Composer / Educator Hunter
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Hunter Johnson (April 14, 1906 -
August 27, 1998) was an American composer. His compositions include a
piano sonata and the orchestral music for Martha Graham's ballets Letter to the World, based on the
life and poetry of Emily Dickinson, and Deaths and Entrances. His musical
style was a combination of neoclassic, neoromantic, and nationalist.
Johnson was born near Benson, North Carolina. He attended Benson High
School and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill before
leaving the state to finish his undergraduate studies at the Eastman
School of Music in 1929. UNC later awarded him an honorary doctorate.
He taught at the University of Michigan (1929–33), the University of
Manitoba (1944–7), Cornell (1948–53), the University of Illinois
(1959–65) and the University of Texas (1966–71). He retired in 1971 and
returned to the family farm in Benson. He was the first composer
laureate of North Carolina, an award he received in 1991.
Most broadcasting stations that do interview segments
have not only the on-air talent who are seen or heard, but also support
staff that arrange things and set things up and do research and other
preparation, as well as engineers to handle the technical
requirements. In my situation at WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago I
had none of those luxuries. I was my own support staff and did my
own engineering. While this made it more work for me, it also
allowed me a great freedom to meet whom I liked and set things up in
ways that suited both my guest and me.
In gathering material, I sought out musicians that
interested me, and sometimes one guest would suggest others, and even
provide me with contact information. Such was the case with
The pianist Ramon Salvatore had been a previous guest in my series, and
because he made his home in the Chicago area, we stayed in touch
whenever possible. After a series of concerts, he mentioned one
of the composers he had just played, and I jumped at the chance to add
Hunter Johnson to my list of interview guests. [Vis-à-vis
the box at right, see my Interview with John
La Montaine, my Interview
with Robert Palmer, and my Interview with Paul
Since the first use of the interview was to be on the radio, Johnson
paid me a nice compliment to begin . . . . . . .
You’ve an excellent voice for announcing and
giving information. Very sharp, clear voice.
Thank you very much. I’m glad I’m able to
use it on the air and for doing interviews!
HJ: By the
way, do you know Ray Salvatore?
Yes. He’s the one who gave me your address!
HJ: Oh, yes,
oh good. He’s been playing my Piano
a bit. In fact several pianists have been playing it in the last
few years in Europe and in this country. It’s been extremely well
received, popular with the young college crowd! They’d never
heard it before. They would ask where it’s been all these years,
and Ray would say, “You
have both the score and the recording in your library. Go, look
it up!” [Both laugh]
BD: I knew
years ago, and then I lost track of him. Recently I
contacted another composer who’s a friend of his, named Robert
HJ: Oh, yes,
I’ve known Palmer for many years.
suggested to Ray that he
call me, not knowing that we were old friends. So Ray got in
touch with me a couple of weeks ago or so, and we
reacquainted ourselves now that he’s back here in the
Chicago area. We were talking about other composers and he
mentioned that he had been playing your Sonata, and suggested that if I
had not already contacted you for an interview that I should do so
right away. So I immediately grabbed the chance because you had
on my hit list for a while.
yes. Very good.
been teaching music for a
number of years. Is it theory or composition, or both?
and composition. I’ve been retired for some time, but while I was
teaching I worked with mostly in advanced theory and composition,
graduate students working towards their master’s and
doctor’s degree. I taught it at several universities over years
— University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Cornell University,
of Illinois, University of Manitoba up in Winnipeg, and finally the
University of Texas. The reason I taught at so many universities
was I found I
could not mix composition and teaching too well. I just didn’t
have that kind of energy, I suppose, and so I would teach a few years
and then take off a year or two or three, win a prize perhaps or
scholarship, compose for a while and then go back to teaching. I
was always fortunate to be able to get a good position, and I enjoyed
teaching enormously. In fact I’ve
always thought of my career as being a combination of composing and
BD: But you
couldn’t do both at the same time because
the teaching took too much energy?
