AN INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL RIESMAN
by Andrew Shapiro
January 5, 2000
(From 21st Century Music, March 2000, reprinted with permission)
I first met Michael Riesman in January 1998 when I worked at Philip Glass's Looking Glass Studio in downtown Manhattan. I spent hours pouring over scores (many of which remain unavailable at any library),listening to dozens of recordings in the "tape closet," watching videos, and of course, simply spending time around the studios where I was able (appropriately enough) to minimally assist Riesman as he was engaged in developing what was to eventually become Glass's video opera, Monsters of Grace, in collaboration with Robert Wilson.
Michael Riesman serves Glass's music in many capacities. He is long time musical director of the Philip Glass Ensemble (as well as a keyboard player therein), synthesizer technician, producer, and "orchestrator" of Philip Glass's ensemble music.
I spoke with Michael Riesman in New York City on January 5 at Looking Glass Studio. He generously shared his lunch hour and his thoughts with me while he was in the midst of preparing the Ensemble's performance of Glass's music for the film Dracula, just a few days before the group was heading off on tour to Australia.
SHAPIRO: The experience that I've had working at Looking Glass was, for the most part, watching you and Kurt [Munkasci, the producer and president of Euphorbia Productions, a wing of Philip Glass's production enterprise]. It wasn't until a few months afterwards that I met Philip at the rehearsals for Monsters of Grace. I'm wondering, at what point did you get involved in working on a piece? Is it while Philip writes the music or does he finish the score and hand it to you and then ask you to develop it and/or orchestrate it for synthesizers, or do you sit down in meetings before he even writes one note?
RIESMAN: No, actually he usually just goes ahead and writes the music. I get brought into it after he's got stuff down. Occasionally, he'll have a question for me like when he was writing the score for Kundun, he wanted to integrate the Tibetan Monks singing low tones. And he called me up to ask me what pitches they would be [singing] if we did that. And then when he found out that they sang on B to B-flat, I said, "Well we could get them in tune so it could be a specific pitch. Then he asked me if it would be OK if he wrote cello and bass parts [tuned down] to low B, if we could manage to deal with that in the studio, I said "Yes." So, I get involved sometimes in an advisory capacity for certain musical details about how things might get done.
SHAPIRO: So it would be sort of like a composition major in music school asking a flute player, "Is it possible to do such and such?" It's that sort of orchestrational council from time to time?
RIESMAN: Right. And then also for film scores a lot, sometimes there have to be decisions made fairly early on in terms of budget.
SHAPIRO: Recording budget?
RIESMAN: Yes. We have a lump sum to do a film score where we have to deliver the score for a certain amount of money and then it becomes an issue compositionally for Philip to know how many instruments he'll be able to write for and how many we'll be able to synthesize to make it sound like X number of instruments and so he'll ask me questions about that. He'll ask questions about how many players I think we'll need. Also, we'll discuss possible instrumentation before he even writes the music so that he's aware of what his limitations are and what kind of a band he can write for.
SHAPIRO: Do you think that Hans Zimmer, or another real Hollywood guy who is concerned only about delivering film scores, asks his orchestrators or arrangers or assistants similar questions, or is it that Philip is dipping into that genre as well as also being in other places?
RIESMAN: Well, if you're Hans Zimmer, you have all the money you need to produce the soundtrack. It's really not an issue. What happens with Philip is that he does some Hollywood movies. With Kundun, there was no question about how big an orchestra we could use. We could do whatever we wanted. We used a full orchestra and chorus. We had 80 players by the time we got done. Same thing with the music for The Truman Show. We had as many players as we wanted, there was no issue because it wasn't our budget; it was their budget that paid for the orchestra and they had their production people come and they made out the checks and we didn't even think about it. But, many of the projects that we do are independent films, low-budget projects like Errol Morris's Thin Blue Line and Brief History of Time. Those were both projects where there was limited budget and it was a flat fee for the entire composing and production of the soundtrack. And those were both projects in which Philip came to me and asked what I thought we can get away with in terms of how many musicians we have to hire and so on.
