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Victor Spiegel

Victor Spiegel

What is your earliest memory of music?

I remember my father playing big band music and his 40s dance music. He had a great collection including George Shearing,  and Art Tatum recordings which I still enjoy. He would also play his trumpet along with the records. I still remember my mother and I eating lemons once in front of him when he was playing. It’s a terrible thing to do to a trumpeter. The idea of sourness destroys for a moment any embouchure and the playing devolves into a horrible cacophony.

Where do you live?

I currently live in a strange little city called Merrylands in New South Wales, Australia.

When, why did you start learning to play the piano? Can you remember the first piece you studied? Who was/were your teacher(s)? (How) did they make learning the piano an eciting, interesting, experience?

I grew up in Santa Monica, California.

When I was five I told my father I wanted to learn piano. A piano teacher happened to live next door so a weekly lesson began soon after. I don’t remember the first piece but because Bruce Sutherland was interested in developing elite concert performers I was performing in recitals when I was 6. I do still remember having to wear shorts for the show. Bruce was a hard teacher using the “bead method” which would often drive me to tears every lesson. If I made a mistake in a piece we would isolate that section, repeat it perfectly 6 times and them move on. If it was not played perfectly even at the 5th time the beads were all shuttled back and I had to start over. This would sometimes take a whole lesson. It was also a very good motivator to practice. Later when I was on my own, the image of him would be there with me and I would practice accordingly, that is, working on perfection and clarity. He also taught me how to attain subtlety and ‘musicalness’ in a performance. I think the first piano pieces were the Beethoven piano dances.

Victor Spiegel

Why / when did you move to Australia? What impact does the Australian scenery & culture have on your music?

I moved to Sydney, Australia in 2006.  My Sufi teacher had taught me Sufism and wanted me to pass on the teachings to a small group in Australia and grow Sufism there.  I agreed to move when my son graduated from high school.  Thanks to the plucky Australian students I was able to attain a permanent residency.

The first 5 years I lived outside of Sydney in the Blue Mountains: beautiful, idyllic but dangerous because of fires, snakes, spiders and weather.

Finally I have moved into western Sydney, a little closer to the ‘action.’  There is very little action, though, compared to London.  Sydney likes to imagine it is international when it is really still primitive.  Arriving here from Berkeley, California it felt like I was whisked back thirty years to a time of segregation, gender bias, unsustainability and ignorance and ignoring of arts and artists.

What was the first piece of music you composed? Which isntrument(s) was it for? Why / when did you write it? Did you write it for anyone?

At first I found it was much more fun and emotionally fulfilling to improvise on the piano. I began writing very short piano pieces. I needed to know if I could get my ideas down on paper. There was really no one around to share them with except my grandfather who had once been concertmaster of the Los Angeles Phil., and was also a composer & conductor. But I wrote the first pieces just to see if I could.

Could you tell us something about how your experience of music education? Who were your teachers? What do you remember most about your time at UCLA / Mills College? Why did you study there?

Mills College was both wonderful and dehumidifying. I respected the teachers there – Lou Harrison and Terry Riley– but found a gap between the real music world and the academic music world. What was great was to find like-minded others, students who were looking to sharpen their skills and art. It seemed to also suck away inspiration and the desire to continue as a composer because of the dryness of the university intellectual ambience.

My teachers:

Lou Harrison was one of the great composers of the 20th century--a pioneer in the use of alternate tunings, world music influences, and new instruments. Born in 1917 in Portland Oregon, he spent much of his youth moving around Northern California before settling in San Francisco. There he studied with the modernist pioneer of American Music, Henry Cowell, and, while still in his twenties, composed extensively for dance and percussion. He befriended another of Cowell's students, John Cage, and the two of them established the first concert series devoted to new music for percussion. They composed extensively for these concerts, including their still popular collaboration Double Music. In 1942, Harrison moved to Los Angeles to study with the famous Arnold Schoenberg at UCLA.

Terrence Mitchell Riley (born June 24, 1935) is an American composer intrinsically associated with the minimalist school of Western classical music and was a pioneer of the movement. His work has been deeply influenced by both jazz and Indian classical music. [More commonly known as Terry Riley]

Harold Budd's career as a composer began in 1962. In the following years, he gained a notable reputation in the local avant-garde community. In 1966 he graduated from the Uni of Southern California (having studied under Ingolf Dahl) with a degree in musical composition. As he progressed, his compositions became increasingly minimal. Among his more experimental works were two drone music pieces, "Coeur d'Orr" and "The Oak of the Golden Dreams". After composing a long-form gong solo titled "Lirio", he felt he had reached the limits of his experiments in minimalism and the avant-garde. He retired temporarily from composition in 1970 and began a teaching career at the California Institute of the Arts.

