Composer  Nancy  Laird  Chance

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie




chance







Nancy Laird Chance is one of several composers whose music I had heard on recordings before seeking them out for an interview to present on my series of radio programs on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago.

She was born March 19, 1931, and graduated Magna Cum Laude from the Foxcroft School.  She studied piano with William R. Smith and Lilias Mackinnon.  She was at Bryn Mawr College from 1949–50, and at Columbia University from 1959-67 studying theory and composition with Vladimir Ussachevsky, Otto Luening and Chou Wen-chung.  [Names which are links refer to my Interviews elsewhere on this website.]

After completing her studies, Chance worked as a piano teacher, composer and arts administrator both in America and in Nairobi, Kenya.  She received the ASCAP/Nissim prize for orchestral composition in 1981 for Liturgy and in 1984 for Odysseus.  She also received two awards from the NEA, and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony and Sundance Film for composition in 1988.

When I caught up with her in 1990, she was living in a small town of about 1600 people, three hours north of New York City.  We arranged to speak on the telephone, and here is what was said that afternoon . . . . . . . . .


Bruce Duffie:    When you’re working on a piece and hearing it in your head, do you anticipate the joy that the audience will get out of that particular piece once it’s finished and performed?

Nancy Laird Chance:    Yes, one always hopes they will get joy from it, or at least some meaning from it of some kind.  I don’t really think about that a lot when I compose.  I just compose because I need to, or I feel like it at the moment, or I want to.  I don’t really particularly think about what people will feel as they listen to it.

BD:    So you don’t have the audience in mind at all?

NLC:    No, I don’t!   I suppose that’s a strange thing to say, but I compose because I feel the need to.  I have something I want to say, or some material that excites me.  I would like to work with it, and I just work!  I don’t feel as if I’m saying anything particular to any particular person, or any particular group of people.

BD:    Is each piece that you compose saying something different?

chanceNLC:    Yes, I think they are.  It’s very hard to articulate exactly what music or art or various non-verbal kinds of art are actually saying.  Perhaps it’s because they’re saying something that cannot be articulated verbally that they actually have meaning as art.  It would be very hard for me to articulate.  For instance, one of my records has Duos III.  For me that piece says a lot, but I couldn’t possibly say to you verbally what I’m saying in that piece.

BD:    Do you expect the audience then to experience what it is you’re saying by listening to the music that comes through?

NLC:    Right!  What these things say is not possible to articulate verbally, and that’s why one does it musically, or why some people do it in painting, or why some people do it with dance.

BD:    Do these ideas come to you at all verbally, or do they come to you in a spiritual kind of way, and you hear the music as the thoughts come through?

NLC:    I don’t think it’s either one.  I don’t say to myself,
Okay, now I’m going to do a piece that’s uplifting, or, “Now I’m going to do a piece that’s amazing.

BD:    Do you say to yourself,
Now I’m going to do this piece?

NLC:    Yes.  [Laughs]  It’s as simple as that.  Usually there is obviously a starting point
— sometimes it’s a text, sometimes it’s a particular form, sometimes it’s just a musical fragmentand in the beginning it’s extremely vague, and very fragmented, diffused, and parts become clearer as they evolve.  Eventually there comes a momenta sort of marvelous momentthat the entire piece becomes clear, even though you haven’t put down all the notes or even maybe half of the notes.  It’s finally clear as to the form it’s going to have.

BD:    As the piece is evolving, are you controlling this evolution or do you get carried away by the evolution?

NLC:    It’s a little of both.  I start out usually with a certain form in mind, and as it goes along I find that either the form doesn’t quite work for this material, or it works a little bit differently, and it becomes skewed a little this way or that way.  I control it and it controls me.  I like to think I control it!  [Both laugh]

BD:    Are you ever completely surprised by where a piece ends up?

NLC:    No, because, as I said, usually about half way through it’s pretty clear where it’s going to end up.  But it isn’t always the form and the shape I exactly had in mind in the beginning.

BD:    As you’re writing the piece, are you conscious of the amount of time that the performance will take, even before the shape is completely there?

