Martin Bresnick and Lisa Moore: Symbiotic Relationship

BresnickMoore
Martin Bresnick and Lisa Moore

Frank J. Oteri: All this talk is bringing to mind the old uptown-downtown divide, which is interesting considering how both of you have occupied amazingly non-partisan roles in this. Lisa played in the Bang on a Can All-Stars which some people from the outside would say has been one of the quintessential downtown new music groups. But she was also the pianist in the Da Capo Chamber Players which some people looking from the outside years ago would say was a quintessential uptown new music group. Martin as a composer also bridges the divide between serialist and minimalist mindsets. Your music is bridging these gaps. One of the things that’s very different about the two schools of thought is how much you notate, and how precise that notation is. George Perle used to tell his students that if there weren’t articulation symbols above every note, the piece wasn’t done. Many classic downtown scores have almost no articulation marks on them at all. But the interpretation of this music still isn’t always ultimately up to the performer. It’s up to knowing what the performance practice is.

Lisa Moore: Yeah, that’s a good point. Don Byron just wrote me seven etudes, and there’s almost nothing on any note, but I know what to do with his music. I’ve done it before, and I also know where he’s coming from. He had a couple of pianos and fortes, but he never had any dashes, dots, anything like that. The over-notation of the uptown thing is kind of obsessive. But I actually think that some minimalist music would benefit from putting something in there. And I’m not sure why they’re not putting it in there. Maybe it’s an attitude. You know, we don’t want to get too uptown-y about this, something like that.

I feel like once I left Da Capo and I was only doing Bang on a Can, I never got called anymore for the uptown stuff; whereas, before I was in Da Capo, I was getting called for a lot of those gigs. But I think those gigs maybe have dried up anyway. I’m not sure. They were so low paying that it doesn’t really matter anyway. The uptown people became very aggressive about ruling others out, not just looking at composers and saying they’re downtown, they don’t belong in our thing, but also looking at performers. I’m assuming there was slight paranoia that as soon as you’re playing amplified music that you’ve sort of left a camp. But you make decisions in your life based on the opportunities that come up, not just what your ideals are. My ambition at the beginning was to play all kinds of music. That’s what I wanted to do. I figured if I’m doing the piano, then that’s what pianists can do. You know, play a wedding. You can play a jazz tune. You should be able to play a Chopin Ballade. You should be able to play a Bach Prelude and Fugue. You should be able to play different keyboards. My whole attitude was, “Why cut off any opportunity?” Of course that has its repercussions in the profession, as anything does. Any choice you make does, even if you decide I’m only going to do Bach. Then we’re not going to call you for Brahms. So you make your bed by a combination of opportunities and abilities.

Martin Bresnick: Who would forego opportunity by saying simply I never play anything before 1920, or I never play anything after 1895. I mean it seems to me to be the height of dumbness to be that way. I would add to that that your own inclination to spread yourself across a wide range of things has been a characteristic of your performance from the beginning. Those people who have never heard Lisa Moore play Scriabin, for example, are missing a great thing. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing her play Scriabin, but she doesn’t get a lot of calls to play Scriabin, which is a great pity.

For myself, I had some very great mentors whose intelligence joined to great open mindedness. After passing through a fairly conventional musical education in New York and Connecticut, I got to California. I think people who know me don’t recognize the degree to which those years in California were so influential to me. It was not just Ligeti coming to Stanford and being my teacher, but also the presence of John Chowning and Eric Stokes, another composer now gone, who became a friend and took me under his wing. Eric Stokes was a protégé of Henry Brant, another one of these wonderful spirits in American music whose generosity and messianic imagination knew no bounds. And Ivan Tcherepnin, the grandson of the great Nikolai Tcherepnin, and son of Alexander Tcherepnin, who also had very, very wide-ranging interests—from Persian santur to complex electronic music. These people were so inspiring to me that I cannot imagine a life in music that does not allow for that range.

