March 13, 2006—3:00 p.m.
Edited and transcribed by
Frank J. Oteri and Anna Reguero
Video presentation by
For years I’ve been simultaneously eager and reluctant to speak to Ned Rorem. I’ve always been somewhat intimidated by him. And it’s not just because of his celebrated propensity for biting comments.
For people who are equally drawn to composing music and writing words, there are very few role models: Paul Bowles, Anthony Burgess, John Cage, perhaps a handful of others, and Ned Rorem. While he’s most frequently praised for his gifts as a composer of art songs, he has been an equally prolific composer of instrumental music from string quartets to symphonies and a remarkable collection of concertos for various instruments which redefine concerto form. As an author, he is always engaging and immediate. Words seem to flow effortlessly from him. Not just in his famously candid diaries, but also in his many provocative essays about music.
I’ve met him numerous times at various premieres and receptions over the years, each time reintroducing myself and seeing if our brief conversations could eventually lead to a more substantive one on videotape that could appear in NewMusicBox. At some point, I had almost given up hope that it would ever happen. Then Ned Rorem’s opera Our Town received its world premiere performances in Bloomington, Indiana, to seeming universal acclaim. (Our Town will be presented this summer by the Lake George Opera—July 1, 5, and 9—and at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House—July 31 and August 2.) Rorem has been at the top of his form and perhaps more approachable than ever before as a result. So I gave it a try.
I spent about an hour talking with Rorem about his recent triumphs, as well as some of his lifelong aesthetic concerns—creating viable vocal music sung in English, the meaning of music, tonality. Inevitably, some of his biting comments found their way into our talk—fans of Bob Dylan or Oprah beware. But I left unscathed and perhaps an even bigger fan than I had ever been.
Frank J. Oteri: Even though so much of your writing concerns music, you’ve written so many books and have given so many talks that the manipulation of language has taken on its own separate career for you, separate and apart from being a composer.
Ned Rorem: I’ve been a composer all my life; I have also written several things. Europeans are much less specialized than Americans; partly because they have to earn a living. A doctor will treat your scalp as well as your corns or your liver. But here you have to go down the hall to another doctor. Or you’ll go to a party and only see doctors; you don’t see lawyers and merchants. I’m European in that I’m not a specialist. My first book, well, somebody I met read my diary. He worked as an editor at Brasiliers. He took my diary and submitted it and they published it immediately. I didn’t paper my walls with rejection slips. There were several other diaries published immediately by the same publisher. When I realized that what I was going to write would be published I became a little bit more responsible and then started writing things that weren’t just about my own ego, like these books on music. I suppose everything is ego. People ask, “Do you set your own words to music?” The answer is no because I feel that whatever my music may be worth, the words I select to put to music are pretty good. The kind of writing I do is completely unsingable. Years ago, I once did a text that I set to music. It’s called The Robbers. I showed it Marc Blitzstein and he said, “Oh Jesus, you’ve gotten trapped in libretto-land.” He kept the score overnight and changed every word of it without changing a note of the music. I had written things like “Oh that thou wert” kind of bullshit. Marc translated it from English into English, which is how it’s [now] done. He made it less antique. So I don’t set my words to music. If I were to, I could probably write an opera as an adaptation of something, but I certainly don’t write poetry.
FJO: In terms of the amounts of time you spend on writing versus composing, how does it carve up for you?
NR: People always ask that, and let’s put it this way: I’m never not composing, even as I sit hear and talk to you or lie in bed at night with my insomnia. Since Our Town, I’ve written two choral pieces—maybe three, I forget, and I’m supposed to do a fourth one. After that I don’t know what I’ll do. I don’t know if I have it in me to write another opera. Another book is going to come out in several months which I just scraped together: I put a bunch of scraps together, and then the other half is pre-published articles from magazines mainly on music. But I have no idea what another book would be.
FJO: How long will an idea germinate in you for a piece of music or a piece of writing?
NR: I don’t know.
FJO: How about Our Town?
NR: If I’m doing an opera, then I know where I’m going and how it’s going to end before I’ve even begun. If I’m writing a flute concerto, I certainly don’t get ideas for snare drums. I’m professional, not inspirational. I don’t especially believe in inspiration. Everyone’s inspired but only professionals know how to put it together and make it transferable from the artist to the general public.
