Composer / Teacher  Ross  Lee  Finney
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Ross Finney, 90, Composer Of the Modern and Lyrical

Published: The New York Times, February 07, 1997 [Text only, with additions and corrections.  Photos from other sources.]

Ross Lee Finney, a composer and teacher who was fascinated with the role of memory in both the composition and the understanding of music, died on Tuesday at his home in Carmel, Calif. He was 90.

Mr. Finney was a prolific composer whose style evolved considerably in a career lasting nearly seven decades. After studies with Nadia Boulanger in Paris in the late 1920's and Edward Burlingame Hill at Harvard in 1929, and private studies with Alban Berg and Roger Sessions in the 1930's, Mr. Finney composed works in which hints of American folk music rounded off the edges of an abstract international style.

He received the 1937 Pulitzer Award for his "First String Quartet." Other awards followed, including two Guggenheim fellowships, the Boston Symphony Award, the Brandeis Medal, and election to both the National Institute of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

In the early 1940's, the folk influence was ascendant as Mr. Finney, along with Copland, Barber, Siegmeister and other American composers, created a style that evoked everything from the Midwestern prairies to New England hymns. That style gave way to chromaticism in the late 40's and to a more rigorous 12-tone period that began about 1950.

In his 12-tone works, though, he usually maintained connections to both tonality and the structural forms common to tonal music, a combination of influences he called his ''method of complementarity.'' Often, his 12-tone works had a lyricism that made them seem almost neo-Romantic.

His interest in the tensions between competing compositional systems used in the same pieces was related to his interest in the relationship between music and memory. In some works -- ''Landscapes Remembered'' (1971), for example -- he toyed with listeners' memories by allowing themes based on folk songs and hymns to fade in and out of perspective.

Mr. Finney was born on December 23, 1906, in Wells, Minn., and grew up in North Dakota and later in Minneapolis. He studied piano, cello and guitar and performed in a local orchestra, a trio and a jazz band during his teen-age years.


He began his composition studies when he was 12 and continued them at the University of Minnesota and Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. He also taught cello and music history at Carleton.

After his return from Paris in 1928, he joined the faculty of Smith College in Northampton, Mass., where he started a series of scholarly publications of Baroque works. He also started the Valley Press, which published works by American composers.

In the early 1940's, Mr. Finney taught at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., and at the Hartt School of Music in Hartford. During World War II, he served with the Office of Strategic Services and was awarded a Purple Heart.

In 1949 he joined the faculty of the University of Michigan and remained there as a professor and composer in residence until 1974. His students included several prominent composers, among them Robert Ashley, William Albright, Leslie Bassett, George Crumb and Roger Reynolds.

During the 1982-83 academic year, Finney was the Distinguished Visiting Professor of Music at the University of Alabama.  [See the news item reproduced at the bottom of this webpage.]


Mr. Finney's works include eight string quartets; four symphonies; numerous chamber works and song cycles; two ballets, ''Heyoka'' (1981) and ''The Joshua Tree'' (1984), and two stage works, ''The Nun's Priest's Tale'' (1965), based on Chaucer, and ''Weep Torn Land'' (1984). There was also an unfinished opera, ''A Computer Marriage.''

A book of his essays, ''Thinking About Music: The Collected Writings of Ross Lee Finney,'' and an autobiography, ''Profile of a Lifetime,'' were both published in 1992.

He is survived by two sons, Henry and Ross Jr.

Knowing of Ross Lee Finney as both a significant composer himself and the teacher of other significant composers, I made contact with him in anticipation of doing a radio program for his 80th birthday on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago.  So on July 5, 1986, he allowed me to call him on the telephone for a conversation.  He was happy to speak on the subjects I brought up, and thorough in his responses to my questions.  He also sent me a couple of tapes which had pieces which he felt would go well on the program.

After having been used on WNIB on three occasions (to celebrate that 80th birthday as well as his 85th and 90th), permission was given for the first portion of this interview to be published in SONUS Magazine in their Spring 2008 issue.  This website now presents the entire conversation.

As always, the names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.

Here is that encounter . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Let us talk a bit about the pieces you sent me.  First, the Spherical Madrigals.

