Composer Paul Cooper
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Paul Cooper (May 19, 1926; Victoria, Illinois – April 4,
1996; Houston, Texas) was an American composer and teacher of classical music.
Born in Victoria, Illinois, Cooper received degrees from the University
of Southern California, where his teachers included Ernest Kanitz, Halsey
Stevens, and Roger Sessions. He also studied with Nadia Boulanger as
a Fulbright Fellow from 1953-1954.
Cooper taught at the University of Michigan School of Music and
the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory of Music prior to joining
the Rice University Shepherd School of Music as a founding member in
1974. He remained there until his death in 1996, at which time he held
the Lynette S. Autrey Endowed Chair and was the Composer-in-Residence
at the Shepherd School.
In addition to a Fulbright, he was the recipient of a Guggenheim
Fellowship as well as grants from the National Endowment for the Arts,
the National Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, and from the
Ford, Rockefeller, and Rackham Foundations.
While Cooper experimented with compositional techniques popular
during the middle of the twentieth century, including serialism and aleatory,
much of his music follows traditional structures, with numerous works
in "absolute (established) forms," including six string quartets, numerous
concertos (including two for violin, one for saxophone, and one for flute),
and six symphonies. Ross Lee Finney characterized
Cooper's music as having "a deep emotional motivation and at the same time
a simplicity and clarity that comes from his mastery of craft."
Composer Paul Cooper was in
Chicago in December of 1987, and we arranged to meet for a conversation.
He was on sabbatical, and our conversation was wide-ranging and filled
Here is what transpired that afternoon . . . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: You are
both composer and teacher. How do you divide your time between
those two activities?
Paul Cooper: I teach mid-week, and compose about
four days, starting Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday. This has
been something that I’ve had to work for to get a schedule like that.
BD: Do you get enough time to compose amongst
all of your other activities?
Cooper: That’s a good question. Probably
never enough time. This last term I’ve been on sabbatical, and
that has been enough time. It’s amazing how much I can get done
if I have only composing on my mind, rather than teaching, and going to
concerts, and all of those things. My children are grown, so I
don’t have youngsters climbing on my lap, asking for stories any longer.
[Laughs] It’s wonderful to be a full-time composer, and I am
envious of my European colleagues, many of whom do not teach, and only compose
full-time. It does make a difference, at least in the number of works.
I hope that quality doesn’t suffer in my case. I don’t think it does,
because the composer-teacher is the norm in America today. Only a
few have not taught substantially with a regular appointment.
BD: Is this the salvation of the composer
— being able to teach, and earn the salary
to enable you to compose?
Cooper: Yes. Sometimes I bristle when
somebody talks about academic composers. Now just a minute!
You don’t talk about church composers — someone
like Josquin, who wrote religious music for the church. But he also
wrote secular music. You don’t talk about court composers, because
there were certain pieces that Haydn certainly wrote for Esterhazy, particularly
baryton sonatas! But you don’t simply put composers into a kind
of bin, and the term ‘academic’ can be a bit pejorative. Yes, the
large universities, or the major universities in this country, are supporters
of the arts, or patrons of the arts, just as the court was, and just as
the church was.
BD: Is this the way it should be?
Cooper: I see nothing wrong with it.
I’ve been very lucky with the environment that
I have found in three universities where I’ve taught. These have
been very good schools — the University
of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and the College Conservatory in Cincinnati,
and now the Shepherd School at Rice. They have been wonderful
environments, with stimulating and supportive colleagues and wonderful
students. When a composer is very young, the performance possibilities
are there with your colleagues in a large music school. When you’re
young, you need the umbrella, the cover, the assistance, and the encouragement.
At my age today, I would hope that those opportunities would go primarily
to my younger colleagues, and I should get my opportunities out in the
real world, so to speak. [Laughs]
BD: We’ll come back to the composing a little
later. Let’s talk a little bit about the teaching. Is composition
really something that can be taught, or must it be innate within each
Cooper: Certain things can be taught.
After all, I had the good advantage, the wonderful privilege, actually,
of studying with very great teachers — Halsey
Stevens, Ingolf Dahl, and Roger Sessions in America, and with Nadia
Boulanger, the teacher of all times. Evidently, she thought that
composition could be taught, and I think that certain things can be taught.
If you have someone who is a mentor, they can give you the experience
that the teacher has had, and the ability to read a score quickly, to
perceive what is going right and what maybe needs attention. Certainly
she could that, and I tried to pride myself from her example of being able
to criticize a score in a very positive way. Criticism has tended
to be negative, but it can be very, very positive. As a matter of
fact, what I remember from my studies with Boulanger
— not to classes that I had the Conservatoire, but the
private one-on-one lessons in her studio — is
that I always came out being encouraged. I was never ever discouraged,
even if she told me this needs attention when I’d stayed up all night writing
that page. [Laughs] Nevertheless, I felt that she supported
me, that she breathed in my talent, and I wasn’t the only one who felt
that. Composer after composer who studied with her always said
the same thing, that they felt so encouraged, and this makes a great deal
BD: Do you try to do the same thing?
