Composer / Performer  Frank  Abbinanti

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Artist Biography

by Uncle Dave Lewis  [posted on]

Frank Abbinanti is recognized as one of the prime movers in Chicago's contemporary music scene.

Abbinanti's first instrument was trombone, but he later switched to piano. In 1972, Abbinanti and his wife Ruth founded the Modern Music Workshop, a group devoted to giving concerts of contemporary music at The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and playing the lecture circuit on college campuses. During those years, Abbinanti also maintained a full course of musical study, taking piano with Frederic Rzewski and composition with Richard Teitelbaum, and later, Ralph Shapey.

Like many young composers who studied music in the serial-academic environment of the 1970s, Abbinanti developed a severe case of new music burnout, and although he and Shapey remained friends, Abbinanti dropped out of music for several years. The accidental death of Abbinanti's friend and English composer Cornelius Cardew proved the event that gradually brought Abbinanti back into the realm of music. In 1983, he organized a memorial concert for Cardew that was both well received and the subject of some media attention.

By 1985, Abbinanti was touring Europe as a pianist/composer, both with his own works and as a representative interpreter of the works of Chicago-based composers. With composer Peter Gena, Abbinanti co-founded Interarts Chicago, Inc., booking many of the key artists working within the European avant-garde into Chicago venues. In 1989, Abbinanti's commissions began to pick up, and he composed the first of his major vocal works, cantata immigrant, for the Polish women's chorus the Lira Singers. He has since composed a wealth of chamber operas, cantatas, piano music, and many chamber works, ranging from such pieces as Kobiety, koty i dzieci (women who give birth while in prison) for solo oboe to his massive, three-hours-long Cancion scored for cello ensemble.

Many of Abbinanti's works are political in nature and he seldom chooses to express himself in abstract musical terms. He has written string quartets that bear the names of towns or nations where there is considerable political unrest, such as East Timor, Rwanda, and Soweto. His titles are colorful and unique, for example the flourishing of black roosters for string quartet, Vertical Tone Pig, and The First Appearance of Hallucinogenic Mushrooms into Cuba (both for piano). His piece The Meteln Kassandra, written for the chamber ensemble Chicago Pro Musica, was been recorded by that group, and has garnered a fair amount of positive critical attention.

Since 1998, Abbinanti has served as a lecturer at the University of Chicago, but is still something of an academic "outsider". Nonetheless, he is acclaimed as a maverick by many younger Chicago-based composers. Clearly Abbinanti is a composer who prefers to do things his own way -- whether it's performing his hour-long piano work Paraphrase on the opera Industrial Romance at an international festival, or playing euphonium in the local Banda Napoletana for Italian feasts held in Chicago during the summertime -- he is a composer at ease in both worlds.



Frank Abbinanti

(b. November 26, 1949, Chicago, Illinois).

American composer of mostly chamber, vocal and piano works that have been performed in Europe and North America; he is also active as a pianist and trombonist.

Mr. Abbinanti studied trombone privately with Frank Crisafulli (of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) in Chicago from 1964–68, on a scholarship, and studied piano at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago. He then studied composition and performance art with Richard Teitelbaum and piano with Frederic Rzewski at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, where he earned his BA and served as an assistant to both. He later studied composition with Ralph Shapey at the University of Chicago and studied composition privately with Ben Johnston in Chicago in 1984–85.

As a soloist, he has premièred many works for euphonium, piano, trombone, and tuba. In addition, he has played euphonium in the Banda Napoletana in Chicago.

He is also active in other positions. He co-founded with his wife, the flutist Ruth Abbinanti, the Modern Music Workshop at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign in 1972. He has organised a memorial concert to Cornelius Cardew and has supervised the production of events for numerous soloists. He served as music advisor to the Italian Cultural Consulate in Chicago in the early 1990s and as assistant conductor to the Citywide Orchestra in Chicago from 1991–95. In addition, he hosted the NEMO Festival in Chicago in 1997, with Pierre Boulez as advisor and performances by Ensemble Modern. He is a member of the board of directors of the Echo Performing Arts Orchestra, a nonprofit organisation in California. He has written several articles, as well as the book Dialogues, creating music (2005, Frog Peak Music).

He taught as a seminar lecturer at the University of Chicago from 1998–2004. He has also lectured throughout the USA, as well as in Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain.