Ross Lee Finney:    I think this piece was composed in 1948 when I was spending a year on a Guggenheim in Southern California at Claremont.  It was composed for Lee Parison who had an excellent madrigal group.  That is how it started.  It reflects an interest in circles long standing with me, which came partly from my acquaintance with Marjorie Holt Nicholson who was at Smith College.  She wrote several very important books on science and literature.  Her book The Breaking of a Circle was dedicated to me, and I in turn composed the Spherical Madrigals and dedicated them to her.  She delivered a lecture at Northwestern University based on this book.  Her books have a philosophical concern.  I do not think that my music has that concern.  It is just interesting the way that we can bring about circles in musical composition.

BD:    So you did not have a philosophical concern about it?

RLF:    Not particularly.  It is just a figure of speech that has interested me and which continues to interest me, and led to my large choral work, the trilogy Earth Rise.  This work in three parts, Still are New Worlds, The Martyrs Elegie, and Earth Rise, and was written for the May Festival and the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra and University of Michigan Chorus.  Also, I should mention that it is related to the writing that my wife does.  Her most important book, or best known book is Musical Backgrounds of English Literature.

BD:    The Grove Dictionary mentions that you have a philosophical basis for much of your music.

finney RLF:    I do not know if this obsession with circles has a deep philosophical root, but naturally there is.  The circle is a very interesting symbol in art.  This interest in circles has been taken over by my student, George Crumb.  Probably when they refer to my philosophical interest they are referring more to my approach to serialization and twelve-tone technique.  I have been very much influenced by such physicists as Niels Bohr and Robert Oppenheimer in the attitude or general idea that we cannot derive things from a single viewpoint.  Bohr speaks of this as complementarity.  The Newton ideas are valid for certain aspects of physical analysis, but the quantum theory has to be used for others.  In other words, my theory is that the large tonal scope of music, the macrocosmic quality of music, falls back on the acoustical.  If you want you can use the word
tonal.  I never relate tonal to triadic’ any more than to ‘modalI certainly do not mean tonality as we now apply it to what we call Classical compositions.  Tonality for me is the magnetism of pitch points in a work, so we write the large form of the work in those terms.  But the microcosmic events, the small elements, are controlled by other series such as twelve-tone, triadic, or modal, or what have you.

BD:    You have written such a large body of work which have embodied many styles.  Is there any one of these styles that you feel is particularly yours?

RLF:    I do not think that my music embodies any particular style.  It is all in my style.  It does not necessarily fall into the précis of any set convention.  I don
t think you can understand my music in terms of any of the popular pieces.  My style is what seems to be appropriate at the moment.

BD:    Is this a conscious avoidance of other styles?

RLF:    No, not at all.  If you were to examine the work of my students, you would discover that they move in any direction.  You have Roger Reynolds moving in one direction, Robert Ashley in another direction, Leslie Bassett in another direction, George Crumb in another direction...  As a teacher I have never dictated a specific style.  Style is something which they have to find, and which is appropriate for them.  The thing that distresses me very much is when a composer embraces a style which critics or media expounds.  I very much dislike this.  Consider, for instance, the avant-garde.  I do not know just what that means now.  Nobody does.  My style certainly has roots in the fact that I have always sung with guitar ever since my childhood in North Dakota.  I have given guitar and folksong concerts all over Europe.  The voice, the melodic fabric, is very important to me, but on the other hand I am interested also in all sorts of complex mathematical things that have to do with music.

BD:    Is there a direct relation between mathematics and music?

RLF:    My son is a distinguished mathematician.  I am certainly not, but I am interested in numbers.  One can find many explanations in music and can be led in interesting directions.  In the
60s I was struck by a dichotomy between the conventional academic twelve-tone direction and the impact of my American roots and memories, and these were leading into two directions.  The way I solved that dilemma was that I moved into the use of a twelve-tone system made up of two symmetrical hexachords.  That reduces the basic elements in which you make your music to six notes, and I find I am very much more likely to have ideas that are related to six notes than I do that are related to twelve notes.

BD:    Does that reduce the possibilities then?

RLF:    I don
’t see why.  Of course, the possibilities are always reduced whenever you begin to write.  When you write a novel you are immediately faced with the reduction of possibilities.  That always is true.  This is really curious to me and I never have quite understood it, but a musical work forms in my mind without any temporal situation.  In other words, a musical design without temporal design is curious.  The image of the musical work can last in my mind a long time, but when I finally get the point of composing I have to find a musical idea, a musical theme, and that musical theme always has a strong sense of temporal direction.  It’s like shooting a projectile.  The energy with which that projectile is shot gives you the dimensions of its curve.  So you know almost immediately how long the piece is going to be and where the stop is going to be and where it is going to end.

