Composer  Robert  Lombardo

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Robert Lombardo (born March 5, 1932) is the son of Sicilian immigrants. He received his BM & MM in composition from the Hartt School of Music and was awarded the PhD from the State University of Iowa. His principal composition teacher was Arnold Franchetti.

Lombardo is a prolific composer who has written more than 200 works for solo instruments, chamber ensembles, orchestra, as well as four chamber operas and a number of song cycles. His wife Kathleen [shown with the composer in the photo above] has written texts for several of his compositions. Among them: Johnny Sequel (a companion opera to Gianni Schicchi), Against Forgetting, a cantata dedicated to the Holocaust children and Aria Variata, a solo cantata for mezzo soprano and string orchestra recorded by the Czech National Symphony Orchestra, directed by Paul Freeman. The work has been issued on an Albany Records CD.

Six works of his featuring the mandolin have been performed by the mandolinist, Dimitris Marinos, including a concerto conducted by Cliff Colnot, which is also on the Albany label. He has recently completed Last Letters Home for mezzo soprano, piano and cello. He also has two other versions of this work, for mezzo soprano, string orchestra & percussion, and mezzo soprano and string quartet. Other recent works include: Concertino for piano and chamber ensemble, Snapshots & Reflections for string quartet, Largo Doloroso for string orchestra, Fantasy Variations #7&8 for Solo flute and solo viola respectively, Largo for string trio and Piccolo Concertino for mandolin & mandolin orchestra.

Lombardo has garnered many honors for his compositions. Among them: a Guggenheim Fellowship, commissions form the Serge Koussevitzky Foundation in the Library of Congress, the Fromm Foundation, and Chicago radio stations WNIB and WFMT. He is the recipient of grants from the Illinois Arts Council, the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. His compositions have been performed by numerous ensembles including the Chicago, Cincinnati and Memphis Symphony orchestras, the Fine Arts Quartet, the Chicago String Ensemble, CUBE, Ars Viva, the Pacifica Quartet, the Hilversum Radio Kamerorkest in the Netherlands, and St. Christopher’s Chamber Orchestra in Lithuania.

Lombardo holds the title of Professor Emeritus from Roosevelt University where he was Professor of Theory & Composition and Composer-in-residence from 1965 until 1999. He and his wife Kathleen have two children, Adreana and Rosalia.

==  From the composer's website  
==  Note that names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

As we were setting up to record, Lombardo was speaking about a performer who tried to edit a work to suit his purposes . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Let’s just start right there.  What do you expect out of a performer who is working on one of your pieces?

Robert Lombardo:   I expect them to give me at least 100%.  I try to give 150% in my writing of a piece, and I expect the performer to do his job.  Ideally, I would like to work with that performer, and I know that helps a lot.  For example, there’s a work that I wrote for mandolin and marimba.  This is quite a difficult piece.  I worked with both performers on it, attended rehearsals, and worked with them individually, and it paid off.

BD:   Did they come up to your expectations, and perhaps achieve perfection?

Lombardo:   [Laughs]  Perfection, I don’t know, but they got pretty close.  I just try to get within three or four percentage points of 100%.

BD:   Do you usually get that?

Lombardo:   No.

BD:   Then, are you perhaps asking too much?

Lombardo:   Could be, but I have to continue to ask for that.

BD:   In your writing a piece, are you out to make it difficult, or do you just make it what you want it to be?

Lombardo:   No, I never consciously write a piece and try to make it difficult.  I’m trying to make music, and that’s my main concern.

BD:   What, for you, is music?

Lombardo:   Oh, that’s an impossible question to answer.  The only way I can begin to answer is to have you listen to my music and see what I’m striving for... I don’t know exactly what that is!  I just try to do my best at it.  I had a very exciting teacher, Arnold Franchetti.  He was the son of Alberto Franchetti, who was an opera composer.  Cristoforo Colombo is an opera that he wrote at the time of the 400th anniversary of that voyage.  About 1888, Verdi was asked to write a piece commemorating the discovery of America, and Verdi was working on Falstaff at the time, so he said, “Why don’t you ask my good friend, Alberto Franchetti and see whether he might be interested in doing it.”