Cooper: I try to do the same thing with my
students. There is something in the way of craft, and again, as
a Boulanger student, I think craft can be taught. There are certain
things that one can do. I take a very classical view here, that
it’s nothing so unusual to be a composer. Some people they think
it is, but after all, if I had not been a composer, I would have been an
architect. I would have learned how to do all the things associated
with architecture. I would hope that I would know how to build a
building, and if I was a really good architect, I could build one myself.
It’s very much like that. You know that certain materials go together,
and other materials don’t, and I would hope that the architecture of my
piece — and I’m going to mix metaphors
here — doesn’t blow down in a wind
storm here in the Windy City! [Both laugh]
BD: In amongst all of this, where is the
balance between the inspiration and the technique?
Cooper: The Muse smiles the most when you
work the hardest, and when you have experience. I remember the
line by Donald Tovey [from his book The Forms of Music], where he
said, “Brahms probably did not figure this out
at all but profited by the luck which goes with genius.”
Have you ever stopped to analyze that? First of all, it’s a wonderful,
pithy, terribly clever English line, and for years and years I simply
accepted it, because I accept the fact that Brahms was a genius, and
that Tovey was a great writer, so he admired the quality. Not detracting
from Brahms’s capabilities as a composer, but if you really analyze that
thought, a composer profits from experience. I’ve been composing
almost fifty years, and after that amount of experience, it’s amazing
what things will work in a technical way, and also make a beautiful sound.
It’s one thing to have something work wonderfully well technically, but
if it doesn’t add up to some kind of musical statement or expression, then
you go back to the drafting board.
BD: When you’re teaching, or when you’re
composing, what do you look for? What are the elements that make
a piece of music great?
Cooper: The architecture, the structure
of the piece is very important. Today, thank goodness, we have
compositions that have clear aural associations. That does not
mean literal repeats in an Eighteenth or Nineteenth century way, but
clearly musical ideas that are brought back, probably with variation, and
it adds up to a significant kind of statement.
BD: Are there no new ideas?
Cooper: Oh, yes, of course there are new ideas,
but I’m talking about in a given piece. What is important for an
audience is to have aural associations that, on one hearing, they can
say, “Oh yes, that I heard a little while ago.”
It was a little bit different, maybe slower, or faster, or louder, or
softer, but it’s a recognizable idea. What has been difficult in
the ’50s, ’60 and part
of the ’70s, is a stream of consciousness, without
repetition, literal or otherwise. It’s very beautiful on paper,
but we’re talking really about the difference of ear-music versus eye-music.
The eye-music is a very beautiful score, but it’s still difficult to
listen to sometimes. It is important that a composer understand
the size of his canvas, and the purpose of the work. Using the analogy
of a painter, if you’re going to write a string quartet, then the canvas
might be smaller, and the brush strokes would probably also be smaller.
If you’re writing a larger oratorio, or a centennial celebration, the
canvas is larger, and the brush strokes are larger. Sometimes composers
don’t realize that too much detail in a very large piece, one that lasts
thirty-five or forty minutes, will not sound. You need to have larger
brushes, larger strokes, bigger gestures. So, that is something I
find terribly important, and one needs to understand that. The first
things I ask when I’m commissioned is how long a piece is it? What
is the due-date? What else is going to be on the program? These
are the kinds of questions. People are stunned that I don’t ask about
money, but my agent does that. [Much laughter] I have to know
the size of the piece. So coming back to the teaching, I try to
point all this out to a student.
BD: When you’re looking at a commission, are
these things that will determine whether or not you will accept it?
Cooper: Sometimes. In the case of the
Fifth Symphony, I was simply told it would be a major piece.
The following day, or the following week, the manager called and
said it was to be a twelve-minute orchestra piece. I said that
I couldn’t write a symphony in twelve minutes. I could have, maybe
twenty years ago, when I had a much a more compressed style than now, but
I couldn’t make a statement in twelve minutes. I had to have at least
eighteen or twenty-one minutes. That particular manager had seen
some one hundred pieces for the Boston Symphony come in for the Centennial
celebration, and the composers, instead of delivering their twenty-minute
pieces, had delivered forty or fifty minutes, which would be an enormous
expense in rehearsal. But if I tell the commissioner that I will
write an eighteen-minute piece, it will be an eighteen-minute piece, give
or take a minute on either side. It won’t be a thirty-six -minute
BD: It might be seventeen or nineteen minutes?
Cooper: That’s right, but I’ll be in the ball
park. The Sixth String Quartet set out to be twenty-one
minutes, for example, and the recording [shown] is twenty minutes
and fifty-five seconds, so I jokingly said to the quartet, “What
went wrong???” [Much laughter]
* * *
BD: What do you expect of the audiences
that come to hear either a new piece or an older piece of yours?
