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Interview with Barry Schrader

img  Tobias

Hi! How are you? Where are you?
I'm quite well, thank you. At the moment I'm my home studio in Palmdale, California.

What’s on your schedule at the moment?
I'm finishing up the mastering for my forthcoming Innova CD "Monkey King". And, of course, as school is in session, I'm busy with things for my classes at CalArts.

“Monkey King” and “Wu Xing – Cycle of Destruction” are both recent works and they both deal with China. A coincidence? Or is there a special interest you’ve taken in the country, its culture and spirituality of late?
“Wu Xing”, on the one hand, is an effort at musically capturing the traditional Chinese elements. On the other, they are part of a superordinate concept, which assigns each element a function (or “stage”) within a particular framework. Was it part of the compositional process to make both of these aspects audible? Or to put it differently: Would the “Cycle of Birth” have sounded vastly different from the “Cycle of Destruction”?

I've always been interested in ancient cultures and their mythologies. One of the first books I read as a young child was Hawthorne's "Tanglewood Tales", a retelling of some of the Greek myths for children. I went on to read many histories of ancient cultures, books on their mythologies, as well as many volumes dealing with archeology. I didn't read a translation of "Journey to the West" until I was in graduate school in the late 1960s, but it made quite an impression on me. My first visit to China was in 1988 as a guest of the Ministry of Culture when I gave lectures and concerts at the conservatories in Beijing and Shanghai. I was quite taken with the Forbidden City and other historical sites I saw. I had composed a live interactive computer work for that trip, "Twilight", based on a poem of the same name by the 19th century Chinese poet Chen Yun, and I used a traditional Chinese melody type as the basis for that piece. So I guess by that point Chinese culture had entered my mind in a fashion similar to that of other ancient cultures, and this fascination continues to grow as I learn and read more. In subsequent visits to China I've seen more historical sites and there are many more I'd like to see, perhaps, someday, even Huaguoshan Scenic Spot in Jiangsu Province which is the site of Monkey's birthplace, the Mountain of Flowers and Fruit.

So the decision to use scenes from "Journey to the West" as the basis for a programmatic composition came from my fascination with the book as well as the culture. I had begun to work on "Monkey King" in 2005 when I was approached by the remarkable jazz trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, who also teaches at CalArts, to do an "overlay" piece with him for one of his Creative Music Festival concerts at REDCAT in November of 2005. I was quite nervous about this, as Leo is an incredible improviser and I am mostly concerned with fixed works. But his overlay concept allowed us to each create a piece simultaneously and then Leo would perform his over mine, allowing the fixed structure to influence his performance. Leo's side of this unusual duet was "Pacific Light and Water", and we had an early discussion about what we would do in which Leo gave me a drawing he made depicting the various frequencies of light that would filter through the Pacific ocean at various depths. My mind was filled with things Chinese at that moment from all of the research and work I had been doing on "Monkey King", which I had already started composing, and so the water idea led to using the Chinese concept of "wu xing", of which water is one of the five elements (metal, wood, earth, water, fire). These are usually ordered in one of two ways: the cycle of birth, which ends with water, and the cycle of destruction, which ends with fire.

My decision to use the ordering of the cycle of destruction was based on my thinking that it would be more dramatic to end with fire. Had I used the cycle of birth as the ordering, I think it would have been a very different piece, and I would certainly have composed the water and fire sections differently. I also liked the architecture of the cycle of destruction in terms of what I imagined the various levels of energy of the sections of the piece to be, which, I think, I realized fairly well. The "Metal" and "Wood" sections both build up energy fairly quickly, while the "Earth" and "Water" sections are at relatively low levels of energy, both ending with considerable dissipation. The "Fire" section continually builds up energy and the piece finishes on a high point.

If I’m not mistaken, the Chinese elements of “Wu Xing” are also used to describe personalities. Did you find yourself enjoying one of these elements more while composing - i.e. did you discover your own element while scoring?
Of the five sections, if I had to pick a personal favorite, I think it would be "Water". Interestingly, my zodiac sign is Cancer in tropical astrology., and that is a water sign. But I don't put much stock in astrology and in the sidereal version I would be a Gemini, and in Chinese astrology, I was born in a rooster year. If you put all of this together, I have no idea what it might mean. I think the reason that I may like the "Water" section of "Wu Xing - Cycle of Destruction" the best is because of its musical and technical nature. It's the longest section of the piece and, at once, it's the simplest and most complex. It's based on a single loop of data which is continuously changed and transformed. In order to imitate the qualities of underwater sound recording, I listened to and analyzed several pieces, including those of Michel Redolfi who has done a lot of work with underwater performance and recording. The "Water" section also is the most outrageous section of "Wu Xing - Cycle of Destruction" in that, at the very end, I create abstractions of seashore sounds, still using the same data loop. At the time, I thought this was a crazy idea, but I'm now very glad that I did this as it takes the piece to another level and also provides, simultaneously, a segue and sharp contrast to the "Fire" section. I think you have to hear the work to understand what I'm saying. Even after having heard "Water" hundreds of times in putting it together and doing the CD master, I'm still fascinated by the idea of how it relates great variety from a simple, single source. Of course, this comes from my love of developmental thinking which, one way or another, exists in almost all of my work.

