Composer / Organist  Frank  Ferko

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Frank Ferko (b. June 18, 1950) received his Bachelor of Music degree in piano and organ performance from Valparaiso University, his Master of Music degree in music theory (with a minor in organ performance) from Syracuse University, and his doctorate in music composition from Northwestern University, where he studied with Alan Stout.

Mr. Ferko’s choral works have been performed by such distinguished artists as His Majestie’s Clerkes, the Dale Warland Singers, the Lutheran Choir of Chicago, Chicago Choral Artists, and the American Repertory Singers, and through the sponsorship of New Music Chicago, the Chicago Composers’ Consortium, and the American Composers Forum.

Mr. Ferko has received numerous national awards in composition, including the 1989-1990 AGO/Holtkamp Award from the American Guild of Organists, and annual ASCAP awards since 1989. In 1991, he received grants from Meet the Composer and the Community Arts Assistance Program of Chicago; in 1995 and again in 1998, he received the coveted Composer Fellowship from the Illinois Arts Council; and in 1997, the Dale Warland Singers awarded Ferko their 1998-99 choral commission in their New Choral Works Program for Emerging Composers.

His compositions are published by E.C. Schirmer, with which he has an exclusive publishing agreement. More than twenty of his works have been recorded on compact disc, primarily on the Arsis label and The Liturgical Press.

I had met Frank Ferko on several of my visits to the Music Library of Northwestern University, and one rainy day in April of 2000, he came to my home-studio for an interview.  Always cheerful, he responded to my questions with thought and sincerety.  It was a pleasure for both of us, and here is that conversation . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Thank you for coming out on a rainy day.

ferko Frank Ferko:   Oh, it’s not a problem at all.

BD:   Does the rain affect what you’re writing on any particular day?

Ferko:   Not really.  When I start a project, I usually have certain definite ideas in mind, so the rain won’t affect too much of my thinking.  But, I like the rain.  I’ve always worked well with rain, and I’ve often thought about even moving to Seattle.

BD:   [Laughs]  Where it’s always raining!

Ferko:   It’s always raining, but I love that kind of weather.

BD:   Do any outside forces, such as personal things, influence what goes down on the page?

Ferko:   That does happen from time to time.  I try not to let it affect me in an adverse way, but there have been many times when things have gone down on the page, and then later on I go back and look and think, “No, this isn’t right,” and just scrap it and do something else.  That’s happened many times.  Sometimes it’s because there’s the wrong kind of influence going on in there, or I think I don’t know where my head was when I wrote this.  So, it gets redone.

BD:   You look at it the next day, and you redo it.  Then you tinker with it a little bit, and eventually finish.  How do you know when it’s ready to give it to the publisher, or to the performers?

Ferko:   There’s something that just clicks with it and you just know this is it, this is what it’s going to be.  This happened, as a matter of fact, when I was writing the Stabat Mater.  After the piece was in rehearsal, and they were working on the second stanza, I mentioned to Anne Heider [Artistic Director of His Majestie’s Clerkes]
, “You realize this is the fourth different piece of music that I wrote for that stanza.”  She said she had no idea, and I said, “I went through lots of different thought patterns in this.  I could get the piece started, and I could write some later things, but that one little chunk just presented all kinds of problems.”  I wrote lots of different little pieces to go with that text, and finally saved it to the very end, until everything else was done, and came back to it.  Finally it just fell right into place, and I said, “This is perfect.  This is what’s going to work.”

BD:   So, you were happy with it in the end?

Ferko:   Yes.

BD:   Does it fit in with everything else?

Ferko:   It does, but I had to get it to that point.  I don’t know what it is, but I know when it’s done, and I know when it’s right.  Also, sometimes when a piece is finished, and I look at it, I think, “No, this isn’t exactly right, but it will work.  It will be okay.”  I let it go, and it’s fine.  Sometimes there may be something out there that I’m searching for, and I don’t quite find it.  I think, “Well, maybe it’s really not there, and what I’ve got here is just fine,” and so I keep it.  If I’m happy with it, okay.  If I’m not happy with it, I won’t let the piece go.  My first composition teacher used to say, “You know when the piece is done.  You can rewrite it and rewrite it and rewrite it to please somebody else, but when it’s done, you know it’s done, and you shouldn’t be happy with it until you know it is done.”  I always follow that.