There’s this idea that musical history and musical thoughtfulness is some kind of a one-track train that moves down through history with all the cars in order, and the idea of this kind of Hegelian thing, is that you have to get on the first car. Because there’s no point in being the caboose, so everybody runs to the next station because they think the track is going one direction. This is a complete falsehood in my opinion, and a stupid way to look at musical culture or human intelligence in any way. Human and musical intelligence and progress is this ever expanding, multi-dimensional thing of which we have to honor and take care to be sure that we allow it expand in every possible direction that is fruitful. I mean, we have to drop off the ones that are unfruitful. There are plenty of experiments that don’t work. But they’re not always going in the same direction fruitfully.

We just came back from Rome. It makes me think of this always. It’s kind of funny. When you drive in Rome, you are taught never to look in the rear view mirror, because what you see there, you don’t want to know. It’s just what’s happening behind you is already gone. You can’t spend your time looking in the rear view mirror. You have to look out this way, because that’s already done. And of course the Romans are going in every possible direction. I like the idea that a person driving in my musical car has to look forward. Because they can’t necessarily judge on the basis of what’s happened in the past what new developments might take place in the future.

FJO: Even before you went to California, growing up in a cooperative certainly gave you a different perspective.

MB: There were two groups in our area that I grew up in. There were the Co-ops and then there were the Amalgamated Co-ops. The Co-ops were Commie, very much interested in the Stalinist traditions of leading the proletariat to its proper goal in Utopia. On the other hand, my people were highly pragmatic socialists. It was about supporting working people and working peoples’ struggles. But it was much more open ended than the old conventional Communist version of things. They did not have such an authoritarian position. It was much less ideologically driven. If it worked, we’d do it. I grew up in that environment, but it isn’t quite what some people might think of it as.

It was a very tight group of people, and there was a lot of music going on there among working class people who were trying to educate themselves. It was that kind of self-education phenomenon. Other people who lived in my neighborhood for were Alan Vogel, the oboe player from Cal Arts who’s gone onto a wonderful career. Josh Rifkin comes from this neighborhood as well, although he wasn’t exactly in that those particular buildings. He was right next to them. And it goes on from there. These were very interesting people.

I grew up as a folk musician first. I played guitar in folk groups. Pete Seeger was a god to me, and the early Bob Dylan, I mean I used to see him playing in Gerde’s Folk City. One of my oldest personal friends is a guy named Pete Wernick who became the banjo player in Hot Rize, which was one of the great bluegrass groups of its time. He has always been known as “Dr. Banjo” because he travels all over giving all sorts of instruction in banjo playing. And he grew up in the Bronx, not Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in the Amalgamated Clothing Workers Project Housing. No matter what cultural manifestation you saw, there was interest in it in the community. The community had a range of high art and low art elements. All barriers were always seen as permeable. They were not unbridgeable politically, musically, or culturally. And there was always an emphasis on culture as being produced by ordinary people. It didn’t have to be produced by mandarin elite. It could be produced by clothing workers, getting together at night reading Shakespeare or Ibsen, thinking about the great Polish and Russian poets, or LaGuardia reading the comics on the radio. That kind of feeling for culture was part of my growing up.

LM: If you go to Passover at his Aunt Dottie’s house, you get the reds and the pinks on either side of the table and they’re still having arguments and Dottie who’s having her 90th birthday this weekend is standing up there and screaming about health insurance. Very strong points of view. No gray areas. And Passover’s about that. It’s not religious. It’s all about the exchange of political ideas. I have to say I didn’t come from that tradition at all, although there was a lot of discussion about politics. It wasn’t in that kind of organized way. It was more sort of shouting out stupid things after too many glasses of wine. It’s a very different environment growing up an Australian than in the Bronx.

FJO: Since you mention Australia, I wonder if you could talk to the issue of the aesthetic schisms there have been over there.

