Ned Rorem discusses his career as a composer and his memoir "An Absolute Gift"
BROADCAST: Nov. 20, 1980 | DURATION: 00:40:33
Studs interviews Ned Rorem about his work and book "An Absolute Gift." Rorem discusses his work and how his Quaker background has influenced his work. He reflects on poets and other composers. Rorem shares the people and events that have influenced him and the arts. The musical recordings are not included in this edited version of the original.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel Tonight at Thorne Hall, part of Northwestern University at Lake Shore and Superior, is a very exciting concert: the works of an American original, Ned Rorem. Ned Rorem is, perhaps, many consider him the finest of American song writers, but he's also a marvelous writer, memoirist, diarist, he was a guest on this program, irreverent and filled with insights. "Paris Diary" was one of his other books, he's written about eight or so. His newest one is called "An Absolute Gift", it's a line from an Auden poem, a song being the absolute gift, and Ned Rorem is my guest this morning and tonight is that concert sponsored by the Poetry Center of the Museum of Contemporary Art. And we'll talk about that concert in a moment. A very exciting event, too. So, after this message, some of the songs of Ned Rorem and his reflections. Paul Goodman's poem, "Lordly Hudson", put to music by my guest, Ned Rorem. Thoughts on hearing this, Ned?
Ned Rorem Paul Goodman, one of his favorite phrases was a common one, simply, one thing leads to another, and as I was sitting here listening to it, one thing was leading to another. I'm a Chicagoan, you know, and I never, ever, ever get here, but it was--and here I am back in Chicago, and earlier this morning I was taken out to the South Side in order to shed a few tears and lay a few ghosts, and I was there where I met Paul Goodman for the first time in the early '40s, and it was there where I wrote my first songs. And Paul's, perhaps best poem, was that one, "The Lordly Hudson", which I, which was one of the first songs I ever set to music, first poems I ever set to
Studs Terkel Now, I was thinking, what words or what poems do you decide to set to music? Of certain ones. And you have a theory about this in your very exciting book, "An Absolute Gift". It's published by Simon & Schuster.
Ned Rorem I have to set words to music that speak to my condition, as we Quakers say, so that a poem can be, perhaps not a great poem, but I'll feel that it needs to be sung, or needs to be sung at least through my music. There may be other poems that are greater that don't need to be sung or at least not by me. Poem--the poetry of T.S. Eliot, for example, is for another composer, but not for me, or Marianne Moore. I don't have to understand a poem, and I don't know what understanding poetry means, for that matter, but I do have to feel it, and I do have to think that I can give it another dimension through my music.
Ned Rorem Yeah.
Studs Terkel Must
Ned Rorem And Paul Goodman, who is nothing if not a complex philosopher as a prose writer, in his poetry was exceedingly direct, and he was sort of my Goethe. I've set Paul Goodman's poems to music all of my life and he is the only poet I come back to year after year after year without ever getting tired.
Studs Terkel There's something you say in your book which deals with your reflections and very perceptive ones, too, not simply on music and on song but on theatre, on films, on literature. You say there--you speak of Tennessee Williams and Albee. You could put Tennessee Williams to music, but not Albee, because Williams is poetry while Albee's is musical in itself.
Ned Rorem Edward Albee's plays--Edward Albee, interestingly, was--has been according to himself, more influenced by music than by playwrights. He never even knew any playwrights until after he wrote his first play, but he grew up with composers, and his first six plays are dedicated to different American composers who were useful to him in one way or another. He is very musical in the sense that his prose is filled with notated starts, stops, pauses, echoes, and rhythms. It's not poetic or poetistic, but it is filled with little holes that are tempting for musicians who like to fill in. Therefore it doesn't need to fill in with, perhaps, a spoken voice or an actor's voice, but it doesn't need to be set to music. It's gilding the lily.
Ned Rorem Because Williams writes--Edward writes music, or Edward Albee writes music when he writes his prose, Tennessee Williams writes poetry when he writes his prose. Therefore Williams is much more negotiable to a composer than Albee.
Ned Rorem It's two brand-new cycles, actually, or fairly new cycles for soprano and piano, and I'll be playing the piano myself with Elsa Charlston and Dorothy Keyser. "Women's Voices" is a setting of poems by female poets from Queen Anne Boleyn through Emily Dickinson to Adrienne Rich and Nantucket, all women. Interestingly, they were commissioned by a Black soprano named Joyce Mathis, but I didn't use any Black women poets, because first of all, there aren't any good ones as far as I'm concerned.
