Rasputin, originally commissioned by Beverly Sills and the New York
City Opera, was revived in 2008-09 by the Helikon Opera in Moscow.
Rasputin will be given its Paris premiere by OpÈra de Massy in
November 2010. A new opera, based on the famous Strindberg play
The Ghost Sonata, is under way. His violin concerto The River
Within was premiered in 2008 by Maria Bachmann and Orchestra
2001 and is scheduled for release on Innova Recordings later this
year. We talked by phone on January 20, 2010 with an email
follow-up in June.
TM: Please talk about the musical background in your family.
JR: Both of my parents were very musical though neither was a professional
musician. My mother was my first piano teacher when I was five and then my
father started teaching me. He had studied with Rudolf Ganz at Chicago Musical
College, and then subsequently with Eric Itor Kahn and Irma Wolpe in New York.
All three were quite formidable teachers: Ganz had studied with Busoni and is
the dedicatee of Ravel’s Scarbo as well as Griffes’
The White Peacock and piano sonata; Kahn was a student of Schoenberg
and had given the world premiere of Klavierst¸cke Op. 33a; and Wolpe,
one of the most celebrated teachers at that time, had worked with Cortot and
was of course Stefan Wolpe’s first wife. That’s quite a mixture of
national musical cultures to introduce to a kid from Sparks, Nevada in the late
1940s! And I was fortunate to have something of it passed down to me. My dad
eventually went on in business but is still an accomplished and enthusiastic
The main focus of my parents was on classical music but they were also
involved in jazz in the early 1950’s. My father was good friends with
composer George Russell and copied music for George at the time when he was
formulating what became his Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal
Organization. So my parents were wonderful mentors, embracing both the
classical and jazz worlds.
I was, however, always most taken with classical music. I feel that I have
known some of it all my life — which I guess I have since my Dad was always
practicing it. I can’t remember when I didn’t know some pieces.
They became a part of me. In a certain sense I sometimes feel like some of
those composers are members of my family, like uncles. When I hear certain
pieces by Schumann or, say, the Brahms B♭ minor Intermezzo
(Op. 117 No. 2) it sort of feels like a dear relative is back
visiting again. I was an only-child so maybe that’s what gives me a
peculiar sense of who my relatives are!
TM: You grew up in New York City?
JR: I grew up in Queens and then Staten Island but visited Manhattan all the
time. Even though I was quite smitten with classical music as a teenager –
listening constantly, studying scores and I even took a few piano lessons with
Irma Wolpe — my heart was in literature. I was more interested in becoming a
writer, a dramatist in particular. In high school I was especially taken with
the Theater of the Absurd, which was very big in the sixties. I read all of
Beckett’s works, Ionesco, Pinter — the whole lot — I really
thought I would go into literature at that point. I guess writing my own
librettos is where that interest finally led.
I went to Hamilton College in upstate New York and was an English major,
still pursuing the literary idea. At that time, again through my parents, I
also became very good friends with jazz clarinetist and composer Jimmy Giuffre.
Jimmy is of course one of the great legends of jazz — he passed on about
two years ago. He was a remarkable fellow — candid and subtle, kind,
complex, a splendid teacher and mentor, and a musician whose lyrical voice I
think is unsurpassed.
It was in my junior year in college, during summer vacations and holidays
that I began to study composition with Jimmy at his loft on West 15th street.
Though I continued to be quite passionate about literature, I was spending more
and more time on music. When I told Jimmy about this, he said in his quiet wise
way, “Well…music chooses you.” It’s an insightful
statement, one that I have passed on to many aspiring-but-not-quite-certain
student composers. I studied with him for about two years, mainly doing
In my senior year at Hamilton I met Canadian composer Hugh Hartwell who was
newly appointed to the faculty at sister school Kirkland College. He became a
very significant mentor. He had studied with George Crumb, George Rochberg and
Richard Wernick at the University of Pennsylvania and is also an excellent jazz
pianist. We had many fascinating discussions on all sorts of things ranging
from voice leading in Monteverdi to harmonic rhythm in Debussy to melodic
development in Miles Davis. My musical horizons kept expanding. Hugh introduced
me to George Crumb and Neva Pilgrim. Neva is a wonderful soprano who is a major
champion of new music. She was a founder of the Syracuse Society for new Music,
a leading new music ensemble which was just honored with an American Music
Center Founders Award. Neva later sang the vocal part in my Symphony of
Voices which was premiered at the Monadnock Festival in 1978.
