Composer  Paul  Lansky

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


lansky Paul Lansky was born June 18, 1944 in New York City.  His early musical studies were at the High School of Music and Art in Manhattan. He subsequently attended Queens College where he studied composition with George Perle and Hugo Weisgall, and Princeton University, where he worked with Milton Babbitt, Earl Kim and others. Originally intending to pursue a career as a French horn player he played with the Dorian Wind Quintet in 1965-66 before going to Princeton for graduate work. He has been on the faculty at Princeton since 1969.

Until the mid-1990’s the bulk of Lansky’s work was in computer music, and he has long been recognized as one of its pioneers. In 2002 he was the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from SEAMUS (the Society for Electroacoustic Music in the United States) and in 2000 he was the subject of a documentary made for European Television’s ARTE network, My Cinema for the Ears, directed by Uli Aumueller (now available on DVD). His music is well represented on recordings, and played and broadcast widely. Numerous dance companies have choreographed his works, including Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane, the Eliot Feld and New York City Ballets. His piece Notjustmoreidlechatter is included in the Norton Anthology accompanying the widely used music appreciation text, The Enjoyment of Music. He has received awards and commissions from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Guggenheim, Koussevitsky and Fromm Foundations, Lila Wallach/Reader’s Digest, ASCAP, the American Academy of Arts and Letters, among others.

During the mid 1990’s he began to turn more intensively towards instrumental music, writing works for performers such as Nancy Zeltsman and David Starobin. His work, Three Moves for Marimba, written for and recorded by Zeltsman, has been gaining wide recognition as one of the most challenging and rewarding pieces for this instrument. (Zeltsman devotes a chapter of her recent book on four-mallet marimba playing to the work.) A recent percussion quartet, Threads, written for the Sō Percussion ensemble has been recorded and widely performed by that group as well as by many college and university ensembles. Other percussion pieces include Idle Fancies, Songs of Parting (baritone, guitar, percussion), Spirals for marimba and Travel Diary for percussion duo. His trio for horn violin and piano, Etudes and Parodies’, written for William Purvis, was the winner of the 2005 International Horn Society Competition. The two-piano team Quattro Mani has recorded his piece It All Adds Up.

In 2008 the Alabama Symphony and Quattro Mani commissioned and premiered his two-piano concerto, Shapeshifters. Lansky was composer in residence the Alabama Symphony for the 2009-2010 season, during which time they performed his orchestral works, including With the Grain, a guitar concerto written for David Starobin and commissioned by the Fromm Foundation, Shapeshifters, and Imaginary Islands commissioned by the orchestra. A CD of his orchestral music was released on Bridge Records in 2012 including these pieces.

Recent projects include a joint commission by the Library of Congress and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center for the wind quintet The Long and Short of It. Percussion music has been a dominant focus in recent years. In addition to Threads and Travel Diary, recent works involving percussion include Springs for percussion quartet, Partita for guitar and percussion, Horizons for piano, cello, and percussion, Textures for two pianos and two percussionists, Five Views of an Unfamiliar Tune for solo percussion and chamber orchestra, and Touch and Go for solo percussion and wind ensemble

Lansky’s music eschews attempts to ‘break new ground’, and instead relies heavily on an approach toward tonality and harmony that references musical traditions of various kinds, from Machaut to Stravinsky. His string quartet, Ricercare Plus, is based on concepts of counterpoint and part-writing from early Baroque and Renaissance music. His horn trio, Etudes and Parodies, refers to various music well-known to horn players. His choral piece, Folk-Tropes, draws heavily on Appalachian folk traditions. Many works, such as Three Moves for Marimba, draw on jazz and popular music. Coincidentally, the English rock band Radiohead used a sample from Lansky’s first computer piece, mild und leise as a basis for their 2000 song Idioteque.

--  Biography from the Carl Fischer Music website  
--  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  


In April of 1988, Lansky was in Chicago, and we took the opportunity to have a conversation.  Portions were used on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago to celebrate his 45th birthday, and again five years later for his 50th.  Similar programs subsequently aired on WNUR-FM.  

