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The KPAC Blog features classical music news, reviews, and analysis from South Texas and around the world.

Michael Torke's New Music To 'Nourish The Soul' Is Inspired By Existential Thinkers And EDM

Composer, Michael Torke
Bryan Hainer
Composer, Michael Torke

Since the 1980s, Michael Torke has been joyfully upending expectations in the classical music world. His compositions occasionally use non-traditional instrumentation, or refuse to develop in a traditional manner; some in the press have called his pieces “post-minimalist.” Torke famously began his career with a series of pieces inspired by colors and the sounds he felt they represented.

His latest release is called “Being,” and it’s a little bit about how to live a life in this crazy year, 2020.

“I’m always interested in music that tries to lift the spirit or that tries to heal, or that tries to nourish the soul,” Torke explains by phone from his home in Las Vegas. “We’re all suffering in so many different kinds of ways. And so to me, the healing power of music becomes even more important.”

The liner notes inside the CD are simple: “BEING is a continuous 43 minute composition, in 9 parts, whose tempo is a consistent 126 beats per minute.”

The lengthy piece was inspired by Torke’s interest in progressive house, a subset of electronic dance music.

“I thought it just sounded great,” Torke says of the style. “And I knew nothing about how this music worked. I studied it, tried to absorb it, and then tried to write my own music to it.”

Much like the violin concerto “Sky” that came out last year, and incorporates elements of bluegrass, Torke says “Being” works as a self-admitted “misinterpretation” of progressive house.

The music bops along, ping-ponging back and forth across the stereo field, a conscious choice, Torke says, that he and producer Silas Brown made to get closer to a “360 degree” sound field. It sounds great coming out of the car speakers. I explained to Torke that listening to “Being” makes your day better.

“Well, to the extent that that’s possible, I’m delighted!”

Read or click the audio button below for a longer version of my interview with Michael Torke, which delves further into the development of “Being,” as well as Torke’s thoughts on his earlier work, classical music audiences, and one of his favorite hobbies, of which he explains: “Music is very mathematical. It’s about numbers and it’s about emotion. There’s one other thing that’s about numbers and math and about emotion… that’s poker.”

Full-length interview with composer Michael Torke, conducted by Nathan Cone.

Nathan Cone: Michael Torke, thank you so much for taking some time today to talk to me, I truly appreciate it. And I've been an admirer of your music for quite some time now. So this is a real treat for me.

Michael Torke: Thank you and I'm delighted to be here.

Well, let's talk about "Being," which is the latest release on your own label, on Ecstatic Records. And as I pop this into my CD player, I was listening to it and it seems to feature some sounds that even hearken back to some of your earliest pieces from the 1980s, including instruments that carry melodies for short phrases before passing them off to one another... and there's that steady pulse that's in there, like in 'The Yellow Pages' or 'Adjustable Wrench.' Where did 'Being' arise from in terms of your relationship to your other work?

Well, that's funny you should say that, because I came to that conclusion when some friends of mine listened to it and said, "Oh, this sounds like your 80s music!" Here all along, I thought I was coming on something really new, and just opening this door.... instead of taking that is like a negative like, oh, we just are fated to repeat ourselves, I actually thought, "Oh, well, that actually is is a good thing." That's a virtue. It shows maybe a kind of a consistency over a span of one's career... to the extent that we do kind of like to solve the same problems. And certainly the way that the melodies work in 'Being' is different from 'The Yellow Pages' and 'Adjustable Wrench,' but it reminded listeners of those pieces and that was surprising.

To me, the departure was following something I did with the recording that came right before it which was called 'Sky.' It's a violin concerto. As we get older, we're creatures of habit. And I really want to fight against that, I always want to be fresh--if it's at all possible, while I still have a brain to think clearly. And so what I did was to find a style of music that I knew nothing about. In that case, it was bluegrass. Study it, learn how to write in it. And then and with Tessa Lark--the soloist--her guidance, because she comes from Kentucky and knows the form, I kind of learned a new language and then wrote my own kind of music in that language.

