Today, October 23, 2013, is the 90th birthday of the American composer and writer Ned Rorem. I wish I could have been in New York to celebrate him, but you can't be in two places at the same time. So, my small contribution and tribute to Ned Rorem on this occasion is the article below, an article I wrote ten years ago after visiting New York and Ned a few days after his 80th birthday. The translation is my own, and it's just a draft. I hope there are not too many mistakes and/or oddities. Happy Birthday, Ned!
It’s one of the last days of October 2003 and I’m walking up Broadway in pouring rain, on my way to see the composer and writer Ned Rorem in his apartment on
Upper West Side.
He’s standing in the doorway waiting for me as I get out of the elevator. He
smiles, warm and friendly, takes my hand and welcomes me. ”I have made some
tea.” There is nothing in his appearance revealing the fact that he turned 80
just three days earlier; he looks more like a youthful 65-year old. I follow
him in to a large and light living room; the walls are almost covered with art—oil
paintings, water colors and a few drawings. Behind the black Steinway grand
piano in the corner, are four pictures by Jean Cocteau. Two of them are
portraits of Rorem, the others are dedicated to him. I sit in one of the sofas.
Ned sits in the other, and he pours up the tea into blue cups and offers me a
huge and sweet chocolate cake. He almost gulps down a big piece and I think
about one fact he has often underlined in his books: ”I am just a child.” Then
he looks up and out through the window. ”I love the sound of the rain.”
Curiosity and reading
In his first book, The
Paris Diary (1966) Ned Rorem writes
free-spoken and openly about the period during which he lived in . He went there in
1949 on what was supposed to be a holiday trip, but stayed until 1958. During
his stay he studied for Arthur Honegger and learned to know other composers:
Francis Poulenc, Georges Auric and Darius Milhaud. Most of the time he was
staying at the countess Marie-Laure de Noialles house in Paris, or her house in
Hyères. Marie-Laure and her husband Charles were passionate collectors of
surrealistic art. They were also tremendously rich, they supported and
sponsored artist, among them were Buñuel and Man Ray. Marie-Laure knew all the
people Rorem was hoping to meet in Paris .
She enjoyed the company of artists and gays, and Rorem was conveniently both. Paris
He takes yet another piece of the chocolate cake. I look at one of the portraits of him on the wall, a small oil painting; the face of the young man seems at the same time fragile and powerful. He often felt shy during that time, and he often used alcohol to get over the shyness. This eventually turned him into an alcoholic.
”Marie-Laure painted that one”, says Rorem, who has followed my eyes.
”When were you last in
?” I ask. Paris
”About two years ago”, he replies. ”But I will never go to that place again because there is no need to at my ripe age. I will never come to
again. I’m too tired to travel. I’ve seen everything. Everything I need from
I have already got. And the people I knew in France are all gone now. There’s no
point in trying to re-locate myself again in France . It’s a different country.
It looks the same but it’s different. I don’t have that kind of curiosity
anymore. It kind of goes with youth. I wanna see places where I know people who
are old friends.” France
”Are you curious in other ways?"
”Less. If someone writes a new opera or something, if a friend is in a play I try, out of friendship, to go and see it, but I’m not terribly curious to see a new opera or anything, but I end up going out quite a bit every year but much less. Less than I used too. Maybe I should try it again, but I can’t be something I’m not.”
”What about reading? You’ve always been reading a lot. Is that still important to you?”
