Composer  Ulysses  Kay
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Every person who walks this Earth goes through a unique and specific set of trials and tribulations.  Life is perhaps pre-ordained or perhaps what we make of it, or maybe a combination of both.  But the circumstances of placement have an impact upon the outcome.  Where we live will influence
— if not determine outright — the direction(s) and opportunities we have.  When we are placed here will also be a major factor in determining what transpires during the brief era we inhabit this place.

The most important personal factor, however, is what we do with the hand we are dealt.  How we use our personal resources and what we spend our time on becomes the personal history.  Ulysses Kay took what he had and the circumstances of a changing society and made his music.  It stands today as a creative output that enriches us all, though his name and reputation are not nearly as well-known as others with who he shares traits and accomplishments.

I was fortunate to be able to play his music on the radio, and even more lucky to be able to spend an hour on the telephone discussing his life
’s work.  It was a delightful conversation, and at one point, his wifewho was sitting in the same room as her husband and was listening to his remarks — interjected her own opinion!

Here is most of what was said that afternoon in 1985 . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Let me start by asking what makes a successful composer?

Ulysses Kay:    Talent, commitment, and hard work.  

BD:    Is it more than just innate ability that must be developed?

UK:    To get into it at all, a person has to have great aptitude for music; sort of grow up in music, to be drawn to it and to assimilate the mechanics of it
the language, the ways of doing thingsjust as in any endeavor or art form or field.  You have to like it and have a grasp of it before you can go on to anything of any stature.

BD:    How much of this is inspiration, and how much is technique?

UK:    The first part is inspiration, in the sense of a person being drawn to music.  You know, that’s an old ever-present question about inspiration and hard work and technique.  I’ve never focused on it.  I was always drawn to music and fascinated by it.  It goes without saying that you have to have technique, in the sense of dealing with the musical material. 

BD:    Of course.  I’m looking for the insights that come from an experienced and knowledgeable composer such as yourself.  How much can a composer, or a performer for that matter, expect of the public?

UK:    Expect in what sense?

BD:    How much can he expect the public to understand and grasp of his music when it’s being first performed?  Should the public be able to grasp new music at the first hearing?

kay UK:    It’s very hard to say.  Who’s the public?  Who do you write for?  You write for yourself and you try to express whatever ideas or feelings that you have through your medium, in our case, music.  But it would be the same for a person doing creative writing or painting.  And beyond that primary impetus and endeavor that I just mentioned, one hopes that the music will make its way.  By that, I mean that it will reach people and there will be some follow up in terms of interest in performing the work.  That’s the sense in which I feel one reaches the public.  The public is so amorphous; [laughs] it’s huge and large and it’s very hard to say what public, in a way.  I don’t think of it that way.  I think of the problem of communication in terms of what I write having a kind of logic — not logic in a philosophic sense, but having a convincing character and a thrust to it.  Technically you’d think of form, contrast and all of the structural matters that the composer is dealing with.  But those elements are not really important to the listener that much, unless it’s a programmatic piece.  However, you do wish that the ideas and the work have this kind of projection to reach the listener in a convincing sort of way.

BD:    So then when you’re writing, you aren’t conscious of any particular public; you’re writing the piece, as you say, for yourself?

UK:    Right.  Now, that has another dimension, which is who the piece is for.  If commissioned, like a Louisville Series or when I was doing film work, you get quite aware of writing for a particular medium and market.  But I suppose it’s better if we just stay with concert music, instead of getting into the commercial things.

BD:    Well, how commercial has music become?

UK:    If you think of the industry, which is Hollywood, it’s very commercial.  You have some very talented people out there doing that, but I take it you’re asking me about the predominant bulk of my work, rather than the few film scores.

BD:    I am interested in all of your work and also your opinions of music as you see it today.  You’ve been working in music for all of your creative life, so you must have some ideas about things whether you’ve worked on them or not.

UK:    Yes.

BD:    Should the composer get involved in the business of music?

