Composer M. William Karlins
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
By 1992, having run my series of radio programs devoted to ‘mostly
living, mostly American composers’
(as I used to say) for several years, it was my special pleasure to
present one about someone with whom I had a mutual admiration society.
WNIB, Classical 97 broadcast to the greater Chicagoland area, and
since Bill Karlins (as he preferred to be called) taught at Northwestern
University, he was able to tune and enjoy my weekend series each Saturday
and Sunday night.
The key to my sorting system was to celebrate
round birthdays, and early in 1992, when Karlins was about to turn
sixty, we arranged to meet and chat about things musical.
Later in the year, one of Karlins’
teachers, Stefan Wolpe, would have been ninety, and I did something unique
in my experience. Whichever guest I interviewed, it was my practice
NOT to ask about other musicians, and when they brought up someone else,
I allowed the guest to say what he or she wanted, but then quickly returned
to the discussion of their own works and ideas. However, in
this one instance, I asked Karlins if he would be willing to speak about
Wolpe, and he was delighted.
A second interview was arranged, and that discussion can
be found HERE.
As usual, segments of these conversations were used in my
programs on WNIB, and now both have been transcribed and are presented
complete on these pages . . . . . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: You’ve been professor
of composition for a long time. How are students similar
or different today than they were when you first started out?
M. William Karlins: When I started
out at Northwestern University in 1967, the condition of the world
at the time was such that there was a lot of turmoil. On one
hand, to many people it was a disturbing time, but on the other hand,
it was also a very vital time. People were starting to think
about different kinds of freedom. This was happening on campuses
all over the United States. For example, at Northwestern it was
the first time we had a woman’s movement, and minorities became important
features of the University. We had courses that were called Student
BD: These included the Black Studies
Karlins: Yes, Black Studies, and
jazz courses that were never given before. I was in charge
of one. They needed to find a faculty member who would come. It
was usually in the evening, and a student would give the course.
BD: You just had to represent
Karlins: That’s right, and the
students could get grades, or get pass/no pass grades. It
was a time when people had a great deal of vitality, and they were
sure that there was some sort of Great New World out there.
This was reflected in the students. They would come in wanting to
change the world, wanting to do something that hadn’t been done before.
BD: Wanting to wake the world
up? [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right,
see my interviews with David
Stock, and Gilbert
Karlins: [Laughs] This was
the Peace Movement. Everybody was signing their letters at
the bottom with the word ‘Peace’.
Most of them didn’t want to set things off, although there was
violence on the campus, but in the name of peace. People who
lived through that time know what that means, and because of that
vitality, the students then were more interesting as a whole.
I don’t mean that if the same students today want to be put into the
same situation, that they wouldn’t become as interesting. It’s
an attitude. It’s not that genetically they were different, just
that they were more interesting at that time.
BD: Is it, perhaps, that they
were more interested in music, and today you might find the same
vitality in the MBA program, or is this a sociological question?
Karlins: I don’t think that you
find that kind of vitality anywhere. Students were simply
more courageous back then, and into the ’70s.
BD: How did that reflect itself
in the music that they were turning out?
Karlins: It was more experimental.
If we’re not talking about the listener, and we’re not talking
about the democracy in the arts — that
we should please as many people as we can
— then we’re talking about extremely interesting things.
Students were experimenting. They were experimenting with
notation and with sounds. Multi-phonics on woodwinds were relatively
new at that time, and they were trying to figure out what they could
get. Every woodwind player would be running up to them and saying,
“Look what I can do.”
That’s practically unheard of today
— for an instrumentalist to come up to a composer and
say, “Look what I can do!”
BD: [Gently protesting]
And yet I hear from friends and interview guests that the actual
technical facility on notated music is even better than it was just
a few years ago.
Karlins: Certainly, because the
things that they were finding they could just barely do in 1967
are taken for granted now in 1992. They’ve come a long way.
The interesting thing is that most of the students were doing more
interesting things than the teachers. I don’t know if that’s still
happening now, and I say all of this hoping that anyone listening would
understand that I’m talking about the majority, and not everyone. There
are always very interesting people out there, both performers and composers.
There will always be someone interesting there.
BD: And those are the ones you
try to attract into your seminars at Northwestern?
Karlins: Certainly, we do.
We try to, and we are successful often. We have a nice bunch
BD: While we may be calming down
a bit, is this pervasive in music all over the country and all over
Karlins: I can speak mostly about
this country. There are different things happening in different
parts of the world, but to speak about the United States, if we
talk about highs and lows, and peaks and valleys, from the Second
World War though the ’60s into the ’70s,
generally there was an overlap there. But if that was a
peak, I think we’re in a valley now.
BD: It’s not the depths of a bottomless
pit, is it?
Karlins: Oh, I don’t think so.
It always goes back up, doesn’t it? Every valley is needed.
