, or in my case some Tudor period church music, which I absolutely adore. Or it may be a CD that’s just come in that morning and Gusty says, “Let’s listen to it. Let’s listen to whoever it is and see what they’re doing.” Dylan Thomas once said in a sort of a prelude to a reading that his poems are dedicated to the glory of God, and he’d be a damn fool if they weren’t. You can imagine his bravado voice saying that. And therefore any willing listener is voluntarily cornered. But that’s basically what it is. You put yourself in a situation. Why I detest so much of the interference of music in public spaces is that it is an interference with one’s own state of being, and I resent that.
FJO: In that same Philharmonic interview, you said that it’s sort of a canard when people talk about audiences, because the audience is not a monolith.
BR: No, it is not. We don’t know who they are anyway.
FJO: But even if you can’t know who your audience is, what sort of expectations do you have for your ideal audience?
BR: That they would come in an open-minded, open-eared manner, but then they would listen intently. Of course that’s an art that one has to develop for oneself. When people say, “I don’t care for that” or “I don’t want to waste my time on that,” it’s because they have a notion that somehow it should belong to them without any preconditions. And that’s not what the phenomenon of music is. Listening is not just a casual affair. It’s an active process in which you set your mind and your attitude to being receptive. This ties very much into the compositional process, because what is it we’re doing when we’re putting down these hieroglyphs which are then turned into a whole sound world by musicians? We’re trying to create a—let me just put it so simply—a succession of sound events which have an internal logic, which, irrespective of the historical period, lead the ear. The best music that I know of any period is that which gets hold of the ear right in the first measure, and doesn’t let go.
FJO: Now two other realms that are beyond music (while we’re in this remarkable library of yours) that have a similar hold on the attention, although with different senses: reading literature and looking at visual art. Both are extremely important to you, and both inform a great deal of the music you’ve composed.
BR: That is right.
FJO: So using that same question I began with for music, I’m curious about the amount of time you devote to reading and looking at art, and how these other realms connect back to your music.
BR: Just because at an early age I decided I am a composer is no excuse for sitting around waiting for long distance calls to come from up there with inspiration. I’ve developed from a very early age and continue and will until I can’t do it anymore, a very strict, disciplined routine of work. I’ll elaborate on that in a moment. But once that’s in place, and I’m satisfied in the given time that I have in a day to address my work in the solitude of my studio, then I love to [look at art]. I live across from the Art of Institute of Chicago. I only have to walk 200 yards, and I can wander around there, whether it’s in the Asian section or the current exhibitions and so on. When I visit other cities, I’ve made an effort to see the treasures of the art world wherever I’ve been and I lived in Europe for many years in the early part of my life.
From the point of view of reading, I came from a very poor family. My father was a janitor, born in 1897, totally without any formal education, but he had a God-given gift for being intelligent. He served in World War I, which was when he was 16 and 17—my God, in the trenches in Belgium—and he came home. He joined what was a movement at that time called the WEA, Worker’s Education Association, and he would go to classes after his day’s work, which were long days very often. He would use the local library and read about politics, not much literature. Even when I, as an undergraduate, would come home from university at vacations, almost the first question he asked was, “What have you been studying?” because I read literature and philosophy at the same time as reading music. And I would say so and so. And he would say, “Oh, and what did you think of…” He’d read it! The other thing is that he read to me every night, although I’m sure he was dog tired after a long day of working hard. He read not only the boys’ stories that one might to a child, he read poems to me. I had no idea what the poems were about at that early age. But I loved the sound of his voice, and I could hear the difference between poetry and prose, a child’s story. My father was a good reader. You can hear and you can tell the difference when somebody reads it nicely. So it was inculcated into me. Then I spent the rest of my childhood years waking up in the middle of the night with a book half open on my chest, and I still do it. I read between two and four every night. I sleep and by the time I get to two o’clock now I have to read. I read for two hours and [after] I sleep for another two hours, then I get up and work two hours.
FJO: That’s extraordinary.
BR: It’s a crazy life. Augusta’s even worse. She gets up at three in the morning or four, when I’m still reading. I hope this is not too trivial for you.
FJO: No, of course not; I love this. But to bring it back to music, you talked about the sort of inadvertent exposure to music all around us and how people will put on a CD and it is a choice. And yet, they won’t focus on it. For me, there really is an exact parallel between listening to a piece of music, whether it’s on a recording or live, and opening a book.
