The Viola in His Life: An Interview with Paul Chihara Print E-mail
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Written by David DeBoor Canfield   
Thursday, 04 April 2013

The Viola in His Life: An Interview with Paul Chihara

Paul Chihara is a rare bird indeed: a composer who is equally respected in the concert and film worlds, and highly sought after in each. Even though the CD reviewed below is devoted to his concert music, I could not resist speaking with him about his “other” career in film in the interview that follows. I find violists to be among the more affable musicians I’ve encountered, and Chihara is no exception, warmly interacting with me by phone and over the Internet, as I probed him in January of 2013 about the various areas of his creative life.

Q: Paul, you’ve done so much in the world of music, I hardly know where to begin! So let’s begin at the beginning: You were a former student of the legendary Nadia Boulanger, and I bet that like many of her pupils you have a story or two to tell about her.

A: Nadia Boulanger has been the strongest, most positive influence in my musical life. So much so that I am unsure where to begin. Musically, she gave me a great deal of technique and compositional skill. But she also introduced me to worlds of old and new music. For example, in 1961 not many musicians in the West knew much about the Polish school of contemporary music. Boulanger, who was always proud of her Polish heritage, introduced me to the music of Lutosławski and Penderecki (among many others), and this during the height of the Cold War, when scores and recordings of their music were practically nonexistent in the West. She also introduced me to a young Pierre Boulez, who was conducting his Domain Musicale concerts in Paris, across town from her lovely apartment near Rue Balu.

During the ’60s in the West (especially in the East Coast musical and academic establishment) the world of serialism ruled, unless you were working in Hollywood or on Broadway. In fact, the division between classical and commercial music was almost totally defined by the schools of serial versus tonal music. We young lions of the “avant-garde” (as we laughingly called ourselves then) composed ardently and skillfully in the various developing schools of serialism, without which advancement in contemporary music was very difficult. During the ’60s, I was given three fellowships to Tanglewood, where I studied with Gunther Schuller, Milton Babbitt, and George Rochberg. But the most important influence during my Tanglewood years came in 1971 when I was a visiting teacher there, and met Peter Maxwell Davies. He suggested that I might enjoy working in the movies. He had been working with Ken Russell, and he showed me several scenes from Russell’s The Devils (since edited out), which were erotic scenes accompanied by mad foxtrots.

Boulanger was an amazing musician and teacher. But most importantly, she was positive and supportive of my musical experiments and compositional explorations.

Q: What about your other teachers—Robert Palmer, Ernst Pepping, and Gunther Schuller? What did you bring home from your studies with each of these distinguished composers?

A: I have been blessed by excellent composition teachers, each of whom seemed to come along when I most needed encouragement and guidance. Robert Palmer was a devoted tonal composer, and paid a price of musical rejection and neglect during his long teaching career at Cornell. But he taught me a great deal about counterpoint and traditional harmony. Ernst Pepping at the Hochschule für Musik in Berlin taught me much about German Protestant counterpoint, and guided me in my explorations of Hindemith, Hugo Distler, and of course his own music. (For one brought up in strict Roman Catholic schools, my musical awareness was largely focused on Gregorian chant, and French organ and romantic music.) Each of these teachers was amused by my obvious love of popular and film music. Gunther Schuller was the most commercially experienced of my mentors, and his work with the MJQ and his deep study of classic jazz gave my musical explorations new life and passion. I should mention that during the Korean War (when I was between the ages of 12 to about 16), I played violin (or fiddle!) in a traveling USO troupe, playing raunchy versions of Hot Canary and Fiddle Faddle ! Gunther Schuller recommended me to Mercer Ellington in 1979 to be the principal arranger/orchestrator for the Broadway-bound musical Sophisticated Ladies —based on the music of Duke Ellington—which opened to rave reviews at the Lunt-Fontaine on March 20, 1980.

Q: You have been composer-in-residence with several ensembles—the San Francisco Ballet and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra to name two. How would you describe your experience in working with these groups?

A: I was also one of Zubin Mehta’s new music advisors with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and a music director for the Monday Evening Concerts during Lawrence Morton’s legendary tenure. And now I am on the Board of Trustees of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. What each of these positions has given me is the opportunity to hear my music played by the best musicians in the country on a regular basis. I learned to compose by writing a great deal of music quickly for wonderful ensembles. I never studied orchestration in school, and my college years (including my M.A. at Cornell) were in fields other than music. I firmly believe that the art of composition (and orchestration) is not learned in school, but on the job. Working for many years in Hollywood gave me the same opportunity to learn while writing. First at Universal, then at Fox, Warner, and eventually at Disney, I found myself facing an assignment and a first-rate orchestra every week. Working for the studios in those halcyon days was like being employed by the Esterházys in the 18th century: You had to write something new every day and had the opportunity of hearing it well performed immediately.

