Composer / Clarinetist  Meyer  Kupferman

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


kupferman Meyer Kupferman was a composer and professor of music. He was a prolific writer of concertos, chamber and solo pieces, operas, ballets, and symphonies. He taught for over 40 years at Sarah Lawrence College. Stylistically his music included both jazz and 12-tone techniques.

Kupferman was born in New York City, on July 3rd, 1926, the first child of Elias and Fanny Kupferman. The family moved around frequently when he was young. At age five he began violin lessons, but did not show any musical inclination. However, by age ten he as exposed to the clarinet, an instrument that opened the world of music to him. He took lessons, taught himself to compose and play the piano and started to compose pieces and arrangements for friends. Kupferman was primarily self-taught, although he did take classes in theory and composition at the High School of Music and Art and Queens College.

In order to provide an avenue through which to perform his compositions, Kupferman founded the Composers Workshop. Several individuals who played with him in these early years, moved on to become composers in their own right.

In 1951, Meyer Kupferman was offered a professorship in both composition and chamber music at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY. He taught there for 43 years and retired in 1993. During his time at the College, Kupferman conducted the orchestra and chorus, taught classes in music theory, and founded the Sarah Lawrence Improvisation Ensemble.

Kupferman received grants from the Guggenheim Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts, and the Ford Foundation. He also received composition awards from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters and ASCAP.

He had one daughter, Lisa Pitt, from his first marriage. He subsequently married Pei Fen Chin in 1973, and was also father to three stepsons: Fung Chin, Sung Chin and Yun Chin.

Meyer Kupferman died on November 26, 2003, in Rhinebeck, New York.

--  Biography from the Archives & Manuscripts section of the New York Public Library (with correction)  

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Kupferman (with beard) is shown on the left in this photo from the CRI CD booklet.
See my interview with Richard Wilson.


          [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Iain Hamilton, and Ezra Laderman.]

Despite the fact that it is considered the music capital of the U.S., I have very rarely traveled to New York City.  My busy life in Chicago, plus my own difficult sleep-schedule have made any kind of venture exceedingly difficult.  However, when I received the ASCAP/Deems Taylor Broadcast Award in December of 1991, the trip was mandatory... and extremely fruitful.  

The award was presented to me at a lovely ceremony by Morton Gould, and I was able to arrange to do a few interviews while in The Big Apple.  One of those interviews is contained on this webpage, namely composer/clarinetist Meyer Kupferman.

Besides working long and hard for composers, I have always had a passion for opera, and as a youth I began listening to singers both current and previous.  So it was a special delight to have this particular interview in a very noteworthy location . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   First, tell me about the apartment we’re sitting in!

Meyer Kupferman:   My apartment was formerly inhabited by Enrico Caruso, and I feel that his spirit hovers over me while I’m working.  [Laughs]  I enjoy the thought very much, which is perhaps why I’m thinking more and more about opera these days.

BD:   Does his spirit move you compositionally, or interpretively?

MK:   I don’t know.  Years ago, I actually thought I would train myself to sing in the midst of writing an opera, and one of the singers who is singing a role, taught me some basic voice techniques.  So, I was able to sing deep bass and high tenor.  I found that the voice was actually more flexible than most people imagined.  In fact, more composers should know this, so I used to go along the street singing [demonstrates Mozart’s ‘Là ci darem la mano’ from Don Giovanni in a loud way], trying to sound like a good tenor, a good baritone, or whatever.  I enjoyed it!  It was a real pleasure in singing.

BD:   If not Caruso, at least Scotti!  [Antonio Scotti (1866-1936) was a well-known baritone who portrayed Don Giovanni, and often sang with Caruso at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, including his debut on November 23, 1903.]

MK:   Yes, perfectly.  [Both laugh]

Caruso & Scotti

BD:   We were talking earlier about some of the down sides of being a composer, notably that there’s not much remuneration and not much glory there.  So, why is Meyer Kupferman a composer?

