Composer Hale Smith
-- and --
Composer T. J.
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
By the beginning of 1987, I had already
done quite a number of interviews. I mention this because the
experience I had gained allowed me to take advantage of a significant
opportunity in this particular case.
As shown in the letter (reproduced above) responding to my inquiry,
composer Hale Smith had agreed to meet with me, and that interview was
set up for January 26th at his hotel. After we had been speaking
together for a few minutes, another gentleman came into the room, and I
found out this was T.J. Anderson. He and Smith were old
buddies. Smith called T.J. ‘The Boss’,
and ‘one of my esteemed colleagues and friends’.
Their exchanges made me realize this was someone I should also speak
with as an interview guest, and they were both gracious enough to allow
me to do so. The result of this double encounter is presented on
HALE SMITH is regarded as one of America's finest
composers. He also had a distinguished career as an arranger, editor,
and educator. Born in Cleveland, Ohio on June 29, 1925, he began study
of the piano at age seven, and his initial performance experience
included both classical and jazz music. After military service
(1943-45), he entered the Cleveland Institute of Music as a composition
major, receiving a bachelor's degree in 1950 and a master's degree in
1952. His principal teachers were Ward Lewis in theory, and Marcel Dick, his only
teacher of composition.
He moved to New York in 1958 and from that time he worked with many
prominent jazz artists, including Chico Hamilton, Dizzy Gillespie, Eric
Dolphy, Randy Weston, Melba Liston, Ahmad Jamal, and Oliver
Nelson. He also served as an editor and consultant with several
music publishers (E.B. Marks, C.F. Peters, Frank Music Corp. and Sam
Fox Music Publishers).
In 1952, Smith was a winner of the first Student Composer's Award
sponsored by Broadcast Music Inc., and in 1960 was commissioned by BMI
to compose Contours for Orchestra.
His other works include Ritual and
By Yearning and By Beautiful,
Music for Harp and Orchestra,
Orchestral Set, Mediations in Passage, several
chamber music and solo pieces and several works for chorus and solo
voice and piano.
Smith received several honors including the Cleveland Arts Prize, and
Awards from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters, The
National Black Music Caucus, and an honorary doctorate from the
Cleveland Institute of Music.
He taught at C.W. Post College (Long Island) and was Professor Emeritus
from the University of Connecticut. In addition, he served on the
boards of several organizations including The American Composers
Alliance, Composer's Recordings, Inc., The American Music Center, and
several state arts councils. He also was a copyright infringement
consultant, and orchestrator and artistic consultant for the Black
Music Repertory Ensemble of the Center for Black Music Research
Columbia College Chicago. Smith was appointed to the New York State
Council on the Arts (1993-1997) by Governor Mario Cuomo.
Smith died after a long illness on November 24, 2009.
-- Names which are links on
this webpage refer to my Interviews elsewhere on this website.
In my quest for interviews, one of my main contacts was Barbara
Petersen, Vice President of BMI. Knowing her and working with her
was rewarding for both of us since she put me in touch with many
composers in her stable, and I was thus able to present programs of
their music and interviews on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago. It
was also nice because she was married to baritone Roger Roloff, a
major Wagner/Strauss singer whom I had known since undergraduate days.
With that in mind, we started our conversation . . . . . . . . .
Did you know anything about me before Barbara mentioned
me? I’m just curious about things like that sometimes!
Bruce Duffie: I wrote to
Barbara with a list of requests, so I was the one who came up with your
name. I had read about you in Baker’s Biographical Dictionary [edited
Slonimsky], and had played a couple of your recordings
on the air.
HS: Well, I
don’t have too much that’s available anymore, to tell you the
truth. Would a cigar bother you? If it would, tell
BD: Can I ask
you not to? If you can delay it until later, I would appreciate
it. It gets into my eyes.
problem. I’m not hooked! I go days and days without
them. That’s the reason I asked the question. [The photo at right shows Smith with a
cigar! The only other person
who inquired about smoking a cigar during our interview was Daniel
Barenboim, and he also graciously agreed not to.]
BD: Thank you
very much. I want to talk about music and
composing. You’re also a teacher of composition?
HS: I guess
that’s true. Officially I am Professor Emeritus in the University
this is a difficult question, but is musical composition something
really can be taught, or must it be something that is innate within
HS: I don’t
think that’s a difficult question. The ability to express oneself
through any art form is something I think is innate. That cannot
be taught, but craft is teachable. The best teaching —
which is very, very rare in my opinion, especially in the
creative area and music composition — is an
approach that helps the student to delve within his own resources, and
at the same time giving that student a craft that is necessary to
express those thoughts or ideas or whatever one might want to call
them. I have a favorite analogy where I tell students, or young
people in general, having to do with the place of craft and technique
in the creative process. The analogy relates to when one first
starts learning how to write is like learning to ride a bicycle.
One has to be very conscious of every gesture, every shift of balance,
the slightest of degree of manipulating the handlebar, the precise
degree of pressure on the pedals, the precise rate of speed that the
pedals should be turned, and if one miscalculates, the result is that
one ends up on the ground. [Both laugh] But one continues
to work these problems out, and then eventually, sooner or later, one
jumps on the bicycle, starts off, and somewhere down the road he might
stop to think, “My goodness, here I’ve been
riding this thing around and I didn’t think about it at all! All
I had my mind on was where I was going and what I wanted to do!”
composition is like this?
the way I view the role of craft. It’s indispensable, but until
it’s subordinated to the point where you don’t have to think that way,
it’s not fully under one’s control. So when one gets out into the
world of really creating, one shouldn’t have to stop to think about
making a particular chord progression here, or using a certain
inversion there, then having to distribute the voices in such a
way. By that time, what one thinks about, or should be able to
think about, is the piece and what one is doing with it. What one
is expressing is purely music, or one is trying to express the way
clouds go through a sky. It doesn’t matter to me, but the
technique has to be subordinated to the point where one doesn’t have to
think about it. I was talking with a teacher down in New Orleans,
who is a fine pianist and evidently a good teacher, but I think he has
some misconceptions. To me he’s primarily an educator rather than
primarily a performer, and he mentioned Wynton Marsalis. We both
had read this article where Wynton had made a statement that he never
thinks about how he’s going to do something, or what he’s going to
play, or how he’s going to play while he’s performing. He does
not have time to think what chord is going to be played next, or what
notes are going to be played next, or the fingering for the next series
of whatever. You just don’t have time for that in
performing. So this person, who I like very much, was emphatic
that Wynton didn’t fully understand performance because one has to
think about those things. I said, “Oh,
no. Wynton is precisely correct because when one is in the
process of performing, one does not have time to think of those
things. Those things are supposed to be part of the equipment,
and it’s supposed to be dealt with before you go on the stage.”
