December 01, 1998

Ned Rorem



Photograph by Jack Mitchell
Composer Ned Rorem Began His 75th Birthday Year With Rave Reviews For His New 36-Song Score, But That Hasn't Stopped Him From Being Grim About America's Musical Future

One of America's most accomplished and prolific song-oriented composers, Ned Rorem, is in his 75th year and concerts around the world are celebrating with performances of his works, both old and new. The world premiere of his latest song cycle, Evidence of Things Not Seen, presented earlier this year by the New York Festival of Song, caused Peter Davis of New York magazine to write: "I will rashly proclaim it one of the musically richest, most exquisitely fashioned, most voice-friendly collections of songs I have ever heard by any American composer." Here Rorem, who is also the author of many books, discusses Evidence and explains why he thinks America is on a sad path to musical ignorance.

Tell me about your latest piece, Evidence of Things Not Seen?

Whatever my reputation in the musical world is, it has always centered around vocal music, specifically songs. In other words, solo voice and piano, which I've been writing all of my life.

I'm not sure that my first songs, which I wrote when I was 14 or 15, were written because I was crazy about the voice, because I am still not obsessed with the voice the way some people are who like opera. It has to do with being obsessed with poetry as well as music.

In America, unlike Europe, most people are specialists. They aren't general practitioners. You are supposed to do one thing but not two or three things. I was, and still am, interested in all sorts of things, which includes writing and music. I don't set my own words to music, but I am interested in setting words to music. And as soon as I realized that other people were interested too, I had an impetus, because I don't think anyone continues doing what they're doing, as an artist, unless there is some incentive. You could write poems perhaps, or paint pictures, but to be a composer, you've got to hear your music and you need a middle man. In my case, a middle man is a singer. Even today, if I didn't feel encouraged every day of my life in some way or another by a performance or a commission or my name in the paper, just to know that I am loved, I would throw in the sponge.

I got involved in songs and singers and it went on and on and on. And today, there is not one single classical singer of so-called art songs who can earn a living as a recitalist and get an audience unless he or she has a reputation as an opera singer. Then people come to hear the opera singer sing songs and hope to hear the aria from Carmen. There are many, many fine solo singers but there aren't any who can earn a living without teaching, and that's terrible. I credit that to the general know-nothing, philistinism of the whole world, beginning with America.

So, in all of this morass, I have always wanted to write something called "Art of the Song" which would be a full evening of songs just by me and sung interrelated in some way. But it would be madness to write a piece like that unless it was a commission with a guarantee performance. So the New York Festival of Song commissioned a work and it's for four solo voices and piano and it's on 36 different texts. It is performed without intermission and it lasts about an hour and 35 minutes. It doesn't seem long to me. It is divided into three sections: Beginnings, Middles and Endings.

There are 36 songs and there are solos, duets, trios, quartets. Everyone gets their 15 minutes. And it builds through a sort of birth, life and death to an end. The phrase, "Evidence of Things Not Seen" comes from William Penn, a Quaker thinker. I'm a Quaker, by the way, philosophically, though not religiously.

What is the basic tenet of Quaker thought?

My mother's younger brother was killed in the first World War. She was very traumatized. And she and my father, after they got married (around 1920), decided that they would like to affiliate themselves with a religion which actively stood for peace, in other words, they were pacifists. I don't even know if they believed in God, I don't believe in God -- I'm an atheist, but I believe in Peace. I was raised with the idea that there is no such thing as a good war. Maybe I'm right, maybe I'm wrong, but that is what I believe. And other people, who are not fools, think the same thing. The Quakers, in fact, received a Nobel Prize in the 1920's, for their peace work on both sides of the line in Germany and Russia. So, there is no music in the Quaker church, but I have taken some Quaker prose sections and have set it to music as a sort of a hymn at the end of each section in Parts I, II and III. And a lot of the other texts are raunchy or depressing or in some way downbeat. A lot of it is homophilic, both for the girls and the boys, and it's all close to my heart. It's singable if I say it is.