”I read all the time but I read less than I used to. It takes me ages to go through a book and I look at lots of magazines, and I look a lot on television—more than I like to admit—at just junk. But on my night table I’ve got twenty books that I’m in the process of reading. I’m curious and I buy books. I’m curious to see what friends do, but I kind of get bored and so I don’t have as much enthusiasm about culture today… and I think we’re going to hell. I think we’ve got about ten more years anyway. We’re all gonna be dead. Blown up. And the mediocrity around all this is just unbelievable.
is still producing first rate music and plays and books, and painting too. And America
with all its coherency is probably the most interesting country in the world
today. But as I said before, nobody knows the future, so what I say about being
blown up.., well, it will or it won’t take place. But I see it’s headed towards
universal mediocrity, but maybe it’s always been that way. It’s just more
people in the world…” America
Diaries in words and tones
Ned Rorem has published some fifteen books since 1996, most of them memoirs and diaries from a life where music, art and literature are the main corner stones, but also love and sexuality—open and decrepit long before Stonewall and the liberating gay movement. The openness and frankness turned him into something of a gay icon for a large group of people. His autobiographical writing offers an almost lifelong insight into the world and thoughts of an artist. Rorem also writes about music—on composition, music analysis, about musicians and composers.
His musical works are even more comprehensive; he has written three symphonies, four piano concertos, solo concerts for violin, percussion, flute and cello, chamber music and solo instrument music for many instruments, and six operas; one of them, Miss Julie (1965) is based on the play by August Strindberg. Another, Three Sisters Who Are Not Sisters (1968) has a libretto by Gertrude Stein.
But most of Rorem’s compositions are songs and he is often said to be the most prominent American art song composer. Not for nothing he has been called The American Schubert. He has written almost five hundred songs through the years; beautiful and poetic songs with lyrics by for example Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Paul Goodman and Frank O’Hara. ”The only poetry I understand is the poetry I have set to music”, he states at one time, and he continues with relating to his own: ”My music is a diary no less compromising than my prose. A diary nevertheless differs from a musical composition in that it depicts the moment, the writer’s present mood which, were it inscribed an hour or so later, could emerge quite otherwise.”
Rørheim and the Norwegian origin
Ned Rorem was born in
on Richmond, Indiana 23 October, 1923.
Half a century before that his grandfather Ole Jon had emigrated from .
To the new land he brought the name he had taken from the valley farm on an
island outside Norway
from where he came, Rørheim. But the Americans had difficulties in both
pronouncing and spelling the name and it was soon changed to Rorem. Stavanger
with your parents and your sister when you were twelve, but you haven’t been
there since. Have you any contact with relatives in Norway ?” Norway
”No, I don’t have any idea about any relatives in
When my sister [Rosemary] got married she lived in Norway for a year with her husband and
one of her six children was born there. And I went to visit her then for about
two or three days in the autumn of 1951 but that was the last I had to do with Copenhagen Scandinavia.”
”Is there anything Norwegian in you? Do you have any sense of a Norwegian origin? Or is
just something from the
”No, not at all. One is the sum of one’s parts and it’s how I feel about it… I feel very much of a wasp [White Anglo-Saxon protestant], you know. A non-Jewish. I was very attracted to Jews, they were so different to me. Some people are attracted to their opposites which I am. Nothing could be less Jewish than a Norwegian, at least in
. My grandfather spoke with
a da-da-da-da little singing accent, and my grandmother died long before I was
born. My grandfather lived in the Scandinavian part of America United States in Wisconsin,
father stressed his Norwegian background although he didn’t speak it. So yeah,
I feel that I am Norwegian in a way although I go against it. As a Quaker and a
Norwegian I was very much attracted to the Catholic Church because of the
incense, jewels, the smells and the taste and the touch and the whole falderal,
but my parents were anti-Catholic and it was… I’m anti-Catholic now, too. I
think it’s an evil religion, and as being a Quaker I’m a Quaker philosophically
rather than religiously cause I don’t believe in God. But we never talked about
God in my family. But one is the sum of one’s parts, and how those parts
collect and worked together that’s not for me to know, that’s for an outsider;
a biographer can write a bunch of stuff… ” Iowa
He knows I’m writing an article about him for a Norwegian magazine, and suddenly he says:
”Be sure you mention the island Ombo. The
on Ombo. It’s not far from valley of Rørheim .
Would it be on a map that I have?” Stavanger
”I doubt it”, I reply. ”It’s a small place.”
