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Aaron Copland
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Matthew Paris

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Post Thu Jan 29, 2004 2:04 pm - Aaron Copland
Interview with Aaron Copland

M.P.- Okay, I've agreed not to bore you by asking you questions you've answered a thousand times in many, many interviews. If you're bored-in fact, if I'm bored- we'll end the interview.

A.C. - You can't ask me questions I haven't heard before.

M.P.- Then this will be the shortest interview ever recorded -or not recorded. I will not ask you about Nadia Boulanger, Gabriel Faure, film music, and why you turned to serial music after the war. When you were fifteen you first conceived of the idea of being a composer. Could you communicate that to students at Boys High? If you did, how did they react?

A.C. - Well, I can't remember myself when I decided I was
hopelessly a composer, but I didn't communicate it to my high school companions. It must have been some time around there, though, 1915 or 1913. I didn't tell anybody.

M.P.- Most of your first compositions were for the piano; who, if anybody, was influencing you?

A.C. -The hottest thing around at that time were the French Impressionists. Debussy and Ravel were very much in the front of my mind. Stravinsky hadn't quite appeared on the scene yet as far as I was concerned- not in Brooklyn at any rate. Debussy and Ravel seemed to be very fresh, very different from the German classics, and made me think about France as a place where most of the new things were happening in music then.

M.P.- So your first works were Impressionistic?

A.C. - I forgot what they sound like now; it's so long ago since I looked at any of the first works. (laughs) The first piece I wrote was a thing called The Cat and the Mouse. That certainly has Debussyan overtones-or undertones-but I think it also has a certain rhythmic liveliness that I connect with my music.

M.P.- Then would you regard your early pieces like the 1920 Piano Sonata as emblematic of your talent?

A.C.- The Sonata you just mentioned was purely a student work that I did for my teacher, Rubin Goldmark in New York, and it was never meant to be played; it was more or less an exercise. I never thought of publishing it or playing it in public. But I began writing little pieces on the side that Mr. Goldmark thought were very avant garde in style.

M.P.- Your first ballet Grohg has a wild and lugubrious subject; I don't see such themes in your work otherwise. Have you got that side to you?

A.C. - No, I can't say I have. It was a kind of macabre subject based on a German movie I had seen. I guess he was a necromancer who had the power to make the dead dance. It was meant to be music for a ballet, except it never happened. I did write a lot of the music but it never actually was produced by anybody.

M.P.- During your stay at Boys High you had access to critics like Carl Van Vechten who were pushing modem music; did any of them influence your taste?

A.C. - No,* I can't say that I was influenced by the music critics. Most of the critics in the New York and Brooklyn papers were quite conservative, and would normally disapprove of the stuff I liked. I was influenced by Paul Rosenfeld who appeared in the pages of Dial, the top literary magazine of the late teens and the 20s, and he was the only one you could depend upon to take a sympathetic attitude toward the newer things in music. So what he liked, I was most likely to be interested in. Paul Rosenfeld did a very good job in a small way of encouraging the writing of the newer kind of music in those days. Later I got to know him and we became friends.

M.P.- Had you felt the lack as a Brooklynite of a folk music such as they have in Appalachia?

A.C. - No, because I didn't think of folk music as the music of the street I was living on. We really didn't have any folk music that I know of; it was all derived from European immigrants that came over and settled in Brooklyn. My interest in folk music really aim later when it was connected in my mind with the writing of stage music. There, the use of actual American folk materials helped to set an atmosphere. I find that very valuable, and I applied it to some ballets I wrote like Rodeo and Billy the Kid.

M.P.- Then when you started, you thought of writing music in a universal language, as Roger Sessions put it, rather than a national or folk based tradition?

A.C. - It wasn't that divided in my mind. It was the influence of the French composers Like Ambo, Debussy and Ravel who had managed to write a kind of music which was so different from the German classical music. It seemed to me that if they could do that for France, we who had by then our kind of civilization, should be able to reflect by then our kind of fife and our ammo in serious music-especially since the popular composers in ragtime and jazz had done it so brilliantly in light music. I didn't see why we serious composers of big symphonies couldn't create a similar sense of place and time that would represent the United States in a way it had never been represented before.

