The following interview with Robin Engelman took place in Toronto in August, 1996. This is the first time it has been published.
Bill Cahn: Do you see any ‘sea’ changes or ‘environmental’ changes in the world of music happening right now. If you do can do define what they are? If you don’t can you see what might give the impression of change? Talk about the whole idea of what’s happening, in your view, in music now.
Robin:. There are a lot of changes but they’re cosmetic. I think they’ve always been cosmetic – all changes have been cosmetic. By cosmetic I mean they are simply people’s desire to intellectually take ideas that have come before them and to alter them in some way. Occasionally somebody comes along with what is considered to be a revolutionary idea – like Schönberg: the tone row, and all that – but even the tone row is something that has been laid onto what is and always has been a constancy, and that is that people have always made music.
The reasons that people make music are not necessary to attempt to go into, because everybody has different reasons. The constancy is the desire of human beings to express something either in the visual arts, music, writing, film, whatever. I don’t think, in one sense, those changes are terribly important, because what has never changed is people’s desire to communicate in some way – to express themselves. The emotions that people use to communicate, or that perhaps inspire the desire to communicate – I haven’t seen any change in those. I remember reading years ago that the East Indians – the Buddhists – believe there are certain basic human emotions (such as greed, lust, joy). They put a finite number on those emotions. I think that’s true. I don’t know what the number is, and I’ve never really been interested in running down whether you would make a distinction between heroism and pride, but I think there is a finite number of emotions that occur in every society. People suffer pain, joy, sadness, greed, lust, and all those things. Based on the reading that I’ve done (from Greek tragedies all the way up to modern theatrical works), the painting I’ve seen, and the music I’ve heard, it seems to me that those emotions are in there. So the changes that have occurred have all been stylistic, but the reasons for those changes have all been the same – people’s desire to communicate. The impetus for those changes has been perhaps “I want to communicate, but this is my way of doing it.” So, you have Morton Feldman, John Cage, [Toru] Takemitsu, all these various composers all doing essentially the same thing. They’re expressing some aspect of their personality. Xenakis is a mathematician and an architect so you might infer that his music is very architectural or mathematically oriented. His interest in numbers and that mysterious relationships that numbers have with each other might have spurred his (writing), but still, the reasons for him writing are not unique. They’re the same for everyone. So from that perspective , I can listen to anything.
B: What about audiences? Some people have said that the new CD technology, for example, is having a profound effect on classical music audiences in that you can get hundreds of excellent versions of any of the classical repertoire now in your living room. You can have great sound, and you don’t have people coughing, and you don’t have to get dressed up and all of that stuff . . .
R: . . .or turn the record over, or put up with the scratches.
B. . . . but, now audiences expect those kinds of performances when they go somewhere to hear an orchestra. In other words, it set a new standard in a way. Also it may have started a trend – what’s called “cocooning” – for people to stay at home and not go to concerts. So some people in symphony orchestras are saying “you have do something different to address that kind of change.”
R. I don’t believe compact discs are responsible for keeping classical music lovers away from concert halls. Music lovers understand the difference between a car or home sound system and a live performance. They do not expect a CD standard – in sound or musicianship – from a live orchestra. Quite the opposite. They go to a concert hall because the sound is more spacious, the concert is visual, the experience is communal, and for many, many more reasons. I also do not believe “cocooning” has much effect on classical music sales at the box office. Most people have or have had children. You cannot be a parent and cocoon.
Symphony orchestras cannot blame compact discs for their present troubles – if indeed they have troubles. They must look at the quality of their product and understand their community. I don’t know much about people, outside of myself. It’s possible that if anybody does listen to classical music at home, they would go to a live concert and not be able to disassociate their listening experience at home from the live concert they’re hearing now. I guess that’s possible. One would hope that the experience of a live concert – just sitting with a lot of people who are focused on the same event – would allow them to experience whatever was happening at that time without having that experience interfered with by what conceptions they’ve brought to the hall about the piece they were hearing. I would doubt that’s a big problem, because first of all I don’t think many people listen to classical music. A lot of people have it on all the time in their home – muzak – but really listening to it, I doubt if there are that many people who do that. I think what you’re talking about are aficionados – people who collect CDs and listen to them on the advice of magazines or music critics or radio shows, or who have a favorite recording of something. Those people would know that they are going to get a totally different experience (in a live concert).
