David Rakowski: The Piano Etude Guy

Frank J. Oteri: Do you try to compose music every day? What’s your routine?

David Rakowski: My routine is that when I’m teaching, it takes so much energy and time that it’s hard to concentrate on any substantial piece. When I know I’ve got consecutive weekends where I don’t have to something as service to the university, I’ll block out time for a piano etude or a little piece of some sort. And when I’ve got vacations, that’s when I try to go as wild as possible. So it’s like saving up. You know, the last day of classes is December 14th, so on December 15th I’ll start this etude; on the 19th I’m going to start this other piece and try to get a movement of it done before we have to go back, and so forth. I have to block out my time that way. I have to organize it and know that I’m going to have a block where nothing else is going to be happening.

For that same reason, I also do a lot of colony hopping. Colony hopping has been very good for me because it did help me write a lot more. I did two colonies this last summer and last time I was on leave which was a year and a half ago, I had a semester off and I went to four colonies. I got a lot of work done. I was actually having a competition with Laura Schwendinger. We both have done 25 colony visits. That includes nine times at MacDowell and six times at Yaddo. I started in 1991. I heard from other people that they had a great time at colonies and got a lot of work done. I met some nice people, and at the time it was good for me. I had a year off with a grant and a little bit of salary from Columbia back in ’91, so I went to the VCCA, then the MacDowell Colony, then the Djerassi Foundation, then to Yaddo, and then I went to Bellagio.

What I found nice was not only the time you get by yourself—you know, I can get time by myself at home. It’s not only the not having to cook or having to deal with the mail and so forth; I can somehow manage that in a small timeframe by myself. But it’s the other people that you meet: people who do things differently from you, other composers who are stylistically or aesthetically different from you that you would not normally meet as an academic, especially since I was an uptown academic at the time. I met Bob Ian and Bunny Marcus at MacDowell my first time. She was a real trip. It also gave me the time to experience things in the other arts that I otherwise wouldn’t have.

It was a lot of fun getting to know all these people and interacting with them on a level where the professional world had nothing to do with anything. “Are you going to finish that muffin?” as compared to “Aren’t you ever going to finish that piece?” It was nice to get to know them, but also to talk about music and architecture and visual art and writing with people who were doing it and were there for the same reason and finding that there were connections. Things like getting people into a room: now think of something for them to say. Well I do that all the time. You know, we’re in the orchestra room and now they have to say something or now we’re into the part of the piece where it’s just the strings, but now they have to say something. I had never realized before then that writers can do something like get to a place and then have no idea what to do and then have to eventually work on it or talk to people, or do something else.

I got to know some really nice people, and people with whom I’ve collaborated too. Like I’ve used April Bernard’s poetry, I collaborated with Joe Diemer on various projects and, as I mentioned already, Rick Moody gives me musical ideas in the strangest ways that are very gratifying.

FJO: So how long does it typically take you to write what you would consider a substantial piece of music—something like, say, Ten of Kind or Cerberus or either of the piano trios—from start to finish?

DR: It’s gotten shorter. I had some sort of speed up in about 1991, around the same time I was not writing so much like Berg anymore. Suddenly, um, how do I express this? I’ve had conversations with friends about what it means to be intuitive, compared to what it means to be close to a chart, or close to some sort of a bigger idea when you write a piece. There was a certain point where I stopped acquiring technique and stopped having to go to the chart, and it felt like I could do all that stuff just in my head. It felt intuitive, even though I know that it came from a lot of training and a lot of extracting buttstix: discovering chords and finding the things that work best for what I was trying to do.

My first symphony took me a year to write in 1990. The first movement of Cerberus in 1992 took seven days to write, and the other three movements took about two and a half weeks to write. This is when I was discovering artist colonies and how fast you can write there. Ten of Kind took three months, with a month off in between. Hyperblue took more than a year, because I did a beginning and stopped. I had no idea what to do next. A year later, I came back to it and wrote the whole piece in about three weeks. The big piece called Cantina that I just wrote for the Barlow Prize took me six weeks to write. That’s 28 minutes. And my piano concerto—which is 33 minutes—took two weekends, a pause of a year, and then two and half months to write.

