Interview by Natasha Pickowicz
San Diego, March 2010
Many composers search their entire lifetime hoping to find a performer as resolutely dedicated, adventurous and talented as Charles Curtis. Perhaps the San Diego-based cellist is best known as a longtime collaborator of minimalist icon La Monte Young – their intense working relationship spans 24 years – yet Curtis is also renowned for his defining performances of works by Eliane Radigue, Morton Feldman, Terry Jennings, Alison Knowles, Alvin Lucier and many others.
Over the course of one month, I met with Curtis to discuss his life and career. The first time we met, at a dinner party at my house, to which he brought a hefty sack of lemons straight from his garden, I was immediately captivated by his sly sense of humor and forthrightness. We met three more times, once at his colorful, seaside home in Ocean Beach, and twice more at my home in La Jolla. Over pots of green tea, small scones baked by his wife Annegret, a talented chef, and with cats swarming around our ankles, we discussed his life in its entirety. His story is extraordinary, from his sheltered youth in Laguna Beach to his current standing as one of the world’s foremost practitioners of experimental music.-NP
I've just returned from Laguna Beach, to drop off my cello. I'm playing a different cello right now, not my main one. The cello that I brought up to them is an extremely special cello that was built in 1699, a classic Italian cello from that period. I've had it for almost 20 years, and I've spent a long time paying it off (laughs). It's actually somewhat complicated to play, it's like… an amazing sports car. It has so much potential but you have to be very clued into it. It's a high maintenance instrument – not just the cello itself, but the playing of it. It has a lot of potential in terms of sounds and sound colors, but it doesn't reveal itself easily. It involves responsibility and thought. Every now and then I give myself a break from it and play the cello I've had since I was 14. It's also very beautiful; maybe not as distinctive a sound, but still very beautiful.
What do you mean by "sound colors"?
Timbre, different qualities of sound, like playing more in the direction of an oboe than a horn. Great instruments can do that. They have an infinite rainbow of sound.
How do you know that a cello will be compatible with you as a musician? Intuition?
To a great extent. I don't think these things can be measured. It has to match your playing, the way you draw sound. It's complicated, like a relationship.
You have collaborated closely with a handful of significant composers. I'd love to talk about the kind of work that has produced, and your role as a performer within it.
From my standpoint, it's work that is clearly composed by a composer, but closely in connection to me. It's almost as if my role as interpreter or as performer has bled into the compositional process.
Is there an explicit understanding before you begin to work with someone, what the nature of the work will be? Or do you prefer to not know, to live with the uncertainty?
I don't think that there is any way of knowing beforehand what's going to come out, and I go into it knowing that I'm going to work with a composer on their work. But what has resulted in a few cases with these works that have been made with me is that these works have no existence outside of my performances of them. There is no other performer that can play them.
Eliane Radigue, who you've also worked with closely, has said that she considers her recent instrumental works to be part of an "oral tradition", that she doesn't write for an instrument, but for an instrumentalist. It's a fascinating distinction. Do you have the capacity to transmit the piece somehow?
Of course, I could theoretically transmit it to another cellist, or potentially even to another instrument, I suppose, but for that to happen, someone has to come along who really wants to do it because it's a really involved process and not a simple one. The person who wanted to do that would also have to take on the responsibility of embodying the work.
Like an inheritance?
I don't think so, because it's completely voluntary. It's closer to methods I'm familiar with that have to do with both classical cello playing and also rock music, in that a musical work is embodied by the people who play it. When people "cover" things it's an active effort to re-embody the work, and also critically comment on it. In all kinds of popular tradition, like the blues, that music was handed down. It was just given. That was the term they used. Like, I'm going to give you this blues. Then it would be learned by someone like a disciple. And in Indian classical music that term is used more explicitly: the music is handed down by a guru, who has a spiritual function as well. The student is a disciple who embodies a very specific tradition and repertoire of ragas and a very specific set of techniques.
So what is the function of "interpretation" here?
I think that there are some mistaken notions on the primacy of notation in classical music, and that there's been a degradation of the role of interpretation or embodiment of traditional classical works by performers. It's a complicated history. When you think of great 19th-century composers, pretty much all of them were performers, too, who would perform their own works and often take great liberties with them. From performance to performance, Chopin would do very different things with the same piece. The next few generations of great performers who carried on that tradition took all sorts of liberties, but in ways that were unique to each performer. Like the question of rubato, especially in Chopin. Those complex ornamental rhythms are not meant to be played metronomically or rationally. The notation of those passages is approximate, and ultimately it’s left up to the performer. They were probably improvised by Chopin. So to say, this is a rational text that is meant to be recreated in the exact same way for each performance, is just a total denial of the intent of that music. But that, to some extent, is what it's turned into. I see classical music interpretation as something that is kind of degrading as we speak, in terms of its assertiveness.
Can you elaborate on that?
For instance, if you look at the great pianists of the past, you would never have people who played the entire repertoire. You had pianists who tended to play Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms and Bach, but who wouldn't play Chopin, Rachmaninoff, Liszt or Debussy. It wasn't that they didn't have the technique – it was because they were a part of a particular tradition. Nowadays you have young pianists who play everything. They do it because of market pressures, because they feel like they can't say no. They're more versatile but they're also more robotic.
Is there any kind of pushback from academic institutions to discourage that kind of approach?
No. I think it's encouraged, but I'm not sure. I'm so far out of that, I really don't know. But from what I can gather from my occasional engagements with the "mainstream" classical music world, the approach to performing is really about providing a luxury good that meets all the expectations of the consumer, and which doesn’t surprise them in any way. Sort of like the kind of enjoyment that they expect from any other kind of luxury goods, like clothing or fancy Belgian chocolate or scotch. When you buy that, you're not looking for surprises, are you? You're looking for quality you recognize as top-notch. "Only the best." I feel like the goal of classical music performance right now is to put that imprimatur on musical performance, without a musical regard for the intent or spirit of the composition. That’s very harsh, though!
Do you see more interesting performers on the fringes of these kind of institutions?
With regard to classical music? It's possible. There are always, usually at the very top, renegade performers who do things in a different way, who have a very distinctive presence as performers and probably identify with certain composers in a more profound way, and embody them more than is the norm. But at the fringes I'm not so sure, because classical music is really a merciless world where once you get below a certain level of real handicraft, almost nothing happens.
In that respect, it's the same as Indian classical music. Under a certain level of accomplishment, you're not even really doing it. It just goes with the territory. It's not to say it's a better or a more exclusive world that only certain people can partake in, because I don't mean to say that at all, but it's just a fact of the matter that if you're going to be a car mechanic, you have to know what you're doing. It has to work. If you're going to be an architect, you have to construct buildings that are not going to fall over.
It's an interesting situation for me, with my Camera Lucida chamber music series, because I kind of have this fantasy that one can do [chamber music] in a more informed way, in a more provocative way. I'm not sure I'm succeeding. I have a feeling that what I'm doing is taking it as what it's always taken as: a luxury good. An entertainment value, a pleasure of a very exclusive nature. I'm afraid that my efforts are kind of backfiring in that regard.
What would make you think that? I was very impressed by the Camera Lucida performance that I saw.
It's just my own misgivings about it. I stayed out of the classical music scene for a long time, and this is my own way of working back into it. There are really personal reasons why I'm doing it, more psychoanalytical reasons (laughs). I guess what I'm saying is that I have this idea that one can still present that music in a critical way, a way more grounded in thought and interpretation. I'm not sure yet that I've succeeded in doing that, but I'm working on it.
It seems to me like there was a great deal of thought that went into the event. I loved the essay by Jeffrey Treviño that was presented in conjunction with the Schumann program. I loved the part about Schumann being obsessed with this idea of bridges, about how he lived in the "in-between" – that tension that you mentioned earlier.
Those kinds of program notes that you speak of are very significant to me, and part of investigating this music both on a deep level and an intelligent level.
How did you assemble the Camera Lucida group?
Well, it all just sort of fell into my lap because these guys from the [San Diego] Symphony came to us and said that they'd like to play something. Without giving it too much thought I said, oh this could be good, and wrote up a proposal for a series of regular collaborative concerts. We didn't take the name Camera Lucida until last year. At that point someone who had gotten wind of what we were doing came along, a San Diego music-lover and philanthropist named Sam Ersan, and said that he'd like to give the department a large gift to support this thing. So we expanded from three concerts to six, and then the new building at UC San Diego opened, with the beautiful new Conrad Prebys Concert Hall, and it became possible to get interesting visiting guests to come and work on more extensive programs. We were able to frame the project in a much more explicit and detailed way. That's when I came up with the name Camera Lucida, and went from being a behind-the-scenes instigator to "artistic director." It was really a great series of coincidences.
