Robert Moran is an American composer who resides in the city of Philadelphia. Originally from the greater Denver area, Robert was exposed to the theater at a very young age as he participated in ballet, theater groups, and received piano lessons. In his college years he studied with Hans Eric Apostel (a student of Schönberg, Berg, etc.), Darius Milhaud, and Luciano Berio. He would receive a Masters of Arts degree from Mills College. Robert taught Composition at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and co-directed The San Francisco Music Ensemble. In 1969 he went for a musical production in a big way. He persuaded 100,000 people in the city of San Francisco to participate in a city wide performance simultaneously. Nothing like this was ever attempted and it was a big success. After hearing about this, the city of Bethlehem Pennsylvania asked him to do something similar in their city. The result was a project called "Hallelujah" and once again the entire city was part of the production. In his prolific career, Robert has composed many operas, ballets, orchestral works, chamber pieces, vocal, and other compositions. One opera titled "The Juniper Tree" was co-composed with Philip Glass. I recently talked with the talented composer Robert Moran.
R.V.B. - Hello Robert... thank you for taking this time. You were involved in a little project yesterday?
R.M. - Yes. It was students here, from the University of the Arts, and they are doing an animated film on one of my dogs that traveled with me throughout the world. There's lots of funny stories and they all came over and interviewed me about that. Then they transfer that into an animated film, so that's what we were up to.
R.V.B. - That sounds like a fun project.
R.M. - It was a lot of fun and the kids were really good at what they do. Sometimes you think you're in the land of OZ. They were really doing a beautiful job.
R.V.B. - I gather you have a small dog?
R.M. - I don't right now. That was when I was traveling all over the world. I had gotten my dog "Charlotte" in San Francisco. She went with me everywhere... Berlin... London... what have you.
R.V.B. - So the dog has seen more of the world than most people.
R.M. - That's true. She actually has.
R.V.B. - (Hahaha) So you grew up in Denver Colorado... did you come from a musical family?
R.M. - Not really. My father was a singer but not really professional. I remember every Saturday we had the broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera. Those were my fairytails... La Traviata... Il Trovatore... that's what I grew up on. It was always there, so I just assumed that was the best storytelling with music I could find. It was amazing.
R.V.B. - How did you decide that you wanted to be involved with music? Did you start with an instrument?
R.M. - It's really crazy... when I was about 6 years old, I was put into a ballet class and I was studying dance. After that, I became very much involved in art... this was around 3rd grade. I was also put in the professional theater in Denver, at the age of 7. At Denver University they had a course for children in drama and while I was there, they were auditioning for a major part in a Garcia Lorca play. I got it, and once you're in theater, it's like blood addiction.
R.V.B. - It's a definite major part of the arts and it kind of goes hand and hand with music.
R.M. - It's all there in opera and I saw no difference. I had always been addicted to theater. It all comes together. I started studying piano at the age of 8. I had a wonderful teacher through all of high school and into college, I studied with the same teacher.
R.V.B. - Did you participate in plays and in the music program in your grade school years?
R.N. - There wasn't much to offer. All you had was choral singing... nothing of importance. The private piano lessons were the things that got me going. I was always so fascinated with what was considered contemporary music at that time, and that was Bela Bartok piano works... Mikrokosmos. One summer I studied with a student of Hindemith and I was confronted with that sound... and these were all new. I became so fascinated with that - that's all I wanted to play on the piano.
R.V.B. - I see that you did some studying in Vienna, where you going to school there?
R.M. - No... I didn't go to school there. I went to Vienna in 1957. I wanted to see if I could find out any information on the 12 tone school. I had done the Bartok, Prokofiev and the Hindemith etc... I wanted to know what 12 tone composition was all about. I really could not find out in Denver and that's what put me in Vienna. Luckily, I came across the last member of the 12 tone school, which was a student of Alban Berg - his name was Hans Erich Apostel.
R.V.B. - I was looking at his resume and his lineage goes back to Schoenberg.
