JR: So after you got your doctorate from Yale in '86 you immediately had a position as a professor of composition at Oberlin?
MD: Before I do that, I should mention a couple of things about getting that doctorate at Yale. That was one of the most frightening experiences of my life. There were three times I can remember being very frightened. When I did an audition for a doctoral degree at Juilliard, I had to do an audition for Milton Babbitt, Vincent Persichetti, David Diamond, and they basically grilled me about my musical [TAPE GLITCH].
And the second time was to get into the Hamburg Hochschule I had to do an interview with twelve professors, including Ligeti, where they tested me on writing a fugue and playing a Bach invention and all this sorts of stuff. And then the most frightening of all was when I had to do my doctoral oral for Yale University. Part of the reason it's frightening is because you're out of contact with your professors for so many years.
Secondly, you don't know what's going to be asked. See, at Michigan, for example, when we do orals, people do orals on pieces they have prepared, so they know when they walk in they have some sort of structure. There was no structure at Yale. They can ask you anything about musical history from the beginning of time. The first question I was asked for my D.M.A. defense was: What is the instrumentation of Parsifal? That was the first question! And that was a frightening thing because also people did fail the exam, which is pretty unusual; it's very rare that people ever fail exams at that level, but they did--and probably still do--at the time fail people. It was a very frightening thing. It was like jumping through a hoop, a fire hoop or something.
I really killed myself to be as professional as possible. What that meant was that--when I was in Princeton, I had to figure out some way to reconnect with the American scene in contemporary music. I had been living in Europe. I was totally out of it. I didn't really have any support network of any sort. I was supporting myself in Princeton playing piano bar. I played all sorts of clubs in Trenton, New Jersey, and New Hope, Pennsylvania, and all these places.
Probably the most memorable job was I played at the Ramada Inn, New Jersey Turnpike Exit 1. I had to play a gig. I don't know how I got that gig. I was playing, and there was a bartender and a guy sitting at the bar, and I'm playing the piano. I said: “Okay, I can't go on forever doing this.”
I spent all my days working with the MIDI stuff. I decided: “Okay, I'll do a one-man show,” so going back to the dog-and-pony show of my youth, playing with the Soul Company. I got some synthesizers. I started working with MIDI. And I started booking myself into universities to talk about MIDI and synthesizers. This was now my connection. Ligeti was very interested in MIDI and multitracking, what was going on in pop music at the time. The use of drum machines and setting up unusual rhythms and so forth, using multitracking, synthesizers and midi. It was just a very new thing.
I was very interested in that. It connected back to the days of player piano. It was working by ear as well, which is how I used to--when I was a kid. And it also dealt with musical structures and complexity, like going back to the theory classes I took with Allen Forte or the things I had done at IRCAM. So in a way, it was just the beginning--I was starting to put together some of my things from the past. I still wasn't there yet, but it was the very beginning.
Again, so different from the European esthetic, which was to do as much as you can to distance yourself from the past. I was doing the opposite, trying everything I could to reconnect with the past--but without compromising. In other words, the way so many people would do that--and the new Romanticism was that: Okay, I'll write tonal music, okay? So that was not an option to me. I didn't want to reconnect by going back. I wanted the sound to go forward in some sort of way. I wasn't interested in going back to Richard Strauss or going back to Mahler, or going back to that sort of lyrical Romanticism. Again, I was still very interested in rock and jazz music, which really didn't have anything to do with that.
Anyway, so there I'm living in Princeton. I start doing gigs. I start calling up universities or junior colleges--I even did a thing at Princeton, to the composers--where I would say: "Okay, I'll come and do a little concert, and I'll talk about MIDI." Well, there really weren't very many people doing that at the time, and so I started doing this quite a bit. And by my second year at Princeton, I was doing almost no piano bar anymore, and I was going around to colleges, about one a week, doing a concert--I'd go to Ohio, I'd go to Pennsylvania, upstate New York, whatever. I started doing this. And I started developing a name--not much, but a little bit of a name.
Then the big turning point was finally Yamaha came out with a sequencer that had a lot of power, and I was able to really do much more sophisticated musical compositions with the MIDI. They also came out with electronics that came in a rack, so instead of carrying around a synthesizer, like eight different keyboards, you can now buy a little rack that was very transportable. You also can get a lot of sounds. And sampling was just starting, so I could get a sampler rack, and I could have real sound samples.
So now I was getting much more complex and interesting. I was invited to perform at the International Computer Music Convention in Vancouver, so my wife and I--we had a 1964 Chevy Impala. We put my equipment in the trunk, and we drove all the way to Vancouver, camping the whole way. People would say: "Where are you staying?" when I was in Vancouver. "Oh, we're staying at the camping grounds."
"You're staying at the camping grounds?" So I had all this computer equipment in my car out at the camping ground.
I played the session, and it really was controversial because, as usual, if I'm playing--going back to days when I was playing piano bar--I'd get in trouble for being too dissonant. Here I was, I was bringing commercially available equipment into the computer music world, which was an elitist world where you could only use equipment that the everyday person had no access to. That was the whole idea behind the IRCAM, behind the Stanford's, behind all these places--was that the music had to be exclusive, elitist and something that not everybody could get hold of because that's the only way you were going to get your grants from the National Science Foundation. They're not going to give you a grant if you're doing something that you can get down at the local rock store.
So here I was, bringing this stuff--again, crossing the boundaries--bringing in this technology, which was everyday technology, which the local rock bands were using, into the concert hall. But doing something very different. Then I would play the keyboard live with it and so forth. So it was causing quite a stir. But then I caused such a controversy at the computer music convention--I can't tell you the amount of negative reactions I got from a lot of the people in the field.
JR: To your face?
