Composer / Pianist Josef Alexander
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
When setting up an interview, the details usually work themselves out quickly
and easily. Josef Alexander (1907-1992) was a bit more particular about
deciding whether or not to do it, so I am presenting on this webpage two conversations
— the first from mid-February of 1987, and the second from six weeks later.
The preliminary one shows how the arrangements were made, and the second
is the actual interview.
Prior to the first call, I had sent him a written request, and
after we spoke he sent a typewritten response (shown at right) and also included a copy
of an upcoming program which featured his latest piece being given its world
premiere [shown later on this webpage].
After that, when we corresponded he sent me hand-written letters, perhaps
indicative of a warm and personal feeling.
As always in my website presentations, names which are links refer to my
interviews elsewhere on my website.
Here is part of the first exchange . . . . . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: You
mentioned that you don’t enjoy having things broadcast on your birthday?
Josef Alexander: Not
really, no! I find that there’s too much chat connected with that in
respect of the fact that nobody’s concerned about anything until somebody
has a birthday. Then suddenly they wake up!
BD: Let me assure
you that we just simply use birthdays as a convenient scheduling device.
It’s not a case where we wouldn’t schedule your music otherwise, and we certainly
will schedule your music at other points.
JA: I’m very honored
and flattered to hear that! You understand, or you can sympathize with
the way I feel about these things.
BD: Oh, sure.
There have been a number other composers whom I’ve talked to over the years
that have said they really don’t care for birthday celebrations because that’s
all they get.
That sounds very familiar, and it’s particularly true of American composers.
The thing is that they make ceremonies of that and pull out all the stops,
and they don’t mean anything, really, from my point of view.
BD: Let me assure
you that I do what I can for contemporary composers, and especially American
composers. I’m the only one at the station who does that. I find
the composers, and make arrangements to speak with them and do programs.
Once I get to the interview, then I drop other pieces of their music into
our regular schedule.
JA: That’s wonderful!
I trust you will find the material I’ll send interesting and exciting.
BD: The one piece
which I have heard was very short, but it held my attention.
JA: Thank you very
much. That was the Incantation?
JA: There are four
Incantations which were premiered
here about three years ago, and what happens with all those things is that
a publisher takes the material on, and singles out one, and the others go
by the board. I had a marvelous cellist who did all four, so that’s
relatively secure from the standpoint that it was done. But it is very
interesting to know that publishers sometimes select what they want in a
volume. This was that you heard is in a 2 LP set of new music for piano that
was put out by RCA.
|Robert Helps in a 20th
Century compendium "New Music for the Piano: 24 Contemporary Composers," Ingolf
Dahl's Fanfares (1958), Arthur Berger's
Two Episodes (1933),
Two Preludes (1951), Samuel Adler's Capriccio (1954), Hall Overton's Polarities No. 1 (1958), Milton Babbit's
Partitions (1957), Miriam Gideon's Piano Suite No. 3 (1951), Sol Berkowitz's
Syncopations (1958), Ben Weber's
Humoreske op. 49 (1958), Leo Kraft's Allegro Giocoso (1957), Paul A. Pisk's Nocturnal Interlude (undated), Mel Powell's Etude (1957), Morton Gould's Rag-Blues-Rag (undated), Vivian Fine's Sinfonia and Fugato (undated), Alan Hovhaness' Allegro on a Pakistan Little Tune op. 104 No.
6 (1952), George Perle's
Six Preludes op. 20B (1946),
Norman Cazden's Sonata op. 53 No.3
(1950), Joseph Prostakoff's Two Bagatelles
(undated), Ernst Bacon's
The Pig Town Fling (undated),
Helps's Image (1957), Mark Brunswick's
Six Bagatelles (1958), Earl Kim's Two Bagatelles (1950/1948), and Josef
Alexander's Incantation (1964). Underwritten
by The Abbey Whiteside Foundation. Cover art is by Sid Maurer. Glossy full-size
10-page booklet with extensive notes on all composers and works featured
herein, written by Joseph Prostakoff. The RCA LP was originally issued
in 1966, and later re-issued on CRI in 1971. When it was re-mastered and
issued on a CRI CD in 2001, the works by Berger, Kraft, and Fine were omitted.
BD: Besides the problems
and joys and perils of being an American composer, I would like to explore
how much you get involved in the business of it, etc.
JA: Well, you see,
Mr. Duffie, I’m very much interested in it. Perhaps a conversation
can be arranged, but I don’t know about doing it on the telephone.
This is an intimacy that we have between us, but when it’s aired, sometimes
it doesn’t come out that way.
[At this point I explained just a bit more
about the details of my programs, and how they are put together for broadcast.]
I like to chat with the composer for about an hour, and depending on the sound
quality of the phone connection, I either use portions of the tape, or I
transcribe comments from it and read them myself. I then select (usually)
three works, and besides introducing each piece, I put some of the interview
material in between, for a program that runs about ninety minutes in all.
pleased] Well, that’s very good. We should be able to set this
up now that I hear your voice and hear your attitude, but I don’t want it
on any birthday-business! I want it on in respect of merit of the music
and not because anyone reaches a certain age at any time!
BD: I understand.
