Composer C. Curtis-Smith
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Curtis Curtis-Smith was born in
1941 in Walla Walla, Washington (!), and received a bachelor's degree
from Whitman College, where he studied with John Ringgold and David
Burge. He received a Master of Music degree in piano at Northwestern
University where he studied with Alan Stout and Guy Mombaerts. He
pursued further studies at the University of Illinois with Kenneth
Gaburo, the Tanglewood Music Center with Bruno Maderna, and in master
classes at the Blossom Music Festival with Pierre Boulez. [See my Interview with Alan Stout,
and my Interview with
In 1968, Curtis-Smith joined the faculty of Western Michigan University
in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he is currently Artist-in-residence and a
part-time instructor of music composition. In 1972, he pioneered the
technique of bowing the piano.
In 2001, Curtis-Smith's Twelve Etudes
for piano was one of four compositions commissioned by the Van Cliburn
Foundation for the Eleventh Van Cliburn International Piano Competition.
As part of my long series on WNIB devoted to mostly
American composers, I contacted Curtis-Smith by telephone, and he said
that his travels would bring him to Chicago in just a few months.
So in December of 1996 and we had this interview in the Windy
While setting up to record, he was speaking about other composers and
performers, including Leslie Bassett and Ross Lee Finney. [See my
Interview with Leslie
Bassett.] So to start, I asked him about his name . . . . . .
Let’s begin with C. Curtis-Smith.
Is that how you like to be referred to, as C. Curtis-Smith?
That’s the way it gets on programs. My first name’s Curtis, so
you’ll just call me
that, but if it’s the whole name then it’s usually C.
BD: How did
you happen to wind up being another Boutros
Boutros-Ghali [Secretary General of the UN 1992-96]?
fact, went by the name of Curtis Smith, including one in
Colorado. In fact, someone said to me, “I saw those new pieces
for children.” I hadn’t written anything for
children; it was the other Curtis Smith. So I was trying to
circumvent that problem a little. My two middle
names are Otto Bismarck, and I was thinking, perhaps, of hyphenating
Bismarck and Smith to make it Curtis Otto Bismarck-Smith. I ran
it by my sister, and she
didn’t think much of that, but she mentioned that Curtis was a
family name. In fact, that’s why I got the name in the first
place. It was the last name in one branch of the family that had
died out, so she
suggested hyphenating that and making it the last name, so that the
name would live on. So that’s the way it was. It causes a
of confusion, but as long as Boutros Boutros-Ghali is the Secretary
General of the UN, I’ll at least have sort of something to prepare
people with a model. [Laughs]
BD: So you
regrets about making this life change?
[Laughs] Well, for better or for worse, it’s
there. The hardest thing is people look you up in the
telephone book in the wrong place, and they don’t find it.
BD: Let’s go
music. I assume that music is the point of your life?
CC-S: It seems to
have become that. As much as
one tries not to have it be all-encompassing and all-consuming, it’s
difficult to not have that happen. I think about
that a lot because Charles Ives said that without his insurance
work, he wouldn’t be as good a composer. He met people and saw
life in a way that he wouldn’t if he were just always sitting at home
composing. So there is that. But on the other hand,
when you’re teaching, and meeting a lot of students and colleagues,
that’s probably healthy, and it’s more directly associated with music,
obviously, than being in insurance. But it still keeps you open
to not just the social aspects, but the influence of different styles
and different thought processes and different people. So that
can only be good. I think if I didn’t have to teach, I’d probably
be the poorer for it.
BD: You’d be
a poorer composer?
probably a poorer, less rounded person as
well. There’s not that many people who
can make their livelihood today only by sitting home and composing
eight hours a day. Occasionally it’s
nice to be able to do that, of course, but to do it continuously for
one’s whole career is both unrealistic and
probably not healthy.
BD: So you
encourage your students, then, to be a
little more well-rounded than just being composers?
