Frank J. Oteri Interview

We are excited and honored to publish this exclusive Frank J. Oteri interview on our pages.

Frank J. Oteri Interview

Frank J. Oteri is a very unique composer from New York City and we believe he is one of these incredible shiny personalities that really changes the world of music (and the world in general!).

Frank is a very active music journalist as well and he is the editor of NewMusicBox, an e-zine about contemporary music, a source of articles of extreme value.

Oteri gave us a very generous interview and we are extremely happy to share it with all our readers. Each of his words is like a precious gem.

We would not spend any additional word to describe this phenomenal genius. It is better just to let his words talk to our souls.

Frank J. Oteri Interview - Photo Copyright by Jeffrey Herman



All Piano Lessons: Frank, you wrote a wide range of music, from piano sonatas to your "Imagined Overtures" for rock band. At the same time, you are a very prolific and creative writer and lecturer. It really seems your creativity is basically endless! Do you write music with a different kind of creative process than when you write words?

Frank J. Oteri: Thank you for your kind words. Actually I wish I were able to be more prolific as a composer these days—those piano sonatas, thus far only two, are from a long time ago, 1983 and 1996! That said, I always try to regularly work both at writing music and writing about it. It’s a delicate and often precarious balance to navigate between the two activities, but it’s sometimes quite challenging. I’m frustrated that there aren’t enough hours in the day and I often don’t sleep a great deal, especially when I’m deeply engrossed in a project, like last year when I was commissioned by the ASCAP Foundation’s Charles Kingsford Fund to compose a song cycle. Versions of the Truth, the resultant 22-minute work based on the poetry of Stephen Crane, occupied me for nearly six months. But during that time I did a lot of activities, including writing numerous articles about music.

The balance between these two activities, however, is vital for my own work in both areas. The fact that I write music deeply informs how I write about others’ music, and the music of others, in turn, constantly provides valuable lessons to me as a composer since it constantly exposes me to new possibilities. Additionally time gets taken away from both of these activities because I often travel either to give talks concerning music or to attend various musical performances, usually both. (I just returned from Ireland.) When batteries run out on the various technological gadgets I carry around with me—both to jot down ideas in and to flesh them out—it’s particularly frustrating, since ideas can come at any place and at any time. Realistically, though, while all this traveling inspires both music and prose, it’s difficult to devote the requisite energy to either when I’m on the road.
Another aspect of both writing music and writing about music of which I’m always keenly aware is the potential chasm between these two activities. While there have been illustrious predecessors who have validated this dual mantle (e.g. Berlioz, Robert Schumann, Deems Taylor, and Virgil Thomson as well as more recently Carman Moore, Tom Johnson, Greg Sandow, and Kyle Gann), in the not-so-distant past there have been many quite vocal critics—such as The New York Times’ Harold Schonberg—who decried the potential conflicts of interest inherent in the modus operandi of such a double agent. I prefer to think in terms of confluences of interest. That said, because I write about music so frequently, I’m generally reluctant to advocate for my own music, to the detriment of performances of my music as well as opportunities for commissions, etc.

Thankfully there have been some enthusiastic interpreters who have championed pieces of mine without my bidding. Pianist Guy Livingston has performed my Last Minute Tango all over the world and commissioned a filmmaker to create a video to accompany it which is featured on his DVD, One Minute More. (More information about his project is here; the music video for Last Minute Tango is here. After premiering my quarter-tone saxophone quartet Fair and Balanced? in New York City and Philadelphia, the PRISM Quartet has now played it everywhere from North Dakota to China and they’ve also included it on their latest CD, Dedication. That rock band piece you mentioned, Imagined Overtures (which uses a 36-tone equal tempered scale) has now been performed by three different groups in different parts of the country, but the ensemble who has really championed it the most and also recorded it is the Los Angeles Electric 8.

