A prolific paradox

Special to The Times

It's a snowy afternoon in Manhattan, and Ned Rorem is being warmly charming and coldly critical in a conversation that ranges from philosophical reflection to witty aphorism and sharp-tongued gossip.

He is sitting on the sofa in his Upper West Side apartment, wearing a snappy hot-pink-and-white-striped shirt that complements his silver hair. Beside him stands a bookcase filled with poetry, and on the wall half a dozen photographs and paintings depict him as a youth, the handsome enfant terrible of decades ago, who cut a wide swath through the most sophisticated (and gayest) circles of the mid-20th century.

Rorem, 79, self-described, is "a composer who writes." In six tell-all diaries and one memoir, he has meticulously chronicled his wide-ranging artistic, literary and sexual adventures for the past half-century. He has also authored collections of profiles, ruminations and essays about music. And then there is the music itself, close to 500 art songs (no exact count exists), three symphonies, nine operas, four piano concertos, ballets and choral, solo and chamber music works.

This is the creative outpouring of a man who is, famously, a codex of contradictions -- outrageously narcissistic and endearingly thoughtful, suavely charming and rudely cutting, wickedly witty, depressive, honest, vulnerable, courageous, grandiose, needy, abashedly shy and unreservedly exhibitionist.

Ask him who his predecessors are, for instance, and he'll be coy and revelatory all at once: "Rimbaud said that art is clever theft. So I never talk about my influences. If you're smart enough to know who you stole from, you try to cover your traces. And the act of covering your traces is the act of genius."

When Rorem writes, "I love to read my name in print, even in the phone book," it might be self-parody or he might be confessing something everyone thinks but no one admits.

Rorem can seem paradoxically oblivious to how damning his revelations might be. His compulsion for a kind of full disclosure is evident in a passage from his 1995 memoir, "Knowing When to Stop": "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."

Rorem takes a sip of tea, and, by way of explaining himself, says, "All artists are children." He is replaying a leitmotif that appears in his writings. "And I suppose no artist ever thinks he or she ever gets enough attention."

For years, he has complained bitterly -- privately and in print -- about the lack of respect and remuneration paid him and his music. At times it seems that he was not taken seriously, was eclipsed by others of his generation and pigeonholed as a composer of mere songs.

But this season, a flurry of premieres, recordings and retrospectives is taking place across the country and abroad, in conjunction with his 80th birthday (he was born on Oct. 23, 1923).

Certainly Rorem never fit the mold of the acceptable 20th century classical music composer: He was too "pretty" (a word often applied to him). His diaries blatantly declared his homosexuality and his promiscuity. And -- even more damning in some circles -- he resisted the temptation to write serial music, clinging instead to tonality long after it was deemed passe.

"I always admired Ned's refusal to bow to the dictates of the time," says Charles Amirkhanian, musical director of the Other Minds Festival in San Francisco, which this week opens with a Rorem birthday celebration. "His music is often brilliant, much more interesting than that of most tonal writers. His range of intellectual interests is sometimes astonishing -- he is so much more than a narcissist endlessly playing Dorian Gray, as he has sometimes been unfairly depicted."

Acclaim over 'Evidence'

If there is one work that pushed Rorem the composer firmly into the spotlight in the last five years, it would have to be "Evidence of Things Not Seen." Commissioned by the New York Festival of Song and the Library of Congress, the 36-song cycle was scored for six singers and two pianists, uses texts by 24 writers, ranging from Walt Whitman and W.H. Auden to William Penn. Rorem intended it as a summation of his songwriting career, and its three parts are titled "Beginnings," "Middles" and "Endings." "Evidence" was premiered in New York in January 1998 (it will receive its West Coast premiere as the centerpiece of the Other Minds Festival) to a tsunami of praise. The premiere also marked a sea change in the way Rorem was viewed.

Typical of the response was Peter G. Davis' review in New York magazine. He found "Evidence" "one of the musically richest, most exquisitely fashioned, most voice-friendly collections of songs I have ever heard by any American composer." After the cycle's Washington premiere a few months later, Tim Page wrote in the Washington Post that Rorem's "work has taken on a new intensity of expression. It is not merely because he has addressed the Big Issues in this cycle -- love, death, youth, infirmity, infinity. Rather, even the smaller subtle themes ring with conviction."

"Evidence" seems to have marked the beginning of a creative second wind for Rorem, who has been producing some of the finest and most deeply felt work of his career, in music and prose. Among other musical works, two more large-scale song cycles followed, both given premieres in 2002, and like "Evidence," highly personal and reflective. Both were inspired by loss, public and private; "Aftermath" took as its subject the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and "Another Sleep" was a memorial for James Holmes.

Holmes, an organist, choral conductor and musicologist, had been Rorem's partner since 1967. In 1995, Holmes was diagnosed HIV-positive (Rorem is negative), and he died in 1999.

Rorem gives a harrowing account of his lover's gradual decline in "Lies," the latest diary published two years ago that covers the years 1986 to 1999. Woven through the chronicle of his busy social and artistic life is the thread of Holmes' illness and death -- from the shock of diagnosis to the onset of symptoms to the numbing repetition of caregiving and the administering of morphine on the last night. As a writer, Rorem never blinks. He never averts his gaze or romanticizes loss. Instead, he offers awful but honest scenes of remorse, dependency, anger, shame, guilt -- as well as moments of loyalty, sacrifice and love. How far this is from the precocious, promiscuous charmer of his earlier journals.

