Composer  Earle  Brown
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Earle Brown, 75, Composer Known for Innovation, Dies

Published in The New York Times, July 8, 2002

Earle Brown, an innovative experimental composer who allowed performers considerable interpretive freedom, and whose vision of sound as an almost concrete object is often expressed in a form of graphic notation that conveys the importance of time and space in his music, died on Tuesday at his home in Rye, N.Y. He was 75.

Mr. Brown began his musical life as a jazz trumpeter, and in his student years he studied mathematics and engineering with the idea of a career in aeronautics. But he was also strongly drawn to contemporary painting, sculpture, poetry, dance and music, and after service in the Army Air Corps during World War II he devoted himself to more formal musical studies at the Schillinger School of Music in Boston.

He moved to Denver in 1950, where he began painting as well as composing and teaching music. An encounter there with the composer John Cage in 1951 proved decisive: Cage invited Mr. Brown to New York to contribute to his ''Project for Music for Magnetic Tape.'' Mr. Brown's contribution to Cage's project was ''Octet I'' for eight loudspeakers (1953), a tactile work in which isolated tones, fragments of speech and singing, snippets or orchestral recordings and bursts of noise swirl around a listener for nearly three and a half minutes.

Mr. Brown quickly became an influential member of the New York School, in which the other prominent composers were Cage, Morton Feldman, Christian Wolff and David Tudor. He adopted some of the philosophical hallmarks of Cage's approach, including the use of indeterminacy, a technique in which performers were given parameters within which they could choose what, when or how to play. One of Mr. Brown's best-known works in this style, ''December 1952,'' invites performers to interpret a visually elegant score [shown below] that consists of rectangles of different sizes and thicknesses, some horizontal, some vertical.


The score for ''December 1952'' has been likened to a painting by Mondrian, but Mr. Brown has said that his graphic scores were more directly inspired by the mobiles of Alexander Calder. The score for his ''Available Forms I'' (1961), also inspired by Calder, consists of six unbound pages, each of which includes four or five distinct musical events. The conductor begins the work with any event on any page and builds the work by selecting from the remaining events and manipulating tempo and dynamics at will. In the collaborative ''Calder Piece'' (1963-6), a percussion score by Mr. Brown was, in effect, performed by Calder's ''Chef d'Orchestre,'' a playable mobile.

Earle Appleton Brown was born in Lunenburg, Mass., on Dec. 26, 1926. During his years as a mathematics and engineering student at Northeastern University in the early 1940's, he played trumpet in a jazz band on weekends. He continued to play jazz during his military service, and in 1946 he enrolled at the Schillinger School, where he studied composition and early music. His works in these pre-Cage years were largely in the 12-tone style, as were some of his early New York works. When Mr. Brown moved to New York to join the Cage circle, his first wife, Carolyn Brown, a dancer, joined Merce Cunningham's company. Their marriage ended in divorce. In 1972, Mr. Brown married Susan Sollins, who survives him, as does a sister, Marilyn Krysil, of Lunenburg, Mass.

In New York, Mr. Brown quickly developed his own approach to Cage's chance aesthetic. But he was less enamored than Cage of pure chance composition. He later described ''December 1952'' as ''an activity rather than a piece by me, because of the content being supplied by the musicians.'' More typically, he found ways to combine ambiguous elements, in which musicians were free to make choices, with specifically notated passages, which he expected to be played with strict precision.

In ''time-notation'' works like ''Music for Cello and Piano'' (1954-5), pitches and dynamics are provided in traditional notation, but durations are left to the players. In his later works -- the best-known is ''Tracking Pierrot'' (1992) -- he continued to modify the balance between fixed notation and open forms. He also continued to compose for a variety of forces, calling for huge blocks of chordal sound in some works and graceful, pointillistic webs in others.

Mr. Brown music was extremely influential in Europe during the 1950's and 60's, when composers like Krzysztof Penderecki, Gyorgy Ligeti, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Franco Donatoni adopted elements of his style. (Donatoni also dedicated two orchestral works to Mr. Brown, ''To Earle I,'' in 1970, and ''To Earle II,'' in 1972.)

As a teacher, Mr. Brown held the W. Alton Jones chair of composition at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore from 1968 to 1973. He also taught at SUNY Buffalo, Yale University and the Tanglewood and Aspen Music Festivals.

As president of the Fromm Music Foundation from 1984 to 1989, he organized new music concerts at the Aspen Music Festival and commissioned works by many composers, among them Henry Brant, Ornette Coleman, Todd Machover, Steve Mackey, Steve Reich, James Tenney and Joan Tower. He was also the repertory director of an important series of new-music recordings on the Time-Mainstream label. Between 1960 and 1973, he oversaw the label's recordings of works by 49 composers from 16 countries, among them Ives, Cage, Nono, Maderna, Stockhausen, Luciano Berio and Iannis Xenakis.

--  Photo of score added for this website presentation. 
--  Names which are links (in this box and below) refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website. BD 

In December of 1991, I was in New York City to receive the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Broadcast Award.  (The link goes to a page with photos of the certificate and the event.)  While I was there, naturally I gathered a few interviews, and this chat with Earle Brown is one of them.

He invited me to his home for the conversation, and we spent an hour discussing items of mutual interest.  I sometimes pressed him on individual ideas, and he responded with enthusiasm.  A couple of times he would start a thought and then ponder a bit, and finally go off in another direction.  This, of course, shows that he was listening to my inquiries and trying as best he could to elucidate these tricky and complex ideas.

As always, I used portions of the interview on the air a couple of times on WNIB and, more recently, a couple more times on WNUR.  Now the entire chat has been transcribed and appears below. 

Here is that encounter with Earle Brown . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Your scores don’t look like ordinary music, so can one immediately make the inference that you expect more of the performer than someone who would just be playing a Beethoven sonata?

