An Interview with John Fitz Rogers

His work is diverse and widely
appreciated, with commissions from orchestras, chamber ensembles, and choruses.
He studied composition at Oberlin, Yale, and Cornell. We spoke via Skype on
November 25, 2009.

TM: Where did you grow up? What was your exposure to music
as a child? Did you have uncles that played the violin or wrote Broadway

JFR: I grew up in central Wisconsin. Like a lot of middle
class families, we had a piano in the house, and my sisters took piano lessons
when I was small, so I was exposed to music at a fairly young age. My father
was a graphic artist and designer, and was interested in visual art, so there
was an interest at our house in the arts in general. At a very young age I was
curious about the piano and started messing around, and started playing hymn
tunes that I had heard in church. I would come home and plunk them out on the
piano. My parents were surprised at that, and thought “Let’s sign
the kid up for piano lessons.” I started lessons around age four or

TM: What church did you go to?

JFR: It was a Lutheran church and fairly small. At one
point, my family and I attended an evening Lenten service when I was a child.
The organist played the old hymn Abide With Me. I remember it was a magical
experience where they then turned out all the lights and sung the hymn in
unison by candlelight. I came home that night and played the tune as best I
could on the piano. Right before I graduated from college, my father, who had
created his own style of calligraphy, presented me with a plaque with the first
three verses of the hymn, a beautiful way of recalling my musical beginning.

TM: Where did the family come from? Were they originally
from Wisconsin?

JFR: My father was originally from Texas. Our roots go way
back—my sisters have done a lot of genealogical research on the Rogers
family, and traced the family back to England. My mother is of German ancestry.
We don’t know that much about her side of the family, but my grandfather
on my mother’s side homesteaded in Canada for a while and lived in the
Dakotas around the time they became states. My parents met during WWII, in the

TM: What was your hometown like?

JFR: I grew up in Stevens Point—it’s a small
town, but it has a university. I studied with a very kind and giving piano
teacher when I was small. She was a terrific teacher for young students. Later,
when I was in high school, I started studying with a professor from the
university. About that same time I started creating my own music as well, and
expressed an interest in learning how to compose. My parents were very
supportive of this, and not only helped find a piano teacher at the university
who was willing to take on a high school student, but also a composition
professor. I guess I was about thirteen when I started studying composition. My
first teacher was only at the university for a year, and we spent the year
working on basic theory, harmony, and notation. He left, and then I studied
with Gerald Plain, a composer who had just won the Prix de Rome and returned to
the US and taught in Stevens Point. He introduced me to a wealth of
music—played me reel-to-reel tapes of Berio, Stockhausen, Boulez, as well
as his own music. It was an incredible experience for a kid in a fairly rural
area. He then went off and taught at Eastman. A really interesting person and

TM: What is the name of the university?

JFR: University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point. It’s
part of the state school system. I played with the university jazz ensemble
when I was in high school too, and studied piano with a pianist on the faculty
named Michael Keller. As a kid, I was exposed to a lot of great repertoire at a
relatively young age. This was in the late seventies—I graduated from
high school in 1981.

I spent a fair amount of time at the public library as well, checking out
records and scores. I remember stumbling on Rite of Spring on my
own—I suppose a lot of people remember the first time they hear that
piece. At the time I was listening to a lot of Led Zeppelin, and I thought
“this is the same kind of music.” I didn’t make a huge
distinction—I thought “Well, this is rock music in its
essence.” I was also very interested in jazz, and was gigging in the area
with people who were twenty or thirty years my senior, and delved into
arranging a little.

TM: Were you playing commercial music, for weddings and bar

JFR: It ranged from that kind of thing to little jazz
quartets and quintets. Because it was mostly rural, there weren’t many
people who were playing jazz piano in the area, even though I wasn’t very
good by any professional standard. But I was exposed to a lot of jazz in high
school—I listened to Charlie Parker quite a bit—mainstream bop.

TM: Scott Lindroth, a composer who’s also from
Wisconsin, mentioned the effect of the big bands that do clinics in high school
gymnasiums. Was that something that you were exposed to as well?

JFR: A little—at the time, I was at least as
interested in jazz as I was in classical music. When the big bands came
through, I would definitely attend, and they would do clinics on
occasion—sometimes I got to play in master-class situations.

TM: Often what people listen to as teens remains as vital,
even forty years later. You mentioned Led Zeppelin. Did you also listen to
progressive rock?

JFR: Not much. My rock world revolved around Led Zeppelin.
When I got to college I was listening to things like Talking Heads as well, but
by that point I had made the decision to study classical music and became more
interested in that.

TM: The Seventies were huge in terms of fusion, with things
like Mahavishnu.

