Politics & Policy

The World of Ned Rorem

An interview with the composer.

Ned Rorem is one of the most noted composers of the last half-century. He is a prolific writer not only of music, but also of prose. Among his books are several diaries, which tend to be heavy on his sex life, which is, come to think of it, as prolific as his musical and literary output. Last fall, he celebrated his 79th birthday with a concert in New York. This was in anticipation of the big one — the big birthday — in 2003. Around the time of the 2002 celebration, Jay Nordlinger sat down with Rorem in the composer’s Manhattan apartment. On hearing that the weather was gloomy, Rorem said, “Good, I like it that way.” Nordlinger interviewed him for MuseNews, the arts syndicate. Below are extended excerpts from that conversation.

Jay Nordlinger: As a composer, have you gotten better? Is age a benefit?

Ned Rorem: No, I don’t think that people get better. They become more of what they already are. Take Beethoven, for instance. He had periods, and we can’t say that his last period is any “better” than the others. It is a continuation of the others. And some people, of course, just stop: Rossini did, Sibelius did. Verdi went on to write Otello and Falstaff in his 80s. Sometimes composers get bigger. Beethoven did. He also got more experimental. Stravinsky had periods, like Picasso, but, in reality, these “periods” add up to one big period. You always remain the same person. You just evolve.

I don’t review my own music. I’ve published many books about other people, mainly musicians, and I can talk fairly skillfully about other contemporary composers, but I don’t talk about myself. Nobody knows himself, in that sense. My music speaks for itself.

Just this morning, I was listening to tapes of two pretty old pieces of mine. The first was fairly weak, and the second I thought was very good. Sometimes I’ll listen to the 400-odd songs I’ve written. When I hear some early songs, I say, “I wish I could do as well now.” But the thing is, I’ve already done it. I cannot be the same person. But then, I am the same person. We’re always the same person. We evolve rather than change.

It’s fairly easy for me to write songs, because half the work is done, the text being already there. And I have theories about what to do, literarily and technically, with texts. When I first started writing string quartets, symphonies, and so on, I did so because I thought I ought to do it, rather than had to do it. Some of my best pieces are those that were hardest to write. Then again, some of my best songs were completed in one sitting.

I wrote my first three symphonies in the 1950s. And the fourth symphony, a string symphony — which is the best one — I wrote in ‘85. Those were all difficult to write. You can’t write a symphony in one fell swoop.

Sometimes people ask me, “When do you compose?” I’m never not composing. Even when I’m sitting here talking to you, I’m composing. I think about sex, too, of course. I don’t think much about eating. But I think about a variety of things, including movies. Everything revolves around my being a composer. So actually putting notes on paper is the last stage.

But with symphonies, there’s a lot of dirty work. If it’s a standard symphony, there’s the development of the first theme, etc. — those are intellectual decisions.

I was in Paris, and a girl I knew said, “Compose one of everything”: one string quartet, one trio, etc., without any of it being commissioned — just to do it.

Nordlinger: Food doesn’t really mean anything to you?

Rorem: No, no: If I read about some wonderful new restaurant to go to, it sort of makes me sick — the mystique of it all.

I do love sweets.

Nordlinger: Like what, ice cream?

Rorem: I like ice cream, yes. I love apple pie, and all that stuff.

Nordlinger: What do you eat, normally?

Rorem: For breakfast, year in and year out, I eat dry cereal with wheat germ and banana. In theory, I love coffee, but I don’t have it, because I have insomnia.

For lunch, I have a peanut butter and jelly sandwich on whole wheat toast, with Ensure.

Nordlinger: What kind of jelly?

Rorem: Almost always apricot, but I’m on raspberry now for some reason.

Nordlinger: What’s Ensure?

Rorem: It’s a kind of chocolate drink that’s alleged to be good for you.

Later on, in the afternoon, I have a nosh — yogurt or something.

And my dinners are pretty simple. I don’t eat meat anymore, it disgusts me. I’ll have fish occasionally, when someone serves it to me. Normally, I’ll have a salad with maybe scrambled eggs or something like that. And a dessert.

Nordlinger: When did it occur to you that you could compose music?

Rorem: My sister and I — she was a year and a half older — both started with piano lessons. I was better than she was.

Nordlinger: Where was this? Where did you grow up?

Rorem: Chicago. My father was a professor at the university there.

Nordlinger: Of what?

Rorem: Of accounting and that kind of thing. He was one of the founders of Blue Cross.

Nordlinger: He must have made a fortune.