SHAPIRO: Is that why the Thin Blue Line soundtrack is just for string quartet?
RIESMAN: Well it's more than that, there's trumpet. It was string quartet with occasional added brass and strings, very little woodwinds and a little percussion. But, the focus was on the string quartet so it's a natural kind of impression that you'd walk away with because there's just a solo trumpet here and there.
SHAPIRO: Is there a certain film score of Philip's that you worked on that you like more than others or is there even a favorite one? Or even in general, what are certain [recording] projects that you hold in high regard? For instance, I think that the best things that I've heard on the newer re-releases are the Music in Twelve Parts and Einstein on the Beach in the Nonesuch versions. I think they're beautiful records.
RIESMAN: I have a very special feeling about the Einstein re-recording.
SHAPIRO: Then how do you feel about the following: I've spoken with people older than me and so when they were first hearing Einstein, it was on the old Tomato Records version and, of course, when I first listened to it, I heard the new Nonesuch recording. And so, I'm hearing the new version as being the piece. And some would say that the older version has more soul and more character. Is this just a question of people becoming familiar with [the first version] and so that's what they think the piece "is?" How do you deal with change in the new version?
RIESMAN: For my taste, I much prefer the new version. I should say with one exception: I think that the original reading of the speech at the end in the old version is far superior but the guy who did that in the original version passed away so it was just something that we couldn't duplicate. But, I don't know if it's just that people heard that first version and are attached to it as you say or if it's just a quality that doesn't particularly appeal to me that's in that version. I mean, it's definitely sort of rawer sounding and so from that point of view I can understand that maybe some people would prefer the earlier take. I know also that the same thing is true of the new Koyaanisqatsi release, which for me just completely destroys the old one in every respect. But, there are people who think the old one sounds much better. And again, it's more of a nastier sound and the voices are a lot more aggressive sounding and the new one is mellower and so it's a question of taste. People like that old sound on the old records.
SHAPIRO: As you know, I've become familiar with the score for Monsters of Grace in which Philip does write specifically for the voices, flutes, and saxophones. But a lot of times he'll just say "synth bass" or "woodwinds" or "brass" or "pitched percussion" for the synthesizer parts. Do you take that and just do your own thing with it? Do you say something like "Oh, I think a marimba [patch] would sound good here and yet he didn't specifically say 'marimba'" or "I like this bass sound over that bass sound?" Do you find a creative outlet or any responsibility there to make that piece happen in a sense, because this lack of orchestral intention clearly has so much to do with what the music actually turns out to be -- and it's something that he doesn't indicate, so you're really making such a huge contribution to the piece. By the way, that bass sound that you made with the souped up 10th partial above it is gorgeous. I'm referring to the sound used to create the promotional demo.
RIESMAN: Thank you. It depends on the project. A lot of the things Philip writes are for electronic keyboards. Monsters of Grace is a case in point, where he wrote a score with three keyboard parts and then penciled in various things about the kind of sounds that he imagined the keyboards would be making at any given moment. However, when it came time to actually realize Monsters we basically threw out all of that information after discussing it with Philip because, it was actually Kurt Munkacsi's idea, we wanted to turn the whole keyboard world into Persian samples and Mediterranean sounds. And so, we decided that, yes, this is a good idea, yes we will do it and then basically I went on a sample search where we bought a lot of [sample] CD's and we actually couldn't find anything that we wanted. I wanted very much to find a Persian santur, which is a Middle-Eastern hammered dulcimer, and we couldn't find a commercially available sample so I hired a Persian santur player and he came in and we sampled it. He had some other instruments that we needed; there were some commercially available samples available but they weren't very good. So I sampled him doing an oud and something called a saz, which is also a plucked instrument. And then, after we had collected all of these samples then I just tried stuff out. I said, well, this kind of works for this and this kind of works for that. And with Kurt's input, into the concept of what we were going to do, we got the idea that we were going to juxtapose these sounds with western sounds. So there would be the samples with let's say the synth bass sound that you talked about, which was a western synth bass sound.