It’s really funny... I had gone to a recital in New Orleans, and after
it I went to the hotel in the French quarter to visit a friend of mine,
a fine composer named Roger Dickinson and who plays piano in the Royal
Orleans Hotel there. There’s an open lounge there where he plays,
and I waited until Roger finished the evening. We went out to the
parking area and he was starting to get into his car to pull out so I
could follow. We were going someplace for breakfast, when who
should walk in but Wynton! [Both laugh] So I told him the
story, and he said, “Oh, man, if you try to
think of everything you’re going to do like that, it’s gone before you
get it!” So that’s what I think about it.
Is it precisely at this point when you no longer have to think about
the technique that the real music begins?
HS: I think
so, because there you don’t have to think about how you’re going to do
it so much.
you’ve been involved in the teaching of music for a number of
years. How has the teaching of music changed over ten, fifteen,
twenty, thirty years?
general, you mean?
teaching of young students of composition, or the young students of
HS: I don’t think
it’s improved. In fact, if anything, education has declined and
musical education has declined. The problem is that there’s too
many teachers who go through school, say from elementary and high
school through college and get into graduate work without ever getting
out into the world itself. They never have a chance of dealing
with the application and these ideas, what I call the real world.
It’s all about academia. Too many of these students become
accustomed to having material handed to them on a platter. They
don’t learn to think. They don’t even know what thinking is these
days. The name ‘education’
as it’s used today is a misnomer, because all we’re doing is some sort
of very extended half-way job training course.
BD: You say
the education has declined. Has the standard of performance of
young musicians declined, or has that gotten better?
depends. There is, of course, a very large number of performers,
people who are trained to be performers that are coming out of schools
every year, and many of these people — at least
those coming through qualified music schools — have
a pretty fair degree of competency on their instrument. But
again, because so little is brought to the training process, where they
might be well-trained as instrumentalists, they’re not training well as
musicians in my opinion.
technically they’re very good but not emotionally?
HS: In most cases, yes. You can use that
word, but I would call it an expressive capacity, meaning the ability
to project some expressive purpose. I don’t really believe too
much in who’s going to be emotional when he’s playing the Hearts and Flowers throbbing kind
of thing, because somewhere in the performance of music — I
don’t care what kind of music it is — the brain
has to be involved. And, since education in general seems to be
committed to doing anything but developing the capacity of the brain,
they do not bring much of that to anything. The evidence of it is
what we hear on the radio or on the TV, or what you read in the
newspapers and magazine articles, and so on. There’s very little
bit of that which is conducive to thought or dealing with serious
issues, whether it’s in art or anything else. Frankly, I don’t
think it’s a good period in that sense.
BD: Is there
any hope, or are we doomed forever?
HS: I don’t
believe in anything being doomed forever. Of course there are
those out there doing their best to doom it, but it would come from
something else! [Both laugh]
BD: Well, let
me pursue that just a bit! Who is dooming it, or who is
attempting to doom it?
HS: I’ll put
it in these terms to keep it from being too particularized. I
don’t believe there’s a country on the face of the Earth these days
which has a governmental leadership that it can afford, and that goes
for all of them. These people who have taken it upon themselves
to lead the world are leading it to hell and back and downhill every
step of the way, and I don’t see anything getting too much better.
there be a role of government in the arts?
HS: If you
don’t have a general atmosphere of well-being, you can’t have anything
else. It’s a fallacy to think that arts really flourish in
adversity. No, they don’t. When the so-called ‘good life’
has been appropriated by the financiers of the world, the
‘get-rich-quickers’ of the world, the ‘holier-than-thou’ of the world
— whether they’re preachers or followers I don’t care, or
whether it’s presidents, mayors and governors of the world —
those who have themselves not been cognizant of the fact
that they themselves are ignorant of most of what has made the world
better in human history, I don’t see that we’re going to improve very
much soon. I don’t know whether that’s fair to these people or
not, but in an atmosphere like that, art cannot really flourish.
In this country, there’s a big to-do about performing arts. A lot
of government money — federal state and municipal
— is spent on what they call ‘performing arts’.
There’s very little said about the creative arts. If we’re
talking about dance, we’re eliminating the choreographers. If we
talk about actors, we’re eliminating the people who are writing the
plays and films scripts. And if we talk about music, we’re
eliminating the people who create it, people like myself and other
rather good names such as Carter and Babbitt, right
through Anderson, especially down to those who are younger coming
along, trying to scratch out careers. They have to compete with
the giants of the past because it’s to the benefit of a Program
Director on a radio station, or to an accountant in any of the
businesses that are related to the dissemination of music, that they
make yet another recording of a Mozart symphony or Beethoven symphony
or some fragments from Wagner because they have already in their hands
‘saleable’ names. They’re not interested in the concept of
building names to the point where they in turn will become saleable
items, if you want to put it that way. They’re not interested in
funding the music. They’re not interested in making it possible
for this music to become popular by being heard. Let’s face it,
not all modern music is harsh or hard to listen to. Not all of it
is like that. There’s a lot of very, very accessible music
written by composers that either lived not too recently, or who are
BD: Do you
want the situation to change to where Hale Smith becomes a household
HS: I’m not
particularly interested in being a household word. I wouldn’t
mind the money, but the problem that comes with that is that one in
turn has an obligation to live up to the image. I don’t want to
become another Andy Warhol. I saw a picture of him yesterday in
one of the New Orleans newspapers standing in front of one of his brand
new works in that little town in Italy where The Last Supper is being
refurbished. Warhol has his The
Last Supper in a building across from that little chapel, and
the thing that struck me was that in Warhol’s he had a part of Da
Vinci’s painting upside down. I think Dali was a far greater
painter than Warhol could ever dream of starting to be, and he
destroyed himself in terms of becoming the essence of his image.