I was in my twenties, I was teaching at the University of
Michigan and I could mix the two pretty well. I had loads of
then, but I threw myself into teaching a little more intensively
than many teachers do, and that tends to take up extra energy.
thoroughly enjoyed teaching. I always thought
of myself as a combination of the two even when I was a kid. As a
fact, when growing up my great ambition was to be both, to be a
artist. I wasn’t sure at that time whether it would be as a
writer or as a composer, and a college professor! In fact Musical America started off an
article about me calling me
BD: Do you
approve of that euphemism?
HJ: Well, I
don’t mind it. I’d never thought
about it before that. I’d like to think that my composition is
important. It really has been a little more important to me than
teaching, much as I enjoy teaching
come back to the composition in just a
little while, but I want to stick with the teaching for a
moment. How did the students change and
progress over the many years that you did teach them?
HJ: That’s a
little bit hard to answer. Some have had success. The
various students I had worked in a much simpler idiom than students in
and so what they did was easier for them. It’s
easier to evaluate. Over the years the approach to music changed,
especially 50s and 60s. They thought of music as primarily an
experimental thing. Each individual had to be as far out and as
absolutely possible, and it proved a problem some times. I never
taught electronic music, for example, but I
could evaluate it pretty well, and that’s almost a mistake as I
don’t think it’s always possible to evaluate anything as new as
electronic music, at least not as easy to evaluate as earlier
music. But in my later teaching years I had more gifted
In the earlier years I had a mixture of people who just wanted to take
composition because they were interested in it, not having, perhaps,
much time or talent. There were some with a medium amount of
talent and some who wanted to become professionals, but in later years
teaching of composition was limited pretty much to singers and graduate
students. By that time the weaklings had been weeded out, and so
had very good material to work with, particularly at the University of
Illinois and the University of Texas. A considerable number of my
students took their doctorates under my supervision, and
wrote in a great variety of styles. So my approach to teaching
composition is always to nurture what a student has, to let him find
own way and not try to impose my own style on him. It’s difficult
some times, especially in the beginning phases to the students’
development, to find out just what is his strongest point it, what he’s
driving towards. But in the end I was able to determine
was just doing the best I could towards his own goal, and I am happy to
say that I don’t think any of my students sounded like me. I
never forget the number of students I used to run
into who had other teachers, and they all sounded like Hindemith!
BD: What did
you look for in evaluating the music of
thing I look for is what I would call a personal profile, a
distinct individuality in the music, not just repeating what
everybody else was doing. A personal profile, some real
individuality was what I was looking for more than anything else, and I
had great success in finding that and nurturing that. That
approach tends to be a little difficult
when you get into the serial area and chance music and that sort of
thing. I realize that, but it’s possible to find that kernel,
that core of individuality even in more difficult idioms.
BD: What else
did you look for after you
found the individuality?
Productivity and technical
countenance, technical ease, ease of writing. I guess that’s
BD: You could
encourage technique and
help to shape their technique, but could you also encourage the
yes! I think so by enthusiasm and praise, particularly when they
there’s something there that no one else has done. I would point
it out to them in the music, and show how to achieve it
they always respond to.
where is the balance between the
inspiration and the technical ability?
HJ: That’s a
difficult question. By
inspiration I don’t mean going off in the blue wild yonder and doing
something that has never been heard of before, something that would not
communicate, for example. But inspiration is a difficult
thing to define anyway. I don’t mean inspiration from on high,
but something alive and individual, and with its own personal
cast. I’ve never encouraged going off into the
wild blue yonder and doing something which is apart from the
accepted musical practice. Even with the more advanced sort that
not communicate. That has been one of the great problems in
twentieth century music, especially recent twentieth century
music, and it was neglected in the academic scenes over
the years to a great extent.
giving all that advice to your students, did you follow that advice in
HJ: It’s very
difficult to evaluate oneself in that respect, but I believe so, more
BD: Have you
been basically pleased with
the performances you have heard of your music over the years?
HJ: I am not
so much displeased as not entirely
happy. [Laughs] Even with the best performers, my chief
problem has been in the area of tempo. I conduct to get across to
the performers the idea that they must follow the indicated
metronomic markings. Stravinsky had the same problem. It’s
one reason he
became a conductor — so that he could play his
music at the proper
BD: Is the
composer the ideal interpreter of his music?
necessarily. I found that you put things
down in the score, and then do different things when you perform it
yourself. Incidentally, the
recordings that I’m suggesting I’m not completely happy with were
because I was not able, for one reason or another, to be present at any
of the recording sessions. The slow sections in all those works
tended to be taken rather too slowly.
otherwise, are they pleasing to you?
