Composer  Robert  Kelly

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


In March of 1986, composer Robert Kelly agreed to let me call him on the phone for an interview.  We spent about an hour talking about musical subjects, and here is what transpired at that time . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You are now Professor Emeritus from University of Illinois after teaching composition there for thirty years?

Robert Kelly:   Thirty years, yes.

kelly BD:   Let me start by asking you how the teaching of young composers has changed over that time.

Kelly:   In thirty years it changed quite a bit.  The styles of composition were changing during the
50s and 60s, and some of the 70s.  There was a lot of experimentation of writing, especially with electronic music, and computer music, which I didn’t go into at all.  There were other teachers who did that, and there were students who were interested in it, but there are still some students who are interested in the fundamentals and the traditional background.  That’s the kind of student I liked to have.  You have to have a foundation, or where can you go?

BD:   One of the quotes I read from you said that a composer expresses his time by drawing on the trends of the past, and utilizing them, while adding to that with the experimental trends of the present.

Kelly:   Yes, and I still believe that.  That was written a long time ago, when I was much younger in my teaching, but I still believe it.  You have to have a good foundation.

BD:   How much should a composer keep up with all of the trends that are happening today?

Kelly:   He should be aware of them, and listen to them, and participate in them, or experiment with some of the ideas.  Any time you compose, you’re experimenting.  It doesn’t make any difference what style it is.

BD:   [Somewhat surprised]  Really???  You’re even experimenting with old styles?

Kelly:   Yes, sure.

BD:   Do all of the experiments succeed?

Kelly:   Oh, no!  [Much laughter]  Some of them don’t even get past the paper, and to performance.  The composer has to decide when this is not good.  I’m a disciplinarian.  As a teacher, and as a composer myself, I believe in choosing the best that you can put out, and learn to discriminate what are good ideas and what are bad.  But that, of course, is only one person’s opinion.  When it gets out in the public, then there are the critics and others with their own opinions.

BD:   How do you decide what you feel is good and what you feel is bad?  What criteria do you use in making those choices?

Kelly:   I still like to have some kind of lyric quality to my music, for one thing, and I like to have rhythmic drive.  A lot of those are things composers in the past thirty years have thrown away.  They feel it’s old hat.  You shouldn’t have rhythmic drive, and you shouldn’t write things that have key centers or tone centers.  You shouldn’t write anything that’s already been written before.  However, I don’t see how you can avoid this.  A long time ago, Edison said there’s no such thing as a new melody.  I don’t know how to take that, but there’s not a lot of things that are new.  The new things come from your own personality.  When you put your personality and your thoughts into it, it can be a new in a way, but it will have a lot of resemblance of other composers, or other poets, or writers.

BD:   Should it be old ideas used in new directions?

Kelly:   Yes, yes.

BD:   Do you feel that you are part of a line of composers, that your music fits into a line of established composers?

Kelly:   That’s hard for me to say.  I don’t feel I go along with the trends of my colleagues.  There were about six or seven trends going at the same time when I was teaching composition, and I don’t feel I follow any of them.

BD:   Do you feel that you follow the famous forebears in music?

Kelly:   Oh, yes.  I’m influenced a lot by other composers.  In the early days, it was Stravinsky and Bartók, but not so much of Webern and the Schoenberg School.  That never appealed to me too much.

BD:   You say your music always has tonal centers and lyricism.  Is your music, perhaps, easier for the public to grasp than something that is more complex?

Kelly:   I think so, yes.  It depends on which public is listening.  It might be a public that doesn’t like any kind of classical music, and they don’t even understand it.  Or, it might be a public that enjoys listening to ideas, but not as far as going into avant-garde or electronic experimental music.  Those are on the other side of the spectrum.

BD:   Do you write for any specific public, or do you write for yourself?

Kelly:   It’s a combination.  I write for myself, naturally.  Most composers do.  But I also write for other people to enjoy, as well as playing it, and listening to it.  My music is not easy to understand on first hearing.  It takes a long time for some people, but I want people to listen to the music.  I don’t see any use in writing music that you’d feel nobody cares about.  I’m going to write this as I want.  I think Charles Ives did that in a lot of cases... he wrote just what he wanted to, and he didn’t care whether anybody heard it.

