10 January 2011
Interview with Victoria Bond part 2
Victoria Bond is a composer based in New York City. In our phone interview, we began by surveying her musical background, which I posted last week. Today, here is the question-and-answer section of our conversation—the thirty-eighth interview in this series. Please also visit the INTRODUCTION AND INDEX to this series and enjoy other interviews. Your comments are more than welcome.
IA: What do you think is your best composition to date? What is your favorite composition so far?
VB: Oh, it’s always the piece I’m working on. No, I can’t say that there’s one piece. Each of my works represents a different direction or a different set of artistic priorities.
However, there are a couple of pieces I could mention. The first is “Molly Manybloom,” which is a work for soprano and string quartet that uses as its text the Molly Bloom soliloquy from the end of James Joyce’s Ulysses. I set that and I’m planning to do more of Ulysses. I love Joyce’s writing, which I find to be incredibly musical. I like setting texts that are not poetry. I like the cadence of spoken text. Particularly Joyce; his use of words is so musical. I don’t know if you’re aware, but he himself was a professional singer. He was a tenor who won a number of important prizes. He was very serious about his music. In Ulysses, there are many references to music, both Classical and popular. Molly Bloom (the wife of Leopold Bloom, the hero of Ulysses) is a singer. She mentions many vocal works, so I have a lot of fun quoting from those works, using “found objects,” as it were, embedded in the texture of the piece itself. That’s one work I feel very pleased with.
Another is my second opera, Mrs. President, which is about the first woman ever to run for President of the United States. Her name was Victoria Woodhull and she ran in 1872 against Ulysses S. Grant in his second term. Her running mate was Frederick Douglass. As you can see, she was very, very far ahead of her time; maybe even ahead of our time! I worked with an extraordinary librettist, Hilary Bell. Four scenes from Mrs. President were read by the New York City Opera. I had an opportunity to conduct that orchestra, which included a lot of my friends from school, so that was a lot of fun. They presented this work as part of their series called VOX, where they present contemporary works by living composers.
I’m working on an opera right now about Clara Schumann, the wife of Robert Schumann, who was a very extraordinary person in her own right. She was a composer herself, but primarily known as one of the greatest piano virtuosos of her day. I worked on it this past May, at Brahmshaus, Baden-Baden. I was invited to work at Brahmshaus, which is a big honor. A chosen artist is granted a stipendium, which is like a grant, to live and work in the studio for a month. This is the third time that I have been to Baden-Baden. They have a studio which is in a place where Johannes Brahms spent many of his summers to be near Clara Schumann. She had a house in Baden-Baden. The studio is an extraordinary place to work. It’s very inspiring. It has a tremendous library of Brahms and Schumann literature and a beautiful Bechstein piano. It’s in a very quiet, peaceful part of Lichtental, just outside of Baden-Baden. I worked there this past summer.
The first piece I wrote there, in a previous year, was a set of variations on a theme of Brahms. I used the Andante movement of Brahms’ first string sextet. I did a set of variations on that, there. The second time I was there, I wrote my second piano concerto, which is called Ancient Keys [Notice the connections between this piece—and several of Victoria’s pieces—and the pianist Paul Barnes]. It is a place that has been very wonderful to me. I’ve been invited back, I’m happy to say, in 2011. So I will be going back.
IA: Could tell us about your piece “There Isn’t Time”?
VB: “There Isn’t Time” has a history that actually goes back to my years as a singer. One of the things that I did during the time I was a student at USC was an opera by Harry Partch. I sang the principle female lead, the soprano role, in Delusion of The Fury. The role was the Old Goat Woman (which seemed pretty interesting at the time, since I was maybe 20!). Originally, Partch had wanted this role to be played by one person who was a dancer and a singer. But the dancer that they got in the role was not able to sing, so they had to use two people. I was very happy to be included in that project, because Harry Partch was alive at that time, and I got to meet him and work with him and his fantastic instruments. That made a tremendous impression on me.
