The Fanfare Interview with Robert Martin July 2000
Composer Robert Martin talks about writing music, the myths of early tribes, Japanese gardens, and his new recording of Nine Stellar Pieces on Furious Artisans (FACD 6803).
Fanfare: You began writing music at the age of ten. How did that happen?
Robert Martin: I learned the symbols of music notation at a much younger age, perhaps at age three. Then one day I simply started composing. I had a very clear premonition that someday I would write music all the time—I can’t explain it—but that is how it happened.
Fanfare: What was you musical education like?
Robert Martin: During high school I took lessons at the Peabody Preparatory School in Baltimore. Then I went on to the Peabody Conservatory where I received Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in music composition in 1974 and 1975.
Fanfare: At what point did you decide to go to New York?
Robert Martin: I received the Charles Ives Scholarship for music composition from the American Academy of Arts and Letters which provided enough money to get started in New York. I arrived in the autumn of 1976. I lived in a small room on the upper West Side. It was hard to make ends meet, however, there were many fine musicians at that time—who could play anything—and they loved playing my music.
Fanfare: You traveled many places in the late 1970’s. Could you please give me an overview?
Robert Martin: In 1979 I received a Fulbright Scholarship in music composition to study in Vienna. For me, the composers who lived in Vienna—Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven—are the high point of western music. They were masters of both balance and drama, and they reintroduced Bach’s contrapuntal techniques—which were almost forgotten. Also important to me was the second Viennese school which began another artistic epoch about a hundred years ago. In addition, I was interested in some obscure composers who lived in the communist countries of the Eastern Block. In order to meet some of these composers, I traveled through Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Bulgaria and the former Yugoslavia. Traveling was difficult due to the military border defenses. I began to see that the poverty in these countries was caused by their oppressive governmental systems. Although I was on a modest student budget, the favorable exchange rate allowed me to afford any luxury—in effect I was rich, but it did not matter because there was nothing to buy. There were no luxuries available to purchase—except musical scores and I bought many that I still treasure. It was a lesson about the nature of wealth. The border officials searched me many times—but all the soldiers found was music.
Fanfare: In 1980, you became involved with Wall Street. How did this come about?
Robert Martin: From my earlier experience in New York, I knew that I could not survive as a composer. I answered an ad on the Juilliard bulletin board. The ad asked for anyone interested in working at a small Wall Street firm. They were desperate for new employees and hired me immediately. I had no background in financial matters, but Wall Street was booming, and during fifteen years of hard work I rose to the level of Senior Vice President at a major firm. I was happy to retire in 1994 to pursue composing full time.
Fanfare: You were in investment banking. What sort of things did you do?
Robert Martin: My experiences were diverse. For years I worked on projects for the financing of colleges, universities and hospitals throughout the United States. Also, I had the privilege of serving as financial advisor to the City of New York.
Fanfare: How did you come to be published by the Theodore Presser Company?
Robert Martin: Soon after I retired, I submitted my music. I chose the Theodore Presser Company because it is the oldest and finest music publisher in North America. Six months went by while they studied my music. Then, on our first meeting they took me in as one of their regular composers. This is even more meaningful when you realize that they had never heard of me—I had been in musical isolation for a long time. They have already published dozens of my compositions dating as far back as 1972. It means a great deal to have such support. All nine of the Stellar Pieces are now available from Theodore Presser.
Fanfare: How did you come to be recorded by Furious Artisans?
Robert Martin: Furious Artisans posted a “call for scores” on the bulletin board of the American Music Center, and received several thousand responses. They picked me out of the line up.
Fanfare: They are a new label. What do you think they are all about?
Robert Martin: Marc Wolf, the company’s Managing Director and Principal, is also a fine guitarist. I am seriously impressed with his depth of knowledge on many subjects—he was already familiar with my Diary of a Seducer, a 45 minute series of pieces for guitars. Also I have the highest regard for the Recording Engineer, Jeremy Tressler, the other Principal of the firm. His ability to capture the “magic” of a living performance on record is astonishing. Furious Artisans is defining itself. They are drawing upon such artistic innovation that, to me, the CD is speaking a marvel long missing since the golden era of LP.
Fanfare: How did you come to write pieces for solo winds named after stars?
Robert Martin: Each of the Nine Stellar Pieces is named after a star. When I look up at the night sky and see something that is friendly and familiar, there comes a sense of serenity—a feeling that my existence is not an accident.
