Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Begin modestly and let things fall where they may: an interview with David Cope


(Photo: David Cope, trumpet, Steed Cowart, umbrella, and Daniel Wolf, kite, April in Santa Cruz Festival 1983).

Daniel Wolf: You are well-known for your surveys of what might be called the "landscape" of new music. In your books and teaching, your approach has been broad and descriptive rather than selective and critical. But I do know you as a composer with your own influences, with strong tastes and preferences, so let's be a little bit more selective and critical. How do you locate your own music in this landscape?


David Cope: I have spent a great deal of time attempting to *not* include my biases in my writings on new music. I am sure that to some degree I have failed; but not for lack of trying. I have missed some ideas, works, and composers that I should have covered and probably vice versa. My basic principle, however, has always been the same - to cover the material as objectively as I possibly could, leaving it to readers to make value judgements.

As you point out, however, I do have my own tastes and preferences that I exhibit whenever I choose a CD to play, a particular concert to attend, and so on. I also exhibit these tastes and preferences in my compositions. For example, I love the music of the Navajo Indians and I have included particular instances of this music in many of my works over the past forty years. I do this for a number of reasons: I grew up in the desert Southwest, I am part American Indian myself, I have spent some time on the Navajo Reservation, and so on. Several of my Navajo works are available on Smithsonian-Folkways recordings.

How these works (and my algorithmic and experimental works) fit into a current landscape I have no idea. I have spent most of my life on the outside looking in (or possibly on the outside looking out).

It seems to me that caring where one fits into a landscape quickly leads to one trying to fit into that same landscape. I don't want to compose for such a reason. I'd a lot rather compose to suit myself and let others determine, if they care to, where my music might be located with respect to others.

DW: Doesn't the association with the Southwest, beyond the physical landscape and connections to Native American culture and mythology, also have a connection to more recent cultural geography? By more recent cultural geography, I meant, in particular, the contrast that often features in your music between very static materials and dramatic ruptures in that stasis. That contrast is carried by a formal rhythm or pacing that I can only liken to travel along desert highways, like the old Route 66 stretching through the desert, punctured by the old filling stations with their mechanical pumps and coke bottle machines, and ending in the ruckus of Hollywood...

DC: I don't usually think of my music in these terms. However, I certainly admit to loving pitch fields (static pitches scattered widely in register and playing as if initiated by some unseen force - a la wind chimes, of which I own several hundred). I then choose certain pitches to, as you say, puncture" the otherwise quiet "terrain" with motives important to the work's structure. I love the geography in the triangle between Winslow, Window Rock, and Canyon de Chelly, a landscape that is at once serenely quiet and yet incredibly deceptive - a thunderstorm of dangerous proportions can interrupt almost without warning.

DW: But would it be wrong to make a connection to a few other composers -- Varese, Partch, Childs, to name three very different personalities -- for whom the desert has been significant?

DC: I have loved Varese's music since my early twenties, have conducted his Octandre several times, and have included analyses of his music in many of my books. I use Partch's music and photos of his instruments in my classes routinely and consider him one of the most underrated composers of the 20th-century. I fondly remember Barney coming to my home and telling me of his exploits at Deep Springs College where he often lay in bed shooting scorpions off the wall with an ammonia-filled squirt gun. An amazing character. I took great pleasure in publishing his tome on indeterminacy in an early issue of The Composer Magazine. So, I suppose there would be connections between me and those composers.

However, I don't dwell or often think of such things - too busy making music.

DW: In addition to your interests in the natural and information sciences, you have been a lifelong reader of science fiction. I remember well your excitement at going to Heinlein's house with Phillip Jose Farmer. My own interests in that direction have always been more towards what might be called "social science fiction", so I may be out of my depths here, but I have to wonder if the license that science fiction has with relationship to "real" science plays a role in your composing: a science fiction novel, in the end, doesn't have to meet any standard other than that of being a good novel, it's consistency has to be internal, not consistence with the world external to the novel. Is there any parallel to be heard in your music?

DC: Thanks for reminding me of these memories. It is true that Heinlein lived up the road a mile or two from me here in Santa Cruz before he died, and that Philip Jose Farmer and I spent many years trying to get funding (unsuccessfully) to do an opera together, and that I do enjoy reading science fiction. It is further true that I spend a lot of time with matters scientific in the mainstream sense of the word, loving mathematics and astronomy especially. I never really saw a contradiction between the two, more that one is an extension of the other. My wife says that I don't need to think out of the box, since I never had a box in the first place.

