Composer / Author  Ellis  B.  Kohs

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Ellis Bonoff Kohs (May 12, 1916 – May 17, 2000) was an American composer, theory textbook author, and Professor at the University of Southern California.

Born in Chicago to Pauline Bonoff, a school teacher of Russian Jewish extraction, and Samuel C. Kohs, Ellis grew up in San Francisco, where he undertook his early musical studies at the San Francisco Conservatory. In 1928, his family moved to New York where he entered the Institute of Musical Art. He continued his studies at the University of Chicago, studying composition with Carl Bricken. After he completed his master's degree there in 1938, he returned to New York and enrolled at the Juilliard School, where he studied composition with Bernard Wagenaar. He also studied composition with Walter Piston, and musicology with Willi Apel and Hugo Leichtentritt at Harvard University. During World War II, Kohs conducted the Army and Air Force bands at Fort Benning, Georgia, St. Joseph, Missouri, and Nashville. After the war, he joined the faculty of Wesleyan University, where he taught composition from 1946 to 1948, and the Kansas City Conservatory, where he taught during the summers of 1946 and 1947.

He moved to California in 1948 and undertook teaching positions at the College of the Pacific, and at Stanford University. He began teaching at USC in 1950 where he remained on the faculty for 38 years, serving as chairman of the music theory department for several years.

Kohs' stage works include Amerika (1969), an opera based on Kafka's novel, Lohiau and Hiiaka, a choreographed setting of a Hawaiian legend, and incidental music for Shakespeare's Macbeth (1947). His orchestral works include a Concerto for Orchestra (1942), a Cello Concerto (1947), a Violin Concerto (1980) and two symphonies (1950 and 1957). His vocal works included settings of Navajo songs and The Lord Ascendant, based on The Epic of Gilgamesh. He also composed solo and chamber music.

A recording of Kohs' music, including the Chamber Concerto, Passacaglia for Organ and Strings, Toccata for Harpsichord or Piano, Short Concert for String Quartet, and Sonatina for Violin and Piano was released on Composers Recordings, Inc.


See my interview with Ralph Shapey

In addition to composing, Kohs wrote several music theory textbooks, including Music Theory, a Syllabus for Teacher and Student (1961), Musical Form: Studies in Analysis and Synthesis (1976), and Musical Composition: Projects in Ways and Means (1980).

kohs People have often asked me how I decided where in the radio programming I would put my interview guests.  The answer was quite simple...  Early on, I stumbled on a very workable system, which was to celebrate Round Birthdays.  So, when a guest would turn fifty, or sixty, or sixty-five, or similar, they would get a program of music with sections of the interview.  This system had the advantage of not only being color-blind and gender-blind, it removed the stress of worrying if I had given this one enough exposure, or neglected that other one.

The system did not preclude me from doing other programs, such as when a special new recording came out, or if they were having live performances in the Chicago area.

With that in mind, early in 1986, I contacted Ellis Kohs, since he was going to have a seventieth birthday that coming May, and he agreed to let me call him for an interview.  He was forthright in our conversation, and related several interesting and noteworthy stories, as well as sharing the depth of his knowledge and insight.

The program was done at the appropriate time, and repeated both five and ten years later.

Now, on this webpage is the entire interview from March of that year.  Names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.

Ellis B. Kohs:   [Picking up the telephone]  Hello?

Bruce Duffie:   May I speak with Ellis Kohs, please?

Kohs:   Speaking.

BD:   This is Bruce Duffie in Chicago.

Kohs:   You’re right on the button.

BD:   I try to be accurate.  How are things in Los Angeles?

Kohs:   Everything is fine... a little bit foggy today, but otherwise okay.

BD:   Good.  [Then, a bit more chit-chat while I adjusted recording levels, etc.]  You taught Theory and Composition at a number of universities, principally at USC [University of Southern California, in Los Angeles]?

Kohs:   Yes, I’ve been to USC since 1950.

BD:   How has the teaching of young composers changed in 35 years?

Kohs:   It has changed not only in my own experience, but worldwide because the opportunities to hear what is going on have grown enormously.  Also, the number of schools has grown, and the number of people teaching has grown a great deal.  There’s probably more freedom for young composers studying today than there was thirty-five years ago.  I’m not altogether sure if that’s good or bad, but it is a fact of life.

BD:   Freedom in what way?

Kohs:   Freedom from the traditional discipline, or you might say counterpoint, harmony, all of those things which, when I was studying, seemed an absolute necessity, because one had to balance very firmly on the past.  That is not regarded as quite as significant and necessary, because now the past does not seem to stretch back quite as far.

BD:   Are you suggesting that young composers don’t need to study the past at all?

