Composer  Robert  Linn
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Robert Linn; Composer, USC Music School Teacher


Robert Linn, a versatile and prolific classical composer who helped elevate the USC's venerable Thornton School of Music to international prominence, has died. He was 74.

Linn died Thursday at St. Vincent's Hospital in Los Angeles of complications from cancer, his son Steve said Monday.

"Though he contributed profound utterances to the [school's] repertoire," Thornton's dean, Larry J. Livingston, said of Linn, "his music and manner were graced by a complete absence of pretense."

Linn taught at USC for 33 years and chaired the composition department for 17. He retired in 1990 "to become a full-time composer," he told The Times then, "something I never thought would happen."

Linn's music has been recorded on major classical labels and performed on six continents by groups ranging from the USC Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra to the San Francisco, Boston and London symphonies.

His 1990 Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2, written for pianist John Perry, was one of 10 semifinalists in the Kennedy Center's Eric Friedheim Awards Competition of New American Music. The piece was also a finalist that year in the National Orchestra Assn. New Music Project.

The composer's Fantasia for Cello and String Orchestra was premiered in 1976 by another USC musical treasure, cellist Nathaniel Rosen, and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Rosen repeated the Linn piece at a 1984 Ambassador Auditorium concert celebrating the centennial anniversary of USC's School of Music.

Linn, although a very new faculty member in 1958, composed the anthem played by the USC Symphony Orchestra for the inauguration of university President Norman Topping.

During his brief years as "full-time composer," Linn made short work--three months--of a commissioned cantata for the 17th annual Baroque Music Festival of Corona del Mar in 1997. The cantata, in memory of festival board member Robert Sangster, was written for four vocalists and orchestra, set to excerpts from Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night."

"The work was designed to be a joyous and jovial and secular cantata, which is reflected in the subtitle--'In Praise of Love and Music,' " Linn told The Times. "There wasn't a lot of revising. It seemed to flow very naturally."

Adding a 20th century composition to a festival celebrating 17th-century music might seem unusual, but it was not unprecedented. Four years earlier, Linn had composed a concerto for oboe, harpsichord and orchestra for the same Corona del Mar event. That piece was the first ever commissioned by the festival organizers.

Linn composed more than 80 works for full orchestra, chamber groups, piano, strings, brass and woodwinds.

"It seems to me that it's more fun to take each new commission and hope that it's going to be something different--a chance to write for different instruments or a chance to use new forms or techniques," Linn told The Times in 1993.

Even the old-fashioned baroque concerto, he said, "ended up writing itself very easily. I had to set my mind to baroque type of thinking. When I wasn't writing, I was listening to baroque music and harpsichord music."

"Baroque . . . jazzy . . . romantic . . . at least three different styles," he said. "And yet I think it all sounds like me. I write in different ways, and yet there's something about the way you think and put notes together that is the same."

Born in San Francisco, Linn studied composition with Darius Milhaud at Mills College, Roger Sessions at Princeton and Halsey Stevens and Ingolf Dahl at USC, where he earned bachelor's and master's degrees in music.

Survivors include Linn's wife of 48 years, Virginia; two sons, Steve of Oceanside and Roger of San Francisco; a daughter, Stacy, of Orange; and one grandson.

Services are scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Monday in the Old North Church at Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills. The family asked that instead of flowers, friends plan to contribute to the Robert Linn Memorial Scholarship at the USC Thornton School of Music, Los Angeles, CA 90089-0851.

When gathering these interviews for broadcast (and now for website presentation), I often would contact people of interest to see if and when they were coming to Chicago.  I am happy to say that quite a few told me of upcoming trips, and agreed to add me to their schedule.  Robert Linn is one such example.  He was a regular traveler, and he had an upcoming visit planned to hear one of his pieces played at a Viola Conference at Northwestern University in June of 1993. 

Portions of this interview were heard on WNIB, WNUR, and Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.  Now the entire conversation has been transcribed and posted on this webpage.  The names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website, and the three family photos were sent to me by his son, Roger.

We met at my apartment the day after the concert, and he and his wife seemed genuinely pleased with both the musical and social aspects of the trip . . . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You’ve been on your trip for a couple of weeks?

