Composer  David  Hollister

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie





David Manship Hollister was born May 1, 1929 in New York City, into a musical family, and began playing the piano when he was six years old. His father, Carroll Morton Hollister was the accompanist for John Charles Thomas, “America’s Favorite Baritone,” who hosted the “Westinghouse Hour” radio show. His mother was Ruth Evelyn (Manship) Hollister.

Hollister attended Harvard College where he earned a B.A. in American History (1951), but did however take some music theory courses. He toured Russia and China in the 1950s with a student group, which inspired him to continue his musical studies. He earned a doctorate in music from the University of Iowa (1968), and later was given a post-doctoral grant to travel and study the avant-garde music of Poland in 1968.

He married Barbara Witriol March 22, 1964.

He studied composition with Irving Fine, Darius Milhaud, Wallingford Riegger, Henry Brant, Richard Hervig, and jazz with Charles Mingus. His string orchestra piece "Corronach" based on the Holocaust, was performed by the New Orleans Symphony Orchestra, and two string quartets were recorded on Opus One records.

He composed in many different genres including ballets, musical theater, concert works, films, and worked with (among others) choreographer Paul Taylor, and avant-garde filmmaker, Hilary Harris. In addition he was commissioned or had works premiered by the Spoleto and Aspen Festivals, Washington Camerata Orchestra, the American Chamber Ensemble, and the Medicine Show Theater.

His teaching positions included assistant professor of music at the University New Orleans, 1968-1970, York College, City University of New York, Jamaica, 1970-1973, Hofstra University, Hempstead, New York, 1978-1985, adjunct associate professor Baruch College, City University of New York, New York City, 1974-1990, Kingsborough Community College, 1988-1991, John Jay College, City University of New York, 1991-1992, and member of the faculty of the New School Social Research, New York City, 1985-1990, and adjunct associate professor Long Island University, since 1991.

Hollister died late in 2014.





Hollister and I met in March of 1988, on one of my very rare trips to New York City.  His apartment was just a few doors down from New York University, where he taught various courses, including Music for the Theater.

We settled in and had a very nice conversation about his work and his views.  He was very pleased that I had already played one of his string quartets on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago.

I subsequently did three special programs of his music and portions of this interview to celebrate round birthdays (60, 65, and 70).  Now, to mark what would have been his 90th birthday, I am pleased to give new life to the entire chat.  As usual, names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.

Here is that encounter . . . . .


Bruce Duffie:   You’re both a composer and a teacher.  How do you divide your time between those two activities?

David Hollister:   Most composers in America do something else besides compose, and they have the same logistic problems.  You have to find a way to do both things, so whenever you have some spare time, you compose.  Some people are highly organized, get up at five in the morning, work until nine, and then go off and teach their classes.  I’m not that type of person.  I just compose whenever the spirit moves me, and sometimes that’ll be at midnight.  Anything can happen.

hollister BD:   Do you get enough time to do your compositional work?

DH:   I do now, because at the moment I’m not teaching full-time.  I’m teaching part-time, and I freelance as a musician as well.  So, obviously there are many, many pulls on my time, and I just have to force myself to take the time.

BD:   So you’re a performer, also?

DH:   At the moment I am turning down everything that comes my way for the next two or three weeks, because this piece that’s going to be premiered on April 16th (1988), requires me to copy all the parts myself.  I’m busy doing that right now, and that means copying thirteen parts.  The piece lasts about twenty-five minutes, so there are a lot of pages involved.  
It’s called Peace Cry, and it’s a chamber cantata for four singers and thirteen instrumentalists.  It’s going to be premiered by the Downtown Chamber and Opera Players at the YMHA on 14th Street at 1st Avenue.  Actually, there are two concerts having to do with war and peace, and mine is on the first of those two programs.  I assume there will be changes made after I hear it, but I’m just plowing ahead and hoping for the best.  I think it’ll be okay, but one always learns something from a performance.  There’s nothing wrong with revising after you’ve learned what it sounds like.  You imagine it as best you can, and I think I’ve calculated it pretty well, but you never know.  There’s always something that may strike your fancy, and some changes that you want to make after the premiere.

BD:   Are you ever really surprised by what you hear?

DH:   Oh, yes!  The living sound is always more exciting than you ever imagined it was going to be.

BD:   So, you’re pleasantly surprised?

DH:   Of course, if something doesn’t work at all, then you’re disappointed, but I’m an optimist, so I assume it’s going to be okay.  A few weeks ago, I had a piece played by the American Chamber Ensemble, a very fine group based on Long Island.  They had commissioned a work of mine back in 1985, which was a trio called Tributaries for Clarinet, Cello and Piano.  They premiered it in ’85, they played it again that fall, and a couple of times in ’86, which is really nice because most composers don’t get that wonderful chance to hear their piece played twice or three times, and especially four times.  Now they’ve played it a fifth time in Carnegie Hall here in New York, and not surprisingly that performance was the best of the five.  I was delighted, because it was a wonderful performance by the same three musicians that have played it all those times.

BD:   How much trust do you put in the performer to interpret your music?

DH:   I like to be around when they’re rehearsing it, and put my two cents in from time to time.  On this occasion
the fifth performance of that pieceI was not anywhere in sight during the rehearsals.  I completely stayed away.  They’d have done it four times earlier, and I figured if they didn’t know what to do now, I’m sure there’s nothing I could say would make it any better, and quite possibly my presence might have made it worse.  It’s always possible for you to get in their way, and after a while the performers have to be trusted.  There’s no doubt about that.

