Composer Frank Campo
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
In the middle of August of 1991, Campo agreed to do a phone
interview. When I called him, I was asking about his recordings,
and he gave me new and updated addresses for a couple of places to
obtain them . . . . . . . . .
So we have old and obsolete addresses...
I have an address book full of them! [Both laugh] Every now
and then I work up the energy to go
through the address book, and I try to update the thing and throw a few
things out. That’s the trouble with musicians — they
BD: Is that
really more so than with just ordinary
FC: Well, I
don’t know. I just know that particularly young musicians have to
moving. You tend to travel a lot from city to city
in order to make a living. Until you really latch on to some
organization like a university or something, you’re pretty much fluid
as far as where you’re going to stay.
BD: Is that a
good life, or is it just too
FC: I suppose
it depends on your own
personality. It’s demanding, and if it’s too demanding as
a subjective type thing, all I can say is that it is hard on you, and
the older you get the less attractive it becomes.
BD: I would
think you’d want to
settle down eventually.
FC: Oh yes,
absolutely. I’m still looking around
for some quiet place on Earth that I could just write music and
breathe in good air.
Alaska? [Laughs] I could
exploit Alaska next. That’s coming! I scoped out Oregon,
and it’s beautiful, really
fantastically beautiful, but the same thing is going on
there. They’re trying to cut down all the forests for the
got to stay two jumps ahead.
Yes! [Both laugh]
we’re talking about this, has
this need to be peripatetic changed appreciably
in the last ten, twenty, thirty, forty years?
FC: I don’t
BD: So it’s
always been like this and it ever will be?
FC: Well, to
say it always will be, that’s something else
again. But certainly artists have to go where there’s
work, and if you’re a composer or a musician from a small town, if you
want to work you’ve got to get to a big town. That
pretty much means usually New York, LA, and possibly Chicago.
Something like that sort.
BD: Does that
leave the little towns bereft of
it’s pretty tough to go out to the Midwest
and try to put together a first class group unless you have the
financial backing and can attract musicians. Cities like St. Paul
attracted first class musicians as they have the
money that pay them and to build the auditorium. But that
requires money. It can be done, it’s just
tougher, that’s all. Whereas in a city like LA here, there are
just musicians all over the place.
BD: Then do
you have the
opposite problem with too many musicians?
problem here in LA actually is an
insidious one, it’s the studio problem. My son is a
violinist. What happens is musicians long to play so-called
‘good music’, and they want
to get involved in chamber music and then
performances of new works. But these things take a lot of time
and a lot of effort, and meantime they keep getting these calls where
you just show up and in two and a half hours you earn such a huge
amount of money. It’s just ridiculous. You can’t turn it
BD: And then
your morning is shot or your afternoon
FC: Yes, and
sometimes both! You do double sessions, and it’s an ongoing
If you want to form a string quartet or woodwind quintet or something
like that and really do a first class job and spend a lot of time
rehearsing and do some traveling, it’s awfully difficult, awfully
BD: In your
own career you are both a
teacher and a composer. How do you balance those two very
FC: First of
all I was a composer
long before I was a teacher and I also had to perform before I
was a teacher. I was just determined that when I started teaching
would keep them both separately distinct, and that the two of them
complement one another in a sense. But I’ve always left time for
composition. I was thinking that if I didn’t leave time for
composition, then there was no point in the kind of work I was doing in
teaching. So I’ve always set aside time for composing.
BD: Do you
get enough time to compose?
Time-wise, yes. Sometimes I resent
that my energies are pulled elsewhere, particularly when you get well
into the semester and these extra activities that are taking
place. Then it isn’t a question of time so much as a
question of the drain on your own resources. You just find
thinking of so many things that the concentrated effort that’s
necessary for composing may not be there. So that’s really the
BD: Are you
teaching composition or theory, or both
FC: I’m head
of a composition department, and I teach. I have a composition
class every semester, and I teach
orchestration, and I have a course which I enjoy very much which is
called Twentieth Century Technique. I’ve just introduced students
to some major techniques of the twentieth century.
BD: Get them
not to be afraid of multi-phonics?
precisely! It’s a great fun class to teach because they’re
all music majors, but many of them have never really been exposed in
any systematic way to twentieth century music, so what they’ve heard
they didn’t care for or they didn’t like and didn’t make any
sense. Then when they have the time to sit down and approach
it in this manner, they find out that not only they understand it but
very often end up really enjoying it very much.
BD: Is there
any way to do what you’re doing in the
class with the general audience to prepare them more for new pieces?
