Interview with Floyd

This is a transcript of an interview of Floyd Slotterback (F) conducted by James Livingston (J) on March 2, 2001. The subject of the interview is the music for the Marquette Choral Society’s “Floyd’s Favorites!” concert to be held on March 31 and April 1, 2001.

F: I grew up in a log cabin in Iowa… . I was raised by wild boars… .

J: This is getting more and more believable. The success of an interview, as I always tell my students, is careful preparation, setting the right questions in advance, and shaping the proper sequence—none of which I’ve done this time.

F: What are you looking for now?

J: My glasses… . I put them somewhere… .

F: Here they are, under this tape recorder top. In this office things can disappear quickly… . I suspect there’s a ’48 Hudson I once lost somewhere in here.

J: I didn’t like those.

F: That’s why I lost it.

J: Floyd’s Favorites. How’d that come about?

F: I guess this program comes about from having survived as a teacher for almost thirty years, at all levels, church choirs, high school choirs, community choirs, college choirs. Certain pieces kind of stick. I began with the standard high school repertoire I used in Arizona. I taught at Mesa and Winslow; I have literally been standing on the corner in Winslow, Arizona, watching all the … doing the standard streetcorner scene from the fifties, except it was the seventies and I wasn’t in high school anymore, just teaching there. I can say that I’ve actually done that. So there’s that, for people who are into pop or rock culture… .

J: There aren’t many in the UP who can say they’ve done that.

F: I needed to make that clear, to establish my credentials.

J: So listeners will know where you’re coming from.

F: I guess. Anyway, I taught both middle and high school, mixed choir and SSAA, performing for the first time the Houston Bright Four Sacred Songs of the Night, which I did with my sophomore girls chorus of 120 voices at Westwood High School in Mesa. I was the number two choir director; it was my first teaching job, with a wonderful mentor. I really enjoyed those Houston Bright pieces; the pieces sing well; he treats the voice very nicely. And they’re very attractive; I think they’ll please people. I had great fun there. Loved the kids.

J: Ultimately you decided to leave high school work, though.

F: Right. I felt like I wanted to do more challenging choral directing, the Brahms’ Requiem and some of those pieces that are very difficult to do at the high school level.

J: Do you associate certain repertoire with certain levels?

F: That’s what I originally had in mind for choosing these texts and for organizing our conversation. But in a way good repertoire is just good repertoire, period. That doesn’t just mean easy. Sometimes the easiest-sounding things require the greatest work. The trick is finding things that work, and then making them work. And things that are not technically difficult still pose musical challenges, often formidable ones. These pieces don’t pose the technical hurdles of some of the things we’ve done; after all, they’re generally excerpts. But they’re just as hard to make music out of. It’s like performing Mozart. Structurally, his music is quite conventional, almost mechanical; it’s all rigidly technical, and the technique itself isn’t complex. But in performance his work is so transparent that it discloses everything; let anything slip, and all of a sudden everyone in the audience, even the most musically illiterate, notices that something’s not right. There’s just nowhere to hide in Mozart.

J: Whereas in Wagner you could probably start singing in Finnish and only a select few would even suspect bad pronunciation.

F: Well, I wouldn’t say that, even if it were true.

J: It doesn’t matter, because I didn’t really say it anyway.

F: But with the Rachmaninoff Vespers, on the other hand—gorgeous, gorgeous piece—you’d probably hear something different in every recording, and it doesn’t make much difference. The music succeeds in spite of the variations. They’re both great, but Mozart builds solid structures which let light through everywhere; Rachmaninoff’s are solid, but opaque. It’s hard to put your finger on it; but these terms might suggest the difference. Then there are composers (like Bach), who sound hard, and are hard. The next time around I want to do a Bach motet, and watch the choir members try to find places to breathe. That’ll give them plenty to work on. And they’ll find that Bach has his own special radiance also.

J: The difference shows up even in their keyboard pieces. No performer gets a reputation for playing Mozart with a lot of technical errors, but Rachmaninoff, I think, as a player was famous for not ever doing anything the same way twice. 