BR: Oh, definitely. I absolutely agree. Yeah, there’s an interconnection. The idea of putting on a CD and then getting in the shower, it’s a little bit pointless. The CD plays on its own to an empty room until you come out and towel off and so on. It’s a waste of music.
FJO: But with a book, you can’t really do those other things at the same time. People think that it’s something requiring more attention just because it’s physically impossible to look at a book and, say walk. Although the pianist Richard Goode has often walked holding a book in his hand, reading it while attempting to go somewhere. I’ve done that myself a few times; it’s a good way to have an accident. But to connect this to the other things you were saying about music, you mentioned that two people sitting next to each other hearing the same music can have a completely different experience of it. I would argue though that two people looking at a painting are probably having a different experience, too, or people reading the same poem.
BR: Yes, absolutely. But in the literary world, it’s a little more constrained. There’s a preciseness of vocabulary: it means this; it doesn’t mean that. Even with all of the metaphor and poetic use of language, there’s still a relatively constrained aspect to the written word and to language in general. Whereas, yes, standing next to someone looking at the same painting, I absolutely agree that what one is seeing and what one is understanding of what it is saying can be varied and way beyond the obviousness of what’s contained within the frame.
My Le Tambourin Suites are about six paintings and drawings of Van Gogh, but I didn’t want to do another Pictures at an Exhibition. That’s not the intention. I analyzed those paintings and drawings to the nth degree in terms of everything that constitutes a visual art activity. That is: form, color, density, harmony of colors, counterpoint of movements—the same terminology we use in music. You don’t see sunflowers like that! What’s so fabulous about Vincent van Gogh, and why it’s been a lifelong preoccupation with me, is that he painted to see the world in his mind, not the world as it is, or in the reality of normal observation. The world in his mind made him so different, and made the paintings so different from anybody else’s. When you think of that in terms of the sonic domain in which we work: what is the sound in my mind, not what it ought to be but what is in my mind.
One of the things that sometimes bothers me about some new music is I find it generic, and I want to know who that person is. Why don’t you say something? Stravinsky never taught, and I’ve forgotten now who asked him—it’s probably one of the conversations with Robert Kraft—“If you had been a teacher, what would you expect of your students?” And he said, “That they would surprise me.” Now, to surprise that old bugger would be somewhat difficult. But you know, it has to leap off the page and be something other than what’s technically possible.
FJO: I want to get back to what you said about not wanting to create another Pictures at an Exhibition. Music being so abstract, the minute you give it a title or affix a program note to it, you are changing the way people perceive it since language has such an influence on how we experience things. I want to tell you a very silly and embarrassing anecdote. You’re originally from England, so when I first heard your London Serenade, I didn’t read the program notes and I assumed it was about London. I didn’t realize you had composed it for Ed London. This is what words do. And so as a result I assumed I was hearing allusions to things in your music that probably aren’t there, because I attached the wrong associations to it.
BR: Is that a sin? I take your point, but there’s something else I would like to say which may or may not lead us on. It so happens that one of the fundamental principles of my own aesthetic position is the juxtaposition of opposites. The history of 20th century music has been the fierce defense of certain positions. But in London Serenade, I begin with a completely tonal melody followed by something that is not essentially tonal, and juxtapose the two, transforming both of them as they go along until they resolve. And in a sense, it demonstrates that rather than being opposites, they are in fact totally related, because we only have 12 pitches after all.
I know that my music is being misunderstood in another way than the one you just described. That acerbic rough-tough composer that I used to be in the ‘60s has gone to America and sold out. Not at all! I can write Canti d’Amor; why shouldn’t I? They’re for my wife. Why should I not make a love song for my wife of all people? I don’t think one has to feel obliged to the resonances of the Second Viennese School in order to be able to do that. These two [the non-tonal and the tonal] are interacting all the time, whether it’s a harmony or a rhythmic cell, a timbre or a gesture. Music has always been that way. Otherwise, we would have used up its resources a long time ago. But it seems to be an inexhaustible phenomenon. I don’t mean to sound hokey, but I think there’s a spiritual quality about this phenomenon. In our listening, our relationship to it and what it does to us, maybe having to go through a juxtaposition of opposites, always implies, of course, a transformational process that’s leading the ear to wherever it has to go.
