S.E.M. Ensemble

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Philip Glass & Petr Kotik: A Conversation


Petr Kotik and Philip Glass photographed in Prague, 2016

Petr Kotik: In early 2012, Renata Spisarova and I went to the Park Avenue Armory for a performance of Music in 12 Parts. I heard the piece at Town Hall in 1974, but when I heard it again at the Armory, I immediately thought, “we must have it at Ostrava Days Festival!”

PK: Before you came to Ostrava in August 2013 to perform the piece, you taped an interview for the Czech Radio and Renata. She asked me to come along to help with translation if needed. As I was listening to you, I realized how much similarity there is between you and me, the way we look at things – composing, performing, and in a certain way putting everything together. At the same time how different we both are. This gave me the idea for this conversation.

We both come from very different backgrounds, not to mention the differences between America and Europe and the past West from the countries behind the Iron Curtain. But the way we started was quite similar. The different attitudes we developed, I believe, have something to do with the differences in which we grew up and also in our different family backgrounds.

Philip Glass: That could be.

PK: My father was an artist, a radical leftist, while your father was a practically oriented person who had a business to run, even though it was connected with music.

PG: My father came to music late. He wasn't a musician, though we had musicians in the family. But the musicians in the family were more on the volatile side, they made popular music, so that they could earn living. We were given music lessons as kids, probably the way you were. My parents believed that music was an educational activity.

PK: But your parents must have discovered early on that you had a great deal of inclination to make music.

PG: Oh, yes, that's true. My brother, sister and I, we all had music lessons. But they didn't care about their lessons, while I cared very much about music. That was the difference. My parents encouraged me until the moment when I said that I was going to go to New York to study music.

They didn't like that idea because in their world, musicians were uneducated, they played at weddings and bar mitzvahs and this kind of thing. They didn't have any social standing and I was doing well in school, so they thought that I was throwing away my opportunities. They couldn't believe that I would throw away all of the possibilities for what I could've become. My mother was a schoolteacher. My father, I don't think he even finished high school, but they had this idea that, well, my mother said, "If you become a musician, you'll be like your uncle Henry, and he spends his life going from hotel to hotel, traveling around," and, of course, I thought that was great! What great idea! But then, here's the funny thing, I wanted to get away from the kind of middle-class Jewish family, though we didn't do any religious practice at all, but there was still a kind of economic and cultural thing that I didn't like. So I began to plan my escape and I did it by applying to colleges – I was very young then, probably fourteen – and one of them, the University of Chicago sent me the exam forms and I passed the exam and then they said, "Well, now you can come to the University." And somehow my parents let me go. And later on, I discovered that it was not my father who wanted me to go, it was my mother who wanted me to go. And then I realized that she herself had gone to the university when she was fifteen. She graduated at the age of nineteen, this was in 1924 when young women didn't do that very much. So the idea of becoming a professional musician was not on their mind. I didn't talk about it with them. I sprung that on them when I was ready to go to New York. So, they were shocked, because I had this fancy education and everything was going great and I was going to throw the whole thing away.

PK: I grew up very close to my grandparents on my mother’s side, especially to my grandfather, who was Jewish, but like your parents, not in a religious way. My grandmother, though, was not Jewish. They were German-speaking people living in Prague.

PG: Like Kafka.

PK: Yes, it was the same world, quite a small world. The father of a close friend of my mother, with whom she went to the high school, knew Kafka well. They went to the same school. Everyone there called Kafka “Francek.” The German speaking community in Prague had about 300,000 people.

PG: That's a significant number of people! Was there a German newspaper?

PK: Of course, Prager Presse, it was one of the best German language newspapers. From the Middle Ages until 1945, Prague was a partially German speaking city. You didn’t have to know Czech to live there. Very much like Spanish in some big cities in the U.S. The German language spoken in Prague was very refined and many German-speaking writers lived there. Kafka was one of them.

PG: That wasn't just the Jewish environment.

PK: About half was Jewish, but no one paid any attention to it until the German army marched into Prague in 1939. That was the year of my mother’s high school graduation. Suddenly, in late March of that year, the Jewish kids had to sit on one side of the classroom and the non-Jewish kids on the other side. My mother joined the Jewish half. She said, “all of my friends are here, that’s where I am going to sit.” She always acted this way, like a typical Jewish mother (although she was not Jewish] – she wouldn’t take no for answer.

My grandfather was a conductor. He studied music and mathematics and when he returned from being in the army in WWI, he could not find any employment as a musician, so he became an accountant, he started his own accounting firm, but music was always a very important thing in the family.

When you mentioned your mother, I remembered when my mother took me to a concert of Sviatoslav Richter performing with the Czech Philharmonic, sometime in 1955. I was 13 then. There was a big crowd in front of the hall trying to get in. My mother said – I never forgot this – "You see, to be someone like Richter is better than to be a president."
PG: Wow, I don’t think that my parents would say any such thing to me.

