[The following is a reprint from the subscription-based Fanfare Magazine. The interview was conducted in celebration of Tobin's album "Of Two Minds" making the 2016 Not To Be Missed Critics' Choice List. Click here for direct link.]
The Masterworks Trilogy is Tobin Mueller's exploration between musical eras. He has given contemporary expression to the Romantic Era in Of Two Minds: The Music of Frédéric Chopin and Tobin Mueller (2016), re-imagined Bach and the Baroque period in Flow: The Music of J.S. Bach and Tobin Mueller (2015), and fused Jazz with Impressionism in Impressions of Water and Light (2014). Through adaptation, variation and original works, he combines Jazz, Blues, and New Age with nearly every style of Classical music, creating a rich fabric that transcends time and genre. Below is the May 2016 interview by Fanfare Magazine's writer Carla Maria Verdino-Süllwold, for Fanfare Magazine's Conversations with Composers series. It will be published in October 2016. Because Fanfare is a subscription-based website, they have granted the composer the ability to duplicate the interview here:
When I last spoke with composer and pianist Tobin Mueller for Fanfare, it was on the occasion of the release of his fascinating album, Impressions of Water and Light, the first in a trilogy of projects in which Mueller immersed himself in the music of great forebears and let it take him on a journey through new arrangements and original compositions. The second such endeavor explored the music of J.S. Bach, (Flow: The Music of J.S. Bach and Tobin Mueller) and Mueller has just released his third - Of Two Minds: The Music of Frederic Chopin and Tobin Mueller. This three-year labor of love has proved to be a revelatory journey for the composer as well as for his listening public. Fanfare had the pleasure of speaking with Mueller about this new musical adventure.
CMV-S: How have these three projects been different and have they afforded you a linear journey?
TM: Yes, it has been a linear path. I began six years ago when my health was dramatically declining and my doctor gave me eight-to-twelve years to live. [Mueller suffers from A1AD exacerbated by his volunteer efforts among the ruins of the World Trade Center in the wake of 9/11.] I decided to make a recording that could be given away at my funeral. [Song of Myself (2012).] One of my favorite pastimes has been to play piano for my wife after dinner – usually covers of songs by Bob Dylan, Billy Joel, Elton John, and Broadway tunes. I wanted to preserve them in case I weren’t able to sing or play any more. I had never recorded covers of other people’s music before, but as it turned out, these recordings got a great deal of airplay on Spotify and other internet music venues. After that I recorded a Christmas album [Midwinter Born (2013)], and then I decided I wanted to do something meatier, so I embarked on Impressions of Water and Light, which explored the Impressionists. I realized how fulfilling it is to go back to my classical training after a career of playing solely my own music, whether it be Broadway songs, original jazz or progressive rock. After those discs, I tackled Bach because he was something of a lost composer to me in my youth. I had always considered him the greatest composer in history; I loved listening to him, but playing his music did not come second nature to me. I had to practice hard to play his music, and as I did, I came to understand not only his technical brilliance, but also how many rules he broke (or "expanded"). I ended up feeling a deep intellectual kinship for Bach. With this Chopin recording, I wanted to discover a similar kinship. I related to how modern Chopin's music really is. I could start playing one of his compositions and then just segue into improvising. The kinship I found was on a more emotional level than Bach's, but just as satisfying.
CMV-S: You have called these projects ‘conversations with the composers.’
TM: Yes, they have all been conversations, resulting in not just inspiration, but growth. I settled on calling the project “The Masterworks Trilogy.” I did that partly to signal to myself that it’s time to go back to playing original material. Three albums are enough “homages” for a while (actually, it’s six if you include the Christmas album and my two cover albums). I have tons of ideas pent up inside me. But my “Masterworks” journey has been wonderful, and the musical knowledge I’ve gleaned made it all well worth it.
CMV-S: When you finished this most recent album, what did you want to say to Chopin?