BD:   So you care very much about people listening to it?

Kelly:   Oh, yes.  It’s a waste of time if you don’t communicate.  Music is a communication vehicle, and if you don’t communicate to another person, what good are you?  If I had talked to you today in a foreign language, you wouldn’t even understand what I’m talking about.  So, what good would the conversation be?

BD:   It would be a waste of time.

Kelly:   Yes!

BD:   What do you expect from the public that comes to hear your music?

Kelly:   I hope they will come to hear it in the first place, and if they don’t like it, why is that?  They can say something to me if they want to, or not say anything.  I’ve had some people say to me,
I don’t like what you’re writing.  I asked why, and they responded, “You’re just like all the rest of these composers around here.  I can’t understand it.  When they say that, I understand right away that they don’t understand anything that’s new.  They feel I’ve got to write like Tchaikovsky and Brahms, and this I refuse to do.  [Both laugh]  Brahms is already done.  I studied with a teacher who was fifty years my senior at the Curtis Institute of Music, and I guess you could call him a pupil of a pupil of Brahms.  His music sounded like Brahms, and he wanted all his students to write music sounding like Brahms.  Well, I did it up to a point, but after that I didn’t make it like that anymore.

kelly BD:   You went off into your own style?

Kelly:   Yes, and the same thing was true of Hindemith’s teaching.  I didn’t study with Hindemith, but I knew him, and I knew his students.  He expected you to write like Hindemith.  That’s one of the things I refused to do when I was a teacher
to have my students to write like me.  I didn’t want them to do that.  I want them to demand the techniques, the discipline of composing and, after a couple of years, they go off on their own.  If I didn’t like what they wrote, or I couldn’t feel I was qualified to criticize it, they could study with someone else, because we had a variety of teachers at the University of Illinois.

BD:   This is one of my favorite questions to ask composers, who especially those who are teachers and professors of composition.   Is musical composition something that can be taught, or must it be something that is innate to the young composer?

Kelly:   I don’t know whether you can really teach composition.  You can teach some students the techniques, the basics and ideas on how to organize, or you might even let them know some of your inner secrets of how you put a piece together.  But actually, a person learns to compose by himself, really.  I never thought that the teachers I studied with actually helped me to be a composer.  They helped me to learn the techniques.

BD:   They helped you to be a musical craftsman?

Kelly:   Yes.

BD:   In musical composition, how much is technique, or craft, and how much is inspiration?

Kelly:   It’s hard to say.  Usually you come out with fifty-fifty, but I never thought much about it, one way or the other.  I know it’s been a while since I studied composition, so I was always shaping it a bit to write what I want to write, and the teacher would say
I was sounding like this other person.  I was accused of sounding like Roy Harris, and it didn’t sound like Roy Harris or anything else.  If I sounded like anything, it was a little bit impressionistic, and somewhat a mixture of Impressionism and Romanticism.  I would say that my music today is still that, but in a different way, in a more mature way.

BD:   You’ve been composing for fifty years or so.  How has your music changed over the half-century?

Kelly:   A lot of it has to do with organization, and how I structure it.  I learned a lot of things on my own since I’ve been teaching.  If you want to talk about experiments, I’ve experimentally talked on music in my own way, and even that has changed in the last thirty years, as to the approach to it.  Listen to the Second Symphony.  That, and the Patterns for Soprano and Orchestra are similar in a way.  It’s what I call
linear twelve-tone composition.  All the notes are not part of the twelve-tone series, but it’s handled more in my linear way, like the Cantus Firmus in old times.  There you have any part of a given melody, but now the melody would be a twelve-tone melody, and the other voices that are counterpoint and harmony against it are a free choice.  Now I’m beginning to change some to something else, and it brings us a little closer to Webern and Schoenberg, but not completely.  I start working in what I call ‘subsets’.

BD:   Was it a conscious effort to move towards Schoenberg or Webern, or was it was just an evolution of your music?

