Composer  Michael  Colgrass

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Michael Colgrass

Born: April 22, 1932 - Chicago, Illinois, USA

The American-born Canadian musician, composer, and educator, Michael Colgrass, began his musical career in Chicago where his first professional experiences were as a jazz drummer (1944-1949). He graduated from the University of Illinois in 1954 with a degree in performance and composition and his studies included training with Darius Milhaud at the Aspen Festival and Lukas Foss at Tanglewood. He served 2 years as timpanist in the Seventh Army Symphony Orchestra in Stuttgart, Germany [see photos below], and then spent 11 years supporting his composing as a free-lance percussionist in New York City where his wide-ranging performance venues included the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, American Ballet Theater, Dizzy Gillespie, the Modern Jazz Quartet, the original West Side Story orchestra on Broadway, the Columbia Recording Orchestra’s Stavinsky Conducts Stavinsky series, and numerous ballet, opera and jazz ensembles. He organized the percussion sections for Gunther Schuller’s recordings and concerts, as well as for premieres of new works by John Cage, Elliott Carter, Edgard Varese, and many others. During this New York period he continued to study composition with Wallingford Riegger (1958) and Ben Weber (1958-1960).


Michael Colgrass has received commissions from the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (twice). Also the orchestras of Minnesota Orchestra, Detroit Symphony Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, National Symphony Orchestra (Washington), Toronto Symphony Orchestra (twice), the National Arts Centre Orchestra (twice), The Canadian Broadcast Corporation, The Lincoln Center Chamber Music Society, the Manhattan and Muir String Quartets, The Brighton Festival in England, The Fromm and Ford Foundations, The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and numerous other orchestras, chamber groups, choral groups and soloists.

Michael Colgrass won 1978 Pulitzer Prize for Music for Déjà vu, which was commissioned and premiered by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. In addition, he received an Emmy Award in 1982 for a PBS documentary Soundings: The Music of Michael Colgrass. He has been awarded two Guggenheim Fellowships, A Rockefeller Grant, and first prizes from the Louis B. Sudler International Wind Band Competition and the National Band Association (both in the USA) for his wind ensemble composition Winds of Nagual (1985). His Strangers: Irreconcilable Variations for Clarinet, Viola and Piano won the 1988 Jules Léger Prize for New Chamber Music. His Snow Walker was premiered at the 1990 Calgary International Organ Festival.


Michael Colgrass has created a method of teaching children - and teachers - how to write music using graphics. In April of 2009 he did a project with the Middleton Regional High School in Nova Scotia, where high school students wrote seven pieces for band in three days and conducted them in public concert on the fourth. As a result, his method was adopted by the Nova Scotia education system for inclusion in the junior high curriculum. Most recently he had students at Toronto’s Rockcliffe Middle School write a group composition for the Esprit orchestra in three days, which was premiered on May 25, 2010 with Alex Pauk conducting.

Among his recent works are Crossworlds (2002) for flute piano and orchestra commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and premiered with soloists Marina Piccinini and Andreas Heafliger. In 2003 he conducted the premiere of his new chamber orchestra version of the J.S. Bach’s Goldberg Variations (BWV 988) with members of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Pan Trio was commissioned by Soundstreams Canada in 2005 and premiered by them with Liam Teague, steel drums, Sanya Eng, harp and Ryan Scott, percussion. Side by Side (2007) for harpsichord and altered piano with Joanne Kong as soloist, was commissioned by the Esprit Orchestra, the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) and the Richmond Symphony Orchestra. Zululand (2010) for wind ensemble, was commissioned and premiered by the University of Wisconsin at River Falls.

As an author, Michael Colgrass wrote My Lessons With Kumi, a narrative/exercise book, outlining his techniques for performance and creativity. He lectures on personal development and gives workshops throughout the world on the psychology and technique of performance, in which participants do exercises from this book. His newest book, Adventures of an American Composer, is published by Meredith Music and distributed by the Hal Leonard Corporation.

Michael Colgrass lives in Toronto and makes his living internationally as a composer. His wife, Ulla, is a journalist and editor who writes about music and the arts.

-- Note: Names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website. BD 

We met when Colgrass was back in Chicago in December, 1986.  It was a busy time, but we had a comfortable conversation, and here is what was said . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Are you primarily a composer or primarily a writer?

Michael Colgrass:    I am a composer.  I make my living as a composer of classical music, so-called.  I like writing for symphony orchestras and that sort of thing, as opposed to rock or jazz music.

BD:    Is that a conscious decision to restrict your output?

MC:    No.  In fact, I was a jazz musician originally, but I just love the idea of writing for the symphony orchestra, and for the so-called symphonic musician.

