The Unrepentant Eclectic 

An Interview with American Composer William Bolcom by Christopher Wright 
​ sat down with William Bolcom and asked him, among other things, what's wrong with music today.

CW       As a Composer, you've worked with in both classical and popular styles. You concertized with American ragtime composer and pianist Eubie Blake and studied under French classical composer Darius Milhaud - Milhaud called you "a gifted monkey"! What did you take away from each? 

WB        Where could I begin? They were both positive forces and each in his way gave the lie to the distinction of pop versus classical, as each used elements of both. Same with me. i have very classical textures and harmonies in my Graceful Ghost rag (written in remembrance of Bolcom's father) and a sort of regretful business in the slow movement (Adagio Lirico - a lamenent for his mother) of my Sxith Symphony. 

CW       You've been criticized, like George Gershwin before you, for being 'not quite serious.' What will it take for composers who cross over and work in popular styles to win unquestioned respect. 

WB       Composers like (the late comedian) Rodney Dangerfield, never do get respect. Sometimes they are honored when they are safely dead, but art music is probably the least glamorous of all the arts. 

CW       You've wriiten for solo piano, chamber ensemble, symphony orchestra, theater, opera, ballet, chorus and vocalists. Out of hundreds of works, which two or three are you most proud of? 

WB       That changes from time to time. Which of them will survive. I don't know. most composers' music disappears when they die. Right now I'm just delighted that my Songs of Innocence and of Experience are out on CD on Naxos. For 20 years, I was sure it would nevers come out on disc! I refuse to think, however , that everything else I have written is less important, as some have said. It could just as easily be true that the Songs will be regarded as less good as everything else in the future, There's no way to tell. 

Many years ago, my wife Joan Morris and I got to know the once-very-famous William Saroyan (Amernian-American writer and playwright). Many people just blank on his name today. We once took him to dinner in Paris. Afterwards, we went to a friend's house where I played some of our recorded music for him. He listened respectfully. As he was leaving us he said, "Art is what is irresistible." 

I'm still chewing on that. i think it means if something of mine isn't irresistible, it won't last because it won't be needed by us. knowing that I can't be around to see if my stuff lasts has given me such a huge sense of relief. No lobbying or politicking for my own work will make it any more or less irresistible. In the end it's the performers who decide what they want to perform, and in the long run they will play what they really want to hear.My music has done reaonably well up to now without any any publicity or buttonholing performers or owing favors to anyone on my part, It will either hold up or it won't. 

CW       To me, you're like the American composer Charles Ives. Some what you write is riotous like him and he also had a way of juxtaposing unexpected styles in his pieces - two marching bands crossing each other's paths in a symphonic work, a mexican variation on 'America" - Was he an influence for you? 

WB        Of course. 

CW       The wide range of styles in Songs of Inncoence and of Expeeriencce, stemming from Blake's use of his entire culture - from high-brow to low-brow - has been much discussed. In your setting of the Songs, one finds country & western, the blues, Broadway, Russian, Jewish, hints of Mahler, neoclassicism, atonality, even a reggae anthem dedicated to Bob Marley. But a couple of reviewers say there is a unversial harmony underlying the entire work. What are the unifying elements? What makes the piece hang together? 

WB       I'll quote Louis Armstrong. When asked what jazz is, he said, 'If I have to tell you, how can you ever know?' A piece works or doesn't work on its own terms. Explainable music has no independant life and dies when the explinations is forgotten. There is now single formula underneath the Songs, not that people won't keep looking for one. 

Each of the choices of style grew out of my readings of the peoms. many of them sang to me immeadialty. I often resisted what I was hearing at first - The Shepard, for instance (country & western). Bu the choice was so imperative that I gave in, in that case and many others. So maybe the unity of the Songs is really in the poems. Going at it the opposite way - making a multi-stylistic piece by picking the styles first - is exaclty 180 degrees the wrong way to go. 

CW       What is the musical language in the dissonant parts? It doesn't sound typically atonal or 12-tone (where all 12 black and whitte keys in an octave on the piano are used before any is repeated). is there a system or did you follow your ear? 

WB        I used note-aggregates not tied with the 12-tone system but closer to interval series. In my music, a series of, say, a fourth, aminor third, a major sixth etc. is used in a row, but in wither direction, up or down. But a combination of several series use common tones so theres is never an artificial equal distribution of notes. Thus, hierarchies are set up - some notes are repeated more than others and tonality is used i greater and lesse degrees throughout. This allows one to follow even the dissonaunt parts easily. Als, one can flow in and out of the straight tonality if ones avoids the entropy of total atonality 
But composers always follow their ear, even in strict 12-tone, of they're any good. Ther's a famous story about two students of (Pierre) Boulez - I knew them both very well - who found mistakes in his row-counting. Boulez just saild, 'that proves i'm a good musician!' 

