Composer  Monroe  Couper

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie




Monroe Couper, 40, Composer and Teacher

The New York Times, March 5. 1994

Monroe Couper, a composer and an associate professor of music at the Brooklyn College campus of Kingsborough Community College, died last weekend in a climbing accident in New Hampshire. He was 40 and lived in South Orange, N.J.

Mr. Couper and Eric Lattey, 28, of River Vale, N.J., froze to death in bad weather while ice-climbing on Mount Washington, the United States Forest Service said.

Mr. Couper had been a member of the music faculty at Brooklyn College since 1980. He grew up in Waynesboro, Va., and graduated from the University of Chicago. He taught music theory and electronic music and wrote for orchestras and small ensembles, including percussion quartets. His most recent composition, "In Memoriam," was given its premiere last year by the Prague Symphony Orchestra.

He is survived by his wife, Ann Garrison Couper; two daughters, Elisabeth and Mariah; his parents, Charles and Elisabeth Couper of Waynesboro; a brother, and two sisters.





In the history of humankind, there are super-greats and there are absolute-failures and everything in between.  But one group that is special is the
what-might-have-beens.  Those people whose lives are cut short for one reason or another and fail, usually through no fault of their own, to fulfill the destiny accorded to a long or standard-length life.

As seen in the above obituary, composer Monroe Couper is part of that small group who held great promise and tragically departed before it was fulfilled. 
Always sad, those souls leave behind whatever they accomplished, yet will always be considered incomplete.  One always wonders if they would do anything differently with an advanced knowledge of one’s moment of demise.


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During his brief time, Couper grew and made choices and succeeded and learned.  The conversation you are about to read allows him to expound on his discoveries and experiences as of April 6, 1988.  At 35, one usually anticipates more than just another five years of living, but this was all he was allotted. 


In any event, we met at his old stomping ground, the University of Chicago, where he had earned both a Master
of Arts and a Ph.D., and had lectured.  Though teaching in New York, he returned to the area for a performance of one of his pieces, and an old professor allowed us to use his office for the conversation . . . . . . .


Monroe Couper:    These chairs are weird.  You sink so far down into them you feel like you’ll never get out.  Would you like to switch them?

Bruce Duffie:    No, no.  This is fine.

MC:    Okay.  It’ll be a very laid-back interview.

BD:    That’s right.  Monroe Couper — it’s pronounced Cooper?

MC:    Yes, just spelled funny.

BD:    What is the derivation of C-O-U-P-E-R?

MC:    My father would like me to believe that it was originally French and it moved to Scotland with William the Conquerer, but I don’t know if I go in for it.  So it’s really, as far as I can tell, for quite some time of Scottish origin.  It’s gone through its different spellings, anything from C-O-O to C-O-W to C-U-P-A-R and all kinds of weird things.  Somehow we just settled down and I don’t want to change it now.  So finally it got stable for a few generations.

BD:    I see.  Though I have a very mixed background, my name, D-U-F-F-I-E, is Scottish rather than Irish, so we’ll blow our bagpipes together.  [Both laugh]  You’re both composer and teacher.  How do you divide your time between those two?

MC:    Unfortunately, when I’m teaching I find I don’t get as much real creative output done.  So fortunately, where I teach we have a winter and a summer semester, as well as a fall and a spring, and I’m only required to teach in the fall and the spring.  That gives me about five months of the year off, which is really wonderful.  I have a two and a half months break in the winter and two and a half months in the summer.  This is all reasonably new.  Until a few years ago I was part-time.  When you’re a part-time teacher, you have plenty of time to negotiate your schedule, but once I became full-time, it really took a bit out of my creative time.  Now that I get a lot of work done in the winters and summers, I mostly revise and edit that in the fall and spring while I’m teaching.  I don’t seem to have the psychological space when I’m harassed by daily responsibilities to start something new.  You need a quiet feeling in your life.  It doesn’t have to be quiet, it just has to be a feeling that there’s room to grow into, and I don’t feel that way when I’m teaching.

BD:    When you’re teaching, you’re teaching theory and composition?

MC:    I teach a little bit of that at a community college as part of the City University of New York called Kingsborough.  It’s very interesting.  It’s completely different than what I might ever have expected to find myself doing.  It’s about ten thousand students.  We have normally a two-year degree program, but we have a special music program in conjunction with another City University school, so what happens is the students spend the freshman and sophomore years with us, and junior and senior elsewhere.  We get some very interesting music majors, but I’m usually teaching Theory I and II, Ear Training I and II, and Music Appreciation.

BD:    When you’re teaching do the students ever come up with a really good idea that you rip off?

MC:    No.  [Laughs]  I haven’t actually ripped them off, but I’ve been really impressed with some of my students’ works because they are real different from what you’d expect being a community college and having a special program which meets two days a week.  It’s designed for people that have other commitments in their lives and are coming back to school.  So we force all their classes into a fiendish schedule where we’re going from all day long on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  That allows us to attract a lot of really mature students, people anywhere from thirty to senior citizens that are coming back to school.  That makes it really interesting.  Plus we’re in New York City and we get a real ethnic diversity.  So in a way it’s wonderful.  You have the United Nations sitting in front of you, and it works.  That’s the fun part.  One of my students, for example, plays with King Creole and the Coconuts, a reggae band.  Another student is really into gospel.  Yet another sings classical opera and wants to be a soprano.

BD:    Do they come to you to get a more rounded background in all of this?

MC:    Yes.  It’s basically they come to school for the reason anyone would come
to get a four-year degree in music.  Some plan to go on and be teachers, some are filling out their backgrounds, and some really just don’t know why they’re there, exactly.  Those are usually the worst students.  The ones that have a purpose are good, and our music majors tend to be serious people, and that’s neat.

BD:    Do you have any that want to be composers?

MC:    A few here and there.  We tend to have more performers, and particularly a lot of jazz and commercial music background interests.  A lot of people that have spent their lives doing club dates, and now they’re about thirty-five and they say, “I can’t go on this way. I’ve got to figure out something.”  So that means we get some people with some real chops, as well as some people that have been playing just a bit.  We’ve had some really interesting people.  One guy is fifty-five years old and played jazz all his life.  He has played with some incredibly important names, but really is almost musically illiterate.  He can read, but he doesn’t know how to write his ideas down.  He’s learned from playing and doing, and now he kind of wants to round that out.

BD:    Does he want to play with the Philharmonic, or what does he want to do with it?

MC:    No, I think his plan, in the end, is probably some sort of teaching, or just to know more about what he’s doing.  I don’t really know what happened to him.  He’s moved on in our program and I didn’t get to know his focus.  But what that does is make for a real diversified background.  The students that take the Music Appreciation classes are a whole different lot.  They’re much more like your average college student that is trying to take a humanities elective.

BD:    Something easy!  [Laughs]

MC:    Yes.  One of the things I like most about Kingsborough is that it’s not terribly interesting material to teach.  I’m not doing graduate seminars in Stravinsky, but it’s a challenge to communicate it and I get a kick out of that.  It’s really almost a performance thing for me.  I have all kinds of little things I try to do to get people interested, and if it doesn’t work, I’m interested in trying to make it better.  So that’s been real helpful.  It’s that part that has been the challenge, rather than having to prepare graduate seminars or supervise dissertations, which I kind of envisioned that I would be doing.

BD:    Will you eventually do that?

MC:    If I were to change jobs.  Surely it depends on where I would end up teaching next, but for me teaching is really even secondary.  I have mostly wanted to be a composer.  I like teaching; it’s the best job I’ve had after composing.  So it’s a good way to make a living, but I try to keep it there.  I’m trying to not get sucked into too much of the becoming a political animal.

BD:    You don’t want to be too professorial?

MC:    Yes, or moving into administrative work.  I’m really trying to keep focused on composition, and that’s working well.