BD:    This sounds like technique.

RLF:    Of course it is technique.

BD:    But where is the balance between technique and inspiration?

RLF:    I do not know.  Inspiration?  I don
t think very much about inspiration.  You either have it or you dont have it.  I dont write a work unless I think I have an inspiration.

BD:    But the music must be more than just a manipulation, does it not?

RLF:    Oh indeed, very, very much more.  The music to me is to be understood not by analysis and all sorts of analytical study, but by the way it sounds in your ears, the way you react to it and whether you love it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you are composing a piece of music for whom do you write?

finney RLF:    That varies.  When Menuhin commissioned my work for a violin work, it was obvious that I had to write that work for solo violin.  It was also obvious Menuhin doesn
’t play to audiences of 20 or 30 people.  He plays to audiences of several thousands.  Therefore it had to be a work for violin that would project in a large auditorium.  So right off the bat, as a composer, I was up against a very specific, pragmatic situation.  So from that standpoint I knew who I was writing it for.  Now when it comes to an audience, I am afraid that I dont even think there is such a thing as an audience.  There are just a lot of people that get together in a room, and these people respond because they have ears.  Therefore I have no way of knowing, whether these people sitting together are feeling a piece of music in the same way.  Nobody knows.  All you can say is they have ears.  Therefore the only contact that I have with the audience is the fact that I too have ears.  So what do I write for?  I write for my ears.  I can hardly write for anybody else’s ears.

BD:    Are you basically pleased with the performances you hear of your works?

RLF:    Sometimes yes and sometimes no.  Very often I have been very pleased with performances.  For instance, Menuhin
’s performance at the Brussels World’s Fair of my piece had great presence and a great quality.  He performed it all over the world and I am sure I was very pleased by it.  On the other hand, when it came to sheer accuracy of hitting the notes at the right moment, I have had performances that were better.  So I’m pleased with both.  Ormandy did my Second and Third Symphonies, and I found that his performance of the Third Symphony was better to me than the performances of the Second simply because he got acquainted with my style, my idiom, my music in the Second Symphony.  So it took him much less time to get acquainted with the Third

BD:    So it is a constant learning process?

RLF:    Yes, it
s a constant learning process.  It is a process of understanding the idiom and quality of an individual’s music.  A composer composes a ‘performance’, and when it seems to work he knows how it should sound.  I’ve heard composers say it sounded just like they thought it would.  That’s the reaction a composer often has.  On the other hand, the performer is also an artist and has the human obligation, really, to perform the work so that it is partly him, too.  Therefore one doesn’t always hear a performance that corresponds to what I had in mind. 

BD:    Does the performer ever find things in the music that you didn
’t even know were there?

RLF:    Surely.

BD:    Is this a good thing?

RLF:    I guess so.  That would be a little bit hard to say.  They don
’t find notes that weren’t there...  [laughs]

BD:    But the do things to bring out and emphasize ideas in the score?

RLF:    Yes.  Don
’t they with Beethoven?  Don’t they with any composer?  I’m not comparing myself with Beethoven, but in performing any music, isn’t that the thing that makes a live performance exciting?  Isn’t it the thing that makes recordings just a little bit dull, the fact that it’s always the same?  Music has a wonderful quality of being always free and always available.  The performer has an emotional system just exactly as the composer has, and it’s bound to show.

BD:    Are you pleased with the recordings that have been made of your music?

RLF:    Yes, I am, except that I do not listen to them very much.  I always glad to have them, and I am particularly glad to have the tapes.  I began to have tapes of my music in the 50s, but I had been writing music for two decades before that, so there is some of my music for which I do not have tapes... not very much, though.  Most of it has been played. 

BD:    What do you expect of an audience that comes to hear your music?

RLF:    The only thing that I can hope from them is that they will listen.  There
’s nothing else I can expect from them, but there are many, many things that tend to get in the way of an audience’s listening.  I don’t know how much the public perceives from the media or from critics who influence them, but I feel that if the audience just listens, I can’t expect any more than that.  Obviously, some of them will dislike my music very much and some of them will like it very much.  I was amused the other day when my granddaughter telephoned me from California.  She had to write a paper on a composer, and the teacher asked her to write about me.  She didnt know I was a composer!  She had a record of mine and had read the cover, but I would be very much surprised if she had ever listened to it because she likes rock and roll.  Well, that is fine.

BD:    Is rock and roll music?

