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An Interview with Ned Rorem

Despite his punishing assessment of the state of the arts in America, especially in this country's attitude towards composers, Ned Rorem enjoys a steady stream of commissions and performances most other composers would envy. He is steadfastly faithful to tonality and song, no matter how complex the harmony or textures. Rorem's music is energetic and alive, unmistakably American sounding. Above all there is an emotional generosity that permeates much of his work of the last fifteen years, together with his patented brand of soaring lyricism that has attracted some of the twentieth century's most distinguished interpreters.

Ned Rorem's music is also his best kept secret. His celebrity undoubtedly stems from four volumes of diaries and other prose writings. The most recent of Rorem's thirteen books, Knowing When To Stop: A Memoir, is now available in paperback. With customary candor, the author not only evokes a myriad of friends, lovers, colleagues, and family, but also gives a vividly moving account of what it meant to come of age in America between the wars.

Jed Distler: What was the impetus behind Knowing When To Stop ?
Ned Rorem: Money. Next question?
JD: How does it differ from the published diaries?
NR: There's a crucial difference between a memoir and a diary. A diary is written in the heat of the battle, while a memoir is written with the selection of hindsight.
JD: Was it your idea to stop at 1951?
NR: Simon and Schuster originally wanted an autobiography to cover my whole life. Halfway through writing the book, I felt that I couldn't go past 1951 without extensively referring to the diaries.
JD: But you do, however, incorporate diary entries into the fabric of the narrative, as well as portions from your critical writings.
NR: Some of which appeared before in other forms. If, at a certain point, I needed to write something about a specific personality like Samuel Barber or Arthur Honegger, it made sense to refer back to an essay I had written, rather than redo the same thing using different words. I quoted extensively from unpublished diaries kept in the forties, partly out of laziness and partly to get my voice back from that time.
JD: Do you still have all your diaries?
NR: Yes. In 1936 when I was twelve I kept a diary for three months while in Europe, then from September 1945 up to the present, without stopping. I've also kept all my date books since 1947, constantly referred to these. This way I knew more or less exactly what I was doing on, say, June 12th 1952. I'd think back on what piece of music I was working on at the time, and go back into my 1952 skin. I would transport myself back into that person, which often was interesting, often was painful, and often was very weird. And then in 1965, when The Paris Diary was published, I realized that from there on it was no longer possible to write a diary.
JD: In the sense that the diary wasn't your private property anymore?
NR: Whatever anyone writes, whether a shopping list, a diary, or a letter, it's always written for other eyes.
JD: "Even a shopping list is important if scribbled by a genius," if I do quote you correctly.
NR: That's sort of smug to say. But it is interesting to see a laundry list, if only to see the handwriting of a person you have admired, especially if the person has been dead for two hundred years. Yet it's hard for me to write anything now without the idea that it's going to be read by eyes other than mine.
People tell me it's not fair to edit a diary; if you edit, it isn't really a diary. In other words they are making the rules after the fact. I write my diary according to the way I write my diary. It's like saying that it's unfair to revise a piece of music or to have a sense of pride. Even though, of course, a diary is not the same as a novel, but then, again, it is. Everything's fiction.
JD: You consider yourself a composer who writes.
NR: I write my prose out of whatever authority I may have as a composer. I don't know how good I am as either a writer or as a composer, but it's always as a composer expressing opinions about this and that. In fact, 95 percent of my prose on music is about contemporary music, which is all that interests me.
JD: Do you also approach playing the piano from a composer's vantage point?
NR: I am a pretty good pianist innately, but don't practice much. I don't play in public more than once or twice a year. There's a big difference between being a composer and being a performer. If I sit down to play one of my pieces with a singer, I learn the piano part as if someone else has written it. There are certain pieces I've written for my own hands, knowing that I was later going to play them in public. Other works which were not written for my hands I've had to learn later on. I'd be thinking, "My God, why did this person write these notes?" And I don't feel that I have the right to change those notes, or simplify them. Still, I am my own ideal pianist.
JD: On the other hand, Leonard Bernstein always said that he conducted a piece of music as if he had composed it himself.
NR: Lenny did three pieces of mine: the Third Symphony, the Violin Concerto and Sunday Morning. Each time he asked if he could rewrite or re-orchestrate one section or another, or else would be able to do so? I always said yes, but then wouldn't do it because Lenny would forget that he had asked. But I liked this quality he had, of wanting to get inside the music, even if it meant making cuts or changes.