What process did you go through in choosing the various texts?

When I write songs, I have a whole collection of texts that eventually I will set to music. There is a lot of prose here. There are three or four sections that were originally in French which I translated into English. There are 24 different authors of 36 different texts: classic writers like Robert Browning, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Walt Whitman. There is Roethke, Whitman, Auden, Wordsworth, Browning, a lot of Paul Goodman, who was very important in my childhood in Chicago. There is Edna St. Vincent Millay, John Waldman -- another Quaker thinker -- Kipling, Stephen Crane, Langston Hughes, Oscar Wilde, Baudelaire.

Is there a common thread among these writers?

The common thread is my tastes. But the first section, which is called Beginnings, is from "Whence Cometh Song?" from Theodore Roethke, then it goes semi-optimistically forward and all four singers sort of trudge out into the open. None of these authors knew each other as far as I know, but they know each other through my juxtaposition. There are sections about love, most of it unfulfilled. The middle section has a lot to do with war. And William Penn and Kipling and John Waldman and Auden talk about the horrors of war -- the blood and rape and utter destruction. The third section is about death, both comforting and not. "Evidence of Things Not Seen" is a definition of faith, because that which is God or an afterlife is simply a question of faith and faith is the evidence of things not seen. And it ends: "We cannot love to live if we cannot bear to die." God isn't even involved in it.

The piece was performed a little over a week ago in Nantucket and I sat there listening to it, thinking what a terribly good piece it is and how all of these words conspired to blend and work toward a finished product. But then I said, "I didn't write the words" and there is an element of cheating in all composers who use words. Shubert cheated and Brahms cheated, because half the work is already done, but the composer usually gets the credit. But if these works didn't exist, one could say the same thing about a tuba or a piano, except those are the mediums, they aren't part of the result. Or like the human voice. I was writing for them but using another poet who didn't know me and who was dead before I was born. That's rather the honest thing about words of classical songs. Words of pop music are often invented at the same time the music is. In this case, it's a question of taking a pre-existing lyric, often a lyric masterpiece, and then presuming that you can add something to it.

Did you, in most cases, echo the sentiments of the words, or would you add your own musical interpretation of them?

You are going on the assumption that there is only one way of echoing the words. I have a class in which I'll take six young composers and say, "We're all going to set the same poem to music and afterwards we'll compare the different settings." And then I'll say that Suzy put the climax on a high B Flat and Jonathan put the climax at the beginning of the poem. I never say you're wrong and you're right because who am I to say that there is only one way of doing it. Then I'll show them my way, in case I've already done it. Because there is no one way.

About 33 years ago I wrote a song cycle that the Ford Foundation commissioned that contained 17 songs based on 8 poems. I took 8 poems and set them to music twice. They went 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8 and then there was a 9th interlude, and then it went 8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1. The second settings were very different from the first settings and it was a conscious decision. The first setting was wild and hysterical and the second setting was very controlled. I was showing how there was more than one way to skin a rat. I think, in that sense, it worked.

In preparing this piece, I would come to a point where I would need another fast song, so I took a poem that on another day in another time I might have set the music slow, and I set it fast. And it changes the meaning of the words.

I think it is very interesting about music; any non-vocal music doesn't mean anything. It can't be proved. Mendelsohnn once said, "It's not that music is too big for words, it is too precise for words." And music is music. It's not literature. In that sense, a song is a bastard. It is uniting two art forms that didn't ask to be forced together. If Debussy writes a piece called "The Sea," we see the sea, because he tells us to. But if he calls his piece, "The Slaughterhouse," we would see the slaughterhouse. In the film "The Heiress" with Olivia de Haviland, there's a scene where she's waiting for her lover who doesn't come and she's running up and down the stairs to Aaron Copeland's music...and everybody started laughing at the preview. Goldwyn said, "For God's sake, you have to save this," so Copeland wrote a completely different kind of music and it changed the whole meaning of what you saw on the screen, because there were no words that were spoken. Think about that the next time you go to a good movie, of how music can save a lousy scene or break a good scene. In a roundabout way, that is to answer your question about whether I'm literal minded about the words.