I know them more intimately than anyone else, but I think anyone willing to probe every work of mine, in both listening and in an intelligent assessment of what they are, would find that everything I’ve done relates to those two fundamental principles of an aesthetic. And they are not, in the way I use them, necessarily original. I don’t stay up at night worrying about being original in that sense. I’m much more interested to relate to predecessors in one way or another because the idea that somebody found it worthwhile to explore suggests that it maybe has more potential even now than it did earlier. And if people listen to my music with those thoughts in mind, I think they’ll very quickly at least be able to make contact. We hear so much about music being made accessible. Well, most things in human experience are accessible if you’re willing to access them. Commentators on my music have said that they detect a lyrical and often melancholy quality. I know in my own personality there is that streak of melancholy. But I don’t go looking for it, and I don’t go looking to be lyrical, or dramatic. I don’t find that lyricism and dramaticism are mutually exclusive. I think that’s a nonsense idea; as so many opera composers demonstrated, they’re beautifully integrated.
FJO: So this question of accessibility and lyricism versus a negative term that gets used all the time to describe music that isn’t lyrical—gnarly, I kind of like the word. I want to reclaim it. Gnarly is a positive word. But gnarly versus lyrical versus beauty leads us to an interesting area. I don’t know the music that you wrote when you were very young, the music you wrote in Europe. I’d love to hear some of it at some point. But I know that you composed some indeterminate pieces and some wildly experimental pieces and that you went through Darmstadt.
BR: Yeah, I did.
FJO: That’s coded language nowadays. When people say Darmstadt, that means scary new music.
BR: Right. Well, it’s become scary.
FJO: But, I think the other side of that is while there are some people who are afraid of that stuff, there are also people who are so immersed in it and who arguably might be afraid of lyricism, who might be afraid to write, play, or listen to something that’s beautiful. You’ve been speaking of opposites. In essence, what you’re talking about is complex beauty. It’s about finding the complexity in beauty and the beauty in complexity.
BR: It’s a very good question Frank, and I appreciate it because there’s no one simple answer. So I’ll try to address it in a number of ways. Part of my early study and training was through the mill of the avant-garde sectors in Europe: Darmstadt, Donaueschingen, Graz, and so on, and luckily in London. Though I didn’t live in London, I was frequently there and very well aware and friendly with many of the composers who were doing new things. So, yes, I was interested to explore aleatory possibilities as a part of an evolving aesthetic, which was not as well formed then as it is now. You called it indeterminate, but everything I notated is determined. How you juxtapose them becomes another question of performance practice.
I was attracted mostly to the Italians, at a time when the German thought in new music was dominant. Stockhausen, and even Boulez for all of his Frenchness, was nevertheless thought-wise coming very much from Adorno. I was attracted to Dallapiccola, Luciano Berio, Bruno Maderna, Luigi Nono, because in all of their musics, as different as they are, there is a—can I use the term?—Italian lyricism. What is it? What does it mean? But it’s there, there’s no question about it, and maybe it stems from the operatic tradition, which has permeated Italian life for two or three centuries. These things are made manifest in a very overt way in the theater.
So I listened to the lectures and talks and so on in the various avant-garde centers, but I always kept my own attitude toward them, even when I heard something that really opened my ears and my mind. I remember once, at one of the lectures that Boulez gave in Darmstadt, he began in German. He was very fluent in German, but he said, “I’m going to have to give this lecture in French because everything that I want to talk about has…” And he began with a conjunction of a verb: je forme, tu transformes, il deforme, nous conformons, vous conformez, ils conforment. And from that, he just elaborated like he was composing at a high speed, like a brilliant jazz improviser. All of it, of course, notated and strictly written word for word. I loved experiences like that, even though he was not fundamentally influential on me musically, except that he performed my music, which was one of the greatest influences one can have with a person of that ability and dedication.
FJO: I’m a little surprised to hear you say that Boulez did not have a direct influence on you. I had certain associations with his music growing up; I suppose we all do at this point. But recently when I’ve listened to his music after so many years, I’m now hearing a lyricism that I think pervades all of it in a way that’s not Germanic at all.
BR: You’re right. It’s not Germanic in the musical outcome. It’s the theoretical stand, and historically, one has to understand what it was: the post-war years, total disaster in Europe, and the determination to start again. I agree that’s very true of Boulez. Now it’s a more leisurely, extrovert lyricism; Sur Incises, for example, is constantly flowering and blossoming in a Rimbaud or Proustian kind of way.
FJO: The other connection between you and Boulez is how important poetry is to both of you. I actually hear a connection in his works for solo singer and ensemble with your Canti trilogy.
