Composer Ruth Lomon
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
"Lomon's musical language is a
model of coherence...[with] elegant imagination, subtle craft, and an
unfailing sense of apt sonority."
(Mel Powell, composer)
[To read my Interview with Mel Powell, click HERE
Born in Montreal, Ruth Lomon lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts
and Los Alamos, New Mexico. Her interest in Native American ceremonials
has been a catalyst for much of her music. She attended McGill
University, the Conservatoire in Montreal, and New England
Conservatory. She has also had residencies at various artist colonies
including Yaddo and the MacDowell Colony, and was a fellow at the
Bunting Institute at Radcliffe in 1995. She has received grants and
commissions from the Massachusetts Council on the Arts, NEA and the New
England Foundation on the Arts. Her symphonic works have been performed
by the Warsaw National Symphony and the Prague Radio Symphony
Orchestra. She has also had performances by Dinosaur Annex, Alea II and
Coro Allegro in Boston as well as the Cube in Chicago and the Helios
Quartet in New Mexico. A current project is a concerto for the 35th
anniversary of the Pro Arte Orchestra for Charles Schlueter, first
chair trumpet with the Boston Symphony.
In anticipation of doing a program on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago for
her 60th birthday, I arranged to
call Ruth Lomon in August of 1990 for an interview. She was in
New Mexico at the time, and we had a lovely chat about many musical
topics. When I dialed the phone, she picked up and seemed pleased
that I was precisely on time . . . . . . .
Ruth Lomon: Hello.
Bruce Duffie: May I speak
with Ruth Lomon, please?
it’s ten o’clock. It must be Bruce
BD: We radio
people are so accurate... [Both laugh]
RL: It’s good
that we can depend on
BD: [With a
sly nudge] You mean to say that music is not dependable
RL: I think
it’s up for grabs. I’m sure I’m
not at all aware of what might happen.
BD: Well, let
just start right there. Since we’re going to be talking about all
things musical and peripheral to music, regarding dependability, is
there anything that an audience can really depend on
as far as a composer who is writing today?
RL: With a
you might be able to depend upon some stylistic things that you will
find in the music. But I don’t think that you can depend upon
music as it would have been in Mozart’s and Haydn’s time, that the
gestalt will be pretty clear. On the other
hand, it’s a time when things are opening up very much,
and that there are fewer “isms.” That’s part of the
fun now in going to concerts.
BD: Is it the
responsibility of the public to
learn the new languages, or is it the responsibility of the composers
to make sure that their languages can be understood?
RL: It would
be very nice to think that we met
in the middle, that there was a little give on each
side. [Both laugh] I don’t think it’s necessary for an
audience to sit
there and say, “Entertain me!” You should be
receptive, you should be willing to be enthusiastic about
something new, to expect something new. It’s like
opening a new book. It is to me, anyway. I love going to
new music. You just don’t know what you might hear that will be
BD: So then
it’s the thrill of discovery for
mention the word entertainment. In
music in general, or your music specifically, where is the balance
between an artistic achievement and an entertainment value?
personally, I certainly strive to be getting something across to an
audience, something that I want to say. I think
the word “entertainment” might not be quite right, but hopefully I will
have touched them in some way where there will
be some emotional response.
BD: Do you
find that this happens in most of your
RL: Yes, I
would say that people have an emotional
BD: I assume that
you have the first emotional
response to the music that you have written?
RL: I hope
I’m having it while I’m writing
about writing music, I assume the ideas for compositions
are always floating around in your head?
BD: How do
you sort out which ones will go in which
RL: That’s a
very good question. It has a
lot to do with the commissions that come up, so that often dictates the
mood, and certainly dictates the instrumentation.
BD: When you
get a commission, how
do you decide if you are going to accept it, or perhaps postpone
it, or even turn it down?
general I try to take the commissions that come my way because
they’re challenges. It keeps me a little breathless at times, but
enjoy the challenge of working with people. This commission that
I have at the moment, writing the music for the Thurber
play Many Moons, has been an
incredible challenge. I didn’t
realize when I took the commission that it would be so challenging, and
for a while it was difficult for me to get those ideas that you were
talking about... not that I didn’t have plenty of musical ideas
that went with the characters and the piece, but it was a while
before things settled down. Who would be my orchestra, for
instance? What would be the numbers?
BD: Oh, the
size and distribution of the orchestra?
