Revista de pensament musical en V.O.

A Conversation with Anna Rubin


Composer Anna Rubin has long been active in electronic music; recordings of her works can be heard on discs from SEAMUS and Neuma. After receiving the doctorate from the department of music at Princeton, notable for its emphasis on computer music, she taught at Oberlin from 1998 until 2002. She was director of the Lindhan Artists Scholars Program and the Visual Performing Arts interdisciplinary department between 2002-07 at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and now directs Certificate Program in American Contemporary Music at UMBC. We spoke at her home in Ellicott City, southwest of Baltimore.
Ellicott City, Maryland, July 14, 2002

©Anna Rubin

TM: What was the musical environment in your family?
AR: Lots of recordings and lots of piano! During the war, my parents had gone to New York on a trip – they lived in the Midwest. At that time you could make little 78s and send them to soldiers on the front. My mother made one and sent it to my sister, saying “Hello, my dear, we’re in New York, and we’re going to see the Rockettes, and the top of the Empire State Building”. I was born in ’46, and this record became an object of total fascination for me. I would play it over and over again. I look back and see that I was fascinated by the wonderful sing-song of my mother’s voice, and I was fascinated with the recording per se. And lo and behold, the voice and electronic media have became extremely important for me. And in the meantime I studied piano for a long time. No one ever considered me a rising pianist – I didn’t consider music as a career path until after I got a bachelor’s in sociology, and was inspired by an older teacher who had taken up piano later in life.

TM: Did your mother sing? Were there musicians in your immediate family?
She didn’t sing, but she did play piano, and played music constantly. We would dance around the house with scarves, a la Isadora Duncan. She worked very hard to expose my older sister and me to the arts – music, painting, theater, dance. She was the musical influence in the house – my father basically watched TV. She loved classical music, Gershwin, and she had a taste for some jazz. I was exposed to a lot of Jewish music at the synagogue, and that has been a big influence – liturgical singing, folk song. Later I became involved in Jewish camps and learned more about Israeli and Middle Eastern folk song and folk music.

TM: Where did you grow up?
Until the age of twelve I grew up in Akron, Ohio. Then my family moved to Phoenix, Arizona. As soon as I could, I left Arizona and moved to California, where I lived for many, many years, in both northern and southern California.

TM: I don’t have an image of Akron and Arizona as Jewish cultural centers, but it sounds like there was a lot going on.
Actually Akron has quite a vibrant Jewish community. I heard music in the synagogue and studied Hebrew liturgy in religious school. The cantor was outstanding. My parents also had a lot of recordings of Jewish folk and popular music. Phoenix had a smaller Jewish community but our synagogue had a wonderful cantor whose dramatic singing is something I can still recall.. The whole tradition of cantorial singing is a very strong influence for me. And then through a Jewish camp I went to in my teens I was exposed to the larger Jewish community in Los Angeles and a much broader cultural sampling of Jewish arts.

TM: After the bachelor’s in sociology at what point did you go to CalArts?
I taught for five years in an alternative high school. Then I went to Aspen for the summer. I wanted to go to Aspen to see whether I could enjoy doing music full-time (and I could). I had never taken ear-training or theory formally – so I took every introductory offering in theory and electronic music that the Aspen Music School offered, and from there hopped immediately to CalArts, and got a second BFA in music there. I was accepted as a piano student, but early on I took a composition class with Bill Craft, who had been a long-time percussionist with the LA Phil, and is a very fine composer. Something clicked and I realized composition was something I could enjoy and do. I was lucky to come under the tutelage of Leonard Stein, a wonderful man who was very involved in the contemporary music life of LA. He had been a private secretary to Arnold Schoenberg, edited a lot of his work, and headed the Schoenberg Institute at USC for many years. He was a wonderful, wonderful man for whom I am writing a piano piece this year. I took a lot of counterpoint and other music classes, and continued to study composition with him privately after I finished the BFA for three years. I also took some classes at a nearby college, because CalArts wasn’t very strong in things like counterpoint and music history, and I felt the need for that.

