05 December 2010

Interview: William Bolcom & Joan Morris

Late October was a busy time for Pulitzer Prize-winning composer William Bolcom: not only was mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle performing the world premiere of The Hawthorn Tree, the song cycle he wrote expressly for her, but he’d also scheduled surgery on his hand. The latter circumstance might have been more nerve-wracking for Bolcom, who is also an acclaimed pianist, but for the fact that he’d already had an identical surgery on the opposite hand, some time ago. When I arrived for our interview — because, yeah, he’d scheduled that, too — he was peppy and unfazed by the enormous foam-rubber contraption in which his hand was encased. (It looked like nothing so much as the Woozy, the boxy critter from the Oz books.)

Bolcom’s compositional output includes some of the most exciting operas written in my lifetime (McTeague, A View from the Bridge, A Wedding); the vast Songs of Innocence and Experience, after William Blake; four volumes of original cabaret songs; and other vocal and instrumental works that evoke a variety of styles while remaining faithful to an astonishing breadth of feeling — and an always-lively wit. With his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, Bolcom has explored and resuscitated popular song of the late-19th and early-20th centuries. (They’re still touring “Someone Talked,” a look at World War II propaganda songs.) Together, the couple has shaken up and dusted off the American recital hall.

Bolcom’s website, and the second site he shares with Morris, will give you further background on his remarkable career, but please note that he was the first (and, for a long time, only) grant recipient of the then-fledgling Kurt Weill Foundation for Music. It’s perhaps no accident, then, that Bolcom’s work as both composer and performer recalls Weill’s oft-repeated philosophy: “I have never acknowledged the difference between serious music and light music. There is only good music or bad music.”

Best of all, in his passionate pursuit of his own artistic bliss, Bill Bolcom has brought the rest of us along for the ride.

Joyce Castle in the world premiere of Bolcom’s The Hawthorn Tree, October 20, 2010

What follows is the transcript of our conversation, on 24 October 2010. Though I’ve made very few edits, in the interest of preserving something of the flavor of the Bolcoms’ character as a couple, you’ll want to know that Joan Morris commented more than she actually spoke: murmuring her agreement, disagreement, and surprise, she was present throughout, though not always transcribable.

WVM: Thank you for agreeing to do this, William Bolcom and Joan Morris.

JM: Thank you, Bill Madison. [Laughter]

WB: Anything for Joyce!

WVM: Well, that’s — and God bless Joyce. The first thing that actually struck me after we spoke yesterday [the third performance and my second hearing of The Hawthorn Tree] — it was not all that long ago that, if I had said to a composer, “I love your song cycle,” as I said, you would have been offended. … You didn’t seem to mind when I loved your song cycle.

WB: Well, no. I don’t see why I should. But I can understand there was a certain period of a certain intellectual rigor, where the whole idea of something that was immediately reachable on some emotional level was automatically suspect. And that probably came from — oh, a host of factors.

I have a whole kind of analysis of how that might have happened, having been in Europe in the Fifties, when the whole terrific trauma of the Second World War was still immediate in everybody’s mind. The period was really one of, I think, a great deal of shame on everybody’s part, of how badly they had all acted, and not just the Germans. I think there was a tendency to try to blame the art of the past for the kind of ugly afflatus of feeling that the whole Nazi era had brought up in a lot of people. I mean, the heavy anti-Semitism and everything else.

In fact it’s very funny that a lot of people in Germany were so surprised that it would have been Hitler, and everybody in the whole German-speaking nation that would have been so particularly nasty to Jews, when actually Germany had been the first country in Europe to allow Jews to own property in the 19th century. So it seemed very odd.

Arthur Miller did a play called Broken Glass, talking about this woman who had suddenly become unable to use most of her body, having heard about Kristallnacht. We’re talking about 1938 now. Her doctor, who had studied in Heidelberg, who was himself Jewish but had felt very friendly and somehow accepted by his colleagues — you know, drank with them, and felt totally accepted. Everybody was talking about how much more overtly anti-Semitic France had been.

WVM: Yes.

WB: Of course you know about Céline and all the rest of the craziness. I was just talking about this with my doctor, Mark Siegel, the other night. He admits, the same way that I do, that Céline is one of the great writers, but he was also a rabid anti-Semite, and may have had something to do with that whole bunch of young children, who were brought into the Val d’Hiver and shipped off to the death camps. That’s not sure, but he certainly was crazy. But he was one of the great writers. If you’ve never read the Voyage au bout de la nuit, you must do that, if you haven’t.


WVM: Not yet.

WB: Well, it’s a must. It is one of those great books.

So anyway, with all of that, there was a terrific reaction, a terrific need to start all over. When I was there — you know, Edith Piaf, “Je repars à zero” [I start over from scratch]. The whole idea is to start all over with nothing, the whole idea is to deracinate yourself from history. Stay away from tonality. If you ever looked at [Pierre] Boulez’s book, Penser la musique d’aujourd’hui, he talks about, stay away from classed chords, stay away from [inaudible], because they will recall the past. The past was to be avoided.

Well, you can understand it. Humanly. It was a way of trying to somehow start all over again. Start with a clean slate, a tabula rasa. It’s humanly, perfectly understandable.

This, coupled with the growth of schools of music in the universities, the whole idea suddenly being that there you were, in there with the department of philosophy and the English department and the sciences, and everybody else. A big phrase was bandied about in the Fifties, particularly with a thing called “intellectual respectability.”

WVM: Boy, am I glad I missed that!

JM: Yeah! [Laughter]

WB: That was my young years!

Also, the growth of the field of musicology would come very naturally, because large numbers of refugees from Hitler settled here. Guido Adler, [inaudible] Appel, Manfred Bukofzer — and they all would give a cachet to the schools of music. All of a sudden, it was increasingly common among composers to try to pick up this or that very complex system to feel abreast of this whole “intellectual respectability” and to keep up with the Joneses in a certain kind of way. Coupled with the trauma that was felt in Europe — that I don’t think was ever felt here in the same kind of way — but of course there’s also the sense of the need of somehow being able to keep up with the Joneses in Europe.

When I first got to teaching, out there at the University of Michigan, we would have these Midwest Composers Symposia for the students. Once I [had been] there about three years, teaching, you know about 1975 or ’76, we were at Northwestern. One of the senior members of the faculty of one of the music schools took me aside and said [Lowers voice to dramatic whisper], “Tell me, is there anything that’s happening in Europe that we should know about?”

I said, “Well — ”

He said, “Yes, we don’t know whom to follow.” Absolutely threw me.

