Tone Glow 029.8: Philip Corner
An interview with Philip Corner for a special midweek issue
Philip Corner is an American composer and founding member of Fluxus who has studied with composers such as Otto Luening, Henry Cowell, and Olivier Messiaen. He’s composed numerous works for piano, resonant metals, and more. In light of Through Mysterious Barricades with George Maciunas, his new release on Recital, Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Philip Corner on the phone via Skype on August 27th, 2020 to discuss his interest in dance and architecture, the composers he feels closest with, and his love for François Couperin’s The Mysterious Barricades.
Photo by Luca Lumaca
Joshua Minsoo Kim: Hello! Can you hear me? Sorry, I’m a little late.
Philip Corner: Yeah, I can hear you.
Good, perfect. Sorry. It’s a little early, I needed to make sure I had everything right with my phone’s settings. I just wanted to say thank you so much for doing this, I really appreciate it. I’m a big fan of your work, so this is an honor for me.
Well I’ve heard good things about you too!
(laughs). How has your day been? How are you doing?
You know, I’m fine. I’m very happy to be in Italy. I can go out and have a—this morning I went out and got a prosecco, I usually have an iced coffee or something. I go out with my wife in the morning and sit at a café outside. That’s permitted with face masks and spatial separation. Aside from that we don’t go anywhere. I’d like to go visit family in Amsterdam but I can’t go because I’d be afraid to come back—or not be able to come back—into the country. Traveling across borders can be difficult, but we’re not anxious to do any travel. Basically I’m just hanging at home, and yeah, I’m doing some stuff.
That’s good. I wanted to ask, I’ve been curious—your wife Phoebe [Neville], how did you first meet her?
Before I answer, can I ask you why you’re interested in that?
Well, I guess, for my interviews I like to ask questions that are more conversational in general—
I’m kind of resistant to anecdotal details.
Okay, no problem!
Personal things—I find most of that irrelevant. In a certain sense you can say very simply that I met her in the context of the Judson Dance Theater, so that brings us together aesthetically, acoustically, and physically.
She’s been a dancer and improviser and choreographer. That connection comes way way back to the early ’60s on a professional level. Then it just kind of grew over the years into something more. The funny thing is that I’ve never written anything for her, in the sense of writing music for her choreography. She was really mostly a choreographer. I was doing these improvisations and I went through a long period when I was doing a kind of at-home improvisation every day, like a meditation for myself or for whoever else that wanted to be there. I had several private sessions with Phoebe where I improvised and she would, in a spontaneous way, do what you can certainly call improvised movement.
Then we developed that. She was the first person I had ever done anything like that for in a more developed, professional sense. We did something at The Kitchen; that was the big coming out of my private improvisations. After she came to Italy we were especially doing a lot of things where she improvises and I improvise with her. We hadn’t done that for quite a few years, but there was a time in the early ’90s where we were doing it a lot in Italy. When I went back to New York there were a whole bunch of dancers I worked with there. We would all get together and Phoebe would dance with some of the other dancers. So that’s the connection.
Something that’s always intriguing for me is understanding the ways in which a composer or musician might be influenced by mediums of art that aren’t music. I guess what I was trying to get at was understanding how—
I have always had a certain fascination for dance, although I really—I don’t know if it would be too strong a word to say I detest classical ballet (laughter). I saw, and quickly turned off, on TV recently Le Corsaire. But on the other hand every once in a while, in terms of dance music, I certainly can’t say anything against [Pyotr Ilych] Tchaikovsky and I think [Jean-Philippe] Rameau is one of the greatest. I like French Baroque dancing. As I say, except a few pieces by [George] Balanchine, Ivesiana and some others, I don’t like classical ballet at all, including all the new people trying to do something modern with it, you know?
But the physical thing, people dancing, is always very strong for me. I remember being very much taken by modern dance—Anna Sokolow is somebody that comes to mind—just by seeing what they were doing. It was really Judson that gave me the opportunity to work with dancers. That was a very, very open situation, and I had made connections with people like Carolee Schneeman and Elaine Summers. We were doing cross-cultural things and the thing that came to be known as Fluxus, you know, mixed media, multimedia, intermedia.
That was a situation which I could begin to realize that the image of the physicality was always very strong for me. I must say that in my music, if you listen to my music carefully and with that in mind, you would feel that there’s an implied physicality; you can understand that I was taken by the image of the physicality of human bodies dancing. I think that’s in my music.
I definitely feel it too. It’s interesting to me because I remember you talking about when you were very young, playing piano for the first time, I think you said that even back then you were experimenting—relatively speaking, as much as a young child could experiment with the piano. I recall in an oral history that you were essentially making concrète music, but you didn’t know it was concrète music.
Yeah, well (laughs), right, you’ll find that a totally unsuccessful thing I tried to do was—I had a thing, I guess I would have called it An Acoustic Guide to the New York City Subway System. I did make one and, as a matter of fact, maybe this is interesting because it didn’t work out. This was later than what you’re talking about so I’m kind of mixing up the time, but I had thought of this as something of an electronic essay.
There were certain special places in the subway system which seemed particularly interesting, and I was thinking of making a suite of recording one long slow curve where the train was always doing an incredible squeaking sound. I did actually attempt to do one movement, which is the Eighth Avenue Independent line between 125th and 59th, when it picks up speed and doesn’t stop for a long time.
