Composer  Jean  Eichelberger  Ivey

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


I contacted the composer early in early 1987, and we arranged to speak by telephone.  She was forthright in her responses, and seemed pleased to speak about the topics of inquiry.  As usual, the links which I have placed on this page refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.

Since the interview was first intended for use on the radio, I began by checking on the correct way to identify my guest . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    How do you wish to be calledJean Ivey, or Jean Eichelberger Ivey, or what?

ivey Jean Eichelberger Ivey:    Jean Eichelberger Ivey is what I use consistently as my professional name.

BD:    Good.  I will use that on the air.  I’ve listened to the recordings of your music and have enjoyed it very, very much.  I must say I have a little partiality for Pinball, being an old pinball player myself!

JEI:    Oh, really?  You know that’s entirely based on pinball machine sounds.

BD:    No electronic generated material at all?

JEI:    That’s correct.  It’s electronically modified with filters and so on, and also with tape techniques.  But the sounds themselves are all recordings of pinball machine sounds.

BD:    Is it one pinball machine, or many pinball machines?

JEI:    The work was done as a film score for a short art film about pinball machines, Montage V: How to Play Pinball.  The filmmaker was Wayne Sourbeer.  He and I were both living in Whitaker, Kansas at the time, and he filmed it largely in a company that services pinball machines so that he could take pictures of a great many of them.  I went there and recorded sounds from the pinball machines, but mostly from one.  However, I didn’t keep dropping quarters in the slot!  [Both laugh]  I didn’t have to do that.

BD:    You should have gotten a really good pinball player who could play for an hour on one quarter!  [More laughter]  That’s what I used to do.  When I came home from work at Midnight, I would stop by a little 7/11 store here in Chicago by the train station.  I’d put in fifty cents and play as long as I could, and I got pretty good at it.  Usually it was half an hour or forty-five minutes on my fifty cents!

JEI:    Ha!

BD:    Getting back to our main subject, you are a teacher of composition?

JEI:    Yes, I’m on the composition faculty of Peabody Conservatory, which is the music school of the John Hopkins University in Baltimore.  I live in New York, so it’s about two and a half hours by train.  I usually go down there each week, spend a couple of days and then come back.   I don’t go and come in the same day.

BD:    Is that enough time to spend at the school?

JEI:    I’m a full-time teacher, and I have my schedule pretty concentrated.  However, this current year I’m not doing that.  I’m on a Guggenheim Fellowship, so I am not teaching this year.  I’m on leave from Peabody.

BD:    When I speak with composers who are also or mainly teachers, I always like to ask if musical composition is really something that can be taught, or if it is something that must be innate among each of the young people.

JEI:    It is some of both, I think.  Certainly the gift for composing is something innate, and if they don’t have it, I wouldn’t presume that I could give it to them!  Of course, in a school like Peabody, we audition prospective students in the field, which, in the case of the prospective composition majors, means we look over a portfolio of their compositions, and we talk to them.

BD:    When you’ve got a portfolio in front of you, what are you looking for?

JEI:    That’s not easy to say.  Sometimes it’s potential.  It would depend on what they were applying for if they were applying to enter as freshmen.  A great deal of what we’re looking for is potential.  If they’re applying to enter a graduate program, we expect not only potential but a substantial amount of achievement.  We would expect they have written quite a few good, competent works by then. 

BD:    What constitutes a good, competent work?

JEI:    [Laughs]  You’re pinning me down now!  Let’s say it’s awfully easy to judge a poor, incompetent work.  Those tend to stand out.

BD:    So if it’s poor, it leaps off the page at you?

JEI:    Yes, I think it does.

BD:    What advice do you give to people who turn in sub-standard material?

JEI:    We don’t usually accept them into the program.

BD:    Do you encourage them to go be truck drivers, or become piano manufacturers, or something else?

JEI:    We don’t usually have that problem.  We see them for the interview, and look at their manuscripts.  Then the Admissions Office advises them that they either did or did not pass.  If they’re not admitted as composition majors, I suppose they go away and do other things.  For all I know, maybe they will become composers somewhere else.

ivey BD:    Are there perhaps too many young people trying to become composers today?

JEI:    To be honest, I think there are, and that’s also true of other aspects of the music profession.  Probably too many people trying to be concert pianists, or trying to be other concert performers.  I don’t say that many of these people who are trying really do not have talent; many of them do have talent, but there simply is not enough demand out there for loads and loads of composers, or loads and loads of concert pianists.  The supply is far greater than the demand already, so if a young person wants to be a composer or a concert pianist, they certainly should think it over very, very carefully.  If there’s something else they would like to do just as well, maybe they had better pursue that, since it’s an extremely difficult and over-crowded and highly competitive field.

