Cover Letter Composer Rorem

Today’s Wiki-est Amazonian Googlies

Across

6. “__, all ye faithful … ” : O COME

The lovely Christmas hymn “Adeste Fideles” (entitleD “O Come, All Ye Faithful” in English) was written by one John Francis Wade in the 13th century. Well, he wrote the original four verses, with four more verses being added over time. A kind blog reader pointed out to me that the English translation is in fact a little “off”. The term “adeste” best translates from Latin as “be present, attend”, rather that “come”. The verb “come” appears later in the lyrics in “venite adoremus”, meaning “come, let us worship”.

14. Companion of reduce and recycle : REUSE

The so called “waste hierarchy” can be restated as the three Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. The preferences are in order:

  1. Reduce consumption
  2. Reuse manufactured products
  3. Recycle raw materials

16. Composer Rorem : NED

American composer Ned Rorem is famous for his musical compositions, but also for his book “Paris Diary of Ned Rorem” that was published in 1966. Rorem talks openly about his sexuality in the book, and also about the sexual orientation of others including Noël Coward, Leonard Bernstein and Samuel Barber, much to some people’s chagrin.

17. Music medium that succeeded the cassette tape : COMPACT DISC (giving “C, D”)

The compact disc was developed jointly by Philips and Sony as a medium for storing and playing sound recordings. When the first commercial CD was introduced back in 1982, a CD’s storage capacity was far greater than the amount of data that could be stored on the hard drive of personal computers available at that time.

19. Martini liquor : GIN

The term “martini” probably takes it name from the “Martini & Rossi” brand of dry vermouth, although no one seems to be completely sure. What is clear is that despite the Martini name originating in Italy, the martini drink originated in the US. The original martini was made with gin and sweet vermouth, but someone specifying a “dry” martini was given gin and dry vermouth. Nowadays we use dry vermouth for all martinis and the term “dry” has become a reference to how little vermouth is included in the drink. Famously, Noël Coward liked his drink very dry and said that a perfect martini is made by “filling a glass with gin then waving it in the general direction of Italy”. The German-American journalist and satirist H. L. Mencken referred to the martini as “the only American invention as perfect as a sonnet”.

20. Confer knighthood on : DUB

Kneel, and a monarch might “dub thee a knight” if you’re lucky. “Dub” is a specific term derived from Old English that was used to mean “make a knight”. As the knight was also given a knightly name at the same time, “dub” has come to mean “give someone a name”.

21. Camping gear retailer : REI

REI is a sporting goods store, with the initialism standing for Recreational Equipment Inc. REI was founded in Seattle by Lloyd and Mary Anderson in 1938 as a cooperative that supplies quality climbing gear to outdoor enthusiasts. The first full-time employee hired by the Andersons was Jim Whittaker, who was the first American to climb Mount Everest.

22. Verdi creation : OPERA

Giuseppe Verdi was an Italian composer, mainly of operas, who was active during the Romantic era. Equally as famous as Verdi’s operas, are arias from those operas such as “La donna è mobile” from “Rigoletto”, “The Drinking Song” from “La Traviata” and “The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” from “Nabucco”.

24. Music legend known as the First Lady of Song : ELLA FITZGERALD (giving “E, F”)

Ella Fitzgerald, the “First Lady of Song”, had a hard and tough upbringing. She was raised by her mother alone in Yonkers, New York. Her mother died while Ella was still a schoolgirl, and around that time the young girl became less interested in her education. She fell in with a bad crowd, even working as a lookout for a bordello and as a Mafia numbers runner. She ended up in reform school, from which she escaped, and found herself homeless and living on the streets for a while. Somehow Fitzgerald managed to get herself a spot singing in the Apollo Theater in Harlem. From there her career took off and as they say, the rest is history.

29. Yale grads : ELIS

Elihu Yale was a wealthy merchant born in Boston in 1649. Yale worked for the British East India Company, and for many years served as governor of a settlement at Madras (now Chennai) in India. After India, Yale took over his father’s estate near Wrexham in Wales. It was while resident in Wrexham that Yale responded to a request for financial support for the Collegiate School of Connecticut in 1701. He sent the school a donation, which was used to erect a new building in New Haven that was named “Yale” in his honor. In 1718, the whole school was renamed to “Yale College”. To this day, students of Yale are nicknamed “Elis”, again honoring Elihu.

31. Gelatin dish : ASPIC

Aspic is a dish in which the main ingredients are served in a gelatin made from meat stock. “Aspic” is a French word meaning “jelly”.

Gelatin is a foodstuff that is used as a gelling agent in cooking, and for the shells of pharmaceutical capsules. Over 800 million pounds of gelatin are produced every year worldwide. It is produced from by-products of the meat and leather industries. Gelatin is basically modified collagen derived from pork skins and the bones of cattle, pigs and horses. So, vegans usually avoid things like gummy bears and marshmallows.

33. Lucy’s old sitcom partner : DESI

Desi Arnaz was famous for his turbulent marriage to Lucille Ball. Arnaz was a native of Cuba, and was from a privileged family. His father was Mayor of Santiago and served in the Cuban House of Representatives. However, the family had to flee to Miami after the 1933 revolt led by Batista.

38. Equipment for rock bands : GUITAR AMPLIFIER (giving “G, A”)

An electric guitar, for example, needs an amplifier (amp) to take the weak signal created by the vibration of the strings and turn it into a signal powerful enough for a loudspeaker.