Kohs:   Only because there is more of it.  Our familiarity with the deep past, the pre-Bach period, was really just first becoming available to students in the United States particularly.   Now we can take that for granted, even though it is there in our libraries.  Our students tend to feel that it’s very important to be up to date, and not all of them are so concerned to know their more ancient past.  Perhaps they’re more influenced more by distant geographical place.  The Orient has come into the picture, and philosophical ideas
such as those of John Cage and people who are related to himhave come in.  There are enormous numbers of influences.  In my early years, Stravinsky and Schoenberg were the two polar giants.  As they were the two quite different personalities, one would have to make peace with where you would wished to become oriented.  Nowadays, there are no giants of comparable size.  Again, whether that’s good or bad, I’m not sure, but it is a fact of life.

BD:   There is a general complaint that there are no American heroes for young people to look up to.  Is the same thing happening in music
are there are no musical heroes to look up to?

kohs Kohs:   There are few musical heroes.  Copland can be regarded as a hero, although I don’t think there are very many composers today who wish to emulate him, or feel that there’s any need to emulate him.  He has accomplished what he has accomplished, and he is still held up as a hero.  Perhaps there is a small number of othersvery fewwho would be held in similar esteem and affection.

BD:   Are there some coming along that may stand beside a Copland or a Stravinsky?

Kohs:   They may be there, but I don’t quite see them.  Figures like these commanded not only respect, but a great deal of personal affection, because of their enormous interest in what other composers were doing.  This is perhaps less true of Stravinsky because he was not a teacher, as Schoenberg was.  Copland, although he was not a teacher in the usual sense, had a course in Tanglewood, and had students there.  His role in American music was largely that of a figurehead, but he was enormously concerned with young composers, and went out of his way to help them, and support them, and do things for them.  I’m honored to consider myself as one of those whom he helped in my early years.

BD:   In academe or with informal courses, is musical composition something that can be taught, or must it be an innate sense in the young composer?

Kohs:   This is a very interesting subject, one that has been dealt with by various people.  I briefly tried to in the introductory remarks on one of my books on musical composition, which I published.  I think one can teach musical composition as something similar to the craft of putting together an automobile.  You can teach the nuts and bolts, and how the parts are put together, and what will work and will not work.  But, you cannot teach imagination, nor the capacity for novel invention and design.  You cannot teach a person what to say.  Basically, composition is not only how you say it, but what to say.  It’s about a lot of things which are very mysterious, and which cannot be taught.

BD:   It must be a good part inspiration, and then a bit of technique?

Kohs:   It is a combination of the two.  Neither one alone is enough.

BD:   We’re talking about teaching, so how have the students themselves changed?

Kohs:   It’s difficult to generalize.  If there’s a change, it is perhaps that many of them are more desperate than ever, and the reason is that there are so many more of them.

BD:   Are there too many?

Kohs:   Well, there are never too many good ones!  [Both laugh]  There are a good many who want to be recognized as composers, and want to have the aura that comes with being recognized as a creative person.  But they either don’t have the skill of the craftsmanship, or perhaps regard composition as a career much as one would regard other careers.  They feel that for a career to be successful, you have to win so many awards, and have so many performances, and be on the front page so many times.  There are very few who are so concerned about music as an art that they will put their art first and themselves second.  This is a very old-fashioned view.

BD:   Are awards and performances something one can work for, or must you just wait and hope they are bestowed upon you?

Kohs:   There are both kinds.  There are the kinds that you can work hard for, and there are the ones that come to you.  One certainly should not sit around and wait for them.  One should endeavor to study one’s craft, and compose, and get performances, and be continually self-critical.  There’s no substitute for self-criticism.

BD:   Let me briefly ask you about the influence of electronics.  We have both the home electronic systems which reproduce various kinds of music, and also the use of electronics in musical composition.

Kohs:   Here again, these are both important.  It’s really a little bit too early to tell what the impact of technology in general
electronic technology, and its various manifestationswill have on the art of music, both from the point of view of the composer, and from the point of view of the listener.  We can see a little bit more clearly that the listener has many more opportunities to hear music than before the electronic revolution, but the impact of electronics on what music has to say is still a little bit hard for us to see.  It’s something a little bit like what we had some years ago, when the cinema started behaving as though it were an extension of the legitimate theater.  Early movies were little more than stage things which were transposed to another medium.  In the electronic music field, we still have to learn what is native to it.  Cinema took a long time to discover what its true voice was, and electronic music is still discovering it.

BD:   Have you worked at all with electronic music?

Kohs:   It does not seem to be my particular cup of tea.  I don’t feel the need for it, so I’ve not used it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   What do you, as a composer, expect from an audience that is listening to your music, perhaps for the first time?

kohs Kohs:   One would hope that it comes somewhat prepared, as it were.  It’s very hard for an audience to enjoy any kind of music of any period without having some kind of background.  So, one hopes that it will be an audience which has previous experience in Twentieth Century music
... and earlier music, because music which is not a reflection of the art as a whole in some way, or does not fit into the art as a whole, is going to be very limited.  I, myself, draw on elements of music of many periods and styles, and I hope that they’re well-assimilated.  For a listener to pick up all these innuendoes of the world, they would need to have a background.  Otherwise, much will be lost.

BD:   Have audiences become more sophisticated, especially in terms of Twentieth Century music?

