On Music

Is it your goal to compose recognizably "American" music? What is the basis for this approach to your music? Several years ago I began examining rhythmic patterns, pitch range, tempo and phrase contour in American spoken English. The example I like to use is Jesse Jackson speaking; if you were to analyze the interval of his pitch range, the tempo variations and rhythms, you would find an extraordinary musicality, uniquely American. I strive to understand how these characteristics represent our American lives and emotions, and to use these elements in my music. This, I think, is what makes it "American." What is the importance of rhythm in your music? We live in a percussive world. American music would certainly not be the same without the drum set, and our own American language has beautiful rhythms in it; it is this American vernacular and the rhythm of our American life that is the language of my music. What is your "philosophy" of music? My own philosophy stems from my belief that certain ratios and vibrations naturally exist in infinity. I believe that a culture will evolve the sonic forms and instruments that it needs in order to represent life through sound and music. It is my feeling that the Romantic era of music history has only recently ended. So I think that composers working today are in a strange bridging area; we are redefining ourselves. We are philosophizing about the nature of sound in our world today. We are struggling to figure out, in our noise-polluted world, what is sound, what is music, and what is silence. And since I believe that music exists in an infinity of sound, my job as a composer is to make choices about how to organize that sound; in our culture; this means the organization of scales, chord progressions, and the placement of scales within certain other hierarchies, but also choices about to whom we communicate and what results from that communication. What is your approach to harmony and what techniques do you use? My music is built around tonal areas that are vaguely modal and reinforced through pedal tones in the bass. The key to my music is to hear tones that aren't articulated and to be able to listen to low tones. My approach is NOT four-part voice-leading functional keyboard harmony; however I would describe tonality for me as pools of 'comfort' around a fundamental. The way I conceive tonality is horizontal, not vertical, meaning that the line comes first and the harmonies result. Intervals generally have a particular significance in my music — I choose the interval, I like Lydian fourths and major thirds — and develop the meaning of that interval musically throughout a piece. How would you define sacred music? Any music that celebrates and reveres creation and mysticism beyond humans’ ability to analyze and/or control. Explain your use of electronic sound with acoustic sound. What has led you to do this? In the late 1980's, I applied for Bush Fellowship. I spent a year and a half working with Morton Subotnick, investigating logarithmically based sound manipulation programs. 'Ghosts of an Old Ceremony' was the first piece to which I added electronic sound, and this was a very important piece for me, for that reason. I talk a lot about the sound revolution since WWII (see speech: The Role of the Musician in the 21st Century). It is now clear to me that electronically produced sound is it's own sound with its own set of unique performance instruments. These instruments need to be integrated into the traditional classical ensembles in our concert halls. I would go so far as to say that the electric guitar, an instrument that has evolved in our culture, has a legitimate place in the symphony orchestra.