Wendy’s World

Part 2: Outside the Musical Establishment

Frank J. Oteri: So in terms of the interpretation of your music, there have been pieces that have been done by ensembles over the years. I have not heard any of these things, and I would love to hear them. I was reading somewhere one of the booklet notes of one of the CDs mentioned that Kronos did a piece of yours at some point, and the Boston Symphony did a piece.

Wendy Carlos: Yeah, unfortunately, life’s a funny business. It sure doesn’t follow the path you ask. I’m still frozen out of most of the serious classical music world, which I would have loved to have been more involved with. I’m told it’s a pretty closed system, which wouldn’t be a surprise—but what do I know? After many attempts to connect failed, I’ve stepped back. So I’ve not had much interaction with good live performances, you know, to balance all the studio work. But Kronos was very open to new ideas, so I composed a piece for them which became a concerto for string quartet and orchestra, which is a little odd already. There are only a few—Thea Musgrave has a good one. It seemed like a rather interesting challenge, to create a string quartet concerto. There wasn’t much lead time, so it had to be fairly short. It was planned for New Year’s Day (the concert then got delayed a week). So I composed some sly variations on “Auld Lang Syne,” and called it “Variations on a Yearly Theme.” It came out rather well and proved to be a most enjoyable experience, meeting with Kent Nagano, especially. He conducted the Berkeley Symphony with Kronos—a talented, bright musician. I like him, and we worked together again two years later.

The British, I think, are rather more open-minded on humor in music. I’m thinking of Malcolm Arnold, who died recently, and was open to a more jocular side of his nature within his music, and often betrayed a sharp wit. I really love a bit of that! Think of the Beethoven Ninth Symphony’s military march tenor solo section, with the: “Boop. Ta-dah. Boop. Ta-dah.” Those bass-line “farts” from the contrabassoon. That’s a comical moment, though we don’t know to what extent he intended it to be. Can’t read much into it. Still, there was a free spirit, un-stereotypic impulse behind that and other such spots. It made me smile when I first heard it, and still does. I believe I caught some of it in my synthesizer realization of it as well. Malcolm Arnold was splendidly tongue-in-cheek in the pieces he wrote for the Hoffnung Music Festival. He would have understood what we’re talking about, your bringing up my string quartet with full orchestra accompaniment—that kind of challenging stunt.

But I suggest all virtuoso pieces display a stunt quality, when the instrumentalist—say, the violin—is sawing away there and it’s really kind of scary. Will they make it or fail? Or pianists, when they cadenza up and down, will they miss a note? There is that quality which Glenn Gould disliked, and it’s a part of the live performance experience. One unspoken reason many people go to the opera is to hear if the singers will hit all of their high notes. There’s also a competition with yourself, or with other performers, that enters into the equation. It’s not musical, but it’s something that you can’t remove when live, but is largely missing in studio recordings, as most of mine have been, and which Glenn Gould eventually made his sole medium.

FJO: This is where new music always suffers, because if you’re hearing a brand-new piece, you don’t know how it’s going to go. You can’t sit there and know if the performer is going to make a mistake because you don’t know where it’s going. So if someone does Beethoven and they go ‘da-dah, da-dah, da-dah’ and they play a wrong note, you go “Aha! I know how this goes! That guy goofed!” But you can’t do that with a new piece.

WC: Especially if the piece is what we used to call “wrong-note” music. I mean, how are you going to know if everything is minor ninths and major sevenths and clusters? It’s very hard to tell, isn’t it? Which is one of the trade-offs that I hope those composers consider carefully. Otherwise it seems to me they’re taking on rather more trade-offs than they bargained for.

FJO: Well, when you started entering the world of composition, that was a big part of what the world of composition was.

WC: That was one of the darkest periods for serious music. A lot of composers with good instincts were crushed for a long time under what was effectively, if not deliberately, a repressive time. Now it seems hard to believe conditions were that constrained when I was a student, but they were—before you got into it, Frank. You witnessed the transition, a start of a new enlightenment.

