"Maybe music is a refuge for me: it's not for me to say, but people might find more of a generosity of spirit in the music, than they say they are missing in my person. Who knows? The music is like, 'Here's a phrase. You know what? I'm not ashamed; I'm not winking," said composer Michael Torke.
The ear-splitting bellow of a truck's horn, five floors below, on Broadway, made the window rattle and drowned out his last words. A few snowflakes eddied outside. It was an afternoon in January 2012. We sat chatting in my studio in Hamilton Heights about his latest CD, a self-produced project called Tahiti, released on his own label, Ecstatic Records.
Michael laughed. Deep dimples bore into his cheeks. He repeated himself: "What I said was, 'Here it is. This is who I am'."
I noted the broad, intelligent forehead, the intense, probing eyes -- one moment warm, the next as cold as a shark's -- intense, perhaps wild, emotions kept under strict control. To me, he was still 22, the other young Wisconsin-born composer winning a BMI Student Composer Prize at the Warwick in 1984.
The truth is more interesting, and tougher: Michael Torke has walked the maverick's path. He's an original, and he's a true artist. He dropped out of Yale in order to stay on top of a white hot career kicked off by two of the finest concert works of the '80s -- Vanada and Ecstatic Orange.
His early pieces concerned themselves with a fistful of techniques with which he treated dissonant, often octatonic, suitably "modern" sounding pitch groups -- cellular development, Minimalist repetition, "abstract" melodies, punchy, arresting post-bop rhythms subdivided at the sixteenth note.
But then -- an artist to his core -- he began deploying the same techniques to the less dissonant, "tonal" sound worlds of Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. Works like Ash and Bright Blue Music disappointed some colleagues, even as they delighted civilians -- particularly ballet audiences. He peeled away from his prestigious publisher, Boosey and Hawkes, years before other independently minded composers of his generation did so with theirs.
During the past decade, Michael's been seriously involved in vocal works. His opera Strawberry Fields has gained a secure place in the repertoire. Since opera's my favorite wheelhouse as a composer, this latest part of his career has fascinated me even more than the previous phases. Like most composers, Michael derives instrumental concert pieces from their operas and musicals.
Fiji, the largest piece of the new release, was composed around the same time as a theater work called called The Listener. I asked Michael if the two shared any ideas.
"Some of the themes [for Fiji] did come from the failed musical I wrote with Craig Lucas, called The Listener, for the Juilliard Centennial," Michael agreed. "The show was produced with their senior drama class of sixteen hotshot actors, all very good-looking, none of whom could sing. Music was just not emphasized in their training. Craig wrote the lyrics and the book. Mark Wing Davey was our fearless English director. It was a musical with a rock band in the pit. At the time it was very exciting. But it was deemed controversial: there was nudity on stage, and it was a bizarre story about a virus that gets into your brain and makes you behave irrationally. The President of the school came to opening night and pronounced it the worst travesty in the hundred-year history of Juilliard! Our scheduled tour to Chicago and LA was promptly cancelled. And then soon after, Craig and I parted ways. Craig wanted to refashion the whole thing, but I had run out of steam."
"Well, we'll always have Fiji," I quipped. "You know, Tahiti as a record has an unusually highly produced sheen, even for your releases, which are always aurally impeccable. In fact, it sounds like the Burt Bacharach mixes from his great instrumentals during the late '60s and early '70s. How hands-on were you during the recording process and especially during post-production?"
"Well," Michael replied, "the magic of this album was in post, and the producer I worked with, Mike Maguire took more of a pop rock approach to making a master tape than the classical models that I was used to. I'm glad you mentioned Bacharach, because after hearing the first edit, that's what I said to Andrew [Cornall, at the time about to named head of worldwide A & R for EMI], 'What I want to do is something that sounds like those famous late '60s recordings that Bacharach did.' That was the model."
"One of the things I find most gutsy about this release," I opined," is that you are so compositionally 'open' about the '70s sounds we grew up with. Frankly, I love them, but they also give me panic attacks."
Michael laughed. "Great! I love it! Another LA friend of mine said 'Well, Michael, you write muzak for intellectuals'."
The dimples pierced his cheeks. There blossomed a crimson blush, and he put up his fists like a prizefighter for an instant before dropping them. "It's more complex than that, though. For example, the music for the movement called 'Farewell' comes from the climactic moment from the Craig Lucas musical when the three murderers -- who have suffered the brain damage -- which causes them to commit their crimes, sing a trio of their misdeeds." He sang, "'the headlights shined on me and I stuck the knife into the body.' The music was all about murder with the most heinous details. In the musical, it's supposed to be this dramatic moment because they're singing this very romantic song that is about killing. This was Craig's vision. But to me it was a kind of elegy. If you remove that dramaturgy, it actually sounds like a reflective farewell. I thought it would work at the end of Tahiti."
Cultural reference points in Torke's music are always deftly alluded to -- as subtly and as tellingly as Strauss' in his operas. But Michael limns these artifacts without rancor, condescension, or (particularly in the case of Tahiti) irony. More to the point, he does so without shame, without post-modern winking. In this I feel a great kinship with Michael.
I recall vividly Ned Rorem, opening night of my opera Vera of Las Vegas at Symphony Space warning me that some people would call the score "cheap" because they didn't understand it. As Tim Page wrote of my opera Bandanna, "It is neither fish nor fowl -- as fierce as verismo but wrought with infinite care." More time will have to pass before this sliver of the American repertoire is given its proper due. I do believe, however, the current generation of emerging American composers who've managed to free themselves of the voices in their heads that are not their own--happily eclectic, what-you-hear-is-what-is-there, benefit from the aesthetic groundwork done by Michael's work.
When an artist has consummate craft, as Michael does, the ability to say anything he needs to say in any way under the sun, and the courage to say, "Here it is. This is who I am," attention must be paid. Honor is due.