Dr. Robert Carl is an important person in the field of classical music. Not only has he made wonderful music compositions in his career, but he has also nurtured many young students to explore their own creativity in his/her musical journey. Mr. Carl teaches composition and theory, and presides as the chair of the composition department at the prestigious Hartt School in Hartford Connecticut. Originally starting out as a history major, Dr. Carl received his BA at Yale, MA at the University of Pennsylvania and PHD at the University of Chicago. During his time at Yale, the Centennial celebration of Charles Ives was in full swing. This, along with enjoying a class taught by Jonathan Kramer - who was in the composition department - was the catalyst for Dr. Carl to pursue music. Other notables that he had studied with include: Ralph Shapey, George Rochberg, George Crumb, Iannis Xenakis and others
Throughout his composing career, Robert Carl has produced works of many types: orchestral, chamber music, piano and vocal, and they have been performed all over the United States and Europe. He has received commissions from Bridgeport Symphony Orchestra, Chamber Music America, Chicago Pro Musica and more. His current recordings can be found on New World Records, although many other labels have released his music.
He has won grants and fellowships including the C.D. Jackson Award in Composition (Tanglewood, 1979), National Endowment for the Arts (1981), American Composers Alliance Recording Award (1987), CT Commission on the Arts Individual Artist Fellowship (1996), American Academy of Arts and Letters Charles Ives Fellowship (1998), and the Copland Heritage Foundation 1998 Copland Award.
I recently had a chance to talk to Dr. Carl about his career.
R.V.B. - Hello Professor Carl. What's going on up in Hartford? Thank you for taking this time for me. I appreciate it. At the Hartt School you instruct students and compose in your off time?
R.C. - That's exactly it. As far as teaching, I have a load of studio lessons with students... somewhere around 11 or 12 per semester. The lessons are around an hour long. I also usually teach one seminar. I just finished one, this semester, on Charles Ives. Next semester I do the advanced orchestration course, which is basically a graduate seminar. I chair the department so that gives me some release time. It's something I've done for a very long time and I can kind of do it in my sleep... so it is not too demanding. I don't want to make it sound too blasé, though, because it's a very good way to get to know all of the students in the program and be their advocate as much as possible. That's very satisfying.
R.V.B. - I imagine each student has his/her own idea about music. Do you take their own ideas and expand upon them so they can have their own musical voice?
R.C. - Yes. They often come from very different backgrounds. We let them know upfront that our training is comes from “classical” composers. But our department faculty is also very open with things that involve improvisation, technology and performance art. We try to push them to do things that are not too generic... push their own boundaries and comfort levels. We don't try to convert them to any particular style or technique.
R.V.B. - Music! It's a fantastic field to talk about... listen to... to compose your own... to perform... to hear live in person. How did you get involved in this art?
R.C. - I am a relative late starter, though at this point in my life I can't use that for an excuse for anything. It wasn't really until college that I became specifically involved in music. I started piano lessons toward the end of high school. So it was really too late to develop a serious technique. When I went to Yale, it was an important time. I was there as an undergraduate at the time of the Charles Ives Centennial. I heard a lot of his music live. That was one thing that was a great inspiration to me. It made me explore what I really wanted to and the music totally excited me. I found a very important mentor named Jonathan Kramer. He was on the composition faculty there. I didn't realize it at the time but he was a major thinker and writer about music. He died approximately 12 years ago. His approach to music was serendipitous for me to encounter, even though I was too young to know it at the time. Kramer took me on as a student second semester of sophomore year. I wasn’t a music major, but he saw something that intrigued him (I had written a “theme and deteriorations” that started from an Elgaresque math and evolved into graphic notated noise... maybe that was it). He was enormously supportive throughout my work with him. And his own fascination with matters of musical time was completely up my alley... and I was a history major to boot. A project that I have just finished, and it was published this summer, is his final book that was left unfinished when he died. I edited it, and I was able to find a publisher for it. (Bloomsbury). It's called "Postmodern Music, Postmodern Listening". It was sort of karmic honoring of the gift he gave me, which I think was essential for my entry into a life of music.
R.V.B. - I see you were born in Maryland. Did you grow up there?
R.C. - When I was around 2 1/2, my parents moved to Atlanta, Georgia. That's where I grew up. I left there at the age of 18 to go to college.
