Composer Emma Lou Diemer
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Emma Lou Diemer (b. 1927) is a
native of Kansas City, Missouri. She studied piano from an early age,
wrote little piano pieces as a child, and began to play the organ at
age 13 in the First Christian Church in Warrensburg, MO where the
family had moved; her father having become president of Central MO
State College. She determined to be a composer about that time with a
strong interest also in piano, taking lessons at the K.C. Conservatory
with Wiktor Labunski.
After high school she elected to major in composition in a school of
music rather than attend a liberal arts college. Her degrees in
composition are from the Yale School of Music (BM,1949; MM, 1950) and
from the Eastman School of Music (Ph.D.,1960). She further studied
composition in Brussels on a Fulbright Scholarship (1952-53) and at the
Berkshire Music Center (summers of 1954, 1955).
From 1954-57 she taught in several schools in the Kansas City area
(Park College, William Jewell College, the K.C. Conservatory of Music)
and was organist in area churches. After receiving the doctorate from
Eastman she spent two years (1959-61) as composer-in-residence in the
Arlington, VA schools under the Ford Foundation Young Composers
Project. She wrote many choral and instrumental works while in
Arlington, most of which were published.
From 1962-65 she was a consultant for the Contemporary Music Project of
the Music Educators National Conference, taught in the Arlington
schools, and in 1962 became organist at Reformation Lutheran
Church in Washington, DC. In 1965 she joined the faculty of the
University of Maryland as an assistant professor of theory and
composition. In 1971 she was appointed to a similar position at the
University of California, Santa Barbara, and subsequently became a full
professor and, since 1991, professor emeritus. Her present position as
organist is at the First Presbyterian Church in Santa Barbara.
She was instrumental in founding the electronic/computer music center
at UCSB and helped to develop the Ph.D./DMA degrees in composition as
well as other aspects of the curriculum.
Through the years she has written many works of varying levels of
difficulty from hymns and songs to concertos and symphonies. Awards for
her compositions include a Louisville Student Award for a suite for
orchestra, the Arthur Benjamin Award for "Quiet Music" from Eastman for
the second movement of her 2nd symphony/dissertation, an ASCAP award
received annually since 1962 for performances and publications, a
Kennedy Center Friedheim Award in Orchestral Music for her 1991 piano
concerto, and others. She was composer-in-residence with the Santa
Barbara Symphony from 1990-92, and the 1995 Composer of the Year of the
American Guild of Organists.
Her music has been published by Boosey & Hawkes, Carl Fischer,
Oxford University Press, Arsis Press, Plymouth Music Company, Santa
Barbara Music Publishing, Seesaw Music Corporation, and others. Some of
her chamber and orchestral music has been recorded on Crest,
North/South Consonance, Contemporary Record Society, Master Musicians
Recordings, Leonarda, and others.
Spending about thirty years doing a total of approximately 1600
interviews with more than 1300 classical musicians, it was my distinct
pleasure to meet with a varied group of individuals with wide-ranging
interests and points of view. In choosing my victims... er...
guests(!), I always used their artistry and the results of their
efforts as my guide. From the start, it did not matter to me if
they were male or female, white or minority, even American or
non-American — though
I always strove to give the American composers as much effort as
possible to balance the scales which were tipped decidedly toward the
European output in this area.
As to the specific male/female ratio, I made it a point to seek out
female composers, again for the same reason as the American/European
balance. A look at my master list will reveal that I did a pretty
good job, and now I am getting these conversations transcribed and
posted on my website one by one in no particular order. I am
typing this on the last day of March, 2015. So far, about 500
have been posted, and the balance in all areas is pretty
respectable. [See my Master List, and my Current List of those
which are posted.]
One side note about my career at WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from
1975 to 2001... The Program Director, Ron Ray, often celebrated
birthdays as part of his scheduling. [See my Tribute to Ron Ray.]
So I adapted that idea and used round-birthdays as my guide.
Hitting 50 or 60 or 65 or 70, etc., seemed a nice way to get everyone
some airtime on a regular basis, and to my joy it was a system that was
completely color-blind and gender-blind. When one of my guests
had a round-birthday, they got a show. There were only 365 (or
366) possibilities to choose from, and they were, for my purposes,
completely random. No muss, no fuss, no red tape (as was said
I say all of this since the page you are looking at is, indeed, an
American composer who is female.
The interview actually came about as the result of the recommendation
of another American female composer, Mary Jeanne van Appledorn.
I'd contacted her, and when we finished our conversation, she asked if
I knew Emma Lou Diemer. As had happened in several other
instances, I jumped at the chance to get further contact information,
and this interview was accomplished a few months later. [See my
Interview with Mary
Jeanne van Appledorn.]
As it happened, both of these interviews (as well as about 200 others)
were held on the telephone. From my home in Chicago, I called Dr.
Diemer in California, and we spoke (as was usually the case) for about
an hour. Portions were aired on WNIB, and now the entire chat has
been transcribed and is presented here.
We began with a few cordialities to allow me to make sure my recording
was running smoothly . . . . . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: How
are things in sunny California?
Emma Lou Diemer:
It’s not very sunny this afternoon.
It’s a little bit cloudy and a little bit chilly, but other than
that, it’s very nice. There with a little sun yesterday.
