March 01, 2007

Martin Bresnick - Experimental Sexes

By Steven Rosenfeld

Inspired by William Blake's poetry, composer MARTIN BRESNICK celebrates his 60th Birthday with a multi-media release that offers a new way of experiencing contemporary music


Martin Bresnick

Acclaimed composer Martin Bresnick celebrated his 60th birthday with a series of concerts in late 2006 and the release on Cantaloupe Records of The Essential Martin Bresnick. This CD-DVD set has new recordings of works from the past two decades and a multi-media presentation of William Blake's pamphlet-poem, For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise. ASCAP Audio Portrait producer Steven Rosenfeld recently caught up with the seasoned composer.

You've just had those big concerts celebrating your 60th birthday. Your catalog is truly immense. How do you pick your "greatest hits" or "essential work?"

The record company picked them, actually. That's the Bang on a Can people, Cantaloupe Records. They picked pieces that they felt were very strong. It's not a bad selection, I would say, although it turns out that almost all that music on that disc had been recorded elsewhere in different circumstances. All the recordings that are on that disc are new and were recorded in the very recent past.

They are magnificent recordings, done meticulously. How do you think the pieces have held up over time?

It's funny about that. Some composers feel as soon as a piece is done, they don't want to think about it anymore. I am not one of those people. The works on this disc are works that I feel very proud of. I think they have stood up and retain a kind of interest. I think they reward relistening. But I must say when I hear them now, I'm not sure how I went about doing them. There's something about that period where they came into being is really gone. But the pieces themselves still speak.

They certainly do. As I listened, I was wondering how you maintained your concentration as a composer. Now some pieces build slowly. But the last piece, "Be Just," is incredibly fast.

Yes, it's a kind of explosion, that one. Well, it's something that one works to achieve. Quite apart from being occasionally graced by inspiration, you really struggle to be able to present your ideas quickly and vividly when that's required. I think one of the ways I learned to do that was because I've done quite a few films, particularly documentary films, where you have to get in and get out very quickly, and characterize something very strongly and robustly in a short amount of time. So a work like "Be Just," which begins with chains dropped on a drum, is an immediately striking and unusual sound, and it just seemed to me that once that happened, something really quick and violent has to happen after that, and that's what does happen.

Let me ask about the DVD, For the Sexes: The Gates of Paradise. Where does William Blake fit into your world?

This is a very personal work. Also, the record company people were interested in exploring the relationship of image and sounds as a new way of speaking in contemporary music. But this piece is a lot closer to me than to them. Blake is a pretty high-art kind of a figure. Even though his language is straightforward and simple, it is still pretty hard to figure out what he is saying.

This was actually a little book of poems and illustrations that Blake made at the end of his life. It haunted me for a long time. The pianist Lisa Moore, who is a wonderful player and also my wife, had asked me to use her extraordinary piano skills, but also, she's quite an actress with a great power of declamation. So all these things came together. I thought I would have her play the piano, read these lines and then we'd see the images unveiled as Blake might have imagined if he had lived in the early 21st Century.

I have always admired Blake in that he was an independent artist who tried to pursue his life free from unneeded external pressures and let ordinary people decide about his work. He actually stood in the street with these little books and sold them himself, after having actually made them and printed them himself. If you go into the British Museum, you'll see that each of these books were colored differently, because Blake experimented. This was my homage to Blake. We would take his way of thinking about art and re-coloring things, and making them more vivid in that way, and bring them to a popular medium.

Blake's opening line is "Mutual forgiveness of each vice, such are the gates of paradise." This concept that we must all forgive each other, and that's the only way we will move forward. He takes up very important moral issues and treats them powerfully. The other thing that struck me is his feeling about women. He asks "Are not women also the divine image?" And, of course, the answer is yes. This is very early in the history of this kind of thought. Yes, men and women, that's humanity. It's a very moving thing in the end.