I'm always interested in music that tries to lift the spirit or that tries to heal, or that tries to nourish the soul.
Michael Torke

So when it came time to 'Being,' I had discovered something online. A lot of kids are listening to these long two-hour mixes of what they call 'progressive house.' It's a branch of EDM, and I thought it just sounded great, and was a way to sustain a musical interest over a long period of time, over one tempo. And I knew nothing about how this music worked. And again, I studied it, tried to absorb it, and then tried to write my own music to it. And in that sense, I may have succeeded. What I mean by [that] is writing my own music, because whenever I mention anything about EDM or House, everyone rolls their eyes, especially people in the industry, [saying] "You know nothing about this form!" And that isn't the point. In fact, it's the misunderstanding of a style. I don't think that I totally understood and will never totally understand bluegrass, but to the extent it got the imagination going, I thought it was really useful. And I've kind of learned to shut up. I had made a promise to myself that I would not talk about Progressive House with you today and here the first question, I'm talking about it!

Do you have any young folks around you that could that offer you that feedback? That'll school you in it?

You mean, do I have young friends who tell me what's wrong? I mean, why it isn't faithful? They all do! Haha!! It doesn't matter the age. And it's true, because it's a kind of a misinterpretation. When I go back and listen to some of that progressive house, one of the things that they do so well is they'll do a long stretch just on one chord, and it's a real simplification of music. And leave it to me to start going to a second chord, or to a third chord. All that counterpoint that I do in the woodwinds, you just don't find that anywhere. And so it was a departure point. So then imagine going all the way back to the first part of your question, that people say, "Oh, well, it doesn't sound like this style that you're talking about. It sounds like your music from the 80s!" Well, that was the last thing I was thinking about. So it's, again, that fallacy of intention that artistic people don't actually have any idea what they're really doing.

As I was listening to it, I was thinking about the title... and the style, and the way things are passed off in the music. It reminds me almost of neurons firing in a brain throughout the day. And so it feels like there's all this pulsing brain activity going on throughout the piece. And that, to me, felt like the title of it, of like "being." What were you thinking?

I like that... I was thinking along some other lines. You can talk about art in many ways, but you can divide it up into two major categories. You've probably heard of this: Does art instruct? That's what Plato would say. Or does art delight? That's what Aristotle would say. And then you have someone named Horace who says it can do both! But anyway, let's stick with Plato and Aristotle.

I'm always interested in music that tries to lift the spirit or that tries to heal or that tries to nourish the soul. So to me, music is more like religion. But the art that instructs... that's more like political art, or confessional art, that has a strong point of view that makes you want to change, that's polemical... And I'm kind of on the other side of all of that. So we are living right now in times where political art is very important and needs to be saying very important messages. I don't know how I can contribute to that. I just don't think of art that way. Then along comes COVID, and we're all suffering in so many different kinds of ways. And so to me, the healing power of music becomes even more important, I think.

So my idea was, you know, how do you live a life? How do you be? And when you think that... Well, there were great thinkers in the 20th century, that's where existentialism came from. In a certain way, it kind of taught us to be responsible for our own actions as a way of feeling the real necessity and joy of life, which is in a way, what religion did for us for so many centuries. And the two most important existential books or seminal books you could say is Heidegger's "Being and Time," and Sartre's "Being and Nothingness." Well, what are those titles have in common? That's kind of where "Being," the title, came from. But, you know, all of that is very academic... and it's also posturing and it's “intellectual!” If you noticed when you opened up the CD, there was no sleeve note. I'm used to writing long treatises. And I just thought the less said the better. I just said to everyone, "It's a continuous piece that has the same tempo." And that was my program note. So it may not be necessary for anyone to know that, but that's what I was thinking.

In that way, it reflects the title and the feeling as well, because it "is," period. You know?

Haha, yeah.

Well, the album is also really mixed in a unique way. I'm curious about this. You have two dozen performers and there's a lot of popping back and forth in the stereo field. So this is kind of a gearhead question, but was that a conscious choice to explore the capabilities of the recording field and the stereo mix?

Yeah, that became important. And my collaborator, Silas Brown, the producer, he and I have made recordings together. We made "Sky," we made "Three Manhattan Bridges," we did so many things together and we love to talk about the possibilities of recording. He is already working in 360 degree sound, and just wishes that everyone had the equipment to play that so that you can really get that kind of spatial sense of tableau with music. Another way to think of it is as a composer, when I work with orchestras, and we're rehearsing and I jump up on the stage, sometimes I'll even go to the conductor's podium. And then he'll play something. And … the best seat in any house is where the conductor is standing. Because you're enveloped by the music. It's coming hard right, hard left, from the back, right in front of your face. It is so 3-D! And the further out that you sit in a concert hall, the more it's kind of mixed together just in a kind of a simple stereo image, you could say. And I always love going to rehearsals because I can sit as close to the conductor as he will allow. And I get, I think, the best sound. I always enjoy the rehearsals more than the performance because the sound is better, being so close. And isn't that kind of weird that the best seat in the house is where the conductor is? It should be kind of be [that] he does his job in the worst seat so all the patrons can have the best seats!

