Composer LEO KRAFT
A Conversation with Bruce
Tall and lanky with a broad smile and good humor about life, Leo Kraft is one of those people you are glad to have met no matter what the circumstance or topic of conversation. As a teacher, I am sure he comes across to his students as a kind and learned man. As a composer, his music comes across to the public in a positive and intriguing way.
After contacting him about doing an interview, his travels brought
to Chicago in 1988, so we met for coffee and conversation. Here
that dialogue . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: You've been both a composer and a teacher. How did you balance those two aspects of your career?
Leo Kraft: It wasn't easy.
BD: Did you get enough time to compose?
LK: [Without hesitation] Never. There's a constant, ongoing struggle between trying to do a job in teaching, which means not just in the classroom, but preparation and following up of all kinds, and talking to students, and whatever has to be done. I think many composers - American composers, at least - have the situation where you cannot make a living by composing pure and simple. So you find that you can teach, and there are academic institutions interested in having composers as teachers. Quite a few, I would say. And then you try to balance. You try to have the energy and the organization, and whatever it takes, including good health, to keep composing and do justice to your academic responsibilities. Many composers do their composing in the summertime. I've resisted being a summer composer as much as I could, and try to keep it going and be a winter composer, too. There are places in the year where it doesn't work, between, shall we say, November 1 and the end of the year. The academic business becomes very, very busy indeed, and there's no time for anything else. And then, I guess, from around the first of April till the end of May, you're very, very tied up at school.
BD: So that's two months and two months.
LK: That's a good four months for sure, that very little gets done in composition.
BD: Do you then, perhaps, set aside things like copying and other details which don't involve so much creativity?
LK: Yeah, one tries to. Sometimes there isn't even the energy and the eyesight for that. But, you know, it's a constant struggle and you keep it up. I think a lot of people are doing it with varying degrees of success, and if you ask, "Have you had enough time to compose?", the answer from most would be "No." However, a lot of us also are greedy, and think we could do more than we actually could do if we did have more time to compose. So it's a sort of hypothetical situation.
BD: Do you find that your own composing feeds off of any of the work and effort of your students?
LK: Not so much the effort of my students as the effort that I make to prepare my classes, and to study scores in anticipation of classes, and to listen to pieces I might not otherwise listen to. I listen in a different way than I would listen if I were not preparing to teach a certain course. Not much comes back from the students, 'cause everything is so new to them, and they don't have much in the way of response. But it's stimulating to bring in new pieces - pieces that are new to me, too - and try them out in class and see what the students' reaction is. I find the whole musical life on campus very stimulating, or at least let's say I find teaching is very stimulating to me as a musician, and I don't think it has narrowed my view as a composer at all. Just the opposite, it has broadened my view as a composer.
BD: You've been teaching for many, many years.
LK: Yes, sir. [Chuckles]
BD: Not so much in longevity, but what kinds of trends have you seen amongst the composers as you have progressed through that time period? How are young composers different today than they were a few years ago?
LK: Well, there've been several waves, because I've been teaching for several centuries, so I've seen quite a few changes in style. If I can start with the present and work backwards... A lot of the young composers today, the would-be composers on the collegiate level are thinking in terms of a quick success in composition. A lot of the composers in their twenties and thirties are writing "have a nice day" pieces, to try to make a killing on the composition market the way other people try to do in the stock market. For those composers I predict a very short span of existence. On the other hand, there are people who I take more seriously, who are faced with a bewildering array of possibilities in composition, with no powerful trend that they can cheerfully associate themselves with. There is a lot of confusion in their minds as to which way to go. They don't want to follow the most obvious media hype; they don't want to follow a trend which is clearly designed only for short-range gain and material success; but they want to do something more serious. A lot of them have come to feel that serialism, which once represented the most serious point of view, is not the way they want to go, for various reasons, but they don't know which way, or at least there's no one commanding direction in music today which they can follow seriously. So it's difficult. Each one has to work at his own salvation, which, I suppose, is always the case, but never moreso than today, because there are so many things in the air at once. Every student comes up with his favorite record, which is different from every other student's favorite record, and one of them has the mating cry of the wild Eskimo, and someone else has Tibetan monks chanting, and someone else has the Third Symphony of Lutosławski. There's a tremendous range of musics available.
