Meyer Kupferman, one of Americas great maverick composers and one of its most prolific and creative musical minds, passed away on November 26, 2003. It is with a deep sense of loss but yet an equally deep sense of gratitude and privilege for having known and worked with him that we present his final interview, a talk between Meyer and Gary Eskow from this past September.
A Talk with Meyer Kupferman
At the age of 77 Meyer Kupferman, composer and painter, is enjoying a fertile period of creativity.
The composer of over 500 works, Kupferman first gained attention in the late 1940's when his early opera, In A Garden, was premiered at the Tanglewood and Edinburgh Festivals. Beginning in 1951, he served as Professor of Composition and Chamber Music at Sarah Lawrence College for over forty years.
Kupferman's work including his most recent, large-scale pieces, exude vigor, restlessness, and passion. How come? Having finished his morning coffee, the affable composer was ready to speak on the phone one morning around 11 am.
"In my early days I was a clarinetist, and in addition to playing the repertory stuff I was very involved with jazz. In fact, I arranged for big bands before I began composing seriously. I've always believed that the great talent of American composition - what distinguished us from the Europeans - was the fact that our best composers had a grounding in arranging for Dorsey and Ellington style bands. William Schumann, a very successful Œclassical American composer' of the early 50's, evolved from that kind of experience."
"My early passion for jazz stayed with me in later years, both as a direct influence - as in one of my large works (Jazz Symphony, Soundspells CD104) - and indirectly in many unusually explosive chamber works (the Infinities series). I'm pleased to see that composers have gradually reduced the amount of atonal abstract work in their scores - not in all of them, but in many. Today you hear many young composer introducing jazz and rock touches and flourishes. Their approach to rhythm and orchestration is sometimes very appealing. Clearly, music in the symphonic realm has become much more rhythmic than it ever was, and has developed a stronger appeal to larger and younger audiences.
"In the middle of the century, so-called classical music became less and less rhythmic, more static in its physicality and almost painful to listen to. People tired of the abstraction. Elliot Carter's work has a kind of magical attraction for me, even though he's a highly abstract composer. I like his work, but too much of it wears me out. I think it's incredible, but not long ago I listened to a CD of one of his pieces, a piano concerto. I had to absorb it about a half a dozen times before I understood it. If a trained composer has to go through that effort, how does the average listener get comfortable with it?"
Much of Kupferman's music - eclectic and non-doctrinaire - has a vibrant and youthful quality to it, even today, and throughout his entire career.
"Rock, electronic music, music for theatre, ballet and film, have all made their imprint on my artistic thought. Today's climate, where anything goes, is perfect for me because I've always liked to mix and match, to make connections that other composers might avoid, fearing that this approach leads to inconsistency.
"The techniques of continuity - how one thing follows another - fascinate me. How can one go from something that is terribly explosive and rhythmically powerful, and suddenly shift to a very melodic area that is lyrical and tonal within the scheme of a large work? I like to explore these kinds of questions. They lead to new conceptions and new insights."
Sounds like sonata form have been tossed out, right?
"Not necessarily. I can't ever have a tonic-dominant harmonic progression without severely altering those chords, but the concept of large areas having a harmonic relationship that may influence shape and structure can be useful. Each work dictates its own form. Sometimes an evocative title is important in suggesting the form of a piece. One of my most recent orchestral pieces, Invisible Borders, was written in 2002 and will be recorded this season. The title itself suggested the feel and overview of the music. Invisible Borders has a lot of contrasting elements and moods. There are forms here, but they are only hinted at. On the other hand, I've often used traditional and rather archaic forms like the chaconne. I love them!
"Ostinato devices are an extremely important element of today's classical compositional world. John Adams is a good example. How many contemporary music concerts get sold out with a single announcement? His always do, and that says something. In both his operas and concert works he uses ostinati in a very imaginative way. In looking back at some of my own early works I can see how many ostinato devices I had been using without really thinking about them. Ostinato devices lie beneath the surface, helping create designs and textures, in an improvisatory manner. I liken it to the kind of repetition you'd see in the world of cells, and so it's real. Carl Orff fashioned his own style of ostinato forms way back in the 1940's, which I believe had an enormous influence on minimalism.