Pierre Boulez

Of course, the immediate thing is, why would you worry about following Europe, or anybody? But the point is, there was that sense of feeling. I remember a very nice fellow named István Anholt, who’s a Canadian composer, a good friend of George Rochberg. And he used to look at composers’ conventions as if they were — he was also a physicist. We would go to these composers’ conferences and find out what the “new discoveries” were, as if they were somehow a kind of intellectual pathfinding.

Well, a corollary to that is that it’s obviously something that an audience would not be able to follow, because it was simply beyond their ken. You know?

I could understand all that, and there’s actually something useful in the expansion of the musical palette. I mean, if you’ve heard my music, you’ve heard that there is quite a bit of expanded tonality, to — often — quite the outer reaches. It is still followable, in the general sense, because underneath it, there is a core of underpinnings that have to do with the harmonic language that has been developed over the last thousand years. Because I really never could feel that same need to dispense with the past. I could look at the expansion of the musical language as something that I could add onto the whole thing, rather than trying to eschew the whole past and start all over again.

But that’s probably how somebody would have felt. “Well, heaven’s sakes, if you liked it, I’m not being out enough. I’m not being avant-garde enough. I have to go toughen up a little bit.”

Which is a kind of interesting impulse. Charles Ives, when he revised some of his early works, he would keep adding extra dissonances. Because he just wanted to make ’em really tough, you know? It was partly that whole feeling — he also wanted to be the first in everything, too, and sometimes would even back-date some of his songs so they would come out as being earlier than somebody else’s.

JM: Oh, boy! [Laughter]

WB: Which was ridiculous, but I mean, that was okay. But there’s some sense of, what do you do with the other guys? What do you do with the other composers? And maybe what happened to me at some point is, I stopped caring about what the other folks thought. When I did that, it was a wonderful sense of freedom. So now I just do what I damned please.

WVM: That’s one of the things that really strikes me about your music. I know your vocal work pretty well; I know your purely instrumental work not very well at all. I like what I’ve heard but just couldn’t speak about it intelligently. But in your vocal work, you’re really not afraid of pleasure. And I have always sensed that it comes first from your pleasure, what pleases you.

WB: Well, I love the voice! And I feel the same way about the instruments. You see, early enough, I realized — I was a bit of prodigy as a pianist, as a little boy. I showed very strong precocity in piano at the age of four and five and six, and like that. At one point, we were living in Seattle, and some people in Los Angeles had heard of me and had come up to try to talk me into going onto the stage as a career. My mother used to say they pulled me out of the sandbox to talk to them. [Laughter]

Well, there was of course during the Second World War a spate of child prodigies. Think of the [inaudible], there were three little children playing the Mozart concertos with leg extenders!

WVM: Almost an extension of the Shirley Temple phenomenon.

JM: Yeah.

WB: Yeah, true. And Deanna Durbin, and Hollywood. So this was the whole period of that kind of thing. They thought, “Well, for heaven’s sakes, we’ll make a lot of money with this kid.” My parents — and I thank them every day. Same was true with Gilbert Kalish. His parents were also approached, to try to put Gil on the stage as a boy. My mother, who had had some educational training, asked these people from Los Angeles, “What will his life be like?”

They said, “Well, he won’t go to school. He’ll have tutors. He’ll be working most of the time touring, and he’ll be traveling with people who are much older than himself.”

She went off and talked with my dad, and she said, “I wouldn’t do that to our dog.” So they turned ’em down. I’m very glad, and Gil says the same. He says, “We thank our parents every day for having the good sense.” Because we have seen what happened to the people who were exploited like that. They were pretty much — I don’t know anybody who went through that who wasn’t in some way severely wounded as a person.

A few years later, they went and talked with Ruth Slenczynska, who was also exploited as a child. She never forgave her parents for that, and she was so glad that they didn’t do that to me.

Catherine Malfitano, a peerless interpreter of Bolcom’s music, with Kim Josephson in A View from the Bridge

I also knew the wonderful fiddler, who’s probably now forgotten. He was a huge success at the age of 13, his name was Michael Rabin. He was considered a world-class player at 13. He played all the standard [repertory], the Mendelssohn violin concerto, and so on and so forth — and usually surrounded with people far older than he was. Then he had the bad grace to grow up. I knew him in his late 20s, early 30s, about that time. He was going with a wonderful woman named June LeBell, who had been on WNYC a number of times. I’m going to be interviewed by her sometime down —

JM: We’re both going down there.…

WB: …[Rabin] was a most unhappy person; he had this big, dark cloud hanging over his head. I think we even found a biography. And he had a stage mother who wouldn’t quit. That old kind of ugliness.

JM: It was kind of like, remember you tried to talk to [a well-known instrumentalist today]? And her mother wouldn’t let you.

WB: Her mother wouldn’t let me talk to her! I’d been in Nashville, and I just wanted to congratulate her. She played very well. She was very young, 12 or 13, and her mother was just sequestering her from anybody.

Mind you, it’s not impossible to help a young person develop well. We just got to know two lovely young girls who are the granddaughters of the cellist Leslie Parnas, who still has something of a name as a great cellist. I knew him a little bit at Aspen, in the Fifties when I was first there. The two granddaughters, they’re now 19 and 17, and they’re pretty as pictures and such lovely young women. [Madalyn and Cicely Parnas] had decided to do my very difficult duo for violin and cello, and they came to play it for us last spring. They were, first of all, phenomenal, but they were absolutely lovely people. Their mother was there with them, but she was anything but a stage mother.

JM: Yes, and you could hold a conversation with them. They were not awkward and kind of embarrassed, like young kids often are when talking to older people.

WB: They’d been home-schooled. Their parents were — he’s a very nice fellow, too.

JM: He’s not in music.

WB: He’s not in music, but his mother I think was an astronomer, a physicist, but they were very high-tech folks. But they knew that they should be playing, they had made every effort not to have a big career but of course to be willing to play. So as it turned out, they actually did a guest appearance at our concert in July. We have been giving concerts in Western Massachusetts for the Mohawk Trail Festival — well, this next performance will be our 35th year there.

JM: In fact, the lady whose apartment this is, that is her festival now. She inherited it from her husband.

WB: She lives in Amherst, uses this as a pied-à-terre, and we use it when we’re here.

JM: Ruth Black, an English woman, very nice.

Madalyn and Cicely, the Duo Parnas

WB: Anyway, [the Parnas sisters] are just delightful. They have somehow been raised so they still have good heads on their shoulders. Their parents have been very careful, because they are very, very talented. I think they’ll do well. They are now getting artist diplomas at Burlington, which is a perfect thing. They are now working with Jaime Laredo and —

JM: Sharon Robinson.

