Composer Ned Rorem has always seemed to exist in his own well-furnished sphere, writing music regardless of current fashion, saying exactly what he thinks (right as he's thinking it), and striking stances that are effortlessly provocative and contrary. He may even give you an argument about his 90th birthday Wednesday.
"Other people turn 90," said the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rorem, who will be celebrated at a tribute concert Wednesday at the Curtis Institute, where he was on the faculty until recent years. Though he's not sure whether he'll attend, "I still think of myself as the youngest person at the party."
You can't disagree. After graduating from Curtis and the Juilliard School, he lived for seven years in Paris in the 1950s, was the golden boy of artistic circles, and was even photographed by the legendary Man Ray. You can still see young Ned in old Ned. And you still never know what will come out of his mouth.
"The woman across the street just threw her baby out the window," said Rorem, in his trademark deadpan delivery, the other day in New York when he appeared to be taking a post-photo session nap. He made it up.
"He's all riddles," said Steven Blier, cofounder of the New York Festival of Song who witnessed the non-incident. "When he was young, he could get away with murder, socially. And he's kept getting away with it."
Those celebrating his birthday are doing so widely. His magnum opus song cycle, Evidence of Things Not Seen, will be heard Wednesday at Curtis' Field Concert Hall and also will be part of Curtis on Tour in several U.S. cities. The prestigious New York Festival of Song presents a specially crafted evening of Rorem songs Nov. 5 at Merkin Concert Hall in Manhattan after trying it out in Providence Nov. 1 and Boston Nov. 3.
In Europe, his latest piece, a setting of Shakespeare sonnets titled How Like a Winter, will be premiered at the Amsterdam Concertgebouw by the esteemed mezzo-soprano Christianne Stotijn on Oct. 29. His String Quartet No. 4 has been turned into a dance piece by the Richard Alston Dance Company and is being performed throughout Europe.
The last was news to him. "Why doesn't anybody tell me these things?" he groused by phone from his New York home. "Are they paying royalties?"
Given that he has 250 pieces on the Boosey & Hawkes website, it's not surprising he has trouble keeping track of them. Though known mostly for art songs that can feel more Gallic than American, he has written numerous concertos, his 1976 Pulitzer Prize was for the orchestral work Air Music, and his operatic adaptation of Thornton Wilder's Our Town has several productions a year.
"I consciously said to myself that I wanted to write at least one of everything," he explains. "And I've written for everything but tuba. I'm not a tuba thinker."
That could change if he were approached nicely. When Philadelphia Orchestra principal flutist Jeffrey Khaner asked Rorem if he'd thought about writing a flute concerto, the composer didn't miss a beat: "Now I am!" (And he did - Khaner and the orchestra premiered it in 2003.)
Then there are his published diaries - six volumes of them - from the early 1950s on, discussing his homosexuality at a time when nobody else was, experimenting with drugs, and dealing with chronic insomnia. No living composer is so extensively documented. But that seems not to have enhanced his transparency.
"The other day I was saying to Ned, 'I've known you for 30 years. But the more I know about you, the more I wonder who you really are,' " recalls Blier. "And he said, 'Maybe I don't know myself.' " One of Rorem's books is titled Lies: A Diary. Though an artist's creative life and external personality can differ vastly, Rorem may have them all beat: Some of his most deeply felt works are religious, yet he swears (irately) that he's a Quaker atheist.
Perhaps the only way to crack Rorem's psyche is to confront him with his own mythology. For starters: Though his major works have strong emotional presence, he is widely quoted as saying "I don't feel things deeply."
Wrong. "I don't feel deeply about chewing gum . . . but I feel very, very deeply about music and about the death of friends and so forth. Why live if you don't feel deeply?"
Though Rorem would seem to be the most cultivated of composers, he is said to have awakened one morning with a horrible hangover while visiting Philadelphia friends, and, to meet a compositional deadline, sat at the piano for 20 minutes, knocked out the song, closed the keyboard lid, and muttered, "Thank goodness that's over."
"That sounds like me," he says. "I gave up drinking many times and finally, 35 years ago, I did it."
Might that be why his recent music is his best? "The creativity that comes from being drunk is pretty second-rate," he says. "Writing music is a very serious affair, technically as well as emotionally."
Though he suggests his compositional activities are dictated by people coming to him, he came to Blier with the idea for Evidence of Things Not Seen, a cycle of 36 songs from 24 authors, from W.H. Auden to William Penn. Though Rorem is not considered an innovator, the finished 1997 piece resembles nothing else in the art song repertoire. It's for four singers, sometimes used as soloists, sometimes interacting, in an epic birth-to-death journey.
So sure was he of his music that when rehearsing for the premiere, a syllable accent problem with one of the words was pointed out. Rorem smiled, did nothing and moved on. As he does. And will no doubt continue to.
He just doesn't "get" death. "Why would we live in the first place," he says, "if we're going to die?"
8 p.m. Wednesday, Curtis Institute, 1726 Locust St. Tickets: $35. 215-893-7902; www.curtis.eduEndText