Composer Leslie Bassett
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
In the course of doing interviews for thirty years now, I have been
portable. That is to say, I have usually gone to my guests
— at their hotels or apartments, backstage at their performing venues,
or even to their homes when I have been traveling. A few
conversations were done at the radio station and the occasional other
odd location, such as a quiet restaurant, an alcove in a hotel
mezzanine, and even an unused conference room at O’Hare
airport! Then there were a few which were done at my own
studio. Having guests in my home is always a distinct pleasure,
and when I could persuade a composer or performer to set aside a bit of
time while en route
elsewhere, I had a nice place to chat and enjoy a cup of coffee.
Later I was
often able to take them out for a genuine Chicago Pizza...
When I first contacted composer Leslie Bassett, he indicated that he
came to Chicago on occasion, and we agreed to meet during his next
trip. In June of 1987, he and his wife arrived at my home and we
settled in for a nice conversation. What follows is that
encounter . .
. . .
First, let me ask you about
winning the Pulitzer Prize. Has that had any great lasting effect
on you or your composing?
It brought me a better salary at the
University of Michigan, which is nice, but it
didn’t bring as many performances of the Variations itself as you would
have thought. You would have assumed that the orchestra
piece that wins the Pulitzer Prize then would be used. In
fact, my publisher did send the score around to a lot of orchestras
somewhat later, because it wasn’t published right then. But it
hasn’t had as many performances as you would have expected, and I found
that disappointing. I talked with Michael Colgrass not too long
ago, and he was
complaining also that his Pulitzer Prize orchestra piece had not been
played a second time, or at least not more than once, until it was done
by Louisiana State University when he was there as guest composer two
or three years ago. And he found this strange, a piece which
presumably is considered good isn’t immediately grabbed by
orchestras. I think there’s a certain amount of promotional
things that have to be done, and if you have agents and publishers who
are very aggressive in this regard and feel they can invest throwing
away most of the scores, then I think maybe there’s some chance
of it. But it’s a very touchy business. But it has made a
lot of difference, in fact, because when you go to a town and you’re
discussed, or comments
are made by local newspapers, they all know it’s the Pulitzer Prize, so
they give it coverage.
is it to get second performances of anything, Pulitzer Prize or no?
depends, I suppose, on an awful lot of
things. Young composers have an awful lot of trouble getting
second performances if they don’t have a national name and if their
piece was performed well by, let’s say, a good community orchestra or
one of the minor major orchestras. It’s very hard to get a second
performance. There are a lot of composers in the United States.
BD: Are there
LB: No, not
too many, but there are an awful lot of
them, and they all have orchestra pieces! There’s a lot of
competition for comparatively few slots on an
orchestra’s season. Some orchestras are doing better than others,
as you know, but a lot of orchestras play very little new music,
even yet. I think things are improving, but it’s not ideal.
BD: Is there
a Pulitzer Prize in music every year?
LB: There’s a
competition every year; they
don’t award it every year.
BD: I was
just wondering if maybe some of the big
orchestras should, say, six months after the Pulitzer Prize is
normally awarded, play that work, and if there’s
no Pulitzer Prize that year, then a previous one?
LB : That
would be a lovely idea. I
understand that the Albany Symphony intends to do some of the past
Pulitzer Prize pieces over the next few years. Somebody was
telling me this. It’s a good idea.
BD: Are all
of the pieces that win the Pulitzer Prize
really worthy of winning?
LB: This is a
very subjective question, and a
very subjective answer would be yes, I suppose. But there’s an
awful lot of variety in pieces that have won it over the
years. I think on the whole, they have all been really quite
good. I don’t know of any real lemons, for instance. I know
some that I like better than others. There are always complaints
by various people that the prize should
have gone to something else, other than what did receive it.
Sometimes a very small piece of chamber music is pooh-poohed by people
who wrote orchestral pieces; they think the orchestral piece should
have picked it off. The one this past year is a fairly modest
score — George Perle’s Wind Quintet — which
is unusual. Of course, we know
two String Quartets
have won it over the years, so there’s a lot of variety. But it
tends to go to the
blockbuster piece; it tends to go to the piece that has made
a big splash, which usually means orchestral playing. [Names which are links refer to my
interviews elsewhere on this website.]
BD: How do
you feel the afternoon of a big
premiere, before the evening of a major work?
LB: Of a
premiere, especially an orchestra
piece, I’m fit to be tied! [Laughs] My wife says I’m
impossible! She just says
I can’t be put up with. Sometimes I’ve been taken out to
dinner on the evening before the premiere, and you go to the
restaurant and the service is slow, and you realize you’re going to
have to leave before the thing is done. Then you dash like
mad to the hall, and so on. This can be absolutely
unnerving! It just can wipe you out.
BD: Does it
get any easier if it’s the third, or
fifth, or eighth production of the work?
yes. After that, after the
premiere or maybe two or three performances, the piece has to go
on its own. You’ve cut it loose, and that’s that.
BD: Do you
ever tamper with it afterwards?
LB: I don’t
say never, but usually
not. There are times when I change the metronome marks
and I’ve added a couple of measures or a fermata or something to the
score. Maybe I will put in a ritard or something like this, which
seemed to improve
you’re actually working on the piece in your workshop, how do you know
when you’ve finished it?
