Composer  Stephen  Albert

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


In the course of doing interviews for many years, I mostly relied on the press offices and public relations people in various venues, as well as the agents who represented the artists to set up interviews.  I also had the good fortune to know a Vice President at BMI, the licensing organization, and she helped me contact many of her composers.  Occasionally, an interview guest would put me in touch with another, and I would use this networking ability to secure a couple more conversations.  What you are about to read is one such result.

In the late 1970s, Lyric Opera of Chicago started their apprentice program, the Lyric Opera School, modeled after the one at La Scala.  This would grow and became the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists, and later the Ryan Opera Center.  Whatever the name, it always has turned out fine young singers who go on the significant careers.  In those early days, I interviewed several of the members, and remained friends with a tenor named David Gordon.  He made several recordings and also served as translator when I met the German bass Kurt Moll.  They were doing Die Entfuhrung aus dem Serail at Lyric that year, working together as Pedrillo and Osmin.  [See my Interview with David Gordon, and my Interview with Kurt Moll.]

One of the recordings David made was Into Eclipse by the American composer Stephen Albert.  So I asked David to put me in touch with him and that conversation is reproduced below.  
Albert was not just a gifted composer and a fine teacher, he also had a probing mind.  His analysis of trends and problems reveals a grasp of the larger picture, which is something everyone should notice and attempt to understand.  This ended up being a rather long and occasionally convoluted discussion, but it has much knowledge and insight.

Since he was not planning a trip to Chicago, we arranged to chat on the phone in December of 1990, in time for me to put together a program on his upcoming fiftieth birthday [February 6, 1991].  Looking back, it is very sad to think that just two years later he would be killed in an auto accident . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Since we’re talking about your birthday, do you have any fear or elation about reaching the big five-oh?

Stephen Albert:    I guess it really does seem to give a person pause.  When people told me that they were all aquiver on reaching fifty, I really never understood it, I guess.  Since I was a youngster, I had always thought about what it must be like to die.  I’m probably a little unusual in that regard.

BD:    You don’t usually pick that up until you’re past sixty or seventy.

SA:    I guess, but I think that particular concern is one that never stops going around in my mind.  Whenever I see a Woody Allen film, that part of the film or that part of his particular neurosis I feel a strong identification with.  I’ve probably been like that since I was a pre-teenager, so the idea of reaching a particular age and getting nervous about it never dawned on me.  But I must say that against all my previous anticipation, it really is different.  It really seems that you do have a sense of having, at least in chronological years, most of your life now behind you.  It’s just the odds are in favor of that kind of thinking.  Really, I think it tends to make you focus much more, or it tends to make me focus much more on those things that I really do believe in, and think are important to my life
having to do with my family, for instance, having to do with a certain kind of attitude regarding music and art in general, which we may or not get into in our talk together.

BD:    Well, let us get into it right now.  What kinds of attitudes are you zeroing in on, towards your music?

SA:    I guess I am much more drawn to music as music itself, rather than some sort of concept attached to music.  Whether it represents a work of art that is very high in innovation, or if it is very high in being coloristic, any of these things now seem to me to be abstractions.  What I’m really interested in, whether it’s a new work that I listen to or an old work that I know, is whether it really has that peculiar kind of staying power.  And if it does have that staying power, I ask myself if it
s the kind of thing that makes me think that I’m going to live with this piece, or that makes me think, “Why have I lived with this piece now for thirty years?”  Those are the things that begin to absorb me because they seem very real to me.   All the other things that have to do with a piece of music being cute for a period of time and peaking my interest for a brief moment seem less important to me as a music lover, and even as a composer.  So the notion of working out my music through any kind of extraneous concept of the music itself has gotten more and more alien.  And since music is what I do most of my time when I’m not busy earning a living or spending time with my family, that is the most striking thing.  So when I hear about various kinds of trendsminimalism or neo-romanticism or serial music or whateverI guess those things don’t really peak my interest.  What I really want to know about that piece of music playing on the radio or in the concert hall is whether it is something that I feel some sort of emotional commitment to.  Is it something that I really like and want to go back to?  And if so, when I do go back to it I want to discover as much as I can about what draws me to it as much as it seems to.  That, to me, is the difference between a work of art and something else that is not a work of art, that is merely an entertainment or merely spectacle.  I don’t know if that’s clear, but that’s what I’m thinking about now more and more as I pile on the years.

BD:    Do you find this in the works you have already written, as well as the works written by other composers?

SA:    I think that those of us who began to come to maturity in the latter half of this century have all suffered a great, great difficulty.  I’ve spoken about this so many times that I’m almost tired of the subject myself, but I think it’s important, nevertheless, to talk about it with people who perhaps have not thought about these things.  I think that there was a very destructive attitude in most of the arts, but in music in particular, and those attitudes grew out of a more or less ideological viewpoint.  For instance, when I was getting through college, I remember very much the sense I had that serial music was the music of the future.  And even though I didn’t like it very much, and I wasn’t all that certain that those people who were writing serial music really liked hearing it that much, it was certainly very clear to me that music lovers, the audience, the mainstream audience itself, the people who really pay their money to go to concerts and fill the concert halls or leave them empty, they certainly had no interest in this sort of music.  It wasn’t because it was serial music; it wasn’t because it was some sort of thing out there, some sort of –ism, it was really because the music didn’t seem to work.  They didn’t seem to feel that the music itself sounded coherent, and I must say that when I went to the concert hall, I felt the same way, too, as a music lover.  It was not music that moved my emotions.  It was not music that made sense.  It was not music I felt any kind of emotional commitment to.  If, God forbid, there was a fire, and all these pieces of music — along with Beethoven and Brahms and all the rest — were stuck in one place, and you had to grab music and save what you could, [laughs] this was not the first music I would run and gather in my arms for the future of the race.  As you’re growing up, I think it
’s very important to realize these things.  Its true for a lot of music that was written then — not all of it, but a good deal of music that has been written even by people with reputations, and people whose names some of the audience out there might recognize.  I think a great deal of this music is not in the repertoire, and we have had a situation develop that there has been forty-five, fifty, sixty years of writing music in which almost none of it has entered the repertoire, and I doubt very much whether it will.

albertBD:    Should it be at least heard and then decided upon by each concert generation?

