Momo in the Mistletoe: Interview with Paul Chihara

Nov 30, 2016

Dr. Paul Chihara has composed scores for over 90 motion pictures and television series, while also receiving numerous accolades for his dramatic music for the concert stage. San Francisco Choral Artists will premiere his newest work for choir, Momo in the Mistletoe, in their December 2016 concert set Light In Winter.

Dr. Chihara speaks on the phone with fellow composer Dr. Jason Carl Rosenberg and discusses several topics, including the piece he wrote for SFCA, the role of humor in music, the politics of the ivory tower, and authenticity in artistic practice.

Jason Carl Rosenberg: You’ve referred to the piece you wrote for San Francisco Choral Artists as a madrigal.

Paul Chihara, Composer-Not-in-Residence

Paul Chihara, SFCA’s 2016-17 Composer-Not-in-Residence

Paul Chihara: Yeah, the model that I had in mind was a song by Thomas Morley, the 16th-Century English madrigalist, as you know. It’s a very familiar madrigal he wrote called “Fire, Fire,” which is not about fire at all, but rather about the fire of love, about passion. It’s kind of a mock-passion song. And my piece is a mock-epic. The style is very much like the tongue-in-cheek style of “Fire, Fire” by Morley. I knew that Magen would appreciate that and recognize it right away.

A lot of people don’t know this about meI don’t talk about it muchbut I actually began my career as a choral conductor and a choral composer. My first of three scholarships to Tanglewood was as a choral conductor and I performed or conducted many of the standard choral pieces that are an essential part of Magen’s vast repertoire. Two years later, after studying German choral music in Berlin, I was invited to UCLA where I eventually became the conductor of the Women’s Choral Societyand then went on to Hollywood. From there, I became a man of the world, traveling around, lecturing and performing. But my first introduction to the professional world was in choral music, so this gives me a chance to indulge in my long lost youth.

JCR: You mentioned this being a tongue-in-cheek tribute to your cat.

PC: Momo, yes.

JCR: Adorable.

PC: [Laughs] Thanks.

JCR: The piece is called Momo in the Mistletoe. And in it you imagine your cat, Momo, on a little kitten’s journey through a jungle of mistletoe and a forest of Christmas trees.

PC: That’s right. Well, one thing I know about little kittens, as a cat person most of my life, is that they have a vivid imagination just like human kittens. [Laughs] When Momo’s walking around the house, which is very messy, like all composers’ houses, everything is an adventure to her. If I leave a bag of groceries she jumps right into it immediately and starts fighting with the stuff inside.

JCR: Paper bags are irresistible.

PC: Exactly! And you get the feeling that she’s not just walking, but stalking. You know what I mean?

JCR: Absolutely.

PC: She puts her nose to the floor and then suddenly pounces at something! Whether it’s real or imagined, it seems to be in a great epic. She reminds me of a feline …

JCR: Don Quixote?

PC: Yes! Don Quixote! There are monsters and dragons out there that she’s slaying. I’m amused by that and she keeps me company while I’m composing. I spend a lot of time writing, and she’s my companion in the daytime. I write while she goes on her adventures. And I watch her. So that’s what I had on my mind as I’m writing.

Now at Christmas time, with all the various accoutrement of Christmas, it can be much more jungle-like with the flotsam and jetsam in my apartment than in normal life, you know?

JCR: Definitely.

PC: Instead of newspapers, there’s now all this colored paper around with bright hues. And she can jump onto it! So watching her, it’s clear she’s having a little adventure, like on a hunting party.

There’s no specific storyline in the piece. It’s not like, “at this point she’s jumping at a dragon” or anything like that. I do have a quote from “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” in what can be considered the middle section of the madrigal. Everyone will catch it right away. It’s not the tune so much as the rhythm (da da-da-da da–da da–da da), that triplet with the long-short patternsit can only be “When Johnny Comes Marching Home”.

And people laugh. And that’s alright. I want them to be pleasantly amused by that reference.

JCR: There’s something really playful about your piece, in style and mood.

PC: Thank you.

JCR: At one point you have a waltz that emerges. And at another point there’s the march pattern that you mentioned. Humor and playfulness clearly help shape this work.

PC: Definitely.

JCR: You don’t see this too much in contemporary music. Seriousness and somber approaches dominate the new pieces that are being written. You are bucking the trend! [Laughs.] So I was hoping you might talk about the role of humor in music today, and about the utility perhaps of incorporating playfulness into your own music.

PC: Don’t quote me on this, but …

JCR: You do realize that I’m recording you right now …

PC: [Laughs] Yeah, good point. Well, anyway, I’m not in contemporary music anymore. I used to be part of the New York avant-garde, and was part of the circle hanging out in the studio with John Cage in the early Seventies. I am in the same age group (all born in or around 1938) as Philip Glass, Steve Reich, William Bolcom, Charles Wuorinen, Joan Tower, among many others.  We somehow became the American avant-garde of the Sixties. And it’s funny: many of us became professors! I think that perhaps says something. Anyway, we had a lot of fun, but the concerts tended to be rather serious, somber affairs. I can’t stand most music of the international avant-garde anymore, which has become so academic and sterile—and basically without grace or humor. But maybe I shouldn’t say that. That’s perhaps a bit too strong.