Kelly:   I’m quite a believer in evolution of creative ideas, as well as evolution in nature.  I’m a student of nature and religion, so those have all influenced my writing.  That’s why I had that connection to Kahlil Gibran, and his first innocent touch with God.  He’s a creative artist, too.  He’s not only a writer, but he did some sculptures and things like that.

BD:   Did you branch out into painting or anything else?

Kelly:   No.  I could have, but I just didn’t want to spend that kind of time.  It’s hard to tell...

BD:   [With hopeful anticipation]  Maybe you’ll get to it yet...

Kelly:   [Laughs]  Well, I don’t suppose so.  I had a student... you probably know him, Jan Bach.

BD:   I have not met him yet.  [I would interview him four years later, in 1990, and it has been transcribed.  Click the link above to read that conversation.]  Didn
t he write a short opera for the New York City Opera when they did a triple bill of new works?  [This was The Student from Salamanca, and was presented in 1980.]

Kelly:   Yes.  He won a prize for it.  He’s teaching at Northern Illinois University now.  When he studied with me, he was torn between wanting to be a painter or a composer, and for a couple of years he didn’t know what to do.  He still dabbles in artistic things, like sketchings, and pen-and-ink.  But you have to make a decision if you go into these fields.  I never had too much of a decision to make, whether to a professional musician as a performer or a composer, or both.  I chose to go into composition, which was stronger than performance... though I still perform on violin and viola.  I’m a string player, and I love to write string music.  In fact, I have a new string piece that is going to be premiered here next Fall.  I’m getting back to some of my folksong ideas, which I wrote back in the late
40s and early 50s.  I kept the tune of Shenandoah, and have now set it for strings.  I’ll probably premiere it next Fall.

BD:   Is your writing for strings more idiomatic than, say, for woodwinds or percussion?

Kelly:   I don’t know.  I don’t think so.  I’m also a clarinetist, so I know woodwinds, and I play a little piano.  I’m also very much interested in percussion.  We have had a wonderful percussion here over all the years.

BD:   Is this something you encourage your students of composition to do
actually learn to play many of the instruments they’re going to write for?

Kelly:   Yes, but not to the extent that Hindemith did.  Hindemith was supposed to have been able to play all these instruments that he wrote for.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let me ask you about the influence of electronics.  This is a two-edged sword.  First, let me ask you about the influence of home consumer electronics, and how has this influenced either composers or audiences over the years.

Kelly:   You’re talking about electronic music?

kelly BD:   No, that is the second edge of the sword.  Firstly, the home stereo systems, and the great proliferation of home music systems.  How has this influenced audiences or composers, either good or bad, or both?

Kelly:   I think it’s a great influence, because you get a chance to hear the composition more than once, indeed many times.  Composers study other composers by playing their music over while looking at the scores to see what they’ve done.  I’ve looked at a lot of George Crumb’s music.  George and I are very good friends.  In fact, we’re from the same state, West Virginia.  I’ve always been very much interested in George’s music... not that I would write like he does.  He’s younger than I am, and I have a lot of respect for him.  He hasn’t gone over into using electronic computer ideas or music... at least he hadn’t the last time I talked to him.  [Both laugh]

BD:   One never knows where one’s imagination is going to lead.

Kelly:   Yes.  I don’t think George has to do that because can get sounds from a few instruments that he finds of his own, like musical stones and things like that.  He can dig up sounds that you can’t even do with electronic music.

BD:   When you’re writing a piece, are you ever surprised where it winds up, where the composition leads you?

Kelly:   Not too much.

BD:   At the beginning, when you set out to write a piece, do you know where it will eventually go?

Kelly:   Yes, yes.  That’s why I say I’ve learned an awful lot of how to construct and organize music in the last thirty years. In fact, I have based a lot of that even on the early training I had.  I can hear what I’m writing, and I know how long this piece is supposed to be, or that I’d like it to be, and the sounds that come out of it.  Once in a while, I’ll experiment with something, some combination that I never used before, and I just have to use my imagination to see if this is what I want.  When I hear it, it’s pretty close to what I had thought it would be.  No, I don’t seem to have too much trouble there.

BD:   You write so-called
classical music.  Is classical music art or entertainment?

