Composer / Pianist Josef
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
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].
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?
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
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
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
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
|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),
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
Ben Weber's Humoreske op. 49
(1958), Leo Kraft's
(1957), Paul A. Pisk's
(undated), Mel Powell's
Etude (1957), Morton Gould's Rag-Blues-Rag (undated), Vivian Fine's Sinfonia and Fugato
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
Helps's Image (1957), Mark
Brunswick's Six Bagatelles
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.
BD: [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.
[Obviously 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
not because anyone reaches a certain age at any time!
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
BD: Oh, it’s quite
JA: I’ll send you
the material, and then we’ll take it
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
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,
material 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?
How are you?
JA: Fine. I
see that you’re exactly on time!
Radio people tend to watch the clock.
JA: One has to,
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.
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
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
JA: I may not be
correct, but it’s my perspective.
performed quite a number of your own
works. Are you the ideal interpreter of your compositions?
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 learn.
BD: So you enjoy
working with the performers on their
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
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
BD: Why not?
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
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?
Absolutely! 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
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 would work?
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
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,
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
And like so many of the WPA paintings and murals, The Williamsburg
Suite was the musical equivalent to one of those murals;
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 seldom played.
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
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.
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
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
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
JA: That’s the
point. The point is money, and
there’s no money in classical music. There never was.
BD: Should there
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 it.
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?
Composition. It is serious composition, so
theory is part of composition. I also teach piano.
BD: Is composition
something that really can be taught, or
must it be innate with each young composer?
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
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
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
BD: Is the machine
creating, or is the machine just
responding to the creator’s efforts?
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
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 performed.
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
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
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
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
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
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...
[Interjecting] 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!
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
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
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 instinct.
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
BD: So then there
are old versions and new versions of any
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
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 successfully.
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?
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
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
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 there?
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
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 is marvelous.
BD: It seems like
you want the recordings to open the door
to live performances, rather than the recordings being an end-all in
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 perfect.
BD: But it is a
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, it’s better.
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
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 gratification.
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
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 being
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
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
and again in 1992 and 1997.
This transcription was made in 2017, and posted on this
at that time. My thanks to British soprano Una
Barry for her help in preparing this website
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
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
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.