Composer / Administrator  John  Duffy

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


John Duffy (June 23, 1929 - December 22, 2015), considered "one of the great heroes of American music," has composed more than 300 works for symphony orchestra, opera, theater, television and film. He has received many awards for his contributions to music: two Emmys, an ASCAP award for special recognition in film and television music, a New York State Governor's Art Award, and the (New York City) Mayor's Award of Honor for Arts and Culture. He is also the recipient of the American Music Center's Founders' Award for Lifetime Achievement. As founder and president of Meet the Composer, an organization dedicated to the creation, performance, and recording of music by American composers, he initiated countless landmark programs to advance American music and to aid American composers.

Duffy grew up in the Bronx, one of fourteen children of Irish immigrant parents. As a young man, he studied composition with noted composers Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell, Luigi Dallapiccola, Solomon Rosowsky and Herbert Zipper concurrently with his career and early successes in the theater. He credits Rosowsky for insisting uncompromisingly on learning the craft of music and developing the discipline and patience necessary to the art.

His profound regard for language, its beauties and its powers, suited him ideally for his work in theater, television and film. He acquired a reputation early on as a first-class interpreter of ideas and emotion, a brilliant orchestrator, and a sensitive colleague.

Duffy's appointment, in his twenties, to the post of music director, composer and conductor of Shakespeare under the Stars, was the first in a succession of similar posts at the Guthrie Theater, the Long Wharf Theatre, and the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, and for NBC and ABC television in New York City. The culmination was his landmark music for the production of Macbeth at John Houseman's American Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Connecticut.

He composed some of his notable theater scores for Broadway and Off-Broadway productions of The Ginger Man, Macbird, Mother Courage, Playboy of the Western World, and many Shakespeare plays, including his memorable collaboration with John Houseman.

Duffy also has composed distinguished concert music for a variety of commissions, among them: A Time for Remembrance (cantata for soprano, speaker and orchestra), commissioned by the U.S. Government to mark the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor; Symphony No. 1: Utah, commissioned by the Sierra Club to draw attention to preserving and protecting public lands in southern Utah; Freedom Overture, commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall; Concerto for Stan Getz and Concert Band; and the Emmy Award-winning score for the nine-hour PBS documentary, narrated by Abba Eban, "Heritage: Civilization and the Jews."

The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Chicago Tribune call his music, "haunting, memorable, and brilliant." Recordings of his music appear on the CBS, Albany, L.A. TheatreWorks, and Koss labels. His most recent opera, Black Water, with a libretto by Joyce carol Oates, premiered in Philadelphia in 2001, followed by performances in Los Angeles, Lincoln Center and Cooper Union Hall in New York City, as well as performances in Maine. Mark Swed, chief music critic for the Los Angeles Times, said, "…at some point the listener no longer feels like a bemused bystander, watching yet another episode of a Washington soap opera, and becomes caught up in a real opera of universal tragedy. The ending is devastating – an excellent tonic for the nightly news."

Having just completed the editing of the text you are about to read, I must confess how strange it is to see
‘Duffy’ repeatedly on the left side of the screen.  I know in my mind that this is the usual spelling of the name, and that there are many more people in the world with that version than those who spell it as I do, namely ‘Duffie.  As a side note, I remember distinctly when, after we had finished our conversation, each of us momentarily struggled when writing down the other’s contact information.  I should also say that during my years of doing interviews with many composers, several of them (who had only heard my name and not seen it) either thought I was John Duffy of Meet the Composer, or related to him.

He was in the Chicago area in January of 1988, and I was able to arrange this meeting.  Duffy was genial, and most willing to speak openly and freely about the topics I brought up, and this shows in the transcript below.  As usual, names which are links on this webpage refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.

At the time we met, one of Duffy
s major achievements had recently been released on CD, so we began with that . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You’ve done the music for Heritage: Civilization and the Jews.  Is this in any way a political statement, or is it more of a human statement?

John Duffy:   The music, or the series itself?

BD:   Let’s do one and then the other.   First, let’s talk about the series, and then the music.

duffy Duffy:   I would say basically it was historical.  It’s political in the sense of the view of humanism, of great people, small in number, who survived and who enriched humankind, and whose contributions to humankind are part of our shared heritage.  In that sense it has a humanist point of view.  It is political in the sense that there are clearly opposing points of view about the state of Israel
clearly a conflict with the Arabsand there are various countries that take sides.  It wasn’t focused in that sense.  The idea was to show the rise and struggle of the people, and to show the effect of civilization on the people, and the effect those people had on those cultures in which they lived.  In the case of the Jewish people, when they were dispersedthe diasporathey went to all parts of the world.  One of the most astounding things in the series is something which, whenever I saw it, just moved me very much.  This was the opening shots where you see a skyline of New York, and then suddenly the camera changes and you see Rome and Florence.  In Florence the camera picks up Michelangelo’s David, and then it goes to Hasidic Jews dancing and singing.  Then you hear a number of cantors and rabbis reading from the Old Testament, but in different languagesEnglish, Spanish, Chinese, Russian, Vietnamese, French, Portugueseand it doesn’t take you very long to realize that this great prophetic tradition, this great inspirational workthe Old Testamentis something that we hold very dear, and which has influenced all our lives and history.  So in that sense, it’s a-political.  It’s more in a historical or philosophical sense.  It’s enlightened humanism.

BD:   Did the music go along with the television film immediately, or did you watch the film and then decide how to put some music underneath it?

Duffy:   I had read the scripts, and I began to do research.  Whenever I work on a series, or a film, or a theater piece, or a concert work, or an opera, I do a great deal of research.  I’m almost like a painter who’s putting together his or her colors and oils, or a carpenter who brings all the tools out, and measures and shapes and studies the material he’s working with.  So I did a lot of research.  I read the scripts.  I read, of course, the Old Testament.  I read studies on ancient Israel, and pre-Israel, and I also saw a lot of
rushes, which are footage which is shot of a film before it’s cut and edited into a final shape.  Curiously enough, in the case of Heritage: Civilization and the Jews, there was a delay in getting the first show set.  There were all kinds of problems.

BD:   Technical problems?

