Composer  Peter  Lieberson

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Peter Lieberson, the composer of the highly acclaimed Neruda Songs, died at age 64, on April 23, 2011, in Tel Aviv, where he was undergoing treatment following complications from lymphoma.

Lieberson was born in New York City on October 26, 1946, the son of Goddard Lieberson, president of Columbia Records, and the ballerina Vera Zorina. After composition studies at Columbia University, he studied with Chogyam Trungpa, a Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhist master he met in 1974. A Ph.D. from Brandeis, years teaching at Harvard, directing Shambhala Training in Halifax, and many years composing followed.

Peter Lieberson was honored many times in his career, including the University of Louisville’s Grawemeyer Award in Music Composition for Neruda Songs, his setting of Pablo Neruda's sonnets, which he wrote for his late wife, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, before her untimely passing in 2006. The mezzo-soprano was posthumously awarded the Grammy Award for the Nonesuch recording of the piece with James Levine and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2007 [shown below].



In March of 1998, composer/conductor Oliver Knussen led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for two weeks.  The first program had his Horn Concerto (with Gail Williams of the CSO), plus pieces by Stravinsky (with soprano Lucy Shelton), as well as Drala by Peter Lieberson.  The day after the first concert, Lieberson and I met for an interview, and that conversation is presented on this webpage . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You resisted being a composer, you started being a composer, you quit being a composer, and now you’re back to being a composer again!  Is this a good way for a composer to set up his life?

Peter Lieberson:   [Laughs]  I don’t know!  That’s an interesting way of describing it.  I decided to be a composer relatively late.  Probably by the age of eighteen I was beginning to decide that, but I came to it via jazz, strangely enough, rather than classical music.  I was exposed to classical music from a very early age.  I knew the Brahms symphonies, the Beethoven symphonies, and Mozart, but when I realized that I liked music more than just as something that my father was educating me in, I really was drawn to jazz, and I wanted to become a jazz pianist.  I wanted to play in bars, and I began to listen to some of the great jazz pianists, all the way back to Lenny Tristano.

BD:   Was this because jazz was the music that you liked, or because jazz spoke to the people that you liked?

Lieberson:   I’m not sure that I understand the question.

BD:   There seems to be two different audiences
the jazz audience, and the classical audience.

Lieberson:   Oh, I see what you mean!  They were a kind of unity for me.  It was the music that spoke to me, and I felt that I could express that kind of youthful energy and exuberance that I had.  Also, there’s a lot of tenderness in jazz.  It’s always about love in some way, and the people who listened to it were people I wanted to be involved with.  I listened to Lenny Tristano, Bill Evans, Denny Zeitlin, and Herbie Hancock
mostly pianists because that’s what I was interested in.  I really learned harmony through jazz.  I learnt it by transcribing what I heard on the records onto the keyboard for myself.  There were no books you could buy at that point.

BD:   Of course, it was mostly improvisation?

Lieberson:   It is mostly improvisation, but what I really wanted to learn was harmonic progressions
jazz progressionsand altered chords, and inversions of 7th chords, and substitutions for 7th chords, and so on, and I did.  I learned that language, and it was very helpful.  It was great ear-training.  Then the transition happened when I began to cross over, and I listened to The Miraculous Mandarin Suite of Bartók.  I heard it in performance, and I was completely overwhelmed.  This happened as well with Stravinsky.  Stravinsky, for me, was it from the very beginning.  But I realized that you could actually do the same thing in the so-called classical music idiom, and that was what won me over.

BD:   You were bringing your thoughts and ideas into this slightly different music?

Lieberson:   A slightly different kind of music, but where the rhythmic life could still be really active and exciting, and, at the same time, you could create more effects, and thus create certain different kinds of atmospheres.  You could also express your heart.  It’s still something to do with all of those things in a piece.  It is, in a way, very traditional, but it is still very difficult to bring those different elements together.

BD:   Is that what music is
to express your heart?

Lieberson:   Your heart and intellect.

BD:   Where is the balance?

Lieberson:   Precisely!  That’s the point.  The balance is what a composer has to find.  If there is only a reliance on intuition, or heart, then you can go down into sentimentality, or unfocused expression.  But if it’s too much intellect, we know what the problems with is.  It gets too cold and too conceptual.

BD:   Do you find this and then use it all the time, or do you find it anew in each piece?

