John Steinmetz

bassoonist, composer, writer, satirist, speaker

John Steinmetz and his new bassoon concerto

Author: 
Interview by Carole McEdwards

[Carole McEdwqrds is a bassoonist in the Los Angeles area. She plays principal with Opera Pacific and is a member of the Pacific Symphony and Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. She interviewed John Steinmetz via email in autumn, 2002.]

I have known John Steinmetz for a number of years; however I learned much about him when I asked him about composition and playing the bassoon, and how they worked together. He is a gifted composer and performer, and has a rare sharp wit.

Carole: “John, I was excited to hear about your new bassoon concerto. You mentioned several orchestras are sharing the commission of the work. Which orchestras are participating?”

Three orchestras commissioned the concerto: The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, the Keene Chamber Orchestra in New Hampshire, and the Santa Rosa Symphony in northern California.

Carole: “Did your work in composition begin after you left the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra? What other works have you composed?”

I have tinkered with composing ever since I was in junior high. I got a real boost in my student days when I was invited to join a group of composers and choreographers at CalArts; that gave me a regular performance outlet, and a chance to try out many different kinds of music. (Writing music for dancers is a great way to develop confidence. The audience has something lovely to pay attention to, so the music doesn’t seem so exposed!)

Since then I have written bassoon pieces for myself and others to play, including various Etudes and solo pieces and a Sonata for bassoon and piano that has become a staple at several music departments, a wind quintet that has toured with different groups and was recorded by the Borealis Quintet, two chamber pieces for the Los Angeles series Pacific Serenades, pieces with computer, a piece for bassoon with electronics and slides, and a rather large collection of comic pieces for various combinations. I have some string pieces, too, the most recent being “War Scrap” for piano trio and percussion, a reflection on war.

I decided early on that I wouldn’t try to make a living as a composer—that just seemed too hard! And I haven’t really tried to develop a composing career either. I have written pieces when opportunities came, and so I have developed rather slowly as a composer. In recent years people have been asking me for pieces, but still the concerto project surprised me—I found myself making some phone calls to pull the project together, when I had thought I wasn’t willing to promote my composing. This may mean that composing is taking a different place in my life now, or maybe it just means I wanted to write this piece badly enough to go to some trouble to organize the consortium commission.

Carole: “Have other players and/or composers influenced your composition style and decisions?” What other factors in nature or the world have been an influence?”

Since I make my living as a performer, I play lots of different music and I get to hear wonderful players and singers. I also like to hear from listeners about what they experience. I have done quite a bit of work in the area of helping audiences to understand and enjoy music, and naturally that has influenced my attitude toward composing. (My article about this, “Resuscitating Art Music,” was reprinted by the IDRS, and it is now posted on the web at www.munb.com/artx2.html. I also have written a pamphlet, “How to Enjoy a Live Concert,” and it is posted at www.hnh.com/edu/how-to-i.htm.)

I have soaked up such a stew of influences that I’m not sure I can isolate any of them, but I know that the directness of folk music has affected me as a composer. I like music to move me, and I have often been moved by folk music of many different genres. I spent much of my time at CalArts learning West African music. I sang with a folk trio in my high school years, singing some of the great melodies of our country. I often listen to folk music from different places. It usually seems to go straight to the heart.

The faculty at CalArts also influenced my attitude toward music. I came to see musical techniques as means to expressive communication. Music was an emotional thing. My years studying with Bill Douglas and later performing with him left a big mark on me; his spontaneity, rhythmic vitality, and beautiful tunes set a great example. I have played lots of avant-garde music, too, and I like the idea that any sound—extended techniques, electronic sounds, found sounds, and so on—can be part of a piece of music. So can any way of organizing sounds. I have written things inspired by Renaissance music (the middle movement of my bassoon sonata imitates a Renaissance piece I had loved playing) and by the classical traditions of India. I am drawn to “groove” musics, styles that are grounded in rhythm: many African musics, Celtic music, rock, jazz, and so on.

I came to CalArts as a bassoon student in 1970, just as the hegemony of the Eastern hyper-intellectual composers was beginning to break up. I didn’t realize this at the time—it wasn’t clear to me until I read Susan McLary’s article “Terminal Prestige” years later. But CalArts composers were beginning to question the idea that music was worthless if an ordinary person could understand it. I was very lucky to be at that place at that time, in an atmosphere of exploration, where there was such a welcome for music of all kinds, from all parts of the world.