Yes. The Louisville Orchestra did a fine job on Past the Evening Sun. Jorge
Mester was conducting. [See my Interview with Jorge
BD: What do
you expect of the
audience that comes to hear your music?
frankly, I expect in case of most
members of the audience a warm response because my music is not
written in an avant-garde idiom at all. In fact I’ve made it
rather conservative, so I don’t think of
it as any of a problem for most audiences, unless they’re really
unsophisticated. You’re not going to find them in
university communities or the larger cities now. The question of
the audience response is one of the biggest problems in
recent music. A good many of the composers who have tried to
write a very avant-garde type music have forgotten that any language,
especially musical language, has to
be based in a common experience. That is why a great
deal of twentieth century music will probably not last too long because
it misuses the language, or rather tries to create a new language that
does not have sufficient basis in the common experience. I’m not
arguing here for playing folk music or anything as simple as that, but
Schoenberg, for example, created a totally new language in my
estimation. One person usually cannot do that. It keeps
to the matter of the common heritage. The
greatest of originality in any art is that
which takes the common language of that point and advances it.
much, but it advances it just far enough to get the result and all of
freshness and individuality and even a bit of strangeness, but not too
strange, not too far removed from the common sources of the language.
BD: In other
words, to make some progress but not
scrap it and start anew?
HJ: One of
the greatest problems in twentieth century music
recently is over-complexity, and writing music in which there is not
enough contrast. The great
problem is insufficient variation of structure in the larger aspects of
structure, not contrast. That’s true of so much of it. Very
often it will go on for ten or fifteen
minutes perhaps with the same kind of texture. The details are
always different, of course, but those are minute differences that you
don’t really notice. The overall affect is one of monotony, and
that’s a very common complaint. The last
movement of Boulez’s Third Piano
Sonata just goes on and on and on
the same texture. It’s unbearable after a while! However,
Marteau sans Maître, for
example, has the requisite structural
contrast. [See my Interviews with Pierre
BD: Are you
optimistic about the whole future of
always optimistic because trends now
are moving toward establishing more contact with what I call the roots
musical language. I think that even Rock is going to have some
influence on it. I’m not a great devote of Rock, but I think it’s
to have some influence on the serious music of the future. So I
feel bound to be optimistic about the future of music.
BD: Do you
feel that we should try to get the Rock
audiences into the concert halls?
Yes. Whether we’d have much success at
it I don’t know, but I think it would be a very
idea if they could just absorb some of the greater
complexity of language and more interesting aspects of musical
language. The basic language the rockers use is still so simple,
and unless you’ve got a terrific imagination you don’t then do
much with it. You have the thousands of songs, and they tend to
be pretty commonplace, you know,
boring I feel. There you go!
you’re writing a piece of music, you go over
it and touch it up and you work on it. How do you know when you
HJ: I sense
when something is not quite right, and
when I finally get it right, I know it. I know it
inside me and I have no doubt about it. It’s hard to define just
what it is, but there’s always that satisfaction then. Usually
it’s some technical thing that you’ve worked at. You find some
technical thing that doesn’t quite come
BD: Do you
ever go back and revise scores after
they’ve been published?
HJ: I don’t
know about when they’ve actually been
published, but I’ve done a great deal of revision on certain
scores. The Piano Sonata,
for example, was first written in the
1930s, and then I revised it considerably several years later, in 1948,
before it was published. I’d not been completely satisfied
with certain aspects of it, practicability and performance, for one
thing, and I was able to give it a
greater clarity of intent in other portions. I worked it
over just before it was published. I spent several months
on it in fact. I’m finding I’m happy with it, satisfied
with it. It’s worked out very well since.
BD: Are you
also a performer as well as a composer?
really. I am no longer a good
pianist, but I was a fairly good pianist at one time when I was
teaching. Over the years in general I had to do several
performances, but performing never
did interest me completely in the end.
