Volume 74, Number 31 | December 08 - 14, 2004


Music

“Ned Rorem: Word & Music”
Mon., Dec. 13, 7 pm
Rorem and filmmakers will attend
French Institute Alliance Francais
Florence Gould Hall
55 East 59th St.
212-355-6160

Writer and composer Ned Rorem. A documentary about his life will be shown on Mon., Dec. 13 at the French Insitute Alliance Francais

Retrospective on Pulitzer Prize-winning composer

New documentary on Ned Rorem

By Jerry Tallmer

“My premise: All artists steal, but if you know you’re stealing, you try to disguise it. If you don’t know you’re stealing, you’re just a second-rate imitator.”

— Ned Rorem, whose most recent diary (Da Capo Press, 2002) is titled “Lies.”

This coming Monday evening, Dec. 13, will see the world premiere of “Ned Rorem: Word & Music,” a documentary film by James Dowell and John Kolomvakis about the author and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer who has done just about everything and known just about everybody in the passing parade of his 81 years.
Done everything?

“What can I do that no one else can do when I go on the Dick Cavett program,” Rorem one night back in the 1950s asked Jim Holmes, the man with whom he shared his love and his life. “You can walk on your hands,” Holmes told him.

“So,” says the Roman-coin-handsome white-haired Rorem of December 2004, sitting bolt upright on a couch in the West 70s apartment where he’d lived for the best part of his 32 years with Holmes until Holmes died of AIDS in 1999 — “So I went on Cavett and said: ‘Now I’ll do what no Pulitzer Prize-winner has ever done,’ and got up and walked on my hands.”

“I went on that show,” he says, “on the condition that they play some of my music to begin with. And they did. And in retrospect, Cavett was more cultured and cultural than anything anywhere today.”

No, Rorem, as he sits there, hasn’t yet seen the film about himself. In fact, though 10 years in the making, it hasn’t at this instant quite been finished yet. From across the living room filmmaker Dowell volunteers: “We’re going down to the wire, and it won’t be completed until the last hour.”

Have you been making it with this gentleman’s – i.e., Rorem’s — cooperation?

“Sure,” said James Dowell.

“Sure,” said Ned Rorem.

What had Rorem said when Messrs. Dowell and Kolomvakis – makers previously of “Sleep in a Nest of Flames,” a film about the art and literary world as seen through the eyes of Surrealist poet Charles Henri Ford – had suggested a film about “this ideal subject, Ned, creator of this monumental body of music”?

Rorem: “I don’t remember.”

Dowell: “He said: ‘Maybe this is the right time for both of us.’ ”

Some of the strongest footage in the Rorem movie, Dowell said, “is of Ned and Jim [Holmes] together, including a wonderful summer at their place in Nantucket – kind of a golden time.” The dying Jim Holmes, that is.

When had Rorem and Holmes first met, and how?

“In 1967, I guess,” said Rorem. “He came to see me as a fan. He’d read a book of mine. He was 16 years younger than I and had gone to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I can’t live with anybody, but I lived with him for 32 years.”

Had Rorem gotten angry when he learned – by accident, from a doctor – that Homes was HIV positive?

“No. The highly charged sexual part of [their relationship] had been over for years. I knew he had adventures . . . ”

The book called “Lies” is the fifth of a series of published journals that started with the crisp, vivid, fascinating “Paris Diary” of the 1966.

“Ned as a Paris homme fatal,” Dowell murmured.

“This one is more depressing,” said Rorem. “Why? Because my friend of 32 years died.”

Jim Dowell had been choir director and organist at St. Matthew and St. Timothy Episcopal Church, on West 84th Street. Had he been religious?

“I don’t think so,” said Rorem. “Not in the sense that he believed in God, but he did believe in the formal structure of the church. I am an atheist, but I’m a good Quaker and was raised a Quaker. My mother and father never talked about God, similar to Jim. Jim could have been Jewish or Catholic or whatever, but he would have wanted it to be done right.

“He paid the bills, which my niece does now; she also runs the house in Nantucket and does all the practical things. She’s Mary Marshall, a painter, intelligent, unmarried, in her early 60s. The more other people do for me, the less I do for myself.”

One of the many well-known people appearing in the film is Rorem’s longtime friend Edward Albee.

“To my best recollection,” Rorem said now, “Edward and I have known each other since the late ’40s or early ’50s. There was a foursome living in a house on West 12th Street: Terrence McNally and Edward [a romantic unit], and William Flanagan and somebody.

“Edward sort of hung around, and then he wrote “The Zoo Story.” All of Edward’s first five plays were dedicated to composers. In those days, composers wrote music for plays. That doesn’t happen any more. Edward’s ‘The Death of Bessie Smith’ is dedicated to me.

