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the mad heiress interview:

constance cooper



mh: why do you make music?


cc: because that is what i am meant to do. every time i have the happiness of recommencing work on a piece, or improvising, this comes into my head.



mh: some of your music has a nervous, unsettled, skittish quality to it (and i’ll confess that listening to the more agitated pieces makes me nervous), while some of it is very still, and almost buried. do you want to say anything about these two extremes?


cc: thank you very much indeed for the depth of your response. extremes are part of current musical aesthetics. they are available to me and to everyone for depth and variety of musical thought. one extreme does not exclude the other.



mh: you act as well. do you see any intersection or overlapping between your music and acting? if so, how?


cc: from long years of practicing music, i know how to work alone and repeatedly without wearing out my spirit. i am not afraid of what might seem to be mechanical, emotion-flattening techniques of memorizing both scores and scripts. my acting is, however, more closely related to my love of language than to music-making.



mh: what’s it like making outsider art (if you’ll accept that term for your own work) for a living in manhattan, if you do it professionally full-time? does it pay the bills?


cc: not at all. paying the bills means teaching; freelancing; playing and singing church services; music-directing musical theater; accompanying auditions and performances: in other words, tons of not-quite-congenial things. (i've now abandoned teaching and only play once or so a month at the church job.) regular income comes from my husband's job: he's a physicist.



mh: in what ways might a piece of music convey absurdity?


cc: one might convey absurdity superficially with sudden stops and starts, or big contrasts of high and low notes, or louds and softs; but this is no more than a means of arousing attention. i don't think music can convey complexities such as absurdity or irony.



mh: how do you see your work fitting with mad heiress, and why specifically did you choose the two pages that you created music for (secret theater and dispatches from dreamland)?


cc: i believe my music is on the same level of intensity that mad heiress reaches in writing and photography. my music doesn't describe mad heiress, i don't think; it fits in.



mh: what makes music “pretty” and would you characterize any of yours as being so?


cc: a smart and sympathetic friend told me years ago my music was pretty. within me i have steady feelings about what musical beauty is. i don't think i ever violate those feelings, although i do hope that over the years, these feelings might deepen and shift.



mh: i give you a fur-covered spoon. what do you do with it?


cc: probably rub my body with it, or attempt to rub someone else's--maybe a cat; best, try to peddle it as an original duchamp. (we mustn't forget that money is always an issue with outsider musicians.)



mh: do you have any favorite musical equipment?


cc: yes, my baldwin grand piano. i play it effortlessly. i am resigned to composing certain pieces with logic. i play a yamaha dgx-500 for midi input to logic, for daily practice, and occasionally for playing out. it's unmanageably heavy for me to lug alone to a gig, but it's got it all, unlike later stripped-down models.



mh: are there any narratives/stories at play in your music?


cc: i don't think so.



mh: are you an academy-trained musician? if so, what have you discarded and what have you retained, in terms of formal academic training?


cc: i am a thorough academic. i have a ba from barnard college in music history and an ma and phd from princeton in composition. i had private lessons in piano and voice and i sing and play classical music. my last two stage performances required me to sing solo, and just the other day an auditioner, without warning, requested me to sing in french, so i did something from a 19th-century opera.i have rejected the 12-note chromatic scale, standard forms, harmonic structure, and "coherent" steady rhythms. i use microtones (the tones in between the piano notes--they exist and are beautiful and richly expressive). as far as rhythm is concerned, tons of today's music use repeated or looping beats--stop! i've got it! i prefer: you get up in the morning; you take a walk; you read, you compose; then you realize it's time to have breakfast and get going. in other words, lifelike macro-rhythms.but i still play bach and other lutheran baroque composers at church services.



mh: what sort of audiences do you typically perform for?


cc: friends and acquaintances who are not musicians but are curious about me, fellow musicians, and people who like to go to any kind of theater.



mh: would you make music for a kentucky fried chicken commercial?


cc: yes.



mh: what would it sound like?


cc: i don't know, but i would compose whatever would make it more likely i'd be hired again. that's the only reason to write this kind of music and i assure you i would put a lot of thought into conforming.




dispatches from dreamland

the secret theater

constance cooper

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