JA: Another thing,
Mr. Duffie. The reason I sent you the flyer on this program that I
have coming up in Carnegie Hall is that it is significant in many respects,
particularly for the American composer. For too long, the American
composer has suffered at the expense of the European composer. We give
them all our money, and when it comes to the performance of American music
abroad, there’s very little of it, whereas there’s a great deal of foreign
music that is performed here. I pointed that out when I was a Fulbright
composer to Finland many years ago. I was asked to be a Fulbright composer
by the State Department. People asked me why I went to Finland, and
I said the State Department informed me that Finland was the only place that
wanted a composer. [Both laugh] In other words, I didn’t select
the country. The country selected me, and the fact was that’s why they
wanted a composer. My music was played there, and I conducted and I
performed, but the thing is they’ve gone right back to playing only Finnish
music, not only in their country but this country as well. I
was very fortunate to have been the last American to have an interview with
Sibelius, which is very, very interesting because not many people could get
it. One of his daughters helped to arrange it, and I was able to see
him at his home. It was a great honor, a great joy, and a
great privilege. As it happened, Mitropoulos had just played a work
of mine with the New York Philharmonic, and on the same program was the Sibelius
Violin Concerto with Heifetz.
When I spoke to Sibelius about the fact that Mitropoulos and Heifetz had
done such a magnificent job, he said to me, “That’s
enough about my music! Now tell me, how did they do your music?”
BD: He was much more
interested in that!
JA: Yes. I pointed
that out to the Sibelius Society, of which I was a member for many years.
They give me all the information about the Finnish music and Finnish people
who are coming here to play, and nothing about American music. I pointed
out to them a long time ago that that’s not what Sibelius would have wanted.
There this is a peculiar kind of national chauvinism.
BD: Right, but we
need to get more American chauvinism on our own programs.
JA: That’s it!
I also sent you a flyer [shown at right],
not because of the fact that I have a piece on the program, but the significance
of the performance in the respect of the fact that it will stand up or you
fall with all the composers of the past and present, irrespective of nationality.
BD: Right. You’re
on with Beethoven, and the Brahms Handel
Variations, and Chopin Ballades.
JA: My point is that
American music arrives only when an artist chooses it and exposes himself
to where he chooses an American work to be played with all these other works.
BD: We need to encourage
more performers to do that. It’s so rare that we get someone like Koussevitzky
that will take such trouble.
JA: Yes, Koussevitzky
took the trouble because he did know the other literature well!
BD: In our own time
it seems like there are very few who do that. Michael Tilson Thomas has
done a lot, and also Leonard
Slatkin. They seem to be championing American music.
JA: Yes. Golschman
also did a lot of my work with the St. Louis Symphony and the Denver Symphony.
Vladimir Golschmann was born in Paris on December 16, 1893. He studied
violin at the Schola Cantorum in Paris and was a notable advocate of the
music of the composers known as Les Six. In Paris, he had his own concert
series, the Concerts Golschmann, which began in 1919. He became the director
of music activities at the Sorbonne, at the behest of the French government.
Golschmann also conducted performances at the Ballets Russes of Sergei Diaghilev.
In the United States, Golschmann was the music director of the Saint Louis
Symphony Orchestra from 1931 to 1958, their longest-serving music director.
His initial contract was for 3 years, and the successive contracts were renewed
yearly. For the last three years of his tenure, he was named conductor emeritus,
during their search for a successor music director. He remained in the US,
becoming a citizen in 1957. In his later years, Golschmann also worked with
the orchestras of Tulsa and Denver. He died in New York City on March 1,1972.
These are all very interesting points, but the American composer can survive,
and will survive, only when he is programmed with all the other composers.
The pianist, Ana Maria Trenchi di Bottazzi, is magnificent because she’s putting
as much time into my work as she has in the Brahms Handel Variations.
BD: That’s good.
I’m glad that she’s taking the trouble to do your music!
JA: That’s right,
and she hopes to do it in South America and Europe, and record them eventually.
BD: That’s very encouraging.
JA: It is encouraging,
and very exciting. Another thing that’s exciting to me is that kids
all over the country call me up and tell me that they’re doing my music.
BD: Oh, in schools?
JA: In schools, yes.
Now, Mr. Duffie, I appreciate you calling.
BD: Oh, it’s quite
JA: I’ll send you
the material, and then we’ll take it from there.
BD: When the recordings
come, I will give you another buzz, and we can set up a date for the interview.
JA: Wonderful, but
I do it only on the strength that no birthdays get mentioned, but the music
is mentioned for the sake of what it is.
BD: I’m perfectly
willing to program it that way. I’ll just do a regular program on you
with the interview material, but we won’t mention the birthday.
JA: I appreciate that
very much indeed. Thank you for the privilege of talking with you.
I think we feel exactly the same about music!
BD: I think so, too.
soon arrived in the mail, and about six weeks later (at the end of March,
1987) we spoke again, this time as a formal interview . . . . .
BD: Mr. Alexander?
BD: This is Bruce
Duffie in Chicago.
JA: Oh, yes, Mr. Duffie,
how are you?
BD: Fine. How
JA: Fine. I
see that you’re exactly on time!
Radio people tend to watch the clock.
JA: One has to, yes.
BD: This is a good
time for our chat?
JA: Yes, it’s nice
talking with you again.
BD: I’ve enjoyed listening
to your recordings very much.
JA: Oh, good.
I’m glad you did. I hope that they’ll be very successful on the air.
BD: You’re both composer
and pianist. Are you a better composer because you’re also a pianist?
JA: In a way I am
because having played, I’m aware of the sensitivity
of various instruments, and the sensitivity of the performer as against the
composer. When the composer has a special virtuosity upon an instrument
or instruments, he applies himself quite differently than he does if he has
had no experience with the intricacies and the beauty of the instrument(s).
BD: When you’re performing
other people’s music, do you perform that differently because you are yourself
a composer also?
What is interesting is that when I perform or conduct my own music, I approach
it as I would without being the composer. In other words, I look at
it purely objectively.
BD: As through it
were a fresh score?
BD: Are you ever surprised
by what you find?
