Michael Torke is a classical music composer who is originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In Michael's youth, he was naturally drawn to music, and started taking piano lessons at the early age of five years old. His teacher encouraged Michael when he began to tinker with known melodies to create his own versions of them. As a teenager, he would make a point of catching The Milwaukee and Chicago Symphonies, whether his parents drove him there or not. After completing grade school and honing his piano and composition skills, Michael enrolled in the Eastman College of Music in New York. There he studied with David Burge, Joseph Schwantner, Christopher Rouse, and others. Michael spent some time at Yale before becoming professional - and the commissions started coming in right after he completed school. Throughout his prolific career as a composer, Michael's works have been performed all over the US and Europe. Michael's most popular and best - selling work to date is "Javelin", which was commissioned for the 1996 Olympics. It was performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in celebration of their 50th anniversary. It also appeared on John Williams' "Summon the Heroes" album - the official album of the 1996 Olympic games. Michael recently premiered his latest work, "Three Bridges" at the acoustically beautiful Troy Savings Bank Music Hall - and that, along with another previous cello concerto performance there, will be released on CD in the fall of 2016. I recently talked with Michael about his career.
R.V.B. - Hello Michael... this is Robert von Bernewitz from Long Island New York, how are you today?
M.T. - I'm pretty good... thanks.
R.V.B. - How's things on the other side? How's the weather over there?
M.T. - It's been wet and cold. I was in New York up until Christmas eve and then I came out here? (Las Vegas) I remember it was really warm in New York.
R.V.B. - The temperature dropped about 50 degrees after you left. I understand that you were up in the Albany area in Troy?
M.T. - Yeah, we did a premiere of a new piano concerto with Joyce Yang as the soloist. and things went really well. There's going to be a recording coming out next year of it. I was very happy with it.
R.V.B. - That venue was at the old bank building with the theater in it right?
M.T. - It has warm and rich acoustics. They built a new concert hall at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute... RPI, and they had all of these European acousticians and architects working on it. When I heard of that hall I thought "Oh, this is going to be great?. Although when I talked to the producer and the engineer, they said "Even though the RPI hall is really good, the Troy Savings Bank is still the better hall to make recordings in", and that's why we did it there.
R,V.B. - That place has a rich history also, I believe Rachmaninoff performed there.
M.T. - I think your right. I just finished reading a Rachmaninoff biography, I should know that. That theater has been around for about 150 years. It was built in 1870... it's really old.
R.V.B. - Last summer my wife and I had lunch is Troy and took pictures of the outside. You're very happy with the way things went?
M.T. - Yeah... there were two concerto's that were commissioned. The year before was a cello concerto and this year was a piano concerto. Both premiere's happened in December... right before Christmas. We recorded both of them and that will be on a single CD which will come out around September of this year.
R.V.B. - I can't wait to hear it. I noticed that the title was "Three Manhattan Bridges".
M.T. - Yeah... (hahaha) that's what the title became. The cello concerto was called "Winter's Tale". What I don't like is this idea that if you call a piece a concerto, then everyone goes "Ohhh... snooze". Then you say something like "Three Manhattan Bridges", everyone is interested... everyone is all excited. At intermission "Oh, I live next to the George Washington Bridge... I could hear it... the second movement with the lights at night". I guess it's kind of a tool to invite peoples ears to open up.
R.V.B. - I was curious on why you left out the Williamsburg Bridge? (haha)
M.T. - That was the bridge that I took to the airports when I lived on Houston Street and that's the bridge that I've been on the most. I had to choose three and I really wanted the Queensboro bridge. How could I not have the Brooklyn bridge? There's something about the George Washington bridge being so monumental and stately... I had to make a choice. What about the Triborough bridge? (haha) We could go on and on.
M.T. - I didn't really come from a musical family. My dad was an architect. The story is that I was pounding on a drum to a football halftime show when I was 4 years old, and somehow my mother's friend heard it and said "I'll find a teacher, if you get an upright piano"... so I started really young. It was kind of a fluke. This teacher was really creative, so when I changed the pieces around, she supported it. I was sort of composing at 5. It felt like an independent thing... I didn't have stage parents. It was me and my teenage ambitions... wanting to go to the Interlochen music camp... wanting to take the bus down to hear the Milwaukee Symphony... and sneak in when the Chicago Symphony was playing... that wasn't anything that my parents pushed.
R.V.B. - Did you have that same teacher throughout your school years?
M.T. - Yeah, up until I was about 15 years of age. Then I worked with Rebecca Penneys at the Wisconsin Conservatory. Just at the time I went to Eastman, she got the job there. She was at Eastman for many years as a teacher. I studied composition privately at Wisconsin with at least 2 teachers before I went to Eastman.