Ned Rorem I do. People like to bring her up. Anyway, they write about the Black condition, and although I have seen white composers set the poetry of Black poets to music, and I never quite believe it. Now, half of my ancestors are female, but none of my ancestors are Black.
Studs Terkel Therefore, we'll come to your Quaker background and how it reflects itself in a song. Tomorrow night there will be "Women's Voices" and Elsa Charlston will be singing, who is an excellent in the tradition of Bethany Beardslee and of--what's her name, that marvelous Armenian singer?
Ned Rorem And he wrote a poem about the picture and I set it to music, and it's so it's--a composer writing about a painting performed by a soprano and the composer himself. So it's a kind of a different combination
Ned Rorem Yes.
Studs Terkel Okay. Now, I was thinking in listening to that it's a carnival of Breughel is picturing a carnival, some what? Sixteenth century, early 1500s somewhere, and a contemporary poet, contemporary William Carlos Williams by an even younger composer, so three eras, epics are involved here.
Ned Rorem I've written lots of songs, it seems to me, about poets contemplating other arts. I wrote a long song on Elizabeth Bishop visiting Ezra Pound in the St. Elizabeth's Hospital. Poulenc wrote a whole series of poems about painters, too, on words of Eluard. And although I'm not a mixed media freak, I do like to write, what you said, poems to music about other arts, I guess.
Ned Rorem That's one of the obvious questions that one, you're never going to get a straight answer to no matter who you ask it. I've--my feeling about that is as follows, that amateurs are influenced and don't admit it and are never quite aware of it, and therefore the influences show at the seams. I think a professional knows who he is stealing from, and in the act of stealing his guilt is such that he will try to hide what he has stolen and the act of hiding is the act of creation. And that's what gives him his identity. Radiguet, the French poet, said, "All real artists are original. They have only therefore to prove their originality by stealing. By definition, that which is you will come through in your work, no matter who you imitate."
Ned Rorem The greatest and the most original artists, and the biggest innovators have never been the--or rather, the greatest innovators have never been the greatest artists. The greatest artists have usually taken the seed strewn around by the innovators and fertilized it and had it grown--Wagner, for example, was far greater than the people who most influenced him, we don't even remember their names. People like Rebekoff and Spore. Spore is a good name for [unintelligible], isn't it? And Debussy was influenced by Mussorgsky and by Satie, who were it can be
Ned Rorem Of course, originality as a virtue was not--is pretty much of a 20th century thing. I don't think that the 19th century was interested in being--people weren't interested in being different than each other, they were more interested in being better than each other.
Studs Terkel You know, on that point, in your book "An Absolute Gift" which, by the way, it's a marvelous four lines of Auden as the epigraph in the beginning. Why don't you read that, because that'll lead into the very subject we're talking about.
Ned Rorem It's from a poem called "The Composer", of which the third stanza is: "From Life to Art by painstaking adaption Relying on us to cover the rift; Only your notes are pure contraption, Only your song is an absolute gift." I wrote another book called "Pure Contraption", by the way, so I'm really cashing in on that poem.
Ned Rorem I always took to mean that other, that music is the most, in a sense, artificial, or the most removed from nature of the arts. And that musicians deal with--in abstractions and in artifice and, yet, it's also generally agreed that music is the most persuasive and upsetting of the arts.
Studs Terkel You have your point you're making that art--you know, Harold Clurman wrote a book about theater called "Lies Like Truth", and that it's not a literal truth, it's the highlighting of truth and thus not true literally. You say the same thing,
Ned Rorem Yeah, I think that people are inclined to confuse truth with facts. Obviously, if you're talking about facts, then art is the biggest liar in the world because it's not a tree, it's a picture of a tree, it's just a lot of green paint or blue paint, as the case may be. But what is truth? Is two and two four, or is two and two 22?
Ned Rorem Cocteau said, "Art is--I am a lie which speaks the truth, and art is nothing but truth if it's real art." But it's by definition a lie insofar as people deal with facts. So to be on trial for your life and have to remember what the truth is, as opposed to what facts are, is going to get you into big semantic difficulty if you're an artist on the witness stand with a reactionary right-wing judge.
