Composer Ulf Grahn
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
Ulf Grahn was born in Solna on 17th January 1942. He grew up with the
classical repertoire in a musical home, his mother being a music teacher.
He sang in the St. Jacob’s Boys’ Choir for five years under Eric Ericson.
He then studied violin, piano and composition at the Stockholm Citizens’
School under Hans Eklund 1962-1966 and composition, violin, viola, piano,
recorder and singing at the State Academy of Music in Stockholm 1966-1970.
He taught in the Stockholm and Lidingö municipal schools of music 1964-1972
and worked in close collaboration with the concert organization Fylkingen
and the ISCM.
He settled in the USA in 1972, worked as an assistant at the electronic music
studio of the Catholic University of America in Washington 1972-1975, and
taught at Northern Virginia Community College 1975-1980. In 1983 he was made
an Associate Professorial Lecturer in electronic music, theory and composition
at George Washington University. In 1974 he founded Contemporary Music Forum,
which specializes in new music and whose concerts are often relayed to tens
of thousands of listeners. He teaches and lectures. He received a State Composer’s
Already as a high school student, Ulf Grahn was a very prolific composer,
and he has written music of all kinds: solo pieces, chamber music, orchestral
works, ballets, incidental music and electro-acoustic compositions. He is
a traditionalist in the thoroughness of his musical craftsmanship, but his
musical vocabulary has constantly been absorbing new techniques which he
uses in a manner both free and personal. His output before settling in the
USA included the eight piano pieces gathered under the heading Snapshots
(1972). The notation of these pieces of highly varied character ranges from
exactly specified “time and space“ to almost complete liberty for the pianist.
The collection also employs many different playing techniques, e.g. playing
directly on the strings of the piano. His orchestral works from this period
include A Dream of a Lost Century, an austere, texturally well-balanced work
played by the Stockholm Philharmonic in 1972, and Ancient Music for piano
and orchestra, performed the same year by the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra.
His music is often light in texture and gentle in its approach. It has sweeping
surfaces of sound and a variable pulse, but it is often convulsive. The splendid
In the Shade, for a wide variety of percussion instruments, was written for
a tour of the USA by the Malmö Percussion Ensemble in 1978. In this
piece, resonant episodes alternate with rhythmic ones, and the rhythm is
sometimes truly intricate, not least in order to create a theatrical, visual
impression. His other works include Hommage à Charles Ives (1968),
first performed in Trondheim, Looking Forward for organ (1972), Concerto
for Orchestra (1973), first performed in Cincinnati, Piano Concertino (1979),
and an expansive Piano Sonata in one movement (1980) which explores the full
range of the piano in contrasting episodes. His first symphony was written
in 1966-1967 as a purely linear, spartan work employing a technique of superimposed
rhythms and sounds. His second symphony, in one movement, was commissioned
and first performed by the Stockholm Philharmonic in 1984.
-- Stig Jacobsson 1984
In April of 1987, Grahn was in the Chicago area for a conference
on new music. We met as his hotel, and this is what was said at that
time . . . . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: I
appreciate your taking the time from a busy schedule to see me. You
are from Sweden?
Ulf Grahn: I’m
from Sweden. I’m still a Swedish citizen, but I’ve been living here
in the U.S. for fifteen years.
BD: Does that impose
UG: There could
be some problems because the Swedes sort of consider me, at this point, American,
and the Americans, I would assume, would do that, too, for the most part.
But at the same time they are more interested to keep the heritage of where
you are from.
BD: Is your music
UG: I would say
that it probably has some Swedish traits in it, and there are certain things
that I have picked up since I’ve come to America.
BD: Is there anything
you can put your finger on, or is it just a general feeling?
UG: One of the
basic parts deals with the percussion. Even though when I studied in
Sweden I had contact with lots of percussionists, it was first when I got
to Washington in 1973 and I founded this group there
— The Contemporary Music Forum — that I
got really to work more or less on a weekly basis with percussionists.
And the versatility of the American percussionists at that point was much
greater than you would find in Sweden. There they would be specialized
— either they would be timpanists, or they would be mallet players,
or they would do the drum sets. Here they would be more versatile,
but that has changed now, so in Sweden they are getting more versatile.
BD: Have you written
some pieces just for percussion?
I have a piece I wrote for the Malmö Percussion Ensemble for their American
tour back in ’78.
BD: Is it rewarding
writing for just percussion?
