This interview was done in the early fall of 2012. It has gone through several editions and one version exists in a truncated form at the contemporary music, art, and technology blog I Care if You Listen. This is the long form version of the interview. The experience of interviewing a former teacher and mentor was fantastic and he weaves an interestingly conversational narrative about the creative process, musical interpretation, teaching, and analysis.
Brief Biography of Marty Boykan
Legendary is a word that is used too often to lessen its meaning but does not mean enough when used correctly. Yet, legendary is the best way to describe Martin Boykan (“Marty”). An erudite in the world of American new-music-writ-large, which includes a storied career as a pianist, conductor, composer, teacher, and scholar, Marty is one of the most influential teachers of composition in the last quarter century, let alone his unique, and intuitive approach to music analysis which are found in at least two books Silence and Slow Time: Studies in Musical Narrative and The Power of the Moment: Essays on the Western Musical Canon. . He came from the European cum Americanist tradition of compositional pedagogy led by Piston, Hindemith, Copland, and Steuermann. Boykan’s influence pervades the spectrum of recent compositional styles including the late Peter Lieberson, Steve Mackey, Yu-Hui Chang, and Ross Bauer. Recently retired from his over-fifty year career as a professor at Brandeis University, he continues to be an influential presence throughout the Boston area through recent premieres by Boston Modern Orchestra Project and a new CD, Second Chances.
How has your writing about music informed your composing and vice versa? Do you find that they are separate worlds, or do they bleed into each other in a cohesive manner?
Quite a few years ago I did a set of lectures at Harvard. They wanted to publish everybody’s lecture. I didn’t have any notes, so they sent me the transcript. When I saw it with all the “uhs” and “ahhs” and “umms” I realized I had to start writing everything down. That’s actually what got me to start writing the books. I had to do it. Nobody could possibly read that. That’s what you are going to get out of me, a lot of bad grammar and mixed up sentences. Anyway, I will answer that with I just had to write some notes for a BMOP recording, two orchestra pieces, and one of the pieces was a violin concerto. I thought it really wasn’t appropriate to write concerti anymore because the idea of the heroic soloist against the mass couldn’t entertain us any more. Its not part of the modern world. But if I ever had to write a concerto I would most certainly use the old format where the orchestra speaks first. And then one day I was taking a walk by the Charles and for some reason, I don’t know why, I started writing a concerto in my head––a violin concerto––which began with a violin soloist. And what I said was that music is the opposite of the brain from words, and composer’s words about music are about trustworthy as a campaign promise. It’s only there to be broken. So the writing really came out of the teaching, having to analyze pieces. [4:58-5:3]. I’m not going to do any more books. The last essay in the second book (The Power of the Moment) is about Bach. That I wrote only because I thought you know if you are going to write about music, you cannot not write about Bach, and I didn’t want to. Cause I hate Bach, he gives me a major migraine every time I look at one of his pieces. Because if he is a human being I’m a cockroach. I don’t know, I don’t get it. But it also came out of a graduate class in theory, in analysis, and I always asked them, “what would you like to study?” I didn’t have to pick the pieces, they did. It was one of the Bach solo suites, only one instrument. I looked for something short and I found a piece that was 21 measures long and I played it through and I went to bed with a migraine. I could have written the first measure, but then already in the second measure––I don’t know why––it was so extraordinary. You know, it gets worse and worse as it goes. The next week the class asked me “what do you want to look for” and I said, “I don’t know.” The thing struck me like lightning, which is why I don’t look at Bach much. Eventually I looked and I found a few things to talk about.
That was very hard to write, because––I must have written it five or six times––at first I found a few things. But, at measure 5, why is that so big? Each time I come back I realize that its the tip of the iceberg. But, I was very happy to do that, because you can see endless concentration, in every moment of that piece. You know, we know that about Bach. But otherwise, it mostly came from class.
So your writing about music mostly comes from your teaching and analytical experiences instead of the processes of composing?
Well, I have to say a certain unhappiness with the way that music is talked about––among serious people, among the best people. A lot of the things that I say about music are, on the one hand, really against the grain of what all the theorists and writers talk about, and on the other hand, so basic and elementary that I think, “this is so obvious.” Music is not like a jigsaw puzzle where you put the pieces [together] and at the end you see the whole structure. Because, the past disappears, and it “ain’t” there anymore. You are listening intensely to the present and time slows down, very much so that you can have a lot going on. In the present moment we remember the past, we don’t think of it anymore, and we don’t expect the future, except in obvious ways––we are in the present and the quality of the present? It is different than the past, it’s like the past, it reinterprets––it does all kinds of things to––the past. We experience it that way without literally remembering or thinking about the past. And so much of the theory, including Schenker, is all about some finished structure there. Which is not how we experience the piece. Neither writing it nor listening to it. So, I hoped that I could maybe do some good in that sense. These things seem very obvious. Anybody who’s played a piece knows, you’re not thinking of “oh––I quote something from one of the theorists: ‘When you come to this point in the Schubert, then you remember that, of course, (the great C Major Symphony, the slow movement) that the opening was not the theme’”. You don’t think that and you also don’t sit around thinking, “now what do I expect?”