Robert Linn:    We’ve been gone, let’s see, two weeks and three or four days, and we’ll be back in Los Angeles in about six weeks.

BD:    Do you like doing a motor tour?

RL:    We do different types of trips, but this one in part was to see our roots.  My father was born in Nebraska, and I’ve never been there.  So we drove through Nebraska and stopped in several places, but Grand Island in particular is where he was born.  Then we thought, “He’s here somewhere but we’re not quite sure where.”  And (my wife) Virginia got the marvelous idea of going to the assessor’s office and checking on when the property was purchased, because I had just a general idea.  It was the end of the last century when his parents bought the property.  So we found the exact lot, and they told us what the address was of several of the placers that they had lived in.  We were able to track down and at least imagine what it was like in the early twentieth century, but we’re not even sure if the same house was being lived in or had been rebuilt.  We’re really not sure.

BD:    It must be exciting to find your own background like that.

RL:    Yes, yes.  My wife came from Missouri and hadn’t been back to St. Louis for 42 years.  So she took advantage of seeing places that she had lived, and little tears came down her cheeks as she saw the very house that she was living in for all that period.

BD:    Do composers do the same kind of things when looking for their musical roots, for their musical backgrounds, in studying all of the music that has been written for the last 100, 200, 300, 500 years?

RL:    Going to places where composers were born?

BD:    Or just going there mentally and revisiting how they wrote and why they wrote, and their circumstances through books and letters.

RL:    I suppose it’s inevitable that when you hear someone’s music, you wonder what the times were like and how they lived.  I guess that’s one of the reasons we study music history, to get a better idea of the locale and the happenings, and exactly what these people did and how they lived.

linnBD:    Is this an important factor in becoming a composer?

RL:    I would say so, yes, whether we realize it or not.  It just happens.

BD:    So a lot of it, then, is subconscious?

RL:    Of course, yes.

BD:    Do you feel that you’re part of a lineage of American composers, or of worldwide composers?

RL:    Oh yes, very definitely.  Having studied with Halsey Stevens (1908-1989), who was a major teacher, there was certainly an American style represented in the way he composed music.  I was influenced greatly by him and by the American school, but at the same time I studied with Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), the French composer, and I think there’s a lot of Milhaud in my music as well.  Maybe it’s because he used a lot of folk songs, and his style was tonal and diatonic — all of these things that helped me a great deal in creating a musical form. 

BD:    Would your style have been necessarily different if you had studied with different composers of that generation?

RL:    I’m not sure, but I think it has a lot to do with it.  There are composers who studied with Schoenberg who probably couldn’t write any other way but twelve-tone music
at least until they finally escaped and became personalities on their own.  I also studied with Roger Sessions (1896-1985) who was a strong influence on American music, and certainly his way of writing and his emphasis on formal design had a lot to do with what I’ve done with my music.  I know that.  I can realize it now, and looking back and listening to some of my music, I hear Halsey Stevens, I hear Milhaud, and I hear Sessions.  Whether anyone else does or not, I’m not sure.  There’s a strong influence, and it creates a direction for a young composer until he can find his own personality.  Sometimes we never find our own personality.  We’re always writing like someone else, but we do the best we can to escape.

BD:    Escape into your own self?

RL:    Yes.  Look at the number of composers who feel so strongly about their teachers, and the influence of their teachers, that they don’t want to escape.  They keep carrying on that particular style.

BD:    Did these three gentlemen ask that you compose in their style, or did they encourage you to go off into your own style?

RL:    I don’t think they ever asked me to write in a certain way.

BD:    I ask this because there are some composers who somehow turn out lots of clones of themselves.

RL:    Yes, that’s true, but it’s just a matter of a teacher helping a person develop his own style.  If, like Paul Hindemith, the student is told exactly what to do, then it’s a different story entirely, and those students who studied with Paul Hindemith
such as Lukas Foss and Mel Powellreally felt a tyranny there.  They really wanted to get away and do their own thing... although I once talked to Foss about this and he said (in a kidding fashion) that he wished he’d listened a little more to his teacher.  [Laughs]

BD:    Let me turn the question around.  When you’re teaching, do you use some of the same techniques and styles that your teachers did, in terms of the teaching of composition?