After I graduated Hamilton I turned my goals towards a career in composition
and went to McGill University in Canada. I worked with some really superb
musicians at McGill — Bengt Hambraeus, a Swedish composer who was newly
appointed, and Bruce Mather, who is a splendid composer and pianist. In 1973 I
headed to the University of Pennsylvania and studied composition with Richard
Wernick and George Crumb. I also studied harmony with George Rochberg who had
gone into his “radical” tonal period with the Third String Quartet
about two years before.
TM: Could you say a little more about theater in the sixties? Beckett is an
enduring cultural influence, but Ionesco has somewhat faded from the public
eye. What was it particularly that appealed to you about those playwrights?
JR: I agree with your assessment though I have not really kept up with
current developments in theater. I am very fond of Ionesco — the whole
business of the disintegration of meaning in language through clichÈs,
anti-theatre, and his aggressive ridiculousness is to me quite different from
Beckett’s world. They are both labeled as Theater of the Absurd although
to me they have relatively little to do with each other. There are a few
Ionesco plays that have a sort of Beckett loneliness to them like The
Chairs and Exit the King. And I guess the torrent of words in
The Unnamable and Lucky’s speech in Godot have a
Ionesco-like quality. I was sorry to miss the Broadway production of Exit
the King last year, which was a rare revival. I saw the New York premiere.
It has always been my favorite of Ionesco’s plays — in some ways it
is the most Beckett-like, with the main character eventually disappearing into
the void — an even more minimal precinct than that of Godot.
Both authors are very dramatic in their own ways. Beckett, to my mind, is a
literary giant who probes to the deepest regions of human expression. I cannot
think of anyone in the history of literature who is more imaginative than
Beckett — greater perhaps, but not more original.
TM: Ionesco is in a sense more like Moliere — not so serious, more
entertainment, more farce, closer to the questions of day-to-day.
JR: I think that’s generally true. But Ionesco can certainly deliver a
powerful humanistic message — the swastika armband in La LeÁon,
the mute orator in Les Chaises.
TM: Could you talk about other formative musical experiences in the sixties
in New York?
JR: I guess my first big breakthrough composer was Mahler in 1960 when I was
10 years old. That was the centenary of Mahler’s birth and Leonard
Bernstein single-handedly brought about a Mahler renaissance. I saw the famous
Young People’s Concert on Mahler and heard Bernstein conduct the Second
Symphony. I also heard Dimitri Mitropoulos conduct the Ninth as well as Bruno
Walter’s legendary Das Lied von der Erde with Maureen Forrester
and Richard Lewis. All were at Carnegie Hall. I met Bruno Walter backstage
after the performance and then wrote to him. He sent me back an autographed
picture with a note which I still treasure. Another big childhood experience
occurred somewhat earlier when I heard Russell Sherman play the Brahms d-minor
concerto with Bernstein and the Philharmonic. I got both their autographs. All
pretty heady experiences for a pre-teener!
I discovered Scriabin when I was about fifteen. This was when scores of his
works were not easy to obtain, especially the later ones. I used to haunt a
music warehouse in the Brill Building in Manhattan where I found ragged copies
of early editions of Scriabin in rusty file cabinets. I brought them home like
treasures, which indeed they were. Then Dover reprinted everything and now
it’s all available online — what a wonderful thing that is!
For a young person who had explored only tonal music, it was very exciting
to investigate this strange music at the edges of tonality — not yet the
dissonant landscapes of Schoenberg and the Viennese, but still mysteriously
tonal, a style that had evolved from tonality…. All that was a huge
influence. What I later understood to be the evolution of the symmetrical
French sixth chord in Scriabin’s PoËmes Op. 32 to its
use as a component of the famous “mystic chord” in the late works
considerably expanded my music theory horizons and compositional imagination.
