Composer / Pianist  Richard  Cumming

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


cumming



[Posted Monday, November 30, 2009]

Richard Cumming
 
(June 9, 1928 - November 25, 2009)

My cousin, Richard Cumming (known to friends and family as Deedee) died on Wednesday, at the age of 81. He was a composer, pianist, teacher, and for 25 years, the composer-in-residence at the Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island.

Deedee would be known to Hartford audiences for two works the orchestra performed. Passacaglia was presented on the (now defunct) Rush Hour series several years ago. I commissioned the work when I was still a student at the University of California, Berkeley, and needed another short work to fill out a noon concert program that included Brahms's Serenade no. 2 for small orchestra.

Not wanting to be accused of blatant nepotism (of which Deedee loved to say, "it's okay, dear, as long as you keep it in the family. . ."), I was going to leave it at that, but after a number of players and audience members remarked to me how much they liked Deedee's Passacaglia, I kept my ears to the ground for another work from his pen; when he told me that his Aspects of Hippolytus was looking for a first performance, I jumped at the chance, and the HSO presented the work on its Masterworks series.

Richard Cumming's music was always unabashedly tonal, well before it was de rigeur to write that way. In the 1950s and 1960s, most classical composers wrote music that could be terribly forbidding, and many didn't care whether you liked their music or not. Only with the advent of Minimalism from Messrs. Riley, Glass, Reich and Adams did classical music begin to become more accessible -- but Deedee was there long before them. The great American pianist, John Browning (1933-2003), recorded Deedee's 24 piano preludes, then later his Silhouettes. Browning and Cumming were close friends as well as great colleagues; John premiered Samuel Barber's Piano Concerto in 1962. (I had hoped to bring him to Hartford to perform the work.) Deedee told me, "Sam was taking his time on the concerto, even though a number of us kept reminding him that John needed time to learn it before the premiere. Well. . . damned if Sam didn't get the finale [which is excruciatingly difficult -- ec] done just a week or two before the concert date, but John being John, he did the whole work, and the finale, from memory."

Deedee was scary smart, with a wonderful command of the English language. Books surrounded his apartment in Providence, and when I asked him if he'd read them all, he quickly responded, "yes, most of them 2 or 3 times." If a fine writer were to take up the project of writing a Richard Cumming biography, it would be a great read, if only for the stories. He had a laugh that could easily fill a room. Even when he was cranky or irritated, he seemed to be smiling; any room he entered was quickly filled with his mirth.

He was a fabulous pianist, touring the world in recital with the soprano, Phyllis Curtain (1921 - ). The late bass-baritone, Donald Gramm (1927-83, who was known for his brilliant portrayal of Boris Godonov at the Met), was another singer who worked regularly with Deedee.

He studied with Roger Sessions, and Ernest Bloch was a musical grandfather to him. When Arnold Schoenberg gave composition classes in Los Angeles, Deedee signed up. (It drove the other students crazy with envy that Schoenberg referred to all of them by their surname -- except for Deedee.)

Time spent with Deedee was invariably a learning experience. One time he recounted a story of his time on tour with Igor Stravinsky. I think Deedee began the stint as his musical assistant, but ended up doubling as his valet, making sure he had plenty of vodka in his room. Like so many Russian men, Igor liked the hard stuff, and Deedee was a good drinking buddy. (I think his daily vodka and milk on the rocks -just before bedtime- was introduced to him by Stravinsky.)

I first met Deedee (technically speaking, my first-cousin-once-removed) 35 years ago, when I was a horn player with little design on becoming a conductor. He was as tall as me, but bigger, somehow, contributing to his larger than life persona. He asked me if I'd like to play something with him; I suggested the Hindemith Horn Sonata, and he played the difficult piano part brilliantly, at sight. I was awestruck. . . this guy is a relative of mine? Where did he come from, and why didn't anyone in my family tell me anything about him before that day?

The fact that he was homosexual (and openly so) might have had something to do with that, long before it was remotely socially acceptable, even in the most liberal cultural circles.

What I will always take with me, though, is the music he introduced to me. Strauss's Elektra. Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915. Ned Rorem's song cycle, Flight from Heaven. When I got to 'Upon Julia's Clothes,' Deedee began screaming, "Is that not the best song of the 20th century? Damn! I wish I'd written that. . ."

--  From a Blog, posted by Edward Cumming at 12:26 AM, November 30, 2009 
[To read more about Edward Cumming, click here.
--  Names which are links (throughout this webpage) refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.  BD 




In September of 1988, Cumming was flying home and had a layover in Chicago.  So he graciously accepted my suggestion to spend the time doing an interview with me at my home, which was an easy cab-ride away.

It was a wonderful conversation with lots of laughter from both of us, and lots of funny stories.  Often he would be talking about one thing and then digress into another idea that was somehow related... or not! 

Here is that encounter . . . . . . .


roremBruce Duffie:    [Before actually beginning]  Let me get you some more water before we start.

Richard Cumming:    Thank you.  I just dehydrate so badly on flights.  It’s the sign of a true alcoholic, isn’t it, the amount of water consumed?  I just always have drunk a lot of water.

BD:    I just drink milk and orange juice.

RC:    I’m very fond of the juices.  Because I was born in China and grew up in the orient, we never had fresh milk.  I didn’t have fresh milk until I was a teenager, so I never developed a liking for milk.  In fact, I developed a loathing for milk, because it was that powdered milk!

BD:    Oh, that’s awful!