RLF:    I think so, certainly.  It is popular music.  It isn
t the popular music I grew up on.  Popular music, especially jazz, is the expression of adolescence.  That doesnt belittle it.  It’s youth.  That is one of the things that has made American Jazz so attractive all over the world.  American youth have made a big impact on popular music, but of course that changes with practically every generation.  Its perfectly true that you have some who want to preserve their prejudices about popular music until they’re in their 60s or 70s, which is kind of repulsive to me.  I belong to the period of the 20s, and I like Beiderbecke and Armstrong and all that.  I must admit that I am not very fond of rock and roll partly because it is just awful loud.

BD:    How have audiences of concert music or popular music changed over 30, 40, 50, 60 years?

RLF:    Part of my perception has to do with the fact that I have moved around.  I cannot compare audiences in Valley City, North Dakota (where I grew up as a child), or in Minneapolis with audiences that I know at Michigan or audiences that I know in New York City or in Paris.  They are all different.  There is a tendency for audiences to have a little less antagonism in their taste and to be less stuffy now.  Because of recording and the media, there is a more natural response to classical music than there was.  It isn
’t such an event where you go to one auditorium and sit  peacefully through a lot of music, much of which you may not like.  I don’t think there is as much of that, and that’s all to the good.  We’re moving into a period where media offers a new musical life.  When it comes to popular music, I would not be as enthusiastic about what has happened to audiences.  In my view it was something that one did or danced to.  It wasn’t something that you went shooting across the country to where there was 5,000 or 30,000 people gathered around and had a hoopla.  I guess I am expressing the fact that I am 80, but I have enough private feelings about Jazz and popular music of the 20s.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me ask about the tape you sent me.  First, the Nostalgic Waltzes.

RLF:    I love waltzes.  I wrote these for John Kirkpatrick.  That tape was made in the very early
50s.  There are very few tapes of Kirkpatrick performances.  He played and edited all of my piano music except the things I have done in the 60s and 70s.  Its kind of a fun piece.  There is a renewed interest in the waltz among the public and performers today.

BD:    The next piece on the tape is Skating on the Sheyenne.

RLF:    The Sheyenne River in North Dakota runs through Valley City and then north into the Red River and up through Hudson Bay.  In North Dakota the river freezes solid almost always before there is any snow, and therefore there is a period of time when kids would skate on the river.  So this is just a memory of skating on the Sheyenne.  The piece was commissioned by the Brooklyn Band.  I loathe a certain kind of band very much
, but not the Symphonic Band.  The Symphonic Band is a marvelous combination of instrumental colors, but it seems that so often everything is doubled.  I love the band that Sousa wrote for.  He could write for the band, but I dislike the band that we’ve come to know where everybody is playing all the time.  What I’ve written for I call the Symphonic Band.  I write for this band just as I write for a symphony orchestra.  I use the tutti, the whole band at the big, climactic moments.  Otherwise it’s very soloistic, so you are constantly aware of the colors of the instruments.  I have only written two pieces for band, but the band people seem to like me very much.  They’re beginning to wake up to the fact that their organizations are very important.  At Northwestern they have a Symphonic Band, and I think they have done all my works.  There is a recording they made of my Concerto for Alto Saxophone and Winds


  See my Interviews with Vincent Persichetti, Hale Smith, Frederick L. Hemke, and John P. Paynter.

:    The last piece is Narrative in Retrospect

RLF:   That
’s my latest piece.  I composed that as part of the Artistic Ambassador’s Program the USIA had.

The United States Information Agency (USIA) was established by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in August 1953 and was active until October 1, 1999. One way the USIA fulfilled its mission involved the identification, promotion, and financial support of young, virtuoso American performers as "ambassadors" of international understanding and goodwill. Following the success of a 1982 pilot program that sent pianist Robert Noland to tour France and Germany, USIA director Charles Z. Wick formally launched the Artistic Ambassador Program in April 1983 under the leadership of John Robilette, and named pianist Arthur Greene the second artistic ambassador. The program continued to expand rapidly, and by 1985, eleven pianists had traveled to thirty-eight countries, including the Soviet Union and China. By 1986 and 1987 respectively, the performance programs had also incorporated violin-piano duos and cello-piano duos. Touring efforts continued until the termination of the program in 1989. In addition to its support of performers, the program sought commissioned works from eminent American composers (listed below). This marked one of the first dedicated efforts by the federal government to commission musical works for the purpose of promoting American culture abroad. Between 1983 and 1987, a total of thirteen works were commissioned by the program.

