Composer John Downey
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|A native of Chicago, John Downey
[October 5, 1927 - December 18, 2004] earned a Bachelor of Music degree
from DePaul University and a Master of Music from the Chicago Musical College
of Roosevelt University, while working at night as a jazz pianist. Downey
was later awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study with his mentors Honegger,
Milhaud and Boulanger in Paris, where he earned a Prix de Composition from
the Paris Conservatoire National de Musique, and a Ph.D.(Docteur des Lettres)
from the University of Paris Sorbonne. Given the title of “Chevalier
de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres” for his scholarly achievements, Downey
was knighted by the French government in 1980.
There are several of my guests with whom I have remained close over the
years, but John Downey is the only who has written a piece about the neighborhood
in which I live! It’s called
Eastlake Terrace, and my home is
just a few blocks from this very short street. I actually use it often
when driving home from Evanston or other places to the north. Indeed,
one time, when I was doing an interview with a pianist who played works of
Downey, I made sure that when we were in the car we drove along this very
thoroughfare just so he would have traversed it. He was duly impressed...
In anticipation of his 60th birthday, I arranged to interview John Downey.
I drove up to his home in suburban Milwaukee, and we spent a nice bit of
time exploring his world. Several times he waxed philosophically about
nature or circumstance, and I have included most of these verbal fantasies
in this transcription. Names which are links refer to my Interviews
elsewhere on this website.
While I was setting up to record our conversation, we chatted a bit about
some of his recordings, and that is where we pick up the thread
. . . . . . . . .
That CRI record is my Cello Sonata,
with that of another Chicago composer, Alan Stout. He teaches
at Northwestern, and we were both to receive commissions to write a work
for cellist George Sopkin of the Fine Arts String Quartet. It was interesting
to me because before that I didn’t know about Alan — except
that he was at Northwestern — and he didn’t know
anything about me. So we both wrote these works. Mine dates
from 1966 and I think his probably dates from the same time because it was
being premiered in the spring of the following of the following year.
I started mine in the fall of 1965 and finished a few months later, and
then Sopkin played it in April. We both used some similar techniques
on the cello. and seemed manic at times, and yet the pieces are totally
different in spirit. But there are certain mean points where you could
say these two guys really were of the same place and same time.
Is there a certain quality in the air? Are there certain nuances that
all composers, or many composers, who were working in the same time would
JD: I suppose
so. The most notorious example of that is between Debussy and Ravel,
I suppose. Ravel was younger and obviously he didn’t copy from Debussy,
but he certainly was influenced by Debussy. For the French in that
country at a certain time, color was obviously such a primordial factor in
creation. When you think of visual painters, then the sound painters
like Debussy and Ravel both came from an environment particularly stimulating
in terms of the color. If anyone were to describe Impressionism, it’s
that sense of color. When you hear the orchestrations of Debussy and
Ravel, it’s just color. Debussy has a lot of things going for him;
they both do, but that’s one factor that really puts them apart from most
other composers of their time.
BD: The point
I’m getting at, though, was that it seems music is moving in a certainly
inevitable direction, and if one composer weren’t there, some other composer
would do the same kind of thing.
JD: Yes, I
see what you mean.
said that if he hadn’t been Schoenberg, somebody else would have been.
JD: I think that’s probably true. There’s
a certain advancement in terms of chromaticism, and the next logical step
in his period had to be something beyond what Wagner had already accomplished.
It wasn’t just Wagner, but he’s probably the principle innovator of his time
for the use of non-stop melodic lines and a tremendous sense of orchestration
that he had. As you say, if he hadn’t done it somebody else would have.
Today, after a lot of twelve-tone meandering all the way up to pre-determined
music and the intellectual approach, I noticed as a teacher in composition
that young people just really didn’t want that. You kind of shove
that down their throats as part of the technique everybody has to know,
but in the 1950s and ’60s, that was still pretty much
in a vogue in this country. But as you get into the 1970s and particularly
the ’80s, that is no longer a firm procedure that
most every young composer adopts. All young composers are exposed
to it, but you have a much greater diversity, especially since ‘minimalism’
came in such vogue. People like Philip Glass and
Steve Reich, and particularly
John Adams — who combines a lot of other things in
it — give you more of hook up with traditionalists.
Composers are on a different road now. Probably the most influential
composer in this country in a populist theme was George Crumb. His
pieces are exceedingly dramatic. They’re very mystic in so far as he
has a lot of other than strictly musical forces working on his pieces.
But they’re not just strict, turgid, at the mercy of one particular technique.
music as an inevitable force, you don’t feel constricted in what you’re
writing? You don’t feel you’re being held back or pushed in a wrong
direction in your music?
I did notice that I’ve become quite overtly romantic in the last five years
I would say. It just occurred. When I was younger I wrote a lot.
I did my twelve-tone pieces and I did predetermined things that I was experimenting...
like in the Cello Sonata I had
a rhythmic row. It had seventeen factors or twenty-one factors, or
something, but I don’t even remember all that. I was doing all of
this mental approach to how my music was going to be explainable later, and
it was actually nice and stimulating. But after a while I found there
are basically two approaches that you could probably divide most composers
into. There are those who are trying to evolve into a technique when
they’re quite young, regardless of whether it is original to them or not.
They got onto a technique, and they try to really maintain it and perhaps
go into depths. But they write in a somewhat predictable manner; not
that each piece is the same, but the technical approach is fairly constant.
And then there are other composers, and they usually say, “I
try to make each new piece a new discovery.”
That’s kind of nice. I like that they’re traveling in uncharted waters,
but neither extreme perhaps is true. Somewhere in the middle you have
to ascertain what each composer is about, and the only way you can truly do
that is to compose and have some pretty good output. You begin to seize
that through a number of pieces. Certain gestures begin to be curved,
and if they’re strong enough you begin to link those with a given composer,
and they become part of his musical personality. Pretty soon you say,
“Oh, that’s a John Downey piece, or a George Crumb
piece, or whatever...”
BD: You can
see your fingerprints all over the piece?