WB: So it’s perfect. It’s the kind of thing they should be doing, but they’re not being exploited in the ugly, dollar-oriented sort of way. I know people who have been through that, who have been exploited by their parents, and it’s a terrible thing. So you can do it right. I understand that people like, for example, Hillary Hahn has been treated properly. But a lot of them simply — what happens is that also they get to a certain level at the end of their teens, and they never get past that.

JM: Yeah, [the Parnas sisters] seem very well-adjusted. Madalyn said she can spot other home-schooled kids. You know, when you read about things that go on in schools, the bullying and merciless behavior —

WVM: You hear about it all the time right now.

JM: Yeah!

WB: The lack of understanding and concern of others! This is something that happens. But [the Parnas sisters] had this immediacy and friendliness. Actually, they did this concert in Ann Arbor where they played a bunch of duos, including mine, and they were just —

JM: Oh, terrific!

WB: Oh, they were just lovely. Everybody loved them, as well they should. And I think they’ll be all right.

JM: Very mature playing, yes.

WB: I don’t see any ugly repercussions in their future, or moments like what happened to poor Michael Rabin. I was terribly sorry for him.

JM: It was clear what [both Parnas sisters] wanted to do. Their mother said you just couldn’t keep them away from their instruments, from a very young age — like three and five, or five and something.

WB: Far from being exploited!

JM: They were encouraged, but in a measured manner. You know, they weren’t just thrown out there.

We both just finished a very interesting little book [Safe Passage: The Remarkable Story of Two Sisters who Rescued Jews from the Nazis, by Ida Cook] about two women who were opera fans, and they became friends with people like Rosa Ponselle and Maria Callas.

WB: We’ve got it here, by the way, if you want to take a look at it.

JM: They said most singers today are exposed too early. She said there was a period of growth that singers needed to go through before they were put on the scene, so to speak.

WB: Certain conductors knew how to do that: Clemens Krauss, who was one of the great ones, was one of their dear friends. These were just two little ladies who were working as civil servants and never married, and they became close friends with the great singers of their time. It’s a great book. A friend of ours gave it to us, and I was just entranced.

JM: Oh, yeah. And I told Bill, the tone of the writing — everything — was just so beautiful, too.

WB: It’s worth looking at.

Anyway, this is something to do with the whole question of why — pleasure of the voice. Well, I did have a certain facility with the piano but I showed none at all for any other instrument. I wasn’t able to play anything [else], I don’t sing well. When I was in junior high school in Everett, Washington, my father — who had been involved with lumber, that whole history — my grandfather had been a lumber magnate who lost all his money just before I was born, mostly because of the stock crash. So my dad had always tried to get it back together somehow, so we went from town to town in Washington State. In the end, he had to be the salesman, he never really was able to get his bearings again.

So I was raised with a family of people who loved music. They played a little bit of piano. My dad and mom played [laughs] a famous pop overture from 1830, called the Overture to Zampa.

WVM: Oh, my! [Laughter]

WB: My mother had a little piano at her place in the San Juans, and I’d play “Canadian Capers” with her, and things like that. [Laughs.] But they never exploited me at what I did. They made sure I had lessons very early. I studied from the age of five, a little bit earlier than that. And the University kept their eye on me, the University of Washington. We had a very fine music department in those years and a happy one.

The head of the piano department, who was herself a student of — I think it was the Schola Cantorum, maybe it was the Ecole Normale, I’d have to make sure which it was. She studied with famous people like [inaudible] and Vincent d’Indy, and people like that. So my orientation from her was French. She was a friend of Poulenc, and Poulenc would make sure that his new scores were sent to her. It wasn’t the orientation that you’d find here at Juilliard or Curtis, which were much more Eastern European. My composition teacher — I had two, when I was about eight years old, I started working with a man called George Frederick McKay, who was known for music-school kind of music. He wrote a lot for bands. But he also had a Vaughn-Williams-y atmosphere about his music, and a rather grand kind of person. I was then given to a man named John Verrall, who’d studied at the Royal College of Music, and also with Zoltan Kodaly in Budapest. So my orientation was quite different from what you would find if I had gone to New York.

WVM: One of the things that people say almost reflexively about your music, is that it’s eclectic. Certainly in the programs that the two of you have done together, anything is up for grabs.

WB: Right.

WVM: So my question is, what does not interest you musically? What will you never do?

WB: I don’t think I can relate to popular music today the same way as I could relate to popular music of the era of the Beatles — although I have found some odd things here and there that are interesting. Maybe my problem has been that the writers today really write for themselves. I have been friends with the writers Leiber and Stoller for many years; in fact, they were my first publisher. We did that opera for actors called Dynamite Tonite. They took it on, but they really were not publishers in the standard sense. They didn’t know what to do with warehousing parts and scores, and things like that. Their idea of publishing was to send the lead sheet to the Library of Congress.

Mike Stoller, by the way, is an extremely accomplished musician. He studied with Stefan Wolpe. I have [a recording of] a twelve-tone piece from him, as a matter of fact —

JM: Gosh, do you really?

WB: Mm-hmm, he sent it to me. I’m trying to get the score to do it.

JM: When did he write it?

WB: When he was working with Stefan, which was some time in the Fifties.

JM: For heaven’s sake!

WB: And Jerry has a very wide culture. They really did some of the best pop songs, and we made a recording.

WVM: Yes, that’s why I began nodding like that! [Laughter]

WB: We called it Other Songs of Leiber and Stoller, which is not to say what they did for the Cheers. Though we did, I think, “Black Denim Trousers.”

JM: Yeah.

WB: But — we still do it constantly at concerts. And they are among the very best writers, and then Jerry is one of the most brilliant lyricists of our time. I should say my time, because he’s about five years older than I am. But they were writers for other performers. I remember once, I was in a radio interview with Mike, and he said, “Well, the growth of the singer-songwriter was kind of the end of all that. Because there was much less concentration on material as there was on self-advertisement.” That’s kind of the feeling that I have with a lot of what I hear today. It’s a matter of selling the personality, rather than something that is intrinsically interesting as music.

I can see something of the — why it would be interesting to people who are really interested in trying to become famous.

JM: [Wistfully] Yeah.

WB: I just don’t think that Joan and I had any great interest in putting out those things. There are cabaret composers recently who have done some fun things. There were a couple who were pretty nice … but they’re really made for people who are much younger than we are.

JM: Oh, yeah. And the young man who wrote Avenue Q took my class three times —

WB: Jeff Marx.

JM: Jeff Marx. And you know, there are some tunes in that show. I also worked with a young man, Sam Davis, who does a lot of musical direction for Broadway shows.

WB: He studied with me, as well, in composition.

JM: He wrote a show at Michigan — I produced it.

WB: So there are some people who actually have some musical and harmonic interest!

JM: Oh, [Davis] loved the old stuff — but he had been taken to musicals from a very young age by his parents, who lived in New York.

