Composer  Donald  Grantham

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Donald Grantham was born November 9, 1947 in Duncan, Oklahoma. After receiving a Bachelor of Music from the University of Oklahoma, he went on to receive his MM and DMA from the University of Southern California. For two summers he studied under famed French composer and pedagogue, Nadia Boulanger at the American Conservatory in France. He currently teaches music composition at the University of Texas at Austin Butler School of Music, where he is the Frank C. Erwin, Jr. Centennial Professor of Music.

Grantham is the recipient of numerous awards and prizes in composition, including the Prix Lili Boulanger, the Nissim/ASCAP Orchestral Composition Prize, First Prize in the Concordia Chamber Symphony's Awards to American Composers, a Guggenheim Fellowship, three grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, three First Prizes in the NBA/William Revelli Competition, two First Prizes in the ABA/Ostwald Competition, and First Prize in the National Opera Association's Biennial Composition Competition.

His music has been praised for its "elegance, sensitivity, lucidity of thought, clarity of expression and fine lyricism" in a Citation awarded by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. In recent years his works have been performed by the orchestras of Cleveland, Dallas, Atlanta and the American Composers Orchestra among many others, and he has fulfilled commissions in media from solo instruments to opera.

His music is published by Piquant Press, Peer-Southern, E. C. Schirmer and Mark Foster, and a number of his works have been commercially recorded. The composer resides in Austin, Texas and is Professor of Composition at the University of Texas at Austin. With Kent Kennan he is co-author of The Technique of Orchestration (Prentice-Hall).

--  Throughout this page, names which are links refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  


In November of 1991, Donald Grantham was in the Chicago area for performances of his opera The Boor, given by the Opera Workshops of Northwestern University and De Paul University.  During that busy time, he graciously took a few minutes to speak with me about this work, and his other compositions, as well as his teaching at the University of Texas.  

He would later become more well-known for his band pieces, several of which have been recorded, along with other chamber works.

Portions of this conversation were aired on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago on a couple of occasions (along with recordings), and now the complete chat is presented on this webpage.  

grantham Here is what was said at that time . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie
:   You’ve written songs, and operas, and orchestral music, and chamber music.  How do you balance them all, and what kind of relationship does one have to the other?

Donald Grantham:   Fortunately, for the last several years I’ve done most of my pieces on commission, so I write whatever happens to come along.  It’s been everything from tuba quartets to Christmas cantatas to orchestral music, so it’s been a wide variety of things.

BD:   When you get a commission, how do you decide if you’re going to accept it or turn it aside?

DG:   It’s hard to say.  I find most of the commissions that I’ve gotten have been due to similar pieces that I’ve written in the past.  They’re media that I enjoy working with, so it’s no real problem accepting the commissions that have been offered to me.  The Tuba Quartet was something a little out of the ordinary, but I wasn’t overloaded at that time, so I ended up with a short piece and I took it on.  If there was anything that would cause me to turn down a commission it would be something that would be rather long and that I would think wouldn’t have much possibility for numerous performances... a piece for twelve clarinets or something like that.  Although that might be very interesting, the chances are I wouldn’t take on something like that.

BD:   So even if it peaks your interest, you would still turn it down?

DG:   If I wasn’t busy I might give it a shot, but if it was a long piece for a very unusual combination, the chances are I would not do it.

BD:   Have you basically been pleased with the performances of your works that you’ve heard over the years?

DG:   I’d say basically, yes.   The people that have done them have been serious about them or they wouldn’t be doing it, so they generally do as well as they can, and that’s usually good enough.

BD:   Are there times when the performers will discover things in your works that you didn’t know you’d hidden there?

DG:   Yes.  I’ve found that my pieces can be stretched a number of ways and still be interesting and pleasing to me.  I really welcome performer input.  Basically, when I’m working with a performer I want him to feel good about the piece, and to sound good.  So if it means making some adjustments, I’m willing to do that.  

BD:   Do you make the adjustment, or does the performer make the adjustment?