Alberto Franchetti (September 18, 1860 - August 4, 1942) was born in Turin, a Jewish nobleman of independent means. He studied first in Venice, then at the Munich Conservatory under Josef Rheinberger, and finally in Dresden under Felix Draeseke. His first major success occurred in 1888 with his opera Asrael. His operatic style combined Wagnerianism and the traits of Meyerbeer with Italian verismo. During his life, critics sometimes referred to him as the "Meyerbeer of modern Italy."

Grove considers Cristoforo Colombo (1892) Franchetti's best work. The American premiere in 1913 had Titta Ruffo in the title role, and he recorded two of the arias. However, his most popular opera was Germania (1902; libretto by Luigi Illica). It clung to the general operatic repertoire until the First World War; it was performed worldwide, and Arturo Toscanini (who conducted the work at La Scala) and Enrico Caruso held it high regard. Caruso included a few of the arias in his very first commercial recording session in 1902 and repeated one piece the following year for the Zonophone company, and two pieces with orchestra in 1910 when he appeared in a revival of the work in New York.

Arnold Franchetti Among the reasons for Franchetti's descent into obscurity is the fact that, after the promulgation of the Fascist Racial Laws of 1938, which largely disenfranchised Italy's Jewish population, Franchetti's works were banned from performance. This was despite a plea for tolerance on his behalf from Pietro Mascagni to Benito Mussolini, which was rejected, just before Franchetti's death.

His son Arnold Franchetti [photo shown at right] (1911 – March 7, 1993) became a composer after emigrating to the United States in 1949. Before coming to the US, he studied physics at the University of Florence, music at the Salzburg Mozarteum, and then moved to Munich where he studied composition and orchestration with Richard Strauss for three years. He was a member of the World War Two Italian Resistance Underground movement from 1946 to 1948.

Arnold was Professor of Composition at the Hartt School of Music, University of Hartford, Connecticut from 1950 until his retirement in 1979.

In his early work Arnold experimented with late Romantic and neoclassical styles, but he then developed what Imanuel Willheim called "a non-serial, 12-note compositional language featuring primarily diatonic motivic material". He composed music in all genres including orchestral, symphonic, chamber and solo music (including five piano sonatas, significant works that have been analyzed in multiple doctoral dissertations).

Arnold composed numerous theater works including the opera, Married Men Go to Hell (1974) and the genre-bending Dracula 1979. Another important Franchetti theatrical work is Lazarus (for narrator and symphonic wind ensemble) based on the book Soul on Ice by 1960's Black Panther activist Eldridge Cleaver.

BD:   You studied with the son, Arnold?

Lombardo:   Yes, that’s right.  He’s a very interesting man.  He studied with Richard Strauss in the
30’s, and so when I studied with Franchetti, particularly chromatic harmony, I got it essentially from the horse’s mouth, which was certainly exciting.

BD:   That’s not to say that any piece you turned out is Strauss at all?

Lombardo:   No, it has nothing to do with Strauss.  As a matter of fact, I don
t think Franchetti’s music has anything to do with Strauss, possibly with the exception of his fantasy for orchestration.  Although even there, it doesn’t sound like Strauss, but I think Strauss certainly influenced him to a certain degree.  Franchetti, being an Italian composer, stressed the lyrical the horizontal...

BD:   The vocal?

Lombardo:   ...the vocal, yes, and I learned a lot from him in that respect.  One of the things that he taught me was to write in two parts, to write two-part counterpoint.  He had a very definite regimen in which I would write a duet every week for variety of instrumental combinations.  It might be oboe and French horn, or vibraphone and bassoon, or whatever.

BD:   [With a grin]  Ocarina and heckelphone?  [The Heckelphone, introduced in 1904, is similar to an oboe, but pitched an octave lower.  The first uses of this instrument were by Strauss in Salome and Elektra, as well as An Alpine Symphony.]