RC:    Indeed it is!  I realize that fresh milk does have certain qualities...  In fact, it mixes with Scotch wonderfully, so I drink Scotch and milk just before I go to bed, and it sends me off.

BD:    [Settling in to begin the interview]  You’re the pianist on a number of these recordings.  Are you the ideal interpreter of your music?

RC:    Ned thinks so!  Ned says wonderful things about my piano playing.  He said it’s a throwback to pre-World War II, actually pre-World War I, when composers like Debussy and Ravel and Fauré and Poulenc played their material.  Benjamin Britten, of course, used to play a lot, but Ned is very shy about that.  He’s a wonderful pianist.  In fact, so many of us, when we first came to New York, earned our livings in singing teachers’ studios.  [Laughs]  You meet a lot of singers that way, and if you write a lot of songs it comes in handy.

BD:    If you accompany in a singer’s studio, do you also get the benefit of most or all of the teaching?

RC:    Well, that can be taken two ways.  I think what you mean is do I learn about becoming a teacher?  It certainly had no effect on my singing voice, which is one of the more horrendous sounds in the world.

BD:    No, but did you learn about how the human voice can and should be produced?

RC:    Oh, sure!  When I first became very interested in writing songs, which after World War II in the late forties, all of a sudden I discovered that there were singers.  Then along with discovering there were singers, I discovered that there was a need for material for singers, so I started writing songs.  I studied for a year just because of that, just to find out about what it takes to make the voice.  Mine was never a beautiful sound, but it was wonderfully helpful because it’s helped me a lot, especially working so much in the theater with actors who usually have good training for speaking.  That whole thing of singing is just speaking on pitch, and I’m very helpful with them on that sort of level.  So yes, it’s great fun.  I learned a lot about the voice.  I love the voice, just love the voice!

cummingBD:    Tell me the joys and sorrows of writing for the voice.

RC:    You write a lot and it gets performed very little, and nowadays it gets even published less than it did before.  I have several individual songs published by Boosey & Hawkes which are being phased out.  They will eventually all be put together in an album, such as the ten songs called We Happy Few.  The Ford Foundation commissioned those for Donald, and that he did on the recording for Cambridge [shown at right].  Boosey & Hawkes publishes that, and albums sell because they do get a better price.  You get a song album for about eight dollars, and so indeed it is a good price, but!  But, but, but, but, but — and this is tremendously important for all of us who have made very nice livings writing and selling individual songs and choral pieces — with the advent of the photocopier, people now buy one copy and Xerox it.  This is especially true for everything from junior high schools to colleges and every church has a choir.  They buy one copy and Xerox it.  I hate to put it on a crass level, but whenever artists get together we talk about royalties.  Well, my royalties last year have never been lower from sales.  In good years they were, my goodness, between three and five thousand dollars, and a lot of those were little choral pieces very much geared for young American school choruses.  Some of them were based on folk songs, and a lot of them were original stuff.

BD:    So you know you’re still being performed, but your royalties have plummeted?

RC:    From the thousands, may I say, which was very nice.  Last May I got my Boosey & Hawkes check — they publish all the choral stuff — and it was $187!  It doesn’t pay them to publish it!  No one’s going to keep doing that.  I suppose eventually, with the marvels of technology, good God, we can blow each other up faster than you can say
blow each other up, but we cannot figure out an ink or something that photocopiers cannot pick up.  You would think they would dream up something, but it’s killing publishers, especially smaller publishers.  So we’re not getting any royalties.

BD:    But you still write!

RC:    Oh, yes!  We’re all idiots.  [Both laugh]  I do a lot of writing for theaters.  I’m betwixt Providence, Rhode Island, and Dallas, Texas.  I’ve just finished two little scores for Cherry Orchard and Hotel Paradiso of Feydeau, and I’m about to do a score and play it for two months for Liaisons Dangereuses at the Dallas Theater Center.  So that is where my bread and butter comes from.

BD:    When you get a commission, how do you decide if you’ll accept it or postpone it or, even, reject it?

RC:    I don’t think I’ve ever rejected any commission.  Sure, people have asked me, “Would you write ___?” and rather than rejecting a commission, I just think I’m not really interested in doing that.  I’d done a score for Tennessee Williams’ Camino Real a couple of years ago, and the following summer I was asked to do another one for a summer theater in Santa Fe.  Since I’d just done a score for it I said, “You’re more than welcome to pay me twenty-two cents and send me a taco,” but I never heard from them.  They wanted a live score, which is what I had done for the production I attended, but it was just too soon.  Maybe I’d love to go back to Camino Real in two years, three years, ten years...  I have done four different scores for Twelfth Night, three different scores for Tempest, but those were all separated by many years.

BD:    This is incidental music and a couple of songs?

RC:    Right.  In The Tempest there are six songs, and As You Like It has eight songs, and Twelfth Night has six songs.

BD:    So each time you just approach it completely fresh, without using any previous idea?

RC:    Yes.  When there’s songs around, then every singer is a different problem, especially if it has got some instruments.  I’m really not that interested in writing scores that they put on tape and play over a loud speaker system.  I do not think the hills are alive with music.  They cannot fool me!  The Vienna Philharmonic in that little box on the wall?  That’s not even the Rhode Island Philharmonic!  That’s fake; that’s what it is!  F-A-K-E, fake.  But you have a nice little ensemble, and young actors now are just wonderful because not only can they sing and dance and have fight training and fall down and die twice on Sundays, so many of them sing so well and play instruments!  So I go into theater company, and boy I just have a wonderful old time!  Every time I do a Twelfth Night or a Tempest, I have a whole new bunch of instrumentalists and a whole new bunch of singers.  Does the director want to do Ariel as a man or as a woman?  I’ve never done a female Ariel.  I’ve done three male Ariels, but I know that Ariel is quite often done as a woman.  I think it’s more interesting with a man.  I think it’s aspects of Prospero.

