Conrad Cummings: In Conversation With My Peers

A conversation at Cummings’s Chelsea apartment
December 6, 2012–9:30 a.m.
Transcribed by Amanda MacBlane
Videotaped by Alexandra Gardner
Video Presentation by Molly Sheridan

Composing music is usually a solitary act, but Conrad Cummings is by nature a very sociable person. This has drawn him into some of the most fascinating collaborative projects, such as the political satire Photo-Op whose text is by the painter James Siena, the provocative Positions 1956 for which he partnered with operatic librettist and Tony-nominated Broadway lyricist Michael Korie, and—perhaps the work that has occupied him for the longest time thus far—The Golden Gate, an extraordinary opera based on a novel in sonnets by Vikram Seth that seamlessly weaves together first and third person narratives. But even when he is writing pieces which don’t have words, such as I Wish They All Could Be…, which exists both in versions for solo piano and for chamber ensemble, or Zephyr’s Lesson, in which a quartet of instrumentalists is joined by otherworldly electronically-generated sine waves, Cummings views the act of composition as a form of conversation both with the music of his contemporaries as well as with composers of the past.

“When I’m writing it’s in conversation with my peers,” Cummings explains. “And I really try to think of all those 18th and 19th and 20th century people as not so different from us, trying to write something that makes sense to them and to make a living. I try not to deify the past and I think that makes it easier to have a conversation with it. I think there are probably a lot of composers who still are a little in the ‘classical music religiosity/awe’ thing, in awe of greatness and therefore you can’t really talk to it because it’s too big and too impressive and so you have to separate yourself and create your own private garden. I just like talking to them all.”

Cummings’s personal level of engagement has made him open to an extremely broad range of aesthetics, all of which inform his music—Baroque flourishes meet rock and roll rhythms meet rigorous computer synthesis (he actually trained at IRCAM) meet cheeky allusions to Brahms, Schoenberg, and even Michael Jackson. Being such a generous and omnivorous listener has also made Cummings a treasured teacher to generations of younger composers who studied with him at Oberlin and now at Juilliard.

“I like to think that I’ve helped them to trust their own instincts, to trust where they want to go,” says Cummings. “I’ve moved obstacles out of their way when I could. I’ve suggested ways to find a door when they’re pounding their heads against a brick wall. I’ve created an environment where they feel safe to try things and where they feel like they can really plumb into the deepest part of themselves and that they’ll be safe and they don’t have to put a façade of correctness or theoretical underpinning or whatever the thing is that protects you from revealing your own self in music.”

Being able to reveal himself in his music took a long time for Cummings. While he grew up in San Francisco in an eclectic environment that included hearing Janis Joplin at the Avalon Ballroom, studying Beethoven piano sonatas with a Schnabel protégé, and living with a step-father who choreographed dances to music by Boulez and Stockhausen, Cummings did not realize at first that all of these elements shaped who he is.

“It probably took until I was 30 to realize that those experiences were both a part of me and that they actually could inform each other,” Cummings acknowledges. “I was lucky enough to grow up with a lot of different things going on around me, and part of coming into them on my own was figuring out how to integrate them. … The first opera I did … was a commission from Oberlin; they all thought I was crazy. … The whole thing was in da capo arias. Totally diatonic. … I remember showing that score to Jacob Druckman, who’d been a very important teacher for me, and he looked at it with a great deal of puzzlement and said, ‘Conrad, I see nothing of you in this.’ And I was like, ‘Jacob, this is the first thing I’ve ever written that I feel is totally me.’ … When I started my ensemble and I started doing concerts at The Knitting Factory, my academic colleagues thought that I’d gone hopelessly pop and The Knitting Factory referred to me as the Professor. The part of the outfield that I ended up in didn’t have a firm position in either of these camps.”

Things have certainly changed since then and the outfield that Cummings once occupied now feels like almost mainstream.

“One thing I’ve noticed that’s heartening is that stuff that I did 15 or 20 years ago that seemed to perplex a lot of my colleagues, now people just seem to get,” Cummings says. “I have on some level a feeling that I may have been out there, you know, a little bit off in left field but I have way more company there now.”

Being in the company of Conrad Cummings is as delightful as it is thought-provoking. On the chilly December morning we visited him for this interview for NewMusicBox, he welcomed us with hot coffee and gourmet donuts before regaling us with so many fascinating anecdotes about his life and his work. Refreshingly he was just as interested in hearing about what we were up to as he was in sharing his own story. And we continued chatting long after we stopped filming. It was, after all, a conversation…

*

Frank J. Oteri: There seems to be a duality in your music. There are clear references to the past—a harpsichord here and there, a recitativo, chord progressions that give a very Baroque kind of sound. Yet at the same time there’s a love of technology, new things, the future. And then in terms of topics that you choose to be inspired by, it’s very much the present. So you’re engaging with the whole arc—past, present and future—so I wonder if that’s what you feel is the compositional zeitgeist for right now or if, rather, you are pushing against it in some ways.

Conrad Cummings at Carnegie Halll

Conrad Cummings putting finishing touches on a new piece in front of Carnegie Hall circa 1985, photo by Barbara Petersen.

