At the apartment of Dr. Rock Positano in New York City
January 15, 2014—2 p.m.
Transcribed by Julia Lu
Video presentation by Alexandra Gardner
Although Marc Neikrug’s name is unlikely to come up when new music fans talk about the most prominent living American composers, Neikrug has had more high-profile performances of his music than most composers of our time. Most of them, however, have occurred outside the umbrella of the “new music community.” World famous actors such as Maximilian Schell and John Turturro have performed in his Through Roses, a dramatic monologue accompanied by a chamber ensemble which has been translated into 11 languages and presented in 15 countries. His anti-nuclear opera Los Alamos is the only American work ever commissioned by the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Other works of his have been championed by such well-known singers and instrumentalists as Susan Graham, Heidi Grant Murphy, James Galway, Lynn Harrell, and Pinchas Zukerman, artists who are not frequently associated with contemporary music.
Part of why his music has attracted the attention of so many of these “blue chip” soloists is that for many years he was a member of that exclusive club himself—a concert pianist who performed standard repertoire in most of the world’s major concert halls. For decades he was the recital partner of Pinchas Zukerman, with whom he not only toured extensively but also recorded with for many of the major labels. As a result of being in that milieu, Neikrug has somehow remained outside of the new music scene, but he’s perfectly O.K. with that:
I would rather have Jimmy Galway play my flute concerto than some person who can’t play Mozart or Bach or anything else, but only plays new music. … And those were the people I was around. … I saw them all the time. I played other things with them. I actually was never really in that new music side of things, and I always felt I was not taken seriously as a composer. It was like, “Well, you know, he’s not one of us because he plays Beethoven and Schumann.” I was taken seriously by some very good composers who have always been very close to me. … But the kind of Speculum, etc. world, that was not me. That was more academics.
Yet, stylistically at least, much of Neikrug’s music comes out of and is deeply indebted to the sound world of atonal modernism. When he was growing up, this approach to musical composition was all around him.
That’s definitely in my subconscious genetics. … My mother was also a composer. She studied with Wolpe … and she was very, very strictly serial. She actually had this huge cardboard thing with her row written out 48 times and she would go from there. As an infant, I was under the piano, so I heard that for quite some time. Both of my parents were very, very new music oriented, so there were other composers around. I knew [Leon] Kirchner from the time I was two years old.
But if the ethos of modernism was in his genes, it certainly seems to never have been in his soul, both in terms of what inspires the music he writes and the lifestyle he has chosen to lead. More than thirty years ago, he ventured away from all of the major urban centers and went to live on a Native American Pueblo in Santa Fe with Dolly Naranjo, a traditional potter whom he married. When he first relocated to New Mexico, he purposefully distanced himself from the music community, even keeping his whereabouts a secret from the people who knew him as a pianist and composer. It was his oasis away from everything. While he eventually got involved with the local music scene, eventually becoming the artistic director of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival (a job he still holds), he has maintained this stance of being an outsider.
While earlier this season the Boston Symphony Orchestra performed his Bassoon Concerto and Yefim Bronfman played a new solo piano composition of his as part of a concert presented by the New York Philharmonic, Neikrug has grown more and more interested in creating pieces that will reach listeners beyond the concert hall. In 2010, a commission from the University of New Mexico’s Cancer Institute resulted in Healing Ceremony, an orchestral song cycle specifically created for the purpose of helping the healing process of people who hear it. According to Neikrug, studies done on listeners to this music have shown that it has reduced their blood pressure—hardly a typical response to a piece of new music.
I’ve always been communicative and dramatic. There’s a clear communication of music being used as an outlet for emotional experience. That transmits to any audience. … But I consciously made the decision that of all my pieces on earth, this one is certainly not going to be played at a new music concert! I want this to have the physical effect on people that I intended it to have. In fact, I don’t even care if it’s seen as new music.
But of course it is new music, and Neikrug in fact acknowledges that everything else that he’s done—whether it’s coordinating concerts in Santa Fe or even performing and practicing Beethoven and Brahms—is done “as a composer.” What exactly he means by that made for a fascinating conversation.
Frank J. Oteri: In the course of your life, you’ve inhabited several different musical worlds and you still do: being a concert pianist playing standard repertoire in the milieu of blue-chip soloists, being in charge of a music festival, and being a composer. Each of these worlds is pretty self-contained and often doesn’t see outside itself. As somebody who has navigated between these different worlds for so many years, I thought it would be interesting to hear your observations.