I have never in my many years as a freelance composer experienced anything like “writer’s block.” Perhaps that is because I have always viewed composition as a wonderful job—or a responsibility—or a commitment. I always want to write good music, but I do not worry about writing “great music,” whatever that means to a living composer. A contemporary and commercial composer has to be professional, reliable, and always on time. Working on Broadway is the ultimate high wire act!

Q: I understand that the film genre attracted you from an early age. Tell us a little about how you got involved in that medium in the first place, given that you were already an established composer in the concert world at the time.

A: As a child, movies for me were a journey into wonderland. I grew up in Chinatown in Seattle, and Seattle in the 1940s had no symphony, opera, or ballet company of any major professional standing. Then our family was relocated to Minidoka (a Japanese relocation camp established during the Second World War), and again our only social event was the Saturday evening movie, often prewar Japanese movies, or Hollywood comedies and musicals from the ’30s. At the movies, I heard symphony orchestras, big bands, and singers of haunting songs. It was sheer magic, and transformed this cultural desert into a wondrous world of romance and imagination. When we were eventually (at the end of the war) released, I asked my father to buy me an old violin I saw hanging in a pawn shop next to our family jewelry store. I began violin and piano lessons shortly thereafter, at the age of eight. I wrote my first piece the following year. It was a piece for solo violin, called Seattle Suite.

I often was taken to the movie theater in our Chinatown neighborhood, sometimes every day since my parents were working. To this day, I remember these movies, and still can sing their scores, usually in the correct key. And after a lifetime of watching (and working on) movies, they still have an allure and seductive power over my imagination.

I composed my first Hollywood film score in 1975, at the age of 36! It was Death Race 2000, produced by Roger Corman, and this led to regular work for Universal, and eventually to all of the Hollywood studios. I had been a tenured professor at UCLA since 1966, but was very bored and unfulfilled by my work. It was, after all, the ’60s, and everyone (it seemed) was in the streets, protesting the war, marching for civil rights, or advocating some cause. Life in academia seemed unimportant and irrelevant. So one day in 1971, I resigned my professorship and looked for free-lance work in Los Angeles and in New York. It was a scary time for me, and a very troubled time for our country. Then almost at the same time, I received two phone calls: one from the film maker Roger Corman who wanted electronic music for a feature he was producing, and the other from Michael Smuin to compose a score for the San Francisco Ballet. Thus began my odyssey into the freelance world in both the classical and commercial spheres. I have not stopped working since then. From the very beginning I always wanted to compose music for the movies, and have always adored going to the ballet. Everything is beautiful at the ballet!

Q: Did you get much flack from your colleagues in academia when you decided to give up a career as a university professor? Is there much prejudice in the eyes of the concert world nowadays against composers of film music?

A: When I announced that I was quitting my UCLA position, I heard a flood of derisive commentary. Mostly “He’s gone Hollywood!” These comments came mainly from academics, my former colleagues at UCLA, and even from my former graduate students, no doubt echoing the jokes and judgments of their professorial mentors. Martin Bernheimer of the Los Angeles Times wrote an article about my decision to leave academia, which was non-judgmental and mostly supportive, but most people thought that I was going through a mid-life crisis. I was prominent enough in the Los Angeles classical music scene to have caused a little stir. But I also heard from others around the country. I did receive a very encouraging letter from my friend Paul Lansky, who was a young professor at Princeton (not yet the chairman) praising me for my courage and honesty. And of course, my best friend (my childhood chum from Seattle) Bill Bolcom thought I was doing the right thing. Bill was working freelance in New York at the time, where I would soon join him, and not yet on the faculty at the University of Michigan.

Ironically, the Hollywood establishment was not at first happy to see a former member of academia join their ranks. When I was introduced at Universal (at a large scoring session), the reigning musical light of that era, Henry Mancini, said in a loud voice to the orchestra, “Get him out of here!” So I learned very early that you could not parade your academic or conservatory credentials around the studios, and expect to get much respect. So, my first movie, Death Race 2000, was also my first attempt at composing serious tonal music. I found it fun and natural. The movie had several nude scenes, which embarrassed me to watch, but which (to my surprise) were very easy to compose for. I found composing film music (and I began receiving dozens of film offers and assignments, mostly for network TV), and expressing myself for dramatic presentation and interpretation was both exhilarating and challenging. It was so much more meaningful to me than trying to create a “semi-combinatorial” row to generate a string quartet.

