Conversations with Roger Sessions by Andrea Olmstead

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Andrea Olmstead
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Book review

In the course of his long career, Roger Sessions came to assume a preëminent position among modern American composers. Until his death in 1985 at the age of 88, Sessions produced a prodigiously varied oeuvre–from large choral and orchestral pieces to chamber music and solo woks–that continues to attract devoted admirers. Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, Sessions remained an elusive figure, a deeply private man who drew sharp distinctions between success and accomplishment. Conversations with Roger Sessions offers a rare opportunity to hear this extraordinary composer speak candidly about his life and work, and it provides fresh insight into one of the most exciting chapters in the history of American music.
A close friend and colleague of the composer, Andrea Olmstead interviewed Sessions on a weekly basis between 1974 and 1980. Their conversations are delightfully informal and return repeatedly to the subtle ways in which his work has been shaped by personal experience, musical conviction, and the social and political climate of the twentieth century. With urban good humor and occasional irreverence, Sessions discusses his compositions and describes in detail their genesis and development. He also reaffirms his humanistic approach to the music and speaks forthrightly against excessively abstract theoretical approaches. “Just remember,” he responds to a question concerning the 12-tone system, “The music is God and the twelve-tone technique is just a parish priest.”
Sessions also touches on the world of professional music, and on his relations with such luminaries as Arnold Schoenberg, Ernest Bloch, Otto Klemperer, Nadia Boulanger, and Igor Stravinsky. He proves himself here to be a superb raconteur who charming anecdotes consistently surprise and instruct. Sessions tells us, for instance, how his misreading of a poem by James Joyce lead to a piece for solo soprano–and an embarrassing encounter with the great writer’s daughter-in-law. He also comments wryly on the critical reception of his more controversial works; in another instance he describes an unlikely fistfight between Sarah Caldwell’s mother and an unsympathetic concertgoer at the world premiere of Montezuma.
Thanks to Andrea Olmstead’s skills as an interviewer and editor, Conversations with Roger Sessions can be enjoyed by professional musicians as well as they layman. It is a very special memorial to this singular composer.
Andrea Olmstead’s Conversations with Roger Sessions, out of print, is now available in a new eBook format complete with updated Discography. Interviews took place between 1974 and 1980 in New York. Originally published by Northeastern University Press in 1987, this book can now be easily obtained at online bookstores.

Reviews of Conversations with Roger Sessions

“The reader begins to wish for an opportunity to have met Sessions personally. But lacking that, Andrea Olmstead’s pungent interviews may be the next best thing.” — American Music Teacher

“A rare addition to the literature on 20th-century music, this book appeals simultaneously to a professional audience (scholars, composers, and theorists) and to curious, interested music lovers.” — Elliott Schwartz, Choice

“[Sessions] could be delightful company . . . the reader is captivated by his humor, enthusiasm, political awareness and his anecdotes . . .”
— Publishers Weekly


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