A Conversation with Rami Levin
We spoke at her residence there on January 6, 2011
TM: Please talk about the musical environment in your family when you were growing up.
RL: My parents had the classical radio station on all the time â€“ WQXR, in New York. When I was five and a half I started going to a music school on Sundays where I learned to play the recorder, piano and basic music theory. My parents often took me to concerts. For my seventh birthday they took me to a performance of La Boheme at the Metropolitan Opera. There was always a lot of music around the house. I donâ€™t remember a time when I wasnâ€™t playing an instrument or listening to music. My parents themselves are musical to a certain extent. My father had a very nice voice, and though he didnâ€™t sing professionally, he was a cantor at various synagogues. He did not play an instrument. My mother took piano lessons when she was young. I donâ€™t recall any stories about my grandparents having played instruments, but everyone in the family was a music-lover.
TM: How did your father come to be a cantor? Was there a family connection?
RL: He never had any training. He came from an Orthodox family, and went to synagogue regularly. I would imagine at some point a synagogue he belonged to needed a cantor occasionally and he offered his services. In later years he was a cantor for the High Holy Days.
TM: You must have memories of him singing?
RL: I have memories of him singing at home when I was growing up, but his cantorial exploits were not until much later, so I donâ€™t have any memories of that.
TM: Did you grow up in Manhattan?
RL: I grew up in Long Island, and we moved to Manhattan when I was in high school.
TM: In addition to music school, what other musical memories do you have from childhood?
RL: I went to the High School of Music & Art, which has since been combined with the High School of Performing Arts and is now called La Guardia School of the Arts. It was a phenomenal experience. All of my friends were fabulous musicians or artists already. It was there that I learned to play the oboe. I entered the school as a pianist, and the rule was that if you were accepted as a pianist, you had to learn another instrument so that you could play in a band or orchestra. I chose the oboe, and really loved it. I played it all through high school and college as well.
I studied composition privately in New York with Miriam Gideon. She was a wonderful influence. First of all, she was a woman composer, so it never occurred to me that women could not be composers. She was a very supportive teacher. She encouraged me to make recordings of my pieces, which was a very important thing to do, so I could gain some perspective on what I was writing. At first I wrote for whatever instruments were at hand or music I could play on the piano, which was a limitation, since I am not a very good pianist. Later I would write for oboe, and for my instrumentalist friends at Music & Art, and we recorded the pieces (non professionally).
TM: What do you recall from your early lessons on piano and recorder, when you were five or six?
RL: My piano teacher told me about a little boy named Mozart, who was writing symphonies when he was my age. I began to feel very competitive with this kid named Mozart, and decided, when I was about six, to write an opera. My teacher taught me how to write down the music I was inventing. I still have the manuscript, in very childish handwriting, of my first (and only) opera. I wrote a couple of scenes, basically I, IV, V, I chord progressions all in C major. But my teacher was very encouraging and said, â€śYouâ€™re composing!â€ť In a sense she was my first composition teacher. Half of each of my lessons was devoted to writing down my little tunes. The piano was a vehicle for me. At first I wrote only for piano, because that was all I really knew. Later on, in high school, when I learned about other instruments, I expanded my compositional repertoire.
TM: When your papers are collected and given to an academic institution, your first opera will be included.
RL: Perhaps. Thereâ€™s an overture, which is all C major. Then thereâ€™s an aria where a boy and girl talk about what to do: â€śWhat shall we do today – too cold to go out and play â€“ what shall we do, what shall we do, what shall we do today?â€ť I was certainly not in the same league as that kid named Mozart!
TM: So you were composing at the age of six. What music were you listening to at the time, and in your teen years?
RL: Mostly classical music; Mozart, Bach and Beethoven â€“ it was also the music that I was playing on the piano. I didnâ€™t hear my first impressionist piece until I was a teenager. During my first summer in high school, I went to a music program at the University of Vermont. My composition teacher played me some Debussy, and showed me that if you started with a triad, you could add a seventh and then a ninth, to create different sounds. I had never heard anything like it. I thought â€śWow! This is incredible!â€ť So I began exploring these new harmonies, moving beyond the classical style.