What's the breakdown of the audience? Is it mostly UCSD-affiliated?
Mostly. But more people will come up to see the Symphony. Their colleagues come to see them perform too, which is kind of remarkable, because you don't necessarily get orchestral musicians coming out to hear their peers. There's a word of mouth thing to it as well. But I wish we could get a broader audience in San Diego, and I wish I knew how to do that.
You grew up a little further north in Laguna Beach. Back in the 1960s was it the tourist destination we know now?
Laguna Beach started around the turn of the last century as an arts colony. When I was growing up in the 60s, it was still that, but also a hippie community, a biker community. It was touristy, but it wasn't the affluent enclave it is now. Normal people lived there too (laughs). My father was a high school teacher with a normal, modest income. There was a lot of kitsch California art – fleshy nudes and campy potboiler art. We also had the Pageant of the Masters, a campy thing that goes back to the 1930s where artists set up in an amphitheater in the canyon and reenacted famous paintings with live models in them. It's the concept of the tableau vivant, a living painting. People dressed up in costumes and struck poses, It was a game like charades on a grand scale, with an orchestra in an orchestra pit and an announcer and lights. The amphitheater was basically right behind our house, so every summer we would hear the timpani and the trumpets blaring and so we'd go up the hill and watch these crazy images.
There were also very good Los Angeles artists living there, like Roger Kuntz and Craig Kauffman. There was a whole slew of poets and intellectuals, and a gay scene, which was unusual at the time. Christopher Isherwood lived there for a while, and was part of this intellectual gay spiritualist scene. Timothy Leary lived there. There was a Hare Krishna temple and hippies living in caves around town, so much so that a city council member proposed that they dynamite the caves to get rid of them. My brother and I would hike back there to find the caves, and there'd be these little enclaves of hippies just lounging around. It was a very Anglo scene, at that time there were not very many Hispanic kids, very few black and Asian American kids. Because he was a high school teacher, my father was very in touch with young people, and I remember once we got a ride on one of those huge choppers (laughs). It seemed like there were a lot of people getting killed, daredevils and surfers and skateboarders and motorcyclers.
How much were you aware of this at the time?
Not very. We were aware of it because it was in the air. We were surfers, but not part of the surfer crowd because our household was kept in kind of a special zone. My mother was German, and she'd grown up in Germany under the Third Reich and during the Second World War. She brought this very perfect bourgeois German environment to California. We lived in this perfect little house where everything was spotless and clean, and we were dressed in Bermuda shorts with knee-high stockings, and our shirts were ironed, and we set the table with ironed napkins. We had lots of little relics of German culture, porcelain figures and stuffed animals. Our mother just slaved to keep this perfect environment. It was a very weird kind of disconnect between our house and what was going on around us.
What about your father?
He had more of a foot in [the community] because he was an English teacher with intellectual aspirations – he was a poet. He'd lived in NYC for a time and gone to Columbia the same time as Allen Ginsberg and the Beat poets and sort of moved in those circles in the 40s. He was a bit like a captive in my mother's perfect German outpost in Laguna Beach. Classical music was a very natural element of that environment – my mother encouraged it. Even though she wasn't what you'd call a classical musician, she was very musical. With her family, part of it was striving to get to a higher social level, to play instruments, to be musically outstanding. Church music, singing, choirs – those are all very German things. She'd also come from quite a poor family – her father was a cobbler in a little village – but she played recorder, flute, a little bit of violin and a little bit of piano. And she played that very distinctive German instrument, the zither. It's a little bit like an autoharp. She played it very beautifully and had a beautiful singing voice. The zither and her singing – those are really deep musical memories for me.
In what way?
The thing about the zither that I think is particularly important for me is that it's a very soft instrument. It sits on the table and you play it with both hands and it resonates with the surface of the table. And it's very, very quiet. When someone plays the zither and sings ancient German folk songs, those strange melodies and strange accompanying chords, the typical thing is to sort of lean forward into the zither and sing very softly into it. The voice and the strings and the wood of the instrument all resonate together in an incredibly intimate way. I think my mother's zither playing and singing was an expression of her longing for her childhood and her past. Sometimes I would come into the house and see her, alone, in her room, playing. It was very private. I would sneak past and listen to it in the background. She had a beautiful singing voice, and incredibly in tune. It wasn't a developed voice, but when she sang those simple German folk songs, the precision of her intonation was incredible. It really primed me for a particular kind of very intimate musical expression. Something so soft and so precise. It's funny to think of that, because I don't know what she would make of the music of La Monte Young (laughs).
La Monte Young
It's a nice continuity of experience, from your mother to La Monte Young.
Yes, there really is this direct connection that leaps over many years of my life. From my mother and her zither to my work with La Monte Young and his focus on intonation, that certain kind of intense intimacy he has in his raga singing, and which is in all of the work that we've done together. So meeting him was, in a strange way, a direct connection to all of that.
An echoing of values.
Yes, of values and also of attitudes and posture. The kind of close listening and making music right there where you are, with your instrument and your body. That very personal, direct, unmediated environment around you, your instrument and the musicians you're playing with. But discovering [La Monte] and his music was also a bridge to what I associate with my father, who had one foot in the world of the avant-garde, with the Beat poets and underground New York in the 40s and 50s. When I met La Monte, it just kind of clicked. Of course, he's from California too and once I showed up in his apartment wearing a certain kind of jacket, a Palms Springs jacket or something, and he goes, oh, I know why we both like each other – we're both from California! (laughs)
Did your father talk about his experiences in New York?
Absolutely. And it was the period in the late 40s and early 50s when John Cage was just starting to be known there. I fantasize that he could have well met Cage, because that was the period where Cage was going up to Columbia to listen to the famous Suzuki lectures on Zen Buddhism, which is something that interested my father too. I could very easily imagine my father and John Cage sitting in the same room listening to a Dr. Suzuki lecture. Cage would have been the same age as my father, and with a similar background, growing up in communities around Los Angeles. It was what I'd call a very cosmopolitan generation of Americans. My father was a very cool kind of American – charming and very literate. La Monte, Cage, Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff, they were all very much like that.
Was there ever any talk of moving back to New York?
Well, they did move back to New York shortly after getting married in 1958. I think my father still had a fantasy that he could be a writer. He was really drawn to New York and to that world, the literary world, art world and underground world. I think he had a real sensitivity to that. I have my mother's letters from that period when they were in New York, and it was a frustrating time. They didn't have enough money or a good apartment. After my brother was born in 1958, my mother was like, enough: you had a job in California, and we're going back. That's where I want to be. This is too shaky. That was probably disappointing to my father, but I think he recognized it, too.
Back in Laguna Beach, was there a lot going on, culturally?
Yes, there was. Poets like Kenneth Rexroth would come down from San Francisco for readings, and we'd go up to them afterwards and talk. I don't know if my father knew Rexroth or if he was just the kind of person that would just go up to him. He was like that – he would talk to anybody (laughs). I made another funny discovery about the composer Richard Maxfield, who was a pioneer of tape and electronic music in the United States. He took over John Cage's composition class at the New School around 1960, around the time that La Monte and George Maciunas were taking it. That class is historically really important because it was the birthplace of Fluxus, with students like Dick Higgins, Allan Kaprow and Al Hansen. But Maxfield turned out to have a bit of drug problem, and he drifted in and out of Los Angeles, San Francisco, and I discovered, while reading his letters, that he'd lived in Laguna Beach some time in the late 60s! Right down the street from me, too. I even have a newspaper article about a musicale presenting his music at the home of some people we knew! I could easily imagine my father at that evening where Maxfield was presenting his weirdo tape music.
You've performed Maxfield's music, haven't you?
Yes. Because of La Monte, I'm one of the few people who has. La Monte kind of opened up Maxfield's music to me. We've performed it together. It's very unusual for anyone to perform as a duo with La Monte, but I have, and it was to play Maxfield's music. It was a curious twist for me, thinking that, at one point, this person must have been my neighbor, probably a slightly strange, middle-aged man, a little weird and screwed up and strung out. I probably went past him skateboarding to the beach.
Is there a recording of that performance?
Yes, several. But they're not released (laughs). I have them – they're all live recordings. We've performed that piece three or five times over the course of several decades, since the early 90s.
Is there any move to release it formally?
There is. La Monte would like to, very much. I could say that it's in progress, and over the course of decades, centuries, it may appear (laughs). His image is that of the tortoise. I think he really would like more stuff to come out, but he works very slowly. My sense is that there is some frustration on his part that it takes so long, but you can't jump over your own shadow, you know? Going way back, he's always self-published his music. For a while he worked with other labels, but now he only wants to release music on his own label, which means he has to rely on his own level of output, energy and so on.
Was your brother encouraged to play music as well?