Lou Harrison is one of my heroes. [Note: California composer Lou Harrison, passionate advocate for musics from all over the world, died on Feb. 2, 2003, at age 85, enroute to a festival of his music.] So are Steve Reich, Peter Schickele (I love hearing people laugh), John Harbison, and Joni Mitchell. Many others, living and dead.

I remember once rehearsing some Bach canons, and somebody criticized our playing as too emotional. He wanted the music to sound more “objective.” While I suppose it’s possible to play Bach too emotionally, I couldn’t relate to the idea of making the piece “objective.” As I say, I like music to move me. Bach’s music, which I have played a lot, has an astounding balance of soul, heart, and mind. For me, music is out of balance if it doesn’t touch the heart.

Having said that, it is clear to me now that people don’t agree about what is moving or about what is beautiful. This is a good thing. Each of us is free to make the music we most believe in, in the way that seems right. Never mind that some people won’t be able to connect with what moves me.

I also have been influenced by writers who discuss what art and life are for: Robert Bly’s essays on poetry and the natural world, Gary Snyder on wildness, Wendell Berry on how to live, Joseph Campbell on myth, Susan McLary and Christopher Small on music and culture. (Small’s book Musicking: the Meaning of Performing and Listening was a revelation.)

At the moment I am trying to understand the arts as part of nature. We are part of nature, and so human culture is part of nature, too. (I just read a beautiful passage in Wendell Berry’s inspiring book The Art of the Commonplace about how the “fine arts” usually ignore nature or take it for granted.) But there’s a specifically sonic sense to this, too. Bernie Krause, who has recorded the sounds of nature all over the world, says that he thinks human music is made to fit into the sounds of the local landscape. I have his recording of Pygmy music that shows this beautifully; it begins with forest sounds, and when the human music starts it fits right into the forest’s sonic texture. It’s a beautiful song, too.

I am beginning to wonder how to make music that is less obsessed with human concerns so that it can consider our place in the wider world. This is one thing composers do: help us to reflect on who we are and how we fit in. The bassoon concerto comes partly from that question.

Carole: Let’s talk about the concerto itself. How does the music and form/style of the piece address the question of who we are and how we fit in with the world or universe as a whole? You seem to be addressing spiritual issues here.

Well, yes, they are spiritual issues. Music, even secular music, always seems linked to something spiritual. But quite often people assume that spiritual issues focus on a separate spiritual dimension. The spiritual is connected with everything else. I didn’t have anything supernatural in mind. I wanted to use music to explore the idea that humans are part of nature.

It seems so obvious that we are part of nature, but we human beings, especially in the West, have gotten into the habit of thinking of ourselves as existing outside of or above the rest of nature. We try to ignore or to control the natural systems of which we are a part, and this gets us into various kinds of trouble. Partly because of that trouble, I wanted to try to compose something to reassert and celebrate our connectedness to everything else.

I started thinking like this partly because the bassoon is such a misfit in the concerto tradition. It just isn’t loud enough to do the heroic concerto thing very convincingly. To me, 19 th century concertos seem mostly to be about a heroic individual struggling against something. The orchestra plays the role of society or of other forces; the hero contends with those forces and eventually triumphs.

This is a great and inspiring image. We will always need hero myths. But the bassoon, with its relatively quiet voice, doesn’t fit the heroic model very well at all. I have listened to bassoon concerto performances in which it was very difficult to hear the bassoon. Our one piece by a top-ten composer, the Mozart concerto, comes from the 18 th century, when concertos were more about conversation than about struggle and triumph. And he wrote the bassoon concerto long before he developed the more dramatic rhetoric of the late piano concertos.

I wanted to cast the bassoon in a different role. This appealed to me anyway because I think our society has overdone it in the direction of heroic individualism and triumph. We are in danger of conquering ourselves out of existence! We need other myths. What can a composer contribute to this situation? What does a bassoon have to say about it? Perhaps a bassoon, with its gift for blending, its huge range, and its variety of color, could star in a drama about cooperation. Maybe some kind of declaration of interdependence. Perhaps a consideration of the human place in nature.

Your question about how the music expresses this is a good one, because music can’t express philosophical or religious or spiritual concepts. But music can work with symbol and metaphor, and it always works with energies and emotions. There are musical symbols in the concerto, the most obvious being bird-like woodwind passages. For the most part the piece doesn’t depict nature—that would be setting nature apart—but it tries to depict some ways of connecting.