Earle Brown:    Oh, yes.  That’s very important to me, especially the one that you were just looking at, Twenty-five Pages.  From the beginning I had not a university or conservatory training, but a very good training, studying composition privately with Roslyn Brogue Henning.

Roslyn Brogue (16 February 1919 – 1 August 1981) was an American pianist, violinist, music educator, classics scholar, poet, author and composer. She was born in Chicago, Illinois, and graduated from the University of Chicago in 1937, from Radcliffe College in 1943 and from Harvard University in 1947 with a Ph.D.

After completing her education, she taught at the Cambridge School, Harvard University and Boston University. She took a position in 1962 teaching at Tufts University Department of Classics, and later taught in the Department of Music. She married composer Ervin Arthur Henning in 1944 in Massachusetts, and the couple divorced about 1969. They were among the first composers to write twelve tone compositions for recorder, Henning in 1951 and Brogue in 1955. Brogue died in Beverly, Massachusetts, and her papers are housed at Tufts University. Among her notable students is composer Earle Brown.

I learned the whole history of composition from organum and madrigals, motets, Bach, the whole thing.  That was very good training, but before I did anything like that, when I was like ten or twelve years old, I was a trumpet player.  Being from a little town in Massachusetts, you don’t come into contact with Haydn trumpet concerti or things like that.  You come in contact with Bunny Berrigan and Louis Armstrong and Harry James.  So my first musical involvement and commitment was to popular music and jazz as a kid trumpet player.  I had a band.  I organized my own little dance band when I was in high school in Lunenberg, Massachusetts.  So I came into classical music through Henning, and through Bach other things such as Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, etcetera.

BD:    It’s a very unorthodox way.

EB:    Yes it was an unorthodox way.  It was really not an academic way, which I suppose is what left me free not to be an academician conceptually.  I studied jazz arranging and composition and polyphony and counterpoint and Schillinger techniques
which is kind of arithmetical, numerical-mathematical, and has a bad reputation as being a mathematical way of writing music, but it’s no more mathematical than the formula 2-5-1 as a cadence.  That’s a formula, too.

BD:    Sure.

EB:    Anyway, I did all of that stuff, and that’s why my scores probably don’t look like everybody else’s... although I do have scores that look like everybody else’s.  But what really profoundly interested me, but not overtly — I didn’t consciously say,
“Now I’m going to try to figure out how to make a score which incorporates the possibilities of performer involvement, — it was just something that was a natural thing for me to try.

BD:    Was the notation your own, or was the notation borrowed from other people that discovered it first?

brownEB:    No, it was completely my own.  I first started doing these things in 1951 and ’52, and what occurred to me, from a jazz background, was the freedom and the flexibility that jazz has from performance to performance.

BD:    Yes.  They’re never the same.  They’re improvisatory.

EB:    They’re never the same twice.  But if you play How High the Moon seventeen times, you know that it’s How High the Moon, even though it’s never, in detail, the same twice.  That excited me.

BD:    Then why did you move into what is now considered
concert music, rather than staying in the jazz field?

EB:    Because I found that the jazz field was very boring and limited, conceptually.  [Both laugh]  I don’t know why other people do this, but I went through a lot of jazz and a lot of listening and so forth, and I began to want to hear something else.  I heard Bartók.  I found the Ives Concord Sonata in my neighborhood record store when I was very young.

BD:    Being in Massachusetts, of course you would!  [Both laugh]

EB:    Yes!  And then Stravinsky, and then Schoenberg, and then Berg.  My composition teacher was very, very hot on Berg’s Violin Concerto, and I studied it extensively.  Why does one stop working in a grocery store and want to become a scientist?  Those questions you can’t answer.  So why did I want to go from jazz to classical music?  I didn’t think of it particularly as classical, I just thought of it as the next step.

BD:    But you gravitated, as you mentioned, to Bartók and Berg and Ives, rather than to Beethoven and Haydn, or even Wagner and Bruckner.

EB:    Oh, yes.  I remember very early in my life my father used to listen to the Sunday afternoon New York Philharmonic broadcasts, and I listened to them also.

BD:    With the Deems Taylor intermission talks? 

EB:    Yes.  As a young kid playing the trumpet and growing up with contemporary jazz and popular music, I’ve often thought about this.  It was a natural step because Bartók swings.  I know a lot of jazz people whose first contact with classical music was the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste.  Bartók is an easy step from being interested in jazz to being interested in classical.

BD:    Should we get someone like Winton Marsalis to push Bartók?

EB:    No.  I don’t think anybody needs to push Bartók.  There are no trumpet concerti or anything for Wynton to play, but no.  But for some reason, art is what made Bob Rauschenberg come out of Port Arthur, Texas, and become one of the most avant-garde, creative, interesting, imaginative visual artists of our time.  I came out of Lunenberg, Massachusetts and I played in town bands like Ives talks about and like Ives did.  But what made me be dissatisfied at each step?  After I’d get to the point of arranging complicated jazz, they began to say that’s too complicated to be jazz.  So what is it?  It’s so-called modern classical music.  So it was a very natural because nobody told me I couldn’t.

BD:    You keep becoming dissatisfied.  Was there a time when you became dissatisfied with Bartók and Berg?

EB:    Yes!  Well, no, not dissatisfied.  With Bartók, yes.  Schoenberg and Webern and Berg were, in my opinion, more enticing.  I always seem to have been wanting to go in the direction of something I don’t understand yet.  I think Dorothy Parker, the American humorist writer said, “Only an irritated oyster produces a pearl.”  [Both laugh]  It’s kind of interesting.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  So, it’s best to keep you irritated, then!

EB:    Yes!  I’ve always thought that I was probably very lucky in having a low threshold of boredom.  So I go on to the next thing and the next thing and the next thing.  When I got to the point where I knew what Berg and Webern and Varèse were doing, one of the next things was for me to invent a new notation, to want to hear music with space in it, breathing space, because that’s what jazz has.  I admire tremendously jazz musicians like Jerry Mulligan, Bob Brookmeyer, Zoot Sims and all those people.  I used to love the Stan Kenton orchestra, which was a big, big sounding concept.