FC: It’s a
good idea. I don’t know, but not the
way this particular class is handled because this is intended for
musicians. But I suppose, sure, absolutely. There are
music appreciation-type courses, and if you have a good instructor who
knew something about twentieth century music and was
willing to devote his energies to it, then I think it would work very
well. But the problem, of course, is that the easiest thing to do
with those music appreciation courses, if they’re dealing with the hard
music, is to start with Romantic Music and then do Impressionism,
and maybe throw in a few works of Beethoven and Mozart. It’s
safe, whereas the twentieth century is
not always very safe, and it gets a lot of young people very upset.
BD: Why did
the twentieth century stop being safe?
[Laughs] That’s a good
question! I don’t know why the
twentieth century stopped being safe.
playing both sides of the
fence — you’re teaching it and you’re also
contributing to it!
FC: Yes, and
making the world unsafe for listeners I
BD: I assume
you don’t feel the music you
compose is unsafe?
absolutely not. I think my music is and
always has been approachable and understandable if the listener would
give it half a chance.
BD: Do you
write it to be approachable, or do
you just write it the way it has to be written?
FC: I write
the way it has to be written, but
since I’ve written so much music over the course of so many years, I’d
be able to sit back and get a little perspective on my own music.
I recognize the fact that music which can be understood and
dealt with will be appreciated and enjoyed. There are some
composers who don’t write music that would fall into that category, and
their music somehow or other never seems to be able to reach any kind
BD: Can I
assume you would rather have one of
your pieces played on a mixed program rather than a straight twentieth
absolutely. This is not to say that I always object to the sort
ghettoization of twentieth century music. There is enormous
number of concerts devoted exclusively to new music. The problem
is you get a drained-down audience. The audience comes with a
certain expectation and you try to satisfy those expectations.
really aren’t introduced to anything new because they’ve been to dozens
of concerts of this nature before, whereas when you mix the music, it’s
a little of this and a little of that and you get a different type of
audience. I think you get a fresher reaction to it, so yes, I’d
rather be on programs of mixed music. I think it’s healthier.
BD: Are you
basically pleased with the performances
you’ve heard of your works over the years?
would range from being very, very
pleased to horribly disappointed.
BD: I hope
more of the former than the latter!
FC: That just
depends. There are two
kinds of performances. One is the kind where you
have technical perfection, a kind of cold approach to the
performance with the right notes,
dynamics and rhythms all correctly handled, but there’s no real
spark of understanding or warmth or sympathy or empathy for the
music. That really does composers not much good.
BD: Is that
really like saying they have gotten
all the way to the starting point?
exactly what it is, yes, and in many cases they don’t want to get any
further. Another problem occurs with orchestral
performances where they do your work as a living, twentieth
century composer, and on the same program there’s
a major work by a standard composer. What happens in most cases
is they spend most of the rehearsal time on the standard
work because the conductor and the orchestra are going to be
judged on the performance of that work. The audience by and large
doesn’t know what your work sounds like, so they’ll be criticized
if it comes off sounding poorly.
they’ll blame the composer rather than the
Precisely! They will say it’s a dull work, nothing happened, and
you’re dying a
thousand deaths knowing that this went wrong and that went wrong, and
they never really brought the piece to life, and you’ve heard other
performances of it where these things worked so marvelously
well. If they had done that with a standard work,
the critics in the audience would
recognize this immediately and would comment on that. But that is
one of the age-old
problems of new music, the single performance syndrome. The LA
Philharmonic years ago started a series of concerts called
‘Second Performances’. There were so many new works that were
receiving one performance and that was the end of it, so they
thought they’d give some works a second go-round. The concept
didn’t get very far, sorry to say. But it was a good idea.
BD: Is there
any chance that there are too many
men and women writing concert music these days?
FC: I don’t
think so! The more people
that write, the higher the eventual quality is. It’s a field that
is attracting a lot of people, many with enormous talents, some with
best talents, but that’s what makes for wonderful music.
should someone go into the field of
composing for the concert audience?
FC: Well, of
course you obviously have to be slightly
insane. You have to be rather impractical by nature and
romantic. There are too many illogical reasons for doing it.
BD: Somehow I
assumed that talent for composition
would be first.
FC: Yes, but
the point is you’ve got to recognize the fact that you have the
nothing on earth is going to satisfy you except doing this
thing. Assuming that there’s some streak of rationality
inside of you, you recognize the fact that it’s not going to be the
same as making a success as an athlete or as a rock
singer. If they make it to the top, they’ll make huge piles of
money. Remember Stravinsky himself never made a lot of money as a
composer. I was talking to somebody the other day about
Stravinsky, and how here in LA he used to
complain because he made no money on his guest appearances as a
conductor. He certainly was no great shakes as a conductor.