43. Grandson of Adam : ENOS

Enos was the son of Seth, and therefore the grandson of Adam and Eve. According to the ancient Jewish work called the Book of Jubilees, Enos married his own sister Noam.

45. Test for an aspiring atty. : LSAT

Law School Admission Test (LSAT)

47. Anti-fur-farming org. : PETA

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) is a very large animal rights organization, with 300 employees and two million members and supporters worldwide. Although the group campaigns for animal rights across a broad spectrum of issues, it has a stated focus in opposition of four practices:

  • Factory farming
  • Fur farming
  • Animal testing
  • Use of animals in entertainment

48. Lennon-McCartney collection whose publishing rights were once owned by Michael Jackson : BEATLES CATALOG (giving “B, C”)

Songs written by the partnership of John Lennon and Paul McCartney were owned by Northern Songs Ltd., a company founded in 1963 in which Lennon and McCartney had a substantial, but not controlling, interest. The two songwriters (and later Lennon’s widow) tried over the years to gain full control over the Beatles catalogue, but failed. Famously, Michael Jackson purchased the company that owned the Beatles’ songs in 1985, for almost 25 million pounds sterling. The man who sold Jackson the catalogue was Australian entrepreneur and corporate raider Robert Holmes à Court. Interestingly, Jackson picked up the rights to all of the Lennon-McCartney songs except “Penny Lane”. Holmes à Court kept that song for his 16-year-old daughter as it was her favorite. Catherine Holmes à Court-Mather still owns that song today.

54. South Beach city : MIAMI

South Beach is a neighborhood in Miami Beach, Florida that is often referred to by the nickname “SoBe”. SoBe is known for its active and vibrant LGBT community. The title of marvelous 1996 film “The Birdcage” refers to a fictional Birdcage drag nightclub located in South Beach.

55. __ Baba : ALI

There is some controversy about the story “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” in that it has been suggested it was not part of the original collection of Arabic tales called “One Thousand and One Nights”. The suggestion is that the Ali Baba tale was added by one of the European translators of the collection.

56. Michelle of the LPGA : WIE

Michelle Wie is an American golfer on the LPGA Tour. Wie began playing golf at the age of four and was the youngest player ever to qualify for an LPGA tour event. She turned pro just before her 16th birthday …

57. Bath’s land: Abbr. : ENG

Bath is a beautiful city in South West England of which I have very fond memories. Bath is an old Roman spa town, and the city’s name comes from the Roman baths that have been excavated and restored.

58. When strung together, musical sequence represented by the initials of 17-, 24-, 38- and 48-Across : C MAJOR SCALE

C major is a key signature that is commonly used in western music. The C major scale might be described as the “simplest” of scales in that its pitches (C, D, E, F, G, A, and B) include neither flats nor sharps.

64. Gold purity unit : KARAT

A karat (also “carat”, the spelling outside of North America) is a measure of the purity of gold alloys, with 24-karat representing pure gold.

68. Stockholm native : SWEDE

Stockholm is the capital of Sweden and most populous city in the country. Over one fifth of all Swedish residents live in Stockholm.

Down

1. Paris’ __ Triomphe : ARC DE

L’Arc de Triomphe de l’Etoile in Paris was built to honor those who fought for France, particularly during the Napoleonic Wars. It is the second largest triumphal arch in the world, after the Arch of Triumph in Pyongyang, North Korea. If you are visiting Paris, don’t just take a picture of the arch, be sure to go inside and see the marvelous chambers and carvings, and wander around on top of the arch so that you can enjoy the magnificent view.

2. South Korean capital : SEOUL

Seoul is the capital city of South Korea. The Seoul National Capital Area is home to over 25 million people and is the second largest metropolitan area in the world, second only to Tokyo, Japan.

3. Comeuppance that’s “eaten” : HUMBLE PIE

The phrase “humble pie” derives from a medieval meat dish called “umble pie”. The filling in umble pie usually contained the offal (heart, liver, lungs and kidneys) of deer. The name “umble” came from the French “nomble” meaning “deer’s innards”.

4. Seer’s claim : ESP

Extrasensory perception (ESP)

7. Spanish port city : CADIZ

Cádiz is a port city in southwestern Spain, in the autonomous community of Andalusia. Cádiz is a remarkable city geographically in that it sits on a thin spit of land that juts out into the sea.

8. __-Wan Kenobi : OBI

Obi-Wan Kenobi is one of the more beloved of the “Star Wars” characters. Kenobi was portrayed by two fabulous actors in the series of films. As a young man he is played by Scottish actor Ewan McGregor, and as an older man he is played by Alec Guinness.

10. “Play more music!” : ENCORE!

“Encore” is French for “again, one more time”, and is a shout that an audience member will make here in North America to request another song, say. But, the term is not used this way in France. Rather, the audience will shout “Bis!”, which is the Italian for “twice!”

13. Flamboyant Dame : EDNA

Dame Edna Everage is the outrageous character created and played by Australian comedian Barry Humphries. I saw him/her perform live in a San Francisco theater, and what a great show it was …

18. NFL sportscaster Collinsworth : CRIS

Cris Collinsworth is a sportscaster for several broadcasting organizations. Collinsworth played as a wide receiver in the NFL for eight seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals.

26. Pay stub acronym : FICA

The Federal Insurance Contributions Act tax (FICA) was introduced in the 1930s as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. FICA payments are made by both employees and employers in order to fund Social Security and Medicare.