Marc Neikrug: I don’t feel—and have never really felt—differences in those worlds because I don’t wake up with three bodies. I wake up with myself. I understand that people who are not inside me, which is virtually everyone except me, see them as separate. But for me, they’re not separate. When I was 17, 18, I was studying conducting and playing the piano and composing. Everyone, including my own teachers, said, “This is fine. You’ll do this for a certain amount of time. And then you will find that you have to make a choice.” I never accepted that that was true, or inevitable, or anything else. And it hasn’t been. I think it’s more about the priority within. And [my] priority within has always been that I do everything as a composer. You cannot be a real, true, serious, life-long, dedicated composer without that being the first priority. There is no other way. So when I perform and practice Beethoven or Brahms or whatever, it’s as a composer who has to go play concerts. When I run a festival, it’s as a composer. Anyone who would study the programming, which is the most important thing to me, would immediately say, “Wow, there’s a lot of new music here.” Well, of course, because that’s my focus. I’m a composer. I can make a festival with music from the past three or four hundred years, but the way the programs are generated is from my perspective as a composer.
FJO: When you talked about playing Beethoven and Brahms, you said, “I’m composer who has to go do a concert.” That “has to” I thought was very interesting.
MN: Well, I knew early on that I needed to make a living. Starting in the late ‘60s, there were no more parental allowances of any sort. The choices for composers were either you became an academic or you did some kind of administrative role—there were always administrative jobs at recording companies or publishing companies—or you became a performer. It seemed most natural to me to play. I love playing all music. So that became my job. Now, the strange thing about it is—which is not at all strange, it’s actually quite simple—if you’re playing concerts on the level that I was, in every great venue that concerts are played in around the globe with huge superstar people, you are going to be playing for tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people more than whatever your pieces are being played for. Therefore you’re going to become much more famous, much faster, doing that concertizing than you are being a composer. But that was never how I felt it. I was a composer and I had to [perform] to make a living, so that I had time to write my pieces.
FJO: Of course, you grew up in a family of performers. And your earliest compositions—or at least the earliest ones that you were willing to share with me, or the earliest that even survive at this point—were things that were played either by your father or that you played with your father. So it seems to me that deciding to be a performer was kind of like deciding to join the family business.
MN: My mother was a great cellist, also. She won the first Naumburg. But she was also a composer. She studied with Wolpe. She wrote eight string quartets, an opera, 200 Emily Dickinson songs. She was—bless her soul—really out of her mind; she never shared these pieces with anybody. She didn’t care to hear them or have them played. She just did this thing which was composing, and she was very, very strictly serial. I mean, she actually had this huge cardboard thing with her row written out 48 times and she would go from there. As an infant, I was under the piano, so I heard that for quite some time. Both of my parents were very, very new music oriented, so there were other composers around. I knew [Leon] Kirchner from the time I was two years old. I had this seamless sense of performers and composers. They were all together. It wasn’t, “Here’s this world of people who play concerts and become very well-known and comfortable doing that,” and then, “Here’s composers and these other guys that only play that.” It was all together for me.
FJO: Yet your mother hid her compositions.
MN: It wasn’t exactly hiding. I’ve spent a lot of money trying to figure this one out, on a couch like this. She was just private. It was her endeavor, and she didn’t need the recognition whatsoever. It wasn’t part of her nature to have any sort of recognition. It just was what she did. And, if you want to get wackier, she put down her pencil, or pen, or whatever you want to call it, the minute I started seriously writing music. She never wrote another piece. She said, “I know how to do it. I work very hard. But you have the talent. I don’t have this talent. I don’t need to do this.” And she started painting. She studied here at the Art Students League. She was, all around, a very accomplished person in different aspects.
FJO: So it wasn’t like she instilled this notion that music is something that you do, but it’s private.
MN: I didn’t realize that until much later.
FJO: But, in terms of you getting your push to be in the world of performers, obviously growing up with musicians helped.
MN: Well, there’s also a little bit of a dichotomy between them. My mother was a real prodigy. She played for the czar when she was six. She had this almost iconic, terrible upbringing. On one of her birthdays, I think seven or eight, she asked her father if she could practice five hours that day, instead of eight, and he beat her because she asked. So she was rather against my being pushed in any way. My dad wanted to, but she didn’t let him. So I didn’t have any push, but I never really wanted to do anything else, particularly. I was in this business when I was five years old. I knew the same kinds of people that I know today. They were just grown up and I wasn’t. Apparently at some age I looked out the window and I asked my parents, “All these people walking, where are their cellos?” Because I just assumed they all had them some place. So I was in this thing from the beginning. I spent the first nine months of my life before being born next to a cello that was vibrating and being played, and listening to that; not only listening, but feeling all of that. So I don’t think I had a lot of choice.
FJO: Now, in terms of your saying “have to”—
MN: It’s hard to play the piano. It’s really hard. Composing is difficult, but I don’t have the same kinds of problems. To play at the level that people play, you really have to work and practice. So I have to put in the hours of doing that. And the traveling is hard. By the way, I’m kind of not doing it any more. I got to retirement age, and I just don’t want to spend the time. It was enjoyable. It’s great once you’re ready to go out and play and the rewards are very different. They’re so immediate. You play and people cheer and they think you’re great. And then that’s gone. It’s very different for pieces. It’s much more satisfying, but it’s delayed.