SHAPIRO: So, the piece is very much about appropriating and fusing these two styles together. Certainly the thing to do in this post-modern artistic climate.
SHAPIRO: Something that I'm wondering about -- and I think that this is especially important to the people who would be reading this in conservatories, and I know that we've both come out of that world of hard-edged academia -- What would you say to someone if they said, "From my point of view this is kind of ridiculous. Who is this person (Philip) who claims to be in the classical tradition and yet, he's not doing the work himself" or "He's just writing 'woodwinds' but he's not scoring these things very specifically, which is so important to the composer's mindset and production [of the score] in that academic world." The prevailing thought is that Philip resembles a pop composer who hires people to do his work for him.
RIESMAN: Well, first of all, Philip does write every note. So, it's not that I'm taking his song and arranging it or taking the melody and arranging it. He writes his own harmonies, bass lines, and inner voices -- everything. But it's more of a question that what he's doing is in a tradition harking back to the baroque when Bach wrote The Art of the Fugue. Bach didn't say who was supposed to play what. In the body of Philip's earlier work, including Music with Changing Parts, Music in Fifths, Music in Similar Motion, Music in Twelve Parts, Two Pages, and so on, there is no instrumentation specified at all. He just wrote pure music -- just notes -- which could then be realized in any number of different scenarios. And I think the same thing is true in something like Monsters of Grace where he writes a keyboard part, which he doesn't intend to be played on a piano or an organ -- it's going to be played on something else. But, he writes it with the intention that there is some freedom. When he writes "brass sound," it's only a suggestion. He's never been dogmatic and said, "Oh, that doesn't sound like brass" when I come up with a sound to realize something that he's doing. So, there's a sound design element that's involved, which is really separate from the composition. Part of sound design is a practical issue. We have a certain amount of synthesizers and a certain amount of channels in the mixing console, and so on, to deal with, and I have to be within the bounds of the gear that we have.
SHAPIRO: What do you feel about the academic attitude towards this? I'll even get a little deeper by saying that the prevailing attitude which I know of is that Philip started out with these tremendously gorgeous pieces that seemed to satisfy a certain pop appeal and also contained a certain, shall I say, legitimate artistic substance, particularly in the music using additive procedures in pieces like Twelve Parts or Einstein. And yet later on, let's say with pieces like Monsters of Grace or The Truman Show, the music is for the most part written in a regular metric flow like 4/4 or 3/4 -- a thought is that the newer work has really abandoned a lot of the earlier artistic aggressiveness and exploration, and that Philip has just smoothed out into being more of a pop composer. I'm curious to know your thoughts about that and how you may rebuff the sentiment that he's beneath the academic tradition.
RIESMAN: Well, I don't think that Philip has ever been particularly popular in the academic world. No matter what he was doing, I don't think people would like it just because he is, in fact, a popular success.
SHAPIRO: So it's a lot of jealousy?
RIESMAN: Well I wouldn't say it's only jealousy. There are people who just don't get it. In terms of his earlier music they just think it's repetitive, period. And those same people probably feel that his new music is not as repetitive but that it is as equally inane as it had been repetitive earlier. So, again, they just don't get it. They don't see that he's not trying to do the same kinds of things that they might be trying to do in terms of "art on a pedestal" or something like that. I mean, he's making music, and much of it is beautiful music. Some of it might not be as successful as other things, however.
SHAPIRO: That reminds me, couldn't the term "Gebrauchsmusik" that Paul Hindemith used meaning "music for everyday use" very nicely serve to define Philip's catalogue? So you could say that Philip has written a lot of Gebrauchsmusik?