MK:   It’s a commitment that I made many years ago, and I feel somehow it’s my calling.  The deep satisfactions that come to me with creating something is not like anything else that I can experience in life.  Creating music is something I do every day.  I never let any time go by when I’m not working or thinking about my music.  I’m prolific, and in a way that’s it
s own reward.  I’ve had many performances, and I’ve recordings of my work, but I can’t say that I’ve gotten rich from my music.  Practically no one in the field does, unless you’re in the popular end of it, or you win some great award.  There are a few wonderful awards that do have a lot of cash connected with them, like the MacArthur Award that you can suddenly get $300,000 in one fell swoop.  That’s marvelous, but only a few people are chosen for that.  However, it’s not for those things that I go on.  It’s that inner peace, that inner satisfaction, that inner joy that comes with working on your music.  To me, the active working is its own reward.

BD:   [Genuinely surprised]  It
s more important to work on your music than to hear it performed???

MK:   To hear it performed is also a great pleasure, but very often it’s a trial.  Transmitting the interpretative qualities and precision requires much more patience and rehearsal time than some institutions are in a position to give you.  So, if you get a symphonic work performed, you’re going to be limited to just a few hours of rehearsal, and you have to hope that the conductor is sharp enough, knows his people well enough, and has studied your score so intensely that he can accomplish everything within that short period of time.

kupferman BD:   Are there ever times when they accomplish everything?

MK:   I would say one was a recent experience was my Jazz Symphony that was recorded in Lithuania.  Last year when they had the blockade, I had a group which went to Lithuania.  We broke through the blockade.  It was really cloak and dagger because we didn’t have a visa, and we could have been arrested and incarcerated for God knows how long, because nobody was going in and out of Lithuania.  But they wanted very much to do my Jazz Symphony, and Challenger, which is an orchestral piece that was premiered in New York a few years back.  We brought a troop over, including two soloists, my engineer, his assistant, and the guy who put this whole project together.  We traveled as a group, brought our recording equipment plus the safety equipment, because you never do anything with just one machine.  As a result, we spent three weeks in Lithuania and part of the time in Russia.  It was pretty scary going in, I must say, and we had to go a circuitous route so that they wouldn’t discover that we were sneaking in.  But we finally got in, met the orchestra, and for the first time I was able to hear the results of an orchestra that is so dedicated that every note, every nuance was really quite evident.  The conductor was fabulous.  Domarkas is his name, and even though he’s not a jazz man, he understood everything about the jazz qualities that necessary.  We brought two jazz soloists who joined the orchestra.  It’s a huge piece, about fifty or fifty-five minutes long in two big movements, and requires a singer and sax soloist.  The singer does five of my jazz songs.  The CD has just come out [shown at left], and it was a heroic experience.  These people were being battered by the Russians left and right, and all kinds of funny things were happening around us at the time... like they ran out of hot water, and were running out of food.  It was a mess, but everybody bought flowers in the morning, and it was a happy feeling because they knew their independence was coming.

BD:   Is that a good time to record a piece of music, when there are other things going on so that the music releases this pent-up spirit?

MK:   For us it was.  We also gave two live performances before the recording in the courtyard of their university.  There were 4,000 people who came, and I rewrote the lyrics for one of the songs, and dedicated it to them.  I made it a heroic lyric, and, my God, they never stopped applauding!  They were so touched by that gesture, and one of their leading actors recited the text before the performance, which was the European premiere.  So, it was a spectacular event.  I never drank so much vodka in my life!  That conductor was incredible, and after every rehearsal we’d go out and have vodka together.  That was one thing that Americans can’t match, the kind of vodka you can get in Lithuania.  It was Moonshine, stuff the farmers make.  There’s such a tradition of toasting.  These people are dedicated to their music.  Their instruments are terrible.  They’re coming apart!  They had a great harpist who was playing on kid’s harp, and yet sounded absolutely gorgeous.  I’m a clarinetist, and it was hard for the bass clarinetist to play certain passages, and I bawled him out.  He apologized and he showed me his instrument, and once I looked at it I wondered just how he get it to sound at all.  I helped him, and he found another fingering, and played the solo beautifully.

BD:   So it was all or making-do?

MK:   It was trying to make-do.  We even brought some stuff for them.  They didn’t have rosin, they didn’t have strings, so we brought a whole package of goodies, and mutes for the brass.  They just can’t get anything over there.