BD:   Do performers ever find things in your score you didn’t know you had hidden there?

DH:   I’m sure they do.  I really felt on that occasion at least, the piece sounds a lot better than I thought it was.  I never would have expected it to sound that good.  Whether they found new things in it, I don’t know, but they certainly felt so secure with it at that point, that they simply played it with such spirit, and also with such depth, and that’s a rarity these days.  New music gets played once.  I
f you’re lucky, you get a premiere.  Most groups don’t want to play it again.

BD:   Why not?

DH:   They make their reputations on premieres, especially of new music, and the premiere never goes terribly well.  The audience can’t know that, of course, because they’ve never heard it before.  The performers are still working at it, especially if it’s a difficult piece, and it’s a shame that they don’t go on and play it several more times.  It happens fairly rarely.  I would say a principal complaint that I’ve heard from composers is that
premiere syndrome, which they complain about a great deal.  I suppose some people are lucky enough to have a group, such as this American Chamber Ensemble, which takes over a piece and keeps it in their repertoire.  They’re very dedicated to contemporary music, and they know the importance of having several performances.  So, no, I don’t think that this is necessarily a bad thing that the performers have a lot of input.  That’s really their prerogative.  It’s a partnership between composer and performer.

BD:   Is there anything more that a composer can do to encourage the second performance, perhaps even by a second group?

DH:   Of course, that’s what you do.  Now this group commissioned the piece, but they do not necessarily own it.  Obviously, any other group that wants to play it is welcome to do so, and that’s true of my two string quartets also, which were also premiered by the Hampshire Quartet.  I have sent them around to as many string quartets that I can find, or at least I’ve sent letters offering to send it around.  That sort of thing is perfectly acceptable, and one makes all the attempts one can to get performing groups interested in your music.

BD:   What can a composer do to encourage this?  Why should a group play one piece rather than another piece?  Why should they play your piece rather than Joe’s piece down the street, or Susan’s piece from the across the way?

DH:   There’s no reason.  Obviously, they have to like the piece enough to want to play it, so, of course you have to get the music to them so they can see what it is going to be for them.  They may not like it, or they may like it.  There’s nothing a composer can do to make them like it.  There are some performing groups who will play a new piece of music, especially if it’s by someone they know, or by someone recommended, as a matter of duty.  The first performance may, in fact, be a question of duty if they have a certain commitment to new music and to composers.  After all, composers don’t get a performance without them.  Music doesn’t exist, really.  It’s just on paper.  So, I admire performers who will take that chance, and so it’s not surprising that performers don’t necessarily play a piece another time.  They got out all of what they wanted out of it the first time around.  Perhaps the piece just wasn’t their cup of tea, and that’s not a fault.  That’s perfectly understandable.  All I can do is hope that my music is liked by performers.  I know by experience that my music is often liked by audiences, but before you get to that stage, you’ve got to get the performers to like it.

BD:   When you’re writing a piece, do you write it to be liked, or do you write it just the way it has to be written?

DH:   I just write it the way it just has to be written.  If they like it, that’s fine, but I can’t write with that as the primary motive.  I don’t consider myself a commercial composer.  I’m not trying to sell as many copies as possible.  I’m not trying to get any Number Ones on the Hit Parade.  But obviously, one likes to be liked, and that’s not a bad thing.  [Laughs]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you’re writing a piece of music, are you in control of the pencil, or is the pencil in control of your hand?

DH:   That’s a good question!  It’s back and forth between the two.  I know that I have had the experience that some people speak of, the feeling as if they were a vessel, with some greater force directing things, and the notes were coming out almost unconsciously.  I don’t have that all the time.  I suppose if I did, I’d go and consult a psychiatrist!  One has to have some inspiration on the way, and then when the inspiration runs out, you have to work on the perspiration.  So, you have this craft and the skills to manipulate the notes and the rhythms.  When that first inspiration begins to falter, that’s where professionalism comes in.  You have to be able to keep the piece going, to finish the work.  If it’s all inspiration, that’s the best thing that can happen.  When I did my First String Quartet, I did have that feeling.  I was at the MacDowell Colony way back in the summer of 1961.  I wrote about two-thirds of the piece during those two months
the first two movements of the three-movement workand there were times, I must say, when I didn’t know where those notes were coming from.  I was even surprised to see them on the page.  It made me wonder if I wrote that.  Then, when I heard it, I had the same feeling again, even though I didn’t really hear it well-performed until several years later.  There was a reading of it soon after I composed it, which was not a very good reading, but I got an idea of what is sounded like.  But I must say, that particular experience was wonderful.  It was almost like a religious experience.  When it happens it’s terrific, and many composers have mentioned that as having happened.  When it happens to me I’m delighted, but I don’t count on it.  So, the pencil and I are good friends, and one of us takes the lead whenever the other one falters.

BD:   When you’re working on a piece, and you come to the end, how do you know when to put the pencil down and say that the work is ready to be launched upon the world?

