An Interview with Roger Reynolds
Part 1 - Beginnings
Stephen Soderberg: Hello, I'm Stephen Soderberg , and I'm with the Music Division at the Library of Congress. Today, I'm going to be talking with composer Roger Reynolds. First of all, I'd like to start with a few facts about Mr. Reynolds' life just as a quick background. Mr. Reynolds was born in Detroit in 1934. He has degrees in Engineering and Composition from the University of Michigan. In 1962, he was in Cologne to study electronic music under a Fulbright, and from 1964 to '65 he was in Italy under a Guggenheim. He was a co-founder in 1961 of the ONCE Group in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and he traveled to Japan in 1966 at the invitation of the Institute of Current World Affairs. In 1969 he joined the faculty of the Music Department at the University of California at San Diego where in 1971 he founded The Center for Music Experiment and Related Research. In 1989, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Whispers Out of Time for string orchestra. He has lectured extensively in the United States, Europe, and Japan. His books on compositional method include Mind Models ; A Searcher's Path, A Composer's Ways  ; and Form and Method: Composing Music . Roger, welcome.
Roger Reynolds: It's good to be here.
SS: I was thinking of starting with some very general words about the way you go about composition which is really what the whole thing is about today - what we're here for - but we're going to be focusing especially on Transfigured Wind. And Transfigured Wind got its start back with your piece for solo flute called Ambages. So I would like to set the scene by reading a correspondence regarding the creation of Ambages that I got from your wife, Karen Reynolds, since she was very much involved in the beginning of this entire project.
RR: She's involved in everything. That is, everything that concerns me or us.
SS: Well, let me go ahead and read this quickly. These are Karen Reynolds' words now.
"Roger and I were living at the Torre Sfondrata on Lake Como at the foot of the promontory on which the Rockefeller Foundations' Villa Serbelloni is situated. We had been invited there for a long-term residency. During other visits we stayed at the villa itself and also at the Casa Rosa on its grounds. This was where Roger was able to use a piano looked after by Toscanini's former piano tuner. The richness of its sonority was unforgettable. Our time in Bellagio was a complete and effecting series of interactions for us; a majestic setting and the personal warmth of the foundation hosts, John and Charlotte Marshall. The structure of a day for visitors in the main Villa Serbelloni was set in stone, breakfast was served in one's room but lunch and dinner began with aperitifs in the drawing room, proceeding then to the dining room and finally settling into an enormous sitting room for cordials and cigars. This room had a grand piano and on occasion Roger and I performed for the other guests who normally came and went in a week or two while we stayed on for longer periods of time. Usually of course, we performed fitting sonatas from the Baroque literature, but I also played more forward-looking music such as Varèse's Density 21.5 and Debussy's Syrinx, both for flute alone. The Debussy particularly was a favorite with the guests, briefly invoking its story of Pan and the beautiful nymph Syrinx. Our several visits to the Villa Serbelloni were framed and interlaced by the good fortune of various fellowships. My Paris Fulbright, Roger's Guggenheim, sponsorship from the Rockefeller Foundation and then the for us momentous appearance of the executive Director of the Institute of Current World Affairs, Richard Nolte, an encounter that lead to a life-changing three-year residency in Tokyo under the auspices of the Institute of Current World Affairs. At the Torre Sfondrata, our days were idyllic. We worked constantly, but also spent time in what I thought of as a regenerative process - what was needed if we were to venture out into the less ideal world. Now at a much later stage of life, I miss the effects of such expansive days. In the summer of 1965, I was preparing to attend the master classes of Marcel Moyse in Boswil, Switzerland, the unique flutist with whom I had studied during one summer in the early sixties at his home in Brattleboro, Vermont. Roger decided to join me on this journey and I mused that he might write a solo flute piece while I attended the classes; a classic flute piece of about three minutes in duration. Roger worked in the basement of the church while I and others, the likes of Paula Robison, William Bennett and Trevor Wise, subjected ourselves to Moyse's deadly and discerning ear. I looked in on the evolving flute piece each evening and was dismayed as it grew well past the three-minute mark - not arriving at the middle of the work let alone the end. As it developed the piece acquired the title Ambages - "circuitous paths." We searched through English and French dictionaries looking for a word that would capture its ambiguous, even illusive character. There was a whimsicality about it - an ease of flight. Ambages was finished in October 1965, at the Villa. I found the technical passages to be intensely flutistic and they fit the fingers well. During the compositional stage, I was there to exercise certain passages when asked, but Roger, although a pianist by training, seemed to have a natural feel for my instrument. I had my likes and my dislikes in regard to Ambages. I enjoyed its ornamentation, the pitch bends , the balletic beauty of the work. It fit me perfectly. However, I did envision a more extreme profile. I felt it was too much in a reasonable mode. But, as also with the issue of length, Roger said in response that he was obliged to follow the row, the proportions, the process he had settled on. He had to be true to the conditions that were set out. He couldn't force the piece to be something other than what it was. I countered that I had insufficient opportunity in this work to be extreme, that it required a too reasonable, even calculated approach if one was to deliver the integrity of its structure, of its meaning. This difference of outlook has turned out to be more significant than we could have guessed in those young years. Roger, exasperated, insisted that Ambages couldn't be changed. I for my part didn't mind breaking some rules in order to fulfill the demands of others, and I asked if I might adapt it at least for the premiere which was only a few days off. He acquiesced and I did adapt some passages as at measures 70 to 72. Roger came to like these after all and kept them. The premiere was an after-dinner event at the Villa. Host John Marshall heard this new work and immediately responded to its choreographic quality. He urged that it be sent to Ballanchine in New York. Nowadays with computer technology to elaborate and spatialize any musical landscape, to give new life, context, and extension to any sound, one can very easily imagine how his spontaneous suggestion of more than three decades ago could now be fulfilled. I recorded Ambages after the premiere on borrowed equipment in the high-ceilinged, tiled bathroom of the Sfondrata tower. This recording became the model for subsequent interpretations by Ryu Noguchi and Harvey Sollberger, both of whom made commercial recordings."
Roger, is there anything you can add to your wife's words? I'm sorry to have taken up so much time, but I really thought this was ...
RR: No, I think it's a wonderful way to start, and it particularly gives immediate emphasis to several things that are very important. One is that the nourishment of creative projects is always an extremely multi-dimensional matter, and, for people who are outside the creative process, I imagine that it is often thought to be a somewhat more manageable or clear or straightforward thing. But in fact every creative project involves inevitably a mix of factors, some that appear to be new, and others that are very clearly rooted in one's past. I think that for me that kind of weaving of elements that have existed in one's life and one's surroundings into a musical work - the discovery of what it is that one really thinks or feels about life - is the product of the composing process. I've said in other contexts many times that I compose in order to understand the world. And of course that doesn't mean understand it in a direct, intellectual way. I think it means to understand the world in the sense that one feels comfortable with it. So the circumstances in which, at least speaking for myself, the circumstances in which I live, as I create, are deeply and fundamentally a part of what it is that I'm doing compositionally. I don't say that they are the thing, but they're a part of it. And the fact that Karen indicates - which has been true from the beginning - that she has a very decisive influence on what it is that I do, how I do it, why I do it ... this has always been true from the beginning. It's something that I admire and am enormously grateful for. It's not at all a question of meddling. We do get into a lot of sometimes very heated disagreements about things. And I think that the issue that she frames there, in a way, must be a common one: that someone who is close to but not identical with the person who is actually creating, if you will, a musical composition, a poem, a book, a film, whatever, understands very much, of course, what it is that's going on and what it is that's being attempted. But the person who is actually doing it is constrained in other ways by what it is that one feels is true - has an inner integrity of ways of working, the integrity most of all of the comfort of knowing that what it is that you're doing somehow fits, belongs, is a part of a new, growing entity - in my case a musical composition. So I think that what she presents in that introductory set of remarks, is a picture of the way in which the surrounding context - where we were living, what we were doing, what we were thinking about, how we were interacting - really did decisively influence the nature of this piece.