MD: Yes. These were people who were in computer music. They wanted to guard their turf. They didn't want people from the outside coming in. I was an outsider. That really turned me off. I didn't like that. I decided: Okay, I didn't really want to be around that crowd, like what I felt at Tanglewood. I didn't want to be around that crowd. I didn't want to be around this crowd of people, again getting away from where I wanted to go.
But I got a job at Oberlin Conservatory because of my MIDI side. Again, there weren't that many people doing it at the time; it was a new thing. So I got hired there because I was bringing them a new perspective. So I came into Oberlin, and then I met a young conductor who now is considered one of the best college conductors in the United States, named Larry Ratcliffe [sp?]. Do you know Larry Ratcliffe?
JR: I know Larry very well. He got me almost started.
MD: Okay, Larry Ratcliffe.
JR: I'm a huge believer and a fan.
MD: The hardest working man in show business. Well, he asked me to write a piece for his Contemporary Music Ensemble. They were going to do a tour. He heard a little bit of my music, and he said: "Why don't you write a piece for us?" So I wrote a piece called SNAP!. [Blue like an Orange (1987)]
JR: He's at Oberlin? Or still Michigan?
MD: Oberlin. He just started teaching--the Wind Ensemble and the Contemporary Ensemble, conducting that music. So I wrote a piece, SNAP! Blue Like an Orange. That was the piece where I said: Okay, I'm going to take all the stuff I've done on the computers and the sequencers, and now I'm going to translate that over to musical instruments. So that was the first piece I wrote where I took all this--I was starting now to make--going back to North Texas State, where I really liked the orchestra. I kind of had been getting away from that through the technology and whatever and kind of lost touch with that and decided: Okay--but now I was in an environment where players were around. It was free. But I was also very isolated. I was out in Oberlin, Ohio. Very isolated. It was kind of like being in an experimental think tank. I had nothing to lose.
So I sat in the hot summer, in Oberlin, in a little room, and I wrote SNAP! and Blue Like an Orange. Obviously, I knew I hit on something for the first time. I felt like something was clicking. I felt a connection with--and Larry was somebody who used to play James Brown, and he liked rock and jazz music. So I felt like: Okay, I can bring this into this world. And the young players loved the piece. All of sudden, I knew I hit on something. The piece was played at Oberlin, I remember, at Finney Chapel. It got a standing ovation. I never really experienced it. When I had written my contemporary pieces, it was ho-hum, not a big deal. But this piece, the audience went wild. I never had experienced that before where I had written something that players liked, the conductor liked--that was, my first putting together of stuff: technology, using my ear to write. I wasn't writing totally abstractly; I was actually writing with my ear again, like I used to write back in high school--using my ear, using technology; using the things that Ligeti was interested in, like poly-rhythms and doing different layers going on at the same time. So I had that going on; and my love of the instruments, again.
Another experience I had was at Oberlin I was able to revise and to try things out with players: what happens if you play here or there? So I started to think of an instrument like a computer, in a sense--not that would play like a computer, but thinking of that, exploring the timbre possibilities of that instrument and trying to get the energy out of the instrument. So I started writing pieces like Two Bassoons Bounce or Firecracker for oboe and a small ensemble, and really working with players, getting to orchestration very heavily, trying all different possibilities.
Oberlin was good because [whether] I wrote the pieces for faculty or for the student groups, whatever, it was a good chance of collaboration. Again, I liked this because this went back to when I had a rock band, Soul Company--working with the players in collaboration. That's how jazz is. It wasn't this idea: "I'm the composer. I hand you the piece." So kind of a feedback thing, where I would try things out. I'm still that way today. When I write a piece, I like to know who the conductor is, like to talk to them. If the players are around, I like to hear them play. I like to be--like I was when I was back in high school!
Okay, the SNAP! and Blue Like an Orange. Then I started going crazy at Oberlin. I wrote Firecracker; I wrote Bounce; and I wrote Dead Elvis when I was at Oberlin. Now, let me get to the next big turning point--I had a certain connection with how my style--and I really came up with, I think, a certain sound that is my own, the SNAP! and Blue Like an Orange, which I've continued to this day. One of the things I really worked on was to have a distinctive style and a sound that's really my own. I think living in isolation like that, after going through all these experiences and thinking--it was a four- or five-year period I didn't write any music. I thought for a long time.
Of course, I remember reading that's what they always say about Schoenberg. There was a five-year period [when] he didn't write any music. But I did a lot of thinking, a lot of experimentation. So now I was on a hot streak. I started writing like crazy. All of a sudden, the response to the pieces was--I'd always get these really great responses. That threw me back. I said: "Wait. Contemporary music--people are supposed to hate it. You're not supposed to like it. I'm doing something wrong here."
But I think it's because I was thinking as a player; I was thinking as a conductor; I was thinking as a musician again, in a sense, but taking all the things I learned about avant-garde music and so forth but putting them in my own language, which made sense to me and I think would connect to people of my age group.
Okay. So then I had a commission from the Cleveland Chamber Orchestra and was searching for an idea. One day, the Adventures of Superman, the television show came on. They were showing a Superman marathon. I always loved that show as a kid. And it just so happened that I realized that Superman was actually created in Cleveland, Ohio, by two Jewish high school kids in the thirties who created the Superman character. They were doing a big exhibit of Superman at the Cleveland Museum of Art, with all the original costumes--from George Reeves, from the television show, and from Steve--the other Reeve, who was paralyzed.
MD: Chris Reeve. And they had the original comic books. I thought this was interesting. I'm going to a museum of art--when I was in Europe, I would be interested to see what American things they would collect. There would be Andy Warhol--if you go into Dutch bars, they have old record covers of Nat King Cole from the fifties. What was American things that were considered interesting to them were things I always liked, you see. But I dismissed those things. So I was turning back to those things I always loved, and I didn't have the confidence to feel that it was okay to really like those things because there was really nobody around me who felt that way. If you're out there alone, one feels insecure because if you don't have a support group or there's not other composers around or other people who believe how you do, then it's hard to come up with your ideas.