Later I wrote an article on Scriabin’s approach to symmetrical scales.1 His late works really spoke to me when I was a
teenager, and continue to. In some ways that musical mystical ambience he
created — I don’t mean his own mysticism, but the aura of his sound
world— is certainly one of the reasons that I pursued music. There was an
other-worldliness to his music, and I was powerfully attracted to it. I have
enjoyed discussing this with Gunther Schuller who as a teen had a similar
experience with Scriabin’s music and also for whom Scriabin has remained
So I guess altogether my artistic tastes at the time had something in
common: I was drawn to music and literature that were classically based but
challenged the boundaries of classical convention and at the same time had a
powerful emotional impact.
TM: It’s gotten to be a long time ago, and people who may be reading
this may have no personal memories of the nineties, let alone the
sixties….one of the notable phenomena was the sort of musical event with
a theatrical edge, what one might call “happenings”…were
there events, or composers working in the avant-garde that were notable for you
from that period?
JR: It’s interesting that you mention “happenings” since
it was actually at a happening that I met Jimmy Giuffre. In about 1965 or
‘66, when I was in high school, I went to the Avant Garde Festival which
was a series of happenings organized annually by cellist Charlotte Moorman that
took place that year on the Staten Island Ferry. Moorman was quite famous — or
infamous — at the time for having performed on the cello topless as part of a
happening. A posse of police cars and the riot squad had showed up. She was
arrested and eventually given a suspended sentence. The “piece”
— the happening — therefore extended from the announcement of the
performance itself, to the courthouse, to the coverage in the New York
Times and the subsequent fallout. It was all pretty funny but it was
obvious that the happening was about the theater of the event rather than
anything to do with music. I remember Charlotte as an exceptionally nice
person. She was totally committed to what she was doing and had great fun doing
it. And since joy is something that can be hard to come by in 20th
century art, I guess she was on to something.
With regard to happenings themselves, well, that brings up the whole topic
of John Cage, Nam June Paik and all of those folks who were taking a radically
different approach to music at the time. That path seemed to me at the time
more Dada or anti-music and not headed in a direction I was personally
interested in. I have little patience for Dada and its derivatives in general –
the joke seems to me stale. On the other hand I recognize now that happenings
were also the beginning of performance art which is of course a very important
So anyway, among all the unusual, bizarre and crazy things going on that
Saturday on the Staten Island Ferry was a performance by a jazz trio led by a
superb clarinet player surrounded by a large audience. That’s when I
first met Jimmy. He was moving past his very avant garde “free
jazz” period at the time which culminated with the album Free
TM: Were there jazz idioms that particularly appealed to you in the sixties
JR: I was very interested in Jimmy Giuffre’s music of course,
especially in terms of his unique lyricism and special instrumental voicings.
Also George Russell. Jazz piano always interested me, although I don’t
play very much jazz piano and don’t write in a jazz style. I always liked
Bill Evans a lot, Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Nat “King” Cole, Paul
Bley, Monk. And of course all the great instrumentalists — Davis,
Mulligan, Sonny Rollins, Clifford Brown. I could go on — but my list would not
be news to anyone. Maybe some somewhat lesser known names, like pianists Jimmy
Rowles, Denny Zeitlin…. My mother plays wonderful jazz piano with some of the
most exquisite chord changes I have ever heard.
When I was three or four my parents used to go to sessions in George
Russell’s apartment — I would sleep in the bedroom on the coats
while the music making went on ‘til the wee hours. What I would give to
have a second chance to hear that!
I attended a memorial service for George a few weeks ago. The music was
phenomenal and was played by some of today’s best jazz musicians covering
his work from the ‘50s to just a few years ago. Almost sixty years of
music of tremendous variety but George Russell always sounded like himself and
TM: Please talk a little about the musical atmosphere at McGill. These days
we have a facility in having access to music from Estonia, or Latvia, or Russia
that is just astonishing, but at that time to have a new composer from Sweden
at McGill must have been unusual.
JR: I guess so though it did not occur to me, maybe because in Canada I was
an outsider as well. Montreal is a five-hour car ride to New York or Boston but
its closest cultural connections are with Paris. The McGill music faculty was
very French-oriented, and France’s most well known composers at the time
were of course Messiaen and Boulez.