UK:    Oh, sure!  Ideally one would hope to make a living from composing.  It’s a rather tenuous goal [laughs] in terms of the economics of the field now, but by all means, that’s to be desired, I would say.

BD:    Are there enough good composers today?

UK:    There certainly are!  There’s a tremendous number of composers, as you know, and many very talented ones.  That doesn’t mean there are really that many who would adapt well to commercial work, but there’s a great fund of talent around.

BD:    Is there ever a case where there are too many good composers?

UK:    I think you could say there is, if you think of it relative to the outlets in Chicago, for instance.  How many scores by living American composers has the orchestra played in the last five years, or one year?

BD:    There’s maybe one or two a season.

UK:    I think if you could dig up about three, you’d be doing pretty well.  There are reasons, but you can see that there’s not a great deal of room in the market for all of these talented composers.

BD:    Where can we place the fault, if fault can be placed, that the big orchestras rely too heavily on what we call the standard repertoire?

UK:    That’s a many-pronged problem, a very thorny problem!  First of all, it’s hard work!  The conductor has to study the stuff.  Players have to deal with it.  It takes rehearsal time.  It costs much more to play any one of our pieces.  Almost any contemporary piece is going to cost more than anything from before the baroque up through Brahms.  So the economic factor is immediately there.  With the smaller orchestras, you talk with some of these conductors, and the guy will tell you.  I’ve heard them tell me that any number of times.  This is at the metropolitan level, or certainly community level.  They will say, “I have X dollars for the whole season for music rentals,” and he’s talking maybe about three or four hundred dollars, and he’s giving six concerts.  They have told me, “I’d love to do more, but when I write to Boosey and Hawkes, or Schirmer or somebody, one of those pieces is going to cost a hundred and fifty dollars.  There’s goes half of my budget!”

BD:    Are the publishers, then, not strangling their own golden geese?

UK:    When you talk to the publishers, they say that the costs of paper have gone up so much.  And look at the book field!  Books that you used to get for $5.95 or $9.95, now start at sixteen dollars, eighteen dollars, twenty-three dollars.  So it isn’t just us and our problem or the problem of the little community orchestra budget, it’s a general problem of economics.  There’s no easy answer.
  Then it becomes a matter of the audience.  The conductor feels he’s doing a cultural teaching thing.  In many communities, as you know, there’s a large audience that is just beginning to experience concert music in a formal sense.

BD:    As you say, it is a very thorny problem!

UK:    Yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Are recordings a good thing for the contemporary composer?

UK:    I think they are.  A record of the work is a definite plus.  Usually if they’re going to record, they will take some more time to prepare it, to rehearse it adequately, rather than as a first performance and good-bye, they’ll just get through it.  They’re aware of it being in a more permanent form, so they take pains.

BD:    Can records be too perfect?

UK:    I never thought about that.  

BD:    When I talk with conductors, they sometimes say that audiences are appalled when there is a horn crack or a slight mistake in a standard work, because they are so used to listening to their records at home, which are perfect.

kay UK:    That’s possible.  I guess that records being so pervasive now, the hi-fi people do concentrate on their libraries pretty intently.  It would seem there’s a big educational job there to be done, in terms of people learning the true value of live performance, in contrast to all this recorded stuff.  I imagine in urban centers like Chicago and New York, audiences do appreciate live performances, especially of the Chicago Symphony!

BD:    Sure!  We have to do more to try and get the music of Ulysses Kay played here in Chicago.

UK:    Martinon did a piece of mine in either ’66 or ’67.  He did my Louisville piece called Serenade for Orchestra.  He did a terrific job and the orchestra, of course, was just magnificent.

BD:    Was that an ideal performance of your work?

UK:    I think it was, certainly!

BD:    If someone hears a tape of that concert and says, “That’s the ideal performance,” how can a group in a smaller city attempt to play it?

