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  • Writer's pictureDan Perttu

The Muse in Music: Michael Torke on Musical Form and Emotion - and Old People

Photo by Bryan Hainer

By, Dan Perttu

This time on the Muse in Music blog, I am honored to host the preeminent composer Michael Torke for a rich, organic discussion on what drives him as a composer. Mr. Torke's music has been called "some of the most optimistic, joyful and thoroughly uplifting music to appear in recent years" (Gramophone). Hailed as a "vitally inventive composer" (Financial Times) and "a master orchestrator whose shimmering timbral palette makes him the Ravel of his generation" (New York Times), Torke has created a substantial body of works in virtually every genre. Career highlights include: Color Music (1985–89), a series of orchestral pieces that each explore a single, specific color; Javelin, recorded both for Argo and for John William’s Summon the Heroes, the official 1996 Olympics album; Four Seasons, an oratorio commissioned by the Walt Disney Company to celebrate the millennium; Strawberry Fields, whose “Great Performances” broadcast was nominated for an Emmy Award; and two evening-length story ballets, The Contract, and An Italian Straw Hat, for James Kudelka and the National Ballet of Canada.

Dan: Let's start with something fundamental. What drives you as a composer and why do you do it?

Michael: That’s the hardest question of all. One way to answer it is to address why anyone creates art at all. Because it seems so impractical, and quite an odd activity for anyone to do. So why do we do it? That’s the first question. The second question is why do I personally compose; is there something in my biography or my genes that drives me to do it?

So, to address the first general question: when human beings have enough resources to feed and to shelter themselves, they then have extra time. And when you have extra time, you start asking philosophical questions, like “Why are we here?” and “What’s the meaning of it all?” One way people address these questions is through religion. Another way is through art. Art provides a kind of nourishment to the soul that gives life meaning. Then, on the individual level, people seem to have a need to express themselves. The need is so strong. Look at Facebook. Everyone now is a writer, a publisher, an expresser. The urge to “share” seems to be as strong as life itself.

And then for me personally, I don’t quite know. To make things and express things? My father was an architect, so he was always building. He was drawing. I think that made an impact and was an inspiration for me. I like to make things, and I like to draw. I like to impose form on things. Another aspect is that when you’re a person with a lot of energy inside, that energy can come out in positive or negative ways. You could become an axe murderer or a drug addict if the energy does not have a healthy expression. However, through the good fortune of receiving an education and getting musical training, you can take that energy, focus it, and use it to make compositions. I find this to be the most gratifying thing I do; it gives meaning and shape to my life. I love imposing form on things that produce emotion. We think emotion is the opposite of form. Form is cold and mathematical. Emotions are spontaneous. I actually think music is a wonderful way for the two to come together. What I’ve learned working as a composer is that, generally speaking, the clearer the form, the stronger the emotion that the form produces.

Dan: That’s very cogent. I sympathize with the idea that the clearer the form, the more significant the emotion, or the more the emotion can come through. In so many respects, emotions follow cognition. That leads me to the next question, which is about your compositional process. You gave a very cogent idea of why you compose, so then how do you do it? I know that’s a very general question. I’m particularly interested in how form and emotion interact in your music.

Michael: There’s this idea that when you compose you have to start with exceptional material in order to be able to develop it. On the contrary, I believe what you start with is almost arbitrary and banal. It’s what you do with it that distinguishes you from everyone else and gives you your personal voice. That’s where writer’s block comes from: it’s when a composer starts to think whatever he puts down is a cliché, or has been “done before.” Fundamentally, that is nonsense: are you never going to use middle C because it is found in prior compositions? It’s not the idea; it’s what you do with it. I used to say years ago, “What is this stupidest idea I could come up with?”

Dan: (chuckles)

Michael: In its banality, I can potentially develop some really wonderful structures. That’s one approach. Another is to use a style you never been exposed to before. I knew nothing about Bluegrass music for example, when Tessa Lark, a violinist from Kentucky, approached me about writing a Bluegrass violin concerto. This was interesting because it meant that my ears had to be opened up. I still may not have completely absorbed the genre, but I increased my understanding, and it was hugely stimulating. I began to learn the language. I learned how to write Bluegrass themes of my own that would be recognizable in the style. Then, from that foundation I developed the large form.

Dan: Yeah, it’s a language you have to be immersed in. Some people love or don’t love the genre, but you can tell when music is being spoken with a “classical” accent as opposed to music with a “Bluegrass” accent. Did you feel like you ever lost your “Non-Bluegrass” accent? Did you feel like you were able to speak the language ultimately?