F: Right. Of course, part of that is the difference between the classical and romantic ethoi; when you factor self-expression into performance, you get radical differences all over the place. But that in part just amounts to the awareness that there are different musics, and there’s a place for all of them. In particular, there’s a place for indulgence, and Rachmaninoff requires that.

J: And there are different ways of accommodating that. The composers of Mozart’s generation built that into their concerted works in …

F: … in their cadenzas, where the performer could let go, though still in a controlled format, within a border. In the Romantic era, it was where you started.

J: It continues to amuse me that we think of Mozart’s cadenzas as fixed, as things to be studied, because they’re written down. But some of them were written down by Beethoven from memory, because he wanted to remember how Mozart was thinking when he was improvising; and later Beethoven wrote down his own cadenzas to some Mozart concerti. Up until fairly recently, most performers just kept repeating these canonized cadenzas, contrary to the original intention.

F: Too bad we don’t have the recordings of Mozart improvising.

J: Or Beethoven.

F: Or Beethoven. Which just illustrates what I mean about making room for varied traditions, as we will be doing in this concert. I had planned doing some kind of potpourri, some anthology, for ages, something that would showcase choral varieties and possibilities. I finally got the list down to things I’d wanted to do again or had not done at all. The one I hadn’t done at all is the Verdi Pater Noster. I knew I wanted to do it with a big choir. Right in the middle of his Requiem there’s a big a capella moment for soprano and choir, and this has the same kind of musical scale. They may not come from the same time in Verdi’s life at all—I don’t remember—but they come from the same place in his spirit. I considered excerpting the section from the Requiem, but finally decided on the Pater Noster. That’ll be for Floyd’s Favorites, Part Deux. This should be enough fun that we’ll want to do it again.

J: This will set a precedent.

F: Well, that’s the trouble. I get in trouble with precedents. They always get made out of the things I don’t want to continue. But we’ll see. These are mostly things that called out to be redone. They’re like past lives that call to be relived.

J: So you don’t think of any of these as just pieces for high school groups.

F: Well, that brings up a whole complicated subject. There are high school choirs and high school choirs, and different traditions in different parts of the country and even within local school districts. Many of these pieces are appropriate for good high school choirs. Some high school choirs would find many of them almost beneath their notice; some high schoolers can be awful snobs. I have heard master choirs at national conventions that could outperform almost any college choir I’ve ever heard, certainly any I’ve worked with. In Texas, where competition apparently rules, every school has a master choir in which every member plays an instrument and is taking voice lessons; choir teachers there rehearse three choirs and give private lessons for the rest of the schoolday. Since competition is the rule, they put their choirs together the way they produce their football teams and cheerleader squads.

J: Yes; once in Cleveland I happened on a rehearsal of the area select high school chorus and orchestra doing the Beethoven Ninth. Another time I caught them doing the Dvorák Stabat Mater. Some of that stuff is unbelievable.

F: Of course, the whole idea of high school choirs is kind of an American anomaly anyway. It really doesn’t happen much in the rest of the world. There they have church choirs and community choruses, sometimes of professional quality, and often in several forms; but music doesn’t happen in the schools the way it does here. That’s why you have American school choirs touring Europe, but don’t get visiting school choirs here.

J: You’re right; I’ve seen visiting youth honor symphonies and choruses from other countries, but not school groups.

F: But there is a great deal of choral music in the communities, often of high standing. We do it differently here, which has good and bad sides, but gives us a rich mixture of choral traditions and repertories. And all of that bears on the material of this concert.

J: I suppose we should go through the selections in some kind of order. First in my book is the arrangement of the shanty “A-Roving” by Alice Parker and Robert Shaw.

F: You know what’s funny about that? That’s not the arrangement I wanted to use; I chose it by mistake, though it works and I decided to keep it. I got Robert Shaw confused with Norman Luboff, both of whom did settings around the same time back in the fifties—in fact, I think Shaw did two different versions. And Roger Wagner did one too. There are probably a dozen arrangements of that tune. Some of those guys would do a new version for every tour.

J: I know; I remember first hearing it in high school and falling in love with it immediately. I heard both Shaw and Luboff then, though for some reason I think I first heard the tune in a movie around the early fifties.