UK:    Well, you’re making music!  One can’t expect every orchestra to play up to the level of the New York Philharmonic or the Chicago Symphony or the Cleveland Orchestra.  They work with what they have, and I think Louisville is a prime example of a community and a musical people with some imagination.

BD:    True, they’ve been doing a lot of new works!

UK:    They’ve been doing magnificent things, even though it was at a less than opulent instrumentation; in fact that they started out with a Beethoven-size orchestra.  It’s just marvelous that they’ve had that kind of community support and an understanding director.

BD:    They’ve been doing it for a long time.  I think that’s the best thing about them is the consistency.

UK:    Right.

BD:    Let me ask you about Markings.  This is one of your works that has been recorded, so tell me about that.

UK:    I was approached by the Detroit Symphony to write something for their summer program, the Meadow Brook Festival.  I thought of writing a big piece, but I thought for a summer outdoor concert, perhaps something programmatic would be more appropriate.  I had read Markings of Dag Hammarskjold years before.  Are you familiar with the book?

BD:    I know of the book but I have not read it.

UK:    It’s the kind of thing that you can just dip into; it’s rather brief essays, poetry and various things.  I found it very inspiring, so it was the impetus for me to write the piece.  

BD:    When they asked you for the piece, what parameters did they give you
or did they just say, “Give us a piece for our orchestra”?

UK:    The manager wrote me and said, “In August of — I think ’69
we’re at the Festival in Meadowbrook and we’d like to commission you to write a piece.”  It was that general.  Sometimes a commission will mention how long a work they would like, but they didn’t specify anything.  Being a major orchestra, I was aware of the instrumentation, which is basic and fairly standard except for perhaps additional percussion, and there’s a place where the string bass is doing a chord.  I was aware there are nine basses, so I could make them divisi to cover this five or six note chord.  It’s a practical thing.  It wasn’t necessary for them to draw me a picture of what they have in the orchestra, especially since I didn’t ask for extras — like six horns or a Mahler-size orchestra.

kay BD:    Is it easier to work, to set things down, when you have more colors on your palette to choose from?

UK:    I think so, yes.  It gives you a greater scope.  Whatever medium you’re writing for stimulates the imagination, and it’s often the sort of thing that sets me off when I’m trying to write, and starting a new piece.

BD:    How long did Markings take to write?

UK:    I think about six months.

BD:    Were you working on it exclusively, or did you have other things occupying your time also?

UK:    [Laughs]  I had a full-time job, a nine to five office job.  I used some of my vacation to write.

BD:    Did that make it easier or harder, being otherwise occupied for so much of your time?

UK:    The time element is always crucial!  Fortunately, they had asked me for it quite a while in advance so I wasn’t facing a tight deadline.

BD:    Have you ever faced the possibility of not having enough time to write a piece?

UK:    Yes.  Last spring and summer I was working on a woodwind quintet for a group in Maryland.  They had approached me in ’83 and I got started late, so I only had two of the three movements completed by the time it was done in the summer of ’84 at the Tidewater Music Festival.  I was underway with the last movement, but it’s a very informal kind of summer concert series of chamber music that they do.

BD:    So you presented the two movements that were done?

UK:    They played the two movements, which was eight or ten minutes.  Then by the fall I finished the third movement and sent it to them.

BD:    Is it good for a composer to be able to hear his work while it’s in progress?

UK:    At the student stage, that’s very important, but I think after a good deal of experience, you are able to hear the piece in your imagination as you’re writing it.  This comes from experience with orchestration and instruments, and having heard things that you’d written before.

BD:    So you get the sound of what you see on the paper in your mind?

UK:    In your ear, right, right.

BD:    Do you ever go back and revise any of your pieces?

UK:    Hardly ever.  I’d rather write a new piece than try to revise.  After a piece is done, some time passes.  Within the next month or so, I might touch up something — the balances or dynamics or tempos — little adjustments, but a year or so later if I happen to hear it or look at it and things are not right, I’m too far removed from it to get into the mechanics of revision.