SA:    Yes, because we live in a democracy and everybody has a right to say what’s on their mind, so long as it doesn’t restrict another person’s right.  I believe in that; I was brought up on that.  But art really is not just a democracy; it seems to be a kind of meritocracy.  It doesn’t seem to be a harmful meritocracy, or even an aristocratic structure.  We have to understand,
or we fail to understand at our peril, what makes great art.  What makes art, first of all, is even an important question right now.  What is the difference between art, and that which calls itself art merely because the people who are doing it want to feel like they’re doing this thing and the people around them who are promoting this thing trying to convince us that it’s art?  What’s the difference between that and the real thing?  That’s the first question.

BD:    Well, let
s answer that right now.  For you, what is art?  What makes art?

SA:    For me, it is that peculiar kind of human activity which, at least in Western culture
European and American and perhaps now Japanese culture — has a staying power.  It seems to be something that is either of a literary nature or of a pictorial nature or a sonic thing that we call music, that has a peculiar kind of staying power.  And it’s something that we really almost pledge our emotional allegiance to, or that our deepest emotional sensibilities are almost captivated by.  It seems to be something that is repeatable over and over again.  It seems not to be a thing that is will-o’-the-wisphere today, gone tomorrow.  It is not something that is a fad.  Much popular music, for instance, differentiates itself from the other kind of music that I really do think of as being the mainstream musical art of our culture, because it seems to be basically produced with the idea that it will be used today and discarded tomorrow; it really is not capable of sustaining that kind of artistic life that will draw people back to it after, let’s say, twenty years.  Now there are some exceptions to this, mostly art songs:  Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, perhaps even the Beatles.  This is a form of art song that I think has great validity and probably, when we call them standards, really we’re trying to say that these are works of art.  So even those things which were originally designed for instantaneous consumption have, because of some peculiar kind of nostalgic emotional tug, something we want to come back to.  This is not just for the people who are older in our culture, not just people who are in their fifties and sixties and play the stuff for nostalgia, I’m talking about the things that even people in their twenties or thirties feel is something different than most of the things that they listen to when they listen to rock music or even pop music.

BD:    This art music that you’re talking about, which aspires to a little higher aim and has a universality — is it for everyone?

SA:    No, it’s not; no more than country and western is for me.  Nor do I have a strong commitment to any kind of jazz.  I enjoy listening to it, but much of it becomes like sonic wallpaper for me.  I think we’re all different and we all have different emotional capacities.  Different kinds of music speak
— or fail to speakto us because of those emotional capacities.  Even in so-called mainstream concert musicopera, ballet, symphonies and chamber musicthere are composers who I know are great.  I know that they’re great as composers because I’ve looked at their work, and I sense it even as I listen to it, but they do not move me that do not mean a thing to me.  For instance, Giuseppe Verdi; very little of his music has any power to move my emotions or move me in any powerful way.

BD:    And yet thousands of people applaud his efforts every night.

SA:    That’s right, and he is a great composer.  I know that.  I’m also not moved by Carl Nielsen.  Even though I’m not moved by Carl Nielsen and I’m not moved by Verdi, I sense in Verdi a composer whose reach and whose musical ideas are more perfectly realized than Neilson
though I sense in Nielsen a person who is a composer of some music of very interesting moments.

BD:    Are you moved by the music of Stephen Albert?

SA:    I feel that the music I write that I can come back to and listen to is that music which is perhaps the most successful of what I’ve been able to do.  If you ask me whether I like my music,
the answer probably is yes, I like listening to my music.  If you ask me whether I think it has any capacity to be of an enduring nature, I don’t know that.  I don’t think we’re in a position to do that, but I do know that I like to listen to it.  I enjoy listening to it when it’s well-performed.  Not all of it; there are some early things that I find embarrassing [laughs] and I’d rather not have to confront, and which I have withdrawn from circulation.  But there are also things in which I set out to do something and accomplished that thing, and it doesn’t seem to have been, in retrospect, a wrong goal to set for myself.  So, the true answer is that I do not feel embarrassed by the music that I have allowed to get out into general circulation.

BD:    Well, that’s encouraging! [Laughs] Now coming back to my original question, as you approach fifty, are you at the point in your career that you had hoped to be?  Or are you perhaps not quite there, or perhaps even farther along than you had anticipated?