That’s one of the dangers in that type of thing. I’m not
interested being a household word except in certain circles. I
want to be deserving of being respected by the people that I respect,
and that includes the listener.
you’re writing a piece of music, for whom are you writing?
HS: I don’t
think any serious musician, or composer, or creator is ever writing for
anyone but himself. He has an external purpose. For
instance, if I were to write a piece for you and you were going to play
it, then I have to take certain things into consideration. That’s
only being professional. But first, if it doesn’t satisfy me I
don’t care what you think about it! And if it does satisfy me, I
still don’t care! [Both laugh] It has to be that way I
BD: Have you
basically been pleased with the performances you’ve heard of your music?
HS: I’ve had
some good ones and I’ve had some disasters. Most of them have
been pretty good. I’m not the type of composer that gets excited
if everything isn’t perfect. I get upset if the commitment to the
piece, or just to the art of music, is not there. I prefer having
flawless performances; I very definitely would prefer that, because I
know if it’s flawless, that’s what I have in my ear. Usually that
doesn’t happen, but I also have the experience of really dedicated
people playing music of mine, who for some reason or other couldn’t
pull everything off. But the commitment was so strong there that
the music worked anyhow, and I would satisfy myself with that.
BD: Are most
of your pieces written on commission, or are there some things that you
just say, so you have to write them and hope that they get published?
Fortunately, for a very long time I have not had to worry about
publishing or publication. I’ve been very lucky in that
way. Usually I have so many things to do that I don’t just sit
down and write a piece like that. Rather, I just block out a
certain period of time just to be writing, and it is something I find
very difficult to do. Besides, I don’t mind being
professional. The great masters of the past were paid for what
they did... Schubert was an exception. He didn’t understand the
market place, but for the most part they got paid in one way or the
other. Usually there was enough to support them.
BD: So then
you feel it’s important for even a creative artist to understand the
HS: I think
so. Samuel Johnson made a very good point. I can’t quote
him exactly, but he did say something to the effect that if one must
write, one must write, but one is a fool to write except for
money. Maybe one can’t carry that quite to such an extent,
especially if he’s writing music. If he’s writing words, that’s a
little different. Words seem to get a little more play by the
conglomerates who are even taking care of that these days.
BD: If you
have a lot of commissions, how do you decide which commissions you will
accept and which you will decline?
never had that many at one time that I have to make that choice, not on
that ground. But I will accept a commission if there is a serious
amount of money involved, and if it’s clearly understood that the
commissioning money is mine. The expenses for preparing the
materials, copying parts and so on, comes extra. That is not to
be taken out of my commission. I will be satisfied with that if,
in addition, the commissioning party and I come to an agreement on
duration, and the type of forces for which I am to write — whether
it’s a chamber group, a solo piece, or full orchestra, or whether it’s
for students, or whether it’s for amateurs, or full-fledged
professional players, all of that. It’s something the
commissioner has a right to impose, but what I write and how I write it
is MY business. And when I write it, I own the rights, and that
is clearly covered in the copyright law of the United States. So
if they have got enough money and they buy that other stuff, I write
the piece. I think it’s reasonable that way.
got to be protecting yourself and your own interests.
Yes. When people commission music, that’s a different proposition
from buying music. If you want to ‘buy’ a piece of something
written for hire, and the writer is good enough to go along with that
program, then you as the buyer own the music. You own the rights
to it because that person will have sold his rights to you. A
true commission gives you the privilege of being connected with the
creation with the work of art. Now that might be rather
tenuous. There are names that are coming down to us in history of
people who would not be known except for their connection with
composers in that way. In other words, that takes care of ego and
the mortality factor and the rest. But one could get the
privilege of first performance, and there’s a general range of time
where a person might negotiate a kind of exclusivity. If there’s
enough money, you might say you’d like to have exclusive rights to the
performance for a year. Fair enough. A year’s a good time
if the money is enough to make it worth the composer’s while, because
even if a composer writes quickly, there is not wastage of energy in
the sense that the energy you used to write the piece quickly is
exactly the same energy that would be used if the piece took up a
longer time. It’s the conversion from one level to another.
It’s a basic physical fact, that’s all. I’m not talking about
BD: Are some
compositions not harder to get out than others?
might have to do with a number of factors, in the sense that it has to
do with the amount of energy that would be required in pulling a heavy
weight up by attaching it to a rope that would go through a number of
pulleys. At the other end, the person pulling on the other end of
that rope might find it easier to pull that weight up, than to just
pull it up by his two hands, but the physical factors, the amount of
energy expended is exactly the same.
still going to have the same weight?
HS: Yes, and
the energy that’s involved is precisely the same. That’s what I
BD: So the
parameters of the commission then determine how much weight each
composition is going to be?
HS: Oh, yes,
but then again, a very easy-sounding passage to a very easy-sounding
piece might be very difficult to write. It might be more
difficult to write than something with an all hell-fire and
glory! Schoenberg wrote an essay called Heart and Brain in Music (1946)
which dealt with that point, and he referred to a passage in Verklärte Nacht. It
looks very difficult on paper — there’s multiple
counterpoint, a lot of complex little things going on here and there
— and he said he tossed it off in no time flat. But
there was another passage that looks very easy and looks empty, and it
took him days going to work it through. All of us who write know
that. We have experienced that.
