RSS feed RSS Twitter Twitter Facebook Facebook 15 Questions 15 Questions

15 Questions to Barry Schrader

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
I’m fine, thank you, and am in my studio in my home in Palmdale, California.

What’s on your schedule right now?
In terms of composing, I’m working on “Monkey”, a long-term project based on the Chinese classic “Journey to the West”. I’ve been working on this for over a year and have completed two movements. I expect this project to take about two more years to complete. I’m also currently involved in organizing the SCREAM 2006 concert. SCREAM (The Southern California Resource for Electro-Acoustic Music) is something I began in 1986, and this is the 20th anniversary. This year we’re bringing back all of the original members of the group for a SCREAM Reunion concert next month (November, 2006). I’m also on the composition faculty of the CalArts School of Music, and this takes up a great deal of my time during the academic year. All of this, along with other professional and personal activities, keeps me quite busy.

What’s your view on the music scene at present? Is there a crisis?

Contemporary perspective is always difficult. When we look back on a certain period of music history, things seem rather simple to understand since the music has been filtered over a long time by many scholars and musicians. Styles have been defined and codified, and most of the compositional output of those periods have been deleted from serious consideration. Most people only know the works of few “great” composers of past eras. In contrast, we can easily see the work of hundreds of living composers, and this makes things seem more confusing when compared to a defined historical period. But if you had been alive in any given past period, you would probably have been faced with a situation similar to today in terms of the great number of composers and works that existed. Perhaps today’s output is greater than at any time in the past because of increased population. There is certainly greater access to what exists now because of recordings and the internet. But I suspect that, could we come back in a hundred years or so, we would find the music of the 20th century far more filtered and codified than it is today, and most of it may have largely disappeared. I say “may”, because until the 20th century, most music was not well-preserved or saved at all, whereas now a very large percentage of all kinds of music is recorded in one way or another. This may have an effect on what the future thinks of this period. Nevertheless, what I see and hear happening now is not essentially different from the past: Most music is created in imitation of something known or approved; very little is truly original. And when you take away works that are original only in the sense of being novel, there is even a smaller field to consider. But decisions on what is important are made by people and, in the short term, these are usually people with agendas.

As for whether or not the music scene is in a crisis, this depends on what you consider the definition of “crisis” to be. One thing that I think is certain is that the high art traditions of the past are dead or dying. Most of what are historically considered to be “great works” of the past, in any medium, are the result of high art traditions. These were elitist traditions, supported by the wealthy, powerful, and educated patrons of the time. All high art traditions have in common the requirement of a delay in gratification. It’s necessary to learn and understand the conventions of these traditions in order to appreciate them. As a result, there were, historically, the province of a select few. In the past, most everyone in a given society looked up to high art culture as something to respect, even though they may not have actually participated in it. With the rise of extreme consumerism in the 20 thcentury, economic and social forces increasingly catered not to the traditional elite, but rather to a constantly-lowering common denominator as a way of making money, the main goal of a consumerist culture. I call this the “attack from the outside” whendealing with the decline of high art culture in the 20th century and beyond. But there’s also an “attack from the inside” when it comes to art. In music I think this began, in a formal way, with Werner Meyer-Eppler’s attempt in the early 1950s to use information theory to prove that the audience was no longer relevant to “new” music, and that only the composers' opinions mattered. Thus began the breakdown of the idea that music (or any area of art, for that matter) should communicate something from the composer to a more general audience (one not made up solely of other composers). Because of these attacks from outside and inside, “serious” or high art music has become increasingly irrelevant to the larger culture. Today, perhaps, we have for the first time in history a situation where the most important cultural aspects of society come from the most common (commercially viable) cultural sources. Is this a crisis?

What does the term “new“ mean to you in connection with music?
It could just mean that it was composed recently, having no relevance to any details of the music itself. In terms of what is often taught in college classes as "new" music, this doesn't seem to have changed a great deal since I was a graduate student 37 years ago. To some extent people end up teaching what they were taught. Often "new" ideas are simply old ones dressed up in new clothes. A few years ago, I sent a copy of my "Five Arabesques" for clarinet and electronics to a clarinettist who requested composers send them works to consider for performance. He replied that he was looking for works in "the new style" of music, not the style of what I had composed. When I checked out what sort of works he was playing, it turned out that they were works composed in the styles generated by European serialism in the 1950s, ones that exhibited what are called "pointillistic" features. To me, this was a very old (and very tired) style of music, but to this performer, this was "the new style" of music which had obviously achieved some approved status with him. So I'm not always sure what anyone means by "new" unless they define it. Personally, I don't think "new" is that important a qualification for music. It doesn't guarantee anything.