BD:    What intrigues you about that?

colgrass MC:    The sound is so beautiful.  The instruments are so beautiful.  The dimension of the players is so great, and the history behind it is so great.  It’s been going on for three, four hundred years, and there’s so much history, so much good music written for woodwinds, brasses, and strings, and so many good composers have been thinking about that.  It’s a tremendous challenge.  We have great models.  If you’re going to think of something to do, it’s going to be a great accomplishment to try to do.  To me, I can hardly think of anything that would be as great an accomplishment as trying to do this.  It’s very competitive; if you’re going to try and write, you’re competing with Beethoven.  That is what it amounts to, and I like the competition.

BD:    Do you feel you’re part of a continuum of composers?

MC:    Yes, yes, I do
continuum of kind of an idea.  I don’t know what the idea is exactly.  It’s just some kind of a belief that this is a worthwhile thing to do.  I just responded to that from the beginning, the beginning being when I was nineteen.  I was a jazz musician in Chicago, in [suburban] Brookfield, Illinois, coming into Chicago to hear jazz bands on the south side.  I used to go to places like the Beehive and the Platinum Lounge and the Pershing Ballroom when I was fourteen years old.  Those were dangerous areas, even then, but great jazz musicians were playing at Sixty-third and Cottage Grove.  I’d be sitting in with bands, and I thought I wanted to be a jazz musician.

BD:    You’re a percussionist?

MC:    Yes. 
Drummer at that time, would be the word.  [Both laugh]  That is the appropriate word for a jazz drummer.  You wouldn’t be a jazz percussionist.  Percussionist is the term that somebody pointed out to me after a while.  He said, “Look, if you want to be a really fine, rounded musician, you should learn classical music, too, and be a percussionist.”  I didn’t like the idea too much, but I also couldn’t overlook the fact that if I wanted to be as good as I could be.  So I had to learn all I could.  I went to the University of Illinois when I was eighteen or nineteen; this was 1950.  That was the beginning of contact I really had with classical music.  I started to study the tympani and the xylophone, and was playing Beethoven symphonies and a lot of modern music, too.  Since they had so many modern music festivals at Illinois, we were encouraged all the time to write music.  So I started to compose.  That’s where I started.

BD:    As a composer, what do you expect of the audience that comes to hear the music of Michael Colgrass?

MC:    I don’t think I expect anything of them... well, yes I do.  I expect them to listen.  I don’t expect them to come up to me afterward and say that they like the piece.  I don’t care if they like the piece or don’t like the piece.  I really don’t.  I guess I’d like them to like the piece, but as a human being I’d much rather that they’d like or dislike it, as opposed to being indifferent to it and not listen.  I have a great regard for the audience, for the listener.  I have a regard for his problem, because after all, I came to classical music a little bit late.  I wasn’t raised in a family that was into it.  We never played records in the home.  I didn’t know about the great composers of our time, or of previous times or any time, really.  Maybe I’d heard of Beethoven, but that’s about it.

BD:    What is the audience’s problem?  You say you’re not concerned with it...

MC:    The problem is that they haven’t heard a lot of classical music.  Most people in our culture, to put it simply, haven’t heard classical music.  They haven’t heard it in school.  They haven’t heard it in the home.  There are some people who have had that experience, of course, but many have not.  Some have had schools where they play a few records for their music appreciation class, but many do not.  Even today, as you know, music is cut.  There are people who start to hear about classical music as a thing to do when they go to college, and we do have many more educated people today, or people who have gone to secondary or post-secondary education.  They think they do want to be intelligent people and want to look at the best things we have.  So what do we have?  Well, symphony orchestra concerts are one of the pinnacles of music.  They might ask what’s that like, and decide to go to the symphony orchestra.  A few might have heard a symphony orchestra once when they were in high school, or they might have gone to music appreciation or a children’s concert or something like that.  But it’s a rare bird for them.  So when they go into the hall, if the music sounds like that which they’re used to from movies — which is largely as musical an experience we have as Americans — then they can adapt to it much more easily.  In other words, music that engenders some kind of an image.

BD:    Have recordings and television made a huge impact, then, and changed this image they have of classical music?

colgrass MC:    I don’t know about recordings.  The main impact that I know of is films.  The music is background for a film.  People have learned from films that a consonant chord, a C Major chord, let’s say, is happiness and is good, and the minor chord is unhappiness.  Then the resolution — I’m speaking now in somewhat technical terms — is kind of like going from the conflict to the resolution, and we’re now happy.  But if it ends ½ tone higher, uh-oh, something’s wrong.  It’s a dissonant interval, and those intervals will mean trouble, unhappiness.  Then if there happen to be a number of those dissonant intervals, that would be the music that would be used by a movie composer to show the neurotic or the psychotic response of a human being.  We’ve come to learn to make those associations.  Perhaps, the associations are not totally wrong, but they have become somewhat standard.

