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Judith Lang Zaimont

Judith Lang Zaimont is an internationally-recognized composer with an impressive catalogue of approximately 100 works in all genres, many of which are prize-winning compositions. Her works have been programmed at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, and other major auditoriums on three continents by such groups as Connecticut Opera, Philadelphia Orchestra, Czech Radio Orchestra (Prague), Baltimore Symphony, and many others.

She was born in Memphis, Tennessee, and raised in New York in a musical family, beginning her professional career (with her sister) in a teenage duo piano team which performed, recorded, and appeared on radio and TV. She began to compose at age 12 , and her early music was recognized through prizes from the National Federation of Music Clubs and BMI. Her formal composition studies were accomplished primarily through school programs (Queens College, CUNY; and Columbia University), and with postgraduate orchestration study with André Jolivet in Paris.

Zaimont is also creator and editor-in-chief of the critically acclaimed book series, The Musical Woman: An International Perspective (3 vols., Greenwood Press). She is currently professor of music at the University of Minnesota School of Music.
S21/:  You have called composing an "undescribable art."  What do you mean by that?

JLZ: The act of composing is akin to ‘wrestling with an angel’.  It’s an experience in living time-out-of-time; an experience  of extraordinary and heightened  consciousness where most awareness of the outer world disappears:  I forget to eat, pay no attention to the passage of time,  and am completely absorbed in the task at hand.  There is no filter of ‘personality’ present, no need for  ‘politesse’ or the distractions of sociability -- it is utterly and truly one mind engaged with the matter.    It’s the most extreme and draining experience of ‘giving out’ that I know. 

In describing  the creative moment (in The Courage to Create), Rollo May notes its physical 

similarities to the ‘fight or flight’ syndrome: increased adrenaline rush, hyper-awareness, extreme focus and utilization of all decision-making capacities (perched at a nano-second response time), etc. 

Composing is also ‘undescribable’  in that  inspiration *truly* can strike at ANY time:  Twice in my life I’ve dreamt a piece.  Often, I will get musical ideas when I’m doing something completely unrelated (and possibly hum-drum); my husband and son are accustomed to finding bits and pieces of paper strewn around the house filled with cryptic rhythms and a species of crabbed solfege ( to try and capture a motivic profile, or theme).  They’ve learned to carefully preserve these, and return them to the scatter-brained composer promptly!   (who in all likelihood has gone on to other notes, leaving the original musical scrap forgotten). 

And, rather frequently during live concerts,  I hear my own music pop into being inside my head while I’m listening to someone else’s completely non-related notes. 

S21/:   You began taking piano lessons at the age of five.  At what point did you realize that there was music playing in your head and that it would become your life's work?

JLZ:  Piano music ruled.  I attended only one orchestral concert prior to college age,  but listened to much orchestra music on LP and on the radio.  (There was a year-long period where I listened to Mozart’s 40th Symphony,  the Tchaikovsky 6th Symphony ( mvts. 2 and 3), and  Prokofiev’s “Cinderella” ballet suite at least every other day.) 

My awakening to being ‘born to be a composer’  took place at approximately the age of 11 (when I was accepted to Juilliard prep.), and  it had two parts: 

      +  The Saturday drive to and from Julliard from our Long Island home was at least 1.5 hours each way, so my Dad put on radio station WPAT on the trips (light classics).  One morning I heard Copland’s ‘Rodeo’ and it woke me up;  two weeks later, for my 12th birthday, I received a recording of  the “Cinderella” suite, and for at least four months I lived and breathed the great Waltz  (with its crushed chromatic tune).  My first thoughts at hearing these pieces was “Wow!”, and “I want to do THAT!”

      + The second trigger was a sight-reading project  I set for myself that year, to make my way through all of Chopin.  Something clicked when I got to the Berceuse ( a set of  melodic variants over a ground) and realized that Chopin did this constantly:  he  was too impatient to repeat the same music even twice the same way.  I understood that to mean that all musicians have license to  change things around, even ‘make it up’ if they wish. My next thought was  “I can do THAT”.  And so I did. 

S21/:   In retrospect it is clear to see what was "American" about the music of Copland and Barber and Piston and others of that generation.  But, music today seems more international than
nationalistic.  Would you describe your music as "American" and, if so, why?

JLZ:  Others have identified my music as quite American in some ways -- a few of which I also recognize. 

If Americanisms have to do, doubly, with a strong dance-rhythm underpinning  -- a snapping beat, with clear-felt cross rhythms and spotlight on syncope --  and  plangent, “sounding” layout for chords ( French-influenced, via N. Boulanger’s ear and her influence on several mid-century generations of American composers),  then one can certainly find these in my compositions. 

