Composer / Author George
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
George Heussenstamm is one of several West-Coast composers that I have
had the pleasure of including in my series of interviews. Neither
nor ‘Downtown’, as the New
York groups are often called, they have always kept to a very different
kind of sound. Recordings of their music are often presented with
several of their members, and it was fairly easy for me to elicit
contact information for others from each of them.
By setting up my programming to celebrate round-birthdays, I was
relieved of the task of deciding whom to place where in the available
time-slots. This gimmick was completely color-blind and
gender-blind. When you had that special birthday you got a
program. Simple as that. With that in mind, I often worked
far enough ahead to anticipate upcoming events, and I contacted
Heussenstamm just prior to his 65th birthday to arrange an
He was interested in my questions, and responded with the knowledge
that a lifetime of involvement with many aspects of the process could
Here is that conversation from the end of April of 1991 . . . . . . . .
You’ve got several recordings out which makes for a nice representation
I’m pleased, but I wish there were more recent
works. Largo is a
fairly recent work and is certainly a
departure from a good deal of the style of other pieces, although I
love them. I don’t think I’d be running that way,
though, as I move ahead here in my old age. [Both laugh]
BD: Is your
always moving ahead?
GH: I think
so. I have
seen my own music evolving. At first, and like so many
others, I was writing rather naïvely strict twelve-tone
At the time I figured this was what was happening, and I was turned on
in that direction. At the same time, I’ve
always felt, even within this strict twelve-tone thing, there should be
some kind of verticality to hear in the music, some
kind of controlled sounds, and I think that’s happening more and
more. Although in recent pieces I still have a rule lying around,
but if I’m going to use it, I’ll use it in
the most-free possible way, without any sense dedication to
sticking to the dictates of row treatment. As Aaron Copland
once said, you can get some interesting chords out of a row, and that
he found that fun. But more and more I’m exploring
my own territory, which I find extremely difficult.
talk a little bit about the earlier
works first. You don’t feel that you made a mistake by
using the twelve-tone system, do you?
GH: No, I
think it had to happen. I
don’t think I could have done anything differently at the time.
So it’s okay, but I don’t really gravitate much to strict twelve-tone
music anymore at all, even the early ones, and even the establishes
pieces. I’m not that excited to listen to Schoenberg’s
Third and Fourth Quartet, for instance,
anymore. I really don’t
get that much satisfaction out of it.
BD: But you
don’t object to the public getting
a lot of satisfaction out of those pieces, or your own older pieces?
GH: No, not
at all. Whatever anyone likes
is great, and that’s just fine. I am just relating to my own
inner feelings and persuasions.
BD: When you
were working with the twelve-tone
row, did that not relate to your inner feelings and persuasions?
GH: It sort
of did at the time, I think. There was nothing else
happening as far as desire goes. But behind it, all still was
unsettled. I have a tremendous love of traditional music and
tonality, and I teach it and I love all the great
works, and that will never leave. But that has to exert some kind
of influence on what you’re going to be saying. But at the time
it seemed to be that I was comfortable. I was comfortable doing
it, even knowing it was still a very limited segment of musical public
that moves in that direction in terms of going to hear music.
It’s still that way.
BD: Is there
any way to take the twelve-tone
music and get it accepted by a larger segment of the population?
Berg did a pretty good job, didn’t
he? He was a great model, and I don’t want to
particularly follow that very same pattern, but that was probably the
best path I can think of. Berg never lost the sense of
sonorities. Several chords pop up in his
music all the time, even though they happen to be growing out of
twelve-tone procedures. He
would build triads into the rows. What makes it so difficult is
you want sonority, but not
necessarily a blatant triad. I don’t necessarily feel that’s
the way to go. So many composers are going back to
earlier styles now, and to blatant tonality. That’s fine, but I
don’t think that’s where I want to go.
mentioned that you’re always going
forward. Do you know always where forward is?
no. It’s just moving from one piece to the
next where there seems to be a continuity for looking back. Even
looking back, when I look at what I’ve done more
recently I find roots of that in early pieces that I wasn’t really all
that conscious were there. Certain sonorities, certain
to sonority was there, and I’m more conscious of that now than I
was at the time. I’m more conscious of what I feel as the
value of those sonorities than I had. It’s just
a matter of the amount of degree that my feeling and sense of enjoyment
and interest in music is so much related to what you hear
vertically; the chords and even the sense of chord
is happening vertically without the necessary link to
what’s been done before. That’s where in a way you have to find
own way somehow. I can’t describe it any better. There are
no hard and fast guidelines for that.