RL:    Yes, I think so.  I know that the things that worked for me when I was a student can be beneficial to my students.  I certainly never tell them how to compose, but I try to give them the tools to put musical ideas together, and pen notes together.  But it’s very difficult.  You feel very strongly one way or another when you see a few phrases that a student has written, and you want to tell them how you would do it.  That’s the best thing you can do is to say, “If this were my piece I would do this, but you probably would do it a different way.”  That’s a way of getting out of it.

BD:    To give them the choice?

RL:    Yes.

BD:    Are you pleased with what you see and hear coming off the pages of your students?

RL:    Oh yes.  In fact, some of my students are teaching now, and every once in a while they’ll say, “Oh, I remember one exercise that we had in class, and I use that on my students now.”  It pleases me very much that they even remembered, and then that they found it useful.  They also tell me stories about things that I’ve said and I don’t even remember saying.  Sometime you say something off the top of your head, and it comes back to haunt you.  [Laughs]

BD:    I hope it’s at least mildly profound...

RL:    Oh, mildly, yes.  For sure.  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve been teaching for about 35 years at USC.  How have the student styles and reactions to music changed in that time
if at all?

RL:    Surprisingly, in recent years there’s more interest in tonal music and romantic music.

BD:    Why is it surprising?

RL:    You would think that somehow music has a direction, and if it starts to get more dissonant and more complicated that it should continue in that direction.  But of course it’s all a reaction.  They’re reacting to this complicated way of writing and to a dissonance that they perhaps don’t believe in.  So when one composer decides to surprise the listening world with something romantic or neo-classic or minimalist or something else, then other composers grab onto it.  They say, “Ah, finally we have a chance to do what we want to.”  That’s what it amounts to
— that they have a chance to do what they want to instead of following some fad or a technique that all young composers are expected to follow.

BD:    Is this to say that you would have done anything differently if you had been a little freer in your own compositions over the years?

RL:    No, I don’t think so, because I went through a period where I wrote serial music, but never to the extent that some other composers did — to the extreme I guess I should say.  But certainly a composer has to express his ideas, and he finally gets to that stage where he can do what he really wants to do, and that’s why young composers are very happy about this now.   They don’t feel that they have to write as complicated a type of music.  Bill Kraft was saying, “All those years we thought we had to write serial music, and although we probably wouldn’t have done it any other way, we finally now can express ourselves anyway that we want.”  So not only young composers feel that way, but we old composers, too!  [Both laugh]

BD:    Is serialism dead?

RL:    No, I don’t think so.  There’s no reason why serial techniques can’t continue to be used even in a tonal fashion.  When I use a row of some kind, no matter how many notes the row happens to be
whether it’s twelve tones or a fewer number or a larger numberit’s just a way of organizing the music.  But at least it isn’t so strict that you can’t bring about tonal regions in the music, and expressive passages over and above the fact that it’s being organized serially.

BD:    Have you tried a purely tonal technique, also?

RL:    Oh yes.  Certainly, yes.  It really depends upon the kind of piece that you’re asked to write.  Here in Evanston, at Northwestern at the International Viola Congress where I just had a piece performed, it illustrates this type of thing.  I was commissioned to write a piece for two violas, and they were to be played on two very old instruments, Gasparo da Salò violas.  Right away that set the tone.  How can we make use of the sixteenth century instruments?  I understand there are only about seventeen left in the world, so here you have a unique chance to write music for special instruments. 



BD:    Will that preclude it from being played on modern violas?

RL:    Oh no, no.  It’s still exactly the same.  The design isn’t old; it’s just the make of the instrument itself.

BD:    So it might be a different tonal quality?

