2004 interview with conductor Grant Cooper

This September 2004 interview, with West Virginia Symphony conductor Grant Cooper, differs slightly from my previous ones: I customized part of it. I did not, however, neglect to present Grant with some standard opinion topics at the end of this conversation. It’s fun to read interviewees’ responses to those…

Hilary Hahn: What drew you to music in the first place?
Grant Cooper: My mother was an opera singer in New Zealand, so from birth, music was around me all the time. I was really moved by my mother’s singing and her ability to communicate with an audience. Originally, I was going to go into science like my dad, who was an engineer, and in fact I completed a degree in mathematics. As a kid, I took piano lessons and, following my school’s tradition, I composed the school musical in my final year of high school. Pivotal performing experiences at the university made me realize that my life should be in music.

HH: What brought you to conducting?
GC: My primary musical experiences were as an instrumentalist, and I came to the States to study trumpet in Cleveland and New York. Conducting developed quite naturally out of my chamber music experiences. In smaller chamber groups, colleagues seemed to appreciate my musical ideas and ability to help rehearsals progress smoothly. They offered me conducting opportunities with larger and larger chamber groups and eventually a chamber orchestra. It was a long transition: it took me 10 years to go from solely playing to solely conducting. I think my own experiences as a professional performer are the most important experiences I draw upon when conducting.

HH: What kept you with it?
GC: I think that comes back to communication. I really find that we musicians communicate on so many different levels (one-on-one, in larger ensembles with other musicians, with the public, etc.) and in so many different ways: unspoken, mysteriously even, and through shared experiences.

Basically, I love music and its many different aspects. I enjoy producing recordings, editing the recordings, writing music, and arranging it. I find the whole field really fascinating. As a trumpet player, I never found myself wishing to be on the podium, and conversely, as a conductor, I never find myself wishing I were playing the trumpet. I’m deeply involved in whatever it is that I’m doing at the moment.

HH: What benefits did you glean from studying classical music?
GC: First of all, one cannot help but be overwhelmed by the genius of the great masters of composition; for me, that is a window into a greater reverence for human capacity and spirituality.

People often ask me that question the other way around: whether studying math helped my music-making and what those connections are.

The most beneficial thing for me about what music taught me is that it’s ok to abandon scientific methods, that science is not the only way to approach music and life in general.

When you play a wind instrument or sing, everything is covered up, all of your technique is hidden inside the body. You may think you understand what you’re doing, but then, when you change one variable and that sets off a chain of reactions, you realize you’re in a science experiment from hell. Music taught me to let my body find its own way, to allow Zen-like enlightenment and experience to take place – learning to “let” it happen, rather than “make” it happen. I should say that music itself didn’t teach me that; the process of becoming a musician did.

It’s revelatory to realize as a musician that, from the 20th century onwards, we’ve tended to become really ingrained in the scientific viewpoint, to lose sight of how the Mozarts and Beethovens viewed this world. We tend to be overly reverent of absolute notation as we see it in the score. When you consider it, each marking in a score can mean a whole range of things, depending on its musical context. Take the whole idea of music responding to the text of an opera: a Mozart opera is the most glorious example. His marking of a simple forte or piano could mean completely different things depending on the text being sung. Mozart’s music demands that we think of a forte, for example, in many ways – a “yearning” forte, a “defiant” forte, a “loving” forte. Yet, to some modern musicians, those markings are scientific; forte means loud and piano means soft. One has to open one’s mind to the realization that absolute, defined concepts are not the answer to musical problems.

HH: What are your hobbies?
GC: Photography is one. I really enjoy woodworking. I like building things. To a limited degree, I also enjoy working in the garden. I certainly appreciate a nice garden, though I don’t like weeding.

Sound recording is a musical hobby of mine. So is writing music. I’m determined not to call myself a composer – though I do compose frequently – because there are so many composers who try so hard to have their work played, sending pieces out to everyone in the hopes that someone will program one of them. Composition is purely a hobby for me, but an important one in my development as a musician and conductor.

HH: What would you have done if you hadn’t pursued music?
GC: I probably would have gone into something that utilized mathematics, because that was the basis of my formal schooling. I could have ended up in something practical like engineering, like my father, though, to be frank, math would have been more interesting to me. It’s like music in a way, because you are always faced with the question of how to solve a problem. For example, how to approach getting the whole orchestra to grapple with a musical issue, whether it be big or small. I do enjoy creative problem-solving, even on a trivial level, such as finding the best route to drive when I’m taking a trip. It’s not always the shortest way that’s the best or the most beautiful. I find those sorts of things fascinating.

