An interview with composer Rocco Di Pietro, by Gregory Elich
Rocco Di Pietro’s music has been performed by orchestras and ensembles throughout the world. Noted for his wide-ranging interests and diverse array of music compositions, Di Pietro is also an author who has produced a well-regarded book of interviews with Pierre Boulez. Here, Di Pietro talks about his background, approach to music, and philosophy.
[Elich] You studied with Lukas Foss and Bruno Maderna, two superb composers. You’ve written music that pays tribute to both men, and Foss conducted some of your works. Tell us about your experiences in studying under them. What impact did they have on your development, and in what ways do those experiences continue to inform your approach to music?
[Di Pietro] Lukas Foss and Bruno Maderna shared some important ideas about creativity. The first was that “consistency is the worst thing in the world.” I heard this many times over the years and it resonated with me and still informs my thinking to a certain degree.
However, I did want a little consistency to at least be weirdly idiosyncratic, which I think I have achieved. My early interest in Morton Feldman was because of his consistency. I visited his studio any number of times. Because I was so completely his opposite, he interested me for that reason. So I have always tried to be an inclusive composer, which Feldman and many others wedded to Modernism were not.
With Foss and Maderna, I learned to be interested in ‘The Other’, which is what someone like Feldman was for me. That gave me rather early on a dialectical approach to music and art, which in any case I already had, as I was sorting through all the various isms while still in high school.
As you know, Maderna was an incredibly dialectic individual, combining many ideas in his art — often a combination of various techniques in one work — see Biogramma for example.
As far as mixing styles, less so than Foss, but throughout you could find popular forms — blues, etc. in his concert works. And of course in Saytricon, he mixed everything — techniques and genres and styles. Maderna, however, was interested in composers — Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Varese, and Ives, and he had integrated a very solid technique, which gave his work a certain consistency after all.
Foss, on the other hand, was interested in techniques per se, and not so much composers. By that, I mean as the source of his inspiration. Foss always mixed as many techniques in one work as he was aware of at the time he was working. He too had a solid technique but it served a different
purpose for him than it did for Maderna.
Both were composer-conductors who were working musicians. They both came from a neoclassical background and both loved improvisation, but in very different ways. They were hard working, practical musicians who only taught briefly and or secondarily as they were too busy concertizing.
Out of this, my study with them had all the makings of the self-made man. I was interested in composers and personalities first. and techniques second. I resisted traditional techniques or learned some of them badly, not wanting to be corrupted, I thought. I wanted to create my own technique, and believed that you could not use the old techniques at that time, without becoming too academic. Thinking back, I wonder where this attitude came from. I really seemed to have bought into modernism hook, line, and sinker, when young.
I think it really must have come from Stravinsky, who I admired more than any other composer, and still do today. It probably came from the time when Stravinsky said about the Rite of Spring that he was guided by no theory. He wrote what he heard. He was “the vessel through which the Sacre passed.” I know that at sixteen years of age this was something that impressed me very powerfully and gave me great freedom to try to be myself, whatever that might be. Inspired by that statement I try to spend my life becoming what I am.
Let me tell a story here. In 1969, I was at an interstice in my life. It was Allen Sapp who enrolled me officially as a student at the University of Buffalo in 1969. At a concert in Baird Hall, there was my old teacher, Hans Hagen, my most current teacher, Lukas Foss, and another school appointed teacher named Robert Tremain.
Following this little scene was a friend and another mentor named Julius Eastman. When Tremain told my teachers I had to start all over and he was making me write minuets, strictly following and copying Haydn, Hagen and Foss began grumbling in German to each other.
Tremain pulled out one of my pathetic minuets and showed it to Foss. Lukas asked me why I was writing this. I said I did not want to write this and thought that if you had to write a minuet you should at least do what Ravel did when he wrote “in the manner of” a minuet by Haydn, something that was not an original or a copy, but a third thing.
Tremain thought that was fine, but in order to do that you had to know how to make a perfect copy. I defended myself saying I would rather find my own way to it, and that if I have anything to say I would say it by my unintended unfaithfulness to my models, a quote from Ravel that Lukas with a twinkle in his eye caught immediately. In reality I simply did not know or care to know how to make photo real copies of Haydn.