JD: Yes, I
think so if the composer’s strong enough. And if that doesn’t happen,
his music is probably either too subtle and too minute to differentiate
for people to perceive at the time, or it’s a composer who has a rather
pale personality and his music probably won’t live. There’s been so
much created, particularly in the last twenty-five years, that we know about.
Maybe a lot of music was composed all the time, but now with producing methods
like Xeroxing and tape recorders, all the dissemination of material is so
immense that is scary! [Both laugh] But by and large, the really
good pieces by strong composers do nonetheless emerge, and they maintain
their personality. A lot of the novelties are striking on first hearing,
but don’t maintain their real originality, their real personality.
For example, take a theme like with electronics and reverberation.
The first few examples of that in the late 1950s and ’60s
were striking, but then radio stations and commercials began to play it all
the time and it became such a gimmicky thing. I won’t try to make any
analogy with the certain composers who are somewhat in that category, trying
to latch onto whatever is the latest, whatever’s evolved, what the newest
is, and then trying to pass it off as their own thing.
BD: Well, what
should be then the ultimate purpose of music?
JD: To communicate
something to one’s fellow creatures. What one communicates is the sensitivity
of an artist to events around him or her, and how you react to the society
in which you live. If you’re sensitive, then you get the first makings
of an artist, whether you’re a painter or a poet or a musician or a composer.
Then the question of technique comes in. If you decide to be a composer,
do you have a good ear? Do you have a good imagination to begin with?
That’s important. Do you have an imagination that is translatable
into tone and color?
Do you decide to become a composer, or is this thrust upon you?
JD: I can only
speak personally. When you’re young, you feel you want to say something.
You have real strong feelings — whether it’s about
love or about death or about birth or about friendship — you
want to somehow express it. This is why I say you dance, or you
jump for joy, and if you’re a composer you probably started having piano
lessons or violin lessons or something when you were a kid. Whether
your parents pushed you into it or you asked for it, it’s how it affected
you. Then the next step is to try and express what you feel through
tones, and before you know it, if you have something really strong to say
you probably manage to put that together in some sort of coherent whole, and
you get a piece. Maybe it’s not a very good piece but you begin, and
as you get more feelings from various sorts, that’s reflected in an artist’s
BD: So the
music that comes out of any composer is going to be the culmination of all
the input up to that point?
JD: I think
so. The difference between one composer and another would be the way
in which he or she filters that information. Let me turn that around.
When you’re reading history books about composers like Haydn and Mozart
— well, Mozart’s so great it’s almost obscene to bring him into
our discussion because he’s just so God-like — but
let’s say Beethoven. You read about Beethoven being sometimes really
what you might call a plain individual. He was not really mercenary,
but he wanted to see that he got his just due for what he did. He was
good, damn good, and he knew it, and he wanted these patrons of the arts to
really recognize it — not just by giving him a pat on
the back, but from a pecuniary standpoint. “I
have to live too, sir!” So when you read about
some of his groveling in the economic difficulties, how could this man write
such glorious music? Also when you read about his impediment, his hearing
and all that. But still the art transcends the surface of what seems
to be the environment in which the person lived, such as the health of Schubert.
What happened to such a tremendously gifted composer had to be so tragic,
yet at the same time he overcame that and came out with this glorious music.
He had to feel it, and who knows, maybe in Austria at that time there was
a certain emphasis on nature. Still, a sunset is a sunset. It’s
a thing of beauty; or a running brook through a stream can happen anywhere
in the world. That happened thousands and thousands of years ago and
it still happens today, and a sensitive person reacts to how it’s expressed,
and changes for each different epoch — what’s in the
air, what techniques are current, and now, for instance, what the instruments
can do in an orchestra is pretty astounding. Yet there are composers
who forgo that because of all the difficulties and politics of getting a
piece played by an orchestra. They write for synthesizers and for computers.
All these things have somewhat enlarged the potential vocabulary of a composer,
but they don’t change fundamentally how one reacts. If you are a person
of great depth of feeling, and let’s say your wife dies tragically or your
parents are killed, you’re going to be moved by that, and very deeply.
But some people, I don’t know if you call them superficial or not, but they
react less deeply to events, and they seem to get over it quickly.
Others seem to be much more affected by events.
BD: Are you
saying that saying everyone should be affected to the same degree?
JD: No, but
I’m saying that different artists have different depth of reaction to events,
and because of that, their music — with the means by
which they’re going to express what they feel — is
going to be colored somewhat by that personality. Take a composer
like Shostakovich. During World War II he’s a man who obviously was
impacted by certain tragic events. They were going around him.
Igor Stravinsky was a little bit different because he left his homeland
during the Bolshevik Revolution and lived abroad. Prokofiev left Russia
and lived in France, but he returned to Russia and certainly reacted to
the War years, also. But his reaction is quite different to that of
Shostakovich. There are two composers using somewhat similar technical
music, but yet I don’t think anyone could miss their two styles. They’re
BD: So let’s
take the composer John Downey now! As you approach your sixtieth birthday,
you’ve lived through a number of major economic and political changes in
BD: Have these
all impacted upon your music, and if so, do they continue to?
JD: Yes, and
no. Let’s take the ‘no’ part first. It’s probably difficult,
if not impossible, to equate events that happened around you on a one-to-one
basis as to what you really do in the music. Let me give examples!
On one recording there’s a piece called Adagio Lirico for two pianos. I
wrote that when I was very young, and it’s a very romantic piece.
But I still like it!
BD: Why do
you sound so surprised when you say that you still like it?
JD: I’ll come
back to that. As you get older you supposedly get wiser, but that’s
not necessarily inevitable. When I look back at some of my earlier
pieces, some of them really were bad. They were young and immature,
and I just hid those and ripped those up, because I’ve been composing for
a very long time. When I was about seventeen, my brother was killed
in World War II, and it was a tragic event as far as our family was concerned
because he was a medical scientist. He wasn’t yet an MD, but he was
studying to be one. So he was assigned to a hospital shift, and there
was a big invasion in the Philippine Islands, the invasion of Leyte which
was a huge battle. My brother was three years older than myself, and
he wasn’t a kind of daring guy. He did have a defect and in one of
his eyes and was virtually blind, but he wanted to be in the army.