M.P.- You felt all of this in 1918?

A.C. - Perhaps l didn't express it as clearly as I'm now stating it, but it certainly was a preoccupation of mine. I think that it was really founded on my interest in the French -who were doing just that.

M.P.- Why did you and Virgil I'M have to turn to France for ideas like this rather than go at it directly?

A.C. - Well, America was not very rich in composers (laughs) when I was 18. Whom did we have? We had Edward McDowell- that's the first name that occurs to me; we didn't know anything about Charles Ives, of course, or Ruggles, although they were writing in the teens, so that it wasn't very rich material to start with. I found that the use of folk materials, especially from the West, was a great help that one, even a foreigner, would immediately connect with our country.

M.P.- If you go back to Gottschalk and Heinrich you have American composers using folk materials in this way. Were people aware of them, or were they pooh-poohed, or what?

A.C. - I don't think people were very aware of them. Gottschalk was known, but we were most aware of MacDowell. And he was sort of Scotch-oriented, by derivation. He had been trained in Germany so there was a whole German background to him; that's a very important point-in the early 20s the new things seemed to be coming from France and Russia. Germany seemed like that old place that had been great in the 19th century but hadn't been able to move on into the 20th. For people who were young in the 20s, that was our marked difference of approach; the older generation had been so German-oriented.

M.P.- I get the idea that the image of the American composer when you came up was some New England professor like Horatio Parker.

A.C. - That's partially true. We didn't think particularly of Horatio Parker, but the image was of a professor who was somehow not with it. (laughs) He wasn't in the spirit of the 20s, he wasn't fresh, not fresh enough.

M.P.- Did you know Leo Ornstein?

A.C.- I think I met him once at Paul Rosenfeld's. I didn't know him.

M.P.- I want to ask you about the American Sound. It seems to have been invented by you, Virgil and Roy Harris, all Nadia Boulanger pupils. Is there a certain relation between that very spacious orchestration, open fifths, and no doublings, and the French Sound?

A.C.- Yes, but also Stravinsky was an enormous influence. When I first went to Paris in the 20s I realized for the first time the importance of that name and that music. He influenced us from a rhythmic standpoint. He was lively, nothing had been heard like it before, and that hit us very strongly. Jazz was around, and that was very different-especially when you heard it in Paris. It sounded very different from hearing it in Brooklyn.

M.P.- Was it White or Black jazz? Fletcher Henderson? Jean Goldkette?

A.C.- I didn't follow it very closely; it was just what I would hear casually at a dance hall, or on records. But it was
definitely in the air.

M.P.- Didn't you play as a pianist in the Catskills?

A.C.- Yes, I had a very modest job as part of a hotel trio. (laughs) That was just dinner music, or dance music of the most ordinary kind. We used to do it two months a year, in the summer.

M.P.- Did you meet Stravinsky in Paris?

A.C. - I used to meet him and quite a few other famous composers like Albert Ambo at the Wednesday teas at Nadia Boulanger's. AH the musical great of Paris would arrive, and in that way one met all the people in music who were getting one excited. That was very important. Fascinating!

M.P.- And that's when you were influenced by Stravinsky-

A.C. - Yes, the unusual, non-19th century, uneven exciting rhythms were quite unprecedented in concert music, and so it hit us all, especially those of us that came from America and were used to jazz rhythms.

M.P.- But you were touched by Mahler too.

A.C.- Yes, but that came later. I remember Nadia Boulanger, my teacher, going over Mahler scores from the standpoint of the orchestration with me, and that had an influence, but Mahler was not so much at the front of our minds. But, you see, the emotional background of Mahler's music is so directly out of the 19th century that of course was a deterrent; you couldn't be influenced by that aspect; it'd sound corny. We loved the orchestration, not the sentiment it gives off.

M.P.- Have you been interested in post-50s popular music such as rock as the basis for your work?

A.C.- No, I haven't. I listen to it with pleasure when it's really good, but I haven't thought of using it as the basis of serious concert music.

M.P.-Could you tell us how that wonderful age when American composers were taken seriously, even politically, in the 1930s came about?

