A conversation with composer Roger Reynolds


I was born and raised in what used to be called “The Motor City,” Detroit, literally “discovering” music only when I was 14. I immediately began studying piano, but later succumbed to advice directing me toward engineering studies at the University of Michigan.

A brief foray into the missile industry convinced me that music was the better path. After finishing our musical studies, (my wife) Karen and I were (respectively) in France and Germany on Fulbright Fellowships, later together in Italy and then Japan. Our daughter, Erika, now a San Diego-area psychiatrist, was born in Tokyo.

We all returned to the United States in 1969, when I took up a position at the then fledgling Department of Music at UCSD. We settled in Del Mar and have lived here ever since.

My relationship with the storied music publisher, C.F. Peters, was established before we left for our 7-year odyssey abroad. This, and the later connection with the Library of Congress (which is making a Special Collection of all our materials), insures a continuing relationship with the East Coast that has been important, but, with all the traveling we have done, the base in Southern California has been a formative constant. Looking out my window at the Pacific is a signal pleasure.

What brought you to Del Mar?

At the time we came to San Diego, Del Mar was clearly the most appealing environment - especially the Torrey pines, the sand cliffs and the Pacific air. Much of the landscape we encountered here was, well, a bit severe for native Michiganders. The late ‘60s were still a time of drought. Our real estate agent strongly advised against our taking the step of purchasing a small house in Del Mar. Fortunately(!) we paid no attention.

What makes Del Mar special to you?

The Del Mar City Plan was being drawn up at the time we came here and we became immediately drawn into that discussion and planning process, especially through our close friendship with John and Florence Thunen. Del Mar has done far better than most small communities at preserving its uniqueness through communal engagement. And it is, of course, that character (which we hope will be maintained) that is fundamental to its value.

Where will you travel to next?

To New York in November. As the economy is hurting so many small businesses, a storied record company in New York, Mode Records, is feeling the financial crunch in a serious way. John Zorn has arranged for a benefit concert at which he, Philip Glass and I, among many others, will be performing. My contribution will be a real-time computer performance on a laptop. It is called “The Image Machine,” and its materials derive from a collaborative work I was involved with, and which featured dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones.

Who or what inspires you?

I’m not sure that “inspires” is the right word, but the most valuable interactions I have had on a continuing basis over now, more than four and a half decades, have been with Karen, my flutist wife, who has still not ceased to surprise me ... and more often than one might think possible. One necessarily lives inside one’s own head as a composer, and having the input of someone who is informed, interested, and not in exactly the place you are, is simply invaluable. Our Sunday morning “brainstorming sessions” have stirred up more than enough to keep me busy.

If you hosted a dinner party for eight, whom (living or deceased) would you invite?

Assuming that this was to be an occasion outside the normative bounds of family and friends: Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Dorothy Wordsworth, Elliott and Helen Carter, John Cage and Merce Cunningham, Bill and Hillary Clinton.

Tell us about what you are currently reading.

Richard Powers’ “The Echo Maker,” which is an intriguing treatment of mental trauma and the interplay between the mysteriousness of human behavior and the great (but still small) knowledge that science can bring to it. Next up is Richard Holmes’ “The Age of Wonder,” which I am interested in because of his superb double-volume biography of the visionary (if rather undisciplined) S. T. Coleridge. (Also Roberto Belaño, whatever.)

What is your most prized possession?

Quiet mornings in Del Mar, when thoughts come easily and range widely.

What do you do for fun?

Films (Kiesliowski, Bigelow, (almost) anything with Ralph Fiennes, Minghella, anything edited by Walter Murch, Kaurismäki; cook (Indian, Southwestern, Middle Eastern, Chinese and their derivatives); interact with our beloved granddaughter, Lynnlee (music, summer gardening, Clue, Club Penguin, math homework).

Please describe your greatest accomplishment.

Removing - out of embarrassment and discretion — your unfortunate word “greatest,” what I am most proud of (in the work vein) is the body of some 100 musical works that I have composed over a long and varied career in the U.S. (in California and the East Coast), Europe, Scandinavia, and Japan. Its variety troubles some, but I hear it as a survey of my engagement with a world, which is itself varied, especially those aspects of the world that are perplexing.

What is your motto or philosophy of life?

I think that we get in trouble primarily when we disregard the importance of separating three “stages” of experience: getting ready, doing it, letting go. Each of these asks of us, ideally, a full engagement, and when we muddy one with another, we often (in my experience) find that life gets disrupted.