Stuart Saunders Smith, An American Composer Part II

Does your interaction with your students at the University have an effect on you as a composer and what you think about when you write?

It has no relationship to what I compose. What I’m noticing is that the students seem younger and younger but of course the actual thing is [that] I’m getting older and older and they look more like my grandchildren than even my children (laughter). So that’s changed. I find what hasn’t changed is this phenomenon: I’ll be talking about New Music and a student says, “Oh, I know exactly what you mean. I’ve been listening to a lot of new music.” And I say, “Well, bring it in.” Sure enough, they bring in some sort of Alternative Rock, which is new in very small ways.

Increasingly, that’s not the case. Increasingly there is a movement they call Art Rock or other forms of Rock which seems to me is not a popular music. They’re really trying to find new musical expressions and they take a lot of their cue from composers like John Cage and other New Music composers. They’re very aware of that as well as world music. So I see that as a positive phenomenon within the world of quote-en-quote “Popular Music”’s not really, it’s something else. So I do see that.

The result when trying to reinvent the wheel exhausts itself.

Yeah. That happened in Jazz. Bebop was trying to expand the Swing Era and then the new forms of Free Jazz wanted to break the bonds of harmony which was so sophisticatedly put together in Bebop. So, there’s always this notion of expansion in Western Music at least.

Seems like Jazz has reversed on itself. It’s becoming more...

Classical. What I mean by classical is people are repeating other people’s solos of the past almost literally. I find that troubling. But Jazz really hasn’t gone somewhere, it’s just people don’t realize that there’s another form of Jazz and that is Free Improv. Yes, there’s no drummer, and there [are] no chord symbols anymore, but people have expanded the notion of improvisation which Jazz gave us. [It] gave us the idea of soloing and playing together in an improvised setting. So, I think it’s expanded, it’s just people haven’t realized, that’s Jazz. [What] the new Classical Jazz players are doing is just keeping alive a tradition. Which is what a lot of Western Classical music is also doing, is keeping alive a tradition. Nothing wrong with that at all. In fact, I’m kind of glad they’re doing it, but I think it’s really important for people to realize that Free Improv is Jazz. It’s the new Jazz.

Whether it be around Jazz themes or not.

Exactly! A lot of the free improv is influenced, again, by New Music composers who incorporated unusual sounds or incorporated forms of improvisation. I’ve experimented a great deal in that with my mobile forms and with my systems pieces. John Cage did. Stockhausen. Early Morton Feldman. Christian Wolf. Earl Brown. The names go on of people who have incorporated into their music improvisation of one sort or another. Later, that influenced what I’m calling New Jazz players, which some people call free improvers or free improvisation experts.

So do you consider yourself to be a New Jazz composer?

Very few people have referred to me as that, but that’s how I feel. You can look at the 135 pieces I’ve written and you can really see the influence of Jazz. Whether it’s in the rhythmic intricacy which has always been there, or incorporating the tastes of the musician who’s playing my part of the piece, that’s Jazz influenced. Or my systems pieces where I use improvisation as part of the system, the guided improvs.

Even in your notated pieces, it’s not strictly notated.

Yeah, it’s notated with verbal directions of how you can use those notated ideas in an improvisational setting that I set up with rules.

Speaking of your pieces, do you approach how you are going to write a piece with a global concept or does it start from a seed of an idea that you build on?

A little of both. I use three different kinds of thinking when I compose: fast thinking, slow thinking, and taste thinking. Fast thinking is multi-directional, non-verbal intuitive thinking. The slow thinking is what I’m doing now: logical, one word after the other kind of thinking. Taste thinking is the thinking of the senses. I use all three of those together all at once. Picture a rope with three strands that cross-talks very quickly between the strands. That’s how I compose, so when I have a small idea that comes from intuitive thinking, that immediately draws me into slow thinking. And then I check everything to see if it feels right: taste thinking. So it’s a continual revolving around those kinds of thinking in a very fast way. That’s how I work.

I always work at the piano because I want to work with the sounds themselves. Never work away from the piano. Never work away from the pitches, or the rhythms. First comes the pitches, then comes the rhythm. I listen to the pitches and the intervals, and they suggest what the rhythms should be. I try to not push the pitches around. I try to listen to them, to what they tell me to do next.

So that’s intuitive?

Yeah. I’m of the mind that every entity that we perceive is vibrating, and that’s true, scientifically true, and that it has something to tell us if we’re aware enough to perceive it through our senses. I feel like the pitches and the rhythms are alive and they are always telling us something and we just need to listen very carefully to what they have to say and notate that. So, in a way, I conceive composing as transcribing what the sounds tell us to do next.

So you would reject the use of something more formulaic or a historical approach?