Now, the entire encounter has been transcribed, and is presented on this webpage.

lansky Bruce Duffie:   You’re both a professor of music and a composer.  How do you divide your time between those two?

Paul Lansky:   I don’t know if those are contradictory, are they?

BD:   No, I simply mean, they’re two different activities.  It means you have to do two different things.

PL:   I have to teach, yes.  It’s nice having a position like that.  It frees me from responsibility of having to earn a living as a composer, and it gives me more flexibility to be experimental and to take chances.  My feeling about composing is the more risks you can take, and the more chances you can take, the more likely that it is that you might come up with some interesting things.

BD:   With all your teaching, do you get enough time to compose?

PL:   It’s a problem.  I sometimes think that if you have a lot to do, you tend to fit the number of things you have to do into the available time.  But I notice that while I’m on leave this year, I
m probably getting more work done than I’ve gotten done in a long time.

BD:   Are these things that have been piling up in your head, or are they new things that are coming out?

PL:   They are new things that are coming out.  When I was in CalArts all fall, I planned to work on a piece, but I didn’t really have a good chance to work on it there.  So, as soon as I got back to Princeton I started working on it, and it took a very short amount of time.  So, I suppose some sort of spring-release mechanism is living in there [points to his head].

BD:   Are most of your pieces with electronics now?

PL:   As a matter of fact, for the past ten years or so, almost everything I’ve done has involved electronics.

BD:   Electronics and acoustics, or just straight electronics?

PL:   Mostly straight electronics.  I’ve done a couple of pieces with electronics and acoustics, and those have generally been commissioned.  It’s not something that I do naturally, but I’ve enjoyed doing it, and it’s becoming more interesting to me.

BD:   So electronics is something you do naturally?  It’s an interesting sort of paradox...

PL:   Yes, I know.  I spent a long time developing it.  I grew up in an environment and in a time when I didn’t think it was really a good investment of my time to write something where the feedback that I got wasn’t going to be substantial.  So, for example, I would write a string quartet.  Then I’d wait six months, or a year to hear the string quartet.  They would maybe rehearse for two hours, and I’d go to the concert, and at the concert people would pat me on the back and say silly things about the work.  I didn’t really feel that this was a good way for a young composer to function, so I got involved in doing computer music.  I don’t have any particular affection for electronic sounds.  As a matter of fact, I tend to like real world and musical human sounds much better.  But it was just the ability to hear what you’re doing, and to socialize with other musicians and composers through your work on a regular and active basis.  I like very much working in an environment where you’re working on something, and you’re in the middle of it, and you play it for somebody, and they say they like that a lot, but don’t you think such and such.  It often does occur to me anyway, but it is a kind of interaction that you get in other arts, but I never really got in music.  So, that’s essentially why I went to computer things.  Then I spent a long time learning programming, and becoming very good at it so I can do it myself.  I didn’t have a staff of programmers, and that’s why I have gray hair!  [Both laugh]  I’ve done a lot of programming.  All the software that I use is basically my own.

lansky BD:   Have you then sold some of it?

PL:   Yes.... Well, I haven’t sold it, but I give it away because I don’t think other people should have to pay for it.

BD:   Shouldn’t they pay for your time and effort?

PL:   No, they should use it.  I’m not in the software business.  In general, the attitude of the computer music community is to share things rather than to sell things.  That’s the feeling I have.

BD:   I don’t mean to sell it for a huge profit, but you should recoup a little of your contribution.  [Vis-à-vis the LP shown at right, see my interview with George Shirley.]

PL:   Nothing can regain my lost childhood!  [Both laugh again]

BD:   Do you feel that the public responds to your music the way they would respond to, say, a string quartet?