F: Oh, you probably did. At least one of those conductors did a lot of uncredited background music for movies, back before all of that stuff got locked into legal contracts. And it’s a great tune that can suit all kinds of moods. One of my early mentors sang in one of those background choirs; they did that Western musical that featured “I was born under a wandering sky,”—what was that? Paint Your Wagon.

J: That’s it!

F: With Lee Marvin, who couldn’t sing a lick—in fact, he could barely match pitch—and I think they had to put his number together from about 25 takes, by taking the eight notes he got right in one take with the three in another and the six in a third, until they spliced something passable together. Those were great years for men’s choruses, which come and go, like anything else; the great glee club traditions go on forever, of course, like that at the University of Michigan, to say nothing of the Ivy League schools. Both Yale and Harvard are still student-directed ensembles, that have no official connection with the universities, but are totally self-sustaining entities. Marshall Bartholomew was the director at Yale for many years. And they do some pretty amazing stuff.

J: Which brings us somehow to the Rachmaninoff “Ave Maria” from the so-called Vespers.

F: Yes. I of course pulled that from our performance of the entire work several years ago. This version has a different translation, but the music is the same, and it’s literally cosmic. This is the most famous chorus from the work. Of all the things I’ve done with the Choral Society, I think this was the most musically satisfying—probably of anything I’ve ever conducted. Brubeck was fantastic, and the John Anthony things were probably much more exciting; but in terms of the transcendent inner glow of satisfaction, the sense that you’ve participated in something that contacts deeper realities, this was the work. Its splendor blended perfectly with the stateliness of St. Peter’s Cathedral.

J: It was as close as we come to sacred.

F: And there’s a splendid video of that performance still sometimes shown on Charter public access TV, complete with the unrehearsed participation of a devotee, in complete black, veiled, who arrived in the middle of the performance to light some votive candles, adding the perfect gesture to complement the music. She could just as well have been a baboushka who wandered in from the streets of St. Petersburg. Completely unplanned, but the videographer had the sense to work her in.

J: I thought it was staged.

F: By our guardian angels, then. That makes sense. We probably should have added incense. That reminds me. Stravinsky once said, “We should all worship with our art. And if we have no art, we can at least burn a little incense.”

J: I like that approach. Angels and incense. Leading to John Rutter.

F: Yes, two pieces, the Shakespeare song “Blow, Blow Thou Winter Wind” and “The Candlelight Carol.” Rutter is probably the most popular and most highly celebrated choral composer of our time; he writes for every kind of ensemble, and every kind of music, from the miniature to the magnificent. Here we have two contrasting winter pieces, the harsh, cynical, secular ditty and the gentle carol. The British composers in general have a special talent for capturing the essence of winter, and Rutter transcends them all in this respect. He can create the rasp of wind and bite of ice on the one hand, and the warmth of the Dickensian hearth on the other. He wrote the carol for a very small inner city church in Pittsburgh—the Church of the Assumption.

J: Didn’t he compose the words, too?

F: He wrote the words, yes. That’s another thing about him. Many British composers have finely tuned ears for verse, creating exceptional settings—Vaughan Williams, Elgar, Holst, Walton, Britten, Tippett—they are so good with texts, with bringing out subtle nuances and enhancing them with music. Britten’sWar Requiem is a great example, setting the poetry of Wilfred Owen, probably the most incisive war poetry of all time. Yet it gains from Britten’s settings. We’ve got to do that work one of these years. It might kill me to do it; it calls for such resources! Anyway, Rutter shares that talent. And the elegance of his text is matched and expanded by the fabric of sound he clothes it in. Jonathan Willcocks, a new English composer, is carrying on the tradition. Rutter’s work also crosses the ocean better than that of some British composers; Rutter totally lacks that stuffiness. Vaughan Williams and Walton sometimes don’t export well.

J: Yet Vaughan Williams did that wonderful Dona Nobis Pacem based on Walt Whitman’s elegy for Lincoln, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d; the English sometimes did well for Whitman.

F: As did the German Paul Hindemith. Both of those are great works, though quite different to be based on the same text.