As to the other, I can envision someone being so enamored by a particular piece – they put it on their CD player, kind of close their eyes, and drift with the music – that when they go to a hall and hear exactly the same piece it’s possible the experience wouldn’t be so good for them. But that doesn’t concern me. That would be like being uncomfortable in a big audience doing something that you would prefer to be doing in the privacy of your home, which is a normal situation. I think the problem with recordings – there have always been problems with recordings from an audience’s point of view – is that an audience can be shocked by mistakes at a live concert where they don’t hear them on recordings.
I remember when I first started collecting recordings in the early 50s there were a number of recordings where there would be a horn ‘crack’ or a trumpet ‘crack’ or something not quite together, but they quickly fixed that up so that over the years – by sampling early 78s, LPs then into tape and digital technology – you can hear the sound becoming more refined, and the mistakes edited out. Recordings now have been taken over by producers to a great extent. There’s this Eschenbach guy in Germany, who did all of Arvo Pärt’s music and they interviewed Pärt about that and he said, “Eschenbach has his idea of what my music should sound like on a recording.” It wasn’t an out-and-out condemnation of how his music was being recorded but it was an obvious reference to the fact that what this guy wanted on a recording was different from what Pärt heard in his head and certainly heard in a hall in a live concert experience. Then the question is, what effect does this have on an audience – this kind of minute balancing of instruments and creating a sound for all the recordings that are under a producer’s supervision. I don’t know what effect it has. I think most people who buy recordings buy for a lot of reasons, but I’m not sure it’s a big problem, because anyone who’s really interested in a musical experience is still going to go to a live concert. The record buyer’s who think that records are a real musical experience will continue to buy records and they’ll continue looking for things that excite them. The only thing I can say about digital technology is that my experience is that I don’t particularly care for it except in pop music where the tunes are basically fairly simple and the engineering (the close micing, the balance and all of that to create a specific sound) – they’re making a commercial product. If I buy recordings now, I buy recordings that were made live at the concert – so called, “live recordings.”; The most recent one that I’ve bought – the Mahler 7th or 8th, I forget which, with the Concertgebouw – was a live concert recording and I think you can feel that.
The whole issue of digital technology . . . if you record something digitally how do you know if the people really played those notes? Those kinds of questions are to me really irrelevant, because you don’t. So all you do is put something on, listen to it, and you decide whether or not it’s of any interest. I always used recordings from my earliest days in high school all through college as something like assembling a dictionary a letter at a time – it’s a reference. Yes there is a recording sound that I prefer, but the older I get the less I’m concerned about what’s going on out there. It interests me less now than it did. The only time I’m concerned about it now is when NEXUS does a recording. I think our sound is best recorded in a live hall – just hang a mic someplace and record the sucker. Of all the recordings we’ve done, the original direct-to-disc LPs and maybe the one Judy Sherman did with the Rochester Philharmonic are the ones I’m most happy with. I do have a sound that I like to hear. I like to feel when I’m listening to our group that these instruments are very close to the way I would hear them if I were sitting in an audience. I’m not interested in hearing that other product where everything is really close-miced and somebody is always fiddling with dials and doing this and that, and recording in an acoustically dead place like a recording studio.
B. Regarding the responsibility of the performing artist to the audience, what’s happening today is you get Pavarotti singing popular songs, you’ve got pop musicians using string quartets or South African and Brazilian musicians, you’ve got all of these so-called “cross-cultural” influences in all fields – symphony orchestra playing jazz in their pops concerts, jazz musicians playing classical concertos. All these things are going on. Some people consider that to be a cop-out and a selling out to marketing and business interests. Others consider it to be a broadening of perspectives or an inclusion into a larger commonality.
R. It really doesn’t interest me very much. I think the basic issue is if you respect a creative artist’s abilities, conceptions, expressions, then you must know that when you change a work by that artist that you are quite substantially changing the creator’s intent. </I>As a performer, my responsibility is to play music I like and to play music I can play well and which is suited to my personality – my character. Whether “cross-over” or “cross-cultural” is a cop-out or a selling out depends on the artist’s motive and I cannot determine that. The only standard I have is my own, and I do not like most of the examples you’ve mentioned, and so I do not support them by buying their recordings or tickets to their concerts. One thing is very clear; anything associated with popular taste is, by definition, threatened with an extremely short life span.
