Lewis Spratlan: Beyond the Pulitzer Prize

Uptown/Downtown



Lewis Spratlan
Interview Excerpt #7


HAROLD MELTZER: We’ve been talking about being an outsider, and not being an outsider, and what that leaves you free to do. And I was thinking about the other piece that got premiered on the same concert as the opera, the new piece, Sojourner, for 10 players, and I remember this from when it was only a beginning MIDI file, and we talked about the piece. Your preface has this pair of sentences which are a lot about being an outsider. “Just as Sojourner, the brave little mini-tank, with the hinged proboscis, takes the lithic temperature of various objects on Mars, so the sojourner takes the psychic temperature of various clumps of society here on Earth. This piece is about both.” Now, this seems to tie together everything from your interest in various scientific processes that you mentioned earlier, to being an outsider, to commenting on things both musical and non-musical, and I was just wondering, you know, what does this piece say about where you are now, and how you feel as an outsider at this stage?

LEWIS SPRATLAN: First of all, before this conversation came up today I don’t think I ever thought of myself as an outsider. That idea had never particularly occurred to me, although once you posed it, it makes sense, it makes all kinds of sense. But so, I certainly had no thought of myself as an outsider in regarding that piece. The business of what it’s really about does derive from, I mean, I’m very interested in astronomy and astromechanics, the engineering aspects of space, and I was totally captivated just on a most personal level by the little Mars rover, you know, we’ve all seen it on TV, it goes up and it sticks its snout out, and at one point its wheels go up. It’s a thrilling thing to me, that sort of accomplishment, but, and the idea of, you know, and I knew it was named Sojourner, and it just sort of started cooking to me that, this little thing is sampling rocks on the surface of Mars, and through life, we sample things all the time, too. The minute we walk into a group of people or a room or something we sort of size up what’s going on psychologically in that scene. I just started thinking about those parallels. And then, the heart of the matter in this music is these three, the three big movements in it are called Probe 1, Probe 2 and Probe 3. And each one of them is supposed to be an agglomeration of the Martian and Earthly perspectives. The way they blend together is quite different in each one. But that’s what gave rise to it. Now as to far as, the sort of outsider issue, I’m not sure how that ties in. You tell me. I don’t know what it, what is there about?

HAROLD MELTZER: Well, you’re taking the psychic temperature on Earth. It seems you’re taking a step back to take that look. Someone who’s in the middle of it…

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Okay, I see. Right. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Okay. That makes some sense. But as far as my not being a part of a school, it’s both liberating and confining, in its way, as far as being in the circles of things…

JAMES MARANISS:In the valley here, in the Connecticut Valley, there are other schools, and there is a community, maybe provincial, to some degree, but certainly not a school. And there are other composers that I know, and that Lew knows, too…

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Oh, sure.

JAMES MARANISS:And performers that are known nationally, people who are really first-class musicians live around here, so it’s not as if you’re in the woods somewhere.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Right. No, that’s very important to say. I mean, it’s not a school, but it’s not an arid spot as far as musical resources.

FRANK J. OTERI: But it’s also not a political hotbed. New York City has sort of projected itself onto the whole nation with this notion of uptown and downtown, and it refers to geography in the borough of Manhattan. And, you know, we sort of superimposed this onto the whole nation. If you’re below 14th Street, your music has to sound a certain way. Elliott Carter lives in Greenwich Village, and for years, Steve Reich lived on the Upper West Side.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: I can’t comment on if I lived uptown or downtown, but I mean, if I were living in New York, I’m not tremendously sure, here I am, from the vantage point of someone who’s about to turn 60, so I’ve been at this for a while, and I have my own habits of how I look at things. But I like to think that if I had been living in New York, I wouldn’t necessarily have wanted to write either uptown or downtown music, but how can you say? I might have fallen into the sort of feeling that I needed to write what was politically important to write at that time. I can’t say; I just don’t have the kind of hindsight to do that.

FRANK J. OTERI: Certainly, you’ve written music in the 12-tone system. In fact, Harold said on the way up, that when you were teaching composition to him, that’s the first thing you taught him to do.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Is that a fact?

FRANK J. OTERI: And he was writing serial music, for what, 6 years after that?

HAROLD MELTZER: Yeah. I didn’t start by…

LEWIS SPRATLAN: But Picker had a lot to do with that, though…

HAROLD MELTZER: Yeah, well, strangely, he was so far away from that itself.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: It’s the only way he knew, I might even say that it wasn’t necessarily 12-tone, but it was highly, highly systematic, the pieces that you were writing.

