Yale Oral History of American Music Interview II
Interview with Libby Van Cleve, New Haven, Connecticut, March 8, 2008
Jacob Druckman conducting Snap at one of the first New Music New Haven concerts at Yale – memories of being a student at Yale – fellow classmates at Yale – Jacob Druckman as the NY Philharmonic’s composer-in-residence – reasons he wanted to attend Yale – fellow classmates at Yale (Lang, Gordon, Kernis, Beaser, Lindroth, Olivero) – visiting composers while he was at Yale (Reynolds, Rands, Brown) – travels during Yale DMA program – studies with Ligeti – emotions he felt when returning to alma mater – discussion of inspiration for Walk the Walk, influence of Motown on work Discussion of the performance of Walk the Walk at previous night’s concert – discussion about Ladder to the Moon – living in New York City in the 1970s as inspiration for Ladder to the Moon – taking inspiration from Georgia O’Keeffe’s urban landscape paintings – characterization of his own music (abstract, but with more broad appeal) – influence of Gil Evans on his music, working with Gil Evans at Yale – icons of American culture as inspiration for his compositions – likes to wear cowboy hats or fedoras – 1950s New York City as inspiration for Ladder to the Moon – discussion of Brooklyn Bridge – “Yale’s a ‘tough love’ place” – brief recap of the journey from the beginning of his career to present.
LVC. Today is Friday, March 8th. I’m Libby Van Cleve with Michael Daugherty at Yale University, and we’re going to do a short interview on his pieces from last night’s concert for Q2 Radio. Thank you for doing this, Michael.
MD. We may have to wait a minute.
LVC. Yeah, okay.
MD. They’re shoveling. [laughs]
LVC. We’re in the middle of a storm. I’m going to just pause—we don’t have to record the shoveling.
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LVC. So we’re back, and thank you, Michael. So, you’re back to New Haven. How does it feel to be back in New Haven, having been a student here?
MD. Well, it’s interesting. The last time I was in New Haven was around 1989 when Jacob Druckman conducted a piece I composed called Snap, and I believe it was one of the first concerts of New Music New Haven. So that’s about ‘89, so that’s how long it’s been since I’ve been back here, and it’s always great to return. I’m a sentimental person. I like to go to my high school reunion. So, I’m somebody who does like to go back to things I did in the past. It does conjure up old feelings, you know, because you remember what it was like to be a student. I did my Masters of Music and MMA [Master of Musical Arts] degree here, and then DMA [Doctor of Musical Arts], eventually, so it brings back all those memories of when you’re a student—you’re young, you’re not sure what you’re going to do, you know, the insecurities, your old professors, it brings those up too. So it’s interesting to come back and not regress to being a student.
LVC. You were here at a time with a lot of really wonderful students who’ve become successful composers.
MD. Yeah. Some of the classmates of mine were David Lang and Aaron Kernis….
[Conversation in background]
LVC. We’re going to have to stop [unintelligible].
LVC. It’s kind of un-spontaneous, but…. Is that the hallway? …. Let’s try again.
[Background conversation continues]
MD. I think what we were hearing in the other room was that the heaters—the heat’s not on, then we don’t hear that noise—
LVC. It might be…. We could give it a try, or, you know, really we could walk across the street. The church is supposed to be quiet…but we’ll see. Yeah, this could be really not great for us. I’m going to— [Recording ends abruptly]
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LVC. Okay, now we’re at 10:13, and this is Libby Van Cleve with Michael Daugherty, as before. So we were just saying, you’re back to your alma mater, and you were talking about some of your fellow students who you went to school with who have done well, as you have.
MD. Well, when I was a student here at Yale from 1980 to ’82, it was an exciting time. Jacob Druckman was the composer-in-residence with the New York Philharmonic, and that was the first time they had had a composer-in-residence there, so it was a very big deal. A lot of young, ambitious composers wanted to come to Yale. The main reason I came here was because I was very interested in Charles Ives, and this is where the Ives Collection is, and so that was my big pull to come here; Druckman and the Ives Collection. I had a great class…I had the opportunity to be with some great young composers in the class with me, and that was David Lang and Michael Gordon, who then went on to start Bang on a Can, Aaron Kernis—David and Aaron are both faculty now at Yale, and then Robert Beaser who is on the faculty at Juilliard, Scott Lindroth, who’s now at Duke, and a Israeli composer, Betty Olivero, who teaches at the University of Tel Aviv. So, anyways, a great class, and we had a lot of visiting composers. We had Roger Reynolds, Bernard Rands, and Earle Brown, as well, and also a continual cavalcade of composers who were passing through, you know. So it was really a great time to be here.
