A Conversation with Judith Lang Zaimont

by Joe Brumbeloe

On November 2-4, 2010, Judith Lang Zaimont was the featured composer for "Intégrales 2010," the annual new music festival held at the University of Southern Mississippi. A broad array of her music was featured - a recital of chamber music as well as larger works for wind ensemble: "City Rain" (2001) and "Solar Traveler" (2009), a concerto for piano and winds co-commissioned and premiered by USM and seven other American wind ensembles. USM professor of piano Elizabeth Moak performed "Solar Traveler" with the USM Wind Ensemble, conducted by Tom Fraschillo. Moak is also currently involved in recording a 2-CD compilation of much of Zaimont's most important piano music.

Zaimont has been a Guggenheim Foundation Fellow, an Aaron Copland Award winner, and has enjoyed a distinguished career as composer of over 100 works spanning all genres, including performances by the Philadelphia Orchestra, Baltimore and Mississippi Symphonies, Berlin and Czech Radio Symphonies, Slovak National Philharmonic and the Kremlin Chamber Orchestra. Her music is widely performed throughout the US and Europe, and has been recorded for the Naxos, Koch International Classics, Harmonia Mundi, Arkiv Music, Albany, MSR Classics, Leonarda, and 4Tay labels. Her numerous prizes and honors include awards from both National Endowments, the Bush Foundation, IAWM, CBDNA, Maryland and New York State arts fellowships, the Andrew G. Mellon Foundation and several First Prize-Gold Medals in international composition competitions. In 2009 she was Composer in Residence at the Eastman School of Music, Murray State University, Peabody Conservatory and Indiana State University.

Zaimont is also a distinguished educator and scholar, having taught composition and music theory at CUNY's Queens and Hunter Colleges, Peabody Conservatory, Adelphi University and the University of Minnesota during the past three and a half decades. She is the editor-in-chief of the critically-acclaimed Greenwood Press book series, The Musical Woman: An International Perspective, and is the author of numerous articles.

Ms. Zaimont graciously agreed to be interviewed during and after her visit to Mississippi for the Intégrales 2010 festival. The following conversation occurred in part over the phone, and in part through e-mail.

Joe Brumbeloe: I'm interested in your student years and early influences. For example, you were involved with the Columbia/Princeton Electronic Center, which is associated with some of the most important early electronic music pioneers, Mario Davidovsky and Otto Luening. But generally, given the profusion of styles in the air in those days - everything from integral serialism to minimalism, or perhaps from the Beatles to John Coltrane - was it difficult to find your voice and choose a path you found artistically satisfying?

Judith Lang Zaimont: In order to be honest, a composer has to shove aside all external static and look to discover and hone the essence of a personal compositional voice. Ideally, this voice is stylistically distinct, well-inflected, complete, and true. And it could well take a lifetime's worth of musical statements to present, refine and perfect that voice. Given the lure, the contrasting sets of signals and ubiquitous distraction of so many multitudes of available musics in the air today, our task in discovering and nurturing this distinct voice is made many times more complex.

For me, the task wasn't that difficult. I was blessed (in retrospect) by never having had the opportunity to study composition one-on-one with anybody, save for graduate school contact, primarily with Otto Luening. So the principal message was simply: What works best for the given situation - what's the best solution for the given compositional problem?

The art is in designing the problem to be solved in the first place.

There are hallmarks to my style, but they are aspects of musical fabric (many-layered), treatment of materials, originality in devising forms (I don't like received ones), and most definitely a preference for developmental variation as a constant.

Nothing in my music sits still for very long. And I like textures in which there's a lot of "stuff," but not muddy sounds or any turgidness. Plus, the surfaces should be meticulously worked, enhancing whatever attractive quotient the materials imply.

And, I took 2 courses with Mario in Electronic Music - that's it. (My grad work was at Columbia University, but not specifically at the Electronic Center.) This was still a time of splicing blocks, real physical tape loops, etc. Pre-digital.

JB: A recent article of yours ["The Matter of Style." NewMusicBox (August 2006)] began this way: "Singularity in an artist's voice is almost as much a matter of how we say something as of what we say." Your meaning is more comprehensive, certainly; but that quote reminds me of descriptions I read of your own music, which frequently cite 'colorful orchestration' and 'idiomatic writing.' Could you describe your approach to orchestration: for example, are there composers or pieces that you recommend as models?

