27 Jul And All Music is Sacred – An Interview with Richard Auldon Clark
And All Music is Sacred – An Interview with Richard Auldon Clark
In A Man Without A Country, Kurt Vonnegut writes that music “makes practically everybody fonder of life than he or she would be without it.” During his last fifteen years, Vonnegut shared his passion for music with composer and conductor Richard Auldon Clark, whose collaboration with Kurt on an opera version of Happy Birthday, Wanda June was performed in Indianapolis in 2016. It was the culmination of years of musical adventures shared by the two friends, as Clark, Vonnegut, and several well-known composers set Kurt’s work to music, releasing the recordings as CDs on independent labels. This little-known aspect of the later years of Kurt’s life counters the popular image of him as an angry, bitter old man. In this interview, Clark describes Vonnegut as creative, funny, and engaged with life right up to his death in 2007. Vonnegut may have stopped publishing fiction, but through music and drawings, he continued making his soul grow through the practice of the arts.
Q: Your relationship with Kurt Vonnegut goes back many years. How did you first meet him?
Richard Auldon Clark:
I knew him for the last 15 years of his life. An oboe player who worked with me in the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra, Melanne Mueller, was working with RCA/BMG at the time; they were big music promoters, and a score had come to them of a requiem that Kurt Vonnegut had rewritten the words for. A composer in New York had met Kurt at jury duty and asked for permission to turn it into a piece. The requiem is in Kurt’s book, Fates Worse than Death, which I had read, of course. He was my favorite author, and I had read all of his books.
But the composer wasn’t really up to the task. Kurt had heard the Andrew Lloyd Weber requiem, which was gorgeous, but he hated the text. He read the translation of the Latin, but he was not a religious man. He was very skeptical about the existence of God. Sometimes he would say he was an atheist, other times, an agnostic, sometimes just a humanist. He believed in human beings, but not a superpower, and so this whole thing (in the requiem) about fire and wrath and dying and the day of judgment where even the innocent are guilty, really offended him. So he rewrote it in his own Kurt Vonnegut style. The composer at jury duty became friends with Kurt and got permission to turn it into a requiem.
Well, everybody rejected the piece. Nobody would do it. They had even tried Lucas Foss, who I had recorded. He was a Mark Twain fan, as Kurt Vonnegut was. I had recorded his opera, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County. But even Lucas Foss with the Brooklyn Philharmonic wanted nothing to do with it. It just wasn’t a good piece. So Melanne Mueller called me, and said, “I’ve got this piece with Kurt Vonnegut. Do you want to do it?” Before I even gave her a chance to finish, I said, “Yes, absolutely.” She said, “Now, wait, you haven’t even seen the piece, and everybody’s rejected it. Nobody’s interested.” I said, “I don’t care. If I can meet Kurt Vonnegut, I’ll do it.”
So they set up a dinner meeting, and Kurt wasn’t that friendly, kind of standoffish. I think Kurt was a little skeptical, perhaps, of the composer. That’s just my opinion as an observer. That’s not fact based. But the piece was not good.
So we did the performance and Kurt Vonnegut was there, and it was terrible, and Kurt was kind of embarrassed by it. But the whole first half of the concert was the music of David Amram, a great American composer, the first composer in residence with the New York Philharmonic. So Kurt not only knew of him, he knew him, and he was blown away by the first half, but really unhappy with the second. He called me a few days after the performance and said, “What happened?” I said, “Well, it’s not a good piece, Kurt.”
He said, “Well, then why the fuck did you do it?” That’s an exact quote. “Why the fuck did you do it?” I said, “So I could meet you.” And he’s like, “Really? Was it worth it?” That’s not a direct quote. I said, “Yes.” I told him that David Amram was a great composer and that’s why the first half of the concert was so fantastic. The other piece was just poorly written and kind of a mess, and it didn’t work.” And again, he said, “Well, why the hell would you do it?” I told him, “I just love your stuff, and I wanted to be a part of it in any way.” So he invited me to come over to his brownstone at East 48th Street, three blocks away from the United Nations.