*     *     *     *     *

USIA Artistic Ambassador Program musical commissions
Published 1973-88.  Written in English.

About the Book.....

This collection consists of works commissioned by the Artistic Ambassador Program and other materials related to the program. It includes holograph manuscripts and sketches, or both, for all thirteen commissioned pieces by the following composers: Ernst Bacon, Norman Dello Joio, Ross Lee Finney, Lukas Foss, Morton Gould, Lee Hoiby, Benjamin Lees, William Mayer, Robert Muczynski, George Perle, George Rochberg, Elie Siegmeister, and Leo Smit. Two additional pieces by Foss and Smit that were commissioned by the USIA before the establishment of the program are also included. In addition, the materials include correspondence, memoranda, performance reviews, brochures, press releases, clippings, biographical materials, and administrative documents.

It was premiered, and I was told it was very satisfactory because I never heard their performance.  But I wrote this piece for them.  It’s a piano piece with a very interesting quotation.  The last work that I did before that was an opera, Weep Torn Land, which is going to be done here. 

BD:    This is your first opera?

RLF:    Yes.  It’s an opera in seven scenes, and I haven’t heard it yet, so it will be interesting.  I
m also interested in, and beginning to work on, a comic opera.

BD:    Why have you waited so long to do opera?

RLF:    I wonder.  One of the reasons was that I never could find a decent libretto, and I never could find a subject that really appealed to me.  But mainly it was libretto, and finally I just gave up hope and did the libretto myself.  I think it was Schoenberg that said he couldn’t see how anybody could write an opera on somebody else’s libretto, and I felt that, too.  I just don’t see how one could do that, but of course that
s a limitation.  Growing up as I did in North Dakota, I didn’t know anything about opera.  I hadn’t seen an opera until I finally went to study with Boulanger in ’27.

BD:    But that still gives you plenty of time to write them!  [Laughs]

RLF:    Oh, yes.  [Laughs]  I suppose, though, that what I
m saying is that I didn’t have very much contact with theater.  Opera is a difficult idiom.  I think it’s an obsolete idiom; a fascinating form, but obsolete.  It’s a form in which the leading character has got to be bigger than life.  If he isn’t bigger than life, theres no justification for his singing all that time.  It’s a very curious thing.  One of the great American operas is Porgy and Bess, and the reason it’s a great opera is because Porgy is really bigger than life.  He’s this cripple, and yet in the opera he becomes symbolically bigger than life.  I don’t think realism in opera is valid. 

BD:    He becomes a heroic figure?

RLF:    That
s what I mean, yes.  It’s a kind of an obsolete thing.  Essentially in the past this was more true in drama, but the opera is the only form of theater in which that really remains.

BD:    If you think that opera is obsolete, why are you laboring now doing ones?

RLF:    I suppose because I have them in my head!  I have to do something about it.  I may regret it.  Who knows?  They say you should never write your first opera!

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  What, start with your second opera???

RLF:    [Laughs]  It’s a little difficult.  That
s sort of a common saying in the opera world.

BD:    Who besides Brahms has let it go completely?

RLF:    I don’t know.  I’m not a scholar, and I don’t know where that idea came from, but I
m sure that some musicologist could tell you who said that.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You mentioned Nadia Boulanger.  What did you learn from her in Paris?

finney RLF:    I learned a great deal.  I was terribly wet behind the ears when I went to work with Boulanger.  I worked my way to Europe by playing with a jazz orchestra, and she took me seriously.  She really taught me!  People talk about her telling them that they’ve got to study harmony and counter point, and so forth.  Well, she didn’t discourage that, but she didn’t spend the time doing that.  She really worked with me as a composer, and made me realize that the notes that I decided to write were important.  This ability that she had of taking somebody from a culture that was very foreign to her and really helping them, was quite remarkable!  You
ve got to realize, too, that in 1927 my peers there, the students that were working with her, also had a big impact on mepeople like Roy Harris and Aaron Copland and Walter Piston, and many younger ones that you may not know of.  This group of talented young students had an enormous effect on me, especially Copland, who made me less embarrassed by the fact that I had grown up in North Dakota.  There was something that Aaron had that was quite remarkable in encouraging me.  So while there are many qualities that Nadia had that I am sure people have found objectionable, nevertheless Ive got to admit that I owe a great debt to her.  I later worked with Alban Berg and Roger Sessions.

