One of the most famous male voices in contemporary music in the United States, Thomas Buckner is a baritone, composer, and producer who has performed and recorded widely throughout his long career. Buckner’s Interpretations series, “a New York-based concert series focusing on the relationship between contemporary composers and their interpreters;” Interpretations is now in its 30th season (which will feature a performance by Buckner himself on April 4). As Buckner prepares to mark this achievement, we’ve readied these five questions for him.
You’re strongly associated with “downtown” music; however, I was surprised to learn that the Interpretations series began at Merkin Concert Hall. How has the relationship between “uptown” and “downtown” musical activity changed since the founding of Interpretations?
When I started the Interpretations Series, the distinction was very clear. Most of the experimentation and innovation seemed to be in the “downtown” community, and most of the funding was for “uptown,” or academic music. I wanted to provide adequate fees to downtown and minority composers and performers, so they could afford more rehearsals, and to present them in the best sounding hall I could afford. But I never neglected uptown music, either in my presentation of the series or in my own singing. There has always been music in both camps that engaged my attention, as well as from the composers of the so-called free jazz community. I wanted to present all these kinds of music on an equal footing. So Merkin Hall was a conscious choice in the beginning. Now, some of the downtown, underfunded musicians previously ignored by the academy are taught there, and even teach there. There is also greater activity outside New York and a proliferation of New Music ensembles that have found innovative methods of funding their work. The uptown/downtown distinction looks more and more irrelevant.
The subject matter of the Interpretations series is the performer-composer relationship. Having pursued many such relationships over the course of your life in music, what are the hallmarks of a successful one?
Mutual respect, a common interest in developing something new, and very hard work. Working on a piece written with one’s abilities and interests in mind is challenging and fulfilling. It is great to work with a new composer or improviser, but long term relationships–such as mine with Roscoe Mitchell (40 years and counting), the late Robert Ashley (35 years), and Annea Lockwood (30 years and counting), as well as 35 years of singing with pianist Joseph Kubera–are particularly fruitful.
It is very important to allow plenty of time for ideas to develop, and to be open to criticism, either from the composer, the interpreter, or fellow improviser, and to be willing to struggle to achieve what the composer has in mind, and at the same time for the composer to be flexible.
When asked why I have chosen to work almost exclusively with living composers, I have said that I am engaged in early music performance practice: I perform the music of my own time, just as they did then. Making music together is our oldest tradition and our most present activity.
Improvising vocalists make themselves uniquely vulnerable—they don’t stand behind instruments or written parts, and the sonic proximity of what they do to what we all do every day when we speak (or even breathe!) can make their vocalisms feel even more alienated from the realm of comfortable musical activity. Have you ever felt that your improvising inhabits this “uncanny valley?” (If so, do you still?)
When I began to do free vocal improvisation in the mid-60s, some people were uncomfortable with what I was doing, but I have found that the fundamentals of music and a secure vocal technique can provide the necessary authority to make a vocal improvisation transcend that discomfort and communicate one’s original musical impulse. I also kind of like the “uncanny valley,” and find a certain amount of discomfort to be not a bad thing. I think an improvising singer can bring a greater emotional and expressive range precisely because she or he does not stand behind instruments. It reminds me of the great photograph of Yves Klein, “Leap into the Void,” or what Bob Ashley called “wild abandon.”
You’ve accomplished so much and show no sign of slowing. What projects would you like to undertake but haven’t yet?
I am re-establishing the trio SPACE, which I had with Roscoe Mitchell and Gerald Oshita in the eighties, with the wonderful multi instrumentalist Scott Robinson, and will perform and record with this group. I have recording projects with “Blue” Gene Tyranny and Bun-Ching Lam, and a revival of a piece by Henry Threadgill called Poems for Voice, which we will perform at Ostrava Days in August. But I am open to anything, and expect to be surprised–as I always have been–by new opportunities.
What do you hope will change and what do you hope will stay the same for contemporary music in the United States?
I hope the spirit of innovation and experimentation that first attracted me to make a life in contemporary music continues, but that we can have better support for new work unencumbered by funder control and equitably distributed. This is no easy task, but I like to aim high.