A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


From looking at his photograph, you might imagine Morten Lauridsen as one of those rugged guys who has spent time in deep in the woods, or worked for the Forest Service in a watchtower, or lives in a cabin on the beach.  And you'd be correct!  Now imagine this same man writing choral music that is inspiring and uplifting and enjoyed by people all over the globe.  Again, you'd be correct!  Finally, try to imagine that this man has gotten major recognition from the United States government and had a medal presented to him by President George W. Bush.  Yes, correct again!

With numerous recordings of his works by major ensembles and local groups, Lauridsen is a success on many levels.  But no matter what life gives him, he seems to be genuinely pleased and humble about it all.

Back in March of 1999, he attended a choral convention in Chicago and during those busy days I had the pleasure of snagging him for a chat.  He met me at the hotel and we talked about musical and general topics, and here is what was said that afternoon . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    Are you a composer primarily of choral music or exclusively of choral music?

Morten Lauridsen:    Primarily of choral music.  I have written a great deal of chamber music and solo piano music, but I’m very interested in vocal music, so I start out thinking songs.  In fact, I went to Los Angeles initially thinking that perhaps that I would become a songwriter because I was raised upon the great music of Jerome Kern, Richard Rogers and Cole Porter.

BD:    Do you come from a musical background?

ML:    I do, yeah, from the get-go, playing piano, playing brass instruments.  And yet, when I went off to college I thought that perhaps I wouldn’t be in music; I’m not quite sure why.  I had a great interest in English, a great interest in history.  So I went off to Whitman College, a very fine small school in eastern Washington, and studied that and steeped myself in history.  I didn’t take a single solitary class in music.  That summer, I worked for the Forest Service and got on one of those towers with the lookouts up by Mount Saint Helens.

BD:    Oh, a watchtower!

ML:    Yeah.  I was up there for ten weeks and did a lot of self-examination.  I decided that I really belonged in music, but not quite sure in what capacity.  So I went back to Whitman College for another year and took every music class I could possibly lay my hands on. I had a thought that I might try composition.  I just wasn’t sure, but I also thought that I should probably go to a major school of music in a large urban area — a large metropolitan area — and so many people pointed towards Los Angeles.  They said, “If you go down there and study with that great faculty, by taking the courses of all types, it will sort itself out.”  So I went to L.A.

BD:    How soon did it become apparent where you should be?

ML:    Within a year.  I was led into the composition program there by Halsey Stevens, conditionally, to see how I’d do.  I was twenty years old and I’ve always wished I had a tape of that conversation, because I could have whispered to him, “I’m going to succeed you down the line, and when you develop Parkinson’s, you're going to ask me to finish pieces in your style.”  All of this I did for him towards the end of his life.  The great faculty at that university opened my eyes to composition.  I studied with some very, very fine people there.  It’s a large school, so we were able to study with a number of different people.  I continued with piano and developed my interest in music history and conducting.  They encouraged me to stay on for graduate work, gave me a wonderful assistantship and something called the Cole Porter Prize.  I continued and did graduate work, and while I was there they asked me to do some teaching.

lauridsenBD:    Teaching of what — composition?

ML:    No, initially theory.  And they asked me to set up the prep school, their pre-college theory program, which I did, and they also asked me to teach theory to the master classes of Jascha Heifetz.  That worked out well and then they started asking me to teach theory at the college level.  Upon graduation they asked me to stay on, and from the youngest person on the faculty, now I’m one of the old guard!  [Laughs] Things like that happen after thirty years or so!

BD:    Has it progressed the way you wanted it to over thirty years?

ML:    Absolutely!  Absolutely.  And during this time, I continued my great interest in poetry, which is my second love.

BD:    Studying poetry or writing poetry?

ML:    Studying poetry.  I’m pleased to tell you that my son is a brilliant poet.  He’s studying with Ishmael Reed at Berkeley and is a very, very gifted writer.  I am not a poet, but I admire poetry so much.  I read it every day; there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t read poems, I encourage my students to steep themselves in this because it’s so enriching on so many different levels.