PL:   Yes, I do.  My music is a little peculiar, so I guess the pieces you’re playing [on the radio for this program] might reflect that, to a certain extent.  My real interest in music is to capture and intensify familiar things.  At this point, I’m not really interested in making up exotic ways of expressing tonality, or exotic ways of thinking about musical structure.  I’m much more interested in using what I know about electronics and computers and acoustics.  Another way to put it might be that I take photographs of things in the real world to look at the sound of the human voice, or to look at the sound of somebody playing an instrument, and recast that in ways I haven’t thought about before, and to allow other people to have the use of that.  For example, in the Campion Fantasies
[LP jacket shown at right] — which is really the first piece I did that I felt I would like to really claimmy feeling there was just to make the sound of somebody speaking elegant poetry, but speaking without much affectation.  I wanted to just make the sounds of somebody speaking sound like music, and to listen to the different aspects to the human voicethe noise in the voice, the pitch contours in the voice, the rhythm of the voiceto make you think of all these things as music rather than as a speech.  In a sense, what I’ve been trying to do is to toggle a lot of the switches in the brain that people use when they tend to categorize things.  For example, there is a switch in the brain that we toggle when we go between speech and song.  You either think of something as speech or song.  What I was really interested in doing in this piece is confusing you to a great extent about whether it was speech or song, and I think I have succeeded if, in fact, you can’t really decide.  So if you say it’s not really music but it’s not really speech, then I’ve succeeded.

BD:   Are you trying to create a third position for the switch?

PL:   No, I’m trying just to intensify perceptions, and make your perceptions more acute about these things.  A lot of musicians have this experience very often, that they listen to the sound of a language they don’t know as they would listen to music.  For example, listening to oriental languages
which are pitch-inflectedis very often an interesting way to do things for musicians.  You listen the sounds of somebody talking Chinese, and you don’t know what they’re talking about so you...

BD:   [Interrupting]  But it’s nice to hear?

PL:   Yes, but you start to concentrate on other aspects of the speech rather than the actual semantic content.  You think about the acoustic content.

*     *     *     *     *

lansky BD:   We have been talking about your compositional life.  You teach theory and composition, also?

PL:   Yes.

BD:   Is composition really something that can be taught?

PL:   No, I don’t think so, no.  I never learned it...

BD:   [With mock sarcasm]  So what the hell are you doing in the classroom???

PL:   [Laughs]  I don’t know!  My attitude towards education in general is that you can’t really teach anybody much.  The best thing you can do teach people is how to learn.  The best teacher I ever had was a French horn teacher.  When I was in high school, I intended to become a professional French horn player, and I studied with a wonderful man named Joseph Singer.  At that point I was already a very good French horn player, and was clearly pre-professional. It was a choice between going to the conservatory and going to college.  I went to his house, and he didn’t ever tell me what to practice from week to week
which is the norm among instrumental teachers.  He would just criticize my playing, and give me a couple of things to work on.  Then, at a certain point he would say to come back every other week, and then every month, and then finally he said to come back when I wanted to play something for him.  So here I was, at the age of sixteen or seventeen, being forced to be in a position where I was my own teacher, and that really shaped my attitude to education over the years.

BD:   Is that not putting too much responsibility on young shoulders?

PL:   Maybe my shoulders in that particular area were ready for it, but my attitude towards education in general, and towards teaching composition, is that the best thing you can do for anybody is provide a model of what it means to take composing seriously.  Anybody who learns to take composing seriously should be able to learn what it takes to do something interesting.

BD:   Composers should take composing seriously.  Should the public take music seriously?

PL:   [Laughs]  That’s a hard question to deal with.  I don’t really know.  I don’t know what people should do!  I suppose the public does take music seriously... some music they take more seriously than others, and I don’t really think it’s fair to second-guess what should be taken seriously.

BD:   What do you expect of the audience that comes to hear a piece of yours?

PL:   My attitude is that I try to create music which attempts to engage a lot of different levels of listening, so over the past number of years I haven’t written pieces that are extremely complicated.  I tend to write pieces that are rich in texture, and have a lot of things going on.  So, I expect people to use what they’ve brought with them to take away something.

BD:   So much of your music is involved in electronics, so you don’t allow for any leeway in interpretation.  Your music is set.  It can only be played one way as the tape gets played back.