BD:    You work so much on your music.  Are you pleased with the way it turns out, having been done a little bit here and a little bit there?

MC:    That’s an interesting question.  I’ll tell you why.  I sometimes have to do pieces quickly, crank them out all of a sudden, especially under a deadline — for example, this Peter Maxwell Davies thing that I did one summer.   [See my Interview with Sir Peter Maxwell Davies.]  It was like a little school, and he wanted us to write a five-minute piece.  We had four days to do it and copy it all and get it in.  It was a real test, though.  We were up all night agonizing over these things, but you do it... at least I did it.  I wrote a little piece and I was pleased with it, for what it was worth, but when I left this little festival and got back home, I realized that it was shallow.  I find with time a lot of pieces age; they develop and grow.  There was a time a few years ago when I started writing a string quartet.  It was about 1982, and I had many ideas for it.  The work had several beginnings and I never seemed to finish it.  Instead, other pieces came along and I got involved in those.  What I didn’t realize was I was changing.  I was at a turning point.  I was looking for some new way of working, and at the time I did not know how to write the string quartet I wanted to write.  I had to learn. 
This clarinet piece that I showed you [Fossils] was kind of a turning point piece for me because it was the development of a language that I felt more comfortable with.  This was something that I felt was a way of working that was like language.  So that piece really got me kind of into a new way of working.  Then I went back to the String Quartet.  Over the years as I had dabbled with it and it really seemed to take on a lot of dimensions.  So even though it took me four years to write, I feel like it’s got to be one of my best pieces because it’s got so many things going on.  I’m only frustrated I don’t have a recording of it.  The deal that we were hooking up for Opus One self-destructed with the string quartet, and we’re looking for another.


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BD:    You’re still a very young man.  There’s a good chance it will happen.

MC:    Oh, there’s hope.  There’s hope, yes.  [Laughs]  I expect to get a performance soon, but of course that piece was finished two or three years ago, and I’ve already written pieces that I think are a step forward from there.

BD:    Do you then disown the pieces that you wrote earlier?

MC:    See, that’s what’s hard.  I have really changed since, let’s say 1980, when I wrote Desert Music.  Although I don’t disown it, I feel like it represents a whole different way of working, so I’m not as interested in it anymore.  That’s the problem.  Therefore I don’t promote it as much, and I don’t try to get performances of it.

BD:    What happens when someone comes up to you and says they want to do a performance of one of these old pieces?

MC:    If it’s a piece that I really have doubts about but it seems like a good performance option, I might think of revising it.  I have done that on one or two occasions, but I’m trying to weed out the pieces now that I don’t like so they wouldn’t find out about such a piece!  I’ve taken it off my resume; it’s no longer around.  So the pieces that you do see, I like.

BD:    But the great historian who comes a hundred years from now is going to be digging through your waste baskets and your files, and they’re going to find this piece...

MC:    ...and they’ll say, “Hmmm.”  Well, good.  I’m not worried about that actually.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you’re working with a piece and you get to the end, you put the double bar and go back and start tinkering with it.  How do you know when to lay the pen down and say, “This is ready to be launched?”

MC:    That’s a good question, too.  There’s a wonderful quote about poetry, “A poem is never finished.  It’s only abandoned.”  In some ways that’s like it is with music.  When you end a piece it’s a very scary thing because you realize at that point that if the piece isn’t over, all your hopes for it are still open-ended.  Once you really end it you have to say, “Well, that’s it.  That’s as far as it got,” and the next piece will have to either go further or do more what I wanted.  So it’s a kind of an abandonment, but there is a sense of completion, of knowing that this is it.  If it doesn’t feel that way then the piece isn’t over, so often times I won’t really end with the ending.  The ending will have been worked out earlier, and there’ll be middle parts that I just have to flesh out.  I often leave little holes in parts of my pieces where I have the main idea sketched out and I know there’s going to be accompaniment at that point, but I don’t want to work that out yet.  I’ll go ahead and continue the continuity, and then later come back.  As I orchestrate, at that point I would say, “Now, what do I want to do with this passage and how can I fix it up?
  That can lead to some real problems when people see a piece before it’s done.  In the sketches, I know what’s going to be there but they don’t.  I’ve had weird experiences with that, at times, where people have not understood — understandablywhat was going to happen in the end.  For example, Barbara Schubert is conducting a new orchestra piece called Daybreak this Saturday.  She was a little nervous about what the piece was going to be like and I told her, “I’ll just send you the draft that I have.  It’s incomplete and there’ll be holes, but it’ll give you the idea.”  It was a partial sketch that was complete in some areas and not in others, and it really baffled her.  When she got the full score she figured it out, but we had this funny conversation where she said, “I don’t understand!  It looks like you’re selling out.”  [Laughs]  She didn’t know what I was thinking.

BD:    Did you ever have a case where someone will look at it and they’ll say, “Oh, you’re probably going to do this here and that there,” and it’s exactly what you think, and you know you’re in sync with this person who’s looking at it?

MC:    Yes, actually so, and it’s real exciting when that happens.  Not quite in the way you described it, but yes, you can get the vibes that they see exactly what you’ve done, and they get the joke or they get the expectation, and that’s very rewarding.

BD:    What do you expect of the audience that comes to hear a piece of your music?

MC:    I don’t expect them to have to know anything too much in advance.  I don’t want them to have to come in knowing a lot about the style.  I would hope that if they were musically inclined, that they should be able to get something out of a piece that I have written.  In the past few years
from Fossils onI’ve really taken a different interest in what I’m trying to do with my music.  The piece that preceded this was probably the most complex, most difficult piece I’ve ever written, in terms of its non-repetitions and non-regularities.  With a setting of some Chinese Haiku that seemed very poetic and very sparse, and I was trying to capture the flavor, and at the same time be very...  I don’t know what would describe the style, but it was sort of a typical post-Webern kind of atonality without it being serial.  I was doing that because I was really challenging myself on all kinds of dimensions, as barely working on the edge of what I could understand for myself.  That was exciting, but I was always disappointed when even skilled listeners would hear my pieces and weren’t getting it.  I gradually realized that it would take me months to write a piece and I would live every instant of it in completeness, but it would go by a listenereven on the third or fourth timeso quickly that all these relationships weren’t clear.  So more and more I wanted to make the relationships clear to people, so that when they left a concert they wouldn’t say, “Well, that was an interesting piece, but it was intangible.”  I used to like intangibility, and I finally decided I wanted to do things that were definite, and that set out to do something and then did it if they could and made an impact.  One of the things that kind of inspired me in this direction was to hear music from old cartoons without seeing the cartoons.  It’s really strange!  There are these funny special effects and curious sounds of colorful instruments, and they’re put in these almost stream of consciousness type relationships because they’re animating a sequence.  But when you don’t know that and you’re trying to hear it as new music, it sounds like very exaggerated gestures.  This is very interesting and very appealing on one level.  I had this experience of listening to these things and saying, “Who wrote this?  I never heard anything quite like this!  Could this be a new piece by Druckman?”  A moment later I had this insight as to what it was, and I realized that suddenly I wanted to exaggerate things, to make a caricature of things, to have a theme that was going to set out to be a lazy theme.  It would have to be more than just a little lazy; it would have to be a lot lazy so the audience could say, “It was the laziest theme I’ve ever heard!”  It’s not that I really wanted to change my ideas for an audience.  I really wanted to channel my ideas in a way that an audience could understand it.

BD:    You don’t want to slap them in the face with it, do you?

