Who and what are your influences?

My musical taste is very broad: how much of it actually influences me when I sit down to write I really can't tell! From the moment I first heard it, I fell in love with the music of the middle ages and Rennaissance, especially Perotin. Closer to the so-called "traditional" repertory, I particularly love Monteverdi, Bach, and Mozart. In the 20th Century, Bartok, Stravinsky and many living composers interest me enormously.

Unlike many of my "classical" colleagues, I love a great deal of rock music. Lou Reed, Sonic Youth, Nirvana, Kate Bush, and PJ Harvey are among my favorites.

I am also quite a voracious reader: reading is really my television! This served me in good stead when I began researching Voices of Light: I read more than 3000 pages of writings by female mystics before choosing texts that I would use in the libretto.

How did you start to compose?

I took piano lessons as a little kid but didn't get seriously interested in music until my early teens (I was a drummer). I began composing when I was 15. Back in the late '60's, when I was in high school, I formed a multimedia ensemble with a group of very talented friends (many have since become extremely well-known artists and scientists). One experience really stands out. I wrote a piece for a dance that was choreographed by a friend of mine. As I watched the rehearsal and heard my music played in the auditorium, I knew I would spend the rest of my life composing.

After graduating high school (by which time I had already written quite a bit of music and helped produce at least 6 mulitmedia events in two years), I enrolled at Columbia University and got my B.A. summa cum laude, in music where I studied with Jack Beeson, Vladimir Ussachevsky, and Mario Davidovsky.

In my senior year, I was introduced by a friend to the early theater works of Robert Wilson. They astounded me. It was precisely the same aesthetic that I had been working with in high school, but it was done so much better!

So, after one semester as a grad student, I left Columbia and began to freelance as a composer. Since then, I've written quite a bit of music for dance and theater companies and also for films. I also worked for about as a record producer, doing records with Meredith Monk, Yo-Yo Ma, Zubin Mehta and many others.

Why did you develop VOICES OF LIGHT?

In the '80's, I became very interested in developing a large piece about a religious subject. I was not looking for a way to make a polemical statement about my own religious beliefs. Rather, I wished to create an aesthetic "space" where an audience could perhaps re-examine its own feelings and beliefs, perhaps change them, perhaps not.

My friend Galen Brandt, an excellent composer and singer, first suggested Joan of Arc as a subject. When I saw Dreyer's masterpiece, THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC , for the first time, I knew I had found just the strange and deeply ambiguous material that I had been looking for.

Why were you so drawn to THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC ?

I thought THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC was one the greatest films I'd ever seen in my life. It is a strange combination of the deeply emotional and the highly abstract. It is the avant - garde with a human face. Its profound ambiguity, its ravishing beauty, its brilliant performances, its astounding story make JOAN one of the twentieth century's masterpieces. Hardly anyone knew about it, outside film buff circles. All of this drew me to the film.

I like to create pieces that have many layers of meaning, some of which contradict each other. The idea, then, is for the perceiver to put together her/his own meaning, to construct a personal narrative from a shared experience. What drew me to Joan as a subject was that so many disparate people - witches and priests, lesbians and right-wingers, young girls and learned old men - found her so compelling. Dreyer's film captures this perfectly. I wanted my music to have that same quality.

How did the first performance of VOICES OF LIGHT come about?

It took me 6 years to convince a presenter to make a firm commitment to perform the piece. Once I had that commitment, I wrote the music in about 3 1/2 months.

I planned the entire piece, wrote a detailed proposal, and even chose several of the texts in early 1988. I then looked for an arts organization that would put the piece on. Finally, in 1993, I was introduced to Bob Cilman, the director of the Northampton Arts Council in western Massachusetts through a mutual friend. Bob "got" VOICES OF LIGHT immediately and agreed to find an orchestra, a chorus, all the soloists and rent the Dreyer film. We agreed to a date in early 1994 on the phone about a week later. He found a little money for a commission and I went to work.