NLC:    No, I try not to be.  I try not to write a piece that’s going to take five hours because that will never get played [laughs], but usually it ends up somewhere about the length I thought it would be.  Sometimes it gets longer or sometimes it’s a little bit shorter.  I don’t really think about it a lot as being an important thing. 

BD:    So it’s not important about how long it takes, as long as it takes the right time for that piece?

NLC:    That’s right, yes.

BD:    When you’re writing, how do you know when you have finished tinkering with the piece and are ready to put the pen down and say that it is ready to be launched?

NLC:    I work in two stages.  I have a rough pencil draft which is obviously the bolt of the work, but I do my own major score
either the orchestral score or the chamber music score — myself, and that actually copying process really for me is final part of the composing.  I do a lot of the tightening up and final tinkering in that process.  Basically because it’s so hard to muck around with India ink on velum once I’ve done it, I can’t change it!

BD:    Are you always happy with the way it comes out?

NLC:    Yes... usually.  Sometimes after the first performance I find bits of it that I would like to change slightly, and I do.  Sometimes occasionally there’s a piece that I just feel is not working, and I do it over in a major way.

BD:    Is it better to rework a piece, or to write a new piece?

NLC:    I’m not sure.  I’ve really only done this once, and I’m not sure, honestly.  But if the piece has major parts of it that you feel have value, that it’s worth the tinkering with. 

BD:    Are there times when you are perhaps out in nature that you get an idea, and you store it away for the piece you’re working on
or perhaps for a piece two or three works down the line?

NLC:    [Pauses a moment]  I’m not sure that being out in nature is what does it.  It certainly gives me a lot peace and a peaceful attitude being up here where I am, and a bit of time
although not as much time as one must take, always — but yes, I do have ideas and I sort of scribble them down in a notebook.  Scenes from  Duos III I had in a notebook since the early ‘60s, and I finally did the piece in about 1979, or ’80.  That’s a lot of time to have that way.  The huge part of that pieceits subject and counter-subjecthad been in my notebook for fifteen years before I finally made into the piece it is.

BD:    Was it sub-consciously evolving all that time in your mind during that time, or did you really put it away and then come back to it?

NLC:    I was not conscious that it was evolving, but maybe it was.  I just all of sudden decided it’s time I made something out of it.  It’s a thing I like, and I think it’s good.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Now you bring up the word ‘good’.  Let me ask a little more philosophical question.  What are some of the threads that contribute to making a piece of music ‘good’ or even perhaps even ‘great’?

NLC:    I’m not sure.  You’re talking about the whole business, the old thing about Apollo and Dionysus
form versus emotional content, and all that sort of thing.  For me, philosophically I stand in the middle of that.  Form that has no emotional content is very empty and very dry, and we have had a lot of that art in the past thirty or forty years in this country.  On the other hand, emotional content that has no form or shape is basically meaningless.  It’s a lot of auditory oatmeal, and there’s a fair amount of that around, too.  I stand, or I attempt to stand some place in the middle of that.  I also feel that basically art should not be a vehicle for politics.  A lot of art now is carrying a burden of extra-musical politics, whether it be politics of gender or of race or of nation or just plain ‘politics’ politics!

BD:    Is this something which is imposed on the music by the composer rather than by the circumstances?

NLC:    Yes!  The circumstances are in reply to the politics that have been imposed in the first place by the composer.  I know this is not a popular thing to say, but if art is going to last, or be important, it has to be something more than a vehicle for politics.  What it has to say has to be some sort of higher order.

BD:    So then you don’t view your work as a woman’s work but rather than a composer’s work?

NLC:    Oh, absolutely.  [Laughs]  I really feel strongly about this.  I’m not a woman composer.  I’m a composer!

BD:    But you still belong to the American Women’s Composers League?

NLC:    I do, but I do my best to nudge them towards the mainstream.

BD:    So you’re hoping one day that the League will be irrelevant?

NLC:    Yes, exactly!

BD:    Are we making progress towards that end?

NLC:    Oh, I think so!  I feel that basically all of us, male and female, face the same problems.  None of us can get our scores read; none of us can get played, and none of us can get published, and almost none of us can actually make a living by composing.  All of us have to do something else.

