Composer  Jay  Alan  Yim

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Jay Alan Yim studied music composition at the University of California Santa Barbara, the Royal College of Music, and Harvard, and computer music at MIT and Stanford. He currently teaches at Northwestern University. He has received Guggenheim, National Endowment for the Arts, and three Illinois Arts Council fellowships, and many other awards. His music has been featured at international festivals (a.o. Darmstadt, Ars Musica, Wien-Modern, Gaudeamus, Tanglewood, Aspen, ISCM World Music Days) and has been performed by the New York Philharmonic, Royal Stockholm Philharmonic, Orchestre National de Lyon, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, Nederlands Radio Filharmonisch Orkest, Residentie Orkest Den Haag, Sendai Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group, London Sinfonietta, Arditti Quartet, JACK Quartet, Spektral Quartet, Andiamo String Quartet, Nieuw Ensemble, Ensemble SurPlus, dal niente, ICE, Frances-Marie Uitti, Gareth Davis, Laura Chislett, Harrie Starreveld, Dalia Chin and many others.

In 2000, he co-founded the collaborative localStyle with Marlena Novak. Using high and low tech means, their intermedia practice includes video, interactive installations, live performance with electronics, and audience participation. They created localStyle as a collaborative platform whose goal is to use the senses to interrogate existing situations, beginning in 2003 to address issues of climate change and resource extraction, and expanding since 2006 to focus on non-human others via themes as varied as the mating behavior of hermaphroditic marine flatworms, the sonification of electric fish from the Amazon, experimental Eurasian blackbird grammar, the presumptive logic underlying human taxonomic systems, singing coral reefs as the Voice of the Anthropocene, and bootstrapping agriculture on Mars.

These works have been presented in festivals, museums, galleries, and alternative venues in more than forty cities worldwide (a.o. Albuquerque, Amsterdam, Amersfoort, Barcelona, Beijing, Belgrade, Berlin, Boston, Brussels, Budapest, Camden, Chicago, Cologne, Copenhagen, Duluth, Eindhoven, Den Haag, Huddersfield, Jerusalem, Kansas City, Korcula, Linz, London, Los Angeles, Mexico City, Münich, New York, the Orkney Islands, Richmond, Santa Barbara, Santa Fe, São Paolo, Sarasota, Shanghai, Sittard, Sydney, Szczecin, Taipei, Tel Aviv, Torino, Toronto, Valencia, Warsaw and Wrexham). Festival presentations have included the National Art Museum of China’s (NAMOC) TransLife Triennial, STRP Festival [scale (in collaboration with neuromechanical engineer Malcolm MacIver)], Visioni dal Futuro, Taipei Digital Art Festival, Ear Taxi Festival, estacion ARTE, The Wrong Biennial and others.

In the years following the closure of WNIB, Classical 97
— where I had been an Announcer/Producer for a quarter-century — I was asked by the Dean of the School of Music to teach a course at Northwestern University.  I was glad to do so, and did this for several years in both the undergraduate curriculum, and the School of Continuing Education.  Naturally, I had known several members of the music faculty for many years, and it was my pleasure to meet others.  Among those newer acquaintances was Jay Alan Yim.
Along with my teaching, I also began a series of programs on the campus radio station, WNUR.  There was actually no connection between these two tasks, but my efforts continued the ideas and presentations I had been doing at WNIB.  This meant segments mostly about new music, with recordings and interviews with the composers and/or performers.

Yim participated in this, and part of what we talked about in May of 2006 was aired.  Now, as 2023 is about to dawn, I am pleased to share the entire conversation . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   When did you first come to Northwestern?

Jay Alan Yim:   I was invited to join the faculty in 1988.  I deferred actively becoming part of the faculty until January of 1989 because I was just finishing up my doctorate at Harvard, and I had an invitation to be in the Gaudeamus Festival in Amsterdam.  My first orchestra piece, Askesis, was being performed by the Dutch Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, and I was very excited about that.  I also was invited to have a piece done in the ISCM [International Society for Contemporary Music] World Music Days that was taking place in Hong Kong that year.  As I had already made commitments to be in Los Angeles for a month, I thought that would be really getting off on the wrong foot to show up at NU, shake people’s hands, and ask others to cover all my classes for me for the next four weeks because I’m going to go gallivanting around to contemporary music festivals.  I thought that would be nicer for me to be completely here when I was here.

BD:   When you’re teaching and you’re composing, do you get enough time to compose?

Yim:   Anyone who is creative, and who is committed to teaching
as I am to both there’s a tension because there are only twenty-four hours in a day.  Yet there’s an inherent conflict in terms of time-management, because whatever it is you want to do, you want to do it a hundred percent.  There’s only so much that you can actually do in terms of eroding proper sleep and proper nutrition before those things catch up with you.  They then start having deleterious effects on the thing that you’re passionate about.  But ultimately the two activities are entirely complimentary.  They need each other.  For me to be effective as a teacher, I still need to be able to ‘walk the walk’ as well as ‘talk the talk’.  So it’s really important for me to stay active, working for the last six years in New Media, as well as writing acoustic pieces, but also to be active as a composer as a demonstration that I’m not just telling people what I think they ought to be doing, but I’m still practicing it.  That said, when you get really enthused about a particular project, it’s hard not to just want to work on that all the time.  I find that when I get in the thick of working on a piece, sleep suffers, and eating at the right time suffers.  I don’t even think that is the romanticization of what artists do.  They become total bohemians, and throw notions of proper social conduct out the window in pursuit of their muse.  You get so caught up in the energy of making the thing you’re making, you want to give it everything that you have, and everything else becomes secondary.