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BD:   The political implications of what’s going on affect their daily lives.  Is music at all, in and of itself, political?

kupferman MK:   That’s a hard question to answer.  I had a small tape machine there, and I interviewed a number of instrumentalists, and the conductor, to hear what their views were about the current political situation.  Everyone talked quite freely, except one person who I suspect may have been a little too pro-Russian and maybe a KGB agent.  She was very guarded, but the others were openly saying they were looking forward freedom and to new regime that would make life a little easier for them.

BD:   Coming back to the music part, can you write a political statement into the music with or without a text?

MK:   [Thinks a moment]  I could, in some way, by nature of what is in my own feelings spiritual about the music.  What touches people, either through the melody or the harmony, or something about the orchestration might seem heroic, but it’s basically abstract.  Your question is a tough one to deal with, but the point is when I write I have all kinds of things going through my head.  If I’m dedicating some piece to a friend who has died, I’m full of those thoughts.  I think about it, and I assume, as a result, that those feelings have transformed into sound in some way.

BD:   Should the audience that comes to listen to one of these pieces know and understand what you went through while composing, or should they just be affected by the sounds they hear?

MK:   Either way is fine.  I have no rules.  If they’re curious enough, and they get me on the spot, I admit to it.  [Laughs]  Otherwise, I can just talk about the sounds and treat is abstractly.  The perception of music by listeners is one of the real problems of our time now because people have become very lazy about listening to music.  I don’t mean about anything else, but when it comes to listening, they don’t work any at it longer.  They’re afraid to exercise critical judgment about information that happens in music.  They don’t realize that music is information, and you experience it only by gut alone.  You have a feeling that it’s very pretty, or it sensual, but there’s much more to it than that.  Music is deep information.  It’s complex information.  It requires a supreme act of memory to perceive a symphonic score, especially in the environment of our new contemporary techniques, which is highly complex.  You have to remember how you perceive form in music without remembering the information at the beginning, and then when you hear it develop, you hear it again at the end.  That’s the only way you know that there is a structure.  Without the sense of information occurring, you don’t experience music, and people are lazy.  They just don’t want to that.  They’re so accustomed to repetition as the only vehicle.  A record can be played over and over again, and by that time you’ve learned it, but you’ve also learned how to stop thinking.  So you bypass the work.  The brain is very funny.  With music, there’s a thing that one can bypass that turns off rational thought process, and just allows you to experience it on a different level.  We know this from very early church music, where a kind of mood that was established.  This mood for worship was ideal in the sense that music would turn off the rational thought process, and elevate you to another level.  That’s one kind of music, and it’s a very valid use of music that reaches the spirit.  However, when a composer writes abstract concert music, he needs to encounter a thinking audience that is awake, and is not on another level that may be touched spiritually by the music, but is also able to deal very cogently with the information that is happening through that music.  The information could be a rhythm, it could be a design in melody, it could be a texture, it could be just the use of orchestration assembly.  It’s incredible how much detail exists in the area of information in music, and how much can you perceive in a single listening.  As a composer, you would think that I’d be very good at this thing I’m talking about.  The first time I heard Elliott Carter’s Double Concerto, believe me I couldn’t get very much information out of it.  It was so complicated and so dense, but then I listened to a second performance, and I was prepared for it.  So in a case like that, the repetition helped because the repetition didn’t make me feel more sensuous about the music.  It certainly didn’t have that quality, but instead it enabled me to very patiently wait for certain things to unfold bit by bit, and finally the information became reasonably clear.  My music is not as complex as Elliott Carter’s, however I know that it often requires an alert listener to pursue.

BD:   Do you usually get alert listeners at your concerts?

MK:   No.  I can’t really say that for all my concerts I have alert listeners, because you never know what kind of an audience you’ll get.

BD:   When you’re writing, are you conscious of a general audience, or the specific audience?

MK:   When I’m writing, I really couldn’t care less about audience.  I don’t think about an audience.  When I’m writing, I think about the players.  I’m involved with the real drama that has to do with the instruments.  For example, I just had a premiere last week of my Double Clarinet Concerto, which I wrote for Stanley Drucker and his wife Naomi.  He’s a magnificent clarinetist, and so is she, and every note that I wrote for them I was aware of them.  They’re friends, and I’ve know them for many years, so it was a subjective involvement with the players.  It also happened to be an instrument that I play.

kupferman BD:   Are you a little more sympathetic to the clarinet because you are superb player?