Michael: Yes. I felt that I could speak the language, but I didn’t feel like I lost my personality. Bluegrass and Irish music are very presentational. Theme A is followed by theme B. End. So once I began to develop my themes from a micro level to the macro level, an entirely new reality emerges. By design, this becomes a hybrid. My concerto is not simply a medley of themes stitched together. My hope is to breathe new life in the concerto form. And it is a hybrid of performance style because Tessa and I made the executive decision not to amplify the soloist (as is customary in fiddle playing). The loose-limped bow technique of Bluegrass might have to combine with the more aggressive bowing found in classical concertos, despite my making the accompaniment as transparent as I could.

Dan: I resonate with this experience because I wrote a piece called A Scottish Triptych for piano trio. It uses authentic Scottish fiddling techniques within the fabric of the Trio, so you have to be able to perform both as a classical musician as well as a Scottish fiddler. I also put in the performance notes how to pull that off. And thanks to my wife's dissertation, I was able to notate it.

Michael: But see, what you’re doing is expanding the vocabulary of music. I see that as a really healthy thing.

Dan: Going back to form and emotion. Where does emotion come in to this?

Michael: Here’s my feeling. When musical material (which we can call “A”) either moves to something like A1 because it gets bigger, or it moves to B, then something significant has happened. In that movement I think we feel something. When the music grows and then subsides, we have a reaction. To be more specific: in order to make music go from either A to B or A to A1, how do you get there? The listener is following you and that presents a formal problem. There has to be material that, once we hear it, it moves forward because you were hearing sameness and differentness at the same time. That is a technique for development. How can I make my music, as it unfolds, sound recognizable, but different, so everything relates, as it moves forward? These are all formal problems. In the absence of form, you hook up a bunch of themes. To me, that’s just presentation. Form is making these elements have recognizable features that move forward, share properties, but are always different.

Dan: Yeah! You made me think of a couple of things when you said this. Are you familiar with mirror neurons?

Michael: No.

Dan: According to some scholars, mirror neurons are involved in empathy and responses to emotion. They perceive and reflecting input. That input could be an emotional expression, or an emotional experience of another person. You know how emotions are often contagious. I wonder if that is due in part to mirror neurons. I’m not an expert, so I hesitate to go too far with this, but I wonder if there is a neuro-physiological phenomenon going on with mirror neurons in terms of emotional experience when we are riding the waves of an emotional musical experience. Musical form is doing whatever it’s doing and that is actually mirroring an actual experience through the neurons.

Michael: That could be it.

Dan: I wonder.

Michael: One thing to point out in reference to mirror neurons—it sounds like a very cognitive part of the brain. My older sister’s partner is suffering from early-onset Alzheimer’s. She’s near the end. What we’ve noticed in her decline is not a surprise; her last hold-out of any understanding of anything is music. Perhaps music comes from a deeply primitive part of the brain. Maybe it’s one of the last things to be touched by whatever is scarring the neurons in Alzheimer's. So it’s some deep part of the brain . . . but maybe the mirror neurons are going on in there even more!

Dan: I would be really interested to dig into that more. Going back to form, you were talking about formal problems to solve. Linking this back to emotional meaning, what are your ideas on the thought of building some sort of cognitive expectation through the form and then violating it somehow as the source of emotion? Is that what you’re suggesting here?

Michael: I believe that is a common technique in creating beauty, emotion, and art. When you set up expectations and then do something unexpected is how you create frisson. One of the basic properties in art is setting up and defying expectations.

Dan: On the small scale, we know that deceptive cadences continue to sound deceptive even if we know they are coming because they defy schematic memory. However, do you think the average listener can perceive large-scale violations? On the local level (such as with the deceptive cadence) it’s obvious, but on the large scale, it may not be?

Michael: Yeah. I do.

Dan: Oh? You do! I’m curious.

Michael: I think even uneducated listeners are getting way more out of music than anyone expects. Ok, so they can’t put it into words, but who cares!? Do we have to understand electricity to use it in everyday life? What fascinates me is when there is a poorly-put-together piece, in whatever way that could possibly mean, the audience senses it and is unimpressed. The applause is titter, titter, titter; the composer can barely get off the stage. But when a piece is well constructed, the audience can sense that even on a first hearing. They don't know why, there’s something about it that’s compelling. I know there is this argument that states people only appreciate something when it resonates with an aspect of their particular culture and this transaction has nothing to do with a formal critique. I understand that argument, but it doesn’t need to be incompatible with what I just said. I think that audiences really get it, but they may not know why.

Dan: Interesting. So, my last question is a two-part question. From your perspective, what can “classical” composers do to get more support from broader audiences? What can conductors do?