R.V.B. - It's no easy task getting into Eastman, so you must have been accomplished at the piano.
M.T. - Well I think my audition went well. The way it worked was, I applied as a composition major. I had written so many pieces... my portfolio looked good. I was accepted as a composition major and then I turned it into a double major with piano, because I wanted to work with David Burge. He would only take piano majors, so somehow we worked that out. I didn't enter as a double major but I became a double major by my sophomore year.
R.V.B. - How did you enjoy your years there at Eastman?
M.T. - Eastman was the best. The story that I tell was my parents loved to travel... so any excuse for a car trip to the east coast... or anywhere. So it was like "Let's go look at music conservatories". We went to Oberlin... we went to the New England Conservatory... Juilliard... Eastman... Curtis... and Peabody... naturally, because I thought New York was the only place that anyone civilized could live. I said "I want to go to Juilliard". My parents wouldn't let me. (haha) "It's too sophisticated for you"... they said. One of my teachers had gotten a degree at Eastman, so that's where I ended up. I thought "Oh well... second choice". My parents were really smart in a way because if I had gone to Juilliard... and was in New York at that age... I would have gotten completely lost in the shuffle. I wouldn't have had the attention. Eastman was the best thing that ever happened to me. I don't know my parents had the intuition to know that... whether it was luck or good judgment... it was a good thing.
R.V.B. - It's a very respected music school. When you graduated Eastman, did you look for employment?
M.T. - I immediately applied for graduate school. At that time, you could apply for get scholarships... full rides... even stipends... so I was accepted at Columbia with a full ride and a stipend. I was also accepted at Yale but with just a full ride. "We'll, this my chance to go to New York"... so I said yes to Columbia. All of my friends who were doing things... that were a little bit older... had all gone to Yale. "Oh you have to go to Yale... that's the place... with Jacob Druckman. He pulls all the music strings in the world. You have to go there." So I changed my mind and went to Yale. I only lasted one year there, but that turned out to be a good thing also.
R.V.B. - Did you eventually stay in New York, to set up shop and live here?
M.T. - What happened was, I dropped out of Yale because some commissions started coming in, and I wanted to be in New York... that was my dream. In the spring of 85, I moved to New York. From there on, a lot of lucky breaks happened. I was able to make a living through commissions and royalties.
R.V.B. - Where were some of your pieces in the 80's performed... and by who?
M.T. - A bunch of things happened all at once. Boosey and Hawkes... which at the time was like the world's biggest publisher... wanted to sign me. Through that, I had good European representation, and US representation. When Peter Martins at the New York City Ballet wanted to find a composer, I ended up doing 5 commissions with them... just like that (Boom). Over in Europe, I started being commissioned by The London Sinfonietta and orchestra's over in: Scotland, England, and in the Netherlands. Simon Rattle... early on, when he was at Birmingham... did one of my earliest pieces that I wrote at Eastman. Stuff like that just opened up, all within about 4 or 5 years.
R.V.B. - You've done a variety of music so far throughout your career. You mentioned ballet... regular compositions... I see in the 80's, you did two opera pieces "The Directions" and "Rust" with a footnote... influenced by rap and disco?
M.T. - "Rust" was for piano and winds. I wrote a one act opera for a funny commission that came from Crete... over by Greece. I took a piece that I already had "Yellow Pages" and I expanded it, and added voices of people standing on the corners in New York asking for directions. That's why it's called "The Directions". Modernism in classical music created a lot of music that was hard to listen to... dissonant... atonal... I believe that composers kind of lost their audience. I wanted to do something different. The antidote to that is immediacy... and what kind of music is the most immediate? - Popular music. Of course there's many different kinds, but the idea of popular music is to be immediately appealing. In the mid 80's, there was a dance music that was a precursor to hip hop. It would have a really strong beat and a nice bass line. I would transcribe some bass lines and some of the drum beats. Then apply my own pitches and my own procedures, so no one would ever hear the original inspiration. I felt what would be injected was kind of a rhythmic vitality in an in your face kind of thing. I thought it worked out well musically, but I found that whenever I talked about that in my program notes, it would invite nothing but... a critic from the New York Times - "I'll take rap music any day"... well that's not the point! I would take rap music any day too! I realized if I had kept my mouth shut and didn't talk about the influences, then people would just say "Oh. he's writing this rhythmic - vital kind of music". I've always found it incredibly difficult to talk about music. Whatever you say, you're misunderstood. How do we ever describe what we do? We sometime bring things that are like comparisons. "This band is like that band". Well that doesn't explain it?
