Composer / Pianist / Record Producer  Max  Lifchitz

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Max Lifchitz was born November 11, 1948, and grew up in Mexico City.  After commencing his musical training in Mexico, he came to the United States in 1966 and graduated from The Juilliard School of Music and Harvard University.  He has appeared in concert and recital throughout the US, Latin America and Europe.

He was awarded first prize in the 1976 International Gaudeamus Competition for Performers of Twentieth Century Music held in the Netherlands.  In 1980, he founded the North/South Consonance Ensemble, which is dedicated to the performance and recording of contemporary classical music from the Americas; he serves as the ensemble's director.

Lifchitz has served on the faculty of Columbia University, Manhattan School of Music, and the University at Albany, The State University of New York.

Having previously played a number of his recordings on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, I was glad when the travels of Max Lifchitz brought him to The Windy City, in July of 1997.  We arranged to meet, and I did programs featuring his artistry as both composer and pianist.

Now, twenty years later, I am pleased to include our conversation as part of my series of transcripts on the internet.  Interestingly, we discuss that possibility from a looking-forward vantage point . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You’re a teacher, and a composer, and record producer.  How do you find time for all of these activities?

Max Lifchitz:   It’s a busy life, I guess.  I’m connected with the University at Albany.  I’ve been there for ten years now, and before that I taught at Columbia University, and Manhattan School of Music.  Besides teaching, I’ve always kept a busy schedule as a performer, and also composing.  My activity in terms of making recordings grew out of my activities as performer.  Since I have worked with many people by helping them make records in terms of our performances, I decided I might as well try myself.

BD:   It’s worked out successfully?

ML:   Yes, I think it has.  It’s always a great pleasure to have freedom.  If you want to record a piece, you don’t have to go and deal with other people.  You can do it yourself.

lifchitz BD:   So then it’s fully your responsibility?

ML:   Yes.  Also, I’ve gotten involved in the producing.  You always have fight with people about who and what is worthwhile of placing in front of the microphone.  This way I have nobody to blame but myself.  [Much laughter]

BD:   Have you basically been pleased with the records that have come out?

ML:   Yes, I think so.  They’ve gotten good write-ups and reviews, and I mostly I’ve been happy with them.  We do have good quality product.  Recordings have become very important, perhaps more than in the past, as many more people are now buying recordings than may be going to concerts.  Music seems to be spreading more and more, and perhaps now, with the internet, in a few more years... once computers can actually transmit sound in a half-way decent sound...

BD:   It must give good quality sound, yes.

ML:   I imagine that the way things are happening so fast, in five years that probably will be the case.  [Remember, this interview took place in mid-1997, just as the use of the internet was beginning to explode.]

BD:   That’s right, we’ll do this interview on the internet instead of face-to-face.  [Much laughter]  [Skype would have its initial release in mid-2003!]

ML:   Yes, instead of face-to-face, and it seems that is happening every day. 

BD:   Are we losing touch with reality as everything becomes virtual?

ML:   Maybe we are, but that’s seems to be like a tidal wave that’s coming on, and I’m not so sure we can resist it.  Everything seems to be centralized, even with distance-learning.  If you have a very good thing in Chicago, you can just call your computer from anywhere and get it from Chicago.

BD:   Or even China!

ML:   Or in Europe, or wherever you want to go!  It’s getting to be a very small world. 

BD:   As a musician, let me get you to gaze into your crystal ball for a moment.  Is this a good thing or a bad thing, or just a thing?

ML:   I think it’s just a thing.  There are good things and bad things in everything.  What’s happening is that we’re losing that sense of regionalism, and just like you can find Coca-Cola everywhere you go, you’re going to find certain brands everywhere you go, and that’s unfortunately a problem.

BD:   We’re getting brand-named music?

ML:   Yes, in many ways we’re are.  You get brand-named artists that are featured everywhere, and it’s harder for the smaller artists, young performers, the not-so-famous ones.  I remember a few years ago, a manager in Argentina told me that if you want to hire Itzhak Perlman, you need a quarter of a million dollars, and you will have the money tomorrow.  If you want to hire somebody that’s not Itzhak Perlman, you need only $2,500 and you will never find it.

BD:   You have to have the cachet?

ML:   Yes, the brand-name that people will recognize so that they will actually buy the ticket for the concert.

BD:   How do we combat this?

ML:   I don’t know!  I am running a musical association that features mostly composers that are perhaps not so well known, and also doesn’t really features stars.  Certainly we survive, but it is balanced against trying to getting the public interested in something that’s not called a brand name.

BD:   Would it better or worse for you if, on one of your concerts, you had Itzhak Perlman playing a new concerto?

ML:   It would be great to have Itzhak Perlman.  First of all, he would do a great job, and secondly, he would attract a lot of public.

BD:   Would the public come for him and then stay for you?