Rorem: No, never more than about $20,000 a year. And that was in the ’40s. Intellectually, we were upper middle class; financially, we were middle class. My parents became Quakers after the first war, because my mother’s brother was killed, and they believed there was no alternative to peace. I’m still a pacifist, and whether I’m right or wrong, I’m not ashamed of it. And my parents were very pro-Negro, as we said in those days, and so forth.

So I went off to a black piano teacher — there weren’t many little white boys taking the bus to those parts in those days. That was Margaret Bonds, who was also a composer. In my first lessons, she introduced me to the music of Griffes, Debussy, and Ravel, and I was intoxicated by it. I started writing pieces immediately. She would take them down — would do the dictation — and then she said, “You need to start writing your pieces down yourself.” So I did.

My musical knowledge and repertory was exclusively 20th century. It wasn’t until I went to Northwestern, when I was 16, that I was introduced to Beethoven, Mozart, and all the others. I feel that my education was right, inadvertently. And I feel that education today is wrong. We are living in the only period in history in which music of the past is stressed at the expense of music of the present.

[Here, Rorem points out the window.] You see over there? That’s where Itzhak Perlman lives. That’s his air conditioner. It was making a racket. And it still does. He told me it would cost him something like $40,000 to fix it. I said, “So give a concert. You make in one evening what I make in a year.” When I got double windows, I was going to bill him for the cost, but my lawyer advised against it.

The performer is more important than the composer in the ken of the general public, and the performer almost always performs music of the past, and all this began about 80 or 90 years ago. Before that, the performer and the composer had always been the same person: Liszt, Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Beethoven.

Then the managers came in, and money got involved, and now the general public has no notion of what it is we composers do. We’re a despised minority. Actually, we’re not even that, because we don’t even exist, and to be despised, you have to exist.

I make in a lifetime what the Three Tenors make in one evening. There’s not a composer you can think of — including Philip Glass — who has kind of a general reputation.

Intellectuals in America might know about painting past and present, and about literature, but if they know music today, it’s pop music, and I and my brothers and sisters are not part of their ken. If I gave a concert — and I’m well known within a certain circle — I could fill Alice Tully [Hall, in New York — essentially a recital hall]: that is, if I wrote a lot of friends and asked them to come, and bought an ad, and so on.

Nordlinger: Some of the movie composers are fairly well known. Did you ever write for a movie?

Rorem: Only once. It was a movie called Panic in Needle Park, and it was Al Pacino’s first movie. It gets four stars in the books now. But after I wrote my score, they cut every note. They decided the movie didn’t need music.

Nordlinger: Did you do anything with that music?

Rorem: I took one section of it, but my publisher at Boosey & Hawkes had to go down on his knees, promising that the music would be used in no other film. I incorporated it into a work called Air Music, which won the Pulitzer prize.

Nordlinger: You like movies?

Rorem: Love them. I do look at television more than I’d like to admit. I like old movies, and sometimes watch them on television — and almost always, they don’t hold up.

Nordlinger: Everyone’s writing about 9/11, as you have done. Tell me about writing about 9/11. Is it truly possible? Is it impossible not to?

Rorem: I had been commissioned to write a piece for voice and instruments, for [the] Ravinia [Festival]. I was hemming and hawing, and then 9/11 happened. Corny as it may sound today, my reaction was, “What’s the point of doing anything now? What’s the point of art now?” Well, the answer is, art’s the only point. Then a whole lot of people said, “Where are the artists, why aren’t they doing things?” It was outsiders making rules about what artists should do.

A lot of artists then did things that were directly or indirectly related to September 11, because we’re all . . . whatever I do tomorrow will indirectly have something to do with having met you today, with having talked about Itzhak Perlman, etc.

All art is theater, in a way. It is dramatic. It is a concentration of your life.

Nordlinger: Is music ever “about” anything? Could John Corigliano’s AIDS Symphony possibly be about AIDS?

Rorem: No. A composer will go to some lengths to tell you that something is about something. Take La Mer. If the audience were unalerted, you could tell them that the first part was about slaughterhouses in Paris, the second part about having coffee at La Flore, and the third part about bordellos: They’d believe it, if you told them that. If you play a piece an audience has never heard before and say, “Will everyone in the room please write down what he thinks the piece is about?” you’ll have as many interpretations as there are people.

A piece without a text, without a vocal line, can’t mean detailed things like Tuesday, butter, or yellow, and it can’t even mean general things like death or love or the weather, although a timpani roll can sound like thunder, and certain conventions about love come out of Wagner. And things change. The minor mode didn’t even mean sad 200 years ago.

Nordlinger: Give me an example.

Rorem: “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.”

Nordlinger: Yes, that’s a very peppy piece, isn’t it?

Rorem: Yes.