Yes. He started playing the piano very early, around five years old. He was very talented at it, and I remember the moment when my mother said she wasn't going to touch the piano again because she was embarrassed, because he was already so much better than she was (laughs). That’s how she was, she was a person with just excruciating pride. I started on the piano was I was five, but it seemed redundant to have two piano players in the family, so I had to choose between the violin and the cello. I think it was this German idea of a family being a kind of ensemble. I picked the cello because I had this strange misconception about it, that because it was big and low, it was an instrument with which I could be humorous. I thought I could get laughs by playing the cello, maybe like a tuba or a bass drum. I think that at that age I was a little bit of a ham (laughs). I was about six, and I had a very good singing voice. And because I was a bit of a ham, I kind of got into the world of musicals. In 1969, at the age of nine, I was in a production of South Pacific, acting and singing and dancing. It was a small child's role in that musical, but then I was "discovered" and taken up to Los Angeles, where I reprised the role in the Wilshire Ebell Theater. That began a string of child actor appearances around Southern California, the Long Beach Civic Light Opera. Things like Oliver, the Artful Dodger.
How did that coexist with your Laguna life?
It was weird. I'd be in all of these late night productions, and my mother and I would get home at 11pm or 1am, and she would wash me off, take my makeup off, give me a quick bath and put me in bed, then drag me out of bed in the morning and take me to school (laughs). Unfortunately, my parents got the idea that maybe I could break into television, commercials and Hollywood. That was a very strange, decadent scene, with interesting but creepy people. And it didn't agree with me. Fortunately, I never got a gig doing any of that stuff, and that might have turned me off to the idea of acting, and being on the stage.
At age 12 I had this watershed moment where I said, nope, I don't want anything to do with any of this. I think the pressure was getting to me, the sense that I was actually being taken advantage of, being used by my mom to project this idea of a Partridge Family type of California kid. I wasn't that way. So all of a sudden I saw the cello as this really serious, really beautiful goal. And then I got incredibly serious about it.
It's fascinating to learn about your acting background. Is that emphasis on bodily awareness related at all to your approach to live performance now, the idea that the physicality of body is at a premium when performing live?
Yes. And another thing that connects it is the emotional openness to an expressive situation. That was very straightforward and very intuitive to me as a child. I could find my way into a theatrical situation very easily. There were moments in some of the productions where I was kind of overwhelmed on stage by the dramatic situation. That happened very naturally. I think that transferred into music, and I think I'm still very susceptible to musical emotion.
Really getting into the cello and viewing it as this interesting identity for myself probably had something to do with my adolescence and the sense of alienation from kids at my school. At one point I completely ceased to be a ham, or even a very social person. I really retreated, and by the time I got to high school, I just hated it. I didn't have any friends there. I was ditching classes right and left. I was given half days, so that I could leave early [to practice cello]. I was a real outsider, but I had this anchor: I had the cello. I was really focused. My brother was an accomplished pianist at that point and we went up to L.A. for lessons and performances and competitions. We played together a lot, and even called ourselves the Curtis Duo. It was intense. I learned a lot from my brother. He was a very hard taskmaster.
The Curtis Duo
Outside of your high school peers, were you close with your fellow musicians?
Yes, the kids in L.A. At one point, I had a very serious string quartet with some other good players there, some of whom I'm still in touch with and play with. It was a pretty intense scene in L.A. at the time, with the hotshot young musicians, the competitiveness of it. That was my world, and high school just seemed like something to be avoided. And I did avoid it.
Did you listen to a lot of other music?
We used to have those tiny cassette decks with built in speakers, and record our lessons and make tapes of our playing to send to my mother's family in Germany. I still have those tapes. But we never actually had our own stereo set, actually, until I think I was a senior in high school. My brother and I were given a little budget to go buy a basic stereo: two speakers, an amplifier and a turntable. My father would borrow a phonograph from the school, and we would check out whatever records were available from the local library, and sure enough, there was a lot of good music. As a teenager, my brother, in particular, stopped being interested in being a performing pianist because he had serious nerve issues. He'd freak out over the pressure of playing piano concertos, Rachmaninoff and so on. So he turned to composition. He discovered that he could be a composer, and that was much more congenial to him. It didn't involve the pressures of going onstage. He didn't mind performing with me as a duo, but he didn't want to perform as a soloist. So he got into composing and discovered Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and then caught onto Cage, Feldman, Penderecki, Xenakis. We would check out those records at the library, listen to those more so than what the other kids were listening to, like the Sex Pistols (laughs).
Was there a sense that you were onto something big, listening to those records?
There was. It was all about the John Cage record Indeterminacy. He reads these anecdotes, and each of these anecdotes has to fit into a one-minute time scheme, and there is this indeterminate music that would kind of intrude into his little anecdotes. It's a very striking record. I still use it in my lectures. We would borrow that, return it and then check it out again. We didn't "get" it – we had no idea what the aesthetics were, but we just sat there and really got into it. So my brother got the idea that he wanted to be as radical as he could be, as a composer. And I was sort of his…
More like his puppet (laughs). He would write these kooky pieces where he would make me scream or do dreadful noises on he cello, or write pieces that were way too hard to play. I had an interesting relationship with my brother. I just worshipped him. I would do anything he wanted me to do, including get up on stage and make a fool of myself. We would do performances in L.A., like "music for amplified cello and typewriter", where I would play the cello and he would play the typewriter, like a Maurizio Kagel-type of theater performance. I totally supported it. I think the dynamic of my relationship with my brother was one of the main reasons why I became interested in playing new music. I had a sense that it was something I should do.
Marlboro Festival, 1985. Photo by Steve Sherman
What was the transition like from Laguna Beach to Juilliard?
Well, essentially I went straight out of high school and right to New York. I'd been to New York before as part of the youth music program at Carnegie Hall, and had already met a lot of people that I'd be studying with. But I arrived there as this naïve California kid who was very good at cello playing, sharp in a lot of ways, but with absolutely no living skills. I'd been so protected by my mother, I never really had to do much of anything, and all of a sudden, completely left to my own devices, renting this strange little room from a guy I didn't know on the Upper West Side. I had to make my own schedule, choose my own clothing, buy my own food and cut my own nails (laughs).
At first, it was really exciting. Immediately, I had a girlfriend, and felt like an adult. You could legally drink at the age of 18, and we would play basketball late into the night at these courts off of 70th St., until three or four in the morning, and then go eat pizza (laughs). There was a lot of freedom, but I didn't manage it well at all. Some of the classes were really hard for me, which surprised me. My schedule was a mess, and I was coming home late, and I was probably depressed about being lonely and far from home. So I became totally disorganized, showing up late for coachings with the Juilliard String Quartet. I would show up 15 or 20 minutes late and they would stare at me as I walked into the room, like, who does he think he is? And I didn't know who I was. I wasn't who I thought I was. Maybe I seemed very arrogant, but also very insecure in other ways. It was a mess. After my first year, I think I failed half of my classes. I was very good at the playing classes, but very bad at the others. I just couldn't get focused. Even through my second year I just could not get on track with academic stuff. I was away a lot performing. I already had a bit of a career going.
Outside of Juilliard obligations you were performing around New York?
Yes. The school encouraged it to an extent, but I wasn't keeping up with my work, and they didn't encourage that. There were a lot of agonizing letters written between my parents and Juilliard about what I was doing, the status of my scholarship, and it was messy. Then in the middle of my second year, my father died very suddenly and that threw me into a real tailspin. I didn't know what was going on. By my third year, even though I was playing concerts around the world, I was ready to drop out because I was in such a state. I think, in a way, I saw Juilliard as a nuisance. As something I had to do. Basically I was just not ready to be an adult. It was kind of a late puberty or something, a late rebellion. And it took a form of a resistance to what I was actually trying to do – become a good musician.
I also felt like I should be getting a "real" education, like at a university, studying literature and history. That had something to do with my relationship to my father and my relationship to his death, thinking, like, I just lost that part of my life, and he sort of represented the intellectual, the thoughtful, methodical person. So I hashed this scheme to go to London and study History at the London School of Economics. It was a very strange choice (laughs).
Were you still playing music?
I was. I was even going back to play concerts in Germany, and was involved in some international competitions at the time. But that was a bust. I realized that I wasn't prepared to do work of that kind.
What an incredible transition.