His primary publisher is Frog Peak Music.

In mid-August of 1989, Frank Abbinanti was a guest in my home-studio.  The interview centered on his compositions, and showed how and where he drew his inspiration.

Portions of our conversation were used on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago about four months later, and now I am pleased to present the entire chat . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Is your music really all political?
Frank Abbinanti:   That’s where I think that the music should be leaning in the post-modernist scene.  I’m very inspired by history, and politics, and political events that have helped shape the world that we live in.  It’s an area in music that has not been really developed in such a way.  When you think of Wagner operas, there’s always been that relationship between Wagner’s themes of redemption and power.
BD:   Was that political, or is that moralistic?

Abbinanti:   Politics has to affect the morals of the work, so it enters in.  Certainly, all composers were influenced.  Verdi was influenced by the politics of his day, and Shostakovich is a prime example of how a composer is struggling for his own creative freedom in his country.

BD:   You’re living in the freest society in the world.  Are you struggling for freedom, or are you putting across the message?

Abbinanti:   I’m trying to find a marriage between my creative instincts and expressions, and images from history and politics.  Since we have lived through all this experimentation in music, it’s still up to the composer to put it together in his own way.  When I write music, I try and find equivalence from the music to a political event or an image.  For instance, in my brass piece, Espana: La Lucha, I studied the Spanish Civil War for over a year.  I felt that one single work was not going to take care of this, so I had a trilogy in mind.  The first part is for cello solo, which is an hour long.  Part of it was done in Darmstadt last summer by Rohan de Saram, who plays with the Arditti String Quartet.  But he didn’t play the whole hour.  He just selected the excerpts.  The second section is for brass ensemble.  In the cello solo, I was striving more to bring out the colors, and more of the specific emotions that were attached to different parts of Spain.  The brass piece is more like violins turned inward.  I was a brass player myself.  I played a lot of Gabrieli, so I used the idea of strict counterpoint.  But it’s nonfunctional in that it doesn’t go anywhere.  It’s just raw textures.  That’s where the modernism of the piece comes in.  I found that was the equivalent of the almost mindless violins that was part of that war.

BD:   Is there a third part yet?

Abbinanti:   The third part is going to be for vocalist and chamber ensemble, much like the Pierrot Lunaire.

BD:   Will it be for that ensemble?

Abbinanti:   Yes, but I haven’t been interested in the Spanish Civil War for a while.  So, I’m just letting things grow.  I’ve completed those two sections, but this area in music has been neglected in a way.  Friends of mine will tell me I’m dealing with propaganda, and I say, “Not really, because I’m trying to find equivalence in a general sense.”  Sometimes it is outward propaganda, like the Sandinista, where I used texts of one of the leaders, Fonseca, who was killed.  But this was before we in the United States even knew what Nicaragua was.  It was from a pamphlet written in the early

BD:   Are you conscious of all of the political goings-on in the world, or do you just pick the ones that interest you?

Abbinanti:   I pick the ones that interest me, that I feel need to be put into music, or areas that have never been dealt with, like the Spanish Civil War.  There are no major works on the subject, though there are some.  For instance, Luigi Nono, who was a political composer in Italy, has some works, but we never hear about them.  Part of the post-modernist scene in new music, features a lot of young composers, such as myself, who are very interested in text and in imagery drawn from them.  I’ve seen hundreds of works after James Joyce, and all the big American poets.  I’m thinking of writing a piece after William Faulkner.  No one has ever done Faulkner in a serious way.  It may be a piece for orchestra, strictly instrumental.

BD:   Taking his verbal images and making them into sound images?

Abbinanti:   Right, in a way that there’s tone painting.  But I always try and go a step further in learning about the man’s life, or their political struggle, and learning about the people’s lives in the various ways.

BD:   You do all of this research, and get yourself educated about a situation.  How much do you expect the audience to know about these situations that you’re portraying in the music?

Abbinanti:   Just the very general.  For instance, even if they don’t know what the particular event was, they would still get something from the work.  One of the things I strive for is that the work has to have its own logic, its own problems to really solve beyond the image that’s there.  In other words, it has to stand up just as a piece of music without the imagery.  The imagery helps guide that along.  [Pauses a moment]  It’s very hard to describe, because I like to keep my music at a distance.