BD: Is there too much music available?
LK: Too much for young people to assimilate all at once without a clear guideline. Until he's 30, I think, a composer today is either going to be completely confused, or else he'll move ahead with blinkers on. It is a difficult era to be a composer, especially when in the back of your mind is the thought that your fellow countrymen are not terribly interested in whether you go this way or that way, or whether you grow a pot of geraniums, or do something else. The previous generation, in the '60s and '70s, was very interested in taking chances, taking risks, which is today very rare. They tried all kinds of different things, flying from one thing to the next, and there was a good deal of fun and games. But out of this wildness and the rebelliousness and experimentation came a lot of interesting things, a lot of constructive things. And the people who've stuck to what they were doing in the '60s, and broadened it and deepened it, have produced some very worthwhile music. Before that, we had the situation, in the '50s and into the '60s, where the serial composers were considered to be the answer to the whole question of what to do with composition, and I think a lot of people followed blindly, without thinking through the implications of what that would be. But again, the people who understood what they were doing in those styles, and who began and built up very carefully a solid technique and a good understanding of the musical issues involved, have come up with some very good music.
BD: You used the word "worthwhile." What contributes to making a piece of music worthwhile?
LK: What's worthwhile for me is if I, as a listener, can identify with it, if I can follow it, if I feel I want to hear it again; if I feel I've had an artistic experience which is moving, or amusing, or irritating, or almost anything but boring; one which would make me want to go back and go into that piece at a little greater depth, or much greater depth, perhaps.
BD: Can we equate that with great music?
LK: I'm very leery of "great music" as a term. We all aspire to greatness, but to say when something has achieved it, I don't know. I'm just very cautious about saying that anything is great. Maybe I shouldn't be, because I'm quick to change my mind. What's great today might be mediocre a week from now. I think pieces respond to the need of an audience at a certain time. We needed a certain kind of music in the '60s. And the music that was written then was of that time, and everybody liked it.
BD: *Did* everybody like it???
LK: Yeah... Well, in the academic world everybody flocked to it. Whether they liked it, or they pretended to, perhaps; I don't know. That's a good question. Then the world changed, and we needed something else. Once the needs of society change - the artistic needs, as well as any other needs - then the pieces that served a purpose perhaps no longer serve a purpose. What's amazing about the masters of the past is that while they were writing for their time, their music has survived their own place, and has lived far beyond that, which I find extraordinary. It never ceases to amaze me that I can sit and listen to Monteverdi and get a great deal out of it.
BD: Is there any way that a composer today can write survivability into the music, or is it just luck of the draw?
LK: I don't think you can do it deliberately, and I
think it's luck either. [Thinks for a moment] It's very
talent. Either you have it or you haven't got it. You can
it if you have it. If you have a little bit of it, you can try to
make it go a long way. [Both chuckle] But if you haven't
it... I'm sure you've heard a piece, and you say to yourself,
person is not really a composer." Now what do you mean by
He has all the skill, he's learned the craft and everything else, and
you feel that person doesn't have anything to say. There isn't
in the piece that is moving or exciting, or anything else, and it's a
way from being great. I keep thinking of that old, old picture in
which Danny Kaye plays a music appreciation teacher in which he says,
in a comically exaggerated accent of a German professor, rolling his
in the back of his throat] "This composition was written under a
serious handicap: the composer had no talent!"
BD: [Chuckles with recognition] I've seen that film on the Late Late Late Late Movie.
LK: That has stayed with me for a lifetime. There are a lot of people writing pieces who have no talent for composition, or a very small amount of talent.
BD: Where should the balance be between the inspiration and the technique?