BD:    Tell me about working with Alban Berg.

RLF:    Oh, Berg!  That was a wonderful experience!  I was in Vienna, and I didn’t have very many lessons with him because he was very often out of town.  I don’t suppose I had more than six lessons, but they were lessons!  I went at about three o
clock in the afternoon and I was there until six.  I don’t think Alban Berg was really by nature an awfully good teacher, but he was an awfully nice person.  He was one of these “it comes from the heart, then go to the heart” kind of people, and he was wonderfully warm and sensitive.  For instance, he often set up things.  He made it possible for me to go to rehearsals of young people that were learning his lyrics.  I could sit in on rehearsals and follow the score.  He also thought that I ought to analyze the Woodwind Quintet of Schoenberg.  He thought I ought to become acquainted with twelve-tone technique, so he showed me how to do it, and gave all sorts of suggestions like that.  He never came back and checked!  He never taught from that standpoint.  Hed just give you ideas, but when it came to variation of method he wasnt into repeating of a theme over and over again.  It had to do with the unfolding of an idea so that it grew.  He contributed a lot, though I must admit that after having studied with him I reacted against twelve-tone technique.  After all, I still don’t like the Schoenberg Woodwind Quintet.  But I will say that I owe him a great debt for having introduced me to something which came, fifteen years later, to be important.

BD:    When you were studying with Berg, did you speak with him in German, or did he speak with you in English?

RLF:    Well, he didn’t speak any English, so we spoke in French most of the time.  I spoke some German and some French, so there was always a sort of a combination of French and German.  I’m not a good linguist.

BD:    What about your experiences with Roger Sessions?

RLF:    I taught at Smith College for twenty years, and when Sessions came back to New York — I believe it was 1935, ’34, somewhere along there — he lived in Hadley, which is just right off the river from Northampton.  He was teaching in New York, so I had lessons with him and we became very close friends.  I
ve known him all through my life.  He had a very keen mind.  I’ve always told this story about a lesson I had with him which I claim was one of the most important lessons I ever had in my life.  I took over a violin sonata.  He put it on the piano, and for an hour he just went through it so slowly.  When he got to the end, he sort of backed off and looked at it, flipped to the beginning of the work and backed off and looked at it, and went back again to the end of the work.  Then he said, “Hmmm.  Now we’ll have tea.”  I was a little puzzled by that, and wondered what the meaning was of all that.  I thought maybe he didn’t like the work and just didn’t want to tell me.  I went home and did the same thing, and it suddenly dawned on me that there wasnt one thing in the first few minutes of that piece that made defending inevitable.  In other words, he taught me the lesson that when you write a piece of music, youve got to have your idea immediately in the very beginning.  You can’t wait until a little later.

BD:    That
s a very valuable lesson.

RLF:    Tremendously valuable.  It’s a little bit like understanding how Melville began Moby Dick with, “Call me Ishmael.”

BD:    You taught at Smith, and now you’ve been teaching at the University of Michigan for many, many years.  How is the teaching of young students, the teaching of composition changed over this timeif at all?

RLF:    I was at Smith from 1929 to ’48, b
ut I didn’t teach composition.  I taught theory, so I really had very little contact with teaching any composers during my tenure at Smith.  I did teach during the summer.  There was a summer school in the Berkshires.  As a matter of fact, I look back rather glad that I didn’t teach composition during that period.

BD:    Why?

RLF:    I don’t know exactly why, but it seems to me that teaching composition, especially at a young age, could lead one to be dogmatic, and being dogmatic is very bad for a composer.  Then I was invited to the University of Michigan to organize a composition department and teach the advanced students in composition, and be composer in residence.  That was a big mouthful.  Actually, the University never was able to live up to that.  My schedule always was very heavy, and not only from an administrative standpoint and a teaching standpoint, but the idea that it was half time was, of course, nonsense.  But I must admit that I was intrigued in coming out to here.  I had always made up my mind that I would never come back to the Middle West.  I suppose that
s a natural youthful reaction, isn’t it?

BD:    Then that
s where you wound up!