BD:   You’re working on acoustics and also in New Media?

Yim:   New Media is the term, that for lack of any better alternative, has been adopted by the community of artists.  When I say
artists, I mean anybody using any medium, whether it is visual or sonic or performative.  New Media refers to people using some kind of new technology, which involves mostly digital technologies in the pursuit of making the pieces.

BD:   It’s not just the old electronics where you splice bits of tape together?

Yim:   No.  
New Media was thought of as a better and more accurate term to represent things, rather than multi-media.  What would have been talked about as multi-media in the 1980s, and early 90s has synched basically as New Media’.

BD:   Do you incorporate a lot of visuals into your pieces, or is it mostly just new audio sources?

Yim:   I’ve been collaborating with a visual artist for the last six years, and what we do is use the computer as the intermediary between what it is that we do.  About two years prior to that, this artist started to use digital animation in their work.

BD:   Are these things that are projected in a concert hall, or are these things that are supposed to then be enjoyed only on the computer by other people?
Yim:   Actually, it is rare for them to be just on the computer to be seen by other people.  We haven’t made any internet pieces per se.  They are what some people call screenal pieces, because we’ve had them shown on large LCD panels or plasma screens.  One of the largest one of those flat panels I’ve ever seen was in the Sony Center in Berlin [shown above-left].  It’s a building that Helmut Jahn designed as the European headquarters for Sony, and there’s a large atrium.  One of our pieces was shown there.  It was curated by the Digital Art Museum in Berlin, and they showed it for a period of two or three months.

BD:   Does it surprise you at this point in your career, that you are putting visuals into something that was always purely an audio medium?

Yim:   It wasn’t always pure audio.  It’s generally a process.  Visual art has been an inspiration and stimulus to me for a very, very long time.  I don’t know if I could put my finger on when it wasn’t.
BD:   [Surprised]  Even your string quartet should have some visuals with it???
 [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Conlon Nancarrow, Elliott Carter, and John Cage.]

Yim:   No, it shouldn’t necessarily have some visuals with it, but the title of the quartet, Autumn Rhythm, is informed by a Jackson Pollock painting.  There are a number of chamber pieces or chamber orchestra pieces, that were connected in some way inspirationally to some piece of visual art.

BD:   Should the Pollock painting be projected behind the string quartet players, or at least put in the program books so that there’s a reference to it?

Yim:   I don’t know the answer to that.  Some years ago, the Walker Art Center talked about doing it at the time when the Arditti Quartet was playing it on tour.  There’s a part of me that thinks it’s not actually very helpful, because it turns one of the things
either the projection of the painting, or the music itselfinto an illustration of the other, or an accompaniment to the other.  There’s a level of cultural imagination which is important for people.  If I say, Romeo and Juliet,you’re not necessarily supposed to go and read Shakespeare’s play.  There should be some residual cultural knowledge of what the basic elements are in Romeo and Juliet, so that you have a reference point which comes from being a well-informed cultural citizen.  So if somebody doesn’t know what a Jackson Pollock painting looks like, then I don’t know that it’s necessarily the responsibility of the people who are sponsoring a performance of my first string quartet to provide that for them.

BD:   How much should we know about you, and about your creative processes, and your inspirations in order to really get into the piece, or does this depend on how deep we want to go?

Yim:   That’s an interesting question because everybody wants to understand it.  There is the enthusiasm that somebody has for any particular cultural object, be it a novel, or a comic book, or a film, or a play, or an acoustic composition, or a new media piece.  We as an audience, consume it as a cultural experience, and the enthusiasm is variable.  When people become more enthusiastic about something, or more interested in something, then they naturally tend to delve more deeply into it.  But as to the question you’re raising about whether it’s important that everybody know as much as they can about my point of view, or my inspiration, or the context for something that I may have done that I’m hoping to contribute to our culture, it would be dangerous for me to prescribe that everybody has to know everything they can about me before they can properly understand what it is that I do.  Something has to happen on the level of completely uninformed immediacy that also is communicative to somebody.  One often comes across things which we didn’t know about before, but we find that they’re enormously affective, or at least intriguing, and we want to follow up on them.  That may turn into a narrow alleyway or broad stream of pursuit the more that we engage with it.  As a composer, it’s important that the surface of a piece has some level of
accessibility, even though that word is often misconstrued.  There needs to be some way in which somebody can have a direct experience with the work the first time, which is not necessarily the same thing as getting everything out of the work the first time.

BD:   Might it be that you have several different portals, and people could enter from any one of them?

Yim:   That’s one way in which someone who is very clever could try to architecturally plan the way they’re going to approach the work.  Even though I’m in the business of trying to help train students to be better composers, there’s a truism that you can’t teach composition.  You can learn it, but you can’t actually teach it.  It’s almost like Zeno’s paradox.  You can’t quite get there.  It’s asymptotic.  One is trying to get closer and closer to actually touching upon the matter at hand, but you’re always circumlocuting it.  You’re getting around it, and like the Heisenberg Principle, you can indicate with some probability where something might be, but you can’t actually put your finger on it, because to actually try to do that, is to disturb it.  Ideally a piece needs to be able to affect the listener in some kind of immediate way, because if they don’t have some direct access, then there isn’t incentive for them to delve into it any deeper.  There may be all sorts of a wonderful clever constructions that are embedded in the piece, or various kinds of content, or other musical or extra-musical references that would be meaningful to a person who became aware of those things.  But if the actual essential experience of the piece is not sufficiently engaging for that person to want to engage in the piece a second time, then that’s a structural flaw.  It’s important for me to keep emphasizing with students that it has to be put together well, because otherwise someone who would listen to it the second time will feel it is empty.  There’s nothing there, or I got it all the first time.  You do want to have those other layers of depth built into the piece.  But it’s got to sound good the first time, regardless of how one wants to define the phrase ‘sounding good’.  Whatever that denotes, there are as many different tastes as there are listeners.