JA: One is at the
time, but I must say that I’ve been very fortunate because I haven’t been
terribly surprised by what I hear in my ear before hearing it is played by
the orchestra, or the chamber ensemble, or the soloist. In other words,
fortunately I have a pretty good ear, and I can visualize and hear the sounds
before they’re produced. There’s an unusual sensitivity for which I
am wonderfully grateful.
BD: Are you perhaps
surprised when you come back to a piece after twenty or thirty years?
JA: To a great extent,
that’s why I stopped performing as much as I did. As a performer, when
you came back to a work you may change, but you don’t change that much, whereas
as a composer you always grow. It is very interesting and very exciting
because a pianist, or any performer, no matter what he brings new to a work,
is always is limited by the fact that he repeated the same thing again and
again, whereas the composer always looks for new ideas and new channels.
BD: That’s an interesting
JA: I may not be correct,
but it’s my perspective.
BD: You’ve performed
quite a number of your own works. Are you the ideal interpreter of your
JA: That I can’t say
because I’ve heard many people do my compositions. I have been very
fortunate in that respect because the performers who do my work are most grateful
for the fact that I am around, and they are most grateful for the fact that
I bring a new insight into the music, which they would take many years to
BD: So you enjoy working
with the performers on their interpretation?
JA: Oh, yes.
I’ve been very happy in that the performers enjoy working with me.
There are some insights that a composer can give to a performer which would
take that performer many more months of practice and insight to do.
BD: Do the performers
ever find things in your scores that you didn’t know were there?
JA: Not too much,
but sometimes they do find wrong notes! [Both laugh] One hears
the music in advance, and your ear is quicker than your eye, which is very
interesting from the standpoint of musical creativity. I can hear something
before I put it down on paper, and in putting it down, sometimes I gloss
over the sight of it because I hear it already. So a sharp or flat
might get left out, but I already hear it. Then the performer does
find it. He indicates to me that it’s a wrong note.
BD: So you make the
JA: I make the correction,
that’s right, because I’m ahead of myself with creativity.
BD: Are you generally
a fast worker?
JA: It all depends
on the instrument for which I’m working, and the combination. I must
say I am a fast worker, and I’m very, very happy when I reach that point
of creativity when the music more or less writes itself. Sometimes
a person asks me how long it took me to write this work. I think back,
and I don’t know. I can’t tell, but more or less the music wrote by
itself. Now the thing is, it doesn’t write by itself until I get to
that point at which it begins to take over. That is a point which you
must reach by arduous thinking and labor.
BD: Does it ever become
like Frankenstein’s monster and run amok?
JA: No, no, fortunately
it hasn’t become that, and I’m very, very happy for that. I always say
that creativity in our society is an insanity, and it’s an insanity because
I don’t think our society really is geared to create. I don’t think
the society really cares or wants very much from the contemporary composer
or contemporary artist.
BD: Why not?
JA: Musically we’re
living more in the past than we have in any time in history. If you
look at the program of the various orchestras throughout this country
— and in Europe, also — you find that conductors
are inclined to perform or play the same music over again. So it’s
another Schubert work, and now they’ve reached the stage where it’s another
BD: Is there any way
to correct this?
JA: There is a way
to correct it, but it’s a rather arduous task. Koussevitzky had a good
idea when he first came to Boston. It’s very good to program a contemporary
work in each program, and say that upon first hearing some people may not
like it. However, those who are in the audience are invited to stay
after the program to listen to the work a second time. That’s why
Koussevitzky was so successful in playing contemporary music and getting
an audience for it.
BD: Did many people
stay for the second hearing?
JA: Not everybody
did but, but by the same token, those who really were more broad in mind
stayed, and found they liked some things about it, and didn’t like some things
about it, and maybe they saw why! This is why I think it is something
which we should do. Furthermore, I don’t think any orchestra in this
country should get any kind of government support, or any support from foundations,
unless they contract to have a contemporary work at least once a week, or
once every other week.
BD: So on the thirty-week
subscription, you should get at least fifteen news pieces?
Now there’s a problem in the performance of a contemporary work, especially
by an orchestra. A chamber ensemble is dedicated a little bit more than
the orchestra, and they will go over a piece again and again because they
are giving of their time and energy. Whereas with an orchestra, giving
of the time and energy is a contractual experience. A new work requires
many hours of rehearsal, and only Mitropoulos or Monteux often paid for the
extra rehearsals out of their own pocket, which not many people know.
BD: No, I was unaware
of that completely. So how can we get other conductors to do more contemporary
music on their programs?
JA: I would say to
tell them there’d be no money for their orchestras unless they do these contemporary
works. Let them choose the contemporary works, but you see what I’m
driving at? You can’t force upon a conductor what he must choose because
sometimes he likes a work and sometimes he doesn’t. But all right, Mr.
So and So. The orchestra needs money, and we’ll give you the grant
if you fulfill these necessary obligations. If you don’t, I’m going
to give that money to some other orchestra.
BD: Do you think that
It has to be tried. [Huge mischievous laugh] So let’s try it!
What I feel badly about is the fact that here we are nearly at the end of
the twentieth century, and we’re still playing the works of the so-called
‘masters’, which is all right with me provided you schedule a work that’s
contemporary. Also, if I may say, it should be an American work, because
in Europe the orchestras are supported by the government but they do their
own music. Then when they come here, they do their own music, and our
orchestras should recognize the fact that they should really do the work of
American composers. Our audiences want the works of American composers.
* * *
BD: Now you mentioned
about the orchestras only playing the music of the ‘old masters’. Are
there some contemporary composers who write on that level today?
JA: You mean writing
in the old style?
BD: No, whose level
of inspiration is the same as Beethoven or Mahler?