32. Daylight provider : SUN

Our sun is a sphere of hot plasma that forms the center of our solar system. The Sun’s mass has two main components, with almost three quarters made up by hydrogen, and a quarter by helium. The continual nuclear fusion reaction in the Sun’s core converts hydrogen into helium, and generates a lot of energy. We should all be pretty grateful to the Sun for generating that energy …

33. “Divine Comedy” poet : DANTE

Dante Alighieri’s “Divine Comedy” is an epic poem dating back to the 14th century. The first part of that epic is “Inferno”, which is the Italian word for “Hell”. In the poem, Dante is led on a journey by the poet Virgil, starting at the gates of Hell on which are written the famous words “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”.

34. Revealing rock genre : EMO

The emo musical genre originated in Washington D.C. in the 80s, and takes its name from “emotional hardcore”. “Emo” is also the name given to the associated subculture. Not my cup of tea …

37. Surgery ctrs. : ORS

Surgery (surg.) is usually performed in an operating room (OR).

40. “Law & Order: SVU” actor : ICE-T

Rapper Ice-T must be sick of having his name come up as an answer in crossword puzzles (I know I am!). Ice-T has been interested in acting for decades and made his film debut in the 1984 movie about breakdancing called “Breakin’”. He has also played Detective Fin Tutuola in the TV show “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” since the year 2000.

41. Greek cheese : FETA

Feta is a Greek cheese made from sheep’s milk, or a mixture of sheep’s and goat’s milk. The cheese is salted and cured in a brine solution for several months before it is eaten.

45. Go on the __: skip town : LAM

To be on the lam is to be in flight, to have escaped from prison. “On the lam” is American slang that originated at the end of the 19th century. The word “lam” also means to “beat” or “thrash”, as in “lambaste”. So “on the lam” might derive from the phrase “to beat it, to scram”.

47. Au __: live-in nanny : PAIR

An au pair is a domestic assistant from a foreign country working and living as part of a host family. The term “au pair” is French, and means “on a par”, indicating that an au pair is treated as an equal in the host family.

50. “Wheel of Fortune” host : SAJAK

Pat Sajak took over the hosting of “Wheel of Fortune” from Chuck Woolery back in 1983 and has been doing the job ever since. Sajak had a short run as a talk show host in 1989/1990 and used to sub quite often for Larry King and Regis Philbin.

53. Birds in a gaggle : GEESE

A collection of geese is referred to as a “gaggle” when on the ground. When geese are in V-formation in flight, they are referred to collectively as a “skein”.

59. Sassy West : MAE

Comic actress Mae West can be quoted so easily, as she had so many great lines delivered so well. Here are a few:

  • When I’m good, I’m very good. When I’m bad, I’m better.
  • When choosing between two evils, I always like to try the one I’ve never tried before.
  • I’ll try anything once, twice if I like it, three times to make sure.
  • Marriage is a great institution, but I’m not ready for an institution yet.
  • I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.
  • Why don’t you come on up and see me sometime — when I’ve got nothin’ on but the radio.
  • It’s better to be looked over than overlooked.
  • To err is human, but it feels divine.
  • I like my clothes to be tight enough to show I’m a woman, but loose enough to show I’m a lady.
  • I never worry about diets. The only carrots that interest me are the number you get in a diamond.
  • Is that a gun in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?

60. “Roses __ red” : ARE

As little kids we used to taunt each other with:

Roses are red
Violets are blue
God made me beautiful
What happened to you?

We weren’t very nice …

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Complete List of Clues/Answers

Across

1. Fire remnants : ASHES
6. “__, all ye faithful … ” : O COME
11. Dazzle : AWE
14. Companion of reduce and recycle : REUSE
15. Log dwelling : CABIN
16. Composer Rorem : NED
17. Music medium that succeeded the cassette tape : COMPACT DISC (giving “C, D”)
19. Martini liquor : GIN
20. Confer knighthood on : DUB
21. Camping gear retailer : REI
22. Verdi creation : OPERA
24. Music legend known as the First Lady of Song : ELLA FITZGERALD (giving “E, F”)
29. Yale grads : ELIS
30. State strongly : AVER
31. Gelatin dish : ASPIC
33. Lucy’s old sitcom partner : DESI
35. 42-Across doubled : TWO
38. Equipment for rock bands : GUITAR AMPLIFIER (giving “G, A”)
42. 35-Across halved : ONE
43. Grandson of Adam : ENOS
44. Formally gives up : CEDES
45. Test for an aspiring atty. : LSAT
47. Anti-fur-farming org. : PETA
48. Lennon-McCartney collection whose publishing rights were once owned by Michael Jackson : BEATLES CATALOG (giving “B, C”)
54. South Beach city : MIAMI
55. __ Baba : ALI
56. Michelle of the LPGA : WIE
57. Bath’s land: Abbr. : ENG
58. When strung together, musical sequence represented by the initials of 17-, 24-, 38- and 48-Across : C MAJOR SCALE
63. Birthday count : AGE
64. Gold purity unit : KARAT
65. Lives like a nomad : ROVES
66. Partner of neither : NOR
67. Searches for : SEEKS
68. Stockholm native : SWEDE

