Originally published April 2007.
Composers are good interviews. They tend to be smart and they seem to enjoy talking, especially about their own music. They spend a lot of time alone working at their craft, so maybe they welcome the opportunity for human contact more than others. That time alone also seems to turn them into philosophers of a sort — they can speak deeply about music, better than most.
I phoned a composer the other day. We talked about his new piece (which was to be performed soon) and had a good, friendly, stimulating chat. He was a nice guy, I liked him, and I think he felt the same about me. Of course, he probably knew that I would also be reviewing his new work, so he had a motivation for being friendly. Not that I took that cynical view.
In a perfect world, I wouldn’t be interviewing anyone that I was about to review. At least that’s the way I used to think. A critic should be dispassionate and objective when reviewing, I think, neither rooting nor seeking to tear down, and if you know the person you are reviewing, even a little, that can be difficult. My talk with this composer made me more sympathetic to him than was perhaps ideal.
On the other hand, with that sympathy came an understanding of his music that I might not otherwise have. I understood better where his music was coming from, what it was trying to accomplish. The person behind the music was real to me. Talking to this composer was, in its way, as valuable as looking at his score.
At the Register, and at most other newspapers these days, music critics end up doing double and triple duty, as reporters and interviewers and as critics. The hats aren’t easily switched. A purity of purpose is compromised. But there isn’t a soul [at the newspaper] who could step in to interview anyone on my beat, so the task falls to me. I have loathed it at times, welcomed it at others. I’m still on the fence about it.
The concert arrived in which the composer’s piece would have its premiere. It was a good piece, in a modest, eloquent way. It did not set the world on fire, but then that didn’t appear to be the composer’s intention. His music aimed to please and it did. I liked it.
At intermission, I found myself a few feet away from the composer (who didn’t recognize me, of course). By that time I had heard his piece, knew pretty much what I thought and would write about it, and decided it would do no harm — indeed, would be the polite thing to do — to say hello and shake his hand. I did so. Rather than shake my hand, however, he grabbed me in a big bear hug. He was delighted to meet me and thanked me for the interview. He introduced me to his wife and to another woman, who I think was his agent, but who at any rate told me that she really enjoyed my writing. Call it buttering up if you want, certainly call it flattery.
I still wrote what I had to write about his piece. I also, no doubt, will be granted another interview when his next piece is to be premiered, and the composer and I will have a good talk about it. It will be a bigger piece, written for important people, so the interview will be no small thing. Then, once again, I’ll review his new piece with as much objectivity as I can muster.
Note 2012: The composer referred to in this piece is Daniel Catán (1949-2011). The “next piece” mentioned was his opera “Il Postino” and we did indeed have another chat about it.