As I think about your question I see that there are also a number of metaphors in the concerto. One basic metaphor of the piece is the relationship between soloist and orchestra: sometimes they play together, sometimes they play in counterpoint, sometimes the bassoon is alone, sometimes it is accompanied, sometimes it is part of a crowd. This is the basic metaphor of all solo concertos, and in most older concertos this metaphor seems to point to relations between the individual and society, or between the individual and various internal forces. I have been trying to point that same metaphor in a different direction.

Looking at the work I have done so far, I see that I have been instinctively trying to do this by using harmony differently. Instead of exploiting the tensions and resolutions of traditional harmony to evoke conflict, struggle, and resolution, in the first movement I seem to be using scale-like melodies, drones, textures, and counterpoint to move between different states of feeling and different ways of relating the soloist and the rest of the orchestra.

Throughout the first movement the bassoon keeps moving in and out of its role as part of the orchestra. Even when it plays an independent part it usually is just one voice among others. Some of the music sounds a bit like Renaissance counterpoint, not a melody with accompaniment but several voices of equal importance. Your question is helping me to see that I was drawn to this kind of expression (and away from melody-plus-accompaniment) as an analogy to our place as one part of nature.

The first movement also contains two very different textures: one texture focuses on that melody moving in and out of unison, and the other texture is complex and busy, alive with lots of different things going on at once. I wasn’t thinking about this in so many words, but those two textures contrast unity and variety, separateness and togetherness, so I guess the texture contrast is another metaphor. The busy texture has bird calls, drones, flowing ostinatos; to me it evokes a forest or other landscape. Oddly, the bassoon is not part of this texture, and I must admit that it surprised me when the piece took such a turn, since I thought I was writing about being part of something. Yet some kind of feeling seems to be created when the bassoon, after being silent in this scene, reasserts the melodic texture. Eventually some sadness comes into the music, perhaps related to the bassoon’s isolation from that second kind of music.

When I first started working with the melodic idea that opens the piece, I thought its unison of bassoon and strings might be a symbol for the unity of humankind and nature. But when I was composing a later moment, when the melodic music collides with the other texture and the bassoon falls silent, I started to think that maybe I had been wrong about the opening melody’s meaning. That unison tune began to seem like an expression of human energies that later encounter something bigger. (I don’t want to mislead anybody into thinking that I simply decide what to express and then express it. While composing I try to listen for what the music is trying to do, and even when I get it to “sound right,” I’m not always certain about why that way is right or what it means. Much of the impulse for music is unconscious—that’s why it has mysterious power, and that’s why it often has multiple meanings and many possible interpretations.)

Another way I can try to answer your question is to try to remember what music I threw out. In the first two movements I have avoided rhythms that seem metronomic or mechanical, simply because they didn’t “fit in.” I think I avoided regular rhythms because they evoke humanity more than nature. The main melody of the first movement flows along in 16 th-notes, but the meter keeps changing. I know that I was seeking both a flowing smoothness and a certain kind of unpredictability or spontaneity. So perhaps this is another way that I am musically framing the relationship between humans and the rest of nature.

At one point in my composing I worked out a three-part canon that I liked very much, but I eventually removed it from the piece. Although I did so from intuition, I think the underlying reason was that the canon was too regular to represent nature. It sounded too human, if you know what I mean. In that part of the piece, I replaced the canon with contrapuntal music that, while containing some imitation, avoided the strict imitation of a canon. I think this felt more “right” because it was more like something found in nature, full of similarities but with no moment ever quite identical to any other moment.

There are many more ways in which the music addresses the theme of the piece, but I’ll mention only one more. For the last movement I am adapting a song from the forest of Central Africa, the very song from the CD I mentioned earlier. I did this because I love the song, because it conveys a wonderful celebratory quality, and also because I liked the way that the music fits into the other sounds of the forest. These people seem to live comfortably in and with the forest, and maybe their music conveys this. Of course I had to change the melody to fit orchestral instruments, so it has become something different, but I hope that some of the beauty of their music and their place remains. (I don’t mean to suggest that we need to go back to living as hunter-gatherers, only that we can be inspired and perhaps guided by people who have not separated themselves from nature so much as we have.)

The finale is a dance, with a 12/8 rhythm and an unusual syncopation in the melody. It is groove music, a risky thing to write for an orchestra. Orchestral players don’t play very much groove music, especially not in 12/8. I hope to make it easy for the orchestra to rock, and to celebrate without covering the bassoon.

The big shape of the concerto is surprisingly conventional: a somewhat lively first movement, a slow movement, and a lively finale. I find myself avoiding music that resembles existing styles, at least until the third movement, with its party attitude. I want that finale to convey something of the joy involved in recovering our proper place, our membership in nature.

