My earliest memory is reaching for a ball which faded into the sun. I never did catch the ball but, boy, I really tried. I don’t think a day goes by when I don’t remember that moment.
Always, when I’ve started a piece I wanted somehow to attain some sort of perfection–and the great thing is sometimes I get close. But then, once I finish a piece, it’s over, it’s no longer mine. I lose interest in it and start thinking of the next. I think if I didn’t write I’d go crazy.
I was born in Brooklyn in the fifties. I went to High School of Music and Art and learned how to screw, drink and read Hesse. High school was my John Cage period. There was one piece I wrote which had twenty radios going at the same time with different performers running around the theatre–old hat now but fun when you’re a teenager.
I studied with Roger Sessions and Elliott Carter when I went to Juilliard. Sessions was like a father to me. He would almost constantly pack tobacco in his pipe but hardly ever smoked. He treated all his students to dinner once a year at a local pasta place.
He would say, “Garlic is sign of civilization.” He taught me about the value of the long singing line, the importance of the human voice in music. He trained me to think like a composer. He used simple words in a deep way.
Carter I found difficult. He taught me technical things like the importance of clear notation and the integrity of the line but he was never the warm presence Sessions was, probably because he was old money and I wasn’t.
Otto Luening and I spent a wondrous term doing Fux counterpoint exercises.
I had a Master Class with Pierre Boulez that was so publicly humiliating that it strengthened my resolve for the rest of my life. He didn’t like some things I did in a piano piece so I took them out. Ten years later I looked at the piece and realized the things I took out were the only truly original things in the piece. That’s when I realized the impossibility of making contemporary judgments about music.
In Juilliard I read Babbitt’s writings, the entire Der Reiher of the Darmstadt group, group theory, number theory, explorations of the golden section. Students go through this phase. They write like their teachers. All the poly-rhythms, metronomic modulations, total serialization, hexachordal inversional combinatoriality–it wasn’t very original but it was a necessary phase.
I graduated with a Masters and started to knock around NYC as a freelance musician. I invented my own six-note modal system based on the tri-chord and my music started to sound like my own.
Other than a few trips to the MacDowell Colony I had almost no contact with other composers but I did have a lot of contact with dancers and artists and wrote music for a few of them–Paul Sanasardo, Battery Dance. I started to produce my own concerts to good reviews.
Suddenly, in my thirties I felt called to become a contemplative Benedictine monk. It was not a logical decision but the result of a deep inner need.
After a period I left, enriched immeasurably. I had learned various dead languages and Gregorian chant, which the brothers sang seven times as prayer. Chant still permeates my music. Its timeless quality is reflected in my approach to my work.
To me writing is a form of prayer and I, as a composer and musician, am an instrument of God on earth. I have no idea if my writing is good or not but I am sure that, in writing, I am serving the Lord.