I don’t use any pre-compositional techniques like serialism, or chord progressions, or plans, engineering plans, of how to make a piece. I work strictly intuitively, because the intuition allows there to be contradiction and it seems to me that life’s full of contradictions. Life is complicated, so I want my music to be equally complicated. I want it to reflect my experience as a living person, where pre-compositional techniques get a composer consistency. That’s what they’re for; so that there’s a consistent relationship between all of the moving parts. I like music which is inconsistent. So, although I love Shoenberg, I prefer Ives. I love Karlheinz Stockhausen’s music, but I prefer Morton Feldman’s.

What are your sources of inspiration? What compels you to say, “I have to sit down and write this?”

I get up every morning at 8:30, then from nine to eleven, I compose. And then, during early evening, I come back oftentimes and look at what I’ve done. I do that every day, seven days a week. It has become a habit. If I don’t compose, I feel awkward. I get a nervous stomach. So, composing, for me, is like the ultimate anti-depressant, anti-anxiety activity. I think it’s because when one composes, it’s like deep meditation. You’re going into yourself very, very honestly and with great conviction, so it must be like chanting “omm” for a couple of hours or other sort of meditative practices that are done around the world. So, I compose out of habit, out of a desperate habit. It’s almost like an addiction: I must compose. So there’s no inspiration other than: nine o’clock in the morning. That’s my inspiration. Nine A.M. is my inspiration.

I often joke that if I feel really, really inspired, I put the pencil down and go for a walk. Because a lot of composing is like baking bread. It’s just plain hard work, and it’s very difficult sometimes to hear what the pitches want you to do. But, again, it’s work that I must do. I can’t imagine myself not composing.

Do you consider your audience’s expectations when you write a piece?

What is the best kind of gift? Is it the gift that the receiver wants, or the gift that the giver needs? In my view the best kind of gift is the one that the giver needs, because it’s the most honest kind of gift possible. So the audience is nowhere to be found in my studio, because I love the audience. That’s why they’re not in my studio: so I can give them the most honest music possible. I think that if you really love the audience you keep them out of you awareness as you compose. I love when the audiences love my music. I get some standing ovations occasionally. It’s very gratifying. Sometimes people walk out. They don’t like it. Well, that’s, of course, their right. They don’t have to like what I do, but I’m convinced that the best gift I can give them is the music that I need...and that’s a true gift.

You spoke of your students and what they’re finding as “New Music”. With that experience and perhaps what you see around you on television or in the newspaper, how much does pop culture influence where you’re going with your music?

It doesn’t at all. I’m not even aware of it. I don’t have a television set. I listen just to radio. If I want to watch something I go to Blockbuster for entertainment and find some interesting movies. I’m not aware of pop culture anymore, so it’s not part of my world. I try to stay out of the pop taste industry altogether. I mean, I’m a vegan. I’ve composed what I eat. I try to compose my life as well as be a composer. I don’t accept my culture’s answers for everything. I try to ask questions of my culture, and if I come up with a different answer than my culture, then I go with my different answer.

“So what is it proper to eat,” I ask? My culture says, “S.A.D.: Standard American Diet.” It’s sad. I can tell you what I had for lunch. I had all fresh vegetables and fresh fruits...raw. So I don’t do what my culture tells me to do. I try to do what my conscience tells me to do and what my instinct as a composer tells me to do.

What trends do you notice in New Music today?

I see the pieces getting longer and longer. The bar was really set by Morton Feldman with his five hour string quartet. People don’t think a thing about sitting through a piece that’s an hour long or an hour and a half long. My vibraphone solo is in 34 movements, lasts for an hour and twenty minutes, played a great deal in Europe, particularly in Vienna. People, from what I’ve been told, are extremely attentive the entire time and don’t think anything of sitting through an hour and twenty minutes. ‘Course we’ve been doing that with movies. They clock in at two hours, two and a half hours, and we keep our attention up. So I think, more and more, people are interested in longer pieces, to follow how an idea will develop over a long period of time.

It’s interesting that it’s the opposite of what’s going on in mainstream culture.

Yeah, I agree. Everything is just boom, boom, boom, fast, fast, fast. Computer on, computer off. I agree, but I think all of us really long for a different sort of world.

I was at Smith Island a few days ago. Population: 300. When someone goes by in a car, they wave at you, and, if they see you three minutes later, they wave at you another time. You can leave your doors wide open and go away for an hour and just not even think about crime. It’s because people have enough space, they’re in a small community, and things really slow down. There is silence, real silence, where you can just hear your ears hearing, to real darkness so that when you walk out you can see the constellations. I think we need to slow down. It’s not good to be going this fast. It’s not good for our our health, our mental health or our physical health.

We need to have a music which reflects what’s healthy for a human being, not what’s easy for a human being.

Stuart Saunders Smith, An American Composer Part I

Stuart Saunders Smith is an American composer, poet, and editor of literary works. His catalog of musical compositions includes many different approaches for the performer, ranging from guided improvisation with graphic scores to notated pieces, but each encompasses the continuing traditions in New American Jazz and New American Classical music.

