An Interview with Joseph Summer – By Nichele Johnston

 I have to ask, how did you find my site?

My music director (of my The Shakespeare Concerts) wanted to borrow my Vampire Cop vhs, but I didn’t want to loan my only extant copy (though I have pre-release copies with running time and unreleased footage) so I went on line to find an extra copy, and through the anfractuous pathways of the internet found myself at your review of Vampire Cop.

Please introduce yourself and give us a little background, both personally and professionally.

Nichele, where can I begin? A little background? Pick a year in the last fifty and I think I can find something interesting about which to wax prolix. I write operas and art songs, and have been composing since I was about seven. My wife and I met when we were children, and I was instantly infatuated with her. She avoided capitulation for seven years (from when I was 14 years old) and during that time I attended Oberlin conservatory (beginning at the age of 16), was deported from Brazil, was the youngest teacher at Carnegie Melon University, wrote a lot of music, and etcetera. Lisa and I married in 1978 and have lived happily together since then, in various places in the states and abroad. I ran an opera company in the Eighties. Produced my own operas back then. On June 20, (Summer Eve,) 1984, Lisa gave birth to our daughter, who we named, naturally, Eve. Eve was a professional ballerina in LA for 3 years before quitting and returning to academia. Now she attends college, studies languages, directs and acts in plays. Lisa is a full professor at a Worcester area college, teaching music therapy, though she also teaches her specialty in the field worldwide (she is quite famous in her field) so whenever she is teaching in Asia, we make arrangements to meet up and go scuba diving. My whole family loves diving. We lived in St Thomas, in the US Virgin Islands for a couple years. My mother lives there still. I could go on and on. Currently I am finishing my latest opera, Hamlet, and running a concert series (The Shakespeare Concerts) and preparing to release the new cd of my music (Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’s Day.) My wife, mother, daughter, and myself are all heading out to Borneo in mid July. I just finished the dive/accommodations reservations. Thankfully, we aren’t staying on the oil rig. I got a spot for ten days on the island of Mabul.

How do you know Donald Farmer and how did you get involved with "Vampire Cop"? And if you could give every excruciating detail about your time on the set that would be fantabulous.

Details? It was very entertaining, but I would be hours typing to give details at the excruciating level. How I knew Donald? Okay. . . We moved to Cookeville, Tennessee, in the mid eighties. There was nothing there but for the university that had hired Lisa. So we brought VHS tapes of operas, plays, and psychotronic movies to entertain ourselves and our daughter. I wanted to find a copy of an early Ken Russell film about the composer Delius, and when I started making inquiries, I discovered, to my amazement, that an art film dealer lived in Cookeville, and had a copy. Furthermore, he was one of our closest neighbours! (We lived out in the country, on 43 secluded acres.) So I went to call on him, and we soon became good friends. We’d screen art films at his house (Pasolini, Bunuel, Jodorowski, et al) and then he’d loan me horror films and films he found to horrible to watch, which was perfect for Lisa and me, because we have always loved both the best art films and the worst sci-fi and horror movies. Donald wrote the part of Professor Pynchon in Vampire Cop to reflect this, as he is the voice of a caller to the tv talk show who wants to know whether Pynchon is a viewer of bad films. That’s when I go completely bonkers and throw the papers about. By the way, when I threw the papers I was actually blowing Melanie’s (Melissa Moore) papers off her desk, as she couldn’t remember her lines, and they were written on the papers on her desk. I would deliberately attempt to make her stumble by hitting the desk and pushing her papers around, and the like.
Filming those scenes were excruciatingly tedious. Donald asked me to be in some more of his movies, (for the fun, not because he thought I could act, but then he didn’t care that I couldn’t act) but Nichele, you sit for hours to film one minute of movie. I couldn’t believe the amount of time it took. I couldn’t stand it. The actors were nincompoops. Melanie told me some colorectal gerbil story about her friend and some big-name actor. I told her she was just reciting an urban legend, that it even had a catalogue number, and it was untrue. She had a huge conniption fit and complained to Donald that I had called her a liar, and that she was very angry. Donald begged me to mollify her. I did, and did the best acting in my life, saying that my immense attraction for her caused me to behave obnoxiously because it was difficult for me to work with her and know we could never… long pause, downward glance. . . She absolutely believed I was in love with her, but that I felt too unworthy to woo her. For that I should have been given an Oscar. There were a boatload of bimbos on and around the set, who thought I was the producer, because of the way Donald and I hung out together, how Donald would get me a chair, and order some crew member to go on a food, drink and cigar run for Mr Summer. It was a hoot. If I wasn’t so in love with my wife, I could have caught a great many STDs. Based on the assumption the wannabe starlets had that I was the producer. Nichele, I could go on and on.