B. Is that a problem, and if so, why?
R. Well it’s not a problem if the arranger can make the piece the piece as good as the original. What bothers me about Pavarotti singing Christmas carols and pop tunes is that he doesn’t have the voice for it. Pavarotti singing Christmas carols is like somebody pissing in a baptismal fount – it’s a sacrilege, because he’s simply selling himself and using popular folk music to do it. For me, there is something very special about Christmas carols. Number one, they belong to children primarily, and at their best they are rendered by children. They’re like church hymns. I’d much rather hear the untrained voices of a church congregation singing a church hymn than hearing the Mormon Tabernacle Choir or Elmer Eisler’s group, because the emphasis there is not on expressing religious joy or wonder, but on expressing a discipline of what our culture considers to be high art – to merge every voice into one unified whole so that any individual’s voice is indistinguishable from another. I resent that on the basis of my interest in individuality. I resent it because somebody’s using those tunes and using a lot of people in order to express an individual conception of whatever perfection is.
I feel the same way about a lot of other things – for instance, bringing a lot of musicians together from different cultures to perform something. I think it’s great to hear individuals performing their art that they learned in the way they’ve developed it as individual artists. It’s fabulous to put all of that together in one package where you can hear those individuals. But, when you combine an African drummer with a synthesizer, with a pop singer, with a sarod player from India, and make a pop tune out of that whole thing, then all you’re getting is a piece with sounds in it that perhaps you have not been familiar with before, but the package is the same pop music. When a Ghanaian friend of mine said that he was very distressed that African musicians were giving up their traditional music in order to go the city to play pop music, I understood that to mean that they’re not creating anything worthwhile. They certainly have great artistry on their drums, string instruments, or whatever they’re playing, but they’re being sucked into a package, a structure, and they’re duplicating rhythms, harmonies that already exist, so they’re creating nothing new and that’s disappointing. I don’t mind those musicians stretching their tradition going in other realms, but they’re not doing that. They’re not creating a new tradition. They’re not creating a new musical expression that the world can sit up and take note of. They’re simply creating more grist for the pop music mill.
B. Do you see any parallels between that process of simply taking some material from another source – not radically changing it but simply incorporating it into their own background – and classical composers using Turkish music, or Bach using Vivaldi’s music?
R. It’s not quite the same process, because Bach in using Vivaldi’s music was using music from his own tradition – same tonalities, same rhythms, same dance structures, pavanes, gigues, church music. Composers always take from other people. That’s one of those cosmetics. You get inspiration from anywhere. But, for so-called ethnic musicians to simply dive into a pop structure and try to create a hit for themselves and try to make a lot of money, is for 99.9% of them probably a delusion. People who really know how to write pop music are North Americans and some British people. They have a lock on that style. They know what buttons to push. I feel for those musicians from other cultures who try to break into that market. Sure, you can utilize form and structure, A-B-A, this-and-that, chord structure, but it’s all been done. It’s very similar to the Coca Cola and rock music flooding the world. You begin to create a society out of a diverse group of societies. This reminds me of a letter I’m writing now in response to a statement that Toru Takemitsu has shown that he is in tune with our merging cultures One can give the person who said this the benefit of doubt that what was meant was that our cultures from all over the world are beginning to learn from each other and are beginning to understand our differences, our great diversity, and hopefully are coming to appreciate each other. But, I don’t want to give the benefit of the doubt. I don’t want to assume that is what was meant, when what was said was that Toru Takemitsu has shown that he is in tune with our drowning societies – our societies that are coming together in such a way that one will be indistinguishable from another. That is what ‘merging’ means.
B. To continue on this idea of the merging of ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, what about Zakir Hussain playing “Pink Panther” in his tabla solo, or symphony orchestra musicians doing a rap in a classical symphonic composition?