Kelly:   I think it’s art.  Popular music is entertainment.

BD:   Is there a place for both in society?

Kelly:   Oh, sure!

BD:   Do you feel that classical music should be entertaining at all?

Kelly:   Oh, yes, it should be entertaining, but not in the same sense as popular music.  I Just listened last night on the radio to some of Irving Berlin’s old tunes that they were playing.  Some of them I really think are great works.  It just surprises me and shocks me to think he could never read music.  He used his piano, but only played in one key.  He had to crank it when he wanted to change into other keys.  [Berlin played almost entirely in the key of F sharp so that he could stay on the black notes, and owned three transposing pianos so as to change keys by moving a lever.]
 Berlin had a lot of creative ideas, not only in the music but in the words.  I don’t know whether you know much about Berlin, but he wrote his own words and music.

BD:   Speaking of words, you’ve done a couple of operas.  Have you also written some songs and choral works?

Kelly:   Yes.

BD:   Have you set your own words?

Kelly:   Some, but not too much.  If possible, I’d rather find the poetry I like, and see if says something to me.

BD:   I want to come back to your own works in a moment, but let me pursue this business of pop versus classic a little bit more.  Is it a mistake for audiences who go to symphony concerts every week to draw an imaginary line between classical and popular music?

Kelly:   I don’t know.  [Laughs]

BD:   It seems that classical aficionados all look down their noses at rock music.

Kelly:   It depends on how far you want to go in popular music.  If you’re going into rock, and acid rock, they’ll not want to hear it because it’s so monotonous.

BD:   Have we really made a third division, after classical and pop, and then rock?

Kelly:   Yes, I think rock is something different than popular music.  When you’re talking about Jerome Kern and Berlin, that’s one thing.  But when you’re talking about others, I mean a rock composers, all I can say is I don’t understand it.  It’s boring, and I don’t want to hear it.  I don’t know how you feel about it...

BD:   I find myself not listening to very much of it at all.

Kelly:   You can’t help hearing it, as there’s so much of it.

BD:   That’s right.  There’s an over-proliferation of it.

Kelly:   I won’t go into that...

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Oh why not???  Please do!  [Both laugh]

Kelly:   Well, my reaction to it means nothing now.  I’d rather give reactions as to why I think serious music writing is better than writing rock music.  I have a lot of respect for the guys who want to do rock, but I think they’re only in it for the money.

BD:   It’s just a commercial venture?

Kelly:   If they can’t make the bucks out of it, this is why it will die.  That’s what happening to all this recording business.  When they’re not selling records, it’s going to hurt all of us.  Of course, the video things are coming out, and they are all taping things.

kelly BD:   Why do you say,
“It’s going to hurt all of us?

Kelly:   I
m a BMI composer, and they’re quite worried about passing laws in Congress.  Eventually it’s going to hurt the serious composer because we get some monies from BMI, and the money comes from pop and rock music.  [Laughs]  So, we’re subsidized by the rock guys.  [BMI is a music-licensing organization, similar to ASCAP.  One of my friends, baritone Roger Roloff, was married to Barbara Petersen, Vice-President of BMI, and she helped set up this and several other interviews with her composers.]

BD:   [With another gentle nudge]  Maybe you should secretly admire the rock guys for making all the money.

Kelly:   Ah, no!  I don’t care what they do.  You can’t sell me any rock music if I don’t want it.

BD:   Let me go back to your idea of just a moment ago.  Why is writing serious music better?

Kelly:   It’s better for me, and it’s better for other composers, most of whom are associated with university situations, because you’re putting out your feelings for others to enjoy, or to listen to, and be curious about.  It’s just the satisfaction you get.  I compose only because I get satisfaction from creating.  If I never got a performance, or if no one ever paid attention to me, I think I’d still write.  I don’t know... I haven’t quite reached that stage yet.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Has all of your music been performed?

Kelly:   Most everything has been performed.  I’ve had a little trouble with this big opera.

BD:   Let’s talk about that opera.  This is The White Gods?

Kelly:   Yes.  I had a grant from the university for a year and a half.

BD:   Was that enough time to work on it?