Michael: I may not have any good answers here, but I’ll comment around the issue. One way to think about it is that the artistic administrators are always worried that tomorrow no one will buy tickets! Classical music is all but dead! Then they all cite a common reason. I’ve written a blog called “The Future of Classical Music Audiences.” The argument that I make is as follows. When I was growing up in the 1970’s, I would go to the Milwaukee Symphony and everyone said, “The audience is too old, who will be listening in the future?” By the 80’s, commentators across the country bemoaned the aging audience. In the 90’s, we were warned the median age of classical concertgoers was 67, and disaster was predicted. By the aughts, the argument was repeated, “What are we going to do about the aging audiences?” Well, I’m thinking, people don’t live forever!

DP: (chuckles)

Michael: That’s kind of like saying, “We should rip down all the hospitals because you find so many old people being treated! They’re going to die out, and there will be no more business.” But there will always be old people! And what a great demographic! Why? Older people tend to have more money and more time because they’re retired, and they have more of a demand and appreciation for cultural nourishment. This is a great demographic! Why do people think classical music needs to be run like Madison Avenue and appeal to 13 to 21 year-olds? I’ve never understood that. Why are old people so evil?

Dan: I’ve wondered some of these thoughts myself.

Michael: There are some other factors. I spend half my time here in Las Vegas. The Las Vegas Philharmonic was blessed because a new hall was built only about eight years ago. It has great acoustics in a wonderful neo-deco building. The new conductor they have had for about 5 years, Donato Cabrera, is bringing the orchestra to a new level. Here’s the funny issue: every concert is sold out. Is that because Donato is a good salesman? Maybe. Is it because his concerts are varied? Maybe. Is it because they play so well? Undoubtedly. But maybe it’s also something else. Las Vegas is a booming city. Its population is 2.1 million. We’re soon going to have an NFL team—we’re building a big stadium—and there are a lot of retired people who are coming here. Given that Las Vegas’s main industry is the casino industry, and that, after a while, you grow tired of that, you find want something more. You want some culture! There’s such a thirst! “Oh honey! We could go to the symphony tonight!” People love it! So why is there such fear that classical music is going to die? Why don’t we focus on the good things that music provides? It’s like a medicine or a religious ritual! People love it!

Dan: True!

Michael: Obviously there are big problems when we see orchestras going bankrupt, but I think that’s a management problem more than anything else. Experts would tell me that no, it’s actually very complicated. It has to do with boards and institutional politics. But I just don’t think that classical-music-making on the symphonic level is just going to die. It’s like saying “If we don’t plant any trees none will ever grow.” Look out the window of a transcontinental airplane flight, and all you see is green down there! Whoever planted all those trees? Obviously, few were planted by humans on this large scale. There must be such a life force (behind trees) that just wants to take over. I almost feel that way about classical music. I know my analogy is weak, it’s not the same, since we do have to nurture it, foster it, and support it. But it seems like there is a more essential demand for classical music than all of these worried artistic administrators would have us believe.

What can composers do? I mean, I don’t know, write better music? I think if we wrote really great music, it’d be played more. Maybe when we write shoddy music, it shouldn’t be played. That begs a lot of questions: what makes good music? Who decides? That has a very complicated answer. The only thing that is really reliable is that over time, the good rises to the top. Sometimes it takes hundreds of years, and even then, it isn’t infallible. Think of the fact that the glories of Greek and Roman civilizations were superseded by a thousand years of the Dark Ages before the Renaissance revived these ideas. There could be another thousand-year period with people chanting and pounding on drums again. If this happened, you might hear, “Oh yeah! We knew about all this classical music, but we don’t do that anymore because it’s against our religion.” Another thousand years could go by before another Renaissance would rediscover this music. So maybe everything will just die out. Everything comes to dust. However, this scenario could be so far in the future that I’ll be long dead before that ever happens.

I don’t know if a composer can really do anything unless we get into some sort of political or artistic outreach. I was once a composer-in-residence with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Besides commissioning and recording my music, one of my main jobs was to help with their educational initiative. I went into classrooms of teenagers with Scottish accents so thick I could not understand what they were saying! And then these students came to the concerts. It was hands-on audience building for sure, and for them, listening to my “new music” was more natural even than listening to the older music on the program.

But back to composers writing better music. That is a bit of a glib notion, when you consider all that Beethoven did for German music; every composer who came after him for the next 80 to 100 years was influenced by his achievements. So you can say that he did more for the sake of music and for audiences than anyone, but as he was sitting there at the piano putting notes together, did he think “Well let’s see. What can I do to help the cause of broadening the industry?” I can’t imagine he was really thinking about that. He just happened to be a genius. So, I don’t know if you can predetermine this too much.

Dan: Well, thank you. This has been very, very interesting, and I appreciate your taking the time to talk with me!

Michael: Thank you.

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