R. I will not attempt to define “high” and “low” art, but both examples – “Pink Panther” on tabla and symphony musicians rapping – are diametric opposites of merging. To merge means to render one thing indistinguishable from another. In your examples, the differences are dramatically highlighted – classical tabla solo/ United States pop tune; Symphony musicians/United States rap tune – the exact opposite of merging. First for him to play “Pink Panther” in the middle of his tabla solo, of course he’s going to push some buttons. People are going to freak out because they hear something they understand. The fact that he can do that on the tabla is impressive, but its a cheap trick. I mention Paul Desmond. I can’t remember anything he played on saxophone where he did that, but I can think of numerous occasions when jazz musicians have put in a reference to a pop tune in the middle of an improvised solo, and I always leave at that moment. And this business of an orchestra rapping – I can’t imagine them rapping; it must have been hilarious – that’s not a merging. I don’t know what high art and low art is. I just know what I like. An orchestra rapping in the middle of a symphonic piece is not a merging. It’s the opposite of that. It’s merely pointing out the differences. That’s not creating anything new.
B. This raises a question. The audience response to this concert where Zakir Hussain played Pink Panther was very positive, but does that indicate that the audience maybe didn’t have a clue what was happening and then suddenly they got something they could hang on to and they got a positive response? Or do you think the response was more negative than that – maybe due to the ‘cheap trick’ aspect?
R. I believe it is a ‘cheap trick’. It’s a pie in the face, and when you put two utterly diverse things in close proximity – a face and a pie – you will get a reaction. Toru Takemitsu had an encyclopedic knowledge of and love for United States pop music, but he never put that music into his music (except for a tape piece parody of “I Left My Heart In San Francisco.” Well, I wasn’t there and even if I was I wouldn’t know why they responded like that. But to me it’s kind of like a pie in the face. You’re going to get a reaction. Whether or not they have any clue what he was doing before he played the theme from Pink Panther I have no idea. It might be just something as simple as the Queen of England deciding that in her walk-about she’s going to stop and talk to you. This is her opportunity to let you know that she’s a human being. This is how she mingles with the public. She’ll pick somebody out, go over, say hello, and compliment them on their dowdiness. It’s a device. Maybe they were just so appreciative that this foreign artist knew something about their music. Of course, Toru (Takemitsu) had an encyclopedic knowledge of American pop, but he never put that into his music.
B. But you wouldn’t go to the point of making any kind of generality about the fact that the music world is different now in how it’s conceptualized, by people who write about and by people who participate in it, when they say we’re in a ‘post-modern’ world now, which means literally that there’s no attempt to say that a certain kind of art form is better than another? In other words they’re trying to eliminate, perhaps, the impression of elitism somehow?
R. I’m a musician and I’ve always felt that, of all the arts, music communicated most directly. Sound goes to the ear and impacts. It moves us. A painting or a sculpture requires the eye to move over the surface until we have analyzed all the components and come to a conclusion. The simplest painting takes more time than a sound. This fact – to me a fact – does not make the art of music better but, historically, music has occupied a special place in the pantheon of art and this has been recognized by poets, writers, educators, philisophers, and theologians.
I have no argument with people who say all art forms are of equal value, but they cannot eliminate elitism from art. Art, by my definition, is elite and elitist. It is the choicest and most carefully selected expressions of a society. When a society wants to express its deepest aspirations, it turns to its artists and their art. If one eliminates elitism or the impression of elitism, one eliminates art. As to ‘post-modernism’, well, that sounds like a marketing phrase. It’s an oxymoron. Modern, I think, means ‘of today’ and post today would be tomorrow and we’re not there yet – never are – we’re always headed there.
One more point about elitism. The right-wing, politically incorrect, have tried to make this a dirty word while acting for all the world like elitists – the chosen ones. They want us all to worship their God, censor movies, books, music, art and conversations they don’t like. The people who understood elitism have retreated from it – the Liberal, monied intellectuals who felt a moral responsibility, a noblesse oblige to society. First of all, you’re dealing with definitions here. I asked Joanne Tod, a very well-known Canadian painter, and Christopher Hume who’s the art critic for art and architecture for the Toronto Globe and Mail, what does post-modernism mean, and I couldn’t get an answer from either one of them. But they had just a minute before my question been talking about a well known, if somewhat out of date post-modern painter, who lived in New York for a long time and hung out with famous post-modern painters before returning to Toronto. I still don’t know what ‘post-modern’ means. “Modern,” I would assume means “today.” So I don’t know how anyone can be post-today, because post-today is tomorrow. I have to have a definition, and I don’t have one. Christopher Hume’s only advice to me was to read his columns in the Globe and Mail, and eventually he would enlighten me as to what post-modern is, but I definitely got the feeling that neither one of them wanted to be pinned down. You said post-modernism is the merging of high and low art.