FJO: I want to go back to another thing you said at the outset, that everything you’ve done comes out of being a composer. I certainly see that in terms of the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and how that has played out over the seasons.
FJO: Some fantastic pieces of music came out of that. But curiously, in terms of your career as a pianist, certainly in terms of what has been documented on recordings, there’s been very little new music. The only new music that I’ve heard you play is your own.
MN: I commissioned a pretty well-known Lutoslawski piece for Pinchas [Zukerman] and I to play, and we played that quite a bit. We played a lot of Takemitsu. We played Per Nørgård. We played some of the composers that were particularly close to me. Yes, in terms of the CDs we did, it’s the complete Mozart, complete Beethoven, complete Brahms, complete Schumann, all of this. That was what was significant in that very rarified world of playing in 2,000-seat halls, playing on the Boston Celebrity Series or in the Musikverein in Vienna, at least in those days. I think today it might be easier.
FJO: But I do think that traveling in that orbit ultimately opened certain doors for you, as a composer, that are very difficult for most composers to open. Top soloists like James Galway, Lynn Harrell, Heidi Grant Murphy, or conductors like Lorin Maazel, who are not usually associated with new music, all championed your music. Perhaps it’s because they already knew you in a different context, as a concert pianist. Or am I just imagining all this?
MN: When I was living here [in NYC] in my late 20s, I remember having a conversation with a publisher at Hansen who very specifically said to me, “Real, established success as a composer is when you’re played on real concerts and not new music concerts. Bartók is played on real concerts. Stravinsky is played on real concerts. That’s where you want to get to.” In my mind, as I was saying earlier, it was all one thing to me when I was a child. I think I always thought I would rather have Jimmy Galway play my flute concerto than some person who can’t play Mozart or Bach or anything else, but only plays new music. I would rather have it done in Pittsburgh, and then taken on tour by Maazel, than in a single someplace on a new music concert. And those were the people I was around. I think also I understand them. I mean, I understand the mindset of these fabulously accomplished musicians, who don’t happen to have that curiosity about new music and are not going to go looking for which composers are writing what. It’s what they happen to hear, or happen to know. And I was there. I saw them all the time. I played other things with them. I actually was never really in that new music side of things, and I always felt I was not taken seriously as a composer.
FJO: Because you were a concert pianist?
MN: It was like, “Well, you know, he’s not one of us because he plays Beethoven and Schumann.” I was taken seriously by some very good composers who have always been very close to me. Takemitsu was one of my closest friends. Olly Knussen is still one of my very closest friends. But the kind of Speculum, etc. world, that was not me. That was more academics.
FJO: Yet you sat underneath the piano as 48 row forms were being permuted.
MN: Absolutely. That’s definitely in my subconscious genetics.
FJO: And you also had the imprimatur of a major publisher very early on.
MN: Again, it was very curious. I was published by Barenreiter when I was 18. That’s very strange. I had no idea what that even meant at the time. Then later there was this incredible family, the Hansens in Denmark, who have the legacy of publishing The Soldier’s Tale. And they really had a kind of monopoly on serious music in Denmark. They had the publishing house where every Scandinavian composer was being published. They had a concert series they put on. Then they had entire educational programs that they ran. The matriarch at that time was Hanne Wilhelm Hansen. I was introduced to her by Daniel Barenboim because he was my friend and he said, “Marc is also a composer. You might want to look at his pieces.” So I had my first really serious publishing done there. That was in the late ‘70s. So I became friends with all of the Scandinavians, which happened to be an incredible group of composers. Then they were bought up by Music Sales, and Schirmer was bought up by Music Sales, and these things kind of merged and I got to here instead of there.
FJO: I want to jump back to what you were saying about your music being outside the realm of Speculum Musicae and other established contemporary music groups, even though it gets done on these big concerts. I don’t feel like your music sounds like older music; you’re clearly writing with your own voice which is contemporary. But might it be fair to say that the kind of music that fits best on a concert paired with, say, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky, might not be the same kind of music that fits in best on an all-new music program?
MN: Well, what I feel—and have always felt—is that the single most important thing for composers to strive for is their own voice. There is nothing more crucial than your own voice. You need to be able to listen to two minutes of any piece and say that can only be so and so. I don’t care if it’s Mozart, or Brahms, or Ligeti, or whomever. That’s crucial. And I feel that my own path over these decades of trying to get there has always been very self-contained, very purposeful, and almost with blinders on in trying to get to what my sound is. That long path has had me at varying positions in [relationship to] where the immediate trendy music should be. In the ‘70s, I would [have been considered to be] on the not-extremely-experimental or revolutionary side; today, it’s shifted to where people are writing things which I find very old, or superficial, or simplistic. I’ve never wavered. I’ve had to find the path. I’ve experimented—a little bit more this, a little bit more that—but my voice has clearly been one path that I’ve tried to find. I think the reason that it works in the context of these programs which aren’t for a new music audience particularly is that I’ve always been communicative and dramatic. There’s a clear communication of music being used as an outlet for emotional experience. That transmits to any audience. It doesn’t make any difference. It’s more problematic if the audience is dogmatic. It’s less problematic if they simply are there and they say, “Wow, what on earth is this gonna be?”