BD:    Does the music come from the association, or does the association come from the music?

MC:    I really don’t know.  Probably to some extent the dissonant chords and the dissonant intervals do reflect something of a deeper conflict in human nature, you might say.  But films have exaggerated that to the point where, when you hear that kind of music you would just absolutely recoil from it.  It reflects something negative in human nature, and is not good.  So this is a problem.  This is a long answer I’m giving to one question, but this is the listener’s problem.  That’s part of the listener’s problem.  The other part of the listener’s problem is he’s not prepared by the concert hall, which I think is the main educator of today.  We can’t depend on the schools to do it, and television doesn’t do it.  The symphony orchestras have to take the job over, and when they put on a concert, they’ve got to think about the listener and plan programs that will help the listener understand what’s going on in a concert.  If you’re going to play a new piece, put that piece in a position in the concert whereby the listener is prepared psychologically for it.  Also, the proper words from the composer or from somebody else beforehand is a very good idea, too.  Sometimes these words can be spoken from the stage.

BD:    Spoken from the stage, or in program notes?

MC:    Well, people don’t read program notes often, and something spoken from the stage shows a direct human concern, especially if it’s from the composer.  I must say, though, that often the talk from the stage is not good.  Somebody gets up there and will say something that will put the audience on the defense, or will be defensive himself in talking about the music.  I heard, for example, a conductor one time say, “I want to say a few words about this William Schuman symphony before we play it.  All modern music isn’t bad.”  I just put my head back and I said, “Wow!  You’re skidding already.  You’ve already said the wrong thing.”

BD:    The conductor lost the audience at that point!

MC:    Sometimes a composer will get up there, or a musicologist will get up there and might say, “The piece is going to open, and you’ll hear the first theme which will come with the clarinets, and then the second theme will come in the violins, and then theme is going to return in the trumpet.”  People will be thinking, “What the hell is he talking about?  I’m not sure I can tell the clarinets from the flutes, so am I going to miss the theme?”  It’s like a music appreciation class, and I don’t like that very much.  But there are ways of talking to an audience that will help them to understand what’s about to take place and put them in the frame of mind that will make them able to relax enough to feel that this experience is not something outside of their ken.  This is what I think is the important thing, a very important thing to do, and I do it when I can.

BD:    But you can’t go chasing all over the world for performances of your work, can you? 

MC:    Of course not, but when I can, I do appear, and people do often have me come and talk to audiences.  There is something called the pre-concert talk in which ticket-holders will come at seven o’clock and meet the composer.  There is an organization called Meet the Composer, which you may know about, and they’ve encouraged a lot of this type of thing so you do talk to the composer and ask him questions.  This is a very interesting thing that Meet the Composer has shown, that if a composer shows an interest in the public, the public feels less alienated and becomes very interested in the composer on a strictly human level.  Then they are more willing to listen to anything, even if they don’t understand it, even if it’s quite tricky.  If they already like the person, there’s a kind of emotional bond, and the people will listen.  They’ll say, “Well, I don’t really understand what’s going on there, but I’d like to ask you some questions about it.”  It’s quite remarkable.

BD:    It is a willingness to try.

MC:    Yes, as a result of this human contact and the concern being shown from the composer.  It’s got to come from the composer.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you’re working on a piece of music, for whom do you write?

MC:    I don’t know.  I’m writing for the instrument.  If I’m writing a piece for viola and orchestra
which I just did recently, for example, for Rivka Golani, who commissioned itI listened to Rivka’s playing.  If it were another kind of violist, I would definitely write differently.  But I tend to write for instruments in the way that a playwright might write for actors.  He sees the character of an actor, and gets an idea for the play from the nature of the actor.

BD:    Then what happens when it’s given to another player later on?

MC:    It’s okay, same as if you write a play that way because if you do write with such a keen focus, other people can then relate to it.  Often, if you write something without any focus, a lot of people have trouble relating to it.

BD:    You don’t run the danger that a performer would say, “Oh, if he was writing it for me, he would have changed this,” and then they manipulate it a little bit?