R.V.B. - Everybody has their own opinion. That's kind of the beauty of music and the arts in general. One person can look at a dot on the wall and say "What the heck is that?" and another person can look at a dot on the wall and say "That's a great idea for a minimalist piece". The same goes for music.
M.T. - But I think of all of the arts... if there a painting, you can talk about what is on the canvas. If it represents something, you can talk about that. A novel... theater... you can talk about the content, but music is so abstract. It affects us in an emotional subjective way that no one can really explain. I think music is the hardest thing to talk about.
R.V.B. - I understand what you're saying. As far as minimalist. What would you say that you add to your music that would classify it as post minimal?
M.T. - A lot of graduate students over the years have written papers on my music, so they're the ones trying to figure out what post minimalism is. I don't even know who came up with that term... it wasn't me? They are the ones who kind of describe "Well how is it different from like Glass or Reich?" I think It's, instead of doing maybe one process and making a point out of it... I will have simultaneous processes going on. It's kind of more multi dimensional. I like the rigor of classic minimalism, but I want my music to be more theatrical within its limitations... where there's a lot of things going on and it's not just making one point.
R.V.B. - That's a good description. As your composing skills advanced and moved ahead, which piece that you have done would say put you on the path to the way you want to compose?
M.T. - Although the piece isn't played a lot... it's a piece called "Vanada"... from 1984. It's the piece that Simon Rattle played in Birmingham. I was developing all new ideas that I had never done before. If you wanted to be a theorist, you could trace every piece of music that I have written for the last 30 years back to that piece in one way or another. It's kind of a weird piece for synthesizers, piano, three brass and electric bass. It isn't performed a lot. The next piece was "Ecstatic Orange"... that used a lot of those ideas. That is seen by some as a more seminal work. The piece that came immediately after that was "Yellow Pages". Just today, I was working on some ideas with the piano that trace all the way back to "Yellow Pages" in a weird kind of way. The piece right after that was "Bright Blue Music" where I experimented in writing something in D Major, which is completely tonal music that can appeal to the audience, and I can still work out my rhythmic ideas. Those 4 pieces were written all in a row from 84 to 85. Everything looks back to that.
R.V.B. - I know it has to be considered an honor to be commissioned and chosen to write a piece for the Olympics. It was for the Atlanta Symphony's 50'th anniversary?
R.V.B. - The piece that you did was "Javelin". Is there any reason that you chose that sport?
M.T. - I think it was the music that came out that sounded like a spear being thrown. (haha) There are places where it does sound like there's something going up in the air... arching up... and coming back down. I mean it could have been a shot put. It certainly wasn't some of the other sports, like track or swimming. I like how the word javelin looks on a page. It has kind of a masculine connotation that I thinks works subconsciously. It just seemed to be the right title for that piece.
R.V.B. - It's quite an honor just to be associated with the Olympics.
M.T. - Yeah... and that got me associated with John Williams, because he did the official Olympics recording, that charted on the Billboard in the top 200 back when Billboard meant something. Atlanta Symphony recorded it, and that's the one that's played on the radio the most. John Williams recorded for Sony Classical music. That's also a great performance.
R.V.B. - That's a nice association. With all of the pieces that you have released through the 80's and 90's... I guess the re-issues weren't happening and you started your own label?
M.T. - The other lucky thing that happened in 1989, was the classical music industry was flush with cash. The invention of the CD meant that all these record collectors were replacing all of their vinyl with CD's. The classical companies thought "OH, we're rich! Now let's do interesting things! Let's do an imprint that does new music". When Decca records decided to start an imprint called "Argo"... that executive producer called me up and said "Let's record everything that you've written". Back then, no one ever got their classical pieces recorded. It was the right place at the right time to get everything recorded. Well, that only lasted for about 8 years... from about 89 to 97. Then the call was "We see the beginning signs that we're going to have to shut down this label". Then by the Napster era, all the labels were firing everyone and now it's all over... everything collapsed. So it was the right time to get all of that early music recorded, and that producer who has remained a friend... "Andrew Cornall" said that it was really hard to get the rights back from any record company, but he can do it because he knows the head of business affairs. So we did this deal where I got the rights to put all of those works on my label. That was in 2002... Ecstatic Records is my label. I re-issued all of that stuff and I started doing new recordings.
R.V.B. - That's great that you got the rights to your own music. You mentioned Napster and the state of the industry today... do you think that it's going to recover, where they will start recording new music and tightening the reigns where nobody can pirate... something has to give.