BD: What do you
mean ‘without the link to what has been done
Traditional procedures, traditional harmony
doesn’t really help me, so I have to go on my own.
BD: I assume,
though, you don’t feel you’re
working in a vacuum?
GH: No, no.
BD: Is there
as sense of tradition or lineage
in you and your music and your ideas?
GH: A lot of
it is Schoenberg-related in the
earlier pieces. I’m inspired, and it might to come out in any
sense one can make the connections, but my favorite
composers, the ones that mean much to me and move me, are Bach
and Beethoven and Mahler. Those are my three gods. There
are many wonderful composers, and I love Bruckner. I love the
the power, and I feel that influence. I want my music to be
strong, and if this is happening more recently it’s coming
on even more so. You can’t say it sounds like Mahler or Bruckner,
but I feel the spirit of those guys is motivating
me when I’m writing. I want to be able to capture that
tremendous strength and beauty in those sonorities and what happens
in that music. A lot of music just doesn’t have that, and I
want my music to have that more and more.
BD: So you
build that in?
Yes. I feel it and I try to get it in, but in my
own way. I don’t borrow from a
soul. I never have, and I can’t stand that idea of writing pieces
based on other people’s melodies. Everything I do is
totally original from the start.
BD: One of my
favorite questions, then.
When you’re sitting there with a page that is nearly or completely
blank, and you start putting the notes down on the paper, are you
always controlling the pencil, or are there times when there’s
a spirit that is guiding your hand?
GH: No, I
think I’m in control. I’ve absorbed these influences, and to the
extent that they’re
part of me I feel that what I’m doing is ‘me’. Everyone is
modified by their influences, and I just accept that.
There is no sense that I’m doing someone else’s work! At least I
don’t think so! Most of it is not
thinking at all anyway. You just work. You get a thought,
and however feeble it may be you
start working around with it. I usually have to work very hard to
get things going.
BD: You have
to work them out?
GH: Oh, yes,
BD: So the
ideas don’t formulate your brain; they come out and you work with them
on the paper?
GH: I get a
concept, an overall idea, but nothing specific, none of the
details. I could probably tell you more about the process than I
describing a particular piece, but I
haven’t written a piece for about two years. I’ve taken a
little bit of a vacation from writing.
BD: Is this
purposely to get away from it?
GH: In a
sense. I’m a little tired, and
these last two pieces were big works, and they were exhausting.
My feeling is I want big works, and my next work will be something
big. It’s such a bit challenge I’ve been putting off! [Both
BD: Do you
know what that next work will be?
GH: It’ll be
something for full
orchestra, and is a really a huge conception. It’ll be a
big piece if I ever get the thing out. It’ll be a logical
conclusion. I have avoided works for the
because of a sense of who’s going to play
it. I have written some large pieces, but they haven’t been the
standard orchestra. I have some huge pieces, but they’re
tremendous conglomerations of brass
groups. Their sound is as big as
any symphony orchestra can produce, but they’re not that. They’re
different kinds of groups, so it seems to me I said to myself, “To
it. Maybe it’ll never get played, but I want to do this!”
last piece I wrote was for a large string orchestra, and it was given
an absolutely stunning performance by the USC Symphony led by
Daniel Lewis. He runs a symphony which as good as most
professional orchestras. He has access to a fabulous string
section. That piece is totally individual and
never hear anything like that in your life. It’s called Moiré for Strings and
I got an unbelievably great performance. I’m dealing with
chords, and every one of those is crucial in terms of intonation.
Without that you don’t have a piece. The chords are just totally
important, so I’m very excited about it. The USC
symphony has a budget of something like $2 million a year, and
they give scholarships to string students from all over the
world. Of course a tremendous amount of wonderful Oriental
students come to
USC to play in his orchestra. He has two complete string
sections, but they have to rotate them in order to use all the
personnel. My piece was written for sixty-six strings, and
that’s only half of the available personnel that he had in that
group! It is fantastic! It’s a
modern miracle because most orchestras are dying from loss of string
players in the universities.
BD: You wrote
it for a large ensemble. Is there a lot
of doubling, or are there many individual parts?