If you’re constantly at a peak, it wouldn’t have the value unless
you had the valley, and vice-versa. As much as my roots are
in a peak, because of when I was a student and when I matured as a
musician, the valley seems rather white and dismal to me. I’m
sure it has to be, and that it will come back up again into things that
are more interesting.
BD: Do students today want to become big
Karlins: No, they don’t want to do
that, but they’re almost not sure. They don’t know what to
do. All of them are influenced by what is going on. The
good ones are positively influenced by some of this lighter music,
and some of them are doing it well. They’ve taken to minimal music,
and removed the length but taken the vigor, and now some of them are getting
more chromatic and more interesting material within that vigor.
BD: Since we’re pointing
that way, let me ask the big question. Where is music going
Karlins: Do you mean that you
want me to look into the future???
BD: Well, gaze into your crystal
ball just a little bit ahead. [Vis-à-vis the recording
shown at left, see my interview with Robert Lombardo.]
Karlins: Most people have been
wrong when they’re tried to do that. The greatest composers
have made the greatest mistakes, so maybe I’m all right since I’m
not that great.
BD: Then let me change it just
a little bit. Where do we seem to be headed?
Karlins: For the time being, we
seem to be headed into a very, very conservative kind of music
that is pleasing to a lot of people. Now we can talk about that
other side. When I said before that I was talking about the composers
in the ’60s, and how interesting they were,
I said let’s not talk about the audience, because they did not like,
or even perhaps even want to be bothered with the music that was being
written. It was there for people who were excited about those things.
Well, as you know, that can only go so far. Young people are born,
and they see these things. It’s boring! Even the greatest
music is boring if you get too much of it. So if it’s boring, what
do you do? You start to relent. You let things down a little
bit, and they become easier and easier, and soon you realize that you’re
not communicating with anyone. The people in the ’60s
didn’t care so much about that because they were communicating
so well with each other. They were doing so many things that
seemed to be opening up the future, and indeed a lot of the things that
were being done then are being used by composers today who are very
conservative, and who consider themselves eclectic composers. They
compose so much like movie composers will do. If the action or
situation calls for something that we, today, would or can call ‘atonal’
— which is a word I dislike, but
let’s use it anyway because everybody does
— they’ll use it. If they have a modal, or a folk-song
type of situation, they can use it. Certainly, the experimentation
that went on in the last thirty years made it very easy for composers
to enter into things like that, because there was a time that a composer
who wrote modal music, and a composer who wrote atonal music didn’t
talk to one another. Today they’re the same person.
BD: At different times, or even
at the same time?
Karlins: Even at the same time.
There are composers out there who, from movement to movement,
and even from moment to moment within a movement, will change from
one idiom or one style to another. Some will do it with a
great deal of ease and sophistication, and this is a result of the
experimentation that went before. Most people are doing this
not only because this is something that we probably evolved toward,
but also because the audience is responding to a lot of this music. This
response is because it’s more in what they hear of the line, of the tradition
that comes from the past that they like so much.
* * *
BD: When you’re writing a piece of
music, do you have an audience in mind?
Karlins: That’s the old question,
and the pat answer is that you have the ideal audience in mind.
It is the pat answer because it’s true, and I can’t be more
original than that. I wish I could talk about it with more originality,
but it’s very, very true. I do, yes, write for an audience, and
when I’m writing, it is that ideal audience. So, you could say
to me that if it’s the ideal audience, the audience is you, and I guess
it is. I compose emotionally very, very often. I respond
emotionally, and I combine that with technique in order to get the things
that I want. It’s hard to explain, but when I want to write something
that expresses something, I can only write it in the way that I feel that
it would affect me. I do it to express it to me, and it will be expressed
that way. I’m being naïve by assuming this will express it
to everyone that’s listening. Of course it won’t, but the thing
is that you talk about the audience, and I’m thinking that there’s this
whole group in this hall that is just picking up on what I’ve just done,
and saying, “That’s what Bill Karlins meant
right there and then.”
BD: Do you find that audiences
today are picking up more details, or fewer details than years ago?
Karlins: What details?
BD: More of what you’re trying
to say. Are they zeroing in on it, and accepting it, and enjoying
Karlins: You’re speaking of my
music, not of music in general?
Karlins: Yes, I think so.
But music has changed, too.
BD: You were talking about the evolution
of music, and that it is becoming more conservative. Your
roots are in the more experimental movement. Are you still
as experimental as you once were, or are you becoming more conservative
just as the world is?
Karlins: My roots are in the
experimental side because I grew up in New York at that time, and
I studied with some experimental composers. But I studied
with some very conservative composers, too, so there’s a very, very
good balance there. My roots are in jazz, and if we really want
to talk about where the ear starts really hearing things, and the reason
why I want to bring this up is because when you asked the question,
in a sense I’m trying to find the answer myself. So I talk it
through myself. I remember that as a youngster
— a teenager, and even pre-teens
— when I started to
be interested or actually playing an instrument, being an American,
and being around in the Second World War, I was interested in the
big bands, and the jazz musicians who were around at that time.