CC-S: Most of
the time they don’t have
too much choice nowadays, because if they’re looking for teaching jobs,
those are pretty rare, and to make a living as a composer or a
musician they’re probably going to have to do some freelancing
playing if they’re a performer, and writing the kind of music that they
might not choose to write if they were sitting in an ivory tower or
had unlimited means at their disposal.
they go into insurance?
[Laughs] Perhaps some should!
BD: I didn’t
mean to get out of music completely, but I mean as
naming names, are there some of
your students who you suggest should get into insurance exclusively?
CC-S: To take
it out of the
personal realm, I’m amazed that there are so many students in music
— not just composition, but piano. That’s a good
I’m a pianist as well, and there are certainly fewer piano positions,
whether it’s in teaching or on a concert stage. There are fewer
slots to fill today than there were twenty-five years ago when I first
started out myself, and yet they’re there and they seem to love
it. I suppose, in a way, if they love it that much, they know
the odds that they may not
find a job, or the kind of job they want.
BD: But they
should give their shot?
they should... assuming that it’s not
totally hopeless. Then someone has done them a
disservice by not telling that.
BD: Are you a
better composer because you’re also a
CC-S: Oh yes,
I think so. I can’t envisage a
composer who does not play an instrument at least rather well.
apparently, played the trombone — perhaps not
that well, but
obviously he was a great orchestrator. Ravel was a pianist but
great a pianist. I think he could play his way through even
Gaspard de la Nuit, but not in
the sense of a public performance.
BD: Are we
now getting to the point where there are some composers who are not
instrumentalists at all?
we’re getting some and I think they lose touch with the practical
aspect of playing.
BD: [With a
sly nudge] You mean music should be practical???
[Laughs] Well, that’s another
arguable issue, but if the right music is ungrateful or
ungracious — both those words are sometimes used by
musicians — they turn people off. They turn musicians off.
Musicians need to want to play a certain
composer’s music, and that’s what gives the music life. It’s not
determine whether a piece is going to succeed or fail, it’s really
performers who love a piece or like it well enough to mention it to
someone else. Then it finds its way among various players.
That way they keep it alive, and it
may enter the repertoire, to some degree, not through
rave reviews. Who’s going to complain about a rave
review? It’s not going to hurt, but that won’t do it. So if
you write music that’s hard to play, that’s
needlessly difficult, is clumsy for the instrument,
doesn’t exploit the instrument properly, that is going to be a
problem. I always think back to the historical precedents and
examples that we have — Beethoven, Mozart and
others were all excellent pianists, and it follows right through pretty
much up to the present day. Stravinsky could play the piano very
Wagner a pianist?
composed everything at the piano, as I understand. The amazing
thing is that he wrote no piano
music except a real early piano sonata that doesn’t even sound like
Wagner. But I’m not sure how a good a pianist he was.
BD: Do you
feel that you’re part of that lineage of
qualitative comparison is intended, but
just the sheer tradition. I’ve played my own music and
written a lot for piano and instruments — not so
much for solo piano,
but a lot with piano and instruments, chamber music and piano
concertos, and so on. So I like to think of that in the
sense of being part of that lineage. That had been
the only way, in those days. The idea of specializing to
the point where you didn’t play an instrument at all, but just wrote
for others? That’s something later. The idea of a Baroque
musician not playing what he
wrote was unthinkable to them. Not that they played every
instrument, obviously, but
still they were both composer and musician.
BD: They had
to play and conduct and organize the
Exactly, and sometimes even had to repair the
instruments, as Purcell did. That was part of his job. It
was amazing how he wrote so much music, when
he had to keep the fiddles in good shape.
BD: You play
your own music. Are you the
ideal interpreter of your music?