BD:   Is there ever a time when you have a conflict between a deadline, or performance date, and that feeling of being done?

Ferko:   A little bit.  I usually try to pace myself so that I don’t have that crunch.  I work well with deadlines, and sometimes I’m working right up to the deadline, but usually that is not composing anymore.  That’s just making the final copy, because I do all my own copy work.  The composing process is done long before that, so I don’t have to worry about coming up with ideas right up against the deadline, because that just wouldn’t work.

BD:   Are there times when you’re making that last copy, and you add a little dynamic mark, or a little accent?

Ferko:   Oh, sure.  There are lots of little changes that go in during the final copy.  I’ll put a question mark in pencil, a note to myself to add something there, and by the time I get to that point in the copy process, I know what should go there.  So, I just fill it in and keep going.  I write very fast, and it’s almost unreadable.  That’s why I do my own copy work, because I’m probably the only one who can read it.  That comes quickly, but there are lots of little details that I might skip over, and then I go back later, maybe the next day, and fill some things in.  But some of the things don’t get filled until the final copy.

BD:   You don’t have to be specific, but are there ever times that something should get filled in after the first performance?

Ferko:   Oh, yes.  As a matter of fact, I have an agreement, or a relationship with my editor at the publishing firm now, that I won’t send anything to them until after it’s been performed at least once.  There can be all kinds of things that come out in a performance that you just didn’t quite imagine would work this way or that way.  Or, there will be something that can happen and I think, “Nope, we’ve got to change this, or move that, or something.”

BD:   Is that a case of not getting your ideas across, or are you discovering something later that would work better?

Ferko:   The latter.  I’m discovering something that would work better usually because things can happen with resonance, and with overtones, especially with voices.  When you have big chords going on, it can sometimes create an effect that I wasn’t expecting.  Then, I have to change it, but with choral things, I’m pretty much on top of it now.  I’ve written enough of that, that I feel pretty comfortable with it.  It’s the instrumental writing that I haven’t done as much of, and with certain combinations like the flute and guitar piece.  I was on the phone a lot with the guitarist, but I’d never written for the instrument before.  He was advising me, and there was a friend in town who also talked with me, and worked through the guitar-writing.  They were offering suggestions.

BD:   Not being a single line, it’s much more complicated, and yet you’re not used to it because it’s not keyboard.

Ferko:   Right, exactly.  I’ve done some writing for harp, and I thought I should be able to work with a guitar, but it doesn’t really transfer.  The instruments are quite different.  So, I had to do a certain amount of revising, and even after the premiere I was still doing a little bit of revising to get it exactly where I wanted it.  Finally, I have submitted it to the publisher.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you’re writing things, and you’re getting them onto the paper, are you creating them, or are you finding them and discovering them?

Ferko:   It’s a combination of both.  I pull from lots of different things, just as every composer has at some point.  When I look at the text, for example, there are certain things that will jump out.  I hear certain important words, and certain sounds of the words, and I start hearing things in my mind that will go with that.  It might be music that is very conventional sounding.  I’m not really into creating a new sound, but I’m pulling from previous experience, and using sounds maybe for an effect, or for certain kind of color that appeals to me for that particular text.  I will pull that together and put it down on the page.  John Cage used to say that nobody can do anything truly new; that everything has already been done, and what we can do is only combine things in different ways.  In a sense, I think he was right, because all sorts of wild bizarre things have already happened.  I’m not sure how much that is truly new people can come up with.  What people are doing is going back to some of the ideas that are the results of experimentation, and pulling things that have worked before, and working those ideas into new pieces.  That’s a certain amount of what I’m doing, because there are certain effects that came out of the experimental era of the
60s and the 50s that I like to pull on and use.  Besides, I’m using them in my own way, rather than the way somebody else used them.

BD:   The music of yours that I’ve heard so far is tonal, or an outgrowth of the tonal spectrum.

Ferko:   Absolutely, particularly when I’m writing for human voices.  There’s only so much you can do with the voice.  We can’t do the kinds of bizarre experiments that people have done with instruments.  I’m not going to do that to my singers.

ferko BD:   Even though some composers do?

Ferko:   [Laughs]  Yes, I suppose.  When I write for the voice, I try to write in a way that is what I call
gracious to the voice.  I want the singers to enjoy what they’re doing.  I like writing for performers.

BD:   For specific performers, or just the performer?

