Interview with Joel Chadabe
Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #035, 20 January 1996. Listen to the interview from the original broadcast [0:15:17–1:42:05].
Composer, author Joel Chadabe is a pioneer in the development of interactive music systems. His music has been performed in New York, Paris, Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Venice, Rome, Amsterdam, Berlin, Linz, Stockholm, San Francisco, London, and other cities worldwide; and recorded on EMF Media, Deep Listening, and other labels. He is the author of Electric Sound, a history of electronic music. His articles have been published in leading journals. As president of Intelligent Music, he oversaw the first publications of interactive music software. He has received grants from NEA, New York State Council on the Arts, Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Fulbright Commission, and other organizations, and he is the recipient of the SEAMUS 2007 Lifetime Achievement Award. Mr. Chadabe is currently Professor Emeritus at State University of New York, faculty at Manhattan School of Music, visiting faculty at NYU; and president of Electronic Music Foundation.
[Kalvos] Joel Chadabe is here with us today, and…
[Joel Chadabe] Oh! Hello! How are you?
[K] Joel, okay, you're going to introduce something we’re going to play, but first of all… who the heck are ya?
[JC] Uh, who am I, well, I sometimes wonder myself [Laughter]… but today, at least, I’m certainly here as a composer of After Some Songs. I grew up with jazz classics, and I just got to love all of those things a lot. Then, I started experimenting with electronics and various other things and got away from them for about 20 years. About 1984–85, you know, I’d been having dreams about them, I’d been singing the songs, I’d been picking them out on the piano again, and I sort of thought that I had to do something, so I went down to New York, 48th Street, and bought a fake book.
[K] Aaah, Fake Book, our favourite thing…
[JC] Well, at that time, that fakebook was called The Real Book. In fact it’s…
[K] Still in print, isn’t it?
[JC] Still is. So, I started playing over the songs again, enjoying it very much, in fact, enjoying it so much that I figured I had to do something with them. So, I started fooling around with them electronically, particularly with some computer software that did, I wouldn’t say variations, exactly, it’s not really a performance of the songs, but I sort of thing of them as an abstraction of the songs.
[K] Is it, say, software that you wrote, or did you use someone else’s?
[JC] Well, it’s software that I played a part in designing. Actually, this is one of the first pieces of software that came out of Intelligent Music, which is a company I set up about 1985–1986.
[Damian] Intelligent Music, that’s almost… never mind.
[K] Like military music, that’s an oxymoron, you mean, Intelligent Music? So, you did that, and what did you learn from the pieces you went back to, and how did you incorporate them?
[JC] Well, I found out that some pieces lived longer than others. Some pieces one finds more interesting on repeated listenings. In any case, they kind of hovered in the background as I used them to create new kinds of textures, and new kinds of melodic ideas. So I thought it might be kind of interesting today, to play some of the original, or some of the real performed versions of the songs, and then to see how the software, and how I, kind of, messed them up to create these new textures.
[K] Great. Well, we’ve got two original songs. Valentine is relatively short, we could play that, play a copy of My Funny Valentine, and then play it again.
[JC] Let’s do that, I think that’d be a great idea.
[K] Ok, great. Alright, we’re going to hear, by Joel Chadabe, Valentine, after My Funny Valentine, a composition for vibraphone, marimba, and electronics with Jan Williams on the percussion.
We pause to listen to Valentine, after My Funny Valentine by Joel Chadabe, from the CD “After Some Songs” [0:19:08–0:22:55].
[K] We got some original materials set up there, and you’re going to, what, lead us into what we’re supposed to figure out from listening to that?
[JC] Well, I just thought I’d make a few remarks about the way the piece was originally done. I’d been working with Jan Williams, who’s the percussionist on that cut, for about 20 years. And, long, long ago, Jan and I started to play around with different kinds of improvisations with percussion and electronics. And, in this particular case, a lot of things came into play by 1985. One thing, I was getting older and weaker, and a little tired of carrying around a big Synclavier.
[K] [Laughing] They were big in those early days…
[JC] Certainly. So we changed around to a Macintosh, and this new software which was written for Macintosh. I had actually kind of hoped that I would only have to carry a disk to these concerts, in that I could find a Macintosh in place, and the synthesizers in place, so that was done with one of the first of the Yamaha synthesizers. The idea was to make a percussion recital for Jan, so that I was not going to be on stage actually performing, but that I would kind of create this sort of variation that would act as a sort of interactive score, that would give Jan some basis from which to improvise.
[K] In other words, you put the thing together, and then… what does it do, is it different each time?
[JC] Well, it tends to be somewhat the same when we play it often, and when we don’t play it for three or four months, it’s different and we have to start all over again, and sort of put it together and work it out.
[K] I guess I meant the electronic part.