ML:   I’m not so sure...  They would probably come for him, and when we don’t have him on the program, they wouldn’t show up!

lifchitz BD:   So the public is fickle?

ML:   Yes, in many ways.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You work mostly with contemporary music and living composers.  Is the music that you perform and compose for everyone?

ML:   I think it is.  It’s for anybody who’s interested in it.  Today, of course, we have music that appeals to a huge mass public, that’s written to appeal and to sell millions and millions of copies of recordings.  But it’s very new in the history of music to have something like that.  Really, the first sort of popular music we had was Johann Strauss, Junior, the Waltz King, back in the nineteenth century.  In the middle of the nineteenth century, when composers like Wagner and others were experimenting, they demanded that the public meet them on their level.  Then this popular music appears, and in the twentieth century, especially with the mass-media today in the late 1990s, the audience is so conditioned to receiving music through the television
rather than listening to it either at a live performance or on a recordingand listening to a certain type of music, that it’s very difficult to find some of the music that we play to become popular in that sense.

BD:   Would you want your music
your own music, or the other music you performto be popular?

ML:   I want my music to reach as many people as possible.   I don’t believe that the composer should be worried or concerned with writing ‘popular music’.  Composers should be concerned only with musical problems
to write his or her best music.  What fascinates me, for example, is Gregorian Chant.  We didn’t know anything about for over a thousand years, then suddenly, in the last few years, it has become so popular.  It could be that a lot of the music we compose now, that nobody likes, maybe in two hundred years, or five hundred years, or even just fifty years, somebody will say, Gee, those were great composers who were living in Chicago or New York!

BD:   [With feigned horror]  You’re not writing for two hundred years from now, are you???

ML:   [Laughs]  No, we write for today, but if we have an audience of two hundred people, that’s very satisfying.  If we have an audience of a thousand people, that’s also satisfying.  Whether the music will sell or make millions of dollars, that’s probably not for us to live to see.

BD:   Is it comforting for you to know that the music, whether it is recorded commercially or not, at least is embedded in plastic somewhere?

ML:   Yes, it is.  As I mentioned, in many ways I do like the idea of having a piece on a record for many reasons.  When you record something, you do it in more controlled circumstances than you do in a concert performance.  It could be the violinist breaks a string, or the singer’s not feeling very well.  Whatever it is, it doesn’t lead to a very good performance.  If you’re recording something, you can always edit it.  If they break a string, they can go over the passage again.

BD:   Are you trying to get a perfect performance?

ML:   You try to get as perfect a performance as possible.  However, what I like to do is a performance that lives, that breathes, that might have some imperfections, perhaps, but it is musical.  I don’t want something that’s completely cold, completely machine-made.  I prefer to have something that has the human touch, but is done under more controlled circumstances.

BD:   We’re kind of dancing around it, so let me ask the real easy question.  What is the purpose of music?

ML:   [Has a huge laugh]  Music has many purposes.  I’m not sure there is just one purpose.  Through the ages, music has changed in terms of its purpose.  I was reading a very interesting book about the Warao Indians in Venezuela.  The rainforest has not only the insects and the vegetation that are disappearing every day because we’re cutting it all back, but also there are thousands of people that speak different languages, and for whom music is sometimes a way of transmitting their civilization.  So in that sense, music for them is not really entertainment.  It’s part of religion, part of magic, part of their culture in a very different way than it is for us.  

lifchitz BD:   It is part of their survival, really.

ML:   Part of their survival, right.  For us in the Western tradition, we’ve learned to have concerts of purely instrumental music where music functions as an autonomous art.  Many times in the nineteenth century, composers associated philosophical ideas to the music, adding political ideas and becoming nationalistic composers.  Composers represented a country, and a certain political inspiration.  Music changes with the ages, and in the twentieth century, looking at the former Soviet Union, composers also had a political significance.  They were supposed to write whatever the regime wanted.  They were public figures in the sense they were public artists, part of the propaganda machine of the State.  In reaction to that, we’ve become very individualist.  We write whatever we want!  A typical example is Charles Ives.  He didn’t care what the audience thought of his music or the musical establishment.  I think of myself as a composer.  I like to write music that, in many ways, looks at musical problems, and I try to solve those musical problems.  If the music happens to be liked by the audience, that’s very good.

BD:   Do you think about the audience at all when you’re sitting at the desk with your pen and paper?

ML:   Yes, but most of the time I now sit down at a computer equipped with the Finale program.  I still have left a lot of music paper I bought years ago thinking I was going to use.  There was all this onion skin paper, and nowadays I’ve got it in garage because nobody wants to use it anymore.  Everything now has become computerized!

BD:   Since we’re on that topic just for a moment, is your music different because you’re working with a computer keyboard than it would be if you were working with the pen and onion skin paper?

