A conversation at Moore’s home in New York City
June 13, 2013—3:00 p.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video Presentation by Molly Sheridan
Back in 1994, people started playing “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” a game in which people try to figure out how anyone who has ever appeared in a Hollywood film connects to the actor Kevin Bacon. If there were a music version of such a game, it could very well be “Six Degrees of Carman Moore” since Moore—in a career spanning decades—connects to everyone from Pierre Boulez and Karlheinz Stockhausen to John Lennon and Aretha Franklin.
As a music critic for The Village Voice (a job he started in the 1960s while still studying composition at Juilliard with Luciano Berio and Vincent Persichetti), Moore was the first in an illustrious line of composers who covered the contemporary music scene for that paper—before Tom Johnson, Greg Sandow, and Kyle Gann. In 1968, together with Kermit Moore and Dorothy Rudd Moore (who were husband and wife but not related to Carman), Noel DaCosta, and Talib Rasul Hakim, he founded the Society of Black Composers (SBC). During its brief three years of existence, SBC produced an eclectic series of concerts and lecture tours which helped to establish the careers of several important African-American composers, including Olly Wilson, Wendell Logan, Adolphus Hailstork, and Alvin Singleton, who has remained Carman Moore’s lifelong friend. (In 2005, Moore wrote the text for Singleton’s choral work TRUTH.) In the early 1970s, Moore wrote lyrics as well as the string arrangements for a solo album by Felix Cavaliere (from the rock band The Young Rascals); a song Moore wrote with Cavaliere, “Rock and Roll Outlaws,” appeared on an album so titled by the British group Foghat. Moore’s own music first received a huge amount of attention in January 1975 when successful premieres of two orchestra commissions were performed by the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic less than 24 hours apart. The following month, Dell published a book by Moore about the iconic blues singer Bessie Smith.
In the 1980s, Moore’s Skymusic Ensemble—a group which evolved out of years of informal improv sessions at the legendary Judson Memorial Church in New York—toured everywhere from Geneva to Hong Kong, including a stint at Milan’s La Scala Opera House to perform Moore’s score for a dance choreographed by Alvin Ailey, Goddess of the Waters. Throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, Moore wrote music for many noted choreographers—including Garth Fagan, Anna Sokolow, Donald Byrd, Elaine Summers, Cleo Parker Robinson, and Ruby Shang—as well as film scores for several PBS documentaries. Moore’s elaborate Mass for the 21st Century, first presented by Lincoln Center Out of Doors in 1994 in a performance featuring Cissy Houston (Whitney’s mother), has since been presented at the Parliament of the World’s Religions in Cape Town, South Africa. Among Moore’s most recent pieces is the Concerto for Ornette (inspired by Ornette Coleman’s harmolodics) which the New Juilliard Ensemble premiered, with Coleman in attendance, in September 2011.
Yet despite this broad and impressive range of accomplishments, Carman Moore—unlike Kevin Bacon—is not a household name. In fact, many people are unaware of him even within the contemporary music community. Part of this might have to do with the fact that when Moore was first coming up the ranks, the uptown vs. downtown battlefield was all ablaze and Moore wrote music that was somehow too downtown for uptown as well as too uptown for downtown. He also unapologetically embraced jazz and pop and every possible hybrid musical style. As he explained when we spoke to him in his cramped but homey apartment in an old building smack in the midst of all the high-rises that litter the Lincoln Center area, musical “crossover” does not have to be a by-product of opportunistic marketing, but is an authentic response to the world we now live in:
I think the concept of crossover is key to the American experience. It’s just not only in crossing over the Atlantic and the slave ship, but it’s just happening all the time. Living in New York City, you’re constantly listening to somebody else’s language and looking at somebody else’s face, looking at mixes. And it’s hard not to be amazed about some of the results of that. The only thing I can tell people relative to that is the things that seem to be crossing over, make sure you know where they are crossing over from. So it also takes you back to the study of roots of all kinds. You keep finding yourself plunging back into the beginnings of worlds.