DH:   That’s also a good question because there’s always the
Bruckner Syndrome to worry about.  [Laughs]  I don’t want to go back and revise things over and over again.  Actually, I’ve done that on occasion, and I’m not even sure that my improvements were really improvements.  But if a piece has a problem, sometimes that happens.  A piece of music may seem to have a structural problem, where it’s overall form doesn’t quite work, and tinkering with it may or may not do any good.  Sometimes it’s just better to drop it, go on to some other piece, and forget about it.  Maybe if you come back to it years later, suddenly some solution will occur to you.  But, after a while you just have to say this is it, the piece is written.  I did that with Tributaries, the trio I mentioned earlier.  I did revise it.  Actually, for the second performance I allowed myself to do something I don’t suppose any composer should ever allow himself to do.  The organizer of the concert had scheduled too many pieces, too many composers, trying to satisfy all his friends and all his obligations.  So, he had a concert that probably would have gone on for four hours if he had allowed himself.  What happened was they were all composers who had been to the MacDowell Colony, and he had been there, too.  It was also a money-raiser, a benefit, so the more people he has on the program, the more people will come to the concert, and the more money he’d get.  In any case, he asked me to cut five minutes out of the piece.  He said it was too long.  Now that’s not a very good reason to reduce a piece from twenty minutes to fifteen minutes, but I did it anyway, more or less as an experiment, just to see whether it would or would not improve the piece in any way to make it more concise.  When that was over, and that experience had passed, I wasn’t very pleased with the result.  I did keep some of the revisions I made on that occasion, but I restored most of the cuts, and ever since then, that’s the way it’s been played, and I’ve been quite happy with it.


hollister


BD:   Did you take little snips here and there, or did you just lop out a whole movement?

DH:   On that occasion I cut out the second half of the first movement.  It was an introductory movement, and a slow one at that.  The cut meant that I did manage to get to the second movement quicker, and therefore I suppose it kept some people from falling asleep.  [Laughs]  But it was some of my nicest music, and I didn’t feel like cutting it out for ever, so I put it back in.  But the other corrections were mostly small snippets.

BD:   What you do expect of the audience that comes to hear a piece of yours, either for the first time or perhaps for a second time?

DH:   I really expect them to listen!  More than that, I don’t expect anything.  If they don’t listen, they’ll never know whether they like the piece or not.  Sometimes they’re hostile to contemporary music, and I can’t expect them to necessarily get rid of their prejudices all at once.  But if they’re perhaps there to hear something else on the program which is more conservative, or something they’ve heard before a hundred times, at least I hope they will give a new piece they’ve never heard before the chance to make its way.

BD:   Would you rather be on an all-contemporary concert or a mixed concert?

DH:   I prefer mixed concerts, actually.  For one thing, all-contemporary concerts attract only a limited audience of people who know what they’re getting in advance.  They have some idea what to expect, and at least with all the people who like Mozart, and all the people who like Brahms, I would like to be able to let them know that there’s some Twentieth Century composers worth listening to.  It’s better to have a more eclectic mix.

BD:   What is it about music that makes a piece worth listening to?

DH:   There are as many answers to that question as there are tastes, and as there are pieces of music.  Every piece of music must have something to offer to an audience, so I can only answer for myself about what I like to listen to because I can’t answer for general audiences as to what a piece of music ought to contain.  I like music to contain something that moves me.  I don’t mean emotionally, and I don’t mean tears coming to my eyes.  Any kind of movement will do, including the desire to move my body.  I like movement that has rhythm, and a sense of dance that has kinetic energy.  I like music that has something to say, that is coming from somewhere in somebody’s spirit.  I’m not going to require melody, or any of the traditional so-called parameters, because a piece of music can move me even if it’s only non-pitched percussion.  Anything can move somebody if they’re in the mood to be moved, so I can’t make any prescriptions.  I just know that a piece of music has to have something that keeps my attention.  I notice a lot of pieces of music start out great, and then they can’t keep it up.  So, after a while you say that it was disappointing because the beginning was so wonderful.  Why didn’t the composer keep up that inspiration?  Of course, that’s not easy to do, but if there’s something in the piece that I like, I’ll sit down and give it a chance at least.  That is the main thing.

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

DH:   I suppose music has the purpose of fulfilling a human need of some kind which is felt.  Some form of music has been around ever since the beginning of humankind.  We were expressing the ability and the need of the body to create a rhythm, or for singing a baby asleep.  In our time, music seems to be a release from tension.  People go to concerts, or listen to the radio or recordings, to perhaps shut out the evil ways of the world, the noises of the city, or just forget their troubles.  So, I don’t know if there is any one purpose in music.  I suppose it has a number of purposes.  Entertainment is surely one of them, and another would be striking some very deep spiritual chord.  There’s a very big gamut of possibilities in between those two extremes.

BD:   Where is the balance between the entertainment, and the striking of this special chord?

DH:   I don’t if there’s any balance, particularly.  Every listener, every consumer of music chooses the sounds that will fit his or her particular needs, and I don’t think there’s any way of predicting what those needs are going to be.  One could do all kinds of statistical surveys and find out what the needs are, and then meet them, but...

BD:   [With mock horror]  You’re saying that music should be useful???

DH:   [Laughs]  I suppose music has its uses.  Certainly Gebrauchsmusik [utility music] was very popular in the 1920s in Germany.  It was
‘music for use’, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  We have street bands and we have dance occasions.  We have theater and movies, and there’s plenty of uses for music.  Then there’s the pure music, the absolute music which is has its purpose, but it has its use.  It has the use, if nothing else, of keeping instrumentalists and singers employed.