MC:    No, I’m not trying to be obvious.  At the same time, I felt that it was a radical change from what I was doing, which was so intangible.  The shapes were so irregular and so unusual when they came back in the sense of repetitions.  There’s a whole school of music founded around those kinds of relationships, and that was what I was schooled in.  One of my first composition books was called Serial Composition by a British author named Reginald Smith Brindle.  He was giving lessons how to write a good atonal melody, and what it boiled down to is you do everything that is not normal for a melody.  The result is a melody that’s unpredictable, and that is a wonderful atonal melody.  I could understand and liked all of that as a student initially, and I think I just got tired of it after a while.  I felt like it was leaving out a level in the music or a dimension in the music.  Deeper levels were getting nullified.  It seems to me harmonic relationships are really a useful means of creating interest in music, and when you democratize that excessively with total serialism or vast atonality, you’re leaving out a big dimension.  You’re not controlling it in the way that you might; you
’re not manipulating it.  I’ve gotten interested in creating expectations and resolutions that will be understood by a musical audiencenot necessarily by anybody, but somebody who is open to this kind of idea.

BD:    Let me ask the big philosophical question
— what do you feel is the purpose of music in society?

MC:    It has many purposes, and that’s what I think confuses everybody because many people try to think of all music as having the same purpose.  When I want to go dancing, there’s certain kinds of music I want and vice versa.  But for the kind of music that I write, I really want it to be an esthetic experience.  I want people to sit down and be intellectually and emotionally moved.  I feel like that’s the balance.  I used to write very much in a very dissonant style with very irregular and non-synchronized rhythms
fives against fours against threes — and I really enjoyed it.  It was wonderful stuff, I thought.  For example, in an Elliott Carter piece there’s an immense amount of interest and a lot of control and detail that he’s put in.  It’s a very intellectual experience, but I don’t get the emotive content that I get, let’s say, in a piece of Brahms.  [See my Interview with Elliott Carter.]  When I hear Brahms I can find intellectual stimulation, and if I want to study it and look at the harmonic relationships and the formal designswhich I can also do with Elliott Carter — I just get these feelings of wow!  Woo!  It’s a much more cerebral experience with a lot of the music that I used to write, and I used to feel that was okay.  I’ve finally decided that I want more than just a cerebral emotion.  I want a gut feeling.  I want people to be delighted and I want people to be surprised and I want people to be sad and to have the full gamut.  Another problem I find with a lot of contemporary music is that it’s so dreadfully serious and pretentious that you have to take a big chunk and really try to do the most grandiose thing you can do.

BD:    Then where should be the balance between the artistic achievement and an entertainment value?

MC:    I think you’ve got to be able to do two kinds of pieces or many kinds of pieces.  Within a big chunk piece you’ve got to have its moments of wit and humor and its moments of catharsis.  I feel like each piece should run the gamut.  If maybe one wants to write a Requiem or something that’s going to be very intense, you can also write piano rags and things like that.  In fact, it seems like a lot of the time when I’m working on a very intense piece, I’m almost always working on a trivial, almost silly piece at the same time to kind of balance the two.  For example, when I was writing Desert Music, I was also writing some piano ragtime works and a tango, among other things, which are light, five or six-minute piano pieces in kind of a dissonant style but with funny caricatures of Joplin and things like that.

BD:    Yet when someone listens to this intense piece, they’re not getting the relief that you had while you were writing it.

MC:    Perhaps not.  That’s why nowadays, unlike Desert Music, which was one of these very abstract pieces, I’m trying to be more of a narrative composer.  That means that in a piece like Fossils there will be moments of exhilaration and hopefully moments of more profundity and moments of wit.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I assume that you get a number of commissions.

MC:    I’ve had a few but not a great deal.

BD:    When they do come to you, how do you decide if you’re going to accept them or turn them down?

MC:    Oh, I just accept them all at this stage [laughs] unless it was really strange.

BD:    What if I want a piece for piccolo, ocarina and double bassoon?

MC:    [Laughs]  You’re right, I would have to step in.  There would be things that I would not want to do.

BD:    What is it you look for that would determine your reaction?

MC:    Number one is, are the people that ask for it are going to do something with it — play it and give it some exposure?  Then even if it’s kind of weird, I’d certainly be willing to write it.  It might be real fun to write a piece for the group that you just mentioned if there was a group that really was out there doing it.  On the other hand, if it’s something that I would feel I couldn’t do a very good job with or that I didn’t feel up to, for example, I don’t really want to write an opera.  A lot of people are writing operas, so if I were to get a commission for an opera and I didn’t like the libretto and I wasn’t sure about it, I don’t think I would want to do that because I’d spend a lot of time doing it and I probably wouldn’t like the result.  I would want to wait for a while.

BD:    What scares you about opera?

MC:    I’ve never been a vocal writer, and I have a hard time with setting texts.

BD:    You said you set some Haiku...

MC:    Yes, which was a sort of an experimental use of the voice because they were written in Chinese and I set them in Chinese.  I wanted the Chinese language sounds to make the voice its own curious instrument.  So it’s not your normal vocal setting.  It’s not like a lied.  One day I will probably want to write vocal music.  I have already in mind a wonderful piece.  It’s going to be for men’s voices.  That’s working up here in my mind, but I don’t have a text yet.  The other aspect is dealing with the text.  I find it hard to find texts that I want to set, or if I have the music, I can’t find a text for it.  I’m just not the song-writer type.  Friends of mine are real interested in doing operas and I wouldn’t want to rule out ever doing an opera, but I would want to be sure that it was something that I felt I could handle.  Then I would build up to it because without having written a lot of vocal music, I don’t think I’d want to leap into an opera.  I’d want to work with some singers to set some songs first and kind of get into the voice.  I could see doing a multi-media sort of operatic-like thing.  I almost did a radio play with a friend who wrote this bizarre libretto about women weight-lifters.  That was just wacky enough to make me think, “Yeah, we can do something with this!”  I was going to do some electronic synthesis and some electronic voice work.  If it’s straight singing I would need to learn more, and I’m not really afraid to say that because composers are always learning.  In talking to Barbara Schubert, who’s conducting a lesser-known Dvořák piece, she says, “There is one spot that’s orchestrated wrong and it does not work!”  So it seems like you find all up and down that there’s always room for improvement.

BD:    [With surprise]  Did she go and change it, then?

MC:    Not so much.  She has to work around it.  Maybe she doubles the string part on the inner voices
on the violasand adds little padding or something.  It might work with a certain orchestra but not with others.

BD:    What if someone is doing a piece of yours and they say, “No, this has been orchestrated wrong” and they want to change it?

MC:    That’s interesting because I would go with it up to a certain point.  If they’re re-writing my piece I don’t think so, or if they just don’t like a sound effect that I do think works and they don’t.  If it’s an esthetic disagreement, that’s not good.  But on the other hand, I’m always eager to learn from a performance or from performers.  That’s an important thing, because as a composer you simply can’t be a virtuoso on every instrument.  There are lots of things that you need to learn from virtuosos in order to get good sounds out of them to do what it is you might want to do.  So when someone that I respect knows a trick or something, I’m eager to learn it.

BD:    Are there times when performers find things your scores that you didn’t know you did in there?

MC:    You mean like relationships?   Sometimes.  Sometimes it’s a little crazy what they’re talking about.  What I like even more is when I feel there’s an important hidden relationship and someone picks up on it right away.  It was very rewarding recently in this piece.  The harmonic language was consistent enough to where the first player of it came up here and said, “You really want a B-flat here.  I can tell it by what you have written.  It doesn’t fit in the scale you’re using.”  In fact, it was a little transposition there that I had written into the part.  That was a good sign because he could hear the wrong and right notes.  That’s what I was trying to do.  I’m working in a very tight style where every note, like a move in chess, should have an importance.  As a result the music is very sparse... not sparse, but it’s not thick, grandiose music.  It tends to be clearer, and more concerned with clarity and relationships.  I’m scared to say this, but I’ve become neoclassic!  [Laughs]

BD:    Why is that a dirty word?