BD:    Is there great competition amongst the composers?

JEI:    Yes, because there are never enough grants, commissions, and so on.  There are never anywhere near enough to go around.

BD:    Is the situation getting any better, or is it worse as time marches on?

JEI:    That’s hard to say.  I would have been inclined to think it’s getting worse as more and more people want to enter the field, but if we concentrate on composers of concert music as opposed to performers, not many such composers actually are now living mainly on the income from composing commissioned works, or the income from royalties from compositions.  Most of them do other things as well.  Many of them do what I do, and teach somewhere.  They might do other kinds of things.  Some are performers as well.

BD:    Is teaching a satisfying thing for you to do?

JEI:    Yes, I enjoy it very much.  I enjoy my relationship with students, and it’s very satisfying to see them develop.  A number of my students have won important prizes and have done very well, and that’s very gratifying.

BD:    Are there any of your students with names large enough that we would know of them?

JEI:    Stephen Douglas Burton (b. 1943) is one you might know.  His works have been played by the Chicago Symphony.  He’s won a Guggenheim Fellowship, and he’s the author of an orchestration book that’s very much admired.  He also is a teacher at George Mason University in Virginia.  Another much younger composer you would not have heard of yet but you may in the future, is Nicholas Scott Tender who has just recently come back from being in England on a Fulbright.  He has also won a number of other prizes.

BD:    Are prizes things that composers (young or old) should strive for, or should they just be happy when they land in their lap?

JEI:    They never land in your lap.  Mostly you have to apply for them, or enter a contest.  I usually encourage my students to enter contests, and apply for things like Fulbright if I they’re well qualified and stand a reasonably good chance of getting them.  It’s prestigious if they get a major grant, such as the Fulbright.  It gives them a year abroad, and covers all kinds of promoting experiences that they wouldn’t otherwise have.  They’re very worthwhile, but I don’t think they’re the be all and end all of everything.  If a student says he doesn’t want to enter any of these contests, I wouldn’t press them on doing to do it.  I just think, on the whole, it’s the best thing to do.

*     *     *     *     *

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

JEI:    I suppose it is to communicate feelings in a way that brings happiness to people. That’s just off the cuff...  [Both laugh]

ivey BD:    When you’re writing pieces of music, do you feel that you are putting this kind of thing into it, or is it something that just evolves through the music?

JEI:    More the latter.  One is not so much consciously putting feeling into the music.  It tends to evolve naturally through it, I believe.

BD:    You’ve worked a great deal with electronic music, but first let’s talk about the music that you’ve written without electronics.

JEI:    I don’t like to have my electronic music too greatly emphasized.  This is because the words
electronic music are no longer in vogue.  At one time it was very new and different and kind of newsworthy.  My electronic music has perhaps been more publicized than some other things, but I am by no means entirely or even principally a composer of electronic music.  I have a number of electronic things.  Practically all of my pieces that contain electronic sounds on tapes do so in combination with live performers.  I’ve written, for instance, things for orchestra and tape, voice and tape, various kinds of instrumental ensembles and tape.

BD:    Is this really using electronics just to add different colors to your palette?

JEI:    That’s part of it.  That, I guess, is really the main reason why I do it in those cases because it contributes something that one can’t readily do with the sounds of traditional performers.  Just as a working medium, I must say that when I first began to work in electronic music, I found it really quite exciting as a new medium.  It’s just like a painter who might take up a new visual medium and find it quite exciting and different.  When you’re working in a different medium, ideas occur to you.  Putting electronic sounds on tape, for one thing, liberates you from notation, and you discover then that standard musical notation, in some ways, channels your ideas in certain directions somewhat the way every language tends to channel your thinking.  People who learn a new language and become fluent in it find that this disorientates their thinking in a little different way.

BD:    Then the other side of the coin is that every time you play the tape it’s exactly the same.

JEI:    True, and for that reason I have mostly used electronic things in combinations with live performers.

BD:    Do the performers find it more difficult dealing with a tape than with another performer?

JEI:    It’s not too different!  The performers that I have dealt with have mostly found this an exciting challenge. There are quite a few performers that have approached me and asked what I have for piano and tape, or voice and tape, or if I would write something for them with tape.  I suppose this is partly because they find it an interesting challenge, and also perhaps it’s a novelty on a program.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  But you don’t want to be known as a novelty composer.

JEI:    [Laughs]  No, not primarily.

BD:    You’re also a pianist?

JEI:    Yes.

BD:    Are you the ideal interpreter of your works?

ivey JEI:    Oh, probably not!  My piano playing was mostly in my younger days.  I don’t play so much anymore.  I somewhat regret it, but I found that twenty-four hours every day simply didn’t allow for as much time as I needed to spend composing and practicing, and so on.  Something had to give, and it was just piano practicing that went.