BD:    Do you always do plays you know, or are there some plays that they thrust on you that you’ve never seen before?

RC:    Oh, sure!  I’ve seen Liaisons Dangereuses.  I read the novel years ago in translation, unfortunately, not in French.  So there’s constantly new things.  I do a lot of reading of plays, and I’ve done some writing of plays.  There’s a Christmas Carol that Adrian Hall and I have adapted that keeps perennially showing up in a lot of theaters around the country.  That makes a lot of nice bucks, which is very nice!  It’s a very dear little piece, and there’s interest right now, as a matter of fact, of bringing out a CD of the whole production, either the Dallas production or the Providence production.  The record company will just come and take tapes of both productions, and in April or May just get together ten actors and just to do it with them.  Hopefully at least five of those actors will be musical, and that’ll be great fun creating a whole new soundscape with no visuals.  Of course, that happens in the movies.  I’ve written a whole bunch of theater pieces, and three of them that Adrian and I wrote as theater pieces have landed on PBS Television, and a couple of others have landed that did not start out as theater pieces.  But it’s such an entirely different thing.  You just don’t set up the cameras in front of the piece that you’ve been doing!  You have to completely rethink it in cinematic terms, because the camera tells you exactly where to be.  All those clichés, but by God it is fascinating!  Just for a test thing, you set up your video cams, three or four of them, and then you look at them afterwards to see about that production before you start thinking of putting it into a screen play.  The dishwater isn’t even in it, as far dullness is concerned.  There’s a whole new art form, so you really have to rethink those things.

fullerton hallBD:    I take it you are basically pleased with the performances of your works that you’ve been involved in, and the ones you’ve heard?

RC:    Yes, except when I play the piano.  I always think it could be better.  [Laughs]  Many, many, many years ago, when I was still very closely aligned and working and spending a lot of time with Mr. Bloch... at the time that I was recording the Piano Sonata, so we’re talking 1951!  Good God, I think we just invented the wheel the previous summer.  [Both laugh]  They put a hole in it and ran a needle around it, and that’s how records were born.  [More laughter]  I’d studied the Sonata with him and I played it a lot.  I played it first in San Francisco, and then in Los Angeles, in New York, in Chicago.  Here in Chicago I did a recital in 1952 in Fullerton Hall [shown in a more recent photo at right].  You go back in the archives.  They’ll be covered with dust, but if you sweep the tarantulas aside, or the merry widows or whatever kind of spiders you have around here, there is Richard Cumming at Fullerton Hall.  It was in the fall and I think it was snowing.  I remember it was a snowy Sunday afternoon!  I had great fun.  I had such dear friends, and dear, dear memories of Chicago. 
Then I played the Bloch Sonata in Europe a lot — in London and Zurich and Stockholm and Amsterdam and Rome and Paris, and so it became a signature piece of mine until I got very uninterested in being a solo pianist.  This was not only because of the composing, but I’d really gotten into playing chamber music and the song repertoire.  Dear God, I did love playing for singers!  I haven’t done it now for about ten years professionally, except for fun in the theater.  Every now and then we do a lieder album, but, oh, oh, what a wonderful repertoire!  It was never an ego need to get out there on that stage with that nine feet of black and white envy, because being a solo pianist was never a driving need.  In Stockholm I was playing this concert that had all been set up for me by Victor Babin and Rudolf Firkusny.  I met them both in Aspen in ’51, and they set it up with this very musical idea that had a lot of technical difficulties like flutter octaves.  Be that as it may, Europeans are so used to the thundering, technical pianists from America, and they set up this thing with their managements in Europe.  So I went over and indeed had a lovely success!  Anyway, in Stockholm I walked out after the intermission and started playing, and I was supposed to be playing in Zurich four days later when I suddenly thought, oh, signs and portents!  You’re doing something that there are any of a thousand pianists your age — I was in my early twenties — would eviscerate you to do, really come over and kill you.  But you have this handed to you, and you walk out and your concentration is so scattered you can’t even remember what you’re supposed to be playing!  But it was such a sign, because afterward I kept on doing solo recitals until 1954, and then phased out because I was playing more and more for singerswhich I was good at, and which I really loved to do!  It takes such a temperament to do great solo playing.  There’s nothing like it.  It’s just phenomenal, and I just didn’t have that temperament, or that driving need, or the career need.

BD:    Now you’ve watched the instrumentalists get better and better during this time...

RC:    [Interrupting]  Ah!  My dear, in my time, when I was a student in the late forties in San Francisco, only two people played the Third Rachmaninoff Concerto
the old man himself and Horowitz! Then the old man died, and it was open to others.  Van Cliburn came back [from Russia], and that was an event!  Very few people played Third Rachmaninoff.  Then we heard Gilels play it, and now everyone out of conservatory plays Third Rachmaninoff!

BD:    Have the voices gotten better in an equal path along with the instrumentalists?