BD:    These are groups and soloists from the fifties and sixties.  Do you like and continue to admire those from the eighties and now nineties?

EB:    Yes but I think Wynton Marsalis is a good example of the fact that there is a kind of hesitation in the development of new concepts in jazz.

BD:    He’s not progressing forward?

EB:    No, I keep hearing Wynton say how great Louis Armstrong is.  We used to call him Louie Armstrong, but Wynton says Lewis Armstrong.  And I think there’s a lot going on in classical music, too.  Young conservatory university composers are really stepping back from where we were trying to go on with what is new.

BD:    Did we get to a point where there was no further progress, and we had to step back to move a little bit around it, and then go on?

EB:    No, I don’t think so.  I’m the generation of Xenakis, Boulez, Kagel, Berio, and Bruno Maderna.  Cage is twelve years older than me, but I’ve always been closely associated with John.  I admire him tremendously, but I never wanted to write music the way he does.  I never had the philosophy or the aesthetics of music that John has.

BD:    And yet, you kind of get lumped together.

EB:    I know, but musicologically it’s a huge mistake.  If people really paid attention to my work in detail, and to John’s work in detail, and to Morton Feldman’s work in detail, they would see such differences.  We were good friends.  We shared a kind of aesthetic unrest.

BD:    Is it going to take history to sort this out?

EB:    Sure, but it’s getting more and more sorted out even now.  I remember when I was a kid in Boston studying classical music, critics would say, “Oh, well that’s the twelve-tone school.  Schoenberg, Berg and Webern all sound alike.”  And the same thing is said about the chance school — Cage, Brown, Feldman
and it’s gross inattention.

BD:    So the more attention we pay to it, the more differences, both subtle and large, we will see?

EB:    Oh yes, absolutely.  When you play those things on the recording, you’ll see that my music doesn’t sound anything like any Cage music that you ever heard.

BD:    What about the recordings?  Since you write some things in the chance form, on a recording it’s always going to be exactly the same.

EB:    Not in chance; chance is a technique.  You don’t go to Las Vegas and play the one-arm bandits by chance.  They are chance because they have a mechanism which randomizes the results.  My open form music has choice, multiple choice.  If you listen to John Cage very carefully, he says that his music is motivated; it is to some extent created by chance operations.  There’s no way you can go over to a piano and play one of the eighty-eight notes by chance.

BD:    It’s choice.

EB:    Sure.  It is.  You’re informed, even if subconsciously, of what you’re going to do, which of those eighty-eight notes you’re going to choose one.  You see, that’s choice.  Now if you want to go over to the piano and play one by chance, you have to flip coins, as John does, or toss dice, and there have to be eighty-eight possibilities, of which chance gives you one.  When I make my music, because there is more than one possibility of how a melody or a score or a context will appear, it’s always by choice.  Nobody flips coins.

BD:    But on a recording, the choices have been made.

EB:    Sure.

BD:    And so they’re always the same choices.

EB:    Sure.

BD:    Is that at all restrictive or frustrating to you?

EB:    Well, they’re always the same choices on that particular record.  We were talking about the String Quartet, and there are three different recordings of the String Quartet.  Now we get into a very interesting situation.  Anybody with a modicum of musical reality would hear each of those three performances and they would say, “Ah, that’s Earle Brown’s String Quartet.”  But what I’ve introduced into that work is the possibility that the musicians can, in collaboration, make different avenues and possibilities and potentials of realization of my composition.

BD:    So the three different recordings are not going to sound all alike?

EB:    They will sound like my String Quartet, but the coda, for instance, will not be the same in any of the three performances.

BD:    You don’t have to say which one, but do you have a preference amongst the three?

EB:    Usually I do, but unless it’s done by some really incompetent string quartet, I don’t find it bad in any case.  It was commissioned by the Donauschinger Musiktage Festival in Germany in 1965 for the LaSalle String Quartet.  They played it for a long time, and still do.  They travel with it.  But with three different commercial recordings, we get into a world where if people really paid attention, they’d see differences.  With the theme and variations, which is an ancient and honorable way to do things, the variations are written down.  But what occurred to me as an ex-jazz musician was why can’t the variations be a function of the interaction of the musicians with the material that I have composed?  What I was always very romantic about was the fact that each performance would be unique, but I insisted that my involvement in it, my composition of it, would be identifiable, whatever happened.  So if you heard it in Hamburg, you wouldn’t hear the same details and context as you would hear in Cleveland.  One of the greatest things about jazz is the conversational nature of it.  One of my best examples is always the Jerry Mulligan Quartet when it had Bill Crow playing bass and Zoot Sims playing tenor saxophone, and Bob Brookmeyer and various people.  One of the greatest things about jazz is the instant, instantaneous communication.  One played [sings a line] and then the other one goes [sings an answering line].  It’s like you and I having a conversation where we exchange ideas.  That’s always one of the most beautiful things to me about jazz.  So that’s what I tried to introduce, and this goes all the way back to your first question
why new notation, and why the scores look different than other people’s scores.  It’s because I want to introduce the possibility of the musicians not only playing what I write, but interacting like a human family of friendly people.

BD:    When you get a group, a string quartet, for instance, that plays it and tours it, because of their training are they not going to find a few things each time that work, and by the later performances they will be incorporating these same things each time?

EB:    Yes.  That’s inevitable.  Maderna and the group called the Kranichsteiner Kammerensemble toured years ago, and they played Available Forms I maybe twenty times.  Always it was conducted by Bruno Maderna.  Now, Maderna will have a certain predilection for certain elements of my composition, my piece, which he will prefer over others.  Therefore, he will feature those.  He will come back to those in his performance.  I don’t make any idea that they must never do it the same twice.  That’s authoritarian and fascistic in a way.  I wouldn’t say, “You must never repeat it tomorrow night the way you just played it tonight.”  It allows flexibility, but nobody can play it twice the same way anyway.