A.C - Well, I think it happened partially because there were more of us. I would say that when there were ten composers in the teens, in the 20s there must have been at least fifty, and it's been going up ever since that time, thank Heavens. (laughs) The more composers, the more possibility you have of producing some important ones. But also I think it came from the notion of expressing America in serious music terms. If it hadn't been for jazz, which has its background in ragtime and even further back than that, I doubt whether we would have been able to find ourselves so easily, at least in rhythm. I think the 20s were a great help to tell us who we were, despite its crazy aspects. (laughs) I think those four years of the War which had cut off everything helped us to get a fresher start than if things had not happened in that particular way.

M.P.- Was modern music treated more seriously in the newspapers in the 30s?

A.C.- No, I can't say we were treated kindly in the press. It was in the magazines we were treated sympathetically.

M.P.- Why are the papers so insensitive to modem music? When you started they didn't care about it; now they're still hostile.
A.C.- Well, after all, when newspapers hire a music critic, they aren't particularly concerned about what he thinks of contemporary music. You do have to know quite a lot of other things if you're going to be a critic for a daily newspaper. Modern music and its problems is a side issue for them. The amount of new music that is played and must be criticized is still minimal in our concert life. The critic must be concerned with the great masterpieces o ' f the past; real critics, or so-called critics, who are in a position to judge something brand new on its own terms, are rather rare, even nowadays. Also it -isn't every day in the week that you get an exciting new piece to talk about. They're more practiced in discussing the same thing over and over again, in different terms if they're lucky. And they don't stay that close to the newest things that are happening in music.

M.P.- And yet in Paris the daily critics treat 20th-century music very seriously- as events.

A.C.- Well, I think you're being a little overkind to the French. They have their conventional critics in some of the daily
papers-but there's a tradition of reviewing the newer, more challenging pieces-they have a long tradition there going back before they decided whether Wagner was any good or not. Whether Stravinsky, Debussy, Ravel were any good or not, were controversies that are part of their past. They were living a more sophisticated musical life than we were, too.

M.P.- Apropos of Wagner, do you think there's a connection between one's music and one's politics.

A.C.- I wouldn't say so. A composer makes his music out of a lot of different emotions, feelings and experiences, and politics is only one of the aspects of his roots. Some composers are
politically minded, but many are worried about how they are going to make a living, which is very preoccupying always; it's hard to draw any fast lines there.

M.P.- In the 1940s many composers like Cage and Carter drew away from writing music in a national language. Why do you think this happened?

A.C.- I think it's a matter of personal predilections. You wouldn't expect Elliott Carter in his present mood to concern himself with political aspects in any way, or reflecting upon them. It takes a special composer to get so excited about the political scene that he wants to express it in his symphonies.

M.P.- But you moved toward serial music in the late 40s, starting with the "Piano Quartet."

A.C.- Every creative artist wants to refresh himself, get off or start from a different slant. One feels that one has done as much as one can in a certain idiom in a certain time, and then one looks around for something to stimulate one's ideas again.

M.P.- Are your works in the 70s like the "Nonet" and the "Flute Sonata" different from what preceded them?

A.C.- To me, it all sounds like me, starting out from different moods and different musical ideas. I think my music always takes its origin from the musical idea which occurs to me and seems full of pregnant possibilities, and that's what dictates the nature of the piece. Of course, if you're commissioned to do a certain piece for a certain occasion, then you look around for such ideas. But I know what I do: I start with themes.

M.P.- Under what circumstances do musical ideas occur to you normally.

A.C.- That would be hard to say with any sense of security. (laughs) There is such a thing as fueling in the mood. You find your best ideas when you're in the mood to find them. I don't know what brings on the mood. It might be anything. It might -be a feeling of distress. It might be joy. Probably the nature of the musical materials would suggest the mood you're in, even if you aren't too aware of it at the moment. That's also possible. I have to begin with actual musical materials that seem to suggest the possibility of development and expansion. And if you don't have enough materials to expand, you begin to look around for other materials that would seem naturally to go with or be contrasted with what You already have. It's a gradual buildup with me. I've rarely turned out a piece in one day; I will if I must, but normally I work slowly, and a long symphony will take a year or two.

M.P.- Can you tell the difference while you're composing between work that's inspired and work that's not? (A.C.laughs.)

