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15 Questions to Noah Creshevsky

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Hi! How are you? Where are you?
Hi! I am well. I am at home, in New York City.

What’s on your schedule right now?
I am working on three pieces:
A) an electroacoustic work based on samples recorded for me by violist Martha Mooke. In 2007, I collaborated with violinist Mari Kimura to produce an electroacoustic work that is the first of a series of projected pieces in a “Redux” series. The completed piece is called “Mari Kimura Redux.” The Mooke piece will be called “Martha Mooke Redux.” All the pieces in the “Redux” series will be electroacoustic works based on samples provided to me by various performers. The goal is to showcase the gifts of these remarkable performers in studio rather than in live concert settings. These compositions are examples of a type of hyperrealist music I compose with the aim of creating superperformers—hypothetical virtuosos whose playing is not limited by human anatomy or live performance venues.

B) The second project is an electroacoustic work based on tracks provided by punk guitarist Andrew Nolan, and his band, The Endless Blockade.

C) The third project is a synchronism for soprano Beth Griffith and playback. It is a setting of a Latin translation of the opening seven days of creation, as described in the Book of Genesis.

Would you say the music scene is in a state of crisis? How hard (or easy) has it been for you finding performance opportunities and audiences for your music?
Like anyone who lacks adequate food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, meaningful employment, and the like, many musicians are in a state of financial and psychological crisis, but the state of music itself is strong.

Never before has so much music been available to and heard by so many people. A growing disinclination to attend live concerts, and even a reduction in the number of people who set aside dedicated time to listen to recorded music at home, are not indications that music has lost any of its fundamental power. We are not experiencing a decline in musical anything; we are experiencing significant changes in musical everything.

Music as a stand-alone activity is not a fact of life. Presenting music in concert settings has a relatively short history compared to the history of music itself. The fact that many people experience music while also seeing a film, playing a video game, or riding in an elevator does not diminish the power of music itself; it just modifies a number of time-specific social customs (e.g., passive concert attendance) and the various media and venues for transmitting sound.

What do you usually start with when composing?

One frequent method I employ is to assemble a palette comprised of all of the sounds that will be used in a given piece. If I am composing a piece based on specific samples (such as the voice of Tom Buckner or Beth Griffith, the string samples of Mari Kimura or Martha Mooke), the nature of my sound palette is dictated by the nature of the samples at hand.

When I have no specific direction in mind, I love to sample sounds from every available source that pleases me. Random sound-sampling is similar to taking photographs of whatever comes along. In cases where I have no preconception about what kind of piece I will make, the ongoing act of sample-acquisition eventually suggests a direction.

Once sounds have been acquired and edited, I determine a range over which each sound can be transposed (according to my taste). When a palette is complete, I begin to compose. My most frequent formal technique is to create a collection of short sections based on a new palette that has been devised for one and only one piece. An ordering and joining of short sections produce a final composition.

How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?

I am a proponent of a concept that I call “open palette,” which is the practice of creating different sound-palettes for every composition. The practice of building fresh and perpetually transforming sound-palettes is in opposition to the practice of composing music for a limited and privileged class of solo instruments and various standard ensembles, such as string quartets, woodwind quintets, and symphony orchestras.

Many societies operate on the assumption that all men and women are created equal, with certain unalienable rights. A painting has come to be recognized as whatever exists inside a frame (and to sometimes dispense with the frame itself). Contemporary painting is routinely given leeway to include media other than paint; viewers of visual art barely blink at the integration of paint, paper, plastic, glass, or bits of metal. But music is customarily held to a more narrow definition of right and wrong. A sound is either in or it’s out, and a lot more sounds are out than are in—on what grounds I, for one, cannot say.

One of my pieces has sometimes been received with an objection that I had not anticipated. “Psalmus XXIII” (recorded by Zach Kurth-Nelson, Tzadik 8036) is a Latin setting in the form of a synchronism for live and prerecorded voice. The prerecorded samples were recorded for me by soprano Beth Griffith. Her sounds consist of “oohs” “ahs” and other nonspecific utterances that some listeners have interpreted as being of a sexual nature. The live vocal line consists only of traditional singing--rather chant-like—which is fully unobjectionable as to erotic content (there is none). Reservations about “Psalmus” stem from the nature of the prerecorded samples, which a number of people perceive as suggesting a woman engaged in carnal activity.

