Composer  Paul  Chihara

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Paul Chihara was the founder and chairman of the UCLA Visual Media graduate program, which is devoted to training composers for film, Broadway musicals, and/or the concert stage. He received his doctorate (DMA) from Cornell University in 1965, and studied in Paris with the renowned pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, as well as with Ernst Pepping in Berlin and Gunther Schuller at Tanglewood. He has been the recipient of many commissions and awards, including The Lili Boulanger Memorial Award (1962), the Naumberg Foundation, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Fulbright Fellowship, the Aaron Copland Fund, and National Endowment for the Arts, as well as from the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the London Symphony Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the New Japan Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony, Milwaukee Symphony, the New Juilliard Ensemble, Continuum, and the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

He was composer-in-residence at the San Francisco Ballet from 1973-1986, as well as the first composer-in-residence with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, under Sir Neville Marriner. With Tōru Takemitsu, he was composer-in-residence at the Marlboro Festival of 1971. He has orchestrated for Gil Shaham and Orpheus, Live from Lincoln Center. On Broadway, Chihara served as musical consultant and arranger for Duke Ellington's Sophisticated Ladies, and was composer for James Clavell’s Shogun, the Musical.

He began his film career scoring Death Race 2000 (1976) for Roger Corman, which starred a very young Sylvester Stallone in his first Hollywood picture. Since then, he has composed scores for more than 100 motion picture films and television shows, including work with directors Sidney Lumet, Louis Malle, Arthur Penn, John Turturro, Michael Richie, and Jacques Cousteau. Among his most well-known scores are Prince of the CityThe Morning AfterCrossing DelanceyRomance and CigarettesKiki’s Delivery Service (co-composer), and the popular television series China Beach

Mr. Chihara has been awarded the Composer-of-the-Year by the Classical Recording Foundation in New York, 2008. He is a trustee and frequent composer/orchestrator for the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. He often lectures at NYU, MIT, Cornell, and the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  


Those who have heard or read my interviews over the years know that my interest and focus is on concert music.  So while we spoke of both areas of his career, the emphasis in this conversation is on the concert arena.  There are quite a few recordings of the music of Paul Chihara, but as with our chat, those which illustrate this webpage are of his concert material.
We met in July of 2004, and he was in very good spirits.  The time we spent together was filled with solid information, as well as much laughter.

Since WNIB had been sold and changed format in 2001, I had been presenting a weekly program of music and interview on WNUR.  Portions of this interview were used there a couple of times, and now, as Chihara is about to celebrate his 85th birthday, I am pleased to present our entire encounter . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You’re a composer of both concert music and film music?

Paul Chihara:   Yes, I am.

BD:   How do you divide your career?  Is it something that you do, or something that happens to you?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Bertram Turetzky, and Arthur Weisberg.]

Chihara:   Both.  I got my first picture in 1974.  I was already a reasonably established concert composer by then, with Monday evening concerts in Los Angeles, with Zubin Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  My first picture was for Roger Corman, called Death Race 2000, and by a very strange and wonderful coincidence, it was the same time that I got a job as composer-in-residence for the San Francisco Ballet.  The significance to me is that both forms of music have to do with drama, and often with plot, and situations in which the composer is not the only creator.  Both of them are basically collaborative efforts.  Now this is very different from the way I had been trained, and my career up until that point.  I had been composer-in-residence with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra with Neville Marriner, and one of the directors of the Monday Evening Concerts.  I was also one of the new music advisers to the Los Angeles Philharmonic, so I was primarily doing concert non-programmatic music.

BD:   Is this to say that there’s no thought behind a story in each piece of concert music?

Chihara:   [Laughs]  In the last twenty years, particularly with the post-modernism, the extra-musical considerations are very, very large in concert music by my composer colleagues everywhere.  But during the 1960s, when I was a student and a young composer, Stravinsky was the great model.

[At this point, our chairs and the table between us had been making noises which would have been disturbing to the radio audience, so we stopped and re-set ourselves to be more quiet.]

BD:   Is this at all like composing music, where you have to work at something and maybe re-set it several times before you can go on?