RIESMAN: He's written a lot of Gebrauchsmusik. He's written music... A lot of it has been collaboration with filmmakers and dancers. A lot of it is a sort of music on demand for a particular project. Not everything he writes is great and certainly not everything he writes is revolutionary. But he's changed. He's grown. He's changed his, shall we say, his purpose in that early on he was sort of all alone struggling with even getting recognized and getting heard and getting accepted at all. Original minimalist compositions were so severe and so pure in their content. They were stripped down to the barest essentials of what was the most economical way to present this new kind of music. And then, over the years, the whole rigor of the minimalist concept relaxed and metamorphosed into something different, really starting with Einstein where suddenly there were melodies on top of something else. There was a "tune." And that was sort of the beginning of the end of what you might call the minimalist phase of his career.
SHAPIRO: That's interesting. So Einstein is the bridge between those two worlds. I've spoken with other people who feel the same way.
RIESMAN: Einstein definitely added a new element.
SHAPIRO: And so you could say maybe that this new element created a new music which became more mainstream, because, at the same time that minimalist music was evolving out of its character of the "bare essentials" and towards containing a tune, minimalism's new found melodicism coincided with pop music accepting the minimalist art as part of its own character.
RIESMAN: And also, I think that Einstein was still repetitive, of course, but because it actually had more things that you could hear as a melody, the music was not as severe as the earlier pieces, so there was more of an easier listening experience. And certainly, following Einstein with Glassworks and Koyaanisqatsi and pieces like that, there was this whole other more popular and accessible aspect to the music.
SHAPIRO: Speaking of Glassworks, I need to say that your [solo piano] performance of Opening is just great.
RIESMAN: Thank you.
SHAPIRO: Back to some of the conducting stuff, whether it's your conducting of the Philip Glass Ensemble or whether it's your conducting of some other ensemble that is contracted out to do a film score or something like that. I've recently heard [music from] The Secret Agent, which was played by the English Chamber Orchestra--
RIESMAN: --Well there's a kind of curious story behind that.
SHAPIRO: Well, good. I'm glad that I bring that up. Now, there are certain parts that contain the solo English horn over really smooth string passages that are just so tender and really nice. I think that someone like Simon Rattle or James Levine or Kurt Masur, someone like that or for that matter any "real" classical conductor --people who by the way have conducted Philip Glass scores-- would affect the music too much and screw it up. How do you feel that you're qualified to work with a "traditional" orchestra and how do you feel that you're better for the task, and how do you approach working with an acoustic chamber ensemble differently than you would approach conducting and working with the Philip Glass Ensemble?
RIESMAN: Well, that's a bunch of different questions. First of all I'll answer what I think my particular qualifications are. I think that I really "get" Philip Glass's music and what needs to be done to it to make it sound good. And I say that because I've heard some bad performances done by other people who have attempted to do it, but they don't really understand, first of all, the importance of the absolutely, shall we say, devilishly severe rhythmic requirements; that you absolutely have to be exactly on the beat. I mean, you talk about people that are very, very sensitive to rhythm, like rap music or something like that, that if it's a millisecond off, it's wrong. Well, the same thing is true of the underpinning of Philip Glass's music. It really has to be absolutely right.
SHAPIRO: Can that be defined as a certain pop-oriented groove that traditional ensembles just don't understand how to execute?
RIESMAN: Yes. A subtle misunderstanding of that, where it's a little wishy-washy -- it just doesn't work. You mentioned my performance of Opening. I've heard someone else, whose name I won't mention, play that piece and it just grated on me; it was just impossible. I just couldn't stand it. And yet, that person thought they were giving a good performance. And then at the same time you still have to let the lyrical element be there and not kill it. So it's a combination of "there's a feeling there" and "there is an emotion there," and it has to come out, but it needs to come out within the confines of the rhythmic precision, so you need both of those things to work together, the rhythmic precision with the feeling still there-- a physical sense that the performance not just by a machine. So, it's something that I understand. I get it, and I do it naturally and I've been doing it for a long time now, and it's not something that's so easy for someone else just to jump into. I've worked with sort of "regular" musicians, shall I say, who haven't tried to play this music before and they walk into the first rehearsal and they think, oh, there's nothing difficult about this. Then, after they've played it for a while, they begin to realize that the challenges are there; that it's not as easy as it is looks. If you really try to do it right and do it well and make it come off, there are a lot of challenges in it. As far as other conductors well, I've never heard Kurt Masur try to do Philip Glass. Pierre Boulez would never touch Philip Glass, because he absolutely despises Philip Glass.