BD:    When you’ve created an electronic part of a composition, do you feel that you are performing with the live performer though the electronic tape?

JEI:    Yes, but I feel that more when I’m creating the tape in the studio.  I’ve always felt the composer in that situation is really the performer because he’s choosing every sound and listening to it, and evaluating it.

BD:    If a composer writes a piano concerto and then is the soloist with an orchestra, that can be termed one kind of an
authentic performance.  Yet a hundred years, or even five hundred years from now, if your pieces are played it’s still going to be you who have created this tape, so it is actually the composer with the other performers.

JEI:    Yes, that’s an interesting thought.  That’s another fascination about the tape, as opposed to more traditional kinds of composing where you’re creating a score – essentially a code on paper which the performer has to interpret, and does so with a lot of input from his own musical knowledge, taste, traditions, etc.  When you compose a tape piece, you are really responsible for everything.  You can’t say you didn’t get that rhythm quite right!  [Laughs]

BD:    Let us look a hundred years into the future when we have some new-fangled electronic gizmo that can reproduce your tape and yet allow the performer to interpret your tape.  [Note: This interview is being prepared for website presentation exactly thirty years after the conversation took place, and I realize with both pride and horror that we already have this kind of device!]  Do you want to allow for this kind of interpretation of your tape?

JEI:    I suppose so, although so far, those computer-generated electronic sounds are often on tape, too.  It’s possible to have them in some kind of format where they are susceptible to things like being allowed to record live sounds at the same time, or speed up with the performer, etc.  Right now that’s more in a stage of research rather than practical application, but I’m sure it’s just around the corner.  I don’t know whether my pieces that were done by a different method and are already stored on tape would lend themselves to such an approach.  Perhaps somebody could figure out a way to do it, but I don’t think I would mind!  [Laughs]  It would depend on the tape with which it was done.   But once you’ve composed a piece and sent it out into the world, what happens to it is independent of the composer.  You wrote it as well as you could, and it’s performed by people who have taste, but...

BD:    Do you ever go back and revise pieces?

JEI:    I have occasionally.  I do a lot of revising and reworking while I’m creating a piece, but I don’t so much go back to pieces that are years old and do them again.  I have on rare occasions done that.

BD:    Now there seems to be a big push in the musicological community to go back and find the Urtext, and to look in composers’ waste baskets.

JEI:    That true!

BD:    Should we go back and perform original versions of your pieces?

JEI:    If somebody’s going to perform my music, I would certainly prefer the performing of an original version rather than an arrangement they might have created.

BD:    But what about a revision that you have created?

JEI:    Well, that would be different.  If I revised a piece and changed it, that revision would be because I preferred something to be different as opposed to the first time round.

BD:    [Pursuing it just a bit more]  But the historians are saying,
“Here’s the original version!

JEI:    But they don’t necessarily mean the original of several different ones created by the same person.  They may mean the original as compared to less authentic versions created by other people.  That would be how I would interpret that.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You are the founder of the Electronic Music Studio at Peabody?

JEI:    That’s right.

BD:    Yet now you’re trying to say that you don’t want to be remembered mostly as an electronic composer.

JEI:    Well, that’s just one of the media that I use in my music.  Now, the medium that I regard as really closest to me is writing for the voice.  I have probably a larger number of pieces that use the voice than anything else.  I sometimes create my own texts as well the music.  For instance, I have a piece that’s coming out on CRI records later this year, called Solstice, for which I wrote both the text and the music.  That’s a chamber work for soprano voice, flute alternating with piccolo, percussionist, and piano.
  It will be one side of an LP, and on the other side is a piece by Joseph Schwantner called Music of Amber.  The performers are an ensemble called the Contemporary Music Forum of Washington DC, and both these pieces are performed by them.

ivey BD:    When you’re creating a piece like this, as you write the text, do you know instinctively that a certain musical motif will happen here, or a rhythmic patter will happen there?

JEI:    No, I usually write the text first and then set it to music.  It wouldn’t be so different from my approach setting somebody else’s words to music, except I would certainly feel a whole lot freer to revise and change my own text in the course of setting it to music.  It might be that the original text would get changed quite a lot.

BD:    You don’t have to fight with the author then!  [Both laugh]

JEI:    That’s right!  That’s one of the good features about writing your own text, but I have also enjoyed very much setting other poetry to music.

BD:    What do you look for in a poem that makes it musical? 

