Chasing Rabbits with Composer Justin Rubin
Justin Henry Rubin is an American composer who was born in New York City in 1971. He specializes in chamber music, and his second CD on the Innova label,
A Walk Through the Vapor
, recently has been released. (Both of the Innova CDs are reviewed below.) A look at his website (d.umn.edu/~jrubin1/) reveals how much he has accomplished in two decades. Dozens and dozens of compositions for various combinations of instruments are listed, and then there are the recognitions and awards by the McKnight Foundation, Meet-the-Composer, and the Institute for Advanced Study. In 2009, the University of Minnesota Duluth, where Rubin has been on the music faculty since 1998, formally recognized him with an alumni award for his “outstanding contributions to undergraduate education.” He also has a career as an organist and as a pianist. In the former he has been very much involved with music from the early Baroque period, but as a pianist, he has performed some of the thorniest works from the modern era. Rubin, then, is the sort of guy who makes less gifted musicians admire or envy him, but in a telephone interview, one is impressed by his modesty.
“My dad, Jerome, introduced me to classical music when I was three, or even younger. When I was about eight or nine I started to compose little pieces. The real turning point, however, came when I was 15 or so, in my high school choir on Long Island. Our choir director, who knew I was interested in composition, asked me if I had ever listened to Arnold Schoenberg. He recommended a couple of pieces to me, and one of them was Schoenberg’s String Trio. My dad picked a record up for me, and when I first listened to it, it stunned me to my absolute foundations. It hit me in the gut; it almost frightened me. I thought if someone from another time can connect with me so directly, so strongly, then this is something I need to be a part of for the rest of my life. I went to New York and bought the score; that string trio became a fascination for me. So, not long after, I started going to the Manhattan School of Music to learn how to compose (among other things!), and my drive to do that has never waned from that time forward.”
What are the implications of being a composer in an academic environment? “My position at the University of Minnesota Duluth has done a couple of things for me. In a practical sense, it has allowed me to earn a living. So many of the people with whom I graduated from college have gone on to do things other than music. I was very fortunate to get an academic position in music in my 20s, in 1998, right after I graduated from the University of Arizona with a doctoral degree. My position here in Duluth affords me the ability to work on my music even more seriously. I’ve never thought of myself as an ‘academic composer,’ but one of the advantages of my situation is that it gives me a kind of legitimacy—for example, when I apply for grants. It’s like a seal of approval. Even more important, though, being a teacher has made me learn everything all over again, in a much more substantial way. I use ‘the great masters’ to teach tonal harmony. After two or three years of teaching I discarded the idea of using textbooks; I don’t believe in them. Now I have all of my students order scores of Schubert’s piano sonatas, for example. Together, we explore a sonata, and not only has this method given me a better appreciation for the music, it has educated me from a mature, academic point of view. Now I constantly rethink and question what I learned when I was a student. That attitude quickly started to feed into my own composition. In academia, when you study music history, sometimes it seems like there’s a straight line in which one thing leads to another. When I was writing music in the early 1990s, I felt that my point of departure had to be what was being written in the previous decade; I had to be a part of history, you might say. When I began teaching, I realized that I didn’t have to be that linear. I could allow all of my interests and my preferences to play off one other and feed into my music. Even music from the more distant past still is relevant. When students came to Schoenberg to learn the latest compositional techniques, he would tell them to study Mozart. For me, in many ways it was Schubert who got me onto the right track. In academia, studying so many different kinds of music all of the time has freed me to follow my own nature.
“Teaching has been a constant in my career. New Year’s Day has come and gone, but for me January 1 is not the beginning of the new year. As an academic, my new year begins in September. Throughout my life, there was only one year when I wasn’t in school. School is my life, and teaching is an inextricable part of what I do. I never teach my courses the same way two years in a row; I don’t understand how teachers can use the same textbook from year to year. I teach the way that I compose, that is to say, creatively.”