BD:   That sounds rather incestuous.  [Both laugh]

DH:   It does become incestuous.  It becomes an economic structure which has its institution, so we have it, we need it.  It’s self-fulfilling in a way, but if we abolished it, if all the musical instruments in the world were destroyed, and all these singers lost their voices, we’d lose something very precious to us.  However, people would find some substitute very quickly.  They’d immediately go back to hitting tree trunks again.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you’re teaching, do you teach composition, or theory, or history, or what?

DH:   I teach a little bit of everything, especially Theory when I’m asked to do so, and I do that quite often, as well as the so-called Music Appreciation.  I teach all kinds of literature courses, and I also teach music from not just the Classical age, but also Popular Music, Folk Music, and vernacular music of all kinds.  Music for the Theater is a specialty of mine, because I also compose music for the theater, and sometimes I teach Music For Film because I’m a film composer as well.  Almost all of the films I’ve done have been either experimental films, or documentaries, or experimental documentary films, or industrial films, usually short films of that type.  Some of them have been prize-winning documentaries, or prize-winning experimental films which have gotten exposure at festivals and shown on TV.  So, the films are well-known.  Some people know the films, and they know my music because a couple of the films didn’t have anything else but music.  The music was the soundtrack, and as a result it became more prominent than it ordinarily is in a film.  So, that was nice.

BD:   Is a film with only a soundtrack and no dialogue like an opera without words?

DH:   I suppose you could make that comparison, and it’s a good one.  An opera without words, I suppose, is just a vocalise.

BD:   You also write music for the theater, so I’m just wondering where it all blends in or melts together.

DH:   Music for the theater is a marriage of words and music, even more than opera is.  Opera tilts a little towards the music.  Everybody agrees on that point, and in the Musical Theater it tilts a little bit more towards the words.  The words are quite important, and I’m a strong believer that in all vocal music the words should be understood, and be clearly projected.  This is something that not all musicians agree with me about.  Some of them don’t really care.  They like the beautiful tone that masks the words
which you often get from some singersand they don’t mind if the audience is rattling its programs and trying to follow the words.  But I really think that the words should be clearly projected, and I certainly hope that in this performance in April that is coming up, that these wonderful poems I’ve set to music will be clearly understood and projected by the singer, and not force the audience to read them while they’re listening.

BD:   Have you written anything that can be called an opera?

DH:   The closest I came to that was a piece I wrote with Kenneth Koch, who is a modern poet who teaches at Columbia University.


koch
Kenneth Koch (February 27, 1925 – July 6, 2002) was an American poet, playwright, and professor, active from the 1950s until his death at age 77. He was a prominent poet of the New York School of poetry. This was a loose group of poets that eschewed contemporary introspective poetry in favor of an exuberant, cosmopolitan style that drew major inspiration from travel, painting, and music.

Koch (pronounced coke) began writing poetry at an early age, discovering the work of Shelley and Keats in his teenage years. At the age of 18, he served in WWII as a U.S. Army infantryman in the Philippines.

After his service, he attended Harvard University, where he graduated in 1948 and moved to New York City. He received his Ph.D. from Columbia University.

He and his wife lived in France and Italy for over a year, and in 1959 he joined the faculty in the Department of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia. He taught classes at Columbia for over forty years.

[The following two paragraphs are from the official Kenneth Koch website.] Opera was one of Koch’s favorite art forms. He said he thought the perfect job for him would be as a court librettist responsible for creating at least three opera libretti a year. Some of Koch’s other plays were set as operas, such as The Gold Standard (set by Scott Wheeler) and Départ Malgache set by Roger Trefousse. In addition, Koch wrote libretti for particular composers to set: Bertha for Ned Rorem*, A Change of Hearts for David Hollister, and two for music by Koch’s Italian friend Marcello Panni, The Banquet: Talking about Love and Garibaldi en Sicile.

In addition to opera, individual songs were created from his poems or poem cycles. Virgil Thomson set Collected Poems, a series of 39 one-line poems that Thomson later arranged for vocal duet and chamber orchestra, and four poems under Thomson’s title Mostly about Love. Ned Rorem set those same four poems and many other poems by Koch, including To the Unknown. Other song collaborations include William Bolcom’s setting of Koch’s To My Old Addresses and two song cycles by Mason Bates, In Bed and Songs from the Plays.

*     *     *     *     *

*Bertha is an opera in one act, with music by Ned Rorem to an English libretto by Kenneth Koch, an original work parodying Shakespeare's histories. Rorem wrote the work originally at the request of the Metropolitan Opera Studio in the 1960s, intended as an opera for children. However, the Met Studio rejected the work. The work was premiered at Alice Tully Hall in New York City on November 25, 1973 with Beverly Wolff in the title role.