I had this idea when I went to Chicago. At Chicago University, where I was, there was no real music school, so I had to study music on my own. I would go to the library and read scores, those that were interesting to me. I couldn't find recordings, but I could find the scores. There were pieces by John Cage there. Others were Webern, Berg, and Schoenberg. This was the music that I studied at that time, when I was 15 or 16. I could follow the system, but I couldn't understand it. I was trying to write music like that myself, but I had no technique at the time. I played the flute and piano, but I didn't have any composition background. Nevertheless, I was writing music anyway. It wasn't that hard to write it, but it was hard to make it sound good, if you know what I mean.

So, I got the idea to go to a music school after I finished college. I was to finish college at 19 – that's young to be finishing college, so I had plenty of time. I decided I would go to the Juilliard School, because it was the best music school. It never occurred to me that I would have to take an entrance exam. I just thought that I would present myself there and it would be very simple to be admitted; I had no idea how those things were done. So I went to New York and I brought my flute with me but I didn't audition as a flautist because I didn't want to spend my time playing the flute. You play the flute, right?

PK: Yes, I am a flutist. In my case, I didn't have much of a choice. I had to study an instrument and it was decided, when I was 13, that it would be the flute, because of all the wind instruments, flute has the widest repertoire. There was no choice between composing or performing for me, but that's a different story.

PG: At Juilliard, I had to take a jury exam, so I took it by playing the flute. I was examined by the woodwind faculty. They were very kind to me, they understood somehow that I wasn't really a flautist, although I had played the flute for some time, since I was very young. One of them said, "What did you come here to study, flute?" And I said, "Well, actually, I want to study composition." But I didn't have anything to show as a composer, I thought that when I would get admitted, I would take up composition. And they said, "If you want to study composition, you have to bring some music you have composed. Can you bring us your music?"

I had something, but I didn't want to show it to them because I was embarrassed by what it was. I had never had a teacher, so you can imagine what my scores were like. I read a few books, I had been studying scores, I could imitate things, but not very well. So, I said, "I don't really have any of my own music," which wasn't true, but I didn't want to show it.

There must have been something about me that they liked, because they could've just said, “You're wasting your time! We have other people to see, why don't you just leave?" But they didn't say that, they said, "Look, why don't you come in the fall and you can register in the extension division of the school. You don't have to pass an exam to get in. You can take the courses and there's a nice composition teacher here who teaches anyone who comes." His name was Stanley Wolfe. "And you can take a class and spend one year writing music with him and then come back and take the exam." I said, "That sounds great!" But what they didn't tell me was that it was very unlikely that this would work out, because what I didn't realize was, of course, the Juilliard was a very famous school and many, many people wanted to go there, so there were always a lot of people trying to get into the school.

So, I went back to Baltimore and I got a job in the steel mills – I needed to get some money. It was a good job, people supported families with these jobs, and I saved a lot of money. Well, for those days it was a lot of money. I think it was $1,200 that I saved. You could live on that for a year. And I came back to New York in the fall. By that time I was 20. I went into Stanley Wolfe's class, I wrote as much music as I could, I wrote maybe 20 pieces in that first year. I'll tell you, Petr, the funny thing is that it never occurred to me that I wouldn't be accepted. I thought we had an understanding.

PK: I went to the Prague Conservatory straight out of grade school in 1956 when I was 14. At the end of 8th grade, we had to decide what to do next and I told to the guidance counselor, "I am going to go to the conservatory." And she said, “to the conservatory? The country needs miners, you should become a coal miner, this would be much better, you would be a hero! Why don't you consider that?"

PG: [Laughs]

PK: This was what socialist Czechoslovakia needed then. "No, I am going to go to the conservatory," I answered, and she said, "Petr, you will not get in. This is very difficult, you will not pass the entrance exam." It never occurred to me that I would not get in! [Laughs]

PG: The funny thing is that I did get in. Back in Baltimore before Juilliard, I was taking flute lessons from the first flautist of the Baltimore symphony. I also took some percussion lessons, and also some theory. So I knew something. But I didn't know at all how to write music.

The extension division at Juilliard was funny. Anyone who paid a little bit of money could get in. By the way, Stanley Wolfe was a very good teacher. I would say, there were 12 or 14 of us. There was one older guy, he was retired, and all he did was write waltzes. This is so funny, every week, we all had to show some new music that we wrote, and he always came with a waltz. And Stanley listened to the waltz very carefully and criticized it and helped him, and next week, he came with another waltz. So we had this waltz guy. Then we had guys writing jazz, and one was doing 12-tone music.  

By that time, I knew about the tonal school, the American school. I knew about William Schuman – in fact, he was the president of Juilliard. One of the reasons I went there was because I heard a piece by William Schumann and I thought, "Maybe this is modern music." First, I thought modern music was the European music, but then after a while I began to listen to other music. I heard pieces by Aaron Copland, William Schuman, and Roy Harris. Of course, people in New York didn't think much of them. So that's why I went to Juilliard. I thought, "If I go to Juilliard, I'll meet William Schuman." And I did finally meet him, on my graduation day, and I shook hands with him when he gave me my degree.