DG:   I generally make the adjustments or approve whatever adjustments have been made.  There have been some times when I have decided that some changes performers wanted to make were not really in the best interest of the piece, so I asked them not to do it, and they were gracious about it and didn’t.  [Laughs]

BD:   Do you build in allowances for interpretation?

DG:   Sure!  Metronome markings usually are within a low and high range.  They might vary by ten or fifteen clicks.

BD:   Is that more interpretation, or is it technical facility?

DG:   It might be both, but it certainly can be interpretation, particularly with songs, depending on the voice and where it lies in the voice.  A singer might feel more comfortable with it at a faster or a slower tempo, so sometimes I completely dispense with metronome marking and just give a general indication.  The singer takes it from there, and the poetry will often suggest what the tempo should be.

grantham BD:   You don’t sing a sad song fast?

DG:   Basically that’s it.

BD:   As we’re talking about this a little bit, let’s plunge right in.  Tell me the joys and sorrows of writing for the human voice.

DG:   It’s really very interesting.  When I was going to school for three degrees in music, I had a number of courses on how to write for instruments, how to write for the orchestra, how to write for the band, but I can’t recall ever having had a course on how to write for the voice, although that came up in composition lessons, of course.  There is really no formalized instruction in writing for the voice, so everything has been learned by trial and error.  It really is quite difficult to write well for the voice, to project the poetry in the most convincing way, and to make it feel comfortable with the singer.  It takes some experience.

BD:   When you’re writing for the voice, how do you select the texts?

DG:   I read a lot of poetry, and usually it happens that there’s some line or some idea or sentiment that is really very striking and just reaches out and grabs me.  One of my most ambitious songs is a piece based on Pablo Neruda’s La Noche en la isla, and in that poem there is a line (in translation) that reads something like, ‘All night long I have slept with you while the dark Earth spins the living and the dead’.  This is a very striking image, not colorful but very, very striking and thought-provoking.

BD:   Almost disturbing?

DG:   Right, exactly, and right away the musical idea occurred to me.  That was in a way the kernel from which the entire piece evolved.

BD:   Did you set it in the original Spanish or in an English translation?

DG:   I set it in Spanish.

BD:   Do you ever write your own texts?  

DG:   Only in the case of this opera that was recently done here in Chicago, The Boor, that’s based on a Chekhov play.  [Other composers who have set this work include William Walton, Dominick Argento, and Ulysses Kay.]  So it’s not like I manufactured the entire thing out of my imagination.  I had a very clear outline and very strong indications of what needed to happen, so it was simply a matter of taking texts that were intended to be spoken and turning them into something that could be sung.  I felt comfortable with that.  I’m not comfortable at all writing poetry, and never attempted to do so in a song text.

BD:   When you’re looking over poetry, are there ever some that you reject because they’re so complete that the music would be intrusive?

DG:   Yes.  At the moment my favorite poet is Philip Larkin (1922-1985), and I really admire his poetry quite a bit.  It means a lot to me, but there’s none of it that I can see that’s appropriate for setting to music
at least by me.  I don’t know of any other settings of his texts, although I’m sure there are some.

BD:   Are you purposely going to hunt for them?

DG:   No.  He didn’t write an awful lot of poetry, and I’m familiar with all of it.  But none of it strikes me as something that I would really want to set to music.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Now we’ve just had the performance of The Boor.  This was a first performance?

grantham DG:   No, it was it’s the fifth performance and second production.

BD:   How wildly divergent are the two productions?

DG:   I wouldn’t say that they’re wildly divergent.  They’re rather similar.  Both were very physical, with a lot of running around by everybody.  I would say this one was probably a little bit more subdued than the last one.  It did have a lot of running around, but didn’t have some of the things that happened in the last production.  This is not to say that it wasn’t just as compelling, but the last version did have quite a bit more slap-stick.

BD:   You’re both the composer and the librettist.   Do you get involved in the stage direction, too?

DG:   Not to any great extent.  In the score I have made some suggestions of things that need to happen, and there are some things that absolutely have to happen to make the story work, to make it convincing.

BD:   So they’re in the music?

