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Richard Danielpour

photo: Susan Unterberg

The following interview appeared in the April 1999 issue of the journal 20th-Century Music:

Richard Danielpour was born in New York in January 1956. He studied composition at the New England Conservatory and the Juilliard School of Music, chiefly with Vincent Persichetti and Peter Mennin. He also studied piano with Lorin Hollander, Veronica Jochum and Gabriel Chodos. He has received numerous honors, including a Guggenheim Fellowship; a Rockefeller Foundation Grant; Columbia University's Bearns Prize; the first annual Charles Ives Fellowship and a Lifetime Achievement Award, both from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; two Barlow Foundation Grants; and residencies at the MacDowell Colony, Yaddo, and the American Academy in Rome. He was composer in residence for the Seattle Symphony during the 1991-92 season. He serves on the composition faculty of the Manhattan School of Music and the Curtis Institute. In the fall of 1998, he began a three-year residency with the Pacific Symphony Orchestra in Orange County, California, under music director Carl St. Clair. Among the more than 30 other organizations and performers that have commissioned Danielpour's music are the New York Philharmonic ("Toward the Splendid City"); the San Francisco Symphony (Symphony No. 2, "Song of Rememberance" and Cello Concerto for Yo-Yo Ma); the Pittsburgh Symphony (Concerto for Orchestra, celebrating the orchestra's 100th anniversary); the Baltimore Symphony ("The Awakened Heart"); the New Jersey Symphony ("Celestial Night"); the Jacksonville Symphony ("Elegies," for Frederica von Stade and Thomas Hampson); the New York Chamber Symphony ("Metamorphosis") the Emerson Quartet (Piano Quintet); Dawn Upshaw ("Sonnets to Orpheus, Book I"); Jessye Norman ("Sweet Talk"); Emanuel Ax (Piano Concerto No. 2); the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival ("Sonnets to Orpheus, Book 2"); Pacific Northwest Ballet ("Anima Mundi"); New York City Ballet ("Urban Dances for Orchestra"). He has also collaborated with such prominent writers as Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou and Erica Jong.

I spoke with Richard Danielpour on February 16, 1999, two weeks before the Pacific Symphony was scheduled to perform his Concerto for Orchestra, subtitled "Zoroastrian Riddles."

DB: Two or three weeks ago there was a piece in the New York Times on Lowell Liebermann, and right up there in the lead, they did some name-dropping and you were one of the names that was dropped. When did you first get the feeling that you had arrived as a name composer?

RD: When certain people in the New York Times started to - how shall we say - level the kind of unkindness in journalistic print that bespeaks of someone having accrued a certain amount of influence.

DB: Thatís an interesting paradox.

RD: Iíll tell you, itís very interesting. You can figure out who it is for yourself, Iím sure, but there is a writer who just before the Grammies last year when I and Aaron Kernis were up for several Grammy nominations - I was up for four, I think, and Aaron was up for one - spoke about the various nominations and said that we - myself and Kernis - had issued a new dictatorship in music and called us a ďdictatorship of the past.Ē I was interested by this because those were pretty strong words, you know, for someone whoís just been going about his business and just trying to write the best music he can. (Laughs). And so what I did was I spoke to my friend, Erika Jong, an old and longtime friend who has had her share of unpleasantness thrown at her from the journalistic press and also from a number of people throughout the last couple of decades. I said, ďWhat is this? What do you attribute this to?Ē She said, ďItís very clear. The moment an artist starts to accrue some influence and presence, itís the very moment that presence is challenged.Ē So to be very honest with you about the answer, thatís when I started to sense that my music was reaching into areas that were far beyond what I had even imagined. I mean, I was very happy about this, you understand -