ML:   No, in the sense that I never use the computer for sequences, or some of the stuff that the computer can do automatically.  I’ve never been too interested in that.  In many ways, I’ve transposed my way of writing with pencil to the computer because I’m using the computer as a notation tool more than a composition tool.

BD:   But in the next generation, they won’t have used the pencil on the paper.

ML:   Yes, correct.  The kids have had all this background in computers, and they sing with the sequencers and synthesizers.  They’re arriving at a very different type of composition, but that might be changing.  There was a great pleasure to sit up late at night and write a piece and burn the midnight oil.  Today it’s a slightly different process.  But composing is thinking with sounds, and the computer is a means to an end, just like a piano is a means to an end.  In many ways I always think that the great musicians are the conductors, because their job involves thinking in front of musicians and listening to them.
 They don’t play an instrument.  They are really listening to how the music is going to be created, and telling people what to doto bow it this way, or to use a different fingering, or to get a piano not a forte.  Composers do something similar — their thought process revolves around sound. Composers shouldn’t let sounds do the thinking for them. They should shape sounds according to a certain plan, concept, or vision they might have.

BD:   Especially now, with the advent of the computer, this becomes a little more tricky question.  Are you discovering sounds, or are you creating sound?

ML:   You are really creating sounds.  The process of this discovery is both creation and using all sounds to make new sounds.  Beethoven was great creator, but if you look at beginning of the Fifth Symphony, there’s so many sketches for those notes.  [He points out the rhythm of the first four notesda, da, da, dee; da, da, da, dee] and eventually he settled on the clarinets and the strings.  It was incredible that this became the romantic sound, the nineteenth century sound.  If you hear it with the flutes on top up an octave, it sounds almost like the beginning of a Haydn Symphony.  His way does have power, and we see it in the many different sketches that he had.  It’s amazing that today people will do it at the machine.  They will have the computer play it back for them, but Beethoven didn’t have that.  He relied on his inner ear, so that’s what is most amazingthat he could actually combine these sounds in his mind, and eventually he created or discovered it.  He invented a new timbric combination, so I think it’s both.  Composers don’t start working from nowhere.  We have to start with the tradition of what we have.  The tradition could be what has happened in the last ten years, or the last thousand years.  When we’re writing a piece for orchestra, we have the orchestra, which is a nineteenth century instrument.  That’s how we have to start.  When we write for piano or for other instruments, we must consider all the baggage that comes with the piano or whatever instrument.  That is what you start with; that’s your raw material; that’s the lingering history you are struggling with that instruments represent.  Now, the computer can be used to imitate those instruments, or can be used to create new electronic sounds.  There is, of course, an on-going argument whether you should use computers to recreate whatever instruments can do, or use them to produce sounds that fall outside the boundaries of acoustic instruments.  In a way, that’s a very academic argument, but yes, I think that instrumental or computer-generated sounds should primarily fulfill a specific function.  When composing you are creating a shape, a musical thought, not just sound for the sake of sound itself.

lifchitz BD:   Are we getting to the point where the eighty-eight key piano and the hundred-person orchestra is becoming a dinosaur?

ML:   Yes, that has been happening already for a while.  I hate to say it, but you read in the newspapers that orchestras are trying to find relevance.  They’re very expensive institutions to run.  In terms of the piano, you also see similar comments in the press.  There used to be so many piano recitals, but the young people don’t want to hear piano recitals anymore.  The piano has become very much stigmatized as a nineteenth century Western instrument.  Today, when people think of pianos, they might think of an electric keyboard rather than the acoustic piano.  So, things are changing, yes.  They’re changing in that sense.

BD:   Are you part of this rushing stream that is moving forward, or are you still writing in the nineteenth century?

ML:   No, I’ve always written in my time, but my music is contemporary in that sense.  It’s very difficult.  My music never fits a category.  They cannot categorize me as a minimalist, and I couldn’t be categorized as a twelve-tone composer, or as up-town or down-town.  I always thought of myself as out of town!  [Both have a huge laugh]

BD:   Maybe there’ll be a new category
Max’s music!

ML:   [Incredulously]  Yeah, right.  You’re very kind!  [More laughter]  I’m simply being unashamedly eclectic!  It depends what the piece is that I’m working on
if I’m writing a piece involving text, or a piece for flute or piano.  It depends on the length of the piece I’m writing.  I try to approach composing from an empirical point of view.  People comment that they do find some similarities among my various pieces, or a certain style, I guess….

BD:   Do you put that in purposely, or is it just you?

ML:   It’s me, but I’m not really trying to be a minimalist, or a maximalist, or whatever it is.

BD:   What are you trying to be?

ML:   Just myself!

BD:   Are you good at it?