FJO: But you’ve done something very unusual in the Canti trilogy that is unlike most text settings of poetry I can think of by any composer. A composer will generally focus on one poet in a cycle, or maybe a set of poems that are connected. But what you’ve done is you’ve created this phenomenal encyclopedic collage of numerous authors, as well as numerous languages. There’s nothing quite like it and what’s interesting to me about it is I’m not fluent in all of those languages. So I’m left baffled by it. There’s a layer that’s incomprehensible, unless I’m following along with a translated libretto. Yet I can tell that if I knew the languages, I wouldn’t have to follow along, because I can hear every single word. So even though it’s a dense polyglot, intertextual thing; your music is in the service of the words that you’re setting.
BR: It’s true. Again, the juxtaposition of different languages is an aspect of the aesthetic: they are opposites, but then I try to find the linguistic components of each language, which actually relate the sound world of each. Many of the connections are carried through in the instrumental domain, not necessarily always in the voice. And of course, all of the texts in each of the three [cycles that comprise the Canti trilogy] do conform to the idea of the moon and the sun and eclipses, so there is a thematic narrative, in a sense. But my intention was not to just paint pictures of the moon and the sun and so on. Every poem that I finally settled on, I dismantled; complete destruction, if that’s the right word: all of its rhythms, all of its rhymes, all of its internal rhymes, and so on and so forth. And then I reassemble it, because then what I’m dealing with is not just a poem about this by this author or that author; I’m dealing now with musical material, which is inherent in the poem itself. There are many poets I love to hear reading their own work. As you know, quite a number of my years were spent in Wales and I speak the Welsh language. Why I love to hear Dylan Thomas read is because he makes it come alive like music.
FJO: I’d love to understand more about the differences between the chamber and orchestral versions of these three cycles.
BR: The vocal line remains absolutely the same in the chamber and orchestra versions, but they’re not the same pieces. One is not just an orchestration of the other, or a reduction of the other. Not at all. Let’s say in the chamber version, before there’s any intention to make an orchestra version, you have a five-note chord, which is perfectly fine for an orchestra. But what if you add one more note to that chord? Where does it go? Does it go here? There? There? There? There? There? If you add two, where do they go? And, if you add more, and you start to change the harmonic implication, you’ve got a very different environment for the voice to perform exactly as it would in the other version, but now we have an extension of the juxtaposition of, not opposites, but differences that are very important.
FJO: It would be amazing to hear all six together.
BR: What I really would like is all three orchestral versions in one program. That’s so far not been possible. They’ve all been done singly, and we’ve done quite a few programs in which the three chamber versions were done.
FJO: I want to go back to something you said much earlier in the conversation when I was talking about those early pieces of yours, which I had described as indeterminate, and you made a distinction between aleatory and indeterminate. Because, you said, everything is determinate. It surprised me that there could have been random elements in any of your music, because one of the things that seems to be a hallmark of all of your music is attention to precise details, perhaps more in orchestration than anything else. Your music seems to be very concerned with really precise sonorities, which now seems contrary to what you were just saying about the two different versions of each of the Canti pieces.
BR: Well, my early music, starting from Tre Espressioni in 1959, is very precise. But the third movement has this space-time notation; it’s not in a regular metric ordering. You know, you have to put yourself back in the 1960s. Although all throughout my college years I’d written 12-tone music and generally ascribed to that, I was never entirely comfortable that it could serve my purposes. In saying that, I’m not faulting it as a way of working because the evidence is very clear from those who espoused it from the beginning, but it didn’t suit my purposes. I found it constraining; possibly it’s an indication of my own lack of ability to be inventive in that way. But we were all in a sense looking for, not a way out of it, but a way of building on it somehow. And that involved an almost destructive element, which were the aleatoric possibilities of John Cage and Earle Brown. I was very close to Earle, and over the years became close to John. My music was going in an entirely different way than theirs, but I could search through that freedom for something else that I was looking for. What has happened since is interesting, because after that, I started to become more and more precise, but not necessarily completing the circle back to the earlier years; it’s a different kind of precision now.
I love the orchestra. I grew up with orchestras as a child. I grew up with the Halle Orchestra with Barbirolli. And in my hometown in England, every week I would go to rehearsals. I went to every concert I could possibly get to. I was very lucky; my teacher in high school would get tickets for me. In a way, that formed the basis of what I do with the orchestra now. And that has evolved over the last 50 years.