"Although you learn and develop techniques as you get older, for me an important key has been that I've always held on to the way I liked to write music when I was a kid. It came naturally to me, and I wrote with a lot of abandon. Many of the pieces I wrote in my twenties I still cherish. Some of them I rank among my best (and some are failures). I listened to some of the early pieces not long ago while I was exercising on the treadmill and couldn't believe that I wrote them so long ago! There's a kind of athletic quality that I keep reinstalling in my work. My most recent piano concerto is like that. You can hear in its complex keyboard and orchestral textures a tremendous and driving rhythmic approach."
Some composers develop a compositional system and spend their careers working it from the inside out, refining and refining their style. Kupferman says that he writes in many languages, not one.
"For many years I've explored the scales of different countries and cultures. I enjoy evolving a special scale that's exciting to me for almost every piece. That in itself provides a menu of languages. I've used Mid-European, Far Eastern, Irish scales, and many others. You work with them and eventually they become a normal part of your daily languages. Again, I like to mix and match. I might write forty bars of twelve-tone music and arrive at a place where a more traditional scale is called for. I let the music dictate where it needs to go."
Much of Meyer Kupferman's music contains large gestures. These short, dramatic hooks are a critical part of his compositional technique (his "gestalt form").
"Gestures are very important. They're a great way to have your listener encouraged to remember things, and memory is a very significant part of the perception of music. I tend to write big works that last over twenty minutes. Music of this work is complex, and if you want to keep the listener involved, gestures help the listener keep track of big episodes; they highlight designs within the music and stick out in the memory. But you have to be very careful, because gestures can also be overwhelming if they're not handled carefully and with great sensitivity. Otherwise, they may override the importance of what you're trying to say."
As many composers will attest to, writing for the guitar can be a vexing challenge. Kupferman has written extensively for this instrument and one of his recent CDs, (The Guitar Music of Meyer Kupferman, Soundspells CD123, performed by William Anderson), is devoted entirely to it. Does he play the guitar?
"No, not a note! I've never touched the organ either, but, unlike the guitar, I've never been able to write successfully for it.
I made a trip to Majorca once, and I remember spending some time in Barcelona, Spain, where I heard some fantastic guitar players, mostly in flamenco style. I was overwhelmed by what the instrument could do. This must have been about 35 years ago, at least. David Starobin asked me to write a piece for him, even though I didn't know much about the instrument. He lived near me, so I'd write some sketches and take them over to him to try out. We began to see that I have some intuitive command of the technique, and so I plunged into a full-length composition, which David then performed, called Echoes from Barcelona (Soundspells CD123). We worked and appeared together in concert over the years, and I eventually graduated from chamber pieces to bigger things, the last being Concerto for Four Guitars and Orchestra (Soundspells CD124).
"Later on I met guitarist Roberto Limón, who seemed very excited about my music - enough so to commission a big chamber work for his Mexican ensemble, Atril5, which used two guitars. He invited me to his home in Mexico City, and we became close friends. Over the years, Roberto Limón continued to commission new guitar works in every form - solo, chamber, and four concerti. I'm particularly pleased with one of the most recent, Elegy for the Vanished, which he performed and I conducted in Prague (Soundspells CD133)."
Although Kupferman's recent work shows all the vigor and intensity of his earlier output, mustn't some things change? If ambition was a part of his earlier makeup, has it receded at all in recent years?
"Yes. But you know, I knew a wonderful artist who died recently, a painter who was very good but achieved little recognition. It was evident that at this point he'd no longer had any ambition. I wish that he'd had, because his work fell off to a point where he was hardly producing anything anymore. On the other hand, some people are so overwhelmed by their ambition, and it, in itself, becomes their main thrust. For me, these days, it is less and less of an issue. I've now receded into my own thing. I formed a publishing company, Soundspells Productions, as well as a recording company, which now has 35 records of Meyer Kupferman music in its catalogue, plus other records produced by other companies. That's a lot of stuff. I have so many compositional titles running around loose in my head that I often have difficulty remembering them. I feel in a way that my ambition is trying to nail them all down. Any royalties I get from my music are thrown into the continuation of these projects, and I am pleased to see that some of these records are still selling. I was blessed with some great reviews for my work, and that, in itself, is very fulfilling. My real ambition is simply to work, to compose, to rehearse, to argue with musicians, to try to explain my ideas to my students, to an audience, or to anyone else who wants to listen. Once a piece has been completed, I look forward to its premiere. That's a joy, because the reality of its getting birthed and the feel of an audience's response means a great deal to me."
September 17, 2003
Visit his website at: www.garyeskow.com