CC-S: I like
to think that I am of my piano
music, but when it comes to chamber music that involves the
piano, not necessarily. I’ve heard some tremendous performances
of things that are perhaps done better than I’d be able to do
them. I could say that about Fleisher playing the Left Hand Concerto. Of
course, he has the technique. I’ve played some left-hand music
— the Ravel concerto, the Prokofiev concerto years ago,
when I’d hurt my
right hand myself — so I sort of developed the
chops in those pieces. But the concerto that I wrote for
Leon Fleisher is pretty tough. It’s probably just as hard as the
Ravel in terms of negotiating the material, and Fleisher does it very
BD: But you
didn’t write it to be tough did you?
No. I didn’t write it to be that
difficult. It just came out that way because of the musical
ideas. I wasn’t trying to deliberately make it hard,
like perhaps the Transcendental
Etudes of Liszt or something like that, no.
BD: Is there
ever a time when you write something
that you know what it should sound like, but it’s impossible to do that
with a mere ten fingers?
sure. That does happen. What really happens is when I’m
first hatching the idea that it’s going to be a solo piano
piece, before I get too far I realize that it needs other voices, other
colors, and then it becomes a chamber music piece. If someone
commissions a chamber music piece
with piano, then it’s like commissioning me to write something that I
wanted to write anyway. As Stravinsky said, “The trick is to
get people to commission things you’re already working on.”
Perhaps, if you have even gotten well into it or finished it, then get
BD: Are there
ever times when a
commission will spark a brand new idea, and you think that’d be great?
happens with a new instrument, or new to
the composer. It happened to me when Bill Albright asked me to
write some organ pieces for him. It was just about fifteen years
ago, and frankly I had not liked the organ that much.
BD: Why not?
because the only organs I knew were inferior, old nineteenth century
instruments, and when I encountered
the organ that he premiered the pieces on — which
was the marvelous
instrument out in Seattle, a Flentrop tracker action instrument from
Holland — I was quite taken with it. The
sounds were fresh and
distinct, and didn’t all sound the same, like some of those
late nineteenth century organs do with big sound but not much
differentiation among the stops. But in writing that piece, I
found that it brought ideas to my head that I wouldn’t have thought of,
had I been writing a piano piece or an orchestral work. That
piece, which ended up being Masquerades:
set of six pieces for Organ, actually helped change my style at
point. It was a pivotal piece. The pieces before
that, like Rhapsodies and Unisonics, which used the bowed
piano, and several other pieces of that genre, were pieces which were
very asymmetrical, irregular rhythmically, almost spastic rhythmic
configurations, and influenced by Boulez and Berio, Stockhausen, and
others from the late sixties and early seventies. [See my Interview with Luciano
Berio.] When this commission for the organ came along, I
started to write a piece
which was just as irregular rhythmically — aperiodic,
with unpredictable rhythms always — and it just
didn’t seem to quite work for me,
at least on the instrument. So I started to develop ideas
which were more regular, perhaps, and the mechanical nature of the
instrument brought out certain continuous, long passages in the
same rhythmic pattern. It helped change my rhythmic
language. So that sort of thing can happen, and the pieces after
that were such that I never went back to as abstract a kind of rhythm
as I’d written before the organ pieces, even when I
went back to writing for the same instruments I’d written for before.
BD: Now you
don’t disown your earlier pieces, do you?
it’s a change of style.
BD: It’s a
Yes. The earlier pieces like
Rhapsodies and Unisonics, are on old LPs now on
the CRI label, and most of those are not
available anymore, along with most LPs nowadays. But the pieces
are still performed a lot, and I’m
still happy with some of those, especially Rhapsodies and Unisonics. But it is a very
different style from what has
happened to my music since the mid to
BD: Once you
made this radical change in your
music, has there been another radical change?
there has been. After Masquerades
1978, then I got more and more into the vernacular style — popular
musics, drawing on jazz and
rock that manifested itself especially in
the orchestral work, the Great
American Symphony or GAS,
acronymically call it. That dates from 1980. It was
in 1981, and is a work that Dennis Russell Davies has conducted quite a
few times now with various orchestras including the Indianapolis
Symphony, and most
recently with the West German Radio Orchestra in Cologne.