GH: A lot of
individual parts because of my
fascination with sonorities and multiple sonorities. I’m dealing
with multi-toned chords, so I have the violins most of the time divisi a four. Occasionally
it is divisi a five and
there’s one passage where it is divisi
a six just for the first
violins. Another performance I have had is by the United States
Band. I love
the band medium. It is very exciting. In all honesty, it
the potential for expressive power in the large wind ensemble.
It’s amazing, and I’ve written a lot for brass, a lot of music for
winds, a lot of music for huge saxophone ensembles, but I never had a
band piece. I put them all together, so technically it wasn’t any
great problem. But that
particular medium is very exciting, and I got a piece I really liked.
BD: How long
GH: It’s one
continuous movement of seventeen minutes.
I generally don’t write in separate movements anymore. I
like the continuous flow of the music. I’m
a little tired of these sectional pieces, and your predictably
slow-fast-slow. It bothers me! Why do we have to do it that
BD: So you’re
breaking out of that, just as you’re breaking
back into tonality and breaking out of other kinds of
definitely. My pieces are very,
very free in a sense in their structure. I’ve written nothing in
the traditional forms, nothing at all.
BD: Is this
purposely because you want to not use the forms,
or because that’s just the way it has to be written?
the way it has to be written, yes. It wouldn’t interest me to
write a sonata allegro form, or a
rondo form. God Almighty, rondos are really dead! Theme and
variations, that’s the one thing I have done a
little of. That is still one of the more pregnant forms, although
I have not written anything like that
since the late 1960s or early ‘70s. I have what I called Mini
Variations for a little chamber ensemble of five with flute,
three strings. Twenty-five variations on a very short little
theme, but the concept wonderful and it is in the variations.
It’s applicable to any style. I had thought
maybe writing a set of variations for orchestra, but when it gets down
to writing things I’m
much more free. Once I get started, then I
follow my nose and things happen, and it does not have any standard
form. I’m through with it.
done quite a bit of teaching?
since 1976. It began largely as a
need for my income. I wasn’t in music professionally until 1971,
but was a concert manager. I was a manager of the Coleman
Chamber Music Association here in Pasadena for thirteen years.
They are a very distinguished chamber organization
presenting the great chamber ensembles, and had done this since 1904.
BD: You were
involved with music for your first
forty-five years though?
GH: I was
involved with music but not deeply until I
was about thirty-two years old, when I became serious about doing
something. Other than that, my musical background was
pretty meager, but my family was very musical. My mother was a
fine pianist and my father was a very good cellist.
He died when I was very young, but there was this real feeling
of a classical background in the family. I played violin
when I was a tiny tot for several years, and I hated it.
BD: What were
you doing in early adult life if it wasn’t
being the all-round American boy, going
to High School and loving popular music in the Swing-Band era.
For many years I was working in
the circulation department of a newspaper here in Los Angeles, and in
the late 1940s, I took some courses at LA City College. Do
you know the name Leonard Stein?
BD: Yes, of
GH: He will
be retiring soon. He
became the director of the Arnold Schoenberg Institute here in LA – a
very distinguished place. He was teaching harmony at
LA City College, and I was young and didn’t know what the hell I
was doing. So I thought I’d enroll on some courses there just to
out what harmony was all about. I had talent, although I
couldn’t read music very well. I did my exercises, and I never
wrote a single original note for three semesters. Then I dropped
course. This was in 1947 or ’48. I
had some physical problems, health
problems, so I dropped out. I
really didn’t know what I wanted. Years later, in 1960, I came
back to Leonard Stein to study
privately for a year or so. I did want study counterpoint
with him then, oddly enough. He asked me what had happened to me
because he said I was ready
for composition those many years ago. I told him that I didn’t
know it at that time. But he missed me, and I was a very good
student. Anyhow, after I got married
in 1957, I had a talk with my wife, and told her that I ought to be a
composer! She said I should go for it, and this was a
miracle. It was
wonderful. She’s been nothing but supportive all the way, and of
course it meant a lot of sacrifice as I needed the time. I
continued working for this newspaper, and I knew what I wanted.
