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 . . . . . . . . .
How do you wish to be called — Jean
Ivey, or Jean Eichelberger Ivey, or what?
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
really? You know that’s
entirely based on pinball machine sounds.
BD: No electronic
generated material at all?
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!
BD: Getting back
to our main subject, you are a teacher of
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
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.
constitutes a good, competent work?
[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
BD: What advice do
you give to people who turn in
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.
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
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?
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...
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
JEI: I don’t like
to have my electronic music too
greatly emphasized. This is because the words ‘electronic
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.
[Laughs] No, not primarily.
You’re also a pianist?
BD: Are you the
ideal interpreter of your works?
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
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
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
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
Music Forum of Washington DC, and both these pieces are performed by
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!
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
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
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
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
instruments — often
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
person who lives a single life can perhaps concentrate on a particular
vocation or profession more than if they also had family
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 performed — that 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
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
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
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
of new pitch relations and new timbres because one can do a lot of
that aren’t really accessible from human performers. Lukas Foss has
mentioned this. He also has worked with electronic music,
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
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
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
people — which is essentially Hawthorne’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
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?
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?
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.
BD: Tell me about
your monodrama Testament of Eve.
Is this at all
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
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?
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
in my mind for years, and then at some point it occurs to me that this
writing right now is the one that goes with that title.
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.
whereas Prometheus is usually perceived as heroic, and as having done
something heroic for mankind — although ending
for himself — Eve 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
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,
mezzo-soprano. The one for whom I wrote it was Elaine
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
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
BD: Is composing
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
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
BD: The mechanics
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
say about a work that it’s finished now. I’m going onto other
BD: How do you
know when a work is finished?
[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
couple of works at a time.
BD: Do you feel
that you are part of a line of
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,
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
when I’m in Chicago we’ll have a chance to meet in person.
-- -- --
© 1987 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded on the telephone on February 28,
1987. Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following
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
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.