So what we were trying to do is create as large of a tableau with the theory that because the music is interweaving and intricate, that the more you can separate things, the more the brain can kind of sense what's going on. And, you know, I hope that we were able to do some of that. It makes for what I would say a more pleasurable listening experience, if that's working.

Yeah, it sounds great, especially in car speakers.

It's good driving music.

It is! I mean, it works as I'm going about town. It really works for that. Music, like you said, can serve so many purposes. And in this case, yeah, it makes your day better as you're moving along, I think.

Well, to the extent that that's possible, I'm delighted.

Well, some of your earlier pieces, just to go back a little bit, are names for colors. And I'm wondering how you associate-- because you've spoken about this synesthesia that you experience--how you associate certain keys and pieces with colors? How does that come to you?

Oh, well, that I think you're just born with it. Like, some musicians have perfect pitch. You've heard of that. And I think you might be able to develop it. But I had that. I started music when I was really young. And I always thought, well, since I could tell what key or what pitch we were talking about, I would associate colors with it. And whether it's a hyper association or what scientists say, it might be a primitive part of the brain where you mix up the senses involuntarily.... whatever the factor is, that was the experience that I would have. And then so later, when I was just out of college, I thought it would be interesting to write pieces that... because my professor said, "You have to modulate music!!" And I said, "Why?" You know, who made these rules? If you're at a really good party on a Saturday night, the number one thing to do is not leave the party and modulate away, you want to stay at the party! So why wouldn't you want to stay in a key? That was my thought. So then I thought, well, if I want to write these pieces that stay in a key, then I could kind of like alert the fact that they're reminding me of a color. So I was trying to say something about the form more than I was about synesthesia. But there it is. And people tend to talk about the synesthesia more than the form. But that's okay.

In the early 2000s though, I thought it was cool that a lot of your compositions, you know, started becoming named for and inspired by places like Tahiti and Fiji and Mojave. And then in this past decade we referenced the "Three Manhattan Bridges" and you got "Miami Grands" and the direction concertos. I'm curious, have you experienced firsthand every place that you've written about or is some of it an imagined impression?

For the most part, yeah, I've been there. I mean, and it's always filled with contradictions because I was... I somehow got the crazy idea that I would go with these two friends on this cruise ship--I really don't like cruises, but somehow I was talked into it--that went from Fiji to Tahiti. It was two and a half weeks, and there was a storm that was directly above us completely every day of the two and a half weeks! We never saw the sun. Everyone was getting seasick. We couldn't make stops like at some of the other islands that we were supposed to. And so I think the very last day the sun came out, and we were at Bora Bora or something like that, and we were able to get off the boat and actually take a swim. It was just horrible. And then on the plane home, we went through the worst turbulence I've ever been in my life. And it wasn't so much the feeling. It was the stench of everyone getting sick! And so it was the worst trip of my life. And then I thought, well, what would those places have been like had the weather been great, like it always is. And that kind of inspired me to write those pieces, which sound very upbeat and happy.

You you've written this kind of goes back to something we talked about earlier, too, that as a mantra in your writing is same, but different. Could you expand on that and your approach to theme and variations or maybe theme and wild or grander variation version of a theme?

Well, I think about it slightly differently, I think that if music has any power to express anything, there has to be something consistent that's going on. It can't be arbitrary. It has to be unified by some kind of focus or consistency. Once you have consistency, then you look for variety within that consistency, because, again, if anything becomes arbitrary, you just say, "OK, I'm going along this way now, I'm going to turn that way!" It's a surprise, whatever. But I think that it's more powerful to do things that are different, that relate to what you started with. And so the challenge of finding variety that still contains consistency to me, I believe, is a powerful way to build things artistically. I guess you could call that that's kind of a basic theme and variations way of looking at things or way of looking at development.