SS: You were talking about the surroundings during which time you conceived Ambages, which is the initial flute piece that is quoted in and influences the later Transfigured Wind. Are there other things - if we can get into the more technical aspects, but not too directly yet - that found their way into Ambages? Surroundings obviously affect your state of mind when you begin to compose (or when you begin to think about composing, which is probably more accurate). Are there other metaphorical things that played into Ambages as you began to work on it?
RR: To be honest, of course, it was a great many years ago, so exactly what was going on at that point, I can't remember now. It certainly was the case that the sound of the flute and the things which it does gracefully and naturally were very much in my ear. Karen was playing hours every day; not in the same room - but sometimes - as we lived at that time (in Paris) before coming to Italy under, shall we say, less than ideal circumstances - I heard the flute all the time. So there's no question that the flute itself was in my mind. As for Ambages and the idea of "circuitous paths" - this is entirely at this point speculative but it feels right to say it so I'll say it - we were doing a lot of wandering ourselves. We did a great deal of traveling in Europe always on a shoestring. We had a particular way; we would take the train somewhere and get off at a station. I had my obligations, Karen had hers, we would get maps, we would get guidebooks, we would get phrase books, and we would get into it whether it was Italy or Germany or Switzerland, or Belgium or whatever. And I can imagine at least that the idea of, what shall I say, the contingency of direction, the fact that a gesture made, an idea posited, wasn't decisive in terms of its disposition. This was a part of our mental fabric; it was a part of our life. When we went from Paris where we had been living, both of us, on Karen's fairly small Fulbright grant, when we went to Italy, we went there in a sense because it was a refuge. We didn't have anything else until a Guggenheim grant came through, and it was often the case that we were completely unsure about where the next meal or at least the next month's rent was going to come from. We did not have at that time the plan to take up regular employment. I had started composing very late, and I knew that I had to do a great deal of work even to build up let's say a basic repertoire of pieces. She had had very rich training as a flutist but not the time to begin to behave as a professional in any way other than as a teacher, so we were quite prepared for the idea of a period of unknown and unstable nature, which we would use to consolidate who and what we were. So I should imagine that the idea of these wanderings and somewhat ambiguous goals was the way we were living. So it would not be surprising if that were the root of this piece.
Consciously speaking, at that time I was not doing what I now do regularly which is to begin every compositional project with a notebook in which I write down what I'm thinking at the beginning. At that time I wasn't doing that --so I think that the origins, the notes, the papers that relate to the beginnings of Ambages are probably quite skimpy in relationship to what happened later. I think that's really about all that I can reasonably say. The piece was a reflection on the prominence of flute in my life and in my ears at that moment. And also the circumstance of the musical language, it's character, given that it's a solo piece, it has to be linear, and the other qualities, I think, probably came from the nature of the feelings and intellectual conundra that I was facing day to day. That would be natural ... for me, at least.
SS: Well I think what's going on is something that we've talked about a little bit before, and that's "branching." I see this already going out in several directions sometimes which I want to encourage - rather than trying to stay on a single track. As you said, there is very ... the material as far as the background for Ambages that you've donated to the Library -- there's still very little of it in comparison to other instances that I've seen of your work. But what there is -- this is just as a reminder to you and, as you said, I'm not going to try to nail you down on Ambages especially --but one thing that I find very interesting was that one of the first things I found in here was a tone row. So I'd like you to talk generally about tone rows, your relation to serialism and [Arnold] Schoenberg, and possibly get into talking about some of your other teachers and experiences early on in your career. As you said you started composition at a relatively late time, you didn't start writing symphonies at 3.
SS: I'm not sure that would have been at all helpful. But by the time you did start composing you already had an engineering degree.
SS: So you had a background in engineering in that direction although you probably hadn't started to think about electronic music at that point.
RR: No, not at all.
SS: Okay. So we're starting here from...let me go back to the Schoenberg idea. When Schoenberg liberated the dissonance back at the turn of the twentieth century, it started a lot of things happening in the world of music. When you started to hear Schoenberg's music and started to study it or whatever, what was it that you got out of it?
RR: Well, I think that in fact my first contacts with Schoenberg's music were less important than slightly later ones. The fact was that Ross Lee Finney, my first composition teacher, had felt himself to have been a student of [Alban] Berg's. He said that. Now the degree to which Berg actually influenced Ross' music is, I think, questionable. But at any rate, there was certainly, I think immediately, a predisposition in several ways that Ross manifested as a teacher and as a composer, and that was that what you could call, and we'll return to this I'm sure, what you could call principled behavior was a very good thing. Those are my words not Ross's. And yet, that principles should constantly be malleable - and should be available to and subject to the creative or emotional needs of the moment as one is composing - was also necessary. So I would imagine that Ross saw Berg very much as an exemplar of that kind of attitude - less strict than, surely, [Anton] Webern and probably less than Schoenberg - but on the other hand more open to the idea of incorporation. As we know, in the violin concerto Berg did incorporate quotes ; he made references to other bodies of music, if not particular works even, and so I think that that came through surely in the way Ross taught. He didn't speak a great deal about serialism per se. Rows were mentioned as we analyzed pieces that involved them, but I think the impact of Schoenberg came very much more to me through my second teacher, Roberto Gerhard. Gerhard had been originally a student of Pedrell and then had gone to Vienna in the early twenties to work with Schoenberg and had been a member of the circle. He had been around - he knew, of course, Berg and Webern as well as Schoenberg. And Roberto was a man with whom I immediately felt a very deep and, I would say, even profound connection. He was a man of extraordinary intellect. He was a very warm and open and vulnerable person - something I admired greatly - and a man, at that time perhaps about my age now, perhaps a little bit younger, who was still in my mind not only intelligent, capable, professional, experienced and so on, but vulnerable. I found that an enormously appealing thing. I liked and admired the fact that, as strong and knowledgeable and capable as he was, he was still alive to the world and to things that were not ideal; he could be offended, he could be hurt - I thought this was a wonderful and admirable thing.
I mentioned to you, and I've said in other contexts, that one of the perhaps signature moments in my involvement with Roberto came during one lesson when I was hesitating to explore or to demand something further of him in an engagement we were having, and he smiled and he looked at me and said, "Think of me as a lemon ... squeeze" ... and this was it. You knew you could go anywhere with him. And so what he said about Schoenberg had a technical level, it had an ethical level, it had an emotional level, it had even, let's say, a spiritual level. He spoke about the issue of the balancing of the rational and the intuitive and about the function of a series as a resistant engagement -- something which did not tell you what to do, in a sense, but offered you an opportunity, which was your responsibility to respond to in an inventive way. And from Roberto's point of view he explained his understanding of Schoenberg as a person, quite apart from his theories (and as you know Schoenberg did not actually write anything about serialism or the row until ... what?... twenty years after or thirty years after he began using it). And Schoenberg didn't speak of serialism to his seminars. Roberto said that it was never a part of their group meetings that Schoenberg would discuss a series or the idea. So it was portrayed to me, through Roberto, as something which was a tool, something which was there to guide and to provoke but not to settle the issue. And that was the spirit in which I took it, and that has been always the spirit in which I've used it. I think another important aspect of the origins of my relationship to serialism is that I, as you just said, came to music formally very late. I didn't have any direct engagement with music until I was fourteen. I've told this story elsewhere also ... that's a question -- should we go over things that are already on the record?
SS: I think whatever is comfortable for you. We have plenty of time. If it comes up naturally let's talk about it, but of course we don't need to dwell on any one thing.