LK: Ohhh, you get as much technical ability as you can, so that whatever spark there is within you, you can do the most you can with it! But I think a composer has to have just loads and loads of training, and the earlier in life the better. One of the problems we have in our country is it takes a long time to identify talented young people, and they miss out on those early, impressionable years when they can learn things that will stay with them for a lifetime with a certain ease. I have 17- and 18-year-old students in college who are beginners, who are where they should have been at the age of 10 and 12. And although they learn faster than 10- and 12-year-olds will learn, I'm not sure they get it into them as deeply as someone who's in early adolescence, and who's growing into musical techniques and materials at the same time that he's growing up as a person. It's that conjunction of learning everything together that has always been the strong point of artists. You keep on reading how early so-and-so started. It's no accident! In early adolescence they took the whole thing in, and they had it, and before they reached the age of being self-critical, they could do a lot of things. Our 17-year-olds get started, and they're 18 and they can do a few things; they have the brains of 18-year-olds, and they have the critical ability of 18-year-olds, and the creative ability of 12-year-olds, and it's very hard for them. A lot of them get discouraged and vanish from the scene. Sometimes the ones whom you wish would stay a while longer are bright enough to realize the discrepancy and they go home. And the people who are not bright enough to see that don't realize what the problems are just hang in there and you get more mediocre musicians. [Both chuckle]
[Photo at right taken at Queens College in 1945]
BD: Are there too many mediocre musicians lying around?
LK: There sure are. We are producing musicians as if there were some vast demand for them, and then there is no vast demand for them, and there is very little future for them. I'm sure you know better than I that as far as performers are concerned, orchestras in this country are diminishing rather than increasing, and the reason is not hard to find. The generation of people who went to orchestral concerts and subscribed to the symphony, and the opera, and so on is not being replaced. Their children are going to rock concerts and are not showing up at the classical music concerts. If I go to any music concert in New York, I see the preponderance of gray heads, or bald heads, or no heads. It's only at the modern music concerts that you see younger people, and not a vast number of them at all. So the future for professional musicians in this country is shrinking at the same time that we're turning out vast numbers of young people who are well prepared and not so well prepared, the whole range from A to Z. What we're going to do with these people? I don't know, but most of them will not be musicians.
BD: They'll become taxi drivers and accountants?
LK: Whatever! A lot of them go into computer programming, because a computer program is a sort of score. We're dealing with something that's going to unfold in time, and you see it right in front of you in a series of symbols. It's not such a big jump from that to working with computers. A lot of music majors have drifted into computer science, and done very well there. The question of education in the United States has to be rethought, I think, in many, many ways. We're using a 19th century method by which a bunch of kids are herded into a classroom, made to sit down, and then are told things. And for about a quarter of the students that works fine. (I'm talking about elementary school now.) For three-quarters of the students, they don't know what to do with themselves, they fidget, they look out the window, they sneak away, they tickle each other, and they are considered unruly. They're not unruly! They just don't know about sitting still and taking things in. They're not accustomed to pencil and paper; they haven't seen perhaps books or whatnot in their families. But they're educable, and they're intelligent, and they're an enormous resource, and we're losing a lot of them.
BD: Then is there any hope for education in general and music in particular?
LK: Yeah. Education should be run by teachers, not by school boards who don't know anything about education, or by superintendents of schools who are very remote from the classroom. There are good superintendents of schools, though, who are in touch with what's going on in the classroom. But, in New York City, there's a vast gap between the administrative people and those who are in the classrooms. Teaching should be left to teachers as much as possible, and to committees of teachers. It's a professional activity. Nobody would dictate to doctors how they should perform whatever they perform.
BD: And yet the poor doctors, as soon as they get out of line by anybody's standards, wind up in court.
LK: Well, that's malpractice. Luckily, teachers are not usually sued for malpractice. But teachers have been beaten into submission all over the country, and the teachers' union is beginning to stiffen its spine, and to take the position that they are professionals, and they should be, themselves, in charge of their profession. Now at the college level this has been theoretically the case, but in actuality, in many cases, the chairman decides what textbooks they're going to use, what courses are going to be taught, who's going to do what, the whole thing. It's a dictatorship, and the faculty has no say. And you don't get the best results that way. Thank goodness, at the City University of New York, we have faculty power, which means endless committee meetings, but that's the price you pay for making your own decisions, and I go for it.
* * * * *
BD: We've been talking a bit about the academic world, and you mentioned that students and people in that world flock to every new trend, or certain new trends over the years. Is there a big difference between academic music and public music, or concert music?
LK: [Thinks for a moment] Yeah, I think there is. The music that goes on in the conservatories and universities is rather insulated from the rest of the country.
BD: Is that a good thing, or just a thing?
LK: No, I think it's a bad thing. I would applaud any situation where the university and the campus can bring people from the community in to the campus to see what's going on, and to partake of it, and to react to it in some way.