RL:    Yes, it’s largely the tonal quality that would be different.  But at least we know in this performance it’s going to be very special.  The two performers, Donald McInnes and Pamela Goldsmith, are outstanding violists.  They’re two of the best in the country, if not the world.  So I had this opportunity to write that piece for the two of them, and I finally decided to write a fantasia on a theme from the sixteenth or seventeenth century.  I used a piece by Frescobaldi (1583-1643) which was originally for keyboard, but I transcribed it so it would work for the two violas, and then wrote a series of variations.  I would have to say that this is more or less a tonal piece.  It starts, at least, in a very tonal manner, and begins to grow and expand so that there are spicier harmonies and certainly syncopated rhythms, and a change of meter which would represent my own style... yet I don’t think it ever completely escapes the mood or the spirit of the sixteenth century.  At the end of the piece, it goes back and dissolves into that opening style.

BD:    Do you feel Frescobaldi is pleased with it?

RL:    Who knows?  [Laughs]  If he were living today I’m sure he would be.  Another example is that a few months ago I had the premiere of a concerto grosso for oboe, harpsichord, and string orchestra.

BD:    There again you’re using an old form.

RL:    Yes.  It was a commission from the Corona del Mar Baroque Festival.  The first thing I asked myself was, “What am I doing, a living composer, in a Baroque festival?”  So I had to try to think through things and decide exactly what I was going to do.  I finally wrote a four movement piece which was quite tonal
probably the most tonal piece that I had written in a long time — and I was just delighted all the way through to be able to write all those triads.  Each movement would start in a very tonal style, and then I would swerve left and right, and use some of the things that are more contemporary.  In other words, even though it may have sounded Baroque in passages, there was no way it could have been written in the Baroque period, by way of the modulations and the type of rhythms that were employed.

BD:    But I assume this is more than just musical time travel.  It’s not Back to the Future or something like that, is it?

RL:    No.  [Laughs]

BD:    You seem to like putting new wine in old bottles.

RL:    Yes.  One of the recordings that I have is certainly a neoclassical concerto, the one for violin and wind octet.  This was some years ago, but the commission was to write a companion piece for the Haydn and Mozart Octets.  They employ no flutes, but two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, and two French horns, so there’s the octet.  Usually whenever a group that has this combination of instruments gives a concert, all they need to do in the case of my piece is to add a violin, because it’s a violin concerto.  So they added the violin against the winds, the band, so to speak.  The forms are certainly classical.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You get requests for commissions all the time.  How do you decide which ones you will spend the time on, and which ones you will decline?

RL:    I haven’t turned down too many.  I do whatever comes through that sounds interesting to me.

BD:    That’s what I’m getting at
— what makes it sound interesting to you?

RL:    It isn’t necessarily the money.  Sometimes you just feel that you want to write for this group, or you know that the performance is the reward itself.  But sometimes there’s a certain amount of money connected with it, and that’s nice, too.  [Laughs]

BD:    You’re also a university professor, so you’re relieved of having to rely on the commissions.  Does that alter your decision a bit?

RL:    Yes, of course.  One of the ways that I can make a living is to teach, and although I enjoy teaching very much, I need to compose pieces in order to have some stature in the university
in order to get my promotions and be meaningful to the school.

BD:    But I assume you wouldn’t have it any other way.

RL:    No, I wouldn’t have it any other way, but it gives me an excuse to do a lot of writing.

BD:    With all of your teaching, do you get enough time to compose?

RL:    I think so, yes.  One of the reasons that I got into teaching is that I knew I would have a lot of holidays, including three or four months in the summer, and one very special holiday which is the sabbatical leave every seven years.  I remember my teacher Halsey Stevens.  I couldn’t believe the wonderful places that he visited during his vacations and during his sabbaticals, and I said at that time, “This is the life. This is what I’d like to do.”  In addition to enjoying the job itself, it’s marvelous to be able to get away, and to hear orchestras and music in other countries, and to spend the full time of a year or more writing, composing.


BD:    You were educated on the west coast and you’ve been teaching on the west coast.  Is there a particular West Coast Style that we either know or don’t know about?

RL:    For many years it appeared that there was, but I don’t think it’s any different anywhere, and I don’t think so anymore.

BD:    Is that because of the avalanche of recordings, and the availability of broadcasts, and the immediacy of everything globally?

RL:    Yes.  As composers move around to a great extent now, the Eastern School and the Western School are pretty well mixed.  That’s my feeling, at least.

BD:    I just wondered if your style would be radically different if you had wound up with a position at Columbia, or at Iowa, or at some other place.