I was alive and kicking right when the switch to Bebop was going on,
when what we considered very, very dissonant dance band music was going
on. Consider the music of Stan Kenton, for example. His
was a very, very dissonant band. I remember listening to The
Peanut Vendor, the old tune that Kenton did with his five trumpets
playing in half steps. That just blew me away. I just
thought that was wonderful.
Bebop or bop is a style of jazz developed in the early
to mid-1940s in the United States, which features compositions characterized
by a fast tempo, complex chord progressions with rapid chord changes
and numerous changes of key, instrumental virtuosity, and improvisation
based on a combination of harmonic structure, the use of scales and
occasional references to the melody.
Bebop developed as the younger generation of jazz musicians expanded
the creative possibilities of jazz beyond the popular, dance-oriented
swing style with a new "musician's music" that was not as danceable
and demanded close listening. As bebop was not intended for dancing,
it enabled the musicians to play at faster tempos. Bebop musicians
explored advanced harmonies, complex syncopation, altered chords, extended
chords, chord substitutions, asymmetrical phrasing, and intricate melodies.
Bebop groups used rhythm sections in a way that expanded their role.
Whereas the key ensemble of the swing era was the big band of up to fourteen
pieces playing in an ensemble-based style, the classic bebop group was
a small combo that consisted of saxophone (alto or tenor), trumpet, piano,
guitar, double bass, and drums playing music in which the ensemble played
a supportive role for soloists. Rather than play heavily arranged music,
bebop musicians typically played the melody of a composition (called
the "head") with the accompaniment of the rhythm section, followed
by a section in which each of the performers improvised a solo, then
returned to the melody at the end of the composition.
To jazz musicians and jazz music lovers, bebop was an
exciting and beautiful revolution in the art of jazz.
BD: This was more music to listen
to, rather than music to dance to, even though they were still dance
Karlins: They were still dance bands,
but the rhythm section was going on, and people were dancing while
these five trumpets were playing minor seconds against one another.
There were other experimental bands around. I just take
Kenton as one example, but there was a Bebop movement. Woody Herman
had some very, very interesting things going on, so when I think back
about my ear and how it developed, it was with dissonant music. When
I started playing in clubs, you had to be eighteen in New York to play
at night. We stopped around three in the morning. We played
from 9 to 3, and I’d get home at 4 o’clock in the morning. I can’t
remember whether it was Symphony Sid’s old show, or one of the other
jazz shows that was on all through the night, but they would have an hour
around 4 o’clock that had something to do with classical music. What
they did was play classical music that jazz musicians were listening to
— the rhythmic Stravinsky. You didn’t
hear much Schoenberg, or too much of the German Schools, although you
did hear some Hindemith, and French composers such as Milhaud, and I shouldn’t
forget Bartók. But you also heard Bach. Remember
the Swingle Singers? They were coming out. I forget what year,
but it was not too far away from that.
BD: So, it was the very, very
new, and some of the old, leaving a big hole in the middle? [Vis-à-vis
the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Seymour Barab, and Marilyn Shrude.]
Karlins: There was a hole in the middle
because they were most interested in things that had this sort
of motor rhythm. There was also a lot of Baroque music.
It was at that time that I heard things like The Rite of Spring,
and the Symphony in Three Movements, and any of these pieces
by Stravinsky that especially had this motor rhythm. It wasn’t
only that kind of music. There was a Schoenberg piece every now
and then, but those are my roots. It was not that I woke up one
day and said that I love Beethoven, or that I love Schubert, whom, at
that time, I hardly knew except from playing first clarinet in the school
orchestra. We did a little Mozart and Verdi, but I really didn’t
know much of the real classics and the European music. I forgot to
mention that the radio show also used to play Copland, and Barber, and
Piston. This was the first music that I bought. I went out and
got Dumbarton Oaks of Stravinsky on 78s. This was the first
recording he made of it. I also had the Symphony in Three Movements
with Stravinsky conducting. What kid had those kind of things in
BD: Is this why you got into the
so-called classical music rather than staying in jazz?
Karlins: What happened was that I
immediately became interested in arranging, because of people
like Pete Rugolo who was the arranger for Stan Kenton, and Bill
Russo, who lives right here in Chicago and did arrangements for several
bands. These arrangements and some others I was starting to
hear. Stan Kenton was very adventurous. He allowed some
of his arrangers to do some pretty wild things, and I started to study
the Schillinger System which a lot of people don’t know. It
was a mathematical approach to music. It’s not like serial composition,
though it had a lot to do with numbers and inversions and rotating
of things. He was a Russian who came to this country, and died
before he was fifty years old, but Gershwin studied with him, and a
lot of movie composers were very interested in what he did. One
simply has to look at his books to understand what it was. But I
did understand, so that was part of my training. I was about sixteen
or seventeen when I studied Schillinger. This music came out to
be very dissonant, and as a young man I really was totally uninterested
in consonant music. It didn’t appeal to me. It took me
a long time to learn to love old classical music. It was very
difficult. It seemed so simple and naïve. Of course,
I was missing the point, but it seemed that way compared to listening
to Schoenberg or Stravinsky.