”Okay! My cousin, a woman, went there ten years ago, maybe more. She went there and she took pictures and sent them and I saw them, and it was very… ” He looks a bit embarrassed as if not sure what word to choose. ”…beautiful.”
The following moment he gets up to get his glasses and a large world atlas. The well used pages are now loose inserts lying between the worn covers.
”Where… where is
Norway?” he mumbles
and Portugal and
falls to the floor. ”This is Great Britain !
And Norway .
Malmö is Denmark ,
isn’t it? You know that I did an opera on Miss
Julie which is being done this coming Friday in Sweden , and I’m going down to see it.
Because they talk about Malmö in Miss
Julie. There’s Philadelphia Sweden
and here is… hm.., .
Is that a town? I thought Kristiansand
was a lot bigger, but I can’t find it here, so… Yeah, here it is. It’s more
westerly than I’d thought.” He searches for a while in the water outside the
city. ”Yeah, you need a detailed map. I guess you can only get one over there.” Stavanger
Sexuality and creativity
In Knowing when to stop (1994) Ned tells of how he as a 14-year old boy, in the spring of 1938, started to look for love in the local parks. Under his arm that first night, he held a copy of Anatole
’s Le lys rouge. Not because it could be a possible subject to talk
about, but because its maroon cover matched the jacket he was wearing. ”I had
almost reached the second bridge without meeting anyone, and I was about to
turn around and head back home when a figure freed himself from the darkness
and stood in front of me.” France
A man—“not a boy, but an adult, a mystery, perhaps nineteen years old or thirty”—approaches him, and moments later he has had his sexual debut. When he gets home that night he is enclosed by the scents of that man, and dazed by the powerful meeting. ”The following evening I looked for him in vain, but all I found was the left behind copy of Le lys rouge among the leaves. I kept looking for him the following weeks and months.” The man had a deep impact on Ned. ” I've certainly been true a certain type that unshaven, adult man in park …”
“In the pre-concert talk the day before yesterday, you said that you started to compose your first songs when you were 14, the same time as you were starting to look for sexual encounters in the parks of
. Is there a connection between the
creativity and the sexuality? ” Chicago
”Well, there must be… The connection is there. You’ve already said what the connection is, but… I think I was attracted before puberty to men, certainly as a child, and certainly to the arts also. So, they both didn’t start then but I began perfecting my craft by writing down music at the age of 14, and my piano teacher helped me a little. She was black, a black woman.”
A part from one of Rorem’s books crosses my mind; a friend of the teenaged Ned complaints to his parents: “Why don’t we live as interesting lives as the Rorems?” he asks, referring to the fact that Ned’s liberal parents had several black friends and visitors at their house.
”One grows up at puberty, physically… But I don’t think one becomes… One is always.., an artist is a child forever. If he stops being a child he stops being an artist. Because children look at things without blinders on the side of their eyes, and they look at the whole world. Rilke began one of his elegies ’With all eyes, the creature sees the open.’ [The first stanza of the eight elegies: Mit allen Augen sieht die Kreatur das Offene.] And he’s always ahead of him …. But when the artist starts to grow up he starts losing what being an artist is. And then there’s artists who never has any sex at all, but they think about it—I can’t prove it but I just know myself…”
“Many of the poems you have set to music were written by homosexual poets and authors, and your own sexuality—and therefore also your own sexual preferences—gets plenty of room in your books. Is the gay aspect important for your creativity?”
”I don’t know. I am what I am. I am the combination of various things that play upon each other, but I have a lot to say about how they do that because I am me and you are you, and there’s other people who are the same, who are gay and in my age… For example, people say if we could only clone Mozart—it’s always Mozart as if he were the only great man that had ever lived—and I say, if we could clone Mozart and suddenly Mozart was sitting in this room cloned, this new Mozart might not be interested in music at all except rock ’n’ roll. He might not like Mozart. Environment is everything and how you’re raised and so forth. And as for what gay music is no-one can define that. And even gay literature, you can’t define that because it doesn’t necessarily have to do with subject matter, as a way of approaching subject matter, I suppose, but music can’t be proved to have any meaning at all.”