RL:    Well, there I think you have a point.  Certain composers who are hired by certain universities tend to have a musical identity just because of the composer who happens to be there.  Roger Sessions (1896-1985) was at Princeton, and I think that the students who came from there were influenced by Sessions and his style of music.  And I think the same thing would be true in any university.  You have certain composers who are recognized for a certain style.  The University of Southern California, where I teach, certainly was considered a more conservative compositional group.  This is changing now with new composers who are coming in, but certainly was the case with Halsey Stevens and Ingolf Dahl (1912-1970) and Ellis Kohs (1916-2000), and others that followed.  They were certainly much more consonant in their approach to music, and much more conservative than other schools.

BD:    Have you had any students that would come to you, that you knew would really benefit from the teaching of someone else, and you sent them to that other person?

RL:    Yes, very definitely, and it’s not only a teacher.  Sometimes a school is famous for something.  For those people who are interested in commercial music or jazz, for instance, there are special schools.  So why have them waste their time when you can tell them to go someplace where they will really benefit?  This is true in musicology and in ethno-musicology, too.  There are certain schools that specialize in this.  At USC we’re not far from UCLA, and yet there are a number of young composers we have sent to the other side of town for ethno-musicology.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  You don’t feel you’re being a traitor to USC?

RL:    [Smiles]  No, not at all.  No, no.

BD:    I assume there’s reciprocity, too
— that they would send some students to you?

RL:    Yes.  In fact not so long ago they even hired one of our students for their faculty, and I thought that was just wonderful.

BD:    I hope he never goes to a football game
— he won’t know who to root for.

RL:    That’s right!  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    What’s the purpose of music?

RL:    [Thinks a moment]  I don’t know, to give you a direct answer.  I’m not sure what to say.

BD:    Then what are some of the traits that fit into it?

linnRL:    For the composer, certainly, it can be an intellectual process, a creative process.  For the listener it can be entertainment, and it benefits different people and different groups in different ways. 

BD:    Are you conscious of the listener while you’re writing the piece?

RL:    I try to be.  I certainly don’t admit this very often, but I really do try to consider the listener.  That’s why a commission is so important
.  You know exactly what group will be playing it, what soloist you will have, who the listeners will beat least the general audience for that particular concertand what the hall will be like.  When you take all of these things into consideration, that piece is somehow going to be appreciated more by everyone involved — the performers, the listeners, and the composer himself.

BD:    So that helps to shape the piece?

RL:    Oh, yes.

BD:    And yet when it’s plopped down in completely different circumstances, it still works?

RL:    Usually, yes.  It usually does, but that first performance is so important.  That’s what you’re thinking about
how everything is going to work for the first performance, and that’s what excites me in writing the piece.  I really can get started when I have some restrictions set up.  Sometimes it’ll be nothing more than, “I’d like about seventeen minutes, and don’t have a soft ending,” which is one of my commissions.  That’s exactly what the person asked for.  That’s the way it was put.

BD:    Just to make sure that it has a rousing ending for lots of applause?

RL:    Yes, I think that’s the idea.  So I should tell you in that particular case I ended quietly!  [Laughs]

BD:    Were they disappointed?

RL:    No, I don’t think so, because it was loud up to that point just before the quiet ending.  But the piece seemed to demand it, so there was nothing I could do.

BD:    When you’re writing a piece, how much does the pencil control you, and how much are you in control of that pencil as it moves across the page?

RL:    That’s a frightening experience, anyway, to try to put notes down on paper.  I find that most of my ideas come when I’m walking.  It sounds very romantic, but it’s true.  If I get out and take a walk, especially in my location in the hills, it really helps me.  Of course I don’t have any pencil at that time.  I guess I should carry a pad and pencil, but I haven’t done it for this long, so I guess I won’t start.  The idea is to run home, and before it all goes away to try to get some of it down on paper.  That’s probably one of the most difficult things for a composer
to be able to get something down on paper that shows the entire shape of the piece before it gets away.  Sometimes you only get a few details, but that will remind you about what you want to do, or how you might carry the piece on to an ending of some sort.  But as Paul Hindemith calls it, “That explosion.  Try to get the complete piece in your mind’s eye, and then carry out the details.”