Nordlinger: Is it a handicap to you to be an intellectual? Does intellectuality hinder your musical composition?

Rorem: Most composers are more intellectual than painters. Painters don’t know anything. Virgil Thomson used to say, “Painters can’t do anything after the sun sets, so they all go get drunk, or out to a café in Paris, and so forth.”

Composers are better rounded because they have to be: No one cares [about them].

I’m president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. I have another six weeks to go in my term, so everyone has to be nice to me until then. Louis Auchincloss called me and asked me to serve as president. In my first public performance there, I was on a stage filled with Nobel Prize winners, and there were some 1,500 others. When Louis first called me, my initial reaction was that I was much too young to be president. All artists are children, and the minute they stop being children, they stop being artists.

The arts are not interchangeable. Visual people aren’t necessarily interested in music. If they paint pictures — even marvelous ones — they may be listening on the radio to Bob Dylan, who is beneath contempt. I’ve seen him off and on — I saw him at the Oscars last year. He has no looks, no charm, no diction. His music is all tonic and dominant, on an out-of-tune guitar, and his sentiments are easy to understand: “The times they are a-changing.” So what?

But he speaks to the condition of popular music. Also, know this: Anybody talking about pop music — “His music is this, his music is that” — is talking about the words, always. Just the words.

I wrote a seminal article on the Beatles in the New York Review [of Books], and all of the other articles, by literary people and pop-culture people, talk about the words. The music means the words — but the singers have no diction.

Usually, I can understand objectively what people see in things, even though I don’t share that view. I don’t need Beethoven, for example, but I can see why he’s great. My nature is French. Beethoven couldn’t be more German. I don’t know what people see in Bob Dylan, because I don’t detect any magic, don’t see what he’s got that other people don’t. I find him utterly devoid of . . . anything.

I love the pop music of my day — the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s: Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Richard Rodgers, George Gershwin, Cole Porter. The tunes are memorable. Stephen Sondheim at his best is out of this tradition. But other pop music: 99 percent of it is incomprehensible.

Nordlinger: What’s coolest? Going to a concert featuring your music and taking a bow, or not going at all — just letting it be?

Rorem: Well, there’s a performance of some of my music nearby next week, and I’ll go and take a bow. It would be unseemly not to. Nobody’s that blasé. It’s terrible after a bad performance, because the audience blames you.

Nordlinger: Do you favor affirmative action in music? Should new music be programmed just because it’s new? What’s the performer’s obligation?

Rorem: They should play it, but they don’t.

Nordlinger: Well, what’s the role of merit? Shouldn’t music be performed on its merits, whether new or old?

Rorem: Don’t mistake merit. Merit can happen twenty years later. One can’t always know right away.

Performers don’t play new music just for the hell of it. They do so because they’ve commissioned a piece. Usually, performers want only premieres. I talked a day or two ago to a woman and her husband, who commissioned a piece by a mutual friend — a well-known composer — and they don’t like it. But they’re going to do it anyway, because it’s at least by a reputable composer, and they should do it.

It’s hard to know the “merit” of anything. I’ve never written the kind of music that should be written. When the “serial killers,” as I call them, overcame America, I couldn’t join their club. I was just too lazy to write the kind of music I didn’t like.

I always felt like the Prodigal Son’s brother. I had never gone astray. People for many, many years did music of a particular kind because they thought they should — music of incredible complexity. Everyone wanted Elliott Carter, Pierre Boulez. For nearly a generation, my music was [considered] vulgar, but that was the music that was in me. Now one can write anything one wants to.

The music Boulez writes now is much easier to take. It comes out of French Impressionism and is full of color.

Performers today would rather play Mendelssohn than a contemporary composer. Peter Serkin is an exception. Richard Goode is in a way an exception. Up until recently, big-name singers — American singers — wouldn’t touch our stuff. The recital was going the way of the dodo, but it’s now coming back. Still, American singers give recitals in every language except their own. And when they do condescend to sing American music, they rrroll their r’s in that annoying Italian way.

Susan Graham and Laura Flanigan are examples of singers who are singing new music, not just to show off, but because they believe.

Nordlinger: Is it lazy to write songs?

Rorem: No. Actually, I haven’t been doing much song-writing lately. I’ve finished two big concertos, a cello concerto and a flute concerto; and a piece for clarinet and piano; and another piece for chamber group. Those pieces have no human voice in them at all.

No, song-writing isn’t lazy. All music is in a sense song — but song without words. And every time you write something, it’s like the first time — even with a song. I once did a whole cycle using eight poems and 16 songs, showing that if one setting is slow and intense, another one can be fast and glib. These are different attitudes toward the same poem.

