I recently pulled down from the shelf one of my few unread volumes by Ned Rorem. I’m sure I’ve read most of these essays before, and if I haven’t read X or Y particular essay, I’ve read any given statement in the book at least a dozen times in the various diaries and collections of essays. Rorem’s one of the few writers I never tire of reading, like Jean Cocteau and Douglas Adams (whose ‘trilogy’ I revisit in its entirety every few years): though I’ve read them before, there’s always something new to be gleaned, a new interpretation that springs from the mere fact of time having passed.
I remember fairly racing through the earlier diaries in college. I was told of The Paris Diary by a friend – he claimed it was a sort of Queer Who’s Who of the arts scene in the ’40s, though admitted to being incredibly bored by all of the names he didn’t recognize. I was much more widely-read than he and knew many more of the names, so found the book infinitely interesting.
I was already a voracious reader, and Ned’s diaries pushed me into a whole new world of writers and writing of which I was previously unaware, or had never before felt the urge to explore. Cocteau was a Rorem-inspired discovery, as were Gide, Genet, and Isherwood. I’ve even devoured a few Simenon novels I happened upon during a month-long residency at the VCCA because of the continual references to them in Rorem’s diaries, and recently took it a step further by grabbing up almost all of the old Simenon paperbacks in a few used book stores I regularly raid. Have the diaries introduced me to any music? Remarkably little: Satie’s Socrate, Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges. More often than not, reading Rorem begets more reading for me.
I did the bulk of my Rorem-reading in my most musically formative years, and I’ll freely admit to being strongly influenced by some of his published musings on music. My thoughts on prosody, on diction, on repetition of text all have their roots in the pages of Ned’s books. (The few suggestions I’ve gotten to repeat a line from a poem in one of my songs have been met with steadfast refusals – not because Ned Would Disapprove; merely because I’ve worked with enough living poets that I happen to agree with him on the issue.) It’s funny to think that Ned’s writing has probably influenced my music more than his music has, despite my having known his songs first – I gave an all-Rorem recital in college, which sparked my friend to mention the diaries, which etc. Performing his songs give me ideas on rhythm and motivic play, but no more so than did participating in the Midwestern choral tradition or studying Copland’s Piano Variations (though “A Night Battle” and “The Real War Will Never Get in the Books” from War Scenes certainly did a lot for my sense of recitative). Not surprisingly, it’s Ned’s “hits” that have taught me the least – they have a life of their own, and work because they work; their secret is non-transmittable. Yet they have taught me this: a song either has the spark of life or it hasn’t – it can’t be faked – and when it has, it is a truly beautiful thing.