LVC. It must have been. I’ve heard about that time period, and it does sound like it must have been a really lively time, with all those people in one place. Remarkable, for a two year program, especially.
MD. Yeah. And then I did the MMA, and then the DMA where you’re not here and you go out in the world, so that’s when I was…I lived in Hamburg, Germany for a couple of years, I worked with György Ligeti, the composer, and I lived in Amsterdam, and was a freelance pianist, and so forth, and then came back here, received the degree in ’86, and it’s always, you know…coming back to your alma mater is always a complicated thing because it conjures up all those memories of when you were young, and when you were…you know, the insecurities, the old professors…all those feelings come back, so you have to remind yourself you’re not a student anymore, you know; that’s long ago. But it was great to be back here.
LVC. We’re about the same age, and it’s very amusing to me to realize that now I’m the intimidating person, and now you’re the person who’s the established, successful composer that intimidates all those students.
MD. Well last night we had a fantastic concert. The first half had some really interesting pieces by the young Yale composers here, so it was a delight to hear that as well.
LVC. I’d like to talk to you about the pieces that were on the concert last night. Walk the Walk. Could you tell me about the inspiration for that piece?
MD. Well, sure. “Walk the walk,” that’s a term that was actually used by Joe Hunter. Joe Hunter was the pianist in The Funk Brothers, and The Funk Brothers, in the 1960s, were the musicians who played behind all those great Motown [Records] recordings, so Stevie Wonder, and The Jackson Five, and The Supremes, and so forth, and so “walk the walk” is kind of a term—a black lingo term—from the 60s. “If you’re gonna’ talk the talk, you gotta’ walk the walk,” I guess. [False start] This piece was performed in a concert commemorating The Funk Brothers, so people were asked to write works where you would use something remnant [sic] of a Motown tune, so I decided to pick “My Girl,” of The Temptations, and I took the lick [sings opening of “My Girl”] and then I used that motive as the main theme of the piece, or fragment, whatever, and then I spun the whole piece from that. That’s a challenge I like to do, and I’ve done that in some of my pieces, so I really enjoyed composing this piece, and Joe Hunter, the last surviving member of The Funk Brothers was there at the concert, and he actually played “My Girl” on the piano right before they played the piece, which was great.
LVC. Oh, it must have been fantastic! Did you know…oh, it was written—it wasn’t written for bass clarinet, it was written for….
MD. Yeah, it was originally written…there’s multiple versions of the piece. You can do it on bari sax, which is how it was originally performed. The performance we’re going to hear in the recording is bass clarinet, and it works very well for bass clarinet as well.
LVC. Did you know who you were writing for? Because, boy, it’s quite a virtuosic part!
MD. [False start]
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LVC. There we go.
MD. The bass clarinetist we’re going to hear on the recording, Ashley Smith, who I believe is from Australia, and he’s a graduate student at Yale, just did a phenomenal job and…yeah…course you can’t see him in the [unintelligible], but he was wearing silver pants [laughter]. Kind of outlandish, you know, but very energetic; moves around the stage, you know. And sometimes he added some multiphonics; I just put “growl”—g-r-o-w-l, to growl—and then he did—produced—this kind of, very, kind of Eric Dolphy, you know, avant-garde jazz sound on the bass clarinet, so it’s really an exciting performance that we’re going to hear.
LVC. It was really spectacular. Talk about those silver pants—all three performers really looked pretty great. Was that their idea, or did you have anything to do with that?
MD. I had nothing to do with that, but, probably because, you know, the subject matter, “walk the walk,” and that fact that it was taking its inspiration from Motown liberated them to be creative in their dress for the concert.