R.M. - He was very funny and very eccentric. At that time he only took two students. I hardly spoke any German and he didn't speak English so it was a very, very funny exchange. The first day I walked into meet Mr. Apostel for my first lesson, he was preparing a new edition of WOZZECK for Universal Edition. The original version of was sitting on his grand piano. You walk in, and you're able to look at that in your own hands and it was like the musical bible... the opera bible of the 20th Century. It was quite amazing... I haven't written 12 tone in decades. It was a wonderful discipline for the ear because he would not let me touch the keyboard. I had to do everything in my head and know exactly what I was writing down. That was an extremely important concept. So it was just 12 tone composition and 12 tone counterpoint. I really had an amazing experience with him.
R.V.B. - I'm sure that gave you a firm backround. I see for your Masters that you worked with Darius Milhaud.
R.M. - I went back from Vienna to Denver and I said "This is not going to work". Then I went to San Francisco and got my first degree at San Francisco State. I had it all accumulated - I just needed to get the paper and move on. Then I heard that Luciano Berio was going to be over at Mills College. Every other year Darius Mulhaud would be either in Paris or at Mills. He had been doing that since World War 2. I got my masters with both Luciano Berio and Darius Hilhaud which is not bad credentials.
R.V.B. - Did the things that you learned from them carry on with you all the way through to today?
R.M. - Yeah, but a lot of it was non musical. By the time I got to Berio, I knew what I was doing - through Vienna. This was at Masters level, so we would discuss what we were doing and why was I doing this? They were wonderful but what I really learned from Berio was how not to treat people. What I learned from Darius Milhaud who knew everyone... from Gertrude Stein through Cocteau was how to correctly treat people. Milhaud was so gracious and so kind... he and his wife were so generous to me. I got the masters done in 3 semesters I was invited to study with Ravi Shankar. At that time I was very much interested in Indian classical music. Shankar had come through San Francisco - I met him and he said "If you can get to Bombay, you can be my student." I could get there financially but I could not return... so that's a little tricky. So if I couldn't get to India, at least I could get back to Vienna and see my friends. So that's what I did. At that time I was working on graphic notation and it was revolutionary for me. I was also working with Universal Edition - the publishing house. They accepted my work for publishing. It was the right move at that time. That was 1963. The composer at UE who had my “Four Visions” published was Roman Habenstock-Ramati.
R.V.B. - So your career was off to a good start.
R.M. - It seemed like it. I was having a good time. When I ran out of money, I returned to San Francisco in November 1963, after passing through London to see my friends there. I was taken to a concert... this is where it all “becomes San Francisco”. I was taken to a concert with The Beatles. They had not yet gotten to the USA. All we had at this time in our country was Elvis Presley. I was like "Good luck. No one has ever heard of British rock and roll." Of course 6 months later, we're worshiping The Beatles. I was in San Francisco at the end of 63 and of course JFK got shot. It was like someone through the switch and everything went crazy.
R.V.B. - In that time period, in San Francisco in the 60's, there was a lot of imagination... a lot of experimentation... a lot of different types of music going on... from the rock and roll scene... the psychedelic scene... the minimal scene...
R.M. - In the class of Berio and Darius Milhaud, there were three people - two of them are still friends. One who is not a friend but who was in the class was Steve Reich. He came from Juilliard so he was that mentality. He wrote Juilliard stomach cramp music at that time. Two other people in the class got into a group and they called it The Grateful Dead (this of course just a few years later). I knew those people in that class and I followed them. I know Phil Lesh and Tom Canstanten... who was one of the keyboard people. I lived at the top of the Castro Hill in San Francisco and right around the corner from me was Janis Joplin. She and I would go walk our dogs together. I had “Benjamin”; she had “George”. That's what happened in San Francisco.
R.V.B. - You were sure in the hotbed of an emerging musical scene.
R.M. - It was amazing. In its climax... that's was caused my first city piece for San Francisco.
R.V.B. - I'm a little confused on how you worked the logistics of that.