Fanfare: But the music of the Stellar Pieces is invigorating, highly charged—not exactly serene.
Robert Martin: It is the process of writing music that requires serenity—it takes great patience. To create exciting music, one must be calm—but one must try to remember what excitement was—and it is a quickly fading memory. More important, one must listen.
Fanfare: What are you listening to?
Robert Martin: I don’t know. It’s quiet. It’s serene. It’s not the noise of everyday life. And it’s not my emotions—my emotions blow through me like wind through the trees. I cannot write music quickly enough to capture them—at best perhaps I can express a dim memory of them. But I don’t think that is what I am listening for. It’s something more fundamental. It’s a mystery. I believe it’s good.
Fanfare: What is your favorite location to view the stars?
Robert Martin: You can see a section of the sky almost anywhere except Manhattan. I love Manhattan, but it is impossible to see the stars due to the light pollution. There are wonderful places in the West, for example just outside of the Badlands, in South Dakota. You can see in every direction and there is practically no light on the horizon. I remember sitting in Chaco canyon in New Mexico, the location of one of the great cities of the Anasasi Indians. I contemplated how much these early people knew about the night sky—but then I looked up, and I understood that it is there for all of us to share. There is a Hopi legend about the creation of the world. The Hopi people find themselves in the original world—but it is flawed. They persuade a crow to take the end of a rope and fly through a hole in the sky—the hole is hidden behind a cloud. The crow flies through the hole and emerges from a hole in the ground, then ties the rope to the trunk of a tree in the upper world. The Hopi's climb the rope and emerge into a better world.
Fanfare: What happens in the second world?
Robert Martin: The same thing. This second world is better, but still flawed, so the process must be repeated until they come to the fourth world where we are today. There is no better language than music to express the idea of leaving one’s prior world behind and transcending into a completely different world. Perhaps it is like the journey of birth and death. For me, some of Beethoven’s late string quartets and certainly the ninth symphony suggest this idea. The listener transcends through a hole in the sky. I try to render this feeling—of course not in the style of Beethoven—this has nothing to do with style. It’s just that of all the composers, I believe that Beethoven captures this feeling the most often and the most successfully.
Fanfare: Do you often travel in the American West?
Robert Martin: I have explored the deserts from Texas to Southern California. I love the Rockies—Colorado and Wyoming. For me, there are areas in Utah that are the most beautiful. I am in awe of such beauty.
Fanfare: Is this beauty what you express in your music?
Robert Martin: Of course I would like to express beauty—but I think that the expression of beauty may take care of itself. Is it beautiful to see wild flowers growing near a desiccated carcass? The unexpected juxtaposition of life and death may make the scene more poignant, and perhaps more beautiful.
Fanfare: But people may cover their eyes—before they see the flowers.
Robert Martin: Human kind cannot bear very much reality. Life and death are reality—art is merely gratitude.
Fanfare: How do you actually write the music?
Robert Martin: When I sit down to write music, I am aware of the freedom to write it any way I want. I must not take this for granted, even for a moment. As I begin the act of writing, I am also aware that I have been shaped by my past—both the music that I have written and the life that I have lived. Therefore I must resolve to view both myself and the world around me in a fresh way. I have the freedom to attempt this change, but now the question is how does one transcend oneself?
Fanfare: Then do you try to approach each new piece differently?
Robert Martin: It is hard to be unpredictable—and honest—within a set of predictable parameters—but many great composers of the past have proven that it is possible.
Fanfare: How does one know if a composer is great?
Robert Martin: Do you have someone in your life who you admire? Someone whose judgment you trust? You like the way that person views the world. You like the way that person behaves under pressure, or in social situations. You wish that you were more like that. Is it so hard to imagine that one might feel that way about certain composers? Or about certain writers or artists?
Fanfare: But how do we know if their art is great?
Robert Martin: History is a gentle, but persistent judge—there is usually a reason why something survives for a long time and remains in high regard. Of course, nothing is better than the use of our own eyes and ears. If you look at the ceiling in the Louvre museum in Paris, you will see the engraved names of artists—names that are not held high regard today as they once were—for example, the artist Le Brun. Compare Le Brun’s four gigantic battle scenes that are now in the Louvre to Tintoretto’s eight Gonzaga battle scenes in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. Le Brun’s paintings are grand, but as grand as they are, they pale in comparison to Tintoretto’s.