WB: I think is dad is theatrically oriented.

JM: Yeah, so Sam had a background.

WB: Yeah, he had a strong background, which made a big difference, I think.

JM: How did Dan Davis put it this morning? He said, most people, it’s got to be immediately interesting. In other words, they don’t care about depth so much as the [snaps fingers].

WVM: That’s why we throw ’em out three months later. Because they’re very catchy and shallow —

WB: And it’s gone!

JM: It’s wear-dated, as Andy Warhol said.

WB: But I think everybody sort of expects that. There is a sense among the young which, in a way, I pity them for, is the enormous competition out there, all the time. There are so many, many, many others, and I think people don’t ever forget that.

So in a way, I kind of feel sorry for them. I didn’t have to have that kind of worry. I was out there in the middle of small towns in Washington State, and sometimes I felt like I was the only musician within a thousand square miles. I didn’t have to worry terribly about other people in my school trying to vie for attention. I never kind of worried about that. I never was a self-promoter anyway. I just wanted to do what I wanted to do, and I feel pretty lucky in that I have done what I wanted to do.

Bolcom’s frequent collaborator, the late poet Arnold Weinstein

So as far as eclecticism is concerned — to get back to your original — [Laughter] — that’s the way I’ve always been! I used to drive my students nuts, but I would eventually land back to what I was saying. So you’d have a kind of long flight and eventually get back to the question.

To me, it’s all musical language. I think that the people that we still play from the past were probably also eclectics. Mozart was constantly berated by the critics of his time for skating from style to style in the same piece. It all sounds like Mozart to us, but if you listen to most of his contemporaries, they really are Johnny One-Notes. They have one thing they do, and in a very short time, you see, “Well, that’s what it’s going to be, and here’s some more; it’s the same kind of thing.” The whole idea of trying to be one-note and an absolute style and keep a certain kind of — another one of those buzzwords of my period, along with “intellectual respectability” was “originality.”

Joan Morris had popped out of the room to take a phone call. Returning now, she announced that the caller had been Bill Clinton.

JM: But it was a robo-call, for the Democratic candidates. [Laughter]

WVM: He might have been calling to congratulate you on The Hawthorn Tree!

JM: [Imitating Clinton] “Bill, I thought that was a wonderful cycle.” [Laughter]

WVM: From Bill to Bill.

WB: I don’t think we’ve had very culturally interested Presidents for some time. Probably John Kennedy, but mostly Jackie.

WVM: That’s what I’ve always felt. That was coming from her, not from him.

WB: I think so. I think he had a general culture, probably. But whether he was interested or not, I don’t know. You know, it’s a full-time job, politics in Washington. It’s a very strange audience to play for. You can see them, looking — oh, gosh! After Reagan was elected, we played for the Washington Performing Arts Society. I don’t think anyone looked at us. Everybody was looking at each other. “I want to fucking have this apartment in Chevy Chase now.” [Laughter]

JM: It’s true. Some people’s eyes were off to one side.

WB: And you could see they were checking each other out.

I had a nice talk now with that very nice Senator — Leahy, Patrick Leahy. He was there, for that whole thing. We talked a long time. I was asking him — now, that’s a man who does have a general culture. I had a chance to talk with him; I’m sure he won’t remember the conversation, but I remember I said that I was “so glad that I could talk with someone like you, because you had a sort of sense of the whole perspective of the thing.” But a lot of the folks are just too much — you know. Oh, gosh, all these things you would be taken to, are some kind of affair where some fellow would — the minute he shook your hand, he was looking at the next person. It was nothing to do with you. So maybe the solipsism mood of our country right now has had deeper roots than we tend to —

JM: Oh, I think so. These are nothing new. The Know-Nothings of the 19th century. This is another Tea Party.

WB: Everybody is “Me-me-me-me.” It’s like a one-tone song on the note of “mi.” [Laughter]

JM: It’s all about dough, too. [Laughter]

WB: Mi and do! That’s right! [Sings] Mi-do-mi-do-mi-do. Do for mi! [Laughter] That’s funny!

JM: Two notes!

WB: I was never interested in doing what would be successful, because that would have to presuppose greater respect for other people’s opinions than I have ever had. I have a great deal of respect for people, but I’m not sure I’m so crazy about their opinions. Probably because many times their opinions are fear-based, and that probably isn’t their real selves talking. So what you want to do is get past all that show and find out what they really think. And the way to do that is to be honest with them.

We had an interesting conversation once with William Saroyan. I’m glad you recognize his name, because a lot of people don’t know him at all, but he had at one time been the most famous author in the United States. The reason we got to know him is because he became a fan of Joan’s singing. I remember him sending a $100 check and a note saying, “Please send us all of your recordings.”

The time of his life: Author Saroyan

This had to do with the whole question of whether you’re in music, or what you do, whether your work is going to survive you. The rule generally is that very few composers’ music ever survives them. Once they’re dead, that’s it. That’s probably always been true, but it’s particularly true today. There might be a little bit of a revival of somebody once in a while, but very few people stay in the repertory. They never really stayed in the repertory.

So people would ask me all the time, “Are you worried about posterity?” And that’s another one of the concerns, also. People were talking about “originality” and “intellectual respectability,” and so on. [Adopts a gruff voice] “Well, my time will come.” And so on and so forth.

Which of course Mahler said. But he already had something of a notoriety in his time. Varèse said most people are far behind their own time, but he also said that anybody of any kind of quality has some cachet or some notoriety or some knowledge of their work while they’re alive. Whether their stuff survives or not has to do in the end with whether people want to perform it or not. If they’re not going to be performed, then they might be respected, but it won’t be sitting anywhere.

So here we are. We took William Saroyan out for dinner in Paris. We were staying with friends then, and so we called him. By that time, he lived in Paris at the time. He was of course from Fresno, where many Armenians came from. He used to say, “I live in Paris to work but I go to Fresno to have fun.” [Laughter] Can you imagine? He said he’d find his old friends, and so on.

So anyway, here he is, and he had this wonderful handlebar moustache, and he was quite deaf, so he shouted a lot. “All these whippersnappers, nobody talks up!” We had to talk like that. I remember we took him to a restaurant nearby, close to the Place des Victoires, a one-star restaurant, nice place. And he was talking very loudly, and he turned around and of course everybody looked at him and said, “Hey, it must be somebody famous, he has got a moustache.”

He asked me, “Are you by any possible chance Armenian?” I said no.

He said, “Well, I’ve done something to try to reunite families which were dispersed during the 1915 holocaust. He’d had some success. And he did it simply because it was a very important thing for him to do.

Fine. So afterwards, we went back to the apartment where my friend was staying. He was a fine composer and a friend since 1957 when we met at Aspen, Bruce Mather. A fine composer.