During my undergraduate years I had become very interested in the music of
Messiaen — probably my primary passion after my Scriabin period. I was
blown away by Et Exspecto Resurrectionem Mortuorum which remains my
favorite Messiaen multi-instrument work. I subsequently heard Yvonne Loriod
perform the Vingt Regards sur L’Enfant JÈsus at Hunter College
as well as Messiaen and Loriod together playing his Visions de
l’Amen. These were incredible experiences. Loriod was a magnificent
pianist and her interpretation of standard literature like the Debussy Etudes
was also a revelation.
Like Scriabin, Messaien used symmetrical scales and so inhabited a similar
place at the edge of tonality. Both also had color-graphemic synesthesia as
well as a strong dose of mysticism. When I had master classes with Messiaen at
Tanglewood, I asked him about Scriabin’s harmony. He said that unlike
Scriabin, he treated harmony only as a matter of taking down the music in the
colors before him.
Both Bruce Mather and Bengt Hambraeus had studied with Messiaen. I
didn’t go to McGill specifically for that reason, but the connection was
certainly a plus. With Hambraeus I mainly studied orchestration. He was
encyclopedic on contemporary techniques and a multitude of other things. He
introduced me to such diverse things as the first version of Boulez’s
Le Marteau sans maÓtre and the unpublished PoÈsie pour
pouvoir as well as the work of the great Russian conductor Nikolai
Golovanov. Mather and I shared a love of Scriabin and his class in
20th-century harmony was truly extraordinary. We studied Scriabin,
Debussy, late FaurÈ, Berg and wrote pieces in their styles, which is something
I do in my own classes. But the first assignment was to write a Bach chorale:
if you could not do that, you could forget the rest!
I had several pieces done at McGill as well as at a festival in Toronto;
they were influenced by what I would now describe as French atonality along
with some Berg. They were not serial — it was the time when serialism was
beginning to lose its grip.
TM: Messiaen seems far more productive in the results that are evident in
the composers that follow him than Boulez.
JR: Messiaen had such a wide scope — he was so all-encompassing and
eclectic but incredibly original. Like Berg, he absorbed and transformed the
19th century musical phenomenon into his own inimitable style — and then took
on bird song, plainchant, the Catholic faith, tonality and modality,
symmetrical scales, atonality, fixed registers, Asian music and plainchant as
well as other elements!
I have also always been a great admirer of Boulez, both his music and his
writings. His style — in terms of his gestures and vocabulary — has
expanded over the years but his “sound-print” is always
unmistakable. One piece I recall from my formative years was Rituel. I
saw the American premiere at Tanglewood and it stimulated much of my interest
in rhythm which is a dominant feature in my music.
TM: Let’s move from Montreal to Philadelphia. Who was your primary
teacher at Penn?
JR: I worked primarily with Richard Wernick who is a remarkable and eloquent
composer and tremendously inspiring teacher. His extraordinary recent String
Quartet No. 7 contains a 10-minute mensuration canon that is truly virtuosic
and is of especial interest to me because of its rhythmic aspects. I also
worked with George Crumb, who is of course a living legend — an incredible
composer and a wonderful person — warm, witty, highly supportive and
knowledgeable about many off-the-beaten-track kinds of things. I am the
president emeritus of Orchestra 2001, a Philadelphia based
ensemble specializing in contemporary music. George has composed a number of
pieces for the group, most recently his extraordinary American
Songbooks based on American folk tunes. I also studied harmony with George
Rochberg — I never studied composition with him, unfortunately. The
timing never worked out. His was one of the great musical minds I have
encountered. These three composers wrote very different kinds of music. George
Rochberg had just turned to writing a very traditional kind of tonal music
about which I subsequently wrote an article for Perspectives of New
Music2. But as different as they were they
seemed to share something, in the sense that if you compared them to anybody
else who was writing, they had more in common philosophically than just about
any other composers you could put together. For example, George Crumb’s
music is primarily tonally based but not in the same way as George
Rochberg’s. All three were absolutely fantastic teachers, again very
different from one another with each offering his own special musical vision
based on supreme knowledge of the literature and superb technical mastery.