SA:    It’s a very good question.  I never thought of composing as a career that I mapped out or doped out in my mind, so I didn
’t consider what I would like to see happen or what I deserve to have happen.  When I was a youngster, I had hoped to be a person who achieved musical deeds that seemed to be not disgraceful when compared to those musical deeds of other composers that I admired.  I think the thing for me was never to become a kind of musical star, as it were, because I didn’t think I chose the right field of music to do that in!  What I really wanted to do was to become competent in terms of my craft, and that’s a very, very hard thing to do.  I don’t mean academic correctness when I say craft; I mean to really achieve music that sounds coherent and sounds like something you can believe in because it makes so much sense.  I often feel that when I listen to a great work of music for the first time, it’s something that is both familiar to me and wonderfully unexpected at the same time, and that these two things move back and forth as I listen to it.  And I’m startled by those kinds of paradoxical feelings that I feel inside myself, the sense that what I’m hearing is inevitable, but if you stopped the music that I couldn’t really ever guess what was going to come next.  That’s the kind of thing that I strove for in my own work.  So I didn’t really think about where I was going to be in my career, because I always felt that was a kind of a vanity.  Sure, it would be nice if I became a famous person, and yes, I wanted to be a bit of a musical hero and not just do what was expected of me or just follow the crowd, as it were.  But I didn’t want to have those things happen at the expense of my being untrue to the original thing that got me into it, which was that I loved music and wanted to produce music that perhaps others could love or feel moved by; or at least that made their lives make more sense for the time that they were listening to the music that I produced.  I certainly didn’t want to pollute the musical atmosphere with my music, and do something sensational just for the sake of it.

BD:    So are you pleased with where you have landed right now?

SA:    Yeah.  I think that so far, so good.  [Both laugh]  There have been great times of self-doubt, but this time is not one of them.  So perhaps being fifty is not so bad.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You were talking about technique, so where’s the balance in your music, or in all music, between the technique and the inspiration?

albertSA:    The old cliché used to be something like five percent inspiration and ninety-five percent perspiration.  I’ve been around the block a few times, and I hope I can go around a few more times, but we never know if fate is going to fall out of a window and end our life right on the pavement unexpectedly.  But as I get older, I feel that there is no such thing as uninspired craft, or uninspired perspiration.  When a runner is running in a race, they have trained for that race and they have really worked very hard.  So just for that race, for that moment, there are countless hours of preparation.  I feel the same way when I sit down to write a piece of music
there are all those hours of preparation.  And I feel that the time that you’re writing really is a time of great inspired perspiration.  Either you’ve got the heart for it or you don’t have the heart for it, but you cannot separate the techniques that you bring to that moment.  When you’re a runner, the actual goal is getting to that finish line first and beating your opponents, unlike the composer whose goal is to finish in style.  There is no such thing as beating your opponents in art, but nevertheless, there is that sense that you are working very hard with, perhaps, the first ideas that you are given.  They come from some mysterious place, and if they’re good ideas it’s a good mysterious place; if they’re bad ideas it’s a bad mysterious place.  But there is this initial motivating thing which, in a sense, you do get as a gift.  What you do after that has to be as inspired and as unselfconscious as a runner who is running a race at the moment of that competition.  I think that’s what it really has to be.  Even when orchestrating, my feeling is that there has to be something, some energy force, that is of an inspired nature, rather than just going through some sort of a drill.

BD:    Are there times when you are writing that you feel that the pencil is really controlling your hand?

SA:    No, not really.  I write at the piano and do some thinking away from the piano.  But I need the piano for a number of reasons.  I find that the combination of thinking and finger movement, or motor movement, are sometimes capable of producing things that I did not think I was going to be doing five seconds before.  I don’t know where it comes from, but that sometimes happens. Sometimes when you’re working very hard to solve a particular problem, where you are conscious of nothing but your own thoughts and conscious of what you are thinking about and you are very, very self-conscious, suddenly something will happen.  Other composers must feel the same way, and also other painters.  Something just suddenly happens
like the first initial idea that came to you, that got you going in the first placeand now you’re stuck in developing.  Suddenly that moment of breakthrough takes place, so that you are able, in that flash, to break out of the block that you were dealing with for five minutes or five hours or five days.  That sort of break just seems to come like some sort of magical jump in the synapse and I don’t know how to explain it.  So yes, while I’m working, I feel very much in a self-conscious mode.  I’m going over various constructs, working with various possibilities.  I’m not sure which one I’m going to go with and none of them really satisfy me.  Then suddenly this thing happens and either the right thing occurs to meor what I think in my state of self-delusion, suddenly the right thing comes to me of the things I’ve been working withor something that just comes out of left field, which I didn’t even think of before.  Suddenly my hands on the piano will go to that thing, but I don’t think that I’m ever out of control.  It just comes from letting it happen, like my becoming a musical stenographer.  I think Stravinsky reported that he felt like that when he wrote Le Sacre, that it was just being dictated to him.

BD:    So you don’t feel that at all?

SA:    I haven’t felt that, no.  Handel reported the same thing with Messiah.  I think he did Messiah in twenty-three days.  It’s quite astounding; that’s a lot of music.  He felt that he was almost like a stenographer
what we would call a stenographerthat it was just being dictated to him.  I think Yeats, at the end of his life, was receiving poetry that way.  But I think my experience is not that, except for flashes; never in a concentrated way.

BD:    Now let us move forward.  You’re working on a piece of music and you’ve got everything all sketched out; you go back and tinker with it to make adjustments.  How do you know when to put the pen down?  How do you know when you’re finished with the work and ready to launch it?

SA:    It’s like knowing when to stop eating; [laughs] you just have to have the sense.  It’s a feeling that comes over you that this is it.  You have completed the thing and you are not hungry for any more notes; you are not thirsty for any more dynamics.  You have the thing balanced right.  A few days later there may be a few things that you’ll and adjust and fine tune, but that’s it; you’ve got it and don’t fool with it.  It’s all right; it’s just fine.  You’ve struck the balance.  If you are honest with yourself, you’re going to find that composers who you think are quite mediocre report the same kind of method as composers who really are quite extraordinary, and have an extraordinary effect on you.  Certainly when I read biographies when I was younger, I was always struck by how composers said the same things that people whose music I did not think very much of would say.  So the method really is something that we all share.  But like Calvin said, “Many are called, but few are chosen.”