FJO: Except, there is this classic story that so many composers have told me over the years that I’ve witnessed, too. You get an audience that is programmed to think that new music is something they shouldn’t like, and so they walk in with this attitude. Whereas with famous name composers from the past, whether or not they like Beethoven or Tchaikovsky, they know they’re supposed to. So those guys get a pass with whatever odd thing they may do. You know, Tchaikovsky having a whole movement in five-four time. He could get away with that. He’s Tchaikovsky. Beethoven: a super dissonant chord in the Eroica at the end of the development section in the first movement. But new music, no matter where it falls on the stylistic scale or even how beautiful it is, does not get immediately accepted by parts of the classical music audience, just because it’s new.
MN: That’s absolutely true. However, the Santa Fe experience is very important because it’s meant to be emblematic. It’s meant to be showing how you do this. It’s meant to make it possible for all of those organizations to see that this is an assumption which doesn’t need to be true. The audience there went through this very interesting transformation. It went from exactly that—from “Oh my gosh, what is he going to make us listen to?”—to “Well, you know, as long as we still get Beethoven and Brahms, I guess it’s O.K. that there’s a piece that’s in there that’s not,” to “Wow, that new piece was kind of interesting,” to “Wow, the best part of the program was that new piece,” to “I wonder what the new piece is going to be.” That’s over a period of years, but if you look at the programs, they’re pretty much equally divided. We have 26 different concert programs and there is a new or newish piece on almost every single one of them, and our ticket sales have gone up every single year. We’re selling more tickets. We’re making more money. It’s completely successful. Everybody’s happy with it. If people come for the first time, they’re somewhat taken aback with exactly the attitude you said. But the local audience, which is not only local, but the audience that’s accustomed to it—I’ve heard say to them, “Oh, you must not be from here.” It’s taken for granted that that’s as it should be. It should be everywhere. I think Alan [Gilbert] is doing that. He’s trying as hard as he can. It’s not going to happen overnight, but it’s inching towards being acceptable that there will be a certain amount of new music that’s presented through the season. Period.
FJO: You talked about the choice of becoming an academic, having an administrative job, or playing music in order to earn a living. You were born in New York City and you spent a lot of time here and in Los Angeles growing up. But you ultimately wound up in Santa Fe. That’s kind of off the beaten path for a composer to some extent.
MN: Well yeah, but that was an amazing, life-altering, fateful, meant-to-be-who-I-am-on-this-earth decision, which had nothing to do with the job. Nothing. It was one of those life imitates art because it came from Berlin actually. This was the Berlin Opera saying, “Whatever you write next, we’ll do it. What do you want to do?” And I said, “I actually have been thinking about a kind of anti-nuclear opera, and I think it has something to do with Los Alamos and Indians.” They said great. I was living here and looking for a story, and I found the story but I had never been to Santa Fe. Part of my story involved ritual, Indian ritual, and there are no books about Indian ritual, because it’s private.
Through a series of “this person knew that person, and that person called somebody,” I got a hold of a woman who worked for the Museum [of Indian Arts and Culture] in Santa Fe, and she knew a guy who was an Indian who would talk to me. I flew out there for the first time to meet him, and he wasn’t there which is, as I now know, rather typical. But he knew that I might show up, and if I showed up, I should be given the phone number of a woman. Then I met that woman, and she started helping me. She had seven sisters, and so I had to marry one of them! I fell in love with the culture I was trying write about and went for that. I did not go there to run the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival; I didn’t care about the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival. I went to live on a reservation, to marry my wife, to be with her family who are all incredible artists, and who have a relationship to art which is completely outside the realm of our profession—how we see art. I loved that it was not about critics in a newspaper, that it was not about fame, that it was about actually who you were and being an artist. So I moved, and for ten years I lived there and I never went to a concert. I never went to the opera. I never went to see my own friends who would come to play in the summers. They didn’t know I was there, because this was my refuge, my peace, my nurturing, my place to be able to find who I was. I would go out and play those damn concerts and come back.
The whole festival thing was another total coincidence. The guy who was running it happened to be somebody I’d known for 20 years. I was with my wife in one of the pueblos watching dances, and I looked over and he was standing next to me. He said, “Marc, what are you doing here?” I said, “Well, watching dances.” And he said, “I don’t understand. What are you doing here?” I said, “I live here.” And he said, “Well, would you be a composer-in-residence for the festival?” That was my first connection. A year later he was leaving that job, and they then knew that I was there. They didn’t ask me to do the job, but they asked me to advise them on whom to hire. I talked to them and told them basically what I thought they should be looking for and what I thought the problems were. I wrote down every single piece that they had done in seven years on paper and put it in order for myself. Then I gave them a 45-minute lecture about what was wrong, and they said, “We don’t want to look for anybody. Would you do the job?” And I thought, whoa, I don’t know. But again, the reason I took the job was being a composer. I thought, I will do this like a composer would. There are very few places like this. There’s Aldeburgh. And Henze had a festival in Montepulciano. Takemitsu ran a thing in Tokyo for awhile. That’s about it. I thought, “O.K., I’m going to make this a place which will be an example for how you do this. And how you get the new music to be an organic, integral, natural part of what makes it exciting.”