So I thought, what about writing a piece on Superman? I ran it by a couple of people. "Oh, that's a terrible idea." Or "Why do you want to do that? That's stupid." But the first piece I wrote was called Lois (Lois Lane), and then I wrote Mxyzptlk [pronounced Mitz-etz-PIT-ih-lik]. I wrote those two as companion pieces. They were played by the Cleveland Chamber Orchestra--again, immediate smash. The audience loved it, the players liked it. I knew I had had hit this nerve. Also, for the first time I could really talk about my music. "What are you doing in your music?" I could articulate: "Well, I'm thinking about Superman, I'm thinking about the comic books, about the colors; I'm thinking about the way dialogue works, I'm thinking about how the structure works." I began to have a way to think about my music, too, that I could somehow articulate to somebody else for the first time.
JR: Were these pieces related motifically or thematically or just in the fact that it was this process that was coming together?
MD: Well, the idea of my first real connection with Ives was in that, in that I was taking something from American culture now, instead of taking-- he'd say he remembers the Fourth of July and there was this parade and blah-blah-blah, or Central Park in the Dark would be from him living in New York and going through Central Park, whatever. It would be some memory of some sort.
My memory of Superman: reading the comic books when I was a kid and watching [the] television show and going to the movies and the whole idea of just the super-hero and the idea of a Clark Kent, who has to impersonate someone else; he can't be the person he is. I was thinking so many composers live a split personality. Again, the composer who really likes jazz and big band, but they would write twelve-tone music. I was thinking all these analogies were somehow connected to me.
Also the idea of historicizing something. We learned music history; everything is put in historical context. I was thinking they're taking Superman; they're historicizing him--the comic books from one through six hundred, the evolution of an American myth, just like you'd have myths--Wagner would use myths or Stockhausen was writing all these pieces based on the days of the week, based on a certain myth that he had. So the idea of myth.
And I was also a big fan at the time of Star Trek, of the original television show, which they were showing in reruns all the time. Again, my interest in tracking things down. I really liked the music. I noticed that most of the music was written by Fred Steiner. One day, by chance, I just happened to see, looking up in some book about Fred Steiner, he had went to Oberlin College. I said: "I can't believe it." So I called him up. SNAP! was being played by the L.A. Philharmonic. And I said: "I'm coming to L.A., and I teach at Oberlin." He normally doesn't see people. He says: "Okay, well, give me a call when you come out."
So I went to his house. He since has moved, but he lived somewhere near Mills College, in a really nice house way up on a hill overlooking the desert. In this house he had all the original sketches to the Star Trek episodes that he had written for it. So he said: "What are some of the episodes you like?" I said: "Well, Mirror, Mirror," whatever--so he'd go and he'd pull out the score, and he'd show it to me to look at it. I thought that was really cool.
Again, my idea of tracking--I like to go to the source. I had to experience it--it wasn't enough just listening to Charles Wuorinen, I had to be in that environment. And Elliott Carter. It wasn't enough to be around Boulez. I had to go to IRCAM. It wasn't enough reading about Ligeti; I actually had to go hang out.
When I lived in Germany, I forgot to mention that I played with Marcus [sp?] Stockhausen, Stockhausen's son. He plays some avant-garde jazz gigs. I'd be around--the times I'd be around his family and his father would be around, and his father would talk about music and talk about himself.
So here I was: I had to personally experience those things because the only way it would make sense to me would be how I've always done everything: it had to be some sort of personal thing. It couldn't be an abstraction. See, for a lot of people, things can be an abstraction. They can read it in a book. They don't have to live it. But I can't do anything unless I somehow personally experience it. And I feel now I have confidence to talk about my ideas about contemporary music because I feel I've actually lived that. I've hung around those people I read about in history books. I've been to dinner with them or I've had tea with them or I've been around them in informal settings. I've heard them talk. I've been able to ask them questions. So in a sense, I've been able to experience those things from a very practical level, which is how I am. I was growing up in Iowa. I'm a very practical guy.
I realize I went on a huge tangent there, but I'm trying to connect it to the--oh, yes, the Superman. So then what happens is that Christopher Rouse came as a guest composer.
JR: To Oberlin.
MD: Yes. Larry Ratcliffe brought him in. I didn't know Chris Rouse at all. The other Oberlin composers didn't want to hang out with Chris Rouse.
JR: We're out of context. Who were some of them?
MD: At the time it was Randolph Coleman [sp], Edward Miller, and Richard Hoffman [sp?], who was a Schoenberg student. Even though Chris Rouse had been a student at Oberlin, they didn't hang out with him. He was there for a week. Larry said: "Could you host Chris Rouse?" So I hung out with him all week.
I was taking Chris Rouse to the airport and just five minutes from the airport, Anita Kruse [sp], who was Larry’s wife at the time, said to Chris: "Have you ever heard Mike's music?" He goes: "No." He said: "Well, why don't you send me something?" I said: "Okay." So it's funny. I was still very shy about pushing my stuff at the time. So I sent him a tape of SNAP! and Blue Like an Orange.
Well, he was composer-in-residence with Baltimore. He gave it to Zinman and Zinman really liked SNAP!. He said: "I'll play that." He didn't know who I was or anything. So he played SNAP!. I went out there. I hung out with Zinman. He asked me what I was working on. I said: "I wrote these two Superman pieces." "Send them to me." So I sent them. He liked them. So he said: "I'll tell you what," he said, "if you write a whole symphony, I'll play it." That's what he said. But there was no commission or anything.
