An Interview with Composer Larry Bell by Nick Tolle (Amsterdam Conservatory thesis, February 2007)

Larry Bell received his DMA from The Juilliard School, working in composition with Vincent Persichetti and Roger Sessions, in solfège with Renée Longy, piano with Joseph Bloch and with Joseph Rollino privately in Rome. He has won the Rome Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the Charles Ives Award. He taught in Juilliard’s Pre-College Division. Bell is chair of music theory at the New England Conservatory of Music Division of Preparatory and Continuing Education. Larry Bell resides in Boston and is married to musicologist Andrea Olmstead.

Interview with Larry Bell. 3/02/07 Boston, Massachusetts, USA


Nicholas Tolle: You said recently that composers by and large have no interest in theory whatsoever. [laughs] Could you elaborate on that?

Larry Bell: Maybe that is an exaggeration, but I think that compared with the time when I was in school in the seventies there seemed to be, with the articles in Perspectives of New Music, a unique time when composition and theory were close together, and I think throughout the eighties and nineties, the two have grown further apart. In fact, you meet younger composers now who have no interest in teaching, who have no real regard for analysis. They are simply interested in doing what it is they want to do, and they take it for granted that they are not going to be able to support themselves through teaching, so they just want to go out and form their own groups and do the work. And they seem not to have very much patience. I do not want to name names, but some in this category are pretty well known. But someone who would not mind me saying as much, and the first person I had a conversation with about this, was Aaron Jay Kernis.[1] This was years ago, and I think still he has no interest in teaching even though he has been associated with the Manhattan School and Yale, and has been working with the Minnesota Orchestra. At any rate, this was many years ago; he was the first one I heard say he was not really that interested in what might be called the academic side of music.


NT: Then what do these people do when they are confronted with audiences who are not interested in learning?

LB: I don’t know. I think it is particularly problematic because there seem to be two separate kinds of composers I encounter: one, like myself, is the composer who plays concerts. I play mainly my own music but I have been trained in the great western tradition to play the classics and I have performed them. And then you have a second group of composers who do not seem to play any instruments, or do not play very well. One of the great composers was of course Schoenberg, who apparently could not play anything. Even his species counterpoint exercises were played by his assistant Leonard Stein. It is odd to think of the great Schoenberg not being able to play note-against-note. But so it was. And even celebrated composers like William Schuman did not play an instrument, or never could play an instrument. So for me the way in to present music is through my own performance. That is where it starts. And by playing it myself, I put myself on the front lines in terms of what is working compositionally and what is not working. I have changed my notational style in a sense that when I first started out I was writing complex and overly notated scores, and if anything, now my scores are much more streamlined and occasionally undernotated, but that grows out of playing music myself and looking at things from the performer’s point of view.


NT: How do you prefer to present your own music?

LB: I have done it a lot of different ways from the straight-ahead tuxedoed concert, to a piano recital I did two years ago where I sang as a means of demonstrating some of my   material. The pieces were based on either hymn tunes or folk songs. I sang those songs, especially for the abstract sounding pieces called Revivals that I had played probably a dozen times in concert. The piece seemed to have baffled some people, so I thought, “OK, I will make the experience a little more concrete by singing the originals.” I think people were a little surprised that, first of all the pianist was singing with not in a trained voice, and singing in a kind of natural way, which I think helped. I feel that there s less an appetite for abstraction now than perhaps thirty years ago.


NT: Do you mean among regular concert goers, among the general public, or among musicians?

LB: Certainly among musicians. You do meet people occasionally who live for doing the most difficult thing under the sun. I do not meet that many people anymore so attached to the music of say Boulez or Stockhausen and the Darmstadt school. It seems there is no real repertoire that has been generated from this approach, certainly none that you hear often enough to call it repertoire or to call it even recognizable. Nowadays, when was the last time you heard a Stockhausen piece? His music has not been done in Boston in a long time. I have not even seen one listed here. There was a time when that music was trendy and interesting, from the point of view of granting organizations, too. If you wrote something, some organizations could get money to help fund recordings or publicize it. That is another way to see the change. The Meet the Composer guidelines now have much more to do with sort of de facto social work. The composer has to go into communities and work with particular people and develop pieces that grow out of their world and experience.


NT: There is something to say for that, too.

LB: Yes of course. I am noting how things have changed. No one considered that kind of thing thirty years ago.