He was assigned to medical work, so we all thought he was pretty safe.
But he wanted to tend to people’s wounds during that Invasion. Unfortunately,
in spite of the fact that he had a cross on his arm and everything, he got
shot in the back of the neck by a sniper on a tree, because there were some
of the Japanese who didn’t clear out when the Americans came in. So
he was one of those unfortunate people who got killed, and that was shocking
in a very profound sense. I didn’t really know what to do about that.
I was just very hurt by that because I remember we were planning to go to
school here together when he came out of the army. We we’re both musicians,
but Dad always wanted one of us to be an engineer. If he’d lived I
might have been an engineer, but as it was, he didn’t, and I ended up pursuing
my first real love, and that is music. In any case, I was a sole surviving
son, so four or five years later I didn’t get drafted into for the Korean
War. I became a Fulbright student and was sent to Paris. It was
only when I got to Paris that I wrote a piece that I had first called Adagio for the Dead, which was really
for my brother. In a way I tried to express what was, to me, certain
feelings about death, and in particular about this relationship of my brother
and myself and the world. So I wrote the piece. I remember when
I came back a number of years later to the States I studied with Darius Milhaud.
He asked me to Colorado where he was each summer, and when I was out there
I won at prize for an orchestral piece called Chant to Michelangelo. I wrote that
at Aspen, and there’s an example of a piece that I kind of like today, but
it’s sort of immature in the sense that it has got very strong aspects of
influence in terms of the music of Igor Stravinsky and Béla Bartók,
and maybe Arthur Honegger and Darius Milhaud.
BD: And yet it’s not something you want to go
back to and tinker with to bring up to date?
right, yes. This is an example of a piece I like personally in certain
respects. I stayed a number of years in France. My wife got
some scholarships and we went to Italy. I had been going around Paris
as a ‘hot shot’, a young American composer, and I suppose like all youngsters
I began to say things like, “Igor Stravinsky?
I don’t listen to his music.” I’d always be
scared of the question because I knew his personality was so strong and
his stamp so irrevocable and immense. I just decided it was best to
stay away from that man. I didn’t listen to his music because, golly,
he’s so great, you know, and the moment you make any gesture remotely similar
to his, it sounds like the master. I became very interested in going
to museums and seeing first hand a lot of works, particularly Michelangelo.
I was really knocked out by his sculpture. I thought he couldn’t paint
because all I had seen was a kind of a half-finished Madonna where there
was a child. I really hadn’t seen much and I just thought he’s obviously
best at sculpturing; he works best in three dimensions — I
was on that tack. But then we got to Rome, and God, I went into that
Sistine Chapel and I saw these images of Moses, the Prophets, and everything
up on that ceiling. I just stared in disbelief. It was so enormous.
My wife and I used to discuss pretty much all of what I was doing, and I
said, “I’m going try and put that in music!”
Just the physical energy of those images was vibrant with life. So
I did a piece called Chant to Michelangelo,
and it won the Aspen Prize that summer. Vitya Vronsky and Victor Babin
heard this piece and were impressed by it, and they asked me if I had by
chance anything for two pianos. I told them that I had Adagio for the Dead, and so they listened
to the piece; they tried it out and they said they liked that piece.
Victor was at that time head of the Cleveland Institute of Music I believe,
and he contacted me and he said, “Vitya and I are going
to play my piece next year on tour, but would you consider changing the
title? We have to give programs all over the country, and
it just sounds a little bit gloomy. I’m Russian, and my friend, Rachmaninov,
has his Isle of the Dead,
and people don’t play that. They play his concertos! We want
to play your piece, and since you’re not known, you’re a young composer,
and we want to introduce you.” So I thought about
what he had said and I came up with the title Adagio Lirico, which they liked.
Unfortunately for me and that particular series of events, Vitya Vronsky
broke her little finger coming off a train, so that they had to cancel the
following year’s tour. Then the third year they only played what they
had known already. They didn’t want to do anything new that that third
year, and then the fourth year he died. He had a heart attack.
Later there were a number of people who played the piece. Joseph and
Tony Paratore took it up, and they later recorded it on that one album.
So there is a specific example, as well as my Chant to Michelangelo, of surroundings
that stimulate you. It’s a fact that I was influenced by the death
of my brother in that particular piece, but there are pieces in which there
would be no illusion to that in the title, but which may very well have been
affected by a tragic event. Sometimes paradoxically for a lot of composers,
you may be surrounded by what could categorically be classed as tragic
events, but you come out with something that is happy and gay. In
a way it’s a matter of circumventing events in which you’re smothered, and
overcoming that. It’s through your music that you manifest a new assertion
towards life. When there is death, I can certainly understand that
people celebrate by having wild parties after the funeral. I
remember reading about those in literature, also. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment is an example.
BD: When the
audience comes to hear some of your music, do you expect them to know the
circumstances surrounding the creation of the piece?
JD: No, no,
in fact it’s better that they don’t. Music has the singular beauty
of being able to enhance. If you need to get something specific across
— that this has got to be this or that — you
really need to put a program to your music. Maybe for some people initially
this is helpful, but for a sensitive listener, they will sense the feelings
that the composer is emitting, and they will register. When I am moved
by something, I get vibrations up and down the spine. Sometimes when
I’m sitting upstairs at my desk and I write something, I don’t hear any
sounds other than those which are within me, but I start vibrating.
Then I know this has got to be good; I know this is going to communicate
for some other people. I can’t really necessarily describe exactly
what I’m hearing; it’s a feeling. It’s like on a hot day there’s suddenly
a cool breeze that blows through the air, and that’s a great feeling.
How do you describe that feeling? It just occurs. Maybe it’s a
chord progression or just a modulation like in the recapitulation Beethoven
put in his Third Symphony.
That always moves me very much.