When I was in Los Angeles two years ago, I was commissioned to do a work by the Los Angeles Community Museum of Art (LACMA). The work that they had commissioned was called “Frescoes and Ash,” based on the Pompeii frescoes. The piece had percussion in it, and we rehearsed in the studio of the percussionist. I noticed that he had some of the Harry Partch instruments in his studio. I wanted to know more about this, and I found out that there was a West Coast group called “Partch” that performed the music of Harry Partch!
When I got a second commission from LACMA, I decided that I wanted to write a piece for the Partch instruments. I loved them so much and I really wanted to explore them and see what I could do with my own creative energies using these instruments. The Museum of Art always has a concert in conjunction with an art exhibit at the same time (for “Frescoes and Ash,” they were having an exhibit of the frescoes and mosaics of Pompeii). This particular exhibit was the artwork of John Baldessari, a rather well-known West Coast artist. So I took the titles of his artwork as the titles of my work. “There Isn’t Time” is actually the title of one of his works.
The first movement is called “Line of Force.” Partch, as I say, wrote several operas. He used dramatic ideas in most of his works and his instruments themselves are rather dramatic to look at. I wanted to include that kind of pageantry and drama in my piece. So in this first movement, “Line of Force,” I have two percussionists coming from the back of the auditorium, walking through the audience, playing their drums strapped to them in the manner of a marching band, walking through the audience, walking onto the stage, and circling, one by one, each of the Partch instruments, playing trios (the two percussionists and each Partch instrument) with each instrument separately so that people have a chance to hear the instruments one by one before they are included all together. Their sounds are so unique that I thought it was important to have a chance to listen to each instrument on its own and get to know its unique sound.
The second movement is called “Falling Clouds,” which I thought was a very interesting visual image, particularly since one of the instruments that Harry invented was called the Cloud Chamber Bowls. These are inverted glass bowls of different sizes that are hung on a percussion rack and played with mallets. They have a sound that is between a bell and a chime, but with very complex overtones so that the sounds are extremely rich. each bowl gives you a chord rather than just a single tone.
IA: Are they pitched along a scale?
VB: Well, Partch developed a 43-note scale. One of the most interesting aspects of Partch’s musical philosophy is his philosophy of tuning. As you probably know, the 12-tone scale is very much an approximation of the overtone series and never gives you a true consonance. The intervals—major third, minor third, even the fifth—are never exactly perfectly in tune. Our tuning system is a compromise so that you can play in all twelve keys. The Bach “Well-Tempered Clavier” showcases well-tempered tuning. Partch wanted to get away from tempered tuning. He was searching for complete consonance or perfect harmony. So he devised a 43-tone scale, which brought him a lot closer in the intervals to what would be perfect consonance. His Cloud Chamber Bowls (while there are not 43 bells; that would be much too heavy and cumbersome) are tuned according to his very specific tuning ideas.
IA: Are Partch’s 43 pitches within an octave, or are they a larger scale?
VB: His 43-pitch system is within the octave. The Cloud Chamber Bells go beyond an octave. But they don’t create a scale; you wouldn’t play a melody that was like a scale on those notes. First of all, it wouldn’t sound like a scale, because their tones are so complex that you don’t just hear one pitch when you hear them.
The third movement of “There Isn’t Time” also uses three instruments that are very singular to Partch’s philosophy. One comes from an instrument called the Marimba Eroica, which is an instrument whose pitch goes so low that you almost cannot hear it, but you can feel it. The pitches are very deep. You feel them in the floorboards. You feel them in your bones. If you get a certain distance from them, you can hear them. Sometimes when you’re standing up close, you hardly hear them at all because those sounds waves are so deep, and so long, that it really takes a large room to allow that instrument to move. The Partch ensemble in Los Angeles did not have a complete set of those keys; they had only two of the uppermost key, which is still pretty low. They call this key the HypoBass, which is actually a name that Harry used before he built the complete Marimba Eroica. Since there were two of them, I wanted to have one at either side of the stage and create a kind of force-field. They were both pitched at a low A, the lowest A on the music staff. They created a hum or buzz, so the Baldessari name I chose for that one is “Spaces Between.” Between those two HypoBasses I placed the diamond marimba and the bass marimba. Both of those instruments, of course, have their own stories. But it would mainly be the HypoBass and the low-pitched instruments that I wanted to have highlighted, with these instruments acting almost as echoes of the low pitches.