What about the “publish or perish” phenomenon in academia? Does that force young composers to, in essence, compose mostly to earn tenure? “I hope not! When I started teaching at age 27, I was very naïve—I didn’t even know what tenure was until about five years later. Some of the more senior faculty members liked what I was doing, and some of them didn’t, but I always followed my nature, and I had a lot of support from everyone around me. I write a lot of music, all of the time. It’s just something I need to do.”
In the booklet notes to his new CD, Rubin writes, “I overheard a friend of mine once trying to describe my style to someone asking what my music was ‘like’. He hesitated, backtracked a lot, and couldn’t quite say with any conviction whether it was tonal or not, consonant or strident, lyrical or angular, consistent or scattered.” I asked Rubin to expand on this. “That came from my friend Gene Koshinski, a percussionist who also teaches at University of Minnesota Duluth, and an extraordinary composer in his own right. One time he asked me for some short bagatelles for marimba and bassoon that he could play on tour. He was asked for program notes, and he said, ‘Honestly, I don’t know how to describe them, because each one of them is so different from the others.’ When I was in college, and even before, I was active as a pianist, and I played a lot of new music—composers such as Xenakis. I felt that my music had to emulate that style. At the same time, as an organist, I was playing Buxtehude and Vierne in churches, and I came to realize that, in my own music, I was neglecting that other style of music, which I loved. All through my mature period as a composer, from when I was 28 onwards, I have tried to find ways of blending both tonal and non-tonal material, in order to let my expressive needs go where they want to go. When music gets pigeonholed as tonal or atonal, minimalistic, 12-tone, or whatever, listeners’ preconceptions arise. It almost becomes a bias. If I can get rid of those terms by blending various approaches together, expressive possibilities open up, because anything can then be brought into the music. There’s no system, no real limitation, as long as the result sounds good. The more music I learn, the more music I play as a performer, the more that it can feed into my own composing. It’s not a collage, it’s just that many vocabularies come together. I like the idea that my music can’t be classified; it allows anything to happen.”
What about the role of intuition in his music? “Allowing intuition and improvisation to come back into my music was the big break for me. In the 1960s and ’70s, academia promoted serialism in music. Minimalism is another kind of system that has been in vogue since then. In my teens and 20s, I got very involved in planning out my pieces before I began writing them. At one point, when I was about 32, I hit a roadblock with this approach, and I stopped composing for a while. I took up painting, just as an amateur, and painting gave back to me what I had had when I was a kid, and that was total freedom from using systems, and a return to intuition and improvisation. [Both Innova CDs feature cover art by Rubin.] When I came back to music a couple of years later, I would just sit down at the keyboard and let my fingers move wherever they wanted to. I didn’t worry about systems or any pre-compositional planning. Intuition really has been my guiding light since then. If it works, if it expresses what I need it to do, then I work with it. Of course improvisation is just the beginning of the composition. Once you put something down on paper, then you have to work through it, but then
become the system; it isn’t something that you apply to the music”
Rubin has composed a great deal of music because he received specific requests or commissions for it from particular performers. “I’ve written music for so many people. The way that I have pursued my career is not by writing orchestral music, but by approaching individuals, people whom I feel have an affinity for my music. I listen to them play, I go to their concerts, and I’ll learn what kind of music they enjoy playing. When I was a doctoral student in Arizona, one of things that Daniel Asia advised me to do was to write music that other people will enjoy playing. For example, when I went to concerts given by Jefferson Campbell, the bassoonist for whom I have written a dozen or more pieces, I got a feel for the style of music that he liked, and the sounds that he got into. I used that as my starting point. I also listened to audience reactions, because he was playing to them. I asked myself how my style of music matched up with his style and sound. So, when writing for a particular performer, I ask myself whether he or she is interested in virtuosic playing, lyrical or expressive playing, or something in between. Sometimes I take the opposite approach; what kind of music do they
play? Maybe I can fill in a gap. If they’re going to be playing my work in the context of an entire concert, how will my music be different from and complement the other works on the program? I’m always trying to convey an emotion to an audience. It’s never an abstraction, never pedaling in the air. There always has to be an expressive end.” How much does he include the performers in the compositional process? “Usually very little. I do my research on what kind of performer they are ahead of time. Sometimes they will tell me that something was very difficult, or not difficult enough, or they might have suggestions related to phrasing or dynamics, for example. To be honest, though, usually the most direction I receive from them is, ‘I need a piece that is such-and-such minutes long, and I need it by such-and-such time.’ They get it when it’s done. One time, Jefferson Campbell told me that he loved Pamina’s ‘Ach, ich fühl’s’ from
The Magic Flute
, so I wrote a fantasy on that aria for bassoon and piano, and it has become one of his favorite pieces to play in recital.”