ML:   [Laughs]  That’s not for me to say!  That’s for you and the critics to say.  I try to be the best I can.  When I write a piece, I try to be happy with it.  But how do I feel happy?  I try to fulfill the promises of the piece, and I’m usually pretty satisfied with what I’ve written.  The style’s changed, my interest has changed, and my music has evolved from whatever I used to write many years ago to what I’m writing now.  But when I write a piece, I don’t really try to fit into a certain style, or pattern, or fashion, or trend.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When someone asks you to write a piece for them, how do you decide
yes, you will work on it, or no, you will not work on it?

ML:   I tend to be pretty agreeable.  [Laughs]  Composers are always looking for commissions, and even if it is a commission where somebody just wants to play your piece, that’s always very flattering.  Usually, performers you enjoy working with enjoy your music, and they will ask you for something.  It’s very rare that somebody you don’t know will ask, or somebody calling from X-place, who you never heard of, will ask you to write a piece.

BD:   But now that can happen because they will have heard your records.

ML:   Right, it could be, yes.  That’s true, it could happen, but again, there is usually a certain connection with the performers that ask composers to write music. 

lifchitz BD:   Is all music that you write on commission, or are there times when you commission yourself?

ML:   With most of the music I’ve written, I’ve been very lucky that I have had people asking me to write it for them.  Whether it was a monetary commission, or just written on a request of somebody, I’ve been very lucky in that sense.  It helps that I’ve been a performer, and I keep in touch with performers, so it’s a little bit easier to interact with them than if you’re just a composer sitting somewhere, and performers are afraid of contacting you.

BD:   Are you a better composer because you are a first-rate performer?

ML:   It helps a lot, yes.  This specialization, especially in this century, means musicians have to choose between performing and composing, or conducting, or musicology, or whatever... it’s not like what life is all about.  When you look at the lives of great composers, most of them started by being performers, or were performers for a very long time.  They were good performers, or had a very good understanding of performing.  Robert Schumann couldn’t play the piano because he hurt his hand, but he certainly had a great understanding of performing.  
Berlioz was never a virtuoso performer, but he became a well-known conductor.  He had a great understanding of instrumentation and instrumentalists.  Suppose a composer writes a piece with the viola playing very high.  The violist might have to struggle for years to master the passage, and might never get it to sound as the composer intended.  It might be fair to ask why the composer didn’t assign the violin to play the passage.  Could it be that the composer was looking for a specific type of sound only available in the viola?  Often this is the case with inexperienced composers that have not had too much contact with real instruments.  You do learn from being around instruments, and playing a lot of music.  Haydn was very lucky to have the Esterhazy Orchestra at his disposal for years.  

BD:   Let me turn the question around.  Are you a better performer because you’re also a composer?

Yes, it also helps because you have a better understanding of a piece of music.  This is perhaps one of the reasons why some performers make a big splash, winning first prize in some prestigious competition, and then three years later no one remembers who or where they are.  They certainly had great technique.  They learned the competition pieces terrifically, and had the necessary confidence to play in front of those illustrious judges.  But why is it that eventually they fade?  It’s not enough to simply learn a piece by imitating your mentor.  As a pianist, you have to have the great fingers to play that piece of music, to play all the octaves and make a loud noise with the instrument.  It’s another thing to understand music, and to go on beyond learning those three or four pieces needed to succeed in a specific competition.  You must grow as a musician.  One way of growing musically is by composing.  To become a great performer, you really must understand what makes music tick.

BD:   So your advice to performers would be to do a little composing?

ML:   Yes, I would say study composing, compose a little bit, and study music theory.  It’s a great way of developing your musicianship.

BD:   What advice do you have for other composers?

ML:   If they don’t have a performance background, they should learn to play a few instruments.  Even if they don’t play like virtuosos, they just need to get used to playing to see what the human being player has to go through, and to try to play their own music or to sing their own music.  

BD:   Are you now being a dinosaur by saying that you have to know what the person has to go through?

ML:   That’s true.  Today, the great advantage is hearing your work on the computer.  I used to feel very bad when somebody
asked if I would play his piece, and I really didn’t have time to learn it, or I could not program it.  Today I say, Get a MIDI instrument, and realize the piece on your computer.  That’s fine, but only to a point.  My students sometimes bring me a score that they’ve realized, and they’re pretty good at it.  Say they wrote a string quartet, and they realized it at the computer.  Then they get four friends to try to read it, and they say, Gee, it didn’t really sound like the computer!  This is because there are many things live instruments cannot do that the computer could do very easily, but they will sound very different even if you have the best equipment.  If you want to write for the computer, that’s fine.  Go ahead and do it.

MIDI (short for Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is a technical standard that describes a communications protocol, digital interface and electrical connectors, and allows a wide variety of electronic musical instruments, computers, and other related music and audio devices, to connect and communicate with one another. A single MIDI link can carry up to sixteen channels of information, each of which can be routed to a separate device.

