Marjan Mozetich. Courtesy of the Canadian Music Centre.
Interview conducted by NMC blogger Nathaniel Schmidt.
Nathaniel Schmidt: Something that’s very notable about your music is its accessibility and attractiveness, however at one point you composed music in a more modern style. Can you discuss the motivations behind your transformation from modernism to a more tonal, romantic style?
Marjan Mozetich: As a composer in terms of art music back in the 60’s and 70’s, composers were encouraged to write music that was not tonal, and non-rhythmic—far-out so to speak. More like science fiction music almost. When this type of music became more successful, there was also a lot more, how can I say this, propaganda pushing composers into that kind of abstract world under the guise that that’s the way music was going, that was music of the future. There was a lot of push for that. But over time, starting in the 60s and 70s, there were a lot of composers who questioned what you can call the avant-garde movement. I didn’t realize there were a lot of other composers also doing the same thing. I always felt that a lot of the modern art music was moving away from a common musical language to something that a typical person couldn’t understand, a little too far to a particular side. It lacked a common language. Your regular audience or typical person became bewildered more and more over this kind of music. I think a lot of people in the beginning were open to it because it was novel but over time these same people started rejecting it. A lot of composers started changing to some extent because of that. For me it was because of that. I wanted to communicate. I still believed in an audience, that kind of balance of being creative and original but not going to such an extent to where I lose my public. For me it was a point of changing and applying certain conventions of music: chords, harmony, melodic lines, and common rhythms. So that’s how I started changing.
NS: Many composers still stuck with the modernist, avant-garde way of composing. Why did you feel for your own compositions that this was an important change to make?
MM: Because I see music as part of society. It’s a difficult question though. To me it’s also a form of communication. In the past there’s been wonderful music that affects people in so many positive ways that’s been thrown out the window in exchange for highly intellectual way of composing in this genre. I just felt that one had to go back a little bit to certain traditions in order to connect to the audience. For me it’s extremely important, I didn’t want people to abandon this genre, it’s still important that it exists. I love all forms of popular music but one thing about this is that they write short songs. Mostly works that are 3-5 minutes long and essentially they have a certain formula about them and they’re confined and rely heavily on words. One place that’s a lot freer is jazz, where music is extended, the same as in classical. If you didn’t have the kind of education that’s needed in terms of creating these classical forms you wouldn’t have Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. These iconic, powerful works would not exist without this kind of formal education and knowledge of music. I still like to continue this and there’s a lot can still be expressed this way that is more difficult in pop music forms.
NS: So in some regard then you’re applying your knowledge and training to emotional ends rather than intellectual ones.
MM: The other part is communicating and expressing something that’s emotional and will grab people. To me that’s very important. Audiences are quite hungry for that and I should add the other thing that made me change was audiences and what they were saying. People were having a hard time with a lot of contemporary music that was difficult to understand and not very pleasant to listen to. I paid attention to that. Yes, we have to change. Most audiences will find that kind of contemporary music interesting but not satisfying. So that’s another aspect of where I needed to connect. I should add another thing. There’s a certain satisfaction and a pleasure in writing something that connects to people. They get satisfaction out of it and then in turn tell me how much they’re enjoying what I’m doing. It’s sort of symbiotic that I get gratification for what I’m doing. This has always existed. The idea of intellectual music that is composed only for its own sake is something that has only cropped up in the 20th Century. Even court music that was done for the upper classes hundreds of years ago still gave pleasure to people and wasn’t so far removed that a peasant couldn’t get pleasure or enjoyment from it. In the 20th Century we reached a point where abstraction became so great that things appealed to only a very small audience.
NS: In that sense then, do you feel like there’s a fear of popularity or branching out to wider audience? For example, someone like Philip Glass who has been, in some cases, harshly criticized by the musical elite because his music is considered too populist or trite?
MM: Yes, very much so. At one point it was almost as if you had to tow the party line, and to change would be almost sacrilegious. I was shunned in a silent way. What happened to me was that a lot of groups that performed new music refused to play my newer compositions because they were too conventional.
NS: Was there a point where you felt like your new style became accepted and where you felt like it was a part of the musical community again?
MM: Well yes, because I gained a certain notoriety and popularity. CBC and other stations have frequently broadcast my works, and I find that orchestras often program my works because it appeals and connects with the audience and they get very positive feedback from the public. It bothered me in the beginning when I did shift, it’s a big shift, but now I’ve developed more of an audience. Also, other colleagues have changed as well and as a group we can support and connect with one another. I’m no longer totally isolated and that world has shifted and has become a lot more appealing and user friendly than it used to be.
NS: I think a lot of that is really true about your music. You have the distinction of having Affairs of the Heart referred to as “driveway music,” which means that people listening to it on the radio will stay in their vehicles even when they’ve reached their destination to finish listening to the piece. As well, when you look at reviews for the CD’s and audiences comments it’s quite obvious that this music is moving people on a very deep level.