BD:   Do you want your pieces played on new music concerts, and at new music gatherings, or do you want them on general concerts where you’re competing or collaborating with the shades of all of these composers from the last 400 years?

Yim:   There are different kinds of audiences that composers write for.  There are pressures to try to be consistent in terms of one’s artistic voice, which can sometimes lead to a certain sameness.  If someone pursues that kind of consistency to the point of maximum consistency, then all of their pieces start to sound the same.

BD:   You don’t want to just be vanilla?

Yim:   [Laughs]  It’s funny how
vanilla has become this pejorative term.  When  you think about it as a rare spice from Madagascar, and how much work actually goes into getting real vanilla, fresh vanilla is quite remarkable.

BD:   Then is it your job to make your particular vanilla special?

Yim:   I don’t know about that.  I’m disappointed if someone has only one thing to say.  If all of their pieces seem to be about the same, and if they’re cast from the same perspective, it gets tiresome after a while.  It’s much more interesting to keep re-engaging with the work of somebody who has more than one thing to say.

BD:   So it’s your responsibility to say different things, or is that part of your genius to come up with different things all the time?
Yim:   I personally stay away from the ‘g-word’...

BD:   Well, your creativity, then.
Yim:   No, that’s not an artist’s responsibility.  One can’t consciously will that.  I’m also quite fatalistic about the notion of having an individual voice.  Either one has one or one doesn’t, but no amount of trying to will it into being will make that be so or not.  A young composer could try to identify particular stylistic quirks in some of their early pieces that people remark upon, and then try to magnify those in proportion, or maybe even disproportionally in subsequent pieces.  But that’s not going to turn the composer into someone with an individual voice.  That seems really artificial.  That’s like having various kinds of elective plastic surgery.  It’s not terribly interesting to me.  What I want is to feel genuine in the development of an individual voice.  If a composer writes a number of pieces over the course of five to ten years, and then looks back over those pieces, I would guarantee that they would see certain kinds of decisions that they keep making which are not the ones necessarily that they’re conscious of at the time.  They will start to see that they keep doing this, or that you can name the parameters which are unconscious, and see those things which are ineradicable from their artistic process.  That’s the true them, not the conscious manipulation of some superficial core.  These are things you can’t get rid of, no matter what.  They show up consistently in your pieces over and over again, and that’s who you are.  That’s the real voice, and that’s why I say I’m fatalistic about it.  If someone is overwhelmed by their influences, then no amount of aesthetic muscle-building is going to turn them into like someone who has a strong voice.  If someone does have a strong voice, then there’s no amount of trying to dampen it that is going to keep it from emerging.

BD:   Is this is what separates the lesser composers from the greater composers
the more individualistic things that they have to say?

Yim:   That’s for history to judge.

BD:   Do you go back and look at your catalogue of works periodically just to see what you’ve been saying?

Yim:   I don’t do it that often.  I still stand by all of the pieces that go back twenty-five years or so.  But they’re of their time.  Even if I stand by an early piece like Autumn Rhythm (1984-85), it doesn’t represent the concerns that I have now.
BD:   But it does represent who you were, and you’re proud of that?

Yim:   Yes.

BD:   Are you pleased with where you’re going?

Yim:   I’m not unhappy with it, but it’s also a truism that the piece I like best is the next one I’m going to write.  I’m not unhappy with very many of the recent pieces.  It would be disingenuous for me to say that everything has turned out a hundred per cent of my expectations from when I started on the project.  But that’s also because it’s more interesting for me to try to set up the parameters of the process, so that I’m going to take some artistic risks and see what happens.  I try to test myself, or challenge myself with something new that I haven’t tried to tackle before.  For example, [ten]dril, actually is about twenty-four or twenty-five minutes of a single-lined melody for solo piano.  There’s never more than one note that is played at a time.  Sometimes those notes are played very rapidly in succession, and even a really good pianist will take both hands to play it accurately.  But it’s always a single-lined melody.

BD:   Do you usually get performances which are close to being accurate?

Yim:   I’ve been really lucky to work with fantastic performers for most of the time that I’ve been serious about composing.

BD:   Is there such a thing as a perfect performance?

Yim:   [Thinks a moment]  I don’t know.  That’s a philosophical question, and because I’m not a philosopher, I don’t think I can answer that.

BD:   Without mentioning names, has there ever been a performance where all the notes have been exactly right?

Yim:   No, but that kind of mechanical perfection has never been a criterion for what I value in the collaborative performance that I’ve engaged in with soloists, or orchestras, or chamber ensembles.  There’s a different kind of energy that comes across in a live performance, and that is not the same thing as having all the rhythms exactly equal, or having very complex rhythms or microtones played within a cent or two of accuracy.  That’s not the point.

BD:   You want it close?