I went right away, of course. The first thing he does is give me a huge glass of scotch, and when I say a huge glass, I’m talking a water glass, like you would fill up with water after being exhausted from something. We sat and drank scotch, and man, could he drink scotch, and I really couldn’t. And we just talked. He wanted to ask me all sorts of questions about music. He loved my conducting, liked my orchestra, and of course, I wanted to ask him tons of literary questions. I told him, if you’ll allow me to bring composers to you, we will do great projects. So I redid the requiem. I brought it to Seymour Barab, a wonderful composer. He’s deceased now as well. He and Kurt hit it off right away, and he told Kurt, “The problem with the piece is it’s not really a requiem.”
Kurt said, “Well, I set the requiem. I wrote it in that way,” and Seymour said, “Let me turn it into a cantata, and we’re going to call it ‘O Cosmos’, because everything is about going to the cosmos, not dying in judgment. And Seymour did it. We did the world premiere, and then we recorded it, and Kurt was thrilled.
So Kurt and I became close friends because of that endeavor, and he loved the CD. He loved the music. We did many performances in New York, and Kurt would just show up at my concerts. Sometimes I wouldn’t even know he was coming. When I took a job out here in Indianapolis, which is where Kurt is from, I brought my Butler Symphony Orchestra to New York to perform Shostakovich 5 at Trinity Church down on Wall Street, and there was Kurt, right in the front row. I couldn’t believe it. I mean, he just would do things like that.
He wanted me to bring him all my CDs, and he kept giving me books. When I brought him first edition books that I had found, he signed them, doodled in them, wrote inappropriate things sometimes. My funniest, most treasured collectible from Kurt Vonnegut, no joke, is a letter he sent to my apartment in New York, and in big letters on the outside of the envelope, he wrote, “Here’s the porn you requested.” He just thought it was really funny being vulgar or rude.
Q: You mentioned turning the requiem into a cantata. What’s the difference?
Richard Auldon Clark:
A cantata has more of a narrative thread to it about a theme, where a requiem is a death mass, and it’s very set to the Catholic way from the old days of how a mass should be. Because Kurt changed all that, it didn’t fit into your traditional mass. So the cantata could be a variety of any length movements, mostly shorter. Some have a full ensemble, some feature soloists. It was just a different way for Seymour to structure Kurt’s writing. Because the problem that this other composer had was that he did it as one continuous moving line for the entire piece, and what Kurt wrote was pages and pages long. Musically it’s sort of like a run-on sentence, no punctuation, and a ramble that goes on for 45 minutes. That’s why the piece was a dud.
Seymour cut it up. I think it’s eight short movements. So it’s still about 40 minutes, but each movement isn’t any more than three and a half to five minutes. Maybe one of the movements is a little longer, like eight minutes. It just made it so concise and clear and got Kurt’s message across. So Kurt was happy. You could actually understand what Kurt was talking about. Kurt was a literary man. He was all about the words.
Q: It’s interesting that it took a form similar to his novels, which are often composed of short chapters.
Richard Auldon Clark:
Kurt’s not a run-on kind of guy. He talked about how he had been criticized by some, the intellectual know-it-alls, who think simple is simple. He said, “Simple’s actually really complicated. If you really know what you’re saying, and you know how to say it, it should be simple. The greatest nuclear physicist should be able to explain his theories to a kindergartner. Otherwise, he’s a fraud.” It was kind of a jab at some of those writers who make you feel that they’re saying, “I know so much more than you, I’m so much smarter.”
We talked about the American John Gardner in that way. Gardner criticized Kurt in kind of an ugly way in his book On Moral Fiction. Kurt and I talked authors all the time. I said, “Well, I kind of like John Gardner because of his book, October Light, and I even wrote a piece using that title, and Kurt explained to me, and again I’m paraphrasing, “But don’t you feel, he’s always talking down to you? Or making you feel like you just don’t know?” And I said, “Yeah, I just thought I’m not as smart as you.” But Kurt rejected that kind of writing. I think that’s why his books are so beautiful and so successful and so appealing, especially to young people. Because the younger generations, they get it.