JEI:    The most important thing is that I have to like it.  I have to respond and feel that it’s something which suggests musical ideas to me.  Occasionally people have approached me, asking if I would set something that I frankly didn’t want to set, and I just say no!  I would have to like it and respond to it, and not every poem necessarily lends itself to musical treatment.  I’m looking for words that suggest musical imagery.  For instance, there is the CRI record of my piece Hera, Hung from the Sky, which sets a beautiful dramatic poem by Carolyn Kizer.  I came across that text when I was seeking something for a festival of women and the arts.  I had been commissioned to write something for Collegium Musicum at the University of North Dakota in 1973, and I came upon that poem after looking at a lot of poetry with that commission in mind.  The first time I read through the poem I thought,
There’s my text!  That’s the ideal text, partly because it seemed appropriate to the commission.  The poem retells the story of the Goddess Hera, but from a woman’s point of view, and recreates some myths from that perspective.  It has words about swinging and hanging in the sky because Hera gets turned into a constellation and is hanging in the sky.  That swinging motion suggested musical imagery to me, and I pay a good deal of attention to the sound of the words.  I suppose most poetry sounds musical, but I would be looking for things like that.  Another work of mine that perhaps illustrates more of the actual sound of the words is my Three Songs of Night, which is on a Folkways record.  That’s a work, again, for soprano voice and instruments and tape.  There’s tape in both of those pieces.  The text of the second song in the Night set is by Richard Hovey, I Dreamed of Sappho.  Throughout that poem he exploits ‘s’ sounds a lot Sappho singing,” and that kind of thing — and I felt I could exploit that character in the music.  That recurrence of that particular sound appealed to me.  So I get both the imagery of the poem and the actual sound of the text.  I have to feel that it would lend itself well to singing.  Not every text is really very singable.  I sing the vocal line of everything I write for the voice to see how that feels.

BD:    Do you also sing the instrumental lines?

JEI:    Actually I often do, especially if they’re written for instruments that tend to play lines that resemble the vocal line.  For instance, the wind instruments
and to some extent stringed instrumentsoften play in a rather linear style, and I might sing those just to get an idea of how they seemed from the wind player’s point of view.  It gives me some idea of whether I’m demanding realistic things in terms of breath.  But more so in the case of writing for the actual voice, I sing everything I write, partly to determine, again, whether it’s realistic from the breathing standpoint, and partly to see whether it’s realistic from the pronunciation standpoint.  There are certain sounds that you can hardly expect a singer to pronounce clearly on the highest note in his or her range.  Pronunciation is usually clearer in the mid-range, and you take all of these things into consideration.

BD:    Do you also take into consideration the ears of the audience that the music will be played for?

JEI:    Oh, yes, of course!  I’m always hoping that I am writing something that is effective for an audience.

BD:    What do you expect of the audience that comes to hear your music?

JEI:    I hope they’ll listen to it, and get something out of it.  What can I say?  [Pauses to think]  I don’t expect for a minute that everybody that happens to hear my music is going to like it, which is something that hasn’t happened to Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart.  Different people have different tastes, but I would certainly hope is that someone will like it and respond to it.  It seems to me that this does, indeed, happen.

BD:    You have been very fortunate.  Your music seems to have been received very well
at least from what I’ve been able to read.

JEI:    Well, thank you.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You bring up another point, which I want to get into, the whole business of being a woman composer.  Do you want to be a woman composer, or do you want to simply be a composer?

JEI:    I want to be a composer.  I really don’t care very much for the emphasis on women composers.  On the other hand, when I’m invited somewhere here or there in connection with a festival of women and the arts, I usually don’t say no.  I am glad to have performances and commissions wherever they come from.  But no, I don’t want to be perceived primarily as a woman composer.  I want to be a composer, and perceived as such.

ivey BD:    Do you feel that the women composers, as a body, have made progress in all of this to where they’re being more accepted as just simply composers, good or bad?

JEI:    I hope so.  One reason I really don’t so much like the emphasis on women composers is that I feel that we need so much more representation in the mainstream of things, not just on concerts of women composers or festivals of women’s music.  Although I suppose those might have a certain educational value, I would like to see women represented more on standard orchestra programs, standard chamber music programs, all kinds of music programs.

BD:    In the same light, wouldn’t you rather just see more contemporary composers represented on these programs instead of all of the Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Mahler, Bruckner, etc.?

JEI:    Yes, I suppose so.  It would be good if contemporary music appeared on mixed programs more, rather than just one program entirely devoted to contemporary music.  That’s another form of isolation, but that does seem to be the nature of much of our concert life today.  We have programs of old music, Renaissance music, baroque music, and we have programs of contemporary music.  We have programs of nineteenth century music, and perhaps not as much as would be desirable, we have mixed programs.  But I agree that would probably be desirable.

BD:    In your opinion, where is music going today?