Yim:   There’s some degree of tolerance for things, but trying to account for having the appropriate level of tolerance built in is part of the composer’s craft.  Part of what I try to do, and what I try to exhort students to do, is to try to make pieces which are relatively bullet-proof, with some elasticity in what things need to be done accurately, and which things can have some room for performer interpretation.  There need to be areas of the piece which can have some degree of variability, or mutability from performance to performance, because we are still interested in the live performance, and not just the recording of it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   We’re talking about technical accuracy.  What about musical accuracy, or interpretation?  Do you build in a little bit of latitude, and do you expect the performer to add his or her two or three cents’ worth to all of this?

Yim:   The latter, probably.  I do expect there to be some kind of engagement with the performers.  I’ve always felt that it’s a collaborative way of working.  Any time I work with acoustic instruments and live musicians, it’s a collaboration, and it’s true that for the most part they’re expecting my part of the collaboration to come up with the notes.  Their part of it is to make those notes come to life.  But both sides of that equation need each other in order to have the new piece appear.

BD:   Does that make it The Piece when they’ve done that, or do you have to wait for the audience to hear it before The Piece is completed?

Yim:   It’s absolutely crucial for there to be an audience, but it’s not crucial for that audience to be sitting on the other side of the stage.  The audience, by definition, really ought to include the performers themselves.  They are actually listening to each other when they are involved in the process of making the music.  A composer listens to the work in his or her head when they’re writing it, or they listen to it through speakers if they’re using a MIDI sequencing program.  But even if the composer is the only person in the audience, that’s an audience.
BD:   Does it change in your mind if the audience is going to be on the other side of the stage, or in their home listening a week, or a month, or a year, a decade or a century later?

Yim:   It doesn’t change how I write, but I’m sure it’s a different experience.

BD:   Do you have any suggestions for those who are at least one or two steps removed?

Yim:   People are pretty smart about the difference in context.  If you’re listening to something on your home stereo, you’re already listening to it in a different way than if you went to Orchestra Hall, or to the Harris Theater.  When you watch a film on your TV at home, whether you have a big projection screen or just a regular-sized TV, you know that it’s a different experience, even if you have some friends over, or just a couple of close confidants to share the film with you.  That’s different from going to the theater, paying for the tickets, standing in line, etc.

BD:   Now you could even have it on your flip phone.  [Remember, this interview took place in 2006, when phones were not nearly as sophisticated as they are today!]

Yim:   Right, but I don’t think people confuse those things with each other.  They know that it’s a different circumstance.

BD:   [Somewhat surprised]  Really???  As the generations go along, this is not all getting smashed together?

Yim:   No.  It would be a disservice to a cinema audience to presuppose that people don’t know the difference between watching it at home and watching it in the theater.  They go to the theater in part for the social ritual, and to share the experience in the same space with a number of other people who have chosen to do that at the same time.  They know that there is a difference between the two.  It’s not the same experience for them as listening to a CD.

BD:   When I teach my class [Introduction to Music], I make them go to at least a couple of live concerts.  What is unexpected to me is their element of surprise in what they write down in their response.  Sometimes they just come directly to me and say, “Wow!  This was something brand new!”

Yim:   It’s great though, isn’t it?

BD:   Oh, yes!  It’s like opening a new door for them.  They don’t know the other side and the other way of doing it, so it becomes something unexperienced and unimagined.

Yim:   Do they go to rock concerts or clubs?

BD:   I would assume so.

Yim:   Then they should know it’s a different experience.  People choose the venue in which they want to experience something because they’re savvy about what it is they hope to get from the experience.  What you want to get from a live performance is often some degree of variability, because it’s not going to be exactly the same, which is what happens when you play a CD more than once.  When you play the CD the second time, it sounds exactly the same as the first time.

BD:   Let me turn it around.  If you were ever asked to write something specifically for a recording, or for a download, would that influence the way you write, or would it even make you decline the commission?

Yim:   I wouldn’t decline the commission, but my interest in electronics goes back to when I was in high school.  I was studying piano with Daniel Pollack [bio and photo shown below-right], and for some reason it seemed that my lessons were always at the end of the day.  He has this beautiful house on the edge between Hollywood and Beverly Hills, and I’d get caught in rush-hour traffic driving going back to my folks’ house.  The route I took was down Sunset Boulevard, and then the freeway home into Pasadena.  I would always have to pass by this store called Guitar Center.  I would stop there, and play around with the synthesizers.  I couldn’t afford to have one at that point, and I was dreaming of getting a hold of one.  But over the course of a year or so, I ended up teaching myself analogue synthesis by just messing around on Minimoogs and an Arp 2600.  Eventually the store salesman wanted to know if I was going to actually buy one of these things.  I needed some picks and strings for my guitar, so I went to another department.

BD:   He figured you were a potential sale?


Yim:   I did eventually get some instruments, but it took a while.  Fast-forward a little bit to when I was doing my graduate work in the early 1980s in Boston.  At that point, Harvard did not have its own computer music studio.  We had an electronic music studio, but not a computer music studio.  I wanted to work in that medium, so what was available to us was to cross-register, and we would go down to MIT.  They hadn’t built the Media Lab yet, so we went into one of those huge anonymous-looking concrete cinderblock buildings with all of the doors looking exactly the same on the hallways, except that every other one would say ‘Danger! Extreme Bio-Hazard!’  But the computer music lab that Barry Vercoe [bio and photo shown below-right] was running at that time was a really interesting place to start to try to experience this medium.  I did a couple of pieces using the computer as the sonic source.  Then I went to Stanford for a summer course, and worked with their system.  This is back when CCRMA [pronounced karma, which is Stanford's acronym for Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics]
was still up in the hills, and they had this fantastic semi-circular shaped building where the computer music lab was.  I felt the pieces that I was able to do, using that technology, had wonderful timbral potentials, wonderful potential to explore different kinds of sounds, because the computer could do very, very precise microtones.  But it wasn’t giving me exactly the same kind of satisfaction that you get from having an interaction with performers.  So, I put that aside for about fifteen years or so, and it was only around 2000, when the opportunity to collaborate with this visual artist came about, that I started to use the computer again.
BD:   I would think that fifteen years in computer time is ages and ages.

