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Michael Torke

An Interview

Michael Torke in conversation with Michelle Ryang:

How did you feel hearing the premiere of Javelin?

I didn't feel anxious that the audience was going to get bored. Sometimes the 'cringe factor' can be high when you fear you are about to lose them. The music speaks by moving from one idea to the next rather than relying on long processes being worked out. The performers are asked to play figures that are idiomatic and natural for their instruments; there was a feeling of ease among the orchestra rather than the incomprehensible 'slogging' through a dense, modernist work.

How did you come up with the title?

I was riding a bicycle down a dirt road at MacDowell Colony (where I wrote it) when I thought: 'I like the word "Javelin"'. I like the shape of the letters, especially the capital 'J'. There is something sleek about it; perhaps I still remember the sports car my Dad owned in the early 70's (manufactured by AMC) called 'Javelin'. The sweeping motion of a lot of the music is like an object thrown; a slender spear such as a javelin seemed apt. The semi-heroic spirit certainly has an application to the 1996 Olympic Games, and since the commission came from the Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games and the Atlanta Symphony, I knew the title would be appropiate.

Where does Javelin fit into your catalogue of works?

I meant it to be a show piece, a concert opener. I knew that's what the people paying for it wanted - -what was I going to do, write an Adagio? My compositional intentions continued where they last left off, in this case, my Saxophone Concerto. My primary concern in that piece was to be thematic.

Yet some people hear it as a departure from your other pieces?

Maybe the piece's expression is even more direct than earlier works. I know with Javelin I had a more 'humanistic' approach towards what each individual member of the orchestra would have to play, and in assigning them tasks of the sort they are used to playing, a more traditional sound may have resulted. Some listeners hear a French influence. Since I consider that - going all the way back to Ecstatic Orange and even Vanada - there has always been an influence of Messiaen and Ravel, if not frenchified Stravinsky, I see this as nothing new.

December seems to be heavily influenced by your vocal piece Four Proverbs. Is this a coincidence or was it intentional?

Actually there is a direct link. I had to throw together some ideas for the Public Theater's production of The Merchant of Venice. After the director, Barry Edelstein, kept rejecting the cues I had written, he finally said: ' You know the opening to Four Proverbs? I really like the haunting clarinet melody. Can't you do something like that?' I wrote a bastardized version of that opening strain and then all of the rest of the necessary music followed.
It was getting closer to the deadline of the December commission. I suddenly realised that by changing the key and by giving the music the up-and-down bowing motions of strings, I would impose on this material a peculiar and unique profile. To my suprise, the original musical impulse seems essentially more string-like than any of the instrumental choices I made for the theatre project.

December was first titled Rain Changing to Snow. Why did you change it?

I liked the imagery of precipitation, pounding aggressive rain changing to the silence of snow collecting on the branches of trees; I think the listener can imagine this as the music moves into its quieter middle section. But I'm always uncomfortable with overtly poetic titles. It's ironic that such a poetic approach to titles actually limits what I want to express in my music. This piece isn't only about precipitation. Its changing moods correspond to the memories that seep into my mind about such things as the joys of growing up in suburban Milwaukee - -doing my paper route as huge snow flakes fall and mingle with outdoor Christmas lights, and so on. Hence, December is a more open-minded title and gives the audience more room to draw its own corresponding allusions.

You conducted this performance of December. Do you think it's distracting for a composer to conduct his own works?

Of course it's difficult to balance thinking about whether my music is working with the demands of inspiring other musicians to play it well. I had to concentrate on the overall mood and shape and let the musicians take care of the details. It never ceases to amaze me how the slightest hand movement so drastically changes the overall effect; your hands are on the controls! It's like the greatest CD-ROM game ever invented. And of course the whole thing is rather efficient; I, the composer, do not have to work through a middle man, and if any questions are raised, the guy who wrote the piece is standing right there on the podium.

To me, Run sounds like your most 'process-oriented' orchestral piece, similar to the way Vanada works.

I wrote Run along with Music on the Floor, Chalk, Monday and Tuesday, immediately following the formation of my music publishing company 'Adjustable Music' in 1992. My idea was to create a music input-output 'machine' so that I can apply the same kinds of processes to different kinds of raw musical materials. I thought this kind of 'factory' approach to composing would be very romantic. The beauty in composing in such an automatic way is the sense that the composer is in control, globally, of his composition. And yet, in the excitement of creation, I can't stop myself getting involved, and I allowed the feeling of high spirit to permeate the ever-shifting harmonic textures.

Although you use the resources of the entire orchestra, why does it sound, to my ears, like a large chamber music work?

I never thought of Run in that way. Perhaps there is a transparency to the writing that might come from several musical patterns going on at the same time, as opposed to the kind of orchestration where everyone is combining their efforts to reinforce one big idea.

And its title?

A friend of mine pointed out that the word 'run' has the most definitions in the dictionary. How is that for an open-ended title? The image, however, that keeps returning to me is of someone setting out on their morning run, taking in the ever-changing panorama of the rising sun over a still-sleeping city.

Did you ever notice how Adjustable Wrench sounds exactly like Jump, by Van Halen, written in 1984?

This has been pointed out to me by more than one friend. Believe it or not this is pure coincidence, as the source inspiration for this piece was an obscure song by Jellybean (Madonna's one-time producer). I used the basic vamp but inserted my own triadic chords. I know it sounds improbable, but I had never heard any Van Halen until the 1990's

People from all over the world send you tapes of Adjustable Wrench. How does this make you feel?

Of course, I am flattered to get tapes, and to know that performances are going on. I think of Adjustable Wrench as being very American, drawing from American traditions, and yet I'll get a tape from Sicily and be astonished at the understanding of the idiom. Or from Vienna - I heard an absolutely wonderful performance from Vienna. Either we conclude that American culture imperialistically dominates the world, or the style of this piece is more self-evident than I ever thought it would be….I hope it's the latter…

What did you think about the choice of Green for your debut at the Proms?

I think there is this idea that when in doubt, programme a festive piece for the Proms. John Drummond has known about my earlier music, including Green, for some time, and although I may have enjoyed hearing a more recent piece, I am grateful he programmed me and happy that he chose the first piece of the Color Music disc as a representation of my work.

Most of your music is fast and rythmic. Why don't you write more slow music, like the second movement of Music on the Floor?

It's funny that as a teenager, my favourite parts of sonatas and symphonies were the slow movements. My natural metabolism is fast and I am drawn to things that stimulate me. I'm sure my choosing to live in New York City contributes to the kind of music I write. But that might change, since, for instance, I feel particularly drawn to the second movement of the Saxophone Concerto and Four Proverbs, both composed more recently.

Bright Blue Music is the last work on both your latest disc and the Color Music disc. James Kudelka also uses this piece to end his ballet, Terra Firma, with the San Francisco Ballet. Do you know why people view this piece as a good album or balletic closer?

I've no idea! I wish I understood…

What is it like working with the same producer, Andrew Cornall, over a long period of time?

It's a great fortune to have someone anticipate my needs before I am aware of them. His ears bring about the best aural advantage for my music. It's nice to know someone can read my mind.

If you have any comments, additions or questions I would be really pleased to hear from you!

Copyright © David Charlton, 1995, 1996.

This is the 'Unofficial' Web Page for Michael Torke

The music of Michael Torke is published by Boosey and Hawkes

Source attribution: Boosey & Hawkes, Mark Swed (Associate Editor of The Musical Quarterly; music critic for the Wall Street Journal), Michael Torke