MK:   The clarinet is the prism of my musical experience.  Everything that I experience is through it, like a first language.  When I write a phrase for the French horn, I think of it in clarinet terms.  I’ve written for many friends.  In the piano, for instance, I’m not a pianist but I can play the piano.  However, I have many friends who are super pianists, and I’ve written works for them.  I’ve thought about them, I think of their hands, I think of the kinds of things that they’re most comfortable with or most capable of doing.  Then, somehow that involvement stimulates writing of good pieces.  I’ve written many works for the cello, which is another favorite instrument.  I sometimes wish maybe I had started out as a cellist rather than a clarinetist.  Laszlo Varga is putting on a recording shortly of a whole bunch of my cello pieces [shown at right].  I know the instrument intimately.  I know all the instruments really very, very well, but the clarinet is basically my instrument.  I still play every day.  I do a little tootling, and if I forget, my wife reminds me.  She tells me if I don’t play because she knows I’m more livable with when I play a little.  [Laughs]

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BD:   When you’re sitting down with the score, and you’re working with all of the notes, and you’ve got these sounds going around in your head, are you always controlling your hand, or are there times when perhaps that pencil takes your hand and moves it for you?

MK:   [Laughs]  It’s funny, because I was telling my students they’ve got to be free, and not feel any confinement.  Here I am telling them rules, and I myself didn’t have a teacher.  I’m self-taught, so I studied with myself.  I do respect the act of writing.  I have a very good handwriting, and I’m a painter, and the whole visual process is part of the same experience, I suppose.  But when I make a mistake, before I erase it I think maybe that it was there for a reason, and sometimes I find that there’s a better note in the air than what I originally intended, or at least it’s something that I didn’t think of.  It occurred as a surprise, but that doesn’t happen all the time.

BD:   You’re writing, and you’re tinkering, and you’re creating, and you’re adjusting.  How do you know when to put the pencil down and say it is ready to be launched?

MK:   Oh, I wish I could answer that question.  I’m a composer by correction.  Let’s see if I can explain that.  I almost never feel that a piece is finished.  Yes, I will give it out for performance, and then still find that I can improve it.  I still find there are things that are better.  I even have things that are published and recorded where I have made some adjustments, or other versions of.  In one case I even scrapped the whole movement and came out with a better piece.  You just never know.  It is just as important for a composer to wait until the very last moment of performance where he can make some improvements and adjustments.  I learned this by associating with painters.  You may have a canvas sitting around for years, and then find that you can still improve it.

BD:   So what do you say to the performer, or the publisher, who says the earlier version is a little bit better, and they’re going to use that instead?

MK:   Ugh... I don’t know.  For instance, I just got a call a couple of weeks ago from a pianist who is playing at the National Gallery in Washington, the Washington premiere of a piece called Twilight Sonata.  I asked which version he had, and he said he had the published version.  I said,
I know, but which one?  He said, “Gee, you mean there’s another one???  I said, “Just tell me what’s on your last two or three pages.  He described it, and I said, “You’ve got the wrong version.  But it’s published, he said, and I replied, I know, but since then I’ve written a whole new ending for this piece for another pianist who’s doing the New York premiere.  When he was working on it, I suddenly got the idea for a new ending, which I would never have had when I wrote the piece!  I wrote the piece two years ago, and what I was thinking at that point wasn’t the way I’m thinking today.  A new experience entered into my thought, something having to do with keyboard histrionics, and I wrote a bang-up new ending.  It’s really going to tear the house apart, it’s so powerful.  The other ending is all way down, a real clod ending, which I don’t think is right for the piece.  When I wrote it, I felt that was right for the piece, but I realized with a little perspective that I could improve it.

BD:   Two years from now, won’t a different perspective that you have then take over, and might you change this new slam-bang ending to something else again?

kupferman MK:   Who knows?  It’s a good guess, but what I’m saying is that I’m a composer by correction because I do this with a lot of pieces.  Some, of course, I don’t touch.  I don’t want to exaggerate the extent of this kind of activity, but it does happen.  I’ve learned this from a lot of painters, and also from Martha Graham.  I worked with her when she did a ballet of mine about ten years ago, and at the same time she was doing some old ballets.  She was constantly changing, constantly revising, and it’s no skin off anybody’s nose.  Years ago, I had the temerity to always compose in ink, but in those days I didn’t revise anything.  As I grew older and more seasoned, I realized that it’s important to keep yourself flexible.  I can admit that I have made a mistake, or and that a passage could be improved.