Duffy:   No, there were political problems because Israel was about to turn over the Sinai back to Egypt, and there were some countries in the Middle East that wouldn’t allow a team to come in and film.  Then there were also technical problems.  The film was sent back to the United States, and somehow on the plane it was damaged.  So, the producers said they had to do something to get the series moving, and they wanted me to go into the studio and do a kind of orchestral library of music.  So, I actually wrote a great deal of music and recorded it, and the producers, directors, and writers all had copies of it.  They would listen to the music, and many segments of the series were actually written to and cut to the music.  That is very rare.

BD:   So it was a joint inspiration
you inspired some parts, and were inspired by some other parts.

Duffy:   Absolutely!  Finally, for the series we had a library of music which I had written, which was fourteen hours.  That’s a vast amount of music.

BD:   Fourteen hours of little chunks and big chunks?

Duffy:   Right.  I would record some music, then take it up to the Columbia Princeton Electronic Music Center where I would alter it.  I might have a filigree just with strings, and I would add a solo violin, or solo flute.  I’ll give you an example.  There’s a great klezmer clarinetist named Giora Feidman.  He was fabulous!  He’s an Israeli, and he did a recording with me.  He played a lot of Eastern melodies
which I composed, by the way.  I didn’t take music already existing.  I also told him that I wanted the sound of the shofar, the ritual instrument used for High Holy Days, and which is a ram’s horn.  I was going to use a shofar, but asked if he could produce something like that on the clarinet.  So he took the mouthpiece off the clarinet, and began to blow into it.  This produced a wonderful, almost primitive bleat.  So, I took that, and I altered it, and I put in some reverb, and I laid it on seven or eight tracks.  Then I put music to itin this case a cello and an English hornand it went right before the reading of the Ten Commandments.  There are these wonderful shots of Mount Sinai, the place that is thought that Moses received the Tablets.  The cameras were filtering in and out the sunlight, and gave it this mystical and mysterious quality.  On the soundtrack, you can hear the sound of the shofar as if it’s reverberating in the mountains, and then you hear the cello theme underneath.  What that is, is that the shofar of Giora Feidman which I altered.

BD:   On the CD recording, you have drawn a suite out of all of this music.  How did you decide what you would include and what you have to unfortunately leave on the cutting room floor?

Duffy:   That was a vast agony and labor.  Part of it had to do with deadlines.  Composers often find that their greatest friend is the deadline.  On September 1st, I knew that I was going to write a suite which had to be finished in two months.  I had to have the parts and the score to Zubin Mehta, and the Israeli Philharmonic.  So, I immediately began writing, taking music and working with Mark Siegel, who is the executive producer of the series, and who was the principle writer.  I developed the first movement, which is called In the Beginning, and then he and I began to talk about where text would come in and go out, and where the music would just be on its own.  To give you an example, I knew that there would be a long overture.   It’s almost eight minutes, which contains the themes for the first part.  By the way, the music is all based on the notes of the shofar.  I knew we had an overture, and then it needed to go into the Heritage Theme, which introduces the narrator.  The text then comes in, and it builds up to the Covenant with Noah, and then builds up to Moses.  The music goes from Noah’s Covenant to the trek of the escape from Egypt, and builds up to the whole concept that the Israelites, when Moses went to the Mountain to speak with the Lord, and they fell down and worshiped idols.  So, the music builds up under narration, and then breaks clear on itself, and you have this frenzied dance called The Dance Before the Golden Calf.  That builds up, and it builds and builds to a crescendo, and you hear the shofar.  Then the text says that what was born in Sinai was the treasure, the promise of hope.  Then you hear another shofar, and all of that builds up to the statement of The Ten Commandments, which has a motive.  So all that had to be worked out with the text.  We also decided that the first part, In the Beginning, would start with the first Hebrew people, and we’d go to the Destruction of the Second Temple by the Roman occupational forces at that time.  The second part of the work is called The Living Legacy, and actually deals with the diaspora,
the dispersion of the Jewish people right up to the Holocaust, and ends with the founding of Israel.  The overture or the prelude to that is a lot of my concept of ethnic music.  It’s African, it’s Middle Eastern, it’s American of the United States, and its mediaeval Europe, so there’s a rich variety, and it ends in a very affirmative style.

BD:   It ends with the forming of this new State, and this new beginning for it?

Duffy:   Right, and that’s a good way to express it
the new beginning.  What is remarkable throughout all of this is the faith, the tradition, and this great heritage that the Jewish people have given the world which also helped to sustain them through some of the most unspeakable torture.  [Pauses a moment]  The series was, and perhaps still is, the largest ever produced by American Public Television.  It was nine-hours, and was budgeted at about $14 or $15 million.  So, that was a vast investment.  It’s been shown three times here in the U.S. nationwide, and close to 60 million people have seen it.  Besides here, it’s already been shown in sixteen countries abroad.

BD:   When you were approached originally to write this score, is it something that you gladly accepted, or was it something that you did a little research on before agreeing to?

Duffy:   I gladly accepted.  For one thing, I had worked on several shows with the executive producer, Mark Siegel.  In fact, seven years prior to his asking me to do the score for this series, Mark and I had worked on several specials.  One special, called A Talent for Life, for which I won an Emmy award, was about the Jewish culture in Renaissance Italy, and it tied very neatly into what we were doing here.  I just loved the material, I loved working with Mark, and I considered it a very deep honor to work on this series.  Lots of people clearly wanted to do it, and I felt privileged to do it.  Also, I’m very selective about films, or plays, or theater works I do.

BD:   How do you decide whether you will accept or reject a commission?

Duffy:   Number one is if I believe in the project.  I must feel some close affinity to the philosophical point of view, and I see if it moves me, and if I feel that it will challenge me, and where the music will play a prominent role.