Were you, at any point of the composing process, tempted to use field recordings and samples of the elements you were describing in “Wu Xing” instead of focussing on synthesizers?
No. I've used concrete elements in pieces before, but very few. I've done only one "true" computer concrete piece, "Beyond". This area doesn't interest me very much, perhaps because the majority of contemporary electro-acoustic music is concrete, and a lot of that in the acousmatic style. Even more important is that I like to create my own timbral materials from electronically generated sources using various synthesis techniques and programs. In this way, I believe, I can have a great deal of control over the sound material, and invent timbres for particular uses in specific pieces. For most of my work, the timbres used in a given piece are designed for that piece and are not used again in later works. I think this also gives my work a unique aspect of personality. There is, I believe, a "Schrader Sound". To say this would probably be quite presumptuous of me were it not for the fact that that several critics and writers have already stated this.

In the liner notes to “Monkey King”, your fascination for its conceptual basis, the book “Journey to the West” clearly shines through. What, in your opinion, makes this 500-year old story so compelling for contemporary readers?
For the Chinese and most of the nearby Asian countries, the Monkey character, or Sun Wukong, is a very real part of contemporary culture. it's difficult for a westerner unfamiliar with Chinese culture to realize how well-known and pervasive Sun Wukong is in modern Asia, even though his character has been around for over 500 years. There are operas, dances, films (both live and animated), statues, parks, children's books, toys, and many other things based on Monkey. Sun Wukong is probably the most famous and beloved fictional character in China. I don't think there's anything in western culture that is comparable. Yet, in the west, unfortunately, the Monkey King is little known.

For me, the fascination with "Journey to the West" lies in its ability to mix history, allegory, fables, religion, and politics into a cohesive and imaginative whole. I don't know any other work of literature that's truly similar. Yes, it's truly fantastic literature, but it achieves what very few works of the fantastic have been able to do in that it creates a coherent whole from disparate parts and presents it in a way that takes itself very seriously so that your suspension of disbelief is never in question. It is a grand tapestry of worlds that did exist and never existed, and it succeeds on a level rarely realized in works of fiction. In other words, it creates its own universe, one which you readily accept, even though it's impossible, and one which you want to return to again and again. In this way, it mirrors part of what I'm after in my own work. I've often quoted the line from the late poet Robert Lowell to characterize my work: "I want to make something imagined, not recalled." Even in non-programmatic works of mine, I try to create special and unique universes in which the logic of everything from the design of the timbres to the organization of the musical materials combines to construct something that would not otherwise exist. I hope that others can share these worlds in listening to my music, and in this way I hope to communicate some of myself to others.

The Monkey King character in "Journey to the West" is, for me, archetypal. I see the book as divided into two large parts. In the first, I think that Sun Wukong represents youth: He is proud, rebellious, ambitious, vainglorious, assertive, assured, and he exhibits a lot of other characteristics that we both treasure and disdain in young people. He is often called "beautiful monkey king" so that physical beauty is also ascribed to him. All of this eventually leads to his retribution at the hands of the Buddha and he is encased in Wu Xing Mountain for 500 years. The second part of the book deals, in part, with Monkey's redemption and his achieving wisdom and, eventually, the state of perfection in which he, himself, becomes a Buddha. In this I see an archetype of what, in both Confucian and Buddhist thinking, would be a wise and intelligent adult: one who accepts the realities of their situation and strives to perfect themself in terms of the accepted ideal, eventually conquering all, even their baser self, and achieving a state of near-impossible perfection.