CW       A couple of th Songs of Innocence sound to me like attempts at serious music that a child might write (Infant Joy and, especially, On Another's Sorrow). Things are not quite right. 

BW        Bingo! That was very true in both parts. 

CW       That was conscious on your part? 

WB        Oh my, yes. 

CW       Well you succeeded admirably because the feeling of a child having a go at composition got communicated very effectively. Later, when the Songs of Experience start, the mood darkens. In the text, tygers replace the lambs and childhood play gives way to misery, murder, revenge, and a dark love that destroys - all the complexities and despair of adult life. Musically sweet songs of innocence give way to disjointed melodies with odd leaps, at once more profound but less accessible. The disjointed melodies are not anything you can easily hum or remember. How does somebody who likes hummable melodies learn to appreciate disjointed melodies like this? 

WB        I guess you have to live awhile to make sense of the more complex music. The poems, to start with, are less 'musical' in the Songs of Experience, if you notice. Life now refuses to be oversimplified. One must grow up - as our country had better soon, before we screw up even worse - and it's damned hard and unpleseant work. Unlike TV reality shows, there's no prize for anyone at the end. In fact, there's no end to growing up. "Cruelty has a Human Heart" is the epiphany that comes with realizing that we are both good and evil. Without the acknowledgement of our dual nature, we can't continue. 

So the melodies grow out of the text. In Experience, the singsong settings are left behind and the melodies get knottier and or abstruse and go where they go because that's what fits the text. 

CW        I love the story about the audience member who confronted the director at a performance of your stage work Dynamite Tonite and demanded, "it's not an opera; it's not a musical comedy. What is it?' Similarly, the Songs of Innocence and Experience are not supposed to be oratorio, some say. But what kind of song cycle uses chorus (throughout) and spoken word (The Tyger and A Poison Tree)? What do you call it or do you label it at all? 

WB       It's probably and oratorio, but it certainly is very differnet from something like Handel's Messiah. You tell me what it is! 

(I am an unrepentant eclectic" - William Bolcom, 1986) 

CW       In the 1980s, you criticized the academy (typical university music department) for its "reign of terror" insisting on atonal dissonance to the exclusion of everythig else. Total atonality is an idea that's essentially gone nowhere in the its 100 years of existence. It's my impression that nothing's changed in the academy in the last 20 years. But you're the professor, have things gotten any better? 

WB       Not in most places, unfortunately, and the same is true of much of Europe. But things have gotten better elsewhere with the return and rise of the performing composer. Four young products of our Unniversity of Michigan Music School come to mind - Derek Bermel, Carter Pann, Gabriela Frank and Daniel Bernard Roumain - but there are others cropping up here and there. A perfoming composer will transform sterile style presepts and find what;s useful in them. Twelve-tone is a perfectly useful disciple if not followed slavishly. What really killed music in academe were the bullies there, more than the musical systems. The bullies overbelieved in the virutes of the nontonal systems, usually because they didn't have real musical ears themselves. Or, they had so tied themselves in knots with their notions, that whatever musicality they had once possesed had fled. Worse, they commenly coerced their students to write the same way as themselves, which in many cases results in the unlistenable crap you find played a SCI conferences )Society of Composers, nc.), for example. 

CW       Do you agree with Leonard Bernstein in his lectures at Harvard in the 1970s that the pull of tonality is too strong - composers will never escape it entirely? 

WB       Yes, there's no reason not to go to its outer reaches as far as one can. I have no patience with the treachly stuff so many composers are writing at the moment. It is like the 19th century late romanticism but without the fiber - virtual classical music. 

CW       It took a long time for the interval of a fourth, considered dissonant in the middle ages, to be accepted as consonant. Will atonality and 12-tone writing ever be popularly accepted as pleasing? 

WB       Yes, but only within a much-enlarged tonal context. that is to say, not by themselves, but as part of the larger fabric of vocabulary. Many of the atonal 'tricks' so common in the 1950s and 60s art music ended up being used in films, and there seems to be no problem of acceptance there for people if the atonal idiom helps intensify the mood of the film. So it's a matter of finding which techniques is appropriate to where one is in a piece, film, thater, opera, or concert music, and that is where intuition comes in and a musical language is built. It's a dead-end to impose a strait-jacket style to oneself. So may compsoers have done this out of misguided sense of 'morality'. 