But I never have written theme and variations as a form. It's just the constant variation that really relates that you can point to it, that you can hear it. "Oh, yeah, I see how that that sounds really different." I mean, even in the first movement of "Being," it's going along and you hear this melody, [then] suddenly you hear this new melody. And it's like, "Oh, that's ‘A’… that's the ‘B’ idea!" But then when the first melody comes and works with it and then you realize, no, that's actually the same idea. But I just took certain notes and replaced notes with rests so that it was almost like a camouflage. That was a new idea, but it was actually the same idea to me that has more power than just coming up with some arbitrary new idea.

You have some good tension and release in the music that I really enjoy, too. I mean, especially with chord changes. One of my favorite moments in the “Three Manhattan Bridges” is like 30 seconds into the piece. There's a great chord change in there that just, you know, kind of knocks me back a little bit and says, “Oh, I'm in for something really nice here,” or in “Change of Address,” there's a great chord. There's some great chord changes in “Straw Hat,” of course, lots of great chord changes. So you really do a great job with that. That tension and release in chords of building that in your music.

Well, thank you. Yeah. I mean, I do think harmonically a lot, and I do try to think in terms of tension and release, but I don't think about it directly. I guess it's more of the idea that music should always have a direction…. and you might say “That's a contradiction! You just wanted to write a forty-five minute piece that stayed in one tempo!” But to me, within that there's all the music. Music is always moving forward or coming back. And the minute when it's not kind of moving, when you take away the direction, then I think you take away the interest. So I'm always thinking about direction, which is related to how the chords are changing. But I don't think about the chords directly, you know, like, "Oh, I need to change the chord here," and let's see what happens. That just kind of comes about by thinking about the first thing.

Yeah. And it just feels like maybe not a change of direction sometimes, but it's like you're turning the page into the next part of the story. You know, it really feels that way to me as I'm listening. It's not really a hard right or anything. It's just the next logical thing. And it feels right when it when you come to it.

Oh, well, good! And another term for that is modulation. So I think it's really funny that as a person in my 20s, I wanted to write music that did not modulate, and stayed in one key. And now I think that modulation is the most important tool we have, haha! I love how one is always working to contradict oneself in the arts.

A quick note about your web site. At MichaelTorke.com, I like how when you click on your Compositions tab to browse what you've written, you can sort by instrumentation, and date. But also something I found intriguing, that I think shows a little self-deprecating humor, is that you can you can check out what are your top earners, the most popular works, but also what you call the laggards, the ones that found less of an audience.

Yeah! Well, and then I also included eight of my worst reviews because I said that if you're going to believe the good ones, then you have to believe the bad ones, too! I forgot I did the laggards thing. I'm a little bit OCD, both in terms of work, and with numbers. And so I always think that music is so subjective and it's so hard to develop a consensus over what we value, you know? It takes so long. So what is the measuring stick of how we value things? Well, one is like--and it's not necessarily the best--which pieces earn the most money? I don't even know what that communicates! And what's weird is that you find that the pieces that earn the most earn way, way, way, way, way more than the pieces that earn less, which--like some pieces, earn pennies. So then you think, I worked just as hard on all the pieces! So why do some catch on and some don't? That’s the great mystery. They talk about that in Hollywood. If you knew how to make a hit movie, it would be a science. No one knows! And I find that fascinating. And so one measuring stick just for fun is to see what the pieces are that are earning, and try to come up with why. I haven't come up with any good answers.

Well, how do composers like you get their pieces programmed nowadays? I mean, do you have an agent that's hustling for you or... how does it work?

Yeah, promotion is tricky in classical music, especially. People can spend a fortune to hire someone else to say, "Look at this! You must play this!" It never works. I mean, it rarely works. You can hire people to introduce you. Or even then, it's really hard. You just have to kind of do your work and send it out there. Music should speak to the audiences, of course. But when music speaks to the musicians, then they just want to do it again. "Oh, I want to play that piece again." They don't say, "Oh, I should play that piece because it's really important," or "It's really trendy." That only lasts a couple years. Why do we play Mozart? Because it makes us feel so good and it also brings up the best of our musicianship. And so to the extent that the music will reach the performers, they are the ones that ultimately over time kind of sell your music because they want to play it. They want to perform it, and the audiences don't have much of a vote. You know, you write a piece and there's a standing ovation. Do the administrators say, "Oh, we should put that on next season because they stood up?" No. They're already planned three seasons ahead and they don't care about any of that stuff anyway. It's all about other... it's not like Broadway where it's really what is the demand, you know, and if this show doesn't have demand, we close it. Classical music doesn't work that way. So over time, I think it's when the musicians relate to what you've written, then the piece might have a chance of having a life.

