036.5: Charlie Morrow

An interview with Charlie Morrow for a special midweek issue

Charlie Morrow

Charlie Morrow is a composer and sound artist born in Newark, New Jersey who has spent his decades-long career in multiple settings, creating city-wide performance events, film soundtracks, museum sound installations, hospital sound environments, and advertisement jingles. Morrow studied under composer Otto Luening and ethnomusicologist Willard Rhodes and has also worked alongside numerous artists, including Joan La Barbara, Derek Bailey, and Allen Ginsberg. His latest compilation of works, titled America Lament, features works from throughout the past 50 years. He also has a new retrospective exhibition titled Charlie Morrow: A Gathering currently taking place in Helsinki. Joshua Minsoo Kim talked with Morrow on October 2nd, 2020 to discuss the childhood experiences that impacted his musical interests, working with Stefan Wolpe, his new compilation, and more.

Joshua Minsoo Kim: Hi Charlie! How are you?

Charlie Morrow: Good, thank you! Nice to meet you.

Nice to meet you, it’s a pleasure to talk. Thanks for taking the time out to do this.

Thank you for the interest. I don’t know why my phone didn’t ring—I’ve been sitting here waiting for your call, and then I noticed that you said I’ve tried reaching you. I was thinking my ringer must be off and I might not be aware.

It’s okay! We’re talking now, so no worries. How’s your day been so far?

It’s been a good one. I’ve been in Finland so it’s already mid-afternoon. I’m doing a new piece here and having a big show. I sent you the information on the show in Finland, and the new piece.

Yeah, you have the retrospective exhibition, Charlie Morrow: A Gathering, you told me about that. How long have you been in Finland for?

Well, let’s see… I’ve been in lockdown since March. I’m a commuter between Barton, Vermont and Helsinki, Finland. I’ve been doing that basically since 2003. My home is in Barton. I’ve been in New York City until 2003 when I decided I’d rather live in the countryside. I have a Finnish partner [Maija-Leena Remes], and we would go to Finland to see her family. Her dad passed away and her mom came to live in the family flat here in Helsinki. From that point on I’ve been a steady commuter.

How do you feel about your time in Helsinki? How does that compare to your time in the various cities you’ve been in throughout the United States?

I’d say the closest to it is Portland, Oregon. A small city with a lot of very young, smart people. People who are modest, which is very nice. I’ve been in New York for many years, and the braggadocio of New York has always been necessary to live with for me to build my career. But as soon as I could escape, I did (laughter). I’m happy to live a low-key life in Barton, Vermont, a village of 300 people.

My life in Finland is very much at home. It’s a high-tech country—the Silicon Valley of virtual experiences. As an experienced designer, I’m here amongst the pros. It’s the place for what I do, so in that respect I can hardly be luckier.

I’m glad that you’re able to be in this more low-key environment. I know you were born and grew up in New Jersey. What’s the earliest memory you have of playing, or being really invested in music?

There are a couple of pieces to that. One that I guess has been electrifying has been a moment that I recovered from when I was in my 20s, which was that I remember being awake before I was born—hearing sounds from my mother, and being aware of information coming to me, flashes of light but having only sound. I didn’t put it together—this experience hadn’t meant much to me at the time when it happened. It was simply the flavor of life. The period that followed led ultimately to thinking back to that point.

In my early years, as a kid in New Jersey, I used to bring people to come jam with me on toys. I always enjoyed organizing people; I'm an organization junkie! (laughter). I’ve been into that literally since I’ve been about three or four. That was mainly playing not-musical instruments, but playing with toys and anything you can make some noise on. I started out completely free of any concept of what music is, just being part of the connectedness of all things. It became differentiated as I became aware of living in a world of musical languages. When I was a young kid my cousin Wally came and played trumpet. I guess I was about seven. I was living in Rutherford, New Jersey. [He was named after] William Carlos Williams. Him and my folks were both doctors. My uncle—my mother’s brother—was a writer and knew Williams.

So I was living in that area of New Jersey and my cousin from Boston showed up with his trumpet, and I just loved it! It reminded me of when I was just a little over a year old, my mom had taken me to Darnell General Hospital where my parents were both psychiatrists and he had enlisted by 1943 in the U.S. Army. I remember being mesmerized by the marching band—I was completely floored by the fact that I could not stop the sound. The band was so loud, I felt it in my body. My parents told me later that I walked over and looked at the drum that the drum major had left sitting on the ground. I was wondering how it did this—I was this kid scratching his head, and I was just beginning to walk and I was overwhelmed by sound. That experience led inexplicably to where I am now, working with immersive sound. I did high-volume sound work when I first built my studio in New York. I put these giant speakers in and I’ve been building sound fields ever since.

Were you close with your parents when you were a child?

We were close in different ways. I was very close to my mother [Laura E. Morrow] during the period of 1943 to 45, when my father [J. Lloyd Morrow] was in service. She was working full time as a family physician, a family doctor. I would sometimes come into the office. I had really touchy moments with my mother. I would see my classmate—a little kid I played with every day—and one day my mom came in and said, “I’m sorry to tell you, but last night your friend died.” She told me that he had gotten some kind of bad infection that took him out. That was a really deep moment with my mom. She had to tell me about my closest buddy’s death. I was always in good dialogue with my mother.

