Interview with Roy Yates
by Richard Whittaker, May 2, 2000
Roy Yates is a lifelong amateur composer.* Each day he gives a certain amount of time to selected pieces of music for meditative and intentional listening. His comments about listening reveal a serious study of this capacity which, for most of us, is an unexamined one. Yates continues to compose new pieces and many of his pieces have been performed in small public recitals. Recently he has received a number of commissions for new compositions.
As the interview begins we’ve been talking about his early compositions. The terms "objective" and "subjective" have come up…
*Yates passed away
Roy Yates: When I was younger I was writing very "Romantic" and even very "modern" kinds of music because I had a lot of stuff I wanted to express about me, my feelings. That’s not necessarily bad, a lot of great romantic music was founded on that, but in my lexicon right now it’s not so important. What I mean by "objective" would simply refer to that which is more involved with the principles, or laws of music, or certain fundamental laws, and how they come through in the music. If a person feels something from that, even if I feel something from it, it’s secondary to the structure, you might say, the application of certain principles. So the subjective element would enter at the point where I start making my selections on the music paper through my inner listening to how it’s going, because there are always points at which you have to make choices in relation to what you’re going to do next. And I think those decisions come from the subconscious.
Richard Whittaker: So, you construct a composition through some kind of formula, and you get a result. Are you saying that you’re pretty detached about all this?
Yates: I wouldn’t say that. No.
RW: I guess that’s what I’m really interested in finding out about, because I wonder if there isn’t something very personal about all of this for you.
Yates: Let me clarify that for you. I love what I’m doing—more than anything else I’ve ever done, in my life. I love it. (Laughs) I’ve written music all my life. I just never got any recognition for it, and never had a chance to get any remuneration from it, so it was a kind of struggle. And as I got older and had less energy I began to do less of it, and part of me got pretty unhappy about it, and disappointed. So to have this, all of a sudden, flare up in less than a year is kind of miraculous—from my personal, subjective point of view.
RW: I’d be very interested if you could say more about what it is you love about it.
Yates: Well, I love music, and I’ve always loved music. It’s the essence of… it’s almost the essence of everything. It has been a major factor in my life, even though I’m not a professional musician. I was never trained, but still, because of this I spent a lot of time, a lot of energy, and a lot of effort in listening, studying, and writing music. Up until recently, for no possible financial gain, in fact, it cost me money, what little I have. So, there is something Joseph Campbell said, I think he uses the term "bliss" —he encourages people to pursue…
RW: "Follow your bliss"…
Yates: Well, that’s it. Then you see, I’m wondering how many other people have that opportunity. And is there anything I can do to help them with that? Because it’s a freeing thing in a way that nothing else is, really.
RW: Would you care to speculate, to try to put in language, what that bliss might be about?
Yates: It’s a connection with my life, my sense of participation in it, my sense of presence… and that of others too. And one feels something about "the big picture," so to speak. The relationship to nature.
It was something that when I first heard music, when I was very young, it was directly connected with that whole sense of being here, listening, right now. It was wonderful. So, that’s a way of changing one’s consciousness very much. You remember that quotation of Stravinsky?
RW: Tell me again…
Yates: Well, this is from an autobiography written in 1938…
"I consider that music is, by it’s very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which by tacit and inveterate agreement we have lent it, thrust upon it as a label, a convention, in short, an aspect, unconsciously, or by force of habit we have come to confuse with its essential being.
Music is the sole domain in which man realizes the present. By the imperfection of his nature man is doomed to submit to the passage of time, to its categories of past and future, without ever being able to give substance, and therefore stability, to the category of the present. The phenomenon of music is given to us for the sole purpose of establishing an order in things, including, and particularly the co-ordination between man and time. To be put into practice its indispensable and single requirement is construction. Construction, once completed, this order has been attained and there is nothing more to be said. It would be futile to look for, or expect, anything else from it. It is precisely this construction, this achieved order, which produces in us a unique emotion having nothing in common with our ordinary sensations and our responses to the impressions of daily life."
RW: That’s a pretty amazing quotation.
Yates: Now, somehow that comes closer to something I have wondered about in connection with music. I’ve read this to several people who are interested in music and who are somewhat practiced musicians, and it’s hard, it’s tough, because this whole question of expression…he just completely puts it as a secondary artifact of culture. And yet, for someone who really knows how to listen into the music, I think he’s right. But, I’m still interested in the question of do, regardless of what Stravinsky says, do these sentic shapes that Manfred Clines talks about, really exist? Well, it’s this question of time and music which is so important, and so hard to…(laughs) There’s no other art quite like it.
RW: Many regard it as the highest of the arts, don’t they?
Yates: Well, yes. It’s related fundamentally to the whole question of vibrations. We here on this planet experience music through sound vibrations in the air. But who knows? I mean the triad of what we call music is, I think, universal. And it can take place in very different media and still be music.
RW: That’s interesting. Tell me what you mean by "the triad of music."
Yates: A vibration, a substance, and a context. The context could be the structure of an instrument. It could be a room. It could be inside the rock. it could be in the upper atmosphere. It could be in outer space. It could be in the dirt.
RW: Well, there is the question of what is, and what isn’t music. That’s a gray area, I suppose. Where does music begin and where does it end, and where does noise begin and end?