FJO: It’s actually somewhat remarkable that your move to Santa Fe, as well as falling in love there and getting married, was the direct result of working on an opera for Berlin. But once you were there, the ten years that you spent there somewhat secretly, just venturing off to do piano gigs, was that somehow related to your own music as well? What kind of music were you writing during those ten years?
MN: It was that path that I’ve always been on. I remember when I was a student, when I first was studying seriously. My teacher was a very wise person, I felt and still feel; the lessons were about that. He would say, “O.K., this is fine. Um, this sounds like Bartók. This sounds like Stravinsky. This sounds like whatever. These two measures are you.” And I would think, “Wow, what is that? What are those two measures of me?” And the two became four, and the four became a page, and it doesn’t stop. With each piece I try and push, and discover, and not repeat things I know necessarily, but repeat them only as a place to take off from, and always try to push further. Each time that happens, and you try things, and you find another aspect of what your voice is, you know, some little syllable in your voice, which you didn’t know was there before, that becomes part of your palette. So the ten years there were that. You know, one after another, writing pieces which were accumulating this vocabulary and making it my own, finding other corners of these sounds that were my sounds.
FJO: You started saying something about the difference in what art means in the society you moved into versus what it means in our world of critics and concert halls. There’s also a huge difference in what these two different communities expect vis-à-vis the communicability and comprehensibility of an art work and what the role of an artist or artisan is in a society. Your wife is a celebrated Pueblan potter. She is descended from a family which has consisted of potters for generations. They are perpetuating a tradition rather than charting an ego-driven individual path. While they are creating things that are great works of beauty, the things they are creating are also useful to the community. On a certain level, we consider it a badge of honor that classical music and, by extension, this thing we call contemporary classical music, doesn’t have explicit usefulness. Instead the music is an end in and of itself. You go to the concert to hear the music, not to commune with others or to have a personal religious experience, but rather to have an aesthetic experience of the particular musical composition you are hearing being played and the specific interpretation of it by the performers. Despite the pull back away from not caring if anyone listens, so many composers today still proudly say that they are writing music for themselves. That’s completely antithetical to a traditional Pueblan view; indeed, it is antithetical to any traditional society’s way of making artwork.
MN: It is equally antithetical to a traditional way of being a composer. They did care. They always cared. It’s not conceivable that you didn’t care. The problem was always and remains in the gap. I find it actually less irritating these days. I find it more a testimony to how complex this artform is. Where and what I mean by gap is it’s inconceivable to think about theater without new plays. No one would accept that as a premise. It can’t be. Yes, there’s Shakespeare; yes, there are all these old things. But there’s no way that there are not going to be new plays. We need them. Same with the visual arts. All of them. Film. Anything. The only place where there’s this seeming difficulty for the living audience to be as advanced is music. It probably has always been, because we know from hearing about contemporary reactions even to Beethoven. There was always a bit of gap, but I think it was probably less. And over these centuries, it’s become more, and more, and more. But there’s no way that they didn’t care. Of course you care. Because the whole sense of writing this music is: I’m a human being, this is what I’m feeling and this is what my feelings sound like; do you get it? And the answer is: I have no idea what you’re talking about. That’s bad. That doesn’t make you feel good. But I would go as far as to say that the most extreme, adamant composer who says, “It’s for me, I don’t care,” is thrilled when two or three measures that do resonate—resonate. So I don’t buy it. I think that’s defensive.
FJO: I want to take this almost 180 degrees away then to talk about a very significant piece in your oeuvre, Through Roses, because the message that that very powerful piece gives is very disturbing: that you can have an appreciation for great music and still be an utterly evil person who sends people to gas chambers.
FJO: That’s the kind of thing we don’t want to admit about this music. We always like to say Mozart makes you smarter. Or listening to Beethoven makes you a better person. But Through Roses is all about how the Nazis loved that music.
MN: What was amazing about working through that piece was that it goes even further. If we look at different countries and different music, the epitome of great, iconic, classical music is German music. It’s not French. It’s not Russian. It’s not English. It’s Beethoven. It’s Schubert. It’s Mozart. There’s an almost religious reverence for that music. And it became almost a deflection; how can I be bad if I love Beethoven? That’s what really fascinated me about doing that piece.