Obviously, he’s a champion of your music, then.
CC-S: Well, he’s
especially taken to that piece.
I think he’s conducted it twelve times or so in different sets
of performances over the years, including the American Composers
BD: Does that
please you that he keeps coming back to it, or do you wish he’d move on
to something else?
happy he’s coming back to
that. In fact, he has plans to do it again, possibly next
year, with the Vienna Radio Orchestra, I believe it’s called.
That piece was probably the high point for me, and a couple of pieces
surrounding it, like the Sweetgrass
Trio, which is on the New Albany
CD. That trio dates from 1982, and as the title suggests,
sweetgrass. In the last movement it gets to a
sort of a hoe-down and some fiddle music, as opposed to violin
music. It’s all brought together, at least I hope brought
together in a way that congeals and is not pastiche. There are
some rock elements in the last movement which sort of obliquely quotes
George Harrison from the Beatles — one of
his bass lines, not the melody
itself but the bass line. “My Guitar Gently Weeps” is the opening
line. So there’s that group of vernacular, popular-based pieces
from about 1980 through ’85 or so. Then I actually went back to
writing in a little more abstract style,
more tonal than my earlier things, but somehow avoiding the vernacular
elements, the popular elements. A song cycle, a Civil War song
from ’87 is an example of that. Then the most recent change
that I think is rather considerable is a big jump. Three or four
years ago I got interested in using the rhythms of
sub-Saharan African music, black African music. The best
example of that is probably the Second
Piano Trio, which is also recorded
by the Merling Trio on the Albany CD. That piece and another
piece on the same album, which is called the Piano Wind Sextet
of a generic title — that was commissioned
by Dennis Russell Davies
for his woodwind quintet based in Stuttgart, and
he played the piano. He’s an excellent pianist. People know
him as a conductor, but he’s a great pianist, too. So that’s
another piece that uses these cross
rhythms and poly-rhythms of African music, but specifically,
sub-Saharan African music, not the Islamic northern African music
that’s quite different in both scale, content, and its rhythmic ideas.
BD: Have you
any more connection with Africa than
just general interest, or is there a specific interest?
only connection is that for about ten years I taught a class in
non-western music at the university. Although I knew a little
about it when I started, after 10 years of
teaching it I knew quite a bit... but it’s always a drop in the
bucket compared with what there’s out there to know.
BD: But it
obviously fascinated you.
fascinated me, yes, and didn’t do anything
about it until I stopped teaching that class. I had
taught it for ten years, and it was after I actually stopped being
asked to teach that class that some of the ideas started to register in
head. It turned out, when I thought
about it, that they were very directly based on African cross
rhythms. Then I went back and looked at some other sources, and
that into my language. I’m still in that phase right
now. What I’m working on right now is a piece [Second Symphony (African Laughter)]
for the Kalamazoo
Symphony for their 75th anniversary, and that’ll be premiered March
21st. The last movement especially grows towards
that from a more dissonant language into the fourth movement, which is
very, very tonal, but very
complex rhythmically, and is a statement of those African ideas.
I’ve avoided using African
instruments to do this. From my approach, the way I think of it,
it’s a mistake to do that because then you might as well just listen to
the African music. If
you take Bartók as an example, at least to my knowledge
he never used a cimbalom in Hungarian music. Kodály
did in Háry János,
of course. That is a famous example, and when they don’t have the
cimbalom, they use a
tinny upright piano and put paper in it or something. I could be
wrong, but I don’t know of
Bartók ever using indigenous Hungarian instruments in his
Hungarian-style music, or music that draws on that. But he evoked
the spirit through string quartets, piano works, and so on. So
that’s kind of the kind of model that seemed
appropriate to pursue, to follow.
mentioned that you have
this performance coming up on a specific date. Is it comforting
or terrifying to know that on a certain date, a certain piece had
better be ready so it can be played?
both, but I had enough lead
time in this case. I knew about it well over three years before
the fact, so I still
have four months or so, now.