How do you know when it’s ready to be performed?
LB: I don’t
know how I’d answer that. It’s a
matter of intuition, musical intuition. First of all, you
know how long the piece needs to be, more or less. If you
get a commission for a fifteen minute piece, you don’t write one that
lasts an hour. So you have to have some control of the amount of
time that you’re dealing with.
BD: Well, how
much leeway is there? Eighteen
minutes would be okay?
sure; three or four minutes, I think, on
either side at the most. But your
initial conception of the piece is the shape of the piece. You
can’t start out just writing and then just hope that you
discover everything as you go along. I suppose it’s
possible, but I think it’s not a good plan. You need to know
whether you’re going to end with guns flashing, or whether you fade off
into the sunset. You need to sense where the climaxes are
— especially the final climax — and
whether you’ve built up toward it long
enough or whether it’s a surprise. If it’s a surprise, then can
you recover from the surprise in order to reassure everybody that
indeed the piece is fulfilled? In general, our first versions of
pieces tend to be too
short, the endings tend to be too short. They tend to get there a
little sooner than we thought they would. So usually revisions
that happened, with me at least, tend to be extensions of the ending
in one way or another.
BD: Are you
ever surprised where the piece has taken
is just full of surprises — at
least for me it is. That’s one of the funs about it. You
never quite know what’s going to happen! You will
find spots where suddenly you discover a beautiful sound which just
sort of dropped in on you that you
then, of course, appreciate. You’re also
trying to tie in this sound with earlier sound, so that there’s a
syntactical relationship, a continuity of language, in your
But then there are surprises, things that you didn’t quite
expect. The last orchestra piece I wrote, which is called From A
Source Evolving, does indeed that. It evolves from the
sounds, but it’s a fourteen minute piece all in one
movement. I had not done a fourteen minute piece in one
movement for orchestra maybe forever. Well actually, the
Variations are longer than
that, but the Variations
segments in them. And this is quite unusual because I usually
write movements. I like movements. I think movements allow
you to absorb the music that you just heard and to pack it away before
the next installment comes along. Then you feel that people
maybe have remembered a little better, instead of twenty minutes
without break of endless music, which is very hard to absorb.
BD: So it’s
balance and contrast, in amongst all of
BD: Have you
basically been pleased with the
performances you’ve heard of your works?
LB: Most of
them, yes. Usually an orchestra, if
it’s going to do a piece, is very cautious about selecting it in the
BD: Are they
LB: Well, I
don’t know. Maybe. A lot
of our orchestras, even the so-called amateur orchestras or community
orchestras, are full of really professional musicians. They may
not seem like professional musicians to the world at large, but they’re
fully trained and they are very good! So they can do a very good
job. Sometimes I think the main problem can come from the
he’s not quite prepared or if he doesn’t have absolute
metronome. If he violates a metronome mark noticeably, that can
ruin things. Or if
he just doesn’t really know the sounds and there are errors that are
played by various people, he doesn’t catch those. Especially in
the professional orchestras, sometimes a player will deliberately play
a wrong note in a
conspicuous passage, just to check to see if the conductor if he’s on
toes. He pretends to be innocent, of
course, but nonetheless, these are some of their little tricks.
BD: Let me
turn the question around. Do
players or conductors find things in your scores that you didn’t know
you had hidden there?
LB: No, I
don’t think so. I’ve had wonderful
relationships with orchestras. I was trained as a performing
musician. I played trombone and cello. I played all the
instruments and I feel at home with instrumentalists. So my music
seems to be written in such a way that the instrumentalists
enjoy playing it. It’s idiomatically good for them. I don’t
write passage work that is impossible at the tempo that is given, so I
don’t have any difficulties in that way. There are always
surprises with each performance because each orchestra is
different. They have different balance, different people sitting
there in a different auditorium,
different amounts of rehearsal time, so there’s always something that
seems a little stronger in this performance than in the preceding
performance. But no, I’m not surprised! I know what I’m
BD: Whom do
you have in mind when you’re
LB: I always
write an orchestra piece on
commission, so I write it for the ensemble that has commissioned it.
BD: Do you
consider the audience or
the critics or anything else?
sure! Oh, yes. And if I
don’t know the people in an orchestra, I imagine what the typical first
violin section is like, as opposed to the typical second violin
section and violas and cellos and basses. I know what the
oboes are like because of my experience with oboes and their view of
how they will respond to my music, as opposed to the flutists, for
instance, and the brass and so on. So I have sort of a standard
stereotype of the various instrumentalists, and I sort of
compose for that. Then if it’s a phenomenally fine orchestra, I
tune up the level of
difficulty a little bit. If it’s a little less impressive
ensemble, I’ll squelch it a little bit. If I do a piece for some
orchestras, I might write a lot simpler
string music. They’ll still be playing, but the intricacies
are not quite so elaborate as they would be for another work.
