What Kind of Music Do You Listen to for Pleasure?

An interview with Portland composer David Schiff

Introduction by Matthew Neil Andrews
Interview by Charles Rose

Alongside Kenji Bunch and a handful of others, recently-retired Reed College professor David Schiff sits comfortably among Portland’s most popular composers of what we still call “classical” music. There’s a good reason for that: the New York born, longtime Oregon resident writes music that combines the best of mainstream contemporary classical (Stravinsky, Copland, Carter) with the energy and appeal of more popular genres such as minimalism (Reich, Riley), jazz (Mingus, Ellington), and even klezmer.

That makes his music catchy, exciting, intellectually stimulating, and emotionally rewarding. We also find it very telling that he’s written books about Ellington and Carter: two giants occupying complementary ends of the vast spectrum of 20th-century U.S. music. You can read Arts Watch Senior Editor Brett Campbell’s profile of Schiff right here.

David Shifrin and David Schiff onstage at CMNW’s 2016 Summer Festival.

Schiff’s also gone out of his way to make friends with some of the finest players in the daring cross-genre world he lives in, so we get to hear his music played by Regina Carter, Fear No Music, David Shifrin, and various stars from the Chamber Music Northwest company of world-class performers. This upcoming Saturday, July 6, and Monday, July 8 (both in Kaul Auditorium at Reed College, where Schiff teaches), CMNW presents the world premiere of Schiff’s Chamber Concerto No. 1 for Clarinet and Ensemble, commissioned for this occasion.

The concert also includes Bach’s Concerto for Violin and Oboe in C Minor and Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 in G Major, and composer/pianist Daniel Schlosberg‘s arrangement of the Adagio from the second Brahms piano concerto, a task Schlosberg described as “a daunting proposition.”

Before taking on the music beat for Oregon Arts Watch, your fearless new music editor was hard at work producing the second issue of Subito, the student journal of Portland State’s School of Music and Theater. For this issue, we asked composer and recent PSU graduate Charles Rose to interview one of his former teachers—David Schiff.

The following has been edited for flow and clarity, and previously appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of Subito.

Charles Rose: The identity of music in the U.S. is very broad. How do you conceive of American music? Do you think there is an American identity that is expressed musically? 

David Schiff: In your life, there are accidents of where and when you were born, what you heard and what you didn’t hear, and those have a certain effect on you. Then there’s stuff that you try to do willfully. With so much music there are many aspects that interest me, and some place along the line I gave myself permission to be eclectic. In many ways the most important person to my music was Charles Mingus. I saw him perform many times and his music had a directness to it, an expressive punch that has always been something I aspire to. He was a creative person and he was also totally his own thing.

Rose: An iconoclast.

Schiff: Very courageous in that way. I grew up being exposed to the Bernstein-Copland line. I met Copland, and he was the most charming person I’ve ever met in my life. I like the lonely, middle-of-the-night Copland. He had these different sides to him. We celebrated July 4th, 1978 at Elliott Carter’s country house. Aaron was the guest of honor, and I was given the place of honor next to him, and he gave me a lot of good advice. The best advice he gave was, “conduct your own music—you know it better and you care about it more.” And he was right. So, I owe a lot to Aaron.

David Schiff conducting Third Angle New Music in last year’s all-Schiff concert. Photo: Tom Emerson.

Being American is an accident, and one of the most liberating things in my life is that I was given this great opportunity to study in England for two years. I went to Cambridge, and I was fortunate to meet two young composers there, both of whom had studied with Stockhausen: Roger Smalley and Tim Souster. Even though I was studying English, I’d hang out with them all the time. At Columbia, this uptown scene in New York, I’d go to every concert and Milton Babbitt was there, Stefan Wolpe was there, Varèse was there until he died, Elliott Carter was there. I got to England and they had a completely different sense of who was important. That’s when I realized that there wasn’t one list and that I could decide for myself. Having that perspective was very helpful to me.

Virgil Thompson said that to be an American composer is to live in this country and write music. I think that’s right. Certainly compared to Europe, American composers tend to be less boxed into a classical mindset, more open to other stuff. Other than that I don’t feel particularly American as opposed to something else. 