He deluded himself that he was, but that’s where the money was.
You just can’t make any kind of marvelous living as a composer
without writing commercial music.
this, are you optimistic
about the future of concert music?
FC: Yes, I
think I am! There’s an audience for it. You just have to
seek your audience and hopefully find the
audience. As I go to more and more concerts
over the years, I just see new people constantly showing up, new
audiences constantly being developed, and yes, I’m optimistic about
it. I’m not optimistic that it’ll ever be a lucrative kind of
profession, but that’s a separate issue.
course! [Laughs] The
economics of many things baffle people!
question about it! [Laughs]
back to your compositions and your
compositional technique, when you’re sitting at the desk and
you’re faced with a lot of blank staves, you start putting notes
and blobs and marks on the paper. Are you always in control of
pencil, or are there times when you feel that that pencil is somewhat
controlling your hand?
FC: The way I work
is something usually occurs
in my head, and I let it just stay there as I wander around the
house. My son used to make fun of me and run
around the house. Then I’ll just sit down and start
Am I in control? I don’t know. That’s so difficult to
say. I know what I want to do, and sometimes when I first put
something down I’m very enthusiastic about it, and when I go back
to it the next day and look at it in the cold light of the next
morning, it may be terribly disappointing. But that’s all right
because the hardest thing in music is getting started. It really
It’s frightening! The idea of just having nothing is
overwhelming. So I find the best thing for me to do is put
something down. Then I can always work with it and develop it,
if the worst comes to the worst, I can always throw it away.
BD: Do you
save the old ideas that don’t work in one
piece and maybe use them in another?
FC: No, I
don’t do things like that! I know lots of people who do it, but
it’s not the
way I work, no.
FC: No, no,
no. I have a wastebasket which fills up
very quickly, and I just empty it and fill up another
wastebasket! As I get older I tend to depend less on pre-ordained
systems and more
and more on my inner-self. Whether that’s because I have just
so many things in the past and don’t have to depend on any type of
system, or whether that was my natural way is difficult to say.
But I know that’s the way I work.
you’re working and working and you get
the piece ready, and all of the marks are on the page, you go back
and tinker with it. How do you know when to put the
pencil down and say it is ready?
FC: That just
happens to you. You
keep looking and working the piece to death, and reworking and changing
it, and finally you come to the place where you realize that this is
it! It’s a strange moment because you’re torn in two
directions. In one sense there’s a feeling of elation.
You’ve finished something and that’s always
a wonderful feeling. On the other hand, it’s a bit of a letdown
because every artist always expects that the next work is going
to be the one that is absolutely perfect... and nothing ever is
BD: Is there
any way of achieving
FC: No, nor
any other kind of
perfection. If you ever achieved any kind of perfection,
you’d have to quit right then and there because by
definition you can’t surpass that. So if you were to write a
symphony that was absolutely perfect in every way, shape and form,
there would be no point writing another symphony. What every
artist is always trying to do is go beyond what he or she
did the last time round, or did at any time in the past. That’s
what makes being an artist so much fun because you’re never
going to totally succeed.
BD: So each
time you succeed in different places?
Yes. It’s a question of succeeding to a degree,
but never to the ultimate degree.
BD: How much
leeway do you expect on the part of the performer
Everything that I want is there, and the
players really have to play it as it’s written. But understanding
is part of what performing is all about.
BD: I assume
you would not want each performance to be a carbon copy?
definitely not. That’s the fun of live
performance. You can hear something five or six more times, and
it’s slightly different, and each time it could be really quite
successfully performed. Interpretation is part of
it, but again you’re talking about questions of degrees. It’s
playing a Brahms symphony or something. Each time you can do it
slightly differently and it might work each time. What
contemporary composers need are performers who are highly intelligent
and have the techniques that go beyond what the composer of
the past required. That’s hard to find! Good players
don’t really have to play new music when you come right down to
it. They can still make a living playing Brahms and
Beethoven. Certainly in the larger cities of the
United States and Europe, there are groups of dedicated musicians who
have this wonderful technique and are willing to devote extra time and
effort to learning new music. Actually, it takes satisfaction
from doing this, and it’s the thing that composers have to have.
They’re lost without it. I’ve always spoken
to performers, and I’ve
told them if they don’t believe in the work, don’t perform it because
if they play a work without understanding it and believing it,
not doing the composer any favor at all. They’re doing the
composer a disservice in the final analysis.
BD: And the
though the audience doesn’t know it. That’s the
only thing. The audience just probably leaves feeling kind of
empty and feeling that it wasn’t a very good piece, or it wasn’t a very
exciting evening. But, yes, you’re surely letting
the audience down, too.