BD:    So you leave your pieces alone and go on to something else.

UK:    Pretty much.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me ask about the Six Dances for String Orchestra.  How did that come into being, and what kind of a piece is it?

kay UK:    I had a friend who was a producer at CBS radio when they still had live studio orchestras.  This was in the mid-fifties.  They had a program called “String Serenade” which was on Sunday afternoons, with a live string orchestra of about twenty players.  My friend said, “Why don’t you write something for it?”  I hadn’t thought of it, and he said, “If you do, Alfredo [conductor Alfredo Antonini] will play it.”  So I wrote two of the dances.  Since it was a light music program on Sunday afternoon,  I thought of writing something in the dance form.  They had the parts copied and did those two on a broadcast.  I think they had me come over and be briefly interviewed before they were played.  Then I did two more, and he did those maybe six months later.  The four seemed a little brief, so I wrote two more.  Those were never done, or if they were done I didn’t know about it.  It’s funny, but once your music gets out there you no longer control it.  Years later, two of them were recorded in London, on London Records — Round Dance and Polka.  I didn’t have anything to do with the recording.  Then much, much later, I guess in the early seventies, Paul Freeman recorded the six of them.  [Names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website. BD]

BD:    Was that a real commission, or was it just
if you write it, we will play it?

UK:    It was in the latter category.  [Both laugh]  I had been on fellowship and had just returned to New York.  I had the Prix de Rome, and I’d been away three years, so it was sort of getting into the swing of things back in the States.  The value, of course, was the copying and the broadcast.  Sometimes your friends will say, “If you write me a piece, I’ll play it,” but you seldom get a live broadcast and also the copies taken care of.  Incidentally, in January or February of ’83, the Houston Ballet did a ballet using the complete Six Dances.

BD:    Did you see that production?

UK:    Yes.  My wife and I were invited to go to Houston, and it was really magnificent because the young choreographer had a very lively and virtuosic approach to the choreography.  It was a brilliant young company and they had a very good orchestra.

BD:    Is this something that you would have ever thought of on your own, that it could be danced to?

UK:    I never thought of it!  The choreographer had heard one of the pieces
I think the Waltz movementon a radio broadcast on from the recording there in Houston.  The company had three of their dancers who were young choreographers, and he was one who was asked to do something.  So he got the record and lived with it, played it a great deal, and so that’s how he happened to use it.

BD:    Do you ever conduct your own music?

UK:    I’ve done some when I was doing film work, and occasionally I have done something, but I don’t think of myself as a conductor.

BD:    When you’re involved in the creation of a piece and you’re attending rehearsals, do you ever find that conductors will discover things in your score that you didn’t even know were there?

kay UK:    Oh, yes, often that happens!  It isn’t exactly that I don’t know it’s there; it’s a matter of what is prevalent at a particular moment in terms of the balance or inner workings of texture.  As you know, notation is a very inadequate incomplete system, so that certain gradations of dynamics or tempo are put down as best you can
You indicate how fast or how loud, but it’s all relative.  So the way I might feel the passage is barely perceived by the conductor.  Or it may be a technical problem in terms of balance or range that makes it difficult for the players, so he will work it out a particular way.  Then if it doesn’t feel right, you can speak to the conductor, or often the conductor will either turn around or see you during the break and want to know about certain details.

BD:    Do you then accommodate changes?

UK:    When it makes sense, yes.

BD:    Have you ever been involved in a situation where the conductor has been completely wrong-headed about your work?

UK:    No.  I’ve always found them very understanding.  Also, I’ve said this a few times and then gotten strange raised eyebrows, but I feel I write easy music.

BD:    Easy to comprehend?

UK:    Yes, easy to perform and easy to comprehend.  Relative to what’s out there or what these players are exposed to, I think it is easy.  You’ve heard quite a few of the records, so doesn’t that make sense?

BD:    I think so.  It’s not so much easy as the fact that it’s uncomplicated.

