Composer / Conductor Jacob
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
In March of 1986, Jacob Avshalomov was honored by the College of DuPage
in Glen Ellyn (a suburb about
twenty-five miles west of Chicago) with a concert of his
music. There was a whole week of activities including lectures
and master classes, as well as the performance.
An obituary with another photo and many details of his life
appears at the bottom of
this webpage. As usual, names which are links on this page refer
Interviews elsewhere on my website.
He was most gracious to take time from his busy schedule for an
interview, and was interested in knowing of others I had met. I
showed him a list, and he commented that many were friends and
Since I knew he had written quite a bit of vocal music, we
started at that point . . . . . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: Have
you written an opera?
No, I have never written an opera.
BD: Why not?
JA: To write
an opera is an enormous investment of all kinds for a composer.
The possibilities of performance are often slim, unless you live in the
center where you have immediate contacts of that kind. Subject is
another problem. A long time ago, I found a very satisfactory
alternative to opera, which is the sort of oratorio approach to
things. I like to use elevated and interesting texts with voices
— solo and large groups, accompanied and unaccompanied
— but not necessarily clothed and acted out. The kinds
of texts that I’ve been interested in didn’t require very much, and so
that was a very satisfactory solution. I skirted once very
closely to the chance of doing an opera, and that was to the story by
John Hersey called A Single Pebble.
John Hersey, as you may or may not know, was born and brought up in
China. The novelist lived in the same city as I grew up in
— Tsingtao — but
we missed each other by three years. He’s a little older than I,
and he wrote this beautiful book about an American engineer who goes
out in the early 1920s to seek a site to put up a dam. The story
of his up-river trip with some peasant boatmen is very touching and
beautiful, probably his most poetic book. I fell for it, partly
because of the subject matter. I wrote to him, without any
introduction, saying that we missed each other by three years, and was
taking the liberty of contacting him, and so on. He invited me
out to see him in Connecticut, and I brought some of my music. In
fact, I sent him a tape of the Sinfonietta,
which you heard rehearsing today, and he liked my music well
enough. The more we talked, the more we felt we needed to await
the time when we could maybe make an art film of it, because the gorges
of the Yangtze River were central to the scenery of that opera.
So we postponed the work, and over the years I’ve never gotten back to
it. So why I’ve never written an opera is due to laziness, I
BD: It got so
far and then stopped?
right. I recently had a very nice exchange with Hersey. I
finished one of his later books, The
Call, which is a novel with a very exhaustive description of the
missionary movement in China where his father had served in the YMCA
for a long time. It provided me with a glimpse of China from that
point of view that I had never known, even having been there three
times in the last six years. But I was very grateful for those
insights, and I just picked up the phone and tracked him down in
Florida to thank him for the book, and congratulate him, and wished him
Happy New Year. He was astonished to have this call out of the
blue, and I got the sweetest letter from him the week later. So
that’s my near-miss with John Hersey. A lovely man!
John Richard Hersey (June 17, 1914 – March 24, 1993) was a Pulitzer
Prize-winning American writer and journalist considered one of the
earliest practitioners of the so-called New Journalism (a term which he
decried), in which storytelling techniques of fiction are adapted to
non-fiction reportage. Hersey's account of the aftermath of the atomic
bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, was adjudged the finest piece of
American journalism of the 20th century by a 36-member panel associated
with New York University's journalism department. On April 22, 2008,
the United States Postal Service issued a set of first-class postage
stamps honoring five journalists of the 20th Century, and Hersey was
among them. Also, a school in Arlington Heights, Illinois (in suburban
Chicago) was named for him, and in 1985, the John Hersey Prize was
endowed at Yale University.
[Photo at left of John Hersey was taken in 1958 by Carl Van Vechten]
BD: How long
did you spend in China before you left?
JA: I was
born there, and I left at the age of nineteen.
BD: So it was
really all your development?
Yes. There was a little hiatus of three years between the ages of
six and nine when we came to this country thinking to emigrate.
But we came on a tourist visa which was renewed, and renewed, and
renewed until my father finally lost patience and courage, and we went
back to China. So essentially I lived there for a total of
sixteen years, but I got all my formative years in grade school and
high school, and four years’ factory work before I ever came back to
the United States with my family.
BD: How have
the Chinese elements or the whole Chinese culture influenced your music?
quite noticeable in the early works, and less and less the closer we
get to the present. From ’37 to about ’45 or ’46, almost
everything I wrote had some Chinese influence, in the sense that the
melodies I used were apt to be cast in the pentatonic mode, and the
texture was apt to be more contrapuntal than harmonic, with the
avoidance of triadic structures and seventh chords. It gave quite
an oriental cast, and this was also apparent in the coloration of the
orchestration with the use of percussion and things of that kind.
But the longer I lived here, the further I got away from China and the
fainter those memories were, the less truthful they were to my present
existence, you might say. So without ever consciously
relinquishing it, it just sort of faded a little like old ink.
BD: Did you
pick up American musical idioms, or European musical idioms, or just
grow with what was there?
more for you to say, listening to what you have heard or will hear, but
I can recognize some Western influences in my own music without any
sense of conscious imitation. For a time I was very enamored with
Ernest Bloch, and there are some influences of that partly because I
gravitated to setting some Old Testament texts. Then there are
some influences from a completely extraneous source in the music of the
Tudor period in England, and the madrigal literature. My wife
introduced me to madrigals and madrigal singing before we were married
as college students in Portland, Oregon. Then later, when I
studied at the Eastman School, I naturally I took sixteenth century
counterpoint, and I fell heir to the madrigal group there, which I
conducted. During World War II, when I went to England as an
American GI, I sort of wormed my way into a wonderful chorus at the
Brompton Oratory, which is probably the leading place for Catholic
worship and music of that kind in England. Men being in short
supply, they would take a wheezy tenor like myself, and I sang there
for the better part of a year. I also inherited three singing
groups of various kinds. So I became very well acquainted with
the music of that period. That left its mark on me, and it had
some influence on the textures of my choral music. One always has
people that one admires with other spiritual affinity. I also
love the music of Bartók, and I admired some things of Hindemith
and people in that generation.