Ferko:   Both.  If it’s a commission and I’m working on a particular project, I usually gear it for those performers.  If it’s not a commission, or if it’s something that I just want to have a life, I will think of other performers beyond that.  But very often I’m gearing it towards certain performers.  Anyway, I like to write in a way that is gracious to the voice, so that they will enjoy singing it, and I hope that they will then continue doing more performances of the work.  I’d also like to challenge them.  It’s not a real simple, mindless kind of tonality.  I like to challenge them, and shift keys, and combine keys, and do all sorts of things that will create an effect.  When it comes to things like organ-writing, I’m an organist, so I know what will work and what won’t.  So, I get a little bit more experimental sometimes, because there are all kinds of things you can do with an organ that will be kind of fun and interesting.  I like to play around with that, and I like to do it with other instruments as I have the opportunity.  Some instrumentalists and some singers don’t want much of that, and if they’re asking for a new piece and they want something that they can perform that will be more or less in my style, I will try to write that for them.  If they want it to be a little more conservative, that’s fine, I can work that out, too.  So, it depends on who I’m writing for.  Some people have noticed a very distinct difference between the choral music I write for concert choirs, and what I write for church choirs.  There is a difference.  Many of the church choirs I’ve written for are volunteer singers, or people with a limited amount of training.  Some of the church choirs I’ve written for are very fine professionals, so it depends.  But I have written for small groups, very small groups that were either professional or not professional.  For example, the Marian Motets were written for a group that was eight singers.  There’s only so much you can do with eight singers, and that was made clear.  So, I had to gear the pieces that way.

BD:   Is that the challenge for you
to write something that is interesting and worthwhile for singers of lesser ability, or for a smaller group?

Ferko:   Yes.  I haven’t done a whole lot of that, but some of the smaller anthem-type pieces that I’ve written were along that line.  I was a church choir director for many years, and I worked with groups of different capabilities.  So, some of the pieces that I wrote, particularly in the early
90s, were geared for a group that I conducted in Hyde Park that was really quite good.  I thought that I can write these pieces, and certainly if they can perform them, most other church choirs would be able to... [laughs] at least I would hope so.  I have since found out that many church choirs are performing them.  They are very conservative pieces, but they work well within the setting of a church service.  It’s the kind of thing that is useful and they get the text across.  People enjoy hearing them and performing them, so they work.

BD:   Are you making a distinction between useful music and abstract music?

Ferko:   To a degree, yes.  I am not opposed at all to the idea of Gebrauchsmusik [utility music].  There is music that is used for certain occasions, and when somebody asks me to write a piece like that, I’ll do it if it’s something that interests me.  I’ve been asked to write pieces that did not interest me, and I usually find some way of avoiding doing it.

BD:   In general, when you get a commission or a request, how do you decide yes or no?

Ferko:   There are various things.  Sometimes it’s just my schedule, and if I have too much going, I will tell the person I can do it, but it’s going to be a year or two before I can get it done.  If they’re willing to wait, and I want to do the project, that’s fine.  If they’re not willing to wait, then there’s really not much I can do about it.  The project usually will have an immediate appeal, or an immediate grating against my thinking in some way, and I can tell right away whether or not I really want to do it.  Circumstances vary, but if it’s some bizarre thing that I’m really not interested in, I will just politely say,
No, thank you.  There are people who ask for commissions, but they’re often not for money, so that’s not really a commission in my book.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You don’t want to work for a hearty handshake?

Ferko:   Not really.  [Laughs]  Those are nice, but sometimes what happens is the person will trade you for a definite performance.  Early in my career I accepted that, because I wanted performances.  At this point, that doesn’t put food on the table.  It’s not quite as useful, so I really look for things where the person is serious about commissioning a new work that will go out there, and they’re willing to pay for it, and we go with that.  But even then, sometimes the project is something that just doesn’t interest me, and I’ll turn it down.  I’ve turned down paying projects before, just because it was something that really was not my cup of tea.

BD:   You have the luxury because you’re in a full time position at Northwestern University.

Ferko:   Sure.

BD:   Is this a good position for a composer to not have to rely on every piece of music to bring in money to put food on the table, as you say?

Ferko:   I think it’s a good position.  It’s worked for me.  It gets a little bit tedious, sometimes, having a daily job, but that’s very common in America.  It would be nice to have the freedom of not having to go to an office every day, and to be able to sit and create in my own little world whenever I want to, but very few composers in this country have that luxury.

