Menu Close

American journalist and music and radio producer Brooke Wentz has published a book of her interviews with musicians and composers of the 1980s.

Brooke Wentz’s extensive professional career spans several fronts, always in the field of music. In 2015, she founded Seven Seas Music, a music licensing company that represents international artists in the United States as well as helping various media – Netflix, HBO, Disney, Amazon Prime, NBC, CBS, ESPN and others – to source culturally diverse sounds for US TV series such as Ted Lasso, What We Do in the Shadows, Vice Investigates, NCIS, Snowfall, XO Kitty, Outer Banks and many more. She is not lacking in experience: in the 1990s, she already served as a liaison between French and American musicians under former French Minister of Culture Jack Lang and his Rock Minister Bruno Lion. But before that, in 1980, she had landed her dream job: host of Transfigured Night, the nightly radio programme on WKCR-FM at Columbia University in New York. Over the course of ten years, she managed to interview dozens of pioneers of avant-garde free jazz, no wave and electronic music before they became internationally renowned artists.

During the pandemic, Wentz took the opportunity to review her collection of old cassette tapes on which she kept many of the interviews she conducted in those years; the same ones she devoted herself to transcribing and editing and which Columbia University Press has now published under the title Transfigured New York: Interviews with Experimental Artists and Musicians, 1980-1990.

Among the forty interviews selected by Wentz are key figures in the history of 20th century music such as John Cage, La Monte Young, Philip Glass (the first composer she interviewed, on 5 February 1981, when Wentz was barely 19 years old), Steve Reich, Glenn Branca, Fred Frith, Laurie Anderson, Joan La Barbara, Astor Piazolla, Ravi Shankar and John Lurie. The choice of “this small selection of the hundreds of interviews I conducted in these years”, as the author explains in the introduction, is because they are the ones that “best convey the character, struggles and creative process of each artist” and remain “aspirational figures, among many others not included in this book, for many young experimental composers and musicians today: Steve Reich by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood; John Cage by Wilco’s Glenn Kotche; Morton Subotnick by Daft Punk and Four Tet; Laurie Anderson by St. Vincent; and Joan La Barbara by Jóhann Jóhannsson”.

The book begins with a foreword by Sonic Youth’s Lee Ranaldo, who says that “the scene in NYC in the late seventies / early eighties had so many fascinating pockets of activity that it’s almost hard to pick just one or two […] Perhaps most fascinating, most radical, at the time was the music being made by Glenn Branca, Rhys Chatham, and like-minded ‘rock minimalists’—sort of polar opposites yet doppelgangers to what was going on with Steve Reich and Phil Glass […]: channeling, on the one hand, the three-chord fury of the Who or the Ramones and yet compositionally reaching for everything from [Anton] Bruckner to [Krzysztof ] Penderecki or [György] Ligeti”.

The book’s author also recounts in the introduction that the station allowed her to broadcast “anything I wanted to twelve million souls in the tristate area: the Residents, Philip Glass, esoteric rock like Henry Cow, Krautrock like Can and Faust, and atonal postpunks the Raincoats. I sometimes snuck in a bit of Traffic and the Beatles just to keep things surprising. It was true freeform radio. And I considered it a public service to promote the panoply of amazing music performed throughout the city each week and that got little support outside of radio stations like ours.”

As Wentz recalls, just three months after starting up, “the program was featured in the Village Voice as one of the city’s top independent radio shows […]. At the station, encounters with visiting musicians were always intriguing. Seeing Cecil Taylor, Sonny Sharrock, John Zorn, Diamanda Galás, Anton Fier, and Don Cherry was common in the 1980s. Once, an interview with the drummer Andrew Cyrille had to be cut short because John Cage had just arrived. Another time, Ned Sublette played live out on the street, rigged into the studio. Christian Marclay brought his turntables up and scratched live on air. Eric Bogosian recited monologues. Anything could happen.”