BD:    Why is it that no living composer can get played, published, recorded, etc.?

NLC:    [Sighs]  I don’t know, really.  At the moment in this country the whole climate for contemporary music is less good than it is abroad, and that’s probably not so much a matter of lack of audience, but lack of funding.  In the last five or six years, all kinds of really fine and old and established chamber groups are just going belly-up for total lack of funding.

BD:    So it’s not just the composers that are not funded?  It’s also the performing groups that are not funded?

NLC:    Yes, it’s both, but basically we don’t get played if there’s nobody to play it.  Orchestras are also terribly pinched now.  Their budgets are tighter and tighter.  Funding is drying up, and of course the box-office is always a very small part of their income.  Most of the income for both the orchestras and the chamber groups is from various kinds of funding
government funding, corporate funding, private fundingand it’s just drying up.  Then the orchestras tend, in that case, to play pieces that they know and have known for years, and therefore don’t take hours of rehearsal time.  A new piece that requires a lot of rehearsal time, and that is an expensive thing!  Basically a three-hour session costs a major orchestra $10,000 minimum.  So it means a lot if they’re going to take on a new piece.


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BD:    So you appreciate that when an orchestra will give you that three-hour rehearsal?

NLC:    Oh, absolutely, but one doesn’t often get it. 

BD:    Can any of this blame be laid at the composer’s desk?

NLC:    Yes, I suppose it can.  There has been a period for perhaps the last thirty years when the music that has been written has been terribly formal, terribly arid, terribly non-accessible for the public.

chanceBD:    Why is it being written like that?

NLC:    I don’t know!  It’s not the kind of music I like or ever wrote, and I’ve never understood why people wrote it.

BD:    So you’re not only having to fight for usual things, you’re having to fight thirty years of poor history on top of that!

NLC:    Yes.  One had to fight that a lot more maybe ten or fifteen years ago.  There was a time when if you didn’t write that kind of music you couldn’t get played, but it’s quite different now.  The whole field has opened up as far as style and form and content.  It’s a very diffused period at the moment.

BD:    What has caused this major change?

NLC:    Well, I think it’s a reaction to what has gone on before, and in some cases it’s extreme.  It’s going as far as being a musical nihilism that says art is meaningless, art is dead, and if you doubt it, this piece is living proof!  [Both laugh]  But I don’t think that’s going to last.  We’ve had periods of that kind before, and usually it comes as a reaction against something that comes before and is also usually followed by periods of much more meaningful music.

BD:    So you think we’re heading into a new, perhaps even golden age?

NLC:    I hope so.  It would be nice to think so any way!

BD:    I assume you’re trying to head up to that kind of golden age and be part of it?

NLC:    Yes, well, who isn’t! 

BD:    Let me ask another big philosophical question.  What is the purpose of music in society?

NLC:    That’s a hard one to answer.  [Thinks a moment]  Perhaps the purpose of all art is, in some way, to define or distill something about the age it’s written in that cannot be expressed or articulated verbally.  I don’t feel that the purpose of art is simply to say again things that can be stated and are stated a great deal verbally.  One has to be on a higher plane.  As we look back over history, in a great many ways we define periods by their art.

BD:    Rather than by their politics?

NLC:    Yes!

BD:    Does this in any way put too much pressure on the artistic community to make this definition?

NLC:    I don’t think so.  That’s a pressure that comes from inside, and, I said before, I don’t think it’s a conscious pressure.  Artists don’t sit down and say,
Okay, I’m going to define this period of my age!  They just sit down and they paint, or they sit down and they write, and they tell us how it is defining if it’s good.

BD:    So then it’s a retrospective kind of definition?  You can’t see the definition until after the age is either almost done or even long-completed?

NLC:    No, I think you often see it as it’s going on.  Perhaps you see it better with hindsight... we all see better with hindsight.

BD:    Let me ask you to gaze into your crystal ball.  Where is music going these days?

NLC:    Lord only knows!   [Bruce laughs]  There are so many ways it could go, and so many different ways it’s going at once at the moment.  There’s a very strong middle ground that’s being defined, and that has real roots in the past, and I think that it will perhaps be where things lead in the future.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music?

