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Lou Cohen: Opening the Door


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In his cushy, classy, elegant two-story home just outside of Central Square in Cambridge, MA, Lou Cohen introduces his Symphony 5: from a laptop, jammed together fragments of elegant new music unfold, spaced out so that breath can enter in the interstices... Then the sound of roiling, rolling violins getting impacted: all is mellow and peaceful again, the silence between gets stifling, but segues into eerie jubilation. Pathos enters darkness, and wind-almost the tornado ripping up Dorothy into Oz. Back to basics. Electronic plucking leads to random signals in outer space, sending Apollo back to earth. A splash in the sea, and the astronauts come home to a tense society trying to re-situate themselves in a world of new crises, uprisings-it is Kent Sate all over again. A new revolution.

It is a warm, comfortable environment in Cohen's cozy living room, filled with friends and admirers. Cohen is the dean of the local Boston experimental scene, instructing and inspiring younger artists. With a hard, firm grasp of the great classical tradition, he is also a master technologist, and he can transform electrical impulses into beautiful lyrical flights. What's more, his own efforts stitch together those of his entire music community, as at his Open Sound series, in Somerville, MA, where he brings together his colleagues and associates near and far for stimulating performance interspace.

Cohen is, indeed, a composer with a stern, magisterial demeanor beneath his gentle eyes. And his compositions are strictly determined. The question he is always exploring, however-ever since he studied with composer John Cage in the 1950s, is: What determines choice? Tradition lies heavy, with its heavy demands-and even iconoclasm is ideologically laden. Cohen explores the line between these poles, walking it like a tightrope. As a teacher, he will soon have his students doing the same, with no net; and he will draw his listeners into the atmosphere of tense exertion as if they were up in the air themselves. Again, in his elegant living room, Cohen discusses how his philosophy has kept evolving and reinventing itself, even now, into his seventh decade, as he leads his scene with fire.

All About Jazz: I know you took many years off from music, and I'd like to know were you entirely separated from music during those years?

Lou Cohen: No. I composed in solitude. We should probably go back to the Cage years and start there. I was in college here, and I couldn't decide whether it was going to be music or math.


LC: At MIT. So I took a leave of absence from MIT and I went back to New York City, which is where I came from.

At that time my family was living in Queens. A section called Hollis Hills. I lived pretty far out on Long Island, in Queens, near Union Turnpike and 208th Street. Further out than Flushing. So there was a bus I would take to the nearest subway stop. The bus was about a 30- minute ride. To get to Manhattan from home by bus and subway took an hour.

So, anyway, I left MIT and went home. I knew that John Cage was teaching a composition course at the New School, and I signed up for it and I managed to get MIT to give me credit for taking that course. So I took the course for about a half-year, and I got to know him a bit, and he got to know me, and at the end of it I asked him for advice. He said: "You can compose well, but you need to know that I [Cage] cannot make a red cent as a composer." Recently I read a memoir by Carolyn Brown of that period. She was a dancer in Merce Cunningham's dance company. I learned that at that moment when he was giving me that advice, he was selling his books to make rent. Just a few months later he actually made some money, but I didn't know that. And he couldn't have predicted it either.

Anyway, I took his advice seriously. He suggested I go back to MIT. He put me in touch with Christian Wolff. Chris was at Harvard at the time, teaching Classical Languages. We got to be good friends and we put on several concerts around here for a few years. Then I got married, and moved to the suburbs. I just didn't have the time to do concerts any more. And Chris was getting ready to move on too. It wasn't long after that that he left Harvard, but he hadn't quite left at the time that I disengaged. I was working very hard, raising a family, and all that.

But I didn't stop writing music. I continued to compose. The only difference was that without the concerts, I didn't get the performances. So I now have manuscripts stacked this high, that I've never heard. I did that for a long time, but at the same time, I got interested in early music, also because of Christian Wolff. He had gone to Europe for a year and he loaned me his harpsichord. I baby-sat his harpsichord, and I played it. After he came back from Europe and took it back, I bought my own harpsichord. I ended up taking lessons from John Gibbons and I got pretty good at playing the harpsichord for a while. So I played early music, I organized classical music concerts in people's homes, and I composed, but I wasn't in any way in touch with the new music scene. I didn't know anyone who was doing new music for a long time. That's the disengaged part.

So, after many years, I retired. My goal all along had been to be able to retire young enough so that I could write music full-time. I had some false starts: I got involved with astronomy for awhile, and some volunteer work in the public schools, all enriching but not music. But a big thing happened at that time. It was becoming possible to hook synthesizers up to computers. And that got me interested in electronic music, something that I could never have done before because the only electronic music labs were in academic settings and I wasn't in an academic setting.