I had some guy—I didn’t have any access to equipment at that time—who had a gig at Staten Island Community College who was one of the people who hung around downtown and all that. He said, “Well, I’ll record it for you,” and he did make a trip down, standing between the cars and recording it. That would have been the piece, but he just fucked up and the machine didn’t work (laughter). So there’s no recording. You can say it still exists as a conceptual piece. I think it’s written… I’m pretty sure I’ve written a score because I remember things like that.
There’s like, Beach at Newport, which is really just a report on listening. I thought that the waves coming in and receding over the pebbles was particularly interesting. So I have these things, which some of them—like Beach at Newport—that I think of specifically recording as a piece, but I do have some of these ideas of things where you didn’t even have to do anything if it was a strong enough acoustic situation, like on the Lexington Avenue subway… was it Lexington? No… I thought it was the A train… no, it must have been Lexington avenue, it wasn’t the A train. The A train also does 125th and 59th… whatever it is. Anyways, the express goes way, way down. But there is a text that should appear somewhere among my papers.
About how old were you when this was all happening? Do you recall the age?
This was in the early ’60s. We’ll have to backtrack, so in the early ’60s I was in my 20s, maybe 30. But, back to what I think you were referring to, I was maybe 15 or 16, and I actually went out to the entrance of the subway on 103rd and Broadway, where I was living at the time, and trying to get the sound of multiple people putting nickels into the machine to go through the turnstiles and then trying to do that at the piano. I was just caught between the possibility of even stylistically making music out of it, which wasn’t even what I was trying to do, so I didn’t write that kind of a piece. Did I do it good on the piano? With what I knew about tone clusters and more advanced harmonic language, I might have possibly succeeded in writing a piano piece which picked up on that, you know (imitates sound of banging on a piano, creating tone clusters), something like that (laughter). But I couldn’t do it, so that is an abandoned project.
I was in high school, and high school music and art in New York—they were pretty conservative. So I would never have heard about musique concrète, which was happening at the same time but hey, I was a 15 year old kid in Manhattan in a high school with a bunch of old fashioned musicians (laughter).
Right. You incorporate field recordings, and I hear you talking right now about trying to capture these sounds that you heard elsewhere with instruments. Is there an even earlier memory that you have of when you were first really taken by sounds that weren’t created by what we typically consider instruments?
Yeah, that’s interesting… I’m not sure that I can. There’s no doubt that when I was a kid I was listening to natural sounds and listening to what I was around. It certainly wasn’t like how many, many years later I was listening to the crickets. You know, I mean really listening. That particular one is part of a series of piano pieces which I call re-cords, which are old transcriptions. I basically tried literal transcriptions in this case using the piano. There are pieces like “Car Passing at Night, Country Road in Maine”—this one is even recorded, you should be able to find it somewhere—I’ve played that several times. It’s a tremolo cluster, which is getting closer to what the actual sound is. Being able to do what I failed to do when I was 15 years old, another one called “Car Crash on 96th Street,” and things like that. There is a whole series of pieces, but this is much later.
Now we’re talking about the ’60s and ’70s, pieces which were as close as you could transcribe for an instrument like the piano—natural sound phenomena. I started with music a little late, I didn’t even start studying the piano until I was 13. I realized soon that I wasn’t going to be a piano player, that I didn’t have any natural virtuosity. So instead I started trying to compose. I didn’t know anything at all! Maybe when I went to school—I went to The High School of Music & Art and studied harmony during the academic year, I said, “Gee whiz, all this time hunting and pecking at the piano trying to find sounds—all it was was just one and five chords!” You know? (laughter). It was just traditional fingering, I was trying to find those sounds, those were the sounds that were in my mind when I was studying harmony. I realized what they were. What I’m trying to say is that I started very late, so I certainly wasn’t thinking of making music from natural sounds.
So you’re saying that you didn’t have a natural virtuosity.
No, I didn’t.
Do you feel like that impacted the direction with which you approached the piano? Do you think if you had that natural virtuosity you would have done something more traditional?
Yes. I might have never even been a composer, and if so I would have been a traditional composer. This year I’ve been doing a series of minimalist piano pieces but they’re conceived of as meditations. They’re very, very—I mean, for me—abstract.
The whole series is on octave multiples, nothing but octave multiples, but there’s now 302 pieces of them, and I didn’t expect them to go so far but it just kind of started and I just started dreaming these things, getting ideas in my mind, putting every one of them down on a pieces of paper. Sometimes it’s just one note, or a few notes, or a few diagrams, a few explanations, but they’re all things that I wanted to play. I sit down on the piano to play and they have no other existence except for the fact that I’m sitting down to do something at the piano and I’m playing them. They’re really repetitive—as I’ve said, in some cases they’re just one note or one note in octave multiples—but they’re all different and I just kept amazing myself, finding how much there was to do with just that. I’ve tried to stop several times but I just keep getting these ideas that just seem too good to me. I’m hoping that there will be no more. I just wrote the last one two days ago.
To backtrack to what we said about dancing and how it’s a physical thing, I should also say that architecture is always very important to me. I’ve always been fascinated by it. I could just stare at architecture, especially when I got to France and looked at real architecture. I’d certainly been looking at stuff in New York, but I realized how poor modern architecture, especially Gothic architecture. But I never stopped being fascinated by architecture. I’d always be going out of my way to look at stuff, it fascinated me to look at church facades, Palladian villas and things like that.