Kohs:   Oh yes, I think they have.  They have heard a great deal more, and my own music, having been written over a period of forty-five years, reflects many different styles.  What I write now is quite different from what I wrote in the past, and just as I have grown esthetically and artistically, so have individuals who are in my audience.  It’s always very gratifying to see young people have come, and in a university atmosphere you always see those.  But in general audiences, one sees more young people than one did few years ago.

BD:   The audiences have heard more Twentieth Century music.  Are they forward-looking into the Twenty-First Century at all?

Kohs:   [Hesitates]  It’s very hard to envision what the Twenty-First Century will be like.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Ohhh, gaze into your crystal ball for a moment.

Kohs:   [Laughs]  It’s absolutely incredible, and if the Twentieth Century trends continue,  there will be an ever enlarging banquet table from which we can feast.  All these provide an enormous opportunity, and also create problems because the question is how much can one taste in twenty-four hours.  We have the same number of hours in a day, the same number of days in a month, and we suddenly have an enormous number of new possibilities.  It’s a little bit like what you have in connection with television.  Here in Los Angeles, every day the Los Angeles Times publishes a listing of all the television channels, and the number is so staggering that no one could possibly choose from among the various things that are there.  Admittedly, we have an enormous audience
millions of peopleso, perhaps there is something for everybody.  But the problem of selection from this enormous potential means that we’ll have to learn how to be selective, and, perhaps, just as in biology, there will be the survival of the fittest.  That may help.

BD:   Will that mean of necessity some music will be lost?

Kohs:   Some will be lost, or just put on a shelf.  Right now we’re so busy exploding, there’s not much time left for selectivity.

BD:   Thinking about television, it reminds me of one of my favorite questions.  Is serious music art or entertainment?

Kohs:   Oh, it’s both.

BD:   Then where is the balance between the two?

Kohs:   I don’t see any contradiction between them.  Perhaps it’s a matter of how one defines one’s terms.  Mozart put it very well when he said, in a letter to his father, that he hoped his music would be enjoyable to those with little knowledge, and that those who appreciated the finer points would appreciate what he had put into his music of the more subtle nature.  If one can write music of that sort, it’s a marvelous thing, because one should be able to write to a larger audience which will see and hear different things at the same time.

BD:   Is this what you hope for your music?

Kohs:   I would like to think so.

BD:   Do you feel that you’re part of a long continuing line of composers?

Kohs:   I definitely try to be.  I sometimes say to myself that I feel almost more socially friendly with composers of the past than I do with some of my contemporaries.

BD:   Why is that?

Kohs:   Perhaps because I think and feel much the same way.  If they were here, I would enjoy being in their company, and I would like to think that they would enjoy being in mine.

BD:   Reading about you in Grove Dictionary, it says that your music never departs from classical standards of clarity and coherence.  Is this something that simply has appeared in your music, or do you consciously try to put it into your music?

Kohs:   I’m aware that it’s there.  These are qualities that I’ve always admired, and I can only agree with that statement.  It’s conscious without being self-conscious.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let me get a little bit of your background.  You studied at the University of Chicago?

kohs Kohs:   That’s right.  Those were very important, and significant years of my life.  At the moment, five years doesn’t seem like a very long time.  I’ve seen many generations of composers come and go here at the University of Southern California, and four or five years go by very quickly.  But those were very important years of my life, and I’m very happy that fate led me to Chicago at that particular time.  If I had known then I was going to be a composer, I might have been tempted to go elsewhere, but it was only while I was there that I have realized that music was to be my professional life.

BD:   Where else might you have thought of going?

Kohs:   I might have stayed in New York, where my family was living at the time.  I might have stayed on at the Institute of Musical Art, which later became Juilliard.  I did return to Juilliard later, after I completed my studies in Chicago.

BD:   If not as a composer, what would you have done?  [Vis-à-vis the program shown at right, see my interviews with Vivian Fine, John Lessard, Otto Luening, Yehudi Wyner, Hugo Weisgall, and Miriam Gideon.]

Kohs:   When I went to Chicago, I thought I was going to follow in my father’s footsteps and go into social work.  I majored in Sociology until my senior year, at which time I switched to Music, to a large extent at the urging of Carl Bricken, who was the Chairman of the Music Department at that time.  He somehow saw me more clearly than I could see myself, and my parents never pushed me one way or the other.  They thought somehow I would find my own way.

BD:   That puts a lot of responsibilities on young shoulders!

Kohs:   Right.  This helped me a great deal because I secured a very broad general background, which many composers don’t secure if they become specialized too early.

BD:   Do you encourage some of your young students to broaden their outlook, and broaden their experiences?