BD:   Now talking about your own flexibility.  Do you expect the performers to be a little flexible with your music, or do you want it performed exactly the same way each time?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Robert Muczynski, Joan Tower, and Leo Kraft.]

MK:   Both.  [Laughs]  You’re never getting a straight answer from me for anything, I’d say.  I have a piece called Sonata Occulta that four pianists have recently performed in different venues, and each one does it differently.  Each one has been coached with me, and they all do it right, and they all do it wrong.  So, I don’t know what to say.  I don’t know which one comes closer to the score.  They’re all great musicians, and they interpret every note exactly as written, but somehow one suddenly speaks in one place, and another speaks better in another place.  It’s hard to say.

BD:   Is there any way to co-ordinate it to get the best portions all together in one performance?

MK:   All I can say that I like when a performer goes beyond the notation.  I like when a performer adds something of himself to the music and takes some liberties, especially in the area of rhythm.  I know this as a performer, and I know how I’ve taken liberties with the other people’s music to be expressive.  I’ve had over fifty works dedicated to me as a clarinetist with my ensemble, and when I’ve interpreted those work, I practice what I preach.  I have brought something of myself, especially as a composer.  I feel I have a license to do this more so than a performer who’s not a composer.  I will take more amplitude in a crescendo, and more time for a retard or an acceleration, and will make a different kind of accent or an attack.  I really sense what the music is about, and a feel that perhaps I can highlight the drama of the piece.  Drama is very important in music, unless you’re doing something that is extremely tranquil, and even that can be dramatic in its own way.  But I love when performer goes beyond my notes.

BD:   Are there times when the performer discovers things in your scores that you didn’t even know where there?

MK:   Yes, and I love when that happens.  They do find things.  They find relationships that as a composer I’m totally unaware of because I work very rapidly.  I compose music very quickly, which is probably why I also need to correct a lot of things.  In order not to impede the flow of my music when I’m turning out the first draft of the first score, I just let it happen.  I just let it roll out, and then, of course, I always allow for time to make adjustments.

BD:   Are most of your works on commission, or are they things that you just have to get out of your system?

MK:   Both.  I do have a reasonable share of commissions, and I also feel perfectly happy about starting a piece right off the wall because I feel like writing it because, as I say, it’s my daily routine.  I compose every day.  This morning I spent two and half to three hours working on an orchestral piece, which is not commissioned.  After my performance last week of the Double Concerto, I suddenly felt that orchestral sound in my blood.  So, boom, I started right in.  Also, it kept me on an even keel during rehearsals, which at first were a little skittish.  I was afraid I’d get a little nervous about it, so I had something to work on, and that was a good distraction.

BD:   You’ve gotten a number of performances, and also many recordings.  Are you basically pleased with the recordings that have been issued of your music, as they have a little wider circulation?

MK:   Oh, they are fantastic, yes.  I am very pleased with the recent recordings that have come out of my work.  This Jazz Symphony, as I said, is one of the latest, and a piece called Images of Chagall is another recent recording [shown above on this webpage].  Another is the Little Ivory Concerto, and I was very pleased with that performance.  This is exciting for us because a former student and I, who is also a wonderful electronics engineer, formed our own company called Soundspells Productions, and we’ve now put out four records.  We have a Bach record coming out, but it started out as an opportunity for me to get definitive performances of my own music.

BD:   When you say
definitive performances, does this impede any further kind of experimentation on the part of other performers?

MK:   No, but these are works that I will not revise anymore because these are finished.  Thank God!  Next week we’re recording my opera, and I hope that goes well.  It’s highly complicated.  It was premiered a month ago, and I wrote the libretto for it.  I’m also conducting it, so it’s going to be a very exciting thing.  That’s the next biggie on the agenda.

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kupferman BD:   Where’s music going today?

MK:   Oh, wow!  I assume that you’re talking about contemporary classical music.

BD:   Or, as we sometimes call it, Concert Music.  [At the ceremony earlier in the day, Morton Gould had referred to it as ‘deficit music’.]  
[Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Samuel Baron, Alan Hovhaness, Frank Wigglesworth, Ursula Mamlok, Donald Martino, and George Perle.]

