MUSIC : Ned Rorem: Vindicating His Wicked Ways

Ned Rorem greets his friendly inquisitor in an old Hollywood hotel, a legendary hide-out for itinerant artists, writers and actors. The place has seen palmier days.

He shrugs at the flaking wallpaper, apologizes for the lack of space, smooths the dowdy bedspread and arranges himself in a picturesque lotus position.

Sporting a too-tight white turtleneck sweater, carefully accented with a silky scarf, he may not look exactly like the dapper, indecently handsome young innocent with the brooding eyes who adorns the jackets of his books. But he certainly doesn't look like someone who was born in 1923.

If nothing else, Rorem knows how to cultivate an image.

"All of his music may be characterized as lean and firmly elegant." That is the summation of the Rorem entry in the biblical "New Grove Dictionary"--an entry contributed, not incidentally, by his closest friend, James Holmes.

The description, however sweeping, is apt. Rorem wants to be lean and firmly elegant in life as well as in art.

He has been celebrated as a composer, most notably as a composer of lean and firmly elegant old-fashioned songs. He has achieved greater notoriety, however, as a perceptive, clever and often poignant diarist. His fourth volume of unabashed self-indulgence, chronicling the period between 1973 and 1985, has just been published.

The "Nantucket Diary" (North Point Press, $30) offers more than 600 detailed pages of analytical profundity, analytical shallowness, churlish criticism, illuminating criticism, silly gossip, interesting gossip, narcissistic snobbery, petulant musing, elaborate name-dropping, increasingly guarded sexual revelation and assorted tales retold.

Rorem's tone has turned a bit wry and dry. In spite of the intrinsic excess, much of his latest literary effort is lean and firmly elegant. Perhaps the style relates to his florid Gallic orientation as filtered somehow through an adopted New England sensibility.

"What shall we talk about?" Rorem asks amiably.

The diaries.

He is off and talking. "It all began when I was 12, and on my first trip to Europe. I got in the habit of writing things down. You know--'Washed my hair. Saw 'Show Boat.' Love Irene Dunne. Saw Notre Dame. . . .'

"When I started again in 1945, I was in my self-expressive/hideous phase. I showed the snotty, vicious, mean side of me. . . .

"The 'Paris Diary' made me famous. Many people who read it still don't know I'm a composer. By the same token, there are, I think, musicians who still don't know I write diaries."

In response to a skeptical look, Rorem demurs.

"Well, everyone is thrilled that the new diary has an index. Lenny told me there was only one thing wrong: The names didn't have a plus or a minus. That, he said, would have made everything so much easier."

He flashes a naughty, boyish grin.

"Lenny," of course, is Leonard Bernstein. His citation leads to the first of many digressions. In this case, it concerns the less-than-flattering portrait of Bernstein that emerges in Joan Peyser's recent biography. The controversial book alludes, amid many other intimate revelations, to an early liaison between Rorem and Bernstein.

Rorem shakes his head, momentarily shuts his eyes.

"It is not a good book. I say anything to anyone. That isn't the issue. I did grant her an interview. Leonard Bernstein is very much out of the closet. But he wasn't out of it, until now, in print. I resent that she focused so much on personal matters. She did not even describe me as a distinguished composer.

"Before the book came out, I had been asked to deliver the address when Lenny was awarded the MacDowell Medal. I wrote the speech and trembled. It was a eulogy to Lenny as a musician. You can read it. It was reprinted in Ovation magazine last month.

"Lenny arrived and was coolly affectionate. After I spoke, he was in tears. He said my tribute was 'the most eloquent ever.'

"Lenny conducts like a composer. (William) Steinberg couldn't do that. That makes (Bernstein) different. He is right even when he is wrong.

"He's very important. I don't like to see that damaged."

Actually, the speech represents a wild flight of purple hyperbole. Take, for instance, the ending:

"If you want to know how much I love Lenny, listen to my songs. In discussing any great artist, the parts of speech are inadequate. Or, as the poet Wallace Stevens says, 'Not Ideas About the Thing but the Thing Itself.' And so, precious Lenny, the day is yours, and so is the century. You are what we all would be. The Thing Itself."

Sometimes Rorem gets carried away. His words are elegant, perhaps. But, for once, they are neither firm nor lean.

He sympathizes with the problems arising from Bernstein's versatility as an artist.

"In America, people want you to be compartmentalized. It isn't good to be a jack-of-all-trades, a pre-20th-Century person. If you wear two hats, you are superficial. Was Da Vinci superficial?"

Rorem admits that his diaries, like his music, are not exactly private matters.

"Of course, I write the diaries for other eyes. That is obvious. I can't put anything on paper without the thought that it will be seen by the public. That is why there are gaps. I intentionally leave some things out.