Have you kept in touch with Donald Farmer or any other cast members?

Almost all of the crew (cameramen, sound guy, etc) were themselves wannabe movie directors. Some gave me scripts, thinking despite my protests to the contrary I could make their movies happen. So, I heard from a couple of them for a while. I still have some of their scripts. Sad, really, all the delusional people in film.

I stayed Donald’s good friend, only friend in Cookeville, for the rest of my time in Tennessee. But after moving to the Virgin Islands our contacts became less frequent. Like I said, he asked me to be in some other films, and to write some material for his screamqueens biopic, and to write some music for a sci-fi film most recently. I refused to take the time to be in other films, not interested in spending so much time on set for a joke; Donald didn’t like the wrap arounds I wrote for the ScreamQueen biopic. He thought the wraparound was too perverse. I thought it was funny. And I sent him some electronic music I created when I was a kid, for his sci-fi film, but I don’t know whether he used it or not, because neither of us has called the other since I sent it. (He originally offered me 5 grand to score the sci-fi film, but I told him that was not worth it for the time I would spend.) Then I gave him the electronic music for free, because I have no need for it. Anyway, he hasn’t called me since. Maybe he was angry I wouldn’t do the scoring. Ah well. I like Donald.

How did you come into your current career as a composer?

Oh, Nichele, that’s a long one. Call me at XXX-XXX-XXXX if you want to hear that saga. It’s a good one, but, ever so long. Wait, I just realized that last year I was getting back in contact with my first important composition teacher, Karel Husa. I wrote him a long letter reflecting on my current career as a composer, so you can read the letter, as it is still in my computer, and thus, your question is answered, I think. Here’s the letter:

April 12, 2005
Dear Maestro Husa,

At Eastern Music Festival in 1970 I had the privilege of studying composition with you. I was just fourteen, and I was attending the festival in North Carolina as a French horn student. As I had had a number of my juvenile compositions performed in Pittsburgh, and Sheldon Morgenstern knew of my creative leanings, I was directed to you for a lesson (my first with a composer.) You patiently looked through my immature offerings, which were substantial in length and overreaching in their scope (full orchestral scores including a symphony.) After your review, which was nearly an hour in length, you put the pile of music on the table and said to me, You must make a decision, do you want to be a French hornist or a composer? Though I had never thought before that I need make such a choice, I answered, composer.

Good, you replied, Now, take all this, by which you meant the music I had been writing for the last three years, and burn it. We start again, two voices, learning from Bartok. You told me that I must start anew, and learn how to compose using Bartok as my model. You wrote three bars of a simple 3/4 melody and told me to compose a two voice piece based on that melody. I obeyed, literally, and after burning all the music I had shown you in a fireplace on the Guilford campus (with no tears) I began to work on your assignment. The next weeks I worked on four two-voice compositions (for oboe and bassoon), the first based on your three measures, the next three following the model of Bartok which you had instructed me to heed. You were so pleased with my attention to your instruction that at the end of the festival, on a program of symphonic music, you personally conducted two young students in the debut of my composition. I must admit I had little understanding or appreciation of your magnanimous gesture, but I continued to compose.

When I was 15 I took a bus to Ithaca and asked whether I might study with you at Cornell. You told me that I should instead go to a conservatory, so I applied and was accepted at Oberlin before I turned 16. At Oberlin I studied with Richard Hoffmann, who was an excellent composition professor, despite the fact that I was the only student in his studio who was not serial.