NT: One of the ways we could build a bigger audience is by going to those kinds of social-work situations and explaining how this repertoire is basically a reaction to our lives.

LB: Yes, that is another thing. When you say “explain,” that is new. Now it is expected that concerts will present a pre-concert talk. Especially if they are presenting a new piece, it is rare not to have someone speak, or have very elaborate program notes that explain the point of view or what to listen for.


NT: It’s also rare to find someone who is actually good at doing that.

LB: Yes, it is very hard to talk about music. The other thing that has changed, aside from the granting organizations who have disappeared, is that students are not interested in abstraction either. For instance, students at New England Conservatory do not care about twelve-tone music. None of them are at all interested. And I am not sure what they are interested in. As Luciano Berio responded when asked about Steve Reich’s music, he liked Steve Reich, but he did not understand why the younger generation had to “kill the father.” Every generation goes through a kind of Oedipal situation in which the father is attacked. And I think that has been occurring over the last generation or two.


NT: I think one of the main reasons audiences sometimes have a hard time with contemporary music is that musicians, at least at the student level, do not have a working knowledge of contemporary music theory and as a result are unable to engage an audience in a meaningful dialog before, after, or during a performance.

LB:   It is possible that the emphasis in music changes, and styles change. First, a period of complexity occurs, and then, all of the sudden, someone decides, “Let’s start over again. Let’s go back to the Greeks, or let’s change our philosophy.” And the Zeitgeist changes. It is not just a matter of one aspect changing, a whole complex changes. It starts with there not being much demand for this.

I have noticed for instance, conservatories are no longer headed by composers. And you probably will not see them headed by composers again. That’s an interesting change. It means that business and money has become more important for an institution than having someone at the top with artistic vision. So, for instance–not wanting to name names–but when Gunther Schuller was president of the New England Conservatory, it was considered a visionary period, but it was also a time when the school almost went bankrupt. His name is invoked frequently in regard to that kind of syndrome. Schools are more like corporations now.

I get The Juilliard Journal , and I read about how Joseph Polesi wants students to be able to talk, to go out into communities. I think, however, he is mainly talking about classical music and not about what we might call advanced music, or new music. People simply do not grow up with the classics now, nor have they grown up with people who have a deep passionate love of what used to be considered avant-garde. For instance, when I was coming along, I knew people or worked with people who studied with Schoenberg, who knew Rudolf Kolisch, who studied with Edward Steuerman, or who knew him, or who knew the Schoenberg circle, who knew the circle around Stravinsky in Los Angeles. They were playing this music and were basically Eastern Europeans who had a passion for classical music, especially Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, and for playing chamber music. So I went to school with a lot of people in that category, and I think they are now gone. That whole generation is gone, and they have not exactly been replaced. So that changes things, too.


NT: It seems that institutions of higher education are placing us at a disadvantage from the beginning by placing so much emphasis on tonal analysis, tonal theory, classical music history, and in my experience, very little emphasis on anything else. Why is that?

LB: That is where the repertoire is. Education is centered around the repertoire. You could also ask, why is repertoire circumscribed by the French Revolution and World War One? 1789-1914 is the basic repertoire, and if you hear anything at the symphony, any symphony, before or after that time, it is an anomaly. So there is still a holdover from the old days of having Brahms’s four symphonies as the center of the repertoire. The Beethoven symphonies too have never really gone out of fashion, especially the odd numbered ones. Education is built around what the students are most likely to encounter. It is the expectation of their careers.


NT: Has the curriculum changed much at all in the last century?

LB: It has in the United States, where it has gone through considerable change. I am not sure about Europe. My understanding of the Paris Conservatory is that it is not that different from what it was a hundred years ago. I was preparing a discussion for a class about theQuartet for the End of Time by Messiaen, and I read that when he was teaching students such as Yvonne Loriod and Pierre Boulez, he was teaching them out of a friend’s apartment. He was not teaching them at the Conservatoire, mainly because Boulez would not have been admitted to the conservatory. He could not have passed the audition as a pianist or as a composer, which is interesting. So the conservatories–I can’t really speak about universities as much–have always been conservative places. They have always been about studying violin, ‘cello, piano, and voice.