DB: I was wondering -

RD: - because Iím interested in, and youíve hit upon a subject that I find really fascinating today because it goes into this whole area of the way communication and the way the internet and the way all of these modes of communication make the dissemination of work possible. I was somewhat happily surprised to find when I was finally shown the internet just how many entries there were and that there were debates and arguments on the internet about my music, which I had no idea about. I mean, Iíve been sort of computer-resistant for the last few years, and I think that eventually, Iíll have to break down and join it because itíll seem as ridiculous as not having a telephone one day. But when finally I was shown all of the entries that have to do with either my music of what Iíve been quoted as saying, I was really amazed and surprised. The other thing that Iím glad about is that in the last couple of years, Iíve started to hear about performances that I had no idea about. That my music has gotten to the point now - and itís wonderful because, you know, Iím not the kind of person who feels they have to control every event. I rather believe that music is there to be ultimately given away, as it were. Not given away, royalty-wise, but given away in the sense of having to control every event. When I started to notice that there were performances that had either occurred or were going to occur that no one - not my publisher nor the performing organization involved - had even mentioned to me, I began to sense that my work was taking on a life of its own, which made me then and still makes me very happy to see.

DB: There are CDs of your works. Has that been a useful calling card to proliferate more performances?

RD: Iím not sure what the relationship is. Sony Classical would like to believe that having performances tied at the moment of a recording release helps sell records. That may or may not be true. Iím not a statistician, and I donít spend my time doing those kinds of studies. But I would have to say that having a recording of my Concerto for Orchestra - which is distributed worldwide - or my Cello Concerto has made the presence of my work available to those who might not otherwise hear it. Thatís absolutely certain. I also feel, not just as it exists in the record stores, you understand, but also as it might exist on the radio. In fact, an upcoming work that a librettist and I are going to do for an opera company - it's a huge project for 2003 - that came about as a result of the music director, who actually heard "Anima Mundi" on the radio. That kind of thing happens from time to time, which is great. I also want to emphasize - and this is very important - that for me, recordings are ultimately a document. Itís very important to make this distinction because I am one of those who never have believed and will never feel that somehow a recorded disc is a substitute for a live performance. Now we have some fairly accurate documents with digital technology. The Concerto for Orchestra recording was done on 24-bit technology, which sounds almost like analog. The new recording thatís being released of "Celestial Night" and other works that was done with the Philharmonia at Abbey Road last summer, that also avails itself of the latest technology, and it sounds great. Itís a great sounding record. But itís still not the actual thing. To quote Wallace Stevens and Shakespeare, it is still not ďthe thing itself.Ē And thatís very important because I think that itís only when you hear this music live and particularly, I think, not maybe particularly orchestral music, but I think maybe concert music. I think itís something that really demands to be ultimately heard live whereas with a recording of a Beatles work in the Ď60s, in a sense, the recording was the performance. You canít duplicate any of "Sgt. Pepper" live.

DB: Iím struck by the idea of a CD as a calling card because Iíve noticed here lately that - well, you know the BBC had this Masterprize competition last year, and they put out a CD of the finalists, and Iím noticing now that those works are starting to get performed around.

RD: Which ones were they?

DB: Well, letís see, just last weekend, the L.A. Philharmonic did a piece by Stephen Hartke, and next season, the Pittsburgh Symphony is doing a couple of works, one by Daniele Gasparini called "Through the Looking Glass" - itís kind of a take-off on the "Rite of Spring." Itís got a lot of references to it that are obvious.

RD: Right.

DB: The other is a work by Victoria Borisova-Ollas. The Pittsburgh Symphony gave some guest conductors the CD, and they chose the piece that they wanted to play from it. Iím wondering, did you happen to take part in that competition at all?

RD: I wasnít aware of it, and so consequently, I donít know how I could have taken part in it. But I will say this. Just yesterday, Richard Kestler, the director of the American Music Center here in New York, told me that there are all these sort of Ďbestí lists of audiophile journalists and CD journalists, and supposedly the Pittsburgh CD of my Concerto for Orchestra and "Anima Mundi" was on one of them. I think Stereophile or Stereo Review, one of those magazines. I had no idea that it was there, and it was nice. My observations have been that in recent years, itís hard for me to take what British music magazines say seriously about American composers since their attitudes are so highly laced with a kind of chauvinistic bias toward their own composers and in fact, toward European composers in general. Thereís this inference in so many reviews, particularly when performers are also not English or also not European, thereís this very strong inference that weíre still quite naÔve and we havenít learned yet. And I think thatís quite interesting because so many of the composers that theyíre praising have essentially now by American composers. You know, 50 years ago, 70 years ago, it was the other way around - that American composers were, in fact, dominated by the influence of Europeans. I think now itís really starting to change.