And a glorious thing began to happen: The old movies of my childhood, Minidoka to New York to Paris and Los Angeles, began to haunt my imagination, as if liberated from some academic closet, with all their wonderful scores by Max Steiner, Al Newman, Miklos Rosza, and Victor Young (among many others). These were the ghosts of my personal Versailles! And along with these European and Eurocentric masters, I began to listen again in my heart to Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, performed by Jo Stafford, Frank Sinatra, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong, and a thousand other glorious voices. And I began to realize that the music of my youth and of my roots had been largely closeted for so many years by the fashions of new music.

The university has changed over the years, perhaps because of the careers of Jacob Druckman, Gunther Schuller, Bill Bolcom, Steve Reich, John Corigliano, and myself. It is no longer simply a guilty pleasure to appreciate film music. Some 30 years after my resignation, I returned to UCLA (in 2006) with a mandate to establish and direct a film-music program to be called Visual Media.

Q: What do you think a composer’s obligation is to his performers and audience? Is it different than it was, for instance, in the time of Chausson or Debussy?

A: I think the first obligation for the composer is to himself, and then to his performers. And of course every freelance composer feels an over-riding concern for the acceptance of his music by his commissioners, his producer, or the network. I do not expect to win prizes or make money with the creation of CDs of my music. But having them produced beautifully by great performers for all to hear is what my life is now about. Recordings are what publication was in previous centuries. Both Chausson and Debussy were acutely aware of their audiences and patrons. Who are our patrons today? Movie audiences? Video game purchasers? Chausson and Debussy were friends at first, but eventually became estranged and hostile to each other and their music. Chausson’s Poeme for violin and orchestra was one of the models for my Viola Concerto in its earliest conception. Debussy, of course, is my strongest musical inspiration.

Q: Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune in particular seems to have become some kind of idée fixe throughout much of your music. Why that particular work?

A: Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun has a very special place in my musical development. Nadia Boulanger once told me a story which I have never forgotten, and which has stirred my musical imagination for over 50 years. During her years at the Paris Conservatoire, she studied composition in the class of Gabriel Fauré, along with her classmate Maurice Ravel. Ravel said to her, speaking of the Afternoon of a Faun, that it was the most beautiful music he had ever heard—and that he would like to hear it as he lay dying. This story, which I have never heard repeated, nor printed in any book, has canonized Afternoon of a Faun in my mind as a sort of Requiem, rather than a sensuous musical poem of ecstasy. It appears in my music never as a merely sensuous moment, but as a religious, sacred reference.

Q: Have you been inspired by any works of contemporary composers akin to the inspiration that you’ve drawn from those who are long gone?

A: The most inspiring piece of contemporary music for me is Bill Bolcom’s Graceful Ghost (piano rag). Not only is it graceful and ghostly, it is gorgeous music and an elegant, heartfelt elegy for his father, whom I met in Bellingham, Washington, many years ago. It is also a statement of pure music, not a musical manifesto or an example of contemporary technique. It belongs to no school or fashion, other than the universal school of “One from the Heart.” How many pieces written since 1950 can we say that about? I was in Paris in the ’60s and heard performances of Le marteau sans maître and Pli selon pli , conducted by Pierre Boulez at the Domain Musicale. I was moved and very impressed. Nadia Boulanger did not teach the music of Boulez, but we had a great deal of Olivier Messiaen, whose music has always moved and inspired me. Of course, the music of the Polish School (Lutosławski and Penderecki) opened many new musical doors, suggested other paths and created worlds of imagination much like the worlds of Oz, Harry Potter, and Gondor—not to mention the nightmares of Holocaust and Hiroshima!

Q: So, obviously you feel a kinship with certain contemporary composers.