RR: Okay. The situation was that when I was about fourteen my father bought a phonograph-radio console, a piece a furniture for our house, and he gave me ten dollars, and he said that I should go down to the local record shop in Detroit and get ten dollars worth of records for our new machine - "but don't get any of that popular stuff." Now my father had no knowledge whatever of music. The only thing he knew was that popular music faded, so he wanted me to get something that would last. By some chance when I got to the record shop there was Brahms's First Symphony, there was the Grand Canyon Suite, and there was a single record out of an album that Vladimir Horowitz had recorded of Chopin piano music. The other records had been broken, so they threw in this record as part of the ten dollar package. And I got home and I put on this recording of Horowitz playing the A-flat Polonaise and I was blown away. I wore that record out playing it over and over and over and over. I went out with my paper route money, and I bought every record I could find of Horowitz's. I drove my parents absolutely mad, and at a certain point they asked are you sure that you wouldn't like to take up the piano for yourself? And neither of them were musicians. My mother played a little - she was a kindergarten teacher and had played the piano but we didn't have one in the house. So in any case my entrance into the music world was late, and was of a very particular nature.
So I ended up not going originally to college to study music but into engineering, which the wise people in my family - and friends - indicated to me would be a prudent and more pragmatic choice, particularly for somebody who didn't start music until he was fourteen. And so I went through engineering school. I went to the missile industry in Los Angeles and found very quickly that I was spending more time practicing the piano in a local Unitarian church at night than I was working at the Marcourt Ramjet Corporation. So I quit, went back to school, had the idea of being a piano teacher at a small liberal arts college somewhere, got there [to music school], and was captivated by the realization that music after all was continuing to be created - it wasn't only Beethoven and Debussy and Chopin, and so on, that we had, but it would be possible to do new music. I got into Ross Finney's class, which was "Composition for Non-Composers" - he specifically taught a course that was for people who did not intend to be composers; and, of course, it was out of that course that some of the better composers came.
So I say all of this to indicate that in my early days, as most musicians would, I wasn't playing around with chords at a piano or with the guitar or with something else. I was innocent in music almost completely. When I began at twenty-five to be seriously interested in composing, it had to be the case that I formulated a circumstance within which I would work - I didn't have that circumstance, one given to me by my experience, by my teaching, and by my own expectations. So the idea of the series, which made all kinds of intellectual sense, made for my situation also a great deal of sense. And why? Because I, like everyone, trained or not, absorbed a great deal of what you could call normative musical behaviors in the music I heard, whether it was popular or folk or whatever, and of course I did hear music from time to time, as everybody does. There was already radio and, as I was a young person, television was also coming in - so I had some musical experience.
What I did not have was my own rootedness in that musical landscape. So what I have taken the series to do from the beginning was to provide an occasion for me to make decisions. And those decisions are, of course, at the beginning, a combination of intellectual and intuitive, rational and intuitive qualities. But once I set out the terrain - which is to say in the normal situation (at least for me) a chart which has the various forms of the row - it was Gerhard's way that the series would then be listed in transpositions at the same level as the pitches in the rows. If the row started with C, C-sharp, F - the first transposition is on C, the second C-sharp, the third F and so on. Do I make a lot of use of that [fact]? Not consciously. This is a behavior; it's, let's say, like a wren building a nest. It's a certain thing that one does; and I do a lot of listening to and playing with the elements in a row to get it to make sense to me as a line. It is not that I intend to use it as a melody or as a line, but it has to feel right. And I do a lot of ... it takes days, even weeks, to actually decide on a row that I'm going to use. And once I decide on it, I feel good about it. It sounds right. The qualities that it has in terms of intervallic structure, symmetry, and so on, are compatible with the goals that I foresee for the piece. But the way it functions once I have it is really as a kind of moment-to-moment conscience. It says the next thing that you ought to do is C-sharp or B, A, whatever. And so then I look at that and say, how can I do that here? What is happening for me at every moment is an interaction between a provisional commitment to intervallic succession that I've chosen in the form of a row; and my knowledge of what it is that I'm attempting to do in the piece; and further, of course, decisively, my experience, which has ingrained in my own mind and ear a preference for certain things, a distaste for other things. So for me it is a guide to the exercise of my aesthetic sensibility. That's what it helps me do.
SS: Well, this raises an interesting point about serialism in general today -- not only its various technical or formal manifestations that an analyst may or may not be able to dig out and point to in a finished work ("counting notes" as Schoenberg dismissed this kind of analysis), but how it has been accepted as a procedure to the point that many composers use it as naturally as they might use a C-major scale. Charles Wuorinen once made an interesting statement that it sounds like you would agree with from what you've just been saying. He said: "I don't always pay much attention to the set once it's there. Working out its various forms is mostly just a habitual ritual for me now. It doesn't determine every detail. Still it is everywhere in the piece."
RR: Yes, I don't exactly know what Charles means by all this; and I would, of course ... It would be my guess that he is more, let's say that he puts more faith in, sees more value in, rigor than I would. I'm sure we'll get into all of these things at an appropriate moment. But, yes, so far as I understand what he's saying I wouldn't quarrel with that at all.
SS: I guess the reason that I brought this up is I know that it is not perfectly parallel to what you're saying. But I sensed the first time that I heard Transfigured Wind, it was Transfigured Wind II, a recording of it, and it was before I had looked at the score or looked at any of your sketches or other writings on it, and one of the things that really struck me the first time through was that I got to the end of the piece and I didn't "understand" what had been going on because I was "just listening." To me that's not the normal way that I would, say, "understand" - "listening" and "understanding" are two different things for me - but the overall impression I got was one of a harmonic consistency throughout the whole piece that I just couldn't put my finger on. And so I guess after a couple more hearings when I finally got into looking at the material, one of the first things that I did - this is my background speaking now - I said that there's something in the basic tonal material going on. And when I finally found [in your sketches] the row that you had worked out for Ambages and started to put together from clues from you that Ambages is very important in this piece, I started to look at the row itself:
It's an extremely interesting row, from my standpoint anyway. It's ingenious, actually. And it's consistent and symmetric in various ways. I know that this goes way back, and you probably have no idea why you chose that particular row originally. Am I correct?
RR: Absolutely. On further consideration, I would say that it is not unlikely that there was interaction with strategies that Gerhard had discussed for determining and utilizing symmetries in the structure of rows.
SS: What I found constituting this row ... there are pairs of minor seconds one after the other such that there are no two consecutive pairs that have a minor second between them; there are major or minor thirds or major seconds between the pairs. What this sets up ... if you take the first note in each pair, and you just concentrate on that, you get a C-major triad followed by a G-sharp diminished triad. Does that ring any bells with you? I found it in a couple of other rows of yours -- something similar.
RR: Sure. Of course. Not from the point of view you might wish it to. Let me tell a very brief story about an early encounter with Roberto Gerhard. I was working on a string quartet which was a heavily Bartók-influenced quartet because Ross Finney was himself very much involved in [Bela] Bartók, and we had analyzed in the composition seminar at least the fourth and sixth quartets, and so I had been working on this. And I brought in to Roberto for our first meeting a kind of adagio, in fact a little bit like Barber's Adagio for strings, although I didn't know [Samuel] Barber at that point. It had something of that character. And Gerhard did what he always did when I brought something in, he would put it on the desk of the piano, and he would stare at the page with his ears plugged up - hearing, or trying to hear - and so he did this for some considerable period of time. And he looked at me and said, "Very interesting. That's quite remarkable." And I thought, "Well, how?" He said, "The whole piece of course is built on one tri-chord" of, I think, of a wholestep-halfstep, and I said, "I didn't know that." And he said, "Well, look." And we spent maybe two hours. He analyzed the whole piece, and he showed me how every note conformed to this design that he had detected. And this totally astonished me, of course, and actually terrified me, because I knew - absolutely - that that had not been anywhere in my conscious mind when I was doing it. And this is all a part of the issue of influence and what I'm trying to tell you about the combination of factors, of rational and intuitive elements. At that time I was not able to trust in the way that I am now the power and the authority of intuitive apprehension, or intuitive discovery, let's say. And so for me it was astounding and terrifying to be held to a standard suddenly by Roberto that I had not been conscious of inhabiting. And it's always been that way for me. So the idea that I work out a series, which has embedded within it root sonorities that are likely to be well understood, and acclimated to, and normative, is entirely the way I would imagine it would be. But it is, on the other hand, not what I set out to do.
SS: It's fully intuitive in the long run?