JLZ: Stravinsky and Ravel are models for me in terms of building up textures lucidly. As concerns idiomatic writing: Over the past 4-plus decades and today especially, composers have actively placed the performer's perspective into the forefront of their thinking. Brand-new music is being written and thought-through freshly from the performance vantage point - as a vehicle of display and expression. It's not enough for a piece to be a document of the composer's creative vision: it must also, in some valid sense, feel "good / exciting" to play. This is healthy.

Being active as a pianist myself, I consider it a badge of honor that my music in every medium somehow chimes with at least part of the expectations from performers who specialize in repertoire for "their" instrument. Something in my piece needs to connect with at least some aspect of their understanding, insofar as how "their" music goes.

Plus, I have respect for earlier masterworks in a specific genre, and make it my business to know this literature before I begin to contemplate what it is I might contribute. This doesn"t mean staying "inside the box," however; my guide is always to be fresh, distinct, unexpected, and hopefully durable.

Perhaps because I wait, and contemplate, prior to writing, I "out-Brahms Brahms" as an example of a late bloomer: Johannes didn't issue his first symphony until age 40 - mine dates from my 50th year. So, too, my first piano trio at age 36, first string quartet at age 62, first (acknowledged) piano concerto age 64. True that part of the reason has to do with being an involved teacher for 36 years. (I gave over a considerable amount of past creative capital to the needs of students' music, most of which was negligible. Looking back, I think I stayed in as a teacher eight years longer than I should have.) But a big part is due to my waiting until I was ready to say something - to make a real contribution, not just spin some notes - in each specific medium.

JB:Many of your works refer to the natural world, whether terrestrial (weather in your two piano trios, "Russian Summer" and "Zones") or extraterrestrial (your Quintet, "Sky Curtains," the solo piano work "Jupiter's Moons," or then new piece we just heard, the "Solar Traveler" Concerto for Piano and Winds.) Can you describe the inspiration you draw from these ideas?

JLZ:Nothing man-made. Nothing cramped or boxed-in (like the skyscraper canyons of midtown Manhattan - these seem to me to be oppressive).

Always fresh, unexpected, subject to wild and sudden contrasts - and yet inevitable in hindsight. Anything is possible.

The broad horizon with its clean, limitless vault of clear sky serves to buoy my spirit. This equates to the exhilaration of unbounded potential any creator values as set-point. There has to be that kind of galvanizing start to the compositional process (before getting specific to the needs, and requirements that soon arise to govern the genesis of a particular work) and nothing lifts the spirit like walking out the door - without the need to grab a coat! - and experiencing the call of wide-openness!

JB:You have written some overtly jazz-influenced pieces for piano (I'm thinking of your "Hesitation Rag," "Judy's Rag," "Reflective Rag," and others), but am I correct in thinking that there is a jazz influence even in some pieces or movements without such descriptive titles?

JLZ:The spirit of dance pervades my music. Michael Cherlin actually wrote about this in his article in The Clarinet. [Michael Cherlin, "Judith Lang Zaimont's Chamber Music for Winds: A Quintet of Quintets." The Clarinet Journal 28/3 (June 2001):78-85] Springiness, verve, the impetus ever forward, nothing stodgy!

In addition to dance pure and simple, there is jazz. Jazz was forbidden in my household when I was growing up (!!). But I had an "illicit" LP - Henry Mancini's scores to "Mr. Lucky" and "Peter Gunn"; when my mother found it, she broke it over her knee. A strange incident - since my Mom loved show tunes, and played and taught them both to her singing and piano students. (She was Vic Damone's voice teacher.) Not surprisingly, once I got to college, it was Thelonius Monk, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum all the way. Their invention was at a sustained and high level, and their joy, high energy and commitment to their sound-world fueled my continuing discovery of that world as a young adult.

JB:You've devoted a great deal of time and attention to women composers, both with your indispensable book series [Judith Lang Zaimont, gen. ed., The Musical Woman: An International Perspective. (3 vols.) Santa Barbara: Greenwood Press, 1983-90] and in numerous articles. And yet, I was struck that when you spoke to our students last November, you advised them against expecting 'women composer' music before playing one of your pieces. What are your thoughts regarding the status of women composers today; do you still face stereotypical assumptions regarding your art?

JLZ:How quickly the moving window of time changes everyone's perspective. I'm really uncomfortable with all these kinds of "adjective" composer appellations. The ones that I suggest are 'American' and 'living' because I think those are descriptive, but everything else seems to place you in some side category and that is something I think is not helpful when you are considering the work of any individual. Historical context is good meaning time and place but in terms of being advanced, or shining a spotlight to the side one might say, I don't think we need to do that any more. I'm not sure we ever needed to.