Also I have to say I have undoubtedly learned more about music from
exchanging ideas with my many wonderful students over the last 35 years than
any other single source.
TM: How would you have described your own style when you moved from Montreal
JR: I was studying all the great composers from the first half of the 20th
century — especially Berg — and all the contemporary music I could get my
hands on. The first half of the twentieth century is like a mini-century in
itself, with an incredible roster of composers — there must be
twenty-five from that period who are in the standard repertoire today. I was
trying to write music that had the searing qualities and expressive qualities
of serialism but could still evoke the wonderful moods of warmth and nobility
that tonality brought.
TM: Could you say something about what it is that produces an
“American” voice for composers? Is this something that is
JR: That’s a tricky issue, since this country exists as it is because
of many immigrations and cultural importations. There were and are so many
influences in this country — our American culture has been seeded by the
heritages of the world and the result is something like a multi-colored mosaic.
It’s interesting that in the second half of the 20th century America
reversed the trend and is undoubtedly the leading exporter of culture.
I tend to divide the music of this country into two categories: music that
has been influenced by European music and music has not been (or has been
minimally). Jazz certainly fits that non-European bill. George Gershwin is the
perfect hybrid of the two categories — he absorbed jazz and Gullah elements
into his style as Bartok assimilated Eastern European folk music. American
serial music on the other hand never sounds to me very American — even
Copland’s Inscape, which sounds very Copland, does not come
across as necessarily American. To me the most quintessentially American piece
is Ives’ Concord Sonata, especially the introverted last
movement “Thoreau”. Even the quotation of the Beethoven Fifth
Symphony comes across like an imitation or memory of the Beethoven the
ancestral European. Ives delves deeply and convincingly into our historic,
literary and musical pasts as well as employing the most modernistic
techniques. But of course he too had strong European academic musical
credentials through his study with Horatio Parker who in turn had been trained
My own music is more Western than particularly American or global. When I
say I am influenced by jazz or Indian music, I don’t mean that I have
swinging saxophone solos or improvisations in the manner of Charlie Parker or
tabla solos like Zakir Hussain’s. Rather I am influenced by the
management of the technical elements — the theory if you will — on
which these musics are founded and generated. I utilize elements of their
systems but my music remains clearly of the Western classical tradition. This
incorporation of the techniques of other classical musical traditions is for me
the most productive kind of “fusion”. What do I mean by
“classical”? Not necessarily Western classical music, though
obviously it’s one of those major traditions — but rather any music that
has developed around a praxis whether it’s tala, blues, Western
harmony, modal counterpoint or raga.
TM: Carnatic music, even more so than north Indian music, seems to be
little-known to American listeners. What was your path into this music?
JR: It has often been remarked that of the parameters in Western music,
rhythm seems to be the one that is least studied. I would suggest that
that’s because rhythm is the least codified. There is little in the way
of a particular method for Western rhythm as there is for harmony and
counterpoint, except perhaps for Paul Creston’s Principles of
Rhythm. Western rhythm seemed to be dependent on elements of harmony and
voice-leading, especially in tonal music. I was always very interested in
trying to discover a rhythmic method that was as powerful and flexible as that
of tonal harmony. Messiaen did a lot of work with rhythm, so I studied
Messiaen’s own rhythms and the Indian sources that inspired him so
powerfully. I was fortunate enough to be invited to study at Tanglewood in 1975
when Messiaen was there — the first summer that he had been there in
twenty-five years. He was actually writing his treatise on rhythm at the time,
which I was very excited to see — it was left unpublished at his passing,
and came out a few years ago. He was probably the first composer I encountered
who showed me that musical riches were to be found in other classical
I had long been very interested in rhythm and had amassed many file folders,
read books on African rhythm, studied the 120
deśītālas of Śārṅgadeva (one of
Messiaen’s sources) — all of that kind of thing. But I always felt
that my use of these materials was limited. If I found a particularly
interesting African rhythm in, say, three layers, putting an oboe, bassoon and
clarinet on each part wasn’t really using the rhythm — it was
rather a kind of cut and paste approach. What I wanted to do find a way to
“work” rhythms in the same way that you could develop a melody or
Then in the early 1990s, I was fortunate enough to meet Adrian
L’Armand, an Australian violinist who specialized in Carnatic music. I
was living in Swarthmore Pennsylvania at the time, and he lived around the
block from me. How fortunate is that?! We were discussing Berio’s
Circles one day and then he started talking about rhythm. In less than
a minute I realized that he knew more about rhythm than anyone I had ever met.