Humor is indeed important. Not Till Eulenspiegel or things like that; not music that’s straight out corny. But I like music that’s adorable. There’s probably an important difference between being funny and being adorable. When you laugh at a cat, it’s probably not because it’s funny, but because it’s being adorable. It’s a kind of delight, as opposed to ha-ha funny. I’m attracted to music that has that tongue-in-cheek lightness to it. You find that in Debussy. You certainly find that in Ravel. And Satie, of course.

JCR: Satie is a king of that.

PC: Exactly. I studied in Paris, and I think there’s since been a sort of French outlook in my music. I want it to be humorous at times, but also elegant.

JCR: That’s a delicate balance.

PC: It is. But that’s the goal.

JCR: I think it’s a misconception that humorous works or playful works lack rigor.

PC: Absolutely. In fact, some of the most playful pieces that we just adore are put together like fine watches. I’m thinking of Debussy’s Children’s Corner suite, for instance.

JCR: Playful on the surface, but expertly crafted.

PC: Yeah, I want my music to still have good, solid bones. But I don’t want my music to sound “academic,” or that it has fugues in it, or something like that. I find that dreadful.

JCR: You’re talking to the wrong guy there: I utterly adore fugues!

PC: [Laughs] Well, I mean writing fugues just to make it sound academic or more scholarly.

JCR: I got you. Getting back to quoting, and I hope I don’t ruin any surprises here, but at one point in the piece you insert a quote from “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear.”

PC: [Laughs] That’s right. I wanted to have a Christmas moment.

JCR: The way that I hear it in my mind when I look at the score is as a diegetic moment. I know you’re a film composer, so you know what that means: that it comes from inside the scene. It’s like the kitten is romping around all these Christmas trees and wrapping paper, and then little Momo hears a choir singing in the background.

PC: Exactly. You hit the nail on the head. It’s funny you should use the term diegetic, since, even as a film composer, I don’t usually use those terms except when I’m giving lectures at UC Berkeley or something like that. [Laughs] I call it “source music” and “underscore.” But you’re absolutely right. That is definitely a quote. It’s clear that she wanders past my living room where the choristers are rehearsing Christmas carols or we’re being entertained by friends at a Christmas party. Very clearly she’s walking past the performance of that piece.

JCR: Earlier in the conversation we discussed Don Quixote. Last night, by chance, I went to a performance of Billy the Kid by Copland, which is an explicitly programmatic piece.

PC: I like that piece very much.

JCR: I’m also fond of it. I bring it up because my students often want to describe music that they hear cinematically, as a series of depicted events, whether or not that was the composer’s intention. With the prominent role that TV and movies play in our lives, it’s little wonder that listeners are contextualizing and making sense of the music they hear, especially new music, through a cinematic perspective.

PC: Yes.

JCR: You’ve not only written extensively for the concert stage, but also had a long and successful career writing music for the silver screen. Given this experience, I’m wondering how often do you think about using a kind of programmatic approach or a cinematic perspective when composing concert music or sketching ideas of your concert music.

PC: You’re asking about how I write in general, and not just about the Momo piece?

JCR: That’s right. A broader perspective on your creative process.

PC: That’s a very good question, and, really, a very flattering question. Thank you. I no longer draw a distinction between my concert work or a work for film. To me, I don’t have two different styles. As a matter of fact, when I first started writing film music, I was asked to write for a film with Sylvester Stallone called Death Race 2000. That was the first time I wrote a film score, and, to be honest, the first time I wrote tonal music. Until then, I was a good ole 12-tone composer, like all of us East Coast guys were, you know?

JCR: Yeah.

PC: I didn’t think I could write tonal music. And I certainly didn’t think I could write a love scene. I not only had a love scene, I had a nude love scene! [Laughs] I not only found that I could do it, but that I liked it. [Laughs] I wasn’t embarrassed or self-conscious; I just thought, “Hey, this is really cool!”

At first, when I first started to write films, because I was a composer-in-residence with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and San Francisco Ballet then and had a reputation for being a member of the avant-garde, there was some negative feedback. I remember one article in the L.A. Times that said, “Chihara goes Hollywood.” At that time, that was pejorative.

JCR: Definitely. A dagger to the heart of most academic dreams.

PC: Yeah. It was such an academic period. If you didn’t write combinatorial music, you may not get a job! At least at a well-ranked school. Things have probably loosened up a bit. I mean, you probably know better than I do since you’re younger than I.

JCR: It’s not as thick of a line in the sand, but the traces are still very much there.

PC: It’s like a form of politics for us. It’s a front one often needs to put on in order to be considered acceptable. And I was very politically acceptable; you would hate my earlier music. [Laughs]

So when I first started writing music for movies, I was still getting commissions to write for the Chicago Symphony and Boston Symphony and stuff. Those first pieces [for orchestra] that I wrote when my film career began are quite dreadful, and I’ve tried to withdraw them as much as I can. I can’t remove all of them because some are published, but they became more academic than what I was writing before. They became more 12-tone, more strict, more controlling, and less playful, less fun than anything I would listen to on my own. I was so self-conscious that I felt I needed to tell the artistic establishment that I’m still one of them. But you can’t be one of them if you’re not.

JCR: [Laughs] True. At least not without having a large void in your heart of hearts, by not being true to yourself.

PC: Exactly. You have to be true to yourself. And I was only true to what I thought they wanted me to be; not to what I wanted to be. So then I decided that I would only write what I really wanted to write. I got a commission from the Cleveland Orchestra and I made the opening sound like a main title, because that’s what I wanted to do. It explodes in this big theme and it was well-received. And that’s when the divide stopped and I began to remain true to myself.