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BD:   When you’re writing something, either underscoring for a film, or writing a straight concert work, are you in control of the music, or is the music in control of you as it comes out of the pen?

duffy Duffy:   [Laughs]  That’s a wonderful question!  I go about writing music in a very emotional and physical way.  I spend an enormous amount of time working at the piano
not that I write at the piano, but I try things out.  I walk around the street, and I hum them.  I digest that music, but in an emotional way.  I don’t sit down and formulate it in an intellectual way, although I have technique, and I have a great deal of musical resources.  I approach things emotional and physically, so, in a sense I do both of what you askthe project brings the music out of me, and I bring the music to the project.  Perhaps all composers work that way.  Some composers tend to approach the writing of music in a more analytical way first of all.  I’m just paraphrasing what he said, but Einstein is interesting because people believe that he actually intuited the theory of relativity, and it was after he intuited this that he gathered the knowledge and the formula, and analyzed it, and therefore could say, “This is what it is.

BD:   He had the answer, and then he supported it?

Duffy:   That’s right.  But somewhere he said, 
It’s not in the knowledge, but in the analysis that the discovery of the mystery in uncovered.  Sometimes it can be baggage, and it can keep you from delving into the intuitive spirit.  I don’t think that he meant there is a license to let it all hang out and do your own thing, but there’s some point in the human spirit where you have to trust your instincts.  There are people who intuit things, and we see it in many realms of life, so some people approach music in an analytical way, where that may be their first impulse.  My impulse is always emotional.  I feel very close to the theater, and film, and the words.  I’m often inspired by the words.  When I was music director of the American Shakespeare Festival, I did music for a number of productions there.  Very often I would write music in the theater, and allow the sound of the actor’s voice, and my response to Hamlet, or to Much Ado About Nothing provide the inspiration.  So, it’s an emotional approach with me.

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

Duffy:   Yes.  I usually hope that there would be more time for rehearsal, and that the budgets for orchestras would allow for more detailed work on a new piece of music.  But by and large, yes, I am pleased.  I find it wonderful to work with musicians, and an impassioned and sensitive conductor, and soloists.

BD:   Are there ever times when the interpreters will find things in your score that you didn’t know you’d hidden there?

Duffy:   [Thinks a moment]  Not to my knowledge.  [Laughs]  I don’t mean to say that in a pompous way.  One of the wonderful things about writing music is that even though you’re thinking about the audience, and breaking through the fourth wall, so to speak, getting through the proscenium to the people, that you write it in the loneliness of your room.  You write it in solitude generally, unless you’re collaborating.  But ultimately, even there you have to write the music yourself.  So when you come to rehearse an orchestra or a chamber group, there’s always a lot of excitement and discovery.  Sometimes there is a bit of resistance on the part of players because there’s something new and unfamiliar, but generally you find conductors and musicians to be very receptive, and to be colleagues.  So, you discover things.  As far as another interpreter finding something that I didn’t know existed there, it’s very often that you make some of these discoveries yourself.  The other thing with me is that I’ve always conducted pretty much my own music.  I’ve been music director and conductor at Shakespeare Festivals and theaters, and all my film and television scores I conduct myself.  I generally know the musicians I’m working with, so my experience is that I’m discovering it anew each time I’m conducting.  In fact, recently I had an interesting experience.  I did Heritage in Virginia with the Virginia Symphony.  It was at the Hampton Institute, and John Houseman was the narrator.  He did a splendid job, and the orchestra did, too.  But interesting was that I knew this work as a composer, but then as a conductor, where I had to learn how to conduct and transmit this information, and pull out a performance from the players, I had to learn it anew as a conductor.

BD:   Did you approach it differently?

Duffy:   I approached it differently, and, in fact, I discovered things that I didn’t know, so the discoverer in this case was me!  I realized that a plaintive section at the end of the first part, which is after the destruction of the second temple is also used later on.  That same theme appears in the Moorish Dance.  You hear the very same notes, but it’s very animated.  I was quite happy to find that, because there’s an intuitive process that goes on when you write, and when you carry this around in your spirit, and in your body, and in your ear, magical things and wonderful things happen.  So, it was wonderful, as a conductor, to have discovered that in my own work.

BD:   You’ve written operas as well as film scores?

Duffy:   Yes.

BD:   Do you write any differently when it’s for the live stage, as opposed to the large screen, or the small screen?

Duffy:   Not really.  I approach music always the same way
to write welland in my case, I always want to write better, or do better.  So I approach it as music, and I don’t approach it as ‘high art’, or ‘middle art’, or ‘low art’.  It’s all music, and it serves different functions.  The television box does not have the resonance, and cannot sustain certain sounds or masses of sounds.  The theater generally has a limited budget, so you have fewer instruments.  For the symphony orchestra, the demands are different, but my approach is always the sameto write music which touches people, or moves them, or expresses some feeling, some idea, and, in some cases, hopefully music that will make people feel about something, make them happy, or make them heal their spirit.

BD:   Where do you feel is the balance between the artistic achievement and the entertainment value?

Duffy:   I don’t see any difference in my sphere.  In my thinking, I don’t see any pull there, any dichotomy.  For instance, if you take someone like Mozart, who is capable of writing ‘light music’ in The Marriage of Figaro, he will also pen the great Requiem.  I don’t think for a minute that you can doubt that it’s Mozart’s extraordinary musical gift pouring out, but the music serves a different function.  If one sat down and said,
I’m going to write some pop music, you’d have a different set of musical restrictions, or musical needs to deal with.  But in terms of writing for the theater, or writing for television, or writing for film, or symphony orchestra, you’re dealing with different masses of instruments, and a different purpose.  The music functions differently.  In a symphonic work, you can explore music more.  If you’re writing for the theater, or a film, you have to grab people right away.  One of the techniques I useand it’s somewhat consciouslyis what I call cinematic technique.  In Heritage it comes out very grand.  People say it’s ‘Coplandesque’.  Copland did this as well.  It is someone who’s writing a very bold and grand style to grab people’s attention, and I was determined when I wrote the music for Heritage that I wanted an opening that, no matter what you were doing, you would drop everything and go and watch Heritage.  You have to do that immediately in television.  You don’t have a lot of time, because people will turn the dial.  In fact, that’s not only with the music, but also with the filming, the acting, the cutting, because if people lose interest, they go from one channel to another.

BD:   But in a symphony, if you know the audience is there, you have time to wait and build.