Down

1. Paris’ __ Triomphe : ARC DE
2. South Korean capital : SEOUL
3. Comeuppance that’s “eaten” : HUMBLE PIE
4. Seer’s claim : ESP
5. Watery expanse : SEA
6. Group of eight : OCTET
7. Spanish port city : CADIZ
8. __-Wan Kenobi : OBI
9. Prefix with spell : MIS-
10. “Play more music!” : ENCORE!
11. Heavenly being : ANGEL
12. Really out there : WEIRD
13. Flamboyant Dame : EDNA
18. NFL sportscaster Collinsworth : CRIS
23. Golf course standard : PAR
25. Came down to earth : ALIT
26. Pay stub acronym : FICA
27. Surprised sounds : GASPS
28. Rotten to the core : EVIL
31. Before now : AGO
32. Daylight provider : SUN
33. “Divine Comedy” poet : DANTE
34. Revealing rock genre : EMO
35. Coastal flooding cause : TIDAL WAVE
36. Tiny : WEE
37. Surgery ctrs. : ORS
39. Genuine : REAL
40. “Law & Order: SVU” actor : ICE-T
41. Greek cheese : FETA
45. Go on the __: skip town : LAM
46. Hangs (around) : STICKS
47. Au __: live-in nanny : PAIR
48. “You got it!” : BINGO!
49. Raring to go : EAGER
50. “Wheel of Fortune” host : SAJAK
51. Coagulates : CLOTS
52. Quieted, as noisy hinges : OILED
53. Birds in a gaggle : GEESE
54. Not at all nice : MEAN
59. Sassy West : MAE
60. “Roses __ red” : ARE
61. H.S. grads-to-be : SRS
62. Dairy farm animal : COW

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March 13, 2006—3:00 p.m.

Edited and transcribed by
Frank J. Oteri and Anna Reguero

Video presentation by
Randy Nordschow

For years I’ve been simultaneously eager and reluctant to speak to Ned Rorem. I’ve always been somewhat intimidated by him. And it’s not just because of his celebrated propensity for biting comments.

For people who are equally drawn to composing music and writing words, there are very few role models: Paul Bowles, Anthony Burgess, John Cage, perhaps a handful of others, and Ned Rorem. While he’s most frequently praised for his gifts as a composer of art songs, he has been an equally prolific composer of instrumental music from string quartets to symphonies and a remarkable collection of concertos for various instruments which redefine concerto form. As an author, he is always engaging and immediate. Words seem to flow effortlessly from him. Not just in his famously candid diaries, but also in his many provocative essays about music.

I’ve met him numerous times at various premieres and receptions over the years, each time reintroducing myself and seeing if our brief conversations could eventually lead to a more substantive one on videotape that could appear in NewMusicBox. At some point, I had almost given up hope that it would ever happen. Then Ned Rorem’s opera Our Town received its world premiere performances in Bloomington, Indiana, to seeming universal acclaim. (Our Town will be presented this summer by the Lake George Opera—July 1, 5, and 9—and at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House—July 31 and August 2.) Rorem has been at the top of his form and perhaps more approachable than ever before as a result. So I gave it a try.

I spent about an hour talking with Rorem about his recent triumphs, as well as some of his lifelong aesthetic concerns—creating viable vocal music sung in English, the meaning of music, tonality. Inevitably, some of his biting comments found their way into our talk—fans of Bob Dylan or Oprah beware. But I left unscathed and perhaps an even bigger fan than I had ever been.

—FJO

***

Frank J. Oteri: Even though so much of your writing concerns music, you’ve written so many books and have given so many talks that the manipulation of language has taken on its own separate career for you, separate and apart from being a composer.

Ned Rorem: I’ve been a composer all my life; I have also written several things. Europeans are much less specialized than Americans; partly because they have to earn a living. A doctor will treat your scalp as well as your corns or your liver. But here you have to go down the hall to another doctor. Or you’ll go to a party and only see doctors; you don’t see lawyers and merchants. I’m European in that I’m not a specialist. My first book, well, somebody I met read my diary. He worked as an editor at Brasiliers. He took my diary and submitted it and they published it immediately. I didn’t paper my walls with rejection slips. There were several other diaries published immediately by the same publisher. When I realized that what I was going to write would be published I became a little bit more responsible and then started writing things that weren’t just about my own ego, like these books on music. I suppose everything is ego. People ask, “Do you set your own words to music?” The answer is no because I feel that whatever my music may be worth, the words I select to put to music are pretty good. The kind of writing I do is completely unsingable. Years ago, I once did a text that I set to music. It’s called The Robbers. I showed it Marc Blitzstein and he said, “Oh Jesus, you’ve gotten trapped in libretto-land.” He kept the score overnight and changed every word of it without changing a note of the music. I had written things like “Oh that thou wert” kind of bullshit. Marc translated it from English into English, which is how it’s [now] done. He made it less antique. So I don’t set my words to music. If I were to, I could probably write an opera as an adaptation of something, but I certainly don’t write poetry.

FJO: In terms of the amounts of time you spend on writing versus composing, how does it carve up for you?

NR: People always ask that, and let’s put it this way: I’m never not composing, even as I sit hear and talk to you or lie in bed at night with my insomnia. Since Our Town, I’ve written two choral pieces—maybe three, I forget, and I’m supposed to do a fourth one. After that I don’t know what I’ll do. I don’t know if I have it in me to write another opera. Another book is going to come out in several months which I just scraped together: I put a bunch of scraps together, and then the other half is pre-published articles from magazines mainly on music. But I have no idea what another book would be.

FJO: How long will an idea germinate in you for a piece of music or a piece of writing?

NR: I don’t know.