Another reason that Moore might not be better known can be traced to his own reticence to walk down the traditional career paths that composers take. By nature, he’s a non-joiner. He’s never signed a record contract or a publishing arrangement. He has also not been particularly adept at self-publishing and self-releasing his own work. As a result, very little of his music has been publicly available. At the same time, away from the perpetual scrutinizing gaze of official arbiters of taste, as well as fans who sometimes deem every deviation from an established stylistic pattern to be a misstep, Moore’s music has been able to evolve on its own terms.
I don’t have much follow through. I think I must have been avoiding it. At the end of the performance in San Francisco, a Deutsche Grammophon guy showed up backstage and put a contract in front of me. And I swear to god, I didn’t sign it. I’ve thought about that ever since. Maybe it’s because I was a child of the ‘60s, I just didn’t trust being famous in that way. It actually may have helped me to not get locked into whatever it was I was doing at a particular time. … I did have the sense that a lot of the people I was writing about as a critic had gotten trapped in having a fandom that expected them to keep writing the same way. They didn’t seem to be able to dodge that bullet. I just didn’t want that to happen. I could have gotten stuck writing gospel in symphony orchestra pieces or something, I don’t know.
However, Carman Moore has begun making a more conscious effort to get his music out into the world. Downloads of recordings for many of his compositions are now available through his own website. In August 2009, former Maine state politician and jazz bassist Kyle W. Jones presented the first Carman Moore Music Festival on the remote Swan’s Island, located off the coast of Maine. But the latest edition of the festival will take place in New York City at the West Park Arts Center (October 18-19, 2013). Highlights include a repeat performance of The Quiet Piece (which premiered in May 2013) and a brand new dramatic song cycle about the wide-reaching effects of child abuse called Girl of the Diamond Mountain, which Moore composed jointly through improvisation with Danish vocalist/lyricist Lotte Arnsbjerg. Perhaps now that stylistic hybrids and a DIY sensibility have become par for the course for many of today’s most successful composers, Carman Moore will rightly be seen as a true pioneer of 21st-century American music.
Frank J. Oteri: In your autobiography, you say two things about being an artist which are somehow contradictory, yet also complimentary. You assert that an artist is a rebellious individual, someone who strikes out on his or her own path no matter what people think. At the same time, you speak to the importance of an artist being a force for bringing society together.
Carman Moore: Beneath the surface, what the creative artist does is bring society together to think in a new way. I have a piece in my Mass for the 21st Century which is called, “I Want to Think in a New Way.” I don’t know if it was sour grapes, but we just came through a period in music composition when many composers were totally happy to chase away an audience that would get and love what they’re doing.
Once I was in my teacher Luciano Berio’s place over in New Jersey and Karlheinz Stockhausen was there, so I interviewed him a little bit. I was writing for the The Village Voice at that point. And I said, “What would you do if people started to really like your music and really understood it and really got behind you?” And he said, “Well, I’d have to rethink myself. I wouldn’t like that at all.” Berio, on the other hand, didn’t have that problem. He was really fascinated with the Beatles and their being popular and what that meant. And that they were writing really good music. I mean, anybody with ears could hear that they were really musical and that something was special happening there. So he did some variations on Beatles pieces for Cathy Berberian, who was then his wife. He thought it was sort of fun. Stockhausen went on to explain that he had sat in stadiums with the Hitler Youth where everybody was singing the same song and enjoying singing together. That really put him off. I think he was really torn.
FJO: Of course Stockhausen witnessed firsthand how popularity and conformity led to one of the worst horrors in human history. Which is why, as you make clear in your book, that it is just as important to be a rebel as it is to bring people together. That reminds me of something else you wrote: “Everything society at the time said I wasn’t supposed to do, I had to try. Everything I thought society had already decided about me because of my race, I had to subvert.”
CM: Well, the whole business of trying things out was just mainly about me trying to gain some self-knowledge. I grew up with a family that totally adored me. My grandma just couldn’t get enough of me. I lived in Elyria, Ohio, and she lived in the next town five miles away—Lorain, Ohio. Somehow I’d get on the bus and go down there to visit her, and I would walk onto her porch, and she’d say, “There he is. I worship the very ground you walk on.” I hadn’t done anything. So I was used to that, to just being appreciated. I didn’t encounter a lot of race prejudice, but I knew it existed and I had read about it. There were fables around, spread by white culture, like black people could not run distances. Obviously before I was born Jesse Owens had already proven that black people could run sprints. And then the Ethiopians and the Kenyans showed up. So I wanted to try some things that are supposedly identified with white people, like tennis, just to see if there was some reason I would not be a good tennis player just because I was black. I was curious about myself relative to the world.
