Composer  Jacob  Druckman

A Converesation with Bruce Duffie


Jacob Druckman, who died in 1996, was a unique voice among contemporary composers and the soundscapes he created reflected the manysidedness of the music of our time. He was also a teacher, a conductor, and a musical catalyst, a highly effective spokesman for contemporary music and musicians.

Druckman's own output contained works in the large and small media. In addition to his orchestra works, he wrote for ensembles (with or without voice) and for solo instruments.

One of the most prominent of contemporary American composers, Jacob Druckman was born in Philadelphia in 1928. After early training in violin and piano, he enrolled in the Juilliard School in 1949, studying composition with Bernard Wagenaar, Vincent Persichetti, and Peter Mennin. In 1949 and 1950 he studied with Aaron Copland at Tanglewood; later, he continued his studies at the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris (1954-55).

Critic Mark Swed has written, "At the heart of the works of Jacob Druckman lies the bold, sure, and often arrestingly physical dramatic gesture....Yet Druckman's scores have always exhibited another characteristic as well: that of careful structure, built with meticulous attention to detail. The process of integrating these two sides of his character...has been a consistent factor throughout the composer's development."

Druckman produced a substantial list of works embracing orchestral, chamber, and vocal media, and did considerable work with electronic music. In 1972, he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Windows, his first work for large orchestra. Among his other numerous grants and awards were a Fulbright Grant in 1954, a Thorne Foundation award in 1972, Guggenheim Grants in 1957 and 1968, and the Publication Award from the Society for the Publication of American Music in 1967. Organizations that commissioned his music included Radio France (Shog, 1991); the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Brangle, 1989); the New York Philharmonic (Concerto for Viola and Orchestra, 1978; Aureole, 1979); the Philadelphia Orchestra (Counterpoise, 1994); the Baltimore Symphony (Prism, 1980); the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (Mirage, 1976); the Juilliard Quartet (String Quartet No. 2, 1966); the Koussevitzky Foundation in the Library of Congress (Windows, 1972); IRCAM (Animus IV, 1977); and numerous others. He also composed for theater, films, and dance.

Druckman taught at the Juilliard School, Bard College, and Tanglewood; in addition he was director of the Electronic Music Studio and Professor of Composition at Brooklyn College. He was also associated with the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center in New York City. In the spring of 1982, he was Resident-In-Music at the American Academy in Rome; in April of that year, he was appointed composer-in-residence with the New York Philharmonic, where he served two two-year terms and was Artistic Director of the HORIZONS music festival. In the last years of his life, Druckman was Professor of Composition at the School of Music at Yale University.

We met in the office suite of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in March, 1989 when Brangle was having its world premiere conducted by Leonard Slatkin.  [See my Interviews with Leonard Slatkin.]

Bruce Duffie:    Any reaction to now being sixty and being an accomplished composer?

Jacob Druckman:    Oh, that business of being an accomplished composer, as far as the outside world goes that happened one night.  I remember literally one week getting a review in The New York Times.  They talked about the young, avant-garde composer.  Then I got the Pulitzer Prize, and the next week it came out “establishment composer, Jacob Druckman.”  So...  [Laughs]  That’s the outside world.  The inside world is like, oh my God! I can’t understand how I ever did it before; how am I ever going to do it again?

BD:    Do you strive each time to do it again, or do you just simply strive to make music each time?

JD:    I rarely go over the same ground.  I’m the brunt of a certain amount of criticism because, like Stravinsky, I suffer from being called a turncoat since I start in some direction and can’t continue in it.

BD:    Within each piece, or from piece to piece?

JD:    No, I mean from piece to piece.  I hope there’s a consistency within pieces, but over a period of several years.  Just coming back to this hall reminds me that the first piece of mine I heard here was called Windows that I did in ’72.  It seems hardly possible that this piece that’s being rehearsed now [1989] is written by the same person as that.

BD:    Is it you that has developed, or is it music that has developed?

druckmanJD:    Part of it is, certainly, reacting to the zeitgeist.  I don’t know whether it’s a development or a regression.  [Both laugh]  In these years, in some ways it feels like we are taking giant steps backwards, but these are changes that are not arbitrary.  I’ve lived long enough to know about such things.  I lived through the sixties, which I think of as a great time of change.  You may have heard a lot of talking that I did and that others did
a little bit of it, as a matter of fact, even in agreement with what I was saying, occasionally.  But back when I was the composer-in-residence with the New York Philharmonic, I did a series of festivals that were based on the notion that there was, indeed, a major change in the aesthetics of the musical world somewhere that happened in the mid- to late sixties, and I’m still thoroughly convinced that the history books of the future are going to point to those years, as they do to the early sixteen hundreds, which is the beginning of the Baroque Era that there were turnings around.  Having lived through that period of those changes in the sixties, I remember feeling like the child in the story The Emperor’s New Clothes, that my God, I’m all alone!  I see the truth and there’s nobody else that’s seeing what I’m seeing.  I discovered as the years went by that I was not alone, and that so many other composers were having the same kinds of feeling, of a kind of epiphany, a revelation of some truth.

BD:    Now that we’re twenty years removed from all of that, was your vision correct?  Was it really a big change, or was it a continuous metamorphosis that had been going on?

JD:    I think there was a big change, and we may be verging on another one.  I don’t know.

BD:    So we’ve got to wait another three hundred years to see it in perspective?