RR: I think there are people who would argue that intuition, or things that are discovered intuitively, are somehow less meaningful, or less significant. It's not true. We compose with everything that we are, all of the resources we have, and I think that only the person that fully trusts all that is in his or her mind is going to get as much out of his or her work as is possible. I remember at the [Charles] Ives conference that Wiley Hitchcock organized for the Institute for Studies in American Music and Yale a long time ago, maybe in the seventies, I've forgotten exactly when, I had an encounter with Allen Forte. He was at the conference and was analyzing Ives in terms of his notion of aggregates. I should start out by saying that, clearly, I am not well grounded in these areas; I have no business speaking about them professionally. But what I said, basically, after listening to his presentation about I think it was the Ives Fourth Symphony, was: look, if you can show me - let's take a scientific perspective on this - if you can show me that there are instances in which recognized composers use a harmonic practice which is not describable in terms of a small number of aggregates, then I will find a reason to pursue your line of inquiry.
From my point of view, the idea that any real artist could ever be inconsistent is complete madness. It's very clear that there will be an aesthetic consistency to anything that an artist does with commitment and capacity. It cannot be otherwise. Because what it is all about, and I've said this to you in our correspondence, what it is all about is the exercise of aesthetic consistency. I am a being, a creature; I hear and see and interact with the world, and when I am making something the ultimate question is: Does it fit? Does it belong in this thing? And that's not a local question. It's a question that involves understanding the whole project even the way the whole project fits in a larger set of things - something which may be locally inadmissible in terms of its relationship to the larger thing. So for me it's always about my aesthetic sensibility, and the things that I allow in are right. Now they may be foolish, they may be banal, they may be trivial, but they're "right" if they get past my filter.
So finding what you did in the series for Ambages is, I would imagine, the same sort of thing you would find in every piece. You would always find that there was a consistency, and you would always find that that consistency included what you can call archetypical components that often would be identical with well-known constructs that everybody hears and relates to. But even if there weren't the well-known constructs, there would still be iconic elements that reoccurred and reoccurred and reoccurred. That's the way it is. And I predict that if you look at Ambages in terms of time, rhythmic behavior, phrase shape and all that, you will see exactly the same sort of thing. There will be normatives, there will be a consistency. At the stage I was with Ambages, I was still working through these things; now my ways of working are by and large almost routinized, and such things as consistency of numerical proportion and design, are now a thing which I believe in and which I exercise at an intellectual level. At that time it was probably much less so, but it was still there because what I was doing is saying, "Do I like this or not?" Something provokes me, I make a series of choices, and then I stand back and listen-look at it. Is this okay? No, it's not quite okay. I'm going to switch these two notes. Or I'll have to start again - this just isn't working, etc., etc.
SS: You're not talking around it, but you're talking right into it - the whole idea of wholeness and integrity and coherence that we wanted to talk out from the beginning. Did you want to say anything else about your concepts of ...
RR: I only want to stop when I've said what I wanted to say. So we can always go on.
SS: [laughter] We have slipped into this idea that I wanted to talk about. When we were talking about this in our email correspondence, I had mentioned that I wanted to have a section on terminology, but it's not to get your terminology straight because I understand that the terminology is [needed] to get at a concept. The terminology is shifting and it can be shifting, however ... whatever is best for you to describe the concepts and your present feelings about them which have changed over the years, obviously. So, this is more of a philosophy section.
RR: Sure, fine.
SS: ... and as I said, I didn't want to get into serialism as a challenge ... that's not how I'm coming at it ... or to nail you down like: "Oh, you must have plotted this out because ...."
RR: Well, sometimes I do.
SS: ... but what I really wanted was this: was it basically or mainly an intuitive thing that you did with that row, and then I came along, spotting what I believed must have been an intentional construct, and I said, wow, this is great! From what you said, that is what happened. It's not important to get into what I'm talking about here. However, there is one thing that I would still like to bring up with regard to row design and serial operations . Do you remember at all, not necessarily with just Ambages but in general in your earlier years, working with (and this is very pointed as to what we're going to be talking about; we're not going to be talking so much about the "meaning" of the row in Transfigured Wind) ... early on did you work with the row in such a way that you did permutations of the row that, say, were not acceptable in the "classic" serial sense?
RR: No, I think that I use the row ... when I am intending to be rigorous, I take care of every note, and order is sacred. However, the strategy that Roberto called "braiding" is a frequent aspect of what I do.
So, let's imagine that I begin to write a line and that the composed line is proceeding note by note along the course of one of the transpositions of the row, the original form, the retrograde, the mirror, the mirror-retrograde or whatever, and let's imagine that I get to a certain point and I can't get what I want next. I have several choices. I can either return to the earlier part of the row or retrace my steps so I can be recursive - I assume that that's okay. In other words, I never worry about the necessity of maintaining a total chromaticism all the time. So if I feel that I need, let's say, I need a note or a pair of notes that come earlier in the row, I will go back, and I will take them again. But then I have accrued the debt, or the cost, of dealing with the notes that exist between the two that I have gone back to earlier in the row and the place that I was before I broke off. So for me I always have to go linearly, in order.
But let's imagine that I cannot solve my problem by recursive strategies. Then what I'm likely to do is to go get another row that has what I need at the beginning and put that in. So now the first form of the series is suspended, and the second form has begun, but they're still, of course, operating in their seriality. I'll then pick up the first row, pick up the second row, maybe I'll get into a situation where I'll need a third. So I'm constantly pulling in resources - this has to do with the invention of literal lines that are going to be a part of the fabric of the piece. It does not speak to harmonic issues directly, which is for me a slightly different thing. But the point here is that I never permute. It is always a question of borrowing from a reservoir which has been pre-established and which is accepted as having the authority of certain intervallic successions regardless of their transpositional level. So the seriality always has to do with probable succession.
That's for me what it's all about. And it is incidentally, or maybe not so incidentally, to me almost inescapably obvious that this is the way that somebody like Beethoven composed or Machaut . I mean, there were normatives in terms of resource. For Beethoven they were scales  and arpeggiated figures , and he drew from those, and he drew in the way that he required for that situation. Is it an appoggiatura  or a passing tone ? ... is it a major or minor scale? ...harmonic or non[harmonic]? ...what key are we in? ...what relationship does the arpeggiated structure that I need in order to cover a lot of ground rapidly, what does that require?
When I'm working now - to jump into another thing just for a moment - I do something very similar. I often establish for myself, out of the row, once I've chosen it, a collection of harmonic structures, of figuratively intricate lines, all indebted to the row very specifically, but predisposed towards use in harmonic situations, in florid or ornamental situations, or in melodic or linear design. To me this makes complete sense. In other words what I am doing is creating my own normative historical context which I then draw on. And I try to establish one which leaves me as free as possible to accomplish the things that I need to accomplish. And I don't want to be at every moment, in the texture of the piece, in the experience of composing the piece ... I don't want to have to go out of invention mode and create a new resource. I want to have the resource already there. And I want to feel that that resource belongs there and is integrated - in the same way, I'm sure, that Beethoven or Mozart believed that their resource was an integrated thing that they could draw on - and of course could distort and extend and distend - but always because there was something there that they knew and believed in. ....
One more thing (I said that I would never stop until I was done). I just wanted to speak about the comment you made about what you "find" in something. Because I didn't consciously put the phenomenon that you discovered with the minor seconds never separated by a minor second into the row, doesn't mean it isn't there. And the fact that theorists can discover in the work of any creative person - and this, of course, isn't only in music - normatives, patterns, things which they have been doing, this to me is so vastly more valuable than the effort I see sometimes in our country that, I think, has unfortunately reversed the process. Occasionally, people who are involved in music theory actually develop theories about how music should behave and even in the best (or worst) cases, depending on your perception of these matters, compose music according to the theories they have developed. Now without meaning to denigrate colleagues in other areas, to me in such a contingent subject as musical art, particularly in our time, when one cannot assume any normative experience on the part of an audience - even on the part of a band of musicians who get together to play a piece ... when you're in that kind of a situation you have to accept that normatives are needed. I think that one can't just fumble around. We agree on this.
