Fourteen Questions, Answered Off the Cuff

I had fifteen minutes to check email before waking, dressing, feeding, brushing, hugging, and sending the children off, to school. I poured a cup of coffee and fired up a browser. One email caught my eye: a young singer from Juilliard had been tasked with asking a living composer "fourteen questions." He had chosen me. I was a little grumpy, and pressed for time. The result was that I had about 90 seconds to answer each question. Because my answers were more "off the cuff" than usual, they were less guarded, less polished, more pointed, than if I had shaped them into an article. Having just re-read them, I find them to be more fun to read, too.

1. How does your compositional process differ between vocal and instrumental works?

There is no difference. Writing vocal works is easier, though, because the words are there, providing the flesh to which the music will add bone, structure, and muscle.

2. Does your approach to vocal writing differ between the genres of song and opera?

Yes. Songs are either a frozen moment or a succession of explored moments. In a cycle they can be linked together into a narrative, but the arc is more that of a "musical" without dialogue. Opera can be one step beyond that, as in a "numbers opera," but I personally see opera as the entire ceiling of a church, not as a collection of individual panels.

3. What attracts you to a text?

As a writer, the son of a writer, and one to whom poetry was read from earliest memory, I have always heard music when words fly through the air. Anything that makes music come out is good. Words are good.

4. Does improvisation figure into your process?

Sure. I improvise a lot, when I have the time. Mostly, though, improvisation is pretty carefully pre-planned (anyone who has played sets on a bandstand, and I have, knows that inspiration is as rare there as it is anywhere else, and lots of practice on the charts beforehand ensures a good, seemingly "impromptu" solo during the gig). Most professional composers find improvisation self-indulgent because it takes so much time. It is mainly for amateurs, enthusiasts, and composer-noodlers who are not involved with making serious, large-scale dramatic and musical structures.

5. Do you write at the piano?

Most of the time. And I sing the vocal parts. Badly.

6. How do you approach writing for a specific singer/do you often write with a specific singer in mind?

Almost always. In that way I am part of what is known as "the Italian tradition." When I write songs without a commissioner in mind, I'll write generically for a high or low voice.

7. How would you define your primary style or influences?

I write primarily tonal music that uses octatonic, chance, and serial resources to connote emotional or psychological distress.

8. Do you have thoughts on programming song recitals?

Yes. Every recital should include at least one contemporary art song set or cycle in the home language of the singer. By "art song" I mean poetry of high quality married to music of exquisite craftsmanship and taste. Programming "art songs" by musical theater composers with superficial or lowbrow artistic reference points serves only to water down an already marginal genre. If one is going to sing show tunes, sing good ones.

9. What were the important factors in determining/developing your own style?

Emotional and psychological verifiability and excellent craftsmanship.

10. How does the process begin? A chord progression? A melody? The text?

A mood.

11. Do you feel you're part of a lineage?

There's nothing left: American serious concert music as a set of artistic movements (in which the concept of "lineage" can be described) was pulverized decades ago by the cynical (or, worse yet, stupid) presumption that "commercial success" and "artistic success" are interchangeable things, and the elimination of music education in the schools.

12. Do you feel the poem itself takes on another form once you have set it to music?

Of course. It has been re-contextualized and now plays a role in larger, more comprehensive artistic statement.

13. Do you have any advice for an audience attending a premiere of one of your works?

Relax. Extend some trust. Pay attention. Commit to being there.

14. What are some of your biggest influences (musical/non-musical)?

My mother, who was a visual artist and writer. (I wrote an article about her for the Huffington Post.) My brother Kevin, who believed that music could be a force for good, and who fed me mix tapes of concert music and opera when I was in my early teens.