So Saroyan said, “Would you mind playing some of your own music?” Bruce happened to have a couple of recordings. He and his wife, Pierrette, had recorded my Frescoes, and I think he played some of that. Bruce played something of his own.

Saroyan listened very respectfully. And as he left — you have to imagine this guy, in dishevelled chinos and a bright orange tie, picked up at a writers’ convention in Bulgaria, or something. And as he was leaving, he said, “You know, art is what is irresistible.”

Then he said goodbye and went down the stairs. Afterward, I sort of thought about that for a long time. Was he kind of telling us in a nice way that what we were doing was maybe not irresistible? Maybe so. And then I thought, “Well, there is no way for me to guarantee that anything I do is irresistible or not. And since I can’t guarantee that, it is out of my hands. I’ll just do what I want to do, and if people find it irresistible, it’s all well and good. But it is really and strangely no concern of mine.”

So when somebody says that they like something of mine, it gives me pleasure. But it doesn’t say to me, “Oh, my, I’m on the right track.” It’s just — I was glad that they liked it. And of course nothing makes me happier than to find people are playing my music not because they feel they have to for some political reason, but because they really wanted to do it.

WVM: As I say, the sense that I get from your music is that it begins with your pleasure, that you like it.

WB: Yeah!

WVM: Exactly, and I just happen to come along afterwards, and like it. But it got to the point where I could hear it because you liked it that much.

WB: The other thing is that, I was talking about the fact that I can’t play any instruments but the piano and I really can’t sing. So I decided I would operate on the principle of — had I been able to do something — since I can’t do it, I’m going to have to assign somebody else to do it. So I have always kind of vicarious pleasure in listening to somebody perform something which I couldn’t have done myself. Which is fine.

That gives me a kind of a handle for the performer — I think they sense that they have been invited to play the thing. The whole business of putting together this cycle for Joyce was a matter of trying to get a really straight, solid focus on her. Not only as a person — though I don’t think I know her terribly deeply well. But I have a good fix on what she is as a performer. But it also took some talking, because it took some working. It took a long time to find the poems; two she’d picked. And then Sarah Arvio, who was the next-to-last poet, who was a great help in putting together the rest of the cycle. Joan picked up one, the third one, which was the Christina Rossetti.

JM: Oh, yes.

WB: You picked that one.

JM: Joyce actually said to you, “How did you come to understand my voice so well?” You listened to the sound of her — talking, too.

WB: I listened. Once I had a good fix on her — that’s what you go for, you try to focus on the performer. And you focus until you get that exactitude of focus. The paradox of that is that, once you have a good, solid focus on somebody, that can be transferred easily to some other peformer, because the focus can shift. It’s quite a different thing from trying to write a one-size-fits-all kind of thing. It’s also possible — because other people have done this — to feel, even though the piece was not written for them, they can say they can feel that it was written for themselves. In other words, they simply find some other kind of way to do it.

WVM: The Arvio poem [“Chagrin”] really struck me because it sounds not unlike Joyce in conversation.

JM: Interesting!

WVM: Not necessarily the same sort of thing that she would talk about, but the stopping and starting, the going off on a little tangent and then coming back, sounds very much like Joyce in conversation.

JM: Absolutely. [She says this over Bolcom, who’s agreeing, though his words aren’t quite audible on tape.]

WVM: So her performance was especially natural, I felt.

JM: That’s very interesting. Yes, when she said that one line, it was almost like, “Oh, did she add that?” You know, like a stream of consciousness thing.

WB: But underneath it there’s this very kind of dark overall line, but it’s all kind of flittering in different directions. You know, you [Joan Morris] will sort of — like a crown, a forest fire on the tops of trees — bing-bing-bing-bing. Then she will say, “I would like to do the —” and then she’ll go on to the next one. “Hey! What are we talking about?”

JM: One of my students said, “Joan, you never finish a sentence.” [Laughter] I had a boyfriend once, I’d be talking about something, and we had started from another point. He’d say, “Let’s see, we started out — ” [Laughter] He would try to backtrack and find out how I had gotten where we were.

WB: You do have that tendency. But you know — my mother was — “Why can’t you see what’s in my mind?” she would say. Which I thought was very charming, that she actually would say that.

JM: Well, a lot of times, people do become intuitive about each other, and you do get the thread of where someone’s going.

WB: I can sometimes do that.

JM: I know you can.

WB: But sometimes I can’t.

JM: And sometimes me with you, too. But not always. It’s true, it’s true.

WB: Sometimes I can, and we do rather well, but there are times we simply can’t. What can I say?

JM: Probably a good thing.

Joyce, with Jennifer Welch-Babidge, in Suor Angelica.
Utah Opera, 2010

WB: But I think once I get a good fix on [Joyce], and I’d seen her perform various things — Joan had seen her even more often than I had — and I always thought she was a terrific performer. One of the most terrifying things is if you’ve ever seen her in Suor Angelica, or as the Prioress [in Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites], she’ll just scare the bejeezus out of you. She is frightening. At the same time she can do humorous things. She has this huge range!

JM: And she knows how to show fear, too. That one with the horse [“The Dream,” the fourth song in the Hawthorn Tree cycle] — I can still see that expression on her face. Those eyes and that way her hands, the way she was trying to protect herself!

WB: It was terrifying!

JM: I know, I know!

WB: This was Louise Bogan, one of the most powerful poets. She and Theodore Roethke had an affair. She was also poetry editor of The New Yorker for a time.…

WVM: What you’re saying about seeing the horse and the monsters and some of the things Joyce was doing —

JM: Sea serpent.

WVM: Sea serpent [in the second song, “Love me!” to a text by Stevie Smith], thank you.

WB: That’s — if she’s never done it yet, she must do a Klytämnestra [in Strauss’ Elektra] some time.

WVM: She has, she has.

WB: She’d have to be just an overwhelming Klytämnestra!

WVM: I just found a picture on her website, actually.

JM: Wow!

WB: Where did they do that?

WVM: The last place she sang it, I believe, was Amsterdam, just before I moved to Europe, so I didn’t get to see it.

WB: She must have — she would be just killer. I can tell, she would just leave you —

JM: She has that kind of sibylline quality, like she can pronounce the future.

WB: She has a very powerful personality, and she has this terrific range of possibilities, and she’s a strong actress.

WVM: Well, exactly that, and within the cycle I sometimes felt as if the theatrical dimension was so pronounced that I was a character in the scene that she was performing. Which meant that I felt that there was a beginning and an end that we didn’t get to go through. But I was in just the part of the scene where she was delivering her monologue, but it was not an announcement to an audience but to me as a character. The dramatic dimension of all of the songs was incredible. Was that something you anticipated?