This whole thing was very funny. The people I met were all kinds of characters, who thought that they could become composers, and I think probably I was the only one in that class who really became a composer. The waltz guy only wrote waltzes, the jazz guy, he had gotten out of the army, he was in the Korean war and the G.I. bill gave him a chance to go to school. It was a great thing. When he came out of the army, he wanted to become a musician, so the G.I. bill gave him enough money to take this course. But he had also had drug problems and he died in about a year. There were other people, there were all kinds of people there. People from South America. And they all had this dream that they would go to this famous music school and they would become a composer, they would become famous composers. And actually, that did happen to me! But what I didn't know, was that it was a very slim chance to get in.

PK: Yes, but you don't think about it.

PG: I never thought about it.

PK: In fact, isn't that interesting? One does so many things that are such a long shot, almost impossible to succeed, but one never thinks about it. You go for it, you never have a second thought.

PG: No, you never have a second thought, that’s right… Did you have a sense of destiny for yourself when you were younger?

PK: No!

PG: But you must have, you were driven, you became a conductor…

PK: Of course, one is driven, but it is automatic, it happens by itself. I am never conscious about where am I going and how to get there. Only in hindsight do I see how everything fell into place. And at the beginning, when I was at the conservatory, there was always somebody I looked up to as an ideal.

But when I start something, usually, I'm not sure if it is good or not. I go forward, I follow a certain vision, something I want to do, and I always underestimate the difficulty that lies ahead. Somehow, inside, I am incapable of projecting or speculating on what's going to happen afterwards.

PG: Better not to.

PK: Because whatever I do, a small unimportant thing or a big thing, I put myself totally into doing that particular thing. And I hope that it will be a big success but at the same time, I am ready for failure. Not my own failure, I am not afraid to screw up, but a failure as far as...

PG: To be recognized in some way.

PK: Yes, a recognition, a success with the public. And I know that in between these two poles – a big success or a colossal failure – anything in between really determines how I am going to continue. And I am incapable of making plans for the next thing, before I finish the first. To project the next thing before the first thing is finished seems to me silly.

PG: The same thing with me. At that time, when I started, I also didn't think where am I going, I didn't care about that, actually. I just wanted to write music. And so, I remember some years later, some young composers about my age, Steve Reich was one of them, he was convinced that our generation would change the music world. That was his idea, it didn’t occur to me at all, I didn't have that idea. He had the idea, and he was right, and I was wrong.

He would say, "You know," and this is when we were barely 30 years old. I mean, this is ten years later, after I had gone through school, gone to Paris, done all that and I was back in New York writing music, and Steve was writing music and he said, "You know, our page in history has already been written." Can you imagine? He had that confidence. That is exactly what he said. He said, "the page of history that will be about us has been written already. This is what it is." And I thought he was nuts. I worked odd jobs, I moved furniture, I had day jobs, which is normal in New York when you want to survive. Did you ever do that when you came to New York?

PK: No, with me it was different, it was worse.

PG: Were you teaching? [Laughs]

PK: No! No, being who I am, I am practically unemployable. An now I am at an age when a new employment – I mean teaching job – is out of the question. So, this suits me well.

PG: That's right, but if you were unemployable, how did you manage?

PK: I did many things, I was always a skilled performer and had private flute students. All the while I tried to get a job of course, I tried very hard, asking to be hired at all sorts of places, and I was lucky not to be offered any.

PG: Probably.

PK: I was lucky, I know it. After all these failures to get a job, when I was looking back, I would say to myself, "Oh, if I would have gotten this or that job I would not be able to do all the work I have done and I would not be where I am now."

PG: That's right. I'm sure that's right.

PK: I must say, there wasn’t a single case where I regretted not to be hired. Somehow, a guardian angel must have arranged it.

PG: And screwed up the job prospects [laughs].

PK: The first job I was trying to get was after I came over from Prague. It was at Buffalo University, where I was a Creative Associate with the Center for the Creative and Performing Arts.

PG: That was a residency, nothing to do with teaching.

PK: Yes, we were doing concerts, composing, performing, simply being around. But nothing to do with teaching. And there was an opening for a teaching job at the Music Department. We were a family with children, no income to speak of. So, I talked to the Department’s chairman and he said, "Well, we would like to hire you, but we need a black faculty member and we decided to offer the position to Julius Eastman."

PG: Wow.

PK: I never thought of this as some kind of discrimination, never. Julius was a very close friend, we worked together, and I thought, “good for Julius.” As it turned out, it was not that good for him and he left the Department in disgust a few years later.

PG: Julius Eastman was a very good composer…

PK: I had then a part-time teaching job at York University in Toronto, about a two-hour trip from Buffalo. Then they also kicked me out, from York and then from Buffalo.