RLF:    And then I wound up there, right.  I got out here in ’48, right after the war.  I had been in OSS during the war, and these students were on the GI Bill.  They were very serious students.  They were excellent!  I really had a very interesting group of students, and I found them interesting to teach.  You wanted to know the changes in them.  From about when I came to Michigan until along toward the end of the fifties, they were very hard working, very conscientious, very gifted.  After all, people like Crumb and Bassett were extremely gifted.  They were very serious about what they were doing.  Beginning towards the end of the fifties, the students became rebellious against what they considered sometimes a stuffy tradition.  They were interested in doing new things.  This is partly the impact of electronics.  I don’t mean just the electronic generation of sound.  I was making music with electronic sound, but I mean also the impact of being able to hear tapes of music that was being written in Europe just about at the same time.  In other words, the tapes meant that the students during the fifties began to have a much closer contact, much more immediate contact to what was going on elsewhere.  I’d been in Europe at various times, and I brought back tapes by Stockhausen and Boulez, and all of this sort of thing.  I
m afraid that this, to a degree, sowed seeds of rebellion.  Of course, a composer’s always got to be somewhat of a rebel.  He has to learn technique, but on the other hand, hes got to keep an open mind.  For instance, there developed the ONCE Group.

The ONCE Group was a collection of musicians, visual artists, architects, and film-makers who wished to create an environment in which artists could explore and share techniques and ideas in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The group was responsible for hosting the ONCE Festival of New Music in Ann Arbor, Michigan, between 1961 and 1966.

ONCE’s organizers were five composition students of the University of Michigan School of Music composition professor Ross Lee Finney and visiting professor of composition Roberto Gerhard (1896–1970): Robert Ashley, George Cacioppo, Gordon Mumma, Roger Reynolds, and Donald Scavarda. By 1957, all of these composers were residing in Ann Arbor and were becoming acquainted with each other, if they weren't already.

"ONCE turned out to be a festival in which we presented in the best way we possibly could with limited resources both our own music and the music of others we thought was really important to be heard. The people who were most interested were [the ONCE composers]. But it certainly was clear––we literally called it ONCE assuming that it would not happen more than once––when there was such remarkable intensity in those events, that there was something there that was more than just a personal interest or need on our parts."  —Roger Reynolds

ONCE is a name for a multitude of events that happened in many places and forms throughout the 1960s. What started as the ONCE Festival of Musical Premieres in February and March 1961 turned into the six-year-running ONCE Festival, with many derivatives including the ONCE Group (a theatrical ensemble), ONCE Friends, ONCE AGAIN, and the Ann Arbor Film Festival. Other festivals across America and North America, including New Dimensions in Music in Seattle, New Arts Workshop in Tuscan, Bang Bang Bang Festivals in Richmond, and Isaac Gallery Series in Toronto, modeled themselves after ONCE.

My students decided that they were going to have concerts of their music and the kind of music that they wanted of the time.  I had organized performance groups of composers forum and various performances of student works, but they wanted to have their own performing group.  So that’s gone on from then on.  That
s always been an important thing here.  Robert Ashley’s a very radical composer, and he’s one of the most avant-garde.  They were all very fun.  Their inspiration was Varèse, the French composer of the twenties.  Varèse and Cage were were the composers that this young group was interested in.  These were all very avant-garde, and they gave concerts.  Some of them were very interesting, indeed, and often were using lots of electronics.  We got Cage to come out, and got Berio to come out.  They did one of the earliest performances of Berio’s Circles here.  At that moment I had to be away.  I was invited to be in residence at the Academy in Rome, and I brought a friend of mine, Roberto Gerhard.  Hes a very important.  He was a student of Schoenberg who fled from Spain and settled in England.  Hes one of the important English composers.  I had met him during the war, and I brought him over to take the work.  So there was this kind of a foment at that time.  Now along with all this, this group of radical composers are very PR conscious, and they have kept up their good work with a vengeance.  The result was that they have become sometimes a little oppressive to younger generations that have followed them.  Along in the sixties, for one thing, I organized the Electronic Music Studio here, and that had an impact on students, sometimes a very striking impact because it sort of destroyed a young composer’s interest in acoustics and made him more interested in engineering than in composing.  But there came along in the sixties a sort of another wave that was trying to up the ante from the radical group in their own way.  This included people like William Albright.  Another, who wasn’t here at that time and wasnt a student, is Bolcom, who is a good example of this, too.  He took my position as when I retired.  This new group was just as radical in some ways, but they returned to an interest in Americana, especially ragtime.  They returned to American roots.  What happened when we moved into the seventies was that there was a strong reaction against the avant-garde.  Composers who believed in the new also wanted their music to be more palatable to the public.  They became very interested in tone color.  Schwantner was one, and Crumb is the person more than anybody else who has influenced that new wave which happened in the early seventies.  They became more and more concerned with craft, and some even became rather traditional, rather conservative.  So this was the way.  Then after I retired in ’73, I don’t know what’s happened and I don’t want to.

finney BD:    [Surprised]  Oh!?!?  [Laughs]

RLF:    [Laughs]  No, that isn’t true.  I have an apartment in New York, and my whole purpose has become much more New York City.

