Performing Arts : The Composer Tells All (Again) : Ned Rorem has been the center of attention for most of his 70 years, and his latest book--’Knowing When to Stop’--is sure to keep him there.

<i> Martin Bernheimer is The Times' music critic</i>

There’s a passage in Ned Rorem’s often brilliant, always stimulating, sometimes provocative new book, “Knowing When to Stop,” that the composer-diarist might live to regret--if regret were an important component of his emotional repertory.

Demonstrating the candor that has made him a favorite even among those who never heard of his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Air Music,” Rorem offers this generous morsel:

“I can’t sleep with famous people. Or for that matter with rich people, or people in power, used to being the center of attention. I have been in bed with four Time covers--Lenny Bernstein, Tennessee Williams, Noel Coward and John Cheever (included among 3,000 proportionately anonymous souls, including one woman)--and I performed out of a combination of duress and politeness. However, I grow uncomfortable when in other people’s memoirs I read this sort of thing (maybe this will be excised when the time comes), especially when embellished by the writer’s smug sense of charisma, boasting how he wouldn’t put out for some star.”


The passage was quoted in a New York Times story last January. Rorem’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, repeats it in an official P.R. blurb. It is, no doubt, the sort of confessional that sells a lot of books.

“It’s not a bad quote,” Rorem reflects on the phone from his home in Nantucket. “I had forgotten I wrote it, and then I read it in the newspaper. My hair stood on end. I try to have it both ways. I try to be brash and self-important. Then in the next gasp I say, ‘Who, me? Don’t hit me. I’m a lady.’ ”

He chuckles at his instant self-portrait. “The trouble with being interviewed after a book,” he says, “is I’ve already said it better.” Then he attempts a neat modulation. “I hate to be mean and bitchy, especially about colleagues.”

Obviously, he doesn’t mind being witty, and he has a way with nostalgia, too.

The most telling reference in the tell-tale quote may be buried amid the gossip. Rorem admits to problems with people who are “used to being the center of attention.” That could be because he has been the center of attention for nearly 71 years. There’s never much room in the middle.

Luckily for him--and for us--Rorem seems to deserve his habitual position. He has a keen eye as well as a sharp tongue, and knows how to use both. He has paid his dues as a creative artist, and he has led a wild, spectacularly revealing life.


Much of that life already has been chronicled in four volumes of Rorem diaries. “Knowing When to Stop” fills in some of the blanks, recounts the formative years, expands the dramatis personae and adds welcome overviews and ruminations. Hardly anything, believe it or not, seems repetitive, and, as always, not much is left to the imagination.

Still, Rorem says he spent a lot of time “cutting and cutting.” He had to satisfy his publisher’s lawyers. He also had to satisfy his sometimes-severest critic, James Holmes--the organist, choral conductor and musicologist with whom he has lived for 27 years.

The editors of the New Grove Dictionary of American Music, incidentally, saw no conflict of interest when they engaged Holmes to write the entry on Rorem. “All of (his) music,” a rather prim Holmes declares in summation, “can be characterized as lean and firmly elegant.”

That’s a lot better than the puffy Simon & Schuster judgment that dares label Rorem “America’s greatest living composer.” Period.

“I changed that to ‘one of . . . ,’ ” the composer insists when told of the press release. “That’s very ingenuous of them, and embarrassing to me.”

The title of Rorem’s memoirs may strike some readers as ambiguous. The author doesn’t mind. “ ‘Knowing When to Stop’ suggests a French virtue,” he explains, “as distinct from a German virtue. Any work of art is unique. That’s what I seek in my music.”

Does that mean he has written his final tome? Not at all.

“I have enough for another diary,” he says. “From 1985 on. I could whip it together in a couple of months.”

Rorem’s self-image seems healthy. “I don’t know what my value is, but I know what my gifts are. Most Americans are specialists. They don’t do two things. I am a composer who happens to write, not vice versa.”

Will he be crushed if posterity assesses him differently?

“I just want some posterity.”

He artfully dodges the issue of a possible relationship between his sexuality and his creative aesthetic.

“I am the sum of my parts. Is a person homosexual while he’s (having sex), or is he that way 24 hours a day?”

Rorem was born on Oct. 23, 1923. It isn’t easy to think of him as a septuagenarian. It will always be easy to think of him as the charming enfant terrible who took Paris by steamy storm, and explored the exotica of Morocco when he needed a change of space. It will be easy to think of him as the poignant raconteur who shared intimacies of one sort or another first with Jean Cocteau, Francis Poulenc, Arthur Honegger, Georges Auric, Aaron Copland, Truman Capote, Paul Bowles, Virgil Thomson, the Vicomtesse Marie Laure de Noailles and Martha Graham--and then with us.

“I feel the way I’ve always felt,” says Ned Rorem. “I feel self-pitying.”

Without skipping a beat, he adds a zig-zagging coda. “I don’t drink or smoke anymore. I have no night life. I want respect. I am what I am. I’ve proved my point.”

He says it, significantly, without an exclamation point.*