|Consistent with what he wanted me to do, I incorporated a lot of pieces I'd written
previously, going back forty years, into this piece, because it is a kind of
retrospective, and I added new material. What we'll listen to now are the first three
completed sections and then parts of the fourth. [ we listen ]
Yates: After that piece I got two new commissions.We'll listen to these now. The first piece is in the form of a "passacaglia." Nowadays, typically, this is a form in which a base line is repeated over and over again. It acts much like a containing vessel which I thought was appropriate for this piece. Originally the passacaglia was an early Renaissance dance form. I twas a slow, somber, stately dance which had a repeated form. And like so many of those forms, the orchestras got bigger and the people listened more and danced less, so it evolved into an instrumental form. Then it moved into the church, and now it's an accepted form in symphonic literature-the last movement of Brahms Fourth Symphony uses it, for instance. It can be used very dramatically. This first piece grew into a suite in three movements. Actually,the first movement is a prelude in double fugue which I've just started on.s: The second movement is a tango. And the final movement will be the passacaglia.
DXM: It's quite wonderful. In the first piece we listened to, which you describe as a mosaic, you say there are parts taken from forty years of composing. What was the genesis of your composing and the place of music in your life?
Yates: Well, I'm not a musician strangely enough, in the usual sense.My mother was a very good amateur pianist, and I was brought up with music. Both my mother and father were very receptive to good music.We listened to it a lot-the NBC symphony, the New York Philharmonic, conducted by several very well known conductors. We always had a piano and my mother played a lot, so I listened to her and she taughtme to play. I learned to read music about the same time I learned to read. But there was no more support than that. There wasn't a lot of interest in classical music in the area we lived in. So, a lot of the emphasis was on listening to music, and I listened as much as I could when there was a radio, and there were the old, big, shellacked phonograph records that came out. Then we moved to Colorado. I began to really listen to music and was able to get scores of the music from the library. I liked Beethoven and Mozart, and I learned to read their scores. That's essentially how I learned orchestration. I still do that, still listen to music and read scores. I was very touched by the music I heard, and I wanted to be able to write music that would affect people like this music affected me. And I didn't know how. So I just started scribbling, and slowly I began to get a few things together. I wrote a lot of music that nobody would play. I didn't have an orchestra, but I wrote music for orchestras. I did write one piece early on when I was about fifteen or sixteen-solo piano-which I did play publicly once. So, there was music in the household all of the time and most of my friends were music lovers. We frequently listened together and went to the Denver symphony together. I had thoughts of becoming a professional musician when I was in Jr. High School and High School but it never worked out financially or any other way. The result of that was that as I moved through high school and college I shifted to philosophy and finally to education, and I just hauled my music around with me, my boxes of music, wherever I was living. I would write music whenever I had the time and motivation.
DXM: You wanted to touch people, give them the same experience you were having, you say.
Yates: That was the "romantic" period--the expression of my feelings. That's only one facet of music, the expression of one's feelings. There's even a question of whether music intrinsically expresses anything. But of course most people, when you talk to them about music will immediately talk about feelings. The whole field of pop music, for instance, has to do with longing and aching hearts, and all that sort of thing. And certainly in the Romantic period of European music this was very much in the fore-- the content of the feeling of the composer. It could be in the abstract, as for instance in Tchaikovsky's last symphony which was called the Pathetique Symphony, which seems to express the difficulties he came to in trying to find his final resignation with death.
But now, you see, before that, in what they call the Classical Period, music was written not just for, or even particularly about, any kind of content, but as a form. It was attached to church forms, for instance, for worship, and it was set to words. In the instrumental work, and even in the church things, the emphasis was on the way in which the music interwove, on the form it had. This, for some people, came to its highest point with Bach, who wrote church music that was about something in a sense, but he also wrote enormous pieces for organ and instrumental groupings that wasn't really about anything.
The interesting thing is the relationship between form and feeling, or form and expression, and I am still trying to understand that. You see it may be that these forms we're talking about, the canon, and fugue, and passacaglia, are actually a reflection of an ordering in the larger world, something indigenous to it. Now, certainly in the overtone theories, that is, thesounds that come with a particular pitch that's built into the natural world. You play a note on the piano, or violin, and simultaneously with that you'll have its own octave sounding very slightly, and then you'll have the fifth above that, and the fourth. And it follows a very definite ordering pattern. It's built into the natural world and so that is reflected in the development of the laws of music. So, that's how I've thought about it, without getting pompous. Actually, it's very humbling.
See, I discovered when I began experimenting with the method I've been working with lately, of turning people'snames into music and also using numbers, I began to discover that if I wrote a piece strictly according to a predetermined form, and then played it, that it evoked a feeling. I had not intended to evoke a feeling, but it did, nevertheless. The structure and the combination of the tones evoked a feeling.