Interview with Stuart Saunders Smith
What defines a composer?
Everyone is born a composer. Society does all it can to teach otherwise. I proved unteachable.
A composer is a person who makes something that no one else can make. Most music reflects the values of the society of which it is a part. In American culture, music that easily sells is literally valued over other musics. Commercial music has very strict rules that make it predictable; therefore, easy to market. These rules are tonally and rhythmically simple. Rock co-opted the blues and made folk music into a huge industry. I have often wondered why rock music is played so loud. What it lacks in content is made up in mere size!
Composers make their own rules. Music which is outside the dominant culture – that does not sell – is often the music of a composer. Art music is outside of its time – outside of the culture that contains it. This music is “contained” precisely because for it to sell, society would have to shift.
Composers sound radically different from one to the other.
A composer makes a difference.
This difference is a composition.
A composition is not an interchangeable part in an assembly line.
What defines a composer? Composers define themselves without regard to the outside world. This is done by practice through experience. It is inner work, not outer work. It is done without compromise. The function of art music is to explore the mind, thereby composing new ways to connect musical events for us to enlarge our cognitive space.
Would you also address the connections between politics and composition?
A non-conformist, by example, gives others an example of how to go it alone – how to follow the solitary path.
We all live in societies, hence we are all political. That is, we each have a place in the whole. We are in relationship to the whole, which is fluid in modern cultures, and more static in traditional cultures.
Composers, like everyone else, are conditioned by their particular culture.
How is one to compose something new if one is conditioned?
Some composers, like Herbert Brun and John Cage, set up musical rules that circumvented their musical conditioning – a political act. They so distrusted their intuition that they used serialism, chance, and computer programs to de-condition their minds and their musics. They saw their inner talent as only capable of copying preexisting music. They saw talent as merely a conditioned response. They saw commercial music and commercial culture as, well, commercial.
I compose underneath my conditioning, to mine it, to tunnel through it looking for diamonds – incidents of musical elements which seem unique. I think intuition is much larger than conditioning. Intuition is a way of knowing that can be practiced to bring forth music outside a particular culture.
Ultimately, the political responsibility of a composer is to compose a music which, at first, seems like nonsense, which over time, becomes newsense and then, unfortunately decays into common sense. Once it becomes common sense, it is no longer useful – just another background music.
I find that many pre-compositional systems lead to a music which is too consistent to be able to contradict itself. The fabric of such music cannot tear, cannot reveal the unexpected. When inconsistency is embraced and welcomed, mystery can occur. And when the mysterious is the overarching esthetic, one must operate in an unstable universe.
I value mystery above all else in music. I find that all of our current scientific explanations of our universe are inchoative, inceptive – just another start. Reality is fundamentally unknowable. So composing a music of mystery is an answer that is a question.
Before we go on, I think it would be useful for you to say something about your background as a performer and composer.
I began my percussion studies at the age of six in Portland, Maine with Charles Newcomb. He was a retired vaudeville drummer. His percussion studio was a room in his house with a piano, drumset, and vibraphone. Mr. Newcomb also had an extensive library of recordings featuring percussion: Latin music, jazz, classical music, etc. He stressed in his lessons the importance of rudiments, reading, and improvisation in all styles. Mr. Newcomb was a master player and teacher. He could sight-read anything. I studied with him through high school. I got my union card at the age of thirteen when I began to play professionally. I went to the Berklee School of Music for one year to refine my skills as a jazz drummer.
Alexander Lepak was my teacher through my masters degree in percussion performance. At the Hartt School of Music, Mr. Lepak’s curriculum emphasized being a well-rounded percussionist.
In 1973 I went to the
In addition to percussion, Mr. Newcomb was, unintentionally, my first composition teacher. He would often assign me to hand copy the music of various composers in order to learn notation. But also to see each composer’s compositional process. I started composing at a very early age. My first composition, when I was about seven, was Sandbox, which consisted of mostly whole rests and occasional cowbell or woodblock sounds. In high school I added piano lessons to my percussion training and immediately began composing for piano. Later in high school I formed a jazz quartet and composed jazz heads for it.
My formal composition training began when I studied with Edward Diemente at the Hartt School of Music. We conducted a wide range of notational experiments. It was at this time that I began my development of musical mobiles.