When I was a student, one of the professors I had said that if I was going to be a composition major I had to play a string instrument. It didn’t matter how good a pianist I was, or if I played the organ. I had to learn a string instrument. So dutifully, every week, I went for my violin lessons. By the time I’d done a couple of years of very unwilling effort, I would sit in the back of the student orchestra. When it got difficult, I just rolled the air. Drop in on the whole notes, so as not to spoil everybody else’s efforts. But what it gives you from inside the orchestra is very different from sitting out and listening to it. I have an attitude, which is not to assign to these wonderful players things for them to do, but to engage them in what I want to do, which is why I’ve always had very good relationships, even with cantankerous orchestras and even when I’ve been conducting myself. They know that I respect what they’ve done since I was yay high and that I want to engage their abilities into my musical intentions.
We have a beautiful piano [in the apartment], but I just have a[n electric] keyboard [in my studio]. I don’t work at the piano. For me, it sounds like a piano, so I cannot write for orchestra by writing at the piano. I just cannot. That’s not what I’m hearing. I’ve trained myself to hear everything.
FJO: But if you were working on a piano piece, then would you work out things on a keyboard?
BR: I will, yes, but again, I don’t need it as prop for that. You start being pianistic.
FJO: There’s always the constant danger of being too idiomatic, or not idiomatic enough. Well, what does idiomatic mean? It means somebody can play it.
BR: You know Milton [Babbitt]’s definition? Idiot-matic.
FJO: And, of course, you know, if you haven’t practiced piano in a long time, you’ll be limited by your own pianism.
BR: Exactly. But if you write for a soloist, like I’ve been writing for Jonathan Biss, he’s going to be the person playing the music. So once I knew I was being commissioned to write for him, I listened to all of his recordings and whenever there was a chance to hear him [live]. I was sending him parts of the manuscript as we went along. Then he came here and we started working. Such a different, wonderful attitude, because he knows that I was talking to his strengths, as well as trying to find my own individuality in what I was doing.
FJO: Another aspect of how you create music is that sometimes ideas gestate over a very long period of time. This is an aspect to your composition of the Canti Trilogy that we didn’t really dwell on; the three—or actually six—works that comprise it span about a dozen years. Your opera Vincent evolved over an even longer time.
BR: Absolutely. It began in 1973, and it was only finally performed this [past] year, in April of 2011.
FJO: As I look at your studio table, I see it is filled with a variety of pieces of your music, all different kinds of things. Do you normally have a variety of projects that you’re in the middle of concurrently?
BR: No. Only one. I’ve enough problems dealing with one. I have a tendency to take things off the shelf, pile them up until they almost fall over, then I have to spend a week putting everything back again. Otherwise, it’s total chaos in here. I’m much more orderly than that in my thinking.
FJO: Well, if Vincent had a 30-year gestation period, you obviously worked on so many other pieces of music in between.
BR: Oh, in that sense.
FJO: So I’m curious about how your initial ideas morphed over time with the result of writing other pieces. Obviously the Tambourin suites foreshadowed Vincent. But then your musical ideas concerning Van Gogh actually evolved into what is in fact a narrative opera.
BR: Well, of course, one is bringing into play the literary. J.D. McClatchy’s libretto for this opera is, I think, superb. It was an inspiration from beginning to end. He’s a wonderful poet. I had done an enormous amount of research on the work, the life, and the letters of Van Gogh over the years. And I handed McClatchy a sheaf of thoughts and ideas which he used. But on the other hand, he went to a point which I think informs the entire opera, and that is that Vincent was a religious fanatic, which is something most people don’t know or don’t care about. The opening line is When I feel the terrible need for religion, I go out and paint the stars. Painting the stars was not for him just an illustrative act, it was searching for this spiritual connection with God which permeated his short life.
But, back to your point, an opera is all consuming. In this case, there were some aborted efforts to commission it earlier on. And being the stubborn person that I am, I turned down opportunities which, if I had pursued them, would have led to a production earlier. But I could sense in the conversations, and even in the near contractual talks, that we were not on the same page. This is the one piece in my life in which I will not make any compromise of any kind. And those opportunities passed, and so it took that length of time. Once the commission was issued, I sat down and started working as soon as J.D. had provided a couple of scenes from the beginning. And in 15 months of pretty hard labor, I wrote the entire opera, being able to draw on the reserve that had been built up over the years.
With the Canti trilogy, I did the chamber version of Canti Lunatici first with the intention of doing the orchestra version. This commission came shortly afterwards, so I did it for the BBC. Canti del Sole came the other way around; I’d started on the chamber version and Jacob Druckman, who was then the composer-in-residence with New York Philharmonic called me and said, “I know you have this project going, is there any chance we could have the orchestra version of Canti del Sole?” Now who’s going to say no to the New York Philharmonic? So I did them the other way around, which became fascinating. Since again, it wasn’t just what kind of reduction you can make, but which notes do you take out of this chord, completely the reverse process. With Canti dell’ Eclisse, I did do them almost simultaneously. That’s the only time that I’ve actually worked on two pieces, but then they’re not. They are two pieces, but they’re not. I know it’s crazy.