JEI:    Oh, I don’t know!  [Laughs]  When Roger Sessions was asked a similar question, he said that if he had known what direction music was going, he would have tried to take it!  One thing that does strike me
and I suppose it ties up what we were just talking about — is the fact that we have concerts of music of various periods.  We have a lot of different kinds of music, really.  We have different kinds of ethnic music and all kinds of things.  Maybe that trend will continue for a long time.  I’m not sure whether we’ll ever go back to having a common practice feeling such as in the time of Haydn and Mozart.  For one thing, the very fact, as you mentioned, musicologists are continuing to learn more and more about the things of the past, and this means we know a whole lot more of the music literature from the past than Mozart and Haydn.  For instance, though Mozart was closer to him in time, we know a lot more about Palestrina than Mozart knew about Palestrina because scholars have done dug all of that up, and because we are currently much more historically-minded, so to speak.  Then there is the fact that we’re not isolated geographically in the same sense that people in the eighteenth century were.   They tended to know only the music of their own nation, and maybe even just their own city or neighborhood, whereas we’re exposed to music from all world, and we have scholars exposing us to music of all the remote ages.  So there’s a wealth of music that is now known, and can readily become known by anybody anywhere in the world who wants to get to know it.  There’s a big realm of choice, so I suppose it’s natural that certain people gravitate to the kind of music that appeals to them.  From that point of view, maybe it’s only natural and to be expected that we have specialized kinds of concerts, and the audience that goes to a contemporary music concert is not the same one that goes to concert of Renaissance music often.  It could be that people tend to be more specialized in their tastes because of all this wealth of music that there is to choose from.

BD:    We’ve been talking about concert music.  Should the concert music managements try to lure the popular music audiences to concert music?

JEI:    I don’t think of it as a ‘should’, exactly.  I don’t feel anybody has to like music, nor do they have to like any particular kind of music.  I think of it more as something that is out there, and some people will come to love it very much, and enjoy it very much, and perhaps some of those who don’t know anything about concert music are missing a lot.  Maybe they want to sample a little, and see how they like it.

BD:    Should they sample the music of Bach and Haydn, or should they sample the music of the Jean Eichelberger Ivey and your contemporaries?

JEI:    I would hope they’d sample a little more of everything they can find, and on a radio station, such as yours I might say, they have a wonderful chance to do that.  They can listen to a lot of music.  Buying records, of course, is another way.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music?

JEI:    Yes, I guess I am.  I’m not quite sure what that future is, but music is my life, and I’m embedded in it.  When you ask if I am optimistic about it, I don’t really know what that means.  It’s sort of like a marriage.  I’m married to music, for better or worse, but on the whole, I think it’s for the better.

BD:    Is it the only marriage you’re involved in?

JEI:    Yes, though I am divorced.

BD:    Is that better for the music that you don’t have husband and family to worry about?

JEI:    Oh, I don’t know.  It’s hard to say.  It has its pros and cons, I guess.  A person who lives a single life can perhaps concentrate on a particular vocation or profession more than if they also had family responsibilities.   But there are lots of people very dedicated to their professions who are married, or who are in relationships and have families.


BD:    Do you feel that your day-to-day joys and sorrows are reflected in your compositions?

JEI:    I suppose so.  I don’t really think much about that.  It’s more intuitive than that.  If I sit down to write an instrumental piece, for instance, I’m not usually thinking about how to express the way I’m feeling right now.  I’m thinking more about writing a piece that sounds the way I want it to sound, but I realize
especially in retrospect, maybe on hearing it performedthat it does express certain quite strong personal feelings, but I’m not so sure that’s necessarily the main prevailing mood at the time.  I suppose it’s more like the point of view of an actor.  An actor who gives a performance in the role of a very angry person, for instance, does not necessarily need to be very angry himself right then in his life.  But certainly he would have had to have experienced anger and know what that feels like, and know how you express it, or some of the ways one expresses it.  So I suppose that what one is expressing in music as a composer is more the food of one’s life experience than something that you’re involved in right that minute.  If I’m setting a text, I’m trying to express feelings that seem appropriate to the text, but those might not be the prevailing feelings in my own emotional life right then.  Does this make sense to you?

BD:    Yes, it does.  It’s revealing a lot about how you go about setting the music that you do.  In the Grove, it talks about your compositional styles, and says it’s
an integration of influences rather than innovation.  Do you feel this reflects accurately the way you work?