BD: How do you
know when a piece is finished, when you’ve got to quit tinkering with
it, when everything is just right?
HS: I don’t
know how other people work, but I don’t tinker. I can’t really
get much of a head of steam, and I can’t really work very well at a
piece until I have a pretty good idea of where it is — its
dimensions and its various parameters. I tend to think of
composition in sculptural or architectural terms. I equate this
block of time with a stone or a space, and the problem then is shaping
that time, space, stone in such a way that the piece grows out of
it. I keep thinking of the story of this block of Carrara marble
that was discarded by a rather renowned local sculptor because its
shape was bad. The dimensions didn’t fit his imagination.
So along came this other sculptor who looked at it and saw exactly what
was in there. He went to work on it, and out came Michelangelo’s David! [Both laugh]
According to the story, which I’m inclined to believe, the height of
this block of stone exactly matched the height of the finished
statue. So I guess it’s the ability to take whatever it is one is
dealing with and visualize what fits in it.
BD: So then
really instead of putting something into a space, you’re releasing from
the space what is already there?
what I think. That’s the way I tend to think of
composition. I don’t ‘do’ a piece; I discover the piece, and in
doing that, very often I do need to build up a very heavy head of steam
to get all kinds of pressure and tension, which is why I say that the
best guarantees in me writing are money and a deadline! I need to
have some pressure I can’t squeeze away from to really make me go
through the labor for sitting down. I’m not like T.J., who just
writes! [All laugh] I wish I could do that! He’s
always telling me, “Man, just write the piece!”
But I consider myself part of the great tradition of Mozart and
Rossini. In both cases they tended to put things off till they
couldn’t put them off anymore. Very often to break through that,
I’ll just sit down and start writing. It’s almost like a blind
writing, and I’ll get a certain number of pages or a certain number of
measures, whichever comes first, and then I stop and isolate the ideas
into the harmonic elements, the rhythmic elements, and the melodic
elements. When I isolate them, I write a series of motifs,
sections of the melodic material, let’s say, and I’ll break it down and
see what is the common motivic material with the same with harmonic
structures and rhythms. I isolate them, starting them separately,
and I call that my ‘getting acquainted with the
biographies of my ideas’. I think that’s
what Beethoven was doing in his sketchbooks. Then the time the
piece falls in line. There also I do a little work with my
stopwatch, and metronome, and my pocket calculator, in measuring,
timing this, that, and the other. So by the time I actually start
writing, I know it. Once I write it in my head, usually it flows,
and I can write rather quickly like that.
BD: I want to
go off in a little different direction for the moment. We were
talking about Wynton Marsalis. He sort of made it in both camps
— the ‘popular’
camp and the ‘serious’
that’s a word that’s verboten
I hate that word! I use the word ‘formal’. My common
statement is that some joker might be standing out there on the corner,
right out there playing the Blues, and he’s dead serious.
BD: Is it a
mistake, then, for the concert public to draw an artificial line
between their music and the music of the guy out on the corner playing
HS: I think
so, sure. I don’t draw it for myself, except for when I’m writing
‘formal music’ I’m writing ‘formal music’, and when I’m writing jazz or
playing jazz, I’m doing that. But the line is a
BD: Music is
HS: It’s a
continuum. I agree with Duke Ellington when he said that good
music is music that sounds good. But I then admonish people
to remember who said that! [Both laugh]
BD: But you
seem to have decided to spend most of your efforts on the formal music
HS: No, I
live on both sides of that fence every day of my life. I would
sit in with Dizzy Gillespie, and I told Billy Taylor, “Say,
man, you need a piano player in your group?”
All the time I stay on both sides.
BD: [With a
sly grin] Would you go up to Sir Georg Solti and
ask if he would need a piano player in his group?
[Laughs] Well, he can play pretty well! I’m what I would
call an aspiring piano player, but I maintain close ties with jazz
BD: Is this,
perhaps, what makes a performer like Marsalis so special because he
does do both so well?
one of the things, but he’s not the only one by any means. Wynton
came along under some very propitious conditions in time, and he
was also very, very fortunate in his choice of a father. He
really was. Ellis Marsalis is a brilliant musician in my opinion,
but Wynton is paying a price for the fame he’s achieved. His case
reminds me of a lot of things that used to be said about Heifetz.
He was regarded as being The Perfect Violinist, and his technique was
just beyond that of anybody else that ever picked up the
instrument. The idea of him having a mistuned note was completely
beyond the imagination, but many, many people spoke of the cold
perfection of his playing. It was cold, but I’m not so sure he
was, and that same kind of thing is applied to Wynton. Let me
hear some mistakes! Let him fluff some time to show he’s
human. He’s also upset a few people — more
than a few people — by the broadness of certain
statements he’s made. I find him very warm and very nice. I
often measure a person by observing that person’s interaction with the
lesser of the world, and that includes fans very often. I’ve
known too many performers — names of some of
them you would know — who act disdainfully
towards the public. I’ve never seen that with Wynton. I
know of him to going into schools, taking time out with youngsters, and
I know several youngsters he has encouraged. In that way he’s
like Dizzy, because both of them I’ve seen always encouraging younger
players, and taking time out to talk with them and make them feel
good. At least one or two of them he’s invited over to his
apartment and given some lessons, for that matter.
BD: Do you do
the same thing when you encourage young composers?
HS: No, I’m
hard on all of them! [Has a hearty laugh] If I see talent,
and even more so the fact when I see sincerity, I’ll take the time, of
course. I tend to talk too much... like I’m talking too much
here! [Both laugh]
BD: Are you
pleased with the recordings that have been made of your music?
HS: The one
thing I’m not pleased about is that over the years there’s been so few,
and there have been none for quite a while now. Those are other
considerations, but in terms of performance there’s nothing that I
would really turn my back on. Even though the Louisville
recording of my Contours for Orchestra
helped to make my name something that at least people interested in
American music would have reason to pay attention to is done in a
sincere way. It has that type of sincerity that I mentioned
before, but I’ve heard performances of it that have a great deal more
fire. That particular piece calls for that type of drama.