FJO: And you’re still playing tennis, and you’re apparently pretty good at it.
CM: Yes and I have won championships. But I’m not great anymore; I have sore knees after I play for a little while.
FJO: This curiosity about who you are relative to the world ties into your involvement in music as well, because at the time there were also certain assumptions about who played certain kinds of music. There was definitely a supposition, at the time you were first getting involved in music, that if you were African American you would be involved with jazz and not with classical music. And while your music certainly debunks any definition of genre, it is not really jazz.
CM: Right. Truth to tell, my mother was a marvelous classical player, but she also played boogie-woogie and Duke Ellington’s pieces a lot. She just loved them. And she talked about Art Tatum. But she played classical music on the radio. She’d play the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts on Saturday afternoons. It sounded great. So by the time I was aware that I was supposed to be doing something, I was already doing something else, you know. I was already totally enamored of so-called classical music. But I love jazz.
FJO: But while you immersed yourself in jazz as well as classical music, you never identified as a jazz musician.
CM: No, because I actually never learned an instrument that I could [play jazz on]. I learned the trumpet a little bit, but they needed a French horn player in high school. So I took up the French horn. And cello. The literature was very specifically classical, so I just followed that where it led. I studied at Oberlin Conservatory, which was a few miles away. I took lessons there in French horn from Martin Morris, who was the second chair in the Cleveland Orchestra, and cello lessons from someone whose name I can’t remember anymore, who was a student there. And I studied conducting with Cecil Isaacs. So I went into that music naturally. It wasn’t an example of my deciding to try classical music because I’m not supposed to. I was already there.
FJO: What about writing music criticism? Back then, and even to this day, most of the people who are writing about music in this country are white. That’s actually true for jazz as well as for classical music.
FJO: I find it fascinating that there was such an “anything goes” attitude in the early days of The Village Voice. What a different publication it has become today! But you became their first new music critic, long before Tom Johnson, Greg Sandow, or Kyle Gann, which I think a lot of people today are not aware of. I’m curious to know how that happened.
CM: My first touch with The Village Voice was entering an annual poetry contest that they had. I was studying at Juilliard. So I entered a couple poems in there, and Marianne Moore was one of the judges. I won second place. At any rate, I went to the Voice, and I said, “You don’t have anybody writing about new music here.” And so they said, “Would you like to?” I mean, they weren’t paying anybody anything serious, so I said, “Sure, I’d really love to start.” And so I started. I found that it was really exciting writing about music because that way I could study music all around town and go to concerts for free. One of the first things I did was write an obit on Henry Cowell who had just died.
FJO: At that point Leighton Kerner was already there.
CM: Right. But he just wrote about opera and the regular fare. So I started with just new music, but I started adding other things. Popular [music] was really happening. So I said I’d like to add that. And jazz. So I started a column called “New Time” in which I’d just write about whatever I wanted to.
FJO: So they weren’t covering pop music at all at that point, or jazz?
CM: Well, not that I knew of. They started covering pop music sort of informally during the time I was there. Richard Goldstein and Robert Christgau had started seriously writing about popular music.
FJO: But that was also after you were already there.
FJO: What’s also interesting about your stint at The Village Voice is not only were you the first person to write about new music there, you were a composer of new music who was writing about it. At that time, people like Harold Schonberg at The New York Times said that if you wrote about music not only should you not have a public career as a musician, you also should not be friends with other musicians. There was a strongly held belief that there were too many conflicts of interest. You would somehow taint the objectivity of your criticism, as if criticism could ever be objective. So did you find any conflicts in being on both sides and how did you handle them?