DB: Youíve talked about the biases within the journalistic community, and they certainly have some sort of king-making role here. Is the fraternity of composers sort of an old boysí club?

RD: Well, I think, you know, to be honest, within the fraternity of composers, there are many different sub-fraternities, if you would, and sororities. In fact, I would say that the generation of composers to which I belong, that generation of, say, between 30 and 45 has quite a different outlook on things than the generation of composers between, say, 48 and 60. Itís not to say that theyíre completely different. Some of my dearest colleagues are in that other generation. But Iím saying thereís a very different sensibility. Also, I think that composers, in general, tend not to hang out with other composers, Iíve learned. Generally, the musicians that tend to be the closest colleagues of composers are performers. I think itís appropriate. Now, I have some very close friends who happen to be composers. I have one extremely close friend who died in 1992 in a car accident, who happened to be a composer and, I think, one of our finest American composers. But thatís just a gift I would say rather than something that necessarily happens. On the other hand, while I donít necessarily have that many close friends, thereís an amiability that I feel and a fondness that I feel for a number of people. Christopher Rouse is a friend, and I donít see him very often, but whenever we do get together, itís just wonderful to connect with him again. The person I was speaking of before was Stephen Albert, who died in í92.

DB: Right, and who preceded you in Seattle.

RD: Thatís right. He was a wonderful human being, one of the most genuine people Iíve ever known. And then there are other people who I donít see very often but who, such as Aaron Kernis, who I feel tremendous respect and admiration for. Heís one of the very few people in my generation whose next work I look forward to. I would say he and Chris Rouse and John Corigliano, a composer by the name of George Tsontakis, I donít know if you know about him -

DB: Oh, yeah -

RD: - those are the composers who - Stephen Paulus.

DB: Yeah. Basically, all people who came out of that orchestra residencies generation with Meet The Composer.

RD: Yeah, I guess you could say that! Those are the composers whose next music I look forward to the most.

DB: Speaking of that, since you all came up at about the same time, what was your big break as a composer? Was it one those blind submittals that people made to the resident composers?

RD: You know, I donít really think that life happens that way, to be perfectly honest with you. I mean, it would be nice if it were because it makes a great story. But I think that my life has happened in a series of waves rather than one particular event. However, I can say that some of the most memorable waves - which all have an inner-connectedness, if you understand what Iím saying, with each other - some of the most memorable waves occurred in 1988, when I signed an exclusive contract with the publisher, who is like family to me still, G. Schirmer A & P. I would have to say that 1992 to maybe even 94, in that area, was a real watershed experience. I think í92 was the year that "Sonnets to Orpheus" was premiered, a piece I wrote for the Chamber Music Society and Dawn Upshaw, which remains one of my favorite works. I think it was the first work that I wrote in which every note was as it should have been. I felt as if at that point - really, 1991 was when I wrote it - but sometime between the second half of 1991 and the beginning of 1992, the lens finally settled into place and focused itself. There was also another wave in 1994 with the premiere of my Cello Concerto with Yo-Yo Ma. And then in í96, with the signing of my exclusive contract with Sony. These are all, if you see what Iím saying, theyíre all milestones. But Iíll tell you the truth. You know, if somebody was to ask me if any of those qualify as my greatest thrill (laughs), I donít think any of them really are anywhere close to the day that I heard my first orchestra piece for the first time while I was a student at Juilliard. Thatís probably still, for me, one of the all time high points. It was very funny because we were reading a piano concerto that I was actually going to be performing - it was my first commission for an orchestra in Venezuela, and it later got done here with the Juilliard Orchestra in New York while I was a student. But we were doing a reading of some of the orchestral parts, and they needed music stands, so I went out of this famous Room 309 - the Juilliard orchestral room - to look for stands, but they had to start the rehearsal. And I remember walking in with two music stands, one in each hand, through these huge double doors and just being overwhelmed with the sound of my own music for orchestra. And as I heard that - you know, I was 25 - when I heard that, in that instant, I thought, ďMy God, I could get used to this!Ē

DB: Wow! Outstanding!

RD: That was a great - that was really, for me - that was the moment I think I truly knew I would be doing this for the rest of my life!