So I had written these two Superman pieces, going back to that. I was starting to find a way to connect to my whole past--my interest in American culture, which I'd always had, and to technology and composition. And I've always composed with MIDI. That was always part of the situation. And thinking of ways to deal with computers and technology in music composition. That's always been part of my bag, so to speak.
So then I started writing more movements. Two big pieces for me were Desi, which was the first piece I wrote that was explicitly based on an American icon. The Metropolis Symphony is a little more abstract. I mention Lois or [indistinct]. But it's a little more removed. The Desi was right up--Desi, Desi Arnaz. It features the bongos, and it's a Latin kind of piece. But it really put together my interest in polyrhythmic music and a certain style I developed, starting with SNAP! really became very much more focused in Desi. Again, Zinman liked that and started playing it. Other conductors started doing it, and I really took off in the band world.
Now, one of the things I mentioned about the band world the thing I didn't mention I did, when I was a kid is I played in drum and bugle corps. I played drums. I played tom-toms in the drum and bugle corps. One of the thing about drum and bugle corps, which had become very sophisticated over the years, is that you move when you play. There's movement. So something that's been important to my music is movement. As I'm writing, I think of sound moving through the orchestra, and I think of visual things: In Oh,Lois there's two flexitone players who stand up in the back. Or in Dead Elvis I have the bassoonist who dresses like an Elvis impersonator. Le Tombeau de Liberace--a person dressed like Liberace or put a candelabra on the stage.
So the visual elements started to come more and more into play in my pieces as I started thinking about that. When you played drum and bugle corps, you wore costumes. You were wearing these elaborate military costumes. That's all changed. The military aspect is not so much in drum and bugle corps anymore.
So you have sound and movement and visual. And I did that in SNAP!. I have the two cymbal players in stereo, and that's like a visual thing, and in the piece. Again, stereophonic, thinking of the days I worked in computer music and worked in recording studios--again, putting that all together.
The Desi piece was a piece that really took off in the band world and started getting played. It probably gets played now forty times a year, every year. It's played continually by groups, here and in Europe. It's played by orchestras. It's also played by wind ensembles. American wind ensembles are another thing I really like to write for because the conductors are really open. You can write anything you want. They're really appreciative. They're not bitter, by and large. They're very optimistic. The players are gung-ho. And some of my most exciting pieces have been for wind ensembles, like the Desi, Bazarro [sp?]. Have you heard the large piece written by [sic] my experiences of upper New York State, Niagara Falls?
MD: Okay, Niagara Falls is another one. That was played in Carnegie Hall a couple of years ago and is played all the time. Niagara Falls, Desi--Motown Metal. That's another one.
JR: That was for brass quintet.
D. Brass ensemble and percussion made of metals. But anyway, so I like the wind world. That's been another thing I've done, too. I write for the orchestra, and I also write for these wind ensembles. I don't do too much because I don't want to be--just like an actor, I don't want to be like a Mr. Spock, Leonard Nimoy, who's typecast. I'm always moving around. I wrote pieces for Kronos. I've been very lucky that I've moved between a lot of worlds. I think that's unusual. I'm writing pieces right now for major orchestras, like Philadelphia and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and Pittsburgh Symphony and so forth. I'm also writing pieces for wind ensembles, like Texas or New Mexico or whatever, or University of Michigan. And I'm also writing pieces for the so-called alternative, like Kronos String Quartet or the ensemble Bash, or the Ethos Ensemble. So I've covered a lot of bases. I stayed away from being typecast.
I have a certain consistency in all the music I write, in style and sound, but the worlds I move in--I'm moving between one weekend in the Kronos Quartet world, and the next weekend I might be in Baylor University with a band. It's very unusual to be able to move between those worlds, but that goes back to a while living in New York and moving between Europe and America, moving between piano bars to an avant-garde music concert--moving back and forth.
That's just the way that I grew up, going back to Iowa, where to get records of James Brown I had to go to the black part of town, to the beauty salon. The only place you could get those recordings were at the black beauty salon in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. They didn't sell those in stores. In fact, in the sixties, the black beauty salon usually doubled as a record store. Spike Lee must have done that in one of his movies, I would think. But it was very common. That's where you went to get your records, the beauty salon, if you were into soul music, because you didn't find it at Woolworth's. We didn't have Border's and all these stores we've got now for records.
I hope I'm not boring you.
JR: No, not at all. You're going right along the line of what I wanted to ask you about.
MD: The stuff of technology. I see the Kronos piece, Sing, Sing, J. Edgar Hoover
JR: Which I recently heard performed in New York by the Absolute Ensemble.
MD: Oh, okay.
JR: Actually, I wanted to ask you about it. I'll just skip ahead.
MD: How was the performance?
JR: It was excellent. I didn't know the piece, but I went because I knew that I was going to be meeting with you.
MD: Was it kind of a political concert? Was that was it is? Were they doing Kurt Weill or something?
JR: No, it was a real wide variety of composers. There was a lot of Minimalism. Have you ever seen that group perform? There's a lot of energy.
MD: Because of Yost [sp??].
JR: Yes, I know a lot of the players. But one thing that I was really amazed at was that there was a lot of just unbridled laughter in response during the performance. I think part of it was the guy who was playing first violin had a very funny stage persona. You could tell that he was such a reserved guy, but then he came out with the glasses on, and he had this whole schtick that he was doing.
MD: With the piece?
JR: Not schtick.
MD: Was he kind of dressed to look like--
JR: Yes, he was dressed to look like an FBI agent.
JR: They were wearing dark suits and black glasses.
MD: Oh, that's a great idea.
JR: The violinist and the cellist were wearing leather pants and, like, a Communist T-shirt. It was Army green with big red stars.
MD: What was the attendance at the concert?