Chihara:   Oh yes, all the time. 

BD:   Do extraneous noises in the concert hall bother you when one of your pieces is being played?

Chihara:   Everything does, particularly coughing.  It seems like people all have colds.  [Laughs]  Whenever my pieces are on, I hear squeaking, and shifting, and all the rest.  But I suppose every composer feels that way.

BD:   Is it because it’s modern music rather than Beethoven?

Chihara:   That’s a good point.  The noise you hear in the audience during new music represents their irritation to some degree.  But I didn’t think about that.  I assume it is just my heightened sensitivity since it’s my own music, but it’s probably both.

BD:   Are you conscious of the audience when you’re putting pen or pencil to paper?

Chihara:   Probably, although it’s not just any old audience.  I tend to have an ideal audience in mind.

BD:   What is your ideal audience?

Chihara:   To some degree it’s me, but I have pretty eclectic and plebeian tastes.  I just saw Spiderman, and that was a glorious experience for me.  So, given that sensibility, I want to write music that pleases and thrills, the way Wagner does.
BD:   Do you want to write music for the Spiderman audience, or do you want to write music for the concert audience, or for any particular audience?

Chihara:   [Smiles]  Given the fact that 35 million people are going to watch that movie this weekend, I wouldn’t mind having that audience!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Is the concert music that you write for everyone on the planet?

Chihara:   No!  It’s primarily for me.  In fact, I misled you a little by that answer.  Although, like all composers I would like to have a vast audience, I don’t write music that you can really call post-modern... although some have called me that.  I’ve noticed that in certain reviews lately.  But I don’t write pieces that are based on comic-strip characters.

BD:   Do you have a specific label that you would like to put on your music, or would you rather not be labeled at all?

Chihara:   I’ve had a little number of labels at one time or another.  Believe it or not, when I was first beginning my career in 1966 at Tanglewood, the Boston Globe referred to me as the John Cage-ian Asian composer.  I am Asian... I’m Japanese-American, as is apparent when you meet me, but I’ve never tried to exploit that.  There are no quotes from Sakura Sakura [the traditional Japanese folk song, shown HERE.] in my music or anything like that.  I did spend the better part of three years in Tokyo with Roger Reynolds and his Cross Talk Intermedia Festival in the late 1960s.  That’s when I closely worked with Tōru Takemitsu, and Yuji Takashi, and Seiji Ozawa.

BD:   But you were born in Seattle?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Chou Wen-chung, and Earl Kim.]

Chihara:   I’m a Seattle boy, you bet!  I’m an American!

BD:   So, you’re an American of Japanese descent, not someone who started in Japan and then came here?

Chihara:   Of Japanese descent, yes, but I discovered that cross-pollenation was equally rich for the composers we met there.  For example, Takemitsu is eight years older than I am, but like myself at that time, he was trying to find musical roots.  His were the direct opposite of mine.  In his case, he revealed to me that classical Japanese music made him uncomfortable because it reminded him of the military and nationalism.  He was drawn to Dixieland, and to pop music, especially American popular music.  He always had a very strong affinity for that, whereas people now speak about him in the press as if he is some sort of very wise mystical Yoda [referring to the Star Wars saga].  He had that very spiritual side to him, but I saw him as much more like Luke Skywalker.

BD:   When you listen to his music, it’s very evocative.

Chihara:   It’s very evocative, but it’s as evocative as Scriabin or Debussy as it is of [baby talk]
“Goo, goo, ga, ga.  I like to think of that eclecticism as all-world sensibility which is characteristic of Japan, and certainly in the United States.

BD:   Then what do you draw on?

Chihara:   I like American pop music a great deal.  I grew up in a relocation camp, and the music I heard there was by no means Japanese.  We heard Japanese pop music from the older generation, but what the kids listened to was primarily Big Band music of the 1940s.  One of the credits I’m most proud of is that I was music director and one of the arrangers for Duke Ellington’s Broadway show, Sophisticated Ladies.  It ran for two years, and became a kind of industry.  That’s the music I love.  So, if you listen to Chihara’s music, knowing that he loves Duke Ellington and all the great pop composers of the 1930s and
40s, you’ll hear many of those resonances, as well as Debussy, of course.  After all, I studied in Paris with Nadia Boulanger, so French Impressionism is a part of my spirit.