UK:    Well, yes.  It is uncomplicated, for instance, rhythmically.  Think of pieces by Gunther Schuller.

BD:    Or even Stravinsky!

UK:    Yes, a lot of Stravinsky.  Well, people have assimilated the Stravinsky works, but Berio and even some of William Schuman is just hard!  It strikes me as being hard.  I think it seems that the rhythms are not natural, in the sense of free-flowing.

BD:    I assume, though, you’re not writing your music to be easy, but you’re writing from the heart and it just happens to be easy.

UK:    I think that’s so.  On occasion when I’ve been on a composer’s panel, it wasn’t being a smart aleck, but it came out that way when I said, “Well, what’s your problem?  I write easy music!” [Laughs]

BD:    There are some composers who figure if it’s not difficult, it’s not worth listening to.

UK:    Right, like Milton Babbitt and piles of these dodecaphonists.

BD:    The twelve-tonists?

UK:    Yes.  Those people are not easy!  But players are getting used to it, certainly in the urban centers.  Around New York, there are some players here who can just whiz through it.  The American Composers Orchestra consists of some of the top freelance musicians in New York.  They only give about six concerts a year, but they’re just terrific!

BD:    All they do is new music.

UK:    Pretty much.  They will have an older thing here and there
a piece by Randall Thompson or Howard Hanson or Arthur Foote.

BD:    But no Beethoven or Haydn.

UK:    No.  They could do it.  The American Symphony Orchestra does quite a bit of standard repertoire plus some contemporary.  But this other one is nearly all contemporary.

BD:    Let me ask you about one more piece, the Short Overture.

UK:    I think I wrote that for myself.  It was right after the war.  I had come to New York, and I think it’s about the first orchestra piece I wrote after coming out of the service.  While I was writing it, I read about the Gershwin Prize, so I submitted that and it won.  And it is just what is says, it
’s a short overture, nothing more than that.

BD:    But it’s still something that you’re proud of?

UK:    Oh, yes, right!

BD:    Can I assume you’re happy that these pieces do get recorded?

UK:    Oh, it’s very important!  For instance, the Six Dances would never have been done as a ballet except that a young man heard the recording.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me shift to your operas now.  You’ve done four different works which you call operas, three short ones, and a full evening.

UK:    Yes.

BD:    Let us start with the full evening, Jubilee, which was a commission for the Bicentennial.  Is it good to write a piece for an occasion?

UK:    Sure!  If the project, and the subject, and the circumstances seem worthwhile or interesting, I think it’s very good to have a piece done for an occasion.  That was a deadline that was pretty hairy!

BD:    The Bicentennial would not wait!

kay UK:    Yes, right!

BD:    [Laughs] Was it finished on time?

UK:    Yes, I finished it in time.  But my wife said that she hardly saw me during the two and a half years of writing that.

Mrs. Kay:  [In the background]  It was worth it!  It was worth waiting! [Laughter all around]

BD:    It’s important that your wife would be so supportive!  What different problems did writing an opera cause that would not have arisen if you had been asked for a symphony or a concerto?

UK:    A lot of notes.

BD:    Too many notes?

UK:    Not too many!  Just an awful lot.  I had done the three one-act works, and I’d seen two of them produced on the stage.  One was done in Urbana by a wonderful opera group there.  That was The Capitoline Venus, which is based on Mark Twain.  The Boor, my first one, I never saw on the stage, but I saw a concert version with orchestra and two singers.  So I was not intimidated when they asked me.  I embarked on writing Jubilee because I felt I’d had a fair amount of experience.  But there are just so very many other dimensions that occupy the composer
as compared to doing a symphonythat have to do with the text, what’s happening on the stage in terms of timing, and formal relations section to section.  It’s impractical to break it down, but it’s just very complicated.  Anything creative is difficult, but one of the things that preoccupies me and takes a lot of time and is almost impossible to calculate, is the matter of characterization.  As I see it, each character in various events requires very specific music to express that character.  So it’s not a matter of getting this machine rolling.  Take the Philip Glass opera, Satyagraha.  I heard a broadcast of it a few days ago.  He starts off with this ostenato in a rich string setting that’s moving and interesting, for the moment, rhythmically.  That furnishes continuity, which is very good, and then the voices come in using a language never heard in heaven or earth!  And it doesn’t go anywhere.