When I was 15 or so, somebody read my palm and I remember to this day what that person told me: "You will be very lucky in your life and even the bad things which will happen to you will be to your advantage." [Laughs] It's amazing. I have to say…

PG: It turned out to be true?

PK: It is coming very close to it. Anyway, I entered the Prague Conservatory straight from the 8th grade to study the flute. I was 14 then.

PG: I think I started earlier.

PK: And that was a very big change in my life. Back in grade school, I was always in some kind of trouble. So much so that every morning, as I was coming closer to the school, I felt this unpleasant feeling in my stomach. And when I started at the conservatory, everything changed. It took about a year before I discovered that when going to school in the morning, my stomach felt completely normal, no more of this frightening apprehension of what was to come.

When you mentioned your early studies, I realized the difference between the environments you and I grew up in. I was in a Communist, totalitarian society. Actually, for me, communism as an ideology was the least important thing. What was so different between our situations was the fact that in my world, I was sort of locked up. It was a closed environment. And this impassable, impregnable barrier that stood there, between the world one wanted to be part of and the world one had to live in, that was the problem. Your world was open and, I would say, normal. I couldn't go to the library and study Webern, no one in my surroundings knew who he was. I would have to go to Vienna and at 1958, to go from Prague to Vienna was about as difficult as going to the moon today. The only thing available and accessible was music of the past. The present music there imitated the past. That is what the government allowed to exist. So, the way to become a musician in the mid-to-late 1950s, an independent musician and composer, was very different from what your experience. I am not saying it as a complaint. I have no complaints. It was just the situation I was growing up in.

When you were 19, you decided to come to New York. So, that was a decisive move for you.   When I was 19, I was still a student at the conservatory. By then, I knew a lot and started, with my friends at the school, my first new music ensemble, performing new music that nobody in Prague performed at that time. We performed our own pieces, but also music by Feldman, Christian Wolff, whatever we could get our hands on. Luigi Nono came to Prague in 1960 and that had an enormous impact. Then, in 1964, Cage came to Prague.

PG: We knew Luigi Nono’s music. At Juilliard, I belonged to the chorus and we had to sing his music. I liked it. I thought it was very fresh, it was sensitive and strong. It was fresh and it was always interesting.

PK: Nono was a communist, a Western-style communist, Italian communist, did you know that?

PG: Did he believe in communism?

PK: Of course! He was very active politically and that brought him often to Prague. But this was a kind of different communist belief than what later became the norm in the East, especially after the Soviet invasion in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and later in the 70s and 80s. It was different in the 1950s and early 60s. Nono was a close friend of my father, who was an artist and was also a communist. They were not fools, Nono, or my father.

PG: How did it work? I never understood how it would work having a political agenda combined with one’s music?

PK: It is not combined. Making music, or art for that matter, has nothing directly to do with politics.

PG: Did Nono think that?

PK: I am not sure if he even thought about it. I think this is something given. Gertrude Stein says it in one of her lectures. A true piece of art is not about the identity of the artist, but about the piece itself.

Nono was a very important for us in Prague at the early 1960s. It is funny, I was introduced to John Cage’s ideas because of Nono, who actually opposed Cage at that time.

PG: Let’s go back to the beginnings. I am wondering if at the onset of your starting to compose, if you had any sense of destiny, a feeling that somehow you were doing the right thing, and if you, despite everything, felt that things were going to work out.

PK: You are saying two things – did I have the feeling, from the beginning on, that I am doing the right thing. And then, the second thing – did I feel that, despite everything, it will all work out. I can’t do anything without the feeling that it is the right thing to do. I make mistakes all the time, but basically yes, I always feel that I am doing the right thing. But being convinced that everything will work does not just depends on what you do, but also on the circumstances, on the environment you live in. And this was very different for you and me when we both started.

The most depressing moments of my life come in situations where I start losing this sense of doing the right thing – and this sometime happens of course. Those are the suicidal moments. But then something good always happens and I go on. And the work gives purpose to my life. What I am really concerned about, always, is the question of whether I will have the chance to work, to do music, the kind of music I feel I should be doing. And if I manage to do that, I regard it as a success. This is what for me constitutes success.

PG: I think that's right.

When Ornette Coleman came to New York, he was a young guy, a little bit older than me but not much older, I was 30 by then. I had just come back from Europe; he would have been maybe 33 or 34. He had a place on Prince Street. He had a pool table and people would come there to play pool. Like that guy, Blood Ulmer, who played with him, all of his players played pool. We all would be there, playing pool and talking about music, it was very funny. But I remember talking to him when he told me two things that were very interesting. One was, he said, "I never worried about being successful, I always thought I was already a success. I had music to play, I was doing music and I thought I was successful." And I realized how right he was. I just started my ensemble. I was younger and a few years behind him, but I realized that once I had a group to play with, it was already a success. We would play in lofts, on Sundays, people would come upstairs, and they would pay a few dollars to hear us. I thought I was a success. I was playing music, I was writing music, people were coming to hear it. So, what else is there to do?