In a certain sense that’s been very important to me compositionally because I always thought architecturally. I get some kind of a picture which is not sound so much as some… not a picture, but some kind of inner image, which is three-dimensional and physical—and timeless! In other words, it’s like an image, it’s like a picture of a score. Eventually, as you know from listening to my music, my scores have become basically like a picture of the possibility that can be translated into sound. I feel like that would be a good definition of the essence of most of my work.
That started very early, having an image. In order to avoid using the image, which was the glimpse of the whole, I started writing very, very fast. I started writing so fast that the details weren’t there. I started writing very general, kind of formal outlines of things which I could then at leisure look at the specific notes. I was still thinking of having to write a specific score with specific notes, but the process was getting more and more indeterminate as I was attempting to grasp an immediate vision of the complete work before that [vision] faded. Once I could get that down on paper it was easy to spend time hunting and pecking (laughs), and eventually actualizing what I had in my own mind.
I’d also write scores with notes, but that became less and less necessary. Eventually I tried to write notes as fast as I could and then writing the specific at all became more and more indeterminate, more and more verbal, it became more and more like, this is the kind of thing you can do. A little bit like that.
Philip Corner's Piano Activities, performed by Philip Corner, George Maciunas, Emmett Williams, Benjamin Patterson, Dick Higgins, and Alison Knowles on September 1, 1962
I just said this to a pianist that I’ve been in contact with, and she wrote back saying, “Instructions!” Because it happened to be that one page had no instructions at all. Some of them, they had very very specific verbal instructions, but some didn’t have any at all because I didn’t see the need for instructions. It seemed to me that if you could make any sense of them, there was only one sound that you could make. I shouldn’t have to explain it to a musician.
So it has come to the point where the notes have become—or can become—totally irrelevant, totally extraneous. And yet the funny thing about this recent set of stuff: the notes aren’t irrelevant, because they have to be octave multiples! You know, one pitch class. If you use all the eight octaves, because most of them are written. Some of them you can do with less than eight, but a lot of them are written to use eight octaves. That means that you have to use the piano and there are all these high notes—A, B-flat, B and C—that you can actually use to realize these pieces.
In an odd sense it hasn’t totally transcended the translation of a visual image of a generalized sound into notes. The notes have totally disappeared, and here at the end, when I’ve come to the purest form of the abstract structure, suddenly the notes become very important again (laughter). I kind of amazed myself, looking at this process. I don’t know where it’s coming from! I go to sleep telling my inner muse, “Stop it! Why won’t you let me sleep? I don’t want to write any more of these pieces! Just stop!” (laughter).
I love what you said about how your scores, and the way you approach your music is about capturing something. Even with this new work, it’s about capturing something that’s… I guess it’s about possibility. And it’s interesting how you talked about architecture. Are there specific buildings you recall seeing that really shifted the way in which you approach your music, because of their grandiosity or because of the enormity of what you were witnessing?
No, I’m trying to think. I can’t think of any direct translation. I mean, there were talks about the proportions of the Notre Dame Cathedral. We know about that, we know that architecture has number, and music has number and in the Middle Ages there was a very specific rationale. In any case, music and architecture share a very precise relationship to geometry. We know that in general. But I can’t think of any attempt to specifically translate that. My brother was a scientist, and he was more preoccupied with things like that. He tried to make a study of the relationship of the sonata form to Gothic windows.
And if you’d excuse my saying so—sorry Michael—but it was totally stupid! (laughter). I mean, in an academic sense. Academically stupid. But he did accumulate a tremendous documentation! He took photographs and everything else of Gothic architecture. He went all over Europe photographing windows. There’s a lot there inside the windows, the forms of the arches, the number of rotations in the Rose window, you know, of subdivisions—there was some really unsarcastic, unexpected praise. A rose window that’s divided into 13 instead of 12, you’ll only find one example of that somewhere in Southern Italy. There is stuff like that, and it’s fascinating. I’m fascinated by it.
I’m thinking about the windows of the Prague Cathedral. They’ve got multiple—fives overlapped over eights, things like that. I had an unfortunate exchange with Tom Johnson, who is like a number freak, an accounting freak who operates on a totally different wavelength. I got kind of offended at the way he dismissed a letter that I sent him about the facade, the portal of the San Tomaso church in Verona which has these spiraling Gothic columns. Like many Gothic things you’ll have four columns set next to each other, each one spiraling with a different pattern—leaves, or something abstract. I looked at it and I wrote down the proportions of the four columns there, and they certainly didn’t boil down to Tom Johnson’s favorite one plus one equals two. So there was a non-obvious relationship—a non rational relationship. But I could see something that you could make some kind of sense out of.
Maybe I shouldn’t be talking about another composer, but I was really offended by the summary way he dismissed—of course I know that about him, everything that is irrational is to be dismissed. But I’ve always seen that there is logic in the irrational, all of my music is about that. Even when I go completely, completely free—do anything you want, do the most unpredictable. I’ve worked on pieces that were very specific about, “Find things which are the most irrationally related and changeable things and make things out of that.” That’s always been one dimension of the way I’ve been thinking. So when I find something like this Gothic portal, with four numbers expressed that seem totally irrational, that don’t divide into each other, and yet at the same time seem to be some kind of sensical common proportion, that to me is interesting. I’ve never specifically taken that and made a piece of music out of that proportion. “I’m expressing the facade of the San Tomaso of Verona”—I’ve never done that.”