BD:    It’s very elliptical.

UK:    Yes.

BD:    But then, all of his music is!

UK:    Well, in terms of conception, I heard very little differentiation between that and the later sections, in terms of what a character was singing relative to the situation.

BD:    So you felt there was very little, if any, development?

UK:    Yes.  I guess it’s not my place to judge his music, but I’m saying that if a composer has to characterize what’s happening, it takes time to find the right way to have each of these characters realized through what they’re singing.

BD:    Let me ask about The Boor.  You wrote your own libretto which you adapted it from the Chekhov.  Is that a good idea, for the composer to be his own librettist?

UK:    Oh, if possible, by all means!  The advantage is that he can not only adapt, but he can mold the words and the action, the entire schmear to his needs of the moment.  This one was unusual because the Chekhov was a play to begin with.  It is considered a classic of Russian plays, a kind of ironic comedy.  I paid Vladimir Ussachevsky to make a practical English version.  Then I adapted it, and the adaptation was largely a matter of cutting.  So it was not creative writing on my part.


BD:    It was creative cutting?

UK:    Yes!  [Both laugh]

BD:    What about The Juggler of Our Lady.  Is there any relation at all to the Massenet opera Jongleur de Notre Dame?  

UK:    No, except the title.  I’ve never seen the Massenet, so I don’t know what it’s like.

BD:    It’s a one-act piece that runs about ninety minutes.  When I saw the title of your opera, I figured that would make a nice evening to do the Massenet and then the Kay.  Would it be a good evening to do the three shorter pieces of yours?

UK:    I think it would.  They’re all contrasted in subject matter.

BD:    I just wondered if you as the composer felt that on one evening it should be all your works, or would it be better to do your work along with somebody else’s?

UK:    Usually I’ve thought of that question in terms of contrast.  I think it’s usually better to have my pieces done with other works by other composers.  I’ve had a number of one-man concerts and I think music projects better when there’s genre contrast.

BD:    Do operas, in your opinion, belong on television?

UK:    I don’t know.  I’ve enjoyed a number of them.  We’re using the word opera, but we’re talking about two different mediums.  When you think of it in the theater, it becomes one thing.  It’s opera we all know, in the traditional sense, whereas on television you’re seeing a picture without a frame, or in a different frame.  To answer your question, some operas would go well on television, and other wouldn’t.  One thing that bothers me somewhat was when I tried to watch some of the Wagner the season before last, the pieces are very static but the camera kept going on.  First of all you’d see a long shot and then you’d come right up on the singer.  There seemed to be no really convincing way of projecting the staging.  I was thinking perhaps Turn of the Screw of Britten would be marvelous.  I’ve seen it twice in the theater, once with a very modest production and once with an elaborate one.  That would be magnificent on television.  And Menotti would work pretty well, but with some of the big ones the staging hasn’t been really convincing.

BD:    So they would really have to be given a new staging for the cameras?

UK:    Yes, sure.

BD:    Would your operas work well on television?

UK:    I think that the one-act ones certainly would.  They’re focused around a few principle characters, maybe three in each case, with supporting singers and not too many big, grand scenes.  Jubilee would work, though it does have a larger scope.  At one point there are three choruses going on in a town square, and I’m not sure about how that would be staged.  But the one-act ones would go very well.

BD:    We can hope that some producer will take an interest to get them done on the television.

UK:    Sure, that’d be fine.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music in general?

UK:    Pretty much, yes.  In what sense were you asking?