RC:    Oh golly, I don’t know.  I don’t know that instrumentalists have gotten better.  I think fingers have gotten better.  Maybe it’s the recording, at least the accuracy.  It was funny... I was in New York yesterday afternoon and I’d met up with a young American singer I had heard this summer.  She’s from this area
— well actually, she’s from Minneapolis — Melanie Sonnenberg.  I heard her do ten, eleven, twelve performances over the two weeks at Newport Music Festival, and it’s one of those mezzo voices.  I love mezzo voices!  I played so much for mezzos within my time, and I just went ape for their voices.  It’s just one of those yummy, yummy, yummy, things with great agility.  She does the Rossini pieces and all that, but she did some songs of mine that were originally written for Jennie Toureland by God, how many years ago was that? — and I was suddenly hearing Jennie again with that chocolaty, wonderful, velvet sound.  Oh!  They’re wonderful individual voices.  I’d made a date, and went down to New York to play some songs for her of mine.  She just is a dear woman, wonderful woman, mid-twenties, somewhat young woman, and for the last three years has been doing most of her career very carefully in small European houses like Graz, Salzburg, Vienna, Hamburg.  These are not all small houses, but she’s fussy.  Also the Paris Opera and the San Carlo in Naples.  This is a career she’s taking very steadily, very easily, and studies and coaches.  [To read more about Melanie Sonnenberg, click here.]  The early successes, especially for singers, is just ruinous on energy when one night you’re in Covent Garden and the next night you’re in San Francisco, and then you fly to Sydney.  It’s the worst thing.  You need just that steady, calm building of a repertoire.

BD:    So, how do we knock some sense into the young singer?

RC:    I don’t know.  It’s very tempting, isn’t it?  Those thousands of dollars a night are very tempting, and now with recordings of so many complete operas and various versions of them, they need new singers.  It’s just one of those terrifying octopuses.  They don’t care.  They want the singer when he or she is young and voluptuous and the voice is yummy, and if it is shot to hell through their efforts, the managements could not care less.  There’s no sense of counseling of the artist.  We need more places like Glyndebourne and Santa Fe, where you really sit for a whole summer or a whole period of time, and you have the luxury of four or five weeks rehearsal, just as we do in the theater.  We don’t think of doing a new production or even a revival without four or five weeks of rehearsal.  That’s a wonderful way to do it.  You may know the opera backwards, but the thing is if you don’t have the rehearsal, the chances are you might see it backwards.  But you do a new production of a Mozart opera and you just treat it exactly as if you were learning it from scratch.  Well, that’s a wonderful way to do it!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I want to turn the conversation back to your music.  Do you get asked to write pieces because they know you write tunes?

RC:    Oh sure.  I get a lot of performances because they like tunes.  The tunes are fun to perform, and I guess audiences like them.  I don’t question it if they do.  I think that’s just wonderful.

BD:    Are tunes fun to write?

RC:    Well, it’s very easy for me to write.  I’m a tunesmith and I’ve always been a tunesmith.  I love singers saying, “Oh, that just fits my voice.”  There are certain pieces that I love.  I love playing Poulenc when I get a couple of gins in me!  Or actually, it should be wonderful, voluptuous red wine!  Just the way the hands fit around a Poulenc chord or a Ravel chord.  God knows, I find Bach voluptuous to play, and I usually play a little Bach every day, simply because it’s a nice, steady, no-nonsense life raft.  Every day I go through two or three of the Preludes and Fugues from the WTC [Well-Tempered Clavier].  There isn’t anything too horrendous that the world can throw at you that the Bach hasn’t said, “Look, there is order.  There is justice!  There is logic, and there is incredible, voluptuous beauty.”  Of course I’ve played Bach with masses of pedal, and have the suspensions, and I just make rubatos and I have such fun!  But my God, I’ve lived a lot!  [Laughs]  Half an hour of Bach every day is a wonderful vitamin pill for the psyche.

cummmingBD:    You spent about thirty years of your life when you and maybe a very select handful of others were the only ones writing tunes.  Had everyone lost this ability or desire?

RC:    Oh yes, but isn’t that funny?  Everyone is coming back to writing tunes.  Everyone’s back to [sings] do-mi-sol!

BD:    Are you surprised or pleased that now everyone has come back to it?

RC:    Oh, nothing surprises me.  Everything pleases me.  Anything that’s good pleases me, especially a good piece of music.  Take somebody like David Del Tredici, who I first heard play a Haydn sonata at the age of twelve in California.  I grew up in California, went to high school and my early beginnings of conservatory, and all that study was in California.  I was in my late teens, and here was this little twelve year-old kid who played that D Major Haydn Sonata with such joy and such, oooh, enjoyment of the physical sensation of putting fingers to keys.  This is what I was talking about earlier, how I love to do that, and I thought, my God, what an interesting kid!  I’m so tired of hearing anybody, but especially kids who are still so teacher-influenced playing the piano as if they really hated or feared the tactile pleasure of it.  And here was this kid, and then he went very much the route that I did.  I was for six years with Roger Sessions at Berkeley.  David Del Tredici went to study with Sessions at Princeton.  When David started he was on the twelve-tone band wagon.  The thing is, he wrote very good music as a twelve-tone writer!  He writes just as good music now that he has embraced tonality with great joy and great glee.  I love David’s music, because it is the way I remember him playing the piano
Oh, God, isn’t this fun?  When you listen to the Alice pieces, there’s such a sense of Oh God, isn’t this fun, and that’s such a wonderful quality of music.  One hears it in great performances and great pieces.  Hearing the dear, beloved, wondrous Ms. Von Stade doing Melisande earlier this year at the Met was so voluptuous and so gorgeous, and it was such a thing of wonderful music-making.  Everyone on stage, and Mr. Levine in the pit was wonderful!  It sounds so bloody easy when it’s right.  Oh, my dear, it’s wonderful.