BD:   Is it right to think that everything you have experienced so far in your life is going to appear at some point in the music?

Chihara:   Yes, in fact almost everything that I experienced today will appear in my music.  [Both laugh]

BD:   The good and the bad?

Chihara:   That’s right.  [More laughter]  Absolutely!  Good point!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you’re working with a score, how do you sort out which little pieces of you are going to appear?

Chihara:   I don’t try to sort it out anymore.  In fact, since I work equally in Hollywood in the commercial movie business, and on the concert stage, I am often asked if I have two different personalities, and do they resolve?  When I first started working in movies, I found that I had to create a whole new persona for myself, because the music that I’d written up until that time would have been characterized as avant-garde Western concert music.  I had a been a follower of John Cage, and all of that stuff, and we don’t even use that term anymore without smiling.  But when I wrote for that first movie, I had to write not only tonal music, but music that was right in your face.

BD:   Then why did he pick you?

Chihara:   Because he was smart and cheap!  [Much laughter]  He was a genius for finding people who were talented, and hungry, and could be exploited.  I have a great respect for this man because even though he didn’t pay me anything, he gave me a full screen composer’s credit.  If he’s listening, I want to say ‘thank you’ to Roger Corman because what he gave me was what something that no one else could.  He gave me a career.  Think about that.  Isn’t that great?  You couldn’t buy that.

BD:   Now that you’ve gotten into Hollywood, why do you still write concert music?
Chihara:   Because in my heart, that’s who I am.  I love concert music.  When I’m alone, I don’t listen to Hollywood scores.  I won’t mention my colleagues’ names, all of whom are great composers, but I don’t listen to their music.  When I’m lonely, or sad, or happy, or whatever, I’ll probably listen to Debussy, or Wagner, or Brahms, or Beethoven, all of whom I adore.  Then there are Duke Ellington, and Glenn Miller, and Benny Goodman, even Stéphane Grappelli.  The reason I almost never listen to Hollywood music is because I hear it all the time anyway.  I go to movies, and I watch television.  I’ve been in the film business now for thirty years, but when we film composers hear film scores, we listen differently.  We can’t help it.  We hear cuts, we hear edits, we hear cross-fades, and we hear the mistakes.

BD:   So, you hear technique ?

Chihara:   Yes.  For a long time I couldn’t go to movies and enjoy them, any more than I could go to the ballet and enjoy it during the 15 years I was with the San Francisco Ballet.  Now I can do all of those things because I’ve reached my third stage in life, which means I’m getting older.  [Both laugh]  In just a few days I’m going to be sixty-six, so I’m entitled to speak of myself as getting older.

BD:   Are you pleased with where you are now at sixty-six?

Chihara:   Yes, I am very pleased to be with you.  It’s a great honor to do this interview.  That didn’t happen to me when I was writing for Roger Corman!  [Both laugh]

BD:   You must get offers from concert venues and from film producers.  How do you decide which ones to accept and which ones to set aside?

Chihara:   It’s very nice of you to say that, but sadly I’m not inundated as I once was.  I’m doing a picture right now for John Turturro, which I’m very proud of, and I just finished several projects for Sidney Lumet for HBO.  I also did several movies for Disney recently, including the Japanese versions of Miyazaki movies.  One of them was Kiki’s Delivery Service, which is a very well-known prize-winning movie.  That’s all on the commercial side, and I still get commissions from the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, and other groups.

BD:   So, the film music pays the rent, and the concert music fills your heart?

Chihara:   That’s a good way to put it.  Concert music usually fills my heart, but it can have its agonies also.  I’m sure you know that from your various interviews and contacts with serious composers.  Hollywood often pays the bills, but not always.  It also has its own turmoil.  It’s incorrect for me to imply that I do film music primarily to pay the bills, although for a long time it was how I made my living.  I love films.  I love movies, and to say I love film music is a little different because I love concert music, that is to say good concert music!  I don’t like all film scores, but I like a lot of movies.  For example, I love the scores of John Williams and of Korngold.  Max Steiner is my favorite.  I love these composers, but I don’t love their music separate from the films of which they are an integral and an essential part.