He pauses for a moment before he continues.
”I like to be dominated in sex, but in the parlor I like to dominate. So I want everyone to listen to me and shut up, or I’m the husband in the parlor and the wife in bed. Or in French, Le bourou au salon et la victim au lit. And I think many artists are split down the middle sexually in that way, or if they are very sexually dominating they are.., somehow they are not artists. But then, the sooner you make a role about an artist, the caring feeling of an artist, then along comes another artist who’s equally great and doesn’t fit the bill at all.” He sips his tea and puts down the cup. ”I don’t think that gayness is an interesting subject unless it’s political. It’s just as boring as heterosexuality.”
“But what about sexuality in general? I mean, no matter what your personal preferences may be.”
”I don’t know if sex is meaningful but I think about it all the time, but I don’t do it nearly as much as I would like to. And … I said some place recently… everybody wants sex and love but even stronger than that is appreciation. And I think appreciation is necessary too.”
”Do you get the appreciation you want?”
”I’m getting a certain amount of appreciation on my 80th birthday, and I’d rather be appreciated than being not appreciated, even though I’m sort of depressed most of the time.”
Ned’s latest book Lies (2000) consists of diaries from the years 1986-99, and partly the book is very sorrowful. Not only does it describe the painful course of the disease and the death of Ned’s life companion James Holmes, it is also a shocking testimony from someone who had his main social intercourse with homosexual men; each and everyday some friend or someone close has been diagnosed HIV-positive or developed AIDS. Or someone has died. At one time Rorem refers to his address book as a cemetery.
Loneliness and simplicity
”Recently in an article you said, ’The older I get, the aloner I get’, and in one of your diaries from the 70’s, you wrote, ’The older I get, the simpler I get’. Is there a connection between this increasingly evident loneliness and the more and more obvious simplicity?”
”I suppose, but that’s not for me to say, that’s for you to say. We all die alone, and by extension we all live alone, really. I’m always accused for being narcissist, but everybody’s a narcissist, everybody thinks of himself constantly, and everything”, he makes a gesture towards large window behind me, ”the rain relates to me, this relates to me, you relate to me, everything is from my stand-point. The same goes for you. But then you die alone. Gide wrote in his book
étroite, ’Strait is the gate to which we enter the next world, and
it’s too strait for two people to walk side by side’. I think the older I get
the simpler I get in my work, certainly. I’ve always tried to rid my work of
everything extraneous.” La Porte
He stops and turns to me, asks me about a young man who was my lover and friend years ago. ”You had a friend who died. And he died of AIDS?” He asks me further questions about Thomas. Ned—who not only lost his lifetime companion James Holmes but also many other friends and dear ones—leans forward and listens to me; his face is very naked, touching, and the, according to many people, narcissist is long gone; he is listening to someone else, someone else’s story is touching him deeply. ”It’s terrible. All death is terrible and there is never a right time to die, even for old people. The more you know them, the less you think they ever going to die. Your parents, your grandparents… But they do. We’re all gonna die… ”
Again he’s silent. He looks out of the window. The rain has stopped, and it’s getting darker.
The Sorrow behind the words
Before we go to this night’s concert at Merkin Hall we have a little supper in Ned’s kitchen. We sit around a table covered with books, letters, papers and photographs. Ned’s niece Mary Marshall is there; she’s helping him with all practical arrangements concerning his birthday. Ned’s neighbor and friend Barbara Grecki is also there. We talk about Scandinavia, about
Norway and .
I look around in the dining-room; here too, the walls are almost covered with
art and books. Beside the small window towards the backyard there is yet
another portrait in oil by Marie-Laure. The motif is once again the young
Rorem. The elder and more lively Rorem is sitting in the kitchen sofa beside
me. Behind him there’s a big painting by Gloria Vanderbilt. A dotted cat. Denmark
The conversation glides over to literature and someone mentions Carson McCullers. Ned suddenly seems distracted, and when Barbara and Mary leaves the table, he reaches out for a thick paperback, Virgina Spencer Carr’s biography on Carson McCullers.