[JC] That’s what I mean. In other words, the electronic part is very flexible, and can be done in a lot of different ways, so it’s a question of, we follow each other in performance, but we generally like to know which way it’s going to go before we walk out there on stage. Or before Jan walks out there.
[K] [Laughter] It sounds like the software is mutating on its diskette while you’re away from it. What do you mean, that you have to get used to it?
[JC] Oh, there are a lot of controls, that you can re-structure things, and that you can do all kinds of different things while the program runs. You can change patterns, you can change the order of little fragments coming in, you can change the notes, change the transpositions, you can do all kinds of different things.
[K] When you say it’s based on My Funny Valentine, what is it based on? The chordal structure, the way the melody falls?
[JC] I played My Funny Valentine into the computer, and then to get the basic kinds of patterns, I used the program’s different kinds of variables to play with it. So, changing accent patterns, changing transpositions, changing the order of the notes, that sort of thing. But the sounds that I made were all intended to be like percussion sounds. In other words, I wanted specifically that a public hearing Jan playing this would not be able to know which of the sounds were played by the percussion and which were played by the electronics. Because I wanted to expand the idea, so if Jan is playing the vibraphone, you hear three times as many notes as a vibraphone could play, and sometimes, in fact, Jan used to say, “I play a note and I’m not sure where it’s coming from.”
[K] I guess feedback from the performer can be pretty disturbing sometimes, if you’re expecting to hear your own action, and you’re not quite sure.
[JC] Sure. But, disturbing, I don’t know, I think it’s a lot of fun. I think that he seems to have enjoyed it a lot.
[K] Well, let’s listen to an original of this, and follow it up again with Valentine. What is it that comes out that we should be able to hear as some structure or patterning that you have in your piece?
[JC] Well, what I hear very clearly are the chords and the melody.
[K] Ok. Alright, let’s listen for this. This is great, we’re listening for the chords and the melody of a standard of such, almost, cloying character sometimes, and resolved into a very different piece, a very percussive piece. Here we go.
We pause to listen to My Funny Valentine performed by Tony Bennett, followed by a reprise of Valentine by Joel Chadabe [0:27:22–0:33:43].
[K] Valentine, by Joel Chadabe. Jan Williams on percussion, and Joel on the electronics, preceeded by the Tony Bennett “Yes, I’m on pitch today” version [laughter] of My Funny Valentine. We’re very excited, at the conclusion of the Tony Bennett version and the beginning of yours, because they’re in the same key.
[JC] Absolutely. Well, this approach went on to a lot of different songs. Actually, I found it a wonderfully interesting way to deal with this whole kind of literature. That is, in we’re sort of re-creating the whole thing. I think that a lot of these songs… you know, we understand a lot of things in life because we don’t… we like some things in life because we don’t quite understand them. And so, we keep coming back to them to try and understand them a little bit better.
[K] We like mystery.
[JC] Definitely. Forms that you don’t quite, quite get, that aren’t completely coherent. In other words, there’s always something new, there’s always something that keeps you trying to get it. On the other hand, we also like certain kinds of things because we understand them so completely that we find them really very relaxing. I was very impressed by Milton Babbitt’s knowledge of 1920s songs…
[K] Now Milton Babbitt, I always refer to him as the used car salesman of new music, because [laughter] he will, once started, not wind down for a long time if you ask him a question. And, he writes some very angular kinds of pieces, pieces based on mathematical concepts and soforth, and so would not be thought of as one who would be likely to know We’re in the Money or a tune like that as part of his repertoire.
[JC] Absolutely, but he does. He does, and it’s two sides of the same coin, and in fact that’s the whole idea. Some things we like because they’re sort of difficult to understand, and some things we like because they’re easy to understand. I saw Milton, you know Milton is now in his mid-80s.
[K] Yes. He was up here last year, as a matter of fact for the Contemporary Music Festival. Our local skilled pianist Michael Arnowitt played a piece of Milton Babbitt’s. He was charming and absolutely wonderful in person.
[JC] Yes he was, and I had a wonderful talk with Milton about a year ago in New York, where he spent the first 20 minutes of our talk complaining about not being able to find a good corned beef sandwich in New York anymore. And then we started to talk about some 1920s songs. He knows the songs very, very well, indeed. But they represent two completely different sides of things. It was Henry Pleasants who years ago wrote a book called The Agony of Modern Music, where he criticized contemporary composers for going out to jazz joints after they came from their contemporary music concerts. Or so he put it. I mean, he used all of this as an example to discredit contemporary music as if all of this music was so cacophonous that no one could possibly enjoy it, and the composers really liked the kind of music that everyone else liked, which were these kind of jazz standards. I just have thought back on that, I mean, I thought it was ridiculous at the time, because, you know, sometimes you enjoy jazz. I mean, I think that the kinds of things I’ve remained interested in are not the simpler standards, but rather food, to mix metaphors, with a little more spice in it.