After Oberlin, at the age of 20, I was asked by Robert Page, then head of the Carnegie Melon University music school, to teach the music theory courses for freshmen. (Their regular music theory professor had disappeared, and they needed a teacher immediately as classes were to begin in three days.) So, I entered academia in an odd way, as a teacher at CMU before my 21st birthday. But within a year I felt that I was not doing the right thing, viz: composing full time. After two years teaching theory in Pittsburgh, I left academia, married, and began composing full time. In the early eighties I ran a contemporary opera company, briefly, and produced two of my operas; but as with academia, I felt that my time for composing was too restricted, so I left the opera company and returned to full time composition. (My wife, Lisa, a former French hornist herself, always wanted me to concentrate on composing, so she has supported me, and discouraged me from taking academic or producing jobs.)
Once, in the nineties, we had arranged to meet in Cookeville, Tennessee, where you were coming to visit a university; but you took ill before your visit, so I missed the opportunity of visiting with you, and with playing my music for you. (I had arranged to have a bassoon sonata I had written played for you when you came.) After you took ill, I neglected to contact you, at first because I didn’t want to bother you. But then my concern for you drifted into these years of ungracious silence. I apologize. Your mentorship of me when I was a youth has remained the most important event in my professional life. You taught me my craft. Everything since your tutelage has been nothing but refinement.
In the year 2000 my patrons and sponsors began insisting that I again produce works, as I had in the eighties, and I recommenced at first reluctantly my public career. Since then I have begun achieving some small notoriety and increased performances. Besides my operas (of which I have completed six and had two produced) I have written several dozen songs for chamber ensembles based on Shakespeare text. Three years ago one of my my patrons, Mattina R. Proctor, arranged to have ten of my larger chamber settings recorded in Prague (with Vit Micka conducting) to be released on the MMC label. I loved the musicians, but the singers were not able to produce convincing English diction, so I refused to release the completed disc. But being in your city of Prague reawakened me to my indebtedness to you. I determined that once I did actually release a CD I would write and thank you.

A couple years and some half dozen premieres later, I am happy to report that my first disc is released, by Albany Records, and they have asked for a second already. In addition, I am involved in numerous performances of my songs, and I am working on the second act of my opera HAMLET, which was commissioned as a result of my recent The Shakespeare Concerts performances (three seasons so far, and a fourth promised consisting mostly of my Shakespeare settings.) I work with Czechs on a daily basis. I recruited a brilliant Czech pianist, Miroslav Sekera, from the Prague recording sessions to perform and record my music; and my music is engraved in Prague by Marcel Kozanek (who is a violinist in the Czech Philharmonic.) Prague is now for me a very special place. (My mother is visiting Prague herself next month.) Naturally, when there, I think of you, and I reminisce with my Prague associates about those precious weeks I had with you in 1970.
Recently, I was interviewed for an article in one of the cities The Shakespeare Concerts performed seven or eight of my songs. I spoke of you, and your influence. I include a copy of the article as it was published on the internet. (It appeared as I include it in the Springfield republican, but I can’t find my copy of the newspaper hard copy. It’s the same, though.) I want you to see also my complete answer to the interviewer’s question. Here is my complete response (from a transcript):

Over the next several years, music professionals, more aware than I, channeled my afflatus into the study of music theory. When I was 14 I had the good fortune of finding myself the student of the Czech composer, Karel Husa, who told me to make a choice: French horn or composition. I had to say composition because Mr Husa was a foot taller than me (about 6’2") and because he radiated authority. Good, he responded to my choice. Now, he went on, take all this, by which he meant the music I had been writing for the last three years, and burn it. We start again, two voices, learning from Bartok. I burned the music, as instructed. So, under Maestro Husa’s tutelage I recommenced composing, and one of the four pieces I first wrote after the immolation I later revised (about five years ago) by adding the text of Shakespeare’s SONNET CXXVIII, which piece is on the program for the Opera Guild Concert. (NB: I was 5â ™2⠝ at fourteen years of age. I grew some since then.)
I enclose the cd and most recent review of my music for your perusal. I note that though you may or may not find my music appealing, I am nevertheless grateful to you for your giving me the direction I needed to convey my own music with what skills I have. My worthiness as a composer I owe to you, my failures are my own.

Finally, I enclose the score to my Oxford Songs Book Four, number five; a setting from Twelfth Night. It is a revised version of that first piece you had me write. Measures 53 throough 55 are exactly as you wrote them in the oboe part. The ensuing measures (56 through 70, but for the violin and cello pizz on the last beat) are exactly as I wrote them, and which you conducted in the summer of 1970. They follow a variation on that theme which I wrote for the d
ke’s words: Give me some music. Now. . . This command reflects the command you gave me then. Thank you.

Have you ever had the opportunity to act again? Would you want to?

For a good joke, I’d act again. I have acted, though the film crew was unaware of it, for a 60 minutes type documentary being filmed by Al Jazeera Television. Al Jazeera has this 60 Minutes type show, and I managed to make a brief appearance as a “scientist” on what is supposed to be a factual show. I did that just for the scam. It amused my friends that I could wrangle my way inside of an Al Jazeera documentary, posing as a scientist. I have the show on dvd, but it’s in Arabic, so it’s not very amusing except as a concept.