FJO: But you did just say that you have ideas as we’re talking now or in the middle of the night when you have insomnia. So it’s not like you allot a specific time, say between 9:00 a.m. and noon, for composing a specific number of measures of music.
NR: No, sometimes I’ll write down a theme or a series of notes, and it can be pretty lousy the next day; the same with words.
If I died today, I think I’ve said everything I’ve had to say. But who knows what tomorrow will bring. I’m not ashamed of what I’ve done, and I think it’s been a fairly wide scope, at least from my perspective.
FJO: It’s a remarkably wide scope.
NR: Well, I guess. I don’t know that a wide scope is necessarily admirable or not. Fauré didn’t have a particularly wide scope, or Kafka. But it’s what you say within the scope and how it’s said. Like the person who wrote that book that Oprah was critical of. I think it’s perfectly fine; it’s a new form. But I haven’t read the book. And I think Oprah’s a big bore.
FJO: But maybe if we could get some contemporary composers on Oprah, more people would be aware of them.
NR: Or on Charlie Rose for that matter. Oprah wouldn’t know what we’re talking about, but Charley Rose has had artists but almost always interpretive artists. For the first time ever in history, the performer—the interpreter—is the star. A composer of the same age and perhaps reputation as a given performer earns about a twentieth of what the performer makes. Itzhak Perlman lives across the street. He makes in one evening what I make in a year, and he does that by playing Mendelssohn and standard classics. That began about a hundred years ago for financial reasons.
I wrote a letter to the editor [in response to] a review of The Pajama Game yesterday, and said, “This review, which is three long columns, raves about every one of the performers: the set designer, this and that, and the singers. [But there's] not one word about who composed the music or lyrics.” And I gave the names. I said, “For the record, you should review these people.” [Charlie Rose] talks to Yo-Yo Ma, for example, about creativity. But he’s not a creator. People always use that word creativity as though it was some magic thing. Just recently I read some place that “a concert by Yo-Yo Ma is a wonderful dream of creativity.” But it’s not; it’s simply a misuse of words. Like the 9/11 tragedy: it’s not a tragedy according to Aristotle; it’s a calamity.
FJO: This all raises interesting questions about why someone would even want to be a composer. In an essay “Vocabulary” you wrote decades ago, you described being a composer the way someone would describe race or sexual orientation. It seemed almost as involuntary a choice.
NR: I believe that. I’m five things: I’m homosexual and alcoholic (a recovered alcoholic – I haven’t had a drink of any sort in 34 years). I’m also an atheist, and a pacifist, totally atheist and totally pacifist. And I’m a composer. That’s the only one that’s problematic; people don’t know what you’re talking about when you say you’re a composer. But you are a composer or you aren’t, and you know that pretty early.
They asked me to come up to Buffalo to teach composition, six lectures followed by concerts. And I said “I don’t know anything about music except how to write it.” But I sat down and decided to [talk] about what I did know about: writing songs, setting words to music, how it feels to hear your orchestration. Each lecture took about a half an hour and all of the concerts were contemporary music, though not all American. Then I became a very excellent teacher: I knew everything; I knew all the answers. Then I was at Curtis for twenty years and the longer I stayed, the less I knew. I don’t know how to teach composition; I don’t know what it means. What it means is to decide who the person is and then help him or her (and there’s almost as many hers now). You can tell where you think they’re going.
At the American Academy every year, seven of us who are very different as people judge those who have submitted scores for prizes. We listen to 80 different pieces in 2 days with a fairly good, catered lunch. I never read the recommendations because it’s always the same thing: “So-and-so is this-and-that.” I judge by the music. We give every one about eight minutes, maybe ten minutes, and they have two pieces. People meander a lot and the music—most of the time—doesn’t get down to business. Or if they start an orchestral piece with a solo cello, you say, “When is that solo cello going to shut up?” If they don’t say something in the first minute or two, we tell the person over at the machine, “Go on to the next piece, please.” You get very blasé and very hard to please in this thing. One piece in 15 is vocal. These are all American composers, but the text for these things is usually Rilke or maybe Emily Dickinson or Whitman. [It's] partly [because they're] public domain, but partly it’s as if there were no other texts besides Whitman and Emily Dickinson. And the American singers, who aren’t going to be making it in opera anyway so should be trying to revive the song recital, can’t sing in their own language. They all learn to sing very well in German and Italian, and they all give concerts of Hugo Wolf. But if it’s in English, they’ll role their R’s Italian style or they’ll sing cute, encore-type pieces.