[K] Ah, food, he’s brought up the important food issue. Yes, the great component of our show, we must think about food.
[JC] But the point is that you don’t read James Joyce with your morning coffee. You can also take a look at Doonesbury. Some things you really like because they’re fun, and they’re very light, and because you do understand them. And other things you like because they’re really interesting, and because you want to come back again and again, and because you never quite get it. That’s what’s so appealing about them. So, what I tried to do, with these songs, was to take things that I grew up with, that were sort of in my blood on the one hand, but on the other hand, that I found a little bit boring, and I thought that I’d make them a little more interesting. I found, going through that Fake Book, for example, some terrific pleasure. I loved to sit down at the piano and play all of the songs, but after about 20 minutes, I do begin to get bored. So I thought I’d make them live a little bit more interestingly for me, by so to speak, abstracting them. I don’t think of these as jazz performances, I think of them as abstractions of jazz classics. Although, in some cases, you can tell what the songs are.
[K] Ok, alright, but in many cases, the jazz performances are abstractions of existing tunes.
[JC] It’s true, yes.
[K] I want to get back to those questions. Let’s listen to something of yours, and I want to get back to the question of what the audience has to bring to the music, to let it live inside them. So, let’s listen to something else and come back. What do you think we should hear?
[JC] Let’s listen to Corcavado first, and then Echoes of Brazil.
[K] Alright, this is a recording of Corcavado with João Gilberto, and after about two minutes we’ll make it join right into Joel Chadabe’s Echoes of Brazil.
We pause to listen to Corcavado performed by João Gilberto, followed by Echoes of Brazil by Joel Chadabe [0:40:20–0:47:15].
[K] Echoes of Brazil, by Joel Chadabe, and that was preceded by Antonio Carlo Jobin’s piece, Corcavado, as done by João Gilberto. Well! That was another one, we’re following the original up with yours. Very clear, how that relationship was.
[JC] Yeah, basically what I did is to play Corcavado into the computer, and then I played around with the patterns, accent patterns in particular, and so on. Note orders, transposition, notes shortened, you know, everything you can think of doing, that a player would normally improvise.
[K] You know, but this piece is so… dare I say, listenable, and yet, you just talked about quarter patterns, you talked about all those things, you talk about technical issues, on a piece that comes forth in a very musical way. As a listener, I don’t have a clue that you’re talking about software, analysis…
[JC] See, and that’s where I find the most interesting — and not only that. You know, in that last piece, Bruno Spoerri is playing, he’s improvising — we’re improvising together with the computer.
[K] And you improvising with the computer how?
[JC] Well, playing the patterns in different ways, you know, there are…
[K] But what do you physically do, do you sit in front of the keyboard?
[JC] I’m sitting there with the mouse.
[K] And the mouse does what? You pull… software levers, or something?
[JC] I’m moving software sliders, clicking software buttons, I’m sharing software knowledge.
[K] And there are labeled things like what? “Change pattern here,” or what? How would I look at it?
[JC] How would it feel? I forget exactly their name, but I remember their graphic shapes more than I remember the words that are next to the graphic shapes, but there are things like “pattern permutation,” “accent patterns.” There’s a grid, for example, where I can click on different parts of the grid to decide where the beats come, and whether the beats are strong or weak.
[K] Okay. So, when you sit there in performance, in this particular rendition of the piece, do you recall… what you did?
[JC] In this, by the time I got to doing this with Bruno, I was bringing in different voices at different times. I’d work this out a little bit with him beforehand. In this particular performance — which is not to say, in every performance — it just so happens that we knew pretty much what we were going to do before we sat down and did it. But, we work it out, we try and do it pretty much the same way. The idea is, you never walk out onstage without knowing roughly what it is that you’re going to do. But, you know, one of the things I’ve taken a really great deal of satisfaction in with this disc, is that it is very — there’s a lot of technology in this… it’s not obvious technology, it’s levels of technology.
[K] You don’t want your listeners to actually hear technology.
[JC] Exactly. That’s what I get the most satisfaction from, it’s that it’s all absolutely invisible. I mean, I think of that as being really high-tech, when the technology is completely invisible. When it is so human, that you can actually improvise with it. That’s, I think, a measure of its quality, and I personally take a great deal of satisfaction in this disc in that sense.
[K] Well, let’s talk about that, because I have an email in front of me from one of our listeners, wondering about the relationship between the composer and the performer, asking questions like, “How legitimate are the performers playing, composers expressing, converying what’s intended?” “Is the perfomer an invisible middleman?” “What’s the true meaning, is it resting solely in the notes?” “How valid is interpretation?” In a piece like yours, you are also a performer in a sense, performing on the computer that’s making the permutations. How is this relationship developped? Here you have this wonderful percussionist, Jan Williams, this wonderful saxophone player, Bruno Spoerri, how do these performers understand, in both their minds and in their instruments, and in their musical sense, what the heck is going on in a “performance” or a recording session, that involves something that does not appear to be an instrument?