HH: When you’re working on a project, do you feel most connected to the orchestra, to the audience, or to the music?
GC: I think the most important thing for us as musicians is to remain focused on the music: if we’re focused on the music, everything else flows. If one focuses on how one is connecting to the orchestra in rehearsal, one can become caught up in the politics of psychology, which doesn’t help the music much. If, as a conductor, you focus on the music, you’re much less likely to offend someone when asking them to adapt their personal conception of the music. On the other hand, you have to keep in mind that, at all times, you’re working with human beings who’ve dedicated their lives to music. Getting them all to agree on a collective ideal – that leads back to the music in the end.

I’m not really aware of audience behind me when I’m actually performing. I do notice them when the hall is very noisy, or, oddly enough, when it’s very quiet. I consider the audience when I’m programming a season, and I’m constantly checking their body language during pre-concert talks. In that case, I like to see their faces, so that I can adjust what I’m saying according to their reactions. Through music, one does feel really connected to people. But in the moment of performing, the best moments for me are when I’m connected to the music. The music connects me to the orchestra, and their sounds in turn connect to the audience.

HH: What do you love or hate about hotel life?
GC: I love the fact that I can’t make too big of a mess, and that I have to get packed up and move on. I hate extremely slow “high-speed” internet connections. That takes up so much extra time.

On the road, one’s life is limited by the lack of things you have around you. It’s difficult to do something like woodworking, but those same limitations also bring grace and elegance and simplicity and provide relief from the clutter of life.

Then again, in a hotel, you pretty much have to take what you get. A quiet hotel is good, a noisy one bad. But those are obvious things.

HH: Any ideas for how I should describe you in the headline for this interview, in 5 words or less?
GC: “A Kiwi Who Dreams of Flying”

HH: Have you felt funny when people have eavesdropped on you practicing?
GC: When I practiced my instrument, I was always in my own mode and didn’t allow myself to think about other people. I do remember that I played differently when people I respected were listening to me; even if I was just doodling. I had much more of a sense of performance.

Sometimes, I’m asked how to prepare a score (a conductor’s version of practicing), but I really am at a loss to help someone else figure out how to prepare scores. My advice is to prepare a score in the same way as if you were preparing a piece for performance on your instrument. I find I work in intense, shortish bursts, becoming immersed to the extent that time stops still. Generally, I prefer to study a score through multiple exposures, picking it up, looking at it, reading it in my mind, then coming back to it a week or two later. Over the course of several months, I will have opened the score and studied it many times. Only at the end of the process do I actually make markings in the score, everything from the obvious to interesting background information about that particular piece. Often, I’ll jot down a comment about the history of that composer’s notational style, which is a way for me to understand what the composer was saying to me. I believe that what’s written in the score is only a part of what one needs to bring to rehearsal. You also have to possess knowledge of that composer’s body of work, of the work of other composers around that time, and of that composer’s influences. We must also be aware of the interpretive danger of looking back on the music we perform. Our eyes now see what the composer wrote and we read it differently, seeing a different meaning from what the composer might have intended, because our interpretive context has changed so much from that of even a century ago. Understanding a piece on the basis of music which came before it is often a revelatory experience! How does Beethoven’s music appear to us if we are the composer’s contemporary and only know the music of Mozart and Haydn (and, perhaps, if we were lucky, some Handel) and have no knowledge of Brahms or Mahler?

HH: Off the top of your head, if you could put together a festival, what would it be?
GC: The theme I always come back to is, “How did this music evolve naturally out of the time and place of its composition?” What fascinates me is what, for example, Bach inherited. Of course, he was profoundly influenced by Vivaldi and the other Italian masters before him.

I didn’t learn those things in music school at least, not in this way. The process of learning as much as possible about music history has been made more vital to me by the music itself. A festival can be a way for an audience to achieve a context for the music, to really understand why a piece is great, based on how it drew from its predecessors and how it drew from the culture and the history of its time.

In fact, I do a “Bach and Beyond” festival every year in June, with about ten other musicians who gather to help present the concept. I’d love to expand that idea and do, say, a Mahler festival, but that would be hard to put together because of the number of people and the expense required.

And now, some Opinions:

HH: Is chocolate a drug?
GC: I love it, but for me, it’s not a drug, since I would not describe myself as dependent on it.