Duffy:   You have more time to wait and build.  Your proportions and timing is quite different.  You can develop ideas.  You can stretch things.  It’s the difference between a play and a sketch.  One of them may have the very idea of the sketch, but you’re stretching the characters.  You’re developing it in that way, and that happens in music.

BD:   The other you really have to front-load?

Duffy:   Right, absolutely.

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BD:   As an experienced composer and observer of the music scene, what are some of the things that you feel contribute to greatness in music?

duffy Duffy:   Obviously a true voice, an original voice, and by
original I don’t mean someone who is doing something avant-garde, or radical just to do it that way.  That doesn’t make it original.  One could be writing a very simple melody, or using harmony or rhythm in a very dramatic way, or in a somewhat traditional way and still be original.  You have to have an original voice, and you also have to write music that moves people, that engages them.  It doesn’t matter if it’s symphonic music, or a song.  If you think of our own time, I often think of various songs by Stevie Wonder.  You find them very engaging.  The melodies are catching, the story is something that you can respond to, and the music is built up in such a way that it’s almost like a Schubert song.  It develops, and it expresses ideas very often in an oblique way so that it’s surprising.  It doesn’t hit you over the head.  Coming back to generalities, for music to have stature, or to be great, the composer has to feel an enormous belief in what he or she is doing, and it has to consummate craftsmanship, and be able to express the idea in the most consummate way.  There are composers whose craft was so great that it freed them to express the most sublime feelings.  Bach is one of them.  His craft was so extraordinary.  Mozart was another.  On my way out here to Chicago, I was listening to a recording of The Marriage of Figaro.  By the way, it’s interesting that in Mozart’s time they loved it as much as people love it today.  What’s extraordinary about that opera are the little touches.  Even in the overture, and in the first scene where Figaro is measuring the bed, these little pieces of technique come.  They’re very subtle and, if you’re a musician, you pick them up generally.  A lay person may not pick them up, but they know that something wonderful is happening, and that’s the sense of detail and care.  Someone has said that God is in the detail, and I guess in the case of Mozart and Bach, you couldn’t argue about that.

BD:   Is this what contributes to the greatness
this attention to detail that can hit you even if you’re not aware of exactly why that detail is there?

Duffy:   Yes.  It’s the same in a play of Shakespeare.  Julius Caesar, for instance, is a political intrigue.  An assignation seems to have happened from the beginning of time, but there are certain moments when the language and the detail takes it away from the mundane, and it just assures and expresses something beyond ourselves.  That’s detail.  That’s craft.

BD:   Where’s the balance between the inspiration and the craft?

Duffy:   I think they go hand in hand, but you have to have the craft first.  We tend to suffer from that lack of craft in a lot of contemporary works
especially in music, where the training for composers is not always as sufficient as it might be.  But ultimately, if you don’t have craft, then you can’t express what’s on your mind.  The craft ultimately frees you so you can soar.  When you hear Bach, his craft was such that he could write counterpoint in four parts, and invert it so the top part would go to the bottom, the bottom to the top, etc.  In some cases, there are probably twenty-four permutations of that, but he had such consummate craftsmanship that he could manipulate these things.  It’s like a runner, or a jogger.  If you develop your body sufficiently, there’s a certain point where you begin to almost levitate as you’re running.  Your body and your system are so in tune that these great runners, or these great athletes, just move outside of themselves.  The same thing happens in music, and it takes very careful training not only with your ear but with you hand.  Some of the great composers used to copy the masterpieces, and they learned through techniques by just reproducing them with their own hand.  So, it works hand in hand.  Craft without inspiration, and without ideas, is just mechanical.

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

Duffy:   Essentially to learn their craft, to also perform, to be prepared to play their own works, and to be prepared, if at all possible, to conduct their own works, as well as to try to find some market for their music.  Now when one says ‘market’, people in the arts think that’s kind of a vulgar thing, but there have always been markets for art.  By this I mean to find some uses, some functions for your music so that people are interested, and that it is being used, and you are able to earn a living from it.  Sometimes that takes time to develop, but you need to find the audience for your work, and try to do it through existing institutions and through your own enterprise.  This can be done by performing, by associating and working with other musicians, and doing work for dance companies, for theater companies, and for film.  Many of the most memorable works of the twentieth-century were dance scores – The Rite of Spring, The Firebird, etc.  Think also of Copland’s film scores and his theater scores.  That kind of collaboration also helps a composer to get out to the public, and out of their own world.

BD:   Is there any chance that we’re getting too many people competing for the shrinking number of markets?

Duffy:   I think so.  There are too many composers by far.  Our universities and music schools turn out a vast number of musicians and composers, and there simply isn’t enough work for them.  Many of them, of course, are drawn back to the university, and they teach while having aspirations of being composers.  But in most of those cases, they’re sequestered and lose contact with the public, or with the mainstream.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the whole future of this?

Duffy:   Yes, I am.  I find music as an expressive art to be flourishing
especially in the United Statesfrom pop music, to theater music, to our great jazz, and to the varieties of concert music.  So from where I sit, I have great, great optimism, and now there are more women are able to compose.  There are opportunities for minorities that didn’t exist before.  A composer can write in any style, and can move from one expression to another as long as it is cohesive and moves people.  So, there’s hardly been a time of such great richness.

BD:   Now, Heritage has been recorded.  Is it overwhelmingly important for a composer to get their music recorded?

Duffy:   Absolutely!  Not only to get it recorded, but get on the radio.  The radio is probably the unheralded patron of this century.  The radio has done more for music, and for the American composer of all sorts of music, whatever stripe you pick, than any other medium.  It’s important for composer when they travel, and when they perform, to bring tapes of their music, to go to sympathetic and interested people in radio
announcers, program managers, people like yourselfwho have a wide background, and a love of music.  Composers need to go in and let them know what’s going on, and, through the radio, get out to an audience.  The composers who are most successful in our time have used radio in a very, very clever way.  Wherever  Steve Reich and Philip Glass went they took tapes, and they made sure that they were interviewed.  That’s the way they developed audiences.  Also, when you develop an audience like that, you get to hone your craft because when you write new works you get a response.  If you don’t get a response to your work, then you don’t know how it’s affecting people.  You don’t know if it’s musically together, or cohesive, or if it’s clear.  You need that kind of thing, and the radio is something that is magnificent.  Also important is the recording, and once you have the recording you have to make sure that it gets to the radio.

