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 Scholarship 1971.
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
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 . . . . . . . .
I appreciate your taking the time
from a busy schedule to see me. You are from Sweden?
I’m from Sweden. I’m still a Swedish citizen, but I’ve been
here in the U.S. for fifteen years.
BD: Does that
impose any problems?
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 particularly Swedish?
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?
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
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
Yes. 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
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
myself — that’s probably the easiest thing — but it must make sense to
BD: Does all
contemporary music make sense?
necessarily. It depends on what you mean by sense.
BD: What is
the musical sense, then, of Ulf
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
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?
Yes. 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
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
BD: You don’t
want the listener to be
conscious of all the technical difficulties?
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.
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
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
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 pure inspiration?
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.
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
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 difficult.
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
the concert music promoters and creators
try to expand the audience into people who go to horror films?
[Laughs] No. I don’t think they should even hint at it.
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
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
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.
recordings? Those you perhaps have a little more time and can
make edits if things are not so good.
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.
Devil’s Advocate] On the other hand, it’s
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.
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
BD: Have you
done anything with electronic
music at all?
UG: Yes I’ve
done some, but not within the last ten
BD: So, it’s
not something that really interests you?
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
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?
Yes. 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
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?
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 it?
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
I can’t squeeze in some small little things now and then, in between,
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,
when you simplify or actually clarify.
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???
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
“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.
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
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
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
shades of it. It was a piece for one piano,
awfully crowded. [Laughs]
UG: Yes, it’s
crowded! The Chapel Hill performers
took the total sound so that nobody should stand out. Everybody
trying to make it blend as closely as possible. The
Tallahassee group tried to figure out how to bring out the polyrhythmic
were going on.
BD: So one
group was concerned with lines, and the
other was concerned with just the body of sound?
UG: Just the
BD: But both
of those interpretations are valid?
UG: Both of
them are valid.
you’re writing a piece of music, how do you
know when you’re finished with it?
[Matter-of-factly] 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
everything. It sounds strange, but everybody has their own
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?
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 that way.
BD: This was
just a little, tiny piece
UG: Yes, it’s
a tiny piece, but those have to deal
with contrapuntal principles. It is typical of my style to be
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
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
if you sit down and write them all out.
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.
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
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.
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
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,
BD: You never
someone who is listening to this program happens to be the president of
a greeting card company, and might get intrigued.
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 conflicts.
also a professor of music?
Yes. I do part-time teaching of composition, electronic music
composition, and music theory.
BD: Is music
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
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,
were part of a total musical environment.
BD: Is this
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
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?
Yes. 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
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
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
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 going today?
UG: That, I
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
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
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 Europe.
BD: Is new
Swedish music going in a completely
different direction than new American music?
Yes. 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
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
things that they seem to identify with.
BD: Are you
optimistic about the future of
music in general?
trying to be. [Both laugh] Actually, I don’t think that
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
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
hard time for the composer.
they’ve always said this?
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
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
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.
[Laughs] “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.
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
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 and entertainment?
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
BD: Are you
conscious of this kind of thing in
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
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
UG: It should
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
that they teach the craft, and what I do with it is my
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
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
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 place. Schwantner 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
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
[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 situation.
BD: But you
are a composer first?
Yes. I attended one conference where that was very apparent, that
they were of the
performer-composer variety. They were people that are really good
but also want to write something. Then you find all this
hyper-idiomatic music. If they
write for the guitar, it’s almost more Tarrega than Tarrega
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. [Laughs]
BD: It’s just
Yes. 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
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
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 major.”
BD: So you
think that the word
should not be taken by the creator, but rather should be given
to them out of respect?
Yes. 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
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.
[Laughs] Thank you for presenting my music.
-- -- -- -- -- -- --
===== ===== =====
© 1987 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Evanston, Illinois, on April
8, 1987. Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following
and again in 1992 and 1997.
This transcription was made in 2015, and posted on this
at that time.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
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
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.