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Today he is
considered one of the most important and most original American composers
whose wide spectrum of works include 3 (soon to be 4) operas, 3 symphonies,
3 piano concertos as well as concertos for violin, viola, and oboe, song-cycles,
a concerto for actor and orchestra and an extensive catalog of chamber
music. Youíll find a complete biography at www.tobiaspicker.com
Picker: I'm not sure what he meant by a "a fire on the brain". It sounds like something from a movie about a composer rather than real life. I've heard that to run for President a person has to have "a fire in the belly". I had a very high fever when I was 6. The composing started shortly after that illness. But, I doubt the fire on my brain had anything to do with it.
(Although, I believe it was Honneger who said "composing is an illness" ) I'd rather try to demystify this whole idea than add to an already cluttered myth . People are born with all kinds of gifts. The best gifts are the ones that keep on giving. Composing for me is such a gift. I'm still trying to turn the sounds in my head into structured compositions. I like to think that with every piece I write, I get better at controlling large forms and solving other musical problems. Papa Haydn on his death-bed said, "I finally just figured out how to really write for the oboe and now, I must leave this life."
S21: What were your early musical influences?
Picker: My parents were great devotées of Kurt Weil. I loved listening to Lotte Lenya's recordings of Weill songs in German and in English. I learned how to put the record in the Hifi very early and I knew by heart the words to Mack the Knife in German by the time I was four. They had a recording of the Mark Blitstein Theater De Lys version of Threepenny Opera which I listened to all the time. My Grandfather, a German Jew, was a Wagnerite. For him, there was simply no other composer who compared. Mozart, he said, wrote "deedle deedle dee musik. Wagner was the greatest who ever lived." I remember as a boy of four being very proud that I'd learned to dress myself. But, I could never grasp why my socks should match. They never did. When we'd go to visit my German Grandparents my grandfather would come out to greet us, suddenly point to my feet and announce; "Ah zo. Two different socks. Wagner always wore two different socks. ze sure sign of a genius!" Then he'd take me into his study and play his Kirsten Flagstadt records for me.
more catholic in her taste, introduced me to recordings of Brahms Symphonies.
And then Beethoven and Mozart. There were hundreds of classical 78s in
the house. Recordings of Rachmaninoff playing Rachmaninoff and Strauss
conducting Strauss' Death and Transfiguration. Shostakovich 5th Symphony.
Gershwin. On and on. Then two early 33 recording of Brahms' 2nd Piano Concerto
played by Julius Katchen and an "Emperor Concerto" played by Wilhelm Kempf.
These two special favorites, I played over and over endlessly. I loved
all of this music. And it was an ever deepening love. All I wanted in life
by the time I was six was to have a piano. For some reason, I didn't get
one til I was eight. (those were two very long years) But the arrival of
the piano changed my life forever. I started piano lessons immediately
and by the time I was
With the discovery of each new composer a new world opened up for me. All of them influenced me. It wasn't really until I discovered the music of Charles Wuorinen with whom I began studying at eighteen that I finally was exposed to Carter (with whom I later studied) and Boulez and Stravinsky and Wolpe and so on and so forth. Crumb was an early favorite.
know about Menotti much earlier however. Every Christmas in the early sixties,
Amahl and the Night Visitors was shown on television presented by Hallmark.
I loved this strange music and singing. When my parents were away on vacation,
my brother and sister and I would put together a show to perform
for them on their return. We rehearsed it every day. There were scenes
and tableaus. Songs and little dramas. We performed "Steam Heat" from Pajama
Game wearing little black shiney hats and dancing in step with canes.
The housekeeper - whose name believe it or not was Mary Christian -put
on a grass skirt and performed a hula from South Pacific. And I had a solo
as Caspar performing a very hyberbolic "This Is My Box" from "Amahl
S21: Describe your formal training. How important has it been in your development as a composer?
My formal training as a composer involved going to study with composers
Developing as a composer has nothing to do with training. I learned by example. For me, developing as a person goes hand in hand with developing as a composer. I have trouble taking seriously music by composers with arrested cases of character development. My own character flaw is that I do not suffer fools gladly.
S21: You've written pieces in virtually all genres, including three symphonies, three piano concertos, concertos for violin, viola, cello and oboe, numerous songs, string quartets and chamber music, but you are best-known for the opera Emmeline. Do you consider yourself mainly an opera composer? How difficult is it to get your other work performed?
Picker: I think I am best known from an orchestra piece I wrote in 1986 called "Old and Lost Rivers" and for a piece I wrote in 1983 for narrator and orchestra called, "The Encantadas". Whenever someone tells me they heard a piece of mine on the radio, it turns out to be "Old and Lost Rivers". And none of my orchestral pieces with the possible exception of the piano concerto, "Keys to the City" is performed as much as these pieces. "The Encantadas" has been performed all over the world in seven different languages. "Old and Lost Rivers" has also been done all over the world and by virtually every major American orchestra. "Emmeline" was performed once in Santa Fe and once at the New York City Opera. The former in 1996 and the latter in 1998. It has not been produced anywhere since nor am I aware of any plans for it to be done. Don't ask me why. I don't know the answer.
noticed that people refer to me as an "opera composer". It doesn't make
sense. I'm writing my fourth opera now and yes, itís for the Met. But,
I simply don't see why that should typecast me at all. I wrote a
S21: In terms of both critical and public acceptance, Emmeline is perhaps the most successful new American opera of the past decade. Your follow-ups--Fantastic Mr. Fox and Therese Raquin--has had more lukewarm reviews. How important is critical acceptance to you?
It certainly troubles me that there are so many deaf music critics out
Raquin was produced by l'Opera de Montreal, the music critic of
S21: What are you working on now? How is it going?
I'm writing an opera based on Theodore Dreiser's novel, "An American
S21: Name your 5 Desert Island disks.
For a complete discography and list of works, visit Tobias Picker's Web site.