Cooper: You have to keep in mind an audience
that you’re writing for... although when I was younger that didn’t cross
my mind. That doesn’t mean that I change vocabulary, or anything
of the sort, but for the moment, right now, at this point of my life,
I would like a corner of the major concert hall. That means an intelligent
audience, such as the audience that goes to hear your wonderful symphony
in this city. There are some musicians in the audience, but the
vast majority are not musicians. They are simply music-lovers, so
you have to keep in mind something that will not drive them out. On
the other hand, it should be something that will challenge them, and may
help them to want to hear the piece again... although that can be dangerous
for a composer. I’m a classical composer with romantic overtones.
After all, Haydn and Mozart didn’t think about getting recorded and repeated
performances. After Symphony Haydn wrote No. 45, then he wanted
No. 46. He didn’t want hear No. 45 again, even though
it is the famous Farewell Symphony. For the most part, I’m
simply writing for an intelligent audience, not the largest one, but certainly
not for five other composers, either.
BD: Have you basically been pleased with the performances
you’ve heard of your music over the years?
Cooper: [Laughs] I’ve been spoiled!
BD: You’re very lucky.
Cooper: Yes, indeed! Most composers
complain, but not I. In fact, Stravinsky had to wait until practically
the end of his life to hear a definitive performance of Symphony
of Psalms. He had had dozens and dozens of performances, and
several recordings by that time, but finally it came out that he a wonderful
BD: What about your recordings? Are
you pleased with those? [Vis-à-vis the recording shown
at left, see my interviews with Vincent Persichetti,
and Samuel Adler.]
Cooper: Yes, I am.
BD: Those have a little more permanence
Cooper: That’s right, and I’ve been very pleased.
BD: There are the two string quartets,
the symphony, and the organ piece. Are these the only recordings
which have been made so far?
Cooper: There’s also a flute sonata, and that’s
it for the moment. There are plans to do a couple others, but I smile
on all those things. I’ll believe it when it comes out, because
it does take so long. It takes years of negotiating, and getting
the right performers, and the right orchestra, and the wherewithal, and
the right company. In fact, Quartet No. 5 was
worked up for the premiere performance. Then it got a little cold,
so they worked it up again to take it to Mexico. Then, after a few
more months, they worked it up again for the recording session, and then
decided they would take it on a European tour. They did about thirty
times, then they came back and played it again in Houston. I maintain
that I got a hundred and ten per cent while I was still alive! [Laughs]
It was better than the piece.
BD: Do the performers ever find things in
your works that you didn’t know you’d hidden there?
Cooper: Oh, absolutely.
BD: Does that please you?
Cooper: Of course. [Both laugh] What’s
it supposed to be? I’ve probably taught the Bach Inventions,
for example, maybe fifty or a hundred times. I couldn’t begin
to count the number of times. I think I know them cold, and every
time I go to teach them, I find something new. How could I have
been so blind, or deaf, not have discovered that relationship???
BD: Let’s cut through to the very heart
of all of this. What is the purpose of music in society?
Cooper: I cannot imagine a society without music,
and I don’t think there’s ever been a society in recorded times without
music. It’s in all cultures. It’s in all times, even if it
was a time when it was essentially rhythm rather than pitch. It’s
an art form that appeals to emotions. It appeals to the intellect,
or it can. For centuries, it was primarily utilitarian in the sense
that it formed a part of something else, either for religion, dance, or
drama for the Greeks. I’m not going to quote any of the standard
philosophers on music, but I believe to fellow musicians, and to audiences
of music lovers, that it is the nature of abstraction which really appeals.
If we look at a portrait, it’s specific. But if you had the same
thing in music, we would not be looking at the same portrait. We would
be looking at it, but we’d be hearing it with entirely different ears because
of our experience. If we look at that portrait, we would more or
less agree that it’s this and this colors, and that he has two eyes and
a note, etc. Whereas, by analogy, if that were a piece of music,
we might not agree on that at all. We might think it had five eyes,
and no nose, etc.
BD: We wouldn’t be arguing that it has two oboes and
a crescendo, rather than just one and a diminuendo?
Cooper: No, the mechanics we would agree on.
Those are set. But what it does, and what comes through, depends
upon the listener’s experience. That’s the beauty of music.
The closest to music is poetry. My wife [Christiane] is a very distinguished
poet, so I’m close to it, and also terribly lucky in that regard that
I have a poet-in-residence for a composer-in-residence.
BD: Do you set her poetry?
Cooper: Yes, a great deal, and we also have
collaborated on four or five commissions of larger pieces, namely oratorios.
BD: Any operas?
Cooper: No! Isn’t that surprising?
Considering that my father-in-law was Carl Ebert, a founder of
Glyndebourne, and the director of the Berlin Opera, it’s amazing.
