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A Conversation with Rami Levin


Rami Levin is an American composer who studied at Yale, UCSD, and University of Chicago, and formerly served as professor of music, associate dean of faculty and composer-in-residence at Lake Forest College in Chicago. She relocated permanently to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2010.
We spoke at her residence there on January 6, 2011
Rami Levin

Rami Levin©

TM: Please talk about the musical environment in your family when you were growing up.
RL: My parents had the classical radio station on all the time – WQXR, in New York. When I was five and a half I started going to a music school on Sundays where I learned to play the recorder, piano and basic music theory. My parents often took me to concerts. For my seventh birthday they took me to a performance of La Boheme at the Metropolitan Opera. There was always a lot of music around the house. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t playing an instrument or listening to music. My parents themselves are musical to a certain extent. My father had a very nice voice, and though he didn’t sing professionally, he was a cantor at various synagogues. He did not play an instrument. My mother took piano lessons when she was young. I don’t recall any stories about my grandparents having played instruments, but everyone in the family was a music-lover.

TM: How did your father come to be a cantor? Was there a family connection?
RL: He never had any training. He came from an Orthodox family, and went to synagogue regularly. I would imagine at some point a synagogue he belonged to needed a cantor occasionally and he offered his services. In later years he was a cantor for the High Holy Days.

TM: You must have memories of him singing?
RL: I have memories of him singing at home when I was growing up, but his cantorial exploits were not until much later, so I don’t have any memories of that.

TM: Did you grow up in Manhattan?
RL: I grew up in Long Island, and we moved to Manhattan when I was in high school.

TM: In addition to music school, what other musical memories do you have from childhood?
RL: I went to the High School of Music & Art, which has since been combined with the High School of Performing Arts and is now called La Guardia School of the Arts. It was a phenomenal experience. All of my friends were fabulous musicians or artists already. It was there that I learned to play the oboe. I entered the school as a pianist, and the rule was that if you were accepted as a pianist, you had to learn another instrument so that you could play in a band or orchestra. I chose the oboe, and really loved it. I played it all through high school and college as well.

I studied composition privately in New York with Miriam Gideon. She was a wonderful influence. First of all, she was a woman composer, so it never occurred to me that women could not be composers. She was a very supportive teacher. She encouraged me to make recordings of my pieces, which was a very important thing to do, so I could gain some perspective on what I was writing. At first I wrote for whatever instruments were at hand or music I could play on the piano, which was a limitation, since I am not a very good pianist. Later I would write for oboe, and for my instrumentalist friends at Music & Art, and we recorded the pieces (non professionally).

TM: What do you recall from your early lessons on piano and recorder, when you were five or six?
RL: My piano teacher told me about a little boy named Mozart, who was writing symphonies when he was my age. I began to feel very competitive with this kid named Mozart, and decided, when I was about six, to write an opera. My teacher taught me how to write down the music I was inventing. I still have the manuscript, in very childish handwriting, of my first (and only) opera. I wrote a couple of scenes, basically I, IV, V, I chord progressions all in C major. But my teacher was very encouraging and said, “You’re composing!” In a sense she was my first composition teacher. Half of each of my lessons was devoted to writing down my little tunes. The piano was a vehicle for me. At first I wrote only for piano, because that was all I really knew. Later on, in high school, when I learned about other instruments, I expanded my compositional repertoire.

TM: When your papers are collected and given to an academic institution, your first opera will be included.
RL: Perhaps. There’s an overture, which is all C major. Then there’s an aria where a boy and girl talk about what to do: “What shall we do today – too cold to go out and play – what shall we do, what shall we do, what shall we do today?” I was certainly not in the same league as that kid named Mozart!

TM: So you were composing at the age of six. What music were you listening to at the time, and in your teen years?
RL: Mostly classical music; Mozart, Bach and Beethoven – it was also the music that I was playing on the piano. I didn’t hear my first impressionist piece until I was a teenager. During my first summer in high school, I went to a music program at the University of Vermont. My composition teacher played me some Debussy, and showed me that if you started with a triad, you could add a seventh and then a ninth, to create different sounds. I had never heard anything like it. I thought “Wow! This is incredible!” So I began exploring these new harmonies, moving beyond the classical style.