The recording of the Ritual and
Incantation done by Paul Freeman with the Detroit Symphony
was damaged by decisions made on the recording side, tying in
certain sections on the same microphone lines for the balances and so
on. So when we got into the mixing studio, certain adjustments
couldn’t be made without damaging some other section that was on that
same line. I understand this record is coming out on CD, and in
fact that whole Black Composers Series from CBS is coming back on CD.
good! It’s been out of the catalogue for a while, so I’m glad to
know that it’s coming back.
supposed to. There’s supposed to be two different forms
— one that is sponsored by the College Music Society, and I
was also given word that there’s going to be a CBS release of it
again. Now, of course, that was before Paley took over the reins
again, so I don’t know what’s going to go on now! [Both
laugh] CBS is a world unto itself. But the ending, the last
section of that recording is defective because on the equipment they
were using at the time, the ending built up such a dynamic level that
it knocked the needles into the danger zone. When I first heard a
test pressing, I almost died. When it got to the major climax
near the end of the piece, it suddenly dropped. There’s a
physiological expression that would cover the effect, which, since this
is going to be on radio I won’t mention, but I think you would know
what it is! [Both laugh] I objected to that
strenuously. There’s a section that starts the so-called Incantational second part of the
piece, which opens with a drum roll. They started it at that
point and brought the entire thing down to a lower level so there is
some approximation of a climax at the end. But the key problem of
joining these various sections cannot be solved on that
recording. The performance was good. Paul Freeman knew the
piece, and in fact he did the first performance of it, and he’s
performed it a number of times. So I got admiration there.
Admittedly, a recording should get it right, but how are these
technical problems with balances different from, say, a performance in
an auditorium where you have one person sitting way over on one side in
front of the harps and the violins, and another person sitting way over
on the other side by the double basses, and somebody else way at the
top of the balcony who can’t hear the inner textures?
HS: A lot of
that depends on the hall and the way the piece is actually
performed. There are certain concert halls that tend to clarify
musical details, while other halls tend to distort them in one way or
another. They make certain sections or certain pitch levels
muddy, or overly sharp and bright, or whatever. But the other
factor here is that we are dealing with a concert hall where sound is
being dispersed through the entire space, for better or for worse,
depending on the acoustical properties of the room. But when
you’re dealing with microphones, you’re talking about certain elements
of tone being particularized, isolated, sent into a control board, and
then that is manipulateable by an engineer. So we have two
different acoustical problems.
BD: Has the
concert public become too enamored of the gramophone record?
HS: I can
imagine a scene in a concert hall where somebody who is accustomed
these recordings of whatever type is looking around frantically saying,
“Where’s the bass button? I don’t
hear enough bass!”
BD: They want
to make their own adjustments!
[Laughing] Today we’ve got a situation where in certain opera
halls and concerts halls in the country, singers are miked. To
me, that is one of the least understandable things for any kind of
group. This happens a lot with popular groups of course, and in a
hall like Carnegie, it completely disrupts the natural ambiance in that
hall, and they are always having to struggle to get this adjusted and
that adjusted, and so on and so on. Then when the mixture’s
right, almost invariably they are having it far too loud, so it doesn’t
work! I remember an event several years ago at St. Augustine’s
College [as it was called in 1987
when this interview was held. Saint Augustine's University is a
historically black college located in Raleigh, North Carolina. The
college was founded in 1867 by prominent Episcopal clergy for the
education of freed slaves.] Ragtime pianist Max Morath and
I were there on separate nights, and also one of those nights had one
of the Preservation Hall jazz groups. They played in the school
gym, and immediately following them was a local group that
played. In this Preservation Hall group, the youngest fellow was
fifty-nine at the time, and the rest of them were in their sixties and
seventies. I think one of them was just about hit eighty.
They had to use a beat up upright school piano they had in the
gym. This was a gym with a stage in it, and he had one electrical
light. But it didn’t matter since they weren’t reading music
anyhow. The leader was the trumpet player, and I notice he would
stamp his foot once. By that second beat they were coming in and
they were all rock solid. It was wonderful the way they kept that
time. There was a clarinetist, a trumpet player, a trombone
player, a banjo player, the piano player, a bass player, and a
drummer. So there were seven people up there in this lousy gym,
and I heard everything. Every once in a while one of them would
sing, and when this person would get up there and sing there might have
been one mike up front, but I don’t remember. But
what I do remember is that when the singer got up there, the rest of
that band came right down (in volume), and you could hear every word
that singer was singing, and you could hear every note that the band
was playing. Right after they’d finished, the other group started
bringing in their stuff. They had a battery of speakers around
the back of the stage! There were some pretty good
musicians. A couple of them were teachers down there, and they
played jobs at night or as extra players when needed. But when
they got through turning those dials, boy, I remember putting my hand
up against a brick wall, and that thing vibrated. [Both laugh
hysterically] You didn’t hear a thing except noise, and the
balances were terrible. I don’t see how musicians can do
it. I just get upset about it. My poor head!
[Laughs] There is a wonderful old popular song called I’m Old Fashioned, and when it
comes down to that, I’m old fashioned. There’s somewhere down the
line the music has to come through, and it’s not doing it.
BD: Is the
music of Hale Smith wonderful?
HS: Frankly I
think so because, as I told you before, the music I write has to meet
my criteria, and if I don’t like it, who else should like it? I
don’t think I’d want to put up with anything written by somebody who
didn’t like their own stuff! Sure! I think I
write beautiful music.
writing music fun?
Stravinsky said it was! I don’t know whether it’s fun or
not. It’s like asking, “Are you a music
lover?” I don’t know, except that there’s
nothing else that I would put anywhere near it in terms of its effect
on me. I like pretty things, beautiful things, and I like to have
something to say. Even if I have something to say, if I can at
least make it beautiful to me, then I like that. But I like
hearing it more than I do putting it down. Maybe that’s why I put
it off so much.