Perhaps the biggest “break” I’ve gotten for my music thus far is was in August 2005 when the Christopher Festival in Vilnius, Lithuania, presented MACHUNAS, an evening-length “performance oratorio” inspired by the founder of Fluxus, George Maciunas, which I created in collaboration with visual artist Lucio Pozzi. (We wanted to avoid the word “opera,” but it would be an even more extensive digression…) Mounting a production of MACHUNAS was a huge undertaking. We wanted each of the four acts to take place in a different location so the entire Museum of Contemporary Art was emptied for the production and the musicians and audience traveled from room to room. I will always be grateful to conductor Donatas Katkus for believing in this piece and pulling it off. (For more information on MACHUNAS click here; to see it, click here.) But perhaps most importantly, I’ve been particularly lucky that my wife Trudy Chan has an affinity for my music and is both a fine pianist and a fine harpsichordist—so much so that pieces I used to perform myself I now hand to her because she’s a better player! She has now performed ten of my works.

A far as the creative process is concerned vis-à-vis writing words vs. writing music, I tend to write words almost as quickly as I can speak—well maybe not quite since I’m a pretty lousy typist. But basically I can spew out thousands of words on a page in a relatively short amount of time which I then take additional time to edit and carve into something that someone else would hopefully want to read. Music used to be just as fast for me when I was younger, but the more music I became exposed to the slower the process has become. I still constantly have tunes, harmonic progressions, timbre combinations, and rhythmic ideas running through my head a great deal of the time, but actually writing something down and turning it into something I would want to share with the rest of the world takes much more time and effort. I probably read as much as I listen to music, but I tend to read novels and poetry far more than I read other articles about music, so I suppose I treat the words I write as more functional and don’t imbue them with the same weight. It might also be because I am constantly writing words. I post an essay to NewMusicBox every week so that’s a firm deadline. Also, while there I write about whatever I want, other writing I do—e.g. program notes for Tanglewood (which I’ve done now for five seasons), CD booklet notes, articles for Chamber Music magazine, Symphony magazine, Playbill etc. have the basic topic and various parameters predetermined before I am enlisted to write whereas when I compose music, I usually work from a tabula rasa. I have received commissions over the years to write for specific ensembles and sometimes within a specific time frame, but other than those guidelines, I can do whatever I want. While that’s liberating, sometimes restrictions can be even more liberating. Curiously, one article I wrote this past year which I feel particularly proud of—the cover feature about John Cage’s chamber music output that I wrote for Chamber Music magazine—was something I obsessed over for months before actually getting it all down on paper in a way that worked for me. Maybe that’s because it was one of the few times that I suggested the topic rather than it being assigned to me or maybe it’s some kind of sign that I will eventually become slower at writing words as well. I hope not; then I really would not have enough time to do all the things I want to do!

APL: I was impressed by the diversity of music you write and by how, at the same time, looking at your production it seems you have a special love for human voice. Is it just my impression?

FJO: Perhaps part of my particular fondness for vocal music is that it combines words and music which are my two greatest loves. As I mentioned within my response to your previous question, I read a great deal. I have a real passion for literature and it is almost as voracious as my passion for music. But while I write about music, I don’t write about literature. But I do compose about literature, which I suppose is somehow the reverse activity to writing about music. It’s a way of sharing my inner most observations about things I have read that have left a huge impression on me. I have been obsessed with the poetry and novels of Richard Brautigan since I was in high school and that obsession led to many pieces early on. In later years, I developed a deep fondness for the poetry of E. E. Cummings, Margaret Atwood, William Butler Yeats, Kenneth Patchen, and Dylan Thomas, all of which led to works I composed for voice and various ensembles (in the case of Thomas, two voices). The poetry directly led me to the specific timbre combinations I used in each case and also deeply informed my approach to melody and meter. For example, Dylan Thomas’s very old fashioned verse inspired me to accompany the two singers in my as long as forever is with an ensemble consisting of alto recorders, crumhorn, viol, and handbells. Atwood’s deceptively innocent and sometimes macabre poems are the motive behind my use of two antiphonal flutes, toy piano, guitar, and cello for The Other Side of the Window. And for the newest cycle, Versions of the Truth, Stephen Crane’s words not only inspired the shapes of the melodies and the way I harmonized them, but also larger structures that determined the overall shape of each setting. Many of these poems alternate between the voice of a narrator and a specific character he describes, so they are somehow duets involving one person. I was extremely fortunate to be able to work with an extraordinary singer, Phillip Cheah, Trudy’s recital partner, who is able to sing as both a baritone and male soprano and therefore was able to find an effective way to convey this aspect of Crane’s poems in a way that I thought was musically effective.