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

Duffy:   I think music has been, and remains, a social art.  It’s a way for people to express feelings, joy, dance, song.  It requires someone to write it, someone to perform it, and some people to respond to it.  Of all the arts, certain music is considered the most social.  It requires an enormous give-and-take between the maker, the giver, and the receiver.  Throughout the ages, music has been the highest form of religious expression, and of social expression.  You hear contemporary works of Shostakovich expressing philosophical or national yearnings.  You hear in jazz the very things you hear in ethnic music.  You hear political ideas in opera.  But music is basically an expressive art, a social art to send out in sounds these voices of composers and musicians.

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duffy BD:   You’re responsible for Meet the Composer.  How do you decide which composers are going to get met?

Duffy:   Happily, with Meet the Composer we have so many programs every year.  We have about 10,000 events nationwide.

BD:   [Genuinely astonished]  Wow!

Duffy:   That encompasses every composer who is supported by a sponsoring organization.  We don’t decide on the composers.  Essentially, the idea of the program is to get to the composer to the people.  Each composer goes out there to talk about his or her work, and personally participate.  This can be with a symphony orchestra, a church, a synagogue, a dance company, a theater, a jazz group, etc.  The idea is to get the composer there to deliver his or her music, to introduce it, to perform it, whatever they can do.  We don’t select the composers.  The sponsors say they want so-and-so to come to introduce the work, to do a lecture, to do a demonstration.  Those are our ongoing programs.  In addition, we have a very, very prominent program which has literally changed the whole of contemporary orchestral music scene, because we have a program called Meet the Composer – Orchestra Residency.  We placed composers in two- to three-year residencies with major orchestras.  The composers go in, advise the music director, review scores, act as ambassadors, and, in some cases, evangelists right within the family of the orchestra.  In fact, they are in residence the same way Bach was in residence at St. Thomas’s, and Haydn was in residence with Esterhazy Orchestra.  The composers also do outreach in the community.  They do radio and television interviews, give lectures to local schools and clubs, and they write a major work which the orchestra premieres and records for a series we have with Nonesuch [and later re-issued on a few other labels].

Among the composers represented in this series (some multiple times) are John Adams, John Harbison, Joan Tower, David Del Tredici, Bernard Rands, Donald Erb, Daniel Asia, Robert Beaser, Joseph Schwantner, Libby Larsen, Stephen Paulus, Charles Wuorinen, William Kraft, Christopher Rouse, Alvin Singleton, Tobias Picker, Dan Welcher, John Corigliano; conductors Edo de Waart, André Previn, Leonard Slatkin, Zubin Mehta, Riccardo Muti, Gerard Schwarz, James Sedares, Dennis Russell Davies, Sir Neville Marriner, Herbert Blomstedt, Paul Polivnik, Christopher Wilkins, David Zinman, Robert Shaw, Louis Lane, Sergiu Comissiona, Donald Johanos, Daniel Barenboim; and performers Susan Larson, Lynn Harrell, Lucy Shelton, Ursula Oppens, Garrick Ohlsson, Leona Mitchell.

BD:   Is there any chance by being a buffer between other composers and the music director, that they are short-circuiting the process at all?

duffy Duffy:   That has come up, and it’s a very astute question.  It’s generally come up from composers who have not been asked yet.  However, the music director is more about carrying out their responsibility.  In earlier days, their responsibility was to know, like Koussevitzky knew, who the heck was writing music that had something to say, and perform it.  They had to not only know, but tell the audience when the audience felt nervous that it’s okay.  This is someone who has something to say, and I’m going to play it for you once, and you’ll listen, and then I’m going to play it again, because I think you’ll like it even better the second time.  [Both laugh]  But in this age, where music directors are not at home very much, where they’re traveling a great deal, and there’s this enormous amount of competition for these posts, music directors simply don’t do that.  I’m not saying this in a judgmental way, but take the reality that you have here in Chicago, for instance.  You have a great master [Sir Georg Solti] who spends just six or eight weeks here.  He doesn’t learn many new works because he learns music thoroughly.  So, he may learn a couple of new works a year.  What could be better for him but to have a composer who knows what’s going on, a composer with whom he feels a rapport, some simpatico, a composer he trusts and whose work he admires.  That’s the number one thing.  He must admire that composer’s work and believe in that composer so much that he wants to nurture and perform his or her work, in the same way that Reiner did for Bartók, and Stokowski did for any number of composers, and like Koussevitzky also did.

BD:   [Playing Devil
s Advocate for a moment]  When Koussevitzky was in Boston for twenty-five years, there were maybe a half a dozen major American composers.  Now there are half a thousand major American composers.  So, does that shift the balance and the onus upon the music director, and the composer-in-residence, and everyone else?

Duffy:   It does, in that there are so many people, and there’s so much activity, that it would be hard for a music director to know all that’s going on... although there are some of them who do know a fair amount.  David Zinman in Baltimore,  Leonard Slatkin in St. Louis...

BD:   I was going to say, of all the American conductors, or conductors of American orchestras these days, I would say Slatkin probably is doing the most for the American composer.

Duffy:   I’d say Slatkin, and also Previn is doing more and more in Los Angeles.  Zinman also does a great deal in Baltimore, but these are people who grew up with the American composers, like kids here grew up playing Sandlot Ball.  It’s something they do.  They go to school with these men and women, they know what they’re doing, and they’re interested in what they’re doing.  It’s a natural thing for them to do.  But many of our orchestras have music directors who were not born here, and who don’t spend a great deal of time here.  That’s a larger question is whether or not the major music institution in a city should be shepherded by someone who cannot spend his or her time there.  It’s a curious issue.  For instance, could you imagine if Lee Iacocca just spent five, six, eight, nine weeks in Detroit?  The stockholders wouldn’t stand up for that.  But I know the stakes are quite different, and I don’t want to be rhetorical about that.