BD:   What about Miklós Rózsa, who, like yourself, succeeded in both worlds?

Chihara:   [With a big smile]  Ah!  I think he’s a gorgeous composer.  I’m not just spellbound [making a pun on the name of the Hitchcock film, which won for Rózsa the Academy Award for best music (original score)], but you can recognize a Rózsa score.  He wrote many, but two frames in and you can recognize him.  The way he orchestrates is something.  He’s a Bartók-like composer.

BD:   But he also wrote Concert Music...

Chihara:   That’s right.  There’s a Violin Concerto [written for Heifetz in 1953, and later adapted into the score for the 1970 film The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes], and other things.  I find that less interesting because I feel that when he is writing concert music he seems to be seeing some sort of scenario.  Maybe some people will say that about me!  But Rózsa may not know it because he’s following the sonata-allegro form.  Film composers who also write concert music will usually choose the most standard forms to cling to, such as
sonata-allegro, or theme and variations.  They are almost never as creative in the forms that they choose as they are in the films that they choose.  It may be because they do not have a director or a click track to structure their musical thoughts.  So they choose something that’s very strongly traditional.

BD:   Do you ever wish that you could write a film score without having to consult the film or the click track?

Chihara:   Well, I think that’s happening now.  Because I’ve been writing so much film music at the same time as writing concert music, what’s happening is that my concert music is strongly influenced by my film perceptions, but not in the structural sense.  That is to say not in the formal sense, but more in the way that I just perceive information.  For example, and I think this is true of all young composers now, or really any living composer.  In the music of John Adams, or John Harbison, people who are not known as film composers, I hear something of film technique in the way they compose, and the way they layer.  I can almost hear the protocol at work.  That’s a misnomer... I can almost see the protocol technique at work.  I can see them layering, editing, cutting, and transposing material.  That’s the sort of thing we get from working in film and TV all the time.  Television has given us a new sensibility, and this is affecting the way we structure, and the way we listen to concert music.  To paraphrase T.S. Eliot, we not only see the present this way, we now see the past that way.

BD:   And the future?

Chihara:   And the future, yes.

BD:   Is this perhaps invading the conservatories?

Chihara:   Definitely!

BD:   Are we teaching students how to write music not just for concerts, but also for films, so that it becomes an amalgam all in one?

Chihara:   It’s the other way round, to some extent.  Teachers are being influenced by their students now, and a very simple and obvious analogue is the use of computers.  We all know that kids are much more adept at computers than we teachers.  If I have a problem with a computer doing some simple basic operation, I’ll run to the student, not to one of my peers.  [Laughs]  Our students teach us in the most patronizing and condescending way, but they do it.  That’s their advantage for the years of misuse that we’ve done on them, no doubt.  That’s how they perceive it.  But the students are coming into my classes at UCLA, and I’m a guest lecturer on film music at Columbia University, New York University, the Manhattan School of Music, and Juilliard, just to drop four names of this last year.  The students who come to my classes there
as well as their professors, including Fred Lerdahl or Milton Babbitt, or Christopher Rouse, all very well established and fabulous composershave a real interest in this business.  I notice that the kinds of questions put to me by students indicates that they see no distinction between studying a film score and studying something by Ligeti, though they study it for different reasons.  They’re not going to go to a score of John Williams or Danny Elfman in the same way that they’re going to look for musical structures in Ligeti.  But they’re going to look at the techniques involved to see how they structure things like climaxes, emotional heights and depths.
BD:   Then music is music is music, and you decide later the usage?

Chihara:   No, I don’t think they’d even ask that question.  One question they’ll all ask is how to get into the zoom business.  The other question asked is how much money you make.  [Both laugh]  But then again, my professional and professorial colleagues ask me that also.  [More laughter]  So, there’s a new honesty that comes with this business.
*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Coming back to concert music, should there be a big patron for concert music so that someone could write only concert music and survive?