So he loved to talk about all those different kinds of things. He gave Seymour a children’s book he had done, Sun, Moon, Star. Somebody had done all these wonderful pictures, and so Kurt put the story to it. Very simple, again, like a children’s book, and Seymour turned that into a work called Born as a Child.
Our collaboration resulted in my bringing composers to him and Kurt actually performing with our ensemble. Not live. He would not perform live. He said, “I’m not a performer. I’m an author. I do like entertaining audiences and speaking to them, but I’m not a performer.” So he refused to do anything live. But we got him into the recording studio, and he narrated Breakfast of Champions and Mother Night. (Released as a CD on Keuka Classical, featuring the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra.)
We also did A Soldier’s Story because he rewrote the famous Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat, A Soldier’s Story is about World War I. Kurt, being a peace man, an absolute anti-war person, as a lot of World War II vets wound up being, was so angered that the Stravinsky work was not an anti-war piece, had nothing to do with violence. It’s this fairytale with the devil seducing the soldier.
So he rewrote the story. The Times barbecued him for it because you don’t touch a masterpiece. Kurt did it about the execution of Eddie Slovak, the only American to be executed for desertion since the Civil War. It was General Eisenhower who signed the death warrant for Slovak. All he said was, “If you go back and fight, then you can be discharged honorably at the end of the war.” Slovak refused, and so he was executed. And that’s Kurt’s story, to really make a statement.
I brought him the composer, Dave Soldier, to set that as well as Cat’s Cradle and several others. So we had this ongoing relationship until Kurt’s death where we would have new pieces created with composers. There was always a part for Kurt, which he would record, and that would be part of the CD.
They’re all commercially released and were featured on an NPR show called Here and Now. The CDs are on freaky independent labels because the major labels were not interested. This was in the ‘90s and early 2000s, when CDs still sold and got reviewed.
Q: How did you become involved with Happy Birthday, Wanda June?
Richard Auldon Clark:
Kurt liked that I was a composer, and he had introduced me to Howard Zinn, and I wrote a piece called The Trail of Tears, and Kurt was just thrilled that I did that. Then I took the speech of Frederick Douglas and set it to music, and then Kurt asked me to do Happy Birthday, Wanda June, his Broadway play. It had been made into a terrible film. Kurt’s films are pretty bad, although he always said that Slaughterhouse-Five was excellent because it’s a George Roy Hill film.
But he gave me Happy Birthday, Wanda June. Then he wrote a brand-new ending for it right before he died. He sent it to me just after Valentine’s Day, and in early March, he took that tragic fall and never recovered. So I have quite possibly the last thing Kurt Vonnegut ever wrote.
I didn’t touch the opera for years after that. I loved him dearly. I was so depressed after he died. Finally, Indianapolis Opera was interested in it. Kurt’s from Indianapolis, of course, and I was out in Indianapolis teaching at Butler University. I took a sabbatical, and I wrote the opera, and we gave it its world premiere in 2016. It’s the only opera I’ve written, and it was the biggest thing I ever had to write. It was a thank you to a mentor and a friend. I’m just so honored by it. It did really well out here.
As I said, quite possibly, it’s the final thing Kurt wrote because of the new ending and the few changes he did. But I’d sit in his brownstone with him, and we’d go through every word of that play because I had to figure out ways of turning it into an opera. You just can’t set every word in a play. It would be like a Wagner opera, six hours long. Kurt technically wrote the libretto. But what he really had me do was read through it, and we decided what to cut. Not a single word was changed. He wouldn’t let a single word be altered in any way, but he allowed things to be cut. And so we were getting near the end and then it arrived right after Valentine’s Day. He called it a Valentine’s gift, sent it to me priority mail, and it was the new ending for the opera. And then he died.
Q: What is the new ending? I’ve read the play, and I’ve seen a performance of it off- Broadway. How has the ending changed?
Richard Auldon Clark:
Instead of Harold Ryan deciding he was wrong and trying to kill himself and shoot the gun and then actually missing, he asks Woodly, the doctor, to end the conflict. He has to open the window and have fresh air. They’re in a high rise in New York City, and so he tells Woodly to take in a nice big breath of air and breathe, and as the doctor’s taking the big breath, Harold Ryan throws him out the window and has him crash down on the sidewalk in New York City. So it’s pretty funny.