MC:    No, not really.  They don’t do that.  As long as the piece has a viewpoint and a standpoint from which everything that happens in it evolves, then they’ll go with that.  It’s when a piece is wishy-washy that players have trouble.  So I write very much for the instrument.  I say, “Can a viola play this?  Will it sound good on a viola to me?  Will Rivka be able to play it?”  I’ll meet with Rivka and she’ll play some of it, and I’ll say, “How does this seem to work?”  Then she will tell me where she feels there are problems and I might change it a bit.  I’m always thinking very abstractly about the instrument and the sound.  By abstractly, I mean I don’t think about any listener except me.  I have to listen to it, and when I’m composing to it I’ll play something over and over again
sometimes even one chordto hear if that’s the way I really want it to be.  What the criteria are for my deciding that this is finally right, I don’t know.  It’s just my own inner kinesthetic auditory response.  When it comes together, a light goes on inside me and I get warm, and I say to myself, “That’s it.”

BD:    Then it’s finished?

MC:    Then that bar is finished, or that page is finished, or that piece is finished, whatever the area.


BD:    Is everything you write on commission, or do some things come about because you feel you just have to write them?

MC:    I work it so that I get it both ways.  Everything I write is something I feel I have to write, but I try to get the commission before start.  Everything I’ve written has been commissioned from the beginning.  In the beginning, the commissions were not money, but they were, “Write me a piece.  I’d like you to write a piece.”

BD:    Is that a good commission, a guarantee of performance?

MC:    No, not ultimately, but in the beginning it is.  When you’re first writing, to get a performance you’re lucky.  Do you deserve it?  That is a good question.  The first five or six pieces I wrote were strictly to hear the performance.  Actually I was contributing, also, to percussion music.  As a percussionist, thirty years ago there wasn’t much music.  There’s quite a bit now.  So I was filling a gap, and I didn’t think of it one way or the other.

BD:    Are you basically pleased with the performances and recordings you hear of your music?

MC:    I think I’m pretty lucky with performances.  We have a very, very high standard of performance in this country.  It’s phenomenal.  The education level here for performance in schools, for developing instrumentalists, is unmatched anywhere in the world.  You just have great performers in America.  I hardly ever have poor performances.  That’s an unusual word to use.  There’d be a performance that I’ll say, “Eh, well one more rehearsal would have done it.”  Or it could have been this way, could have been that way, but rarely have I ever been angry at a bad performance.  I’ve never walked out depressed, saying, “That was such a performance that I really feel lousy.”

BD:    Is there ever a situation where a piece or yours
or any piece, for that mattercan get over-rehearsed?

MC:    I don’t think that’s ever happened, no.  The conditions just simply don’t exist.  For one thing, there’s not enough rehearsal time for music.  Also, most people know how to rehearse music so well that they have a circuit-breaker against over-rehearsing, if it happens to come up. 

BD:    Is there competition amongst composers?

MC:    Yes.  Composers are very competitive.  There are so few chances for performance, compared to the number of composers there are and the pieces to be performed.  Therefore composers would form cliques and groups, and they’ll try to push their own.  It’s a little bit like discussing politics.  You have the left and the right.  You might say the far left would be the avant-garde, and on the right would be the conservative composer.  On the left would be the non-conservative, and within the non-conservative you’d have many categories.  You could be left, but right of left, or left of left.  You could be avant-garde or post-avant-garde or extremely avant-garde.  You could be extremely experimental avant-garde.


Also, see my interview with Catherine Comet

BD:    Is it right to pigeonhole any one composer?

MC:    You mean to say like Jacob Druckman or Charles Wuorinen is this way or that way?  Well, people do do it.  People tend to pigeonhole themselves and do like to make their affiliations.  They say, “I associate myself with the school of So-and-so.”

BD:    Then whom do you associate yourself with?

colgrass MC:    I don’t.  I’ve never associated myself with any style.  I have the people I admire and composers that I admire very much, the living composers.  I’m not too unusual, I suppose, in having loved Stravinsky, Bartók, and then I like Schoenberg very much, also.

BD:    But these are the giants.

MC:    These are giants.  I was influenced by those composers, and Hindemith and then Charles Ives after that; of the living composers, Elliott Carter for one, and Ben Weber for another.  Elliott Carter and Ben Weber are from two different schools of writing.  I admire Carter’s thinking processes as a composer.  Often my heart didn’t relate to what he’d written, but my mind did.  My heart veered more toward what Ben had written, but my mind wasn’t always satisfied by what Ben did.  As a matter of fact, I never found a total living model.  I never had a living model as I did in jazz.  I did have models in jazz when I was just fourteen.  At thirteen and fourteen I had Gene Krupa, and then I had Max Roach as a jazz drummer.  I really wanted to be Gene Krupa and I wanted to be Max Roach, but there was no composer that I wanted to be.  So what I did was put together my own composer.  I put together a multi-model, made up of different composers.  It’s a strange kind of conglomerate.

BD:    That became you?