Is there a particular national sensibility at play in your choice of authors?

No. People always say when they want commissions from me that they want "American" music, but they don't know how to define it. The definition of American music is music written by somebody with an American passport. End of discussion. The music is American because I am American. Roethke was American, so was Whitman, but Auden was not, neither was Wordsworth. I would say that 2/3 of these writers are American and the rest are either English or French. I'm very French by nature and I lived in France for a long time and I am very sympathetic to French music as distinguished from German music. And I feel that all aesthetics in the universe are divided between French and German. Everything is either one or the other. If that's true, then I fall roundly into the French category. German means extravagance and beating your breast and repitition and thickness and heaviness. French means continuity and transparency and say what you have to say, then shut up, with a certain overlay of sexuality. As opposed to German which is sexuality with a lot of sweating. It is loud. Beethoven is pretty crude.

What do you do with a piece like this? First of all, it had marvelous write- ups in Washington and New York and everyplace else and everyone said that it should be recorded, but it isn't. How do you have a piece recorded? A recording has to be backed by something. The money has to come from somewhere. This piece, with all of its good reception, has been recorded, but it hasn't been edited. New World Records can't raise the money to produce it. The Three Tenors make in one evening what a composer like me makes in a lifetime. So their priorities are quite screwed up. To get a recording just doesn't happen like that. I think that is poignant I think that is too bad.

I really feel that America is going into a sort of dark ages from which we may not emerge. Because the parents are not aware of what musical education is in nursery school. If nursery kids learn, as they used to, then they learn to rhyme cat with rat, they can write little poems, they can paint pictures, but they don't know the basics of music. And what they do know, they hear it screaming at them from television. So there is no sense of finesse or elegance or anything in the least bit more complex than junk.

Anybody who has any class in the arts should complain about musical education. I can say this because, who am I? -- just a bug that you can smash under your feet. I'm considered an elite snob. Well, I am elite and I am an aristocrat. So what? What's the matter with that? And I am 1/10th of 1% of all the people who have been complaining. The NEA criteria are a laugh. And there is so little money in there anyway, it wouldn't make a difference. There used to be a requirement in the public schools of a minimum amount of listening to classical music. Whether the kids hated it or not, there it was. And it was there to hate. It is not even there to hate now.

You have to have role models. And I think that music is the worst off, because even with cultured educated people, they know a lot about classical painting and contemporary painting, they know a lot about literature -- they read Dante and they read John Updike -- and even in music, they might know about Vivaldi, but if you mention contemporary music, they are more apt think about the Rolling Stones or the Beastie Boys. I was raised certainly with the pop music of my time and I and my young friends didn't distinguish between what is good and what is bad. Stravinsky was no better really than Benny Goodman or Billie Holiday or Cole Porter. Even today I don't necessarily distinguish. I don't listen to Steve Sondheim with different ears than I listen to David Del Tredici. And the best of Sondheim might be better than the worst of some other, far more brainy type of composer.

So I don't know where that leaves me...or my brothers and sisters. And the sisters are important. If I were to name 15 modern American composers, at least five of them would be females, which is a lot.

As someone who divides his time between writing music, writing books and teaching, when do you get most of your composing done?

People always ask 'when do you compose?' and my answer is that I am never not composing. While I am talking to you I am a composer. That's what I am and everything that I do, whether it is drinking this glass of juice or watching the weather report, or writing my books, which half of which are about music and the other half aren't; they are about me. I think that artists, by the way, are the least egocentric people, for the simple reason that all of us are so self-involved. But artists are the only ones that produce something other than their own navel. And what they produce is theoretically for the delectation of hundreds or thousands of people.