FJO: Might it be that singers not being able to sing in their own language is a result of some aspects of vocal training in classical music?
NR: Well, if all the teachers are always old ladies from Italy at Curtis, or from Germany—I don’t know if it’s still that way, but it was when I was in school—they learn to sing impeccably Hugo Wolf, Schubert, Schumann. If I were a singing teacher, I’d say to the singers, “I don’t care how beautiful your voice is if I can’t understand the words.” Go on the principle that you have the best voice in the world, and then think 90 percent about the words. In every language, get it out the way the best singers do. If you’re singing in your own language, you know what you’re singing about, which can be embarrassing, and it’s very revealing. And singers, more than any other soloists, deal with an audience and look at the person who is listening. They have to take off their glasses to commune with the people in the audience.
FJO: You’ve pretty much only set the English language.
NR: I have done a few French songs, but I excuse that because I, first of all, lived in France for many years, and I wrote these mainly in France. But of the four or five hundred songs, 20 are in French. And I think [there’s] some Latin choral music. If we don’t create our own literature, no one is going to do it for us.
Music doesn’t mean anything. Nobody can prove that it has any meaning the way literature does. Literature always means something, so does painting. Music doesn’t mean things like: Tuesday, or Jonathan, or pineapple. It doesn’t even mean things like death or wind. It can do onomatopoeiatic imitations of these things but those are conventions. Sadness wasn’t in the minor mode four hundred years ago. Vocal music does mean something, but it only means what the words tell you. So, I’d say to a class, for next Tuesday we’re all going to set the same poem to music. And since the poet never asked for it to be set to music, who am I to say it must be this or that. The only two rules I had are: Don’t repeat words the poet hasn’t repeated and try to keep it pretty much at the speed of speech so we can understand it. I never give value judgments but I might say it’s interesting how John put the climax on this word and Jennifer put it on that word, or Eleanor did it slow and Peter did it fast. There’s no one inevitable way. I even wrote a song cycle of 18 songs on 9 poems, each one set to music twice.
FJO: Might this whole notion of music not having a discernable meaning be the explanation for why most people don’t have a clue about what being a composer is, as opposed to the other four things you are?
NR: Everyone knows what being gay is because everyone has tried to pretend they were to see what it feels like. And everyone knows what an alcoholic is which I think is ingrained; I think you’re born that way. Atheism is a conviction that comes from a certain experience. And so is pacifism. I was raised a Quaker, in the Society of Friends. My mother’s brother had been killed in the First World War, and she never got over it. My parents decided to join a group, not for reasons of God but for reasons of pacifism. So I think all war is bad under any circumstances. As for music’s meaning, Mendelssohn said it’s not too vague for words, it’s too precise for words. But then he didn’t define precise.
FJO: I was very excited when the disc of your symphonies came out on Naxos. I had no idea you wrote symphonies; I was too young to have heard your third when it was popular and the first two were not known at all. You’ve written a lot of non-vocal music for orchestra since then, but you never again used the name “symphony.” Considering your observations about music not having any meaning, I wonder what attaching such an abstract name to a work means to you and what made you stop using the term.
NR: I think I wrote a symphony in order to have written a symphony; that would be the first one. Back then I didn’t think in terms of abstraction; I didn’t know what it meant back in those days. I’ve written a lot of big abstract orchestral works that do have descriptive titles like Sunday Morning; it’s a suite [of movements] all with titles from a Wallace Stevens poem. In many, many pieces without voices, like the Fourth String Quartet, for example, it’s in eight or ten movements and each of them are named after a Picasso picture because that amuses me. The Debussy preludes all have very illustrative titles but many of them were tacked on after the fact. A composer likes to give titles to his pieces because he knows if he doesn’t nobody else will. Whereas painters will call a picture Abstraction No. 2 but there is no abstract painting, even Jackson Pollock. Just like when you look at a cloud, the cloud becomes a camel. You can always find a donkey’s head there or a leg.
FJO: Is that the equivalent of tonality in painting then?