So all of a sudden there were computers and there were synthesizers. That got me very interested...

AAJ: What year would this have been?

LC: ...it started around 1980, with hobby computers like the Radio Shack TRS80, and by '85 or so I had a Mac and I could afford to buy a synthesizer, and a sampler, and another synthesizer, and I had a rack of these devices, and I was driving them from the computer.

AAJ: So you were retired at this time?

LC: I retired in 1992, so from 1985 to 1992 I was "getting my chops" and writing a few new electronic pieces. I was also going back to my old pieces and trying to create MIDI realizations of the pieces that I had never heard. And I began to write new pieces, although I imagined them for piano or string quartet, so I was using the synthesizers to hear what my string quartet would sound like.

But then I had a breakthrough. This was shortly after I retired: I was having coffee at the 1369 with my wife and she saw that the Out Of The Blue gallery was having poetry open mike nights, maybe once a month. And there was one coming up. This was in December of '92 or '93. And the sign said that musicians were invited. So I went in and asked if I could bring in an electronic piece. I had written two electronic pieces at that point. One of them was called "Vocal Music." They said it would be OK, so I brought it. There were about 20 people in the room, and to my surprise I discovered that everybody liked this piece. So I decided from that moment that I didn't need to write music for acoustic instruments anymore.

I could write electronic pieces. I didn't have to worry about performers who wouldn't rehearse enough, or worry about finding a venue for a concert, or copying out scores and parts-I wouldn't have to worry about any of that. I could burn discs and give them to people, and with electronic music I could get my music heard much more easily. Not only that, I could hear it played perfectly as I was writing it, which was something I could never do before.

So that was a big thing for me, a big change. So I started to exclusively write electronic pieces.

AAJ: Even if they're atonal, your pieces always have a pleasing lyrical quality to them. I'm not sure how you achieve that.

LC: I don't know either. I'm not sure exactly what you're referring to.

AAJ: A human quality, I think...

LC: I don't know exactly what that is, but when I write music I always think about the whole piece up front, and I have some idea about what the structure is going to be, so it has a kind of a shape. Usually there's some place in the piece where there's a climax. So maybe that's what you're hearing, I'm not sure. I usually make sure that there are some consonances: unisons, open fifths, things like that. Maybe that's what you're hearing.

Then I had another breakthrough. I told a friend of mine that I was writing electronic music. He was a member of the MIT Gamelan orchestra. He introduced me to another member of the orchestra who wrote electronic music, and that was Ken Ueno.

He's probably in his early 30s right now. He was Ph.D. candidate at Harvard at the time, and since then he's won some major composition prizes-the Rome Prize and the Berlin Prize. But at that time he was still just an aspiring young composer. We got together a few times and he told me some of what was going on in the electronic music world. I had no idea who was doing anything, or what was going on. Everything I was doing was completely on my own. He invited me to come to a concert at Berklee [College if Music, in Boston], where, he said he was going to perform a piece of his. So I went to Berklee, where he had a part-time faculty job, and he got up on stage with Tim Feeney and Hillary Zipper. And they played this incredible piece. And there was no score, no music stands.

AAJ: It was improvised?

LC: Yes, but I didn't know that. I was thinking: how did they do that? Then he told me that they were going to play the piece at Harvard. So I went to hear it again, and it was completely different. And that's when I found out it was improvised. Up to then I had never dreamed of improvising "noise." Because when I got introduced to "noise," through Cage, there was no such thing as improvising-Cage was totally against it, and nobody else I knew at that time improvised. What you did with noise was, you organized it, using random methods or other methods, but you did not introduce your own personal taste into the process. The way Cage was using it, he was trying to get the music outside of himself, he was trying to get himself outside of his music, which was one of the reasons he was using chance processes.

But here, at Ken's performance, there were people who were expressing their musical feelings with sound and noise. It was like a breakthrough for me. I had no idea anybody was doing this. And then I discovered there was a whole community of people doing it, and I had never known anything about them. So I began to meet them. I organized a few concerts myself at [Cambridge, MA venue] Zeitgeist, and I brought Tim, Ken and Hillary in. And they brought in Jack Wright and Vic Rawlings. One thing led to another and I got to know more and more people. And I became part of this lively community of people who were working with noise and it was just wonderful. So it's like I was born all over again.

AAJ: Anthony Braxton talks about the "post-Cage-Ayler continuum." I never realized they were so different in their approaches, Cage being anti-expression and Albert Ayler being so radical in self-expression. What is your relationship to jazz?