BD:    Unless they would notate it themselves.

Bruno Maderna - Conductor, Composer

Born: April 21, 1920 - Venice, Italy
Died: November 13, 1973 - Darmstadt, Germany

madernaThe outstanding Italian-born German conductor, composer, and teacher, Bruno Maderna, commenced musical studies at 4, and soon took violin lessons. He began touring as violinist and conductor when he was only 7, appearing under the name Brunetto in Italy and abroad, He studied at the Verdi Conservatory in Milan, with Bustini at the Rome Conservatory (diploma in composition, 1940), and with Malpiero at the Venice Conservatory. He also took conducting course with Guarnieri at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana in Sienna in 1941. He then served in the Italian Army during World War II, eventually joining the partisan forces against the Fascists. After the war he studied conducting with Hermann Scherchen in Darmstadt.

Bruno Maderna taught composition at the Venice Conservatory from 1947 to 1950. In 1950 he made his formal conducting debut in Munich. He subsequently became a great champion of the avant-garde. With Luciano Berio, he helped to form the Studio di Fonologia in Milan in 1954. Also with Luciano Berio, he was conductor of the RAI’s Incontri Musicali from 1956 to 1960. He taught conducting and composition in various venues, including Darmstadt (from 1954), the Salzburg Mozarteum (1967-1970), the Rotterdam Conservatory (from 1967), and the Berkshire Music Center in Tanglewood (1971-1972). He was chief conductor of the RAI in Milan from 1971. In 1963 he became naturalized German citizen. Stricken with cancer, he continued to conduct concerts as long as it was physically possible.

Bruno Maderna was held in great esteem by composers of the international avant-garde, several of whom wrote special works for him.

:    Yes, yes.  After I did Available Forms I for Darmstadt in 1961, Maderna got me a commission from the Rome Radio Orchestra to do a big orchestra piece, which is Available Forms II, for two conductors.  What I did for Darmstadt in Available Forms I was obviously so much fun to conduct it that I built myself into Available Forms II.  [Both laugh]  So Bruno and I were the two conductors.  I never forget that we did the final rehearsal in Venice with Venice Biennale in 1962.  Luigi Nono, who lived in Venice, was there, and he is a good friend of both of us and a student of Bruno’s.  Luigi said, “That rehearsal was fantastic.  Now, do it that way tonight and it’ll be a great success.”  So Bruno and I look at each other and say, “What did we do?”  [Laughs]  You can’t remember all the things you did, especially with two people!  I did it with Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic, and you feed off of each other.  It’s really like a conversation.

BD:    You’re working with Maderna, who is also a composer, and Bernstein is also a composer.  Is it better to have another composer be the conductor of that piece?

EB:    Not necessarily, but a lot of conductors who are not composers seem to be afraid of it.  It takes a certain kind of mentality and a certain kind of chutzpah, guts, or whatever, to be a composer, which is to say, put down on paper what you mean and commit yourself like that.  I’m beginning to realize that it’s a composer’s ego which is able to decide that this is the way it should go.  But two composers?  We’re used to making decisions all the time, so two composers conducting it are much more able to be spontaneous and quick to react.  If Bruno does brass and strings, I’ll put percussion on it.  I’ll mix percussion into what Bruno’s doing, and then he hears the percussion come in and takes the brass out and brings in the woodwinds.  So there are constantly these different facets of different expressions of the same basic music that I wrote.

BD:    It’s like constantly remolding the clay, and you never want it to set.

EB:    Right!  Yes, yes, yes.  [Laughs]  But as you said, if the same conductor does it in twenty different performances on tour, I don’t prohibit or expect that the conductor will not have his basic preferences.

BD:    But is it really interpretation, then?

EB:    Sure, yes.  It’s always interpretation.  I think of them as kind of quasi-organisms, the things that come to life differently each time.  Yet they are made up of the same organs.

BD:    Are they coming to life, or are they constantly living?

EB:    They’re coming to life in each performance.  Music, when it’s not being performed, is just a piece of paper with symbols on it.  A piece of music exists when it is performed, and when my pieces are performed, it’s not a matter of reading from left to right and being as accurate as you can.  In the open form pieces, for instance, you can begin on page six, if you choose, and go to page two, and then page four, and the page one, and page five, and then six again, and back and forth like this.  That’s characteristic of Available Forms I and II.  I don’t expect anybody to sit down and listen to six 25-minute performances of it, but I would expect some day, somebody will.  Musicologically, it’s very interesting.  I’ve set a problem, which is ultimately very interestin
ghow committed, how involved, how intricate can the relationship of one or more conductors be to given material over a long period of time?

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You write open form pieces.  I trust you’re not advocating the destruction or the non-performance of set pieces?

brownEB:    Oh no, no.  I’m not a nut, you know.  At a certain point when I was a student, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to know everything that has been done in contemporary music, and then see if I can add to the potential, to see if I can add to the reservoir of compositional potential.  Stravinsky did what he did, and Schoenberg did what he did, and I’m not comparing myself to them, but the fact is I just was not content to write eighteen string quartets in the style of Schoenberg or Haydn or Berg, or anybody.  So I wrote uniquely.  Cage has no connection with jazz and doesn’t like it.  He doesn’t like improvisation.  Feldman had no connection to it.  Of those of us so-called wild guys — Cage, Brown, Feldman, Christian Wolff — I was the only one that came out of jazz.  Therefore, people say to me, “How did you think to do this in 1952?”  I wondered what’s so strange about that?  I was improvising music in 1950, and even 1945.

BD:    So this was just an outgrowth in a new direction?

