Kirke Mechem at 90

Sep 18, 2015

SFCA recently took a few moments to catch up with composer Kirke Mechem, whose memoir Believe Your Ears: Life of a Lyric Composer was published in July 2015 by Rowman & Littlefield. Mechem, whose work has been performed by SFCA many times over the years, will be appearing at San Francisco’s BookShop West Portal for a talk and signing on Tuesday, September 22, at 7 PM.

Musical Background

As an undergraduate at Stanford, you started as a creative-writing student and then dove deeply into music. Was there a connection between music and literature there from the beginning?

Yes, it really was. My mother was a pianist, and my father was a writer who published many poems, short stories, a couple of novels and a number of plays. Later, when I was a composer, I set a number of his poems to music. Maybe it’s because he was married to a musician, but his poems just seem made for music.

Did you have exposure to art songs or other classical vocal forms?

Not so much — as adolescents we all listened to the Hit Parade, the pop songs, the big bands.

What were your favorites of the day, do you remember?

That’s like asking my favorite composer, there are so many. Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey — those arrangements were fantastic. Pop music in those days was much closer to classical music.

I’m interested in that. When we talk about the evolution of classical music in the 20th century we also have to consider the way that pop music has changed. When I hear the overarching message of your book, that people should follow their ears and not get too hung up in academic approaches to music, some might say that approach would lead them towards pop music or jazz, and away from the atonal music of mid­century. Is that a fair interpretation?

I’d rather not generalize, because everybody has a different background. My background was classical music; I loved it and heard it every day of my life. I went to sleep listening to it. So that’s part of who I am, but a lot of people didn’t have that; they come to music in a different way. What’s natural to me is not natural to them. But what I believe is that every person should start with what they love; you can’t go wrong with that.

Harvard ­ Vienna ­ London ­ San Francisco

How do you feel you changed as a composer as you moved from place to place, and experienced different music scenes over the course of your life? Did those experiences have an influence on your music?

They probably did, more on my earliest music. When I was a graduate student at Harvard working with Randall Thompson for choral music and with Walter Piston, certainly I was writing in a different style for each mentor. There’s always quite a difference between choral music and instrumental music — instruments can do a lot of things that voices can’t, and on the other hand, voices can do certain things beautifully and more characteristically of song than instruments.

But when I lived in Vienna, I was just trying to find out whether I could be a composer. I went to two, sometimes even three concerts a day. This was right after the war, and everything was so cheap there. A quarter would get you a ticket to the biggest concert you can think of — symphonic concerts with chorus and orchestra, even the opera you could go to very cheaply. That was part of my education. It was a more conservative place, so I was studying the basic classic music that I hadn’t ever experienced live, though I did hear a good deal of 20th-Century music as well.

Was there, at that time, a contemporary composer who was the most prominent?

Well of course there was the second Viennese school [Schoenberg, Webern, Berg] ….

Did that interest you?

No, because I didn’t like it. I wrote about this in my book. Remember, even when you’re 22 at the time you start studying music, you’ve already heard a lot. Although my mother played a quite a bit of contemporary music, she didn’t play any twelve-tone pieces. Leonard Ratner, my principal theory teacher at Stanford, gave us some Schoenberg, but he did not make value judgments; I never had a teacher tell me I should like something.

What was it like studying with Walter Piston at Harvard?

Well, Piston and Copland gave a concert of their own music once. And the moderator asked each one of them the question, what is American music? Copland said it was jazzy, lots of syncopation, it’s the hustle and the bustle of the big city, it’s the quiet of the plains, the peace of the great pastures, it’s the black influence of spirituals, and music from the Shakers and other sects. Then it was Piston’s turn and he replied “Well, I think you can say that American music is music written by Americans.”

End of story!

Yes! That was very typical of him, a man of few words from Maine. The fact is, though, that Copland did incorporate all of those influences very naturally. He was much wilder when he started out, but you have to admit that Copland’s music is still popular, whereas who plays Piston anymore? We all looked up to Piston very much because he was such a craftsman and a good teacher.

How did you find your time in London?

London was — you’ll have to read the book — but that chapter is called “Deceptive Cadence.” I had hoped for more than I got. I found out right away that English music performances were for British composers. The four orchestras in London were all subsidized by the government, but part of the deal was that 20 percent of the music they played had to be written by living British composers. I remember that I went to the head of the Royal Festival Hall, where all of these groups played at that time, and he explained this to me: “Frankly,” he said, “that’s already more contemporary music than audiences want to hear.” So there wasn’t too much hope there.

One thing that struck me was that in London, if someone asked you what you did, and you told them you were a composer, they’d look astonished and reply, “Really? Really? Can you make a living from that?” Pretty much the way it is here. But in Vienna, if you said you were a composer, they’d say, “Wonderful! What kind of things do you write? Glad to meet you! Very interesting!”

What brought you back to the Bay Area?

This is where I felt at home, having gone to Stanford and taught and conducted at Stanford for a few years. It’s where a lot of my friends were, so it was congenial for me. I’d met my wife at Harvard — she graduated from Smith — but she’d come to San Francisco; she loved it out here. We lived in Oakland for about four years, then moved to San Francisco in 1963. We’ve lived in the same house ever since.

San Francisco Debut at the Museum of Modern Art

What was it like in San Francisco throughout most of the second half of the 20th century?

The only outlet for new music here at that time was something called Composers Forum, an arm of the Music Department of UC Berkeley. I don’t think it’s the same organization as today’s American Composers Forum. It was run by faculty and graduate students, and the teacher in charge was Roger Sessions. It seemed all of these people had to write atonal music. It may be hard to believe, but most conservatories and schools of music felt that this was the music of the future, and that if you didn’t write atonal music, you just didn’t get it. You were like a Holocaust denier, a flat-earth freak; there was no hope for you.