He talked about rhythmic displacement, variation and development — the
very things that I was looking for. I immediately began to study rhythm with
him, and continued for several years. It’s interesting how things quickly
opened up compositionally for me.
In Western music, the cadence is implied by the unfolding harmony and voice
leading. The basic gist of this rhythmic approach is that at least two layers
of rhythmic motives (often based on 5’s and 7’s) are developed within a phrase.
By making their total individual values equal (ie 7 groups of 5 = 5 groups of
7) the unfolding of the phrase will be such that the cadence point is implied
by the rhythms alone. I call this technique “rhythmic polyphony”.
Superimposing other regular and irregular rhythms (such as bembÈ and the like)
leads to still more interesting and complex results. Traditional Baroque
devices like augmentation and diminution produce wonderful effects, especially
in tuplets. All this gave my counterpoint greater depth. Also, unlike Indian
music in which a tala is used for a whole piece or at least a major
portion, I change talas and rhythmic groups often, from whole sections
to single measures. I think of this approach to rhythm as being somewhat
analogous to Western harmonic rhythm where the rate of chord-change varies
within the phrase.
TM: What is the source or sources of your pitch material?
JR: I am often asked that. I use an approach I think of as “chromatic
modality”. This involves the full vocabulary of traditional scales and
modes in which notes outside the set (non-diatonic tones) are introduced and
are either subsumed by the diatonicism surrounding them, or
“resolved” into the diatonic set. (Like my rhythmic procedures, a
given set of pitches can be quite prolonged or shift quickly by phrase, by
measure or even by chord.) I think this may be similar to Ives’ strategy
in the Concord and some of the songs. Scriabin certainly used
chromaticism in octatonic and whole tone contexts as I point out in my article.
Debussy’s style may also have some similarities. It is characterized by a
mixture of pentatonic, whole tone and modal scales tempered with a highly
effective but unpredictable dose of Wagnerian chromaticism.
TM: What are some pieces in which these elements are particularly important
in generating the musical fabric?
JR: Any of my pieces written after 1990 — after I had written
Rasputin and my three symphonies. The first major work was
Rhythmic Garlands, a piano piece that I wrote for and has been
recorded by Jerome Lowenthal. That was followed by Duo Rhythmikosmos
for violin and piano, a piano trio entitled Trio Rhythmikosmos, and
Yellowstone. I also used these techniques in other major pieces
— the choreographic tone poem The Selfish Giant based on Oscar
Wilde’s fairy tale, Satori for voice and piano (also in several
ensemble arrangements), the string quartet Memory Refrain, Across the
Horizons for clarinet, violin cello and piano, Concerto for Horn and 7
Instruments, and the violin concerto The River Within among
others. My website as well as the webpage at my publisher, Theodore Presser,
contain full listings.
TM: Please talk about your opera Rasputin, which was premiered in
New York in 1988, with a recent performance in Russia. Were there some
revisions for the more recent performance?
JR: The genesis of Rasputin began when I taught at my alma
mater, Hamilton College in upstate New York in the 70’s. Christopher
Keene was the artistic director of the Syracuse Symphony and premiered my
Second Symphony in 1980 which I wrote with the support of a Guggenheim. Keene
later conducted the piece with the Philadelphia Orchestra as well as my
Third Symphony with the Long Island Philharmonic.
In the mid-80s, Keene introduced me to Beverly Sills who was the Executive
Director of the New York City Opera and Rasputin was commissioned.
Frank Corsaro was the stage director. My longtime interest in theater and
ensuing close relationship with Frank — a tremendously imaginative and
stimulating colleague — prompted me to write the libretto. The wonderful
bass-baritone John Cheek sang the title role.