Chihara:   I hate to say it, but there is a patron for concert music, and his name is The University.  Without question, that is the new Esterhazy, and just as working for Esterhazy had its great, great rewards
security for one thingand drawbacksyou lived in Hungary instead of Parisso the university has its strengths and drawbacks.  The strength is that it allows composers to write music that the concert world wouldn’t ordinarily tolerate.  The drawback is the same thing, because you don’t have to please anybody, and wanting to please the patron is not the worst thing in the world.  It’s just as pernicious and just as wonderful as trying to please the community that’s going to give you a commission.

BD:   We’re kind of dancing around it, so let me ask the real easy question.  What’s the purpose of music?

Chihara:   [Laughs]  That’s an easy question!  It’s not to make money, I’m sure of that.  I could say what Horace said when he wrote his Ars Poetica.  He said the purpose of art is to delight and to instruct, but that’s kind of a dodgy answer.  I write music because I love music.

BD:   There’s the delight.

Chihara:   That’s right, and because I like to eat and I like to eat well, they go together.

BD:   So, your idea then goes back through the centuries and through the cultures?

Chihara:   Yes.

BD:   Do you expect your music to last through the centuries and through the cultures?

Chihara:   I’d like to think that some music will last through the centuries, but given the way our world is going, I’m not sure anything is going to last.

BD:   This is assuming civilization lasts.

Chihara:   Okay, if civilization lasts, I think something of mine will survive... at least, I hope so.

BD:   Are we throwing in a joker because we have now not just the music on the page, but also on the flat plastic?

Chihara:   Absolutely.  It’s the flat plastic that’s going to survive.  That means Elton John will survive, I suppose, but I don’t think anything will survive with the same passion that Beethoven or Wagner does.  I may be offending people when I keep mentioning Wagner, but I’ve been listening to the Ring again, so that’s what’s in my head as I come into this interview.

BD:   But I trust you listen to all kinds of things.

Chihara:   Yes, I do.

BD:   Are we changing the way music is felt because the flat plastic gives an impression, whereas the pretty page leaves lots of different kinds of impressions?

Chihara:   That’s a really, really profound statement, and it’s true.  The flat plastic allows us to listen to what used to be a purely real-time acoustic experience in any environment whatever, usually in the opposite of the situation which that music was originally conceived and heard.  Now we even hear music in places like elevators.  Every car, every mall, every place has music.  [Musing]  Just think... there was a time when people heard music and it was live and acoustic!  It almost never is now.

BD:   And it was selected.  We chose to go to the location specifically for the music.

Chihara:   Yes.  Notice that hearing music is different from listening to music.  Listening is selective.  Hearing is an environmental thing.  The music that we hear now is almost always part of some other environment, be it visual or even olfactory.  Everything is possible, so we hear music now, and we associate it with other strong experiences.  One of the things about movies is that the experiences are strong.  The music is loud and the visions are graphic.  All these powerful experiences are married to very loud music.  Music is generally generated now synthetically, digitally.

BD:   At what point is it too much... or have we long since passed that?

Chihara:   I don’t think anything is too much because we have enormous powers of filtering, masking, and morphing sounds.  There are thresholds of pain, but we’ve crossed that many times over.  [Both laugh]

BD:   [With a bit of trepidation]  Does that mean we’re going to lose the old traditions of classical music?
Chihara:   We’re losing them all the time.  You should know that better than I!  [Both laugh]  I don’t say that it’s a bad thing, but maybe it is a bad thing.

BD:   Should we be sad that we are losing this, or should be try to save it, or should we just consider it progress?

Chihara:   All of the above.

BD:   Then why do you continue writing concert music?

Chihara:   Because I love it.  I love the experience of sitting in the room.  I was recently in Carnegie Hall for the Orpheus commission that I had.  That concert was completely sold out to hear a piece by Paul Chihara!  [Has a huge laugh]  To be honest, I think they came primarily to hear Sarah Chang play the Bruch Violin Concerto, which immediately preceded my piece, but I don’t care.  They stayed for Chihara, and it was a thrill for me that rivaled the first time I saw my name in the credits in a movie theater.

BD:   Did that movie credit make you feel that you’d arrived?