JEI:    Yes, I do.  I have always been interested in keeping up with what’s going on in contemporary music.  I have dabbled in a lot of innovative things.  Of course, electronic music would be one sample of that.  At one time, when a lot of my colleagues were either already involved in the twelve-tone system, or getting interested in it, I got interested in that.  I hadn’t done much with it before that.  I had known about it before, of course, but for some reason in the 1960s I got quite interested in it for a while, and wrote a number of pieces in the twelve-tone system.  It might seem strange to a young composer now when I say this, but I experienced that as a great liberation.  It seemed to lead me to think of all kinds of new musical ideas and motifs that I probably would have not have thought of without that system.  As I say, I wrote a number of works in that method, and at a certain point I felt I had absorbed it and done my stint of that, and wanted to go on to something else.  The styles of writing, such as that, influence your later music, even though you’re no long writing strictly in that style.  I’m sure that writing in the twelve-tone style contributed something to my later music that is not in the twelve-tone style.  Incidentally, I feel that same way about electronic music.  Working in that field had a lot of influence on my non-electronic music from there on.  It was liberating, too, I believe.

BD:    It’s very interesting that such divergent styles would have such an influence on one another.

JEI:    When you work with tape, you’re liberated from standard notation, and that causes you to think up new rhythmic relations and durations.  You also tend to think of new pitch relations and new timbres because one can do a lot of things that aren’t really accessible from human performers.  Lukas Foss has mentioned this.  He also has worked with electronic music, although again he is not primarily known as just and electronic composer.  But he more or less said the same thing, that composers had no sooner started to do these innovative things with tape than they wanted to do similar things then with live performers, and moreover, live performers were anxious to prove that they, too, could do these same things, these complicated rhythms that were very free-sounding, or these unusual timbres, and so on.  I’m sure that had a big influence on the use of instruments in uncommon ways to create the kinds of sounds that weren’t traditional with those instruments.  Think about a composer like Penderecki, for instance, and especially some of his early works that first came to fame, like his Threnody for strings, which is purely a piece for string orchestra but is obviously very much influenced by procedures that started in electronic music.  There are gliding pitches; there are pitches that start as very narrow bands and spread out to wide bands.  One isn’t aware very much of clear definite pitch.  You don’t say that’s ‘A’; you hear bands of pitches widening and narrowing.  I don’t think a composer would ever think of that if he hadn’t either worked in electronic music, or heard electronic music where that kind of thing was done.  But once you’ve done that, then you begin to think,
Gee, that’s kind of an intriguing effect.  I wonder if I could do that with ordinary instruments!

BD:    So then you try, and it expands your horizons.

JEI:    That’s what I mean by finding it liberating.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I want to be sure and ask you about your opera, The Birthmark.  This runs about an hour and fifteen minutes?

JEI:    Yes, but it has not yet been performed.  I am working on some prospects.

BD:    What kind of piece is it, and what kind of piece should accompany it on the bill?

JEI:    It’s a tragic story based on a tale by Hawthorne.  It’s a serious story which ends tragically, and it may have some performance problems.  There are only three characters
a man and his wife, and the man’s apprentice or servant.  It takes place back in the end of the seventeenth or beginning of the eighteenth century.  He’s a scientist who reminds you of an old-time alchemist.  He’s doing all these things that verge on magic, and he has a beautiful wife, whom he loves.  She has a birthmark on her cheek, and he conceives an idea that he’s going to find a way to remove that birthmark.  This idea becomes practically an obsession as it goes on.  I won’t tell you anymore.  If you’re dying to know the rest, you can go read Hawthorne’s tale!  I kept those three characters, and expanded the apprentice’s role somewhat, mainly because I didn’t want it just to be one long duet between two peoplewhich is essentially Hawthorne’s story.  There’s very little action.  The apprentice is an extremely minor role in Hawthorne, but I wanted to give a little more opportunity for lyric vocal treatment, so I expanded that role somewhat.  However, it’s still pretty much focused on the husband and wife.  My thought was that this would be practical, a work for only three singers.  It could be done with one set, although that depends on how the stage director would want to treat it.  It could also be done a different way, but I suggest in my libretto it could be done with one set.  That would be eminently practical, but I did the accompaniment for full orchestra which, of course, makes it less practical.  But I planned to do a reduced version for a small ensemble, and I thought I might wait to do that until some place actually wishes to do it, and then I would tailor the ensemble to whatever they wanted.

BD:    So you are waiting for a guarantee of a performance?

JEI:    Something like that.  Another thing about it that’s a little less practical was my thought that a work like that would fit into a lot of college opera workshops.  There are a lot of workshops in colleges and universities around the country, but what they are often looking for is not my kind of opera, which focuses a lot on two pretty major roles.  The scientist, the man, is on stage practically all the time, singing and emoting!

BD:    Colleges want something where more people are involved?

JEI:    Usually they’re looking for something that has a lot of small roles where a lot of students can be involved.  Nonetheless, there are also companies around the country that like to do new operas, and I feel sure of it, and at some point this will get done.