FJO: So then, working methods—you’ve got this wonderful, large drafting board that you work on. But I’m curious, in terms of not being able to do two things at once. You obviously are not going to finish a piece in a day, especially not a big piece. So there are distractions. There’s going to concerts, shopping, cooking meals, chopping your fingers while you’re cooking and listening to music at the same time, all this stuff that gets in the way. Life forces all of us to deal with a million things at once. The composer John Luther Adams has spoken to me about going on music fasts: when he’s working on a piece of music, he doesn’t listen to any other music. I find that impossible to do and we’ve had big debates about this over the years.
BR: Interesting. A large part of my so-called career has been involved in institutions and universities. So you devote part of your time to a specific activity, which may or may not feed back into your creative thinking and process. At its best, it does. And quite startlingly sometimes, but generally speaking, one doesn’t undertake it for that purpose; it’s a service one’s performing for a different function. That’s why I think a work routine of X number of hours, which would not allow other distractions in, is so important. It is for me, anyway. Even when I was teaching, I used to get in trouble with my colleagues because they’d say, “It must be Monday; Bernard’s here.” Well, that’s because the rest of the week, I’m composing. I made it very clear to all of my colleagues in all of the institutions that I worked in that I don’t live in the university. I will come in and I will teach my students to my utmost capacity, but I will not be distracted from what I do. So get used to the idea that I am a composer. But even when we listen casually at dinner-preparing time, I’m not distracted or influenced in that way. I don’t have models, but one of the shocks that I remember was when again, in an interview with Stravinsky, he said what you just hinted at. When he’s composing a particular work, he surrounds himself with works of the same nature. I thought, it was almost a blow to my adoration of him. Well, this genius, why the hell does he need all those other pieces? A mass, for example. So he has a mass from the 16th century, and a Haydn mass. His idea was that he wanted to condition his thinking about the spirituality of a mass. He wasn’t looking for a model. He didn’t want to imitate anybody else. And you know, his other comment, when he said, “I steal.” He didn’t steal a note of anybody else’s music. What he meant was that having understood the underlying principle of a work by another composer, that it is then public property. That it’s in the public domain. The rest is cheating. Get the principle, then make your own music.
FJO: This is reminding me of the piece you wrote for the centenary of Carnegie Hall [Ceremonial III]. You talked about how that music was a response to all of the music that had ever been played there. And I thought to myself, as I was listening to it: You might have done it, but I don’t hear allusions to any specific music; it’s completely yours.
BR: That’s the point I’m making. Whatever feeds into it goes through the grinder, through the mill, in such a way that it’s completely transformed. I was thinking Judy Garland, Frank Sinatra, Horowitz, but in the end, all that does is to help focus on the special nature of that commission, the location, and what would be worthy of that from my point of view.
FJO: But I don’t hear Judy Garland or Sinatra or even Horowitz in what you wrote.
BR: Well, I think there’s an essential difference between models and influences. Now, models tend to be something that one chooses to look at in detail and understand and, like Stravinsky, understand what the principle is. That’s a model. I don’t think Stravinsky was influenced by any of the composers that he was surrounding himself with. Except in the more general sense that there’s a contrapuntal nature to this, or there is a particular harmonic flow to that.
When I was young, I first got to know Luciano Berio, and lived in his house, and toured Europe with him and copied his music for him. There’s very clearly an input into me from that and from him. But while we remained absolutely close until he died just three or four years ago, I don’t think my music sounds like Berio. So that was an influence which helped me formulate my aesthetic stance rather than saying that, you know, Circles was influential on my percussion writing.
FJO: I’m standing on shaky ground here because I don’t know your earliest pieces. I only know the pieces that you’ve written since you’ve lived here. It was interesting to hear you describe people saying, “Oh, you moved to America and became softer; you’re not writing hardcore music anymore.” Because from what I can glean, your full flowering as a composer happened here in the United States.
FJO: But by the time you arrived in America, you were already an adult and already had a significant career as a composer. Yet you made the decision to come here. What’s interesting is you didn’t go to one place. You’ve been all over the place: California, Philadelphia, Cambridge, Chicago. So, in a way, where you happen to be based isn’t all that important to your overall identity.
