Jeffrey Roden

Jeffrey Roden is a composer who lives with his wife, Shelley, and their dog, Hazel, in a remarkably serene neighborhood in Glendale, California. This conversation took place over email, July 2014 to June 2015.

Jeffrey Roden (image by Jennifer S. Altman for The New York Times)

Bach: Your mailing address places you technically in Glendale, but your house is situated near the intersection of Glendale, Pasadena, and La Canada Flintridge in the Verdugo mountains. The Los Angeles Times calls the region The Verdugos. How would you describe the neighborhood where you live?

Roden: Small rant to start with . . . growing up in Los Angeles, there were almost no names for little areas like Picfair [Village], Beverly Crest, Koreatown, etc. Thinking about it, the only two I can remember were Little Tokyo and the Borscht Belt, which was the area around Fairfax and Beverly Boulevard. The idea of trying to create some neighborhood identity out of a place where everyone is barely conscious of anything besides their own off-ramp by giving it a fabricated name seems so disingenuous. You cannot make a neighborhood by naming it. Rant completed.

That being said, our little slice of Glendale, with the exception of the Art Center Student and Faculty Speed Racing Association, is, in fact, quite a beautiful, unknown little neighborhood. One of our neighbors had a wonderful 4th of July party, and the newbie neighbors were so surprised that a lot of people know each other on a first-name basis. We walk the dogs twice daily, and most of our neighbors actually wave as they drive by or we walk past. Shelley and I retrieved another neighbor’s expensive bike from his garage when we discovered he had left the garage door open to the street. I called our Neighborhood Watch person, who notified him we had his bike safe. He was completely nonplussed that anyone would look out for him. Sadly, I suppose this is the way many people face their day.

Among the many wonders of living here is the abundant wildlife, which seems almost ridiculous considering we are about a 5-minute drive from a gigantic freeway interchange. Deer, skunks, mountain lion, coyotes, eagles, hawks, and our own bear. Shelley actually just missed seeing the bear on our front steps one night when she worked late.

The quiet and the trees have a very significant impact on my work. We have a gigantic liquid amber tree in the front yard, and I often wonder if I will ever make anything as marvelous as the sound its leaves makes in a good stout wind, especially if our giant Soleri bell gongs at the same time. Trees give me a sense of order and rightness, and with the exception of loggers and logging, trees maintain a kind of detachment and impunity to the vibrations and irrelevance of our activities. There are wonderful trees of every kind all over this little area, and no day passes without my being attracted to one or another of them.

Lastly, diversity is almost an obscene piece of language, however it is quite a treat to live with so many different kinds of people, even the newly migrating hipsters priced out of Silverlake. At the 4th of July party, I had a long chat with a new neighbor about [Morton] Feldman…actually we had a Feldman love fest, if that is possible.

It feels like home, and that is, I suppose, the best thing that could be said.

Bach: “Feels like home” is indeed a wonderful thing, and it goes beyond the words we have for it. When you say that the trees give you a sense of order and rightness, is this the impact on your work that you’re talking about?

Roden: Actually, I have loved trees all my life, which is ironic considering I have spent most of my life in a large urban area.

Anything that could be said about trees descends rather rapidly into vapidness and cliché. It is, however, their stoic, immutable nature that has always made me feel happy and safe, and somehow I feel that, regardless of what happens, there is always change, and that even ennui has a beauty. Just standing still is sometimes the most perfect thing that can be done. I hate climbing in them, lights on them, anything which attempts to rope them into our short-lived and anxious world. They are beyond anxiety, and I imagine trees, with whatever consciousness they possess, take death very wonderfully without the least drama. Tolkien’s ents are a perfect literary picture of this. Do not get me started on Peter Jackson………………ergggg.

I have no idea how they impact my work, other than I hope that my work has the patience and confidence of trees, and that other things will come to live in my work and take up residence, embellish a bit, maybe the creation of bird songs, as birds would be next on my favorites list.

The irrelevance of our activities is that, for the most part, we only exist or matter to a few people if we are lucky, and perhaps mostly for ourselves. The work we make, certainly we hope, has life everlasting, but that is beyond our knowing.

That is the tree mind.

It does not matter if we do not know what will happen, and we should not.

So that we can make work for the present and for its own sake.

This is why it is perhaps fortunate to not have a giant career which dictates and demands, and is why I quit playing for a living.

I make work, and that is mostly an adequate reward for the million hours it takes.

Jeffrey Roden at Quiet, 2003 (photo by Glenn Bach)

Bach: So, your work naturally took an inward turn as you gave up gigging, and this meant more time in your studio. Did your studio setup change a lot when you moved to Glendale?