The visual artist Chris Ofili was at the center of a dramatic scandal at the Brooklyn Museum’s 1999 exhibition called “Sensation.” His provocation was the inclusion of sanitized elephant dung in the beautiful painting “The Holy Virgin Mary.” Then Mayor Rudolph Giuliani reared one of his many heads in an un-American, unconstitutional, and ultimately unsuccessful attempt to suppress the exhibit. As anyone (including Giuliani) must have known, the publicity generated by the mayor’s gaudy opposition was priceless. Attendance soared!

In contrast to other media, music is a latecomer to the notion of inclusiveness. There’s to be no elephant dung in our concert halls (“Music can be made anywhere, is invisible, and does not smell” in Auden’s delightful words) even though someone clever might find a way to tease a sound from the aforementioned organic by-product.

In the cases of my psalm and Ofili’s painting, criticisms are have been leveled on the grounds that a number of materials and topics are inappropriate for museum or concert settings. Based only on historical precedents, concert halls have been curiously insulated from anything beyond a PG rating. Broadway musicals receive partial dispensations from the rating scheme based on liberal traditions associated with theater rather than with music. Still and all, nudity on stage, whether in Hair, The Full Monty, or even in such “serious” plays such as Equus, becomes the stuff of feature articles in newspapers and magazines. What comes and goes without much fuss in cinema receives special attention in theater, and is nearly always excluded from concert halls. Omission based on profane literary or suspicious audio content is a minor issue compared to the day-to-day systemic exclusion of anything but twelve pitches, but it is worth noting that music is by far the most prudish of the arts.

Simply stated, much of our musical establishment only acknowledges the legitimacy of music that consists of twelve notes played on a few Western classical instruments. The idea of “open palette” joins John Cage and countless other progressive composers in proposing that everything that can make a sound ought to be given a chance to be heard and to be included in a composition. Any single composer is limited by his or her taste and background, but music is one of five senses, and each sense is far greater than any individual. In all probability, no single composer or listener can relate equally to all sounds. Still and all, composers and listeners ought to do their best to exclude less, include more, and open more doors than are shut.

There is nothing historically or perceptually “odd” about accordions, harmonicas, analog and digital processors, birds, water, or anything else that makes a sound. What is genuinely odd is the fact that so many composers continue to write music for pianos or bassoons. String quartets ought to be contemporary rarities, not norms.

In short, I am committed to the general idea that more is more and less is less. Since most of the music that is heard by most of the people in most of the world most of the time is only marginally connected to live performance (including recordings of pianos, violins, and orchestras), there is every good reason to celebrate large and novel sound palettes, and nearly no reason at all to maintain connections to worn-out timbres, concert halls, and the limitations of live performances.

How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?

As a young child, I began making music by sitting at a piano and picking out the tunes of the day. Since my nature is that of a composer rather than a performer, I never liked spending much time practicing someone else’s composition. Instead of working on the music that had been assigned by my teachers at Eastman, I spent many hours improvising at the piano. I earned a living as a teenager by working in various bars and restaurants as a cocktail pianist. When I moved to New York City in 1966, I formed and directed the New York Improvisation Ensemble; we gave concerts of improvised music and dance at Juilliard, NYU, Barnard College, and numerous other venues over a period of several years. In short, I spent countless hours improvising at the piano over a period of many years.

Some of my improvisations were for pleasure, some for money, and some were to help me find musical material for my compositions. Eventually I realized that the sounds that interested me as compositional building blocks were not to be found at a piano, and that improvisation and composition were separate and largely (but not invariably) unrelated activities. This insight was liberating in many ways. For example, I subsequently spent a year or two happily improvising in the style of Bach and Brahms. That kind of guiltless musical time-travel would not have been a likely activity during a period in which I was looking for compositional materials through piano improvisations. When I play the piano now, I improvise without regard to period or style.