And the then last movement was a Baldessari title called “Story with Twenty-Four Versions,” which of course brought to mind variations. I used an original theme, a theme that has been with me throughout my whole compositional life. It’s sort of like a signature that I bury in a lot of pieces—sort of like how the artist Hirschfeld used his daughter’s name, Nina, hidden within his drawings. You always look at Hirschfeld drawings to try to find “Nina” hidden within the lines. So I’ve used this particular theme in a lot of my pieces, although not overtly. It’s kind of a touchstone or Rosetta stone for me. I used that as my theme, but then I took quotes from various other works of Partch’s and wove them throughout each of the variations. There are twenty-four variations. As you can imagine, it moves to a center at the twelfth variation and then it moves backwards, but not literally backwards, because I found out that once I had gotten to the complexity of the twelfth variation, the piece did not want to go back to the simplicity of the very opening. So I kept adding things while I sort of went backwards from twelve to one in terms of shape, but I accumulated the material that had gone before.
IA: Now, you took the titles of your movements from these works of art; were you also inspired by the visual aspect of the works of art?
VB: Not so much, no. It was really the titles of them. I’m much more of an aural person than I am a visual person and I think that’s probably why useful sources for me have been literary, dramatic (in terms of the words of the drama), and verbal. I’m much more focused on what I hear than what I see.
IA: This next question you’ve been answering a lot in all of your different discussions, but I just want to get a little more focused in on it. So you have composed in many, many different genres for all these different ensembles and instruments and a lot of your works have been on commission. Do you think all of your works have a common thread, stylistically or harmonically? Do they have “the Bond sound”?
VB: Oh, absolutely. And I should say also that there have been works that were not commissioned, that I felt I had to write. And, yes, there is a common thread harmonically.
I try to turn a corner after every work. For example, after the opera there was this work for the Partch ensemble, which was a completely different direction. I’ve written works for Chinese instruments, which brought me into a whole new timbral world. I’m going to be doing a piece about insects in the future, where I use actual insect sounds as part of the fabric of the piece itself. I have a piece called “Thinking like a Mountain” into which I orchestrated wolf howls, because they are such musical animals: they get together and sing; what could be better than that?! Just of the sense of community; I think that’s gorgeous, and I adore wolves, anyway. I think I’m always attuned to projects that are intriguing to me in some way, shape, or form. I wouldn’t always want to do the same thing, which is one of the aspects of creative work I love so much. Repetition is within the work; it’s not doing the same thing over and over again. Even though I have written four operas, for example, they’re vastly different works.
I build on the technique of the past, but there’s always something I’m curious about that I haven’t tried before. For instance, with the insects, I’m exploring computer music and computer equipment, which I’ve really not explored before. That’s a whole new world that I’m starting to learn about. I am very interested in technology, but my first love is “real sound.” I think that’s why I love Harry Partch’s instruments and Harry Partch’s philosophy, because they have to do with the nature of sound itself, how sound is generated, how we hear, how we perceive. Those are the things that are constant with me.
I love the elements of music: I love melody. I adore melody. As a singer, you can imagine, melody is first and foremost. I never plan to abandon it. A lot of composers in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries sort of pushed melody to the side in favor of other aspects: timbre (for example), spectral composition, rhythm, percussion, and other things besides melody. But as far as I’m concerned, melody is still at the top of the pyramid. It’s a very mysterious quality. You can’t manufacture it. Why do two notes, or three notes, take off, and are memorable, whereas another three notes just lie there inertly? I don’t understand melody, but I certainly recognize it when it’s there and I content myself with being grateful when a melody makes itself manifest to me.