When my father came back, I remember he was very busy building his life after being in service. He was much busier and more distanced. I think I became much closer to him years later.

Why was that the case? Do you have an example of a memory that’s evidence of you two getting closer later on?

One day he said to me, “Charlie, would you come with me? I have to go to an appointment at the hospital.” Being the child of a doctor, I said “Sure, I’ll come right with you dad!” I was curious what it was. I took with me a portable recorder because he had never asked me to come to the hospital with him. We went into a meeting. Dr. Kim, a Korean-American oncologist, was in that room and he told my father that he was going to be dead in a couple of months. The conversation—I recorded it—was very, very touching. My father hadn’t been able to be as close to everybody as he would have liked to. But he asked, “Charlie, what do you think I should do?” I said that he should spend all the time he’s got with us—hang out, enjoy us! And he did until the very end.

Dr. Kim had a spectacular idea, which we actually did. He said that back in his town, when a person was close to dying they would have a party, and all that person’s friends would go to the party, and the person would stay in their bed and listen to the party—because by then they would be weak and unable to greet their friends—and hear everyone celebrating their life. That was the major prescription from Dr. Kim. We had a going-away party! (laughs).

Your father passed away shortly after that, then?

Yes, within a day.

Wow. How old were you when your father passed away?

I believe it was 1983.

Did you always see yourself as having to pursue music? You have always had these proclivities towards organizing and playing these shows when you were a very little child. Did you always see music as being the thing that you had to do?

Quite the opposite. My family, being physicians who had come from poverty, they very much wished their children to have professions. They wanted me to be a doctor. My youngest brother wound up a doctor. I was training to be a doctor, but I was interested in music—I played occasionally as a kid—but I was equally as interested in electronics, and I was interested in chemistry. I became a chemistry student at Columbia College with a music minor, but I was really more into science and engineering, towards a career in medicine.

What was problematic for me was that I did a lot of music in high school—very conceptual music—and it didn’t seem to have any place to fit in the world. In high school I had my chums perform Gabrieli’s Sonata Pian’ e Forte for brass ensemble—I was a trumpet player. We had to rehearse as a brass ensemble. We did it in super slow motion! That lit me up! At our school I was able to sign up to give a lecture to the entire student body. I did a lecture on the energy of light and sound in art. I talked about Kandinsky and how he saw everything as alive and in motion. I had a purely science view of sound and music. I didn’t want to become a composer because I didn’t really want to write the kind of things that I was playing. I was in marching bands and none of that really interested me very much. Later on, as I got more into making my own music, I felt that that was terrific, but I couldn’t see how I could ever earn a living from it.

I managed to graduate from Columbia six months early. I applied to medical school, but I didn’t know what I was going to do. During that time, I went to work as a copy editor for a big science publishing company, doing The Journal of Chemical Physics, The Journal of the Acoustical Society. That really cemented my interest in disciplined science and engineering. But I worked in a hospital doing autopsies for a summer, and it just seemed to me that it wasn’t what I wanted to be doing with myself. I felt that it brought with it a responsibility to take care of people in a way that I lacked ability. I was self-consciously self-centered (laughs). I thought I’d be a rotten doctor, you know?

Why did you think that? Just because of this self-conscious self-centeredness?

Or being distracted by music. I remember Dr. [William Carlos] Williams was distracted by poetry, and my parents often said that his son was a far better doctor because he was just a doctor.

I know that while you were in Columbia College, you were taught under various people—Otto Luening, Willard Rhodes—can you talk to me about studying under them? What do you feel like they taught you that has really stuck with you through all these years?

Willard Rhodes was an ethnomusicologist, and he studied what he loved. He worked in Africa—our fields were already crossed, he was working with the Mazatec mushroom songs. He had a Mozartian ability to listen to someone making music and write it down as fast as he could. He would be sitting and transcribing—he was a good transcriber. Since he could faithfully dispatch the transcription, he was deeply involved in the magic! I had entered the door with him. He had welcomed me into a world that I felt.

After that, when I went to Columbia from Jersey, believe it or not, my parents knew Allen Ginsberg and they said, “You should get together.” Ginsberg welcomed me and I was playing music with him, doing performance poetry—I came in through ethnomusicology and poetry much more than music. I discovered, when I finally decided to make a career of music, I made a mission to go to a conservatory and see if I had any talent for it, and I was very good at traditional musical skills—writing, arranging, composing, all of that. In a way I was setting aside all of the conceptual work I had done when I was much younger—I had done works with psychic music and did humorous performances at the National Music Camp. When I went to the conservatory I was bathed in a discipline of what people were doing in more-or-less the mainstream music world. 

