George Tsontakis
George Tsontakis: Getting Out of My Introvertism

George Tsontakis: Getting Out of My Introvertism

Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

Since the early 1990s, George Tsontakis has had a career path that most American composers would envy. By then, he had already been signed by a major publisher and his music was not only being performed by soloists, ensembles, and orchestras all over country, most of it was also recorded. Then he received a significant music award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1995 and a Guggenheim Fellowship the following year. The following decade, he was awarded the Charles Ives Living and the Grawemeyer Award in Music Composition, which are among the two largest cash prizes available to composers.

And yet throughout the time he received those accolades and to this day, rather calling tons of attention to himself or striving for more honors (e.g. he refuses to allow his music to be submitted for the Pulitzer Prize), Tsontakis aspires to a hermetic existence in the middle of the woods and composes something only when someone commissions it and nothing at all if no one does. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s a strategy that has served him well. Since the mid-1980s, there hasn’t been a time when he hasn’t been juggling multiple requests from people to write music for them.

“If nobody asked me to write a piece, I wouldn’t compose,” he admitted when we sat with him on his back porch as hummingbirds and bees flittered around and chipmunks scurried by. “I’d be doing other things. I’m very happy to not compose. … One of the secrets to [my] life is that I only write what people ask for. … Multiple performances, you get that through websites or whatever. I don’t care. I’m not a promoter. I’m not even a person that wants pieces to be played all the time.”

Despite this reticence, he remains in demand and continues to compose vital works. A 2017 Naxos American Classics recording collecting three recent concertos by Tsontakis—the klezmer-tinged Asana for clarinetist David Krakauer, the jazz-inflected True Colors for trumpeter Eric Berlin, and the Soros Foundation commissioned double violin concerto Unforgettable—is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s currently a third violin concerto in the works as well as a Requiem in honor of his mother who passed away in January.

And as for Tsontakis being a serene, quiet person, he seems anything but! During the afternoon we spent with him he regaled us with endless anecdotes about his early years—acting in musical theater and almost being chosen for the original cast of Jesus Christ Superstar, arguing with Stockhausen during a seminar in Italy, fending off becoming a furrier by telling his Greek father than he was a vegetarian, and then his father being proud of an early piece of his that Vincent Persichetti hated. Along the way, he also told tons of jokes and did impersonations of various musical luminaries—including his one-time teacher Roger Sessions. Often, it was difficult to get a word in edgewise!

So much so, in fact, that it was somewhat hard to swallow that Tsontakis considers himself an introvert and that being socially active was an acquired skill.

“I get in these moods where I don’t talk,” he explained. “I’m basically an extrovert when I’m with people, but when they leave I become completely introverted. It’s an interesting balance. I’m either a closet introvert or a closet extrovert. I don’t know!”


A conversation with Frank J. Oteri outside Tsontakis’s home in Shokan, New York
September 12, 2018—12:30 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan


launch gallery

Frank J. Oteri: We’ve only just started rolling the camera, but we’ve been having a great conversation since you picked us up in Kingston, New York, over an hour ago. It’s hard to believe it’s taken so long for us to finally record a substantive discussion with you.

“Every composer and every performer should have to act.”

George Tsontakis: Well, you did ask me one time, but I don’t do many things like this.  I’m very insular.  I think it was after the Grawemeyer [Award] or the Ives [Living], but I wasn’t talking to anybody.  I was composing. I get in these moods where I don’t talk.  I’m basically an extrovert when I’m with people, but when they leave I become completely introverted.  It’s an interesting balance.  I’m either a closet introvert or a closet extrovert.  I don’t know.  You’ve got to come out when you do teaching. And I’m an actor; I act in plays. When you’re doing a play, you have to close yourself up.  Acting really helped me to get out of my introvertism and at least pretend to enjoy people being here. Every composer and every performer should have to act. All these violinists are so serious.

FJO: You already sort of half answered the question with which I wanted to begin our conversation. Before I ever visited Vienna, which was only five years ago, people would always be shocked that I hadn’t traveled there since it’s such an important center of musical activity, to which I’d invariably respond, so are Harare, Zimbabwe; Lima, Peru; Seoul, South Korea—which are all places I had been. As a composer in this country, you’ve attained an enviable degree of prominence—you’ve won several major awards, a large amount of your music continues to be performed and has been recorded. And yet, you’ve chosen not to live in any of the major urban musical capitals.  I can see why.  It’s idyllic, despite being off the beaten path.  Still, it’s kind of a weird place to be doing what you do.  Or so it seems to me.  Maybe it’s not.

GT: Well, it depends.  I mean, if I lived in an urban area, it wouldn’t be Vienna.  That’s a museum, as most of classical music is these days.  If it’s not a contemporary music festival or concert, it’s museum stuff.  This is the perfect place to be.  Everybody else is in the wrong place as far as I’m concerned.  But it depends on what your philosophy is.  I’ve had 21-year-old students at Bard who have bigger Wikipedia pages than I do, because they’re reaching out and they’re trying to be in another place all the time.  The urban area is now wireless, so you can be in the country and still be reaching out instead of looking in.  But Bach hardly ever left Leipzig and he did pretty well.  Either you depend on promoting yourself or you depend on your product to be the promotion of what you do.  Of course, it helped that I had started off in a place like Juilliard. Having met people at Juilliard was a great thing.  It helped for about ten years. You’ve got to get off the ground, and maybe you do have to have a connection with some populated area, where there are musicians.  There’s nothing wrong with being with musicians.  Even at Bard, where it’s a tiny microcosmos of an urban community, there are fantastic musicians.  So I tell the composers, especially if they’re anti-social, you have to meet these performers, because these performers might be the ones that are going to do your works and request your works in the future.

When I was in New York City, I’d be walking down Broadway, and it led to a commission.  Somebody would say, “Hey George, you know, we’re thinking about you.  Thinking about doing something.”  The fact that we were in front of Zabars kicked it over to, “Yeah, let’s talk.”  That was a big difference.  So there are advantages.  But as far as creative energy goes, “New York, New York” and the other urban areas have a lot of static electricity.  You’re there walking around and you feel energy.  But is it your energy?  That’s the question.  By retreating to this quiet place, I know where my energy ends and the other energies begin, or vice versa.  So I don’t adopt any energies of the urban areas.  You have to make all your energy here.  It’s a more subtle energy, but it’s a dependable energy.  And I love nature, too.  You hear all these creatures? I feed birds. They inspire me as well. I have that in common with Messiaen. I love the birds, but I don’t know who they are.

A view of the Hudson River from George Tsontakis's home

FJO: But you actually grew up in New York City. You were born in Astoria.

GT: That’s another thing. I don’t need it because I’ve been there. I’ve done the urban area. Back to my advice to young composers: “I finished undergrad, where do I go to grad school?” I’ll say, “Where did you go to undergrad?” “Well, I went to New York, Manhattan School of Music.”  I say, “Well then, find a country place to go to for your master’s and doctorate maybe.” If they say, “I went to some country school in the middle of nowhere,” I’d say, “Find an urban school to go to because you need both to a degree.”  It’s the diversity of learning about these different poles.  There are some composers who will never leave the city.  That’s you, Frank!  Definitely, I can tell that already.  In one hour, you’ve demonstrated all the urban tendencies.  I think New York is one of the most provincial places I’ve ever seen.  A friend who lives in Woodstock read a chapter at the Woodstock Library about those New Yorkers who only read three publications.  And each one has New York in the title.