BD:   A distance from what?

Abbinanti:   From myself.  I very specifically study political events, but then I don’t get too specific, because I know that unless I’m dealing with larger forms, music is not the art form for portraying events in all their logicality or complexity, one event after another.  You have to deal with it in broad strokes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   We’ve been dancing around this a little bit, so let’s come right to it.  What do you think is the purpose of music in society?

Abbinanti:   To untap things that we don’t know about.  It always should be a part of our education, and something to help knowing the unknown-ness of the lives we live.  Music is the most important art in that way, because it has a transcending quality to it.  It takes you someplace where you’ve never been before, and if music doesn’t do that, maybe the composer shortchanged the work in a way.  Music has a mystical spiritual quality to it, but I don’t take that to its logical conclusion, because I like to have my work rooted in the real world.  It’s a tradeoff between the material and the spiritual.  Sometimes I do to try and find a spirituality in a particular political struggle, like in the cantata immigrant that the Lira Singers did.  That was about the real experience of traveling to another country, and the images of the immigrants from Ellis Island.  When I was doing that piece, in the process of my own research I was informed that we are experiencing the second wave of immigration to the United States.  But the piece deals with our ancestors at the turn of the century, and has opaqueness, and an uncertainty to it.  The textures have words that come through these walls of sound.  If you think of riding on the boat to come to New York or Louisiana, or wherever you would dock, you don’t know where you’re going.  You don’t know where you’re going to live.  You don’t know which language you’re going to have to speak.  It might be English, but you don’t know it at that point in time.  You don’t know what you’re going to do for a living.  You hope to use whatever skills you have that you’re bringing with you.  Mostly, our ancestors were peasants, or merchants with small margins.

abbinanti BD:   Do you try to convey all of this in both the music and the text?

Abbinanti:   In that work I did, because that’s an oratorio.  It was on a large scale, running over an hour.  I tried to do that as specifically as I could.

BD:   When you’re writing something like this that’s political, or just meaningful, are you writing for yourself, or for the public, or for the musicians?  For whom do you write?

Abbinanti:   I would say I’m writing it for myself first, because I’m working through the ideas, and I want the ideas to take on a life of their own.  When you’re working on a piece of music, there is a point where you reach your goal.  Not every work is like this.  I have smaller works, such as the ones for just violin and piano, that have modest goals.  But in larger works, I try to work to a certain point where my sketches start to tell me how to complete it.  Sometimes it’s very easy, because it’s very logical to flesh things out in the traditional way.

BD:   When you’re writing a piece of music, are you always controlling the pencil, or are there times when the pencil is controlling your hands?

Abbinanti:   There’s times when it takes off in its own way.  It’s just pure intuition that you’re dealing with.  It’s actually a battle.  In our compositions classes, Ralph Shapey and I used to talk about this.  At one point what you’re doing is pure intuition.  You can follow the notes along, and it’s very boring music.  If you want to just manipulate the tone row, and you consciously know at every point in the work what’s going on, that’s boring music.  Music has to have that opaqueness, that unknown quality to it.  That’s what makes Beethoven’s music.  I don’t think Beethoven could account for every note in his works, and I don’t think he’d want to.  This goes for Schoenberg as well.  He said the twelve-tone technique was just something to use.  It’s not something to study, or something to think about in a deep way.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  Yet there are thousands of theorists who are taking part of the music and saying this means this, and this is right, and this is wrong.

Abbinanti:   Schoenberg would have encouraged that type of analysis, but I don’t think he thought it was very important towards understanding his music.

BD:   The analysis, then, is superimposed after the work is finished, rather on the work in progress?

Abbinanti:   Yes.  Isn’t it amazing that Schoenberg’s works or Ives’ works were written seventy years ago, and now we’re discovering all these things?  It doesn’t seem right that these things were just hidden in the works.  It’s more that the scholars are bringing all of these prototypes to the work in a very artificial way.  Some of it is very good, and some of it is made up.  That’s an old argument that no one really cares to argue anymore.  There was an issue of the journal New Perspectives in Music which took this to its absurd conclusion, binding things in Stravinsky’s Requiem Canticles that he never even thought were there.

BD:   Let me turn that question around.  Are there times when performers or interpreters find things you didn’t even know you had put in the score?