Yeah. The studies weren't going well at all, like, trying to write these papers but it was like I'd basically slept through high school, and didn't have a sense of what typical academic competence even was. I just didn't have any sense of the logistics of it, or the proper process. I was so unfocused, emotionally all over the place. There was a girl that I had a crush on in high school back in Laguna Beach, who was in Paris at the time, and I had the crazy idea that I had to get together with her. Through handwritten letters and maybe one phone call, we sort of worked it out that she would come visit me in London. I had very high hopes, but she must have gotten cold feet because she called me and said, something's come up, and I was just crushed. That very same day I booked a flight home to New York and just dropped the whole thing. Just left it there. I didn't even call the LSE. I left the last of the rent on the kitchen table, got as much stuff together as I could and threw out the rest. I went out to the airport and flew back to New York where I had nothing going on. I showed up at my ex-girlfriend's apartment and said, I'm here, and can you put me up for a while? I was out of Juilliard and really high and dry at that point.
It was the start of a very unusual period where I was really floating, drifting. I was still playing, but I was playing badly. I wasn't practicing effectively. I had this on and off-again relationship with this girl in law school, and my brother was helping me out a bit, too. I lived in an attic for a bit and walked dogs for a living, and then moved into one of these single-room-occupancy hotels where basically old men lived. For about $80 a month, you could live in these little efficiency apartments with a bed and a sink and a shower down the hall. It was really basic.
Did you re-enroll at Juilliard?
Well, Charles Kuralt had interviewed me fairly extensively about Juilliard for his television program Juilliard and Beyond: A Life in Music [CBS, 1982] and I'd said things about Juilliard that were very insulting, that it was a cutthroat environment, that people didn't understand the joy of playing music, that Juilliard was a business. I said all of those incriminating things on national television. So when I came back to New York and made overtures about going back to Juilliard, they wouldn't let me in (laughs).
Were you surprised?
Yes I was! I thought, I'm so great, that they have to take me back. Unfortunately, that was my way of operating at the time – just drop it. Just run. Flight. By the time the summer of 1982 came around, I had hatched another scheme that I was going to go off into the countryside. I had $700, which was enough money to buy a maroon VW 1970 Squareback. I went down to Delaware and set myself up in this little working class beach town. I just had a few belongings, including a lot of my father's things, his books and clothes.
I decided that I needed to practice again, and write my own story, my autobiography. I was reading, of all things, the Old Testament. It was a very strange, dark period. Occasionally I'd drive up to New York to see my brother and girlfriend, and then go back into my little lair at the beach, this little apartment on top of a garage. I had so little money that I'd just buy a loaf of bread and ketchup and some eggs. The most basic things you could survive on. And I started drinking in a way that I hadn't before. I would find myself lying on the beach late at night, drunk.
Where was this coming from? What was it fueled by?
Fear. I thought, this is a nosedive. Everything is falling apart around me. I remember reading in the Old Testament the story of Noah and his sons – Shem, Ham and Japheth. They all go forth and found cities and one of them goes forth and founds Rehoboth – and that was the same name of the town and beach where I was staying, Rehoboth Beach. Reading by candlelight, it was like I had found where I was in the Old Testament.
But after a couple of months, I freaked out with that, too, like, what am I doing here? I'm in the middle of nowhere. So, again, I just packed up my car and told my landlord I was leaving. I packed up my car that night and got on the road and the car broke down on the New Jersey side of the Delaware Memorial Bridge. It just died. I was towed to a car yard in New Jersey and got as much as I could out of the car that I could carry and the tow truck guy drove me to the bus station in the middle of the night. I waited there with my stuff, my father's clothes, my cello and a box of books and got into Penn Station at like five or six in the morning. I took the subway to my girlfriend's apartment and she was like, okay, but you can't stay here long. You've got to find something else. I never saw the car again. I just left it there, with a lot of my stuff in it, too. But that was it, I'd washed my hands of it. I was dropping things left and right, kind of like a path of destruction.
I eventually found a room on the Upper West Side, and it was a very interesting turning point. The woman whose apartment it was had a daughter, Bianca, who would come stay there occasionally. She was this punky, Italian American girl with a real New York attitude. We started talking and watching TV together late at night, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was one of our favorites, and I found out she was really into rock music. She said, I have a band. You should play in my band. She brought all of her friends over to see this new "exhibit", this classical cellist who lived in her mom's apartment. They were all kind of curious about me.
When you were at Juilliard, weren't there any rock worlds colliding with your existence?
I had never even known of their existence. I'd always associated rock music with big stadium acts like Pink Floyd or U2. I didn't realize that there was this other thing, a kind of very intelligent, offbeat person who is smart and a good musician, but in a totally different way. They became my community, just by chance, just by meeting this girl.
We did this neo-Dada art-punk thing called You Suck and we played CBGBs and Max's Kansas City and tons of other clubs, and all of a sudden there I was, hanging out with people in East Village bars, having conversations that were so interesting and thinking, man, how did I miss all of this? This is the milieu that King Missile came out of, and Dogbowl, things that later became very well known around the Shimmy Disc label. My friends knew people in the rock world, like Keith Levene, the guitarist from Public Image Ltd, who was very nice, and Anton Fier, who back then was the drummer for The Feelies, there were tangential contacts with Sonic Youth and Live Skull. Things started to come a little bit back together for me at that point. I was still trying to get back into Juilliard and I was playing a little bit better. It was a really significant turnaround for me. The last thing I expected was to find this particular crowd of super intelligent, slightly weird kids.
One of them was this guy from West Virginia, Will Dial, who knew so many songs it was just frightening. He had the most beautiful voice, a real natural country singer, the purity of pitch, high timbre, a voice that sounded like a harmonica. When he sang, I thought, this is musicianship, not those guys at Juilliard. This is a true musician. We started playing together, and he taught me how to play the guitar and we would sing together. It was the first time I had sung since I was 12 years old, and it was very powerful.
The Charles Curtis Trio, with Henry Grant (drums) and Peter Imig (bass). Photos by Bernard Oe
It seems like it was a very supportive community.
Yes. It was like, come play with us. It was a prelude to meeting La Monte, and prepared me for understanding him. All of these kids spoke with awe about the Velvet Underground. It was the Holy Grail. It was this thing that loomed over everything, something so particular to New York, so creative and original, not just musically, but also through their association with Warhol and the art world and the literary aspirations of the lyrics. I had never heard the Velvets until these people and they would play their stuff for me, and it was another total eye opener. I mean, there was a viola player in the Velvet Underground – John Cale! It really prepared me for understanding who La Monte Young was, and his mentor-like relationship to members of the Velvet Underground.
How did you first meet La Monte?
I met him in 1986, through a friend that I had in classical music, who'd gone to UC Berkeley with La Monte and known him there. This friend called me to perform a piece of La Monte's because he just had an intuition that I was the right person to play it. It was part of a series of concerts in 1987, a retrospective of La Monte's work, and the piece was Trio for Strings, which is universally designated as the first work of minimalism, a touchstone of minimalism, composed in 1958. Our first contact was a telephone call from a pay phone in Vermont to La Monte’s loft in New York. We talked for hours, just getting to know each other, and so he could tell me about the piece. The other thing that was very distinctive was that Marian [Zazeela, Young's wife] was on the phone the entire time. What I learned later was that there is no such thing as a phone conversation with "just" La Monte. They are always together. That took a moment of getting used to, that I was actually talking to two people who were talking like one person.
Is their work as intimately entwined?
Oh yes, and that results from the somewhat widely known fact that when they got together in the early 60s, they made a decision that they were going to be together all the time. In almost 50 years they have not spent a single night not together. They have not been out of one another's physical presence for more than an hour at a time. They are almost always together, next to each other, just interacting. So they consider all of their work to be collaborative, even the works he composed before they met (laughs). Nowadays they're only presented as a sort of dual art thing, music in a lighting environment.
The nature of their collaborative relationship is fascinating in the light of the fact that La Monte, when working with other people, is known to be more assertive, someone who needs sole authorship, while Marian goes about her art making in a more quiet way. Her work is incredibly detailed and sensitive, and has a light, light touch. A lot of their work exists as a kind of dedication to one another. Many of her drawings explicitly work through things like the calligraphy of their initials joined together in ways where you can barely recognize the letters anymore, sort of an expression of another perception through the joining of individuals. That's her personality, more a joining and merging. To say that they influence and advise each other on their work is an understatement. It's a real interpenetration of artistic practice and spirit.
So your process of getting to know La Monte was also linked inextricably to getting to know Marian.
Yes, and that started with the very first phone conversation. I had to get used to two voices saying the same thing, sometimes interrupting each other. For the solo piece Just Charles and Cello in The Romantic Chord (2002-2003) in a setting of Abstract #1 (2003) from Quadrilateral Phase Angle Traversals with Dream Light, which we worked on in the fall of 2003, La Monte and I would plot out the composition, I would learn it, he would compose right in front of me kneeling on the floor, and Marian was always in the room, with a pencil and paper, listening, drawing, just being there.