Most of the pieces he has written since his first published works in 1970 are for one or two players, and rarely exceed the instrumentation possible in a chamber setting. The exceptions include performance systems works which are essentially a set of guidelines for improvisation that can be performed by any number of players. As a result, the majority of his works often have a very personal feel and performances have an intimate quality.

In addition to providing vehicles for improvisation for players, a lot of his work offers strictly notated music in the classical tradition. Pieces such as Closing for solo guitar and “as if time would heal by its passing” for solo marimba explore wide intervals and precisely notated rhythms that are very complex. Other pieces explore, through rhythm, the possibilities of counterpoint available in instruments of non-definite pitch. Blue Too from 1983 is a nine-plus minute piece for solo drum set. The Noble Snare from 1988 was written for solo snare drum.

Some pieces, such as The Authors, And Cold, and Many Women, include a spoken part for the instrumental performer. Others may ask the performer to sing pitches while playing an instrument, such as violin.

Stuart is also very active in free and guided improvisation. At the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he has been a professor of composition since 1975, he offers ensembles the opportunity to explore music created spontaneously beyond the confines of any preconceived notions or traditions such as tonality and form.

Stuart’s music is performed widely throughout the United States, Europe, and Japan. He is also in high demand among ensembles and performers that commission works from him. The University of Akron presented an entire concert of his works this past March celebrating his 60th birthday.

I met with Stuart at his home in Maryland to discuss his musical works, the compositional process and his experience as a composer in this time.

What are you currently working on?

I’m writing a piece called Husbands and Wives for two alto saxophones. I’ve been married as of yesterday 38 years, so it’s sort of a meditation on the nature of being married that long. One of the things that you never think about when you first get married is you were once separate, now you’re going to be together, but in the end you’re going to be separate again...unless you both go at the same time.

As you get older, as you are married longer, that notion of separation becomes more and more real and more and more poignant, so the piece tends to have a kind of tragic edge to it; because that realization is down the road. It’s a long time. Also, you begin to think about your own mortality when you turn sixty, for instance. That’s when I began to think about that in real terms. I mean, you’re not in mid life anymore. In twenty years, God willing, you’re eighty. You know at the age of sixty how fast time goes. It’s like that (snaps finger) just like a snap of a finger you were thirty and now you’re sixty.

The strange part of it is is that I don’t really feel any different than I did when I was thirty, or twenty-one for that matter. I think I’m a little wiser because I’ve lived longer and my pacing’s a little bit slower because I’ve lived longer, not because of any physical ailment, but, there’s that number looming: sixty years of age.

So, from experience you don’t feel the need to rush things.


Because you know what’s going to happen to an extent.

Yeah. Try to slow down time as much as you possibly can.

So you recreate this in your piece between the two saxophones.

Right. It starts off where there’s a saxophone solo with an accompanying music, kind of drone music with the other saxophone and there’s another saxophone solo, the other saxophonist. To symbolize, you start off kind of separately and you know each other a little bit. Then there’s the marriage part, which is the bulk of the piece. And then, at the end, there’s one saxophone solo with no accompaniment and then another saxophone solo with no accompaniment.

Now the interesting thing is, is all the saxophone solo’s music is identical as far as pitch material, but the rhythms are different. So, I wanted to portray that not that much has changed except, there’s one saxophone solo and then another, meaning that one person outlives the other...but they’re the same person.

So you do this through pitch material. Is there anything like shared themes that come together?

Yeah, there is. The next thing that happens after the opening saxophone solos is a unison-type passage.

...where they play together the same part...

Yeah. That symbolizes the marriage...the marriage ceremony itself. So, it’s a very programatic piece.

Are you having that performed soon?

That’s written for a recording that’s coming up of my saxophone music [that] Susan Fancher is doing and organizing. That will be coming out on Sylvia Smith’s label, 11 West Records. She records a lot of my music.

When will that be released?

The winter of 2008 is my guess.

You’ve been a professor now for thirty years.

Thirty three.

How does that affect you as a composer? Is there any thought process that you get from that experience that you wouldn’t otherwise?

I want to be really honest about that. There are many people at the University who are professors who write books. I am a composer who is a professor. I put my research and my composing first. I chose being a professor because it was a job where I was going to be teaching music...something I love very much...and it would give me enough free time to pursue my musical ambitions compositionally without much restraint.

I noticed early on, I was about fifteen...I had been doing club dates since I was thirteen, that there were these teachers, these kind of teachers, who had the summers off and didn’t have to teach a great deal. They were in fact expected to play music or compose music as part of their job, and I later learned these were called professors (laughter). And, they could compose or play anything they wanted, which I couldn’t do in the clubs. Even at the age of sixteen or so, I was very, very upset that I couldn’t play what I wanted to in the clubs. I had to mostly simplify what I was doing as a drummer. The more complicated I got, the more the club owner would come over and say, “What are you doing?!” I chaffed at that as I got older and older and my musical experiences led me to musics which were more complex like Indian music, Free Jazz, [and] New Classical music.