DG:   Yes, they’re indicated.  For instance, there’s a spot where a pistol shot has to happen, and I can’t really think of anything that would really substitute for that.  But there are all kinds of details which aren’t indicated at all, and they really bring the piece to life.  Some of the things that (director) Harry Silverstein did never occurred to me before, but I thought were beautiful in the finale.  For instance, having all the actors make these little music-box-kind-of-stylised movements to match the rather mechanical rhythmic characteristics of some parts of the finale was a real clever idea.  I liked that very much, but it had never occurred to me before.

BD:   Of course, that’s stolen right out of Rossini...

DG:   ...from Cenerentola, yes.  [Both laugh]  But it’s still a good idea.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You also do some teaching as well as composing?

DG:   Yes, I do.

BD:   How do you divide your time between those two very demanding activities?

grantham DG:   I’ve been very fortunate at the University of Texas.  I teach orchestration and composition, and then nine to twelve individual students.  I’ve been able to do all my teaching in the afternoons, and have the mornings completely free for composition.  So I manage to get quite a bit written in that length of time.  As matter of fact, I don’t know that I would be able to spend a great deal more time composing than the time I have available.  I reach a point of diminishing returns after a few hours and need to get away from it.

BD:   You need to recharge?

DG:   That’s it, yes. 

BD:   Do the ideas your students bring to class or lessons ever inspire you for your own ideas?

DG:   Yes!   Students are very clever, and it’s almost like what we were talking about a moment ago with stage directors.  Even in your own work, if they have a slant you didn’t have it might lead you off into an interesting new direction.  Whatever you happen to be looking at with the student, it’s very valuable.

BD:   What kinds of general advice do you have for students who are learning to compose?

DG:   My main advice is to get as much of your music as you can performed as quickly as you can.  I don’t like to see students agonizing over a score for a long period of time.  I’d much rather see them write something quickly and get it heard right away.

BD:   Mistakes and all?

DG:   Mistakes and all, warts and all, so they can learn from it.  Most students who are nineteen to twenty-five are not going to like what they’ve written in five years anyway, so there’s no point in spending the whole lot of time on any one piece.  Not many composers will go back into their late teens or early twenties and pull something out and have it played.  You have to learn from actually putting something together and listening to it, and learning in a trial and error fashion.  

BD:   How did you get into the composing field?

DG:   I was a trumpet player and pianist, and I had a lot of good friends in high school who also played brass instruments.   We had an odd combination, so I arranged and wrote music for that particular group.  I wrote an awful lot of music.  It amazes me to see these cardboard boxes from high school that are full of music for unusual brass combinations.  But I had an awful lot of fun doing it, and basically that’s how I got started.  Once I got into college I started writing songs for my friends, and a piece for the wind ensemble, an orchestra piece, and so forth.  So I just branched out from the performing.

BD:   Were these early works all in a melodic style, or were they in a completely different style?

DG:   It reflected what I was listening to at the time.  That might range from anything from Samuel Barber and Aaron Copland to Bartók and Stravinsky.

grantham BD:   At about what time do you pick those works which are the pieces you’ll keep in the catalogue?

DG:   The earliest piece that I allow to have played anymore dates from about 1971.  It’s a piece for unaccompanied violin, so that’s the one that I think has something of an individual stamp, and is convincing from start to finish, and doesn’t have any obvious lapses.  So that piece I send around, and when people want to play it I am fine with it.  So ’71 is when I really start my catalogue.

BD:   That’s roughly twenty years of writing.  Are you at the point now that you expected to be twenty years ago?

DG:   [Thinks a moment]  Yes, I would say so, and maybe even a little further along.  Back then I didn’t really have any ideas about doing opera, for instance, or any really expanded pieces that I’ve done in the last few years.  That’s a direction I plan to do more work in, so I’d say it’s progressed well from my view point. 

BD:   What is it about opera that has grabbed you?

DG:   I love all the input from different sources
working with stage directors, and costumers, and set designers, and all this kind of thing.  It’s a real bug once you get to go through a process like that.  So far, nothing else really measures up, so I’d say that’s what I like about it.

BD:   Do you write choral music also?

DG:   Yes, I write quite a bit of choral music.  