Later on people asked, "When was it that you became successful?" I would say, "I was a success when I was 30." But, of course, that sounded funny ¬– and yet that was really the way I felt.

Then Ornette said another thing that was very interesting to me about that time. He said, "Don't forget, Phillip. The music world and music business are not the same things." And I've thought about that sentence for a long time. I never knew exactly what he meant. He never explained it. But often I would think, "Oh, Ornette said that the music world and the music business were not the same," and that seemed to give me some comfort, that there was the business of music and then there was music. Not the same. But I knew your music from a very early time, and it was very different from everyone else's music. You had a group, the S.E.M. Ensemble, almost from the time I met you.

You had a group, you played this very strange music, which you could listen to for a long time. It was strange because it didn't sound like anybody else. But that doesn't really make it strange, it means that it was different. But you liked it and other people liked it and we listened to it. And I thought, "Oh, here's a guy who knows what he's doing."

PK: Well, maybe.

PG: But at the time, I would say, you acted like you knew what you were doing.

PK: That's the professional side of if – the way one looks.

PG: Yes, well, that's not so bad.

PK: No, I don’t mean it as a pejorative thing. No, no, of course.

PG: So, I started my group maybe about the same time and I also was writing strange music. A different music from your strange music.

PK: I think, if you do the best you can, you don't have to worry about the fact that you're not totally certain about what it is that you're doing. But if you are calculating to get somewhere, that could be a...

PG: Well, many people do that.

PK: I would say, most people do that. This is why there are not really that many things that one finds interesting.

PG: It’s about ideas, not much about the music and about composing, but about having a career as composers. And these people measure themselves against those who are successful composers. I don’t think that people who are successful ever thought of making a career or being successful. Many people who admire me, I don't admire. I don’t like their music.

PK: That's usually the case.

PG: Many people work with formulas, they have procedures, they have to behave in a certain way, getting a teaching job, or whatever it is they have to do to advance their career. Or to cultivate relationships, being friends with conductors and publishers and record people. Wasting a lot of time.

PK: Absolutely. Let’s backtrack a little bit. I'm in Prague, almost finished with my studies at the conservatory, and I am starting to compose music. That’s pretty late by any standards, I was almost 19 then, I started so late because of this deficiency – I always had a very weak sense of harmony. I could not, intuitively, understand the harmonic progression, starting on the tonic and returning to it. When I was 14 and started to study music, I felt as if there was something wrong with me. Later, I learned that I'm not alone in this, and some people whom I very much admired had the same, almost nonexistent sense of harmony.

PG: Really?

PK: Yes, really. For me when I was 14, 15, when someone played a simple cadence on the piano, it was mysterious. Something every lounge pianist can do in his sleep. As a musician, I had no problem with the cadence, but being able to do it, understand and analyze it, that was a different story. In the 1950s in Prague, there was no way you could even think of studying composition with this handicap of not having any feel for the cadence. After all, harmony is all about cadence, going from and coming back to the tonic. Everything is measured by this progression.

PG: It is very interesting listening to what you say about harmony and cadence. Nadia Boulanger was obsessed with harmony, with the cadence and this specific idea and harmonic progression.

PK: Really?

PG: And I had gone to Paris to study with her by accident or by good luck, actually. I had finished Juilliard and one of my favorite musicians there who was a man not much older than me, had studied with her and I asked him where did he studied and he said, "You have to go study with her," or whatever, I found my way there.

Now let me tell you what she did. I wouldn't say I had a very well-developed sense of anything. Even though I had graduated from Juilliard at that time. Juilliard was rather strange in this respect… My theory class at Juilliard was like this: they took very talented kids and they left them alone. [Laughs] They almost taught them nothing. They just left them together and four years later you graduated. But you didn't need to learn from the teachers, you learned from…

PK: You're talking about composition, not the violin or the flute.

PG: Not the violin. No, no, no. I'm talking about composing. You had to have very rudimentary knowledge about everything. They didn't expect you to do exercises, nothing like this, you were expected to know all of it. It was like reading a book about swimming. You are reading the book, but actually never could swim: "Here is a book about swimming. Arms move like this; legs move like this." You read the book and you study it and you think, "Yeah, I think I know how to swim." But you never actually get into the water. Do you see what I mean?

In Juilliard you never did any exercises. You never had to demonstrate any basic technique. I got out of Juilliard because I somehow got through it. And I met this one guy who knew all about this other stuff, something I had just a vague idea about and I said, "Where did you learn this?" He said, "I learned it from Nadia Boulanger." So, I went to her and she must've thought I was a complete idiot, although I had a degree from a good school.