I thought about it a couple of times. In fact, when I was a student
in Paris, we started working on a play of Arthur Miller, The Crucible,
which Robert Ward
eventually did, and made a very successful opera indeed.
BD: It won the Pulitzer prize.
Cooper: Yes. I felt that I could not
find an original language for me as a composer at the time. Clearly,
I would have had to set it in a very realistic and reasonable way, and
that I found conversation not at all to my liking.
BD: You wanted a more arioso style? [Vis-à-vis
the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Gunther Schuller, Edwin London, and Paul Sperry (who, incidentally,
sings the Lutosławski and not the Cooper, which is a purely instrumental
Cooper: I wanted an arioso style. Several
years ago, some friends asked me what operas I liked, and I told them Gluck,
Pelléas, Boris Godunov, Wozzeck, Don
Giovanni... They said, “You don’t want
to write an opera, you want to write a tableau.”
[Both laugh] I was consistent in my taste, even though I do admire
some verismo operas. In fact, I’m a Puccini buff, and a Verdi
buff, but that’s not for me to write. I simply could not find any
original way of seeing The Crucible. I sounded too imitative
at the time, and I don’t think I’ve gotten over that even now. It
would have to be through-composed, with longer gestures, and longer arias.
BD: [Puzzled a bit] But you’ve written
BD: What is the basic difference then between
an oratorio and an opera, especially now that we do so much listening
to opera, rather than viewing of opera?
Cooper: You’re not telling a story in an
oratorio. The genre is not that kind of conversational at all.
BD: [Gently protesting] It’s not dramatic???
Cooper: I would say that an oratorio can
be extremely dramatic. The first one we did is large work called
Credo, and it was premiered in Cincinnati on Good Friday, which
was also the beginning of a Passover. There’s a very large choir
on stage with full symphony orchestra, and a balcony choir. The piece
starts very, very quietly, sort of murmuring out of the depths
— Genesis perhaps — and
the balcony choir comes in with “I am the Lord
thy God.” The house is wonderful, and peaceful,
and the music is soaring from the balcony. People are all feeling
good, and quiet, and it’s very relaxed. After about two minutes
into the piece, the front choir starts whispering, and in the matter of
a few seconds they are shouting, “God is dead!”
For the next thirty minutes, they have at each other. [Playfully]
You want to know who won?
BD: [With a big smile] That was going
to be my next question!
Cooper: Oh, the good guy always wins! [Much
laughter] But that was very dramatic. I had not realized
how awesome it would be to have these two forces —
the small one as the voice of God, or the conscience of man,
and then the turbo choir, as it’s called, the real world of challenging.
It became very dramatic for the next thirty minutes.
BD: Did you get any choir members who had real objections,
and would not sing that line?
Cooper: There were a few members of
the choir who said they couldn’t say those words, and we quite understood.
But you have to understand that I personally am not, and you’re
personally not, saying ‘God is dead’. That’s a matter of your own
conviction. What my wife, the poet, and I, the composer, were saying
is that this is the way God is treated, and it’s up for discussion.
But it was perfectly all right. I wouldn’t want somebody to have to
say that if they’re a very firm believer and would just find that to be blasphemy.
BD: They should go to Jerome Hines and ask how he
performs the Devil. They would be showing the triumph
of Good over evil, by portraying evil so well, and showing it vanquished.
Cooper: That’s right! Very good! Touché!
BD: That argument didn’t work with them?
Cooper: I didn’t think it up in time.
I didn’t have you there! [Much laughter]
* * *
BD: Where’s music going today?
Cooper: I was very confident for a while, but
I’m not quite sure right now. From as early as 1969 or ’70, I felt
that a kind of synthesis was coming about the music. We’ve had
a couple of decades of experiment, post-World War II into the 1950s,
with extremes — total control with Boulez, and total non-control
with Cage, and everything
in between. There were a great very many very interesting influences.
There had been a kind of culmination of the two principal axes, from
just after 1900, with Schoenberg’s chromatic axis, and Stravinsky’s
diatonic axis. When they got closer and closer, music sort of came
together. Then there was another enormous explosion around roughly
1950. Given twenty years of experimenting with several other ways
of absorbing, dozens of composers have been influenced by Cage a bit.
You’d never recognize it, but I was also influenced. I was serialist
composer for a while. They would never have claimed me, but nevertheless,
I took twelve-tone music fairly seriously at one time, and I learned
a great deal. I was also influenced by electronic music. Working
in the studio, I could have command over such rhythmic sensibilities and
capabilities. That was exciting, as were the timbre possibilities
of electronic music. I was also influenced by the Beatles, believe
it or not. In other words, there were a lot of things that went
into the music of the early ’70s and ’80s.
BD: Is there anything in your life that
did not have an influence on you and your music?