BD: I hope
you’re less than four months away from
quite close, actually; could be two or three weeks. It’s
virtually finished, and that means literally
things that you think have been taken care of that aren’t — little
mistakes here and there, a few adjustments in terms of certain passages
and so on. But the hardest thing about this particular piece
has been that just in the past year I’ve
learned the software for Finale, one of the commonly used computer
programs. There are some others, but Finale is one of the
prominent ones, and it’s tough to learn, especially when in my
case. I didn’t own a computer at all until a year ago, and jumped
in and learned this program which has about 700 pages worth of manuals
to tell you how to do it. And you have to almost read all of it
to understand most of it, at least. Entering the notes is the
easiest part; it’s the other things like the articulation markings and
page layout and things like that. It really can be maddening at
first, but I did master it, pretty much at least, so I’m doing that
now with this very large orchestral work. Sometimes there’s 25 or
30 lines per system, and that’s a big score to deal with.
BD: Is that
gratifying to have the page come out
almost printed, rather than in manuscript scrawl?
more gratifying now than it would have been,
say, twenty years ago because somehow my scrawl gets worse as I get
[Laughs] I had more patience to do it slowly with
T-square and triangle even, and make it look
pseudo-engraved. George Crumb does that so well, better
than almost anybody, and I don’t think he’ll change to computer
notation because he can do some things that are his signature.
[See my Interview
with George Crumb.] The calligraphy of his hand is very
beautiful, but I have so much tension when I’m writing, when I hold the
pencil, that I just don’t think it would work out very well
anymore. I don’t have the patience for it. But I find
Finale is really very useful in a way I hadn’t expected. Not
only, of course, does it look nice — if you do
it right and really understand it, it can look
virtually engraved and the parts can be extracted with less time than
sitting down and copying them all over again — but
allows you to make changes at a late date. I work that way.
sometimes make changes even after a performance, sometimes rather major
ones. It was sometimes such
a daunting thought to take a completed orchestral work and make a
change. If you leave out even two measures some place, or re-do
two measures, just to renumber the rest of the piece it is a big
task. Now with the click of the mouse, everything
is re-done and is re-numbered. So I started to revise, and in a
certain sense even compose a little bit using the program, though I
still don’t think I’d want to start from scratch composing. When
I get an idea, instead of having a scribble on a page, I input the
notes. The idea of something that looks engraved as a sketch is
kind of weird. [Laughs]
BD: Might you
be reluctant to change it because it looks done?
so. I think some of the
students I see have that tendency. It looks done and so they
think it’s good because it looks good, and the looks have nothing to
do with the sound, of course.
brings up one of my favorite
questions. When you’re working with a score and you’re tinkering
it, how do you know when it is done?
question. I have a pretty good feeling myself when it is
finished, and a composer has to guard against the
biggest trap. If it’s a piece you’ve worked
on a long time and you know it very well, you’re going to know it
better than almost any other human being ever will, probably, and in a
sometimes get bored with it. You know it so well and you’ve heard
so often, you want to make it more interesting for yourself so that a
certain passage where
it’s building up to a climactic point is just as fascinating and
exciting to you, the composer-as-listener as it was when you
worked on it several months ago. Then if you hype
it up and keep making it more complex to fulfill your own need to have
it stay interesting in every measure and every note, there’s the
danger that you overload it and you lose the audience.