But I want to talk about the cadence, because you mentioned the word cadence. With Boulanger, we did a lot of things. A lot of it was technical, almost entirely all technique. Her teaching was entirely harmony, counterpoint, very technical. That's what it was, absolutely. She didn't look at your music. People said she was a composition teacher. With me, she was never a composition teacher. I asked her once if she wanted to look at my compositions and she said no, she didn't want to, she didn’t want to do this with me. And I said, "What is your idea about this?" She said, "The creative spirit is a very delicate thing. I'm afraid that if I tried to advise you how to write your music, I might dissuade you from doing something you should do. I might give you a bad advice and then I might ruin you. So, I'll teach you what I know…"

PK: This how a good teacher should teach.

PG: I think so too. So now here's what she did. You'll love this! She would say, "OK, take this note, A." There are these cadences, I-VI-IV-V, or whatever. "Now from this note I want you to do the cadences from the first, the third or the fifth. And then you have to do it in every key. You have to do the whole cycle. You had to sing it like that [Sings solfege]. I could do this exercise in its full form, going through the twelve notes in all the inversions. It took 20 minutes. And I did it the way a Buddhist monk would do their mantras. I did it every day.

PK: Like practicing scales.

PG: This is how she taught. She banged it into your head. She banged it into your head with a hammer. Boom! Boom. It was basic technique and at the end of that time, after a couple of years, I could do all kinds of things that I never had known how to do before. And it wasn't about writing music, it was about voice-leading.

PK: I think that voice-leading is the most important thing. It is more important than harmony.

PG: That was one thing. At the same time, you were supposed to be doing counterpoint – in three parts, four parts, five parts, six parts, seven parts, eight parts… It must've gone to eight parts, and you were supposed to do it in free counterpoint and then strict counterpoint. And this is what she taught. People always thought that she was kind of a genius and I think she was in a way.

PK: I myself couldn’t even think of entering a program in the conservatory to study composition. My handicap of not understanding harmony prevented me from writing any conventional piece of music and no school in the Czech Republic would ever have accepted me in the mid 1950s. But there was no question that I was going to be a musician. So, when I entered the conservatory, I studied the flute. And in a short time, I became a very good flautist, everybody would recognize that. I did study composition later in Vienna.  It was a similar kind of study that you did with Nadia Boulanger, not as good, but just disciplines. I was 21 by then and enrolled to study composition at the Vienna Music Academy. The Academy taught composition in two cycles – the cycle lasted three years and involved only disciplines– counterpoint, harmony, dodecaphony and also electronic music. Hans Jelinek and Karl Schieske were my teachers. They were great, but still, I had no desire to work on my music with them. At the end of the three-year period, if you succeeded, you were allowed to continue to study composition. I left after then, although I could have continued. I think that it would have been a waste of time if I stayed. Boulanger was right, no one can really tell you what to do and any kind of influence could only be negative.

I often ask myself, where did I find the confidence as a composer to write music that was independent and hardly anyone liked. And I think that my flute playing has something to do with it.  From very early on, I functioned as a respected musician, flautist, and that never made me anxious to be accepted by others as a composer. As a musician, I never felt isolated, and I didn’t care who thinks what about my music. This situation actually has been continuing for a very long period. It is only recently that my music is getting some kind of broader recognition. I got so used to be neglected as a composer that it almost amazes me. That was such a surprised last summer in Ostrava when we performed Many, Many Women there, the whole 6-hour performance right after Music in 12 Parts. The critics who commented on both pieces, young people I never heard of, they compared the two pieces on the same level.

PG: Not in style.

PK: No, not in style, of course. They compared the impact of the two pieces. I don’t think that they knew either of the pieces beforehand. They must have known your music well, but I am not sure if they ever heard any my music.

PG: Maybe they meant, in a certain way, an artistic ambition. They're both ambitious pieces.

PK: What were your ambitions when you were composing Music in Twelve Parts?

PG: My ambitions were almost entirely confined to the music itself.

PK: No other ambition is admissible when you compose. This is why Music in Twelve Parts is such a great piece of music. You are saying ambition, Feldman called it arrogance, it’s the same thing.

When I compose, I go through a process of examining and reexamining and going over every idea. And I sleep on it and when I wake up, I have a serious second look at what I've been doing the night before. [Laughs] And sometimes, when I wake up in the morning and I look at the music from the previous day I say, "What was I thinking? What the hell?! What is this?!"

PG: I think that all the time.

PK: I am not rushing into anything, and that is true not just with writing music. I have to be absolutely sure that the idea is OK. It’s not a rational decision, I have to feel intuitively that the idea is right. But when I cross that threshold, I go forward without looking left and right.