CM: I certainly thought about it a lot. Of course Robert Schumann had done it a hundred and whatever years previously. But I think it held me back a little bit, because I wasn’t as aggressive about pursuing my career as a composer as I might have been if I were hard put to get some things done. But very soon I even reviewed pieces by some of my Juilliard teachers. It was sort of a challenge to just react to a piece, take some notes, be good at writing in the dark, and then just put on the blinders and write and see what comes out. I didn’t pan any of my teachers. But I would choose something in a concert that I liked better or say, “I have a problem with this,” or “I didn’t really get this.” Hugo Weisgall had an opera called The Stronger. I didn’t love the opera, but there were a couple of arias that I liked, and so I spoke about them first, and then trashed the rest.
FJO: I can’t imagine you trashing anything.
CM: Well, I didn’t really.
FJO: But to play a Harold Schoenbergian devil’s advocate here, might you have written bad reviews of pieces by your teachers if they hadn’t been your teachers?
CM: Well, I might have been a little more negative. But truth to tell, my teachers were Luciano Berio, Vincent Persichetti, and Hall Overton, who was my first teacher. And I loved their music. So I didn’t have any problem there.
FJO: What about people who might be potentially performing your music?
CM: I didn’t worry about that much. I wrote for the Voice until about ’75 or ’76 when I really got tired of making the deadlines. I got lots of performances during the ‘70s. I was getting more performances than I really had time for. So I didn’t send things out much. It was many years that passed before I even understood how much composers typically send their stuff around. But as a result of reviewing these people, one of the really great things that happened for me as a composer was I was just able to try out my own sense of my own work against all this stuff I was hearing. I was hearing everybody’s work, not just in contemporary classical music, but in jazz and pop and everything. And I discovered the fascination—which I still have—of getting into somebody else’s mind. In other words, being a listener and turning myself over to the composer and to the musical experience, and letting it have its way with me. I would just take notes on how my listening experience was going. Then once a year, in my column, I would always remind people that I am just a listener who has a lot of experience. I encouraged everybody to go listen to music, to turn themselves over to the experience, and then respond. That is criticism, as far as I’m concerned.
One of the reasons I enjoyed being a music critic was just that experience of taking that voyage into somebody else’s way of thinking. Now I think it scares a lot of people because they think that they’ll get kidnapped mentally and never come back. But I like the idea of seeing where somebody else is coming from, and how they got to these notes. Now very often, in my criticism of somebody’s work, it’s clear that they got there fraudulently. But fraudulently means that they just were afraid to let me really hear what they would really like to do with this material. Or they just wanted to impress the listener with how much they know and how complicated they can be. And it ended up that their music would sound like a mess, even with some people of talent. It’s like a novelist who has a few obviously really potent and interesting characters that they force to behave a way in which those characters would not behave. So a lot of my criticism was simply judging that.
FJO: But overall it seems that most of the criticism you wrote was positive.
CM: Well, when I decided what I was going to hear, I didn’t go to something that I sort of suspected was going to be a mess and would waste my time. So in that sense, I also was being my own ideal listener. A listener wouldn’t choose to go to hear something that they think is going to be crap. Usually, when I would go to something that I would think I would not like to hear as the result of somebody else saying, “Oh, you gotta hear this thing,” I’d go and be disappointed. Maybe that was their thing and not my thing. But it is quite possible that you could start getting it after a while.
FJO: This brings us to that loaded word—crossover. Nowadays, among most people in the critical community as well as others who are—for lack of a better term—the gatekeepers in the music business, that word is mostly used as an insult. It is pejorative. If something is labeled crossover either it lacks authenticity or it comes out of a really cynical commercialism—a crass attempt at appealing to different markets without really understanding any of them. But for you, the word is all-encompassing and all-embracing. You use it to describe your ethnicity, because your ancestors were Native American and European as well as African. You also use it to describe your own music, and it’s even the name of your own autobiography.
CM: I think the concept of crossover is key to the American experience. It’s not only in crossing over the Atlantic and the slave ship, but it’s just happening all the time. Living in New York City, you’re constantly listening to somebody else’s language and looking at somebody else’s face, looking at mixes. And it’s hard not to be amazed about some of the results of that. The only thing I can tell people relative to that is the things that seem to be crossing over, make sure you know where they are crossing over from. So it also takes you back to the study of roots of all kinds. You keep finding yourself plunging back into the beginnings of worlds. For example, tap dancing apparently was a mix of Irish step dancers with ex-slaves laying out railroad track. It was just an African-American rhythmization of things that the Irish guys were doing. It happens all over the place. In the ‘60s, some of my African-American pals were saying white people don’t have a right to be playing this music, they’re not playing this music right, whatever. It’s crazy because if it’s authentically produced, authentically composed, and authentically put out there, it’s fascinating.