FJO: I don’t do that.

GT: No, I know. But he said, “Thank God for those people. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have anybody buying tickets!” New York is provincial that way. If a restaurant is not in The New York Times, you don’t go.  But out here, you have to fend for yourself. I also want to mention that there’s a lot of stuff going on here.  We’re only an hour and forty-five minutes from the George Washington Bridge. So, like the pollen, these New Yorkers come up here. They get off the Amtrak and we know what they’re doing, and they know what we’re doing.

A cottage which was George Tsontakis's first residence in Shokan and is now a cottage for guests.

FJO: [laughs] Okay, but I’m going to take you back to New York when you were growing up in the very tightly knit Greek community. I know that you had multiple interests, not just music; you were very deeply engrossed in theater. But how did you get exposed to all this stuff and when did things start to resonate with you?

GT: I can tell you the day I became a composer. I didn’t spend that much time in Astoria.  We moved to Long Island, to a school district that had good music. But my grandparents and I spent a lot of time in Astoria when I went to Queens College.  So that was important. I had a dual cultural life. You know, Astoria is really Greece in a way, although I was just in Greece in April and May and when I speak Greek, they say, “George, you speak Greek, but it’s Astoria Greek.”  Astoria’s a suburb of Greece.  And those roots are very important for what I do.

But I went to a good school on Long Island, and they handed me a violin when I was seven years old.  So I studied violin and I knew a little about classical music. But when I was around 15 or 16, I got this new pair of headphones (they didn’t have good headphones until the ‘60s) and I listened to a Deutsche Grammophon recording of Stravinsky’s Firebird.  It blew me away, because I hadn’t heard something like that live.  Now, if you had told me that Igor Stravinsky was a Polish jazz composer, I would say cool man. I like his music. I didn’t know enough about music to know who Stravinsky was. Someone recommended a recording. I also heard in the same week Beethoven’s Opus 135. Blew me away, too. I listened to the Fine Arts Quartet. That week I decided to be a composer.

I just said, “Between Beethoven and Stravinsky, I want to do that. Whatever that is.”  It’s like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, the chocolate and the peanut butter. You put it together; I want to do that.  And I have been trying to do that. I added Debussy and Messiaen to the mix, but basically I wanted to do that.

“Try to remember when you decided to be a composer and why.”

I argue this point with many composers, especially in Europe, who have had pressure put on them to be more progressive, more avant-garde, whatever it is, less tonal, whatever you call that.  I say, “Try to remember when you decided to be a composer and why.”  I decided to be a composer because of what I heard.  I didn’t become a composer because of my compatriot Xenakis or Boulez or Karlheinz Stockhausen.  I became a composer to emulate the music that I wanted to do.  And I will take that music, and I’ll bring it forward in my own manner.  I’ll decide on the colors. I call tonalities—dissonance or not dissonance—colors.

FJO: It’s funny you say that because every composer has a different story about what triggered the desire to be a composer. I confess, although I had already been writing music, a really formative influence on me when I was in high school was actually discovering who Stockhausen was—his whole persona, as well as his music and all his crazy pronouncements. It really impressed me, and I wanted to figure out what he was doing.

GT: Aha. I studied with him in Rome in an eighty-hour seminar over two months as I was studying with Donatoni. In Europe, you’d have these spontaneous things.  I read in the paper: Stockhausen seminar. He had just finished Donnerstag aus Licht at La Scala. So there were about ten of us who were students in Stockhausen’s class. Paul Sperry, who I knew, was there. Stockhausen did this thing with these big rolls of paper.  It was four feet and you unrolled it. He did all the staves in different colors.  It was a typical Stockhausen happening. I was the skeptical American.  I have cassette tapes of us arguing in English while the Italians are listening. But Donatoni and Stockhausen made me realize what I could do if I wanted to.  So I didn’t make a choice out of ignorance.  You wanted to learn what Stockhausen was doing.  Well, I found out and I still didn’t want to do it.  So I tell composers in Europe, or wherever they think we’re not modern enough, “Look, we can turn around tomorrow and do what you’re doing, and you could do what we’re doing.  We made a choice.”

That’s because we find, like my old friend George Rochberg did, the materials that you best communicate with, and that’s it.  You know, you don’t become affected because of someone telling you that your materials aren’t modern enough.  I give them the example that if in 1450 sackbuts and crumhorns started to play Lachenmann and then in 2018, two cats came along from Italy, Gabrieli and Monteverdi, and started doing their music, somebody would go,  “Holy cow, I just heard the most modern music I ever heard. These guys are flipped out, man.”  There’s no forwards and backwards in music.  I’m so happy that, these days, young composers don’t seem to care.

FJO: We’re now in an era where anything is possible.  But it’s interesting to hear you say all this because there’s a piece of yours I’ve read about in a New York Times review by Tim Page. I’ve never heard it and wish I could. It’s a very early string quartet that is probably either number one or number two.

GT: The Emerson one?

FJO: Yes.

GT: It’s very much like [Wolfgang] Rihm.  It’s not 12-tone, but at least it has 12 tones.  It still resonates for me.  I know you know [the recording of] the third and fourth quartets on New World.  The American [String Quartet] had a choice, to pair the fourth that I wrote for them with either my second or third quartet.  The third is very tonal.  And the second is completely out there—dissonant and dissonant—but there are some lyrical aspects, too.  They voted.  Two of them wanted to do number two and two of them wanted to do number three.  And I would still love it, if the Emerson is listening out there, my buddies—would you want to bring back number two?  I’d love to hear it.  I’d love for someone to do that really well.  You mentioned Tim Page?

FJO: Yeah, I’ll read you the quote that got me: “This piece, which was commissioned by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, under whose auspices Sunday’s concert was presented, proved a somber, knotty work in four movements, rather in the manner of Alban Berg. The composer writes that he attempted a ‘clear reaction to our times,’ and speaks of fears and frustrations. To this taste, Mr. Tsontakis lays on the angst a little thick.”

GT: Very good telling.  Tim’s a great guy, too.  I remember “lays on the angst too thick.”  Now I don’t have to lay it on at all, because I did it then.  I remember Andrew Porter in The New Yorker wrote something similar. I don’t remember the quote, but something like: “It wasn’t to my taste.” or “It was a little bit over the top.”

FJO: When I read negative reviews like this, it doesn’t turn me off the piece; often it makes me want to listen even more! But what stuck with me in that Tim Page review was his reference to your comment about the piece being “a clear reaction to our times.”  You talked about Europeans thinking that their music is progressive and ours is not. I don’t think it can be reduced to binaries. But one of the things that I find so exciting about your music, and why I wanted to talk to you—particularly now, in this current zeitgeist—is that although I don’t think your music sounds anachronistic, I also don’t think it sounds like it’s of the present time.  You seem completely oblivious to what is going on now, and it’s nice to be able to kind of get away from what’s going on, especially right now, through this music.

“Any music that is specifically yours has a character that can’t be duplicated.”

GT: Well yeah, I mean, that’s the whole point. Any music that is specifically yours has a character that can’t be duplicated. It’s like a fingerprint or DNA. I learn a lot by teaching, and I’ve always said to my students, “Don’t try to be original.” Only two composers every century are original, and they’re usually French—Messiaen and Varèse or Berlioz and Debussy, the big revolutionaries. The rest of us kind of do mop up, we do what the others do.  So I say, “Don’t try to be original, be specific. Be as specific as you can. Mold your music in your own specific way to your DNA, even if you start with C-major.”