In my first lesson with Ben Johnston, he asked me how I composed. I said, “I just do what the sounds want and write it down.” Ben was silent for a long time. Finally he said, “Well, let’s not change that.” Further lessons with Ben centered around conversations concerning spiritual issues and aesthetics.
My lessons with Herbert Brun were very different. He was profoundly distrustful of intuitive composition. He associated the intuitive mind with violence, which should be subjugated by the conscious mind through rigorous intellectual efforts. Brun saw the rise of the Nazi Party as belief triumphing over reason and the murder of his entire family. I always took composition very seriously, but with Herbert I learned that composition is literally a matter of life and death. I also learned how to articulate my ideas about composition much, much more precisely. Herbert Brun was a man of deep intellect, and a masterful teacher.
What led you to compose music which seems to float? Was it something that you developed with either of your teachers, or on your own?
As I have said, I began to play club dates at an early age. At my last rock gig, I had an epiphany. I was really cooking. Everything was going great. The beat was in the pocket. My fills were flawless. Gradually I realized I was controlling the dancers. My every musical gesture caused the audience to literally feel what I wanted them to feel. I was in control. I began to feel guilty about pushing people around with music. I felt like a bully. On the break, I threw up in the parking lot. I resolved then to never play rock music again, and to somehow invent a new way to handle time in such a way that it would not control, but would invite the audience to participate in their own listening.
Much later, not systematically, but intuitively, gradually, I started to compose music which uses many so-called “irrational” durations and rhythms. The music seems to float in time. The beat is not oppressive. Time is not on an assembly line.
My music may be unusual but it is no more complex than any other music. I compose using a decidedly finite number of “irrational” durations and polyrhythms. There is nothing inherently more difficult in learning 4 against 1 than 5 against 1.
Many percussionists are not taught a full range of rhythmic vocabularies and a full range of polyrhythms, and how to figure them out so that they are accurate. I find this a very serious problem. All percussionists should learn how to divide time into a wider temporal array, to develop a larger vocabulary of time. This would make most of the music of the late twentieth century accessible to them.
My music is challenging. The challenge, as I see it, is in interpreting unusually large ideas. For instance: How does one handle a chromatic music that is not recursive, that is continually developing, evolving? What is one’s phrasing strategy in performing a music with a full chromatic palette? How does the musician handle musical quotes? By making them clear, or handling them more subliminally? These are just some of the larger issues which are complexities in my music, and I might add, in most Western art music.
Many years ago, I taught private percussion lessons. I had, at any given time, between forty and fifty students a week, of all ages. I tried an experiment with my youngest students. I taught them duple rhythms at the same time as teaching them 3’s, 5’s and 7’s. Young people can just as easily count to 4 as to 5! They had the same troubles and successes with a 4 as they did with a 5. Again, what is inherently more difficult between the numbers 4 and 5?
A Turkish orchestral percussionist from one of the
leading orchestras in
You talk very much about society and its effect on art. Some musicians believe that when one composes for an instrument, they should preserve the culture that belongs with it. Rather it be some of the conventional rhythms, or something as simple as the technique involved in playing the instrument. As a composer, what are your thoughts on this, and could this be part of society’s negative effect?
For a number of years, I taught Western composition in
a World Music PhD program at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. I
taught Western composition, which was considered by our curriculum and our
philosophy as another ethnic music. We saw all music as ethnic, i.e., as a
manifestation of a distinct society. Hence, Beethoven’s music is ethnic; music
When one studies any music and its formation, it is always a fusion of many cultures and in a state of flux. This fusion process continues from the trading routes of the ancients to the present electronic age. My students came from all over the world. These students were eager to trade cultural ideas and musical traditions to create unique combinations. No one thought their culture was somehow pure, without previous outside influences.
Let us consider the tambourine. One can find some version of the tambourine everywhere. Why? Because the peoples of the world trade them and use them for their own purposes within their musical culture’s needs and ever-changing traditions. So using claves in a new context is a “traditional” approach to that instrument’s continuing evolving usage.
Do you feel that the globalization of percussion instruments takes away from their cultural heritage?
No culture is static. Change occurs due to internal pressures as well as outside influences. Sometimes the change is unfortunate, like when a rich and complex music is simplified for an international market. And sometimes another culture is enriched by contact with other ways of using indigenous instruments as well as incorporating new instruments into their musical life. But again, no culture is, or ever will be, static. There is no purity.