Kohs:   I do, indeed.  I can remember, when I had some of my first teaching experiences right after World War II at the Kansas City Conservatory of Music during the summers.  I taught there two summers, in ’46 and ’47.  On weekends, I would go into the city, and visit a friend of mine over at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.  The atmosphere there was quite different.  It was a broadly cultural atmosphere, and not quite so narrow and professional.  I thought it was very refreshing, and I just was astonished by the difference in the attitudes toward music.  I stayed there with a friend of mine from my University of Chicago days, who owned two or three grand pianos and harpsichords, and miscellaneous instruments of one kind or another.  Friends came in to play some of them, and it was a different atmosphere from the conservatory where pianists were only interested in piano music, and violinists in violin music, and one wondered if any of them were really interested in all of music.  This still tends to be very true.  If you go to any conservatory, the people who specialize in one aspect of music tend to be a bit on the narrow side.  It’s not true of all of them and the great ones tend to be broader than their less talented counterparts.

BD:   I can remember that very plainly from my own undergraduate and graduate days, being one of the few that would go outside of the music school.  There was a drama student who shared my vision, and the two of us were the only two that went back and forth between the two schools.  I was also encouraging everybody to read the newspaper to find out what’s going on in the world.

Kohs:   While I was at Chicago, my closest friends were not in the music department.  Their majors were in other areas, but they were interested in music, and I was interested in their fields.  Some of them are still very close friends, and we’re in touch even though we’re far apart.  One of them has gone into electronics, another one has become a specialist in economics and political affairs, and another one has joined the church.  There is a great variety of backgrounds.

BD:   Are you the composer among them, or the musician among them?

Kohs:   The musician.

BD:   Did you learn anything special by being a bandmaster in the army?

Kohs:   That was a very practical experience.  I learned a lot about the instruments.  I also learned a great deal about what it meant to be in charge of a group of people in general.  It was my first experience having the responsibility over the lives of people, not only their musical training and performance, but the payroll, and the way they dressed, and their manners, and everything that anyone who is in charge of a group of people would have to do in the military.

BD:   Not just music, it was more about life.

Kohs:   That’s right.  I came into contact with people from an enormous number of social strands and educational backgrounds, which you could say I’d been sheltered from in my earlier years.

BD:   There’s one piece of music that you wrote called The Automatic Pistol.

Kohs:   That’s getting a performance in a few weeks, on my Seventieth Birthday program at the university.  That was written, rather curiously, when I had an offer or commission to write something for the army music school band.  I was waiting for orders to be reassigned, and I was at that time stationed at Camp Robertson, California.  We had very little material from which to draw as far as literary resources.  I wanted to write something that would be interesting, and somehow tied with my own artistic ideas.  There was very little in the library there, so for inspiration I just picked up anything that I could find.  I found a soldier’s handbook, and somehow this very unlikely text struck my fancy.  There’s something about a text which strikes me as useful, that most composers would not find attractive.  To me, it has to not be self-sufficient, but rather it has to somehow demand music for a completion.  Most good poetry doesn’t really need music.  If you try to add something musical to great poetry, you might feel you are gilding the lily, or competing with the text.  As in opera, the music has to take over from the words.  This is not to say that bad poetry makes the best text for a song, but it creates a special problem, and the word sounds
the vowels, consonants, all those thingshave to somehow also strike the imagination.  I’ve also been quite aware of the fact that if I see a poem, and there’s one word in it that I can’t imagine sung, then the whole poem is out as far as I’m concerned.

BD:   [Surprised]  Really???  You wouldn’t change the word, or go around it in some other way?

Kohs:   No, because some poets write poetry more for the ideas, rather than for the sound.  Other poets write with an awareness of how the poetry sounds, and it has to be read aloud, and not read silently, or just read to oneself.

BD:   Poetry for the ear, rather than just the eye?

Kohs:   That’s it.

BD:   Especially quite lately, you’ve written a number of pieces with texts.

Kohs:   I have. As a matter of fact, the very first work to attract attention of the press was a piece I wrote when I was a student.  It was based on a text of Gertrude Stein, who still seems to be regarded in some quarters as a rather wild lady.  It was a work for soprano and piano, and it was really not a public performance.  It was a private performance in the office of the music department, but somehow word leaked out and got to the press, and two reporters came and wrote rather tongue-in-cheek articles about it.  The headline of one of those I seem to remember read, “Stein set to music; give us hamburger.”  [Both laugh]  My copy of that is still preserved, rather yellowing with age, but I have a special fondness in my heart for that first bad review.  It should go in Nicholas Slonimsky’s next Lexicon of Musical Invective.

kohs BD:   [Laughs]  That’s a wonderful book [which is a collection of bad reviews of mostly great music by very famous composers].  I use that quite often when I’m giving lectures on old masters.  I pull out bad reviews of Beethoven and others.  On that subject, what’s the role of the critic?

Kohs:   I have a special fondness for a gentleman who unfortunately has passed away, Alfred Frankenstein, who was on the faculty at the University of Chicago when I was there as a freshman.  He subsequently went to the San Francisco Chronicle, where he was music and art critic for many years.  I remember his saying on more than one occasion that for him, the principal function of the critic, particularly with respect to new music, was to serve as a mediator between the composer and the audience.  He found a great sense of responsibility to try to make the composer’s intentions and his message come through.