Chihara:   Yes!

BD:   You had arrived as a movie composer.  Have you arrived as a concert composer?

Chihara:   No one ever does that, but the thrill goes on.  I like being a musician.  I like all the insecurities, and all the craziness.  I’m totally nuts as a result, as are all my friends, whom I admire most.  A good friend of mine, William Bolcom, grew up in Seattle with me.  His career is similar to mine in certain respects.  I don’t have a Pulitzer Prize, and I’ve never aspired to that, but I like the fact that we both write concert music and film music.

BD:   It
s a healthy balance?

Chihara:   I think so.  For me, I never wanted to exclude one or the other.  If I were able to choose my destiny, and if I could be either Aaron Copland or George Gershwin, I would choose George Gershwin.

BD:   Why?

Chihara:   I’ve always wanted to write music like his terrific songs, or like Porgy and Bess, which is a combination of real down home popular resonances, and the highest standards of art music.

BD:   Is it going to please you when a composer coming along says they want to be like Paul Chihara?

Chihara:   Sure, who wouldn’t be pleased?  Although I don’t want them to study with me because it’s a nuisance.  Generally, what they really want is to get into show business and make a lot of money.  That
s why I’m not the most enthusiastic teacher.

BD:   Can I assume that you occasionally find someone who is really interested in music as art, rather than show-biz?

Chihara:   Yes, but the latter is not an unimportant consideration, and is not a loathsome one.  One has to be sensitive to the business because when you say
business, you’re talking about interaction in society.  We live mainly in a capitalist society, and I don’t want to say that making money is important, but it is being part of the economy, which means that people can interact with your best work.  That is really important.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Have you basically been pleased with the performances you’ve heard of your concert music?

Chihara:   Yes.  I don’t get that many, but when I do get them, they seem to be from wonderful organizations.

BD:   Are there times when someone will take your piece of music and make an addition, or an alteration, and you think it’s absolutely brilliant?
Chihara:   Yes.  In fact, that’s part of the ongoing thing about being a composer, and being a musician, and that’s so fabulous.  If I were a playwright, I would hate to think that my words were changed.  In my case, as a musician, I never make an ‘Urtext’.  I love to see the performance.  There are limits to what people do, but yes, I’m always thrilled.  A good performer does that anyway, and I’ve discovered that the best performers are very respectful of the composer.  But they always take off with the piece, and they go someplace that I didn’t know the piece could go.

BD:   You don’t need to mention any names or specifics, but are there times when they go the wrong direction?

Chihara:   Yes.

BD:   How do you handle that?

Chihara:   [Facetiously]  I want to murder them!  [Both have a huge laugh]

BD:   Do you let them know that what they have done is not right?

Chihara:   No, never.

BD:   [Very surprised]  You don’t try to urge them in another direction???

Chihara:   The ones who really are strong are impervious to that sort of urging.  They would go with other composers.  If a person’s going to be generous enough to play a piece by Paul Chihara instead of devoting a whole concert to Schumann, for example, he’s probably done it with other composers, and he probably has found that he does it his own way.  Besides, it’s not like I will go and write a piece for just anybody.  It’s going to be a person I respect, and know something about that person’s history.

BD:   Does that help you select whether or not you’re going to accept a commission?

Chihara:   Yes, definitely.

BD:   You always write for a specific person or orchestra?

Chihara:   Yes.  I don’t remember when I’ve written a piece that wasn’t for somebody or something.  It’s not because I’m doing it for money, because often they don’t pay me.  If the person doesn’t pay me money, but he’s a great performer and promises me a performance, that to me is a commission, and I’ll definitely take that.  There have been instances of that.

BD:   You’re paid in performance, and that’s all?

Chihara:   Absolutely.  David Shifrin commissioned a piece from me, and the commission was that he would play it on his concert at the 92nd Street Y in New York City, and that he would take me to the greatest restaurant at that time in New York, Lutèce.  I said I would gladly take that, and David, if you’re listening, I’ll take that again!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Is the offer if anybody wants to do this, or just someone of David’s caliber?