SHAPIRO: That's not a personal thing is it?
RIESMAN: No, it's an artistic thing. He just doesn't get it.
SHAPIRO: It's interesting that this comes up because it reminds me of an interview that I read with Billy Joel. And he's what I now believe to be a different Billy Joel, one that has withdrawn from the spotlight a bit and is now approaching a more "classical" compositional style. He said something about how, "I was reading the Sunday [New York] Times and I read an article that contained Pierre Boulez saying that 'unless you understand the need for serialism, you're useless.' Well, fuck you man, what about the rest of us?" So, I guess he's not alone with his sentiments, huh?
RIESMAN: Well, the whole movement that Philip Glass was part of, the whole minimalist concept has to do with a reaction to that whole European tradition that went, as far as I'm concerned, down a dead-end blind alley and never came out. They went into the serial thing, Schoenberg and everyone that went down that road and, it's a dead end. It's been played out and there's nothing there, in my opinion. So, Boulez is out there fighting the fight but meanwhile, the world is passing right by him in my opinion. It's a dead end and nobody really cares about serialism.
SHAPIRO: Briefly, just to get back to [the music for] The Secret Agent and your "curious story"--
RIESMAN: --Well, the credits on the album read that we have soloists from New York and the English Chamber Orchestra. Actually what we did was, because it was a British film and it had British film financing or something of that sort, they had a requirement that the music track had to be played by British musicians. Therefore, we got the English Chamber Orchestra. But Philip said that he didn't want to just mail off the score; he didn't trust someone else to do it. He wanted me to do it, but I never went to England because we had a conflict about tour schedules. I think we were in the middle of a tour. I couldn't get out of the tour and go for two days to England. There was just no time. So what we did then was we actually recorded the entire soundtrack in New York with not just the soloists but also with an orchestra of New York musicians.
SHAPIRO: And so you paid The English Chamber Orchestra and they didn't even do it?
RIESMAN: No, they did do it. They overdubbed it. It's actually a recording of two orchestras playing, the English Chamber Orchestra playing over our New York musicians' performance. It actually made it sound great. They had a click track to work with. Harry Rabinowitz, who has conducted lots of film scores, conducted that ensemble. We share the credit as conductors. Basically, we did the entire recording in New York and then shipped it to England and they overdubbed.
SHAPIRO: What a pop method! What would be your guess as to that orchestra's feeling about their role in the project?
RIESMAN: I think that they were a little miffed, frankly. They felt that they were just coming in as sweeteners -- there was no real creative avenue there. They just had to match our performance and that was that. But that's what Philip wanted. Not necessarily would they have done a bad job but he wasn't sure if they would do a good job. He wanted someone from his camp there. I would have been perfectly happy to use just the English Chamber Orchestra.
SHAPIRO: Taking a large jump away from serialism, do you listen to current pop records like Brittany Spears's record or other pop records like New Kids on the Block to hear their production techniques?
RIESMAN: Yes. I check out the radio. I like to listen to the radio. I like to see what's on. Unfortunately, there's very little good radio in New York City. I just bought a new FM antenna so I can pull in WFUV, which is a great station for checking out new stuff. They're broadcasting from New Jersey. They don't come in well in Manhattan. WKCR (Columbia) is perhaps the best station in the city in terms of getting a variety of different things. All genres.
SHAPIRO: I'd like to ask you about Uakti [the Brazilian group that has recently released a recording through Point Music, of dance music written by Philip Glass]. Certain parts of that record are so beautiful. What exactly is a glass marimba? This combination sounds like the sexiest percussion instrument.