TM: Was there ever a time when you did not think that you would be a musician, that you might be an engineer, or an architect, or a dentist?
RL: From my earliest childhood I always assumed that I would be a composer. That was what I was most interested in. When I was in college I majored in music. There was a brief period where I flirted with the idea of psychology. I took a lot of psychology courses, but nothing ever held as much importance in my heart and mind as music.

TM: Was there a point at which you thought you might be a performer?
RL: No. I don’t think I was ever good enough to be a professional performer, certainly not as a pianist, and not as an oboist. I was good enough to play in orchestras and bands in high school and college. But being an oboist in an ensemble was a way to learn orchestration. I could hear what the people around me were playing, and how it all fit together. It helped me to be aware of what instrumental combinations would sound like. Before I had music software with synthesized sounds, I could hear in my mind the sounds of the instruments that I wanted. Orchestration always came naturally to me.

TM: It sounds like you had the great good fortune to meet a mentor at a young age that showed you that it would be possible to make your path as a composer.
RL: I think that’s true. It was something that seemed very natural to me. At Music & Art I had friends who were also composers. In college I was part of a group of composers as well. Being a composer has always been an important part of who I am.

TM: You mentioned that impressionist music was a revelation. When you got to college, what were the musics that were important for you? It’s possible to be so closed inside a classical music culture that you don’t have any exposure to things outside it. What were your ears picking up during your college years?
RL: I had a roommate and close friend, Diana Raffman, who was a flutist. Her father was a composer – Relly Raffman [1921-1988]. For my birthday our freshman year, she gave me a recording of Stravinsky, with Orpheus on one side, and Apollo on the other side. I had never heard any Stravinsky. She also gave me the Beatles’ White Album and Dave Brubeck’s Greatest Hits. I had never heard any of them – rock music and jazz were never played in our house, though I do remember seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan when I was a kid.

I fell in love with all three of the recordings. It was my first exposure to Stravinsky, who remains my favorite composer of all time. I couldn’t hear enough of his music – I tried to get every recording that I could possibly find. And I became a fan of the Beatles. And jazz. Those are three influences, and musical favorites of mine to this day.

In college the group of composers I mentioned gave concerts of contemporary music twice or three times a semester. The other composers wrote music in different styles than I, so I was exposed to more contemporary and avant-garde music. I also had two very good composition teachers in college, who pushed me beyond my comfort zone, and that helped a lot.

TM: Who were these important people?
RL: The first composition teacher I had at Yale was Yehudi Wyner. He taught me some techniques that I still use. The first assignment he gave me was to write a piece using only two intervals, and their inversions. I wondered, “How am I going to do that?” The intervals had to be used both melodically and harmonically – which seemed very limiting to me. I wrote a duet for soprano and cello using major seconds and perfect fourths. It forced me to explore different harmonies, and I liked the results. To this day whenever I start writing a piece of music I give myself limits to work with. The idea of limits is something I think about a lot. Stravinsky once said that limits set you free. A composer has to impose some kind of limits, because otherwise she (or he) is faced with a blank piece of paper without direction, which can be pretty overwhelming. It helps to come up with a way of defining what it is that you are going to write.

The other composition teacher I had in college was Bob Morris, who I think teaches at the University of Rochester now. He was a very supportive teacher, and often gave me music to listen to – either something he was working on or recordings by composers who wrote in a completely different style than mine. He pushed me to broaden my way of listening and thinking about music.

TM: You must have been among the very first women studying at Yale.
RL: I graduated in 1975, the third class of women that entered as freshmen. (There were women who came in as transfer students in earlier classes).

TM: How was that culture?
RL: It was mixed. There was an excitement about it, because, as the first group of women at Yale we were considered very special. On the other hand, I remember being the only woman in a section of a freshman English course. The professor kept asking me for the women’s opinion, which made me very uncomfortable. I switched out of that section, because I didn’t want to be put in that position weekly. A lot of my female friends complained that there weren’t enough women for us to befriend. But I made some very close women friends. On the whole, it was a terrific place to be, at an exciting time.

I’ve been back to campus in recent years and it is a very different place – it’s now 50-50, male-female. It feels like a healthier place – it’s more natural to be a woman there now.

TM: What was the ratio when you were there?
RL: It was about 5 to 1 (male-female).

TM: Harvard at that time was about 2.5 to 1. When I think of Yale, I think of the Whiffenpoofs, close harmony, male chums….
RL: Women started their own singing groups. This became more common in the years after I graduated. There weren’t any mixed groups while I was a student there.

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