This completes ArtsATL’s two-part series drawn from our in-depth conversation with conductor, pianist and composer Robert Spano, music director of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. (Part I may be found here.)
ArtsATL: So you’re composing more. Have you published “Underwater” yet, your solo piano piece?
Robert Spano: I have not, but I recorded that, too, so that will go on iTunes as well and then the three songs for [soprano] Jessica [Rivera], which are on the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin, an 18th-century German poet much beloved by the 19th-century German Romantics. I first encountered Hölderlin because I was reading Heidegger. Heidegger talks a lot about Hölderlin when he is dealing with the philosophical implications of poetry. I actually started those songs in 1990, so it only took me 22 years.
Another thing: I want to play [piano] more. In my time here I was recognizing I’ve got to compose again, because it’s just something I’ve got to do, I’ve got to play the piano more, and I’ve got to teach. Somehow, in the last five years or so those things have started to fall into place better.
ArtsATL: Once you felt comfortable feeling connected with the orchestra?
Spano: You know, that’s probably true. I think you’re right. Somehow, once this relationship was established and I felt secure in our work together, it made room for me to realize the other musical appetites that needed to be satisfied.
ArtsATL: Have you found any parallel to that sense of connection, beyond your work with the orchestra, in terms of your relationship to Atlanta?
Spano: Definitely, just in the sense of feeling more at home over time. I feel like I live here. When you move to a new place, that takes time, too, [for it] to feel like home. At some point that happened. The other salient thing in my experience here has been the excitement of the city itself, growing, changing all the time. I live in Midtown and there’s just constant growth, even when it slowed down after ’08, it didn’t stop. It’s faster again now and its just visible right outside my window. And I love that percolating. I just love that excitement! I think we’re part of that.
ArtsATL: Does that bode well for the prospect of a new hall for the orchestra?
Spano: I think we’re probably not going to get that new hall built in the way that we had invested in and look toward, but I think we could renovate this hall in such a way. I think our testament to that is how much difference this shell has made. Were we to persist in the renovations that acousticians would like to do to this hall, I think we could successfully renovate this hall not only for the ear but for the eye, for the comfort and for the experience of being here, in such a way that would be every bit as exciting as the possibility that didn’t get fulfilled.
I’m speaking of what I would like to see happen, what I would like to pursue, because the shell has made such a huge difference. I didn’t expect it to have this much impact. For the orchestra this is astonishing, too, because every orchestra learns to play in the hall in which it plays. This orchestra had learned how to pump sound into the hall, fed by necessity — and the hall wouldn’t help. Now they don’t have to do that.
ArtsATL: Let me shift topics just a little bit if I could, because you mentioned reading Heidegger and his thoughts on poetry. You’re somewhat known as a “book person.”
Spano: I am. My mother calls me a biblioholic. I definitely have a “reader’s apartment” because my walls are lined with bookshelves. I can’t do Kindle, I’ve tried, I need my books as objects.
ArtsATL: They don’t require electricity.
Spano: They create electricity.
ArtsATL: So how does love of literature, philosophy and your interests in other disciplines influence your music-making? One would guess they inform it to a great extent.
Spano: Absolutely. I think the [residency] experience I had at Emory [University] had a big impact on that issue in my own inner life in relationship to my own interests and how they interact with my art and with society. Emory gave me the opportunity to interact with so many different disciplines. I was with MBA students, med students, literature, philosophy, dance and religion students. It was so challenging and stimulating because I didn’t [just] show up every once in a while. Each of the three years I was doing it three weeks in a row, very intensively.
The challenge was always, “How do I connect my discipline, my training and my work, with whatever it is they’re doing?” It influenced the way I feel about music in our society, how important it is that we have it and what it does for people.
When a neuroscientist is telling me about the brain mapping they can do on what happens [with music], that’s creating all kinds of neurological connections — “this is your brain on music” — then you don’t have to wonder why students who study music at a younger age are better at everything else. It’s actually something that stimulates the mind in ways that make it more effective for any other discipline, which is why music education should be curricular. It was for Plato.
In the meantime, the efforts that we [the ASO] make as an institution and orchestra in the musical life of the city, and how we interact with kids in the role our education programs play, I think is incredibly vital. I guess I’m more convinced than ever in my life of the vital importance of music in our lives as human beings, far beyond any understanding of entertainment or luxury or even culture. It’s more fundamental, more necessary than that.
ArtsATL: It’s among the earliest life experiences we can remember.
Spano: Yes, and Marietta Simpson singing that spiritual in the [Stars Shine on] Shaw concert, unaccompanied, I think is testament to the necessity of music, because we don’t have ways as human beings to process that level of pain, suffering and anguish other than music.
ArtsATL: It’s not just the notion of music being a beast of burden for text, rather that music-making is intrinsic. Doggerel is easy it set to music; great poetry is very difficult because it’s strong in and of itself.
Spano: Yes, and yet, the Greek tradition of music comes out of the delivery of text.
ArtsATL: That’s why they’re called “lyrics.”
Spano: Exactly, and there is something so beautiful about that, because when our words are able to sing then we have a mode of expression that is irreplaceable. Music is irreplaceable as a way of knowing, a way of understanding, processing, feeling. It has no equivalent. That’s one of the reasons it is so difficult, ultimately, to talk about the meaning of a piece of music. We can get in dangerous territory when we do it. But we do it. We all do it.
ArtsATL: We’re all trying to grasp our experience.
Spano: But, ultimately, what does “da da da dahhh” mean? [editor’s note: the opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.] Well, it means that! That’s it! I think that’s why it’s difficult. No doubt we’ll all continue to try and find words to formulate our experience of those musical pieces of information.
ArtsATL: How does that play out for you in the larger scope of civilization and culture?
Spano: It has become very clear to me that our cultural life as a civilization is our legacy. It’s what we can leave to the future. We don’t remember who won what game in the Roman Colosseum, but we know the statuary that they left to us. We know the architecture. We know Homer better than we know what happened at the Olympic Games in terms of which athlete got what laurel. There’s something about priorities. I don’t mean to pick on the athletics as being unimportant, because I don’t believe that, [but] there is something to the recognition [that] it is not enough to have bread and circuses. That’s not good enough.
[For] our collective investment in our cultural lives as a society, I think we’re in a dangerous place in terms of how we care for it, fund it, nurture it. We’ve depended for decades on the philanthropy of a few individuals who, because of their commitment, really sustained cultural institutions at an extremely high and sophisticated level. As that generation passes, the new generation [of] wealth does not possess a similar commitment in the same way. I think we have to find a way. What are we going to do, those of us who care about this aspect of our lives in our society? How are we going to continue to nurture this part of us — art, music.
Culture is a revealing word, actually, because it’s related to organic growth. We need to figure that one out and we haven’t. I’m not sure I know the answer, but the surest way to prevent the deterioration of our civilization is the promotion of our cultural life. If you look at the deterioration of any other great civilization, when the cultural life decays you’re witnessing the demise of that civilization, because then the thin veneer become thinner.
It’s a concern that I wish were more present in our public discourse. I wish it were closer to the lips our politicians, and I don’t hear it enough.
ArtsATL: Someone defined tradition as “the passing on of things of value.” Then we add new stuff to it, of course.
Spano: And that’s how you perpetuate it. I’ve been studying Jewish Kabbalah theory, and the word is about receiving. It’s similarly related to tradition, so it’s receiving, passing on. It’s given from one generation to the next.