BD: Those are
the people who haven’t heard it over several
months and seen the development?
right, yes. One of my favorite
quotes — I think it’s
attributed to Rossini, who said, “Don’t try to be a genius in every
measure.” That’s probably good advice
because in a lot of the very complex music of this century, there has
be so much interesting happening with almost every note or every
phrase or every measure, that then the larger span of the piece
suffers because you’re looking at everything in detail instead of
seeing the whole arch. Without a certain simplicity to
balance, or thin textures to balance thick textures, you
can’t really have shape in a large sense. It might be
interesting, of course. One measure might be more interesting if
increase its momentary interest, but it might not serve the whole piece
as well. The Waldstein
of Beethoven begins with
those repeated chords, which in themselves are not even a very
interesting idea. But if he’d given you something too complex at
the beginning, where could he have gone with it? He understood
that better than anybody.
So he didn’t make that mistake of jacking up the interest for himself
to the point where he overloaded the piece. There are composers
that one might
accuse of giving too much, perhaps. Scriabin may have
sometimes imbued so many measures with such ideas, but it’s
BD: But you
really need to dig at it for the fifth
time before you understand it.
kind of dancing around this, so let me ask the real easy question
— what’s the purpose of music?
CC-S: I think
if music doesn’t have an
emotional impact of some kind, then, for all of its
complexity and/or beauty otherwise, it is perhaps meaningless.
The emotional impact, which may not necessarily be there in a
composer’s mind when he first starts a piece, will shape itself
along with the notes as he’s writing them. Then the piece will
impart something. Music has to speak on several different
Mozart said that he wrote music that he hoped the
true musician would find interesting and not get bored with, but that
the average concert listener, the casual listener even, would find
attractive. That’s a hard balance to strike. Of course, he
did it. To this day,
musicians are fascinated by every page he wrote, and the casual concert
goer probably loves Mozart above all composers.
BD: Do you
try to include that balance in your
CC-S: It’s a
tough thing to achieve. Mozart did it better than anyone, perhaps.
BD: But you
strive for it?
strive for it, yes. Some
composers would argue that a certain surface appeal is ‘selling
out’ if it has an
immediate impact, and you shouldn’t worry about that. But I
do in any case, for better or for worse. I think about that, and
have pieces which maybe succeed more on the surface than they
do on the deeper levels.
BD: When you
get the score finished and deliver it to the performers, are you
expecting them to put any
interpretation into it, or do you want them to play it exactly as
you’ve notated it?
expect them to put some interpretation
into it, if that’s the way of phrasing it. I know there are
certain composers who have disavowed that kind of responsibility for
the performer. I believe Ravel said at one point, “I will not be
interpreted,” but I think he was speaking of some of the very
excessive late nineteenth century pianists that were still performing
in the early part of the twentieth century. He probably had to
suffer through performances by some of them playing his music in a very
over-romanticized way. If you hear Paderewski play
the Moonlight Sonata, in the
opening movement the left hand is so far
ahead of the right on each of those downbeats, with the whole notes in
the left moving down, that it sounds like a travesty today, at least to
BD: He must
have thought it was perfectly good that way.
thought it was expressive to play that
way. Today it sounds like you’re doing too much. Now we’ve
gone too far to the other extreme, and you hear pianists that all
play about the same. They all sound perfect, in a certain
sense, and you could almost interchange them — especially
some of the young
competition winners. I think someone did
that — took a tape of the finalists of one of
big competitions and spliced them all together. It was maybe the
Tchaikovsky concerto or something that’s very standard, and
you couldn’t tell a tempo change. You couldn’t really tell any
stylistic difference. It sounded like the same person playing it.
each individual sound like an
individual, even though they’re playing a standard masterpiece?
performer should bring
something to the piece. I guess I’m of that school of
thought. I like the fact that when Rachmaninoff played
the Chopin B Flat Minor Sonata,
in the Funeral March he
didn’t do at all
what Chopin said. He starts the piece pppp and makes a gradual
crescendo to ffff at the
bottom of the first section. Then the lyrical middle section he
or less as Chopin indicated, and then he reverses the process.