BD: It sounds
like the technical difficulties and considerations are almost
overriding your creative
LB: No, they
create it, I think. If you
don’t have limits and givens, you can’t write. You can’t sit down
at a piano and just stare at eighty-eight
notes. You have to put your finger on one, or realize how wide
you can spread you hands. Or consider if you spread your hands,
the notes you can play. Just look at your hands; your
thumbs are in the middle and your fingers are on the outside, so this
gives you certain possibilities, and so on. If you write for
trombones, you know their register and
the qualities of sound in these various registers, which can be very
exciting. If you write fast music for a trombone, but it’s way
down low, it’s crazy. It isn’t going to work. But you can
put it up fast, and they can do
it. So you have these things which say this is possible, and this
is not quite so possible.
BD: Are you
always working within the usual
strictures of music, rather than trying to expand the horizons of the
that’s not quite true. I have, for
instance, a solo clarinet piece called Soliloquies, which is fiendishly
difficult. It was written for a clarinetist who wanted to
show off how good he was — and he was very good. For several
years the piece was considered unplayable. It’s now published
and considered standard literature ten years afterwards. And
it’s still tough.
BD: Did you
write it to be difficult?
BD: Did you
write it to be pretty?
LB: I wrote
it to be difficult and to be pretty, on
occasion. Quite a bit of it
is nice, but there are places which are quite raucous, quite
strident. They’re very pushy; they’re very aggressive, very
combative, and others are very, very gentle and
BD: Who are
the combatants? Is it the
composer versus the performer, or the performer versus the audience, or
the performer versus the instrument?
LB: All this
stuff is in the music, and the
performer is projecting the stuff that has been written by me.
It’s to give certain impressions, of course, like any other
music. You have some music which is very aggressive or very
obnoxious, which is very noisy and very pushy, and other
music which is lyrical and gentle, and so on. These are not
technical matters, although obviously you have to
have a technical aspect of it in order to produce these
reactions. You have to write fast, shrill,
aggressive music for the clarinetist to play in order to convey to the
listener the impression of shrillness, aggressiveness and so on, which
is a perfectly wonderful reaction to have. Music doesn’t
always have to be sweet and saccharine.
Well, what is the purpose of
music in today’s society?
I think there isn’t any, when you
realize that most of the music that people absorb around the country is
not interesting for me at all. I’m not interested in ninety-nine
percent of the stuff that I hear on A.M. radio, for instance. I’m
not interested; it bores me.
BD: Are you
interested in the new concert music?
LB: Oh, sure,
but I would rather not listen to Muzak, for instance, while I’m
shopping or dining or
whatever. That, in a way, is prostituting some of the most
music that we have. But I’m very interested in new
concert music, new electronic music, new anything that isn’t
marketed, and the product of the so-called music industry.
BD: You don’t
like the business of music?
LB: No, not
in the usual huckster-ish
manner in which so-called pop music is foisted on our culture.
Turn on any A.M. radio, and what do you hear?
BD: Rock and
Yes. It’s okay, but it’s
boring after a while.
BD: Is rock
and roll really music?
LB: Yes, I
BD: It’s just
not to your taste.
Yes. I think mainly it’s something
else. People talk about the words and the texts and what the
meaning of it is, the message of these pieces. I’m a little
disillusioned by these musicians who in fact very often are musically
illiterate. They can’t read music, you know. Their
composing is singing and playing into a tape machine.
BD: So then
the tape is the score?
Yes. Well, somebody
else makes the score from it. They give the tape to somebody else
— who is musically
literate — and he can make a score from it.
BD: But maybe
there’s no score made. Maybe
the tape is the piece.
Right. So I don’t know. It’s a
different kind of musicianship. I don’t really mean to knock it,
but it’s a different kind of musicianship, and it doesn’t appeal to me
at this point.
is concert music going these days?
don’t know. A lot of it is tied to orchestras, which means it’s
tied to a big corporate
financial historical thing that may not be a good thing to be tied
to. But orchestras still are a big force in our country,
and they draw large audiences. They wish they would draw more, of
course, in order to pay more bills. They’re terribly
expensive and they’re sort of locked into a situation which has
grown up over the past hundred and fifty years. But nonetheless,
it is exciting, and there are serious-music radio
stations. We have lots of orchestral broadcasts, thank goodness,
which are marvelous! We hear the Chicago Symphony and
Saint Louis and Detroit and New York Philharmonic, and all these
other orchestras any time you want. Almost any evening you can
hear an orchestra concert. Now that’s marvelous, it really is!
BD: Is there
any point where it becomes too much?
LB: I think
so. The problem is, if anybody is
interested in orchestral music, he will have heard the Beethoven Fifth, Brahms First, the Schumann symphonies and
great C Major of Schubert
dozens, if not hundreds of times, to the
point where there are not surprises. There is no magic left; it’s
been beaten to a pulp. That shouldn’t happen because those pieces
are gorgeous and they should not be abused like
that, it seems to me.
BD: And yet
the promoters say this is what the public
well, in a way it’s like
training people to want what you want them to want.
LB: And I
think it’s just as easy to train people to
want them. I’m not for getting rid of them at all, but I’m in
favor of balancing programs a little better than most of our groups
do. People don’t walk out on my music, you know. They might
walk out on it before they’ve heard it, but if they hear it, they don’t
walk out on it. I don’t find people outraged about what I have to
say as a musician.
BD: Does that
Absolutely. I want them to like my music
very much. So I think if orchestras can balance their programs
better than they have, it’ll bring in people who are interested in new
things, and not drive away people who are only interested in the old.