BD: Are you
still influenced by things around you?
JA: Is there
anybody that isn’t? [Both laugh]
BD: Let me
change it then. How much are you influenced by day to day
activities, or even just things you hear on the news?
JA: I am
moved and touched by things that happen in the world all the time, but
I can’t say that they register in my music as far as stylistic
elements, nor really, for that matter, in subject matter. I’ve
tended not to use contemporary subjects
— although I have set a number of contemporary poets
— but not in the sense of having the earthquake in Mexico
City move me to write a cantata on that, or the new recordings of whale
songs move me to write piece the way it did move Alan Hovhaness, for
example. I react to things, but they don’t necessarily reflect in
pieces I write.
BD: Do you
keep up with works that are being written by other composers?
JA: I conduct The
Portland Youth Philharmonic [formerly
the Portland Junior Symphony], which is the first-founded youth
orchestra in this country. It’s sixty-two years old and I’ve been
with it for thirty-one years.
BD: Half its
half its life, and we have commissioned works by living
composers. People like William Bergsma, Robert Ward, Benjamin Lees, Roy
Harris, Goffredo Petrassi in Italy, and others have all appeared on our
programs in works which we commissioned and later recorded for CRI [shown at right]. But I have
to say, I have not kept up with what could be called the ‘avant-garde’
— the Young Turks — in the last
number of years. A lot of music that’s written by them just does
not appeal to me, just doesn’t interest me, and conducting the kind of
orchestra I do, where they are students, I’ve always felt that one’s
enthusiasm is a very important ingredient. It’s very hard to
impart enthusiasm for something that doesn’t move you or reach you, and
I’ve tried never to be false about that. So the contemporary
works we do tend to be more traditional in their orientation, plus the
fact that a lot of the avant-garde music doesn’t really call for a full
orchestra. When you’re dealing in a teaching situation with a
large orchestra, it’s unfair to do pieces that call for seventeen
instruments and leave the other sixty-seven out, quite aside from the
matter of taste. This is a long and involved answer to your
innocent question, but for those combined reasons I haven’t really kept
up with a lot of the avant-garde music.
BD: You can
teach orchestral technique and instrumental playing. Can you ‘teach’
JA: You can
teach techniques of composition. Let me recount an anecdote
— a truthful one — about my friend
and colleague, Jack
Beeson, who’s well known as an operatic composer, and who was my
classmate at Eastman and in my college in Columbia for many
years. He had the good fortune of some contact with Bartók
in his last year or two in New York, and Beeson went to him with
several of his own piano sonatas under his arm. He asked if he
could study composition, and Bartók demurred. He said he
didn’t think that composition could be taught, but Beeson, the bright
man that he is, said, “Yes, but it can be
learned!” So they agreed that he would
study his own piano sonatas under Bartók as a means of talking
about compositional problems, which was a wonderful way to do it.
So I would agree that in the deepest sense you can’t teach composition,
but I have, from time to time — in my Columbia
days, and in University of Washington days, and elsewhere at university
teaching stints — done what I could in good
conscience do. I called it a ‘compositional lab’. It’s a
compositional laboratory, rather than teaching composition, because
there’s a certain sense, or certain lack of humility, in seeming to
imply that you can show someone how to be creative. That you
where’s the balance then between inspiration and technique?
I can answer that in quite a clear way by telling what I did do in
these classes. I would take students through a graduated series
of small tasks, which were to write on the model of certain well-known
pieces. We would take a prelude of Chopin, and the whole class
would analyze it structurally, melodically, harmonically, rhythmically,
spiritually, and every other way the class might think of. We
would all jot it down on the blackboard, and we would objectify this
piece until there was nothing else to be wrung out of it. Then
they would all have the assignment to produce a piece that didn’t sound
anything like the Chopin but would follow the objective outline that we
had put on a blackboard. Later they would come in, and they would
each look at them and see what they did with their melodies, and what
they did with their harmonies. Did the climax come about this far
into the piece, and did it end here and did it end there? Were
the connections smooth, or were they abrupt? Were they meant to
be smooth, or were they meant to be abrupt? With a series of
separate tasks like that, I would do something contrapuntal. We
could take a piece from the Hindemith Ludus
Tonalis, or we would take a prelude of Bach, and in the course
of a semester or two we would have half a dozen such things where
everything would be examined. So by the comparison of eight or
more examples of what different students would have done to this
objective outline, all of them began to see the various creative
possibilities with each particular formula. So in the course of a
semester or two, I felt that I could impart to them a number of
techniques, and show them approaches to creativity without ever signing
a contract saying that they would become creative!
days do you do more teaching, or more composing, or more conducting?