EB:    Yes.  At some point, my private classical education of writing music, composing music, had to come into contact with my mind, thinking now, what’s missing in classical music?  I know... [Snaps fingers]  Spontaneity!  Spontaneity, immediacy of compositional expression.
  But I don’t only do open form pieces.  A lot of the pieces I’ve done recently are what I call closed form, with a definite beginning and an end, with open form interiors.  It’s like we have concerti in the old days where the violin soloist was allowed to create his cadenzas.  In a sense it never occurred to me that I want to do that because that’s the way they did it in the old days.  But I give solos, cadenza solos, for the conductor.  Cross Sections and Color Fields is basically like that.  You go through the piece, and all the material is written by me, but then you come to a page, which is the letter F, and there is a completely open form page, area.  So the conductor can call for brass chord II, winds chord I, percussion cycle with a da capo at the end, you know, a big sound loop.  Strings go 1, 2, 3, 4; 1, 2 3, 4, and the conductor can determine the rhythm and tempo in that case.

BD:    Is this done in rehearsal or in performance?

EB:    In performance.  I tend to rehearse it differently every time.  If we do the letter F five times in rehearsal, it’s never repeated.

BD:    So the players get used to learning on the spot.

EB:    Yes, they get used to knowing that if I indicate with my left hand two, on their score they have chord two.  You prepare it with the left hand and the downbeat with the right hand, so they don’t have to get worried about it, and in rehearsal you find out how fast they can react.  For instance, [at steady tempo] two, downbeat, one winds, downbeat.  Can they do it that fast?  Otherwise you do it differently because somebody is always goofing off.  You wait and then you say, “Okay.”  [Laughs]  It’s a feedback between the conductor and the orchestra, in a very exciting, stimulating way, I should say.

BD:    Have you had conductors who have really been brilliant at this, and other conductors who have fallen apart?

EB:    Yes.  Hans Zender is a composer-conductor, but he’s been the conductor of the Hamburg Opera, and so he’s very good at it.  

BD:    Being an opera conductor, I would think he would be more used to waiting on singers, and seeing what they’re doing and accommodating a little bit.

EB:    Yes.  Richard Dufallo was very good at it, and Zender is good at it.  Boulez has conducted Centering a couple, two or three times, and he’s very good at it, obviously.  Lennie was good at it.

BD:    Again, without mentioning names, are there conductors who would tackle your work and not be good at it?

EB:    Theoretically, if they worry too much.

BD:    Maybe you should put a notice at the top of your score not to worry!  [Laughs]

EB:    I’ve said that, but you can’t tell somebody not to worry.  If they’re frightened by it, they won’t do it.  People say to me, “Aren’t you afraid of getting a terrible performance?” and I say, “Apart from a few people that might be totally willful and want to hurt me, no conductor would try to do it that didn’t have a sympathy for it.”  After all, you can do Mozart badly, obviously.  It can be played terribly.

BD:    But he survives it.

EB:    Yes because there are enough pieces that are played very, very well that he doesn’t suffer from one piece being played badly.

BD:    But each piece can survive being mutilated and destroyed, and still work.

EB:    Well, I wouldn’t call that very good.

BD:    No, but it makes them survive.

EB:    But if Mozart is really mutilated, it’s not what I would call a performance that I would like to have.

BD:    Well, no.

EB:    But the fact is that it’s always amazing to a lot of people.  They always ask this question, and I have heard almost no performances of my pieces that I’ve thought were really bad.  Maybe there are performances that I have not heard...  I know some people do it slower than I would do it, but that’s because they don’t react that fast, or they have not rehearsed it sufficiently for the musicians to be right on their toes.  One of the byproducts of these open form pieces is that maybe the tuba player is notorious for sitting down and waiting 132 bars before he hits a note.  But in these open form pieces, where you can play from any point to any other point, throughout six pages of composed material, nobody knows that they’re not going to get the next cue.  [Both laugh]  So the intensity in rehearsal is fierce, because nobody knows what the next cue’s going to be, and as a byproduct that puts everybody a little bit up off the floor.  You’ve got to be there.

BD:    I hope, though, that it’s, “Me next, me next,” rather than, “Oh, don’t call on me, don’t call on me!” 

EB:    [Laughs]  I always say that out of ninety-eight musicians, there are going to be twenty that hate your guts for whatever you do!  [Both laugh]

BD:    And you don’t mind this???

EB:    Well, you have to swing with it.  There’s no way of getting around it.  It’s like when Boulez conducted the New York Philharmonic, there were a lot of bad stories about it.  But I had two different works performed with this Perspective Encounter series, and I know a lot of the best musicians thought Boulez was terrific, but a lot of the others that didn’t want to work or pay attention said, “He doesn’t know what’s going on.”

BD:    That’s twenty per cent of the orchestra that might not like you.  What about the audience?  You’ve got, say, two thousand people out there.  What kind of percentage is going to like or not like you?

EB:    Over quite a long period of time, I’ve got a very good feeling from the audience.  My music is not terribly dissonant.  It’s not aggressive.  It’s maybe loud and maybe powerful, and complex sometimes, but it doesn’t have an aesthetic of aggression or an aesthetic of angst.  I’m not writing The Survivor from Warsaw or something like that.  I’m an abstract sound composer, and I make sound objects which can sit there, and also sound objects which can be varied from performance to performance.  My first influence for open form music was Alexander Calder mobiles and not from music.  I didn’t know any of it from music, but from Calder.  I’ve always been very, very close to visual arts on my own, and because of my wife being a curator of visual arts.

BD:    Do you think your music is aurally visual?

EB:    Yes.  I very often visualize the scores that I write, and I visualize the sound combinations which can result from the music that I write.  I have a very strong visual sense.

BD:    Do you ask your audience to do as much visualizing as they can?