“I had a relationship once with
brother-in-law [Tommy McCullers]. Perhaps there’s a picture of him here somewhere.”
All of a sudden something sad has a grip on him, but I don’t understand what it
is. “No, there’s no picture of him here, He killed himself. Perhaps it was my
fault. Perhaps he did it because of me. But no, it can’t be anyone else’s
fault. You always have a choice”, he says without sounding too convinced. And
once again I sense that sadness that so often hides behind the precise and
brilliant wording in Rorem’s books. Carson
Even the trees
A few days later we meet again. The calendar states it’ll soon be November, but it’s sunny and warm like in the beginning of September. Perhaps that’s why we start to talk about Ned’s summer house in
”I spend about a third of the time there. I’ve never own anything in my life, but I bought a house there in 19… well, about thirty years ago with my late friend Jim Holmes. It’s a nice enough house, and the heat’s on all the time so that I can go whenever I want. It’s an ordinary house, but my friend Jim Holmes who’s been dead now for about four years fixed it up…”
James Holmes was Rorem’s junior by sixteen years. They met in the mid 1960’s, and lived together in a mostly un-sexual relationship for thirty-two years, until James died in January 1999. “What I feel for [James] is deeper than love”, Rorem writes in Lies. Holmes was an organist and a choral leader, but he was also a composer. Rorem often mentions his beautiful Stabat Mater for choir a capella.
Six months after his lifetime partner had passed away, Rorem received a cassette from a choir leader in some church. There’s a composition by Rorem on the tape, and he dutifully sits down to listen to it. But as soon as the music begins he breaks down in tears—“not because I was listening to my own music, but because I was listening with Jim’s ears ... Is he still in the room? Can he read this?”
”When Jim was around we had one dog and several cats, but I don’t want that anymore. It’s a big responsibility.”
” Are you interested in nature?”
”In what sense?”
”Do you long for the nature? When you go to
do you walk along the beach or in the forest?”
”There’s not many forests, and I don’t go to the beach as often as I should. Last year I don’t think I swam but once although it’s very good for you. Yes, I love nature. And I’m always impressed of how nature doesn’t care one way or another about us. The trees… I have three beautiful trees on my property, and there they are whether I’m there or not. There just huge things looking… Arthur Miller ended one of his books, his autobiography it was… He had bought a new house in the country. At night when they turned the lights on there were wolves and jackals 800 feet away looking at him and then Arthur Miller said, ’I think that all the animals—the world and even nature into the axe—looks at us. Even the trees’. Those three words were the last words; even the trees. And I thought of calling my next book Even the trees. It’s a very pretty title. And I look at the trees as though they have some sort of consciousness. And I don’t know why they wouldn’t. They’re growing continually and their green is growing… So yeah, I guess I like nature. But it can be very lonely.”
He tells me something about one of last weeks concerts, and I ask him what it like is to hear your own music being performed.
”I listen to it as if someone else made it. Sometimes I admire it, sometimes I don’t. And in fact, another person did write it. It’s me in another time.”
”Your cello concerto had it’s European premiere recently. Have you heard any performance of it?”
”I’ve only heard it on a bad tape that was sent to me. But the cellist who’s name is David Geringas—I think he’s from
it about a week ago in ,
and he sent me a note. I’d like to hear a good performance of it live. I know
it wasn’t recorded in a professional way, but it was probably recorded and I’d
like to hear that.” Munich
”At the Miller Theater you said, that you don’t really like he organ, and not the guitar and definitely not the percussion. But I get the impression that you do like the cello. You’ve written quite a few pieces for cello, haven’t you?”