BD:   We should mention that we’ve talked about your being at Northwestern University, but it’s not a professorial position.

Ferko:   No.  It’s in the music library.

BD:   So, it’s with music, but you’re not having to deal with students and their ideas every day.

Ferko:   Right.  I’m not having to teach them how other composers think and write.  I feel a certain amount more freedom in what I’m doing, as opposed to people who teach.

BD:   I would think the teaching would be a little more draining on your own creativity.

Ferko:   I would think so, too.  I did some teaching about twenty-five years ago, when I first came out of grad school, but that was before I was a composer.  I was a theorist then, and didn’t seriously decide to be a composer until 1980.  But that was after my early teaching was finished.


BD:    Did you decide, or did it decide you?

Ferko:   A little of both.  I got into the Ph.D. Program in Theory at Northwestern, and actually didn’t really know if I wanted to do all these things.  There were areas they were guiding us into, and I wasn’t so sure that I was interested in all of them anymore.  I was taking composition lessons with Alan Stout just as a thing to do.  I was interested that he was there, and he was very willing to work with me.  We had lessons for a while, and after a few months I said, “How about if I change my major?”  He said that would be fine, so I changed the major, and went on pursuing the composition degree.  I was about thirty years old when I finally made that decision, and that’s kind of late to be coming into the composer world.

BD:   At least you’re coming to it from a parallel line, rather than from some place out in left field.

Ferko:   Yes, and the other thing that helped was that I was always a performer, and I was dealing with new music.  I always enjoyed performing new music, and exploring new things.  So, that kept new ideas coming my way.

BD:   Plus, dealing with theory meant you were keeping up with all the new trends.

Ferko:   Yes.

BD:   So, it all came together.

Ferko:   Exactly.

BD:   You’re working in the library now.  Does it at all frustrate you not to be able to sit down with the various scores you’re surrounded with, and spend two hours looking at them?  Or can you do that?

Ferko:   [Laughs]  I don’t spend two hours looking at them, but there are times when I have spent a little time looking at them, because there are some very, very interesting things.  This library focuses on collecting Twentieth Century music, and as much as they can get their hands on was composed since 1945.  So, it’s very recent music that’s coming our way, and I get to see nearly all of it as it’s coming in, because I’m cataloguing it.  There are other people who catalogue, but I’m doing the bulk of it, so a good bit of that music comes across my desk.

BD:   It sounds like if something lands on somebody else’s desk, you will look at it just to see what it is.

Ferko:   They know what I’m interested in
at least a certain number of composers that are particularly interesting to meand if something comes across somebody else’s desk, they’ll call it to my attention, or they’ll just bring it to me and say, “I think you should do this one,” which is very nice.  The other temptation is that I catalog recordings, too, and it’s very tempting to pull something out and put on the headphones, and sit and listen to it, which we really can’t do much of.

BD:   [With a wink]  You have to check to make sure the record works, and that it doesn’t skip or bleep or run on...

Ferko:   Indeed, yes.  [Laughs]  That has been known to happen on a number of occasions.

*     *     *     *     *

ferko BD:   You say that other people know the kinds of composers that you’re interested in.  Let me turn that question on its head.  Does it please you that there are other people who are interested in what you’re doing, and want to know what you’re coming up with each day?

Ferko:   Oh, sure.  There are times when people start asking too many questions, and there have been people who have asked almost for a daily report whenever they know I’m working on some big project.  Well, I’m not going to sit and do that!  I can’t do that, so I let those questions go on by.  But it’s very nice that there are people who are interested in what I’m doing, and certainly, as things have become published or recorded, they have been very interested in them as they’re released.  They also want to know when things are coming out, so that they can get them, and that’s very, very nice.

BD:   Is it good or bad that the public, perhaps by listening to this program, or reading other articles about you, knows about the composer
s inner workings of how he puts the music onto the paper, and how it gets from the thought process to the notes and the performance?

Ferko:   I don’t discuss that very much because it’s different with each piece.  It’s almost like doing a self-analysis, or a psychoanalysis on myself to be able to describe to someone exactly what’s going on.  I did actually get asked to do that once.  A long time ago, when I was writing the Hildegard Organ Cycle, a friend of mine had a friend who was working on her doctoral dissertation in music education.  She now teaches in Northwestern, and we became good friends, but years ago we didn’t know each other.  She contacted me, sent me some cassette tapes, and said, “I have certain theories about how music is created.  What I’d like for you to do
if you don’t mindis just start running the tape machine while you’re writing, and whatever comes into your head I want you to verbalize, so that I can have this running record of what’s going on in your mind.”  I don’t talk to myself when I write music, so it was a very difficult thing to do.