James Tenney was a pianist, composer and teacher and a student of some of the Twentieth century’s greatest composers, among them Edgard Varèse, John Cage and Harry Partch. He was an early pioneer of computer-generated music, and of the application of information theory to the art of composition. For the last six years of his life, he taught composition at the California School for the Arts.

Morton Subotnick (born April 14, 1933, in Los Angeles, California) is an American composer of electronic music, best known for his Silver Apples of the Moon, the first electronic work commissioned by a record company, Nonesuch. He was one of the founding members of California Institute of the Arts where he taught for many years. Subotnick has worked extensively with interactive electronics and multi-media, co-founding the San Francisco Tape Music Center with Ramon Sender, and often collaborating with his wife Joan La Barbara. Morton Subotnick is one of the pioneers in the development of electronic music and multi-media performance and an innovator in works involving instruments and other media, including interactive computer music systems. Most of his music calls for a computer part, or live electronic processing; his oeuvre utilizes many of the important technological breakthroughs in the history of the genre.

Leonard Stein American musicologist. He studied music theory and composition with Schoenberg at the University of Southern California (1935-36) and at the University of California at Los Angeles (BA 1939, MM 1941, MA 1942); he was Schoenberg's teaching assistant at the latter (1939-42) and his private assistant (1942-51). In 1965 he received the DMA from the University of Southern California with the dissertation "The Performance of Serial and Twelve-Tone Music for the Piano". From 1946 he taught at institutions in California, and was adjunct professor at the School of Music at the University of Southern California in 1975. He was director of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute at the University of Southern California from 1975 until his retirement in 1991 and editor of its journal (1976-90).

Could you share some of your own / personal experiences as a student of these teachers? Are there any fellow students, lessons or ways of teaching, you particularly remember? Did the teacher-composersuse their own compositions to teach you?

Each teacher had their own way of directing the discovery of one’s inner music.  James Tenny used sound maps, Leonard Stein made subtle suggestions using one’s composition; Lou Harrison showed various composer tools and techniques he used.

Philip Glass said 'the hard thing isn't finding your voice, but losing it'. Glass has done that by collaborating with other artists. Who have you collaborated with and what result has it had on your music?

I have enjoyed collaborating on almost all the commissioned works. I relish the challenge of reshaping my knowledge and learning to understand what a director is asking for. It requires a constant shifting of my reference point. To begin from an unknown to a finished product is fulfilling and exciting, also humbling & depressing when it doesn’t work. What works? When the story being told deepens and is expressed with conviction and authenticity.

Early in my career I was a dance accompanist at the University of California, Los Angeles. The improvising and study of Indian music made me an ideal pianist for the Master’s in Dance classes. There I met choreographers who needed music for their thesis and got to try a lots of my composing ideas for them, including my first attempt at a string quartet. So many of my collaborations are with choreographers, stage directors, short films, features and odd projects as museum tours.

From the dance classes I learned that good music should make you move or feel. If I don’t feel like moving to music I am working on, it does not work.

Was Indian music 'in the air' - so-to-speak, or was UCLA something of a unique school? Was your study of Indian music self initiated or encouraged / supported by UCLA?

This is during the ‘60s – the world was becoming smaller and with it Ravi Shankar’s music was beginning to attain awareness.  The guitarist in the rock band I was in sat me down one day and said, “Listen to this.”  He played a raga by Ravi Shankar.  The experience of listening was profound and changed my life.  As I heard the music coming in, it would form a picture-bubble of an aspect of my life, when I would understand it would then float out the window and the next image would form. This continued until there were no more images.  I then wondered what I was to do with my life.  A single word appeared: Composer.  And I knew it was right and that was what I would do from then on.

Composing, directing, acting, voice overs; which order did you start doing them in, and (how) do they affect each other?

I was always acting and doing voices in school. I think I have various personalities who come out in the different genres I write in. The directing comes from what I would like to hear or see or feel and trying to translate it for each specific actor. Acting classes allowed me to access these cast of characters and give them room to develop– and not be embarrassed about them.