Lieberson:   I find it anew in each piece.  In fact, I find the technique anew in each piece.  I’ve had very good and severe training from my teachers, and although I don’t write music stylistically that is like them at all, I learned a great deal from them.  I’m speaking of Milton Babbitt, Charles Wuorinen, and Don Martino.

BD:   They’re tough composers.

Lieberson:   Very tough, but it was very strict, and very clear what I had to learn.  I’m more romantically inclined by nature than they are
except for Don Martino, who is very Italianated.  He has a kind of Italianate romanticism.  So, I’ve had to find my own way, but it was very good training.

BD:   Are you re-inventing the wheel each time?

Lieberson:   No, I wouldn’t say that, but I would say that as composers at this point in our evolution, re-inventing has been formed.  I can’t say it has advanced, because I’m not interested in advances per se, but what I am interested in is exploring the idea of form, and how music takes place in time and in space.  It isn’t purely a matter of creating some kind of musical space, but how you express continuity in music.

lieberson BD:   Rather than being vertical, it’s more linear?

Lieberson:   It’s both.  To me, if the vertical doesn’t make sense and isn’t appealing, then the linear doesn’t matter.  You’re canceling out the linear, so that’s not exactly what I mean, because that’s a technical issue which has to be worked out way before.  You really have to be clear about that before you can play in the musical space.  I’m talking about playing in the musical space, and not just being obscure, but creating a certain kind of continuity, and then having the surprises or changes that might take place.  There’s a lot to explore there, rather than honing in just on musical language, because we’ve done many things with language that still have yet to be assimilated.

BD:   While you’re establishing all this for you in your pieces, do you expect other composers to assimilate you into their music?

Lieberson:   Well, that’s their business!  No, of course not.  I don’t make any demands on other composers.

BD:   Do you feel that you yourself are part of a lineage of composers?

Lieberson:   Yes, I do.  That’s extremely important.  What’s also important is not to cancel the past.  I’m not particularly interested in invoking the past all the time, but I certainly feel indebted to it.  The great composers of the past have a lot to teach us.  I don’t know what the right word is for it...  It’s not an homage, and it’s not a kind of reworking, but inevitably you come from some place.  Just the way I speak is influenced by the way my father and mother spoke, so it’s inevitable that this happens.  The attempts to cancel out your connection to a tradition seem not only impossible, but are not such a good idea.  They should let you open yourself up, and allow the lineage to come through you.  Then you can bake your own bread, so to speak.

BD:   Then the lineage will continue?

Lieberson:   Then the lineage continues, exactly, yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you do any teaching at all?

Lieberson:   I don’t at the moment, and I miss it.  I did do a lot of teaching when I was at Harvard, and I had some very good students with whom I’m still in contact.  Since I moved to Nova Scotia, I don’t teach in any formal way, but I do miss it.

BD:   Why?

Lieberson:   I miss passing on what I’ve learned
not that it’s so important, but just that it’s, again, the idea of a lineage.  You feel that if other people have spent a lot of time on you, and they’ve helped you, that you would like to do the same for others, for people who are younger.

BD:   And it keeps you alive.

Lieberson:   Yes.

BD:   Why Nova Scotia?

Lieberson:   That relates to the other part of my life.  I was teaching at Harvard, and although I liked teaching very much, I didn’t really feel I belonged in the university.  I still don’t.  I don’t feel I belong in academia.  It’s not for me.  I wanted to be a professional composer, and, at the same time, at that point, my involvement was very strong (and still is) in Tibetan Buddhism.  I had a teacher, and still have although he’s not present, and I was asked to run a program called ‘Shambhala Training’, which is a kind of secular meditation program based on Buddhist meditation practice.  So, I decided to do that, and it meant really changing my life.  So, I left Harvard, moved to Nova Scotia with my wife and three daughters, and did that for five years.  After that point, I realized that that phase was over, and it was time just to compose, and that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.

BD:   How much has this faith and image of life seeped into your musical compositions?

Lieberson:   I’ve been asked that a lot, and I used to say certain things.  But now I’m of the opinion, frankly, that everything changes all the time, so it’s difficult to say what did what.  The view that I was taught about life from my teacher has influenced me every minute of the day, and it’s not a religious view per se.  You could say it’s a spiritual view, but really I think of Buddhism as a practice that has spiritual invocations.

BD:   It
s a way of ordering your life?

