Lewis Spratlan: Beyond the Pulitzer Prize

Teaching and Composing



Lewis Spratlan
Interview Excerpt #4


FRANK J. OTERI: So Amherst has been completely supportive.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Wonderfully so. I mean, I just am very, very pleased by the support that they’ve shown throughout, not just about this piece, but they really have put their money where there mouth is, so to speak.

FRANK J. OTERI: You’ve been here a long time.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Since 1970.

FRANK J. OTERI: Thirty years.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Thirty years, yeah. And I’ve gotten performances, no music of mine has gone unperformed, actually, except for this opera. I’ve gotten very nice performances of everything. And the college hasn’t totally supported all of those performances, but it’s been involved to a certain extent monetarily in some of them, and you know, right through the whole time I’ve been here I’ve felt good support here. So this is a good place to be. It’s also a good place to be because it’s close to New York, it’s close to Boston, it’s easy to get people to come out here and perform. And there are a lot of very good players in this area, too, more than you might imagine.

FRANK J. OTERI: I want to talk a bit about teaching. I brought Harold along for me, not just for his wheels, which was great on a rainy day, but he is a student of yours, and in fact, he called me a day after I put the call in to you and sent off an e-mail to you and said, “I have this idea. I’d love to do an interview with Lew Spratlan. I was a student of his and I love his work.” So I said, “Lew called me back an hour ago; we’re on the same page, let’s do this.” I thought it could be really interesting to have input from a student of yours who feels transformed by the experience of having studied with you.

HAROLD MELTZER: When we were using the wheels on the way up here, I was talking about how you were my only undergraduate teacher. You’re the only person teaching advanced composition here, and I didn’t know whether this was peculiar to you or peculiar to undergraduate teaching, but I remember coming here to Amherst as an undergraduate in the mid-80’s, not planning to be a composer at all, and being turned on by how your first concern seemed to be with musical issues, rather than musical technique. Because technique can always be acquired, and you lose interest in acquiring it later if you don’t have anything that you want to say. And so I was just wondering, first of all, how you frame musical issues for a student who’s coming to music composition for the first time?

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Well, you could ask yourself that same question as to how I framed them with you. I think the important thing to say about that, is that right at the top of my concerns as a composition teacher is trying to discover what the student is bringing to this enterprise. To see what sort of music is in that person. And I must say I don’t consider that to be necessarily a revolutionary point of view. I was privileged in my own studies by having a teacher whose primary concern was just that: Mel Powell. I studied with him for a year as an undergraduate and two years as a graduate student at Yale. And this was magnificently his point of view. I mean, Powell was the opposite of a technique-monger. He would take the measliest scribbles that you brought in, something about which you felt awful, and find something in it he thought had a thumbprint of the students. And the lesson would then evolve from that to what the possibilities of what that would be. What does that little moment suggest, what are the implications of that moment? I didn’t register his teaching that way at the time. He was my first real composition teacher. Well, I had scribbled stuff when I was younger and my mother would comment on it and say, “you know, that should be a G#” and stuff, but I mean, it wasn’t beyond that. But Mel was the first composition teacher I had and I assumed that that was the way you taught composition. I have subsequently discovered that that is not at all the case, that this is actually quite an exceptional thing. And it would be on all kinds of levels, it would be this sort of, what that moment represented in a kind of psychological way, what its properties were, as far as musical structure, how to expand on that, what the reverse of that was, and the pieces would grow this way. And it was something, it’s certainly a way of thinking about teaching that I have carried forward. This is, now I’m not sure that’s a direct answer to your question, but I think that’s the heart of the matter. I mean, this is really what’s at stake to me in teaching, and it can happen in many, many different ways. You know, take these 3 notes and make something, fill a page with something that emerges from those 3 notes in some fashion. What might be the most foreign way of thinking for a student, but the very act of having to go through that is going to, in some way, reveal a proclivity, or a propensity, or a way of thinking… I don’t care about those 3 notes, actually, or technically speaking, what goes on with them. I’m concerned with what goes on in the cracks, so to speak. What way of thinking seems to emerge. And, you know, in some cases, nothing emerges. It could be a very formulaic worthless thing, and I will say it. “This is formulaic and worthless. Do the same thing again for next week, and don’t think so much about it.” That might be the next thing that I would say. And then, something would start to show up. And then, you know, it’s a long process, too. That’s the most frustrating thing about teaching in a liberal arts school I think. For all the best reasons in the world, the kids are heavily involved in other things. I mean, it’s just the nature of the place. You end up getting an education here, which can never be bad. I don’t know why I put it in the negative that way; it’s good, on balance. But it has its price, because kids don’t have enough time to write. And if they have time to write, it’s 30 minutes after dinner and then 15 minutes before breakfast. So that sort of concerted time to really compose is a big frustration. And there are kids who are, can never quite get over that. They’re ones who cannot carve out the time to compose.