[JC] Well, first of all, I would say that it doesn’t work with every performer. The generic “performer” does not really exist, there are all kinds of different approaches to the situation. I’ve played a lot with Jan, but even in the beginning he just understood what I was doing, and I understood his processes in performance, so that it just clicked. That’s why we’ve worked together so well over the years. When we’re doing an improvisation together, I know what Jan’s going to do before he knows what he’s going to do.
[K] Okay. So this isn’t a mechanistic thing at all?
[JC] No, it’s not all a mechanistic thing. The same is true with Bruno. I’ve played a lot of concerts with Bruno in Europe, and there’s another percussionist on the disc, which, we will play a little, he’s a little bit in the background, Reto Weber. But we’ve all played together, and it just works so easily that we just right away know how to work together, and when you find performers like that, especially in an improvisational situation, you tend to cultivate that relationship and work with them all the time, because it really just clicks. But normally, when you use the word “performer,” you think of a performer playing a composer’s music.
[K] Yeah, that’s very often what we do on this show, is listen to recordings… how is this different?
[JC] Well, the idea there is that music has been composed before it’s been performed, and this works really differently because what I did, as a composer, is not to compose the music, the music can come from lots of different ways. What I did is to compose the system that composes the music, and I choose the sounds. So, it’s the sounds and the system, and what I mean by the system, is that I choose different ways that I can make things happen. That’s probably the best way to say it. And, I choose what the sounds are that I’m going to work with. Then, the music really comes together. I’m composing with Jan, with Bruno, with Reto, when we’re in performance. First it’s composing the system, then it’s like composing while we’re performing, and it is certainly very improvisational. It’s not like old-fashioned improvisation, I mean, but it’s a different kind of improvisation.
[K] Could you create the software in such a way that you could… push a “Charlie Parker” button?
[JC] I… no, nor would I want to.
[K] No, I mean, I knew you wouldn’t want to, but…
[JC] There have been a lot of experiments imitating known styles of jazz, or known styles of music. David Cope, a west coast composer at Santa Cruz has programs that imitate Rachmaninov, and so on. I personally have no interest, academic or any other way.
[K] But if someone was to imitate Joel Chadabe, is there some way in which you’ve chosen your system, and the choices that you’ve made throughout the process of performing this live, that makes it clearly yours?
[JC] Well, I’m always there, you see, the whole point when I make these systems, isn’t that they’re imitating any style, it’s that they’re putting me into a position as a composer. As a metaphor, I give you this: some contemporary planes, like the Airbus A320, cannot be flown manually, because there are too many control surfaces. So, pilots use what they call a fly-by-wire system. Now, in a fly-by-wire system, the pilot is really operating the controls to tell a computer what the pilot wants to do, and the computer is then flying the plane.
[K] So nice, you chose the Airbus, which the computer a few years ago did not quite work that out correctly. And ended in the trees… [Laughter]
[JC] I know, and I talked to some pilots about that, and I had a kind of long interesting talk with a United Airlines pilot who was very articulate on the subject of fly-by-wire systems. His point had a lot to do with mistakes coming from a lack of feedback, and he mentioned some very interesting things (which is probably not within the range of our conversation today) about the way cockpits are designed. But, my point here, is that I view these musical systems a little bit as sort of flying a plane through a space. So, I set up the computer to give me controls of all the musical variables, and they’re very intuitive, so I can do what I want to do. Whatever I want to do, whenever I want to do it, I can do it with whatever controls I have available, and I can manipulate a lot of different musical things.
[K] What I’m asking is, is there some way in which you do this manipulation, and which you fly the music-by-wire, so to speak, that is clearly yours?
[JC] It’s my style, it’s only me.
[K] So I can put this on in ten years and I will understand it, even if I had never heard this, but know something, and be able to say, “Oh, that’s the Joel Chadabe style.”
[JC] I would certainly hope so, I mean, this is me, the music. My whole point about technology, is that the issue here is not that I’m trying to remove the human being, I’m trying to make the human being more powerful, more responsive, more sensitive, to put a human being in a more interesting kind of environment.
[D] Play something else, let’s play this Africa tune.
[JC] Yeah, Africa is not based on anything. Africa is really just an improvisation. Not only that, but on this particular disc, it has all four of us playing: myself, Bruno Spoerri, Jan Williams, and Reto Weber, who is playing an udu drum. Africa was written in Bruno Spoerri’s studio in Zurich just before a concert we did there, so I wrote it in a couple of hours and we went out and performed it together for the first time. The name here comes, actually, from an African musician friend who lived in Zurich at the time. To start the first version of the piece using some of Bruno’s equipment, we used one of his percussion sounds. That’s not in this particular version, but there we had performed it for the first time.