BD: Is that not the wrong way around? Should you really have people coming into the campus, or should you have the people from the campus going out into the real world?
LK: Well, most concerts are given on campus. But I don't care which way it goes. I would like to see a lot more contact between on-campus and off-campus, and I think in the very large cities that's what happens. A lot of the concerts that take place in New York City, and I'm speaking of modern music concerts now, are extensions of campus activity in a very real sense. They take place in public concert halls where the audience is composed almost entirely of university people or conservatory people. So because the musicians are all teaching at universities, or are students there, I regret that there's very little free-floating audience which comes by to hear the music. That's what we have to try to develop. I don't know what it's like here in Chicago, but the radio can be so helpful in bringing to a large audience what is usually restricted to a very small audience.
BD: Then let's talk a little bit about audiences. What do you expect of the people that come to hear a piece of yours, either a new piece or even an old piece?
LK: If I can borrow Roger Sessions' great phrase, "a willing ear." That's all!
BD: Not a willing mind?
LK: Well, we say "ear"; we don't really mean "ear." [Both chuckle]
BD: So then it's a total willingness.
LK: A willingness to go along, to follow. What people say over and over again is, "I don't understand so-and-so." Then I ask them, "Do you understand Beethoven? Really? Tell me about it. I don't understand it!" [Both chuckle] "Understand" is a very big word. I think some listeners have the idea that there is some mysterious secret to [in a pretentious tone of voice] understanding music. I think "understanding" is a very poor word. We follow the composer's line of thought, and that's all. And if you can follow the composer's line of thought, then you have the piece. If you can't follow it, then you haven't got the composer's piece. When somebody's talking, if we say, "I can't follow what he's saying," it's the same idea. There's a certain argument that runs through a piece of music. It starts with a certain kind of material, then other things follow. There's contrast, development, repetition, and the listener gets the effect of all these without being able to put into words what it is. If he doesn't get the effect of all these, then the piece is lost on that listener.
BD: Do the people tend be able to follow the music of Leo Kraft?
LK: [Thinks for a moment] Well, yes, but everybody's very polite in this country. The national motto should be something like [speaks slowly, deliberately, and mildly, in an ironically mocking manner] "Be nice." So even if people hate my pieces they will tell me they like them. But they won't come back for another piece.
BD: [Chuckles] I was going to say, don't they vote with their feet?
LK: Yes, which is bad, because the musician has no way of knowing what the response is, and why there are problems. What sustains me is that the performers usually like the music, and I find if the musicians like the music, eventually that gets down, or back, or around to a general audience. If musicians don't respond to the pieces they're playing, there's very little chance that the audience will. That's the long and short of it.
BD: Let's cut through all of this and get right to the heart of the matter. What is the purpose of music in society?
LK: Music has no purpose at all, I don't think. Art is kind of purposeless. That's the great thing, it's a kind of necessary luxury. We can live without it, but what would life be without it? You can find all kinds of subordinate purposes. There are social purposes to people singing together. There are religious purposes to having a whole congregation sing a hymn together. It's very unifying. In fact, there's a social purpose to teaching children in elementary school how to play musical instruments: it keeps them off the street. [Both chuckle] There are all kinds of subordinate purposes. But if I understand your question, in the deepest sense, the purpose is the pleasure and enjoyment of hearing a great piece of music, or reading a great novel, or whatever. But I don't think there's a utilitarian argument for art.
BD: Now you say there's a purpose in listening to a great piece of music. Should the only music we listen to be great music, or should we also listen to the almost great, or even the mediocre?