BD: Would you
prefer that your music be in the middle
of a standard concert, rather than on an all-contemporary concert?
yes. I want my music on standard
concerts. I don’t mind if it’s on contemporary ones, but
that’s somewhat like ghettoizing. You’re saying,
“All the people who like contemporary music can come to this program,
and all you folks who don’t like it can stay away.” You never
convert anybody by doing that.
BD: How can
we get the public, then, to be a little
LB: You can
do it by balancing the
programs. A balanced program ought to
piece of old music that people don’t really know. There’s
an awful lot of music lying around that’s been performed and composed
in the world. We don’t always have to use the same older
pieces. You need a concerto so that young performers can come
along and step
into this business of performing. You need a new work. We
certainly need to know American music, and if you don’t play a new
American piece, you can play an old American piece, like one clear back
by Anton Heinrich, for instance, the Condor
of the Andes, which would
be an absolute scream! It would be wonderful! [Both
laugh] We have two or three generations of composers
in America from about a hundred years ago who are almost totally
ignored in our concert life. So that group should be done, and
of course we need a warhorse. We need a Schumann symphony, a
Beethoven symphony, and so on. Even if this didn’t happen
every concert but happened every other concert, then you would have,
let’s say, fifteen to twenty new works or unknown works played every
season. It would be the normal thing to expect this to
happen. I’m amazed, for instance, the frequency in which Mahler
symphonies are played now. Every orchestra plays Mahler
symphonies, and of course this is wonderful because they’re
beautiful pieces. On the other hand, there are other things to be
done, and there’s no real reason why we have to flood the market to the
point where maybe in five years we won’t want to hear any Mahler
BD: We’ll get
satiated with them?
LB: Yes, too
much! That’s happened with me
already with Bruckner. I don’t care to hear anymore Bruckner.
BD: Are we
too many directions in music today?
LB: I think
it’s wonderful that we have many
directions. If you have only one direction — or
two directions as
we had a few years back, where you had either serialism or you have
total chaos, a randomness which was a reaction against
serialism — I think then people who are not in
either camp tend to be
ignored by the press and by critics who tend to want to
categorize people. And it’s easy to categorize people. I
used to be called a serialist; I’m not really a serialist at all, but
that was the handle that would be seen to them to be appropriate.
I was at one point labeled an imitator of Bartók, and next I was
imitator of Berg! People like to hang these titles on things, and
I think that’s unfortunate.
BD: You are
just Leslie Bassett going through your
writing my own music. Everybody writes differently, and if you
thousand composers in the United States, which we may well have, there
are thirty-five thousand different voices making music. I
think this is exciting, even if only five hundred of them do it well.
BD: Do you
feel that you are part of a
lineage of composers?
LB: Oh, you
bet! Absolutely. Even if you trace student to teacher, we
can go back
clear to the Renaissance with our student-teacher relationship. I
studied with Ross Lee
Honegger, Nadia Boulanger and with Roberto
Gerhard. With those people, I can trace direct lineage to
Schoenberg, to Berg, to Stravinsky and so on. And those people,
of course, can trace theirs on back — Schoenberg
to Mahler and
so on. So you have many, many lines of
genealogy — almost as many as we have for our own biological
lineage. This is marvelous, to feel that you belong to a
whole history. And you know that each of these people
was in individual, and that he made his own mark.
BD: Are you
optimistic about the future of music?
LB: Yes, I
think so. I’m certainly
more optimistic about it than I am about some other factors in modern
life. People love music, they really
do. We know this. You have listeners to your
program, very avid listeners. Concert halls, by and large, are
pretty well attended. You offer a concert and you get word out
and people are going to show up. People buy recordings.
People buy instruments. People are buying these new electronic
keyboards of one sort or another so they can make music at home even
if they can’t really play anything! You can buy a
keyboard now on which you punch a note and it’ll play chords,
arpeggiations, rhythms, all this sort of thing. And
with your other hand, you can punch out the tune against this.
It’s fascinating for folks who can’t even read music! So this
love of music, I think, is very strong, and it’s something of a
refuge for people in our modern, high-tech, computerized society,
in which we need refuges.
BD: Are we
coming back to the days of Hausmusik?
LB: I don’t
know about that. That implies
people getting together to play ensemble music, I suppose. I
don’t think there’s an awful lot of that, except by professional
BD: So this
electronic keyboard thing makes music for
one in isolation?
LB: Right; by
and large, yes. But I
think it has already, or will, certainly, replace the guitar, which
served the same function. You have the single
person, instead of buying a guitar, he now buys a Casio or something
of the sort to use. I think this is good.
talk a little bit about the teaching of
music. How has this changed in twenty,
thirty, forty years?
LB: Mainly I
teach composers. I have taught
other things in the past, but right now I teach composers at the
University of Michigan. Every year we have eighty or ninety
from that group we carefully choose ten or so who will be with
us. They are
admitted on the basis of the music they have already written, so it’s
almost like dealing with colleagues — at least
dealing with colleagues as it is with students, and this can be
do you decide which composers you will accept? What do you look
for in their music?
LB: You look
for craft; you look for
imagination and some spark of originality.