Studs Terkel You know, I'm thinking you've always been open, and you lend yourself to being attacked 'cause you're open, and one of the points you make in your memoir, in your thoughts, reflections in "Absolute Gift", is that vulnerability is essential for an artist, not to be afraid to be vulnerable.
Ned Rorem Well, you can't just be--go--you can't decide one day you're going to be vulnerable and therefore you are an artist. I do think, though, that anybody, that vulnerability and intelligence go hand in hand if you've got any brains or by definition open to suffering. I also think that to see yourself is wrong. Everything I've ever composed or--I'm very conceited and give the impression of being very self-assured, but I'm actually terribly insecure, and I feel that everything I've done is if not worthless at least it's behind me and I don't deserve to eat or even to die unless I continue and keep at it. It's very American.
Ned Rorem And there are singers far less good than she who are, who are--the fact that she didn't think she was any good doesn't make her a priori an artist. But on the--inversely, I don't know a single real artist who is secure, entirely sure of himself or herself.
Studs Terkel I'm sure this is so--of Williams certainly, of course, and I think of all our most exciting writers and probably painters, too. I'm thinking, so tomorrow--tonight, I should say--at the, at Thorne Hall, Ned Rorem himself, the composure at the piano with these two excellent singers offering the two cycles, "Women's Voices" and "Nantucket Songs"--
Ned Rorem No, she's not in "Women's Voices", because she's one of the poets I set some poems of hers about nine years ago, and then I didn't feel that I needed to set her anymore. See, she's--unlike Paul Goodman, she fits into a certain slot at one time of my life when I very much needed her poetry, but I did write some songs of hers nine years ago. Do you want to hear one?
Studs Terkel And, so, "Words", Phyllis Curtin. I'm thinking about your thoughts, because you are very much against the grain. You don't mind my saying that, you're against the grain if the grain represents something conforming to a certain tradition, you don't, you just do what comes to you, don't you?
Studs Terkel Talking about your book, too, and I know what it is--Casals, of course, often spoke of discovering something new every time he played Bach. He's always finding something fresh and new, and
Studs Terkel Why?
Ned Rorem It's Casals in that hushed tones of the great artists that Amer--the great American unwashed loves to listen to, end quote. If he found something new in his Bach suite every morning, that didn't leave--there are six Bach cello suites. Well, then, what about the other five? I think there are limitations beyond which even the greatest works of art cannot go, and I don't begrudge Casals his apotheosizing of Bach except inasmuch as he does that at the expense of contemporary music. And since I am a contemporary composer, I have a vested interest. But he would guffaw and belittle contemporary music, except for his own. Meanwhile, though his wife, who is a dear friend of mine, I love her, so I hope she doesn't hear this program about her, has married Eugene Istomin and she's become the head of the Kennedy Center Chamber Music and other--or music division the Kennedy Center under Roger Stevens and is giving, and is planning to give a whole series now of contemporary music concerts in Washington of American composers, including myself. Do you know what her budget is for five concerts? Her budget for five concerts of chamber music of living composers of renown is $15,000, which is about what a prima donna will get in one evening's concert. So the difference between the performing artist and this creative artist in musical America is radical and tragic and unique to the 20th century.
Ned Rorem I think that he possibly did discover something new according to him. I mean, if he says so, obviously he knows his own mind. I think it's too bad that a person, that the newness that a person discovers in music can't be in the music of his own time and place. Composed by people who breathe the air he is breathing and who bleed the blood that he bleeds and which is, which again is what was always the case in all of the arts until our time, and our time is definitely out of joint and leaves living artists very much up a tree.
Ned Rorem He took "Billy Budd", he also took "The Turn of the Screw", those are two big American--nothing if not American. And I--for the same reason that he took "Death in Venice", he's the first composer ever to deal with the love that dare not speak its name. On a story written in 1912 which one would have thought would be a logical subject for Richard Strauss who was writing operas was back in that time, and we had to wait for 75 years for that subject even to be written about in opera, and then by a puritanical Englishman and he did it very, very beautifully. I think, perhaps, the reason is because one becomes removed and therefore can see more clearly. The English don't necessarily see America better than we see ourselves, but they certainly see it, see us differently.