M.T. - I agree, and I wish a lot more people talked about that. One idea that I thought about is... the last time the copyright law changed was in 1978. Congress updated copyright law in a major way in 1978. That started to be talked about in the Eisenhower administration. What does that mean? It takes 20 years for Congress to get their act together and pass laws. Everyone is saying these laws have to change, because there's no more money in music anymore. I think popular music has fell from what it used to be. It's nowhere near what it used to mean, for our culture in the 50's, 60's, 70's, 80;s, and even into the 90's. There are still people making albums, but it's not what it was. It's because the financial incentive has been ripped away. The value of copyrights have fallen. If the NSA can track anyone, they can figure out a way to police the digital rights, so that there is money coming back to the creators. There's got to be a way.
R.V.B. - It's like a recession. If you don't spend money, the deli goes out of business. So everyone gets effected... recording studios... A&R people... engineers... everyone up the line.
M.T. - Everyone is out of a job. It's more than a recession... it's a depression. One lawyer said to me "It's suicide". (hahaha) Something has got to happen, but it's not going to happen tomorrow. One guy that I talk to about business stuff says "It's going to take 25 years". What does that mean for me? I'm 54... I'll be around 80 years old. Then maybe things will turn around? Maybe I'll still be alive. Maybe that will benefit me.
R.V.B. - Maybe then you could upgrade your nursing home.
M.T. - (hahaha) That's the way I'm thinking about it. (haha) I'm more optimistic than that because the idea of me still putting out recordings on my label, when it's worthless. One reason I do it is because it's a marketing tool. I can send my records to all the classical radio stations... and guess what, they play a lot of my music. That turns into me receiving my royalties, so I can monetize that. It also helps get the name out there, but if I own all of these recordings and then recordings become valuable again, I'll be sitting in a nice place.
R.V.B. - I understand that. In 2012 you did an opera based on Monteverdi piece. Can you explain how it became a rock opera?
M.T. - That was one of the more unusual projects. Let's back up a little bit. In 1999, Michael Eisner and the Walt Disney company commissioned a millennium symphony from me. I wrote a 65 minute piece for large orchestra, chorus, and soloists. The New York Philharmonic premiered it. It was a big deal. The guy at Disney who shepherded the project was a Frenchman named Jean-Luc Choplin. He and I had fun working together- a really interesting guy. Wonderful imagination. He went on to become the head of the Theatre du Chatelet, which is one of the main theaters in Paris. He had this idea of taking a Monteverdi opera, and hiring a composer to create rock songs out of the original Baroque material. It's not so easily done, because Monteverdi really has no melodies. It has a bass line and endless melismatic vocal lines above. It was a challenge! Then I collaborated with professional rockers from England, to turn it into a real rock show. We had avant garde stage sets, and bizarre costumes. Although the end result may not sound like my music, per se, it was a wonderful project to work on.
R.V.B. - It sounded like a fun idea to work on. One thing I would like to talk about... because I really like the instrument... in 2011 you did a piece called "Wild Glass"... and you did it for the instrument of the harp.
M.T. - That was an interesting project. It was the American Harp Society who commissioned it, and the ensemble was unusual, harp and ten winds. It was daunting because writing for the harp is really difficult. You need to sit next to a harp player and go note by note and figure out, what is the best way to express the music that you want to express. I love to collaborate so I was looking forward to that. The result was a very unusual sound; the combination of harp against winds and brass can be quite beautiful.
R.V.B. - I know you've probably been asked this question before but what piece do you really like that you wrote?
M.T. - The answer that everyone gives is, that's like asking a mother which is her favorite child. How can you say that? Aside from the artistic side of music, I make my living as a composer. I have to be real cognizant of the business side, and I love numbers. As a hobby, I love to crunch numbers. I probably would make a good accountant. (haha) Like the Billboard charts, I keep royalty charts of all my pieces. I think like "Here's a good piece but no one ever plays it. Here's a piece I didn't think was good, but everyone plays it... and I earn more money. What does it all mean?". Over the years, what I found out is that actually the pieces that I think are artistically more original of mine... actually over time tend to make more money. You would think the easily enjoyable pieces would earn money and the more difficult intellectual pieces wouldn't. I think the world is interested in something that is distinctive. If it's not distinctive, why do we want it? The pieces of mine that take up a little bit more musical "real estate"... because there's nothing else quite like it... tend to do better. As far as getting more performances... more radio time... more choreography created to it... the piece that did the best, oddly enough is "Javelin". It's earned way more money than everything else. I kind of think "Well, it's because it has a good title, or because it's the Olympics". That might be true, but I listened to it several months ago again, and I thought "There's something about it that kind of moves along... from here to there in an inevitable way, that some of my other pieces don't". I'm proud of it. Why shouldn't I be? So I can say that piece is one of my favorites. There's another piece of mine that I like a lot and it's called "Four Proverbs". I was trying a different variation of ideas that I had developed before. That piece was written in 1994. It puts syllables of words on to invariant notes, so when you move the notes around, the words get all mixed up. From what I've heard over the years, people like that piece a lot. Those are maybe my two favorite pieces.