Furthermore, you are interested in general intelligence. If you
found a beautiful piece of music by somebody whose IQ was very low, or
whose Scholastic Aptitude Test ratings were very low, this wouldn’t
right. You would suspect something has gone wrong there because
almost all of the good composers have very high IQs, and are
very adaptable, very skillful with language and very often with math
as well. So you look for a good brain, if you wish, as well as a
always this connection between music and
mathematics. I’ve never really figured out why!
LB: I haven’t
either, but it’s true that most
mathematicians are amateur musicians. Even Einstein was, you
know. He played fiddle. At Michigan, the Mathematics
Department has had
several string quartets among their faculty and graduate
students. So it is around. Otherwise, I think the teaching
composition is pretty much the same as it has always been. A
teacher looks to increase the craft and the skill of his
student, and he prods him to make sure that he’s imaginative, that he
has vision and insight. Also we look to see that his piece is
balanced and is realistically planned — that he
isn’t writing things that can’t be played; also that his metronome mark
is right for what he’s
doing. In other words, there’s an awful lot of just plain craft
that must be
taught. There is certainly as much craft in this as if you were
and learn to play the violin. Laymen, I think, tend to
assume that you become a composer by simply sitting down and doing it,
and the teaching of it is going to ruin you. The fact is, without
an awful lot of mastery of craft, you can’t exercise your imagination.
BD: Are you
really learning to play a score, then?
sure! And people have to have
substantial facility at the keyboard, at least.
BD: But when
you speak of the craft, is learning to play your score with the pencil
a bit like
playing a violin?
LB: Yes, I
think that’s a good analogy, mm-hm.
BD: Is the
act of composing fun?
— if it goes very well, and that isn’t
always the case! There are times when you will have
break-throughs and suddenly spurt ahead, and you will have a wonderful
morning at work. Other times, weeks will pass and nothing sounds
good to you — anybody else’s music or
yours. You’re blocked. You got to a certain spot where
things just stopped. That can be serious; if it goes on too long,
you might just end up having to throw
away the piece because it was not fully formed in your mind. Or
some major catastrophe may happen in your life which wipes out the
of the life of that work.
BD: If you
throw away a piece, do you ever
salvage ideas or thoughts from it?
LB: I don’t
because I figure they’re stored away in
my head anyway, someplace, and they will surface again. I’ve had
two occasions in which my students lost a piece just as it was
BD: They lost
LB: Yes, it
was stolen from their bag of books or out of the car, and of course,
In both of these cases, the young composers then sat down and
recomposed, rewrote as much as they could remember. They
couldn’t, in fact, remember an awful lot of the themes. On one of
these occasions, the original score that was lost was found
by police and returned months later. And indeed, the new
version was much better than the original! [Both laugh] So
we carry some of the good things
with us. We tend to dismiss some of the things that
not so good; that’s true of our memory in life, you
know. If you were in France fifteen years ago, you remember the
good things — the dinner you had at this spot
and the people you met here and all this sort of thing. You
have forgotten all the inconveniences of travel that you went through
at the time — the annoyances, the rudeness and
so on that you
might have had as well. But you remember the good things, and I
think that’s kind of true with our musical memories, too.
We remember things that worked well — special
turns of phrase that
seemed especially beautiful. That’s why, I believe, when you
look at a composer’s work, you expect to find the most profound
music toward the end of his life. Take Mozart or Bach as
examples. It’s wonderful that these refinements have gone on all
the way. They’ve gradually thrown away some of the things that
weren’t quite so
special, and capitalized on the good things, which they’ve remembered.
BD: Are you
basically pleased with the recordings that
have been made of your works?
pretty much. On some of
them I’ve been around for the recordings, and a lot of them I’ve
not. The recording of the Echoes
from an Visible World by the
Baltimore Symphony was done at a three hour recording session.
union demands an hour break, so that’s, in
fact, two hours of recording time. It takes about eighteen
minutes to play the piece straight through, and in
recording they usually do it from the beginning down to a certain
point. If that went well, you’re lucky, but chances are you’ll do
it again, just to make sure. Maybe
there was a slight problem — the conductor’s
baton ticked the stand or
something of the sort, or you needed to move microphones or
whatever. So to get through an entire piece in two hours, with
break along in there is very difficult. I was fit to
be tied by the end of that session, and in fact it did not get
through it, because they were within about twelve measures or so of the
ending, and the time was up. Of course, orchestras are very
unionized; you don’t go over time unless you pay. So they
finished the recording at the next recording session three or four days
later and I wasn’t there for that. So it’s really quite a trying
experience; you’re not so sure
whether things are going well, and if you record a
piece section by section, you don’t have the view of the sweep of the
whole thing, all the way through, which can be slightly detrimental.
BD: Is there
ever a case where a recording can be too
technically perfect, and lack that spark of inspiration?
LB: Oh, I
suppose it’s possible. I don’t know;
I guess so.
the role of a music critic?
LB: I think
he’s a publicist for music, a
speaker for music and somebody who should let the public at large know
that concert music — or whatever you want to
call this stuff I’m doing
and Beethoven did — is beautiful and needs to be
to their attention. I don’t know whether it’s his job to say,
“That piece was great, and this piece was not.” Maybe it
is. I think he needs to report when things are effective.
He gets into trouble sometimes if he makes pronouncements
about new pieces which he has never heard before and doesn’t know and
never seen the score.