I think that makes sense with regards to the way you’re talking about yourself versus Tom Johnson.
For a while we went on tour together, and we played each other’s music. Okay, listen—enough said, but it was enough for me to realize that whatever superficial relationship that might seem to lie between my music and Tom’s, it’s certainly not the totally irrational improvised thing that I do. There is a trail of rationalized, reduced, limited things in my music that maybe you can say are elementals—like one plus one, plus one, plus one—and that’s definitely a reductio ad absurdum of the other extreme, right? So Tom would never accept that. But my relationship to the possibility of a number… on one extreme you have one, and on the other extreme you have everything! I guess you can say I tried to go to both extremes.
It’s funny when you think about some people that I do admire, and speak very highly of, like my Tone Roads [Chamber Ensemble] colleagues back in the ’60s. I feel that I’m being pulled by two extremes: one is the solipsistic, expressionistic, physical spontaneous thing represented by Malcolm Goldstein, and the rationalized, electronic, computer pioneer kind of thing represented by Jim Tenney. I feel that without having touched either of their extremes, I’m in the center, and I’ve moved towards those extremes on both sides.
Maybe I have touched those extremes, I mean One Note Once is pretty extreme on one level. I have a whole series that I call Withinstascys. But instead of saying “in ecstasy” I wasn’t thinking about the outside, but the inside, so I invented this word withinstascy. I have a whole folio of things based on improvisation provocations. Statements of, “You can do this, you can do that.” You can also just say, “You can do anything,” right? That’s a piece too. But on the other hand you don’t want to say “just do anything” because there’s too much of anything to leave at that! (laughs).
I haven’t given you too much detail but I think you know my work some, so you can see how I think. What I said is pretty accurate and true in terms of what I believe, and I think that you can relate that to anything you find in my music.
Right, it makes sense to me. So you’ve talked about Tom Johnson and how you and him are on different wavelengths. Who is a composer or artist that you’ve worked with who you found to be on the same wavelength, that you really connected with about how you approached things?
Well I certainly connected with Malcolm [Goldstein] and Jim [Tenney], although they both represent an extreme to the right and to the left of me. But if that’s all they were, I mean, if Malcolm was just some kind of ecstatic, going into trance and doing soundings all over the place without any kind of idea… or with Jim, some kind of reincarnation of Milton Babbitt… if that’s all they were I wouldn’t have related to them at all. But that’s not all they were, that’s the essence of what they were.
I mean look at Jim, he wrote ragtimes, he wrote canons, he did all sorts of stuff. He played Ives on the piano, he was very open, and his work is very very inclusive, and yet at the same time he had this heavy rational computer pioneer thing going on. Malcolm too has got lots of dimensions to his music. It starts from this closed eye—“I’m feeling inside my body”—and transferring it into the violin and going into raptures. It starts from that, but he’s a highly trained, intelligent musician. That all comes into it also. In both cases I can say that I was on their wavelength, except not exactly in the same frequency.
Philip Corner and Phoebe Neville at Cafe OTO in 2016. Photo by by Fabio Lugaro
There’s also Pauline Oliveros. Here’s a funny anecdote. When we found the notice of John Cage’s death in ’92 when I was in Europe, a friend of mine in France said, “Now that Cage is dead, it’s probably you” and I said “No, no, no, if there’s anyone who’s number one it’s certainly Pauline.” I would never put myself in that place anyway, but I really thought that Pauline had everything, she did everything. She moved indeterminacy into improvisation, she took the whole chance thing—in the infinite possibilities that it opened up into permitting repetitive stuff—that led into spiritual practice, meditation: the way music should have been if it hadn’t degenerated into a pop phenomenon.
She did a lot of the things that I was doing, working with untrained people in meditation groups, the spontaneous vocalizing and all that. She did it better than me, she did it more successfully in terms of social outreach and working with people in workshops. She was very successful in doing something that I thought was the way music should be going. I didn’t know her in the early ’60s, but later on I got to know her very well and we worked together with Elaine Summers’s dance company and there’s a wonderful recording I think should come out some time of something we did for Summers where we’re both improvising together.
I learned something very important one of the last times I saw her, when we shared a program in Bologna during the AngelicA festival. I had always been wary about writing for symphony orchestras so I avoided giving them the same kind of improvisatory freedom that is my norm. But she had a nice piece where she gave them the kind of verbal instructions that permitted informed spontaneity, and it worked very well.
We would go to Venice several times and just get coffee together. I remember telling her, “You know, Pauline, I’m something of a technophobe” and she just snapped at me and said, “Get over it!” (laughter). It’s Pauline so I was like, “yes ma’am!” (laughter). Whatever aspect of contemporary music practice you look at, Pauline did it, and did it as well as anybody else. And on top of that she was a great person.
I never had the chance to talk with her but I could sense from what I’ve read and seen that she was very nice.
She was. And [Carole] Ione [Lewis] is also great.
You’ve performed pieces by Satie—are there realizations of Satie that you’re drawn towards, or those you detest?
I’m not getting the point of your question…
The way you performed Satie’s pieces makes sense to me with regards to the rest of your works, and I’m wondering if there could be something gained from knowing the particular realizations that you gravitate towards.