Lieberson:   It’s a way of being   It’s based on meditation practice, not on philosophy, even though people do study Buddhist philosophy.  Really, all the philosophy came out of the fact that one human being, 2,500 years ago, sat down and looked at his mind, and came to certain conclusions from observing.  That’s what’s being passed on.  It’s how to do that, and how to look at life.


BD:   Are you aspiring to do that yourself, to look at yourself that way?

Lieberson:   I do, yes.

BD:   Do you aspire to the greatest heights of that?

Lieberson:   Yes, I do.

BD:   Do you ever achieve them?

Lieberson:   [Hesitates]  The issue is what people think Enlightenment is, and that’s a very complicated question.  But probably anybody who practices meditation could experience a certain kind of liberation at certain moments.  It’s not highfalutin at all.  It’s extremely ordinary.  I’m just referring to the moment where one is just completely present.

BD:   Is there a way of achieving that as an audience member when they listen to music in general, or your music in specific?

Lieberson:   I would never say that a person has to have a certain view in order to listen to my music.  The fact is that I’ve shared my life in some sense with the audience.  When I write about my pieces, it’s only because there’s no point in keeping it secret, and since I happen to be involved with these things, and it is part of my music, I write about it or I talk about it.  But in general, in terms of listening to music, the ideal thing to do is to keep coming back.  Anybody would know that from listening and going to a symphony concert.  You suddenly find yourself back after drifting off, and at that point it’s important not to entertain oneself about where one’s been, but just to come back to the music, and allow oneself to tune into the continuity of the piece.  That’s a very simple discipline, but a very interesting one.  Then you really begin to get a feeling of what the piece is doing and what the piece is saying, so you don’t have to do anything special.
BD:   Is the music that you write for everyone?

Lieberson:   [Thinks a moment]  I couldn’t say.  I do know that when Drala, [the piece that was being done at the time by the Chicago Symphony] was premiered twelve years ago by the Boston Symphony, the orchestra played it very well, but it took quite a lot of rehearsal.

BD:   To get them to understand it, or to get them to understand you?

Lieberson:   To understand the music, and to play it.  It was true of the cello solo that is an important part of it.  I
t’s been performed quite a lot, and Oliver Knussen just recorded it with the Cleveland Orchestra [CD insert shown at left].  But as time goes on, Ive noticed that it’s not the level of playing that gets greater, but the understanding of what is being asked is more part of the everyday response to music.  So, the piece was put together very quickly here in Chicago, and when I came to the rehearsal, the principal cellist was already playing it beautifully.  This was not my experience five years ago.

BD:   So, it’s the collective world that has grown?

Lieberson:   Yes.  The collective world has expanded to include ways of musical expression that may not have been so easy to perform years ago because of what was being asked.  With my music, it’s not so much that music is so far-out, but I’ve noticed that in my own experience, and so I imagine that’s true for other people as well, hence for audience members.  So, in the beginning, it may have seemed slightly incoherent to many people in the Boston Symphony Orchestra audience, but now that’s not true with a lot of audience members who have talked to me.

BD:   I’m glad that people respond to your music.

Lieberson:   I am too, frankly, although I do decry the attempt to write ‘pleasers
.  But at the same time, I also don’t approve of the idea of just making things unnecessarily difficult.  If a composer is generally saying something and being straightforward about it, then at some point an audience will respond.

BD:   I assume you’re trying to please yourself?

Lieberson:   I know when I’m pleased by what I’ve written, because I feel it’s good.  Then I feel pleased.  I don’t always feel that what I’ve written is good, and the strange thing is that I can listen to the same piece from one rehearsal to the next, or one performance to the next, and think there’s a lot of problems with the piece, and then the next time I hear it I
ll think it actually works.  With that kind of fickleness to deal with, I am very cautious about making statements about my music and about deciding what to do with it.  It’s very difficult being a composer and dealing with your own insecurities.

BD:   Is it too nerve-wracking?

Lieberson:   [Laughs]  What can one say?

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you’re sitting down with the paper, and you’re writing, how do you know when you’re finished?

Lieberson:   Very often I actually have a visual sensation of the entire piece at some point.  I know more or less where it’s going to end, and for some reason I often get an idea about how the piece is going to end way before I’ve written the middle of it.  So, it’s never been too much of an issue for me about deciding when it’s over.  I’ve always known that.

lieberson BD:   Do you then go back and you fiddle with it, and tinker with it, and make adjustments?

