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A Conversation with Dmitri Tymoczko-1


Dmitri Tymoczko, who teaches music at Princeton University, is both a noted writer on music and music theory, and a successful composer, with two recent CDs on Bridge. We spoke via Skype on June 2, 2016.

Dmitri Tymoczko

Dmitri Tymoczko

Tom Moore: Where were you born and raised?
Dmitri Tymoczko: I was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when my parents were in grad school, and I was raised two hours west of there in Northampton, Massachusetts, which is a medium-sized college town.

TM: Were your parents academics in both places?
DT: Yes, they were both professors. My dad[i] was a philosophy professor at Smith College. He died when I was about twenty-five, and my mom[ii] is still a professor of comparative literature at UMass.

TM: How long were you in Cambridge?
DT: I barely remember living there. We moved to Northampton when I was maybe three or four. My parents lived in a commune. Our house was a commune for the first few years that I lived there. I have memories of a whole bunch of people living in this giant old house.

TM: Situate us in time. This was when?
DT: I was born in 1969, just two weeks before the seventies. It was the hippie era, and my parents were definitely part of that – living in a big community, I think they were growing marijuana in the garden – that kind of thing. Protesting the Vietnam War – I remember my dad getting arrested when I was four or five.

TM: In spite of the fact that they were academics holding faculty positions.
DT: That was not unusual. The protests against Vietnam were centered in the universities, to some extent, and I have encountered a lot of professors now who were involved in the student movement and protests then. It was part of the intellectual culture.

TM: These days, I think of Northampton as being a center for lesbian culture nationwide. Was that the case in 1969?
DT: Maybe not in 1969, but by the late seventies that was happening. It grew out of the feminist movement – Northampton was a natural place for it. I remember being aware of this from the time that I was pretty young.

TM: What do you remember of the commune? Did it have a particular focus?
DT: It was a social gathering. There was a boy a year or two younger than me, Quentin, who was my friend. It was a very large house that was built in 1900 by the richest person in this town. They bought it for very cheap from a woman who was going into a nursing home. It had lots and lots of rooms. To be honest, I have confusing memories. I have memories of being in a crib, and in my mind, I am living there just with my family, and then later I remember digging into the plaster of my wall and realizing that I could get to the room where my friend Quentin was staying with his dad. It’s strange because I believe it must have been a commune when I was in the crib, but I only remember the other people later.  Most of my early memories are focused on my parents, and on the family unit, but everything is kind of hazy. Except for a very clear memory is of a total eclipse of the sun that happened when I was two. It’s such a dramatic memory to see the sun go away.

TM: Were there musical aspects about your parents’ activities that had an influence on your development as a musician?
DT: I remember my dad playing the guitar, trying to teach himself when I was very young. My parents were not naturally musicians – they were intellectuals. Both of them loved music, and wished that they had continued with instrumental performance. They both felt kind of resentful of their own parents for letting them stop playing the piano, or whatever instrument they were learning, too early. My father was an avid listener to interesting popular music, and used to be a fan of the college radio station. There was a great music scene, and you had bands like the Pixies – at least one of whom went to college down the road at UMass. My father would buy all of these records – Jonathan Richman, Pink Floyd – and at a certain point I started raiding his music collection, which also had more music that was moving toward classical music – Jean-Michel Jarre, Oxygène, Tubular Bells – popular music pointing in that direction. That’s one of the places where I was influenced by them.

TM: The alternative radio station scene got started maybe in 1968, 1969…. WBCN.
DT: We couldn’t get Boston radio, but there were local stations that played interesting music.