BD: You talk
about the performances being
different each time, so we can come to the other side of the
coin, which is the recordings, which are exactly the same every time
you plop the needle down. [Remember,
this conversation took place in 1991, when CDs were still relatively
new to the scene and LPs were still a major format.]
BD: You’ve got a
number of recordings of your
music. Are you basically pleased with those recordings, because
they have more circulation than a single performance?
the advantage of a recording, and there’s a perfection on a recording
that is admirable, whereas
at the live performance anything can and often does go wrong. But
records obviously have a tremendous influence in aiding a composer’s
music to be circulated to a large degree. There’s no question
about that. On the other hand, I certainly am a firm believer in
live performance. But as far as my own recordings, I’ve
been fortunate enough to have a lot of recordings of my
works, and by and large they’ve all been excellent. But on the
other hand, it was the players who wanted to record the works in the
first place, so the players believed in the work before the idea of
recording them came up. So that’s an advantage. I don’t
think that a player’s
been called in to perform a work of mine at the last minute and wasn’t
interested in the work specifically. So I’ve been fortunate in
BD: Most of
the recordings are of different kinds
of chamber groups. Do you enjoy writing for different kinds of
chamber groups as opposed to, say, orchestra or a band?
FC: I love
writing for chamber music, but I
love writing for orchestra, too. It’s only that performances of
chamber music can be so much more successful because you can
find a quartet or a quintet of players that are absolutely totally
dedicated to what they’re doing. Whereas very often with large
orchestras there’s are groups within the orchestra and fractions
within the orchestra which just put up a barrier every time they have
to play a new work. You have to face that. I’ve been
backstage with the musicians in various cities when they’ve played
new works of world famous composers, and I’ve been
shocked by some of the reactions from some of the performers who deeply
resented playing some of the music.
rather be playing another Haydn symphony or
absolutely! With chamber music that happens less. The
players really have to
be dedicated to what they’re doing and believe in what they’re
doing. Usually in a quartet or a quintet, everybody has discussed
going to play anyway. They discuss the repertoire, and will
play this and not do that because they don’t believe in that
with a quartet you’ve gotten
four yes votes!
basically what happens! With an orchestra, you have to some
and a conductor, and they’re all pretty far removed from the players
BD: So then
your recordings, while good,
only really reflect one side of your compositional output?
sure! Absolutely! It’s like the case of The Blind Men and
the Elephant. One feels the tail and says an elephant is
shaped like a rope, and another feels the ear, etc., etc. I
sometimes feel that way as a
composer. Some people have the idea that I write only brass
music. Others have the idea that I write only woodwind music, or
whatever it happens to be that they hear! I don’t
think any of my vocal
music has ever been recorded, and although there was a plan for an
orchestral work to be recorded, none are on records right at the
moment. So that’s always the problem. There’s always
Now you mentioned that there might be an
orchestral work coming out. Are there any other recordings which
are in the pipeline?
there are several, but I don’t know what’s
happening. There’s a new work for soprano sax
and guitar which has been recorded but I don’t know what company will
release the recording. I got a phone call
telling me that the recording is just super and they’re very happy with
the recording. Then there are several other pieces that are
around on tape waiting to be released. I don’t know what
company will release them, and I don’t know when they’ll come out, but
that’s the way it is with composers. We’re the last to learn
about things like that. I was in somebody’s
house yesterday, visiting an old friend who is an audio engineer, and
he told me that a CD has just been released of an old work of mine, Times for unaccompanied trumpet,
the Tom Stevens recording. [The three movements are Good Times, Hard Times, and Time
to Go] I
didn’t even realize there was a CD out on it. [Laughs] He
was kind enough to give me a copy!
To read my Interview with William Kraft, click HERE
To read my Interview with Chou Wen-Chung, click HERE
BD: Is that a
re-issue? [Looks at his own copies of both the LP and CD]
FC: Yes, of
the old long-playing recording.
Right. They put a wrong date on it. The CD says 1979, and
on the LP record it says 1971.
FC: It’s 1971!
BD: For a
minute I thought it was two different
FC: Oh well,
as long as the music is well recorded. I
haven’t had the chance to sit down and listen yet. At least it’s
an electrical reworking of the work,
if nothing else! Tom’s a wonderful artist, and it’s one
of those strange works I did so many years ago. Yet it gets
constantly in live performances. It always amazes me that it
be a work like that, but it is a very popular with trumpet players.
mentioned vocal music, and I know
you’ve written one opera. Tell me the joys and sorrows of
writing for the human voice.