FJO: How about Our Town?

NR: If I’m doing an opera, then I know where I’m going and how it’s going to end before I’ve even begun. If I’m writing a flute concerto, I certainly don’t get ideas for snare drums. I’m professional, not inspirational. I don’t especially believe in inspiration. Everyone’s inspired but only professionals know how to put it together and make it transferable from the artist to the general public.

FJO: But you did just say that you have ideas as we’re talking now or in the middle of the night when you have insomnia. So it’s not like you allot a specific time, say between 9:00 a.m. and noon, for composing a specific number of measures of music.

NR: No, sometimes I’ll write down a theme or a series of notes, and it can be pretty lousy the next day; the same with words.

If I died today, I think I’ve said everything I’ve had to say. But who knows what tomorrow will bring. I’m not ashamed of what I’ve done, and I think it’s been a fairly wide scope, at least from my perspective.

FJO: It’s a remarkably wide scope.

NR: Well, I guess. I don’t know that a wide scope is necessarily admirable or not. Fauré didn’t have a particularly wide scope, or Kafka. But it’s what you say within the scope and how it’s said. Like the person who wrote that book that Oprah was critical of. I think it’s perfectly fine; it’s a new form. But I haven’t read the book. And I think Oprah’s a big bore.

FJO: But maybe if we could get some contemporary composers on Oprah, more people would be aware of them.

NR: Or on Charlie Rose for that matter. Oprah wouldn’t know what we’re talking about, but Charley Rose has had artists but almost always interpretive artists. For the first time ever in history, the performer—the interpreter—is the star. A composer of the same age and perhaps reputation as a given performer earns about a twentieth of what the performer makes. Itzhak Perlman lives across the street. He makes in one evening what I make in a year, and he does that by playing Mendelssohn and standard classics. That began about a hundred years ago for financial reasons.

I wrote a letter to the editor [in response to] a review of The Pajama Game yesterday, and said, “This review, which is three long columns, raves about every one of the performers: the set designer, this and that, and the singers. [But there’s] not one word about who composed the music or lyrics.” And I gave the names. I said, “For the record, you should review these people.” [Charlie Rose] talks to Yo-Yo Ma, for example, about creativity. But he’s not a creator. People always use that word creativity as though it was some magic thing. Just recently I read some place that “a concert by Yo-Yo Ma is a wonderful dream of creativity.” But it’s not; it’s simply a misuse of words. Like the 9/11 tragedy: it’s not a tragedy according to Aristotle; it’s a calamity.

FJO: This all raises interesting questions about why someone would even want to be a composer. In an essay “Vocabulary” you wrote decades ago, you described being a composer the way someone would describe race or sexual orientation. It seemed almost as involuntary a choice.

NR: I believe that. I’m five things: I’m homosexual and alcoholic (a recovered alcoholic – I haven’t had a drink of any sort in 34 years). I’m also an atheist, and a pacifist, totally atheist and totally pacifist. And I’m a composer. That’s the only one that’s problematic; people don’t know what you’re talking about when you say you’re a composer. But you are a composer or you aren’t, and you know that pretty early.

They asked me to come up to Buffalo to teach composition, six lectures followed by concerts. And I said “I don’t know anything about music except how to write it.” But I sat down and decided to [talk] about what I did know about: writing songs, setting words to music, how it feels to hear your orchestration. Each lecture took about a half an hour and all of the concerts were contemporary music, though not all American. Then I became a very excellent teacher: I knew everything; I knew all the answers. Then I was at Curtis for twenty years and the longer I stayed, the less I knew. I don’t know how to teach composition; I don’t know what it means. What it means is to decide who the person is and then help him or her (and there’s almost as many hers now). You can tell where you think they’re going.

At the American Academy every year, seven of us who are very different as people judge those who have submitted scores for prizes. We listen to 80 different pieces in 2 days with a fairly good, catered lunch. I never read the recommendations because it’s always the same thing: “So-and-so is this-and-that.” I judge by the music. We give every one about eight minutes, maybe ten minutes, and they have two pieces. People meander a lot and the music—most of the time—doesn’t get down to business. Or if they start an orchestral piece with a solo cello, you say, “When is that solo cello going to shut up?” If they don’t say something in the first minute or two, we tell the person over at the machine, “Go on to the next piece, please.” You get very blasé and very hard to please in this thing. One piece in 15 is vocal. These are all American composers, but the text for these things is usually Rilke or maybe Emily Dickinson or Whitman. [It’s] partly [because they’re] public domain, but partly it’s as if there were no other texts besides Whitman and Emily Dickinson. And the American singers, who aren’t going to be making it in opera anyway so should be trying to revive the song recital, can’t sing in their own language. They all learn to sing very well in German and Italian, and they all give concerts of Hugo Wolf. But if it’s in English, they’ll role their R’s Italian style or they’ll sing cute, encore-type pieces.

FJO: Might it be that singers not being able to sing in their own language is a result of some aspects of vocal training in classical music?

NR: Well, if all the teachers are always old ladies from Italy at Curtis, or from Germany—I don’t know if it’s still that way, but it was when I was in school—they learn to sing impeccably Hugo Wolf, Schubert, Schumann. If I were a singing teacher, I’d say to the singers, “I don’t care how beautiful your voice is if I can’t understand the words.” Go on the principle that you have the best voice in the world, and then think 90 percent about the words. In every language, get it out the way the best singers do. If you’re singing in your own language, you know what you’re singing about, which can be embarrassing, and it’s very revealing. And singers, more than any other soloists, deal with an audience and look at the person who is listening. They have to take off their glasses to commune with the people in the audience.