Lieberson:   That hasn’t been too much of an issue, to tell you the truth.  I’ve generally composed from beginning to end.  I don’t find myself composing a mid-section, and then tacking it onto something else.  For example, Stravinsky composed that way.  He’d write a section, and then another section, and so on.

BD:   So, we’re back to being linear again?

Lieberson:   Yes, but it
s funny because I don’t think of myself as all that linearly involved.  Perhaps I am more than I know.  The idea of continuity is very important to me, which is why I’m interested in exploring different kinds of continuity.

BD:   Continuity of the piece, or continuity from piece to piece?

Lieberson:   Within a piece.

BD:   Is there any continuity from piece to piece, or do we have to wait until the end of your life to examine your whole oeuvre?

Lieberson:   I prefer that, frankly, because I’ve often been confused by the stylistic variety of my music.  At the same time, there are certain things that are threads which run through.  I’ve often written pieces where I’ve needed to have some rest or repose, and sometimes I’ve looked back.  I wrote a Viola Concerto [recording shown at right] which is a little bit like the Horn Concerto that Oliver Knussen wrote.  I wrote it before the Horn Concerto, but it has a tonal flavor to it.  It’s looking back at music that I liked before, and I realized it was a regenerative process which allowed me then to go forward again.  A lot of composers are like that in some sense, and I used to feel very uneasy about that tendency.  But then I began to understand what it was all about, and then it felt okay.  I have a number of pieces that someone who knows some basic works of mine, might find surprising.

BD:   Then let me ask the easy question.  What is music all about?

Lieberson:   [With a big smile]  That’s the easy question???  [Both laugh]  Ugh!  [Thinks a moment]  There’s something very mysterious about music.  It exists somewhere between bodily form and mental thought.  It’s not on the level of thought because thought is very intangible.  We can’t actually point to a thought.  It doesn’t exist in the way we think forms exist.  We think that forms exist, but music is the best way to understand the mysteriousness of this life that we lead.  If you look at music, somehow there’s a magnetism between notes in a good piece.  They seem to make sense, and they go from one to the other in an inevitable way.  In fact, they make a sound that sometimes really moves us.  It makes us cry, or makes us very excited and happy because of the energy of the music.  But if we look at the actual substance of the music itself, if we look at the notes, there’s no inherent meaning at all in any of those notes.  That is what Stravinsky was getting at when he said that music is powerless to express anything at all.  It wasn’t a negative statement.  Let me put it the other way.  Music is powerful to express everything, but when you actually look at the notes and the music itself, there is nothing that says sadness, or happiness, or that it has any actual substance.  It’s a great mystery.  It’s a wonderful, profound mystery.

BD:   So, music isn’t little black spots on the page, but rather music is music when it gets to be vibrations in the air?

Lieberson:   Yes, and those vibrations in the air have a mysterious property to make us feel alive and human, or to make us sad, but we can’t actually find out where that is, or where it actually resides.  That is an extraordinary phenomenon.  That’s music.

BD:   Should we keep looking for those properties?

Lieberson:   If you’re interested, go ahead, and let me know if you find anything.  [Both laugh]

BD:   It’ll be one of the great unanswered questions.

Lieberson:   But the point of the question is the answer right there.  That is what it is, and it’s actually mind-boggling when I think about it.


See my interviews with Hans Werner Henze, Luciano Berio, Leon Kirchner, and Tōru Takemitsu

BD:   [Taking the idea one step farther]  Is the music the vibrations in the air, or it is only music when it interacts with the eardrums and gets into the brain?

Lieberson:   It’s only music if there’s a being to perceive it.  For our purposes I think that’s true.  When you hear music, you’re an active participant.  Something about you organizes those things that are coming at you, and it makes an experience.  Yet, when you try to find the experience, you can’t find it.

BD:   Music in an empty hall is not music?

Lieberson:   Well, I don’t know.  That’s like if the tree falls in the forest, do you hear it!  I like to cut through that notion and just say you have to be there to hear the music.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Some of your music has been recorded.  Are you basically pleased with the recordings that have been made so far?

Lieberson:   Yes, I am.  Besides the one that is going to be released on Deutsche Grammaphon that Oliver Knussen is conducting, a lot of my music has been recorded by Peter Serkin.  I have three pieces on a CD that Peter did, called In Real Time [CD shown above], which also has works by a number of other composers.  I’m very pleased with the way Peter plays my music.  I used to think that the only important thing was to get recordings made of one’s music, but I’ve changed my mind.  There is the experience of being at a hall and hearing live music, and hearing the messiness of the human condition as everybody’s sitting there, where some people are dreaming, some people are reading program notes, some people are attentive, and some nights are better than others.  There are so many variables that go into live music-making that there’s no substitute for it.  Then, as we know, there’s only that one heavily edited performance on a CD, so it just can’t be the same.