Abbinanti:   Yes, they do.  It’s amazing to me what the interpreters actually do to the music.

BD:   To it or with it?

Abbinanti:   Well, both I guess.  That
s always exciting.  The results are always more than I expect, but that’s another element in composing that you have to put into the music.  You know that your work is going to be interpreted.

BD:   You say it’s more than you expect.  You really did not originally expect very much out of your music???

Abbinanti:   In certain pieces, everything is written in a very strict way, and if the performers just follow it, especially in the works that deal with pure texture, or where it’s a mere effect
like in my Four Songs [performed in Chicago and on tour to Eastern Europe with the Chicago Chamber Orchestra conducted by Dieter Kober]where the orchestra part is just a mere background, it’s merely an accompaniment.  So, if the musicians just simply play the notes, it’s all that I could ask.  But in other works, like in The Meteln Kassandra that I wrote for the Chicago Pro Musica, they were left to themselves as to how to interpret the work, and how to make it exciting, which really they did.  It surprised me in that the work was much heavier than I thought for a small ensemble.  That’s one of the magics of music.  It’s one of the last challenges that still exists in music.
BD:   I assume that you’ve basically been pleased with the performances that have been given of your music?

Abbinanti:   Oh yes, absolutely, though I wish I had more rehearsal in some of the works.  A very striking example of interpretation of my works is when I was in East Germany with the Chicago Chamber Orchestra.  We visited the concentration camp at Buchenwald, and the Four Songs does have a section in it that deals with genocide of the Jews.  It’s from the work of Elsa Morante, her work history, which deals with the Second World War.  There’s one character that she has written into the work, Ida Il Maggio, who is an Italian-Jewish woman.  After our visit to Buchenwald, the vocalist, Amanda Halgrimson [shown with the composer at right], said she was very affected by that visit.  The orchestral players were also very taken when we visited the place, and the performance changed.  It was more endearing, more brutal.  All of the extremes of the work were brought out more.  It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience in terms of interpreting music, and one that you wouldn’t normally get in terms of actually visiting a historical place and then playing music that reflects it.

BD:   Are most of the pieces you write on commission, or are they things that you just have to write?

Abbinanti:   A lot of what I do is on commission, but then there are pieces that I just write for my own satisfaction.  They may never see the light of performance because I want to finish it more.  It may be that the work is of the experimental spirit of music, or that the work may not be in the right form yet for what I have chosen.  In that case, I’m just waiting for something else that may suggest itself to me.  A lot of composers may choose certain works where they try ideas out, or they have ideas that they don’t know what to do with.  I have two woodwind quintets, and they have become the depository for all the ideas that I don’t know what to do with.

BD:   They are your guinea pigs?

Abbinanti:   Right.

BD:   Then do they take shape by themselves?

Abbinanti:   Yes.  They the take on the character of suites along the line that I was saying about material and spiritual aspects of my concept of music.  In my first woodwind quintet, I selected images that deal with both the spiritual and the material.  I used the Psalms, but they are of Ernesto Cardenal, the minister of culture in Nicaragua.  These Psalms deal with everyday life, but they are still in the Psalm tradition of speaking to a higher being.  Another image from the work is the Shining Path, which has a spiritual overtone, but it’s the name of a guerrilla group in Peru.  I don’t always agree with these groups that find their way into my works, but I thought it was important enough to include them.  There’s a synergy in the images that I choose, and they sort of talk to each other.  The work is in twelve movements.

BD:   Besides your Italian background, you have interests all over the world.

Abbinanti:   Yes.  In a very big way I will come back to my Italian heritage.  I have a commission from the Italian Council with the Grant Park Symphony in 1992 for the five hundredth anniversary of Columbus.  I’m writing a work, but I haven’t even started to think about it yet.  I’m thinking of maybe using Columbus’ daughter.  I don’t know if he had one, and it’s for vocalists and large orchestra.  The vocalist would be talking about her father, the explorer, the scientist, who just stumbled upon what became the United States of America [come una forza di luce (Like a Force of Light), with texts by Dante Alighieri, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Giacomo Leopardi, for soprano, also, tenor, bass, and large orchestra].

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Besides your composing and performing, you do something else for a living?

Abbinanti:   I work as a legal assistant during the day.

BD:   Is it good to balance something that is completely unmusical with your musical inspirations?