R.M. - I'm confused just thinking about it. When someone says "Tell me all about it... I can't." It would take hours and hours and hours. What happened very simply is this. In 1969 the rock scene was doing brilliantly but I thought it was being overlooked by the new rock groups coming from the east coast... particularly in New York City. They decided they were going to throw a big rock festival in the park. I said "Oh God. What is this all about?". They said "Bob... you got to go to a meeting because they're talking about environmental pieces... they're talking about this and they're talking about that? I said "This is going to bore the hell out of me". They said "Come on... just go." So I went and they said at the meeting "Does anyone have ideas for big pieces involving lots of people." I thought, well I'll just throw things out there. They won't follow up on this because it's so outrageous. I said I want to do Janis Joplin amplified with an accompaniment of 50 Hells Angels on motorcycles." They were like "This guy is out of his mind." I said "Maybe that's too excessive. Let's try the entire city... now we've got skyscrapers and so on... and somebody said "that sounds great, let's do it"". I started plugging in and it was a major collaboration. There were people who knew how to do lighting. There were things thrown around like... can we close this down... can we get these cars up on top of twin peaks amplified. It was a snowball effect. I couldn't possibly repeat this anytime today. It's a totally different period. This was 1969... and because of that I was invited to visit Bethlehem Pennsylvania. I had never been there before. I arrived there and met all the people there and I said "This will be fun because it's a totally different scene. It was like a Charles Ives type of event, with the revolution war and all of its history. That was the second piece.
R.M. - Oh yeah, it was amazing. I thought that I was going to have trouble and people weren't going to realize what it was all about. To be part of the piece, you have to be in it - you have to do something. You don't just sit there and be like "Entertain me". It's a participation type of activity. I got to meet so many interesting people. When you have the sheriff and the Mayor of Bethlehem at your cocktail party, it's pretty crazy.
R.V.B. - That sounds like a fun thing to do.
R.M. - It was wonderful. I look back and I thought "My God, the energy it took from everyone - including myself - just to get this organized. Then it's over in an hour. It's so big that you really cannot document it. That's what I like... it's a one shot deal. You really have to be there - you have to be in it, for it to make any sense.
R.V.B. - So there is nothing concrete that survives from the event.
R.M. - Only memories and historical information. Because of that and the San Francisco piece, when I returned to Graz Austria in 73 - I was doing some concerts there - they said "We hear you're moving to Berlin"... I was a composer in residence there in 74... "We wonder if you might consider doing a city work here for the 1975 festival?" That's the city piece I did for Graz Austria, the “Pachelbel Promenade”. That was a total different approach to doing a big city piece. You couldn't find a more conservative place in the world.
R.V.B. - It's rich with music history.
R.M. - Yes. When you have such a very conservative place as Graz, Austria, what's going to come out of it are the wackiest and most interesting Austrians. It's just that way. The great conductors... others like Thomas Bernhardt... the playwrights... the real wacko's... come from those super conservative places.
R.V.B. - Something's got to give.
R.M. - Absolutely. I think by the 4th one in Hartford times were really changing. Although I got to meet a lot of nice people up there, it was basically over. Times are changing.
R.V.B. - What were your duties as composer in residence in Berlin?
R.M. - All I had to do was sit there and write music. It was then West Berlin and it was entirely surrounded by communists. The government in Bonn at that time was putting vast amounts of money into Berlin. There were opera festivals... theater festivals... it was just an amazing space. One of the things at that time was that they would have composers and artists in residence. They would have 2 or 3 at a time come over here. They invited so many different people. I was there with my dog Charlotte. I met lots of new people there.
R.V.B. - Did your dog Charlotte ever make any musical pieces? (Hahaha)
R.M. - Actually she did without knowing it. This happened in San Francisco when it first premiered. I was making some popcorn in an electric frying pan on a table and it was not popping. I took the top off and all the popcorn started blowing all over the kitchen. Charlotte looked like a beautiful medium size Irish setter. She was immediately leaping in the air to try to catch the popcorn in flight. I thought "That's really great. It's a dog dancing. If I put on these gigantic sunglasses with 5 lines across them. We can be interpreting the flying popcorn as notes." Very 60's... right?