Conrad Cummings: That’s a lot to think about. One thing I’ve noticed that’s heartening is that stuff that I did 15 or 20 years ago that seemed to perplex a lot of my colleagues, now people just seem to get. I have on some level a feeling that I may have been out there, you know, a little bit off in left field but I have way more company there now. But in terms of zeitgeist, I’m just aware of so many different flavors going on right now. I mean, I think of the Bang on a Can flavor—and I know, that’s a terrible generalization—but, you know, the harder edge, more rock heritage-based music. And then I think about Sleeping Giant, the kids just fresh out of Yale with an elaborate lyricism that I love. I think about Mike Daugherty and Jennifer Higdon, people who are writing big gorgeous orchestra pieces. I think about Aaron Kernis who had an amazing song on last night’s OPERA America Songbook show. Just the scope of what he does—he’s so big and generous with what he does musically. The night before that at the New York Festival of Song there was a new song cycle by Mark Adamo—similarly an emotional and musical and formal and structural bigness. Not a hint of aphoristic standing back, not a hint of aloofness; just there, really present as a musician, as a musical mind for the audience.

FJO: One of the extraordinary things about that comment is how careful a listener you are, how devoted a listener you are to other people’s music, to other composers. You engage with other people’s music more than most composers I know.

CC: I’m really interested to hear that because I’m not aware of that, but I’m happy to hear it. I get fueled by exciting work by my peers and my colleagues. And it may have something to do with what you were talking about, about spanning past into present. I’m a sociable guy, so I like conversations, and I guess when I’m writing it’s in conversation with my peers. And, this is admitting something that I probably shouldn’t admit publicly, but I tell my students this—it’s really good to think of those old masters as just fellow people out there making a living writing music. I really try to think of all those 18th and 19th and 20th century people as not so different from us, trying to write something that makes sense to them and to make a living. I try not to deify the past and I think that makes it easier to have a conversation with it. I think there are probably a lot of composers who still are a little in the “classical music religiosity/awe” thing, in awe of greatness and therefore you can’t really talk to it because it’s too big and too impressive and so you have to separate yourself and create your own private garden. I just like talking to them all.

FJO: You like hanging out in the gardens.

CC: Yeah, I like hanging out in a lot of different gardens!

FJO: I found it very revealing when you said that nowadays you have way more company in terms of people who share your compositional aesthetic and after that when you said that you’re a very sociable person. I’m curious about what thing were like for you before that, when you were, as you put it, off in left field.

CC: Well, I guess my piece I Wish They All Could Be… speaks to it. It’s something I wrote in my 30s, but it was really a response to something I’d experienced as a teenager growing up in San Francisco in the mid and late ‘60s. I had a wonderful German émigré piano teacher, a Schnabel student, and every Saturday I was there doing my Beethoven sonatas with him. I was a very serious pianist and that was very, very important to me. But then Saturday night we were at the Avalon Ballroom listening to Janis Joplin. It probably took until I was 30 to realize that those experiences were both a part of me and that they actually could inform each other. I was lucky enough to grow up with a lot of different things going on around me, and part of coming into them on my own was figuring out how to integrate them.

I Wish They All Could Be Excerpt

The first page of the score for the solo piano version of Conrad Cummings’s I Wish They All Could Be… © 1986 by Conrad Cummings. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: I Wish They All Could Be… is obviously a line from The Beach Boys’ song “California Girls.”

CC: Yeah, exactly. I have to admit that I wrote it a little reactionarily, too. The summer before I’d been an assistant to Philip Glass at the English National Opera for a month and the staging of Akhnaten there and then I’d gone up to Orkney for Peter Maxwell Davies’s festival. So I’d spent a lot of time in the London musical world and I did get the feeling that I was being looked at as a bit of a barbarian, that I was this rough American guy that just didn’t get the right way to behave in proper English musical society. And furthermore, working with Glass?! [gasps] So when I got a commission to write a piece for the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players that they were going to premiere at the Cheltenham Festival in England the following summer, I was like “I’m gonna wear my American-ness on my sleeve.” [laughs] What could be more American than my experience growing up in San Francisco, you know, one foot in Beethoven and Mozart and one foot on the beach? So you know, it’s a piece that is about The Beach Boys and about Mozart and Beethoven and Handel.

FJO: Now, in terms of these divides, these pockets we put things in, I mean, people love to say the distinctions between classical music and popular music and all of the various subgenres of everything were created by marketers in the 20th century. But what you’re speaking to is somewhat different. There’s a certain mentality that deifies a certain kind of music to the point that it’s not allowed to be something that you can be in dialogue with.

CC: That’s exactly it! Yeah, maybe that’s true right now, that it’s easier to have a dialogue with popular music than it is to have a dialogue with classical music of the past. Yeah, maybe still, we may be still in thrall of that excessive reverence.

FJO: But as a creator, even though you’re influenced by popular music, you didn’t pursue doing popular music.

CC: I dreamed of it, but I could never quite put it together. You know, I picked up a guitar, but it didn’t work. Everyone has a fantasy as a teenager that they want to be a rock star. But I couldn’t quite take the step into doing it, so I had to, you know, try to be a rock star pianist I guess [laughs] and then just listen to a lot of rock star music.

FJO: A lot of those aesthetic divides got shattered with the advent of minimalism, but I remember minimalism being a dirty word in the early ‘80s in academic music circles. There were things that you did and there were things that you didn’t do. But you became an academic; you taught composition at Oberlin for years, you still have a relationship with Juilliard, although it’s changed a great deal.

CC: Juilliard is a very altered place right now.

FJO: But, at the time you began teaching composition at Oberlin, you went into the lion’s den with this other aesthetic.

