"I like music which is rich and full of events and full of meaning, not music which is simplistic," insisted Charles Wuorinen. Here the composer has neatly described his newest opera, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which will receive its world premiere at New York City Opera on October 31.
"In my own work I try to follow that ideal," Wuorinen continued in a recent phone chat from his country home in Western New Jersey. "I put as much substance into it as I can, but at the same time make it so that people can hear it without worrying about how it's made and simply enjoy it for what it is, with the gestures and the energy and the other obvious characteristics that are right on the surface."
Wuorinen, though one of America's most notable composers, with long lists of commissions, published works, and critical accolades, is relatively little-known in operatic circles. "I've been tagged as a certain kind of composer," he noted, "but what most people have failed to notice is that I've made considerable use over the years of all kinds of non-Western sources: the Japanese shakuhachi, the Javanese gamelan, Middle-Eastern music and raga, Ghanaian drumming and other kinds of things have been inspirations, and I've even incorporated some of their principles in my work."
Aptly, this approach has found its way into Haroun, which is based on Salman Rushdie's colorful South Asian-flavored novel of the same name. "The music is typical me," observed Wuorinen, "except that there are a few little places where, almost as a joke, but without being exotic, I have the odd Orientalism here and there. But it's not an exotic opera, even though it's set in India. The music, as I say, is mine and does not try to be anything non-Western, non-me, or non-American."
What, then, is "me", as regards Wuorinen's music? His work has sometimes been described as blending the physicality and rhythmic dynamism of Stravinsky with the structural approach of Schoenberg. "Those are two composers to whom I'm very close," admitted Wuorinen. "I love their music. But of course, my work goes way beyond anything that is just a reproduction of older music. To say that I'm an heir to the Schoenberg tradition fused with the Stravinsky tradition is probably a good way to go. I come out of Schoenberg via Milton Babbitt."
In addition to Babbitt, the eminence grise of serialism, other influences on Wuorinen have included the avant-garde émigrés Edgard Varèse and Stefan Wolpe, as well as the homegrown Elliott Carter. All of these elements, filtered through Wuorinen's multilayered compositional approach, yield an end result that is fascinating, beautiful, complex, and difficult to categorize. Incontrovertibly, this is music of our time. It is emphatically meant to be heard. As Wuorinen himself says, "One of my programs over the years, artistically, has been to make a reconciliation between the music of the tonal past and the highly chromatic present."
This ambition is not surprising in a native New Yorker, particularly someone of Charles Wuorinen's intellect and talent. By the time he reached graduate school at Columbia University, he had become a triple threat, equally accomplished as a composer, pianist, and conductor. During this period, he also cofounded the renowned Group for Contemporary Music. In 1970, at age 32, Wuorinen became the youngest composer ever to win the Pulitzer Prize in Music, for Time's Encomium, an electronic piece realized at the Columbia-Princeton Music Center. Electronic music, however, comprises only a small part of his catalogue of over 230 compositions, an impressive array of works large and small for seemingly every possible combination of instruments and voices.
Although friendly and soft-spoken, Wuorinen is a passionate, thoughtful, and articulate spokesman for the preservation of aesthetic values and standards. It is his fervent belief that artistic institutions and those that administer and fund them should "…stand up and say, 'We are the leaders here and we want to present to the public a principled set of artistic and aesthetic values. [Art] is worth something. The difference between art and entertainment is that entertainment requires nothing of you, and art is like nuclear fusion. You put in some effort and you get more out of it than you put in.'"
Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Wuorinen's second opera, is well worth such effort. Wuorinen recalled, "A friend of mine brought [Rushdie's] book to my attention and when I read it I thought, 'This would make a marvelous piece on the stage.' It's a fantasy. It's not a tragedy; quite the opposite. It's a comedy in the old-fashioned sense that it has a happy ending. On the one hand, it is a very entertaining story and, on the other, it has a meaning too, because it's the first thing Rushdie wrote after the fatwa was pronounced against him. It contains, although it's not heavy-handed, a cry for free speech, for freedom of the imagination and against the tyranny of censorship and closed-mindedness."
Director Mark Lamos was brought on board. He recommended the English poet James Fenton to Wuorinen as a possible librettist. Wuorinen read some of Fenton's work and "…thought, 'This man knows how to write words that are going to be sung.' I contacted him and he agreed to write the libretto and it turned out, quite coincidentally, that he was a friend of Salman Rushdie. So he smoothed the way and Rushdie and I then met and became friends."
Wuorinen's music maintains a remarkable fidelity to the rhythms of Fenton's text. "I have a very old-fashioned view of text-setting," he explained, "which is that it should be speech-like; in other words, naturalistic prosody. What I do is to arrange for the vocal line and its natural speech rhythms to determine the rhythm of everything else. It's very much a word-generated kind of music."
Haroun, like all of Wuorinen's vocal music, is lyrical, idiomatic, and singable. He attributes this partly to his training as a boy chorister. "I know what it is like to sing," he said. "I also know what it's like to play. These are important qualifications if you're going to ask other people to do these things, especially with my music, because it's not the easiest in the world."
"But there's another point, too," he continued. "When I think of the voice, one of the most obvious things that comes to mind is that while an instrument like a flute or a violin or a piano can make effortless giant leaps, the voice is different, in the sense that a change of a small interval can invoke a whole new register. Therefore, when composing for the voice, I arrange things so that relatively smaller leaps than I would use instrumentally serve the same function."
The lyricism of Wuorinen's vocal music belies the systematic way in which it is conceived. The composer's interest in fractal geometry led him to the discovery that the structure of all music actually replicates the structure of objects in the natural world, where smaller versions of larger shapes nest inside the larger ones.
"The pitches come from certain master arrays that are basically generated from 12-tone sets," he explained. "But you'd be very hard put to find a tone row in the surface of this music. The 12-tone-ness is very deeply buried, simply generating the surface in a very free and flexible way."
What Wuorinen describes is not tonal music. Yet he is swift to point out that his music "always has had a very strong sense of pitch centricity.…You know that there's a certain note in the neighborhood which is more important than any of the others. [Haroun] starts and ends on D. In fact, the end of the opera is practically like a tonal cadence on D. [Haroun] starts at home and ends at home."
Our thanks go to Charles Wuorinen for a fascinating journey along the way.
Lisa Jablow is a singer and conductor based in New York City and in Vermont, where she is on the music faculty of Johnson State College.