Interviewed by

[This interview was taken and transcribed and edited by John Schott, except for those bits of commentary and additions inside square brackets, like this one, which were added by Dan Plonsey, after the fact.]
Dan Plonsey: My Dad listened [and still listens] to records a lot, mostly Classical music, but also Pete Seeger, The Kingston Trio... he liked Prokofiev... He had a recording of Carmina Burana that we listened to a lot... that record made a big impression on me, my dad played it a lot, and I would look at the cover, I think it was people sitting in a cave, and I guess I had all sorts of fantasies about what it was about, but now I can't really remember them, except they were associated with people in a cave, and that I knew it was supposed to be sort of primitive... those were the days when primitive people were supposed to be sort of exotic.

I guess the stuff I liked the best was Folk music, Pete Seeger, The Chad Mitchell Trio, and the Kingston Trio. They would play that for me when I was falling asleep.

Then my Dad started to get into Jazz a little bit. [There was one record which was a sampler which my Dad and I would listen to, sometimes together, sometimes each by himself, and one day he asked me which was my favorite piece. I named one that I liked for a single sound - I can't remember anything at all about it - who it was, what the name was, or even anything about the sound itself - there was just this one fantastic sound. My Dad liked a different piece, and when we listened to his, I had to admit to myself that I liked his piece a lot better, except that mine had that one incredible sound in it. I don't remember his piece either. I think that perhaps one of us liked a song about "Chinatown." Is that Benny Goodman? What does this mean? Then years later, when I was 15, we both got into Maynard Ferguson's band. I really liked Maynard's baritone sax player, Bruce Johnston. (He eventually showed up on Anthony Braxton's Creative Orchestra Music 1976, which is kinda odd!)] And I remember another important record we had, The Instruments of the Orchestra, narrated by Mitch Miller. Each instrument had its own song, and I played that thing to death. I think that's where, according to my parents, I really got the idea I wanted to play the saxophone and the clarinet. They also had this book of the instruments of the orchestra, which I used to go through all the time, and that's the other reason I liked the saxophone, there were all these beautiful illustrations... I can still sort of imagine it... it must have been printed in 1950, illustrations of naive people, wearing suits and ties, sort of European fairy book pictures, where to show color in someone's cheek there's just a red circle, and their hair looks like a black helmet, and... they're playing a saxophone! I used to go through that all the time and sort of fetishize the instruments.

I started on clarinet in 2nd grade or so. It was a metal clarinet, and such a piece of shit that my teacher made my parents buy me a better one. I remember he told them learning to play the clarinet was like learning to drive [by driving] a truck... so they bought me a plastic clarinet.

My Mother used to sing all the time, and she has absolutely the worst sense of pitch of any human being [laughs]! I was trying to analyze this last time she came to visit, because she was singing to Cleveland a little bit: she has this soprano voice, and essentially she modulates every two or three beats. At this point, I can't even imagine learning to sing like that, it's really quite amazing. My Dad has a pretty good sense of pitch...

Oh I forgot! Gilbert and Sullivan we used to listen to all the time, especially Pinafore. Both of my parents would sing songs and make up their own words. Like if they wanted me to do something they would make it into a song, and that would of course get me really angry. Sometimes they would put funny words on, and I would like that.

They would take me to orchestral concerts now and then. I seem to recall going to hear "Peter and the Wolf" at a pretty early age. I know we had the record. The first "Rock" concert I ever went to was Peter, Paul and Mary. That was the first non-Classical concert I went to and I was really amazed. I hadn't realized that there were concerts that weren't Classical music! We also had this random assortment of musicals on LP. My father's favorite record for a couple years appeared to be this musical version of Superman! It must have come out in the mid-60's because it was really campy and funny. I can still remember some of the songs, Lois Lane singing: "....oh how I wish I weren't in love with Superman, doot-doot-doot-doot-doot, a wasted life is all I've got...", or something like that. He still plays it, in fact I heard it two or three visits ago. We also had "Company", "Exodus", and "My Fair Lady". One of the first movies I remember seeing was "The Sound Of Music."

JS: I'd like to try an experiment. In one minute, try and list everything artistic you've produced. Not to be a speed demon, but just to get the big picture.