CC: In retrospect if anyone had told me, I would’ve been “Oh, I shouldn’t do that,” but I was foolish enough to just do it and somehow made it work. Oberlin actually turned out to be a great place for that. The program that I joined and that I eventually became the director of was actually much more open than any other academic environment that I’ve ever been around. If it was interesting, you could use whatever materials you wanted and do it in the style you want. It was liberating for me in a way.

FJO: But you did say on the onset that you were in this place and no one else was there and didn’t quite get what you were doing and it seemed to me that you were sort of hinting at—and maybe I’m inferring—your academic colleagues at the time.

Cummings Ensemble at Knitting Factory

Cummings Ensemble at the Knitting Factory c. 1988, photo by Peter Flint Jr.

CC: Well, the anecdote that perfectly sums it up is when I started my ensemble and I started doing concerts at The Knitting Factory. You know, my academic colleagues thought that I’d gone hopelessly pop and The Knitting Factory referred to me as the Professor, so there you go. The part of the outfield that I ended up in didn’t have a firm position in either of these camps.

FJO: Too uptown for downtown, too downtown for uptown.

CC: Yeah, pretty much!

FJO: Now, the other divide is that you’re originally from San Francisco. People always talk about differences between East Coast and West Coast composers. You’ve lived on both coasts. Is there actually a different approach to writing music?

CC: [laughs] Oh the things you remember! Sometimes I feel like the Vampire Lestat because I can remember so many things. There are two things that I can’t believe I can remember actual conversations about: I remember as a 15-year old at Aspen having actual conversations there with my fellow musicians about whether a woman could ever be as strong a performer as a man. This was a serious conversation that men and women, you know, boys and girls, were having in 1963. I can’t believe that I lived so long ago that there were serious conversations like that. Five or six years later, I remember having serious conversations with fellow composers about whether it was possible to write music if you lived in California [laughs]. I can’t believe we had those conversations, but we did!

FJO: But aside from growing up there, California has remained a huge influence for you going all the way back to your Beast Songs, which use texts by the iconic San Francisco poet Michael McClure, all the way up to your recent opera The Golden Gate, which is based on Vikram Seth’s novel set in San Francisco. And yet you moved East, first to Ohio to be at Oberlin and now New York City.

CC: Yeah, well I think I have that particular affection for a place that comes from not living there anymore, so it’s invested with a romance that it might not have if it was a part of my daily life.

FJO: So do you feel you could’ve done the kind of music you’d wanted to if you’d stayed?

CC: Oh, I’m sure. But it’s hard to imagine different paths than what you took. When I finished high school I was planning to go to UC Santa Cruz, which was like trailer parks in the redwood forests at that point; it had just opened. It was all the right philosophy, but Yale happened to be on its new admissions kick and they wanted to be national and they wanted to have a lot of people from public schools and they wanted to have people with unusual traits. And so they came and found me because I’d built a couple of harpsichords and I was also performing harpsichord concerts around. They thought that was weird enough and so they basically said, “Come east and try it out.” Santa Cruz said I could always transfer back but Yale said, “You have really only one chance.” So it was an opportunity. But sometimes I think what if I’d stayed in Santa Cruz? I think the zigzag would’ve been a different zigzag, but I’m pretty sure I would’ve ended up in the same place 15 years later aesthetically and personally.

FJO: But given those aesthetics, how’d you wind up at IRCAM?

CC: Well, there’s another part, I guess. O.K., there’s the Schnabel student piano lessons, there’s the Avalon Ballroom auditorium, me as a 15, 16-year old. There’s also the fact that I basically grew up in my stepfather’s dance studio. He was a modern dancer; he’d danced with Graham and he’d been Louis Horst’s assistant. He came to San Francisco and started a company and a school. And he was a dedicated modernist. So I was hearing Bartók at his studio when I was 7 or 8, and I was hearing Le marteau sans maître. I can practically whistle it because he choreographed it in 1962 or something. Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge was one of the last things he choreographed. This was just part of life. I do admit that I remember as a 10-year old arriving home with my mom from a concert at his studio and asking, “Mom, why does the music he uses sound so ugly?” And she said, “Well, it’s modern music, I think.” [laughs] So, yeah, the reverence with which my stepfather talked about Boulez and Stockhausen was, you know, a big part. And also the fact that he made his own tape collages for his own scores and there he was slicing magnetic tape on the dining room table and assembling stuff, so it all seemed natural. There was a lot of admiration for it. And I love Paris. So I thought, this is a way of going to that part of my tradition and really immersing myself in it and getting to live in Paris for a while.

FJO: Well, if you were an American barbarian in England working with Philip Glass, what on Earth were you at IRCAM?

CC: [Laughs] I was developing my barbarian credentials at IRCAM. It was a great experience. Also part of growing up in San Francisco with a stepfather who’d moved from New York and whose dancers would be two or three years in the company, then POOF! They’d go off to New York to join Paul Taylor or something. So there was always this gravity toward the east. And my mother was an immigrant from Russia as a teenager, so she had this very Eurocentric view of things. So everything was tilting back toward there; it was a pilgrimage. Let’s go and really see what this European experience is about. And the work I got to do there was super exciting and by the end of it I was like, “Oh, I really am American, aren’t I? I really like the anarchic character of our country and its cultural life. I really like the fact that nobody is subsidized so everyone is scrambling. And, you know, no one has been knighted by the president to be THE leader of contemporary music.”