Those new to the subject of MIDI might confuse it with digital audio. While it may appear that MIDI and digital audio equipment do the same task -- recording of multiple channels of music using digital equipment -- this is done differently by MIDI and digital audio systems. MIDI symbolically represents a note. When the synth player presses a key on a keyboard, MIDI records which key was pressed, with which velocity and which duration, whereas digital audio represents the sound produced by the instrument.


MIDI carries event messages that specify notation, pitch and frequency, control signals for parameters -- such as volume (loudness or softness), vibrato, audio panning from left to right, cues in theater, and clock signals that set and synchronize tempo between multiple devices. These messages are sent via a MIDI cable to other devices where they control sound generation and other features. A simple example of a MIDI setup is the use of a MIDI controller -- such as an electronic musical keyboard -- to trigger sounds created by a sound module, which is, in turn, plugged into a keyboard amplifier. This MIDI data can also be recorded into a hardware or software device called a sequencer, which can be used to edit the data and to play it back at a later time.

Advantages of MIDI include small file size, ease of modification and manipulation, and a wide choice of electronic instruments and synthesizer or digitally-sampled sounds. Prior to the development of MIDI, electronic musical instruments from different manufacturers could generally not communicate with each other. With MIDI, any MIDI-compatible keyboard (or other controller device) can be connected to any other MIDI-compatible sequencer, sound module, drum machine, synthesizer, or computer, even if they are made by different manufacturers.

MIDI technology was standardized in 1983 by a panel of music industry representatives, and is maintained by the MIDI Manufacturers Association (MMA). All official MIDI standards are jointly developed and published by the MMA in Los Angeles, and the MIDI Committee of the Association of Musical Electronics Industry (AMEI) in Tokyo. In 2016, the MMA established The MIDI Association (TMA) to support a global community of people who work, play, or create with MIDI.

BD:   We’re not expecting the individual human beings to be automatons, are we?

ML:   No, that’s what I mean.  There’s a slight difference.  If you’re writing for orchestra, or for a string quartet, you want real 
string instruments to play your piece.  You ought to learn how to play a stringed instrument to be familiar with it.  The computer won’t do that for you.  The computer is a great tool, and it has great benefits.  However, if you’re writing for specific instruments, you should really become familiar with the capabilities and characteristics of those instruments.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   This may be an unfair question, but where is music going today... or is it just going in many directions?

ML:   You have a great philosopher and musicologist here at the University of Chicago, Leonard Meyer.  Twenty-five or thirty years ago he said that basically music is the co-existence of many styles.  We don’t really see one thing dominating other styles.  There’s no ‘lingua franca’ of music anymore.

meyer Leonard B. Meyer, composer, author, philosopher and esteemed and honored humanities professor, died on Dec. 30, 2007. He was 89. He contributed major works in the fields of aesthetic theory in music, and compositional analysis and was one of the first to explore the relationship between Game Theory and musical composition. His books include Emotion and Meaning in Music, The Rhythmic Structure of Music (with Grosvenor Cooper), and Some Remarks on Value and Greatness in Music, Style and Music: Theory History and Ideology (General Editor), The Spheres of Music: A Gathering of Essays as well as numerous articles and other scholarly works. His writings address such diverse subjects as musical emotion, the psychology of music, musical analysis and theory, aesthetics, information theory, the anthropology of art, and art and neuroscience.

Meyer studied at Bard College, Columbia University (B.A. in Philosophy, M.A. in Music) and the University of Chicago (PhD in History of Culture). As a composer, he studied under Stefan Wolpe, Otto Luening, and Aaron Copland. [See my Interview with Otto Luening.] He taught at the University of Chicago for 29 years. He was a Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies at Wesleyan University, a Guggensheim Fellow and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 1975, he was named Benjamin Franklin Professor of Music and Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania. He was beloved by generations of music and humanities students.

Born in New York City January 12, 1918, Professor Meyer lived a full life devoted to his family, his students, colleagues, and the humanities. During World War II, he fought with the front-line infantry at the Ardennes and the Battle of the Bulge. A great wit, Meyer regaled friends and family with recitations from Gilbert & Sullivan, Shakespeare and frequent puns. He asked that his tombstone be engraved with the musical pun in Hamlet's dying words: "The rest is silence".

BD:   Is that good or bad?

ML:   It’s good.  Today we can decide what music is for each person.  We have that freedom.  You can write music that uses microtones, or music that only uses one octave of the keyboard, or music that repeats one chord for four or five minutes, or music that is extremely complex.  You have the freedom to do all that.  You don’t have to write in a given style, and that’s one of the problems!  It’s great because we have that diversity that we can include in music, but the problem is that sometimes people expect to hear something.  If they go to a concert and they hear a new piece, they might have an idea of what they want to hear, and if that’s not met they’re very disappointed.  They never want to hear that music or that composer again.  So, you have to bring in an open ear.