Perhaps because jazz wasn’t allowed in my house during my childhood  -- although both Mom and Dad played and sang many  pop standards (!) -- I’ve been consistently drawn to incorporating jazz rhythms. (They pop up both overtly and covertly in quite a number of my  pieces.)   Ragtime also; four movements in rag idiom so far, with a fifth in progress ( a commission for next summer’s Flute Convention: “Bubble Up” Rag, for flute and piano). 

But, my music is not particularly ‘outdoorsy’,  nor are folk tunes prominent. (The ones so styled are actually “folk” tunes I myself composed.) 

My orchestration is ‘American’ in that it is wind-forward  (not essentially  string-based), but the orchestral  models  I  most admire are those of the Russian-French lineage.  Here (as in Berlioz), one finds an emphasis on brilliance and drama,  with fast harmonic rhythm thrown in for good measure.  (For me a breathtakingly exciting musical experience.)

S21/:  What is a "woman composer" and how does she differ from her male counterparts?  Do you believe the fact that classical music history is almost overwhelmingly male simply a matter of politics and opportunity or are there genetic forces at work?  For example, the vast majority of classical CD collectors are male. Are girls discouraged from liking serious music?

JLZ:  Women who compose have been around and doing distinctive work for as long as music has been recognized as a realm of human endeavor.   Really the only ‘mystery’ pertaining to the entire topic collectively termed ‘Women in Music’ is why the accomplishments of these gifted human beings don’t stick in the collective consciousness past the era of the gifted woman’s own generation!

Recent musicology research has brought forward the names of close to 6,000 women composers across the centuries.  (See the poster I helped to design, "Celebrating Women Composers!", published by Leonarda Productions.) Yet, music history is mysteriously porous when it comes to them.  They have been major figures in almost every age -- so why are historical women composers such as Francesca Caccini,  Elisabeth-Claude Jacquet de la Guerre, and  Josephine Lang lost to general current musical consciousness even though they were highly celebrated and prominent in their own time's culture?  [ Caccini's 1625 opera was the first Italian opera performed outside of Italy (by invitation - in France);  Jacquet de la Guerre was not only an extraordinary child prodigy on the harpsichord, but a major composer in the courts of Louis XIV and XV; and Lang's art songs  -- championed by Felix Mendelssohn(!) were published and sung all over the Continent. ] 

The current generation of women who compose is the best documented and most visible -- and present in fairly impressive numbers (especially the Americans).  As one of these, I can state confidently that our accomplishments are real and meant to be durable.  What most now needs to shift is the general modality of thinking of us only: (1) when the discussion turns specifically to a focus on women; and (2) as ‘exceptions’ to the general instance of “who is a composer” and/or “what type of person is a composer”.     -- As long as these patterns of thought persist, we’ll  continue to be marginalized within our profession.

Women composers need to become considered as integral to  music's historical evolution and not merely as presences sprinkled on its surface from time to time. We must make an effort to change our thinking so that the word "composer" connotes  more widely, to encompass women and men on a consistent basis.   And we need to come to know the body of repertoire written by women, and to evaluate it.  -- This requires much more frequent programming: According to recent statistics  -- UNESCO's  ICCM; the  Women's Philharmonic -- music composed  by women accounts for 5% or less of concert music programmed world-wide. 

Since composers (and conductors) occupy the leadership positions within the world of music, such change may be seen by some as threatening;  for sure, it  won't come about easily until women composers are viewed as a professional cohort,  rather than one-at-a-time "exceptions to
the rule”.  We need to accept that musical women represent a group of musical achievers --  a statistically significant subset of  the entirety of composers  -- as well as being individually outstanding.   Throwing a few names around  (even as I did, above), just perpetuates
thinking about these extraordinary talents as 'exceptions' to the general rule, validating that approach so much so  that we believe we can fairly tell the "whole" story  merely by dredging up a name or two.  IT AIN'T SO! 

S21/:  Most of the name-brand symphony orchestras and opera houses in America stick to a rather conservative repertoire because their directors believe, rightly or wrongly, that there is little appetite for new music. Radio stations like WQXR in New York play virtually no 20th century music.  How do living composers like you build an audience and get your work heard?

JLZ: First, I look at the composer’s concerns: 

If a composer is any good, she speaks in a particular voice; her music presents *her* view of what is vital and important in the art, and the genres/text subjects she might favor also reveal something of her personal as well as philosophical interests.  Gradually, listeners who are in sync with that composer’s givens will discover her music.  Reaching a larger, heterogeneous group of listeners, however,  is something that happens over time, as the individual composer’s style becomes apparent,  understood, appreciated,  and then specifically sought. 