RL: Yes, and
whether there would be actors, or if it was just going to be narrated
by one person, or whether the
other parts would be read, too. It took a couple of months
for everything to be decided, and so it took longer for me to get into
that inner stream of musical gesture that usually goes with the
beginning of a new piece.
BD: I assume
that now you have gotten
RL: Oh, yes,
very definitely! I’m in the home stretch.
BD: When you
start a piece, do you know
where it’s going to wind up?
Generally, yes. I usually have a very clear
gestalt in my head before I
start working on a piece. This was
not true with the piece that I’m talking about, Many Moons, but in
general, yes. Even if it turns out to be different from my first
idea, nevertheless I work from something that is quite
definite, and this helps me very much. If it turns out
differently, that’s perfectly all right, but at least I’m working
against that pattern and at least it’s
motivating the material.
BD: You say
that if it turns out a different way,
that’s all right. Are you making it turn out that way, or is it
turning out that way of its own accord?
of its own accord, especially in lengths of pieces. I’m thinking
in particular of my
piece Five Ceremonial Masks,
which is based on
five masks from the Yeibichai dance ceremonies. This is a
and health-giving ceremony. The middle movement on that is
called Spirit, and is done
entirely inside the piano. That
turned out quite surprisingly from this point of view. I had
thought it was about half the length that it was, but when you’re
working inside the piano, sometimes it takes much
longer for the sound to decay and die. Working in this way, the
became much longer than I had at first anticipated it would be.
BD: But it
didn’t wind up being too long?
RL: I hope it
isn’t too long! [Both laugh] It doesn’t seem too long to me.
you’re working inside
the piano, does that require a harp technique?
Yes. Some of it is using the thumb
and the fingers directly on the strings sort of the plucking motion,
and sometimes it’s more of a strumming motion.
Sometimes I use a plectrum, and the thing I use
most often is harmonics.
BD: Are all
the techniques are
explained in the score?
Yes. There’s always a recipe page in the
BD: So an
ordinary pianist, who may never
have placed his or her hands on the strings or the dampers before,
could play the piece?
RL: Yes, but
people are very wary of moving inside
the piano, unless they’ve been given permission and had it explained to
them. I find people are very wary. I played for many years,
professionally, as part of a two-piano team with my partner, Iris
Graffman Wenglin, and a couple of pieces that I had written are
specifically for us. One is called Soundings for piano four hands, and
Triptych for Two Pianos.
At that time I was doing quite a bit
of writing inside the piano, and she was very loathe to get up and down
and into the piano. Pianists are usually wedded to the
piano bench, and they’re very reluctant to move off it.
BD: Then why
do you demand that the pianist get off
the bench? Are the possibilities from the keyboard just
insufficient? [I meant the need
for interior techniques as additional tonal colors, but she interpreted
my question as being about the ability to play inside the piano while
seated on the bench.]
Yes. In general, if you’re just leaning into the piano that
way, unless it’s in the deep bass where you can work around the side of
the piano. Otherwise you’re coming into the pin block, and then
you come into it just at the
small ends of the strings, so that there’s very little sound
there. You wouldn’t be able to work on the harmonics,
see. So, you’ve got to get out of the
chair and go around?
speaking, unless you’re very
tall and have long arms. I was very fortunate when Rosemary Platt
was recording the Ceremonial Masks.
[See photo at right] She
hardly had to move
because she’s a tall woman with long arms, and she was able to
manage. She still had to get up, but a lot of it she could do
BD: Is there
a possibility that you might
eventually demand piano four hands, with two on the keyboard and two
the guts of the piano?
RL: As a
matter of fact, parts of this duet
that I had written for us is done that way. One person is up and
one person is down for part of it. But I haven’t been writing
very much that way these days. A couple of years ago I got a
commission from Dinosaur Annex, which is a new music group in the
Boston area, a very good group, and they had asked specifically for
something with live electronics because they were doing that kind of a
program. So I got my feet wet for the first time with the
electronic music and enjoyed it very much. Of course, you can do
so much more! When you program electronic sounds to the best of
ability, it’s much less iffy than working inside the
piano because of the poor pianist! Every time the
pianist opens the lid of a piano, they’re faced with something a little
different depending upon the model and the make. I just found it
very satisfying, and I’d like to do more in electronic
music. I programmed seven sounds for that particular
piece, and used them in conjunction with the live instruments of the
BD: Are these
sounds that you heard and tried to
duplicate, or are these sounds you discovered and held on to?