JR: It was packed. That group--I mean, it's in Merkin; there you do interesting programs.
MD: Was I one of the few composers not there?
JR: Yes. I was hoping you would be there.
MD: God, when was that thing?
JR: It was--not so long ago. It was maybe in March or April?
MD: I can't remember what it was. Now I'm in a position where it's hard to be--
JR: Everywhere. It's getting performed so much.
MD: Well, not that piece in particular, but there are so many performances now. Plus I have to write a lot. And I also have a ten-year-old daughter who's growing up pretty fast. I figure when she's in college, then I can go to concerts all the time, but I'm trying to stay at home as much as I can. But I'm glad they did it. That was good.
But you can see there's a wide variety--and that was, again, through collaboration. David Harrington, the Kronos, was very interested--there was a book that had come out on J. Edgar Hoover at the time. This was before the revelations that he was perhaps a cross-dresser and gay and all this sort of stuff. That stuff really hadn't even come out yet. There was a book that came out, a very damaging book about Hoover, about what a terrible man he was. Harrington was very interested in this.
I had written an early piece called Beat Box [sp?], where they had a couple of rappers, in the string quartet, which they did quite a bit. And then he said: "I'd like to do something more in a dark vein. Would you be interested in the Hoover project?" I said: "Okay." So I said: "I'll go to D.C. and see if I can find if there are any tapes." It just turned out that the National Archives had just gotten--a couple of months before--all the tapes from the FBI, Hoover's voice on tapes. They were uncatalogued, but it's public domain material. I was able to get copies--I had no idea what I was going to get. I had to pay, like, a hundred bucks. I got ten reels of tape. I had no idea what was going to be on them. They just said it's J. Edgar Hoover's voice.
I took it, and then I listened to it and then put together a tape part--spliced it on my computer and then I wrote the Kronos part. And Elvis Everywhere. Have you heard that one?
JR: Yes, I have.
MD: That also came out of that tape. That was coming out of the MIDI technology, using sampling and thinking of ways of combining live instruments. I think both those pieces to me were really scary pieces to write because I had nowhere to look. I was in no person's land, especially in the Elvis piece.
JR: How were you looking to use the text? Did you already have a preconceived notion that you wanted to use it in a rhythmic way?
MD: The Elvis piece?
JR: The Elvis piece.
MD: I didn't want to use a click track. Some composers have written for Kronos and use a click track. You have to use a little earplug, and there's a click-click in your ear. If I was up there, I wouldn't want to have a click track, so I tried to use whatever would be on the tape as a rhythmic pulse. It's very different--if you listen to Steve Reich's pieces he's written for Kronos--like Different Trains or something--he uses voice and it's rhythmic, but I think the way I'm doing it is very different, actually. I'm not sure if they use a click track or not now. It means the tape part cannot be too complex because you have to be able to hear it. It has to be heard. Those guys are able to click into it okay?
JR: It was great.
MD: Good, I'm glad to hear it.
JR: It was well received. But it was funny that people really responded to the humorous aspect of it. I'm not sure that was something you intended, but the particular clicks--I wish I had written down what the various things were that they were saying, but there were some really--
MD: It is ironic.
JR: Yes, very.
MD: Was there any review of that concert?
JR: There probably was. I know somebody who runs--Martin Kooksman [sp?]-- and I can ask him.
MD: Interesting to see if there was a review. But that's definitely [TAPE GLITCH]. That's a thirty-second answer.
Moving on to the commission from Meet-the-Composer, Flamingo in 1991-- going back a few years--what was your inspiration in writing Flamingo?
MD: I wanted to write another piece that was a continuation of SNAP!. I thought tambourines would be interesting, I thought Spanish, I thought flamenco--well, flamingo. And then I thought of a trip that we took to Florida when I was a kid and seeing the flamingos and going to Cypress Gardens. Again, my interest in Americana stuff, stuff that you might see in an encyclopedia of bad taste is actually stuff that I experienced and liked--going, like, to Cypress Gardens or going to the Parrot Circus or something--I can't remember what it's called. Even Miami Beach--Jackie Gleason and all that sort of thing. So that's pretty much where the piece came out of.
JR: Were you in a residence that was sponsored by Meet-the-Composer, or that was just where the funding was coming from?
MD: Just where the funding came from. There were various ways you could get funding for a piece, and those groups applied to Meet the Composer and got funding through them.
JR: Just skipping ahead to the Sing, Sing, J. Edgar Hoover piece that I heard--when you're working with a group like Kronos, are you working because you know the individual players? Are you working their personalities into your writings at all, as a collaborative effort? Or they're more working with you to do the interpretive things you want them to do?
MD: With Kronos I never actually would write a piece and collaborate with them directly, but I would of course have the recordings and go hear them play at live concerts a lot. I would listen very carefully live, and heard things that I thought worked and didn't work for me. The way I worked with those is I would hire a string quartet here in Ann Arbor to play through the piece. I'd have them come sometimes every day for three weeks. I'd have them come for two hours. I would pay them, of course. We would play the piece as I had written it. I would make a lot of revisions because, again, I was in an area where I had nowhere to look to. I couldn't look at previous pieces written because I was in a whole new area. It's almost like opera, but I'm using technology, but you're using sampling and it's historical. It was like writing a novel or something, or like writing a screenplay, in a sense, where you took music in a very different way than I'd done before.
JR: One of my favorite of your pieces is Dead Elvis, which was written 1993. Is this Elvis as a cultural ambassador, Elvis as icon?
MD: What's going on with the Elvis?
JR: Who was Elvis here?