PL:   Right.  The thing I would say about this is that my position as composer is analogous to a film maker, while the position of the composer who writes scores for performers is analogous to a play-writer.  This way, I’m actually the performer as well.

BD:   Do you like the fact that your music is going to sound exactly the same every time?

PL:   Yes, sure.  I tend not to write pieces that are based on very simple synthetic means.  There’s always going to be the same number of microseconds between beats.  I tend to write pieces which are based on perceptions of reality, so I think of my pieces in a sort of ‘musique-concrète’ tradition.  It’s somewhat like watching a film, or watching a movie several times.  Maybe it
s a little easier because it’s much shorter, but I think it’s analogous.

lansky BD:   Do you know when you start how long the piece is going to run?

PL:   I haven’t the faintest idea.

BD:   Are you ever surprised by where the piece takes you?

PL:   Oh, yes!  That’s a very interesting thing, and as a matter of fact it’s one of the things I like best about this medium.  I shouldn’t talk about what other people’s experiences are, but at least my experience has been that when I write an instrumental piece, I tend to get into a frame of mind, and discover the domain that I’m using, and work through it.  On the other hand, with electronic media, there’s so much guess work involved, and very often you have absolutely no idea what’s going to come out at the other end.  You’ll start from an arbitrary point of view with some vague idea of something, and the vague idea will have a very primitive form.  You’ll do something, and the machine comes back and plays it for you.  Maybe it sounds great, maybe it sounds terrible, but nevertheless you respond to what the machine says.  Then you constantly hone your tools to have the machine do one thing or another, and sometimes it works well.  Sometimes you’ll go for six months just beating your head against the wall, and other times you’ll start something, and before you know it, it’s over.

BD:   In electronics, is there a way to tinker and fix things in the way there is on a score-page?

PL:   Yes, sure.  That’s the wonderful thing about computer music in general.  It’s like word processing.  You can go back and revise, and edit, and that’s very easy.  It’s much easier than doing a score by hand.

BD:   I assume you go back and tinker with things until you get them right?

PL:   Yes.

BD:   How do you know when it is right?

PL:   That’s a very interesting question.  Actually, it’s a very sophisticated question.  One of the real dangers of doing this is you’ll work at it and work at it, and perfect ten seconds of sound.  Then you
ll move on to the next ten seconds of sound, and work at that.  Then you put them all together, and what you have is a spring of ten second pieces.  This happens with students a lot, so my advice to studentsand my advice to myselfis always not to polish at first.  Just get rough approximations and move on.  Then make another path and smooth that over.  So, you’re constantly in a state of transition.

BD:   You are looking at the grand sweep of things?

PL:   Yes, in a sense.  It’s like what a painter may do.  You don’t make a picture by perfecting the lower left-hand corner, and then perfecting the upper right-hand corner.  One of the things that always frustrated me about the way I sometimes wrote instrumental piece when I was younger was that I’d write the piece from beginning to end.  I’d start, and I’d finish the first twenty measures and then I feel that’s finished.  I don’t write instrumental music that way anymore.  What I’ll do is write bits and pieces from here and there.  The analogy with what a painter does is probably true
to start in the middle and really work out, at least for some pictures.

BD:   Do you feel you are a sound painter?

PL:   Actually, the more accurate analogy for the kind of work I’ve been doing is a
sound photographer more than anything else.  The pieces I’ve done in recent years all involve reprocessing familiar sounds from the real world.  So, you’re getting an image of sounds of people playing instruments, and sounds of people talking.

BD:   Do you ever get a brand new sound and think,
Oh, this great.  I’m going to launch it on the world”?

PL:   Yes!  I just did a piece for an Australian ensemble, and I was very inspired by some people I met in California to try this.  I did a piece for a shopping mall and several players.  It hasn’t been played yet, and I still don’t know how it works, but the tape part consists of the sounds of a shopping mall.  It’s a very noisy tape, and slowly, through computer reprocessing, the shopping mall starts to activate musical sounds.  So, the shopping mall turns into a big musical instrument, and it plays along with players.  The players are first playing in this noisy environment, and then the two environments start to interact, and it becomes this big nightmare of a sort.  I’m not sure how it’s going to work, so I’ll wait and see before I make a judgment.  But it was an interesting experiment.