What impact does being able to act have on your ability to tell stories through msical composition?

The idea of story-telling through or with music becomes clarified.  I look at a lot of my music as having a story, even if I don’t understand it; it needs a beginning, a middle and an end.  A listener needs to be able to follow what is going on, as a tour guide makes sure no one gets lost.  That is important to me.  Having seen a lot of academic composers losing the connection between audience and composer, I try to find my own way of keeping some line or thread to follow so no ones gets left behind.

Where or who does your compositional voice come from?

I think I have two major voices: One that offers the music service and the other my own voice. Offering to compose for others sometimes makes me feel like I am a tailor – how long, what fabric, what texture, what are you wearing this for? It’s a way to practice getting out of the way and focusing on what works for this project.

My own voice is one I am constantly discovering. It seems to be a blend of Jazz, Middle East, Africa, blues and India. The best example is from my group Darvish with Moses Sedler and Peter Maund.

What's the biggest compositional project you've undertaken?

My first massive composition project was The Magic Door- a musical based on The Hero’s Journey, at UC Santa Cruz. I wrote, directed, scored, conducted, performed, produced which was way too much.

Currently I am working on another large musical called The Magic Horse. This time I just wrote the music and lyrics. I am applying for a grant to produce it and let others take care of the components of directing, producing, performing.

What was the last piece of music you composed? Which isntrument(s) was it for? Why / when did you write it? Did you write it for anyone? (How) does it differ from your first composition?

Originally performed in Sydney and Melbourne to sell-out audiences with a storyteller and music, now the characters can tell their own story through songs.

The Magic Horse Intro

Magic Horse goals

1. Following Serge Prokofiev’s idea of the music story "Peter and the Wolf" I have employed clear and simple themes to help identify characters, places or actions

2. To be an imagination accelerant for young people to excite them about possibilities and choices, especially the arts

The Magic Horse part 1

3. To use diverse genres and styles of music (also known as the ‘buckshot approach’) to frame the story, engaging young people at the widest listening level,

4. To tell a story that is open-ended. Yes, the whole thing is a metaphor but you have to decide what it is about

The Magic Horse part 2

5. Eventually to perform The Magic Horse with orchestra, a famous actor as the story teller, jazz ensemble and excellent cast and puppets.

6. As a touring theatre to schools, with workshops on:
a. Songwriting - b. Theme construction - c. Improvisation - d. Instant Musicals

7. As an introduction to the orchestra and music. The intention is to create a powerful, effective musical journey for children 5-12.

The Magic Horse part 3

I was inspired by a story from "The 1001 Arabian Nights", also known as a Persian folk story / a Sufi story called The Magic Horse. When I arrived in Australia I began to assemble the main themes, considering how Prokofiev constructed Peter and the Wolf as a teaching aid in musical literacy defining themes with characters. I kept that idea in the creation of the story, rehearsed the music and performed it in Sydney and then Melbourne. At the La Mama Theatre we performed it with storyteller, percussionist and keyboard, and in as well as another version in the Melbourne Music Festival with violin, percussion and piano. The response from both children and adults was more than positive - we sold out and had to add another performance.

This kind of response informed me that we had something powerful. I took the themes of the music and crafted them into songs for the main characters. Thus we have the interior view of how the character is feeling as well as the story teller's outer view of the main points of the story. After writing the songs I then asked professional singers to help record and demo the songs. I orchestrated the production numbers and now it is all available (though still a work in-progress) to listen to. This is a demo of what the songs are at this moment. The grant is to develop this into a productive musical.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am writing a novel based on a screw-ball magical comedy radio play I wrote about Australia and its origins.

What have you got planned for 2016?

I am a music lecturer for JMC Academy and it is back to teaching young people music literacy.

I hope to meet with the creative team associated with The Magic Horse and develop it as a live production over the year.

How would you compare your own teaching (lecturing) style to that of your own teachers from UCLA & Mills College?

The question of “What is Music?” pervades all my lectures and it is something I continually ask my students.  I use methods from my teachers and experiences to make students dig into finding their own answers and their own reasons.  My concern is that music is so pervasive now that being able to actually listen to it and not just hear it is vital to learning how to listen to one’s heart. There’s more noise than authentic content, and there is no university or educational environment that teaches one how to filter for the Truth.

How would you describe your music?

I am always discovering what it is.

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