Here’s the interesting story. Every time an amateur theater group or even a professional theater group was going to do the play, sometimes Kurt rewrote things for it or changed the ending for them. He must have had six or seven different endings. Some of them also include the doctor being thrown out the window. But the way he gets the doctor to the window often changed. I remember telling him, “Oh, I love the idea, but how do I get him there? And musically, what am I going to do? Kurt said, “Well, let me work on it and I’ll send it to you,” which he did.
The Wheelhouse Theater Company did an off-Broadway performance in New York that was very popular. They did a great job. (See interview with Jeffrey Wise and Matt Harrington from the Wheelhouse Theater on their production of Happy Birthday, Wanda June.) I went to one of the performances as a guest and was in the audience discussion at the end. They introduced me and had me talk about Kurt and the play.
But Kurt always told me, “Never watch the movie.” I waited until long after he was dead to finally watch it. It was after I wrote the opera, because he didn’t want me affected by it. He thought it was the worst movie yet of his stuff.
There’s still a lot of interest in Kurt and his books have had such an impact. I think someday if this opera ever gets performed again, people will really love it. It needs to be done in New York next.
Q: What was the most difficult thing about the whole project, creating an opera out of something that in essence was not conceived as one?
Richard Auldon Clark:
There are no real speeches in it and a speech becomes an aria. So it’s all dialogue, and it’s a lot of choppy dialogue, which is fun. So you need to really cut up the scenes like Kurt did. The first act is like vignettes and then Act Two and Act Three are the actual real story that has continual flow to it. But you have to look at Act One more like a ’60s sitcom in that there’s a commercial between each little scene because the individual scenes are not as related to each other as they are to the central idea of the play. So it’s easy to turn it into something like recitative, which is what dialogue is in opera. A lot of baroque and early classical opera is no longer popular because it’s so much damn recitative. Dialogue, dialogue, dialogue, and then you get an extraordinary aria.
Well, there are no real arias from it, so by cutting out the dialogue, getting rid of it and letting that one actor have 5, 10, 15 lines, without being interrupted, you can create aria type material. So he can really sing and express himself. Kurt felt, and this is one thing that really stuck with me, that in the play, Harold Ryan just doesn’t seem badass enough. He doesn’t seem like enough of a shit. That’s what Kurt called him, literally, a shit. And an opera can do that. He’d say, “With music, you can represent the ugly side of this guy even better.” He wanted the good guys to be high tenors. The guys who are fuckups like Harold Ryan, a bad person and Looseleaf Harper, the pilot that dropped the bomb on Nagasaki, are both a bass. The deep-voiced people, the evil stuff is low, and then you have these two, almost effeminate gentleman because they’re decent, because they’re kind, they’re high tenors.
Of course, you can’t have a boy in an opera. They just can’t project well enough, although there are some who have. It’s what you call a pants role. So a girl plays it, which adds to the fun because of her range, and the development of the voice is something that you can play with. Harold Ryan, at one point, says, “Boy, we got to do something about this kid’s voice. It hasn’t changed yet.” A woman was playing the part. So there’s some great humor. Kurt’s so funny, but it’s subtle humor. So the music, if you’re not careful, can ruin the subtlety and the underplay.
The most fun for me is in Act One when Harold Ryan and Colonel Looseleaf Harper show up at the apartment, but nobody’s there. We call it the Fuck and Shit aria. Because Looseleaf Harper says he can’t believe how everybody’s swearing all the time. He used to be afraid that he’d slip and say, “Fuck or shit in public.” Musically, it was so fun to have this dialogue going back and forth, because they’d been out of the country seven or eight years. They had disappeared. Having him sing about all this stuff that had changed was great fun.
Kurt loved to put some filth in just to be funny, because he thought it was so ridiculous that people were so uptight about language. One of his old relatives had told him, “Well, I won’t read your books because you put dirty words in it.” I told Kurt that I grew up in a Catholic family, and if you said “fuck” you got the crap kicked out of you. My mom and dad were so Catholic and yet they always said, “goddamn this” and “goddamn that.” Kurt thought it was hysterical.