*     *     *     *     *

lansky BD:   Will you ever write anything without electronics anymore?

PL:   Oh, undoubtedly.  One of things that I was always very frustrated by was writing scores out.  It’s such a tedious task, and now being able to do scores on the computer makes it much easier.  One thing that I like very much about doing electronicswhich is not obvious to peopleis that there’s a correlation between finishing the piece and completing the project.  It used to be that you’d finish the piece, and then you’d have to copy the score and partsunless you had a commission that would pay for it.  But copying the score and parts sometimes took longer than to actually writing the piece, so I always felt that it was poor.  In electronic music, the thing I like about it is that you do a piece, and then when you’ve finished the piece, you’ve not only completed the whole thing, but you can also free your mind of that piece.  You no longer have to think in those terms.  I always found it very frustrating doing an instrumental piece, and after a period of time when my head was someplace else, I was going back working and working on the old piece with players, and trying to reconstruct my frame of mind with the time that I wrote the piece.

BD:   As a composer, you are always moving through to your next piece, and yet each piece that you leave for the world must stand on its own, shouldn’t it?

PL:   I hope so.

BD:   Why, then, are you so reluctant to have some of the earlier pieces performed?

PL:   Oh, I’m not reluctant!  I’m not reluctant at all, but if given a choice, I would much rather present myself with my more recent work.  I’m only forty-three, but, for instance, the Campion Fantasies are ten years old already, and are substantially different in certain senses than things I’ve being doing more recently.  They represent very a different approach to music.

BD:   Why?  What was the change in you?

PL:   It has a lot to do with the kinds of complexity that I want to project.  In the earlier pieces, I was very involved in constructing systems and syntaxes.  What I’ve been more interested in recently, as I have described, is in constructing points of view, and this is substantially different.  It’s not that there’s something wrong with the earlier pieces.  They are good pieces, and there’s a certainly a maturity I see in them that I wouldn’t think other people would see.  That’s always the case with composers.  A lot of composers will play their early pieces and see the problems.  Nobody else really sees them, but you know what is wrong with them.  I really like my earlier pieces.  I enjoy listening to Idle Fancies a lot, and I enjoy hearing people play it.  It’s very difficult, so very few people can play it.  I also like most of the String Quartet, but they represent an approach to music which is not my current approach.  If I’m going to represent myself, then I’d much rather have my recent work.

BD:   In music, where is the balance between the artistic achievement and the entertainment value?

PL:   That’s a very interesting line, and it’s a very blurry line. 
Entertainment is a curious concept.  It’s gotten a bad press by the Entertainment Industry because there are so many aspects in the Entertainment Industry that are just programmed or arbitrary responses made in easy ways in order to make money.  But entertainment‘’ in the best sense is something that I don’t feel is far from what I’m trying to do.  I really do think that there are aspects of my music that are truly entertaining.  One thing that I’ve been trying to do in some recent pieces, for example, are things that are actually funny, and things that make people smile.

BD:   Are they things that make the sophisticated composer smile, or things that make the average Joe smile?

PL:   Both!  With the piece I’m working on now, my kids come into my room and start laughing hysterically.  Some older composers like them, too.  You can’t please everybody, but I’m not really trying to please anybody except myself.  However, I am very interested in people’s responses.

BD:   What are some of the traits that make a piece of music great?

