Composer Richard Cameron-Wolfe about sound art and historical music

In November 2019 Ukraine was honored to have an American composer and pianist Richard Cameron-Wolfe. His music was played in two concerts: “Parallels. Paradigms. Paradoxes” on 7 November in Kyiv and “Richard & Co At The EAST OPERA” on 11 November in Kharkiv participated by Sed Contra Ensemble, Kharkiv Guitar Quartet. Also on 15 November, Mr Cameron-Wolfe held an extremely interesting Meet the artist event at the Ukrainian National Tchaikovsky Academy of Music (within Oksana Ryndenko`s The Modern Music Workshop) that inspired to continue the dialogue with the artist in an interview.

Українська версія інтерв’ю: Композитор Річард Камерон-Вульф про саунд-арт та історичну музику

– This is not your first time in Ukraine. How many times you were here and how do you feel about Ukraine?

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – My first visit to Ukraine was in 2012. But I was already coming to Eastern Europe as early as 1989. At that time I had an organization that was called Center for Soviet-American Musical Exchange. The soviet director was the Saint Petersburg composer Gregory Korchmar. In fact, it was another composer Serhiy Zhukov, living in Moscow but born in Zhytomyr, who organized a contemporary music festival in Zhytomyr in 2012. For me personally (after seven more visits) Ukraine has become my “second home”.

– In one of your interviews, you said that you`ve found a family here. Which kind of family did you mean?

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – A family of so many musicians, modern dancers, their friends, and many students, of course.

– Do you know any Ukrainian composers? Maybe from the old generation?

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – From the old generation, I am very familiar with the music of Revutsky and Lyatoshynsky.

– And from the young generation? Maybe which you know personally?

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – Leonid Hrabovsky. He lives in New York and we meet sometimes. Volodymyr Runchak also. And even younger, Andrei Merkhel, Serhii Leontiev, Serhii Vilka, Alla Zahaikevych, Victoria Poleva, Ludmila Yurina, Serhii Pilyutikov, and Karmella Tsepkolenko, for example.

– Do you like their music?

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – To be a composer is to be a part of a global community of creative musicians. And when I listen to music, if it’s “telling the Truth”, then I have great respect for that composer. It doesn’t matter about the style.

– You have a few projects in Ukraine. What do you think about Ukrainian performing?

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – What’s really wonderful is how the performing level and quality has evolved from a tradition of academic training. Now, more than one generation after the Soviet period, I see that musicians in the Ukrainian music ensembles are willing to try anything and find new techniques for performing international contemporary music.

– What level of performing in Ukraine?

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – Very high.

Фото – Катерина Вашталова / Photo by Kateryna Vashtalova

 – Like in Europe or America?

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – It’s hard to say. Where I live (in New Mexico) there aren’t many classical musicians. So for comparison, I would look to New York City, where I lived for 27 years; and right now the musicians who are especially eager to play contemporary music have an extraordinary struggle to survive. And these very fine musicians who understand contemporary music are not paid well and never have enough time to rehearse, because they must have a part-time job, maybe students, etc.

– How can musicians survive in this competition between classic music and the contemporary one?

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – You know, we have a situation that is very bad in the USA; for example, concerning orchestra jobs. Orchestras are going out of business every year, also opera houses are having smaller and smaller seasons. So, survival is mostly from teaching: private teaching or in a school, college or university. In a capitalist (an ultra-capitalist) situation like USA, tickets to orchestra concerts are extremely expensive and opera even more. So what is the alternative for the people who are interested in new music? YouTube. And that’s where most people now go to listen to new music.

– What about live performances? They have vibes that YouTube and other net-platforms don’t have.

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – Yeah. Most musicians now in New York are living far away from Manhattan because the rent is very expensive. Also, little concert spaces are renting to musicians for a very high price. And so you can’t really expect the audience to pay for all of that. And often there are more people on the stage than in the audience!