FJO: It’s interesting that both your own music, as well as what you wrote about music, has been so concerned with breaking the barriers between styles and labels. Some people claim that it’s basic human nature to put labels on things in order to understand them better. But I would dare say that putting labels on things is a particular trait of people who are in the business of writing criticism—whether it’s music criticism, art criticism, or literary criticism. All these names of movements come from somebody writing about them and giving them names as a kind of shorthand. Then the marketers run with it. If you like this, you’ll like that. But, of course, if you’re writing “new music” or writing about “new music,” all that means is that it’s new. The term doesn’t connote any particular pedigree. But people have always made assumptions about pedigree, especially during the late ‘60s within the realm of what we call—for lack of a better term—contemporary classical music. That was the heyday of uptown vs. downtown.
CM: I covered both sides and I actually wrote in both styles, just to see what it felt like partly. I actually used to live at what was called the Judson Student House, which was connected to Judson Church, which is still on Washington Square. It was a wild time to be there. Among other things, I had the key to the church, and they had a big organ up there. I used to go there and just sort of improvise with people. I started forming my group, the Skymusic Ensemble, from some of those first things. Some people were just banging on bottles and stuff like that. I discovered that you could just take off and you don’t have to have a tune. You don’t have to have chords or anything. You just sort of find the music. I later discovered that it’s better if you write some things down, some guide posts.
Then I was commissioned by the New York Philharmonic to write Wild Fires and Field Songs which is, in effect, a three-movement symphony. That was after having interviewed Pierre Boulez. We got into discussing improvisation, and he said, “You wouldn’t invite somebody over to watch you take a piss, would you?” That was what he had to say about improvisation as such. But at any rate, I wrote that piece virtually at the same time as I wrote Gospel Fuse, which is a work for gospel quartet. The lead singer was Cissy Houston when we did it with Ozawa and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. I was just finishing that and the Philharmonic wanted to commission me to do this other piece. They’re worlds apart. And I just loved that. That was really exciting. Of course, Gospel Fuse was a crossover piece, because it was a two-movement work for symphony orchestra and gospel quartet.
FJO: That was the piece that was originally supposed to be done by Aretha Franklin.
CM: Exactly. But I think there were people around her—I call them goons—who wouldn’t let her pick up the phone. I needed to be able to go back and forth with her. So at any rate, I kept composing, and finally—talk about crossover—Peter Yarrow [of Peter, Paul & Mary] popped up in the class I was teaching at the New School downtown; it was an orchestration class. He didn’t come to it very often, because he was always on the road. But we became good friends, and he was good friends with Seiji Ozawa. So at any rate, that commission came about through that. And then I told you about the Boulez one. It’s not 12-tone, but it invades his world of sound. I just really love the challenge of doing that over here, and doing this over there, and trying to make them wonderful.
It turned out that Gospel Fuse was scheduled for one day in February, and then I was called not long after that and found out that the New York Philharmonic had scheduled Wild Fires and Field Songs for the very next night. Now, the odds against that are infinite. So at any rate, I finished the two pieces and started rehearsing. It suddenly occurred to me that I could bomb on two coasts at the same time! I could just be clearing the tomatoes off my face from San Francisco, and get a fresh batch in New York City. But they both turned out really great.
FJO: Taking into account the time differences, you had only about 19 hours to get back to New York from San Francisco.
CM: I also had to be at that last rehearsal in New York. So that was a red eye flight back to just go to the rehearsal. So I was a mess, but it was beautiful.
FJO: No tomatoes?
CM: No tomatoes. No, no, no, no. Kudos! I had become friends with John Lennon and at the New York performance he showed up in the lobby before the performance with May Pang, who I think he was sort of going with at that time. Then Yoko Ono shows up from the other direction with this guy. I was with my then wife. And there the six of us were, in the lobby downstairs, just before the beginning of this concert. And John said, “Do I look okay? I’ve never been to one of these before.” He had this sort of black suit on. And I said, “You’ve never been to a symphony concert before?” “No.” He had an “Elvis Lives!” button on and I said, “I think you’re gonna enjoy this.”
