Composer / Pianist Earl Kim
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Earl Kim was born in Dinuba,
California, the third son of immigrant Korean parents. He was educated
at Los Angeles City College, the University of California-Los Angeles,
and Harvard University. His principal teachers included Arnold
Schoenberg, Ernest Bloch and Roger Sessions.
Throughout his career, Mr. Kim received considerable recognition as a
composer, including commissions from the Fromm, Koussevitzky
Naumburg Foundations, from the University of Chicago and Boston
University, from individuals and performing organizations; grants from
the Ingram Merrill and Guggenheim Foundations and from the National
Endowment for the Arts; and awards including the Prix de Paris,
National Institute of Arts and Letters Award, Brandeis Creative Arts
Medal and the Mark Horblitt Award of the Boston Symphony.
Mr. Kim served terms as Composer-in-Residence at the Princeton Seminar
in Advanced Musical Studies and at the Marlboro, Dartmouth, Tanglewood,
Cape and Islands, and Aspen Music Festivals. In addition to his work as
a composer and teacher, he was active as a pianist (including lieder
recitals with Bethany
Valente and Dawn
coach and conductor, and was a co-founder and past president of
Musicians Against Nuclear Arms.
Mr. Kim is especially well-known for his extensive work in the idiom of
music theatre, specifically on texts by Samuel Beckett. Representative
works include Exercises en Route,
which has been performed by artists
such as Benita Valente, who has performed it throughout the United
States in both its concert and theatre versions, and Narratives,
premiered by Irene Worth and the Ariel Chamber Ensemble. Eh Joe and the
one-act opera Footfalls were
presented at the Second International
Samuel Beckett Festival in The Hague, where Kim also lectured on the
subject "Setting Beckett" and participated in the "Beckett and Music"
Earl Kim died of lung cancer at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts,
on Thursday, 19th November, 1998, at the age of 78.
-- Throughout this page,
names which are links refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my
In May of 1995, Earl Kim was in Chicago for performances of his
music. We had been in contact for awhile, and were pleased that
this visit worked out for a conversation. Here is what was said
that afternoon . . . . .
We will just talk and I will use various bits and pieces.
Okay, just take whatever you feel is good. So you don’t mind if I
the track sometimes? [Laughs]
do! Often that’s the most interesting material.
of composition and also a composer for many years. How do you
divide your life between those two very taxing activities?
EK: That’s a
very good question, and in fact
it’s very difficult. When I started at Princeton — essentially
1952, since I started at a very junior level — I
had a very heavy load. That’s the usual, of course, and I found
it, in fact, very difficult to find
the time to compose.
BD: When you
first started teaching, were you
teaching composition or were you teaching theory and harmony?
theory and harmony, and composition very soon
after that; analysis, also. I did find it extremely
difficult, but we really don’t have any options. Composers
really don’t have any options in this country.
they have options?
EK: I think
so. I don’t
feel that we would suddenly become lazy and pretend that we are on
welfare, and not compose. [Both laugh] The struggle to
write is mainly
inner-directed. A composer is usually a
pretty obsessive character, and it’s a central part of his life,
something that he really cannot do without. So in that sense I
would not have minded it one single bit if I had a little easier time
and more time to compose. It was very restrictive.
teaching composers, do you look for this obsessive quality to make
sure that it’s there?
certainly attempt to encourage my
students to write what they really believe in, and to hang onto that
because they have to find their own voice. For
young people that’s difficult. Obviously, we don’t teach
composition. You can guide them. You can make some
criticism. You can encourage them... or you can discourage
[Both laugh] But that has always been very much a part
of my attitude toward composition students — to
try to understand
just what it is that they’re aiming for, regardless of the style or the
technique. Whether it’s whole note or serialed, I don’t think
that’s of any consequence.
BD: Is the
general direction they’re aiming all
similar, or are they aiming in different directions completely?
depends on the time. In the
fifties, as you probably know, there was a very, very strong movement
towards writing twelve-tone music. That was really developing and
flourish. In fact, I taught at Princeton with Milton Babbitt, and
although we shared musical ideas, compositionally we were at
opposite poles. But he drew many students because he is
actually a very fabulous musician regardless of whether you care for
his music or not. In fact, I think some of the music that
he’s written is incredibly elegant and rhythmically very, very
interesting. Roger Sessions was teaching at Princeton at the
same time that I came, and Milton was there as well as Eddie
thought it was a very wonderful kind of mixture of outlooks and
BD: It’s so
nice to hear respect from one to another,
even though the styles are so widely divergent.