The fact that one is putting together a way of working - which every composer does - means, in my view, that the theorist's job is to discover what about these normative behaviors is consistent. And the consistencies ought to be, in my view, the source of music theory rather than the things that arise out of, simply, the group-theoretic combinations of elements that are possible. In the case of some composers, let's say Milton Babbitt, it is clear that those relationships ignite his imagination - more power to him. For others, that is not what ignites the imagination. And theory ought to be able to address normative pattern-making processes regardless of how they originate. And this is the thing that I think is very valuable, and I would applaud in terms of the kind of remark you're making. You discover something, it doesn't matter whether I meant it or not; it's there and can be observed and it could be perhaps useful.
SS: Well I've got to add to what you're saying that I suppose my function is to be objective in this discussion, but I really have to say that I ...
RR: It's not fun to be objective.
SS: [laughter] I couldn't agree with you more.
I think that it's an unfortunate meaning that the word "theory" has taken on. I don't think anybody had a problem with the word "theory" a century ago, but now we do for many of the reasons that you are talking about. But for me it's no more than ... it's something that you've talked about before in your writings; it's the honing of compositional tools or the discovery of compositional tools or the development of compositional tools -- and that's the only way that it truly interests me when it comes right down to it.
So those ideas can come from any place just as a composer's ideas ... they probably come from the same place. But, when I listened and started to hear this consistency, I said there's something here, and at that point you can develop it into something, generalize into something that someone else (another composer maybe) could take and say, well I wouldn't write the way Roger writes or whatever, however this is an interesting idea, and I can take it in this direction. And that's where I think that ...
SS: ... it's not fair anymore to call it "theory," but I don't have another word for it. I don't want to dwell on that, necessarily.
Roger, could we return to something that we were talking about before as far as influences on the earlier stages of your career as a composer. We got to Roberto Gerhard and Schoenberg and a couple of others.
RR: Well I think that one of things that I realized when we were talking about Schoenberg is, that I didn't actually speak about the music itself. I guess the truth of the matter is that Schoenberg's music per se did not have such a big influence on me, early. The first piece that really grabbed me was the String Trio , and that was the second time that Roberto came to this country, when he taught at Tanglewood in the early sixties. And one of the things that happened then was that we went to, all of the composers in the group went to, the Hawthorne Cottage; and members of the then Lenox Quartet played the Trio, and we interacted, and it was breathtaking. I had not actually heard before that world of sound and relationships - the complexity of that [world]. I think the Trio is certainly one of his most phenomenal and important works which I don't believe really - except in the cases of Helmut Lachenmann and Brian Ferneyhough - had the kind of impact that it ought to have had. The other piece that has been very, very important to me is the opus 16 set of orchestra pieces, which I think is possibly the most fecund and exciting caldron of musical potential that exists in the Western tradition. I use it as a part of my own teaching a great deal, and I'm enormously fond of that piece.
At the early times of my engagement with music itself as a pianist, the primary composers were Debussy, Chopin and Beethoven - that was the music which I played and heard that first moved me and excited me. When it comes to contemporary music I think that the first composer that really stunned me, outside of the universal instance of Stravinsky's Rite of Spring  - which I think it would be impossible for any musician not to be dazzled by - was really the work of Varèse. And I still feel the remarkable freshness and vitality and originality that exists in that music as sound, and feel that the surface of that music has not yet been scratched in terms of commentary, in terms of, let's say, "music theory." What has been done with Varèse is, I think, relatively paltry, and I wonder what effect it might have had on the course of music had Varèse been more immediately comprehended, let's say, in the terms that we're talking about. I think it would have been possible. I met him; I had a number of interactions with him which were extraordinary. That's been one of the things, surely, as my life has developed, that has been very rich. I've had substantive and close emotional relationships with [Toru] Takemitsu, with [Iannis] Xenakis, with [John] Cage, with [Morton] Feldman. These have been very important in a lot of ways. Certainly Xenakis' music was very important to me. So it's very tricky to look at it from the perspective of influence and remember what the sequence of these things was.
SS: ... as far as influences.
RR: I think I can certainly speak in general terms about the fact that Varèse and Xenakis were of primary importance to me. Also Cage - and not only the ideas, but the sounds. Surely, the Sonatas and Interludes and Cartridge Music are I think a very, very powerful influence - in terms of staking out the terrain of the possible, and surely the Schoenberg Trio was there too.
I remember having a very odd, or what seemed odd at the moment, interaction with Gerhard the last day that he was at Tanglewood, and Charles Munch was rehearsing Rachmaninoff, I think perhaps the Variations on the Paganini theme -- and I know that Roberto could feel and see that I was really tugged at by the lyrical and harmonic aspect of that music. He launched into a diatribe against Rachmaninoff which was at that time quite astonishing to me - I couldn't imagine at the time what was going on. Of course, I realized later that he too was feeling the tug of that, and this was, from an intellectual point of view, intolerable - that somebody who was committed to Schoenberg and Webern, and so on, would be reacting to Rachmaninoff. So I think that the range of things that mean something to one can't really be organized chronologically because one can have heard these things and not noticed, at the time, consciously, but have picked up on it at a later stage, and so on. So I wish that I had, for my own purposes, a clearer sense of the order in which things struck me. I don't have that.
But as I said about the origins of a piece, the factors that come into the shaping of any individual work come, I suppose, from one's childhood, all the way up to the present. And that's part of what makes creative work such an extraordinarily rewarding thing. So I would mention, outside of composition itself, my first piano teacher, a man named Kenneth Aiken, who was very much a devotee of French music, he had played the first all-Debussy concerts in this country in Aeolian Hall in New York. He also taught us from the very beginning that you had to know the literature and the painting of the time in the culture of the composer. So when we studied Debussy's piano music we would also be looking at Utrillo, and Renoir, and Monet, and reading Baudelaire and Proust and so on. This was expected. The idea of music being a part of a fabric of creative investment in a culture was instilled in me from the very beginning by Aiken.
I've already mentioned Finney and Gerhard. I also think that the fact that my father was an architect, and that one of my earliest recollections was of him seated at the dining room table in our house, with a lamp, drawing plans was important. I later found, of course, partly as a result of my engineering education, that preparing a kind of architectural schematic for a piece was a very useful thing. I don't think it was only engineering and the experience of watching my father do this that made this happen, but I also had with my father the experience of seeing the drawings and then of going to the site as the building was being created and then seeing it afterwards, completed, and recognizing this "lineage" as it were - that buildings don't just happen, that they're conceived and they're conceived in accord with certain engineering and aesthetic and social conditions. And so the idea that a musical product would have a complex planning related to it came about, again, in very natural ways out of my environment.
SS: Could we back up just one second because there is a relationship here I would like you to explore if you can. I wanted to ask you just a little bit more about Xenakis anyway, but then you bring in the architecture, and it almost becomes as though I can't avoid this.
RR: Yes, sure.
SS: First of all with Xenakis, it's surely not strange, but he came out very early on against serialism, didn't he?
SS: I assume that does not have any effect on your relationship at all as far as appreciating each other's music.
RR: No. Iannis was/is, of course, also a composer who came out of, let's say, a "motley" set of circumstances; and he did not in fact settle on the idea of being a composer until he was, I suppose, in his thirties. It was certainly after he left Greece, after he finished studies at the Polytech, after he began working with Le Corbusier , that he actually discovered that music was a possible path for him. And he, of course, discovered that, in part, in view of the fact that his relationship with Le Corbusier, in his view, deteriorated. And he simply didn't want to be used. He felt in the case of the Pavilion for the Brussels World Fair in 1957 that he had in fact designed it and Le Corbusier was taking credit for it; he found that intolerable. He organized the other draftsmen working in the studio to walk out, as it were. He was then locked out. And I think during that period he said, well, if I can't do architecture, maybe I could do something else with my capacities to shape and plan.