BD:   Your style has obviously evolved and changed over the years.  Are you pleased with where it’s going these days?

ML:   Yes, I am.  When I see myself today, I feel myself a little old-fashioned with the late
90s because I still cling to a lot of my atonal sounds.  There has been such a strong movement to bring back the triad, to make music that doesn’t demand so much from the listener.  So, in that sense I feel old-fashioned.  Also, because of economic realitiesgrants have dried up, government assistance, which is always very debatable, has diminished and might be disappearingperforming institutions are in trouble.  As we were talking before, even the radio that used to be sometimes quite adventurous in some cities, in some areas now has become more and more very conservative.  They don’t want to ruffle things.  NPR stations don’t want to play anything that might alienate somebody from giving them their membership.  Many classical music stations have either become like classical ‘Muzak’, or some of them actually have gone into popular fields.  Anything that smacks of controversy is not welcome too much.  So, in that sense I am old-fashioned because I still like that, and I still go ahead and do it. 

lifchitz BD:   You think of yourself as a young radical?

ML:   In that sense, yes!  [Much laughter]  

BD:   You’re approaching the ‘Big 5-0’.  Are you pleased where you are at this point in your career?

ML:   I can only say that I’ve been very lucky to have had a career in music at all, even if it’s not of stellar quality.  I’ve been very lucky to make my living in music.  I will always remember how much my father never wanted me to go into music as a profession.

BD:   What did he want you to do?

ML:   Go into business!

BD:   Well, you’re in the music business!  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my Interviews with William Bolcom, Luciano Berio, and Dennis Russell Davies.]

ML:   I’m in the music business.  It’s been a great privilege, and I’ve been lucky to have done so well.  As you mentioned, I’m soon going to be fifty, and I’ve done all this for a long time, and still it is very satisfying.

BD:   Is your father pleased with what you’ve done?

ML:   I think my father was pleased, yes.  He always kept asking me when I was going into business and leaving music, but in terms of my own satisfaction, I wanted to go into music because I liked it.  I never cared for what material rewards there would be, so in that sense I have had a chance to survive and do what I wanted.  It’s very satisfying.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Your record company is called North/South.  What is the North and what is the South?

ML:   It’s an outgrowth of my performing organization which is North/South Consonance.  Many people say I should call the North/South Dissonance!  [Laughs]  The reason for the name, North/South, is that we focus on music by American and Latin American composers.  This is now changing, but one of my beefs against the music world has been that for many, many years the music world
at least the serious music worldreally never had room for Latin America, or composers from Latin America.  If you look at the programs of the Chicago Symphony or the New York Philharmonic, very little of music from the Americas is performed.

BD:   You have Ginastera, Chávez, Revueltas, and that’s it.

ML:   Yes, and they were performed much more when Copland was a big powerhouse.  The old conductors, like Koussevitzky or Stokowski, all had traveled in Latin America, and they used to take their orchestras.  So, they performed a lot of Latin American music.  Even Bernstein did that, but in the
70s, 80s, all that disappeared.

BD:   Because the United States is becoming more and more Hispanic every day, is that going to help?

ML:   Yes, it is helping a lot.  There are many demographic changes that are occurring, and we also had the 500th anniversary of the discovery of America back in 1992.  That almost began putting the spotlight on certain things.  I see a trend that is changing, so that’s why I say North/South.  Today many groups are doing that, but back when I started this in 1980, there was hardly anybody looking or thinking about Latin American composers.  Even still today, if you say you want to play serious Latin American music, everybody wonders what are you talking about.  It’s either the ethnic music or nothing else, and if a composer’s from Latin America, they’re supposed to sound nationalistic.  That could be that one of the reasons that the younger composers who grew up after Chávez and Ginastera sound as they do.  This is so, even in Ginastera’s later music.  Ginastera started out as a nationalistic composer, but his latest scores became quite radical, quite international in outlook, and so they are never played.


See my Interviews with Johan Franco, and Josef Alexander

:   They’re too tough?

ML:   They’re tough, and they are not what you would expect from an Argentinean composer.  When the program says music by an Argentinean composer...

lifchitz BD: expect the Bandoneon?

ML:   Right, correct!  In many ways, that’s Piazzolla.  So that is one of the problems in serious music
that we don’t have enough diversity in the concert programming.

BD:   Is there enough Latin American music being written, and which is being done by their National Symphony Orchestras?

ML:   Yes, there is plenty, but nobody can ever be bothered to go look for it.  For many years, it was very difficult to find recordings of Latin American music, or serious composers, or even printed scores.  It is all changing a little bit because there is more interest in this, and so many more groups are more interested in performing it.  There is also baroque music from Latin America, and romantic music.  It doesn’t have to be all contemporary music.  There is music from many different eras, but it has not been catalogued in the same way musicologists have done a great job of cataloguing the music of European composers.  You go to Italy and you will find a new baroque composer every day.  They go to a church and find six-hundred manuscripts by some unknown composer and even a new twist in the baroque aesthetics.  They could also go to Latin America and find baroque music, as well. 