UG: At that time
it was. I wanted to write a percussion piece because it had been creeping
into my mind more and more. Then to do one that’s dealing exclusively
with it was a fascinating idea because there are problems. Composition-wise,
you have to solve problems because you cannot just go in and bang.
You have to come up with some kind of a plan of how to use all those instruments
so they make sense, not only to myself — that’s probably the easiest thing
— but it must make sense to a listener.
BD: Does all contemporary
music make sense?
UG: Not necessarily.
It depends on what you mean by sense.
BD: What is the
musical sense, then, of Ulf Grahn?
UG: Oh boy!
I will answer in this way... When I started out composing, it’s something
I wanted to do when I was very young. So I devised my own schedule,
sort of a study program. I just decided, when I was around five or
six years old, that before I write I should study harmony, counterpoint,
orchestration, play some kind of instruments, and try to get as broad base
as possible. For some reason, which I don’t know, I had the notion
that by knowing all the techniques it would help me write music.
BD: But you always
knew you wanted to write, rather than just perform?
Then, when you start out writing you go more or less on — just for simplicity’s
sake, call it intuition. In my case I usually worked it out in my head
and then just wrote it down. I didn’t bother to write sketches or anything.
It was just there. So the early pieces of mine, nobody will find any
sketches. It would just start here and it would end there and that’s
it. Maybe I would do some alteration when I copied the piece.
After that, the longer you write, the more you want to know actually how
your process works. So you start finding out what I am actually doing.
Then you find systems, and you do find that some types of things work for
me, but it’s not something that the listener should be hearing.
BD: You don’t want
the listener to be conscious of all the technical difficulties?
UG: No. I
don’t think that is their part. It’s the same way if you go into a
nice building, you look at the totality and you don’t worry too much about
the technical details that goes into putting it up.
BD: Or whether
it’s going to fall down! [Laughs]
UG: No, you can’t
worry that it’s going to fall down, because then you wouldn’t go into it.
Composing music is sort of like being an architect. You are constructing,
and since I was into that it is the thing I have been trying to study and
read about. I also ask my colleagues how they go about writing music
because it’s a subject I think is fascinating in a sense. Then you
find out that to make it sound simple, a young composer writes on intuition
and fairly fast. The older you get, the slower you write and the more
you want to know actually what you are doing. You will find that certain
composers even wrote books on the process. They wrote down their systems,
and they made schools out of them. Schoenberg is one and Hindemith
is another one. Messiaen wrote a book, and then he changed, but there
are an awful lot of composer-theorists. They have written harmony books
where they put forth their ideas about harmony and how they would work, how
they might write counterpoint or how they write orchestration.
BD: Is it good
for the composer to know why he is doing things, or should it be more just
UG: I think you
want to know more. When you work on it you get more and more involved
in your own work, and you want to know why you are doing certain things.
It doesn’t mean that you can explain it. I can still not say why I choose
one pitch over another pitch, for example. If a piece is going to start
on an A, it’s starting on the A, and I know it’s not going to work if it
starts on a B or a G#. That note has a sound that I particularly want.
BD: You hear that
in your ear first?
UG: I hear that,
so I know that’s where to start. I usually work out the overall design.
I usually think very fast, so in that sense I would go along with the Hindemith
theory that the idea comes very fast. You have the totality in your
mind, and then the rest of it is work to recreate that ideal situation.
Even Sessions brings that up.
BD: When you’re
writing a piece of music, for whom do you write?
UG: I write for
the people living today. I don’t write for people living fifty years
from now. That’s not the way I see it. If they still like it
at that time or if they want to listen to it, it’s always nice, but it’s
not something I can write for because I try to communicate with people living
today. Of course I’m a specialist and they are not specialists, and
with that it’s automatic that comes a problem.
BD: Are you writing
for specifically non-specialists, then?
UG: No, I don’t.
I need to change the word “specialist” to people that are very well-educated
as a whole because this is something else which is not a typical problem
in music. You have it in all the arts, except in music it seems to
be more on the surface. You bring up this big, enormous gap between
the composer and the listener, and you find out that if you don’t tell anybody
that it’s a new piece on the program, usually they will come out from the
concert liking the new piece better than all the other ones because they
can relate to it. Then, of course, we have other things that make it
BD: Such as?
UG: Such as television
and other background sounds that we are hearing all the time. Since
the visual impact is stronger than the aural, if you have a horror movie,
when people hear what is called a dissonant chord or certain strange
string sounds, the first thing they will think of is that it is a horror
movie. They will not know why, but it’s just a feeling, an image that
will return to them. They get conditioned to it, and we are very conditioned
in how we listen to music.