Rose: Maybe these are things that come afterwards, rather than thought about in the moment. Composers write based on what they hear around them, and that develops their sense of  musical identity.

Schiff: It’s a question of who’s heard and who is not heard. In the ‘30s and ‘40s, there was a group of composers, Copland and Virgil Thompson, who set out to define American music in a certain way. They were somewhat successful, but to me their music was much less interesting than Ellington’s. Hardly anybody noticed him at the time, or at least in very different terms.

One aspect that is troubling to me is cultural amnesia. When I was younger than you are now, if you asked who the most important American composers were I’d say Copland, Roy Harris, Walter Piston, and William Schumann. How much of them have you heard lately?

Rose: Not much. I’ve read the Piston books though. 

Schiff: So what happened? The fifth person would be Samuel Barber, but his music has come back. It was lost for a period of time. So what creates that sense of the past? Who decides who is visible and who isn’t? The most perplexing one is Harris, because he was considered the king.

Terry Riley and Steve Reich had a huge influence on me. I performed Riley’s music in England, and when I got back I started hearing a lot of Reich and Glass. Reich spoke to me more because I had done a lot of West-African drumming. I had this experience very typical of my generation, around 1975. It was the day atonality died, and we all had that moment. I’ll never forget hearing Music for 18 Musicians. That was a life-changing moment. Right around when Reich’s first album came out, his musicians gave a concert at Columbia, and it was in the student union rather than the concert hall. They started with Clapping Music, then Six Pianos, then Music for Mallet Instruments Voices and Organ, and word got around that something interesting was happening. At the beginning of their concert, there were about fifty people there and by the end it was packed. It was the only new music concert I’ve been to where there were more people at the end than the beginning. I said, “this guy is on to something.” 

But I didn’t sign up as a minimalist at that point. What I got from his music is that Reich gave me permission to be Schiff. I would go to concerts at Columbia surrounded by Babbitt and Wolpe, and there was usually some Schoenberg or Webern at the concert, and some Wuorinen, people like that. I was particularly intrigued by Wolpe’s music because it was particularly hard and you had to admire that. He was a very sympathetic figure, his students would carry him into concerts, due to his Parkinson’s. His music would test you. Though it was also interesting to hear music like Reich’s which didn’t test you. 

Rose: Why did you study English at Columbia if you knew that you wanted to be a composer?

Schiff: There were no musicians in my family, or in my family’s circle, so I couldn’t imagine a life in music. And somehow in my junior year of high school, I became the star English student. It was very easy for me to do. Literature was a way of finding out about myself—which is not a good reason to study it, but that’s why. I picked up from my parents that they were concerned about the future, as parents are, and they didn’t know anybody in the business, and particularly my mother felt very inadequate even though all of my friends were in music and their parents knew more. I never thought I could have a life where music would be at the center. It took me until I was about twenty-five to figure it out.

When I got to Columbia, as with wherever I go, I sought out people who knew a lot about music, particularly contemporary music, and none of them were music majors. When I met music majors, they seemed to know less about music than anybody else on campus!

Rose: Do you mean in the sense of contemporary music?

Schiff: I found a lot of music majors at a liberal arts college really were more into humanities, because if they were really pursuing music they’d be in a conservatory. Usually these sorts of people—who are really fun to teach—are eighteen, nineteen, and suddenly they find that they’re interested in music and have to start learning about it. But most musicians had been studying for ten years before then. I had friends in seventh grade who became musicians. One of my best friends became the timpanist in the Minnesota Orchestra for thirty-five years. We were in a dance band together, and he knew everything about jazz. It was unbelievable, our parents would let us take the train into Manhattan on a Saturday night, we were twelve, thirteen years old. We’d hang out outside the clubs just to listen. We were constantly listening to stuff, so we were six years ahead of music majors because we were doing it on our own. 

Rose: With the rise of the internet there is a community interested in contemporary music, but it seems the world of people who go to the conservatory and the world of people who read Pitchfork are two completely separate worlds. It’s interesting that people who study music in college might be aware of things going on in hip-hop or rock or jazz or popular music in general, but it doesn’t seem that they collide a whole lot. 