BD:   Was it forty-five minutes of scribble, scribble, scribble... erase, erase, erase?

Ferko:   [Laughs]  Well, yes!  There were also various extraneous noises.  I was mumbling about various things, so I don’t know how useful it was.  She told me later that it was actually very useful, but I really find it tedious to try to talk about something as I’m creating.

BD:   Did you tell her what pieces were written while the tape was running?

Ferko:   Actually, I did.  I do remember I was writing the ninth movement of the Hildegard Cycle, and I remember that was probably the movement where I was the most verbose on the tape.  I kept all that music, so it was all there.  There might have been something that I threw out, but if so, I probably said something to that effect on the tape.  I don’t really remember, but I do remember that ninth movement being documented on that tape, at least to some degree.

BD:   That’s talking about this from one professional to another professional.  Do you want the general audience that comes to enjoy your music to know about all of this?

Ferko:   Sometimes they don’t want to know.  I experienced that, again, with the Stabat Mater, because Anne Heider asked me to do a pre-concert talk, which I did.  It was kind of a demonstration because it was brand new music, and she thought it would be a good idea for the audience to hear little segments of the music before the actual performance.  It would familiarize them with some of the ideas that were going on.  It was a wonderful idea, and she also wanted some background information .  So, I put together a whole thing, and it ended up being about fifteen minutes or so, with the demonstration sung by the chorus.  I tried to keep it from getting too technical, but there are always technical things that come into my talk when I’m speaking about the creation of music.  It’s hard to talk about music without getting technical... describing key relationships and things like that.  There were people in the audience who had no idea what I was talking about.  I was talking over their heads, and some of them came to me later and said so.  But there were parts of what I was saying that they could grab onto, and it helped them to navigate through the piece as they heard it.  So, I think it can be useful, but sometimes it can be a little too technical, and people just don’t want to deal with all of that.

BD:   They just want to hear the music?

Ferko:   They just want to hear it, yes.  I’ve also been accused of just being too explanatory with some of my music.  I know somebody who reviewed a performance of the Hildegard Organ Cycle.  He said, “The program notes are very extensive, and there’s a lot here.  We don’t care about that.  We just want to hear the music.”  I thought that’s fine.  What I want people to do is listen to it, but there is another level that’s in there, that if you understand what’s going on, the music might add another dimension to the listening.
 But certain people can listen and get something out if without reading all of that explanation.

BD:   Does it surprise you at all that there are so many different levels of expectation for your music?

Ferko:   It doesn’t surprise me because I like building layers into it, and I’m pleased when people can find those things, and pull them apart when they listen.  That way, they are enjoying the music on more than one level at a time, and if they can do that, that’s great.  Sometimes the pieces require multiple listenings before everything starts to become obvious, but I like the fact that they are listening with some intent, and some depth, and that they want to know more.  That’s why I like it when people have expressed an interest in buying the recordings, so they can listen to it a little bit, and more later.  Then, when a live performance comes along, they can come in, and just like anything else, it’s informed listening.  We do this with opera, and we do it with a lot of other things, where we listen to something a number of times before we go and see a performance, and I like that.  I try to put something in there for them, so that they can get something back on more than one level.

BD:   Are you pleased that a lot of your work is now being recorded, so that people can listen to it at remote locations and repeat it?

Ferko:   I’m thrilled.  I’m just thrilled about that.  I consider myself very lucky really to have this kind of thing going on.  It’s a very, very gratifying experience to have the things recorded, and I hope more people will take an interest in recording the music.  I’m particularly happy that a number of choruses have selected Hildegard Motets
not necessarily the whole set, but certain ones that they feel comfortable performing.  They have not only performed them, but also put them on recordings.  That’s a very nice thing, because they have their own audiencewhich may not be a national audiencethat they will sell their own recordings to.  They will have their own following that will appreciate that kind of thing, and I like that.

BD:   Because you write in a more tonal style, this may be a different kind of question, but is the music you write for everyone?

Ferko:   Perhaps not.  I like to think that it is, but...