So I pushed my
need by being mainly self-taught. I took a few random courses at
LA City College, which is now Cal
State. I took a course in orchestration and another one in
counterpoint, and one in contemporary techniques... just those three
courses. I got a little out of that, but by the time I took that
counterpoint course I knew more than the teacher! I was just
motivated to teach myself, so with lots of
books and records and scores I just went ahead. All that I know
about contemporary music is really self-taught, and most of what
I know about traditional music is self-taught. Eventually I
started to write pieces, and slowly built up a reputation. Among
colleagues I became accepted as one of them, and although I wasn’t
teaching (I was still working for this paper), I was getting a
reputation as a composer. The time came when I got this job as
manager of this chamber music association strictly on the basis of my
reputation as a composer.
BD: I would
have thought they would have wanted more of an
they just felt I could do it, and I didn’t
know a thing about it, so I just plunged in and learned how to do it,
and I did. After thirteen years I had enough of it, and I
did need some money but I was really busy for a
while. I was trying to compose, I was managing this association
(which was a part-time job), and I started to teach. I told
my buddies in teaching that if they had any units around to
let me know. I needed some income, and I could teach whatever
want me to teach. I felt perfectly confident I could teach any of
these courses. Someone at California State
called me and asked if I could teach
orchestration and counterpoint. I said sure I could. This
was in January of 1976, and it was as if I’d been teaching
all my life. I just stepped in and I’ve been doing it ever
since. I have no degree of any kind. I’m totally
un-degreed! I never went through the
academic rounds for my music
education, or any other kind, for that matter.
BD: Once you were
teaching, did you get
enough time to compose?
GH: I did,
yes. I taught part-time. My wife and I have been very
smart and we’ve been very frugal. We’ve saved our money and
we’re doing fine, and I can afford to do it. I don’t have to
full-time, and I couldn’t if I wanted to anyway because without a
degree it’s almost impossible to get a full-time job. But
they seem to want me regularly part-time. I do about six units
a semester, and that’s fine. I love it! So I do have
BD: It sounds
like you’ve been having fun with it!
have. I place a great deal on the importance
of teaching and relating to my students. I really do like it; it
means a lot to me. I taught a course in music notation and score
preparation down at Dominguez
Hills a number of times, and from my experiences there I found out
what little students know about music notation. I never taught
it. No one teaches them in schools and that’s one of the great
defects of the music curriculum. So I decided to put together a
book, and it is now book published by W.W. Norton called the Norton Manual of Music Notation.
been out since March 1987. I was very proud of it, and it’s doing
I’m getting the royalties on that, and the
royalties are going up.
that means more and more courses are using
that as their text.
GH: They are,
that’s what’s happening. And it’s
just a thrill to be affiliated with Norton. It’s one
of the books that is in their music series now, and I’ve just been
informed that it is going onto
another printing. So I’ve been proofreading it for little errors
here and there, which there are some! They said it’ll be
continuing. Norton books just stay in print. They continue
in perpetuity, and I’m working on
another book called The Handbook of
Harmony. That’s taken up so much
time because I’ve been so interrupted this semester. When I
teach, I relate to the student mentality. I try to
meet them on their own level, and most of these books don’t.
above the student’s head, particularly some of the
students I come across. They really aren’t that brilliant to
you’re not writing down to them, are you?
GH: Yes I am,
in terms of language, but I’m not
reducing the quality of the material one iota. It’s all going to
be there, but I’m trying to present it in a way that is
‘assimilatable’ without plowing through language and concepts that
aren’t immediately perceivable. What I teach the students is to
away what’s going on in a talking class, and I’m trying to convey
that in my book. I have an approach that’s direct, no
nonsense, get to the material, and here’s what it is without
confusing them. So now the manual is that way too.
My notation book is as clear as a bell!
BD: Do you
find from experience in the classroom
that this system works?
GH: Yes, you
bet it works. They learn more
than in their other classes and they learn more than the
books will tell them. They understand it. I’m
very much motivated to make a contribution there in the harmony area,
although it’s very competitive field. I don’t
care! I’ll use it in my own textbook, but it’s a very challenging
assignment. It’s not
easy. You must always keep in line. Think
of yourself as a student reading this thing! That’s the point,
and it works.
BD: Let us
come back to your compositions and the idea of composing. When
writing and getting it all on the piece on paper, do
you expect the performances to be exactly what you have written, or do
you leave a little bit of space for interpretation by the performers?
certainly do, yes. I don’t have
these infinitely detailed instructions in my scores, so I’m
much more traditionalist in that sense. Certainly I like to see
performances which present a different point of view by the
players. I’m willing to go along with some of their
ideas if I happen to be present, or if I happen to hear a tape of
something, I might feel that’s an interesting approach. I
definitely feel there need not be only one
approach and only the one way. No question about that! I
will say that nowadays most of what I do write is
notated in traditional rhythms and pitches. Many years ago I
lot of graphically-notated music, where you really were looking for
different results from performance to performance because they were
going to select their own pitches and their own rhythms.