NLC:    [Sighs]  Yes, I guess I am.  This country needs to be a lot more conscious of the importance of its arts.  Of all the countries that call themselves civilized, ours stands the least of all on its arts, and if art in this country is going to go anywhere, that has to be changed. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me turn the discussion to some of your works.  You have had four of your pieces recorded.  Are you pleased with those four recordings that have been issued?

NLC:    Very much so!  Those records are fine and I always liked them.

BD:    So you’re glad that those are the representations so far among the public?

NLC:    Yes.

BD:    The first one, in no particular order, is Exultation and Lament, dating from 1980.  Why alto saxophone and timpani?


chance

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NLC:    I don’t really know!   I have always done a lot of percussion in my music, and I guess I was looking for an instrument that could really hold its own against the timpani.  That’s hard to find. 

BD:    So it was the timpani first?

NLC:    Yes, it was.  I started out to do a timpani solo, and I decided basically this is boring. It needs something else, but it’s very difficult to find a solo instrument that can carry or hold its own against the sheer weight of the timpani. 

BD:    I’m curious as to why you felt you needed to add something with the timpani?  Were four, or perhaps six or eight timpani, insufficient?

NLC:    A number of pieces have been done for timpani solo, and I just felt I wanted something else in there, but I can’t explain to you why!  I just had this feeling.

BD:    And the answer is that’s the way it had to be!

chanceNLC:    Yes!  That’s right.

BD:    Next is Ritual Sounds

NLC:    That is the oldest of the ones you have.  That was first done by the Philadelphia Orchestra in ’65.

BD:    This is for brass and three percussion.

NLC:    That’s right.  It’s a brass quintet.

BD:    Just because it’s the oldest piece, I assume that you don’t disown it in any way?

NLC:    No, I don’t!  I think it stands up.  There are some of the older pieces that don’t interest me as much anymore, but some of them stand up quite well.  It’s not a style I write in anymore, but I think it’s still a strong piece.

BD:    So it was a perfectly valid style when you wrote it?

NLC:    Yes, and I think it still is.

BD:    That’s very refreshing.  Many composers almost try to bury the old pieces, and they want only performances of the very newest ones.

NLC:    Well, it depends.  For some of the old ones I was not as knowledgeable, not as skillful at that time as I am now, and I’m a little embarrassed by this or that piece, but some of them I don’t feel that way at all.  I feel that they stand up quite well.  Actually, the oldest piece that I think of as a professional piece is a choral motet that I did in about ’63, ’64, and it was just performed by the Greg Smith Singers.  It’s a good piece! 

BD:    Maybe he’ll record it?

NLC:    That’d be nice!

BD:    It always pleases you, I assume, when piece gets recorded?

NLC:    Yes, if it’s well done.  I have a lot of tapes that I really don’t have any use for, but when I have a good tape, it’s a real treasure.

BD:    Are there ever cases where performers will discover things in your music that you didn’t even know you had hidden there?

NLC:    Yes, I think so
— not major things, but often nuances.  They play it a little bit differently than you had felt it, and you can feel almost immediately that’s better, or equally valid.

BD:    Then do you try incorporate that in the next performance, and encourage other performers to utilize that?

NLC:    No.  I try not to lead the performers too much.  I just give them the score and let them play it.  I try to have some input if I can before the performance, but I don’t tell them note-for-note how I’d like it played, or even too much of an overall feeling about it.  If I feel that they’re way off, I tell them so.

BD:    Hopefully that doesn’t happen too often!

NLC:    No!

BD:    Are your scores rather sparsely annotated, or do you have lots of directions over every nuance?

NLC:    I would say again it’s a kind of middle of the road.  I try to be as precise as I can, especially for instance in percussion as to what sticks to use and things of that kind.  I don’t load every measure with words, but I do attempt to be as precise as I can.

BD:    Are you a percussionist yourself?

NLC:    No, I’m not! 

BD:    What drew you so much to percussion?

NLC:    I don’t know!  Actually I became interested a long time ago in African drum music.  This was before I lived in Africa actually, not after.  Everyone tends to say that it’s because I lived in Africa, but basically I became interested before I went.