TM: Tell us about the program there.
It was totally focused on contemporary music, and there was an amazing collection of people there – Harold Budd, Jim Tenney, Mel Powell, Mort Subotnick, Lucky Moscow. But they had very little use for music prior to 1950 – it was catch-as-catch-can, and exciting as that was, I felt like I didn’t have a good grip on the tradition.

TM: What were the backgrounds of the students coming into the program?
For the BFA program kids came from every kind of background you could think of. It’s perhaps more apt to talk about the MFA program. I had the opportunity to study with Mel Powell privately in 1977, and after six months he brought me into the MFA program. That cohort included Lori Dobbins, who is now a professor of composition, and Randall Packer, a very interesting character who is a historian of multimedia and currently at American University in Washington, DC. At least two of the students came from garage bands.

TM: Until the twentieth century you have instrumentalist that write music for their instruments, but with the twentieth century you get this disconnect between the people who compose and the people who play.
But what about the composer/perfomers, the downtown New York types? Pauline Oliveros is the prime example, but there’s a whole generation of people – Elliott Sharp, John Zorn – who are on the borders of new music and jazz, who do combine both. I consider the computer as my instrument when it comes to electroacoustic music. I must say that I don’t have the ‘performer personality’ and much prefer the behind the scenes role. I have benefited tremendously from working with a variety of composers who dedicate themselves to new music and who really enjoy the collaboration with a composer – people like Abby Conant, Jeffrey Krieger, and Tom Buckner.

TM: Let’s rewind a little. What sort of works were you writing at this stage?
I consider myself very fortunate to have been able to work with Mel Powell – he was a superb teacher, and I consider him to be the Mozart of twelve-tone composers because of his elegance, versatility and nuanced ear. He had a capacity to convey a kernel of wisdom about whatever it was that he was teaching. It didn’t matter what style his students were interested in because he supplied us with really important abstract concepts that are virtually universal in application. He was fun, inspiring, supportive, occasionally irascible. We had a fantastic group in that seminar, and peer learning, as you know, is so important. I did quite a variety of works in that 2-year program – an orchestral piece, several chamber pieces, and my first experiment in combining electronic music with a live instrument. I studied electronic music with Barry Schrader who introduced me to the Buchla synthesizer, which Mort Subotnick had helped design and inspire. I got to work with Mort also, but the more formative influence was Mel. Where Mort taught me about gesture, Mel taught me about deep structure.

For my first electronic piece I used the voice as a source, because it is so rich in sonic and psychological content, and also out of frustration with the canned quality of a lot of electronic music that I was hearing.

TM: You finished the MFA in 1981, and where did life take you from there?
I lived in Amsterdam between 1982-1984. I had originally thought to study at the Institute of Sonology in Utrecht. I had a little attic apartment, and the first night after I rented it the house burned down, and I couldn’t bear the thought of being in Utrecht. But that event brought me to a wonderful composer in Amsterdam, Ton de Leeuw, who was at the Sweelinck Conservatory there. Nearly everything I had brought burned up. I had none of my scores with me, but after telling him briefly about the situation, he immediately accepted me as his student. I didn’t have so many lessons with him, but he was a genial, benign, supportive presence, and for the grand sum of sixty guilders, I had the run of the Conservatory. What I ended up doing was virtually living in its electronic music studio. The following year I did some courses in Utrecht. During that period I also traveled a lot to Germany and France, had a few lessons with Brian Ferneyhough, attended the Darmstadt summer courses, attended events at IRCAM, listened to lots of music, and met composers from all over – it was wonderfully stimulating. After two years, I decided to move back to the US and settle in New York, where I had always wanted to live.

So between 1984 -94, I lived mostly in Brooklyn, and supported myself teaching piano, and editing publications at the American Music Center, and program notes for The Group for Contemporary Music. I then heard about Charles Dodge, and his program at the Brooklyn College Computer Music Center. Curtis Bahn was also there and it was he who did the much of the teaching and informal instruction in CSound. There was a wonderful collaborative environment there – the studio was basically a small room with a few computers. You would be working on your own sounds while sharing the sound system with someone else. So we had to work together and it was so helpful to me. I found CSound quite difficult but was seduced by the sounds I could coax out of the program.