And with this long piece, Many Many Women, I just decided some reason to do it on this scale without thinking about it for a moment. Incidentally, the six-hour duration was not a musical decision; it was a result of the size of the text I took. It is basically a vocal piece that had to have a text. I decided to use an entire novella by Gertrude Stein from the first to the last word. But the confidence of going forward with such a giant project was indirectly influenced many things that I knew. For example, Bob Wilson's productions at BAM in the early 1970s. You must have seen the 1973 performance of The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

PG: I did.
PK: You never know what really gets you to do something. Obviously, ultimately, one makes a decision and that’s that. But still, sometimes you encounter events that become part of your way of thinking. And for me, it was not only Bob Wilson, but also long performances by Cage and others. The fact is, I didn't think twice about making a piece that long, it was not an issue at all.

PG: But you can be inspired by other pieces and it may not be the same thing. I can look at a sculptor's work or the work of a writer and find that inspiring because of its level of commitment and clarity. For me, commitment and clarity are very important – and stamina. The physical side of sitting and working.

PK: It's mental, it’s all in your head, isn't it?

PG: It's mental.

PK: And the physical part follows.

PG: As we say in New York, [with heavy New York accent] "It's mental." [Both laugh] Yeah, there's clarity and focus and commitment. The stamina has to do with the ability to look at the page for a long time.

PK: And continue despite all the odds.

PG: Yeah. I think that one of the things that has made it very helpful to me is that I can sit for long periods of time and do nothing but look at music. I can spend eight, ten hours a day just looking at the music. And people would say, "Oh, how much do you work?" I don't even know how to answer it, because they think I'm lying. If someone tells me, "I do four hours and I think it's a lot." I would think, "Four hours?" If I confine myself to four hours, I couldn't get anything done. It's takes a long time for me.

PK: I must say, I am also very slow in doing things. I need a lot of time to think. I have three hours free to do something and I don't do anything, because it just takes three hours to calm down, compose myself and get into the right mental state. Very few people understand that.

PG: I trained myself to do that too, by the way.

PK: If I'm in the middle of working on something and I know what to do, then things go very fast and steady.

PG: Of course.

PK: But it's a very slow process before I get to this stage, very slow. I would imagine that it’s the case with everyone. When you do something serious and you do it on your own, it doesn't go very fast.

PG: At the beginning, when I started to compose, I was also a flautist then, I would use the flute to help me write the music. I would play something, and I would imagine it in different keys, octaves and so forth.

PK: My beginnings were different. If I don’t count the few pieces that I wrote as a student – the 12-tone music when I wanted to sound like Boulez – then you progress to the point where you lose interest in sounding like anyone. I must have been 19 or 20 and I started to make visual images, they were kind of musical constructions. Don't you think, in some way, for composing, eyes are more important than ears?

PG: That's an interesting question.

PK: I don’t mean to say that ears are not important.

PG: When you say eyes, it depends on what you mean. If we're talking about an "inner vision," then yes. But looking at the room or looking around at something wouldn’t help me at all.

PK: No no, I don’t mean looking around. I don’t mean looking at something at all. I mean looking at the sheet of paper, in a way looking at music. I myself find it very important to draw a musical form on a sheet of paper and use it in the composition process. I would draw graphs, for example, that I would translate into music. My composition, from the onset, was connected in some way to visual constructions.

I mention it because you said, "I'm looking at music all the time."

PG: The perception of music is a complex thing. And when I talk about the musical perception, it is about sound, but in fact, we visualize music. When we talk to the musician about visualizing, it doesn't mean quite the same thing. You can look at the paper, or at the score of course, but you're hearing things as well.

PK: You imagine the sound. People often say that one has to hear things, but I would rather say, instead of “hearing” the sound, that one has to have a vision, an image of the sound. That’s one thing, but for me, the actual composition, the work itself has to actually involve looking, actually doing something on a piece of paper and looking at it and saying, "No, that's wrong. It has to be different. It has to look different." And somehow, for me, first of all, it has to look right, not sound right. That’s just my thing anyway [Laughs].

PG: What about memory?

PK: Memory? I try not to have any.

PG: What I am saying is different. It’s not the kind of memory you are talking about, I think.

When I was working for Ravi Shankar in the 1960s, what I did with him from the first assignment on was very important. There was his orchestra sitting in a room, maybe 14 or 15 players and Ravi was doing a film score with the musicians. He didn't write the music down. He would look at the movie and he would play a melody and say, "OK, this is the oboe part," and then, he would play another thing and said, "This is the cello part." Nothing was written down. He didn't write anything down, I had to write it down, so that the players had music they could perform. He put together the whole piece like that, the whole piece. It was extraordinary, because he remembered all the parts, so in a way, he was visualizing the music.

PK: But it's really a different kind of composing than you and I are doing, don't you think?

PG: Yes and no, because of what happened to me a little bit later, just before I was beginning to write my pieces. At that time, no one wanted to look at any of my scores. So, I realized that I didn't really need a score, because no one was going to look at the scores anyway. I wasn't going to send it to a competition. I wasn't going to send it to a conductor to look at. I didn't need or want anybody's permission; I was going ahead, doing it no matter what. So, I didn't need a score. This went on for years. My pieces existed in the form of individual parts. I just wrote the parts. And I learned that from working with Ravi. I would play my part first, I'd write down that part. Then I would write out the second piano part, then I would write out the saxophone part. When I finished writing Music in Twelve Parts, there was no score. There were eight sets of parts [Laughs].