Kelly:   I got most of it done.  It was for a year, and I didn’t quite finish.  I needed more time, so they gave me another semester, and I still didn’t get it finished.  But they can only give out so many grants.  They have to give other people opportunity.

BD:   Did you finish it up on your own, or is it still left uncompleted?

Kelly:   Oh, the opera’s finished.  It’s been finished, but the stage version’s never been performed completely.  I’ve had parts of it done in concert version, which has been a help to promote it, but it’s going to be difficult to get it on stage because of finances.  I contacted many professional opera companies around the country, and they’d be very happy to do it if I could raise the funds.  They cannot take it out of their budget, and so after a while I get disappointed.  Robert Ward is a good friend of mine, and he said I’m trying to hit the top with it.  He told me to try to get it done in a university situation, like my own place here at the University of Illinois.  They would do it here, but they can’t take it out of their budget to put it on, because it would cost from $8,000 to $10,000 to do it.  That would pay for some of the orchestral musicians, the stage sets, the costumes, and maybe hire a few singers.  I’m not able to come up with $10,000.  I’d like to, but I have not found an angel yet.

BD:   Is this something that will discourage you from writing more operas?

Kelly:   Yes.  I’ve written two operas, and one was the folk opera, which is a one-act.  It didn’t take much to put it on, and it was premiered in Norfolk, Virginia.  Then we did it here, and did it on TV.  It didn’t take more than a $1,000 to put it on.  It’s a one-act opera, but I don’t think I’ll write any more operas because I’m getting too late in life to take on a big one.  I have a poet friend of mine who desperately wants me to write an opera to his text, and I said to him there’s no way.  I said he needs to get a young guy like Jan Bach, and see what he’ll do.

BD:   Are the monetary considerations going to even discourage young people like Jan Bach from doing things like that?

Kelly:   So far he’s been doing pretty well, and he’s writing a full-length opera right now.  I’m just wondering what problems he’s going to have.  When you’ve got to put on a full opera
a tragic opera with all the forces including chorus, orchestra, and big setsyou’re running into expense, and I don’t recommend it for anybody today.  It’s just too expensive.

BD:   Would you set this man’s text to music as an opera if the expense were not a problem?

Kelly:   I doubt it.

BD:   [Wistfully]  If you won the Illinois Lottery, would you then go and do it?

Kelly:   [Laughs]  If I won the Illinois Lottery, I’d put The White Gods on.  That’s my interest right now.  If there’s anything I want to do with that kind of money, it is to put a reduction on of this work.  I’d only do it in the university situation where it would cost less, and not try to do it professionally.

BD:   Is this not something you would want Lyric Opera of Chicago to produce?

Kelly:   Oh, if you could get the funds, I’d be very happy for it to be done there.  I think it’s a great opera.  It’s sung all the way through.  There are no speaking parts in it at all.  It’s about the Aztecs, and the conquest.  It’s a very colorful opera, and in this case, it’s a very rhythmic.  I assume you know Roger Sessions’ Montezuma.  Well, this is just the opposite of what Sessions did.  Sessions is on the Spanish Conquest, and mine is on the Aztec view of the Conquest.  It’s an entirely different thing regarding both in ideas and musically.  Sessions tried to write twelve-tone music, and Aztec music was not twelve-tone.  It was pentatonic, just like Oriental music.  So, my opera, at least for the Aztec Indian part of it, is pentatonic.

BD:   You purposely used their kind of music to give it that flavor?

Kelly:   Yes, definitely.  I did two years of research on this, and I came up with a lot of good ideas.  I didn’t just work on this while I was on that grant.  I worked on it for several years before.  A friend of mine wrote most of the libretto.  It was going to be a two-act opera, and I realized it needed to be three acts.  The first act to present the Aztec culture, and I couldn’t get him to do any of it.  By then, too much time had gone by, so I wrote the libretto myself for that first act.  I think it can be a very successful opera, but you’ve got to have the forces for it, and the money to put it on.  Have you got any connections with Lyric Opera?

BD:   [Sadly]  I just do interviews, I’m afraid.  I don’t have the ability to push works on the management.