RL: They were
sounds that I wanted. It’s a little bit like asking whether it
was the chicken or
the egg that came first. I was looking for new sounds to work
I’ve never been interesting in duplicating instrumental sounds.
That’s never been my bag, but I got some sounds which, for me,
were satisfying. One of them was like a descending staccato sound
that was almost like the sound of dripping, but going the full
length of the sound spectrum. Another one was a falling sound,
and I had a good
space voice sound.
BD: When you
discover something like
this, do you think you must use it in this piece, or could you, maybe,
save it and use it in another piece?
RL: As a
matter of fact, in this piece, Many
Moons, I’m using a couple of the sounds that I had
programmed. One is a
general harpsichord sound, the grand harpsichord with
doublings. That’s a commercial sound, but we can’t afford
to hire a harpsichordist, so my DX-7 is going to come to the
BD: Just as
we have the virtuoso
pianists and oboists and violinists, are we going to get virtuoso
players are very perceptive, and they have a wide range of coloration
for the notes. They can add vibrato, and not only can they can
parameters to pedals, but they also have something called the breath
control, which you plug in and your breathing can effect one of the
parameters. It might be the vibration or it might be
the crescendos and diminuendos, but there are many possibilities and
many shadings in the touch, too. The notes can be
made touch sensitive.
BD: So we’ve
moved away from purely electronic
sounds to where the electronics are responsive to the live performer?
RL: I think
that’s the big interest, especially
at a place like MIT where they’re making these very sensitive
instruments that are able to be controlled by the computer, and in
turn they give so much information to the computer. But the
electronics that I do is very crude. I’m
not in that league.
crudeness, I assume, is
just the lack of detailed technical ability?
BD: Does your
piece of music today have to have
this immense technical facility, or can it be just the way you hear it,
and have you manipulate it the way you want it now?
it’s got to be that way because I can’t do
it! [Laughs] If I don’t have the information, I can’t use
BD: So then,
you’re constantly learning?
that’s right. And that, of course, is
wonderful. That’s a great joy.
BD: I trust
that you don’t write music that’s complicated just to be
RL: Oh, I
hope not. As a matter of
fact, the challenge that I accept every day is to try to
be more simple and more precise in what I’m trying to say. To
end I’ve been very much helped in my enormous interest and long love
affair with the Native American music and folklore, the designs,
the patterns, the dances. It’s all part and parcel of
the life. There’s not so much separation between
one art form and another. I find this very inspiring because I
it touches me at a special level. It’s just like you’re saying,
to try to
be simple and not to make things complicated for the sake of being
complicated. It’s not that I even tried to write music that
in any way sounds like Indian music, but it sets the imagination free
and has you looking inside. The response to these things is part
of the collective unconscious. You come in contact with a real
kaleidoscope of images and
fragments of your own personal-ness. I don’t mean it in
a biographical sense, but what you think of as your self,
which isn’t necessarily a truth.
BD: Do you
find when you
write using these Native American ideas that the Native Americans who
have grown up with them respond, perhaps, particularly well to your
been very encouraging, and they
like to see this happening. But again, I
don’t even know if you’d be aware of it; perhaps in a piece like Imprints, which
I wrote after having been invited to a peyote ceremony. I was
moved by the whole ceremony. It was very beautiful and deeply
religious, and I’d never heard such fast drumming. They used the
water drums, and these drums they tune with their tongue so they can
vary the pitch as much as an octave. They use gourds and the
particularly the drums. Each person sings their personal
song — not each person, but anyone who wishes can sing their personal
song. It was a very moving experience. After that I wrote
this piece. It’s
a piano concerto for piano with four percussion players using a whole
battery of percussion! It’s
something just to see the set-up for the piece. It
has a life of
its own because it’s very colorful and has a lot of
imagery in it. It’s a sunny piece. Not all my music is
Native American performers be
at all able to perform that music, or is that something that
takes a western-trained musician?
This would certainly take a
western-trained musician. What
I’m trying to say is that what it touches in me is something that’s in
the imagination, and it’s in how I’m responding, but it doesn’t mean
it’s coming out in any way like their music.