TM: What is your earliest memory of making music, or wanting to make music?
DT: When I was very young I started writing little pieces. I have a piece called “The Walking Dinosaur” which my dad wrote down for me, that I wrote when I was five or six. It plays white notes, and then black notes, and then white notes again – I remember rediscovering it when I was older.
Classical music was a mystery to me when I was playing the piano. A lot of piano teachers focus on the fingers, and not so much on the brain and the ears. I didn’t really understand the music that I was playing as much as I should have. At a certain point (maybe when I was in seventh grade) my parents let me switch from piano to electric guitar. I had a very cool teacher named Curt Heavey, who was a progressive jazz guy, really into Weather Report, an interesting, hip musician, who was open-minded, and aware of a lot of different stuff. We started improvising, and that kind of music is a kind of music that you can only participate in by creating – for me notated composition was a bringing together of this classical world and progressive, more experimental popular music. In high school I ran out of math classes, and was allowed to take classes at the local college. One of them was with a great music theorist, Raphael Atlas. He had done a doctorate at Yale in music theory, and was an enthusiastic lover of a huge range of music. One day he put on Beethoven’s 3rd, and played the opening of the symphony while speaking the Roman numerals. “I, I, V, I” – suddenly a light bulb went on in my head, and I could hear how the different harmonies were creating tension, and connecting to the phrasing. It suddenly made Beethoven click for me in a way that it hadn’t before. I just hadn’t known what to listen for before in the right way.

TM: To go back a bit to the question of the piano, we think that it’s normal for a middle-class family to own a piano, but it doesn’t get there unless somebody made a decision to buy one, or unless there was one that was in the house that was left behind. How did your piano get there?
DT:  My parents went out and bought a Blüthner, not a baby grand, but a little bit bigger, an antique, connoisseur piano, with a cracked soundboard, so that it was always a semitone flat, but they kept it in tune. It has a very unusual tone, not at all like a modern Steinway.

It was an aspirational thing.  When they decided to end the commune, they actually flipped a coin with the co-owners, and they ended up with the beautiful mansion. The coin came up their way. They had 5000 square feet of floor space to fill up. We had giant formal dining room/parlor, and they a huge, beautiful piano in there. I remember buying the piano, which was something they did so that I could play. I was the only one who ever played it, until my siblings came along. Every parent screws up by trying to undo the mistakes that their own parents did, right? They were not going to let me stop music lessons, come hell or high water. They would let me switch to guitar, but stopping music was not an option.

I now have a kid who is eight, and who has been playing piano for a couple of years. His sister, who is three, has just started playing the piano. My main goal for them is to make piano as much fun as possible from the earliest age. I make a real effort to be there all the time, and to make piano playing more of a social activity. My innovation is immediate micro-rewards – you play your music, and you get to play a minute or two of video games, and then you go back and play your next piece. I am explaining stuff like tonic and dominant from the get-go. My own early music lessons, until I got to my guitar teacher, were really about the body, and not about the ear or the brain. Even things like singing the right note, so that they have to find on the keyboard, rather than telling them the note, is not part of how I was brought up.

TM: Many people have “piano pitch” – they can recognize pitches, but only if played on a piano. I am assuming that this didn’t happen with you.
DT: Absolute pitch is something that comes in so many gradations and varieties. My official line is that I do not in any way have absolute pitch. But, I can often recognize a note on the piano. Sometimes a note pops into my head and I absolutely know what note it is. If I am composing something, and using midi for a playback of my piece, if I transpose it a semitone, it sounds awful and wrong. That used to keep me from transposing my music. At some point in grad school, I thought “this can’t be right”, and forced myself to listen to the piece twenty times in the new key until my brain adjusted. I think that has something to do with the way that samples act under transposition – I don’t really know what it is, but I have also encountered this students, where people without perfect pitch find that different transpositions of their pieces sound very different. In the end, the real question for me is “is perfect pitch a tool that you can rely on?” And it isn’t that for me.

TM: We think it is a natural tool, but it can be something problematic to deal with.
Was there a phase in which you started to listen to some different music as an adolescent?ç
DT: I got a stereo when I was in about seventh grade, and I would tune into those “left of the dial” radio stations. The first song that I really discovered for myself was the song “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath. I heard it on the radio and thought “this is unbelievable music – I have never heard music like this.”  But I missed the name of the song, and only heard the name of the band. So every week I would spend my allowance on a new Black Sabbath album, trying to find that song. I bought seven or eight albums before I finally found it, and I got habituated to the disappointment – I never liked any of the other songs as much as I loved that song. And finally I found the song.

As I think about it now, it’s strange and obsessive – I was a twelve-year old kid, and I was not going to stop until I found that song.