JA: Since I
left Columbia to go to Portland, I’ve divided my time between
conducting and composing. I’ve done very little teaching,
although I love to teach. Every once in a while I will do
something over the summer, but at home during the season, I conduct and
I deal with committees and all the organizational matters that go to
run essentially a school without walls — which is a
very serious operation. During the season, it isn’t that there
aren’t any man-hours to compose, but your spirit is in a different
phase, you might say. You’re reaching outwards all the time
whereas when you compose you have to turn inwards and lower the bucket
into the well. So I tend to do that during the summer, and in the
summer I tend not to conduct. I’ve resisted that. In the
thirty years I’ve been in Portland, I’ve done Tanglewood one summer,
and Aspen one summer, and University of Illinois one summer
— four or five, but that’s all. I’ve been jealous of
my time there, but you’re right to intuit that I like to teach what, in
the olden days might have been called ‘music appreciation’. They
were publicly subscribed. The committee would organize them, and
I would do them in a charming building called The Garden Club in
Portland, which seats about 200, with a little desk and a piano.
Each year I would talk about different kinds of things. One year
it might be small forms, and one year it might be previews of what the
Symphony would be playing that season, then another year it could be
comparison of light works by different masters. One year I did
Bartók and Beethoven. I took a piano work each, I took a
symphonic work each, and I took a choral piece each, and showed the
contrast. So for eleven years I did the public lectures in
Portland, which were for six or eight weeks in row it satisfied my own
hankering to teach! But otherwise I haven’t affiliated myself
with any institution. There are a number of colleges and
universities around Portland, but I’ve always felt that the orchestra
members should feel that I belong to them all equally, and not be a
faculty member of X college, or Y university.
we’re talking about the public, what do you as a composer expect from
the public which hears a work of yours for the first time?
JA: I’d like
to think that the public can be attentive, and that they can be
intrigued. They can be intrigued by the title, or by a
story-line, if there is one, or by the texts. I’ve always had
very high standards for the texts. Whatever one may think of my
music, no one will disagree that the texts I’ve set have all been
BD: Are they mostly
JA: No, not
mostly biblical. There’s Blake, and John Donne, and Ezra Pound,
and May Swenson, and other contemporary poets. There’s lots of
good guys out there. I found, both as a conductor and as a
composer presenting his own work, that the public likes to be in the
know a little bit. I like to give them a way of entering into
sympathy with the piece they’re about to hear. At all concerts
that I do, I talk a little bit about it. I did a concert last
Saturday in Portland with my youth orchestra and three university
choruses. We did the fantastic choruses from the Berlioz Lelio. Who’s ever heard Lelio? Not one person in five
thousand! So, with each piece I give them some insights into the
work, and talk about different aspects. I never just go through a
program talking about the composer and his family life, or his
education or his posts, but I don’t talk about the same thing every
time. In one case, if I talk about the sociology of the work, on
another one I may talk about the biography of the composer, and on a
third I may talk about the instrumentation. In a given evening,
they’re not going to sit there to expect to be force-fed, much less
spoon-fed, the same kind of thing about each piece, but I try, as I
say, to give people a way of entering into sympathy with what they’re
going to hear, especially if they are apt not to know anything about
BD: More than
just what they would read in the program notes?
right. For many years now, I’ve eschewed printed program
notes. I do these as verbal program notes. It began in an
interesting way because we moved out of our Civic Auditorium for a
two-year period while they were renovating it. They did a
wonderful job, but we moved into a smaller theater called The Oriental
Theater, which is like the old City Center in New York, full of
gargoyles and things in it, and with a wonderful acoustic but terrible
lighting in the house. So the audience couldn’t read the program
notes, and at that time I thought, “The devil
take the lighting and the printed program notes. I’ll tell them!”
Well, I got such great feedback from it. People would stop me on
the street and say, “What a wonderful
idea! It bridges the distance between the stage and the audience.”
Or they’d say, “It makes us feel that the
orchestra belongs to us.” So when we moved
back into the renovated auditorium, though the lights were fine, I just
continued with my practice in doing away with program notes. Once
in a great while, when for separate reasons it is not appropriate to do
any talking, I’ll put program notes in, but that’s my offering about
what to expect of the audience.
When you write a piece, what can the public expect from your piece, and
always tried to write music which has
coherence. I believe in melody, I believe in rhythm respected
positively and negatively but with the sense of body rhythm
being a kind of norm. I write music in which if a wrong note
appears, one can tell. I can tell it’s a wrong note. I’m no
respecter of music where it can be misplayed and the composer doesn’t
know that there are things going on that he didn’t write, so to earn my
own respect I like to
be able to hear everything. I’ve never written a note that I
believe in, and I would hope that coherence that I strive for in my
pieces has some impression on the hearers. I hope that hearers of
it have a sense that my music has
balance, and that the flow of the piece has a sense of destination, of
of tension of relaxation, and of conclusion. I like not to write
pieces which could have stopped three minutes earlier, or could have
gone on another five minutes. How you just judge that is hard to
I don’t think I could define that for you, but coherence is the word
BD: You were
appointed by President Johnson to be on the National Council of the
Humanities. What did this entail?
JA: That was
one of the more interesting assignments I’ve ever had as a civic
contribution. First of all, it’s a distinct honor to be named by
the President of the United States to a national council. Those
were the early days of the Council, and what it entailed was to review
projects which were submitted by humanities groups around the country
for the promotion and dissemination of all the subjects that would come
under the umbrella-term ‘humanities’.