BR: It’s a great question Frank, and it’s very observant in the sense that before I finally decided to settle here in 1975, I’d been coming back and forth. I was here for two years, ’66 to ’68, during which time I did travel. I did go to California. I did go to San Francisco, I did go to Chicago. What I liked about it was it is a very stark opposite from Europe. To put it rather crudely, if they don’t like you in San Francisco, you can go to Chicago. If they don’t like you in Chicago, go to New York. You just bugger off and go somewhere else. In Europe, the boundaries are still drawn very closely. So I decided to come back because I felt freer here in that sense. I didn’t have to pretend to want to be part of that. It still exists a great deal in Europe. I mean, if you’re not in Lachenmann’s group, you’re nowhere in Germany. I mean, forget it: You’re wasting your time.
FJO: I’m curious though, if they don’t like you in California, go to Chicago, but we’re one country and Europe is all different countries.
BR: Well, that’s true, but I’ve always felt here a freedom to do what I want, whereas, there’s not necessarily an immediate acceptance of that [in Europe]. I think there are European-conditioned elements in my music which don’t necessarily fit American sensitivities, but nevertheless I think it’s been good for me to be able to expand in ways that I wanted to.
FJO: Well, this takes us back to the Canti Trilogy, because American audiences aren’t going to understand all those languages. That’s a given. There’ll be a handful of people, of course, who will. The audience isn’t a monolith, but you know what I mean.
BR: But yet the audience responses to them have been fantastic. If you provide a program note, and provide all the texts with translations, I think it’s not—
FJO: Sure, but the thing that strikes me about that piece, and this is what I was getting at earlier, it’s the kind of piece where if the text setting wasn’t so completely idiomatic, and so sensitive to every nuance and every detail, people wouldn’t realize it wasn’t. If you’re just following the text, you’re seeing the words, but the thing is you don’t have to follow the text.
BR: No, it’s true.
FJO: You can hear them all.
BR: You can.
FJO: And if you did actually understand those languages, you’d get this amazing experience.
FJO: But a lot of people here can’t, myself included, because we don’t have that background.
BR: It seems to me that every piece of music, irrespective of the historic period, has more than just the obvious. In Canti Lunatici, for example, every time the moon is mentioned, it’s a melisma; it’s a particular melisma which is always related, all the way through. It’s almost like a Wagner leitmotif in a way. There are no changes. That whole piece, with its 13 texts all about the moon, is constantly exploring a kind of lyricism, but it comes out of melismatic writing. The deliberate intention of Canti del Sole was to write an almost 99.5 percent syllabic piece. In Canti dell’Eclisse, it brings the two together because the concern is they’re as different as light to dark, both in the obvious physical world sense and in the terms of poetry: from light to darkness, and from birth to death. I’m biased, but I think if the pieces have claimed any kind of audience attention, it’s because they are more than just the notes on the paper or the texts or the cumulative effects of all of those. There’s an intention that goes beyond that.
All of the truly great music we’ve inherited is more than just the sum total of the parts in that sense. I mean the Jupiter Symphony, for example, which Mozart said he heard in a matter of seconds. Without making any comparisons, as a creative artist you know the totality, but you don’t know what it is yet. And so you have to linearly find it. That takes time, much longer than my definition of people saying, “Are you an intuitive composer, or are you an intellectual designer of sound, an engineer in the sonic realm?” The answer is, well, all of those things.
Intuition has to come which strikes you with such an impulse that you grasp its potential without knowing what it is yet. Then when you go to work, to realize that energy and to discover and design what it is, intuition will leave you alone to get on with it until you become unfaithful to it. Why is it that you can go to your studio, have a wonderful day’s work, go to bed thinking “I’ve solved it!” and then you come in next morning and say, “What the hell, somebody’s been in here during the night”? That’s why I have two locks on the door. I had to stop that. Plus the fact that I’m married to another composer. In other words, what you thought was right, is not. And how do you know it’s not right, if it hasn’t been tested yet? I think that’s where the intuition says, “Bernard, that’s not what we intended.” And so you put it in the trash basket.
FJO: Being married to another composer; this is an area we didn’t really touch on. We talked about the distractions of teaching, or the distractions of hearing music, or the distractions of not being able to work on two things at once. You’re both engaged in a very similar realm: writing music that other people play. I imagine you talk about music all the time.
BR: We do, a lot, yes.
FJO: Are there influences that go back and forth. Is this a good thing? Is this a problematic thing when you’re in the middle of a specific piece?