BD:    You’re a tunesmith, and yet you say some of these twelve-tone pieces were wonderful.

RC:    Oh, of course!  It’s the sense the composer brings to it.  True, David was never like that.  Like all enthusiasts, he embraced it with a passion, but it’s a tool.  There’s still the dear, sweet people
usually in conservatories or in college situationsthat are still writing serial music.  Well, that’s fine.  That’s wonderful.  I hope they get lots of performances on the campuses, because to be a slave, to be doctrinaire, is very dangerous, and not only dangerous, it’s very limiting.  If tunes are there, if you feel like writing a tune, geeze, write a tune.  I remember when I was studying with Roger Sessions he wrote a one-act opera, The Trial of Lucullus, on a Brecht radio play.  There were moments that were very lovely in it, and one of the most startling things was it ended with an open triad, an A-major triad in the trumpets.  [Laughs]  It came as such a breath of fresh air!  I was still very much of a student in those days, and we hadn’t gotten on a first-name basis, so I said, “Dr. Sessions!  That’s pretty shocking.”  He said, “Yes, it might be the one stroke of genius in the whole score,” and I think he was right.  It just [gasps] took your breath away, it was so fresh!  It was wonderful.  But that’s what one wants to happen constantly every time you hear a piece of music.  Hopefully it would be wonderful to make it for the first time.  I don’t know how you can do that with Eroica or Fifth Symphony.  There must be ways.  I don’t know that there are ways.  I hear them in the Götterdämmerung every time, but usually, one doesn’t get a chance.  You have the end of Götterdämmerung in performance too often, and if one has stuck it out for the twenty hours, one should be absolutely limp.  But you hear the eight minutes of The Afternoon of a Faun, and it’s the most modern piece of music I know.  [Laughs]  Unless the Bach Chaconne might be the most modern piece of music I know.

BD:    I like to ask composers about this.  What do you feel makes a piece of music great?  What kinds of things contribute to greatness in music?

RC:    Longevity, but I don’t think any of us writes a piece saying, “I’m going to write a great piece.”  Conversely, I don’t think any composer
any composer that’s a composergets up in the morning saying, “Oh, boy, I’m going to sit down to my desk with my little music paper and my little sharp pencil and write a piece that’s going to bore the bejesus out of the audience!”  I don’t think any composer does that.  If there is, they should be locked up.  [Laughs]  There are several composers that I know who have been, but I don’t think any composer goes out of his way to be tedious.  There are ways of including the audience; there are ways of including them out, too.  Performances can be so dull, there’s no way to penetrate it to get into it.  Or it could be so reverent.  Reverence is the worst thing in the world.  True reverence is just really knowing that piece from top to bottom, and finding every new, fresh quality.  God, there’s just so much juice in the Eroica!  There’s so much juice in the Fifth Symphony!

BD:    Is there a lot of juice in the music of Richard Cumming?

cummingRC:    Oh, my God, it’s awash with it!  [Both laugh]  Oh, sure!  Oh, yeah, I’m a juicy composer.  I write twelve-tone pieces, too.  The Preludes are twelve-tone pieces.  The D Major is strict twelve-tone.  It’s very funny, I think.  People say, “Oh, it’s such a moving piece,” and I say, “Well, I’m glad you’re moved.  I worked hard on it.”  The G Minor is based on a row and it’s treated very tonally, and that, oddly enough, sounds very old fashioned now to me.  I loved the G Minor when I wrote it.  I thought, “This is a really, really important piece.”  Well, I don’t know that it is.  I really don’t care that it is.  It’s been so long since I’ve written those pieces, but it’s fun to hear them.  I had a wonderful experience last week or two weeks ago.  I was looking for a piece that I knew I had written.  I knew I had written something, and between moving, first from the west coast from San Francisco to New York, living for years in New York and then pillar to post, and finally settling something in Providence, Rhode Island, there’s still a lot of music in drawers somewhere.  So I thought,
Enough of this!  You do this every time you’re looking for something, and you know you wrote it, and you know it’s around.  I went through and I spent four days just taking everything out of the drawers and cataloging everything, just putting them in folders and finally just putting the folders back in alphabetical order.  All the stuff that is printed or published or bound, that’s fine.  That’s on the shelf.  That takes up three shelves.  We now have six drawers filled with, quite often, the originals of those manuscripts and a lot of things are sketches.  Be that as it may, one thing I found, I’d written a symphony in the summer of ’57!  It’s a little symphony, but it’s a three-movement symphony, and I ran across it.  It’s all scored and it’s not bad!  [Laughs]  I was so pleased.  People kept saying, “When are you writing a symphony?” and I’d say, “Oh, I don’t know.  The symphony?  I don’t think it’s dead but I don’t think I’m ready to do one.”  Well, I have written a symphony and I’m very pleased with it.  It’s very nice.  I might re-do the second movement.  The first and third movements are very nice.

BD:    And then try to interest someone in playing it?

RC:    Oh, yes!  But you see, that’s the lovely thing about fathering compositions.  Children turn mean on you, and they take to pot or the road, or go to pot.  But the thing about compositions is that they just sit there and get dusty.  Pieces of mine get performed and that’s just wonderful.  I love it.