lansky PL:   [Thinks a moment]  I have a good angle on that.  My particular view at this point, today, might not be true tomorrow, but it’s certainly been true for the past couple of years, and that is the extent to which the piece is able to project to me a very interesting sense of somebody being able to do something.  This is a complicated angle, because it allows me to view the piece much more in terms of human effort than in the abstract.  I move away from the point of view which looks at a piece as an abstract entity, and forget about the individual who is doing it.  The interesting thing about this is that it ties together perceptions of a lot of different kinds of art.  For example, children’s art can enter the picture in an interesting way in these terms.  When I look at children’s art, I don’t look at it as immature grown-up art.  I look at children’s art as a product of children’s activities.  When I look at the Jupiter Symphony, I’m blown away by the utter genius and craftsmanship, but I’m also interested in Mozart the composer.  A lot of twentieth-century art and a lot of twentieth-century music becomes much more accessible to me in these terms.  This is different point of view than is espoused by others.  For a long time, my feeling has been that it’s not that difficult to write a competent piece of music.  Anybody with enough time and effort can become a competent composer.  We were talking about learning composition, and my point of view was that learning to compose means, more than anything else, looking into your own resources and seeing what it is that you really have to offer, and what it is you really want to deliver.  Some people don’t really feel that it’s what they want to deliver, but they want to be composers.  My sense of most of these people is that they write pieces that I’m just not that interested in listening to, but very often I’ll listen to a piece which may be a failure.  If a piece all of a sudden just falls apart in the middle, it doesn’t make sense, but it may interest me a lot more because of the kinds of things that the composer is trying to do, more than a piece which very successfully goes from beginning to the end and ties up all the loose ends.  So greatness, in that sense, has a lot more to do with how successfully the composer really is able to package and sell some inner vision.  It doesn’t have that much to do with invertible counterpoint.

BD:   Let’s go one step further into all of this.  What do you feel is the purpose of music in society?

PL:   I think of music as a fundamental expression of the human brain.  It’s something that people do naturally.  It’s like eating, making love, and doing all these kinds of things.  Making music is just is in-born.

BD:   Is it brain, or is it heart?

PL:   It’s everything.  It’s physical.  Music is dancing, music is singing, music is thinking.  It’s very profoundly connected with thought.  It’s a fundamental aspect of the human condition, and thinking of it as anything less is one of the tragedies of our times, because it is regarded by large parts of our educational institutions as extra-curricular, or it’s regarded as something that’s not so serious.  There was a time back in the
60s when, if you majored in music you get drafted into the army, whereas if you majored in something else, like science, you wouldn’t get drafted into the army.  I think of it as every bit as serious and as interesting as physics, as computer science, or engineering, or psychology.  I suppose it’s more difficult to justify to the Defense Department, but for me it’s certainly really part of what being human is all about.

BD:   You mention that almost anyone could be taught, or could learn to be a competent composer.  Is there a chance that we have too many competent composers around these days?

PL:   We have a lot of competent composers, but I wouldn’t say too many.  I don’t want to become involved in value judgments about other people’s lives, but sure, there are lots of good composers around.

BD:   [Pursuing the point just a bit]  But is there a chance that we’re turning out too many of them?

PL:   I don’t know.  It’s a funny situation.  There are scads of composers in the United States, and the more the merrier, as far as I’m concerned.  It’s sad that so many people really are lured to composing, and then find it’s so hard to make a living.  I would like to see more ways in which composers can be supported, and I’d like to see more ways in which they could function as part of society, but so many really serious young composers are forced to take on jobs here and there just to survive.  I’ve always believed that people find their own niche, and people end up doing kinds of things that they were meant to do, so I wouldn’t risk a guess about whether there are too many or two few.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’ve been teaching for a number of years.  How have the students changed in that time?