Yim:   It is!

BD:   Did you have to re-learn, or almost re-start?

Yim:   I’ve kept up, so I was aware of what the field was doing.  But I didn’t really feel that I wanted to use the computer as a medium during that period.  Obviously, what had happened in the intervening decade and a half is that computing power went through the roof, and prices went reciprocally in the opposite direction.  For the amount of power you got in the late
90s, it seemed like it was possible for an independent composer to get a hold of the resources to make interesting music.

BD:   Is this a good thing, that just about anybody now can be a composer and performer, with or without training or talent?
Yim:   There’s nothing wrong with it.  There are a lot of people who are bad Sunday painters.  Anyone can buy a bunch of art materials that give you the means to make marks on two- or three-dimensional surfaces, and start to have an art-making experience.  That doesn’t mean one is going to be any good, but it doesn’t hurt anything for there to be bad watercolorists.  Its simply available.  The tools do not have anything to do with whether something should be judged good or bad.  It means that there are more people who are in engaged in the process.  I don’t see a real downside to that.  But in answer to your question about whether I would turn down a commission for something that was going to be in a playback-only format, the majority of the pieces so far that I’ve done collaboratively have been in a group called localStyle [shown above-left].  The visual artist is Marlena Novak, my wife who is also a colleague here at Northwestern.  She’s the co-director of the Animate Arts Program, a fledgling degree which aims to cultivate the new media artists of the next generations.  They’re teaching undergraduates computer programming, visual arts, sound design, cultural theory, narrative theory, and some film making, because they want all of those things to synergistically come together in the way that people can make powerful interactive experiences as art.  Some localStyle pieces have been exhibited in the last year in Berlin, Toronto, Warsaw, Mexico City, Chicago, and Santa Fe.  For the most part, those have been animated audio-visual loops.  They’re QuickTime Movies, which is how we rendered them.  They’re delivered on custom-built computers which usually have projectors.  There’s usually a sound system that’s hooked up to them, and they’re set up as installations in black box-type museum spaces, where all the walls are black, and one wall is white, and this thing is showing as a continuous installation.  Those don’t have any mutability in the sense of being live performances.  It’s the same soundscape that I’ve designed/composed each time, and it’s the same sequence of animated abstract images that she’s composed each time.  We work very hard to set up a counterpoint between the two, so it isn’t the case that the music comes first and the visuals come later, or the visuals come first and the music comes later, because there would be cases where one or the other domains is actually subservient and accompanimental and illustrative of the other.  We want them to be equal partners, and so there are places where things diverge, and there are places where things become synchronized.  We try to be as strategic as we can about how those things evolve over time, so that people get a sense of an abstract narrative.  There’s a narrative force, but if you actually polled people about what they think that story was in that piece by localStyle, you’d get as many different answers as people you asked.

BD:   You’re playing with the individual perceptions?

Yim:   Yes, perception, cognition, or multi-things that are at the root of what we explore in that medium.  She continues to make visual art which doesn’t involve me, and I also continue with my own work.  I just did a piece [inter:lace] for the Duo Diorama [shown below-left].  It was in honor of the memory of Bill Karlins.  It was not a new media piece, but fairly traditional chamber music in terms of the forces.  They are great performers, and they did a wonderful premiere of it in Brooklyn just a week and a half ago.

BD:   Using traditional forces is just another color on your palette, and you use it whenever you need to, or whenever you want to?

Yim:   Yes.  It depends on the nature of the project and the appropriate things.  If it were appropriate to include digital animation along with acoustic violin and acoustic piano, then that would be another project, and would be the thing we would want to do.  But as to the point of whether I would turn something down, I’m really interested in what this precisely fixed medium offers.  One of the things I like to do when I’m using the computer to assemble the audioscape, is take advantage of the fact that I can actually move samples around to within one-ten-thousandth of a second.  That precision is something I try to take advantage of, so I can play around with things which are impossible rhythms that you can hear.  You can perceive them if you’re paying attention, but no one could play them.  Our ability to receive certain things sometimes exceeds what we could actually neuro-muscularly perform.  But there are other things which you can only do by hand, that it wouldn’t make any sense to do using electronics or the computer.  I try to be fairly intelligent about choosing the proper tools to realize a particular concept.

BD:   Whether you’re putting a note on the page, or moving a sound one-ten-thousandth of a second, how do know you when you’ve got it in the right place?

Yim:   [Thinks a moment]  It sounds good, or it looks good, or both.  For me, a lot of composing is visual.  Ultimately the consumption mode is audio, but a long time ago, one of my teachers, Justin Connolly, said that all great music looks fantastic.  Unfortunately, not everything that looks fantastic sounds great, and he pulled out examples of Chopin and Beethoven, and Bach, and some more recent composers.  But if you look at a page of Stravinsky, it looks amazing.  If you look at a page of Chopin, whether an autograph, which is really beautiful, or an engraved score, it looks fantastic.
BD:   But that’s because you can read the music.  It wouldn’t look fantastic to someone who doesn’t read music.