B. I’ve heard it defined that way.
R. Oh, I see. You said something else. It was your use of the word ‘elitism’. That’s another bone of contention with me, because elitism has become a dirty word in some political and social circles. I remember I went to our member of Parliament’s office – his secretary called and wanted us to come over to the office and pick up something and he was there when I got there. His associate talked to me for about an hour and said, “do you feel that the arts are too elite?” I said I feel the arts are not elite enough. She was stunned, because the legislator was ready to jump on the band wagon – as all politicians are – they’re reactionaries – and talk about elitism. Interestingly elitism has been picked up as a positive thing by the extreme right wing elements in North America. They’re in favor of elitism. They want us all to worship God. They want us all to censor movies, books, music, and they want us to become extremely elite. The wrong people are in favor of elitism, and the very people who nurtured and appreciated elitism have retreated from it – the liberals.
B. Why do you think they’re afraid of it?
R. It’s a political issue. They’re cowards. The economy scared them and instead of giving us moral leadership, they gave up. They lost the right to the word – years ago. In truth, there are still plenty of them around. They’re just laying lower than they should. Well because it’s a political issue the governments are spending millions of dollars supporting art. Arguing this issue is like arguing mom and apple pie. Everybody knows mom and apple pie are sacred. You don’t attack mom and apple pie – you just don’t. But, if you’re a politician – a reactionary – and suddenly you realize times are tough economically and our societies are breaking up into tinier and tinier interest groups, all wanting a piece of that pie, and one of the complaints seems to be that governments are spending their money so that some guy can theorize about an inboard space shuttle music program, and have the government spend $75000.00 to come up with a music program that’s based on brain waves – this is a true story; this was 20 years ago when $75000.00 was like $150000.00 today . . . They gave him $75000.00 to do this and I’ve heard nothing about this since. Of course (the composer) soon after that left the country and he’s in California someplace now, going on with his grant writing, I guess – in his beach house and his surf bunnies.
We can let that stuff go by when we’re all kind of pretty well off – when we have some kind of feeling of security, but as soon as times get tough, businesses start going bankrupt and laying off hundreds of thousands of workers, then a lot of people get uptight about how the government spends their money. They look at these symphony orchestras where 2000 people go to a concert once or twice a week to hear whatever, and people all over are supporting that, and they read about the number of artists and dance companies and small ensembles and on and on – authors that are being supported by this to write stuff that never sees the light of day. Their work is played once, if it’s played at all and then disappears into somebody’s filing cabinet. Well, people get uptight about this. When those people start letting the politicians know that they’re pissed off then the politicians start looking around and they say, “OK, what can we cut?” It’s important to them to have a word that they can just kind of peanut butter smear over the entire process. “Oh, it’s elite.” It’s like criticizing mom and apple pie. This is my point about that. The people in the arts can come back and say, “you know what . . . the government spends less money on the arts per year then it costs them to finance the military bands all over the country.” Or they can say, “the government spends more money on two tanks or a jet fighter.” But the territory has already been staked out. . .it’s elite, ergo it’s bad. It’s very difficult to combat that kind of brainwashing. Overnight you can suddenly have this tremendous ground-swell of resentment about supporting the arts. It can happen instantly.
B. Since you’re talking about society and social issues, let me read a quote about art from a book I read. “In our culture the notion of art (and by extension, anything – music, whatever) being in service to anything is anathema. Service has been totally deleted from our view of art.” Does art serve anything? If so, who does it serve? Should it? Does it serve society?
R. That statement barely deserves an answer. Anathema means evil. Art serves me emotionally and intellectually. It serves many people I know. It may indeed be a curse to some but not one deserving of excommunication. People, cultures go through ideological cycles, but we need art always and supply ourselves with it. Surely the person who said that knows nothing about art and our need to create it. You’re quoting it out of context? I think that’s a presumptuous statement. It’s as presumptuous as the politician who gets up on a stump and says, “Americans want . . .” and then they go on and tell the television cameras what Americans want.