Chopin provided me with a joy and lightness beyond what I experienced in the previous two explorations. Both the Impressionists and Bach were musical groundbreakers. The Impressionists were masters at creating music that represented the natural world, especially the interplay between water and light, like the artists of the era. They were aural-painters. You feel immersed in immediate experience when playing Debussy or Ravel. Instead, Chopin immerses you in emotions, less tactile, driven more by reflective longing. With Chopin I could sit and play in an effortless, attainable, contemplative way. Chopin’s music articulated the Zeitgeist of the Romantic period, yet his pieces, especially the Nocturnes, can sound like contemporary songs. His music doesn’t have the overt intellectual quality that Bach’s does, an intellectual aspect can separate you from certain aspects of cathartic human passion. I experienced a great deal of loss and spiritual searching in Bach’s music, to be sure, and even joy, but there was a great deal of weight attached to each piece, for me, at least. Even when Chopin’s music expresses loss or longing, there is a seductive beauty or a revolutionary energy that underpins it all, a sensual expressiveness rather than a deep introspection. So, I guess I would say to Chopin, “Thank you, I needed that. You made the joy of music effortless again.”
CMV-S: You say in your notes that as you play the works of Chopin and improvise and arrange them, you are able to enter into the composer’s head. Can you describe how that process happens for you?
TM: I always begin by playing the piece as it is written, then replay the parts I like again and again. As I am listening to the other composer’s music, I am rewriting it in my head. With Chopin, I tried to capture a sense of improvisation that corresponds to the Romantic sensibility. I imagined that if he had written additional variations on the piece, what they would sound like? I ended by writing less jazz than I thought I would and staying closer to what I saw as his intentions. I imagined him sitting on the bench beside me, turning pages, nodding. I wanted him to approve of all of my changes. I wanted the DNA of his music to evolve into mine, the experience of his life to inform my own.
CMV-S: You describe Chopin’s composition process as being a kind of ‘heroic struggle.’ Talk about his ease of inspiration and then his difficulty to get that down on the page.
TM: I quote from George Sand’s memoirs in my liner notes, where she describes Chopin improvising at the piano a complete and perfect piece, only to spend the next weeks trying to improve it, working through draft after draft of additions, only to return to his original inspiration in the final draft, having wasted all that time and consternation. I can identify with Chopin’s experience. All music starts as inspiration and improvisation. At some point, when you hit upon something you really like, you ask yourself ‘will I remember what I just did?’ You begin to write it down. But then you often second guess the original inspiration, smooth it out, add variations and what you hope are improvements. It’s a struggle to capture that initial sense of freedom and discovery. Some changes result in stilted, stiff passages and overwhelming discouragement. When I begin to write down my own compositions, I start with something that looks like an esoteric cross between a jazz chart and Latin code, a mashup of shorthand chord changes I began using as a teenager before I really knew what I was doing. But it’s what I fall back on when I'm in the hurried throes of capturing a moment. Then I begin writing the first verse melody line and accompanying notes on very large score paper in a very small hand, something I began doing back when I had better eyesight than I do now, sometimes using three staves (so I can separate out the bass line). I want to see as much of the piece on a single page as possible. When I come to subsequent variations, I usually jot down just chords, often with slashes representing rhythmic alterations. Then I play the piece measure by measure, trying to see how one measure leads to the next, erasing and adding as I play the piece over and over. It is a laborious process for me. One song could take me a week. Pink eraser bits litter my piano keys, fall onto the strings. But I never want to write something that I’ve done before, which can happen when I’m first improvising, so I pay special attention to unique phrasing. I need to make sure every key change and chord substitution has a 'first time' character to it. Still, when I go to record a piece, I can’t tell you how often I decide to play something else at a particular moment. (But whatever that 'something' turns out to be, it would never have happened without all the work and repetition done in preparation.) Actually, if Chopin were actually sitting beside him, I’d probably drive him crazy.
CMV-S: Is there a piece from Disc Two of your latest work that best illustrates this process?
TM: In the piece, “Phases of the Moon,” I attempted some difficult key changes – major thirds down and augmented fourths up, abrasive intervals. I wanted to build emotional tension into those key changes, have them seem smooth and natural, not shocking or abrupt. When I originally wrote them, the ramp up into one key change was about twelve measures. I played those measures over and over again, over the course of three days. At the end of each session, I was satisfied, only to play them again later on and feel as if it still wasn’t as effortless as I wanted. I ended up using six measures that came to me right before recording them. The key change sounds as natural as a 1-4-5 progression, but has an unusual, added tension. I don’t want the listener to be aware of my technique or my math, only my emotion.
CMV-S: As with your previous two albums, you pair the music with art and literature in the notes and in the visuals. Why did you choose the images and quotes you did for this Chopin recording?