BD:    You don’t go out and try to aggressively sell each piece?

RC:    Very little.  I should.  I’d be played a lot more, I guess, but I really don’t.  It isn’t that I’m shy; it just that there seems to be more important things for the composer to do.  Maybe years ago I should have really had an agent.  With the publishers, they do a certain amount of pushing, but they’ve got other composers to fry.  So I just like to write, and I usually do some writing every day.

BD:    When you write, who do you have in mind
— the audience, the performers, yourself?

RC:    If I’m writing songs, some words will turn me on.  I always think I have a performer in mind.  This summer, again at Newport Music Festival I met the French Canadian saxophone player Daniel Gauthier.  Now a saxophone I’ve always thought was an ill wind that nobody blows too good.  Well, this young man is an artist of such profound proportions!  He did a Villa Lobos piece for soprano sax and piano, and he did an absolutely delectable piece by Milhaud.  I don
’t know whether he had done it himself or if it was a published transcription, but I know Scaramouche is a two-piano piece.  In fact, I played it with Milhaud years ago.  But this is a version of Scaramouche for solo saxophone with a woodwind quintet.  He also played another piece that was great fun, a hysterically dear, funny piece by Charles Koechlin called Épitaphe de Jean Harlow.  It was just wonderful!  I heard this guy play so musically!  He made the saxophone sound like Bobby Marcellus on the clarinet.  [Marcellus was Principal Clarinet with the Cleveland Orchestra during the Szell years from 1953-73, and then Professor of Clarinet at Northwestern University from 1974-94.]  That’s a high level of music-making.  Of course I get terribly excited by this performer, and so I’m writing a set of pieces for soprano saxophone and harpsichord for Gauthier.  So indeed, performers do turn me on.  And performers ask me to write for them, and commissions come in.  The mind is always open.  I’m a great believer in doing it every day.  Stravinsky said it and God knows Copland said years ago, “If I sat around waiting for inspiration, inspiration is off visiting the guy down the block who’s working every day.”  Inspiration is working every day.  Baudelaire said that genius is working every day.  There’s more to genius than that, but I think that’s part of it.

BD:    An indispensable part of it?

RC:    I don’t know.  There are some crazy ones that don’t do it!  We know that Hugo Wolf, because of the disease and the advances of it getting into the brain, that he went through a fallow period that almost killed him.  Poor Ravel was another that had a brain tumor, but the juices were still going even though he couldn’t get it down on paper.  I imagine that would be a horrible way to die!  It would be just the living death!  [According to James Burnett in his biography of Ravel (1987), Ravel's death was probably a result of brain surgery, with the underlying cause arguably being a brain injury caused by an automobile accident in 1932, and not from a brain tumor as some believe. This confusion may arise because his friend George Gershwin had died from a brain tumor only five months earlier.]  Stravinsky said, “Composing is very much like toilet training.  You do it.  You start at the same time; you set up a schedule and you do it the same time every day.  Eventually, something gets produced.”  [Both laugh]  And it’s true.  He was a funny man, Mr. Stravinsky.  I worked for him for three summers at Santa Fe Opera, and we did a tour with the Santa Fe Opera to Berlin and Belgrade.  He was very funny, very funny man.  I read somewhere that Strauss’s habit was nine-to-twelve, nine-to-twelve, nine-to-twelve.  Well, I’m not that disciplined.  I sit down to the desk sometimes earlier.  It depends on my rehearsal schedule if I’m working on something in the theater, but I really try to keep to that, and somewhere, if I can unplug the telephone, I know I’m going to get three hours in.  I get three hours in every day.  Considering all that filing and cataloging I did last week, there’s a lot of music there!  [Laughs]  But of course, I am sixty, so I have been composing pieces for a long time.  There’s a piece I wrote in 1947 that’s being done this year.  I hadn’t thought of it for years when somebody said, “Hey, we found this in the archives.”  This was a piece I wrote for piano and string quartet that was done when I was really hot in the influence of Ernest Bloch in 1947.  It’s very Blochian, and it was first done by the Griller Quartet with me, in Santa Barbara at the Music Academy of the West.  Arnold Schoenberg said, [growls] “Very nice piece.”  Oh, he was dear!  He was dear.  Oh, he was dear to me.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me ask a balance question.  In music
yours or somebody else’swhere’s the balance between an artistic achievement and an entertainment value?

RC:    I hope there’s entertainment value in everything!

BD:    But where’s the balance?

RC:    In the art of the composer.  I think there’s entertainment.  The B Minor Mass is one of the most entertaining pieces I know!  It’s very entertaining to hear people play the Chaconne because the entertainment is, “Oof!  Is he going to make it or is he not going to make it?


BD:    [Laughs]

RC:    As to the balance, that’s an interesting question.  I don’t think any composer loses sight of the audience.  Mozart always was aware of it; Bach, certainly.  Everything he wrote was for that dismal church audience at Leipzig.  He had to go off to the Brandenburg court, have a little peppy fun, kick up his heels and write those cute tunes.  I don’t think there’s any composer who thinks, “I’m really going to bore the audience.”  I don’t know, but by that, of course, I mean myself.  I’ve never been unaware of the fact that what I’m writing is going to have to be heard some time in a concert hall or living room or on a disk or a television studio, or something.

BD:    Well, let me ask the great, philosophical question, then.  What is the purpose of music in society?