It doesn’t matter what you do. There’s been proof of that.  Look at a composer like Arvo Pärt or Gorecki or Valentin Silvestrov. They have nuanced their music in a way that nobody can duplicate.  Benjamin Britten’s a great example, too.  One of our problems is that we think of chronology—1800, 1900, 2000—and music progressing, whereas I think of it as different things going up. [gestures hands] Here’s Bach. Here’s Beethoven. Here’s Haydn over there.  Here’s Messiaen. The higher you go with the lives of these composers, the more modern music is. It’s more modern because you can’t get there from going this way. So the late Beethoven quartets, those are all eternally modern. Or Gabrieli and Monteverdi—you can’t get there by imitating them. Chronology is not adding more and more dissonance, and being more and more abstract, scratching the instrument instead of sul ponticello. Eventually the violin is going to break in half from somebody trying affectations of texture! So be the life of a composer going up.  You make your own pedestal.  That’s why I can use whatever elements and it’s a personal dialogue in my language that I picked somewhere between Opus 135 and Stravinsky’s FirebirdRite of Spring was on the flip side [of that LP], but I went for the Firebird even though kids viscerally like Rite of Spring. I think that’s how I discovered Debussy, because Firebird is Debussy and Rimsky-Korsakov.  Again, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. Take Russian tunes instead of French tunes, and you use Debussy’s techniques that Stravinsky obviously did in Firebird, and you have a new music. So if I pick that up, and Beethoven’s late quartets, and I blend those in my mind, my concoction is what you’re talking about that you can’t understand where it comes from.

FJO: So this is you as a teenager in the ‘60s. You were a weird kid.

GT: We were all weird. We had a group of weird kids in our high school. We were listening to Bartók and other stuff. That’s the way we rebelled, by listening to contemporary music.

FJO: Instead of listening to The Rolling Stones?

GT: Well, I played in rock bands. I played keyboard and electric violin.  We did stuff by Chicago and Blood, Sweat & Tears with Al Kooper. Those were the days, you know. And we did some Stones. I think that was really healthy to do.  But don’t look for fame in the business we are in.  It’s a very small, rarified world.

A tower that was added to George Tsontakis's house.

I don’t worry about anything. One of the reasons I can live where I do, and be disassociated to a degree with what else happens is because I’ve gotten myself down to a science in what I want to do.  I’ve realized that the only time I have to compose is when I’m composing.  I don’t have to have anything to do with music otherwise.  I have enough listening experience, unless I want to keep up with the latest stuff.  But all I have to do is sit and compose.  If I sit and compose for two hours that day, I don’t have to talk about music for the rest of my time.  I don’t have to live music.  I don’t have to go to concerts.  I don’t have to do anything.  I think it would be wonderful if somebody did, but I don’t need that.  So I can do that anywhere.  I pack my bag, and I’ll go in the woods.  It doesn’t matter where I do it because I don’t have to listen to it.  I love Beethoven and I love listening to Debussy, but I don’t have to in order to compose.

FJO: There are certain tools that you do need, though.  Yes?

“Nobody wants to just listen to the music of a composer who does nothing but be a composer.”

GT: You definitely need tools, but you develop your own.  All we have to do is compose when we want to compose.  Being involved in music otherwise is an elective.  I don’t need that elective.  I’d rather be involved with other things in my life and do other things.  And I think the broader the package that we make of ourselves, the more we will communicate—because nobody wants to just listen to the music of a composer who does nothing but be a composer.  So I tell my students that.  Enrich yourself.  Do other things because you’ll never write a piece that’s larger than what you’ve created as a person.  Where does the material come from?  How do you write a piece that’s beyond you living in a box, or in NewMusicBox?

FJO: Well, that’s where I live most of the time. But in terms of boxes, I know that you also build things.

GT: I do carpentry.  I love it. You have hobbies. Cage was a mushroom expert.  What is that called?

FJO: A mycologist.

GT: A mycologist. Messiaen was an ornithologist, and others do things that are completely different than music. I like acting and woodworking.

George Tsontakis staining wood on a futon.

FJO: I want to talk to you a bit more about acting because I know that when you were younger, you were being pulled in two different directions—acting vs. music. I’m curious about how your parents responded to all of this. Were they supportive?

GT: They were very supportive.  You know, they were Greek. My father was a furrier and my mom was a stay-at-home mom. I think I was persuasive because my energy just convinced them that I’m not going to be a furrier. Plus, I was a vegetarian.  My father said, “You want to be in the fur business?” And I’d say, “Hey, I’m a vegetarian.  You think I’m going to be cutting up 40 minks to make a coat?  No way.”  They respected it, because even young people make their pitch.  They persuade, the way a composer persuades you through music.  Of course, if you have stubborn parents, that’s harder to do.  But I think my parents recognized that whatever I did, I could be good at it.

I remember my father coming to my first Juilliard concert.  “I’m going to Juilliard to hear my son’s piece.”  It was a string quartet, number zero, and it was like Webern [sings].  He only listened to Greek music and American pop music, and yet he was so proud that people stood and clapped.  Well, they didn’t stand, but they stood to leave after the concert.  By the way, that’s the piece where Persichetti came up to me and said, “I liked your piece; I like the way it ended.”  I knew he meant the fact that it ended. He was a wonderful man.  I loved his sense of humor.  Andrea Olmstead just came out with a book about Persichetti.

FJO:  I have to get that.  Anyway, you said your father came to hear this Webernian thing you wrote and he was proud of you, even though he only listened to pop music and Greek music.  Did he listen to Greek classical music—composers like Kalomiris, Riadis, or Skalkottas?

GT: No, they knew no classical. Skalkottas? He didn’t know Beethoven.  But my parents sang Greek songs.  Or they’d sing “You Are My Sunshine” and harmonize in the car.  They had good voices and they had a great musical sense.  But you know, he just was not educated in those things.  He went right from high school to World War II.  He fought in Italy and got shot up.  There was no time for classical.  But they had an appreciation.  They’d play Mantovani classics, you know.

FJO: Now in terms of having an acting career, you almost got cast in the original Jesus Christ Superstar.

GT: I don’t know how you found that out! I had generous hair. And a beard. I looked like Jesus. I was 20, I think, and the guys I was playing keyboards and violin with in a flaky summer gig rock band called The Mann Act got hired for the road tour of Jesus Christ Superstar so no more band. I asked the clarinetist Dave Hopkins, “So what am I gonna do?” He said, “Why don’t you try out for the open call for actors?” They were trying to cast it like Pasolini, who used people from the street in his movies. The auditions were in two days.