BD: It is interesting that you
could enjoy the outgrowth of classical music without enjoying the
base of it.
Karlins: Yes, well, why not?
Most of us start some place. At some point, someone says they
love Bach. Well, what do they know before Bach? How can
they like Bach if they don’t know anything about Palestrina? [Both
BD: We all start some place.
Assuming we’re all moving in a relatively same direction, do we all
wind up with the same end?
Karlins: No, of course not!
That probably has to do with the genes... shall we just leave it
at that? [Both laugh again]
* * *
BD: Now you’ve got an audience that
is at all different points. They all started at different
points, and they’re all moving in similar but not the same directions.
How can you even try to communicate with such an amorphous group?
Karlins: You asked a good question
earlier about whether I compose for the audience, or for an audience,
and my truthful answer was that I do. But I must assume that
the audience thinks pretty much exactly the way I do, which they don’t.
But how can you express anything otherwise? It depends on
the genre. Are you writing chamber music? Are you writing
a ballet? Are you writing a piece for an orchestra, or an opera?
All these have different kinds of audiences, and we know that
some are more conservative than others. But if you’re writing
for a large audience, how can you do other than just trust yourself,
and trust your own emotions? What you probably can do is know
that if you simplify, and simplify, and simplify, you’ll reach more and
BD: Then at what point
do you lose what you’re trying to show them?
Karlins: But that’s up
to the individual because you know that’s what’s happening today,
as you well know listening to a lot of new music, is that there are
some composers who are being performed by the major orchestras whose
music sounds to me, being brought up again in the ’50s
and the ’60s - I mean, my classical
training in the ’50s and ’60s
… it sounds to me like stuff that should be played by a pops orchestra.
That’s been commissioned by major orchestras. I know of
an instance where a conductor wanted to do the Eighth Symphony
of Roger Sessions, which is a one-movement work about fifteen minutes
long. In my opinion, it is one of the two best that he wrote.
But this conductor was told by the powers that be in the orchestra,
that this piece could not be performed. This kind of music was
not being performed anymore, and the conductor should pick from a list
of names who wrote more simplistic works.
BD: [Playing Devil’s
Advocate] Of course, the orchestra boards and managements
have to balance the idea of teaching audiences, and yet not alienating
Karlins: Yes, it’s the budget
they want to balance. That’s really what they’re balancing.
[Laughs] I can laugh, but you can’t laugh that off because
we live in a country that refuses to support the arts.
BD: Will a small city away from a
big metropolitan area be a little more conservative than, say,
Chicago, or New York, or Los Angeles? [Vis-à-vis
the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Bertram Turetzky, and
John P. Paynter.]
Karlins: Are they conservative
to start with? I’m not being insulting. They do do contemporary
music and they do have contemporary composers.
BD: If you had a blank check,
you wouldn’t just eliminate the Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner
symphonies from the repertoire?
Karlins: No, no, no, no! That’s
not even in the air, because if you read just what concerts looked
like a hundred-fifty or two hundred years ago, they were all about
contemporary music, the way our popular concerts are now. But
that’s not the way it is now. I love to hear all kinds of music
so much, that I would hate to see it go away and not be on a concert.
I’d just like to shift the balance. It should be at least fifty/fifty.
There’s such a diverse amount of styles and music in the Twentieth
Century that if anyone wanted to be pig-headed about it, the Chicago
Symphony could do all of next year with nothing but music that was
written in the Twentieth Century.
BD: And they’d have a wonderful
Karlins: Sure. Rachmaninoff
wrote so much music in the Twentieth Century, as did Sibelius, Vaughan
Williams, Debussy and Ravel. You could go without ever playing
any American music. [Both laugh] You could go without
playing anything that would disturb your audience.
BD: Is it part of music’s job
Karlins: That word bothers me a little
bit, but if you’re a creative musician, you find those disturbances
very exciting. So, my answer would have to be yes, but it’s
a positive yes. It’s not that I just want to come up and
disturb you. I want to come over and disturb your mind, or
your ear, because we’re going to have a great time with this disturbance.
BD: There’s nothing destructive
in your disturbance?
Karlins: No. Maybe in some
composers there are, but that has to do with individual personalities.
BD: Are you optimistic about the
future of music?