“Monkey King” is a multilayered work with many different emotional stages. And yet, I felt it was a very fluent effort and full of lightness. Did composing come easy for you on this piece?
"Monkey King" is the most difficult work I've ever composed. I also, at least at this point, along with "Wu Xing", think it represents my best work. I spent two years on this piece, and while I normally work rather slowly, taking anywhere from 10 to 20 hours to produce a minute or so of music, I was always working at the higher end of this scale with "Monkey King". There were points where I wasn't sure that I could realize my vision, and times when I grew very frustrated with trying. I threw away whole sections that I composed because they weren't good enough. In every work I try to do something new, and there are several things that are new for me in both "Monkey King" and "Wu Xing - Cycle of Destruction". Writing "underwater music", creating Monkey's "voice", making the "sound" of Buddha's hand, hearing a mountain descend, and trying to compose music of apotheosis were some of the very difficult tasks I set for myself and they took time to consider and perfect. But these are also the sorts of challenges which fascinate and energize me, and all of my works start out, in part, with some similar sorts of problems to solve.

In general, I believe that, whatever the technical details or difficulties of a work are, they should not be apparent when hearing the piece, nor should they be the focus of the music. They are a means to an end, and part of that end is to create a seamless whole which is the best possible realization of my ideas that I can do at the time.

As for emotions in music, this is an enormous topic. Leonard Meyer long ago defined two areas of musical meaning: the embodied, and the designative. Embodied meaning has to do only with the musical dimensional information itself, and how it is organized to create musical ideas. Designative information refers to things beyond the musical data and deals with emotional and programmatic elements. Since the end of the Second World War, designative meaning has been shunned by many "serious" composers who retreated into cults of impersonality and specious rationality, trying to use the scientific method as a paradigm for art. I have never bought into this, and so I remain somewhat outside of approved academic realms. I think that, while there is always a certain level of subjectivity involved, composers can create designative meaning in a variety of ways, such as dealing with states of energy which I've already mentioned. "Monkey King" is probably the most programmatic work I've ever done, and it does deal, consciously, with a variety of emotions. To go into more detail than this would, I think, border on a lecture, and this would be out of place here.

At various stages of the piece, there are references to traditional Chinese instruments. I thought it remarkable that “Monkey King” never tries to fully emulate their timbre, but the work does make a very accurate stab at their performance technique (especially the harp passages sound amazingly organic). Was this a conscious effort to make the China-connection audible whilst staying true to the dreamlike mood of the story?
I listened to a variety of traditional Chinese music and did a little study on Chinese instruments and music theory before and during composing "Monkey King". But I never wanted to actually imitate any Chinese instrument. Instead, as with other areas of my work, I dealt with abstractions. Something may remind you of this or that, and you might hear sorts of musical inflections at some points which are like something you've heard before, but there's never any direct imitation. Abstraction is a concept that has worked for me in most of my compositions and one that I'm very fond of. It allows me to reference and elicit things without having to directly employ or imitate them. I see this as a way of extending aspects of the musical past. At the same time, much of "Monkey King" is pure fantasy; it involves my idea of how a particular scene or event can be interpreted musically. In this sense, it follows the tradition of what were often called "tone poems" by some 19th, and 20th century composers. In general, I see myself as extending the past and filtering it through my own personality and imagination. I wanted to create a sort of fantastic, cinematic, fairy-tale quality in the music as well, and, from the responses I've gotten so far, I think I may have succeeded.

“Monkey King” is obviously programmatic, but all the same, I find its central themes can be sensed even without exact knowledge of their background. How did you avoid the obvious trapdoor of writing conceptually – namely, becoming so entangled in the story that the listener can no longer identify it?
Many of my works are formalistic (I mean this in a positive sense), heavily concerned with structure. Three good examples would be "Triptych", "Duke's Tune", and "Ravel". But while I'm primarily concerned with form in these works (there are no programmatic references), structure is, again, a means to an end. I don't expect listeners to actually analyze and consciously hear the structures while hearing the music. Form has always been and continues to be important to me and I don't think that will ever change. I see the form or structure of a work as the framework on which the ideas of the piece are constructed. But in both "Wu Xing - Cycle of Destruction" and "Monkey King" I decided to not deal with traditional forms or structures as I have in many of my other works. Rather I decided to let the nature of the material in concert with my imagination dictate the structures to me. But, at the same time, it was impossible for me to abandon the nature of the compositional procedure and thinking that I've developed over many years. "Monkey King", like all of my works, is linear. It contains motives which are developed in a variety of ways. There are linear timbral transformations at various points in the piece. I could go on, but what I'm doing is listing things that are part of my style and my way of thinking, and, no matter what I do, this is always there. While I may spend a lot of time in the area of the minutiae of musical data, I'm always aware of the "big picture" in that everything has to contribute to the success of the overall concept; the whole must be greater than the sum of its parts. This is why I often throw things away after having worked on them for weeks. I need to know when I've succeeded in realizing my ideas, and I also need to know when I fail. Failure is obviously not what I'm after, but I usually learn from failure and so it's not entirely negative. The thing is that I never really know, going into a piece, if I'll be able to successfully create what I'm challenging myself to do. This makes the whole compositional process a sort of exhausting adventure. Part of the challenge of composing "Monkey King" was to try to bring out the programmatic aspects of the work while creating music that stands on its own even if the listener has no idea what the story is. Ultimately, I think that any music stands or falls on the basis of its embodied meaning, so there has to be a perceivable logic (teleology) embedded in the very nature of the music.

