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."


cooper 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 with laughter.

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 schoolsthe 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 young composer?

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 Boulangernot to classes that I had the Conservatoire, but the private one-on-one lessons in her studiois 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 of difference.

cooper 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 heredoesn’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 piece!

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.

cooper 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 performance.

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 than concerts.

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???  [More laughter]

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.

cooper 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 work).]

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 oratorios.

Cooper:   Yes.

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 perhapsand 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 Stravinskys 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 becomingif I may use the wordmore 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 triadsor 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 artsand certainly music is no exceptionis 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 maximalElliott Carters Fourth String Quartet, which is very interesting but very maximalto 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 foundationsthe wide intervals at the bottom, and the tighter intervals on top, particularly in the upper strings, the violins and possibly the violasand have them trill on a half-step for a long time, like two minutes?  Well, it’s in my big choral piece, Credo!

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.

cooper 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?

Cooper:   Yes.

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 else.

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 own student?

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 new quartet?

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 or musically?

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.

*     *     *     *     *

cooper 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, William Schuman, 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!  [Laughs]

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 after week.

Cooper:   Yes, and these were people that you and I have never heard of.

BD:   Do those works deserve to be re-heard now?

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 Mozartcertainly the slow movements, but even the fast movements, the ones that are jovialwill 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 music?

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 concurrentlyis 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 sideas German music became serious at all costthen 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.

cooper 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 into it?

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.

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.

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.