Foss said “bravo,” and then started to make fun of Tremain, jumping over a seat to the next row. Eastman heard the commotion and yelled out, “What do you want to be, a fucking academic?” Poor Tremain. He was a nice man, and I was always caught in the middle of such dramas.
I left the official university six months later, having lasted a year or so. Then a few years later I would try to study officially again, transferring what credits I had from before. This time my teacher was Peter Yates from ‘Evenings on the Roof’ fame, and it was at the Buffalo State Teachers College, where he had moved from Los Angeles and was now head of the department. Yet again after a year I left and was what was known as a dropout. That is another story.
My first teacher — Hans Hagen — tried to give me a very thorough German education and I was with him every week for five years.
All of my learning, however, came from a pianist’s point of view. We learned all the classics by playing them in four-hand arrangements, sight reading them as the last part of a long three hour lesson. All the Classics — Beethoven, Mozart Schubert, Weber, symphonies and overtures all banged out with the teacher blowing cigar smoke in your face at every mistake! Or worse, slapping your hands with a ruler! This was all before I met Foss and Maderna, although some of it overlapped with Foss, who knew Hans Hagen, as they spoke about me in German backstage at the Philharmonic. In fact it was Hagen who took me to see Foss.
So the biggest impact of having been taken under the wing of Lukas Foss and Bruno Maderna was that there could not really be such a thing as a ‘ground zero,’ say of the year 1950, in which everything should start over again!
Culturally, Maderna said outright it was impossible. Musically, Foss demonstrated it in everything he did. Both of these men believed that every once in a while a so-called ground zero in the arts was a way for young people to figure out where they were, say every 25 to 50 years.
So for Maderna the tendency to abstraction in the arts after WWII, with its anti-naturalism and anti-figurative aspects, etc., was just a moment in time. Serial music he also called just a moment in time, like the Renaissance, going so far as to say that Schoenberg never intended it to be the only way, and if you wanted to write tonal music, “you were right.” This was a far cry from Stockhausen who believed everything had to be built from this ground zero and rather naively took Schoenberg literally.
In fact, with such powerful figures as these mentors were to me, with Foss telling me things like: “Of course Stockhausen is a great talent, and at this moment in time (1970) we no longer do ‘model music’ like Stravinsky but rather following Stockhausen we make it new from the ground up.” Lukas was very impressed with Stockhausen’s Hymnen, but he never thought for a moment this attitude would go on forever. He was very conscious of fashion and he critiqued Karlhienz as “much too pretentious for me.”
But Maderna went further when he said: Stockhausen “was really is in no position to make these aesthetic judgements for everyone.” Maderna even banged his hand on the table and said, “Karlhienz is not a guru!” Talk about levity. That gave me something to think about, as when I was young I followed Stockhausen rather passionately. But once again, that is another story. So all of this continues to inform my music.
With Lukas Foss and Bruno Maderna, and also maybe Ligeti and to a lesser degree Xenakis, we find that these musicians experienced real loss. Maderna became a naturalized German citizen, Foss became a US citizen and did all he could to embrace his new found country. Had Maderna lived longer he might even had stayed in the US, where his son now currently lives and works.
I feel that this attitude towards loss is why Foss and Maderna insisted on letting the past in, that for them you cannot get rid of the past actually. “Let it in,” Lukas would always say.
For many of the other modernists we see that after the war, prosperity was on the way and they just continued with the agenda of the ground zero right into old age, not letting the past in at all.
They returned to their countries as Germans or Italians or Frenchmen, having not given up their identities like Foss and Maderna or Ligeti. Ligeti, too, knew great loss moving from Hungary to Germany to Austria and he also could not simply keep a modernist ground zero going, in his own way letting the past in.
Even Xenakis, who of this group kept most to his modernist agenda intact until the end, still had his ‘historical works’ as Feldman called them, to his great annoyance. These works incorporated Greek and other folk music within his so called avant-garde style.
So it seems to me that personal experience of loss made these composers move on, if not forward, while the others stayed more or less where they were aesthetically, perhaps mining their diamonds more deeply but not opening up to the world of inclusiveness.
My own witnessing of my grandparents’ sense of loss, as an Italian-American of the immigrant experience, made me very sensitive to what Foss and Maderna had to offer.