BD: So it
wasn’t just music?
no. That assignment had nothing to do with music! In fact,
I was the only musician on the Council. We had distinguished
novelists, mathematicians, historians, and all kinds of people who were
classical scholars and so on. The nicest answer I ever heard
about why I happened to be on it was when some Congressman at a
cocktail party asked Barnaby Keeney about me. Keeney was then
Chairman of the Council, and when he introduced me and said I was a
composer and conductor, the Congressman said, “What’s
a musician doing on your Council?” Without
batting an eyelid, Keeney said, “Well, for one
thing, he’s literate!” I really appreciated
that comment. I’ve always liked to be thought of as a literate
person. So what we did to review projects submitted from around
the country. I was Chairman of the Standing Committee on Public
Programs, and was responsible for a program that went for several years
in finding people who were good at talking to the general public
— what I called at that time ‘The Pied Pipers’ of our
academic world. In every university and college, I said there are
a handful of people who are not only highly regarded in their field by
their peers, but who somehow or other have the knack of going out and
talking to the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker. I would
call them the Pied Pipers, and I helped to find them and encourage them
to go out and spread the substance of these humanity subjects among the
citizenry. That became known as the ‘Avshalomov plan’ for a while.
BD: Is it a
mistake that college professors deal only with other college
largely a matter of temperament. I can’t say that it’s a
mistake. I think it is a mistake just to talk to people within
the profession because it tends to be, and is in such danger of
BD: Is there
that same danger in the way you write music?
Absolutely. I say this at the risk of my neck among academic
composers, but there has arisen a whole category of music which could
be described as ‘academic music’,
which would never get written and would never get heard except that
it’s protected by the walls of the campus and the performing arts
centers. That music would never make it on its own among the
wider public. Of course there is room for that kind of music, but
it’s dangerous to remain in that kind of seclusion or hibernation
without venturing out into the chill winds of the greater public.
Every creator needs that. It’s very bracing, very salutary.
BD: You conduct a
lot of your own works.
JA: Some, yes.
BD: Are you
the ideal interpreter of your works?
wouldn’t say so, no. I heard a recording this morning done by the
mentor of Lee Kessleman, who runs the choral program here the College
of DuPage. When he and his wife were at Macalister College, they
did a performance of my piece, Tom
O’Bedlam, and he and his wife sang in it, and it was done by a
wonderful conductor. The group was excellent, and the training
was superb. There were some things about it which were different
from what I had in mind, but there were also some insights into the
piece that I hadn’t foreseen at all. I don’t know that if I were
to conduct it I would do it his way, but I respected very much his
deviations from my normal expectation. So I wouldn’t say a
composer is the ideal conductor, necessarily, and especially composers
who aren’t experienced in conducting. You remember Tchaikovsky’s
saying that his head was literally going to come off while he was
conducting because he was so nervous about it.
BD: Do you
JA: I enjoy
composing, yes. Do you mean is it a pain and a drudge?
BD: Is it
something to look forward to?
[Suspiciously] Sometimes... [Both laugh]
BD: Funny, I
always get that answer. [More laughter]
JA: There are
always bad days. There are bad weeks. There are bad months,
also, but when you get moving, it’s very enjoyable. There are two
things that enable me to swim freely when I’m working. If it’s an
orchestral or instrumental piece, when the main sketch, the short
score, is done, and the course of the piece is thrashed out and
wrestled with from beginning to end, the scoring and the orchestration
is a great delight to me. I learned how to orchestrate from my
father, who was a master of that. I’ve always enjoyed that, and I
have to say I like the way my scores sound. Not many years after
I began scoring, I found there weren’t too many surprises when it came
out in the orchestra. It would be played, and if it were
reasonably well played, my response would be that it was just about
what I had in mind. The other thing that gives me a good swim is
dealing with a text that really moves me. At least half my output
has been vocal, choral, or songs, and that brings us back to your
opening question of what about an opera. Usually the texts that
I’ve set have been more thoughtful or ethical than dramatic, so I don’t
feel the lack of action, lighting, and costumes. I feel that the
music can convey the drama, and that my task is to provide a setting
forth of these ideas written by some fine writer.
BD: Let me go
in a little different direction for a moment. Do you feel that
the big explosion of electronics in the home — the
reproducing equipment — has had a big impact on
audiences today, and if so, is it positive or negative?
JA: I can’t
honestly say that I have any measure of that at all. I’m not an
electronics man in any way. I can change a light bulb, but I’m
not much good at anything else of that sort. I’m not a
‘gadgeteer’. I never have been one, and I have the feeling that I
will probably live out my life and my career without ever getting
involved in electronic music. It’s a severe limitation, I admit,
and it would be damning if it were heard by practitioners of electronic
music and studio people. I have to say that some of my best
friends have been studio people. Vladimir Ussachevsky
and Otto Luening
were colleagues of mine at Columbia for many years. Actually
Ussachevsky and I were colleagues before that, in Washington,
D.C. At the end of World War II, we were both at the Office of
Strategic Services. We worked on the China desk, having both come
from the Far East. So I’m serious and sincere when I say some of
my best friends are electronic composers, but it’s just not a medium
that interests me at all. I prefer instruments which we
inherited. I love the human voice, and the presence of the
computer and computerized sound and synthesized sounds bring us to the
brink of an era when any number can play it. Composing becomes a
game which any number can play, and for the first time in the history
of man you can produce what would might pass for a composition without
knowing anything about music. I don’t know if that’s good or bad,
but my attitude will tell you that I’m a bad person to assess the
influence of that on the society.
BD: It is
good, though, that many of your pieces have been recorded and are on
records for people to hear?
