An Interview with John Heiss

John Heiss is an active composer, conductor, flutist, and teacher. His works have been performed worldwide, receiving premieres by Speculum Musicae, Boston Musica Viva, Collage New Music, the Da Capo Chamber Players, Aeolian Chamber Players, Tanglewood Festival Orchestra, and Alea III. He has received awards and commissions from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, Fromm Foundation, NEA, Rockefeller Foundation, Massachusetts Council on the Arts and Humanities, ASCAP, and the Guggenheim Foundation. His principal publishers are Boosey & Hawkes, E.C. Schirmer, and Elkus & Son. Heiss has been principal flute of Boston Musica Viva and has performed with many local ensembles, including the BSO. His articles on contemporary music have appeared in Winds Quarterly, Perspectives of New Music, and The Instrumentalist. Along with Juilliard faculty Joel Sachs, Heiss has designed and written a book/CD-Rom classical music primer for Blue Marble Music entitled Classical Explorer. Starting in the 1970s, Heiss has directed many NEC festivals dedicated to composers or themes, and has spearheaded visits to NEC by many composers, including Ligeti, Lutoslawski, Berio, Carter, Messiaen, Schuller, and Tippett. Microcosms was given its world premiere as a string quartet on June 12, 2015 at NEC; Winsor Music will give the world premiere of the oboe version, created for Peggy Pearson, at its first concert tonight, October 4th, 7pm at St. Paul's Church in Brookline, MA. Tickets are available in advance at discounted prices until 6pm. 

Thank you so much for sitting down with me today. I saw in a past interview that you gave about Whimsies that it contains “in-jokes” that makes the performers laugh and that are enjoyed by the audience. Are there these in-jokes in Microcosms, since it’s related to Whimsies? Can you explain that relationship?
Microcosms is derived from Whimsies, which I wrote for Fenwick Smith. He commissioned it in 2001;  he said: “Make it light-hearted” and I said: Great, that’s just the mood I’m in anyway, I’ll do that. A Whimsy is a short, kind of epigraphical saying which brings a smile. Benjamin Franklin has many of those. I thought to do some short movements, in fact, some very short movements, and to make something large as a compilation of short things. As I got going, the movements, although they began with things that were quite brief, opened out, and became a little more full. There are eight movements in that piece and there are eight movements in this [Microcosms]. What I thought, for the last thirteen years, when Peggy talked to me about doing a piece, was that this was a good flute and piano piece, and then I thought: Wait a minute! This could make a terrific string quartet! There’s a lot of harmony, a lot of what I might call… not just chromatic harmony but sort of poly-triadic harmony, chords that are really groovy but that contain maybe at least two triads, two different ones put together. I thought about the jazz pianist Bill Evans, of course. Ligeti’s étude dedicated to Bill Evans, in Volume One of the Études, No. 5, called “Rainbows” — it’s a marvelous understanding by Ligeti of the idiom of jazz, which I grew up in. I was a saxophone player, played the piano, and of course played the flute primarily, but I led bands and all that. So I got to thinking about how to set the piece in the new clothing in such a way that, now that it’s a string quartet, it really isn’t a flute piece anymore, or even close. 

Some other composers have done that occasionally — Stravinsky or Ives, two of my favorites, will tend to reimagine a piece of theirs, and provide a different context, a different instrumentation, and a different title! Stravinsky’s early five-finger piano pieces called “Les Cinq Doigts” (The Five Fingers), he orchestrated about forty years later for a chamber ensemble, somewhat close to the orchestration of the Dumbarton Oaks concerto. He made a piece that he called 8 Instrumental Miniatures, and now instead of just one player, there are fifteen players. Instead of the sequence of movements that he originally started with, it’s a different sequence, and there are segues in between the movements. It’s somewhat like the Berio Folksongs: taking a given material and fantasizing about it and inventing something that casts it in a very new light. So I’m very happy about the piece — it sounds great as a string quartet. I was stunned, even. And it really is a string quartet, and it’s my first! I waited until I was 75 to write a string quartet, I should have done that fifty years earlier, because this piece has had many performances already! The group that commissioned it has already played it six or seven times; the Borromeo String Quartet is doing it on October 20th here at school; there’s a wonderful quartet up in Maine that’s going to do it this fall, and then I’ve had several other inquiries from people that would like my score, and I’ve sent it out, and I think there are going to be four or five other performances around the country. And then, of course, Peggy asked for a transcription where the oboe takes the first violin part, which is not quite the way it turned out. I gave the oboe those things which are the most oboe-like, and at some point, she’s covering for any one of the instruments, really. But you know, I feel like Elliott Carter when he wrote his first percussion ensemble piece (it’s called Tintinnabulation) for us in 2008. Well, Elliott Carter was then 100. I sat with him when he was hearing it for the very first time at our dress rehearsal, with Frank Epstein conducting, and he laughed and laughed and laughed. So I turned to him and said: “Elliott, what are you laughing about?” And he said, “Oh, John, it works!” 