SS: I hadn't heard about the lockout, but I certainly heard about ... the Le Corbusier incident comes out in Formalized Music - in the introduction, as I recall. Did Formalized Music as a text -- workbook -- affect you a great deal? You talk yourself from time to time about "outside time" considerations - which is a very Xenakian term.
RR: I think it's an important insight. Of course I read Formalized Music . And surely it had an impact. I think the main thing however, with regard to Xenakis, is his implacable commitment to certain forms of abstract process that are very powerful, and the fact that those processes, stochastic processes, are genuinely and intimately integrated into manifesting natural processes -- hail storms, the things he's mentioned. I think one hears that. So I am certainly attracted by his implacable force -- almost like a force of nature. I found his idea of the continuous variability of musical parameters, a graphic disposition - of pitch, of space, of dynamic considerations, of timbre - very interesting. I found his investment in electro-acoustic forms and computer music important. They're all kinds of things. But mainly I think it's the fact that his music, like Varèse's music, has a stamp of integrity that is breathtaking. Now it's only fair to say that both with Varèse, and more to the point with Xenakis, that integrity comes partially at the expense of breadth, and I remember a moment in Japan when Iannis and I were at a festival that our friend and colleague, Joji Yuasa organized, and the solo version of Transfigured Wind -- Transfigured Wind IV -- was played. I remember, afterward, Iannis coming up and looking at me with his one laser eye and saying, "That's a beautiful piece." He was not saying it admiringly; it was almost a competitive, an irritable judgment ... that there was beauty there.
SS: [laughter] ... how dare you?
RR: Well, there was beauty there, and it was something that he, of course, must have known was not in his cards.
It's always been important to me that there be a lyrical -- as I said about Roberto -- a vulnerability, an openness in the music. And I think part of what makes Xenakis' music so powerful and so irresistible to me is its implacability, its constraints. But I, on the other hand, miss the inability of that music to evolve in other ways. But it's a part of what it is, to go back to what Karen said in her introductory remarks. You can only change yourself and your work so far. Otherwise, it is, as I've said, a product of one's aesthetic sensibility - it's going to be what it's going to be.
SS: I'm afraid that I interrupted you again on influences, but I just wanted to make sure that we hit Xenakis, at least from my own standpoint. Formalized Music was very important to me.
RR: Well it's important also to indicate that the effect that anyone's work has on me is partly a function of knowing the person. Why is that? I guess that partly it's the fact that there is ... there is an aura of ... an extensible aura that one can feel in the work when you know the person that made it. And knowing really well people like Feldman and Cage and Xenakis and so on - even to a degree, Varèse - I know had an impact on how I heard their music. Because, for example, I know what dissatisfied them about their music. I know that they tried to do things sometimes that they couldn't do - that they regretted certain aspects of their life and their creative work.
SS: This comes under the category of "pieces I wish I hadn't written"? We don't need to get into that. [laughter]
RR: Since you mention it -- I realized that there are very few pieces that I've done -- now close to a hundred pieces - and there are very few of them that I would prefer didn't exist. And those which have that character, or have that stamp on them, have that stamp because a fabric of preparatory consistency and commitment was not there. They were proposed, lets say, quasi-artificially. Now this is in direct conflict with something else that I have already indicated, and that I will say later, which is that I believe technique ought to allow a composer to go anywhere and do anything any time. You've questioned my term "intent" - expressive intent ... I guess what it's about is ensuring that there is a deeply rooted consistency to what it is that leads to the act of composing a particular piece. I have no idea to what degree this applies to anybody else. All I really know about is myself, and I don't know so much about that either. But I think in regard to these "pieces I wish I hadn't written," they were pieces in which there was not a true motivation - there was not an "integrity of need" there to begin with. I performed the function but it wasn't genuine at the deepest level.
SS: I think that talking about the negative side of it, if you understand what I mean, goes a long way toward explaining the integrity issue which may be confusing to some people. What does integrity have to do with composing? I think you may be surprised [at that question], but a lot of people, especially laymen, will have difficulty understanding what ...
RR: Well the words that we were going to start out with at least are wholeness and coherence and consistency and integrity ...
SS: ... which we will get to quickly now ...
RR: ... and all that. I think it is important to be clear about the fact that when one is working on a piece, language and terminology are of absolutely no significance whatever. Maybe a title. Maybe a word for a process that one is involved in. That's another matter. We could talk about that. But terminology per se is only useful in one's intercourse with the world. And sometimes of course it can be very helpful. So there are, I think, two categories of terminology for me. There's terminology which I use in a relatively formal situation to draw attention to distinctions that I think are important. Then there's also terminology which, as it were, catches on in some way and becomes a part of, I think in a deep way, of the actual way I behave when I'm composing. At the beginning of my book, Form and Method, about composing music, I mention such ideas as wholeness and coherence and integrity. What I'm trying to do in using those words is to draw attention to the idea that we've already been exploring which is that a compositional investment is a total engagement and that it is not enough to have the intellect there without the emotive quality; it is not enough to have emotion or intuition there without the intellect. It's the balance between them. And, as we know, we look back in history can see that, let's say Schubert and Beethoven, who were at a certain moment almost compatriots, that the balance in those two composers of intellect and emotion or intuition is radically different. It does not necessarily mean that Schubert is better or worse than Beethoven. I think they're simply different. Beethoven for me is the composer - there are a lot of reasons for that, we could talk about it if it mattered. But I think that that issue of that balance [between intellect and intuition] is a thing which we try to control, but not everybody, I think, successfully does. But it all has to be there. ... I've lost my track.
SS: We started to talk about influences ...
RR: I found it. The reason I went back there was that those words are used in order to insist on the fact that a piece of music is not to be valued fully if it is only a product of the intellect or if it is only a manifestation of intuitive fancy, because for me I would like, in talking to students, to press this issue in a specific way by separating those two and saying, ok, you have to have the integrity of the intellect. In other words the premises of the piece have to make logical sense, and what you frequently find in the work of a younger composer is that he or she will have several principles at work, and if you look carefully at them you'll see that they're in conflict with each other, and that the music that results doesn't in fact reflect either of the factors that they believe are driving their music; it's simply not true. So integrity involves keeping the books well, and what I call coherence has to do with the idea that there should be an emotive and expressive and narrative consistency to the piece. That doesn't mean a dull and narrowly band passed one, but it should be plausible - the flow of feeling associated with the piece. I don't ever think about those words when I'm composing, but their implications are, in part, ingrained in me for everything that I do. So those terms come about when I'm trying to insist to a younger person or to an audience on the importance of this full range -- full bandwidth shall we say -- of investment.
Now another term, though, "impetus," is one that I used originally in a series of lectures I gave at the Peabody Institute, and the idea was that, ideally, there should be something at the beginning of the work which serves as a genetic seed out of which the work springs. Now I described this in various ways in various publications and on various occasions, but basically an impetus, obviously, from the dictionary, propels something, ignites something, sets something in motion. And what I feel is that an ideal impetus should indicate to you how the thing should evolve - what the process of growth or evolution should be in the project. But it should at the same time provide a global normative or consistency within which choices are shaped and made. So in other words, an ideal impetus both drives the development of the work and contains its potential.
Now why would an impetus be particularly useful now, and would this always have been the case? The reason that I find it such a valuable idea now is that we are in this inchoate context. And, as I've already said, my project as a composer, to the degree that I need to explain this to anyone else, is to create a tool kit, a set of normative behaviors,which shape my choices and actions in such a way that I know that whatever I am doing intuitively is already assured to be a part of this larger order. So it's a substitute history, it's a local consistency, which I try to build and which I believe establishes the potential of a deeper more allusive and rich fabric of experience. That seems to me self-evident. The idea of impetus is in a way a convenient and seminal distillation of that larger idea, that larger principle, that something should drive the growth; and the impetus at every moment says: Wait a minute - Does this fit? -- Is this a part of the situation? And what's valuable about an impetus -- if it has a meaning or existence that is external to the music -- what's valuable is that you can go back to it when you're stuck. At a moment when things aren't going well you can go back to this thing and consider: What's it telling me now about the issue that is preventing me from going forward?