One thing that led to my writing the books in the 90s was that it mystified me that distinguished women were celebrated in their own times, and then seemed to fall out of historical recognition. We forget Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre; she's a prime example of that. We forget the number of French women composers women who were opera singers and composers, or keyboard performers and composers they would be recognized for their other skill but not necessarily what they had done creatively in music. That really disturbed me, that's where my books and my interest in the whole women's music question arose originally. Do we need extra adjectives today? I don't think so.

Allow me to quote an excerpt from a big March 1996 speech I gave to the International Music Council UNESCO, Paris, France. It is my overview of modern America and America's musical women at the end of the millennium:

To probe further into the "pay gap" for professions in which women predominate, I turn to a report documenting case studies of eleven once male-dominated fields that became feminized during the time period 1970-1988. (Entitled "The Road Less Rewarded", the study appeared in Working Woman Magazine in July 1994.) During these recent decades each of the eleven fields experienced a remarkable upsurge in the percentage of women participants. The fields surveyed are: book editing / pharmacology / public relations / bank management / systems analysis / insurance sales / real estate sales / insurance adjusting and examining / bartending / baking / typesetting and compositing.

The chief finding is that women began to be hired in numbers in these fields only when changing technology and declining wages had already begun to make these jobs less appealing to men. Research shows that status and pay had already dropped before the women came in, in substantial numbers: Women's numbers rose only after earnings and upward mobility [had already declined] in each of these fields. That is, salaries had already been reduced, prestige had diminished, or technological changes had come about such as the shift in printing from 'hot type' to keyboard-based compositing which caused the job to become too much like traditional "women's work" to appeal any longer to men.

Employers were quick to recognize the pragmatic wisdom of hiring women during lean economic times. According to Eugene Blabey, United Press International vice president: "It made economic sense. At UPI we were always constrained by the inability to pay a lot because we didn't have a lot. By hiring women, you could get a lot better talent for the money by taking advantage of the fact that women are discriminated against." In short, employers capitalized on women's hunger for professional recognition by hiring them for lower pay, and/or without long-term job stability.

We should ask: Where do the men go when women gain a substantial foothold in a profession? "It's not necessarily true that men leave the field, but they no longer choose to enter it. As jobs become feminized, older males drop out (through attrition) and younger males look elsewhere."

In substance, then, women gain wider admission to certain fields only when that work has already begun to be devalued. We see a species of 'taint' attaching to several fields where women now predominate, making these jobs unappealing to men just because the women are there even though historically the fields were clearly male (!).

We see the same devaluing of the field and compartmentalizing concert music with a vengeance today. According to the quote above, it's therefore not surprising that women have (finally) come forward in numbers as composers (and conductors) during this same period.

JB:I would strongly recommend your article "Embracing New Music" [American Music Teacher (August/September 2008):14-18] to any private music teacher interested in incorporating new music into his or her student's repertoire. But on a related note, what are your thoughts on higher education? Do you find that the new music situation is improving, deteriorating, or is it perhaps mixed in colleges and universities?

JLZ:It depends on the school. A school might be a locus for new music, where the performance faculty actively collaborates with the composition faculty, where they do projects that are interesting to them both, or whether it's a place where the faculties pretty much go their own individual ways. There are nodes around the country and composition students looking for graduate school know where the dream place to continue their work would be. Not every university has that kind of open-mindedness, but in places where this exists, where there is that parallel interest, then a lot of interesting things happen in terms of new music. It's incorporated into the curricular study, in the musicology courses, composers regularly visit music history classes, musicologists visit composition classes, and theorists, of course: each specialist's way of looking at new music has its own emphasis. It's very important that you not travel in some sort of air-tight, streamlined, single way forward. Musicologists are eventually going to be the people who teach the composers of 2011 in 2050, and unless they know who we are and what we are all about, that connection might never take place. It's really exhilarating when that takes place actively in one, single location.

"What is it in this music that makes it interesting to you?" People tell me after performances that they didn't quite understand all that they heard, but it made them feel things they had not previously felt. I think that's a wonderful response to a piece of music.

JB:My colleague, Elizabeth Moak is involved in a large-scale recording project, consisting of many of your solo piano works. Could you describe what this project means to you?

JLZ:There are some premiers but there aren't that many, and they are smaller pieces. On this two-CD set that Elizabeth is doing will be the first commercial recordings of some of my bigger pieces, and that's pretty amazing, I think, for a composer of the current day whose last name isn't Copland.