FC: The joy
is just hearing the human
voice, which I believe in. It’s a wonderful instrument, and it’s
a highly flexible, highly expressive instrument. The sorrows are
that there aren’t that many singers around that are capable of
first class performances of twentieth-century music, particularly any
kind of new music. So you have problems, and then if you
find a good singer that you can work with, it’s a good idea to stick
with that person and keep writing
for them. From time to time I’ve come across wonderful singers,
and things have worked out well between us. But again, it’s
the same thing with singers and maybe even more that I said
about orchestras. So many singers would just as soon sing Italian
opera, and would rather not venture into the field of
twentieth century music. There are the same old two reasons
— one, they feel
uncomfortable, and two, it’s difficult. Then I throw in a
third reason — they are afraid that the
audiences won’t care for it, whereas
if they get up and sing a Puccini aria, they’ll bring the house
down. Sing a twentieth century work, and even if they do a
wonderful job, the reaction depends on the kind of audience you have
BD: I keep
back to this, but is there any
way of getting the general public to be more interested in new works?
FC: From my
understanding, what you’re doing is
certainly one way of doing it! It’s a
question of exposure, nothing else. If you keep presenting new
music, it becomes a part of your life and you begin to understand it
and appreciate it. If you see contemporary
music as simply being in continuation of a long tradition, you
feel comfortable with it. The problem occurred early in
this century where a lot of foolish things were written about what was
happening with art — that it was breaking with
tradition and rejecting the past. Nothing could have been
further from the truth. People like Schoenberg and Stravinsky
and Varèse, not to mention the great painters like Picasso and
Kandinsky, and members of each of the arts, were doing no such
thing. They are making a logical
continuation of what had happened before, but it was an expression of
their own age.
BD: Should we
demonstrate for the general audience the sameness with the past rather
than the difference from the past?
FC: Why not?
That’s a good starting point because it
gives an audience something to hold on to. That’s a great
starting point, and as a matter of fact, with my Twentieth Century
Techniques class that is one of the things I like to do — to
how many ideas that appear to be new are very simply reworking or even
repeating of older concepts. When you first are exposed to them,
they might appear a little forbidding, a little overwhelming, but
when you examine them more carefully, you see that they’re really not.
kind of dancing around this, so let
me ask the question straight out. What is the purpose of music in
FC: Well, one
of the purposes of art in general is to enrich our lives. That’s
all I can say about it, but
for all of the arts the purpose is to enrich our lives, to stimulate
mind to some inner spirit that we all possess. It is to stimulate
some finer inner part of ourselves, but basically it comes down
to enriching our lives.
about to have a sixty-fifth birthday!
Any reflections on trends or surprises, good or bad, that you didn’t
expect in those years?
FC: No, I
can’t say that I have had anything that
surprised me so far! [Laughs]
BD: Are you
pleased with where you are at this point?
FC: I’m at
ease with myself! I understand
myself, I understand what I’m trying to do, I enjoy doing it, I feel no
sense of discontent. I’m glad I started out doing what I’ve done
life because it’s been very rewarding, very rich, very satisfying, and
it’s something I’ll never ever completely succeed at, and that
makes me happy because I like the striving. That’s what
satisfaction is generated from — the striving,
the attempt to
create something which is some type of perfection. As I said
before, perfection is elusive, and at no time will everybody else ever
kind of perfection, but the fun is in trying.
BD: Do you
just work on just one composition at a time, or do you have
several going at once?
FC: I work at
one at a time. When
I’m working on something, I can’t think of anything else
really. So it doesn’t bother me to go off and teach a class or
run an errand
because that’s just a relief. It’s a chance to get away,
and then come back to it and look at the problem with a fresh
perspective. But one piece at a time! I’m not one of these
composers who can write three or four works at a time. I wouldn’t
enjoy doing it. I’m not sure I
couldn’t, I just wouldn’t enjoy doing it.
that’s the whole point — to enjoy what you’re
absolutely. If you’re not
enjoying the art of composition, I don’t know what the heck being an
for. There’s really not much else to be involved in it.
doing it for the inner satisfaction that it’s bringing you.
It’s been great talking with
you. I appreciate your allowing me to spend some time with
you, and getting to know some of your ideas.
Absolutely! I appreciate your efforts, not only on my behalf but
on behalf of contemporary music, particularly
contemporary American music.
a labor of love at this end!
© 1991 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded on the telephone on
August 12, 1991. Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following
and again in 1997.
This transcription was made in 2015, and posted on this
at that time. My thanks to British soprano Una
Barry for her help in preparing this website
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
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