Bill Cahn Interview by Joe Spurlock

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The following interview with Bill Cahn occurred in November 2007 at the request of Joe Spurlock, a student of percussion at Ohio State University.

Q1. Very much of your music is influenced by other cultures, specifically eastern ones. How did you come about these influences and what intrigues you so about them to make them a part of your repertoire?

[Bill Cahn] – I have always viewed music (and the arts in general) as a vehicle which has the power to enable personal growth – the inner world – and an expanded awareness of the surrounding world. Involvement in he arts is an effective way to gain a greater understanding of others – especially others who are very different – as well as of ourselves. It’s my view that this kind of understanding is more important today than ever before, because of the rapidity with which people are able to come into contact with distant ‘others’ today. The speed of such contact is accelerating due to the increasing ease of jet travel, global trade and electronic communications – including the Internet.

The thing about the music and arts of other cultures that is so fascinating is that there are different perceptions about beauty. Any aspect of music/art that is considered to be very beautiful in one culture may be entirely invisible to another culture. It is in the search to appreciate another culture’s ideas of what is beautiful, that an increased understanding of others and self is facilitated. I think my compositions have been a manifestation of that kind of searching.

Q2. How did you come into the arranging and rejuvenating of Novelty Ragtime music?

[Bill Cahn] – As a student of William G. Street at the Eastman School of Music between 1964 and 1968, I had to prepare pieces for my lessons from a book titled, ‘George Hamilton Green’s Xylophone Solos of Famous Sam Fox Successes.’ Mr. Street and his brother Stanley had been xylophone soloists in the Eastman Theatre Orchestra in Rochester during the 1920s. He had a fondness for this style of music and for the technical challenges it offered. In the 1960s there was not a lot of repertoire specifically for keyboard percussion; it was normal to learn keyboard percussion by playing transcriptions of classical violin, flute and cello pieces. The ‘novelty ragtime’ dance music at least offered some repertoire created specifically for the xylophone. Mr. Street was also an ardent admirer of George Hamilton Green. However, by the 1960s this style of music was widely considered by percussionists to be trite and not worthy of study, so there was little interest in the music outside of Mr. Street’s lessons.

Now, fast forward to the early 1970s. NEXUS had already been playing improvised concerts for several years when Bob Becker brought his new arrangement of ‘Rainbow Ripples’ by G.H. Green featuring a xylophone solo accompanied by four players on two marimbas. Bob had learned this and other G.H. Green xylophone solos as a student in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The first time NEXUS played ‘Rainbow Ripples’ as an encore, the audience went wild, which created a huge incentive for us to dig deeper into this genre. In my opinion, Bob Becker is solely responsible for the rejuvenation of this music, eventually leading to its global acceptance today. It’s true that Lewis Green, the stepbrother of G.H.Green, had also released an LP in the early 1970s titled, ‘The Xylophone Genius of G.H.Green’ containing re-pressings of some of Green’s earlier ’78 RPM recordings, but it was the NEXUS performances and the release of the ‘NEXUS Ragtime’ Direct-to-Disc LP in 1976 that really led to the current worldwide interest in this music.

Another factor was the never-ending search for nonwestern instruments – mainly, bells and gongs – in antique shops during the 1970s. By coincidence, in 1977 while rummaging through an antique shop in Rochester, New York I found a well-worn ’78 RPM recording of G.H.Green. This discovery inspired a 10-year research project to find more old xylophone recordings and information, all of which culminated in my book, ‘THE XYLOPHONE IN ACOUSTIC RECORDINGS, 1877-1929’, a 264-page discography first published in 1980.

Concurrently with this research, I decided to arrange some of G.H. Green’s unpublished music which I had found in his recordings, so that NEXUS could play them and they could eventually be published.

Q3. You have a great collection of solo and ensemble music but have not delved into the realm of four mallet marimba solos. Why is this?

[Bill Cahn] – There three reasons: 1) I think of myself as mainly an ensemble player rather than a soloist; 2) My experience in keyboard percussion has mostly been with orchestral music or with NEXUS pieces requiring two mallets; I simply never had much need in my playing to develop four-mallet chops; 3) I chose to devote my composing time to works for percussion and orchestra. As the Principal Percussionist of the Rochester Philharmonic from 1968 to 1995 I had many opportunities to have my works performed.

In 1997, however, Leigh Howard Stevens commissioned a marimba concerto, ‘Rosewood Dreaming’ , which was originally published as a four-mallet marimba solo with percussion quintet accompaniment. It is now also published as a marimba solo with both orchestra or band accompaniments. Leigh recorded it with NEXUS (NEXUS CD #10612). I also have arranged ‘In Deep Woods’ from ‘New England Idyls’ (op. 62) by Edward MacDowell for four-mallet solo marimba, but it remains unpublished.

Q4. Very much of your ensemble music has been for Nexus. When writing these pieces do you have the players in mind?

[Bill Cahn] – Yes. Not only the players, but also the instruments they play.

Q5. I have always appreciated your approach to equipment being that you create what you need because you can’t find anyone else who makes it. When composing, do you find yourself writing music that you would like to hear because no one else sees it the way that you do?

[Bill Cahn] – I find that when I’m in composing mode, I am mainly exploring to find sounds or musical ideas that I like or that make me feel a certain way, without any thought about what others might think. I have learned that I don’t have the ability to tell in advance what others will like or dislike.

Q6. You composed many pieces in your time at Eastman. Did you find that you learned a great deal about composing through simply doing it for yourself and others?

[Bill Cahn] – I have never studied composition formally, but I have always had an interest in composing. I have learned by watching and listening to what others are doing and by thinking about what I have seen or heard. When you’re playing percussion music every day, all you have to do is pay attention to what you like and then think about what it is that makes you like it. When you’re playing in an orchestra every day for 30-years the same process can’t help but have some effect.

Q7. On the subject of your Eastman compositions, what inspired you to use extended techniques on pieces like Raga No. 1?

[Bill Cahn] – My response is similar to the response above about music of other cultures. It was a real discovery to hear North Indian music for the first time – especially tabla playing with its highly developed finger technique. Of course, all my study until college was on stick drumming of various kinds – snare drum, bass drum, timpani, xylophone, etc. In 1967 I was very excited about the discovery of other technical possibilities – including using fingers. Again, this is an example of growth in thought through exposure to ideas from other cultures.

Q8. You seem very comfortable on drumset and pieces like Partita show influence from it. Is this still and has it always been an important part of your percussion career?

[Bill Cahn] – I loved playing in my high school’s big band, though I have never had a lesson on drum set. It was playing drum set in small combos throughout college years that prepared me to play drum set for over two decades on the pops concerts of the Rochester Philharmonic – with guest artists like Marion McPartland, Mel Torme, The Smothers Brothers, Toots Thielman, and many others in jazz, Broadway and popular styles.

Q9. You of course are well-known for your approach to improvisation. Having this as a major music outlet for so long, how has it influenced your composition?

[Bill Cahn] – Essentially, composing for me is virtually the same as improvising, except that there is time reflect on what has been composed and to make changes if after listening again the intended effect is diminished somehow. But the opposite effect sometimes happens too – when repeated listening has the effect of my accepting something I might have otherwise discarded. With improvisation, of course, the only practical option is to accept what has been done, because it can’t be changed; it can only be a source of learning.