Yim:   That’s an interesting point, but then you’re talking about levels of connoisseurship.  If I look at Stamitz or Dittersdorf, it doesn’t look as interesting as Haydn or Mozart.
BD:   They’re too simple?

Yim:   There’s something in the visual quotient which doesn’t correspond to the level of imagination that you get sonically in a great composer.
BD:   Even if you didn’t know the piece, you would be able to tell Stamitz apart from Bach?

Yim:   Stamitz tends to look more boring.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Assuming that you’ve gotten all of these notes and pieces in the right place, do you go back and revise it after you’ve actually heard it in performance?

Yim:   I do a lot of the time.  There have been a few times when I consider myself fortunate to have nailed it the first time through.  But most of the time, there are little adjustments that one makes.  That can be a very long process, as in the case of someone like Pierre Boulez.  He seems to routinely take pieces, like
Plí selon plí, which I grew up thinking of were masterpieces, and then a couple of decades later he withdraws them for revision, and then reissues them in new and improved versions.

BD:   That doesn’t shake you up a little bit?

Yim:   An artist’s responsibility is to make their work as good as they can.  The time when you logically stop is when you die.  I’m not sure if I’m mis-attributing this, but I think it’s Stravinsky who said something about a piece not really being finished, but just abandoned.

BD:   I assume that you don’t want to just work on one piece all your life just to get it right, and that’s all you do.  You want to have a number of pieces.

Yim:   It’s not that necessarily I want to have a number of pieces, but I have a number of ideas.  I have more ideas than I’ll probably ever be able to realize as pieces.  I don’t see that as a liability.  That’s just the condition of being involved in something creative.  If somebody feels that they don’t have enough ideas, they’re probably trying to do the wrong thing.  One of my teachers, Harry Birtwistle, said that ideas are ten-a-penny.  It’s what you do with them that really matters, and if you find yourself at a loss for ideas, there’s always accounting, or being an actuary, or some other thing which doesn’t require having a constant flow of things that inspire you, and make you want to bring them into being.

BD:   When you’re composing, do you ever feel that you’re a musical actuary?

Yim:   No, I actually don’t really know what those people do.

BD:   They play with numbers.

Yim:   Composers play with numbers a lot of the time, and maybe I’m making a pejorative remark about actuaries that is completely unfounded, because I don’t actually know very much about that profession.

BD:   Do you always have that next idea, and from this collection of ideas, how do you decide to use this one or that one?  Is it because you want to write something, or because someone asks you for a piece?

Yim:   Some of both.  I have the most hopes for the next piece, because it’s a possibility for trying to address compositional and creative issues that maybe haven’t been fully addressed in other pieces.  I was talking once with a senior composer, Peter Maxwell Davies, about whether he revised things, and he said no.  Then I asked if he was happy with the way all his pieces have turned out, and he was very forthright and said,
“No, not at all.  I’m often dissatisfied with some of these things.  I asked what he did about those and he said, I try to fix it in the next piece.

BD:   There probably are some people who do work on a piece, or several pieces, and others that just go onto new pieces.  Both methods seem to be valid.

Yim:   To some extent an artist determines the parameters for their own works, as well as the validity of their own working processes.  As much as I respected Max’s work, I didn’t really understand how he could address problems he found in piece number two with piece number three, unless it started out with exactly the same material, and the same formal premises, and the same structural processes, and so on.  Unless everything is going to be followed in exactly the same way, which would mean you are writing exactly the same piece over again, you wouldn’t come to the same impasses.  So I don’t know how they could solve problems in a proceeding piece.  You would have a completely different situation by the time you got to whatever compositional jam appeared suddenly on the horizon.

BD:   My interpretation of that idea would be that they’re not fixing the piece, but rather they’re fixing the brain power that led to the piece, so they don’t make the same mistake again.

Yim:   That might have been what he was thinking of at the time.  For me, there’s a continuum of activity, and so that’s one end of the spectrum.  The other end of the spectrum is the Carl Ruggles figure, who produces very little, but just keeps trying to refine, and refine, and refine, and refine it to the point where they feel that by the time they are done, this chord will withstand the test of time.

BD:   It sounds like we have a real parallel, a real connection between Ruggles and Boulez.

Yim:   Maybe, but I think that Boulez is a fantastic musician.  He’s one of the composers who inspired me a lot when I was a student.  Whatever his reason is to go back and review his pieces, and to revise them, that’s completely within his right as an artist.  He’s not going to be able to do that after he passes away.  There is going to be a point in time where he can’t do that any more, and then the works will just have to stand.  My feeling about my own work is that if something is not a hundred per cent satisfactory after the first, or the fifth, or the tenth performance, and I know how to fix it, it’s my responsibility to the piece to fix it.  If I don’t have the technique to do it, then I should let it go.   If I don’t have the time to do it, I guess I should also let it go.   There’s some point where the piece has a life of its own.  It’s not genetic engineering, but rather you’re just trying to equip it with as much as you can in a nurturing way, so that once you let go, then it will be okay.

BD:   Do you expect the piece to grow on its own?

Yim:   I don’t know if growing is the right metaphor, but it makes its way in the world on its own.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you wish to be known as Jay Alan Yim, or just Jay Yim?