We pause to listen to A Touch of Africa by Joel Chadabe [0:58:35–1:05:50].
[K] A piece that triggered a discussion off-mic about music and where it comes from. As a composer, I had been harassed for a number of years by a lady who was not pleased by the notion that it was possible to use technologies to produce music. She wanted music to come “from the heart,” as she phrased it. How do you think of what it is you do, sitting in front of a computer console? Do you perform “from the heart,” as it were?
[JC] The whole point of technology, as far as I’m concerned, is to facilitate, is to make a seamless connection in between any kind of musical idea, or musical impulse, or emotional impulse. A lot of it is, in one way or another, cathartic, and it should just “come out,” very, very easily, and technology should be effortless. But what’s different — you know, we always use technology anyway, there are some very primitive instruments that maybe [don’t] — but musical instruments are artifacts, and they always represent their times and places. In ancient Australia, for example, the aboriginals took a log and they hollowed it out with termite cultures. They dipped them in mud and painted them, and they were used ceremoniously, and it was called a didgeridoo. Basically it’s a hollowed-out log, and it has such a large embouchure (it’s one of the simplest musical instruments there is).
[K] It produces a grand, wonderful, resonant sound.
[JC] When it’s good, there are good ones and bad ones. Good didgeridoos are fabulous, but you can only get the second and third harmonics, because the instrument is just too large to get the fundamental.
[K] It’s too low to be heard.
[JC] No, you just can’t get your lips to vibrate and you can’t get the tension you need to get the higher tones, so basically you’ve two notes, and working out circular breathing, it becomes a sort of drone-like, pulse-like instrument. Now, it might occur to someone who’s trying to make music that such a primitive instrument, for example, might be better developed, so that you could do a little more musically with it, so that you could extend your voice a little bit more. In other words, with an instrument, what you’re always trying to do is extend your body. Technology extends human beings. So, if from this person’s point of view, if you want to get real primitive, I mean, you could give up instruments altogether, and sing…
[K] … and only sing, uh-huh.
[JC] … but on the other hand, if you’re making an instrument, you could say, “Well here’s an instrument that’s so low-tech, that it comes right from the heart, but you can only play two notes with it.” And then you might decide you might like to play 3 notes, or maybe 20 notes, and so you might even start thinking, “Should it be in wood?” So you look around and see what your available materials are, and you build up more and more powerful instruments that just extend you in more satisfying kinds of ways.
Now, the violin has no moving parts. It essentially has no real subsystems. It is 18th-century, 17-century, pre-industrial-age, European technology. A piano, however, which we now think of as certainly a very expressive instrument, is a machine. It’s a wooden machine. But boy, I’ll say, to see a piano put together, with a good friend who makes pianos, makes old pianos, and to see all these little subsystems, and all the mechanisms, the mechanical engineering that goes into making a piano, is formidable.
[K] Right, the lever, and how it pushes the striker, how it releases, and the various little springs and tensions, and how the strap and the saddle pull the thing away from the string…
[JC] Exactly. And yet, it becomes a very expressive instrument, and in fact, so expressive that keyboards have been probably the closest that we’ve achieved to what you might call a universal instrument. It is so universal, that even electronic synthesizers were all made with keyboards, and keyboards were developed to throw levers, to activate strings in one way or another.
There’s no need to use a keyboard with electronics, but keyboards remain the basic performance device with electronic instruments because we somehow like them so much. Why do we like them? We like them because they extend our fingers, because they give us fingertip control over a kind of musical process. Drumsticks extend our arms.
We want always technology, in one way or another, whether it’s a mechanical technology or whatever, to extend our bodies. We don’t want to have to think about the instrument. If you’re using a screwdriver, you don’t want to think about the screwdriver, you want to think about the wall you’re building, or the piece of wood, or whatever. You want to think about what you’re doing with the tool, not the tool itself. Technology should always be invisible. The instrument you’re playing should be invisible.
[K] So at this point, you’ve had enough experience with your system and your software, that to you it is a performance instrument, the technology of which is invisible?
[JC] When I’m using in performance. But, there are two stages at which I use the technology. The point is that what I do is to develop a technology that lets me use that to make an instrument, and then, I play the instrument. So the first step…
[K] Is the instrument, in a sense, virtual, is that what you’re saying, that you’ve created an instrument that isn’t a physical instrument?
[JC] Well, it’s software, yes, but it has a hardware aspect to it. I’m using a mouse, I’m using other performance devices. At different times I’ve performed with Theremins, I’ve performed with various kinds of devices. You can choose an electronic device according to the way you want to control the music. If you want to wave your hands in the air, for example, you might use a Theremin, if you want to hit something, you would use some kind of a stick. If you want to use your fingers you might choose a keyboard.
[K] And why did you choose this? Why did you choose that as opposed to a standard keyboard? In one case particularly, in Valentine — a piece where you yourself said the instrument is often indistinguishable from the performer — why that choice? Why not three or four performers? Why the choice of the electronic software to do it?