Then the other aspect of melody is harmony. I think that in the West we have such a great harmonic tradition that I don’t want to abandon it. My studies were in twelve-tone at USC and at Juilliard. I was very involved with twelve-tone music, which I think is an extremely useful technique. I’m extremely grateful to that technique for giving me a way to include counterpoint as part of a twentieth- and twenty-first-century vocabulary, because twelve-tone music is very much involved with counterpoint. But as far as a harmonic language exclusively, I reject that. For me, it’s very limiting in the area of consonance. It is a harmonic language that does not allow for the kind of resolution that perfect consonance and perfect harmony provide. So I include twelve-tone harmonies and certainly twelve-tone techniques as part of my musical vocabulary, but only as part of it. I still love tonality and I love harmony.
And as far as rhythm: I’m always learning more about rhythm. Other cultures have delved deeper into rhythm than our Western tradition, and I think there’s a lot to learn from the Indian tradition, from the African tradition, and from the Brazilian tradition (which is a combination of African and Hispanic). I’m always interested in rhythms. Going back to Bartok: what he discovered in his studies of folk music of his native Hungary and the area around, the wonderful asymmetrical rhythms that he noted and used in his compositions. I’m always learning more about rhythm and about the percussion section, which is a constantly expanding section.
And in terms of timbre: I love working with musicians and the instruments of the orchestra, because I find them to be so rich, there’s always more to learn about these instruments. I don’t play a string instrument, which is an advantage and a disadvantage. The advantage is that in writing for string instruments, sometimes I come up with things that are radically different than the traditional string techniques. Of course I only use things that work; I always work with string players when I’m writing a piece for strings, because even though I want to stretch out, I want to write something that sounds well on the instrument. Having been a singer who sang a lot of twentieth and twenty-first century music, I know that the voice can do practically anything, but that it doesn’t like to do certain things. Jumping from the lowest to the highest note and things like that: you can do it, you can practice it, you can learn it, but it’s not something that makes the instrument sound its best. And I’m always interested in working with the voice of the instrument itself and seeing what it likes to do. Not just what it has done, but what the possibilities are beyond even what it has done.
One great advantage of having spent so much time on the podium is that I really do have a pretty good sound print in my head of each of the orchestral instruments and what they sound like in the repertoire. It’s sort of my own personal synthesizer in my head. It’s very musical, because I can bring that to mind in terms of orchestration and also in terms of compositional ideas, because it’s not as though I would write something for the piano and orchestrate it. A lot of the ideas come from the orchestra itself and are very specific: a specific oboe part, for instance, as opposed to a clarinet part. I’m very grateful for those years that I spent with the standard repertory and with the musicians. I got a special sense, too, from standing on the podium, of how things are set up. The concertmaster is really at least a block away from the bass trombone player, the tuba player, the timpani player way in the back of the hall. I got a sense of what the space is like and how people hear each other on stage. It also gave me a very practical sense of how much rehearsal time is allotted to pieces of new music.
The composers that I look to who have conducting experience (Mahler, Strauss, Wagner, Brahms…), have a great depth of knowledge of the instruments. Any time an orchestral musician takes an audition with an orchestra, you can bet there’s going to be Strauss and Mahler in their excerpt books, because those composers wrote so brilliantly for the orchestra and really did stretch the instruments beyond where they had been before.
IA: I was talking to another composer recently and he said that “The orchestra is the greatest human musical invention of all times.” He loves all the colors and all the timbres of the orchestra. Now, do you think of yourself as belonging to any particular ‘school’ or ‘movement’ of contemporary composers?
VB: No. No, I have assiduously avoided any “-isms.” I am a musical omnivore. My musical influences come from my own experiences and my travels. I have traveled to China many times, I’ve traveled to Brazil, I’ve traveled across Europe. My own American background included jazz as well as popular music. Folk music certainly is an important influence. I am happy living with the seeming chaos that is my musical background. It really makes for a tapestry from which to draw whenever I need material for the ideas within the piece that I’m writing. I am not a minimalist. I think if I were to be anything I would be a maximalist!