RIESMAN: It's a marimba that's made out of slabs of glass [laughs].
SHAPIRO: Well, that's a very minimal response to the question [laughs].
RIESMAN: The Uakti group designs their own instruments. They play some traditional percussion instruments like tablas and various other drums, but they make a lot of their own instruments including the glass marimba. The wood marimba that they use is also a homemade instrument made from some special wood from the Amazon, so that's not a traditional instrument either.
SHAPIRO: How was it working with them? Your credit is "additional keyboards and produced by..."
RIESMAN: Yes, I played a slight amount of keyboard. There's hardly any keyboard.
SHAPIRO: Is the album your orchestration?
RIESMAN: Actually, they did all the orchestration and arranging. The part that I played is the keyboard in the introduction and then there's another plucked instrument that you hear coming in, the triplet that goes against the organ. You can't quite tell what it is. It's actually a combination of plucked sounds. So, to finish the story about Uakti. We got the idea to do this album since what would turn out to be the first part of the album was a commission from a Brazilian dance company. They commissioned Philip to write some piano music that would then be orchestrated and arranged by Uakti. They did their own orchestration of the music. This was mostly done by Marco Antonio Guimaraes. He's sort of the composer for the group.
SHAPIRO: He was the one that made the arrangement of Metamorphosis I from Philip's Solo Piano record?
RIESMAN: Right. They had already basically worked up and rehearsed all of the pieces before I even got [to Brazil]. I made some contributions as producer in terms of suggestions about the way to do things, but they pretty much produced themselves. I was there deciding whether a particular performances was a good take not; but, in terms of the arrangements, they really pretty much did that by themselves.
SHAPIRO: Is that piece touring at all? It sounds like the sort of commercial enterprise that would do quite well.
RIESMAN: Well, they do some touring. But they don't do enough. There was some discussion at the label (Point Music) whether they could get these guys to tour more.
SHAPIRO: In the United States?
SHAPIRO: Would you create new arrangements for Philip to play with them thereby helping the promotion [of the tour]?
RIESMAN: There's no way either Philip or I could go on tour with them because we're just too busy with our own work.
SHAPIRO: You say that you're booked up. I know that at BAM [The Brooklyn Academy of Music] you have the "Philip on Film" production this spring as well as the Australian tour beginning this weekend. What else is going on? I had read somewhere that there is a CD-ROM version of Monsters of Grace to be released at some point. Is that the case?
RIESMAN: Well that's only in discussion, there's nothing imminent. Monsters is kind of in abeyance right now because we've got other albums that are about to come out. There's another orchestral album that's already mixed and ready to go that includes The Light, which is an orchestral tone poem. There's Symphony No. 3 which is for strings that was recorded in Stuttgart with the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra and The Light, which was recorded in Vienna with the Vienna Radio Orchestra.
SHAPIRO: Were you conducting those groups?
RIESMAN: No. Dennis Russell Davies was and I was the producer. He's been instrumental in promoting Philip because he was the guy who was responsible for the creation of Akhnaten. When Dennis was the music director at the Stuttgart State Opera he was able to get them to commission Philip to write it. This was a very important commission because Philip had done Satyagraha in Stuttgart and Philip really needed to have another commission to really establish his credibility as an opera composer.
SHAPIRO: A "real" opera composer?
RIESMAN: As opposed to a one-shot Satyagraha phenomenon. Satyagraha was the first thing that he had written for a traditional opera company. So Akhnaten was very important in that sense. I think that it really helped Philip a lot because he really started to think more seriously about writing for voice and writing for orchestra. A lot of the things that he had done in Satyagraha were very difficult; almost unplayable orchestra parts. By the time he got around to Akhnaten, the orchestra parts were not so impossible anymore.
SHAPIRO: Not impossible because he had learned what not to write from his first experience or because the orchestra knew what it was doing in terms of its approach to Philip's music?
