An interview with Harry Somers

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Title An interview with Harry Somers
Author(s) Andrew M. Zinck
Date 1996
Volume 29
Issue 2
Start page 59
Abstract Somers: I can't do either. I just say that I'm going to write what I write and maybe the audience will get it (or maybe they won't). But I have to do whatever I'm convinced about or else it will have no conviction for anybody. This means that maybe I could be completely out of phase with an audience. In that regard, I figure 'You pays yet money and you takes yet chances.' I do take cognisance of the audience and the performer for whom I'm writing and I deliberately write within certain limitations. I figure that all compositions are written within limitations, but I set those limitations according to the performer's skill and the audience's probable experience and comprehension. They definitely present some compositional problems, but I narrow the parameters and then the style within which I'm going to work relates to that which is known by those people. I think it's rather silly to present a totally experimental work for a totally conservative audience and orchestra. It's a waste of time on everyone's part. Sure, at times you should be stretched, but I'm not going to make it an educational exercise. I always bear in mind a phrase by Proust: 'It's not a matter of comprehension. It's a matter of memory.' Some just don't have a memory or anything to refer to and that is when ambiguity arises and, as a matter of fact, anger because for some people there are no frames of reference. In terms of my operas, each of those works evolved from the libretti, so the libretti must be the primary consideration. The limitations, the parameters, are imposed on me and I either accept them or I don't. In a sense I'm really acting as a craftsman. In fact, a good part of my work has involved acting as a craftsman. Old Mozart had to write divertimenti for dinner parties and I don't regard it as an ignoble act (of course, when he wrote his concert works, it was a different story: he was writing for connoisseurs). So, sometimes I'm a craftsman who writes works for circumstance. Occasionally there's a certain environment, like new music concerts, in which I'm challenged to press the parameters or challenge the audience and myself, to move into areas that have not been explored. Other times, I might have a vision of what I want to do and the audience comes along with me eventually. But I've always worked on those three different levels. I don't feel it's my moral obligation to change an audience. [Harry Somers]: Voiceplay started with a request for me to write a work for Cathy Berberian. As usual, I didn't know what I intended to do, but I was aware that she was doing quite a bit of experimental work. The final work was derived from conversations with [Barbara Chilcott] about actors' vocal techniques, specifically the exercises of Iris Warren. Iris Warren had actors do exercises to appreciate the pitch value of vowels. One of these involved this sentence: 'Who will know ought of art must learn and then take his ease.' If you whisper that, you get a succession of thirteen vowels. I thought this was very interesting and I thought about building a piece on thirteen differentiations. But initially, I was asked to McGill (this was before I went over to Rome) to give a lecture on how I use the voice in my vocal compositions. At that time, I had just done an interview with John Cage and what I liked about him was that he just provoked and opened your mind up. He had made the statement, 'All things are composition.' I then asked myself, 'What am I doing as a composer going there and talking about how I deal with the voice? I should be singing it and demonstrating it.' That led me to think about where the voice begins: in the unvoiced sound. And how does the unvoiced sound proceed? How does it move into the voiced sound? These were questions I was asking myself and I decided to incorporate them. Somers: That's a good question. I don't know what the trigger was. Certainly all my life from childhood, I was imbued with the Bhagavad Gita and the stripping away of illusions. I had read some [Emily Dickinson] and then I came across the Zen death poems. And I have always been an enormous admirer of [Yeats]. The common denominator suddenly hit me. It's encompassed in the phrase. 'How can I know the dancer from the dance?' (one of Yeats's phrases). Reading a new edition of Emily Dickinson's poems (1700 of them), I was amazed not at the pretty little homilies that many of the American composers have set, but at those poems in which she moves just on the edge of madness. Some of them lie very close to the whole perception of the Zen, of stripping away 'things that seem.' It's a common theme that runs through all three, including the Yeats.

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