With that, I wound up winning an international prize for a piece for tenor voice, and orchestra. Leonard Bernstein had been on the program, and I got the better review from the San Francisco Opera House. The piece was a very prophetic piece because it was about the Ten Commandments. It took the attitude that God would be totally pissed off at what had become of this idea (laughter). I couldn’t believe they chose me as the prize winner. I came back wondering what the hell was going to happen next. It was wonderful, I had reached a kind of peak, and then nothing happened. The phone didn’t ring. I thought I’d get calls to be commissioned for works (laughs) but it was very silent.

I talked to my mother, who said she’d met a guy who she’d like me to meet. She became the president of the American Medical Women’s Association. She’d met a guy named Andy Mashberg from Pfizer Drug who had been involved in promotional work. He had said to my mom, “Look, I’ve got a solution for your son. Can I meet him?” She said, sure you can meet him! He lived in my neighborhood in New York at the time. I met Andy and he said, “The answer for you is that you should be a jingle writer. You’ve got this very versatile skill, and we’ll leave you time to do music that really interests you—plus you’ll have learned production and distribution and promotion, all of which is necessary for putting music that is more personal into the world.” That led back to remembering what I had learned from Professor Rhodes, about the study of the music of tribal people. So I was finding the person in me that was still connected to that.

How do you feel there was a link between those two things?

Jingle-making became my profession to make money. I could have been an engraver! (laughs). I was a tunesmith, and a good arranger—I could write from my head onto the page. I could walk into a sound booth and have the whole thing in my head. I just came from rehearsal today and I had a whole 45-minute song cycle in my head—I have the every detail of the electronics and the parts, rehearsing the horn player and the soundscape maker. That ability made it possible for me to earn my living in the commercial music world. It was an odd fit.

I then used my ability to organize. I found that from the very beginning working with Charlotte Moorman, that I could bring people together, I could make good lists where all the boxes were checked off. At the same time I learned to pursue what was in my heart and in my visions, and that took me back to that world of being before I had been born. That always sat there calling to me, which is why I recovered the memory through mental regressions in my 20s.

In your times making jingles, that was a way to support yourself while you did these other things, but do you feel like there’s anything you really took away from it that you feel like you’ve gained from your experience as a jingle maker? Is there a jingle that you’ve made that you’re particularly fond of? I’m curious what you’ve written jingles for.

I did a jingle that went, “Hefty, hefty, hefty! Wimpy, wimpy, wimpy!” that became part of mainstream culture, and it’s even used at sports games and for political derision, and so forth. It’s still around, and I really enjoyed fashioning something like that. If you look at the craft side, I’m aware that when I make a piece I have a certain degree of control over the spin, I feel. Every piece is there for a purpose, and to focus it around that. The jingles are the diamond cutter version of a mountain called composition.

Can you talk to me about your time with Charlotte Moorman? What memories do you have with her?

I met Charlotte Moorman because we were both friends with a very generous man named Norman Seaman. Norman had a promoting business, and he had a concert club, and he would pre-sell tickets for recitals and touring orchestras and so forth. He was a promoter for hire in New York, and Charlotte was one of his friends. He had a club of people who liked to go to things, so he would sell tickets no matter what he was doing. He had friends amongst that avant-garde—Charlotte, David Behrman, Yoko Ono was part of that—and the Avant-Garde Festival all was possible because Norman had time, and he was a very empathic and loving person, Norman.

He had a brother, Eugene, who was not a very good self-promoter, and he took care of his brother. It was touching. He took care of Charlotte that way. I think of that because of how he used to take care of Eugene. He may have even been paying her rent. She was living at the time in the Hotel Paris. All she did was sit there and organize, she was like the den mother (laughter). Everybody from La Monte Young to Richard Maxfield, it was everybody. That’s what Norman thought, that I would fit into that crowd, that I was somehow one of them.

I was inspired by Charlotte; when I met her, she was very driven. She is a person who was burdened with tumors—she was always very close to having some episode that could kill her. She had a sense of being on borrowed time, even when I met her then—I’m talking about ’63. She had just formed a relationship with Nam June Paik and I got to meet Paik through her—in fact he borrowed a tape recorder (laughs) that Paik replaced. I understood what she needed to do. I liked her, I had the time and the interest. It was through her that there was all this inspired collaboration; she knew how to keep track of everything—there were databases of names and people and resources. It was this whole art of organizing and having all this information at your fingertips, knowing how to make schedules and how to weave people and locations together.

What she inspired in me—I kept a friendship and relationship with her—she wound up marrying the night clerk [Frank Pileggi] at the Hotel Paris. I think he died somewhat after she did. Can you imagine the kind of person working there only on new music, in a hotel, and a night clerk who had no connection to the art world or anything? They had a relationship, a friendship that lasted a number of years, and they finally decided, well, they must love each other, and let’s get out of the Hotel Paris! (laughter). The story of two people who had a childlike innocence and trust in each other. It was so delightful, you know?

L-R: Alyssa Hess, Charlie Morrow, John Cage, R.I.P. Hayman at MoMA in 1984.