BD:    I think every composer, especially the ones that I have talked to, all put forward their best effort.

SA:    That’s right.  I do think, though, it’s something more than that.  How far are you ready to go?  How deep are you ready to go beneath the surface of things?  What level are you going to penetrate?  Are you going to stay on the skin or are you going to move to the subcutaneous layer?  Are you going to move down to the vital organs?  Do you have the nerve to do so?  I think it has to do with a certain degree of obsessional energy.  It also has to do with something that we are born with
or perhaps we are taught this by very, very knowledgeable parents and role modelsand that is this thing called taste.  I think that taste operates not only as a connoisseur of things, but also as a creator of things.  Mozart had impeccable taste.  He had the kind of taste which instantaneously knew the gold from the dross.  Beethoven apparently struggled with this much more than Mozart seems to have.  Beethoven had second and third thoughts.  He had, sometimes, twenty-three or twenty-four, or fifty examples of a particular melody before he gets it right.  His is much more hunt and choose, much more trial and error, but when he arrives at that thing, it is right.  Mozart, perhaps, might have arrived at much, much, much more completely — like a bolt of lighteningand Beethoven was like a slow forest fire.  I think that both of them would have arrived at the same point, because both of them, in the end, had impeccable taste.

BD:    Where does your music fit into that?  Do you have to work hard at it, or does a lot of it just come out?

SA:    For me, whether my taste is impeccable or not
— and I seriously doubt its impeccability — whatever I come up with really does seem to take me longer than fifty percent of the composers I’ve read about, and seems to also be about fifty percent quicker than other composers, so I seem to be right in the middle.  I used to be very, very worried that I was really bringing up the rear when it came to speed of creativity.  I’m not as fast as I would like to be because I would like to produce a body of work with many, many different kinds of things that I do in my life before I die, before I pass on.  I’d like to do a few concertos for the piano, and a number of symphonies, and that sort of thing, at least.  But it doesn’t seem like I’ll get a crack at as many symphonies or concertos as I’d like to.

BD:    Do you feel that your process is holding back some of the ideas that you have welling up inside you?

SA:    No.  I just know that I can’t go and jump onto the next page or the next piece until I’ve satisfied myself that the thing is right.  And my right isn’t necessarily somebody else’s right, but it’s my right and it belongs to me.  It’s my right to try to be right, or at least be right according to my concept of what is right, and I can’t move that; I can’t seem to move that faster than it seems to go at this time.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve had a number of recordings of your music.  Are you pleased that several of your pieces have been recorded, and that a couple of them have been recorded in more than one version?

SA:    Yeah, I feel very fortunate.  We are living in times
especially as I think we’re going to see in the next few yearsin which it’s a very, very tough enterprise to make a recording of a new work.  It’s not something that really sells.  Even a person with a large reputation, like the just departed Aaron Copland, would not necessarily be able to have a lot of his music sell on recordings.  Yes, his Americana ballets would sell; they’re almost in the realm of Boston Pops sort of thing.  But his Symphony Number Three, which I view to be one of the great symphonies by an American, is not something that really is a big seller.  It represents an enormous financial investment, and this investment is made through a combination of things depending on who is doing it.  Nevertheless, it really is very, very hard.  So in my case, for somebody who doesn’t have the reputation of an Aaron Copland, by any stretch, I think I’m very lucky to have the recordings that I do have, and have other recordings slated for the next couple of years as well.  And they’re not just of small pieces, either; they’re orchestra ensembles and complicated things to record — and expensive to record.  I also feel fortunate that the recordings have been very, very beautifully performed.  I’m very grateful for that, for the attention that these people have given my music.

BD:    That was to be my next question...  Are you pleased with the records that have come out?

albertSA:    Every one of them!  If people don’t like what they hear by a guy named Stephen Albert, it’s going to be that guy’s — my
fault.  The performances were wonderful!  There is no scapegoat except for the composer, and deservedly so because performers are such hard-working individuals in ways that even composers and writers and painters are not.  They’ve got to go over a thing over and over again.  Their life is filled with drill, and that’s one of the things that made me want to be a composer and the reason I didn’t want to be a pianist.  In order to do my work, I didn’t want to have to go through that kind of drill.  I have a high regard for performers, and in almost all cases — if not all of themthe performers who have worked with me have been really like saints and angels.

BD:    I am glad you are pleased with these recordings.  Is there any chance that a recording or a performance at some point might not please you, and yet an audience would be very pleased with it?

SA:     Yeah.  Of course that will happen.  A piece of mine was not done well at a premiere because there was not enough time to rehearse it.  I didn’t really feel that it had the emotional conviction that I wished the piece did have if the performers would have had more time to live with it.  The audience doesn’t get that the first time around, and I, as a member of the audience when I listen to the piece for the first time, don’t get that either.  When the work has a strong harmonic quality and a strong harmonic sense of coherence to it, you can tell
even in a new workwhen something is amiss.  I’m speaking of a new work of the twentieth century.  Most people can tell this when you’re dealing with music that was written in the diatonic tonal tradition of major/minor.  But when you get to the twentieth century, you have music that is tonal but not diatonic tonal.  It has another kind of tonality.  Bartok sounds like a tonal composer to me; Prokofiev sounds like a tonal composer.  Strauss in Electra and Salome, despite the forest of notes, the veritable deluge of notes in those two operas and the chromaticism and all these dissonances that occur, sound very tonal to me.  They seem to have a harmonic direction, in other words.  They seem to be harmonically coherent.  That, to me, is tonal.