”It’s probably because.., well, I’ve written for everything. I’ve written lot of violin music, a little viola music and cello music, double-bass music. But when I started being professional, writing music, background music for plays—nobody does it anymore but a lot of it was done in the 40’s and 50’s. All the Tennessee William’s plays had background music by me and by others—the only instrumentalist I knew, and that was from school, was a cellist named Seymour Barab. So I would write for him in mind. It was a very practical thing. Just as later I wrote for a mezzo soprano named Nell Tangeman. So I knew kind of what the cello could do and still do. I didn’t write solo violin music until ten years later, I suppose. But I feel comfortable with the cello, although I can’t play it at all. I can’t play anything at all except the piano.”
“How much do you compose nowadays?”
"There’s something going on in my head even when I’m talking to you, I suppose. Composers are never not composing, like writers are always writing in some way. How can I use this? How can I do this and that?”
”Do you ever surprise yourself when composing?”
”I don’t know quite what that means. And I don’t even know quite how I compose. I use the piano much less than I used to, so I don’t sit at the piano looking around for any old notes. I can sometimes work out certain harmonies together, but mostly it’s in my head.” He pauses for a while. ”All music is a song expression, whether it’s for voice or not. There’s always a singer inside of the composer trying to get out.”
”You have also written music for one film…”
”But it was cut. The movie was called Panic in Needle Park [Directed by Jerry Schatzberg, 1971.] and they ended up not using any music, I’m glad to say. It was better without music. But there was one long scene without any words, and I wrote a set…”
“But you used parts of it in another piece, didn’t you?”
”I did, yes. In Air Music . Ten variations for orchestra.”
For the orchestral piece Air Music (1974) the composer was awarded the Pulitzer prize in 1976.
”Several times you have said, that when you’re gone you will be remembered only for the Pulitzer prize. Do you really think that is how it will be?”
”I don’t know what I will be remembered by, but I want to be remembered. It’s very important to me. Very. I know people who say it’s not to them but it is to me, ‘cause I don’t see any reason for being alive. I don’t think life has any meaning, but human beings are complicated and we give meaning where there isn’t any meaning, because we’re human beings. And art is a way of killing time ‘til time kills us. Mostly though, people try to make money to give meaning to life. I would like my work to outlive me and be around in ten or ten thousand years. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. But posterity is important to me.”
”So you make your own meaning in life?”
”We invented religion, we invented God. We invented heaven... and even then, I don’t say there is no life after death or no consciousness after death—maybe there is—but if there is it would have to do not with God or anything, but with the physicality of the universe.”
I think about one of the finishing lines in his The Paris Diary: ”If, after dying, I discover there is no Life After Death, will I be furious?”
Ned looks into my eyes once again.
”There is no meaning to life. I give it meaning.”
Then he gets up from the coach. ”Now I’m very tired. I will have to take a nap.” He looks at his wrist watch, and says I can stay in the apartment while he sleeps, if I want to. ”You can read or do whatever you want for an hour or so. We’ll have something to eat and then we’ll go to Merkin Hall for the concert. Would you like that?”
The years are whirling by
Our first meeting was at the Miller Theater at
one week earlier during a
performance of Rorem’s magnus opus
when it comes to vocal compositions; Evidence
of Things Not Seen—a cycle of 36 songs based on lyrics by for example
Goodman, Whitman, Stephen Crane and Theodore Roethke. The piece covers all
aspects of life; the beautiful melodies, sometimes painfully beautiful, have
lyrics to which you easily can relate—birth, growing up, love, war and
sickness, death and sorrow. Some of the musical themes appear are repeated;
they underline a certain emotion, and holds everything together. Columbia University
Our third and last meeting before it’s time for me to go home, take place at a chamber music concert at Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall. Rorem is listening, very concentrated, to a performance of his second string quartet from 1950. When the last tone of the finishing lento part has faded out, he is very touched and filled with emotions; he claps his hand for a long time. Then he leans closer to me: ”It’s so strange to hear that music now. I haven’t heard it for fifty years.”
And I leave the States and return to
Only days later I receive a letter from Ned Rorem. ”Come back soon and see us.
The years are whirling by.” Stockholm
Håkan Lindquist, December 9, 2003.