Well, that’s all I can think of at the moment. Like I said, feel free to add anything you think I may have overlooked. Thank you so much for this. You rock!

Here’s some material I wrote about myself for the upcoming cd:
Dance of The Mechanics: notes on the ballet

In Love’s Labour’s Lost, Shakespeare’s vulgar characters (the mechanics) arrange an entertainment for the ‘worthies’ of the play, in form of a dance. The Dance of The Mechanics is my attempt to capture the comic characters (and the faux Russians, actually the disguised aristocrats of the play) in their on-stage gambols. Though the piece is humorous, its realization is anything but, requiring virtuosic performance from all the players. The piece is a suite, comprising eight continuous movements. The first movement is Dull, the constable’s awkward and pedestrian dance, beginning with the tuning of the instruments in which the first violinist, Ms Reisner, tunes down her instrument a semitone (known as scordatura) requiring her to play the entire piece with strings tuned to f#, c#, g#, and d#; rather than the normal g, d, a, and e. That Ms Reisner can accomplish the performance of twenty-five minutes of scordatura virtuoso violin on a recording is no mean feat, but more remarkably: she performed this arduous task in live performances including the world premiere. The second movement of the Dance of The Mechanics is a habanera (apropos the “fantastical Spaniard” Armado.) The dance of the (false) Muscovites, the third movement, begins with a solo for double bass, in which the themes of the movement are gruffly introduced, too low to be heard true. Moth’s flighty dance begins the fourth movement and features extremely high pitches realized through the use of harmonics, but Armado interrupts the solo with a variant of his habanera (played by cello and double bass) under the violins and viola. During the lengthy fourth movement, Moth dances with the assembled characters, entwining the page’s music through the themes of the other mechanics. The curate, Sir Nathaniel, is portrayed in the fifth movement, by a type of contrapuntal device practiced in Roman Catholic liturgical music of the time, embellished by a pizzicato double bass. Costard, a clown, mocks Dull, in the sixth movement, transforming the music of the opening with jejune, chromatically ascending pizzicatos. This movement also contains parodies of the other characters’ themes. In the seventh and penultimate movement, Holofernes is portrayed as a pedant, through the formulaic employment of a fugue: unimaginative, authoritarian, and correct. (If I’ve played my cards right, those adjectives will be heard as ironic commentary, not animadversion.) Finally, I introduce Jacquenetta, who dances to a simple tune on violin, accompanied by a pop samba rhythm, because, of course, she’s a country wench, and not impressed by the more complex musical structures I’ve utilized in the preceding seven movements.

 Joseph Summer’s Oxford Songs, in my own words

In the novel Nowhere, by America’s greatest living author, Thomas Berger; Wren, a playwright and private investigator, finds himself in the principality of San Sebastian, dining with a preeminent literary critic. When Wren declaims, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’ day? Thou art more lovely, and more temperate,” the critic immediately dropped his loaded fork, went to his armpit, and brought out a large automatic pistol. His first shot broke the glass in front and slightly to the right of me (Wren); the slug continued past my forearm with a hideous whistle. Shakespeare dominates the literary landscape. Much that is written is nothing but exegesis of the bard. I come to Shakespeare in the same way as the wordsmith. My music is my commentary on the text. Like an actor, too, I impose upon you my interpretation of the words with gesture and timing; though my gestures are musical and my timing (thanks to the temporal distortion possible through music) can be quite exaggerated. You don’t have to agree with my perspective, but I hope you find it worth considering. My settings of scenes from Shakespeare’s plays and the sonnets are contained in six books, (each book containing as many as twelve pieces) which I title Oxford Songs because I subscribe to the unorthodox opinion that Shakespeare is the pseudonym of Edward de Vere, the 17th earl of Oxford. The doubts regarding Shakespeare’s ipseity have a long history. At one time those who doubted the Man from Stratford as the author flirted with the idea of Francis Bacon. Mark Twain wrote, “I only believed Bacon wrote Shakespeare, whereas I knew Shakespeare didn’t in his essay ‘Is Shakespeare Dead?’” Twain assailed the orthodox authorship view (known as the Stratfordian), writing, since the Stratford Shakespeare couldn’t have written the Works, we infer that somebody did. Who was it then. The view that it was Oxford wasn’t hypothesized until several years after Twain, first in 1920 by J. Thomas Looney. I share my “Looney” belief that the Stratfordian Shakespeare is not the author of our language’ greatest works with many predecessors.