“Wu Xing” and “Monkey King” are thematically close and they were written at a similar time. From a musical point of view, though, they seem to have been firmly kept apart. Is that perception correct or are there, in fact, interrelations?
Your perception is correct. In "Wu Xing", I did not try try to create a reference to traditional Chinese music. But in "Monkey King", I did. The organization of the pitch material in "Monkey King" is based on the pentatonic scale. When I decided to do this, I thought this would be very limiting, so I did allow myself transpositions and sorts of "modulations", neither of which would occur in traditional Chinese music. As has been already mentioned, I also abstracted features of Chinese instruments and performance. In "Monkey's Magic Dance", for instance, I referenced a filmed traditional dance from, I think, the northern part of China that I had seen. I was struck by the fact that the music for the dance used only two pitches, even though it went on for some time, obviously making rhythm the most important dimension. So "Monkey King" is intended to sound like it has some relation to traditional Chinese music, whereas "Wu Xing" doesn't have this reference. Nevertheless, they are both "me" and they do share some characteristics. Both have underwater sections, for instance.

“Monkey King”, with its many rhythmic and ostinato passages and its thematic diversity has a very direct impact on the listener. Was this impression confirmed by its premiere at CalArts?
Yes, I think so. I was very pleased with the responses I received from the audience. People who said they didn't normally like electronic music claimed to have really enjoyed it. Several people said that they could "see" or "hear" the stories behind the music. One person even said that this was the first concert of the academic year he hadn't been bored with and he found that amazing as "Monkey King" has no live performance and the audience was sitting in the dark. So I'm hopeful that this sort of positive reception will translate well into the outside world when the CD is released.

To me, “Monkey King” might well be your most accessible work to date. And yet, it is unlikely that it will ever play on all too many radio programs or even be featured on TV. Are you sometimes disappointed by the lack of interest from the side of the media for a music which has a definite potential to reach a wider audience?

You touch upon several things which are questions for most artists: What is success? How is the quality of a work evaluated? What determines the popularity and acceptance of a work? Do people really like what they claim to like because of a considered decision, or are they simply expressing their indoctrination?

Wu Cheng-en, who is generally accepted to be the author of "Journey to the West" is an interesting case. Although little is known of his life in the Ming Dynasty , he was not highly regarded during his lifetime, continually failed the civil service exams which allowed people to rise professionally, was falsely accused of a crime and jailed at 63, and probably ended his life in obscurity and poverty. "Journey to the West" was not published until around ten years after his death, and it was published anonymously. Now, of course, it is considered one of the three or four greatest works of Chinese literature.

Long ago, I made a decision to compose what I wanted, not what the academic world, critics, or even a particular audience might want. This is the only way that I know to stay honest with myself and my listeners. If you do this, however, there are always some negatives. Some people will dislike what you do even without hearing your music because you're not operating under the rubric of their beliefs. I think that artists who choose to do exactly what they want usually pay a price, but, sometimes, people are eventually convinced to seriously consider these artists' works outside of academic, commercial, cultural, or indoctrinatory prejudice. In the modern world, "serious" contemporary music (whatever that might mean) or contemporary noncommercial music is often not highly regarded for a variety of reasons, most of them being economic or cultural (again, there is the importance of indoctrination). What interests me may not interest very many other people, and I really never know who my audience is unless they let me know. In the past few years I've received positive messages from several people who range widely in terms of age and aesthetics. So I know that I'm reaching people, I just don't know how many. A good example of this is a letter I received from a young Parisian lady of sixteen shortly before my 60th birthday retrospective at REDCAT. “I am discovering your work,” she wrote,”and I am writing to you to express my admiration and my enthusiasm for your musical way and for your compositions. Your works - I find them wonderful.” I may never be famous in the conventional sense, or make much money from the music I compose, but when I get a communication such as this one, it validates my efforts and allows me to think that I am successful. In this life, in this world, I'm not sure what more I could expect.

By Tobias Fischer

Picture by Betty Freeman 

EAM (Innova)
Lost Atlantis (Innova)
Beyond (Innova)
Fallen Sparrow (Innova)
Monkey King(Innova) scheduled for mid-2008

Barry Schrader

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