HH: Pets?
GC: We have a cat named Kiki, and I’ve always been a cat person. My wife loves dogs, but I revel in the independence of cats.

HH: What about Bach?
GC: I can’t imagine music without him. His obvious achievement, stated over and over, is that he summarized all of the aesthetic of the baroque era and did so with extreme mastery. I think that his influence on subsequent generations was also important, especially in German music. In essence, he helped build the foundation of German music. To tell the truth, I’m glad I don’t have to sing his music, because what he wrote for singers is really difficult. The music itself is so perfectly formed, but the length of his phrases, as well as the placement of syllables (many times, a natural breathing pause takes place between two syllables of the same word), makes Bach’s vocal music technically challenging. I have the greatest admiration for people who can sing Bach elegantly.

HH: Classical music in schools – what difference does it make, and why is it important?
GC: I think that we need to distinguish between music itself and the act of making music together. Mostly, when people refer to music programs in schools, people are talking about playing in an ensemble as opposed to learning about classical music or composers.

Playing in an ensemble has enormous benefits. On a human level, I would rate playing in ensemble as far more beneficial than playing sports, where people become hung up on winning or losing. Playing as a team is one of the lessons that is much purer in a musical ensemble.

It’s my impression that music itself (as a cultural phenomena) has never been taught in public schools, at least, not in the way that literature is taught. In my ideal world, we would teach music in schools as one of the great achievements of human civilizations. Yet, in reality, a sense of our expansive musical heritage is falling away worldwide. The reason classical music should have a place in everyone’s education is that it represents a thoughtful and measured response to the human condition. It’s not a glib reaction to the moment.

HH: Applause between movements (sections of a piece) in a concert?
GC: I actually think that there are certain pieces (such as the end of the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto) in which it’s very difficult for anyone wrapped up in the music not to feel that they’ve come to the end of a major musical statement, especially if it’s been performed in a way that communicates with them. There’s no question in my mind that an applauding audience’s enthusiasm is genuine. In fact, between-movement applause used to be part of concert etiquette. When I have the chance, I sometimes tell the audience that nothing will happen if they clap between movements – no thunderbolt will strike them down.

I’ve never feel any degree of disappointment when the audience applauds before the piece is over. I’m just glad they’re there, and it’s my proof that the audience is awake, that they’re alive, thinking, and enjoying. Enjoyment is good.

HH: Reality TV shows?
GC: I have to admit that I don’t watch any TV. Zero. I’ve never seen Seinfeld, never watched any shows of any sort for at least the past 25 years. I know these shows exist because I’m always stumped by crossword puzzle clues that refer to them.

HH: Cut flowers?
GC: Actually, flowers dying on their stalks in the garden worry me much more than flowers in a vase inside. When they’re outside, I find I don’t appreciate their beauty as much because I don’t see them as much.

Now, to answer this from the flowers’ point of view – that’s very deep, asking if a flower has a soul. Maybe I won’t go there.

HH: Tap water – drinkable?
GC: Not always. But, I don’t think it’s horrible, though, for our bodies to get used to dealing with certain organisms. Obviously, I don’t want to drink poison. But building some antibodies isn’t a bad thing.

HH: Holidays?
GC: For me, a holiday is a time to stop moving and rest. I think the hardest thing about holidays is when everyone in your family group has a different view of what taking a holiday means. Going somewhere and staying in a hotel doesn’t strike me as a holiday. I love staying home; I love it when the family comes home and there are no other pressures on our time.

HH: Anonymity vs. fame?
GC: I think that anonymity is a blessed thing. Having fame to the point where you can’t go anywhere without people recognizing you and wanting to spend time with you – even in a genuine, friendly way – could get overwhelming. On the other hand, fame plays an important part in being able to reach your full potential, because it can lead to many opportunities.

I think respect is better than fame. That is, after all, what one is looking for when one wishes for fame – so that, when one has an idea about something (a festival, for example), others look at your track record and trust and support you. It’s more important to be recognized as someone who can be trusted, which in turn leads to an expanded ability to express yourself as an artist. A positive reputation is wonderful.

HH: Most important thing to remember at a musical event?
GC: I’d like audience members to leave an event feeling an emotion that we don’t have a word for – something which combines “uplifted”, “nourished”, “astounded” – and, although this is going to sound corny, with renewed faith in humanity. Ideally, they’d leave with the ability to read the newspaper the next day and not break down in despair.

HH: A very compelling aspect of your profession?
GC: Communication. Human communication.