San Francisco Classical Voice
November 17, 2009
An Interview With William Bolcom
By Georgia Rowe
“William Bolcom has always made his own way. Throughout his career, which has produced symphonies, operas, chamber pieces, and piano and vocal works, the Seattle-born, Michigan-based composer has often rejected the prevailing notions of what 'serious' music should include. He was among the first to revive the piano rag form, and with his wife, mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, has explored the American song repertoire in concert and recordings for over 35 years. Bolcom, who won multiple Grammy Awards for his setting of William Blake’s 'Songs of Innocence and of Experience,' was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1988 for Twelve New Études for piano. At 71, he continues to compose. This week, the New Century Chamber Orchestra will perform his Three Rags and Serenata Notturna. Later this season, the ensemble will premiere his newest work, Romanza. I spoke to him by phone in Ann Arbor, Michigan.”
“A lot of people got to know you as a composer through your work with rags. How did you get interested in that music?
It was thoroughly serendipitous. I’d always been interested in American piano music. I was having lunch with Norman Lloyd, who was the head of the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, and he said there was a very good opera by Scott Joplin. I said, 'Who’s Scott Joplin?' and he said he’s the man who wrote 'The Maple Leaf Rag.' I called around, and no one had heard of his opera, Treemonisha. At that time I was teaching at Queens College, and I asked Rudi Blesh, who was teaching a jazz course, where I could find the opera. He said, 'I have a copy at home!' He got me a copy and the piano rags, and I started recording them, and I told Josh Rifkin about them, and he went off and made a recording; and from being forgotten, Joplin became one of the canon. In the process, I started writing a few myself, and the next thing I knew there was a recording of all 22 by a young pianist named John Murphy. I sort of look at them as my mazurkas.” [Scott Joplin (1868-1917) was a Ragtime and Classical composer and pianist of African descent who is profiled at AfriClassical.com
Joplin's Opera Treemonisha