[JC] Well, I view it in fact as a performance. That is, I don’t view myself as replacing anything. I’m a performer, and that’s just the way I’m working. The reason I didn’t want to use a performance device is because in this particular case — you know, in other cases I have been there on stage playing things that look like instruments… they might be unusual things — I did not want to be up onstage. I wanted to be able to carry a disk around, instead of carrying equipment around. I wanted to go to Paris, for example, to do a concert, and just use my friend’s Macintosh and someone else’s TX816, and not to have to worry about carrying around equipment. And, I wanted to be offstage: I view this as a percussion recital for Jan, so he has two speakers onstage, and that’s all we need. It was a kind of minimal approach — you know, it’s not minimal enough for me, but I viewed it as being very minimal. That is, real high-tech, invisible, except for two loudspeakers onstage. Very different from the way rock bands used to be, you know, with these walls of loudspeakers, that power… I wanted invisibility, I wanted the invisibility of technology. You know, looking at a meadow, and you see absolutely nothing in the meadow, except grass and trees. That is high-tech. [Pause; general laughter]
You know, Milton Babbitt told me a joke years ago that I think is great. The joke went like this: he said, “Someone asks you, ‘What is radio?’” And Milton said, “Well, to imagine radio, first you’ve gotta imagine telegraph, and to imagine a telegraph, and to imagine a long dog with its head in the Bronx and with its tail in Brooklyn. And then, to imagine radio, you take away the dog.” [General laughter]
[K] What are we going to hear next?
[JC] What’s… um, I keep forgetting what’s there.
[K] Well, we have you, we have Another Approach to Rhythm, which we’ve already played on this program, and Many mornings (we were going to end with Many Mornings).
[JC] Let’s listen to Stella.
[K] Stella By Starlight.
[JC] That is Elusive Lady.
[K] Yeah, I don’t have Stella By Starlight, to play with you, I have played Bella By Barlight, which is another composer’s variation on that…
[JC] [Laughter] I think anyone who knows the song will hear the tune, in this particular case. This is electronics, there’s Jan, and also Bruno Spoerri playing the saxophone.
We pause to listen to Elusive Lady, after Stella By Starlight by Joel Chadabe [1:15:23–1:24:42].
[K] That’s a very, very, sweet piece.
[JC] It is, well, Stella By Starlight is kind of a sweet song.
[K] Question about these pieces we’ve heard: they are very, dare I use the term, listenable.
[JC] Well, “listen,” yeah, I find them extremely listenable.
[K] There’s a, I guess, not even a tradition so much, but a whole experience in this century of a lot of music that is, you might say, “not listenable.” Now I’m not sure that’s the right word to use, it’s probably music with which people have not had a lot of experience listening, because of some chasm that opened up between composers and listeners. But what’s the deal here, what is going on, that brings you and many other composers into a world of music that is not confrontational in the way it was confrontational for, gosh, half a century?
[JC] Well, you know, my music has changed a great deal too.
[K] So tell, my why, since you just say that. We haven’t even explored where you came from, musically, so maybe we can have the five-minute précis of whether you did explore some of those other areas and what brought you here?
[JC] Well, I think that the whole sociology of electronic music has changed a great deal, but then, the world has also changed. Technology has changed a great deal, and electronic music is very related to electronic technology in general. I started in 1965, with some Robert Moog equipment. Moog set up shop in 1964.
[K] The original Moog synthesizer.
[JC] The original Moog synthesizer, exactly. But then, this is very very soon after he began, and we cooked up some ideas together about some systems, and I cooked up some ideas about programming, that Bob helped me to design during the 60s. I mean, there are a lot of things I recall, I hadn’t known much about technology before that, but it just clicked. I mean, for me, it was just a very wonderful way of working, but part of that was the exploration involved, that it was a kind of adventure. It was definitely new territory for music, and it was at a time when a lot of people were interested in new kinds of sounds. Percussion, and certainly the whole idea of “new sounds” was in the air. It was in the air since the beginning of the century, everyone was looking for new kinds of sounds, and in the same way as in art, where you don’t want to see perpetual pictures of sailboats on lakes: the same thing in music, you’re looking for new subject matter and new kinds of sounds, new colours, new textures, all of that. And, in electronics, I found more than sounds, I found a way of working, that to me was terrifically exciting. It was this idea of “interactive composing”, that you could compose not by putting pieces of symbols on paper, where you were making some kind of an object, but rather, where you could set up a system and compose, sort of interactively, with that system. Anyway, that was the idea that I developed, and I came to call it “interactive composing” at the time. But that was very consistent with the sociology of electronic music in the 60s, which is that it was very different from electronic music [sic]. No one would have dreamed of imitating a clarinet in the 1960s. We would have said, “Go on and hire a clarinetist, if you want a clarinet sound.”