[Elich] It has long struck me that eclecticism has been one of the hallmarks of your musical career, and it is interesting to learn how the groundwork was laid for that. Another important aspect of your musical style, it seems to me, has been its frequent programmatic element. How important is an extra-musical basis for you in conceiving a new musical piece?
[Di Pietro] It is important to remember that eclecticism and programmatic elements are linked, both in my work and in my life. I was born in 1949 in a city that had a population that was 49 percent foreign born European immigrants. In other words, it was a satellite of New York City with tremendous cosmopolitanism for its size.
Many people from the ‘The City’ owned second getaway homes in Buffalo and could easily go back and forth in six to seven hours by train when the tracks were good. My grandfather had his architectural office in New York City and commuted back and forth like many others. So that’s the background for a pluralistic world.
I was early on trying to mix things and synthesize a diverse amount of ideas that came into my experience that did not normally go together, and later on it was also in the air so to speak; think of Rauschenberg combines mixing all kinds of things with painting, for example, which we saw at the Albright Knox Art Gallery, my second ‘home.’
Having said that, however, the second part of the question is more complicated. Some of it undoubtedly goes back to my German teacher Hans Hagen and his methods of teaching when I was most impressionable at 14.
Previously I had studied piano with his daughter, Mrs. Bette Hayes, who imparted some of her father’s ideas before I even met him, so the ground was already prepared for some kind of program or extra-musical ideas linked with music. How so?
At my earliest lessons before anything had even begun, Hagen would sit down and play virtuoso works on the piano to inspire me. Pieces like Liszt’s Waldesrauschen, or Forest Murmurs, which Hagen would illustrate while playing telling me stories of the ‘voices of the woods’ with all its beauty and terror.
He would then follow that up with a mind blowing performance of Liszt’s Gnomenreigen, telling stories of mischievous dancing gnomes through a haze of cigar smoke. I fell in love with Liszt, became dizzy and nearly fainted from excitement.
But Hagen later applied the same story illustration in teaching works by Chopin that were supposed to be pure music. “Not so,” he would say, describing a virtual saga of the ages of man by way of Chopin’s F minor Fantasie.
“Now my dear boy you are born, you do not want to be born, you want to go back, but your mother kicks you out. Now my dear boy, you go to school; now my dear boy, you are a soldier; now my dear boy, you are a lover. Now my dear boy, you are middle-aged and want to do it all over again. Now my dear boy, you are old and want to do it one last time, and then thundering down the keyboard, he would finish and say: Now my dear boy, you are dead!
After a three hour lesson like that and then riding back home on a two and a half hour bus ride and a four mile walk from the bus stop, finally getting home in the middle of the night and often frozen, at 14, I was clearly in another world, a Romantic world.
When you think he would supplement this with me playing with him piano four-hand reading sessions of overtures by Carl Maria von Weber, and illuminating the whole early world of German Romanticism, of Der Freischütz, of Hoffman, of Goethe that went with it all, then you can see that Berlioz was not far behind.
As I said, his daughter had already prepared the way, with those little curious books piano students are given to supplement their scales, and Bach and Mozart with those wonderful titles children respond to so very well.
Piano Literature for a Dark and Stormy Night with imagery from classic poetry is a volume I just picked up for my own 12-year-old prodigy, who loves these pieces. Here is an example: Robert Schumann’s The Wild Horseman, with a poem by Robert Luis Stevenson:
Whenever the moon and stars are set
Whenever the wind is high,
All night long in the dark and wet,
A man goes riding by.
So now you may start to get the picture.
In 1946, Maderna wrote: “Nowadays when we have neither schools, convictions nor poetics in common, and an artist no longer has an external control operating upon the quality of his work…we often submit ourselves to the subjective idea of the beautiful.”
And then he continues saying, “Nowadays each jealously guards his own pet sensibility, guarding him from influences. One can no longer deeply love the completed work…we are no longer capable of seeing behind it the person who created it….We have an almost biological incapacity to grasp what stands behind the craftsmanship, and the surface of things…that is
becoming ever more common.
And of course by the 1950’s, this took over completely so that you now see clearly what world I was born into and how I was unafraid to take what I needed. But how so?
