Making Music: Morris Rosenzweig

Morris Rosenzweig, photo by Laura Durham.

“Writing music has to do with your version of what you think music is — and it’s hard to have it taken at just that,” explains Salt Lake City composer Morris Rosenzweig. “People often think you’re trying to make some kind of point, but I don’t think that’s what it’s about at all; it’s about an idea, a musical formation that changes over the course of time and in many cases, rejoins to the original formation.”

Rosenzweig’s compositions are not what you may be accustomed to when you listen to “classical” music. He writes what many refer to as “new music.” Or, if you ask him: “music.” He’s written chamber works, large ensemble works — even an opera. The American Academy of Arts and Letters cites his music as projecting “narratives rich with rhythmic energy, orchestral wit, and intense expressiveness.” He’s recorded several albums and his music is performed internationally. “New music” to the untrained listener might be considered inaccessible and unappealing. One might speak of it as they would a Picasso painting, saying “my child could do that,” assuming their kindergartner could plunk notes out on a keyboard and come up with something that sounds somewhat similar. But as you might guess, there is a tremendous amount of structure behind a seemingly simple piece of music.

Young Morris Rosenzweig wasn’t exactly writing music, but he was playing it. “The elementary school I went to in New Orleans insisted that everyone take music” he remembers, “and by that, I mean you had to play music and read music to a certain extent.” As a fourth grader, he learned to play the trumpet, which led to playing in the school band. In Junior High Rosenzweig moved to the horn and was “pretty lousy” he says, but he had a good teacher. “He was thorough, and a very good conductor. He was the first person in my experience that actually taught us some theory; key signatures, intervals, etc. This increased our awareness.” Toward the end of Junior High Rosenzweig was connecting with music at a significant level and although he admits he wasn’t particularly good at school, music was a motivating force in his education. He ended up attending Fortier, a public high school which wasn’t the best school academically, but it had an excellent music program. Pete Dombourian was the high school band teacher. “How that person ended up teaching public school…” he pauses, “it’s just one of those things that made the experience terrific. He was a taskmaster and would have you play a chord as a group, try and fix it, and then he would have you play the note individually. And then he would tell you how sharp or flat you were. He was fairly good spirited, but it was business — he was proud of the fact that he got his groups to play repertoire way above their abilities. And I think I got the bug from him in a way to believe that was possible.” He compares the feeling of walking into the band room to walking into a locker room of a very accomplished sports team. “There was a feeling to it, a look to it; there were all kinds of things on the walls from competitions the band had won. If you weren’t prepared, Mr. Dombourian would be all over you. It was tough love, and most of us responded very well.”

Composer Morris Rosenzweig at his piano. Photo by Laura Durham.

Rosenzweig looks back fondly on his childhood in New Orleans and his time in school. This was the ‘60s, and although looking back, he doesn’t exactly know where he fit into the ‘60s, he did know one thing: he was cool. He was (snap fingers) a Jet all the way. But the coolest person he knew of was Igor Stravinsky. “I used to go to this record store. I liked all kinds of music, but I particularly liked classical and I would save up my money for records. There was this one store that obligingly carried everything Columbia Records put out and Columbia made a deal with Igor Stravinsky to record all his music. I would come in and see this guy’s face on the cover, buy his music, take it home and it would knock me out. They recorded stuff from The Rite of Spring to what he was most recently writing. I was very taken by that.” Rosenzweig also remembers public television broadcasting a special for Stravinsky’s 85th birthday. “He was sitting in his studio, playing the beginning of the Huxley variations, but the sounds he was making and the sense he was making just blew me away.”

Young Rosenzweig not only enjoyed listening to good and challenging music, he enjoyed playing it as well — and with at least five rehearsals in school each week, he had gotten quite good at the horn. He also took private lessons from a horn teacher who attended Julliard and had retired from the New Orleans Symphony. When he entered college, he continued practicing the horn and even played with the Utah Symphony for a short while when he first moved to Salt Lake to teach at the University of Utah. Although becoming quite proficient at the instrument had a profound effect on his decisions as he grew up, his interests shifted toward composition.

“I started college at Eastman and my horn teacher was so demanding — it was difficult to get any kind of compliment out of him. But the important thing was he was a composer. He was a horn player and a horn teacher, but what he really did was write music. I was also taking composition, so that was very influential. My identity grew more to be a composer than to be a horn player. The other thing I think has been of influence for me is the mere fact that it’s really a great thing to be an educator.” Rosenzweig teaches composition at the University of Utah and this semester’s theory seminar studied Chopin Nocturnes exclusively. “My music is not going to sound like Chopin on the surface, but what you learn by digging deep beneath the surface is some procedural things, methodological things that are remarkable and unique. You’re initially attracted to them by the way they affect you, by the way they sound. But when you figure out the way those pieces work, you get this kind of floating grace and it’s all supported by these iron I beams and tough struts. Structurally, it is unbelievably strong. I’m influenced by things like that. Subconsciously those things leap into what I do.”