JD:    Not necessarily.  Those periods keep getting closer and closer together.  The communication is so much faster.  We just learn things so quickly, and we tend to consume ideas rather rapidly.

BD:    The sixties was such a time of upheaval in everything.  Was it inevitable that music would be carried along and have the upheaval, too, just because everything else was being churned up?

JD:    I think there’s no question about it.  I’m not a historian.  I don’t pretend to be an expert on it, but I cannot help but draw a comparison between the kind of revolutionary activities that were happening in the 1960s with the parallel to that in the first half of the nineteenth century, starting with things Napoleonic, and culminating around all those wild revolutions around 1848-49.  So yes, indeed, I think they’re connected.  I don’t know which is
cause and which is effect.  Maybe somehow they’re all part of the same thing.  They’re all children of the same ancestors.  There are moments in history when it seems absolutely necessary to move some way.  I remember the drive and the importance of the 1960s, and that wonderful word relevance that we seem to have invented then.

BD:    I’m glad you’ve landed on that word.  Is music relevant?

JD:    To whom?  To life in a big way it’s relevant.  I personally have never got involved in specifically political statements in music.  Some of my colleagues do.  I’m not a composer engagé, as they say.  I have very dear friends who are.  I think of Hans Henze and Frederick Rzewski who feel that the music is making a political statement.  [See my Interview with Frederic Rzewski.]  I don’t really believe it does, other than an expression of whatever.  We listen now to the Berlioz Funeral and Triumphal Symphony.  How many of us know or have any emotional connection to the political issues at hand then?  Yet it was supposedly a political statement on his part.

BD:    But it still speaks to the audience of 1990.

JD:    The piece does, but not about politics.  You don’t know which side it was on.

BD:    Do you expect your music to speak to the people of 2050?

JD:    I certainly hope so.  I would love that.  I don’t know how to go about ensuring it.  I don’t think there’s any formula.  One of the things that has changed with me in recent pieces is there’s been a change in my heroes
not that I’ve dumped heroes, but I’ve gained new ones.  Looking back at the mid-nineteenth century, I used to be very, very involved with Brahms’s music and certainly Wagner, even though I never quite trusted Wagner, really.  I felt like listening to Wagner was like being in a cage with a tiger, and you would never turn your back on him, but there was, undoubtedly, a creature of terrible strength.  However there’s a composer that now I find a hero that I absolutely could not listen to when I was a young man, and that’s Verdi.  I used to get embarrassed when I’d hear Verdi.  I can remember just that feeling of your ears getting hot and just blushing from embarrassment.  I used to think, how stupid!  How can he go oom-pah-pah so baldly and write a silly tune above it?  Now he seems so magical with that material.  That’s why it is cliché.  It was cliché back then.  The accompaniment to La Donna e Mobile is um-chun-chun, um-chun-chun!  How much more trite can it get that that?  And the tune is so perfect and so beautifully captures the essence of that character!  That, to me, is magical.  It goes beyond complexity, that simplicity which is more complex than complexity.

BD:    Are you finding that your music is getting more simple and complex?

JD:    I’m looking for it.  I’m trying for it, which is not something I was trying twenty years ago.

BD:    You don’t want to disown your pieces from twenty years ago, do you?

JD:    No, no.  No, no.  No.  But it’s just that I can’t go on chasing that same star, and the energies have changed.  The needs are different.

BD:    Is it the energy that’s changed, or is the energy moving in a different direction?

JD:    In a different direction.  I don’t mean in quantities.  I suppose growing older, the day is a little shorter than it used to be.  [Both laugh]

BD:    Do you find that the ideas come as quickly as they did ten, twenty, thirty years ago?

JD:    I think so.  I tend to write at about the same speed as I always did.  I think there’s a kind of normal metabolic rate to a composer.  I’m sure every composer, no matter how prolific, wishes it were faster, but I don’t think there’s much you can do about it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you’re starting to write a piece, do you know where you’re going to end up with it?

JD:    I allow myself a certain liberty when I’m starting a piece.  For example, I’m just about to write a piece for brass quintet.  My usual pattern is to write a page of music for brass quintet, promising myself, number one, that under no circumstances is that the first page of the piece, and number two, that it’s absolutely disposable.  I’ll do that, put it aside and forget about it, and do another.  When I get a pile of seven or eight pages of sketches for brass quintet, then I lay them out and look at them, and try to decide how many of these could fit together.  Out of those seven pages, maybe there’s three pieces of material that could fit in the same piece.  The others I discard, or put in a drawer for, perhaps, some other piece.  At that point I start making intellectual decisions.  Okay, what is this piece about?  Where is it going?  What’s the shape of the piece?  And yes, at that point I more or less know where the piece is going.


BD:    Then you’ve got this thing in the middle, and you build onto both sides?

JD:    In the middle, not necessarily.  I don’t know where it is.  The procedure is a little bit like a self-induced Rorschach Test.  Maybe there’s a basic mistrust of, well, if not intellectual procedures, at least my intellectual procedures.  Within me, at least, the intuitive is stronger and better, and I look for that first, and if something is revealed, then I bring the intellect into play and make hard decisions about where it’s going.

BD:    You realize now some Ph.D. in psychology is going to gather up all your sketches after you’re gone and wonder,
Why did he discard this, and why did he keep that, and build a huge psychological profile!