EK: For a
while, most of the students came
to study with Milton. Then that began to shift as time went on,
and more and more
people came to study with Roger Sessions and me. That was
interesting because it gave me a
sort of insight into the general development in music — in
this country at least — and the direction it was
beginning to take.
BD: At that
time was there still just the one
direction, or had we branched off yet?
EK: No, not
yet. Let me say one
direction because the styles were somewhat personal. I say
“somewhat” because these
students that I am speaking about were still quite young.
BD: Sure, but
one general direction?
very hard to say except for the serial direction. That general
direction was very, very clear, but with the students who departed
from that, you couldn’t make a statement that there was, therefore,
this other direction. It contradicted it only in that there were
philosophical differences, and that’s about as much as one
could fairly say at that time.
BD: Now, as
we move into the sixties and
a different story, because some
of the people who were almost religious about serial writing began to
change their minds. I know this because I’ve had
students who seemed to want to change their direction, and some people
became disenchanted with twelve-tone music.
BD: Did they
become disenchanted because it wasn’t
for them, or did they become disenchanted because it wasn’t for the
EK: That’s a
very good question because to this day I don’t think that music has
very much of a public. But from a teacher-student
point of view, I think they’d be found it somewhat restrictive.
this can mean several things, but the way I interpret this is that
first of all twelve-tone music is incredibly difficult to
write. You have to be a master because you have already, in your
pre-compositional stages, described the parameter in a
very specific way, but you have to really know very maturely what that
is going to yield and what possibilities it contains. When
it didn’t, of course they would abandon it and go on writing.
There’s something rather strange about
that, until they reach the point where they found that it
was not yielding what they were beginning to hear and feel as being
their music. That’s only part of it, of course. There
are some younger composers who are still adamantly serial in their
outlook and in their tastes, but that
number is decreasing.
BD: Do you
purposely discourage your students from
going that way?
EK: No, not
at all. I don’t think
that that is my responsibility. Although it
may even be arrogant to say so, my responsibility is to attempt to find
just what it is
that the student is about and try to encourage whatever that is — if it
is truly what they are about. That’s what teaching is
BD: So it’s
more than just giving them fundamentals
and sending them off on their own?
right. Of course teaching them fundamentals is important, but I
what is lacking in our young students of the past few decades is the
knowledge of the traditional literature.
Yes. Some of them take the attitude
that that is not of great importance.
BD: I wonder
they have Schoenberg and Berg and Webern
and Stravinsky and Bartók. These are the models.
BD: And they
think that’s enough?
Yes. Of course I believe it’s impossible to
be truly a musician — no matter what you’re writing — without having
as a background. That’s your storage of all the wonderful things
that have been created in every respect in terms of beauty,
structurally, dramatically and expressively. I think
that is a constant. Art is about understanding. We
understand each other better when we have art because it is a form of
communication which is unique.
BD: It’s like
a river that keeps flowing, no matter
right, yes. There are going to be divergences from time to time,
maybe that’s even a good thing. It’s something very
natural that should be so.
BD: In your
own music and your own lineage, do you feel that you fit in well
EK: Well, I
was never seriously interested in
twelve-tone music. To go back for a moment, I was trying to find
my way, which is a
kind of tonal music — obviously,
not in the old sense. I don’t feel that I’m in competition with
Mozart, but as a result, I do realize — and did
even at that time — that it was a rather lonely
to be honest, I knew no other path. I did not know any other way
to go, so it wasn’t that it was difficult in that I had to
choose. I had chosen just intuitively. I didn’t make a
conscious decision, but that’s the way it went.
BD: Were you
born in Korea?
EK: No, in
California. My parents were born in Korea.
BD: So then
there’s really very little
influence of the Korean music and the Korean style in your work?
that’s a question I’ve often asked. There was Korean music in our
home. My mother used to sing — not professionally — and my uncle
played the Korean drum. There are people who
danced, and it would be a social kind of evening with food and then
music and dancing. So I did hear it and was aware
BD: When you
then came to
western music, did you leave the Korean behind or did you try
to bring the two styles together?
