George Steel by William Wegman

BOMB 92 Summer 2005
092 Summer 2005 1024X1024
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Portrait of George Steel by William Wegman. Courtesy of the photographer.

Although my concert-going is spotty, over the past few years I have been connecting more and more to the music program at Columbia University’s [Kathryn Bache] Miller Theatre, where George Steel is executive director. The spirit of the place reminds me of my days at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the mid-’60s, where, although a grad student in painting, I spent more quality time in the music school mixing with composers, performers, electrical engineers, and English majors. Among the faculty were adventurous composers Sal Martirano and Lejaren Hiller. I saw Harry Partch and his extremely peculiar instruments, and I met and performed in mixed-media events with John Cage and Merce Cunningham. At the Miller a similar kind of access seems possible. The music is lofty, but the people around it are not. Often you can actually meet and talk to composers and performers before and after the concerts. When I was introduced to George Steel by the iridescent Aleba Gartner, we immediately had something to talk about. George specializes in Renaissance choral music, a period I am very keen on, and we both share a deep appreciation of and openness to music of all eras. (Not counting crossover.) Most music professionals I have met over the years are fiercely opinionated about what is worth listening to and what is not. Philip Glass was appalled when I told him I liked Brahms. Steve Reich thinks Ockeghem is great, as do I, but I would be wary of sharing with him my love for Medtner. If you adore Babbitt, is there room for Bernstein? Only in the few. George Steel and I welcome these conflicting worlds. (We are so very postmodern.) And so I was excited when Betsy Sussler encouraged me to invite George to my home to browse my CD collection and tape our conversation about music. During the discussion we were joined by Larry Lipnik, a member of two brilliant early music groups, Lionheart, where he sings countertenor, and Parthenia, a viol consort in which he, of course, plays the viol. (Before moving on to the interview, may I put a good word in for Music Before 1800, another of my favorite concert havens, also on the Upper West Side, where you can hear music earlier than Chuck Berry.)

When George arrived, the Orlando Consort’s recording of Machaut’s virelais was blaring on my stereo.

George Steel Do you think they can hear over all that Machaut?

William Wegman No, but we’ll turn it off in a second. It’s amazing that people haven’t heard of Guillaume de Machaut. Everyone’s heard of Dante and Giotto, but here’s somebody who was—

GS —a giant in his time. In general, music lags behind the other arts in terms of people knowing about it, because it’s a performance art that’s notated in strange ways. The very old stuff disappeared from view for a long time. And a lot of the early music that was written down is religious music, which goes out of fashion. It’s been forgotten.

WW Certainly no one would say that of da Vinci or Michelangelo.

GS Music exists separately from the things that transmit it; destroying a music manuscript isn’t viewed as destroying a piece of music. It’s true of modern music as well. People at a cocktail party in Manhattan will talk about every art form

but music.

WW I remember clearing out a party in art school by blasting my favorite Buxtehude recording. But you can’t sit next to someone and force them to listen: “Now here’s the moment! What! You didn’t hear that?!” I’ve learned to quit that.

GS Oh, I still do it. One of the hard things about, say, 16th-century Renaissance vocal music is that the texture is so uniform. It’s a little like looking at 19th-century English landscapes. If you’re a novice, you see one and think, Oh, that’s beautiful. You see 27 more and you don’t know what to make of it.

WW Different performance groups capture that and yet make it so lively. Early music has so much that you can revel in.

GS What’s fascinating is that Palestrina, the most famous of these composers, is considered to have written in a semi-anonymous style, but when you hear chorus groups sing his compositions, they sound radically different. You can tell almost instantly whether it’s the Tallis Scholars or the Cardinall’s Musick. How you can bring style to music that’s meant to be so Apollonian or bereft of expression … In fact, style is almost the first thing you hear, because the music is so clean.

WW In the mid-’80s, performances of those pieces were very stripped down, shocking in a way. Conceptual clarity and minimalism seemed to have entered the mainstream of musical performance.

Larry Lipnik has joined us. Larry is a friend of mine with a musical mind.

Larry Lipnik Bill and I have worked together on videos. I also sing and play early music, as well as contemporary stuff.

GS You’re the countertenor with Lionheart, and you play the violin.

LL Yes, I’m with Lionheart, but I play the viol.

GS We have done a series this season about string trios. Bach is in each one of them; the first program is Bach and Purcell. Do you know Bach’s organ trio sonatas? Oh my God, they’re so great!

LL Who played them?