MK:   Deficit music, yes.  I tell you, I’m a little worried about where it’s going, and perhaps our little conversation before about these two composers who are leaving the world of composition may be an indication that some people are very frustrated about where music is going today.  We’re being choked by the commercial market.  This is the most devastating thing that the industry is facing.  The commerce of music has taken over to such a point that the sense of artistry, the sense of individual commitment, both as a listener and as a writer or a player, has been lost in these times.  Collectors are interested in collecting.  They have vast numbers of records, but I don’t know that from many that I’ve talked to that they’ve always managed to keep the area of sophistication about art at a high level.  I hope that it’s true, and I hope that they have.  I hope they’re discerning, and that the art of music speaks to people the way it did in my younger days when you couldn’t have so many records that were easy to come by, and there were not so many radio stations playing only popular music.  Today, the number of radio stations that perform concert music is disappearing.  In the New York area, we have relatively few.  Up in Rhinebeck, in Upper New York State where I live, strangely enough we have almost as many as there are in New York City.  It’s surprising, isn’t it?  But it worries me that there are so many splinter groups in the field of music today, and for years they’ve been somewhat internally hostile to each other.  This is probably because each one wanted a piece of the pie, whatever that is or means.  You had those who are aleatoric composers following the Cage School, and those who are into electronics, and those who are into twelve-tone, and so on.  Now, there are many who are working in a kind of amalgam, and I consider myself among those because I use aleatoric tools whenever I need them.  I use electronic materials whenever I need them, and so I’m not committed to just one way of working.  That’s never been my way.  So, if you ask me where music is going, I would say toward an amalgamation, towards an amalgam with those younger composers who are able to experience all of the tools, especially the electronic tools, and put them to healthy creative use.

BD:   Do you have any advice for younger composers coming along?

MK:   I definitely think they should master computer techniques, and at the same time master the technique of the written procedure, the notation of music.  As I said, I’m dedicated to this almost beautiful experience.  To me, just writing music is something I live for every day, but I’ve noticed a lot of young people
some of my students among themare very capable at working with the computer.  They can make the computer immediately play with their writing.  When you ask these same people to write out their score by hand, they look at me as if I really mean it?  Seriously?  They bring me printed scores that are ready to be published, because the computer spits it out so easily.

BD:   Is there no point for this labor-saving device?

MK:   Oh, sure there is.  I’m just saying that I advise them all to learn it.  I think that they should.

BD:   But not forget the old way, too?

MK:   Not forget the old way, but continue to learn to write.  The work with the pen has a special kind of meaning, which is different from must plonking out a thing on the computer.  For instance, when I get a new student and I look at their scores, if they’re not all computer-set, as a manuscript itself it must transmit a message to me.  I can always tell a great deal about the potential of a student just by how they write and how they organize.  It’s like reading handwriting.

BD:   Is it a window to their mind?

MK:   Yes, that’s an apt way of putting it.  But when you think of where music is going to be in the future, you have to think of who the perceivers of music will be.  Then you’d have a better answer... assuming that with all the astonishing equipment for listening that we have, we will still have a grand listening public.  But, I don’t think it is going to be a concert public for very long.  Unless we get symphony orchestras and chamber ensembles underwritten by the Federal Government or local governments, we’re going to lose a lot of our performing organizations.  This is not because we’re in a depression now, but it’s just something that it’s not working in our society.  In Europe in general, like in Germany specifically, they have much more support for the arts than we do here.

BD:   Is it good support, or is it forced support?

MK:   Any support is good support.  What kind of restrictions are they going to put on a composer?

BD:   I wasn’t really thinking of restrictions.  I’m wondering if they are promoting something that nobody listens to.

kupferman MK:   Who knows?  I haven’t been to Germany that recently.  When I was there, I remember they always have their contemporary composers perform on the radio, but not at the choice hours.  They’re always late at night, so that’s a good point.  When I was in Czechoslovakia, howeverabout fifteen or eighteen years agothe composers there were treated liked heroes.  Prague is a city filled with musicianswonderful players, and a lot of composersand it means something to be a composer.  Now in my own little community in Rhinebeck, New York, I have a feeling of being a member of the community, like perhaps in the olden days of Bach, maybe, when a local composer wrote music.  I have many friends in that area who play with the local orchestras.  The Hudson Valley Philharmonic has commissioned three big works of mine, including this Jazz Symphony.  They commissioned it and did the initial performance.  I feel I am a member of that community, so when I write, although I don’t think of audiences as you were asking before, I do feel that my music is related to a place, to some meaningful way of life.  I’m a member of a community, and my job is to write music for that community.