BD:   Conductor Eduardo Mata was digging up quite a bit of this while he was alive and working on that.  I hope that’s being continued by someone.  [See my Interview with Eduardo Mata.]

ML:   Yes, it was unfortunate when Mata died.  It made a big loss of a big musical personality, and I’m not so sure there is anybody that has replaced him.  

BD:   You were born in Mexico, so are you South or are you North?

ML:   I’m both.  I sometimes feel like Dustin Hoffman in the film
Little Big Man because I live in two cultures.  I’m going to Mexico in a few weeks, and they want me to finish up an opera by Chávez [The Visitors] for his 100th anniversary in 1999.  He was born in 1899, and they want to do his opera, which has a text in English by Chester Kallman.  It is a very interesting text, and was done in New York in the late 50s, when he wrote it.  It was not a very big success and it didn’t get very good press write-ups.  Chávez wanted to revise it, but unfortunately that was one of his last projects and he didn’t get around to it.  So, they want to revive the opera and they want me to finish the revision.  So that’s going to be for 1999.

chavez The Visitors is an opera in three acts and a prologue composed by Carlos Chávez to an English libretto by the American poet Chester Kallman. The work was Chávez's only opera. The story is set in 14th century Tuscany during the time of the Black Death. The libretto (like those for Pagliacci and Ariadne auf Naxos) uses the device of a play within a play to reflect and intensify the relationships between the protagonists, who in this case are loosely based on characters in The Decameron.

The opera was originally commissioned in 1953 by Lincoln Kirstein, with the intention of premiering it in 1954 in New York City. Chávez began working on the score with the provisional title of The Tuscan Players in the spring of 1953 and continued working on it until 1956. The opera finally premiered with the title Panfilo and Lauretta on May 9, 1957 in the Brander Matthews Theater at Columbia University, conducted by Howard Shannet. It was then presented on three occasions in Mexico, conducted by the composer: in October 1959 (in English) in the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City; in 1963, again at the Palacio de Bellas Artes, but in a Spanish translation by Noel Lindsay and Eduardo Hernández Moncada with the title El amor propiciado (Love Propitiated); and in 1968 with the title of Los Visitantes (The Visitors) as part of the cultural program for the XIX Olympic Games.

In the succeeding thirty years the opera went unperformed apart from excerpts conducted by Chávez at the Cabrillo Music Festival in Aptos, California in 1973. However, he continued to revise the score up until his death in 1978. In 1997, his daughter entrusted the manuscript and her father's revisions to the composer and musicologist Max Lifchitz, who within two years had prepared the definitive version of the score. The world premiere of this version took place in October 1999 (the centenary of Chávez's birth) during the Festival Internacional Cervantino in the Teatro Juárez, Guanajuato. Conducted by José Areán with stage direction by Sergio Vela, the opera was performed with its original English libretto and its final title, The Visitors.

BD:   Is it going to be done down there?

ML:   It’s supposed to be done in June of 1999.  I hope that somebody in Houston or New York might be interested in doing the opera again, especially if the production is good.

BD:   Perhaps here in Chicago, since we have a large Hispanic population.

ML:   It’s true.  The Lyric Opera of Chicago might do it.  There is a lot of music down there that people could do here, but there has always been a complete blind eye towards Latin America.  I grew up in Mexico.  I studied there, but then eventually I came to New York, and I’ve lived here for a long time.  I am now an American Citizen, but I feel that I’m a Mexican-American, though I’m not a typical Mexican-American...

BD:   … because your heritage goes back to Europe?

lifchitz ML:   Yes, in many ways.  
My parents came from Russia, but also because, to some extent, I have managed to etch a successful life in this country.  I’m not marginalized, if you want, and so this also has changed me very much.  It is only very recently where one of the smaller nationalities came to be assimilated now into the major one, and in American society it would be the Hispanics.  There is more and more awareness of it, and there’s a lot of commerce now with Latin America.  Mexico is Americas second largest trading partner.  Ten years ago, nobody knew anything about Mexico.  No one cared to know.  When the Peso devalued in 1994, everybody was cursing that all their retirement money’s there.  [Much laughter]  Sorry everybody, CNN was in Mexico every day on the news.  Years ago, nobody knew anything about the political satiation down there.  Nowadays it makes news all the time.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Tell me the joys and sorrows of working with the human voice.

ML:   I like working with the human voice.  I like working with good singers, and by that I mean singers that really have flexibility in the voice, and have a good ear.

BD:   Of course, but my question also encompasses writing for the voice.