"Maybe my work, musical and literary, has changed," Rorem says, "but I can't know that, and it's for others to say. Still. Yes, some of it has to do with Jim dying."

The scene in Paris

Born in Richmond, Ind., Rorem was raised in Chicago. His father, C. Rufus Rorem, was one of the founders of Blue Cross and Blue Shield and worked as an economist. Both parents were Quakers and Rorem, who calls himself "a good Quaker," is a pacifist. While he professes no belief in God, he has often set biblical texts -- without irony, he points out -- and says he "believes in belief."

His musical talent developed early, and he studied piano and composition at Northwestern University, the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and the Juilliard School in New York. In 1948, his setting of a poem by Paul Goodman, "The Lordly Hudson," was voted the best song of the year by the Music Library Assn. and brought him to the attention of the music world.

Rorem moved to Paris in 1949 where, playing the role of the gorgeous callow youth, he hobnobbed with Picasso, Virgil Thomson, Poulenc, Nadia Boulanger (teacher of Aaron Copland, Thomson and many others) and Jean Cocteau. He posed for photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson, Man Ray and Carl Van Vechten, and spent decadent intervals in Morocco. In 1958, he returned to New York City, where he has lived mostly since, spending summers on Nantucket Island. In 1966, when the first of his books was published, Rorem was in his early 40s and had been a professional composer for about 20 years.

" 'The Paris Diary' came out around the same time as Philip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint,' " Rorem recalls. "But Roth's book was fictionalized and mine wasn't. You just weren't supposed to say these things, and there was a lot of publicity."

In fact, there ensued the kind of literary scandal that writers dream of and, in the wake of it, the following year Rorem published his second installment, "The New York Diary." Commission for his music poured in -- from Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, the Chicago Symphony -- and the awards piled up: a Guggenheim in 1957, and a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for his instrumental suite, "Air Music," among them.

But it's still not enough. Writing in Current Musicology last year, Rorem complained: "If song in the world of Elvis is a trillion-dollar business, song in the world of serious classical music is the least remunerative of expressions.... Today, re-creation takes priority over creation. The Three Tenors, intoning arias by dead Italians, earn more in one evening than what a live American composer earns in a lifetime."

An amazing productivity

Rorem, staring down 80 and mortality, goes on writing every day. In his dining room, the large rectangular table is almost always set with open reference books, neat stacks of manuscript paper and a cluster of pens.

This year, he has been spectacularly prolific, having composed a host of commissioned nonvocal works. He completed an instrumental quintet performed by the Contrasts Quartet last fall at New York's Merkin Hall. He wrote a cello concerto for David Geringas, a flute concerto for Jeffrey Khaner (principal flutist of the Philadelphia Orchestra) and a clarinet-piano duo for clarinetist Tom Piercy, all to be premiered over the coming months. His next project is a concerto for pitched percussion and orchestra for percussionist Evelyn Glennie. And on the horizon is the possibility of an opera based on Thornton Wilder's "Our Town" with a libretto crafted by poet J.D. McClatchy, a pending joint commission by a consortium of opera companies.

"If I didn't have commissions I wouldn't write anything," Rorem admits. His teacup is empty now, and he sets it on the table. "Except maybe songs. And I'd still rather get paid for those. But if I died today, I wouldn't be ashamed of what I would leave."

He's far from singing his swan song however. Recently, an editor stopped by to have tea and talk to him about publishing the next installment of his diary. And weekly, half a dozen young composers travel from the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia to meet with him at his New York apartment for lessons.

Rorem often protests that he has said everything he's got to say. And yet the works keep pouring from his pen. When he describes his music as "a diary no less compromising than my prose," he implies a complex relationship between both endeavors.

"There is often something plaintive, simple and guileless in Ned's music," wrote Steven Blier, pianist and co-founder of the New York Festival of Song, in the "Evidence" CD notes. "These aren't words I'd use to describe Ned or his extravagant, exhibitionist literary persona. In fact, there are several Ned Rorems, and at any given moment one of them may be contradicting another."

Indeed what makes Rorem so fascinating are his contradictions, the hall-of-mirrors aspect of his prose, as opposed to the nuanced, but never naive, simplicity of his music. He seems to endlessly reveal himself and yet, in the end, are we any closer to knowing him?

"The Paris Diary" contains a revealing anecdote (that an astute editor relocated to the very opening of the book) in which Rorem writes: "A stranger asks, 'Are you Ned Rorem?' I answer, 'No,' adding, however, that I've heard of and would like to meet him."

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Recent Rorem

"Ned Rorem: Evidence of Things Not Seen"

The New York Festival of Song. (New World Records)

"Captivatingly performed.... Rorem's rhythms and charismatic melodies bring word to life."

-- Mark Swed

"More Than a Day: Music of Ned Rorem"

Brian Asawa, countertenor. Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Jeffrey Kahane, conductor. (BMG Classics)

"Combine Rorem's music with Asawa's exciting, piquant voice and bright playing from the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (brilliantly recorded in the Zipper Concert Hall) and exuberant poetry explodes in celebratory lyricism."

-- M.S.

"Songs of Ned Rorem"

Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano. Malcolm Martineau, piano. Ensemble Oriol. (Erato)

A selection of songs that shows the composer's emotional range and impeccable literary tastes.

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'Evidence of Things Not Seen'

When: Wednesday

Where: Other Minds Festival, Palace of Fine Arts Theatre, 3601 Lyon St., San Francisco

Price: $15-$26

Contact: (415) 934-8134

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