BD:    Now of course, the obvious question:  have you set some of your son’s poetry to music?

ML:    No, but I intend to do that.

BD:    With your great interest in poetry, do you make sure that your music is poetic?

ML:    Absolutely!  I’ve written six large vocal cycles now.  I’m very interested in the architecture of a cycle where a large multi-movement work will be united poetically as well as musically.  I’m also interested in setting poets in various languages.  There are five languages amongst the six cycles that I’ve set and the music compliments the style as well as the meaning of the poetry.  So you will find each one of these cycles to be quite different.  If you listen to the setting of Robert Graves, it’s very different from the settings of Rilke, who’s dealing with these pastel colors in French and writing about love and roses; or a cycle for solo voice and chamber ensemble that’s done a great deal by contemporary music ensembles around the country, that’s atonal, very atmospheric, very passionate, with poems in Spanish by Garcia Lorca on time and night; or the settings in Italian about unrequited love, Renaissance Italian poetries that are very fiery, passionate, earthy kinds of settings.

BD:    What is it about a poem or a cycle of poems that attracts you, that says, “You must set me to music”?

ML:    It’s the feeling that comes when you see a piece of art, and you say, “That’s it!”  It’s something deep within my gut, for sure.  I read poetry constantly, and all of a sudden I’ll grab a poem that says, “Hello there!  You and I are going to get to know each other.”  And I know that immediately!  I read so much poetry, and if I find a poem by a poet that interests me, then I’ll go out and buy his complete works, and read that.  This is what happened on the Graves cycle.  I found The Lament in an anthology and I said, “What a strikingly powerful poem that is!  I think it would lend itself well to settings.”  And so then you go and get the collected poems.  The same thing happened with Rilke, and I was astonished to find that at the end of his life he wrote four hundred poems in French!  I had no idea of this because he’s so well known for the German poetry.

BD:    When you come upon a poem that you want to set, is it complete, and can it stand on its own, or does it need the music to complete it?

ML:    It doesn’t need the music to complete it.  The poets that I have set are world-class poets.  Think of Graves and Rilke, and Lorca. And there have been other very fine poets.  I set Howard Moss, for example, who was poetry editor of the New Yorker for many years and won a National Book Award.  Very fine poetry but not poetry at the level of these other gentlemen.  I always have the poems printed in my programs and in all the published music, so that listener and the performer can read them ahead of time and steep themselves in them, because I certainly do.  But I try to find poems that have universal themes as well, or texts that do.  This is exactly what’s happening now, why I’m getting all this mail on the Lux Aeterna, because it’s a large cycle; every one of the five movements relates to light, a universal symbol in so many ways.  It was a great deal of pleasure to write that particular cycle, and I wrote it as my mother was in the process of dying, so it was a way of, as so many artists do, of dealing with that kind of a situation in an artistic way.

BD:    That one, of course, is a sacred cycle.  Is there something sacred about all of the music you set, even the secular texts?

ML:    I don’t know.  I think all of my music is deeply spiritual.  I tend to be one who feels a part of a great whole on some level.  Part of this is due to the fact that when I go off in my summer times to this remote island off the coast of Washington, I’m able to commune with a greater sense and greater being, or whatever one might call it.  So I think that there’s a deep sense of perhaps earthiness or spirituality about this music, be it sacred or secular.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You spend much of your year teaching.  Is it still theory, or now also composition?

ML:    Composition, yes.  I actually taught theory for twenty-three years in a row and loved every minute of it.  I especially like dealing with freshmen and graduate students, but for the past few years I actually had to stop that particular class because it met so early in the morning.  When my kids became of school age, I found myself driving, taxiing quite a bit.  [Laughs]  So it was more of a practical reason.  I teach graduate students now, run the Composition Forum, and I chair a large composition department at the University of Southern California, where we have seven tenured composers on the faculty.