Actually, one aspect of musical composition that really interests me is the idea of development. I find that to be a very important part of everything that I write. One of the things that I love best about Western tradition, starting with Haydn, maybe even before Haydn, is this wonderful sense of an idea that learns from itself, that grows and develops and transforms itself from one thing into another. It just seems like an extremely natural way that a plant would grow. That is probably a through-line that goes through everything I’ve written. At least I hope so.
IA: Like the developmental section of a sonata or a symphony movement, or like themes-and-variations?
VB: Right, exactly. I should start with Bach, not Haydn. But Bach and Haydn, Beethoven, Mozart, and Brahms are the composers who really had the idea that development was not only in the development sections, but really in every aspect of every piece that they wrote. I think it is not an accident that Beethoven’s and Brahms’ favorite form was the variation form. Really, quite literally, everything that those composers wrote had a sense of growth and development.
IA: Who are some composers working right now whose work you admire, whom you think are influential, especially young composers in America; and what are they doing?
VB: I think a lot of young composers are exploring the technology, which is very interesting, and working with film a great deal. This is something that I did have experience doing: before I left Los Angeles, I apprenticed with a number of film composers, first doing orchestration and arranging for them, and later actually ghost-writing for them. I do have a sense of what it is to work with film and I find that a number of the emerging composers are very involved with the visual aspect of music and working with film. I think that’s an important aspect of it. Also, working with the computer technology.
I have a series called Cutting Edge Concerts New Music Festival on which I present living composers. In its 12 year history, the series has performed music of over 100 composers including: Bruce Adolphe, Samuel Adler, Alla Barsova, Robert Beaser, Sir Richard Rodney Bennett, Derek Bermel, William Bolcom, Kenji Bunch, Steven Burke, Paul Chiharra, David Claman, Donald Crockett, Sebastien Currier, Jon Deak, David Del Tredici, Lisa Despain, Stephen Dickman, Jacob Druckman, Cornelius Dufallo, Gabriela Lena Frank, Michel Galante, Kyle Gann, Mark Grey, Daron Hagen, John Harbison, Jennifer Higdon, Katherine Hoover, Aaron Kernis, Kristin Kuster, David Lang, Paul Yeon Lee, Tania Leon, Fred Lerdahl, Zhou Long, William Mayer, Martha Mooke, Andrew Norman, Pauline Oliveros, Frank Oteri, Cindy McTee, Harold Meltzer, Ivan Moody, Paul Moravec, Jeffrey Mumford, Dame Thea Musgrave, Akemi Naito, Stephen Paulus, Matthias Pintscher, Jay Reise, Marga Richter, Martin Rokeach, Neil Rolnick, Eric Salzman, Greg Sandow, Laurie San Martin, Peter Schickele, Laura Schwendinger, Alex Shapiro, Allen Shawn, Sean Shepherd, Roberto Sierra, Steven Stucky, Steven Takasugi, Christopher Theofanidis, Augusta Read Thomas, Jeremy Thurlow, Joan Tower, Andrew Waggoner, Melinda Wagner, Joelle Wallach, Xi Wang, Dalit Warshaw, Anna Weesner, Richard Wernick, Theodore Wiprud, Randy Woolf, Jin Xiang, and Chen Yi.
In 2011, composers whose work is scheduled to be performed include: Laurie Anderson, Armando Bayolo, Jon Deak, Brian Ferneyhough, David Glaser, Daniel Godfrey, Vera Ivanova, Ben Johnston, Hannah Lash, Harold Meltzer, Jeffrey Mumford, Peter Schickele, Robert Sirota, Ronald Bruce Smith, Reza Vali, Randy Woolf, and myself.
I’m very involved with composers of today, both established composers and emerging composers. I feel very strongly about that. I also like to present composers whose musical philosophy may not be at all akin to mine, because I find that in learning their music and learning about them, it opens a door for understanding their music. I may not be writing in that particular genre, but I’m always interested and open to seeing what they’re about.
IA: Do you want to make a prediction for the future? Something that you think is going to happen in the next fifty or one hundred years to music?