CW       In 1997, you said that serious music was in decline and it looks to me like that's still pretty much the case. What will it take for serious music to get an audience again and when might that happen?WB       We ghettoized serious music and seperated it from popular music. And we ghettoized the various catagories within popular music. With a few exceptions, everyones sounds musically tired to me at the moment, certinally the 'big hits'. Most movies feel the same way to me nowadays! I've never found pop and art music boring in general than just now. Without constant cross-pollination, as with flowers, all the musics are in danger of dying. Just think if we could all get rid of these catagories! 

CW     I agree with you about cross-pollination. As the Ken Burns jazz series argued, if it weren't for the contributions of the classically trained light-skinned blacks who weren't allowed to work in the white world, we wouldn't have jazz. you've been saying that the pop world is just as hidebound and stale as the classical world for sometime now. 

WB       Mariah Carey was a case of a voice who could do anything, but was given nothing but schlock to sing, that I ever heard from her. I wish I could get excited about Norah Jones, for another case, but it all seems musically deja vu to me. Why not plug into her farthers's music more, for example? (Her father is internationally known siutar player Ravi Shankar.) 

CW       You said in 1993, "If I've had any cultural mission, it's been to help American style find itself." Have you succeeded? 

WB       No, and if I really said that, I was a pompous ass. I've had enough trouble finding my own style, let alone America's. 

CW       You entered the University of Washington Music School at age 11. What advise do you have for child prodigies and their parents today? 

WB       Let yout kid grow up without having the onus of making a living doing music too early, but find a way where the child can follow its own star and get the needed training. I went to the University of Washington one day a week but regular school the rest of the time. Had I been sequestered in a purely music school and concert environment all the time, been educated by tutors while on tour, and not been required to deal with regular school the other four days of the school week, I suspect I would have had much greater difficulty today with the world's daily problems. I've never known a single person who was exploited as a child who hasn't later had severe problems in life. 

(The famous pianist) Gilbert Kalish and I had the same experience as children, as we found out one day in conversation. Both our sets of parents were asked to put us on stage as kids and both said no, for which we thank them every day. Parents should know that any child who justifiably feels exploited will eventualy end up hating and distrusting them. Most importantly, I think it's cruel to the child. But the child should be able to give occasional concerts and explore the art as much as desired. 

CW       Where's a good place to begin with you music? 

WB       I'm probably not the best judge, but you coould try my 12 New Etudes for piano and the Fourth Symphony - both on New World, the Songs of Innocence and of Experience on Naxos, or the new Cabaret Songs - a live recording I did with my wife (mezzo-soprano) Joan Morris - on Centaur. 

CW       What's next for you? What worlds are left for you to conquer? 

WB       A new opera-musical in 2007, Idiot's Delight - for Joan, (pre-eminent ragtime singer-pianist) Max Morath, and the Milwaukee Florintine Opera. the Eighth Symphony for the Boston Symphony Orchesatra and Chorus for 2008. I'm pretty booked. To your question, what worlds are left to conquer, I remember a sad dinner a few years ago with Jerry Leiber, of the famous early rock writing team Leiber and Stoller (Hound Dog, Jailhouse Rock, Love Potion #9, ect.), and old, old friend. He said, 'I've conquered three worlds - Broadway (with Smokey Joe's Cafe) and rock-and-roll.' (Where was that third world, I wondered.) "What's left?"Jerry's sadness really tore me up. there are times when it seems as if the past can drag you down by its sheer weight. 

CW       "Into the dangerous world I leapt..." It sounds like you've had a few songs of experience of your own. I can't thank you enough for being my guest. 

Genre-hopping extraodinaire William Bolcom first became famous as a leader of ragtime revival of the 1970s. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, two Guggenheim fellowships, and numerous other awards, Bolcom received his doctorate in music fron Stanford University and has taught composition at the University of Michigan since 1973. He has recevied commissions from, among other, the Vienna Philharmonic, the National Symphony (in Washington D.C.), and the Lyric Opera of Chicago. his recordings are on Deutsche Grammophon, BMG/RCA, and many other lables. His performance of cabaret and American popular songs, (e.g., Gershwin, Porter, Kern) with his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, are highly acclaimed.Bolcom's songs of Inncocence and Experience, his setting of 46 William Blake poems, was 25 years in the making. The Boston Globe called the two and a half hour work for nearly 500 performers (chorus, symphony, ensembles, and vocalists) "the greatest achievement fo synthesis in American music since Porgy and Bess." The Songs of Innocence were first published in 1789, followed by the Songs of Experience five years later during the 'Reign of Terror' following the French Revolution.

© 2005 Christopher M. Wright 
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