So Dave’s girlfriend and I went to the Mark Hellinger Theater and stood on a huge line. When I finally got in, after several hours, I stood in the wings as some nut-job before me dressed up with St Pepper’s Nehru Jacket placed two incense things on each side of him on the floor and lit them as the directors were waiting impatiently. He started to sing, “My Sweet Lord” and by the time he sang “Krishna,” they said, “Thank you, goodbye.” I went next. I didn’t know the show, but I had learned a short recitative-like song. The pianist had to find the music in a pile. Right after I sang—no mike—Michael Shurtleff, the casting director stopped the auditions and called me to the seats. He asked if I could learn “Gethsemane” and return in a few days. The director was then Frank Corsaro, an opera director who I hadn’t heard of. The audition process became protracted and Shurtleff told me he wanted me for Peter the Apostle which he called a major role but it wasn’t, really, just on stage a lot with Jesus and the other eleven. I ended up auditioning six or seven times, but was knocked out after the dance part of the audition. I didn’t dance well. But then I was reinstated by Shurtleff. Eventually they changed directors and I auditioned two times for Tom O’Horgan of Hair fame. The plan to have Pasolini-like people off the street faded and they ended up with pros. Thank God!  I would have been in theater, and I don’t think I would have liked it as much because you can’t get out to the woods.  You’ve got to get to rehearsals. I wouldn’t have found my true self.  It’s not that I couldn’t have been in something else besides music, but probably not something so extroverted.

FJO: It’s quite a switch to go from singing Andrew Lloyd Weber to studying with Roger Sessions.

GT: That’s true. But there was Queens College in between. I was at NYU in the School of the Arts for Drama. I didn’t last very long because I didn’t like acting classes.  But I went back to my roots playing the violin and studied with Felix Galimir while I was at NYU.  I ran out of money and I wanted to be independent, so I went to Queens College and studied with Hugo Weisgall, George Perle, and Leo Kraft.  It was a very good school, and it was basically free.  From there, I went to Sessions.

I was very lucky because I knew Felix Greissle, who was Schoenberg’s son-in-law and Sessions’s publisher.  I don’t think I would have gotten into Juilliard without Felix’s recommendation.  I was Felix Greissle’s gardener in Manhasset. I did his shrubs. I brought music with me because I knew who he was.  I’d be all dirty and I’d bring these sketches to Felix after I did his gardening, and he said, “This is good.  Someday I will send you to Roger to study.”  And his voice—if you know Schoenberg’s voice from the Kraft Columbia recordings, where Schoenberg says, “My painting is like my music and my music is like my painting.”  It was frightening. Greissle had the same voice as Schoenberg. I wasn’t ready for Juilliard or Roger Sessions, but thanks to Greissle, I got in there and I went right to Roger Sessions.

On top of one of George Tsontakis's grand pianos there's a sign that says

FJO: But there’s a missing piece to this jigsaw puzzle.  You had this epiphany on headphones listening to Firebird and then listening to Beethoven’s Opus 135.  That’s before the Jesus Christ Superstar auditions.

GT: Yeah, it’s before.  I was 15. By Jesus Christ Superstar, I was like 20 years old.

FJO: So at the time you had the epiphany about wanting to be a composer, had you written any music at all?  That’s the missing piece.

GT: Right. I was playing in the school orchestra…

FJO: Playing violin?

GT: Playing violin.

FJO: Not viola yet?

“When you compose, you have to give up violin for viola.”

GT: Not viola.  No.  When you compose, you have to give up violin for viola.  That’s the rule, because you can’t practice as much!  But then in high school, I started composing.  I started composing the last years in high school—funny, odd little pieces.  That’s when I became interested.  It was right after that.  My high school teacher got mad at me because I stopped taking violin lessons.  He was discouraging about my music; he made fun of it, in a way.  It was very crude, but promising.  But I continued and then I played in bands and wrote original tunes.  We had a band doing Blood Sweat & Tears and Chicago, so I wrote pieces for the band with brass.  I guess it was pop.  Then I started to compose more seriously and went to Queens, and—through Hugo Weisgall and Leo Kraft, and, as I mentioned, George Perle—I was on that track.

A pile of CDs and violin bows on a table in George Tsontakis's home.

FJO: Did you know who any of those people were before when you went to study with them?

GT: No. Well, I probably did when I investigated Queens and looked, but George Perle wasn’t George Perle, either.  In those days, he was really not known very much at all.  In fact, when I went to study with Donatoni, I mentioned that George Perle said hello.  And he said, “George Perle, is he a composer?”  He only knew George Perle as a theorist and someone that wrote about Berg.

FJO: Was Sessions a name that you knew of as a composer when you got this recommendation to study with him?

GT: Oh yes. I knew Sessions through Weisgall. So one step at a time, as soon I started seriously studying composition at Queens College. I also had Henry Weinberg, who was this Schoenberg freak. I learned a lot from him.  And I spun off my own theories about fourths and whole-tone scales that I spun off a system I call heaven, which happens to be a hexachord of six fourths in a row.  I think Henry Weinberg started that off in me.  We analyzed The Book of the Hanging Gardens using his ideas.  He was influential on me and Weinberg studied with Sessions.  Weisgall studied with Sessions.  Perle didn’t.  But there were two people of great influence that wanted me to go to study with Roger Sessions. Fate had it that I met Greissle and that flipped it over the top.  I don’t know what Carter thought of me at the Juilliard audition or Persichetti, but with Sessions something resonated.  And, by the way, I stayed with Sessions for five years.

FJO: Well, it’s interesting.  Perle and Weisgall both used 12-tone techniques in their music and so did Sessions. But Persichetti and Carter both did not.  So you were groomed and molded by people who were partial to the 12-tone method, but that’s not what you do.

GT: But I think the lines are in there.  They’re just not as angular.  I have passages of music that sound 12-tone. When I studied with Sessions and I mentioned “atonal,” he’d go, “Well, after all, if it’s atonal, it means it just doesn’t make any sense.”  Because he believed in tonality, no matter what.  And he used the 12-tone system very tangentially.  He did not really write pieces in 12-tone religiously or in a strict technique.  And he believed that it has to sound tonal.

FJO: As did Perle. His whole theory was based on the concept of a 12-tone tonality.

“‘If it’s atonal, it means it just doesn’t make any sense.’”

GT: Like Sessions.  So if I wrote something and it just didn’t make sense, that was atonal.  So I never wrote atonal music.  It’s just a matter of degrees between tonality and chromaticism; to write a really chromatic piece, you actually need more tonality. I can go from what is recognized as a very tonal space to a very—not dissonant, but—chromatic space seamlessly. It’s the stuff in between—the melting sort of thing in between—that is very interesting to me.  I think Berg was the closest, something like Wozzeck.

FJO: Or Lulu or the Violin Concerto even more so.

GT: The Violin Concerto. Right.  Is it tonal or not?  You can’t tell.  I know Schoenberg was not happy with Berg using triads in his music, but so what.

FJO: I actually hear echoes of Berg in your second violin concerto, the Grawemeyer piece.

GT: Oh, there’s a lot.  There’s Ligeti, too, I think. I consider Ligeti a very fine engineer.  I call a lot of the stuff that happens in Europe, which is textural, the school of engineering.  A lot of the composers are working with new textures, but they’re not composing.  They’re engineering stuff in a way that is wonderful, but to be more communicative, I think you have to take the engineering and—it’s like Pinocchio.  Geppetto built Pinocchio. That to me is what the many texturalists are doing.  But it takes a composer to breathe life into it.  How does Pinocchio become alive?

FJO: It’s interesting you say that because I find a lot of emotion in the later Ligeti, in particular the Violin Concerto, the Piano Concerto, and the Piano Etudes.

GT: Well, there’s tension and release.

FJO: And the Horn Trio is fascinating.