JFR: That’s something I might have been exposed to a
bit in high school, but I was much more interested in Bird, Tatum, Miles Davis,
Coltrane—swing as well as bebop and modal jazz in the Sixties.

TM: How did you decide to continue with composition at the
university level?

JFR: After the year that I spent studying with Gerald
Plain, he left Stevens Point, and I was looking for another composition
teacher. He had recommended a colleague, Bruce Wise, who taught at the
University of Wisconsin in Oshkosh, about a ninety minute drive away, and this
was before I had my driver’s license. Once or twice a month my father
would drive me to Oshkosh, and sit in the living room while I had a long
composition lesson. At a certain point the conversation turned to whether I
would pursue this in college, and it never occurred to me that I would pursue
anything else—I was very focused on music.

I also had a couple of wonderful summers that I spent at the National Music
Camp in Interlochen. That was a formative experience in many ways, because I
realized that even though I was a good, competent pianist, hearing the students
there, some of whom were considerably younger than I was, who were real
virtuosos, real prodigies, made me realize that I had greater aptitude and more
interest in being a composer. All of this narrowed down the places where I
would apply to school, and Oberlin felt like a good fit for me.

TM: What was the focus when you were there?

JFR: I not only had an excellent musical education, but
it’s a liberal arts college as well as a conservatory. I was part of a
double degree program that allows students to get degrees from both the
conservatory and the college, and I majored in composition and also had
individual major that focused on contemporary art and aesthetics. I took
classes in philosophy, art, history, literature, and of course, music.

We had well known composers visiting Oberlin—Cage, Xenakis, and Jacob
Druckman, who I eventually studied with at Yale. For someone coming from a
small town, it was an eye-opening experience.

TM: The downside of the conservatory can be hours spent in
the practice room, with no time for broader pursuits, and it sounds like that
was not the case at Oberlin.

JFR: Not at all. My parents and teachers in high school
urged me to avoid that situation—not to go to a conservatory and just
study music. Education abroad, liberal arts education, was important, and that
is a principle I still adhere to. I encourage my students to read all kinds of
books, to travel, to go to art openings and dance performances, to expose
themselves to the wider world of art and ideas.

TM: What was the political atmosphere like there at the
time? I imagine Oberlin to have been a particularly liberal spot in the

JFR: Yes, that’s true, though the activism of the
Sixties and Seventies had died down a bit by then. The emphasis was on

TM: Were you still involved with jazz?

JFR: My focus had turned more toward classical music by

TM: You mentioned Jacob Druckman. Was that the factor that
brought you to Yale?

JFR: I interviewed at Yale during my last year at Oberlin,
but finances became an issue, and I wasn’t able to go directly on to
graduate school. I took a number of years off, wrote a little bit of music. I
lived in Boston for a while, where I sang in the Tanglewood Chorus. And I built
furniture. I had gotten interested in woodworking and cabinetmaking, and toyed
with the idea that I might become a furniture maker. I had a modest shop
building things on my own—I wasn’t apprenticing myself to

Then in 1989 I made a decision—I want to continue with music,
it’s just in my DNA, and this is what I want to pursue. I reapplied to
Yale, and interviewed with Martin Bresnick and Jacob Druckman. They recalled
that I had not been able to attend for financial reasons, and generously
re-accepted me back into the program.

TM: Were there important experiences musically in Boston in
the 80s?

JFR: I sang in the Tanglewood Chorus—we premiered a
piece by Donald Martino, and I sang everything from Bach to Beethoven to
Poulenc to Mahler with excellent conductors. I’ve always loved choral
music—particularly Renaissance music—and I still sing on occasion.
But with the Tanglewood Chorus, I would sometimes bring the orchestral scores
to rehearsals in addition to the choral music. I had an opportunity not only to
see how the orchestra worked, but how conductors rehearsed the orchestra, which
was a good learning experience. I also went to concerts around the city. Around
that time the Soviet Union was opening up, and there was a festival of Russian
composers [Making Music Together] in Boston, all these composers who were
barely known in the West—Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Shchedrin—these
incredible composers all came to Boston. It was mindblowing!

TM: Under the auspices of Sarah Caldwell, as I recall.
Let’s move on to Yale. You must have had fabulous fellow students there
at that time.

JFR: I feel fortunate that at every stage in my education I
have been in supportive environments and worked with excellent people. Both
Bresnick and Druckman were wonderful. Amazing ears, amazing composers, amazing
teachers…they brought in composers-in-residence, and I learned a great
deal from my fellow student composers there as well. I also had the opportunity
to study West African drumming for a year. It was a very intense, but
productive and educational two years.

TM: Could you say a little about the works you were writing
while you were at Yale?