For a photo and information about the ocarina, see my interview with Simon Sargon

Lombardo:   [Laughs]  We didn’t quite use that, but if I had studied with him a little longer maybe we might have pursued it.

BD:   What I’m asking is would that technique work for any kind of pairing?

Lombardo:   Probably not, but what he was getting at was to make each voice interesting, and that has carried through for me.  I hated to do this when I had to do it back then.  I hated that regimen, but I’m certainly thankful today for that, because I learned a lot about writing in two parts, and also writing counterpointally in general.

BD:   Is this what you demand of your students today?

Lombardo:   Something close to that.  I stress the need at least for me anyway to think of the orchestra as a democratic organization in which everyone participates to fullest
even the lowly snare drum, or the tuba, or the double bass.  I always say to the student, “Put yourself in the shoes of that performer, and go over that line.  Would you want to play that line?  Would you find yourself interested in that line?  I think of the tuba player who plays three or four notes in a forte passage, or at the climactic point, and then puts his instrument down and has another 300 or 400 bars where he could play a few games of solitaire before being called back to play again.  I don’t treat the instruments that way.  I never treat the instruments just for the sake of color, or use their color for the sake of color.  Franchetti always talked about shaping that color and making it an integral part of piece.  Color for the sake of color gets very boring after a while.  Listen to a piece two or three times, and at first the color is fascinating.  There are some works of George Crumb, for example, in which you say, “That’s a really interesting color.  Then, when you listen to it again, it doesn’t seem to have that excitement any more.

BD:   I assume you want your pieces to last for more than one hearing.

Lombardo:   Oh definitely, yes.  There are a lot of composers out there who for whom that one big performance is very important, and then after that, the work seems to disappear.

BD:   They move on, or after that the heck with it?

Lombardo:   Maybe so.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   How do you decide what your instrumentation will be?  I assume that most of these are for chamber groups of a small number of instruments.

Lombardo:   What I’m doing recently, or what I’ve been doing in general?

BD:   In general.

lombardo Lombardo:   Sometimes there’s a particular performer that excites me, and then I build a piece around that. It’s similar to the painter who puts down the color, and then finds another color that goes with it, and continues from there.  I make a lot of melodies to painting.  As a matter of fact, in the last couple of years I started painting, and it’s been like therapy for me.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  But, you just said you don’t use sound color for color’s sake.

Lombardo:   Yes, but oftentimes I may have an idea of what the colors might be, and then, as I start the piece, I realize it may be not a bassoon, but maybe it’s a French horn, or it’s another instrument that would work better.  When I say adding a color to a color, I always think of some kind of rhythmic shape, or some kind of profile to that color that is not just the color out there to titillate.  So, although I am fascinated with color, I don’t just treat it for the sake of color.

BD:   So, you don’t start with color, you work with color?  [Vis-a-vis the recording shown at left, see my interview with Hale Smith.]

Lombardo:   I work with color, yes.

BD:   It’s not the beginning, it’s the direction?

Lombardo:   Yes, right.

BD:   You teach and you compose.  Do you get enough time amongst all your other activities to compose?

Lombardo:   Yes.  I make time.  My situation at Roosevelt is such that I teach three days a week, and it’s mainly in the afternoon, so I still have mornings.  I don’t always have that luxury, but then I have a four-day weekend, and I have the whole summer.  So, I have quite a lot of time.  I try, as much as possible, to put in two to three hours a day.

BD:   Whether you have ideas or not?

Lombardo:   Ideas or not, yes.  Sometimes, it goes four hours, but I can’t go longer than that.  Sometimes, I break up my time, so in the afternoon I might do orchestration, but to stay with composition more than that is too enervating.  I find that I don’t have any more energy after three or four hours.

BD:   It’s good that you would recognize your own capacity.  You can put it aside and come back to it the next day?

