I want to hear more about your broader approach to composition, outside of just text setting. I am curious to know about Ravel, because I hear the influence there, which is specifically about this particular commission. But is Ravel someone that you look to? Who are other composers of the fin de siècle era up till now that you draw influence from, whether it’s as a composer, harmonically speaking, or as an orchestrator, arranger, how you use instruments, and things like that?
Well, Ravel is up there. He is really one of the most wonderful composers.
I hear that in your music so much. Like in Brion, for example – which was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in what year?
Even though it’s set in an Italian cemetery, this sort of impressionistic feel that I sense with Ravel, and the use of the instrumentation, too, struck me as somewhat Ravelian. Is that deliberate?
Yeah. And that there are always very, very clear borders, so it doesn’t sound at all like Debussy, ever.
It’s funny that you say that, because I was going to say Debussy, and then I thought, no, that’s exactly wrong.
There are so many subtle and interesting similarities and differences between Debussy and Ravel. It seems to be one of those things, in music history class they get brought up together, and then people get confused about their relationship. But one thing is that Ravel, whose harmonic palette probably has never been equaled, does it by building up various versions of similar chords. He doesn’t use multiple systems the way that Debussy does.
Yeah, Stravinsky. Debussy would be in whole-tone mode, and then all of a sudden he would be in pentatonic mode, and then fully chromatic, and then go back. You can trace a piece according to when he moves from one system to another. Ravel is thoroughly integrated; the chords and all parts of it seem to relate that way.
That said, there are so many pieces of Ravel that I love, and part of the animation of this piece was that I don’t actually love the Mallarmé settings.
Yeah, I know, it’s crazy.
Wait, wait: have you listened to the Janet Baker recording?
Yes. She’s amazing. I mean, it’s a great piece of music, but I don’t have love for it, because it hasn’t drawn me in the way that, say, Shéhérazade and Chansons madécasses have.
That’s funny. I think of those two pieces because I know them from the same album of Janet Baker, and they’re almost like six songs of one cycle in my imagination.
I love the opening sound of the Ravel. And then usually Ravel leaves an idea or a texture just as I want him to, and he exhausted me there. I thought, OK, I get it, let’s move on – and he didn’t. I’m sure it’s my own shortcoming. You’ve heard people who say, “I don’t like Shakespeare” or “I don’t like Beethoven,” and you think, who are these people? My father, when he would give me a book and I would read it, would say, “Did you like it?” I’d say, no, not particularly. And he’d say, “To what defect in your personality do you attribute your not liking it?”
That’s such a dad thing to say.
And so, I’m sure that it’s me and not Ravel, but I’m really conscious of the idea that Ravel aficionados think of this as one of the greatest of Ravel pieces, and it’s just never grabbed me. And I was writing this at the same time I was writing other companion pieces. I had a Sinfonia concertante for violin, viola, and chamber orchestra to go on the same program – this was the same year – as the Mozart Sinfonia concertante, which is one of Mozart’s very, very best pieces. That was intimidating. And there was another one around the same time, another companion piece.
You don’t want to draw those kinds of comparisons, but that’s not to say there aren’t exciting things about doing it, at the same time.
Right. It’s much better to be asked to write companion pieces for the 125th anniversary of Reinhold Glière’s ballet, or to Gabriel Pierne. When you’re asked to write companion pieces to Mozart or Ravel…
“Can you write a companion piece to The Marriage of Figaro?”
It’s a little like that. Well, it’s been done, in a way: The Ghosts of Versailles.
Good point. Maybe we should imagine a fourth opera that we can set in Trump Tower in the 21stcentury.
Le grand-mère coupable.
Other than Ravel, I would say the two composers that I point to regularly, who were most influential on the way that I work, are Stravinsky and Schumann. They both, in different ways, are miniaturists. I know some people would object to the characterization of Stravinsky that way, but part of the stitching together of the complicated fabric probably came about by way of the creation of miniatures that grew. I don’t know that much about his working method, but it sounds like that to me.
A quote of his that I can’t quite remember exactly [was] this idea that he would create very firm parameters for himself within a specific piece, and then that restriction somehow would channel his creativity in a more productive and meaningful way. I thought, for example, when listening to this piece, of Symphony of Psalms – the energy, combined with trying to find new ways of expressing genuine emotion that have antecedents in Romantic music or even Baroque music, but that are at the same time completely modern and of their own time and place.
Sure. And I’d love any comparison to Symphony of Psalms, a great, great piece of music.
I think it’s one of the great pieces of the 20th century. I hear it also again especially going back to No. 12 and these more sustained pieces, where the harmonies are very dissonant and yet have their logic unto them that creates a sort of beauty by the time you get to the end of the song, that doesn’t seem so un-consonant.
Right, well, in No. 12 the voice part is completely consonant, and the instruments aren’t, until they are. And then they aren’t again. It’s a unified thing, but the vocal line is extremely direct and songlike – well, it’s a song. But I mean in the way that everyone would say a song is, this is a song.
Speaking of songs, Schumann obviously is one of the most important people to work in that art form. I can hear it, especially thinking about your piano-and-voice writing and, like I mentioned about Schubert, an interpretation of the poem. Schumann also had this incredible literary component to his composition; even in a piece without text, he was a literary person almost in equal measure to his literary persona. And I think about you the same way: someone who voluntarily memorizes 100 poems in his spare time [laughs], and Schumann, who was a literary critic and a music critic. Is there anything else you want to tell us about the piece, or about your writing?
No… I’m very happy to be here with you, and hope everybody can come on the 26th.
Tell us exactly who’s performing.
Well, Abigail Fischer, is singing. She is the mezzo-soprano. And Jayce Ogren is conducting.
Who is in the ensemble?
Some of them came from my old group, Sequitur. The string players are [violinists] Miranda Cuckson and Andrea Schultz. Dan Panner is the violist, Greg Hesselink is the cellist, Alan Kay is playing clarinet, Tara O’Connor and Barry Crawford are playing flute, and Peggy Kampmeier is playing piano. The other big work on the program is the New York premiere of my Piano Quartet, with the Boston Chamber Music Society coming down to perform it – same four people who premiered it last year: Max Levinson, piano; Harumi Rhodes, violin; Dmitri Murrath, viola; Raman Ramakrishnan, cello. They gave a fantastic premiere of it a year ago, so I’m looking forward to that very much as well.
I hope that everybody who can comes to see it, because with this piece, I think, you just continue to build on your excellence as a text-setter, especially. You’re continuing to grow and explore and invent new ways of putting words into the mouth of a singer, in a way that the text comes across in and of itself, but also, a very specific point of view and meaning is projected through the music and the setting. As a performer, we appreciate that so much, because it creates the bridge that you can walk over, that you and the audience can meet each other over.
That’s what I’m trying to do, so I’m glad that suggests itself to you.
Keep up the good work, and continue this upward trajectory… I can’t wait for “Harold @ 100.”
Interview recorded by Chris Grymes, transcribed and edited by Steve Smith. Harold Meltzer presents “Harold @ 50” on March 26 at 7pm at National Sawdust; www.nationalsawdust.org