Part 3: New Ways To Listen
Frank J. Oteri: The whole scenario you just described started breaking down in the ’70s, which brings me to what I think is your second big contribution to music: Sonic Seasonings.
Wendy Carlos: It was a small step along the way, I guess.
FJO: But here’s why it might have bigger impact than you think. Everyone credits the rise of ambient music with Brian Eno and Discreet Music in 1974.
WC: His came a little later, didn’t it?
FJO: Yeah, yours is ’72.
WC: Actually, I remember late ’70 was when we first started it.
FJO: But it was released in ’72, and therefore it was the first record put on the market that was designed for a new kind of listening paradigm. But maybe I’m assuming things about what you were aiming for with this recording.
WC: Maybe you’re right. For us, the idea was to find a music that didn’t require lengthy concentrated listening. We thought that if you enlarged each gesture and slowed the pace, you could stand back and still have the same perspective. It wouldn’t hold to the scrutiny of looking close-up, and wasn’t intended to. But it wasn’t trivial, either. It was more than ambient noises in the other room, surf near a beach house when you’re trying to sleep. Something in-between attentive composition and a flow of atmosphere. It was a mode not well explored back then and seemed healthy because so much 20th-century music had been focusing ever tighter, high-powered microscopes peering at short, fiercely intricate pieces. I wanted to get some air and stand back a bit, see where that might lead.
As with any continuum, the way you find the limit is by going past it, then backing up. For me you can easily go too far in diluting your ideas, spread w-a-y out thin, more repetitive and redundant than I can stand. But at the same time, fairly static music can serve its function very well in the cinema, an effective film score mood. If the film is very busy with a lot of dialogue, you cannot write busy music or you will fight with the scene. You must be a good team player; it’s why there’s a special art to composing fine film scores, an under-appreciated art form. While much of it is pretty routine, even hacked out, a lot of it is really special, too. It requires you to distill your ideas, know how to make them balance with what’s coming from the dialog, action, and from the cinematography. Opera requires some of the same skills and approaches, of course—the connections are obvious.
So does ballet; the music should support the dance, or you’re creating bad ballet. I suspect that Stravinsky, in his famous early three ballets, wrote music much more complicated than might serve dance ideally, and they are much more effective as concert pieces. They have a concentrated, pointed, intricate quality that requires the undivided focus of the listener, not to be distracted by watching a dance. But simpatico ballet music, like Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, works so naturally. It integrates well into a shared art form. Which is why I bring up film; forgive me for being so eclectic, but I think these are all tied together. It’s a question of collaborative art forms versus the solitary expression of one artist, to the audience.
The word “eclectic” is not often used appreciatively. I find myself to be eclectic, and people have told me I am, and that’s not an insult, is it? I find you eclectic, too. I think that it’s the idea of the curious mind in a complex modern world. Here you are on a planet that has a lot of little attractions, the kitten reaches for the glittery ball on the Christmas tree. What do you do when you find so many things interesting? In culture and the arts, a lot of them are related, I find it simpatico to talk with writers, painters, poets, or with people involved in any of the other arts—choreographers, film directors. We share far more than we’re told.
Eclecticism, too many background ideas, can lead to a tendency to overwrite, put everything you know into each work. I’ve been guilty of this, most young composers go through such a stage. At some point you learn to step back, take a breath. A composer should also be aware of the audience. If you write for your audience, you naturally pace yourself so that there’s a lot that you pick up at once, and more you’ll get on the second hearing, and then later on. And even a few discoveries that you’ll catch only a long while later, so it forms a pyramid of interrelated layers.
FJO: To bring this issue back directly to Sonic Seasonings, you mentioned film scoring. Would you say that Sonic Seasonings was a direct result of your having worked on film soundtracks? Did that experience lead to your being able to conceive of music that could be perceived differently?
WC: Oh, that’s so lovely and pat, I wish it were so. If I said so, somebody sharp will pick up that Sonic Seasonings was really created starting in 1970, and most of it was finished by mid-1971. The album was sent to Kubrick as we began working on A Clockwork Orange. Then the Clockwork Orange score came out first on Warner Brothers’ version, which is incomplete from my point of view, containing only the excerpts that made the final cut—so our full score came out later on CBS. And what did CBS release at the same time? Sonic Seasonings. But it was “in the can” before C.O. was begun, so I can’t see how even—well, a time machine might have permitted it—if we had gone into the future, we might have analyzed the experience of working on Clockwork Orange, and let that affect Sonic.
I had scored short student films in the ’60s, in grad school, so I did know what it was like to compose for film, and to synchronize, but that’s the bare-bones technique, something you don’t really forget. Like the proverbial riding a bicycle. Computers have made it simple to handle film sound and music synchronization, so that’s no longer an issue. Was the mental creative process of composing a film score something that would have helped to create Sonic Seasonings? Yeah, I guess in truth they’re similar experiences. They’re related for more reasons that we’ve been talking about, rather than that one influenced the other. Didn’t happen. But they were both influenced by the same root sources.
FJO: One thing you keep saying, which is so unusual for a composer to say, is “we.”
WC: Oh, it’s simply because in those days I worked with Rachel Elkind-Tourre, my collaborator and producer in the ’70s. By 1980 she decided she hated the grind, politics, and pressures involved, so bowed out, and has remained out of the field since. Most of my career I’ve worked alone, with a few enjoyable collaborations now and again.
FJO: But the idea of any composer saying “we” is unusual, to allow somebody else into that creative space.