RC:    To make you feel good!  Or to give you a good feeling, which is quite a different thing.  Can you imagine life without music?  Of course not, but I’m sure there are lots of people who are not always aware of it.  It’s one of the more ubiquitous commodities we have now, and I really mean it as a commodity.  It’s everywhere.  It’s on the streets, it’s in elevators, you have your teeth drilled to Debussy or to Debbie Boone.  I pick my dentist according to what records he plays, and then usually ask him not to.  There’s this fascinating thing that music has to be playing all the time.  You go to a party, and the minute the guests walk in, the host and hostess, who have been functioning perfectly well without music, suddenly turn on music.  I usually ask, “Do you mind terribly?  Unless you really can’t talk without music, I really find it difficult to talk with music going on.”

BD:    I only want to have music on when I’m listening to the music.  If I’m doing something else, I turn it off.

RC:    Years ago a friend of mine in the theater and I thought, “Let’s put out a disk and call it Music to Listen to Mozart By” because everything is Music to Wash Your Dishes By, Music for Lovers, Music to Make a Soufflé Rise.  [Laughs]

BD:    You say that when you write your music you always have the audience in mind.  Has that changed because the audience has changed over twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years?

RC:    I don’t know.  Have they changed?  I don’t know.

BD:    Haven’t people changed in that time?  Aren’t we different in the late 1980s than we were in the 1940s or fifties?

RC:    Golly, I don’t know.  I’m older!  I don’t think I’ve ever felt less inhibited than I do at sixty.  I certainly feel much less inhibited than I did in my twenties and thirties.  I don’t know the answer to that.  There are lots of things I just don’t know — more and more, I realize.  I knew the answer to everything when I was eighteen.  Why didn’t you ask me that question when I was eighteen?  You’d have a whole Ring cycle-length of my answer to that.  I don’t know that audiences have changed.  I don’t know that the hearing apparatus necessarily has changed, unless the terribly dangerous decibel level has dulled listening.  That is possible.

BD:    Maybe the apparatus hasn’t changed, but what’s in there when it gets through the apparatus has changed, hasn’t it
ideas and viewpoints?

RC:    I have no idea.  I cannot, thank God, climb into most of those brains! 
To be a good audience in the theater or in the cinema, television has just spoiled us so badly.  Maybe cable will bring us back to sensitivity, because our whole attention spans are geared to those thirteen minutes of activity and two minutes of commercialswhich is time to go get another beer or go wash your hands.  Generations have grown up with attention spans that last about thirteen minutes.

BD:    You don’t write pieces that are twelve and a half minutes just for that, do you?

RC:    Funny enough, I’ve written a lot of twelve and a half-minute pieces!  [Both laugh]

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  So you were anticipatory?

RC:    I am anticipatory, yes.  [Much laughter all around]  Golly!

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

cummingRC:    If you have any thought that you might like to do anything else, then by all means do something else.  Composing doesn’t get easier.  The technical thing of being able to put notes down on paper and knowing the ranges and instrumental difficulties and things like that finally become second nature.  Those things become easier.  Taste and choice, those very difficult things to even define become harder and harder.  Then there is the tyranny of that blank paper!  There are some mornings I just don’t want to do that three hours.  I promise you that I just don’t!  But I do, and I really sit there.  Being an objective person, I don’t really like to waste time, and so the little old mind starts working and something comes out.  If nothing else, I’ve got parts to copy, and nothing is more tedious that that.  I’d rather compose than copy parts.  Oh golly, what advice?  Just study!  Just know as much as you possibly can!  The more tools one has — and we’re in a position now that the tools are becoming available!  I’m not just talking of twelve-tones and aleotoric and repetition and minimalism.  We’re talking machine time!  We’re talking fabulous abilities of what computers can do, but computers can be no better than the things that are fed into them.  So again, it is that whole thing of technique!  Just go and know your masters.  As Bloch said, “Don’t go to the books!  Don’t go to the books.  If you want to study counterpoint go to Palestrina, go to Orlando.  If you want to study harmony, go to Bach.  If you want to study form, go to Mozart and Beethoven.  If you want to study orchestration, go to Wagner, Strauss, Ravel.  Books, books, books, books — so dangerous are the treatises.  Schools, schools, schools are so problematic.”  But you’ve got to study and experience the voluptuous joy of finding out the secrets of Mr. Bach and Ravel!  My God, what wonderful secrets are there!  The more tools and the more skills you have, but computers are labor-saving only if you’ve done the labor to put into them.

BD:    Are there secrets that people are going to plumb in the music of Richard Cumming?

RC:    Mostly, who I stole that one from.  [Both laugh]  Oh yes, you meet many friends in my music, many, many good friends.  I cannibalize myself a lot, but I don’t think there are too many secrets.  There are certain pieces that might get better the more one hears them.  There are certain pieces, fortunately not too many, that give up all their secrets right away, but not many of those.

BD:    Is that something that contributes to making a piece of music great
that it’s hard to get through to the secrets?

RC:    There’s always something new, that you’re always taken somewhat by surprise.  I keep talking about the Faun.  I just think it’s one of the most amazing pieces no matter how many times I go back to it.  I’ve studied it!  At one point I could sit down and write the whole thing by memory and it still takes me by surprise!  I forget that the sound is so fresh until I hear the sound again.  I think that’s what music should be.  It should always be [inhales]
Oh, a surprise!  I’d forgotten how wonderful that moment was!  It’s wonderful when that happens.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music?