EB:    No, no.  Just yesterday I bought The Letters of Arnold Schoenberg, and there’s a letter between himself and Roger Sessions in which Sessions must have written to Schoenberg and said, “We shouldn’t care.  I don’t really care whether anybody knows how I put this together or not.”  The thing is, if it doesn’t make it as an aural experience...  [Ponders a moment]  You go into a concert hall, you sit for ten or fifteen minutes, and if that fifteen minutes doesn’t “turn you on” in one way or another, like it catches you...  [Ponders again]  A composer or painter or anybody is really trying to grab your attention and say, “Look at this!” or, “Listen, hear this!”  So it doesn
’t matter how it comes about.  I agree, and Schoenberg agreed with Sessions that once I’ve done the assemblage, once I’ve done the putting together and the composing of this, it goes out into the world like Mozart does and like everything else does.  It just sounds different.

BD:    With a life of its own?

EB:    Yes, and if it doesn’t have a life of its own, given a fair chance, then it may be a boring piece.  I keep reading and hearing reviews recently about pieces that are trying too hard to capture your attention.  I know what they mean because everybody thinks, wow, a lot of percussion, and a lot of brass, and a lot of banging around!  But when you listen to Cross Sections and Colorfields, it’s a rather tranquil work.

BD:    Is this perhaps out of the rock idiom that each band has to be just a little louder and a little more abrasive in order to penetrate through?

EB:    I think that’s true of younger people, but when you hear some of those things, I think you’ll find that it’s music, regardless of whether it’s open form or closed form, or what.  This reverts back to your question about the audience, and the audience usually is sympathetic to my music because it’s not overtly trying to do anything except be sound.  I’m not embarrassed by beautiful sound.

BD:    Is the judgment of the audience always right?

EB:    No, of course not.  Neither is the judgment of critics.

BD:    But what about the long-term judgment of the audience over time?

brownEB:    Well, yes, the long-term judgment of the audience is really what it’s all about.  I like what I do and I don’t always like every piece that I write.  Some I like better than others.  But the fact is that the pieces go out there, and the audiences hear them and I get a good reaction.  One of the problems that I’ve had is that I have always written program notes explaining the open form concept
that this piece will be formed differently tonight when you hear it, and then it will never be heard in that form again.  In Munich, it was not the first performance of Available Forms II, but it was the third or fourth performance, and I explained this.  There was open form that Bruno and I were making decisions instantaneously, having rehearsed all the material very well, as if it were Mozart, when in the actual performance Bruno and I were making instantaneous decisions based on what each of us was hearing, sounding, and what continuity I was building and he would relate to, or I was building, etcetera.  So the funniest thing happened in the review of that Radio Munich performance.  The critic said, “Well, on the basis of Mr. Brown’s program notes, I really don’t think I can call this a great composition, but it sounded absolutely fantastic!  It was a great performance.  However, if it’s not going to sound that way again, how can I say it’s a great piece?”  [Both laugh]  I’d put in myself and critics in this kind of difficult position.  I pulled the rug out from under myself, in a way, because if it’s not going to sound that way again...  But that indicates to me that the critic is hung up on the concept of whether it is a masterpiece, or was it a thrilling sonic experience?  It was a thrilling sonic experience.  He said so, but he couldn’t call it a really terrific piece of music.

BD:    Because it might not be a thrilling sonic experience next time!

EB:    Yes, but if I set it up right, it can be done that way.

BD:    It has potential?

EB:    It has potential.  Next time it might be very quiet, but this time it was a very exciting sonic experience, and he said so, but he said, “I can’t judge it.”  I said, “Please, don’t judge it!  Just say you enjoyed the sound of my piece.”

BD:    Is this what you want from the audiences, just to enjoy the sound of each piece?

EB:    Yes.  They can take away whatever they take away, but I’m not preaching anything.

BD:    Do you have any concrete expectations of the audience at all?  I know you expect the musicians to try, but what do you have any expectations of the audience?

EB:    Well, I don’t know.  I think the audience should have expectations of me.  I expect the audience to come and listen with open ears, and not drag the entire history of music in there.

BD:    But aren’t you part of the history of music?

EB:    Sure, I’m part of the history of music, but that will only be known in about a hundred years from now, if then.  I mean, if things go on!  [Laughs]  I am convinced that what I have donated, created
the open form conceptdoesn’t have to be as extreme as I have done it sometimes.  But the idea of flexibility, the invitation to musicians to enter into a musical event with methe music of which I have written — asks them to come in with me and help express this material to the audience.  The audience is always the factor out there.  I’m not about to say I don’t give a damn what the audience thinks, but I know very well if I write for the audience, I’m going to write something like Barry Manilow, and I don’t want to write like Barry Manilow.  I think he’s a great writer, but that’s not my thing.  A lot of people say, “Ooh, why don’t you composers write so the audience likes it?”  Well, there are enough people writing so that the audience likes it.

BD:    Don’t you want your music to be liked?

EB:    It’s people like Elliott Carter, whom I admire tremendously, and other people.  John Cage, in his philosophical way, is trying to do something that audiences will respond to, although John’s way is not to force them in any way.  I don’t see anything wrong with my writing what I want to write and presenting it to the audience with the hope that they will see the connection between my music.  That’s like the concert in Munich that I mentioned where the critic said, “Terrific performance, but how can I say it’s a good piece?’  That concert had Debussy’s Jeux, Webern’s Six Pieces for Orchestra, a piece by Luigi Nono, my piece Available Forms II, and Ives’ Three Places in New England.  Debussy, Webern, Ives, Brown, Luigi Nono — that is what I call responsible, relevant programming.  If you plunk down a very modern piece in the midst of Haydn and Mozart, you know it’s going to sound like it came off the moon.  But that Munich thing was organized by Karl Amadeus Hartmann.

BD:    So, you want the audience prepared even within the context of the concert?

EB:    I want them to come with an open mind.

BD:    But do you want the same audience that came to Haydn, Mozart and Brahms last night, to come to your concert tonight?

