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
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
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 Organized
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 the
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
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
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
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
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 interview with Seymour Barab.]
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
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 to
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 the
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
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 like.
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?
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 the
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 asleep! [Laughs]
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 whole thing.
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 “yes”.
[Vis-à-vis 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!
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
---- ---- ----
© 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 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.
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.