J: Yes; the anti-Nazi Hindemith.

F: In fact, European composers seem to have found Whitman’s work more congenial than Americans. That’s an interesting anomaly.

J: Well, Samuel Barber has some Whitman songs; and the Tennessee symphonist did some—what’s his name? Roy …

F: Oh, Harris. But he didn’t do much choral composing.

J: True; but he uses Whitman’s concepts and images in his symphonies.

F: And Norman Dello Joio has a few things. But there aren’t many. There have to be a few dissertations on that by now. It’s intriguing. Whitman’s vocabulary and mannerisms are hard to deal with, apparently, for his countrymen; maybe other cultures don’t feel those barriers.

J: Or hear his words differently.

F: Sometimes his words seem to get in the way of the music. Of course, Suzanne Langer [famed philosopher of art] said, “Music swallows words.” That may be a way of translating the difficulty.

J: It sounds like it should pose difficulties for marketers of choral music. But we can modulate to “Come, Peace of God,” by Eugene Butler.

F: Eugene Butler: If I could collect what he pays in taxes off his royalties, I’d be a rich man. And most of his music is aimed squarely at the church and high school market. Several composers have limited their work to niche audiences and performers; Butler is one of these. His work was in high schools and churches; and he has a series of pieces that always perform well, with minimal technical difficulties. They are wonderful teaching pieces for young choruses.

J: DeCormier must be in that category too, or so it looks from his composition list.

F: He’s actually primarily a professional New York conductor and arranger; he was the long-time distinguished conductor of the Choral Arts Ensemble—I think that’s the name. He also had the Robert DeCormier Singers for a time. I wanted some folksongs in the program, and “Dance, Gals, Gimme the Banjo” falls into that set.

J: Yet he apparently wrote it himself.

F: But it’s in that genre. Folk songs are still being written, aren’t they? I suppose you could call it “folk-inspired.” A lot of John Jacob Niles’s purported folk songs turned out to be his own compositions, but they’ve entered into the tradition, like “Black Is the Color of my True-Love’s Hair.” Can you say that’s not a folk song? Or “I Wonder as I Wander,” the one that sounds like it’s going to go on forever because it ends on the dominant, like a number of traditional songs?

J: I can’t. They both haunted me like folk songs from the first time I heard them. They have the true uncanny ring.

F: Is it a folk song only if you collect it from the toothless lip of a seedy degenerate in a back alley of Hoboken?

J: That’s where I get mine, along with some other stuff. And there’s a place in 

J: OK . What about Paul Manz?

F: Good representative of contemporary choral music from the Lutheran tradition. We have the Lutherans to thank for the a capella choir in American 
liberal arts colleges. What he gives us here is “E’en So, Lord Jesus, Quickly Come,” a setting of an adaptation of Revelation 22, a popular anthem suitable for a variety of occasions. This is another of those things that works up easily but offers deep satisfactions.

J: I hadn’t really thought about this before, but all of a sudden I find myself wondering what made choral music commercial in the twentieth century. I grew up with it, but I don’t really know how it developed.

F: Back in the late nineteenth century, the glee clubs from eastern schools and the mixed choirs from the midwestern liberal arts colleges joined the barnstorming circuits, the biggest of which was the Chautauqua, in order to raise funds. This continued and expanded to the thirties and forties; it’s smaller today, but it’s still going on. The Chautauqua still goes on circuit, for instance; NPR did a program on it not that long ago. And it was widely imitated. High schools picked it up from the colleges

J: Of course, it’s changed.

F: Sure. The practice and habit of singing have changed. That form of entertainment was a bigger draw when the experience of group singing was more general. Whole swaths of our society today have minimal exposure to group singing. Some churches have moved away from it. When it’s dropped from the school curriculum, we create a society of choral illiterates. Fortunately, for the time being things look salvageable. And in some ways we’re more than holding our own. Before 1950, if your church didn’t have a practicing choir, your chance of hearing choral music regularly was minimal. Now there are more venues.

J: Of course. We forget, too, that America didn’t become overwhelmingly urban until after the First World War, in 1919. Henry Ford grew up on a farm.