Relatedly, do you think that the ubiquity of music theory that comes from the premise of treating music as a spatial object that exists outside of time. Do you think that it was an inevitability because of the literate tradition from which classical music sprang? The tradition of having a document, a score to study.
I don’t, I don’t because it was not there.
It’s a modernist approach, a “scientific” approach. To take a document and look at it and analyze it.
I think where it comes from, at least what my second book does deal with. I got into it by reading Kandinsky. Kandinsky, and all the abstract painters and symbolist poets, believed, as Walter Pater very famously said, “All the arts aspire to the condition of music.”
Yeah, that’s how Schopenhauer and Hegel, and other 19th century philosophers, put it as well.
Yes, because, once the artistic world became secular too. There was a sense of the only thing left was essentially music. That to have that experience again would be through music. And for Kandinsky, music was just there as a model for abstract painting. So painting could become like music. Likewise with the symbolist poets where Verlaine said, for example, somebody asked him “where do your ideas come from?” He said, “I don’t write ideas, I write words.” What he’s really trying to say is he wants the experience of the holy again, the spiritual experience. Which is why the theory of that time doesn’t tell you much about analysis even. It just told composers how to do this and that. Immediately after the first World War, that was the shock. At that point, it began. How can you pay attention to something which has literal meaning? So they began to look for structures and things like that. You know music has very little to do with language, I think. I’m sure of that, which is why people argue over text setting. The only text setting that isn’t argued over, because it really works, is for religious experience, for ritual, for prayer; where time moves slowly and the words are repetitive, and whatever. Not, what does this mean? How does this help my life? Nobody argues with that, with that kind of music.
How would you describe your process of writing music? I’ll give you a place to start. First, you know the instrumentation. Is that the case usually for you?
Well, some of the time you’re told what to write. Unlike the other arts, we have no freedom at all. You’re commissioned to write a piece for blah-blah-blah-blah. I’m writing a piece for guitar, about which I knew nothing. I had to go to guitarists and say, “I need a couple of lessons.” I had to struggle. I love the sound of it but you know?
When you put “piano fingers” on a guitar it is a weird experience
––I had to learn all that. Commissions very frequently give you a timeline for the piece.
So, you have the instruments you are going to write for. You have a supposed timeline. Then, now it’s time to sit down with the manuscript in front of you. How do you proceed from there?
I write slowly…and the only thing I can really say about this Christian is, I write out of stupidity, out of ignorance. I mean that, I’m not being silly. Because its endless revision and each time––if I’m doing it right I am doing what the piece wants to do, which I never know, I’m too stupid, I always do it wrong. This piece for guitar, I’m furious with it because I thought I was going to write a one movement piece. I finished the movement and the piece told me I had to write a second movement. I wanted to be done with it. This, this was not planned. It grows by itself…
//This is a curious thing for me. Many composers talk this way about music. They talk about music as if it has a “will,” and as if it embodies some sort of space that is not abstract, but is a real living dwelling space and that it makes decisions to which we acquiesce or we fight against. I’m curious about that because we obviously know that music does not have a will. It’s not a living thing. You do what the music “wants to do,” yet you have to set it in motion
I agree with you. You’re right of course and it is a metaphor. It is a way of describing the experience of it. In which, after many years working, you have a feeling you know what to do and what I’m doing is what I did in the last piece or the piece before. It was nice there and I will do it again. There is only one experience that I can remember, that is different than this.