BD:   With the lack of staging in a choral piece, does that affect your writing style?

DG:   I think of them two completely different realms.

BD:   Dramatic and non-dramatic?

DG:   Yes, I would say so.  The choral music is generally much more reflective and introspective for the most part, as opposed to the operatic works.  Those are the kinds of texts that I generally choose for choral settings as opposed to songs which may or may not be dramatic, and opera which, of course, one wants to be as dramatic as possible.

BD:   Then let me ask the Capriccio question.  In opera, where is the balance between the music and the drama?

DG:   [Thinks a moment]  It’s a very interesting question.  I have been working with the three casts that have done The Boor.  It is a very demanding piece.  There are a lot of notes that are delivered very fast, and when push came to shove, I would have to say that I would much rather have the dramatic ideas come forward with the comedic effect rather than just the right notes.  I’m willing to sacrifice notes and rhythm to some extent for the dramatic effect.

BD:   Sacrifice it on the stage but not in the pit?

DG:   Not in the pit, right!  [Much laughter]  Of course I want it all, but this is not a perfect world, so you see what you can get.

BD:   You can assume that the orchestra is going to play the right notes, so maybe that has your support even if it is quite not exact on stage?

DG:   Yes, that’s what I shoot for, and what most composers do.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let me ask another big question.  What is the purpose of music in society?

DG:   [Again, thinks a moment]  I don’t know if I have any answer for that.  I know what the purpose is for me.

BD:   Then let’s just leave it at that.  What is the purpose for you?

DG:   It’s what really gives me some sense of focus.  It has been the most consistently satisfying thing in my life for quite some time, and it’s not something I’ve ever really felt I needed to examine.  It’s always been so natural that it’s not something you’re compelled to think about too much.  Saints-Saëns said a composer should produce music like an apple tree produces apples.  That’s how I do it, or try to do it, and I really don’t worry too much about the philosophical aspect.

grantham BD:   How do you make sure your pieces don’t have worms in them?  

DG:   [Laughs]  Some of them probably do, but when they turn up, I just toss them if I can.

BD:   Rather than removing the problem?

DG:   Sometimes that’s more trouble than just tossing it.

BD:   You just start again?

DG:   Right.

BD:   When you’re working on a piece of music, and you get a burst of inspiration, are you controlling the pencil, or are there times when that pencil’s controlling your hand?

DG:   There are times when I really get excited about what I’m working on, and at this point in my life it’s no trouble to be able to hold onto it and get it down, and even revise it mentally before I put it on the paper.  I remember when I was younger I almost dreaded those instances when the idea was going to take over because I did really didn’t have the technique to get it down before it dissipated.  So, yes, there are times like that.  In just about every piece I write, when I start out there’s a point of no return, when I hit it and say,
Yes!  This piece is going to be a keeper!  I feel like it’s going to work.  But after that time, it’s a very uncomfortable feeling because it’s still a proposition that may or may not fly.  But at some point, with me anyway, it clicks in and I get that feeling that it’s going to work and I can go with it.  If it doesn’t, then I guess that’s the piece with the worm.

BD:   So you just toss it out?

DG:   Right.

BD:   Do you keep some of the ideas for another piece?

DG:   Occasionally, yes.  They get recycled one way or another.  I don’t have any problem with that.  As a matter of fact, I rework a lot of my pieces in various forms.  I’ll often do a chamber version of an orchestral piece, and vice versa sometimes, just for a little more flexibility as far as the utility of the piece is concerned.  

BD:   Are there ever times when you’re working on a brass quintet and you come across something that would be a great vocal line?

DG:   I happen to be working on a brass quintet at the moment, and there are certainly parts of it that are very vocal.

BD:   I mean something that you would save for some other piece?

DG:   No, I don’t think I’ve ever done anything quite like that... but it’s possible.  It’s certainly not out of the realm of possibility.

BD:   When you’re working with a piece and you get all the notes down and you’re tinkering with it, how do you know when to put the pen down and say it’s ready?