BD:   [Feigning astonishment]  Six billion???

Ferko:   [Laughs]  It’s not going to be everybody’s cup of tea.  I’ve already realized that there are people who have heard about certain pieces, or heard about some of the work I’m doing, and they go and listen to it, and they’re very polite.  Even friends of mine are very polite, but they’re expecting something a little bit more experimental.  But if it’s not there, they can appreciate what I’m doing, and then they just let it pass.  Then, I have the opposite situation, where there are times when I have written something that is a little more experimental, and all these people who enjoy the tonal stuff get a little bit turned off.  [Laughs]  They just sit and wait for that part to be over so that they can get back to the good stuff again.  People are listening with their own background, and they’re bringing all their own experiences into their listening.

ferko BD:   Much of that is their own agenda?

Ferko:   Yes, there is a certain amount of that, too, sure.

BD:   I assume that we should be listening for your agenda?

Ferko:   [Laughs again]  I’m not always sure I have a real agenda.  It can change, certainly, but I would like for people to be listening for whatever is built in there.  There are times when people hear things that I wasn’t even aware was there.  Someone will make a comment about how this reminds them of such-and-such other piece, or they will hear a relationship between a movement and something in the same piece that they heard earlier, or in other works of mine that I was completely unaware when I wrote the piece.  Then I think, “That’s interesting,” and I go back and hear it again and find they’re right.  It’s fun, because they’re listening to it with a different experience, with fresh ears, and sometimes I’m so immersed in something that I’m missing a connection that someone else hears.

BD:   You’re just too close to it, and are immersed in it every day.

Ferko:   Yes.

BD:   Should it be a requirement for composers that for six months every twenty years to get away from all of it, and then come back?

Ferko:   It would be a nice thing to do.  The temptation, though, for composers is to start re-writing.  I know some composers, and I’m one of them, who refuse to re-write.  Once it’s done and it’s set, you leave it.  It documents what the thought process was at that time.

BD:   You want the new thoughts to make a new piece?

Ferko:   Exactly.  I know some people who go back and revise and revise, and there will be this version and that version and another version, and I think, “Oh, heavens.  This is endless.  Why bother?  Just write a new piece.”  So, I would rather let these pieces stand as a document of where my thinking was at a particular time.  There are people who have actually followed these things, and have commented to me through e-mail or letter about how they’ve noticed certain stylistic changes, or how certain ideas have developed more as time has gone on.  It’s interesting that these people are taking note of that, and mentioning it to me.  I kind of I like that.

BD:   Again, you don’t have to be specific, but are there any pieces out there that you hope never get performed, or you wish you could withdraw from your catalogue?

Ferko:   Yes.  [Laughs]  There was one like that which was published and was in their catalogue
not my current publisher, but another one.  It was in their catalogue for a while, and then went out of print.  I was so glad, because I really couldn’t ask them to pull it.  I didn’t feel I could ask that when they wanted to leave it out there, and they were selling copies of it.  It was a choral piece, and I’m sure there were choirs that probably enjoyed doing it.  It was a commissioned piece, and the people who first performed it enjoyed.  So I thought, “There are probably people out there who like the piece.”  Personally, I didn’t like it at all.  I wrote it for a certain situation, and it worked for that situation, but then later on, I felt it didn’t really work beyond that.  So, I was glad when the thing went out of print.

BD:   Is there any chance that you and your evaluation is not correct?

Ferko:   I suppose there is the chance.  That’s why I discuss these things with other composers just to see what they think.  That piece, I have not brought up to them.  There’s a certain group I meet with regularly, and we run pieces of music by each other and do little critiques and things like that.  I have thought about bringing that piece out and running it by them but then I thought, “No, I’m just going to let that one die.”  There are some really early pieces that I wrote when I was a student that were very experimental that really didn’t ever work.  They were performed once in a student recital at Northwestern, and after that I knew this just isn’t going to work.  I know what I could pull out of there and reuse, but the rest of it needs to be redone.  I could always write a new piece, and use some of the good points, but the piece, as it stood then, just wasn’t worth saving.

BD:   Re-writing is one thing, but cannibalizing is something else.

Ferko:   Yes.  There are times when I have actually pulled bits and pieces out of something, and created a whole new work, and it’s worked out much better the second time around.

BD:   But then those are two separate works.  It’s not a revision.

ferko Ferko:   No, it’s a completely different work when I do the second version.