EK: No, I’ve
never consciously tried to bring them
together, because when I went to school my training was
totally western. I took harmony and counterpoint in
college, and I studied with Schoenberg and Sessions and Bloch. Of
course, that was totally western.
BD: Being of
the Korean ancestry, did you then seek out Korean ideas later on?
EK: Only once
because I felt that it would be
interesting and challenging to do so. I’ve
already forgotten the source, but I found a traditional Korean tune
based on a poetic form. I
thought that it was a very beautiful tune, and that it would be
challenging to try to set the tune using my own harmonies but trying
to solve it. I was quite pleased with it, as a matter of
fact, and that was one of three songs that became a cycle called
Letters found Near a Suicide.
The texts were by
a Negro poet. They were extremely personal and very interesting,
and not as gruesome as the title sounds. I was quite happy
with my solution, but I really didn’t pursue it consciously. It
was just that one time when I actually used Korean material.
Probably somewhere in the
genes there’s an influence that we can’t really prove or
define, but I don’t know whether my attitude towards music and
the kinds of things I write have anything to do, really, with my
certainly manifests itself, even
slightly, in the lyricism of your music.
Yes. There are very few notes, for
example. It has the kind of simple aspect to it. I am very
interested in the human voice, and of course much of the folk music as
well as the traditional music was passed on, as you know, as the oral
tradition from person to person. Teaching them a
song, it becomes somewhat transformed as the centuries
BD: Then tell
me the joys and sorrows of working with, and writing for, the
[Laughs] Well, there are a couple of answers
to that. First of all, I happen to like the human voice because
for me it is perhaps the most expressive, direct means of
communication. There’s no intervention of other things, although
can be combined, of course, with other instruments. That’s one
thing. The other thing is that I’m very fond of texts, of words,
of poetry as a sort of a secondary passion of mine. So it’s
quite natural that I’d want to combine the two. Also, I was
fortunate in knowing some years back Bethany Beardslee, who
was absolutely crucial in spreading the word about contemporary
music. So I did write things
for her, as well as other people later on. But she’s
the one that would be known these days to people who are knowledgeable
contemporary music. I was her coach
for ten years, so obviously I learned a great deal about
the voice. I have an anecdote... When I went to Los Angeles
Junior College — where you
paid an athletic fee of five dollars and you could go to college and
that was it — and there was a wonderful
Jewish conductor named Hugo Strelitzer who had come from Germany very
early on. He was
at one time Assistant Conductor of the Berlin Opera. Probably
heard of him. He decided that he and a friend of his, who was a
pianist, would like to give the musicians and the singers some
training. So he decided to put on the Marriage of Figaro. One day
he said to me, “I need help. I can’t do
this all by myself. It’s huge. We’ll do a two-piano
version. It’ll be very simply staged, and you’re going to coach
Susanna.” I was seventeen, and of course that
was an extraordinary experience for me!
BD: At that
time were you also working on
would hardly call them compositions. I started as a
pianist. So anyway, my love for the voice and especially Mozart
goes way, way
back. I worked with Bethany much, much later, and one of the
things that we dared do, which turned out to be incredibly successful,
was Die Schöne Müllerin.
Interesting because that’s usually sung by a male.
absolutely. She said, “I want to sing
it because the music is beautiful. I
will sing it as if I’m telling the story about it, rather than being
it.” This was when I was at Princeton.
Lehmann sang it, but she’s the only other woman that I know that
would have sung it back then.
that’s right. She sang
Winterreise, too, didn’t she?
EK: It’s funny
— for some reason Schoenberg hated
Lotte Lehmann. He used to imitate her singing “Die Treue” from
Winterreise. It was both
hilarious and embarrassing. [Both laugh] Anyway, that’s
BD: So you
wound up coaching Bethany?
Yes. I worked with her for a long
time. We did local recitals in Princeton, and we played in
Washington and other places. But I feel that the most important
thing that I
learned working with her was Die
Schöne Müllerin. We worked on
it for one year — and religiously. I don’t mean once
a month. It
was absolutely a great experience.
many times did you get to perform
it with her?
twice. But what interests me, aside from
the fact that of course my friends liked it — but
anyway — no one said, “But this is a man’s
cycle,” or “It wasn’t beautiful, or it was not
appropriate, or I didn’t like it.” No such comment came, which
very interesting. These were knowledgeable people, too, who
knew the cycle and that it was written essentially for a tenor.