BD: Is this
perhaps what differentiates a great piece of music from a lesser piece of
music — its ability to communicate with so many others?
JD: Yes, I
think so; on different levels with different profundities if you wish.
Beethoven is one person whose depths for me are incalculable. I’m
very moved by Mozart too, but he’s so divine in a way. I’m always
mystified by that to a certain degree.
* * *
BD: Let me
ask about the depth of the music by John Downey.
JD: Well, I
think that would be a little bit pompous of me to think that my music is
great. I don’t know that. I write it as if each piece is a great
piece, and I get very moved. Otherwise I obviously wouldn’t write it.
Each new piece I think is a great piece.
BD: Do you
write it to be great, or do you just see where it goes?
JD: No, but
when I’m writing I vibrate. I will give you an example. I’m writing
a work right now for Gary
Karr, the double bass virtuoso. It’s going to be premièred
in Australia, of all places, on September 1st in Sydney, at the Opera House.
I know I have a good piece. Now it’s true that when he tries it out
he may say, “Gosh, my double bass is covered here,”
or, “This is an awkward passage to do,”
or any number of things of this nature. But I’m speaking about the
music. I feel that I have some really good things. How does a
composer know that? Something inside you tells you that it’s vibrating
in the right way, and the moods are good moods to me. It may be that
it won’t come off that way, necessarily, to an audience, but at the time,
like right now, this is my feeling, and I’m working tremendously hard to
put it all in order. Then the parts have to be cleaned and ready to
go. Each portion is a little bit in that order. A concerto like
this, which is in four movements, is a pretty big piece.
BD: What do
you expect of the audience that goes to hear this piece, or any new piece
JD: The only
thing I can expect is that certain people — or a good
percentage of them — come to my concerts because they’re
sensitive to music, and they will hear a certain motive in my music that
corresponds to what they feel. In a platonic sense it’s
almost like talking about the idea of what good sound or good composition
might be. That’s never really categorically defined because it changes
from one period to another. The styles change, but still, the sense
of proportions are pretty constant. That’s where I’m hopefully fairly
strong. I have a pretty good sense of architecture — how
a piece moves from one event to another. Do I stay long in an area?
Maybe, and that could be boring. Or do I have enough surprises in the
piece to make it continuously interesting? All this must be considered.
The reason why Karr commissioned me to do this piece is that he heard the
recording of The Edge of Space.
He called me from Connecticut, where he lives. The man said he was
Gary Karr and asked if I knew who he was. I said, “The double
bass virtuoso!” He said, “Yes!
Are you the John Downey that wrote this piece?”
When I said that I was, he said, “I’d be interested
just to ask you a couple of questions. When you wrote the piece, you
used a very large orchestra, and on the recording I can hear a bassoon very,
very well. When it was done in a large situation, did you have to
amplify the bassoon?” I said it wasn’t amplified
and he said that was great! I explained to him that for the recording
they had microphones all over the place in London. I had written it
on a grant from the Milwaukee Symphony, and I remember when I first showed
the score to conductor Kenneth Schermerhorn, he took a look at it and asked
if they would have to use amplification. He said, “You’ve
got such a huge orchestra, and all those crystal glasses, and bird sounds
on vibraphones. There’s such a wall of sound you’d never hear the poor
bassoon!” I said, “I hope
you’re wrong! But if you’re right why don’t you bring your microphones
to pick up the bassoon at the first rehearsal. But let’s try it without
them the first time we run through it. Let us see what happens because
I did try to imagine the sounds. But I’m not God!
There are 95 people sitting there in the orchestra, and who knows, maybe I
did make a gross error. We’re committed to do the piece, and if I did
goof we’ll have to amplify. But give it a chance!”
So he did, and lo and behold, it did work! There was no talk at all
about the amplification!
BD: You were
JD: It turned
out it was right. Whether you call it intuition or luck or gift or what
not, I don’t know! It’s hard to really specifically justify why it
came out this way. But at least the track record indicated in general
that my orchestrated things sound right!
BD: So then
you’re never really surprised by what you hear, as opposed to what you thought
you were going to hear?
JD: So far
I haven’t been. Now I’m going to have a real test with the double
bass, because the double bass is yet more subtle than is the bassoon.
In the interim I’ve written two other pieces to learn more about it.
One is for solo double bass called Silhouette,
that a friend of mine, Roger Ruggeri, plays. It’s dedicated to him.
Then I had another piece called Recombinance
for double bass and piano. It has had only one performance so far,
but it was a different kind of writing. I just tried to learn more
about the instrument and what it can do. Now the big test is that
I have all the woodwinds in threes — two flutes &
piccolo, two oboes & English horn, two clarinets & bass clarinet,
two bassoons & contrabassoon, then two trumpets, four horns, two trombones,
bass trombone, tuba, and three percussion players plus timpanist, harpist
and celeste, and the big string orchestra.
BD: All fighting
against the one bass player!
I hope to God this will work! What I’m banking on instinctively is
that I’m trying to lift the sound out of the orchestra, and I’ve got a last
movement that is pretty gigantic in sound. There’s a lot going on.
I think I did it, but whether that will really happen or not remains to be
seen. But the other side of the coin is a composer who has shown some
real attractive qualities in his output, and one who gets engaged to write
for an orchestra. So the chances are the person making that gamble
feels he will succeed because you get thousands and thousands of dollars
going into one of these affairs. All the musicians sit there even if
the piece really doesn’t work. Maybe you play it and it bombs, and that’s
it. Pity the poor composer. What a loss when you put in so much
time and the effort to get one of these gigantic things done.
BD: Is it wrong,
though, on the part of the audience — and even the
musicians — to expect that every new piece is going
to work, or even work well?
JD: I think it’s wrong. I agree with you
totally. I’ll give you another example.