BD:    You’re more than just a transcriber of something that you get out of the atmosphere, aren’t you?

RL:    I’m not sure.  I never have any idea of where the ideas come from.  It always baffles me, especially if I look back at a piece that I’ve written a few years ago and my first reaction is, “How did I ever write that?” or “Where did that come from?”  I really have no idea.

BD:    Are you pleased or horrified?

RL:    Oh, no, I’m always pleased.  I guess there are some passages and pieces that you wish you hadn’t done a certain way.  Maybe you didn’t take quite enough time, but all in all I’m pleased with what I’ve written.

BD:    Do you ever go back and tinker with scores?

RL:    Not too much.  I have a lot of friends who have done that, and I think it’s better just to forget about the piece and start on a new one; not to rewrite.  I’m sure there have been a lot of very good pieces that have been saved by rewrites, by going back, but I haven’t done too much of that.  Maybe that’s because I studied with Darius Milhaud, who wrote so fast and never threw anything away.

BD:    When you’re working on it, you adjust it and tinker with it.  Do you spend a lot of time adjusting it before the first performance?

RL:    Some.  I spend a lot of time tinkering with it while I’m writing it, and when I finally get it the way I want, that’s it.  Usually I’m pleased, and there are very few things that I need to change in a rehearsal.  It seems they’re always just small details here and there.

BD:    You’re writing, and you’re writing, and you’re tinkering...  How do you know when it is ready to be launched?

RL:    You just know.  [Laughs]  You know that this is as close as you can come.  I guess that’s what it amounts to.  You’re never quite sure whether it could have been done a different way.

BD:    It looks up off the page at you and says, “Play me”?

RL:    Yes, I think so.  It would be interesting to hear all of the answers you’ve probably gotten from composers with that question.  [Perhaps this is one reason for putting all of these interviews up on the website!]  But I think you just feel it.  Some people feel worried up to the last minute.  After you’ve finished it you feel satisfied, but then you worry a little about that first rehearsal.  Did I really write it the way I wanted?  Did I do it the best way?  Then the more you think about it the worse it gets, so it’s better not to think about it at all and just wait.

BD:    Put it out of your mind and let the performers have the worry?

RL:    Yes, and it seems to come through.  That first rehearsal isn’t a very satisfying time, anyway, because I don’t think a composer should ever go to the first rehearsal.  There’s chaos and mistakes, and all kinds of things happening.

BD:    But I assume, though, that the composer should not wait for the dress rehearsal.  He should attend a couple previous to that there could be some tinkering.

RL:    I think it’s necessary to suffer a little by going to the rehearsals to straighten these things out, yes.  Conductors try to keep you away from the first rehearsal.

BD:    Have your pieces gotten enough rehearsal?

RL:    In most cases, although you always have that feeling that it could take one or two more rehearsals.  I’m sure every composer feels that way, because they get so close, and even the conductor will say, “If we only had one more hour, or one more rehearsal...”

BD:    And then if he had one more hour he’d say, “If we only had one more hour...”

RL:    Of course!  [Both laugh]  It goes on and on, and then usually the performances are surprisingly good, better than the last rehearsal, I’ve found.  So I’m not worried when things are a little hectic in the dress rehearsal, because it means that the performance will probably be good.  Everyone’s on their toes then.  They’re all ready to go and they want to do a good job, and it usually turns out very well... unless something terrible happens.

BD:    Someone miscounts, or something?

RL:    Yes.  Sometimes there’s an erratic entrance in one or two instruments, but that’s not important.

BD:    Really?  Accuracy is not important???

RL:    Oh, it really is important, but I mean it’s not as important as the overall effect.

BD:    Oh, I see.  It doesn’t destroy the piece?

RL:    No.

BD:    Are you ever surprised by what you hear coming back at you from the players, something that you didn’t realize would sound that way?