Among my own work?
In general, but we can go with that, yeah.
I can’t think of anything that I’ve written that I don’t like. I get rid of it. As a matter of fact there would have been 303 pieces, but I destroyed one a couple of days ago. It surprised me because these things, as I’ve said, come into my mind and I write them down almost unwillingly because they seem too good to waste. So I did actually write one down recently that I couldn’t stand, and I ripped it up. I make a clear distinction between things that are just compositional exercises. I’ve got spiral binders full of attempts at composition.
Anything that was really thought of to be a composition, even when I was 17 or 18 years old, even things like a big orchestra piece—I’d like to have that played again even though it was very conservative, it was in E major, it was conservative but it was idiosyncratic enough to earn me a lot of hatred among the faculty at that school. That’s been the story of my life. Even at the time where I didn’t know what was happening in the world, “twelve-tone music, what the hell is that!”
We’re not even talking about Boulez or anything like that. Even when my music was by no means avant-garde, or even up-to-garde, it was eccentric and original. I remember at The High School of Music & Art, just to write a melody, I got a seven out of ten on one, it was like… (sings the melody). I keep thinking I’m going to do something with it, it was really a very nice, charming little melody. But it wasn’t clean and clearly in a set key, and it had a changing meter. So I got seven out of ten—“Too complicated!” (laughter). And the very next day I went back on the same piece of paper and wrote out in E-flat major (sings mock traditional classical tune). The most banal thing. A shame that I even wrote it for an academic exercise, and I got a ten out of ten on it! That’s really my relationship with academia.
It was set since I was 15 years old, I mean I was suppressed, “Oh, look at this fine, competent little piece in E-flat major,” that’s been the story of my life.
I’m interested in the new record coming out on Sean McCann’s label, there are a bunch of liner notes that are included in which you talk about François Couperin and you said, “The Mysterious Barricades, it provides a breakthrough from material consciousness into enlightenment.” Throughout your life, were you actively trying to find that breakthrough in some way? Maybe not intentionally, but were you hoping music would allow for some sort of breakthrough?
No, let me tell you how it started. It started from working with a tam-tam, with a gong. And you know my music well enough to know I’ve done some meditation things. Do you know Metal Meditations?
So, it started with a tam-tam—I was teaching in high school, and we were doing sound experiments. I found as I worked with kids doing improvisations with metal and instruments, things like that, that it got more and more concentrated. It was like, you don’t have to do any more. Metal Meditations was reduced to the essence of these pages that were like, “Play one note on the gong and listen to it.” It was full of all these things. You can mix them all together, you know all the various recordings, like the one I call the “Symphony” version that I do for Merce Cunningham, it was all mixed together. You can take any one page and have it be an absolute minimalist kind of thing, it’s just the sound of the gong or a resonant metal—bells, cymbals, things like that.
I realized long ago, at the very beginning, that there was this kind of essential thing to metals which was the idea, “How long can you prolong something?” It sounds like La Monte Young, where it continues for a long, long time, but there are changes. You know, or other people like Phill Niblock, where you listen to the changes, the higher harmonics when you play something very, very loud and consistent. It’s not that kind of concept, it requires that you do something—at least you try to do something that doesn’t change at all. There’s no intentional changes whatsoever. It just repeats or continues indefinitely. We did a meditation for five days running, 24 hours a day.
I recognize that it’s meditation and that it corresponds to what all the mystics have written about with the meditative or the enlightened experience. But, at the same time, there is something scientific about it. I go about it like a well-educated Westerner: what is the objective limit of what can be interesting? As far as I’m concerned, the truth is, or my experience of it, is that there is no limit. Everything else is something less than that, something in between, you know?
There was a time when I felt that I needed some kind of quasi-religious ritual. My second wife [Julie Winter] was a transmedium astrologer, and a certified minister in the Church of Religious Science, which is as close to a non-anthropomorphic spirituality as I’m willing to get. You don’t have to exalt Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, and you don’t pray to Jehovah, in a way it comes out of Unitarianism, and you can relate it to Emerson and Thoreau and all that. Anyway, I’m close to that, and I have experience with that.
My second wife, as a minister, married me to Phoebe! (laughter). I’ll throw in that anecdotal detail. That’s part of my experience too, that I have an involved experience with spiritual religious practice. There was a time—this was after I was separated and divorced from Julie—that I felt that I had to have some kind of a more disciplined spiritual practice. I had to do something that was in some sense compatible with my world vision, but analogous to getting up at five o’clock in the morning, putting on tefillin and saying Shema Yisrael.
I needed some kind of structure. I found that the structure was sitting down, either at a gong or at the piano and playing what is essentially elementals—or as they call it, near-elementals, which is when you don’t compulsively insist on doing the same thing over and over again, but allow it to change naturally, spontaneously, maybe a little bit, maybe a little bit more. The thing at the piano—of course the gong is complete, you have a harmonic spectrum there, you have a dense cluster which is harmonious and you don’t have to do anything with it.
Then I started thinking of never giving up on Western music, that was my vehicle. As a matter of fact, another anecdotal detail, Marian Zazeela, La Monte Young’s wife, called up trying to get disciples for Pran Nath. I said, “Well, I’m really taken. I’m working with this piano teacher in Brooklyn.” That was Dorothy Taubman. And she said, “Oh, well I mean is Western Music a spiritual path?” I said yes, it certainly is. That was my spiritual path, I didn’t need Pran Nath.