After that I had the
good fortune of working for a while with Benita Valente. We did a
lieder recital in Cambridge at
Sander’s Theater. It was mainly Schubert and Schumann, and that
was a marvelous experience for me, too.
BD: Now when
you write something for the voice, do you have the specific voice in
going to sing it?
BD: Or do you
have just a specific voice type?
Both. It depends on the
poem and whether it strikes me as, “Oh yes, I’m
Benita would be the person for this,” or whether
it’s just, “What
an incredible poem, I want to set this for voice.”
Considerably later I met Dawn Upshaw when she was just beginning.
We met at Tanglewood. Yehudi Wyner had
heard her sing and said,
“Earl, you’ve got to
hear this young lady. She’s something!” So we made a
date, and as you know, in Tanglewood have these little sheds about the
size of a shoebox where the kids rehearse. We found an empty one
sang “Ach, ich fühl’s” from
Magic Flute and “Die junge
Nonne” by Schubert. I
thought she was terrific, so I asked, “Would you like to work
together?” She said, “That would be wonderful.” Somewhat
later, when she won the young concert artist thing — she’s
won everything, but I think that was one of the first ones —
we did a
recital. That was mainly Schubert, Schumann, Berg, and one of
my pieces. That was also wonderful.
BD: That is
the piece she has recorded?
Yes. That was first premiered by Benita
BD: Oh, so
that wasn’t written for her?
EK: No, it
wasn’t, but she
recorded it. That’s the chamber version. It’s actually for
large string orchestra, but she asked if she could do it for a smaller
group and I said yes.
BD: Did you
make the arrangement, or did
somebody else do that?
EK: There was
not very much to it. I didn’t want to
write a new piece. It is the same piece but really
re-orchestrated. I did almost nothing to change it. All the
pitches are there except for smaller forces.
Therefore, it is more difficult to play as far as the individual parts
Everybody’s doing more and you just make sure
right. Exactly. It’s much more exposed as a result,
too. But it works or I wouldn’t have released it. She does
a beautiful job. Dawn
also did it at Carnegie Hall, as did Benita. Benita’s doing it in
BD: You have
dueling sopranos! [Both laugh]
Yes. As a matter of
fact, the first time Dawn heard Benita was at Tanglewood when Benita
sang this group of pieces that she’s singing on Friday. She said
she was her idol, and Benita, of course, respects Dawn very much.
advice do you have for a composer who
wants to write for the human voice?
EK: Oh, gee,
I’ve never thought
about that! [Laughs] First of all, I believe in choosing a
text that I absolutely am in love with. I cannot set a text which
I like but which I’m not passionate about. I just can’t set
it. In fact, I have to almost like every word, and even beyond
the meaning of the
word, I have to like the sound of the word.
BD: Do you
ever change the text at all?
rarely. Once in a
while I might change one word because of the sound. Of
course the rhythm is incredibly important, that is the rhythmic sense
that the poem makes. Although I may not follow it exactly, it
give me ideas immediately about the character, the emotional quality
and so on. So I guess one bit of my advice, if I were to give
was first of all to be sure that the text was very meaningful and
personal before they would set out to set it to music. I
think it’s important.
BD: Do you
read poetry all the time?
mentioning any specific poems, are there times that you come across a
poem and think, “That poem is so complete it can’t have music put with
wouldn’t put it exactly that way, but I
understand what you’re saying. I might read a poem and say I
wouldn’t want to set this as a song. That is, it doesn’t lend
BD: Not that
it doesn’t move you...
EK: Oh, no,
no, no, no. Not at all!
just couldn’t add to it.
right, yes. As a matter of fact, I have to confess my
arrogance on that subject. I’ve always wanted to write some
French songs in French.
of the sound?
sound, yes, the sound, and Debussy and Fauré, etcetera.
When I was a
student at Berkeley, I got what they call the Prix de Paris for two
years and I went to Paris. I’m not fluent in the language, but I
have the sound of the language in my ear. But I always only set
translations because I
felt I don’t know French well enough, and indeed it
would be very arrogant to do so. But I’m getting on in years, and
this is something I want to do!
should do it!