So at that concert at Lincoln Center, my parents were coming to see me conduct and were coming backstage afterwards. I told Kurt, “My mom would love to meet you.” She had never read any of his books, but she was thrilled that he was so famous and that he liked me. She was so pleased for her son to have this mentor, this friend, this influence in his life.
Kurt remembered that story and how my mother was just horrified at the “F word,” but everything else was fine. I said, “Kurt, just don’t say anything rude to her, because she can’t handle it.” So what does he do? In the dressing room I introduced them, and he puts his hand out to her and shakes her hand and says, “Your son’s a fucking genius.” She almost had a stroke. But I loved it. That’s the kind of guy he was. He was such an amazing friend to me and such an amazing influence.
He was just so warm and welcoming in that way. So many people paint a picture of him as being so cynical, so depressed and angry in his last book, Man Without a Country. But he was hysterical to the end. He was cynical, yeah. I mean, look at the world. But it was always a spoof or sarcasm. He always found humor in everything, and he had such hope in young people. He thought the old generations were all fuck ups. They were useless. They were basically killing the planet and were war hungry. He joked right before his death, on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, “I never thought I’d live in a country that was being run by a Bush, a Dick, and a Colin.”
I thought, “This is not a depressed, bitter, cynical man.” He was a man who believed in America, who would’ve given his life in World War II, who watched his country turn into something he just couldn’t recognize. He died in 2007. Imagine if he had seen Donald Trump. When I was writing the opera, all I could think about was Harold Ryan being Donald Trump because he’s a narcissist, a sexist pig, a crook and a fraud. I remember joking with Kurt, when he said that Ryan was just not evil enough in the play. Donald Trump was my inspiration for Harold Ryan because I couldn’t think of a bigger asshole.
Kurt and I talked politics all the time, which I absolutely loved. I was thrilled to hear Kurt’s worldly views and his political ideas and his distrust of institutions. I was less than half his age, and I told him, “For me, you are the first adult that gave me permission to question everything.” When you’re brought up, you do not question your teacher in school. You do not talk back to the priest. Your parents, your grandparents, they tell you something. It is a fact. That is life. And I’m thinking, as a little kid, “This is such bullshit. These people don’t know what they’re talking about.”
Then you read Kurt Vonnegut, and in his work, business is criminal, politicians are criminal, the church is criminal. It’s fantastic. He’s not being bitter and depressed. He’s telling you how life is and saying, “You got to figure it out.”
Q: Which of his books did you read first?
Richard Auldon Clark:
Slaughterhouse-Five did it for me. I’ll never forget the first sentence in Slaughterhouse-Five: Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time. I just gave the world premier to a piece in November, in New York City called Vonnegut’s Suite.
We performed it all over the Finger Lakes, and we’re going to be recording it soon for a CD release. We’ve done about eight performances of it now. One of the movements is “Unstuck in Time.” So many of Kurt’s novels are all out of time, out of order, or you find out what’s going to happen at the end near the beginning. He turns your world upside down. So I thought, “What if we did that in music? What if I take a piece of music and make it unstuck in time?” Some of the other movements are his famous phrases like, “And So On,” and “So It Goes.”
The third movement is called “A Man Without a Country.” I hide My country, Tis of Thee in it. He used to laugh and joke that “Even our national anthem, they credit it to Francis Scott Key. He didn’t write the music. He wrote the words. The music is an English drinking song. That’s our national anthem.” That’s my impression of Kurt Vonnegut. He skewers everything. He’s so honest, so truthful, and so sincere in everything he does.
The Daily Beast did an interview with me and the writer was concerned because of everything being said about Kurt being so bitter before he died, and I said, “No, he was optimistic and still so creative and interested in everything.” We had discussions all the time about Broadway and music. That’s not a man who’s depressed and bitter and cynical. He was looking at the world, creating art, writing stories, writing for In These Times. That’s not a depressed guy who’s checked out. That kind of stuff really bothered me.