I, in spite of an inherent lack of talent became… how do they say it… a good pianist for a composer (laughter). I’ve played some difficult stuff, I’ve played Ives and Cowell in public. I’ve recorded Charles Ives. I’ve played Bach, Scarlatti, Schumann, I’ve played a lot of that stuff. So I’m not totally incompetent! (laughs). So that’s my culture, that’s my tradition, that’s my education.
Of course, I just love Couperin. When I studied with [Olivier] Messiaen—going to Paris was a huge revelation. They’ve been hiding French music from me throughout all my academic training (laughter). And I had some good teachers! But they were all refugees from Vienna. I had an early introduction to twelve-tone music, I got introduced to [Richard] Wagner, to [Anton] Bruckner. But I get to Messiaen and the conservatory and we analyze Couperin—they’ve been hiding this from me all my life! (laughter). It was a revelation.
Later on I discovered Jacques Gaultier. It just knocked me on my ass! I feel very devoted to that. So I got the complete keyboard works of Rameau and the complete keyboard works of Couperin. I realized that this Baroque thing, or as what one of my professors called the deficiency of Baroque music, was that it doesn’t change, that it doesn’t have a bridge passage or modulates to something contrasting. Even in Bach you find that, though sometimes there is a lot of variety and things are moving around a lot. In some cases, like in the C-sharp major prelude in the second volume on the clavichord. Or even the C major on the first one, that everybody knows, is nothing but a series of animated chords. There’s nothing! There’s no tune, you don’t have to put an Ave Maria on top of the C major prelude. You just play and it gives you a fascinating texture. And because it’s the Baroque period, there’s a harmonic progression that goes along with it. And you begin to realize, that’s where Philip Glass comes from, you know? He’s doing this repetitive pattern thing, but you’ve got to have harmonic changes. No, you don’t have to have harmonic changes! As Steve Reich and La Monte Young have certainly shown in academic minimalism (laughs). I’m laughing as I say that—academic minimalism.
But, you don’t have to have changes. So, I say, “They already did it. I’m doing things,” and I’m doing, like I mentioned, Withinstascys and controlled improvisations and things like that. If you can do elementals with one note, you can do them with one chord. And the proof is in the thing that Tommy McCutchon [of Unseen Worlds] is bringing out, my duet program with Carles Santos. I also have some things which I call C Major Chord, and that relates to the thing I did with John Cage, the harpsichord piece that requires you to just play anything from Mozart. So John Cage gave that to me, and I realized that by taking an Alberti bass pattern from the C-minor piano concerto, and doing a whole minimalist thing based on the Mozart Alberti bass pattern.
So here’s this thing I did with Carles Santos, but by then I had the idea: It’s not just a C major chord, or just however the Mozart piano concerto is usually transposed—you usually think of C major, C major chords. It doesn’t have to be C major, so the thing I did with Carles Santos is in B major. It also doesn’t have to be a typical Alberti bass pattern, but it can be any pattern so that it suddenly, immediately in the middle it changes to B-flat minor 9. But the same principle is happening, the same chord is happening over and over and over again. But the pattern, you tweak it. You emphasize a note here, you emphasize another note there, you do another heterophony that goes on top of it, you pile up contrapuntal—that was basically the same thing over and over again.
What am i trying to say...That fits into the whole thing, inclusiveness. Once you have a principle, like the elementals, a single note, then it can also be a single chord. Then it can be a new elemental, that it changes a little bit. It can even change and rationalize. You’re beginning to pull in towards the middle, while everyone else is stuck in the middle with very little possibilities. I’ve spent my life filling in the middle, seeing all these possibilities. I see a new possibility, an infinity of new possibilities, and sometimes I wonder why people aren’t looking for them. You see something new, it could be a miniscule variation, but that variation changes something very essential. So then I try to do that.
The question you asked, which was about The Mysterious Barricades, well, I love Baroque music, and I love French Baroque music. Couperin writing The Mysterious Barricades, that’s the most amazing thing. From the point of view of just taking a pattern, which was an amazing pattern. The richness of the text, it’s fascinating, it brings you into it. I’m going to do a meditation, which is—I don’t have to have the Baroque harmonic language. I’m free of that, we’re out of Western European high civilization. So I’m just doing minimalism. I’m just doing Steve Reich, taking eighth notes, phasing from one pattern to another. It just goes on and on and on that way. I’m not phasing, I’m just repeating the first chord of the Couperin with the pattern.
The thing that’s amazing about the Couperin, with all the wonderful things that he’s doing which is high European art—a long note form and modulating three couplets, each one modulates in a different place—so he’s doing all of that, but it’s all the same absolutely unrelieved fascinating texture. I’m using that as my vehicle. So that became my meditation, my daily meditation. I’d start of with the B-flat, and by the time I got to the Couperin, God knows what would happen because so many things could happen just with the B-flat. Sometimes the Couperin would grow out of the B-flat.
So for five, ten minutes you’d hear it coming. You’d hear it kind of coalescing, you’d get into the pattern, and then, how long would you play along with this B-flat chord? It eventually coalesces into the beat that we play from the beginning to end, and then it goes on from there. It’s moving from the minimalist thing, just the B-flat, and then this borrowed Baroque thing that is based on the B-flat, and then it repeats and grows and evolves spontaneously until it finally goes to anywhere! To the other extreme that we were talking about, which is like… everything! (laughter).