GT: Well, there’s drama. But I think there’s a difference between drama and empathy. I remember when Jacob Druckman was coming out to Aspen, he created a new emotion. I called it a new emotion. It was fascinating.  The word fascinating is an emotion now. And I do find Ligeti fascinating.  But I’m not sure how—well, there’s a lot of Bach that’s not emotional either, yet it moves us in a way.  It’s not overtly emotional. Because you are a contemporary music listener, you are so into the nuance of everything that things relative to what you listen to are emotional. But for the average listener, for the people? I mean, who are we going to reach?  Are we aiming to be popular, eventually populist, or are we going to think that Xenakis’s music in two hundred years is going to be Beethoven? No.

FJO: Well, I’m not so sure populism is a good thing, especially these days.  And at the end of the day, it’s all subjective anyway.

GT: I’m not saying you need a large listenership.  There’ll be esoteric little portals, especially with the internet everywhere now.  But how many are listening?  We talked about birds before.  An ornithologist will pee in their pants to see a certain type of warbler, but most people aren’t interested in that.  This is a philosophy.  We could debate it. You can write music for five people to get so excited about. It’s not for everybody, but to those five people, it’s the perfect thing.

The view from the interior of George Tsontakis's home

FJO: So do you think then that there are specific musical gestures that—in and of themselves—could reach more people than other musical gestures can?

GT: I think Rochberg mentioned that in his program notes for my quartets.  He says DNA cells from the past give messages. In late Beethoven, there are little tonal cells that actually have content in them that evokes our emotions.

FJO: Alright, I’m going to play devil’s advocate now.  At this point in time, for the majority of people in the world, Beethoven is completely esoteric.  In relative terms, only a handful of people listen to and understand his music.

GT: That’s right.

FJO: So if you really want to reach a broad audience, you should be writing stuff that sounds like Elton John.

GT: Well, we have to differentiate between abstract music and song.  We don’t teach young people to listen to abstract music—that is, music without words.  If we’re going to have an enemy, why people don’t get into classical music, they’re brought up listening to just song.  Song is fantastic.  We all love song.  Song form is the most popular thing.  It’s the greatest thing we have, in a way.  How long is song form?  What are we competing against when we do a 15-minute Mahler movement?  We’re competing with a song.  How long is a song?  Three minutes, right?  No, a song is about 50 seconds long, repeated twice.  People’s attention spans are very small, plus they have to have words.  It’s very hard to make your point in 50 seconds, so it’s hard to write a good song.  On the other hand, if we taught young people the abstraction of listening to music—jazz, classical, Kenny G., Yanni (oh, God forbid!)—any music without words, they will develop a cognitive ability to listen to abstractions, and they would start.  Those who want to listen to Beethoven will listen to Beethoven.  But just like teaching children to read, some of them are going to read trash, some of them are going read articles, some are only going to read their textbooks, and some will read Beowulf or Socrates.  But we don’t even teach them the equivalent of reading.  You can’t break out of a song.

FJO: But two of those names you mentioned, Kenny G. and Yanni, have both been hugely popular doing instrumental music with no words.

GT: Right. And does anyone go from that to Beethoven?

FJO: Yeah, or another example I was thinking of when you were saying all of this is John Williams. He predominantly writes film scores, but it is abstract, instrumental music with no words. To a great many people, his music is more immediately identifiable and resonant than a late Beethoven string quartet ever would be.

GT: Well, let me tell you a story. I mentioned how I got into classical music, but the other thing that really hit me before that was that I was in plays in high school. I played Tommy Albright in Brigadoon, which my mother always thought was my greatest achievement. You know, “Georgie had a piece commissioned by the Boston Symphony and had the Emerson Quartet play his music, but you should have seen him as Tommy Albright in Brigadoon in high school.”  I didn’t know any classical music, but I loved musicals.  Richard Rodgers is a genius. And I grew up with Oliver and My Fair Lady.

Now what happened was eventually I started liking the overtures more than the other music. You hear Oklahoma, and that overture is fantastic music. I started saying that I really like the music without these dumb words sometimes, or whatever the words were. Now, we have to teach people to do that somehow. I don’t know if Yanni and Kenny G are going to convince them, because that’s a little bit simplistic. But Peter and the Wolf, they don’t speak while there’s music, the speaking is in between the music, so it’s a great way to do it. But you’re right. People listen to Philip Glass who never heard Mozart. That makes me question if that audience will go on to Mozart after that. I think in this day and age we’re just skipping classical music.  People go from Philip Glass to world music or other sophisticated music.

FJO: Well, why do they have to go to music of the past?  Wouldn’t it be great if they could go to other living composers?

GT: I don’t think they need the music of the past, except there are many good examples to teach people how to listen music without words from the past.  Something like Pictures at an Exhibition, which was in Fantasia. I have friends from high school that got interested in classical music because of The Rite of Spring in Fantasia.  You know, they saw the images.  Nobody was speaking.  No one was singing.  But it’s not going to happen with just a couple.  You have to teach people.  In class, even young students concentrate.  And when they have that concentration in the class, even if they hate the music they’re listening to, something happens subliminally.  I remember I was fourth grade, and they played Mozart’s 40th symphony.  I couldn’t stand it.  It was so boring.  I said, “Stop, I’ll confess!” you know? But if you choose the music well, even if they don’t like what they’re listening to, young people will learn that the cognitive idea of form is repetition.  You hear something, then you hear it again in a varied form. Variation and repetition is our business. We’re not dependent on the words to tell the story.  Maybe instead of 4%—in America maybe 4% listen to classical music—it would be 9%.  That’s a lot of people.  Leon Botstein at Bard says that classical music was always an elitist thing.  In Vienna, you couldn’t get into the theater if you didn’t have the clothes to go to that elite theater.  You’d probably hear Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony once in your lifetime, and you had to take a six-hour carriage ride to hear it once.  So it was always a very small number of people. It was never a populist form.

FJO: So then how is that different than the Helmut Lachenmann acolytes of this world who are writing music for a small coterie?

GT: Yeah, but if in America let’s say 4% listen to classical music at all, only 2% of those listen to contemporary classical music. But there is a problem with the museum people, who are the older people that go to concerts. I’ll have a piece played by a symphony orchestra. I go to a lot of these concerts. Even at my age, I’m the youngest person there—it’s really crazy. And those people are there for the museum music.  They’re not there to hear my piece. They’re tolerating my piece. The conductor, the musicians want to do a contemporary piece.  They like my music, but the audience tolerates it.

“If in America let’s say 4% listen to classical music at all, only 2% of those listen to contemporary classical music.”

That brings us to the various audiences that a composer can aim to write for. One is that classical audience.  One is the Emerson Quartet audience, where they have one contemporary piece, and they have Mozart, and then Death and the Maiden by Schubert on a program. Or there’s the contemporary music concerts, or festivals in Europe.  I do admonish young composers that as they’re doing what they really want to do, they might have in mind where their music’s going to go, because unfortunately there’s nothing in the middle.  It’s either you write for the contemporary music concert audience, which is that small, esoteric audience, or you write for the general population and they probably won’t like it. I’m sort of in between those. I have a few pieces that can be played on a contemporary music concert in London, but not at IRCAM. Meanwhile, the music’s played for the traditional audience. Neither one likes what I do. By the way, they said Roger Sessions was too modern for the public audience and not modern enough for the contemporary music field.  There are many composers that are between those poles.

