Frank J. Oteri: This conversation raises some provocative issues about the creative process and how independent a composer is ultimately able to be. The process of composing and the process of rehearsing solo piano repertoire are both very solitary activities, but solitude is a luxury and, as you have already stated, it can also seal you off from reality. Here we are in your midtown Manhattan apartment. There’s a piano over there which is I assume where you practice when you’re in town, and there’s the laptop over there which is I assume where you compose.
Lisa Moore: When we were in Bogliasco, I took his studio—he stayed in the rooms and I had the composer’s studio up on the hill—because I could just really play freely. There’s very rarely a pianist in the world that can play without somebody listening in. But you get used to that in New York apartments. There’s always a Peeping Tom. There’s someone with a telescope looking in this window right now. There’s also a pair of ears on the other side. Some people are very tough about that, but you do get very self-conscious.
Martin Bresnick: When we’re here, I usually go into the kitchen to be further away. It must be four feet away from where you’re pointing.
FJO: So the fact of the matter is that you have no choice but to be on top of each other when you’re doing your own independent things. Lisa, you’ve been talking about how you affect him. I want to turn it around to talk about how Martin’s ideas impact on your interpretation of other people’s music?
LM: Oh, absolutely. It definitely affects me. First of all, there are the opinions on whose music is OK and who’s not OK. Martin hates Ravel.
MB: That’s not fair.
LM: Can I finish this?
MB: No, I have to interrupt you. I already told you many times, I admire Ravel immensely. It’s not my taste, that’s all.
LM: That’s about the only one we probably disagree on. Martin’s very encouraging and he’s coached me on basically everything that I play. And I really trust his instincts. Very rarely do I go beyond that and say no, no, no, I really totally disagree with you on that. With certain things, I have to say, look, it’s just not possible to do that. You know, I absolutely have to take some time here, or I’m going to have to chop some notes out. I will tell him, look, if you really want this jump in time, I’m going to have to sacrifice something at the bottom. But I think most pianists do that anyway, the little tricks of the trade that took me so long to learn. I used to be so diligent, and I’d try to learn everything that was on the page. But now I realize there are certain corners that you can just tweak a little bit.
In the Ligeti etudes that I do—admittedly I’m nowhere near the Pierre Laurent level, but they’re written for big hands— I had to remove notes. There’s just no way, otherwise it’s too risky. I’m 48 years old; I know now if I’m going to be able to play it in six months on the night without crashing. Out of the six etudes that I’ve learned, I’ve removed probably about 12 notes. That’s not very many considering how many are there.
FJO: In Dream of the Lost Traveler there’s a passage where the pianist suddenly has to sing. It’s a very vulnerable moment, and it’s very emotionally charged. When Lisa performed that, she hadn’t yet done Rzewski’s De Profundis, which is one of the ultimate talking pianist pieces. So I’m wondering how that came about. Were you pushing him to create something like that? Or was he pushing you to perform something like that?
MB: You had been talking about doing pieces that had a theatrical element. You know, Lisa almost went to the NIDA [National Institute of Dramatic Art], the Australian theatrical school, which a lot of film stars like Cate Blanchett and Russell Crowe came out of. She has a whole theatrical side, and we thought about putting that into the music.
LM: As soon as I started doing new music, I started occasionally doing the piece that had this little extra thing you had to do, like walk across the room and hit a drum. I always loved doing those extra things.
It’s very hard for composers to write good pieces for speaking pianists. I think it’s difficult to find a composer that has a literary mind as well as a fine musical mind. Martin has that from his experiences and because he’s so well read. And Fred [Rzewski] is that way, too. But it’s a difficult area to get into in terms of how many other people could write me a good piece that uses both text and music. And if you do one piece on a concert that’s got text, how many others can you do? De Profundis is a pretty heavy piece. It cancels out a lot of other pieces around it. So how do you program those kinds of things? And for me, personally, now that the All-Stars is over for me, it’s like, now what am I going to do? And so this year is a kind of year of working out some stuff like that. Like learning some more standard repertoire: Bartók, Prokofiev, Scriabin, Mussorgsky. I don’t want to get nailed into one particular field in music.
MB: If you go back to my music, you’ll see that almost every piece of mine at some point goes out of its way to break the frame of the expectation of the piece. And I think that is taken to a real extreme in that early piece for Lisa, The Dream of the Lost Traveler, which sounds like a conventional series of piano variations, but then suddenly the pianist breaks the frame by actually starting to sing. Many people still find this coup de theater very startling. People don’t know it’s going to happen. You suddenly have to look again at the whole circumstance by which you were judging this piece and think about it in a different way.
LM: If you think about it, why shouldn’t it be a normal thing that a pianist should get to a point in a piece and have to sing a song. Why is that so extraordinary? There are a lot of people out there doing this in the rock-pop tradition: Billy Joel, Elton John, Carole King. It’s no big deal. They do it all the time. But it’s actually hard to try to play a real Billy Joel thing and sing along with your playing. On the other hand, it’s like learning to ride a bicycle. But it’s extraordinary in the classical tradition.