JA: Oh, from
that point of view it’s wonderful, and not just for me. It is
wonderful that we have at our beck and call all the music that can be
resurrected from the beginnings of written music. We can have
Perotin (fl. c. 1200) and Josquin des Prez (c. 1440/55-1521), and all
the wonderful people up to and through Boulez and the
youngest Turk you care to mention! It’s wonderful, and one of the
nice things about it is not only that it’s all available, but it
implies a kind of coexistence of music. Good doesn’t have to
replace bad, new doesn’t have to replace old, and in America, of all
places, that’s a lesson we need to learn. We also need to learn
that in architecture. When a house gets to be sixty years old we
think it’s for the junk heap. When we get to Europe, we find
there are buildings three hundred years old, nine hundred years old,
even fifteen hundred years old. Then when we get to China
or Egypt, we find things that are four and five thousand years
old. Then we have a sense a time. In America we need to
learn to live with the old and the new, and in that sense the ability
to reproduce sounds in all our wonderful ways is just a richness that
no other generation has ever had. So, of course I am one of those
that benefit from it. I have to say it was a delight for me to
come here to Glen Ellyn and the College of DuPage, and find the campus
radio station equipped with almost all the recordings of my works, and
to hear performances that I didn’t even know about!
BD: Do you
feel that you are part of a line, a lineage of composers?
absolutely. I feel that very much, and I have a pretty good feel
for where I fit in. If we were to take a shelf of scores and line
them up here — a hundred pieces of various kinds
— I have a pretty good idea where my scores would fit...
with a certain humility of course. I could draw boundaries by
naming composers around me to give you three or four points for an
area, and say that my music resides somewhere in that area bounded by
these people. I don’t feel that that diminishes me in any
way. Everybody has to start somewhere, and to answer an unasked
part of your question, if I may say so, is that I do feel the need to
communicate to citizens of society. I don’t write it to put it in
the drawer. I don’t feel that I have ever written music to pander
to a popular taste — although I have written
music to assignment, which is another matter, following my own tastes
and responding to a request for a certain kind of piece. But I do
feel that it’s meant to communicate to people — not
necessarily to professional musicians, but to the average person who
really has a love of listening to music.
BD: Is there
any competition among living composers?
JA: I suppose
there is but I’m really not all that aware of it. Are you
speaking aesthetically, or financially, or socially, or of anybody
nudging anybody out of a good commission, or a good job, or a good
performance or something of that kind?
wouldn’t think so. I have to say I’ve never felt it. I’ve
never felt pushed aside by anybody else. On a rare occasion, on a
program where there are two or three contemporary works, I have been
annoyed by someone insisting on more rehearsal time for his or her
piece than it seemed to deserve, when I got the shorter end. But
that’s a kind of detail that has to do with the mechanics of a
particular festival, or a particular concert.
BD: Do your
pieces stand better in a concert with several standard works, or in an
all-Avshalomov concert, or in an all-contemporary concert?
my distinct pleasure at this festival of my music here, I generally
don’t favor a series of works by one composer. It’s a wonderful
thing to do from time to time. I remember a marvelous concert
given by the Dessoff Choirs in New York under Paul Beopple thirty-five
years ago... an entire evening of the music of Josquin des Prez at a
time when little of his music was available in modern scores, and you
didn’t hear much of it. The few things we did know were very few
and far between. To walk into Town Hall and hear a whole evening
of twelve or fourteen works by Josquin des Prez was a wonderful
eye-opener for me in the sense that you got past the accidents of any
particular work, or the quirks of any two or three works, and begin to
see this flow of a person’s mind and spirit. I am getting that
kind of a showing here, and I appreciate it personally very much, but I
wouldn’t expect it was my due to have that happen very often. I
generally feel better if a work of mine is included in a substantial
program by a well-prepared performing unit, and I’d be quite content to
go along with reasonable performances in that proportion. As a
conductor, I tend to build my own programs in the same way. As
for programs consisting entirely of contemporary music, I think that’s
a lot to swallow in one evening. There are groups that dedicate
themselves to that, and in the days when we were living in New York, I
remember joking about the fact that the ISCM [International Society of
Contemporary Music], the leader of composers in concerts of that kind,
the same two hundred and fifty people attended those concerts whether
you gave them in London, Paris, Berlin, or New York. Only their
names were different, but the same little clique of hardened people
would come. But for the average person who loves music, that
seems like a little much. It’s like having a meal
consisting entirely of aperitifs, or desserts, or entrées and so
on, and it’s just not very humane.
BD: So it’d
be better to have one piece on a regular Philharmonic concert?
Exactly. If we could get every performing unit in the world to
include a reasonable portion, say eighteen per cent of playing time on
every program of music written within the last twenty to forty or sixty
years, it would be a happier life for all parts, including the
BD: How can
we get more contemporary pieces on concerts by the big orchestras and
the big opera companies?
JA: Do you
want the optimistic answer or the pessimistic answer? [Bursts out
laughing] No, I’ll give you the one answer I have. It’s
never going to happen. Isn’t that terrible conclusion? I’ve
pondered that for forty years, and it’s never going to happen.
The audience for contemporary music is not growing. We’re talking
about a minuscule proportion of the population. Are you aware of
the fact that serious music — operatic and
symphonic music, and including chamber music — touches
about four per cent of the population? I did a talk at the
Spoleto USA Festival about three years ago to the subject — Where
is Our American Music — and I did a fair amount
of research, including a little personal survey that I made. I’m
delighted to be able to say to you that I wrote to about eighteen
orchestras of various levels, size, and greatness, and I got unanimous
response from their managers and/or conductors, and/or players to give
me a listing of their contemporary works done in the last so many
years. So I got a very good picture of what’s going on, and the
fact is it’s very dismal. Contemporary works are the rarity on
subscription concerts. Lots of conductors don’t care for them,
and players tend not to like contemporary music. It’s a simple
fact. Audiences bristle and are bored... I have to say with some
reason, because a lot of pieces are just plain dull — including
some of mine, I guess — and I don’t know if that
can ever be turned around. Then from the point of view of
box-office managers, they scream that every time they do more than a
certain amount, attendance falls. The university circuit, of
course, has been the Godsend in this country.