Rubin’s first Innova CD is titled
, and the second is
A Waltz Through the Vapor
; what roles do nostalgia and memory play in his music? “I have piles and piles of drafts that are almost completely illegible to everyone but me. My wife, Erica, can pull any one of these drafts out of a drawer and ask me, ‘What is this?,’ and I will tell her, for example, ‘Oh, that’s from a string trio,’ but more importantly, ‘and later that day we were shopping with Max (our son), and then we went to the zoo,’ and so on. She said that all of my pieces are like photographs—moments in time, and memories that I am trying to capture. I thought, well, that’s very insightful of her. I have a melancholy character, so often my pieces are reflective in their emotional tone, if not outright sad. Sometimes, when I am in the middle of writing a piece, my wife will ask me what I am thinking about, and often I will tell her that I am reflecting on something that happened in the past. My music often is nostalgic in the sense that it looks back at things that feel familiar, but that one can’t quite grasp. The idea behind my piece
A Waltz Through the Vapor
for solo piano is that you’re looking at an old photograph from the beginning of the 20th century in which people are dancing. The photograph is faded and cracked, and you can’t quite make out their faces.” The press release for
, written by Innova’s Philip Blackburn [“a great support to my career as a composer”] went so far as to describe its contents as, perhaps, “Proust for bassoon,” continuing,
At a crossroads where melancholy and sentiment meets irony and a wry smile lies the work of Justin Rubin, a composer whose life as a keyboardist of both the avant-garde and music from the 17th century have informed a unique style that unblushingly blends old and sometimes outmoded forms with an unmistakably modern expression: eloquent, communicative, and approachable.
Indeed, Rubin’s background, including composing, keyboard performance, teaching, and even a little bit of painting, is so varied that one wonders how it all fits together. “In the past, composers were almost always performers as well. They were hands-on. To me, it’s very difficult to think about being a composer who doesn’t also perform music. I can’t imagine composing without hearing the sounds under my hands at the piano. That being said, there’s an old Japanese saying, ‘Chase two rabbits and catch neither.’ As I get into my 40s, I’ve had to make a choice about whether to focus on composing or performing, and since I’ve been a composer since I was a little boy, that has taken precedence. That’s why I’ve sought out the performers like Jefferson Campbell and Gene Koshinski who can take my music to the next level and invest the time.
“The old model used to be that European musicians coming to the United States would set up orchestras that were like what they knew in Berlin or in London. That might not be relevant any longer, in 21st-century America. Schoenberg’s ensemble for
points to this, and so does the music of Xenakis, in which the ensemble is comprised of several different instruments, but only one of each. I gravitate towards performers and small ensembles who will dedicate their time and energy to the music. I don’t write for an anonymous ‘first violin,’ I write for a particular performer.
“CNN does these annual retrospectives about all the notable people who died. I was looking at this recently, and several popular musicians were named, but not Elliott Carter. Whether you like his music or not, for the last 20 years he has been America’s most prominent and performed avant-garde composer. Even so, his name is not recognized by the population at large, so what chance do I, some schnook from Duluth, have in being recognized? Is that really important, though? The value of recorded music is that it allows composers to communicate with individuals all across the globe who do have an interest. The new CD that I made with Matthew [pianist Matthew McCright] . . . if a thousand people hear it in a thousand different places, then it has been a success. Recording is not as expensive as it was 20 years ago. Now the composer’s reach is much broader and more affordable. I don’t want to make it sound easy—putting together a recording can be like trying to climb Mount Everest—but it’s more feasible for a composer now than ever before. That’s why you see so many more recordings by so many composers. They’re coming out left and right. Because there are so many composers in the present day, it can be difficult to distinguish one from another. CDs are one way of establishing an identity.