Karlins: I don’t know about being optimistic
about it in this country. I’m concerned about it in this
country. Nowadays, it’s terrible we all have to precede sentences
by ‘if we all survive’... although things are looking a little
better. But if we all survive, I’m optimistic that music,
in whatever shape or form it turns, will always have a serious disturbing
in what we now call ‘classical’, which probably will not be classical
for future music. It’s serious music, music that is not frivolous,
that is not something you listen to while you’re
entertaining friends, but something that you really want to sit
down and listen to, and be moved by. I believe there probably
will be that, and I’m pretty positive about that. I’m worried about
things in this country. I don’t mean to sound subversive, and I
hope everybody understands what I mean, but democracy and the arts don’t
always mix well. Even if you’re going to ask music lovers to vote
for what they want to hear, there’s not going to be any new music. It’s
as simple as that. So, in that sense, democracy doesn’t work,
and that’s why I said before that I feel sorry that this country doesn’t
support the arts. It isn’t in our tradition. In almost any
country in Europe, there are some orchestras that are supported, and they
are usually radio orchestras. There’s an awful lot of support out
there to make sure that the democracy that is in most of these countries
does not disturb the art. The two just don’t go together. One
can understand that you can’t let the majority tell you how to present
BD: The majority thinks day-to-day,
but the arts should be forward-looking, thinking several days down
the road, and let everybody catch up?
Karlins: Indeed, I think so. It’s
important that government should feel responsible for this. We
live in a country that believes you have to pull yourself up by
your own boot straps, and you can’t do that in the arts. It
won’t work. The Tribune has an Arts section...
BD: [Interrupting] It used
to be called Arts & Fun. [Both have a huge laugh]
Tom Willis used
to just rail against that title!
Karlins: I’m glad my colleague
did, because I did, too. [Willis was the Senior Music Critic
at the Tribune in the ’60s
and ’70s, and also taught
at Northwestern. Full disclosure, I was his Graduate Assistant
at NU while doing my Master’s
Degree in 1972-73.] It’s not that art shouldn’t be fun, and
people would argue with me when I said it shouldn’t be called that,
but one can understand it improperly. Sure, I have fun with the
arts, but I like it when I hear something new, something that tears at
me so that I get angry. In a way, I like to get angry, and feel
like I should want to destroy that. It gives me great pleasure
to come home and sit down and think about it, or maybe hear it, or something
like it, again, and all of the sudden feel I should wait a minute.
I know that’s what’s happening, and really what it is. The best
musicians, no matter what the style, are going through a very conservative
style, and the best are still going to be the best. They’re still
going to have good ideas, and those good ideas are going to become more
interesting and more complex, simply because they’re good.
BD: I assume that you think that all these ideas
— the radical, the conservative, and
everything in between — should coexist?
Karlins: Yes, it all coexists because
of its past. Usually one is existing more than others.
For example, in the late ’50s and ’60s,
the kind of avant-garde music that most people don’t like was
existing. Politically, in this country anyway, the composers
who were in charge of giving out awards were those composers.
You got nowhere if you didn’t do that, but it shifts. Now the
composers who like this simple, and in its worst, simplistic music,
are in charge, and experimentalists get nowhere. You can’t
even play a Roger Sessions symphony without getting flack.
But it has to be, because down the road it will all coexist, just as
Bach and Haydn coexist. Of course, there are people who say
Haydn is much more complicated than Bach. Haydn is much
more complicated, but Bach appears to be much more complicated.
BD: There was a time when Bach
was nowhere, and it took Mendelssohn to bring him back.
Karlins: That’s right, sure.
BD: So maybe Sessions will be
out for a while, and it’ll take someone in the year 2022 [thirty
years after this interview took place] to bring Sessions back.
Karlins: He’s too good to stay
away too long.
BD: Has the easy availability
of electronics that are on everybody’s shelves, changed this kind
of thing? You used to have to have performances to get the music
heard, or play it in your home on the piano. Now anyone can take
a record off the shelf and play it, and can experiment, and see what it’s
Karlins: The first and most important
event that came electronically through recordings was the long-playing
record. You can hear a whole symphony without the little machine
having to slip down the next record. Also, the fidelity became
better. What we’re finding out today, now that they’re putting
old records onto compact discs, that many of these old records were recorded
beautifully, and sometimes more beautifully than some of these digital
recordings... but that’s a whole different story. At least we were
getting high fidelity beautiful recordings, and what I’m saying now is
that with CDs, once you get those old recordings and tapes without the
needle hitting, and without that noise in between, and the little bit of
tape noise in the background that you might get on an AAD CD [something
that was recorded and edited in the analogue mode before being transferred
to a digital product], one can hear everything that was on that tape
originally, and you realize that what we thought was remarkable in 1950s,
when the LP was really going strong, what we thought was absolutely remarkable,
we hear now and realize was remarkable. But we now hear what we were
missing when that needle hit the vinyl.