Abbinanti:   It’s good for me, in that I wasn’t a very structured person when I was a teenager or in my 20s.  By going into law and also having a family help me, I became more organized.  The law certainly has taught me to be an enterprising type of person.  That helps me promote myself as a composer.  In this day and age, you have to be very aggressive.  I even help other composers promote their works.  I play impresario in Chicago.  For example, I brought the Arditti String Quartet the very first time they played in this area.  Now, they’re very well-known here, and have been here three times
twice at Ravinia, and once at Mandel Hall [at the University of Chicago].  I’m writing a work for them next year, but I don’t know yet what it will deal with.
BD:   Working during the day at the legal firm, do you get enough time to compose?

Abbinanti:   I try to use my time creatively.  If I have a commission, the performance date is way down the line, so there’s enough time to write the music.  Since I’m dealing with the conceptual nature of music, the way I compose is that more thinking goes into the work than the actual physical writing of it.  I make sketches of things every day, and I always try to challenge my creativity by using new forms.  That’s why my project of using political and historical imagery is a challenge, because it’s endless.  When the real world is brought into music, it doesn’t know what to do with these ideas.  It’s like throwing something into the computer, and the machine doesn’t know what to do with it.  So, it’s up to me to organize that.  That’s why I feel this is a very exciting area in music.

BD:   When you’re presented with a commission, how do you decide if you’ll accept it, or postpone it, or even perhaps decline it?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with John Bruce Yeh, and William Neil.]

Abbinanti:   The performing groups have come to me because they’re interested in the problematic aspect of my music, and that makes for a nice mixture.  I don’t know how to put that without sounding as if these groups are trying to find a showcase, but my music has always been selected because of the subject matter it deals with.

BD:   Do they ask for specific ideas or styles?

Abbinanti:   When I get a commission, the performers usually leave it up to me.  They feel very safe that I’m not going to choose something they don’t know how to deal with.  That happened to me only once.  I was commissioned to write an accordion solo for a virtuoso accordion player named Teodoro Anzellotti.  He’s German with an Italian name, but he’s lived in Germany all of his life.  I wrote a series of eight miniatures for accordion solo, and it dealt with European history. One of the movements was called Nazistücke.  I wanted to suggest dream walls of the horrible past, and he said this had to go.  He would not perform this work with this title.  So I said, “Just call it Dream Walls.”  That’s the only instance when that actually occurred.

BD:   You just changed title, but you didn’t change the music?

Abbinanti:   Right.

BD:   Do you accept suggestions from conductors or performers?

Abbinanti:   No, but there really haven’t been any.  Conductors or performers just tell me what instrumentation they have.

BD:   They never say they want you to try this or that, or move the line around a little bit?

Abbinanti:   No, not really.  There’s always technical things...  For instance, with the Chicago Pro Musica they said, “This is just too heavy.  In fortissimo, we just sound like mud.”  I said, “Okay, play it mezzo forte or piano.”  I also leave it up to them to balance chords where they would think that what I wrote is more in the mind than in the real world or on the paper.

BD:   That way they’re really getting to the heart of what you wanted?

Abbinanti:   Right.  I’m thrilled when I read that Mahler always changed his orchestral parts in his symphonies through his whole life.  After rehearsal, he would go back to his hotel room and change things, and make corrections to everything.  I guess you never really learn how to orchestrate.  You just attempt to orchestrate.

BD:   You do it and hope it’s right?

Abbinanti:   Yes, but there’s always that gray area.  That’s why I admire someone like Pierre Boulez.  He brings a wealth of knowledge to the orchestration of a work.

BD:   Do you feel you’re part of a lineage of composers?

Abbinanti:   I think I do.  I have inherited the whole modernist palette of music.  I’m very inspired by Charles Ives and Edgard Varèse.  I have funny feelings when I say I’m an American composer.  I don’t see my lineage as going to every American composer.  Maybe my greatest influence would be Charles Ives more so than anyone else.  In terms of Ives, a great inspiration still is the 114 Songs.  If you look at those songs, they predated every style in American music that came later
, including abstract expressionism in music of Elliot Carter and Ralph Shapey.  You also have John Cage and indeterminate ways of thinking, using clusters of Henry Cowell, and neoromantic music, and even in younger composers such as Ellen Zwilich.  All the American styles are still part of Charles Ives.