Carole: Listening to and playing with great singers in the opera genre has really changed the way I hear and perform music. Is there anything in your playing experience that has affected the way you compose?

Since I play for Los Angeles Opera, I hear lots of beautiful singing, and this has affected me both as a player and as a composer. My music tends to be a bit inward, quietly emotional rather than loudly and brashly emotional. Except for some comic pieces it’s not usually very “in your face.” But hearing and playing so much opera, and especially working with singers whose main effort seems to go into being emotional and expressive, has probably helped me to be a bit more outwardly emotional as a composer. I really admire the way singers get the notes “off the page.” While we in the pit may be fussing over dynamics and rhythmic accuracy, the singers are up there putting out powerful feeling. I think those singers have helped me to commit more fully to the feelings in the music I write. And I suppose playing opera inspires me to be communicative with the audience, to write music with feelings that people can grasp.

I would hope that everything I’ve heard and played has somehow become a good influence. It’s all part of the compost from which new musical ideas grow.

Carole: “I know you have a busy performance schedule, as well as recording and being a dad. How do you balance it all and keep energy going for such a creative outlet as composition?”

I guess I just try to make time for what is most important, and that changes from day to day and week to week. Sometimes it is hard to compose, because I don’t have enough time to calm down and get focused. Writing this bassoon concerto is the biggest project I have tried so far, and I’m not sure how I’m going to get it done! My wife gave me a wonderful Christmas present, a week’s retreat at home, with no family duties. I picked a week when I don’t need to play or practice, so I can try to figure out how this concerto should go.

I rarely compose without a deadline. There’s nothing like a looming performance date to inspire getting down to work. Even though I need a deadline to compose, I almost always come to hate that deadline, too, because it forces me to stop fooling around.

Carole: Speaking of deadlines, when and where is the premiere of the concerto? Are you going to play or listen?

The first premiere will be in Los Angeles on May 3 and 4, 2003. Ken Munday will play the solo part with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Jeffrey Kahane will conduct. The following week the Keene Chamber Orchestra will premiere the piece in New Hampshire, with Joy Flemming playing the solo part and Eric Stumacher conducting. I will play the third premiere, with the Santa Rosa Symphony and Jeffrey Kahane, three performances in January of 2004.

So I get to listen and to play. This keeps me honest: I know I’m going to have to play whatever I write, so I have to make sure I can play it!

I’m really happy to be able to hear the first two performances without playing. Until very recently most of the pieces I wrote were for groups I played in, and while that is exciting, it is difficult to play so many roles at once, checking to make sure the piece works and answering composer questions while meanwhile rehearsing it and playing my own part. Yikes! It’s really fun to be able to listen and to help the performers, if they need it, from outside the group. By the time I have to play the piece I’ll have had time to fix any problems, too.

By the way, the L.A. Chamber Orchestra has an innovative way for their part of the consortium commission. They have a commissioning club. People pay a certain amount per year to join, and that money commissions a piece.

While writing the piece, the composer visits with the club three times to talk about the music, play snippets of it, and discuss how it is progressing. Club members also attend a rehearsal of the new piece, and they receive tickets to the premiere. It is “their” piece not just because they helped pay for it, but because they have been watching it gestate. I think this is a terrific way to commission new work and to cultivate bonds between composers and listeners.

I also want to say something about the friendships involved in this concerto. I was a member of the L.A. Chamber Orchestra for many years. Ken Munday (the soloist in L.A.) and I sat next to each other through many concerts. Jeff Kahane, the conductor of two of the commissioning orchestras, has become a friend through working and playing at the Oregon Bach Festival. I met Joy Flemming, the soloist in Keene, when I first went to teach at Apple Hill music camp at the dawn of the ‘80s, and the total stranger who had invited me to Apple Hill was Eric Stumacher, the conductor in Keene. Since then he and I have collaborated on many projects, including a commission that the Apple Hill Chamber Players performed on their “Playing for Peace” tour in Israel, Palestine, and Gaza, as well as our work with computer scientists at Atari and Apple.

For a relatively unknown composer like me to have an opportunity like this is thanks to the proactive support of the performers and the conductors, who have advocated for the concerto. They are the ones who said, “Okay, let’s do it.” I am grateful to them for helping this piece to happen.

And thanks to you, Carole, for asking about it. Not only did you conceive the interview, you have done the work to make it happen. Thank you!