Is each new piece a roll of the dice? Michael Torke takes a gamble.
Bryan Hainer
Is each new piece a roll of the dice? Michael Torke takes a gamble.

Speaking of audiences, I think on one of your blog entries on your website you write about the age of the Classical audience, and that it's basically, if I'm summarizing this correctly, that it's okay that people age into classical music. That's basically fine. But is there any role at all right now for the importance for musicians in orchestras to still reach out for young and diverse audiences, if only to see that future?

Oh, yeah. Music education is so important. And we, I think for decades took it for granted because it was in the school systems and you had really charismatic people like Leonard Bernstein with the Young People's Concerts that did so much for generations of kids that grew up and then got concert tickets to the Philharmonic because of what they heard as a kid. I can remember, I was in public schools in a suburb of Milwaukee, and we would get on the bus and we'd go downtown to the performing arts center and hear the Milwaukee Symphony. I thought it was the greatest thing. Just loved it! Maybe a lot of kids were bored, but [for] so many the seeds were planted. So, yes, that that is important. But I was intrigued when I wrote that [blog post]. I remember in the 1980s... I went down to [Andy Warhol’s] Factory and we set up this stuff. I was working with New York City Ballet. I remember there were all these guys around … funky, really chic people. And one guy was talking to me and he said, "I've listened to rock and roll for for 20 years!" And he was in his 40s. "I'm getting tired of it. I want to go and hear classical music, now that has interest!" And he was, you know, the funkiest guy you'd ever want to meet. And that's what I meant, is that sometimes as we age, we want more. And so we then kind of in our middle age, maneuver over to areas of maybe literature or art or music that we haven't encountered. And I was trying to say that's a good thing.

Yeah. I mean, that's what we can all hope for. No matter where we start from, I guess, is that we continually branch out as we age, that we learn and experience new things. You know?

Yeah, I mean, as a student, we were supposed to read Dickens and read Shakespeare and it was kind of a chore. But then as you get older, it's a pleasure to read that and you get so much from it. You get something different from it in middle age and old age than you did as a 17 year old. And so there's that aspect, too. You appreciate it more.

Yeah, and the way you do your relationship to it changes too. I think about movies that I've seen when I was 18 years old. And then I experienced it differently at 28 or 38. And the characters that I identify with in the movie change over time as well.

Oh, yeah. Yeah, that's interesting.

So lastly, I heard you once on an interview at KMFA in Austin talking about how you enjoy gambling, is that right?

Hahaha! Was I talking about that? Yeah... obviously, living half the time in Las Vegas, I live half an hour away from the casinos and I'm right at the edge of the desert, which is nice during COVID, I can take walks in the desert and stuff. But ... music is very mathematical. It's about numbers and it's about emotion. There's one other thing that's about numbers and math and about emotion. That's poker. Now, you're not trying to express yourself in poker, and the minute that you get really creative and really... I mean, yes, you can do original moves in poker, but really, you think like an actuarial, which is kind of different from thinking like a painter. So there is a huge difference. But still the amount of emotion and kind of psyching out your opponent and all the feelings that are involved and all the math, there's a tremendous amount of math in poker, which is fascinating. That kind of is like a hobby that uses that part of the brain, but is also really recreational. I haven't been playing poker at all this year because of COVID. But I do enjoy it.

Yeah, cool. And you live out in Las Vegas, which, just as an aside. I mean, I love that part of the country. I mean, the desert.

And that is beautiful.

Yeah, it's gorgeous. You mentioned a moment ago where you grew up....

In Milwaukee...

So when was the first time that you experienced the desert and said, oh, I'm drawn to this?

Well, my dream as a teenager was to move to New York City, which I did right out of school. That was the big goal, was to live in New York. Our high school marching band was invited to the Macy's parade. And oh, that changed my life. So I have always lived in New York since the mid ‘80s, and I still have an apartment there. I live there only half-time now. But that was the big goal. But my parents loved to travel and loved to camp, and we took several trips out west when I was growing up. And that's what whet the appetite for both the desert and the mountains. Those trips showed me how gorgeous it all was, it is.

Well, Michael, thank you very much today. I really appreciate this. It's been wonderful to talk to you.

Thanks. I enjoyed it.

"Being" is the latest release from Michael Torke, available now on Ecstatic Records.