Schiff: That’s one thing I’ve fought against ever since I came to Reed, as a reaction against this very doctrinaire way that was in fashion when I was in school. The first thing I ask in my composition class is, “what kind of music do you listen to for pleasure?” And I tell them to write that kind of music. You know what good is, you are an expert on that, you know where the target is. And you can listen to other things and see what you like.

One of the reasons I’ve worked with jazz musicians is because they know more about music than anybody. And they are working outside the confines of classical music. One thing that strikes me about contemporary music is that composers are trying to find new sounds and new music with musicians who are trained to play old music. These musicians have great skills and abilities, but their instincts to know what a good sound is, what expressive is, or even what playing in tune may be, are very limiting. That creates a problem, and I’ve dealt with it by working with jazz musicians.

This is something that was very important to the models of Glass and Reich starting their own ensembles, because they wanted their music to sound like them and that was a very important lesson for me. I’ve found ways of either tricking or cajoling classical musicians into making my sounds. David Shifrin can do anything and he’s very open to it, so I write for him. Sometimes there are musicians who aren’t as open, so I know they’re not the right fit for me.

The notion that there is a contemporary music that is just in the academy and listened to by other composers—at the very least it’s unappealing. It certainly doesn’t pay the rent. It’s a kind of fake security when you are working within these confines and getting a certain degree of support, but you can’t take it anywhere else and you aren’t listening for other possibilities that are out there. 

Rose: It has become its own world that shares music for each other’s enjoyment but has been uninterested in engaging with a broader musical community.

Schiff: I’ve been very lucky as a composer to cultivate a group of performers who understand my music. I’ve been fortunate to work with jazz musicians. Working with Regina Carter was the thrill of a lifetime. I didn’t know her, we got fixed up by accident. And it would have been crazy if I had written a piece that she couldn’t play. She’s such an improviser that every time she plays my concerto it’s different. I ask her if she could do certain things and she’s like “nah.” It’s always going to be different.

Rose: Composers in the jazz world are seen so differently. Studying jazz in high school, we just knew the tunes and were expected to improvise on them. Composers were more like songwriters, creating templates for improvisation. But if you look at Ellington charts, they were mostly fully composed. He conceived the entire arrangement. 

Schiff: The notion that jazz is just playing the changes is just one way of thinking about it. I discovered that working with the Ellington material at the Smithsonian. It was astonishing to see how much was written down, and yet at the same time, it was written down for very specific players. He never wrote an alto sax part. In fact, the parts weren’t labeled by instrument but by the player’s name.

Rose: So he would write solos specifically for, say, Johnny Hodges?

Schiff: Right. And no one sounded like Hodges. He did that with every member of the band. The two parts that weren’t there were the piano part, which he himself was playing, and the drums, which would have been Sonny Greer. But everything else, including the bass, was written out. I’m impressed that, having spent so much time with Ellington—about three years working on the book and teaching courses on him—I still listen to his music with so much pleasure. There’s just so much more there that I’m not even aware of. There’s tons of music, and if you could imagine what he was up against on a daily basis, all the indignities. He’s at the top of my list.

Rose: Certainly there’s this current of anti-elitism in U.S. culture, this skepticism towards anything that reminds us of European aristocracy. And Duke Ellington seems to be much the opposite of that, which plays into this idea of American identity. 

Schiff: He has these two senses about him. He asked: “How do you keep a band going? How do you pay the rent?” And he figured it out. One of the ways to do that is to write a hit tune every year. That generates income. He didn’t start out a songwriter, but became a songwriter once he understood the economics of it, when he saw that it was essential. He created a songbook and that became the basis for his income. 

The other thing is that he was religious. The other extreme was God for him. He and his mother didn’t go to a single church, they went to different churches, since there’s something to learn from every church. He ends his life with three sacred concerts: Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, St. John the Divine, and Westminster Abbey. Talk about elitism! This is thinking as high as you can think, this is writing music for an exalted purpose. When you think of who’s like that in music history, there’s Bach, Beethoven, Mahler. Ellington’s thinking that way. For an African-American composer to say that his music belongs in Westminster Abbey, it takes your breath away.

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