BD:    Have there been times when the performers have found things, or did something different, than you had anticipated?

SA:    Not when it’s badly performed, but when there is a different kind of interpretation than I originally intended?

BD:    Exactly.

SA:    Well, you see, that’s the point.  I’m not one of these people that feel that there’s only one way to do a piece of music.  I loved Toscanini when I was growing up, and he used to have this idea that he was following the composers’ intentions and instructions as if there was only one way in which the composer meant that music to be.  Strangely enough, when you listen to Toscanini, he took many liberties!  There were differences in his own performances.  If it’s a good piece of music, the reality is that there are many ways to perform it.  There aren’t a hundred ways, but I think there are ways that are in sympathy with the performers’ sensibility.  So when I listen to the Brahms symphonies with Von Karajan and I listen to them performed by Toscanini and Eugen Jochum, I really love their ways of doing it because I’m convinced that their interpretation is in line with their personalities and their character.  They make me believe in it.  I think the same thing when I write a piece of music and hear it done.  A different interpretive thing really is the result of another artist’s or another performer’s sense of how to do it.  At first I find it I a little bit strange, but I can be won over to it, and I find myself very often in agreement with the audience.  They might come up and say, “Well jeeze, I really like it,” even though the performer, in that particular instance, took some liberties that I didn’t expect.  I often feel the same way.  Sometimes when a bad performer tries to take those liberties, or tries to take shortcuts, it’s terrible!  An audience won’t hear that, won’t perceive it, because they have nothing to compare it to.  If they like the general drift of it, if it doesn’t bore them, they’re appreciative and will come up and say to me, “I really like that piece.”  And I will wonder to myself how they would feel when they really hear it done well.  [Both laugh]  There are all those possibilities.  So when anybody who is not so good
or doesn’t study the piece carefully or doesn’t have a great deal of talentgets their hands on something, you should duck for cover!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    What effect, if any, was there for you upon winning the Pulitzer Prize?

SA:    Before the Pulitzer Prize I had no visibility in the music world, and after the Pulitzer Prize I had a twinkling and a ray of a spark-like light that was ignited by it.  What it did for me in the beginning, or what it does for a composer generally, is open the door to organizations to whom, previous to that moment, you were just a name.  You were just a score that went by on their desk and was shuttled over to the incoming basket
which was piled high with years and years of unsolicited material that was sent in to symphony organizations and to performing groups in general.  There are thousands and thousands of composers sending scores out unsolicited.  So for me, there was really just more soliciting by these organizations.  They became interested in finding out what my music was like.  It doesn’t allow you to walk through the door; it just allows you to get your foot in the door, keep it open and slip a score in.  In the end, symphonic organizations have their own rules, their own laws of existences, their own momentum.  Very often they’ll choose the piece because the conductor really thinks it’s a wonderful piece, and he or she would like to conduct it.  But I have found, in many cases, that’s not really what happens.  There are many, many reasons, such as, “Is it a new piece of music?  Well then, we might do it if it’s not more than five minutes long.”  Or, “Gee, I’ve heard that that guy has quite a reputation.  Let’s do it this season, sight unheard.”  I think these are very bad reasons for doing a piece of music.  I think — and I really mean this — that we will have a very, very bad musical situation in this country, and all over, if we do music for some conceptual reason rather than some musical reason.  The only reason that a piece of music should be done by a performer — and I really go on the line with this — is because the performers themselves, who are in charge of doing that performance, believe in it.  It’s clear that when an orchestra piece is done, the whole orchestra won’t agree that it’s a wonderful piece, especially in the initial stages of rehearsal.  But it should be done only because the conductor believes in it.  That’s my belief.

albert & rostropovichBD:    So then each composer really needs to have a champion or two?

SA:    That’s right
— or rather, a conductor.  I don’t think the music business is a democracy.  I don’t think that a conductor should be going around trying to give this person an opening to play with their orchestra, and then, regardless of whether the piece is terrific or not, play that composer because he was just played this year.  I think one of the wonderful things that a performer can do is champion a personor peoplewhom they have very strong musical biases towards or whom they share a very, very strong musical outlook with.  By that I mean something very simple:  they should perform composers whose music they love.  They should not perform it because they think it’s a good example of this, or because they think the audience should be exposed to that, or they think the players will be challenged by some other thing.  Those are bad reasons for doing music.  They were early-to-middle twentieth century reasons for doing things, and I think they were terrible.  They made the audience and the performers undergo a kind of scientific laboratory-like experimentation.  We tried it; it doesn’t work.  I don’t think we’re in this business for artistic engineering purposes, no more than I think that an economic system ought to be imposed on people because some people are in power to do so, and can perform experiments in social engineering.  My feeling is that music now must be performed because the performers themselves love it.  That’s really the real thing.  That’s why music gets repeated and becomes part of the repertoire — because the performers want to perform it.  Usually the performers have very good antennae for this sort of thing.  Not at first but generally speaking, over the long haul the performers that believe in a piece of music are usually people who will end up putting that piece of music in the repertoire.  And the audience or music lovers themselves will generally agree with the performers in that regard.  That’s why Brahms is played and Max Reger is not played.  That’s why Mozart is played and Dittersdorf is not generally played.

BD:    And yet when people hear Max Reger or Dittersdorf, they generally come away thinking it’s a pleasant piece.

SA:    Yes, that’s right.  But pleasant is not necessarily a piece that you feel an emotional commitment to.  The works of music that seem to endure, that seem to be part of the repertory, that seem to be pieces that people want to listen to over and over again
like getting their back scratched — the music which really makes chronological time collapse for audiences while they are under its spell, almost make it feel as if no time has transpired... that’s what a great piece of music does.  And that’s what Max Reger does not do enough of, for most people who listen to or perform Max Reger’s music.  He simply didn’t know how to make it happen, the way Brahms did or the way Wagner did or the way Richard Strauss did.

