Interview: Robert Carl
Composer Robert Carl discusses history and race in the Classical music world.
An Interview with Robert Carl ‘72
(by Malcolm Ryder, for WAM)
Wildcat Alumni include decades of graduates together all experiencing 2020’s perfect storm of the COVID pandemic, Black Lives Matter, and maximal polarization in politics. The reach and range of disruption respected no boundaries of age or place, as every generation in every country was critically dependent on social or business systems that were being shut down or shut out.
In particular, for those anywhere near 21 years old, how is one now supposed to know how to go forward in the absence of any customary assurances about entry into careers, normal social relationship-building, and essentially, self-realization and acceptance with society?
I had the great opportunity to talk with composer and educator Robert Carl during October, and led off with one of my favorite responses to young people’s dilemma. It is said that “the best way to predict the future is to make it.” With so many students having spent years preparing for jobs and other opportunities suddenly moved beyond normal reach, what should this call for “creativity” mean for them?
WAM: Robert, your background notably and easily spans history and art. That’s two powerful perspectives on how people individually “make” an impact. How do they compare?
RC: I think my classmates would’ve been very surprised to see me emerge at the other side of my “educational tunnel“ as a composer! In fact, I was surprised as well, since all the way through college I was a history major (in particular American history, 19th century). And I suppose I may have partly moved towards classical music because it is one practice that has the strongest connection to a tradition stretching over centuries. It’s really nerdy, but composers often keep “family trees“ of connection through series of teachers, and I have a pretty good case to trace mine back to Robert Schumann.
But to get back to your question. History tends to take a long view of human behavior, and I think that at its best it tries to explain great tendencies and developments through the course of civilizations. Music also creates an architecture in time (especially longer instrumental music). So in each case I think the historian and the composer, albeit differently, are trying to create an analogy in their work to the flow of human thought, feeling, and accomplishment.
WAM: We shared with each other a fascinating and challenging article about a historically enduring institution – classical music -- coming under heavy challenge.* BLM has raised anti-racism to a cultural imperative. It doesn’t assume that all of its supporters are alike, but that the fight for personal opportunity calls for a mix of individuals, allies, and entire schools of thought.
RC: Well, folks really should read that article* by Alex Ross, because it sums up the situation with beautiful clarity and even handedness. To cut to the chase: classical music certainly has a lot to answer for. It is the product of centuries of European culture, that was predominately white. And while it can certainly be accused of racism, it came out of a pretty homogeneous experience, where difference was described by nationality rather than race. Its lack of diversity I think comes from as much ignorance and lack of exposure to the Other.
But once we get to the US, there is a lot more to answer for. Black musicians were consistently excluded from educational, performance, and compositional opportunities from the outset. The one upside to the story is that black musicians responded by taking things into their own hand and developing a practice that’s known as jazz!
For many in the world, this is America‘s true “classical music“(and as such, it gives the last laugh to those pioneers against the odds). I still dearly love the basic repertoire of my field, but I also know that America would be an infinitely poorer country culturally if we had not had the constant input and infusion of black music, on all levels and forms. What I tell students of mine is that in my view there are two great founding American composers; Charles lives and Duke Ellington. They embody two parallel and progressive paths. The best news of all, is that things are starting to come to a point of encounter and even synthesis between these two traditions. More and more we have “classical“ composers who are deeply involved in improvisation, and “jazz“ composers who are just as fluent in their use of the notated score. The results that are coming out right now I think are fabulous.
WAM: Obviously, you work to have things presented to audiences, to stimulate them, to move them, to “build” them. Performance and exposition is a fundamental aspect of your own creativity as a composer. Now, with the pandemic moving all the goal posts, you’ve had to get even more “creative” to maintain those influences… You are still having work “premiered”…
RC: Well yes, I’ve already had one piece for string quartet that was written, rehearsed, and videotaped with the four players in different remote locations, and premiered, all on the Internet. But I’m just one of a huge number of musicians who are adapting to the circumstances and figuring out how to create something meaningful in response to the pandemic, using technology in a creative and idiomatic way. I think all of us remain hopeful that there can be a return to some of the practice we have known for all our lives; for one thing the active live performance, that direct communication with an audience, it’s just too precious to toss away. It’s also true that when we come out of this, our experience will have been so altered by the circumstances, the things will never be entirely the same.
WAM: Another quote that is a favorite of mine talks about “the power of our example”… So many of us are teachers, parents, or for that matter prominent in our work. We’ve established the recent history and the current patterns that prevail. How can people – whether young by age or for those starting over – look at our example and take it forward?
RC: Something you said recently resonates strongly here. You said, ““In our responsibilities to young people, we need to help them find a balance, and a synergy, in combining their own individual development with the development of a shared foundation for their emerging culture, not for a recreation of our past.”
I believe that part of that is finding a way to not just understand and accept the past, but to actually reimagine it. By that I do NOT mean to falsify it. Rather, it is to look carefully, often “between the cracks” of the accepted narrative, and find ways to reframe it, to inflect it in a different direction. This doesn’t deny what is both good and bad and what has happened in the past. But it does begin to give a new foundation from which a different structure can be built.
In music I’m always looking for new and stimulating hybrids: styles, traditions, performance practices, sounds… all from different times and places, finding a way to blend them in a new synthesis. This can certainly be scary for some, especially in a field like “classical music” which is so deeply grounded in tradition. But one favorite saying I have for myself as a composer is that I want to have “a robust argument with tradition”...
WAM: We spent some time thinking together about creativity as a realization of identity… For me, the most interesting idea included in that was “improvisation”. In my work as a business consultant and also in the art world, the ideas of “innovation” and “new normals” are constantly in the foreground. I especially liked how you describe improvisation.
RC: Yes, we are often inclined to think of individuals as having a genius for improvisation, especially in jazz. But it is increasingly important in classical as well. Improvisation is a mode that allows multiple separate contributors to build up a completed work by having the freedom to use their individual inventiveness in responding to each other.
This, however, literally occurs on the basis of a shared idea or pattern of actions, one that remains in place and respected throughout the many events of individual contribution. We can see this fairly easily in the "ensemble" format of performing. But I think of it more broadly, as a kind of "democracy". And it is changing classical music.
* September 2020 New Yorker Magazine article entitled Black Scholars Confront White Supremacy In Classical Music
Malcolm Ryder (West ‘72) Contributor