RIESMAN: Philip had learned from the mistakes in Satyagraha. He had written parts that were really keyboard arpeggios and had given them to woodwinds and strings and they were very difficult and the players hated doing it because, you know, their hands would cramp up and there were no rests and there were no places to breathe and so on. So then, after then he begun thinking about the requirements of the orchestra. Wind players need to have rests and string players need to have things that fit the hand.
SHAPIRO: Do you think of your conducting as more like coaching than conducting?
RIESMAN: Well, it's not conducting if you're using a click track that everyone is listening to. But the most important part of conducting is the coaching. It's telling players how to do something. It's telling people what kind of a sound to make and it's coaching them as to the mistakes that they're making whether they're rhythmic mistakes or intonation mistakes. When I'm working as a conductor in the recording studio, waving my arms is the least part of it. The most important part of it is that I'm listening to rhythm, intonation and expression and deciding whether this is a good performance or it's not a good performance and why, and then talking to the musicians about it. So, to me, this is what I think of as the meat of the conducting. It's not the showmanship standing up there and making lovely gestures and beautiful facial expressions and so on --
SHAPIRO: -- to satisfy the Lincoln Center crowd?
RIESMAN: Yes. Really, it's in the preparation. Most of the work that I'm doing is working with our own ensemble where I'm also a member of the group when we're doing performances and so usually I'm actually playing.
SHAPIRO: I've wanted to ask you about that. With all of the people that I know of in New York, you would be the best friend to have. You play, you conduct, you record, you produce, you orchestrate, you're a synth programmer-- you do everything. How did that happen? Some people choose one thing --they're a performer or a producer or an engineer. And yet, you seem to be doing all of those things. How do you feel you're able to do that and does all this make your work more thrilling in that, after you're done conducting and playing, you're running over to another synthesizer to reprogram it and edit a split key change or something like that?
RIESMAN: Well, it keeps it interesting for me. I'm always doing something different. And that I really enjoy.
SHAPIRO: I've really admired that for quite some time.
RIESMAN: But it goes back to when I started in the conservatory. I went to Mannes School of Music, by the way, and had a double major as both conductor and composer. So, I was interested in tape machines and things like that as well. When I got to Harvard, I did graduate work and got my doctorate. I was majoring as a composer, but I took courses in the computer science department. I studied computer languages, because I was interested in that kind of stuff. I think, if I hadn't been a musician, I would've probably been in physics or mathematics or something like that, because that has really fascinated me. Eventually, I decided to stop teaching (I was teaching at the State University of New York at Purchase in the academic world). I decided that I had had enough of the academic world; I just wanted to get out. So, the first thing that I did after I left teaching was (as a bread-and-butter job) to get into engineering. I was editing tape while I was playing on the side. I was putting together classical albums for CBS records and other companies -- sitting there with a razor blade and splicing tape, which is an activity that obviously requires both musical and technical skill and knowledge.
SHAPIRO: And as far as your performing, you grew up as a pianist?
RIESMAN: Yes. I started very early at piano and I played right through high school and conservatory. I never majored as a pianist or keyboard player. I never really thought of myself as primarily a keyboard player. As it turns out, one could say that it's one of the things that I primarily do. But, at the time that I was in music school I thought, "Well, yes, I can play, but I'll never be Peter Serkin or someone like that!" I wasn't interested in a career playing the same old music. I wanted to do something else, whether it was my own music or something else. I wanted to be involved in new music and actually, when I stopped teaching, the playing that I was doing was in clubs, playing in soft rock groups and stuff like that --just because that's what I thought was exciting. It was something totally different, something removed from the academic world.
SHAPIRO: Someone once told me, "I think that Michael Riesman is a genius." What do you think about that?
RIESMAN: [laughs] Aw, gee... When Philip got the Golden Globe Award for The Truman Show he did say in his acceptance speech that he thought I was a genius -- so if he said that, I won't argue!