BD: Should the
concert music promoters and creators try to expand the audience into people
who go to horror films?
No. I don’t think they should even hint at it.
BD: You’re not
writing an elitist music, though?
UG: In a sense,
any and all the terminology we use about music is dumb as far as I’m concerned
because you have to try to verbalize something that can’t be verbalized.
Music has to be heard, and after it’s heard you can sort of talk about it
— if you liked it, what you didn’t like. You
can comment on it and then you have to go back and listen to it again and
see if it was exactly what I thought. Then if you get the discussion
going, it was a symphony that people heard different things.
BD: What do you
expect of the public that comes to hear your music?
UG: I just hope
they will be open, have an open mind. I don’t want them to sit down
and listen for the techniques used, because that is my personal thing.
You don’t go into the operating room and ask the doctor all this technical
things, “Why do you do this, and why do you do that?” You just hope
the outcome is going to be in the positive. What I want, in any piece,
is that people should be able to go back to it. I don’t think you can
get the total impact of any piece in the first hearing. It’s like a
good book. You read it and you want to go back to it. I can say
I’m sort of selfish in the sense that if people like the piece I want them
to go back to it and look at it again and see if there is something they
can re-discover. If they can discover new things and if they can discover
new things with multiple hearings, that would be very intriguing.
BD: Have you basically
been pleased with the performances you have heard of your music?
UG: For the most
part. You have to set it in the context of where they are being played.
You always wish you had more rehearsals than you actually are getting.
That is a perfectionist that comes into composing. You have the same
thing with the performers. They have to walk on the stage and perform,
and I’m not saying always, but in many cases they will say they wish they
had another week to prepare. It’s like you never feel that you’re ready.
You always have to take it for what it is at the moment.
BD: What about
the recordings? Those you perhaps have a little more time and can make
edits if things are not so good.
UG: The recordings
are different because they are canned. [Both laugh] It’s like
eating canned peaches or oranges. It’s not the same as the fresh.
It’s a substitute for the concert.
BD: [Playing Devil’s
Advocate] On the other hand, it’s the recordings that bring your music
to so many people!
UG: It’s the one
that brings the music out. One day you like the recordings per se, and another day you hate them
because you lose certain things. One thing that’s difficult in a recording
is putting an atmosphere that you will have in the concert hall. When
you have a recording, you are alone with the speaker, and that’s the same
problem that electronic music runs into, from my standpoint, is that you
were sitting in a concert hall hearing from speakers. The first reaction
is, “I can do this at home.” If you have an orchestra or a chamber
group or a soloist, everybody’s focusing on the one person. Either
they identify or they feel some kind of a sense, and together they fall into
a process that takes place.
BD: What about
using electronic sounds combined with live performers?
UG: The live performance
can be different because it will take away the sterility that comes out of
the speakers. So people could join into the focus on the performer.
BD: Have you done
anything with electronic music at all?
UG: Yes I’ve done
some, but not within the last ten years.
BD: So, it’s not
something that really interests you?
UG: It interests
me to some extent, and since I’m teaching it down at GW in Washington, D.C.,
I have to keep up with what is going on. At one point I’ll probably
have to do another piece, but it’s not something that’s very high on my list.
BD: So it’s just
another color on your palette that you don’t use very often?
It’s one that any composer should know. They should go through and
learn how to use the techniques. You don’t have to use them just because
you know them.
* * *
BD: One of the
books that has your listing [Baker’s Biographical Dictionary] gives
a little critique of your compositional style. It says that you, “Maintain
the golden mean of contemporary idioms without doctrinaire deviations, scrupulously
serving the tastes of the general audience.” Do you believe that?
[Names which are links refer to my interviews
elsewhere on this website.] I met him when he was working on
that last edition. It was at a concert in Washington and there was
a reception afterwards. He has this phenomenal memory. He seemed
to know every name that he has entered in to the previous edition. So,
when he heard my name, Ulf Grahn, he said, “I haven’t got your update.
Will you please send that to me?” So I sent him a couple of things,
but no, I don’t try to follow any major trends, at least not consciously.
Subconsciously you pick what you like that is floating around in the time.
I look more at composing as a craft. If somebody asked me to write
a children’s tune, I would think about it, and if it intrigues me I will
try to do it for that level without trying to look back at what they did
a hundred years ago. I do not have to have it sound that way.
I just try to solve that problem. It has to be simplified in many ways,
and some composers will not do that. But if you look back into history,
you’ll find that many composers have written for all different types of people.