R.C. - I was very aware of the music that was going on. I remember seeing The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. I remember the British invasion in the early 60's. I sort of came of age around the time Rock and Roll was transitioning to being Rock. That was the popular music I was aware of through the 60's. I graduated high school in 1972. In terms of classical music, I started to get interested in it when I was in high school. I started to collect records. I went down to the Atlanta Symphony, and Robert Shaw was the conductor at that time. It was his dream to finally direct an orchestra after years of being America’s leading choral conductor. He more or less took a community orchestra and turned it into a top flight national orchestra, by the time he was done. I went down there and heard a lot of music that was very exciting and inspiring to me. My parents are not musicians but my dad was a record collector. When I started to get interested in classical music - during the last couple of years of high school - I started to listen through his records. One thing that I discovered that completely blew me away was Mahler. So between Ives and Mahler, I think my fate was set.
R.V.B. - Those were two classic turn-of-the-20th-century composers. They stretched the boundaries.
R.C. - That's for sure.
R.V.B. - As a part time composer, Ives sure set a standard for America as far as composers go.
R.C. - He is a very American story... isn't he?
R.C. - His story is a great heroic story. He had to do things in order to do what he wanted to do. It did take a toll on him. He burned the candle at both ends. It could have been nice if he had a happier result but then we might not of had a series of masterworks from him... if things had worked out better for him musically. He was an inspiration, because in college I was not a music major. I was an American history major. First I thought I was going to be a lawyer. Then I thought I was going to be a history professor, but by the time I left college, I was a composer. Those were my studies afterwards in graduate school. Ives’s example gave a bit of comfort to know that it may be possible to know that you can do it seriously but maybe not as a full-fledged profession.
R.V.B. - You had mentioned Kramer... you also studied with Rochberg?
R.C. - I have a lot of people who are on my resume that I may have studied with for a short amount of time or had master classes with. But after Jonathan, there are three others. George Rochberg had just started writing pieces that collaged different types of styles and historical elements. That appealed to the historian in me. What I actually got from him was a moral education. He talked a lot about esthetics, ethics, culture and politics. Almost more so than technical stuff…strangely enough.
The next composer I worked with was Ralph Shapey, who was in Chicago at the time. He was a great cantankerous, maverick modernist. The music has roots in Varese and Schoenberg but it was very much his own. He's the teacher that really gave me a lot of nuts and bolts technique... how to write counterpoint and how to write a phrase. That's really what I got from working with him. I was his administrative assistant to his ensemble which was called "The Contemporary Chamber Players of the University of Chicago". I sat in on a lot of rehearsals and I learned a tremendous amount reading the scores that he was conducting.
And finally I worked with Iannis Xenakis, when I was in Paris for a year in the early 80's. I literally stumbled on a course that he taught. Xenakis was at the Sorbonne, which is really several different branches. The one where he taught was called Paris I. I also was able to work a little in his own electroacoustic institute CeMaMu (Centre pour Mathématiques et Musique), where he had a computer-interfaced drawing table, called the UPIC. What I got out of him was invaluable in the way of thinking about form... that moved beyond traditional forms. He had a sense of space because he was an architect. It went beyond the traditional narrative idea of form. That was the icing on the cake for me because it was the thing that I had been waiting for and really needed. Although I'll always be learning, I thought "My formal education is over now." Then I stayed in academia the rest of my life. (laughs)
R.V.B. - So now you have all of this education behind you, and all this input from these wonderful teachers, now Robert Carl has to sit down and start composing. How did you go about this?