FRANK J. OTERI: So, how much time do you feel someone needs to give to composition?

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Well, I can’t give a number to that. I think the important thing is carving out the psychological space. And if they can, you have to sort of dump everything, and clear the psychic desk, so to speak, to get down to a spot where the musical thoughts have room to formulate themselves. Some students can reach that spot very quickly. Others need a lot more time. What can I say? I guess one thing I do feel is that they’ve got to clear an ample space of time as much as possible every day. That’s certainly true for my own work, I feel like when I’m involved in a piece, it’s really just got to be regular work even if it’s a brief amount of time. So regularity. And then the most important thing, I think is just, whatever time one needs to make room for the business of composing. There’s no formula for it, but I think those are the two principles that are involved: regularity, and just being dogged about leaving enough time.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now, in terms of teaching, you don’t only teach composition students?

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Music theory, and other things.

FRANK J. OTERI: To people who are not music majors.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Yeah. That’s right.

FRANK J. OTERI: So, how do you bring in the students who are not part of this arcane world of new music that we exist in? How do you get them to appreciate contemporary music?

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Well, opening their ears, of course, is the big trick. I do lots and lots and lots of listening assignments. I think that sheer exposure and repeated exposure is a lot of what’s involved here. A lot of the time they just won’t go and do the listening because they’re scared to death of it, or scared that they don’t know how to relate to it, or it’s going to sound ugly to them or something, so really, just “forcing” them to do a lot of listening and finding that they are in fact, enticed by it, is step 1 here, I think. And also, I think it’s valuable in confronting new music for the first time to help a student hear how the things that they love about the music that they do love are going on in this music, too. And sort of translating things for them into a different language, and seeing how, such simple things as how music moves in time, when it tends to sit still, when it tends to move ahead faster, when it stops, the various means of intensification that worked for Mozart are still at work in this music now, and just helping them to hear what is happening on a visceral level for them, translate into principles that they can see are at work in music over the long haul and not just isolated to this particular repertoire.

FRANK J. OTERI: Do you also take in the pop music that they’re undoubtedly listening to?

LEWIS SPRATLAN: I take it in. I plead a little guilty. I’m not as up to date on pop music as I wish I were, because I value that. I think that that’s really an important way of getting to a student, opening doors of conversations with students. I’m not entirely outside of that sphere. One of the things is that the pop music scene is changing so rapidly, and it’s so far flung that it takes, it takes a real investment of time to stay on top of it, and it’s one that I haven’t made. I’m not proud of that fact. I have a wonderful colleague here at Mount Holyoke College, David Sanford, I don’t know if either of you guys know David, he’s young, he just took the position at Holyoke, but he’s a real pop music listener, and he has been his entire life, and it’s just as heavily involved, and he’s a real, very good composer, of, you know, quote “classical new music.” But it’s a very powerful tool for him in the classroom. I would say the same thing about Dan Warner at Hampshire College. So it’s something that I wish I did more, but I guess the quick answer is no.

HAROLD MELTZER: Do you think teaching has affected the way you compose, or your general approach?

LEWIS SPRATLAN: I don’t know. It doesn’t strike me that teaching has made all much difference in the way I compose. The only thing I would say, I suppose having to formulate things that are going on in new music to students when I talk to them about it, just the very act of that formulating has put ideas into my head, has caused focusing on certain principles, and so on. But it’s not something I’ve thought very much about. Let me ask you that question. You were a student of mine. Did you see ways in which the teaching I was doing somehow made a difference in the music that I ended up writing?

HAROLD MELTZER: I don’t know. There were issues that came up in class when we would discuss them together, because we would have private lessons and then we would all have a group lesson every Thursday, and those issues found their way, in some ways, into your pieces.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: It’s a little “chicken and eggy,” though, isn’t it? I mean, can you think of one example, possibly? I don’t want to put you on the spot.

HAROLD MELTZER: No, I remember around the time that you were working on When Crows Gather, which had more elements of not current pop music, but music from the past. At the heart of Crows there’s a hymn, a Charleston and there’s a ragtime. And I was writing, literally, my first piece with you. And I was also putting the same kinds of music in my piece. I’m sure you understood at least what I was trying to do, even if I didn’t, and I certainly had no idea what you were trying to do, but in a way we ended up getting closer together in these concerns. And I’m sure there must have been similar experiences you’ve had with other students.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: That’s a tough one. You know, I don’t think all that much about that issue. I don’t doubt that you’re right, but I’d have to sort of sit and think about it before I could describe it. I mean, it’s not the sort of thing that I’m ready with an answer for because it’s not something I wonder about very much. Let me just think locally for a second. Actually, there’s a kid, a wonderful student of mine right now who is doing music similar to what I’ve done, and I don’t know whether I’ve subtly urged him this way or whether he’s picked up on the fact – that’s what I meant about chicken and egg – it’s a marvelous technique, it’s like a jigsaw puzzle technique, where the whole piece or the whole phrase or the whole page, whatever it is, is the complete picture of a jigsaw puzzle, or we don’t get it, we just get this piece and we get that piece, and we get that piece and that piece and that piece, and then you begin to see the picture but it’s not until that last piece is dropped in until you finally get the whole…

FRANK J. OTERI: Is it cubist at all?