The Helikon production premiered in 2008-09 and was included in the
“Helikon Opera of the Twentieth Century” retrospective series in
April 2010. This production contains some revisions and a few cuts that I think
makes the opera more effective dramatically. Lenin was moved exclusively to the
end, for example.
My association with Helikon began when I met the artistic director and
founder of the company, Dmitry Bertman, in 1994 on my first trip to Russia.
Bertman was just starting the company and had only two or three people working
for him. He wanted to produce Rasputin right away and actually
scheduled it for 1996 but eventually didn’t have the forces or the
finances to put it together at that time.
I am very excited about the Helikon production and think it has everything a
composer could hope for. The cast, chorus, musicians, set and costume designers
are superb. Bertman is a brilliant director with a vision that is vibrant and
original but always within the boundaries of the material as I have conceived
it. He brings out every element of turbulence and lyricism in the opera.
Bertman captures the spirit and timing of both my music and libretto and
infuses it with many bold gestures as well as thousands of wonderful details.
The set consisted of gigantic FabergÈ eggs nestled in egg crates highlighting
the contrast between the exquisite world of the aristocracy and the rough-hewn
lives of the working class that overthrew it in 1918. The topic of Rasputin and
the murder of the royal family is still widely discussed in Russia. There was a
court ruling on it even as the premiere of the opera was happening — the
killing was judged to be a political act and the Tsar’s family were considered
to be victims of Bolshevism. Of course Nicholas, Alexandra and their children
were canonized about 30 years ago. There was also a recent campaign by
a religious faction to canonize Rasputin and Ivan the Terrible. It
Opera Massy in Paris has scheduled Rasputin for November-December
2010 utilizing the Helikon production.
TM: Will there be a CD or DVD from the production?
JR: I am working on making a commercial DVD. We have a filming company in
Moscow ready to go and are now seeking financing and a distributor for the US
and Europe. Excerpts of the Helikon production (recorded in-house) can be seen
TM: Do you have plans for future stage works?
JR: I am currently working on an opera based on Strindberg’s play
The Ghost Sonata, which is a work I have loved since I was in high
school. I remember an extraordinary performance of it on television in the
‘60s with Robert Helpmann and Jeremy Brett — and have sought a video
recording in vain. I started working on the opera about six months ago and have
written about a third of it. Also, though The Selfish Giant was given
a wonderful premiere performance by the Philharmonia Orchestra under Djong
Victorin Yu and has been performed in the States, it has never been
choreographed. So I am also pursuing that.
TM: Will The Ghost Sonata be a full-length evening?
JR: Yes — it’s in three scenes, each about forty minutes.
TM: What is about this play that grabs you?
JR: It’s a very mystical, frightful, zany and yet poetic play —
a strange mix, and yet everything works. It has all of the elements of opera
— drama, other worldliness, striking characters. Every opera has some
sort of other-worldly facet about it which is what its music deals with. The
music is in an imaginary domain which gives the characters a means to express
their inner sensibilities beyond words. They are unaware that they are singing
unless it’s a specific song in the opera such as Walther’s Prize
Song. On the psycho-dramatic side, Strindberg’s play is about people who
gleefully reveal the fatal inner weaknesses of their opponents and in so doing
expose their own. And of course there’s a love story, and a very unusual
one at that. The play inhabits what I think of as a world of realistic fantasy.
Most of the actions are normal and the setting is middle class. But with the
creation of bizarre elements such as a ghost of the Milkmaid and a
“mummy” in the closet, Strindberg creates a mood of penetrating
psychological dread. The setting and general tone of the dialogue are like
Chekhov or Ibsen but by the end we are not sure what plane of reality we are
on. And at the last moment a coup de thÈ‚tre occurs as the scene
disappears completely, rather like Exit the King….
TM: I was interested to hear Howard Shore describe his music for The
Lord of the Rings as his only chance to write a Wagnerian opera.
JR: To compose in the epic manner must be a wonderful challenge.
TM: Perhaps you might talk about your piano music.
JR: I mentioned Rhythmic Garlands, my first extended piano work.