FJO: So it really doesn’t necessarily have to do with the duration of the piece or the forces, because Hyperblue is a piano trio and it’s only 12 minutes.

DR: Yeah. Hyperblue was one of those watershed pieces for me. I was thinking at the time, I’ve been writing all these complicated pieces that need conductors, and now I’m writing for something smaller and I still wanted it to sound kind of complicated. I mean this is still a buttstix. It occurred to me that in order to get a different kind of sound from the piano trio than we’re accustomed to, one really cool thing would be to have everyone playing fast unisons. And actually, as a sidebar, I asked the three members of the trio for the first three notes of the piece. Violinist Jerry Itzkoff said F. Lois Shapiro said G-flat. And Rhonda Rider said, “B-flat sounds like a good note to me.” So that’s the first three notes of the piece, and that’s sort of the main harmony of the piece, and so forth. But the idea of starting with fast unisons and then them seeming so fast that they splintered into pieces, that started with that piece. I did that for actually six, seven, eight years. And I still do it at various levels.

FJO: Your clarinet quintet does that.

DR: Yes, it does, especially the slow movement. But I was trying to stay in unison longer. I was trying to make you wait even longer for it to break apart. But that was a watershed piece because of the way it used rhythm. It was much more pulsed than anything I’d written in years. I finally felt comfortable doing motor rhythms, which I just had never done before. And it also seemed to be freer in terms of the way phrases worked and the way things went.

FJO: You said that the etudes occupy a special place because they have the funny titles, but you’ve got funny titles for so many of your pieces.

DR: Yeah, I know.

FJO: One of the funniest is the title of your clarinet quintet—

DR:Take Jazz Chords, Make Strange.

FJO: Yeah, what’s that about?

DR: It’s a very complicated set of things going one after another. When I took a course in score preparation at NEC, there was one jazzer in the class who said, “You atonal composers think you’re writing such complicated music, but we all know that it’s just: take jazz chords, make strange.” And then there’s a Greg Sandow article where he said that Bülent Arel used to say that, “How to make modern music? Take jazz chord, make strange.” When I got to Princeton, inside one of the stalls in the men’s room on the second floor of the music building, it said, “Uncle Milty’s secret formula for the composition of new music: take jazz chords, make strange.” It was coming at me from all angles, so I had to use it. And it was supposed to be kind of a light piece because it was to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Brandeis University. The Lydian String Quartet asked for it—they were doing an American series at the time—and so I just thought it would be a nice light title to go with a nice sort of light piece like that. You want to ask me about any other titles?

FJO: Not yet. I want to stick with this one for a while longer because I was listening to it and trying to find those jazz chords in it, and I wasn’t sure what they were.

DR: Oh, I made changes. I made sure that every harmony in the piece could be construed in some world—maybe in Mars, I don’t know—as a jazz chord. I don’t remember what the first chord is, but everything is some sort of slightly altered major triad with an added flat II, or something like that. But they don’t function like jazz chords do. They just come one after another the way I put them together.

FJO: As long as we’re talking about functionality and compositional language here, you keep using the word atonal to describe what you do. Is that a fair word?

DR: Yeah, that’s close enough. Atonal is sort of lingua franca for a kind of music that doesn’t use diatonic scales and triads. So I use it. I think of my music as tonal. Every piece has its own tonal center and voice leading, and sonorities that I tend to use more than other sonorities, and ways of getting to places rhythmically and harmonically that are a lot like, say, what Brahms does over a long range of structures in voice leading. But there are no priority sonorities and no priority scales. There are no filters like that. There are simply just the chords that feel good to me, and when I get to a place and this sounds like the right chord, that’s sort of where I stop.