They have written for the good amateur, they have written for the children,
they have written pedagogical music and they have written advanced music
for the serious and well-educated music listener. They have also written
for the person that just like to perform.
BD: These are all different kinds of music?
UG: It requires
different types of approaching the problem of composition. I don’t
think you have to change your style, as such, in any of those. You
have to simplify it, but it doesn’t have to change.
BD: When you get
a commission for a piece, how do you decide if you will accept it or reject
UG: As I grow older,
the decision seems to be based on what interests me. At the moment
I am interested in writing orchestra pieces, so if somebody comes up with
an orchestra piece, that’s going to take precedence over something else.
It doesn’t mean I can’t squeeze in some small little things now and then,
in between, because when you work on a large piece you suddenly have to rest.
It’s such an intense undertaking, and when you rest you do all these other
small things, which in a sense become try-outs. Then you have the other
thing where you simplify what to do. It’s sort of contradictory, but
it also has to do with the clarity that makes it look simple. It means
that you want to know more, and it goes back to this other topic we spoke
of earlier. In the beginning you don’t know much, in a sense, about
what you’re doing, and then when you get to know it more, that’s when you
simplify or actually clarify.
BD: When you’re
working on a piece of music, do you work exclusively on that one piece, or
do you sometimes have two or three going at once?
UG: I usually try
to stay to one piece, but it seems to be that there are lots of pieces that
sort of start and are in different phases. The whole process of writing
a piece is such that I always work on some piece in my head.
BD: [With a gentle
nudge] Even right now???
UG: Sort of!
I’m on-off thinking about something I have to do. [Laughs] But
it’s a constant process with things going on. When I have to decide
about a commission, it can be a request or it can be something I just want
to do. Sometimes I say, “Okay, I want to do it,” and it might be a
flute piece or an orchestra piece that is already in my head, and I just
have to stop and write it out. So it’s more like the circumstances.
If they ask and the piece happened to be there I would probably just say
yes, and then have the reason for writing a piece out. If I want to
let other people hear the pieces I’m making, I have to write them down in
some kind of notation, and at the moment, the standard type of notation seems
to be the most preferable, or it will cause the least amount of problems.
As a composer, that’s my way to communicate to the performer, who then interprets
it so it can be heard.
BD: Does the performer
ever surprise you with his interpretation?
UG: Not yet.
It might be that on the small details they might interpret slightly differently,
but not on the total, the whole scope. A piece of mine was just done
on two performances. One was in Chapel Hill about a week ago, and then
this last week in Florida. It was of the same piece which had been
done earlier last fall in D.C., where I had complete control because I was
coaching the performers. In Chapel Hill I never heard it, and at Tallahassee
they called me and got something. My wife is a pianist [shown on LP cover above], so she was
involved in it. She talked to them, so they did certain things.
In that sense, you will find out that they pick out different things, but
the overall piece is still there. They just point out different shades
of it. It was a piece for one piano, six hands.
BD: Wow, awfully
UG: Yes, it’s crowded!
The Chapel Hill performers took the total sound so that nobody should stand
out. Everybody was trying to make it blend as closely as possible.
The Tallahassee group tried to figure out how to bring out the polyrhythmic
lines that were going on.
BD: So one group
was concerned with lines, and the other was concerned with just the body
UG: Just the total
BD: But both of
those interpretations are valid?
UG: Both of them
* * *
BD: When you’re
writing a piece of music, how do you know when you’re finished with it?
When I write the bar line. [Both laugh] No, usually I have it
pretty clearly done. Everybody has to find their own work-process,
their procedure, and mine depends on certain things. The larger the
piece the more small increments and stages you can find. The first
one is a very rough sketch that has the total piece somehow captured, the
total idea of the piece. From that I will go on to another one which
has much more detail that is going to happen. It might be pitches,
if it’s going to be high or low, how things are going to be moving, what’s
going to be rhythmical, what is going to be the theme, what’s going to be
its motifs and how they’re going to be worked out in different parts.
I also have to decide if there are some kind of tonal centers, and if I decide
to do that it’s going to start here and it’s going to modulate through this
part, and end up there. Then I start writing out all the notes.
All of this is just to do with the sketches because when you look at it,
you will remember everything. It sounds strange, but everybody has
their own shorthand.
BD: But you say
you’ve worked on this in your head, so it’s ready to go?
UG: Yes, so you
put it down. What you do in the early part is you write only what is
necessary to remember what you have worked on so far. When you start
writing out the notes, then it develops.
