My initial contact with Martin Rokeach, who lives near San Francisco, began while coaching a chamber work of his for one of my classes at NYU. Not long thereafter, Marty started sending me other pieces he thought would be of interest. I found all of them to be rhythmically lots of fun, alternating between eeriness and sheer joy.
One day, Marty sent me a recording of Sleepless Night, scored for flute, violin, cello and guitar, composed for the Cygnus Ensemble. I completely fell in love with this work. Listening to it really did feel like a sleepless night here in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The sounds you might hear, the quiet, the thoughts that run through your head – all of it. I had already asked Marty if he had anything for flute, viola and cello and no, he did not. I gave the recording to Ina and Matt and asked them to listen to it. We agreed that having a piece of Marty’s in our repertoire, would add to the variety of styles that we perform and give us a unique language to work with. Thankfully Marty was interested! The score for Going Up? arrived on Christmas eve in 2007. The work received its premiere at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia at Symphony Space in May, 2008. You can hear sound clips in our Listening Room and in our MPBN interview in our Video Room. I think that we have revisited and performed Going Up? more often than any other work composed for us. In a few weeks, we will be performing it again, while on tour in Maine, Massachusetts and upstate New York. We’ll also be performing it on May 17 at the Queens New Music Festival. It seems as an appropriate time as ever to ask Marty to be our next featured composer. I am delighted that he has agreed! Enjoy!
SG: What were your earliest experiences with music? When did you become interested in composing?
MR: As is usually the case, elementary music teachers and parents were vital figures in my development. As early as the fourth grade a friend of mine and I wrote some songs together. We weren’t exactly Lennon and McCartney, but we wrote a song about cowboys. The school’s music teacher was very encouraging and our classmates even sang the song periodically. Ah the thrill of success! Honestly my earliest experiences weren’t all inspiring. I played violin at school in 5th grade and when the parents came for a demonstration the string teacher had a girl play a few notes to demonstrate proper bowing technique. She then had me play a few notes and said to the parents: “Notice how stiff his upper arm is? That’s what we try to NOT do.” My first public embarrassment as an artist. But it was the 60s and folk music like Peter, Paul and Mary, the Limelighters, Pete Seeger and Bob Dylan were becoming so popular. I became familiar with it from my big sisters, and the guitar was central to the style. It seemed like the coolest instrument someone could play. I was nine years old and my parents rented me a cheap guitar and signed me up for lessons at the local music store. I practiced obsessively and became quite good. My Mom now says she was just trying to find something to keep me occupied through the summer, she had no idea it’d be the start of a career.
SG: Which composers were your earliest influences?
MR: Like most guitarists I came to classical music late. I’d been playing folk, blues and other popular styles and didn’t learn to read music until my senior year of high school. It was that year that Beethoven became my first “love,” later on Bartok and Coltrane. To this day I’m still influenced by the power and drive of those three giants.
SG: How would you explain your compositional process? Where do you get your ideas from? What inspires you?
MR: Composers are asked this question often and it’s a tough one to articulate. I sense that non-musicians want us to say composing is a 3-part process: 1. I had an experience in my life 2. The experience made me feel a certain way 3. I then set out to convey those feelings musically. But I think for most of us composers, certainly for me, it isn’t so simple or straightforward, because my imagination is more interesting than my diary. For me a composition begins with a purely musical idea not directly connected with a specific experience from my life. It might be a melody, a chord, some kind of striking musical figure. If the idea is melodic it comes while I’m far from a guitar, piano or computer – walking, showering, shaving or making the bed are fertile activities for birthing melodies. Harmonic ideas, i.e. chords and what to do with them, come while I’m at the guitar or piano. Whatever the nature of the idea, it’s usually raw at first, not well formed, and I reject lots of them before deciding something is worthwhile. Then the really awful part of composing commences – the beginning. Each and every piece I write I feel like I’m floundering at first, wasting time, chasing ideas up blind alleys. It’s a little like smelling delicious food nearby but not being able to find it and take a real bite. I often feel incompetent at this point but have learned to ignore the feeling and plunge forward. At first I sketch, sketch, sketch, and don’t want to begin the formal composing of one measure after another until I’ve accumulated a rich body of sketches. It’s always a relief after I’ve developed enough substance to feel like I’m on first base. The fun part of composing is when I’m deeply into a piece, after its own personality and trajectory have surfaced.