BD: Should he
come to rehearsal?
absolutely; if he hasn’t been to a
rehearsal, he has no advance preparation at all. If
he’s been at the rehearsal, then he’s very qualified to say, “This
piece went together well;” or, “The orchestra had an awful lot of
trouble with that spot, and it didn’t work at the concert;” or, “The
intonation was bad here and there, and it still is
bad;” or, “The conductor doesn’t know what in the world he’s
LB: Then you
have an intelligent report, which is
great. And then if he blasts the piece and says, “This piece, in
spite of all of its efforts to do the job, fell flat, and it fell flat
because it’s ugly,” he can say anything he wants and that’s
BD: In the
opinion of an experienced
composer, what constitutes greatness in music?
LB: Well, I
don’t know. It’s true that great
music doesn’t always impress the listener as being great, and if
you listen to pieces which you know have been declared great for years,
they still may leave you cold. So as far as the personal reaction
is concerned, I don’t know. A lot of pieces that are held up
as great are simply big, and big doesn’t necessarily mean great.
There are some small pieces that great. Drink to me only
with thine eyes, for instance is a great piece, but it is
awfully short! It is very short, very beautiful. Londonderry
Air is another, and so on. There are some very beautiful
things which one finds very moving almost whenever you experience
BD: Is the
music of Leslie Bassett great?
LB: Well, I’m
prejudiced, of course! I don’t
think I could continue composing if I didn’t think so. Maybe this
sounds like an egotistical statement, but if I didn’t
believe it was great music, I don’t think I could continue. You
have to have incredible confidence in what you’re doing; otherwise,
there’s no doing it at all!
that one of the
requisites of being a composer?
absolutely! You don’t need to be
offensive about pushing your opinion on the world at large, but
nonetheless, you have to have it when you’re writing. It has to
be the most beautiful thing you could imagine.
BD: Do you
feel that concerts work well on the
because it’s a visual event instead of a
musical event, an aural event. You’re zeroing in on the oboist
and then you’re zeroing in on the timpanist and then you’re on the
conductor, usually from underneath, and you watch him sweat. You
have all of these things going on — the bows
here, up and
down, and every time there’s an event in the piece, you’ve
changed to that. I find it not as appealing as I wish it
were. I think there are times when you want to see an orchestra
play, but not always. Once in a while it’s okay.
BD: Do you
think the camera, then, is just too close?
LB: Yes, and
this matter of jumping around and
spotting everybody when he has a note to play can be interesting if you
want to see what they look like. I’m sure some
instrumentalists might be interested. “Oh, he used that fingering
instead of such and such a fingering.” So there are these
peripheral benefits, but I find it not too good in general. I’ve
television broadcasts of Bach concerts in Germany which I thought were
quite good. That was a smaller ensemble, but it
seemed to me that the camera shots didn’t get in the way. The
isn’t so frantic as often in some of ours.
BD: Have you
written some music for the voice?
yes. I have several sets of
songs and quite a bit of choral music.
BD: What are
the particular joys and sorrows of
writing for the human voice?
LB: The joys
are that it’s the most
beautiful instrument! It’s just gorgeous, and you
have not only beautiful sound, but you have a person articulating words
which are beautiful at the same time. To hear notes and words
at the same time is wonderful! Furthermore, you look at the
person who is not holding up an instrument under his chin or in his
mouth, but he or she looks right at you. It’s a
very direct communication; very often these are attractive
people — handsome men and beautiful ladies in
lovely gowns — and it’s a very wonderful
thing! Furthermore, if you have choral music, there is an esprit de
corps. These folks are socially attached to one
They have a sense of the fun of being together. And if they’ve
worked hard! Singing is not easy, and if you have folks that
read music too well, you’ve done an awful lot of teaching to get them
to the point where they can perform. So there’s an awful lot of
investment of time and energy and enthusiasm, which is very
think it’s a wonderful medium. I love it!
BD: You don’t
find that same closeness and
togetherness in an orchestra?
LB: No, it’s
LB: Well, for
one thing, most choirs are not
paid. There are almost no paid choirs in this country, or they’re
not paid living wages, as our major orchestras are. And
they’re not unionized so they don’t function in the same
set of circumstances.
BD: So part
of their wages is the fun they get out of
right, yes! It’s a wonderful
experience to sing in a very good, large choir which really does a
handsome job, especially if they sing with an orchestra under a major
conductor, or they tour together. There is this
enhanced sense of the potency of the occasion, which orchestras aren’t
quite able to do, I don’t think, because they’re a little more removed,
a little more aloof.
BD: With this
love of the voice, why are there no operas in your catalogue?
LB: Well, I
haven’t been commissioned to do one! And if I were to do one, I
would have to be
assured of the performance — that it would be a
good one, a very
conspicuous one — and that I would have a lot to
say about how it was staged
and put together. It would take a long time to
compose; depending on how big it was, it could take
five or six years. This is a big hunk of your life with
a lot of risk, because a lot of operas have been written which have not
succeeded. Many have gotten an awful lot of poor reviews on
their first performance, and never were staged since. And maybe
the poor reviews are as much to do with the director, the stage
the layout, the whole thing, as well as the music. So you have an
awful lot of other factors
entering into a piece which are beyond your control. That’s why I
would approach it very carefully.