Lombardo:   Oh, sure.  I tell my students that even if they only have twenty minutes a day to write, the thing is to find those golden twenty minutes and do it no matter what, with no interruptions.  Even if nothing happens, at least you’re turning the wheels.  Then, all of a sudden, something will happen.  It’s frustrating sometimes.  I know.  I’ve been there.  Sometimes two or three months might go by with nothing happening, and sometimes I just leave it and not do anything.  Although, if I’m working intensely on a piece, I know that there might be two or three days when things had to go in.  But sometimes there is that dry period, and I just put the whole thing aside.

BD:   Do you go to another piece, or do you put everything aside?

Lombardo:   More often than not I will see a piece through before starting another piece.  Or, if I start another piece and I realize there’s nothing there at the time, I just stop and don’t pursue it.  But I try to see a piece through if possible.  It’s very rare that I have started a piece and dropped it and never gone back to it again.  I did that once with an opera.  It was my first attempt at an opera, and it was the first work for the stage that I attempted.  It was just too large an undertaking, and I realized that I should start with a smaller chamber opera.  My wife has been my chief collaborator.  As a matter of fact, at the time that I met her, she showed me a poem that she had, and I set it to music.  I noticed that there was a contest for songs, so I sent it in and a few months later we were married and we went to Italy.  At that time I received a telegram that it won first prize.  So, I thought that she was a wonderful woman.  [Both laugh]

BD:   You have collaborated ever since?

Lombardo:   Ever since, yes.  We’ve done a lot
three or four chamber operas, and several song cycles.  She is really a great, great poet and librettist.  It takes a very unusual person to write good librettos.  There is a special technique for it.  The one thing she told me at the beginning was that she was writing too many words, and she found that by stripping it more bare that it would be more effective for the composer to work with.  She said that she supplies the bare bones, and the composer supplies the adjectives and adverbs.  I thought that was a nice way of putting it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   While you’re working on a piece and you’re tinkering with it, when you come to the end you go back and you fix little things.  How do you know when to put the pen down and say that it’s done?

Lombardo:   That’s the difficult question.  For me, I just feel there’s nothing else I can do with it.  There’s a certain point at which it gets dangerous, when one goes back and starts fooling with the piece.  It just feels balanced, it just feels right.  For me, it’s a purely instinctive thing.  Maybe for someone else it’s more of an intellectual thing, but I trust my instinct to a great extent in writing.  I’ve never been the one to calculate to any great extent, although when I started teaching I had to start articulating things which were instinctive.  I remember the fear and trepidation I had in my first year or two of teaching when my students would ask, “Why did you put that E-flat there?”  I felt that I had to answer, and then I realized it was simply because I liked it.

BD:   Is this what distinguishes one composer from another
the feelings that go into putting each note on the page?

Lombardo:   Yes, I would say that’s part of it.

BD:   What’s another part of it?

lombardo Lombardo:   I suppose their background to a great extent.  My background is Sicilian, and my composition teacher was Italian, so he awakened a lot of things in me about my own background.  I started delving into the folk music of Sicily, and I found that it was a language that I could work with.  Recently I found that I had left that for a while and I came back to it, and I came back a little bit differently now.  Recently I wrote a piece for mandolin and marimba in which I used an ersatz Sicilian folk tune.  I incorporated that with a row of twenty-eight notes that I kept repeating throughout the piece in different ways
sometimes vertically, sometimes horizontallyjuxtaposing it to this folk tune, and trying to reconcile both ideas.  It was a really interesting project, and I find that I’m doing more of this kind of thingbringing together seemingly disparate ideas and trying to make them work together.

BD:   Like the two-part piece you worked on earlier?

Lombardo:   Yes, that’s right.  Perhaps much in the same way as when two actors are on stage who are so diametrically opposed in terms of personality  and character, and they have to communicate.

BD:   Are you then finding the yin and yang of each one to fit together?