JD:    [Laughs]  I’m sure.  None of us know.  I shouldn’t speak for other composers, but I know that there are things in my music
images, almost repeated events that happen in different waysthat undoubtedly some psychologist can explain.  I know there’s one thing that happened for a period from about 1975 to ’83 or so, which is a long time.  I’m talking about my output, now.  During this timeabout eight yearsalmost every piece of mine has a moment where there is a terrible, chaotic, loud noise, and as though off in the distance there’s a trumpet call, a very clarion, noble sound that comes out against all the foreground chaos and turmoil.  I’m sure there’s some message in that, but I don’t know what it is.  I don’t know whether it’s some kind of wounded innocence or heroic life.

BD:    Or you’re hearkening back to Fidelio

JD:    Maybe.  Maybe it’s all that simple.  [Both laugh]

BD:    As the piece then is being molded and you keep adding to it, how do you know when it is finished?  How do you know when it’s ready to be launched on the world?

JD:    It’s usually taken care of by the date of the first performance, which is immutable.

BD:    So you write up the deadline and quit?

JD:    No.  You can fuss with a piece.  Obviously, it’s possible to be going toward a date and not make it, not complete it.  But if you’ve completed it in time, there’s a great tendency to fuss with it and change and fix up, although I don’t do too much of that.  Other composers I know are much more compulsive about that
jiggling around with a piece they’ve just finished.  I rarely go back and change a piece that’s been performed.

BD:    That’s good.  Then there are not thousands of versions from which to choose.

JD:    Mm-hm.  Maybe it’s good.

BD:    How much latitude do you allow for “interpretation” when they play your piece, either a chamber piece or a big orchestral piece?

JD:    I think I allow; I lean.  Let me say that I lean very heavily on the performer.  I think of myself as a performer.  I grew up playing the violin, and as a teenager played trumpet.  So I grew up playing in orchestras, and I identify with the performing end of it.  My music is always a very physical experience, a kinetic experience.  I’ve a very dear friend who’s a director in Hollywood, an ex-character actor named Noam Pitlik.  He directed the Barney Miller series on television.  Noam and I grew up across the street from each other in Philadelphia from the time we were six ‘til we went off to college.  Noam recently reminded me of something I used to do when I was twelve and thirteen.  These were the days I was discovering.  I remember discovering Rite of Spring when I was twelve.  I bought a score immediately, and all the big Debussy pieces, and Ravel, and the turn of the century things.  Noam reminded me that I used to turn on the records on the phonograph as loud as I could, pull down the shades in my parent’s living room, and dance wildly around the room.  [Both laugh]  My response to the music was very physical in that sense.  I was jumping uncontrollably around the room.  That was one part of it, and the other physicality was playing, which is such a physical activity.

BD:    Do you want the audiences who hear your music to pull the shades down and dance around the room to the record?

JD:    I would adore it!  [Laughs]  Especially the piece that’s being rehearsed right now, which is a piece very consciously about dance.  I’ve always been in some way influenced with it, but this piece is very knowingly focused on it.

BD:    Is it at all choreographic?

JD:    No.  I don’t imagine anybody will ever pick it up.  I’ve written actually very little music for dance, but a lot of my music has been used by choreographers.

BD:    Does it surprise you when they pick something to use that way?

druckmanJD:    Yes, sometimes pleasantly.  [Laughs]  I remember once Gerald Arpino, the choreographer with the Joffrey Ballet, had done several of my pieces, and at one point I was telling him about a new piece.  I actually brought him over to my apartment in New York to hear a tape of it.  He listened and thought, and he said, “Tell me, have you done anything else?”  I said, “Well, there’s one other piece I did, but it’s nothing you could use” and talked about this piece for solo contrabass called Valentine.  He listened to it and he said, “Oh, my God!  This is the piece!”  And sure enough, he did it, and it was the best of our so-called collaborations.  They weren’t really collaborations...

BD:     Has that been recorded?

JD:    Yes.  It was recorded early on a Nonesuch record by Alvin Brehm, and I just yesterday heard a new recording that was made in France by Joëlle Léandre, a woman contrabassist, and it was beautiful.

BD:    It’s a piece for unaccompanied solo double bass?

JD:    Unaccompanied solo double bass.  It’s a real nineteen sixties theatrical piece, and the bassist does a lot of vocal sounds as well.

BD:    Did you have Bert Turetzky in mind when you wrote it?  [See my Intrerview with Bert Turetzky.] 

JD:    As a matter of fact, it was written mostly because Turetzky was nagging me to write a piece for him.  At one point I was living in Paris and waiting to get into the electronic music studios to work on a piece that I had already begun in New York at the Columbia Princeton Studios.  I had yet another letter from Turetzky saying “Why don’t you write me a bass piece?” and I figured, oh, what the devil?  I’ve got five weeks of unemployment because it’s going to be a five week wait before I can get in the studio.  At that point we were living in Montmartre, just above Place Pigalle, and around that area is not only all the strip joints and hookers, but it’s also the theatrical district.  It’s a place where a lot of instrument rental places are, and theatrical lighting instruments.  So I just went downstairs and rented a contrabass and brought it back up.

BD:    Just to see what you could do?

JD:    Exactly!  And started fiddling with it.  [Both groan at the pun]  I’m sorry...  That was unintended, let me assure you.  But that’s how that piece developed.

BD:    I’m going to keep that in the back of my mind.  I have several different series going, and one of them is of various instruments in the orchestra, and I have yet to come up with a double bass program.  I’ve got a Schuller piece, and I’ve got a couple of other things, and I want to be sure and include your piece in that, when I do it.  [See my Interviews with Gunther Schuller.]