BD: It was there, and now we’re
Karlins: Right. But to answer
your question, a lot of people in cities
now — perhaps for good reason
— don’t relish the idea of going out to
concerts at night. Recordings are becoming
more of our life than the actual live concert. And now, they’re
doing more and more of these videos where you just buy the whole performance.
They’re beautiful. You can also watch movies at two bucks
a throw, or whatever they charge to rent a movie.
BD: We’re retreating into our caves?
Karlins: Unfortunately yes, because
it’s getting kind of scary out there. I’m going to be sixty
soon, and as you get a little older, you don’t feel quite so safe
just walking around.
* * *
BD: Either musically or in your teaching
career, are you at all where you thought you would be years ago when
you hit sixty?
Karlins: Oh, no, of course not!
BD: Is that a good thing?
Karlins: Yes, and no.
From generation to generation things may change, but in my generation,
we all went into it thinking that we were going to be great composers.
After all, there was a new world out there. Though I hate the word,
what people called ‘atonality’
was opening up limitless horizons. We were going to develop
it, and create new music. I had something that I responded to,
that I wanted to do and change, and work on, and it became a personal
thing for me. With the way I used serial composition, for example,
I thought by the time I was sixty I would have been one of the great
masters of our time. [Laughs]
BD: Revered as a composer
whose music was always played everywhere?
Karlins: That’s right, but that’s
the way it should be. A young composer who doesn’t think
that way shouldn’t be trying to be a composer.
BD: Fantasize just a little bit.
How would the world be different if that had actually come to pass?
[Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interview
with Howard Sandroff.]
Karlins: [Much laughter] It
would only be my world that would be different, and I don’t think
it would be much different. Some of the things that I
wanted to do I would’ve done, and they become very technical.
BD: Earlier, you said that you
composed emotionally rather than technically.
Karlins: But it’s the same thing,
or it combines. It’s not exactly the same thing, but it becomes
the same thing.
BD: It starts with
Karlins: I believe so. When
you’re a child and you are first attracted by the music, you
realize you want to do it. Then, all of a sudden, you find
out that you can’t do it until you have some kind of a technical
background to do it.
BD: But still, even now when you’re
thinking about a new piece and you’ve got the blank paper in front
you, I assume that it’s the emotions which start it rolling, and
then the technical just tells you how to put those emotions down
so that it can be reproduced.
Karlins: That’s a little bit like the
chicken-and-egg, because anybody in any profession that takes it
seriously can imagine this. Sometimes you’re thinking about
a technical idea. We don’t have to talk about technique, but
just anybody understands what a technical idea is. They’re trying
to figure out something technically. I think about pitches and
their combinations technically... if I do this, what can I get from it?
That’s one way of thinking about it, so it started technically.
I was somehow inspired by a few notes to see what they could bring.
I’m actually in my mind thinking about pitches, orders of pitches, harmonies,
things like that. I’m not so much thinking emotionally. I’m
thinking about what I can get. Is there something there that can produce
a piece? Then, all of a sudden, what can I do with it? This
is what I can do with it! Often that happens when I’m trying to fall
BD: Are you surprised by what
you wind up with?
Karlins: Yes, sometimes I am,
pleasantly and unpleasantly. Sometimes it is pleasantly, and
then it doesn’t work! [Laughs] But that’s part of the
BD: Then do you scrap it, or do
you make it work?
Karlins: If I think it’s workable,
I don’t scrap it, no. Sometimes it’s just a matter of calculating
some more. From the very first, composers calculated.
Artists calculate, lawyers calculate, doctors calculate, everybody
BD: Is being a musician like being
a doctor, or a lawyer, or an accountant?
Karlins: I don’t know exactly how they
are, but in some sense, it is. I would have to talk to an
actor about this, because actors are different than playwrights,
and composers are closer to playwrights than actors. But,
at any rate, a trial lawyer is an actor. If he or she isn’t
a good actor or actress, that person is not going to be able to communicate
with the jury. There’s some emotion that they have to show.
Whether they feel it truly or they don’t, they have to show it.
Sometimes it’s calculated, sometimes it isn’t. They have to
go up and say and do the things, and sometimes they have to think very
quickly as an improviser — just as a
jazz person will. Or, sometimes they can have everything so
prepared that they’re ready to go. They prepare according to their
own talents, so in that sense, there may be some correlation between musicians
and someone like that. It would be the same thing with a doctor.
I would imagine they go into an operation completely prepared, but
they deal with patients according to their strengths.
BD: Do you expect the performers
of your music to be on your side, taking your part and convincing the
jury, or the audience?
Karlins: In chamber music, I hope that’s
so. At least the majority are. As soon as you get more
than one person that is doing the music, you don’t necessarily have
all friends up there. But the performer is also a person
that has to be very controlled, and has to be able to get up there
and play a piece of music that they don’t particularly care for as
well as a piece that they do care for. Maybe that’s
not possible, but it probably is. Many performers will proudly
tell you how they play this piece, and that they just did a marvelous job
even though they don’t like the music.