Yates: And people are experimenting with that nowadays. There are people now who give concerts of noise. I mean, it’s definitely noise. But people are interested in that. So that’s an interesting point. One of the things my partner, Pika, is doing is going into what he calls "organic music." He’ll go into a room, for instance, and he’ll look around at the objects in the room. He’ll determine what he can do to them, or with them, to make a sound— preferably one with a distinctive pitch but not necessarily. And he’ll then, hit, scrape, bow, blow into, knock, etc. objects and make recordings of them. Then he’ll edit them and work with this sound material until he’s got a piece of "music", a piece of organized sound—that is the sound of your living room—him playing your living room. (Laughs)
I’ve been encouraging him to follow it through because I think it’s marketable, as well as very clever. And some of it is really extraordinary. Now, the question is, "Is that music?" Now, a lot of it is relative to culture. For instance, a lot of the reviews of Beethoven’s First Symphony, if you can imagine—some of the reviewers said it wasn’t music, but just noise. If you look through the literature of reviews of new music during the time when it was first played, people will say that a lot.
RW: I don’t suppose we’re going to answer that one. You have mentioned the importance of listening to music and that word, "listening" comes up. You mentioned that one of the things that impressed you so much about John Cage was how he got people to listen. I’d be very interested in what you have to say about just listening.
Yates: Well, let’s start with John Cage. You know his piece for the piano, I think it’s called, "Three Minutes and Thirty Seven Seconds." He arranged things so that one of the alternatives you’ve got while you’re there is to actually listen. Not to the piano, because it’s not doing anything, but to the sound around you. And of course, he experimented with that a lot. Now that’s a particular kind of listening which is kind of forced on the audience by the arrangements.
But it has one thing that is very important, and that is that it’s attentive. It has a factor of attention that is very different than the kind of attention we have when we get into the elevator and there’s muzak going on. Or even the kind of attention we have when we like to work, even with good music in the background while we are doing something else.
If you are going to understand music you’ve got to put your attention on it in the same way that you would hopefully be able to put your attention on other aspects of yourself. With an attention that is very full and moves in time as the music is moving so that you don’t miss anything. And, of course, that’s almost impossible. But if you keep trying you get better at it.
When you’re actually performing then you understand it better. One of the interesting things about the practice of Gregorian chant, for instance—and this is from the director of the "Schola Cantorum" in an article he wrote. He was speaking of the uses of the chant when you’re in the circumstances of the church and you’re chanting. Since it’s very monotonous in a way—there’s no harmony, there’s just a line and you’re singing it with others and you’ve got to keep in tune—he said that if you keep your attention on it you are going to discover that the contents of your mind are very chaotic. You constantly have to keep coming back. You get lost and you come back. And you can’t avoid this kind of confrontation with yourself that you wouldn’t have ordinarily.
In that context, listening, brings you to a state of what you might call awareness of yourself, and your mind, that you wouldn’t have otherwise. Because your intention is related to your attention, and is actually producing sound so that you can verify it moment by moment through the flow of time. When you sit down to listen to a piece of music say, for yourself, at home which I try to do regularly, you don’t do anything else but that. Actually, nothing else. You find, for instance, that if you pick a piece you personally, just subjectively like to listen to, and you try to do that, you’ll discover that you’ve never really listened to it.
Now, the thing is with most of us, we don’t usually have any reason to listen that way. If we’re professional musicians we have to learn how to do that, to a certain extent, until it becomes mechanical, in a way, see? I’ve been interested in conductors—I always kind of wanted to be a conductor when I was very young—and this quality of attention moving in the present moment, all of the time, is vital to keeping track of all these things that are going on simultaneously when an orchestra is playing a piece of music. And that’s kind of what I mean when I say, "attentive listening."
It’s a work. It’s an actual...it’s very different from saying, "Oh God, I just want to hear this piece," you know, and just soaking it in. It’s fine. That’s wonderful, and you should do that. But, as a work of improving one’s attention and certain subtle aspects that are involved in that, it doesn’t involve that.
RW: Have you discovered that listening…let’s see, how to put this? Let me just describe my own impression. It seems to me quite clear that the listening function is different from the thinking function, or what we call "thinking." If I am able to listen my mental activity changes, notably, other things cease, that chatter in the mind. I don’t quite know how to put it concisely here but do you see what I am trying to get at?
Yates: You’re right. I agree with you. The intellectual center doesn’t know how to listen, period, as far as I’m concerned. It can analyze what it hears, if it hears anything. Listening comes from deep in the instinct, the instinctual part of us shared with creation. Particularly in the world where we live, the surface of this planet where there’s air, animals listen. They have to. Because their survival depends on it. When you see an animal listening to something, you see full attention. No question about it. So, it’s from that source coming up through us—so-called higher-organisms—that’s the source of our capacity to listen, if we know how.
RW: I’m glad I asked you about that because I’ve never heard the connection made just that way before.
Yates: You feel that. Now, you see that’s where some of this emotion, if I can put it this way, may originate from in connection with these basic abstract emotions, because these are not personal egoistic emotions. But if you contact that through your listening, it goes right up your spine. It comes into you in a way that actually, for awhile, may even order things. I also believe that by listening this way regularly you’ll begin to hear things that are missing in you, that you need.
RW: Could you say more about that?
Yates: I’ve had experiences of this for a long, long time. It’s one of the reasons I do it. It’s a kind of practice, and a help. It explains, to a certain extent, the hunger people have for certain kinds of music, which is quite beyond any kind of surface, stereotypical, like-dislike thing. It’s a hunger. And sometimes if a person has this sense of hunger—it’s like a physical ache, like being hungry—if you listen at that time you’ll know what it means, because it’s food. It’s filling something in you, that’s gone away, that you’ve lost…temporarily, probably. And at other times the same piece of music won’t work that way. And I believe this comes from this deep instinctual side of us. It’s the one thing that connects us, along with sight, to the big world where we live, in a way, like nothing else does.