MD: I thought it would be interesting to do a piece about Elvis, but you notice that I didn't do the obvious. I did it about Elvis impersonators. There were several reasons. One is that I would then avoid having to deal with the Elvis estate, which are very particular about things. Elvis impersonators are something different. Also the idea of impersonation going back to Superman, the idea of impersonating somebody else. There were lots of books that came out about Elvis. One was actually called Dead Elvis. There was another book--I don't know--all sorts of books about critiques of Elvis at the time. They were just beginning.
Elvis became a metaphor for just something about American pop culture. Finally, I think it was that the idea of having a Desi--the piece comes out of a Desi, really--which led up, again, to the Jackie O opera. A conclusion that I came to is that most people who come to the concert hall really don't know that much about music or really don't have knowledge of contemporary music, so how do you deal with that? I don't want to write a piece that just twenty people are going to go to. Why don't I want to do that? Because I hate playing for a small audience. Why not have more people there, right? If twenty people show up, fine, but I wanted to write something that would be a bit broader because that's the way I look at the world, in a very broad perspective.
I felt that if you have a motif that is a visual motif, just like in Elvis--in that Elvis, for example, each person brings some emotional meaning and some emotional feeling to that piece, so as you're sitting in the audience, the person can participate in the piece. They're thinking about Elvis in who knows what abstract way, or Desi or Niagara Falls or Superman or Jackie O or whatever. Everybody is bringing his or her own abstract emotional perception of that image or that thing to the piece. I think that's okay because then they become part of the polyphony of the piece. A person can participate.
Maybe that goes back to the sixties, where a lot of composers want[ed] audience participation so they would do improvisation pieces where the piece would change and the audience could see how the conductor could change the piece. In other words, somehow the audience wasn't just passive; they were watching the process of the piece taking place, which would draw them in. When I was younger, there was a certain desire by many composers to get the audience involved in some way.
With the whole new Romanticism thing, with Druckman, that was also a thing about “Let's try to find a way to connect to the audience.” So composers did that in their various ways. The Dead Elvis I thought was a very risky piece to write. Again, there's no other piece like it. It's a piece that gets played in Europe quite a bit because it's something that a European composer just wouldn't write.
The idea about the costume--actually, it's funny. Originally, I didn't think of the bassoon player wearing an Elvis costume. The first time, the person just wore sunglasses. But it grew on its own, and the bassoon player started, renting the Elvis costume. You saw what happened, I guess, with those things in J. Edgar Hoover. They showed up in FBI costumes, which is fine. I think that we're having fun with music. It's still very serious. I spend an enormous amount of time going [over?] all the dynamics, the counterpoint, the articulations, the accents, the harmonies. I spend God knows how much time on all that stuff.
But it's just like when you walk into a building or a house, you're not aware of the architect's plans. You don't know every little cross beam. That's stuff that's in the blueprints. You just walk in and you want to experience the house or the building. The same thing with music: you want to experience it in a different way than if you were studying the technical plans of the architecture. That's kind of my thing. If somebody wants to look at it, they can study the score very carefully, and it's all there. To have a great structure of any sort, you need to have a good plan behind it, and it needs to be very well drawn, and the details need to be there. That's just a given. That has to be there.
But then, on top of that--the frosting on the cake--I have these other elements, these iconic things, like the Dead Elvis or Elvis--and it adds yet another layer, which means that somebody who has never listened to contemporary music can somehow come into the piece and maybe they can even sit through it. That's where that comes from.
JR: The nature of icon is that it's something that someone or someplace or something that everyone can relate to--but on top of that, like you said, bringing their own dimension of memory makes it something maybe that originally it wasn't, but it becomes something even larger than life.
MD: Yes. It has to do with emotion. It goes back to Ives. It goes back to Ralph Waldo Emerson, actually, who talked about the use of--again, why is it slipping my mind?
MD: Well, no, the use of objects. If you see a picture of somebody, of a loved one, and you look at that picture. Somehow, all these emotions--that the object can radiate certain emotions--Ives--the transcendentalist thing. Ives took that from Emerson, that certain symbols--a march or whatever--could contain all sorts of possibilities for emotional experience. I suppose it goes to that to a certain degree.
It's also just having fun. To find Elvis impersonators I did a lot of asking around and finally through just asking hundreds of people and all sorts of parties, they think there was an Elvis--
[End Side c]
MD: --tape from the Philadelphia Orchestra. I listened to it, and I thought: Boy, that really works because he took all the woodwinds out except the flutes. You just have flutes, then you have brass, strings, and percussion. And so I did that for the Spaghetti Western.
JR: I wondered why you had such an unusual orchestration.
MD: Probably so the English horn could be heard. It just makes it clear. English horn and flutes are fine, but if you've got oboes or bassoons or anything--clarinets--it gets in the way of English horns. I just took all that out. What I found about the piece was that that was a chance for me--I always loved the spaghetti western movies. I was a big fan of those. You can't quote any music, obviously, but I decided I'll take some of the timbres they used and some of the emotional feeling of those movies and I'll somehow take it to another realm, push the boundaries on it and write music that--Ennio Morricone, a fine composer--the stuff that he, for whatever reason that he wouldn't or couldn't write in that setting.
I was very excited about that piece because that was the first really long--besides Jackie O--really long piece. I think it was twenty-five minutes. I'd written a lot of shorter pieces that are seven, ten--this was twenty-five. The pieces I'm writing now are longer. I try to write pieces that there's no fat in the pieces, so I'm very careful. When I write a fifteen-minute piece, it's really probably a thirty-minute piece that's been cut drastically. I did a lot of cutting for Spaghetti Western.
Also, that was a different piece because after writing the opera, I starting thinking more--sometimes I write in a more lyrical way, not in an obvious lyrical way, but thinking more of a line, mixing it up with kind of the polyrhythmic stuff I like to do.
JR: A lot of technique in there, too.
