Through a glass darkly: interview with Lawrence Kramer

In this exclusive interview, the American composer and musicologist Lawrence Kramer tells how he became interested in music, the role that literature plays in his work and decisive encounter with the Masters (Schoenberg, Carter and others).

1. What have been the most important musical influences for your work as a composer? Listening to pieces like Another Time or Crossing the water, I thought that the tradition of Singspiel (musical drama)- approximately from Schubert to Schoenberg first, that of Pierrot Lunaire- may have played an important role.

Lawrence KramerLike anyone who writes in the tradition of classical music, I owe enormous debts to the familiar figures whose works populate the canon—debts too numerous to acknowledge and too deep to repay. And like anyone writing such music today, when music is everywhere, I show the effects of other kinds of music even if it’s music I don’t particularly like. “Liking” has never been that important to me anyway. As I’ll explain in a little while, it was very important to me at a turning point in my career to be inspired by a composer whose music I rarely listen to because, with some exceptions, I don’t particularly like it. But for me musical influences tend to come as particular events, not as models of style, form, or aesthetic attitude. Take Pierrot lunaire, for example, which you mention in your question. I first heard this music in a high school classroom. This was in New York City many years ago; at the time the city school system required that all students take classes in “music appreciation,” which meant a basic introduction to classical music. I didn’t need the introduction; I’d an avid collector of LPs for several years and attended classical concerts at numerous sites in the city, including the then-new Lincoln Center. (Piano lessons in childhood helped.) But I had never heard anything by Schoenberg, and I had certainly never heard anything like Sprechstimme. When my teacher played the music—just an extract; it was “Eine blasse Wäscherin,” barely a minute long—I was almost jolted out of my seat. And again it was not because I liked the music (although I did, and do) but because it showed me that music could come from combinations of sound I had never conceived of and in modes of voice I could never have imagined.

Another such formative event was a film, which shaped a sense I have always had that music is fundamentally a mixed or multi-media art form. That sense, more than the tradition of Singspiel, is responsible for the dramatic elements in Another Time, which is choreographed, and Crossing the Water, which mixes speech with song throughout. The film was Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly, which makes extensive use of the sarabande from Bach’s Second Suite for Unaccompanied Cello. (The film dates from 1960; I probably saw it in the early ‘70s.) The music is particularly important in a climactic scene in the hatch of a wrecked ship where a brother and his mad sister cling to each other as he tries to comfort her. This was music I knew quite well, but here it was assuming meanings, associations, and nuances (even musical nuances) that were new to me and for that matter were new to the music. Music’s potential to extend and transform itself together with the things it touches struck me very forcibly on this occasion and has stayed with me ever since.

Finally, as to that turning point: after I had abandoned a youthful desire to be a composer because my teachers were all committed to what they called “totally serial” music and were intolerant of all other kinds (kinds such as I might have liked to write), I took a Ph.D in English and started professional life as an academic literary critic. But the climate of new music in the United States was changing, opening up, and by the end of the 1970s I was starting to turn back to music, both as a scholar and as a would-be composer. Of course I had a lot of catching up to do and I needed to ask all over again what kind of music I wanted to write. A crucial part of the answer came from Elliott Carter, in particular from his 1978 setting of John Ashbery’s poem “Syringa” for mezzo soprano, bass-baritone, and chamber ensemble. I happened to attend the premiere. The music struck me as an especially lucid and moving example of Carter’s technique of giving highly individualized characters, virtual personalities, to the different musical elements of his works. (In this case the singers not only have different musical personalities but even sing in different languages.) I had known about this approach for a long time, but it had never before impressed me with such force. And it has influenced me ever since (it certainly influenced both Another Time and Crossing the Water), even though most of Carter’s music leaves me cold and my music does not sound in the least like his.

2. One of the parts that I liked most of your book, Why Classical Music Still Matters (we talked about it here), is dedicated to the romantic piano. What role plays the piano in your music?