HAROLD MELTZER: Yeah.

FRANK J. OTERI: And it was interesting because at that point in time, you know, we’re talking about the late ’80′s, it really ceased being the central musical language for so many composers.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: There’s very little serial music in my opera. Basilio’s music is serial, the king, very conspicuously in that interview, the, yeah, their, and Basilio’s first meeting is very, very, very intricate serial music, with all sorts of fixed registers, things going on, which was symbolic of his frozenness and his star gazing. The only serial music in that piece, is Basilio’s music.

FRANK J. OTERI: And there’s no 12-tone writing as far as I can see or hear in >When Crows Gather.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: None. None.

FRANK J. OTERI: So, do you still use rows in your music?

LEWIS SPRATLAN: No. Well, actually, in only the sloppiest way. I had an orchestra piece premiered just this past Sunday, and the middle section of one movement actually is serial, but not in the least bit post-second Viennese school. If I can just say a few words about that… When I did use serialism, it was definitely from the sort of Webernian persuasion, I mean, I just love the sort of symmetry and the mathematics of it, and the fun, sort of the mathematical-like fun of it. That was the part of serialism that most intrigued me, and I felt like I just said pretty much what I had to say, oh, I certainly would appropriate it for something which was just exactly right. But it’s not especially ideological. I don’t feel that that way of thinking about music has exhausted itself. I mean, I think there’s still ways in which individual impetuses can be expressed that way. I never felt ideologically about it before or after. It was very much in the air when I was studying; when I was a student it was very much in the air…

FRANK J. OTERI: Powell

LEWIS SPRATLAN: … and I sort of appropriated it, because that’s what everybody was sort of doing. You know, I think, on some level, he certainly encouraged me in that direction. I remember, he sent me to an awful lot of Babbitt pieces, and some of his own.

FRANK J. OTERI: There was an article by Matthias Kriesberg that appeared in the New York Times that decried all the people who have equated 12-tone composition and serialism with communism, and the collapse of the two being, sort of, analogous events…And it was a bit of a rant…

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Very chewy stuff, but it doesn’t quite nail the true heart of serialism’s demise: the fact that the way the system was taught made it seem as if all you had to do was “follow the rules” and you had a piece of music. This approach, of course, produced a lot of bad music and non-music. It also replaced real teaching, which entails opening the ears and teasing out of the student something truly fresh and truly personal.

FRANK J. OTERI: The gist of the article was essentially saying it’s so upsetting that serialism is getting equated with communism, and his last point was so true. He said if anything, neo-Romanticism is equal to Reaganomics. They did come into being at the same time!

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Neo-romanticism is very boring to me. Not because it’s necessarily a bad idea, but usually it’s just so horribly practiced. You know, if you’re going to take that on, for Christ’s sake, be good at it! And it so seldom is. It just becomes a substitute for imagination a lot of the time to me. I don’t want to mention names, but you know what I’m talking about. It, to me, is one of the weakest, it’s the most, it’s one of the biggest collapses in, of will, in American art.

FRANK J. OTERI: But it’s been enormously successful.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Tell me about it… So what? So it’s been successful. I think it will be a black mark on the history of the last 15 years. Oh, no, are you a neo-romantic?

FRANK J. OTERI: Not exactly…

LEWIS SPRATLAN: If you are, I’m sure you’re a very good one. Look, the funny thing, when you hear some of this stuff, well, for example, Penelope’s Knees… The Apollo and Daphne Variations, is in Db major, I mean, great spans of it, and I would own up to its being a neo-Romantic piece. But it’s good, and it takes Romanticism to the next step. It doesn’t just go over the same ground. Also bad minimalism, I think, is boring. Good minimalism, I love, I’m not against minimalism. It’s really made a very, very big impact on me…

FRANK J. OTERI: When Crows Gather has elements of minimalism…

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Absolutely…

FRANK J. OTERI: What would be an example of good minimalism?

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Oh, Reich‘s Music for 18 Musicians, Six Pianos… In C.

FRANK J. OTERI: I was joking in the car… you know, in 1964 the Pulitzer Prize wasn’t awarded. I said, well, that’s the year they should have given it to In C.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: They decided there was no adequate piece?

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Is that a fact?

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Has there ever been another year that…

FRANK J. OTERI: Yeah. ’64. ’81, ’65 and ’53, the year they didn’t give it to 4’33″.

LEWIS SPRATLAN: Really? Terrible. No, In C should have gotten it that year!

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