FJO: You’ve pretty much only set the English language.

NR: I have done a few French songs, but I excuse that because I, first of all, lived in France for many years, and I wrote these mainly in France. But of the four or five hundred songs, 20 are in French. And I think [there’s] some Latin choral music. If we don’t create our own literature, no one is going to do it for us.

Music doesn’t mean anything. Nobody can prove that it has any meaning the way literature does. Literature always means something, so does painting. Music doesn’t mean things like: Tuesday, or Jonathan, or pineapple. It doesn’t even mean things like death or wind. It can do onomatopoeiatic imitations of these things but those are conventions. Sadness wasn’t in the minor mode four hundred years ago. Vocal music does mean something, but it only means what the words tell you. So, I’d say to a class, for next Tuesday we’re all going to set the same poem to music. And since the poet never asked for it to be set to music, who am I to say it must be this or that. The only two rules I had are: Don’t repeat words the poet hasn’t repeated and try to keep it pretty much at the speed of speech so we can understand it. I never give value judgments but I might say it’s interesting how John put the climax on this word and Jennifer put it on that word, or Eleanor did it slow and Peter did it fast. There’s no one inevitable way. I even wrote a song cycle of 18 songs on 9 poems, each one set to music twice.

FJO: Might this whole notion of music not having a discernable meaning be the explanation for why most people don’t have a clue about what being a composer is, as opposed to the other four things you are?

NR: Everyone knows what being gay is because everyone has tried to pretend they were to see what it feels like. And everyone knows what an alcoholic is which I think is ingrained; I think you’re born that way. Atheism is a conviction that comes from a certain experience. And so is pacifism. I was raised a Quaker, in the Society of Friends. My mother’s brother had been killed in the First World War, and she never got over it. My parents decided to join a group, not for reasons of God but for reasons of pacifism. So I think all war is bad under any circumstances. As for music’s meaning, Mendelssohn said it’s not too vague for words, it’s too precise for words. But then he didn’t define precise.

FJO: I was very excited when the disc of your symphonies came out on Naxos. I had no idea you wrote symphonies; I was too young to have heard your third when it was popular and the first two were not known at all. You’ve written a lot of non-vocal music for orchestra since then, but you never again used the name “symphony.” Considering your observations about music not having any meaning, I wonder what attaching such an abstract name to a work means to you and what made you stop using the term.

NR: I think I wrote a symphony in order to have written a symphony; that would be the first one. Back then I didn’t think in terms of abstraction; I didn’t know what it meant back in those days. I’ve written a lot of big abstract orchestral works that do have descriptive titles like Sunday Morning; it’s a suite [of movements] all with titles from a Wallace Stevens poem. In many, many pieces without voices, like the Fourth String Quartet, for example, it’s in eight or ten movements and each of them are named after a Picasso picture because that amuses me. The Debussy preludes all have very illustrative titles but many of them were tacked on after the fact. A composer likes to give titles to his pieces because he knows if he doesn’t nobody else will. Whereas painters will call a picture Abstraction No. 2 but there is no abstract painting, even Jackson Pollock. Just like when you look at a cloud, the cloud becomes a camel. You can always find a donkey’s head there or a leg.

FJO: Is that the equivalent of tonality in painting then?

NR: You can’t compare the arts at all, even though people do it all the time. If the arts were all like each other, we’d only need one art. A lot of times the poets I’ve set to music, if they’re alive, are mildly flattered, but they don’t know why I bother. Elizabeth Bishop, for example. I think I corresponded with her from 1952 until she died in the ’70s. She’d send me poems and I set several of her poems to music. And one was published with a cover by Cocteau—actually it’s on the wall over there—and she was thrilled to be immortalized by Cocteau. Then I sent her a recording of the song. It was very touching, her letter about trying to tell me she liked it even though she didn’t know what it was. “Well, maybe it should have been slower. Maybe it should have been higher. Maybe it should have been sung by a man.” Well, let her write her own songs. But I can sympathize. She had heard her own “music” when she wrote the thing and mine is by definition not that. The song is a third thing, and it doesn’t belong to her any longer. Other poets who think of themselves as musical who write poems for composers, usually the poems are no good. They’re full of vowels because they think composers like to rhyme June with moon. The arts are not the same thing. And there’s a sort of bastardness about songwriting, to take something that already exists and breed it with something else. But that’s healthy.

FJO: Of course, operas are the highest form of that. In the two full-length operas that you’ve done, you’ve taken pre-existing plays—Miss Julie and Our Town—both of which are acknowledged classics of the theatre, and turned them into operas. And your opera Our Town is remarkably faithful to Thornton Wilder’s play.

NR: Sandy McClatchy made the libretto of this. Looking at it, I was very pleased. I almost didn’t go because I was feeling funny for a long time. But I did go. I forced myself, and I’m awfully glad I did. They rehearsed it, and it was very good. The orchestra sounded marvelous; they didn’t make any mistakes. It’s very unflashy, no percussion. I sat in the audience as though I were just a general auditor.

FJO: Certainly people knew you had written it.

NR: They treated me like Greta Garbo. It’s a very good school. They had two casts. For the [role of the] Stage Manager, one of them was black, which was O.K. but not quite O.K., but he had a better voice than the other one.

