American Minimalist Composer
American Minimalist Composer
The phenomenon of variation within a regime of essential sameness characterizes musical form from time immemorial to the beginning of the twentieth century. At this time I don't want to go into a detailed examination of the psychological characteristics of this phenomenon, but at the very least one could assert that it is efficacious in inducing the trance state.
The question is: What's the mill? Not: What's the grist?
There were audiences for the first time in living memory. People were discussing modern music. Maybe they liked it and maybe they didn't, but the question of what we were doing suddenly became an urgent one.
Traditions are imploding and exploding everywhere - everything is coming together, for better or worse, and we can no longer pretend we're all living in different worlds because we're on different continents.
We?re living in a time when our world has been redefined and reinterpreted through science, there?s no question about it. My father grew up before there were passenger aeroplanes. I grew up at a time before there were rockets going to the moon. Our children are growing up in times where we don?t know where it?s going to go to, but the way the world has been transformed through science is something which both inspires us and astonishes us, and it concerns us.
When I left the University of Chicago, I was nineteen. I went back to Baltimore and announced to my parents I was going to go to music school at Juilliard. They weren't thrilled with that. So I went to Bethlehem Steel and got a job at the steel mill for nine months and made enough money to go to New York and live for a year and work and study music. I didn't think of it as an act of courage; it may have been more of an act of desperation than anything.
When I struck out in my own music language, I took a step out of the world of serious music, according to most of my teachers. But I didn't care. I could row the boat by myself, you know? I didn't need to be on the big liner with everybody else.
When I was a kid working at the steel mills, when you stood in front of the furnace, the heat that came off was amazing. And I feel that in many ways New York was, for me, the furnace ? the cultural furnace. Just standing in that heat warms you up.
When you hear for the first time the music you have composed, there is that astonishing moment when the idea that you carried in your heart and your mind comes back to you in the hands of a musician. People always ask, "Is it what you thought it would be?" And that's a very interesting question, because once you hear it in the air, so to speak, it's almost impossible to remember what it was you imagined. The reality of the sound eclipses your experience. The solitary dreamer is wondering: Will the horns sound good here? Will this flute sound good there? But then when you actually hear it, you're certainly in a different place. The experience of that is my god.
When you play live music in front of a film, the film borrows from the music that capacity to experience it as live. Our receptivity, our ability to empathize with the film is tremendously enhanced by that. I believe that when we are in the presence of interpreted music, we are watching the creative process as it happens. It is a very special moment. It?s something that, while scientists are looking deep into space, looking for the moment of creation ? how can we do that in our ordinary lives? I think we do it when we look at sports, when we look at music, when we look at dance. It?s a moment when we can participate in that moment of creation. It?s a powerful, powerful moment. So powerful, in fact, that I think we never need worry about technology replacing human beings. As long as there is someone who will stand up and play violin, or sit down and play piano there will be people who will come and watch that person do it.
You get up early in the morning and you work all day. That?s the only secret.
One single (complex) sound can contain a great deal of fractal geometry. (This was known to shamans). In music on the edge of tonality (Liszt, Satie, early Prokofiev, Scriabin, Debussy etc. up to early 'atonalism' ) the movement locked up in a single phrase can be so great that 10 bars can do what it would have taken 10 pages of Beethoven to do. Hence a technique of repeated phrases at pitch or transposed. Once time is telescoped still further into single complex chords then things turn into their opposite: you avoid repetition at all costs. I can feel why this must be so but I can't quite explain it.
You have to be very flexible.
People have said to me 'your music is the language of modern music today' but it wasn't always like that. When it first appeared it was very threatening and very dumbfounding and it took [some] getting used to. It was actually a language which was based on global music, on music that grew up in Africa and India. I was in that generation of people who could look beyond the borders of Europe and North America and South America. I was watching this film the other day about the making of Einstein in 1984 and one of the actors said 'the way we can learn the music is by listening for the changes' and that's true. We play it because of the changes, not because it doesn't change but because it does change.
Self-esteem comes from your parents. Somebody tells you that you can do whatever you want, and you believe them.
The Forms of Plato are by definition unchanging. The actual chair is not the "real" chair according to this conception, but only the accidental instantiation of the ideal chair. It is this ideal chair which possesses a superior reality. This is a grave error which spawns all manner of demons and calamities for the human race it seems to me. To move away from the conception of the superior reality of universals is an ongoing task of the modern sensibility. Music should be a part of this progression.
The most critical difference and an essential difference, and one that we should notice, is when we?re playing, we?re playing in real time. We are like performers in the same way that people who are in sports are performers, or in the way that we are performers right now: this is being recorded and will be broadcast later. Film is pre-recorded. You can play a film a hundred times and it will be the same. You might lose a few frames, but it can?t be reinterpreted. So the fact and act of interpretation is not present in the performance of a film. With the performance of the music, the act of interpretation is there. In other words, the exact outcome of the music is never completely known. This is a fact of music that we know.
I just thought it was very interesting... How do you write a 30-second piece? Everything is extremely compressed.
I never was a captive of other people's ideas about me. Whatever they thought, that didn't bother to me, I did what I wanted to, and um - I didn't care. I've been like that my whole life, and - it saved me a lot of trouble. Even when it came to writing music I didn't care what people thought. You know, there's a lot of music in the world, you don't have to listen to mine. There's Mozart, there's the Beatles, listen to something else! You don't have to listen to this. You have my blessings, go on, listen to something else, I don't care.
I travel the world, and I'm happy to say that America is still the great melting pot - maybe a chunky stew rather than a melting pot at this point, but you know what I mean.
I was not always the brightest bulb in the tree. I was a hardworking guy, but in my opinion I was not one of the most talented people at Juilliard. I didn't have that brilliance that some people really have, but I had a tremendous appetite for the work.
I work every morning without fail.
Instead of equating music and religion I should say, as viewed from a historical perspective, they are two sides of the same coin. Music is an expression of the religious impulse. But when one ventures into the realm of sound as opposed to that of music, this relationship can be problematized. The liberation of sound, as Varese would put it.
I've been called a minimalist composer for more than 30 years, and while I've never really agreed with the description, I've gotten used to it.
John Cage gave me permission to do whatever I wanted to do. of course there will be people who will be horrified by these statements and by these ideas.