How do you see the relationship between sound and composition?
On the surface, they would seem to be inseparable, unless you're dealing with conceptual music. But there is a lot of music composed in the second half of the 20th century and beyond that doesn't seem to care what it sounds like. I define two basic kinds of compositional procedures: "relational" and "translational".  Relational compositional procedures are those in which the composer is combining the dimensional materials of music (pitch, duration, etc.) in order to relate (communicate) ideas in the medium of music.  These ideas may be, as Leonard Meyer notes, "embodied" (ideas dealing only with musical information, as in a Bach fugue) and/or they may be "designative" (ideas dealing with programmatic information such as in a Strauss tone poem). While both kinds of information are important, I believe that the embodied information is primary, as it's in this area that the composer creates and conveys the musical idea or teleology of the piece. Relational procedures are ones that apply to how music creation and perception has evolved over thousands of years. They are plastic and can be expanded to create different ways of expressing meaning. They do this by dealing with the functional relationships among elements of musical dimensions. Translational works, on the other hand, have little or nothing to do with the evolution of music process, but rather take data from nonmusical mediums and translate it into musical information. Historical examples of translational procedures are serial composition and chance composition. Today's algorithmic compositional procedures follow in this tradition and are, in my opinion, largely translational. In works that are essentially translational, there can be no teleology in terms of what is perceived as sounding music. Discussions of these works always deal primarily with the system or procedure that was used in the translational process, not what one hears in real time. Cage's chance pieces, for example, have no consideration for the sounding result of the procedure used. In fact, Cage was very straightforward about this when he said that he created chance procedures to insure that the composer could have no personal choice in the decision making process. Whatever results as the "music" of these works is acceptable, as long as it's the product of the translational procedure, not of personal choice. The same is true for serial procedures, which are just the opposite side of the same coin. So all that can be aurally communicated in a work created by translational procedures is the particular results of the particular application of the procedure(s). It's like cooking with any or all ingredients at hand but with no regard for what the finished dish will taste like.  In works that are essentially translational, then, I don't see that there's necessarily much relationship between sound and composition except, perhaps, in a theoretical way. In my own work, however, the sounding result of the composition is primary as I believe that music only exists in being heard or in a memory of that hearing, existing as what I call a "linear-kinetic process". I will occasionally employ translational procedures, but only in secondary ways. One of the basic reasons that I like composing with electronically-generated material is that it gives me great possibilities in exploring and creating new sounds (timbres) and manipulating them in time. Most of the timbres that I use are created for a specific piece, and I spend a lot of my compositional time exploring sound.

How strictly do you separate improvising and composing?
I think this is a very personal thing. For me, there is a very great separation. But I have colleagues for whom there is no separation, and they produce some remarkable results. As with the word "new", I'm never certain what people mean by "improvisation". I've heard jazz groups do the same set at different times and it seems to me they've created an "improvisation" which they've memorized and repeated with little change. Yet other jazz musicians seem to always create a different improvisation with each performance. You can't improvise from nothing, so a musician is always dealing with something known and experienced in terms of improvising. I have done a little improvisation, both with electronics and with keyboards, but I don't consider myself an improviser. For me composition is about problem solving: I create a problem and go about discovering the best way to solve it. I want as much control as possible and I want the final product to be as perfect as possible. I see my own compositional process like taking carbon and compressing it until it turns into a diamond which is then cut and polished into a final product as close to what I want as is possible for me to achieve.  This has little or nothing to do with improvisation in my mind.  Composing for me is slow and time-consuming, but, I hope, the final product justifies the effort. Improvisation is of the moment, fleeting, and, unless rehearsed, unpredictable. I'm interested in creating fixed musical works with specific ideas and meanings that don't change.

How would you define the term “interpretation”?
There are two kinds, I think, in music:

Performers interpret the imperfect information that composers give them in notation to create a sounding realization of the work as they understand it. This is, then, in a very real sense, a collaboration between the composer and the performer. Performers with strong personalities (as well as abilities) are always preferred over those who seem to be giving a rote performance because they are able to communicate something of themselves to the audience.

Listeners interpret what they hear in the music according to their knowledge and experience. I'm fairly certain that no one else will ever hear what I've composed exactly as I do. The listener's interpretation of the music they hear is, for them, just as important as the composer's intentions in creating the work. For this reason, the same piece can be heard by some as brilliant music and by others as cultural noise.