NR: You can’t compare the arts at all, even though people do it all the time. If the arts were all like each other, we’d only need one art. A lot of times the poets I’ve set to music, if they’re alive, are mildly flattered, but they don’t know why I bother. Elizabeth Bishop, for example. I think I corresponded with her from 1952 until she died in the ’70s. She’d send me poems and I set several of her poems to music. And one was published with a cover by Cocteau—actually it’s on the wall over there—and she was thrilled to be immortalized by Cocteau. Then I sent her a recording of the song. It was very touching, her letter about trying to tell me she liked it even though she didn’t know what it was. “Well, maybe it should have been slower. Maybe it should have been higher. Maybe it should have been sung by a man.” Well, let her write her own songs. But I can sympathize. She had heard her own “music” when she wrote the thing and mine is by definition not that. The song is a third thing, and it doesn’t belong to her any longer. Other poets who think of themselves as musical who write poems for composers, usually the poems are no good. They’re full of vowels because they think composers like to rhyme June with moon. The arts are not the same thing. And there’s a sort of bastardness about songwriting, to take something that already exists and breed it with something else. But that’s healthy.
FJO: Of course, operas are the highest form of that. In the two full-length operas that you’ve done, you’ve taken pre-existing plays—Miss Julie and Our Town—both of which are acknowledged classics of the theatre, and turned them into operas. And your opera Our Town is remarkably faithful to Thornton Wilder’s play.
NR: Sandy McClatchy made the libretto of this. Looking at it, I was very pleased. I almost didn’t go because I was feeling funny for a long time. But I did go. I forced myself, and I’m awfully glad I did. They rehearsed it, and it was very good. The orchestra sounded marvelous; they didn’t make any mistakes. It’s very unflashy, no percussion. I sat in the audience as though I were just a general auditor.
FJO: Certainly people knew you had written it.
NR: They treated me like Greta Garbo. It’s a very good school. They had two casts. For the [role of the] Stage Manager, one of them was black, which was O.K. but not quite O.K., but he had a better voice than the other one.
FJO: This is the tricky thing with a play that’s so well known. Of course anyone could look right for the part in a new work. What’s right is whatever you want to be right since it’s your work. But everyone has associations with how people looked in the original production. Everyone is walking in with assumptions of what it is supposed to look like.
NR: Of course.
FJO: When André Previn did an opera based on A Streetcar Named Desire, every one was talking about whether or not Rodney Gilfry looked enough like Stanley Kowalski when they were really wondering how much he looked like Marlon Brando who played the role in the movie.
NR: It has to be a third thing. It’s terribly dangerous. I don’t know if I would have written Our Town if I wasn’t commissioned to write it, and it’s going to get a lot of performances. People have said, “How does Ned think he can improve on the original?” I’m not trying to improve it anymore than Verdi was improving on Shakespeare when he did Otello.
FJO: Our Town was a period piece even when it was written in the ’40s. It was about an era that was no more even back then. Revisiting it now in an opera, 100 years after the action takes place, is like going through a time portal. What does a piece like Our Town say to a 21st century, post 9/11 America that’s in the middle of a war?
NR: Albeit people can go to the opera now and be very touched by Puccini. And actually, 9/11 is no more theatrical than Socrates’s or Euripides’s plays, or Lysistrata.
FJO: So what in your estimation is the role of an artist, a composer, in terms of reshaping the language vs. maintaining the language of his or her art?
NR: I don’t do things because I’m supposed to do them; I do them because I want to do them. I’m not sure before the 18th century that the composer was interested in being new, having his own language. He spoke his own language with his personal vocabulary. Anybody can be a perfect composer, but that doesn’t mean that what they’re saying is communicable. You can’t teach it, but you can teach technique to everybody. So, I don’t think there is a role or responsibility that we have to write this kind of music. I think that’s dangerous. Then—I think it’s in yesterday’s Times—there is a big article about, “What is American painting?” They said the same thing about American music. Virgil Thomson said, “It’s very easy to write American music. All you have to do is have an American passport and write any kind of music you want.” Which is the way I feel. If there’s something American about it, it comes in spite of yourself. It doesn’t mean using Kentucky folk songs, like Appalachian Spring, because that’s mainly more Copland than it is American. And he invented what is the American sound. The American sound is Copland rather than folk songs. And certain composers, like Poulenc, wrote their own folk music. And Poulenc is immediately identifiable as Poulenc because of that element that can’t be defined. You always know Poulenc when you hear it. There’s a lot of Ravel in it, but still, it’s very different from Ravel.