BD: [With a
gentle nudge] You’re supposed to get sun about 360 days a year!
[Laughs] That’s right, yes. I don’t know what’s
wrong. Somebody’s not doing the right thing. As in life,
you go on to other things and then you forget about it.
BD: Is that
the way it is with composers —
you write something, then it gets premiered and you move on?
yes. You don’t spend to too much
time on older pieces. Things you’ve done several years before,
you don’t forget
about, but you don’t have time to follow them up. You just let
them float out
in the world. They have their own destiny wherever that
BD: Do most
of your pieces have lives of their own?
ELD: Most of
them do. Sometimes
it is surprising. I guess some of
them don’t life in them. I think they do but not
everything does. I’ve written so much music over the
years. I’ve been composing for decades. A lot
of it is published. A few little things have gone out of print,
most of it is out there available
BD: Is it the
responsibility of the composer to
give the music life, or is it the responsibility of performers and
ELD: It is a
composers have an agent. I don’t happen to have an agent so
whatever promotion is done I do myself. I don’t have
somebody else to do it, and of course it’s time consuming.
I have about three jobs — teaching, playing the
organ, and writing.
very fortunate in
having a number of recordings out.
ELD: Yes, I
guess so. Nothing to compare to Mozart...
BD: Oh no,
but enough to compare with other living composers.
of them were done by the performer through a grant
that they got. I guess the only thing I had a great hand in
was the Orion disc.
BD: Have you
basically been pleased with the various
recordings that you’ve heard?
ELD: Oh yes,
I think so! I’m very happy
when somebody records a work of mine, particularly what I consider to
be the better
music — better in the sense of
being more difficult and a little bit more demanding on the performers.
because something is more demanding
makes it better?
ELD: No, it
doesn’t, absolutely not. But I’ve written a fair amount of music
for schools and for churches, for non-professional performers, and that
is the music that often
gets out because it’s published and it’s performed quite a bit.
So I don’t think anyone wants to be labeled as a composer for the
non-professional musician. What if Hindemith, for
instance, were only known for his very easiest pieces, or Stravinsky,
who wrote some little pieces for piano? If those were
the only pieces that anyone knew then one would think I just write for
the beginners. You can understand that.
BD: You want
to be a total composer?
absolutely, and I also don’t think that a
composer should write only for the best performers. I always
thought that one should write for all stages of development.
There’s a lot of music that the beginner
performer has to play that’s not very good. In other words, it’s
not quality music. Whatever I
write, I try to make a quality so far as I am capable.
I don’t ever condescend or write down to the performer.
BD: Do you
try to make sure that there is some
greatness in each piece that you write?
absolutely. That’s a very
subjective thing, but if I’m not convinced that it’s right, if it
doesn’t grab me I just don’t go on with it. I wait until I have
an idea that somebody is going to
catch onto and like because I like it.
BD: What, for
constitutes greatness in music?
again, is very subjective. I’m very much a composer who likes to
on tradition and add to it, but with contemporary ideas. The
music of the past that I think is great — like
and Brahms and some of Schumann and some of the others, and coming
up to Prokofiev and some of Stravinsky and some of the very more
contemporary composers — usually have to do
first of all with the
quality of the ideas that they are putting into the music. This
includes the themes and the harmonies they’re using, the way they
those ideas within a structure, the contrast they use, and the ability
have not to bore somebody. Music which is
completely predictable or which doesn’t seem to be original as it
proceeds, isn’t music that’s going to interest me for very
BD: With all
of these things you look for in
other composers, do you try specifically to include or exclude them
from your music?
ELD: Yes, I
try to. In the process of composing my own music, if I lose
interest in what I am doing,
obviously it’s not convincing me so it’s not going to convince anybody
else. But if I’m so caught up in it and I am interested in what I
doing and stimulated enough by the sound that I am
producing, then I think it has some quality that’s going to be
lasting. I found in listening to my music years later, it’s
interesting to see that those
qualities are still there because I put some of my best effort into
I was writing.
also the performer on some of these
recordings. Are you the ideal interpreter of your music?
keyboard things in some ways yes, and in some
ways no. I
don’t know if other keyboard composers will like this, but I tend
sometimes to go too fast in playing something. I rip through it
because I know it so well, whereas another performer might linger a
little bit longer on certain things. So in some instances I’m not
ideal, but I would say generally I
am because the keyboard pieces are written with my own technique in
mind, and so therefore I am able to play them pretty much as I
BD: Are there
cases where other performers find
things in your scores that you didn’t even know where there?
ELD: Yes that
very often happens with a
very good conductor. It happens with choral music sometimes,
particularly when I
have thought of something that has not actually been put down in the
music in notation. This happens quite a bit, so therefore it’s up
to the conductor or maybe the performer to interpret it in a very
original way, or a very sensitive way, therefore bringing
something out of the music I haven‘t actually written down. You
can’t write down every single detail of nuance and of tempo
BD: But some
composers try to!
ELD: Yes, I
think that’s fine, but sometimes they’re too fussy about it. You
can go to the other extreme and be ridiculous about it.