LC: When I was in high school I played a little bit of jazz, I wouldn't say Dixieland jazz, but otherwise, no. I knew about John Coltrane in the '60s, but I wasn't very interested in what he was doing. For me, the thing about jazz is: you don't hear jazz unless you hear drums. And that seems like such a limitation-it makes so much of jazz sound the same, so it didn't interest me. There wasn't enough freedom in it for me, so I was never very much interested in it. And besides that, I was interested in composing. So, jazz musicians, as a rule, don't play "compositions" or if they do, it's a very loose idea with improvisation, and I was writing computer music that got burned into a disc. Once on a disc it wasn't going to change. So I don't feel any connection to jazz, really.

AAJ: But you do improvise, so you must respond to it in some way if you're an improviser? whether you reject it or whether you're responding to it?

LC: There's a tradition of improvisation in classical music. And it goes way back. Almost all the great composers of the 19th century could improvise, and did, and they were famous for it. And I've improvised plenty on the piano. But it's sort of classical style music. So improvisation is nothing new to me. But improvising "noise" was new. But in a way, it's the same for me. And you're not limited to the structures that I see in jazz. Besides the fact that almost every jazz group has a drummer, the other thing that's the same is that there is usually a riff-a tune-and then each player gets a solo, then they come back to the tune at the end. So the structure is almost always the same.

AAJ: That's changed since the '60s, like the European school: saxophonist Evan Parker and guitarist Derek Bailey.

LC: I'll have to listen, but I'm not aware of that. One of the things that's strange for me is that I cut myself off, or I wasn't in touch with so much that was going on, for so long. Except for now with what I do in this improv community almost everything that I do is on my own. There are very few composers for example, who I can talk with-I don't them and they don't know me. There are actually just two now: one of them I just met a few months ago (Noah Creshevsky.)

AAJ: Christian Wolff, he's still alive isn't he?

LC: Yes. He's at Dartmouth. He's retired. I haven't seen him in a long time. The last time I saw him was right after Cage delivered the Norton lectures at Harvard. I went to those and Chris was there. We got in touch then and I went to visit him once, but he went off in a different musical direction and we don't have much in common. I saw him once when he was here. He spent some time at NEC [New England Conservatory] for awhile, he organized some concerts-they had a "Christian Wolff" residency. So I saw him then also.

AAJ: How do you feel about taste in musical self-expression? These were things that Cage was against?

LC: I don't have any problem with self-expression at all. There's a lot that I learned from Cage, but that doesn't mean that I did everything the way he did. He was a great influence on me, and a lot of times I think of him as my father. But that doesn't mean that I write like him, or that my music sounds like his, or that I believe in what he believed in. But at the same time, he made a lot of things possible for me, artistically. He really taught me how to compose. And there are some very important things that I learned from him that have nothing to do with Cage's music. They have to do with what he knew about music.

AAJ: People look at Cage as rejecting all convention, and I guess that's not the case. If he taught you how to compose that must mean that he was carrying on a lot of conventions that you would have thought he would have rejected.

LC: He did reject a lot, but at the same time he had his own standards. Maybe some people don't know: Cage studied with Schoenberg, and with other Viennese composers. He studied with Henry Cowell. He studied with Virgil Thompson. And he wrote 20th century classical music, when he started out in the '20s and '30s. He wrote music just like everybody else did. It was unique but it wasn't like what people think about when they think of Cage now. Not these incredible, "anything goes" types of events at all. It was music written down, note by note on a page, just like everyone else was doing. So he did a lot of that and he knew a lot about it. He had this interest in Satie and, in many ways, Satie was a very conventional composer. He had unconventional views which Cage was fond of, but he essentially wrote dots on a page like everybody else did. And Cage could play that music and he did. And he promoted it as well. So he came from the tradition of classical music. And when he performed he put a suit on, like every other classical musician did, and went out on the stage, and he bowed, and he took applause (if any was available) and he started the piece, and he played the piece, and he finished the piece, just like everybody else.

AAJ: So what are your other influences? What did you start off listening to, and what do you listen to now?

LC: I started off listening to classical music when I was 11, 12. What I listened to was Beethoven, Mozart, Copland, but then one night on the radio I heard a piece by Bartok which had a big impact on me: "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta." In that piece there's a striking moment in the slow movement where a percussionist hits a repeated note, probably on a xylophone. The repeated notes begin slowly, then speed up, then slow down again, with nothing else going on, and then there's a drum roll or a tympani roll at the end. It was very dramatic and completely different from anything I had ever heard before. There was no rhythm-it was a gesture. And it was a gesture that involved no rhythm, no melody, no harmony. It opened up this possibility to me that music might not have rhythm, melody or harmony. Of course the Bartók music moved in a different direction after that, but the impact on me remained.