FJO: And I would dare say that I know your music when I hear it.
NR: Do you really? That’s nice to hear.
FJO: There’s recently been a big debate about whether or not there’s a difference between “Uptown” and “Downtown” music. It reminds me a bit of your old dichotomy between French and German music (which similarly transcends geographical borders) as well as the notion of there being a distinction between European and American influences or between high and low culture. Do you think there is still a value in sustaining any of these polarities?
NR: It’s much more disparate than it used to be. It’s 99 percent pop music of one sort or another and 1 percent serious classical music, for lack of a better term. Of that classical music, which is mostly all Beethoven and Mozart, one hundredth of that is living American music. If cultured intellectuals know about Beethoven or Vivaldi—even [the ones] who know all about Dante and Philip Roth, or Michelangelo and Jackson Pollock—the contemporary music that they know about is strictly The Beatles or Sting, or other elements of that sort.
I think Bob Dylan is revolting. He can’t sing, he can’t play an instrument, his tunes are very ordinary, just tonic to dominant; his sentiments are that the times are changing. So what? He has no charm, but everybody just worships him on bended knee. So he has at least one opponent, and that’s me. On the radio yesterday, I heard somebody, I thought it was Bob Dylan, but it was somebody else. He was a big influence. I use the word “pop” for lack of a better word. Judy Collins is a dear friend and she sings a couple of my songs, three actually, and she’s got sort of a real voice.
The pop music of my time was Cole Porter and Gershwin, with wonderful bands, with Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman and the Dorsey Brothers. People writing songs that are real songs, and sung by real voices, of which there are [now only] a few, like that dykie woman k.d. lang. She has a real voice; she could belt out a tune. She sang for President Bush recently at the Kennedy Center wearing a tuxedo, dressed up as a man. But, most pop music today doesn’t interest me in any way. Nor can I understand the words most of the time.
The public that we have is very small. I think that smallness is O.K. I don’t think everyone has to have a big public; people think they do. I think for song recitals by American singers who sing in their own language—rare as they may be these days—a hall that seats 200 is lovely. Everything is money, money, money now, so the situation is different.
As for French vs. German, that can only go so far. Unlike 30 or 50 years ago, there is no culture in Europe. There is nothing coming out of France that I know about—and I would know—in terms of serious theatre or music, or literature or painting, either good or bad; likewise Germany. England is fairly interesting but, strange as it may seem, America, with all its vulgarity, is the most interesting country culturally on earth today in music, in literature, in theatre, in painting. I guess in painting. So things have changed. And I don’t see things getting any better.
As for Uptown-Downtown, does that even exist any longer? The so-called “serial killers” lost their grip on virtually everybody (including Stravinsky and Copland who rallied to the Boulez cause although they wrote pretty good things). People stopped being frightened of towing the line to a certain kind of music. I never knew what Downtown music was or Uptown music. I just don’t know.
FJO: The Uptowners would be allied toward serialism and the Downtowners would be allied toward John Cage, chance, conceptual music like Robert Ashley, minimalism—Steve Reich, Meredith Monk, etc.
NR: Well, those people are all over the place now, not literally downtown. I don’t think you can say any longer that serialists are this or that and so forth. People write what they write.
FJO: That’s certainly true for you. Your music is unrepentantly tonal, but you’ve used tone rows.
NR: I’m going to go to a Milton Babbitt concert tonight actually. He’s 90, and it’s his birthday and he’s a colleague. I can’t prove it, but all music is tonal because the law of the universe is tonality—Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter, Boulez. Elliott is getting a hell of a lot of performances these days, and he’s going to be 100 one of these months. And he goes to these places; I don’t have that kind of energy at all. He’s God; not for me, but for a lot of people. But for everybody writing a tone row, they’re only writing it to be not tonal, so they’re thinking in terms of tonality, by definition. A listener of any age who doesn’t even know music is going to hear a sort of pedal point beneath it all, the way we do in Berg. I don’t care what a person’s language is. But you don’t find people being as dogmatic and as uppity about the language they speak [these days].
FJO: So will you be hearing pedal points in Babbitt’s music tonight?