TM: The fact that we can now have more or less the entire production of recorded music available to you as a monthly subscription for less than you would have paid for an LP twenty years ago, or less than you would pay for a CD these days, and that we no longer have to make value judgments about what we listen to based on the fact that we have only three dollars, and that will buy us only one LP – this gives us a completely different perspective on music than those who are growing up now.
DT: It’s a world of abundance, and music is the subject of our conversation, but it’s also true about books, about movies  – any movie that we want to watch, we can immediately stream. There’s a temptation to get apocalyptic, and think that the pleasures were much sweeter when the strawberries came just in July – now we live in an age of plenty, and our loves are not as passionate. I personally don’t believe that that is going to be true. I think that people will still love music. I see from my son that he loves his books, he loves his music, he latches on to things that are really good. I think that people will always fall in love with particular music, with particular objects of art – quality will win, but the economics are going to be different, our relation to the canon is definitely going to be different – my story about finding that song, now, in the future, is something you do through twenty minutes of Google-searching. There won’t be this same sense of precious achievement, but there will be analogues. Art will always be precious in some ways.

TM: Part of what it meant to be a male was to have something cool that nobody else knew about, and that is completely gone.
DT: Yes. Now everybody knows about everything.

TM: Or everybody knows nothing about everything. Were you playing Black Sabbath on your guitar? Or Weather Report?
DT: A mixture of both. I wish I had had more of a solid jazz education. That is something that only happened in my late college years and grad school. I was writing very strange music  – Yes was a very big influence – you can imagine a  fourteen-year old imitating Yes imitating classical symphonies. I was trying to play all that music on the guitar, learning to play things by ear. Not too much of that music is anything that I would willingly let anyone listen to now. That’s the caterpillar stage.

TM: Though you still have the cassette tapes….
DT: Probably they are somewhere and need to be carefully guarded to prevent them from getting out.

TM: We’re talking about the mid-eighties, and I look back and think of the eighties as a particularly bleak period for popular music. Both Yes and Weather Report are already passé at this point.
DT: Personally, I am a big believer in that first post-punk generation. I think that the Pixies’ first albums are monumentally great. Really early New Wave, before it lost its edge, is very high quality music. It got co-opted – if you listen to what happened to the Clash, as they went after American main-stream record success, with MTV homogenization – Rock the Casbah is nowhere as compelling as London Calling. The first Devo album is, for me, amazing music, one of the highlights of this intellectual, post-progressive rock period. But again, they lost that incredible surreal energy, and by 1984 they were parodying themselves in a sense.

TM: which had to do with the political situation in the country.
DT: That might have been part of it. I also think that it had a lot to do with the record industry. The record industry was trying to take properly niche bands and make them mainstream – artistically, though the worst thing to do was to try to have them sell twenty million copies of their records. The record industry only knew that as a path to profitability. The best thing to do would have been to have them sell a million copies of their records, but to be making interesting art. That is the dark side, that a lot of these bands were controlled by the record industry. Laurie Anderson, Big Science – that was a huge, really important record for me – I loved that music. Laurie came to give a colloquium at Princeton last fall, and that was one of the most exciting visits by a composer that has happened since I have been there, since she was a childhood hero of mine.

There are a lot of those early eighties records that I would take to a desert island, before I took Tales from Topographic Oceans.

TM: Let’s go back to Raphael Atlas. For me this sounds like the initial impact of classical music.
DT: I had been playing Beethoven and Bach, something I was doing in a non-creative way, a reproductive way – my piano teacher could trace her teachers back to Czerny. Once I was playing Für Elise, and I did too many e-d sharps, and I remember her reproving me as if it were a moral transgression – this fierce old lady yelling at you because you were into the trill, and made it go on a little longer…..

I was brought up without being given tools for imagining the standpoint of someone who might have created this music. And here I had this other kind of music, where, with my guitar teacher, if I wanted to play e-d sharp for two hours, that was OK with him.

What Raphael did for me was start to bring those two worlds together, providing conceptual tools that would allow me to imagine myself as a creator of that kind of music. To think of that notated music not just as recreation, but as something that you could participate in.