– How can we build the new audience from the old audience that is listening to Brahms (you said at the lesson)? And should we?

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – That question has been contested in the air for a long time, I think. I recently read in the article about either some wealthy man or business that donated a whole collection of instruments to a school for children. So those children were just given the instruments and were told how to play technically, but NOT what was “good” to play (i.e., not the historical styles). And what came out – new music!

– Amateur?

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – Yes, of course. These were children maybe 7 years old to 10 years old. Another situation is that for example when I was a child we always had music in school. We had a symphonic orchestra already for students 12-13 years old. It’s gone now. At public education in the USA is gradually taking the arts out of the curriculum.

– But there is a high level of music education in public schools there, isn’t there?

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – Only in maybe 5 or 6 of the big cities would you find public schools, that have an active high-quality pre-university music program: New York City, Chicago, Boston, Saint Louis, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles, for example. But almost everything is happening at colleges, universities, and conservatories. Many of them have what they call “preparatory programs” for young people. So in the places where the public schools are not offering music, the universities are offering the music.

– Do you think that amateur music is something that threatens the new music?

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – You`re talking to an “amateur”. I don’t consider myself a professional composer.

– But you studied, you had classes with Xenakis.

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – Absolutely. I mean, if the word “professional” suggests that I have a profession — okay, I had a profession for many years as a university professor. But professional composer…? (Paying my rent by composing??? No.) I prefer “amateur”. If I compose film music I will probably turn a good amount of money. But in fact, I don’t have a talent for commercial music.

– Can music be considered an art if it’s related to commerce?

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – Well, you know, commercial music is successful generally if it follows certain set formulas. (Of course, there are many very talented innovators in popular music). But there are commercially-motivated expectations about what pop stars should do or not do to be successful. And this, this and this Broadway music must have to be successful.

Фото – Медіагрупа «Накипіло» (з концерту у Харкові) / Photo by “Nakypilo” media (at concert in Kharkiv)

– Is it true art?

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – It’s a different kind of art. I don’t want to think this high art or this is low art. And for some film composers, I also find they`re telling the truth. Pop singers – they are easier telling the truth. I remember Norah Jones. She became very very popular and after two albums there was somebody else who’s been promoted by the music industry. Nearly 20 years ago I wrote an article for a journal titled “The next Norah Jones” about how the music industry usually only promotes a performer for a certain timeframe or for two albums. And then very often performer has minimal music responsibilities — perhaps being promoted more because they have “the look” to be a pop star.

 – How can you stay away from the commercial world and tell your truth?

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – I don’t know another way to tell the truth. I always desired to write a pop song, because I have friends who are pop singers. And they keep saying: “Oh, Richard, write to me something!”. “I would, but it would probably not be good for your career”.

– Coming back to contemporary academic music, we can see the contemporary composers make a new synthesis combining both electroacoustic music, theatrical music, video art and so on?

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – I think in the beginning the performing arts were unified — in Egypt, in Ancient Greece, and in the world of the high culture of the Mayas, for example. But then somehow things got separated (possibly for commercial reasons?). But if you have a separate name for poetry, separate for music, separate for dance, separate for drama… the very act of naming something anyway insulates it. For better or for worse Wagner came up with the word “Gesamtkunstwerk”, the collective art-work. And he was responsible for every element. He created poetry, libretto, and music. Even in Bayreuth, he helped to design the ideal theatre for his music dramas.

But again I was very careful in Professor Ryndenko`s class about criticizing the university model. For example, if we consider the model of the State University where I was teaching for many years: I had music students in this building, over here I had choreography students in a different building, over here is poetry, here is visual arts, here is the drama building where I composed for productions. And the curriculum for each of these had only two spaces in four years to study another art form. Why?