FJO: In terms of your own life experiences, you had this idea of writing an opera about Los Alamos, but you had never visited Santa Fe. So you went there, you got the experience, you did this thing. You were born a year after World War II ended, after all the Nazi atrocities. So it too was not directly related to you.
MN: Well, I went to school in Germany in 1964. My conducting teacher was a man whom I was shown pictures of in an SS uniform. The janitor at my school was in the Waffen SS. This is ’64, we’re talking about 18 years after the war. Everybody around me had been there. I mean, anybody over 40 was effectively a mature person who took part in all this. And I lived in that place for a while, so it was in my bones. Then playing with Pinchas, I would go as far as to say that the real foundation of our career was in Germany and Austria, these German speaking countries. We played hundreds and hundreds of concerts there year after year after year. For 21 straight years, we played a recital in Munich—every year a different program. That was my place, and I knew that audience. I mean, I sat there and I looked at them, and every time I saw them, I thought, “Wow, would I be playing here then? No, no way. I’d be gone. We wouldn’t be here.” And we talked about that. And that was almost a motivation. It’s a power, you know. I’m on the stage. I’m playing your music for you better than anybody can play it. That’s why you’re coming to these concerts. So I had a kind of—I don’t want to say love-hate—I had a hate-hate relationship with that, with that place, which was rather deep. And I think the piece got to a very profound level of that, in my experience.
FJO: One of the most immediately striking aspects about Through Roses is the instant verbal comprehensibility of it, which makes it very different from an opera or in fact most sung music. Whenever words are set to music, there’s this danger that the words will get drowned out. I wonder if your decision to write for an actor instead of a singer was to make sure that the words would be understood by the audience.
MN: Well, actually it was a little different. I had wanted to write a piece with that form for a long time. There were two aspects. One was yes, the comprehensibility—very important—but there was a second aspect which bothered me even more. I remembered quite clearly when I was studying and I first was writing songs that the general measurement you calculate for anything spoken, if it’s sung it’s three times as long. And that’s generally how it is. So if you think about opera, or even song, the communication of those words, or those phrases, is not in real time. It’s slow motion. What I wanted was to find a way to use the power that music has in an opera, but with real-time drama.
That was the main motivation for the spoken word. I didn’t know what the piece was. Every four to six months, I would start thinking about that. I’d spend half a day, or two days, or five minutes thinking what on earth would work. Then I was in London with Pinky [Pinchas Zukerman]. We were playing concerts, but then he had some kind of a day with the English Chamber Orchestra, and I was in the audience listening to a rehearsal. Somebody was sitting next to me and pointed to a cellist and said, “You see that woman playing the cello. She played Bach cello suites in Auschwitz while people marched to the crematorium.” And I thought, whoa, that is just unbelievable. And I forgot it. About three or four months later, I went back to my thoughts about what on earth the drama is where I could have instruments there that needed to be there, have a reason for the music being there and have it spoken. And I thought, well, wait a minute. It clicked together and I knew instantly. I knew that was the piece. Then it took a while and a lot of research and meeting those people. I found them here, holocaust survivors. There was a place in Brooklyn. I don’t know if it’s still there. It was kind of an archive of cassette tapes of interviews with survivors. And someone there helped me, I can’t remember her name, I wish I could. She pulled all the cassettes of musicians. I would go out there and just listen to these stories, and then I asked, because they were all done anonymously, if I could meet some of these people. They called the ones I was particularly interested in and asked them, and I went all over the city talking to these people.
FJO: I imagine a very different process was in play when you were writing your second piece for chamber ensemble and actor, the piece about the extraterrestrial, which, unlike Through Roses, has comedic elements.
MN: It was so strange because it took me, I don’t know, 30 years. Through Roses has been such a success. It’s unique in its form. I mean, there’s nothing like that. I never could do another one, maybe because it was so perfect, just the togetherness of it. And then somewhere, something struck me about this extraterrestrial and I just started thinking.
FJO: So this didn’t come about through spending a lot of time at Roswell.
MN: I’ve been to Roswell. I’ve been to the museum and I like that, but no. It was a long process. These pieces somehow take a couple of years of figuring out. I remembered stories about people who would talk about hearing ballgames from their teeth, which actually turns out to be possible given dental procedures. Then I thought about Son of Sam, all these people talking about voices. Then I thought, well, what if there really is an extraterrestrial? I got very interested in looking at us from outside, the context of looking at our humanity not being one of us. If you’re not one of us you’d have to be a very smart dog, or an extraterrestrial! So it started with that and then: Why is he here? What’s he up to? He’s on death row because he killed his wife and ate her. At the premiere, my wife was in the audience, of course, and we brought our daughter, who is the great superstar potter of today. My daughter’s sitting there, and she turns to my wife and says, are you listening to this? [laughter] I love that piece. I would love to write more of these things because I think they’re very striking. But I have no idea what it will be.