EK: So I
should. Exactly. So, I did! But the funny thing is
that the three poems that
I chose have already been set by Debussy, and some of them had been
set by Fauré. As you know, a lot of people have set a lot
things from the Classical literature, for
example Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Hugo Wolf all the same text.
Anyway, that was a lot
of fun for that reason. It seemed sort of adventuresome,
and stylistically it was somewhat different from what I had been
some adventurous singer program the
Debussy setting and your setting on the same program?
EK: Yes, I
wish they would. I think it would be interesting. When I
showed them to Bethany, fortunately
she loved them. I forget which one, but she said, “I think this
one’s better than Debussy.”
BD: A high
EK: Well, I
don’t know. I said,
“I don’t know about that, Bethany, but I sure had fun writing
them.” [Laughs] They’re for string quartet and soprano, so
it takes it away from the
piano-voice comparison, too. My biggest love was Samuel
Beckett. I did get permission to set one of his little
things. It’s an addenda to his English
novel Watt. It’s very
of a prose poem, and I loved it. What I had become interested
in, coincidentally, was palindromes, and the text suggested that in the
way that he
repeated things. Also the poem suggested silences in its content
and its stance. At that time I happened to be very
interested in those two things, so that was the
beginning. I went to Paris to visit him without telling him
that I was coming to Paris to visit him. I brought this very
short piece, which was
called Dead Calm. He
did give me an interview, which was
wonderful. I went up to his apartment and he wasn’t very
friendly. He indeed was a man of very few words, but everything
he said was absolutely telling, just like what he writes. I told
him that I had brought this piece for
him to see, and that I had brought a tape and perhaps he would like to
hear the tape. He said, “I don’t own a tape machine.” The
man who wrote Krapp’s Last Tape!
[Both laugh] Anyway, he said he would like to look at
the score. It’s a very short piece, but he turned each page
very methodically and seemed to be looking at all the notes. This
took about five or six minutes. I just sat there in
silence, wondering what in the world he was going to say! Then he
closed it and said, “Not many
notes.” [Both laugh] Then he said, “I don’t see why
anyone should set my text to music,” and I said, “I absolutely
agree with you. However, the reason I’m here is to ask
permission to set parts of your Krapp’s
Late Tape, Malone Dies,
etcetera.” Then we talked some more, and it was
actually a very long conversation that we had.
BD: Did he
subsequently hear some of these
Yes. As I left he said, “If you
speak to my publisher, I’m sure they will give you permission,” which
was a very sweet way of putting it. They have to ask him,
naturally! [Laughs] So I
started getting permission for many, many texts. I did a
setting of Eh Joe. It’s
for teleprojected actor and instruments and a speaker. It has a
woman’s voice, and Irene Worth did the performance of it. I
sent him a tape of that and I did get a very nice card back from him
thanking me for the pleasure that it gave him. It was very sweet
something with text, obviously you know the direction it’s going
because the text dictates it.
you’re working without a text, do you know at the beginning where the
composition is going to go?
you say about the text, of course, is true, but even with a text,
since that is indeed a guide of sorts, if you gave that to ten
different composers, the guide would be totally different! I tend
to put one note after the
next. That’s an over-simplification, but I don’t
usually have pre-compositional plans and structures and designs.
That happens very
rarely. Obviously I often know where it’s going to go or
how it’s going to end or how this section is going to be, but
essentially I start with this note and go until I’m finished.
[Vis-à-vis the recording
shown at right, Earthlight is
a “Romanza for High Soprano, Violin con sordini, Piano, and
Lights, based on texts of Samuel Beckett.” It is part
of Narratives, a
music-theater piece, hence the lighting and staging are integral to its
performance. Also see my Interviews with Chou Wen-Chung, and Roger Reynolds.]
BD: Are you
always controlling where it’s going, or
do you let it go on its own?
happens. Those are very happy moments because when
the music seems to find its own way, obviously your intuition is
guiding it, but there is no conscious feeling that you are composing it
and making it do this. Those are precious moments,
and sometimes they are your best moments.
BD: Most of
the time do the notes just
flow, or is it a struggle?