Part of that was due to the programmatic idea imparted by Hagen’s storytelling, which allowed me in a mysterious way to bypass this world of not being influenced, since like Stravinsky I seemed to be a kind of kleptomaniac — let’s not take that too seriously, to be sure.
More to the point and finally paraphrasing Maderna on Montaigne, I was like the “the bee who plunders widely taking what he needs to create his own honey which is solely his own.”
But what about many of my works, which are more strictly purely musical and with no program at all or not much of one at least? Some of the early textural works of the seventies, for example: Acoustic Poems, Three Aerials, or Atmospheric Boundaries.
Or the slightly later thematic works of the late seventies and early eighties, when I moved into melody such as Aria Grande, Melodia Assoluta (an absolute melody without a story), or Melodia Nera and Melodienshatz (A melodic treasury).
How can I account for these shifts of opposites? Of course it has to do with dialectics. Partaking of ‘this’, but not all of ‘this’, partaking of ‘that’ but not all of ‘that’, making my own Rocco synthesis.
This bee shifts worlds, to make his honey because of having a curiosity for his opposite. That is important. I have always been interested in people who have opposite sensibilities than mine, often trying to understand them and to see if they could be of use to my work. Or even a moment in my work, without being a whole world.
That brings us to the present time, when I have done many works that are in various ways programmatic. Programmatic in a literary sense, going back to Hagen’s storytelling and programmatic in a visual sense; remember, I teach art history in part for a living, and at one time wanted to be a painter.
This started about ten years ago during my residency at Stanford University. I started writing my Rajas for John Cage there, which were texts first and not music. I also began my Symphony there, the first movement of which is called ‘Finale’ and allows in all kinds of older music as in a dream.
Around this time I found I could not keep the old modernist agenda going for myself, probably earlier around 2006 when I composed the non-improvisation, A Turning for Pauline Oliveros or the even earlier Later for Larry Marotta in 2004, showed cracks coming after several years of working intensively with improvisation.
So what happened was I went back to the music I loved between the ages of 12 and 18, before the major blast from Lukas Foss had hit me with the avant-garde, for me around 1967–68.
Of course, in reality modernism had already had two major incarnations: pre-WWI and post- WWII and was already ending at this time as it was actually the time of post-modernism that was taking over. However, when you are young that is how things happen. You just catch up to something and it’s over.
By the time of 2012, I began a series of Odalsiques, which were beautiful tunes anyone could hum, and in one sense they could be looked at as anti-modern.
But that is too simple. In fact, I allowed them to exist alone and also blended them with older pseudo-avant-improv. I was always interested in writing against a genre or style but from within and inside the genre. I had something to protest. I needed my expression to have somewhere to go that those genres did not allow for. I wrote against while being inside.
I could not make believe or set up a world of nostalgia to pretend the modern world did not exist, like Odd Nerdrum or Andrew Wyeth, even if I looked at their work with some sympathy and interest as far as the human condition was concerned, but in the end I could not buy it, so to speak.
When the Taubes series came along in 2015, I was incorporating visual elements right into the score, while musically I was simultaneously working with material from the music I had loved between the ages of 12 and 18. I was looking for a grand synthesis of my past and my present. Trying to make sense of all the music I have been involved with in some ways like Ligeti, but to my own different ends.
I could not just plop down all these different things unmediated into a heterophony of materials like the Rauschenberg combines I mentioned before. Lukas Foss was very good at this, by the way, but I could not follow this as extensively as he did, even though I was very much involved in heterophony.
When Maderna pointed out to me, scolding me, actually in front of the Tanglewood seminar, “Rocco, heterophony is not the way. Ugh…brutal…to take an ax and hit a log, is not the way!” I had actually done that in a score called Spheres that Maderna was trying to play with the BBC. He failed to program it and the work is lost.
Taubes — a series of works based on visual photo montages — may seem like a very episodic improvisation with the notes as written, which are little gems from when I was 12 to 18, and may not always work. I may not have always succeeded in bringing it off, as sometimes the performances were simply no good because the notation was not yet clear enough, and/or the players did not have the chops.