JA: The level of inspiration
may be, but the music that comes out may not be. In Mahler’s day and
in Beethoven’s day, there were a lot of people who didn’t like their music,
but they continued to write it irrespective of the critics or the audience.
BD: Then they’re in
good company because the public today is not liking the new music, either.
JA: That’s the point.
The point is give it a chance! You don’t have to like something in order
to appreciate it. For instance, I don’t mention many specific contemporary
composers. I’m not critical of any of them, but there’s a lot of music
I like less than others. By the same token, I respect that composer
for what he has to offer, for what he has to say. Liking goes beyond
merely just a passing glance. Once you hear something and become involved
in it, it grows on you.
BD: In serious music,
where should the balance be between art and enjoyment?
JA: Music is to be
enjoyed, frankly, and any composer who feels that he’s writing in a vacuum,
or writing on Cloud Nine, and writes only because he wants to write that
way, is making a mistake. However, he can’t alter his composition because
of an audience or a critic liking it or not liking it. In other words,
one can’t climb on the bandwagon of contemporary taste. Some composers
climb on that ‘minimalism’ bandwagon, which is the great thing today, just
as so-called ‘atonality’ was thirty years ago. I don’t believe anyone
should climb on that bandwagon because temporarily it may be successful at
that time. Everybody should write according to his own convictions.
I hope that people like my music. I would be lying to myself if I would
walk off in a cloud and say I don’t care whether they like it or not.
Seriously, you hope that your music will be enjoyed and liked.
[From a website called "Past Daily"
which includes the audio of this excerpt]
Joseph Alexander – Williamsburg Suite
(2 movements) 1943 – NBC Radio orchestra, Henri Nosco, cond. Oct. 19, 1944
– Gordon Skene Sound Collection –
The music of Josef Alexander this weekend. An American composer, who was
also an educator and spent much of his teaching career in the Music Department
at Brooklyn College. He was a prolific composer, yet very little of his large
output has been heard much, if at all these days.
This piece, the Williamsburg Suite,
comes from 1943 and this radio performance of two movements from that suite;
Bruton Parish Church and Raleigh Tavern are the world premier performances,
via this weekly radio show Music of The
New World from NBC from October 19, 1944.
As was the case with much of the music from this period, between the Depression
and World War 2, it had an inherent focus on Americana. In this case, it’s
a musical depiction of Williamsburg Virginia, one of the early settlements
during Colonial days prior to the American Revolution.
And like so many of the WPA paintings and murals, The Williamsburg Suite was the musical equivalent
to one of those murals; spacious and mythic – a portrayal of struggles and
triumphs against a landscape of colorful and evocative tone pictures. The
music of Josef Alexander has been characterized as steering a middle course
between conventional tonality and dissonant modernism.
Because we were in the middle of World War 2, music and programs of this
sort were considered morale boosts; instilling a sense of patriotism of our
country at war – and pieces like The Williamsburg Suite filled the bill.
Sadly, because this was the world premier of this work, only two pieces
were performed. If the remaining movements were performed on another episode,
it’s hard to tell. I don’t think this piece was recorded commercially and,
as I said before, much of Josef Alexander’s work has been forgotten and is
At just a little over 6 minutes, you get a taste of what Josef Alexander’s
music was about – not earth-shattering, nor was it saccharine sweet, but a
sample of what American Classical music was doing during the War. The NBC
Radio Orchestra was conducted by Henri Nosco, who frequently conducted music
for this series, as well as many other programs for NBC at the time.
BD: When you’re writing
a piece, for whom do you write? Whom do you have in mind?
JA: That’s a good
question. It’s awfully hard for me to say. To tell you the truth,
I’m really writing because I have to write. It’s a driven force from
within. I have to write because I have to write. Then somewhere
in my mind I think perhaps there’s a good performer around who may like this
work. I don’t disassociate myself from the performer. Sometimes
you’re fortunate, and you get a commission where the performance is guaranteed.
That that’s very good, too. For instance, last year I was commissioned
by Stanley Drucker, who is the first clarinetist in the New York Philharmonic.
So I had to write a work for him and his wife, that is two clarinets and piano.
BD: Interesting combination!
JA: It’s a very interesting
combination, and a challenge, too, because there are not too many works of
that nature. His wife is a marvelous clarinetist, so there already you
two clarinetists, and they have a very excellent pianist out there on Long
Island. At the time, I was considered a Long Island composer, because
for many summers that’s where I do a great deal of my creation. So I
was invited to be on that program of Long Island composers. The pianist
happened to be a student of mine up at the college many years ago. So
it was a wonderful combination, and most inspiring. That’s very good
when you’re writing for a group that asks you to write for them. Otherwise
you go out begging after you do the work.
BD: Was this work
for two B-Flat clarinets, or did you include a different member of the family?
JA: Two B-Flat clarinets.
I love the A clarinet. It has a soft, feminine quality, but I think
the B-Flat has a much more earthy quality.
BD: I just wondered
if maybe a middle movement utilized the alto or bass clarinet.
JA: No. The
alto clarinet is a different instrument. They all have extensions,
so it doesn’t matter very much. It’s a case in point but, I just had
a new work performed which I hope to have recorded. It’s
a work for soprano saxophone, cello, piano and two percussion
players. I had in mind the B-Flat soprano sax. I also wrote it
for publications so that a clarinetist can play it, too. There are
very high notes which are very difficult to get on the soprano sax, but I
had in mind the brass-like quality that one finds on the sax. I had
a very good saxophonist who was able to get all those high notes beautifully,
with wonderful clarity, which was great because I heard them that
way. But the thing is that we’re inspired by the instrument
for which we write.
BD: Talking about
recordings, you say there’s a hope that this new piece will get recorded?
JA: That’s right.