FJO: You were saying that Martin feels that his music should not be done with rubato. I’m wondering if interpretively that’s affected your approach to other composers as well, specifically older composers. You were saying he wants you to play Schubert. With many pianists, such a performance would be full of rubato.
LM: Probably not with me. I was never a great one for that. If a composer says espressivo, I go OK, he means rubato. I look for all the signs in Schumann where he gives it away that he wants it, as opposed to being just very indulgent. That’s why I love Richard Goode. When you go to the concerts, you really hear Schumann, you really hear Bach, you really hear Brahms. You’re not hearing Richard Goode playing Schumann. But there are many pianists that shall remain unnamed where they just take on themselves. They become the thing. I’ve never been in that sort of school.
MB: One of the things that brought us together was apart from the fact that Lisa was playing my music when she was playing with Bang on a Can, she played some Janácek. We turned out to be in Adelaide, Australia, and she was preparing a whole evening of the music of Janacek. I had no idea she knew this material. At the very same moment I was orchestrating the Janácek On an Overgrown Path for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
LM: And I always wanted those pieces to be orchestrated. I was thinking they’d be perfect. So we got to know each other. We got together kind of after that whole your realization that I didn’t just bang on cans, as you said, that we had this shared love of Janácek.
MB: I’ll get in trouble for this, but there is in piano instruction, as I’ve come to understand it, a kind of default concept that expressiveness has to do with rubato. I mean if they want to be expressive, they think, oh, I have to take time here to be expressive. There’s a lot of routes to Paradise and a lot of roads to Mecca besides just slowing down in this kind of willful, unthoughtful way, or speeding up for that matter, without thinking well what does this do to the architecture of the music.
LM: Why is that expressive?
MB: Yeah. You’re probably well aware that Stravinsky was once asked how to interpret his music, and he said, “Don’t interpret my music, just play it.” He was very impatient with performers who wanted interpretive advice. He said, “Look, there it is. Just play it, and that’ll be enough. It’s already there.” There’s some part of me that’s sympathetic to that. Because I write out the slowing downs and the speedings up that I think are significant in my music. And I don’t need you to take extra time to make that notice. But perhaps I’m a little bit too austere. I mean, Lisa has said to me, “Why don’t you write espressivo over this section?” I think to myself, “Well, everything is espressivo. What’s the non-espressivo part that’s not going to get that notation?” But I see her point. Players sometimes want that little added extra encouragement to do something somewhere. But I don’t want them to take necessarily the clichéd version of something to its logical conclusion. I’d like them to dig a little deeper, like when you hear Lisa Moore play Frederic Rzewski.
LM: Fred’s music is a classic case of people doing rubato in places where it shouldn’t be, like in the North American Ballads. I have very strong opinions about that piece. You’ve got to just jump. You can’t melt into the next section and do your rubato and try to make it join. It doesn’t join. It’s got to be sort of like a hiccup. If you look at Fred’s music, he writes a lot of expression. He writes exactly what he wants. He’s thought about how he wants it performed.
But you’re always going to get minor differences with performers anyway. So I do think you should put more marks in [your scores], because you have strong opinions about how you want it played.
MB: See, I’m getting a lesson even now.
LM: I think you should put no rubato if you want no rubato. If you want it rhythmic, you’ve got to put in “tempo giusto.” You’ve got to write something, like “insistent.” Louis Andriessen writes non-vibrato. I mean otherwise, you’re going to get vibrato. If you’re writing a trio for clarinet, violin, and piano, you’ll get chamber musicians who are undergraduates looking at it, and they’ll think they’re going to do interpretation, because they’ve done the Brahms or they’ve done the Beethoven and that’s the way they’re going to do it. And it’s not like they should do it so much in the Brahms either, but they’re going to. So if you want it in time, you know, you’ve got to put that in.
MB: OK, well you can see that we still debate these matters. They are unresolved to date.
Frank J. Oteri: What would happen if you were to have an intense disagreement with each other? Has that ever happened?
Martin Bresnick: We’ve had disagreements, but we usually respect each other’s judgment. You’d have to be an idiot to tell Lisa Moore how to play the piano.
Lisa Moore: And I can’t compose. We’re not doing the same thing. So it has not really been musical disagreements so much as—
MB: —Well sometimes it’s hard to understand. She speaks Australian, and I speak American. So sometimes we have to translate across that barrier. It’s amusing, but it can sometimes result in quite startling differences in the way we approach expression.
LM: That’s a problem for me generally, though. In America, people misinterpret all the time. You know, Australians are pretty blunt.
MB: Musically we mostly have large areas of agreement. But what strikes me actually as quite interesting is that composers and players don’t necessarily always mean the same thing by the very same words that they use. So certain kinds of misunderstandings can develop because the practice in the piano studio, or violin studio, of describing a certain kind of phenomena is understood differently than the way composers understand that very same thing. Sometimes we’re talking for awhile and I realize that I haven’t actually made myself clear in terms that will be useful to Lisa. So I need to retool my language to make myself clear.