Yim:   People who know me well call me Jay.  The late Stephen Albert was really fond of calling me Jay Alan to my face, but that was fine.  He just liked that.

BD:   When I play a piece of yours on the radio, is it music by Jay Yim, or Jay Alan Yim?

Yim:   Functionally it is the same person.

BD:   Are you pleased with where you are at this point in your career?

Yim:   Oh, yes.  I didn’t think that I would actually get to write a lot of these things.  When one starts out, everything is like a fantasy.  It’s very hard to tell whether or not you’ll be able to pursue a dream of continuing to write music, and having opportunities to work with people who can realize your more challenging ideas.  I’m quite happy with that.  I don’t think it’s very healthy to think too much about
what if?’.  You can only be who you are.  You can only be as genuine as you can be.  It parallels what I was saying earlier about young composers trying to find their voice.  You can go looking for it, but you can’t actually try to manufacture it.  I tell this as a cautionary tale, especially to my graduate students...  I met this guy at a festival, and he’d gone to school with somebody who was having a meteoric ascent.  At that point he decided that would work for him, even though he was a completely different personality.  You could tell that when you came across his music, but he was hell bent for leather to try to win all the prizes that his former classmate had won.  That way he figured he would get the same sort of career.  I ran into him at Tanglewood, and I ran into him somewhere else, but after that I heard that he’d given up music.

BD:   That’s the potential for a bitter old man.

Yim:   I think what happened was that he sold his soul by trying to pattern himself after somebody else’s genuine artistic direction.  What he was doing was he was molding himself as if he was undergoing elective plastic surgery, but in the artistic sense, and cutting away the parts that were truly him.  He was a really talented guy but he had a misguided notion of how he needed to consciously maneuver himself through the mechanisms of culture.
BD:   I assume you are always true to yourself.

Yim:   I don’t really know how to do otherwise.  I’m a really bad liar, because it’s so much easier to just keep the story straight if I tell the truth.  The problem with telling a lie is that unless you have a perfect memory, you can’t afford to have any discrepancies in the story.  That’s another philosophical question which we could deconstruct, or refer to someone who has a delusional predisposition.  There are a thousand truths, and they’re all parallel to each other, or they’re all operating at the same level of hierarchy.

BD:   Does it surprise you if analysts elsewhere deconstruct your music to learn from it?

Yim:   Not really.  I understand how that might happen, but I still find myself trying to dissect things by people who are younger than me.  It isn’t a function of age.  It’s just that there is some degree of simply maintaining intellectual and cultural curiosity.  The more curious you become about something, the more you want to know how it was put together.  I’m just as interested now in what a nine-year-old composer is doing, or a nine-year-old visual artist is doing, as knowing what a twenty-year-old visual artist, or a twenty-year old sound artist is doing.  I’m curious about those things, and it just seems natural to be.  I don’t think that it’s about ageism per se.  I’m not blind to the notion of the possibility that there’s some kind of institutional force which is operative.  After all, even though I try to have a relatively open give-and-take with my students, I do understand that they’re the students and I’m the professor in their eyes.  Simply by having the title, there’s a certain kind of authority that gets invested in things.  So I have to be careful about what I say, or at least how I’ve prefaced any pontificating that I make.

BD:   For instance, somewhere in some unknown university, they’re going to study Arnold Schoenberg, and Elliott Carter, and Claude Debussy, and Pierre Boulez, and Jay Alan Yim.  Does that please you, or displease you, or surprise you?

Yim:   No, it doesn’t displease me or please me.  It would sort of surprise me, but that’s because I don’t think about my place in history, though I know there are people who do that.  Schoenberg was someone who thought very, very much about his place in history.  When the Schoenberg Institute was still housed at the University of Southern California, I went for a special masterclass.  Milton Babbitt was giving a lecture about the Fourth String Quartet.  He had the Sequoia String Quartet there as a live band.  Milton did one of his parlor tricks where he wrote about the first eighty measures of the Fourth Quartet from memory on the blackboard, and numbered all the row transformations, and started telling us how all these things worked at break-neck speed.  He would ask the Sequoia to play little bits and pieces so we could have audio examples, and then they did a complete performance, which was really nice because we were primed.  We were in Schoenberg’s world at that point, and so we were really inside the Quartet when they played it.  But they also had other displays there.  One of them was a full-sized mock-up, like a Disney diorama, of Schoenberg’s studio.  It was a museum-like display of where he worked.  The pencil was still on the place where he left it, along with all these little scraps of paper with various sketches and other notes to himself.  I remember being really struck that he had saved a cocktail napkin from a ritzy hotel in Santa Barbara, and it had a five-line staff and a treble clef with a tri-chord on it.  There were three pitches on this cocktail napkin, because he thought they were really important somehow.  It’s important for a composer to try to fix sonic images that they have at the moment that they come.  I often get ideas when I’m out, and the nearest thing at hand in the car is the underside of the Kleenex box.  With a pen I just try to scribble something, whether it be a few words that describe a process, or maybe it might be a few pitches, but that’s rare.  It’s usually the description of what happens if you could you do
Origami With Chords.  [Smiles]  Actually, that’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, but I don’t really know what that metaphor means.

BD:   The notes you make, the notes you scribble, are just so that you can come back to that idea and continue it?