MC:    It’s not a dirty word because I love many neoclassic composers, but it scares me because as a youth, when I was starting out in composing, I always felt I had to be on the cutting edge.  Now I feel that in some ways the neoclassic person is a little more traditional, but that’s what I’m enjoying now about the music.  I find that I learn less and less from hearing new pieces and more and more from listening to Mozart and Bach, and wanting to catch the essence of that in the style of music that I’m working in.  I’m real excited about the stuff I’m doing now because I feel that finally it’s getting there, and I really feel that I’m developing my own kind of voice and language.  That’s a wonderful feeling.

BD:    I wish that God himself could print up little business cards and drop them into the mailboxes of every composer saying, ‘What’s wrong with a pretty tune?’  [Both laugh]

MC:    Yes.  I have to agree.  I feel that we should have as many pretty tunes as we have ugly tunes, and it seems to me that somebody who stays only in this terribly dissonant framework is cutting off their leg and then trying to run a race.  There’s so much you can do with pretty tunes and tonality.  You can contrast them with ugliness and create new effects.

BD:    We need Milton Babbitt but we also need Ned Rorem.  [See my Interview with Ned Rorem.]

MC:    That’s correct.  There’s room for both of those, and it brings up the scary thing, which is that each of them had to have found a personal style, especially someone like Milton Babbitt — a bit like Jackson Pollock found a personal language for himself.  There’s room for one person like that, but it’s not a language that has the range of expressive capabilities that other languages do.  So when you have everybody working in one particular style, you really have clones of that one style, and that’s problematic.  It seems to be everywhere, in all the arts and in science, too, for that matter.  It’s human nature, especially as a student when you’re trying to learn to be generic because you’re trying to learn what these people are doing.  Then when you learn what they do, hopefully you have a voice inside that lets you then move from there.  Once you’ve learned to be generic you’re at ground zero, and what you can do from there is up to you.  In other words, once you’ve got your technique and skills down, then what you can develop out of that is what is important.  Too many composers seem to get to that generic stage and not know how to break away because the institutions lock them in, or they get too many awards for doing the same thing.

BD:    Do you feel that you’re part of a heritage of composers, a lineage?

MC:    Yes, but not the same heritage that a lot of people would think of.  I feel a heritage from Machaut through Beethoven and Bach, and even Stravinsky and Bartók and Luciano Berio and Charles Ives.  [See my Interview with Luciano Berio.]  At the same time I feel a real strong connection to my childhood, where I used to play trumpet in a soul band and also in a stage band.  So I had a little bit of big band sounds and a little bit of James Brown and sixties soul, and an interest in jazz also developed and also a vast interest in ragtime.  One of my first interests at the piano was to try to play the Maple Leaf Rag.  It was just getting to be faddish at the time when I heard about it, so I felt like I was on the cutting edge.  Then, like Peanuts or Snoopy and those things, it became popular with everybody.  Anyway, that was a big influence.  I find that in these kinds of pieces there is a certain combination of those factors.  In Fossils, for example, there is a certain cadential formula I keep coming back to that really sounds like blues to me.  At the same time, the rest of the piece is much more dissonant, and there are moments in Fossils that remind me of Eric Dolphy and some kind of jazz solo styles, but especially the late John Coltrane with wild extended scales.  There’s an essence of that in there and I feel like all of these feed me.  I think it’s a mistake to feel that there’s a logical and historic progression to what we do, the way Schoenberg would have described.  It’s okay for him to feel that way, though.  I think that’s a logical way to think about it, but I found it’s less useful for me to think that way because it confines me and I’m trying to learn how not to be confined.  It seems like everything our society in some ways suggests that you be mainstreamed rather than be quirky or be individual.  I’m worried about that because I’ve always been afraid of being different.  And at the same time, now I’m realizing that to be different is really important, it’s this contradiction.

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BD:    Coming back a little bit to your roots and your heritage and your ideas of all the different kinds of music, there seems to be this huge gulf between the popular music and the concert music, at least for the audiences.  Is it good to have this gulf, and are we bridging it?


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MC:    No.  I think it’s terrible to have the gulf, and I actually do think we’re bridging it without really knowing how we’re bridging it.  I think it’s getting bridged, but I can’t really say how or why, or in what way.  I feel like there’s still a bunch of very hardcore traditionalists at this point that are maintaining the atonality of the sixties and seventies, or the quasi-atonality therein.  Then there are the radical minimalists that, at least in New York and in many parts of the country, have gained a lot of popularity among the non-musical audience that has become followers of Phillip Glass.  I have to say, “More power to him,” even though I don’t admire much of his music.  Steve Reich, on the other hand, I like a lot, and I feel like there’s not minimalism there.  [See my Interviews with Steve Riech.]  But there are all these new waves and things, and I think that’s what’s helping to bridge the gap.  The eclecticism that’s currently going on and the fact that in one town you can have a Mario Davidovsky and you can have a Laurie Anderson, and you can begin to have crossover.  Then you can have people like the Talking Heads that are coming from a commercial/popular music vein, that do weird enough stuff to where they start to fit in, and you get some blending.  Also with this whole development of synthesizers and midi-interfaces that’s bringing the real hardcore computer music people in contact with the rock and rollers, and I think there’ll be some infusions there.  For the average concert goer that attends chamber music, it’s not really experiencing it as much yet; I think the gulf is still a lot there.  But with my “classical” composer friends that are doing serious concert music
whatever the good term is for this kind of stuff we doI notice that they’re becoming much more interested in audience response; not in catering to an audience, but in being aware of the listeners and how that’s affecting them, and being aware of the musicians and what the musicians are interested in playing.  In other words, being a composer for musicians as well as for an audience as well as for oneself.  Usually you’ve got to go in the opposite order.  But I can’t really testify as to what facts make me feel this way; maybe it’s just optimism on my part.  I feel like the public is getting a little more used to chaotic sounding music.  They’re hearing enough of it.  We certainly hear it on sound tracks at times, and that’s a least getting us exposed to it.

BD:    Now you’ve brought up a couple of things that I want to go into more deeply.  First is the electronics.  Have you worked a lot or a little with electronics?

MC:    I’ve spent a little bit of time over a long period of time.  I’ve always kind of been dabbling in it without ever feeling or even wanting to be an electronic music or a computer music composer, and not being known in that way.  I’m real interested in the technology and I’m interested in how the technology interacts with the musical output, but I’ve never just wanted to be a specialist in that field.  As a result, I used to do analog and Moog and Buchla synthesizer stuff in the sixties and seventies.  Then I took a computer music course at Brooklyn College with Charles Dodge, and that was using early computer languages for music.  Then I went to France for a while, and worked on a very interesting and unique system that Iannis Xenakis had developed called the UPIC, which is like a big graphic drawing board.  [See my Interview with Iannis Xenakis.]  It’s electromagnetic.  You draw in the music and it’s converted to sound in intuitive and logical ways.  That was real interesting, and it was a hybrid approach.  Then I worked on the Synclavier for a while, and most recently I’ve purchased a little home computer.  I have a few old synthesizers, and I use the computer as a kind of musical work processor.  This has been a real interesting revolution in my work.  Right now it’s changing the way I’m working, and I’m seeing how it affects the music.

BD:    How so?

MC:    I had spent much of my life developing this technique of hearing everything I wrote as I wrote it, and knowing how to write what I heard up here in my head.  I’d gotten really good at it, so when I would write a piece such as Fossils and then hear a performance, it would be so exciting because it was exactly like what I wanted — at least when it was done right.  It’s hard with a bigger group, so I’m learning things from the orchestra piece that I just finished that I can improve the next time.  But I’d gotten very good at this, especially in many situations of knowing how to write what I wanted without access to any recording techniques, just a piano and some paper.  It was a lot of work, because especially in a complex orchestral texture you have to imagine the sounds of all the instruments.  You have to hear the main theme in the violins and then say, “Now let me hear that with the trombones down here and add the piccolos.”  I would work through the piece hearing that and sometimes it would take twenty minutes to get into a section that you’re working on and then continue from the beginning of a work day.  So on this computer and synthesizer set-up, I work more at the keyboard.  I play in little ideas, listen to them, sometimes write them down so that I can develop them in the ways that I know, sometimes improvise on them with the computer serving as a tape recorder.  It will record the sequences that I play, allow me to edit them, allow me to change tempos so if I know I want a run that I can’t possibly play, I can do it very slowly and then get it up to speed.  It’s got some real nice features.  I can ultimately convert that to print and save myself the laborious task of writing out the score.  Once it’s in print you can extract the parts.  All this works but with lots of problems, so it’s a laborious task at this point.  It’s not like pressing a few buttons.