I feel the same way about my piece here: it does work! And the first performance was here [the New England Conservatory] in June, June 12th, I think it was… nine days, as it turned out, before Gunther [Schuller] passed. It was a very uplifting and happy experience for me, and the women that commissioned it were former students at the Conservatory, and they played it very well. So now all of a sudden there is this firestorm of interest, and I’m going to tell every young composer I meet now, “Write a string quartet, because there will be multiple possibilities for performance!” I came to write something based on an old piece that became a new piece. It gives me great pleasure to think about how it’s going to sound with Peggy playing! She even called me this morning, and there’s one glissando that she can’t do, and she played this magnificent triple stop, and it was four or five notes in the same single sound, and she said: “Would that do?” and I said: “Would it!” and then we were talking about the pitches. Two of those notes that she played in that multi-phonic actually lead right into the last chord, and she wondered how that chord should be scored, if she should take one of the notes in that chord. I said no, we could distribute the strings, two notes for the cello, two for the violin, and two for the viola, so it’s a polychord — what I call a poly-diminished chord, with two diminished chords or maybe even three, I can’t remember which way it works. When you pile up tritones, you get kind of a buzzy dissonant sound, but this is a very harmonic chord. I think, from the conversation I’ve just had with Peggy about two hours ago, that the way we just settled on it now is going to sound great in the concert on October 4th. 

I’m very happy that piece exists, I’m looking forward to hearing it with different players, and in the new transcription that Peggy coaxed me into, and that’s how it came to be. But it has an element of humor, of “whimsy,” and there are some in-jokes in it, which I think make it funny to the musicians in ways that the audience will perceive as funny without maybe knowing why. At one point in a movement called “Octatonic” there’s a quote from the Symphony of Psalms. It’s the figure Stravinsky uses in the first movement, very much sped up, and in a context of humor rather than sobriety, which is not the way Stravinsky imagined it. But people hear that — when Fenwick heard it, he burst out laughing and couldn’t play for a minute. I have tended in my music to let little figures, of other peoples’ music that I love, just come right in. I don’t look for them or try to put them in, they come to my mind while I am composing, and I think “Oh, good, that one wants in.” And I say, “Ok, you can come.” I say to the musical figure, “Welcome to my piece,” and then it becomes part of my piece. What I’m doing in that instance is very important, I’m not borrowing it. Stravinsky said: “Don’t borrow, only steal.” And when you steal, you get to keep it. And that means it belongs in your piece. He said that’s the way to pay homage to something else that you treasure. I’ve always felt that. It happens in jazz, too. So the piece is going to be played by Peggy and the people in her ensemble on October 4th, and we’re going to have a good time finding out about how well that works, but I’m pretty sure it’s going to work. 

You were comparing the movements in Whimsies to little epigrams…?
A stitch in time saves nine; people who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones; a rolling stone gathers no moss; penny-wise, pound foolish; and then my favorite of Franklin’s — have great insight before marriage, and have (somewhat) of a blind eye afterwards. That’s not quite the quote but it’s something like that. 

The reaction that is elicited by those epigrams or pieces of whimsy, is it driven because it’s something a little familiar, something that plays with our idea of reality?
Maybe, it plays with our idea of what should be happening at that point in time. 

So that concept of “whimsy” speaks most directly to the musicians, as you say, because they’ll have the reaction that Fenwick did when he heard that quote — or theft? — from the Symphony of Psalms. We as an audience who are not performing or dissecting or even recognizing those musical quips...
You’ll still pick up something. 

Because we read the musician’s reactions?
Right. I’ll tell you what I put in the score at one point. There are two people trying to do “cuckoo, cuckoo” and then someone else [a third person] is trying to do it faster and on different notes. And they get into an argument and each one tries to block the other one out. So I wrote in the score, during a little pause, “Quick competitive look at each other.” And so they glare and then try it again, and the audience laughed. And they laughed at the performance, of course. So, that’s a little touch of theatre. I might add, too, that the whimsies are serious, as epigrammatic humor sometimes is. It’s like Ives used to say, “It’s very important, if you can achieve it, to be both funny and serious at the same time.” Also as the piece unfolds, especially in the latter two or three movements, it begins to be a little more sober, if you will, but it’s still embracing the humor element, while looking at it maybe like Haydn would look at it: it’s a joke, it’s a great joke, but it’s part of a terrific symphony. 