There are some formulas — I know how to write a fast movement, for example. And I borrow from myself.

Nordlinger: Doesn’t everyone?

Rorem: Yes. There’s nothing new under the sun. And since nothing comes from nothing, we steal, and if you know you’re stealing, you do your best to disguise it, and the act of disguising is the act of creation. If you’re not smart enough to know that you’re stealing, you’re a second-rate artist, and you’ve made a second-rate version of some definable piece.

Nordlinger: Does writing prose come easily to you?

Rorem: I suppose. I write it once, then I revise. I revise everything else too! If I’m reading a book, by anyone — including Henry James — I put blue pencil in the margin. I may circle a “perhaps”: There are too many perhapses in this book. I’m a walking blue pencil.

It’s not writing that’s the problem, it’s getting an idea to write.

Nordlinger: Does your music composing come as easily?

Rorem: I guess so. You simply have to do it. It’s amazing how terrified world-famous performers are of being asked to write a piece.

Nordlinger: Tell me about you and Ravel [for whom Rorem has an extremely high regard].

Rorem: I love Ravel. He speaks a language that’s very close to me, and he speaks it wonderfully. He is the essence of Frenchness, meaning economy and sensuousness at the same time. I first heard L’enfant et les sortilèges in 1946, when I was 22 or 23. Everything about it thrilled me. It is full of melodies, for example. Music is melody before anything else — before harmony, before rhythm, before counterpoint. It’s a tune. That’s what music is — even a kettle-drum symphony, or a 12-tone piece.

Nordlinger: What does Bach mean to you?

Rorem: A lot. For me, everything is either French or German. Bach is pre-German: but there’s something about him — nuances of harmony — that to me are very French. I can’t imagine anyone not being overwhelmed by him. Once a year, I play through the whole of the two books of Inventions. It’s been a while since I heard the B Minor Mass or the St. Matthew Passion — but they’re much better than Fidelio or the Ninth Symphony. Bach is the exception to every rule. It’s funny when you think about his life: wife and all those kids. Richard Strauss was like that, and he wrote all those neurotic operas.

Nordlinger: Elektra is a wondrous thing, isn’t it?

Rorem: I don’t think it’s worth Salome by a long shot. I saw it recently and found it a little too manic. When everything is hysterical, nothing is hysterical. You have to have a resting place. It’s a little too-too.

A person can be very normal, for lack of a better term, and have an uneventful family life, and write terribly neurotic things, like Richard Strauss. And a person can write rather bland music and have a neurotic family life. These things don’t necessarily correspond.

Nordlinger: Do you worry about being known and performed in the future? About your future reputation? Your future standing?

Rorem: Yeah. I know people who say, ‘I don’t care what happens to me after I die.” But I do, and I see no point in living otherwise. I don’t know why I’m alive. I’m an atheist. I don’t know what any of this means. I take a pretty dim view of the human species, which is suicidal — we’re the only suicidal mammal.

But here I am. I even bought a cemetery plot. I’d rather be buried than cremated, for some reason, and I’d like to think that music and words go on. In the world we live in, you get edged out so quickly.

Nordlinger: What would you like to compose, in the years ahead? Any unfinished business?

Rorem: No, I’ve said everything I have to say. And I have commissions that will take some years to be completed.

Nordlinger: Who’s underrated?

Rorem: Well, me. I’m certainly underplayed. And I feel wistful when I hear an orchestra playing something that’s no better than what I have written.

Nordlinger: Who’s overrated?

Rorem: I couldn’t name any of my colleagues.

Nordlinger: No, I mean, in all history.

Rorem: People fall into their slots. They get their just rewards.

Nordlinger: Finally, something about sex — one of your favorite topics. I read something interesting from Dustin Hoffman recently. He said he welcomed the ebbing of the sex drive, because for so long it controlled him, and now he was getting some relief. That was a benefit of aging. What do you think of that?

Rorem: That’s him. I think about sex a lot. It hasn’t ebbed. I know women, mainly, who think it’s disgusting to have sex after a certain age. But it’s part of nature. I think about it quite a bit. I don’t do it as much as I would like to, because the circumstances don’t arise. I don’t drink — I don’t want to waste time. Sex doesn’t lead to anything, true, but then neither does eating.

Author’s note: As I was leaving Rorem’s apartment, I noticed, on his piano, a Peters-edition score of some of his music. You have probably seen the Peters editions: pale green, with distinctive black letters. I said to Rorem, “It must really be wonderful to have your name on a Peters edition. I mean, Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert — Rorem. Does it give you a little thrill?” Rorem smiled gently and said, “Yes, actually.” An honest man, Ned Rorem.

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