BD: How much
leeway do you allow
ELD: If it’s
a good interpreter and if it’s
somebody I would trust, almost anything they want to do is fine because
I know it’ll be within reason. Occasionally I have heard my music
with not a very great understanding of the overall logic of
music. This means the development of line, where it’s
going, why it shouldn’t stop, why it should go on. Sometimes I’ve
heard excruciatingly bad performances of my music in which there just
wasn’t a mutual regard or knowledge, perhaps, of the trend that I’m
following, which is very often around the traditional one.
BD: I noticed
that a number of your pieces are
really rather tonal.
ELD: I think
a lot of my music is quite
BD: Is this a
ELD: I don’t
know what your
preferences are in music, but I’ve done a lot of exploration in
electronic music and computer music and atonal music and so on, and
perhaps a lot of my music is tonal in the fact that it has
diatonic references. But I do use other elements. I
use atonality and twelve-tone structure sometimes.
BD: So we’re
back again to the idea of your being a
complete composer writing easy music, writing hard music, writing tonal
music, writing non-tonal music, writing traditional music,
Yes. That’s very much what a lot of composers
do these days because they have so many choices. But that
doesn’t mean I’m totally inconsistent. Within one piece
perhaps I’m going to follow one particular thread. My music of
the last few decades has combined a
lot of elements. Last Fall I wrote a four-hand piano
piece that was based on a series of twelve chords, but it has
reminiscences of Ravel in it with the use of the chords themselves and
the structure of the chords. It has some ragtime in it, it has
sonorities that reminiscence of Ravel, it has an atonal fugue,
and it all seems to go together. It was performed in Australia
last month and was very well received.
BD: Then let
me ask big philosophical question.
Where is music going today?
ELD: Where it
now is in a period of combining a lot of
different elements, and this is more difficult for some composers
because they have gone so far in the direction of the East Coast of the
United States, with a post-Webern technique, that when
they add tonality or familiar elements to the music it seems to be a
complete inconsistency and dichotomy. If you
write a piece of absolutely atonal, twelve-tone style
and then in it you put some folksong which is in the key of B flat, I
find this really condescending and a real inconsistency. Some of
us who have been somewhat atonal for all of our composing
lives and never quite bent to the East Coast twelve-tone style, it’s
much easier for us to combine different elements. You can combine
Schoenberg ideas with Ravel ideas and tonality with atonality because
we’ve been doing it for so long.
worked with it and grown with it?
that’s right, and it’s not as if you limited yourself to one particular
obviously going to be more flexible.
BD: You talk
about all these various
different styles that you use in your music. When you’re writing
a piece of music, are you
controlling the pencil or is the pencil really controlling you?
certainly in control. Sometimes the process of
composition is very analytical, but for me it also has to be intuitive
to a degree. It’s almost half and half, or maybe
sixty per cent intuitives. Otherwise you’re not calling on the
levels of consciousness when you’re with the pencil and
paper. If you’re always in control,
you’re always thinking in an intellectual way and I don’t think that
any composer who has amounted to anything has ever completely written
that way. I’m sure that Schumann didn’t and I’m sure Bach
didn’t. Part of the time the composer is analytical and
in control absolutely, and the rest of the time your
subconscious is taking over your intuition. Sometimes something
happens that you can’t explain. You wonder where that came from!
BD: So you
are surprised by where the pencil leads
absolutely. The pencil, in my case, means playing the piano or
working out something. The piano or the organ is the provider.
where is the balance between the inspiration
and the technique?
balance is the point where you feel
absolutely sure what you’re doing — which does
happen sometimes when you
are composing. When you feel you are doing the right
thing, then you do have a balance between whatever it is that
inspires you and whatever you’re using to control what you’re
BD: I assume
that you have quite a
number of commissions?
ELD: I have a
few now and then...
question is, how do you decide if you’re going to accept it or turn it
ELD: If it sounds
often ask me to write something for them, and sometimes it’s not a paid
sort of thing. For instance, I’ve written some of my best
music for people on the faculty of the university, or somebody who is a
good performer who’s not going to pay because they’re a friend.
Sometimes your best music comes about
in that way. Some of my less successful music has
been a nice commission with a nice amount of money for it, but in some
it was to-order. Maybe the people I was writing it for wanted
something exactly like something like they’d heard before. That’s
always hard to do, to turn back the clock in years for
something that’s a replica of something written earlier.
someone comes to you and
says they’d like a piece just like such-and-such from ten years ago,
you encourage them to play that piece from ten years ago?
right! [Both laugh] But sometimes in that case you come up
A few months ago I finished a string
quartet which is being done next month at the University of New
Orleans. That was a commission. I finished a choral
chamber ensemble piece for the inauguration of our new chancellor,
which is being done here at the University in May, and I’m
looking on a set of Christmas madrigals for somebody for next
December. Actually I’ve written them. They aren’t due until
the Fall, but I’m going to get them done because this summer I’m going
to work on a string orchestra piece. There are a whole
lot of things that one is looking forward to writing all the time.
BD: Do you
work on one piece at a time, or more
ELD: I work
on one piece at a time, but I am also
thinking about other pieces or the next piece. But I don’t
usually write anything down. I like very much finishing whatever
it is and working on it.
you’re working on a piece and you have
got all the notes down, you look back at it and you tinker with it
a little bit. How do you know when to put the pencil down and say
it is finished?