Lombardo:   I suppose one could characterize it that way, but I find it fascinating doing that.  I give these kinds of projects to some students and say, “You’ve got this idea, so work with another idea that seemingly is the opposite, and see if you can make them work together.”  Sometimes they may not work together, but in trying to make them work together, you learn an awful lot about composition.

BD:   They learn what works and what doesn’t?

Lombardo:   Yes, what works and what doesn’t work.  There’s another piece that I wrote recently for a mandolin player, who is an outstanding performer.  When I first met him, he came into a composition lesson and he had a mandolin under his arm.  I said, “I’ve never heard this instrument live.  Play me a piece,” and he played me a twelve-tone piece on the mandolin.  I was just bowled over.  It just knocked me out.  So, I went home and started working on a piece for him, and two weeks later I had this piece that I called Contrasti.  That was a piece with two ideas.  He performed that piece, and he asked me for another piece.  I wasn’t too keen on doing it right away, but I said I would think about expanding this piece to include a percussion instrument, and I thought of using a marimba.  Actually, I kept the whole piece as I had written it for him, and then, at the very end, on the last note, I had the marimba pick up the same pitch and continue.  Then, the marimba plays for a little while, and then the mandolin re-enters and it becomes a duet to the end, for the next four or five minutes.  He’s such an incredible performer that I think he’s going to go places.  He is playing in New York in April at an electronic music conference.  Notables will be there, and he’s performing a piece by a student from Northwestern.  That’s a big break for him.

BD:   Is he going to make the mandolin a recognized solo instrument?

Lombardo:   I think so.  I just can’t say enough about him.  He’s such a great talent.

BD:   You have said quite a bit by simply giving your time to write pieces for him!

Lombardo:   Yes.  There’s another piece called Sicilian Lullaby & Cadenza, in which I took an actual Sicilian folk tune.  I have recordings of Sicilian music.  There is a whole series on countries, and this one is on Sicily, and there’s one tune that really captured for me the essence of the Sicilian music.  What I’ve done is to start with the actual recording of a man playing guitar and singing this tune.  At the very end, I have the mandolin enter, and in a sense play a cadenza on the material that has just been played as a folk tune.  Then, at the very end I have the mandolin tremolo on the dominant in the top register, and the recording comes back in again to conclude the piece.  I hope it works.  I’m taking a little risk here, but taking risks is very important.  In a lecture I give to my students, I say that if you don’t take risks, you’re not going to go anyplace.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  It
s good to see that you follow your own advice.

Lombardo:   Yes.  [Both laugh]

BD:   Let’s talk a little bit about the teaching of music.  You’ve been doing this for a while, so how has the teaching of composition changed over a few years, if at all?

Lombardo:   When I first started teaching, I found that students would take more risks.  This was in the middle
60s.  For those ten years or so, I had students who were more interested in doing something a little bit different than what had been done.  But I have found that lately there is a tremendous conservative approach.

BD:   Were you trying to shake them up a little bit?

Lombardo:   A little bit.  I stress the point for them to try this, or try that.  If they’re comfortable with this, then try something else.  If they’re comfortable with A, try B.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  Can music not come out of something you’re comfortable with?

Lombardo:   Yes, it certainly can, but if you’re always comfortable with what you’re doing, there’s a tendency not to explore or deepen one’s writing.  Of course, there are exceptions.  I do have a couple of very talented students right now who are exploring different avenues, and it
s exciting to change things around a bit.  But it is a problem, and I find a lot of what’s going on today kind of interesting.  The urge to go backwards, and the nostalgia elements seem to have become all pervasive now for many people.

BD:   Can an outside force, such as the turmoil of the
60s really have a major impact on how an individual creates?

Lombardo:   That, I don’t know.  I don’t know if it was the mood of the country, but in the
60s there seemed to beat least my recollectionso much more experimentation.  It’s curious today, this movement back to quotations.  Although, of course, this has been done before, this seems to be being done so much more today.  I just wonder what’s happened to the personality of the composer when they do this.  I’ve done quotations, but just maybe 1% or 2%, something like that.  Im thinking of Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles, where there’s such a tremendous amount of quotations of various composers.

lombardo BD:   [Again, gently protesting]  But, even major composers such as Shostakovich have used quotations.