TM: What was the point at which you began to think “I am a composer” or “I can be a composer”?
DT: When I was in high school I had a bunch of friends who were maybe two or four years older than me. I was an annoying little kid, but they hung out with me. One of these friends, David Bogartz, was going off to college when I was still in ninth grade. He told me he was going to major in music – music was something that we did together, we played music, we went to concerts – and I remember being shocked by this. I was a kid who was really good at math and science, my father was a philosopher who had studied the philosophy of mathematics, and mathematics was just always thought of as a kind of pinnacle of intellectual achievement in the house. I had always assumed, without thinking about it, that I would go to college and major in mathematics or physics. I was bowled over that my friend was going to major in music, because I knew that he also was good in math and science, and I said “why not major in math?” He said, “I thought about that, but I decided that I actually like music a lot, and I don’t really like math that much.” That really opened my mind…

For me there was never a question of “do I dare to write music?” The block for me was that in studying it you are starting to foreclose other options, and you are not going to be a mathematician or a scientist if you major in music. That was something that was scary, that I was going to jump off the high-dive, and direct myself to music, given all the riskiness that that involves. But my friend David was the first person to get me thinking along those lines. My father, on his deathbed, made me promise to go to Yale Law School, and not to go to music graduate school. He was pretty worried about that. 

TM: ….and you didn’t go to Yale Law School.
DT: I lied to him, because when someone is dying of cancer, and asking you to make a promise like that…

TM: You have to say yes.
DT: I could have said no. But I see the white lie as a sign of maturity… it was really the last day of his life, and I felt like discretion was the better part of valor.

That’s all a complicated topic, but I was in high school, taking college music classes, learning about Bartok with Raphael Atlas, starting to write little compositions – I was not a fast developer. I meet high school kids now who are writing advanced, amazing music. I was just dipping my toe in the water at that age. Coming from a small town, you are a little ignorant, and so I didn’t know who was out there. I had never had that much self-doubt, which served me well, even though looking back I feel like I should have had a hell of a lot more self-doubt. If you grow up in a big city you realize that there are people who are very advanced in music at a very early age. Fortunately I was spared that knowledge until it was too late.

TM: Did you ever go to Boston or Manhattan?
DT: In high school I had a girlfriend who was at Barnard, and so I would go down a bunch, would drive down and spend weekends with her. I would go and see Charles Wuorinen organ recitals, and go to Sonic Youth concerts. I sat behind Wuorinen, and he was a jerk to me when I said I liked his organ piece. Why be mean to that sixteen-year old kid? Just be polite and say thanks…

For whatever reason, I didn’t encounter those super talented composition kids.

TM: You made a decision to study music at college. Where did you go?
DT: I went to Harvard. To study with Leon Kirchner, and Ivan Tcherepnin, who ran the electronic music studio. In high school, I had taken the electronic music composition class with Ron Pereraat Smith College, where we made musique concrete with tape, splicing, this kind of thing….It was a funny kind of situation where I was sixteen – compared to the kids who had written Bartokian string quartets when they were fourteen, I was way behind, but, on the other hand, I had exposure to things that maybe you don’t get at Juilliard pre-college if you go down a more straight-laced path. I loved that experience, I loved making music with tape – I thought I would go to college and simply study with Ivan Tcherepnin. I actually ended up never taking his class, because my freshman year I got into Leon Kirchner’s composition seminar. Tcherepnin said “take that class, not my class”, which tells you something about Tcherepnin, his humility, and his reverence for Kirchner. That pushed me down a more traditional notated path.

TM: You were already advanced enough that they didn’t push you down their theory sequence?
DT: I had taken a semester of theory with Raphael Atlas. The Harvard first-year theory program at the time was entirely devoted to Bach chorales, which, to me, is madness.

TM: Who was doing Music 51 that year?
DT: John Stewart. Luise Vosgerchian was the person who established the program.

In August before my freshman year, I bought the Riemenschneider book of Bach chorales, copied out the melodies, and harmonized them in four parts myself, and then compared what I had done to what Bach did. I did that about thirty times, and maybe I showed it Raphael once. I went to Luise Vosgerchian, she gave me a melody, and I harmonized it. She asked me to sightread a chorale at the piano, and I couldn’t do it to save my life, because I had been only playing guitar. She said “you’re unusual, because you know how to harmonize Bach chorales, so you’ll go to second year theory.” I guess I had taught myself how to harmonize a chorale adequately on my own in a month. One of the funny things was that in Music 51 they would first teach you to do it with no passing tones, and then they would add in the non-harmonic tones. Using passing tones was “advanced” from that point of view, whereas since I didn’t have any of that knowledge, I just thought that chorales should have passing tones.