FJO: One of your most recent pieces, Healing Ceremony, also has a great deal of extramusical elements which also make it a totally immersive experience also, but here it goes beyond the theatrical to something that is perhaps the source of the earliest theatre—ritual.
MN: I’ve come to learn from my wife that you need to accept things that happen as they happen and be comfortable with where your life is going instead of my normal manner, which is to try to control all of it. That didn’t ever work. Healing Ceremony had a very interesting genesis. I have for a long time been interested in music and neuroscience and the real effects of listening on people—in their brains, in their bodies, and everything else. I was approached by friends of mine who were very close to a fantastic woman who’s the head of the cancer center in Albuquerque. They had just built a new $100 million building, or were in the process of finishing it, and were starting to plan a dedication ceremony. This woman asked me if I could write a piece for this ceremony, and instantly I thought of The Consecration of the House by Beethoven. I’ll write a little overture, it’ll be the UNM Cancer Center Building Overture. Then I started thinking a little bit, and I thought, well, wait a minute. This is a cancer center; this is a place where people need to heal. And I know that music has this power. I know that people who learn that they have cancer are not all familiar with music of any nature, they’re not all intellectuals, and they don’t suddenly think, “O.K., how am I going to heal myself?” They’re faced with this sudden, incredible situation.
So I thought, I can write a piece where simply by listening for x number of minutes, it will take you to a space which is more relaxed, certainly lower your blood pressure, if anything, slow your breathing. I can do that. Any composer knows how to write slow music which puts you in a certain place. Then I started thinking about what I know from 25 years of living with Pueblo Indians. There are many rituals which take place, and most of them have a very particular structure which serves the purpose of grounding you. And that has to do with a kind of meditating about place. In fact, pueblos, if you see them from an aerial view, they’re laid out in four directions: north, south, east, and west. There are four plazas in every pueblo facing those directions. Going out from the pueblos, there are sacred places in each direction, a mile out, 10 miles out, 15 miles out. The ceremonies have to do with contemplating direction from the north—clouds coming from the north—and from each of the others, but focusing really on your own central place. That serves to ground you. There’s no such thing as a real healing ceremony. There are healing things that people do, and medicine men etc., but there’s not really a particular healing ceremony. But if there were, I pretty much know how it ought to go.
So I spent a lot of time with one of my wife’s nephews, who happens to be a religious person, and we worked on making this ceremony, constructing it. We did it in a very interesting way. I wrote the words in English. We would talk about them. He would translate them into their language, which is a very beautiful animistic, nature-driven language. And when he would translate them back into English with me, the sentences came out with this incredibly, beautiful, poetic form. So we constructed the directions, and in between the directions, I wanted elements. Because I thought air is quite obvious for healing and for putting you in a relaxed state. Water is clearly the majority of what we are. Earth was this grounding. And then I knew that in the science and statistics of cancer recovery there is a huge difference between patients who have family support and love around them, and patients who don’t. So I wanted to make the last one fire, but fire as a burning love, a nurturing love around you. Then I thought of the music for this and I wanted a certain kind of ritualistic, Pueblo-based music for the directions to induce that kind of focusing.
FJO: At times it even sounds Mahlerian.
MN: I consciously made the decision that of all my pieces on earth, this one is certainly not going to be played at a new music concert! In fact, I don’t even care if it’s seen as new music. I want this to have the physical effect on people that I intended it to have. Period. That’s the purpose.
FJO: In an interview with Charlie Rose, you mentioned that scientists measured audience response to this piece and that the blood pressure of people listening to the last movement went down 22 percent.
MN: On average.
FJO: That’s unbelievable.
MN: But it’s actually very sensible, if you think about it. This is not the only piece of music that would do that, obviously. If you took something very famous, like some Bach chorale preludes or the Air on the G String or anything that has this tempo—60, that’s this machine. It’s doing this in a way that slows your breathing. You come to the sound and you wallow in it; it puts you in. I knew I could do that. Now, is that better for healing? I would bet anything that it’s more conducive to be like that, than to be, “Oh my god, I’ve got cancer.”
FJO: So if you know that certain things in music have the power to heal, or somehow elevate us to a better state physically and/or psychologically, why on earth would we want to compose or listen to music that doesn’t do that? And if music can elevate you to this better state, it seems to follow that music can do the reverse as well. It can make you agitated. Worse, it can make you ill. Is that an implication here? And, if so, what does it say about the state of contemporary music?
MN: It’s science. It’s not implication. One of the first things I asked the first neuroscientist I started talking to was, “Does this mean that you can prove that rap music is bad for you?” And he said, “Absolutely. There’s no question about it.” I think it gets back to the dosage. A little bit of excitement is good. You can’t just sit there and be a lotus blossom. That’s not going to make for a healthy life, necessarily. I mean, there is an immune system. Kids should eat stuff from the floor; it will make them stronger. There is all of this. And the purpose of music is not only to heal. The purpose of music, in my mind, has always been to commune. There’s something about any music, like Mahler, which can tap into a level of profundity which is common to human beings. And it is nurturing, because when listening to it you commune with that deep flow of humanity which we all share. It reinforces being alive. You know, I’m alive to drink wine and eat food. But some people need more than that. This is what music does. It really is tapping into that deeper communal connection that all humans have. And that has to do with excitement and being irritated, and even with pain, also.