FJO: I was there at the very end of it.

WC: Then you experienced a more interesting, hopeful period. For me it was simply bleak, a waste of time and talent. I’m still angry to think about it today. Here’s what it felt like. Everyone I’d encounter seemed to champion ugly music, the uglier the better. The more you could confound the audience, the more seriously you’d be taken. To their shame, many academic leaders, respected composers and music journals, encouraged making music which refused to acknowledge our musical heritage, except in a negative sense. There used to be melody. “Ah, don’t do that anymore.” There used to be counterpoint. “Oh, that’s part of melody—find a way around it.” There used to be harmony. “Good grief, toss that out at once!

Then how do you feel about rhythm? “Well, as long as you keep changing it, never hint at a pattern, a beat, that might be okay, fine.” And how about meter? “Same comments as rhythm.” So they turned their backs on an awful lot of the best parts of music and taught us to purge them from our music, too. First sign of a lapse, they sneered—polite, informal sneers. It wasn’t a conspiracy, nothing that sinister, planned or organized. But the effect was the same. It’s not unlike how prejudice operates—racism, sexism: with an obliviousness and perpetual denial that anything “unreasonable” is in effect; “who, me?”! It’s seldom conscious—but subtle, over time, signaled by exclusion and casual presumptuous. Am I overreacting here? Well I am becoming more of a curmudgeon as I grow older, and begin to notice the repeating patterns of life, having gone around the block a few times too many, perhaps! [Grins]

So we had to learn to be self-policing, on guard against our instincts. I recoiled strongly, and I spoke with other students, the peers around me, and they felt it, also. I just heard Steve Reich comment similarly about it, how repressive and destructive the period felt to him, too. In the past 10 or 20 years many of those people have insisted: “We never meant to forbid you, didn’t tell you that you couldn’t write tunes or harmony.” Yes, you did. You implied it. You may as well have said: “DECREE. Here ye, be it known and resolved in our noble kingdom: there shall be no more C major, no more D minor, and no more triads, neither major nor minor shall there be, and neither chords of the diminished nor dominant seventh!” I’m obviously being sarcastic. People who wouldn’t kowtow were left out. Would you force a cook to remove all the delicious parts of food? Take out every enjoyable flavor, and leave only some protein, carbs, amino acids, and so on, a subsistence diet with the taste of burnt wood? Anyway, I warned you that I’m still angry, but it felt good to say all this, thanks!

FJO: Now, when you started writing, you did use serial techniques a little bit, though, yes?

WC: I messed with it some, sure. We all did then. Unfortunately, having had a background in physics and mathematics, I saw that a lot of it was pretty inane number-play, simple combinations and permutations. I had seen far more impressive theories in the math department and wasn’t about to be taken in by silliness, even if it seemed to be weighty material to many other musicians and composers. It wasn’t so easy to keep a straight face or to endure the endless talk—hyperventilating over such forgettable, unlovable writing. And one last thing—nearly everyone sounded so similar, MUCH less variety than non-serial music. This bothers me greatly, as it suggests that the technique itself tends to mask an individual’s personality. Nearly no one speaks about that. Think of all pianists wearing boxing gloves, they’d lose most of their individuality, too! [Grins]

Of course it made for an awful lot of mind- and ear-numbing concerts that resembled ever so much Andersen’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” The audience was in on the joke and were expected not to laugh; the performers took their roles very seriously, and everyone sat there seriously for this serious event. Then afterwards: “Oh, hello, did you enjoy the final piece?” “Oh yes, it was intricately quite forbidding, especially the sarcastic, asymmetric call and responses of contrasting, recursive motifs.” “You’re so right, it’s the perfect metaphor for urban life in the 20th Century!” It dawned on me quickly that there was nothing happening here, certainly nothing I wanted to join in.

FJO: But did people say they enjoyed it? There was such a resistance to this music.

WC: Only among people who weren’t exposed to the rules. The elite seemed satisfied enough.

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