Cooper: Of course not! [Laughs]
But I didn’t want to simply be aware of some things standing out much
more prominently than other things. Certainly, a great many things
went in there, and the titles began to change. ‘Cantigas’
and ‘Soliloquies’, and those kinds
of titles became ‘Atmospheres’
and other kinds of titles. My Fourth Symphony has a subtitle
called ‘Landscape’, indicating the outer landscape and the inner landscape.
The middle movement is decidedly the inner turmoil of some kind, and
after the fact it took the title of a poem of my wife. I felt not
just those kinds of specific clues, but in listening to the music, it
was becoming — if I may use the word
— more ‘accessible’
for the large audience. Somebody coming new into classical contemporary
music, might be more pleased with hearing a piece written today, or yesterday,
or last year, than maybe twenty years ago. It’s simply easier,
and it’s more accessible.
BD: Is this a conscious effort on your part?
Cooper: No, on none of our parts. But I
could tick off composers from Poland to the West Coast of America who
simply have modified. I wouldn’t say they’ve changed. They
haven’t turned their back on their earlier pieces, but whether it be Penderecki, who wrote
a major piece for Chicago after all — Paradise
Lost, in which I couldn’t quite believe the C minor triads
— or Thea Musgrave, who was
a colleague of mine at the Paris Conservatoire, or Gunther Schuller,
or Elliott Carter,
or William Kraft
on the west coast, it’s simply a kind of synthesis took place.
A few years ago, when I was still very optimistic, I gave what
is called ‘The Provost Lecture’ of Rice University. The title of
my lecture was From Experiment to Synthesis: A New Sound of Music.
I played a lot of wonderful, outrageous examples of the experimental
pieces, and talked about them, and then played some examples of very recent
music of late ’70 and early ’80s,
which proved my point. Any of the arts
— and certainly music is no exception
— is subject to flux and to change. So, undoubtedly
the argument now among the critics and musicians is this business of
maximal and minimal. From the extreme maximal
— Elliott Carter’s Fourth
String Quartet, which is very interesting but very maximal
— to Adams’s Nixon in China, which is
a little less minimal than Akhnaten of Philip Glass, but it’s
minimal and very repetitive. So you have something that’s been
going on for a long time. Journalistic criticism goes back to the
time of Bach. Johann Mattheson (1681-1764) really didn’t think much
of Bach as a composer. He thought Bach was a wonderful organist,
but was simply too old-fashioned. Mattheson was for the new current,
which eventually produced Classicism. But then Classicism didn’t
want to give way to the new Romanticism, and Romanticism still doesn’t want
to give way, after all these years, to Expressionism, or Impressionism,
or to any of the other -isms. We just have a wonderful little corner
in history going on right now, so my advice to students is avoid the extremes.
One chord played for three hours is indeed minimal, and it’s been done
before, so don’t try it. It’s hard to learn technique that way.
On the other hand, a piece that is so filled with musical events, and
so tight, and so compressed, is also very old, and we’ve heard it before.
You could probably learn more technique as a young composer with the
maximal school, but still, that’s a dangerous philosophy. I’m
very modern in everything I do, or I try to be.
BD: When you’re writing a piece of music, are
you in control of the pen, or is the pen in control of you?
Cooper: Most of the time I’m in control of the
pen, but your question is well taken, because if you listen carefully
to what you’ve written, you will realize that certain ideas will want
to take another direction, rather than the one that you had preconceived.
You want to plan, and you should do that, absolutely, but you must
allow an idea expand. Perhaps one didn’t realize it had exhausted itself
rather quickly, and isn’t capable of further expansion that you had thought.
Or, maybe it’s capable of a great deal of variation and elaboration,
and one should allow that. Something in musical ideas is do some
analysis after they come, however a composer gets his ideas. Sometimes
they come entirely aurally, or sometimes at the piano the fingers will
find the ideas. Sometimes it happens when listening to other people’s
music. I don’t mean in any way that you take that idea and run with
it, but you might take one little trill out of a work, and make it into
your own trill. As an example, in the Shostakovich Sixth Symphony
there is a wonderful trill in the cello section. It is very handsome,
and lasts a bit, and is awfully nice. I thought, “What
a nice idea.” Then, I play ‘what ifs’.
What if you took the entire string orchestra, spaced it out enormously,
highly divided with acoustical foundations —
the wide intervals at the bottom, and the tighter intervals
on top, particularly in the upper strings, the violins and possibly the
violas — and have them trill on a half-step
for a long time, like two minutes? Well, it’s in my big choral piece,
BD: So you really didn’t take the idea, but you
let that idea stimulate you to do something else?