ELD: That’s a
good question. I keep going
back. For instance, I wrote five madrigals last
week. I’m a very fast writer, but I don’t say they’re
perfect. I go back to each one
several times every day and make little changes. I’ve been
putting one of them into the computer. This is choral so it’s not
so complicated to put it into the
computer, and even then I’ll make a few changes — maybe
meter here or adding something in the
tenor part, that sort of thing. It doesn’t take long for me to
decide that’s fine because when I write it down in the first
place, I’ve thought about
it a lot before I’ve written something down.
BD: So you
know where you’re going before you start?
Yes. I don’t write anything down in the first
place until I’m sure what I want. It’s got to be workable.
BD: Can you
always be sure?
ELD: No, not
always. Some things I’ve not been too happy with, but mostly,
though it may sound immodest, I have been. I just don’t
write anything down unless I’m pleased with it.
not immodest. That’s something you should
be proud of!
ELD: I am
because other people
are always looking at my compositions. I can’t really look back
on all the years of
composing and point to very many compositions that I’ve really
been ashamed of.
BD: Do you
write with an
audience in mind?
Sometimes, yes. Sometimes I think, “Well,
I like this so I hope they’ll like it,” or, “I
like this so no doubt some of
them will like it.” But I am always aware
that certain people won’t like it! Maybe the academia isn’t going
this, or the Unitarian church won’t like this. That’s fairly
natural for many composers. I’m sure it was true of
Verdi and the composers of the past who have been popular. Either
they simply wrote in the style people liked, or
they naturally knew the people would like it.
BD: Do you
write music that you hope will become
yes. I would say almost everything I write
is of that nature. I don’t do much exercise-type
writing. I usually write for people. I usually
write for a purpose — either for someone else to
play because they’ve
asked me to write something, or for myself to play. I don’t
write ‘ivory- tower’ kinds of music.
BD: Then let
me ask the big question. What do you feel is the purpose of music
does a service to the
composer, for one thing. It helps to express what the composer’s
feeling about everything — about his or her
place in society; about
nature; about the poetry that might be set; about politics; about war;
about peace. Everything you’re doing when you’re writing, all
that is coming
into your music. The composer’s reflecting his or her time in
whatever era we’re
living in, and sometimes a composer has a duty or a
responsibility to turn people away from some of the tragedies and
sadness in any part of life. I feel very much that if I wrote in
a depressing way all of the time, this isn’t going to do anyone any
BD: [With a
gentle nudge] You want music to do some good?
ELD: Yes, oh
listen to many kinds of music. I like to listen to happy
music and sad music. I guess my favorite kind of music is that
optimistic or hopeful in some way. It’s nice to feel
tragic sometimes and depressed, but ninety per cent of the
time I prefer to be upbeat and optimistic and hopeful about
everything, and this can be expressed in music. People feel that,
and in turn maybe it does something to their lives, at
BD: Are you
optimistic about the future of music?
ELD: Oh yes,
particularly right now. Music is in a great period. I
the John Adams opera last night on television [Nixon in China]. I don’t
necessarily write that
kind of music, but I was very impressed with it. I am very happy
composers now who are using all the techniques, or many of the
techniques that we have learned and heard, including tonality and
harmony and the dramatic sense. There was a lot of drama in this
opera last night.
written quite a lot of vocal
music. Have you written any operas?
ELD: No, I’ve
never written any operas. I’ve
written several cantatas.
BD: Why no
haven’t seen anything I really wanted to set to
music. I’ve had people give me librettos, and so far I haven’t
found what I want to use. I would like to. I’ve
written a lot of song cycles, cantatas and services and so on, but some
day it would be nice to do. The opera challenge is a big one, and
I wouldn’t want to write a boring opera. It takes a
great deal of the technique of drama to write an opera. It would
be nice to write a comic opera. That would interest me.
BD: Tell me
particular joys and sorrows of writing for the human voice.
when I’ve written for voice I have
a certain voice in mind — maybe a soprano or a
tenor — somebody
that I’ve heard sing quite a lot, so I know the sort of music
that’s going to sound well in the voice. I’m not an avant-garde
type composer for the voice. I like to write lyrically. I
like for the words to come through and make sense. I
don’t believe in misplacing the accents of the words. By the
way, that’s another thing I noticed in the opera last night
— that the
words were very naturally set all the time. There is a purpose
sometimes in displacing accent, and using phonetics or odd things of
can be very effective and sometimes have the purpose in writing.
But much of what I’ve written has been lyrical and has treated the
words generally respectfully! Probably it’s easier for any
composer to write
with a program or with a set of words than to write abstractly
because you have a mood set, you have patterns, you have images.
Sometimes you have structure, and I guess more of the
vocal music that I’ve written has been for soprano and for
tenor. I have not had too much the lower
have to get some of the lower voice people
to commission you!
an idea! Of course I’ve written a lot of choral music, and
sometimes I get the basses a little too
high. I’ve been trying for a few years to get into the
tessitura of the lower range, letting them to go
down to F and E... not that I haven’t before, but I’ve tended to have
them higher, around Cs, and they don’t
mentioned earlier that you’re juggling three different careers.
