Composer / Author George Heussenstamm
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 ‘Uptown’
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
He was interested in my questions, and responded with the knowledge that
a lifetime of involvement with many aspects of the process could provide.
Here is that conversation from the end of April of 1991 . . . . . . .
You’ve got several recordings out which makes for a nice representation of
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 music 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 pieces.
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.
BD: Let’s 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
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?
GH: Well, 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.
BD: You mentioned
that you’re always going forward. Do you know always where forward
GH: No, 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 sensitivity
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 progressions.
Something is happening vertically without the necessary link to what’s been
done before. That’s where in a way you have to find your own way somehow.
I can’t describe it any better. There are no hard and fast guidelines
BD: What do you mean ‘without
the link to what has been done before’?
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 strength and 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
BD: So you build
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
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 could say 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!
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 standard orchestra.
GH: Partly 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
hell with it. Maybe it’ll never get played, but I want to do this!”
The 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 unique. You’ll 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 gigantic multi-tone 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
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 Coast Guard Band. I love the band medium. It is
very exciting. In all honesty, it has 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 way?
BD: So you’re
breaking out of that, just as you’re breaking back into tonality and breaking
out of other kinds of structures.
GH: Yes, 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?
GH: That’s 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, oboe and 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.
* * *
BD: You’ve done
quite a bit of teaching?
GH: Yes, 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 music?
GH: Just 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
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
find 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 the 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 the 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 my 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 administrator.
GH: Well, 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 they 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 teach 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 time.
BD: It sounds
like you’ve been having fun with it!
GH: I 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.
It’s been out since March 1987. I was very proud of it, and it’s doing
well. I’m getting the royalties on that, and the royalties are going
BD: Good, 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. They’re above the
student’s head, particularly some of the students I come across. They
really aren’t that brilliant to absorb that material.
BD: But 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
understand right 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
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 you’re 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?
GH: I 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 wrote a 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? [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, also see my
interview with Douglas
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.
GH: They 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 tackled
it 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 proficient?
GH: This 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.
BD: He was born
here in Chicago, as a matter of fact!
GH: That’s 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 coast school’?
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 New York City.
BD: California is more laid back?
[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 way.
BD: Maybe 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 plenty.
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.
[Naturally, I asked GH for Linn’s contact info, and, as you can see by the link,
the interview was arranged, and took place a couple of years later when Linn
was in Chicago!]
BD: He’s one
I have not talked with. I see on the back of one of your records he
was born in 1925...
GH: That’s right.
He’s already made it through 65! He is a very sweet guy.
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 degree.
BD: Are you
pleased with where you are now?
GH: I’m 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 to 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?
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!
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 doesn’t interest 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 great?
GH: Good 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 as an experience for the listener and I’m waiting for ideas that are
really great, 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 don’t know!”
BD: But Mahler
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 complete?
GH: In certain
ways I’m very happy with it. If anything, it’s totally complete.
You’ll always find this could 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 self-critical!
BD: Is composing,
GH: It can be,
but it’s a varying thing. Everyone has moments, periods, maybe long
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, and 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 lock yourself 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, you’ve 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 what I 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.
GH: Well, 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
BD: You also
have written a tuba quartet! [Vis-à-vis
the recording shown at left, see my Interviews with Gunther Schuller, and
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 was a 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 was 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.
I 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.
BD: Maybe some
other quartet will record it?
GH: That would
be wonderful if that could happen, but no more tuba quartets!
BD: Three’s enough, eh?
certainly enough! And five brass quintets should be enough, for sure.
BD: I’m glad
that you’re getting into big forms, and that a symphony is waiting in your
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
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 quintets
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 brass quintets [Labyrinth].
BD: Are either
of these works antiphonal?
GH: Yes, 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 appearance
as 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
BD: Henry Brant
(1913-2008) would be the one to benefit from that the most, with all of
his spatial music.
GH: That’s 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 also have a work for four clarinet trios.
Thank you so much for speaking with me. I appreciate the time we’ve
spent together this evening.
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
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
"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 year, and again in 1996.
This transcription was made in 2015, and posted on this website at that time.
My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help
in preparing this website presentation.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed
and posted on this website, click here.
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.