WB: Well, it’s something I knew she could do. And that’s why I think we had picked things that would be performable. There’s some fine poets — I remember sometimes my students have wanted to set people who are great fun to read, but they don’t perform. They don’t have a theatrical dimension.

JM: Yeah, not all poetry is written that way.

WB: I’ve enjoyed reading it, but I can’t see how they would work in a performance — and we are still dealing with theatrical reality. Some people [writers] have that gift and some people haven’t. Some people, it’s not important that you read them. But I’ve also looked at people who sound good when they are read, which is something that was the first dimension of poetry. One was a bard. The whole business the language would have. The difference between the dry, recent Bible translations and the King James Version, which was meant to be read in large rooms. Or the Book of Common Prayer … just the beauty of it. I think that’s what seduced me about the Episcopal Church and the Book of Common Prayer. It sounded so good. This was a bit after Shakespeare, and they had that same kind of sound. First of all they [inaudible] language, but also how it sounded in a room. Which is very important, I think.

JM: I thought the Catholic Church lost an important thread when they translated the Latin in such a pedestrian way.

WB: You’d have to have taken people who have a sense of verbal felicity and —

JM: Of course I don’t know how poetic the original Latin is, I can’t judge that.

WB: Oh, it’s pretty good!

JM: I would think so.

WB: I mean, there’s some major poets of all those years that really were very interesting. Rabanus was the poet who wrote the big “Veni, Creator Spiritus” in Late Latin. These were important poets.

WVM: Since you’re both sitting here, I’ve seen the two of you perform only a couple of numbers, but I know your recordings, but admire them as everyone of taste does. I must say, the people whose taste I respect the most: scratch them, and you find they’re Morris and Bolcom fans.

JM: Goodness! [Laughter]

WVM: I was amazed to see on your website — not amazed in the sense of surprised, but in the sense of awe and pleasure — that “Someone Talked” [the couple’s most recent song evening] is still ongoing and very much a part of your lives.

JM: You know, I’m at the age now, we both are, where we’re starting to think, “How much longer? What do we want to do with the rest of our lives?” We met with a young man — this was a connection made through another ex-student that we might be working with again. We have not had an agent since ICM, which was a few years ago — three or four years ago.

WB: They were sold to a group of people who formed Opus 3 and, without telling the artists —

JM: They dropped about a third of their roster.

WB: But frankly, they were too big for us. We kind of got lost in the shuffle of all those people. Although at first we were taken on — he was a good friend — that was Stewart.

JM: Oh, yes.

WB: Stewart knew what we were about.

JM: I think we were what they call a “special attraction,” you know, like Pilobolus or something. It didn’t exactly fit into the standard —

WB: We never really have fit. I’ve never fit in the composer roster, we didn’t fit in the performer roster. You know, we’re just sort of sui generis, that’s just the way it is! We can’t help it. [Laughter]

JM: We’re doing more cabaret, which we both love. We’ll be playing the Café Sobarsky; we were supposed to be there November 4. Because of Bill’s surgery, we had to move it to April. So we’ll be there April 14. And we’re doing “Someone Talked” at the Met Museum, June 10, 2011. So those are two New York dates….

WVM: Certainly for you as a composer, I hear the performer. Again, I hear the willingness to engage the audience. View from the Bridge is one of the very, very rare contemporary operas that actually made me cry.

WB & JM: Oh!

WVM: And I think that may be in part because you perform, and in part because you live with a singer.

WB: That may have something to do with it! [Laughter] But as I’ve said before, most of the people we still play, were themselves performers. There are certain exceptions. I mean, people talk about Berlioz, who played the recorder and the guitar, but he was also a terrific conductor!

WVM: Exactly.

WB: And Wagner, I think, who was something of a pianist, but not very much — who was also a wonderful conductor. A very important conductor. Terribly influential. His influence would go all the way through Furtwängler. So you had these people who had a sense of that particular thing that Yo Yo Ma talks about. A kind of electric current that goes between the performer and the piece and the audience. The idea is to keep that current going.

The New York aria in A View from the Bridge, sung here by Gregory Turay, brought me to tears

JM: Which means programming is essential — you know, what follows what. How do you lead into a sensitive song, or come into a funny one? All those questions are very important. You want to set them in the proper setting, like a jewel. That’s what our friend Ian Whitman calls the best lyricists: “the song jewellers.” They crafted them. You can’t separate a lot of Irving Berlin’s music and words; they fit together so beautifully.

WB: One always calls up the other. I’ve always said that the French had the troubadours, the Germans had the Minnesingers, and we had Irving Berlin. They were the ones who set the tone for everybody. There is the shape for the French early composers that goes all the way through Debussy and Boulez. It’s all there, it’s an unbroken line, really.

What we are now in the process of doing is finding the multiplicity of American styles, which is so huge and so multifarious, it may be what saves us — from a kind of oncoming fascistic tendency.

JM: Oh, boy!

WB: It scares me. Because you know, there are all kinds of things that are just a little bit like the period just before Hitler came to power. A kind of general inchoate anger at everything.

JM: And it’s so badly informed. One of the cartoons in the [New York Times] “Week in Review” expressed that. You know, the guy was saying, “This is wrong! My taxes have been raised!” And the other person says, “Well, actually, they haven’t been; they’ve been lowered.” And it’s like that, back and forth, and he says, “How come you’re so ill-informed?” And the guy says, “Well, maybe Obama’s a bad communicator.” You know? He can’t think of anything else to say, because all of his arguments are wrong. They’re plain lies, and he’s been fed those.

WB: This cynicism of people — well, we know about that! I don’t want to get into that! But I used to feel — my heavens, a place like Germany that became so sick as a whole country — a whole culture, really got sick — was that it maybe was enough unified. Because they had actually done something to try to unify themselves, the century before. Only 50 years’ difference between 1870 and 1920. So maybe we are so multifarious that maybe it will save us.

JM: I believe that’s true. I really do. You know, so many parts of the country, they just can’t be brought together: the South and the West, the Midwest and the East. They each have their own character.

WB: Except that, unfortunately, they all seem to be watching nothing but Fox News. That’s what worries me. [Laughter]

JM: I’ll give you this great quote, I just saw it in Mark Twain — we know the gentleman who was one of the editors of the new 100-year autobiography. Anyway, Mark Twain’s quote was, “You can’t reason someone out of something they weren’t reasoned into.” So that kind of —

WB: That says it!

JM: I know. That’s what the Tea Party is about. No reasoning.

WB: And how do you deal with the fact that the Koch brothers are doing all these awful things, but thankfully they at least have restored the New York State Theatre [now the Koch Theatre, at Lincoln Center]? Life is full of such contradictions. [Laughter]

JM: Where did I read that? That success and failure weren’t as separated as he had thought. That every new project you took on, there’s elements of success and failure in each one — at every moment, too.