BD:   Should they be combined or tied together at all, or are they really separate entities?

Ferko:   They’re separate entities, and usually if I’m doing that, the first work disappears completely.  It goes into a box in the closet and nobody ever sees it again.  I just pull out the parts I want, put it into a new piece, and that’s the one that then goes public.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  There’s not a Ferko piece called Variations on a Theme by Ferko?

Ferko:   No.  [Laughs]  There probably could be, but no, there’s not going to be that.

BD:   Is there somebody else who has done that piece?

Ferko:   [Thinks a moment]  Hmm, I don’t know.  I don’t know if anybody else has done it.

BD:   Would you encourage that?

Ferko:   No.  If somebody is going to write something, they should develop their own approach to it.  Let me do my thing, and they can do theirs.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let me ask the real easy question.  What’s the purpose of music?

Ferko:   [Gasps]  Wow!  That’s a very good question.  Music has always been a natural expression of human beings.  If people didn’t write music, there would be people improvising it, or coming up with it on their own.  It’s something that human beings have always had and worked with on some level.  The actual composition of music is just a formal statement of putting something down permanently.  Actually, the writing of it is relatively recent when you think of the whole history of the human race.  I’ve always been active in improvising, too.  I’ve always liked that process, so the idea of creating a piece and letting it go and never writing it down is fine.  There’s a place for that in human experience.  There is a lot that can be done that we enjoy for the moment, and then it’s gone.  There are times when I’ve improvised something and I think, “Hmm, maybe I should write this down.  This is kind of good and I can work with it, maybe improve it a little bit and make it into a published piece.”  I’ve done a little bit of that...  There was an organ piece that the first time I performed it I didn’t have time to write the piece, and I was premiering it.  The whole second movement was improvised at the concert.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Were you turning blank pages?

Ferko:   [Laughs]  No, no.  I had written a couple of chords on the page, and thought I wanted to incorporate these in there somewhere.  So, I just sat there and improvised the piece.  It was very quiet, but it was long.  I taped the whole concert, and then later I put on headphones and transcribed everything that I had done.  That became the second movement of the piece.

BD:   I wonder if that is really the purest form of musical composition?

Ferko:   Well, it might be, because it’s coming straight out of the human mind.  We’re fortunate today that we have recording devices that can preserve this, so that we can then go back and fix it.

BD:   This was in the heat of performance, so you were operating on all engines, and everything was firing.

Ferko:   Yes, exactly.  But just going back to your original question, music is really just a basic kind of human expression.  People are going to bang on things, or use their voices, or use their bodies in some way to express things.  It can be to express emotion, or it can be to express all kinds of things.  There are times when people will create music that doesn’t really express much of anything.  It’s an absolute sort of music that is not intended to express anything.  We’ve gotten to that point, but that’s more in the formal writing of music, where people are working out other issues rather than an expressive kind of thing.

BD:   Much of your music has text.  Does that change the expressive quality?  Does that give it a direction that you might not have in abstract pieces?

Ferko:   Yes, and one of the reasons I like working with texts so much is for that reason.  It does give a focus and a direction, and it puts ideas in my mind.  The kind of text, and what that text is expressing will affect what kind of music is set to that text.  I’m one who writes expressive music to go with expressive texts.  I’m not going to work against the texts.  I don’t like the idea of dissecting the text, pulling it apart and using isolated syllables here and there, and stretching things out so that the text no longer makes sense when you hear it.  There are lots of composers who like to do that, and I’ve enjoyed listening to many of those pieces myself, but I don’t do that.  I prefer to use text as it was meant to be understood by the text writer.  I have a lot of respect for text writers and for poets.  That means they’re writing something which means something to them, and I want to preserve that as much as possible if I’m going to set it to music.

ferko BD:   And yet, if someone has written a poem, they figure that it’s done.  You’re thinking it is as yet unfinished, and you are going about completing it.

Ferko:   Yes, that’s true, and if they don’t want me to do that to their text, they can say, “No, you can’t use it.”  Then I can’t use it, and that’s fine.  There are people, though, who really don’t mind at all, and some people who actually write texts specifically because they want them to be set to music.  For example, I worked with a librettist, and we’ve done a one act opera together.  You know a person doesn’t write a libretto with the idea in mind of just letting it sit there without being set to music.