BD: There, of
course, the whole of business of money is thrown out the window because
you don’t have the same need to get huge audiences. You have your
built-in audiences, and you have almost free rehearsal time.
right. But that has the opposite side — which
we talked about earlier — with this kind of
protected space, a composers’ sanctuary.
BD: The Ivory
right, the University Circuit. The piece that is written for that
audience has even less of a chance of getting outside, off the campus
into Orchestra Hall downtown. So it’s not an easy road. In
fact, if we had three hours we could talk about the future of
briefly, where is music going today?
[Laughs] We’re on the brink, as I say, of composing becoming a
game which any number can play.
BD: Are there
too many composers today?
JA: There are
too many composers for the number of users. You were talking
about it being a boon to have my work and other people’s works recorded
and available on cassette, and disc, and radio and TV... Of
course it is, but with that kind of instant communication, how many
composers are really needed to keep the orchestras of the world
supplied? Not very many! When the Shostakovich Seventh Symphony was written
— the great piece which helped win us World War II
— the premiere was sought and fought over by various
orchestras. They decided it could be done in this country by two
orchestras simultaneously. By radio it could be done all over the
world within a very short time. Now, with instant communication
by satellite, and with the print-outs that we have, one new work could
be supplied to every orchestra on Earth in the same week. They
could all do it, so how many composers do you need? In a way, our
whole concept of art will turn more to the paper plate syndrome and
BD: Like junk
Disposable art, yes. We may lose the illusions and notions about
immortality, longevity, and the statement for a long time ahead.
BD: Do you
not write your music to last for a hundred or two hundred years?
course, forever! This is in the sense that as long as there are
people with ears and voices and hands to play the instruments for which
they are written, and who take pleasure in doing it. In my view,
music is essentially something to do rather than to buy or sell.
Through the door we’re hearing that orchestra rehearsing, and around
the corner are those people who are raising their voices in King David by Honegger. These
are things to do. It’s essentially gratifying, not to say
inspiring and ennobling, to get a group of people together —
between forty and a hundred and forty in a chorus
— to sing a fine piece of choral music. The sense of
elation that sweeps over every individual there into every fiber of
every human being there cannot be produced by any other means. It
cannot be produced by a machine, and the machine, no matter what it is,
can never share those feelings. So that’s what I mean when I say
then that music is essentially something to do. It’s for the
doer, and only as a byproduct is it for the audience. In my own
pieces, as long as there are people who care to do that, I hope it
would last and give them pleasure. That’s another thing that is
being demonstrated by this enormous range of availability — that
the sense of new-fangled or old-fashioned is a very temporary
thing. A piece or an artwork can be old-fashioned for just a
short time. It can be displaced by something avant-garde now, and
last year’s, last decade’s could be viewed and felt as old-fashioned
for a decade or two. But a little beyond that, it becomes a
period piece. The sense of derogation comes with being old hat
has gone. It’s only old hat when you hear something to death, and
you wished to God there were a fresh minty taste in your mouth for the
music. But after a while it takes its place in the historic
spectrum. Who would say, nowadays, that the elder Bach is
old-fashioned, which his sons and the composers of their period
thought? It’s absurd. So this general availability is
helping us prove the possibility of this coexistence, and that’s a
had commissions — even from a plywood company!
JA: Yes, but
I have to say right off that it’s not one of the pieces I’m proudest
it back on what we were just talking about, should companies, and
corporations, and groups, and even individuals, go to composers and
commission them for Bar Mitzvahs and for weddings, and for occasions
and anniversaries of their companies?
JA: If they have
the firm belief that something can be produced that will enhance their
occasion, while encouraging its creator to be truly himself and
producing what he or she considers to be truly a work of art, that’s
fine. If it’s just hack stuff to provide background music at a
cocktail party, I’m not so much in favor of that. But you’re
talking about something comparable to the corporate paintings and
sculptures that are coming out, I don’t see any harm in that as long as
there is integrity on the part of both the commissioner and the
‘commissionee’. There’s no good yardstick for integrity, but
there’s a good yardstick for the lack of it.
BD: So if
someone came to you and asked you to write a piece and it wasn’t
something you wanted to write, you’d turn it down?
JA: Oh, sure,
and I have. I had a very interesting experience a number of years
ago when I was in New York. They were going to do a Broadway
production of the story of Turandot,
and they wanted some background music for the play. So I came
down with some samples of some music that I had.
BD: Did they
come to you because they knew of your connection with the Orient?
JA: No, I
don’t think so, but that’s possible. It didn’t occur to me at the
time, or if they did I’ve forgotten it. But any case, that’s a
good point you made. I came with a swatch book, so to speak,
which had some recordings of some things that I’ve done. I also
played them three or four samplings, portions of pieces and so
on. There was a famous actor on Broadway in those days called
Canada Lee [1907-1952], and when I was all done, he scratched his head
and said, “Have you got anything with a tune in
it?” That set the mood for the further
negotiations. I said, “Why don’t we do a
practical thing? You give me a song that you would like me to
set, and I’ll bring you one in a couple of days.”