BD:   Would this that you’ve just said, horrify your father?

lieberson Goddard Lieberson was born to a Jewish family on April 5, 1911, in Hanley in Staffordshire. His father was a manufacturer of rubber shoe heels who took his family to the United States when Goddard was a child. He studied classical piano and composition at the Eastman School of Music in the 1930s and after graduating he wrote classical concert reviews under the pseudonym "Johann Sebastian". He was married to actress/dancer Vera Zorina from 1946 until his death in 1977. They had two sons: Peter Lieberson, a composer, and Jonathan Lieberson. Goddard was noted for his personal elegance, taste and style, and was renowned as a wit, bon vivant and international traveler, whose circle of friends and acquaintances included Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Richard Rodgers, W. Somerset Maugham, Noël Coward and John Gielgud.

Lieberson began working for the CBS group of labels in 1938 – the same year the company was acquired by the CBS broadcasting empire – and he began his career at Columbia as an A&R Manager. Before becoming president of the company, he was responsible for Columbia's introduction of the long-playing record. The LP was particularly well-suited to Columbia's long-established classical repertoire, as recorded by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Artur Rodziński, Dmitri Mitropoulos, and Leonard Bernstein. Lieberson was also a lifelong friend of musician, recording artist, TV personality and Columbia A&R manager/producer Mitch Miller, having met Miller when the two were studying music at the Eastman School of Music in the 1930s.

Lieberson died of cancer in New York City on May 29, 1977, aged 66.

Lieberson:   Not at all, because the music is a legacy.  How many people get to go to the Chicago Symphony to hear a piece?  Nobody in New York does, so it’s good to have these things out, but they should be guides and inspirations to performance.  Take for example, Stravinsky’s late works.  Those pieces are still not played.  They were composed in the mid-
60s.  It’s thirty years later and they are not performed regularly.  They are not in the repertoire.

BD:   Is that his fault, or our fault, or no-one
s fault?

Lieberson:   I don’t know if it’s a matter of fault.  It’s simply that they’re not being performed, and there are many reasons for it.  They’re short, they’re difficult, they take a lot of rehearsal time, and you need a conductor who’s interested in such things.  Most conductors are simply not trained in the twentieth-century repertoire.

BD:   How do we get more conductors to champion these newer works?

Lieberson:   I don’t know, but I’m always perplexed and irritated when I go to an orchestra.  When I have a performance, I ask how it’s going with the conductor from Europe, or wherever, and they say,
“He’s very good, but he doesn’t really know much about American music.  This is a very curious phenomenon that happens in our land, and I can’t imagine the reverse happening in Europe.  I can’t imagine an American conductor leading a German orchestra and not knowing twentieth-century German music, and not programming it.  On the other hand, there are some orchestras that are becoming much more adventurous, and that’s really pleasing to see.  When I was in Cleveland, I saw that the Cleveland Orchestra repertoire is very interesting, and they’re programming a lot of new music, and the audience is very responsive to it.

BD:   Is this because of Dohnányi (named Music Director in 1982, with his tenure from 1984-2002), or a legacy of Boulez (Principal Guest Conductor 1969-71)?

Lieberson:   It’s all of those things.  It’s not only those two, but it’s also the management.  It’s Tom Morris who runs the orchestra, and he is very interested in having contemporary music being played.


From 2004 to 2019, Tom Morris served as artistic director of the Ojai Music Festival in California, one of the preeminent festivals of musical experience and adventure in the world. He was one of the founders and artistic director of the innovative orchestra festival in Carnegie Hall, Spring For Music, and has served as chair of the Board of Overseers of the Curtis Institute of Music, and on the Curtis Board.

Tom is an active teacher, writer and speaker, and has served as a consultant to over 50 musical organizations. He was executive director of The Cleveland Orchestra for 17 years from 1987 to 2014, and prior to that worked for the Boston Symphony Orchestra in a variety of positions from 1969 to 1985 including 8 years as its chief executive.

BD:   So there really has to be a commitment from top to bottom.