I'm fascinated that the music has a certain appeal to various performers, in various places, at various times that they want to spend their time and give attention to it. It's interesting to me that a work is more or less durable, that it seems to slip into the stream in that fashion. So the impetus behind these recordings was not world-premiere renditions. Composers can have a reason for recordings; that is, simply to get a document out before the public in one, persuasive reading. I think any piece needs a chance at several people interpreting it, in a way that allows different people to experience it, before it has a chance to fully realize itself.

I kind of sidestepped to write for my own instrument: I would write for other instruments before my own, because I have such respect for the repertoire, and such admiration for the great music of the past. It puzzled me for a while to think about what I might contribute to that repertoire. And interestingly, very little of the piano music before the late 90s was commissioned. I simply wrote pieces for myself to play.

And partly because the piano music has come forward in recordings over time piecemeal, people have different perceptions of it, depending on which subset of the whole they've encountered. It seems reasonable at this point, when I haven't really written for the piano for a while, to kind of pull things together and put this house in order, so that a better sense of what I've been able to accomplish for my instrument is generally available.

And what better interpreter to get than somebody who for her own reasons, and her own engagement with this music, has been playing it for decades? That is something that is really interesting to a composer, to find that an artist of high caliber has found something in this music that keeps them with it over time. And not just one piece, and not just because it was the subject for her doctoral work, but because there is something the artist genuinely connects to in the music. I think you'd get a better sense of this if you'd talk to Elizabeth. What does it mean to someone who has waited to come forward and introduce themselves more widely to the world as a solo artist, to pick music by a single composer to do this? There has to be something that she sees in it that indicates a range of expression and technical challenge. So those are the things I'm imagining you would want to explore with her.

JB:Yes, definitely. [A brief interview of Elizabeth Moak follows as an addendum] Finally, are you currently working on a new composition?

JLZ:Yes, I continue very actively to compose. Last Fall, a half-hour long Violin Sonata Rhapsody. (Interesting form to this five-movement piece). This Summer, a string orchestra piece for Camerata Bern for next year.

I am now at work on the final movement of a big orchestral piece (in short score first): "Pure, Cool (Water)", Symphony No. 4 (2-2-2-2 1-4-2-1, timp + 2 and strings.) The movements are:
in a current (River) flowing, full
as a solid (Ice) abstract but quiet
falling drops (Rain) off-center scherzo
still (The Tarn) melody-rich
in waves and torrents (Ocean and Waterfall)
         dramatic and lyrical

This new five-movement symphony has been conceived as an exploration of the various states of water rapid/running, falling, still, frozen, rolling and is a project close to the composer's heart: Her father was a prominent chemist specializing in water treatment and control; a past president of the National Water Pollution Control Federation, after whom there are awards named in at least three states. He also served as New York City water commissioner under three mayors and was a consultant to the World Bank on water issues around the world. The interest in preserving and enhancing our natural environment is a national priority, and no matter where we reside it is a concern with local impact and importance.

JB:Thank-you for your time and all of your thoughtful responses.

JLZ:Thank-you for your interest in my music.

(The following addendum is a brief interview of pianist Elizabeth Moak, professor of piano at the University of Mississippi. Dr. Moak is completing a major recording of Zaimont's solo piano music.)

JB:Could you describe how you became acquainted with Zaimont and her music?

Elizabeth Moak: Of my own volition and interest, I went to hear a concert of works by Zaimont while I was an undergrad at Peabody in the early 80's. On the program was choral pieces sung by a NY ensemble and two compositions for piano: STONE (for piano keyboard and piano strings) and "Nocturne: La fin de siècle." The Nocturne caught my attention, and I made a mental note to maybe learn the piece one day.

In 1987, while in Europe, I followed up on that desire and wrote to Zaimont about the Nocturne. I then performed it in Switzerland, Italy, Austria, France, and the United States. In time, I also became aware of the Calendar Collection, and several years later, while a doctoral student back at Peabody,A Calendar Set and "Judy's Rag". This in turn led to my decision to explore all her piano works for my doctoral research despite the possible risk of unknown works. The idea of conversing with a living composer also intrigued me.

So, I caught a train from Baltimore to a concert of Zaimont's 1st Symphony performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra (as a result of her winning the 1995 McCollin International Composition Competition) in order to try to catch Zaimont in person for her permission. With her affirmative answer, I then delved into her music, and our contact has endured to this day with the 2 CD-set recorded under her supervision.

JB:Can you put into words what you find attractive about Zaimont's piano music?

EM:The piano works of Zaimont are fresh and idiomatic. They range from intermediate to virtuoso level, as well as from immediate appeal to those of complex and large scope. I do feel they are a major contribution to the piano literature.

[End of interview.]