After many years, some kid wanted to study the music and said, "Can I see the music?" I said, "Well… there is no score to study." He was a kid who wanted to study the piece and didn't know how he could do it without a score. Finally, he got a grant to work on it, took all the parts and made a score. The first score for Music in Twelve Parts was made by a composite of the parts. I never needed it. I could visualize the music, for sure. I could hear how the parts work. That's what I meant when I said, "What about memory?" I am talking about this kind of direct memory, something I had to have, music I had to remember.

PK: Oh, I thought you meant a different kind of memory.

PG: Do you think La Monte Young hears music or sees music? What do you think he does? Have you talked to him much?

PK: I just saw him recently. We were getting together and talking a lot in the early '70s right after I came over to America. It was a different scene then, of course.

PG: Largely, most of his music was just performed, wasn't it? He didn't notate the music, did he?

PK: Some pieces have just instructions. Some of the early pieces are exactly notated. He gave me most of the early scores.

La Monte's contribution to music is enormous. It was a breakthrough in many ways. And it has to do with what you are talking about – just playing the music and remembering. He had an enormous influence in the early 1960s on Cage. We seem to forget about all these breakthroughs because we look at the past from the perspective of today, when we take so many things for granted, as if they would have always been here, but it's not true.

PG: That's right.

PK: He came up with this idea of listening to the sound instead of focusing on the procedure, the system and the method, which was something that everyone was concerned with at the end of the ‘50s and early ’60. It is a music based on ideas along with the musical experience that goes with it. Music based on an idea. It's a very different kind of composition to that which has always been done.

PG: Yeah, but does he think about it as sound?

PK: I think he does. That’s what he is really concerned about, the sound.

PG: And he visualizes the sound?

PK: What is there to visualize? When I talk about visualizing, I mean the procedure, the progression, the form. The image of sound comes with it, or perhaps it come later for me, but it is not part of my visual image. I think that what you say about La Monte is more of a concept than a vision. It is this all-encompassing sound environment, very musical, but still an environment. You get into this ongoing sound, without beginning or ending.

PG: And what about his thing about intonation and tuning.

PK: These things never interested me. Music for me is not the sound itself, but the journey of one sound going to the next one.

PG: I don’t find it interesting either. It is too abstract for me.

PK: This thing about tuning, I almost find it a fetish. It goes totally past my interest, not only in the case of La Monte's music, but in general. There's a whole generation of young composers who are focused on tuning. They think that this is music composition. Maybe it is, but this part about tuning does not interest me at all. However, listening to La Monte’s The Well-Tuned Piano was an absolutely incredible experience, way back when he performed it in downtown New York, at the old New York Mercantile Exchange space.

PG: In La Monte's system, after a few octaves, the notes don't correspond anymore. So, it's very interesting to listen to, but it takes a lot of time to do that and to learn to listen that way. I admire him a lot, but I actually don't know what he's doing. I guess I don't have the experience of doing all of these things that you need to do in order to get into something like that.

PK: One should be careful making comments about another composer. Some time ago, I decided that the opinion of one composer about another composer is completely worthless. Really, these comments and opinions only mirror the person who expresses them. So, I don't know what is it worth for me to talk about La Monte Young.

But anyway, to me, La Monte's concept of music is strange. He looks at music, especially his music as objects. He compares himself very much to visual artists of his generation.

PG: I guess that's true.

PK: And it must be very disappointing to him, that he's not in the same league of appreciation as these artists, like Warhol and others. He really believes that he has essentially created a similar body of works, on the same level of importance in history and that he should be appreciated and financially rewarded the same way. That is, in my opinion his undoing.

PG: I'm not surprised to hear that. He does seem to have a tremendous level of confidence about what he's doing. I mean, he really thinks it's very, very important and has been able to maintain that conviction despite a tremendous amount of indifference that he has had to confront.

PK: Yes, but he always finds at least one, two, three important people who are completely behind what he is doing and who support him.

PG: Yes, and that's enough.

PK: That’s enough to continue working and that’s a great success. It's true, you don't need an enormous amount of people. A few are enough, especially when they can support you financially.

PG: I heard him sing this year.

PK: You did?

PG: Yeah, I went to the Dream House.
He had about 40 or 50 young people there. I'm telling you, the room was filled with people, all about 25 to 30 years old.

PK: I went to Charlemagne Palestine’s performance in Brooklyn last Thursday. An enormous amount of young people was there. They all couldn’t get in. Something is happening in the whole music screen, across the board, and it is great. You don’t see it just here in New York. The same thing goes on in places like Ostrava.

New York, March 8, 2014