BD: Do you work
out the music, or does the music work out itself?
UG: I think it
works both ways, in a sense.
BD: Are you ever
surprised where the music goes?
UG: I’m surprised
sometimes that it really works. [Both laugh] I like to do Christmas
cards with simple little tunes. I have used some of the funny poems
of Louis Carroll, and there was one I did a couple years back. It was
going to have sort of an ostinato type rhythm. It was ostinato in the
left hand, bass, repeated over one measure. Then there was a canon
going on plus something else. I just lined up all the bars and knew
it’s going to end here, and I need one extra measure at the end after the
vocal part. I couldn’t see that in advance. I didn’t count anything,
or say that this is going to end up being there. It just ended up exactly
BD: This was just
a little, tiny piece then?
UG: Yes, it’s a
tiny piece, but those have to deal with contrapuntal principles. It
is typical of my style to be contrapuntal.
BD: Was this for
a performance on a Christmas concert along with several others?
UG: No, it was
just a Christmas card I sent to all my friends. I went out and printed
it up. We had some friends that usually arranged a musicale shortly
before Christmas, and we usually deal with them at that.
BD: Did each one
get an individual carol, or was it always the same carol?
UG: It was the
same carol for everybody.
BD: I was just
wondering if a commercial card manufacturer came to you and said, “We would
like to print millions of these up and send them out and pay you for your
efforts.” They would have a Christmas card with an original Christmas
carol for the public. Is that something that would interest you?
UG: Yes, it’s been
done through history. Composers always do certain things like that,
and friends of mine would do it slightly differently. Actually, the
first time I started, it was a friend of mine in Sweden that was doing it.
He wrote a whole long piece and then mailed it to everybody.
BD: So, you’d just
get the score?
UG: So you’d get
the score. Sometimes I did very elaborate canons with an awful lot
of technical things that went into them. We’d sing them forwards and
backwards and upside down. They had their own ostinatos going inside
with canons, and all of them worked out perfectly if you sit down and write
them all out.
BD: Sounds like
fun. Let me take it one step further. Sometimes greeting cards
have a little electronic beeper kind of thing that can have a little
tune going. Should the company perhaps have it written out on the back,
and then the little beeper will beep the tune that you have written?
UG: I’d have to
think about that one. [Laughs]
BD: I just wondered
how much you might get intrigued by the commercial value of something like
this. Or am I trying to head you down the wrong path?
UG: The thing is
that one of these things can be fun to do once, but then if the first one
is successful it’s like doing a jingle. It comes
back and you have to start repeating, and if you do it in a certain way,
people want you to repeat the same jingle. But the next commercial
would be different, so the jingle would not work.
BD: Should they
come to you for a new jingle, or should they, perhaps, have a series of composers,
one each year? This year will be the Ulf Grahn Christmas Card and next year
will be somebody else’s Christmas card. Have them in a series so that
each year that company could put out a new card.
UG: Yes, as long
as it’s done with taste. At this point the sound on the small beepers
is terrible! So that would probably be the one reason I wouldn’t do
it. It would be intriguing, but unless they could fix up the sound,
which probably wouldn’t be that hard... Those things are fun to talk
about, but I don’t think that anybody’s going to do it, anyway.
BD: You never know!
Maybe someone who is listening to this program happens to be the president
of a greeting card company, and might get intrigued.
BD: In general,
is music fun to write? Is composition fun?
UG: Yes, when it
gets going. It’s something I always want to do, and the thing is that
there’s too many things that prevent you from doing it, and that creates
BD: You’re also
a professor of music?
I do part-time teaching of composition, electronic music composition, and
BD: Is music composition
really something that can be taught, or must it be innate with each young
UG: I think you
can teach people how to go about solving problems, but any composition is
basically ways of solving problems and making decisions. You can make
a bad decision and you can make a good decision, and you can do it if you
have some overall music training. In a sense, if you’re taking some
harmony or maybe just played an instrument, you will have some ideas and
you can start there. Then by trial and error you will learn certain
things that work for you. When work with somebody they can help you
speed up the process in finding what will work and what will not work.
Back in history you were basically an apprentice to some composer, which
meant you would copy the parts, or you were helping out for rehearsal.
You might be playing in the ensemble, and you were part of a total musical
BD: Is this gone
UG: That environment
I don’t see anywhere, and I somehow wish it would be possible to re-create.