FJO: The leader of contemporary music—Boulez. Did you get to work with him at IRCAM?

CC: We had a few long conversations, that was about it. I worked most closely with Gerald Bennett, who was the head of one of the divisions and we got to work on some very exciting software that surprisingly entered the rest of my life. It was the first experiment in synthesizing human singing voices. There had been a lot of work in computer transformation of singing voices but there hadn’t ever been any effort to synthesize believable singing voices from scratch. And so it involved a lot of study of singer anatomy and singer acoustics. And it turned out to be really useful for writing for voice later. Who knew?

FJO: I know Charles Dodge did those early experiments with computerized speech songs at Bell Laboratories. While what you did with Beast Songs, which was a by-product of your IRCAM period, was somewhat different, I will say that it’s a much more rarified sound world than the sound world that you’ve come to be known for.

CC: I was still finding my way. You know, that was 1979, 1980. I’d only finished my degree at Columbia in ’77, I think. The thing I remember about Columbia was feeling incredibly free while I was a student there. Really feeling like I could write what I wanted to and that I had a lot of support. Then when I finally wrapped up there and about six months later, it was whoa! That was an illusion! I had no idea what freedom was. Now I got it. I had no idea at the time how subtly constrained I was by the expectations and the environment that I was working in. So in a way, my own search for myself started after that. And I guess it was a trajectory from ’77-’78 to the big break, which was 1983. It was only four or five years from the sound world of Beast Songs—which, by the way [laughs], I took around to some of the biggies at IRCAM; I was very proud of it. I thought it was really quite a beautiful piece. And Péter Eötvös said, “Conrad, there are too many repeated notes in this piece. You are doing too many repeated notes.” [laughs] Then I took it to Vinko Globokar and he was like, “Where are the special instrumental effects in this?! You are only using the instruments the way they normally play.” [laughs] Berio said, “Cool piece, I like it,” so…

FJO: Now, one of the things I find really interesting about Beast Songs, in terms of where your aesthetic went after that, is the ambiguity of it. You’re setting these Michael McClure poems which combine words that are comprehensible with invented language—

CC: [simultaneously] They’re mostly these sorts of growls and roars and things. Yeah, yeah.

FJO: —and then you’re setting for a human voice but also this computer voice, which, as you described them in the notes for the eventual recording that came out on CRI, is beyond gender. That also seems to be a running thread. In your opera Photo Op there are two singers—a man and a woman—but their gender is really not the issue. They were just voice types that you were working with and I seem to trace that back to Beast Songs and this whole idea of a genderless voice.

CC: Well, maybe it was something that happened late at night in one of the underground studios at IRCAM. It was a very kind of brain stem experience because you’re constantly refining these sounds that start out as brute, totally electronic sounding sounds and it’s late at night and you’re going through pass after pass. It turns out that there’s a threshold phenomenon and it is really startling. Maybe it takes 15, 20 minutes for the old main frame to chew through the numbers and put out the next 10 or 15 seconds of sound. You’re waiting and then it comes out and, O.K., alright the sound’s getting a little better, and then on the next pass, Oh my God! There’s someone else in the room! There’s this brute, way in the back of your brain, identification: This is my species; this is the sound of my species. And then you think what gender is it? Those are the two things that, as an organism, you have to identify: is it my species is the first question and the second question is, if it is, what gender is it. These are so deep in our neurology. It was really extraordinary to experience them in this brute form. It was like OH MY GOD IT’S HUMAN (and it’s a guy). Or OH MY GOD IT’S HUMAN (and it’s a girl). Then we discovered that you could transition between the two without a moment where you could identify where it changed and we were like “Well, of course we’re gonna do that!”

Beast Songs Excerpt

An excerpt from the score of Conrad Cummings’s Beast Songs © 1979 by Conrad Cummings. Text by Michael McClure. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: The sociological and political ramifications of that are very interesting because it challenges the whole notion of male versus female being a binary. Of course, reality is a lot more complex than binaries.

CC: Well, hey, I’m the guy who was quite convinced I was straight for 20 years of my adult life until it finally dawned on me that I was gay, so I’m quite aware of how ambiguous life can be. [laughs]

FJO: So does that inform the gender ambiguity in some of your music?

Photo-Op the interview

From the Ridge Theater production of Photo-Op at the La MaMa Annex, 1992. Photo courtesy of Conrad Cummings.

CC: I don’t know. In Photo Op I wasn’t thinking so much of the ambiguity of gender as I was of the richness of possible relationships. By having a soprano and a baritone singing, delivering stump speeches, more or less, there were so many different relationships that they could have with each other. As the piece came into shape for me, as I was writing it, it can be candidate and opponent, it can be candidate and running mate, it can be candidate and spouse. Now, given the genders, you’ve got at least six possibilities there. The woman can be the candidate, the man can be the spouse or vice versa. The woman can be the president, the man can be the V.P., or vice versa. I liked this shifting sense of who they might be and what their relationships might be to each other. That keeps something very rich in the span of an hour piece while you’re learning what their relationship might be.

FJO: What’s amazing about Photo Op is that you have two candidates and they say the exact same thing.

CC: Pretty much.

FJO: The only thing that is different is their gender. It’s a different vocal range, but they’re spouting the same positions. It’s a wonderful commentary on the idea that although the opposing candidates are supposed to be different, they’re really exactly the same.