BD:    With students who are coming along, are we not losing, perhaps, people who can write music?

MC:    That’s why I feel safe, because I’ve felt pretty good about what I was doing before buying this.

BD:    But you’re old enough to do this.  What about the kid who’s twenty years younger?

MC:    I think that’s going to hold them back.  It’s not going to ruin music for all of us in the future, but what it will do is limit that person’s ability to interact in a musical setting, so they’ll maybe never be able to rise to their potential if they had had more rigorous kinds of training.  At the same time it’s wonderful because it’s like being a visual artist.  I’ve always liked the visual arts because you can see what you’re doing.  I was working recently on a trumpet trio, and I found that I could come in in the morning to work and play back what I had worked on the day before without having to spend lots of time synthesizing it in my head.  Then I could be like a chief executive officer and say, “This really works well, but I don’t like that section.  Let’s play it faster.  Let’s play it slower.  Let’s bring a new instrument in here.”

BD:    Are you being a conductor, then?

MC:    I’m being a conductor and everything at once.  It’s kind of like if you’re a playwright and you have the whole set and everything there for you to just work with like toys.  There are a lot of problems that I can see, and that I want to avoid falling victim to.  Whenever you work with technology it’s going to control you a little bit, so you don’t want to end up being controlled by it.  There are plenty of things that are easy to do on the computer, so it’s very tempting to do it that way each time.  Also, since I’m working with cheap synthesizers because I’m not a wealthy man, the sounds are not exactly realistic.  Even if I had reasonably good equipment, they’re not totally like what a real instrument is like.  So as you’re working on a trumpet sonata, you’re synthesizing and hearing parts of it, and working at times at your desk and at times even at a regular piano and at times playing back the sequences you have.  You begin, though, to memorize or rely on those synthesized sounds which may not be the same as a real player.  So that can be a real pitfall.  I struggle a lot with that.   What I’ve found, though, is it really speeds up the creative time, and I was able to write much more rapidly than I normally write.  I was able to get very complete drafts of two works done in about a six-week work period when I was at an artist’s colony this past winter.  I felt like Mozart all of a sudden, to write two pieces in six weeks!  What’s happened since then, in going back to them and trying to figure out how to convert the sounds into printed notation that’s correct, that it needs lots of editing and revising.  That makes me feel better because I’m suspicious of things that come too easy.  Listening to them I’ve found interesting things that I can develop and exploit.  So it really has been a good generator of raw material that then becomes a wonderful thing to work with in more traditional ways at my desk.  So I’ve been real excited, and I feel that it’s helped me to get more in touch with the thing I want to do.  This last piece I’ve been working on is in B Flat Major and I’ve never written a piece in a key.  It’s scary, but at the same time I feel good about it.  I don’t know if I’ll ever write another piece in exactly a tonal language.  It’s not traditional B Flat; it’s more like a modal use of these things.  I’m more interested in modalities rather than 19th century tonality.  Many composers have, in a sense, wanted to reconstruct aspects of 19th century language for whatever reason.

BD:    Are you interested in quarter tones or anything like that?

MC:    A little bit, but not too much.  One thing that I heard recently that I’d heard before, reminded me of things that I do like.  Easley Blackwood, who teaches here (at the University of Chicago), who was not my main teacher but who I did take some courses with, is real interested in micro-tuning.  [See my Interview with Easley Blackwood.]  He did a whole series of studies on equal temperaments beyond twelve, and the one the I like the best is the thirteen note equal.  Everything sounds very strange and out of tune a little bit, and it creates the most discombobulated effect.  It’s just wonderful in its bizarre charm.  Now I wouldn’t really want to work in that because I really want to work for living players rather than machines.  I like to do a little electronic music, but my big interest is acoustic music.

BD:    So you like to allow a little bit of interpretation?

MC:    I want interpretation.  I want the performer to have a role in it.  I’m not one of these people that really wants to put a straightjacket on the performer, but I do feel that it’s necessary for me to compose the piece.  I don’t leave big sections open.  I’m not an improvisational-type composer, so everything is notated in complete form.  But I really want people to have some flexibility in how they play it, so I’m reluctant to use a lot of very precise metronome marks.  I think there should be some flexibility in that.  Once you put down one number, people feel like that’s what it’s supposed to be if you’re not careful.  Now good players know that it doesn’t have to be that, but with new music, too frequently it’s played as written without a desire to really do much more.

BD:    A lot of it is probably just they’re scared they’re scared that they’re not going to get the notes right.

MC:    That’s true. 
I’ve heard this a lot from composers at readings of my works and others, especially at festivals where performers are having to do a lot of works.  They’re not really trying to really make the music, music.  They’re just saying, “You want a little more forte?  Okay, here’s more forte.  That should be more piano?  Okay, here it is.”  But they’re not trying to feel the gesture.  The problem is that it takes a long time for a musician to learn the notes, learn to do it accurately and learn what the heck you mean by it, and then how to make that really come across.  But I’ve also decided that’s really where it’s at.  So I’m less interested in the new-music-for-new-music’s-sake scene, and much more interested in the main musical scenes that will incorporate new works as well as works by the dead guys so you get the blend.  I’m a little scared of people that can only do Pierre Boulez’s music, and when you give them Schubert it’s too straight.

BD:    Then what advice do you have for young composers coming along?

MC:    In what area should I advise them?  In terms of their music, in terms of what and how they should study?

BD:    In terms of getting pieces played for today’s audiences.

MC:    I’ve heard all this all my life, and every time I’ve pursued it, it’s worked really well.  As a young composer, one needs to find musicians that you can write for, that want to play your music instead of writing pieces in the abstract.  I think all of us have done that at times, where we’re writing a string quartet because we really want to write our First String Quartet.  Rather than do that, it would be better to wait until a string quartet comes to you and asks for something.  When you’re really starting out, you can’t do that because you don’t know the performers, they don’t know you, and you don’t have a reputation.  The best thing is to write for practical situations
not that you make the music simplified so that everyone can play it, but rather that you write for players that will perform it.  Then you hear it and you get it back in that way.

BD:    But you don’t want young composers to just wait for every opportunity to come along?  You want them to create the opportunities.

MC:    The composers have to do some of that, of course.  I don’t mean they should sit and wait for the phone to ring.  Rather, they should go to their musician friends, and say, “Hey, I’d like to write a piece for you” and then write a piece for them.  Hopefully the friend will like it and then the friend will take it on the road.  That will help the composer.  I’m so frustrated with my String Quartet because it hasn’t been performed.  It was not written on commission or for any group, and I really wanted to write it for me.  It was a very important work to write because I was really changing my whole approach at that point.  But now it’s very frustrating because it hasn’t been played.  I’ve written many pieces since then that have been played and are doing fine, but that one I’m really frustrated with.  Everybody’s got their piece or two like that, if not more.  It’s that practical contact over and over again with musicians that really helps a composer learn how to communicate.  If a composer can’t communicate his ideas to the player, then the player can’t communicate them to the audience and the link breaks down.  I don’t feel the composer needs to think as much about an audience in terms of how do you get the audience to come to your concert.  You let the performers worry about that.  You find the performing group to write for and then they also teach you how to notate things in ways they understand.  That’s the important thing.  Composers can’t know everything but are in the process of learning all through their lives.  So they need the feedback from the performers.  There’s a big dilemma for composers because they want to write what they’re thinking, and that’s important because they want to be able to make sure that the idea they have comes across.  Without drawing a musical example of this, there are many ways in which you would think it one way and notate it one way, but when a player plays it they won’t play it accurately.  If you write it in a way that they’re used to playing, they’ll do it exactly right, but it won’t be the way you thought it.  And that’s what you need to learn.