For those who have yet to be introduced to new music, Rosenzweig recommends you ask someone to prescribe the names of people they think have merit. “There are some remarkable people who will be part of the canon: Olivier Messien, Ligeti — who is just recently dead,” he says. “I think what you try to do is find out what some people think the best stuff is and listen to it. Or go back a generation or two and listen to the guys who are sticking around. The coolest guy from my teenage years, Igor Stravinsky, is still a very good person to listen to if you haven’t listened to any new music – especially his later stuff that gets you into the next chapter.” If you decide to attend a new music concert, you’re not going to have the same kind of experience as if you were to go hear the Emerson Quartet play an evening of Haydn or mixed concert of Beethoven and Debussy. “It’s a completely different experience because those are tried and true things played by experts. Those of us who do new music concerts try to find the best repertory we can that is playable by the resources we have – which is pretty good. And I’m real happy when I run into people afterwards and they say something like, ‘I really, really hated the Babbitt’ and then someone says, ‘I just loved the Babbitt.’ And then someone will say, ‘That last piece, I’m so sick of minimalist music’ and then someone else will say, ‘oh that last piece was so spiritual.’ My programming ideal is not to do one kind of music ever, unless it’s a themed concert. I think having just one kind of music is pretty deadly. I happen to believe every age produces pretty extraordinary stuff and when we’re around it we don’t really know what it is.”

Rosenzweig gives an example: “We have a romanticized version of what Beethoven’s life was like and how he was this superstar and had to find solitude because people were bugging him all the time. He actually had very few performances of his work in his life. His string quartets were played in private homes – not in public. He was an avant garde composer and it was very difficult for a bunch of people. The most famous composer at the time was probably Rossini. Rossini is a wonderful composer, but he is no Beethoven. Towards the end of his life, the 9th Symphony was being done in London and things like that. Of course now, that period of music is all about Beethoven.”

Musicians, like all artists, are interpreters. They create something that gives you a glimpse of how their mind works and how their heart feels. Some of Rosenzweig’s work is more personal than others. One work of note is something commissioned by the New York New Music Ensemble called “Rough Sleepers”. It’s about homelessness and touches on some individuals who were disrupted by unfortunate events — including Hurricane Katrina. His own ensemble, Canyonlands, recorded it. “It’s overwhelming to think about not having a place to live and what people do to make things work. It bugs me and so I have people talking about it in aria-like statements and I wrote music for them. It wasn’t a movie music like thing, there’s a mutual space that they made for each other; the music is aware that they’re there, but it’s not really tuned in to the fact that they’re there because homeless people are invisible. It was an interesting experience. It’s not a memorial like Steve Reich’s Different Trains – a holocaust piece that we can all say, ‘It shouldn’t have happened.’ This is happening. It’s discomforting if you live in Salt Lake and go to the Broadway Theatre and see the guy playing cello outside. He’s in the first movement, playing cello. I’m just trying to reconcile those worlds.”

New Orleans holds a lot of meaning for Rosenzweig who says Salt Lake City is where he lives, but New Orleans is his home. He recently returned from home after attending a concert of his music at Trinity Church. “It was an incredibly well-played concert and some of the people that showed up were people I was in ensembles with in high school and there was anything from surgeons to school teachers. I recognized them right away. It was a terrific event.” He remembers reading an interview with Wynton Marsalis who pontificates how important and influential high school music directors are in the lives of their students. Pete Dombourian — Rosenzweig’s high school director was his teacher as well. “The point is this: Most of those people in high school did not become musicians – some did. But most of them went on to have wonderful careers in all kinds of fields. I’m convinced that music with that kind of discipline that was demanded of us at that juncture forged the ability for them to go forward.”

The opportunities Rosenzweig was able to take advantage of growing up make up what he describes as an “unbelievable conflation of very fortunate events” which led to a remarkably successful career as a composer. When it comes to writing music, Rosenzweig never subscribed to an ideology; he never adopted a label as to how his music should be. “That works for some people,” he explains, “but it doesn’t work for me. I evolve through the process of writing music. I get worn out by resorting to the same kinds of things. Besides, every time someone says that you have to do something, someone else demonstrates how that is not true.”



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