Cooper: That’s right. If I told anybody
that I’m indebted to the Shostakovich Sixth Symphony, they would
say I’m crazy. An analogy I use in teaching is literature. A
musical idea has to be analyzed once it’s down on paper. You look
at it, and you play it, and listen to it carefully, just as you would analyze
a character in a drama. Once the playwright has set up his principal
characters, then you realize that this person is never going to utter
profanity, whereas the next one is only going to utter profanities, and
you must not cross these things. You must keep the ideas very clean,
and not have an idea to do something which it shouldn’t do. When
you’re dealing with abstraction, that’s a little hard to get across, but
that’s why I teach by analogies. So did Boulanger, so much so that
if they didn’t quite see it or hear it, maybe they could think of it in
dramatic terms as a playwright, or as a painter, or as a poet, or as an
architect. To come back to your question, the pen does guide sometimes,
but more than the pen, the subconscious guides a great deal.
BD: Once you’ve got all the notes on
the paper, how do you know when you have finished the piece? How
do you know when you have to stop tinkering, and let it go?
Cooper: Since I plan very carefully in advance,
I generally know when the piece is over. But if you are talking
about when I stop polishing, that it is when I get all the wrong notes out.
[Both laugh] Is that arrogant on my part? I don’t sleep until
it is done. I’m just miserable, even if it is just one note as far
as I perceive it. I’m miserable until that note goes. It would
be like a performer making a recording... a great take would be wonderful,
but the pianist missed the high C# with his fourth finger, and we cannot
let it go.
BD: It would bug the life out of you?
BD: A couple of the string quartets have been
revised many years later.
Cooper: Yes. But those are the two
exceptions, the first and second string quartets.
BD: Really??? Just those two?
Cooper: Yes. I haven’t revised anything
BD: Then basically you don’t go back and
tamper with things?
Cooper: No. I just thought that the basic
ideas were good, and I certainly did not then bring them into a vocabulary
that I’m using now. All I did was give myself a lesson. [Laughs]
BD: Did you look at it like you were your
Cooper: That’s right. This idea has
these possibilities, and this texture could be improved a little bit
with this effect or that. But as far as changing the melodies,
and the rhythms, and the harmonies not at all, because that would be
a dishonest thing to do.
BD: Then you should just go and write a
Cooper: That’s right, surely. For example,
in my First String Quartet, I had the first violinist doing four
people’s work. So, a certain division of labor was done there, which
made much better sense, musically. Somebody should have told me
that thirty years ago.
* * *
BD: You’ve been teaching for over thirty
years. Have the students gotten better in that time either technically
Cooper: It’s a difficult question.
In some ways standards of the schools are better. They’ve gotten
very, very good, but I would be remiss in saying that the students
have gotten that much better, because I was lucky to have so many good
students at the University of Michigan. When I first taught, I
had some very distinguished students. Later, I did not teach composition,
but I taught all the craft courses.
BD: Theory and counterpoint?
Cooper: Yes, theory, counterpoint, and orchestration.
I deliberately did not teach composition for thirteen years. The
quality of music school is very good in this country, very, very high.
Generally speaking, it’s better than it was thirty years ago.
BD: Is this a technically ability that is
being imparted to the students, or a musical ability?
Cooper: A technical ability, in part. I see
youngsters with very commanding techniques these days that was far beyond
what I possessed at the same age. Likewise, I’ve been told a very
nice compliment from composers of the next older generation from myself,
that I was much further along at thirty-five than they were. That
pleases me a great deal, because that’s progress. It’s too soon to
comment about the second part of your question, the musical ability.
That remains to be seen. We can learn a great deal from history of
the great composers of the that time whose names we can’t remember today,
or have never even heard a single piece. We do know the works of Telemann,
but how much Graupner do you know? He was the second choice over
Bach. In that case, it is the third-choice gentleman that we remember.
|Johann Christoph Graupner (1683-1760) inadvertently
played a key role in the history of music. Precarious finances in Darmstadt
during the 1710s forced a reduction of musical life. The opera house was
closed, and many court musician's salaries were in arrears (including
Graupner's). After many attempts to have his salary paid, and having several
children and a wife to support, in 1723 Graupner applied for the Cantorate
in Leipzig. Telemann had been the first choice for this position, but
withdrew after securing a salary increase in Hamburg. Graupner's "audition"
Magnificat, set in the style of his teacher, mentor and predecessor,
Kuhnau, secured him the position. However, Graupner's patron (the Landgrave
Ernst Ludwig of Hesse-Darmstadt) would not release him from his contract.
Graupner's past due salary was paid in full, his salary was increased, and
he would be kept on staff even if his Kapelle was dismissed. With
such favorable terms, Graupner remained in Darmstadt, thus clearing the
way for Bach to become the Cantor in Leipzig.
BD: Do you expect your music to last?
Cooper: I would hope so. I would hope
that I’ve written a few things that would last.
BD: Have we thrown a joker into this now
with the existence of recordings? We no longer have to get a string
quartet together to play something. We can take a piece of plastic
off the shelf, and play that through our speakers.
Cooper: Well, I wouldn’t say it’s a joker.