He had written a play some years ago called A Change of Hearts
not A Change of Heart, but A Change of Heartsand the opera was given a performance by a theater company.  It is forty-five minutes, and it can only be called an opera because it’s sung throughout.  There’s no spoken dialoguewhich is not the definition of opera, of course, because Carmen and other operas have plenty of spoken dialogue when they’re done in that version.  But I suppose it’s an opera.  It’s a pop-opera of sorts.  It’s an eclectic opera.  One aria, for example, sounds like a Baroque aria, and it has others that are more contemporary.  It covers a multitude of styles, and it’s got a kind of avant-garde libretto.  In this case, it has to do with student rebellions in a university setting, and heart transplants.  He wrote the play way back in 1969, I believe, when, at Columbia University there was some famous student rebellion that took place.  At the same time, Dr. Christiaan Barnard in South Africa was making big headlines on the first heart transplant surgery, so Koch combined these two ideas.  In any case, this is as closest I’ve come to writing an opera.  It has musical theater components.  When I write for the musical theater, I usually fall between the stools.  I’m not writing Broadway Musicals, and I’m not writing opera.  It’s somewhere between, and that’s where musical theater seems to be doing its most interesting work right now.  That piece, however, as I said, was performed by a theater group.  They were not singers, really, and I’m trying at the moment to get a performance by an opera company, or at least by trained singers so I can hear what it sounds like when sung by real singers, not by actors who hopefully can sing.

BD:   If you know that it’s going to be performed by actors who maybe can sing, do you write it a little differently than if you know it’s going to be done by singers with vocal degrees from Juilliard?

DH:   Yes, and in fact I did write it for that group, so I knew exactly what I was getting.  But I didn’t make as many compromises as I would have if I had thought that was the only performance it was ever going to get.  I’d insisted it be a small off-Broadway theater company, and I didn’t necessarily feel that was the end of the line for it.  I did write somewhat more ambitiously than they were quite capable of handling, so the performance many have suffered.  But the piece still exists, and I’m still waiting for the definitive performance and interpretation.  It’s a fun piece.  It’s as fantasy, almost theater of the ridiculous.  The number of heart operations that take place during the course of the opera is quite numerous.  All the major characters get their hearts transplanted into each other at one time or another, and their personalities change each time this happens, because they take on the personality of the person whose heart they have just acquired.  So, that’s the gimmick of the opera, and that’s why it’s called A Change of Hearts.  It implies many things, and it had something of a moral to offer
something about the hubris of the medical profession, perhaps.  It’s a little hard to know exactly what the author had in mind.  He refuses to divulge his secrets.  It’s all either there or it isn’t there, but it was a lot of fun to work on.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   What advice do you have for young composers coming along?

DH:   Keep composing!  Don’t give up!  I don’t think young composers need too much advice.  As far as I can make out, they do quite well.  There are many, many of them...

BD:   Are there too many?

DH:   There’s never too many.  The point is that the more there are of any type of artist, the better it is for the art, because even though the vast majority of art that is created will disappear without a trace, the more there are the greater the chance that some gems will surface and become part of the permanent tradition.

BD:   You say that most of this art is going to vanish without a trace, and yet today we have things which will save these bits of art, namely commercial recordings.  Even if it’s not commercially recorded, there’ll certainly be tapes of performances in private collections.

DH:   Oh, yes!  I certainly didn’t mean to say that it will disappear in the sense of being destroyed.  It’s always there to be rediscovered, hopefully.  That’s important because this generation may not understand the work.  A later one may, so there is always that possibility of being rediscovered, or perhaps being discovered for the first time many, many decades later.

BD:   Do you feel it’s better to be discovered in an audio performance recording, or from a printed performance on a page?

DH:   It doesn’t really matter how it’s discovered, as long as we haven’t forgotten how to read music!  One always worries about this upcoming crisis of human affairs that might cause the destruction of, if not the human race, of all of its artifacts.  But let’s say there was some horrible calamity, and it destroyed all the tape recorders, and all the possible means by which one could reproduce and play a tape.  We could also lose all the printed material, so anything is possible.  But I would think that it should be in all this media.  Any one of them may survive, and hopefully we will have retained the ability to read the printed page that would have been lost.  There is a danger
at least in the popular idiom, and this may even be true in serious music to some extentthat many young composers are busy writing their music on tape.  They’re not really writing it at all.  They’re creating it on tape, and not writing it down.

BD:   So all that exists is the sound carpet?

DH:   Exactly.  After all, we can copyright those now.  Ever since 1976 we can do that, so there’s no reason why that can’t be the medium of the future.  Let’s hope they will not do what they did with the wire recorder and let it become obsolete, because I have a wire recording I’ll never hear again unless I can find a wire recorder somewhere.

BD:   You should find someone with a wire recorder and pay them to transfer it to something that you have now.

DH:   Exactly, but I don’t know anybody with wire recorder.  If you hear of anybody, let me know.  This can happen with the rapid turnover of recording.  I’m told all the time that LPs are going to be obsolete in a few years, and CDs will take over.

BD:   They are, but because of the huge proliferation of turntables, you’ll still be able to play the ones you have.  It’s just they won’t produce any more of them.

DH:   I hope that will be the case.  I have a lot of 78s, and I have a hard time finding turntables that will play them.  I happen to have one, so I’ve transferred them to cassette, but it’s not the same.  There is this mystique about playing the actual disc.

BD:   Especially when you go back to the acoustic records, you really need to play an acoustic record on an acoustic machine with a horn, rather than on a machine with a modern speaker.  Acoustical records do sound better on a horn machine.

DH:   So, I should really go to an antique shop and get an old Victrola.

BD:   It depends on when the discs were made.  If they were made with a microphone, then they can be played back electrically.  But the acoustical records, which were made before 1925, do sound better when played on a horn machine.

DH:   [Laughs]  Well, I don’t have any of that far back.