FJO: You’ve talked about how living on the Pueblo and interacting with that culture and its very different experience of what art is affected you as a person and made you rethink what it means to create. It probably would not have been possible for you to create a piece like Healing Ceremony otherwise. Yet almost all of your music is still very rooted in the Western classical tradition. Your Flute Concerto is influenced by Indonesian gamelan music, but that seems to be an anomaly. And, as far as I know, the only piece of yours that specifically relates to your own experience on the Pueblo is your Pueblo Children’s Songs, even though the music you wrote for these texts doesn’t sound like Pueblan music.
MN: Not at all. This was something Heidi [Grant Murphy] asked me to write celebrating the birth of her child. I am very fortunate to have had not only my own children, but my own grandchildren, particularly my oldest one, whom I was in the room with when she was born; we bonded instantly. Everyone in the family says, “Oh, that’s Marc’s.” She has always been my child, and we have an incredibly deep and profound love for one another. Actually, I use her name in the songs. She’s Jade. That’s my granddaughter. In the pueblo, they have the Indian names that come from a ritual which is done about six weeks or so after the baby is born, at dawn. The women—the mother, grandmother, and aunts—take the baby outside, and they name it. The names come from, you know, a cloud passes: Passing Cloud. Or they see a bird, and it’s White Bird. And there is a ceremony which goes with that. You hold the baby, and you thank the sun for giving this life. And you do it again in the four directions. So I thought, what a wonderful ritualistic kind of moment. I constructed this mini-song cycle by doing the naming ceremony in three different forms, condensed. I asked the singer, first time do it facing the right of the stage, then facing forward, then facing to the left, face away from the audience once. I asked my mother-in-law for songs she had sung to children when they were babies, my wife’s generation, and she gave me two; one was a lullaby. I cry at that one, always. It’s stunningly beautiful. It’s for my Jade, and I just nailed it.
Marc Neikrug’s Pueblo Children’s Songs
performed by soprano Corrine Byrne and pianist Jocelyn Ho on April 16, 2013 at Stony Brook University
FJO: But what’s interesting for me is while the melody really is gorgeous, there’s also this really sophisticated rhythmic thing going on in the piano accompaniment, a five-against-three pattern, yet it still sounds so natural.
MN: If we go back about an hour ago to our talking about the audiences that come to hear Brahms, Beethoven, and Mozart, and then are confronted with my music, the reason it’s always worked is they don’t hear that complexity. They hear the underlying communication or the underlying connecting to aspects of emotional contexts that they understand. They just hear something which actually resonates. The complexity is irrelevant; it’s the same with any good music, actually.
FJO: Has this piece ever been performed on the pueblo?
MN: No. Not knowingly.
FJO: So I’m curious about how the rest of that community sees you. Do they know anything about your music?
MN: No. I’ll tell you a story. I was connecting on a flight from Denver, and I saw one of my sisters-in-law on the plane. There was a seat, so I sat down with her and I said, “What are you doing here?” And she said, “Well, I had to go on a trip.” I said, “Oh, where did you go?” “I had to go back East.” “Where?” “Washington.” I said, “What were you doing there?” “I was helping them put up an exhibit.” I said, “Really. What kind of exhibit?” “Oh, things I made.” I said, “Where was that?” “The Smithsonian.“ It didn’t matter. What mattered was how her kids are, how I am. How am I feeling? How’s life? They all knew I go off and I play concerts and I come back, or I write pieces and the pieces get done, but that’s not who I am. Who I am is Marc in a t-shirt, and I’m nice to them. They like me because I’m a good person.
FJO: Yet even though you care so much about the audience and you want them to appreciate your music, it doesn’t matter to you that these people hear your music, these people whom you live with.
MN: They love me. It’s not their context. Let’s put it a different way. If they all regularly went to hear the symphony and they didn’t know my music, I’d be furious. But that wouldn’t happen. This is humanity. It’s one of the absolute lessons I learned very early on. I never saw anyone in this huge family of my wife’s ask anybody what they do. We do that. It’s almost the second thing that happens. You say, “Hello, my name is dah, dah, dah.” “What do you do?” They never ask. And I thought, “Wow, they don’t care.” And they didn’t. You know, they like the person, or they don’t like the person. It goes back to the Germans. Well, he loves Beethoven, so that couldn’t possibly be somebody who puts you people in gas chambers. Wrong. He’s a doctor; he must be a great person. No. Wrong. A plumber can be a fantastic person, or that check out person at the grocery store. So in that context, I want to be the best person I can be there in that community. That makes me able to tap into my sources for the music. And it makes the music more human.