Later on I got exposed to the Schillinger Method. Joseph Schillinger was a Russian musician who came to the U.S. in 1928. I learned about Schillinger from Carmine Coppola, who was the father of a high-school roommate of mine. Besides his musical training, Schillinger had a mathematical background. He taught privately and also by correspondence courses. His most famous pupil was George Gershwin, but many of his other students were also famous: Benny Goodman, Oscar Levant, Tommy Dorsey. Also Henry Cowell, who later was one of Cage's teachers. Schillinger's methods allowed musicians to write music quickly, which was a big advantage for composers of Broadway musicals and Hollywood movies tracks. He provided ways to generate music with mathematical methods. And it was decent music.

One of Schillinger's disciples, by the way, was Lawrence Berk, who taught the system in Boston from 1945 to 1954. He then went on to found the Berklee School of Music.

Anyway, the whole idea that mathematics could be used to generate musical ideas, musical patterns, that was a big influence. Later, through Ken Ueno, I learned about Iannis Xenakis, who also wrote a book describing his mathematical methods. So that was a big deal for me.

Since then, the biggest influences have been the people I play music with, all these young, wonderful people. I listen to the many, many ways that they make music, the many different ideas, I don't know where I'd be without them. They've really changed my world.

AAJ: You're a very responsive player. When you play with Vic Rawlings you play one way, that sort of contrarian, bitter style, the audience-be-damned way, and then with Andrew Eisenberg, his music is very extroverted, an easy-going guy, you're very approachable when you play with him. I notice you really fit into your context very well.

LC: I like to play by listening. Maybe that comes from the days when I accompanied people on the harpsichord. Often there's a soloist, and the harpsichordist's job is to be the rhythm and support section. But I like to play with people, I like the idea of making things happen together. I like to listen and do what they do, or sometimes take the lead, but usually I try to feel my way, and see what they're doing and do more of that.

AAJ: Tell us about the wiimote.

LC: This started from my interest in Csound. Csound is very important to me because it's given me a way to combine computer programming, mathematics and music, all rolled up together. I was very interested in Csound and I tried to start a Boston Csound User's Group, in order to swap information with other Csound users around here. One of the biggest names in the dissemination of information about Csound is Richard Boulanger, who teaches at Berklee. He was the editor of the Csound Book. He offered to provide a place for the Csound Users Group to meet-at Berklee. As it turns out, I didn't find anyone around here who knew more than me about Csound, except for Richard Boulanger.

There were no other users who I could learn anything from. But I gave a number of presentations at Berklee, and he gave me the wiimote as a gift. It's made by Nintendo and it's a game controller. Richard had figured out how to link it up to Csound. At first I wasn't interested in doing that, but one day I looked at a videotape of me performing on the laptop, and it looked like I was doing my email. Also I remember this clearly: I was doing some duos with James Coleman, who plays the Theremin, and at the end of each of these duos, people would come up and look at the Theremin. Nobody was interested in what I was doing. They had no interest in what was on the computer screen, for example. I realized that although it ought not to be this way, what audiences see, matters. Audiences respond to what they see.

So here I had the wiimotes and I wondered if I could do something with them that was similar to what I had been doing with the mouse, and people would be able to see what my gestures were. I worked on that and it turns out that it's way better for me than what I was doing before. It allows me to be much more responsive to what else is going on. The way I was doing it before, I was moving the mouse around on the screen very rapidly, but I couldn't start and stop things fast enough. There are a lot of musical gestures that were very hard for me to do before that are easy to do on the wiimote. The wiimote has buttons on it, so I programmed it so that when you press a button a note starts, and when you release the button the note ends. It's so logical-it took me a while to figure that out, but it makes sense. And there are two wiimotes (one is called "wiimote," the other is called "nunchuck"), so I can control one note's start and end with one, and another note independently with the other.

AAJ: So you can play two notes at a time?

LC: Actually more. There are two notes at a time if they are short. But if I set things up so that a note plays for a long time after it's started, then I can start another, and another, and another, and they will all play together. So I can play many things at once, in certain situations. But two notes at a time is actually a lot if the sounds are complicated to start with.

AAJ: What is the relationship between spontaneity and premeditation in your work?

