An Interview with Composer Larry Bell by Peter Burwasser (Fanfare, March/April 2004)

Larry Bell’s development as a composer is a good example of how the creative impulse grows like that proverbial rolling stone, amassing texture and complexity, at times in an almost unconscious way. Bell was raised in rural North Carolina, an only child of essentially unmusical parents. Still, they acquiesced to their grade-school-aged child’s request for a piano and lessons, which continued into his teenage years. “I sang in a church choir in grade school. After I discovered rock and roll, around age thirteen, I dropped the choir and piano lessons, and went straight for the guitar.” Bell joined a rock band, became discouraged because no one really paid any attention to the music he was playing, and returned to the piano as a member of a jazz trio. “Later on, in college, I sang in various school groups, including a men’s chorus. I was, briefly, a ringer in an Episcopal church choir.”

This sounds like a toehold into a life in music, and yet, there is still a hint of anguish in his voice as Bell recalls those years. “I had no role models. I didn’t know what to do next as a high-schooler.” Meanwhile, other musical influence continued to seep into Bell’s aural consciousness, especially regional folk music and hymns. “I was surrounded by vernacular American music. I was born on January 17, 1952, in Wilson, North Carolina. My hometown was and is about 35,000. It is a small town with rural roots. For many years, the town’s slogan was ‘World’s Greatest Tobacco Market.’ Eastern North Carolina is at the center of world tobacco exports. Despite the rising gap in our world balance of trade, North Carolina has maintained a trade surplus since the 17th century. The culture of tobacco has changed greatly in my lifetime. I quit smoking on March 15, 1982, but, as you might imagine, the customs, attitudes, and perspectives of Southerners evolve at a glacial pace.”

Bell eventually landed at Juilliard, where he studied with Roger Sessions and Vincent Persichetti, both of whom were highly influential modernists. “My music as a student was much different. Tonal music came gradually. The time I spent in Rome [Bell had been awarded the Rome Prize], 1982 to 1983, was a watershed. The Rockefeller Foundation supported the recording of a 100-album collection of American music for the 1976 bicentennial. I don’t know the exact title of this collection, but it was released on New World Records. Many music libraries were given this collection. It has wonderful examples of vernacular American music: bluegrass, gospel, spiritual, jazz of all kinds, and so on. The American Academy in Rome had this collection. I found myself studying music that I hadn’t listened to since I was a child. Maybe it was out of homesickness, but I wanted to incorporate hymn tunes into my music.” Bell continues to incorporate hymns in his current work, such as the Idumea Symphony, and much of his music for violin and piano. “In the 19th century, there were two big-selling hymnals in the South, Sacred Harp and Southern Harmony. I am using Sacred Harp for much of my source material. I have also met people, such as the musicologist Gilbert Chase, who were very helpful with research.”

Like many other composers who shifted to a more accessible manner of expression, Bell has experienced some backlash from those for whom the term “pretty music” is still a sarcastic pejorative. “As a modernist, [using hymns] didn’t feel right. I asked Persichetti about this, whom I was still in touch with, and he told me that in principle, quotations are not such a good idea, but that he did it himself, which is such a typical thing for him to say. This led me to worlds I hadn’t been to. I’ve become more and more direct since. Modernists have a problem with surface beauty. Many people thought Strauss was a traitor when, after creating Salome and Elektra, he wrote Der Rosenkavalier. It is still an issue in academia, although it is not with the audiences, or even with performers. I’ve thought a lot about this over the years. If you want to find your own voice, you have to confront something that is embarrassing.”

Bell elaborates on this fascinating concept, which he holds as a personal truism. “I think one of the most difficult parts of finding your own compositional, or poetic voice is to confront what it actually sounds like. Most people experience a version of this when they hear their own voice on an answering machine for the first time. ‘I don’t sound like that,’ most people would say. A fine line divides that which is personal and that which is embarrassing. Most of my students are afraid of being trite, when in reality they are often avoiding the discomfort of exposing their own fantasy life. As one gets more experienced as an artist, one gets used to being naked in public, but it is always embarrassing, I think.”

It follows that Bell’s music continues to draw from his whole range of influences. In speaking of the pieces on the new CDs, there seems to be few genres he does not react to. The Short Symphony is “more like Persichetti than any other piece. It has his kind of glib quality. The last movement has a kind of rock influence, with its bass ostinato.” His Song and Dance “grew out of my experience playing pop music in a band. like Stravinsky’s Dumbarton Oaks, it has a bare bones jazz influence, but the construction owes more to European traditions. It is light, sort of like Haydn, but serious.” The Sentimental Muse “has the lyricism and straightforward qualities associated with folk music.” And The Book of Moonlight reflects “an interest in a sort of second-side Abbey Road flow [the Beatles album with a side B that has no breaks between the songs]. It has an autobiographical feel to it.”