Yeah, wow. Thanks for sharing that. During this period, the ’60s and ’70s, it was a very fertile time for avant-garde music, for new music. Who would you say were the two or three people you feel like you had the greatest kinship with, of all the people you had met? Who do you feel like you resonated with the most?

There were a number, I think. On this list, I was deeply moved by and continued a long friendship with John Cage. I met him through Philip Corner, who was one of the closest people to me at that time. He introduced me to Alison Knowles. I had met Jerome Rothenberg, the poet, in music school—who would become a lifelong collaborator. I got very lucky with people who continued [to work with me] for my whole life. I would say from the older generation that I was inspired by, that our lives were not on the same timeline.

Stefan Wolpe was probably the most inspiring of them all. Wolpe had a view that corresponded with mine—art and science. He was inspired by Niels Bohr’s vision of atomic structure where you’d have a proton and neutron core—a nucleus—and you’d have electrons circling around it moving. His way of composing… I remember I had worked with him on his piece for three pianos. I wound up being a copyist for all the brass parts when the Philharmonic performed. This is a crossover between my traditional skills—I was a first-class copyist—and I thought I could help him. I would do my own parts for jingles and I would make more money than if I had to hire a copyist! My idea was always to be able to divide my time, and not having to spend all my time working to make money.

Wolpe’s vision of the energy levels—he set out to motivate a note, and once you stated it, that note lived in that part of the space. It needed to move. Logically, you’d have to create a way that it could move and it could live on another level. His view was almost that these notes were like birds, flying from bush to bush, but each bush was in a different level of energy and there was this universe that needed rules for transitions. That stayed with me forever. I still work in layers, and I do work from my head and my intuition about energy. I feel, in a way, like an energy witch, like how the water witches take a stick and shake it to find the underground stream. I’m focused on those contrails.

[Phone call starts breaking up, Kim and Morrow decide to start the conversation again via Zoom]

I didn’t catch the end of what you were saying when we were talking previously.

How I was inspired by Stefan Wolpe? Is that the part that you were talking about?


He was a friend of Niels Bohr. His love of energy levels was the basis of his composition. I took lessons with him, and one of the pieces that was a good example was the triple piano piece—that’s three grand pianos. I wound up being a page turner there for the performance, so I could actually see examples in his teaching, and then I could see it in a performance. It was a real treat because it felt like you had to motivate a sound to be in a certain color and register, and the whole study of making that logical was a kinetic understanding of sound in music that was quite different from rhythms and harmonic progression or Schoenberg’s row. It was an alternate way of understanding what was going on in the sound, which in a way paralleled the same kind of thinking of an alternate path that I learned from Professor Rhodes who was looking at the ceremonial use of sound in music.

With your background in science, how do you feel like you were letting that inform the compositions that you made?

All of my pieces called Wave Music—and many others—are based on fluid mechanics and wave structure. That often meant, in my work, having layers of melodies that were related mathematically to each other. For example, in “[Wave Music III - 60 Clarinets and a Boat],” you have these tribes of clarinets—ten very high ones, ten high, and so forth going down to ten contrabass. It was a scientific idea that the melody that I had would be slower and lower in each register, and then passed around physically in space. The melody in that case went (imitates first clarinet part), and that became, (imitates second clarinet part, slightly slower, lower pitch), lower and lower until you got into the contrabasses it’d be (imitates contrabass clarinet, incredibly slow and low-pitched). (laughter). I would say that is the science side of my work. I’m a melodist, and so I look for ways of constructing melody.

I also feel very strongly about audible structures. In science you want clarity, you want to know  what’s going on. For example, Schoenberg’s method, which I learned in high school, which in his own words: “To weave an invisible red thread through a fabric that holds it together through its math.” I was interested in the bold strokes that you could really understand. I’ve worked on pieces that spoke different languages simultaneously. For example, I’ve been interested in the music of the first Paris Notre-Dame school, where they would combine things in different layers, [with its many defined parts still being] very audible. That definitely is the scientist in me. I’m kind of a reactionary about clarity.

When asked about composers you’ve had a kinship with, you said that these were these older generation artists. Were there any of these people who were contemporaries, that were around the same age that you feel like—maybe they weren’t into science, but thought about music very similarly to you? Or that you felt really connected with?

Quite a few. I worked with R.I.P. Hayman for a long time. We did so many projects together. There was Sten Hanson, these are people with whom I co-created a lot of work. I was very close to [Jerome] Rothenberg, who was a poet, but his ideas of translatability and the importance of language in motion and action, and not seeing it as extracted from life—all of this touched me.

As a publisher of Ear Magazine and a “solstice maker,” I’ve been excited by a lot of the music of the people I’ve worked with. I’ve admired people from all different styles and fields of music. I can’t say that one type of music interests me more than other types of music. I’ve just fortunately liked everything from natural sound to very esoteric things that are almost undecipherable. People like [Anton] Webern—he was like a diamond cutter. Every note that he wrote was just so carefully thought out. As a publisher, I published Spencer Holst, who wrote short stories in the same way. Sometimes he would only write a sentence a week, a word or two a day. Those kind of careful thinkers whose work reflected a flow that was in them, there are so many of them around.