MC:    Yes.  It kind of became me, but the model is not exactly explicit.  But the composers that I like so much and admire tremendously were Mozart, Ravel, Webern, and Ives.

BD:    That leaves out the whole nineteenth century completely!

MC:    Well yes, but not entirely, because Ravel picks that up for me in a way.  Ravel is kind of Romantic.  Maybe that’s the wrong word, but he does have a Romantic touch.  If you take something in the extreme like Pavanne for a Dead Princess, it’s a very Romantic theme, and some of his themes are quite Romantic.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve moved from jazz to classical, so maybe you’re the ideal person to ask this question.  Is it wrong for the public to put artificial barriers between classical music and jazz, and light music and pop and rock?

MC:    It’s a natural thing to do because the sociology of those musics is clearly demarcated.  Let’s take it from a musician’s standpoint.  Say you wanted to be both a classical musician and a jazz musician.  The hours don’t work because the rehearsal times and concert times for the concert musician are finished when the jazz musician is beginning to go to work.  The jazz musician is sleeping during the day.  They do play, sometimes, daytime concerts, but by and large, jazz musicians sleep in the day and they’re up most of the night.  They have breakfast when the sun’s starting to come up, and they go to bed.  There are a lot of other things to go along with that sociology.  I know that sociology well because I had a tremendous conflict with it.  I had to figure out which world was for me.  Was I going to sleep in the day or sleep in the night?   So, that’s a big problem for starters.  Jazz is played in clubs, and concert music is played in Carnegie Hall.  Although sometimes you have jazz at Carnegie Hall and sometimes we do have the concerts in clubs, but that’s the exotic experience; that’s the unusual thing.  Rock is something else again.  Rock is words.  Rock and pop music is words.  To me it’s a visual, kinesthetic experience triggered by the words.  Unless you’re dancing, then it is naturally a kinesthetic experience, but if you are listening straight, there have to be words.  There is no rock or pop music without words.  Every so often there’ll be one number that won’t have words, but generally there’ll be words.  The words will say something political, or say something about love, or say something about dope, and the music will in some way convey something about that.  The emotion comes off of the words.  The music is there to heighten the emotion of the words, and so words are extraordinarily important.  Concert music doesn’t have words unless you have songs or unless you have religious music, which is very popular with concert-goers.  If there’s a requiem or a mass, they relate to it much more critically or strongly than they do if there’s not any words.

colgrass BD:    Have you have written some music with text?

MC:    Yes, and I’ve written my own text.

BD:    Always?

MC:    Always, except one piece where I used a little bit of Thoreau and some of an Army colonel writing about war, a beautiful sensitive poem about war.

BD:    Are these songs, or theater pieces?

MC:    These were works for soloist, chorus and orchestra.  I would call them, in a sense, concert-theater pieces.  They’re not to be staged.  They’re performed on a stage, but in a concert hall setting.

BD:    They’re not operas, then?

MC:    No, they’re not operas, but they do have story implications to them.  I’ve written four pieces for soloist, chorus and orchestra, and I’ve written two sets of songs.  One of them was on the words of a Japanese poet, but I re-wrote the words with her permission.  We collaborated on that because her words were too long for my purposes.  I’ve also written two small operas.  One is a half-hour opera called Virgil’s Dream, and the other is a forty-five or fifty-minute opera called Nightingale Incorporated.

BD:    Why would you write something of that dimension?

MC:    It was the natural length.  It’s not practical if you want to have an opera performed, but I don’t think my operas are practical, anyway.  The subject matter is not appealing to the grand opera format in any case.

BD:    Then why would you write it?

MC:    Because I really had to.

BD:     Have they been performed?

MC:    Yes.  Virgil’s Dream is done quite a bit at universities, mainly.  There’s no forum.  There’s no forum for the small opera.  They did try in New York with the Mini-Met for a while.  It was quite popular.  I don’t know why it fell apart; money was probably the main thing.  But the audience response, and the response from composers and artists was very strong, very great, and the half-hour opera was the ideal length.  You put on two or three or four of these in an evening.

colgrass BD:    What would be good with your operas
the two of them together, or one of yours and one of somebody else?

MC:    Probably one of mine, and one or two of other people’s.  I think that would be good.

BD:    Contemporary ones or old ones?

MC:    I would not venture to say; just appropriate, somehow, in character.  Mine are satires, and so maybe something that goes in the opposite direction for the other piece, or something that may be satirical in some way, from another century might be appropriate.  I like the idea of mixing styles in an evening
not have it be all classical or all contemporary.  I really think that every symphony orchestra concert should have one piece of contemporary music on it.

BD:    Every concert?