DG:   I never have a problem with that.  I have a pretty clear conception of what it’s supposed to be rather early on, and it’s usually very apparent to me where I need to stop.  Occasionally after I hear something it may need some revision of some sort, but it’s usually just a miscalculation, and the miscalculations are becoming more minor and easier to fix as I go along.  But I usually have a pretty strong feeling about when a piece is done.

BD:   When you’re working on the world premiere of a work, are you one of these guys that gives lots of suggestions, or do you basically stay out of the way and let the musicians get on with their work?

DG:   I generally give a lot of suggestions, particularly if I get into the rehearsal situation early enough.  Some things I feel very strongly about and just say it really needs to be this way if it’s going to be as strong as it could be, while other things performers might take or leave.  It just depends on what they’re doing with it.

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

DG:   I’m very pleased with the recordings.  All except one has been done under my supervision, so any flaws that are in them are my own fault.

BD:   The famous composer-supervised recordings!  

DG:   Yes, that’s right.  [Much laughter]  The one that isn’t is very close to what I wanted, so I guess the music was clear enough that the performer was able to nail it.

*     *     *     *     *

grantham BD:   Is composing fun?

DG:   Oh, yes!  It is for me.  I love it.  It’s like Woody Allen said
it’s the most fun I ever have without laughing!  [Much laughter all around]

BD:   Should people laugh at any of your works?

DG:   I sure hope they will laugh at this opera, The Boor, since it is a comic opera.  I’ve done another piece rather like that based on a Mark Twain text, The Diaries of Adam and Eve.  That’s been staged as a kind of a theater piece, so that’s another one I hope people will laugh at.

BD:   Is there a balance between an artistic achievement and an entertainment value?

DG:   I have certainly tried to make all my music as polished and as artistic as I can, but I also wanted it to be entertaining for people who enjoy it, not just for a specialist audience.  A composer I admire very much is Benjamin Britten because he has been very successful at writing music that is really appealing to a wide range of people with differing abilities in music.  That’s very difficult to do.  I’ve been directing an Episcopal church choir for about eleven years, and generally the music that I review is not of a real high quality.  But I have found that it’s really very difficult to write an anthem that uses a language that will be appealing for everybody
for me as a composer, for the choir that performs it,  and for the congregation who listens to it.  It’s so difficult to write a piece that everyone will find satisfying, and will not be trite or cliché-ridden.  Most of the stuff that I see is really that way.  It’s kind of generic, yet when a composer sits down and tries to use the same materials in a new and interesting way, that’s as difficult a thing as you can do.  We must try and write something that everybody will like, that’s practical and satisfying.

BD:   So you take into account your audience while you’re writing the piece?

DG:   Sure, as best I can.  I try to have an idea who’s going to be listening to this piece, who is it designed for, and I try to make it match.  It really has to if the piece is going to be successful.

BD:   Do you feel you’re part of a lineage of composers?

DG:   If I’m in any kind of line, the composers are probably English
like Britten, Finzi, Waltonalthough I don’t think my music sounds anything like that.  But those are the composers whose music that I really respect, especially Britten.  I feel I’ve learned a lot from studying Britten’s scores.

BD:   Of course he was primarily a theatrical composer.

DG:   Yes, at his best he was one of the best.

BD:   This is what you want to be
a theatrical composer?

DG:   Right now it’s the writing that excites me the most, so yes, I would like to do more theater pieces.  I’m fortunate at the University of Texas that the director of the opera theater is behind my work, and encouraged the composition of The Boor.  Right now we’re planning a work for the 92/93 season based on an Edith Wharton novel called Summer.  So that’s my current project.  It’s very different from The Boor.  It’s a complete turn-around for me.

BD:   Do you get any helpful advice from Kent Kennan?

DG:   I show a lot of music to Kennan for his comment, yes.  He has an encyclopedic knowledge of music, and what’s been written.  He has some very incisive comments, as well as a terrific ear, so I really do enjoy showing my music to him, and get a lot from it.

BD:   Thank you for spending this brief time with me today.

DG:   Thank you.



Also, see my interview with Robert Beaser


© 1991 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on November 16, 1991.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in 1997.  This transcription was made in 2017, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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.