Not that it wasn’t fun and exciting, and certainly it left each
performance as an intriguing mystery as to how it was going to
turn out. But I’m definitely not
in that area anymore, although still, from time to time, there will be
some aspects of choice going on, with aleatoric passages
particularly for a percussion section.
BD: Have you
basically been pleased with the
performances you’re heard?
GH: Yes I
have. One of the things
that has happened, I have had the benefit of some of the very best
players in the country do my pieces. I have written a lot of
brass music. For
instance, I wrote five brass quintets, and the
Annapolis Brass Quintet has recorded one of them. My first brass
quintet was commissioned by the New
York Brass Quintet, and my third brass quintet was written for the
American Brass Quintet.
BD: These are
GH: Yes they
are! The fourth was written for Annapolis
and the fifth was premiered the Empire. These are great
players. I’ve had a few student performances, sure,
but mainly they’re written for the top
professional level of playing. That’s how I write. I write
for the best professional players,
and if your students can do it, more power to
them. I definitely don’t write technically easy works.
BD: If you
receive a commission from a junior
high school band, you would tailor it to that level?
GH: I suppose
I would because that’s an
interesting challenge. I’ve thought about doing
that just on my own, a piece for, say, even a university
orchestra on the caliber of Northridge, where I teach. They are
good, but it would be wonderful to be able to write a piece
that is good, but strong and interesting. My music is still not
all that difficult technically. Now that would be a challenge!
BD: That way
they wouldn’t have to be worried
so much about the technical difficulties. They could actually get
into the musicality.
could. It would be wonderful to do
that. I’ve never decided to do that, but I’ve entertained the
idea a lot, I must say. Usually when I do sit down and write
something, I do just
what I want, and I have the high standards of performance in mind as I
do it. That’s how it turns out. Fortunately, most of the
things have been playable, but usually you need some really good
players. My band piece, for instance, I wrote that for the
Coast Guard Band. I knew they could do anything I wrote for
them. They were that good, and they did very well. It was
also performed by the California State Northridge Band, and they
with some satisfaction. It was a far cry from what the
Coast Guard did, though. In order to do that, I did modify a few
passages they just couldn’t
manage. But still it was a satisfactory performance, and I got
lots of fine comments about it. Everyone
loved it. It came off fairly well.
BD: Does that
then motivate the Northridge Band to
work harder and learn a little more, and become more technically
happens. They liked it and they definitely get turned on.
This is a
worthwhile effort to make. A similar thing happened
recently where the band performed a percussion work, the Timpani Concerto of Bill Kraft,
which I think won a prize at one of
the Freedheim awards a couple of years ago. It’s a tough
piece and they did a really good job. He’s a good friend and a
wonderful guy. [See my Interview with William
BD: And he
was born here in Chicago as a matter of
right, he was! He’s a really nice man. I’ve known
Bill many, many years, and I’ve got a tremendous respect for him and
his music. We’re really glad to have him. I’m glad he’s on
the west coast
still. He loves it here, I know.
BD: Is there
a ‘west coast sound’, or a ‘west
GH: So they
say. I don’t know what it
means. I don’t know what to say about that. Maybe
it’s not as nervous as New York music. There’s
a lot of very nervous-sounding music emanating out of this New York
BD: California is
more laid back?
Yes. [Both laugh] We’re more
comfortable with ourselves in the sense that we’re not worried about
what colleagues are going to think, or what they expect you to
do. Maybe we’re more independent-minded. Certainly I feel
that way, but maybe everyone feels that
you’re just more successful at it?
GH: Well, you
just don’t know. I don’t feel that we’re western music like
Roy Harris’s wide-open Arizona spaces! It’s certainly true that
it doesn’t matter where you
live, but it differentiates people in one part of the country from the
other. Part of that is you’re in touch with the
culture, you’re in touch with what’s happening. You hear music,
you hear live concerts, and the LA area is wonderful for that. So
if you feel a need to keep abreast of what the heck is going on, and
you need that kind of nurturing, we have it here in
who are represented on
Crystal Records and on Wim records tend to have a kind of sound
that is definitely different from what you find at Columbia-Princeton.
yes. Do you know Robert Linn? He’s recently retired and
he’s done some nice
things. He’s a good man and we’re glad to have
him. He’s been Chairman of the composition department at USC for
a long time, and has been busy writing good
things. Maybe you will want to do something with him.