A.C.- You can tell the difference whether you're in the mood to work, and whether things are going well- or whether you get stuck and you don't know what to do next. When you're in the mood to eat, food tastes better; when you're in the mood to create, you generally get better ideas.

M.P.- Schiller could bring on the mood by smelling rotten apples in his desk. Do you have any means for bringing on the mood?
A.C.- I wish I did. Sometimes when you're playing somebody else's music you find yourself drifting off into some of your own; that might be a way of stimulation.

M.P.- So you like to improvise.

A.C.- Oh, definitely. Sure.

M.P.- Do your ideas usually come through your ringers?

A.C.- Very possible; yes. I'm often asked whether I write at the piano and I say yes-just like that, flatly. In the old days it used to be thought shameful to write at the piano. People would say he used an instrument when he composed. I think it's because the lay person doesn't understand what goes on. When you use a piano, it's like using a large typewriter. One instant before you touch the piano, your fingers are directed, you won't know where or why, but it's certainly not a matter of chance; otherwise the whole thing would be chancy from beginning to end (laughs), and you immediately know when you've hit on a pregnant idea through your fingers and when you've n(?t-so something's directing them, something unconscious. And if it isn't directing them well, you're the first person to know it, and you recognize it immediately -
unless you're interested in fooling yourself (laughs extendedly). And it's on the basis of these pregnant ideas that really one works out a piece.

M.P.- Is it like a possession?

A.C.- That's too much to say; I'm not a medium who sits down at the piano and waits for something to hit me over the head. (laughs) It's a combination of conscious control and an instinctive trust in the fingers to lead you on. It's not either one or the other.
M.P.- Is the actual development of the materials an extension of the improvisational technique, or is it a different process?
A.C.- I think it's basically fairly different. There are the moments where you've got the kernel, the germ of something, but you know you haven't worked it out yet. You know in order to get from this A bit to this B bit you have to put something in between. And there's where you have to be a professional composer. Because otherwise you're stuck. You've got to know more or less the nature of the thing that's needed in between, and have the technical ability to produce it.

M.P.- Coleridge says the quality of the patching he did between what came to him was not as good as the directly derived material; what do you think?

A.C.- I would have to go along with that.

M.P.-Do you have intimations of a Muse or anything outside you that is giving you this material?

A.C.- No, none at all. (laughs) I wish I had somebody like that helped me.

M.P.- Getting back to history, what made some composers turn to the 12-tone method in the late 40s when they had been enemies a la the old Wagner-Brahms camps up until then?

A.C.- Well, I think the explanation is that when the Schoenberg-Berg movement was new it seemed in our minds to be hopelessly attached to late German Romantic feelings. It was only when we realized you can make use of the method and produce a different sort of emotional feeling with it that it seemed to influence many of us. You didn't have to write late Wagnerian and very schmerzful music; you could come up with a very different result. And I think that explains the fact that it broadened its influence.

M.P.- When I read the works of Boulez and his totally serialized musical idea, it seems monstrous-

A.C.- As you describe it, it sounds dangerous. (laughs) But I don't think it works out quite that way. The serialized idea is the bare bones; it's what you do with it. in the end that makes it important and interesting. I think the value of Schoenberg's method is that it forced composers to think about the structure of music from a different standpoint. It freshened up their way of thinking about how to put notes together. Anybody can write a serial piece. I mean, it might be -according to the be@ serial books every written, but it might not be music. To write music, you need a real composer to create real music, even when it's based on serial ideas.

M.P.- You met Webern in Zurich; how would you describe him?
A.C.- Where did you read that?

M.P.- In one of your books.

A.C.- Did I say that? (laughs) Well, he was a very quiet man. I can't remember anything he said at all. (both laugh) My German probably wasn't very good then, and I don't know that he talked any English actually. So I can't remember any specific conversation we had. But I would say that by temperament he was a quiet fellow rather than explosive.

M.P.- I guess that wouldn't apply to Schoenberg.