"Is that cheating? If it is me doing the cheating, then it is me too. Ergo, it is not cheating. A diary is fiction as much as it is a first-person novel. The 'I' presented to the reader is, in some way, my own invention.

"I do have a sense of order, though. I don't want people to hear, for instance, what an old man thinks of his libido."

Contrary to popular impression, Rorem doesn't go home every night and scribble a resume of the day's activities in an album under his pillow.

"I do make little notes to myself," he says. "I even sit down and write paragraphs. At the end of the month, I usually collect the bits and pieces and put them together. Primarily, it is a matter of editing."

Inclusion in a Rorem diary automatically brings with it a certain reclame in the music world, but the subject is not invariably grateful for the attention.

"A few people who are mentioned won't speak to me any more. That is true. But I don't grade people by how they react. I am upset if people are hurt, unless they happen to be people like Pierre Boulez or Elliott Carter. They have been brainwashed by the media, applauded for putting intelligence ahead of emotion.

"I criticized Andrew Porter (critic of the New Yorker), for contributing to the brainwash. I think I deserved more words in his latest collection of reviews, and Elliott fewer. But, believe it or not, Andrew wrote me a fan letter."

Despite magisterial dispensation here and there, Rorem belongs to the school that says only a composer should criticize other composers. He obviously disowns the theory that one doesn't have to be able to lay an egg to know if one has been served a rotten one.

"I have a right to say certain things," he explains. "I write with a sense of love and experience. I say things with that vantage. I feel the need to protect my brothers and sisters who are composers."

That doesn't mean, however, that Rorem dispenses only praise. Perish the thought.

"Virgil (Thomson) wouldn't speak to me after my review in the New Republic of his 'Lord Byron.' I had mixed feelings about him as a composer, if not as a teacher. Now we are friends again. I don't want to jeopardize that. I won't write about his music if I don't like it."

Thomson himself served as chief music critic of the New York Herald Tribune from 1940 to 1954.

"Virgil was the best critic who ever lived," says Rorem. "He could write. He understood economy. When he disapproved of something, he said it without tears but also without relish. Most important, he didn't write about things that he didn't know or care about. He left that to others.

"Clever critics are fun to read. Look at John Simon (drama critic of New York magazine). His Achilles' heel is that he wants to be thought of as a bastard.

"I understand that. I'd say anything to be impressive. I need J. H. (James Holmes) to put things in perspective.

"Being a critic is essentially parasitical. At best, a critic is a parasite of the highest order. A composer can exist without a critic, but a critic--no matter how good he is--cannot exist without a composer."

We had heard that somewhere or other before. Those who can, do; those who can't, teach--or criticize.

Rorem tries to teach, when he isn't criticizing or composing.

"Actually, it can't be taught," he admits. "Once a piece exists, one can say what is the matter with it. I tell my students, 'I would have done it this way.' But I always try to decide who they are, too.

"I can, of course, deal with specific, practical things. Take word setting. That can be taught. There are rules that need to be learned, then broken. In my classes, I often assign a poem, then ask the students to set music to it. The results are very interesting, especially if it is a poem I have already set."

He doesn't try to teach everyone.

"I can't begin to communicate with 12-tone composers or electronic composers. I see them flailing around and don't know what to tell them.

"Also, for some reason, I have never had a female student. I would love to have one, but, so far, it hasn't happened."

The interview is interrupted by the arrival of a photographer. Rorem is asked to go on talking, to ignore the camera. He can't.

"I don't like casual shots," he explains. "I like to pose."

And he does, pensively. Eventually, he returns voluntarily to the business at hand.

"Ask me what I'm writing now. I have enough to keep me busy to 1991.

"I'm doing a lot of chamber music. Then there is a big piece for Boston on a militant pacifist theme, and another for the Gay Men's Chorus in New York. Chicago wants a big chorus piece. Half my music is choral and for churches, and I don't even believe in God.

"I also happen to have an unperformed opera in my desk, called 'The Cave.' It was commissioned by the Ford Foundation in 1962 for the New York City Opera, but they ended up doing 'Miss Julie' instead. It is 10% orchestrated. UCLA is interested in it."

Ironically, perhaps, Rorem won the Pulitzer Prize in 1976 not for a vocal work but for an orchestral suite, "Air Music." He beams at the reference.

"If you get a Pulitzer, it gives you a certain authority. It also looks good in your obituary. Mine won't say, 'Composer Ned Rorem was found dead. . . ," it will say " Pulitzer Prize - winning composer Ned Rorem was found dead. . . .'

"No one can take that away. And another thing: The Pulitzer vindicated my wicked ways."

There is no nonsense even in his nonsense.

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