Photo Op Excerpt

An excerpt from the score of Conrad Cummings’s Photo Op © 1989 by Conrad Cummings. Text by James Siena. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

CC: You’ll enjoy looking at the video of the UrbanArias production from September because the other thing about it is the piece turns out to be a wonderful invitation to a director because all it says in the score is “soprano, baritone.” So every time it’s been staged, the director has had to come up with identities and a story to project around it. And in this case, down in D.C., it was candidate and spouse. The man was the candidate—a wonderful, wonderful singer with a striking resemblance to Romney—and the soprano was an African American woman who had elements of Michelle Obama but also of Hillary Clinton. And I’ll be damned if they didn’t come up with a fabulous story that just runs seamlessly through it, involving, you know, team work and campaigning together and disillusionment and maybe a scandal and maybe exposure of a scandal and then maybe a terrible opposition of the husband and wife over the scandal and maybe the wife picking up the mantel of the husband’s candidacy and carrying him and then, maybe, the whole campaign organization re-putting themselves into position and then somehow coming out on top at the end, but at what cost?

Photo Op UrbanArias

Laurie Williamson and Michael Mayes in the UrbanArias Production of Photo Op, photo courtesy of Conrad Cummings.

FJO: That’s so different from the piece I know! [laughs]

CC: Right! It was really good that we had some very detailed talks about it with the creative team early on and then I carefully stayed away until the first orchestra rehearsal in the theater. My experience is that when people produce my operas, it’s always a good idea to stay away in the beginning because there are a lot of things that if I saw them early on I would totally freak out. But if I see them later, it’s like, they’ve made them work. They can show it to me and I can see, I never would’ve thought of this but, wow, is it good.

FJO: Now once again, this goes back to the beginning, this is not a typical composerly response to abdicate that much control.

CC: I’ve gotten so much better about that in the last 10 years—that if you’re going to collaborate with people, make your selections carefully. For example, John Henry Davis expressed a lot of interest in being involved in The Golden Gate, but I didn’t pick anyone until I saw someone whose work I saw and thought I can trust. Then I saw several pieces of his, particularly one large production that he did at Avery Fisher. He then directed The Golden Gate workshop brilliantly and was a tremendous part of the creative team doing the rewrite that led up to that. He’s a full collaborator; I let him do his thing. It just seemed so important to pick carefully and then have confidence. And that’s how Steven Osgood has been as a conductor. That’s how the whole team with Bob Wood down in D.C. has been [for Photo Op]. It’s a little bit like being a teacher; it’s a similar impulse. Do you want to micro-control the people you’re working with or do you want to give them what they need to flower most fully as who they are and what they can do? I’ve learned to pick carefully and then allow.

FJO: In terms of your allowing things to evolve, it’s interesting to compare Photo Op and The Golden Gate. In Photo Op, you only identify a male and female character and they sing the exact same things. The Golden Gate is much more elaborate than that, but it also has an unconventional set-up. It’s based on a novel, but it’s a novel written completely as a chain of sonnets, even though they flow so naturally you can sometimes forget that it’s all sonnets as you read it. You’ve done something similar to that in the opera by having the characters both sing dialogue as well as narrate the story around them—you’re actually hearing them sing a novel rather than a play which is weird dramatically but it totally works.

CC: That’s the thing. It does, yeah. Who knew, right?

FJO: It’s evolved over a very long period of time. At first was it going to be a plot driven opera? At what point did it become what it is now?

CC: The book came out in 1986. I read it. I fell in love with it. I got in touch with the author; we got to know each other. I knew I wanted to do an opera about it, but there was no way I could figure out how to do it. So I wrote a series of concert pieces taking fragments of the text. And they went over very well.

Then I saw a teeny little workshop of 20 minutes of a new piece called Gatz done by Elevator Repair Service, an experimental theater company here in the city. It had to do with The Great Gatsby. Three years later, it was a six-and-a-half hour verbatim reading of the entire Great Gatsby, fully staged in an unbelievable way that has now toured the world and, when it finally made it to the Public Theater last year, it was cited as the theatrical event of the year by most critics. You’re aware of the “he saids” and the “she saids” for about the first 15 minutes and then you aren’t at all for the next five-and-a-half hours. Yet you have the beauty and the rhythm and the magic of the book. And I was like, “O.K., there’s my idea!” But I still didn’t quite believe it would work.

I was in a workshop with American Opera Projects and Steven Osgood. We had to prepare a libretto and the night before I was like, “Oh, I don’t know what I’m doing but let’s give it a try.” And we put it out on the table and Ned Canty, a wonderful director, and Mark Steven Campbell, a brilliant librettist, were there and we read it and the two of them looked across to me at the table and said, “You have to write this opera.” And I was like, “What, really?” “Yeah, it’s there.” “O.K.” And what it was was this mixture of third person and first person.

Golden Gate Cast

The cast for The Golden Gate (l.-r.): Kevin Burdette (Phil), David Adam Moore (John), Katrina Thurman (Liz), Keith Jameson (Ed), and Hai-Ting Chinn (Jan). The scene is a bustling Chinese restaurant in the Mission. Photo courtesy Conrad Cummings.