JD:    Schuller, of course, has a famous quartet for four double basses.  There’s a group in New York now called The Times Square Basstet.  [Both laugh]  Their publicity is shots of themselves taken in a New York subway station, looking like thugs, carrying their contrabasses.  But they play very beautifully, and they have a lot of repertoire they have engendered just by their presence.  This recording by Joëlle Léandre is very interesting.  Besides my piece, there’s a Xenakis piece, and a Scelsi piece, and Cage and Betsy Jolas...  [See my Interview with Iannis Xenakis, my Interview with John Cage, and my Interview with Betsy Jolas.]

BD:    What label is it on?

JD:    It’s a French label.  ADDA, I believe.

BD:    Okay.  I’ll get a copy of it.  So you got the double bass and you started experimenting with it.  Was there anything you found that was absolutely unique to you, that had never been accomplished before on a double bass?

JD:    Oh, yes.  Yeah.  As a matter of fact, in terms of the—what I was doing was what was so typical of the late sixties, with what the French call the recherche sonore, and they’re looking for new sonic possibilities in the instruments.  But I began working on it, and invented several techniques, and I got two-handed pizzicati and things, harmonic pizzicati that were kind of engendered by harp techniques and things that most bass players don’t know.  But the thing that colored the piece so incredibly was the fact that it was the circumstance under which I was working, and here I’d be trying these things out, and sometimes playing on the strings with a tympani mallet, which I took from my son, who was at that point a fledgling percussion player.  He’s now playing solos with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

druckmanBD:    Did he take over for Bill Kraft out there?  [See my Interview with William Kraft.]

JD:    No.  He’s in New York, but he’s played as a marimba soloist with the orchestra and done concertos.  He’s doing one with the American Composers Orchestra next month in New York.  Anyway, here I was, working on the bass in a typical French living room with a fireplace, and just over the mantle piece was a mirror.  So every once in a while I’d be bent over this huge, grotesque female form, and I’d catch sight of myself and burst into laughter because the whole thing could have looked like a scene from a Marquis de Sade movie.  [Both laugh]

BD:    I’d think that’d be great to watch yourself and get an idea of what it looks like
like the ballet dancers do.

JD:    Well, the piece developed very much in that way, and became a big theatrical thing
a kind of love scene between the bassist and bass.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  It doesn’t become obscene, does it?

JD:    Well... 

BD:    Can it?

JD:    I don’t know.  [Laughs]  Not graphically, but the title is slightly euphemistic

BD:    When the piece is done on a record, does it lose some of the theatricality?

JD:    Yes.  It loses some, but you get the feeling.  This Joëlle Léandre recording is really something.  The first recording suffered because of something I did in the control room.  It was just one of those mistakes that, unfortunately, you can’t go back and fix.  I had adjusted the vocal sounds so subtly that they almost seemed like something happening in the next room.  It was just wrong.  It was technically wrong and it was my own doing.  However, it was done.  They weren’t miked separately.  There was nothing you could do to fix it.  But on this new recording, there’s a wonderful sense of presence, a great excitement about the performance.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Have you basically been pleased with the performances you’ve heard of your music all over the world?

JD:    Oh, I’ve been very lucky.  The very first performances I ever had of pieces were done by just wonderful people!  I was nineteen or twenty.  I remember the pieces that got me into Julliard were a violin and piano piece played by Zvi Zeitlin, who was one of my classmates at Tanglewood, and Jan DeGaetani singing my Pieces for Mezzo Soprano.  Then there were just one after another of brilliant performers.  I’ve just been deliciously spoiled all my life.  So I can deal with the really totally virtuosic writing and expect the pieces to be played well.

BD:    Do the performers ever discover things in your scores that you didn’t even know you’d hidden there?

JD:    Oh, sure.  I would expect that.   Good performers always brings something.

BD:    What about the recordings?  Those have a little more universality than a performance.  Have you been pleased with those also?

JD:    Generally, yes.  The terrible thing about a recording is that it’s so fixed.  Whatever you thought right at that moment is forever.  So just by nature of the thing, every recording of any piece I wish was a little different in one way or another.

BD:    But generally, they’re good.

JD:    Generally they’re very high level, yes.

BD:    Do you know about all of the recordings before they’re even made, or are there some that just come out and surprise you?

JD:    Most contemporary composers don’t have the luxury of more than one recording of a given piece, and just legally, the first recording has to be contracted, or you have to get permission from the copyright owner.  So I would, of course, know about the first recordings, but beyond that, anybody can record anything they feel like, even if it’s not public domain.

BD:    They just pay their fee and that’s it?

JD:    That’s right, yes.

BD:    Have you ever been in the position where someone has just completely mangled your piece?

JD:    No.  There are some second recordings, but they’ve been good.  This one of Joëlle Léandre is very good, and I’m happy with it.

BD:    You wrote this piece that we’re doing here in Chicago this week for a virtuoso orchestra.  Is there anything about it that only the Chicago Symphony can play, or should almost any orchestra be able to play this piece?

JD:    I certainly look forward to the great virtuosity that comes out of this orchestra.  I can’t imagine that another orchestra can’t play it.  There are a lot of good orchestras in the United States and all over the world that will play it slightly differently.