Chihara:   They don’t have to be famous like David Shifrin.  Sometimes we know somebody who is really good.  It’s like dancing.  You want a partner that turns you on.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Are you trying to turn the audience on?

Chihara:   Always!  [Laughs]

BD:   Do you always succeed?

Chihara:   I think so, and I’m sure that in many instances I have.  Occasionally I’ve gotten people angry at me, and that always hurts my feelings, to be honest.  I don’t like to be booed, or ridiculed, and that happens, too.

BD:   You’re not someone who just wants some kind of a reaction, even if it’s a bad reaction?

Chihara:   No, I don’t want a bad reaction.  There are people like that, but I’m not one of them.  [Both laugh]

BD:   So, you’re basically pleased with the live performances.  What about the recordings, because they have more permanence.  Are you pleased with those?
Chihara:   Of course.  You have to have recordings, otherwise you don’t reach any audience at all.  There will be more people listening to this radio interview than came to my last concert at Carnegie Hall.  You need both, and it’s healthy to need and to court both.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you have any general advice for young composers coming along?

Chihara:   [With a sly grin]  I don’t mind pontificating.  That’s different.  [Both laugh]

BD:   OK, then I’ll ask you to spend a moment pontificating.  What do most young composers need to know?

Chihara:   That’s something I have given some thought to.  When I go to universities, students often ask what they should do to become a film composer?  The answer that I’ve come to believe in, and which I give all the time, is to become a good composer.  It doesn’t matter where you study, just become a really good composer.  Study with Professor X, who is a master of counterpoint, or someone who really wants you to have a good ear, or someone who teaches you about the late string quartets of Beethoven.  Don’t study just the latest thing of [film composer] Danny Elfman, or [TV composer] Mike Post.  Don’t become cynical and say you know how they did Gladiator.  I know how they did it.  Anybody can know now they did that.

BD:   So, you don’t want them to be imitative?

Chihara:   It
’s OK to be imitative, but choose your visions.  Imitate Beethoven!  Imitate Milton Babbitt!  There are great people to imitate, including Ligeti!

BD:   I would think you wouldn’t want them to imitate Beethoven or Ligeti because you want them to be their own person.

Chihara:   You become your own person.  We say that you are what you eat, and in music you are what you love.  You are what you listen to.  We know that Bach learned his craft by copying out concertos by Vivaldi.  He copied them and imitated them, and that’s fine.

BD:   But then go off and become your unique self?

Chihara:   Yes.  If the fire doesn’t start, then you probably aren’t a composer.  Then go to Hollywood and become an orchestrator.  That’s not a terrible thing.

BD:   That
s an interesting thought.  If you aren’t really a particularly good composer, but you love music, be an orchestrator.

Chihara:   That’s right, and there are terrific orchestrators there.  I won’t mention their names now because that wouldn’t be fair, but many of them are very well trained.  There are students of Milton Babbitt and others, and they make other composers sound good.  I have too big an ego to let others do it for me, but I don’t mind orchestrating for Duke Ellington.  [Laughs].

BD:   Do you always orchestrate your own work?

Chihara:   Yes, always.  Only when I worked on Broadway, when I was writing songs, I didn’t have a chance to.  But then my orchestrator was David Cullen, who was Andrew Lloyd-Webber’s orchestrator, and did Phantom of the Opera, or John Cameron, who did Les Misérables.  I had the very best orchestrators, but that was on Broadway.  For movie work, I do all my own orchestration.  The one exception was when I was doing the television series China Beach, which ran for four years.  I did almost all the orchestration, but in some instances, I just couldn’t.

BD:   You ran out of time?

Chihara:   Yes, I ran out of time, and sometimes you just run out of energy.  You’re doing a show every week for four years, so you let your craft get you through.  I don’t orchestrate the piano score, but go straight to the orchestra score.

BD:   I would think that the pressure of time in movies and television would be just crushing.