Lombardo:   Yes, of course, even Mahler and so on.  But, with these composers there was a very strong personality.

BD:   It looks like what you’re asking is to prove your credentials before using that technique.

Lombardo:   Yes.  My composition teacher used to call so many composers of the time
the international anonymous avant-garde.  It’s true!  How many composers can you listen to and identify as being that composer?  It’s getting harder and harder.

BD:   Is this something that time will sift out?

Lombardo:   Possibly, but I don’t think there are many composers out there who really have a voice of their own.  It’s not an easy thing.  I spent an awfully long time trying to find a voice of my own.  I was heavily under the influence of my composition teacher who had an extremely strong personality.  It took me a long time to cut that cord, and I know it’s extremely difficult for students today to try to find a voice.  I tell them it may take fifteen or even twenty years for them to do it, and they get discouraged.  They copy somebody, which is a natural thing to do.  I was excited about certain composers.  For a while, I was fascinated with Lutosłowski.  Berg has always been my spiritual father, and I still feel a strong affinity with that composer.

BD:   Does it please you that Berg is now being more widely accepted, especially here in the United States?

Lombardo:   Yes.  He was a great talent.  He’s the composer who humanized the twelve-tone system.  He found a way of really communicating with that language, more so than Schoenberg.

BD:   Do you encourage your students to study Berg as much as possible?

Lombardo:   I tell them he was an individual who took the technique and made it work.  In the
50s, when the twelve-tone system was codified, a lot of students jumped on that bandwagon because it was easy.  It was easy to take the twelve notes and work out these formulas and just work with those notes.  They didn’t have to really find their notes.  They were already there for them.

BD:   That sounds like it was just a mathematical system.

Lombardo:   Yes, to a great extent it was.  There were composers who did make it work, but they found loopholes and ways of making it work.  That’s the trick.  You can’t let the system control you.  That’s what happened with a lot of these people.  Their music was very dry, and very anonymous, you couldn’t tell one person from another.

BD:   If a piece of music works, is it necessary to be able to tell it from another piece, or another composer?

Lombardo:   If a piece works, that’s fine, but I want that fringe benefit of people saying,
“That’s a good piece, and it’s by Lombardo.  [Laughs]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of music?

Lombardo:   It’s certainly a rough time for music, but something will come out of all this.  It’s a very, very difficult period for all the arts, not just music.

BD:   But you keep working at it?

Lombardo:   Sure.  I keep working at it more than ever.  I know that there are a lot of composers who write one way one year, and another way another year.  Either they jump on a bandwagon, or they just move to some other area and try that out, and then they try something else.  So, in a sense they become amateurs with a new system because they’re just learning about it.  I guess it’s fine, but I’ve tried to follow a certain line in my own writing, to try to develop what language I have, to deepen it rather than to just go running off to something else.

lombardo BD:   As you hit your 60th birthday, are you where you expected to be?

Lombardo:   It’s very hard to answer.  I don’t know if I’m the one to make an assessment like that, but I feel good about what I’m writing now.  Whenever I finish a piece, I say that I can’t do anything else, but I do, and that’s kind of a miracle.  There always seems to be some little thing that I might just start exploring in another piece... let me try this and see what happens.  The music or the things that have influenced me have been Italian folk music, painting, and the texts that my wife has given me to set.  When I first met her, a lot of my music was rather slow and brooding.  It had that Sicilian brooding, that dark side, which I associate with the Sicilian culture.  My wife’s texts were quite optimistic, and joyful, and funny.  It’s just something about her character that there’s a certain optimism which pervades her work, and that has, to a great extent, changed the way I look at music.

BD:   Has it also changed the way you look at life?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with M. William Karlins, and Alan Stout.]