DB: Itís a great story. Can I quickly ask you about your role as a Pacific Symphony resident composer and maybe this representing your entrťe into the Southern California market? We really donít hear your music around in these parts as far as I can tell.

RD: Right, well, I think from what Iím told itís been changing. I spent a fair amount of time in Seattle, both with my residency - and itís the other part of the West Coast - and I was commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony three times for various works, and so Iíve spent a fair amount of time there. But L.A. was one area that I seem to have not really become too involved in, and yet at the same time, itís always been a place that I think is of vital importance to art and culture in the United States. Thereís a very different take on things where you live as opposed to where I live here in New York. That was one of the reasons that I thought that this would be a productive and positive endeavor. And I think that what Carl St. Clair, who I have profound respect for - I think he is one of the finest young conductors we have - but what he was thinking about was that bringing a composer from New York with an East Coast orientation, a Northeaster, if you would, to Southern California would perhaps provide a kind of ďothernessĒ and cross-pollination, if you would, that might be helpful to the community there. And this is what Iím hoping for in part. And I also feel that I have a great deal to learn from musicians in Southern California, from the attitudes and predilections that prevail. Even though, with communication, itís become a very small country, itís still actually a very large country. And itís still in my sense, the way I see it, the continental United States really consists of several regions unto itself that act and think and make art differently. I think itís nice when itís possible, not to remain too isolated but rather to join energies and exchange ideas.

DB: It was easier a hundred years ago when there were only a handful of orchestras you had to appease. Now thereís at least two dozen, 20 or 30, that you have to make an entry with.

RD: Thereís something I want to add to this whole issue of my presence there in the community. I do a lot of traveling from time to time because of my own work, and one of the things Iím noticing in the States is a proliferation of young talent. Itís astounding how many composers there are. There are clearly twice the number of young people who call themselves composers today than when I was a student. Probably three times the number than when John Corigliano was a student. And Iíve got my own ideas as to why I think this is happening, but the fact remains that thereís an enormous amount of gifted people out there. Theyíre not all going to turn out to be Stravinsky, but they are going to, no doubt, become the cornerstones of our listening and discriminating public. And they are very often going to be people who are involved in administrating arts programs. Theyíre going to be involved in all sorts of aspects of making music, and for me, being attentive to this future generation, itís partly selfish because they will be our audiences, they will comprise and help to augment our audiences for the future. And let me tell you, without an audience, none of this is going to happen.

DB: Let me ask you a couple of things just in listening to your music. One is - Iíve gotta ask you this about "Anima Mundi." Maybe you get tired or weary of questions like this, but thereís a theme that comes in. It weaves in and out, it starts almost at the beginning, itís in three of the four movements, and it sounds like the first seven notes of Borodinís "In the Steppes of Central Asia." Is that accidental or is that intentional?

RD: Yeah, you know, Iíll tell you this is very strange. I donít know that piece. Iíve never heard that piece.

DB: Really?

RD: Honest to God. Never in my life have I heard that piece! And this very question was brought up to me by Royal Brown, who is a wonderful writer for. I wish I could remember the name of the magazine he writes for. Itís a wonderful journal of reviews of CDs and articles. Royal Brown mentioned this to me, and he said, ďDo you know this piece?Ē I said, ďNo, Iíve never heard it.Ē He said, ďThereís a striking resemblance to this theme in Borodin.Ē And I suppose I should hear it at some point. There is also, you know, thereís a Kyrie that Mozart wrote in D minor, just to illustrate my point that goes like this (plays it on the piano)

DB: It kind of sounds like the "Ode to Joy" in a minor key.

RD: Yes. Exactly. Thereís no way Beethoven could have heard that. There is no way he could have heard that even though itís the same key. And you know, when you think about it, how do you explain something like that? Or how do you explain that the beginning of "Bastien and Bastienne," which is Mozartís first singspiel that he wrote as a child begins (plays it on piano)

DB: Hmm!

RD: You know, the same theme as the "Eroica." And I can tell you that also for a fact, because I check these things out because I was curious, thereís no way that Beethoven could have heard Bastien und Bastienne in his lifetime. Those works were just not in circulation.