“When I was in conservatory, it seemed that all my fellow students were working on their first symphony. Either it would be played once by a student orchestra, or it would sit in a drawer. I decided to focus on the small, on the individual. Getting my piece recorded, or having it performed in 20 different places, was more important to me. Also, there used to be an assumption that being a composer was a career. I’m not sure that’s correct any longer. Schoenberg and Schubert composed because they had a compulsion to, and that’s how I am as well. Right now, I feel the need to write a lot and to get my music out there, because I am feeling really good about it. Five years from now, maybe I won’t feel the need to write as much. Who knows?”
As Rubin is an award-winning university professor, I asked him about his impression of music education in the United States, on the secondary level. “When I was growing up in New York in the ’70s and the ’80s, there were high school orchestras, and choirs, of course, but there was not much exposure to new music. Now, here in the Midwest, there aren’t very many orchestras at all. There seems to be a dearth of more sophisticated music education. The University of Minnesota Duluth has a very strong music education program, but there is quite a lot of variation in preparedness, at the high school level, among the students I see in my teaching.
“I don’t know if the future of classical music in America depends on education, though. Exposure might be the more important issue. My dad loves Mahler and Penderecki and Gesualdo, and that love opened every door in the universe for me. Also, Americans used to play instruments in the home more than they do now. If they were exposed to music more as performers, I think there would be more interest.
“In my introductory courses, I don’t tell my students that Beethoven is the greatest thing since sliced bread. I try to educate them about the reasons that people create music, and make it relevant for them. I try to connect them to it. When a student sees a bust of Mozart, it is very remote for him or her. But, when you talk about Harry Partch picking oranges and sawing wood in Petaluma, California, students can relate to that. When I was assigned this introductory course eight years ago, my department chair at the time asked me what I was going to be teaching. . .‘the great masterworks’? That was the last thing I wanted to teach! When you stand in front of a class and tell them how great Beethoven’s Fifth is, I think that distances young listeners and does them a disservice. There’s so much that music can offer you. It’s lifelong nourishment for your mind and soul. I like to find something that’s really offbeat and worthwhile, and put it in the right context. In my introductory class, the names of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven never ever leave my lips. Outside of class, students say to me, ‘I thought we were going to learn about Beethoven,’ and I tell them, ‘You probably have, somewhere else.’ A lot of regional orchestras program the same music over and over again, but try to dress it up by giving the program a cute title. As a result, they program Schumann’s Spring Symphony and call it ‘Music of a Madman’ . . . and then they wonder why they don’t have a young audience! It’s not supposed to be boring, but today, a lot of concert music is presented like a lecture.
“We’re due for a renaissance in classical music. We hear about how all these orchestras are suffering financially, and I don’t really know too much about it, because the orchestral realm is like another world to me. I decided at one point in my life that I wasn’t going to write orchestral music, let alone opera, because these are incredibly expensive undertakings, and often money-losers. I think the future for art musicians lies in chamber music, and that will lead to a redefinition of what classical music is all about.”
Night Song for Noa.
Bagatelles for Bassoon and Marimba.
Variations on “Nun komm’, der Heiden Heiland”.
Il momento lussureggiante per tre musicisti.
Un piccolo duetto di basso.
Hocket in Your Pocket.
Un temps calme
Jefferson Campbell (bn);
Patrick O’Keefe (cl);
Shannon L. Wettstein (pn);
Gene Koshinski (perc);
Josh Aerie (vc);
Samuel Black (org)
INNOVA 738 (69:47)
The Still Waters of Sagamore Hill.
Piano Album 2008.
Lullaby for Max.
Variations on “There Were Three Ravens”.
Sonata for Violoncello and Piano.
A Waltz Through the Vapor.
Tracy Lipke-Perry (pn);
Jefferson Campbell (bn);
Betsy Husby (vc);
Gene Koshinski (mmb);
Lorie Scott (fl)
INNOVA 847 (71:42)