BD:    Is that one of the reasons you went to Africa because of this intense interest?

chanceNLC:    No, it was not.  I just got tired of American life in suburbia.

BD:    So you just picked up and moved out???

NLC:    That’s right.  I suppose it was just a longing for a little adventure.

BD:    How long were you over there?

NLC:    I was there for five years.

BD:    Was it as rewarding as you thought it would be?

NLC:    Yes, absolutely.  It was wonderful. 

BD:    Is this a thing you might do again?

NLC:    [Sighs]  I was much younger then.  If I’d known how difficult it was I probably wouldn’t have gone, but once I was there I just managed. 

BD:    But there are no regrets?

NLC:    None at all. 

BD:    Did you do some composing while you were there?

NLC:    Yes, I did a lot, actually.  I had a lot more time over there.  I composed in the mornings and I taught in the afternoons.  They spared a lot more time.

BD:    What were you teaching?

NLC:    Music, piano.

BD:    To the native people there?

NLC:    No, it was mostly to embassy people or embassy children, journalists, USAID people, UN people, World Bank people...  It is very difficult to teach piano to people who don’t have an instrument, or don’t even have access to an instrument.

BD:    So you were reminding them of the western culture they had left behind?

NLC:    I don’t think it was a great high thing.  There was need for piano teachers, and I filled it!

BD:    Now you’ve kind of railed against this, but did the African landscape and the culture and everything there inspire anything in the music that you composed there or the pieces that followed later?

NLC:    I don’t think in a specific way, except that I was in a frame of mind where I could compose my mind, and I could have the peace and the concentration to write.  Beyond that, it didn’t inspire anything in me that one could put your finger on specifically.

BD:    Whereabouts were you?

NLC:    I was in Nairobi in Kenya, about an hour outside of Nairobi actually. 

BD:    I assume that’s a very beautiful part of Africa.

NLC:    It’s absolutely gorgeous. 

BD:    Is this something that you would encourage other composers to do
get away from it all, not necessarily Africa, but some place away?

NLC:    Yes.  It’s really been a big thing for me in both cases
going to Africa and also coming up here.  It’s a case of getting away, although actually some of my best work has been done in the MacDowell Colony (in Peterborough, NH).  I’ve been there three times for a couple of months each time, and when I go there I get an amazing amount of work done because nothing infringes upon your time.  People can’t call you on the telephone; you don’t have to buy your food or cook it, wash the dishes or do your laundry or anything.  All you have to do is just sit there and put little black notes on white paper hour after hour after hour!  It’s amazing how much you get done!

BD:    Do you pick your time to go there when you’re ready to write, or do you have to write when you get there?

NLC:    I won a prize about three or four months in advance.  There’s a jury, and they pick who they accept.  You generally apply in order to do a specific piece of work
at least I have.

BD:    You’ve got the ideas and you just need the time and the space to get them out?

NLC:    That’s right.  Actually I try to be well into the work before I go because otherwise there you are with all this time and all these sharp pencils and all that blank paper, and not an idea on earth!  It’s much better to be into it before you go. 

BD:    Do most of the people go there realize that?

NLC:    I don’t know.  That’s a personal feeling about it, that’s all. 

BD:    Do you look forward to going there again?

NLC:    Oh yes, absolutely!  I would go if I had a big piece to do and a certain amount of time to do it.  I’d apply for that.  Even where I am now, alone as I am in my house, there are times I just don’t have time to work.  My kids are all grown, but I have to take care of my house and my garden and my job. 

BD:    Are you still involved in teaching?

NLC:    No, I don’t teach.   Now I’m a book-keeper.

BD:    I would think that would help to clear your mind of the music and give you a break from it.

NLC:    That is quite different, yes.

BD:    Do you find then that when you come back to music each night that you’re more refreshed?

NLC:    No, I don’t.  I’m more often tired, exhausted in fact.  But physically is a change.  I find it quite peaceful work actually.  It’s not nerve-wracking work.  There’s a certain order and peace about all those numbers. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Another of your recorded pieces is the Duos III for violin and cello.