WB: Absolutely true!

JM: Where did I read that now?

WB: That’s absolutely true. I would say I’ve felt that way about anything I’ve ever done.

JM: Yeah, you can topple over one way or another. You’re walking a balance.

WVM: That’s an amazing place to end this, but to tempt fate — and I may end it there — but just to see what the answer is — Ms. Morris, what do you bring to Maestro Bolcom’s composition?

JM: Composition?

WB: Whew!

JM: I sort of leave him alone when he’s working. That’s what I loved, when we met each other: he had to work on his own, I had to work on my own. We each had quiet time; we weren’t on each other’s backs all the time. I guess we talk about stuff a lot. I couldn’t begin to say what elements Bill uses in his writing, but you know, he’ll sometimes — we’ll just talk about totally unrelated things, like politics, or — I don’t know — the town we live in, or people we know that we like, and we kind of work out an understanding of whatever we’re talking about. And it’s interesting if we don’t quite work out an understanding of what the person is about. Because that’s something in itself. You know, you can’t really get to the heart of anybody; we’re all mysteries.

I said to a friend one time, we started a conversation, we just haven’t finished it yet. So I guess we’re still talking.

WB: I guess that’s right. As far as external media — the musicianly type of things — Joan has always felt a little bit at a loss next to the conservatory-bred vocal major, who comes in as often as not from some kind of experience with instruments before he or she had become a singer. Which you know was not Joan’s case, because she was an actress before she was a singer.

JM: Actress first, yes. And sometimes you ask me, “What does that make you feel?” And I always tell you honestly: “Oh, I heard something dancing there,” or “I heard a darkness.” I’ll tell you honestly what it makes me feel. You’ll ask me sometimes about other pieces, you know. Sometimes you’re surprised that it seems very right, and other times I’m kind of amorphous, I can’t zero in on it.

WB: Well, sure. That’s okay.

JM: But I tell you truthfully what I sense from it. But it’s about feeling. And thought is implied in that.

WB: And if I’m going to give her a difficult passage, I’ll try it out on her before I write it down for certain. I’ll show it to her, and then you’ll tell me, “Yes, I can” or “No, this is not” — I’ve always been willing and able to change for my performers. I made a few tiny changes for Joyce at her behest. And she did certain things in her performance that are not what I wrote down, and I may actually save some of them. But other ones, I may just leave as they are, because the next person may come along and do something that will be different. I hope that — so you tailor it to a certain extent. But you also pick up suggestions from your performers. I have always done that.

WVM: Do you think you’re more open to that because you’re married to Joan Morris, or was that already your character?

WB: The whole problem for me was, I wrote a song for her and a harpist, very early in the game. And then for six years, I couldn’t write for her at all. People would say, “Why don’t you write for your wife? For Joan?” I said, “Well, maybe I’m just too much in love with her or something.”

Then one day, about 1977 or ’8 — we’d met in ’72, so it was about six years — I could suddenly look at the love of my life who had this kind of voice situation, this is where her break is, this is what is difficult and this is what is easy. I could look at you both ways. Both you as Joan the performer and Joan the love of my life — and not have the confusion in my head. That took a while.

JM: Oh, yeah. And I wasn’t looking for an accompanist. I had an act with a harpist when we met. So —

WB: But we were starting to tour together, and of course 1974 is when we recorded After the Ball, which got a Grammy nomination.

JM: We had one song — and you told me I looked a little bit like Ruth Etting, and I knew who she was, because my Grandma had been a theater organist in North Dakota, Mandan and Bismarck. I inherited a lot of her sheet music, so I knew what Ruth Etting looked like. Just for fun, the two of us learned “Ten Cents a Dance,” which was one of Ruth Etting’s — so that was the only song we knew for about seven or eight months. [Laughter] We would do it at parties, people would say —

Ruth Etting in 1927

WB: We would do it at parties, one song the whole night. And then she had her harpist, she was doing her gigs with. But this was 1972 we’re talking about, and at the end of ’72, I got a call from the late H. Wiley Hitchcock, who was a wonderful man and a very good friend. He called and he said, “Bill, you know, we want to do a survey of the songs of the Twenties and Thirties for our next [American Musicological Society] meeting in January.” This was held then at the Brooklyn College, Gershwin Theater. He said, “What do you think of Ben Bagley?” I don’t know if you know that name.

WVM: Very well.

WB: I said, “Ben Bagley’s terrific. He’s got all kinds of good people who have done recordings for him, Danny Meehan and so on, all of ’em fine.” Then — “What about Joan Morris?” And he had never heard of her.

Then she had a wonderful guy who died in ’87, I think he died. Clifford Jackson, who had been her mentor in speech, because you had been at American Academy of Dramatic Art. He had a fine tenor voice, a kind of an old sound, but it was a very good one. So we got him to do a song or two, and you put together a song or two. And we had Wiley over at the Jacksons’ beautiful house, over in Murray Hill. We showed him what we were going to do, and so we put together a program called “All the Things They Were,” which was your title.

It was essentially a survey of the Twenties and Thirties. I even sang a song, or one or two, myself. But the rest were all done by you or Clifford; you even did a couple of duets. You did “But in the Morning, No,” I remember, from Cole Porter.

JM: Someone was there from Hollins College, at the second one we did.

WB: That’s right.

JM: We hadn’t planned to do this as a show, but someone else said, “Oh, what a great idea; please come do it.” And then someone from the Smithsonian, and then we did it there.

WB: Then we did it there. And then we came back to New York and did the same program at WBAI. At that point, I was very much involved with Nonesuch Records, not only as being recorded and recording some ragtime, and things like that. We invited [Nonesuch coordinating producer] Teresa Sterne, who was naturally doubtful — “Oh, Joan was just my squeeze,” you know. And Tracy [nickname] I later found out had a little bit of a crush on me, and I never knew what to do about that.

Afterwards, she said, “Well, you do songs straight. You don’t embellish them, and you give us what the writer wanted. I can’t afford for Nonesuch to do Gershwin and Berlin and Porter” — although that would change in time. “But why not do things that are in public domain? The songs that people do when the ship goes down, which are out of copyright.”

So you had been — you actually did a show called The Drunkard

JM: Off-Broadway, right. Barry Manilow was music director for that. We were encouraged to camp things up, you know: nudge-nudge, wink-wink. So I had to get over that attitude. [Manilow] was terrific. He only played one run out; we had a regular accompanist. But one run out I did with him — best accompanist I ever worked with, before Bill. He really knew how to follow. He knew when to pull back, when to be there for you.

WB: A good musician.

JM: And a singer himself.