B. In other words it’s a gross generalization.
R. To me it is because, I don’t know whether art serving something does that. Art serves me. It serves me emotionally. That’s a service. The first thing that comes to mind is that they’re talking about art in public places. I don’t know what. Do you know what that person meant in that quote. You’re quoting it out of context.
B. I am quoting it out of context. In other words, does art serve any purpose? Let’s put it this way. Should art serve any purpose, and if so, what is that? What I’m hearing you say is that you don’t think it is anathema . . . that it is serving.
R. Oh, I think so. I think there’s definitely a purpose served. Khrushchev, when he expelled Rostropovich and Solzhenitsyn said artists should not involve themselves in politics. They don’t know about politics. They know about art. They should leave politics to politicians. It’s interesting to me that the only effect that Rostropovich’s leaving Russia had was kind of a media frenzy for awhile. I’ll make a generalization. I think people generally are suspicious of a well known artist making political statements. They feel a little uneasy with that, because the artist is then becoming a politician, and people feel uneasy about politicians. As soon a as and artist starts talking like one then he’s considered one.
B. Well what about “Guernica” (the painting by Picasso) for example?
R. I don’t know what effect “Guernica” had on anybody. I really don’t. I’ve read about the Spanish civil war, Franco, and that whole thing in Spain. It was just horrible, the things that happened. I’ve read that “Guernica” had an impact, but I don’t know what it was. Franco remained in power until his death. He slaughtered anybody that he felt was in his way, and he really got that country together.
B. Do you think that was because he took responsibility for “Guernica?” That was his contribution to 20th Century art, and that thereby gave him the power to stay in office for so long? I’m being tongue-in-cheek here.
R. He may have gotten a memo from a aide . . . “Hey you know this guy Picasso’s painted this thing and the media’s picked up on it.” But I don’t remember any written words or verbal statements that Picasso made about the Spanish Civil War. I’m sure he did. It’s like Goya’s etchings and paintings. They’re gruesome and they certainly impress, but what effect [do] they have? People who are open-minded generally have a great aversion to the quashing of individualism. I don’t know what happened when “Guernica” became known, but I would imagine that the first thing that happened was that people who hated what was going on in Spain were emboldened that one of their own – somebody in the forefront of creative spirit – had chosen to paint the picture and thereby denounce what was going on. I doubt very seriously if anybody who was in Franco’s camp or anybody who doesn’t give a shit for modern art had any opinions changed about anything. Maybe. There’s always the chance. I’ve had my opinions changed about something when something is pointed out to me in a way that I’m customarily used to having things pointed out to me. But, in terms of stopping the killing, doing away with Franco, the whole Fascist thing, the historical proof is that it had no calculable effect.
B. The quote above was in the context of the visual arts – I’ll try to paraphrase it somehow – that the artists as a result of the “Modernist” movement – now I’m going to define “Modernism.” I don’t know how other people define it – “Modernism” being a certain fascination with abstraction, with conceptual art having no other purpose than art for its own sake. If you go back into Western history, and if you look at other cultures, art serves a social purpose mostly, rather than being an expression of an individual’s view, which it is, but the expression serves another purpose, primarily a social purpose. In Western history it was primarily the church or the interests of the donor. In other cultures it’s festivals or religion or various kinds of social functions. In the “Modernist” movement, as I understand it in terms of this discussion, artists stepped out of a social context in a big way.
R. At a certain time?
B. Roughly at the turn of the century – around the First World War – artists stepped out of it and were primarily doing things for themselves – for their own sake. I think this question (“the notion of art being in service to anything today is anathema”) refers to that process.
R. The Western world is not as religious as it was one hundred years ago. Art does little in the churches and cathedrals of today. Now is the time of the private collector and the private collector is a part of society. The collector’s art becomes public after the collector’s death – sometimes before death. Just think of the great art collections in museums – Mellon, Getty, Clark, Frick, Guggenheim, etc. Music is endowed as are ballet and opera companies. Artists have not stepped out of the social context. They have simply adapted to a changed time and market by working for another aspect or segment of society. Downtown Toronto has a great deal of ‘public’ art – that is, art that decorates our outdoor public spaces. The Bata Shoe Museum building is just one example of provocative art in archetecture that adorns North American cities. ‘Ars Gratia Artis’ may be, and probably is, a valid doctrine, but it does not not imply anti-socialism. It means to me that art must be true to the artist. It must strive always to be elite, regardless of the form it takes.