What I personally value in music is that it opens up a "window" into the unexpected: that it makes me listen closely because it's going somewhere I can't anticipate.   So -- much 18th-century music to me is of little appeal, because the balanced-period phrase structures drive the music absolutely, to the detriment of harmonic venturing (or misleading) and rhythmic refreshments.  Indeed, of the traditional three musical elements -- Melody, Harmony, Rhythm -- melody is the last one to grab me.  (And I’m known for writing melodies !! -- go figure...).   Vital, surprising  rhythms are first, with the sensuous appeal of harmony a close second. 

In some sense a composer’s style has to do with how we balance/configure the independent musical factors within a piece, taken as a whole.  (In addition to Melody, Harmony and Rhythm, I add  here preferences pertaining to  Tone Color/Instrumentation,  Registration,  control of Form, and  -- importantly -- innate Syntax:  Is the composer by nature an “Essayist” or “One who writes epigrams”?) 

Composers vary in garrulity and in complexity of utterance just as authors do.  In America we have writers like Ernest Hemingway or Bill Pronzini who are elegant but spare; and lyrical rhapsodizers like James Dickey or Sara Paretsky or Toni Morrison -- elegant but many-worded.  All are special, all to be savored for HOW they say WHAT they say.

I often monitor reviews to see if the reviewer gets beyond discussing just the piece at hand to evaluate also  how this work fits within the particular composer's larger creative vision.     When this happens, it may mark the composer's "arrival" as  a creator. It means  that the reviewer is aware of other work by the same composer; and it means that the reviewer has paid enough attention to that composer to understand  his/her central musical issues, those being consistently addressed.  In short, such a review goes beyond merely evaluating the individual piece, to recognize how / why this piece is as it is, and how it fits within the composer's total oeuvre.

S21/:  Just how important is this elusive quality called "style?"

Many of the composers most dear to us seem to have worked towards the END of the style period which their music is said to represent.  In part we may appreciate their work because they appear to "sum up", or embody most perfectly,  the traits emphasized in music of that style. Thus, these composers are emblems of their era, as well as wondrous speakers in their own right.

    Two extrapolations: 

     (1)  What then do we do with the transitional figures ??    Most of these are not the best-loved, but perhaps they are the more "original":  Composers like Weber, John Field,  Griffes (in terms of America's learning to love pure sound), Delius (a British fish out of French water-?), Lutyens,  Bacewicz,  Crawford, etc.  (And perhaps we should add here composers who hung on to older style characteristics as new styles were coalescing.  In this context the Bach boys would make an interesting study! ) 

     (2) What happens when there is no prevailing style?    That’s the case for the close of the twentieth century -- a great muddle!   The notion of 'style period' evaporates here as each 'man' becomes his own 'movement'.   So other factors come in to play:  Longevity of notice has a great deal to do with establishing a set of followers, almost as much as with anything purely musical.  And woe betide the composer without followers, explicators, commentators, aggrandizers!   [Bartok suffered for a while in this regard,  and this is a *problem* for many current non-Minimalist Americans, as well as virtually all women composers.]

(For a window on how this all works in music's companion area of the visual arts, see Tom Wolfe's wicked dissection called  "The Painted Word".) 

After the composer's concerns, I look at the audience’s concerns:

The more I interact with audiences, the more I realize Art is  equally a lens and a mirror.   While it is in some sense a distilled communication from Composer to Listener, it’s not solely that.   It equally serves as a means to reflect back to the listener something already present in that person’s sensibilities/experiences.   Thus, in a best sense, the music can function as an avenue by which the Listener reveals himself to himself.

This is not to say that we should equate “good” with “the already known” --  everything else  being “not good” !! 

In writing on creativity,  D. N. Perkins posits two criteria for the creative product:  that it be (1) original;  and (2) of high quality.  This is a useful sieve.  In order to be able to assess the quality of an artwork,  we have to be able to  understand that it has some points of comparison with other like works ( i.e., music compared to music).  Therefore, the *merely* highly outrageous items don’t even fall within the field;  unless they have other more recognizably “musical’ attributes, they’d belong more convincingly to the realm of random noise. 

And kindly note:   No mature composer sets out to be gratuitously complicated, arcane or "difficult".   Yup -- not even Varese or Carter.  (Unless, of course, s/he were attempting to set a Guinness Book of World Records mark by writing "the world's most...." piece of music.)    The issue  of 'impenetrability', 'complicatedness', or 'opaqueness' is most often a feature of the Listener's readiness to experience the music, NOT the composer's intention. 

Fundamentally, the most genuine listening wish may be the wish that a musical composition TOUCH us, that it not pass by without impression.  Being (somewhat) mystified by a piece is OK; such a response is reason enough to prompt a second encounter, with a potential for further revelations.   On more than one occasion audience members have told me  that although they didn't absolutely 'understand' my piece, it made them “feel something they'd never felt before”.  That’s an amply rewarding response for me as a composer, especially from a first hearing. 