BD:    With all of this work at the university, do you get enough time to compose or is it relegated completely to the summers?

ML:    My university schedule generally has me in three days a week.  Two days, then, I can devote to composing.  And I’ve certainly taken advantage of my sabbaticals as well.  Two of the major cycles were written on sabbatical:  Midwinter Songs, and the Madrigali.  I have another one coming up, and I’m looking forward to that as well.  When I go to the island, I tend to get away from writing.  There are times where I have written on the island, in fact, I finished the Lux Aeterna up there; I wrote the last movement.

lauridsenBD:    Oh, I thought you used the island like the MacDowell Colony to write.

ML:    No, I’m a carpenter on the island.  I bought an old shack on the beach twenty years ago, and I’ve been turning it into a summer cabin for my family.  

BD:    Then it’s really rejuvenation for you?

ML:    It’s rejuvenation for me, and I take an enormous amount of poetry on the island every summer.

BD:    Ah, so you are working! [Laughs]

ML:    I’m reading.  I’m not writing, but I’m sketching.  And I’m contemplating and I’m looking back.  I got into this cycle that’s worked for me for many years.  It’s very much like that of a farmer, because I would go up there, gather the material in my mind and sort of sow the seeds of it in the summer time.  Generally, by the time I leave the island I have absolutely focused on what I intend to do and I hit the ground running when I go back to Los Angeles.  I work very, very hard on getting those notes down on paper, and then in the spring it’s a time where it’s performed.  It’s like reaping the harvest in all this.  And now with my wonderful relationship with the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and this great conductor Paul Salamunovich, he and I will get together and have our weekly meetings.  I’ll play and sing through the music for him and he’ll shape his phrasing ideas, and we’ll talk and talk and talk.  Then we’ll bring it to this great chorus he has for a performance.

BD:    Does he expect everything that you deliver to be on this same high level?

ML:    Well, I suppose so! [Laughs]  I wouldn’t give him anything that I didn’t think was a high-level piece.  Our relationship started with a bang, so to speak, because the very first piece I wrote for him was O Magnum Mysterium, and that’s a piece that he predicted.  The night that he introduced it to the audience at the Master Chorale Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Concert, he said that when he is asked who is favorite composer is, it’s Tomas Luis de Victoria, because of that great renaissance setting of O Magnum Mysterium.  It’s as fresh and vibrant today as it was umpteen hundred years ago, and he predicted at that concert that this would be the twentieth century counterpart of that.  And as we know, it’s become the best-selling octavo in the history of Thedore Presser, who has been in business for over two hundred years now.  We’ve had perhaps three thousand performances of it.

BD:    Are you conscious of this, then, when you’re writing a new piece?

ML:    Absolutely not.  I write the old-fashioned way.  I’ve got an old-time Steinway in a little composing studio in the Hollywood Hills, and I go up there.  I have no other considerations when I write, except for the following:  I want to write music that satisfies me, that will attempt to satisfy both head and heart, that will be gracious for the performer, and will communicate with the listener.  Those are criteria that I set for myself, and I have found a conductor in Paul Salamunovich who is one of the world’s great practitioners of Gregorian chant.  So a lot of this music uses the conjunct melodic ideas of chant as a base, although I never quote chant, or any of that kind of stuff.  But the kind of phrasing that is built into this music is very much designed for Paul and his chorus and the kind of quality of sound that they can achieve.

BD:    But it’s easily transferable to other choruses around the globe?

ML:    Absolutely!  Yeah, they do it.  But I have Paul and this chorus in mind on every single note that I’m writing for them, as their Composer in Residence.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you’re sitting at the desk, and you’re putting the little dots on the paper, are you controlling that pencil, or does the pencil lead your hand across the page?