The interviews vary in length, ranging from six to ten pages, and begin with a brief introduction to the character and the circumstances in which the encounter took place. In the one with La Monte Young, the pope of minimalism explains that the inspiration for his conceptual works of the early 1960s came from the influence of Cage: “I had just been to Darmstadt, Germany, in the summer of ’59, and I had taken Stockhausen’s advanced composition seminar, which I really liked and got a lot out of. While I was there, I heard Cage’s Concert for Piano and Orchestra played by David Tutor. Plus, I had been reading Cage’s lectures before that. They’re my tribute to Cage, those early pieces, but at the same time, they’re very La Monte Young because they have this focus on one event type of thing.”

About the long, four- or five-hour concerts for which La Monte Young was known at the time, the composer said that he managed to perform them because he kept himself ” in very good physical shape. The performance is like an athletic event. I train, I prepare. No alcohol on the days before the concert. I’ve always had terrific stamina. Even in the sixties, when I was playing sopranino saxophone, I tended to play for a long time in concert.”

In the interview with Glass, which, as mentioned above, was Wentz’s first on the programme, she discusses one of the least known aspects of the Baltimore composer’s work: his work as producer of a rock band, Polyrock. In this respect, Glass confesses that he feels “more inclined to go out and hear a new wave band like Polyrock or an old new wave band like Talking Heads than go to Carnegie Hall and hear the League of International Composers or whatever the heck they are. I don’t listen to that very much” [she is referring to The League of Composers/International Society for Contemporary Music, whose Board of Directors has included prominent composers such as Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Coplan, Henry Cowell, Paul Hindemith and Darius Milhaud; that is to say, the crème de la crème of serious music officialdom] and that the idea of producing a pop group was inspired by Brian Eno. The conversation also contains a few surprises, as we learn, for example, that Moondog, the blind composer with the real name of Louis Thomas Hardin, lived with Glass for a year in his home in 1970.

Wentz’s conversation with Steve Reich took place three years later, on 17 October 1984, in the composer’s lower Manhattan flat: “Tall and handsome, Reich speaks very fast and is very direct – except when speaking about his former colleague, fellow minimalist composer Philip Glass. He evaded my questions about their infamous falling out and how they haven’t spoken since”. From the conversation with Reich we also discovered something little known: that he is the son of the singer and lyricist June Carroll (born June Sillman in 1917 and married to Leonard Reich, Steve’s father, in 1935), author of the lyrics to the very famous song, popularised by Debbie Reynolds, Love is A Simple Thing, or that in San Francisco he also worked – as Philip Glass is well known for, in New York – as a taxi driver, and that his first composition after graduating from Mills College was entitled Livelihood, “which was made of sounds I recorded in a taxi cab that I drove”, before inventing the technique of note shifting, so characteristic of his early years.

Undoubtedly, like any compilation book of interviews, we cannot demand depth. And in this case less so, since they are transcriptions of interviews for radio format in which the conversation is not so much focused on the analysis, but on the work “of the moment”, whether it be Laurie Anderson’s United States Live, Bill Frisell’s Rambler, or the performance that Kronos Quartet was to give in the summer of 1984 in the German city of Darmstadt, with the world premieres of John Cage’s Thirty Pieces for String Quartet or Terry Riley’s Cadenza on the Night Plain. But they all have the interest of being old, that is to say, prior to the definitive explosion of fame and/or prestige of the interviewees, thus avoiding many of the commonplaces and over-understandings created about each of the characters as their respective careers were being consolidated.

For a better understanding of the pivotal moment around which the book revolves, this is the complete list of the characters interviewed: Laurie Anderson, David Behrman, Kelvyn Bell, Eric Bogosian, Jean-Paul Bourelly, Glenn Branca, John Cage, Alvin Curran, Andrew Cyrille, Mario Davidovsky, Anthony Davis, David Diamond, Jacob Druckman, Lukas Foss, Bill Frisell, Fred Frith, Philip Glass, Peter Gordon and Arthur Russell, David Harrington (Kronos Quartet), Wayne Horvitz, Ronald Shannon Jackson, Bill T. Jones, Joan La Barbara, Living Colour, Otto Luening, John Lurie, Baaba Maal, Evan Parker, Andy Partridge (XTC), Astor Piazzolla, Steve Reich, Roger Reynolds, Ravi Shankar, Pril Smiley, Morton Subotnick, Margaret Leng Tan, Joan Tower, Vladimir Ussachevsky, La Monte Young and Michel Waisvisz.