EB:    Yes, but I think that the programming of the concerts should lead them into the twentieth century, without hitting them on the head with Varèse all of a sudden.  The novelty this season will be Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring.  [Laughs]  Good God!  He wrote that in 1913!  So I have a tendency to think that programming of contemporary large orchestra concerts is not very relevant.  You can go overboard trying to educate the audience and make boring programs, and you can go crazy and say, “Whether they like it or not, they’re going to get this because it’s good for them.”

BD:    Like Castor Oil.

EB:    Yes.  That’s going to fall on its butt.  But there’s a way.  People could see that there are very warm, romantic things in my piece.  They could hear Debussy’s Jeux, and they could hear this in my piece.  They could hear the things from Webern in Nono’s piece, the things from Ives in my music especially, and also these cross-references which are tremendously important.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me hit you with the big, philosophical question.  What’s the purpose of music?

EB:    I think it’s to create something for the ears in the way that painting creates something for the eyes, that hasn’t existed before.

brownBD:    And in your case, might not exist ever again!

EB:    In the same way.  But that’s like saying Washington Square Park is not relevant unless it looks like it did yesterday.  [Laughs]  We don’t expect the same people to be standing in the same place three days in a row.  In life we appreciate the variations from moment to moment.

BD:    Or like saying the lamb stew you have today is going to taste exactly the same as the lamb stew tomorrow?

EB:    Yes.  You really don’t want that.  There should be some kind of a transformation, a natural, indigenous, integral transformation from moment to moment.  The surrealists wanted really to shock you out of your pants.  Gerard de Nerval, I believe, said, “Surrealism is the juxtaposition of mutually different realities on the same plane of reality.”  The example was an umbrella and a sewing machine making love on a dissecting table.  The surrealists and the Dadaists were really about clash, like shocking people out of their complacency.

BD:    You’re not into shocking?

EB:    No!  I find that in the development and the progression of my music from the earliest days ‘til now I see the progression.  I see it in terms of my own work over a long period of time, and I also see it as relevant but different from the work of Berio, and Boulez, and Xenakis.

BD:    But it should take its places amongst those others

EB:    Yes.  If the world were really set up properly, we could have concerts once every two weeks in New York.  There are enough concerts that lead up to where contemporary music is now, but to hear, in not an aggressive way, Boulez Improvsation sur Mallarmé, and a piece by Xenakis, and a piece by John Cage, and a piece by me, and a piece by Morton Feldman?  I don’t know.  What you see in the magazines and the newspapers, the biggest thing you can put is advertising on anything is “new!”  [Both laugh]

BD:    And

EB:    Except for art.  Good friends of mine are Bob Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns, and Cy Twombly, and Lichtenstein, and all of those people and I used to hang out on occasion.  Feldman and I used to hang out with Bill de Kooning and Rothko.  Rothko was not so much around there, but Bill de Kooning, and Pollack, and those people.  So we grew up in a kind of transformational, artistic, milieu.  It was very exciting!  The Abstract Expressionists in New York in the forties and fifties was a tremendously powerful American art movement.

BD:    It wasn’t like a downtown Algonquin Round Table, was it?

EB:    [Laughs]  No, it was much more diffused from one another than that, but it’s the old stories of the Cedar Tavern, which used to be right over here on University Place.  John Cage and I used to work on Electronic Music Project in the daytime, and we’d get finished about five o’clock in the afternoon, and we’d go over there and meet Morty Feldman and some of the painters.  It was a real environment of newly created work.  John was doing his chance thing, I was doing the open form thing, Morty was doing his very pastel, beautiful, impressionistic kind of pieces, de Kooning was doing his thing and so was Pollack, and we were all in a kind of creative soup together.  It was very interesting and very exciting.  That was basically before the Abstract Expressionists got to be acceptable, and there were a lot of terrible criticisms of them.

BD:    Is composing fun?

EB:    It’s [ululates], yes!

BD:    I’m glad this is radio and not print!  How would I print that???

EB:    [Ululates again]  [Both laugh]  That’s a guttural expression of indecision, as to whether it’s fun.  Yes, it’s really fun, but it’s very hard work.  It’s not easy.  We were talking about a conductor making decisions on stage about what comes next in an open form work of mine, but I don’t just write music in any old way.  The fact that it’s open form has nothing to do with the fact that I don’t care how it goes together.

BD:    I guess there’s been a lot of confusion on the part of the public that feels it looks like it was just thrown together.

EB:    Yes.

BD:    They think any idiot could do that, but they don’t realize that it does take a lot of care and planning and preparation.

brownEB:    Yes, and you have to think very far in advance.  When I have an open form piece, I have to conceive of and write the elements that will then be combined differently over who-knows-how-many years.  But there has to be a certain integrity to the material that then can be conducted open form, and put together in different forms.  I would challenge anybody to hear five performance of Available Forms I, for instance, which is for eighteen instruments, and say that it is haphazard.  It’s absolutely not.  A bad performance can sound sort of falling apart, but, as I said before, so can Mozart sound like it’s falling apart if you don’t play it well, or conduct it well.

BD:    But can we assume that Mozart isn’t going to fall apart so much because we’re so used to how it goes that it’s almost routine?

EB:    Yes.

BD:    Do you think there’ll ever come a time when the music of Earle Brown will be routine?

EB:    I don’t think it’ll be routine, no.  Schoenberg hasn’t become routine.  As I said, Stravinsky and even Bartók are still not performed as much as they should be
especially the Violin Concerti and the Piano Concertos and the Music for Strings, Percussion and Celeste, and the Concerto for Orchestra.  The public is really so far behind because the orchestra directors, the music directors, have to please the people that are supporting the orchestras.  Therefore, nobody wants to go, after a hard day’s work, and listen to something that they haven’t heard before.

BD:    We’ve been lucky in Chicago because for years we had Reiner and then we had Solti, both of whom brought Stravinsky and Bartók quite a bit.

EB:    Yes, but there’s so much contemporary music that should be integrated and performed.  It’s a big cliché that a lot of “we” composers, contemporary performers and contemporary composers, think that the orchestras are becoming museums instead of creative entities; entities that enter the culture in a creative way and contribute new concepts, and new forms, and new sensibilities. 