I'll give you an example of an impetus in an ideal way- also referring back to Takemitsu - he created as a part of his generosity in Japan a series of occasions, Suntory Hall's International Program, and each year he invited two composers, I think, each of whom organized a program of music that had been important to their development, and also music that they thought would be important in the future, and a commissioned work. So I did a piece called Symphony[Myths], and Symphony[Myths] came out of a very striking rock formation on the coast of Japan called futami ga ura ...
SS: ... the married rocks, I think?
RR: ... right, the married rocks. And there are two. There's a larger and smaller rock and they are joined in fact by a very large woven rope and this has both Shinto and folk significance. It's a very striking image. I saw it first when we originally visited Japan in 1966. I noticed, while working on the materials for Archipelago  to send to the Library, a drawing of this rock formation. This was 1981, and I thought: Oh, it's in the wrong pile, this belongs with Symphony[Myths]. No. I was thinking in Archipelago, of course about Japan, and that thing which I'd seen in 1966. It isn't as though I wrote down, "Must remember this." It just hit me. And it's iconic - as a shape. I could go into all the details of it, but it's not necessary. The basic idea is: it's a real, phenomenal thing, in the ocean, just off the shore of Japan - two rocks joined together - there's a shape, there's an aura, there's a context. And so when I was working on Archipelago I drew that in a note. Nothing came of it then.
I think actually Symphony[Myths] was from ... the early nineties? Anyway the point is, some years later, that I actually again returned to that image, and the design of the new piece is indebted to it. So even, for example, the fact that I happened to read that one of the rocks was thirteen meters tall and the other was nine meters tall - 13 and 9 became elements in the piece. There was also another part of the futami ga ura rock formation, what is called kami ishi or "spirit rock" of the Japanese progenitoress Amaterasu, that is often under the water if the tides are right, but sometimes pokes up.
So there were three. I have three movements - a big movement, another large movement, then an intermezzo in the middle - so everything that I needed to know in order to write this piece was contained in either the explicit image itself or in measurements made on it. How many are there? How big are they? What's their relationship? And so on. And so when I was composing, not only the idea of threeness, and a large-small-medium, of a connecting rope between them and so on ... not only were those there, but the whole experience, the things that I had read about the significance of the folk background, and so on. To me this is an ideal kind of circumstance. Am I in some way writing program music? I don't think so. I mean, this is not a "domestic symphony." I'm not explaining the love relationship between the brother and sister and so on.
I use the word "manifest" ... I'm in a certain sense manifesting this circumstance; and, for me, if I were to have been so fortunate as to live in a common practice period in western musical history, then these matters would be far less important. We still know surely that, to take Beethoven, circumstances in his world propelled him in certain directions with regard to his creative commitments. This has always been the case. But I think in our time, for me, these potentially formative aspects are far, far more important. So when I used "impetus" in speaking to students of the Peabody Conservatory , I wasn't thinking of it so much then as I do now as something that I attend to in every piece. What is this piece coming out of? What is the reference that I can use? Of course, sometimes that's a musical source. But often not, because it connects me to considerations that exist in the world at large.
SS: I get the feeling, but I don't know if you do because you have much more contact with other composers, and younger composers especially, than I do, but that this is something that - I can't say it's across the board, of course - but it's very important to many composers today. They may not describe it the way that you do, but they have something like this that they go through.
RR: Well, anybody that studies with me is going to tend to have this because I harp on it all the time - "What is this about?" And of course I don't mean, "What does this represent?" I mean, "What is the nature of your engagement? In what way do I know that this matters to you, that it really matters to you."
SS: Does that question confuse them the first time you ask them?
RR: I don't know if it confuses them, but it certainly troubles them because it's not a question that they get asked very often. Anyway ... What are the other terms you wanted to discuss?
SS: Well ... let's see, we've talked about the impetus ... There is a trio of terms that you use that I think is absolutely essential: form, method and material. And I would say that that probably has followed you throughout your life in one way or another.
RR: Definitely. And I guess for me, obviously, form first of all is the large shape - the description of the whole. And, of course - I say "of course," but it's not necessarily "of course" - what I really mean when I speak of form is two things. One thing is the structure of the stimulus which is to say the structure of the piece itself. And the other aspect of form is: what occurs for you as a listener when you experience the piece? And I say this because the structure of a form is normally thought of in fairly objective terms. How many bars of this? How many bars of that? You know, etc., etc. It's quantified. But I think that for us the experience of a piece of music, just like the experience of a day or a year, is not quantifiable in that way, because we are led to react in variegated ways depending not only upon the piece itself but upon our relationship to the piece - what we bring to it and how our experience shifts over the course of the piece. And so for me form involves not only thinking about what am I using to provoke or reward or stimulate or confront a listener, but how is it likely that they're going to experience that, and what adjustments do I need to make to optimize the relationship between what I am positing and what they are likely to respond with. And of course this does not mean that I use music as a sort of mouthpiece to lecture to people. Quite the contrary, I'm much more interested in the idea that a piece is an occasion for experience and that that experience may vary rather widely. It's just that I don't want the music to mislead. So form is the large goal, it describes both what it is that I am doing in order to bring something about and what I imagine will come out of the experience.
So then if you think of material, material consists in the small elements that one uses at the beginning to start to build the form. And these elements can be, of course, sounds, but they can also be ideas or impressions such as the impetus that I mentioned. They can be proportional relationships; they can also be, let's say, an array of gestures of one sort or another. Material can be paintings; it can be lines of poetry, text. Material for me is anything that arouses a musical impulse; arouses a need to act musically. And so material is something which has various levels of completeness. If material were a poem, for example, then the poem is presumably complete even though I may not use all of it. If we're talking about a row, well, a row is a certain aggregation of intervallic relationships. If we're talking about proportions, let say in Symphony[Myths], of thirteen-to-nine-to- ... some other number, some very small number, all of these things are objectifiable. And you mentioned earlier Xenakis' term "outside time." Some of what I consider material is a kind of objectifiable resource - it's a set of objects, and those objects are not already imbedded in a music. They are, let's say, in terms of a row, a series of intervals; in terms of time, a collection of numbers which, if ordered, are proportional, but if not ordered, represent a repertoire from which I can take. I can have a "one," I can have an "eleven," I can have a "twenty four," but I can't have a "twenty-two" -- so if I want a "twenty two" I use two "elevens." But the point is that there will be some relatively small number of factors, of elements out of which the whole is supposed to come. And if that set of elements is too large, then I'm at a loss -- if it's too small, I'm helpless. It has to be the right sort of collection of things and it has to be suited to the project.
So I have these sounds, these numbers, these pitches, these lines of poetry, photographs -- whatever, paintings -- and I want to get to the form. What method is, for me, is the process that connects the small things to the large intent, the formal goal. And the methods are, again, widely variable as to their nature. Some may seem, certainly to the observer, to be rather rigorous and perhaps even off-putting in their "abstractness." But, you see, they're not, for me, the content of the piece. The content of the piece is the material and the formal realization to which the material is put. The methodology, the connective web that is woven out of those small things in order to reach the large thing - it's a less essential, a less meaningful part of the whole process. To me, if you had no method then the situation would be similar to [the following:] if you had a book which had no sentences, no paragraphs, no sections, no chapters, but just ran on with words - would you have a form? Probably not. I think form requires articulation. And it requires that you have a relative .... When you say you listened to Transfigured Wind and you heard a harmonic consistency - well, you have to hear, or experience a relative consistency on all levels. You have to have a timbric consistency, you have to have temporal consistency, you have to have a narrative-dramatic consistency. And that doesn't mean, of course - I'm using the word "consistency" - it doesn't mean something dull and predictable and ordinary. It can range widely. There can be extraordinary blow-outs of one sort or another, but if they are part of, somehow ... if they're plausible in the whole design - and that's my job - then in the end the whole thing will work, and you will come out of it with a feeling that there was a consistency. So the relationship between form, method and material is not something that, again, I think about a great deal when I'm composing, but it is built into the way I prepare for any compositional project. Maybe the impetus is actually a part of material in a way. But, you see, it is also a part of form because it tells me about where I'm going, and I try to use this overall idea of material, method, and form to help me prepare to actually start writing notes.