In response to your question, I can't imagine that these interests don't have an effect on my music, and I do very much try to instill in my works an internal logic, even though I know that this internal logic will not suffice as the sole process of composing. However, whether this is a result of my interest in "sci fi" and/or of "sci not fi" I have no idea. It is certainly not something I consciously attempt to infuse into my works. Even my algorithmic music is largely built on databases of other music rather than rules I've written and, therefore, interestingly seems less rather than more influenced by the sources you mention.

DW: Mary Jane (Cope)'s remark is spot on, and it also speaks to a certain wild streak in your work. I don't know of another composer, for example, who would literally set off fireworks in the theatre, as you did in the finale to your Vectors (in addition to the bagpipes, percussion, electronics, and the two marching bands). But in the absence of that box, what factors or constraints guide you in deciding that this material does or doesn't belong to a piece by David Cope, or that a piece goes one way and not another?

DC: The premiere of Vectors set for the Cabrillo Festival the previous year had been cancelled leading to the performance to which you refer. My wife was delighted to get the box of gunpowder out of storage in our garage. Aside from you in one of the marching bands, I remember my four small sons wearing baseball uniforms and marching up the aisles waving American flags while the explosions lit everything from overhead. The lyrics of Vectors are quotes from Charles Ives, one of my idols, and it was great fun bringing his words to life again.

I love people and other animals very much and so I try not to hurt them in any way. Apart from that, everything is possible it seems to me. My process of inclusion is very simple: I begin works modestly and let things fall where they may naturally as the work progresses. Vectors began as a simple set of songs for voice and piano with Ives texts and as I began to understand what those texts said and meant, things just kept raising their hands and saying "choose me, choose me." In the end, it seemed unavoidable not to do what I did with the piece. That performance was twenty-eight years ago, and I still have people come up to me and ask about it.

DW: One of the ideas I carried away from my undergraduate years -- which included study with you and Gordon Mumma -- was that a piece should have a certain amount of depth. Not complexity, necessarily, but depth, in concerns are something of an afterthought. How does a composition teacher help students balance this pressure with other aspects of a work? Might a liberal arts setting be helpful in this regard to a young composer?

DC: I like to say that a good piece of music is like the proverbial onion; peel back one layer only to find yet another layer, and so on. Certainly a liberal arts setting helps (both in school and in life) and I highly recommend it. I also think that this is where music theory can help composers the most.

By analyzing pieces for their allusions, timbral content, structure and form, and so on, and not just their pitches as is so often the case unfortunately, young composers can see the insides of example music and, hopefully, listen in like ways. And to me, listening intelligently is the best teacher of all.

DW: How does a teacher deal with what might be called the double bind of "model composition"? In model composition, you are asked to follow the "rules" of an observed style to, in effect, add a new piece to a known repertoire. A successful exercise does just that, but a successful composition, on the other hand, will inevitably have to do things that are inconsistent with those rules. Do you, as a teacher, make a distinction between an exercise and a composition?

DC: I do not make such a distinction. From the very first day of beginning composition I tell my students that they are composers and students, not student composers. Stravinsky writes: "Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength. The more constraints one imposes, the more one frees one's self of the chains that shackle the spirit." (from Poetics of Music, p. 68) To me, *every* composition uses a model (or, more likely, models), whether it (they) be explicit or implicit, conscious or subconscious. However, inconsistencies should not only be allowed, but celebrated. Chopin's Nocturnes are fairly poor examples of modelled John Field Nocturnes. They are also extraordinary music where Field's music to me is not.

DW: Over the years, you have concentrated on a number of areas, doing research that has directly led to compositions, but always in projects with ramifications larger than those followed in a single piece of music. For example, at one point in time, the use of mixed- or multi-media was an interest, and then computer synthesis, then instrument building and tuning systems, and over the past 20 years or so, you have been engaged with questions that might be broadly described as concerning musical intelligence and style. While each of these areas is rich enough for a lifetime of creative work, is there another area beyond these that is emerging or may emerge for you as a central concern?

DC: I have never really consciously planned what has occurred musically in my life, Changes have come about more or less naturally as I work. Therefore, I don't view my life as a series of disparate styles, but rather as a continuous evolution. As a consequence, I have no idea what's down the road for me. What I am doing now is continuing to work with Emily Howell, my computational composer/partner, in developing (her) style and composing new works. Her first album will be available in about nine months. I am finishing a book called Computer Music Analysis. Other than these things, I continue building and using telescopes and developing non-violent board games.

This interview was done by email over the past week. David Cope's website is here.

1 comment:

Scott Spiegelberg said...

Great interview! I have a few connections with David Cope: he composed Extensions for my first trumpet teacher, which I played on my senior recital. His son is a colleague at DePauw, teaching Geology. Because of this, we were able to bring David out for a masterclass and convocation two years ago. I also use his 20th century composers book for teaching purposes, so I appreciate the questions you asked about his own place.