I also love the sound of the human voice and the fact that all of us have one and ideally could and should use it to sing. I love that we have it but, since we don’t actually see it the way we do, say, a piano or a violin, it’s also somehow non-corporeal even though, since it’s actually a part of each of our bodies, it’s actually the most corporeal of all instruments—a nice paradox. The human voice is also capable of doing just about anything pitch-wise. Unlike, again a piano, which is typically tuned to 12-tone equal temperament and therefore has a built-in pitch possibility limit, the voice can sing an infinite number of pitches within an octave. Of course, the trick is being able to hear and reproduce those pitches comfortably and convincingly. I’ve composed quite a bit of music in alternate tunings over the years and with one exception—a 31-tone opera which has yet to be performed—those pieces have all been non-vocal

APL: You are very active as a "blogger" on NewMusicBox and you are one of the most followed music writers on the net. Do you think the Internet can be a real educational platform?

FJO: Immediately after I received my undergraduate degree from Columbia University in 1985, I became a high school teacher. I was inspired to do this to follow the footsteps of my mentor, a high school math teacher I had who has remained a lifelong friend named James Murphy who also writes poetry—my first song cycle, the nurturing river, consists of settings of 14 of his sonnets. I taught in the New York City public school system for four years before I went back to Columbia to get a master’s degree in Ethnomusicology. After that I did not return to an ongoing classroom setting (though I have been a guest lecturer for compositional classes at universities across the country including Yale, the Cleveland Institute of Music, Bucknell, and the Cornish School of the Arts in Seattle), but I do feel that my writing about music serves an educational function, especially if in reading something I have written the reader learns about something new or begins to think about something in a new way.

NewMusicBox has been online now for over 14 years and my goal has always been for it to serve as a place where both newcomers to new music and long-term aficionados will find something of interest. It is equally important to be a portal for people to enter into the world of new music and feel that there’s something there for them as it is for people already within that world to come to the realization that that world is significantly larger than they might have originally thought it to be. In that regard, perhaps, far more important than the blog posts I have written for NewMusicBox on a weekly basis are the in-depth conversations with composers we feature on the site which we meticulously produce for visitors to the site to get a sense not only of what these composers—from a very broad range of styles—have to say, in their own words, but also what their music actually sounds like. (For a portal to get to them all, click here.)

I was particularly proud when over the course of three months back in 2007, we published, in succession, talks I did with Charles Wuorinen, the indie rock band Fiery Furnaces, and Jennifer Higdon. I also particularly love it when we have an opportunity to shine light on composers whom the “new music world” might not initially regard as belonging to it, like salsa bandleader Willie Colón, film and TV scorer Charles Fox, or Broadway legend John Kander. These talks tend to go very deep. Some, like the talks we did with minimalism’s originator La Monte Young or electronic music pioneer Wendy Carlos, have lasted hours and could serve as the basis for a semester-long immersion into those composers’ works and ideas.
I think the best thing about the internet is that it is able to make information available to people 24/7/365 all over the world, or at least wherever there’s an internet connection. I recently learned that there are 2.4 people currently with internet access but there are over 7.1 billion people in the world, which means that what is available on the web is still inaccessible to the majority of the world’s people. Clearly we still have a long way to go, but I’m an optimist.

APL: Recently Krystian Zimerman left the stage in Essen because somebody from the audience was recording his performance with his phone and he explained that YouTube damaged him economically so he doesn't want to be recorded at all. Many musicians, though, owe their career to the popularity they got through YouTube videos. What is your point of view on this matter as a composer?

FJO: Now, you speak to an aspect of the online environment which I’m somewhat less optimistic about. YouTube has been a great resource but I have very mixed feelings about it. The first time I learned about the site was back in 2005 when brief portions of the world premiere performance of MACHUNAS, an evening-length “performance oratorio” I created in collaboration with Lucio Pozzi, appeared online. I ultimately decided not to pursue taking down those videos, which were clearly filmed from someone’s cellphone in the audience in Vilnius, Lithuania, since they were very short and did more to give the work publicity than to somehow reduce its financial viability, but every case is different and should be up to the creators whose work is being disseminated this way.