But when it does work, it is exactly what I needed to bring about a new language of synthesis between the past and the present, and this seems to be what I have to offer right now and what I need. Now the programmatic visual element has already faded and is no longer needed. So the work is always in transition.
Now I think it could be said that composers have always done things like this; take all kinds visual of programmatic elements to make music. Think of Debussy of The Girl with the Flaxen Hair or La Mer, Bartok in his Sketches for piano, Ravel’s songs with drawings prefacing the score. Then there are Schumann, Berlioz, and Liszt, who all wrote programs (literary descriptions) for many of their works, and wrote books and articles as well. Liszt actually wrote a biography of Chopin! To me a composer is an artist, not a Kapellmeister, and not really an academic, even if he teaches, although I do not want to be too harsh with the word academic as I have loved the great academics in other fields like Carlo Ginzburg, Natalie Zemon Davis, and Gilbert Rouget.
I suppose you could say there are millions of people who write music but very few composers, but maybe that is too old fashioned nowadays. I don’t know, anyway, there it is.
[Elich] Going back to your earlier mention of a sense of loss, I am interested to learn more about your cycles of Prison Dirges, which I believe were inspired by your work with prisoners.
[Di Pietro] Well, the sense of loss we spoke of you could say in hindsight was a motivating factor in the prison work without my knowing it at the time. Trance experience and possession experience were the major factors in my mid-life as I navigated writing from within modernism but against it at the same time, and now had to look at post-modernism which I used as a way to get out of a writer’s block that lasted for a few years from the late eighties in to the early nineties.
You could say I was talking out loud at the time, sleepwalking my way through reality as in someone who is being guided. The inmates noticed this immediately. One student made me a water color of a shipwrecked man asleep in an overturned boat washed up on shore. He was right and very perceptive: that man was me.
I very much felt that a cause that was transcendental to oneself was something that could not be explained to others, but one had to do it anyway. I felt that way about music, If you absolutely had to write it, with no choice — a terrible obsession — then you were facing up to your condition. If not, it was better to have silence. Prison came about at a precise moment in my life and there was no choice. It had to be done.
I felt imprisoned in my life. My marriage was ending after 17 years or more, my hair turned grey in a single day, and I found prison. Later I was completely lost and depressed. The prison gig was ending after more than ten years, and I found social work, working with the lost.
I never planned or intended to do these things. As I worked on myself, and I have done a lot of work on myself, I began to teach. It seemed like another door was opening, coming out of the cocoon, but none of these things are things I planned on doing. I was guided. Now I am in a completely different place, no longer shipwrecked. All of this work on myself allows me to live in my life now.
At that time I wanted to say yes to the totality of experience. I found the writings of Georges Bataille extremely useful in this regard, but in the end I could not say yes to everything. I was not Bataille. The world was too wide, and there were some things I had to say no to as regards heterogeneity of extreme experiences. Once I learned to read Bataille without taking him at face value, I was on firmer ground, and did not need any longer to take Simon Weil’s stance on him, who was against him and I agreed with her at the time. While I saw clearly that the heterogeneous allowed for more freedom the homogenous was also something I needed.
Still, I had to test myself against these limit-experiences, as Bataille called them, and prison was a limit-experience if ever there was one. So I was able to use the post-modern as Richardson has said in his book on Bataille: “By giving primacy to concepts of textuality and discourses on simulation, post-modernism displaces reality and denies the possibility of meaning lying in the margins.” Prison for me changed and challenged all that. Prison is nothing if it is not meaning in the margins.
Now I was starting to do with post-modernism what I had done with modernism. I began an immense study of critical theory that lasted twenty years. That allowed me to write music within post-modernism to some extent through improvisation, while writing eventually against post-modernism, setting the seeds for my current agendas.
Obviously, the ennui of post-modernism was something of the eighties and the nineties, when revolt did not seem possible. Now, in 2017 everything has changed, and revolt seems very real again. So the prison work was a way to test reality for me.
Now before I give you a brief description of the prison work, I do not want to give the impression that I have understood Bataille. I can however at least say that I have read him as badly as Foucault or Habermas, who were after all real thinkers, and who also used him for their own ends. As Bataille cannot be read systematically, that is precisely what I liked about him at the time. So for a poor musician, this is not bad at all.