The other thing I remember about that phone call was that La Monte's voice sounded exactly how I thought he would sound from the mental image I had of him. There's something about that kind of American intellectual, which is very literate, and very thoughtful in the formulation. If you listen to Cage, for example, his Norton lectures at Harvard, it's very surprising. He makes these odd leaps and jumps in his ideas, and he responds to questions and ideas in an incredibly mercurial and refractive way. Very vivid and very alive. La Monte has that, and he also has this propensity to make quite silly puns, and often over and over again. And he does it in this kind of slightly monotone, deadpan voice, which in its own way is very expressive. So hanging up the payphone in the Vermont countryside, it all made sense to me. I thought, this is a new beginning.
My first actual meeting with him was a little bit later, when he was performing The Well-Tuned Piano in a series of weekly concerts at the Art Foundation, which was then based on Mercer Street. I think he did six performances over six weeks for five to six hours, every Sunday. I went to a number of them and because we'd become acquainted on the phone, I stayed afterwards to meet him, and went to his loft to eat potato salad and drink champagne - that was his post-performance meal.
Then we started rehearsing the Trio for Strings. That is a very hard piece, but hard in an unusual way. It has very few notes, and they are held for extended periods of time, and the intonation and also timbral markings are very specific. There's a particular spot where it is very, very hard for the cello to play, in which you are holding one natural harmonic with one string, and one artificial harmonic with the other string, and they're supposed to be in the relationship of a perfect fourth. And they're supposed to be played poco sul ponticello, which means ever so slightly up against the bridge of the cello, which makes a slightly breaking, whistling kind of sound. I was trying to execute this and he said, I wonder if you could bring out a little bit more of the seventh partial in the ponticello on the C string, and I thought, wow, this guy is serious (laughs). Here I am, just trying to play this, and he has this minute idea that the ponticello could activate the seventh partial more than the fifth partial on that C string. Very often you work with composers on new pieces and you have the sense that they don't really know what they have written, but I thought, this guy really knows what he wants, and he's really hearing this. I remember my brother was staying with me at that time and I told him this and he said, oh my God, I would have just thrown the score in his face and walked out of there. And I said, no, I can't do that. I mean, I don't know if I can do what he's asking me to do, but this is really intriguing.
So this was a challenge you hadn't yet experienced.
I'd never heard of activating a specific partial with a ponticello. For me ponticello was just a tone color that gives a little more whistling sound. And he made me realize that what ponticello is, is activating higher partials that become louder than the fundamental that you're playing. I'd never thought of that idea before. I'd also never heard of the idea of just intonation, that you could play a perfect fourth such that there are almost no acoustical beats when you play. Those were really new technical ideas for me. I had thought of myself as a very advanced instrumentalist, but these were new things that I hadn't heard of or attempted.
The way La Monte goes about rehearsals and that type of criticism or fine working-out of details is very pleasant. It's very calm. He doesn't get excited. He doesn't get impatient. This will come as no surprise, but he has endless reserves of patience. If you can also bring the same kind of focus and patience to rehearsal, it's a very mutually enriching experience. I really liked that. It stood apart from most of the work I was doing on the cello, but I thought it was very enriching.
Were you not used to working on pieces in tandem with the composer, in a collaborative sort of way?
I was. I had done that a lot, starting with my brother and right on through with other student composers at Juilliard and other composer friends of mine. I was primed to be very sympathetic to a composer relationship from my brother, who used to ask me to do outrageous things, and here was La Monte, also asking me to do outrageous things – but they weren't coming off as outrageous, they were coming off as exquisite.
So the performance of Trio for Strings went reasonably well, for such a hard piece. We rehearsed very carefully, and the other musicians were very good, but it wasn't completely satisfying because it seemed like we were very conscious of the process and the challenges and difficulties of the process. I think the effort was a big part of the performance. A friend of mine came to the concert and said she really loved it, that it seemed like this big mountain, this summit that people were scaling. I thought that made sense in a number of ways, partly in the sense of the effort and the process, and partly because she saw it as something like an element of nature, which I think his music is. Without trying to specifically reference natural sounds or forces, by being in just intonation and by being so closely related to the harmonic series, these are things that exist in nature, and the music comes across like a natural phenomenon, a miracle of nature. Like an eclipse or a sunset. And also the idea that it was something almost unattainable, like a peak. Maybe we didn't actually scale it or get to the summit, but we were all, listeners and performers alike, involved in this extraordinary process.
For the performance in 2005, I realized, after having played it by then several times, what needed to be done to get it closer to what the piece suggests. Originally it was scored for violin, viola and cello and I realized that wasn't the right instrumentation. It needs four instruments. So in consultation with La Monte I made these suggestions and he immediately saw what I was getting at, and made another suggestion which led to an instrumentation for the piece which is perfect.
And beyond this there was the very interesting issue of finding a just intonation tuning for the Trio. The Trio is a twelve-tone work composed before La Monte had become familiar with the system of just intonation, but there was always a sense that the Trio could retroactively be re-calibrated as a just intonation piece, and I hit upon a very curious circumstance in the relationship between chords in the opening section of the piece which provided the key to putting the entire piece into a unified just intonation tuning. This was almost shocking, how perfectly it worked out, and when I called La Monte and Marian to explain what I had figured out, La Monte kept saying, as I was talking, if this actually turns out to be right I’m going to be amazed, and in fact it did.
You saw a relationship in the piece that he didn’t see right away.
Exactly, and he values that immensely. He values that there is the practitioner at the instrument who recognizes what the core of the piece is, and what it conceivably can be in performance. I think he would agree that we brought that piece and the process much closer to what he intended it to be in 1958, but in a way he didn't know then.
So there's a sense that his works are always evolving, being tweaked, and thought about critically?
He himself says that all of his works constitute one composition, one single work. He sees his body of work as one work of art. And that work of art, needless to say, if it encompasses all of these individual pieces from 50-some years of activity, is a work in process. It's open-ended, and still evolving, not only in the sense that new works are being added all the time, but the whole thing exists in the present. The whole body of work exists as a singular moment. Even earlier pieces are moving forward into this work, through a sort of reflection back on those works, via the later works. It's almost an example of this spiritual idea of "now-time", the eternal moment that's always present. It's a view of time that's not linear or successive, but rather a kind of a prophetic notion. In the church, the term is nunc stans, or the standing now. It's a monastic idea, and obviously it's very closely bound up with him and I think his music exemplifies that in a very concrete way. And that something as specific as Trio for Strings, evolving from 1958 to 2005 into a work that has been affected by works that succeeded it in his output, has now turned into a new work receiving a world premiere almost 50 years after its composition is extremely interesting.
Did adding the fourth instrument dramatically alter the sonic qualities of the piece?
Yes, it did. The structure of the entire piece extrapolates from four-note chords, so it seemed to me really intuitive that we would need four instruments to play these four note chords as the foundation of the piece. Even when only one note is playing at a time, or two notes or three notes, they're coming out of these very particular chords that La Monte refers to as Dream Chords, which are an integral part of a lot of his later output. If you know the Dream Chords, as in the works The Four Dreams of China, then you know how Trio for Strings works. He needs to have the timbral difference of viola, violin and cello at different points in the piece. So when I said, let's have two violins and two cellos (no viola) and maybe one of the violins could have a viola there to double on, the way Schoenberg has the violinist double on viola in Pierrot Lunaire, and occasionally pick up the part of the viola, La Monte said, no, we'll have both violinists also play viola. So what you have is a piece for six instruments – two violins, two cellos, and two violas – as a double trio. It's twice the original string trio, but with four performers covering the four-note chords. You don't need six performers. They'd be sitting around much of the time. You can't have a violist sitting around to play one note every 25 minutes (laughs). So the perfect lineup for the piece is four musicians, six instruments. And that numerical relationship – 6:4, simplified as 3:2 – is integral to the tuning of the piece, interestingly enough. You get involved in La Monte's music and you find all of these very integral relationships, where the essential underpinnings lead to the whole work making sense. Not just the specific work, but everything.
We gave several performances of Trio for Strings that summer and fall, and spent a long time recording it really carefully at his loft in New York, late at night. I feel like we took that piece and brought it to a level very near to the ideal, very near to the limits of the possible. La Monte has every intention of releasing it, but as with everything else, it's taking an extremely long time to put out. But he's very satisfied with the recording.
Are most of his works being gently reworked over the course of his lifetime?
Absolutely. All of them. For instance, there's even a very early work called Five Small Pieces for String Quartet, which are explicitly 12-tone and strongly influenced by Schoenberg and Webern. With those pieces he didn't necessarily change the music, but he was very enthusiastic about doing them for cello and piano as well, so I performed them a number of times with Michael Schumacher. La Monte's totally open to that kind of evolution of a piece. And with The Well-Tuned Piano, every time he plays it, over a period of 25 years, it gets a little bit longer. He'll compose new sections, expand on existing sections, and that's also true of his solo cello piece for me, too. Every time we do it, he's adding things. It's an open-ended piece and functions in time that way, as being part of an organic, evolutionary process. That's another reason why it doesn't make any sense to notate those pieces and say, here's the score.