MD: Well, in that piece what I did was I taped Harold playing for a couple of hours, improvising. I didn't use any of the stuff. I just had him play all over the instrument. I make a cassette of myself--and I do a lot of my listening when I'm driving around in my car--so as I'm driving around in Aaron's [sp?], I just listen all the time on my cassette player in my car. I listen to the English horn; I listen to many of the concerti. Then I worked with an English hornist here in Ann Arbor. Every day they would come over and play through what I wrote, with the computer. The orchestra part was on computer. I did a lot of revisions because I really wanted to write something that if I took it up a fifth, it was a better range for the English horn. This run was easier if I did this or that.
I should mention one thing about one of the issues I'm interested in: cliché. The idea of what is cliché I think is really important.
JR: Cliché in the sense it's already been done, it's past?
MD: Yes. The notion I take is that everything is clichéd, so if I hear Xenakis, if I hear Berio, if I hear composers writing like Xenakis, Berio, Ligeti, Boulez, that's a cliché to me, so if I hear really difficult, dissonant, arrhythmic music, that's just as clichéd to me as hearing a polka band or hearing a funk group. In other words, one is not of a higher level than the other; it's all cliché. The reason I can say that, not to be arrogant, but I can play anything on the piano. I can play any style. I can go from Boulez to country-and-western in the flick of a switch. So the fact that I can do that--in other words, all this stuff is equal. It's all reduced to one level.
I think that one of the reasons it's hard for some composers or critics or whatever is that if you go back to classical music, just think, in the nineteenth century, you would have the Germans and the Austrians all wearing white wigs, totally artificial makeup, long fingernails, speaking in French. They would never speak in their native language because only the peasants or the unrefined would speak in German, right? So they would speak in French. That was the language of the high court. They would also dress in a very artificial way and would separate themselves artificially, living in castles or living in fortresses.
And so the whole idea of classical music, which was played in those environments--it was a very complex thing. I'm not into Marxist theory, but there is something about the economic structure and all this--if you went into it, it's very complex. One could see the idea that somehow music that--in other words, for many people, sophisticated means that it can only be recognized or understood by a very small group of people. In other words, when Michael Graves was making his kettle fifteen years ago, which cost a hundred twenty-five bucks, only certain people had that. But now that he's made them for Target—
MD: All of sudden: "Hey, I don't want those things in my house." Anybody can go get those things. It's not exclusive anymore. So this idea of what is exclusive is something that goes back all through the history of classical music, from the days of the church, church control, through the Renaissance, and then through classical music with the nobility and through the universities. There's always this sort of thing.
We've reached the point now where I think that--I can speak from a standpoint where I've been around all those composers, I've heard all that stuff; I've written all that stuff--okay, it all sounds the same to me. In other words, to hear a very complex cluster chord to me is not more sophisticated that hearing a blues chord. It's all leveled out, in a sense. Some people say that's what the post-modern movement is, is that the playing field is leveled to the same degree of everything, so nothing has any meaning anymore. If it doesn't have any meaning, then everything is empty.
But I'm taking a different perspective, [which] is that everything is level, and because everything is level, then it can have meaning; there can be some emotion to it. So I can put the kind of pieces I'm writing--I can put together these iconic references, be it visual or oral, with the other stuff. I'm now looking at it as pure structure, as I'm writing. I'm looking at the counterpoint actually in a very abstract way because I'm not worried that I'm using Dies Irae or something that sounds like a riff from Sly and the Family Stone. That doesn't really concern me because, hey, that's a riff--
I can hear any composer, anywhere, and I can tell you right where they're coming from. I won't mention any names, but if I hear X composer, I can tell you hey, that's right out of Y. That's all stolen from this--there's nothing original, to my ear. I have heard nothing that's original, except maybe sometimes there's some kind of ethnic music from some remote part of the world. I go: Wow, that's kind of unusual. But I don't think that's negative, or I don't think that's pessimistic; I don't think that's something to be sad about.
JR: Are you writing original music or are you writing with a lexicon of clichés?
MD: I'm thinking that--again, see, cliché doesn't exist to me anymore because you can only say a cliché if something isn't a cliché. These aren't clichés, and these are clichés. So this piece goes [SINGS]. Okay, that's not a cliché. But this is a cliché: [SINGS]. That's what I used to get from composition teachers: "This is a cliché, and this isn't a cliché." But wait a minute. Why is that? What perspective are you talking about? All those composers, going back to those composers that abandoned their jazz roots and wrote twelve-tone music--well, that's because jazz was too clichéd for them. But then the twelve-tone music is a cliché of Webern. One can look at all the Darmstadt composers did Boulez--and all those guys--was simply a rip-off of Webern; it was a cliché. Okay, so they extended the rhythms a little bit, but why is that any more innovative than what happened in the world of jazz between various composers or in rock music? To me, you get the same innovations going on through different kinds of rock [music].
I can go through funk music and think of how things have changed. Now I'm out of it. I don't know all the nuances of rap music, but you can talk to some people and they have a whole historical perspective of all these different kinds of rap and offshoots of rap. My brother, Tom, can tell you all about it. This drum machine sound is inspired by this, and the way this guy mixes the bass and the drums comes out of that thing, whatever. And it's all historicized, and people are very articulate about it.
I feel fortunate because I can go anywhere, I can listen to any kind of music, and I like it. I don't have to walk out of something. I have a student that can bring any kind of music, and I can get into it. The agenda I have is that I can get into anything, if there's something interesting about anything that anybody brings in. That's my agenda. But that's about where it ends, right there.
JR: I noticed that you had a note in your program notes to Lisa Bielawa what it's about. How many of your works come out--I'm not saying it was a direct collaboration, but that might come out of an idea that you might be using as an example to one of your students and then suddenly it spurs you on?