Kelly:   I don’t know how much they’re interested in doing premieres.  I know the Penderecki [Paradise Lost] was a world premiere...  [That work was commissioned for the US Bicentennial (1976), but was delayed and premiered at Lyric Opera in  November of 1978, with the production taken to La Scala two months later.]

The General Director of Lyric Opera, Ardis Krainik, presented what she called Toward the Twenty-First Century, an initiative to present new works, as well as revivals of operas from earlier in the Twentieth Century.  Using both the main company, as well as the Lyric Opera Center for American Artists, composers of premieres and recent works included Philip Glass, Hugo Weisgall, Dominick Argento, William Bolcom, Carlisle Floyd, John Corigliano, Gian Carlo Menotti, Luciano Berio, Anthony Davis, Marvin David Levy, John Harbison, John Adams, André Previn, William Neil, Leo Goldstein, Bright Sheng, Bruce Saylor, and Shulamit Ran.  These last five were named as composers-in-residence, and besides the other established composers mentioned, Gunther Schuller and Stephen Paulus assisted in the selection of the budding talent.  Also of note was critic Andrew Porter, who wrote the libretto for the Sheng opera.

BD:   [Trying to be helpful regarding a production of The White Gods]  Send it to Bruno Bartoletti.  He’s the Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of Lyric Opera.  Send to him a score and tapes of what’s been performed.

Kelly:   Yes, well, I’ve done that for so many places, and I get the same answer.  They’d just love to do this, but can I find funds for it?  I’m the guy out there who has to get the money.  If I won the Lottery, as you said, there it is, and we’d have it on stage.  No question, and I could have my own choice of opera company.  [Laughs]  They wouldn’t like that, but if it’s my money, it’s the way it is.  I’ve done things like that before.  I put out my own money, and in fact that’s how the recording for cello came about.  Orion wanted it, but I had to put up the money, so I called the shots.  I went down to Florida.  I had an engineer down there, and we did all the recording sessions.  We came up with a very fine tape.  It’s just one of those records that will not sell much.  Who wants to listen to a pile of cello music?

BD:   But you yourself are pleased with the result?

Kelly:   Oh, yes, the record is very good.  I’m just a little disappointed it in because Orion hasn’t been able to move it and get critical reviews on it.  I got a lot of good critical reviews on the Second Symphony when that came out.  Fortunately, I didn’t have to put in money at all.


BD:   What’s the role of the critic?

Kelly:   To listen to the music, and be honest about what he hears and how he feels.  I don’t know what’s happening with this cello record.  Orion said that they sent out.  They gave me the list of twenty-five or thirty critics, and on the contrary, it didn’t get one review.  I just don’t understand it.  It’s either they don’t have much respect for Orion and what they put out, or they’re just not interested in cello music.  I really don’t know what the racket is in this profession of critics, and getting records, and writing reviews.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Your Second Symphony has been performed a number of times under great conductors.  Do you find that the big-named conductors get more out of your music than perhaps university orchestras, or university conductors?

Kelly:   Oh, yes!  The performances I’ve had with Stokowski and Szell, and even Mitchell in Washington DC have been great.

BD:   Did they find things in your music that even you did not know were there?

Kelly:   I don’t really think so.  They gave it a better performance than a lot of others did.  They were very sympathetic with what I was trying to do.  We had some discussions during the rehearsals, asking questions, which I found were very helpful.  Even when Rafael Kubelik was here, he was very helpful, and made some suggestions.  So did Ansermet.  I have a great respect for these people.  I will listen, and sometimes I’ll change something in the score because they suggested it... and sometimes I won’t.

kelly BD:   What kinds of suggestions did they make?