LM: Well, it’s a small country, so you do get to know most of the people in the new music scene. Australian composition does suffer from the same problems. They may be not called uptown and downtown as much as the more experimental tradition versus the modernist hardline kind of composers, but there’s a lot of bickering because it is small world—the new music world. Martin calls it crabs in a bucket. Composers are crabs in a bucket. In Australia it’s even smaller. And people are all going for the same piece of the pie, the same grant. There’s pretty much only one granting organization in Australia, the Australia Council, so there are a lot of problems there with people being jealous of someone who got the fellowship this year and someone who didn’t get it.

We manage to sort of skim the surface and be friends with a lot of different people because we’re not living there. People say to me: “Why don’t you go live in Australia? It’s so beautiful over there. Why do you live in the United States?” Americans say that. “Why wouldn’t you go live in Australia?” We can go live in Australia. I think, you know, you just worry because it’s so far away. Would you ever get back? How do you get out of the country? It costs $2,000 just to get out of the country to go and visit the United States, whereas it’s easier for us to go there and be the outsiders coming in.

Australia is an island and you can’t forget that. It suffers a little bit more from some of the things that people suffer here. This sort of island mentality of: “Who do you think you are?” When you arrive back in Australia for a visit, one thing people say is he’s just going to go again. Don’t take him seriously; he’s living overseas and is not really Australian. Or but if you arrive back and you say, “Well I’m moving back to Australia,” they say, “Aw, what happened? Didn’t work out over there?” You sort of can’t win.

MB: But it’s a great, great country.

LM: I forgot to say that.

MB: I’m a privileged outsider. I come in and I say I’m married to an Aussie, and have this free pass. They have a very talented group of young composers, and it’s not particularly gender specific: there are young men and young women writing beautiful music. Among the very talented people, there’s a group of people who call themselves Australian pastoralists. We don’t have anything equivalent to that. That’s a very conservative, neo-tonal group around Graeme Koehne and his friends in Adelaide. He actually was a student of Virgil Thomson and came to Yale for awhile. He represents one edge of it. There’s also the Elision group which is a pretty vigorously modernist, composers like Liza Lim and Chris Dench. And then there’s a bunch of people who are very hard to categorize who are really sui generis and unique, and I would urge people to put their ears to them. One of them is Brett Dean who has come back from Berlin where he was a violist in the orchestra. He’s very cosmopolitan and European in outlook, but very interested in recapturing his Australian character and roots. Another is Elena Kats Chernin who is an Australian of Russian descent and is a very strong composer. And then there are a bunch of people that Lisa went to school with who are really hard to characterize—like Gerald Brophy and Michael Smetanin who was a student of Louis Andriessen’s and writes music in an almost Dutch kind of style. And then people who are very interested in integrating Asian musics into their music, like Ann Boyd and Vincent Plush who sees Australia as a unique place. Praise to Andrew Ford who has a radio show there and does everything and everybody.

LM: I wish I could do more for Australian composers, but I find that new music is a very nationally-based profession. If you go to France, you don’t hear much American music. And you don’t hear much French music here. A lot of composers can be quite bitchy about performers not doing their music. I’ve heard some composers say, “She never does my music.” It’s so hard as a performer. First of all, as a pianist, there’s so much repertoire out there. You only have so many hours in a day and so many notes that you can learn. I’m sorry if I haven’t been able to do your music, or I only did 10 performances of that piece, and I’m no longer playing it because I do new music so I’m constantly going on to new things. But there has been a kind of resentment of me being over here, as well as a lot of opportunities have come from being over here. So it’s been a mix, but it’s not at all a pretty picture I would say with the whole Australian scene.

FJO: Getting back to mentors, Lisa, I know that eventually also had a mentor of the stature of Ligeti in Yvonne Loriod.

LM: Yvonne Loriod was difficult. That was a difficult time for me as well, because it was in Paris and my French wasn’t 90 percent. She was great in terms of technique, because she’s got small hands and she gave me a tremendous amount of tricks of the trade for small hands. So from that point of view, it was great.