BD:    Was this a result of a commission?

JEI:    No, just something I felt I should do.  I had been attracted to that story as having opera possibilities for years before I wrote it, and then at some point decided to write it!  Hawthorne has been a rather popular writer for composers to draw upon.  There have been a number of operas based on stories of his.


See my Interviews with Robert Erickson, Kenneth Gaburo, Neva Pilgrim, Ursula Oppens, and Bethany Beardslee

BD:    Tell me about your monodrama Testament of Eve.  Is this at all operatic?

JEI:    Yes, it’s quite operatic in style, but it’s for a single voice, and was premiered by the Baltimore Symphony on their regular concert series.  It’s for mezzo-soprano, orchestra and tape.  It is dramatic, like an opera would be, but it’s more like an aria in an opera.

BD:    Is it in the nature of Erwartung?

JEI:    I suppose it is a little like that.  Before I did the opera, I had done Testament of Eve, and a number of other things, mostly vocal chamber music which were in the nature of short dramatic scenes for a solo voice.  That’s what Testament of Eve is, and I guess doing an opera seemed like the logical step.  I love writing for the voice.

BD:    So if someone asked you to write a new opera, would you jump at the chance?

JEI:    Oh, indeed!  In fact I’ve got another opera that I’m contemplating, and will begin to do as soon I finish this piece I’m doing right now.  But for the Testament of Eve I wrote my own text, and that again was a project I thought of for years before I actually completed it.  I tend to do that a lot.  I have projects in my mind over years, and then I ultimately do them.  I sometimes have titles in my mind for years, and then at some point it occurs to me that this piece I’m writing right now is the one that goes with that title.  [Laughs]  But anyway, I wanted to do something about Eve, the first woman, and Testament of Eve has her in the moment of deciding whether or not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.  I feel that Eve has had a very bad press all these years; that we should think of her as heroic.  She chooses knowledge and courage and all those good things, and she chooses them not only for herself but for all of her children of the human race.

BD:    Do you feel she knew the ramifications of her act?

JEI:    In my version she does, or she senses it somewhat.  She’s a lot like Prometheus in the Greek myth.  But whereas Prometheus is usually perceived as heroic, and as having done something heroic for mankind
although ending somewhat disastrously for himselfEve is usually portrayed as weak and bad and silly.  She chooses to give up being a pampered pet in the Garden of Eden in order to explore the possibility of being greater than she has been.  That’s what the choice in the Garden of Eden is all about, I think.

BD:    Is that the choice women have begun to make in the last ten, fifteen, twenty years?

JEI:    I suppose it’s related to that, yes, and in Testament of Eve I have her part of it.  She’s doing a dialogue with Lucifer about this choice.  Lucifer I also portray in a more positive light.  His name after all means ‘bearer of light’, and in thinking about how to treat that character, I decided that couldn’t be just a man standing there  singing in a suit with the orchestra.  It wouldn’t be at all appropriate for Lucifer.  I wanted it to be a disembodied wave rising out of the wind, so that’s a voice on tape, an electronic presentation of Lucifer, so to speak.  With that sound we have the live singer, the mezzo-soprano.  The one for whom I wrote it was Elaine Bonazzi.

BD:    She’s done a number of your works?

JEI:    Yes, and she’s very active in opera.  I suppose to some extent, knowing that I was writing it for her, and knowing that she’d already sung several of my things, and I liked her voice and her whole style a lot, I kind of tailored it to her.  She can be a very dramatic singer.  She really puts a song over with great impact, so I wrote this in quite a dramatic way.  I wrote it to feature things that she told me she likes to do in singing.  She told me some of the parts of her range that she thought were her best notes, so I featured them and things she liked to do in the way of vocal treatment.  I wrote it to go with all that.  I like to do that.  I like to write for specific performers, and kind of tailor it to them.

BD:    Have you basically been pleased with the performances that you’ve heard of your music?

JEI:    Yes, on the whole I have.  I’ve really been quite fortunate in that respect of having quite good performers do my music. 

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BD:    Is composing fun?

JEI:    Oh, wonderful fun!  Well, let’s say there are aspects of it that are wonderful or we wouldn’t do it.   Certainly nobody who doesn’t enjoy it should be a composer!  But on the other hand, there’s a lot of sheer hard work and drudgery about it, too.  I suppose it’s the same as any creative pursuit.  To me, some of the most pleasurable parts are the initial stages where you’re just beginning to get the ideas slowly taking shape, and then you’re just in love with them.  You think,
“Oh, boy, what a great idea. This is going to be such wonderful work!  I can hardly wait to get going on it!  Then after that there’s often a lot of sheer drudgery.  Let’s face it, you have a lot of plain hard work in writing music.  Just putting all those notes down on paper is a big job.