Harmony? Dissonance? The freedom to choose both, none or just one?
I don't think there is anything close to a dominant style for current music. Anyone can use any sound material (or lack of it) that they wish. The same is true of styles and compositional procedures. So there is an enormous amount of freedom. But freedom carries a heavy price. A work about everything is a work about nothing. Limitations are always necessary to produce coherence, if this is of importance to the composer. Since there is no ultimate context, everything is ultimately relative. But within a defined context, very little is relative. Within my own composition, the context is always defined, sometimes rather narrowly. So while I feel free to use anything, in a given work I always greatly limit the material. I seldom use concrete (acoustic) material in my works, choosing rather to build sound materials from electronically generated data. In any given work of mine, the musical dimensional information is usually quite small. I like to use a limited amount of material to generate large sections or whole works. I see this as an extension of developmental thinking. In "Duke's Tune", for example, I use a short melody composed by Duke the potbellied pig to create all of the pitch and rhythmic material in the piece. (You can see and hear Duke play his composition on my website.) In "Ravel" for piano and electronics, I use only two or three measures of material from Ravel's compositions as the basic material for each of the three sections of the piece.  I've been composing this way for a long time, and you can clearly hear this in my older works such as "Trinity" from 1976. So freedom in regards to musical materials to me means both the freedom to initially choose whatever I want to work with, and also the freedom to limit myself as much as I wish.

A lot of people feel that some of the radical experiments of modern compositions can no longer be qualified as “music”. Would you draw a border – and if so, where?
I create borders for myself, not for others. There were "radical experiments" in the 1950s and 1960s, but I think it would be rather difficult to create one today. A lot of these "experiments" were primarily based on novelty. This approach burns itself out rather quickly, as something can be new or novel only once. Many of the movements developed during this period were negative ones; they were movements against stylistic aspects of the past. As such, they had little to offer in a positive way.  I see what I'm doing compositionally as a functional extension of the recent and not-so-recent past. I'm merely continuing a line that was set in motion long ago. I'm not interested in novelty for novelty's sake. I try not to place my perspective on the work of anyone else, although it's impossible for me not to see things through the same lens that I use for my own work. But this is as it should be. Everyone should decide for themselves what is it that they believe. Unfortunately, I think that most people hold beliefs that come primarily from two sources: indoctrination and fear. This makes the world a difficult and sometimes scary place to live in. People say that they like differences and individuality, but, in my experience, most people want invariance and conformity.

Are “serious” and “popular” really two different types of music or just empty words without a meaning?
I don't think that "serious" and "popular" are sufficient to categorize all music. (Sometimes I speak of "commercial" and "noncommercial" music, but this isn't a perfect solution either.) I remember back in the late 1960s when the film "Elvira Madigan" was such a huge hit that "pop" radio stations were playing the "Theme from Elvira Madigan" which was actually from Mozart's 21st piano concerto. Did this music then, suddenly, change from "serious" to "popular"? People love to classify things so that they can pigeonhole them and think that they have some control over them.  Naming or classifying things has always had great power. Today  there are so many names for classifications of music that I think everyone is at least a little confused? What is "electronica"? What is "minimalism"? I often have little idea what people mean by these terms, yet they, and many more, are widely used. I have found the terms "classical", "popular", "jazz", "electronica", "new wave", "industrial", "experimental", "contemporary", "computer music", "acousmatic", and more applied to my works. In a way, I'm flattered that it's not that easy to categorize what I do. On the other hand, there clearly is some confusion as to what any given term means.

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?
This is a very difficult question to answer because you have to consider the imposition of social and political factors which change with time. You also have to consider whether or not you're referring to a "work for hire" such as a film score. If you're trapped in a sociopolitical situation from which you can't escape, then you either work within the confines of that situation, take a risk by ignoring it, or you don't create. If you're hired to compose something for a specific purpose, you're doing a job and need to please your employer. But let's suppose that none of these is the case and that the composer (artist) is relatively free (no one is ever completely free) to make this decision for themselves. Then, I think, the answer depends on whether or not the composer wishes to communicate something to someone. If the answer is yes, then the composer assumes a responsibility. If the answer is no, then there is no responsibility. But, I would ask, what is the point of creating something if you don't want to communicate something to someone? The only answer, it seems, is ego, tending towards solipsism. In a world literally without others, everything would be meaningless.

True or false: People need to be educated about music, before they can really appreciate it.