When I was at The Juilliard School, we had fabulous composition faculty, with Carter, Babbitt, Sessions, Persichetti, and Diamond. That was a time that appears like a Golden Age to me. Juilliard, however, was still mainly about the standard repertoire. Juilliard was really never part of the “uptown” scene centered around Columbia and wherever Charles Wuorinen was at that time. The distinction between “uptown” versus “downtown” really began to be made in the sixties and during the seventies, I was aware of it, but Juilliard was not a part of it. It was not. It was more, perhaps, midtown? We heard visiting composers speak who were having music done at the New York Philharmonic, but they were not what you would call avant-garde. There was almost no interest in avant-garde music among the students. Carter used to complain about his students, who he said only wrote “retro-Brahms.”


NT: You said the curriculum had changed a lot.

LB: The curriculum changed in the United States in 1946 when William Schuman had Persichetti and Richard Franko Goldman develop the Literature and Materials program at Juilliard. This was a big change because instead of teaching in the old manner, in the old European manner of having separate classes for solfège, music history, and harmony. Every subject was taught by the same person in the same course. There were no textbooks used. It was all learning by doing; a very American approach. It was anti-French. The French are very good on technique. Since the time of Peter Mennin, who brought in Renée Longy to teach solfège as a separate course, and they had a world-class solfège program that they did not have in the time of William Schuman. They had separate music history classes, too. They still have the old Literature and Materials name, but now have more of a compromise between the old and the new.


NT: So it seems the structure of the teaching has changed more than the material being taught.

LB: Yes, I think it was always a rare thing in any school to be taught the latest fashion that was being composed. I think there is always this feeling, especially in musicology, that new music is too new to evaluate, and too new to know if it can be used in a pedagogical manner or enter the canon. Theory, of course, always has to reflect practice. That seems to be its nature. Schoenberg said repeatedly, in his Old Testament manner, that “God saw what he had made and said that it was good.” What was made came first and what was made of it came afterwards, whether it is The Creation of the World or a sonata form (it was Beethoven’s version of sonata form that became the textbook version in the 19 th century) that was actually created in the late 1830’s and 1840’s after his death. Beethoven was not aware of a critical body of theory when he was writing music. I think theory is always something that follows practice. If you look at Heinrich Schenker’s theories, his real contributions come precisely at a time where people are not writing tonal music. (He died in 1935.) He is summing up what happened in German music (or what he thought was German music) between Bach and Brahms. By the time he was talking about tonality, especially in the 1920’s, no advanced composer was interested in writing tonal music.


NT: Do you think we are going to come to a time where, say, Carter and Babbitt will be canonized in the curriculum like Beethoven and Brahms?

LB: In the music history curriculum: yes. They are already in the Norton Anthologies. One possible downside of being canonized is that you are no longer played. It becomes part of the canon because composers have been influenced by it. Whether people play it in the future or not is an open question. Who knows? When I talk to people like David Schiff (who literally wrote the book on Carter) he says, no. He does not think Carter’s music is going to be played after he is gone. One of the reasons is that this music is so difficult to execute. The amount of technical effort required to learn such difficult pieces is perhaps incommensurate with the expressive end.


NT: So you don’t think that the performers’ ability has kept pace with compositional innovation?

LB: No, on the contrary. I think that the 110 violists who recently auditioned at the New England Conservatory, were, by all accounts better than any crop of violists that have ever auditioned. I just do not see an interest in the conceptual side. There is no appetite for it. Performers now have amazing technical facility. Students come from all over the world to study in the U.S. to gain this facility. When I hear celebrated virtuosos, I hear people who have a technical ability to play that exceeds the expressive power and interest of the music they are playing, which is distressing. You hear someone play Mozart flawlessly. It is not close to being risky at all, and it is boring as a result. I have always maintained that the reason to play Mozart is to use what you have learned from that experience in order to play something new. Playing it for its own sake would be, frankly, inconceivable to me.

What has happened over the years is that so many people in my generation grew up with rock music. This has been a huge change because rock music, after all, was clearly identified from the beginning as political, as well as being fun and having a social context. And it still is. The avant-garde of the thirties, which, was very left wing, has in the meantime, lost its political connections, lost its relevance. Already in the sixties twelve-tone music seemed to be academic. It was not a part of anyone’s life. On the other hand, someone strumming a guitar seemed to be relevant. Again it was because the Zeitgeist changed. A whole series of things have changed over time. I have tried to stay true to myself throughout all this, and not get on anyone’s bandwagon nor reject it. It seems to me that there is an interest in new aesthetics (or perhaps new styles), but it is mainly among the young who are finding their way in the world.