If you read any biography of the composer, who are their friends? Poets, painters, dancers. The community of artists is not separated into categories. And to rectify this isolation let’s start with music performers and composers. Let’s bring them all together! The composer asks the performer: “Show me what you can do”, the performers ask: “What would you like to hear?”, the composers give some idea how to make it happen – c o l l a b o r a t i o n. It’s not going to happen with composition teachers and instrument teachers. The violinist would say: “Oh really you must practice Wieniawski, this is your modern music” or “Playing that modern music will damage your technique”. I don`t understand this. So I think that real progress toward a really vital future in performing arts must come from the students` collaborating with each other.

As I said in that conversation in Professor Ryndenko`s class, people historically always heard “new music” in the Renaissance, as well as in the Baroque, and classical eras. In the romantic era, there began to be an interest in music of past eras, however generally very “romanticized”. And now the music of our own time is mostly unprogrammed. (But even the great Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York — guardians of historical art — has an area of contemporary art). But most concerts that we call academic classical music concerts are historical (XVIII, XIX century). So the first message to all performers is: “What about your own time?”. Carl Jung suggested that artists are not primarily ruled by their ego; rather, they unconsciously reflect the cultural values of their time (“collective unconscious”). Even Wagner with his superego was still reflecting like XIX century Germanic culture. It’s probable that  the subconscious part of the creative process for the composer of contemporary music is responsible for all the dissonance, all the complexity — and it accurately reflects the dissonant complex reality of today’s society.

– Are your microoperas a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk?

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – For the realization, of course. We need a space, we need something for people to see. Usually, I leave it to the performers. Performers make it theatre. And theatre, my definition, is a “collective art action”. Even in the staging of Shakespeare, you can say that it is choreographic — people moving in space in relationship to each other.

– Do you think we are living in the opera crisis time, or we cannot say this?

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – Well, in the USA that ultimately is. Economical. If I ask 10 of my American composer friends: “Have you written a two-hour opera?”, maybe one will say: “Yes, but it was never produced” or “was produced in the student opera workshop at my University where I teach”. The opera houses in the USA don’t like to take chances, they don’t want to take a risk with contemporary music, because it’s so expensive to put it all together. Now, however, even the ultra-conservative New York Metropolitan Opera is finally doing a Phillip Glass opera. But this is Phillip Glass, who came on the scene 50 years ago! And New York is in a shock: “It’s amazing that it takes 50 years!”.

Photo by Vasyl Shevchenko (з концерту у Києві/ concert in Kyiv)

– Do you know NOVA OPERA? It`s Ukrainian project by Illia Razumeiko and Roman Hryhoriv.

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – Yeah, I`ve seen some things on Facebook. It’s very interesting to me.

 – These composers are talking about an opera crisis and they are searching for different ways to revitalize an opera genre. Maybe your micro-opera is one of the ways, to make an opera smaller?

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – Well, when I was still teaching at the State University of New York, my idea of micro-opera made it possible for my composition students to say: “Yes, I can make an opera also! It’s only 7 minutes, but it really is an opera. And it’s in 3 acts!”. Because if you think “opera” and you think: “I have to write something that goes 2 or 3 hours… Forget it!”. Symphony… 80 musicians… Who`s composing symphonies now? And why not? Because the orchestras don`t want to take a chance. So I talked about reflecting our time, our present era. A lot of people prefer to take refuge in the historical repertoire because it’s an escape from the present era into some kind of idealized past, some “Golden Age”. Many people do become ecstatic when they’re going to the world Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, for example… Of course, it’s great music. (But also in the early XX century, Ralph Vaughan Williams was writing great “pastoral music”). And I know contemporary composers who are writing music which is nature music. But it’s called so because it contains a near-replication of the sounds you really hear in nature. I’ve never walked through the forest and heard sounds like Beethoven.

– You`re telling me about “music”. But at Ryndenko`s class, you said about “sound art” as an alternative name for music. What is the difference?

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – It’s the most general way of describing all music of our own time — as “contemporary sound art” or “art which is made of sounds”. So it doesn’t have the restriction of saying modern “classical”, which immediately we associate with the classical era. Even the term “contemporary” music could be anything: it’s already historical music.