BD:   What is the place of music in that community?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Benjamin Lees, Robert Starer, Michael Colgrass, Lou Harrison, and William Bergsma.]

MK:   There’s a college, and there are universities in the area.  There is a place for arts.  There are a lot of organizations that give out awards for work in art.  They gave me one.  I smiled, and said it is really very nice to get a local award for outstanding achievement in the field of music.  But at least they’re recognizing it.  This is not the way some people think.  You go out of New York City, and you’re in ‘Yokel Town’, and nothing’s happening out there.  This is a community that has sensitivity to painting, to books, to music.  I don’t know how it is in the rest of the country, but I do know from reports that I’ve gotten from friends who go on concert tours that the number of concerts they’re doing on the circuit has been cut down.  Things have been pulled back.  The number of events are fewer just for lack of funds.  Also, audiences are drifting off.  Now, our problem is with young people.  They are not exposed enough at an earlier time to serious music, to classical music.  They’re inundated by Rock’n’Roll, or some popular type of music, and remember this is an electrified music.  All of it is amplified.  All of it is heard at the highest possible decibel level.  When they get to hear just a little old violin played alone, or with a piano, they’re not going to get the same kind of kick, the same kind of emotional current from something that’s unamplified.  They need training.  I had to tell my son to bring our granddaughter more to concerts.  She recently came to a performance of mine of a piano concert.  This Russian artist was premiering three new keyboard works, and she loved them.  I could see that she was wrapped up in the sound.  It was a brand new experience for her to hear her grandfather’s music at the concert.  This is our granddaughter who lives in Chicago, by the way.  But she came east to hear this piano concert, so I was pleased.  Then I bawled out our son and I said,
You’ve got to take her to concerts all the time, because look at how she eats it up!  [Laughs]  But that’s what’s needed.  We no longer have, throughout the country, the young kids who are studying piano like we used to in the old days.  It’s all guitar, and once you’re on the guitar you’re into Rock, and you’re into a popular thing, and each one wants to form a group that’s going to make a million bucks in a week.  They want the success.  They want the power, the emotional high that comes with that kind of thing.

BD:   I assume, though, that you get that kind of high all the time?

MK:   From my own artistic endeavors?  Yes, and it makes my life very important to me.  There’s nothing like it.  I try to address with this to my students, and I think I have gotten the idea to them in some cases.  But I wish we could get through to the young people through our schools and through the parents about the importance of artistic things in their lives.  They need to learn how to get around this amplification thing, or get around this non-participating experience of television, where you’re immobilized.  You look with your tongue hanging out, and your brain hanging out, and this is what your world is.  No!  You’ve got to be an active listener!  You’ve got to think!  As I said earlier, you’ve got to gather information about music.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  Music as an interactive sport?

MK:   As an interactive sport, yes, and you can best do that if you have a little confidence on an instrument.  The piano used to be in every home when I was a kid, and the local piano teacher never had to worry about having enough students to make a living.  It was a way of life.  Also, you used to have players and jobs available for every motion picture.  You had Vaudeville; you had live music going on all the time.  The danger now is that everything in our experience of music is becoming more and more involved with mechanics, like recording or some facet of it, and so the live musician is a rarity.

BD:   I’m glad you helping to keep the flame of music alive.

MK:   Thank you.

BD:   Thank you for being a composer.

MK:   [Laughs]  I can’t help it, ever.  I prefer it.

BD:   That’s good.  Thank you for having me in this wonderful apartment.  I appreciate it very much.

MK:   [With a big smile]  I think Caruso is hovering around you if you notice him.


© 1991 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in New York City on December 9, 1991.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB five days later, and again in 1996.  This transcription was made in 2019, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry, and also to Carson Cooman, for their help in preparing this website presentation.

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

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.