FJO: You also played music with John Lennon, too, right? But none of it got recorded.
CM: There was one evening I wanted to interview Yoko for I forget which album of hers. So I brought my little cassette recorder in. They were living in the Village at that time; that was just before they moved uptown. At any rate, I put my recording device down on the table. It definitely was not one of these digital items of today; it would run out at a certain point. So she and I were talking and talking and talking, and he would break in every now and then, and say, “Yoko, you know, the man’s trying to help you. You know, don’t turn everything into bloody circuses.” Because she said, “Why don’t you take the page and cut it down the middle and put me on this side and John on the other.” So that went along and, of course, John is passing a joint. I wasn’t paying any attention. I was just trying to be polite. Well, I was more than polite by the end of that thing. I got all my stuff down and the tape recorder ran out. And he said, “Would you like to jam?” I said, “Sure, right.” They had two rooms—it was sort of like a loft space, but it was on the ground floor: a great big room in the front, then a great big bedroom. He had a pump organ there. He got out his acoustic guitar, sat on the bed, cross-legged, and off we went. I remember it was great music. But, obviously, even if I had wanted to record it, I had run out of tape.
FJO: I’ve known you and have known about your music for years, but the thing that keeps amazing me about all these stories—you being the first person to write about new music for The Village Voice, you having premieres by the San Francisco Symphony and New York Phil conducted by Ozawa and Boulez less than 24 hours apart, you jamming with John Lennon—is that despite you having all these connections to people who are household names, you yourself are not a household name. Yet you connect to all these things that are central to the story of music of the past century. You could say, “O.K., people who write contemporary classical music are not household names any more. We’re no longer living in the era where someone like Aaron Copland would be on the cover of Time magazine.” But your music embraces so much more than that, so that’s not it. It’s somewhat provocative to ask why that is, and it’s probably something you can’t answer. But it just seems to me, given all these anecdotes, that you ought to be much more famous.
CM: I’ve thought about this a lot. I don’t have much follow through. I think I must have been avoiding it. At the end of the performance in San Francisco, a Deutsche Grammophon guy showed up backstage and put a contract in front of me. And I swear to god, I didn’t sign it. I’ve thought about that ever since. Maybe it’s because I was a child of the ‘60s, I just didn’t trust being famous in that way. It actually may have helped me to not get locked into whatever it was I was doing at a particular time. But that’s a question I have wrestled with ever since. Then when I started the Skymusic Ensemble, a lot of my work couldn’t be played by anybody else but them.
FJO: But in that era there were many composers who primarily wrote music for their own ensembles to play, and they gained quite a bit of notoriety from it—Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Meredith Monk. Even to some extent Charles Wuorinen and Harvey Sollberger forming the Group for Contemporary Music was a do-it-yourself initiative and actually helped get their music out there. Also self-publishing and releasing your own recordings was definitely an ethos that started in the ’60 and lasted throughout the ‘70s. You were certainly part of that generation, but back then you didn’t really release much of your music. That same ethos is pervasive once again nowadays, and thankfully now you’re actually releasing a lot of your music.
CM: I’m finally getting there. Somebody who’s been helping me a lot is Alvin Singleton. He’s a marvelous composer and a dear friend of mine.
FJO: In the last few years there has even been an annual Carman Moore Music Festival.
CM: There’s a friend of mine who is not only a bass player, but also a lawyer and a state senator from Maine, who is just nuts about my music, so he has been doing everything he can to foster it. He’s the one whose idea it was to have a Carman Moore Music Festival. I would never think of doing a thing like that. But it’s about to happen again and there will be several pieces done on it. This time, two days of this will happen in New York City. At any rate, I’m very excited about the music I’m writing right now. I just did a piece called The Quiet Piece for the Skymusic Ensemble with a guy doing Tibetan singing bowls plus a marvelous dancer.
FJO: I’m very eager to see and hear those live performances. I’m also very excited about the recordings that are finally becoming available of a lot of your earlier pieces. For years the only music of yours that was available commercially was one piece that had been released on a Folkways compilation in the 1970s and another piece on one side of a CRI LP. And Folkways and CRI were hardly commercial labels.