DB: Maybe it was a folk theme of some sort that was common then that is lost to us now.

RD: It could be that. It also could be that, as my former piano teacher Lorin Hollander, a wonderful musician, said that itís very possible, if you believe in the way that Carl Jung believed, that maybe some of these ideas are sort of in the human psyche as part of a collective music consciousness and that in fact, itís almost as if Beethoven reached out into the icy ether and found his ideas, and it might have been a similar place that Mozart reached into as well. So there are moments where Iím very aware that Iím stealing something and transmuting it, but in this particular case, I must confess I have never heard that piece of Borodinís.

DB: Okay. Interesting. Just a curiosity that I had.

RD: And now, you see, Iím almost not sure that I want to now.

DB: Oh, really?

RD: Well, yeah, because Iíve always heard that, in fact, as something quite unto itself.

DB: Well, itís still a different animal. If you heard the Borodin, youíd just say, ďOh, okay. This is just the way Romantic composers of a hundred years ago handled thematic material.Ē You would appreciate that from a different standpoint, I guess.

RD: I suppose Iíll have to hear it.

DB: I would think itís unavoidable. The other thing, the Concerto, it has this mysterious title of "Zoroastrian Riddles." Iím wondering. I donít recognize any quotations from it. Is there numerology? Are there rhythmic patterns or note values that mean something?

RD: Well, the piece is infused with a series of puzzles and musical games, all of which Iíd be happy if we met at some point in Orange County, Iíd be happy to share them with you.

DB: Okay, visible from the score, then.

RD: Yeah, musical things. And then on another level, there are a whole series of hidden tunes that are from pop culture that I did expressly for David Zinman, who is my friend who conducted the premiere and recorded it with the Pittsburgh Symphony. But the term "Zoroastrian Riddles" comes from Mozart, and it comes from his having created - one of many reasons that I love Mozart above all other composers is that he had this unbelievable, uncanny ability to, in essence, masquerade and encode his themes and ideas and transform them in such a way that theyíre really not unlike his operas where you have all the characters and their mistaken identities. He loved masquerades, and he loved Carnival season, and in this one Carnival season, he wrote these eight riddles which he called "Zoroastrian Riddles." He borrowed a costume, rented a costume of an Eastern sage with the appropriate mask, and at the intermission of one of the great balls in Vienna, he read these riddles and offered a prize to anyone who could guess the answers. And theyíre quite sophisticated. But I realize that, in a way, in Mozartís own music, he was playing these kinds of games. Later, other composers who were doing the same kinds of games and puzzles in their own music was Bartok, who wrote his great Concerto for Orchestra. So essentially, I wanted to write a piece that was constructed out of a series of almost puzzles or riddles that would comprise the fabric and contribute to the dramatic trajectory of the piece.

DB: The identity of the pop quotes, is that supposed to remain unknown?

RD: Well, youíll be able to hear some of them, no doubt, yourself.

DB: Maybe itís my unfamiliarity with pop culture, but Iíve listened to it a few times -

RD: Older pop culture. Thereís something from when I was a child. I mean, themes to sitcoms, and thereís a moment where all of a sudden, thereís a snippet in the last movement of the tune, Getting to Know You. And there is something from Dennis the Menace.

DB: Really?

RD: But you see, the thing is, the way Iíve construed it and constructed it is that if you donít know about these things, they wonít pop out at you and disturb you. Do you see what Iím saying?

DB: Yeah.

RD: Itís only if youíre told to go on an Easter egg hunt that you find them, and then on that level, this was just a sort of a private gift/joke that I was offering to my friend David Zinman, who loves that kind of thing. And I thought, ďGee, wouldnít it be great if this piece existed completely seriously on one level and completely on another level as a sort of light-hearted series of reminiscences? And then on a third level, as a series of musical inter-connected puzzles in which thereís an entire matrix that gets worked out based on eight notes. Thatís basically what I did. (Laughs).

DB: I see. I see. Pretty cool!

RD: And I have to tell you, I had a lot of fun doing it.

DB: Was it a lot of work?

RD: I did it very, very quickly. Itís very odd, but today is what, February 16?

DB: Sixteenth.

