Geez, Louise, you’d think I’d be more media-savvy after 23 years in the media. But it didn’t occur to me to mention, here in my blog, part of the purpose of which is self-promotion, that I was going to be interviewed at 2 PM today on John Schaefer’s Soundcheck program on WNYC. John can no longer archive his programs on the web because of potential copyright issues concerning live music, but there was no live music on my show, and so I don’t think it will raise any problems that I’ve posted a recording of the half-hour interview here. (Like everyone else, I hate the way my voice sounds on recording – it sounds very different from inside my head, believe me. And I don’t really have a Texas accent, I don’t know how WNYC’s microphones made it sound as though I do.)
John’s a great boon to new music, isn’t he? He knows just how to ask all those faux-innocent questions that you need to ask to get answers interesting to a non-specialist audience, and he got me to say a couple of things I’d never said before. It was a fun interview.
One of the perennial problems of radio interviews, however, completely unknown in the blogosphere, is that you never have enough words to completely elucidate a point. John zeroed in on a problem I often worry about: that my compositions are so different from each other that it’s difficult for listeners to find what I think of as my “voice.” Most of my works have as their basis a counterpoint of different rhythmic durations going out of phase with each other. In my Disklavier pieces, I can simply set lines going at rhythms of 17-against-19-against-31 and think no more about it. When I’m writing for an ensemble with conductor, I have to be a little more circumspect, but can have a repeating 17-beat isorhythm in one instrument or section against a 23-beat pattern in another. When I’m writing for a solo pianist, it’s more likely to be a five-beat pattern in the left hand accompanying four-beat phrases in the right. It’s all the same idea – but it would require someone analyzing the scores to point out what the commonalities are. It’s really typical of me to base a piece on a rhythmic problem and use harmony as the articulating element – somewhat the opposite of traditional classical music. As I told John, “I feel like I keep writing the same piece over and over,” and I do. But I am heavily swayed by differences in medium, and accommodate my ideas according to practical considerations.
Another point John brought up is that several of my Disklavier pieces have a “retro” feel, based in ragtime, bebop, or other familiar styles. This is a change that came about in my music in the late 1990s. I used to try to build up a piece from scratch, with no aspects likely to be already familiar to the listener. But when I started writing for Disklavier around 1997, I decided that, if you’re going to do something really weird like a continual 13-against-29 rhythm, you can better suck the listener in by having some aspect that already sounds familiar. The weirdness, I realized, will be more clearly set off against a familiar chord progression or melodic style. And so, abandoning my earlier quest for 100-percent originality, I began appropriating known idioms, so that the listener would have something to hold onto as the rhythms got wild. Early reactions to my Nude Rolling Down an Escalator CD suggest that listeners are both enticed by the familiar idioms and confused by the combination of harmonic banality and rhythmic unpredictability. I’m not displeased. John was very insightful and complimentary, and it’s always an honor to be on his show.