BD: Did being
a performer make you a
HJ: Yes, I
think so, particularly for the piano. I can think of composers
who were not
pianists, and it shows. It does show in the piano works. I
won’t give you names, but this is true to a greater extent than
composers who write
for stringed instruments who do
not play those instruments. I don’t know why what should be,
but it appears to be.
it’s because playing the piano is
considerably more complicated than playing a violin or a trumpet.
perhaps that’s it. I would think it
would be, yes.
advice do you have for the young composers
coming along who want to write pianistically?
HJ: Sit and
play at the piano a little! [Both laugh] Learn to play a
little bit. Get
the feel for the instrument. I always think it’s very
instructive to point out to them and show them the difference in the
approach to the piano and the orchestra. Get some
orchestral works and try and do them for the piano. They will
a great exercise in teaching them what is detected on the piano, for
advice do you have for the young performers
HJ: Oh, I
wouldn’t attempt to give the young
performers any advice. I am very happy with most
young performers that I’ve heard. I’m glad to see them getting
away from the old romanticized interpretations of music. Some
would say that many of them tend to be too
mechanical in performance, but I don’t feel
approach of a pianist like Glenn Gould is thought by some to be too
mechanistic, but I
don’t. In many of the pieces the method of the music
is right. They’re in the notes. You don’t have to
over-sentimentalize and do little things for
distortions of the tempo and such matters of interpretation. It’s
been one of the problems I’ve had with some of the young
pianists. They still tend to fall into that old over-romanticized
concept of music, which is basically romantic. Inevitably playing
a slow section is to
over-sentimentalize it, to slow it down and ‘schmaltz’ it up a
bit! That seems to be a great temptation.
BD: As you
look back over the thirty, forty, fifty,
sixty years, have the performers gotten better technically?
HJ: Oh yes,
oh heavens, yes. Much better.
they’ve gotten better technically, have they
also gotten better musically?
[Laughs] I wouldn’t make a fat statement
about that. They’ve been heading in the right direction,
as far as I’m concerned. When I hear sometimes the recordings of
the older pianists, I am
terribly appalled at how inadequate their technique is... people
like Paderewski and Rubinstein.
BD: Are they
sloppy. They don’t get all the notes and they mess it up with the
pedals. There’s too much
pedal. That’s one tendency among the new performers that I
like — they don’t tend to overuse the pedal as
the older ones do.
BD: Have you
written some music for the voice?
HJ: Only a
few songs. I have never done a big
choral work and I don’t know quite why. I suppose the
thought of a large group of singers seems to be an appalling job.
BD: Tell me
about the joys and sorrows of writing for
the human voice.
HJ: I never
thought of it as involving joys and
horrors particularly but just the composing problems. I never did
an opera, for example. There one
might imagine you’d run into problems. I might mention
incidentally that a great portion of my work has been done in the field
of ballet. I wrote three ballets for Martha Graham. One in
1940, Letter to the World
[revised in 2014 and called At Summer’s Full], and the next one in 1943, Deaths and
Entrances, and finally after many years, The Scarlet Letter in
1975. Those first two had hundreds of performances
worldwide, and I’m thrilled to be better known for the music I did for
Martha Graham than for my other music. It was a happy
collaboration, and it was very inspiring to work with her.
BD: When she
gave you a commission, how much
leeway did she allow you?
HJ: When I
first went to work with her, she
wanted me to do the music in a rather mechanical way, with so many bars
of 4/4 and so many bars of this and that. I told her, “I
can’t work that way. I refuse to work that way, but
I’ll work with you if I can work freely. You give me a scenario
the mood, ideas and the
approximate length, and I’ll write it. If we have to pare it
down a little or extend it, fine.” It was a
for her at first, but she once she got to working that way, she
said she wouldn’t work any other way. She said she didn’t
know why she didn’t start it that way earlier.
BD: Were you
surprised at the kind of movements that were then used to your music?
sometimes! [They both
laugh] Yes, Miss Graham
introduced them to the concept of a counterpoint of music and motion,
that doing somewhat unexpected things occasionally in the dance to what
one might anticipate, given the nature of the music and the
nature of the rhythm, and that works pretty well I think.