LVC. Would you like to describe the way the percussionists looked also?
MD. I think they were wearing vests and bow ties and hats, or something like that. It’s funny because…what you hear of the piece is sort of a freedom in that it’s very constructed, like all my pieces, but there’s a certain kind of imagination and freedom that I think that the musicians feel when they play it, and that allows them to break out of the box. And that’s what they do in the particular piece.
LVC. Great performance. And let’s talk a little about Ladder to the Moon. Can you talk to me about both the title and the background of that piece?
MD. Sure. Well, Ladder to the Moon for solo violin, wind octet, and double bass, and percussion is a piece that…one of my favorite works. When I lived in New York as a student back in the ‘70s, I frequently would walk around New York at night, and always loved looking at the skyscrapers and the little windows, you know—the irregular patterns that one would see. And there’s those amazing paintings by Georgia O’Keeffe, and her paintings of the skyscrapers she did in the ‘20s when she lived in New York, I always thought, you know, were fantastic and remind me of my time when I used to walk around at night in New York. So, the first movement we’re going to hear, “Night, New York,” is kind of the feeling I get of walking around New York late at night. It has a film noir kind of feel to it; a bluesy kind of feel. There’s an ostinato that the violin plays, you’re going to hear it right at the beginning. I started out the piece with this pizzicato moment. [False start] Later, she bounces the bow and—with the wood, playing the same motive—and then arco eventually, and then the motive is passed around the various players. So, I was thinking of patterns and how I could, you know, compose a piece with that.
LVC. Patterns, sort of like the patterns of the skyscrapers or…?
MD. Yeah. I was thinking…right. As I was composing, I was thinking patterns of the skyscraper and different kinds of colors that I could come up with, and, it’s funny because when O’Keeffe was painting these skyscrapers, her husband, [Alfred] Stieglitz, really thought that women shouldn’t paint urban landscapes, you know, that a woman can’t paint a skyscraper, and of course, O’Keeffe was someone who responded to a challenge, so she said “Well, I’m going to paint skyscrapers.” [laughs]
LVC. There was a quote in your program notes—
MD. Oh, yes.
LVC. –and it seemed like that was also how the piece felt to me, so if you’d like to elaborate on that I’ll let you do it in your own words.
MD. Sure…. One of the things that she said about painting the skyscrapers was that, “One can’t paint New York as it is, but rather, as it is felt.” That sounds like Beethoven describing his Pastoral Symphony or something. Isn’t it? But, yeah, I think that’s one of the things I like about her paintings. You know, I think—I’m attracted to the paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe, or a Grant Wood, or a Thomas Hart Benton. I like realistic art, but when there’s abstraction inside the figure. So, in Georgia O’Keeffe, yes, it’s a skyscraper, but if you actually look into the painting itself it’s very abstract: the way the windows are arranged, or just the colors, and so forth, and so I think my work’s like that. On one hand, it’s something which immediately appeals to the ear—there’s things that you can hang your hat on, there’s things you recognize—but at the same time the piece is abstract. And that’s something that I’ve been trying to do for many years in my work, is write abstract music, but at the same time is music that can appeal to somebody who doesn’t necessarily know music. And that’s a great challenge, but that’s what I’ve been trying to do.
LVC. It occurred to me, in your biography, I saw not just Ligeti, but work with Gil Evans, and somehow it’s like, you know, you take the love child of Ligeti and Gil Evans and you get Michael Daugherty!
MD. It’s funny, because, you’re going to hear, especially in the first movement, these polychords, and—it’s like if you have a D major chord in the right hand that goes up chromatically, and you have a D major chord in the left hand that descends chromatically, and you have these kind of chords, which are “Gil Evans-like” chords. I was very lucky when at Yale to be introduced to Gil Evans by Willie Ruff, who conducted the Jazz Band at the time, and I was able to assist Gil Evans on some projects—orchestration projects. So I got to see Gil Evans at work; how he orchestrated, how he voiced his chords and so forth, and especially—his writing is for winds, so in this particular case this piece features the winds, as well. You know, we have oboes, and clarinets, and horns, and so forth, which is what Gil Evans would use in many of his arrangements. Of course, he’d have trumpets, and saxes, and trombones, too, but nonetheless. So, you kind of hear remnants of those, kind of—ghosts of those chords—of the Gil Evans kind of chords.