MC:    Yup, every single concert.  I don’t say that because I am a composer.  Some would say, “Well naturally, you’d say that.  You’re a composer.”  If I’m at a restaurant and the music is too loud and I ask the waiter to turn down the Muzak, if anybody finds out that I’m a composer they will not say, “Well, you just say that because you’re a composer.  Nobody else even notices it.”  But I say that because I think the audience is cheated by not getting the new works.  At the dance, you do have an evening occasionally of La Sylphide, or a Nutcracker, or Swan Lake...

BD:    ...or a one-composer concert of all Beethoven or all Mozart.

MC:    Yes, but that’s different.  That’s the idea.  It can be an all one-composer concert.

BD:    Should we have an all-Colgrass concert?

MC:    If it’s appropriate, I’d like to see it, sure.  I’ve had that.  But generally speaking, in ballet, you can have an evening of contemporary ballet as the featured entity of the evening.  But usually you have three or four ballets, most of them are new or repertory from the past twenty years.  You go to a museum and you have lots of modern paintings, or a mixture of them.  You even have the Museum of Modern Art.  Can you imagine having the Concert Hall of Modern Music?  It sounds absolutely ridiculous.

BD:    Why have the musicians, then, missed the boat?  Or why have the audiences for music missed the boat?

MC:    I don’t know.  There have been a lot of theories about it, and I’m not sure what’s right.  There are a number of reasons, historically, for this.

BD:    What can we do to straighten it out?

MC:    I don’t know.  Anything I say is too glib.  I have to talk for a while on that question.  I couldn’t give a one-sentence or two-sentence answer, but I do know that when musicians and composers show an interest in the public, the public responds immediately, as I mentioned before at Meet the Composer.  I can’t speak for painters or playwrights, but it happens that musicians are very involuted people.  They expect the public to come to them.  We train them that way at our Juilliards.  We lock them in a practice room all day long, and they [sings] digga-digga-digga on their violin.  Then when somebody says, “You’re great, we’re going to present you at Carnegie Hall,” they’re always presented.  They don’t ever have to be entrepreneurial.  They don’t have to go out and get their public, or convince their public.  They have to just fill a slot in the classical lineage.  In Classical Music we are selling the past, and we are cultivating the performer.  This has been happening very strongly.  The cultivation of the performer by the managers and the agents is automatically a cultivation of the eighteenth and nineteenth century music.  You cannot cultivate a performer on twentieth century music.  You can’t cultivate them that way at all, and you can’t sell them that way.  It would be improper to cultivate them that way.  The proper way to cultivate them would be all centuries.  But if he just learns one century, he’s going to be a little crippled.  So, that’s the way we are training them, and psychologically they think that way.  They respond that way, too.  They think nineteenth and eighteenth century.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you’re writing a piece of music, where is the balance between inspiration and technique?

MC:    I think the two are one.  The more technique you have, the more inspiration you get.  I go to work every day, and a lot of times I don’t feel like going to work, but when I get to work upstairs in my studio, it starts to roll.  Some days I might have a headache; some days I’m concerned about other matters.  Of course, there are days when you just shouldn’t work, but none of those things are an excuse.  I may be tired, especially when I’m rolling on a piece day after day after day, relentlessly working.  I would love to go to the Bahamas for a week, if I could afford it, but even if I could afford the time, I couldn’t just go.  Anyway, the more you work the more inspired you get.  I think craft is like a lightning rod that attracts inspiration.  The more you know about instruments and music, the more inevitable it will be that you’ll get ideas for writing pieces.

BD:    Is this the advice you have, then, for a young composer?

colgrass MC:    Oh yes, sure.  The first advice I’d give to a young composer is to play music, and to be inside of an orchestra and ensembles as much as possible. A lot of our composers today don’t do that.  They play the piano, maybe, and they’re outside of the ensemble.  The great experience of music is to be in with the musicians, and to hear it and feel it in your body.  That’s how you learn to orchestrate, by hearing it, so that it just becomes part of your unconscious process.

BD:    Let me ask another balance question.  Is music art, or is music entertainment?

MC:    Oh, I think it’s both, but it’s very difficult, especially today, to define the difference between art and entertainment.  Art would be something that goes for the deepest emotions that we have, and entertainment goes for the superficial part of our mind.  When I say superficial, I don’t mean that in a derogatory sense.  A good entertainer is a great person.  I love good entertainers!  Some of them are wise, too, and some of them, plumb the depths of your mind a little bit more than others do.  But an entertainer is somebody who takes me away from myself, as it were, and art is something that brings me in closer contact with myself.  Let’s say, for example, that you just had a death in the family.  What do you do at a time like that?  It’s an unspeakably difficult experience for a human being, unless they had some special kind of preparation mentally for such a thing.  And who does, really?  What do you do?  How do you find solace in the coming weeks and months, until you can finally get your equilibrium again?  Well, one thing you can do is sit down and listen to great music.  I have not had the experience of a great loss, but when I have heard some of the greatest music, I have thought, while listening to it, this seems to understand something even as deep as the unspeakable losses and tragedies of human beings, of life, of the heart in the deepest sense.