FJO: This is the tricky thing with a play that’s so well known. Of course anyone could look right for the part in a new work. What’s right is whatever you want to be right since it’s your work. But everyone has associations with how people looked in the original production. Everyone is walking in with assumptions of what it is supposed to look like.

NR: Of course.

FJO: When André Previn did an opera based on A Streetcar Named Desire, every one was talking about whether or not Rodney Gilfry looked enough like Stanley Kowalski when they were really wondering how much he looked like Marlon Brando who played the role in the movie.

NR: It has to be a third thing. It’s terribly dangerous. I don’t know if I would have written Our Town if I wasn’t commissioned to write it, and it’s going to get a lot of performances. People have said, “How does Ned think he can improve on the original?” I’m not trying to improve it anymore than Verdi was improving on Shakespeare when he did Otello.

FJO:Our Town was a period piece even when it was written in the ’40s. It was about an era that was no more even back then. Revisiting it now in an opera, 100 years after the action takes place, is like going through a time portal. What does a piece like Our Town say to a 21st century, post 9/11 America that’s in the middle of a war?

NR: Albeit people can go to the opera now and be very touched by Puccini. And actually, 9/11 is no more theatrical than Socrates’s or Euripides’s plays, or Lysistrata.

FJO: So what in your estimation is the role of an artist, a composer, in terms of reshaping the language vs. maintaining the language of his or her art?

NR: I don’t do things because I’m supposed to do them; I do them because I want to do them. I’m not sure before the 18th century that the composer was interested in being new, having his own language. He spoke his own language with his personal vocabulary. Anybody can be a perfect composer, but that doesn’t mean that what they’re saying is communicable. You can’t teach it, but you can teach technique to everybody. So, I don’t think there is a role or responsibility that we have to write this kind of music. I think that’s dangerous. Then—I think it’s in yesterday’s Times—there is a big article about, “What is American painting?” They said the same thing about American music. Virgil Thomson said, “It’s very easy to write American music. All you have to do is have an American passport and write any kind of music you want.” Which is the way I feel. If there’s something American about it, it comes in spite of yourself. It doesn’t mean using Kentucky folk songs, like Appalachian Spring, because that’s mainly more Copland than it is American. And he invented what is the American sound. The American sound is Copland rather than folk songs. And certain composers, like Poulenc, wrote their own folk music. And Poulenc is immediately identifiable as Poulenc because of that element that can’t be defined. You always know Poulenc when you hear it. There’s a lot of Ravel in it, but still, it’s very different from Ravel.

FJO: And I would dare say that I know your music when I hear it.

NR: Do you really? That’s nice to hear.

FJO: There’s recently been a big debate about whether or not there’s a difference between “Uptown” and “Downtown” music. It reminds me a bit of your old dichotomy between French and German music (which similarly transcends geographical borders) as well as the notion of there being a distinction between European and American influences or between high and low culture. Do you think there is still a value in sustaining any of these polarities?

NR: It’s much more disparate than it used to be. It’s 99 percent pop music of one sort or another and 1 percent serious classical music, for lack of a better term. Of that classical music, which is mostly all Beethoven and Mozart, one hundredth of that is living American music. If cultured intellectuals know about Beethoven or Vivaldi—even [the ones] who know all about Dante and Philip Roth, or Michelangelo and Jackson Pollock—the contemporary music that they know about is strictly The Beatles or Sting, or other elements of that sort.

I think Bob Dylan is revolting. He can’t sing, he can’t play an instrument, his tunes are very ordinary, just tonic to dominant; his sentiments are that the times are changing. So what? He has no charm, but everybody just worships him on bended knee. So he has at least one opponent, and that’s me. On the radio yesterday, I heard somebody, I thought it was Bob Dylan, but it was somebody else. He was a big influence. I use the word “pop” for lack of a better word. Judy Collins is a dear friend and she sings a couple of my songs, three actually, and she’s got sort of a real voice.

The pop music of my time was Cole Porter and Gershwin, with wonderful bands, with Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman and the Dorsey Brothers. People writing songs that are real songs, and sung by real voices, of which there are [now only] a few, like that dykie woman k.d. lang. She has a real voice; she could belt out a tune. She sang for President Bush recently at the Kennedy Center wearing a tuxedo, dressed up as a man. But, most pop music today doesn’t interest me in any way. Nor can I understand the words most of the time.

The public that we have is very small. I think that smallness is O.K. I don’t think everyone has to have a big public; people think they do. I think for song recitals by American singers who sing in their own language—rare as they may be these days—a hall that seats 200 is lovely. Everything is money, money, money now, so the situation is different.

As for French vs. German, that can only go so far. Unlike 30 or 50 years ago, there is no culture in Europe. There is nothing coming out of France that I know about—and I would know—in terms of serious theatre or music, or literature or painting, either good or bad; likewise Germany. England is fairly interesting but, strange as it may seem, America, with all its vulgarity, is the most interesting country culturally on earth today in music, in literature, in theatre, in painting. I guess in painting. So things have changed. And I don’t see things getting any better.

As for Uptown-Downtown, does that even exist any longer? The so-called “serial killers” lost their grip on virtually everybody (including Stravinsky and Copland who rallied to the Boulez cause although they wrote pretty good things). People stopped being frightened of towing the line to a certain kind of music. I never knew what Downtown music was or Uptown music. I just don’t know.