TM: Looking back (I was an undergraduate at Harvard), I can see that the Harvard program had more rigor than almost any place that I know of, and more than most places have these days. Not only did you have the harmony/composition sequence, but you had Basic Piano – being able to read figured bass at sight, able to read all the clefs, able to take atonal dictation….
DT: That stuff was aspirational to me, in the sense that I didn’t end up fluent at figured bass, I didn’t end up fluent at atonal dictation — but I did end up with the sense that I should be fluent, and that any failure was a deficiency of mine to be worked at. You should always be pushing yourself to be as good at stuff as you can possibly be. They did a better job than Princeton does at that kind of practical musicianship.

Steve Mackey sometimes says that he’s the last composer to get the strict twelve-tone education, and I am fifteen years young than he is. I got the same education from Donald Martino, Leon Kirchner… Milton Babbitt came to Harvard, and he was a huge influence for me. The flipside of that rigor and strictness is that my teachers were still living the dream of American serialism at the time that Reich was writing Different Trains… there was a lot of stuff going on that didn’t penetrate that bubble.

TM: People are always teaching a generation or two back. Were you allowed to write what you wanted to write in this context at Harvard?
DT: “Allowed” is a very tricky concept. In theory, everyone was allowed to write anything. That was what the teachers said. Milton Babbitt came during my freshman year, and I talked my way into his graduate seminar, which was eventually captured as a book called Words About Music.  Milton Babbitt was an unbelievable extemporaneous speaker. Words About Music was based on the same lectures that he gave at Wisconsin, and I remember he used the same phrases in both places.

I was totally entranced, and I studied privately with him at Juilliard during my junior year, which Harvard supported. I love Babbitt – I think his music is deeply misguided in some serious ways. Babbitt was a seducer, and he used the power of his academic position and his fame to acquire followers. The way he did this was by dishing out praise when you moved in his direction. In many ways, I owe my life as a composer to Babbitt, because he gave me permission to be a composer. I met him during my freshman year, said I’ve never been to Juilliard, I don’t know how to write a Bartokian string quartet, but I do know group theory. He gave me permission to not feel like an outsider. At the same time, I feel like he had an unhealthy relationship to his students in the way that he doled out praise, and that’s something that I am very conscious of as a teacher. The people who are most susceptible to this are precisely the overachievers who always got As in high school, good boys and girls who are prone to be rule-followers, and people who do what their teachers tell them. For me, this was a big existential crisis moment in my life – I went to Harvard, I loved a lot of modern music, I loved Coltrane, I liked minimalism, and I liked Koyaanisquatsi – what I thought of as modern music – Laurie Anderson. And I got to college and it was all Schoenberg, and Martino’s Notturno, and Babbitt, and I did not feel drawn to that music. The existential crisis is the years-long realization that the musical values that my teachers had were not the values that I had, or wanted to have. And that means you have to stop being an A student. You have to stop being a good boy, and you have to stop chasing after the pat on the head. A lot of kids encounter this in third grade, or eighth grade, they realize they are not going to get all As and they will have to find their own path, but for a certain kind of person this comes much later.  For me it was a really hard moment.

Another huge influence on my life was the philosopher Stanley Cavell. He was once a composer, and wrote two beautiful essays on modern music, that were among the only things that I read that were neither pro nor contra, but almost therapeutic. I started studying with him, and he was a real mentor.  When I finished college, I felt like I had no idea what kind of music I wanted to write. I knew I did not want to write academic serial music. I could imagine writing words in a way that was influenced by Cavell. And so I gave up music for about four years. I started trying to identify more as a philosopher. I couldn’t see a clear path to music that I felt in my heart and loved, but at the same time music that had a kind of rigor, or fit with my intellectual interests.

I ended up getting kicked out of philosophy graduate school. So my failure as a philosopher forced me to try to find my way back music.

TM: Where did you go to graduate school?
DT: I got a Rhodes scholarship to go to Oxford. Stanley Cavell is even more of an outlier as a philosopher than Steve Reich was as a composer, and so there was no path forward following his lead. After college I wrote some articles that were published in popular press magazines, I started writing some music, and found my way back to music. But that was a very troubled time for me.