You are a composer, you’re a teacher, and you’re organist. How do
you balance that three-legged stool?
ELD: I teach
the University of California here, and fortunately it’s not a 9 to 5
job. In most quarters I am
able to set aside a fair amount of time for composing. I’ve
always played the organ in church, and that’s where they
have a wonderful organ to play. I have had that for seven
So it’s a very nice balance. I don’t think I wear myself out in
any of it. It’s just all very enjoyable. I don’t think I
would ever survive a
nine-to-five job anyplace, or a teaching job in which I had to be
there every day. I really admire teachers who do, and there are
many. There are many great or perspective composers who have
sacrificed themselves to careers where they
haven’t had time to develop their talents, and that’s a tragedy.
talk a little bit about the
teaching. Are your classes theory and composition?
ELD: I have
taught in the past. I’ve taught
orchestration, counterpoint, twentieth-century music, and right now
I’m just teaching composition.
composition really something that can be
ELD: No, I
don’t think it can be taught. I often
think about that because there’s no one that you’re going to be able to
teach to compose. However, you can guide them a little bit, and
stimulate them, or maybe get them a little bit mad, or
try to motivate them. But if they don’t have a lot of motivation,
or they don’t have confidence, they will not succeed. Confidence
is the really the name of the game in anything you do, and certainly in
composing because you have to be sure of what you’re going to put down
in the end. You also have to have
enough energy to put down something next that you’re going to believe
in. I’ve had quite a few students — about
half of them — who just aren’t motivated to that
not sure of what they’re doing. They’re not that caught up with
BD: So then
do you suggest that they go and become
accountants or lawyers?
ELD: Well, I
don’t ever suggest that. I’m afraid I’m one of these teachers
who’s very kind! I’m not able to tell a student, “You
don’t have any
talent!” I don’t think there’s any reason
to that unless
you’re teaching in a music school where you have very stringent
standards. I teach in a liberal arts
university, and I don’t think there’s any reason to completely
discourage a student because they’re getting something out of it.
They are writing and they’re happy with it, so there’s no reason to
say, “You’re not going to be a great composer.”
unnecessary, and composing is a very
healthy thing for people to do.
BD: But it’s
not something they should expect to make
a living at?
except that very often we get students who
are more interested in the popular field, and they’re the ones who are
going to go out and make a living at it.
BD: Do you
have any resentment about that?
ELD: No, but
if they’re in school
they’re expected to learn classical and contemporary techniques, and
this is going to be helpful to them. Many popular composers have
something besides how to record things and how mix the synthesizers and
put on the drum machine. There isn’t much intelligence
required for that. The intelligence comes with learning quite a
lot of technique of counterpoint and harmony and melodic
line in addition to all the technological items one
learns. Anyone can learn how to manage a tape recorder,
and how to place things on a synthesizer!
there’s no real value in that?
ELD: No, I
don’t think so. They’re just
imitating other people. But on the other hand, there’s a lot of
talent out there that is writing in the popular field.
advice do you have for young composers
depends on what they want to
do. There are only so many careers open
to a composer. If the composer wants to go the academic route,
they have to take all the various classes that one does in
majoring in composition — orchestration,
twentieth-century techniques, electronic music, computer music, and
probably go on to higher degrees, such as the doctorate
if that’s what they want to do. There are
many composers who do that, unless they’re in the popular field.
If they are in the popular field they should be in a school which is
orientated to jazz and popular music where they learn arranging,
recording techniques and that sort of
thing. Sometimes you
have composers who are really only interested in church music, or in
writing music for the schools. Then you try to give them a lot
of ideas for technique, and have them listen to the best music that’s
been written because there’s nothing worse than propagating in
theory of music, and this happens all the time in our
schools, churches, on television. You hear music that
doesn’t have any originality. It’s just
written to fill up space. There a lot of method music!
BD: You bring
up the business of writing music for
school children. You were composer in residence in the Virginia
ELD: Yes, the
Ford Foundation had a project a number of years ago, and a lot of
composers were involved. I was in the Virginia Schools writing
for orchestra, bands, chorus, way
back in the early 1960s.
BD: Is this
something that should still be done today?
absolutely, yes. It should be
done! It’s rather interesting to know that one of
these composers who was also in that project was Philip Glass, and
one was Peter Schickele, who is now P.D.Q. Bach! [See my
Interview with Peter
Schickele.] There are a number of composers who have gone
on to be very successful, and I think it was very good. It was
certainly good for me to write pieces for young people that they
could play and sing. There again, that was a good
effort on my part. It was not inferior music. Most of it
was published, and a lot of it is still in use. There’s a lot of
music that’s good to be used in
schools. The more
composers that you interest in writing for the schools and children,
the better influence that is going to be on the young people
— both the listeners and performers.
opportunities are there, so they should be used.
should use it, but I don’t think they do very often. If
you know a composer in your community that writes, ask them to write
something. Publishers are interesting in getting out music which
is of high quality and yet not completely beyond the technical
capabilities of young people. Some people are not as advanced as
professionals, and it’s a very good thing to match up young composers
the school systems and have them write music to extend the
repertoire of the school systems. This has been carried on
somewhat with the composer-in-residencies
with orchestras, and with some of the commissioning projects.
are, of course, for more professional groups, it’s the same general
BD: I want to
talk a little bit about some of
the recordings that are available. You mentioned that you had
quite a bit of control over the Orion recording. Is this good
that the composer has control?