My principal matier as a composer is opera. I’ve written four grand comic operas based upon Boccaccio’s Decameron 1: And The Dead Shall Walk The Earth, 2: Courting Disaster, 3: Their Fate in the Hands of the Friar, 4: Gianetta; and three tragic operas: Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Euripides’ Hippolytus, and The Tenor’s Suite, based on Franklin Wedekind’ The Tenor. Currently I am working on Also Known As, the fifth opera in the Decameron cycle; a cycle which I plan to encompass a total of seven operas, all following the events in the lives of several of Boccaccio’ bawdy characters over the course of one week.

This disc contains ten of my Oxford Songs, set for various small ensembles and voice, as well as the ballet, Dance Of The Mechanics, one of only two Oxford Songs I have written without voice, (the other being the Dumbshow from Hamlet, which is also intended as ballet.) Sonnet CIV I dedicated to my wife, to whom I have been married since 1978.Sonnet XVIII was written when my family lived in rural Tennessee, and from my composing studio I looked out on a field of wildflowers and saw my four year old daughter, her little hands clasping freshly picked daisies, singing to herself. I couldnâ ™t hear her songso I imagined this one, sung not by my daughter, but by some Ceres-like Earth-goddess, to the words: “Shall I Compare Thee To A Summer’ Day” Sonnet CXXVIII is a home movie, referring to my courting behavior when I was a music student. A violinist is practicing her instrument (as evidenced by the arpeggios) but her lover attempts to divert her attention, with seductive humor, forcefully separating her from his rival, the violin. It is a very visual piece, and in concert, the tenor actually plucks the strings of the violin on several occasions, while the violinist is bowing. (When this was performed live with a male violinist, a soprano took the place of the tenor.) Sonnet CXXX is another piece I wrote with my wife in mind, which captures, I hope, both my esteem for her and my insufferable persiflage.In Sonnet VIII I have imagined a couple at a concert, but the young man cannot enjoy the music as he is distracted by the question of marriage and the responsibility of parenthood. As he listens, instead of hearing the words of the duet presented on stage, he hears in his mind, a thesis in favor of fatherhood. Sonnet CX I wrote as a meditation on my late, beloved uncle, Bernie Sheffler, to whom the piece is dedicated. When I wrote the work, he was a vibrant and important part of my life, and continues to be so even now, when â œall is done, have what shall have no end. Leda and the Swan is not the only Oxford Song with text by someone other than the bard. Yeats’ sonnet is included in my third book which includes poems by Marlowe and Gorges, poetry that foreshadows or reflects on Shakespeare, in my opinion. I attempt in this setting to capture Yeats’ contemplation of the halcyon Golden age of Greece by embedding the singer in a lush string quartet steeped in memories of the 19th century. If By Your Art recalls my daughter, Eve Aviva, again. When we lived in the Virgin Islands, there was an occasion when she was invited to a party on the beach, but the event was threatened by a tropical storm. My little girl grew wroth, and complained to me about the oncoming storm. I asked her, with some displeasure, whether she was angry with me about the storm, and she replied that she was. I protested that she shouldn’t hold me responsible for an act of God, but she would not desist in her ire, despite acknowledging that I did not control the weather. Naturally, this passage from The Tempest came to mind, Miranda’ plea to her puissant father to quell the tempest, which he accomplished. I end the work with a samba of my own invention I used to sing to her when she was a babe in arms and couldn’t sleep. (If By Your Art is dedicated to my uncle’ granddaughter, Madeline, who attended its premiere.) The final Oxford Song on the disc, When That I Was And A Little Tiny Boy is the close of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night, a sardonic plea to the audience from a clown, requesting money for the evening’ performance.

In its fifth season now, The Shakespeare Concerts has premiered about twenty-five of the sixty odd Oxford Songs I have completed. The previously released Albany recording, What A Piece Of Work Is Man includes eleven other Oxford Songs, including five settings from Hamlet (now incorporated into my opera), as well as sundry sonnets and excerpts from The Tempest and The Merchant of Venice.

In a bit of irony or whatever you wish to call it, Summers father, Herb Summer, had a brief appearance as a zombie in the original Night of th Living Dead . One shots in horror films must be in their blood.