F: And there were essentially no choirs outside of churches. A few, yes, in affluent places, where orchestras were established, which would need choruses for choral works. But by 1919 only six permanent orchestras had been founded in the country. Now choral music continues to live largely because of the influence of high schools and colleges—both of which are threatened.

J: But entrenched and entrenching. Next is Jester Hairston and “Hold On.”

F: A Renaissance man who lived nearly forever. He died recently, at more than 90; he had had a role inGone With the Wind, had a TV role as the old white-haired man on the sitcom Amen, in the eighties, had a career as educator, choral arranger, Hollywood producer, and showman. He had a lot to do with bringing what was then called the Negro Spiritual into the choral repertory. Though it’s hard for us to recognize this, the spiritual was not originally choral; it was solo music, with harmonic accompaniment, heavily influenced by the blues tradition. It can become choral only by arrangement. Because of the spontaneity and rhythmic improvisation of blues-influenced music, that meant writing directions for performance into the music, the ancient curse of musical notation. How do you notate swing? James Weldon Johnson, who tutored George Gershwin in the nuances of black music for Porgy and Bess, was active in this, as was Hairston.

J: These people also had a lot to do with developing the choirs at black colleges and universities, which popularized the spirituals in their own fund-raising tours, and these continue to this day. In the thirties and forties this was one of their major means of acquiring operating funds.

F: Publishing arrangements of spirituals also helped, and these arrangers promoted that. And they struck gold. Since the fifties, any American choral group touring abroad has had to include spirituals in their repertory. European audiences demanded them.

J: Which doesn’t mean that white American choirs can perform them naturally. The blues may be a deep American experience, but many whites have trouble finding the groove. Even with John Anthony’s help we lose the limber. And so we come to the Brahms’ Requiem, and “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place”—again in a translation different from that used most recently by the MCS.

F: We had to include some of the traditional repertory; and this is certainly one of the top three in most lists of choral masterpieces.

J: It singlehandedly transformed my hearing of choral music when I was in high school; it opened my ears.

F: It is Brahms at his best.

J: I remember thinking: that’s choral music? Wait a minute.

F: Yes. Do we say sublime? What a concept. The choir is simply making wonderful sound.

J: And teaching. Opening not just ears but all the senses, and the mind.

F: He inherits the tradition.

J: Yes. He had the great good luck to live in the aftermath of the Mendelssohn revival of Bach’s great chorales, and to have that example to follow. And so we proceed to Mozart: two selections: “Lachrymosa” from the Requiem, and “Laudate Dominum” from Vesperae Sollennes.

F: Hard for me: I’m a Mozart fanatic, so I had to restrict myself to two pieces. I did my doctoral dissertation on the Requiem. I just love Mozart. There’s hardly more perfect music on the planet. When I need my ears and brain cleaned, I listen to Mozart.

J: Yes. One of my friends was fond of quoting—I don’t even know whom he was quoting anymore—but someone who said, “In heaven the angelic choir performs Mozart for the saved, and Bach for God.”

F: Basically any choir that can learn notes can do Mozart; it’s doing him well that’s the hard part. But that’s ok. Even if you do Mozart badly, you’re still doing Mozart. And that’s infinitely better than doing some third-rate composer well. 

J: Yes. Which is not to say that Peter Lutkin is a third-rate composer.

F: Not at all. Actually he taught at Northwestern, where he did most of his work. And he was in the Lutheran tradition: composer, conductor, arranger, theorist, choral literature expert—he did it all. He did this piece, “The Lord Bless and Keep You,” as well as the “Lutkin Amen” there in the forties. This is the most famous and widely used choral benediction ever written. It’s a great way to end the program.

J: And so to Verdi’s Pater Noster.

F: Which surprisingly is not a well known piece at all. For a long time it wasn’t even available. We’re using an edition that wasn’t out long when I came up here. I put it on my piano, saying, “I’m going to do that someday.” Now I’ve gotten the chance. It’s so beautiful.

J: You’ve been convincing me in rehearsal. But you surprise me. I think you’re the only person I know who seems to have equal enthusiasm for Mozart and Verdi. My mentors pushed Mozart, but shunned Verdi.