R.C. - It does vary from piece to piece. Over all, I have more of a regimen now. I usually come up with some sort of motivating idea, or image that will poetically stimulate me. Now it can be visual, or spatial, or maybe a process. Out of that, I have a way of translating it into a structure. Most of that has to do with harmony. I've come to feel that the more one looks at the overtone series, the more one finds the answers one needs in making music. I've developed a personal system that uses relations of pitches that are based on the overtone series, to create harmonies and sounds that I find appealing. Their movement through time feels as though it has some sort of direction, but it's not a remake of common practice. So essentially once I have some sort of motivating idea, then I just sit down and make a pretty comprehensive plan of the piece, based on what are the harmonic resources I had, and how long each section is going to be... so the harmonic materials and time structure. Once I have that, then I just write the damn thing without thinking too hard. In a strange way, I feel like I'm a little bit like a jazzer because once I've figured out my changes, then I can sit down and start improvising on paper. That doesn't mean that I don't change things. I just feel that I can trust my instincts. When I'm putting the notes down, I feel that what I have made up to that point has my back. So I can go ahead and write with confidence from there. I tend to write everything on paper. I have really big sheets of paper. I have a kind of archive room where I keep these papers and another room where I do my composing. I'm in a modest Victorian house in Hartford. I write these on paper and transcribe this into a notation program... in my case, Finale. No one could ever make sense otherwise of my “chicken scratches”. (laughs) When I do that, I'll still make edits, changes and corrections when I see it on the screen in a more formal score form. At that point, I'll usually do MIDI playback. That's just to check the way it flows in actual time. MIDI can sometimes play tricks on you but overall it gives me a good sense of whether the pacing is right or wrong. If I don't like it I can change things. Usually it's more of a matter on massaging the music rather than making major changes. I usually feel pretty secure with whatever architecture I started with.
R.V.B. - Before you had Finale, was it difficult to get people to perform your pieces?
R.C. - That's interesting. I did get performances but I also feel that I was lucky that it [notation software] came along. When I made a final score in the days before Finale, I copied everything on paper. We had lined vellum and we used something like a blueprint process to make copies. I used a ruler on every bar line and yet I would still get comments like "I really like this piece but it's still hard to read the score." So try as I did, I did everything that I was supposed to do but my handwriting wasn't easy to read. If Finale hadn’t come along, my career might not have been as good as it's been.
R.C. I've always had that. The biggest difference is that now I have an even stronger sense of the elements, one to another. Earlier on, I think my pieces maybe didn't have as much continuity. They didn't have as many notes. The more I understood what materials worked, the more freedom I had to write a lot of notes when I needed to. This is one thing I tell my students, "Part of being a composer is knowing how to write as many notes as necessary.” That could be a lot of notes or very few notes. But whatever the music demands, you can't hold back out of fear or fatigue. You have to find ways to be sure that you actually do it. Those are some things that are different now.
R.V.B. - Do you notice a change or a maturity in your compositional style as years went on?
R.C. - I actually do think so. I think it sounds more consonant. I think the sounds that I get sound more fresh and natural. I know I sound like an organic egg when I say that, (laughs) but I do feel so. I think it has a much more consonant flow about it. I've been doing it for roughly 40 years now, so I hope so! If I haven't figured it out by now, I'm in trouble. I do however still want there to be something left to discover.
R.V.B. - There's always something to learn.
R.C. - Exactly.
R.V.B. - As far as the performances of your pieces... can you tell me about some of the experiences that you have enjoyed hearing them?
R.C. - When you think back on things, I would say that for orchestral music, the one ongoing relationship I had - and was very grateful for - in my neck of the woods, was the Bridgeport Symphony was directed by Gustav Meier. He was a fantastic conductor who basically spent most of his life as a conducting pedagogue. He was at Peabody and The University of Michigan. He also taught at Tanglewood. He commissioned four pieces from me, and I'm very grateful for it. He sadly passed away recently. My home institution is another... the Hartt School. I've been extremely lucky to have had a lot of music performed by very talented students under the direction and mentorship of very talented faculty members. I just had a chamber orchestra piece premiered on Wednesday. They did a great job with it. It was a very difficult piece. In a sense, I feel like I've been a kappelmeister. (laughs) One thing that was enormously satisfying was, a couple of years ago I had a retrospective concert in Ljubljana, Slovenia. It was organized through some saxophonists there who teach at the conservatory, whom I've gotten to know. The faculty members performed 7 pieces of mine. It was kind of extraordinary. It was nice to get to the point where you can hear the span of your work. The first piece on the program was from 1978 and the last was from around 2009. I've had great satisfaction from these performances. Those are a few examples.
R.V.B. - I'm sure there have been a lot of them. You've tackled different types of compositions: orchestral, chamber music, piano, vocal and others. Does anything drive you to one or the other, or is it just something you do to be a well-rounded composer?