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BD:    I want to come back to this idea of the computers and electronics for a moment.  Are the sounds that are coming out of the computers from the composer’s brain, or are they just, “Oh, that sounds good.  Let’s use it?”  Are we getting the cart before the horse?

MC:    You get a little bit of both.  I always work that way when I’m not using a computer.  The idea just seems to come from somewhere, whether I’ve just improvised it on the piano or with pencil on paper.  So that’s where they come and the computer doesn’t do any of the generation.  So I’m not running my ideas through an algorithmic program that does transformations and then I select a version.  Although I know people that do work that way, that’s not my style.  I’m much more interested in converting something that’s here, getting it out on the paper so that I can see it, look at it and refine it, or getting it onto the synthesizer so that I can then look at it and sculpt it.  To me it’s that kind of process, where the idea will come out maybe in a very condensed or tiny form that is almost unrecognizable, and by studying the idea and working with it, it grows, it expands.  I suddenly realize that this is too much information in a little space and it should be stretched out, and before long, what was a little one-measure idea turns into an eight-bar phrase.  So it’s always a trade-off, a feed-back between what seems to just spontaneously be created in your head and how that integrates with the rest of the piece.  As you get the piece going, it tells you what to do.  It almost writes itself, or suggests things that you try out and decide whether you like or not.  For me there’s this constant communication between the piece I’m writing and my own directing, and you can’t fight it.  If it wants to do one thing and you’re trying to do something else, it’s going to be a failure.  So you have to go with the flow.  Sometimes I sit down to write a certain kind of piece and that’s exactly what comes out.  Other times I sit down to write one piece and it turns into something else, and I have to be sensitive to that if that’s going to happen, and let it do that.

BD:    What advice do you have for audiences today?

MC:    Not to bring too many expectations to what they come to hear; to try to keep an open mind so that they won’t think that music is only this little dimension here; that music can be a wide variety of things.  Just because they don’t like something, do not immediately rule it out.  What I would really like to say is I wish all the audience members were intrigued by things that they didn’t get the first time, because that’s the way I was and that’s what attracted me into new music.  I knew
something was going on but I couldn’t understand it, so I was fascinated.  A lot of people get overwhelmed in that circumstance, so they turn it off.  They want music to soothe them.  An ideal audience would come to a concert without many expectations, but wanting to have an experience; to think, to take in a piece of music as they might a film which would be a whole experienceone that would have a beginning, a middle, and an end.  That’s what’s happened to musicfilm is so much easier to get into.  It’s images; it’s got sound and music all combined.  When they didn’t have film, people went to concerts more often.  So for its entertainment value, film is more effective.  So I would want audiences to want the experience of having just a totally musical experience.  Too many of them get seduced by the easy media.

BD:    Is film killing the concert audience?

MC:    No, I wouldn’t say that because it’s creating a new role for composers
to write film music, and that’s a whole thing unto itself.  I don’t think music will ever go away because there are always musicians and there are always people that do it.  I don’t feel we have to worry about the dying of music.  It may not have as important a role in our life as it may have at other times, but in the future it may still.  We never know what the future holds, so I’m not really worried about the health of music.  I’m totally puzzled by it all the time and I get frustrated by different aspects of the scene, but I really think that music goes along with us, and so as we develop, it develops.  It’s a reflection of us more than anything, and so I feel like there will always be music.  A lot of musicians are going to lose their jobs with this electronic stuff, because it’s made it commercially cheaper for a lot of the jingle producers and for a lot of the film-music writers and for a lot of the incidental music we see in things to simply hire one person to do it all on his computer with all his synthesizers and drum machines.  It’s often not that different from having the electric guitars and things that are normally associated with a lot of commercial sounds anyway.  So a lot of playersfrom the string players all the way to the percussionistsare losing jobs, because instead of hiring the orchestra to get the sound, they’ll hire two or three people that can produce a similar effect.  Or they’ll hire one living musician to play the flute, and they’ll back it up with all these electronic things.  With sampling machines and other things they have out today, it gets to be amazing how close they can get.  I never really thought they could get as close as they seem to.  One group of people I heard about goes so far as to make it their specialty to simulate live orchestras.  They synthesize each individual instrument and they assemble a speaker on stage for each of the instruments.  Then they record it as if it were a full orchestra and you almost can’t tell the difference.  I say almost because you can if you really listen, but that’s scary.  As I say, I don’t think orchestras will disappear because I think there’s a different thing that orchestras do. They have players that like to play the music.  The audiences like to have a concert; they don’t want to hear speakers.  But for the industry, they lose a lot of jobs, and if musicians lose jobs, then they have to become doctors, lawyers, or go into other fields, and then there are fewer of them to play, and then there’s less concert music.  So it does take a bite out of things we’re used to.

BD:    Despite this somewhat bleak outlook for them, what advice do you have for performers?

MC:    To concentrate on their instrument, but also to not be scared of the technology.  Figure out how they can use it to their advantage.  There’s no reason why the technology has to replace a performer.  It should be another tool that maybe can be of use.  It has to be another instrument that they have to learn, but it could be something that could enhance what they already do.  So if they can find creative ways to do that, well, good luck.  [Both laugh]  I know people that have had a harder time playing violin jingles, but then they bought their little mini-studio and are now writing the jingles and getting a lot more money for it.  But that happens to one out of a hundred.  That has that whole creative interest, and wants-to-be-a-composer-and-producer type thing.

BD:    Are there, perhaps, too many composers today?

MC:    Yes, probably.  There always have been and we just never realized it.  [Laughs]  You feel that way; if you’re a composer, you feel like everybody is another composer.  I could explain it sociologically by saying that I’m a member of the baby boom generation, and my parents, when they were growing up, were living through the depression, so they were survival-oriented.  As they survived and had their family in the post World War II baby boom, they wanted their children to have every opportunity.  So I was told to go to school and study anything I wanted.  They said to me, “Just be sure you’re interested, and you’re doing what you want to do.”  Unlike many composers that had to start out as doctors and then become composers, my parents wanted me just to do whatever I was interested in.  That meant that I wasn’t thinking practically about how to survive.  I managed to survive in music and I’m doing fine, but it hasn’t been easy.  No one said it would be easy; everyone said it would be a struggle, but until you live through the struggle, you really don’t know what it means.  So I’ve been immensely frustrated by watching colleagues of mine who decided not to go into music and became lawyers, building up immense financial domains while I was still living the Bohemian life on the lower east side in New York.  I had all the freedom in the world, but no power to use it.  They had all the power but no time to use the freedom!  [Laughs]   But I have survived.  I’ve gotten a good teaching job and that’s keeping me going, and fortunately giving me just barely enough space to survive as a composer.  If it didn’t, I would have to leave the teaching profession.  A lot of people were encouraged into the liberal arts, and therefore dabbled in all these things.  Now that times have gotten a little harder, many of my friends that were composers are now doctors and lawyers that kind of dropped out.  In a way that’s good.  That means the people who were really committed are still trying to do it.  Anybody that did leave the field wasn’t sure about being in the field in the first place.

BD:    So there’s really nothing that would dissuade you from composing?