ELD: In that
case actually, there
are four chamber works on that recording, and some of them had
been done during performances. The Quartet for violin, viola, cello, and piano
was actually was recorded in the studio here for that
particular recording. I stood in and made suggestions. That
is important, unless the performers have seen the music before, or
you’ve heard them play before. I just wanted to be there.
BD: Are you
one of these composers that sits around
and screams about everything, and then gives details and all of that?
ELD: I can,
yes. If it
calls for it, I make suggestions. In all those cases
that’s what I had done.
BD: The other
recordings are from
ELD: The Trio for Violin, cello, and piano
was an older
performance done in the summer of 1982 at the University of Michigan at
a congress of music by women, and the Sextet
for Piano and Woodwind Instruments we recorded here. I was
playing the piano in that and I was also playing the harpsichord
in the trio that’s on the recording.
BD: Tell me a
little bit about the
differences between a one-shot performance and a cut and piece
studio-made recording. Do you feel that one is better than the
ELD: A lot of
performers prefer the actual
performance because it’s much, much easier. I
much prefer to play for a group of people. I love to give
concerts. I give a certain amount of public concerts, and I love
to have that contact with people and the
response. In a studio recording, although in some ways you
can get a more accurate recording, it’s not as
spontaneous, and it’s certainly more uncomfortable.
BD: When you
give an organ concert, are you
playing just your own music, or also music by a number of other people?
I’ve been doing a few programs of
one or two composers, but with half my own music. I like to
do my own music, but you need to keep your eye to other composers, too.
should include something of your own on every concert, but I was
just wondering if there are ever all Emma Lou Diemer concerts?
yes. I’ve had festivals of my music or mostly my music.
Usually they I
try to put something with it so that a few more people would be
there. [Laughs] But one composer festivals, I don’t
know... Unless it’s somebody like Springsteen or somebody in the
popular field, classical concerts of one composer don’t attract as
many people as a mixed program.
BD: Would you
prefer to be on a mixed program?
very nice but on
the other hand, it’s very flattering to have just your own music.
of us, myself included, have written such a variety of styles of
music that it’s very possible to be able to have a concert,
or even a series of concerts. Someone is going to find something
they like because it varies somewhat in style and
technique and difficulty and dramatic impact.
mentioned performances of all women’s music. Is there really a
difference between music by a woman composer and music by a man
ELD: No, I
don’t think there is any difference, and it’s fun to play. For
instance, I’m going to give a
premiere in Maryland next month, and I’m not even going to say
that it’s just women composers because all through all the
centuries we’ve heard programs only by men composers. Nobody
said this is a program by men composers, so I don’t know
why we should say this is just by women composers. It’s just a
lot of music from different periods, that it’s good
music. I’m doing a piece by Marianna Martines, a Viennese
of the eighteenth century, and you would think it was probably
Haydn or someone like that. [To read about Marianna Martines, see
the box at the bottom of this page.]
BD: Now is
that compliment to her or a compliment to
perhaps Haydn! [Both
laugh] Actually she studied with Haydn. If you
want to talk about women composers, they have been enormously
subjugated and oppressed and forgotten and pushed under the rug all
through the centuries. In our day and age we’re having
musicologists who are actually interested in getting information about
women composers and writing about them. Very often it’s a
woman historian who is doing this, but there are a few men are
also doing it. So perhaps some of the women composers of today
there are lots of them — will not be forgotten
like they have been in the
BD: Are we
making progress in eliminating prejudices?
ELD: Yes, I
think we are making progress. It goes along with everything else
that goes on with women
and politics, and women in literature. Women writers have fared
very well for a
couple of hundred years, but women composers have not. Women
are doing a little better perhaps now that we have the
festival, but it all pretty much goes together with what is happening
the country itself. We are in some ways in an enlightened period
now and I hope it will be even more enlightened.
BD: So we’re
moving in the right direction?
ELD: I think
so. I don’t know how you feel about
it. Do you feel any difference in the music? I know
you’re very interested in music by women.
BD: I’m very
interested in music by living
composers, specifically Americans, and I find very little difference
between music by women and music by men. I’ve been
trying to push the women composers just because the balance has been so
radically one-sided until now.
wonderful. I am so glad you feel that way.
BD: It’s not
anything wrong with the men’s music. It’s just that we shouldn’t
keep the women’s music back. We should let any music come forward
just as much.
right. The music that I
liked growing up, of course, my favorite composers were not women
composers because I didn’t know any.
BD: Now we
have the opportunity to have the
recordings and the performances of women composers.
that’s right. Women have for the
last fifty years or so have been able to be trained in the same way
that men have been. It takes a certain amount of training
to become anything of a composer.
BD: You don’t
see Amy Beach and
people like that as your heroines?
ELD: No, not
really. Growing up I just liked music, and my heroes were
composers likes Gershwin and Prokofiev and
Shostakovich. I liked their music,
and I did discover, not too many years ago, Clara
Schumann. I like her music and some of the other women
composers who are writing today.