BD:    I don’t mean, necessarily, the top line orchestras, but maybe the second line or even the third line orchestras.  Or do you even think about that when you’re writing?

JD:    Usually I’m focused.  I do, of course, think about it.  Most of the pieces I write are commissioned, and I know who’s going to be doing the first performance.  So if I know that “X” orchestra has a great alto flute player, I’m liable to write some alto flute solos for that.  But they’re not written so that another alto flutist can’t play them.

BD:    What do you expect of the audience that comes to hear your music
if anything at all?

JD:    I don’t know how much expectancy there is.  I hope there would be some empathy.  I’m just so full of this piece now, having been to rehearsal and hearing this for the first time ever.  You know, I’ve never heard it.  The orchestra has heard it, because they rehearsed it on Saturday, but I didn’t hear it!  Coming in and hearing it there, it’s all so fresh and new.  So I’m very much concentrated on this piece.  In terms of audience response, it’s probably going to be very clear.  I don’t think there’s going to be much puzzlement.  Sometimes the audience will sit there and look a little bemused, and think what was that? What did it mean?  With this piece there will not be that kind of confusion.  It’s a very straight ahead piece and very clear.  Maybe this is part of that Verdi influence.  I imagine
I hopethere will be some that like it.  I’m sure there will be some that don’t, and who might even get offended.  There’s a little bit of light-hearted treatment of some heroic notions.  For example, in the second movement there’s a habanera that happens that is really to a traditionally slow, bo-dom, bom-ti-dom, tum-tum, bo-bo-bo-bom, and this triplet figure, bu-bu-bup, shi-dum, which gets transformed and becomes bu-bu-bu-bum, bu-bu-bu-bum, chicka-tum, bu-bu-bu-bum, chick-a, chick-a.  It suddenly comes out the other side instead of a nineteenth century Latin-American dancewhich the Habanera was, it’s named after Havana in Cuba — it suddenly comes out the very late twentieth century Latin-American sound, like turning the thing inside out.  I don’t think that’s going to be lost on any audiences!  And I imagine some people will be offended to hear such smart-alecky stuff in their hallowed Orchestra Hall.

BD:    Did you write it because that’s the way it has to be, or did you write it to be smart-alecky?

JD:    I think both of those things are true.  [Laughs]  The second movement is about that.  It’s smart-alecky, but it’s not too superficial.  A phrase of Norman Mailer’s comes to mind, which is, “Don’t understand me too quickly, please.”  I can’t remember when Norman said that, but because a thing is obvious it doesn’t mean that’s all there is to it.  Just as I feel about Verdi, things are presented with a very simple and easy to understand surface.  It doesn’t mean there’s nothing behind it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve mentioned Verdi several times, and you’ve got an opera that is or is not going to get done by the Met, eventually.

JD:    Oh, it’s not going to get done by the Met, but it certainly will get done eventually, yes.

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

druckmanJD:    I can’t think of any sorrows!  [Laughs]  Maybe for the singers...  I adore writing for the voice, and the more I write the more I realize that everything is an imitation or glorification of that.  I’m so convinced that art does not exist outside of the human body, that it’s all so connected to the physicality of life.  It’s not just coincidence at all.  Maelzel’s metronome points to moderato, which happens to be the human heartbeat, and that
fast and slow are pretty much within the range of the human heart.  How high does a metronome go?  A metronome goes at about the speed your heart goes to when you’ve been jogging for three miles.  Maybe it is a little beyond that, or a little slower than a healthy person’s heart would beat, but still, the musical range is exactly the range of the human heartbeat, and the notion of slow and fast, and crescendo of excitement is totally tied in with things physical.  The fact is that our range of hearing is within the range that human beings can make vocally.  When you think of a basso profundo range to a coloratura soprano’s, this is about the range of an orchestra, extended a little bit on both sidespiccolo and contrabass.  But again, everything is so related to us physically.

BD:    If everything is related physically to the human range and the human idea, where do electronics fit into all of this?  You’ve worked quite a bit with electronics, have you not?

JD:    I have, and my own feeling about it was that it was always an extension of that which was human.  My experience was so strange when I began with electronic music.  Before I began working in a studio, I thought that what I was going to do was things outside of human experience.  I was thinking of complex rhythmic relationships, and as soon as I got into the studio I realized that that kind of thing didn’t interest me.  When I heard it, I was not taken by it, and what I began doing was exaggerating those things which are the sounds of humans.  Now this is not a universal truth.  This was true for me; this is what I did.  Many of my colleagues who have done fascinating music feel very differently.  It’s true that no human can make the sound of, say, a ping pong ball bouncing on a table getting into that accelerando at the same time as a decrescendo, but a computer can do that very easily.  And that can be fascinating, too.  But it’s nothing that I want to work with.

BD:     When you’re offered a commission, how do you decide if it is something you want to work with?  Or whether you will accept it or put it off, or even, turn it down?

JD:    I don’t know how to answer that.  Probably it is what I want to write next.

BD:    There must be some judgment that you make.  What are you looking for in these commissions?

JD:    I suppose it changes.  I don’t know.  Last year I wrote a piece for unaccompanied marimba, and almost immediately got a request from a marimba player to write another piece, and I had to claim to be all written out on that.  I was finished.  At least for the next decade, it was everything I could think of to do with a marimba all by itself.  That’s an obvious reason to turn down a commission.  But it’s a matter of what do I feel like doing, and what I really feel like doing right now is to get to work on that opera.  I’m sure you’ve heard that for some reason, the wisdom of the Met, without looking at my music that I had written, was to pull out from the commission.  I don’t know what the thinking was there.  They played their cards very close to the vest, and I have no idea what happened.  I just know that they did not say, “Let’s see what you have written.”  They just said, “No, thank you.”