Some of these improvisations get really wild. Some of them are just incredible, I distort the piano, turn up the piano, I distort the Couperin—you can hardly hear through all the noise. The tone clusters all over, anything can happen but it all starts from B-flat. So you see that came out of my high school teaching experience and the meditation with the gong.
For many years I really did this thing every day, and I thought I would continue doing it for the rest of my life, but I’m kind of short-winded. I never do anything on and on and on and on and on and on. It’s not that I admire somebody like, let’s say La Monte [Young], but that’s something too. There are a lot of people praising him for that. You get to a point where you just don’t do anything else for the rest of your life, and you just go on doing that. A lot of traditional cultures make a high virtue out of that. That’s not my virtue.
I thought that I was going to go on every day doing this, and I didn’t have to record it, I didn’t have to do anything with it, but I could do it every day, making it a little or a lot different. Every time I play Bach or Mozart it’s different even though it’s still you playing it. So here’s this thing that I’m doing and you’ve got to the point where people said, “When are you going to record it?” Some people said, “No, no, no—you shouldn’t record it.” Other people said, “I want a copy of it!” (laughter).
I’ve got hundreds of tapes! I don’t have them anymore, I donated them all to Northwestern University. But I had—I’m looking at my wall, and I’m imagining how it used to be covered with tapes from floor to ceiling! Years of recordings of my hour-long improvisations. There was a lot of music here, a lot of the stuff that’s coming out on record now are those things. People find what I was doing—and I was doing nothing else besides playing for myself—they value them as compositions to listen to. There was all this stuff in me, I created hundreds, if not thousands of hours of archival material! God knows someone may come down along the line and say, “Some of this stuff has to go into music history!” I don’t care whether that happens or not, but it just seems like a crazy kind of thing, you know?
All of that boils down to one page of Fluxus composition that could say something like, “Start on B-flat and improvise on Couperin’s Mysterious Barricades.” Then all of these hundreds of hours of tapes are just a realization of that, of that one sentence score (laughs). I’m laughing as I say this because frankly it seems totally ridiculous.
It’s ridiculous but also like—
Only ridiculous in the sense that life is ridiculous. Recently I played a canon based on John Gay’s epitaph: “Life’s a joke and all things show it. / I thought so once and now I know it.” I wrote a canon—as a matter of fact, that’s where these one note multi-octave pieces came from, because the canon, it just goes between two notes, and they’re an octave apart (sings an example of two notes an octave apart). And we just sang, “Life’s a joke and all things show it…”
I’ve been having a lot of fun with that. It’s been played as a trio: violin, viola and piano, or viola, cello and piano. We sang a choral thing and all that. Somehow it just seemed to me that singing a silly little two-voice canon based on—actually it’s not just a two voice canon, it’s an integer because you can divide it in half and have a four voice canon, and then you can divide that, you can multiply it, you know? You can do a whole lot of complicated things based on those things, but just based on that very simple two notes one octave apart setting of the John Gay joke, it lives! Everything I’ve been saying may seem so mysterious but it’s so fundamentally crazy. What I’m doing is fundamentally crazy, but it’s no crazier than the world is.
Yeah, that’s one of the Mysterious Barricades improvisations.
What’s your relationship with him? What’s appealing to you about his films, and what was it like seeing your own works eventually soundtrack one of his films?
Stan was working on the scene in the early ’60s, so he was just one of us. He was Jim Tenney’s great friend, so that’s how I knew about him—and Carolee Schneemann. Malcolm would play the violin, and Jim would do computer music, Carolee was making these abstract expressionist three dimensional collages, and Stan would do film. We were all part of the same world, I appreciated Stan long before I met him, as a person, because I just felt that he was doing what we were doing. It just happened to be film.
By the time I did the improvisation, I had a loft downtown so I could come home from the Anthology Film Archives, and one of the pieces I was showing was—Stan, I think he calls it Lumen, or the mystery of Lumen or something like that. I said, “I could see that.” So somehow I came back with that in my mind, moving around in my mind, so it actually became a proto-score in my mind the way I described earlier with how I would get an image for a composition.
So then I’m in a loft in Soho, and I could play it at 2 o’clock in the morning. So I played it, and there were three of them. I played three of them. So I sent them to Stan as a gift. He said, “Well, you know I’ve had a hard time using musicians, and I’ve got this philosophy of not using sound, but I really like what you sent me and it would be a privilege if I could make a film to your music.” I said, “You’d be honored, but I think you are one of the greatest artists of our time in any field, and whatever you do”—he always talked about the poor quality of film sound—“whatever you do, you’ve gotta do it.” And he did it!
That’s what that was. It’s a wonderful thing, it’s completely different with music! The music is more like him, you know, with all the stuff moving all the time and the way he was talking about the whole world changing all the time, using as much variety. That stands, of course, but there is also a discipline in his work, and in some cases a restriction. In this case, I don’t know if you’ve seen the film, but it’s so restricted! There are moments and moments and moments where nothing happens, and then one image comes on for two seconds. And it’s really weird, it’s unique in his work. The funny thing is it would seem to be the antithesis of my music, but people listen to it and they say, “God, they go well together.” You can tell that Stan was listening when he did this because it would seem otherwise that you couldn’t imagine two things that were further apart.