MM: The most satisfying thing is that what I’m doing is connected to audiences and that the music is affecting. They want it. In turn, this also means that I feel wanted and desired, which is a great boost to continue doing this. I think what happened at one point in terms of this modern music is that composers were only writing music for other musicians, not the public at large. There was too much shunning of the general public. Even Stravinsky did do this, but I think he was being contrarian; he did enjoy music that was written for the public at large.
NS: Exactly, some of his compositions did become quite intellectual but he was writing things at the same time like the Ragtimes. It’s almost as if it got to a point where every composer was writing their doctoral thesis, in terms of the complexity and intellectuality of their music.
MM: Exactly, it gets too rarified essentially. A lot of that is still going on and it’s supported, mainly because of universities and to some extent arts councils, particularly the Canada Council. They tend to support the very esoteric kind of music.
NS: Which in some ways is almost working against the idea of trying to support and promote music for the general Canadian public that these funds are supposed to represent.
MM: On the other hand though, there’s a kind of appeal to being rarified and exclusive, that you’re ahead of everyone.
NS: Almost like an elitism.
MM: Yes, an elitist quality to it.
NS: Which then of course again is why your music is almost forward thinking in the way that it looked back in time a little bit. Instead of being elitist and difficult it speaks to a diverse range of people, without losing its integrity and craftsmanship. I recently played Affairs of the Heart to a group of high-school students for their music appreciation class and among other avant-garde modern compositions it was the one that nearly all of them connected to immediately.
MM: That`s wonderful and good to know; I`ve gotten fan-mail from teenagers out of the blue. In a way, if I can say this, my music deals with sad things. Not in a depressed way though, it`s kind of allowing one to be melancholic but there`s an energy there that almost makes it positive. And this is the kind of response I get from people, it`s almost like they discovered something that was empathetic to their state. Going back to teenagers, I think a lot of them go through depressed times personally and privately, they`re much more vulnerable. Somehow they connect to my music in that way.
NS: I think the same could be said for adults as well.
MM: Yes, I suppose in the case of teenagers they`re just a lot more bewildered with it all.
NS: Speaking of Affairs of the Heart, can you describe some of the story behind the process and music materials that went in to creating this piece?
MM: You know, I say this all the time, but I have very little concrete thoughts when I write music. Towards the end some sort of idea comes to my mind. I had no idea Affairs of the Heart was going to be titled that way. I start with certain material, for me it’s abstract in a feeling sort of way. I start playing and tend to improvise at the piano and try various things until something starts to appeal to me. I’ll work on that and the piece develops out of it. You’ll hear of this for writers, who will talk about how they have real no idea of the plot but all of the sudden a character appears and that character leads to them to other characters, situations, and plots. It’s an organic kind of thing and that’s the way I tend to write music. I start with certain material that I find catchy and intriguing in an emotional sense that mesmerizes me and makes me forget what I’m doing. Of course, it’s restricted by the kind of instrumentation I’m going to use. I’m actually not a good writer in terms of just writing a piece, I’m essentially a lazy guy. What I need is restriction, like a commission for a certain group or specific instrumentation. With Affairs of the Heart it was a commission from the Manitoba Chamber Orchestra and they wanted a piece for violin and string orchestra. Because it’s string instruments, which can be very emotional and warm, I picked the material that one hears at the beginning of Affairs of the Heart and I devised this whole 20 minute work out of it. Coming back to the question of title, it’s sort of after the fact. What are the feelings and thoughts I get after I’ve composed it or near the end? I came up with Affairs because it was quite an emotional piece.
NS: So would it be fair to say that your compositional process, like you music, is quite organic?
MM: Yes, and it’s kind of peripheral but I used to live on Howe Island near Kingston and I was nearing the end of Affairs. I received news from a friend that another friend had taken his life and it was quite a shock to me. I remember that I had a frustration and anger when I heard this news and couldn’t help but feel how tragic this was. I transmitted some of this feeling in to that piece even though it was almost completed.
NS: Would this be around the 21 minute mark where there’s a sudden surge of intense material?
MM: Exactly, and the solo violin is very high and the whole ensemble seems to expand and then it kind of resolves into a resolution of peace which was really quite intentional. It’s interesting because it was near the end of the piece and this tragedy almost gave an impetus towards the ending and this is, I think, where I really felt that the title was appropriate for the piece.
NS: So you’re very open to your surroundings then and not stuck on a pre-conceived layout or a grid matrix or anything like that?
MM: I find that some of my most successful pieces happen to some extent by accident or serendipity. It’s not really floating or anything like, I do have certain controls and techniques mixed with past knowledge of other music which always comes in to play. Overall though I need that openness to really create, like great inventions that come out of to some extent accidents.
NS: Right, you still require that intensive training to be able to conceptualize and express what you wish to write.
MM: They don’t just happen really; one has to work at it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Read our Canadian Bands You Should Know: Marjan Mozetich and the greatest song you’ve never heard here.