ML:    I’m controlling the pencil because it’s a battle every step of the way.  I’m a reviser.  As it turned out, O Magnum was one of the most difficult pieces for me to write, even though it is a very direct piece.  That was the difficulty in writing, or composing, the piece, because I kept whacking away and eliminating other thoughts that would come into the composing process that were extraneous, that were perhaps too complicated for this particular setting.  On Lux Aeterna and so many of my works, I like the immediacy
to draw my listener in immediately, to hold their attention, to transport them, to do something to do them on some level, whether it’s excite them, or move them, or elate them, or whatever.  But I also want my music, upon careful analysis, to be peeled back like an onion, like one can do with the great composers that I admire, such as Brahms.  I just attended this great chorus that you have here in Chicago.  They and the orchestra did the Brahms Requiem.  That wonderful piece has an immediacy of appeal to it, and yet one can peel that back year after year, after every single time you hear it, and discover more complexities and nuances and thrills on an analytic level underneath.  I like to think the same thing is true of the Lux Aeterna, which is very complicated when one starts to peel it, especially in the contrapuntal sense, and yet the immediacy is there for the listener to respond to.  However, on the O Magnum Mysterium I didn’t want the listener to actually peel back anything!  Its a very short piece, very direct, and I want to eliminate anything that would stand in the way of that.  I use one accidental in this piece; there’s a G sharp on the words beate virgo where it comes back to indicate, to draw a certain attention to that individual there.  I get letters from composers all over the world about their thoughts on the exact placement of that G sharp at that particular time.  The Master Chorale gave a wonderful, very beautiful premiere of that work and then that led to the Lux Aeterna and the Ave Maria, and other works coming up.  Now they’ve recorded some of my earlier cycles as wellthe Rilke and the Midwinter Songs on poems by Robert Gravesand next season, in addition to those pieces, they’re going to do the Madrigali, which they have never done.  That's a very thorny, tough piece on Italian lyrics.

BD:    Now you said that you have written a piece in the atonal style?

ML:    Yes, I’ve written several pieces in the atonal style.

BD:    What is it that dictates which style will be used, the tonal style or the atonal style, in various pieces?

ML:    I find that in my choral music I like the consonant sound.  I like the way the harmonics work and the way chord spacings work, the more consonant sound.  My Piano Variations, on the other hand, explore more different realms, and, in fact, are atonal from first note to last.  The Lorca setting is also atonal, but it starts to become tonal and opens up like a flower, and finally tonality is reached towards the end.  Part of this is also due to the fact that a great deal of that music also was written earlier on, in the seventies, when I was doing more exploring of various other harmonic realms as well.  But I’ve always looked at my music the same way that Aaron Copland looked at his.  He had music which he called his direct music, which one might find in Appalachian Spring, and then his abstract music, which one would find in his very fine Piano Variations from 1930 or the Piano Fantasy from 1957 — which aren’t done very often.  Later on in his life he was writing serial music, but that didn’t work out for him in a very good way, I don’t think.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    If someone came to you and said, “I’d like a piano sonata,” would you say yes or no?

ML:    In the last two years I’ve had to say no at least a hundred times to commissions.

BD:    So then what is it that makes you say yes?

lauridsenML:    I’ve said yes to the Los Angeles Master Chorale.  My appointment there in 1994 seemed like a good fit between conductor and ensemble and composer.  I had a body of choral works that were having success at that time.  It’s like being married in the sense; I’ll stay the course with them until Paul retires and then I will certainly retire along with him, because whoever they have as a new conductor should bring in their new Composer in Residence with them.  Then perhaps I can say yes to other people such as Chanticleer.  I’ve had to say no to them so far!  I’ve been asked to write the major commission piece for the A.C.D. convention for the next two years and I’ve had to say to people, “Look, I balance a lot of juggling balls here.  I’m chair of a department in a major university; I have to have my space on this island; I write slowly; I’m a reviser and right now I’m committed to a group.  Once that commitment is done, then perhaps we can talk.”  But a lot of it will have to do with the group that asks me.

BD:    If you could, would you clone yourself, so that you could have several different compositions going on at once?

ML:    That would be nice! [Laughs]  And I could be at my island retreat while somebody else is writing the music!