the big, famous Freedom March
chords come back, he starts with three or
four Fs again and makes it a diminishing piece. It’s like a
patrol piece that comes from a distance, moves to the foreground and
back again. There’s a number of pieces in the literature
that. It’s almost a
genre, the patrol piece, when you hear something coming closer and
BD: Ives did
Ives did with the two marching bands, and so on. I was reading
the other day that Ned Rorem said he doesn’t want to be
interpreted. [See my Interview with Ned Rorem.]
wants people just to play his music as he wrote it. For one
thing, I don’t think that’s ever going to happen. Besides,
if you really play it exactly how it’s written and he really meant
that, then he would be satisfied with a computer playing the music, and
that is intolerable. I know that for a fact, just from having
worked with the Finale program. When you have Finale played back,
something that you’ve put into the computer
simply is not music. The unforgiving, mechanical aspect of it
makes it something else. I’m not sure what it is. On the
other hand, you have people, like Conlon
Nancarrow, who have written player-piano music. [See my Interview with
BD: But he
wrote it for the mechanical instrument.
CC-S: Yes, he
wrote it for that instrument. Actually there’s many asymmetrical,
irrational rhythms that give his pieces a certain life, and are so
a person couldn’t do them. But in a sense there’s almost a
feeling of a
rubato programmed into that, such as nine against eleven. Then
there is Canon X in which one
voice speeds up and the other
voice slows down.
BD: From a
humanistic point of view, is there
such a thing as a perfect performance?
CC-S: I think
not, because it would mean that only one
person could ever really play a given piece and bring out what the
piece has to say. It’s like asking, “Is there a perfect
performance of Hamlet?”
What’s perfect? Not missing a
single word? Of course that means nothing. Missing a
single note or missing a lot of notes may still end up in a great
performance, at least in a live situation. You may not want to
live with it on a recording, but as a live performance that is
You are both composer and teacher. How do you
divide your time between those two taxing activities?
CC-S: At the
University of Michigan
it’s probably easier than at most places, because the load is quite
light. So that makes it more possible. Ross Lee Finney, who
was one of the founders of their Composition
Department, struggled and fought for that situation for the composer.
both fun and torture. Sometimes beginning a new piece can be a
hellish experience when
you’re casting about for new ideas and you don’t want to repeat the
ideas you’ve used in the last piece. A few years
ago I spent a whole month sketching out ideas. I was on
at the time, so I had plenty of time to do it. In fact, I was
doing it all day long — or forcing myself to
— and after the whole
month of January I had almost nothing that
I felt was useable. That was very discouraging and just
seemed like a total waste. Then suddenly, in the middle of
February, in one day’s time I got all
these ideas which flowed very rapidly. Of course they still
needed revising, but perhaps all that struggling somehow was
brewing in my head, and without the struggle I couldn’t have gotten to
that. If it’s an epiphany, or some kind of breakthrough, or the
light bulb goes on, or whatever you want to call it, it can happen, but
it usually is preceded by some really hard, struggling
work. So I would say that it’s both the most frustrating and most
difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life, and on the other hand, after
a good performance of a piece that you’re happy with, it can be the
biggest high that I can imagine. I’m comparing it now to a
pianist. Having been a concert pianist myself, even after a
whatever Chopin or Bartók or even my own music, that simply does
compare with a fine symphonic performance that I’m hearing in the
audience. That kind of a high is not quite
achievable by a performer just as a performer. But if you’re
playing your own piece or listening to someone else play it
well, that can be a high that is hard
to achieve any other way. And it’s almost a problem, because you
get such a high. I remember when
Leon Fleischer played my Lefthand
Concerto with the Detroit Symphony a
few years ago. There were three performances, three nights in a
row. It was almost like getting a fix each night,
and each performance was better than the previous. After the end
of that, you go into withdrawal, almost. It
sounds like I’m exaggerating, but it’s almost really there. Then
you’re lucky, you’ve got another performance coming up in a few weeks
or months. If you’re really lucky, you’ve got one
the next weekend, but most composers have to wait some length of time
performances. If you had nothing but all those
significant performances, you wouldn’t write anything new
because you just always want that fix. Of course you’d
get tired of it, perhaps, and decide it’s enough, and go
home and write something else. But it really works that way.