From my background out of Sweden, when it came to harmony and counterpoint
and composition, I did most of it with one and the same teacher, so you get
a totality of it. Here you take harmony from So-and-so, then you take
up counterpoint with another, and you take piano with someone else.
It never seems to be that you find out that all of those are part of an overall
scope. We assume that western music has progressed, which can be argued,
but you go into the school or music department, and in the first year you
have Romantic music history, and then the next year you will take Renaissance
music. That is compartmental, but you do this and then you play a little
piano, and there is no conscious effort to tie all of this into the same
sort of line.
BD: So then each
music school should have an overlord to bring it all together?
I think that’s what they hope people will get by taking all these courses,
that people will get the sense of the totality.
BD: Does it work?
UG: I don’t think
so. In Stockholm, at the state college, one of the professors, Lars
Edlund, wrote this book that everybody has to go through. It’s called
Modus Novus. It’s a free-tone
and twelve-tone style of music in sight singing. He designed a course
to show what music is in different parts of the world, because he found out
that people didn’t know. To help them understand, you should know that
music notation has developed or evolved or changed over time, and that each
period finds its own best solution. It doesn’t mean that it makes sense
to us today, but you should know that if you read the music of the Renaissance,
you should do it with the concept that this is their notation. If we
use notation of our time and if we’re not aware of it, we mix the messages.
* * *
BD: Where is music
UG: That, I don’t
BD: [With a gentle
nudge] Oh, gaze into your crystal ball.
concert music might or might not have problems. The problems in America
are different from the problems in Europe.
BD: How so?
UG: Here the free
marketplace plays a much bigger role. In America you have to play it
safe, which means that people play what they think everybody wants to have.
But they don’t know if they want to have that. In Europe we have the
“registration with our state supporters.” They are following that a
lot, and they have to play the new music. Radio has a much more important
place in Europe. Radio was much more important there as a cultural
communicator because of the distances. In Sweden there are several
writers that would not have been writers, or dramatists, unless they had
the weekly theater programs with good actors all the time. The same
thing happened, the so-called Bo Nilsson phenomenon that came out in the
fifties in Sweden. He was living in an isolated place that could not
in any way play new music. All he could hear was through the radio
and the night programs, and by corresponding with people. That type
of radio might have been here, but it’s not, and it lasted much longer in
BD: Is new Swedish
music going in a completely different direction than new American music?
There are differences. There might be certain things that are similar.
I have been trying to travel and do some talks about American music in Sweden,
and the interesting part is that in Sweden, and even on the continent, what
they consider American music is certain group of composers coming out of
what I would call the John
Cage Group. Then we have the minimalists, with Steve Reich, Phillip Glass and Terry
Riley. It’s much more important to them as American music. If
you go in and talk about Boulez and Babbitt, they are just
names. They don’t know who they are, not even their music.
BD: Should we work
harder to get more American music done in Scandinavia and Europe?
UG: There are lots
Americans traveling over there that would be played, and I don’t think that
will work. The Finns have been trying to do it here in the U.S.
They get some response, but then it falls. Sweden has tried, too, and
it doesn’t seem to work that way. It seems that each country will pick
certain things that they seem to identify with.
BD: Are you optimistic
about the future of music in general?
UG: I’m trying
to be. [Both laugh] Actually, I don’t think that music will disappear
because it has been around too long. What we apply to it will change.
At one point — in the fifties and sixties — everybody
thought that the audience would just go with one composer going that way,
and suddenly there is a complete merging again. We had the so-called
new Romanticism, whatever that means. But somehow, either the time
has come up with the composer or the composer has slowed down. Or it’s
just a pendulum that swings back and forth. This time we were too far
out, so now we had to go back and solidify what we were doing, and see how
we can make sense out of all these different trends.
BD: Can we make sense out of all
the different trends?
UG: Yes, I think
so. That’s why I like to read composer biographies, because they always
come out and say that this is the hardest time possible. There’s so
many things going on, so many things that are possible, so it’s a very hard
time for the composer.
BD: And they’ve
always said this?
UG: They always
said that. I’ve just been reading a very nice book written by Vincent
d’Indy about César Franck, and he brings that part up, too.
It seems that people distill works and try to refine whatever they are doing
so they will be the ones, somehow, that might survive. On the other
hand, Schumann said that if people go with the latest trends all the time
then they end up being nothing. So somehow we have to balance.