LEWIS SPRATLAN: No, I don’t think of it as cubist, it’s almost the opposite of cubism. I mean, if you think of cubism as taking a whole thing and fracturing it down into components, it’s almost going the other way, it’s taking these components and only gradually revealing what the whole thing is sequentially. But that’s, so, yeah, I’m very alert to his doing that. And I haven’t done it in as quite as systematic way as he has but we’ve talked about that kind of thing happening in my music in various places, so I guess there is feedback here but it’s not something that I’ve paid that much attention to. I don’t think all that much about how my life as a teacher is reflected in my own composition. I’m very aware of how my own music makes a difference to my students, or how it brings alive issues that I’ve been talking about it in their music, that I’m aware of, but not so much of how the teaching influences my composing.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s interesting. This became a big issue for us, of course, you know, we’re all dual career, triple career, quadruple career composers and the issue with NewMusicBox we had for April 2000 is about that very issue. About people who juggle different careers and whether the two affect each other. In some cases they’re very connected, with someone like Joan La Barbara sings other people’s music and then does her own music, which is very vocally-based. Another extreme, it seems completely unrelated, David Soldier, a composer who has his own string quartet, is also a neurobiologist. But there are connections, and he feels that there are connections, that his music is largely inspired by a lot of the concepts that he gets from doing research in neurobiology.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: I’ve got plenty of things to say about that and me in the world. But not so much in teaching. For example, biology. I’m extremely tied into biological processes, and there’s a lot of thinking that I’ve done about biological processes that show up in my music and somehow, in one way or another. I remember, once I was up in the White Mountains, peering for about five hours at the bottom of a pond, it was a very shallow pond there. There was a state that you could fall into, where you could put yourself into that world, watching those tiny little organisms, little bugs and so on, where one little move over here would have terrific implications in terms of that whole little corner of the pond, and then it would subside again. I’ve also looked at the way trees grow a lot. That’s just one example. That didn’t have anything to do with teaching, particularly, but you’re mentioning your neurobiologist friend. I’m very sympathetic to that idea, and I think we probably all have things outside of music proper that fascinate us, and that we are interested in finding out more about.

HAROLD MELTZER: I can think of an example of the influence on teaching on your work, the Apollo and Daphne Variations

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Oh, well, this is a very peculiar…

HAROLD MELTZER: This is based on a theme that you wrote for a theory class.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: That is an extremely vivid example, almost to the far, far extreme relative to the kind of mealy-mouthness that I was coming up with before. That is a, this came about because, well, I can’t resist telling the story, I’ll try to be as absolutely brief as possible. Have you met Ron Bashford, Harold’s partner? [laughs] Partner! The word partner doesn’t mean the same thing it meant 20 years ago. His collaborator.

HAROLD MELTZER: Collaborator and college friend.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Ron was in a theory class of mine. Turns out we were studying Schumann, and going through the whole letter key thing, you know, the DSCH business.

FRANK J. OTERI: Like fugues on Bach‘s name… You can play with 9 pitches…A B C D E F G, then H is B natural so B has to be B flat, and S is Eb. I call it “pitchtalk.”

LEWIS SPRATLAN: It turns out this guy’s name is B-A-S-H-F-O-R-D, 6 out of the 8 letters work.

FRANK J. OTERI: Wow.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: It is loaded [sings] “nee da da dee da daaaa” So the assignment was to go off and write a little 16 bar piece a la Schumann. Character piece, if possible, using code letters that way. So, Ron, I said, “Ron, you’re particularly on the spot, because you’ve got the most musically loaded name in captivity. And so he did a little something, and completely wasted his name, and in response to that, I said, here’s what you could have done with B A S H F D, and I dashed it off that night, and I brought it in for the next class, and it is in fact, the seed from which this entire piece grew. I didn’t even think of the name of it. It has an aggressive first 8 bars and a serene second 8 bars, and literally, five minutes before I got into class, I said, oh, God, I’ve got to get a name to this, let me see, aggressive, serene: Apollo and Daphne. So I just scribbled out Apollo and Daphne on it. It was completely, it didn’t generate from the idea of Apollo and Daphne; it was after the fact. So what Harold’s talking about, is that piece, in toto, is actually, that little piano piece is quoted about 6 or 7 pages into this piece and gives rise to the whole series of variations that then, it’s variations on that tune that came out, and on the front part of the piece is kind of subliminal, arising from the murk of the materials that finally cohere to that. So that’s a particular example of teaching and composing…