La Monte Young
Is it fair to say that your impression of his nature and work ethic is something consistent? Has the nature of your dynamic with him evolved or refined?
I would say that we've become more and more trusting of one another, although we already started off on a very good note. But I would say that there were periods where I worked with him where I did experience frustration with the pace of things, and with the extraordinary musical demands that he puts on a performer. And there were certainly moments of tension between us. But there was a certain point when we were performing together, when we were working on the music of Richard Maxfield, when I realized that he and his work are one thing. I can't expect the work to be one thing, and his functioning around the work to be another thing, and that if I'm going to really be involved in the work, then I have to be involved in the work exactly the way he is. For instance, should I be frustrated that the recording of Trio for Strings is not out five years after we recorded it?
Most people would say I should be frustrated, that I should do something about it. Well, I have done lots about it. I did the recording! (laughs) I saw that it got edited and mastered. I played, performed and discussed it with him. I did everything that I could do, but I can't go inside him and make him different, so I go with it. And I feel perfectly fine with that. If it's not released in my lifetime, then it's not released in my lifetime. You have to realize what you can do and what you can't do, and do what you can do to the fullest possible extent. An interesting feature about La Monte is that you have to wait for him a lot. You come to see him and sometimes you wait 45 minutes or an hour, and that used to frustrate me a lot. It doesn't anymore, and curiously I don't wait for him that much anymore. He seems to be ready sooner than he used to be. Maybe that is not coincidental. But I feel very at peace with it. I feel a tremendous sense of fulfillment in my work with him and Marian, and I feel a very deep love for both of them. And that is not just a supplementary thing: it's part of the musical relationship.
You mentioned people being frustrated with La Monte's recordings not being available. That led to a dispute between him and Tony Conrad a few years ago. Can you explain that?
Well, as far as I understand it, in the mid 1960s, around the time the Velvet Underground was starting – with Lou Reed and John Cale – Tony Conrad was also involved. At around the same time, La Monte Young had formed his first performance group, which he called the Theater of Eternal Music, and which later Conrad and Cale would refer to as The Dream Syndicate. I think it was through Tony that Cale got involved with La Monte and Marian Zazeela. It was a very notorious group. There was a lot of buzz about it, they played very loud, it was a very pure, sustained tone kind of thing. They did that for a number of years, sometimes ongoing, sometimes off and on.
Much later, in the 1990s, Tony came back and said that this music wasn't composed by La Monte, but that it was a group composition, or that it was improvisation. But back then no one ever questioned the idea that it was La Monte's music. It was presented as such, and everybody who knows him well knows that La Monte is a very dominant personality who presents an idea and frames it as his, and there really is no question about that. It was more than 30 years later that Tony decided he wanted to rewrite history and recast the thing as a "group composition", and Cale got on board with him, too. I think that it came out of the fact that La Monte was so slow and also reluctant to release their recordings. People were saying, well how come? why can't we hear them? So Tony kind of went on the warpath, started protesting and going to [La Monte's] concerts and standing at the door and handing out pamphlets about it.
On what grounds could Conrad claim that he had a part in the authorship of some of these works?
Well, his whole point was that it was improvisation, and also that he had brought the idea of expressing music in whole number ratios, the idea of just intonation. Tony had been a student at Harvard and had this very original insight into how music could be represented numerically. It was perfect for La Monte because long before he met Tony he was very interested in single, contained, long sounds and pitches. Musically, the idea of sustained sound and singular sound events came completely from La Monte, but he has always acknowledged that the mechanics of expressing pitch in numerical ratios came from Tony.
So Conrad was able to use the delay in the release of the material as a way to address the idea of authorship.
And to say "La Monte refused to let my music be heard."
Did any of this have any effect on the actual release of these recordings?
Well, Table of the Elements did issue something called Day of Niagara, subtitled Inside the Dream Syndicate Vol. I. According to the story that I have heard, it was released because [Berlin-based composer] Arnold Dreyblatt was an assistant of La Monte's in the late 70s and early 80s, working there in the archive, as many people did. La Monte had this funny staff of people that did things for him, like archivists, bookkeepers, monitors for the Dream House. Arnold had stolen a tape from La Monte's archive and dubbed a copy for Jim O'Rourke, who he was friends with. Like, here is the legendary secret thing that no one could hear because none of the recordings were out there. So Jim took it to Table of the Elements and said, here it is, let's release it. And they did. The cover doesn't even credit La Monte Young as composer, because the names are in alphabetical order (laughs). It says: John Cale, Tony Conrad, La Monte Young, Marian Zazeela. All of the compositions are named after the calendar of Angus MacLise, who'd made this hippie calendar with poetic names for each day. That calendar itself is a work of poetry.
So they released it, and it's a terrible dub. It's a very disappointing record. It sounds dreadful. And things all came to a head with statements from Tony like, finally people can hear our music, and a statement from La Monte saying, this is not our music, this is my composition, and anyway it’s not really representative.
The point of discussing all this is that I personally feel that the kind of work that I do with La Monte puts that in a very different perspective, because I feel that our work is very productive, and I feel no desire whatsoever to take compositional credit for it. I take the idea of being "only" a performer very seriously, and I find it extremely rewarding. I don't see the end result as a collaborative composition, but certainly the process of getting to what I consider a composition by La Monte Young that intimately involves me, is a collaborative process.
Has being back in California changed how close you can be or how much you can communicate?
Not really. Living in New York was nice, and I guess I saw him more, but I don't think it's really changed it much. What has changed, is that through my position at this university, and because this particular university is considered a research campus, I have a lot of freedom to work on these kind of projects, like Trio for Strings. I had a sabbatical so that I could work on the solo cello piece with him in 2003. Without those spaces supported by the university, I'm not sure I would have been able to bring that solo piece to completion.
Are you two working on anything at the moment?
In La Monte's world, there can't be very many projects at once. The thing that we are continuing to work on is Indian classical music. Last spring, almost exactly one year ago in March, we gave two extraordinary concerts at the Guggenheim Museum in New York as part of this huge show called The Third Mind: American Artists Contemplate Asia. It had a major Dream House installation of La Monte's and Marian’s, with two concerts with La Monte's raga ensemble, of which I am an integral part. The second of them will be available as a DVD recording; it's already being shown in Europe as a DVD installation. So that's an ongoing project, working on La Monte's compositions in the medium of raga.
Does the raga provide a different set of technical challenges?
Well, yes, because they draw on the very traditional skills of raga performance, of which La Monte is an acknowledged master, having studied for many years with his own guru, Pandit Pran Nath. Now he even has his own title of Kahn Sahib, an honorific title conferred upon him by an older musician.
Was raga a passion of yours prior to working with La Monte?
No, and he'd been prodding me for years to study raga, saying, if you really want to understand my music, you have to work on these ragas with me. And I kept saying, no, I can't do that, I'm already trying to do too many things, I could never do it justice. I could never be more than a white guy trying to do raga as an imposter. And I didn't want to do it. I knew that the only appropriate way to do it would be to do it the way he did it – to devote a big, fat chunk of my life to it. I have a family, a job and a career as a classical performer, and my dedication to his music and a couple of other composers. But when we started working on the solo piece that he made for me, we started working on raga as well, because he said it would be my key to understanding the piece. I was on sabbatical, living in New York, and working on the piece very regularly with him, seeing him constantly. I wasn't doing anything else, so I said, okay, I give in. I'll now play raga with you as well. So instead of just seeing him play raga and being just a listener awed by what I heard, I got inside it. And I'm very glad I did, because in my own limited and modest way, I realized that I can contribute to his raga ensemble. I would never go out and attempt to play raga on my own, but in conjunction with his raga compositions, I feel qualified to do a good job in what I see as a specific, modest role in his ensemble. Learning the basics of raga through him and learning the sorts of patterns of improvisations, the permutations of pitches and so on, I see he was right. It was essential to an understanding to the solo piece. And it's helped my understanding of other music as well.
At that time that I was there in New York, in the second half of 2003, I was also working with my old cello teacher Harvey Shapiro from Juilliard, who at that time was 91 or 92 years old. This guy was an extraordinary cellist and teacher, who was the principal cellist under Toscanini, and he had played with Rachmaninoff and Primrose and Elman in the 1930s. He was a real embodiment of the great American Jewish tradition of string playing from the 20s, 30s and 40s. There was something in his playing – a certain kind of smoothness, connection. I loved him and we were very close. He was an amazing individual, a very peculiar guy whose whole manner of teaching was just crazy. He was like that Jewish comedian, Don Rickles, whose whole shtick was insulting people (laughs).