Both. When I was beginning to compose and I didn’t have much time
— this whole business that you first asked about teaching
to compose — composing was, indeed, a
struggle; very much so, very difficult, very hard. I was always
revising, trying to make it work. As I grew older I got a little
more fluent. I tend to
work slowly anyway, regardless of anything, but that was... well,
sometimes it was almost torture, it was so difficult.
BD: In the
end is it all worth it?
Yes. Oh, absolutely, yes! When students were applying at
Princeton and at Harvard and they said
they were interested in music and they had composed some stuff and so
on, often I would ask them, “Can you live without doing
this?” If the answer was, “Sure,” I said, “Well, I think
you’re in the wrong business.”
BD: So it
must be an all-consuming?
EK: I think
so, yes. It’s not like taking some
job where you learn, say, to do a computer and you can change
and do something else. I think one has to be so taken
with the activity of it, and with the testing of one’s imagination and
which is always a challenge. The next piece is always
different. It may sound the same in some respects because it’s
the same person, but it’s always a challenge. It’s the adventure
of discovering how you can solve a problem you hadn’t solved in the
previous piece that you hope will emerge somehow in a different
way that you will be happier with.
you’re getting commissions, do you look
for something that is different, or do you look for something that is
similar to what you’ve been doing?
depends. Sometimes I like to break away
and do something as dissimilar as possible, so that I won’t feel that
I’m getting bogged down and writing stylistically too easily. But
continuity is, on the other hand, very, very important to continue with
what you had started to investigate in the way that you write and the
procedures and whatever. I am working
on a piece, which is not complete yet, for accordion.
Yes. [Laughs] Everyone says, “Really?”
BD: I’ve done
a couple of programs with
new music for accordion, and I’ve found a number of pieces by various
composers for accordion, and accordion and chamber ensemble, and even a
couple of concertos. [See my Interview with Robert
because I met a young
lady who won the Gaudeamus Prize a couple of years ago named Margit
Kern. She’s from
Hamburg, Germany, and she’s an artist. She makes music
— the phrasing and
the elegance of the legatos, the contrasts, the whole thing.
It was absolutely a revelation! I was in
Amsterdam. They have one of the oldies there and they have the
young composers who are thirty years and younger from all over
the world. I had to lead
discussions and so on, and that’s when I heard her play. I
thought, “My God, this is a revelation! Just for the
fun of it I should try writing something.” So I went home and
BD: Did you
have to learn what the accordion
could or could not do?
EK: A little
bit. The amount of
information you have to have to truly be comfortable with
the instrument is staggering. So I took great advantage of
Margit. I would send her stuff and say, “Is this okay?” She
sent me a chart for the buttons and the stops and the doublings.
I did look at that but it drove me crazy. But you should hear her
Scarlatti. It’s delightful. I was so amazed! It was
wonderful. She’s a wonderful musician.
BD: So you
were trying to squeeze everything out of
the squeeze box? [Both laugh]
right. Seriously, the subtlety of
the squeeze is virtuosic. It can be so miniscule in its shaping
phrase, and yes, it was very exciting.
should then move on and do a harmonica
Right. Well, that’s been done. Is Larry Adler still alive?
BD: I believe
so. I have done
interviews with Malcolm
Arnold and Morton
Gould who have written pieces
EK: I heard
first when I was very young at the Hollywood Bowl in
California. I thought it was sensational!
someone comes to you with an idea for writing something, how do you
decide if you
will accept it or turn it aside?
depends on the nature of the idea.
Most of the commissions I’ve received were things I wanted to write.
They were according to my own suggestion. When I wrote for Itzhak
Perlman, he wanted a violin concerto and I was very happy to
oblige! Then he wanted a piece that was not a concerto, and I
wrote Twelve Caprices for Solo Violin,
which he’s played a lot in
this country and in Europe. Now he wants a violin sonata, and
I don’t know why that’s taking a long time in coming. I haven’t
even started on it. It’s such an extraordinary opportunity today
to have Itzhak Perlman playing your music. But it’s
the same with Benita and Dawn and all these people. I feel that I
have been incredibly fortunate in having made these connections and
it off well. That doesn’t always happen.
BD: When you
write a piece of
music, whether it’s for one of these extraordinary performers or just
for someone, do you expect interpretation on their part, or
do you want them to play it just exactly the way you have written?