BD:   You might, actually.  That’s when Caruso was recording, but his discs were on LP, and are now back on CD.

DH:   I suppose they’ve gotten enhanced to sound a great deal better?

BD:   I don’t know if they’ve gotten enhanced, but they’ve tried to clean up the sound a bit.  They’ve done very well, actually.  Caruso is the one who gets every new technical innovation.  His recordings always get experimented on.  His records were fiddled with in the
30s, and in the 50s, and in the 70s, and now with CDs.

DH:   Well, lucky him!  [Both laugh]  [Note that now (2019), many of the acoustic 78s, as well as cylinder recordings and other items from that era, are out on CD, and can also be found on the internet via YouTube and other sites.  This is a wonderful way to experience very rare and diverse material.  However, the usual caveats apply, such as being aware of fraudulent and mis-made items, as well as spurious annotations.  Also, the exact speed of the originals must be carefully calibrated, etc.  Some of the videos actually show the disc being played on an old machine!]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Is composing fun?

DH:   I wouldn’t think I’d do it if I didn’t enjoy doing it, but it isn’t always fun.  Sometimes it’s mental anguish, especially if you hit a road block.  But the fun comes from the doing of it.  You get the satisfaction of finishing something that you’re pleased with, and, of course, the satisfaction of hearing it performed.  Those are the satisfactions, and I would say they outnumber any of the negative aspects of it
which include having to write millions of little notes on paper laboriously.  I know there are plenty of young composers who are doing all that by computer these days.  They just tap it out on the keyboard, and it prints automatically.  I haven’t gotten to that stage.  I’m still the old-fashioned type.  I have to do it all by hand.  It’s a handcrafting operation in a sense, a necessary evil, I suppose.

BD:   There used to be the saying about every little note having its moment.  Is that no longer mandatory?

DH:   Of course, one can write music that doesn’t specify that particular aspect.  One can leave a certain amount of the material up to the performers, or to chance, or whatever.

BD:   But I mean anything that was notated, including those enormous scores of Mahler and Bruckner.

DH:   I never understand how they did it.  [Laughs]  All I can assume is that they were incredibly fast, or composed as fast as they could write.  Both of them re-wrote a lot, but it is
especially amazing with Mahler because in his short life of fifty years or so, he turned out so much music, and only in the summer time.  It’s unbelievable.

BD:   Let’s talk a little bit specifically about these two string quartets which have been recorded, String Quartet No. 1, and String Quartet No. 2.

DH:   That’s right.  String Quartet No. 1 does have a subtitle, ‘The Highway Quartet’.


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BD:   Why is it called ‘The Highway Quartet’?

DH:   The piece was written in 1961 and finished in ’63.  In ’58, I did my first little film score for a film called Highway.  This film was made by a friend of mine named Hilary Harris.  It was not his first film, but maybe his third or fourth film.  He’d only done short films, and in this particular one he made a specialty of rhythm in motion, and speed, and so on.  That’s been his trademark in his films, so in Highway he took lots of shots from a moving car all around New York City, on highways, and bridges, and tunnels.  Then he put them all together in a very fast-paced five-minute film which he called Highway.  I wrote a kind of pseudo Rock’n’Roll score for it, for a five-piece combo
saxophone, trumpet, piano, bass, and drums.  My favorite moment in the film, both filmically and musically, was in the middle, somewhere along the West Side Highway of Manhattan, driving south at dusk with the lights between the two lanes turning on and off, on and off.  It was a wonderfully evocative scene, and the music I wrote for it was my favorite part.  Actually, it was the most musically original part, because the earlier part was more of a standard Rock’n’Roll / Blues form.  But for this particular scene I switched to a minor key, and I doubled the blues pattern from twelve bars to twenty-four bars.  I made a couple of other changes, and scored it in a way that somehow became the most interesting part.  I always wanted to do something with that little melody, so when I came to write the third movement of the string quartet, I borrowed that little melody, and it becomes the climactic theme, obviously not scored for a five-piece jazz combo, but for string quartetwhich is the furthest removed anybody can imagine from a jazz feel.  So, it loses some of its jazz feeling, but it the whole movement is a study in fast ostinato energy, and it seems quite appropriate for that theme to be in there.  It works very well with the rest of the material, and so I simply subtitled the quartet by the theme, a little bit like Schubert’s Death and the Maiden.

BD:   What about the second quartet.  Is there anything special that people should know, or should not know?

DH:   The Second Quartet is much more astringent, a little more severe than the First Quartet.  The First Quartet, was written in the
60s, and the Second Quartet dates from the 70s, and was finished in 1980, and has a little more of a contemporary feel, more modern, perhaps more dissonant.  Also, like the First Quartet, it does have a reference to jazz, but in this case, the jazz feeling and rhythms are much more abstracted.  It’s not so obvious as in the First Quartet.  The First Quartet, by the way, also has other things in it besides the third movement with its jazz.  It has a number of references to vernacular styleseverything from a barn dance, to a Middle Eastern tune, to a waltzbut all within a context that might be called neoclassical.  The Second Quartet has something of modern serialism in it.  It isn’t exactly a serial composition.  I’m not trying to scare off any of your more conservative listeners, but if I had to trace back its roots to composers with whom you might be familiar, I’ve been told by others that parts of the First Quartet might remind one of Shostakovich or Bartók, or any of those early Twentieth Century composers of a neoclassical, or neo-romantic tradition.  Whereas the Second Quartet owes something to Alban Berg.  It’s in five sections, and it is true that the fifth section finally brings itself around to being a twelve-tone piece.  Up until that time it has only been suggested by its little germ motives that it perhaps is leaning in that direction, but it doesn’t fully achieve it until the last section.  But while doing that, it’s also trying to be jazzy, so this is creating a good deal of tension because twelve-tone jazz is almost the contradiction in termsnot that it hasn’t been done, but it just isn’t what we usually think of when you put those two ideas together.

