Lewis Spratlan: Beyond the Pulitzer Prize

Musical Heroes from Ives to Mingus



Lewis Spratlan
Interview Excerpt #6


FRANK J. OTERI: When I was listening to When Crows Gather, the composer that came into my mind was Charles Ives.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Oh, big one for me. Of course. He was another New Englander, of course.

FRANK J. OTERI: Who do you admire? Who are your heroes?

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Well, Ives, enormously, and not just because of, sort of, the New England stuff. The freedom to layer things in Ives is something that I’ve loved about him from the very first music that I heard of his. Nothing’s off limits to compound, and unlike things can live together and so on. That’s a deep idea to me. Yeah, you know, so interesting that you should mention that. He is a very, very important figure to me. But, well, I, my heroes are, I mean, some of my basic heroes are the same ones that any composers, you know, the giants of this century, you know, the Viennese composers and Stravinsky, and, less so for me the sort of, earlier American composers apart from Ives. I mean, the whole, sort of, you know, Virgil Thomson end of things is a part of American music that just doesn’t interest me very much. I’ve always found it overly obvious, or something like that. But as far as the deep for… and then I adore Boulez, and little bit less so Stockhausen, I, very, I like the recent Finnish people a lot.

FRANK J. OTERI: Magnus Lindberg?

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Lindberg, Saariaho, and so on… Berio is a tremendously important composer to me. It’s not going to be a very surprising list… Something very important also that I have to say. I grew up, college age, luckily, I was in New Haven, and I went to New York practically every weekend, or very nearly every weekend to hear the great jazz players. And they are enormously formative and central in my music. You know, Bird, Mingus, Miles Davis… These are people that I heard in their heyday, in the late ’50’s and early ’60’s. My music is loaded with jazz, sometimes it becomes a little evident, and other times it’s much less evident. Art Farmer, Blakey, are very, very deeply important to me…

FRANK J. OTERI: When you were saying “this section represents this, and this represents the burglar coming in,” I was thinking of Mingus, in terms of, you know, that each aspect of whatever chart that he was working on actually often does refer to things, like the “Fables of Faubus” or “Pithecanthropus Erectus.”

LEWIS SPRATLAN: That’s an absolutely accurate perception of yours, yeah, tremendously accurate. As far as me and New York, it’s mainly the great jazz players in New York. If I have a big regret in that regard, it’s that I get down there so seldom.

HAROLD MELTZER: As an aside, one of the great pleasures of having these composition seminars as an undergraduate was when you finished a piece, the bop elements of any piece came to the fore when you would demonstrate it, not so much by sitting at the piano, but by turning the pages and actually singing the fastest line you could and you were practically scatting. You wrote a piece in the late ’80’s called Penelope’s Knees, which was a double concerto for saxophone and bass and ensemble, and your rendition of the saxophone solo sounded like Ella Fitzgerald on speed.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: I did a lot of scatting. You know, there were buddies of mine when I was an undergraduate, we would just go in the hallway and scat a lot. It was very big. Vocal responses to things are very important to me, and sometimes in very abstract ways, too. I mean, there have been plenty of pieces of mine that have come about just through vocalizing, that, and not scatting tunes, particularly, [scats] “Waaah ‘n yoo su wow,” you know, something like that, will be the very first idea that comes to mind for a piece, and it will go from there, and I consider that, you know, it’s a vocalization of some sort. And I don’t know, it’s hard to say exactly what, well, I don’t know what the roots of that are, I’ve been singing in church choirs since I was that big, so the voice is a very natural thing to me, I don’t feel, what I just did is not out of church choirs, especially, but I don’t know what to say about that. It’s just, there it is. Am I coming close to saying something valuable to you about this question?

FRANK J. OTERI: Oh, yeah.