Bob's confidence in the project paid off nicely. In the middle of the worst blizzard of the year, in western Massachusetts no less, we completely sold out both shows and resold all the "no-show" tickets!

Describe the process you used to create VOICES OF LIGHT


Immediately after seeing the Dreyer film, I planned the structure of the piece. Since Joan heard voices, I decided to write a piece for voices and orchestra in which the voices would sing a collage of texts primarily taken from the writings of female medieval mystics, including Joan of Arc herself. The texts would be chosen so that they would comment on the film, sometimes literally, sometimes obliquely.

I did extensive research on Joan of Arc and her time. I also went to France to visit some of the major Joan of Arc historical sites. I took along a portable digital recorder and recorded the sound of the church bell from the original church in Domremy, Joan's hometown. Back in New York, I "sampled" these bells so that they could be "performed" during the piece by an electronic instrument. Since the sound of bells had triggered Joan's voices, I thought that it was only fitting to have them in my piece.

Next, I made the final choice of the texts I wished to set. This was a wonderful, deeply enjoyable process. I winnowed them down in the following way:

First, the texts that I used had to be beautiful and startling. In other words, I had to respond to them as great literature. From the moment I read Hildegard von Bingen, I knew her work would have a prominent role.

Next, the texts had to be relevant to the themes that I was interested in. For example, Christine de Pizan, the first female feminist author, is represented by several texts, including a poem that she wrote about Joan of Arc. Christine may have also seen Joan during one of her military campaigns. I simply had to have her in my piece.

Finally, the texts had to fit the time constraints of the project. I cut out so many gorgeous texts that I could probably do an entirely different 81 minute piece with the ones I didn't use!

Then I had to find the original Latin and Medieval French. I went to a university library and spent about 3 weeks doing detective work, looking at worm-eaten volumes that had last been opened around 1905 or so. I'd find a Latin word that seemed to fit the text I was looking for and then suddenly the phrase would leap off the page: it was a little like the Magic Eye photograph effect: one moment there'd be total incoherence, and in the next, it would all make sense. I knew how to pronounce the Latin, but the medieval French was a mystery, so I asked Nadia Margolis, one of my scholars, to make a tape with all the pronunciation of the old French.

Back in my project studio, I programmed my synthesizers for the orchestral palette I was going to use: chorus and solo voices, strings, flutes, and oboes. I also had the bell available on my sampler. I write on a computer with a group of programs that does for music composing what a word processor does for text. It's difficult to set up (I have 13 synths connected to my Mac!) but once it's all working, it's like having an infinitely patient orchestra in your house.

I had a video tape of the film which I watched constantly for inspiration. I've seen the film perhaps two hundred times now and I still find something new each time I watch it.

I started to come up with conceptual ideas. First, I knew that Joan of Arc's voice would have to have a very special sound. Since no one knows what she looked like, I decided we shouldn't be "range-ist" and make any assumptions about whether she was a soprano or alto. Therefore, Joan had to be both soprano and alto singing simultaneously. In the CD, the members of ANONYMOUS 4 sing Joan beautifully.

I treated the texts in many different ways. Sometimes the texts are set straight, sometimes fragmented, sometimes layered with two or three texts heard simultaneously. As the first performers contained an excellent violinist and cellist, I also decided to write some little "concertos" for them into the score.

When I finished composing VOICES OF LIGHT, about 3 months or so later, I was very glad and very sad. It was one of the happiest times of my life and I didn't want it to end. The only change I've made to the score since then was to add a few bars of instrumental music to the opening for timing reasons.

Are you religious? What does religion mean to you?

I am very religious. But one of the most important tenets of my belief is that religious expression is a supremely private affair and has no business in political discourse or in science classes, for that matter.

To some people, Voices of Light may appear to be a critique of the public, politicized expression of religious belief. But someone else may feel differently. My goal, after all, is never to create a piece with a single "point of view" or meaning. And the personal meanings I may have for my piece, even though I created it, mean no more than anyone else's.

Is VOICES OF LIGHT a typical example of your music?