LC: I like to have some kind of structure when I improvise. I like there to be sections, something agreed-upon. First we're going to do this, and then we're going to do that. I prefer that because it gives me something to aim for. So instead of just being intuitive, I can think ahead about where I'm going, what I'm doing, and I can think about where I'm going to be next and how I'm going to get there. I think this makes the music more comprehensible to an audience. It makes it more comprehensible to me. I don't mind doing things on the spur of the moment, but when it's all over, I don't know what I've done. If there's a structure then I've got that in my head from the beginning, so when it's all over then at least I feel that I know what happened. A lot of people I play with prefer no structure. So then I just go with the flow, and do it their way. One of the reasons I like to play with [dancer] Joe Burgio and his group is because he likes structure. These are structures within which you can be free. So you do "this" for awhile, but what "this" is, isn't so spelled out. It's a certain sequence of events, or a certain way of responding to other people, but not necessarily spelling out whether you should play loud, soft, or busily, or quiet.

AAJ: With Joe Burgio, with a structure, is there a give-and-take between you and his dancers?

LC: Yes, here's an example: one of things we do is "lead and support." To keep it simple, there might be two dancers and two musicians. So, dancer "A" will be the leader, musician "B" will support the leader (dancer "A.") The next dancer, "C," will support musician "B." And the last musician, "D," will support dancer "C." So each person is supporting someone else, which means that you're responding to what they do and making them look good or sound good. But what you do depends partly on what they do, but partly it's your own choice what to do to make them sound or look good. So that's a structure, but it doesn't dictate that you play loud or soft, or for a certain length of time, or rapidly or slowly, and yet there's a structure. It just dictates who you play attention to and what your intention should be when you play.

AAJ: You play music that is experimental, atonal. So many people find that disagreeable. Why are some of us so attracted to that kind of music?

LC: I don't think this is true for me, but for some musicians there's a kind of rebellious thing going on. A kind of "up yours" thing. I'm not in that category. I don't feel rebellious any more-I might have when I was 20. From my perspective, over the years the range of acceptable sounds, the palette, has expanded, just because each composer, each musician, has pushed the boundaries a little bit. So there are more and more sounds that have become legitimate. The people who don't like these sounds are the people who either haven't been exposed to it, or they have some preconceived idea of what they're supposed to like.

I have a friend, a colleague of mine for many years, and he had a subscription to the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Any time they played new music he would complain to me. He had an expectation of what he was supposed to hear at Symphony Hall, and he was not about to expand that expectation. He grew up being told "this is the kind of music you're supposed to like." That's what I imagine is going on with a certain class of people, usually non-musicians, by the way. But it's really taste. There's lots of music I don't like, for that matter. Even though I like noise, there's various kinds of music I'm not interested in at all. Some music doesn't do anything for me, or it seems repetitious, or it doesn't seem original, and other people love it, in fact most people love it. There's no accounting for taste. You've heard that phrase: "That's what makes horse races"? One thing I know is that there are a hell of lot more people who like noise, or tolerate noise, than than there used to be.

It's really different now than when I first started making noise. 20 or 30 people in a room may not seem like much, but compared to when I first started in the '60s, that's a big deal. And they all stay there to the end. And they pay to hear it. None of that was true when I started.

AAJ: One thing I've noticed is that when there's a shift in taste, there's often a turning away from the old things.

LC: In order to embrace something new, you have to reject something else?

AAJ: Picasso got bored with Da Vinci.

LC: That probably was true for me when I was younger, but it isn't now. I can remember when I was learning 12-tone technique and embracing new music (or what was new music in the late '50s, early '60s), I had no patience for Tchaikovsky or Brahms or most 19th century music. But now when I listen to Tchaikovsky I get tears in my eyes. All the way back, I love the entire Western music tradition.

I forgot earlier to mention my other important music teacher-Alan Kemler (aka Avram David.) I had written a short piece of music for a friend of mine, and he had hung the score on his wall. Kemler saw it there and when he first met me he told me that I was headed in the right direction but I still had a lot to learn. I took lessons with him for about a year and half. And I learned a lot of things that Cage wouldn't have taught me. Maybe Cage was required to do counterpoint and harmony exercises when he was studying with Schoenberg, but he didn't teach those things at the New School.

So I learned how to analyze pieces, how to do counterpoint, harmony, how to use the strict 12-tone technique, some orchestration. All that was important because it gave me a basis for teaching myself more later on. And I use it all, I always think about those techniques. I always think about classical counterpoint even when I play music now on the wiimote. It's time for some low sounds, it's time for two things happening at the same time, it's time to hear two things together. All that comes from my classical training.

AAJ: I think a great thing about your career is that you've been able to recover so much. You've been able to recover your taste for the romantics and classics, you've recovered your creative outlets...

LC: This is a golden age for me. It's way beyond my expectations. I'm writing music like crazy, I'm playing more than I have energy for, there are always new ideas, and I've made so many great friends, it's just wonderful-finally I'm not alone.

Photo Credit

Matt Samolis


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