Let me give you the titles [of the movements] because they tell you a lot. I wrote only in clustered harmony with half-steps and whole-steps in the first movement, so I simply called it “Clustered.” The second movement is a little canon, an imitation, just for two voices, but made into four voices with the quartet, of course, so you get to hear it with much more richness via octaves that you wouldn’t hear in the original. I called it “Diatonic-Canonic.” It’s also got a Renaissance cadence at the end that usually makes everyone laugh. All of a sudden, there are Machaut and Landini smiling at you from the fourteenth century! It’s the cadence where the melodic voice goes “8-7-6-8” and then “2-1” underneath then “sharp 4-5” in an inner voice, which makes it sound like it couldn’t possibly come from anything in the tonal period. I was writing along, I thought, here I need an ancient cadence. So I did that. That, too, made some people laugh. It sounds kind of weird, like it’s meant to be, but where did that come from? And I would say, from six hundred years ago. 

The third movement is called “Enharmonic,” meaning there’s a long G-sharp in the beginning of the piece, which changes to A-flat, and back to G-sharp, and back to A-flat, and I have the oboe, or the principal player, first violin, or whoever it is, play melodic lines that consist mainly of tones whose harmony is changing their meaning right while they’re being played. As you know, a C# and  Dflat are of course the same note, the same pitch on the piano, but they have a completely different universe of color and meaning. So “enharmonic” means the possibility of a tone having different meanings depending upon how it’s set. Once you start playing around with that, one note can be harmonized about seven or eight different ways. So I got going on that as an idea, and I wrote the piece called “Enharmonic,” which is not as funny, maybe, as some of the other pieces, but it’s got a little twist to it. 

After “Clustered,” “Diatonic-Canonic,” Enharmonic,” comes “Octatonic” — that’s the eight-note scale that pervades the work of a lot of composers from the first half of the twentieth century: Stravinsky, Bartók and Messaien in particular. Then after this, I wrote “Lyric” - a soaring melody with wonderful, strange, jazz-harmony flavors underneath it. Then I wrote the movement that has the cuckoo sound in it, and that movement is called “Stuck.” So now, here’s a “K.” There’s a program note for that: “Waltzes are everywhere, but so are cuckoos.” Remember, the upper two notes of a waltz figure are the cuckoo’s notes; these can be a calling interval in music. So I made a pun on falling thirds and how they beckon you. 

Then I thought: we’d better have a different movement, after Clustered, Diatonic Canonic, Enharmonic, Octatonic, Stuck — and the next movement is called “Free.” This one is more improvisational and more investigative of odd sonorities. Each player gets to have a little solo and they kind of interact a bit, but it’s more about larger spaces between the players and larger spaces between the gestures in the music. 

Next, I was wondering how to finish, and it hit me right away what to do. The last movement of Pierrot Lunaire is called “O alter duft,” “Oh olden fragrance from days of yore, return to me again, and intoxicate my senses as you did in my youth.” It’s about the return to, or the desire to have, tonality come back. It’s very wistful, and nostalgic, it’s a hauntingly beautiful movement. Pierrot is of course, forty-five minutes of the greatest music that’s ever been written, and it ends that way, with a kind of haunting nostalgia. It almost makes a cadence in E major, the key of his [Arnold Schoenberg’s] chamber symphony, but it doesn’t quite do that. So I tried to get the same idea of getting almost in a key, but sorry, not quite. You remember those things, keys, right? I always think of my colleague, Stephen Drury, he would look at a score and say, “Oh look, that’s one of these things with key signatures.” 

So I wrote a movement called “Homeward Bound.” Schoenberg’s movement is called “O alter duft” but “Homeward Bound” means coming home, as he was trying to imagine doing but knowing that you weren’t going to be able to, in the modern world, recover that. I wrote “Homeward Bound” (Fantasy on Pierrot) as an homage to that movement in the Schoenberg and I think I’ll be immodest and say that it’s maybe even as good as the Schoenberg. It is for me. And I say that with humility. My piece uses quite a lot of his material, but only by stealing it, not by borrowing it. It’s illusory and allusive. Perhaps you’re thinking: “This is lyrical.” There’s a sense of the players re-joining after the movement in which they were separated. It has what I will call the harmony of atonality, which is, when there is harmony, and I think there always should be, it is haunting and beautiful and alluring. 