BD:    The mechanics of it?

ivey JEI:    Just the mechanics of it, yes.  It’s time consuming.  In an orchestra piece, the pages of little black notes can go by in a few seconds or a few minutes.  It’s kind of awe-inspiring.

BD:    But it’s worth it, isn’t it?

JEI:    I just carry on through that by the thought of how it’s going to sound.  I’m hearing it in my mind, and that’s stimulating and wonderful in its way.  Then another great time for me comes when it’s practically finished.  Maybe a little editing remains to be done, but it is pretty much done to the end.  I’ve drawn that double bar, looked over it, and I really like it.  At that point you’re just in love with it.  You are not aware of any defects.  You think,
Oh, boy, this is a great piece.  That feeling may not last, but when it happens it’s a very satisfying feeling.  So for me, at the beginning and also around the end it is a very pleasurable time.  Composers don’t spend a lot of time thinking about music they’ve written in the past.

BD:    You just go onto the next piece?

JEI:    You go onto the next one, and you’re absorbed then in that.  But if there were a performance of that work coming up, and especially if I were able to be involved in rehearsals and so on, then it would start all over again.  I get caught up in that, and I remember what it felt like when I was writing it.  I enjoy participating in the performances of my works.  The Harrisburg Symphony is doing my piece Sea Change for orchestra and tape in April.  Quite a few orchestras have done that piece now, and they’ve invited me to come there as a guest composer for two rehearsals and the two performances, and to talk about the piece before the concert.  I enjoy all of that very much, and I’m sure that I will get caught up in the piece again, although I finished it in 1979.  I’ll get caught up in it again in a way that will feel a lot like when I had just finished the piece.

BD:    I hope it’s a success, and I hope it turns out the way you expect it to turn out.

JEI:    Thank you.  The first performance of a piece is always the biggest one, and maybe the most nerve-wracking when you’re wondering if it’s going to turn out sounding the way you hope that it would.

BD:    Do you ever have any surprises?

JEI:    Well, not anything major, particularly now that I’ve had a lot of experience.  Students often feel that maybe they miscalculated something.  One sometimes miscalculates the length of a passage.  You might say that stretch in there goes on a little too long, or perhaps it doesn’t go on quite long enough to make its point.

BD:    With this piece from 1979, if you get into it again, might you want to tinker with it a little?

JEI:    No, no, not at this stage.  I don’t tinker with pieces that are in my past to any great extent.  I regard that as finished, just as I would imagine a painter who finished a work a long time back and it’s hanging on the wall might go back and look at it.  I don’t think I’d feel motivated to add a few brush strokes here and there.  There comes a time when you have to say about a work that it’s finished now.  I’m going onto other things.

BD:    How do you know when a work is finished?

JEI:    [Laughs]  That reminds me of a funny thing, which has been attributed to a number of poets and artists.  They say a work is never finished, only abandoned.  Artists are notorious for not finishing a work until they have some kind of deadline
either a publisher breathing down their neck, or, in the case of music or dance, there’s a performance coming up imminently, and they have to finish it ready or not.  There is something very open-ended about the process of creating a work of art.  There isn’t any clear-cut time when you can say you couldn’t possibly do anything more to this.  You can always change this little thing here, and maybe do a little more of that, but somehow you get to a point where you feel that you’ve done about as much with it as you can or want to.  It’s pretty complete, and it’s time just to call that finished and move on to another thing.

BD:    Do you work on just one piece at a time, or have you got a couple of things going at once?

JEI:    I more commonly work on one thing, although while doing that one thing I might be thinking about my next project in the back of my mind.  But I don’t very much work on a couple of things actively at the same time.  I might have occasionally done that, but it’s not my normal habit.  Some composers do.  Bartók seems to have worked simultaneously on a couple of works at a time.

BD:    Do you feel that you are part of a line of composers? 

JEI:    Yes, I guess I am part of the line of composers of art music.  In mentioning Bartók, I feel that I’m in that same line.  I was very fond of Bartók.  I still am, and consider that my music has been influenced by him.  Especially when I was younger I felt that Bartók and Ravel were my biggest influences for a while.

BD:    This has been fascinating speaking with you for an hour, and talking and learning about your opinions and the creative process.  It has been a great pleasure for me.

JEI:    Well, thank you.  I’ve enjoyed it very much too. 
I hope that some time when I’m in Chicago we’ll have a chance to meet in person.

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© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone on February 28, 1987.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in 1993 and 1998.  A copy of the unedited audio was placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University.  This transcription was made in 2017, 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, 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.