[K] And in fact, the musician’s union suggested that very strongly. [Laughter]
[JC] For sure. But the sense of it was that electronics were real different than instrumental music, and they should be different. The logic of that then, was that electronic sounds should do what instrument cannot do, and what only electronic sounds could do. Consequently, electronic sounds did not sound familiar and friendly, and everyone was exploring new kinds of sounds, and so was I. There are certain classifications of sounds that in fact you can’t do with acoustic instruments.
A lot of my music was like that, and it was fascinating, I mean, I thought it was really terrific. But it was also true, that in the real world, very few people could really relate to that. Most people do not have the time to really get involved intellectually with music, that is, to understand music as ideas, as an interesting kind of language. I would urge that everyone do that, because I think it’s one of the most rewarding and interesting artforms. But most people don’t, so most people tend to like the kinds of music they’re very familiar with, and from a composer’s point of view, if you want to reach a larger audience, you have to work with something that is a little bit more familiar, and friendly.
By the 70s, and by the 80s, consumerism had come into play — other people have called it “consumerism,” and the word sort of clicked with me, but that’s not entirely the way I look at it. The way I look at it, it was a more holistic view of the world, where composers were beginning to view the audience as part of the musical process.
[K] Is that a return to that kind of musical sensibility, or is it something that had to be developed and new?
[JC] No. Classical, aristocratic music was never meant for a wide audience. It used to be [for] the aristocracy, and the normal people rarely went to those concerts.
[K] So our illusion of the great crowds listening to The Magic Flute…
[JC] The Magic Flute was a kind of exception, because it that was done in public theatre. But that is one of the interesting exceptions. And, the Singspiel in Germany, which was a medium that was actually performed in commercial theatres. But the tradition isn’t exactly that. My point is, that with this view of the audience as part of the musical process, it went very against… You know, Milton Babbitt wrote an article, in the 1960s, I belive, that was published in High Fidelity magazine. The title of the article was “Who cares if you listen?”
[K] Yes! I read that, as a matter of fact, I have a copy of that still in my home.
[JC] Then you know that what Milton was saying was that it was a bad time, that music had become so complex that one could not expect that the public would not support it, and consequently it needed university and foundation support. It was the editor of High Fidelity magazine who had named it “Who cares if you listen?”, Milton’s original title was something completely different. And it was the editor who wanted the title to be very provocative, and unfortunately it’s haunted Milton ever since, because of course he’s always cared about an audience. Naturally he’s always cared about an audience, but he’s cared about his ideal audience, which is the audience that can understand his music, as all composers that write any kind of music, do. But, at that time, the idea from a composer’s view was, “You just do your best, and never mind the audience,” it was “Say whatever you think.” Don’t care if anyone understands you, just do your best. Just do everything you can do, no matter how complex it is, no matter how absurd it may sound, no matter how ugly it might sound to people who aren’t familiar with it. If that’s what you believe, do it.
So, there was a huge element of what I call personal integrity involved during the 60s, and that changed to what a cynical person might call something like “music by market research” by the 80s, which is consumerism. Now, I say that myself, but of course, I’m part of that whole phenomenon, because I certainly never did musical research, and I have never written a note that I wasn’t interested in writing. I never purposely never tried to please anyone else by what I was doing, so much as work out my own ideas myself. But I certainly have noticed, like many other composers, that my music has gotten to have — I’m not sure that my next pieces will, incidentally — but at least these pieces certainly have a silky surface, a very smooth surface, that they do sound kind of sweet. The idea for me [is] writing something that has an underlying complexity, where the technology is very underlying (as I was saying before), but where this could have the potential to reach a large audience. It’s not that the audience was in my mind, but this holistic picture was, I think.
[K] Okay, and in a way, the holistic character, and also maybe the influence of 15 years of consumerism, those all have gotten under all of our compositional skins in a way we can’t avoid.
[JC] Perhaps, and, you know, I also have met a lot of people in recent years, and even though they might not be experts in contemporary music, I couldn’t help but notice that they were intelligent, sensitive, and interesting people [General laughter] and so part of that perception of the world, in general, I suppose deep down is that you don’t want to say things that these people will not understand. But, you know, I’m saying this to you, as I think back, because these were not really conscious decisions. These are my own reflections of the music long after I’ve really worked out the basic ideas of these songs. As I say, I’m working on some things now that I don’t think are quite going to be the same, but it’s always a question what what interests me. In a lot of composers — like Philip Glass’s music, and many other people — there is a certain audience that is in one’s mind, and if you tend to be very humanistic, so to speak, if you’re concerned with a very large audience, if you like humanity in general, then you will probably want to write music that they will understand.