It hasn’t kept people out of concert halls, any more than television has
kept people out of book stores. There’s always that worry when
some new gadget comes along, but people do go to live concerts, and that’s
the important thing. They go for the excitement of live sound, because
even the new CDs, which I must admit are amazing, still don’t have the
excitement of being in the concert hall, and watching the performers,
and hearing the mistakes. [Both laugh] The adrenaline doesn’t
flow with that kind of perfection, even with one of the world’s great orchestras,
and a great conductor, and as many rehearsals as you need in order to have
absolutely the ultimate performance.
BD: Are records too perfect?
Cooper: Sometimes I feel that they’re over-edited.
I won’t allow my records to have that happen to them. It has to
be almost complete takes. Obviously, if it’s a very beautiful
take, and something happens that never happened before, we will put
in a patch. But I don’t like a few bars out of the first take,
and then two bars out of take seventeen. I don’t like that at all.
BD: That becomes a fraud?
Cooper: [Hesitates a moment] I don’t
wish to use such a strong word. It’s what each individual wants
to do. It might be all right for the performer, because every bar
then is going to be as good as the fingers can make it, or the voice
can make it. But for me as a composer, it’s not just the notes. It’s
the shape, the nuance, and with too much editing you have just bits and
pieces instead of a continuity. I’m interested in the continuum, and
in the continuity. That’s very important, and you can only splice
a certain amount and still keep that. You can splice a few things,
as I said, errors, but I think my recordings have been wonderful.
* * *
BD: Tell me about Jubilate.
Cooper: It’s an interesting work, a short piece.
It was part of the sesquicentennial of Texas, and the Houston Symphony
commissioned twenty-one composers. I don’t know why it was not fifty,
or a hundred and fifty. [Laughs] I don’t know what twenty-one
has to do with 150, but it’s a nice number, and
the composers were from all over the world... Danish, Dutch, English...
BD: ...and, of course, a few Texans?
Cooper: Yes, a couple of Texans were thrown
in. This was a fun project. It’s a short piece, but sometimes
short pieces turn out to do rather well by themselves. That piece
has had a large number of performances for being out such a short time.
Rotterdam Philharmonic was on tour, and they played it four or five times
in the States. This brings up another point that we haven’t talked
about, and that is music which is a fanfare for a festive celebration.
BD: Occasional music?
[Note: The box at right contains excerpts from an article
which appeared in Texas Monthly in January, 1987, by W.L. Taitte.
Some material about the composer-in-residence Tobias Picker has been
omitted. See my interviews with Sergiu Comissiona,
Steve Reich, Jacob Druckman, Ned Rorem, Joan Tower, and Carlisle Floyd.]
Cooper: Occasional music, or as Hindemith
called it, Gebrauchsmusik [utility music]. I have no
compunction or embarrassment about it whatsoever. I would be embarrassed
if it were not a good piece, or if I thought it was a poor piece, or if
I had an off-day. But if it’s well put together, I have no apologies
for writing a piece that is essentially in D major. This is not quite
in my style, but it comes pretty close. It serves a of purpose, and
in recent years I have taken on a few things like that, which probably
ten or fifteen years ago I wouldn’t have done. I wrote the ceremonial
music for the inauguration of a new university president, George Rupp,
and I accepted a commission for an anthem from a small church in Illinois,
simply for sentimental reasons. That church was only about forty miles
from where I was born. It’s a commission I normally would turn over
to a student. They could take my recommendation, or not take it
and get another composer, but that one I accepted. I accepted that
fanfare commission, and a couple of things I’ve done that I would say are
utilitarian music. Many of my colleagues ‘moonlight’ in a different
way. One of my colleagues does a lot of film scores for some of
the Altman films, and does fabulously good music for them.
BD: Is there ever a chance that we’re going
to get too many composers?
Cooper: Oh, I think we’ve already reached that point!
BD: Then why do we keep teaching young composers?
Cooper: I do put a limit. We have
six faculty composers, all very active, and fifteen students is all
that we will take. That’s a small number when you look at other
schools with maybe one or two faculty members and seventy or eighty composition
majors. I’m afraid I disapprove of that. It’s just too many.
Several years ago, when CRI was celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary,
the Executive Director, Carter Harman, remarked that when the business
started there were 300 composers in America. He said today there
are 3,000, but that figure is disputed as being very much on the low side.
The New York Times has said it is about 5,000, and somebody else
says 10,000. Of course, who’s a composer is debatable. A person
who has written one hymn, or one popular song can be considered a composer,
and I’m not talking about that. But I do think that we have incredible
number of composers. Let’s not forget that in other times in history
there have been very large numbers of composers... Sixteenth century Italy,
or Eighteenth century Central Europe, for example.
BD: They were grinding out the operas, week
Cooper: Yes, and these were people that
you and I have never heard of.