The viola part for a standard repertoire string quartet sits on a music stand near a grand piano in George Tsontakis's living room

FJO: But then I think there’s a third path, which is different from either trying to fit in with standard repertoire or being embraced by the more established contemporary music networks. You mentioned Philip Glass in passing.  People like him, Steve Reich, or Meredith Monk, ensembles like the Kronos Quartet and entities like Bang on a Can have all found a way to galvanize a completely different audience which is none of those audiences.

GT: And that’s fantastic. But a lot of those people are the ones that have never heard Mozart, too.

FJO: Exactly.

GT: And that’s fine. We need all the forces we can get. But what is the music? As long as that music has the sophistication of the great composers—I’m going to be in danger saying the great composers—but the sophistication of, say, a Messiaen, if they have that integrity, then they’re following a classical line.  I think all you mentioned have a combination of music that does do that and music that has more of a pop end of it, too, an appeal, but the materials may not be as—I don’t know a better word than—sophisticated.  And that doesn’t mean elite.  World music, Greek music, I mean that is sophisticated within its own realm, but again, it’s song form and it’s limited. Jazz is very sophisticated music, but it’s not accessible. Jazz is accessible only to those people that come to it.  But it’s all a question of whether there is a main classical line.  I think only the future will decide that.

FJO: I think it goes back to what you were saying earlier about how people continue to promulgate this idea that there’s this straight line from 1800 to 1900 to 2000, but in the year 2018 it’s very clear that there isn’t a linear progression.

GT: Well, it depends. We have to decide what our genres are. With the contemporary music thing, any combination will work. You can have a xylophone and three piccolos. Whereas, if you’re talking about the classical line, about orchestral music, what do we do with that music? Andriessen said he would never write for orchestra, but he did eventually.  So what do we do with the orchestra?  Why isn’t the orchestra expanded?  Why hasn’t it added saxophones or Chinese instruments for texture? It’s so museum-ish, that the orchestra is becoming a museum in itself. So it depends what we’re talking about. What are the lines we bring forward? Electronic music has dispelled a lot of that. But even if we stay on acoustic music, there are so many divisions.

FJO: To bring this all back to your music, you’re obviously attracted to the orchestra. And you’re attracted to the string quartet. You’ve written eight of them.

GT: Well that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy because I write a quartet and another quartet likes it. The Network for New Music commissioned a piece about ten years ago, and I said, “What’s the combination?”  “Whatever you like.” And I go, “Holy cow, I get to think on my own.” So I chose soprano sax, harp, piano, horn, whatever, this ideal thing. But when I sat down to write the piece, which became Gymnopedies, I said, “I hate this combination; what am I going to do with this?” It turned out that I liked the combination. But I write quartets because the next person commissions a quartet. I write orchestral music because it appeals to a conductor.

FJO: But if you write a piece for a crazy combination, no matter how good it sounds, how many performances is it going to get after the premiere? Who has the resources to put such an ensemble together?

GT: Well, my combination was more accessible than many combinations that people write for, weird things like accordions and kazoos. A lot of young composers are writing impractical works that way.  But Gymnopedies has been played quite a bit. And I conduct it, too. If you think of the Pierrot plus percussion ensemble, it’s only a few more instruments, and instead of a clarinet, you have a soprano saxophone and a harp.

FJO: Well, the Pierrot ensemble with or without percussion is an interesting phenomenon. The closest thing to it I can think of in earlier repertoire are some J.C. Bach quintets for flute, oboe, violin, cello, and harpsichord. It’s something that really did not become established as a common instrumental combination until the 20th century.

GT: To a detriment, almost. But not only is the Pierrot ensemble reminiscent of a successful combination by Schoenberg, it’s also a low-budget orchestra in a way. It just doesn’t have the brass instruments. I have a piece that I wrote for Da Capo [Chamber Players] called Gravity. It’s with just the five, without the percussion.

FJO: It’s much more typical though, for you to write for the same combinations that composers in the 19th century wrote for. An instrumental combination that you’ve returned to several times, that was very popular back then, is the piano quartet.

GT: I’m writing a fourth one. It’s on the music stand over there.

A page of music manuscript paper with hand written notation on it sits on top of a table with a Tanglewood program and a pair of binoculars.

FJO: Wow! This is very interesting to me, because despite how prominent this combination once was, there haven’t been a ton of them in recent times. There’s this great Stephen Hartke piece, Kingdom of the Sun

GT: —Wonderful piece.

FJO: There also aren’t a lot of ensembles that are commissioning new pieces. One I can think of is the Ames Piano Quartet in Iowa.

GT: That’s who I’m writing for.

FJO: Hah!

GT: But Ida Kavafian’s group, OPUS ONE, commissioned No. 3. No. 2 was for the Broyhill Chamber Players. Brian Zeger commissioned it for the Cape and Islands Festival. No. 1 was commissioned by Larry Dutton and his wife, who have a piano quartet.

FJO: So there are a handful of groups. But it’s another one of those things. You were talking about people who listen to certain contemporary music who don’t know Mozart and don’t listen to his music. If you described one of your pieces to these folks as a piano quartet, they’d assume it was for four pianos.

GT: Right.

FJO: It’s a wonderful combination, but it is not something that’s really part of contemporary music parlance very much these days. Still, it’s an area you have repeatedly mined. Which is why it was very interesting to hear you say earlier that the orchestra has not expanded to include saxophones or Chinese instruments. You don’t really throw things like Chinese instruments or, say, electric guitars into your pieces. You’ve made a very conscious effort to write for standard ensembles.

“I have not written a piece since 1983 that wasn’t commissioned.”

GT: I have not written a piece since 1983 that wasn’t commissioned. I’m very lucky—knock on something here.  Or maybe stop commissioning [me]. I’ve said it’s enough already. But no, I just do on-demand. If nobody asked me to write a piece, I wouldn’t compose. I’d be doing other things. I’m very happy to not compose.  It’s been a great, great thing. Same thing with teaching. But one of the secrets to life is that I only write what people ask for. So what am I going to do? Network for New Music was the only one that said I could have my choice out of probably 80 pieces I’ve written. The others say, we’ve got a quartet; we want you to write this.  So what am I writing now? I’ll tell you: the Piano Quartet No. 4 for the Ames Piano Quartet. They recorded my third and they did a beautiful job. For the Dallas Symphony, I wrote a piano concerto for Stephen Hough. They’re commissioning a piece from me for their co-concertmaster Gary Levinson. It wasn’t my choice, but I love orchestra.

And I have the Albany Symphony; they’re commissioning a requiem. I’m very excited. It was going to be an orchestra piece; they got money from the New York State Council on the Arts. But my mom passed away in January, so I asked David [Alan Miller], “Can it please be a requiem? I’ll do it for the same money as common orchestra.”  So that’s very exciting to me. Then a consortium commissioned Portraits by El Greco 2—Book 2. It’s a piece that I mentioned with slide projections of El Greco.  It’s very personal to me because El Greco was from Crete, as I am from Crete, in Greece. But I didn’t ask; people ask me for pieces. In fact, for the El Greco piece, they asked for the same piece. Steve Copes, concertmaster of St. Paul, played [the first one] at the Colorado Music Festival and, I don’t know, maybe I said I’d be interested to do another one, so he asked me, “Can you do an El Greco sequel?”

FJO: Well, this is the thing. You say you only compose on commission, but there are ways to maneuver that so that you write the pieces you want.

GT: But not if they’re piano quartets.