BD:   You don’t expect the critic just to be a cheerleader, do you?

Kohs:   No, I don’t regard that as being a cheerleader.  Someone who tries to create understanding is not a cheerleader.  The messages of works which are really new and are significant are not always immediately clear.  If one looks back over a few hundred years, particularly the last hundred or hundred and fifty, there are many examples of that.  It’s probably one reason why Slonimsky had so many juicy tidbits to put in his book.  Even the composers themselves have been pretty harsh with each other.  In the Nineteenth Century, the French and German composers said rather vicious things about each other.

BD:   Is there any kind of completion amongst composers today?

Kohs:   Not so much in that sense.  There are not too many composer-critics, which is too bad.  We don’t have any Virgil Thomsons around that I can see.  Most composers are not harnessed to critical careers.  Rather, they have the academic careers.  Some of them occasionally write articles, perhaps in a professional journal.  You probably recall a magazine, Modern Music, from the
20s and 30s, in which most of the articles were written by composers rather than critics.

BD:   About their music or about other’s music?

Kohs:   About other composer’s music.

BD:   I would think that would be very enlightening.

Kohs:   It was fascinating.  It was very interesting, and excerpts from those have recently come out in a new edition, and they make fascinating reading today.  It would be a good idea if more composers were going to the field of music criticism.

BD:   Yet not abandoning their own composition?

Kohs:   No.  Virgil Thomson is a good example of one who managed the two careers, but most of the music critics nowadays come from a background of something other than composition.  Some of them have some experience in performance, or music history, but more likely they started off just generally in journalism.  Not every composer, and not every musician is fitted to be a music critic.

BD:   There are some that I assume would be just dreadful at it.

Kohs:   I think you’re right.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let’s go back to some of your other music, specifically pieces which have been recorded.  I want to be sure and ask about the Symphony Number One.  This is on a CRI recording.  [LP shown at left.]

kohs Kohs:   I have a special fondness for that because it was asked for by Pierre Monteux, whom I got to know through Alfred Frankenstein.  He recommended my very early Concerto for Orchestra, which was performed under Monteux’s direction with the San Francisco Symphony back in the early 1940s.  I went backstage to see him after another concert, and quite abruptly he said to me, “Why don’t you write something for me?”  He had performed a contemporary work on the program, which he felt, perhaps, obliged to do, but didn’t have his heart in it.  He thought I might write something he would enjoy, so I decided that was the time to write my first symphony.  I did, and dedicated it to him.  He conducted its first performance.

BD:   Was it well-received?

Kohs:   It got nice reviews, and the audience seemed to like it.  How does one determine that?  A new work by an American composer never gets quite the same applause as another performance of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto.

BD:   Do you feel that your works would be better served on a standard program with other masters, or would an all Ellis Kohs program, or perhaps an all Twentieth Century program be better?

Kohs:   General programming requires a variety of styles.  If I were in charge of some of the orchestra’s programs, I would try to get balanced programs.  There are times when, for one reason or another, you want to have a single-composer program, but those are exceptional things.  In general, variety is a spice of life, and it is like going to a banquet.  However much one may enjoy roast beef or steak, you certainly didn’t want to have every course made of steak.  [Both laugh]  So, it’s good to have things that are different periods and styles.  They complement each other, and each one helps to prepare one’s taste for a change of style.

BD:   You say your own music has evolved and changed.  Are there any pieces of yours which you wish were not performed ever again?

Kohs:   [With an obvious smile]  Well, you don’t expect me to mention them by name...

BD:   [Laughs]  No, of course not!

Kohs:   There are not too many of them, actually.  I’m very pleased that most of the music I’ve done, I’m happy to have performed, and I like to encourage performances of them.

BD:   Are you ever surprised that a certain piece would get performed, or surprised that one piece gets picked over another?

Kohs:   Not really.  Take the Chamber Concerto for Viola and String Nonet, which is being performed tomorrow night at USC, for example [LP shown below].  I’ve had great affection for it ever since I wrote it in 1949, and at this point in my life, when my work is over thirty years old, it looms even larger to me in the literature than it did then.  This is one of the nice things that comes with the later years
one can see one’s own work a little bit like a hill, or perhaps a small mountain seen from a distance.  When you’re very close to it, you can’t see it in proper perspective at all.  So, when I think of the pieces that were written in the 40s, there are many of them that I don’t particularly care to hear again.  But there’s other works of my own that I feel I can still enjoy.  At any rate, I am not set on writing eternal masterpieces for the ages.  But if I write something that I feel has merit, and I enjoy, and makes sense, and is moving, I like to think that it’s of interest not only today and tomorrow, but perhaps indefinitely in the future.  But only time can tell whether that would be true or not.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you write differently when you’re just writing a piece of music you want to write, or if it’s a commission?

Kohs:   No, I wouldn’t say so.  There’s no great difference between commissioning myself, and having someone else commission me.