LVC. And the second movement—so you have contrasted the first and the second movements. Could you address that a little bit?
MD. I wanted to have two different kinds of moods. So, the first movement is very self-contained, I guess. There’s, like I said, this particular ostinato which repeats, and is passed around throughout the ensemble, and that has a particular mood to it. And the second movement is—well, the first movement is in minor, basically—the second movement is in major. And, “Looking Up,” I was thinking of Georgia O’Keeffe, also. So her paintings are two ways, they’re either, she said they’re like standing high and painting, looking down at the landscape—at the skyscrapers—or some of them she’s actually on the ground looking up, so the second movement is that. So we have melodies, which you’re going to hear after a cadenza of the violin. You’re going to then hear a tune that starts [sings], but this [sings] keeps ascending and ascending. It’s funny, somebody said, “You know, that sort of sounds like the Jupiter Symphony theme of Mozart” [sings]. I wasn’t thinking of that, but it’s funny that, if you think of the Jupiter Symphony, it is again the idea of ascent—you know, looking up to Jupiter, or whatever. So, maybe I wasn’t thinking of that, but…yeah. One of the things I try to do is to compose a ‘ladder of sound’ featuring expressive music for the violin, and kind of vertical lines for the orchestra, and I was also thinking of the ensemble in a way where I structure the music like complex light and dark patterns; like the moon reflecting off the side of a building.
LVC. I did a little bit of homework before I came here and looked at—online—at the picture of the [American] Radiator Building, and thought about how inspiring that would be for a composer. But the compositional aspect, and the emotional aspect….
MD. Yeah, you know, every piece I write, I have so many different kinds of pieces, many of them icons of American culture, or places of American culture, or historical figures of American culture: from Abraham Lincoln, to Jackie Kennedy, to Elvis, to places like Mount Rushmore, or icons, you know, like flamingos or—gee, I’ve written so many different kinds of pieces over the years, and in this particular one—I always feel like I’m a director, moving from a comedy, to a western, you know, to a period film, to a gangster movie, whatever—in this particular case, I kind of imagine myself with my…I like to wear hats, I either wear cowboy hats or fedora hats, and I’ve just always done that, and so I imagine myself kind of one of those figures in the black and white, 1950s, The Naked City film, you know, walking around New York, kind of black and white, and, you know, that kind of feeling of New York in the ‘50s—in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. When I lived in New York in the late ‘70s, I remember walking all over New York City and there were lots of the old buildings—kind of the old New York from the 30s—still around. Some of those are gone now, like the old East Side Market, which was like stepping back in time. But, anyway, so this is sort of my—I feel that I have the right to write a piece like this because I did live in New York for many years, and, you know…but it’s kind of looking at the old New York. I wrote another piece called Brooklyn Bridge for clarinet and symphonic band that’s played a lot, and the Brooklyn Bridge is another place where I just—every time I go to New York, if I possibly can, I like to go down to the Brooklyn Bridge and walk across the bridge because is just—it’s the greatest view of New York. And probably one of the most interesting skyscrapers, besides the Empire State Building, is the Radiator Building, which the second movement…was the inspiration for the second movement, “Looking Up” for Ladder to the Moon.
LVC. Such a wonderful piece, conjures so many images, it’s just so great. Well, I think we have plenty of material here. Is there anything you’d like to add?
MD. Well, one of the things I notice when I come back to Yale is just the amount of energy of the faculty, of the students. Yale’s a ‘tough love’ place where you’re given incredible facilities, and there’s great players, and so forth, but you’re also pushed to find yourself, and I think that, by being here—it was a very long journey, you know, from Iowa, to Texas, to New York, to New Haven, and then living in Paris, and Hamburg, and Amsterdam, and doing all sorts of things, being an usher at Carnegie Hall, to playing piano bars, from Amsterdam, to the Sip N Stir in Iowa, to playing in rock bands, to playing electronic music in avant-garde groups, to just doing everything you can possibly imagine, and finally ending up coming back here in 2013 at Yale, you know, now a professor at the University of Michigan, and written lots of pieces, and have lots of recordings, and so I feel very lucky to have had the time here at Yale and it’s great to be back here.
LVC. We are so happy to have you back, and thank you for your time.