Did he empathize at all with your struggles at Juilliard when you were first there?
He couldn't have cared less. He was a cigar smoking, whiskey drinking, bristly, grizzled old Jewish guy. Totally old school. He played the horses and gambled with the stock market. He was a great artist and a devastating teacher. His manner of teaching was that as soon as you started to play well, got what he wanted you to do, he'd stop you, usually with something like, asshole! (laughs) That would mean, you got it, stop. If it was good, he didn't want to hear it. He would carry on and scream. It was absolutely Zen-like, it made absolutely no sense at all, but if you absorbed it, it had an effect. Most students would cry, or just quit, because they didn't get it. But for those who could withstand it, he was an incredibly nurturing teacher in a very unexpected way. When I was at Juilliard, I was working with him seven days a week. I was there every single day. On the weekends, I would go to his apartment. I was just drinking it in. I didn't care what he was saying, I didn't care what expletives he was using. What he would say about your bow hand was like, you might as well stick your thumb up your fucking ass because it's not doing you any good where it is. (laughs) He was unbelievable.
Nobody does that anymore. That was the world he came out of. When it worked, he was supportive. He said, you're a great artist, you're a great cellist, you're a master. He had no problem saying things like that. But if you played something a bit off, it was intense. And even later, when I wasn't his student, I would go over and see him and he wouldn't let me leave without a bit of playing. Whether I had my cello with me or not, he'd find some excuse, like, my D string is sounding a bit weird, would you mind trying it out and telling me what you think? Then I'd play a few things and he'd be like, now play something from that Dvořák concerto, I want to see what that sounds like. And pretty soon, he'd start teaching and the whole thing would start again.
By then I was doing raga with La Monte, and there was the idea that it's all about singing, because he teaches raga through vocals. A note drifting down in pitch La Monte describes as a leaf falling. It has to fall so gently and so gradually, like a leaf drifting. It all makes sense and it's beautiful. So here I was, my teacher playing for me, this 92 year old with crippled arthritic hands doing these little glissandi and I thought, my God, it's exactly that, the leaf falling. That was another interesting epiphany, that idea that there are certain really fundamental things about the voice and cello and music and pitch and so on that are not locked into some ghetto of European classical music or experimental music or rock music. It seems like a corny idea, but it's true. And that's why I don't feel like there's a break for me in these things that I do, they all come out of the same mindset.
I played him some of La Monte's piece, and he had some very intelligent suggestions for me, but he would still joke about the strange pieces I was playing, like, why were they so long, why were they two hours, can't you do them in 20 minutes? (laughs) But he would say, I'm so happy for you, that you've found this special repertoire. He was impressed I was doing this, going off to Berlin and Paris.
And it was in Paris that you met Eliane Radigue.
In 2003 when I went to play La Monte's piece there. And only shortly before that did I even really begin to hear her music, because a friend had presented a concert of mine in Grenoble, Manu Holterbach, and next day over lunch, he was playing recordings in the background. I said, what are we listening to? This sounds great. And he said, oh you don't know this? It's Eliane Radigue. And I thought, whoa. (laughs) When I knew I was going to Paris in 2003, I told everybody I knew that I wanted to meet her. So they all made sure that she came to my concert and that we met afterwards. We were formally introduced by the composer Gerard Pape, who had in fact commissioned the solo piece from La Monte and Marian, and he just said off the top of his head, Eliane, why don't you make a piece for Charles? And she said, well, how would I do that? (laughs) She had never worked that way before.
With Eliane Radigue, Xippas Gallery, Paris. Photo by Manu Holterbach
It sounds like she's having a productive renaissance as a result of the relationship she's explored with you.
Yes, and with her new relationship with acoustic instruments, which she hadn't really touched for her entire output. I'm going to Bologna, Italy in May to perform the whole trilogy of works, Naldjorlak. We premiered that piece in Paris in October, and also in Netherlands and Belgium. And that's ongoing. There's something very gratifying about the work with Eliane, because when the idea was suddenly proposed that she would make a piece for me it wasn't something either she or I had suggested. It was dropped almost like a formality in our introduction. There wasn't a whole lot of premeditation there, and yet it stuck. I had no idea what that would entail in terms of the piece, and Eliane had no idea how she would go about composing for the cello. We liked each other, and I made a point to visit her the next time I was in Paris, to cultivate this idea. Through talking and thinking and establishing the personal connection, a whole new direction opened up in her work, applying the same aesthetics, formal ideas and techniques that she'd employed in her electronic music to acoustic music, and that it could work, that she could create something unmistakably Eliane Radigue, and in a whole new medium, performer and cello.
What were your first impressions?
I'd gone into it thinking, this is going to be a piece for cello and tape. I thought that she'd give me some weird sounds and I'd figure out what to do with them and maybe she would notate it. But she was like, no, no, this won't have anything to do with tape, this is going to be entirely for cello. And I thought, wow, that's great. Let's do that! I had to show her everything that I could possibly think of as a set of acoustic resources on the cello. I recorded a whole bunch of things that I thought reminded me of certain kinds of expressive states in her music, and took them to her.
She called it her "shopping", like, one of this, one of that. (laughs) The first time we met, she made a little drawing, which was meant to graph the overall shape of the piece. But it was nothing like a score. Later she said to me, in fact, all of my pieces are the same piece. Now doesn't that sound familiar? (laughs) Not in the way that each piece is part of one work, but essentially, she said, with each piece I follow the same shape, the same trajectory. I just use the sounds that I'm working with at the time, and follow them, but the overall shape of the piece is always the same. She was totally upfront about that.
Would you describe that as a uniquely modern approach to composition?
I mean, it sounds not modern, because one of the basic tenets of the avant garde is that it has to be new every time. It has to be different, you have to surprise and shock people. And here she is, saying, no, I do the same things every time, just maybe with different sounds. So sure enough, here comes the cello piece and she has this little drawing and she says, essentially, all of my pieces are like this. Also that acknowledgement that she's not interested in variety or staking out new territory, I think that's very contrary to a certain modernist viewpoint. It has more to do with repetition and observation and studying something rather than asserting something. Eliane seems to have no concerns whatsoever about what anybody expects her to create. In a way, her career has almost been free of ambition. She's just done what she wanted, painstakingly and laboriously. She's another composer who works very slowly. Maybe making one work every two or three years. In that respect she's similar to La Monte; things need to gestate, grow organically. She has no use for deadlines at all.
How did the creative process unfold from there?
It went on from there to take all the possible sounds and see where they would go if I played them for a very long time, and she would sit there, sort of stop and think, or say, we'd better make some tea. There was a lot of agonizing. You mentioned confidence, and that's true, but there's also a lot of interior agonizing. Like, is this going to work? Sometimes she would have to step out of her apartment and stay outside for a while, and compose herself and then come back in. It was incredible. It was a very intense period, working with her.
About how long did it take for you to complete the piece?
The whole process was spread over about seven months, I think, and the final period of work was about a ten days in late September, 2005. And at that point we had set ourselves a deadline of performing it in New York in December.
So the performance took place before the recording was put out as a CD?
Absolutely. I had performed it probably 10 or 15 times before we recorded it. The recording was also a very private performance, with just a handful of people in a church… The piece has changed since we made the recording, but I think the recording is at least a kind of a rendering of the piece. One of many possible renderings.
Do you have any other plans to work with her?
We're not exactly planning another piece. We don't have to. Like with La Monte, we feel the pieces will evolve as well. With each performance, something will happen to it. Interesting, too, that Naldjorlak tends to get a little longer as I perform it. I've played that piece a lot – pushing on 30 times, which for that kind of new work, is an extraordinary number. There's a lot of interest in her right now.
from L to R: Eliane Radigue, Bruno Martinez, Curtis, Carol Robinson
Is there an element of improvisation to what you do?
I don't really know what the word "improvisation" means, like, at what point does it become improvisation and when does it stop being improvisation. I don't know and it doesn't really interest me that much. Intuitively, I don't really feel that those pieces are improvised; I feel that they're composed. And I feel that as a performer the very specific set of conditions that animate the performance and also that limit the performance – it goes both ways – push you and prod you to do something you may not have planned to do. But there are also very clear limits. Like, if you go here, then it might no longer be her piece. Maybe then it's my piece. But it's not her piece, it's not La Monte's piece.
I can tell you there were situations with La Monte, after performances of the solo piece, we would have telephone conversations about a specific performance that lasted over three hours. He would say, you know, in that section where you do this and that with those particular ratios, I was a little surprised that you approached the B flat directly from the A. I thought that the way we had discussed it, you would only approach the B flat from the other pitch. Why were you doing that? We're talking about a very long piece, and this is like a needle in the haystack. And I did know exactly what he was talking about. I said, that's a very interesting question. I wasn't aware that I wasn't supposed to approach it from the A below. And he said, well, I don't think you are. He doesn't say, you aren't supposed to, he says, I don't think you are, because he's thinking about the whole tradition of other works of his that inform this solo piece.