A long process of developing that libretto led me to one really important principle, which is any time any character is describing what another character is doing or thinking it has to also have emotional weight for the person who is saying it. As soon as I figured that out the whole thing really coalesced. It’s paradoxical that it works so strongly, because you would think that the structure where you’re moving in and out of first person, where people are talking to each other but sometimes they’re even referring to themselves in the third person, you would think that it would have a distancing effect, but it just doesn’t seem to. And of course the fundamental reason to do it that way is that there is such music in Vikram Seth’s verse and I absolutely wanted to capture and keep that music. As soon as you start slicing it down to just the dialogue, just the direct quotes, the verbal music’s gone. So you have to have it. It’s about a close group of friends and they’re always saying “did you hear what so-and-so said to so-and-so last night?” You know, they’re always narrating each other’s lives. It’s part of being this really close circle; often people narrate themselves. Often people are like, “Wow, I did that, didn’t I? And then I walked into the room. Yeah, I did, didn’t I?” So it seems like it has resonance.

Golden Gate VS Excerpt

An excerpt from the Vocal Score of The Golden Gate Act One Scene Two © 2006-2011 by Conrad Cummings. Text adapted from the novel by Vikram Seth. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: Now in terms of the music in it, you have a character who’s a visual artist but who also plays drums in a punk rock band. Your music was quite an unusual take on punk rock.

CC: Well, wait ‘til you hear it in the full orchestration! [laughs] It’s really good.

Golden Gate FS Excerpt

How Conrad Cummings evokes punk rock in the orchestration of The Golden Gate © 2006-2011 by Conrad Cummings. Text adapted from the novel by Vikram Seth. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: I can’t wait! Then you have the protagonist and his then girlfriend going to hear Schoenberg and Brahms at a string quartet concert, and that gave you an excuse to do tropes on Schoenberg and Brahms that are really hysterical, I think.

CC: Well, it was fun. It was an invitation that I was going to accept.

FJO: But the text also offered you another invitation, which was a loaded gun, because it references Michael Jackson’s song “Beat It.”

CC: Yeah, two characters meet at a disco. “He sees her face across the crowd through Michael Jackson’s taut rendition of ‘Beat It’ shatteringly loud.” So you have to have it, right? At least you have to have some reference to it. There was a little bit of a concern after the workshop that there might be some rights issues in terms of quoting the basic lick from “Beat It” and so I explored it legally. It’s an interesting legal matter. Everyone agrees that it’s fair use. However, it turns out that the way fair use doctrine works legally is it’s the user’s responsibility to defend against any claim of infringement. So while the law says it’s fair use, all the owner has to do is say it isn’t and then you have to defend in court that it is. So the price tag suddenly is like, whoa, I don’t want to get into this. So after some very, very careful research, it turns out that it’s possible to change it just enough—what I particularly enjoyed was inverting the whole pattern [laughs]—that surprisingly it reads as that’s what we’re talking about here. But it’s not the music by any means. There’s our solution.

FJO: It’s it and yet it’s not it.

CC: Yeah.

FJO: So it becomes more like your referencing of punk rock.

CC: It’s not punk rock. It just tells you this is pointing at it. It just seems far more powerful to reference it in a way that has a little bit of my personal stamp on it as opposed to just take it out and drop it in.

FJO: Now that’s been a hallmark once again, the full arc going back to all of these pieces. You know, I Wish They All Could Be… references all of this music without directly quoting any of it. It’s all your own music. And another piece of yours that sort of turns the tables this way is your early electronic piece Zephyr’s Lesson. Here you have this studio electronic piece that because of its subject matter is referencing ancient sounding very simple music. But once again, it’s completely your own music and not any direct quotation from anything. And you’re also totally subverting the whole raison d’être of electronic music with what you did. Back then creating electronic music was about creating music that no human could play, whereas I imagine your piece could be reworked for an instrumental ensemble.

CC: Yeah, now for sure, maybe not so easily back then. Part of the pleasure was that the idea of Zephyr was the god of the west wind that blows favorably on lovers and instructs lovers in the ways of love, that it was nice that the voice of Zephyr was invisible. That the players on stage were being wafted by his voice…but you don’t actually see him.

FJO: Now, in terms of going against a challenge, earlier we talked a bit about going against the grain, being the barbarian. Here you wrote a piece of electronic music that could very well have been done by an acoustic instrument. It was done actually for the sake of making a more dramatic performance rather than for a specific musical end. Did colleagues react to that the way Globokar did with Beast Songs?

CC: Of course. Well, even more about it, Zephyr basically speaks in sine waves and at the time it was considered that everything we’re about right now is richness and complexity of sound. How could you possibly write something that’s just these simple sine waves? And I’m like, “Well, I think they’re really beautiful and I think they really complement the richness of the acoustic instruments.” To have this dialogue between the richness of an actual acoustic flute, in dialogue with a little, wiggly sine wave.

There’s an important piece that you’re probably not familiar with that I’ve got to get you familiar with. It’s called Eros and Psyche and it’s the first opera I did. It was a commission from Oberlin; they all thought I was crazy. They had a 150-year anniversary commissioning program and they very loyally listed every ensemble and every faculty member was invited and I saw Opera Theater, so I said, “O.K.! I’ll write an opera!” And they were like, “What?!” [laughs] But I had a really good relationship with the opera director. We’d worked on a lot of projects already and she was like, “O.K.! Let’s try it! I read Andrew Porter’s review of Peter Sellars’s production of Handel’s Orlando that was happening in Boston. I got on a plane to go see it and came back knowing what my opera was going to be. The Eros and Psyche story, it’s just a beautiful piece of literature actually written in 2nd century Rome that’s thought of as a myth, but is actually some very sweet literature. And as it emerged, the whole thing was in da capo arias. Totally diatonic. At least the vocal lines were. And I thought, “O.K., I’ll go back and I’ll make it properly modern music by what I do with the orchestra.” But then when it came time to do the orchestration, I was like, “I don’t like any of this. I just want these completely transparent triads. This music is going to tell the story in the clearest, leanest way possible.”