I actually don’t particularly like the idea of a star system. If you have a group of people together, something wonderful can happen. They don’t have to be rated. We’re not playing professional baseball here.

When you were hosting these concerts, what were your goals with them? Were there specific things that you and Rothenberg—who you had concerts with—wanted to make sure was happening that you felt like weren’t occurring in other concerts?

Definitely. The cross-disciplinary aspect of it was very important. I felt that all musics were to be taken seriously. The beginning of Rothenberg’s seminal book Technicians of the Sacred says, “primitive means complex.” (laughter). We’re all living in a world where only white male artists from Europe were considered seriously—and a few elders from Asia. But it’s a superstar system where artists were treated like… God knows what, but separated from the daily person and what they’re doing. We were interested in being able to have events that would attract people of all ages.

The outdoor solstice events that I did were an idea where we wanted to connect an event to a natural occurrence. I really didn’t like the idea of just giving a concert. I liked themes—this is the transparency that Wolpe was talking about. What is the reason for this? Well, the reason is because we’re celebrating the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. I’ve done the solstice many, many times. In the most recent version, one hour in each of the 24 time zones in sequence, which wasn’t too different from bouncing sound off Mars, or the moon, which I did when I was a young radio amateur.

The idea of these public events was that people could attend them unticketed. I left the concert hall because I didn’t want to deal with the economy of it. Since I’m contextually inspired, I like the idea of being someplace where there is already audio life. Doing things in parks, doing things in the countryside—location-based work is very, very important. That’s absolutely part of the same thing I learned with Rothenberg. When we went to the Longhouse celebrations of the Seneca people—he has quite a few recipes for those kinds of events in his books—but for example, a metaphor from the ceremony in the Longhouse: there would be a ceremonial soup where everybody would bring a pot from the community and come and celebrate. They’d all take home some soup, and a little later on they’d all be eating soup in their homes. That’s not different from my Wave Music where I had everybody start to play their instruments as they left their door, then play in the street, and meet at a location and give a concert. Or the opposite, when I did “[Wave Music II - 100 Musicians with Lights],” where people, in a spiral, did a long canonic piece and then walked home playing. I was looking for these cheap formulas (laughter). 

It’s nice hearing you talk about these things because it seems like something that really is meaningful to you—this communal aspect of music and music making, and participation.

Absolutely. I had the ocarina orchestra for quite a while, which I’d do any time again. We had people come every week and just play on instruments made of clay because the sound was such that it didn’t matter whether you were a virtuoso or a total beginner—there was a way into it for you. I always thought that was an important paradigm that would help you then understand when you heard a piece of Bach, or a magnificent piece of any composer that was really fitted together, you had been inside music, and felt it, and you knew how everybody was fitting together in the hands of a master, you know?

What was the first instance of a concert you had where you had non-trained musicians perform together? Was there any sort of fear in doing that? I know that wasn’t necessarily a new idea, but—

It started from giving parts to the audience to do while I was performing—which was hardly my idea. I came up at the time when folk music was doing that sort of thing. There was a folk music scene that evolved. The idea of giving a bit of music or sound-making to an audience was fairly current at the time that I started, so it wasn’t just my thing. I would do that at my concerts, and the series of concerts we had at Washington Square church were very much that sort of thing.

We would have a mixed bill, a guest who was a musician, a poet, a filmmaker, a dancer, with a house band—we had a house band called The New Wilderness Preservation Band. It had Joan La Barbara in it, Bruce Ditmas was in it, Harvie Swartz was in it, of course Carol Weber was in it—she was a long term conspirator. Our little band would do a set, then our guest would do a set, and then we’d do a set together. We’d perform twice a month, and we’d have a rehearsal a week before to learn to play together. That was pretty close to keeping it quite raw. Those were professionals, but the interdisciplinary part was new.

I think that was when I started to get these ideas of bringing together mixed content. The solstice allowed for that because it was outdoors and you could create an event where things could happen strategically over time and space. I think one of the most interesting experiences I had that inspired me—this is also with the Seneca—I attended a Seneca singing society outdoor gathering where a variety of Native American singing groups would perform. This happens—they’re often called powwows—and they perform them one after each other. An event like that, there will be people real close to the group performing and we’ll be listening. The others will be way far away eating, joking, making noise, and everything in between. That was a really inspirational event for me because I could see how people would enjoy the gathering, and those who wanted to be involved in the music could for as long as they wanted, and then they could drift back into a purely social context of celebrating.

Do you feel like these communal events with interdisciplinary participation have any traces of your childhood in them? For me, even hearing about this, it could sound like a regular harvest festival or town event where people are coming together and doing things. I’m just curious if you’ve had any sort of similar experiences as a child that you feel like may have encouraged you to pursue these sort of communal, open, and welcoming events.

