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 . . . . . . . . .

John Downey:    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 Northwesternand 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.


Bruce Duffie:    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 pick out?

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.

BD:    Schoenberg said that if he hadn’t been Schoenberg, somebody else would have been.

downey 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 Adamswho combines a lot of other things in itgive 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. 

BD:    Seeing 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?

JD:    No.  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? 

downey BD:    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 work. 

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 itnot 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 epochwhat’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 feelis 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 quite different.

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 the world.

JD:    That’s right.

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.

downey BD:    And yet it’s not something you want to go back to and tinker with to bring up to date?

JD:    That’s 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 dimensionsI 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 thatyou 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 of yours?

JD:    The only thing I can expect is that certain people
or a good percentage of themcome 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 architecturehow 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 right!

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!

JD:    Yes.  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 musiciansto expect that every new piece is going to work, or even work well?

downey 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?

JD:    That’s 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 brothers. 

          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 des Lettres.

JD:    That’s 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 contacts.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve 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?

downey 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?

JD:    That’s 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 articulationI 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. 

downey BD:    I assume you have quite a few commissions?

JD:    Yes.

BD:    How do you decide which commissions you’ll accept and which commissions you’ll decline?

JD:    That’s 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.]

JD:    Right.  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. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’re also a pianist.

downey JD:    Yes.

BD:    Are you the ideal interpreter of your music?

JD:    No!  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 up?

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.

BD:    Despite this, are you optimistic about the whole future of music?

downey 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 composer.

BD:    They want everything right the first time!

JD:    That’s 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!

JD:    That’s 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.

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

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