MC:    No.  I’d always find a way to do it.  I suppose if I became a multi-millionaire, I might like to travel a lot more than I do, but I would still be composing while I did it.  And if for some reason someone said, “You simply will not be able to compose anymore; we’re going to remove that ability,” then I would have to be another kind of creative artist.  Maybe not as a profession, but I would be doing something.  I still write little short stories and I draw little doodles and pictures.  It’s just an outlet for me and I always liked that.  It’s interesting, because I originally planned to be a scientist and gradually evolved into being a creative artist.  I’m glad I did.

BD:    You really can’t be a creative scientist.

MC:    Actually I think you can.  It’s just different, channeling your creativity in an entirely different way.  You’d have to channel it through certain rules, which is also what musicians are doing.  They’re trying to channel that creative impulse through certain musical aspects of the language, whether it’s something that you’ve created in your language, or something that’s just traditional about music.  Even for business men, I think there’s creativity there.  It’s just different kinds of creativity.  Sometimes creativity can be focused on a well-defined goal that has a known, provable end like in science.  But in the arts, it’s almost always an ill-defined result.  “Prove this theorem” is something that you can either do or not do, but when you say, “Compose an opera,” there’s not a right or wrong opera at the end.  It’s just a piece that you’ve written.  That means the whole task is one that you have to set the limitations on, and that’s the challenge in it and that’s why I like it better than science.  After a while I begin to not believe entirely in science.  [Laughs]  I do believe in it and I don’t.  I think maybe there are other things that are going on.  Maybe there is something to astrology.  Maybe there’s something to all these mystical religions, and they may be as valid as science.  So it was harder for me to maintain that faith.

BD:    Do you believe in music?

MC:    Yes.  I believe in whatever it is that I feel and I’m trying to do, which is hard to put into words — being channeled through music.  I do believe in music in terms of what it can do for people, and I believe it’s an important part of humanity.

BD:    You don’t think the music is just useful, do you?

MC:    Ah, well...  I’m not sure what you mean when you suggest being useful, because it’s meaningful.  Useful could mean meaningful.  Let’s say music is meaningful and that’s the important thing.  We use it in many different ways, of course.  It’s an important part of our being human; it helps to humanize us.


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BD:    Is composing fun?

MC:    Yeah, but it’s also a hassle, too.  In a way, I have sometimes more fun when I’m drawing pictures because I don’t consider myself an artist, so I don’t have to be responsible for what I draw.  So that can just simply be fun.  But it’s not as meaningful, therefore, to do doodles, for me.  I mean, it’s more fun to be—to be trying to be doing something with a definite objective.  And so, it’s not that every moment is fun.  There’s a lot of stuff that I simply hate, and pull my hair out.  For example, copying, and finding all the corrections, and then correcting all the parts after the performance that you found—they found all the errors for you when they played it, and all the measure numbers you left out, and keeping track of all of that.  The one per cent of inspiration is, like Tchaikovsky described, is definitely all there is, and that’s really the crux.  But I find that, you know, besides that creative insight, it’s fun to work out the ideas, and that’s also not as exciting as, “Wow!”  But it’s an important part, and it’s fun up until I feel that I’ve had the whole piece finished.  And it’s usually not finished on paper then; it’s usually finished then in my mind, and most of it’s on paper, but as I said, there are all these holes.  Then it starts to become worse, and it gets worse and worse from then on.  And when I go back to fill in the holes, I have to agonize over all the decisions that I left undecided.  Then there are all the details, and there are just endless details with a big piece, with lots of instruments that you have to specify.  And it gets really hard because every little phrasing mark for every phrase you have to put in, and that means you have to decide about it! [Laughs] And you would much rather wish that they would make your decision for you and you wouldn’t have to worry.  But, so then it gets nitty-gritty and it gets to be a hassle, but it’s all part of it.  And when you’re done, you’re ready to write the next piece, even though you went through all that hell at the end, you know.  It seems like I write the piece, and that takes me a few weeks or a few months or whatever; it’s very exciting.  And then there’s about a year of mopping up for each piece, or six months, or whatever.  So that’s the payoff.

BD:    I hope there are lots more payoffs.

MC:    I hope so, too.  If it’s a good performance, I could send you a tape of the orchestra piece that’s being done.  My most recent stuff, which is what I’m interested in promoting right now, has been underperformed, or the performances have not led to good tapes.  The String Quartet remains unperformed, and the trumpet piece I’m working on will probably get done soon, and the orchestra piece has had one bad performance which is unusable.  It had its good moments and its bad moments, but the net result was not a total success.  I’m hoping this upcoming one will solve that, and I have every reason to think it will.  Then I’ll feel like I can show people what I’m doing now because it’s hard when all your tapes are from a time that you feel less connected to.  That’s an ongoing struggle for composers
to have good tapes of their music.  So many people claim to be able to look at a score and hear it, so to speak, but I think only a real small percentage are fast at it.  Most composers can take a score, and if they spend three or four hours looking at it and studying it or playing it on the piano, they really will be able to get into it.  But many people think they get more out of looking at something than they really do.  A lot of other people pretend they do, but really they don’t.  So when they get a tape of something it makes a big impact, and if it’s a bad tape it makes the wrong impact.  Sometimes if it’s a good tape of a bad piece, people will think it’s a good piece because the performance was so good!  [Laughs]

BD:    But I would think you would have some kind of control over what tapes go out.

MC:    Precisely, yes.  Exactly.  So you do.

BD:    Are you overcritical of yourself?

MC:    I would say I tend to be very overcritical.  I know too many people that are very under-critical, so I feel like there’s a big margin and I try to temper that.  I try to realize, “Come on, Monroe.  You’re punishing yourself too much.”  Underneath it all, I really do have a strong belief in what I do.  I’ve been trained as a person mostly by my mother, and a little bit by my father, to be extremely modest.  I have to work on trying to be assertive.  But down deep I do believe in it, and I worry.  But that’s it.  I don’t really worry on a structural level; I worry on a more superficial level.  I am aware of that and I am comfortable with that in myself now, so I think that’s all good.  I feel like I know who I am.  I feel like the music starts to know who it is, and that’s good.  I’m finally doing what I wanted to do, and that’s really rewarding!  I feel very excited by those features of what I’m doing now.  It’s been a continual progress of development that way, and I hope it continues to develop because if it doesn’t, then I’m in trouble.  [Laughs]

BD:    Where were you born? 

MC:    I was born in Waynesboro, or rather Charlottesville, Virginia, and I spent the first seventeen years growing up in Virginia.  I’m not from a musical family that was always listening to Mozart and Beethoven, but people that didn’t dislike that type of music.

BD:    [Picking up some pages of biographical material he had given me earlier]  You majored in both music and psychology?

MC:    Yes.

BD:    [With mock horror]  You wanted to be a shrink???

MC:    These were my interests.  I really had so many interests it was hard to pin them down.

BD:    You were summa cum laude with a double major, so you must have worked your tail off!

MC:    [Laughs]  I guess so.  I don’t know...  It seemed it wasn’t that hard, but mostly what I did was music.  You needed a minimum of thirty credits in each, and I had thirty or thirty-five in psychology and I had sixty or so in music.  I’d taken everything that they offered because I was interested.  I wanted to keep my options open because I felt if I was really going to be a composer, I should have been playing in Carnegie Hall when I was ten.  That’s what all the composers I had read program notes about did, and so I was scared.

BD:    Do you know a composer named Paul Ramsier?  He is also a psychotherapist, and the conductor Giuseppe Sinopoli is a psychiatrist.  [See my Interview with Giuseppe Sinopoli.]

MC:    No I don’t know them, but I do know two composers that are psychologists or psychiatrists.  One’s Emmanuel Ghent from New York who has a full practice but is a composer, and another guy named Alexander Rudischev [?] in Miami.  He’s another psychiatrist that’s a fine composer.  I met him recently, but I don’t know this other fellow.  I felt that my natural abilities were in psychology, and though it would have been easy for me to be a psychologist, I felt really more challenged by music.  I felt that if I gave up music, I’d always feel like I missed out on something.  If I gave up psychology, I wouldn’t feel like I missed out; I could always go back to psychology if I needed to.