ML:   I haven’t written as much vocal music as I’ve written instrumental music.  The piece that’s being done here in Chicago tomorrow is one of my few vocal pieces. It requires a singer that can do many things, from Sprechstimme, to speaking voice, to singing bel canto style.

BD:   Is that too much to expect of a singer?

ML:   Yes, and no.  You need a singer who’s a good musician, let me put it that way.  It must be somebody that handles his or her voice as an instrument, and is not just concerned with the beauty of tone for the sheer pleasure of listening to it.  That’s also the case where you hear Verdi or Wagner.  If you hear Wagner, you need very good singers.  Not everybody can sight-sing Wagner.  Wagner is very difficult music to sing, and nobody complains too much about it.  Everybody’s expected to do it.

BD:   We’ve gotten used to it.

ML:   Yes, I guess we’ve gotten used to it.

BD:   Will there come a time when we are used to the music of Max Lifchitz?

ML:   Maybe, but I would be too presumptuous to say!  [Much laughter]  I’m just a humble servant of music.  I don’t have that romantic desire to have my own festival, and have a town that’s named after me so my grandchildren are going to be still making money off my music.  That’s a little bit too presumptuous!

[At this point we stopped for a moment to take care of a few technical things.  Before we continued, I asked him for his birthdate...]

ML:   I was born November 11, 1948.  I am Scorpio!

BD:   Are you at all involved with your horoscope?

ML:   [Laughs]  No, I just say that because many people feel that Scorpios are artists.  They’re rather temperamental, passionate, artistic...

lifchitz BD:   Maybe you really are a Scorpio!

ML:   Ah, yes!  [Much laughter]

BD:   All in all, is composing fun?

ML:   Eh, yes, and no.  Like everything else, sometimes writing a piece can be a rather difficult and laborious process, and sometimes it can be a real breeze and very pleasurable.  But for me, it’s usually hard to get into a piece.  Once I get into the composing, then it becomes very pleasurable.

BD:   When you play your own pieces, are there times when you, the performer, fights with you, the composer?

ML:   Yes, and no.  Sometimes, when I look at my older music, I wonder why I ever wrote that for the viola.  I will never do that again!  I remember I used to write percussion pieces that required lots of instruments.  Today I look at these scores and I say,
Did I really write this?  Did I really call for all these instruments?  My God!  [Bursts out laughing]

BD:   You must have thought you had an unlimited budget.

ML:   Ah, yes!  Sometimes you realize that maybe you were impractical at one point.  

BD:   Are you the ideal performer of your own music?

ML:   [Thinks a moment]  I prefer to perform music by my pupils or other composers more than my own music.  Sometimes I prefer to be an objective listener to my music, to have somebody else perform it rather than myself.  But many times performers do ask you how exactly what you mean by this notation, whether you want a slur, or should a breath be taken there.  Do you mean pianissimo, or should maybe the clarinet come out again?  So, it’s good to have a certain involvement with the performance.

BD:   Do you want each performance to be an exact duplicate, or do you want the performers to put something into it?

ML:   I think the best interpreters of my music are those that actually shine a new light on my works.  Often, after a performance I’ve said, “Let me change something with the dynamics.  It might be better if we do this.”  If you marked a passage piano, maybe it doesn’t project.  If the tempo marking is too slow or too fast, why not modify it?  Most enjoyable is when a performer has a novel insight into your music, or when something they do instinctively enhances the effect of your music

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You’re just the composer, so what do you know???  [Much laughter]

ML:   Right!  When somebody plays a piece of mine, I’m the type that says, “I will be happy to attend the concert.  If you want me to come to the final rehearsal, let me know.”  I prefer not to be there at the very beginning of the rehearsal process.  If I do attend a rehearsal, I try to stay out of the way and not to say too much.  I really want to see what that performer has in mind and brings to the music.

BD:   Are you trusting the performer, or are you trusting your music?

I trust that the way my music is notated will be clear enough to the interpreter.  If the performer is good, he/she will realize what the music says.  A performer wants to make that music his or her own, and it’s only after many performances that you really become comfortable with a piece of music.  If a composer hears a wrong note, so what?  That’s not really the issue, unless the wrong notes are too obvious and detract from the performance.  There are mistakes everywhere.  What you are really hoping for is not a note-perfect performance, but a performance where the interpreter manages to convey the message of the music to the audience.

BD:   Have you particularly enjoyed the performances of your works over the years?
ML:   Yes, I have.  I’ve felt that sometimes they were better than others, but in general I do appreciate all the work and effort that goes into it, and most of the time I been pleasantly surprised.

BD:   Thank you for bringing your music to Chicago!

ML:   It’s a pleasure to be here.  


See my Interviews with Emma Lou Diemer, Irwin Bazelon, Leslie Bassett, Robert Starer, and Bernard Rands



© 1997 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on July 21, 1997.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following year, and on WNUR in 2012, and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio also in 2012.  This transcription was made in 2017, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.