Kelly:   When I was in Cleveland, and George Szell was rehearsing the Miniature Symphony, he asked me to come up on stage.  So, I sat up there, and the first thing he asked me was if I wanted to conduct.  I said,
Goodness, no!  I came to hear you conduct it!  I know a couple of guys in the orchestra, and they told me that I was very wise.  Most composers, when Szell does that to them, take the stick.  He knows exactly what he’s got to work with.  The concert master, Josef Gingold, made a couple of suggestions.  I’m a violinist, but he made a couple of suggestions about some bowings for the first violin part, and they were marvelous.  I thought it was great, so I said to do it.  The score was published shortly after that, and his bowings are in there.  I’ve had other suggestions.  When we did Patterns, Ansermet made some suggestions about the trumpet part.  A lot of it had to do with dynamic levels being too high for this particular passage. I said his ideas were fine, and later I changed it in the score.  Kubelik made a suggestion in the Miniature Symphony.  In the last movement, which was in 4/8, he said it would be much better just to change the 4/8 to 2/4 meter, and he conducted it that way.  We tried it, and it was a good idea.  So, that’s the way it came out when it was published.  You can learn a lot from conductors and performers.  They’ve been my teachers for all the years.  Like any student, you listen, you accept or you digest it, or maybe even reject it.  I’ve rejected ideas, too.  Thomas Shepard used to have a chamber orchestra in New York, and he was going to think about doing Patterns after it came out.  He wrote to me and said he liked everything except the way I ended it.  He said if I change it, he could probably program it.  So I wrote him back, and said I cannot change it.  It’s the way I feel about it, so if you won’t perform it just because I won’t change it, that’s the way it is.  So, he never performed it.  I wasn’t going to change the music, because it was the whole concept of it at the end.  It wasn’t me, it was him.

BD:   That’s too bad.  I’m sorry that he wouldn’t at least give it a shot, even with the ending he didn’t care for.

Kelly:   That’s the way he felt about it.  My mind was made up.  I would not change it just for a performance.

BD:   Might you tamper with a detail here and there, but not recast the last five minutes?

Kelly:   Yes, but it wouldn’t have changed the idea he wanted.  I had a feeling maybe he didn’t like the interpretation of it.   But I’ve had other people come up to me who knew Amy Lowell’s poem Patterns, and they said my piece was a beautiful setting of it.  It seemed to fit the words right, and they were quite pleased with it.  I have had more comments from people on music where I’ve set poetry for songs and cantatas, which is very gratifying to me when you get those kinds of comments from people who know the texts.  Walden Pond is a later work [called an Environmental Cantata], for mixed chorus, percussion, flute, narrator and soprano.  I took the text from Thoreau, of course.  You could call Thoreau an environmentalist, and that’s the way I feel about life, too.  So, when I get great comments from people who feel the same way about Thoreau as I do, I feel pleased.

BD:   You sought out poetry that meant something to you.

Kelly:   Oh, yes.  It was all my idea to do this.  I wasn’t commissioned.  That’s where I write my best music, when I just use my own ideas.  Somebody commissioned me to write a saxophone concerto.  In the first place, I’m not crazy about saxophone, and the second place I don’t care about somebody paying me $2,500, which is too much, to write the kind of a piece where he tells me how he wants it.  He wants it this way, this way, and that way, and I said
I am not that kind of a composer.  I am not a tailor where you go in and order a suit.

BD:   [Musing on the idea]  It takes various kinds of composers...

Kelly:   Have you heard this kind of viewpoint from many of them?

BD:   Some of them take the commissions, and try to work with the performer a little bit.

Kelly:   Oh, I’m OK with that, but I don’t feel it’s my best work after it’s done, because there’s another person involved in it.

BD:   For you, music is much more personal?

Kelly:   Yes, yes, definitely.

BD:   Do you expect your music to last, and be performed a hundred years from now?

Kelly:   Who’s going to say?  I’m having enough trouble to get it performed right now!  [Both laugh]  Every composer feels the same way
that he didn’t get as many performances as he would have liked.

BD:   Are there enough young composers coming along... or perhaps too many young composers?

Kelly:   I got the surprise of my life when I became a student of composition
and then as a teacherthat there were so many other American composers around the country.  It overwhelmed me that there were so many, and that’s never ceased.  Its just multiplying like rabbits, even today.  You see these lists of younger composers coming up, and some of them are making it, some of them are not.  I’m talking about younger ones in their 20s and 30s.

kelly BD:   Is there room for all of them, even the good ones?

Kelly:   What do you mean by room?  Enough to make a living?

BD:   Yes.