When I started composing Going Up? for Eight Strings & a Whistle my wife, daughter and I were spending time in Cape Cod. I was walking somewhere (the beach? in town?) and an ascending, scale-like melody came to me. It appealed, though I wondered if it was too simplistic. But as Bartok said, simple ideas are often the most pliable so I ran with it. I had no computer or staff paper with me on the trip so I sketched as much as I could in my head (occasionally stunting conversation with my family, unfortunately) and developed various ideas on what I could do with the tune, including introducing it with the pizzicato cello. As mentioned above, walking or showering or shaving is a great way to work on ideas conceptually, but when a LOT of specific pitches are required it’s most efficient at a computer. It’s like a playwright taking a walk to figure out where Act 2 of a play should land, but the exact words more easily come while at the word-processer. So it wasn’t until I got home that I worked out the sketches with all the notes.
Some great art is inspired by the workings of nature or the cosmos (like the music of Crumb or Messiaen), some comes from the sacred. Unconsciously what inspires me is almost always so old-fashioned it would bore many a composer – the ups and downs of being human. But I convey the human drama not from my diary but my sketchbook.
SG: As I recall, you are a guitarist. How does that affect your approach to composing?
MR: The spot where I compose is about ten feet from my piano. I often have the guitar right at my side so I can pick it up and try something without getting up. Being a guitarist has really helped me understand the workings of all string instruments. However, I do wish I were a more competent pianist.
SG: I learned of you and your work through your piece, Can’t Wait for violin or flute, clarinet and piano. Shortly after we began corresponding, you sent me Sleepless Night. I brought the recording to Ina and Matt and told them I wanted to ask you to write a piece for us. I love Can’t Wait, and I especially love teaching it, but Sleepless Night spoke to me on another level. Does knowing how much someone loves a specific work of yours influence your approach to writing a work for them?
MR: Though I love it when people love my music and wish it happened all the time, it doesn’t really influence the nature of a commission. If someone said “Please compose a piece like that other piece you already wrote” I couldn’t do it. Every good work of art, like every human being, is unique. I just write the best piece I can and hope whoever commissioned it is happy.
SG: I am listening to Running at the Top of the World for trumpet and piano just now, and it strikes me as “unmistakably Rokeach.” What beautiful writing (and playing)! I hear the rhythmic energy that I identify with your work, how you play with silence, your dark side as well as your playful side. What are the qualities you seek to achieve when composing a new work?
MR: Another tough question and my answer may appear generic: I want each piece to be lively and/or beautiful and/or dramatic, driven by seductive, intriguing musical ideas, and always affecting. In both short and long works I try to achieve an emotional range, with tension between contrasting moods. I want each and every pitch to feel right, and not create the sense that if players accidently hit a wrong note it’d make no difference. I hope listening will be memorable enough and gratifying enough so audience members won’t forget a piece by the next morning. Of course, people differ regarding to what extent I achieve these lofty objectives.
SG: Who do you admire of today’s composers? And what are your thoughts on new music in general?
MR: The first question is easy: Osvaldo Golijov, John Adams, Elena Ruehr, Jennifer Higdon, David Lang, Julia Wolfe, Kevin Putz, Frank LaRocca, Robert Greenberg, Don Freund, Justin Dello Joio, Harold Meltzer and so many, many others. The second question is harder, as my thoughts on new music in general are conflicted. On the one hand there is such a range of musical styles, such enormity of talent, and so many excellent works being created it’s exciting and adventurous, much more so than in the seventies and eighties when I entered the profession. On the other hand, many new-music concerts are very unmemorable. I ask myself why and am not sure of the answer.
SG: What advice would you give to an aspiring composer?
MR: Take a lesson from every piece you hear. If you love it, like it, are bored by it – ask yourself why. If you like a piece ask yourself if you’ll remember it tomorrow morning. Keep your mind and your ears open, but don’t confuse liking a piece of music with loving it. Don’t confuse finding a work interesting with loving it. This sounds easy enough but in fact it’s challenging, as music departments and composition factions so often create cult-like thinking. Make a list of those new works you really and truly love and analyze each one’s qualities. In this way you learn not only from your composition teacher but the best composers.
Marty’s music has been performed throughout the United States and in more than twenty foreign countries. His works have earned honors in over a dozen national and international composition competitions, and he has been commissioned to write music for numerous soloists and ensembles including Eight Strings & a Whistle (NY), Music Teachers Association of California, Cygnus Ensemble (NY), the Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (San Francisco) and most recently, a trumpet sonata for competitors in the 2012 Ellsworth-Smith International Trumpet Competition. Marty has been a featured composer and speaker at the Sion Conservatory of Switzerland, Hartt Conservatory of Music, New York University and Wichita State University, and concerts devoted exclusively to his music have been held at Washington State University and Western Carolina University. He teaches at Saint Mary’s College of California, and is one of the founders and artistic directors of Berkeley’s contemporary music concert series, Composers, Inc.