Ned Rorem And I think that what you have to get away from what you were dealing with when you're dealing with another work of art and try to juxtapose that up on your own. Virgil Thomson is the only American who has used, collaborated successfully with another American, namely with the two Gertrude Stein operas, which are fantastically good.
Studs Terkel By the way, when it comes to writings, the musician or the composer has rarely been the subject. We mentioned "Death in Venice", Thomas Mann's about the only one, really, one of the very few, who has ever made the life of a creative music man. Man of music.
Ned Rorem And not to mention Hollywood, with their lives of, obviously their lives of Cornell Wilde, their lives of Chopin. It's pretty tough to do a work of art about an artist, and it never ever rings true. And even Thomas Mann's book, which one can read without laughing, is all the same, not that it's perceptive about the artist insofar as he is a human being, but when it starts talking about his art it makes musicians at least slightly uncomfortable.
Studs Terkel You know, we're going to take a pause now, I'm going to ask you about your Quaker background and that influence on you as a man of music. And it's to remind the audience Ned Rorem is my guest and tonight at Thorne Hall is a performance of two of his song cycles. He'll be there himself, offering some of his own reflections as well as accompanying the two singers, Dorothy Keyser and Elsa Charlston. The two cycles being "Nantucket Voices", some of the poems of William Carlos Williams and John Ashbery and women's voices from Anne Boleyn all the way up to Adrienne Rich, and that's at Thorne Hall tonight at eight o'clock. It should be a very exciting and, certainly, a very provocative evening. We'll resume in a moment after this message. So resuming the--where the conversa--the thoughts of Ned Rorem, composer and writer, memoirist, diarist, and all-around gadfly and Quaker. You Quaker. Now what role will that play in your life as well as in your music?
Ned Rorem Perhaps the fact that I was raised within an intelligent but nevertheless not exactly flamboyant Quaker family is what attracted me toward things Mediterranean, toward things French, toward things extrovert and opulent. I've also written vast amounts of vocal music and I've written music for every denomination imaginable, including the Greek Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, Methodist churches, but I've never done anything for the Quaker church, and Quaker, the Quaker meeting does not by definition have any music, but a few years ago I decided I wanted to write an organ piece, and I wanted to write something at least indirectly dealing with my religion, which is something I believe in, but you cannot write music about silence necessarily, but that's what I tried to do. So I wrote--and Quaker, there is no such thing as Quaker music that one can write variations on. What I did was take 11 Quaker sayings or reflections by 11 Quaker thinkers from George Fox through Jessamyn West, and use those as epigraphs for 11 movements of a piece for solo organ called "A Quaker Reader". I'd like to have--play one of these movements right now, but I want to tell you about it if I can. The movement's called "Mary Dyer Did Hang as a Flag", and Mary Dyer was a Quaker martyr and one who did not want to give up her Quaker religion to the Puritans, who were then in Boston, Massachusetts, who said, "We won't kill you as long as you stay in Rhode Island, but if you come to Massachusetts we will hang you." She went to Massachusetts and they hanged her. Now, the music, if you want to listen carefully, begins with a pedal trill between C sharp and D. The reason I have that, which is the two feet on the pedals going [babbling] is when I saw Arthur Miller's, or rather, Sartre's movie on Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" in France, and they hang three people if you recall, and the camera pans to their feet, and a hanged person, as soon as his neck has cracked, his feet begin spasmodically to quiver until the soul leaves the body. And that is what this piece of music is now based on, the quivering feet.
Ned Rorem I found out about her through Jessamyn West's marvelous book called "The Quaker Reader", in which is a whole series of writings plus intermittent commentary by Jessamyn West herself. And, so, I read about Mary Dyer and many another in her book.
Ned Rorem I don't know, because I don't know what kind of music I would have been if I hadn't been a Quaker, and I don't know, maybe I wouldn't have been a musician at all. It's very difficult to know what one would have been if or precisely how externals do influence one. All I can say are facts rather than aesthetics, and the fact is that because I was so exposed to Quakerism and took it very much for granted not being a convert but a birthright Quaker, as we say, I took it so much for granted that what I didn't have in my life was--I had, perhaps, internal mystery, but children aren't very interested in that. They like external mysteries. That's why I was terribly attracted toward the Catholic Church and all the, all of the balletic folderol of the Catholic Church to this day still bedazzles me, and I think I came to music through--it's because my childhood was silent. I needed some noise. Answer your question?