RL:    Yes.  In most cases that’s not the case, but there are always passages that surprise you.  You haven’t spent too much time on them, and you think you just orchestrated them in a very clear fashion.  But then you hear it and there’s something special about it, so you look twice.  What did I do there that made this sound so much better than I had imagined?  And then there are other places where you orchestrate a piece, and spend a great of time trying to make it especially effective, and it sounds very ordinary.  I’m talking about a few measures here, or a few measures there.  But you’re perfectly right.  You never know what to expect as far as the complete piece is concerned.


BD:    Those passages that you mentioned where you’re pleasantly surprised — do you then try to recapture that in the next piece?

RL:    I think so, yes.  It’s part of the vocabulary that you try to set aside and use later.

BD:    So you learn from everything, even from you?

RL:    Yes, that’s a good way of putting it.  I must remember that.  [Laughs]

BD:    Do outside influences have a major impact on you — political, sociological, all of these things that are happening today?  Can you see that in your music, or is it all merely a separate entity for you?

RL:    It seems to be a separate entity.  I know a lot of composers who are greatly influenced by the times and things that are happening politically.  Even their titles reflect that — a title or program notes can explain what the piece is all about.  Up to now I’ve never dealt with a piece in that fashion.  It’s abstract music.  My wife and I have traveled throughout the world.  We’ve been to 130 countries now and have spent time in a lot of them, and people always ask if I have been influenced by the music of those countries in the same way that you’re asking about political events, and I never really see a relationship.  I’m sure that I’m influenced, but apparently I absorb it.  I don’t purposely write like the African group I heard, or the Indonesian group, even though at the time I’m very excited about what I’m hearing.

BD:    So it’s more of a nourishment than a real influence?

RL:    Yes.  Yes, exactly, although when the IRS asked me that question, I told them that it definitely influenced me, in order to deduct part of my trip.  That’s not for broadcast.  [Laughs]

BD:    We’ll leave that part out.  [Laughs]  Should a composer have to deal with mundane things like tax forms, and cleaning the house, and this, that, and the other thing?

RL:    Oh, of course not!  [Huge laugh]  But that’s fun, too.  I like taking care of business, and cleaning — no, not cleaning the house.  [Laughs]  I guess what you’re asking is if the composer should have someone else do all his labors, that he should do nothing but sit and compose.  No, I don’t think that’s realistic at all.  He has to take part in everything that goes on around him, and that includes politics, and cleaning up, and whatever.

BD:    Is there something
or even a few thingsthat the public in general doesn’t understand about composers that would be good if they did understand?

RL:    The first thing that is probably connected with the other question you were asking is that there’s no reason why a composer has to go to Europe to study.  There’s no reason why he can’t be a family man and have children.  I have three children.  There is no reason why he can’t be married, for that matter.  I don’t think a composer is some odd creature.  In most cases they’re everyday people with the same kinds of responsibilities and feelings.

BD:    Is it still surprising, especially for a symphony or an opera audience, to find the composer’s still alive?

RL:    [Laughs]  I know that in this piece that I wrote for the Baroque festival, I felt that way.  The audience was very surprised to actually see a composer on one of their concerts that could stand up and take a bow.

BD:    Is it especially satisfying when you walk on the stage and take the bow for the music?

RL:    Oh, yes.  Yes, very much so.  In most cases it’s a chance to congratulate the performers, the soloists, or the conductor who take part in the performance, as in this piece that was done just last night.  Here are fine performers, and you’re so excited about the marvelous performance they’ve given, and it’s a chance to shake their hand and show the audience how strongly you feel about their performance.

BD:    Is it ever surprising to you to find out that one of your pieces was done last month way across the country, or over in Europe?

RL:    I usually find out about these things, but it does surprise me when I don’t know about it, and it’s very difficult to track down performances.  I’m a member of ASCAP, and they’re supposed to survey performances, but it’s mostly in the pop field.  So there aren’t as many performances that are surveyed in concert-style music.  And then I’m always surprised when someone will come up to me and say, “Oh, I played your clarinet and cello piece here,” or “We did your guitar piece,” and I know nothing about it.  Even though the pieces are published and they’re sold, there’s no way of finding out who purchased them and where they’re going to be performed.  So that part is always a surprise.  I wish performers would always try to notify the composers of the performances.  It would be greatly appreciated.  I’ve walked up to performers and introduced myself, to tell them how much I enjoyed a particular performance where my music wasn’t being performed, and they will say, “Oh yes, I know your name.  We did your piece in such and such a place,” but you know nothing about it.  The other thing is that sometimes you don’t know about performances because instead of buying the music they Xerox it.  [Laughs]  A lot of that goes on.  I’ve attended performances where the performers are reading off Xeroxed copies.