The time has to be in there, but you cannot escape the tradition, or whatever
you want to call it. It’s the delicate balance, and that’s up for each
individual composer to decide where he will want to go. Will I have
my roots in the Palestrina, or will I have my roots in the Renaissance and
use that as the type, like Peter
Maxwell Davies was doing. He tried to research and find ideas out
of the Renaissance, because that helped bring those new thoughts. D’Indy
mentions that Franck was always playing somebody else’s music before he got
started. It was just to work himself up, and that was to get himself
going. If he really wanted to do something good he might play his own
music because then he was into his own way of thinking. Even Stockhausen
said something like that. If you listen to a bad piece, listen to it
again. If you still think it’s bad, listen to it again, and if you
still think it’s bad, listen to it again and you might start getting ideas.
So in a sense, if you don’t like a piece, you have to find out why you don’t
like it. It is very popular just to say, “I don’t like new music.”
They just don’t want to be confronted by it, and I don’t think it has anything
to do with liking. It’s just that it takes some effort, and if I’m
not in the mood for that I won’t listen to it. That holds for any person.
BD: Is it right
to expect an audience to be in the mood for contemporary music when it comes
to a concert?
UG: I don’t think
people are in the mood for everything that’s going to be on a concert.
If you go to a concert, you usually go there for once particular piece, and
you can be pleasantly surprised and you can be pleasantly bored.
“Pleasantly bored!” I’ve
never heard it put that way.
UG: Back in my
teens I went to an orchestral concert where they were playing lots of works
I really liked. I had asked a girl to go along but she turned me down.
I was slightly annoyed because I had two tickets and I had to waste a good
ticket. I didn’t mean anything about anything, I just wanted to have
a companion to go to the concert with. So I got mad, and I sat through
that concert looking at my clock every two minutes. I just wondered
what in the world has happened to this piece? It doesn’t get anyplace.
So I was not in the right mood to go to that concert, and it went like that
for all the pieces including the Mozart 39th Symphony. [Laughs] So
there was no reason at all, and that’s the one I really remember because
I was looking at the time. So you can be in the wrong mood, and you
can go to a concert where you think that a certain piece is what you’re going
for, and you’d be pleasantly surprised at it when it comes out much differently.
* * *
BD: Let me ask
another balance question: in music, where is the balance between art
UG: Good art has
in itself entertainment, and it’s up to the composers to write it in.
I’m just getting old-fashioned here. Shakespeare, supposedly, if I have
read him right, wrote for different types of people. Every play has
something that will work for every part of the audience. He had the
long, deep monologues for the real serious; he had the comedians coming in
for the people that didn’t want anything else, and he has the give and takes.
So he’s tried to figure out that people are on different levels of preparation.
I’m not going to say different type of education, but they are differently
prepared for, and are there for various reasons.
BD: Are you conscious
of this kind of thing in your writing?
UG: Not directly,
but I think you should try to get something in. One way of helping
a listener has to do with musical form. A piece needs to have some
kind of form or structure where certain things will happen. You don’t
have to tell them in advance that it’s going to follow a certain path, but
if you’re going to go into an unknown path, you have to make sure that there
are certain things that will help him realize that this is not going the
way he thought; it’s doing something else. I usually joke that the
sonata form is the most pedagogical form ever invented when it comes to an
uneducated listener. You state the theme in the first part; you repeat
it; you add something new; you come back to the beginning and repeat that,
then you repeat the whole thing to really make sure that you understand what
is happening here. You do the same thing in the melodic sense and with
the harmony. You start on one chord, you move it up, then you go back
to the original chord and you establish this as a motif or a harmonic progression.
It’s not a question of development. It’s that you work through the
ideas that you presented. You don’t have to develop them, you just
put them in a completely different context and a different juxtaposition.
BD: You play with
UG: Yes you play
with them, but you present it so people can follow even when it is intricate.
It is like playing chess. Everybody opens with the same move, and then
you have all this you can figure out. But there’s not such a variety
of possibilities, so it’s very hard to find the middle part. Then you
get to the end and you can follow it, but in the sonata form you can just
go back and repeat everything to make sure that people know this is what
I set out to do, here is when I get you slightly confused, and now I bring
you back to what I started out with. They can always find that there
is something to hold onto. They don’t have to know the form, because
the form was invented after the time, anyway.
BD: The form was
used and then they put a label on it?
UG: They put a
label on after it had been established, but it was the sense that the audience
could follow what happened, because not everybody in the audience played
an instrument. It was exactly the time when the big bourgeoisie started
to go to listen to music. They were not that educated, so the composers
took it upon themselves to see that they could follow what was going on.