Yim:   Yes, and when I get to a computer I dump those text sketches into a Microsoft Word file, so that I can at least remember those things and look back at them, or search through them when I’m seeing what kind of ideas are gravitating towards each other in a current project.  It’s often the case that I have lots of little ideas, and very few of them are good enough to make whole pieces out of.  When a project starts to develop critical mass, then it can also incorporate ideas that I may have had ten years earlier.  They’re not big ideas, but little micro-ideas that feed into the same kind of working process.  So those things amplify each other, and then they help the piece become stronger.  It’s really remarkable to see that Schoenberg had had this notion of his place in history very, very early on.  I’m someone who admires tremendously what he achieved, but it’s remarkable to have that consciousness about what it is that you’re doing, and what kind of mark you’re going to leave on your society or on your culture.

BD:   Do you expect your music to last ten, twenty, thirty, forty, or a hundred years?

Yim:   I don’t even think about it.  I hope somebody wants to listen to it in ten, twenty, forty, or a hundred years, but that’s almost touching upon this question that you raised earlier about audiences, and the notion of accessibility.  First and foremost, I’m writing the pieces for myself.  This is also part of how I counsel people.  I
m writing them for myself, but it’s based on an assumed trust that I’m not that different from at least somebody else on the planet.  For example, when I write a piece which is performed in a place like Orchestra Hall, there are a thousand people sitting there, and the question is often asked if I am trying to reach all one thousand of those people.  To be honest, I’m probably not trying to reach all of the thousand.  I would be happy if I do, but I am probably not writing for all of those people.  I know that if after that concert all thousand of us wanted to go out for a drink, and then have dinner together, those people probably wouldn’t want their refreshment in the way I like mine.  They probably would not order the same food that I would order.  Some of them wouldn’t want a dessert, but some of them would.  Tastes start to diverge as soon as you get down to the level of the individual.  The people that I am writing for are those who would be receptive to the same kind of things.  If there are enough things that are congruent, then maybe that person will have a positive reaction to the music that was written.  Hypothetical though they are, I assume statistically that they must exist within this thousand-person audience.  Those are the persons I’m writing for.  However, I’m not thinking that I’m trying to reach that person.  I’m trying to reach hypothetically the person who is enough like me in some ways that the things that sound good to me, or that excite me intellectually in an art experience, or a musical experience, will exist somewhere, even if I never get to meet them.  The only model I have for trying to test things out in that way is me when I’m writing the piece.  So, if it works for me, then it might work for someone else, and hopefully a couple of other people.  Maybe even more than a couple of people, but it’s the only real test case that you have when you’re in the process of creating something.

BD:   I hope for lots more pieces from your pen for whatever audience comes.

Yim:   Yes, and it’s funny... I don’t use the pen that much anymore.  I used to...

BD:   Then let me change it to hope for lots more pieces from your mind.

Yim:  I am often asked what my instrument is.  I did play the piano for the longest time, but there was a point where I felt I’d rather put all of my creative energy into writing, as opposed to being prepared as a performer.  So, I’d say my instrument is the pencil.  But lately, probably for the last ten to fifteen years, it’s been the (computer) mouse.  That’s what I use.  I shouldn’t be saying this, but I still find myself wasting tremendous amounts of paper, because, as I was intimating earlier, the visualization process is really important to me.  It’s part of how I get a sense of the architecture of a piece as it’s being put together, and unless you have ten monitors configured as a gigantic desktop, you lose peripheral vision.  You have just a window on your score as you’re working on it, and you don’t really get that sense that you can have working with score paper.  You can see out of the left corner of your eye where the piece was, and you see out of the right corner of your eye where the piece might go, even if those pages are blank.  You can visualize how a musical landscape might lay itself out.

BD:   I don’t think it’s a waste if all of that paper eventually contributes to the making of the finished product.

Yim:   Lots of times I
ve found myself printing out sketches of pieces so that I can get a sense of how the topography is evolving.  I need to put it on the floor and look at it, and conduct with a metronome in my hand to get a sense of how it’s moving.  I also find that it’s really useful for a sequencer to play back something so I can get a rough sense of the pacing of events.  I am not one who is particularly interested in trying to use the computer to replicate the sound of an orchestra with as much accuracy as possible.  What I like about the computer is to try to exploit its capacity for this maniacal precision.  The things that are interesting from an orchestra are all the micro-deviations in tuning and intonation and timing that adds richness and life to the sound.  Those things take a lot more artificial intervention to get into an electronic score.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that I want to just limit myself to sine waves, but sine waves are perfectly fair game, too.  It’s really useful to try to maintain as many different perspectives as possible while one is composing, and looking at the screen is one angle.  Looking at it printed out, even if it’s perforated like Swiss cheese with big holes where there is no music yet, you get the broad view.  That’s a completely different perspective.  The perspective of rehearsing with the musicians is another.  The perspective of sitting out in the hall during rehearsals is a different one, because there are different resonances that get reinforced, and the balance is different.  In the creative process, you want to have as many ways in which you can try to dimensionalize your take on the piece, so that you’re not just getting it in the 1-D or 2-D way, but maybe in the 3-D, or 4-D, or 5-D way.  That way you can get more of a sense of depth to the thing that you’re trying to bring into being.  That’s only going to be to the benefit of the piece.

BD:   Thank you so much for the compositions, and for spending some time with me today.  I appreciate it.

Yim:   Thanks for the opportunity, Bruce.  I enjoyed talking with you as always.

========                ========                ========
----        ----        ----
========                ========                ========

© 2006 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Evanston, Illinois on May 23, 2006.  Portions were broadcast on WNUR in 2010, and 2018.  This transcription was made in 2022, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

*     *     *     *     *

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.