BD:   [Laughs]  I’ve never heard it put that way before
commissioning yourself.  That’s interesting.  When you get an inspiration, do you feel that you’ve commissioned yourself to write it?

Kohs:   Oh, yes.  It’s like a summons.  I like writing things which provide a certain challenge, or which provide some hurdles, or a certain problem to solve.  They are usually of a rather technical nature.  Sometimes they may be a question of how to say something, which, of course, one can’t say in words.  Words come to a dramatic idea.  I had, for example, a great urge to make a setting of Franz Kafka’s novel Amerika, which I set as an opera.  No one commissioned me to do it, and no one has paid me to do it.  It took three years out of my life to do it, but it was a marvelous experience.  I wrote it in both English and German simultaneously.  There were many technical problems that I had to solve that I never solved before.  Just to give you an example, I decided that here and there, in order to get the necessary contrast and at the same time unity, that I would write some of the aria-like sections using strophic form.  It’s one thing if you have a poem which is already in strophic form, but it’s something else if you have prose and decide you’re going to set that prose using strophic procedures in music, because the words don’t match.  Also, I was doing it in two languages at the same time.  So, I set out to try to figure it out, and I was very pleased and exhilarated to find the answer to my question.

BD:   You said you set it in two languages at the same time.  Was the music aligned or altered to fit one or the other language, or was the text changed to fit the music?

kohs Kohs:   Sometimes alternation was necessary, and other times I had to change a little bit of the German, or I had to change a little bit of the English.  It varied.  I wanted to keep the original as much as possible.  Sometimes it was not possible, so it varied as I went along.  Fortunately, I had some help from a lady who was a native German, and had a real sense of what music was all about.  She helped me a great deal.

BD:   Is this your only opera?

Kohs:   It is my only opera, and it still has never been fully produced.  Excerpts from it, for voice and piano, will be done on my birthday program in a few weeks.  I’ve been given to understand, by the director of our orchestra here, Daniel Lewis, that in the fall he will conduct an orchestral suite that I prepared for him.  That will be my first hearing of orchestral parts of the work.  Someday, it will be done, and I comfort myself with the thought that this is not the first time that operas had to wait a long time to find a production.

BD:   Was writing an opera special for you because it was an opera?

Kohs:   It was special because I’m really not what you might call an opera lover.  In a sense, I wrote it because most operas do not appeal to me.  Anyone who’s an opera lover who writes an opera, is likely to repeat the errors, as well as the better aspects of opera through the past.  The reason I say that is that opera is so cliché-ridden.  If one likes opera, it means that one likes to speak operatic clichés, and I don’t.  Much has been said about what an American composer can do with opera, and whether we are going to write more European-style operas, or are we going to write Broadway musical sorts of things, or something in between.  I think I was influenced a little bit by what Kurt Weill did, for example, in Mahagonny.  This was to write something in which it was absolutely essential that the singers had to be good actors.  They had to be as good actors as they were signers.  In some cases, the acting is even more important than the singing.  So, that was in my mind as I was writing the work.

BD:   Then, if one of the big opera companies said they were going to stage this work, and put in major international stars, you might try to discourage it in favor of younger singers or younger casts?

Kohs:   I think so, and some of it might not work.  I remember hearing, some years ago, a Metropolitan opera production of Mahagonny, and I must say that something was lost.  I heard productions of it in Germany as well as in the United States.  Perhaps you have heard the recording in which Kurt Weill’s widow...  [Pauses a moment]

BD:   Lotte Lenya?

Kohs:   Yes, Lotte Lenya, sings in her own style.  She was not a trained singer, but he wrote with her voice in mind for that part.  So, if you’ll get an operatic singer who’s trained to sing all time on pitch, and tries to have a particular sort of sleazy type voice, it certainly doesn’t work.  Some opera singers, perhaps, have been trained sufficiently so that they can let themselves go, let their hair down in order to do that, but it also calls for acting.  Young singers today who are interested in opera are able to do that.  That is one of the things which young opera companies can do
they can help to advance the art by really training them so they act as well as sing.  This can be done even by using some of the older operas which can stand that sort of treatment.  It’s no longer possible for opera to be done with singers who just stand and watch the conductor or the prompter, and sing beautifully without regard to acting.

BD:   They have to be complete singing-actors.

Kohs:   That’s right.

BD:   This is what your opera, Amerika, needs?

Kohs:   It’s what I was trying to do.  I was trying to write that into the score.  It was a fascinating experience.  I’d always thought that I would never write a libretto for my own work, but I felt very close to this, so I managed to fashion a libretto myself based on the novel.  There are some chapters, for example, that are reduced completely to pantomime because the activity there was not so essential.  That dialogue was not so essential to the story.

BD:   Do you feel that opera in general is a dead art form?

Kohs:   No, but it needs a massive transfusion.

BD:   Where do we go to get the fresh blood?