They gave me a text of a song, and I took it home. Two or three
days later I came back and played it and sang it for them. They
went to confer, and Maurice Valency, a famous translator of French
plays and a playwright in his own right, who was then one of my
colleagues at Columbia reported back to me. He said, “They
didn’t quite feel the style was familiar enough. They didn’t want
it to be something they’d heard a thousand times, but maybe something
they’d heard twenty-five times!” So I said,
“Maurice, I don’t think it’s going to be any
pleasure for me to do that, and you’d better find somebody for whom
that’s more congenial.” So I just stepped
aside. On the other hand, the piece I just finished in Oregon is
called Up at Timberline.
I was asked to write a piece for the rededication of a famous lodge on
Mount Hood, which is a very scenic and beautiful mountain in
Portland. It was the result of WPA [Works Projects
Administration] efforts in the ’30s, which
President Franklin Roosevelt came out to dedicate. The artwork,
carvings, upholstery, draperies, windows, mirrors and everything were
done up by WPA Artists. It was thought to be quite a
remarkable structure, but over the years, all that stuff had become
sort of shop worn and soiled and worn out. So a group called
‘Friends of Timberline’ commissioned the renovation, and somebody
digging into the archives remembered or discovered that at the time of
the original dedication they had music at the lodge, which is fifty
miles out of Portland. So they came to me and asked if I would
write a piece for the rededication of the lodge.
didn’t they go back and use the same piece they had at the original
they might have! But maybe they didn’t have any record of what it
was that they used. I don’t know, but in any case they came to me
and asked if I would write a piece. I thought it was a nifty
idea, and I wrote a three-movement piece. This lodge has an
interesting structural feature in that downstairs there’s an enormous
four-sided fireplace. You might have called them walk-in
fireplaces. They’re that large, with lots of masonry.
They’re very ponderous, and the chimney goes up two stories. Then
there’s a very tall skylight, and up at the second level there’s a
balcony. So I thought I would write a piece that was antiphonal
vertically rather than horizontally, in the sense of going up and down
BD: To get
the audience in your desired frame of mind?
Yes. I don’t want to give you the whole creative process, but I
came up with a piece in three movements, the first of which was called The Mountain. I began with
pre-historic primordial sounds of winds and rain and storms, and
whatever mountains suffer in the course of the eons. Then a
second movement, which I call The
Lodge, which refers to Timberline Lodge, but there are also
implications of the lodge of the Native American Indian.
So there were some evocations of that kind of culture. The third
movement is called The Action,
meaning not only the ski lodge in the social action but all kinds of
action. In it I gathered together three of the best known pop
tunes of the 1930s, and so I have a three-movement section for a
curious group of woodwinds including saxophone, and brass plus string
bass, and I added a little percussion. They play up to down, and
down to up, and often together. It’s going to be played at the
dedication, so there’s an answer to your question about writing a piece
upon request. I took their assignment seriously, and I’ve turned
out a piece which has serious application, but at many points a very
BD: You head
each one of the movements with a title. How do you decide on some
of the titles of your other works? You were talking earlier in
our conversation about titles maybe being reflected at the box office
with more sales?
JA: No, I
think it was more in connection of what I expect of an audience, and
what I offer to an audience. They can be intrigued by various
things, and among them, the titles. I don’t think, for example,
that The Afternoon of a Faun
would have anything like the currency it does if it were called, you
know, A Factory at Rouen...
BD: … or Mood Piece in F Sharp!
[Smiles] Or Mood Piece in F
Sharp! Quite! A generic title is not very evocative.
about this piece today, it’s just called Sinfonietta. Why didn’t you
call it An American in Shanghai?
[Laughs] That’s a good point. I started thinking about that
work in terms of a symphony without development. It was a kind of
proving ground for myself. Could I write a symphonic piece?
My natural inclination is write more colorful, or more dramatic, or
more expository kind of music. So in proving to myself that I
dared try it, and hoping that I might succeed, I gave it the title of
BD: Let us
talk a bit about your father. Tell me about his musicianship and
his musical compositions.
JA: My father
was born in Siberia, and he was largely self-taught, although he had a
little instruction in Switzerland in his early days. But he was
spirited out of Siberia at the time of World War I, being the only son
in the family to go to a safe haven in America. But he grew up in
Siberia. There was a large Chinese colony, what we would call a
Chinatown. One of the men who worked for his father — my
grandfather — was Chinese, and as a little boy,
my father often used to run to the Chinese quarters and listen to
Chinese opera. So he was imbued with that. On his travels
through China on his way to the United States, he became so hooked on
Chinese culture — Chinese music and Chinese art
and drama. After meeting and marrying my mother in San Francisco
in 1917, decided he wanted to go back to China, and spent a thirty-year
period there where he created, almost single-handedly, an entire
repertory of works which were an attempt at a synthesis between Chinese
materials — musical, scalar, coloristic, topical
— and western media. He’s written four or five
operas, five or six ballets, three symphonies, three concertos, and
lots of small pieces all using pentatonic mode,. He is viewed as
sort of the Great White Father of Chinese composition. Just last
summer I went back at the invitation of the Chinese government to help
them celebrate the ninetieth anniversary of his birth in a series of
concerts in Peking and Shanghai and Wuhan, some of which I
conducted. He emigrated to this country in ’47, and died in
1964. He was never able to transplant his career from China to
here, and had lived a very modest life towards the end without
success... although he did get recognition by some people who
counted. Koussevitzky commissioned his Second Symphony, and Stokowski and
Monteux conducted his works, but he never made a career in this
country. But, speaking of integrity, he had enormous
integrity. He kept composing to the end and his last opera – The Twilight Hour of Young Yan Kuei Fei
– about the famous courtesan of the eighth century or so, will probably
be given its premiere in China this next year. He was a wonderful
man, a wonderful musician.