BD:   Jazz is more improvisatory?

DH:   Exactly.  So I tried to get some of that feeling, and some of the rhythms, and even some of the characteristic figures of jazz, which I also did in the third movement of the First Quartet.  But, as I say, it’s much more demanding in some ways, and in general it creates a sense of loss, or alienation, or an arid landscape, whereas the First Quartet is much more lush, much more generous with melodies, and rhythms.  The Second Quartet has some of that.  It certainly has rhythms.  I find it very difficult not to write catchy rhythms, or foot-tapping rhythms, but there’s quite a bit more subtlety about them in the Second Quartet.

BD:   Is there a third quartet?

DH:   Not yet.

BD:   Will there be?

DH:   Hopefully!  Maybe even a fourth and a fifth!  I’d like to write as many quartets as Bartók did before I finish, but so far I haven’t gotten anywhere.  Actually, The Hampshire Quartet, which has done the recordings, does want to commission me for a third quartet, and I believe they’re in the process of applying for a grant to cover that.  So, we hope that’ll happen.

BD:   When you get a commission, is it easy to decide whether you’ll accept it or decline it?

DH:   Most commissions are not of the type that tell you what to do.  It’s very rare that you’ll get a commission in the mail to write a tuba concerto with all-string accompaniment, or those kind of guidelines.  Usually, they approach you first and they’ll say they’d like you to write a piece, and here are the instruments that we can get.  Choose among them, or do whatever you like.  You have a lot of freedom and a lot of leeway.  I know that some composers negotiate the commission to make sure that the piece they get commissioned to write is the piece that they would have written next anyway, and that’s ideal.  Of course, it doesn’t always happen that way, and sometimes with some composers (not me), commissions pile up, and you’re already commissioned three years ahead down the road.  I haven’t had too many commissions.  I do recall, way back in 1960, the Paul Taylor Dance Company got the Spoleto Festival [directed by Gian Carlo Menotti] to commission me to write a piece for that company, which was called Tablet, which was premiered at the Spoleto Festival.  In that case, the dancer was in charge, and Paul Taylor knew what he wanted in terms of the type of dance he was going to create.  But he left it to me, as far as instrumentation was concerned, and made no direct instructions except to give me a kind of rundown on the way the dance was going to be sectioned off.


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BD:   And the approximate length?

DH:   Right.  So, I wrote the music, and he choreographed it.  That was fine.  I might add that I had an earlier collaboration, in 1958 on a piece called Rebus, which was even more interesting.  In that case, Taylor had just come off a John Cage period in his choreographic career.  He had worked with Cage, and gotten a lot of dancers into Cage’s music.  He had a very controversial concert in which one of his main pieces he and a woman simply stood on stage in a fixed position for fifteen minutes, while the sound of a telephone operator gave the time every ten seconds.  This elicited a famous review in one of the dance magazines, which was a blank page with simply a signature of the credit.

BD:   [Smiles]  Ahhh... Reminiscent of 4'33", which I find completely appropriate!  [Both laugh]


4'33" is the work in which the performer (usually a pianist, but any combination according to the score) remains silent for the allotted time.  As it happened, I performed it on April 1 in two successive years on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago.  For the record, I did not simply leave all the volume controls at zero, thus sending out a silent signal.  Since the idea of Cage was to pay attention to the ambient sound in the hall, I announced the piece, and then left the microphone open, so that listeners would hear the goings-on in the studio.  I moved about, got up and down from the squeaky chair, gathered the news from the teletype machine (!), and answered the phone when calls came in.  The radio audience heard my side of the conversations.  I also brought in a kitchen timer which I placed by the microphone so the loud ticking could be heard, and which went DING at approximately four and a half minutes, signaling the end of the performance.  I then sat down, rustled my papers, cleared my throat, back-announced the work, and continued on with the scheduled programming.  Comments from listeners were all very positive.  BD


DH:   Whereas now he’s world renowned, at that time Paul was not so well-known.  In any case, he asked me to write a piece for his company.  He said he wanted me to write the piece, he’d create the dance, and then we’d put them together.  All we had to do is make sure we come out together at the end.  So every once in a while, he’d comment and say,
I’ve gotten to count number 432.  In other words, he was just simply counting from 1 to X, and I was writing according to the approximate tempo we’d agreed upon, and the number of beats.  When we both got to whatever it was632?we stopped.  That was the end of the piece.  I finished the score, which was for clarinet, cello, and percussion, and he finished his work, and when we brought them together into a studio, low and behold it worked beautifully together!  [Laughs]  I had only gotten very vague guidelines as to what kind of music he might want, but nothing about specific moments.  There were no places where we had agreed that if I’d do this, the dancer’s going to do that.  It never was known until the actual time of the rehearsal.  I’ve never forgotten one moment, when I happened to put a very loud rim shot on the drums.  He had choreographed a pyramid of three of four dancers each on top of each other, reaching to the ceiling, and at that precise moment of the rim shot, they all fell off each other, and hit the floor.  [Laughs]  I had no idea that was going to happen, and he didn’t either!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Where’s music going today?