Kohs:   New audiences.  The traditional audiences really are not interested in music.  They’re interested in singing, which is not the same thing.  There are some exceptions to that.  The operas that I really hold close to my heart are works in which the orchestra has a lot to do with what’s going on, and where the musical content goes beyond the art of beautiful singing.  But most opera lovers go to hear beautiful singing, and they couldn’t care less about anything else... except perhaps the costumes.

BD:   Are the stage directors today doing damage to opera by trying to move it into the Twenty-First Century?

Kohs:   It depends on how they do that.  As far as opera of the past is concerned, there’s nothing that anyone can do about that.  The operas exist.  Bayreuth tried to modernize it one way or the other.  There have been films, and they have put the works on television, I think, rather disastrously.  But, the future of opera lies not in trying to figure out what to do with older operas, but rather to figure out what new works can be done for new audiences who want to experience new things, and not just hear the same things over and over again.  The opera has become a ritual.  Our concert life, including symphony orchestra life, has, to a very large extent, become a matter of ritual.

kohs BD:   I was going to ask if there’s a correlation between the opera house and the concert hall.

Kohs:   That’s right, and that’s not altogether a bad thing.  There is a certain amount of ritual in music which is part and parcel of the musical experience.  A certain amount of ritual in everyday life is not to be ignored, because it has an important psychological aspect.  This is now where my little smattering of psychology comes into the picture.  One has to think of music as more than just notes.  One has to think of it in the social context, and the psychological context, and decide what need it does satisfy in the listeners.

BD:   What need should it satisfy in the listener?

Kohs:   Well, it’s difficult to answer that even on an hour-long program.  [Both laugh]  There are lots of needs that people have, and they can’t all be taken care of by music.  Music can provide rather simple entertainment, and it can also open up new avenues, new vistas that can stir one’s imagination in other fields, just as other fields can stir musical imagination.  The ancient Greeks knew that.  They knew that certain music stimulated people to martial activity.  When you play a Sousa March, you feel a lot better about the United States of America.  The Stars and Stripes Forever still is an exciting piece.  There’s a good example of something that’s more than just the notes.  It’s a symbol.  There’s lots of symbolism in much music, and not everyone realizes what it is.  It’s quite different from let’s say the end of Das Lied von der Erde, which is quite different from The Stars and Stripes Forever.

BD:   And yet, they’re both music.

Kohs:   They’re both music, but they arouse quite different feelings, and different attitudes.  There are times when we feel positive, and there are times when we don’t feel positive.  Either we feel negative, or we feel very reflective, and our nerve endings have different needs at different times in our life.  Music can do many things for all of us.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of music?

Kohs:   Oh, yes.  I’m optimistic as long as there’s an appetite for music, and the appetite seems to be growing.  But that has to be counter-balanced with taste.  One can be hungry and be satisfied with junk food, but we know that junk food is not very good for us.  There’s a lot of junk music around, too.

BD:   I was just going to ask if you consider rock
n roll junk music?

Kohs:   Oh, I don’t want to say anything about that in public.  [Laughs]  It might come back to haunt me someday.

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BD:   Does it ever happen that conductors find things in your music that you didn’t know were there?

Kohs:   Oh, yes.  That’s very exciting.  Sometimes they see relationships, or they will see expressive aspects that one had not fully realized.  It’s rare, but it certainly can happen.  That’s true not only for conductors, but for performers.  I’ve had performers that are violinists, or pianists, or chamber musicians who’ve done fantastic things when discovering things that are in the music that I am dimly aware of.  That’s very exciting, and is one of the most marvelous things that any composer can experience.  I recommend it to every composer to have such an experience.

BD:   Do you ever get involved in the performances of your own music as conductor, or pianist?

Kohs:   Not any longer.  I am happy to go to rehearsals of my music, and if I’m asked, I will contribute some constructive suggestions.  But no, I don’t do any conducting or performing in public any longer.  I never regarded myself as a performer, and if I did it in the old days, it was because I was either naïve, or it was just part of my way of expressing myself.  I had an interesting experience from the conducting line.  I mentioned earlier that Monteux had performed for the very first time my First Symphony, but before that, he asked me to conduct my Concerto for Orchestra, which the previous year had been played at the ISCM Festival in Berkeley.  This was during the war years, when the ISCM was possible in the United States.  At that time, I was in service and I jumped at the chance to conduct the San Francisco Symphony while I was still in uniform.  To this day, I think I’m the only one ever to conduct that symphony orchestra in uniform.  I had a choice of wearing tails or wearing my military uniform, and I thought my military uniform would be just the right thing to do.  So, I did that, and it came off well.  The orchestra was very professional, and Monteux was there in the wings.  When he had finished conducting, I forget what overture, he came to me backstage where I was waiting to go on.  He handed me his baton and said, “I hand you my arms.”  [Laughs]  I never was quite sure whether he meant that as his physical arms, or whether he was meaning armaments to keep the orchestra from running away.  [Both laugh]  Anyhow, he was a marvelous man, and I wish that we had more like him.  He was a very good friend to me in my early days.

BD:   Do the big-name conductors conduct your music or any music better than lesser lights?