It’s very easy to follow what happens in a Mozart symphony and in a Haydn
symphony, but at the time of Beethoven, everybody had done it so many times
that he could take more freedom and assume that the audience would know.
BD: Is it easy
to follow what happens in a Grahn symphony?
UG: It should be.
BD: Do you feel
that you’re part of a musical heritage, a musical lineage?
UG: In a sense
I do and in a sense I don’t. I am part of one, since the way I studied
was with one person, Hans Eklund. Then I studied with Lars-Erik Larsson,
and their view on theory and on teaching was very similar. It was just
that they teach the craft, and what I do with it is my responsibility.
I think that is the thing. The other school in Sweden is that you have
somebody teaching a style, and the students try to refine upon that style.
BD: And you don’t
adhere to that?
UG: No, I don’t.
I think you should teach the craft, and then the individual should come through.
They might come to it slightly later, but in the early part it is very easy
to find out who has studied with whom. If they play my pieces, they
cannot say whom I studied with. That’s the other thing I found in Vincent
d’Indy’s book, because that was one point that César Franck made.
He didn’t want anybody to sound like him. He just wanted to help people
become their own voices. In America you have some of that problem,
that people are trying to stay within a set framework, within a style.
Particularly the early part, you can say that in electronic music.
You can always talk about how this piece sounds like Columbia-Princeton,
and it is Columbia Princeton. You can find certain kinds of music coming
out of certain parts of the American east coast, which is nastily labeled
by myself as the ‘American Academia’,
which is the serial style, and it’s not, per se, very interesting. Nothing
new happens in it. An awful lot of composers still work, and then they
come find that they come to a dead end, and then they start coming out of
it. I would assume that we would hear more of those at this conference,
because I know some of them. Joan Tower is one, for
example that started in the one end and she has ended up in a very different
is another one. He was very strict, and now his pieces show the way
of new Romanticism.
BD: Are we getting,
perhaps, too many young composers coming along?
UG: I think it’s
too many, but I don’t think there’s anything can do with it. It’s too
easy to call yourself composer. [Both laugh] That’s more an American
phenomenon than any other. People that want to write should write,
but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are a ‘composer’
if you used the word to indicate that’s what they try to have as their main
duty. You have an awful lot of performing musicians, like organists,
choir directors, choral members, pianists, violinists, and flute players
that want to write music, but they are primarily pianists, organists, choral
directors, that like to write music. The other thing first, composer
second. However, they do fill a gap of materials needed in that particular
BD: But you are
a composer first?
I attended one conference where that was very apparent, that they were of
the performer-composer variety. They were people that are really good
performers but also want to write something. Then you find all this
hyper-idiomatic music. If they write for the guitar, it’s almost more
Tárrega than Tárrega himself. Or if you have violinist
like Kreisler, it’d be more Kreisler than Kreisler. It is the same
thing with singers. They will take a certain vocal genre and stay within
that. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. That’s very
healthy and I think everybody can create, but that doesn’t mean that they
are ‘composers’ in the sense
that they chose it as a profession. The expectations on the professional
composer should be quite high. In America you have the conductor, then
you have the performer, then in the bottom there’s all these composers.
BD: It’s just backwards!
You need the reversal. For example, in Sweden, the conductor is important
and the performer is important, but the composer is up there as a equal.
BD: How can we
get the composers back up on top in America?
UG: They have to
show that they know what they are doing. But it’s very easy to follow
trends now, and people don’t take them seriously all the time. Also
it’s a different time, and I don’t think the word means the same thing to
Americans. When I use the word ‘composer’,
I mean it in the sense of the translation of the Swedish equivalent.
But there is no such equivalent at that level, because in Sweden, if you
are a composer, it’s understood that you have studied in a certain fashion,
you do a certain things and you know a certain amount. It’s a polish
after your basic music education. Here in America they would go into
music school and take some basics, and then when they have to declare a major
they say, “Hey, writing music seems to be neat, so I will become a composer
BD: So you think
that the word ‘composer’
should not be taken by the creator, but rather should be given to them out
But that’s a different society, so it has completely different parameters.
The same thing goes for continental Europe. Studying composition is
done after you’ve done the other, more basic part. It’s the refinement,
after you first educate yourself to become a musician. Then you specialize
in composing, or you specialize in piano, or you specialize in violin.
BD: Thank you for
being a composer.
UG: Oh! [Laughs]
Thank you for presenting my music.
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© 1987 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Evanston, Illinois, on April 8,
1987. Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again
in 1992 and 1997. This transcription was made in 2015, 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.
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
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