JD: Didn't he suggest a cut in your Violin Concerto?
NR: He suggested the opposite. He thought the last of the six movements needed a fast ending. So he took about forty measures from of the previous movement and used it as a frisky recapitulation for later on. Friends in the audience, following the score, thought I was a fink for having let Lenny do this. But Gidon Kremer, who was the soloist, suggested after the first two performances that the following night the piece should be played as written. In any case it's recorded correctly.
There are performers I admire without necessarily liking how they play my music. I felt Lenny was inclined to milk music too much. In that sense, Mahler was perfect for him. My music can't bear milking. Lenny was inclined to make it too lush, too schmaltzy. Except for the fast, jazzy sections.
I can't abide conductors as a breed, and have never, except for Lenny, had a friend who was a conductor. He was, of course, an exception to everything. God knows, he was a real conductor, insufferable, conceited. The interesting thing was that I met Lenny before he became famous literally overnight, and even then he knew he was "the greatest in the world."
JD: You view orchestration as a craft, as an entity apart from composition. There are also composers who look upon instrumentation as something inseparable from the musical content.
NR: That's how most young composers feel today, I must say. They come out with pieces full of gorgeous colors, or dreary colors. It's all color, color, color. And you say to yourself, where is the tune, where is counterpoint, where is harmony? Everything is orchestration. For me the premier ingredient in music is melody, no matter how disguised.
JD: What is it like to be a composer in America in 1995?
NR: America is the only country in the whole world that is embarrassed by art. The minute art is mentioned, it becomes a conspiracy. Like Mappelthorpe and the NEA. With all of this discouragement, a composer is not even a despised pariah, because in order to be despised he has to exist a composer doesn't even exist in the ken of the intellectual public. The irony is that there are more young composers around than there ever were before.
Thinking about magazines: they have very good book reviews, theater reviews, but again they don't review what doesn't exist: namely, classical music. Even so-called "classy" magazines like The Nation, New Republic, Atlantic Monthly no longer have a classical music column. Esquire doesn't any more; Playboy certainly doesn't. The Village Voice has two kinds of token classical critics and about twenty pop writers. All of this has happened just in the past fifteen years.
JD: Well, here I am, interviewing Ned Rorem for Men's Style' first classical music feature!
NR: They're only doing it because I'm gay and because I write prose. But that's okay. Never look a gift horse in the mouth. Good for Men's Style, if they really want a classical column.
JD: What advice would you give a young composer just starting out?
NR: You have chosen to be a composer. You're the one that has to make the rules. Since nobody wants to publish your music, start your own publishing company. Since nobody wants to record your music, start your own recording company. Since the big orchestras don't want to perform your music, start your own little ensemble. That's what Benjamin Britten and Peter Maxwell Davies did. So did Philip Glass, for that matter, and Harry Partch.
JD: How has the economy influenced contemporary music?
NR: The economy has everything to do with the shape of a work of art, and nothing to do with the quality. If the National Endowment for the Arts closes, we are still going to have art, but it won't be the same way. The great amounts of money in Russia before the Revolution made luxuriant ballet possible; it stopped right after World War One. Stravinsky didn't write the "Rite of Spring" any more; he wrote L'Histoire du Soldat for seven instruments. No one's going to write a big Mahler symphony today because it'll only be played once every ten years if it's played at all.
JD: Does the same hold true for opera in America?
NR: That's a different problem. You're too young to remember when Menotti first started writing operas. Menotti hit the jackpot, and instantly everybody wrote operas. Then the Ford Foundation, and later the Rockefellers, started commissioning operas through the New York City Opera, and dozens of other organizations, including my one big opera Miss Julie. And then it stopped overnight.
Arguably no American playwright or composer of operas has written better works after the age of forty than before. The reason being that they wrote about love, abandonment, suicide and things that young people adore. The body. Europeans like Gide wrote plays about ideas. We didn't write about ideas. Even Lillian Hellman didn't write about ideas. Arthur Miller didn't, but he's somehow prevailed.
JD: I'm thinking about recent operas that fall under the genre "opera journalism," works based on news stories or political figures, like Nixon or Harvey Milk.
NR: I don't think you can write an opera on political ideas unless the politics are dressed up in something that is more universal than topical. If you want to write an opera, you have to have something to sing about.

(This interview appeared in slightly altered form in the September/October 1995 issue of Men's Style)

Copyright © 1996, Jed Distler