BD: Is it significant
when contemporary pieces do get recorded?
JA: Oh, that’s a wonderful
thing, but it’s very difficult because the record firms now find it difficult
to sell contemporary music, just as the publishers find it difficult to sell
the scores, and that problem is something which is difficult to solve.
There are young people who are interested. Schools of music and conservatories
are interested in contemporary music, and it’s always gratifying to me when
I get an unexpected call from somebody out in Minnesota, or somebody near
the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia to say that they have my music
and they intend to perform it. It’s very interesting that somehow or
other they get it at sales, and they’re excited by it. What happens
is that the music publishing companies have been absorbed by other companies
to a point where some music publishing firms, for instance, are run by Coca
Cola. Why should Coca Cola be interested selling music?
BD: Only for the bottom
JA: That’s the point.
The point is money, and there’s no money in classical music. There never
BD: Should there be?
JA: To tell you the
truth, it’s a question of give and take. For instance, take the music
of Brahms. There was another man whose music sold more than Brahms,
so the music company invested in this other composer because they made money
on him, and with the little bit of money they had left over they published
Brahms. That’s what happens with the publishing firms. These
days they publish the jazz stuff, and then if they have anything left over
they publish the classical music. They never expect to make any money
on the classical. At least they feel a sense of dedication. We
have to go back to old days of the trade business. Just as the great
stores began by having people selling all their needles and threads and fabric
from a horse and cart, now a salesman has to go out and stop at the various
libraries and sell them all this music because the students out there want
BD: But should each
individual composer then have to get out with his horse and carriage and do
it, or should there be a small consortium of composers?
JA: The publisher
has to do that because the composer has no time for that. However,
there are many, many modern composers who have established their own publishing
firms. They get a little bit of money here and there from some publishing
societies. Now the great problem is that they see their music in relatively
good print but then the problem is how are they going to get it out?
It still has to be sold. You have the gratification of seeing your music
published, but it’s like a vanity press, which is sad. I think the
problem can be solved, however, it’s going to take a long time to do it.
BD: Which is more
important for you — to have your music published, or
have your music recorded?
JA: It is more important
for me is have it performed, and then recorded. [Both laugh] The
most important thing for me is to have it performed. If it’s recorded,
so much the better. It’s a tremendous problem now. There are not
so many firms interested in recording new music, and the amount of money
spent in recording is really astronomical.
* * *
BD: I see you done
some teaching of music.
JA: Yes, my whole
life has been involved with the teaching. That’s how I make a living.
There’s hardly a composer today in this country — and
probably abroad — who doesn’t have to teach.
BD: Do you teach just
composition, or also theory?
It is serious composition, so theory is part of composition. I also
BD: Is composition
something that really can be taught, or must it be innate with each young
JA: There are different
schools of thought in that respect. My feeling is that essentially even
performing can’t be taught, but it can be directed. The teacher is
only the one who can direct you positively or negatively. That’s why
Bartók never taught composition because he felt that you can’t teach
someone how to compose. But I think Bartók was mistaken in this
respect. You may not be able to teach someone how to compose, but you
may be there to inspire them, or lead them, or show them the way. For
instance, if a young composer gets trapped in a certain passage, you sit
down and write that passage out, and by means of that you open up a new concept
for the student. It’s the same way for performance. So although
composition can’t be taught, you can inspire one who has the talent to go
on and do the work very successfully.
BD: Are you encouraged
by the music that you see?
JA: Oh, yes.
I’m encouraged, and I try to encourage the young composers. But by
the same token, I’m very realistic about it, and point out that he shouldn’t
expect to make a living on this. He must prepare himself to use some
other means of survival, such as being an editor. I know of some composers
who drive taxis, which is sad.
BD: Are there, perhaps,
too many young composers coming along today?
JA: Now that’s another
problem. I would say there are too many because with the world of synthesizers,
it’s easy to be a composer. You don’t need to know very much. You just
sit down at this machine and you compose. The machine composes for you,
which is wonderful!
BD: Is the machine
creating, or is the machine just responding to the creator’s efforts?
JA: It’s responding
to the creator’s efforts, but it can camouflage those efforts, and make it
sound much better than it really is! [Both laugh] It’s Catch 21,
as it were. You have the machine, and the machine can get some magnificent
sounds. All you do is put your hand on a couple of chords, press a
button, and the whole thing come back. If you want violin-like sounds,
you press another button. If you want trumpet-like sounds, you press
BD: So it’s a shortcut?
JA: Oh, sure!
It’s a shortcut because immediately it gives you what you may not really hear.
To really hear music requires a long-time acquaintance with it, and when
I say ‘hear it’, I mean not necessarily
BD: You hear it in
JA: In your head,
that’s right. You hear the instrumentation. An example might
be my Gitanjali [by Rabindranath
Tagore (1861-1941) — Song Offerings — 1973]
for soprano, harpsichord, and about thirty-odd percussion instruments.
When I wrote that, no combination of that nature had been tried with the
voice, but I heard all the instruments. In fact, I’m very happy to
report the fact that not one note was changed. Everything came out
as I hoped it would, as I heard it. I recall having shown the score
to a colleague, and he asked, “How’s
this voice going to sound?”
Then I heard how it did sound, which is very interesting and very exciting.
But that’s what make a composer’s life exciting.
Rabindranath Tagore, also written Ravīndranātha Thākura (7 May 1861 – 7
August 1941), was a Bengali polymath who reshaped Bengali literature and
music, as well as Indian art with Contextual Modernism in the late 19th and
early 20th centuries. Author of Gitanjali and its "profoundly sensitive,
fresh and beautiful verse", he became the first non-European to win the Nobel
Prize in Literature in 1913. Sometimes referred to as "the Bard of Bengal",
Tagore's poetic songs were viewed as spiritual and mercurial; however, his
"elegant prose and magical poetry" remain largely unknown outside Bengal.