BD: I assume
you have a long list of
commissions. How do you decide which commissions you will accept
and which commissions you will decline?
LB: Usually I
take the ones which I want to
do. Obviously, if I had a commission from the Chicago
Symphony, I would jump at that. This would be an exciting thing;
it is exciting whenever a major orchestra commissions a
piece. So that’s always top priority. But you do give your
word, after all, and if you have given your word to do a piece,
you’ll try and do it. So you have your schedule of
I have four now, which is enough for me. I can’t imagine
scheduling myself further than that. I have a work schedule, and
I know that if I do this piece
and have it done by Christmas, I’ll be all right. If it spills
over Christmas and goes beyond, then I’m in trouble because then I’m
moving everybody else back.
BD: So you’ve
these commissions, but there must have been many more that have
come in. You must sort through all the ideas and requests.
How do you decide which ones to say yes, and which ones
to say no?
it’s a matter of when things come
in. If somebody gets me on the phone and says, “I’d like
to do this piece. Could you do this for me? We need it by
such and such a time. We have this much money. That’s all
that we’ve got,” or, “I think we can get more. Would you be able
to fit it in?” If it sounds kind of
interesting to me, I’ll say, “Well, let me think about it, and I’ll
call you back tomorrow.” So I think about it, and if it seems
maybe I could do it, that would be it. Two days later you
might get another call from somebody else which would be for that same
period of time, and I would have to say, “I can’t make it
in that time, but how would it be a year later?”
To read my Interview with Milton Babbitt, click HERE
To read my Interview with William O. Smith, click HERE
To read my Interview with Charlews Wuorinen, click HERE
advice do you have for the
young composers coming along today?
that they are tremendously gifted in the first place, their only hope
learn their craft and write as many marvelous works as they can.
Write for performers who are their friends, or who they know who will
play their music. Apply to contests and so on, competitions,
because there are quite a few. Just learn your business.
Also I think they need to have a secondary profession up their sleeve,
because they are not going to be able to earn their living, probably,
as composers. They can make some money at it, but it
won’t support them. A lot of young people who have come up
have hoped that they could go into college teaching, university
teaching, and there is a tremendous surplus of people in that business
already. Not all of the good people are going to get
jobs there, so they do need some other area — such as you have, for
instance, working with radio stations, with broadcasting companies,
with publishers, with concert management groups, with local arts
foundations or forming their own ensembles and performing.
Anything under the sun they can think of. Of course, if they are
performers and can manage a career as a
performer-composer, that’s often very good. If you’re
an organist, for instance, and you’re quite good, and
you can get a few jobs touring, and playing here and there at some
churches or auditoriums. And you can play your own music on that
occasion, which would be very good. But it’s an endangered
profession. I think all of music is endangered. People need
to be very realistic about earning their livelihood at it. I wish
them all well, but I think they should know that it’s tough!
BD: Too tough?
LB: Not too
tough, but all of the
arts, I think, are in this field. A lot of the humanities are
in. If you were wanting to get a job as a teacher of English
literature at a college or university, there would be a lot of
competition for this — teaching classics,
psychology, philosophy and so
on. There are lots of applicants for all of these fields in
the humanities and the arts. I think one needs to be well
gifted in the first place. One needs to learn his business and
go out and hit hard. Several of my
students are trying to get jobs in universities and colleges, and it’s
not unusual to have two hundred applications for every job. It’s
comparable, of course, to an opening in the
brass section of the Chicago Symphony. There will be hundreds of
it’s really quite distressing for a lot of young people who get their
experience by playing in community orchestras and then watch
in the musicians’ magazines for all openings, and they apply here
BD: Is it
like a herd of sheep? They all run
over here and one gets in, and then they all run over there and
another one gets in?
LB: To a
certain extent, yes, mm-hm.
It’s impossible for some. If you’re a tuba player and you
want to play tuba in the orchestra, how many tuba jobs open up
in the United States? One every five or ten years, maybe?
Where you can
earn your living by playing tuba? So it’s really an impossible
situation, and a lot of these guys are good! They’re very
good. They’re as good as the guy who gets the job. So it
can be very distressing, I think, for some of our young people.
advice do you have for a young person who
wants to be a conductor?
LB: In a way,
it’s the same advice as one would say
for a composer, because again there are lots of hopeful young
conductors, and the outlets for them, at least in our
major orchestras, are not as promising as one would wish. We have
tended, in the United States, to look
abroad for our conductors. We bring them in from abroad.
Not that they’re not good; I don’t mean to say that, but there is
a certain tendency, a provincialism maybe, of our music
boards, to assume that if you’re from Europe or Japan or
South America, that you must be more glamorous and more effective than
if you grew up in Chicago, for instance. And this is
just unfair! It’s crazy, also, of course. At least we do
have a few American conductors who are running major
orchestras now. Lorin
Maazel, you know, made his reputation
in Europe, and people didn’t really pay too much attention to him over
he was middle-aged and took over the
BD: About the
only ones I can think of offhand are
and Gerard Schwarz.
Right. And Leonard Bernstein, of course,
is after all an American conductor, and a very distinguished one.