Chihara:   For some people it is, but not for me.  I’m a reasonably hyper person.  I always got my scores done way ahead of time.  I got to the place where my agent quite wisely advised me not to let my producers know that I was done, because then they would indulge their own insecurities, and ask me to rewrite this, or rethink that.  Very often music is called in to fix what somebody else has messed up in production.  I don’t want to be abused, and so very often I would have finished the score, but tell them I’m still working on it.  Writing fast has never been a problem for me.  Writing wrong is where the issue is.
BD:   How do you know that you’ve written something well?

Chihara:   You know!  [Laughs]

BD:   What about when you’re writing a concert piece where there is perhaps an easier deadline?

Chihara:   That’s different.

BD:   How do you know when it is going well, and how do you know when it is done?

Chihara:   That’s a very profound question.  When I first started to write concert music, I never knew when a piece was done.  We don’t end on the tonic anymore, and even if we did, we still don’t know if it’s done.  To be honest, most of my pieces are never done.  I have a premiere and I’ll keep re-writing it, but there is plenty of precedence for that in composers that I admire.  We know that Debussy tinkered with the Afternoon of a Faun up until the day that he died.

BD:   I would think that would drive the publishers mad.

Chihara:   Yes, it did, but that’s all right.  Sorry, they deserve to be driven mad!  [Much laughter]

BD:   I take it you don’t like your publisher?

Chihara:   Oh, I have a great publisher, C.F. Peters.  They’re being driven mad, but for a number of economic considerations that have nothing to do with Paul Chihara.

BD:   Should you put a little appendix in each score, or perhaps update things now with the internet.?

Chihara:   To some extent, that’s actually happening.  Since everything is now done by Finale, or Sibelius’s various music programs, you can make instantaneous changes and fixes.  Yes, that’s happening.

BD:   Then what happens when someone comes to you and says they love a piece, not in today’s version but the one you put up two months ago?

Chihara:   I’ve had that.  I wrote a viola sonata in which I’ve changed the ending many times.  I have gotten a number of comments, some of them very supportive, but mostly hostile from performers who preferred the earlier versions.

BD:   Should they not perform the earlier versions?

Chihara:   They’re going to anyway because the versions are out there.  We can’t really control it.  That’s like trying to control performers.  There are all these different things, but now with the internet, and with the fact that you can update things so instantaneously, a piece is in flux all the time.

BD:   Eventually though, it must be finished, even if it’s at your demise.

Chihara:   I don’t think the piece is finished, but a recording gives you a definitive version, because in the end the public doesn’t go to the score.  They go to the record, as we were talking about earlier, the flat plastic.  That’s what lives on, and that’s the one the performer chooses.  Performers have a say now that they didn’t have so much in earlier times.

BD:   Is it better or worse now that we know every performance because everything is documented?

Chihara:   I don’t know the answer to that. 

BD:   Are we putting the future generations in a straight-jacket?

Chihara:   We just have a lot more information.  For example, I like the new version of Let It Be, a re-release of that song with Paul McCartney’s blessing.  I always loved the song, and I always hated Phil Spector’s version of it, which was, to me, so over-orchestrated.  So I was very pleased to hear the original.
 Pop music is now a study at major universities, like at UCLA where I teach.  It is taught as an ongoing artistic contemporary artifact.

BD:   One last question.  Is composing fun?

Chihara:   Yes, but it’s also hard work.  I’m tired right now.  I just finished a piece for Carl St. Clair’s orchestra, the Pacific Symphony Orchestra.  I had to get that done before I came to Chicago to meet with you, so I worked extra hard to get it finished.  The deadline is not until the end of the month, and today is only July 6th, but on July 12th I am beginning John Turturro’s picture Romance and Cigarettes.  So I had to budget my deadlines around other realities.  I had two months to work on the orchestra piece without any other thing to do, so I worked hard on it, and I worked well on it.  It was a joy to work on a concert piece without worrying about the movie, because often I have to do them at the same time.  That’s an agony!  I like doing films, and I like doing concert music, but doing them at the same time divides me in a way that is emotionally very taxing.

BD:   Thank you for all of the music, and for spending time with me today.

Chihara:   Thank you.  This was very enjoyable.


© 2004 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Evanston, Illinois, on July 6, 2004.  Portions were broadcast on WNUR the following December, and again in 2011.  This transcription was made in 2023, 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.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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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.