BD:    Can some other company produce it?

JD:    First I have to finish it.  It’s not finished.  When the Met pulled out, I turned around and said yes to a lot of commissions that I had been saying no to
more than this Chicago Symphony commission.  So suddenly, at this point, I find my plate very full of orchestral commissions.  However, the opera is still a very big goal, and is something I want very much to do.

BD:    Is it a comforting feeling to have these commissions stacked up, so you know that you’ll be writing, and your music is wanted for the next five, eight, twelve years?

JD:    Oh sure it is, yes.  At one point I was with Luciano Berio and his wife Cathy Berberian in Paris.  [See my Interview with Luciano Berio.]  Luciano had to go somewhere, and Cathy and I were sitting in a taxi, and she got talking about a visit to Stravinsky that Luciano had made with Stockhausen and another composer just before Stravinsky died.  Here were these young hotshots, the bright stars on the musical scene, coming to visit the old man, who at that point was in a wheelchair and not writing big pieces at all.  They were really just beyond his capabilities.  She said as they were leaving that they said good-bye and as they walked out the door, Stravinsky called after them, “N’oubliez-moi pas.”  [Don’t forget me.]  Can you imagine that?  One of the greatest geniuses of the twentieth century was saying, “Don’t forget me.”

BD:    [Amazed]  Was he really afraid he was going to be forgotten???

JD:    Why else would he say that?  This was a man who was so cock-sure and so proud.  I guess it’s an answer to your question about if it feels good to have commissions up ahead.  Yes!  [Laughs]  It’s the kind of fear that can come to anyone, if Stravinsky could feel it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve done quite a bit of teaching.  What advice do you have for young composers coming along?

JD:    What, to do with their lives?  None.  [Both laugh]  I don’t know.  People forge careers in very different ways.  I found myself advising them in microcosm; a delicious dilemma.  One of my students says, “What am I going to do?
  I got the Rome Prize and a Guggenheim grant in the same year, [Laughs] which has happened to me a couple of times recently.  Then I give advice on a specific point, but I don’t see any single way to build a career.  John Corigliano did not make his career the same way that Philip Glass did, or Steve Reich.  [See my Interviews with John Corigliano, and my Interviews with Steve Reich.]  Anybody you point to has taken a different path and found their own way.


See my Interview with Ben Johnston; my Interview with Bernard Rands;
my Interview with Joan Tower; and my Interview with Paul Fromm.

BD:    Is there any chance that we are turning out too many young composers?

JD:    It has to work to the benefit of the musical world.  It’s a tragic scene for composers.  On the other hand, I think the opportunities that are there for young composers have expanded, if anything, more rapidly than the numbers of young composers.

BD:    [Genuinely surprised]  Really???

JD:    Yes, the possibilities for performances.  For example, what you have going here with the Civic Orchestra, the reading of young composers’ works, as well as the number of commissions that have come out of the Chicago Symphony recently.  These things were totally unheard of.  The first time I heard an orchestra piece of mine — I’m not talking about getting the reading with the Julliard Orchestra when I was a student
but the first professional performance I had was with the Chicago Symphony, and I was forty-four years old.  There’s not one of my students who reaches the age of thirty without hearing a piece.  I’m not talking about necessarily the top ones; they all have this.  There are so many prizes and so many awards and NEA grants, and just on and on and on and on, with commissions and prizes and awards.  It’s great, but I think it has expanded even more quickly than the number of composers.

druckmanBD:    Then how do we sift through all of this material?

JD:    Oh, it’s a natural process.

BD:    Will the great pieces of music surface?

JD:    I think so.

BD:    What goes into making a piece of music great?

JD:    Oh, goodness!  I have no idea!  [Laughs]  Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have a formula?  We all know when it’s there and when it’s not there, but we don’t know what it is.

BD:    Is composing fun?

JD:    It’s fun and it’s agonizing and it’s terrifying and delicious, and I’d say it’s everything that life is.  It’s funny...  Sometimes I hear musicians talking about their children and saying, “The last thing I’m not going to allow my child to do is to become a musician.  I don’t want him to suffer this way, live this life.”  I feel so differently.  I’m so happy my son is a musician, and I think he is happy.  It’s so wonderful to live with beauty, and to make that part of your life — not only part of your life, but the center of your life and your everyday activity.

BD:    That’s wonderful.  You were mentioning some of the recordings.  Are there some recordings that you feel more represent different periods in your life than others
certain big landmarks?

JD:     Oh, sure.  There are many pieces that I think are very strong pieces.  In Centers is from 1968, an early piece that I think is very strong.  We were talking about the recherche sonore of the 1960s, and this is certainly one of those pieces that looks for all kinds of exotic sound qualities coming out of the group.  I must say not only that, but again, so typical in my music is that it gets very centered on a kind of dramatic situation.  That piece was commissioned by Arthur Weisberg and the Contemporary Chamber Ensemble, and Arthur asked for a piece specifically for his wonderful trumpet player, Bob Nagel, who has just retired.  This was one of those combinations that was so typical of the sixties, with one of each instrument.  There was one violin, one viola, one cello, etcetera, and typically about thirteen players.  I had the notion of a concerto grosso for the three brass players, trumpet, horn and trombone as the soloists, and the rest of the gang being the ripieni.  Then I began to worry about how can you match one little violin or one little flute against a trombone, these so huge, powerful instruments.  Maybe it was because of all those great travel movies in the sixties about Africa.  I used to love those things, but I had this image of tigers or lions walking through a jungle, and all the little animals fluttering and scurrying to get out of their way
the gazelles and the birds just fluttering around.  So that became the image of the piece, and that’s what the piece was all aboutall of the activity being begun by the brass, and all of the other instruments reacting in a kind of a fluttery, frightened way about them.

