By Bruce Duffie


[Note: This interview was held at Orchestra Hall in Chicago on February 28, 1985. 
The article was written early in 1987 for Nit & Wit, but the magazine ceased publication and the piece was never printed.  Portions of the audio, however, were used on both WNIB and WNUR, and the entire conversation was archived at Northwestern University.]

*   *   *   *   *

Just a few weeks ago, composer Donald Erb celebrated his 60th birthday.  In mid-April, he will have his next major triumph – a world premiere played by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  Our symphony is noted for many things, among them the famous brass section, and this new piece is appropriately entitled Concerto for Brass Section and Orchestra.

Erb is the recipient of numerous fellowships, awards, grants, and honors, but every composer yearns for a conductor to champion his or her music, and this man has one in the person of Leonard Slatkin.  [See my Interviews with Leonard Slatkin.]  Last season it was Slatkin who brought Prismatic Variations to both Orchestra Hall and Nonesuch Records.  Slatkin, who is a regular fixture in Chicago – on Michigan Avenue with the Orchestra, and now on Wacker Drive with Lyric Opera – will present this newest piece.  The composer has high praise for the conductor.  Very concerned with timing, Erb told me that the two performances last season “differed by only 18 seconds, which shows you how sharp Leonard is.  Conductors hear different things in the music than I do.  At this point, he knows the score better than I do because he’s been inside it day after day and I haven’t.”  Once a piece has been given its premiere, this composer doesn’t look at it very often, but goes onto the next project.

The composer only conducts his own works once in awhile.  “The reason I conduct at all is that I like getting onstage.  I think it’s fun.  I like getting out there and dealing with the audience.”  He says it’s important for a composer to remember what it feels like to be out there and have to produce under those conditions.  “I think that composers who get isolated too much lose touch with musical reality.”

Erb is a creator who expects the public to be affected by what he does, but he doesn’t expect to be liked by everyone.  “Any music that stands for something is going to have some people who don’t like it.”  But he doesn’t want to be ignored.  “I write for the audience, but not for everybody.”  He reminds his students that in every audience “there will be all kinds of people out there
liberals, right-wingers, psychotics – so don’t expect that you can communicate with them all.”  However, he does tailor his music a bit depending on who has commissioned it – as composers have done for hundreds of years.  “If a certain orchestra commissions me to do a piece and I know the orchestra, I’ll know who the best players are and who are the most accepting of my aesthetic.”

For this new work, Erb came to a number of concerts in Chicago.  “I’d heard them on broadcasts, but the brass section never comes across on a record the way it does in the hall.  There’s nothing in the world that takes the place of sitting in a hall with live musicians playing straight at you.  That’s the only musical experience which, to me, is 100%.”  In speaking about the sophisticated home sound systems, he notes that things are changing, but he doesn’t know whether or not it’s for the better.  “People who grew up in the 19th Century would have the opportunity to hear some of the Beethoven symphonies once or twice in their lifetime.  Now, with some music repetition available, wonderful as those pieces are, they wear out.  Players get excited about doing something new.  Even though they might not say so, I see a spark when they are getting a piece off the ground for the first time.”

During our chat, I asked about what really sparked him.  “The real thrill is the first few times you hear it.  It’s brand new to you and you’re really experiencing your own piece and examining what you did and seeing what kinds of reactions you’re getting from the audience.”  Some of his pieces are done enough times that the questions have been answered, and the composer feels they are played even better.  One work, The Seventh Trumpet, has been performed by fifty orchestras in the United States, and was selected as the representative for the UNESCO Conference in 1971.  Naturally, he’s also glad that he’s reached the point where the Chicago Symphony has asked him to write them a piece, but commissions are not uncommon.  Most of his music in the last score of years has been requested by somebody for some specific purpose.  Once the pieces are published, even the composer doesn’t know all the performances they get, “and Slatkin is one of the worst offenders!  He’ll play a piece of mine someplace, and won’t tell me.  Sometimes, if I’d known, I could have gone there for it.”

The life of a composer might seem foreign to others, but, as he told me, “A composer is like everyone else.  You get up in the morning, put on your trousers, eat your wheatcakes, and go to work.  It’s interesting work, but you’re just doing it.”  He feels that’s he’s part of a slip of history that’s been going on for a long time, and will probably go on some more.  “Some people think that pop will replace serious music, but I don’t think that will be the case.”  We then chatted a bit about the differences between serious music and pop, and noted the very real line between them and their differing objectives.  “Serious music is not necessarily ‘art,’ but it tries to be.  That’s the difference – it aspires to be.  Most, though, is not.  Serious music can sometimes be entertainment, and there are entertaining aspects of serious music, but very little entertainment reaches the point where it becomes an art form.” According to Erb, the American Music Industry makes music for the lowest common denominator.  “I would guess that maybe 25 years down the line, a lot of this is going to self-destruct.  I see some signs of that now.”  But he makes the big distinction that he’s not talking about jazz.  “Some of the greatest performers and composers that this country has produced to date have come out of jazz.” 