[K] It’s also sometimes hard to give up success for experiment. I mean, if you turn away from an existing audience of fans, as it were, a real notion of the word “fans” — as the case is with someone like Philip Glass — and try something experimental, your fans may feel betrayed, and it’s very seductive to have a very large listenership.
[JC] It is. I don’t think I’ve ever really thought of it that way, to tell you the truth. That is, I’ve never viewed myself as having fans that I would turn away from, or not turn away from. In fact, I’ve specifically noticed in many cases in the past, that there is absolutely no way of knowing whether what you do is going to be successful, no matter how you think.
[K] Yes, okay. That seems to be really an important thing to expand on.
[JC] You can’t, I mean, there’s just no way of knowing. Even with big companies, market research doesn’t really work very well. But, in the arts, you’re not really looking to “sell something.” I think you’re ultimately always looking towards working out an idea, and yes, you might have your ideal audience in the back of your mind, but you’re always working out your own ideas. And in fact, I would say that finished pieces are really the remainders of a process, they are the little things an artist leaves along the way, of working out ideas along the stream of things. I don’t think anyone who finishes a piece is particularly interested in the piece the moment it’s finished.
[K] That’s true.
[JC] You’re always interested in the next thing.
[K] It’s the detritus of the composer’s mind. Mind spoor. [Laughter]
[JC] That is exactly right. But I know that many composers who have tried to please an audience, have not in fact succeeded. You know, Elliot Carter has told me, that [as he was growing] up musically, so to speak, during the 30s and the 40s, he was writing pieces like Pocahontas and Pocahontas Suite, and some of his earlier works that were part of a general leftist movement in this country, towards “music for the people.” This has happened in Russia, it’s happened in many countries, but the idea was not to be elitist…
[K] The Neil Kjos Music Group even put out a whole series of octavos called Music of the People, during that era.
[JC] Okay. The idea was not to be elitist. Americana themes were chosen, things that Carter and Copeland and probably, Piston and other composers thought of as being accessible to large numbers of people. But, as Carter told me one time, it wasn’t successful. Then, he decided, “To hell with this, if I’m not going to be successful, I’m just going to go off and do whatever I want to do.” So, he went off to Arizona to spend a year and wrote the 1st String Quartet. He came back, and it was very inaccessible, I’ll tell you, the First String Quartet was just a major step towards the second one, which I think really defined his sound.
[K] Yes, Elliot Carter, who we haven’t listen to much of on this program, is one of the, I think, for particularly a radio audience, is one of the most difficult composers to listen to on first hearing, not only to make any intellectual sense out of it, but acoustic sense out of it.
[JC] Well, then, if people are interested in his music, I would certainly say the first thing they should listen to is the Second String Quartet, and listen to it a few times. So, Elliot came back from Arizona, and suddenly he was successful. Suddenly, everyone loved the First String Quartet. The bottom line here is that you really just don’t know what’s going to click. I think the main point is to work out your own ideas. Otherwise, it’s going to seem false.
[K] Absolutely true, yes. No matter what style you choose, or select, if you pursue the audience with the kind of net of your style, rather than the pursuing the, I would hope, the net-ness, of it, you’re probably going to end up in the area of false art, in a sense, if it’s possible to use that phrase.
[JC] I certainly think so. I do think so, definitely. I think that the arts are something you cannot do with market research, you can’t do it with focus groups. You’ve just got to do what interests you.
[K] Well, let’s wrap this up with some of your detritus along the road, here. [Laughter] We’re going to listen to the Many Morning, Many Moods.
[JC] Which is, incidentally, based on In a Sentimental Mood by Duke Ellington. And now, I’ll tell you just a little. Many Mornings, Many Moods was originally written as an orchestral concerto for orchestra, solo percussion, and electronics, and it was first performed by the Buffalo Philharmonic with Jan playing solo percussion, and loudspeakers were scattered among the orchestral musicians throughout the stage. So, I wrote the entire electronics part, which is the substance of the piece, in a weekend. One of the nice things about technology, and about these programs that I’m working with, is that they’re so interactive, and so easy to work with, that this entire piece — which in its first version was about 20 minutes (its first performance was about 20 minutes) — took me a weekend, essentially, to do. Considering that the percussion part was improvised.
I did design the piece originally, so that it could be performed by a full orchestra, a small orchestra, solo instruments, or just Jan and myself. It was the infinitely-reducible piece. On this disc, it is just Jan and electronics, so that this is, let’s say, the smallest version of the piece.
[K] Great. Joel Chadabe, our guest today on the Sesquihour, thank you very, very much for joining us, this has been an absolute pleasure, and I wish we had another hour to pursue this, some very exciting things. Thanks very much for joining us on the show today.
[JC] Thank you. Thank you, for having me.
[D] Is this the focus group version?
[K] This is the infinitely-reduced version, I believe he said.
We listen to Many Mornings, Many Moods, after In a Sentimental Mood by Joel Chadabe [1:42:07–1:54:22].