A Pirali Brahmin from Calcutta with ancestral gentry roots in Jessore,
Tagore wrote poetry as an eight-year-old. At the age of sixteen, he released
his first substantial poems under the pseudonym Bhānusiṃha ("Sun Lion"),
which were seized upon by literary authorities as long-lost classics. By
1877 he graduated to his first short stories and dramas, published under
his real name. As a humanist, universalist internationalist, and ardent anti-nationalist,
he denounced the British Raj and advocated independence from Britain. As an
exponent of the Bengal Renaissance, he advanced a vast canon that comprised
paintings, sketches and doodles, hundreds of texts, and some two thousand
songs; his legacy endures also in the institution he founded, Visva-Bharati
Tagore modernised Bengali art by spurning rigid classical forms and resisting
linguistic strictures. His novels, stories, songs, dance-dramas, and essays
spoke to topics political and personal. Gitanjali (Song Offerings), Gora (Fair-Faced)
and Ghare-Baire (The Home and the World) are his best-known works, and his
verse, short stories, and novels were acclaimed—or panned—for their lyricism,
colloquialism, naturalism, and unnatural contemplation. His compositions
were chosen by two nations as national anthems: India's Jana Gana Mana and
Bangladesh's Amar Shonar Bangla. The Sri Lankan national anthem was inspired
by his work
BD: Is composing fun?
JA: Yes. For
me it is! It’s not laborious, not at all. It’s a lot of fun,
but it’s not without hard work.
BD: When you’re presented
with a number of commissions, how do you decide which ones you’ll accept and
which ones you’ll decline?
JA: I wish that were
the case. I wish I had that many. I wish I had a choice, which
I don’t have. However, I have declined some, and said, “No,
that’s not for me.”
BD: So how do you
decide that you will not accept it?
JA: First of all,
if there’s no promise of a performance. I’ve got to have a performance,
because in a promise of a performance, then it’s absolute, and then the musicians
are dedicated. You can’t pay them for their dedication, whereas if
they pay you, say, $500, and don’t perform it, then you feel as if you’ve
been betrayed. The performance is more important than the money.
Now perhaps I’m crazy...
No, not a bit!
JA: ...but for me,
the performance is far more significant.
BD: That’s the real
meaning of music.
JA: Of course, that’s
why we write — to have it performed. Then we hope
that it’s going to be liked. I’m not discouraged when it isn’t liked.
Sometimes people like it, and sometimes they damn it with faint praise.
They say, “That’s interesting!’”
[Both laugh] But that’s the world I’ve come to accept. I know
what’s going on in their heads when they say, “That
music is interesting!”
BD: They don’t know
what to make of it!
JA: That’s right!
It’s a very convenient word.
BD: I’ve tried to
drive it out of my own vocabulary!
So have I! It has no significance for me anyway. All the aspects
of creativity are very exciting to me, so when you ask if it is fun to write,
yes, it is fun, but it’s fun when it’s running by itself. That’s the
greatest fun. That is the point when you achieve all that is really
significant as far as creativity is concerned. You’re controlling it,
but by the same token you don’t have to think about the writing. You
just control the idea.
BD: How do you know
when the composition is done?
JA: When I reach the
end! [Both laugh] I think you probably mean how do you know it’s
the utmost of what you can say?
BD: Yes, and how do
you know when to quit tinkering with it?
JA: There’s usually
a time limit. The time limit is one that you impose upon on yourself,
or there’s a time limit in the end of the material you have, and it becomes
BD: Do you ever go
back and re-tinker with the works?
JA: I’ve done that
very rarely. Fortunately I’ve been lucky in that respect. I haven’t
had to go back and tinker with things. I tinker with each work while
it’s being created. There’s more that’s rejected than is put down.
It isn’t a question of erasing, as much as it is not putting it down to begin
with. So there is that kind of tinkering, but at the same time, you
know pretty well when you’ve reached that point of conclusion, which is very,
very interesting. I’ve never thought of it. Now you’re asking
questions which I never thought of before.
BD: So then there
are old versions and new versions of any works?
JA: Not as far as
I’m concerned. I was talking to a young guitarist the other day, Eliot
Fisk. We had a very, very lovely talk, and he’s done a lot of transcriptions.
He wrote an article for Chamber Music
magazine on transcriptions, which was very interesting because he pointed
out that Beethoven wrote some transcriptions for a string combination, and
things of that sort. I pointed out that perhaps Beethoven did that because
he was called on to do it. But the point is there are many modern composers
who make transcriptions. They write something, and then they make a
transcription of it for a chamber group, or they take a chamber piece and
make a transcription for orchestra, which is perfectly all right as far as
they’re concerned. I can’t see that because when I write for orchestra,
I conceive of it for orchestra, and when I write a work for a chamber combination,
I conceive of it for that specific combination. I can’t take a string
quartet and change that into a wind quartet because I hear it quite differently,
whereas some composers can do that. To me it’s the sound of the instruments
that is inspiring, not only the notes themselves or the manipulation of notes.
It’s the sound quality of the instrument that is inspiring, too.
* * *
BD: In the recordings
that you sent, there are several works for percussion. What’s the big
interest in percussion for you?