BD: They put it over?
Karlins: They put it over, that’s
right. They say, “Did you see how
the audience reacted to that terrible piece that I played?
Didn’t I do a terrific job?”
BD: That’s professionalism.
Karlins: It is, and that’s great.
It’s the way it should be, and that’s technique, because you need
to have the technique to do that. You need the self-control.
BD: So then if a piece of yours doesn’t
hit the performer, but it does hit the audience, then you’ve circumvented
Karlins: Oh yes, sure. Although
there’s music that goes simply through microphones and through speakers,
most of us have performers. We have to go through this middle-man
that, for example, the sculptors and painters usually don’t have to
go through. There are those out there who are now screaming at
me, about those people who hang their painting next to wrong paintings
with the wrong colors and the wrong light and the wrong room. Of
course that happens, but they do have some control by coming in there and
saying it is the wrong light on the painting, or the wrong place, so move
BD: You might have the right musicians
playing in a dead hall, for a sleepy audience, at the wrong time
of day, next to a noisy street.
Karlins: If you’re not there,
there is nothing you can do.
BD: Aside from those kinds of
examples, have you basically been pleased with the performances
that you’ve heard of your music over the years?
Karlins: [Hesitates] Yes...
BD: That was a very tentative
the recording shown at right, see my interview with Fred Hemke.]
Karlins: A very tentative “yes,”
but lately performances have been better.
BD: What about the recordings?
They have a little more longevity. Have you basically been
pleased with what’s been committed to disc?
Karlins: Yes. I was there
for the recordings that Abraham Stokman did of my piano music,
and even though I wasn’t there, Joseph Wytko
has played my music for years, and he knows it well.
BD: So there’s a connection?
Karlins: Sure, there’s a connection,
and I did hear the tapes, and could comment, although I couldn’t
change anything after that.
BD: Isn’t it the responsibility of the
composer to make sure that someone who picks up the music can play
it to your satisfaction, even if you’re not there?
Karlins: [Thinks a moment] I
don’t know if that’s true for the first performance, because notation
is not perfect.
BD: Setting aside a first performance
then, what about a repeat performance? For someone who has
not heard the recording, it then becomes a first performance.
Karlins: It becomes a first performance,
that’s true. What you’re talking about is a good point.
Should you be able to take something, just pick it up and play
it, and why can we play a piece by a composer like Mozart so
easily, but we can’t play a new piece? That has a lot to do
with the fact that people have been playing Mozart for such a long time.
BD: It’s sort of seeped into our
Karlins: Right, even though if
you go back and listen to recordings over the years, from generation
to generation styles change. It’s that same peak-and-valley
thing. People used to say that Toscanini’s performances of Beethoven
were too fast. Now, by comparison, they’re
slow when you listen to Hogwood, and some of these taking Beethoven’s
metronome markings. Now we’re on a fast tick for Beethoven.
BD: And they’re
played on original instruments?
on an original instrument kick, yes.
BD: Let’s look ahead a hundred
years. Say they’ve changed saxophones around, and they’ve
made improvements. Do you want performances of your sax quartet
played on the brand new saxophones, or do you want them only on the
instruments that you knew in the ’60s,
and ’70s, and ’80s,
Karlins: [Laughs] You know
that’s an unfair question!
BD: [With a wink] Of course!
Karlins: In a hundred years, somebody
who was playing these new saxophones would feel they are wonderful
instruments, that sound perhaps a good deal different, or at least
somewhat different than the saxophones of old. They can play
more in tune, and they are more facile, but they just don’t sound
the same. The performers would say, “If
Karlins were alive, he’d want us to play on these new instruments,
because all through his life he always wanted the performers to play
on the newest,” which is true. “He
was intrigued every time they come out with a new innovative thing
that they hook onto the saxophone, which is going through a different
process of improvement. Karlins was always looking for the new saxophones,
with the new keys, and this and that, to see what it could do. So,
he would want us to play it on this new saxophone.”
Then, of course, ten or twenty years would go by, and people would
say, “Look how wonderful these hundred-year-old
saxophones sound. We forgot what it sounds like to play with the
wooden reed. It’s incredible. Look at these pads.
My God, it’s a little out of tune, but that’s all right. Karlins
would want us to play on this because in 1990, when he wrote this piece,
that’s the exact saxophone he wrote it for. So, let’s play it on
that instrument.” So what’s the answer?
I don’t know what the answer is! [Much laughter]
BD: I just thought of something...
What if they invented a machine where someone could play a real
saxophone, but when it goes through the machine you get all four parts
of the quartet? You would have one person playing a quartet on
the one saxophone. Is it better to have him do that, so all
the tempi are exactly the same, all the intonation is perfect, and all
the expressions are exactly the same, or should you have four individuals
putting in their four diverse ideas?