RC:    Oh, yes!  Why not?  There are always going to be people who want to hear it.  There are always going to be people who want to play it.  We’re at a crossroads.  Is the performer doomed?  Will, indeed, mechanical devices take over?  I don’t know.  We’ve coped with every new thing that’s come along, from the inclusion of — dare I say it? — the clarinets in the concert orchestra.  That was the end of music!  Vulgarity!  Then the trombone came along, and Wolfgang did it.  He was the first to put them both in.  And we’ve seen the Brandenburg Concertos go from ten players to the Chicago Symphony-size.  We can hear them now on computers and it’s still wonderful music.  It’s very hard.  It’s only as good as the performer doing it.

BD:    Do you look forward to your works being played by a large orchestra, or just a piano reduction, in all of these different combinations?  How much leeway do you allow?

RC:    I always think that whatever I wrote it for is what it should be.  There are pieces that I wrote originally for smaller groups that I’ve taken and blown up.  They tend to be better in the smaller versions, but there are pieces I’ve written for big, big forces.  Sometimes those take on very interesting new textures when I reduce them down to chamber sizes.  But you see what the orchestra can do.  I just love what the orchestra can do, but not if you’re taking a piece that was originally for a 120-piece orchestra and saying, “I wonder if ten could do that?”  I wrote an opera called The Picnic.  It’s a very simple piece
seven characters, two acts, and it lasts about ninety minutes.  I’ve always just been so delighted with that Strauss orchestration for Ariadne, and that’s thirty-four or thirty-five instruments.  I thought I can do my opera for a quadruple string quartet and have fun doing it.  I did all the first act and got halfway through Act Two, and it was becoming more and more... well, tedious was part of it, and difficult was part of it.  I wondered to myself what I was doing is this tiny little piece.  It’s seven people, and the plot takes almost within the span of time that it takes to go through the opera.  There’s no chorus and there’s no ballet.  So went back from the beginning and rewrote the piece for fifteen instrumentalists.  It took practically another year, and of course that’s what I should have done originally.  But when you’ve gotten that far in an opera, you think you had better just finish it.  I just loved that Strauss Ariadne sound, but my little Picnic is not Ariadne auf Naxos!  That was me deluding myself, asking the piece to support a little bit more than the very fragile wire could take.  It sounds wonderful with the fifteen instruments, exactly what it should have been from the beginning.  I wasted two years! [Laughs]

BD:    Are there ever times when performers find things in your scores that you didn’t even know you’d hidden there?

RC:    Oh yes, they keep coming up.  I love it when I hear things from a performer that I’ve never heard before — a rubato, or bringing out of an inner voice, something like that.  That’s great fun!  But I tend to forget.  I don’t go back and spend much time listening to my pieces.  It doesn’t mean I don’t like doing it.  I like doing it very much, but...

BD:    You’re working on something new?

RC:    Yes, but the sounds in my head I find a little more interesting than the sounds I’ve written already.  But I have a good time going back and hearing my music, especially when a wonderful artist has done them and spent time and learned them.  I have a great time.  I say, “Oh goodness.  I had no idea the piece was so good!” Or curiously I say, “I had no idea the piece was quite so bad, but then you’ve concealed it wonderfully, my dear!  Thank you very much.”  [Laughs]

BD:    It’s been marvelous chatting with you.  I’m glad this has all worked out.  It’s been fun!

RC:    It worked out very well, didn’t it?




cumming

Arts Week hosts Richard Cumming, composer

cummingRichard Cumming was born in Shanghai, raised in the Philippines and schooled in the American West under such teachers as Rudolf Firkusny and Lili Kraus. for piano, and Ernest Bloch, Arnold Schoenberg and Roger Sessions in composition. He has toured 49 of the 50 United States. Canada. Europe and the Far East as solo pianist. Assistant Conductor for the Santa Fe Opera, and accompanist for such artists as Helen Vanni, Phyllis Curtin, Donald Gramm. Florence Kopleff, Mildred Miller. Anna Russell, Martial Singher and Jennie Tourel. He has taught at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, the University of Saskatchewan and the Rhode Island Governor's School for Youth in the Arts for which he has also served as Director in 1970.

His compositions, published by J.&W. Chester in London and Boosey and Hawkes in New York, have been performed throughout the world by John Browning, Rudolf Firkusny, Donald Gramm, Cornell MacNeil, Helen Vanni, the New York Philharmonic, amongst others, and have gained him awards from the National Federation of Music Clubs, ASCAP, the Ford and Wurlitzer Foundations. He has composed the music to over 50 plays for such theatres as the Phoenix Theatre in New York, the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. ESSO Repertory Theatre on nationwide TV. California's Marin Shakespeare Festival, Princeton's McCarter Theatre, the Loretto Hilton Center in St. Louis and the Trinity Square Repertory Company in Providence, Rhode Island, where he is currently in his sixth season as Composer-in-Residence and Director of Project Discovery. Since the first of this year, he has been traveling in the United States as a Consultant for the National Endowment for the Arts and the recording of his 24 Preludes for Piano has been released on DESTO Records as performed by the brilliant young American pianist, John Browning.  [CD re-issue is shown farther up on this webpage.]






© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded at my home in Chicago on September 26, 1988.  Portions were broadcast (along with recordings) on WNIB in 1993 and 1998.  This transcription was made in 2014, and posted on this website at that time.

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.