BD:    How do we get away from being a museum?

EB:    I don’t know, but that’s why Europe has been so much better in a certain sense, because the orchestras are supported by the government.  I’m not recommending that, necessarily, because look at all the trouble we’re in with NEA and all that.  But the fact is that one of the reasons the European audience is far ahead of American audiences in terms of understanding music from Stravinsky, Schoenberg, up to Steve Reich and me and beyond, is because the radio directors, directors of contemporary music at Köln Radio, Munich Radio, etcetera, don’t have to please a whole group of people in order to get given fifty thousand dollars or a million bucks next year.  They’re independent, and they are responsibly independent, in my opinion.  It’s not true any longer.  I don’t know what it is now, but years ago when we all used to have a lot more performances, I had a lot of performances with Köln Radio Orchestra.  I remember back in those days, each person in Germany who had a radio, paid one mark per month, I think.

BD:    Oh yes, a licensing fee.

EB:    In order to have a radio, they paid twenty-five cents a month to the government.  That twenty-five cents from all the people in Germany made it possible for them to schedule all the Bach, all the Mozart, all the Haydn, all the Stockhausen, all the Brown, all the Cage that they wanted!  You don’t have this thing here, and what we need is exposure.  Look at how long we’ve looked at Picasso.  How long have we heard Schoenberg, compared to how much you see Picasso?  Compare that to how much you hear Schoenberg and you’ll see the huge dichotomy between exposure of the visual arts and the exposure of the sonic arts.  So it’s not a mystery that a lot of people haven’t heard it, and when they do hear it, they say, “Where did that come from?”

BD:    We need to prepare them step-by-step, and keep them into it.

EB:    Yes.  It reminds me of a marvelous old story of Varèse.  I knew him very well.  We were friends, and Louise Varèse, his wife, had a lot of stuff.  Somebody said Varèse was never on record as saying things, and I knew he was, so I made an article using quotes directly from Varèse.  He was on a panel in France, and somebody said to him, “Why isn’t the public interested in modern music, contemporary music, new music?” and Varèse said, “I don’t know.  It’s very strange.  They want the newest automobile.  They want the newest refrigerator.  They want all this new stuff and they want the oldest music.  It’s like they’ve got their heads in the sixteenth century, but they want their behinds in the twentieth century.”  [Both laugh]  And it’s true.  New everything, except their minds don’t accelerate!  They want to be stroked.

BD:    Is the situation getting better or worse?

EB:    I think it’s getting better.  I see a lot of performances.  There is a downtown group, and they do a lot of things
some of which I go to, some of which I don’t.  Uptown a lot I don’t go to; I would like to go to more.  For instance, I went to the concert a few weeks ago of Elliott Carter’s four String Quartets.  Brilliant!  What an evening!  The place was packed, and they were very beautifully played by the Juilliard String Quartet.

BD:    And now recorded, too!

EB:    And now recorded, yes.  I was in residence at the American Academy in Rome a few years ago, and soon they are giving a concert with, I think, David Diamond, and Elliott Carter, and Richard Trythall, who lives in Rome and sort of works with the academy.  A friend of mine, Dan Asia, who teaches in Arizona, had a performance recently with the American Composer’s Orchestra.  In general, I see a lot more activity.  That doesn’t mean, however, that includes the people who go to the New York Philharmonic because it’s a social or it’s a groovy social commitment.  I can’t knock them.  They’re supporting what they can support, but the fact is that those people don’t like Elliott Carter when he’s played by the Philharmonic, any more than they like a downtown composer of something.  But somebody did a brilliant performance of Varèse recently and the critic said, “Once they say Varèse was coming on, everybody left.”  A lot of people left.  And Varèse is marvelous!  It’s powerful, brilliant music.  But I think it’s getting better.  Somebody once said to me, “You’re so optimistic.  How do you get so optimistic as a composer?”  I said, “I don’t know.  I’m basically optimistic.”

BD:    That’s just the way you are.

EB:    I’m enthusiastic about what I’m doing and what a lot of other people are doing.

BD:    That’s the way I am, too.  I’m enthusiastic about all these programs I can present, and all of the different kinds and ideas that I can share with the audience.  That’s what keeps me going.

EB:    Sure, and being interested in the visual arts, I can’t understand how people spend their non-working hours if they’re not interested in seeing what’s going on the visual arts, architecture, music, theater.  That’s what culture is all about.  It’s not some pillow that you sit on for the rest of your life once you learn a few pieces.

BD:    There used to be a commercial on TV which I’m glad it’s not running any more...  The guy would come on, advertising two or three records saying it was, “All the classical music your family will ever need!”  [Both laugh]  I threw something at the television when I saw it.

EB:    Years ago there used to be this thing about “The entire history of music in three LP records, with all the boring parts cut out.”  [Both laugh]  Isn’t that fantastic? 

BD:    Thank you for sharing all of your ideas with us for so long.

EB:    Oh well, they are not all of my ideas, but I just hope that it clarifies somewhat the fact that the open form concept is what I consider not an attack on anything existing already, but in my opinion it’s an addition to what can go on.

BD:    It’s another color on the palette.

EB:    Yes, another possibility of the palette of musical expression.  It’s also interesting that people keep in mind that it does make a bridge between some aspects of classical music and jazz.  Nobody bats an eye when jazz music is known for the creativity of the performer!  Why can’t I use the creativity of the performer as well as my own compositional creativity?  So that’s what I wanted to do.

BD:    Thank you for having me into your home.  This is wonderful.

EB:    Thank you.  I’m glad to have you here.


© 1991 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in New York City at the the home of Earle Brown on December 12, 1991.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB a couple of week later, and again in 1996, and on WNUR in 2006 and 2008.  This transcription was made in 2014, and posted on this website at that time.

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

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.