Michael Tilson Thomas: Making Anything Sound Good

Michael Tilson Thomas: Making Anything Sound Good

Michael Tilson Thomas
Interview Excerpt #1

FRANK J. OTERI: You have done so much on so many different levels as a conductor, as a composer, as somebody who is really exemplary for introducing new music to audiences, and for introducing younger audiences to music in general. But I thought it would be good to begin with talking about what general traits being an American can bring to being a conductor in America.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Being an American musician means being adventurous. The whole path of American music has been so much about the recognition of stylistic diversity, and the recognition of the importance of music which was from one of the vernacular traditions. You know, music which at one time was considered primitive, uncultivated, savage, whatever it may have been… Dangerous above all… And recognizing that in this music, lots was being said. Perhaps some of the most important, cutting edge things were being said. Perhaps we’re not unique in this sense, I mean composers in Russia in the course of the 19th century, late 19th century, were coming to grips more and more with their own national music in the same way that in the 20th century America really has and in the same way, we’ve learned to "prettify" the music far less and to accept it as Ives, a great pioneer always understood, to accept the music much more closely to its origins with all of its strange rhythmic incongruities and de-tunings and all the rest.

FRANK J. OTERI: Do you feel that being an American makes you more open to understanding our music and more interested in performing the work of contemporary American composers?

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Well, of course when I initially burst onto the American scene, it had a lot to do with contemporary music, particularly music by European composers because as a late teenager and in my early 20s I was playing a lot of music by Berio, Stockhausen, and Boulez. But I also played some of the more extreme Americans like Cage, Feldman, and some Carter at that point.

FRANK J. OTERI: And Lukas Foss

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Yeah, that’s kind of what I was known for doing. I was that kid on the West Coast who played Kontakte.

FRANK J. OTERI: [laughter]

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: or Points on the Curve to Find… or whatever it was. But from the very beginning, I had a very deep involvement with Ives and his whole circle: Ruggles, Cowell, Varèse, that whole side of it… And that was a feature of the programming that I did. In American music, there’s always been that curious balance between absolutely uninhibited, wildly experimental abstract work and on the other hand, a sort of more folk-oriented work, which definitely had very strong political implications for the composers who wrote this kind of music. You know, they were returning to the language of the people and trying to use musical language, particularly as Copland did to create a musical language in which all Americans would feel that they had a stake.

FRANK J. OTERI: And of course many of our greatest composers balanced both. Ives combined folk influences and experimentation, and so did Copland and Cowell…

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: And the idealization of music from vernacular traditions is an important thing. Perhaps it’s occurred too much. It concerns me a little bit that we live in society now in which the term "genius" or "master" is thrown around over all categories. And actually, in the books he wrote about music in the 30s and 40sm Copland was quite observant about this to say "Yes, of course jazz is an amazing thing and folk music is an amazing thing and all of these art forms have profound things to say, in their way." But those musics do not address the larger kind of architecture in time that classical music does, whatever each one of us knows that classical music must mean. Aaron would say: "Well, when you hear a great pop tune you really love hearing a great pop tune and it gives the irresistible urging to hear another pop tune and another pop tune." But it doesn’t have that sense of completion just within that tune, within that work, this kind of closed whole, the kind of big interior psychological landscape that the big songwriters, you know people like Mahler, Schubert, the realms to which they are a capable of taking song composition is somehow another dimension… Now, of course, a piece like "Sophisticated Lady" is absolutely as perfect as any of Schubert’s great songs. But of course, Schubert was able to use these songs as a means of moving into these much larger forms which are not just about the emotion of that particular song, but which are somehow about the emotions of all songs and the way in a larger sense particular harmonies, particular moves in harmony and melody are related to you know the whole idea of what we imagine life is. And so Aaron was saying that the great folk songs, the great blues tunes, the great jazz tunes, are primarily about this one mood. And what classical music does best and must always do more, is to show this kind of transformation of moods, to show a very wide psychological voyage. And I think that’s something that we as classical musicians have underestimated. We’ve been too deprecating.

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