BR: It’s a very reasonable question to ask of two composers who, without being immodest, are relatively successful during the time that we’re working. One thing that is crucially important is our age difference. I’m 30 years older than Augusta. From the very beginning, from virtually our first meeting, I recognized something in the work that she had completed to that point that was different from anything else. I went through dozens of scores for Aspen at that time, or for June in Buffalo. Who is Augusta Read Thomas? Man or woman? I don’t know. Could be either. When we met, I thought, not only is she talented, but she’s also very lovely. And from then on, the first thing she said was, “I do not want to make progress in this profession with people saying that you’re only getting that because you’re sleeping with Bernard Rands.” And I remember saying to her subsequently, a little while after we knew each other more, “You know, Gusty, I think there’ll come a day when people will say Bernard Rands only got that because he’s sleeping with Augusta Thomas.” She said, “Don’t be silly.” Now who’s more in the public consciousness? If you put the top ten American composers, Gusty will be in there somewhere because she has this incredible outgoing attitude to people and to music. I’m much more withdrawn, mysterious.
I was with the Philadelphia Orchestra in the early years that Gusty and I were together; I had a long relationship with Riccardo Muti, as you know. I would put scores in front of him, a pile of them. I put one of Gusty’s in without telling her. I said to myself, it is worthy of his attention. He doesn’t know anything about our relationship. And he got to that score, and he opened it, “Chi è questo? Chi è questo? Questa?” So I put it aside. He chose a piece without my saying a word about who it was. Gusty was all up in flames about it. I shouldn’t have done that. And she got quite—when it was performed—she got quite a lot of poison pen letters from composers who should know better.
What I’m getting to is that in our relationship, we sought out the difference between her professional concerns in any one day, and mine. You know, she’s a very good public servant. I’m a workaholic, but she’s in another realm. So we talk a lot about music, but we don’t talk about the pieces we’re working on until after they’re performed. Even after they’re completed, I would not say to her, “What’s this? I don’t get this bit here, or what are you trying to do here?” Because that would interfere with my willingness to go to the performance and let it be what it is. Once it’s over, she’ll say, “What do you think there, Bernard?”
FJO: It’s fascinating that you keep secrets from each other until the performances.
BR: Anybody who’s ever created anything, no matter how trivial or how distant from ever becoming a masterpiece, whatever that is, for the person who made it, it’s precious. And you have to be very careful not to trample on it in any way. I made that a fundamental premise of my teaching. One of the things that I don’t like, although I’ve done it a number of times, are those short-term residencies at a festival where you talk to students about this, that, and the other. You see them for only a few days. If you really want to be honest with them or critical—and, in a sense, flatten them—you have to be there to pick them up again and help them bounce back from whatever, and learn from it. So it’s much better to teach on a long-term basis. I’ve often said, the only students that I’ve ever really been able to teach were my friends. We were really close friends after a short period of time, because there’s something about the way in which they set about their work that intrigues me. And I want to be able to help them realize, if I can see, what the challenges are. It’s never a case of, “I think you should do this” or ”I think you should do that.”
FJO: Your comment about creation being precious brings us full circle to the very beginning of this conversation when we talked about submitting as a listener, that the best experience that you can get out of listening to something is when you really allow that other person to speak to you in his or her own way, and to accept it for what it is. So, to turn the question upside down what then is the function of the creator? Not to the audience, but to the work itself. What is the obligation?
BR: If you say, “I never think about an audience when I’m working,” people think, “He’s so esoteric.” I don’t mean that. I can only be honest to my instincts and my training and my thought process. I’m very self-critical, to the point of being suicidal sometimes, not in that [literal] sense but it’s so intense that it’s hard to describe. I do this because I believe that the person who’s going to come on that bitterly cold February night and pay above the odds for the ticket to listen to my music is coming toward me for some reason, which I don’t need to know about and maybe they can’t define it. But when they come together with what I’ve made, I want them to hear another human being talking to them who’s not superior, not inferior, just another person who cares about beauty and expressivity and spiritual things which, again, are hard to define. They feel when they’ve listened that they’ve been taken on a journey. I love John Lennon’s notion of a magical mystery tour. Let it go on and be that. I do it because there’s nothing about me that’s any different from any member of an audience in that sense. I may be privileged in this way or that, certainly in terms of training, but if they detect that this is something that’s speaking in an honest, unequivocal way, I think they’re likely to engage with it. It’s not the person who comes to the green room afterwards and starts blabbing, but it’s the person who comes by and touches you arm and says thank you and disappears. You know that they were into it.