BD:   Just taking the other side for a moment, can we not assume that when Solti is in Europe, that he will bring whatever experience and learning he gets there, back to Chicago for his few weeks?

Duffy:   Yes, you could assume that.  Maybe one hopes for bygone days, which don’t exist, for the days of Koussevitzky when he was with the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

BD:   It’s a hard balancing act, isn’t it?

Duffy:   It is, and when I speak of these things, I hope the tone is not detrimental.

BD:   No, no, of course not.

Duffy:   But those are very astute questions, and they’re problematic because morally and ethically, can one sustain an orchestra in the best sense by not being there?  Obviously, the answer in Chicago is yes, because you have the greatest orchestra in the world.  But in other cities, that’s not the case.  Now it may be that here in Chicago you have such a great tradition that’s been built up, and you have this core of players who know that tradition, and that tradition is being carried out by the music director and the guest conductors.  I don’t know all of the details, so these are just observations.

BD:   After Solti there are three other conductors that come regularly every year for several weeks.  They’re not really assistant directors, but there is a continuity.  Every year we will get Claudio Abbado, Erich Leinsdorf, and Leonard Slatkin for several weeks.

Duffy:   So, actually you do have Slatkin who brings contemporary American music, and you are answering these issues through the selection of the visiting conductors.  And, of course, now, you have a Meet the Composer/Composer-in-Residence, John Corigliano, who is a splendid composer/ambassador.

duffy BD:   And a nice man too!

Duffy:   He’s fabulous, yes.  He’s a very dear person.  We have composers-in-residence now with twelve orchestras, and we expect to have composers-in-residence with twenty orchestras by 1992.

BD:   When you’re trying to get a composer-in-residence for an orchestra, whose arm are you twisting
is it the music director, is it the board of directors, is it the symphony guild?

Duffy:   Actually what has happened here is that our arms have been twisted.  This program is so successful that the orchestras are coming to us, and they want to be part of the program.  We have a whole line-up of orchestras.

BD:   Can I assume that someone who is composer-in-residence with one orchestra should not go directly to another place immediately after his term has finished?

Duffy:   That’s generally the case, but this is a curious thing that we’re weighing right now.  By the way, I wanted to point out that the music directors select the composers-in-residence.  Solti selected Corigliano, Zubin Mehta selected Jacob Druckman, etc.  Some of the orchestras, by the way, are starting on their third composer.  St. Louis, for instance, had Joseph Schwantner for three years, and Joan Tower for three years, and Donald Erb is coming for three years starting in 1988.  But one would hope that there are enough composers to go around, so that you wouldn’t have to repeat people.  But very often the music directors want a composer who has already been someplace for three years.  For instance, John Harbison gets asked all the time, as does John Adams.  Stephen Paulus, who has been Minnesota has now been asked to go to Atlanta.  There are several of the composers who have been in residence with different orchestras, and are now being considered by the New York Philharmonic.  When they say they would like someone who’s been already in the program, we ask if they know of a younger composer who is very gifted, and a person they believe in, and they want to nurture, and who could do all of these things?  But then they say the person we really want is Joseph Schwantner!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Is this the same mentality that will program Beethoven symphonies every year, and Mozart symphonies every year?  They want someone who’s almost tried and true, and someone a little more safe than an unknown quantity?

Duffy:   That’s probably part of it, yes, but also it’s problematic because in this country there are so few opportunities for young composers to write for orchestra.  So, the young composers tend to write chamber music or electronic works, thus they don’t have the experience in writing for orchestras.  There are all of these gifted young composers, and the music director will them to send over some of their orchestral scores, and they haven’t written any.  You can’t really send someone like that, so it’s a dilemma.  But that’s changing now through this program.

BD:   It’s like a Catch-22.  [
A ‘catch-22’ is a paradoxical situation from which an individual cannot escape because of contradictory rules or limitations.  The term was coined by Joseph Heller, who used it in his 1961 novel Catch-22.  As an example, which is apropos to this interview, regarding the need for experience to get a job... How can I get any experience until I get a job that gives me experience?]

Duffy:   Yes, and that’s changing, but you’re right.  It may be that the music directors want someone they have faith in.  You asked me before how I came to write Heritage.  There are a lot of composers who wanted to write the score for it, and there are a lot of people who are gifted and who could have done splendidly, I’m sure.  But the executive director and chief writer loved to work with me.  He believed in my music.  We had a great rapport, and he said he wanted Duffy to write this score.

BD:   So you were in.

Duffy:   [Laughs]  So I was in, yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Is composing fun?

Duffy:   Composing, to me, is the most wonderful thing that I can imagine.  It’s rewarding, it’s a form of affirmation and discovery, and, yes, it’s fun.  I can’t think of life without it.  When I’m composing, I feel sane and fresh, and even though it’s difficult, and it’s problematic, and especially if you happen to have an obsessive spirit the way I have, there are times that you just won’t let something go.  You’re like a bulldog grabbing hold of it.  You won’t let it go, but you carry it around when you walk, and you try to digest your ideas.  You can’t sleep, but it’s a process of shaping something, and there’s nothing more glorious than that.  This happens in other walks of life.  I’ve seen carpenters and furniture makers
and people in radio!who approach that condition.  In all the realms of life, it’s possible to find that kind of satisfaction.

BD:   [In complete agreement]  Yes, I’m fortunate that way.

Duffy:   Yes!  It’s wonderful.

BD:   I have a passion for new music, with that of American composers particularly.  It’s become my mission in the last few years to do what I can to promote it, and it doesn’t matter if I like a piece or not.  I give it a chance, and very often my opinion is irrelevant.

duffy Duffy:   Right.

BD:   I have a passion for Mozart, and for Wagner, and for Verdi, and for many others, but they don’t need my help.

Duffy:   Right, they don’t.  People know they’re there, and I say thank God for you, and your counterparts in other cities and towns, because we, as a nation, owe it to our composers to listen.  It maybe that what certain composers write we reject, and doesn’t move us, but we can’t close the door on our very people.  How can we hope to have a culture which is healthy, and which expresses the yearnings, or the joys, or the sensibilities, or the impulses of our time if we can’t do it through our composers?