TM: I am a photographer as well and experienced in Photoshop, so for the cover, I picked my favorite image of Chopin as a young man and held it up to my head and had my wife take a photo of the two of us. Then I used that, overlaid it with three different filters, and created an image that looked like a woodcut. For the notes I read a great deal of George Sand’s work, especially her Memoires. Chopin’s songs are above all romantic, and she was the one woman he loved deeply. She was also an unlikely attraction for him; she was so free in her sensibility, even seen as ‘vulgar’ by his contemporaries, - which is saying a lot, considering the Bad Boys that were in his circle of friends. But she was honest with him about his music, which she loved with a nurturing passion, and she had patience and took care of him when he was ill. He owed a great deal to what she was able to give him in those very intense eight years together.
CMV-S: The second disc contains three original sonatas. The first, Sonata of Quantum Entanglements, is informed by a fascination with both music and science. How did this interest come about for you?
TM: My father was a chemist and looked at the world in an exceedingly scientific way. His capacity for detail was mind-blowing, and I grew up with that kind of existential, rules-based worldview. When I entered college, I had already composed a symphony and some pieces for our school band. I thought I knew what I was doing. It was 1974 when composers like John Cage and Elliott Carter were prominent, and music was trending beyond rule breaking into lawlessness. As an example, my composition professor wrote a piece while I was her student entitled Sans C in which she never once played middle C in the entire work, as if that was a sufficient raison d’etre. I wasn’t required to transcribe Bach or study Mozart, although I did pour over Stravinsky scores on my own and learned as much as I could about Aaron Copland’s ballets. But the level of abstraction in the classical music world of the 1970s had little resonance for me, and with typical youthful arrogance, I decided I couldn’t learn anything useful from my music teachers. So I studied German and read Einstein instead, and I changed my major to physics. I never intended to be a physicist, but it was something I knew I needed professors to teach me. Differential equations are like jazz; for every variable change the answer keeps shifting, creating a single arc of related solutions. Quantum mechanics, with its reliance on relative points of reference and probability, provides a view of the world where astonishment and truth are interrelated. What seems like chaos has order behind it. Jazz and physics are like flip sides of a single coin.
CMV-S: The theme of non- linear time runs through these compositions as well? The first movement of the Sonata of Quantum Entanglements is called Time as Emergent Phenomenon. What do you mean?
TM: Our experience of Time is an emergent phenomenon, a side effect of quantum entanglement. I was trying to create an organic sound emerging naturally out of chaos, like an electron emerging as a discrete particle from a cloud of energy. As I played the rhythmic chords in the first movement, I cared only for each discrete eighth, not an organizing meter. Yet a meter arises naturally. Over the top, sixteenth notes fly around with abandon, yet remain entangled, connected, complementary. I tried to represent with the motion of the music several aspects of physics. Also, for each of these sonatas I listened to and played a Chopin Prelude for inspiration. In the last movement of that first sonata, “Two Minds,” I started with two related Preludes (No. 1 and No. 14), one in a major key and one in a minor. I began by piecing them together, playing alternating phrases, one major, one minor, back and forth, and loved the interconnections between the two. I finally decided to write a piece moving between keys to suggest a balance of light and dark. I start shifting between keys every four measures, but found that too predictable. Time may be a predictable concept, but our experience of it isn’t.
CMV-S: In the second sonata, Sonata Under a Night Sky, you say your work is an homage to the Nocturnes. Explain?
TM: The idea for the first movement, “Phases of the Moon,” came to me during a visit from our daughter, Sarah. She hadn’t yet listened closely to Flow, much to my consternation, so I played some tracks for her. What struck her was how the long musical line went through almost every key before repeating, but you don’t notice this while listening because everything has a center. After that she sat down and read my zodiac chart. I was amazed that the reading about the phases of the moon was right on for me. So when I went to write this sonata I combined my love for changing keys with this sense she had given me of the importance of celestial timing. I was trying to capture a cosmic sense in the music. Music can express dark and light at least as well as the visual arts. In painting, you perceive this interplay all at once with the eye, without the passage of time. In music it comes to you in a progression, one passage (or color or shading) evolving into another; everything is either leading into or out of something. You have to wait, anticipate, move at the composer's tempo. Light and dark come in waves, and it takes time to experience the interplay, sometimes multiple listenings. For all the “night” in this sonata, each movement imparts a lightness that comes from challenge, joy, gratitude, solitude and the interdependence of living.