BD:    But we couldn’t exist on a diet solely of Brahms and Richard Strauss and Beethoven.

SA:    That’s right.  But we’re not discussing an exclusive diet.  We’re talking about why some things are better than other things and why things seem to be more durable than other things.  I couldn’t exist on a diet of French cuisine, but I certainly know when I’m eating a rather wonderfully prepared French meal, as opposed to just steak and potatoes.  In a curious way, the ideal for me is something, again, related to cuisine.  I don’t think many people could exist on four-star meals.  We really are looking for not just exquisite music, or music that is the equivalent of a four-star meal.  That’s not what Brahms really is.  For me, Brahms, Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Bach, Handel all have the marvelous ability to be both meat and potatoes
have that kind of nourishmentwhile at the same time in their greatest works, we have the sense that it has been expertly prepared as well.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You mentioned earlier that it’s hard to be just one of a pile of music that is in an In Basket.  Are we getting, perhaps, too many composers today?

SA:    [Sighs] I think everybody should have the right to do what they want.  It doesn’t hurt you or me or anybody else for people to write music, no more than it harms anybody for a thousand painters to paint on the weekends.  But the problem really is the ability for a person to distinguish between their capacities as being merely a Sunday composer, and a composer who really is committed to a life of composing.  Those differences have been obscured by the kind of anything-can-go attitude that has been a part of our culture due to the way music is taught in schools.  There are too many composers who are calling themselves composers because the criteria by which a composer understood what it meant to be a composer have been dismantled or have been almost demolished.  For hundreds of years, when composers went into composing, they had to write melodically.  They had to have a strong sense of harmony to their music, meaning harmonic coherence.  They had to know how to make these things happens.  They had to know how to develop their materials, and largely this was the result of studying other music by those masters who had mastered those techniques before them.  The ability to absorb and metaphorically transform those techniques into your own was part of the process of becoming a composer.  Well, not any more.  I teach at Julliard and at B.U., and it’s astonishing to me when I speak to students.  They look at me as if I’m crazy when I say, “Where are the thematic ideas of your piece?  How have you built this piece harmonically?  Where is it going?  What are you trying to do to make this piece move harmonically?”  The harmonic aspect of a piece is probably the least paid attention to in twentieth century music.  Almost, as if by writing various kinds of strands of ideas and putting them together, that somehow all you have to worry about is the linear.  You just have to worry about whether or not they kind of go together as a mish-mosh, or at least have some level of sense to them.  That would seem to be enough for a lot of composers, but in my opinion, that’s only beginning in dealing with the problems of harmonic coherence.  One of the things that harmony does in a piece, when it’s right, is to make us feel that we are emotionally being carried by the piece.  I think that is the single most contributing factor, this harmonic coherence.  I also feel in addition to that, it is the thing that helps us discern one composer’s style from another’s.  When I’m hearing a piece by Haydn, right away I know I’m not listening to a piece by Brahms, and it’s largely because of the harmonic choices he’s making.

BD:    Is there any chance that this is simply how students have heard the music of the last twenty years?

SA:    No, I think it’s a product of what they have been taught up to the time that I’m speaking to them; for a lot of students, I’m not really exaggerating.  When I come along, it’s like I’m hitting them with a ton of bricks, a ton of problems that they never really considered before.  I think it’s the way they’re taught.  I think it’s the criterion by which music teaching, and composition in particular, is handled.  A pianist would never dream of getting through as a pianist if they did not do Hanon and Czerny exercises
if they didn’t do, in essence, five-finger exercises.  It would be inconceivable for them, even if they studied Chopin.  Maybe somebody might emerge as an interesting pianist, as an interesting interpreter, perhaps, but it would be very, very strange.  Most pianists take that for granted.  To get really off the musical subject, it would inconceivable that a medical student didn’t read and absorb a book of anatomy if they were going to be a practicing doctor, let alone a surgeon.

BD:    So you’ve got to have basics.

SA:    Right.  And it seems to me that composers have this feeling that they don’t have to do any of this; that we as a sub-tribe in the musical culture don’t have to do anything; that we just have to learn about serialism or learn about minimalism, learn about these techniques that seem to be current today, and just begin to swim in those waters.  I think that that is very limiting.  The connection to the past is absolutely imperative because it’s like reinventing the wheel!  There are all these things that have been done in a great, great way, and it’s up to us to find out how to do it for ourselves based on those kinds of models.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music?

SA:    On one level I’m not.  I think that we really are flirting with disaster at the present time by not understanding the role that the past must have on our learning.  Composers should not just be listening passively to this stuff, but really getting engaged in it and by it and understanding what it means to us today.  This is not learning it so we can discard it.  The old dictum, “I learned those rules so I could discard them,” was good for the beginning of the twentieth century when we were turning music on its head, just as we did in painting with the impressionists.  We were questioning all the shibboleths of the past that were making us feel like we were in a kind of an imprisonment of romantic fever and fervor.  The curious way in which we broke from that was understandable.  It really was like being in a Turkish bath and wanting to get the hell out at the beginning of the century.  But I think that in the process we threw out the Turk with the bath.  [Both laugh]  We have to really get back to putting that human being back again into the picture.

BD:    So you don’t think there’s any hope that we will get back to it?