LK: I can only report that, as a listener, I get something out of hearing almost any piece that is reasonably competent in composition. I am a great admirer of many composers who are far from great, but who have something interesting to say. There are a lot of composers who are not ranked very high in the history books who've written one or two pieces that are quite outstanding, and if you listen to them blindfolded, and didn't know the name of the composer, you would think was one of the legendary great masters. It's quite surprising. So I'm always looking for new composers from the 14th century or wherever, to see if I can find another voice. That's the fun of it. You have a composer, say, Michael Haydn, who is not as great as Joseph Haydn. But Michael Haydn has a voice of his own, and I would feel poorer if that voice didn't register somewhere in my listener's repertory. There are a lot of composers of whom that's true, and I probably overestimate some of the minor composers, but it hasn't harmed anybody yet. I make a big point, in teaching, that you cannot get the picture of an age from looking at [only] the great composers, because they are all exceptional, and the exceptional does not define the rule of the age. You listen to a Mozart work, you can't know what part of what he's writing was the normal usage of the day, and what part were the exceptional thoughts that he had. Listen to a piece of Cimarosa along with Mozart, and now you kind of understand. Cimarosa's a good, honest, routine composer of a high level. If you could somehow subtract the Cimarosa from the Mozart, you would have what constitutes the exceptional elements in Mozart. But you wouldn't have that unless you were able to compare it with a high-class, ordinary piece. We need those pieces to get our historical perspective.
BD: How far down the line, though, do we still need the pieces?
LK: I'm inclined to be inclusive rather than exclusive, myself. [Both chuckle]
BD: That's good.
LK: In 20th century music I try to be very inclusive, because it's very difficult to get the perspective. So let's include everybody, and if some drop out in five years or ten years, that's okay.
BD: Where do you think music is going today?
LK: I don't think music is going anywhere. Leonard Meyer put his finger on it when he said that we're in an age in which there are a number of different trends going on simultaneously, and no one predominates. As a result, this period is different from any other period, he says, and I'm inclined to agree. So there isn't any sense of "We're going someplace." Rather that there are a lot of currents that coexist, and at any moment one of them may pop up and seem to be in the forefront, but in two years it disappears and something else is in the forefront. Some things go around and around. The expressionistic tendency has been with us since the early days of the century. It disappears and it comes back, and it disappears and it comes back. That's just one example. So I have very little sense of where anything is going. I'm also getting too old for this game. Anatole France said that you can understand the art of those who are a generation younger than you. But those who are two generations younger, forget it. I think I'm at that point now. [Laughs]
BD: We've obviously had acknowledged masterpieces coming out of the 17th century, the 18th century, the 19th century, and even a few from the 20th century. Are we still getting pieces that will rank alongside those pieces, as we move into the 21st century?
LK: Well, I think so. Some of the pieces that we consider masterpieces were not ranked so in their own time, though some were. It took a certain amount of perspective to see the mountain, and this probably is the case with recent pieces, given the aesthetic multitudes that are in front of us at every point. Off the top of the head, I'd be inclined to say that Hans Werner Henze's Fifth Symphony will stand up for a long, long time, and that the Ligeti Second String Quartet is a worthy continuation of the tradition that goes from Haydn through Bartók. It turns out it didn't stop at Bartók. Somebody else came along and kept on going with it. I think a lot of the pieces of Copland are going to hold up quite well in the coming years. There'll probably be a fall-off in the estimation of his merit, followed by a bounce back, but this is just a very rough guess.
BD: Then you're optimistic about the whole future of music?
LK: In the sense that the art itself will survive, because it's a great art, and it has limitless possibilities, and people need it. I'm pessimistic about the music in American society for the foreseeable future, but in a way it doesn't matter. If the Metropolitan Museum of Opera decides to go under, it's not going to be the end of the world; somebody else'll do it.
BD: Hmm! I like that - the "Metropolitan Museum of Opera."
LK: They're the caretakers of the past. If they were what I would consider a vital American institution, they'd be doing one or two American operas every year.
BD: Gatti-Casazza did that in his time.... [Giulio Gatti-Casazza, Director (Manager) of La Scala 1898-1908, and then the Metropolitan Opera 1908-1935]
LK: Yeah, of course! He was a European. He came from a tradition in which you kept the art going by bringing in new works of art all the time. But Americans don't see that. But that's okay. Somebody else'll do it.
BD: If it had turned out that one of these works by Deems Taylor or Louis Gruenberg or Horatio Parker had been a real masterpiece, would that have helped keep the thing going?