It really depends on the music as well as the person who is trying to appreciate it. The idea that music is a "universal language" is nonsense. "Music" is not a monolithic thing, even though all music (musics) must deal with the same dimensional information because of the limitations of human perception (hearing). Nevertheless, the organization and presentation of sound materials can differ widely from one culture and/or age to another. In some cases, people really do need education in order to understand and appreciate certain music.

True or false: The cultural subsidies doled out by governments are  being sent to the wrong kind of people and institutions.
If you're one of the people or institutions being subsidized, then  the system is great; if not, it stinks.  To the extent that subsidies  create activity, then, at least in some general sense, they are  positive.  But all subsidies, whether from governments or individuals  are political in the sense that they  are made with reference to an  agenda.  More often than not, this agenda is the continuance of the  status quo, assuming that this is producing the desired result on the  part of the donor.  So politics is always involved.  It's always a  positive accomplishment to win an award or get a grant.  Yet, I am interested in going over lists of recipients of well-known awards or grants from the past and noting how few of the names mentioned ever did anything of lasting interest. But I don't think this matters to those who are giving the subsidies. Where composers are themselves involved in the decision-making process they often (not always, but often) choose someone they know and like or someone who composes in a way similar to themselves. I suppose this is just human nature. The one area that I think is unfortunate is that much of the support for the arts has, perhaps out of necessity, developed into a museum mentality. In music, millions are spent on keeping orchestras and opera companies alive, primarily to reproduce, over and over again, the same historical body of works. Perhaps the degree to which a society promotes this stagnation says something about the way it views the importance and uses of art. In some societies, like the U.S., there's a cultural attitude that if what you're doing is any good, people will pay you to do it. So, outside of the museum culture which is safe and glamorous, little in the way of noncommercial art is supported. Unfortunately, this seems to be catching on in other societies as well. In the U.S., colleges and universities have largely taken over the function of subsidizing most areas of noncommercial contemporary art. It's a little like the function of the Church in medieval Europe in terms of supporting new art. This, perhaps, has created another form of stagnation, but that is another topic.

You are given the position of artistic director of a festival. What would be on your program?
I've been in this position, and have presented hundreds of concerts in my life. In the past, particularly with large, multiple-event situations, I've tried to present representative works from as wide a variety of styles and composers as possible. From 1973 to 1979, I was the director of "Currents", the first, I think, non-academic ongoing series of electro-acoustic music concerts in the U.S. This series introduced the public in Los Angeles to many composers for the first time and was quite varied. Since Currents, I've produced many other concerts, two other series, and founded SEAMUS (The Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States). I have continued to promote variety. At this point in my life, however, I find myself  tending to want to present those works that I personally think are excellent.

Many artists dream of a “magnum opus”. Do you have a vision of what yours would sound like?
No. I'm not sure that a composer always knows that a given work is his best or what would fill the requirements of a "magnum opus". Perhaps I've already composed one.  Perhaps I'm working on it now. Perhaps I'll never do it.  I imagine, however, that if one did do  this and knew it, it might well be the end of one's composing career. It's probably better just to keep on composing without thinking about this. If a composer's music survives their death (a big if), eventually someone will declare this or that work the best, a masterwork, or some such accolade. At that point, no harm can be done to the composer in question.

Picture by Frank Royon

EAM (Innova)
Lost Atlantis (Innova)
Beyond (Innova)
Fallen Sparrow (Innova)

Barry Schrader

Related articles

Interview with Barry Schrader
These are exciting times for ...
Richard Lainhart: Pre-Eno Ambient piece rediscovered after 30 years
Pioneering Synthesizer poet Richard Lainhart ...
Barry Schrader: Presents the Monkey King
American electroacoustic composer Barry Schrader ...
15 Questions to Juan Matos Capote
One of the great developments ...
Richard Lainhart: Cheats on his Moog
Ever wondered what all those ...
Interview with Peter Grenader
There are three Peter Grenaders. ...
Interview with Jordan Rudess
I can well remember watching ...
Interview with Richard Lainhart 2
Richard has never really been ...
15 Questions to Andrew Liles
According to an influential internet ...
15 Questions to Antonio della Marina
For seven years, Antonio della ...
CD Feature/ Barry Schrader: "Lost Atlantis"
Slightly opaque visions between major ...
15 Questions to Charlemagne Palestine
While the pioneers of what ...
15 Questions to Jason Kahn
Quite obviously, rules and stereotypes ...
15 Questions to Graham Bowers
He's not a clasically trained ...
Interview with Richard Lainhart
Chance and Irony can be ...
15 Questions to Jerome Froese
Jerome is the son of ...

Partner sites