BD:   Is your music for everyone?

Abbinanti:   I try to make it that way.  If it’s not, I don’t know why, but I think my style is very accessible.  That’s why I have a text.  The text guides the listener if he wants to be led.  The exciting thing about the modernist palette of music is the tremendous amount of color and richness that you can get.  That’s why I’m not a minimalist, because that’s short-changing a lot of contemporary expression.  If you just look at the literature of contemporary music, it’s so rich, and there’s so much yet to be done in using that language in very logical musical thinking of drama or musical forms.  There are still musical forms out there to be discovered.  That’s one of the magics when I think of music.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of music?

Abbinanti:   I think so...  As long as we don’t all turn into minimalists, I think there’s a great future for music.

BD:   Would you want the minimalists to be blown off the face of the earth?

Abbinanti:   Oh, no, no, no.  I just think that they’re not looking at the whole palette of creativity, and they’re not looking at the whole world in terms of what they’re doing.  If you’re a serious composer, you’re supposed to be doing things.  You’re supposed to be making inroads into areas where no one else is.  When you look at the music of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Terry Riley, it seems like they listen to a lot of popular music.  It’s certainly there.  I’m exaggerating somewhat, but not too much...  It’s trendy.  It goes by what the people buy.  I see the commercial marketplace as not always a good influence.  A serious composer still should maintain independence.

BD:   Do you want to be a commercial success?

Abbinanti:   Not really, because then I might as well stop writing real music and just write formulas of what sells.  Music has succeeded just by itself.  Maybe not monetarily all that much, but I may have uncovered images in music.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’ve done a great deal with texts.  Is there an opera in your future?

Abbinanti:   I hope so.  As part of the tour, I was speaking with the East German government who sponsored it, and I told them I would like to write an opera along the line of Moses und Aron, only using Martin Luther and Thomas Muntzer.  Thomas Muntzer was the opposite of Luther, in that he was as much of a Marxist as he could have been in those days.  So, that’s sort of in the works, and I hope that it may become an opera.  I’m also thinking of an opera along the line of William Faulkner’s works, which has never been done, dealing with the American South.  Since I’m at a great distance from it, that’s why it’s so interesting for me, because it would be discovering new worlds.  There are new worlds to be discovered in music just within your own country by crossing different cultures.

abbinanti BD:   Especially this country with its vast resources.

Abbinanti:   Yes.

BD:   You’re a trombone player.  Is there a trombone concerto in your head?

Abbinanti:   I’m writing a work now for bass trombone for Joe Stegemann who plays in the Florida Symphony.  He was on tour with the Chicago Chamber Orchestra, and asked me to write a piece.  I’m using the text of a Greek poet, Odysseas Elytis.  He wrote a work which has a long title called The Heroic and Elegiac Song for the Lost Second Lieutenant of the Albanian Campaign.  It’s one of his largest poems.  I thought the trombonist would portray a boy who was carted off to war, and never enjoyed life.  The trombonist would portray this innocent soldier.  It’s a very earthy kind of poem, very evocative, and the trombone would really lend itself very well for that.  But that’s my first concerto for trombone that I’m exciting about.

BD:   You’ve also studied with Ben Johnston.  Are you doing anything with microtones?

Abbinanti:   I’d like to, but for strings.  My first string quartet uses microtones, but it’s just quarter-tones.  I don’t use Just Intonation, which is much more elaborate than quarter-tones that Ben uses.  That system doesn’t appeal to me.  I can see the logic of it, but I would have to devote my life to learning how to teach instrumentalists how to play those ways.  I have all the expressive needs in the tempered system and quarter tones.

BD:   You don’t feel hampered, do you?

Abbinanti:   No, I think I have enough.  That was one of the things I learned in Ralph Shapey’s class.  There was one composer who said that he didn’t have enough notes.  So Ralph, in his typical way would say, “How many keys are there on the piano?  You have all the vast tone colors of all the instruments who could play this, so what do you mean you don’t have enough notes?
 I have enough notes with a large orchestra.

BD:   You have enough notes.  Do you have enough ideas?