FJO: Sure, but I’m thinking of one of my all-time favorite pieces of yours. It was a piece that was created piecemeal, through various commissions for short pieces from four different orchestras. Yet you had this larger thing in your mind—the Four Symphonic Quartets, which is the symphony that you didn’t name a symphony.

GT: That came about because I loved Four Quartets by T.S. Eliot.  I learned a lot from that. It took T.S. Eliot years to write that because he wasn’t old enough.  When you hit 50, you can understand Four Quartets, because it’s a bit about dying and growing. You have to get to be a certain age. A 25-year-old can say, “Well, it’s cool,” but they don’t know what T.S. Eliot was talking about.  So I got to that certain age where I started descending, when life starts biologically descending, even though you’re still excited about it.

FJO: But were still in your 40s when you wrote those.

GT: I wasn’t 50 yet. Okay, you’re right, I forgot. But I felt like I was descending anyway, and I started to understand T.S. Eliot. Roger Sessions wanted to write When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d when he was in his 20s, and he said he couldn’t. It wasn’t until the death of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr. that his maturity enabled him to do that. He told a story about that. He said, he was like 60-years old and finally he could tell the story of Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d. It’s a great example because he was in his 20s understanding how great it was, but not being able to explain it.

And that’s what happened when the first commission came along from Ransom Wilson for the Tuscaloosa Symphony. I said I wanted to do something influenced by T.S. Eliot, so I named it Perpetual Angelus. Then the next commission came along, and I said, “Can I make it another one of the four quartets?”  But you’re right, it was piecemeal. In the back of my mind I wanted to put those four pieces together, but who would commission an hour-long piece?

FJO: It’s similar to the way David Del Tredici commissioned the various sections of the piece that is now An Alice Symphony. Then, after that, he composed so many other Alice-themed pieces.

GT:  Who knows whether David at the beginning said, “I’m going to engineer this whole series of Alice pieces,” or if he started with one and said, “I think I’ll do more of that.” Maybe my Portraits by El Greco will be book eight or nine. I’m going to run out of paintings I like by El Greco, but the impulse will be there. That’s interesting.

FJO: Alright, even though you claim you don’t need or want another commission, what pieces would you want to write if anyone could commission you in the world?

GT: Well, let’s say I quit composing, which I talk about to my friends. Then I’d get a lucrative commission. “It’s terrible,” I say. Then all my friends say, “Well, give it to me, I’ll write it.”  But if I had the choice, I’d want to do acting or something else. I would still want to write the occasional piano piece.  I’d like to write for a capella choir, canzones like Gabrieli or Monteverdi, and maybe some songs. I would do that on the side. I’m also a little bit upset after Ghost Variations. I think Sarabesque, which I wrote for Sarah Rothenberg might have been written after that, but no one’s asked me to write another piano piece.  I’m pretty pissed off about that.

FJO: But you’ve done some little ones.

GT: Well, the Bagatelle was my first attempt to write a piano piece for Yefim Bronfman since Ghost Variations, which was for Bronfman, was due.  So I wrote Ghost Variations and then the dedication piece for Sarah Rothenberg. But no one’s asked me and yet Ghost Variations is played all the time. And I’m going, “How come nobody wants any more piano music, including Stephen Hough?” Now Stephen Hough is composing his own music, he doesn’t want to learn any more new music!

FJO: Well, he learned your concerto.

GT: The Man of Sorrows and it was recorded with the Dallas Symphony on Hyperion.

FJO: That’s one I haven’t heard yet.

GT: Well, you should hear it. It’s 39-minutes long and no one wants to do it again.

FJO: But you mentioned another piece of yours happening in Dallas.

GT: A violin concerto for Gary Levinson. Yeah, that’s on the books, as soon as they get a new director.

FJO: It’s interesting that you keep using the word concerto because except for the violin concertos, you avoid that word in the titles of your pieces. All the other pieces for soloist and orchestra have other names, like the piece I was calling your trumpet concerto, which has a lot of jazz inflections.

GT: True Colors. You’re right. And Unforgettable is a two-violin concerto.

FJO: That’s the George Soros piece. How did you get commissioned by George Soros?

“You’re writing for people like you and you’re trying to convince everybody else to become like you, which makes composing an amazing persuasive art.”

GT: Through Jennifer Chun and Angela Chun. They’re a wonderful violin team. Jennifer was dating George Soros for seven years. Jennifer was looking around for somebody [to write them a piece] through some sources, including Leon Botstein who’s a friend of George Soros. I think he recommended me. It was very similar to how they came upon me for an English horn concerto at the Boston Symphony where Rob Sheena was promised a concerto from James Levine and he went on a search for composers. Rob had looked for years for someone to write the concerto and it was like Goldilocks—this one’s not quite right and that one’s not quite right. I think David [Alan] Miller was a schoolmate of his and David recommended me and it resonated with Rob.  It’s just a matter of taste.  I’m not saying they chose me above these other composers. When it comes down to it, I don’t write for everybody. But I don’t write just for myself.  As John Gardner wrote in Moral Fiction, I write for people like me. People who are like you are going to like your music better. Composition is also persuasion, so you’re writing for people like you and you’re trying to convince everybody else to become like you, which makes composing an amazing persuasive art.

FJO: And that’s where you can throw in the esoteric things that you like and make them un-esoteric.

GT: You can also introduce them to ideas and say I didn’t make it in that piece. I didn’t get that across. I’m going to try it again in the next piece. This is another problem we have—are you a first-listening composer? When I talk to young composers, I ask, “Are you going to write a first-listening piece, or are you going to write a piece that you need repetition to get?” You’re not going to read Eliot’s Four Quartets the first time and go, “Wow, it was really good.” No, you have to keep reading it over and over again. People don’t stand before a Cezanne and clap after seeing it for a few minutes.  You have to come back.

That doesn’t mean you can’t write a good first-listening piece. But a lot of young composers are persuaded to write that piece because probably that audience will never hear it again.  Or no one will hear it again. You have to keep in mind that there is a world where you need to listen.  Maybe I don’t listen enough times to really get Lachenmann. Or Ligeti. Maybe there is an emotion there if I gave it more of a chance. There is something to be said for that. And by the way, composers talk about awards, and of course I have a couple big, good money awards. I do believe that that’s also an aspect. I wouldn’t live for awards; the award is a by-product. But the interesting thing about awards though is that they [the judges] have to listen more than once.  They listen many times. We talked about Tim Page. Tim told me for the Pulitzer they listen over and over again.  What happens is that during that first round, the first-listening composer might be the one that everyone on the panel likes.  Then they do the second round of listening, and that first-listening piece isn’t as interesting anymore.  It moves back to number five.  Maybe a piece like mine that just made the cut can move up.  Those multiple-listening composers wear better for people listening over and over.  Meanwhile, the easy listening ones are going backwards.

I know with the Grawemeyer, they listen to pieces a hundred times. The lay panel at the end that decides the final, they listen to it so many times that they must go crazy: “I thought I liked that piece, but I listened to it five times.” So if we had any parallel to that where we could get people to listen over and over—we do; it’s called recordings.

George Tsontakis's backhoe

FJO: It’s interesting that you bring up the Pulitzer, because I read somewhere that you refused to have your music submitted to the Pulitzer.