Before Garlands I had written very little piano music though I am an
ardent pianophile. I learned much about counterpoint listening to how pianists
like Horowitz brought out inner voices. But I had not composed an extended
piano piece before I studied rhythm closely. Studying the piano music of
Nicholas Medtner was also a revelation. Medtner, who died in 1951, seems to me
the most rhythmically sophisticated of the completely tonal composers.
After Rhythmic Garlands I wrote Sonata Rhythmikosmos which
was commissioned by Mari Akagi, a wonderful Japanese pianist who premiered it
in Tokyo when I was on a US-Japan Creative Arts Fellowship. That was followed
by the violin Duo and Yellowstone Rhythms for bassoon and
piano, both of which have extended piano parts. Yellowstone is a
15-minute lyrical rhapsody with bubbly and energetic contrasts. The Six
Pictures from the Devil in the Flesh piano suite came from another opera
project, one that eventually did not materialize. In the late ‘90s I was
contacted by Vincent Malle, the brother of the late film director Louis Malle,
about the possibility of writing an opera-film based on the novel Le Diable
au Corps by Raymond Radiguet. I worked on this with Gude Lavitz, a
wonderful film director who had made a documentary on the student uprisings and
strikes in Paris in the 1960s. The project didn’t get the financing it
needed so never came to fruition, but I composed some pilot music which I used
in my Concerto for Cello and 13 Instruments (which has been recorded
by Ulrich Boeckheler and Orchestra 2001 on CRI) and the Six Pictures.
Each picture is a mood piece. I thought of them like the Debussy Preludes, each
of which evokes a suggestive expressive atmosphere. So even though the opera
project didn’t materialize, there were many good things that resulted
from it. Marc-AndrÈ Hamelin made a splendid recording of the Six
Pictures as well as Yellowstone with bassoonist Charles
TM: Hamelin is an astounding pianist.
JR: Yes, he really is — just incredible. He also recorded Sonata
Rhythmikosmos and played the piano part in the premiere of my piano
quintet Powers That Be with the Cassatt Quartet. Working with him is a
wonderful experience — he is so often able to go beyond what you think is
the limit of what can be done, especially in terms of clarity, detail and
concentration of effects. His highly expressive delicacy is superb as well.
TM: Could you talk about future projects that you may have coming up?
There’s the opera, of course.
JR: I don’t have a production yet for The Ghost Sonata, and I
must admit have been somewhat slow to pursue that matter because as soon as I
do I will be facing a deadline. I am enjoying composing this piece on my own
time. Exciting as it was to compose Rasputin, I had to write the whole
opera including the libretto in two years as well as teach. Sometimes you want
to linger a little more than a deadline will permit. But I will begin to seek a
production for The Ghost Sonata this year.
On the instrumental front, my new piece Lunahuan· for two
percussionists will receive its premiere this coming fall.
TM: with a Latin American connection?
JR: Yes — my wife, Cecilia Paredes, is a visual artist from Per˙. We
spend summers and the winter holidays there. Lunahuan· is a town about
sixty miles south of Lima, in a very unusual location where the cloud cover
that continually hovers over the greater Lima area abruptly stops. I mean very
abruptly — you can see the blue sky seemingly buttressed up against a
wall of clouds. My piece evokes the atmosphere of the town, from its haunted
history to a fiesta with fireworks and whistles.
I am now working on several new pieces: a rhapsody for violin and orchestra
for Maria Bachmann who premiered my violin concerto The River Within;
an extended piano piece for Konstantinos Papadakis; and a new version of
The Selfish Giant for narrator and chamber orchestra.
1 Reise, Jay “Late Skriabin:
Some Principles Behind the Style,” 19th Century Music, Sp.1983, pp.
220-231; reprinted in The Journal of the Scriabin Society of America,
Winter 1996-97 pp. 29-46
2 Reise, Jay “Rochberg the
Progressive”, Perspectives of New Music, 1980-81, pp. 395-407
image_description=Jay Reise [Photo by Cecilia Paredes]
product_title=Jay Reise: An Interview by Tom Moore
product_by=Above: Jay Reise [Photo by Cecilia Paredes]