MD: When I was writing this piece, for Dogs of Desire [sp], I was writing for two specific singers, one was Lisa, who I didn't really know, and so I had her come over to my studio and sing for me all sorts of things that she liked to sing. That was very helpful for me to write something that would really be musical. She's done a lot of things with extended voice, so I really wanted to--again, I work by ear so much--all my music comes out of hearing, out of an ear experience; then all the abstract stuff--how I then begin to manipulate the sounds, and I go into the abstract, all those abstract things I learned in the early years about composition. But the sound source itself is something that comes from an intuitive thing.
So I did that with Jackie O, too. I worked a lot of singers because I had heard so many operas where they didn't sound natural to the voice, so I thought, well, I'll be ignorant. I'll work with singers and listen to them sing. I think one of the reasons the piece works for singers is that it comes out of the voice. Again, when I studied composition, at one point you hear: "Don't work with players because you'll get clichés," see?--because first of all, players are dumb, right? So if they play something, they're just playing cliché; they don't really know.
And also [a] certain arrogance that you can write anything and a player can play it. I don't think that's true. I think that there are ways to write things that work and ways that things don't work. I think you reach a certain point where boundaries were pushed to the absolute extremes. I'm not writing a piece that only four flute players can play in the world. I'm not interested in that. But I don't want to write pieces too easy. I want to do the middle ground. I think that, again, is my personality. I'm somebody who's from the middle of America, so I'm always riding between [sic; in] the middle, between the East and the West Coasts, between the abstract and the recognizable, between the practical and the impractical. I'm always thinking about both those things, not as a compromise but just as a way to take everybody's feelings into account.
JR: Do you want to take a break?
MD: How many more questions do you got?
JR: A bunch.
MD: Let's go. I want to get this done.
JR: Right. Let's see, did we talk about Route 66 yet?
JR: That's a great example.
MD: Have you heard a tape of that?
JR: I have.
JR: That's a great example of bringing in all these different icons. Of the music of yours I've heard, I took that for the paramount piece that seemed to bring a lot of disparate elements together. But I don't want to talk about Route 66. I want you to talk about Route 66.
MD: It's my interest in multitracking, having a lot of different layers. It starts out with a canon with four trumpets [sings] There's a canon at the beginning. It's catchy, which is--television theme shows--we don't have so much now, but in the sixties, when I was growing up, every TV show had a theme song, and it had to be very short and catchy. So when I wrote it, I thought I wanted to challenge myself and see if I could write something that really is very catchy. When Zinman played, he said: "Why are you wasting your time writing music for the concert hall? You should be in Hollywood, writing for television." I suppose that was part of it.
Also I was trying to write so the whole orchestra--I was working very hard that-- if you're playing the orchestra, there's nothing worse than to just be playing and you can't be heard, so I'm trying to think more of a player as I'm in the orchestra [sic] and writing it so that there are solos and things are thinned out in a certain way that you can hear all the players, and that the players can hear the structure of what's going on. The piece makes sense to them as they're playing it, from a structural standpoint, and they can hear what I'm doing. I'm not trying to hide it from them. I think that's one of the things I try to do in that piece. It's a very clear piece. Like you said, it puts together lots of things I've done on my other pieces.
JR: I want to back up just for a moment to Jackie, your opera, and about the libretto and how you got to work with Wayne. Was it based on a personal friendship?
MD: Well, that happened--again, how I do everything. When I was living in Princeton, Wayne Koestenbaum and my wife, Yopie Prins were classmates at Princeton. I didn't really know Wayne that well, but she knew Wayne very well. I'm sure I'd talked to him a couple of times here and there, at parties or something. She always stayed in touch with Wayne. When he wrote a book, The Queen’s Throat. He said, “Here’s a copy.” And he sent us his poetry. I really liked his personality, and his interest in pop culture was very similar to mine. Although he's coming from the gay world, nonetheless we shared a lot of the same feelings about pop culture. He's coming from a different angle, but it was similar ideas.
So when the Houston commission came up: What would you do for a topic? First I was thinking of J. Edgar Hoover. I really wasn't sure what the topic would be. But I thought, I'll call Wayne and ask him: "What are you working on?" He said: "I'm writing a book on Jackie." It turned out that Jackie just died. When somebody dies, it gives you a lot more freedom. She had died. He had written a book on Jackie. And I said: "Do you think you could write a libretto?" He's written about opera. I said: "Do you think you could write a little libretto about Jackie?" He said: "I can write it in my sleep."
So I went back to Houston, and they said: "Cool." We met for one day in New Haven, Connecticut. He was living there. We met for a day. We talked about the basic idea, who the characters would be, and then I said: "You just write it." He said: "Okay, I'll just write whatever I want, and you just cut whatever you want. I don't care. You just do what you want." I said: "Okay." So he wrote a libretto. It was really long. It was maybe a hundred and twenty pages long or something.
JR: In the same kind of short verses?
MD: Actually, a lot of long poetry. He knew I was going to cut stuff. So I cut probably half. But I talked to him about it. He was very good to work with. He was very cool, very easy-going, and it was a really great experience. I took two years off. I didn't teach during the time. I just took two years off to write the piece. It was a very frightening experience, writing an opera, I think probably because Druckman was blocked in writing his opera and never finished. I remember that was very traumatic for him. I never talked to him about it. I remember just seeing the anxiety he was going through, trying to write this opera that he couldn't do. And a lot of operas have been huge flops, so that was a lot of pressure on me. I had never written that sort of thing before.
I was worried about the balances between the singer and the [indistinct] the singers were miked. I didn't want to use microphones. I was very worried about the balances between the singers and the--so what I did here is, again, I worked with singers here and in Houston, and then I did a run-through at my own expense. I hired an orchestra--fortunately, it was a small orchestra of eighteen--and I hired singers here. And&