In one of the last interviews Kurt ever gave, they asked him, “Well, what are you doing?” He said, “Richard Auldon Clark is writing an opera based on Happy Birthday, Wanda June.” I thought, “Thank you for putting it out there, Kurt, because I think that’s why Indianapolis Opera was interested in doing it. It was actually in print, rather than their thinking, “Oh God, here’s another guy trying to get on the coattails of Kurt Vonnegut.”
Q: Is that how it came to be performed? Did they contact you to revive the project?
Richard Auldon Clark:
This is a terrible confession, but composers do this all the time and say, “Well, I’m working on this.” You put it in your bio or every time you’re interviewed about a new CD, or you’re doing a concert. “Oh, yes. I’m writing this opera.” So years before Kurt died, I was always talking about this opera that I hadn’t written a note of it. Years after he died, I was still talking about it.
Q: Music was a great bond between the two of you.
Richard Auldon Clark:
Once, in the middle of the night, Kurt called and left a message. He was famous for doing that, and he almost sounded like he was crying. He said, “Richard, tonight, I did something that nobody else did. I sat and listened to the entire William Grant Still CD tonight. At this moment, at this time, nobody else in the world is doing that. It’s such beautiful music. God bless you for performing his music, for letting me hear that.” He told me once, “You’ve enriched my life.” And I thought, Oh my God.
Q: What a wonderful thing to hear.
Richard Auldon Clark:
Well, that’s the kind of man he was. I couldn’t do anything for this guy. He was brilliant. He had it all. I was so grateful for any time he gave me and these gifts of being able to set his words to music. And yet, it wasn’t, “Well, you owe me this because I did this for you.” No, he said, “You’ve enriched my life.” What kind of a man interacts with people that way? I was just a stupid kid at the time. You know what I mean? He loved that people were creative and trying to make a go of it in the arts. That’s the Kurt Vonnegut that I want people to know.
For the 15 years that I knew him, we had phone calls every few weeks. We spent time in his brownstone either working on the opera or drinking scotch and talking music and books and composers almost every other month or two. It was an incredible time, and it lasted for 15 years.
At the end of Man Without a Country, there is another requiem, but this time it’s just a short poem, and he asked me to set it to music. This was the very end of February, I think. I was doing a concert so we couldn’t talk about it, and he said, “I’ll leave you a message.” He could be very short and very rough on the phone. He called back while I was doing the concert, and he said the new title for the poem. Adios, that was the last word, Adios. Then he took his tragic fall. I kept calling him, but the phone would just ring and ring.
Then finally in early April, I was watching the local news here in Indianapolis, early in the morning, and they said a famed local author has died at 84. It was Kurt. And so his last word on the voicemail is adios.
Note: The Vonnegut-Clark CDs can be purchased here:
Composer, conductor, violinist, and violist Richard Auldon Clark is Artistic Director and Conductor of the Manhattan Chamber Orchestra, Manhattan Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, and the Finger Lakes Chamber Music Festival. A strong proponent of American music, Mr. Clark has performed and/or recorded hundreds of world premiers, and his work has received extraordinary praise in the New York Times, Fanfare, American Record Guide, Washington Post, and dozens of others. Mr. Clark has recorded the music of David Amram, Henry Cowell, Seymour Barab, Lukas Foss, Alan Hovhaness, Otto Leuning, Osvaldo Lacerda, Dave Soldier, Alec Wilder, and many more. An active studio musician as well, Mr. Clark has performed and recorded for Broadway, television, commercial, and film music, including several films for Philip Glass. Mr. Clark’s compositions have been praised in the New York Times and broadcast on NPR stations around the country. With more than twenty chamber works to his credit, Mr. Clark has premiered six new compositions in the past three years at Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall, and in September 2016, his opera Happy Birthday, Wanda June with a Libretto by Kurt Vonnegut was premiered by Indianapolis Opera. A frequent collaborator, Mr. Clark works with dancers, choreographers, and visual artists in the creation of new works. Currently, Mr. Clark is Professor of Music at Butler University where conducts the Butler Symphony Orchestra and Butler Ballet.