S21/:  There are certain pieces that seem to have been created to be "unplayable," as if that added a deeper meaning.

Actually there is some small, but real, correlation between the excellence of an artistic statement and the playability of the piece.  Writing  idiomatically for an instrument is not the same thing as rehashing the past.  The suitability of a piece to a particular player's technique, inherent 'brand' of expressivity, and sheer physiological requirements ( hand-size, stretch, flexibility, etc.) may be important factors in that piece being adopted into this artist's repertoire. 

And it makes a difference to the composer to be writing for a particular performer:  Is he poetic?  Is she an iron-muscled dynamo with pistons for fingers? 

S21/:  As a teacher, what advice would you give to young composers?

 For many composers who continue to slave away in the creative arena the old stringencies still *do* apply, to wit:

        - Use technique and craft to serve your version of the twin goals
                         Grace and Beauty; 
         - Speak in your OWN tongue, and strive for the embodiment of passion
              with both point and elegance;
         - Be blessed with talent, and work to keep it burnished; 
         - Excellence and exactitude of utterance are the ultimate accomplishment. 

Plus, of course, 
         - Hang in there until the job is done. 

By these words I live and I compose. 

S21/:  What would be your five Desert Island disks?

I’d probably  take NO disks.   But scores -- oh, yes: a multitude --  scores being a cross between a blueprint and the actual ‘picture’ of a piece. 

The musical work *is* the score.  The validity of any particular performance of the piece comes in matching what the players played against the specificity of detail in the score. For those who know how to hear from the page, score study reveals the piece utterly.

NOT on my list would be :  Virtually any  opera ( except for Wozzeck);  any Wagner, any R. Strauss, any Schoenberg, any Webern, any Mozart. 

ABSOLUTELY on my list would be:  Britten ‘Serenade’;  Ravel - “Daphnis and Chloe”, Tombeau de Couperin ( pno. original)  and  String Quartet; Stravinsky - “Sacre de Printemps”, “Agon” and the Octet;  Bartok- Quartets 3, 4, 5 and the Concerto for Orchestra;  “Billy the Kid”;  Barber’s “Medea” ballet and the Piano Sonata;  “Dichterliebe”; the “Italienisches Liederbuch”;  “Das Lied von der Erde”;  Italian Symphony and the Songs without words;  L. Boulanger’s “Clairieres dans le ciel”;  Debussy  “La Mer”, “Nocturnes”,  Preludes and  ‘cello sonata;  Brahms opp. ‘teens  piano pieces,  Deutsches Requiem and the Symphonies;  Tchaikovsky Symphony #6;  Crawford String Quartet;  Rachmaninoff 3rd Piano Concerto and the Rhapsody ;   Adams “Harmonium”; Bernstein “On the Town” and the wonderful violin Serenade; Berlioz “Carnaval Romain” overture;  Carter Double Concerto (I also like crossword puzzles);  Rimsky “Scherezade”; Chopin Etudes, Scherzi, Waltzes, Nocturnes;  some earlier Rouse; Perle Etudes;  Beethoven  - all the piano sonatas, 4th Piano Concerto,  7th Symphony, and Op. 131; and *all* of J S Bach. 

And, well, I might just take *one* disk: Richter’s performance of the Skriabin 5th Sonata (an ear-opening listening experience for me). 

Selected Discography:

reSOUNDings -- Orchestral Music by Judith Lang Zaimont
ARABESQUE CD Czech Radio Symphony - Leos Svarovsky and Doris Kosloff, conductors
Symphony #1 
MONARCHS - Movement for Orchestra 
CHROMA - Northern Nights 
Elegy for Strings

Radiance --  Choral Music by Judith Lang Zaimont
4-Tay CD 
(February 2000) Choral Society of Southern California - Nick Strimple, conductor
The Chase  - chorus and piano ( text JL Zaimont)
Sunny Airs and Sober - five madrigals for a cappella chorus
Meditations At the Time of the New Year - chorus and 2
percussion ( text JL Zaimont)
Excerpts from the SACRED SERVICE for the Sabbath Evening

ZONES - Chamber Music of  Judith Lang Zaimont
ARABESQUE CD Z6686 ZONES - Piano Trio #2
Peter Winograd, violin; Peter Wyrick, ‘cello; 
Joanne Polk, piano 
"Russian Summer" - Piano Trio #1
Peter Winograd, violin; Peter Wyrick, ‘cello; 
Joanne Polk, piano
A Calendar Set 
Joanne Polk, piano

Neon Rhythm - Chamber Music of  Judith Lang Zaimont
Hidden Heritage: A Dance Symphony
Dance/ Inner Dance 
Sky Curtains: Borealis, Australis


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