I would attend church picnics, synagogue events later. Me particularly, I knew about these things because by the time I was 12 I could play trumpet pretty well—well enough that I would get a call to march in bands. In my home city of Passaic, New Jersey, there were so many religions and so many ceremonies, and I guess I enjoyed that. I played every time—I played Easter service, I played in marching bands for Holy Name Day parades and so forth. That really turned me one. I enjoyed playing with the Columbia University marching band.

Later on I formed the conch chorus. We had conch horns and we played in the New York Halloween parade. It was an amazing sound to hear—up to 100 people playing conch. Those are really loud instruments, naturally. I guess I like the idea of the massing together of sounds in space. That was what was getting to me, from that childhood experience of being near the marching band, visiting my dad at Darnell General Hospital in Kentucky. I guess I wanted to recreate that.

You’ve had numerous pieces that involve people performing a lot of the same instruments. What is your primary goal, then, for those who are listening and participating in these performances? What do you want people to take away from the works that you have?

I’m with John Cage—I can’t really say. I don’t want to move people in that traditional way. When I was writing jingles I wanted to write a hit jingle. I definitely wanted to create a situation that people would find unforgettable, but not unbearable by the 1,000th time they heard it (laughter). However, with the composition—with herds of instruments—it was a chance to hear music in motion. It also related to experiences I had in nature, such as dawn choruses of birds, or traffic jams (laughter).

When I was a kid, New York didn’t have a law against honking your horn, but they eventually had that. By the time I went to Columbia College in New York I was disappointed because it became illegal! That was one of the best things about going to New York, to hear tens of thousands of people angrily honking their horns (laughter).

You have a new album coming out on Recital. A lot of wonderful pieces on there, “Telephone Music,” “Boo Wa Wa Wa,” “The Goose,” “America Lament.” Is there a particular piece that has a fun story attached to it that you’d like to share?

Give me a second to ponder it… (thinking). First of all I’d like to say that it’s marvelous to have a mixed album like this. This is curated by Sean McCann who has put together a bouquet of different works of mine from different parts of my life. I’m the chef, but I’m not the person who can plate (laughter). Particularly, making a good show out of my own works is… I can make those molecules, but hearing those molecules put together into a new structure by Sean is breathtaking. For me, since I have every one of these pieces in my head, they have a certain effect on me. They stimulate and recall events in my life when I compose them.

In terms of a fascinating story, I think “America Lament” might be a good place to begin. I was engaged by Time-Life to create, from scripts, a version of this series, which is the history of America written by a Brit. It’s a beautiful thing. I basically produced the whole thing in my studio, did the sound design. I thought it needed a theme. There was no budget for the theme, but I decided that since I was the producer of the whole thing—it was an audio production to go with slides—I would come up with something on my own. They liked it, so I licensed it to the project but I continued to own it. It was a little melody that goes (sings the melody of “America Lament”). Just a simple little motif like that.

When I performed it with strings, there was something that was so sad about what the state of America was at the time. We were doing a story of America at the time the country was falling apart, and now here we are again. Sean said to me, “I’d like to use that piece, but could you do something with it to bring it into today?” I’ve been doing pieces where I use an electronic technique that creates a chattering and stretching of the sounds. I took that piece and I stretched it and chattered it, and I attached it to its old self so you had the original sad song—kind of a canon for string quartet—and then its chopped-up version. They come together to make a statement about the innocence of the world, and that melody, and the complexity of the chopping up and the electronically-modified communication that we have now. 

I love how Sean asked you to bring that into today. It’s kind of like what you were saying, how you have these molecules and he’s able to bring into something. 

Absolutely. He’s a visionary producer and a very good composer, so it’s a real pleasure to share a vision and carry it out in sound.

Of the rest of the pieces, are there any of them that you found challenging to make?

I would say the most challenging of those pieces was “Wanderer’s Nachtlied,” because it’s the beginning of a new kind of composing for me. The thread of my work is re-composition. In that case, I took all the notes of Schubert—and this is going back to the ’70s, at that time I was more in the straight music world, and had access to good players. I was married to one of the greatest piano pedagogues on the earth, Edna Golandsky. At the time she was still concertizing, so I had classical music around me.

I had the same feeling that—to use the same metaphor—I could take the same molecules and build a new creature from them, and it would be incredible. So that was what I did. That was about the third piece that I did, but this one really worked. I wrote it for violin and piano. I recently used it in a new song cycle of mine, Serenade II, with music from different parts of my life. And this one is there, and this time we do it electronically, working it note by note and looking at every single gesture that Schubert had done. It was like the work I did as a copyist, except that I wasn’t copying—I was taking all the paint and making a new painting. That was the most challenging; it took quite a while to make this thing come together.

In some ways it’s the simplicity and the echo of the arrangements that Webern did. He did a beautiful arrangement of Bach, thinking that way, but he kept all of Bach’s notes the way that Bach actually wrote them. I did the opposite. I took all of Schubert’s notes, and I did not use them the way Schubert did. That was, for me, like being in the lifeblood of music. I think of music as part of life, part of the world I didn’t know I was in but knew something about before I was born. In doing that, I had felt that I had come into some kind of a flow.

