Composer Hale Smith
-- and --
Composer T. J. Anderson
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 this webpage.
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
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 Incantation,
Innerflexions, 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
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. BD
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 by
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 me.
BD: Can I ask you
not to? If you can delay it until later, I would appreciate it.
It gets into my eyes.
HS: No 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 of Connecticut.
BD: Perhaps this
is a difficult question, but is musical composition something really can
be taught, or must it be something that is innate within each person?
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
BD: And composition
is like this?
HS: That’s 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
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
BD: Now, 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?
HS: In general,
BD: The teaching
of young students of composition, or the young students of music.
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?
HS: It 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.
BD: So 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
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!
BD: Well, let me
pursue that just a bit! Who is dooming it, or who is attempting to
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.
BD: Shouldn’t 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 still alive.
BD: Do you want
the situation to change to where Hale Smith becomes a household word?
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.
* * *
BD: When 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 believe.
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
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?
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 market place?
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
BD: If you have
a lot of commissions, how do you decide which commissions you will accept
and which you will decline?
HS: I’ve 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
BD: You’ve got
to be protecting yourself and your own interests.
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 metaphysics here.
BD: Are some compositions
not harder to get out than others?
HS: That 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
BD: You’re still
going to have the same weight?
HS: Yes, and the
energy that’s involved is precisely the same. That’s what I mean.
BD: So the parameters
of the commission then determine how much weight each composition is going
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
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?
HS: That’s 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’ camp.
HS: Now that’s
a word that’s verboten for me!
BD: Which word?
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 the Blues?
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 continuum.
BD: Music is music?
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!
BD: But you seem
to have decided to spend most of your efforts on the formal music side.
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?
Well, he can play pretty well! I’m what I would call an aspiring piano
player, but I maintain close ties with jazz world.
BD: Is this, perhaps,
what makes a performer like Marsalis so special because he does do both so
HS: That’s 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
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.
BD: Oh good!
It’s been out of the catalogue for a while, so I’m glad to know that it’s
HS: It’s 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.
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
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!
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.
BD: Is writing
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
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 full-length
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.
HS: I 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.]
T.J. Anderson: Just
HS: You’ve 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.
BD: High praise
HS: Well, 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
BD: Then why write
HS: Because 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 make
HS: So do I, I
BD: Thank you so
much for sharing your time with me today.
HS: Well, 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?
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 speakers.
BD: [To my new
guest as he settles into the chair by the microphone] So, where’s music
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 music significant.
BD: Not even the
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 amongst
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?
TJA: No, 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 composers.
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.
BD: [Hoping for
yet another interview to come out of this encounter] Is Dawson still
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
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, yes. He’s a close friend of both Hale and I.
* * *
BD: Have 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.
BD: Let’s 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.
BD: This 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?
No. 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 think.
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? [Vis-à-vis the recording
shown at left, see my interview with violist Marcus Thompson.]
TJA: I’ve had a
number of commissions, yes.
BD: How do you
decide which commissions you’ll accept and which commissions you will decline?
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 Klan?
TJA: Ah, 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 do?
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
* * *
BD: You’ve 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.
BD: They’ve been
ruined for any other ideas.
TJA: They’ve 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.
BD: Where does
music fit into that?
TJA: Music 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
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!
BD: You’ve 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?
BD: Of course.
I will send them along.
TJA: That would
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 following year, 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 1998. In all cases,
selected recordings of their music was also included. This transcription
was made in 2016, and posted on this website 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.
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.