Lieberson:   Absolutely!  You just can’t have it in the conductor alone, because then the Board or the president of the orchestra, or the manager will say, We’re not getting audiences to come, and you’ve got to change your programming.  There has to be a unified, concerted effort on the part of the whole organization to do it, and then the audience will respond.  If there’s enough vision and conviction, it will happen.  I’m not just being pollyannaish about this.  It’s actually true.  Being very simplistic, if you constantly worry about ticket sales, and only program works that you think people will like, then, of course, it’s that much harder to expand the repertoire.

BD:   Is there any key to making sure that the audience still comes to new music concerts?

Lieberson:   Interesting programming!  Don’t just have a Dvořák symphony, and then a new work, but think about how the pieces work with each other, and make an interesting concept.  A lot of orchestras are now doing this, but when I was growing as a composer, nobody was played.  There was no contemporary music.  Maybe Hindemith and Bartók and Stravinsky were being played, but none of the people that I was studying with, or the European composers I was interested in were being played by the American orchestras.  Some of the people I was studying composition with hadn’t had orchestral music played in their entire career.  They made their careers on writing pieces for groups like a Pierrot Ensemble.  [A Pierrot Ensemble is a group comprising flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano, frequently augmented by the addition of a singer or percussionist, and/or by the performers doubling on other woodwind/stringed/keyboard instruments. This ensemble is named after Schoenberg’s seminal work Pierrot Lunaire, which includes the quintet of instruments, with a narrator (usually performed by a soprano).

BD:   Where did we lose this?  In the
30s, 40s and 50s, we had Copland, Roy Harris, Walter Piston, and Howard Hanson.  They were played fairly regularly... not as much as they should, but fairly regularly.

Lieberson:   Walter Piston was played constantly by the Boston Symphony.  They had many, many pieces commissioned.

BD:   So where did we lose it?

Lieberson:   A lot of it had to do with the expansion of the musical language, and specifically twelve-tone music.  After World War II, and into the late
50s, the language became tighter.  There’s a greenhouse effect that took place where the composers actually cut out everything that had anything to do with previous syntax, or previous modes of continuity.  They explored the twelve-tone system that Schoenberg discovered.

BD:   Is that a dead-end?

Lieberson:   The dead-end aspect is the rigidity, and the over-conceptualization that took place, and the legality of the whole thing, which is really silly.  The rules are no more important than the rules of counterpoint, and the rules of counterpoint are exercises.  Once you know how to write music, it becomes internalized, and you don’t have to refer back.  So, this notion that’s advanced in theory books about twelve-tone music
that you don’t repeat a note until all twelve notes have soundedis the silliest and most crude of views.  But they are being advanced in theory books for students to study.  Music is much more fluid and flexible than that, and the interfacingwhich is a word I don’t like, but one that came to mind between the tonal language and the twelve-tone language, which are both constantly changing, and constantly being rethoughtis a very interesting one to me.

BD:   Are we moving away from this now?  Are we getting out from under the cloud?

Lieberson:   Oh, I think that’s been happening for some time.  The younger generation is not particularly affected by this, the way I was.  I had to work through a lot, but on the other hand, maybe they haven’t benefited so much from a certain kind of grueling training, which is extremely helpful.

BD:   Did we have to go through all that to get where we are today?

Lieberson:   Yes, of course.  [With a smirk]  It’s much better to say yes, isn’t it, than say,
“No, it wasn’t necessary!”  [Both laugh]

BD:   I hope we’re not consigning all of this music to the trash heap.

Lieberson:   We’re not at all!  I’m not saying that the music should be lost.  I’m talking about the attitude and the approach, not the pieces.  There are some wonderful pieces.  I’m hoping that, in the next ten years, the music from the
50s and the 60s will be played again.  Some conductors now are starting to play that music.  There’s a whole repertoire of American music that’s simply not being played by orchestras, and I don’t mean my generation.  I am being played, and the composers who are younger than me are.  I’m not so young anymore, but the generation before me, and before that, are not being played very much.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of musical performance?

Lieberson:   I’d like to be, yes.  There’s less isolation taking place between composer and audience and orchestra, and that’s very heart-warming.  This happens even in the smallest expressions, such as composers speaking to audiences beforehand.  I used to feel that those were a kind of gesture, but now I feel it’s more than that.  It’s a process of opening communication so that the audience doesn’t feel that there is something very different from them to the composer.  There’s not such a difference.  The same mental processes go on with composing as they do with writing a letter to someone.  It’s just a slightly different language.
BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of musical composition?