R.C. - Like most composers, the largest proportion of my output is chamber music, because that's more likely to be performed. I've always had a feel for large ensemble, chamber music and orchestral music. Now that I look back, I have a good deal of it, and almost all of it has been performed. There was never an issue for me to imagine the actual sound of different instruments. That's something that has been always easy for me... it came naturally. A lot of what happens comes simply out of circumstance. Someone will ask me to write a piece and I'll say "Sure". I'm a really modest pianist. I perform some in public, but it's with pieces that I have written that I know I can play. I push my technique when I write, but I regard myself as a talented amateur. As a composer, I can write certain pieces that make me sound better than I am. I do have a lot of piano pieces but I'm not the pianist that I wish I were. I don't have as much vocal music. Over time, you find things that you're really drawn to. There's a certain sort of spiritual abstraction that is embodied in the sound of instrumental music, that I have always been drawn to. However one of the most recent works that I'm proud of is a cantata. It's out on my new CD - on New World - called "The Geography of Loss". It was written for this group in New York... a fabulous choral ensemble called "Khorikos". They premiered it at Merkin Hall about 5 years ago. It was a work for soprano, baritone, chamber choir and 7 instruments. That fits in that catalog of memorable performances. It has a little bit of a Bach/Stravinsky feel but I hope in a not too overt way. I consider this one of my core vocal works. But it's not the mainstay of my repertoire. There are some people who are really great composers of vocal music, who really concentrate on it. I tended to concentrate more on instrumental music.
R.C. - I'll say a couple of things. I hope I have a voice, but we're all part of a fabric... of music making. I would like to think that my music contributes to the field and is an enduring part of the mix. I don't necessarily feel that's it's absolutely unique. I think the absolutely unique composer comes along once in a real blue moon. Xenakis was one... Berlioz was one... I can't claim to be that. I feel that I'm in a healthy engagement with tradition. That's my caveat that I have to put forward.
BUT! having said that, if there's something that's distinctive about my music, I hope it presents a sense of space. By that I mean - not just the way the instruments are put on the stage - but a sense of spaciousness that could allow things to occur, that are very, very dense and rich... but that still don't feel as though they're clogged or cloudy. It could be transparent with even a million notes. Give a sense of creating a space for the listener, so that he or she can feel amplified by it. That's something I try to create, and does come through in some of my better work. If anyone wants to listen to my music, that's what they should listen for.
The other thing that doesn't have to do with my music per se is that career wise, I write a lot about music. I've always been pretty fluent with words. And frankly because I'm not a great performer, my ability to articulate - imaginatively criticize and evaluate other music - is something that gives me a bit of a profile. I've got a couple of books out. I write for Fanfare a lot, which in this day and age is not necessarily the most viable gig. (laughs) It's kind of a test for myself - "Here's a piece of music... what do you think of it?" - and sum it up in a page. It makes me a better teacher along the way too. That's the adjunct to my creative musical activities that is most distinctive of me.
R.V.B. - I appreciate that because I basically do something similar on a lower level. I noticed one of the things that you wrote about was Terry Riley's "In C". Of course that is a monumental piece in minimalist music from the 60's, that made its way as a masterpiece in contemporary music. Was it difficult to make a book around this work?
R.C. - Not really. It's true that "In C" is just one page of score. There's a series of instructions that's precise in how you move through it. It's always different in every performance and at the same time, it's always the same. It was a challenge because it's a “stealth masterpiece”. In some ways it's so simple and evident that it shouldn't have been written, but it was. Then people realized that it was a masterpiece. My students were clueing me into the fact - in the 90's - and it's performed all the time... still today. It's open to people who are modest performers and people who are great performers. They all want to do it. You can get a truly virtuosic performance from great performers and you can also get a really good performance from amateurs.
R.C. - Yes... but you do have to play all of the modules from beginning to end, but you play through it whenever you want. It's a piece about group listening... really.
R.V.B. - Do you have to play the modules in order?