CMV-S: In the third piece, Sonata for Dreamers, which you say was inspired by your cultivation of ‘lucid dreaming’, you arrive at the end of the third movement with music that seems to suggest an unanswered question. Is this ambiguity the only certainty we have?
TM: Yes, I think that feeling is valid, but I would add that this sense of ambiguity has a strong aspect of innocence to it. I begin the first movement, “Storytime,” by making a clear statement, as one might to a child, and then I end with something that is perhaps impossible to hold (in the final movement). In between, for the second movement (Stages of Dream and Memory), I use a quote from Chopin’s well known Prelude No. 15 and go on to alter it so that ultimately the end of the movement has nothing to do with the beginning. I wanted to show how one idea can morph so that by the end you can’t tell where it originated – rather like the experience of dreaming. In the last movement, “Starfall,” I tried to create a moment where everything stops – a suspended state of innocence where, like in dreaming, you exist beyond judgment, goals, limitations. For me Chopin is the most innocent composer in my pantheon. I thought this a fitting finale.
CMV-S: You say that Chopin’s music reads like a musical diary. Is this true for Tobin Mueller’s as well, and if so, what do you share and what are you revealing?
TM: We share not only a musical vocation, but also the fact that as artists we are working with the burden of illness. Also, Chopin lost a sister to tuberculosis, and he himself later died of the disease. I lost my nineteen-year-old sister to A1AD, and I was later diagnosed, at fifty-four, with the same illness. It has affected my immune system, nervous system, stamina, strength and, especially, my lungs. I am required to avoid all forms of stress, which alters my schedule as well as my relationship to ambition and goal setting. It has not only impacted my playing (and completely sidelined my singing), but also my compositions and what I am try to convey in my music. I hear in Chopin - and I am trying to impart in my own music - this sense that mortality frames beauty, meaning and an impetus to cherish. Time is an emergent phenomenon; it shades, highlights, and alters our experience. As we move forward, we expand our universe, but somewhere deep within, we remain a child no matter how old we are. And that innocence can be the core around which our expanding universe evolves. We still need to play to help integrate our accumulated wisdom.
CMV-S: So after three such mammoth albums, what next?
TM: I did consider a Beethoven project, but the anger and intensity in his music would make it too physically challenging a prospect. For my next project, I am producing another double album where I quote from my favorite books, verbally, and then play original music inspired by the quote. I call it Afterwords. I didn’t want to do another double album, but I simply have too many ideas and too many beloved authors to whom I want to pay homage. Words have always been important to me. They were central to my career when I was working as a playwright. After I retired from scriptwriting in order to reduce stress, I soon began to miss the written word. This new project is a great way to incorporate words into my music again; plus, there are so many pent-up styles of music and ideas which I haven’t accessed yet and still want to explore. I’m enjoying a project that is firmly based in musical storytelling, something I’ve always loved doing. It’s very energizing and so much fun!
|4||River god at play... (Maurice Ravel)|
|9||Pavane (Gabriel Fauré)|
|10||Golliwog is Steppin' Out (Claude Debussy)|
|12||Risen Cathedral (Claude Debussy)|
|13||Sitting with Satie: Conversation & Life (Erik Satie)|
|6||First Starfield (Prelude No. 1)|
|8||Leopold's Short Life: A Prelude and Fugue|
|15||Encore and Amen (Prelude No. 21 in G Minor)|
|3||Yin and Yang|
|4||Salmon Ladder Variations|
|5||Bird In Migration|
|1||River Ice (Winter)|
|2||Ghostly Bells (of Independence)|
|4||Train (Summer Tango)|
|5||Nor'easter (Early Autumn)|
|6||Berkshire Shadows (Late Autumn)|
|5||Étude No. 12 in C Minor, Op. 10|
|10||Fantaisie-Impromptu No. 4 in C Sharp minor, Op. 66|
|8||Polonaise in A-Flat Major, Op. 53|
|4||Mazurka No. 4 in A Minor, Op. 17|
|9||Prelude No. 20 in C Minor, Op. 28 / Nocturne No. 2 in C-Sharp, Op. Posthumous|