My main mentor was Gilbert Kalish because he played all sorts of music and he never limited himself. Gil plays reading the music. In our tradition of playing the piano there’s this whole mishigas of having to play from memory, so it was just a breath of fresh air. If you play everything from memory, you have to limit what you can do because no one can hold that much in their memory unless they’re geniuses, and geniuses tend to burn out. You’re also living with this horrible thing that could happen in a performance: the memory slip. Gil decided when he was in his 20s that he wasn’t going to play without the music. And he became a chamber musician. That was also another important thing: playing chamber music with other people in a room and not always playing on your own and being this kind of crazy solo pianist.

I got to know Gil through Jan DeGaetani. I was at Eastman School of Music and people said if you really want to get something out of Eastman, try to get into Jan DeGaetani’s studio. Gil would come up to Eastman and she would ask if I wanted to turn pages for a concert, or a rehearsal. And so I would see how they work together. And she also loved my voice.

FJO: Now to turn this upside down, Martin has been such a mentor to so many people. I know for me that just hearing your music is a kind of compositional inspiration. Your music has the ability to elicit a creative response in others, which is probably part of what has drawn you to teaching.

MB: In a way, that’s what I always wanted. I felt that being a teacher was to give back to many people who were trying to find their way. And it was also a way of writing music. One could be a teacher as well by showing, by opening places up to people, by saying, “Look, I’m doing this, and you can do this, too. Or you can do something like it.” That’s the purpose of the teaching, both to transmit the historical values that we all have inherited and have some use for in the present world, and also to open the doors to the new.

LM: I’ve taught, but my teaching thing is still a work in progress. Every pianist can teach very easily. Make a couple of phone calls and within 6 to 12 months, you’ve got 15 to 20 students. It’s a very lucrative thing. And when I feel I’m teaching at the level that I’m sometimes privileged to get, then I really enjoy it. I’m very hands on when I do it. Again Gil Kalish is my model for that. That very tactile way of teaching really works, not high falutin’ philosophical ideas about whether Schumann was a great composer or not. So that’s where I’m coming from.

I would like to get a teaching job. But when you play new music, it’s very hard. They want someone who’s really going to train pianists who are going to supposedly win all the competitions and supposedly have a great career in music, which we know is finished. You still have the Van Cliburn Competition and the Tchaikovsky Competition but that world is only for a few people. The fact is that most pianists I know are making it playing new music or bits of new music and teaching here and there. But that doesn’t seem to matter when you’re going for a job audition.

FJO: Now, of course, teaching is a double edged sword. With Martin, he has had such an important influence as a teacher, but that takes time away from composing. How do you balance what you give with what you need to do for yourself?

MB: I cannot judge for myself whether I’ve balanced this properly or not. Honestly. I don’t really know. As I’ve gotten older, I feel that I’d like to spend more time now with my own material. The teaching is fine, but I need to finish my own life’s work. At the same time, I cannot conceive of my own musical development and life without the wonderful students I’ve had who’ve been so stimulating to me and been generous in sharing their ideas with me. I’ve been in lessons where my students have talked my ear off. I mean, to have been the teacher of David Lang and Michael Gordon and Julia Wolfe and Evan Ziporyn and Chris Theofanidis and Carlos Sanchez-Gutierrez and on and on and on, has meant that I’ve had a chance to interact with some of the liveliest minds in new music in my era. And who could regret that? I guess given my character and who I am, I would have had to have been a very different person to have declined to do that. And I would have had to have been also a person with an independent source of income, where I would have been able to go out and to have a trust fund and sit in a beautiful loft and look out the window on the Hudson River and think, what will I compose today? I needed to work from the time I was a young guy. I started teaching even before I left graduate school at Stanford. I must have been 23. That’s the life that I’ve lived.

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