NT: I cannot understand the twenty-year-old classical music student in today’s society who is only playing classical music. It seems that our generational disposition to musical eclecticism in all forms would have spread to the classical music world, but it does not seem as though it has, aside from a tiny niche.

LB: That is right. I had an interesting experience a couple years ago when I was performing and recording with my good friend Eric Bartlett, a cellist in Orpheus, Speculum Musicae, and the New York Philharmonic. We had been playing together for a long time; he is a phenomenal player. He can play virtually anything; he is classically trained, and he has learned a lot of what he knows about Carter’s music by playing it and developing the kinds of skills needed to in order to count it and to understand how it works. At any rate, I was at his house one evening, and he had bought a guitar for his son. I picked it up his son’s guitar and started playing it. Eric was visibly more impressed that I could do this than anything else I had ever done with him. It showed a certain versatility.

This is the kind of thing that is gone. People used to play multiple instruments. Conductors used to write music. It used to be part of their contract that they had to write one piece a year for their orchestras. As a result of the success of technical training musicians have become more specialized. I present my students with a scenario where the musician is part of the story to prove to them how specialized they have become: You are invited to someone’s home. Someone walks in the door with a birthday cake and people begin to sing. You rush over to the piano and begin to play Happy Birthday. How many professional musicians can do that? This is a very basic thing. We all know what this tune sounds like. We all have a fairly good idea of what the harmonization should be. What does it say if you cannot do this? It is hard to justify especially among your non-musician friends. If you are asked to play Happy Birthday and can not do it because you are too specialized. You are saying: “I am sorry, I only do this high-minded stuff.” That to me is what is lost, a kind of versatility.

Improvisation, too, is gone along with it. The National Association of Schools of Music comes through every ten years to do accreditations. They say what music schools should and should not be doing. The new thing is that they are concerned that no one knows how to improvise. We teachers are trying to build improvisation in to the curriculum for classically trained players. That is a deliberate effort on our part. There are musicians in the “downtown” scene who did a kind of freer improvisation, and some young people now are really interested in a type of free improvisation. I hear them occasionally (it does not seem very interesting to me); nevertheless they are trying.


NT: How do you think this specialization has affected the audience?

LB: They have come to have very high expectations. They do not expect to hear a mistake, for instance. I think that puts tremendous pressure on the performers to play in concert, from memory, every night, without any errors. Recordings have are partly responsible for this situation. One is being compared with the recordings that people know, especially of the classics.


NT: It could be fair to say that the expectation of perfect performance has had an effect on the performers’ repertoire choice.

LB: Right. So, you play that niche of repertoire that you can execute night after night that works well for you. If someone wants you to play a new piece and you say, “Oh I am very sorry, I only play up to Ravel, or, I only play Beethoven sonatas.” Another thing I have begun to notice is that there are three distinct classes of people who are involved with music: People who write music who do not play it; Performers who only play the standard repertoire, who don’t write music. There is a new class, very powerful among today’s musical organizations, that listens to music and has not written music nor played an instrument. One of my interests is getting more people to play or study an instrument. The idea of having the family piano and making music at home is gone. Why make music at home when you have an iPod and a big screen TV. This emphasis on consumption becomes one’s entire life and one becomes very passive. This is boring to me. It is not a creative point of view; it is a consumer’s point of view. The consumers indirectly dictate to performers: They say in effect, “Yes, we will go see you play Brahms’s Second Symphony again.” I do not understand why they would want to hear it multiple times. I think there should be a moratorium on that particular piece, which should not be played for twenty years, so we can hear it fresh again. I have heard it so many times, I would not dare go hear it again.


NT: Maybe you could elaborate on something you said before about presenting your music to audiences. Would you dare to try to explain your compositional process to an audience?

LB: No. No. Not anymore. There was a time when I would have tried. I have come to see that people do not really want to know how a piece is made. What they want is the effect. The technique is what Persichetti used to call “kitchen work.” We composers are very interested in what goes in to a recipe, how much of this, how much of that, but most people who are playing or listening do not want to know. They want to know the emotional effect.