Of course everyone writes piano music, and how could they not? For sheer versatility what can beat the piano? Maybe you’ve heard of the British artist Luke Jerram, who has brought a project he calls “Play Me, I’m Yours” to London, New York, and other cities. He sets up refurbished pianos in prominent public spaces and invites people to play them—and they do. Often they improvise. It’s hard to resist. But it is always important to treat the piano as a piano and not as an all-purpose music machine. Young composers are always told they should be careful about composing at the piano, and it’s good advice, especially these days, when music software can supply playback as needed. So when I compose for the piano it’s because the conception I’m trying to realize needs the piano and not some other instrument. With piano music I think we should be able to hear the pianist’s hands. The variations movement of Ecstasis, for example, evolves out of the difference between successions of two-hand chords and flights of linear melody. Another of my solo piano pieces, The Wild Swans, depends on continuity of color across the full span of the keyboard.

For the same reasons, it’s important to know when not to write for piano. I’ve composed a lot of vocal music, so the use of piano as accompaniment is always an issue. But there are times when the conception of the music, or the texts involved, makes the piano the wrong choice. Another Time is an example. A certain feeling of separation in both time and space is crucial to this music; there has to be a perceptible space and silence between the instrumental lines when they sound together—and that’s impossible on the piano. Similarly I’ve written an extended cycle, The Wanderer and his Shadow (texts adapted from Nietzsche) for voice and solo cello. On the other hand, in Crossing the Water the percussive possibilities of the piano are perfect for evoking the resoluteness and desperation of the striking workers in the movement “Paterson: The Strike.”

3. In your works, literature plays an important role. In Crossing the Water, for example, the starting point is a text of Walt Whitman. In other cases, these are texts written by yourself…It is not very common, for a composer, to write literary texts. Where does the need for a dialogue between music and literature?

The impulse to that dialogue comes from my personal history, some of which I’ve spoken of here. I have a literary side that I can’t suppress (and don’t want to) and I do work in a university English department even though I’m also a professor of music. So it simply pleases me at times to write my own texts for musical setting, although I only do it when the musical conception would lead in that direction anyway; to create certain effects, it is sometimes easier to make the appropriate texts than to find them (especially if copyright is involved). At another level, this dialogue is a result of my understanding of music as essentially, not accidentally, connected to other media. Music certainly has an imaginative world of its own, but it is constantly alluding to or evoking other imaginative worlds, to the point where it almost makes no sense to make the distinction. I like music that explores this fundamental interconnectedness, whether with texts (from Winterreise to John Adams’s “The Wound Dresser” after Walt Whitman) or without texts (from L’Apres-midi d’un faun” to George Benjamin’s “Ringed by the Flat Horizon” after T. S. Eliot), and it’s the kind of music I like to write—although as my very varied examples suggest, there is no one way to write it.

4. What do you think about the contemporary music scene in America? There are musical movements or composers that you follow with interest?

The nice thing about the contemporary music scene in America is that there is no contemporary music scene. Instead there is a loose assemblage of many different scenes, some overlapping, some not, and many of them purely individual. The notions of the avant-garde, of its “conservative” antagonists, and of some sort of uniquely progressive “new music” have all been discarded. The opposition between the tonal and the non-tonal seems old-fashioned and irrelevant. There is no dominant school and no limit on aesthetic choices. You write what you want, and so does everyone else.

For the past several years I have produced an annual concert, Voices Up! at Fordham University, where I teach. The concerts normally feature newly composed settings of newly written poems, and as a result I have the opportunity to work with other composers and either to renew or begin my acquaintance with their work. The concerts have featured new compositions by Victoria Bond, David Dzubay, Paul Moravec, and Richard Russell, among others. This year we will be performing works by Lisa Beilawa, whose music I know, and Ryan Chase and John Boggs, whose music I will discover as we prepare the concert. The series is a kind of microcosm of the scene-without-a-scene”: varied, surprising, and unconstrained.

Musical excerpts on the web site: musicbylawrencekramer.com

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