BD: If you
write something specifically for the
dance, is it good then to take it into the concert hall without the
HJ: No, it
isn’t good as a rule. The original ballet Letter to the World was
about fifty minutes long, and I did a concert suite which was
twenty or twenty-three minutes. Much of
the music will not stand too well on its own as concert music. In
fact, I recomposed much of the music put into concert suites. I
added voices, shortened things in places and expanded
others in order to make it work as concert music. Copland I
believe did the same thing with Appalachian
Spring, for example.
BD: Do you
feel music in and of itself works well on
recordings? Is there a different
expectation upon the part of the composer when there is an audience of
a couple of thousand in a hall as opposed to an audience of one or two
people at home?
HJ: I don’t
know if I would venture an opinion on
that. [Thinks for a moment] As an aside I might say that
I enjoy listening to music in recordings about as much as I do in the
concert hall. In fact, I often prefer to listen to a good
recording than going to a concert because of all the crowds
and distractions. But I’ve never been at all
opposed to recorded music as contrasted with the live concerts.
I’m very enthusiastic about listening to it along or with
two or three people.
BD: What do
you feel is the ultimate purpose of
[Laughs] I could give a rather simple, rather naive answer
— to make
people happier — but that is inadequate. I
music certainly fills a tremendous need and aspiration in
our emotional lives and extends to other aspects,
too. It produces an enormous sense of fulfillment for the
listener, not just the artists and performers and the
composers. It’s almost akin to a religious
experience in its ability to give a person a great sense of relief
and fulfillment. It enriches one’s life enormously. In fact
for me, the artistic experience, the musical experience
aesthetically is the ultimate experience, more so than any religious
without a doubt.
BD: You’re in
Yes. I can’t believe it, but I am.
BD: What are
some of the more surprising things
that you have noticed about the direction of music over this length of
HJ: I can’t
say that there is very much that has
surprised me, really. The most surprising single thing,
actually, was concerning the certain movement in American academic
music. In the 1960s, particularly, in all the academies
mean that in the general sense, the university and conservatory music
departments — all the interest among most of the
and certainly the students, was on serialism. They had to write
particular style, idiom, language, whatever you want to call it,
you were hopelessly old-fashioned. You were outside the
pale. By the early
1970s, the thing had collapsed completely. I suppose
there are a few students who learned the technique, but very little is
being written in serialism. Nearly all my students at one time
just wanted to write in the style of Webern; not Schoenberg
particularly, but Webern. Its simplicity
appeals to them a great deal, and it had a great deal to teach them, so
I let them write some things in Webern’s style.
BD: Did they
also try to imitate his
HJ: I had to
work on that with them! [Both have a huge laugh] That is
the thing that brought a surprise — the utter
collapse of the serial music in America.
BD: Are you
glad that it’s gone?
HJ: In a way
there’s much to
be learned from serial techniques, but applied too rigorously it
essentially arid music. Now things have gone off in all
directions, you might say, and I don’t know what’s going
to happen next. All styles are being accepted, and the very
significant music which can be
written in the future is going to have some tendencies towards
amalgamation of various approaches and techniques. It will have
incorporating a little more of the popular language, perhaps just a
little of that, and perhaps a rediscovery of the contrast of a
larger aspect of structure. I refer for the moment to the
ideas of too many notes and too much monotony. There is the need
to rediscover the kind of approach to form that you find in
Beethoven. It’s got wonderful contrast. There is always the
of expectation with something to come, and you don’t get that much in
contemporary music. A great deal of music being
written today turns out to be what I like to call ‘texture
music’, and it
becomes that inadvertently. ‘Texture
music’ has a chance of being wonderful with some
of the things written... Ligeti, for example. But if there’s a
sufficient amount of
contrast and larger portions of the overall form, you can write
textured music. But there has got to be
a basic contrast in the kind of texture you use, and that’s something
that even texture composers like Elliott Carter and Boulez and others
seem to have been too able to do at all. [See my Interview with Elliott
BD: Is there
any hope for these composers?