In retrospect I later realized that I was in the camp of the French acousmatic school without being aware of it, without having really listened to it; what continues to be interesting to me is narrative, story-telling, the evocation of character, of time and place, of psychological states.

During that time I was also awarded a residency at Harvestworks, a public access studio and cotinued working with commercial synths. I was also absorbed with writing for orchestra. A piece of mine for orchestra and tape was selected for performance by the National Orchestral Association, (sadly, now defunct,) for the group did a wonderful service in premiering and giving readings for many composers. The piece, called Freedom Sweet and Bitter got several rehearsals and a performance at Carnegie Hall in 1991 by a very fine student orchestra under Jorge Mester.. I also received a commission from Tom Buckner for a called Dangerous Lullabies in 1993. My son was then two years old, and I had recorded his voice. I realized that there were several lullabies that were actually quite menacing with a dark undertone of parental worry and fatigue. I collected these and wove them into a piece for tenor, sampler and mixed ensemble that premiered at Merkin Hall.

I decided late in 1993 that I should return to get my doctorate because university positions were otherwise out of reach. I applied and got into several programs and decided to go to Princeton.

TM: What is the ecology for electronic music, the spheres of influence?
For my first electronic piece I used the voice as a source, because it is so rich in sonic and psychological content, and also out of frustration with the canned quality of a lot of electronic music that I was hearing. In retrospect I later realized that I was in the camp of the French acousmatic school without being aware of it, without having really listened to it; what continues to be interesting to me is narrative, story-telling, the evocation of character, of time and place, of psychological states. I feel a lot of kinship with Francis Dhomont, for example. I spent a lot of time with his work, since I wrote my dissertation on his piece Foret profond. The acousmatic aesthetic is a meeting place for me, my interest in sociology, psychology, and history meet music. I’m a great reader – I love stories, and I’m sure there’s a connection between the storytelling and my Jewish background, in Old Testament narrative, the chaining of one story after another. I love how you can twist and shape the voice, and create structures with it. Dhomont called Foret profond an “acousmatic melodrama”. There’s something in that that I connect with, something I went for intuitively, and then found there was a community of people doing that.

Later, with a collaborator, Laurie Hollander, who was also studying at Princeton for her doctorate, I did a piece about my mother, called Family Stories – Sophie, Sally, which enabled me to explore a very interesting time in my mother’s life. She was born in Atlanta of Jewish immigrant parents; since her mother was ill, she was really raised by a black woman hired by the family. My mother had a distant and ambivalent relationship with her own mother, who died when my mother was still a little girl.

She adored the woman, Sally, who took care of her, but then her father uprooted the family and left the South, so in a very short time she lost both of her mothers, her biological mother, and the mother who was rearing her. Through the medium of that piece I was able to explore that early time in my mother’s life, as well as elements of anti-Semitism and racism. Musically, I wove in spoken narrative with fragments of klezmer and black music. The piece has so much narrative, and we processed virtually every sound in a very detailed and painstaking way. It was a labor of love, and a real labor.  I learned a lot about dramatic structure, about creating an emotional trajectory that also had a sonic structure. I am indebted to Paul Koonce’s PVC (phase-vocoding) programs which allow you to do very detailed alteration of harmonic content among other things.

TM: How does the audience for this kind of music get exposed to it? Through recordings? Concerts?
Recordings are very important as well as festivals, concerts, radio. How to get this music out to people is still quite an issue. I find that if I can grab someone who doesn’t care about Brahms, about the Western classical tradition, they can however find my music quite acessible, if they get to hear it. But it’s not easy to reach that audience. Very sophisticated people, who think nothing of going to current art exhibitions, current film, whether mainstream, foreign or independent, readers of all kind of literature, don’t know anything about contemporary music, and very little about contemporary electroacoustic music apart from Brian Eno, ambient and new-age genres. If I have the opportunity to play them this music they are fascinated, but they are not people who go out of their way to go to a concert of this stuff. It’s a real issue. We’ve lost a generation.

We’re still dealing with the legacy of the serial music of the fifties, which was so forbidding and so unappealing to most people – it didn’t touch them emotionally. And frankly the ear is the most conservative sense organ – most people are quite conservative in their musical tastes.

