Ned Rorem, sui generis, turns 80, and there is only so much time for music
This day, the book randomly fell open to page 342. Two-thirds of the way down the page, the following sentences jump forth: “Can a man (or a woman) have a heart attack while masturbating at 73? How many corpses per year are found in this posture?”
As good a place to start as any.
On October 23, prolific author and even more prolific Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Ned Rorem reaches his 80th birthday, his heart still sound, his now snow-white hair crowning inborn movie star good looks.
The next evening, there will be a celebration of that natal day with a concert at Columbia University’s Miller Theater by the New York Festival of Song (NYFOS). Rorem will be on hand to hear and talk about his “Evidence of Things Not Seen,” a 36-part song cycle tied to poems by W.H. Auden, Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, Stephen Crane, Langston Hughes, Paul Goodman, the Brownings, and two dozen others. Lisa Saffer, Christine Antenbring, Rufus Müller, and Philip Cutlip will sing. NYFOS founders Michael Barrett and Steven Blier will be at the pianos.
Earlier this October, music by Rorem set to the New York poets Kenneth Koch, John Ashbery, Frank O’Hara, and James Schuyler was among the works opening the NYFOS fall season at Merkin Hall on West 67th Street.
“Ned knew all of them,” said Blier. “O’Hara was the first modern, non-closeted gay guy.”
Well, almost the first. Ned Rorem was born three years before O’Hara.
“I am five things,” Ned Rorem said as he signed his name on the flyleaf of his book. “A total atheist. A homosexual. A composer. A recovering alcoholic. And—.” He has to break off, search his thought. “Oh yes, a pacifist. And of these five, the most problematic is being a composer.”
Rorem expounded on the creative process.
“We’re the first era in history,” he said, “where music of the past takes precedence over music of the present, and where performers take precedence over composers. A performer these days makes more in one evening than a composer makes in a lifetime, and that goes whether it’s the Three Tenors or people like Sting and Bob Dylan.”
“Yes, Bob Dylan. No charm. No talent. No gift of words. No voice. No harmony. The times, they always were a-changing,” said Rorem dryly. “When you look at the pop music of the past, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Woody Herman, Billie Holiday—today it’s all rather mindless blather. So I don’t know where I fit in, but I do know that harpsichords will always be with us.
“I think there are 10,000 people in the world and sooner or later you meet them all. People who give a damn, intellectuals who know that literature matters—who know the Bible and Philip Roth.”
Rorem segued from there into all of the following:
“I’m going to write an opera, by the way, a great big opera, from Thornton Wilder’s ‘Our Town,’ with libretto by Sandy McClatchy—J.T. McClatchy. I knew Wilder slightly, years ago. Sandy knows a Wilder nephew and has been given the rights. Yes, that’s how this got started. In January, Sandy and I will sit down and talk about who we’ll leave out, should there be a chorus, should the Stage Manager speak or sing, all that.
“I’ve got a big project at hand first: a percussion concerto for Evelyn Glennie, one of the world’s leading percussion players, and she’s from Scotland, and she’s deaf…
“No, I don’t have a high regard for percussion, I’ve said that before, but here I’m only using pitched concussion—seven movements, one each for glockenspiel, xylophone, marimba, and so forth. No drums.
“Oh yes, I’ve written ten operas before this—but only one that’s what you could call a full opera, ‘Miss Julie.’ Lots of little operas. One of them, ‘Anna La Bonne,’ meaning ‘Anna the Maid’—it’s from something by Cocteau—was just done yesterday at Hofstra. A little seven-minute opera.”
Mr. Rorem, what makes a seven-minute opera an opera?
“It’s an opera if I say it is.” He let that rest, for effect, then explicated: “If it tells a story of some sort and goes from Point A to Point Z in prose.”
And then: “If I did an opera of my own, for myself, it would be homosexual. Two leads of the same sex, but personal, not political, and not persecuted by society. If one of the people in the opera was suicidal, it would be out of love rather than because of persecution.”
Catching himself up: “The way things are going now, we’ll all be persecuted by the government. I think Ashcroft’s fascistic. Who knows what kind of turn the world is taking? Either we’re going to blow ourselves up in the next ten years or everything will be so mediocre that it’ll amount to the same thing. The whole world will be divided between people with cell phones…and Bob Dylan.”
“A lot of homosexuals are writing very tough music these days. A lot of women have come along who are writing blustery masculine music. With eyes closed, you can’t tell women’s music from male music. Same as black music from white music. Same thing with gay music. Fifteen years ago there was a lot of talk about gay music, and nobody could define it. Once at a 92nd Street Y symposium some woman said: ‘Shubert was gay because he always wrote in F major.’
“Tells what she knew about music. Freud made the same kind of generalizations. Said that all homosexuals have mother complexes. Which tells what Freud knew about homosexuality.”
Ned Rorem’s parents, back in Richmond, Indiana, were Rufus Rorem—“eminent co–founder of Blue Cross”—and Gladys Miller Rorem.
“My father was very intelligent, but not neurotic. My mother was the emotional one. They both turned Quaker, not religious but pacifist Quakers, after my mother’s brother was killed in the First World War. She died of a broken heart, I think.
“I take after both of them. They were very understanding of my being a composer, and were accepting of my being gay, but it took a little time. When I was 13 they sent me to an analyst. When that didn’t do anything, they said: ‘Well, be that way, but be prepared to be unhappy.’ And I was unhappy, but not from being gay.”
Unhappy from what, then as a young man?
“I still am—not unhappy, but melancholy.”
His was, said Rorem, a very close family “in a Gentile way. We didn’t kiss each other, though we did go around naked in front of one another. There wasn’t anything sexual about it. Are you Jewish? Jews are always attractive to me. My first lover was a Jew.
“I have an older sister whom I adore. Rosemary. She lives in Philadelphia. Her oldest daughter, Mary, who may come in the door even as we talk, has taken care of the practical part of my life, doing the taxes and everything else, since Jim died.”
Jim was James Holmes, choir director and organist at St. Matthew and Saint Timothy Episcopal Church, on West 84th Street. He and Rorem were together for 32 years, right up to Holmes’ death from AIDS—“he didn’t get it from me”—in 1999.
“The sexual part of our relationship lasted two or three years. You know, if Romeo and Juliet had lived to a ripe old age, they would have ended up as a bourgeois, quarreling couple. Same for Tristan and Isolde. With Jim and I, it was more than love and more than friendship.
“In my life I’ve been married, let’s say, ten times, but divorced never.” Tossed off as an aside, half under his breath: “Not to mention about 10,000 encounters.” Full voice: “Since Jim died, I’ve had two encounters, one of which is going on right now, but the person is not in New York. I think most people think about sex all their lives, whether they admit it or not, don’t you? The women I know don’t talk about it, but it rules the body.” (See page 342 of “Lies: A Diary.”)
“I’ve known Ned since the 80s,” said Stephen Blier. “We did his 70th and 80th birthdays, Michael and I.”
In Blier’s thinking, when he and Michael Barrett started NYFOS in 1985 it was to avoid the “boredom of soloists trying to prove they’re as good as their predecessors in singing songs everybody already knows” and instead “to use song to open up a subject, open up culture.”
Ned Rorem has been doing that for 60 years. Happy birthday, young heart.