Andrew Imbrie interview transcript
Andrew Imbrie: Well, I heard about it from Young-Nam Kim. I met him at Sand Point, Idaho, where Guntus Schiller had his summer program, and I taught there four different summers, and I taught composition and Gunther was teaching conducting there. And Young-Nam Kim was teaching violin, and so we got to know each other, and that's how I heard about this. And he asked me to recommend some young Asian-American composers who might be interested, and so I recommended Hi Kyung Kim, and I recommended Chen Yi. Hi Kyung had been a student of mine, but Chen Yi was not a student of mine but I admired her work. And so then he also asked me to write a piece, too, so that's how it came about.
Dan Olson: By the way, they were in earlier and gave us interviews, and they were wonderful.
AI: Yes, they are very, very fine. And Hi Kyung is not only a very good composer, she's very energetic, and she organized a whole series of concerts to celebrate my 80th birthday recently, and it was incredible.
DO: A prize student to be sure. Why did you want to participate in this?
AI: Well I think it was a very worthy cause, and I was fascinated by the idea, and of course, the whole question was what kind of music would you write to celebrate an occasion of that sortand how would you go about it, and what would be the relation between the music and the subject matter that was involved. Of course a piece of music is not abstract. It's the thingsomething's really happening in a piece of music. It's not about something. And so the question is, you write something appropriate for the occasion, and then you have to give it a title so people know what it is that it's appropriate to. Otherwise, it's just another piece of music.
DO: What do you think about this term of art that is used: the power of music to heal. What do you make of that?
AI: That's an interesting idea and I'm sure that's true. I think music gets to you directly rather than through metaphor. It's not a metaphor, it's something that's actually happening, and I think it can reach you directly whatever your background may be, whatever your associations happen to be. The music doesn't bother you with that, it just gets to you directly, and I think that's how it can heal. Because you know that it's not trying to sell you something. Now there are kinds of music which are trying ... in which you are being sold something, and that kind of music doesn't interest me much.
DO: Since we're all ignorant herethis is a world premiersay a word about your piece. Where did the idea come from?
AI: Well, what do you mean "Where did the idea come from?" You mean the-
AI: In thinking of the occasion, I decided what sort of a piece it would be and what would I call it, and I decided if you're trying to heal a situation like this, you have to think in terms of the time that the horror occurred, and then you think about today and what is our relation to that horror today and tomorrowideally, how would it work to be healed, as it were. So I calledI have the three movementsI call them Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow. And the piece itself is in three movements, and in a musical sense, they have to balance one another.
So in the Yesterday movement, you have all the tension that would be associated with a horrible event. And in the second movement, you try to have business as usual, so you have a kind of a jaunty schedule ... like beginning and then all of a sudden you realize that there is some horror in the background, and there I bring in a certain Japanese scale that is typical of Japanese Kyoto ... music a kind of pentatonic scale that's different from the Chinese pentatonic scale. And I bring that in as a reminder, and then you try to go back to business as usual with only limited success as it were ... and then in the last movement, I try to make it more lyrical and I try to give the effect of resolution. But in any piece you write, you try and end up with some sort of resolution. So it's just another piece of music really.
DO: Obviously with your students, you knew about the massacre, the atrocities, probably for a good share of your life.
AI: I had heard about them when I was a teenager. I had heard about them and of course it was a horrifying thought, and I didn't understand it very well . And I sort of figured, well, WWII is overwhat is this all about? We don't need this. But as a child, I didn't appreciate the amount of horror that was involved.
DO: What about the rest of us Caucasian Americans? Your friends, neighbors, familywhat's been the reaction when they've heard about what you've written for this commemorative event?
AI: Well, they haven't heard it, and so I think they're fascinated with this whole idea, this project. I think it interests people a lot. And I keep hearing people know about it all over the place, and they're interested, and that's all I can say, because of course they haven't heard the music yet.
DO: One of the reactions I suppose among people from China and Korea and Japan is the fear of the fear, the risk of this commemorative event opening old wounds, and I don't know what to make of that. I mean, what is there to say about that? Is it a risk? Is there a big risk?
AI: It's hard for me to say, too. I think one has to face the past and come to terms with it. That's all I can say. I don't feel competent to speak for those people who are more personally involved than I amand I studied Japanese during WWII.
I was trained as a Japanese translator, but I was stationed in Arlington, Virginia, the entire time. I was never on the battlefield, and later on I was so curious about Japan that I applied for a Guggenheim when I was on sabbatical, and I spent eight or nine months in Tokyo, the vicinity, and was fascinated by the culture. I was trying to understand a little more myself about where these people were coming fromand they are very wonderful peoplebut I think they themselves must also face the ... come to terms with the past as well as the Chinese people that they massacred at that time. I think they themselves have to come to terms, and that's why I believe that this project is a very necessary one.
DO: Would you say a little more about that? Why you think a commemorative event is important? What's the value of bringing this up again?
AI: I think that the people have to acknowledge things. I think that they will feel better. I think that will heal everybody if everybody acknowledges these things. I don't know to what extent. For example, the Germans have come to terms with Hitler these days, but you get the impression ... I haven't been in Germany long enough to understand, really, but I understandI've been given to understand one way or anothercome to terms with this and are trying to show that they are democratic and that they are human, because in Hitler's time, you wondered whether these people were really human. I think now they are succeeding in convincing us that they are. And I think that's very necessary. Now I think the Japanese have convinced us of this, too, but they have to convince themselves as well as us.
DO: Is there any forward-looking quality to this kind of event, a commemorative event? You have a wonderful span of life.
AI: Well, I'm still here anyway ....
DO: Is there a forward-looking quality to this in any way, shape, or form? I suppose to put it in a specific question, it would probably be something like: What assurance is there in your personal view of history that this could never happen again?
AI: I don't think there's any assurance, but I think there is some hope. I think in this country, for example, that we areif you take the African American community, for examplein this country, they were treated as second-class citizens for so long, and it's only in the last few decades that one begins to realize that they are now being accepted as one of us. And they are now treated as equals much more than they were before, and to me that's a very hopeful sign that other communities will interact with one another in a more humane way than they used to. I can only hope that this will spread to other cultures, but you just don't know. Nobody knows.
DO: As a composer, I appreciate you putting up with these kind of stock interviewer questions that I guess we feel obliged to ask youand you're a great sport. You're a wonderful sport. Do you have a feeling ... do you have a notion about what you would like concert goers, listeners, to take away from your piece?
AI: Well, I hope that it will communicate directly to them and that they will feel that they have had an experience of being ... of understanding something that has happened. I think thatwhat was I going to say?we all want a piece of music to communicate, and I always say to people that I make a deal with my listener, as it were, that he has to give me his undivided attention and that I have to make myself as clear as possible. And that doesn't mean talking down to him. I can say something fairly complicated, and I have to give him the courtesy of believing that it isn't too complicated for him or her. And on the other hand, they have to do me the courtesy of listening and not thinking about something else or daydreaming while my piece is going on. I don't know whether that answers your question.