BD:   You are so much involved with many, many different composers.  Is there a general, even unspoken trend among them to come back to tonality?

Duffy:   It’s tonality in tandem with reaching out to audiences.  I was at a concert the other night in Baltimore.  Our resident composer there is Christopher Rouse.  Chris is a splendid composer, a man of a very original mind, and a very commanding intellect.  He’s a young guy with a sharp sense of humor.  He’s about thirty-eight, so he’s very much in tune with our time.  He spoke about his work before David Zinman conducted it, and he talked about this.  Chris has a rather grim view of humankind, and what people face, and given the history of the world, he doesn’t often see a lot of hope.  But he’s beginning more and more to feel some sense of redemption, some grace, if you would.  So, he spoke of this work, which is called Symphony No 1, of being a combination of the torments that people go through in their spirit, but also some divine grace which heals the heart, and that came through his music.  It was very interesting, because in trying to get those ideas through to this audience of 2,600 people who were sitting there, he found a way to express verbally what he was trying to do in music.  He also found a musical way to get that across to people.

BD:   Did the audience respond to this?

Duffy:   Yes, they found it very gripping.  They also found it, in some cases, very disturbing.  He said that some of it may disturb, but it’s better to feel than not to feel.

BD:   You mentioned that you had written some operas, and I want to be sure and ask you about those.

Duffy:   I wrote one of my first operas in seventy-two hours.  It’s a short opera...

BD:   A challenge to Rossini?

Duffy:   Right!  I was just thinking of that.  You know, Rossini wrote twenty operas in ten years, and some of them he wrote in thirty days.

BD:   [Laughs]  He just tossed them off.

Duffy:   Yes, he was extraordinary, as were Mozart and Bach.

BD:   And Donizetti?

Duffy:   Yes.  It was because of the deadlines.  The reason why they wrote all these works, with their deadlines, was because in Italy at the time there were several hundred opera houses, and they all wanted new operas.

BD:   The composers had the demand.

Duffy:   Yes, it’s the demand.  Verdi wrote for demand.  Look at the American music theater, Broadway in the
30s and 40s, up into the 50s.  A show would come in and run for a couple of weeks, and they would get a new one.  So what we do at Meet the Composer, is try to help create that demand and that market.  But getting back to my operas, my first opera is called The Eve of Adam, and I wrote it a long, long time ago... in 1953, or ’54.  I wrote it for High School students in the Stockbridge School, right down the road from Tanglewood.  It’s set in outer space, and concerns a young girl from a planet.  On that planet they’re all emotional, and they can’t articulate their feelings.  They’re so emotional that they can’t express themselves, and she meets a droid from another planet, where there is no emotion, so they talk with a slide rule.  Those two get together and they help to create harmony, and then go off and populate the Earth.  It’s a delightful opera, and it was written for students, some of whom played very well.  The violinist was quite good.  The clarinetist was very goodClaudio Arrau’s daughter, Carmenand she played very nicely.  But the cellist, a young man from China, could only play on the open strings.  So, I wrote a cello part with open strings!  Then I wrote an opera called Everyman, an absurd piece for ABC TV.  It’s the everyman story, but in a contemporary setting, dealing with contemporary dilemmas.  Then I wrote a music-drama for the black colleges on the 100th anniversary of the black colleges in the south, and that was called Freeman Freeman.  It was done in Cleveland at the settlement school there.  I’ve written a number of musicals too, and those have been done in New York.

BD:   When you are given an idea, do they say they want a musical or an opera, or do you decide whether it will be sung throughout or have some spoken dialogue?

Duffy:   If it’s more in the popular form, then it would be a cross between opera and musical, something like what Sondheim or Lloyd-Webber are doing.  But the opera would be sung throughout.  I’ve done a great many scores for Shakespeare
pretty much all of his playsand for contemporary dramas, and film and television as well.  I consider all of that to be theater work.

     At this point we took care of a few technical details, and I also asked him for his birthdate.

duffy Duffy:   I was born June 23rd, 1929.  

BD:   I have an embarrassment-of-riches of material to put on at the station, and occasionally a composer will say not to do it around the birthday because they feel we’re ghettoizing it.  But for me, using birthdays just becomes an easy way of sorting through all the material.  It
’s color-blind and gender-blind.  Everyone has one of the 365, and it’s interesting to see who is placed next to whom in this random-order sequence.

Duffy:   I think it’s a nice way to do it.  I’m quite amazed that there are a lot of birthdays coming when people are 60, or 70, or 80.  They celebrate Ronald Reagan’s birthday, and then they celebrate Elliott Carter’s birthday, so only presidents and composers seem to get celebrated in that fashion.  [Both laugh]  And Joan Rivers...  I read some place it was her so-and-so birthday.

BD:   Should we try to get the audience that goes to see Joan Rivers, into the concert hall to see Joseph Schwantner, or John Duffy?

Duffy:   Frankly speaking, they probably are more likely to come to see John Duffy, or to hear my work than Joe Schwantner.  I don’t say this is a judgmental way, but it is because I tend to reach out to a broader audience.  That’s an intricate question.  In answer to your question, we should re-institute basic music training in our public schools.  Youngsters should learn solfège, ear-training, and how to perform very simply, and to sing this great literature which is their heritage in the same way that they learn language and the heritage of the literature.  Throughout Asia
Korea, Japan, and Chinathey learn this.  They also learn it in Hungary and Czechoslovakia and some in Italy and in England.  Here in the United States, an advanced, affluent country with this very rich system of public schools, we have failed our young people, and we failed our culture, and our music society because we have musically illiterate people out there.  When you have more literate people in music, then the new would be more challenging to them, rather than for them to turn their back without evening knowing it.  But we’d just be a better country, musically.  I’m not saying we should have all people be professional musicians, but some of them could sing Handel, Bach, Schwantner, etc.  After all, a child from infancy sings before they speak.  I understand that in Hungary and Czechoslovakia, youngsters in third, fourth, fifth, sixth grade can sight-read music.  If youngsters can learn the intricate programming of the computeras they do nowthen they could learn twelve pitches in very simple rhythms.  It would be wonderful for composers, too, because you would have some youngsters write music.  It would be a very healthy and re-invigorating thing for our culture in general.