BD: Do those works deserve to be re-heard
Cooper: Sometimes... perhaps a really neglected
work. I don’t think too often, although post-Amadeus I’ve
heard a few Salieri pieces for the first time, and they were very well
put together, very charming.
BD: Where is the balance between the
artistic achievement and the entertainment value in music?
Cooper: The late Seventeenth century music
philosopher, Andreas Werckmeister, published a treatise entitled, On
the dignity of the noble art of music, its use and mis-use according to Holy
Scriptures and various ancient and reconfirmed pure church-teachings.
This was roughly 1690, and fewer than a hundred years later,
in his General History of Music, Sir Charles Burney said that ‘music
is an innocent luxury, unnecessary, indeed, to our existence, but a
great improvement and gratification of the sense of hearing.’
So, it’s been going back and forth as to what the purpose of music is.
I find that music up through the Eighteenth century has a spiritual quality
to it, and I do not mean necessarily religious or sacred. I
find that a minuet of Haydn or Mozart — certainly
the slow movements, but even the fast movements, the ones that are jovial
— will have a spiritual quality. Not a
religious quality, but a spiritual quality. I find that quality is
somewhat missing surprisingly in the Nineteenth and part of the Twentieth
century. It’s hard for me to articulate exactly what I mean, because
your idea of spirituality and mine might not be the same thing. On
an Albert Schweitzer recording, for example, there’s a certain spiritual
quality. Never mind his religion, or whether he was even religious
or not. That which is beautiful, and good, and humane is spiritual,
and loving, and compassionate to me. All those are strong positive
words, the totally of which brings a spirituality in a person.
BD: Do you make sure that those are in your
Cooper: You cannot set out saying you will
have a hundred per cent spirituality. You don’t write music that
way. I would certainly hope that people could find some of that,
and I don’t mean just in my slow music. I would hope that they
would find it in my fast music, and in recent years, even in my jovial
music. I’m softening up! [Both laugh] But they would
think of something that was a totality. The thing that I so admire
in Haydn and in Bach — those two composers
particularly, because all the emotions are there, running either simultaneously
or concurrently — is that they are serious
and introspective, but they are also extroverted and jovial. I love
that! I will show my French bias here, but when all becomes one
side — as German music became serious
at all cost — then where is the humor?
In Haydn, the humor exists intrinsically in the music. He doesn’t
have to stop to tell a joke. In Beethoven, he recognizes the important
of humor, and you have the scherzo movement. In all the hours of
music that Wagner wrote, there’s a bit of humor in Meistersinger.
Then, when people like Erik Satie set in, you have to free the ‘serious’
at all costs, and you’re going to have light music instead. I don’t
mean ‘light’ as in ‘frivolous’,
but what the world needs is another Haydn, not another Beethoven.
BD: Do you try for this in your music?
Cooper: Yes, I have. I’ve tried
very consciously, because I have a bizarre sense of humor. Personally
I have a lot of fun in life, and I don’t see why so much of my music is
so dark, and seemingly despondent, because I’m not that way, and I hope my
music is not. I hope it’s always self-lifting, and I think it is
at the end. You have to see me through some thorny passages. There’s
a piece I wrote a few years ago that I was very happy with. It’s
called Canti, for viola and piano, and there’s one movement that’s
called Giocoso, a joke, and sure
enough, at the premiere the audience started laughing with the piece.
BD: That means you succeeded.
Cooper: I succeeded, and it was not parody.
It was not satire, and I didn’t slam the piano lid down, or do
any 1950 tricks at all. It all came out of the music, and I was
really happy with it.
BD: One last question. Is composing fun?
Cooper: Oh, yes, and hard work. People
do not realize how hard it is.
BD: Should they realize the work that goes
Cooper: Only the layman who thinks that I don’t do
anything, and I have to point it out that I have worked from eight o’clock
this morning until one, non-stop. You can only compose so many hours
a day because the little gray cells run out. But then you might do
other things, such as copying, and polishing, and revising, and all those
things until Midnight. It’s very hard work, and I always forget
how completely exhausting it is emotionally, because it is so much fun at
the same time. It’s the same as opening day of classes if I haven’t
taught for a while, or after the summer break, or particularly now after
a sabbatical. I will give two lectures, and I could go home and take
a nap. They were fun lectures, and everything went well, and I am
happy, but it’s exhausting if you make your highest commitment, and composing
is that same way. You’re making your highest commitment, and so the
answer is yes, it is fun. I couldn’t imagine being anything else.
I’ve been composing so long that I couldn’t imagine doing anything else
at this point.
BD: Thank you for the conversation.
Cooper: My pleasure.
© 1987 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on December 18, 1987.
Portions were broadcast on WNIB four months later, and again
in 1991 and 1996; on WNUR in 2007 and 2015; and Contemporary
Classical Internet Radio in 2010. This transcription was made
in 2020, 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.
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was
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.
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.