VB: In my most optimistic crystal ball, I see the internet as being a door that will allow people who have heretofore not considered classical contemporary music part of their lives, to be able to sample it in a non-threatening environment. I think because of the internet and YouTube, people can sample all sorts of music that they have never thought of before. All it takes is a stimulus: an article, a TV show, or a movie, to get people thinking about something. 2001, for example, was a movie that really launched the extraordinary composer György Ligeti public in a way where they were able to hear his music, I think extraordinarily effectively realized, and their curiosity was peaked, and he became a name that really was familiar on concert programs after that. He may not have been happy with it himself, but it really was extremely helpful to him. I think in my most optimistic moods, that the internet is a vast promoter of contemporary music.
Another thing that it’s been helpful for is to allow composers to contact performers, audience members, and the record-buying public directly. In the past it was always through a middle-person, always through a promoter, through a publisher, through a recording company. But now, because practically every composer has a website, it is possible for a composer to put representative examples of their music on the website for people to hear, links to places where they can purchase CDs, program notes, background information about themselves…. And there are plenty of people who are just surfing the web, just looking.
Another positive thing is that I have spent a lot of time in China where Classical music (and by Classical I mean contemporary as well as traditional) has a very important part in Chinese society. And there are a billion of them, and they’re all studying Classical music. I feel that the future of Classical music is in good hands in China.
Now, on my most pessimistic side, the fact that there is less and less music education in the [American] schools is a very sore sticking point because it gives young people fewer options for self-expression. My reasoning for this comes from the times that I conducted youth orchestras, for instance the Pittsburgh Youth Symphony, then the Empire State Youth orchestra. And there, kids would come in, and they’d be listening to whatever pop music was on the airwaves, but they’d put down their headsets and their iPods and they’d pick up their violins and their cellos, and they would play music that would enable them to express such a broader band of emotions than the pop music would allow them to. As a teenager, I know that there were things I wanted to express that I just could not find words for. Music is a language that is so much more subtle than words. I think for these kids to be playing this passionate, expressive music was so important; it enriched their lives enormously. I feel very sad for the kids who are growing up without this means of expression. All they have is what is on MTV, which is, I mean, I find it very boring. But I also find it very limited to a narrow band of emotions. There is this whole inner life that has no means of expression.
Because commercial music is so heavily funded, it makes money; Classical music needs subsidies because if people don’t know what they’re missing, they don’t miss it. If they don’t learn about it in school, there are very few other ways that they can learn about it. They’re certainly not going to learn about it on television. When you listen to the majority of stations on the radio, you can count on the fingers of one hand, using only two or three fingers, the classical stations, even in big cities like New York. So if they don’t get it in school, and they don’t get it at home, chances are they’re not going to get it. I wish that our government would realize how important a musical education is, not just to produce musicians, but to produce fully-rounded human beings.
There’s another great example of this, which is happening right now. In Venezuela, El Sistema is taking kids out of the ghetto in the poorest circumstances, and giving them the chance to play in incredible orchestras. I understand that there are more than one hundred orchestras in Venezuela. And now, one of the products of this incredible system is Gustavo Dudamel, the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and I know that the Philharmonic is now making a very big effort at education and outreach. I just hope that this spark takes flame all over the country and that we realize it is a participatory aspect of music that is important to young people. It’s not just exposing them to young people’s concerts and bringing them into the concert hall, but putting an instrument in their hands and having them feel what it’s like to play in a musical ensemble or to sing in a vocal group. That’s really where it’s going to take root and grow. They need to participate in something.
No matter what they do with it in the future, it’s an important part of being a human being. As I say, with wolves, it’s understood: you’re a wolf, you get together with other wolves, and you make music: you howl. We have that within us, and it’s sad when I hear somebody say, “Oh, I’m tone-deaf; I can’t carry a tune.” Well, I personally don’t believe that anyone is tone deaf. I think they had some terrible experience as a child that made them think that way. But I think that everybody is intrinsically musical (to differing degrees of course) but has that musical gene within them. That is part of being a person. And I would really love to see that developed in a much broader way throughout the world: just people getting together to make music, to have fun. Not necessarily to prove anything to anyone, but just to enjoy making music together.