GS The Trigon String Trio: David Cerutti, Suzanne Gilman, and Suzannah Chapman. I fell in love with these concert-length pieces for organ. Mozart transcribed a couple of the movements—he made some string trios, stole bits and pieces of Bach. So I figured I’d just follow his lead and transcribe them completely. They’re gorgeous. Some period guys do them, but add continuo. Bach didn’t add continuo, just three string lines, it’s so beautiful. And all the Purcell Fantasias. They played “Hear my Prayer” but for eight strings. Two violins, four violas, two celli.

WW I’ve been a Purcell fanatic since 1984, with the release of the quartet recordings on Hyperion. Unlike musicians and composers, I rely heavily on the gramophone in my musical quest. But besides early music, I’m also keen on contemporary classical music, and for that I think live performance is a necessity. Can we talk about the Composer Portraits that turned me on to the Miller Theatre?

GS Yeah, how did you find us?

WW I saw the brochure, went to one performance, and became an addict. It’s just about my absolute favorite thing to do. I’ve been bringing my ten-year-old son, Atlas, and he loves it too. Mind you, you both share a passion for gummy worms as well.

GS Mmm, gummy. We’ve had Composer Portraits since 1999. The Theatre had always done tons of new music, but there’d be 60 people in the audience and it became a kind of cheerleading session. New music is important, but nobody was there to hear it. A turning point for me was when Michael Barrett, whom I had worked for at the 92nd Street Y, said, “What do you think of a concert of Berio’s complete Sequenzas?” This was when Berio was turning 70. I said, “That sounds profoundly boring.” (laughter) They are all solo pieces. If it’s going to be modern music, at least give me as many players as possible. But in the process of putting it together, I had to study the pieces and pick all the right players, and then I wrote the program notes and did all the PR and by the time the concert came around, this buzz had built up. Here was an opportunity to know this composer who has written these pieces across the whole span of his life, pieces that expand the limits of virtuosity by using all these instruments, with all kinds of crazy special tricks. A bassoon piece that is 20 minutes long in a single circular breath (Pascal Gallois did it), multiphonics on the flute—stuff I’d never heard of. It was a sensational show. I realized that the only way to really get to know a composer like Berio is to go to an event that is dedicated to the purpose of teaching the audience about the music. A very, very simple formula.

WW When I was a student at Mass Art in Boston, MIT had a radio station that had orgies of classical music—all one composer or one form, five or six days: a whole week of Bach’s concertos or sonatas. That’s a much more attractive way of getting the young involved

in music.

GS Right! Exercises in weird connoisseurship. This intuition was borne out by Miller Theatre ticket sales. When we believed in one composer enough to program only their music, that intentionality reached right out to listeners and said, “This is somebody you need to know.”

LL There’s something you’ve created at the Miller Theatre, where if you go, you’ll be an insider. People feel really welcome there.

WW It doesn’t cost too much, either, which is helpful.

GS It’s cheap. Our most expensive, very fancy concerts are $30, and it’s usually $20. But there’s another twistaroo: the more specific the concert is, the easier it is for someone who doesn’t know anything about it to come. We do about ten one-composer programs a year, and will continue the 20th-Century Master series. We’re thinking about Stravinsky for the future. Here’s a guy who’s hiding in plain sight. All this music of his that people never, never do. I was going through his work, noting what I can’t live without—and that was 50% of his works! I don’t want to die without having conducted those pieces.

WW He’s sort of over-known but under the belt.

GS There are the three early ballets—

WW Leonard Bernstein is the same situation.

GS We opened this season with a Portrait of Leonard Bernstein. We did New York premieres, never before performed in New York! And Bernstein is Mr. New York! He wrote an opera in the ’80s that’s never been done in New York City.

LL What’s it like?

GS It’s fantastic. It’s interesting to present Bernstein in the context of Babbitt, Steve Reich, all these other guys. People think of them as totally unrelated, but they all knew each other, they all listened to each other’s music. The idea that they have nothing in common, it’s just nuts.

WW The Philip Glass ensemble practiced on the floor below me when I lived downtown on Thames Street in the mid-‘70s. I recall pompously explaining to him that he was “probably the most important composer since Brahms.” He hated Brahms! “Brahms! I’m much more important than Brahms.” (laughter) But it struck me that with composers, professional musicians, there’s a sort of investment in their position. Their manifesto requires exclusivity. With me, a serious listener, I have nothing to lose. I can follow any sound my ears lead me to.