Kohs:   One really can’t make comparisons.  Every conductor, like every composer is himself, and as I said earlier, there are so many composers that it’s really difficult for conductors to make choices.  There are many more opportunities now.  Many more orchestras have composers-in-residence, whose job in part is to look at new scores and present them to the Music Director.  There are many orchestras around the country who do that because many conductors simply have no time or experience in wading through mountains of scores which come to their door every week.  I sympathize with the problem, but it’s a problem that can be solved, and some are doing it.


See my interviews with Alan Stout, Normand Lockwood, Gordon Binkerd, Daniel Pinkham, and Jacob Avshalomov

BD:   What advice would you have for a young composer who has a score that he would like to bring to the attention of the major conductors?

Kohs:   It’s hard to give advice.  I know from what conductors have said that most of them are completely dismayed to get these scores, and in many cases they don’t look at them.  I would say in general not to send a score that has not been solicited, because it’s a waste of time.

BD:   Would it be better to send a tape of a performance of the work?

Kohs:   I think it might be better to wait until one has been asked.  I would say to try to get performances by orchestras other than the major ones.  Also, get experience, get some kind of a name, get some sort of reputation, and then the right people will come along.  You don’t go immediately from being a student composer to being played by the great orchestras.  One should endeavor to secure performances by community orchestras, and college or university orchestras.  Maybe I’m a fatalist, but when the time is right, somehow things will happen.  However, it’s a mistake to be discouraged if a major orchestra has not performed your work.  Sometimes personal contact, or social contact will be helpful, but usually just sending a score that’s unsolicited is a waste of time.  High-pressuring usually doesn’t do anything, either.  Once in a while, there are composers
not necessarily young ones, but composers with some prestigewho are able to exercise pressure on an orchestra conductor to get a performance, or even a recording.  They exert so much pressure that the conductor finally does it just to get the man off his back.

kohs BD:   [Laughs]  Even if it’s a good score, it probably leaves a bad taste in the conductor’s mouth.

Kohs:   I think so, yes.  Anyhow, I don’t go that route.

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BD:   What is next on the calendar for Ellis Kohs?

Kohs:   Tomorrow night, my Chamber Concerto for Viola will be performed at USC, and I have a Seventieth Birthday Concert coming up March Nineteenth, which is not my birthday, but that is the date chosen to fit into the university calendar.  That will feature the first performance of the work I wrote last summer for Eudice Shapiro, head of our violin department, and a fine marvelous musician. She has played much of my music, including the Violin Concerto, which I wrote for the university’s centennial.  She premiered it about five years ago.  This new piece is a work for unaccompanied violin, and it runs about thirty-five minutes.  I called it Fantasies, Intermezzi and Canonic Etudes for an Unaccompained Violin.  It is based on the musical letters of her name, E-D-C-E-S-H-A, H being B-natural, and S being E-flat in German.  So, there’s thirty-five minutes of music just using six of the twelve notes of the scale.

BD:   You didn’t find that too confining?

Kohs:   I was afraid that it might be, but after hearing her playing the violin, I decided it was not.  On the piano it doesn’t work, but on the violin it does.  I have a real feeling for the violin because my mother played it, and it influenced me a great deal when I was a child.  So, even without playing it, I find the violin
and strings in generalmore interesting to write for them than the piano, which I play.  It’s too easy to write things that do not come to one’s fingers, because I don’t compose at the piano.  Writing for the violin is a very simple and natural thing for me to do.  I can hear the sounds in my head, and when the music is performed it sounds the way I imagined it, which is very gratifying.

BD:   You’re never surprised by how some things sound?

Kohs:   [Matter-of-factly]  No.

BD:   That shows a grasp of musical notation, and the transference of the thought process to musical notation.

Kohs:   I had that experience for the very first time when the Concerto for Orchestra was played.  I mentioned that to as having been played at an ISCM concert in Berkeley in 1942.  This was the first performance by a major orchestra of anything of mine.  When I attended the rehearsal by the Werner Janssen Symphony Orchestra, which had come up to Berkeley from Los Angeles, I was very curious to see how it would sound because I’d never heard it before.  I was astonished to find that some of the things which I had imagined sounded exactly as I thought.  In fact, the whole piece sounded the way I expected it to.  The only things which needed adjustment were matters of dynamics, because you cannot play an orchestral work at the piano in the real sense.  You can just approximate it.

BD:   [Noting that we had been speaking for an hour]  Thank you so very, very much for spending the time with me this evening.

Kohs:   I’ve enjoyed it thoroughly.

BD:   Thank you.  I look forward to putting together the program.  You say that the program out there is not going to be real close to your birthday...  I think we’re going to hit it within a day or two.

Kohs:   I congratulate you on solving that problem more expeditiously than we could do it here in Los Angeles.  I appreciate your interest, particularly because of Chicago being my birthplace, and being the site of my most important years at the University.

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© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone on March 5, 1986.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following May, and again in 1993 and 1998.  This transcription was made in 2020, and posted on this website at that time.

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.