Roden: Saying studio is so generous, as I am the least technically competent person in America. My studio is a Zoom recorder I never use and my scoring software Sibelius. Sibelius is a wonder and has allowed me to easily morph to composer. I do know how to copy music longhand, but to be able to hear and make changes in the score even with cheeeeeeeeeeeeeeesy samples is a great help. Once, I had a massive synth setup and all kinds of stuff which I made my earlier CDs with, but I think I knew that I would wind up here no matter how hard I struggled not to. That being said, if you can find your copy of Mary Ann’s Dream, listen carefully to track 5, “a kind word.” I just put this on over the weekend and loved it.

Bach: I think it’s interesting how your work in Sibelius is affected in some way by hearing an approximation, as cheesy as it may be, of the notes you are transcribing, a temporary stand-in that eventually disappears as the piece comes to fruition. As low-tech as it is, your setup is still a very hands-on process. And I want to get back to your point about eventually ending up where you are now, but I want to dig deeper into the idea of studio. I’m wondering what it is specifically about your music room in the Glendale house that fosters or nurtures your practice. How did you envision this space, and how different is it from the room where you made music in the Culver City house? Is this current room close to an ideal space for you? This is what I meant by studio in my previous question…not necessarily a recording studio, but a place where you can reflect and read and make music or listen to music or simply sit and think. A smaller home within the larger home.

photo by Lawrence Dolkart

Roden: I always seem to make a place for myself where the outside is framed so that it is the inside. I love trees and sky and clouds and that rare rain. It would be my prayer to live in the forest someday, or some other deeply silent place where I can dream and look out the window. This is the essence of my work now. Once, it was a chase for virtuosity; now it is an effort to make music which is more a reflection of my inside self. This current room, especially after changing the windows to bring the outside in more clearly, is a room I will be sad to leave. I think clearly my best composing work has been done here. As my life is really just music, this room serves as a place where I spend most of my time. Even while doing non-music work, I can listen to music here or go to the piano and find notes or just imagine what is to come next.  I like that the dogs and Shelley also camp out here, as it keeps me from getting too precious and lofty. It is easy to feel distracted by noise, and it is a great discipline to work around and through it. Now, almost nothing is annoying and I like to feel those I love close by and it the same feeling with me. Hazel sleeps with her head on the piano, and I suppose she could, and should, get some co-composer credit.

My dream space would be a place so quiet, I could open the doors completely to the outside and work in the sun, even, and feel the presence of everything. I know that the listener hears and knows everything, even if they, or you the composer/performer, are unaware of what that knowledge is. I knew this quite unconsciously when I quit playing for a living. Now I know it as a certainty, and work with some diligence to bring only my intention to life rather than other aspects of myself or my knowledge. The professional life is a daunting way to keep yourself in a state without compromise.

What Sibelius has done is allow me to skip an important step in my music education, and compose on a big scale without the hands-on practice I would have gotten had I gone to college. Fortunately, I have a very instinctive grasp of how the orchestration should go, and my teachers have stepped in and provided the technical details. After hearing my first performance, I think I am definitely going in the right direction and have a lot of confidence that I know what I need to know. Feldman has a section in a book about how orchestration is not a skill but a talent like composing, and further goes on to say without an original orchestration sense it would be impossible for a composer to be original (that was the world’s worst paraphrase in history). I think, like choosing the notes, you have to just know who will play what. Sibelius has been helpful at guiding me to that, even though frequently you really need a very vivid imagination…

Bach: Is it safe to say that the New Albion concert at Bard College was a turning point for you? Or, at least a signpost? Do you still think about what it would be like to live there in upstate New York?

Roden: The New Albion festival performance was a turning point only in hindsight. I did another record for solo bass, bridge to the other place, which I did not release beyond a few copies. What I realized in hindsight is that, in the New Albion concert performance, I had accomplished on the bass what I had searched for all of my life, and was able to put together a performance worthy of that search. In a room filled with composers and musicians, the music and I survived and prospered under the harshest scrutiny. I would say perhaps almost disdain by some of the people there. I think there is a homely quality to the work which grates and wears on the educated and the modern-minded. This is the beauty of truly being on the fringe, as these contrary feelings are not a distraction, a motivation, or really anything other than a feeling of separation from a collective mindset that I am uninterested in. I spent my professional music life under the obligation to interest the listener and evoke some response depending on the situation. No one had the slightest interest in my intention or the philosophical basis for what I was doing. I have retained that sense, even now as my work has turned toward a different purpose. So, that is a long way of saying that the New Albion festival was perhaps the beginning of my transition from the primary focus of my life being the bass and becoming a full time composer. It is a choice which I still have conflicted feelings about, as it has always been my fear that this is what would happen. Until I find some new direction to take the bass, I will compose and wait for the new way to use the bass. I have tried in my writing for chamber ensembles to give the double bass interesting and challenging parts to play. For the moment, it is as much as I can manage.

We never stop thinking about living somewhere else that would give us the quiet and beauty of upstate New York. Shelley’s work, however, will keep us rooted in some city, and we are so fortunate that where we live now is as quiet and beautiful as one could imagine in Los Angeles. I mean, we have a bear after all…

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