Lombardo:   Oh, I think so, yes.  [Laughs]

BD:   Let
s go back to the very beginning.  How did you get started in music?

Lombardo:   [Laughs]  I started by studying the clarinet when I was about fourteen.

BD:   Isn’t that awfully late to start?

Lombardo:   Yes, it’s late, but I wasn’t thinking of it as a lifelong pursuit.  In the neighborhood I lived, there was someone playing violin on the porch, and there was somebody else playing piano next door.  I thought, “Gee, it would be nice to play an instrument,” so I started out with a metal clarinet.

BD:   The one-piece instrument?

Lombardo:   Yes, so terrible!  My parents were saints to have me play an instrument around the house.  After a while, my parents bought me a better instrument when they saw that I was getting serious about it.  Then, in my senior year in high school, I punctured my lung.  It was one of those things that just happened internally.  I distinctly remember that I was playing a tenor sax solo in a tune called Benny’s Bugle.  I just felt this pain, and I collapsed on stage.  When I came to, all these people looking at me, so I got up and ran out of the building, and I collapsed again.  They took me to the hospital, and they finally determined what it was.  I had to stay in bed for six weeks, and it healed up by itself, but that was the end of my clarinet playing.  I had been intent on going to the Hartt College of Music at the University of Hartford as a clarinet major, and I still wanted to go into music.  I had written a couple of little trios in the style of Mozart, and I tried to persuade my parents to let me go to school as a composition major.  They weren’t too happy about my going into music at all.

BD:   They want you to get a job?

Lombardo:   Yes.  Both my brother and sister are older, and they were in mathematics and physics.  I was the one going into music, and that didn’t sit very well.  My parents, being immigrants, wanted me to find something substantial to make something of myself.  My father was a bricklayer, and I remember him saying to me, “I make a fireplace with my bricks, and I’ve got something.  What do you do with your notes?  What happens when you put your notes together?”

BD:   Then let me ask the question.  What happens when you put your notes together?  What have you got?  What do you feel you have done?

Lombardo:   [Thinks a moment]  When I start writing and I start working with pitches, I try to make some sense out of this chaos.  I try to put ideas together and make them balanced in some way, and make some kind of a statement.  What that statement is, I don’t know, but it’s something that pleases me.  I hope I can reach the point with a piece where it pleases me.

BD:   Can we assume that if it pleases you, then it will please at least some of an audience?

Lombardo:   That’s my hope.  It’s got to please me first, obviously.  I write for myself first of all, and hope that it reaches some people.  If it doesn’t reach anybody, I don’t think it’s successful.

BD:   Obviously, most of your pieces have reached an audience.

Lombardo:   Maybe a limited one, but I think they reached an audience.  At least, I’d like to think that they did.

BD:   Do you feel that you’re part of a lineage of composers?

Lombardo:   In terms of having communicated with an audience?

BD:   That, and in terms of stylistic traits.

Lombardo:   I’m not sure where my music fits in in that lineage.  I haven’t thought much about that.

BD:   Your music does not seem way out in left field someplace.

Lombardo:   No.  When describing music I would say it’s lyrical, and it’s not cerebral by any thought.  I have to leave it up to somebody else to try to describe where it would fit in.

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BD:   We
ve talked about the techniques of composing, so lets come back to the techniques of teaching.