As a student, a youngster in Paris, I was amazed that I got admitted to
the French section of the Conservatoire. That meant that each year
your exams were to follow. You didn’t get graded like here, where
you get an A or a B, or a C, or a D for every class. It doesn’t work
that way in France. You either got a prize or you didn’t. I
was working on one composition for a given year, and at the end of the year
that piece had to be presented before a jury who would decide whether that
piece looked like it had some potential or not. If it did, then the
next step would be to have it played by the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra
— which is a damn good one, so you got good performances.
Maybe you’d be passed academically by the Board, but there were some real
lemons. But you learned, and you were given usually a limit of just
a few years to get the prize. You could still compete and gain experiences
each year from these performances. You might even get a ‘second prix
de composition’ which would give you another four or five years.
BD: When you
write a piece like that, are you writing for the judges?
JD: You just
write because that’s what you want to say, or you like the sound.
I presented my first orchestral piece when I was studying the first year
with Nadia Boulanger. It was a Fulbright to study with Arthur Honegger,
but Honegger was already very ill, so he saw some of his students only a
few times a year. The Fulbright Commission people said I was there to
study on a more regular basis, so they arranged for me to enroll in the
Accompaniment Class with Nadia Boulanger. I’d done all that, had accompanied
singers, and I thought I knew it all. But then I went to that class.
They said to just go and give it a try, and after all, Nadia Boulanger is
a very well renowned figure. So I went, and it was score reading!
BD: You learned
more than just how to put the accompaniment behind someone?
right, it was a really great experience. She soon found out that I
was really a composer, and before you knew it she had me coming to her home
to take private composition lessons. It’s kind of amusing because
when I was first starting she would call me at home, often on a Saturday
night. She’d say, “Mon petit!”
I was always ‘her little one’! “Mon petit, ce soir à dix heures pour leçon”
[ten o’clock tonight for a lesson]. I learned pretty quickly from the
class that you didn’t say no to that woman! [Both laugh] I wrote
a string trio, and I really don’t remember exactly why, but it was a kind
of a Parisian piece. Different composers develop in various ways.
Some youngsters, maybe because of exposure or teachers or influences at home,
will start off right way with being modern, contemporary. Some who
were eighteen, nineteen, twenty were writing twelve-tone music already.
They’d come out with these esoteric sounds, and you follow that technique
with some intelligence. That at least assures that you going to normally
write tonal music if you’re going to do it correctly. But my approach
was quite a bit different in the sense that I had my various influences such
as Chopin, Schumann, and Schubert. I used to write pieces to imitate
their styles. I was never really all of a sudden a ‘modernist’, but
very slowly I began to evolve a vocabulary. I remember last movement
of that Trio. I wrote it in
one day just walking down a boulevard in Paris. It was a special time
in my life, being young, being in Paris. She said “C’est l’heure pour l’orchestre.”
[It is the hour (to write) for the orchestra.] I never wrote for the
orchestra and she knew that I could! She told me to just dive in, and
when I had questions about it to ask. At least when I came from America
I knew things about orchestration.
I graduated from
De Paul, and I won big scholarships to work with Rudolph Ganz. I learned
with Vittorio Rieti and John J. Becker, and people like that. So I
discovered I really could orchestrate! I wrote a piece called La Joie de la Paix (The Joy of Peace)
because when I went to Europe, my parents and everyone else said, “God,
what are you going to Europe for? The Russians are going to invade!”
My brother was already killed in a war, so there was really genuine concern,
and I was, in a sense, frightened by that. When I got over there I
was much less frightened, but that still was in my head. So I wrote
this piece in relation to being really happy that there hasn’t been any Third
World War, particularly with the Russians. That was inevitable enemy
that was going to race across Poland and Germany and France. Then Boulanger
had it performed by the French Radio Orchestra conducted by Eugène
Bigot. That was quite a big thing for me as a youngster, that I got
that piece performed! The trio that I wrote was done all over France
by a very famous trio in those days called Le Trio Pasquier. Since
that time I’ve got those pieces put away. I don’t allow them to be played
since I think there somewhat immature. They don’t have enough of the
stamp of what I consider my own personality. That came with Adagio Lirico. I have two colleagues
at University, James Tocco, a very famous pianist, and Robert Silverman,
who’s also a famous pianist now living in Canada. That’s why you hear less
of him now, but he has a number of very fine Copland recordings, and also
the Bartók Bagatelles, for
which I wrote the program notes. In any case, Jim Tocco was a pretty
close friend, and he asked me if I had anything for two pianos. I said
no, but somehow he had heard about my Adagio
Lirico. Even though I tried to resist, he demanded to see it.
He said it was the kind of thing that he and Bob like to read through.
So they read through it and liked it, and they decided to play it.
That’s how it started, and it was Jim Tocco who suggested it to the Paratore
Getting back to
Nadia Boulanger, the next year my Fulbright was renewed. Darius Milhaud
was coming because he would come only every second year, and I decided that
I was going to study with him because my old teacher in the United States,
Vittorio Rieti, said I ought to because he’s a great cosmopolitan figure.
What made that logical to me was the fact that most of Nadia Boulanger’s
students had what was a very distinct neo-classical vocabulary under her.
She was very, very, very fond of Igor Stravinsky, and particularly his neoclassical
period after The Rite of Spring
and The Firebird and Les Noces, the pieces from the 20s.
I didn’t want to write any of that bi-tonality, but I was happy to work with
Milhaud because I learned a different perception and perspective with him.
At first Nadia was very upset with me. She righteously felt that she
did a lot for me, and I was coming along. I don’t blame her for that
one bit, but I must say she was really a grand lady because later she was
on those juries at the Conservatory, deciding whether I would make it or
not. She was always extremely a Lady in the best sense of the word,
and we remained friends. I remember taking trips back to Paris to the
Fontainebleau Palace. It was a really unforgettable experience.
BD: You must
have made some kind of an impression on Paris, too, because you’ve been
made Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et
right. I spent a good number of years there. I did my doctorate
there, and so in a sense politically it was a bad move to have left Nadia
Boulanger. I’ve described just two performances she got me, very crucial
ones. Milhaud didn’t do that sort of thing. He had so many
good students and he didn’t operate that way, helping to get your music
published. You’ve got to get your own performances and sort of thing.