As I mentioned earlier, I taught the Messiaen quartet to a class of music students and talked about isorhythm. The isorhythm is set up in such a way that there it is not possible to remember the pattern, because it is too long. The students asked, “If you cannot remember it of hear it why should we know about this? Why should anyone know this?” I told them it is because it has an effect on what you hear. And so music students are like anyone else, they want to know about the effect. How does this recipe give us the great delicacy that we are enjoying right now? So I did try to explain the effect as I might to an audience.

I am preparing to go in to the Rivers School, which is a music school for kids that is doing three days of my pieces. I am supposed to talk a lot to parents. I am thinking about various ways I can talk about music on different levels to people. I do not want to dumb any of it down. I do not want to simplify it. At the same time you want to give them an honest impression of what they are hearing and why they should be interested. What does it mean to them? I think it is relatively easy for me to do this with the pieces they have chosen. They are not doing my more difficult, challenging, abstract pieces, because those are too hard to play. I can understand that, so it is a little bit easier to talk about the pieces that are more concrete, that are either based on hymn tunes or folk songs, or have some sort of rhythmic element that is closer to American speech patterns. There is something in the music that they can connect with in some way.


NT: You are more interested in having people understand the effect, but I do not understand how the material can be separated from the effect.

LB: Oh, sure it can be. Isorhythm and twelve-tone music are good examples. Who can hear the row? If you do hear the row, that is in my view a sign that something is wrong. There is a long tradition of being modest about the technical side of music, about hiding the art. You do not want to boast. The muses will avenge themselves on you for doing something that is perfect. A lot of music was written for the church was not designed to be listened to in the modern sense. It was designed as part of the liturgy. Some pieces’ explanations, from a technical point of view, simply turn people off.

Here is another angle: I ask one question of every music critic I have met: “Why doesn’t your review have a snippet of the score? Why don’t you show what it looks like in the review? You can include a graphic in a review.” If you have an architecture review, you show a picture of the building. If you write a poetry review, you give a line or two of the poem. If you review a painting, you have a picture of the painting. Music reviews do not use music. The answers I have gotten from critics have been very illuminating. Either the critic does not read music, and therefore it would not mean anything to him, or the ones who do read music say they do not want to offend or intimidate their readers. So, who do you think is reading this? Not me. I do not read any reviews anymore because they are not intended for me. They are for the general audience. They are for that class of people that do not play and do not write.

So, I have heard composers get up and give elaborate talks about the technical side of the music, and it almost never works unless you have a terrifically specialized audience. I remember hearing Vladimir Feltsman play Book Two of the Well-Tempered Clavier in Aspen. He played the entire thing, with a score, and the performance lasted about three hours. There were about one hundred people in the audience. Everyone had a score. It was great, a religious experience. It was phenomenal. We were listening to the music and not to that person.

A lot of performance is about the person on stage, that particular personality. I find this distressing sometimes too, that it is about a star, and not so much about the music. That is why the Bank of America Celebrity series (here in Boston) have given up with advertising what pieces would be on the programs. It does not matter. If James Galway or Yo-Yo Ma is playing, it does not matter what pieces they are playing. People do not care as long as they are served the status quo.

On the other hand, I think that the taste for shocking people has waned, too. I am not sure what caused it to diminish, but I remember distinctly in New York, a series of shocks in the 1970’s. Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated! was played by Ursulla Oppens. That was a shocking concert. It is a big, hour-long, D-minor political piece. When Phillip Glass’s Einstein on the Beachwas done around the same time it was also shocking, as was George Rochberg’s Third Quartet. Many of us began to say, “What has happened to the world?” It was a very clearly defined world before those things happened. There were, on the other hand, composers who were very involved with the notes, the serialists, and then you had the aleatoric group, and there was not much in between. Of course, there were a few composers like Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland who were great successes, but they were considered out of fashion at that time. They were not on the cutting edge by any means, but they were creating repertoire with a distinct voice. A dominant idea in the ‘70s was to present music that was so technically over the top that only two people in whole world could play it. This can be very hard on a composer. I would not want to go through what Elliott Carter has gone through. Could you wait ten or twenty years without hearing a piece that you have written? That is tough. How do you keep going? I could understand writing exclusively for myself before getting to that point. If no one else wanted any of your music, or gave a damn, then you could still write for yourself and play your own work. So, I think the key is to take individual responsibility for what it is that you want to do, and if you believe in it passionately, you will be able to communicate that to people, and you will be able to put that across, no matter what music you are playing.

[1] Pultizer-Prize-winning American composer, born 1960.