R.C. - You do! That is a strict requirement of it. It really does move like a giant canon through itself but it's a canon that's open to the choices of the players as they enter. It's a real interesting intersection of things that are fixed and things that are open. I think that's one characteristic of American music that this culture has been good at and we should celebrate. In writing that book... it's not just about the piece in terms of analyzing it but also about Terry Riley's life leading up to the composition. How the premiere occurred. The fact that there was a recorded premiere 4 years later. The concert premiere was in San Francisco and the recorded premiere was in New York with people from SUNY Buffalo in 1968. There's a whole story to it, and so many people played in it who are really important. In the premiere you had not only Terry Riley but also Steve Reich, Pauline Oliveros, Morton Subotnick, Jon Gibson and others. Right there is an amazing group of people. They were essentially a bunch of kids... young people in their 20's and 30's putting on a show. In order to get the story down, I talked to these folks, and that was just wonderful. At that point, they were in their 70's and they were not bitter. They were people who still had a great sense of joy in what they do. I felt really blessed to be able to encounter them. It gave me something to look forward to.
R.V.B. - I understand that you had a little trip to Japan. What draws you to Japanese music?
R.C. - Back to that thing about the sense of space - there's great spaciousness in Japanese music. It's not afraid of silence. It's not afraid of having materials that are stripped down to feel the silence around them, even when they're playing. I do play the shakuhachi flute, which is a 5-hole bamboo flute. It was devised as a tool for Zen meditation... centuries ago. Like with the piano, I'm not a great player but I do it every day. There are certain types of traditional Japanese music that are really moving for me. Most of all Gagaku, which is their original court orchestral music from their Medieval period in the 9th/10th century. They were writing orchestral music when the west was just figuring out how to do chant. That music is incredibly moving to me. I heard it fairly early on and it flipped me out.
R.C. - Yes. They have a court orchestra that plays a limited repertoire. There are composers that are always writing new pieces for it. But they do have this court orchestra that is kind of preserved in amber. I'm glad they did, because it's so beautiful. I finally heard it live, when I was living in Tokyo. All Japanese art and culture, it’s probably for me the most important non-western culture... it's so different. I learned an enormous amount. I just had to be there and I was fortunate enough to get a grant to spend some time there. I also met and talked to a lot of contemporary Japanese composers.
R.V.B. - I sense a book coming out in the future.
R.C. - Yes. I'm way behind schedule but I have a lot of interviews that I have to start transcribing.
R.V.B. - What are you current projects?
R.C. - Well I just finished this chamber orchestra piece, which took up the second half of the summer and most of the fall. That is done now. There are two things on the horizon that are both big pieces. One is a piece I wrote back in 2005 for 4 hands piano called "Shake the Tree". I've worked out a short score for an orchestration of it and it's going to become my 6th symphony. I'll be filling out that orchestration, moving from short score into full score... all spring. It'll be done at Hartt next year. The other thing I have is this piece that is constantly evolving. The basis of it is this patch in the program called Max/MSP. It's a computer program that allows you to structure a composition with whatever degree of openness and randomness and/or precision that you want. I created a piece that I can perform from a laptop. It uses very precise tunings out of just intonation. It's that overtone series that I was talking about that has pure, real tunings that's been behind the real instrumental music I've been writing. This spring we're going to do a version of it with a small improvising ensemble. I'll be on the laptop and the shakuhachi, with about 5 other musicians who'll be responding to it. We'll do it a couple of times and get a feel for it. That's going to allow me to figure out things that will then lead to the composition of a more finished/fixed piece for the laptop program backdrop... essentially a chamber orchestra. That will be my symphony number 7. The title of the piece is "Infinity Avenue".
R.V.B. - Very nice. One final thing... do you mix with other media such as dance or visual aspects into your work?
R.C. - Not as much as I'd like to. It depends on what the opportunities are. I have worked some with dance but it's a matter of having an ongoing relationship with a choreographer, which I don't really have right now. When it comes to multimedia, I'm behind the times somewhat... not out of choice but out of circumstance. It may be that there are too many interesting things that keep coming up that may be purely instrumental that I'm drawn into. I'm probably not making as much effort as I should.
R.V.B. - This musical activity takes a lot of work and time. It sounds like you're staying nice and busy and have some exciting projects in the works. I'm looking forward to hearing them. I appreciate you taking this time with me.
R.C. - My pleasure and thank you very much for your interest.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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For more information on Robert Carl visit this site. http://uhaweb.hartford.edu/carl/
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