FJO: The Uptowners would be allied toward serialism and the Downtowners would be allied toward John Cage, chance, conceptual music like Robert Ashley, minimalism—Steve Reich, Meredith Monk, etc.

NR: Well, those people are all over the place now, not literally downtown. I don’t think you can say any longer that serialists are this or that and so forth. People write what they write.

FJO: That’s certainly true for you. Your music is unrepentantly tonal, but you’ve used tone rows.

NR: I’m going to go to a Milton Babbitt concert tonight actually. He’s 90, and it’s his birthday and he’s a colleague. I can’t prove it, but all music is tonal because the law of the universe is tonality—Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter, Boulez. Elliott is getting a hell of a lot of performances these days, and he’s going to be 100 one of these months. And he goes to these places; I don’t have that kind of energy at all. He’s God; not for me, but for a lot of people. But for everybody writing a tone row, they’re only writing it to be not tonal, so they’re thinking in terms of tonality, by definition. A listener of any age who doesn’t even know music is going to hear a sort of pedal point beneath it all, the way we do in Berg. I don’t care what a person’s language is. But you don’t find people being as dogmatic and as uppity about the language they speak [these days].

FJO: So will you be hearing pedal points in Babbitt’s music tonight?

NR: I hope so.

FJO: It’s interesting to me given your stance on tonality that you’ve incorporated elements of twelve-tone thinking into your harmonic vocabulary. Why did you opt to do that?

NR: I don’t know. I met Lou Harrison very early in my life, when I was about 20, and we were very fond of each other. He was 28, which was a big difference. And he knew everything; I didn’t know anything. He knew Ives, Ruggles, and Varèse, whom he was promoting. He wasn’t a teacher; he was just a pal whom I drank beer with, but he taught me how to write music with a twelve-tone series for about an hour. And for about a week I applied it just in order to apply it, and then I simply wasn’t interested, even though some of my best friends were twelve-tone composers, Ben Weber being one then. I never did John Cage, but I knew him reasonably well, and his wife Xenia who did very pretty mobiles. I’ve never written according to a system, but I never got scared by the serial composers when Boulez took over. Then, when you were allowed to write tonal music again, I felt like the Prodigal Son’s brother whom no one had paid attention to because he’d been a good boy all the time, as opposed to David Del Tredici, for example.

But I never say, “This is what I’m trying to do here,” because I’m not interested in hearing what people say about their music. Music doesn’t exist for what the composer says it means; it exists on its own. I’m pretty good about talking about other people’s music, and I’ve written a lot of books in which the word “I” doesn’t even occur—I’m not talking about the Diaries. I talk about other composers, and 99 percent of those are contemporary composers. (I did one essay on Mussorgsky and one on Carmen.) When it comes to composers talking about their own music, I never listen much; I don’t care. The music speaks for itself….I’m morally against percussion.

FJO: Except you wrote that great mallet concerto.

NR: I agreed to do that for Evelyn Glennie if the orchestra would have no percussion because if I never hear another cymbal it won’t be too soon. Elliott Carter’s piece, played about a month ago with the Philharmonic, which was written 30 years ago, was full of cymbals. I said to Evelyn, “You will play just pitched mallet instruments.”

FJO: In this piece, like all the other concertos you’ve been writing over the last few years, you seem to have invented a new form. Each of these pieces has seven or eight shorter movements strung together instead of the more conventional three-movement fast-slow-fast.

NR: I guess I’ve written a lot of concertos, for lack of a better term. I write program notes for them, too. There are as many definitions of concertos as there are concertos. Bach has written concertos for one instrument with no accompaniment. De Falla wrote the harpsichord concerto for just a few instruments and [then there are] these big fat ones, but usually it’s a conversation or a dispute between soloist and orchestra. The first concerto I ever wrote was a harpsichord concerto, [before] I wrote the Piano Concerto No. 1. It might be at the Library of Congress. I gave them all my stuff.

FJO: There are a number of pieces you’ve written over the years that you’ve either revised or discarded. Some are completely withdrawn, like your first string quartet.

NR: It’s not that I discarded them. If someone wants to sing something that’s never been published, I’d say, “Sure, why not?” But, why not do some others? And the piece needs a life of its own, as songs do, especially songs because both men and woman can sing them. You can’t tell the difference between a male and a female violist or flutist, but you can with a song. And I don’t mind them being transposed. But it’s inconceivable that a pianist will say, “I’m transposing the Chopin Etudes,” because there’s no reason. As for withdrawing works, I remember Virgil Thomson said, “I wouldn’t be too worried about withdrawing works. They just withdraw themselves.”

FJO: I know Miss Julie has gone through a number of incarnations because looking at the published score from 1965 is very different than hearing either of the recordings that were made several decades later.

NR: It’s now a one-act opera.

FJO: It went from two to one.

NR: I don’t believe in revision after a certain period, but opera is different because opera is a freak of nature and there is something deliciously illegitimate about it. But like poets where their collective works come out 45 years later, they revise them—Paul Goodman did it, always for the worst; Auden did it, always for the worst—they’re no longer the same person. Do you know my song “The Lordly Hudson”? It’s my most sung song, actually. Anyway, Paul Goodman wrote [the poem]. It’s very singable because he’s a very intellectual poet, but it’s full of “be still, heart.” He changed that to, “be still, Paul.” You can tell already how terrible that is. Plus, where does that leave my song? Also, for theatrical reasons, one would change an opera, I suppose. I lose interest after the first performance, after I see it.

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