by Bernie Langs
In 1978, I joined a music class at Brown University that taught students to use an electronic synthesizer and to become proficient in multi-track recording methods. It was expected that students would compose and record music utilizing these tools to present to the class. I’ve retained more memories from this experience than any other course I took in college. The synthesizer was a beast of a machine, manipulated by stretchin
g patch cords and tooling around with various controls. Equally memorable was the dynamic professor of the class, Gerald Shapiro. Professor Shapiro, or “Shep” as he likes to be
called, had already been at Brown for over a decade at the time. His students hung on his every word and listened carefully to his presentations. Pr Shapiro was unique at a university known for unique personalities. During his student days, Pr Shapiro learned composition from Darius Milhaud, Mort Subotnick, Karlheinze Stockhausen, Olivier Messiaen, and Nadia Boulanger. Professor Shapiro’s compositions show a variety and range in the classical genre.
In a nutshell, Pr Shapiro expanded my concepts of what it means to listen to music—and to listen in general. I recall the incredible rush of excitement I felt while recording my first composition on the thick reel-to-reel tape with the synthesizer. It was not only the discovery of sounds that was thrilling, but as I layered the tracks, the piece seemed to take on a life of its own, actually improving itself as I built it. I’ve been recording on my iMac for several years, and the long-ago lessons from Pr Shapiro’s class are always at the forefront of my process.
Pr Shapiro, who still teaches at Brown University, was kind enough to take time to answer a few questions about his studies, his work and music in general.
Bernie Langs (BL): You studied with greats such as Mort Subotnick and Karlheinze Stockhausen; did their tutelage have a lasting influence on you? Any anecdotes you would like to share from your student days with these composers?
Gerald M. Shapiro (GMS): I was fortunate to be a student at a time when I could work with the last of the older generation of composers and teachers and the first of the younger set. In 1964, I went to San Francisco to study with Darius Milhaud, a great French composer who taught at Mills College in alternate years. I had come from an undergraduate career at the Eastman School of Music, where composing was taught as a grim and painful activity. Milhaud loved to write music. I would come into his studio and he would be scribbling away (amazing—the only thing that slowed him down was how fast he could put the notes on paper), but after a while he would turn to me with a beatific smile. He was having fun—it was serious fun, but still. That was the most important lesson from any composition teacher I ever got. It didn’t change how I worked over night. It took me a long time to really get it. When I got to San Francisco, I got involved right away with the San Francisco Tape Music Center, which had just been founded by Mort Subotnick, Ramon Sender, and Pauline Oliveros. Mort was inventing the synthesizer with Don Buchla. Tony Martin was making the liquid projections to complement the music that would blossom into the image of the “summer of love” and the whole hippie movement. Terry Riley was writing “In C” and Steve Reich was making the first of his minimalist pieces. It was a heady time. The following year, I went to Paris on a Fulbright Scholarship and studied with Nadia Boulanger—a spectacular teacher who showed me what it meant to really hear music. When I returned to San Francisco a year later, Stockhausen was teaching at University of California Davis for the year so I signed up for that. Stockhausen was the most directive of any teacher I’ve had. He taught me to hear beneath the notes to the relationships that bind them together.
BL: You’ve been at Brown University since 1967. How do you feel having spent your career in academics at Brown?
GMS: I have been fortunate to have a job that exactly suited me. I love to teach. I enjoyed my administrative career as chairman—and I’m happy that it’s over. My job has allowed me to devote myself to composing, and to grow as a composer. At this point I feel the greatest value in my life is to continue to learn. Composing is a life-long study, as is teaching. It’s a great job.
BL: How would you categorize your genre of composition? The orchestral pieces are very melodic, yet you also have vocal works that are more experimental.
