Frank J. Oteri: I thought a good place to start this discussion would be to ask you about Common Music. It’s a name that Martin uses for publishing, but it used to be the name of a website that featured both of you: Martin as a composer; Lisa as an interpreter. I remember being immediately struck by your artistic symbiosis. Those two relationships—composer and interpreter—are very dependent on each other in the music that you both do. Let’s talk to the issue of how you have been each other’s muse and how you have influenced each other in the work you’ve done.
Lisa Moore: The website was a purely practical thing. Those were the early days when people first got websites. He said, “I’ve got this great deal, and she’ll set up one for you and set up one for me.” But then it was clear that if you looked up one, you saw the other. And then we thought, well, maybe that’s not such a great idea, because you do want to also be independent and have an independent image in this world. If you go down with each other, hook, line and sinker, what are you going to do?
Martin Bresnick: I already had a Common Muse website. That was my original website, but when we got together, I said let’s do it together. For whatever reason, we very rarely experimented with publicists or managers. We had a couple of experiences, some were O.K. Most were—
LM: —not O.K.—
MB: —particularly for Lisa, because a performer needs this, I think, in some ways much more than a composer does. We debated at some point whether it might be an interesting idea if I became Lisa’s manager and she became my manager. So if you called up, we had “people.” You’d call to speak to Lisa Moore, and I was Lisa Moore’s people. And I’d say we’ll get back to you or something. The same thing could happen if somebody called for my materials; Lisa would act that way. In the end, our lives have developed in a way that even though it doesn’t happen exactly like that, we do offer each other a good deal of counseling and advice that can be of significant value about the profession and what might be a way to go. Besides our independent musical lives, we share a number of multiple activities that we do together.
LM: We do that a lot. The dog and pony act.
MB: Yeah, I’m mostly the dog. She’s the pony, I think. Since we’ve been together, every piece that I’ve written that involves some kind of significant piano part has been written with Lisa in mind at some point.
When I hear an instrumentalist, it becomes imprinted on me. I hear somebody play something, and the simple tactile energies employed in response to the physicality of the instrument gets fixed in my head, and I try to write for it. For example, when I wrote this piece for Maya Beiser and Steve Schick called Songs of the Mouse People, the particular sound that Maya can make combined with Steve Schick’s kind of blazing virtuosity got in my head. Another example would be in some of those pieces that have clarinets in them, Evan Ziporyn’s particular way of playing the clarinet has become very fixed in my mind. I wrote a part [in Be Just] that’s made me the bane of bass clarinet players around the world. That’s both the promise and the danger of becoming very attracted to a single individual’s performance practice. Because that person’s strengths become the high water mark of what you want to aim at. And sometimes that high water mark is unique, and nobody else can quite do it. If there’s going be a piano, I’m thinking about Lisa playing the piano. If there’s not, then we do something else.
LM: Some people won’t play their husbands’ music at all, or their wives’ music. There are certain people that just completely don’t want to mix it because it’s hard to have a relationship with someone and also have a professional relationship. You both have to have a certain amount of confidence in what you’re doing individually. We certainly do. I was already happening when I met Martin. It was not like I was his student. I was never his student.
MB: I was always a rather modest piano player, and although I’d written a lot of piano music, it wasn’t until I got to know Lisa and got to know her piano playing and became taken up by her interests in the instrument that I made some serious reinvestigations of the piano. To have somebody of Lisa’s stature as a player say, “Look at this and see how this is to do—these are the problems,” became a very important point of departure for me.
And starting in about 1997, with the piece that I wrote [whose title is] three asterisks, three stars [***], which has a piano part that really was conceived for Lisa to play, I would let her always have a quick look at all these things. It doesn’t always mean that I’m going to do what she says, which really pisses her off, but I will always take it into account. And it’s not just in technical piano matters.
I’ve been working on a piece for Robert Dick and the National Flute Association—a Concerto for Flute and Orchestra. I’ve been playing it over and over again as I’ve been working on it, and I’ll ask Lisa what she thinks and she’ll say this seems rather a little bit long or this seems short. Or why is this? Why is that? And because I have so much respect for her musicianship and her sensibility, I will listen very carefully to what she has to say. And sometimes I will actually change things. But she will sometimes say to me, “Oh don’t change it just because I thought it wasn’t good. You changed it? You don’t have to do that.” She’ll back track a little bit which is sometimes a little bit disconcerting, but I think her gut reaction is a very good point of understanding for me. It’s about being with a partner who’s so musically alert that you’d be an idiot not to take the advice of such a person.