BD:    And yet, music in and of itself is not a tragic experience.

MC:    No, not at all.  But when I hear Mozart or Bach or Beethoven or Schubert, I feel deeply inspired.  Some contemporary pieces can do the same thing.  I feel like I want to get up out of my chair and live.  It is not as if I want to sink in my chair and die
which is the feeling I think you would tend to have if you have a tragic experience in your lifethat you feel a deep loss, and in a certain sense you perhaps feel close to death, close to suicide.  It’s a form of mental suicide of the human response at that point.  Music seems to take you out of that and rejuvenate you, and put you back into working order.  Music is medical and therapeutic.  It’s one of the greatest forms of therapy.

BD:    Do you try to build this into your music, or is it just there?

MC:    No, not at all.  When therapy has bad connotations — someone lying on a couch, talking about their mother or something like this
— that reduces the whole thing to something pretty maudlin.  You need things to live.  I need things to live.  I need food.  I need good food, not junk.  I need exercise and I need rest, and I need music.  I need it.  Camus said, “I write for the same reason that I swim, because my body needs it.”  Well, my body needs good music, and if I don’t have it I don’t feel right.  As a composer, if I don’t compose for a certain amount of time, I begin to feel odd and funny.  I begin to get irritable, and a lot of things begin to go awry.  My wife will say, “Michael, you better get onto another piece.”  That’s something that has become part of my working life.  It’s a challenge that makes me feel my best.  But if I were not a composer, I think I would be someone who would have music as part of his life.

BD:    As a performer?

MC:    Maybe, because that’s a great way to come in contact with music.  I was a performer, but I will say that if I weren’t either a performer or composer, I’m sure that I’d have music as part of my life.  I would listen to it probably in the beginning of the day.  I’d hear some great piece of music to get me started, and at the end of the day I’d listen to some other great piece of music — which I don’t do too much now, because as a composer, I don’t listen to music at the end of the day.  That’s the busman’s holiday.  In fact, if I start listening to music I can get carried away and lose my morning.  I won’t get a good morning work in.  I’ll just get so carried away I’ll want to hear another piece.  It’s almost like a tremendous stimulant for me, but a stimulant to go onto the next piece.  So if I were not a musician or artist, I would probably be some kind of an active social person, and I would use music as one of my basic inspirations.  I actually feel a scintillation in my body when I hear fine music well played.  I feel a tingling and a vibration.  [Laughs]  I guess inspiration is the word for it.  I just feel a thrill, a tremendous thrill, and I’m a better person for it.  Music is healthy and people should have it, and those who don’t have it are deprived in the same way that people who eat all frozen foods or canned foods are deprived and may not know that they’re eating empty calories.

BD:    Junk food for the mind.

MC:    Yes.  Too bad it doesn’t hurt you in a way you can see and feel.  When you go and have a McDonald’s hamburger and fries and a milkshake, you don’t know that you’re getting
as I just recently learnedfifteen teaspoons of saturated fat.  If something would happen to you immediatelythat you’d have a stomach ache, or you’d fall down on the sidewalkthen you’d know that’s not the thing to do.  If there would be a paucity of art in your life, and your brain would just start hanging outside of your head or you’d fall over... [pauses wistfully] but it doesn’t happen that way.  You just keep walking.  You go along and you’re all right, and gradually there’s a deterioration which is very subtle, very gradual.

BD:    When someone hears a piece of music and they don’t like it and they react violently against it, or if they react violently for it, is that not showing which is junk music and which is better music?

MC:    Oh, yes, I guess it is.  I do like that reaction, as I said in the beginning of our talk here.  When I was in New York, I was one of the inside fifty doing the top freelancing as a percussion player.  I played with all of the greats.  I played with the New York Philharmonic, and great pick-up orchestras; all that sort of thing.  People always applaud.  They always applaud heavily, and there’s always somebody saying, “Bravo,” or a number of people saying, “Bravo.”

BD:    Even if it’s a poor performance?

MC:    Yes.  It may or may not be poor; sometimes it might be kind of poor.  With great musicians it’s not going to be necessarily poor, but it’d be really pretty mediocre if the musicians are not paying attention or if the conductor’s not very good.  There might be mistakes, or it’s kind of out of tune, and they still give a big applause.


BD:    Or if it’s just uninspired?