GMS: Like many composers of my generation, I have followed a path from experimentalism to lyricism, or to put it another way, from avant-garde to conservative. I have always tried to write the music I wanted to hear, and because of my job, I have had the luxury of completely changing my style several times as my interests developed. When I first came to Brown it was audience-participation theater pieces. Then it was improvised solo keyboard performance. Slowly I gave up electronic music for acoustic instruments. Now I just try to write music that engages the heart and mind, and feels good in the ear. Go to geraldshapiro.com and listen to something. Try the most recent “Change and End” or “Variations” for a start.
BL: When I took your course at Brown in 1978-79 in recording and synthesizers, the synthesizer was a large piece of machinery and we found sounds using patch chords. Now my recording interface gives me hundreds of synth sounds at the click of the mouse. Do you have any thoughts on that progression?
GMS: Although in the popular conception, keyboards with pre-programmed sounds have replaced synthesizers on which sounds are programmed by the player, serious practitioners of computer music still invent their sounds—and have a much more powerful tool in their computers to do so. The technical means for digitally generating and modifying sounds are very advanced, so recently attention has been turned once again to inventing and building the interfaces that allow the performer to interact flexibly and seamlessly with the electronics. These replace the patch cords, knobs and buttons that you remember from your days in the studio with newly invented controllers, often fantastically original and beautiful to look at, that become the personal instruments of composer/performers. The laptop orchestra is the ensemble of choice these days for music of all kinds and genres. As always, it is the musicians, not the instruments, that make the real difference in the quality of the music.
BL: Although I was already a songwriter, musician and avid music fan when I arrived at your class, I’ve always felt that you taught me to “listen.” In addition, a guest lecture by composer Mort Subotnick expanded my idea of what emotions could influence composition. How has your teaching approach evolved through the years?
GMS: Of course, all good music teaching (aside from revelations like Milhaud’s loving what you do rather than suffering through it) is about hearing the music accurately. Learning how to listen is learning how to be a musician. This is true even of the most technical studies. A piano teacher, discussing the intricacies of fingering might say, “Listen to how crossing my thumb under before this note makes the line flow more evenly.” Good musicians listen with their whole body. They perceive sound as something specific, not abstract, palpable to the ear the way skin is palpable to the finger. I try to teach that. Teaching composition, I might say, “See how Bach extends this passage and then extends it again until it’s so poignant you can hardly stand it. How long can you extend a gesture in your own music? You need to feel that length in your belly.” I teach the same courses year after year. I moved away from computer music entirely in the early 1990s and now teach composition, counterpoint and orchestration. To keep them fresh, I do the exercises along with my students. Every year I write inventions and fugues in the style of Bach, Mass movements in the style of Palestrina, orchestrations for wind quintet. I learn something new every time and share it with my students.
BL: Do you have a method of composition? How do you approach a new work? Anything new in the works?
GMS: My own compositions are almost always written for particular musicians with a particular premiere date in place. The approximate length of the piece is established by its place in the concert program. So before I start I have the instrumentation, the length, and a deadline for completion. Composers who don’t have the luxury of a regular flow of commissions will understand just how powerful a part of my compositional process this is. My sense of composition as a life-long study, described earlier in this response, means that I always have technical ideas that I want to explore. Each piece represents the confluence of those purely musical ideas with the personal realities of a life lived. It must be so, and I try to do it consciously. I bring to each piece some part of myself: love for my partner, disgust with the political scene, yearning for transcendence, dreams, nightmares. That link is not necessarily very explicit at the beginning, but by the end of writing a piece, I see how it dominates the expressive landscape. When a student asked how to begin a piece, Paul Hindemith told him to imagine the ensemble on the stage: they pick up their instruments and begin to play, and the music they play is—your piece. It’s very good advice. I often begin by imagining the most delicious sound the musicians I am writing for can make, and compose that. It’s not usually the beginning of the piece, more likely a climax near the end. I set the ideas in place and follow their lead. At the beginning it’s like feeling your way in the dark. At the end, like putting the last few pieces of a big jigsaw puzzle into place—easy as pie.