BD: Did he
approve of your compositional style?
JA: I rather
think he did! He was a great help to me. He was one of my
important teachers, and we did what could be only described as a
correspondence course in composition for a couple of years when my
parents were estranged. He lived in Shanghai, and I stayed with
my mother in the U.S.
BD: One of
the CRI records pairs your father’s work and your work.
JA: Yes. The
record done by my student orchestra in Portland, and there are two
works of his — the Piano Concerto in G on Chinese Themes and
Rhythms, which is a great work in my view, a full-fledged,
full-bodied late nineteenth century work but with Chinese
overtones. It’s not very well known. And a piece called Peiping Hutungs, which is sort of a
stroll down the alleyways of Peking. The Chinese word ‘Hutung’ is
rather like the German word ‘Gaβe’, with the smaller streets.
They’re very maze-like there, and this is a description of a day in the
city from daybreak to dusk. As the city comes alive, there are
the sounds of street cries and hawkers and vendors and so on, and you
pass a funeral procession, and there’s temple music. There’s only
one piece of mine, and that’s the Cantata How long, Oh, Lord, which is
dedicated to my father. We did that recording as a tribute to my
father. That’s Old Testament text from Isaiah, Habakkuk, and
Psalms. It calls for baritone solo, mixed chorus, and orchestra,
and is a fairly early choral piece which runs about sixteen minutes.
BD: Then you
also have other works on other records...
there’s a CRI record of contemporary American choral music [shown at the top of this webpage].
John Dexter and the Mid-America Chorale conducting a piece called Prophecy, which is on a text of
Isaiah. That was an interesting project, initiated by Cantor
David Potterman of the Park Avenue Synagogue in New York. He has
a number of composers — some of them not Jewish
at all — write music that might help enrich the
liturgical music which he felt had gotten sort of stagnant, with a lot
of dependence on rather gooey nineteenth century pieces. A lot of
my friends — many on the list of composers that
you have interviewed — had written for him, and
he had a selection of texts. So I chose one of them, and wrote
that piece. It runs about six minutes, and although it’s an old
piece, it’s a piece I still like. I tend to like all my pieces, I
have to say!
BD: There are
none of your pieces that you would like call back?
JA: Well, the
plywood piece that you were talking about. [Both laugh]
That was really sort of a pot-boiler. Another one on a CRI that I
really think is good is a piece called Phases of the Great Land, which is
an interesting sort of piece. It was commissioned for the
Anchorage Festival by Robert
Shaw, who did the premiere of my choral piece, Tom O’Bedlam. That was done
in the days when he was up there conducting the Anchorage Festival, and
he felt that the chorus got a disproportionate amount of the attention
and acclaim. The orchestra was sort of feeling orphaned, and in
order to restore their morale, he thought a commissioned piece for them
would be a good idea, and asked me to do it. It’s a two-movement
piece, and I got into the mood of writing it through the son of the
composer, Ernest Bloch. Bloch’s grown son was a very well-known
industrial engineer and consultant, working out of the Northwest.
He spent a lot of time in Alaska, and we knew him as a personal
friend. He just filled me up on Alaskan lore, and life around the
turn of the century. So I wrote this piece as Phases of the Great Land meaning
like phases of the moon. The two movements were ‘The Long Night’
and ‘The Summer Days’, the two apposite things. In ‘The Long
Night’ there’s a bar-room scene which uses three of the best known
waltzes from that time, and a temperance song, and a bar-room brawl,
and so on. When I heard that Anchorage had the largest per capita
number of planes of any airport in the United States, that really made
an impression on me, so the second movement starts off with airplane
sounds! It’s a fairly interesting piece.
Alaska is very close to my heart because last summer we had a cruise up
the Inside Passage.
that’s beautiful. We’ve not been [to that part of Alaska], but we
know people who have.
wonderful. We stopped at Skagway and Ketchikan and Juneau, and it
was just a fabulous week. We also saw Glacier Bay. Just the
way the whole tour was laid out was just wonderful.
BD: It was a
fabulous adventure, and I encourage anyone and everyone to experience
it. Did you not go to the premiere of your work in Alaska?
JA: Oh, we
did, yes. We went up and it was thirteen days of the hardest
conducting work I’ve done in a long time. [Laughs] We had a
community orchestra there which largely relied on military personnel
who could or might not be released to come to the rehearsal because
they were on KP or guard duty. [More laughter] So it was a
little bit harrowing, but later we recorded it with my orchestra in
Portland for CRI. Also on CRI is The Taking of T’ung Kuan. That was done with
the Oslo Philharmonic, conducted by Igor Buketoff. That’s a piece
Stokowski played here but he didn’t record it. [It was later issued on a CD, as shown below.]
It’s a sort of ‘battle piece’, having to do with the defense and the
fall of a famous mountain pass, the T’ung Kuan Pass, described in the
poem by Li Po, an actual occurrence in the middle of the eighth
BD: Back to
Eighth Century China again!
Right. That was my first big orchestral piece, and it sort of
screams. It’s quite ‘Chinese-y’.
BD: Thank you
for being a composer! It’s been a pleasure talking to you.
pleasure to talk with you. It was nice of you to come out and do
this. I appreciate it.
© 1986 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, on
March 3, 1986. Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following
and again in 1989, 1994 and 1999; and on WNUR in 2006.
Comments from the interview were included as part of a program in 1994
celebrating the 100th birthday-anniversary of his father, Aaron.
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.