Kelly:   Then yes, if you can get into some kind of a job that will give you money, like teaching or playing in a symphony.  I had two choices when I was coming up
either teach, or play in a symphony.  You can’t make it financially as a composer, at least not too many can.  Maybe Aaron Copland or Samuel Barber, although Sam was teaching at Curtis when I was there.  But he didn’t make his money from composition.

BD:   Are there some great composers coming along?  Is there another Aaron Copland in the pipeline?

Kelly:   Who knows?  It depends on the breaks that you get.  Even some of the best composers don’t get the breaks, and some of the composers who have the talent don’t have the initiative, or the push, to get out there and sell.  It’s awfully hard to sell the product when it is something that you’ve created... at least it is for me.  I’ve done very well with that, but I don’t feel I’ve done as well as some people who stayed around in the New York scene.  I had a choice to make when I was younger
stay around in the New York scene, or get out here in the cornfields of central Illinois.

BD:   Do you think you made the right decision?

Kelly:   Definitely, because it isn’t just for me as a composer.  It’s for me as a family man, and having children.  I could not see raising children in the New York area.  I went to school there for a while, and I know what the environment is.  I didn’t want to raise children in that kind of environment.  It just wasn’t fair to the children.  You’ve got to think of somebody else besides yourself.  I’ve gotten quite a lot of breaks by not living in New York.  I’ve a lot of friends there, and I get some help with performances.  I’ve had more performances in New York than I’ve had in the whole country, though I’ve had other spots where I’ve had a lot of performances around the Mid-West, and a few in the South.

BD:   Do you know all the performances of your music that go on?

Kelly:   No.  I wish I did know, or that they’d be reported to BMI, because we get credits for everything.  Somebody called me from New Jersey the other day... I have a work for piano and percussion called Diacoustics [Op. 48] which is played quite a lot in the percussion field.  It’s a very difficult work, and it’s a virtuoso-type piece, and they called me and they said they had lost some of the parts.  They wanted to know to get a hold of them.  I said I didn’t have any parts, but my publisher did.  I asked if they had a percussionist to perform it, and they said they’d been playing it.  I didn’t even know that this work was being performed.  Sometimes the information gets out in percussion magazines, which I go through, and I see where things are performed.

BD:   Does it ever surprise you that a piece is being performed in some odd place?

Kelly:   This piece does because it’s very difficult.   It was premiered in New York by the Manhattan Percussion Ensemble.  We had it done here, and a lot of the big schools have percussion departments, and have done it.  But it still surprises me when it is done.  They must have a pretty good percussion department, that’s all I can say.  It takes fourteen or fifteen good players, besides a good pianist, and it runs about twenty-two or twenty-three minutes.  
[After a slight pause]  I certainly appreciate all this.  Is this supposed to be for my seventieth birthday [which was coming up about six months hence]?  

BD:   Yes, that would be the first use.  
[At this point we talked a bit about the specific pieces I would be able to play on the radio, and he was sorry that Diacoustics was not available on a commercial disc.  The four LPs I had at that time are shown on this webpage.]  

Kelly:   I hope you’ll do that Sonata (for oboe and harp), even though it’s an old work.  Joseph Robinson is a great oboist, and the harpist is very good too.

BD:   As I look at the various pieces, this seems to be a nice balance
one of the cello pieces, the Sonata, and then the Symphony.  That would make up a nice program, unless you object...

Kelly:   Oh, I don’t object to anything you’re going to do!

BD:   Is it a good feeling to know that you are going to be seventy?

Kelly:   Yes.  [Bursts out laughing]  I don’t pay much attention to age.  It doesn’t mean a whole lot to me.  It depends on how you feel, and I’ve been feeling very good.  But age is kind of deceptive.  You could be fifty and feel washed out, or even younger, and you can be ninety and feel great.

BD:   I hope you get to be ninety and still feel great.

Kelly:   Thank you very much.  I hope you do too!  [Much laughter]  I appreciate you thinking of me for your program.

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© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone on March 8, 1986.  Quotations (read by BD) were included in programs on WNIB in 1986 and 1996.  This transcription was made in 2020, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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

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