Now one of the terms, as you know, which has been frequently used in the second half of the Twentieth Century, is "pre-compositional." That's always struck me as a really bizarre idea which no real composer would ever have thought of saying. Because how could I say (especially me in terms of our discussion today), how could I actually ever say when something started? When did Ambages actually start? Not in 1965, that's certain. It started somewhere, but where are the origins? I couldn't say. But the responsibility that I have is to detect which of these small and yet unformed things that I can find or posit are likely to lead me to where I want to go. So I come to a body of material. And the important thing, as I mentioned before, is that it is not already embedded, it is not already committed to a larger purpose. That's why I can take elements from Ambages and stick them into Transfigured Wind. I can do it because there is a consistency in my aesthetic sensibility, and my job in the end is to take up these small things which seem to belong to the place I am, and that seem to be consistent (in some way that I don't quite understand) with where I intend to go. So as long as they're not so "large" that they already fix too much, I can use them. And those things can be as small as a set of numbers or proportions. I think in the case of Ambages it was ... the ratio of three-to-five?
SS: I think it was.
RR: Or they can be more complex such as the actual passages from Ambages which are put into Transfigured Wind. But the important thing is that the material in and of itself is provocative - as sound, as idea, as implication - and that it is not pre-formed so much that it can't be bent to the purposes of the larger formal intention. Methodology is what helps to build all the intermediate organizational patterning. And when I made the earlier reference to literature, here is one of the things that I find sometimes rather problematic about more experimental literature: it does away with so many of these tethering, intermediate levels of organization that, from my perspective, rather than freeing me for a richer experience, it impoverishes me because it gives me a task which is unmanageable.
SS: As a reader, you mean.
RR: Yes. So I don't know if you have other questions about that, but at the very beginning of any piece, I know ... I actually draw out the form; and I draw it out first of all in a very informal, sketchy way in my notebook. Then I consider it in accord with all the other known factors, and little by little this form becomes more and more and more explicit; and it gets to the point, at the end, where it's a diagrammatic, proportionally precise laying out of, shall we say, the prospects that are open to me and the obligations which I'm accepting.
SS: From that point the proportional diagram doesn't change too much I assume.
RR: No. Right.
SS: I assume that you can make small adjustments that are necessary, but ...
RR: Well, I don't - usually. And here's the reason. If you take on a responsibility, what you are doing - as with the row, and in this sense I really am a serialist - if you take on a responsibility you benefit from the fact that that set of obligations resists your will, because that means what comes out will be shaped to some degree. But if you say, I'll use you when you're convenient and I'll disregard you when it's less convenient, then in the end you're going to get a situation such as I mentioned with the young composers who are using conflicting strategies. I think you've got to be willing to accept the circumstances and the limitations that you adopt fully.
When I'm composing a piece, and I've once established the proportional design, which is quite intricate in some cases - it's really extremely intricate in detail down to the second or numbers of seconds for a piece that is 45 minutes long - it's all there. Now what is "there"? That's as I said for me, I have practiced this a lot. So it's not that I just simply decided one day that I was going to create these intricate designs and that I could make music with them. Not at all. This is something that I came to little by little over years and years and years and years. Now if you think of film composition, the composer is asked, in essence, to write thirteen seconds of music that is this, and then 6.5 seconds, and then 24.3 seconds of something else. They don't think anything of this task - they do it. I have learned over the years how to shape my musical thinking, my musical materials and methods, such that this kind of designing is not a problem for me at all.
So when you ask do I manipulate the formal plan or edit it, it does happen but normally not. What does happen, however, is that the design only gives me the provocation - that aspect of the form. Articulating the form, so that it works as experience, may require fermatas, commas, tempo changes, ritards and accelerations - all of which go in "after the fact." Of course, I try to foresee the meaning of segments in a design very precisely. I would be the last one to claim that when I hear a newly composed piece of music I already know what it's going to sound like or feel like - I don't. I have a strong sense of probability, but the experience of music, thank God, is always other than what one abstractly imagines, and frequently on the good side.
SS: I've gotten a sense from you before that, as a composer, you feel more like a discoverer. Is that accurate?
RR: Well that's what I'm interested in. Right, I'm interested in getting places that I haven't already been.
SS: Once you have the form-diagram in front of you, and your basic proportions are set at this point, then it appears to me that we get into formal strategies then.
SS: That's probably what a lot of theorists pick up on in composers' works, and probably give it a little bit too much meaning. But it's nevertheless important to what you do, and I get the feeling from looking at your material that you have a great deal of fun at this stage.
RR: Oh, yes. But it's fun at all stages.
SS: Yes, but in a different way.
RR: But, Steve, when I invoked the word "pre-composition" what I was inveighing against was the idea that anything in any compositional project can be "pre." It's all composing. That's composing: making the design, the formal design, is composing. There's just no question about that to me because while I'm making the design I'm thinking about the impetus, I'm thinking about the row, I'm thinking about the harmonic materials that I can get out of the row; I'm thinking about the small numerical proportions; I'm thinking about instrumentation, about the dramatic flow, about the expressive intent of the whole thing, what I want to end up with the listener feeling at the end of it. This is all there all the time. And what I'm trying to do in making the design - the formal design, what I call the overall plan - is to provide a reliable framework within which I can invent in a much more intuitive and relaxed way. So the whole thing is about feeling that, when I'm actually in the process of composing, I am as close to the music as I can possibly be and that the things that I'm doing are already, to a great degree of probability, going to work, going to fit.
SS: When you took the material from Ambages - one of the things that I noted in the Ambages material in several of the scores now at the Library - you marked off certain portions or segments of the music which later became TW solos. Do you recall when you were starting on Transfigured Wind what criteria you used, or what was going through your mind intuitively that caused you to choose one particular passage out of Ambages rather than another. It's segmented basically ....
RR: Yes. As I said, I had to choose sections or segments from Ambages which were characteristic but were not so extensive that they tended to predispose or to ... no predisposing is okay ... rather, segments not so extensive that they tended to constrain what I could do as a composer in writing the new material. I knew that to begin Transfigured Wind, what I was going to do was to write a series of solo statements that were going to get longer in a specific proportion that had already been prepared. So there will be solos - one, two, three, four. I knew that solo one would be shortest, solo two would be longer, solo three would be yet longer, solo four would be longest. I also knew that four, even though it was the longest, would not end the piece. These are the kinds of considerations I'm talking about when I say "planning" because I knew that the whole form of the piece required the idea that the ensemble would respond to the fourth solo. So the fourth solo is not going to end the piece. That's an important thing for me to know.
Each of the four sections has to be thought of as a provocation, and the provocation has to evolve in some way. It - the flute solo - needs to raise new issues at each appearance. So it is likely that the first provocation is going to be quite elemental and iconic. It's starting what I already knew was going to be more than a 30-minute long piece. The last one, since it is the last formal word that the soloist has, is likely to be integrative of what has preceded. And so I know a few things. I know that the second one is probably going to be something that is more ... it can't be iconic any longer in the way that the first was. The second one has got to show the listeners - show me - something about how material is going to be handled, how ideas are going to play out. So the first solo posits something, the second begins to say, "and let's take one of these things ... how will it spin out, how is this going to be shaped?" - the third one will have some other character - the fourth one will somehow bring all of this back in a new way, but not tie up the details. I know that it is not going to end the piece so it doesn't have that responsibility. So then I look at Ambages and I say, what are the elements from this that I might be able to incorporate into these general ideas that I've already posited in my formal plan? I don't know this for sure, but I would bet that there is nothing in the first segment that comes from Ambages. I imagine that the things that come from Ambages are only in the second, third and fourth solos. We will check that out . Basically, the idea is, in any case, that segments selected from Ambages were seen as plausible components to the music that was not yet in existence but which I knew I was going to write, and also to the purposes I knew it was going to address.