WVM: You know they’ve revived The Drunkard in New York; I just saw the review. I’m not sure if it’s still playing, but they just revived it.

JM: I wonder — I mean, they always change the songs every time.

A scene from the recent revival

WB: Oh, yeah. You can put anything you want to into it. A kind of catch-all thing.

JM: [Singing] They always pick on me.
[Speaking] I played the daughter.
[Singing] They never, ever let me be.
I’m so awful lonesome,
Awful sad!
It’s a long, long time
Since I’ve been glad!

[Speaking] You know, I was supposed to be — and I had one other song — God, I can’t remember it. I can’t believe I remember that much! But it was fun.

But we were supposed to show we were superior [to the material in The Drunkard]. When we started to do After the Ball, I had to go back to my acting training, take the words off the page. You know, do ’em as an acting piece, to get away from the sort of “Oh, isn’t this corny” attitude.

WB: Yeah, right. And then you look at the song a whole other way.

JM: Oh, yeah! Took me a long time to find “After the Ball.”

WB: All of a sudden, we had a new kind of cachet. I lived in those years — I had it for nearly 30 years, an apartment on Christopher Street. I was the one non-gay person, probably, on that street. But I had many friends. They knew very well — first of all, I’m not a judgmental person. But also I loved Charles Ludlam’s theater down on the corner there. I went to pretty much everything. I must have seen three-quarters of his plays, over the years. All his stuff, he was just great. … Have you seen any of the Charles Ludlam plays?

WVM: I saw the last one, Irma Vep.

WB: No, that wasn’t the last one. The last one was The Artificial Jungle.

A scene from Ludlam’s Artificial Jungle

WVM: I missed Artificial Jungle, then. I saw Irma Vep.

WB: We gave the cast party for [Artificial Jungle], in our place on Christopher Street. We had become very good friends. But this all started really, because, here we are in the line to try to get your check. That was in the day when you’d write your $20 check, you’d give it to the girl behind the counter, you’d hope they’d just go Whoomp [handing over money] instead of saying, “I’m sorry, sir, you don’t have enough money in your account.” So that day, right behind Joan and me was Charles.

JM: He said, “I have a joke for you. These people were lined up to sign up for a little summer excursion. It happened to be that there was a mother and son, and ahead of them was a nun in the line. The line was just taking forever, everybody was signing and taking their time. Finally, the boy was getting very fidgety, and they were up to the table. The little boy, he sort of accidentally pushed the nun, and she fell over onto the table. The mother says [slapping wrist], ‘Wait, wait till the nun signs, Shelly.’” [Laughter]

WB: He loved that kind of joke. If you ever saw any of his plays, you heard ‘em. All of a sudden — you went to grade school — they were absolutely nothing.

But you see, Charles was — I loved what he did. First of all, it was a very universal kind of humor and it was backed up by enormous research and classicism. I was talking about that with Joyce, because he did Die Fledermaus with her [at Santa Fe Opera]. She loved working with him. I said, “One thing I’ll bet you had to know: he would have done serious research.” She said, “Oh, yes! He knew exactly everything about it, he knew the background.” This man, he was a scholar as much as anything. All of it was backed up with a certain kind of real discipline.

When Ludlam saw Joyce in her Orlovsky costume, he exclaimed, “Now I can lust after you!”

Yet he could — I love the changes in tone, speaking of eclecticism. He did one called Eunuchs of the Forbidden City, having to do with the last emperors, which I saw, full of silly, wonderful jokes. “Su Shi” finally leaves her longtime paramour, and he sings to her, “Su, Su, Su Shi, goodbye!” [Laughter]

JM: And she asks her counselor, “Have you read any interesting books lately?” He says, “Well, you should look at ‘The Little Yellow River,’ by I.P. Freely.” [Laughter] That’s strictly grade school!

WB: It was the shift in tone! People used to think that it was terrible, but I just adored it.

WVM: It was brilliant. As a little — how things come complete circle — I am the official biographer of Madeline Kahn, who was Charles Ludlam’s classmate at Hofstra.

WB: I did not know that!

WVM: They were supposed to work with him at various points. He tried to put on Grand Duchess of Gerolstein for her, with a translation by Michael Feingold.

JM: We just talked to Michael this morning! We’re going to have lunch with him on Tuesday. Now Madeline Kahn, isn’t there a new biography of her out? There’s not.

WB: He’s going to be doing it!

WVM: I am the guy.

WB: That is the best news. What a tragedy she died so early!

JM: See, I gotta get my book finished. Bill has promised to help me, so we’ll exchange books.

WVM: That’s a date!

JM: That’s a deal!

WVM: In closing, I should say that, on the occasions when I am a critic, you guys have made my life much easier. When I was just getting into classical music, a recital was still just boring old chestnuts. And now, because of your influence — and I know it’s yours, because people like NYFOS, the New York Festival of Song, say it’s your influence — I get whatever makes the singer happy, on the program. A little Irving Berlin, a little Bill Bolcom. It makes an evening in the concert hall a lot easier and a lot more fun. And that’s because of you guys.

WB: Well, Steve [Blier, artistic director of NYFOS] did credit me with one thing, which I guess was an innovation, though I never thought of it as being so. It’s that I will be the one from my piano bench who will give the historical background for the song. And before that, the accompanist never talked.

WVM: Right!

WB: I never thought of it that way, I just did it. So now Steve was one of the first. Steve will do what he does, and those wonderful, knowledgeable writings he has in those programs.

WVM: He’s just brilliant.

WB: They’re elegantly written and so well researched, and always a pleasure to read.

WVM: Maybe he’ll be my next interview. You never know.

Last week, Blier (far left), performed an extended scene from Bolcom’s Casino Paradise as part of “Manning the Canon,” a NYFOS survey of songs about gay life.

1 comment:

John Yohalem said...

Now I know why Bolcom set those wonderful Theodore Roethke poems to music! He probably took a course with him at U-Dub!

They just ... started, Bill and Joan. How well I remember Joan's "Under the Bamboo Tree" and "Rings on My Fingers" -- and of course "After the Ball." And "Lime Jell-O."

I also remember Charles Ludlam in "Salammbo" and "Irma Vep" and "Artificial Jungle" and "Galas." A sad sad sad sad loss. The world only gets a few Ludlams. He was incomparable.

Also I remember being at a New Year's Eve Party (when?) chez Matthew Epstein, and Charles and Madeline and Michael were discussing -- with Rick Cordova, who was to have conducted -- the upcoming Grande Duchesse in Long Beach that never happened. (I used to run into Charles at lots of parties. Not that I had anything I'd dare to say to him.)

You should certainly interview Steven Blier. He has such lovely taste in poetry as well as songs and singers.