BD: Have you
written an opera?
HS: It’s a
funny thing. I’m listed in some opera guide as having written a
chamber opera many years ago. What I did was write what I thought
was incidental music for a production of Lorca’s Blood Wedding, and if it’s an
opera, it’s a strange one because none of the principals were
singers! [Both laugh] So all of the vocal work writing is
done for people in the show. It was done for the Campbell Theater
in Cleveland many years ago. The interesting thing to me is that
in November I had two libretti handed to me within one week.
People that had been working on them.
BD: Are you
going to set them?
HS: I want to very
much, so I’m thinking about them. Right now I’m trying to sort
the two. They are so far apart that it’s possible I might even
pull a Ravel coup and start writing two operas at one time! [Much
laughter] Both of them, for whatever it’s worth, deal with
essentially black subject matter, but they transcend those ideas, those
conditions. One has very rich and beautiful imagery, and the
other is quite stark.
BD: Are they
HS: Yes, they
would be full length.
BD: If they
were chamber works, maybe you could put them both together.
HS: No, no,
these would be full length. In fact, my problem with the lush one
is that the librettist was really thinking the impossible! I
asked him how many stages in the world he thought could handle
this! There’s one point when he has the chief protagonist is
going through the theater, dropping down on a rope, trying to get to
his seat, and he’s stumbling over people, stepping on shoes and
everything. There’s action on the stage; a singer doing something
on the stage, and while all that’s going on, he’s singing an
aria! Even in the greatest theater in the world it would take you
fifteen minutes to get down the theater aisle! [Much laughter
during this entire story] That is something we have to work out,
but I’m not mentioning names deliberately.
BD: I hope it
comes to pass, both these operas.
wouldn’t mind doing it. Thinking of operas, there are two recent
operas T.J. Anderson has done, that are quite remarkable. T.J.
has written two of them. [Addressing Anderson, who has been
listening to the conversation since his arrival] Have you
finished the second one? [The
second work would be Walker
which would be completed in 1992.]
only just finished the first? Soldier
Boy, Soldier. I’ve not seen it. I wasn’t able to get
to performances but I did see the score. So he’s done
something. Then there was an opera based on the early life of
Frederick Douglass by a woman composer, Dorothy Rudd Moore. The
one which got the most attention I believe is Anthony Davis’s opera, X, based on Malcom’s life. I
think they’re very strong; all three of those scores are quite strong
in my opinion. I went to a performance of X that was at the City Center
Opera, and during an intermission I went around holding my posterior
for, as far as I’m concerned, Anthony Davis kicked a lot of us, and we
were pretty tender. He did a beautiful job.
yes, I think each of those are very strong pieces. Soldier Boy, Soldier is good, as is
the Frederick Douglass work, and of course X, so I’ve got quite a precedent in
front of me when I’m thinking of doing mine.
BD: Is opera
the way to reach people today?
HS: The way
to reach people today is to write rubbish, and be sure that properly
placed radio people are paid enough to play it. That’s the way to
reach people today.
BD: Then why
it’s there to be done, and there are certain things that need to be
expressed that people like us can express. The world —
if it lasts — is not going to remain
in the hands of the ‘know-nothings’ and ‘the great I ams’. I’m
not being prophetic. It’s just that we’re going through a phase
and a cycle, I believe, and if we live long enough and come out of it,
hopefully there will be enough of our civilization left for really
serious interesting beauty. It will have a chance.
BD: I hope we
HS: So do I,
I tell you!
BD: Thank you
so much for sharing your time with me today.
maybe I shouldn’t have gotten so vociferous.
BD: No, no,
this was fine! [Looking at T.J. Anderson] Can I impose on
you to change seats and let me talk with you?
HS: This guy
upstages me so often. [Laughter all around]
TJA: Oh, no,
never. He is my teacher. How can you upstage your
teacher! [Much laughter]
HS: Do you
want me to tell you something about him?
[Feigning a protest] No, no, no! [All laugh]
HS: He’s one
of our privileged composers. For years he was head of music at
Tufts University until he stepped down, and he’s still at Tufts.
He is one of our most eminent educators. Before that he spent
some time in Atlanta as composer-in-residence for the Atlanta Symphony
with Robert Shaw, and he is one of the most articulate and pungent
BD: [To my
new guest as he settles into the chair by the microphone] So,
where’s music going today?
TJA: I don’t
know and I don’t care! [Laughs] I really don’t.
Basically, any artist that has a sense of commitment and a sense of
value to their own truth to what they envision must just go out and do
it, and if the arts coalesce around where you are, you’re
fortunate. If not, you just go on along, just as Hale has gone on
alone and left quite an impressive body of literature that a lot of
people don’t know. But certainly the literature is there.
To follow the trend, which a lot of composers have done, we’ve seen
composers that have been influenced by jazz, and others who write
popular music. Then there’ve been ‘minimalists’ who have come and
gone, and ‘abstract expressionists’ have come and gone, and before that
the ‘twelve-tone’ composers. In my lifetime I have seen many
movements come and go, and the question is not that you don’t enjoy
this diversity. You do, but within this diversity there’s so much
insignificance. The sense of one’s own personality and one’s own
wisdom, you might say, is really what makes any artist a significant
BD: How do
you decide when a piece of music is significant?
TJA: I think
there are several things. One person can’t make a piece of
BD: Not even
No. It has to be a combination of creator, performer and
audience. The difficulty of what I’ve just said is that sometimes
these things don’t go hand in hand. It took Mendelssohn to
discover Bach. You do have these lags so that we may have
— and certainly I do believe we have — significant
composers now, but they are more or less obscure. We also have
composers that enjoy a great deal of popularity in terms of name
identification and performances that may prove to be totally
insignificant, say, fifty years from now.