TM: Perhaps the conservatism is due to the fact that human’s abilities to learn new languages changes after puberty, something that seems to be hardwired into the way the brain develops, so that what people hear as native language for music is the most elementary syntax that they heard as children.
But if you go to a typical horror flick, you are listening to warmed-over Babbitt and Schoenberg; people can accept extremely dissonant music in the context of film.

TM: Because they are told visually what to feel.
Actually, I think it is the sound that often creates the real sense of horror but it is part of the whole film/sound construct. I was struck by the beautifully processed whale song in Star Trek IV, which my son and I were watching. It has a very strong musical theme, and the sounds are treated in some very abstract ways. There are also some interesting abstract visuals that are snuck in. The music of course fit into an overarching narrative structure – it was extrapolated whale song. To get back to Dhomont, when he uses the term “acousmatic melodramas”, he is making the point that he is hanging his musical structure on a narrative idea, which carries the weight.

People are more open to world music now, and contemporary composers have made an impact on film music, on sound effects imagery. It seeps into the commercial mainstream, but often leaves art composers outside in the colder rarified air. We need to be more creative in how we program this music. There are a few people who can get big audiences and they generally are doing multimedia. I am interested to see the new Steve Reich-Beryl Korot video piece at BAM this fall, curious to see where his musical imagination has gone and how it interfaces with Korot’s video imagery and Reich’s very deeply felt Jewish heritage.

TM: What have you been working on since leaving Princeton for Oberlin?
Among the things I’ve done are to re-compose some earlier tape works which I turned into tape and instrument pieces. There’s a wonderful early music institute at Oberlin, where I met a Deborah Nagy, very talented baroque oboe player,. I transformed an earlier piece, Stolen Gold, into piece for amplified baroque oboe and tape. The baroque oboe, with its simpler structure – none of the metal key covers – has a wonderful capacity for glissandi. I complemented glissandi and melismatic passages on the live instrument with synthesized mega-glissandi and granulated sound ‘clouds’.

In addition to writing for the baroque oboe, I have also written for baroque flutes, lute, and my favorite, the viola da gamba. I had been working with water sounds in a piece called Sea Changes and got in touch with a wonderful lutenist in New York called Catherine Cornell, who has a real ear for new music. So first there was a version of Sea Changes for her, and then a version for viola da gamba, which I enjoyed composing tremendously.
Oddly enough, my favorite acoustic instrument is the viola da gamba = and secondarily, the cello. I love the flexibility of tone, and the nuanced timbres. I am a also big fan of amplification for string instruments, and that’s why it’s been fun working with Jeff Krieger who plays electric cello.

The biggest project I have worked on since ’98 is a piece called Land Mines. I came across an amazing little book by an art historian, David Levy-Strauss, which included haunting photographs of land mine victims along with a beautiful text. I contacted the author through an educator and curator named Linda Weintraub, who was a professor of new and emerging arts at Oberlin. Levy-Strauss agreed to go to a studio and talk about demining, especially in Cambodia, where had traveled extensively and I used portions of that narrative for the piece. I had come into contact with a Canadian flutist, Fiona Wilkinson, who is very interested in technology, and quite savvy, and interested in developing a repertoire. So the piece was for tape, live amplified flute, and processed flute. I created the tape sounds using a Kurzweil synthesizer.

Abby Conant, an American trombonist who is based in Germany, had wanted me to do a piece for her. I also did a version for her. And Jeff Krieger and I are collaborating on a version for him working, which will use Max/MSP. It’s been interesting reworking the piece for these different virtuoso performers.

Right now I am in a period of gestation. I had four years at Oberlin, and now have a wonderful opportunity at the University of Maryland – Baltimore County, directing a new program for interdisciplinary arts, as well as a scholarship program for arts students. It’s an opportunity to recalibrate, retune, and meet a new group of people, and decide what I want to do next. My project at the moment is to write a piece for Leonard Stein’s 85th birthday. I am honored, that he will be including it on a concert in Pasadena with music by Boulez and Birtwistle as part of his Piano Spheres series. (Note: Stein passed away in 2004)

TM: Does being a woman have an influence on the music that you write? You had many women as colleagues writing computer music at Princeton.
Being a woman has a tremendous influence on what I do. I find it curious that there has been a rush of women to video, photography, internet art, but not to computer music. Technology has not daunted women in video, in photography, but it has in computer music. There’s a rather forbidding culture. It takes work, and for me it has taken mentoring. I couldn’t have learned this on my own.