R.V.B. - Yeah, I'll say.
R.M. (Hahaha) It's all theater. That caught on and it was all because of the dog jumping in the air.
R.V.B. - You had said earlier that you learned how to talk to people. I gather that came to fruition in your teaching experience.
R.M. - The first time I taught was when I was very young. When I started teaching at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music around 1965 until Spring 1972. I stopped teaching there and moved up to Portland Oregon in 72 to Spring 74. The interesting thing about that - being almost a freelance - was that I could teach things like Wagner's Ring Cycle (at the SF Conservatory, then at Portland State University, then Northwestern University).
R.V.B. - That's a pretty large piece to teach.
R.M. - I've taught it at different universities. I know Wagner very well. It's always a lot of fun and it packs the class. I've never had any class under 60 students. They're all fascinated with this work. Then I would teach class in contemporary music... experimental music from the 60's, 70's and onward. I would teach piano... the basic stuff that one does. I enjoyed that a lot. I loathed Academia... not because of the students... the students are great but it's always the administration that's a pain in the ass. Academia is poisonous!
R.V.B. - That goes with any college, I'm sure.
R.M. - It does... I compare notes with friends.
R.V.B. - I see that throughout your career, you move around a lot... you're constantly doing something new.
R.M. - That's right. (Haha) I’m like a schizophrenic. I can't imagine being stuck in a style - with each piece - when you always have to do that so people will know who you are. If you're doing a city piece... if you're doing a dance piece... I'm going to be doing some new work with Jose Limón in New York City... it always calls for a different approach... a different sound... a different temperament. Whether it's an opera, or a dance piece, or a concert, or a solo work. It's not just “Let’s crank it out and repeat it again”. That's why I always have a good time finding what would be the most effective for this. If your writing for a group of children, like my Trinity Requiem, you can't do anything fancy or difficult. You have to make it very sensible and reasonable to them, and hope it works.
R.V.B. - You spent some time in New York City in the late 70's and early 80's.
R.M. - I moved there in the late fall of 78 and I left the last week of 84. Then I moved to Philadelphia.
R.V.B. - You still live in Philly right?
R.M. - Yes I do.
R.V.B. - How was your time in New York? Did you enjoy the culture?
R.M. - I should mention, when I was in Vienna, I found that being a young students with little money, there's always ways to get into things. That year in Vienna in 57 and 58, and I returned there in 63, the tickets to the opera were something like 25 cents (standing room). In 57 and 58 I went around 88 times to the opera alone. Then I had the Vienna Philharmonic and the other symphonic groups, jazz groups, etcetera. When I got to New York, I found that there were always inexpensive seats I could locate at The Metropolitan Opera. We would go to what we could afford. I had no job then - I was living on commissions. I had been just teaching at Northwestern from 77 to 78 as a guest. When that guest position was over I had no work and I said well "Now you're on your own. You're going to live off commissions." A friend had moved to New York... had an absolutely magnificent loft in an area where there were no lofts at all (East 88th Street right off of 3rd Ave, now torn down). When I moved there I said "What's in the loft above you?" He said "Nothing... it's empty." We climbed up the fire escape and got in, and this was a top floor with this gigantic loft - with skylights and quiet. I said "I got to have this. This is like a dream."
R.V.B. - Where was that loft?
R.M. - Get ready for this one - 203 E 88th St. between 2nd and 3rd - just off of 3rd. It's not there now. That's why I'm down here in Philly. It had been a police horse loft where police kept their horses, prior to automobiles. It should have been declared a historical building and they didn't do it. They built a (what I refer to as) big Barbie and Ken condo building.
R.V.B. - That cost's a million dollars to live in.