BD:    So you’re content to know what’s going on, but not to try to be influential about it?

RLF:    Right, exactly.  I don’t want the responsibility of having to worry about it.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music?

RLF:    Oh, yes.  I think that the United States has suffered, and is still suffering, from this stupidity of trying to decide which is better
popular music or symphony music.  This is, of course, an absurdity because theres no way in which you can compare, let’s say, a comic book and Henry James.  It’s an opinion!  But unfortunately in the media, especially television and all over the place, there has been this viewing of our popular music as the most important musical contribution in America.  It certainly is very important, but this has undermined the recognition and the acceptance of the distinguished serious composers.  You can’t ever find the correct words, because both the composer of rock and roll and the composer of a symphony are serious.  [Laughs]  But there’s been a kind of a disparaging quality of young people whose interest is not in the popular field but rather is in some other kind of musical field.  The thing that is so encouraging is that the young American is insatiable.  The extent to which one finds young Americans that are willing to take the gamble of devoting their life to being a composer is overpowering.

BD:    Are there too many young composers?

RLF:    Who’s to say?  How do you answer that question?  Yes, frankly, I think there are.  Let’s put it this way... the university tendency, the schools have tended to think of writing music, composing, as they do the football team — as a competition.  The result is that you have these schools all over the place and they turn out, naturally, an awful lot of third-rate or second-rate composers.  That’s inevitable.  There aren’t really any more distinguished composers than there ever were.

BD:    But those that are distinguished or are destined to be distinguished will always make their way to the top?

RLF:    I would rather think so.  I
m sure of one thing, and that is there are more distinguished American composers living today that are able to make both ends meet than there were when I was a young student in the twenties. 

BD:    Are they making ends meet with their compositions?

RLF:    No, no, no, no, no.  That’s almost impossible.  A freelance composer is an impossibility.  The only hope is to work for cinema, and that is a deadly thing for a composer.  It’s a perfectly good way to make a living, and probably isn’t any more deadly than teaching in a university, either.

BD:    Did you find teaching deadly?

RLF:    In a way, yes, simply because it takes so much time.

BD:    Do you still find writing music fun?

RLF:    Oh, yes, enormous.  That
s one thing that distresses me...  Sometimes I have a feeling that when they get going on with the serialism, and all of the mathematics and all of the theory, they really don’t enjoy writing any more.  That’s a tragedy, because when the music that you write is actually good music, youve got to love it and youve got to enjoy doing it.  But Im very hopeful.  Aren’t you generally hopeful about American culture?

BD:    Oh, sure.  I am very optimistic about all kinds of things, but I
m looking from the vantage point of some who’s 35.  You are looking from the vantage point of someone who is 80, and it’s completely different.

RLF:    Well, yes, of course it is.  I
m perfectly willing to admit that we haven’t solved all of the problems for the artist, the problems that make being an artist a pretty big gamble.  Our society hasn’t found an economic solution to this question, but Im not absolutely sure that they ever will.  Im not sure that they ever did, and Im not sure that it would even be good if they could.

I want to thank you for spending time with me this afternoon talking about music, and I also want to thank you for being a composer.

RLF:    [Laughs]  Well, I
m delighted.  By the way, I just got a book about me.  It’s called Three American Composers.  [Anticipating the obvious question]  The others are Chicago composer Irwin Fischer, and George Crumb.  It’s by Edith Borroff.  She’s studied with me at Michigan, and she was at Michigan the same time Crumb was.  She knew Crumb as a student.  She knew me as a teacher and I’ve known her for years, and she studied with Irwin Fischer.  It’s published by the University Press of America.  I think you might find it interesting.

BD:    I will consult it when putting together the program to celebrate your 80th birthday in December.

RLF:    That would be nice.  Thank you very much.



© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone on July 5, 1986.  Because the sound on the tape was poor, I spoke quotations from the interview during programs on WNIB later that year and again in 1991 and 1996.  The first portion of the interview was transcribed and published in SONUS Magazine in the Spring of 2008.  The rest was transcribed and the entire interview was posted on this website in 2015.

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.