FJO: Tone rows?

DR: I don’t use tone rows. I only used a tone row once and that was a jazz ensemble piece I wrote for the Brandeis Jazz Ensemble called Overderive. It was way before I was affiliated with Brandeis.

FJO: That’s a fun piece.

DR: I did everything I knew how to do with twelve-tone technique, and then I just moved on. That’s the only 12-tone piece I ever wrote. Hyperblue, Cerberus, and Sesso e Violenza all have a repeating cantus firmus. There’s something usually like 15 or 20 notes long that’s going at a slow tempo against whatever the surface is. And it just keeps going over and over again, usually in the same register and usually at about the same speed. I haven’t done that in awhile either, but that’s the closest I’ve gotten to a tone row.

FJO: But two of your four heroes, Berg and Martino, used tone rows.

DR: Yeah, yeah. Well, what interested me about Martino was again, he had sort of a sense of both using rhythm and gesture to get to really big moments, which I thought were really exciting. And if you get a little bit closer on the surface, you saw that he was doing things, probably in voice leading, that I wasn’t able to catch, but I could sort of hear as important. It’s just the way he leads up to the big moments. I love big moments. I love big moments in my own music, and everybody else’s music. It’s great to say that I’ve got a big moment, but it’s really hard to write one. It’s also hard to write one that’s different from the last one you wrote.

FJO: You have a rather interesting approach to movements. You tend to do attacca movements.

DR: I’m bad at writing endings.

FJO: But those ending are usually the big moment. And I think you’ve even referenced Dvorak saying that Dvorak just goes on and on with his endings.

DR: In the chamber music, yeah. I heard a piece in San Francisco that ended five times. I just couldn’t stand it. When I end a piece, it’s got to be really over. Actually, in the last five or eight years, I’ve been writing more movements that are separate, like in Ten of a Kind. But in Persistent Memory, it’s attacca movements again. I like the idea of creating something that ends one thing but that is also like the overlap in the upbeat to whatever the next thing is that happens. So either it seems to emerge as if the ending were false, or it just sort of starts up as if we opened the door and we came into a party.

FJO: There’s a big debate among the composers in our office about whether or not pieces should just be presented as single movements.

DR: I guess it works better in terms of file storage, how many Finale or Sibelius files it takes. With one movement, when you do the parts, you know you’ve just got one file for each part. But if you’re doing five movements, you’ve got five files for each part and then you have to go back and find the page numbers, and so on. Part of it might be mechanical.

I guess I’m more classically trained. I like four-movement symphonies and five-movement concertos and what have you: things that go about their business from what seem like different viewpoints, different prisms, like they’re looking in from different rooms. I also like the feeling that something is over and you don’t get to leave yet, even if you have to go to the bathroom really bad, because here’s something else. Some other version of the same material: be it a key, something thematic, or—in my case—something that is left over from the previous movement.

Musically speaking, I’ve just been bad at writing endings. I’m getting better, so now I can do pauses between movements. Also, for both of the large band pieces, the movements can be played separately or together. Cantina is a four-movement piece, but you can play it in whatever order you want, or just play two of them. But they’re related, because they use some of the same material. I’m interested in that, giving you different views of the same material.

FJO: I love the idea of movements because it gives you time to reflect before the next one starts. With attacca movements, there’s no time to ponder anything; you’re suddenly somewhere else.

DR: But there’s usually the sense that something stopped. Something is over. I also like the idea of keeping them on the edge of their seats because they can’t go to the bathroom; there’s still music going on. This way there’s no creaking of chairs by people who really do have to go. I’ve got to stop using this metaphor.

FJO: Also, usually, every time when a movement ends, a few people will start coughing wildly. When you listen back to recordings of live performances of your music, is there less coughing?

DR: In my case, if anyone coughs, it’s usually the one person standing next to the microphone.

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