BD:    You say you’re a reviser.  You write down what you think and then you toy with it and tinker with it?

ML:    Constantly, right.

BD:    How do you know when it’s finished?

ML:    When I can objectively say that there’s not a single thing more that I can do to this piece to improve it in my own thoughts.  Maybe it’s with age, maybe it’s with maturity, but the last few pieces, once they have been premiered, I haven’t had to change a thing.  That hasn’t always been true; the Robert Graves cycle, for example, initially used to be six movements scored for piano and chorus.  Then I got permission to orchestrate it, which I did, and I was dissatisfied with the final movement.  It didn’t seem to lend itself well with orchestra. 
Then I started to think more about the orchestra and I thought that it should have a larger section, so in the final movement of this version — at the end of Intercession in Late Octoberthere’s a long orchestral interludium which was added ten years later!  That interludium wraps around to the very start of the piece, brings back the opening, and then the piece ends quietly in a very thoughtful manner.  So I simply added on to that movement and eliminated the last movement.  Then, to overcome the objections of so many people who enjoyed it, I have reissued that dropped-movement as a separate octavo.  The San Francisco Symphonic Chorus does it constantly; it’s a rather jazzy individual piece.  Paul did the premiere of the orchestral version with the Master Chorale and Bruce Brown in Oregon has done a very, very fine rendition of the chamber version.

BD:    What if someone wants to do it in its original version, with all the original movements and piano?

ML:    Well, they can do it. 
There’s not much I can do about it except encourage them to do the newer version.  The first edition which had six movements sold out a long time ago.  The second edition with five movements has been reprinted several times now and is done constantly.  I haven’t heard it for so long now in the six movements.

BD:    It’s starting to get like Verdi
s Don Carlos, with all the various versions and texts and everything.

ML:    Right.  Well, there’s really only two versions of this, and I think the last version works well.  It was fun to orchestrate it but I never conceived of doing it for orchestra.  I was commissioned by the University of Southern California in 1980 to write a piece to commemorate the centennial of the university.  So I took my volumes of poetry up to Waldron Island with me, chose the texts and then came back and wrote the piece for the really crack chamber choir that they had at the university.  The pianist at that time was Mack Wilberg, who has gone on to have a very, very fine career as a composer, arranger and conductor at Brigham Young, and now he’s accepted a position with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  Mack’s an excellent pianist, so I told him, “Your part in this is not going to be an accompaniment.  You’re going to have equal footing with the chorus.  You’re going to have a very sophisticated piano part.”  So it lent itself very well for orchestration.  It’s done in both ways and it’s been recorded in both ways.  You know, there are probably two dozen recordings now of the O Magnum Mysterium.

BD:    Does that please you?

ML:    Absolutely it does.

BD:    Are they very different, or are they all very similar?

ML:    On that work I would say the approach tends to be quite similar.  The differences are in the groups themselves.  The quality of voice and the size of the chorus will change the performance considerably.  I prefer a larger chorus on that particular piece.  There’s an awful lot of divisi and extended ranges.  I wrote it for the Los Angeles Master Chorale, and I never, ever thought that high schools would be doing it, but they are.   And that presents certain problems especially for the men because they have to go down to a low D.  That’s generally out of the range of people, but they are very inventive.  They’re always telling me about their solutions.  I got a letter from some small town on the east coast, and they were bound and determined to do this piece.  They wanted to do it and they couldn’t find a low D anywhere in the town! [Laughs] I think almost resorted to sending out flyers!  They couldn’t find it, so they simply brought in a double bass to pick off those low D pedal tones, and it worked very well!  This is something that Roger Wagner used to do as well, to augment that sound.  But I’m quite amazed at the response to this music, and I get constant letters on it.  The choral community is a very tight community.  If they come across material that they are excited about, there’s a network there and they will get on it and immediately let their friends know.  When Bruce Brown premiered the Chansons in a small church up in Portland, Oregon, in 1994, I was deluged by phone calls the very next week from conductors all over the country!  “Where’s my copy of this piece?  When’s it coming up?”  It was still in manuscript form at that time!  But they connect on this.  This is one of the reasons why this great convention is here.  They have these things every year and there are reading sessions.  You have conductors that are very dedicated to exploring the literature and seeing what is out there and if they find a sound that they like, then they spread the word mighty, mighty quickly.

