Lewis Spratlan: Beyond the Pulitzer Prize

Music and Geography



Lewis Spratlan
Interview Excerpt #5


FRANK J. OTERI: We talk about California composers, and a “California sound.” For years, the expression “New York School” has been bandied about for painters and poets and now it is frequently used to describe the music of Cage and Feldman and their cohorts, and other composers there now are the heirs to this. And people talk about midwest composers. To some extent, you’re an outsider from the compositional centers that we think of in this country. And last week, when I listened to a tape of When Crows Gather, I thought to myself, “God, you know, I could never write this piece. I’ve been in New York City my whole life.” You know, it’s such a ‘not New York’ piece. It’s such a ‘not city’ piece.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: But it’s not an Amherst piece, either.

FRANK J. OTERI: No, but it’s a piece that is so in touch with nature and is so organic.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Well, that’s a great compliment.

FRANK J. OTERI: I was blown away by it, I was just sitting there, and I thought, this is so unique, it’s a poetic response, it’s a response to nature, I mean, to me, nature is concrete, traffic lights are my trees, buildings are my mountains, you know… They really are. New York City is what I know and it is what has shaped who I am. So I wonder how being in a small college, living in a small town, has shaped you as a composer?

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Well, it might have freed me, in one sense. But I really have never felt that I’m part of an Amherst school or the Western Massachusetts school or even a New England school. That’s why I jutted in a moment ago “it’s certainly not Amherst music.” I am referred to occasionally as a New England composer, I think that’s very casual, I mean, I’m a composer who lives in New England…

FRANK J. OTERI: …You grew up in Florida.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Well, yeah, sure.

FRANK J. OTERI: And your family’s from Alabama.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Montgomery. My people are all from Montgomery, the Montgomery area. So that’s a whole other conversation. I don’t feel like I’m an Amherst composer or a Western Mass. composer. I feel like the nature thing is interesting, and I think you might be onto something there. I mean, I’m extremely responsive to nature, and I guess it’s nature, not in the concrete sense of nature, but in the more, sort of, ordinary sense of nature…

FRANK J. OTERI: Or extraordinary, if you would.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Yeah, yeah. So it could be that that might, you may be onto something there, I mean, it could be that my access to nature and the accessibility of nature and my propensity in that direction could be tied up in this. The particular piece that you mention is very, very, expressly in that direction, I mean, even the title, it arose from an experience of nature, I mean, I don’t know if you read the program notes for that piece…

FRANK J. OTERI: You mean the imitation of the sounds?

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Yes, right, right, the very end, the frank imitation of it. But it’s not, it’s not all about nature, the piece, the part of it that you mentioned, the overlay of the hymn, and the Charleston and the ragtime and so on, is actually about my mother-in-law, who is an Indiana woman, and this is a little digest of my three fondest things about her.

HAROLD MELTZER: Is that where you got that?

LEWIS SPRATLAN: That’s where it comes from. She was a conventionally Protestant religious woman, from a farm in Indiana, and she would sit at the piano and play little hymns like that. Totally untutored musician… And I’ve seen pictures of her, she was something of a flapper, and that’s where the kind of Charleston-ish thing of it comes from, and then the other element is the ragtime, those are things that were from her, she used to play rags at the piano, too. So this was a little homage to this woman, she had just suffered a stroke, and was essentially not in this world anymore though her brain was completely active, and it was sort of a contemplation of her imprisonment, and that’s what I was responding to in that piece. This both is and is not a programmatic piece. I mean, in general, there are things that are frankly programmatic: as you mentioned, the evocation of the crows … But there are also some very, very secret things in it. I mean, one of the sections is about a housebreak, it’s a most violent one, I think it’s the 3rd or 4th unit. We were robbed one day, we came home and all our valuables were taken, the TV was gone, the silverware, everything, and I had imaginations of them going up in my kids’ room. So there are little bits of their, kind of, closet versions of favorite tunes of my, I don’t know, Harold, in that little place where the 3 clarinets go [sings] “puh da doot da dut da ting/ Puh dat dit dit dee da dung.” Lydia, our daughter, was watching at the time a little kids show that had a jingle: [sings] “Love somebody / Yes I do / Love somebody / Who are you?” Something like that. So, I mean, that was my little nod to this bandit, this burglar, this vile person being up in my daughter’s room.

FRANK J. OTERI: Wow.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: And then, naturally, my son Dan, at the time, I’m trying, it’s a little bit awhile ago, but then, at that same point, there’s a little theme from The Love Boat in there, my 12-year old was watching The Love Boat all the time. This is all very disguised, and there’s a lot of violence in that same movement. And it’s the violence of the intrusion of this bad man or men or whoever they were. That is true of a lot of my music. Now, I don’t know, going back to New York, Boston, you know, West Coast, blah, I don’t know how all of this fits into that. In a way I do feel sort of free to do anything I want here. There’s no school that I’m trying to get a check mark from, you know, or anything like that. I think that it goes both ways. If I were more, you know, if I were more a part of some school, I’d probably have more performances than I do, because I’d be taken up by that school and sponsored by them, and so on, but at the same time I think that that might have its cost, in terms of trying to, sort of keep writing more like what it was that got that kind of response.