BD: It sounds
like you have the right balance
of performances and composing time.
wouldn’t mind even more performances, but I’m grateful for the
they’re good ones. Of course, every composer is.
BD: Have you
basically been pleased with the performances of your music?
Yes. There have been a number of
groups that have played the Second
Piano Trio. The Merling Trio played
it very well, and they recorded it, of course. Last year, two
or three other groups played the piece as well on their tours, and
another group has a plan to take up. Those were good
performances, and it’s a very difficult piece with
all the African cross rhythms and poly rhythms, and so on.
BD: I want to
be sure and ask you about the bowed
piano. Tell me how you came up with that.
CC-S: That is
kind of an interesting story.
David Burge asked me to write a piece for him, and I knew
that he played pieces by George Crumb and Henry Cowell and John
Cage. [See my Interview
with John Cage.]
BD: Where you
had to get into the guts of the piano?
right. I suppose that led me
to think in the same direction. So I sat down at the piano
one day and I wondered if there was anything that Henry Cowell, John
Cage or George Crumb haven’t already thought of? I thought
probably not. It wasn’t that I was trying just to think of
something novel just for the sake of novelty, because that in itself is
meaningless. You can write bad music even if it’s the
most original thing right at that moment. But I did wonder if
there was anything else that one can do just
as a technique, and then put it to musical purposes. Just
stumbling around, I had an old violin bow there, one that
had the horsehair which wasn’t even attached anymore to the other
end. So I just disassembled the bow and tried it, and lo and
behold, it worked... except the horsehairs broke too
fast. Then one day I happened to meet my colleague, a violist
there at WMU, and asked him what I should do about this problem.
fisherman, so he said, “Why don’t you try monofilament nylon fishing
line? Just go out and buy some fishing line.” So I did, and
that solved the problem. I just had to make my own
bows, loop that around, and tie the ends and so on, and rosin it.
That didn’t break.
BD: Did it
sound all right?
Yes. Certain kinds sound better than
others, but the cheap kind sounds better. The other is milled too
finely — that’s what I found, at least. So
I try to
find the cheapest stuff I can. It’s a rougher finish, which is
you need for it to hold the rosin. So that was something that was
just stumbled on, and lo and behold, no one else had thought of
that. George Crumb did use it later in a piece of his.
BD: Did he
give you credit for it?
CC-S: He did
mention it. It is mentioned on the
record jacket, yes. Then there is a composer working in Colorado,
Stephen Scott is the
name. He did something with the same idea, and he was always very
nice to give credit on every program. He took the lid off the
piano, and then ten percussionists or pianists stand around one
instrument, and all ten of them bowed the piano inside. Some used
the long bows which I had devised,
and they also used little popsicle sticks with horsehair glued to them
and rosined. They made short, little sounds. It was kind of
a minimalist piece, and he’s done quite a bit with that style.
He’s written a number of pieces, even a piece for the Los
Angeles Chamber Symphony and bowed piano. At least ten years of
compositional career is all focused just on that technique, but he’s
always given me credit even though I never asked for it. So
Henry Cowell do something inside the piano in one of his pieces?
true. Henry Cowell’s
Banshee actually has one
person at the keyboard holding
the pedal down, and the other one does all the inside
manipulation. But obviously, that’s not necessary. You
could put a wedge behind it or put a heavy brick on the pedal.
BD: Thank you
so very much for coming to speak with me today.
CC-S: It was
my pleasure. Thank you.
-- -- -- -- -- -- -- --
© 1996 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on December 2,
1996. Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following March, and on
WNUR in 2012.
This transcription was made in 2014, and posted on this
at that time.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
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
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
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century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.