BD: He’s one
I have not talked
with. I see on the back of one of your records he was born in
right. He’s already made it through
65! He is a very sweet guy. [Naturally, I asked him for contact info,
and he obliged. The interview with Linn was then arranged and
took place a couple of years later when he was in Chicago!]
BD: Are you,
at sixty-five, where you thought you
would be years ago?
GH: I don’t
think I ever gave one thought where the
heck I’d be. I didn’t, and still don’t, have any set goals after
what I wanted to be. Maybe that was mistake. Maybe that’s
why I never got a
BD: Are you
pleased with where you are now?
comfortable with it; I’m happy with it. In a way I’m in a pretty
enviable position. I enjoy my
life very much, and I have a lot of time and freedom. I am able
make my own choices in so many ways, and not too many people
have that. I feel very much in control of what I
want to do, so I can do what I want. In terms of cultural and
aesthetic pursuits, it’s great.
BD: You’re in
control of your
life. Are you still in control of your music?
Yes. I’m a little distant from it
right now. It’s going to take me a while to get back, but I have
an inner confidence that, when I do, I’ll be able to accomplish what I
want to do. I have a strong feeling for what I want to do.
I’ve written almost a hundred pieces. This string
piece is Opus 90, and I have a number of non-opus pieces, so I look
back with a kind of amazement at all these
things I have. I take a look at each of them, one at a
time, and realize that each took a long time, and that one
took a long time! [Laughs] How I did all that I
don’t know, because I got a late start. My first published piece
was 1964 when I was thirty-eight.
BD: So in a
little more than a quarter of a
century you’ve accomplished a great deal!
Yes. I made up for some lost time. Occasionally I come
across students who are in
their early thirties, and they look discouraged. They feel it’s
late, and I try to give them some
encouragement. It’s never too late!
I know I’ll be getting back to it, and I’ll be doing
something major dimensions. It has to
be big, so the thing’s been coming much more slowly, but so
what? It’s what I want to do in my twilight years. I’ve no
interest in doing chamber music anymore,
not at all.
BD: Not at all???
GH: No, no,
not at all. I could
easily write smaller works, but I don’t want to at all. It
me. I’ve had enough. I’ve written an awful lot of
that stuff, and it’s fine, but there’s the dimensional needs there in
me, and I’ll just have to be fulfilled. If I have to wait for it,
well that’s fine.
BD: Let me
ask a big philosophical question.
What is the purpose of music?
for a moment] It
allows a person with a particular bent to achieve something he couldn’t
achieve in any other way, and perhaps ask more of him than anything
else could. The purpose of music is perhaps to enrich your
own potential, to realize something in you, in the composer, that he
couldn’t possibly realize in any other way, which does represent
something important in the human race, some high level of
human achievement. When I think about music and writing music,
writing good music, really good music, I can’t think of anything more
challenging than that very process, to do something with music.
Now that’s a very big ingrained statement as far as the purpose of
music out there in life, and certainly there’s a lot of things
that music is good for. It just can’t be one purpose.
One thing is maybe simply to engage and entertain, to enrich the
innermost part of a person’s being. It’s to
convey something that’s somehow giving life meaning in some ways you
can’t otherwise express in
words. Music is very important in a lot of ways.
BD: You used
the word ‘good’. What are some of the factors that make a piece
of music ‘good’, or even
music has good ideas. You’ve got to have something you respond
to. I have
to respond to music from my own point of view. When I consider it
experience for the listener and I’m waiting for ideas that are really
and I’m fulfilled and carried out and the expectations have been met,
things happen which just
makes me go, “Wow, what was this?! That
was wonderful! How come? I don’t know, but
wasn’t that a wonderful thing at that
moment?” I remember
Mahler’s little story where a student brought him a composition and
asked him to look at it. Mahler looked it over and he came to a
particular point and said, “You have to change
this; you’ve got to just do this instead of
that! Don’t put that, put this in there”,
or something like that. The student asked why, and Mahler said, “I
Mahler was right?