M.T. - In all the years of living in New York, I experimented with renting office space. I rented an office for 5 years on John Street... downtown. I gave up the lease in June of 2000, and only 15 months later, I would have been down town. I probably would have been on the 1 train when the towers came down. I guess I gave up that lease at the right time. In the early 90's... for 6 months... I got an advance from a publisher, and I'd thought it would be rally fun to rent office space on the 79th floor of tower 1 of the world trade center. The day that the planes came in I was on Houston Street. I looked out my window and I could see the gash where the plane came in. It was right above where my office would of been. I have rented office space, and then after a while... having a desk, computer and a keyboard... that's all I need. Here in Las Vegas, I have a room for my office, so that's where I work. In New York, I now live in the East 40's and It's the same thing... I have a desk and that's where I work.
R,V,B - You shuffle back and forth from Vegas to New York?
M.T. - When I get sick of being here, I go to New York and when I get sick of New York I come back here. It's all stimulating.
R.V.B. - What's your current plans. What are you working on these days?
M.T. - A piece for the Philadelphia Orchestra... a 25 minute piece. It's going to be done next summer at The Saratoga Performing Arts Center for their 50th anniversary. I'm deep into working on it at the moment.
M.T. - Taylor Swift... I listen to all the bubble gum stuff. Then I will also listen to Brazilian music. Last night I listened to the complete double album of the Carpenters. that music has nothing to do with my music, but I enjoy it.
R.V.B. - Karen Carpenter was an unbelievable American talent.
M.T. - The production value is great. Nobody's doing anything like that anymore, that stands out. I've been listening to a lot of classical music. I've been listening to Rachmaninoff and Strauss. I've read biographies on both of them. You know... nothing beats Bach. I know that's a cliché, but if you ever had a headache or you're feeling depressed... and you put on Bach... It's almost better than aspirin. I'm not that sure of the new music these days, I don't really go on Spotify. I have all of the albums of Metallica and I'll listen to them... and Soundgarden. I'll listen to the complete Steely Dan, from the very first song until they broke up. I'll listen to it all in a row. It's great stuff and holds up. I'll listen to Chicago and Blood Sweat & Tears. I think they did some great stuff. I don't know what's been going on in the last 10 years in rock.
R.V.B. - I'll tell you what... not a whole lot.
M.T. - Then maybe that's why.
R.V.B. - I think part of the problem is digital file sharing. A bass player with send a bass pattern over to California. A guitar player will put a guitar part on it and send it to a drummer in Texas. There's no human interaction. Everything sounds sterile.
M.T. - I agree. Everything has been degraded. I think things will change. Just like when we have depressions and recessions, people come out of it. People as a rule love music too much for that not to happen. If you look at how classical, or historical concert music has been around for approximately 500 years or 2,000 years. Popular music came around with the advance of technology... starting with player pianos... then radio... then record players... and all the rest. Pop music as we know it, is a relatively recent thing. The tradition of classical music has been around for centuries. When pop music harnessed the technology... if you were a rocker in the 70's you made tons of money. You made so much money you got depressed and you took drugs. All of these guys were burning their lives out. I think it was because there was so much money that came as a result of technology. All of us classical guys were thrown off to the fringe. No one gave a shit about us because there wasn't any money involved. So isn't it funny when all of rock and pop music is degraded, and now they have to do live performances. You know who does live performance better than anyone??? Classical music orchestras... opera... ballet... and there is still this money in classical music. When I started out, all the classical musicians were the starving guys. The rich people were rockers. Now the starving artists are the rockers. Every rocker I know, can't make a living, and there's still classical people making money. It's been an interesting shift.
R.V.B. - You look at Lincoln Center, and that's a thriving area.
M.T. - It is, and that's because there's still money to be made in live performance. Music, when you think about it should be live. Play an instrument... be there.
R.V.B. - Michael, thank you very much for taking this time with me this afternoon.
M.T. - Thank you for showing an interest in my music. I appreciate it.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
This interview may not be reproduced in any part or form without permission from this site.
For more information on Michael Torke visit his website, www.michaeltorke.com
For information or to advertise on this site contact musicguy247(at)aol(dot)com
Musicguy247 has thousands of rare music items on Amazon... records, tapes, videos, books, CD's and more. Click here to view items