MC:    Yes, a lot of the time it’s uninspired and there’s still a big applause.  People don’t realize how seldom they’re getting something brilliant.  I would like to hear somebody stand up and say, “This performance is substandard!”  [Both laugh]  The musicians would all go, “What?”  They’d look at each other and say, “He’s right, you know.”  But it would be unthinkable.  Ushers would come down looking for the person who said it.

BD:    Is this not the role of the critic, though?

MC:    I guess that’s the role of the critic, but that’s so removed.  You’d have the concert on Tuesday, and then Thursday there’s a comment by one person out of three thousand.  The jam session format is one of the finest musical experiences, and in the paintings on the walls of Schoenbrunn Castle in Vienna they have what look like little jam sessions.  Beethoven’s sitting there with about thirty people, and he’s playing the clavichord.  Anyway, these people respond.  It’s a direct response.  It’s never a negative response, but they’ll be lesser or more enthused.  Nobody would ever say, “Hey, that was terrible,” even if it wasn’t so good.  They would just get quiet. There wouldn’t be much response.  People today aren’t paying attention.

BD:    So you encourage people to respond actively at a concert?

MC:    Oh, I’d love it.  I’d really love it!

BD:    Even negatively?

MC:    Yes, even negatively
unless you had somebody who came to be negative.  You do have people who do that, you know.  That’s part of the political thing we were talking with composers.  They’ll have this school and that school, and somebody will come sometimes just to yell or boo down a piece.  That’s not a natural response.  It’s flack.  But what I would like to hear some negative response from people.  I’d love to have people come backstage and express their opinions.  People feel powerless in the concert hall.  They don’t come backstage very much, and they don’t write letters.  Every so often there will be a letter, a negative letter.  After a new piece is played, if a manager of an orchestra gets two or three negative letters, he’s very upset.  They really reconsider the degree of contemporary, new music programming they’ll do for the coming months or the coming years based on these two letters.  It’s quite amazing how sensitive they are to just a few responses like that.

BD:    [Trying to be hopeful]  On the other hand, a few positive responses would not encourage them enough to do more?

MC:    I don’t think so.  It’s more being scared from a negative one than getting encouraged by a positive one.  About the positive one, they’ll think this person’s a modern music aficionado, or maybe a friend of the composer.

BD:    [Laughs]  But a negative one they think is the real listener?

MC:    Yes.  When people speak negatively about new art or new music, they hear that.  They hear it in the green room, they hear it in the lobby, and so forth.  I don’t think they hear as much when people say they like it, which they do.  For example, if two or three people walk out of a concert from New York Philharmonic, they think,
Oh my God, we had three people walk out tonight.  Yes, but twenty-seven hundred and forty-seven stayed, and many of them applauded.  Some of them said, “Bravo.”  When people say, “Why don’t people like modern music?” I’m always surprised, and I say, “But there are thousands and thousands of people who love modern music.  They respond to me.  They write me letters.  They come to me and tell me they like this guy or they don’t like that guy, and so forth.  A lot of people out there like it.


See my Interviews with Carlisle Floyd, Alan Hovhaness, and Ned Rorem.

BD:    Are you optimistic, then, about the future of music?

MC:    I am, yes.  My own activities as an artist branch out from just composing.  I like to talk to audiences.  I like to give workshops, not just lectures.  I don’t like lectures so much.  I like participation workshops, where members of the audience or people of the public will come and do the exercises of various kinds in dancing, acting and composing.  I have a real good time at these workshops, and they do, too; they love it.  So I know that people are vitally interested in the creative process, and when they have to compose their own pieces, they have a hell of a lot of fun doing it.  And the piece they write, of course, is very wild and modern.  And they sing it themselves!  I really think that we are our own worst enemies in the music profession.  The structure of the symphony orchestra is extremely conservative.  The structure of the opera system is very conservative.  There’s very little imaginative thinking, and I would say that composers have to bear a lot of responsibility for this because they don’t really make an effort to reach out to the public, or to help to educate other powers and forces in the music field.  Many composers say, “Ah, they don’t understand me,” and they’ll lock themselves off in a room and say, “The hell with them!”  As a result, many people say, “Well, the hell with you, too.”  I don’t think that way, and the composers I know who don’t think that way get a tremendous response from administrative people in the arts, and from the public.

BD:    Thank you for being a composer.

MC:    Thank you for coming to speak with me.


© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded at the Hilton hotel in Chicago on December 17, 1986.  Segments were used (with recordings) on WNIB 1987, 1988, 1992 and 1997.  It was also used on WNUR in 2007 and 2013, and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio in 2008.  The transcription was made and posted on this website in 2014.

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.