Ned Rorem Well, I love Poulenc's music, and I think Poulenc is one of the four great French composers. I think there are only four. Since Couperin, since the 17th--Eighteenth century, early 18th century, and
Ned Rorem Yes, Poulenc, like most real artists was a contradiction in terms. He was profoundly religious and profoundly profane. And interestingly, his most religious piece, which is the "Dialogues of the Carmelites" and many smaller pieces like them, like the Mass and various little religious motets, speak the very same musical language as his naughty boy music or his settings of Apollinaire, the "Mamelles de Tiresias", the surrealist opera, very raunchy and ribald music, but the harmonies and the tunes are exactly the same thing. Of course he's right, everything--as Paul Goodman says, one thing leads to another and everything is cyclic.
Ned Rorem Yeah.
Ned Rorem Well, we're all conditioned by the music that we know but we--nobody living today can hear Bach without having the intervening music already having soiled his ears, or at least oiled his ears, to some extent. Bach didn't know Haydn, but we know Haydn, so we hear Bach through Haydn not to mention through Billie Holiday, if you will, and through disco. And I still hear the sequences in Bach as I hear sequences in many jazz band instrumentations.
Studs Terkel The reason I say this, because I'm thinking about myself now, influences when I think of a piece of music and I think of something else that the certain times in which I heard that music. So, the Franck D Minor Symphony, I think of a film I saw called "The Passion of Joan of Arc", made by Dreyer, the Danish filmmaker, with a great actress, Falconetti, an early film in the cinema theater years ago. First time I ever heard and had a soundtrack and it was as she was being bled by the Bishop of Beauvais to live and then be put to the fire to confess. This music was played, so every time I hear that Franck I think of Falconetti.
Ned Rorem And you can never hear--that just shows you that music is more persuasive than all of the other arts, because if you take a piece of music and put it to a silent film and then take another piece of music and put it in the same silent film, both pieces of music work and, yet, they both will completely change the nature of the film and Hollywood soundtrack people know that very well. They know that a movie can be ruined--
Ned Rorem As for what the first--sometimes pop music will affect me more persuasively than--even now, for example, the music of Glenn Miller reminds me of high school dances and poignant episodes in my adolescence, whereas music that is more, for lack of a better word, "serious," doesn't affect me quite in the same
Studs Terkel To extend this idea, I was very much provoked by that comment you made about hearing Ravel before Bach and thus an influence. Nothing to do with the quality of the composers. Buckminster Fuller speaks of his grandchild who heard the sound of an airplane before she heard the sound of the nightingale, and thus the airplane is more natural to her than a nightingale, sad commentary but nonetheless there it is.
Ned Rorem It might be more natural because she doesn't live in a country of nightingales, but if you live as I have in Morocco for a long time, the nightingales really get on your nerves, whereas aeroplanes weren't around all that much, but it would be more sad if the commentary were that airplanes were more frequently heard than Bach or Ravel or something.
Studs Terkel So where does it--I'm thinking about you again, Ned Rorem, and the concert tonight, but also you compose for the voice. You're a writer of songs. At the same time, a composer of instruments, too, just as the "Quaker Reader" for the organ. And then you have a trio for flute, cello, piano. A variety of
Studs Terkel Harpsichord.
Ned Rorem Of songs, but what reputation I seem to have seems often based on songs, and I would say that I do think that all music is song, in a sense that inside of every composer lurks a singer trying to get out. If you want to hear an early-ish piece of mine for flute, cello, and piano, here's a movement from a trio. It was written about 20 years ago in 1960, exactly, in Yaddo, in Saratoga Springs, which is exceedingly song-like without any human voice.
Studs Terkel My guest Ned Rorem and this is instrumental work of his, they're singing tonight, though his songs at the, at Thorne Hall of Northwestern University, eight o'clock, and his comments will no doubt be very exciting. But as well as the performances, he at the piano and Elsa Charlston and--
Studs Terkel Dorothy Keyser, the two cycles, "Women's Voices" and "Nantucket Songs". Point: you just mentioned Yaddo, and in your book, the--and after you mentioned Louise Talma, the American composer whom I met at another colony, at MacDowell some years ago, and one of the big questions comes up. I know she was a disciple of Nadia Boulanger. So one of the questions comes up, the woman composer and obstacles are why so few.