B. It has been perhaps (anathema) to the society or culture that supported those artists, and that’s changing. Today the artist who ignores the culture, or the market, or the society, or however you want to define it – they’re sort of all intertwined – is just painting himself in a corner and is reaching fewer and fewer people. Maybe that’s not all that bad, but if they are being supported by public money, then there’s the issue you referred to earlier. How is the artist relevant to society?
R. My take on that whole question – I have to go back to my boyhood days – is that our culture – that is the North American culture – Americans as a whole have never been interested in art. They’ve been interested in commerce. The commercial barons (pre-tax days) were interested in art primarily because they felt a tremendous need to be considered royalty on the same par as the great families of Europe who grew up with a long tradition of art. So, you have people like Pullman in Chicago who would set aside a million dollars, which in those days was like 20 million today, and hire an art dealer and the dealer would go to Europe and buy everything they could, and put it in the guy’s home. Sometimes they were scammed because the art dealers didn’t know what they were doing, but they just bought and bought and bought massive amounts of European produced art, most of it old – not contemporary. There were very few of those multi-billionaires who knew anything about art other than that they wanted it. This kind of feeling of inadequacy in relation to the great families of Europe led to the fantastic things that happened in Chicago – the founding of the symphony, the Chicago Lyric Opera, the museums – all that was done with this enormous amount of money. There was no tax advantage for them to do that. They wanted it. So our culture is a very different kettle of fish from the Germans or Italy with their opera. It’s natural I think that those people who were interested in music or art would go their own way.
But there were exceptions. Norman Rockwell, an individual artist, was a legend in his own time, just from the Saturday Evening Post covers. He was the Lawrence Welk of art. Cole Porter, almost all of the first generation immigrants to the United States in music were Jews. They were so thrilled – there was some chemistry that went on – that they wrote these tunes that caught the temperament of great masses of people in the U.S. There haven’t been pop tunes written like those that not only combine a lyricism and great music with poetry – really creative stuff – since, except on occasion. Sting’s got a couple of great tunes . . . Billy Joel . . . but none of them have really embedded themselves into the society, as Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Gershwin did.
B. You don’t sit around the piano bar singing Billy Joel tunes?
R. You might, but that era . . . they really captured something there, and we’ve had a great stagnancy, I think, since then.
B. The stagnancy, to come back to the question, is that because artists, composers, painters, have just been doing it for themselves in a closed environment. They haven’t been doing it to reach people in a social context. This is a gross generalization.
R. I would agree, but why they have been isolated is that America’s great contribution has been in popular culture – Dixie, Jazz. Jazz musicians have gone to an extreme now where they’re alone – they’re isolated to a great extent. Dixieland, jazz, pop music, the great illustrators, the Wyeths, were all great in what we would call pop forms today. America has produced very little of substance in that way because we’re not that type of culture. We don’t want it.
B. What do you mean by substance? Do you mean high art?
R. What I would say is America has produced everything I’ve wanted. If I want to hear really good rock-and-roll and really good pop music I’ll listen to American artists who really have that together. When I say of substance I think I mis-spoke. Symphonic music, chamber music – I find in thinking about it now – most of the music I enjoy listening to has been written by non-Americans. I think a country should support artists who are not involved in those traditional popular forms, because there’s always a chance that somebody’s going to take a new turn on our culture and click into something that’s really significant to us as North Americans. If it’s true that common people in Italy can sing excerpts from Verdi and Puccini operas, then Italian opera is popular music in Italy. What North Americans have done is transport the popular music of other cultures to North America and enshrined it. Those composers who have tried to emulate the forms and ideas that have come from the traditional composers of Europe have not achieved a great popularity in our culture.
Of course, you can’t talk about American “serious” music – and I put serious in quotes – without mentioning Aaron Copland, the quintessential American composer, so-called. But how many people in North America can tell you anything about his “Third Symphony?” In fact, how many people can tell you who wrote “Fanfare for the Common Man?” If they hear it they tell you “I’ve heard that.” I think the American attitude about art – this is trite, but it’s humorous – can be summed up by that question that was asked General Ulysses S. Grant. He was a great general and a great drinker. Somebody asked him, “General what music do you know” and he said “I know two tunes; one is ‘Dixie’ and the other one isn’t.”