lansky PL:   There’s a very interesting change that’s coming about, and I don’t know what to make of it.  It’s going to have a very serious, very strong effect on the future.  The fundamental causes of the change are the availability of records and TV.  I came to early maturity in the early
60s, and even in my generation, music was not that easy to get.  If there was something you really liked, you could find a record of it sometimes, but sometimes you had to search for a good recording of Mozart’s Seventeenth Piano Concerto.  I remember more than once looking around to find some Bach, or early Webern, or Schoenberg, or something that was hard to get.  Then getting the score of it was a big event, too.  Lots of interesting things were hard to get.  Over the past twenty years or so, it’s become so easy for students to get all kinds of music, so their whole view of music, and their relation to it is changing radically.  If you look at students’ libraries, they’re mostly rock ’n’ roll, but still lots of Princeton students will have a number of jazz items.  They’ll also have a number of classical music items, such as Brahms, and they’ll have a lot of ethnic music.  They’ll have a lot of music from Indonesia, and a lot of gamelan music.  I’m talking about the really active listeners, not about the average student.  I’m talking about the students who are music freaks.  They’ll spend a long time listening, and will go from listening to gamelan music to Brahms, to Philip Glass, or Steve Reich, or Schoenberg.  They’ll sort of jump from one thing to another, and I can’t but help think that this kind of rapid alternation of different musical cultures, and different ways of thinking about music is going to have a very serious effect on the kinds of roles that music plays.  I won’t venture a value judgment about this because I don’t think there’s any way to tell what the meaning of it is.  But I certainly think that this kind of availability is extremely significant.  Also, there is one aspect to it which is problematic, and is probably going to be serious, and that is the extent to which they use music not as a direct medium, but as an indirect medium.  In other words, they put it on just to fill the voids, and they put it on because they want to have some sound to color their environment.  I think this is very, very, very troublesome, and here again, I don’t know what to make of it.  I don’t know whether this is going to lead to people who can’t listen to music directly, who can’t really engage themselves in music, because it's perfectly conceivable that it could have the opposite effectthat it could, in fact, lead to a generation of people who can listen.  In other words, you don’t really know.

BD:   I asked Virgil Thomson about it, and he said it creates a kind of lack of attention.

PL:   I think so, too, but there again, the sociological changes are so significant that it’s somewhat difficult for somebody in my generation to really be able to understand how this generation is seeing it.  But it’s a very, very serious issue, and there’s not anything you can do about it.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of music?

PL:   I don’t know.  I wax and wane.  I have a certain amount of pessimism because of issues like this.  I do think that certain kinds of music are appealing and attractive, not because of the content but because of the general contour.  It is just the wash of stuff they can color their context with.  But it’s a serious situation, and it’s very interesting to watch.  Television bothers me a lot more because of the extent to which people relegate responsibility of the moment to TV.  If you turn on the TV, and sit down to watch, you’re freeing yourself of responsibility for that amount of time.  I like to think of listening as a participating sport.  I don’t like to think of it as a passive activity.  Listening to music should be something that you do when you’re not doing something else, and television-watching and this background music is something that I can’t really understand.  I can’t put a record on and read a book at the same time, but most undergraduates do, and the dorms are just wall to wall sound.

BD:   To end on a positive note, let us come back to your own creations.  Is composing fun?

PL:   Oh, yes.  That’s my mid-life crisis
if it ain’t fun, don’t do it!  Yes, I have a great time composing.  As a matter of fact, one of my biggest problems is finishing pieces, because if a piece is going well, finishing it is like going home from camp.  You’ve got this really nice life going, and everything is fun, and every day there’s a reason to wake up, and there’s something you look forward to doing.  You work hard at it, and it’s a real struggle.  There are lots of weird things.  Campion was a real struggle for me.  It took about a year-and-a-half, and it was just a way of life over that year-and-a-half.  When I finished it, I got very mysteriously sick.  I didn’t understand what it was.  I developed some throat ailment that I couldn’t understand, and the doctors couldn’t understand.  Then it went away after a couple of weeks, but it came almost the next day.  It was sort of psychosomatic.  On the other hand, Idle Chatter was a whirlwind affair.  [Recording shown below.]  I just started it, and six weeks later and I was done with it.  That was great fun.  Every piece I do, I think of as a trip, and if I find that composing is hard, if I find that I’m putting it off, if I find excuses not to do it, I interpret that as I’m on the wrong track, that I’m doing something wrong.  If I find myself waking up in the morning and getting dressed before I start to work, then I figure there’s something wrong.  But when it’s going well, there’s nothing like it.  It’s great fun.

BD:   Thank you for being a composer.

PL:   Thank you for having me here.



© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on April 26, 1988.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and again in 1994; and on WNUR in 2003, and 2013.  A copy of the unedited audio was placed in the Oral History of American Music archive at Yale Univeristy.  This transcription was made in 2019, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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

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.