BD:    It worked out well that way?

JD:    It works.  I still like it.

BD:    Does the public get this kind of image, or do they get other images when they hear it?  Or are they told to get this image?

JD:    I occasionally put things like that in program notes.  Sometimes they get too personal and I leave them out.  But I don’t know how important it is, if you’re listening to Till Eulenspiegel, to think that this is the moment when he’s dressed as a priest, and this is the moment when he knocks over the apple cart.  I don’t think that’s where the excitement is about.  On the other hand, to know that it is about a wag, or somebody who misbehaves — I think that’s enough to let your own imagination go.

BD:    Give the listener a starting point but don’t fill in all the details.  Let the music fill in the details.

JD:    Yes, hopefully.

BD:    Do you feel that you’re part of a lineage of composers?

JD:    I think so... not in the prideful sense of being up in the ranks of all the great ones, but I don’t feel like I’m reinventing music.  I never was that kind of composer.  There are certainly people, particularly my generation and even earlier, that kind of wanted to start from scratch.  John Cage, for example, or Philip Glass for that matter.  His kind of naïveté is that nobody had ever used a major triad before.  Boulez, for that matter, consciously tried to cut the umbilical cord to break the connections with the past.

BD:    Or blow up the opera houses! 
[Note: This refers to an article published, among other places, in Opera Magazine in June of 1968, where Boulez made that remark.  Lest one think that idea is universally amusing, here is the real-life consequence of having said it...]

In the early morning hours of November 2, 2001, conductor Pierre Boulez was detained by Swiss security forces, whose cross-check of hotel registries against a list of those known to have made “terroristic” statements in the past turned up the name of a famous composer and modernist musical intellectual. Evidently a malicious critic had once phoned in a complaint to the Swiss authorities that Boulez had threatened to “blow him up” after a bad review; the accusation went unchallenged, and, correlated with a record of Boulez’s own incendiary comments about opera in a 1967 interview with the German weekly Der Spiegel, formed enough of a pattern to justify the temporary confiscation of his passport and some pointed questions before he headed off to the airport. The interview had been published under the provocative title “Blow Up the Opera Houses!” (Sprengt die Opernhaüser in die Luft!) something which Boulez had indeed said, and though the Swiss took a fair amount of ribbing for their literal-mindedness, the rhetorical violence of Boulez’s rejection of the post-war operatic scene remains striking. The call to blow up opera houses was in fact one of the milder moments of the conversation, presented ironically as an “elegant, if costly” solution to a proliferation of outmoded designs that prevented even the newest of German concert halls from embracing technical advances in staging. No aspect of post-war operatic culture escaped the revolutionary’s wrath: the opera world was a self-segregating “ghetto” for intellectual suicides; the typical opera house was a “musty closet,” a “music museum”; the one he knew best, in Paris, was badly maintained, full of “dust and shit,” fit only for musical “tourists” whose taste he found “sickening.” Boulez’s prescription for this sclerotic opera culture was a therapeutic “bloodletting” along Maoist lines, complete with imported cadres of Red Guards to crack heads.

JD:    Yeah, blow up the opera houses!  I don’t think I’ve done that.  There’s always been a connection to the past, and as I get older, it seems to be stronger and stronger, closer and closer to the roots.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music?

JD:    Mm-hm.  I love what the young composers are doing now.  I think many, many good things are going on.  I adored Nixon in China.  There’s some problems with some libretto, in particular that last scene, which I’m not sure is an opera scene.  It’s a great idea for a play, but the music is wonderful.

BD:    You’re on a committee for composer-librettists?

JD:    I was.  This is the section of the NEA that gives out grants.  I put in a couple of years as one of the judges there.  In fact, I was co-chairman for a few years.

BD:    You were looking at libretti?

JD:    Rarely.  Most particularly the scores.  Occasionally the project would come in with a libretto.  It was mostly the grad student composers, but the technical name was Composer/Librettist Program.

BD:    When you were judging a competition like this, what kinds of things do you look for?

JD:    You look at the applicants you have, and it’s not a matter of matching the applicants to any prior standards that you come up with.  It’s a matter of setting an order of priorities with the people that you have before you.

BD:    But you’ve got to make some kind of qualitative judgment amongst various scores that are in front of you.  I would find that impossible, which is why I am curious about it.

JD:     It’s difficult.  It’s difficult, but I do so much of it; it’s part of my almost everyday experience.  As a teacher I have to make decisions about admissions, too.  Who do I take as students?  You look for competence and preparedness, and most particularly for a spark of originality.  Sometimes you get originality without any technique at all, and sometimes the other way around, but both of those things can be valuable.

BD:    I would think that originality without technique would be better, because you could help develop the technique.

JD:    It’s harder to see.