I didn’t know that yet, and I didn’t know any other way to get my music performed, because I was no longer attached to Stanford. So at various times I sent the Composer’s Forum my new choral music (which had already been published), my violin duets, a piano trio that I wrote in Vienna, a piano suite, and a set of songs. I think I’d also already written a trio for oboe, clarinet and bassoon.

You were in your 30s at this point?

Yes, I was probably about 33 at that time. Remember, I started late for a composer. But I sent the Forum these pieces, and never heard back from them. Even when I tried to get the scores back, it was like pulling teeth. I didn’t know what to do.

I happened to be reading a biography of Handel at the time, and I noticed that when Handel came to London, the first thing he did was to give two concerts of his music. He produced them himself, and audiences came out of curiosity. I thought, why don’t I do that in San Francisco?

So I approached the people at the Museum of Modern Art, which at that time was next door to the Opera House on the 4th floor. I had won a national competition for vocal music, I won the Boott Prize at Harvard for vocal music, and I had written several instrumental works. I also had talked to Harold Schmidt, the choral director at Stanford, and he agreed to bring his choir if I could arrange a concert. So I told them at the museum that they could have the Stanford Choir and San Francisco Symphony players, as I knew a number of the players. So the museum agreed to make their concert hall available without charge. We had a good crowd and all the critics came. It was very helpful to me because I got good reviews, I got to know a number of musicians I hadn’t known, and that helped me to get other performances.

So you had to become an independent producer to become part of the system that was ignoring you.

Yes, but I think that would be a lot harder to do now. I mistakenly thought the Art Museum had produced a lot of one-man shows, but they told me they’d never given a single one. This was their first! That helped a lot in getting an audience because it was a novelty. But now, with so much modern music going on in so many different venues, it would hardly be noticed.

Selecting Texts and Opera Subjects

Let’s talk about working on vocal music and texts. Since literature was such a big part of your background, do you have your own method for selecting text, or is that done as a collaboration, as part of the commissioning process?

I always ask if the commissioner has a text in mind, and suggest they ask the chorus members. It’s surprising how few have chosen something already. They may have certain parameters, often that the text has to be sacred, or something that fits into a certain theme, like an anniversary. But even there, they often leave it up to me. Not only that, but most of the time, with perhaps just one exception, when they have had suggestions, it’s amazing how wrong these are for music!

Why are they wrong, typically?

Often they’re great poems, but they’re philosophical. They’re so dense, rhetorically, that it’s hard to understand the poem. A lot of great poems require a lot of thought to understand. Well, if it’s hard to get when you’re just reading, think how much harder it is when sung in choral counterpoint. I’m not saying there’s a hard and fast rule against philospophical poems, but they don’t invite me to compose music.

Music comes from inside yourself. The most basic form of music is vocal music. And everybody who sings probably started singing when they were a kid. It is so natural, that I prefer texts that are natural. Something like Sara Teasdale or Robert Frost, who use language that is not learned. If you use the word house, that’s fine to sing, we’ve all said that word many times. But dwelling? Domicile? Residence? No, they don’t sing like natural words, they are learned words, imported from other languages, not basic anglo-saxon words.

What’s next for you? What are you looking forward to?

Oh, well at my age, I don’t know what’s coming next, and I don’t think I want to know! (laughter) In fact, I recently finished my opera on Pride and Prejudice and I’m trying to get that produced. The book, of course, just came out in July, so there’s going to be the book signing and other activities around that.

Since I finished Pride and Prejudice, I’ve been writing choral pieces on commission. I had turned down many of these in order to write my operas — I’ve only taken choral commissions between operas or between acts. I didn’t like to stop to do something else until I had a natural resting place; I’m not very good at working on two pieces at once. I just finished one two weeks ago, and I don’t mind having a little break for a while.

I don’t have any ideas for a new opera right now, but who knows, if something really strikes me? With each of the four operas I’ve written, I’ve been so excited about the subjects, I just didn’t see how they could fail to become good operas. My father gave me Tartuffe to read when I was 16, he thought it was such a great comedy. I saw the A.C.T. production in the early 70s, it was marvelous. They used the Richard Wilbur translation and the production was wonderful! You could almost say it was choreographed. I thought, now there’s a comic opera just waiting for the music. It is still topical, and was when I wrote it. There were “televangelists” making millions off their faithful victims. This was also the time of Richard Nixon.

Then John Brown, that was a tremendous subject. Fighting against slavery, what could be more powerful than that? Brown was a most controversial and charismatic character, just made for opera. So was Frederick Douglass, and there was a touching love story in it, too.
Then I wanted a little comic relief, and I stumbled upon The Rivals of (Richard Brinsley) Sheridan; that is a very funny play. The dramaturgy is pretty creaky now, but you’d have to change that for opera anyway, so I went ahead. I had a lot of fun giving Mrs. Malaprop new lines: “Young man, flatulence will get you nowhere.”

And Pride and Prejudice is just the most wonderful love story ever; it’s filled with humor and great characters, three of them caricatures, perfect for opera.

It’s very ambitious, though, because it comes with such a reputation already.

I know it does, but that should be an advantage to somebody producing it, wouldn’t you think? I thought with this story, one of the big companies would jump at the chance. Doesn’t work that way, though. American opera impresarios nowadays are gung ho on Americanism — what one critic called CNN operas, about such personalities as Marilyn Monroe or Harvey Milk. The trouble is, most weren’t good operas. The thing that makes a good opera is the universality of the characters and their emotions. It doesn’t matter what period, what country it is if these are people that you can believe in.