BD:    We’re kind of talking around this so let me ask the real easy question straight away.  What is the purpose of music?

ML:    I think the purpose, at least for me, of any art is
to leave us something elegant that enriches our spirit, touches our heart, probes our intellect and improves the human condition.  I don’t know if that’s something which is a primal urge, but when I want to enrich myself, I steep myself in art of all kinds and my spirit and my intellect are elevated.  I look at myself as an individual in a long string of creative artists, be they in music or sculpture or poetry, that have done whatever they could, oftentimes in very dire circumstancesin poverty and emotional difficulties, health problems — and I am simply a member of the human species that’s part of this process that’s doing his utmost.  There are so many things that are counteractive to that in our life today and I think it is our duty, if we can, to counteract forces that detract, that denigrate, that lower us.  We have to do what we can to turn the tide to this kind of stuff.

BD:    Are you going to succeed?

ML:    I have succeeded, so far.

BD:    Are all of those who are doing the pushing to counteract the negative — are they succeeding?

ML:    Absolutely!  Absolutely.  And I urge your listeners to remind themselves:  don’t take the easy way out!  Get away from the tube occasionally.  Read great books; read great literature; go to the museums.  I just came back from your glorious Art Institute here.  What an amazing event, to walk into a room filled with Monets!  You can spend weeks in this building and revisit works of all types at different points in your life.  Lately I’ve been very interested in collecting first editions of various kinds of things, and there’s nothing more gratifying now to take another run at something that you’ve heard all your life, but you want to hear it a new way
an early Stravinsky piece or the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto.  I have a first edition of that which interests me now, as an adult, to come back and hear it, and look at the dedication to a fellow named Auer, who told Tchaikovsky it couldn’t be played!  Three years later Tchaikovsky has somebody else play it.  So Auer changes his mind, says yes, it can be played, brings it to the attention of his student Jascha Heifetz!  Eventually I find myself teaching Jascha Heifetz’s students, all these years later, at the University of California.  When I was twenty years old, Jascha — Mr. Heifetz himself — would come and sit right in the front row and be three feet from me as I was trying to tell his students about theory!

BD:    So there’s a link across the years?

ML:    There’s a great link!  Another thing I’ve been interested in lately — and this is especially true of Brahms — is to read the letters by these individuals, because then you really get a much clearer idea of their thoughts and their feelings.  I’ve got several volumes of the Brahms letters.  You put yourself in their thoughts!  Here’s old Brahms, who’s battling all sorts of things, including himself, trying to control his moods and his temper, yet doing what he could to leave us something elegant.  And here we are, a hundred years later, hearing your great Chicago Symphony Chorus do this music that the man wrote in his mid-thirties, that moves us today as it did all those years ago.  Maybe at this point I’m getting older.  I still have a long way to go, hopefully, but it’s now a matter of reconnecting with some of these great things, going back and looking at some of these wonderful paintings and poets.  It’s a feast to get up every day and say, “What am I going to do to enrich my life?” and not have it pilfered away by mundane things, and things that have very little meaning.  That’s not to say I don’t enjoy being entertained, but I think there’s so much in our society now that counteracts a deeper delving into things that we should be involved with. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    What advice do you have for those who want to compose for the chorus these days?

ML:    Well, certainly do as I do.  If you’re going to set words, you better become a wordsmith, and you better study this area.  Take classes in English.  Study with poets and people who are well-versed in this.  Read your Shakespeare.  Do all of this and then study scores.  Study scores that have proven to be masterpieces from all eras.  Go to rehearsals.