DP: 144 mostly tiny works for piano; 3 string quartets of substantial length, and maybe three very tiny ones; a woodwind quintet; a dozen or so solo pieces for different instruments; there's a collection of about 36 tiny pieces for saxophone; there are three full length orchestra pieces - one is fifteen minutes and the other two are twenty to twenty-five minutes, one is for a smaller orchestra, single winds; there's about a dozen saxophone quartets, and another dozen pieces for saxophone ensembles of varying sizes; a book of about fifty conceptual pieces; a piece for chorus (JS: "What's the text?) - there's a narrator who observes at the beginning "I think the piece is beginning" and then everyone has instructions to rhyme with that or extrapolate on it... the piece goes on like that, it's for just speaking chorus; there's a piece for thirteen people clapping; there's a sax trio that I lost; there's a minimalist piece for five instruments; another minimalist piece for four unspecified instruments using just four notes; there's a piece called "Remember Bird" that's sort of semi-conceptual, semi-written for four people playing as many instruments as possible, playing "Now's The Time," solo, but stopping every three notes to change instruments; there's a dozen pieces for tape, Musique Concrete; a big piece, twenty minutes long, for Jazz ensemble that's never been played (that was my supposed Master's Thesis); about a dozen tiny songs, for instance (sings): "Whoop-de-doo, for the blue" being one of them; maybe another twenty pieces for bands like Manufacturing of Humidifiers or similar; more recently it's been these small to medium to very long pieces for ensembles of seven to fifteen people, and in the last few years there've been twenty medium-size ones, fifteen small ones (two to seven minutes), twenty five pieces totaling four hours; the pieces I wrote on the computer that are about 45 minutes each; there have been twelve Disaster Opera Theaters; then there's Sunburst, (some of these are only scored in so far as the people I chose and the text, or libretto I wrote); in 1982 I wrote thirty short stupid pieces in the month of January. Then the next year I wrote these four pieces that were meant to be played simultaneously through the month of January. Then there's the recordings, depending on how you want to count them. My Bang On A Canpiece [The Plonsey Episodes, 1-10].

One novel called Get Away From Me, I Have A Knife; probably about 40 or 50 short to very short stories, the PlonseyCards [paintings on baseball cards combined with very very short stories] of which there are 153, many pages of poetry that I've never really done anything with, that I don't really like. I did a script from one of my stories, that we [The Hinds Brothers and Mantra and me] made into a twenty-five minute film.

[Then there are the] paintings, [and things which also might be called "paintings," but which in any case are art of some sort].

JS: Why write all this music?

DP: It's mostly just that I like doing it; I like the act of writing stuff, if anything I'm writing more then ever, and am getting faster at it. I think what I want my pieces to do is encourage other people to do art. I see that as one of the most important things about art, to be infectious. There are several things attractive about being prolific: you get to do a whole bunch of [different] things, and if you whip some things off....

I think my work has always been based on the two principles in conflict: system and ear. So when I first started composing in college, seriously composing, I was really influenced by reading liner notes of Stockhausen and Xenakis. Stockhausen I thought was really impressive, "Momente" and "Mantra"... "Momente" especially. They always had formal schemes, and he would talk about how everything was generated from one kernel. And then Xenakis with his ideas... The very first pieces I wrote, I actually have a notebook full of pieces that never got written, which are plans for pieces, and they were all based on things I'd learned in various Math classes, different kinds of processes I'd set going and ways of corrupting melodies, and writing heterophony, different ideas, some of which I'm actually kind of doing these days.

Nowadays it's really kind of schizophrenic - I write the melody and it's totally unsystematic, it's just what I'd like to hear, but then, what I do to flesh it out into a piece is often systematic, as if I don't trust my ear to do the horizontal shaping of it. As if I don't trust my ear to really surprise me. And I think that dialectic between system and anti-system is important. [For instance,] John Cage would go on and on about [the importance of] impersonality [in writing music], but he had pretty much the most personality of anyone in the 20th century! And he was the most personal person! All of his stories are about people, and about funny things that David Tudor said...

[When I was working on my Kingdoms Diptych,] I wrote a long melody, 48 pages long, filled a notebook with the melody. A lot of it was written pretty much as fast as possible, none of it was written slowly. I would try to actually write it in real time. One thing I try to do... (which always seems to result in threes against fours! [laughs])... you're humming a melody to yourself, and you're trying to write it down, but you're writing a little bit slower than you're humming, so you have to sort of repeat it to yourself. And I try to write in that repeat, and every time it re-occurs in my head. I want to include, not just the ideal melody, but all this little internal repetition that has to occur.

That goes along with this concept I had of Delayed Counterpoint, that I came up with when I was a Mills: even when you write a solo line, there's counterpoint, because, the way your mind actually perceives things, you're hearing the line against what you just heard, and what you expect to hear, sort of a polyphony of past, present, and future. These long melodies I'm writing, incorporate this sense of attempting to include those ghosts of future and past. So the melody's written, maybe I write two or three pages that night, [then] the next day, possibly I've already got a melody going through my mind that has pretty much nothing to do with what I did the day before, and I start writing it in, or more often than not I just look over where I was and I try to get back into it. Because I didn't want it to be too episodic, I really wanted it to flow. Sometimes I would start a line or two down from where I left off and then come back and try a make a transition... I think I did that one or two times.

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