Speaking of culture and the roles it plays in tradition as well as modern life, you yourself have said that you are a composer with one foot on each side of the genre. Your compositions have a contemporary aesthetic, but are conventional in notation. Do you feel that there is a greater energy in more improvisational compositions, or do you enjoy the control of having every note on the page?
I do not compose by manipulating pitches and rhythms. My relationship to sound is not me versus the other. I compose in a place where each determines the other. I listen. I compose and I am composed. It is as if I transcribe a listening session. I hold that the sounds have an intelligence and if we listen, they will teach us a new composition. I compose and am composed all at once in one. So in a very real sense, my music comes out of a very slow, open-ended improvisation. It is an opening up to unforeseen possibilities. For me, composing is waiting for openings.
In many of your works – Tunnels, for instance – you guide the performer in composing much of the piece, yet you are very clear that it is not to be improvised. In fact, the score clearly discourages this. Why do you include improvisation in many of your compositions? Does this come from your background in jazz?
Improvisation is misunderstood. The notion that improvisation is music made up on the spot is absurd. Great jazz musicians practice their solos.
I remember going with my father to a Louis Armstrong concert. We got there about two hours early. We heard him practicing “Blueberry Hill”. That night, he played the same material in a different order. The music was pre-composed in his mind. The order was improvised. That’s why he sounded so incredible. My pieces with flexible material, or what I call “musical mobiles”, are in the tradition of jazz improvisation.
I include improvisation in my music in two ways. One, the performers are given composed melodies and chords. The order of the musical events is improvised. It is as if I wrote a play where the actors can choose the order of the lines during the play. The music is recognizable as my music, while the performer has direct input into the overall form and flow of the music.
Further, my musical mobiles are like Calder mobiles in visual art. The elements are fixed, but change relationships over time. Gifts, for any two melody instruments and keyboard, Notebook, for any instruments in any combination, Big Falls, Little Falls, for percussion octet, When Music is Missing, Music Sings, for two percussion, are examples of my musical mobiles.
The other use of improvisation is to use it as a beginning step in composing musical tasks I give to the performer. So in Tunnels, for any musician who can speak and play an instrument at the same time, I ask the performer to timbrally fuse with a “T” or an “S” sound, for instance. In the middle section, a word underscored with a wavy line indicates to either play the meaning of the word or to make music that sounds like that word.
In my systems pieces, like Return and Recall, Initiatives and Reactions, and Transitions and Leaps, I ask the performers to compose solutions to tasks such as “make something higher in some respect that you have heard or seen within the system. I call these systems “trans-media systems,” which means they are performance systems that transcend a single medium. Actors, dancers, or musicians can perform them. Often they are performed in such a way that performers combine all three types of performance to make a highly rigorous performance art. But here again, improvisation is seen as a first step to composing, which means that the information is refined over time until it crystallizes into composition.
The reason a good deal of my music has performer input is directly related to my years of experience as a jazz musician. When a player is trusted to become part of the very fabric of the piece, we can hear the sense of ownership, confidence, and joy in the music. I like this free sound within discipline very much. Freedom must be practiced. My musical mobiles and systems pieces require great discipline in an open space.
Currently, I am composing music which I call “music of coexistence” where each performer plays their part without reacting to the other players. Quilt, for marimba and vibraphone, A Part, for two orchestra bells and vibraphone, and The Narrow Path, for two vibraphones and orchestra bells, are good examples of this approach.
Stuart, you have written many works in many styles. Would you go into detail about the different genres and what draws you to each of them?
Since the 1970s, I have been composing music which can be categorized into five families: solo and chamber music of rhythmic intricacy; musical mobiles; family portraits; music theater; and trans-media performance systems.
Music of rhythmic intricacy. When we speak, we use a seeming infinity of speeds and durations to express ourselves. This realization has led me to compose a “talking music” – a music with a range of rhythms through which the music speaks. Listen to language without its meaning. Everyday speech becomes our drum music – steady, uneven, halting, speeding up, slowing down – everywhere a temporal multiplicity.
I also came to compose such music through my years playing jazz. If you hear jazz without the rhythm section, you hear speech.
Musical mobiles. Making music in which vertical relationships are not fixed is yet another compositional strategy to invite players to speak to each other with my melodic lines. I compose the melodies. Where they are placed in real time is determined by the performers. The result is an intense musical conversation, full of digressions, interruptions, unexpected connections, and surprises. I have made many kinds of mobiles throughout the years. The largest mobile, in terms of its potential uses, is Notebook, for any instruments.