NR: I hope so.
FJO: It’s interesting to me given your stance on tonality that you’ve incorporated elements of twelve-tone thinking into your harmonic vocabulary. Why did you opt to do that?
NR: I don’t know. I met Lou Harrison very early in my life, when I was about 20, and we were very fond of each other. He was 28, which was a big difference. And he knew everything; I didn’t know anything. He knew Ives, Ruggles, and Varèse, whom he was promoting. He wasn’t a teacher; he was just a pal whom I drank beer with, but he taught me how to write music with a twelve-tone series for about an hour. And for about a week I applied it just in order to apply it, and then I simply wasn’t interested, even though some of my best friends were twelve-tone composers, Ben Weber being one then. I never did John Cage, but I knew him reasonably well, and his wife Xenia who did very pretty mobiles. I’ve never written according to a system, but I never got scared by the serial composers when Boulez took over. Then, when you were allowed to write tonal music again, I felt like the Prodigal Son’s brother whom no one had paid attention to because he’d been a good boy all the time, as opposed to David Del Tredici, for example.
But I never say, “This is what I’m trying to do here,” because I’m not interested in hearing what people say about their music. Music doesn’t exist for what the composer says it means; it exists on its own. I’m pretty good about talking about other people’s music, and I’ve written a lot of books in which the word “I” doesn’t even occur—I’m not talking about the Diaries. I talk about other composers, and 99 percent of those are contemporary composers. (I did one essay on Mussorgsky and one on Carmen.) When it comes to composers talking about their own music, I never listen much; I don’t care. The music speaks for itself….I’m morally against percussion.
FJO: Except you wrote that great mallet concerto.
NR: I agreed to do that for Evelyn Glennie if the orchestra would have no percussion because if I never hear another cymbal it won’t be too soon. Elliott Carter’s piece, played about a month ago with the Philharmonic, which was written 30 years ago, was full of cymbals. I said to Evelyn, “You will play just pitched mallet instruments.”
FJO: In this piece, like all the other concertos you’ve been writing over the last few years, you seem to have invented a new form. Each of these pieces has seven or eight shorter movements strung together instead of the more conventional three-movement fast-slow-fast.
NR: I guess I’ve written a lot of concertos, for lack of a better term. I write program notes for them, too. There are as many definitions of concertos as there are concertos. Bach has written concertos for one instrument with no accompaniment. De Falla wrote the harpsichord concerto for just a few instruments and [then there are] these big fat ones, but usually it’s a conversation or a dispute between soloist and orchestra. The first concerto I ever wrote was a harpsichord concerto, [before] I wrote the Piano Concerto No. 1. It might be at the Library of Congress. I gave them all my stuff.
FJO: There are a number of pieces you’ve written over the years that you’ve either revised or discarded. Some are completely withdrawn, like your first string quartet.
NR: It’s not that I discarded them. If someone wants to sing something that’s never been published, I’d say, “Sure, why not?” But, why not do some others? And the piece needs a life of its own, as songs do, especially songs because both men and woman can sing them. You can’t tell the difference between a male and a female violist or flutist, but you can with a song. And I don’t mind them being transposed. But it’s inconceivable that a pianist will say, “I’m transposing the Chopin Etudes,” because there’s no reason. As for withdrawing works, I remember Virgil Thomson said, “I wouldn’t be too worried about withdrawing works. They just withdraw themselves.”
FJO: I know Miss Julie has gone through a number of incarnations because looking at the published score from 1965 is very different than hearing either of the recordings that were made several decades later.
NR: It’s now a one-act opera.
FJO: It went from two to one.
NR: I don’t believe in revision after a certain period, but opera is different because opera is a freak of nature and there is something deliciously illegitimate about it. But like poets where their collective works come out 45 years later, they revise them—Paul Goodman did it, always for the worst; Auden did it, always for the worst—they’re no longer the same person. Do you know my song “The Lordly Hudson”? It’s my most sung song, actually. Anyway, Paul Goodman wrote [the poem]. It’s very singable because he’s a very intellectual poet, but it’s full of “be still, heart.” He changed that to, “be still, Paul.” You can tell already how terrible that is. Plus, where does that leave my song? Also, for theatrical reasons, one would change an opera, I suppose. I lose interest after the first performance, after I see it.