BD:   That’s exactly the purpose, so they must leave bits and pieces to be filled.

Ferko:   Oh, sure.  Yes.

BD:   Much of your music is for the church, and there’s spirituality in that.  Is there spirituality in every piece, even the abstract ones?

Ferko:   To some degree there is, but probably not to the extent that someone like Messiaen put into his music.  Practically everything he did had some kind of sacred title to it, and even the subtitles of movements were somehow related to religion.  Very often there were little Biblical quotations in the score.  I don’t go quite that far, but there are little musical ideas that find their way into pieces of concert music.  Those are not intended to be sacred pieces, but there will be some little thing.  For example, in my studies of Hildegard, there are little bits and pieces of her chants that I find are really nice, and they would sound so nice for the flute to do this at this point.  So, I will include some little thing that’s not really a quote.  It might be just the shape of a line that Hildegard used, and I will incorporate that into something because it arches well in this particular section.  So, something like that that will be there.  I know about it, but nobody else does, and that’s fine.  Nobody gets to know.

BD:   You don’t want to put a little note in the score so that people who read it will know about it?

Ferko:   Not unless it’s a quote.  If it’s a real quote, I will do that.  If it’s not, if it’s just a general phrase shape, and I don’t want them really to know, I just won’t bother letting them know.

BD:   Will that freak you out when they come up to you and tell you they found it?

Ferko:   It would freak me out.  I don’t think anybody has really done that yet.  There are some things hidden away.  There have been various people who have played some of my organ works
things that are not related to Hildegard at alland they have found ideas that I thought were pretty firmly embedded in there that no one would find.  They’ve said, “This sounds like such-and-such,” and I’d listen to it, or I’ll look at it and think, “Well, yes.”  Sometimes they’re pointing out something that I haven’t really considered, and sometimes they are pointing out something that I had maybe forgotten about, but then I remember putting it in there.

BD:   Are they really looking deep into your soul?

Ferko:   They are, and that’s a little scary sometimes.  A number of students have written analytical papers on some of the things I’ve written, and that’s fun because they start poking around and coming up with ideas.  Sometimes they will e-mail me, or they will contact me some other way, and say, “I’m doing this analytical study, and I have discovered this.” They will then ask a few general questions maybe for clarification, or for me to lead them along some other path, and I’m glad to do that.  I’m certainly not going to write their paper for them, but I’m glad to offer a little bit of inside information.  But I’m amazed at how some of these people have really found some details in there that I would not have expected them to find.

BD:   Has that ever influenced the next piece?

Ferko:   No.

BD:   Are you pleased with where you are at this point in your career?

Ferko:   Yes, but I need to qualify that.  I’ve often told people that where I am right now I probably should have been fifteen years ago.  I say that only because I got a late start being a composer, and if I had started doing things more seriously when I was a teenager
rather than practicing the piano and the organ as I didI probably would have reached this point sometime sooner.  At least I hope I would have, but I can’t go back.  However, I think things have developed very, very nicely.  I consider myself very fortunate in the way things are going now, and the way they have been going over the last fifteen years or so.  I just hope things continue to progress from here.  I’m working at it to make it happen, and I hope it does.  I’ve been very fortunate to work with some magnificent performers, and that’s what makes it all happen.  We have clicked, and we have worked together well, and I just thoroughly enjoyed that.

BD:   One last question.  Is composing fun?

Ferko:   Yes.  Of all the things that I enjoy doing, that’s the top of my list.  If somebody just said, “Here’s a block of time, do what you want with it.” I would sit and write.  I’d spend a lot of the time writing music.  I would also travel, because I enjoy doing that, but I just thoroughly enjoy writing music to the point that I don’t watch television.  I have a huge CD collection, but I never listen to them.  I can’t really listen while I’m writing another piece, anyway.  I don’t want to be dealing with other sounds.  That’s the thing I really enjoy doing.

BD:   I’m glad you’re able to do it, and I’m glad that you can see the results of your work, rather than just putting it in the drawer for twenty years.

Ferko:   Yes, and it’s very gratifying to have that happen.

BD:   I wish you lots of continued success.

Ferko:   Thank you.  I’ve enjoyed this very much.

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© 2000 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on April 20, 2000.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year.  Also, a copy of the un-edited audio was placed in the Oral History of American Music archive at Yale University.  This transcription was made in 2020, and posted on this website at that time.

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.