BD:    Would you include any of your own scores in that?

lauridsenML:    Sure, absolutely!  Yes, my scores have certainly succeeded in a certain level, and I would say of course study my scores.  There are very few people, I think, such as myself, at least in America, that have devoted themselves almost exclusively in the last few years to writing choral music.  You find so many very fine composers that simply feel uncomfortable in writing vocal music, and they just don’t do it at all.  But I think part of the criterion of this is to have a great love for poetry.

BD:    Would you encourage all composers to at least try their hand at it?

ML:    Absolutely!  Yeah, and writing songs as well.  There are more composers, I think, that are writing songs.  Some of the great songwriters of our time, such as Rorem and Barber, and even the Copland wrote songs which are so fine.  [See my Interview with Ned Rorem.]  But do that.  There’s a great deal of foot work that needs to be done.  And a final thing:  sing in a chorus.  Get inside the vehicle.  I sang in choruses for years.  I don’t have much of a voice to speak of and they would surely not let me in the Master Chorale!  They would say, “You stay home and write the music, and let us sing it!”  But, I’ve been inside choruses and I try to make every one of my lines gracious for that particular voice. I get letters from altos saying, “In your last life, you must have been an alto!”

BD:    Do you sing each line?

ML:    Absolutely!

BD:    Out loud?

ML:    Absolutely.  Constantly, to make sure that what goes across the page is a nice line for them.  Altos are completely overlooked!  But it’s one of the most beautiful sounds, to get deep, rich also lines.  I’m very democratic in this
— everyone gets a lovely line.  I’m trying to make sure that each part works and is interesting in itself.  Part of the success of this music, I think, is that the performers want to come back and do it!  They demand to sing this music because you have a composer that is concerned about them and their line.

BD:     What advice do you have for people who want to conduct choruses?

ML:    Oh!  That’s a path that I regret not having taken up myself.  I think it was just a matter of time.  I enjoyed conducting very much.  I’ll tell you one thing, if you’re going to conduct a chorus, study voice.  Be a vocalist yourself.  One of the great things about Paul Salamunovich is he’s an excellent singer!  He can demonstrate immediately the kind of sound and the vocal technique that one needs to achieve that particular sound.  And Bruce Brown in this crackerjack group up in Oregon!  Bruce soloed many times with Robert Shaw in his summer workshops as a great tenor.  I find that this is very helpful, even if you don’t have a naturally gifted voice, to study vocal production as well.

BD:    Just to see how it’s done?

ML:    To see how it’s done and to demonstrate.  If you’re going to conduct a symphony orchestra, you better know something about playing a fiddle!  If you’re going to tell one of the great fiddle-ists in the world, who’s sitting there as your concertmaster or mistress, how to bow, you better know something about that.  

BD:    What about audiences?  What advice do you have for them?

ML:    We’ve been very fortunate with the Master Chorale.  Now we have full houses almost every single time.  My advice to audiences is to steep yourself, as much as possible, in music literature on your own.  You can do that through the process of CD’s.  We have great radio stations such as your own.  We have a couple in Los Angeles that play classical music and are also very erudite in educating the listener as well.  There is a problem here, of course.  When I was younger, music was part and parcel of the education in the public schools.  I was educated in the public schools in Portland, Oregon, and they had a tremendous music program there
chorus, band, orchestra.  As we know, there have been major league cutbacks, and so a lot of this education has fallen to the private teacher.  I think for audiences, one thing that you can do is to go back to your school boards and demand that they reinstate music education at a lower level.  I really think some of the heroes of our time are those music educators in our elementary and secondary schools that are underpaid and overworked and are doing everything they can to enrich the students that they have to the beauties of music, whether through teaching music appreciation courses or conducting various kinds of ensembles.  It’s a tough business for them and I publicly salute what they do.  So one thing that audiences can do is after you go to a concert and feel yourself elevated, do what you can through bond issues and through your local schools, to make sure that you have a strong music program in your school.  My sons all had that in schools in Los Angeles and I'm very, very thankful for that.  They’re all three fine pianists, all three fine string instrument players.  But, it’s a fight.  You can’t be complacent on this.