BD:    But you could see the originality and then work with the technique, whereas it would be much harder to have technique and no inspiration.

JD:    Yes, that’s true.

BD:    In music, where is the balance between the artistic achievement and the entertainment-value?

JD:    I think the word
entertainment-value is so prejudicial.  It sounds like light music, and it isn’t.   Is a late Beethoven quartet entertaining?  In the best sense it is because it’s involving, but it doesn’t make you giggle.

BD:    Like a Mozart divertimento?

JD:    That’s right, or a scene from Candide.

BD:    [With a sly nudge]  Or a piece by Jacob Druckman?

JD:    [Smiling]  Mm-hm...  Or a song by Madonna can get you up and interested in a different way.

BD:    [Laughs]  Thank you for being a composer.

JD:    My goodness!  Thank you for listening.

Jacob Druckman, 67, Dies; A Composer and Teacher

Published: May 27, 1996  The New York Times

Jacob Druckman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, teacher and conductor who, through his work as a consultant to major symphony orchestras and a president of foundations, became an influential proponent of contemporary music, died on Friday at the Yale Health Service in New Haven. He was 67 and lived in Milford, Conn.

The cause was lung cancer, said his wife, Muriel Topaz Druckman.

Although he spent most of his career teaching at universities, most notably the Yale School of Music, there was little that could be called academic about Mr. Druckman's music. He was best known for his vividly scored and viscerally dramatic orchestral works. His professional approach to composition and his belief that young composers should be out in the field working with orchestras, writing large pieces for large audiences, had a major impact on his many students, several of whom, like Michael Torke, Aaron Jay Kernis and David Lang, have achieved significant success.

As a young composer, Mr. Druckman studied and employed aspects of Serialism in his music, and his later works retained compositional rigor. But in the late 1960's he greatly diversified his musical language, becoming a skillful exponent of electronic music and incorporating elements of theater into his concert works, including narrative and ritualistic scenarios.

But the exploration of timbre and instrumental color remained the hallmark of his style. Commenting on his 1979 work "Aureole," commissioned by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic for a tour to the West Coast and Japan, Mr. Druckman wrote that whereas other composers considered orchestral color "decorative," for him it was an "intrinsic and structural" concern, "as central to me as sonata allegro form was for Mozart." The critic Peter G. Davis, writing of that work in The New York Times, termed it "virtually a textbook demonstration of how to achieve shimmering, vaporous, iridescent textures from a full symphony orchestra."

Jacob Raphael Druckman was born in Philadelphia on June 25, 1928. As a youth he studied piano and violin and played trumpet in jazz ensembles. In 1949, he studied composition at the Berkshire Music Center with Aaron Copland, who remained an important mentor. That fall he entered the Juilliard School, where his teachers were Peter Mennin, Vincent Persichetti and Bernard Wagenaar. A Fulbright fellowship took him to Paris for study. After completing his master's degree at Juilliard in 1956, he began teaching there, an association that lasted until 1972, when he joined the faculty of Brooklyn College. In 1976, he was appointed chairman of the composition department at Yale, where he remained a professor of music until his death.

Mr. Druckman's first large-scale orchestral work, "Windows," given its premiere by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1972, won that year's Pulitzer Prize in music. Reviewing the work, the New York Times critic Donal Henahan wrote of its "pulsating breathlessness." In one of his most important associations, Mr. Druckman was appointed composer in residence with the New York Philharmonic in 1982, also serving as artistic director of the Philharmonic's three Horizons festivals.

The 1983 and 1984 festivals explored the "new romanticism." The concerts were provocative and well attended. Some composers associated with the cerebral so-called uptown school accused Mr. Druckman of pandering. But in his essay for the programs, Mr. Druckman argued that he was not advocating any movement, but simply noting a decisive shift in the "steady underlying rhythm of music" toward the "sensual, mysterious, ecstatic, transcending the explainable." The programs were striking for their inclusion of such diverse composers as Toru Takemitsu, David Del Tredici, Luciano Berio, John Adams and Donald Martino.

The most upsetting event of Mr. Druckman's professional life was the debacle of his Metropolitan Opera Commission. An opera based on the Medea story by Mr. Druckman was to have been part of the Metropolitan Opera's centennial celebrations. But this commission came in 1981, at the same time Mr. Druckman's association with the New York Philharmonic began. A slow worker, Mr. Druckman found the task of writing the opera more daunting than he had imagined. There were creative disputes over the libretto by Tony Harrison, a British poet. By 1986, the Met had canceled the commission. A production in Bonn was announced, but those plans fell through as well.

In 1991, Mr. Druckman was appointed president of the Aaron Copland Fund for Music. In this position, his work was viewed as insightful and eminently fair. Just last month, although in bad health, he attended a meeting in New York.

In addition to his wife, who was formerly head of the dance faculty at Juilliard and is currently a writer for Dance magazine, he is survived by a son, Daniel, a percussionist with the New York Philharmonic; a daughter, Karen Jeanneret, and three granddaughters. A memorial service will be held on Wednesday at 1 P.M. at the Robert E. Shure Funeral Home in New Haven.

  --  Note: Names which are links refer to interviews by Bruce Duffie elsewhere on this website 

© 1989 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in the office suite of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra on March 22, 1989.  Segments were used (with recordings) on WNIB in 1993 and 1998.  It was also used on WNUR in 2006 and in 2009, and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio also in 2008.  The transcription was made and posted on this website in 2014.

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.