[Laughs] Oh yes! Things move on
regardless of everything, and what it boils down to is when
sufficient talents come along, they’ll make these amalgamations and
unifications and write just what is needed. I don’t think
it’s the sort of thing that can be done by making too much thought
about it. Just knowing in itself is not enough. We have
certainly by far
the most sophisticated composers and
artists in every area the world has ever known. They know
everything, and they are self-aware. There’s never been an age in
which self-awareness was so pronounced. Of course a good artist,
creator has to be self-aware, but when it is carried
too far it tends to stifle the best. Sometimes the really big
talents come along, such as
Stravinsky and Bartók, and
in this country Copland. I have great reservations about
much of Ives’s music. I’ve heard people say that he knew exactly
what he was doing, and that he placed every note exactly where he
to place it. Perhaps so, but I have some doubts about that.
He is at his best in something like The
Unanswered Question. That’s terrific, but at moments in
the Fourth Symphony and the Concord
Sonata he storms all over the place. [Laughs]
Perhaps I shouldn’t be saying all this about other
naming names, do you feel that there are potential giants coming along?
HJ: That I
can’t answer because for a decade
or so I’ve not really kept up with what’s going on among the young
composers. I heard some of the music of Philip Glass.
BD: Oh, the
Yes. I like some of his music,
but much of it I find very boring. It’s too simplistic, too
repetitive, so for me he’s not the kind I’d
be looking for.
BD: And yet
he’s gaining wide acceptance.
HJ: Yes, I
know. I think that’s because of
the top element, and all the hype and the hoopla, and all the
spectacular events, and the advertising. That has become
such a part of the music scene and of all the art scenes that the
person and the hype and the hoopla surrounding the person
taken together almost overshadows what the artist has to say. To
a certain extent this is not tasteful.
BD: You have
had quite a number of commissions...
HJ: In the
past, yes, but not in recent
years. I’ve haven’t been an active composer now for the last
BD: But when
you had commissions, how did you
decide which ones you would accept and which ones you would decline?
HJ: I don’t
think I was offered one that I didn’t
accept. I’ve always accepted commissions unless
there was too much of a limitation on the time they would wish to
finish the work. I’d never work under great pressure.
BD: [With a
gentle nudge] If they wanted a four-movement symphonic work
for large orchestra next week, you would say no?
[Laughs] Probably! That would be just
impossible for me. I never wrote with
the greatest of ease. I just never turned out work one
after the other. In fact my total output is not great, and I’ve
never considered myself a prolific composer, particularly in view
of the fact that I’ve spent so much time teaching. But I always
like to feel that I concentrated what I had to say in relatively a few
works rather than spreading it out. There’s a tendency
for some composers to write too easily and repeat themselves too
much. Of course there’s many historical precedents for
BD: When you
composing, was the act of composing fun?
yes! It was hard work and it was fun
mixed with a certain misery in the nature of frustration more than
anything else. It wouldn’t come right for some time, but when it
finally came right, and you developed a really fine idea and played it
over, you got as glorious a feeling as one could possibly
read about the Ecstasy of the Saints, and I
always said that for me the ultimate in ecstasy was writing a
passage that really came off even better than I
BD: I’m glad
you had that opportunity many times.
HJ: Yes, so
BD: You say
you’ve not been very active in the
last ten years. Are you still composing at all?
really, not at the present time. I’m dashing round with some
material from this ballet, Scarlett
Letter. I’m wanting to make a shortish piano suite
out of it, but I find that it was orchestrally
conceived. It’s difficult to take an orchestral work and try and
make a genuine piano piece out of it. Some of it works all right
this case, and some doesn’t. I had hoped to have that finished by
now, but I had serious health problems in the spring and I haven’t
quite recovered from that yet. So I don’t know
what will happen in the future.
BD: I hope
that you still have many
more years of creative life ahead of you.
thank you. I hope so too. It’s a
great pleasure for me to respond to your invitation to participate in
this series. I hope it works out all right.
BD: I’m sure
it will. It’s been a
great pleasure to chat with you. I’m glad that we were able to
make the contact and get together on the phone.
HJ: Yes, so
© 1987 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded on the telephone on September 5,
1987. Portions were broadcast on WNIB (along with recordings) six
and again in 1991 and 1996.
This transcription was made early in 2015, and posted on this
at that time. My thanks to British soprano Una
Barry for her help in preparing this website
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.