A: Among my American peers, the Minimalists and New Romantics (following the lead of Jacob Druckman), and the magic of George Crumb (whose inimitable style he was creating at the same time as I was exploring my own Tree Music universe) were my friends, fellow students, and co-conspirators in our fight against the Vietnam War and academic musical establishment. We thought of ourselves as a rebellious, joyous band of brothers, most of us having been born in 1938. Like Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire, I am not interested in reality—but magic! Roger Reynolds, whom I met at Tanglewood in 1966, invited me to visit Tokyo and participate in his ground-breaking series called “Crosstalk.” I did participate with him and worked with some of Japan’s most talented musicians (such as Toru Takemitsu, Seiji Ozawa, and Yuji Takahashi) for three seasons of his series. Later in 1971, Leon Kirchner invited both Toru Takemitsu and myself to Marlboro as composers-in-residence, where the three of us (and their families) had some memorable experiences and concerts together. Those were the days, and for me they have never ended!

Q: The CD that has precipitated this interview is comprised entirely of works for viola(s). Looking through your catalog of works, I note that this instrument has been a particular focus in your writing, beginning way back in 1963 in your earlier concerto for the instrument, and continuing to the present day. Both you and your wife, Carol, studied the instrument with Milton Thomas, so this is not surprising, but perhaps you could tell us something about your attraction to this instrument.

A: I was a violinist as a boy in Seattle, concertmaster of the youth symphony where I performed concertos by Mendelssohn, Bruch, and Mozart. I studied violin with Emmanuel Zetlin, and later viola with Giusto Cappone (principal viola of the Berlin Philharmonic under Karajan). By the time I met Milton Thomas in Los Angeles, I was no longer a student, but I did work with him for many years as a composer. I played viola when I first moved to Los Angeles in 1966, with Maurice Jarre in Hollywood, played principal in South Pacific , and at the Ojai Festival under Michael Tilson Thomas. I love the sound of the viola. It is a noble instrument, not loud or domineering, but personal and expressive. The soul of the instrument is not the A or C strings (the outer voices which most composers concentrate on), but the soulful G and D strings (listen to the opening of the Schubert Arpeggione Sonata ). My wife, Carol, studied viola at the Eastman School, and she came into my life when she wanted to study my Redwood (for viola and percussion) which is on this disc.

Q: The fringe benefits of writing music! Do you still ever play the viola? Perhaps the occasional duet with your wife?

A: I do not play the viola any more. I sold my beautiful Italian instrument to Jacque Francais in 1970, when I needed money to survive in New York. I occasionally will pick up Carol’s viola, but that precludes our playing duets! Besides, she is a much better player than I am!

Q: How did you meet Paul Coletti, the featured artist on the CD? He is an amazing player!

A: I do not remember when I first met Paul Coletti, but I knew of him and owned several of his impressive CDs. We met formally when he was first hired at UCLA in 1998, and we began working together on many projects. I have always felt a special musical kinship with him. Like me, he has always been a maverick. Let’s begin with his name. Is he Italian or a Scotsman? He plays with the elegance and sophistication of an Italian virtuoso, but has the rough and ready wild side of the Flying Scotsman. He is also a composer of some of the wildest string pieces I have ever heard. He was a good influence on me and my music. He suggested to me that the original sad ending of the concerto should be transformed into an exciting flashy finish, telling me, “You are not the sad person who conceived the concerto. You have recovered and are healthy now.”

Q: Do you have any plans for more works for the viola? What composition project(s) are you working on now?

A: Yes, I have many plans for the viola in my life. For one thing, I’d like to write two more sonatas for the viola, making a set of three, much like the three violin sonatas of Brahms. I do not wish to compose another viola concerto though. I am also considering writing a set of etudes, very lyrical, and not just technical exercises.

Q: When all is said and done, how would you best like to be remembered in the world of music?

A: I would like to be remembered as a good composer—an American composer, whose music grew from American and Japanese roots, was nurtured by great music from Europe, Hollywood, and Broadway, and who was never afraid to explore the many wonderful worlds of music in this rich and exciting (and confusing) contemporary world we live in.

CHIHARA Concerto Piccolo. 1 Viola Concerto. 2 Redwood. 3 Viola Sonata 4 1,2,3,4 Paul Coletti (va); 1 Ben Ullery (va); 1 Gina Coletti (va); 1 Zach Dellinger (va); 2 Yehuda Gilad, cond; 2 Colburn O; 3 Jack Van Geem (perc); 4 Vivian Fan (pn) BRIDGE 9365 (54:57)

Interview with the composer

As is mentioned in the above interview, 1971 was something of a watershed year for composer Paul Chihara, that being the year he left a university professorship to pursue composition in a wider arena than was possible within the confines of academia. I suspect the above-mentioned criticism that he received from various corners when he did so was rather short-lived. When a composer has as much talent and inspiration as Chihara consistently demonstrates, who can gainsay him? In short, the high standard of his craft evident on the previous CD I reviewed (35:3) is on full display on this disc as well, regardless whether one is considering the pre- or post-academic music on it.