But by and
large, I blame the symphony boards and the management for this
sort of thing because for some reason or other, it seems that getting
a foreign conductor is going to add glamour or sex appeal, or whatever
it is. And maybe it’s true; I don’t know. It’s too bad, I
BD: Is your
music played in Europe, as well as here in the United States?
Somewhat. There is not an awful lot of American music
played in Europe at all. There’s Gershwin’s
Rhapsody in Blue and the Piano Concerto, and a little of
Copland, but Gershwin is still the big name over
there. John Cage
and that kind of music is sort of a
specialty thing for certain music festivals.
response to your music in Europe different
than the response here?
LB: No, not
really. The last time I was
in Europe I was in Ireland where a choral piece was commissioned by the
Cork Festival. I was there for that, and the piece went over
tremendously well! It was performed by an American chorus, so
they appreciated both the American chorus and the piece. It
really wowed them, I must say! So that was a wonderful
thing. On the other hand, Ireland may be not representative of
Continental Europe at all because every Irishman, of course, has a
cousin in the United States. [Both laugh] So there’s a
certain affinity there that you
might expect. My performances in Italy were
always very well received. In fact, the Variations for Orchestra
received its first performance in Rome. I was so moved at the
end of that, because the concertmaster and several members of the
orchestra came down off the stage and shook my hand, which I never
heard of anywhere else! Usually the composer goes up
and takes his bow, but these men came down to where I was sitting, and
really quite a special time.
BD: Is it
special for the audience to have
the composer present at the performance of his music?
LB: I think
so, yes. Conductors, at least, and
orchestras like to have you there to take your bow, assuming you do
it well. I remember Mr. Ormandy told me how nicely dressed I was
one time. He said, “When we did a piece for Roger
Sessions, he had that old brown suit of his that he always wore, and it
hadn’t been pressed for a long time. And he sort of slopped
onstage.” [Both laugh] I don’t think he was too happy to
Sessions there at that time! But yes, it’s a part of the
show. And of course, if you go along with that, I think that’s
sixty-fifth birthday is coming up next year?
LB: Mm-hm, in
January. It’s hard to believe, sixty-five years! [Laughs]
the most surprising thing? Or is
there anything that is terribly surprising as you look back on
LB: Well, I
don’t know. It’s just amazing. I’ve
been on the faculty at Michigan for thirty-five years. It just
sounds incredible that you could be there that long! It’s all of
life. You’re thirty-five, more or less?
LB: So, it’s
just amazing, you know; just one
thing after another. You go through life and suddenly here
you realize you’re going to have to retire one of these days.
BD: But you
won’t retire from composing, I hope.
LB: No, no,
BD: I would
think that retiring from the
duties and responsibilities of teaching would give you more time and
more luxury to compose.
true. I value the teaching because
of my contact with the performers, performing colleagues, and so
on. So in that regard, I will miss it; otherwise,
not. But I enjoy the contact with good young composers, too,
because there’s always a lot of life and vitality
there. And you see things in other people’s music that
you wouldn’t have thought of in your own, so you can sort of
steal it if you wish, or borrow it, or adapt it! [Both
laugh] ...as Bach did to Vivaldi’s music, and various other
people, Buxtehude, and so on. I think one grows by doing
this. If you
only imitate yourself, you may not grow; maybe some, but not very
much. But contact with other things tends to shake you
loose if you’re excited by what you see. On the other hand,
if you’re repulsed by it, it isn’t too positive.
Thank you for being a composer.
BD: And thank
you for coming in today. This has
been extra special that you would go out of your way on a trip to
LB: Glad to.
|Leslie Bassett was born in
Hanford, California in 1923, and
was raised in the San Joaquin Valley where he was trained in piano and
trombone. During World War II, he served over three years in army bands
as a trombonist, arranger and composer, and later he studied
composition with such notables as Ross Lee Finney, Arthur Honegger, and
Nadia Boulanger. His many honors and awards include the Pulitzer Prize
in Music, the Prix de Rome, a Fulbright Fellowship, two Guggenheim
Fellowships, as well as commissions from the Philadelphia Orchestra,
the Detroit Symphony, the Koussevitsky Foundation, and the National
Endowment for the Arts, among others. He is a member of the American
Academy of Arts and Letters.
Mr. Bassett joined the faculty of the University of Michigan in 1952,
where he later served as Chair of the Composition Department. In 1984,
he was appointed the Henry Russell Lecturer, the university's highest
faculty honor. He is currently the Albert A. Stanley Distinguished
University Professor Emeritus of Music and continues to influence the
rising generation of composers to this day. Bassett's works have been
performed by the orchestras of New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland,
Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Baltimore, Detroit, Syracuse,
Minneapolis, Indianapolis, the radio orchestras of Rome, Zurich, and
the Netherlands, and the American Composers Orchestra. In addition to
orchestral pieces, he has written extensively for wind ensemble, choir,
voice, and a wide variety of chamber music combinations. His catalogue
contains over one hundred works.
© 1987 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in Chicago on June 11, 1987.
Portions (along with recordings)
were used on WNIB in 1988, 1993 and 1998. A copy of the audio
tape was placed in the Archive of
Contemporary Music at Northwestern
University. This transcription was made and posted on this
website in 2009.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and
journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
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.