It wasn’t easy for me, but I was seduced by the sounds. I was fortunate to find mentors and allies – men and women have helped me along the way.

It will be interesting to see what happens. I think many younger women will find their way to sound through visual arts. And it’s that way for a lot of men as well.

I-Movie for example.

But computer music is still forbidding. The situation is similar to women in engineering and physics – they are there, but are still a distinct minority. The woman who gets exposed to technology early, is affirmed, gets support, is in a culture that is not misogynist, will prosper, and those who don’t may turn in other directions. Here at UMBC, the CWIT (Center for Women in Technology) is promoting events to interest middle school girls in their fields because of the lack of high school girls applying to their programs. We should be doing that for composition!

TM: Do you see an aesthetic commonality among women as composers, or women as musicians?
That’s an interesting and difficult question. This is a recurring topic on the IAWM listserv [1] () For some women who they are as women makes a tremendous difference in the art they produce and they are more open to using highly personal material. For example, choosing one’s mother’s biography as a subject is not something that would have occurred to a lot of men. Paul Lansky’s comment to me after hearing the piece was “only a woman could do that”. And Paul himself uses text and narrative, but in a completely different way as does Francis Dhomont; but they don’t use material that is so obviously personally referential.

TM: Because men are less willing to be emotionally open about their experience?
Could be! (Guffaws). What a concept!!!

It’s interesting that in the sixties and early seventies, women artists like Eva Hesse were experimenting with soft sculpture – fabric and outrageous materials like tampons hanging on the wall. She was creating really personal art that was initially scorned and belittled. Then, as some male artists became interested in the approach, which opened things up for more women as well as men, many of whom didn’t acknowledge where the impulse came from. It may be a cliché but a true one that more women are willing to expose their vulnerabilities publicly. No doubt this impulse comes from feelingl more alienated from the tradition. The ongoing dialogue always seems to simmer in certain musical circles about the value of so-called abstract versus program music, so that the Pastoral symphony is not granted the same weight as the Fifth and with Bach’s music embodying the ultimate disembodied abstract ideal.

Bias for the so-called abstract is just that, a bias, and it has disfavored women’s interests and women’s lives. I think as women have entered formal musical life, made themselves present in public arts, they have often done that by telling their stories, quite literally.

I think it is a wonderful time to be composing. I feel a lot of permission to do whatever. The walls have broken down. If you look in any university department, there are no two composers doing the same thing. The idea is “Oh, yes, we should have diversity, we should have people representing different strands, we should someone tonal, someone atonal, someone post-modern.” However, for students it is as confusing as ever to find one’s own media, one’s own voice.

TM: Since not only do you have to model your compositions, but you have to choose which model.
Yes. But I should add that I also see, there is a group of students who feel permission to be chameleons, who are not so concerned about a consistent voice. It will be fascinating to see what the body of their work will look like.

It’s both an exciting and difficult time for the arts. I think we may see very sophisticated computer based art, but also a resurgence of non-technological trends, like the resurgence of a cappella singing on campuses. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a resurgence of “bread and puppet” theater groups. We are seeing a profusion of local cells of art-making. I’m not convinced about the creation of a truly global culture as far as art music goes. In Germany you hear German music, in France, French music…

There’s been a funding bias over the last decade towards projects that have a local component, which has interested composers in writing for their communities. In 2000 I received a commission to compose an orchestral piece which involved five community arts groups. Poet Lynn Powell wrote poetry celebrating Ohio’s Black River watershed which was both narrated and incorporated into choral music by a children’s chorus. Perhaps I’ll work with similar groups in my new home, the Chesapeake Bay watershed.  I find the Baltimore-Washington region very stimulating and eclectic.

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[1] A free online community sponsored by the International Alliance for Women in Music