So the work in prison and the results of it were the product of a shipwreck. I collected inmate life stories to give the prison student a chance to retell his story as a therapeutic experience. It was immensely successful inside. The warden broadcast my inmate life stories on Prison TV, and we recorded them in the prison studios and all during the day inmates could watch their own stories on closed circuit television.
Many of the stories may seem a little contrived. That’s because some of them are, as are most life stories after the tenth or fifteenth telling. However, once you know the prison experience you will realize that response is a little naive.
I actually had the inmate write his own life story in my classes. I did not care about the veracity of the stories. Mendacity had to be taken into account, in order to give a larger picture of the artificial nature of prison experience. Little truths would come out like the sun suddenly shining on a cloudy day among a thicket of deceits.
Remember, some inmates could not read or write and would steal stories from others that sounded close enough to their own. Some would dictate their stories to inmates who had writing skills in return for favors.
So when the ordinary reader without any prison experience reads these stories from an ordinary and busy un-cloistered life, he may find himself in a vertiginous situation and simply dismiss them with the usual judgments and dismissive behavior that is, after all a rather characteristic, if not to say, typical human response when one has no idea what is going on and more so does not care. For no one cares about prison. The stories still have not found a publisher after twenty years.
To accompany these stories, I wrote several cycles of Prison Dirges, I, II and III, in which music and text are intertwined, over a ten-year period as I began to find it useful to work in series after coming out my composer’s block.
I attended some prison conferences in California and worked for the William James Society and gave seminars in prisons all over California, at places like San Quentin and even Alcatraz.
On Alcatraz Island, which was by then a tourist site, I was commissioned by the sculptor Richard Kamler to compose a work for his Table of Voices, an installation in which murderers’ and victims’ families held conversations with each other on telephones.
I composed an electroacoustic work called 46 Injured Birds for fixed media, which was broadcast on speakers all over the island as visitors got off the ferry in regular shifts three times a day to view Kamler’s exhibit and hear my music.
Now, some people have seen a lot of my socially-inspired work (such as Prison Dirges and The Lost Project) as political, and me, as whatever else I am, as an activist.
But this is too simplistic. I am uneasily political no matter how much I lend my music to certain humanist causes. It is the ideology that I object to. I try to stay out of the last century’s ideologies and how we slaughtered and butchered each other over ideas, a favorite pastime of humanity
But people love to tell you what you are, do they not? Robert Bly wrote an autograph in one of his books for me that said: “To Rocco, a Democrat floating on a sea of Republicans,” and my mother was and is a Roosevelt Democrat. But that says nothing about the complexity of my humanist concerns, as I always tried to mediate Mirandola with Machiavelli. I am afraid to say, it’s something very Italian. So there it is.
[Elich] In recent years, you have written a number of pieces in a series you call Taubes. These pieces are inspired by live models or photographs of individuals. What does this series mean in the overall context of your work?
[Di Pietro] The idea of creating a music based on extra-musical ideas that offer rich and surprising perspectives was always present in my work to some degree from the very beginning in the Romantic tradition of my roots, or my own back yard. I was a traditional classical music lover, you could say, who had abandoned that around age 17 or 18, and had to find ways to come home, so to speak, especially after 2009 and the Stanford residency. Previously many kinds of extra-musical things informed my work-cycles of Prison Dirges, Lost Projects or Rajas.
Actually the idea of Taubes came to me while in high school, and the first Taubes were written then and quickly abandoned as impossible. I did not rediscover the Taubes until around 2014–2016, almost 46 years later, when I was turning in general away from the modernism/post-modernism ambit.
The Taubes use the technique of Picasso’s papier collé, which I extended to photo-montage, with aspects of glued cut papers, drawings, charcoal, and colored pencils, even water colors at times. All this was put on music manuscript stave paper, with the notes around and embedded in the papier collé.
These were then framed for exhibition in galleries and sometimes with live performances with my Taubes ensemble. The musicians played with live models sitting in front of easels or portraits of models framed on the wall. It ended up being a kind of interactive opera installation of sorts, a performance that rejuvenated my music to get back in touch with my roots within the old modernism.