Fanfare: There have been so many revolutions in the twentieth century. There have been cases where the art was not accepted at first.
Robert Martin: That does not mean that all offensive art is great. I know it is often hard to differentiate between what is revolutionary and what is not. For example, during the summers from 1909 through 1911, Braque and Picasso developed a style known as analytical cubism. If you study their paintings chronologically through this period, you discover that they were taking small steps, beginning with their love—or more accurately their obsession—with the paintings of Cézanne. Their achievement did not come easily. They described this experience as two mountain climbers roped together—the first one climbed upward, then the second forged ahead. This appears to be a revolution when you skip the intervening steps and only look at the final stage. This is very different from the esthetics of destruction that come later in the century.
Fanfare: What ideas have been the greatest influence for you?
Robert Martin: I never know where I will find something valuable. For example, in Chaos theory there is the concept called a “strange attractor.” When a moon orbits a planet, the path of the orbit is fairly predictable—but one single orbit never follows the exact path as another single orbit—it is predictable, but it never repeats. If you were to map it with wire as an illustration, you would end up with a donut of tightly coiled wire. Each time you wrapped a new wire around the donut coil, it would follow a slightly different route. I find this analogous to the style of a great composer. Each new piece—even each phrase—is different from the last, however, we learn to recognize in it the personality of its creator. Sometimes I consciously design musical structures that follow this principle.
Fanfare: What other techniques do you use?
Robert Martin: I could give you another example—I call it “phrase abstraction.” In the past composers have been taught to think in terms of “variation.” In Mozart, Beethoven or Brahms each new variation is, most often, a small and recognizable step from the last variation. Late in the movement, the listener may realize that the current variation is far from the original theme, but the journey was made slowly, so the listener is sure of the connection.
Fanfare: How does phrase abstraction differ?
With phrase abstraction, the listener taken forward in larger steps—sometimes my goal is to take as large a step as possible—and yet still maintain the connection. The effect is that the listener may feel that the next phrase is related to the prior phrase—but on closer inspection it is revealed that the notes, rhythms, harmonies and even melodic contours are all different. Yet the connection seems to be there—why? Because just as our eyes play tricks on us, so do our ears. It is one of my compositional interests to employ these illusions for the benefit of my pieces.
Fanfare: When you compose, do you improvise first on the keyboard?
Robert Martin: That approach would distract me—instead, I stay away from any instrument. First I try to get a mental vision of the finished piece of music. This process may take weeks, months or years—and the more complete my mental image becomes, the better. Once I have this clear conception, I attempt to write it down. The problem is that while I am engaged in the physical act of writing, my conception changes—it drifts. The creative process is fluid. When I have completed the writing, I review what I have done to determine how close it is to the original target. Sometimes I keep it.
Fanfare: Do you throw away much of music that you have already written?
Robert Martin: I have thrown away much more than I have written—but I like it that way. To be a great composer, you must love writing music, but to become a better composer—and a better human being—you must be willing to throw your music away and acknowledge your short comings.
Fanfare: Is it painful to throw away music that you have already composed?
Robert Martin: Not if you think about the evanescence of all things. And again, music is a wonderful medium to express this idea. Last year I spent six months in Japan. I was the 1999 recipient of the Japan-U.S. Creative Artist Fellowship in music composition. I attended over four dozen Noh plays, but what affected me more were the gardens.
Fanfare: What was your favorite garden?
Robert Martin: I visited about sixty gardens throughout Japan—in many different historical styles. My favorite—apart from the Katsura imperial villa—was the Kötö-in (Temple of the Tall Paulownia), one of the sub-temples of Daitoku-ji in northwest Kyoto. There are two small maple trees in a field of moss. Behind is a bamboo thicket, which diffuses the light. In a garden such as this, each new season—especially spring and autumn—reminds us that nothing is permanent and time moves quickly on. We are temporal beings. The world changes and we must change also. We must try to grow.
Fanfare: What’s next?
Robert Martin: I just returned from hiking in the Swiss Alps, near Wengen. I was in Kleine Scheidegg, where you can view the three great peaks—the Jungfrau, the Mönch, and the Eiger. Through the wind I heard the distant Alp horns. Perhaps I will write some music that has to do with mountains.
Fanfare: Fanfare wishes you continued success.