WC: It depends on your attitude. Working with film and theater people is also very collaborative, even more deeply than just working together on an album, a composer, and a producer. Lenny Waronker worked with Van Dyke Parks on the memorable Song Cycle in 1968. That was an example of collaborative effort, too, including a lot of the best L.A. musicians who contributed, too—and I found it a fascinating project. Sadly, it didn’t go anywhere. Rule of thumb: if I like something a lot, it probably won’t go anywhere! [Grins] Because if you’re trying to appeal to a mass audience, obviously you don’t want to ask somebody who’s too well-trained in the particular field. As a specialist you’re going to look for the subtler features. What you want is to find someone who has a decent lay background, ask them what they like. Anyhow, it’s true—most of the tracks I love on other people’s albums were not the most successful in the marketplace.
FJO: But in terms of these modalities of listening, you mentioned Van Dyke Parks, which brings us into another whole area: the idea of “classical” versus “popular” music versus “film music.” You were saying something before about people not respecting film composers, and now we’re rediscovering their compositions, people like Miklós Rózsa and Bernard Herrmann.
WC: It was the late Christopher Palmer, the keen British composer and orchestrator, who rediscovered Conrad Salinger’s unique work at MGM, someone who’d been overlooked, forgotten. He provided those brilliant arrangements and orchestrations to the classic musicals of the ’40s and early ’50s. Listen to his major set-piece: the famous “Singin’ in the Rain” is one of them, “Limehouse Blues” is pretty special, too. “This Heart of Mine,” from Ziegfeld Follies, is an extravagant production number starring Fred Astaire which runs for over ten minutes: it’s almost a mini-symphony! Palmer was the one who reconstructed these lost scores. He died young, almost ten or twelve years ago, but it was remarkable what he managed in his few decades, proving film scoring could include some real artistry. Alas, most audiences just took it all for granted, and the studios did, too.
Think of the many kids who saw a Disney comic book while growing up, and thought, “Walt Disney draws some neat stuff,” not knowing about Carl Barks, the brains behind Uncle Scrooge and the mature Duck stories. Then consider fine film score composers, like Miklós Rózsa, Elmer Bernstein, and Jerry Goldsmith, or the Newman family—they’re fabulous musicians! Try to compose music that isn’t a cliché; do it for a film scene so it makes all the right gestures to make the footage come alive. Not so easy. There’s art and creativity involved, using most of the same tools we face in composing a symphony, opera, a song cycle, or writing a jazz cantata, or handling a chamber jazz ensemble as Gil Evans did working with Miles Davis. Now there’s another under-appreciated musical wizard!
Since I’m like you, an eclectic person, I also don’t understand the arbitrary barrier between notated and improvisational music: jazz versus classical. Those used to be part of a whole. Papa Bach didn’t observe, “Oh, I’m going to create some jazz improvisations, to add to my classical new Sunday cantata.” Not how it was done! The egg compartments were added later. And they don’t belong there. Because what we really ought be asking is not “what style is this?” or “what medium is this?” Forget orchestra or synthesizer, forget jazz quartet or big band.
Big bands? There’s some fabulous music written in that medium. Why can’t it be all available to us now? With MP3s just an iPod away, why don’t we relate all of music as a whole cultural, human phenomenon, an expression of ourselves, in a very natural way? Why can’t we put it all back together? And those curious souls who happen not to enjoy sitting in only one spot in the room, let them move about. And those who find they’re comfortable here, here, and there, let them focus on those three places, and do it the best they can. And for those who really are content to specialize in but one area very deeply, fine! Express yourself there. But don’t wag a finger at those who have more diverse, multifaceted interests.
FJO: You reminded me of a Proms concert I attended in London about 10 years ago. I went to hear a piece by a contemporary British composer, John Casken. The piece was wonderful, but the piece wasn’t what this made me think of. The audience amazed me, and the fact that people could walk around as the music was playing. There were these guys who had mohawks, punk outfits with clothespins in their clothes, the whole look, walking around. There they were at the symphony, hearing this music.
WC: And enjoying it, too.
FJO: Yeah, it was great!
WC: I remember when 2001, Kubrick’s SF masterpiece from the ’60s, first premiered. When you finally reached the Star Gate sequences, you’d start to smell the theater smoke up. And by the time you were completely into Doug Trumbull’s mind-bending slit-scan FX, people were “really into it.” Or “out of it.” It’s a trade-off, when you get that high, you’re skimming what’s before you, a wash, not really taking the totality in. That mood may be where new-age and ambient music works best, for the wide-angle view. Alas, most minimalism, at least at first, was pretty stingy with ideas, and for me quite dull.
FJO: I think, for me, all that music just opened up a new way of hearing things. And in a weird kind of way, and I say this all the time, a lot of those early minimalist pieces, those early Philip Glass pieces and Steve Reich pieces that are so about these little cells expanding or going out of phase with themselves, to me that’s another manifestation of what Wuorinen and Babbitt were doing with sets. Only in the case of Glass and Reich, since it was so concentrated, you can actually hear the formulas that are going on, whereas with that other music, if you sat there and analyzed it with a score, you’d say “Wow! That’s really neat how this formula becomes that.” But it’s really hard to hear it. And both of them were trained at Juilliard, under folks like Babbitt and Carter.
WC: I had never considered that before. It’s a good insight.
FJO: They rebelled against it but they didn’t really rebel against it.
WC: They stayed in the same playground, they just faced another direction.
FJO: Yeah, and I find it fascinating on that level. It’s theory music. I think we needed to go through that gate, that gate of the ’70s.
WC: To wash it away?
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