TM: Let me ask you a Milton Babbitt question. How did Milton, being a huge fan of Jerome Kern, manage to integrate these two parts of his musical perception?
He didn’t integrate them. That’s the simple answer. This is something I have noticed, and which I used to call the “CD shelf test”. When you go to the composer’s house, and look at their CD shelf, what is there, and what relation does that have to the music that they write?  I am not saying that they have to be the same, but if you are composer whose music sounds like Varese, and your CD shelf is all soul and R&B, that mismatch is a warning sign.

I think that Babbitt had some of that going on. If Fantastic Voyage had been a hit, he might gone to Broadway instead. I never saw his actual CD shelf. I believe that he had a deep and abiding love for popular music, but he saw a path forward doing this more cerebral thing. I think that at a certain point he started playing the “role” of “Milton Babbitt”. A character named “Milton Babbitt” developed, and he was the successful creation of Babbitt the person. So he started just being that character. There’s a dissertation on how the PhD in composition got started at places like Yale and Princeton. I read the chapter on Princeton, and was struck by how much the Babbitt persona was optimized toward getting music accepted by the university. I had a conversation with him about this. He was very alive to how difficult it was for composers in the 1950s to put food on the table. People writing modern music in Manhattan with no job. He was truly humanitarian about getting those people into teaching positions so they could have a square meal. The lab-coat, logical-positivist persona that he developed – one of the reasons he developed it was so he could argue with Princeton to let these people have degrees. It fit with what he was doing compositionally, but I think there was more to him than he let show in that public persona.

He had a tremendous amount of success by narrowing his musical vision to this tiny little point. Some composers go that route. Steve Reich, Morton Feldman – a lot of twentieth-century music is music of limitation, of cutting out. When I do music, both when I am writing theory and when I am composing, I don’t want to do that. I want to think about music as broadly as possible, in a way that I feel reflectsmyentire person, so that I don’t feel, when I am composing, that I am living in a little tiny part of my personality.

TM: For me the most successful composers are the most articulate in taking in everything. Charles Ives – his whole life is there. Frank Zappa – both Varese and fifties rock and roll.
DT: There is very successful music that comes from limitations. I’ve talked with people about how they have to get into their composing frame of mind. To move from who they are in the real world to who they are as a composer. Those people are going to have a CD shelf that is very different from what their music sounds like. I don’t have a problem with that as somebody else’s way of going about things, I don’t want to say that Reich is lesser than Berio, but for me, I want to try to write music that has my whole life in it, as you said about Ives. The flip side of it is that sometimes your music can be confusing. If, like Ives, or Varese, or Beethoven, you try to make genre into a musical parameter, you are asking for a lot from your audience, and if you are someone who knows a ton of different music, or thinks about it in an unusual way, then you are going to leave behind people who can’t follow you through a twisting journey like that. Meanwhile, if you make music in a nice comprehensible small box, you might bore some people sometimes, but you won’t run into the perplexity generated by the other approach.

TM: To loop back to what we were saying an hour ago, it is now possible to hear virtually everything. It’s not that one grows up in Paris, and will never hear German music, let alone American music.
DT: Now we are getting into the things that I think about all the time. In the liner notes to my second CD, I say “my phone has the whole history of music stored on it”, and that’s not even the Internet or Spotify – everything from Machaut to modern jazz. How do you knit together this musical culture that stretches from the beginning of time across the whole world into something that has rigor, logic, coherence, that has all those good old-fashioned values, and isn’t just shallow pastiche, isn’t just changing the channels so that we hear a little bit of samba, and a little bit of Milton Babbitt? That’s where I start to feel that my theory persona can be a help. Like the Chomskian idea of deep structure, you can move beyond the surface to the structure that links the language of Schubert and the language of Tin Pan Alley….

Faced with the abundance of listening possibilities, one choice is to give up, and create a little box where you will live –  another is to respond with a kind of panic, where everything is thrown together in a pastiche. I think that there are alternatives which involve holding onto the elemental compositional values.

 *  *  *

Part 2 was recorded on October 20, 2016, and will appear in a future issue of Sonograma.

[i] A. Thomas Tymockzo, 1943-1996.
[ii] Maria Tymoczko, 1943-.