GT: I will not sign for it. You have to sign, and I won’t do it. It’s just a personal thing.  There’s some great people who have. To me, it’s too facile. When I had to call Aaron Kernis a few days afterwards for something else, and I congratulated him, I said, “You know, Aaron, this is going to facilitate introductions at parties; you have this label.” And he laughed. I don’t like that label. I think it’s overdone. I think there’s nothing wrong with it, but I would not like to have a label that stuck on me that’s more important than being a composer. If I were a journalist, I would probably want it. But as a composer, I don’t want that label, because I wouldn’t believe in it as much as the people that would hoo and haw about it.  It’s a little bit like my mother saying Georgie was fantastic in Brigadoon in high school. And I’d go, “Mom, I’m beyond that.”  So it’s a personal thing. I wouldn’t stop someone. I don’t think the young composers care that much about things like that, but back in the day, when it was very important, everybody was thinking maybe I’ll be so good I’ll get a Pulitzer Prize. I don’t have to worry about that.

“Back in the day, when it was very important, everybody was thinking maybe I’ll be so good I’ll get a Pulitzer Prize. I don’t have to worry about that.”

I came in from my lesson after it was announced that Roger Sessions, who was 80 years old, got the prize.  And I said, “Mr. Sessions, congratulations on the Pulitzer Prize.” And he said, “Oh thank you, George.” I said, “You must be excited.” And he said, “Well, they called me at home, and when I got off the phone, my wife says, ‘Who was it?’ ‘Apparently, my Concerto for Orchestra won the Pulitzer Prize.’ And she said, ‘How much is it?’ And I said, ‘Well, it’s a thousand dollars.’ And she said, ‘Oh, goodie. Now we can have an extra egg for breakfast every morning.’” They were not impressed.

The other thing is that this Astoria thing comes back. I do consider myself a Greek composer, too. They do a lot of my music in Greece. I’m going to start a multi-year residency with the Athens Megaron in January. The Megaron is like the Lincoln Center of Greece—beautiful buildings and auditoriums. I’m an American composer, for sure, and I love being an American, but I feel international at the same time. I think the Pulitzer defines somebody as more American than I want to be, except in spirit.

A bunch of post-it notes on George Tsontakis's door with reminders of things he needs to do.

FJO: But of course, now the Pulitzer’s completely opened up. It’s not only—

GT: —Classical. In fact, yeah, who won it, what kind of musician?

FJO: This year it was awarded to Kendrick Lamar, who is a rapper.

GT: Right, that’s amazing. I guess it’s fine, but it’s like the MacArthur. Remember when they gave out MacArthurs to Ralph Shapey and George Perle and John Harbison. Now they’re giving it to young people.  They can use the money.  And giving it to George Perle when he was 75 is not going to help his career. But I think that’s the way of the world now, maybe to a fault in a way.

This is the question: is the quality still there? I’m not questioning it, but I am questioning it! What is the meaning of this?  We talked about the artist colonies. It’s not only classical composers, it’s somebody in rock or jazz. Well, jazz has always been accepted and I love it; jazz is a powerful idiom.  But everything is becoming “whoever has talent should be supported” basically. The MacArthur has really been looking for more esoteric people that do something that someone else doesn’t do. And looking for a contradictory profile or something like that, not just somebody who’s great at whatever.

The field is opening up and that only makes more competition. It’ll be a big melting pot of what happens. But I go back to the point, as long as the sophistication is there, it’s okay with me. The skills and craft that a composer or an artist has are serious stuff. It doesn’t have to be serious, but it’s a serious commodity that I think we have to keep up with.  Again, one could argue that writing a good jingle is a hard thing to do. Geniuses have to write jingles. When I have composition class, the first piece I teach is “You Really Got Me” by The Kinks.  It’s only two notes and there’s diminution like Beethoven when they go [sings]: “You really got me. You really got me. You really got me.”

It’s an amazing piece of music. And how many could write a piece of music that economical? But is it Debussy?  Well, there’s a DNA like Debussy, but other characteristics are not expanded in a sophisticated way.

The spark of creativity has unlimited value. So is that as sophisticated as anything?  Yeah, in its own, minute way. But with classical music, it’s the expansion of that idea—that seed, that spark of creativity, that genius—through time. That’s one of the things that makes classical music, even contemporary classical music, different than other music. Usually the lack of words and the expansive movement of it; it’s not a small form.

FJO: This could be a much larger discussion, which I’d love to have. But I think, unfortunately, that we’re running out of time here. So a final area, for now at least. You’ve been offering advice to younger composers throughout this conversation. In the 20th century when you came to be you, you did all of these things the way one should in the 20th century. You studied with some very prominent teachers. You were signed by a major publisher, there were all these recordings of your music out there, and you won some huge awards. But in the 21st century, things are very different.

GT: Extremely.

FJO: People get attention for their music in very different ways now. But you don’t have a personal website.  You don’t use social media.  You don’t do any of the things that composers do to put themselves in people’s faces. And you live here, so you can’t run into somebody outside of Zabar’s and get a commission!

“If there was a site, LeaveMeAlone.com, I’d join that immediately.”

GT: It shows what you can do if you just write the music. I think that’s the answer. Of course, I had the benefit of becoming known before you needed a website. So maybe I’m going on fumes here. Maybe I was lucky to get elevated and have not many people know what I do, but enough that I get to write the next piece.  As I always say, I’m only interested in who’s going to ask for the next piece, and maybe who’s going to record it.  Those are the only two things I need.  Multiple performances, you get that through websites or whatever. I don’t care. I’m not a promoter. I’m not even a person that wants pieces to be played all the time. I just want to know what the next piece I’m going to write is. If it has to be piano quartet number five, it might have to be.  Whatever. That’s why I can live here. If you live minimally, and you just do the thing you’re supposed to do, you don’t need all the other stuff. But yeah, I tell my students, “I don’t do Your Face, My Ass. I don’t do any of that stuff! If there was a site, LeaveMeAlone.com, I’d join that immediately.” But I’m lucky to be able to do that.

At a lesson once, I said, “Mr. Sessions, I think I should do go back and do species counterpoint.” He said, “Well, you can George. After all, counterpoint is confidence.” That’s all it was to him. You’re not going to write like that, but it’s confidence in your composing.  And faith is a very important thing if you want to go it alone and be independent.

The road leading to George Tsontakis's home.

One quick metaphor. The other day I was in my old Honda Accord. It’s got a big hatchback window, and this huge bee was trying to get through the glass. I opened all the doors. I took paper, I tried to shoo him away, but he kept going right back to that glass. It was a great metaphor, but this glass ceiling was not necessary if the damn bee would just go out the door. I tell young composers, “Open up your horizons and go through the doors!” So maybe that bee is like trying to appeal to the contemporary music crowd, this limited milieu; whereas, there are so many performers and so many orchestras that would be happy to do their stuff. You’ve got to broaden your horizons.  Or you’ve got to hope that glass disappears and suddenly you’re free. I think my life has been a combination of those two things. I haven’t depended on the unusual channels for where my music is going to go.  So that’s going out the doors of the car.  And yet I still have faith that that glass thing will open up.  And sometimes it does.  I think it’s a matter of knowing what you’re supposed to do in life and having faith that eventually you get a break and that glass will open up occasionally.

It’s a hard path to go on. But it’s worked somehow. So many events in my life were serendipity. Like meeting Felix Greissle, who led me to Sessions because I was a gardener.  Also for young composers, you should accept any work you get. I know some composers, “I’m not going to go for that commission; I’m not going to get paid for that.” Take it. Keep in motion. And that leads to other things. No job is too small.

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