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 and 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 Beardslee, Benita Valente and Dawn Upshaw), vocal 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" panel.

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 website.  BD 

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 . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    We will just talk and I will use various bits and pieces.

Earl Kim:    Okay, just take whatever you feel is good.  So you don’t mind if I get off the track sometimes?  [Laughs]

BD:    Please do!  Often that’s the most interesting material.

EK:    Sometimes that’s true.

BD:    You’ve been teacher 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 at 1952, since I started at a very junior levelI 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?

EK:    Mainly 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.

BD:    Should they have options?

earl kim 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.

BD:    When you’re teaching composers, do you look for this obsessive quality to make sure that it’s there?

EK:    I 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 them.  [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?

EK:    It 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 beginning to 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 Cone.  I thought it was a very wonderful kind of mixture of outlooks and attitudes.

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 leastand 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?

EK:    That’s 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 some 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 the seventies...

EK:    ...that’s 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 public?

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.  Now 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 about.

BD:    So it’s more than just giving them fundamentals and sending them off on their own?

EK:    That’s right.  Of course teaching them fundamentals is important, but I find that what is lacking in our young students of the past few decades is the knowledge of the traditional literature.

BD:    Really???

EK:    Yes.  Some of them take the attitude that that is not of great importance.

BD:    I wonder why.

EK:    Well, they have Schoenberg and Berg and Webern and Stravinsky and Bartók.  These are the models.

BD:    And they think that’s enough?

EK:    Yes.  Of course I believe it’s impossible to be truly a musician — no matter what you’re writing — without having that 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 what?

EK:    That’s right, yes.  There are going to be divergences from time to time, and 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 through this ongoing river?

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 realizeand did realize even at that timethat it was a rather lonely path.  However, 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?

:    Well, 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 of it.

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 national heritage.

BD:    It certainly manifests itself, even slightly, in the lyricism of your music.

EK:    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 went by.

BD:    Then tell me the joys and sorrows of working with, and writing for, the human voice.

EK:    [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 it 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 about 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 you’ve never heard of him.  He decided that he and a friend of his, who was a very brilliant 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 composition?

EK:    Just barely.  I 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.

BD:    Interesting because that’s usually sung by a male.

EK:    Oh, 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.

BD:    Lotte Lehmann sang it, but she’s the only other woman that I know that would have sung it back then.

EK:    Yes, that’s right.  She sang Winterreise, too, didn’t she?

BD:    Yes.

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 another story.

BD:    So you wound up coaching Bethany?

EK:    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.

kim BD:    Then how many times did you get to perform it with her?

EK:    Only twice.  But what interests me, aside from the fact that of course my friends liked it
but they would 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 was 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 mind that’s going to sing it?

EK:    Sometimes.

BD:    Or do you have just a specific voice type?

EK:    Both.  It depends on the poem and whether it strikes me as,
“Oh yes, I’m sure that 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 and she 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 oneswe 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?

EK:    Yes.  That was first premiered by Benita Valente.

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 a 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 are concerned.

BD:    Everybody’s doing more and you just make sure everything’s covered?

EK:    That’s 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 Stuttgart in October.

BD:    You have dueling sopranos!  [Both laugh]

EK:    [Laughs] 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.

BD:    What 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?

EK:    Very 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 does 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 any, 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?

EK:    Yes.

BD:    Without 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 it”?

EK:    I 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 itself.

BD:    Not that it doesn’t move you...

EK:    Oh, no, no, no, no.  Not at all!

BD: just couldn’t add to it.

EK:    That’s 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. 

kim BD:    Because of the sound?

EK:    The 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!

BD:    You 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 of 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 writing.

BD:    Should 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 compliment.

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 short, sort 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 performances?

EK:    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 and generous.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you’re setting something with text, obviously you know the direction it’s going because the text dictates it.

kim EK:    Yes, that’s right.

BD:    When you’re working without a text, do you know at the beginning where the composition is going to go?

EK:    Not necessarily.  What 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?

EK:    Occasionally that 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?

EK:    Both.  When I was beginning to compose and I didn’t have much time
this whole business that you first asked about teaching and trying to composecomposing 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?

EK:    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 so on, 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.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When 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?

EK:    It 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 sometimes the 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.

BD:    Really???

EK:    Yes.  [Laughs]  Everyone says, “Really?”  [Both laugh]

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 Davine.]

EK:    It’s 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 wrote something!

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 play 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]

EK:    Yes, right.  Seriously, the subtlety of the squeeze is virtuosic.  It can be so miniscule in its shaping of a phrase, and yes, it was very exciting.

BD:    You should then move on and do a harmonica concerto.

EK:    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 for him.

kim EK:    I heard him first when I was very young at the Hollywood Bowl in California.  I thought it was sensational!

BD:    If someone comes to you with an idea for writing something, how do you decide if you will accept it or turn it aside?

EK:    It 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 having hit 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 us play 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 performance?

EK:    No, 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, that 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.

BD:    There must be a communication back and forth between the composer and performer?

EK:    Exactly, 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 concert.

BD:    You want to mix the program?

EK:    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 them.

BD:    Maybe they’ll find it’s not so bad.

EK:    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 partly true.

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 writing?

EK:    No.

BD:    Not at all?

EK:    No, I don’t.  I have to like the piece myself, though, or it doesn’t have much of a chance.


See my Interviews with Robert Helps, Kent Kennan, Samuel Adler, Miriam Gideon, Paul A. Pisk,
Mel Powell, Alan Hovhaness, George Perle, Ernst Bacon, and Josef Alexander.

BD:    You’ve just passed your seventieth birthday.  Are you pleased with where you are at this age?

EK:    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 getting 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.

EK:    Well, thank you.  Thank you.


=====   =====   =====   =====   =====
- - - - - - - - - - - -
=====   =====   =====   =====   =====

© 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.

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.

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.