That’s a very interesting story. Not all my works have percussion in
them, but to my way of thinking, percussion is the last family to be accepted
into today’s musical thinking. At one time, people used to say that
a violin and piano is a terrible combination! They used to prefer the
harpsichord or clavichord. That’s different, the harpsichord and violin,
but the piano was too forceful an instrument as against the violin or the
cello. Over a period of years, we find that this is not true because
the pianist adjusts to the qualities of the violin, or the string player
adjusts his playing to suit the piano. What has happened over a period
of years is that little by little the wind instruments have been accepted,
and then finally the brass instruments have been accepted. I’ve written
a great deal for brass. I have a sonata for horn and piano that has
been done widely, but the thing is that at one time to think of a sonata
for French horn and piano would have been considered illogical. But
by the same token, they sound well together. Over a period of years,
brass instruments have been accepted so we have brass ensembles now, and
people go and hear brass ensembles because there’s a beauty in the brass
sound. So there again, a trumpet player can play with a hard sound
or he can play with a very flexible wonderfully velvety sound. Rather
than a trumpet sound, I sometimes choose a cornet. I have a work for
cornet, marimba and guitar, and that’s an unusual combination. People
ask me why I didn’t write it for the trumpet, and I tell them it’s a different
instrument with a different quality. The point is that the brass, over
a period of time, has been accepted. So now we come to the percussion!
From my point of view, any percussionist who can play any kind of instrument
— not necessarily the keyboard percussion instruments which require
a kind of touch, but the timpani or the cymbals — approaches
the instrument with flexibility of his wrists and fingers. He plays
the instrument with a certain kind of quality which he finds very acceptable,
and which he enjoys as a virtuoso on the instrument. Now everyone treats
the percussion section as a virtuoso section, also. A timpani will sound
different from one to another timpanist. Even if he uses the same kind
of stick, it will sound different because he gives to it a certain approach.
It’s like playing the piano. If you play the piano, when I speak of
caressing the keys, years ago people used to think I was crazy. But
you really caress the keys of a piano, as the string player caresses the
string with his finger. He also caresses the instrument through the
bow. There is also such a thing as caressing a wind instrument with
the way which you use your tongue. The same holds true with the brass.
Now we come to the percussion. You caress it with the stick and the
way in which you approach the instrument itself. It’s very interesting!
You can also use the cello bow now on the cymbals, and you get a different
sound from when you strike it. This is the age we’re living in now,
which is marvelous. So I say that there’s wonderful opportunity for
percussion instruments. They are of our time.
BD: Are you pleased
with the recordings that have been made of your music — not
just the percussion, but all of them?
JA: Yes, yes, I’m
very, very happy with them. All the artists involved worked very hard,
and did a very good job.
BD: You mentioned
in your first letter that you are the conductor of Songs for Eve. Why are you not listed
as such on the label or the record jacket?
JA: I was listed well
enough on the record, so it would be pushing it too far, and I said it was
perfectly all right. I don’t mind, but I have conducted my work very
BD: [Gently protesting]
But it’s significant to know that you are the conductor of this recording.
JA: I am a conductor,
yes, but it is more significant to know that there are fifteen songs published,
but only thirteen were recorded. That’s because the soprano, Evelyn
Mandac, came to the wrong studio. She had to take a taxi, and it took
her twenty minutes to get down to the other studio. So we had to cut
two movements out of it.
BD: So it’s only because
of a lack of studio time?
JA: That’s right!
She came too late to have time for the rehearsal! People don’t realize
all these things.
BD: For a recording,
which is supposed to be a permanent document, wouldn’t it have been better
to wait to issue the record until you could have got a little more studio
time for the two extras songs?
JA: Not really because
studio time is paid for by the hour, by the second, and also the instrumentalists
can only play a certain amount of time. They’re all contracted for three
hours, so when she came twenty minutes late, she put a dent in the whole
recording. You can’t just ask them to hang on for another twenty minutes
— which I would have liked very much! Somebody else wants
to use the studio, and then you have to pay more for the use of the studio.
It becomes too complex financially and too complex emotionally. When
you walk into a studio and you record, all the musicians are really at the
height of tension.
BD: Is it a good tension
or a bad tension?
JA: It’s a wonderful
tension, but it’s tension, and at the end of the time, they’ve had it, and
so have you! So if you extend it, you’re going to create quite a different
atmosphere. Sometimes it’s done and sometimes it has to be done.
If you have unlimited sums of money, you could have everyone come back for
another hour the next day, but then the mood has changed.
BD: So to insert those
two songs from another session would do injustice to the thirteen that are
JA: That’s right.
Musicians are able to take more time to prepare, and as far as movies are
concerned, so much goes onto the cutting room floor, as they say. It’s
the same way with recording. You have time for Take 1, Take 2, Take
3, and then you go on. Digital recording now is quite different because
it’s more difficult to insert various sections, but you hear the various takes,
and you reject them one after the other. But you can’t take them indefinitely
until you finally have a good one. What happens is when you edit the
whole thing, sometimes there are just five seconds of a certain section that
aren’t quite good on the fifth take, so you have to go back to the first
take with those five seconds which are perfect.
BD: Is there any chance
that the record then becomes too perfect by selecting all these perfect pieces?
JA: That’s a great
problem, and that’s why often records sound much better than concert performance,
because they’ve been edited well, and they’ve been processed well.
BD: Too well?
JA: It all depends
on how you look at our time, how you look at things now. Classical
music is nothing compared to what they do in pop music. There they
have structures and layers. When they’re building a rhythm, they put
in a lot of synthetic rhythms that go in there. That’s what happens
if it’s layered, but this is part of our time. So we get right back
to whether something is better or worse. I prefer the concert hall
rather than any recording.
BD: But you’re pleased
that some of your piece have been recorded?
JA: I’m pleased.
In fact, I’d like to see everything of mine recorded, because that’s how it
gets around. It’s part of our time, part of our system, and with better
electronic recording devises, you add to it to a point where digital sound
BD: It seems like
you want the recordings to open the door to live performances, rather than
the recordings being an end-all in themselves.