They mounted a fabulous production of it and I kept thinking that it was the first time that I’d experienced a real public. You know, when you write in a university setting and you write sort of new music things it’s for a particular group of people who either know you or are one or two degrees of separation away and they’re committed to this particular world. But the experience of having an opera house full of people who were just there to see a show and have them yelling and screaming and going wild over this thing. I had no idea that I could do this. I wanted to do more of it. It was an audience that was everything from aficionados and opera lovers to just people who heard it was a great show and wanted to see it, and it changed things for me. I remember showing that score to Jacob Druckman, who’d been a very important teacher for me, and he looked at it with a great deal of puzzlement and said, “Conrad, I see nothing of you in this.” And I was like, “Jacob, this is the first thing I’ve ever written that I feel is totally me.” [laughs]

Eros and Psyche curtain call

The curtain call from the Oberlin Opera Theater production of Eros and Psyche (1983). Photo courtesy of Conrad Cummings.

FJO: The other thing that’s striking about your taking on writing an opera at that time is that unlike nowadays it was quite difficult for a contemporary composer to get a new opera done anywhere then.

CC: I have to tell you a story about that. So Phil Glass had been a really important advisor through all of this and he looked at drafts of it. He’d been on tour for the two or three months after the premiere of the opera and I was doing what you do to try to get another production. Three months later he comes back from tour and I walk over to his house on 3rd Street. I walk up the stairs and ring the doorbell. He opens the door, I say, “Hi Phil.” He looks at me, looks me up and down. I haven’t said anything other than “Hi Phil” and he says, “I get it. You thought the hard part was going to be writing it the first time. You didn’t realize that getting the second production is far harder, did you?” He saw it just in the look in my face! It was amazing! I hadn’t said a word. He could just tell by how frustrated and discouraged I was.

FJO: So what did he tell you to do?

CC: Oh, write another one. [laughs]

FJO: As opposed to pushing for another production?

CC: Well, yeah, keep it out there, sure, but don’t let waiting for a second production keep you from going on to the next thing.

FJO: Have there been subsequent productions?

CC: Of this piece, no. I keep dreaming of it. It’s a piece that’s good for a school, because it involves the largest possible cast and there’s even a classical ensemble on stage that’s at 432 [Hz], which is a quartertone below modern pitch In the scene where Eros seduces Psyche, it goes back and forth from pit orchestra to the classical ensemble a quartertone higher, a whole series up quarter-tone upward modulations. To make that work, you have to have a fortepiano and a Classical flute and Classical violins probably easier to do at a school, but I’d have no objections if an opera company wanted to do it.

FJO: Wow, I would love this.

CC: And it has the oracle. The Oracle at Delphi sings in the IRCAM computer voice. She’s this wild-haired woman and there’s a speaker behind her onstage and she’s mouthing it. She just goes “Ah ah oo ah ah,” while the character who’s the priest is interpreting what she is saying. And then she goes crazier and crazier and it goes from a super high C to a low G below the bass clef, and it usually brings the house down. [laughs]

FJO: So let’s talk some more about getting an opera done then versus getting an opera done now. It’s fair to say that opera has become the main focus of your life as a composer.

CC: Yeah, I just love it so much. I love the storytelling. I love the scope of it. I love the intrinsically collaborative nature of it.

FJO: Getting back to The Golden Gate, one of the things I find so fascinating about it—and mind you, I only know it through workshop readings—is how dramatically intense it is when it’s done as a workshop reading. Just as the libretto is this thing that’s going in and out of first person and third person, by having it without sets and having the cast mimic sleeping and even seduction scenes standing up is extremely effective. And at some point, you shatter the fourth wall and you no longer worry, the mind fills in the rest of it. In a way I would hate to see it done with a full production because I love that aspect of it.

CC: I think that’s part of the paradox. That given the invitation to fill in with your own imagination what’s happening around these intense relationships, as an audience you become more engaged. And any production of this piece will have that element to it. Don’t worry. There’s never going to be a literal production of it because—it’s not like I wrote it with that in mind, but I was happy to see, as it took shape, that there never would be because there are way too many scenes, ever! And the flow between one setting and another setting is vastly too fast to ever be able to have a physical set trucking on or another thing trucking off. It’s always going to be suggestive, so I think we’re safe.

FJO: One piece that we didn’t talk about yet, which we probably should talk about, is Positions 1956, the opera that you did with Michael Korie, which evolved through a very different process than The Golden Gate where you were working with a pre-existing text. We didn’t talk too much about the process of working with James Siena on his texts for Photo Op and how collaborative that process was, but I take it the project with Michael Korie was a real collaboration rather than getting a finished libretto for you to set.