EK: I tend to
like them to play it as much as
possible the way I hear it when I compose it. Obviously
that is not possible, but I’m not sure
about this. I’m extremely demanding on how I want my piece to
go. I feel that I’m fortunate because most players
have absolutely appreciated that, rather than saying, “Look, just let
your music. You’ve written it and now it’s
ours.” I’ve also had very good fortune in
working with groups who welcome me and say, “Please come to the
rehearsal.” In that
sense, I usually get closer to what I want than if
I had just let them look at it. As you know, it’s not as if
they’re going to play it fifty times. [Both laugh]
BD: Is there
such a thing as a perfect
unless you want to say there
are many perfect performances. I think one can say that of
performances of Beethoven or Mahler or whatever. When you hear
some of the giants conduct them, you always think, “That’s it.”
Then someone else performs it and it’s just as splendid but very
different. One would hope, of course, that our music will
have enough performances some day so that the same would be also true,
they would find things in it which you don’t necessarily hear
immediately or intend specifically. In any good
performance, a really great performer reinvents the composition, but
somewhere in that reinvention he comes
very close to what you want. That seems almost like a
contradiction, but I think that’s what happens with a real artist.
must be a communication
back and forth between the composer and performer?
yes, but we don’t get too much of
a chance for that. I’ve had some pieces that have, so far, had a
long life, but that means maybe they were performed twenty times.
Some pieces have been performed only five times, and so on, so that
can’t happen really.
BD: What can
we do to encourage more
performances of more new music?
EK: I really
don’t know because so many things
have been tried. First of all, I like it best when my music
is performed not on a “New Music”
BD: You want
to mix the program?
Yes. For better or for
worse, I want it to be treated like this is a piece that is going to be
played on this program, and it happens to have Schubert or
something else with it. Fine. That kind of
programming is much more conducive to winning an audience.
They’re not going to come for one thing; maybe they’re going to come
for the other. Now I’ve been told, “Yes, but then when they play
your piece, they’re going to walk out anyway.” Well, not all of
they’ll find it’s not so bad.
Sometimes, yes. They even find that they’re liking it, God
forbid! [Both laugh] But it goes beyond that. Our
society as a society is so anti-cultural, and that has a
lot to do with discouragement of music, especially contemporary
music. So we composers built our little cells and operated in our
little, tiny spheres, for our little, tiny audiences. Perhaps
that has something to do with the change of styles and so
on. When you ask if this is partly because no one
wants to hear this kind of music that you change, I think that’s
BD: Then what
do you expect of the audience that
comes to hear your music?
EK: That’s a
hard one. Of course, I want them
to listen — I mean to really listen —
and whether they like
it or not, if they respond to it in some hopefully strong
way, naturally I would prefer that to be positive.
BD: Do you
have the audience in mind when you’re
BD: Not at
EK: No, I
don’t. I have to like the
piece myself, though, or it doesn’t have much of a
just passed your
seventieth birthday. Are you pleased with where you are at this
Yes. I have already explained that I’m a
slow worker. I suppose if I were somewhat different in
personality, or if you were to ask me what would be your wish, I wish I
would naturally write twice as fast. But I don’t,
and I’ve settled for it because if I’m happy with what I’m writing, I
don’t mind that I take a long time. I’ve been pretty fortunate in
commissions and support now and then, which help. I retired in
1990. I took some private students for a couple of years
afterwards, but now I don’t. It’s very hard to say how
that affected me, although it’s entirely a new ballgame. But I
don’t have to be preoccupied with trying to get funds so we can play
more music, or going to department meetings, most of which have to do
with the business of the department, and it’s boring.
BD: Has the
sound of your music changed now that
you’re relived of those problems?
EK: I don’t
think so, no.
BD: So then
you’ve been true to yourself all along?
EK: I think
so, yes. I like to feel that I have been.
BD: Thank you
for all of the music you have
given us, and I look forward to even more things from your pen.
thank you. Thank you.
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© 1995 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in
Chicago on May 29, 1995. Portions were also used (with
recordings) on WNIB later that year, and again in 2000. A copy of
the unedited audio was placed in the Archive
of Contemporary Music at Northwestern
University. This transcription was posted on this
website early in 2013.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
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
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.