Since then I’ve done many pieces. One of the more recent pieces that I’ve done like that was—I took the music of [Richard] Strauss, and you may know, Strauss was a leading Nazi composer. I don’t think he expected the loss that occurred. I come from Jewish people, and there were people like [Felix] Mendelssohn who during that time were very popular in the musical life of Germany, who were removed from the playlists. Particularly because of the growth of antisemitism right now, I was very incensed by the fact that Strauss’s Metamorphosen is about him cleansing his soul of being a Nazi. And he did it on the bones of Beethoven; he has Beethoven’s Hero theme in there. I thought, “Shit, poor Beethoven, working stiff!” (laughter). 

But it was very good. And it’s an amazing thing too, because Strauss is a super talent. It was the same thing that I felt with Schubert, but I did it not with the love that I did with Schubert—to weave another living creature—I took [Strauss’s] music and played it forward and backwards against itself with different versions of ways to do it. One of them is two orchestras walking through each other (laughter). The other is just listening to the sound—and it was actually performed on German radio in Berlin, with the explanation that I wasn’t buying his crocodile tears, and that I would not buy anybody’s crocodile tears who fostered racism.

Love that. Obviously you’ve grown a lot as a composer throughout your career, but what do you feel like has been a recent development in terms of how you’ve grown as a composer?

I’ve always worked very hard and fast on compositions. I’ve also more-or-less left the concert hall. After the An Evening With Two Charlies concert in New York [which featured work by Charlie Morrow and Charles Ives (arranged by Morrow), performed by The New York Imperial Pickup Night Guard Band], I left the concert hall. I felt that I was more comfortable in public spaces and giving it away on the airwaves and so forth. I actually composed a piece—that song cycle Serenade II—and I worked on it carefully. I’ve taken a couple of years to do it.

I’ve cleansed myself of a lot of the anger and concern about issues related to concert halls and who’s hearing it, figuring that music is itself a ceremony. I’m not trying to embed it in a ceremony such as my solstice celebrations. I would actually compose something of a purely music work, and I have. I heard a good rehearsal of it just a couple of days ago. I thought, through the whole thing, how extraordinary to be 78 and still working, and be able to see it differently. I really do see it differently.

Charlie Morrow and Sean McCann

What sort of things do you still want to do? Are there any specific projects or ideas that you want to continue or explore as you’re in this later part of your life? I’m assuming you’re reflecting on the possibility that you might not have a lot of time left here on earth. Is there anything that you really want to do?

There’s one that I have done, which is that I wanted to make my archive available, and my work available. My goal has been that my work should be seeds for other people’s work. That can’t happen unless people know it’s there. This panoramic show is really part of trying to open the door and make people aware of it. For years I only put out Ear Magazine and only put out concerts that’d never be heard, and I put out Audiographics. I created things, but then I went on to the next thing. It was a mad dash. I think at this point in my life I’ve been able to take ideas and leave them in the hands of other people.

For example, I’ve created a piece combining two different Beethoven pieces as a gift to my friend Peter Schumann from the Bread & Puppet Theater. He’s making a work based on the idea of grading these Beethoven works, because Beethoven was important to him growing up in Germany. As a poor guy, he used to go to all the concerts he could. He’s gone into experimental theater, environmental theater, and political theater, and he’s been able to take pleasure in that. Taking his theater and bringing these works to life, using the—again—bones of Beethoven who was a great craftsman, I feel very good. I’m not going to create this piece, I’m going to aid and abet it, but it will come together without my being a total control freak (laughter).

Another thing is that I’ve had an idea for a piece, which is 24 hours in 48 minutes. It’s based on the idea of two minutes for every hour of the day. It’s called A Portrait of Domestic Life. Right now it’s just a sketch. It’s on my mind, because I just dreamed up a sketch and thought it would be a fun piece for people to listen to. They will have the sounds of evening and morning choruses in it. It will have soundscapes in it, it will have blips of the news. It will be a day in the life.

I’ve created one of these before. It was a couple of minutes, five minutes in the life of the Carboniferous period. This was one of the more interesting assignments I had. It was for a children’s museum up towards the Atlantic Ocean in French Canada up the Saint Lawrence River. It’s in a place called Joggins, and Joggins has these very, very high cliffs—the tide comes in there 60 feet high. The cliffs are from the Carboniferous period. They have all these fossils embedded in them from the time when life came out of the ocean and started to live on land. At the time when this happened, 400 million years ago, Earth was mainly one big continent. This particular location was on the equator, and now it’s up in South Canada.

I found out the color of the sky, which was orange and blue. An astrophysicist discovered that there were 12-foot long dragonflies. You can see them! (laughter). There were giant insects that had just begun making sounds. Up until then life didn’t have the ability to make sound, or hear sound in air. We were aqueous creatures. Also at the time, there were lots of comets falling from the sky and there were lots of fires—which is where all the coal came from, because so much of the vegetation was burnt and became coal, later becoming petrol and such. Working with that was very seminal. Looking at a day in human life, echoing that, is a piece that I’m very interested in doing. I hope I live long enough to write that piece (laughs).