He’d be helpful, but he wasn’t that pushy-type. Boulanger was very
pushy, but she was concerned generally about seeing that you made the right
* * *
been talking about the way you learned how to write music. Is this
the kind of thing that you are now passing onto your students?
JD: Oh, I hope so, yes. Milhaud had a lot
of great people studying with him, and some of them became great. The
most notable example was Karlheinz Stockhausen. He is a very great
composer, and has a fine track record, but for one reason or another he
just couldn’t pass the exam to get into the Conservatory in the French section.
There may have been an awful lot of factors that no one really knows about,
because they would only allow two foreigners in any given year to be in
that whole section. Maybe for one reason or another it was filled,
but the story that Milhaud told was that Stockhausen really couldn’t hear.
He played the intervals and chords and so on a piano. He had to write
and I’m sure he had no trouble with that, but he didn’t get in. He
was sort of strange... But I remember when I came back to the United
States and when I began teaching, a number of times I had to make a real
soul-searching decision... When a young person comes to you and they
want to know if they really gifted to pursue composition or not, you’re supposedly
a professional and you have to say something, and you can’t just dodge issue.
But on the other hand, what is the basis on which you make that decision?
I always remember that striking story about Stockhausen, who is really a
first rate composer. One may disagree with him stylistically, but at
least he shows great imagination in his works. He’s very avant-gardish
and always has been, but he’s also a real true creator and innovator.
I would get students
occasionally who would have the perfect pitch, or who’d have virtually photographic
memories, really gifted people! We’d have the most interesting discussions
in a composition lesson, and we would start a piece, whatever it was, usually
a song with accompaniment or a violin sonata. The person would bring
in three measures, and we would discuss the potential of those three measures
and various possibilities and procedures. The next lesson, the person
would come, still undecided really about which path to go down, and we’d
really need to discuss this more. Then this would sometimes go on for
six or seven weeks. Pretty soon three measures might go to five measures,
with a great deal of thought about how each note was related to another note,
and so on. But I perceived that this student may, for all the intelligence
that he had, just didn’t have that creative ability. Ninety or ninety-five
per cent of the musicians who are instructed in music could start a piece,
come up with a few measures, but then only maybe fifty per cent could come
to the middle of a piece. Then when you get to actually aiming at
a conclusion in a reasonable logical satisfying manner, then you reduce
that percentage to maybe five per cent. It’s amazing. It sounds
simple, almost simple-minded what I’m saying, but even among that five or
ten per cent that makes it to the end of a piece there’s higher level of
criteria. Is that piece really valuable, or is it good, and so on.
You get a lot of people who can write pieces from beginning to middle and
end, but then does it have some personality? I’ve also had students
who I swear didn’t seem to be able to hear even basic intervals at first,
couldn’t play any instrument, but they were just dying to compose. So
my recipe has been before you really study composition, you have to take up
all the other courses to prepare you for harmony, counterpoint and form, and
orchestration, and so on along that road. If they really survive and
if they’re serious, then they’re going to make it. I have discovered
on a few occasions that people who by European standards would have eliminated.
Maybe they would not have to take up plumbing, but study double bass and maybe
get a position in the orchestra. But to my astonishment and great pleasant
surprise, a couple of students that I have nourished that way have turned
out to be really creative and really gifted. Two of them are really
doing quite well in a composition way. So the moral is it’s astonishingly
difficult to really predict who is genuinely going to make it in a creative
field like composition. A lot of people are gifted with a fine ear
and a good mind, but sometimes they don’t know what’s going on in a piece.
They sit down at the piano and can play it through by rote. If they
have those gifts, maybe they’re going to be a fine performer, but creativity
is something a little bit more nebulous.
BD: When you’ve
created a piece, gone through the beginning, developed the middle and brought
it to a conclusion, how do you know when you’ve finished, that it’s ready
to go out into the world?
a ticklish problem. Instinctively you kind of know when the piece
is more or less finished, but there’s a very distinct difficulty in conjunction
with putting a convincing ending on what should be there. I will give
you an example — Edge
of Space that I wrote for bassoon and orchestra. I ended on
a high B natural, alone, just the solo instrument. It comes out of
a long orchestral maze. It’s a rather unusual way to end a piece, but
it seemed to me right at the moment. When it was first heard, a number
of people asked me if that was the end of the piece, and why did I end it
that way? They wondered why there wasn’t a big run up and down the
instrument like a big virtuoso gesture. It just seemed right to me
at that particular moment, and you do what you feel is right.
BD: Do you
ever go back and then revise scores?
JD: Not too
much. If for any reason I have to take mistakes out of a score, it’s
almost like a disease what I’m about to describe. When I get one of
my scores to correct what is an obvious mistake — maybe
an instrument is playing a wrong note, or I have really notated categorically
a wrong articulation — I usually end up looking at
the piece, and I get new ideas about it and I start rewriting. That’s
a very dangerous tendency, and I try to really avoid doing that when I can.
BD: You’d be
better off writing a new piece?
JD: Write a
new piece, yes! Once I start reworking something, for whatever reason,
I tend to really redo it. If I were to take one of those earlier pieces
and fix it up for my tastes now, I would probably pretty well rewrite it,
and it would lose whatever charm or vitality it initially had.
I assume you have quite a few commissions?
BD: How do
you decide which commissions you’ll accept and which commissions you’ll
a difficult question. The first factor that is terribly important
is whether the commission is intriguing. Does it really challenge you
and whet your appetite and stimulate you to a want to do this thing?
For example, this double bass concerto. I know instinctively that it’s
a real tough combination to work for, and probably I’ll never get too much
mileage out of that piece. First of all there won’t be too many players
like Gary Karr to play it. That piece is very difficult and to get
a double bass to solo with an orchestra has got to be quite difficult.
BD: On the
other hand, if you write something to expand the very small literature for
the double bass, almost anyone who comes to that instrument is going to want
to play it! [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my
interview with Ben Johnston.]