lombardo Lombardo:   When I first came to Roosevelt, I was wondering how I would go about teaching the Beginning Composition class.  The idea that came to me was to strip music down to its bare bones, and just work with rhythm.  I had the students work with non-pitched percussion instruments, and we talked about what ways there would be to organize them.  They might be bongos, woodblocks, etc., and how they would punctuate them.  We looked for the syntax, and how they could relate it to grammar somehow.  Were there ways that they can put a comma in here, or period there, or an exclamation point, and gradually they found ways of shaping just rhythms.  In class I gave them various projects.  I might give them a rhythmic line and ask them to extend it, or ask them to write a line against that.  We played these pieces in class.  They would participate that way, and they got their first performances right in class.  It’s good to get this instant feedback, and to have comments by the students and myself.  In this regard, I think it was very helpful.  It went from there to having them write a couple of pieces for narrator and percussion instruments.  I would have them pick out a text that might be a few lines in the newspaper, or maybe something by e e cummings.  That would help them to shape the piece in terms of the structure.  From there, I would bring in a couple of gamelan instruments that I made.  That way, they would start off with a scale that was not a western scale, not a major/minor scale, nor a twelve-tone scale that they were familiar with.  That way they would have no predisposition as to how these notes would be put together.  I would present this five-note scale to them, and have them write something for those pitches.  I found that very interesting, because they would sit down with a guitar, or a small metallophone that I put on reserve, and they would take the instruments out during the week and become familiar with the sounds, and start writing for them, plus a couple of the other percussion instruments.

BD:   Did all of these experiments that you were doing in class get the results that you expected or wanted?

Lombardo:   Yes.  I was very happy with it.  It loosened them up, some of the pieces that came out were remarkable.  I was really delighted.  Then from there, we started working with Western twelve-tone scales, and then we started talking about different types of pitch organization, not forgetting all the things that we talked about in terms of rhythm.  That’s the way we started that class.

BD:   Do you still use that technique?

Lombardo:   I still use it.  I’ve been teaching this way for the last twenty-six or twenty-seven years, and it seems to work.  They have the first semester in this class, and then from there we go to private lessons.  It’s important to have the students hear these pieces, because oftentimes it’s so abstract to talk about something if they’re not hearing it.  I don’t think that’s very helpful.  We do the same thing in the orchestration class.

BD:   I assume that when you’re writing your own pieces, you would know what it sounds like, and there are no surprises, or very few surprises.

Lombardo:   Oh, there are surprises, yes.  I think of this wonderful analogy...  Ezra Pound was asked about translations of oriental text.  He worked with Japanese and Chinese texts, and someone asked, “How do you compare the translation of a poem to the original?” and he said, “It’s like flipping over the wrong side of an oriental rug, and seeing the original and how bright the colors are.”  The same thing happens in writing a large chamber work, or an orchestra work.  You have a good idea of what it sounds like, but then when it’s performed, it suddenly comes to life, and you hear everything.

BD:   Is composing fun?

Lombardo:   To a great extent.  Lots of times it’s very hard, and very difficult, and not much fun at all.  But the enjoyment outweighs the more difficult aspects of it.

BD:   So, in the end it’s rewarding?

Lombardo:   Oh yes, but it’s very lonely.  Doing any art is very lonely to a great extent.  You’re cut off from the outside world, and you just work through it.  You spend so much time thinking about it.  It’s not just those two or three hours that one spends writing, but it carries out to the day to a great extent.  It’s difficult to turn off that process.  You’re out with people sometimes, and these songs are going through your head.  You may be thinking about what happens if I do this or do that, while someone is talking to you.

BD:   Do you wish they’d quit talking so you can get back to your ideas?

Lombardo:   Sometimes.

BD:   Does this mean you always have music going on in your head?

Lombardo:   To a great extent, yes.  I’m on sabbatical now, and my project is to write a chamber opera.  My wife is starting to write a libretto for me, and it’s going to be a sequel to Gianni Schicchi called Johnny Sequel.  [Both laugh]  It takes place in the Twentieth Century.  I don’t know exactly how it’s going to be handled yet, but or probably there will be some of the same characters.

BD:   Are you going to stick it to the legal profession?

Lombardo:   I can’t tell you that right now.  I would say that it’s going to be dealing with greed in the Twentieth Century.

BD:   Very fertile ground!

Lombardo:   Very, very fertile ground.  [Laughs]

BD:   I wish you lots of success.

Lombardo:   Thank you very much.

BD:   Thank you for coming by for this conversation.

Lombardo:   I enjoyed it very much.

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© 1992 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago in January of 1992.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB the following March.  This transcription was made in 2020, 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.