BD: So it’s
their sounds that let your
BD: And then
that through all of your experiences?
right. That would be very well put. That little spark that
starts everything up, that is the embryo. Sometimes things just
seem to generate very rapidly out of
one small idea or one small gesture. It will bring it to the
conscious level. I tend to think of my music as a river, and that
it’s going on. My music helps to unify all the parts of me, and I
often think of it that way. It’s as if you’re coming in
at one point of the river. To give you an example of what I mean,
from one piece to another, there’s usually some carrying thread from
the last piece; something that isn’t
completely dealt with, something that I don’t really feel that I have
finished. It might be a rhythmic motif, some sort of a gesture
that I’ve been working with and want to clarify more, or it could be
harmonic configuration that I want to develop
more. Or it might be a plane that’s starting to open up, and the
this will continue into another piece, even though it’s disparate
instrumental combination, that on the one level
wouldn’t seem to have anything to do with what’s been going
ahead. It’s that kind of continuity that makes it
very easy for me to continue working from piece to piece. What
makes it hard for me is when I have breaks when I can’t get to compose,
when there are just other things that have to be done.
BD: What else
is it that you involve yourself
with — is this teaching music?
RL: Yes, and
also just the work of getting
scores corrected and out, and getting things ready for publication or
recording, or another concert coming up. They’re all
things that demand care and attention, so you can’t always be writing.
BD: Then do
you get enough time to compose?
RL: Now I do,
yes. For many
years the answer would certainly have been no — while
I was bringing up
my family, and had other family cares. But now, yes.
BD: You get
so many of your ideas in the southwest, where you are right now as we
do this conversation,
but you spend much of your year up in the northeast.
RL: Oh, yes,
BD: Does this
make you at all schizophrenic?
[Laughs] I guess, perhaps, anybody who
writes music has to be a little crazy. [Both laugh] I had a
commission for an
organ piece, and a relative of mine said, “Aren’t there enough
organ pieces already?” [Both laugh] The idea of something
new being written for the
organ seemed very strange to him.
BD: This idea
occurs seems to a lot of regular concert goers — that there
is already enough
symphonic music and chamber music and piano music already
written, so why do we need something new?
RL: But there
are just so many new
combinations of events and so many people eager to express
themselves. I think that’s very healthy. It’s always a
sense of how
good times may be when there is a lot of producing of music and art
BD: Is there
a chance that colleges and universities are turning out too many young
RL: I don’t
think one has to worry about that
because they’ll either survive or go into something else. There’s
a natural atrophy. People who start out
thinking they’ll be composers realize the kind of dedication that is
the rewards, in most cases, are not all that great. So you have
to love it, and if you want to do it, you’ll do it. No one’s
going to tell you not to do it.
BD: It really
has to be a cause?
RL: I think
advice do you have for a young
composer coming along?
important to take all
the opportunities that come your way so that you can hone your craft,
and to write for any combination of instruments that you have a chance
of getting a performance. For young people
particularly, it’s very important for them to hear their music, and
that is a great reality testing. Hearing it will let you
know. You learn so much from every performance,
BD; Are you
ever surprised by what you hear when
people are performing works with your name on them?
RL: Yes, and
sometimes not favorably. I’ve just had
a string quartet that was performed here this spring, and I couldn’t
believe that I wrote the piece!
BD: Did you
have a chat with the
players and set them straight?
they had sent me a tape prior to
the first performance. To give you an example of how careful one
must be in scoring notation, this piece had a direct quotation from a
theme of Geronimo. It was his own song, and it came back in a
little thread through the piece. I thought it was
helping the performers by writing “Geronimo”
above each quotation of this
little theme. You can imagine my enormous surprise when I was
listening to the take they sent me, and the first violinist cried out,
“GERONIMO!” as he played the first entrance of the
theme. [Both laugh] He thought that because it was written
out, that it
was meant for the performer to say it out.
BD: Play it
like a war cry going down on the white
Exactly. So I’m awfully glad I heard the tape before
the performance! But you can imagine the shock that I had.
question around. Are there times that performers find little
brilliances in your score that you didn’t
even know you’d hidden there?