BD: Is it
good now that young women coming along are looking up to Ruth Crawford
and Emma Lou Diemer and Mary Jeanne van Appledorn and Ellen Zwilich,
and all of the others? [See my Interview with Ellen Zwilich.]
ELD: Oh yes,
definitely. The young composers need to know that
somebody else is trying and is somewhat recognized, and has a product
that they can admire. It’s a very good thing,
absolutely. I wish this would happen in all areas including
politics. I wish we had more women doing things
politically in this country, because that inspires other women and it
also shows everyone that we’re just a bunch of people. We all
abilities and we should have them
developed. We should be encouraged, not just encourage half of
everybody to be people-ists!
once asked me if I was
a feminist, and I said I think I’m a people-ist! I don’t know if
I offended her, but I hope not.
I don’t like going to any
gathering of just women or just men. It’s nice when it’s
a bunch of people.
BD: But it
shouldn’t be quotas — so many men and so
many women, or so much percentage either way?
back to your recordings, the Orion is all chamber music and the
Capriccio has two organ works which
that’s right. That has a couple of organ
pieces, Decorations and Toccata and Fugue. These are
big concert pieces. Decorations
is actually has a series of chords built on a tone row
which is divided into three-note segments. The tone row itself
expands and contracts, and there’s a rhythmic series in there,
too. It’s an intellectually-planned piece to some extent, but it
has a lot of ingredients that I like such as contrast and drama.
instrument did you use on that recording?
ELD: It was
an organ here in Santa Barbara at the
Unitarian Church. It wasn’t a formal recording. It was
just simply a friend of mine coming in and taping it with a good tape
BD: Was it a
performance or just a private session?
ELD: It was
just a private session. I
hadn’t actually planned to use it in a recording but it was quite
The Toccata and Fugue is
earlier toccatas and fugues
of Bach, for instance, the D Minor
the cadenza-like toccata
which just uses the one type of chord with minor seconds and
fourths. Then the Fugue
definitely was inspired by the recording Switched on Bach.
BD: Oh, the
Yes. The inspiration was the fact that it is a
fugue which has a lot of motion. But
it’s not a fugue in the
strict sense of having the subject start all over by itself. It’s
actually an accompanied subject, and the various motifs that
appear very soon are more in the nature of a
BD: But it’s
still treated in a fugal way?
Yes. There’s augmentation, there’s stretto, and
there is diminution — all those good things that
you have in a fugue
apart from subjects.
BD: Now you
just mentioned a whole bunch of technical
things. Do you want the audience to understand all of these
technical terms and devices?
doesn’t hurt sometimes. If they want, fine, but they don’t have
should be able to enjoy music without having to understand all those
things, but certain types of people like to know the technical things
about music — if you don’t
just bury them in technical detail! [Laughs] When I used to
listen to fugues, when
I was in high school, I didn’t always like it. I got lost in the
middle. I didn’t know what was happening after the subject
disappeared. Then I began to study and realized that the subject
was being developed in sequence or broken apart to modulations, and I
began to understand
what was going on better. Many people are
capable of a deeper understanding of any art form if they take
the time to explore it. The reason why popular
music in its simplistic form is accepted by so many
people is for that reason — it’s simplistic and
people get a superficial enjoyment out of a beat. It’s probably
only the beat that they’re interested in! But many people are
capable of a much
deeper understanding of any art form.
BD: In music,
then, where is the
balance between the artistic achievement and the entertainment value?
ELD: It has
to do with education and how
willing a person is to not accept something on a lower level. A
lower level will ruin the earth if people don’t read
about politics and politicians, if they don’t read about the
environment, and if they don’t read about weapons. They don’t go
into any of these things in any depth. We have all of these
problems, and that may sound odd but it does carry on over into music
itself. We have popular music taking over now, and classical
music has been demoted to a very small percentage of record sales
there is a lack of education, a lack of knowledge. There has also
been a lack of composers who’ve written music that will be acceptable
by a lot of people. I don’t know if I’ve gotten clear off the
track a bit...
and re-assuringly] I asked about the balance between the art and
ELD: It still
comes back to education,
not only people who are listening but also the people who are
creating. Sooner or later the
pendulum has to swing back towards a deeper understanding and a
deeper knowledge of what people are listening to. There has to be
more technique, and not settling for the least. It has to come
back to that sometime, and that comes
about very often through enlightened political administration, which is
very necessary. It need to be encouraging people in education,
encouraging how it is done and understanding of its value. We
need to be encouraging
people who have something to say, rather than those who don’t really
anything to say.
BD: Let’s go
to another recording, the Toccata
ELD: I wrote
that for a Japanese
student here who was giving a recital, and she asked me to write
something for her. This piece has been done quite a
lot. It’s been used in competitions,
and it’s published by a woman who has a publishing company in
Washington DC. Actually she only publishes women’s
music. That’s just a side interest. She’s a retired school
teacher and she’s put out some awfully good pieces. This
particular piece has caught on with piano players and piano
teachers. I’m very happy about that. It is a piece that
uses some on-the-string playing. I’ve never done this before
because I’m very
much a keyboard person. But I decided it’s time that I go away
from the keyboard a little bit and play some on the strings. So
I’m trying to do is combine that with more traditional keyboard
playing. It’s got little echoes of Scarlatti in it, and tonality,
and also there’s an electronic music influence in it with some of
the sonorities it creates. There is a gradual crescendo that
starts out very softly and then gradually gets much
louder. This is very characteristic of what you can do with
electronic music, or with mixing more with aspects of
technology. It’s just some
of the concepts that have come about through the influence of
recording has your Youth Overture.