“I walked out on ‘The Goat,’ ” said Rorem – Albee’s Broadway shocker of 2002 about a man who loved a goat and his wife who killed it. “Edward said: ‘I’ll pay for you to go back and see all of it.’ So I went again. I would have walked out but I couldn’t get past the people in the row. All that ‘Fuck you,’ ‘Up your ass’ – each of them says it once a minute. I don’t care for that. That’s bad writing.

“But I approve of Edward. I think he’s one of a kind. And courageous. I just think ‘The Goat’ is a failure in many ways. I got impatient with all that smashing of crockery.

“I leave everything at intermission,” said Ned Rorem reflectively, or maybe the word is dispassionately. “Everything is too long.”

He said he “very much approved movies about people” – i.e., documentaries like the one at hand, or any sort of visual or audio DNA of the original human being. “There are recordings, for instance, of Walt Whitman reading his own poetry — wonderful! And of Ravel and Debussy playing their own music – badly, I might add. Twentieth-century composers, 19th-century pianists [full of flourishes, etc.]. Just play the notes and leave the music be the music.”

Allen Ginsberg is in the Rorem movie.

“We were not buddies, but knew each other forever. I met him first in Tangier, I think, or maybe New York, in the early 1950s, when the beatniks were at their peak. I can’t stand William Burroughs – an unintellectual pig – but Allen was an intellectual. I like formality and I like discipline, and there’s no musical equivalent to beatnikism.

“You can’t just write music. You have to know, at a minimum, how to put down notes. Allen said: ‘The first idea is the best.’ Well, maybe, but not the first presentation of that idea. You have to chip them down, chip them down.”

“When [1950s poet] Frank O’Hara died, 2,000 little Frank O’Hara’s popped up. ‘I pour the tea, I do this, I do that . . . ’ Sorry, it doesn’t work unless you’re Frank O’Hara.”

“You know, there were three important gentile homosexual writers who emerged, coming after Jews like Saul Bellow, right after World War II: Gore, Tennessee, and Truman (Capote). I recently said to Gore Vidal, who was complaining about death: ‘What’ll you do if you don’t die?’ Gore said: ‘I’ll learn Chinese.’”

“I miss Truly (Capote). He put me in his last book, very mean things, and under my own name. But when people die, you prefer to remember the good things.”

One might think that Ned Rorem had met movie stars galore in his 81 years, and maybe he has, but at bottom he has “only really known two or three.”

One is Angela Lansbury.

Another was Myrna Loy. “I was asked to take her to a big party for Daffodil Weekend or something like that at Libby Holman’s on Long Island. I got a car. Myrna Loy left her gloves in the car. Did she do that on purpose? I sent the gloves back to her, and after that I saw her rather regularly. She was Roosevelt’s favorite actress, you know. Not a leftist but a liberal, and she cared about people.”

And one was Jean Marais, boyfriend of Jean Cocteau, star of “Beauty and the Beast” and many another great Cocteau film.

“Jean Marais and I did a ballet together on Dorian Gray. He played the portrait that disintegrates. Just had to stand there and disintegrate while George Reich, a young American, danced around him. We did it with the Opera Comique dancers in Barcelona in 1952.

“Marais was not stuck up, not full of himself. He was just a big, blond, good-looking guy, and a nice guy. In his memoirs, ‘Stories of My Life,’ he says: ‘I had no talent, I was good-looking. Cocteau was able to mold me.’ ”

Rorem gave a short laugh. “Remember how at the end of ‘Beauty and the Beast’ the beast turns into the handsome prince? Which gave birth to Garbo’s famous remark at the end of the film: ‘Oh, bring me back my beast!’ ”

Ned Rorem, the composer of dozens of operas short and long, notably “Miss Julie,” has for more than a year been at work with librettist J.T. “Sandy” McClatchy on a full-length opera from my own candidate for the greatest play ever written by an American, Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.”

Full-length?

“Sandy has done a two-act libretto. I would prefer one act, because I don’t like intermissions. Anyway, the whole thing should run around an hour and a half.

“People have wanted to get the rights to ‘Our Town’ for years and years. Not even Aaron Copland could get it. This project was commissioned by the University of Indiana, in Bloomington, where it will have its first staging. The only aria I haven’t got to yet is Emily’s in the graveyard.”

“Everybody likes ‘Our Town’ – it’s the No. 1 play throughout the world. ’Our Town’ is about normal people. Left to my own devices,” said Ned Rorem, “I would do something a bit closer to myself, and gay: a highly-charged opera about two men in love. If one of them commits suicide, it’s not because President Bush doesn’t approve of gays.”

A thought struck him. “Now that Bush is still president, are we all going to be put in concentration camps?”

No, Mr. Rorem. We’re all going to die of boredom.

“Yes,” the author of “Lies” responded. “Yes, you’re right, more likely.”

Nobody’s ever going to die of boredom talking with, or listening to, Ned Rorem.

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