In any case, since nearly all of my music is electroacoustic, whatever goal-oriented improvisation I do is done at a computer. I have some fairly well-established technical methods (as do improvisers), plus a sense of playfulness--but the interaction of technique, experience, and ear has taken the place of improvisation as a primary compositional tool.

Harmony? Dissonance? The freedom to choose both, none or just one?
Anything and everything. In a digital world where every sound can be recorded and distributed, there are good reasons to become more inclusive, and very little reason to become more “discriminating.” Acts of discrimination have their place, but are too often not kept in their place. The word itself—discrimination—can be heard as a rational goal of beneficial refinement or as a hurtful and dangerous social and cultural menace. We ought to discriminate against environmental contaminants and religious fanatics, but there is probably nothing to gain by limiting our taste in art. Education is often directed at teaching an elite core of students to appreciate only the finest of everything. A more liberating educational goal should be directed at exposing more students to the possibility of more of everything with the aim of increasing the ability to appreciate—to enjoy—more of the abundant riches of world cultures.

Russian composer Alexander Danilevski said: “The musical innovations of the 21st century will not be intonational ones; they will be based on developing a new musical form and dramaturgy.” What are your thoughts on this?

The most important musical innovation of the 21st century will surely be the fact that technology combined with a comprehensive digital library will allow us to access and disseminate every manner of sound and music that exists or has ever exited. The revolution that counts is in technology and dissemination, not in style or form. I would expect very significant developments in timbre, since the widespread renunciation of live performances (as a primary musical venue) opens a pathway to harness the world of sound into perpetually evolving, ever-fresh musical palettes.

Form has already undergone important changes, and those forms are likely to replace older ones. Clips of varying lengths are currently all over the Internet, from giants like YouTube to websites too tiny and bountiful to count. These diverse bits of online entertainment demolish durational concepts that were previously connected to once-relevant economic, social, and technological conditions. Meaningful entertainment can come in all sizes. Pieces of music can be long, but they can also be very short. We need not pause for a message from a sponsor; sponsors will wait for us or they will pop-up, wanted or unwanted. Recorded sound does not tire; it does not need to take a breath between phrases and is impervious to both coughing and applause. Familiar rituals such as the sequential ordering of fast-slow-fast movements can be replaced by any and every manner of formal alternative. All this and more is the current state of music, and that state is strong.

How would you define the term “interpretation”? How important is it for you to work closely together with the artists performing your work?

I rarely compose for live performers. When I have done so, I am grateful when I experience good performances of my music. I compose my music has been composed while sitting in a room, alone. Electroacoustic music is closer to a noun than to a verb. Electroacoustic music is something that “is” rather than something “to do.” Like film, there is nothing to interpret.

Do you feel an artist has a certain duty towards anyone but himself? Or to put it differently: Should art have a political/social or any other aspect apart from a personal sensation?
To be political is to engage in political activities. Writing a piece about Hiroshima or the destruction of the World Trade Center is in not a political act. Teaching—which I did for more than thirty years—is a social act with marginal political overtones. I retired from teaching in 1999. In short, I am not a political person.

Music is many things to many people. Composers who write pieces that require performers, conductors, stagehands, ushers, etc. are somewhat political in the sense that they create situations in which money changes hands. The acquisition and transferal of money is a political event. It’s wonderful to create meaningful employment for anyone who needs a job. Unfortunately my music does not create employment for anyone other than for a few engineers, a graphic designer, and a distributor.

In short, I would love to help out, but I don’t see how I can do anything more than what I do, and I don’t think that what I do is political or social. It’s musical. Composing, painting, and even writing are primarily creative acts. Any connection to politics is infrequent and largely coincidental.

I am not at all put off by the idea of art for art’s sake. On the contrary, I tend to like the concept and think it’s a lot better than it may seem at first glance. Despite a great deal of historical evidence to the contrary, I am not persuaded that music and the marketplace make good partners. In any case, there is currently no significant market for the kind of music I (and many other people) write. To be irrelevant is to be free. This may be a golden age of music, offering the possibility that some devoted soul, devoid of the need for psychological and financial validation, can beat a clear path to a free and glorious musical utopia.