R.M. - Ridiculous. It was so amazing because just like San Francisco with The Grateful Dead... Janis... and what have you... on New York 203 E. 88th... Eartha Kitt lived across the street at that time. I would see Eartha Kitt walking her dog at 8 o'clock in the morning. In the evening, I would see Woody and Mia walk by my front door. They would go to Elaine's on the corner of 2nd. I never went there because the food was terrible. Why go there? Right next door was a better restaurant. We could sit in the better restaurant and watch all the silly people go to Elaine's. That's New York, I'd walk around the corner and bump into Arnold Schwarzeneger. I've always adored New York City since I was a child when we would visit there. I was always crazy about the city. I have really missed it.
R.V.B. - Can you tell me a little about the waltz project that you did?
R.M. - After I left Berlin I moved to Buffalo New York for 2 years. There is a center for the performing arts there and I was the composer in residence there for 2 years. I did some concerts there and wrote music. I flew to New York and Europe... what have you... it was a good location. One summer I wrote this waltz for piano. For 20 minutes I sat down at this piano and I kept hearing these interval relationships. I started playing around and 20 minutes later I had written this waltz. Well, no contemporary composer writes a waltz. So I called up my friend Robert Helps, who was a concert pianist and a good friend of that Aaron Copeland school... Virgil Thompson... and I said "Bob, I think I'm losing my mind. I've just written this waltz and it sounds like Ravel." He said "Well that's kind of crazy because I'm just finishing writing a waltz myself." So I thought about it and I called him right back and said "I'm going to fly into New York." That's when it was real cheap and you just got on a plane and go to New York. "Let's go and visit Mrs. Hendrichsen"... she was President of CF Peters - the music corporation... "and see if she's interested in this. I know all the “crazies” in new music and we're trying to get the following." We had long lists, and a lot of people couldn't do it because they had exclusive contracts with their publishers. We did round up 20 of them and did publish this. Nonsuch Records immediately said "We ought to record some of them." That's how that all happened.
R.M. - Phil actually goes back to my Berlin time because no sooner did I move to Berlin, they were having a big music festival there and he was going to be there. Do you know that name Christian Wolff? He was part of the John Cage - Morton Feldman group. Christian called me up and said "I'm here in Berlin and I'm having dinner with Philip Glass and his ensemble tomorrow night, can you join us?" I said "I don't know Phil. I know his work. He's east coast - I'm west coast - yeah I'd love to." I went and had dinner with Christian and Philip Glass and we got along - had a great time and we kept in contact. He wrote one of the waltzes for the collection. I was still living in New York and we did concert together - it was a benefit concert...it included my “Ten Miles High over Albania” for 8 harps, and afterwards it was suggested that we write some operas for children. He'd write an opera... I'd write an opera. These were one act operas with kids. Phil said "That sounds like a lot of fun, but why don't we write an opera together?" I thought "That's really crazy. I think that's a great idea - let's do it." That's when we contacted my friend Maurice Sendak, who said "You should try Grimm's fairy tales... like the Juniper Tree. No one's done it. It's an amazing and terrifying story. It would be great for opera." We went up to Nova Scotia - where Phil has property - that summer of 74, and we composed this together. He took certain scenes and I took certain scenes. After we composed it up there, I came back to New York and that was my last few months in New York City before I moved to Philadelphia. They were going to tear down my building. I finished up my sections of The Juniper Tree... one of them was the end of the work. Then Robert Brustein at American Repertory Theater commissioned the work in 1985 and gave the world premier up in Cambridge.
R.V.B. - I see that it had quite a few performances.
R.M. - It really did. It was quite amazing.
R.V.B. - I noticed that it's second run was with the Houston Grand Opera. You were involved with them in more than one project.
R.M. - I didn't get down there for that and they apologized. I said "If you like Juniper Tree so much, would you like to hear some other pieces?" They said "Why don't you send us some new music?" I did. They said "We'll commission The Desert of Roses." That's my take on Beauty and the Beast. They're doing a few scenes of that up in SUNY in a few weeks... in Fredonia. It's a gigantic campus. One of my best friends heads the orchestra there. Another friend teaches dance and he is directing the scenes of "Desert of Roses". The world premier was is 1992 in Houston. After that I started writing choral pieces for the Mendelssohn club here in town. RCA/BMG commissioned a big choral piece and they recorded it.