LK: Perhaps. But too many of our institutions today are run like businesses. Now any organization has to be run on a businesslike basis, but that's not the same thing. They're looking only at the box office, they're looking only at the dollar sign, and looking only at big numbers to pay the big sopranos whom they sign up three years in advance, and three years later they've lost their voices, so there are considerable problems there. I don't see where it makes a great deal of difference. Of course, if Taylor's opera had been a big hit it would've been a shot in the arm for American opera, no question about it. But it wasn't. Even so, I think that would have been a kind of a stopgap. It would've been nice, but I don't see the Metropolitan doing Porgy and Bess, which is great American opera, and I don't see the Metropolitan doing The Mother of Us All, which I think works on stage. [See my Interview with Virgil Thomson.] It's a kind of musical happening that's quite extraordinary, and very much part of the American scene. There probably are a couple of others whom I'm overlooking. I'm sorry.
BD: That's all right, I don't expect that kind of answer to be inclusive. But in a general sense, what advice do you have for the young composers coming along today?
LK: I'm reluctant to give advice. I've been wrong so many times, and so has everybody else. The only people who should be composing are those who absolutely have to compose, those who have some kind of inner compulsion that drives them. If anybody is composing and thought of making a big career or making any money, or getting fame or fortune, it's most unlikely that any such thing will happen, because there's no societal need for composers. We have a lot of window dressing on top with the NEA giving out money here and there, and so forth and so on, and there are grants and whatnot. But that's all on the surface. Beneath the surface is the fact that there is no very substantial audience for new music.
BD: Whose fault is that? Is that the people, is that the composer, is it society?
LK: I don't think it's a fault; I think we haven't gotten around to addressing the issue. An audience doesn't just happen; you have to develop it. The European audiences developed slowly, painstakingly, over a long period of time. They had the prestige of the court and the church behind them, and there was a constant flow of new art of all kinds. We haven't got that; we're traditionless. We're starting from scratch, and scratch does not include supporting modern music, or modern poetry, or really experimental theater. It doesn't. So there'll be a long struggle, and if it's worthwhile, new art will find its own audience. If it's not worthwhile it'll disappear, but I don't know if anybody has a responsibility. I don't feel that anybody has a responsibility to promote my music. If they want to, wonderful. I'm delighted. But I don't feel anybody owes it to me because I've written pieces that I think are absolutely sublime. I don't think anybody owes it to me, or ot anybody else, to go out and do something about it. I think the educational institutions are doing what they can do to keep their heads above water. They all could do more, but they, too, are being run like business organizations for the most part, and with very minimal concern for arts education, to use a horrible word. There's not really good arts education in this country, and I don't know how the schools, any school system on any level will be able to do battle with a rock industry which can do anything it wants. They have unlimited funds, and education does not, even though there's been a real increase in support for education in the last few years. Whoo! You opened up a lot of big questions there! [Laughter]
BD: Good. Then I'm doing my job!
* * * * *
BD: Have you basically been pleased with the performances of your music which you've heard over the years?
LK: Yes, I have. My pieces don't present the very great performance challenges that other composers' pieces do present, so I haven't confronted people with insurmountable obstacles, though some of my piece are fairly complex.
BD: Do you purposely do that, or is that just the way they come out?
LK: No, I think you have to work awfully hard to make such complex pieces. And the effort that I put in doesn't seem to come out in that kind of complexity. If anything, I've been getting simpler in the last few years, though not that much. But I do have to say, if you're in a collegiate situation, you often know the performers, whether they're your students or someone else's students, or recent graduates, or friends, or whatnot. And having that kind of personal contact with the performers makes them a little more willing to put in that extra effort that secures a good performance. That's an important borderline to cross for a performer, between just playing a gig and trying very hard to put a piece across. I've been fortunate in finding performers who were willing to make the extra effort. And, of course, I tried very hard to pick performers who I thought would be sympathetic to my kind of music.
BD: I asked about performances; what about the recordings, because they have a little more long-lasting life, and a little wider distribution?
LK: Most of the recordings are of pieces that were performed under my direction, and that's the best kind of recording to have. If you have performed the piece a few times, then you record it, the recording sometimes catches some of the excitement of a live performance. Anyhow, it has a finish to the performance. Everything has been worked out, and the players have played it often enough to feel comfortable with it. One of the problems we have with new music is that the first performance is sometimes the last performance, and the first performance rarely is as great as you would like it to be. When you go to hear a Beethoven concerto, that person has played the concerto a great many times, and has thought about it, has inhabited all of its corners, and has tried out this phrase this way and that phrase that way, and has come up with a thought-out version of how the piece should go. The same person playing a brand-new piece, try as he may, cannot bring that kind of maturity and perspective to a performance. That's the limitation of the modern music scene. You get one performance which could be very good in terms of what's possible in one performance, but you don't get the ripeness, the maturity you get from a tenth performance. You just don't.
