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
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 progressions
— and 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
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
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.
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,
* * *
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.
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.
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
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
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
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.
It’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, I’ve 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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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 sounded
— is 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 interfacing
— which 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 rethought
— is 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
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
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 ‘good’?
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
BD: Eventually you’ll get around to all the
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.
---- ---- ----
© 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,
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.