A.C.- I didn't know that whole crowd all that well. I was more French-oriented, you see, and they were foreigners. I met Schoenberg, of course, in California when he was already living there, but I never got to know him the way I got to know
Stravinsky. After all, you know, I had lunch a couple of times at Stravinsky's house, and I used to meet him often at Koussevitsky's house in Boston. So I have a much more vivid impression of him.
M.P.- Speaking of Stravinsky, how do you feel about the Craft books?

A.C.- I think it's very valuable that we have his books, and the full importance or influence of them will show up as the years go on.

M.P.- How do you feel about the alliances of composers with colleges after the Second World War?

A.C.- I think it's very good in that it solved their economic problem. Of course, if they get so involved with their academic duties as to get in the way of their own composing, it has a bad effect. It's certainly a great advantage that we have that outlet rather than they have to go doing Heaven Knows What to earn a living.
I've never taught anywhere except a term in Harvard. I've had private students, not in recent years, but before the war. In the 30s I used to be associated with the Henry Street Music School. The students used to come to me privately, not in a class. But I managed to earn a living, I'm not sure how, but mostly by talking to grownups about how to listen to music; that started in the New School for Social Research, back in the late 30s and early 40s. I found it was easier to talk to 200 or 300 students at a time rather than one at a time, so I fell into lecturing to adults who wanted to know what to do to appreciate music more.

M.P.- You're a performing composer; how do you feel about non-performers? Do they lack healthy contact with an audience?
A.C.- That's a question of personal temperament. Some composers are very shy; they put all their strength of personality into their music. They don't feel comfortable with others.-Other composers are very friendly indeed.

M.P.- How would you compare musical fife now with your days at Boys High?

A.C.- Oh, gosh, by and large our whole musical life is more sophisticated. We have better schools filled with the gifted and not so gifted. It's a much more lively musical scene, out of which better results ought to come. When we had twenty composers in the 20s, we have over 500 now, maybe more; I don't know how many.
M.P.- Is there something about America that produces a Whitman, a Partch, an Ives, a Nancarrow, and innumerable others that seem to flourish without history and tradition?

A.C.- Yes, I think there is something in American life that encourages that kind of non-Academic output. In Europe there's more of a tendency to always say, Oh, gosh, you must have a very basic training, and if you don't have it, you're missing something. In America we've ma@aged to produce a Walt Whitman and such in a freer and less bland way. Of course, I don't mean to indicate to any young composer that you can get away with murder, that you don't have to study. (laughs) You have to be an Ives to get away with murder and he studied; he wrote a lot of conventional music and graduated from Yale before he went off on his own.

M.P.- What might have happened to you had you come from a hidebound Academic world as many German composers had?

A.C.- Well, it's too late now to decide that. (laughs) Whether it's a good thing or a bad thing, it's worked out this way. It depends on your temperament. If you depend on models always and want to do the correct and right thing, you might be in trouble if you were born in America in 1900 as I was. America is a very different country from Germany, obviously, and I don't think it was too bad that I didn't go through a regular Conservatory training for four years as it's proper to do.

M.P.- What do you think happened to a talent like George Antheil after he came back to America?

A.C.- Well, George Antheil is a very special case. I used to see him around Le Cartier in Paris in the mid '20s; he was a
brilliantly gifted kid, but there was something childish about him despite his brilliance of the gifts. And why he didn't produce more important things than he did is a mystery because he was very gifted, just by nature. And he knew a lot. He was a brilliant pianist and could play you exciting half pages of music. He never really stuck with anything long enough to round it all out and leave us with something we could hang on to. It was spotty but it seemed very exciting at the time. He seemed like a bright young boy of the period; it's a shame that the music seems to have disappeared to the extent that it has.

M.P.- He sounds like an improviser. Can you improvise serial music?

A.C.- It's conceivable. You might get ten notes and find the other two. (laughs) There are no ground rules about improvising. It's supposed to be as free as the wind, with anything that occurs to you and holds your attention, seems pregnant with possibilities still unexplored, that excites you, is the game. Some composers might find ideas dull that to other composers seem full of possibilities.

M.P.- What does the exact moment you come across such an idea feel like?

A.C.- You say, gosh, that's a bright idea. (laughs) The difference is that a professional composer knows what to do with a bright idea. A perfectly naive person might hum to themselves something they might think is great stuff, and it might be great stuff, but they wouldn't know what to do about it!

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