GH: He was
right, but why? I feel good music should show good ideas
which emanate from a real awareness of your materials, a real sense of
what can be done with tone. Good music means getting to know your
materials. You have to know it, work it out, know what the hell
to do with it. So
you’ve got to study, you’ve got to take your courses, you’ve got to
live with your ideas, you have to explore your materials and develop
them. There’s so much of that. There’s
awareness of what music can do, what you can do. Otherwise it is
insufficient, it’s incomplete.
BD: Do you
make sure that the music you write is
certain ways I’m very happy with
it. If anything, it’s totally complete. You’ll always find
be this or that, but I’ve done almost no revisions of works of mine;
very, very little. I’ve been pretty happy with it,
and most of the time I am more pleased than I thought. It’s true
that you write a piece, and when you hear it, it usually sounds
better than you thought it would. That’s kind of built into
it. That’s a little bonus one gets. It’s true of most
composers. If they write something they wonder if this is going
to work out alright. It usually does to their satisfaction, and
often it sounds better than you
might have thought. I’ve had no real cause to look back and say
it was a mistake and I should do this or this or that.
I’ve been pretty happy with my output in that sense. Maybe I’m
being non-critical! [Laughs] Maybe I should be more
GH: It can
be, but it’s a varying thing. Everyone has moments, periods,
ones where you really are trying to write and nothing much is
happening, and you do get discouraged. For many years I
did discipline myself. I’m a morning worker. I have been,
I still am when I’m really going. I used to get up at six in the
morning and write for two or three hours. Then I’d go to work for
my Coleman job for the music
association. I’m fresher in the morning hours, and
sometimes you’d have to establish a kind of discipline. Maybe
in that room, and no matter what happens you’re going to
stay there. That can be pretty painful, but it seems to work
if you stick it out. Something starts happening, some
idea, no matter how flimsy it may be, and you start working something
out. Then instead of having that blank paper in front of you,
got something out there. I’ve had a mode of compositional
procedure that has worked for me. It’s a little unusual
perhaps, but before I write a single note I do other kinds of
preparation. Usually it is a matter of letting words describe
want to do, a verbal description of an overall concept of what I
have in mind. That will be further into a description of how
the piece will break down into different sections, and I’ll work out an
instrumentational distribution. I’ve been much inspired
and motivated to get going on a piece once I have worked out how I
want my instruments to be grouped, and maybe have a plan
for a whole piece where I will know the instrumentational combinations
from section to section. I get
turned on by thinking about the instruments in their
various groupings. Look at the ensembles for brass quintet!
This was inspired, and many other pieces were worked
out by thinking of how to group those five instruments in different
duos, trios, and quartet combinations. I worked out the whole
sequence of all the sections in that
piece according to various groupings. Every possible duo was
explored, every possible trio was explored ...
BD: ...and it’s a
slightly unorthodox quintet in that it
has two trombones rather than trombone and tuba.
brass quintets are divided
into those two types. There are a fair number of brass quintets
with bass trombone. The American Brass Quintet is traditionally
that, but certainly the majority of them are tuba. Then
occasionally you’ll find that the bass trombone
can also play tuba, so they can share all the
literature. There are a lot
of brass quintets written where that low part is written to be playable
either on bass trombone or tuba. That’s not true of my
pieces. My brass quintets are very idiomatic for either bass
trombone or tuba. They’re not interchangeable,
which, in a way, is unfortunate because it’s
limiting. I have no special preference
for one or the other. I love the one with the tuba, but
I also like the crispness and directness and strength that you get with
the bass trombone.
BD: You also
have written a tuba quartet! [Vis-à-vis
the recording shown at left, to read my Interviews with Gunther
Schuller, click HERE,
and to read my Interview with Vincent Persichetti, click HERE.]