I know with my Edge of Space, the
Polish composer, Panufnik, heard that record, and on that basis contacted
the bassoonist, Robert Thompson. They worked out a deal whereby he
wrote him a piece for bassoon and chamber orchestra, and maybe in a way expanded
a bit the limited repertoire. So my work had the nice off-shoot of
at least stimulating one other piece that I know about, and Panufnik was nice
enough to let me know. So that was nice, although I just can’t get
my piece performed any place. [Sighs] I’ve never been performed
by the Chicago Symphony either, which is a bit ironic. For whatever
reason, it just hasn’t happened.
BD: Is that
a goal that you have?
JD: Oh sure.
It would be hypocritical to say I wouldn’t desire that. I used to usher
at Orchestral Hall as a boy, and I’ve gotten performed in Paris by several
orchestras and recorded by the London Symphony Orchestra.
BD: Are you
basically pleased with the recordings that have been made of your music?
JD: Yes and
no. I’m so happy that things have gotten recorded because it means
a lot of exposure. For example, somebody from New York told me two days ago
that they heard A Dolphin played
at 10 o’clock in the evening. The music is played in lots of places
that I don’t even suspect. I just don’t know about it, and that’s nice.
It’s how to build up your reputation. But I prefer, when possible,
to have the music done live of course. Earlier I was speaking about
reviving and revising pieces. The quintet Agort was done and now I have a different
order of the movements, which is very peculiar, isn’t it! The recording
was done years ago by The Woodwind Arts Quintet, and they continue to play
that piece. I ended on the recording with that very slow andantino movement, which is very reflective.
Then one time when I was jogging I was just reflecting, and there was a big
performance coming up in Chicago on a program of my music at DePaul University.
I have a very tour de force fourth movement on that recording. When
you hear it, it’s like an internal machine. It goes with all these
quintuplets, and in fact it might be more satisfying to end with that and
put the slow movement in the middle of the piece. So I reshuffled, and
it really works better. I was amazed. Another person told me
that one of the movements is used in New York on WNYC like a theme song for
a show! I’m flattered about that.
* * *
also a pianist.
BD: Are you
the ideal interpreter of your music?
Good heavens, no! I had my string quartet recorded with the Fine Arts
Quartet. The owner of that record company liked me and he liked my
string quartet, and he learned that I was a pianist. James Tocco had
recorded a piece of mine called Pyramids
on that same label, together with some new music by Lukas Foss and Bernhard Heiden.
Tocco, for example, plays that piece like I could never play. He actually
wanted to do all my piano music when he made that recording, but the owner
proposed to me an album on which I would play the piano. I said it
sounded like a good idea, but I couldn’t do Pyramids. He said that was OK since
he had it with James, but he wanted to have a document with me playing some
of my music while I was still playing. So I did it, and that is how
John Downey Plays John Downey came
to be. Later, when I heard that the record was actually going to come
out, I phoned him up and said, “I’ve been playing these
pieces recently and I can do them so much better. In fact, I have a
different ending to Edges.
May I do it over again?” He absolutely refused.
I was hurt and angry at first, but he said, “John,
we’re not really interested in how well you play the pieces, or whether
you add a few notes here and there. We’re just interested to have
some kind of document that there is John Downey playing John Downey’s music.
Let others do it later. They’ll play it better than you. I probably
won’t be making big money selling your records. I didn’t do it for
that. I just want to have the document.”
BD: Is there
any way that records can become too perfect by the time they splice them
JD: Oh yes,
that can happen, particularly if you’re a bona fide virtuoso.
BD: Might they
edit the life out of it?
JD: This is
what I referred to initially with my cello sonata. Although it’s a
great recording, I still remember what great fun we had with the live performances
that piece. Both the pianist and the cellist didn’t care so much whether
they hit a wrong note here and there, but it was the sweep. When they
came to record it, it wasn’t a long drawn out recording. I think they
did it in one session. They played through the piece a couple of times,
but they were both very careful to choose the versions in which all the notes
were played as accurately as possible. That didn’t bother me a bit
because I knew in actual performance there was that big sweep, and that is
somewhat curtailed on the recording. But still, not all that many people
play my music. Here I am in Milwaukee. I’m not in New York or
Los Angeles or Paris or London, and it is a fact that I love my teaching
post. I’m thankful to the University for that, but it’s not on the
main track of where people come from. Chicago is much more of a port
because I grew up there, and when I came back from France I was living in
Chicago for several years before I came up here. I would get visits
from particular people from Paris every year. They would just sleep
on the floor, but there was I right in Chicago, and they were staying a couple
of days before going on to another city.
* * *
BD: Is the
act of composing fun?
JD: It’s my
source of life, the continuation of life. Without it I don’t know what
I would do. I’d be really lost and I would be really isolated.
Composition makes you appear isolated to others because you’re always alone
in silence. When I write I don’t listen much to music. I try
to just hear what’s in me, whatever that means, but I don’t play the radio.
I’ve got my speakers all over, and it’s amazing that I don’t listen that
much now. That’s where the live situation comes in, and I must say
that here in Milwaukee, to hear interesting contemporary music there isn’t
very much of it. Unfortunately, our radio stations at present are really
unimaginative. They are so conservative it is unbelievable. The
moment they put on a contemporary music composition, like they feel all
their clientele is going to stop sponsoring the programs. The only
times that you’ll hear it is maybe when they broadcast the New York Philharmonic
or the Cleveland Orchestra and they have something contemporary. My
records are never played in the city. It’s just terrible, and it didn’t
use to be that way.
this, are you optimistic about the whole future of music?