SA:    I hope we will, but if I had to go on the kind of thing that I see with students
ambitious ignorance that I see, almost pride in ignorance — it reminds me of what Tchaikovsky commented about when he had to deal with this kind of Russian nationalism that many of his colleagues were paralyzed by.  They took a pride in their rejection of western musical culture, the greatest of these people perhaps being Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov.  Tchaikovsky wrote to his patron, Madame Von Meck, that they — the various composers involved with the Russian Five and other lesser composers — were headed into an abyss.  And I think he was right.  Mussorgsky was perhaps an exception, and I think it’s fair to say that he taught himself a great deal of music.  But Rimsky realized it just before it was too late, and taught himself a great deal about western musical culture.  And of course, Tchaikovsky had taught himself many years before that.  He studied variation, he studied all these things that the Russian nationalists turned their minds against.  And their lack of technique, I think, shows.  People like Liodov...  I don’t want to go into particular personalities.  Well, today I think it’s very much the same thing.  We’re almost taking a kind of a fierce pride in our cultural barbarism.  We get involved in painting and music with sociologic issues; we try to create a musical equivalent to feminism, or we try to create a musical equivalent to problems of race.  Sociology is sociology, and art is different than this.  There is an art that always has attended to sociologic problems; that’s perfectly fine.  But when we say that art must attend to these things and not pay attention to what it really has to attend tothat is a learning of craft and a learning of style and a learning of how to move the human spirit in a transcendent way — I think that we’re courting disaster.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Moving our discussion back to you, is composing fun?

SA:    [Laughs] Sometimes.  You remember that five percent inspiration I talked about, which comes from nowhere?  That’s fun.

BD:    [Laughs] The rest is a drudge?

albertSA:    The rest is hard work.  The one thing I will say is that it’s not something other people force me to do.  It’s not something that I have to punch a time clock for.  To that degree, it is like what other people do for a hobby.  I can take my own time in doing it, except those periods of work where I have to earn my living teaching.  For me, the lack of routine is the only way I could live and keep my mind together.  Routines generally have a very bad effect on me, and have had since I was a youngster.  It’s just the way I’m made.  However, I’m married to a very wonderful woman for twenty-five years, and she’s very much the opposite.  She really does enjoy routines; she’s just that way.  T.S. Eliot is an artist, a wonderful poet that I greatly admire and he was apparently a person of routines.  Wagner, whom I greatly admire, was a person not of routines.  So I don’t think it makes us creative or not creative, to be either a person addicted to routines or a person who rebels against routines.  But my particular thing is that composing allows me not to have a routine, and that part of it is very good.  But in the time of composing, most of it really is very anxiety-provoking for me.

BD:    I’m glad that composing is not routine, but is it mandatory?

SA:    I guess it is, because every time I have thought about quitting and going to a Polynesian island and just relaxing for a while, it never seems to really come to anything.  I just seem to be dragged back into that.  I’m serious!  Sometimes I feel like I’m being dragged back into a kind of a morass, but everybody reacts differently.  I’m teaching at a school where another composer passed away a few years ago, Vincent Persichetti.  I never knew him, but from what I hear from people who studied with him and who knew him, he was a man who would finish a symphony, and as soon as he closed the last page on the completed work, he would open the first page to the new piece that he was about to write.  I keep thinking how nice that must be if you can do it.

BD:    Do you take time, then, between each piece of music to give yourself a little rest?

SA:    I seem to have to.  I have to begin to collect my ideas all over again.  I have these sheets of paper which form notebooks of sketches, and I sometimes think that the discards from the previous piece will be just fine to get me into the next piece, but they never seem to be.  So there is a period that I have to really sit there and wait for that five percent that I told you about.  [Laughs]  That really begins again after I finish some piece, and it takes me a while to circle the airport before I decide to land.

BD:    I assume you only work on one piece at a time.

SA:    Actually I’m getting better.  I seem to be working on a few pieces at the same time.  I’ve got a number of commissions now, and I was going to back out of one of them because another one was so preoccupying me, but I seem to be getting ideas now for both of them.  And then there are smaller commissions which I’ve also undertaken to try to write something for.  In the next year I have about four or five commissions I’ve got to complete; some are very, very tiny, like a fanfare for the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra.  Nevertheless, there are more than I have been used to working on at the same time, and it seems to be working okay.

BD:    When you get a commission, how do you decide if you will accept it or turn it aside?

SA:    You mentioned before about the Pulitzer Prize.  I probably would have taken anything decent that came my way before the Pulitzer Prize, and for the first two or three years after, until about two years ago.  I was grateful for small favors and any attention.  Maybe it’s also a byproduct of getting older, but I really don’t want to write pieces just because opportunistically they’re there for me to write, or because the money is good.  Fortunately I’m in a position of not having a perpetual money problem hanging over my head.  So right now I really do want to choose those things that are really interesting to me, and really that I want to spend a great deal of time on.  There are some that I really am interested in doing but which I cannot get to right now because I don’t have some mechanical things in place.  I had been asked to write an opera for the New York City Opera, and after all these years of writing all these things for voice and instruments and voice and orchestra, maybe it’s about time that I get on with that; but I really don’t have a libretto that I believe in yet.  So I’ve had to put that off, although I would love to get to that.

BD:    So once you find the libretto that satisfies you, I assume you’ll get started?

SA:    I’m on my way!  That is once I find a librettist who I think I can work with.  I’ve set a lot of James Joyce and naturally I’ve begun thinking, “Well, what if I took a portion of Ulysses, or what if I took Ulysses and Night Town, or what if I did some sections from it?”  Then I began to see that you can’t necessarily make an opera out of those things that you felt were good for writing songs to.  There is a certain weight of dramatic action, a certain sense of theater, that very often a novel like Ulysses, which has a great poetic resonance for me, does not seem to possess
at least for me it does not seem to possess an equal dramatic resonance.