CM: I know. I recognize that this has been my path. My path has been avoiding things, and that’s all I can think of, because fame has avoided me. Over at the Philharmonic, they have portraits of every composer [they’ve worked with] going back to Tchaikovsky. I happen to be in between John Cage and Charles Wuorinen! I’ve gone back to listen to some of that early stuff, and I’ve said, “Wow!” But I do remember having been such a perfectionist at that time that I wouldn’t let anything come out that wasn’t, not only written perfectly, but performed perfectly. It was a big mistake. I could have gotten world famous easily, any time in there. I recognize that now.
FJO: Terry Riley’s story has many parallels with yours, I think. He did sign a contract with a big record company. Columbia Records put out two albums of his music and another one with John Cale. But they wanted another record and then he resisted the career path. He ran off to India to study classical Indian singing, to become a disciple rather than a star. But at that time there seemed to be only two paths. There was either the downtown do-it-yourself path of starting your own ensemble or the uptown path of teaching at a university and making connections to ensembles and larger institutions that way. But you taught also. You had your hands in all these different things, and yet you somehow remained an outsider, which goes back to the very beginning of this conversation—doing it your own way instead of doing things the way others say you should.
CM: It may come out of that mindset. Who knows? I mean, I did have the sense that a lot of the people I was writing about as a critic had gotten trapped in having a fandom that expected them to keep writing the same way. They didn’t seem to be able to dodge that bullet. I just didn’t want that to happen. That’s the only sort of conscious thing I can think of relative to that. I could have gotten stuck writing gospel in symphony orchestra pieces or something, I don’t know. I feel I’ve lived a lot of different lives. I’m fascinated with many paths. My curiosity is probably the strongest engine running inside me.
FJO: Well, you know, there’s another part to it, I think, as well. It’s interesting that you didn’t bring this up, but I’m going to. I mentioned Terry Riley because I also see a commonality in terms of his egolessness. There’s a lack of a drive in a way that I think comes from a sense of community, the other part of that original dichotomy between being an individual and then being a part of a community. You also actively collaborate with other composers. You’ve written lyrics for other people’s music. You mentioned Alvin Singleton. You did the libretto for Truth. You did lyrics for a whole album by Felix Cavaliere from The Young Rascals. You’ve been willing to take a more back seat role, not that writing lyrics is a back seat—some people identify with lyrics more than music and there are famous lyricists—but getting famous as a lyricist doesn’t seem to have been your motive in those collaborations.
CM: I’m very sure of myself. It’s the truth of the matter. But I’ve thought about this question a lot. I come from a large family. There are eight children. I’m the oldest. I very often had to just make sure everybody else got fed. I had five sisters. So I may have been taught to make sure that everybody else got their stuff before I come in because I might step on somebody.
FJO: So in terms of paths to take, what to do, what not to do, do you feel you have advice to offer other composers?
CM: No, because it depends upon what you are capable of. The key thing, I think, is to find some way to figure out what you’re capable of relative to what you’re trying to do. There are a series of things people should find out about themselves as they emerge, and therefore they should try out things that they don’t know about, because those are the roads that you need to go down. So there are two roads: One is to go down the road of your strengths, the other is to go down the road of your weaknesses and see what that sounds like. And don’t pretend.
One thing I discovered while composing early on was that there were stretches when I’d be composing, I’d write something and listen to it, and I’d get embarrassed. But I discovered soon after that, that those are the important parts. That’s you. When I would feel embarrassed, I was in a situation in which I was not defended. I was sort of hung out to dry. As I came up, those two schools—the uptown and downtown—were strong. And they sounded and behaved in particular ways. As I was writing my music, I was aware of this. And of course, because of being a critic, I heard everything, so I knew what people were doing. But there were stretches in which I just didn’t sound like either of those things. Those were ones in which I was slightly embarrassed about it. Maybe this is not very professional, but I would go ahead and write it and have it performed, and see what it sounded like. And that was good. So I say to emerging composers and to people who want to compose: When you hit one of those spots, check it out. It may be because you have no business writing that, but it may be that’s your voice.