During this time there were all these artists working in different mediums, but there were numerous people trying to do new things, to experiment with what could be possible. Do you in any way have some semblance of community of artists today?
All my old friends are dead. Geoff [Hendricks] died last year. Who’s still alive? Tom Johnson, who was never really part of my world anyway, Alison Knowles, Dick Higgins was gone a long time ago, Ben Patterson a few years ago. It’s very sad. Carles Santos died recently, of course he came along later—I had a different relationship with him.
There are these young people, the ones who are all free to do these records. People love coming up, even you, saying, “I’ve been listening to your music for years.” I mean, who are you? I don’t know who you are? What do you mean I’ve been listening to your music? You say you have my records or whatever, but you don’t even exist for me! Of course, now you do (laughter). McCutchon and Sean [McCann] and all these people, they come out of the woodwork, “I’m bringing out these records, can I make a record of one of these things like that, archived recordings?” And there are people asking what I was doing in the ’70s.
The Wire is doing something this month, I’m not sure what it is exactly, but they needed a photograph from the ’70s. “Can you locate a photograph from the ’70s?” And I’m like, who are these people? Some of them are in their 20s, or in their 30s. I’ve got a pianist now who’s doing some of these new piano pieces I was telling you about. I’m doing some extreme, pretty far out stuff. There are some people in China, these recordings are coming out from Shanghai, which are kind of hard to get because they’re coming out in China. These people, I don’t know where they’re coming from, but they just say, “Hey, I like your music a lot! I’d like to do something with it, play it, make a record.” So I just say, “Yeah!”
Some of them are Italian, some of them would tell me to come by before lockdown. We had rehearsals in my house, and people planning stuff—there are no concerts now, but people are planning things. I feel like, in a way, I am superannuated, there is a whole new generation protecting me as if I’m still alive (laughs at length).
I have a couple more questions—unfortunately I can only ask a couple more because I have to go to work.
You told me! That’s incredible!
Is there anything that you want to make sure you do before you eventually die?
Do you feel like you’ve completed everything you’ve wanted, that you’re happy with everything?
It’s never complete, it never was complete. I’ve got tons and tons of stuff in manuscript that are finished that nobody knows about because I haven’t gotten around yet to make fair copies to send to Frog Peak. You can get my complete works, over 400 opus numbers, from Frog Peak, and everything that I have—I mean there are some pieces for gamelan that some people that are interested in gamelan have in their collections. But I have a lot of stuff here that people don’t know about, that hasn’t gone out, that people can’t order because I’m too goddamn lazy to sit down and make fair copies of things that are finished. They’ve been finished for 50 years! But they’ve just been sitting around and they should be going to Frog Peak!
I’m sure that I can’t get to everything. I’ve been very, very derelict in doing this kind of busywork. I just can’t force myself to do this kind of stuff. The stuff is here, so maybe after I die it’ll go to an archive and maybe somebody will eventually do it. It can go to an archive, or to Frog Peak, or eventually, who knows. It could be published, it could be disseminated. My gesamtausgabe, like Bach and Beethoven (laughter).
I mean, I don’t care! I’ve never been a big fan of Philip Glass but he said something recently that I applaud. They asked about his symphonies, if they’d still be performed after he’s dead and he said, “I won’t be here!” So I applaud that, you know? And yet I know—I’ve got no complaints at all, I just know from the people that are interested in my work and the people who are doing something with it that the work will not just disappear. I just know it’s not going to happen. It’s just a fact. I know that if I drop dead, my wife will go on living with the stuff. I know that my music will go on for a while. And what is that in the scheme of things—what is that? Not very much. Nothing is very much.
You know, I’m really glad to be talking to you, I’m sure whatever you write, that it’ll be very good. But in the scheme of things, so what?
Right. It’s an interesting thing, just thinking about the things we pursue in life, that there’s an importance with which we grant them despite ultimately being nothing.
The thing that you said to me implies that people are writing for posterity and leaving meaningful work for the next generation? What next generation? What posterity? Who knows! We can’t even count on that! And if there is a next generation, which I expect there will be—and posterity, but it won’t necessarily be our posterity—in order to believe that, you have to believe that Western civilization and culture will continue into the future. Suppose that lasts 200, 300 years at most—great masterpieces and great geniuses leaving works for posterity, timeless and imperishable masterpieces. You have to even desire that it will continue into the future, and I don’t.
This has been a very fun and insightful talk.
I hope I was able to say something that I haven’t said before because I don’t want to keep giving the same interviews. That’s one of the reasons I cut you off right at the beginning about not getting into anecdotal things and stuff like how I started taking piano lessons or whatever. But I think it’s very good, you really led it into a very good way. I probably talked too much as usual.
No, no. The talking was good, I appreciated it! Of course, that’s preferable to the opposite, where someone isn’t talking at all, which I’ve had before.
Yeah, if you interview Phill Niblock. Try getting a word out of Phill Niblock (laughter). I was his moderator at a composers forum and you couldn’t get a single word out of him. I was reduced to asking leading questions and getting, “Uh-huh.” (laughter). I appreciated that you really led me to say things that I think are important, relevant and haven’t been said before. I think you’ll have a very good interview.
Photo by Antonella Spalluto
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