BD: You and
Mr. Smith have been jovially bantering. Is there a competition
TJA: I don’t
think so. I can speak to that only in reference to black
composers, and I can say without question that black composers tend to
be individualistic. There’s no ‘school’ of black composers.
All of us have different styles, and the reason we do is that the
desire for freedom is greater than the desire for collective
school. That’s one of the beautiful things about the movement in
terms of black composers. The other point I would make is that
while there’s safety in identification in terms of schools or becoming
a part of a group, black composers tend to support other black
composers because we recognize the problem with being black in the
society. The problem of being a black composer is a problem of
being a black, period. You can’t separate that from any other
type of black person within the society. The problems that we
have, have been addressed by previous generations. From composers
like William Levi Dawson or William Grant Still and certainly others of
that generation, their imprint on the society has meant a lot to us
because we have known exactly what they wanted. The younger
generation looks at our generation and says the same thing, that we
don’t know what they’re up against.
BD: Let me
get a progress report, then. We’re at the end of January of
1987. Has the black movement and the black musical movement made
the kind of progress that you wanted?
without question. The society refuses to integrate on the basis
of talent. For black composers, like black performers, the
problem is not that we don’t exist; the problem is not that the
literature isn’t as good as any other ethnic group that you want to
compare it with. The problem is that we just don’t have
access. Now the question you have to ask yourself is who is
responsible for that. Certainly we’re not responsible for
that. We write the music, so the breakdown is not on our
part. The breakdown is on the part of the society which is
clearly defined, as classical music is, and that accepts fewer black
BD: Do you
yourself want to be a black composer, or do you want to be a composer?
TJA: I am a
black composer! I have no choice, and I say that with pride
because, I honestly believe there are things in my background that not
only make me black but also make me a mark. If you’re talking
about American music, then I am American music, but when people talk
about American music they don’t talk about me! I remember a
remark that William Dawson made once. After a concert, a woman
walked up to him and said, “Oh, Mr. Dawson, your
music sounded just like Gershwin!” He said,
“Madam, you have that backward. Gershwin
sounds like me!” His meaning was that
Gershwin was drawing from the same source, and the source turned out to
be his root. So this whole absenteeism of what we represent has
been represented by a synthetic, a facsimile.
for yet another interview to come out of this encounter] Is
Dawson still alive?
Yes. An interesting thing happened recently. I knocked on
his door this past summer about 6.30 in the morning, and he came with
suspenders on. He was just having breakfast, and I arrived
unannounced, and we had a great time talking.
BD: You were
asking me how I get ideas for interviews, and he’s one who has
been on my list for a long time. [I then asked if Mr. Anderson could provide
contact information, which he gladly did. To my great regret,
when I called Mr. Dawson a few days later, we spoke for a couple of
minutes and he politely but firmly declined my request for an interview.]
[Continuing the interview] I wrote to Olly Wilson and
am waiting to hear back from him, and I did do a great show with my
interview of Ulysses Kay.
Excellent, excellent, yes. He’s a close friend of both Hale and I.
there been some recordings of your music?
TJA: Yes, a few
recordings. I don’t have as many as Hale, but certainly I have a
few recordings. It’s interesting being back in Chicago because I
have very fondest feelings for Chicago. Particularly, one of my
closest friends, the sculptor, Richard Hunt (shown together in the photo at right),
has been very instrumental in my career. I had a fiftieth
birthday celebrated there in the studio, which he made possible.
Another thing is that he commissioned a piece for principal bass of the
Chicago Symphony, Joseph Guastafeste. This
was a piece for flute and double bass [Bridging
and Branching] which I composed for him, and that’s been
published by my publisher in Berlin. Another thing is that my
librettist for my opera, Soldier
Boy, Soldier, teaches at Northwestern. This is Leonne
Forrest, who I consider one of the most important writers in America
today. His is a tremendous mind, really.
talk about your opera. This was commissioned?
TJA: This was
commissioned by Indiana University several years ago, and it was based
on a story of a Vietnam veteran returning from the violence of that war
to greater violence in America. It’s the story of his
readjustment, and basically it ends with his own murder.
Are you pleased with the way the opera was presented?
TJA: I am
very pleased with the performance I got at the University of
Indiana. The young voices that were there were very
impressive. The reception was mixed. In all fairness I
could say that some people didn’t like it, and others did. The
problem with contemporary opera, particularly one that deals with a
black subject is that people automatically go looking for Porgy and Bess! [Both
laugh] In fact, they asked me if I would do a Brian’s Song. That’s a natural, in
terms of the story between a white and a black and their
tragedies. I wasn’t interested in that. For personal
reasons, the Vietnam war had a lot to say in terms of the
disproportionate number of blacks that were killed in that war, in
terms of the lack of fulfillment, in terms of the national commitment
that existed in the country at that time, and in terms of the
dissipated resources that were expended in Vietnam, and the end result
of that. It’s a legacy of that tragedy that we still, as a
nation, have not addressed.
impacts you as a human being. Does this impact the way you write
music — not necessarily this one opera
specifically, but the way you write all your music?
Obviously there is a style that is somewhat consistent, and there’s a
book on what I do. Like Hale, I have developed a system of
writing, and there’s a dissertation by Bruce Alfred Thomson at the
University of Indiana on my system of how I write. What I try to
do is have each work have a life of its own so it’ll address the
particular need of that work, so that the Vietnam situation doesn’t
impact on other things that I do, only tangentially. I’m doing a
piece based on a text by Philip Levine. I think it’s phenomenal,
and it’s about the immigrants that came to this country and their
experiences. When you stop to think, our great cities were built
by immigrants — Chicago, New York, Philadelphia,
Houston. You had this great migration of poor people coming in,
and they were really able to provide an industrial base for the
country. Now most of these people are up in age. They can’t
walk the streets of the city. They’re no longer desired because
the new technology has come in, and their children are no longer
desired, either. Look at the steel industry as an example.