RD: You know, I started orchestrating Concerto for Orchestra three years ago - February, í96 - three years ago yesterday. I had the short score that I had done in December of í95, and I started orchestrating it in mid-February of 1996. And I finished the orchestration, all 1200 measures of it, in the third week in April. And when you consider that the short score itself took me only 16 days, that turned out to be roughly ten weeks of work from beginning to end. And thatís quick for a half hour, big orchestral work, for a piece to take ten weeks. And Iíve only had that experience in terms of something moving very, very fast one other time - and that was my Cello Concerto, which the entire short score, which was actually very detailed in terms of the orchestration when it came around to it, was purely mechanical with the Cello Concerto. But I wrote that in December of í93, in 17 days.

DB: Well, understandably, a concerto for orchestra would be a bigger undertaking, orchestration-wise, than a concerto for cello.

RD: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But it was quite something because we had this unusual circumstance. I wasnít able to start it until the middle of February because Iíd had this terrible flu from hell. And we had to have it done by the end of April because we were recording it before we were premiering it. That recording of my Concerto for Orchestra was made before the premiere.

DB: Right, thatís what I understood from the liner notes.

RD: Yeah.

DB: Yeah. Are you gonna be writing any new works for the Pacific Symphony while youíre here?

RD: Yes. A part of our arrangement is that there are two works, one of which I have finished in short score, which is a 15-minute, purely orchestral piece. It ought to be called "The End of the World As We Know It" (laughs), but Iím going to come up, of course, with another title. Itís just about transition and change, appropriately, since it will be premiered in the first week of January, 2000. And then, the large-scale work is going to be a piece entitled An American Requiem, and it will be for chorus, orchestra and soloists. Itís going to be a big one. It will be the last work that I write before commencing on the actual writing of the opera.

DB: Okay, looks like youíre shooting for a Pulitzer Prize here or a Grawemeyer.

RD: Oh, God no! Iím just trying to write the best music I can. I, honest to God, really donít think about those things.

DB: Well, sometimes they creep up on you.

RD: Well, if it does, thatís nice. But, you know, in the same vein as the saying ďvirtue is itís own reward,Ē for me, the quality of the work is truly its best reward. If I write something that is beautiful and that is true and that remains, there is no greater prize than that for me. And by the way, thereís one other thing apropos to this. You know, thereís this great - you read the article on Lowell Liebermann -

DB: Right.

RD: - who actually went to Juilliard at the same time as I did. We know each other well from those old years. But thereís a very interesting thing thatís been bantered about in the press with composers and musicians on the subject of originality. Itís interesting because one of my students just last week said it in a way that I couldnít have said better myself. He said, ďWith your music and with people like Kernis and others, the originality has to do with what goes on within the work rather than whatís on the surface of the work.Ē You understand?

DB: Yeah.

RD: I mean, in that sense, Brahms, who did very little that was new, is an extremely original composer in the sense of how he operates within his own boundaries. Also Mozart, who was essentially no pioneer with the exception of what he did in his operas, who essentially stole from J.C. Bach and from Haydn and from Hasse and all of these contemporaries, but what happens within each work, while none of it is revolutionary, all of it is strikingly distinctive within the work, and I think that to those people who complain, who go and they expect to hear something revolutionary from a new composer every time they go to a concert and they donít and they get disappointed, I think itís also important to note that there are those of us who are original within the boundaries of our work. And if one gets to know some of this music, I think Albert was very much like that - Steve Albert - his music doesnít sound as if itís going to cause any new revolution. Thereís no "Rite of Spring" in his music. But within what he does, he has his own idiosyncratic way of proceeding that is unlike anyone else. And if you get to know that music, youíll realize that he is very distinctive, and I think itís important to mention that because what people look for, what one is looking for and who one is, are not necessarily the same always.

DB: Well, we canít live in a perpetual state of revolution, can we?

RD: No! Exactly, and there are some of us who, not because we try but just because itís the kind of artists we are, some of us are that way. The music just sort of stirs up a kind of newness just by the virtue of its being. Stirs up new ideas, new thoughts, new insights and challenges the foundations of what has existed. Then there are other composers who essentially assimilate and homogenize and integrate the best of whatís around them into their own distinctive style. And I think that thereís room for all sorts of approaches.

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