“If I knew exactly where creativity came from, I’d bottle it and sell it for lots and lots of money.” Or so David Rakowski (MUS), a Brandeis University professor who was recently elected to join the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Letters, said in an exclusive interview with The Brandeis Hoot.
The academy, which bolsters a total 250 members, is recognized as the greatest recognition of artistic achievement in the United States. The American Academy is composed of three departments: art, literature and music. A few members of the Academy include notable names like Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Stephen Sondheim, Philip Glass and Frank Gehry. One of three current Brandeis members, Rakowski will join the ranks of fellow emeritus professor of music Martin Boykan and emeritus professor of composition Yehudi Wyner. Rakowski, along with 12 American members and two foreign members, will be inducted in May.
Several 2016 inductees include, but are not limited to, multimedia artist Joan Jonas, electronic music composer Paul Lansky, artist Pat Steir, as well as honorary foreign members Julian Barnes and Thomas Struth.
“When I got the news, I wondered, ‘Why me? Doesn’t the academy know I have a piano piece that uses the nose?’” Rakowski was quoted saying. “I am truly honored. The membership is the leading lights in the arts in this country, and I have studied and admired many of the members since I was a student. The notion that I get a seat at the table with them, and as their equal, is mind-blowing.”
Rakowski is both a composer and teacher who has gained infamy for his piano etudes, which have garnered a significant amount of attention because they are played in part with the fists and nose. Over the course of his career he has received countless awards and prizes for his renowned contributions to music. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in music on two different occasions and also has over 160 compositions to boast. This number is, of course, ever growing.
The professor looks forward to the perks that come along with membership in the academy. “The Academy gives out monetary awards every year, too (I got one such award in 2000) which are considered prestigious, and I look forward to being able to nominate composers whose work I admire for those awards.” Beyond that, Rakowski is even more intrigued that he is placed on the same level with other artists that he has looked up to for the majority of his career. “And by the way—being able to sit at the table with the leading lights in art, literature and music, and as their equal is positively mind-blowing,” he said.
An incredibly honest individual, Rakowski’s understanding of his accomplishments over the course of his career are anything but pretentious in nature. “I suppose what I’m most proud of is that I haven’t run out of ideas yet—which is not to say I don’t repeat myself sometimes or do different things with material I’ve already used. As to what pieces I’m most proud of—two answers: first, my piano etudes (100 of them) and piano preludes (57 of them, shooting for 100).”
More surprisingly, however, is his openness about his limitations, and the fact that he attributes his successes to both the creative process and chance. “I’m not a pianist, and I can’t play most of them, but apparently they work, since lots of pianists play them and say they are comfortable and fit in the hands. And a lot of pianists have very nice things to say about them.”
When asked about the process of composing music, Rakowski has admitted that he finds creativity from multiple points of inspiration, such as visualizations—something as mundane as the “shapes drawn by the glare of passing cars when they come through the living room window”—as well as works of art and poetry. Most of the time he plans out his music right after he wakes up in the morning, before he musters up the energy to emerge from bed. The only danger in this is that if he happens to fall back asleep he fails to retain any ideas he had—a risky gamble, for sure, though he also insists that some of his music came to him in a dream.
“Composing isn’t just what I do, it’s also who I am.” A busy man who finds himself incapable of sitting idle for any given period of time, he mentioned that currently on his plate are “43 piano preludes, a sextet for Boston Musica Viva, a piece for oboe and strings for the Boston Chamber Music Society, a sextet for New York New Music Ensemble and a seventh symphony for the New England Philharmonic.”
Even more refreshing than his witty and down-to-earth vibe, Rakowski’s outlook on music is positively otherworldly. “I think pieces of music, when they are performed, are like living, breathing organisms; I feel tension and release like inhaling and exhaling. A piece is over when it feels like it has exhaled the last time.”