Lieberson:   Oh, yes, very much so.  Right now, things are open so much wider stylistically, which is a very good thing.  There are many ways to write good music, and luckily that seems to be what’s going on now.  People are writing good pieces in very different idioms, whereas when I was growing up, there was only one idiom to write in, and that was twelve-tone music.  So, there’s a big difference.

BD:   I want to pounce on a word that you used.  What is it that makes a piece of music

Lieberson:   [Thinks a moment]  What makes a good piece is when I am pleased and satisfied not only with the form of the piece.  I want to know that it’s clear, or if it isn’t clear, that I know why it isn’t clear.  When there is some clarity of the form, and I’m pleased by the shape of it, there’s a certain journey that takes place.  Also, I must find that my ears are pleasured by the notes themselves.  I am very involved with the notes and the harmony, and then, of course, the actual sound itself that’s being made in the orchestra needs to be a beautiful one.  It’s all very subjective, but that is what I consider necessary for a good piece.

BD:   When you get asked to write this or that, how do you decide, yes, you want to spend your time working on it, or no, you’ll turn that commission aside?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Christoph Eschenbach, Tzimon Barto, and Earl Wild.]

Lieberson:   I have been very lucky in that respect... or unlucky, if you like!  I’ve been commissioned for specific things for many years.  I love writing for the orchestra.  I’m in love with the instrument, and there are so many things you can do that when somebody says they want you to write an orchestra piece, that’s hardly defining your medium.  You can write in so many different ways.  But I’ve also been asked to write a lot of concertos, and that’s a different story, because the result of that will be that I’ll have to rethink the concerto form because by virtue of having to write quite a number of them.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  A concerto is not just an orchestral piece with a solo stuck in the middle?

Lieberson:   [Laughs]  No, I don’t like to think of it that way.  I’m writing a piano concerto for the Boston Symphony for Peter Serkin, and also a horn concerto, and a cello concerto, and maybe even a flute concerto, and a trombone concerto.  It’s a lot, because I’ve met performers in the course of working on pieces, and they’ve asked me.

BD:   Eventually you’ll get around to all the instruments!

Lieberson:   Although it’s not really my ambition...

BD:   Does it do your heart good to know that the players have played your music, and then come to you and demand that you write something specifically for them?

Lieberson:   It pleases me that they would like a piece from me, definitely.  I like that, and I really like to work with performers.  That’s one of the great pleasures.  In fact, rehearsing is something I like almost more than hearing a performance.  I like to hear the individual parts, and hear things over again, and see how things get put together.

BD:   So it’s not tinkering, but really observation?

Lieberson:   It’s observation, yes.  I am pleased to be asked, but I’ve never had a performer say to me
that they want me to write a certain kind of a piece.  To the one person who did, I said that I didn’t think it was really such a good idea.

BD:   You want people to just say,
“Write me a piece?

Lieberson:   I don’t want them to do anything, but it’s better if they don’t ask me to do something specific, because then I may lose interest.  I don’t like to be boxed-in that way.  If they say to write a piece in the style of this other piece that I wrote, then I have problems with that, too.  There’s a famous story about Stravinsky.  He really lost interest in writing music like Petrushka and The Firebird...

BD:   ...and it’s all people wanted?

Lieberson:   It’s all people wanted, so he faced that all his life.

BD:   Are you at the point in your career that you want to be right now?

Lieberson:   [With a wink]  Wouldn’t it be best if I said yes?

BD:   [Smiles]  It would be best if you tell me the truth!

Lieberson:   Well, that is the truth actually.  What I’m happiest about is that I have a lot of opportunities to write for very, very great performers, and great orchestras.  That’s all a composer could ask for.  All I’ve ever been interested in is opportunity, and having that is fantastic.  In terms of other things like fame or recordings, those things I don’t try to worry about too much.  They come or they don’t come, but the opportunities are things I’m very grateful for.  To be able to write a piece for Peter Serkin, or the Cleveland Orchestra, is a great privilege, and that is something I am very pleased about that’s happening to me now.

BD:   I’m glad that we have the opportunity to hear your music.

Lieberson:   Thank you, thank you.

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© 1998 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on March 13, 1998.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 2001; and on WNUR in 2004, 2008, and 2017.  This transcription was made in 2021, 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, 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.