JFR: Graduate school was a period of focus and discovering
my own voice as a composer. At Yale I realized a number of things about my
music: first and foremost that I think melodically and harmonically, and that I
hear tonally. My music became more tonal than it had been at Oberlin. Plus my
interest in jazz and exposure to West African music as well as the music of
Ligeti and Nancarrow sparked a continuing interest in polyrhythm and polytempi.
Many of my pieces explore the idea of rhythmic and textural complexity over
relatively clear tonal harmonies. But my two years at Yale and four years at
Cornell were a period where I figured those things out and who I was as a
composer. Despite my early start, maybe I was a bit of a late bloomer.

TM: Did the school have a particular focus?

JFR: Diversity was something characteristic of Yale and
Cornell, and something also true of Oberlin. The composers in the program wrote
very different kinds of works. Some were more interested in minimalism, or
wrote sparse Feldman-inspired music, some had jazz or rock
influences—Yale and Cornell were supportive environments that
didn’t impose stylistic restrictions. As a teacher I also don’t put
restrictions on my students—I just try to help them figure out and refine
what they are doing.

TM: Is there a piece from Yale that you would like to

JFR: I wrote a small piece for soprano, oboe, and guitar,
which was a step along my path in distilling harmony and melody. It’s
called Last Words, and is based on a poem by James Merrill.

TM: What is the idiom of the work?

JFR: It’s short, about six minutes. It’s a
melodic piece, with the oboe acting as a plaintive voice against the soprano, a
work that found a good focus. At that time my interest was in finding clarity
in my musical expression. That is still a central concern.

TM: Take us on to Cornell. You studied with Steven Stucky
and Roberto Sierra.

JFR: Again, it was an opportunity to work with first-rate
composers, and composers who are not just fine composers in their own right,
but also fine teachers. Stucky and Sierra also have great ears, and had
different takes on things. Students benefit from having people with different
opinions and aesthetic backgrounds critique their work.

TM: Contemporary American composers seem to be faced with
multiplicities of styles, where the composer can choose from styles ranging
from Randall Thompson to Schnittke to John Adams….all the music from the
entire twentieth century is present as possibility, and at the same time
Americans don’t seem to be concerned with what it means to
“be” American in their music, unlike composers from other
countries, who may be tempted to have a “national” expression
contrasting with the hegemonic power of the United States.

I was interested to hear what you said about your double major at Oberlin,
because there are few works in your catalogue that are abstract – they
all seem to have some sort of meaningful title or literary reference. There are
probably not so many composers who reference Boethius, for example.

JFR: Maybe not [laughs].

TM: Often the extra-musical reference may be film, but for
you it seems to be literature or philosophy.

JFR: Titles are invitations to people, a way to access your
work—they’re not meant to be all-encompassing. I think a lot about
titles in order to have something that gives the listener a way to enter into a

I look at the question of style and voice obliquely in the sense that my own
musical voice and style is a product …. I am an unrepentant melodist and
harmonist. That’s just how I think about the music. An important part of
my education was coming to terms with that. The kinds of musical techniques I
use in service of that vary from situation to situation and from piece to
piece. But one thing you will hear in all my works of the last fifteen years or
so is a focus on melody, on clarity of form, and for me that is a central
concern as a composer: finding the clearest and most emotionally expressive way
of getting to whatever musical idea I’m working with. Everything counts,
and everything is in service of some sort of emotional expression. I
don’t expect a listener to share the same feeling that I have about a
piece. And I also don’t worry that I have to write something that sounds
exactly like my last piece so that people can recognize that it’s a
Rogers work. My preoccupations as a composer are more in the areas of line and
harmony, transparency of form and expression. Less about whether the thing that
I am writing sounds new, however one might define that. I think many composers
fall into two basic groups anyway: those who blaze new trails, and those who
synthesize disparate things in new ways. I don’t think either group makes
more or less compelling music. And while some of my work has pushed the
envelope a bit, I’d say I generally fall into the latter category.

TM: You mentioned clarity of form—how does a piece
take shape for you? Is there an idea that leads to a form, and then you fill in
the form? Music can be designed architecturally or grow
organically…which direction would you say it goes for you?

JFR: It depends on the piece, but it’s usually a
combination of both. For example, if I have a commission for a ten-minute
piece, I know that I have a ten-minute frame to work in. If the instrumentation
is specified, I know what instruments I have to work with. I think of
composition as a process of the piece becoming more and more in focus, more and
more of what it wants to be. Form and content—it’s difficult to
tease those two things apart. The way I come to a good sense of how a piece is
shaping up is just through hard work—living with the material, thinking
about it, sketching, trying things out. I’m a great believer in hard work
and revision. Along the way, shapes, durations, basic harmonies, lengths of
things—the formal aspects of the piece—begin to take hold, but I
usually find it helpful to have some general idea of those things early on.
Whether or not that gets jettisoned along the way is a function of the material
that I am working with.

