We spoke at her residence there on January 6, 2011
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.