BD:    The way compositional trends are going, and the way the public is reacting to new music.

UK:    The compositional trends don’t bother me that much.  One writes what one wants, and the music, as I mentioned earlier, has to make its own way.  This new romanticism has been successful, and seems to indicate a greater leaning toward communication, which I think is all very good.  I’m more concerned about the economic side than worrying about the music or the audience.  When you have good pieces, the audience is there.  I’ve heard that David Del Tredici had a great success in Chicago.

BD:    Yes, with the Alice piece.

UK:    I’m not despondent about the music.  It’s just the economic side, I think, that’s a problem.

BD:    I want to thank you for spending some time with me today, and I want to thank you for all of your music.  You’ve been a great inspiration to many, many people
the young composers and the performers, and also the audiences who can enjoy your music.

UK:    Thank you so much for interviewing me.  I appreciate it.

The following January, I presented a program on WNIB to celebrate his birthday,
and a couple months later this lovely letter arrived in the mail . . . . .


As noted at the bottom of this webpage, four more special programs were presented on WNIB in later years.
This was in addition to the airing of his recordings during the regular programming.

Ulysses Simpson Kay, Jr.

Personal Information

Born on January 7, 1917, in Tucson, AZ; died May 20, 1995, in Teaneck, NJ; son of a barber; married; children: Virginia, Melinda, and Hillary
Education: University of Arizona, bachelor of music, 1938; Eastman School of Music, Rochester, NY, master's degree, 1940; further composition studies with Paul Hindemith, 1941-42; Otto Luening, 1946-49.
Military/Wartime Service: Served as Musician Second Class in U.S. Naval Reserves, 1942-45.
Memberships: (selected) Member, American Academy of Arts and Letters.


Lived in Rome while studying and composing at American Academy, 1949-52; consultant, Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI), 1953-68; traveled to Soviet Union on U.S. State Department tour, 1958; Boston University, visiting professor, 1965; University of California at Los Angeles, visiting professor, 1966-67; Lehman College, City University of New York, professor, 1968-88; named Distinguished Professor, 1972.

Life's Work

One of the few African Americans to have enjoyed a successful career in the rather closed-in world of academic musical composition, Ulysses Kay wrote over 135 pieces in genres ranging from solo piano works to full-length opera. Kay was notable for his attitude toward the use of black idioms such as jazz and the spiritual in a classical context: he used such styles when he felt them to be appropriate, but was not particularly identified with the strong African-American influences heard in the music of composers such as William Grant Still and George Gershwin. After composing his opera Frederick Douglass (1991), Kay explained (according to the Washington Post) that "I wasn't composing operas to prove anything. I write out of interest, rather than trying to take on the cause of blackness or whatever.

Ulysses Simpson Kay was born in Tucson, Arizona, on January 7, 1917. His family was especially musical even compared with the often music-friendly environments in which other famous musicians grew up: his mother and sister played the piano, and his father was a barber who occasionally made up original songs to entertain his family. Most important of all was Kay's uncle, the famed New Orleans cornetist and jazz bandleader Joe "King" Oliver. Despite his own band-instrument background, Oliver steered Kay toward formal piano lessons when he started to show an interest in music.

Kay did take up the saxophone later, playing in the school marching band at Tucson Senior High School and sometimes joining jazz ensembles on the side. A small Western college town, Tucson was relatively free of the strict educational segregation imposed in the southeastern states; Kay was able to enroll at the University of Arizona in 1934, and his classical background was helpful as he completed courses for a public school music major. It was at Arizona that Kay first studied music theory and composition, and he was especially impressed by the music of the modern Hungarian compoer Bela Bartók. The so-called "dean of African-American composers," William Grant Still, heard of Kay's work and encouraged his compositional efforts.