TM: One of the pieces that struck me was The Arc of
. It reflects what you said about being a melodist, since it has
this very long line for the clarinet. Could you talk a little about the

JFR: That was a piece commissioned by the University of
South Carolina to commemorate September 11, 2001. The concert was meant to be
about a year after that. Initially, it was supposed to be an orchestra piece,
but as I thought about it and about an event of that magnitude, I didn’t
want to try to write a “9/11 piece.” It seemed impossible to even
attempt it. I thought about it, and I talked to the administration that was
commissioning the work, and I asked if it was alright to do something a little
more modest, because I didn’t know how to approach something that could
address such a traumatic event. I had the idea of a solo clarinet line set
against the string choir as a way of personalizing a voice—the clarinet
is an instrument that I have always been drawn to, along with strings in
general—in a sort of public lament. It’s meant to be something more
personal than commemorative—but the piece has a trajectory that ends on
an uplifting and hopeful note—the strings and the clarinet go to their
very highest ranges toward the end of the work. That is The Arc of
—the arc of grief—for me. It’s meant to be more
intimate, rather than a public accounting of that event.

TM: It’s interesting to hear that, because it is a
very striking piece. It makes perfect sense once you mention the genesis, but
there is nothing explicit about it.

JFR: I guess I don’t like musical works that are too
obvious. I like subtlety [laughs].

TM: One of the most successful works for 9/11 is perhaps
the work by John Adams [On the Transmigration of Souls], possibly
because it is American in referencing Charles Ives….Could you talk about
other recent pieces for orchestra?

JFR: I just finished a seven movement work titled Magna
for solo soprano, chorus, and chamber orchestra. It’s based
on Latin texts from Boethius as well as various Psalms. At the moment I’m
working on a concerto for two pianos and orchestra for the South Carolina
Philharmonic, that will premiere about a year from now. The soloists will be
Marina Lomazov and Joseph Rackers, two colleagues and friends of mine who are
husband and wife and also an incredible piano duo. But over the last several
years I’ve mostly concentrated on writing chamber music.

TM: Is there a particular chamber work you would like to
focus on? I know there is a large production.

JFR: It ranges from a piece for two marimbas and click
tracks to other pieces that are on a CD which came out a year ago called
Once Removed [Innova Recordings]. I also wrote a song cycle called
Songs of Time and Tide, five songs on the poetry of Rabindranath
Tagore. It was written for my colleagues Tina Stallard [soprano] and Lynn
Kompass [piano], both of whom were new mothers at the time. I feel inspired if
I have a personal connection to the people that I write for—it helps me
creatively. I liked the idea of, rather than writing a Sturm und Drang cycle or
something about unrequited love, writing these songs. Tina had told me about
Tagore and poems of his that relate to childhood. I thought that was a
wonderful idea—a set of songs not just about childhood, but also about
the passage of time.

TM: Do you sense a middle period coming on musically as a
composer? Are your interests different than they were 30 years ago?

JFR: I have no idea—I will leave it for someone else
to decide whether there’s a Rogers middle period. But I hope
there’s a late period!

TM: We left you at Cornell – where did you go from

JFR: I moved back to Boston and taught for a few years at
the Longy School of Music.

TM: You were teaching composition?

JFR: I taught composition and theory. It’s a school
that’s split between a college/graduate division and a very strong
preparatory program. The level is high, with a number of faculty who perform in
the Boston Symphony. I had a composition seminar there, and taught harmony,
counterpoint, and orchestration. In 2000 I joined the faculty at the University
of South Carolina.

TM: So you now are a Southern composer.

JFR: I’m not sure what that would mean. My interests
as a composer remain the same—but USC is a terrific school, as is the
School of Music. I’m fortunate to have excellent students as well as
great colleagues.

TM: Do you have large projects that you haven’t yet
had a chance to address? An opera, or symphonic work?

JFR: All of the above. I have an idea for an opera, but I
also enjoy having opportunities to write orchestral music. Orchestration is
something that I very much enjoy teaching. For me, the orchestra is a big sonic
playground, with endless toys and combinations of toys to play with. I also
have chamber projects I’d like to start on, but for the moment, I’m
focused on finishing the double piano concerto.

image_description=John Fitz Rogers [Photo: Andrew Haworth]
product_title=An Interview with John Fitz Rogers
product_by=Interview by Tom Moore
product_id=Above: John Fitz Rogers [Photo: Andrew Haworth]