LM: It’s an evolving thing though because I don’t think that I feel so confident commenting on the length of phrases, or the structure of things, as I obviously do with the technical side. But more and more, as time goes on, I feel like he is receptive to something I say if I’m hearing something over and over again on the computer, when he’s composing and we’re sharing the room in a hotel. I hear little bits as I come back at the end of the day from practicing. I hear the next section is being added. Once recently, in the flute concerto, I felt he reached such a great moment that he should just extend that a little bit and make it whole. I think I’m gathering more confidence with that kind of thing as time goes on because I generally think that his timings are really good. I think his sense of time is what makes Martin a really great composer.
There’s also performance practice which is interesting with Martin’s music, because he really wants you to play it pretty much exactly as it appears on the page. He doesn’t want rubato. Basically that’s the big rule. But other people don’t know that. Some pianists, as pianists do, will just take all the time they want in the world and wax lyrical, and it distorts everything. Most pianists think automatically that they’re just always going to do rubato, because they play alone all the time. Unless they’re doing chamber music, or orchestral playing a lot, they don’t really discipline themselves. I know when I have to sit through performances of pieces of his music that I’ve played, that’s a painful experience usually, because his music is hard. A lot of people have trouble. They think Martin’s music is only deceptively difficult, because you can actually hear it. It’s really clear, and there’s a kind of process that you hear. But then you start learning it, and you realize it gets harder and harder the more you get into it. I’ve heard this again and again with Martin’s chamber music. I know all the trouble spots. So I sit there in the audience just sort of clenched in my seat going, “Here we go, hold you breath.”
MB: And Lisa’s bailed me out. We went to Beijing with this dog and pony show about five, six years ago, and when we got there the Chinese students were quite serious. And they pursued it with great intensity, but they had a very difficult time thinking about groups of five that weren’t sort of Eusebius-Florestan kind of group of five, a kind of Schumann group of five that was not exact. My groups of five are just like threes, except they’re fives. You have to count them all and get them exactly right.
LM: But also, sometimes you don’t have a beat. There’s no downbeat and also there are ties, so something’s tied over the beat. So it’s OK if someone just goes I’ll just sway in this bit and we’ll all be OK, right? Well no, not quite.
MB: Anyway, we had to fire the pianist, and Lisa jumped in, which is what I guess the end of that story.
LM: —It just wasn’t gonna happen, you know. Martin always tells me this story about Ligeti. He went up to Zubin Mehta and the LA Philharmonic and said you can’t play my music tonight.
MB: Well, they did anyway.
LM: They did play it, and then he just got up and walked out at the end when they pushed him for a bow. Sometimes I say to Martin, “Are you going to suffer through a disastrous performance of your music, or are you going to just pull a Ligeti and say I’m sorry my dears, you cannot play my music tonight.” Sometimes I think he’d be better off saying that because with Martin’s music you don’t gain something from a bad performance. It’s not just texture or massive amounts of information like a fast Babbitt piece where it doesn’t seem to make that much difference.
MB: Well, I’m sure it makes a difference to Milton, but maybe other people don’t know.
LM: I’ve heard stories. He used to say, “The faster it goes, the less you notice.”
MB: Well that’s certainly true. It has occurred to me as I’ve gotten older that I had a tendency in my music to accept a certainly level of difficulty without reservation. If I felt it could be done, it was fine. But as time goes by, I feel more and more that the performer’s sense of joy in the exposition of the music—even their relaxed sense of play and pleasure in performance—can contribute in a very beautiful way to a piece, rather than their clenched anxiety from the beginning of the piece to the end. So I tell my students now, and I’m trying to teach myself as well, that you can make certain kinds of decisions that might allow for a more generous performance if you hold back a little bit on the most extreme, platonic vision of what the piece could be; a perfect jewel spinning in the sky may never be played with any kind of sense of joy and perfection. I’ve watched younger players trying to play some piece of mine that I wrote earlier, and I think, “Geez, why’d I make it so hard?” I know what I was after, but I might have been able to find another way through that thicket and had a result that might have been perhaps almost equally expressive of my goals without making them suffer so intently to prepare the piece.
The conscientiousness of my partner in the preparation of music is pretty rare. And when she can’t play something after hours of trying to tackle it, I have to think to myself, are we really on the right track here? It’s not just my music, but anybody’s music. I think a lot of composers who go through life living alone as it were—and that doesn’t mean in the sense of connubial relations, but in a sense of living in an academic environment which is divorced from the exigencies and contingencies of real players playing real music on a daily basis—can spin out into places where things become purely speculative.
LM: A lot of composers also just blame the performers and say, “They just didn’t try,” or “They’re just crappy players.” I’ve heard that a lot from some of your younger students who come in and they write the most insane harmonics and things like that and expect people to get them. We’re talking about [performers] who really do have technical chops and who do put in the time—a normal amount of human time that you’re supposed to put in within reason. Composers should be really thinking about this, because there’s a lot of competition out there. If you want your music played, you don’t want to make it easy necessarily, but you want to have some sections that are.