BD:    In the end, is it all worth it?

ML:    Absolutely!  Absolutely.  You can ask me that question at three o’clock in the morning, when I’m not getting any sleep sometime!  [Both laugh]  But when I think about this business I do in the summer of being a carpenter, maybe I should be doing that instead!  But then I keep strong-arming the music and taking long walks and somehow, with enough push and shove, it seems to come out the way I want it.  I feel very, very blessed as a composer.

BD:    Thank you for sharing yourself, through your music, with everyone.

2007 National Medal of Arts

Composer, Los Angeles, CA

Morten Lauridsen’s acclaimed large choral works and song cycles have established him as one of the most performed living composers in the country. Professor of Composition at the University of Southern California (USC) Thornton School of Music for more than 35 years, he is often considered America's greatest contemporary composer of choral music.

Born on February 27, 1943 in Colfax, Washington, Lauridsen was raised in Portland, Oregon, and attended Whitman College. He worked as a Forest Service firefighter and lookout (on an isolated tower near Mt. St. Helens) before traveling south to attend USC, where he studied composition with Ingolf Dahl, Halsey Stevens, Robert Linn, and Harold Owen.

In speaking of Lauridsen's sacred works in his book, Choral Music in the Twentieth Century, musicologist and conductor Nick Strimple describes Lauridsen as "the only American composer in history who can be called a mystic, (whose) probing, serene work contains an elusive and indefinable ingredient which leaves the impression that all the questions have been answered."

Lauridsen's seven vocal cycles and his series of sacred a cappella motets are featured regularly in concert by distinguished vocalists and ensembles throughout the world. The vocal cycles include Les Chansons des Roses (Rilke), Mid-Winter Songs (Graves), Cuatro Canciones (Lorca), Madrigali (various Italian Renaissance poets), Nocturnes (Rilke, Neruda, and Agee), and Lux Aeterna. His principal publishers are Peermusic (New York/Hamburg) and Peermusic's European affiliate, FaberMusic (London).

His works have been recorded on more than a hundred CDs, three of which have received Grammy nominations including O Magnum Mysterium by the Tiffany Consort, led by Nicholas White; and two all-Lauridsen discs entitled Lux Aeterna by the Los Angeles Master Chorale conducted by Paul Salamunovich (RCM); and Polyphony with the Britten Sinfonia conducted by Stephen Layton (Hyperion). Other ensembles that have recorded his music include the Robert Shaw, Dale Warland, and Donald Brinegar Singers; the San Francisco, Cleveland, and Dallas Symphony Choruses; Pacific Chorale; Seattle Pro Musica; and the Los Angeles and San Francisco Chamber Singers.

Lauridsen is a recipient of numerous grants, prizes, and commissions. He chaired the Composition Department at the USC Thornton School of Music (1990-2002) and founded the School's Advanced Studies Program in Film Scoring. He was Composer-in-Residence of the Los Angeles Master Chorale (1995-2001) and has held residencies as a guest composer/lecturer at more than two dozen universities.

He divides his time now between Los Angeles and his summer cabin on a remote island off the northern coast of Washington State. He was named an “American Choral Master” by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2005. Further information about Mr. Lauridsen may be found at

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The 2007 National Medal of Arts was awarded to composer Morten Lauridsen and presented by President Bush on November 15, 2007 in an East Room ceremony. Mr. Lauridsen received the award for “his compositions of radiant choral works combining musical beauty, power, and spiritual depth that have thrilled audiences worldwide.” The National Medal of Arts is a presidential initiative managed by the National Endowment for the Arts.   Photo by Michael Stewart for the National Endowment for the Arts

© 1999 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Chicago in March of 1999.  Portions were used (along with recordings) on WNIB in 2001.  This transcription was made in 2008 and posted on this website in September of that year. 

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, 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.