ELD: That was
written a long time ago on
the project that we talked about in the schools. I wrote it for
the Junior High School, which is
actually in Arlington County. It’s a very tonal, very
light-hearted overture. I’ve written a lot of orchestral
music – three symphonies and several concertos — but
this is the only one that is recorded. In a sense it’s a very
light-hearted piece. It’s in truncated sonata form,
which has a first theme and a second theme. It’s very G
BD: It is a
fun little piece?
ELD: Yes, and
it’s still used quite a bit. After almost thirty years it’s still
around in the
repertory, which is nice, and of course other orchestras play it.
When you write
something for the schools, that doesn’t mean only schools
are going to play it. Community orchestras have played
it, some of which are very good. But I don’t think the New York
Philharmonic would play it! [Laughs]
not? Perhaps at a youth concert?
could certainly. Youth orchestras in Boston and Seattle have used
it at various times.
BD: Is this
something that you should do
as your own promotion? Should you write to the chairman of the
board, or the music director, or general manager of the big orchestras,
and say, “Here’s a piece that would be good on
the Kiddie Concerts”?
ELD: I could
do that. I’ve written some
other things that I’d rather push, but
certainly it could be and has probably been used like that. As
composers, we don’t always hear about performances of our music.
BD: Does it
surprise you when they pop up?
yes. Sometimes we’re not even aware
that something has either ascended to some kind of prominence, or
descended to oblivion.
BD: Next is
the recording of Homage to Cowell,
Cage, Crumb and
Czerny for two pianos. [See my Interviews with John Cage and George Crumb.]
ELD: Yeah, I
wrote that for the Nelsons here at
school. He teaches piano here, and his wife joins him for duo
playing. Here again I was combining several different ideas from
the past, some from the present in my own way. I used some of the
Cowell techniques of Aeolian Harp,
where you dampen the strings, or you silently depress the keys and
strings so that those notes comes out when they are depressed on the
keyboard. These are techniques that I had never anybody do, and
they are mixed up with some which had come
out of Cage or Crumb. Patterns that you
might find in Czerny or others composers who wrote exercises for the
piano are repeated.
BD: I was
going to ask how Czerny got in
there because it looks like one of those things you would see
on Sesame Street —
which one of these people does not belong! [Both laugh]
they all begin with C, you know! [More laughter] Czerny is
in there for the value of
some tonality and for repetitiveness. This was written
about 1981, before patterns became so prevalent in music. Also
the structure is important in this music. The first thing
you hear is a two-part chord which comes back
later in the piece and ends it. I’m always aware of bringing
things back, but this two-piano piece tries to
combine all these different elements with the past and the
BD: One last
question... Is composing fun?
yes. I love to compose. I’d rather
compose than eat hot fudge sundaes,
particularly if it’s going well, and if you think you have something
worthwhile to say. While you’re composing usually I have the
experience — and I think many other composers
also do — of
enjoying what I’m writing. I feel like I’m actually accomplishing
because you’re creating an entity yourself,
hopefully, not just imitating someone else. You’re
creating something that has never been created before, and it’s
particularly nice when you think someone may like
this. It’s going to be used. It’s going to be performed in
the Fall or it’s going to be performed next week. By composing
you’re directing your intelligence within
an activity that’s a very worthwhile thing to
do. That’s one reason why I encourage these students who are not
wildly talented to do this, because it’s one way of
focusing one’s inner life and emotions, and so on. Of course
there’s always the problem when the
music is performed and people don’t like it, or people talk or they
even cough. When you’re having something performed, I’m
always very aware of all of that. Sometimes people even walk out.
shocked] I don’t think you get that too much, do you?
ELD: No, I
don’t, but it’s obviously flattering when
people do that. When they walk out, it means that your music has
really had an impact!
BD: Even a
yes. Go back to the Rite of
Spring premiere and the commotion that
caused. That was one reason for the notoriety of the piece, in
to the fact that it is a wonderful piece of music. I don’t
compose anything that I intended the earth to shake in. I
compose music that I believe in and something I think they’re
going to like if it’s performed well. I’ve had performances
of my music which were not good, and therefore perhaps the music was
misunderstood. Sometimes the tempo is
too slow, or they make mistakes. All of those things can happen.
BD: It has
been fascinating speaking with you. I’ve enjoyed learning about
you and your thoughts on
music, and I look forward now to putting it all together and playing
your music on the air.
appreciate you putting me on
your list, and taking the time to ask me questions.
It’s really nice when someone is interested in what we are doing.
© 1988 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded on the telephone on April 16,
1988. Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1997, and because of
this encounter, some of her music was included as part of the in-flight
entertainment package aboard Delta Airlines during the period of
This transcription was made in 2015, and posted on this
at that time. My thanks to British soprano Una
Barry for her help in preparing this website
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
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.