There is some negotiation here, but it gives you an idea of how specific it is. I guess in some sense I am improvising, but this is the kind of improvisation that has very strict limits. Yes, I decide when to move things forward, I decide how long to play things, I feel what the proportions are, what's appropriate here. I perform very freely without a score, but I am remembering a kind of a catalog of rules and specific melodic fragments and specific patterns and specific orderings of notes, which is immense. It's an oral tradition. It's like reciting The Iliad. You know the story, you know the stock phrases, like "the wine-red sea," but you tell the story at your own pace. But you have all of these precedents and cues, like a stock of elements that you have at your disposal. And you must use them. It's imperative. You don't have any choice there. You can't add new episodes to The Iliad, it's all given.
Interestingly, La Monte was, by all accounts, an extremely accomplished jazz saxophonist in his youth, and a huge follower of Charlie Parker. If you asked La Monte, he'd say that was exactly what Charlie Parker was doing, working with a vast repertoire of specific rules, phrases, embellishments and changes. What he was doing as an improviser was reordering these things, constantly permutating them, recombining them. It was a very rigorous, very strict, form of improvisation.
Is that a guiding principle behind La Monte's works?
Yes, and I think it applies to Eliane's, too. There’s a fine line between it being about the performer, or about the piece, and you have to realize, this isn’t me, this is the piece. You want it to be the piece. You want for the piece to be inside of you. That's why the piece is absolutely recognizable from performance to performance, even though many of the details are quite different, and maybe the listener's subjective experience of it, too.
So after every performance, you guys will make it a point to discuss how it went?
Yes, and that's ongoing. That's true with all of the works that I've done with him, and an insight to how the work itself is always evolving. The early performances tended to be more cautious, more tame. You're really just trying to do justice to the work, and get the work there. Some of the earliest performances of La Monte's pieces are my favorites because of their simplicity, their..
Restraint, yes. I think restraint is a good word for it. The first performances of Just Charles and Cello were maybe just shy of three hours, and little by little I was emboldened to play longer and push things and expand, and naturally that led to these discussions. But the main thing here is the intonation. La Monte himself, as a singer of raga, has unbelievably pure, exact intonation, and that's been the main substance in our work together over the years, working on just intonation. There are challenges of playing exactly in tune with prerecorded drones of sustained cello notes – in the case of the solo piece – and hitting them so that they meet with absolutely no interference or discrepancy. Obviously it's close to impossible. It's one of the things that La Monte's music is fundamentally about. The drones are actually played with a sine wave so that they are absolutely in tune, as a reference, a guide note. You don't hear the sine wave, but I'm playing with it to make sure I'm smack on, in the pre-recorded cello tones. In performance, these are played back in particular groupings of one note, two notes, 17 notes, etc., and I play all of this elaborate material in relation to those drones.
In the earlier performances, my intonation was probably quite good, and there was an audible process of dialing it in (which can be very beautiful, listening to the performer bring the note right into focus and then holding it), which led to the performances being more restrained, because the process of searching for the pitches was more out in the open. You were hearing the searching, the looking for the notes. That led to another phase of more experimentation, more elaborate figuration and pattern. During the third phase of performances of the piece, I was rehearsing with La Monte as usual, and he was extremely encouraging, saying, your intonation is so good now that you're not searching for these notes, you're finding them. It was kind of a breakthrough, which I took to mean something a little bit like, this piece is now becoming yours, and you can go on with it. You are becoming one with the piece.
Is that a scary feeling?
No, no. It's a responsibility, certainly, but it's a very curious feeling, knowing that I embody this work and that it only exists insofar as I continue to exist. Even the recordings that exist, another cellist couldn't figure out how to do it. You could try to do an exact replication of one particular performance, but it wouldn't make sense, it wouldn't be the piece. And that's where the idea of improvisation really gets a lot of meaning, because you can't just reconstruct the piece from one of my performances. It's an odd feeling to know that I could get run over by a truck and that would be the end of the piece. Of course, someone could go to La Monte, but they'd probably have to work together for 15 years (laughs).
Would you like to transfer the work to someone else?
I would love to, but as I said earlier, I'd have to find a person who's that into it, because it's a big commitment. It's a major undertaking, and I haven't met anybody yet. I would be immediately ready to pass it on. I would love to hear someone else play it. And of course La Monte would also be involved. He'd like it for someone to learn it just from him, and theoretically you could – but as long as I'm around, that would be a little silly because I have knowledge that he doesn't have regarding how you actually go about doing it on the instrument. That's why I don't feel that there's any degrading of my status here to say that I am the performer. I don't have the status of the composer. I don't want the status of the composer. I'm very happy with this extremely creative and extremely fruitful synergy with the composer.
Photo by Uli Schaegger, 2004
Have you taken on that teaching role with other works of his?
Yes, with his ensemble pieces like the Trio for Strings, and The Four Dreams of China and even things like Poem for Chairs, Tables, Benches, etc. and some of the Compositions 1960, the text pieces. I'm constantly in that situation, and in that way La Monte has a great deal of trust in sending me out to teach, to spread the music to people and to say, this is how it's done, this is how it's meant to sound.
Does being at UCSD strengthen those sort of skills? Is it the same kind of teaching?
No. It isn't. I've done a bit of that very specific kind of teaching at UCSD, but while it's a wonderful environment for me to work and develop long term projects like this, it's not the best environment for the students to do it. They're in a very intense environment where they have many demands and responsibilities, and I have much more success teaching La Monte's work when I go somewhere where that is all we are doing. That seems to work well.
Is there ever a worry that you are kind of spreading yourself thin?
I don't think I am. More like I'm driving myself crazy, but that's just because I'm also married and have three children (laughs). And that in itself is a huge factor in my life. Being at UCSD is more than teaching and research, it's also self-governance, you know, we’re a completely democratic and self-regulating public university, and if you're someone like me, you take that seriously. I don't actually feel spread thin, but I feel like I'm sometimes at the limits of the possible.
You say no to things, too.
I do. There is nothing that I don't actually want to be doing. Not a single thing. I don't do anything because I feel obliged to do it. And that's a good thing to be able to say. I guess living in San Diego sometimes I feel a little nervous because in New York millions of things are happening, and I’m wondering, what am I missing? But even if I were in New York, I'd be missing 90% of it. And I'd probably be more nervous. I am currently in New York six or eight times a year, and Europe four or five times a year, sometimes for long stretches.
Do you ever worry about burning out? Fatigue?
No. I feel like the kind of work that I do is sustainable, and self-renewing. That's why I'm so happy doing music. I don't feel remotely jaded, having been a musician for so many years. I'd like to think that musicians are still like that. I think that La Monte and I are very close because he's that way, too. I don't really see any disconnect at all between Schumann or La Monte Young or Morton Feldman or the slightly artsy forms of rock music that I've been involved in. They all go back to the same simple values, the same concerns for precision and specificity of expression and craftsmanship, all in the service of a very fundamental human expression. If you can see that there is a great personal challenge in bringing all of that together in these very simple ways, then music making is a great thing to do. You can't get tired of it, you can't get jaded, you can't get burned out.
What do you have coming up?
In Germany, I have some very involved performances of La Monte's music in the south of Germany, in a very remarkable monastery village called Polling which has a center devoted to La Monte Young. I play concerts there every summer, and also give a course. It's in the foothills of the Alps, and they have a permanent installation of La Monte and Marian's work. I’ll be with my entire family, and from there we'll drive across Italy to the Alpes Maritimes to visit Eliane Radigue in her little medieval village. She spends the summer in this little amazing house in the rocky hills. I'll play Eliane’s piece again, in Düsseldorf, at the end of the summer, and then fly back to San Diego. Next winter I'll be taking another sabbatical, but I don't know what I'm going to do, and that's pretty exciting for me. Also I have a secret project coming up, which involves Bach.
Reflecting back upon who you were, starting out as a young cellist in Laguna Beach, moving on to Juilliard, and so on, did you ever think this would be something that would consume your life in this kind of way?
I could never have imagined this. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined this. In some very particular way, for a very particular group of listeners and performers, I guess I am someone who has done something important. I'm essentially a modest person, but I have to acknowledge that. For it to have happened in a way that is so of a piece with all of the funny elements and experiences that have made me who I am, is an incredible surprise and, in a way, an achievement, though it wasn't something I was striving for. But I feel that I have survived so many things, and found a life that is kind of great. Ideal, even.
with daughter Louise