R.V.B. - Is there any different approach that you have, when you compose a piece for a large chorus as opposed to doing an opera or a regular music piece?
R.M. - I can't think of anything in classical music that is more collaborative than opera. You're involved with everyone. With a choral piece, you get the commission and you know what quality of piece you're writing for. You need to find a text that preferably has no copyright. You write it and hand it over and say "Here it is".
R.M. - They've all come out as I wanted to hear them but there are certain ones that have surprised me. When you have friends with lots of kids and you've said to your friends "I know you love all of your kids - you adore them and they're all wonderful - but do you have any one particular that you're most fascinated with? How does it end up being my kid, because she/he is so amazing or so badass? It's the same thing with these pieces. I'll find one that's like "Wow... that's what I wrote down, but when it's performed, it affects people." I don't know how it's affecting them because I don't know these individuals but there's something there that's beyond what I planned.
R.V.B. - Can you give me an example?
R.M. - I have this big choral piece "Seven Sounds Unseen". That was the one that was commissioned by RCA/BMG. It was originally recorded on that label and now it's on Innova. It was originally three sections for chorus. The middle one uses a text of John Cage. It was fragments of things that he had written to me over 30 years. It was exactly what I needed to use. People came up to me afterwards and said "That was so spiritual". I don't know what they're talking about? I don't know what they mean by spiritual? I would say "Thank you... that's lovely." It's really peculiar how people are effected by an arrangement of sounds. After "Desert of Roses", a number of people came up to me in tears and said "Oh, this is so beautiful". I don't know whether I should say "Thank you, that's lovely", or "I'm sorry I made you cry". It's really weird but that's the magic of the whole thing.
R.V.B. - Music, and the arts in general are interpreted differently by everybody.
R.M. - That's the interesting thing for me. I love that.
R.V.B. - In your career... not even with your own music... are there any music palaces or halls that you have been in, that really had superb acoustics or history that really gave you a "Wow" moment?
R.M. - Oh yes. Just recently, I have a piece that was commissioned by the Ruhrtriennale. The Ruhr valley was the big coal center in Germany and it went belly-up financially. They had these gigantic structures there that the government turned into performing spaces. One was a gasometer, which is a space where they converted coal into a liquid. Now they're totally empty... about 30 stories tall... and they're completely round. The government built a gigantic space inside for performance. The acoustics inside the one they gave me to use was 30 seconds decay. That's 8 seconds longer than the Taj Mahal... which is 22 seconds. They said "We would like a piece with one conductor and a chorus." I thought "With this gigantic space and 30 seconds decay, can we separate the chorus?" They said "Sure, do whatever you would like." Then they asked, "Can you use a string orchestra? We can get one from Hamburg." I said "Of course." We can divide 2 string ensembles... 2 choruses. We did that in this gasometer in 2014. I had to take into account, what do you do with 30 seconds decay on a sound? I had to think on how to distribute these sounds and how to let them fade before you introduce anything else. That was an amazing experience.
R.V.B. - Do you have a recording of that?
R.M. - Yes I do and it's quite extraordinary. That was only 40 minutes. It became part 2 because one year later... the Salzburg Festival gave a full evening of my "Buddah goes to Bayreuth". That was 2 choruses... 2 string orchestras... and I added a solo counter tenor. That was an acoustic of only about 15 seconds... in this gorgeous cathedral.
R.V.B. - That sounds really interesting. What are you currently up to... what are your current projects?
R.M. - I'm taking a little break. I've never done this before in my life. I'm going up to Fredonia to hear my music being performed. I'm hoping to do a choral piece in King Ludwig's Neuschwanstein castle in Bavaria. I'm working on that. That would be a lot of fun.
R.V.B. - Thank you very much for taking this time with me. I appreciated and enjoyed the conversation.
R.M. - Thank you.
Interview conducted by Robert von Bernewitz
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