Lukas Foss Interview

"If you can do the Tchaikovsky Fifth on hash, you can do anything."


From The Georgia Straight, October 29, 1971
©1971 by Michael Quigley, no reproduction without permission

A critic once described composer-conductor Lukas Foss as a still a teenager at heart. Talking with Foss Thursday at lunch, this certainly proved to be true. Despite his 49 years, Foss radiates an amazing aura of understanding and curiosity about people and art, much like violinist Yehudi Menuhin.

For the past fifteen years, Foss has been a self-described "experimental" composer. He developed the idea of the "improvisational ensemble" during the late fifties while at UCLA. Much of his recent music has been "dream-like", shot through with references to his past, for example, his love of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.

Foss talked enthusiastically about several "marathon" concerts which he conducted at the Hollywood Bowl and in Brooklyn a while ago. Each devoted to one composer (Bach, Mozart) or one period ("modern" with music by Ives, Cage, Riley, Foss), these concerts, Foss said, had "no stars, low prices, and continuous music, so it's like a trip." As a conductor, he kept any remarks to a minimum, so that the audience became totally involved in the particular world established. "The established kind of symphony concert," Foss remarked, "let's face it, is old 'old people's concerts.' If you want the young to be interested in that kind of music, it's a matter of presenting it and in the right environment, an environment which is attractive."

Following are some excerpts from the interview.

Foss related a story of when he was conducting Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony in San Francisco, and during the intermission ate some cookies which were left by a friend who told him to only eat "one at a time." When he was called to go back on stage, he suddenly felt very heavy, and thought that he had the flu, but then realized that the cookies were made with pretty potent ingredients. Not remembering his friend's warning about the cookies, he thought that someone had slipped acid into his coffee. "I was afraid of going insane in front of the audience, of making a fool of myself."

"I had no idea what it does to your sense of time … it was unbelievable. I didn't know what tempo I was taking. I didn't know anything about timing. And I suffered. At the end of the movement I turned to the concertmaster, and said 'I'll never get through this piece,' and I screamed, I was sure that I had screamed. Then, automatically, I turned to the violins with that famous gesture (holding his hand up) and I'd never seen my hand before. It was my truest moment. I said 'What kind of a profession is this? It's ridiculous! In front of all people I go like THIS! What is this? What is this supposed to do? What am I doing here?' And the musicians all looked at me with big owl eyes, and it was total insanity. I said to myself, 'Shall I fall forward or backwards? Backwards I might hurt myself.' I got through somehow. People afterward told me it was a bit slow.

"It was the worst kind of suffering. It wouldn't have been so bad if I could have just relaxed and not done anything, but to try and conduct, which is all about timing and concentration … it was the greatest suffering that I have known. Disgrace was looming over me at any moment. Every time I do the Tchaikovsky Fifth somewhere, I am reminded of that moment. That's why I could conduct the Rite of Spring with mononucleosis [as he had done a few days before in Mexico City]. If you can do the Tchaikovsky Fifth on hash, you can do anything."

MQ: What do you think about rock-symphonic collaborations?

Foss: Unless you present it like a creative thing or a dream … if you just have the symphony orchestra play a few popular numbers like Scheherazade or Tchaikovsky or whatever it is, and then you have The Mothers of Invention do something, then you have a piece of new music, then you get something where the audience is unhappy. If they're a rock audience, they're just there for the rock numbers, and if they're the other audience, they can't bear that, so you really end up insulting everybody there's no real rapport.

When I combine a rock group and orchestra, I never have a seeming battle between them. For one thing, rock always wins, being louder, and should win, unless you make the rock people do something they've never done before, and the symphony people do something they've never done before, involving them all in a weird new experience, which is just as new to the symphony players as to the rock players, you will get something that's neither fish nor fowl.

In Philadelphia, I did a concert where I began to play Bach, and then a rock group would come in and annihilate me with their sound, and then a symphony came in ... of course, what they did, I more or less penned down. I continued to play this Bach concerto, and it was a very strange experience.

My main principle in concerts like these is that the group doesn't get to play any of their singles. They're not there to sell records. It's not a commercial thing. I did one with The Grateful Dead, and they were marvelous. One of them had studied with me, and they were willing to come for expenses only. We did things that didn't involve any of their regular music, just experimental works together.

Rock-symphony mixtures are ghastly. My concerts are a mixture too, but I have a slightly different approach. You can't do this thing where you try to cater to everybody. Frankly, when I do a mixture, I don't please everybody either. I only please those who are willing to go in for something experimental — it becomes a kind of improvised, avant-garde experience, and it's addressed towards that audience.

When rock musicians come and tell me "We've got something to do with the symphony," it's invariably some horrible arrangement where the symphony part is childish and unnecessary. These pieces are very naοve and they just don't work.

Symphonies should do everything: children's programs, old people's programs, young people's programs, everything; especially now that big symphony orchestras have finally realized that musicians eat all year round and therefore must be employed all year long. They must have a much more varied approach to programming. I don't want to see the typical program on the way out — in fact, I think it will have a better chance of staying in.

In music, we can't fuse like chemists. Musicians USE. Therefore, when Stravinsky uses jazz, it stops swinging. It's a form of raping something in order to make it something else like Stravinsky. The fusion idea, the third stream jazz idea, is bankrupt. It doesn't work. You can't fuse, put two beautiful things together. You can't even do it by setting words to music. The poetry doesn't need it. Every time I set words to music, I feel I owe the poet an apology for having spoiled his poem, for having labelled it, pinned it interpreted it, put my own stamp on it, when it was meant to fill the whole room with its own beauty. It's like saying "Look, I've used you, I've raped your work, but take my notes instead as an homage."

Stravinsky and Picasso are probably the last great hero-artists. Nowadays we're [Foss and his artist cohorts] all in it together like in a big boat. We all read professional magazines, which means we all learn from one another, but all have different approaches. In a Times article, I compared it to an invisible cathedral. Basically, we're all working on the same cathedral, which is our new music, and we'll be as anonymous as the cathedral artists. Gone are the days of these vain nineteenth-century monuments, full of anecdotal, autobiographical commentaries. Our music is more impersonal.

MQ: How have you been involved in electronic music? Have you written any electronic pieces?

Foss: Just live electronics, music in which the live sound is immediately transformed. The booth itself doesn't tempt me, the pure electronics. I became a musician because of the idea of people MAKING music. I've learned the limitations of improvisation. People think that I'm an aleatory composer — I'm really not. I'm interested in controlling what I do. That to me is being professional.

Much aleatory music to me is music that is arbitrary most of the time. It doesn't really yield beautiful music most of the time. Improvisation fascinated me for years and my ensemble was the first one. I was on the verge of creating a new music, and now I feel that I was the first one not to sign my name...

When I first started it, I was a tonal composer, and I tried to make tonal music. After a while, it sounded to me like music badly remembered music that was written down and badly remembered, played a little wrong. Then I thought why not improvise a music which sounded like it should be improvised. And with that idea I opened the door which turned me into an experimental composer.