Would you say that a lack of education is standing in the way of audiences in their appreciation of contemporary composition?
I would not say so. The idea that we must teach music in our schools used to be relevant but it is now promoted habitually. It’s time to toss the habit, along with other bad habits like writing sonatas and string quartets. When a child studies an instrument, he or she forms a connection to that instrument and perhaps to other instruments and to music in general. Currently many children play an instrument—remarkably well in many cases: that instrument is a computer. When computers and related hardware and software devices are accepted as new instruments instead of as gizmos, a new breed of creative artist will come of age, openly and with very great skill. It seems probable that the next Mozart will not play the piano, but will be a terrific player of computer games. Children are educating themselves in the instruments they like. A senior generation needs to educate itself by understanding that digital technologies are creative instruments of quality.

How, do you feel, could contemporary compositions reach the attention of a wider audience without sacrificing their soul?

“Contemporary” compositions mean so many different kinds of music, forms, and mediums of transmission. As a classically trained musician, I value traditional music of many kinds. Surely a few soloists and ensembles will continue to perform live concerts. I certainly hope so. In any case, we already have superb recordings of nearly everything that has been composed over the past eight or nine hundred years. A new crop of classical soloists will be a smaller crop than what has been grown before.

Is it unreasonable to think that a child who was formerly mesmerized by a piano might today shift his or her attention to a digital sound system? Contemporary composers who compose (largely underperformed) string quartets and woodwind quintets might find it no less engaging to compose scores that accompany visual media.

There is nothing wrong with a great deal of the music that is being composed. What has changed is music’s place in a society that is too active to experience music passively. Most of us are unwilling or even unable to enjoy music as an independent medium. We live in an information-rich time. That’s a good thing. Music and the soul have much in common, including their immortality. Composers need not sacrifice their souls to reach the attention of wider audiences; they need to refocus their musical efforts in ways that are meaningful to contemporary society. New media is not in league with the devil. That relationship seems to me to more closely describe arts’ administrators who ask us to sit in darkened theatres, listening to music we have already heard, played on instruments whose timbres have lost their freshness.

True or false: The cultural subsidies doled out by governments are being sent to the wrong kind of people and institutions.

“Let a hundred flowers bloom” (Mao Zedong).

You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?
I would cancel the festival for many reasons, including the fact that much music (old and new) is too complex, rich, and wonderful to come and go as quickly as it does at a festival. Instead, I would record the music (with visuals if relevant) so that anything we care to know can be replayed in the comfort of our own homes. The best seat in the house is at home.

Many artists dream of a “magnum opus.” Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?
Accomplished artists produce works of quality, and most of them produce many works in the course of a lifetime. My aim has been to produce many works of quality. By definition, each work cannot be my favorite. In general, I am opposed to the concept of “favorites” since it pits a number of worthy “rivals” against each other in a pointless battle for first place. I become suspicious when someone identifies a favorite cheese or a favorite Chopin etude, and I would not single out one of my pieces as my favorite.

There is so much wonderful not-quite-first-rate music to be enjoyed. Anyone can make a list of lovable imperfect pieces. I have been encouraged all my life by bad measures written by great composers. Bad pieces by bad composers are less fun—and less uplifting—than bad moments in great pieces by great composers. Great measures by mediocre composers are also potentially useful to anyone who labors day after day to create something worthwhile.

I would be happy to create a masterpiece and yet happier to create many masterpieces, but if I cannot do that often (or ever), I will continue to do the best I can to make the most of the talent and energy that I have.


Circuit/In Other Words (Opus One)
Broadcast/Great Performances (Opus One)
Chaconne/Portrait of Rudy Perez/Highway (Opus One)
Sonata (Opus One)
Celebration (Opus One)
Drummer/Strategic Defense Initiative (Opus One)
Man & Superman (Centaur Records)
Auxesis (Centaur Records)
Who (Centaur Records)
The Tape Music of Noah Creshevsky, 1971-1992 (EM Records)
Hyperrealism (Mutable Music)
To Know and not to Know (Tzadik)

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