GS You know, there’s this big reaction against the ’60s and ’70s, the hegemony of serialism where 12-tone music was king. Babbitt was one of those guys. So was Charles Wuorinen, someone I like very much. He wrote a book in which he said, “Tonality is clinging on in a vestigial form.” He’s devoted to making tonality look like a ludicrous, historically defective position. That’s a simplistic position, and he knows it. Secretly, he knows he’s obscuring something that people love.

LL But I find that elitist.

GS Right, it’s unnecessary.

WW Maybe for him it’s necessary, in order to work—

GS That’s precisely what Philip Glass was doing. He’s saying “No” so he can focus on his thing. In the 19th century, people said American music was too German. Then it became very French; Aaron Copland and all those guys were francophones, Stravinskyites. Then it became too jazz, too American, and then it became too international, 12-tone music. This idea that composers are describing areas in which they can exercise total control, it’s classic.

WW When I came to New York in the early ’70s, artists knew who Philip Glass and Steve Reich were because they performed in galleries and not at Carnegie Hall. I recall first hearing Music for Voices at Paula Cooper’s in 1972. But the academic composers, Babbitt and so forth, didn’t spill over into the contemporary art scene. Philip drove the academics crazy in the ’60s and ’70s. People hated his music, it was very new and startling, antagonizing.

GS Now academic or non-hip music has this problem of being totally unknown. That’s part of our purpose, to re-introduce these composers and give them some currency. But we’re simultaneously carrying the weight of 400 years of musical tradition and trying to introduce current artists.

LL People don’t really know how to listen to music. It’s this ephemeral thing. Looking at pictures that you may not understand, at least that’s tangible. Although Steve Reich and Philip Glass have something in the tonality or the concept of their work that you can hold onto. So much of Steve Reich’s music has some sort of relevance, either social or conceptual.

GS He picks chords that are deliberately sort of “rock.” That relevance is connected to the tonality; his choice of pitches is connected to pop music. That’s an important point: attachment to popular music. But listen to Machaut; Wuorinen and his pals love Machaut. In fact, Charles wrote a piece called “Machaut Mon Chou.” There’s this kind of obscurantic obsessiveness about the way those pieces are constructed that doesn’t lend itself to audibility. Steve’s music is about hearing what’s going on in the music and being wowed by it. Bernstein, too, worked very hard to make sure that the audience could hear what he was doing. But that’s not what serialism is about. Serialism is a sort of hermetic belief that organic unity will radiate something.

WW It’s wonderful to listen to that, but a little bit hard in a concert. It has a cleansing effect. Sometimes you have to erase the Beethoven in your head to hear again.

GS One of the reasons they wrote that music was to sweep away all that 19-century goo.

WW Lo and behold, it does all kinds of things that all music past and present does. Schönberg, those early piano pieces, opus 11 and 19, I’ve heard them a thousand times and I sing them to myself like show tunes.

GS Schönberg is an interesting example. We think of him as the birth of this astringent modernism, but in fact the further we get from him, the more he seems to recede into the 19th century. Leaving his pitch choices aside, his gestures are very romantic. Webern, whom we see as the ultimate icy technician building beautiful mobiles, has a highly Romantic view of the past. In fact, if you look at his transcription of the Bach “Ricercare,” which he orchestrated, it’s an insanely romantic performance. Stravinsky is the one who has an astringent view of Bach. If you listen to Stravinsky’s orchestration of the “Von Himmel Hoch” variations—they’re terrific, laserbeam clear. Webern is gooey and, again, he’s being sucked back into the 19th century. I think to modern ears, more and more “modern” music is getting pulled back to the pre-modern 19th century.

LL If you have enough distance you start seeing them in a different context.

GS They seem less scary, and you can allow them to be normal.

WW And then again there’s the theatrical, performance-oriented music, which I personally am not so attracted to. Benedict Mason, for example. He seems to cross over into the art world I come out of. I mean, they are not unlike Happenings from the ’60s.

GS Benedict Mason is an example of a composer who has so much more going on in his music than performance reveals. You saw two pieces: “Animals and the Origins of Dance” and “AWS/Miller.” “Animals” is basically on 11 different clip tracks at 11 different speeds at the same time. No conductor can do it. It’s like four Nancarrow recordings going at once, totally crazy, or like Carl Stalling’s cartoon music. Music that’s so complicated that repeated listening to a recording is the only way to hear it. One of our pet projects is to start a record label; we have a couple of projects in the pipeline now, both for Early Music and new music. Benedict Mason is one of the composers on our list.

WW Who else is on the list?