There are still some pieces that Bell speaks of with some self-consciousness, if not embarrassment. A central work on the solo violin album is an extended riff on a well-known hymn that gives the piece its name, Just as I Am. “I was squeamish about using it. This was the theme of the Billy Graham Crusade.” Bell’s music for solo piano is also filled with many personal artistic signposts, but is generally more inward and less heart on sleeve. “The Preludes and Fugues grew out of my serious interest in playing the piano. In Rome, I started studying piano performance seriously [with Joseph Rollino; Bell also studied with Joseph Bloch at Juilliard], and I wanted to write more idiomatic piano music. These pieces also relate to improvisatory playing. Right now, I am very interested in improvisation. If you have a disciplined sense of harmony and counterpoint, then everything else is basically written by ear. I really believe that many of my best pieces are the result of a casual, tossed-off approach. This works only if you are a workaholic, however. That is, you have to really be looking for something in order to get lucky. One of the most exciting things about being a composer is that you really have no idea what the future will be like or what you re going to do next.”

As Bell explains, the earliest sections of the Preludes and Fugues were sketches for his own use. “Many were designed for other pieces. I didn’t set out to write a Prelude and Fugue set. At one point, I had a kind of grandiose idea to writ 50 preludes and fugues based on 50 hexachords as scales or modes. I use these as Bartók used the church modes that is, to create an equivalence between the vertical and the horizontal dimensions of music; all of the harmony and the melody is therefore derived from the same source. I discovered back in Rome that many American hymn tunes are based on the first six notes of a major scale, with no leading tone.

“Each of these hexachords seems to have a particular effect similar to more traditional key affects, for example, F major is often described s pastoral. In my preludes and fugues, I started by writing a fugue based on each one of the 50 hexachords. This was only an experiment, mind you, but I discovered that some of the hexachords were very difficult to use because they were limited in transposition. The whole-tone scale is a good example. In the end, I only used four or five of the 50 possibilities. This lends a certain unity to the cycle. The first and last prelude and fugue are based on the same hexahcord, for example.

“My original plan was to say Prelude and Fugue on C rather than in C. This is such a subtle and potentially confusing point that I decided to stay with traditional practice.”

The result is a rich work that has drawn the attention of important contemporary musicians, including Jonathan Bass, the pianist on this CD, who has made the work part of his basic performing repertoire. “Pianists who play them, including Jonathan Bass and Sara Davis Buechner, find a narrative in the whole set, a kind of story being told.”

The work requires a very steep learning curve, which puts Bell in good company. “I think that my teacher Roger Sessions’s Third Piano Sonata is one of the most profound pieces I have ever heard, but I know personally every pianist who has ever played it! Elliott Carter is a personal favorite too, but his work is too difficult for even most conservatory performers to attempt.” As a composer in an age in which questions about style have far less import than they did a generation ago, Bell owes a debt to his great teacher, who was revered for not imposing style choices on his students, but instead imparting extraordinary technical skills. “Persichetti had a very open and eclectic approach to style and composition. I remember telling him that I really disliked some of Ives’s music where there was diatonic melody and chromatic harmony and equally detested William Schuman’s music in general, because there was no connection at all between the harmony and the melody. These kinds of things never bothered Persichetti. On the other hand, he told me that stylistically he was not a woman, that he did not have periods! All of his music is basically in the same style. For me, style is an organic consequence of musical integrity and coherence. It is never something generic or a pastiche.

“On the other hand, Persichetti was always suggesting ways in which my music could be more inclusive. In the past few years, I have written some pieces that I hope will become repertoire works. Theses pieces, such as the new Four Lyrics for trumpet and piano, are more traditional in form and improvisational in content. Other works, like Tarab for eight cellos, are more experimental and allow me to push the technical extremes. I like doing both kinds of pieces, but my expectations are more realistic than they used to be.” As is the case for so many creative minds, Bell views his artistic evolution more organically than might be expected in a more objective viewpoint. “My earlier music is not really that different from what I am doing now, in my opinion. I have found new and more efficient ways to approach technical problems, but I am still preoccupied with line and rhythm. The sense of tonality that one hears in the new CDs is driven by old-fashioned polyphony and the techniques of modernism. The Idumea Symphony, for instance, has four themes and each theme is made of three intervals. In the first movement the strings play minor seconds, perfect fifths, and minor sixths; the brass play major seconds, minor thirds, and diminished fifths; the winds play major thirds, perfect fourths, and major sevenths, the harmonic inversion of the strings, and so forth. This type of technical approach to melody is unthinkable without knowing the music of post-Webern serialism. Ironically perhaps, this is also why I don’t really think of myself as a tonal composer.”

Ultimately, in the celebrated manner of Persichetti, Bell is not especially interested in style wars. He tries to convey this in his teaching, as well, at the Boston Conservatory and New England Conservatory. “I do tell my students one thing, though. I have a very strong preference for pieces that have a beginning, a middle, and an end.”