Karlins: You’re really fantasizing!
[Both laugh] With any counterpoint involved, it would be impossible
to do, but I understand the question. I like the idea of having
four people up there, especially in a live performance, because
I love to watch it. There was a performance in New Mexico this
past year (1991). I was a visiting composer, one of many visiting
composers at that seminar in Albuquerque, and Joseph Wytko and his quartet
came. They did my Second Saxophone Quartet. It was
a marvelous performance. I haven’t listened to the tape of it
yet because I don’t want to know if there’s anything wrong that I didn’t
hear, but I was just taken by the performance. I was exhilarated.
But the thing is, part of it was the watching. The quartet was in
motion because they were cueing. It’s a hard piece, and they were
cueing each other. At the end of the performance, Milton Babbitt, who was
another of the guest composers, came over to Wytko. Joe is about
six-foot-tall plus, and Milton is shorter than I am, so he must be about
five foot five inches, or something like that. So he looks up at
Jo and takes him by the hand. He says, “That
performance almost brought me to tears it was so beautiful. It
was so exciting.” Wytko, this youngish
man who is probably about forty looks down at this seventy-five-year-old
master composer, and I think he’s still floating! It is many
months later, and I’m sure he’s still talking about that, because
Milton was absolutely taken with it. But I think it was partly the
activity that was going on up on stage.
BD: So then you view music as a visual,
and also a collaborative art?
Karlins: Yes. I like that.
BD: As do the performers?
Karlins: Yes, and performers.
I like plural. I don’t know what it is, but if one wants
to talk about one’s own faults, I always find my solo pieces to
be less successful to me than the ensemble pieces.
BD: Do you find that true even
in an orchestral piece?
Karlins: Yes, just the solo music. I’m
talking about my own solo music, not other people’s. It
just doesn’t seem to be as interesting to me. I don’t know
what it is.
BD: Are there more ideas, and
more pools to choose from?
Karlins: Yes, perhaps. Whatever
BD: After all’s said and done, is composing
Karlins: [Hesitates] Actually,
for me the act of composing is not much fun. I know that there
are people who love it. Years ago, there was a TV show on Menotti. I don’t
remember much of the show, but I do remember him walking along,
and someone was talking to him about composing. He said he
hated composing. He said the only reason he does it is that
when it’s all done, he can hear the music. That’s just how I
feel. Although, when I’m actually doing it, the time flies,
and I do get very exhilarated. Sometimes I have to run downstairs
and take my blood pressure. [Laughs] I must say that it’s
not terrible then. What’s terrible is to get up the energy and
the confidence to sit down and say, “Okay, I’m
going to write another piece, and looking at my other music, without
going to extremes, it’ll be a good piece, and the people that I write
it for will probably like it, and will probably get a good performance
of it!” It’s hard to get to that
point. When I’m in the process of composing, I get very excited.
I feel very, very good about it. Then I stop and go to dinner.
After that, the effort to go back upstairs and sit myself down and start
again has to do with extreme insecurity. I wonder what right
have I to do that. You were asking about my fantasy of what I wanted
to be when I was sixty years old. If I had achieved that, maybe
it wouldn’t have been so hard, but I sit down sometimes and say, “What
right have I to write a piece that’s going get on a program, and
maybe get in the way of some great master’s piece? If I were
to be a great composer like Stravinsky, I would have been so already.
So, what is my place in all of this? Do I have a right to intrude
on the younger people now?” A lot of
that goes through your mind. I don’t know how many people would
admit that, but a lot of that goes through your mind. I know
that what I do is not bad. I’m not saying that I’m a bad composer.
I don’t think I am, but I’m not a great composer.
BD: Beyond these doubts, would
you rather have your piece played on an all new-music program, or
would you rather be on a mixed program?
Karlins: A mixed program, absolutely.
I liked new music programs back in the ’60s,
when the music was really so disliked by so many people, that we could
look at this little group that wanted to come to hear us
— colleagues, friends, groupies
— and we felt very comfortable.
BD: You were playing for the converted.
Karlins: That’s right, and you
felt comfortable. I don’t like the feeling of my music being
on a program where a vast majority of the audience is not liking
it. It’s not in my personality to be like that. You
asked if I wanted to disturb the audience, and I said yes, in the proper
way, for people who want to be there and be disturbed. I don’t
want to disturb people who don’t want to be disturbed.
BD: Let them snooze???
Karlins: That’s right! Those people
deserve to be able to have concerts that they can go to, whether
they snooze or not, but just simply feel a warmth with music that they
are familiar with. I just hope what they hear happens to be really
ingeniously good music.
---- ---- ----
© 1992 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on January 6, 1992.
Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following month, and subsequently
there, and on WNUR in 2002, 2005, and 2018, and on Contemporary Classical
Internet Radio in 2005. 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.
winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with
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
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
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