GS Robert Parsons, he’s a Tudor composer, between Byrd and Tallis. I fell in love with this guy’s music. Oh my God! William Mundy and Robert White are the so-called middle generation, and they’re the least represented in recordings. You can get Tye and Taverner and Tallis and Shephard, you can get Byrd and Gibbons and Tompkins and Weelkes—

WW Carver and Browne—

GS Carver’s Scottish and an oddball, Browne is earlier. Browne is fantastic. In fact the Tallis Scholars have a Brown CD that should be out by the time the cycle comes out. They’re around 1500, 1510, so a little before Taverner. But the so-called Eton choirboys—Cornish is one of those guys.

WW Towering.

GS Parsons is a composer I adore. Everybody knows and loves his “Ave Maria,” but nobody ever said, “Where’s more?” I kept saying, “Where’s more?” A friend of mine from the Library of Congress cooked up some quick editions from the manuscript and brought them to a party. Speaking of clearing out a party: literally, we had beer parties in college where we dug up the Parsons manuscripts and just sang through them. Phenomenal. Parsons has probably three CDs worth of music. We’ve performed most of it and it’s available on our website. Larry’s on some of those things. The scores are up there. The Robert Parsons project. And we’re adding to it. This past summer we added the consort music scores. Even if you don’t read music scores, it’s so exciting to look at it.

WW A visceral experience.

GS We’ve had a huge response to it. People in England have downloaded music from the site. They sang from our editions at the prayer service for the new Archbishop of Canterbury, at Westminster Abbey. People all over the US, in Holland, everywhere people are singing it. Now I want to do mastered professional recordings with notes and put that up on the Early Music list. There are no CDs devoted to Robert Parsons. There’s now a complete Parsons edition underway, there’s now a complete Mundy edition underway.

WW Does he need a birthday or something like that?

GS He doesn’t get a birthday, because they don’t know when he was born. He has a death date, 1572—

WW (laughter) That’s too far away, 2072.

GS That will be his 500th death year—2072 is going to be huge. But Mundy has tons of music. Robert White’s music is typical because a lot of it has to be reconstructed.

WW You know how amazing Renaissance Flemish painting is from the 1400s or 1500s. Can you imagine that, like craftsmanship, the skill of musical performance was also amazingly better then?

GS They had an incredible level of proficiency. The composers were certainly outrageously meticulous. But performance, I don’t know. Peter Phillips, when asked if the Tallis Scholars’ music is being performed better now than it was back then, said wisely, “I have no idea.”

LL The one thing I think would make certain performances better today is that a lot of the great music you hear from these earlier periods, like Handel’s Coronation anthems, were hurriedly finished for a deadline, not rehearsed.

GS That’s a very good point. Ask a composer today; the biggest problem is not first performances, even though the music is too often under-rehearsed: it’s getting second and third performances. The pieces live in repertoire; and in repeat performances they are better rehearsed and much better understood by both audiences and performers. It’s not a new problem: Bach was writing new music all the time; so was Handel. But they didn’t often get multiple performances—audiences always wanted new works. Composers today have the same problem. Though I think the Tudor composers cycled through their same works more often than later composers.

LL These people lived together, they heard the same music all the time, they were ensembles; people made music in a more intuitive way. We’re enthralled by groups like Orpheus, and now that seems like a rarity: people so attuned to each other in musical instincts, artistic instincts. Look at the great paintings; whole studios of painters were painting those masterpieces, not just one person.

GS Composers have more freedom these days, but it is a double-edged sword: they get less broad experiences and work. In most cases art music composers aren’t writing many film scores or jingles or playing at a bar every night; they don’t have a standing gig, they don’t have to write functional music for the city of New York. They increasingly are free of those kinds of day-to-day duties that, say, Bach and Haydn had. But it also means that they’re not writing music at the same rate. So the pieces come more slowly. We’re commissioning a piano concerto from John Musto, a composer who’s living in New York. He believes very much in being a performing composer. A lot of composers these days don’t perform, which is a radical departure from the legacy of Mozart, Chopin, and Liszt, to name only pianist composers.

LL Performing composers look at it from the perspective of a performer and a creator.

GS If you’re writing jokes and you’ve never stood up in front of an audience, you don’t know what it means when the joke bombs. That knowledge will radically change your work. If you’re a pianist and you have to hold the audience in the palm of your hand, you know something that a non-performer can never know. You have them one moment, then you lose their focus, then you find a way to seize it back. Musto is one of those performing composers who believes in grabbing the audience.

WW It sounds like he’s the opposite of Glenn Gould.

GS No, I don’t think so. Glenn Gould didn’t like live audiences, but he was very much a performer, even if through the medium of recorded sound.