Ned Rorem They would be Lucia Dlugoszewski, Barbara Kolb, Miriam Gideon, Louise Talma, that's already four, and others younger. I think that women composers are certainly no worse than men composers in America, and at their best I can be as moved. All this sounds very sexist, but it's not, it's an interesting sociological question. The woman composer is much more of a 20th century phenomenon than the woman author or the woman painter because authoring and painting could be amateur, sit-at-home things like knitting, in the past, whereas composition takes a certain bit of educational know-how before you can dabble in it as an amateur. Therefore, women with that kind of education are strictly 20th century, unless they were performers like those, like Turgenev's mistress, what was her name? In the 19th century, who wrote little operas but wrote them for themselves, mainly vehicles for coloratura. Women composers who complain about being discriminated against, however, do not have a point. All composers without exception are discriminated against by all performers. Women composers are no worse off than composers in general and since composers in general are such an amorphous--it's not that they're unloved, they are simply ignored. They aren't even unloved. The women are ignored along with the men, and we're all in the same basket of crabs, as the French say, a conductor who decides to play a contemporary piece is not going to not play a woman's piece because she's a woman. If he likes it, he's as liable to play that as a man's piece. I don't know a single woman composer who would complain about being discriminated against as a woman the way a female performer might or a Black performer.
Ned Rorem Yeah.
Ned Rorem Composers--performers--because, again, it's a 20th century thing, and we're in an age of execution rather than of creation. I'm speaking strictly of music, and music executioners, so to speak, can't show off as well with contemporary music or music of their own time and country as they can with the warhorses, and most of them are interested in their own egos rather than in art, to put it perfectly bluntly, corny though it may sound. Governments, even the reactionary governments which are generally more generous to the arts than the Liberal governments--
Ned Rorem No, I have to give you the reason, the reason is that capitalists, art is a reflective rather than a propagandistic thing. What art is propaganda which is how is used by liberals or by radicals, it ceases to be art and it becomes actives, it becomes something that activates a person, it activates it to fighting wars, though alas, not to stopping wars. Art is, however, the best art is reflective, it's a reaction to a circumstance which can only come after the circumstance has happened. That is why big-time Rockefellers are inclined to invest in music or invest in pictures more than Bella Abzug. A radical or liberal cannot afford to be magnanimous, they have to look straight ahead of them, they put blinders on and get done the work that has to be done before we can have the leisure for art.
Studs Terkel Well, in a way you're saying Henry the Eighth was a better patron of the arts, you know. Than what Tyler, when he had dough, what Tyler didn't. But let's come back to something else, though, I may speak of propaganda in the liberal administration. That may be so. And, yet, during the New Deal, we know a lot of the art, I'm talking about the Federal
Ned Rorem Roosevelt did an awful lot with the WPA and especially for the arts project, I don't think that Roosevelt did it specifically because he loved art. He did it to put people to work. And a lot of artists who may or may not have, have come to the fore, came to the fore through that. That was a, one emergence for them and that goes for theater and music as well as painting, and who is to say where those artists would have been if there hadn't been the WPA?
Ned Rorem I mean, nobody will ever know. On the other hand, there were, I would say that 99% of the WPA artists were no good, because 99% or less than that, because 99% of everything is no good. Well, that's true, isn't it?
Studs Terkel So you say. Ned Rorem is my guest, and there's no doubt about his talents and giftedness as a composer, as well as and no doubt as to his very provocative comments as reflecting on the arts, and all that will be tonight at the, at Thorne Hall and that's going to be a very exciting one. Two cycles: "Women's Voices" - women poetry from Anne Boleyn through Emily Dickinson to Adrienne Rich today; and "Nantucket Songs" from William Carlos Williams to and including John Ashbery, with Elsa Charlston and Dorothy Keyser. A very exciting concert and Ned Rorem, once again a delight to have you as a guest.
Studs Terkel We're going to talk some more, too. Thank you. And the book, by the way, this is--it's, it'll cause all kinds of discussion and arguments and heat as well as light, and it's Ned Rorem, "Absolute Gift", one of his new diaries, published by Simon & Schuster. Thank you very much.