BD:    That counterbalances writing off part of your Africa trip with the IRS.  [Both laugh]

RL:    That’s right.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You alluded to the pop and rock audience a little bit.  Is there any way that we could or even should try to lure some of that audience into the concert hall?

RL:    There are attempts to do that by certain composers.  I’ve never thought about it too much.  I’ve had a great interest in jazz all my life, and although jazz is not rock, at least we could say it’s on that side of the fence.  There are composers who are using rock ideas in their concert music just as I’ve used jazz ideas.  Yes, I think it should be done, but it shouldn’t be done just to try to get young people to listen to the music.  It should be a genuine desire on the part of the composer to express himself by using that style or those techniques.

BD:    You’re not in favor of gimmicks then?

RL:    No, I don’t like gimmicks, no.

BD:    You say jazz is on the other side of the fence.  Should there really be a fence there?

RL:    The fence is getting lower and lower, and not quite as sharp as it was at one time.  And it’s true, sometimes it’s pretty difficult to say whether it’s a so called classical music or popular music.

BD:    Is this a good thing, or just a thing?

RL:    Oh, I think it’s a good thing, yes.  I wish it would happen to a greater extent by more composers, and I think it is.  That’s why I feel that way, and I think it really is happening.

linnBD:    Are you optimistic about the future of concert music, or music in general?

RL:    Yes.  There are still as many people interested in concert-type music — ASCAP refers to it as
serious music — as popular music.

BD:    Isn’t there a book entitled Serious Music and All That Jazz?  [Laughs]  [See photo of book at right]

RL:    That
’s right, yes.

BD:    Is composing fun?

RL:    Partly.  It
’s partly fun and partly a little agony.  It depends on how things are going.  It’s always difficult to get started.  Sometimes it’s difficult to finish the piece after you’ve gotten quite a ways through it, but all in all it’s fun when it’s going well, when things are happening, and you can flow from one measure to the next and from one phrase to the next, one section to the next, one movement to the next.  Then it gets exciting, and it’s fun.  But when that doesn’t happen, when you’re struggling, then it’s best to get up and go for a walk, and hope that the next day will be better.

BD:    Does it ever turn out that the pieces that are easy to write don’t sound well, and the pieces that are hard to write make the best impact?

RL:    I don’t know.  I haven’t thought about that too much.  I really don’t know.

BD:    I assume you’ve basically been pleased with the performances you’ve heard of your music?

RL:    Yes, pretty much.

BD:    What about the recordings?  They have a little more staying power since the plastic is there presumably forever.

RL:    Yes, I like all the recordings that I have.  They spent a lot of time on them, and they were good performances.  I don’t know of any that I’m dissatisfied with.

BD:    You’re very lucky.

RL:    Yes.  Do you feel that there are a lot of composers who have not had their music recorded properly?

BD:    A lot of composers will say, “Most of them are good, but not this one,” or, “This one didn’t have my approval,” or “This one has the wrong tempo.”

RL:    I’ll have to think about that, now that you’ve mentioned it.

BD:    Oh no, no, no!  If you’ve been pleased with them, then don’t let me sway you on that.

RL:    [Laughs]  Okay.

BD:    Thank you for finally coming to Chicago.  I appreciate meeting you.  It’s a very, very pleasant experience talking with you.

RL:    Thank you for asking me.  It’s wonderful to be here.  I love this city, for one thing.  I’ve seen just about everything, and I enjoyed having a chance to have a piece played in Evanston.  I hope to come back again.

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© 1993 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded at my home in Chicago on June 24, 1993.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1995 and 2000; on WNUR in 2006 and 2013, and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio in 2009.  A copy of the unedited audio was placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University.  This transcription was made in 2016, and posted on this website at that time.

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

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

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also 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.