WW He wouldn’t project; he was against projecting to the balcony, for instance.

GS Gould hated the Roman-carnival quality of concert life.

LL Right, he tried to create a certain intimacy.

GS And he loved Gibbons. He was Gould’s favorite composer.

WW Gould was my first hero. I pounced on every recording until his death in ’82, which created a void until I discovered Marin Marais, but that’s a long story. I also love Liszt, although at the moment I can only stand to listen to the late piano pieces. Alfred Brendel visited me one day in the ’80s, maybe 1984. He loves Liszt, thinks he is important. But not Chopin. And he had a problem with Gould. He said that Gould didn’t “respect the father.” I didn’t have the means, nor the will, to argue with him, and for three hours he talked and I listened. I had Purcell’s Fantasias on the CD player, and that led him to talk about Zelenka and the Heinz Hollinger recordings.

GS Yeah, Hollinger just did a Zelenka festival last season at the Y. I don’t really know his music.

WW Zelenka was a great composer who was kept a secret at the Dresden Court. They didn’t let him out much, and so he didn’t become, I guess you might say, marketed internationally. Zelenka’s like Bach, only more eccentric, hotter.

GS God, I’ve got to do some listening. Do you own any Zelenkas?

WW I’ve got a zillion Zelenkas.

GS Oh, hook me up!

WW The Hollinger recordings are not so authentic in terms of period practice, according to some reviewers in the ’80s. Do you find a softening in critical attitudes about authenticity?

GS Zealots for authentic performance practice had the same unnecessary dose of fascism that, say, missionaries for serialism had. All that “barbed wire” in some way was a defense against charlatanry. The great discoveries about performance practice in the ’70s and ’80s created a land rush, in which both wonderful musicians and charlatans staked claims. People discovered all kinds of remarkable things. But sometimes the quest for “authenticity” was used merely as a way to spit at other performers. And there’s no denying that there was a lot of patricide in the beginnings of the period-instrument movement. Once people got over themselves and just played, it was phenomenal. Hopefully the post-performance-practice thing is about asking the score what it is rather than having an approach. You have to talk to the score and find out. Inauthentic performance practice or authentic, you have to say something about the work itself.

LL But that’s what I found was so interesting about the recordings of Gibbons on piano. Glenn Gould found what performance and period instruments are now starting to discover. He allowed himself to be receptive to what the music was saying.

WW And Sweelinck!

GS Oh yeah, he loved Sweelinck, did a big Sweelinck Fantasia. That’s true. I really love his Bach on the piano, with the exception of some of his early Vivaldi recording transcriptions, which are so arpeggiated that without the color of harpsichord, they’re very difficult to pull off.

LL Right, they seem idiomatic.

GS But then this guy, Alexander Tharaud—he played his New York recital debut in March at Miller. I got a CD of him playing Rameau on the piano, which I frankly expected to hate. I thought that without the noise and color of a harpsichord Rameau wouldn’t make any sense. But it was wonderful on the piano.

WW What do you think of Angela Hewitt’s Couperin recording?

GS She’s terrific.

WW Does it make that Couperin work for you?

GS Yeah, it’s spectacular.

WW I didn’t like it at all when I first heard it, but I played it 250 times and finally came around to it.

GS Well, you’ve got to try this Tharaud, I’ll get you a copy. He’s doing Rameau, Couperin, and these Bach Vivaldi transcriptions.

WW I think Couperin’s a better composer than Rameau, but I like Rameau a lot more. There’s something so driving about Rameau.

LL Well, he’s experimenting in orchestral colors and sounds.

GS How about Lully, do you like that stuff? Just theatrical and deliciously shallow in that French way.

WW Lully is so much that period it makes me sneeze. I went through a very heavy French period in my listening. I’ve come to prefer the English over the French, the viol over the Viola da Gamba.

GS Yes, it’s darker. I love it too.

WW Next time we get together, let’s talk about the lute.

George Steel Bomb 092 Sm

CDs from the collection of William Wegman. Color photocopy courtesy of William Wegman.

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Originally published in

BOMB 92, Summer 2005

Featuring interviews Edward Dimendberg and Allan Sekula, Luc Tuymans and Kerry James Marshall, Nell McClister and Paul Chan, Sue de Beer and Nancy A. Barton, Heather McHugh, Susan Wheeler, Miranda July and Rachel Kushner, William Wegman and George Steel, Tony Conrad and Jay Sanders, and Carolyn Cantor. 

Read the issue
092 Summer 2005 1024X1024