It is not that you object to technology; what you object to is the
inhumane relationship to the technology for the people that made this
technology possible in the first place. What really hits me and
disturbs me is when you see high unemployment rates and would want to
be capricious and callous and say that they’re lazy and don’t want to
work, as opposed to trying to be creative and find a solution to the
problem. This is something I think all of us have as a nation, I
BD: Then what
can you do to address these social problems?
TJA: I write
music! [Laughs] A lot of music has texts, and I imagine the
Philip Levine takes that road. I’ve written texts with a number
of major poets, yet, at the same time there’s a lot of my music that
doesn’t have a text. In writing a piece I try not to bring out
the message of the problem. It’s not what I’m really interested
in. I’m interested in the human response to the condition that we
as a society find ourselves in at this time, and that’s what I try to
project in my music. The range of my music is extremely
diverse. I make use of Indian Ragas, jazz, other folk music or
spirituals, even avant-garde music in which people say I’m very much
influenced by Schoenberg and Webern. It’s true! So there is
a diversity to all of this, yet at the same time the core of this is
the experience that I have in my listening habits and study of scores,
and things that I have experienced in life.
BD: Do you
receive commissions for a lot of these works?
TJA: I’ve had
a number of commissions, yes.
BD: How do
you decide which commissions you’ll accept and which commissions you
[Laughs] I’ve not been in that position and been fortunate like
Hale. But I think the only reason I would decline a commission is
if it were a moral issue that I could not support.
BD: [With a
gentle nudge] We can’t expect an opera from you about the Ku Klux
no. [Laughs] They have their own power bases, and they do
it pretty well from what I’ve seen in Georgia. I’m very proud
that’s my daughter was on that march, so the next generation is there.
BD: What I’m
getting at with some of these questions is why you write the music you
TJA: I write
the music that I do because I have had a set of experiences that nobody
else has had. I also can do what nobody else can do. I have
had training, I’ve had teachers, I’ve studied violin for a number of
years. I’ve played — I was a professional
jazz musician at fourteen and went on the road — so
I’m saying I’ve had a number of experiences which culminate in what I
do. I agree with Hale — there’s nothing
else for us to do but write music. Certainly I could other
things. Obviously I could have gone to law school and been a
lawyer. In fact, I was all set up to go law school when I decided
not to go to law school, and become a musician. So there are
conscious choices in terms of being an artist, and when you make that
choice, there are certain things you know. You know that you will
lack support either from federal subsidy or the patronage system.
You know that you will be misunderstood, because if you’re projecting
an aesthetic and if the aesthetic is foreign, then there is a rejection
because it’s different. It’s nothing to do with race; it’s the
reality with being an artist. So you know there’s a certain
amount of rejection. Yet what sustains you is your colleagues,
and your sense of feeling of worth, which is really very
important. When I say colleagues, I mean not only your composer
colleagues but I have body of listeners that generally follow what I
do, and generally go to performances when I have performances. So
I do have a body of people who believe what I do is important, and that
sustains me. It’s not a lot, but I remember in talking with the
poet Philip Levine, he was saying that he has 300 readers that he can
depend on, and these are 300 readers that have followed all of his
books of poetry. They believe that what he does is significant,
and that’s enough! Certainly he can’t be like the Russian poets
and address 10,000 in one reading! [Laughs] But what I’m
saying is Philip Levine has his 300 readers, and he knows that’s the
market that he works hard for because he cannot disappoint that number
been involved with Tufts University for a long time. Are you
optimistic about what you see coming out of the universities?
TJA: I’m always
optimistic! We go through our peaks and valleys like all
societies, but I’m optimistic. We have just gotten past the ‘me
generation’. Tufts is very much a leader school, and very
expensive. When students come in, it’s almost a joke because when
you ask freshmen what they want, the answer is, “I
want an MBA from Harvard!” or, “I
want to finish medical school.” Their whole
career has been mapped out.
been ruined for any other ideas.
been ruined, that’s right. The word I use is brainwashed!
[More laughter] Our President, Jean Mayer, makes the remark that
our best students are the ones that come who are intellectually curious
and don’t know what they want to do. They begin to ask questions
such as, “What is life about? What is the
relationship of knowledge to society? What is my responsibility
to the problems of South Africa as a humanist? What do I do as a
scientist that can relate to the poverty that exists in the world?”
All of these are questions that any person with intellect should be
thinking about, and that’s what we try to cultivate at Tufts.
does music fit into that?
fits in. The strange thing about it is that most people assume
that you only teach music majors who go on in the field of music.
I have composers who are in medical school right now. I have
students that go off and do a lot of things. My students come
from a wide spectrum of interests, and they go on in many other
fields. What I try to instill in them is the value of music in
their lives, so that they in turn begin to be better people.
Certainly these values are values that we all would like to see in the
total society, not just a select small people.
BD: Is this
the same kind of hope that you have when a concert audience hears one
of your pieces?
[Laughs] That’s one that I can hope for! No, most of the
time the audience is polite. I can say in most of my performances
are polite, or sophisticated. I never really worry about
it. As I say, my job is to put it out there and see what
happens. [At this point Samuel
Floyd, the Director of the Center for Black Music Research, came to
escort my guests to their next appointment. Anderson asked for my
card so he could send me some material.]
HS: [Who had
been listening to this part of the conversation from across the
room] That was very good!
both been very kind and very generous with me. Thank you so much.
TJA: Well, we
are so glad you’re willing to take up so much time.
HS: Would it
be possible for us to get copies of this?
course. I will send them along.
would be great.
HS: I would
appreciate that very much.
© 1987 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on January 26,
1987. Portions involving Hale Smith were broadcast on WNIB the
and again in 1989, 1990, 1995, and 2000; on WNUR in 2012; and on
Contemporary Classical Internet Radio in 2012. Portions involving
T.J. Anderson were broadcast on WNIB in 1988, 1990, 1993, and
In all cases, selected recordings of their music was also
included. This transcription was made in 2016, and posted on this
at that time. My thanks to British soprano Una
Barry for her help in preparing this website
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.