The focus of the CD in hand is on the viola, an instrument particularly dear to this composer’s heart, as he formerly played it, and married a still-active violist. The Concerto Piccolo has nothing to do with the smallest member of the flute family. If you think back to that class with Miss Phelps, your slightly frumpy junior high music teacher, you’ll remember that the Italian word, piccolo, simply means “little.”And so this concerto’s four movements together comprise a work of less than eight minutes’ duration. Each movement was originally written as a stand-alone piece, and somewhere along the line, Chihara discovered that they would mesh together well. I generally agree, although the final movement sets quite a different mood from the other three. The first movement, “Tarantella,” is full of vigorous flourishes and coups d’archet, while the second ( Allegro ) yields to a melancholy and lyrical mood, occasionally interrupted by a jaunty rhythmic figure. Movement 3, Allegro Vivace , is once again vigorous with frequent unison passage work by the four players that gives a nice textural change. The final movement, “Aka Tombo (Red Dragonfly),” is infiltrated with ghostly whispers and eerie harmonies and harmonics. I’m still trying to decide if the piece would end more effectively with one of the other livelier movements, but whether singly or together, Chihara’s works are a delight.

Chihara’s single-movement Viola Concerto from 1990 is not his first work in the genre, there being an earlier concerto for the instrument dating from 1963. I haven’t heard that earlier opus, but can guess that it resides in a different harmonic world from that of the later work (subsequently revised in 2000). Although I sensed a few whiffs from Berg in the work under review (and later read the notes to find that the composer had quoted a few notes of Wozzeck ), I hasten to add that this is no pastiche of the Austrian master. This is especially evident in a section where something resembling a Viennese waltz sneaks in. There is also homage paid to Debussy’s Prelude, although it became obvious to my ears only late in the piece. The subtitle of the work, “When soft voices die,” is taken from the poem of Shelley, which also includes the line, “Vibrates in the memory.” The composer found the idea of music “vibrating” in the memory of the listener irresistible, and evoked the sense of it through much use of bells and bell-like sounds in the texture. Originally commissioned in 1987, Chihara had to set it aside for several years due to health problems. Once he recovered, he returned to the work, and replaced the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto as his original model with one based upon Chausson’s Poeme. Thus this concerto has several linked sections, and also like the Chausson model, fades away quietly at the end. I would be surprised if this piece does not eventually wind up in the standard repertoire for the instrument.

As in the preceding work, the Viola Sonata was a “work in progress” for some years, also due to the composer’s health. Begun in 1991, it was not finalized until a good 20 years later. This work is intended as a love letter to the composer’s wife, and a lovely letter it is. The harmonic language won’t stretch the listener’s ears beyond what Samuel Barber does, but Chihara’s voice is entirely his own, as he skillfully incorporates brief quotes from older composers (in this case, a few notes from Mozart’s E-Minor Violin Sonata, K 304) and makes them a seamless part of his musical fabric. He also quotes from himself in the cantabile second movement, with a reference to his music for the Broadway production of Shogun. The work concludes with a brilliant finale with a concluding flourish that will knock the socks off of the auditor.

With Redwood, I came back to an old friend, as it was the first work that I can recall hearing of this composer, and it led me to explore a number of his other works back in the LP era. The vinyl recording on the Protone label in my erstwhile collection contained a fine performance by violist Milton Thomas, Chihara’s former mentor, but it is good to have this recording by one of the instrument’s current masters. Redwood is the sole work on this CD written in Chihara’s earlier style. Consequently, this work incorporates elements drawn from serialism, and much imaginative percussion writing. The annotator states that few composers could write so melodically for the drums, and indeed that is so: The rototoms spin out true melodic lines that complement the complexities in the viola part magnificently.

Violist Paul Coletti, the featured artist in this recording, plays superbly. His luxuriant tone caresses each nuance found in the stylistic compass of these works. All the numerous technical demands of the music are likewise met with supreme confidence. I don’t believe there is a better violist currently on the musical scene today, and few that can match the standard set by this artist. The assisting artists provide solid support as well, as do the superb sonics of Bridge. The CD concludes with the company’s director, David Starobin, interviewing the composer about his artistic development. Highly and enthusiastically recommended on all accounts, and a strong contender for my next Want List. David DeBoor Canfield

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 26 March 2013 )
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