CC: Well, it felt like a real collaboration, but the latter is closer to what it was. The first part of it we did, the part that’s based on 1950s marriage manuals, we did quite a long time ago. It was a concert piece. And basically, I said, “Michael, I want a 30-minute piece. What do you want to do?” And he said, “I want to do something instructional in nature.” And then he gave me two options. The first one I hesitate to mention here, and the second was 1950s sex manuals. So I said, “O.K.! Let’s do 1950s sex manuals!” And he knew my music well and three weeks later he basically presented me with this brilliant sequence of numbers, every one of which was a sex position. But what the amazing thing is that it actually charted the relationship of a newlywed couple. It appeared to be only instructions, but there was this very powerful emotional narrative running through it. So we always wanted to make a full evening out of it, but we kept scratching our heads. We could never quite figure out how. And then last summer all the stars aligned: he had time, there was a commission from UrbanArias and he was like, “I got it. I got it! 1950s physique magazines. We’ll be in the gym. It’ll be the groom and a tenor will be the trainer and then the third part will be social dancing, the tenor will become the instructor.” I said, “O.K., I’m ready!”

Jesse Blumberg and Amadee Moore in the 2012 UrbanArias production of Positions 1956. Photo by Clinton Brandhagen, courtesy of Conrad Cummings.

Jesse Blumberg and Amadee Moore in the 2012 UrbanArias production of Positions 1956. Photo by Clinton Brandhagen, courtesy of Conrad Cummings.

I had to wait a long time for these lyrics, because two shows that had been put on hiatus for him that are both coming to Broadway next year got un-hiatused about 15 minutes after we agreed to do this project, but when the stuff arrived, I said, “Michael, it’s perfect. There’s not a thing I want to change. Let me just start writing.” He’s the only librettist I can imagine working that way with. Well, actually probably with Mark Campbell I could imagine the same way. And I had to write this stuff really fast, but it was possible because of the dramatic progression through the other two parts—I shouldn’t talk so enthusiastically about my own work, but I can talk that way about Michael’s work. It’s so brilliant, so amazing! And I’m still in awe about what it turned out to be. Because here you have an 80-minute piece that is a sequence of instructions: descriptions of how to have sex, then how to do exercises, and then how to do dances. It’s this panorama of, as he puts it, all the things that fucked us up as kids. [laughs] And it’s also this span of a year in the life of a newlywed couple, trying to work out in the context of this difficult 1950s time, how they’re going to build a life together. And it’s so moving in the end, because they get to something.

FJO: There’s one final area I’d like to talk with you about which will probably take us to another place entirely. You talked quite a bit about different teachers and the reactions they had to you. And you sort of alluded to teaching and working with students, comparing it to letting pieces go when you’re writing an opera. You’ve taught a lot of composers, generations of them in fact, and many of whom have gone on to really do exciting things.

CC: I’ve got to say that my partner Robert complains about it when we travel, “Conrad, yet another one of your former students wants to have dinner? Can’t we just be on vacation?” [laughs] I find it very touching. By the way, he’s a wonderful singer-songwriter: Robert Katz. You should know him.

FJO: But I’m just curious about the seeds that you plant in your students and the role you’ve continued to have in many of their lives. You keep up with your students in a way that’s really admirable. You’ve been such a mentor to them. So I wondered when you talked in the beginning about once feeling alone in left field with your musical aesthetics but nowadays there you have a lot more company, might part of that be because you’ve had all these students to influence?

CC: I absolutely hope not! [laughs] That’d be terrible! That would be terrible. I like to think that the people I’ve worked with over the years have found their own wonderful voices; that I’ve helped them to trust their own instincts, to trust where they want to go. I’ve moved obstacles out of their way when I could. I’ve suggested ways to find a door when they’re pounding their heads against a brick wall. I’ve created an environment where they feel safe to try things and where they feel like they can really plumb into the deepest part of themselves and that they’ll be safe and they don’t have to put a façade of correctness or theoretical underpinning or whatever the thing is that protects you from revealing your own self in music. Those are the things I care about.

10 thoughts on “Conrad Cummings: In Conversation With My Peers

  1. Noah Creshevsky

    Oteri’s interview captures the spirit of a composer who opens doors for students, colleagues, and just about anyone who comes his way. Ultimately, Conrad opens doors for himself because his nature allows him to see the positive side of whatever he experiences. His music and his personality have brought a feeling of acceptance and safety to many (myself included). Life is richer because of Conrad Cummings. This man, who readily hears the “wonderful voices” of his teachers, students, and colleagues, brings dignity and honor to himself by recognizing the decency he sees in others.

    Reply
  2. John

    I actually met Conrad before ever having heard of him or his music. I was waiting for the Metro North train in Westchester after wrapping up a shift as a guitar teacher at a summer music camp. He saw my guitar and asked if I was a musician. As most of us know, nine times out of ten the person asking this has no musical background and is just curious, but after a minute or two it was clear that I was speaking to an interesting and intelligent musician. We ended up sharing a seat and having a nice conversation on the train until my stop. It’s experiences like these that make me love New York. Unfortunately I never got in touch with Conrad after that but I’m glad to see his music getting recognition on NewMusicBox (and I hope to make it to some future performances).

    Reply
    1. Conrad Cummings

      Hi John,
      That was a fun conversation. Keep in touch and let me know how your musical life is going.
      All best,
      Conrad

      Reply
  3. Jane Dembner

    Enjoyed this very much. I remember Conrad’s instructions to us for one assignment many moons ago in a classroom at Oberlin. Go to a concert of your choosing and let us know what piece you liked best and why. Then select one that you did not like and tell me how you could have listened differently so you would have liked it. Wow. I’ve used that wonder change-it-up mindset countless times to get the most out of seemingly boring, indecipherable or unappealing performances, meetings or interactions. Works like a charm every time. Thank you Conrad.

    Reply
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