DH:   The nice thing about music right now is that it’s not going in any one direction.  Twenty years ago, it seemed to be the perceived opinion that music had only direction.  That was the only right way to go, and anybody who wasn’t going in that direction was going to be left behind by the avalanche of history.  Now we have a much more pluralistic approach.  Most composers have accepted the fact that there are many, many roads to Rome.  We’re all taking our own individual roads, and they’re all equally valid.  They’re not all producing equally good music, but we no longer seem to have that sense, as it was so often expressed in the
60s, that music must do something.  It must do this, it must do that.  It had to be serial, and has to follow in the tradition of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Webern, Boulez, Stockhausen, and so on.  Even Stockhausen, of course, shifted ground at about that time.  But then we also don’t have to have the other extreme, which is aleatoric, or improvisational, or unpredictable, indeterminate, chance music.  There’s no one way to go, and that was partly the fact that composers like Steve Reich and Philip Glass, and others, made possible a third way.  Minimalism broke down all those barriers, plus the so-called ‘Neo-Romantic movement’, which I’m not sure it really exists.  There is always a return to some tradition, and some lyricism which had to seemed to have disappeared from a lot of music in the bleep-bloop schools.  Some composers have latched onto this more conservative trend, which may or may not be related to the political conservatives of our time.  There are some composers who may be using that as a road to success, in other words pandering to public taste.  We have so many different ways to go that I would be the last one to say where music is going.  I just hope it continues to grow, and that it proliferates all kinds of interesting new ways to create music.  I, myself, am sometimes referred to as an eclectomaniacat least that’s what one of my friends called me when he heard Tributaries.  That piece was written deliberately as a kind of homage to the music that I have liked, music that has influenced me, music that has come from many different sources that flows into the Twentieth Century and flows into my music.  This is the great river of music, with all its many branches and tributaries, and I think that’s fine.  The title itself, with the use of ‘tri’, reflects the fact that it’s three performers, and also three sections.  There are three movements which are all played without a pause, and then there’s the tribute to all these things that I love.

BD:   I thought you were going to say your birth sign is Aries.

DH:   [Laughs]  Actually it’s Taurus, so that doesn’t actually quite fit.  But the piece does have many different things in it.  It has a little bit of Mozart, and it has a little bit of poly-tonality.  It’s got a lot of Milhaud, and it has a beautiful, simple G minor waltz.  It has some atonality, and it has plenty of tonality, and it ends with a fugue which ends in the key of A major.  So is has just got everything.  A lot of it is more traditional than some of the stuff you’ll find in my Second String Quartet, so since I wrote that work and I say it ended the middle period of my composing career, when I was writing much more complex, astringent, severe, tense and dissonant music.  In the
80s, I have been writing much more neo-tonal music, and I returned to what I had written before.  So, my most recent music and my First String Quartet have a lot in common.  I hope that it’s more sophisticated now because I’m older and really more experienced, but there was that three-way division of my composing life.  It’s not over yet, so maybe there’ll be a fourth period.  I don’t know what it’ll be, though.

BD:   May I ask your birthdate?

DH:   May 1st, 1929.  Actually, there is some numerological significance to that, but I can’t remember what it was.  I know that 1 is red, and 5 is blue, so...

BD:   [Interrupting]  The colors of your record jackets are red and blue!

DH:   That was a total coincidence!  But it is true that when they came out I made a note of that factor, because at that time I was looking into the color significance of numbers.  I’ve discovered that 1 and 5 signify my birthday, and happened to be those two colors.  So, when the records came out, I thought that’s quite a coincidence.  But I didn’t plan it, and I didn’t have anything to do with the choice of the colors.


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BD:   You’re about to hit your sixtieth birthday.  What is the most surprising or interesting thing that you’ve noted in music over that time?

DH:   [Thinks a moment]  The proliferation of music is the most significant thing I’ve seen, and the fact that there is so much more music available.  When I was a kid, what did I know?  I just assumed that what was available was all there was, but of course we find out more and more that there is so much more new music that ought to be made available.  The proliferation of recordings has made it so much more possible to hear a lot of music that was formerly never really heard by anybody, except maybe a handful of people in a tiny concert hall somewhere.  Also, of course, there is the proliferation of radio stations that play classical music.  In those days when I was growing up, before the days of FM, you were lucky if you had one AM station in New York area that played any classical music at all.  We had WQXR here in New York, but let’s face it, that was an exception.  It was a vast wasteland when it came to classical music.  I remember my parents and I did a lot of driving around the country.  I remember crossing this country several times in cars when I was a kid, from the east coast to west coast and back again, and, of course, listening to the radio all the time, with terrible reception.  But at least my father was a classical musician, so we would try to find the classical music station wherever we were, and it was not easy to find.

BD:   I am very glad to be working at one of the few that remain.  Thank you for all of your music, and for speaking with me today.  It was a pleasure to be here in your home.

DH:   I certainly enjoyed meeting you, and I’m very glad you were able to fit this into your schedule.




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© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded at Hollisters home in New York City, on March 25, 1988.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in 1994 and 1999.  This transcription was made in 2019, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.

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.