JD: Oh, yes! One can always be a curmudgeon
about what’s going on, and I complain a lot, I suppose, but despite that,
I am optimistic. When LPs came on the market, everyone said it’s going
to kill all the orchestras. Then stereo came and that’s going to kill
live music by making records so realistic. Then came the electronics,
and the synthesizer was just going to displace the orchestra. Now it’s
computers. That’s the answer! I follow all that stuff,
and I’ve done a computer piece. I’ve done a couple of pieces for electronic
equipment so I can keep up with the youngsters at the University, so I know
what’s going on! But it doesn’t really change what makes a good piece,
or what makes a real live reaction between an audience and musicians performing
music. There’s still a kind of a magic to that. It’s like a
perennial flower. You know there’s constant obstacles as to what the
weather may be, but it still sprouts up again. It renews and rejuvenates
life, and that is beautiful. That’s why here in the United States it’s
such a beautiful thing that we have these symphony orchestras. The
danger is that you get so many conservative people. It doesn’t necessary
mean that a European has equivocated with anti-American, but often they
just don’t know conductors. A conductor who has grown up in the United
States sees a young composer making illusions to jazz or to rock in his
music, and he’s going to be more receptive to that, and acknowledging that
there is more here than the European conductor who has had no exposure to
that and dismisses it.
BD: Is this
‘composer-in-residence’ idea a good thing? Will it help to get more
contemporary music into the orchestras?
JD: Yes, definitely.
That’s John Duffy’s
program. He has your surname with a different spelling! [Both
laugh] But he’s really a magical individual because he’s made that work,
and I have nothing but praise for him. I met him a few times.
I’m not the composer-in-residence anymore, but the program is beautiful because
it does allow young American composers to be, first of all, active in a relationship
with the orchestra because they’re commissioned to write pieces that the
orchestra is obliged to perform. So that’s already a big step forward.
Then those composers-in-residence can act as a springboard, as a contact
between the conductors and the orchestras and what goes on creatively.
Usually a composer-in-residence knows the other composers. Sure there’ll
be some factors that will occur, but that is always so. Human beings
are human beings. I don’t believe in this puritanical approach like
you get in politics where everything has to be so pure. Life isn’t that
way. People are people, and one helps a friend. That’s not only
happening, but it should happen. That’s what life is all about.
One extends a hand to one with whom you feel some kind of kindred relationship.
That’s normal. What makes a people strong is the sense that there is
something individual about the various groups, and different families carry
different traditions. It’s a healthy situation. Muti [then Music
Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra] now has a composer in residence to
really make him aware of what might be good and meritable in terms of exposure
through the orchestra. Those are good gestures. We don’t want
to have one here in Milwaukee yet, but we have had up until now conductors
who are very, very aware of contemporary music. Kenneth Schermerhorn
introduces a lot of new pieces here, including my own music. All my
music used to be premiered by the Milwaukee Symphony. I had a big
piece, Modules for orchestra, and
that was given for the first time here. Then my Edge of Space was done here. There
Foss came as conductor. He’s a composer, and he knew me as a composer
before he even had the orchestra, so he did my Modules, and he just did a new piece of
mine in New York called Discourse
for oboe with harpsichord and string orchestra, which is going to be done
in Chicago next year by a good conductor, Frank Winkler. But in any
case, now we have another conductor, Zdenek Macal. He’s
Czech, and he probably doesn’t know too much about Americanism. I’m
having my 60th birthday October 5th, and here at the University they’re organizing
a big program of my music, which is nice because I didn’t expect that or
ask anyone. Then this summer I’m going have a piece called Declamations which was premièred
in Albany, New York with that orchestra. The Music for Youth Orchestra
did it here last May, and then it was done in Paris in November by conductor,
Roger Boutry. Now, Music for Youth is going to take that on tour
with it this summer. I don’t know yet exactly where, but they’re going
to perform in Switzerland, Austria, Germany and France. So that’s good.
Then I hope I get to Australia for the premier of my double bass concerto
because I would like to hear that very much. That’s kind of exciting.
It’s always nice to hear your music played, but it’s especially exciting
when you know it’s a piece that no one has played yet, no one has heard.
BD: When you’re
working with an orchestra on a new piece, do you go with suggestions, or
do you let them get on with the work and find out what’s there?
JD: It depends.
I think the best approach is for the composer to keep somewhat of a low profile,
provided the conductor’s competent. That’s important. But let’s
assume you’ve got a good conductor. They’ve taken the piece and they’re
going to give it their best shot because they want it to succeed, too.
Probably a very vociferous composer who starts telling the conductor everything
that’s going wrong right at the first unveiling of the piece makes a tremendous
mistake for two reasons. First of all, if you just let the musicians
go through it, they can feel their way in. This includes the conductor.
Once they know what’s there, then they can go back and rework it.
You have to be patient. The only thing I find I need to do is when
the conductor turns around and says, “Is that really
supposed to be E-flat up in the flutes there, or is that supposed to be a
D-flat?” You had better know your score
which you’ve written, or else you look like a dummy. Typically the
conductor turns around and says, “Is this tempo right?
Does this feel right what I’m doing here?” You
might say that it’s a little fast or a little slow. Things like that
I think are valid, but to go up and pull the guy by the arm every two measures
and saying, “You don’t know my music! You don’t
understand what I’m trying to do! They’re playing it all wrong!”
is a poor approach. But that’s usually the temperament of the young
BD: They want
everything right the first time!
right. Another interesting thing that has happened to me, so I speak
from experience, is that those piece which are so fragile that they only
work a certain way are usually weak pieces. They’re not yet very mature.
They don’t bend.
BD: Being sturdy
is another indication of a good piece?
JD: This is
another indication of a good piece, when it piece allows for different ideas.
I have a piece for piano called Eastlake
Terrace. It’s one of my favorite pieces, and Eastlake Terrace
is very near where you live!
BD: Yes, it is.
I drive on it quite often!
on John Downey plays John Downey.
Anyway, I have heard it played in countless ways, really stretching my tempo
marks and everything, and it still works. That’s one of the things
that made me realize Oh God, that’s a good piece!
© 1987 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded at the home of John Downey in Shorewood,
Wisconsin, on June 1, 1987. Portions were broadcast on WNIB four months
later, and again in 1992 and 1997, on WNUR in 2011, and on Contemporary Classical
Internet Radio in 2010. This transcription was made in 2016, and posted
on this website at that time. My thanks to British soprano
Una Barry for her help
in preparing this website presentation.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
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.