BD: Now you're also a conductor...
LK: I've done a good deal of conducting, but at a certain point I tapered off.
BD: Well, when you were conducting, were you the ideal interpreter of your music?
LK: [Thinks for a moment] That's hard to say. It might be that someone who conducted every day would have done things that I wasn't able to do. What I was able to do was bring a kind of authenticity - what any composer can do - that brings a first-hand quality to the conducting. [Speaks in an authoritative voice and taps with his fingers on the table] "This is the way the piece goes." And with that I tried to generate performances that were on a high level, and that represented the piece faithfully. I have no doubt that a career conductor, one who conducted every day and who had the opportunity to prepare a piece carefully, would wind up doing a better job.
* * * * *
BD: I want to talk a bit about the compositional process. When you're composing, are you in control of the pencil, or is the pencil in control of you?
LK: I'm in control of the whole situation, but I also would add that there's a subconscious element to composing that works while you're asleep and that presents the solution in the morning to the problem you couldn't think of the answer to the previous night. But I don't think there's any question that the music goes the way I want it to go.
[Photo at left, in Tokyo, 1989]
BD: Are you ever surprised where it takes you?
LK: Oh, yes, I'm surprised at things. In retrospect, when I look back I wonder, "Did I think of that?" Or, "Look what I can do with this passage which I didn't think I could do," or "I can take this material where I originally had not realized I could take it."
BD: Do you ever go back and revise pieces?
LK: Yes, I've been a heavy reviser of certain pieces, and I hold it against myself. I wish I could have gotten it right the first time. That often happens. I hear a piece performed the first time, and I realize that the musical ideas have potential that I have not fully realized. Then I just have to go back and do it over again. I try very hard these days to get it right the first time, and I hope I'm more successful. But there've been certain pieces that were revised extensively.
BD: So what happens when someone goes through your old papers and says, "Here's the urtext version, let's try that"?
LK: They're welcome to try it, but my judgment is that the final version is the best version.
BD: But we have often found that composers are not the best judges of their pieces.
LK: I don't know. Composers are usually the best judges of their own work. I can think of very few cases where the composer was not the best judge. Maybe you're thinking of the fact that you can't believe what a composer says about his own music. That can be misleading. But no, if I work on a piece, and revise it, and throw out weak sections, and then replace them with better sections, I'd be amazed if that was wrong in any of those cases.
BD: Is composing fun?
LK: Fun? Well, not in the sense that eating ice cream is fun. It is a compulsion and it's very satisfying, but on some very deep level it's also frustrating. It's very hard work, and it seems to get harder the more I go at it. I can do things that I couldn't do ten years ago. That doesn't make it easier; they are harder things, or I set myself harder problems. It's a form of torture sometimes, but it's a form of torture that you enjoy, if that makes any sense to people who have not been through such form of tortures. But in any event it's inescapable, and there's no getting around it. It's a must, and I think most composers would answer essentially the same thing. You do it 'cause you have to do it. There is no other reason, no earthly reason I can think of for writing music.
BD: One of the biographies mentions that you wrote essentially neoclassic music up to a point, and then abandoned that.
LK: Well, there was a big turning point in my life. The few people who tried to write about it, I think, have had a hard time. The pieces I was writing through 1958 or so (my mid-30s) were of two kinds. One was of an American vein, like growing out of Copland. You would not mistake it for Copland, it's just simply my starting point. They were filled with rhythms that are associated with American popular music more than anything else, though no one says that except me. At the same time the other kind I was writing was of a different kind, more contrapuntal, but also fairly diatonic. Then, beginning in 1959, I began to explore more a chromatic kind of music, because I felt the earlier idiom was just too limited, and there were just an awful lot of things I couldn't do and couldn't say.
BD: Have you disowned those earlier pieces?