This was not an outright bid towards anti-modernism, although that had some interesting perspectives to be taken into consideration and I did take them into consideration. But looking at this from the point of painting, I was not going to become an Odd Nerdrum or Andrew Wyeth and act as if the modern world did not exist.
However very much I admire what Lucian Freud did with his ambitious homage to Watteau — and I did try to do something similar with my Lieder Messages (After Schubert) — it still had more to do with the idea of finding another way to be modern while letting the past in, and again going beyond ideologies at a time that seemed to be the end of isms. Maybe as Richard Toop said speaking about Ligeti, you could “renew (a) spirit of modernism by leaving one (or even two) manifestations of it behind, while crystallizing new ones.”
So, when I was in the middle of this Taubes adventure, I did not have an exact idea what I was doing. I was thrown into it and followed my intuition. I was not afraid to fill a void with an intuition even if I could not see my way around a wall ahead. I was not going to fill that void and pass over that wall with a structure and pretend I knew what I was doing.
This is why I later took down a small talk I gave about Taubes at Spectrum, in New York (which was posted on the internet), because I was too close to the material, trying out all kinds of things in the interaction between visual sources and music. I was actually getting to know the problems visual artists have working with models who pose for them or from photographs.
There are an enormous amount of problems to be worked out in a synesthesia between sound and music, and capturing a kind of ectoplasm of the model for your sound portrait. If I could have talked well about it, I would not have been able to write the music. If you can write a good description of what you are actually doing while you are in the thick of it, you probably won’t compose anything at all. But afterwards, if you wait a year or two and let it all calm down you will actually see where you have been and then you may in fact know what you were doing. So I took down any interviews about it which were only confusing, as this is exactly what happened.
I stopped doing Taubes. They were always difficult to do. I destroyed many of them, and then simply stopped altogether. Then after I finished Cyborg for cello and orchestra I went back to have a look at the Taubes in my studio that I had framed, and just like a painter I had simply turned them against the wall so I would not have to look at them.
This was a kind of rest, like when I was a winemaker. When I went back to look at them I could clearly see that fermentation was done. I could see what worked and what did not work. I destroyed more of them in fact, and then I began cleaning up two or three sets, now guided by my newfound confidence.
The main thing that stood out clearly was that I was unable to do musical portraits of people I did not know well. I had to know them in some capacity for at least four years. So even though I tried out in the beginning all kinds of things, like the artist studio approach of drawing people you do not know, but with the passage of time that turned out to simply not to work.
In some cases it in fact turned out to be a question of temporary muses, i.e., models I did not really know or knew only in passing, who ended up being the triggers for musical pieces that ended up as something else. In those cases the models’ photos were eventually destroyed.
A lot of this happened gradually during the period of fermentation, but then after the fermentation revisions went quite quickly with no second guessing. For example, models’ names began to be crossed out and finally disappeared altogether. In some cases the visual sources were cut in half, leaving only half of the original visual Taube, in others the entire visual photo was destroyed along with the names, and then retitled.
As I began to see what was underneath the temporary triggers, I found my Romantic roots, and all the composers who had been doing a kind of Taube without calling them that. In fact, pieces like Debussy’s The Girl with the Flaxen Hair or other of his descriptive programmatic portraits, some with people’s names as in General Lavine — eccentric, were there behind the scenes.
Of course, there were also many things like that in Schumann, Mendelssohn, Grieg, Satie, and naturally Liszt, Bartok, Ravel and others, even Kurtag and Ligeti! See Ligeti’s Self-Portrait with Reich and Riley (with Chopin in the Background), which I would call the first modern Taube.
So I started to put all those things on my piano rack and try them out again to see how I could incorporate the music I loved within an ideology-laden history, which too often said: “we do not do that anymore”.
However, it turns out, people still do that. That’s what the anti-modernists taught us. Cautionary tale: When you ask your students why they are unable to form a worldview out of all the data they are bombarded with on their phones, they do not have an answer, which gives you a reason to teach. But they do tell me the one thing they all want: to feel something, and to feel it authentically. They are fed up with hyper-reality, simulation, abstraction and post-modernism. So one day yet, they may still find me, because I have worked my way through all these things and am coming up with my own worldview in music. Remember the saying: The race is not always to the quick. Who said that?
Originally published on Medium