I’m sure you will. And you’re very driven, so I’m sure it will happen. 

I hope that’s a compliment! (laughs).

It is! It is, for sure. I did want to ask you—and this is a question I ask a lot of people in my interviews—do you mind sharing one thing that you love about yourself?

I think that I need other people. I’m not an island. 

I love that so much of your music does involve other people. You are obviously composing the pieces, but it doesn’t feel like you have a desire to be perceived as a lone genius, who’s doing their own thing, and that that’s it.

Yes, it’s absolutely the opposite. I enjoy being part of life. I also very much enjoy family life, too. I’m very keen on relationships. I have friends for decades, I have a very loving relationship with my partner of 20 years, and my daughter of 31 years, and my collaborators. I think that the most important thing in my life has been these friendships, and being able to remember these things together, “Oh, we did this, we did that.”

Do you mind sharing something you love about your partner?

She’s a very caring person. She’s also a very meticulous person. She is also a language monster—she’s a translator and a writer. She speaks very good English, thankfully—I have yet to learn Finnish to any degree (laughter). She works well in French.

I’ve learned so much from her. Just in these last two days she’s translated a two-page press release, and the questions that she had were so thoughtful and I was able to notice that things were vague and they could be better (laughter). She has also taught me to enjoy sitting around and having a conversation.

There are three of us here, her 97-year-old mom, herself, and I. We’re under quarantine. Every day there is a period of time where we have a long conversation. We hear stories about [my partner’s mother] Taimi’s youth, and her little village out in East Finland. Growing up, her mom had a built-in guest house and small restaurant, and [hearing the stories of] all the events that occurred there. There was a regional court that had come there, and all sorts of people came through. It was interesting to sit down and talk and enjoy that. There's a tradition, particularly a country tradition—she’s a country person—of just sitting around and sharing life. For me, as a guy who has suffered from not stopping (laughter), I’m learning a bit about stopping and hearing other people.

For all my cooperations and feelings, I’ve still been driven like a steamroller. This COVID situation has made private life something valuable, which I think stimulates the idea of a piece, to put some of that in it.

Thanks for sharing all of that. I really appreciate it. I know you said you had to leave around this time, so I’ll end it here. Is there anything that you wanted to say, or would have liked to have said that we didn’t get to talk about?

Just that I’m very happy to have this conversation. I’m happy that you love music and the work of people in our field, and I’m happy to be in that number.

Of course! It’s an honor and a pleasure to have been able to talk with you. I would have loved to talk for longer, I could talk for hours and hours, for sure, just hearing your stories and about your life. I appreciate the time we had. I’ll keep in touch too.

You’re always welcome to talk. I’m very happy to discuss with you and share ideas with you. One thing I would like to mention is that I have a book that I’m working on. I think you would take an interest in it. It’s called Immerse’, it’s a book of interviews with people I’ve collaborated with on immersive creations—about 40 people, all from different fields. We’re just assembling it now. I’d like to share it with you. We’re going to make a series of podcasts from it. I’d love to bounce it off you and talk about it, and maybe for you to be in it somehow. It’s a project about listening to collaborators, and I think you would be fascinating.

That sounds really interesting, and sounds like the exact sort of book that I’d want to read. That sounds very much in my wheelhouse.

We’ll have you in the reading group for that. Oh, and one more thing! Ha! I sound like Columbo. (imitating Peter Falk’s Columbo voice) One more thing! (laughter). I’ve been working in virtual spaces—Finland has become the center for virtual event making. There is a minister of virtual events. There’s a Virtual Helsinki that’s been built entirely to do events in—mostly for pop music and tourism and merchandising. I’ve been working with partners, a local developer here, an event maker named Sjoerd Postema from a company called Rond [Production House], and a Vietnamese woman who has been studying in Finland named Huong. The two of them have been working with a German developer, Thomas, and they built a virtual space that can be reskinned to be any number of places.

So it will be a place to experience my outdoor pieces and a variety of things in virtual space. That’s a big effort going on now. The bones of it are such that people will visit it as avatars. People will walk around with their avatars, and we can also blue-screen in performances. A lot of the content from my show will be there, like all the posters that they’ll be showing on the wall. You’ll be able to click on them and find your way into things. They’ll be flying around in the wind. It’s basically a “Charlie’s World.”

That’s exciting! I’m looking forward to that.

Happy to share it with you! Thank you for listening. I didn’t mean to run over!

Oh that’s okay! I just wanted to say thank you again for talking. It’s been a wonderful pleasure. I’m very grateful.

Me too, thank you for a wonderful conversation. To be continued!

Purchase America Lament at Bandcamp and the Recital website.

Thank you for reading our special midweek issue of Tone Glow. Make music with the people around you.

If you appreciate what we do, please consider donating via Ko-fi. Tone Glow is dedicated to forever providing its content for free, but please know that all our writers are paid for the work they do. All donations will be used for paying writers, and if we get enough money, Tone Glow will be able to publish issues more frequently.

Share Tone Glow

Donate to Tone Glow