The subtle rhythms and brilliant orchestrations of Bartók's music would leave their mark on Kay's own compositions, but a new set of influences was added after Kay won a scholarship to the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York. Eastman's graduate program had shaped the careers of several of the leading American composers of the day, and Kay studied with the crowd-pleasing symphonic composer Howard Hanson. One piece performed while he was at Eastman, the Danse Calinda, was inspired by the African-flavored dances that survived in New Orleans through the era of slavery, but in most of his other works Kay followed the cool, balanced "Neo-Classical" style of another important teacher, the transplanted German Paul Hindemith, with whom Kay worked for two summers at the Tanglewood music festival in Massachusetts.

Kay was able to continue composing during a three-and-a-half-year stint in the U.S. Navy Reserves during World War II. Toward the end of the war his compositions began to gain mainstream performances and critical praise. The New York Philharmonic performed his Of New Horizons at an outdoor concert in 1944. His Suite for Orchestra of 1945 won a prize from the young BMI music-licensing organization, and two years later Leonard Bernstein conducted the New York Philharmonic in the premiere of Kay's Short Overture. By that time Kay had enrolled at Columbia University for further study. He spent a year in Europe on a scholarship in 1947 and 1948.

After his return Kay celebrated two happy events: he married his wife Barbara in 1949 (the couple raised three daughters), and that year he won the prestigious Prix de Rome, enabling him to live in Italy and study for three years. Kay wrote several large orchestral pieces while he was there, and his Concerto for Orchestra was performed by an orchestra in Venice. He also won a Fulbright Scholarship in 1950. Despite these sterling credentials, however, Kay only found work outside of academia when he finally came back to the United States; he was employed for 15 years as a consultant for BMI.

Kay wrote two short operas in the mid-1950s, and in 1958 he joined three other leading composers on a U.S. State Department-sponsored cultural exchange tour of the Soviet Union. The Choral Triptych of 1962 remains one of Kay's most widely performed pieces. After the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, Kay wrote the score for a televised Kennedy tribute, An Essay on Death. In the mid-1960s he took visiting professorships at Boston University, Bucknell University, and the University of California at Los Angeles, and in 1968 he won a permanent appointment at Lehman College, a unit of the City University of New York.

Prestigious commissions, including one from Washington, D.C.'s National Symphony (Western Paradise, for narrator and orchestra, 1975), flowed Kay's way in the 1970s. By that time Kay had forged his mature style, which, according to New Grove Dictionary of American Music contributor Eileen Southern, "is characterized by taut but warm melodies, complex polyphony, vibrant harmonic and orchestral coloring, and rhythmic diversity." Nicolas Slonimsky, writing in Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, noted that Kay avoided what Slonimsky called "ostentatious ethnic elements."

In fact, though, two of the major works of Kay's later career took up African-American themes and necessarily incorporated spirituals and other examples of black music. Both of these were operas: Jubilee (1976, commissioned by Opera/South of Jackson, Mississippi) was based on Margaret Walker's novel of the same title, set in the time of slavery and its aftermath, and Kay's final major work, Frederick Douglass (1991), a musical biography of the abolitionist writer and ex-slave. After receiving numerous honorary doctorates and other academic honors, Kay retired from his Lehman College position in 1988.

Kay died at his home in Teaneck, New Jersey, from the effects of Parkinson's Disease on May 20, 1995. He had done much to inspire a younger generation of African-American classical composers and undeniably blazed trails for them in the academic world, through whose doors almost no African-American composers had passed before. But several of his obituaries noted the contrast between the nearly universal praise his music had received and its relative obscurity. "He was as talented a musician as a Bernstein or a Copland," musical scholar Hildred Roach told the Washington Post. But, said Roach, "he never got the publicity."


Selected: Prix de Rome, 1949; Fulbright Foundation grant, 1950; Guggenheim Fellowship, 1964; resident fellowship, Bellagio Study and Conference Center, Como, Italy, 1982.

© 1985 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone on July 20, 1985.  Portions were used (along with recordings) on WNIB in 1986, 1987, 1989, 1992 and 1997.  The transcription was made and posted on this website in 2009.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.