F: Well, you know, good music is good music. No single style or school has all the answers. When you close your mind, you close your ears. I go by Louie Armstrong’s dictum: (in a gravel voice) “If it sounds good, it is good.” Yeah. I can live with that. Especially over time. If it continues to sound good, that’s the real test. Mentors like yours were probably too proper to wallow in Verdi. You have to love to wallow to enjoy some music. There’s a real wallow quotient. In Romantic music you’ve got to get down in the mud, get down and dirty, with the composer. And you’ve got to like it. I haven’t always been like that myself. Only recently I’ve been taken by the Mahler symphonies. I couldn’t stand him for the longest time. I thought, What an overbearing, overblown bore. Now I hear him and I say, “Mmmm, hit me again.” I haven’t yet come around to Wagner, and I may never do that. But I’m learning not to say no automatically, reflexively.

J: I know what you mean. I learned to love Wagner by studying the complexity of his creations in sound and music in graduate school. But I could be on my way to a world-class performance of Parsifal, and if I saw an advertisement for Die Zauberflöte, I’d stop and go to that.

F: Yeah. Me, too. The car would turn on its own. But Wagner was just working on such an über-art that I may never get there. His wholeness may be more than I can manage. It’s such a big package. No one has to like everything, though it’s probably better to keep trying.

J: Ok. What about Kenneth Jennings?

F: Another great composer and conductor from St. Olaf, in the Norwegian Lutheran tradition. I like the contemporary Lutheran approach to the church choir because it’s intensely lyrical: it always sings. His compositions are rarely experimental, because he always has the church and the function of the work in the service at the back of his mind. We’re doing two versions of this anthem, “With a Voice of Singing,” a setting of Isaiah 48 and part of Psalm 66. I also like the British tradition reflected in the earlier setting by Martin Shaw. It’s just a well constructed piece of music: not profound, but beautifully put together.

J: The two together capture the musical spirit of those two generations.

F: Yes. Shaw is in that tradition of British pastoral, with William Walton, Arnold Bax, and Gerard Finzi. Of course, the Brits have had choral music longer than anybody; there’s no real substitute for tradition. We can trace choral music, with multiple voices on a part, back in the British Isles longer than anywhere else. They pioneer wave after wave of innovation. There are records of Henry II establishing a chapel choir at Oxford in the 12th century. That’s an unmatchable tradition.

J: Finally we get to Randall Thompson.

F: Classic American composer, who represents the generation that transformed American choral music in mid-century. The Peaceable Kingdom is an amazing work, as are his settings of Robert Frost’s poems in Frostiana. Marvelous things. He was also a director, musical theorist, and teacher, but principally a composer, and almost entirely for chorus. We music directors are completely in his debt; he not only expanded our business, he gave us wonderful material to work with. Just about everything he wrote still works. I mean, Stravinsky wrote an amazing amount of choral music, but if you don’t have a group with the right technical proficiency, you can’t touch it. Thompson is touchable everywhere. Some composers just don’t export well from the context they create for themselves. The classic example of a marvelous composer who doesn’t translate well beyond his own recordings is Duke Ellington. His music is astonishing, but it just doesn’t work in anyone else’s hands. It was written for that unique group of musicians he assembled. You have to have Billy Strayhorn, Ben Webster, and the rest. Other people can play Ellington, but it’s just imitation.

J: Or else they transform it, the way the great improvisers do; but then it’s not the same Ellington either.

F: Thank God for recording. If it weren’t for that, we would have lost the way he intended it. It’s exactly like trying to compete with Mozart at the podium Of course, that’s a challenge the future is going to have to meet. Now, whenever someone tries to reinterpret Ellington—which they will have to do for his music to live—everyone will say, at least at first, “Gee, that doesn’t sound like the recording I love.” And all of it wasn’t meant for improvisation, at least as he conceived it.

J: Well, we’ve come to the end.

F: I hope I’ve given you enough to work with; I can run on.

J: Don’t worry. The trick to this business is all in the editing.

F: A good editor is worth his weight in whatever; that person is an unmatched blessing.

J: I’ll try to find one.