When we met, it was after a performance of Prismatic Variations, so he was dressed in a three-piece suit.  He commented that he looked incredibly respectable because he often “looks kind of funky.”  What does this composer do to relax at the end of his day?  He goes fishing, or talks to his wife, or goes out to the woods to watch birds.  Nature is very important to him, quite a change from the lad who spent seven years being paid as a child actor on radio.  Back in Cleveland where he grew up, he was in plays and serials, including a sort of local Jack Armstrong show.  He lost that job, however, when his voice changed.  In addition to composing, Erb has been teaching since 1950.  “There’s a great mythology that composing can’t be taught, but I think it can be.  I understand the tools of my trade, and that was taught to me.  The inspiration must be there, but you need to master technique.  The artistry is what you have to say as a person, but the tools are something you can acquire.”

Since there are more composers today than ever before, Erb notes a fierce competition among them.  After all, there are only so many commissions and performances.  “Students these days are much more concerned with their own survival than they used to be, but that’s because they have to be.  Students coming out of school now are going to have a harder time finding work.  You have to make a living, but if you want to stay a composer, you have to find a way of making a living in music.  That could be a lot of things besides teaching, but you need to be around musicians in some way.”

In speaking about the divergent styles today, he said, “It’s the post-serialists vs. the minimalists.  Ultimately these things come in and pour something into the mainstream, and music gets affected by what they do.  Probably in the long haul nobody is completely right.  Each new idea pours some new ingredient into the stew.”  I asked about vocal music and opera.  Having spent most of his time with instrumentalists, he feels the opera world is a little alien.  But he has written some choral music, though not as much as he’d like to have done.

So what affects Donald Erb and his music?  Lots of outside things.  “I feel less affected by the socio-political environment than I ever have in my life.  That may be my age.  There were times when it was an important force in what I was doing.  We’re all affected by the sociology around us.  But,” he continued, “I have gotten more abstract in my views about music.  I’m working more with music in the abstraction, as many composers have when they’ve gotten older.”  Here we come back to the idea of time.  “I used to write pieces that were 10 to 15 minutes long, but now they are often 20 to 25 minutes.”  As he mentioned first, the timing is very important.  “There’s a certain point at which, if you miscalculate the time, you’re over the hill.  And it’s not always a case of being too long!”  He works with a stopwatch and puts the timing in the lower right-hand corner of every page.  “You really have to keep a monitor on yourself or you’ll get carried away with self-love.”  That is an important message he imparts to his students.

A composer and teacher has to be aware and keep us with many trends.  He’s now getting back into electronics after have been sidetracked.  “Things were always not working properly, and people are much easier to deal with than electricity.”  He’s never done a purely electronic piece, but always used the electronics in conjunction with live musicians or dancers.  Erb recalls one electronics festival about 20 years ago where one fellow got up, and before walking out asked, “How do you identify sexually with a tape recorder?”  The composer said he thought about that a lot afterward, and noted that this person had a point.  “The whole question of using electronic music to make human contact is really difficult.  The real value of electronics is to get more colors on the palette.”

One person – or really lots of people – who can either befriend or befuddle a composer are the critics.  According to Erb, they “should educate the public, evaluate and foster interest in music.  That is very similar to the role of the composer, so the critic is involved in many of the same things.”  He thinks that the critic should also be a positive advocate and a helper of the arts in the community.  “There have been some brilliant critics, and when they are, even though I may disagree with them, I cannot argue their credentials.”

Whenever I get the chance, I ask composers about revisions in their scores.  Erb said he doesn’t change older pieces because he’s not the same person who composed that work.  “Better not to fuss with it,” he says.  “Learn from the mistakes and write another piece.”  In the end, though, he says that most of the time he enjoys being a composer.  “It’s not a profession that’s on an even-keel.  There are days when life rains on your parade.  You really are making a living by scratching your own nerve-ends, and by challenging other people to think.  Some of the feedback is nice, and sometimes you deserve it.  All in all, it’s an exciting way to make a living.”

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra will present the world premiere of Concerto for Brass Section and Orchestra under the direction of Leonard Slatkin.  Also on the program will be symphonies by Haydn and Vaughn Williams.  Performances are April 16, 17, 18 in Orchestra Hall, 220 South Michigan Avenue, right across from the Art Institute of Chicago.

*   *   *   *   *

© 1985 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded at Orchestra Hall in Chicago on February 28, 1985.  Sections were used (along with recordings) on WNIB in 1986 and 1987, and on WNUR in 2006 and 2012.  A copy of the unedited audio was placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University.  This article was written early in 1987 for Nit & Wit Magazine, but was never used due to tthe demise of the publication.  It was slightly re-edited and posted on this website in 2012. 

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.