Abbinanti:   I have history as well.  I’m delving into and choosing historical topics, which I consider important, and historians have also considered important.  That’s one of the nice things about this union of history and music.  In the vast palette of modernist forms, it lends itself to whatever is historical.  If it’s current, or just happened yesterday, or if it happened in the past, there is a musical form to tailor and be the receptacle of this event or this struggle.

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BD:   Is composing fun?

Abbinanti:   It’s supposed to be.  I forgot who said it, but if art isn’t fun it’s not worth it.  But no, it’s a struggle in that you want to create problems, and then you want to solve them in the work.  You want it to have formal problems.  I can only speak of this in terms of examples.  I’m working on a flute piece for Mary Stolper called The Women’s Voices.  I’m using poetry and novels of women throughout history including Anna Seghers and Alexandra Collante.  I wanted to portray these voices in a dramatic structure, yet having a very strict musical form like a sonata for flute and piano.  The tradeoff is going to be that I’m using both instruments as soloists, rather than just having the piano merely in the accompaniment role.  It’s like a sonata for piano and a sonata for flute, and they’re played at the same time, yet I had the imagery of the women’s voices to incorporate into that.  The voices will take on the soloistic roles that I have for both instruments.  Part of the struggle is that writing music is difficult.  The serious composer should place challenges just like scientists.  The work of Xenakis has made us see where the scientist and the artist have their goals, and their roles are very much the same.  The artist has become a researcher into other fields as well as being an artist.

BD:   Are you more of a creator, or a discoverer?

Abbinanti:   I discover by creating through that route.  Sometimes it’s the opposite of where I have discoveries in poetry, and then they turn into music.  Or, a certain poet’s life would be the impetus for a work of art.

BD:   What is next on the calendar for you?

Abbinanti:   The Lira Singers are going to be doing excerpts from the cantata imigrant, and then I’m doing a piece for Capture, which is a new music group here in Chicago.  I’m dealing with the Chinese experience.  I’ve yet to deal with China in terms of its culture and its creativity.  I’m using a text written by a Chinese friend, George Wong.  It’s called Deng, after Deng Xiaoping.  It doesn’t so much deal with him.  It’s a history of China, and what China has become, and what China needs to survive in the 20th century, and all the mistakes that have occurred in its past.  But this is just a smaller work for a larger work that George had in mind, because I really don’t know how to deal with this subject yet.  I’m still studying it all.  So, I’m doing something on a reduced scale, but it will be a half an hour work.

BD:   When you start working on a piece, are you conscious of the amount of time it will take to perform?

Abbinanti:   Yes.  That’s part of the way I like to work.  I always like to be given a time frame, so I don’t have the experience of deleting things.  That’s a leftover idea from my studies of serial music of Stockhausen and Boulez
that I have so many measures I have to fill up.  That serial thinking is still part of my music.  In my Four Songs, although the orchestra part is pretty much accompanimental, there are certain instruments that never play certain notes throughout the whole piece.  Also, there are certain melodic lines that are never played by certain instruments. Those are leftover ideas from serial music, which is still an important part of our thinking.

BD:   You mentioned about how China has to survive, and what China needs in order to survive.  What does music need in order to survive?

Abbinanti:   It still needs the spirit of being experimental, and not having a horizon.  When you look at serious composers, such as, Aaron Copland or Elliot Carter, you can definitely see a horizon in their music.  That’s the value of John Cage.  His importance along that line is that he took away the horizon from music, and it’s still up to the composer to make sense out of that.  All he did was take the horizon away, but now it’s up to us to deal with it.  I’ve chosen history as a way of organizing that.  So, I think music needs to have a boundless way of thinking to it, and it will still be valuable in that respect.

BD:   Anything that propels you forward will be good.

Abbinanti:   Yes.  It seems like an endless discovery.  In fact, when you do land some place, you’re in trouble.  Your music should always push you into areas that you don’t already know.  For instance, this commission with the East German government of Luther and Muntzer, I would have never chosen that subject myself because I’m not a very religious person.  But now I’m getting very interested.  I’m studying works of Luther and all of the smaller religious sects during that period, like the Anabaptists.  I would never have read these works, so my music is pushing me into these areas.

BD:   There’s a constant discovery?

Abbinanti:   Yes, which is what makes it exciting.

BD:   I hope you keep discovering.

Abbinanti:   Thank you.

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© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on August 11, 1989.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB about four months later.  This transcription was made in 2022, and posted on this website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.