I’m all for musicians getting greater exposure and audiences getting greater exposure to their work, but we risk the danger of destroying the often very delicate marketplace for music—especially music which exists outside the commercial mainstream—unless we figure out an economic model where everyone is equitably remunerated, not just the folks who are charging for an internet connection or a portal which generates advertising revenue from site visits. We need to use technology rather than be used by it. But there were similar struggles in the earliest days of recorded sound and radio transmission, so once again, over time these issues will resolve, hopefully in a way that everyone can be happy with and flourish under.

But in the Krystian Zimerman episode you mentioned here there’s another element at play as well, which I think is a really big problem at performances and that is that some people are disinclined to just listen and to not simultaneously engage in other activities which can be extremely distractive to those in the audience who are making a serious attempt to just listen. This is unfortunate. Too much of social media seems to me to be a kind of grandstanding “look at me” rather than communication which requires listening as much as it does offering a response. Unlike some who claim that passive, non-participatory attentiveness to what someone else is doing is somehow authoritarian, I would claim that the reverse is true. If we are incapable of truly listening to what someone else has to say and to comprehend it, we make ourselves prey to authoritarianism. The paradigm of listening to music is an ideal way to enter into someone else’s world and to gain insights from it that can enrich and transform who you are; it also reduces one’s susceptibility to groupthink since everyone’s music is different.

APL: Our website,, is created with the intention of being a trusted and serious point of reference for piano lessons. We really believe in music education but we also agree that being a musician can be quite tough today for the cultural situation we have in the world. What would you recommend to a child whose dream is to become a classical pianist?

FJO: I’ve gone on quite a bit here both about creating music and listening to it and perhaps not enough about interpreting it and making someone else’s music your own in a way that someone hearing it can, in turn, make it his or her own. That is an extremely important piece of the equation as well. I am thrilled about anyone who sits his or her sights on becoming a classical pianist, or an instrumentalist on any other instrument (including the voice) in any other musical genre. If the work that a composer makes is to have a life, it needs to be embraced by many different interpreters who can bring a variety of new facets to it. As a composer, I hope that the music I write will be something that many others will find speaks to them and therefore can speak through them. As a listener, I’m eager to hear the greatest variety of music performed in as many different ways as possible.

What I would say to an aspiring pianist is while there is a phenomenal legacy of terrific music written for your instrument, this legacy is not finite; it is not limited to a handful of “masterpieces” by a few “geniuses.” Don’t completely ignore the “standard repertoire” but explore beyond it to lesser-known but equally fulfilling pieces by those same composers as well as their lesser-known contemporaries, both men and women and people from all over the world. (Too often people only look to music composed by dead European men!) Don’t imagine that the instrument you’re playing is monolithic. In recent years, thanks to historically informed recordings and live performances, I’ve gained a great deal of insight discovering the huge variety of pianos that were in use prior to the standardization toward what some folks imagine to be the “ideal sound.” There is no single ideal sound. You need to find your own sound. Don’t only aim to be a soloist; there are few activities that are more rewarding that performing chamber music and the literature of chamber music including piano contains some of the most exciting piano writing I know.

Also, very important, don’t think that being a “classical” pianist means that you should engage only with the music of the past and ignore the music being created right now and the music that will be created in the future. It is extraordinarily rewarding to master a piano sonata by Johannes Brahms or Cécile Chaminade (to name one of the many historic women composers whose work deserves to be better known), but it can be even more rewarding to work together with a living composer and give the world premiere performance of something new, and then to continue to perform that work that you helped give birth to and find new meanings in it that neither you nor the composer initially realized were in there—you can’t really impress the dead composers! It is also a phenomenal gift to every other pianist to commission a new work from a composer, a work that potentially could have resonance with many other interpreters for centuries to come.

Finally, I would suggest that you should not feel limited by the role of classical music interpreter and explore improvisation as well as composition; there is no reason why anyone so immersed in music making can’t create something completely original as well as bring new meanings to music that someone else has created. It will actually improve your interpretations. And, most importantly, always listen, both when you are playing and when you aren’t.
It is wonderful that there is a portal such as “All Piano Lessons” where you can find a piano teacher anywhere in the United States as well as in London. The role of a teacher is an extremely important one and the one-on-one contact that a teacher-student relationship offers is one of the most valuable social interactions. There have been many teachers, including the high school math teacher I mentioned here earlier, who have had a profound impact on the way I think and the person that I have become. I would not be who I am today without them. But at the same time be ever mindful to be learning from everyone and from everything you experience.

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