Family portraits. We compose from where we are. Our location is family. In my family portraits, I try to capture in music the spirit and sense of presence of the individuals in my family, like Family Portraits: Delbert (great-grandfather) for solo percussionist/narrator. In doing so, I am mindful of the saying, “In the particular is the universal.”
Music theater. Some of my earliest memories as a percussionist are playing in variety shows and musicals. I was also fascinated by the collaboration of beat poets and jazz musicians. For me, there is no theater without text. So my theater pieces are text centered, with either settings of my own texts or, increasingly, texts of others. Here, body-language is determined by a performer’s interpretation of the text. Musical instruments become the set. Again, music theater is centered around story, not physical gestures. Mime, at its best, is an elegant game of charades. Stories and poems, on the other hand, have a great depth of narrative that resonates on multiple levels. Examples of this type of percussion theater are Songs I-IX, …And Points North, and The Authors. I have composed twenty-four theater pieces, most are for percussion.
Trans-media performance systems. Trans-media compositions are works that transcend any single performing art. Such pieces can be performed by actors, musicians, and/or dancers. My trans-media works are notated tasks, from simple imitations to complex methods of making transitions between various kinds of information.
Rehearsing these pieces begins with group improvisation and ends with group composition. Return and Recall and Initiatives and Reactions are my contribution to arriving at a general systems performance practice for the performing arts. I have composed music for all Western instruments – violin, oboe, trumpet – you name it, as well as quite a bit of chamber music. I have just finished opus 137 – Husbands and Wives, for two alto saxophones.
You recently arrived “at sixty” and a festival of your music was held by the same title. The celebration included many of your works, including the five categories of compositions you just mentioned. What was it like to have such a large collection of performers gather to showcase your many achievements in composition? Was it what you expected?
AT SIXTY was a series of four concerts of my music
celebrating my sixtieth birthday, during the weekend of
I had a strange, unexpected feeling at the end of the four concerts. I felt at peace – a deep peace of mind and spirit. I felt truly at home in the world. The music saturated the space.
Each performance got better and better. The performers began to understand my musical language more deeply as the event went on. So by the end, the music seemed inevitable.
What’s next for you? Not to beg the age-old question, but where do you see yourself in the coming years? On the same token, where do you see music in the coming years?
I am interested in further developing “music of co-existence” and “music of cadence.” Music of co-existence, as I have said, is where all the parts are conventionally notated without an overall score. The parts line up slightly differently with each performance and give atypical chamber music responses. The parts in this music are each a solo, and quite complex; the music consists of soloists co-existing. I want to avoid typical chamber music responses, like making subtle group adjustments while listening to one another. There is no accompanying music in this type of composition. In music of co-existence, no one gives up anything in order to fit in. Each player is autonomous, and together. I find this a good solution to music-making, both musically and politically.
My first piece of this type is Strays (1995) for xylophone and tenor recorder or flute. In this piece, each player learns his or her parts, which are both extremely intricate and difficult. They never rehearse together. The first time they play simultaneously, is at the concert. The parts are so intricate that there is no way to be influenced by each other. I wanted to avoid the performance practice that was emerging around my mobiles. What was happening was that the players were making predictable contrasts, like a slow section softly played, followed by a faster section at a louder dynamic. This was happening in a very consistent way from group to group and from performance to performance.
Because I gave them choices of when to play, and how to interpret the melodies, they tended to make predictable chamber music decisions, as most musicians have been taught to do. So increasingly, I began to make music of coexistence, or mobiles which have more players involved than duos or trios. When I did this, the textures were so dense that it was impossible to make cliché contrasts. A good example of this is Bones, for five instruments, and Things That Grow Smaller, another quintet.
Music of cadence consists of small areas of music of co-existence that cadence according to a cueing system. So there are points of starting together and stopping together. There is more cooperation in music of cadence than in music of co-existence.
The future of music will be a state of dynamic stasis. There will be, as is now the case, many types of music co-existing, and as long as capitalism is the basic system which determines value, commercial music will still have a competitive advantage over other types of music. However, if the internet continues to be as democratic as it seems to be now, we may enter an era of all musics coexisting without competition. There may be a momentary dominance of one type of music over another, but only for a while. Herbert Brun coined the term “floating hierarchies” – a situation of momentary dominance.
Perhaps this will be the future of music.