BD:    I, for one, will look forward to the opera
if and when you get the material together and then have the time to write it.

SA:    [Laughs] I’ll let you know!  But right now, I’m working on a work for clarinet and orchestra for a wonderful clarinetist, David Shifrin.  We’re due to have a premiere of it with the Philadelphia Orchestra in October.  I had heard David play on a number of occasions, and when he asked me to do this, frankly I was not anxious to write a work for clarinet and for orchestra.  It’s just not something that is a medium I’m ordinarily attracted to.  But I listened to David play and I thought it was so poetic that he really convinced me it would be something that would be nice to do together.

BD:    So you figured that you’d better put your mind to it?

SA:    Yes, and so that’s the thing I’m working on right now.  But even in that case I really had second thoughts that maybe I would get out of it because the medium itself is a difficult one for me.  Clarinet and orchestra is not like a violin and orchestra or a cello and orchestra or a piano and orchestra.  There are very few clarinet concertos that I’ve listened to with great enjoyment.  And the clarinet in general is a difficult instrument
— not to sustain for a few seconds or even a couple of minutes in a cadenza of a larger work for orchestra, but to think of it as a sustained work of twenty minutes or thirty minutes is different.  It’s a different challenge and it’s one that was overwhelming at first.  But I’m back on track and so that’s what I’m writing.

BD:    I appreciate your spending the time with me this afternoon, and I hope that as your career progresses, every few years or every decade or so we can chat again, and see what’s new in your life, new in your ideas, as well as what’s new in the music that comes out in performances and recordings.

SA:    I’ve enjoyed talking with you, and I feel that no matter what we composers say, it really has to come out in the music.  If a composer is an effective speaker about their art, and their art, on the other hand, is disappointing, I’m afraid that that’s what we have to go with.

BD:    Well, your art is not disappointing at all!

SA:    Thank you very much for that thought.  In the end, I think we have to listen not to the idea behind the thing, but to the thing itself, and decide for ourselves whether this is something that we really want to repeatedly have encounters with.  You’re a very good interviewer, by the way.

BD:    Thank you very much!

SA:    Has anybody talked to you like this before, any other composer talked to you this way?

BD:    Each composer brings what they’re thinking about then, and their general ideas...

SA:    But have they talked as pessimistically as I have?

BD:    Some have been very pessimistic, but many have been very optimistic.  I sense behind your pessimism that it’s sort of like the stock market.  You think there’s going to be a bear market, but the bull market is around the corner eventually.

SA:    I think that in order to get to the bull market, we are going to have to shake out the speculators.  That’s what I think. 
You’re being very diplomatic, but in any case, you’re a friend for life!

Stephen Albert

Born: February 6, 1941  --  Died: December 27, 1992

Pulitzer Prize- and Grammy-winning composer Stephen Albert, whose tragic death in December of 1992 stunned the music world, was recognized in his lifetime for a body of work at once powerful, dramatic, colorful, and deeply emotive. Contemporary in sound, yet firmly rooted in traditional compositional techniques, Albert's music sought to establish links with fundamental human emotions and musical archetypes. He drew inspiration from the rich emotional palette of 19th-century music, and sought to discover, within the context of a personal 20th-century idiom, new connections with music of the past.

Born in New York City on 6 February 1941, Albert began his musical training on the piano, French horn, and trumpet as a youngster. He first studied composition at the age of 15 with Elie Siegmeister, and enrolled two years later at the Eastman School of Music, where he studied with Bernard Rogers. Following composition lessons in Stockholm with Karl-Birger Blomdahl, Albert studied with Joseph Castaldo at the Philadelphia Musical Academy (BM 1962); in 1963 he worked with George Rochberg at the University of Pennsylvania.  [See my Interview with Elie Siegmeister.]

Stephen Albert won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize in Music for his symphony RiverRun, and from 1985 to 1988 served as composer-in-residence with the Seattle Symphony. He received commissions from the Chicago, National, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and Seattle symphonies, The Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and the Library of Congress. Among his other awards and honors were two MacDowell Colony fellowships, a Huntington Hartford Fellowship, two Guggenheim fellowships, two Rome Prizes, and grants from the Martha Baird Rockefeller Fund, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ford Foundation, and the Alice M. Ditson Foundation. 

From 1988 to the time of his death, he was professor of composition at the Juilliard School of Music. He had also taught in the Lima, Ohio public schools (under a Ford Foundation grant as composer-in-residence), and at the Philadelphia Musical Academy (1968-70), Stanford University (1970-71), and Smith College (1974-76). 

The works of James Joyce provided Albert with a potent creative stimulus; Finnegan's Wake and Ulysses served as springboards for his symphony RiverRun, Treestone, Flower of the Mountain, and Sun's Heat. His last works included the Cello Concerto, commissioned by the Baltimore Symphony for Yo-Yo Ma (and recorded by them on the Sony Classical label) and Wind Canticle, a clarinet concerto for David Shifrin and The Philadelphia Orchestra. Symphony No. 2 for the New York Philharmonic, completed in short score at the time of his death, received its premiere in November 1994. Recordings of Albert's music are available on the Nonesuch, Delos, New World, CRI, and Smithsonian Collection labels.

© 1990 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone on December 9, 1990.  Portions were used (along with recordings) on WNIB in 1991, 1993 and 1996.  A copy of the unedited audio was given the the Oral History American Music Archive of Yale University.  This transcript was made and posted on this website in 2009.  

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

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.