BD:    You also worked for Broude?

MC:    I was an Assistant Editor at ABI, Alexander Broude, Inc.  It was a wonderful place to work because I could get discount music and I stocked up my library.  [Laughs]  I also used to work with a music group out there, Musical Elements, in New York, as an executive director-type and a fund-raiser.

BD:    What was the piece that was played at Ravinia?

MC:    It was a piece from many years ago called Three Songs on Texts of Stephen Crane.  I don’t know if it’s still on my complete list there.  It’s a piece that I really wouldn’t have performed now because I really feel removed from it.  It was a very angst-ridden piece.  A lot of Crane’s poems are really kind of bizarre, but in many ways it had exactly the same kind of things that I still do, just in a much more in an earlier kind of style.

BD:    [Continuing to peruse the list of works]  Here is a funny piece called Elevator Music.  Is it really elevator music?

MC:    No, it’s more like the title is funny.  The piece isn’t even that funny, but I felt it was appropriate.  It was the piece that I did with the Xenakis computer.  The computer system was graphically oriented, so if you wanted to write notes they would come out as horizontal lines.  So it would be real hard to write in a Beethoven melody because it would be inches that you would measure and it wasn’t accurate.  It was accurate, but it would be the hard way.  What this system did well was all kinds of shapes and gestures, so I did created all these interesting line and shape pieces and sections and put them together into this piece that felt like the feeling you get in your stomach as you go up and down in elevators.  My vision for the piece is to have it played in a very small room, smaller than this one.  It’s like an installation where an audience, instead of being in an empty, dark hall where they hear a piece, would move into a very small space where all the lights are on and they’re standing there like in an elevator.  The doors would close, then they hear this piece and they walk out.  It’s a kind of a multi-media experimental piece.  It’s never been done in that way, but it has been performed in a couple places

BD:    What is this, Alligator Dances, Five Cartoons for Imaginary Instruments?

MC:    Those were pieces that had their inspiration for children’s TV.  A friend of mine was going to produce a series of things, so I wrote these pieces.  When I was talking about exaggerations, this is part of what I had in mind.  They’re real cartoons to the extent that they really exaggerate an idea.  Most of my composer friends would find them far too silly to take seriously, but that’s what they were intended as
children’s TV pieces.  The thing never got produced, so I’m stuck with them.  [Laughs]  But they’re fun.  They’re just little cartoons, really.

BD:    Thank you for the conversation.  I appreciate it.

MC:    Well, thank you, it’s been fun.  You asked very good questions.  I’ve been interviewed by other people, and it doesn’t tend to go as smoothly.  You’re very good at this.

BD:    Thank you.  It means I’m doing something right.  [Laughs]

MC:    I appreciate it when people like you, that are interested in the area and know what’s going on, are asking good questions and following it up.  I don’t know how many times I’m asked a question that I don’t really answer, and sort of am getting around to the answer when the interviewer says, “Well now we’re going to move on to this other thing,” that’s completely different.  My problem is I don’t think from left to right, the way we end up reading.  Sometimes the first idea that I come up with is really the concluding sentence to my paragraph.

BD:    You think the way you compose.  You get some of the answers which occasionally lead into a blind alley, and then you have to come back and go around.

MC:    Yes, that’s true.  It’s like anything.  There’s really much less mystery in composing than people tend to give it credit for.  It seems like it’s so difficult if you’re not a musician, but once you start it’s really like being a writer, really.  People ask me what it’s like being a composer and I say, “Well, you’ve written a paper before so you know what that’s like.  You have to start with ideas and you have to organize them.  It’s the same thing.”

BD:    You don’t find composing is simple, though?

MC:    No, not that simple, but it is the same kind of creative process, of generating and thinking and revising, and that’s the fun of it, too.

BD:    Thank you for speaking with me.  I enjoyed it.

MC:    Well, thank you very much.  I enjoyed it very much also.





National Geographic Magazine  November, 2004  [Portion of the article]

No Margin for Error

Despite its modest height—6,288 feet (1,917 meters)—Mount Washington is America's deadliest peak. And yet the killing cold and hurricane gusts that scour its summit and load its ravines with avalanche snow are far from New Hampshire state secrets. So why do otherwise smart, capable people keep losing their lives up there? By Laurence Gonzales


When Monroe Couper and Erik Lattey left Harvard Cabin on the morning of February 26, 1994, the weather was relatively mild for winter on Mount Washington. The temperature was in the teens and the wind gusts ranged from 40 to 60 miles (64 to 96 kilometers) an hour on the summit. The forecast called for the conditions to hold until nightfall, and since Couper and Lattey didn't plan to go to the summit, they weren't that concerned about it. They intended to hike up Huntington Ravine and climb a wall of frozen groundwater known as Pinnacle Gully. They planned to be back by dark. Traveling light, they left their packs at the cabin.

couperIt's not known for certain, but it's likely that the two ice climbers from South Orange and Riverdale, New Jersey, had read the recent article in Climbing magazine about an ascent of Pinnacle Gully, a challenging intermediate climb. The exciting story of two teenagers who nearly died on a shield of rotten ice before rescuing themselves had attracted a lot of climbers to the route, but search and rescue (SAR) volunteers worried that it might encourage people to push beyond their abilities.

As Couper and Lattey were hiking up the broad and rugged trail, Alain Comeau, a local guide and team leader for the Mountain Rescue Service (MRS) in New Hampshire, was leading a group up another trail. When he saw fast-moving clouds on the horizon, he turned his group around. Bill Aughton, another member of the MRS, was also out guiding that day. He was so impressed with the clouds that he photographed them before directing his group back toward shelter.

Comeau had guided Couper and taught him ice climbing. "Couper wanted to learn to lead," Comeau recalls. "He wanted to move off on his own. A lot of people aspire to a climb like that. But Pinnacle was not the right next step. It's a serious climb in a serious environment. Technically he could have done it—maybe, on a good day in perfect conditions. But on a scale of one to five, Pinnacle's a three-plus."

As Couper and Lattey reached the base of the gully, they realized that in their rush they'd forgotten their climbing rope back at Harvard Cabin. It was noon by the time they'd picked up the rope and left the cabin again. Despite their limited experience, they might have easily calculated at this point that they no longer had enough time to make the climb and descend before sunset. (It takes one hour just to get from the cabin to the base of the climb.) They almost certainly could have seen that the weather had started to worsen. And even if they weren't convinced to turn back, they could have read the big yellow signs posted at trailheads. "Stop," they say. Then in smaller letters: "The area ahead has the worst weather in America." Not some of the worst, the worst. The notice continues unequivocally: "Many have died there from exposure, even in the summer. Turn back now if the weather is bad."

Couper and Lattey pressed on.

The mythology is that anyone can get up Mount Washington, if not to ski its steep ravines, then at least to stand on top and look around. At 6,288 feet (1,917 meters), it may not be high by Rocky Mountain standards, but it ranks as the highest peak in the Presidential Range, and each year scores of people hike the 4,000 vertical feet (1,219 meters) from the trailhead up to the top. (Others drive: An auto road snakes up the northern shoulder of the mountain and is open from May to October.)

But a gorgeous day on Mount Washington can turn bitter so fast that most people can't imagine it. They've never seen or felt anything like it, so they don't come armed with the true belief that one gets from direct experience. Like falling into icy water, the sudden cold shocks and numbs and defeats people before they have a chance to think clearly. The first person to climb Washington in winter conditions, in 1849, was also the first person to die there. Since then, 133 more people have lost their lives on the mountain, 24 of them in the past decade.   (...)







© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in an office at the University of Chicago on April 6, 1988.  Sections were used (along with recordings) on WNIB in 1994, and again in 1998.  It was transcribed and posted on this website in 2013.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.