GH: I’ve got
three tuba quartets! One of them has enjoyed more
performances than the others, as a matter of fact. Tubafour, Opus 30, has been
performed a lot and was recorded. That was my
first quartet. I entered that into a composition contest, and it
prize winner in 1969 at the first international tuba ensemble
composition contest at the University of Miami. There was woman
tuba player, Connie Weldon, whom I did not actually meet until years
later. She’s still around but
she doesn’t teach there anymore. I think she still has an
advisory position, but she was a phenomenon. [See box below.] Everyone
loved her, and she
had tubas coming to study with her from all over the place. She
instrumental in getting this composition for a tuba group
started. I decided to write a piece for it, and it was just
full of graphic notation. I was right in the middle of my
graphic notation period. I sent it down there, and
lo and behold, they made a special award for that piece. Of
course, the name was catchy. I loved the name. Some years
later  they had the big tuba-euphonium symposium held at
USC. I was commissioned to write a piece
for that occasion for euphonium and stereo tape. At that occasion
I finally met Connie, who brought along the contingent of her students
from University of
Miami. She was still teaching at that time and we hugged each
other and it was wonderful. One of her students told me he had
just ordered his
license plates, and Tubafour
was on them! So eventually it got around to
Toby Hanks of the New York Tuba Quartet, and formally tuba player with
the New York Brass Quintet. That’s how I first met
him. He and three other great players that New York
Tuba Quartet recorded Tubafour,
and I have heard other performances of
it. Actually, I think a better piece though is my Third Tuba Quartet, and that’s been
done rather frequently. It was most
recently done last August in Sapporo, Japan, with James Self.
He’s one of the country’s great tuba players, and
he conducted that performance and he’d done this piece a number of
times. It’s a better work than Tubafour.
have a lot more respect for it. Tubafour
was fun, and I was intrigued with the
graphic thing, but I wouldn’t write that way again. I have some
other thoughts on how I’d now write for tuba.
some other quartet will record it?
would be wonderful if that could happen, but no more
BD: Three’s enough,
certainly enough! And five brass quintets should be enough, for
BD: I’m glad
that you’re getting into big
forms, and that a symphony is waiting in your mind.
Yes. I really had to push it out of my mind
for a long while. I didn’t even like the sound of the symphony
orchestra. The instrumentation was not attractive to me.
What are all those violins doing there with a
smattering of wind and a smattering of brass? It seemed sort of
funny, and the sound character was one that I didn’t want to fall out
with. So I just stayed away from it. Maybe that was the
rationalization, but I certainly don’t feel that way now. The
symphony orchestra has that kind of overall
sound character. There it is! It’s because of the instrumentation.
BD: You just
weren’t ready for it, that’s all, and now you are!
GH: But for
the other big pieces, I wrote a prize winning work [Tournament (1970)] for four brass
and four percussionists. That can make a lot of
sound! That was a prize winner at Georgia State University in
Atlanta, where I first met
the New York Brass Quintet. They were the judges. It
was a cash award, which was a commission to write another piece
for the following year’s competition, which would then be
premièred. So I chose to write another piece for four
either of these works antiphonal?
indeed. These are definitely
surrounding the audience at the corners of the hall. I’ve
written seven of these quadrophonically-conceived pieces. I was
very excited in 1971 when quadrophonic tape first started making its
a possible thing in the home. I was very
thrilled with this development, thinking that composers can get out
there and write works for that medium, have them recorded and have
them played in the home, so that you can hear a composition created
for quadraphonic sound. It died because there was
nothing interesting that you could hear. Are you going to
record Beethoven’s Fifth in
quadraphonic sound? What good is
that? Real hall acoustics is all
they were talking about, and there was nothing interesting in
that. But my enthusiasm took a long time to wane. Not too
long ago I wrote yet one more quodraphonically
Brant (1913-2008) would be the one to
benefit from that the most, with all of his spacial music.
right. I know he thought the
same way as I did. I have two works for large ensembles, both of
them scored for four saxophone
quartets and four percussionists. They’ve both have been formed a
lot. I’ve conducted many performances of these, and they’re
something else. They’re something to behold. They are big
experiences, as are those two brass works that I mentioned. I
a work for four clarinet trios.
Thank you so much for speaking with me. I appreciate the time
we’ve spent together
GH: Oh, I
appreciate it probably more than you! All of us who
are aware of what you do
appreciate that enormously. We’re so grateful for any kind of
Note: As usual (whenever possible), at the time this
interview was posted I sent the URL to my guest.
I often hear back and the response is always very favorable.
This is what Heussenstamm wrote on September 16, 2015.....
What a magnificent job! It is absolutely brilliant the way you
have resurrected an
"ancient" interview and clothed it so expertly in current garb. To be
sure, I intend
to circulate it widely among my friends and relatives.
I don’t know how to adequately thank you, sir.
All the Best,
© 1991 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded on the telephone on April 29,
1991. Portions were broadcast on WNIB later that
and again in 1996.
This transcription was made in 2015, 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.