– Would you separate academic contemporary music from other contemporary music like pop, rock and so on?

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – You know, we`ve reached a point now where, for example, there is no one of prevailing style. There are individual styles and maybe changes from piece to piece from the same composer. But I think we still depend mostly on performing musicians who have been trained to the historical academic tradition. But it’s extended! The training in new and future musical vocabularies and techniques probably won’t happen primarily in conservatories, the training will come from collaboration like I mentioned: composers and musicians exploring and experimenting together.

– In one of your interviews, you said about “music is tuning the world”. What did you mean?

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – The tuning of the world doesn’t mean that we reject chaos and complexity. What it means “to tune the world” is to say: “This is not chaos. Look at all the relationships. This music shows you the actual relationships between elements that seemed to be chaotic. Look — in this complexity, there IS a pattern”.  And so by recognizing these patterns, it makes living in the world of chaos and complexity easier. (It is human nature to seek and find “order in chaos”.)

– Does music help with?

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – If you want to escape from modern Kyiv society all you need to do is to walk into a forest. You don’t need a String Quartet with you. If you`re out in the mountains and you have a flock of sheep] – you need a little flute maybe. It’s enough.

– You have told about your “mantra”, you have “Kyrie”. Everyone has own “religion”. What is your worldview about that?.

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – The one world-view that seems clearest to me comes from Sufism. And Sufism particularly comes to me in the teachings of Hazrat Inayat Khan, especially from the book that’s called “The Essential Unity of All Religions”. In fact, the different religions begin to appear to me as just the same basic thoughts in different packaging. The entire history of humanity is based on conflicts between religious views. That makes no sense to me.

Афіша концерту у Києві / The poster of the concert in Kyiv

– Short questions. Are you a pianist and a composer or a composer and a pianist?

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – I was a pianist who composed; now I am a composer who sometimes performs.

– Name three of your favorite books.

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – Right now I’m reading one which will probably become one of my favorite books. It`s a novel titled “Orfeo” by Richard Powers. I hope it’s translated soon for Ukrainian readers. It will be especially important for any musician. Second — Hermann Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game”. Third — a fantasy novel by David Lindsay, “A Voyage to Arcturus”.

– Name three of your favorite film directors.

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – Federico Fellini, Jim Jarmusch, Luis Bunuel.

– Name some of your favorite painters.

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – Robert Kostka. He is a painter, but I consider him to be one of my composition teachers — a universal art mentor. Recently, I discovered the Dutch symbolist painter named Jan Toorop.

– Name three of your favorite composers from the Middle ages to XIX century

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – Machaut, Gesualdo, after then too many.

– Name three of your favorite composers of XX-XXI centuries.

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – As a composer, I can’t answer that one. If I were a listener or only a performer I could have favorites. But as a member of a community of composers of this present time, it only goes back to what I said a couple of times already, which is any of those composers whose Truth speaks to me.

– Which characteristics are attributable to the contemporary composer? Maybe 5 features.

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – Freedom of expression. Freedom to experiment. Freedom to fail. Freedom to stop composing forever if it doesn`t bring you joy. And then maybe something like would John Cage said. Someone said: “So how do you respond to all of the people who hate your music?”. And he said: “It’s OK if they kick my music, but I don’t like when they kick me”.

 – What would you like to advise young composers, performers, and musicologists?

Richard Cameron-Wolfe: – Communicate with each other. Share ideas. Every Sunday when I was a student at the University we had a meeting called “Fiasco”, attended by students from various arts (even from psychology and speculative physics!) People give courage when they share ideas and creative processes — and they receive courage in return.

Appreciation to Catherine Vashtalova for the assistance in the conversation


Один коментар до “Composer Richard Cameron-Wolfe about sound art and historical music

Залишити відповідь

Ваша e-mail адреса не оприлюднюватиметься. Обов’язкові поля позначені *