NLC:    Yes.

BD:    Not an odd combination, but an unusual one...

NLC:    Is it so unusual?  I don’t know...

BD:    I was thinking about having the two string instruments with no piano.


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NLC:    Yes.  Now there is of a version of that which I made for string orchestra.  That particular piece uses a great many double-stops, and if they don’t see the players, the listeners think there are four players.  So it was quite easy to actually transpose it for string orchestra.

BD:    And yet when you wrote it, you assumed it would be just a two-person duo.

NLC:    Yes, absolutely.  The double-stops actually were a part of that whole idea of the piece.  As you know, two notes that are played as a double-stop on one instrument sound quite different than the same two notes played as single notes on two different instruments.

BD:    They are much more compact.

NLC:    Yes, and there’s a kind of stringent quality to the sound.  It’s not as mellow.

BD:    The fourth record has the piece for flute with Katherine Hoover.

NLC:    Yes.  That started out really to be a kind of display piece for flute, and in that case it’s the opposite of the other piece where I started out with the percussion and added the saxophone.  I began it as a sort of display piece, as I said, for flute, and I thought it just needed something more.  So I added the percussion, and gradually the percussion grew into more than one player.

BD:    They don’t overpower the flutist?

NLC:    No, they don’t.

BD:    It doesn’t come across that way on record, but I just wondered if there has to be care taken that the two percussionists really don’t overpower the one flute player in a live situation.


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NLC:    Yes, they do have to take care.  Good percussionists are very aware of balance problems.

BD:    [With mock horror]  You mean, they’re becoming musicians too???

NLC:    [Laughs]  Oh, they’re very good musicians.  The ones I know are fabulous!

BD:    Is there some music for percussion ensemble in your catalogue?

NLC:    Yes, I have one piece that’s a percussion quartet.   It’s called Ceremonial.  It’s really only ever had one public performance, but it has had a couple of reading and student performances.

BD:    A number of composers have mentioned that it’s not too hard to get a first performance of a new work, but it’s much more difficult to get that second and third performance.  Do you find this also true?

NLC:    That’s very true with big orchestra pieces, but it’s less true with chamber pieces.  Most of my pieces have been done a fair amount.

BD:    Does this encourage you to do more chamber works as opposed to large-scale works?

NLC:    It ought to, but I’m obtuse.  At the moment I’m working on a huge piece for large orchestra, large chorus, and soloists.  I don’t know who will ever perform it but I feel as if I need to write it.  However, I know I must get back to doing some chamber pieces.  They are a lot easier to get played.

BD:    Are many of your works on commission?

NLC:    Some of them are.  This piece that I’m doing now is not.  I’m just doing it.

BD:    When you get a commission, how do you decide if you’ll accept or perhaps turn it aside?

NLC:    I don’t get so many that I turn them down. 

BD:    But there must be some criteria that helps you to decide.

NLC:    Sometimes I’ll tell the commissioners I can’t do it right now, but I’ll do it later.  I’ve never been asked by a person who I felt wouldn’t perform it properly, which might cause me to turn it down.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    This next year you’re going to be having your sixtieth birthday.  Are you at the position you expected to be or wanted to be as you hit this milestone?

NLC:    Not really.  I think this is probably the only thing about why being a woman has made a difference.  I’ve never been conscience really of male/female discrimination, but I’m very aware of the fact that between the ages of 19 and about 38 or 40, I took a number of years out to raise a family. 

BD:    I assume you don’t regret that...

NLC:    I don’t regret it, but time that’s lost is lost, and it’s not retrievable, and the effect on my career of that lost time has been absolutely devastating.  I find I’m out of place in my career.  I am where I ought to have been, say, in my early 40s.  It doesn’t bother me unduly but I’m aware of it.

BD:    Of course in the male/female statistics, you’ll have the probably have the proverbial 7.8 years more than a man.

NLC:    [Has a huge laugh]  So I’ll get my own back!

BD:    I appreciate you spending the time with me this afternoon. 

NLC:    Oh I enjoyed it, too.



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© 1990 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone on August 25, 1990.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in 1996.  This transcription was made in 2016, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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.