JA: That’s right.
Some people don’t have the time, so when you send a work to a conductor, most
often if you have a recording, he wants the recording. Why? Because
he may have good visual-hearing capacity, but it’s better for him to get
the immediate impression. That way he doesn’t
have to take all the time to study the score and read the score effectively.
So if you have a tape of it, or a record of it, is very much in your favor.
I don’t have recordings, but I have tapes of some of my symphonies, and when
I send a score out, the conductor usually asks for the tape, which is not
BD: But it is a performance?
JA: That’s right,
it’s a performance. It’s a quickie, as it were, and he gets a chance
to listen to it.
BD: Even if the performance
has been rehearsed and honed, you still think of it as a quickie?
JA: [In a mock-hushed
tone] I’m going to tell you something, Mr. Duffie. It’s been rehearsed,
but never adequately! [Both laugh] Not every first performance
of a work is adequately rehearsed, even when there’s a chamber group.
When you get a chamber group, at the first performance they do it well.
After they’ve put in an enormous amount of time, they’d be very happy and
they’d be gratified. However, if they do it a second and third time,
BD: It’s harder to
get a second performance than a first?
JA: Yes, it is, especially
in our society.
BD: Maybe you should
set up an orchestra to do only second performances.
JA: Well, that’s a
good idea! [Laughs] We’ll let people like
you work on that. That’s a brilliant idea! The second performance
is far more important than the first performance, yet you’d be amazed how
many conductors only want the first performance. If they can’t get a
first performance, they won’t do a work.
there’s a certain kind of artistic gratification. It’s also a personal
JA: Yes, prestige
to be able to say they performed it historically for the first time.
BD: But then they
don’t care if it comes back again?
JA: It’s out of their
hands. It’s a very exciting field, and it’s sometimes disturbing, but
you learn to live with it and accept the possibilities.
BD: Is it wrong for
the public or conductors to look for masterpieces in every piece they see
for the first time?
JA: I think so.
The important thing is not look for a masterpiece, but to have them be convinced
that it’s worth doing. That’s the important thing. If it’s worth
doing, that’s wonderful. Nobody knows what’s going to be a masterpiece.
It takes a lot of time to judge whether the thing’s a masterpiece, and what
may be a masterpiece today is no longer a masterpiece tomorrow. For
instance, Hindemith was, in his day, a great composer and a wonderful guy
too. One felt that here was a perfection itself, yet now people no longer
look upon this as perfection. It’s perfection as far as creativity is
concerned, yes, but not as far as inspiration is concerned, which is quite
different. What is a masterpiece? We don’t know. Certainly
in Mozart’s day, they weren’t thinking of masterpieces. They were just
trying to get a performance to eke a living out.
BD: What advice do
you have for the young composer who’s struggling today?
JA: I say go ahead
and compose. Go ahead and try it, but be sure you’re not writing because
you’re going to make money out of it. It’s no money at all. I
try to discourage people who I feel don’t have enough talent —
not by saying they don’t have enough talent, but by telling them
to go ahead and do the best they can, and then send it around and get some
reactions from various publishers, or from various music performing societies.
Let them find out for themselves. I do not tell them they have great
talent, and I do not tell them they have no talent if they have a certain
measure of talent. I wouldn’t discourage them and tell them they can’t
make it. They should try it as best they can. That’s the only
way. There are many schools that encourage people to get diplomas irrespective
of their talent, and that’s one thing I don’t encourage. I encourage
people who have talent to go ahead and try, and make it worthwhile.
Otherwise, I suggest that if they have some other interest to pursue it.
You’re not discouraging; you just find out what is in the grasp of the person.
What we lose sight of today is our sense of perfection. Most people,
when they have their son or daughter study music, have an inner hope that
they’re going to be a great artist. That was in the past. Right
now they should feel more that they’re going to have a son or daughter making
music. Not as a profession, but chamber music is one of the best means
of having fun in any society, and that should be most encouraged. You
don’t have to be a great fiddler or you don’t have to be a great cellist.
You can bang on any instrument. What difference does it make as long
as you have fun playing together! Play as well as you possibly can,
but don’t worry about hitting all the right notes.
That’s not important. As long as you keep in time, then you have fun!
That’s what music is all about, and that’s what it should be about.
It should be about having fun. That happened in Mozart’s time and in
other periods, but now we’ve become too specialized and too concerned with
BD: It sounds like
you’ve had a great deal of fun making music in your life time.
JA: Oh, yes, yes,
yes. I have in performance, but that’s where you have all the fun.
What I call ‘horsing around’ with it. This is the beauty of all music
— not really being the great artist because
it’s a great challenge. That’s very difficult. When you have to
fulfill expectations, and you have to play fairly constantly in the year,
there’s some joy in it. But by the same token, often there is certain
kind of pressure. When you play chamber music, you ‘horse around’ and
have a lot of fun. That’s when you really have a great deal of excitement,
and I would recommend that students today play and have fun and make music
together, not necessarily being Juilliard candidates.
BD: This has been
a fascinating hour talking with you. Thank you so very much.
JA: Is it an hour
already? It’s been wonderful talking with you. I very much appreciate
your interest. I feel as if we’ve become very friendly!
BD: I feel so, too!
JA: My feeling is
that I actually know you, which is wonderful. Thanks very much.
Wonderful talking with you!
--- --- --- --- ---
© 1987 Bruce Duffie
These conversations were recorded on the telephone on February 14
and March 28, 1987. Portions were broadcast on WNIB two months later,
and again in 1992 and 1997. This transcription was made in 2017, and
posted on this website at that time. My thanks to British
soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
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.