LK: Not in the sense that I've thrown them out. I haven't burned them, but a lot of them were just kind of put aside. Recently I revived three of them, and they're not as bad as I thought they were. But I see that I was right to make that turn, because I was kind of at a dead end. Another composer might've been on that track and not found it a dead end, and kept on going. But I felt I was missing a great deal of what was going on in the musical world in the 50s and the '60s.
BD: Are we not missing anything, though, by not being able to hear some of these early pieces of yours?
LK: I don't know; it's hard to say. It's very hard for me to be objective enough to answer your question fairly. The three that I've revived are perfectly okay. What I'm doing now, in a way, synthesizes everything that I've been doing all my life, and I'm hoping that the pieces I'm writing now bring together all the elements in my various languages. And if no one piece does succeed in doing that, I hope that at least two or three pieces at a time will draw together everything that I've done. So I'm planning on writing a few more good pieces that will be the essential Leo Kraft.
* * * * *
BD: You've written some vocal music...
LK: ...for solo voice and for chorus. I'm very drawn to the human voice, but I haven't written anything for it in a long time 'cause no one has asked me to. I'm about to write a large piece for chorus and orchestra, for the Queens College Choral Society, on lines from the Book of Isaiah.
BD: Have you written any operas?
LK: I wrote a couple of operas some while back, but they are really kind of advanced student pieces. I don't think they're any good. It's not my thing, and while I keep on playing with the idea of someday writing another opera, I doubt that it will actually happen.
BD: What are the big joys and sorrows of writing for the human voice?
LK: There's an immediacy to vocal music that is quite wonderful. It's the human person, the instrument is the person speaking, and that's quite wonderful. You don't need to go through the intermediary of an instrument. Also, I'm very fond of words, and the idea of being able to combine words, with all their levels of meaning, and music is a very attractive one to me altogether. The limitation is that the chromatic music that I've been fond of for 20 years does not always sit naturally in the human voice. When I write for voice again, I'll try to find ways of diatonic expression that will still be musically what I want them to be, but which will be more natural to the singing voice. It's not only a practical question of choruses having a hard time singing chromatic music, because a good chorus can learn to sing almost anything, but of writing music which will sound like it belongs in the chorus, and most of the chromatic music that I hear sounds as if it was forced on the chorus. Sometimes that creates a kind of tension that can be really creative, or really quite good. The choral music of Webern is almost written against the voice, and yet it's spectacularly successful. But I can't do that.
BD: Thank you for being a composer.
LK: My pleasure, sir. Thank you for entertaining me.
BD: Thank you for spending some time this afternoon. I enjoyed it very much.
LK: Well, I'm happy to be here in Chicago to have a
to speak with you and share some ideas with you and your listeners.
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Born in Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1922, Leo Kraft has an active career as composer, educator, writer on musical topics, and author. He holds degrees from Queens College CUNY and Princeton University. Karol Rathaus, Randall Thompson, and Nadia Boulanger were his mentors in composition.
While the larger part of his work is chamber music, he has also written orchestral, piano, vocal, band, and electronic music. His compositions have been performed and recorded in the USA and abroad. His Symphony in One Movement was performed by the American Composers Orchestra in Carnegie Hall in 1995.
At this time he is editorial advisor and writer for the New Music Connoisseur. Mr. Kraft is past President of the American Music Center and Professor Emeritus of the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College CUNY. He was also Distinguished-Composer-in-Residence at New York University (1989-1992). Mr. Kraft's music is published by Seesaw Music and Carl Fisher and recorded on the CRI, Capstone, Albany, and Centaur labels. Mr. Kraft is affiliated with the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers.
Mr. Kraft's recent works include The Vision of Isaiah
and orchestra, commissioned by Jo Ann Rice and Florilegium Chamber
Wrestles With the Angel for orchestra, Melodies from the South
for solo bassoon, written for Carrie Smelser, Piano Fantasy,
by the Maldeb Foundation (Queens College) for the pianist Mimi
Five Winds for wind quintet, commissioned by the Dorian Quintet and
Variations for solo flute commissioned by Laurel Ann Maurer.
© 1988 Bruce Duffie
Photos are from the composer's collection.
This interview was held in Chicago on May 7, 1988, and portions were
aired on WNIB (along with recordings) in 1992 and 1997, and on WNUR in
2006. It was transcribed early in 2007, published in New
Connoisseur, and posted on this website at that time.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
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
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.