I write continuously. Usually it is from the beginning. If I know what is to come and I am smart enough, maybe it will be there, maybe it won’t. I’ve also learned to be willing to throw out music that I really think is very good, but it doesn’t belong there. It takes awhile to learn to do that. This was a beautiful phrase, but I’m sorry. I don’t know what this is and if I knew what it was I wouldn’t tell you anyway. I would keep it a secret. So, the experience I had was with the violin concerto. The end of the second movement (there are three movements), it is clear when it arrives on an ostinato of a single chord preparing the third movement. It is quite a few measures, it is very long, that ostinato. It was a fairly long piece, but that was the thing that drove me crazy––made me want to give up music–– because I knew from the beginning how the third movement would start. As I worked on the third movement I had no problem, it was going very nicely. I remember every night I would write a version of the rhythm. Just the rhythm, because I already knew what the chord was. In the morning I would think, play it over, and think, play it over. It just made the beginning of the third movement awful and yet the third movement I would write through the day. It was going along very nicely. I must have written that ostinato 50 or 60 times and each time, the next morning I would play it over and yuck, that opening of the third movement was awful. You can see why I was thinking why I should try another profession. I didn’t know what to do about this. At one point I changed the chord. I changed notes, but they were the wrong notes. So, the notes had to be right. That’s what summed up where I had been led to at that point. And one time, I remember this, because I remember it was the only time that I actually started thinking in words, you know, instead of just notes, rhythms whatever. It struck me, “You are doing an ostinato and the only thing in your stupid head is the Rite of Spring. The Rite of Spring has wonderful grouping, but no phrasing, and there are no upbeats. You know, it’s just pounding at you. you’re trying to write an upbeat to the third movement, and it is sounding horrible because you are doing the Rite of Spring.” It was a miracle. That night I wrote another version, a few revisions the next morning and everything was fine. I remember that because there were words. It’s always the same thing, I’m doing it wrong until I get it right.
That’s a lot of grunt work to finally get it right.
It does for me. And I must say that when you look at Beethoven’s sketches, it makes you feel okay because he went through all of that. Brahms, however, was smart because he destroyed all the evidence. He was really smart that way.
I would like to move from composing to teaching, if you don’t mind. How has teaching composition helped your craft?
I think it has in two ways. Looking at student pieces––I make sure I know what they want. And to see how if it’s not working for me what interferes––cause on principle whatever the student wants, that should happen. That’s what it’s about, not anything that you’re teaching. By which I mean with obvious things: Do you want a phrase to end here? Do you want a cadence? Do you want it not to end? All those things and what’s interfering, why I am not hearing it when I should be hearing it. It sharpens your ear.
The other thing is, when teaching analysis, particularly towards the end when I let everybody else choose the pieces. I got to know some very good pieces.There were some terrible pieces which I was obliged to teach, but a couple good pieces. I have to say, except for teaching, I never ever study a piece with words. I spent my life being interested in other music and I listened very closely. I play it in my mind over and over again. I don’t turn it into words. I just listen and experience everything without knowing what I’m experiencing. But then, having to say it––I think it was probably useful.
What is the most valuable advice you would share with young composers?
Don’t continue on this career unless there is absolutely nothing else you can do, or want to do, unless you absolutely have to, because it’s very consuming. And if it isn’t consuming it’s not going to be any good. There are no recorded examples of part time composers. And if you really have to do it and want to do it, don’t care what people tell you and don’t care about rejection and go ahead and do it, that’s my only advice. Then, you just do it. It’s a life well spent.
What have you seen change the most in American classical music?
I’m going to have trouble with that question…[LONG PAUSE] and the reason I’m going to have trouble with that question is if there’s one thing I hate––and this has been getting worse and worse I think, although it was pretty bad when I was your age too––is the belief that music should be written this way, that way, or the other way. It has to be tonal, it must not be tonal, it has to be twelve-tone, it must not be twelve-tone. It has to have new sounds, it has to reach out to the audience, or whatever that is. All the arts, maybe not poetry so much, but certainly the visual arts (my wife who is a visual artist) and music are all very much into “what am I doing to music, the new thing I am making music do, how I will, etc.,etc.” Now, that is only done by people who are not [emphasis added] writing music, and if they are writing ideas about music then put it in words. Don’t make me listen to it in a piece because I don’t want to hear it, or I may want to. In other words I am equally happy teaching and listening to and playing for myself a piece that is totally tonal, that is not at all tonal, that’s in the middle. You know to me the greatest writer about music is E.T.A. Hoffman.I think he’s the best. He wrote this wonderful essay where he says,”what is good music.” And he says, “Good music is music in which you are yearning for the infinite. It represents desires of two people,” and so forth. It is pure Wagnerian prose, it is where he got it from. He’s the founder of Romanticism. This is 1815, 1816––very early he’s writing about that. “Music should represent the soul—blah blah blah.” There are only four composers that really had success in doing that, and you know who they are? Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven, and Beethoven was still alive. Hoffman wasn’t a composer himself, but what he was saying––the words mean nothing––he was responding to the music. He was absolutely right there. At the time Bach was still a cult figure, before Mendelssohn, when Beethoven was generally thought of as “well he’s got a lot of good ideas, but he doesn’t know how to put them together.” And where Haydn was already of no interest. The words don’t matter, they’re lovely words, but what he’s experiencing is what we experience. And our words don’t matter either. If his don’t, ours really don’t. But he’s experiencing it as we do. In that period of time certainly, they are the four greats. There’s no question.