BD:   As a child, I remember my mother telling me that in the Mid-West we have much more of a performing tradition than on either of the coasts where it’s more about going to hear the professionals.  So you’ll have orchestras like this one playing your music.  We have the singalong ‘do it yourself Messiah’ because there are so many people who simply want to do it.  They’d rather come and do it, and be part of it than always go and see the professionals do it.

Duffy:   That certainly is wonderful
, and you’re right.  On the east coast, and certainly in my home town, which is Manhattan, New York City, there is an emphasis on someone else doing the performing.  I’m quite taken and moved by the people in this orchestra, The New Philharmonic Orchestra here.  They’re folks who work in the day time.  Some are teachers, housewives, engineers, what have you, and for them to come and play, and to be dedicated, and to want to do their best at this continues that great tradition of this music, because this music is not just for one group of people, it’s for everyone, and it’s very moving.

The New Philharmonic Orchestra was founded in 1977, when the College of DuPage boldly embarked on sponsoring resident professional arts organizations. Since its first concert that November, when an orchestra of 24 carefully auditioned musicians performed for a capacity audience of 330 in the Building M open space on west campus, the New Philharmonic has expanded and thrived. Now under the direction of Artistic Director and Conductor Kirk Muspratt, the orchestra numbers approximately 60 players, depending on the repertoire, and performs for audiences of 1,500 people per engagement in the beautiful McAninch Arts Center. Under Muspratt’s direction, the orchestra performs innovative renditions of classic and modern works. [To read a detailed biography of Kirk Muspratt, and an article about Harold Bauer, who formed the orchestra, click here.]

The New Philharmonic is the only professional orchestra based in DuPage County, Illinois, and is grateful to call the MAC its home. The college provides substantial in-kind support. Funding comes from ticket sales, corporate and individual donations, grants, the Illinois Arts Council, DuPage Community Foundation, JCS Fund, College of DuPage Foundation, and from the college’s Student Activities Fund.

BD:   There are probably some people who play in this orchestra
and others like itfor many, many years.

Duffy:   I think so, and it’s wonderful to see that here in this orchestra.  In New York, Leonard Bernstein is working with a chap by the name of Aaron Stern.  He used to be here in Chicago at the American Conservatory of Music.  Aaron is working on a project to bring music education into some of the schools in ghetto areas in New York City, and he’s created miracles there.  One Catholic school in the South Bronx was going to close down because enrollment was down, so what they did was inaugurate an arts program along with the academic training.  The enrollment has gone up now, and they don’t have any more room.  People study violin, and trombone, and painting, and so forth, and it’s quite beautiful and moving to see these fresh youngsters playing in that terrible wasteland.  I was up there maybe about six months ago with Wynton Marsalis, and he was talking with the youngsters, and playing with them.  He went through some sessions, and an experience like that is so powerful, and very sobering.  There is an awesomeness of what needs to be done, but the fact is that it can be done if people care.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   How do you divide your time between composing and administrating the Meet the Composer program?

Duffy:   Over the past thirteen years of running Meet the Composer, that’s been a dilemma with me, because to run a successful program, you have to work real, real hard, and be there.  I tend to be obsessive about things, but I’ve learned over the years to delegate work.  I’ve been fortunate to find people who are very capable, and bright, and who I work well with, and collaborate with.  I also have had to find staff who get great co-operation from composers.  To do all this, I write in the early morning, and then go to work.  I write when I come home, and on weekends.  When I have a deadline, then I will take stretches of time.  One of the most horrible things happened last year when I was finishing the recording of the Heritage Symphonic Suite with narration.  The Residency Program had been going for five years, funded very handsomely by Exxon Corporation.  I called the senior arts adviser at Exxon to tell him some good piece of news, and I when I asked how he was, he said,
John, I hate to tell you this but we’re not going to fund the Residencies anymore.  I almost fell off the chair.  We had a very small staff, and we were shorthanded, and while fulfilling this deadline I had to get on my feet and go and make up that money.  What that entailed was getting material, getting charts, building up a presentation, getting someone from the Rockefeller Foundation and the Reader’s Digest Foundation to put together possible sources of income.  Luckily, not only did I finish the Suite on time, I got the score to Zubin Mehta three days ahead of time!  But in the same period, with the help of my staff, and these very loyal people in the foundations, I raised more money than we were getting from Exxon.  So, we were able to have more orchestras.  [Both laugh]

BD:   It turned out to be a blessing instead of a detriment.

Duffy:   Yes, but I thought that I was finished during that time.  I can recall one time at three in the morning, coming down 72nd Street toward Broadway near where I live, and I was so tense and worried that I actually had a tremor in my hand.  There was a bar on the corner, and I couldn’t stop my head from thinking.  I figured I had to do something or else I’m going to go berserk.  So, I went into the bar, ordered a beer and a shot, and I barely was able to get it up to my lips.  But when I took the beer, that was a wonderful healer.  Someone told me that champagne is one of nature’s natural tranquilizers.  I don’t know that for sure but I know that night, when I felt at the bottom and really at the abyss, that moment helped me to get calm, and to collect myself because I really felt at my wits’ end.  But anyway, in answer to your question, I’ve worked a lot at Meet the Composer, and I’ve worked under pressure, and worked weekends.  It’s been an obsession because it’s the profession I love.  But I’ve been fortunate to have very sensitive people in corporate positions, foundations who have been most generous and sympathetic, and all of those composers out there writing music and working, plus a splendid staff and colleagues that I’ve worked with.  I feel very fortunate because I have a public life with Meet the Composer and a private life writing music.  So I do have the best of both possibilities.

BD:   I like the way you said,
I write (music) in the early morning and then I go to work.

Duffy:   [Laughs]  Yes!  That’s a good observation, and it’s an insight.

BD:   Thank you for being a composer.

Duffy:   [With a big smile]  Well, thank you very much, Bruce.  I’m delighted to be here with you.


© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in suburban Chicago on January 25, 1988.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1993 and 1998.  This transcription was made in 2020, 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.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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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.