In a sense, yes. All my music is composed as a layered experience. For non-musicians, I tend to make sure that there is always some level at which the music can be approached and appreciated. With that in place, I try to compose music that musicians will enjoy playing. For a variety of reasons, including the cost of rehearsing some 60-plus performers, VOICES OF LIGHT is simpler to perform than my chamber music. Also, some of my other music is much more rhythmically intense.

It's nearly impossible to get modern music recorded, let alone something as big as VOICES OF LIGHT. How did Sony Classical get involved?

VOICES OF LIGHT was recorded in spite of my best efforts.

I was talking to my friend Steve Epstein, the Senior Executive Producer at Sony Classical, and mentioned in passing that VOICES OF LIGHT had completely sold out its first performances in the middle of the worst blizzard of the year. Steve said that Sony might be interested and I said, "No way, it's got too many players". But he said to send him some material so, after procrastinating for a few weeks, I finally sent him some reviews.

A week later, I got a call from Peter Gelb's office, the head of Sony Classical. They wanted a tape of the music. I flatly refused to send him one. I was quite serious: I couldn't see the point.

Finally, after talking with Steve again, I offered to set up a demo of part of the score to give Sony an impression of what it might look and sound like live. I carted my computer and synths over to Sony's offices and after a 15 minute excerpt, they agreed to record the piece.

For scheduling reasons, another friend at Sony, Grace Row, became the producer for the project and she was absolutely tenacious in pushing it through into production. Sony arranged with the Netherlands Radio Orchestra and Choir to record the piece in the Netherlands and, as luck would have it, Susan Narucki, a wonderful American soprano was also in Amsterdam and available to record it. Steven Mercurio, a brilliant young conductor, agreed to conduct the piece.

One day, in passing, I suggested to Grace that I had always had in mind the sound of the medieval female vocal group ANONYMOUS 4 for Joan of Arc's voice. Grace set up a meeting with them and we all hit it off immediately. The next day, they agreed to record the Voice of Joan. I was then, and still remain, deeply moved by their participation.

In August of 1995, VOICES OF LIGHT was recorded in the studios of the Radio Netherlands in an Amsterdam suburb.There were over 150 performers. It took a week of rehearsal and recording. Grace's husband, Charles Harbutt, engineered the sessions brilliantly, a fantastically complicated job considering the numerous setups involved.

Back in New York, the editing and mixing was done in record time, mainly because Grace and Charles worked around the clock for weeks to meet the release date ­ they even left my wedding reception early to complete the mixing.

I cannot describe my feelings when I first heard the finished cd. It is grossly understating my reaction to say that I am very pleased with the performances and deeply grateful to all involved.

There seems to be a renewed interest in new "serious" music. Why do you think this new music is carving a place for itself?

Let's face it. Of course, Bach's six Brandenburg Concertos are great, but they've been around so long that it's kind of hard to get excited about hearing them yet again. Audiences today are literally starved for good new music. But until recently, to be blunt, most of the "serious" music being written was flat out awful.

This, fortunately, has begun to change. I think that the best new music is extending, both emotionally and conceptually, a new musical culture, a shared culture that includes musical traditions ­ early music, rock and world music, for example ­ that has been utterly ignored or misunderstood by "classically trained" composers. As we composers get more adept at speaking this new language, our listeners grow, in more ways than one.

As for modern music theater, it's so new we don't even have a name for it. We call it "opera" but, really, it doesn't move or sound anything like Puccini or Wagner either. Believe me, I really wish I knew what to call VOICES OF LIGHT !

So what's next?

I've gotten pretty busy recently. I've just finished a commission for the Minnesota Orchestra, and then there's a new piece for Anonymous 4 as well as a project for Finnish film director Pirjo Hankasalo.

I'm also starting a grand comic opera called FREUD AND DORA: A CASE OF HYSTERIA which is about one of Sigmund Freud's case histories. The opera features a hysterical soprano, a giant nose, numerous cigars and a chorus called the Reservoir of Libido.

And that's for starters!