I’m glad you mentioned the pull between tonality and atonality, because I wanted to ask you about an interesting quote I saw in one of your other interviews having to do with this negotiation between musical languages at a turning point in history. You referenced Monteverdi as being someone who was moving between languages, and who was using both languages, and very much engaged with both, and also being this pivotal person who defined the shift between them…
Yes, he did that, as a 35-year-old - he was born in 1567, so when he was 32, on January 1st, 1600 the bell rang, and said “It’s time for the Baroque!” — and it happened almost that fast. Within a few years, everyone was aware that there was a new current, and something new going on — there’s Monteverdi, young enough to be a leader in that development. And that’s a macro-development for the whole history of music, from modality to tonality, into bar-lines where it had been more freely notated, the use of continuo, the development of opera, the use of something called a “chord,” a much more heightened emotional immediacy than had ever been the case before, and drama! 

What we’re all trying to do, I think, is to communicate something that we feel strongly about, and something that may have an aspect that’s somewhat new. And we hope that we get a good performance, and an appreciative audience, and then art can develop and advance. Monteverdi was a big player in that, Schoenberg was too. He began as a Romantic and ended as an atonalist, so he had to make that change in his mid-life also. I think people who are already in their 30s and have a big change happening right around them at that time (which is what happened to Schoenberg, too) are young enough to be “hip” enough to make the change, but old enough to have the craft to enable them to do it. Look at Stravinsky’s development, too, during his life. He was always looking for something new. He was Russian and then he became neoclassic and then he became serial, and the late works, in a way, are the crown of his career — well, a lot of people don’t think so, but I do. 

It’s been my experience that musicians learn a musical language by inhabiting it, that for most of us (with some exceptions) it’s not just listening to a new language that imprints it on our ear, it’s the doing. If you listen to something your whole life, especially during formative periods, and if you listen to it often enough, you come to live in that language. But for the average or even more-than-average concert-goer, how do they become acclimated to a new musical language when they perhaps don’t have the opportunity to inhabit and dissect the music as the musicians do?
Bring an open mind, read the program notes, listen to what the composer had to say, ask the players, and keep doing it over and over and over again. Look for something new and see if you get rewarded for it. Many times if the piece is high quality you will be deeply rewarded by something you never encountered before. We’re in a good time right now. There used to be such hostility to the contemporary composer. I think we’re getting past that. The opportunity is right out there in front of you, and be motivated — you’ll always hear something better, by the way, the second time you hear it instead of the first time. You pick up more. So repeated listening can help a lot. And have faith. I think that’s the other thing. Have faith that the composer needs you and is hoping that he or she will have had the chance to be understood, and they’re not trying to put themselves above you or put you off. It’s about personal expression and outreach, those two things go together. 

What exactly goes into making this an oboe version as opposed to a string quartet?
Most composers are in love with the instruments, especially with the voice, which is maybe the supreme instrument of all. I always say to my students: “There is nothing in this life like a soprano.” Or a mezzo, or a contralto, or a tenor, or a baritone! Somebody who can open his or her mouth and produce magic. And it touches you immediately. When they are sensitive to what they’re saying, their power of evocation is almost like nothing else on this planet. Ingmar Bergman, the Swedish film director, said “I am always trying to capture the mystery of the intangible in life, but I’m only a filmmaker. The people who can do that best, in ascending order of importance, are the saints, the poets, and the musicians.” He said “They know something that we don’t know! And you ask them to tell you what they know and they can’t, they just pick up their instrument and play.” I always think of Mendelssohn’s great quote about the meaning of music: “A piece of music is not too vague to be put into words, but oh, far too precise.” 
The oboe is a beautiful instrument and Peggy is a beautiful player of that instrument. She’s identified with that, she’s one of the great oboists we’ve ever had. So I think about the instruments and what they sound like and what they can do, and if you treasure that in the right way, you’ll make a piece that pays homage to that and utilizes it, to help enhance your own speech. The instrument is the vehicle through which you can speak. And so I was very glad for Peggy’s request, and I’m trying to hear my piece in my inner ear now as an oboe piece instead of a full string quartet, and I bet that I’m going to get confirmation when I do. You just listen to Peggy play a little bit, you know what to do with your pen.