RL: Yes, I
think that’s quite possible,
especially in the piano music. Having been a
pianist, I probably write with most skill for the piano. It’s my
great ease to write for the piano, so
perhaps there’s more flexibility in what the pianist can do with the
you are both a fine performer and a composer,
are you the ideal interpreter of the music you write for your
RL: By no
means. By no means! As a matter
of fact, I’m always hesitant to play my own pieces for this
reason. My inner clock is entirely different when I’m playing as
opposed to what I’m hearing in my head in my own music. I don’t
why this is so. Maybe I get very excited, but I think that the
idea has certainly gotten across because it has for me, so I don’t
allow enough pause; I don’t allow enough time between ideas,
between statements, enough decay for a harmonic progression. It’s
very strange, but when I’m working on a piece of my own I
have to work particularly for this. I don’t allow enough time for
the listener to absorb the gestalt.
BD: Is it
possible for you to approach a piece that
you wrote a few years ago as though it were a piece by anybody
yes. I have to. You
talked about schizophrenia before. This is something I have to
always do. I have to divorce myself entirely from the piece, or I
would be re-writing it.
performer in you is screaming at the
composer in you?
right! [Laughs] I don’t perform very much anymore
guess the reason that I would give is that it takes me so long.
If I were a fast study it would be different, but particularly with my
own music, I can write so much in the time that it takes me to work on
BD: One last
question about performing. When you were playing the piano
regularly, were you a better
interpreter of other people’s music because you are also a superb
composer in your own right?
that’s a loaded question! Let me put
it this way — there were always the composers
that I particularly
enjoyed playing because of the construction of the music, and from that
point of view I’ve always been very, very happy playing Bach. I
really, I really enjoy playing Bach! It’s
such a play of ideas and the working out of it. It’s so
satisfying on so many levels — intellectually,
even physically getting your fingers into the keys. It’s
BD: Does that
have an influence, then, when you
are writing your next piece for the piano?
RL: No, I
don’t think so. I don’t think that I would say that. At
least I’m not conscious of it, but there are many things that
feed into what one does and one really isn’t all that conscious of
it. For instance, I’ve been quite influenced by
Cage, and yet, certainly not by anything that he’s written,
particularly. [See my Interview with John Cage.]
BD: You mean
none of his musical writings?
right, but certainly his philosophy has permeated many of the new works
not only of myself. There’s a freeing in what he has to
say. Whether you
do follow what he says or not, he makes sense.
BD: Do you
feel that you are part of a
lineage of composers?
RL: Yes, but
not that line. I wouldn’t
feel that I was coming from that line but, nevertheless, it is an
influence. Another influence has been Murray Schafer.
Again, it’s more his writings
than any of his music, but especially his book,
Rhinoceros in the Classroom and Ear
Cleaning. The way he
suggests listening, and listening to what’s around you, and being aware
of the timing of things around you is wonderful. He has one
description of an earthquake and how you get the rumble; how many
seconds there is before the next rumble, and he puts
this all down. I just took that verbatim and set that in a
piece. It’s wonderful the way this thing
builds and uses some aleatoric principles, too. Also,
when he talks about listening to sounds, listening inside the
sound, this is what you’re doing when you’re doing
electronic music — listening intently for those
the sound. You get that a lot with organ, particularly when
you’re setting stops and different registers. It’s
fascinating. But he talks about this in the ordinary world,
the sounds that you hear all the time.
BD: Is this a
advice that you would give to concert audiences — to
do a little reading
of Cage and Schafer?
RL: Yes, the
ones that are accessible. A lot of the
popularity of Cage is that he intrigues people with the writing, and
they listen more intently to what does happen. Of
course, sometimes I listen to Cage and it just doesn’t seem
to have much to do with what’s been said. It’s so open to the
performer that I
suppose that accounts for a lot of it.
BD: You don’t
feel that Cage is betraying his
no! He’s really a fascinating man.
We had him as our chief composer two years ago at the composer’s
symposium at the University of New Mexico, and the audiences were
enormous. The halls were packed to overflowing to hear
him and to listen to the music. There were some very fine
BD: How are
audiences similar or different down
there in the southwest, as opposed to a more cosmopolitan
audience up in Boston?
isn’t a saturation.
We’re just talking about contemporary music, because I really wouldn’t
qualified to talk more generally. But certainly with contemporary
music, we have so many groups in the Boston area, all very fine.
Some of them are performing groups, and some of them are groups of
composers who banded together and then hire their own
performers. So there’s much more saturation of contemporary
music, but out here in New Mexico, there’s not as much opportunity to
BD: Is there
RL: If you
get into a center like Albuquerque,
where you have the audience to support it, you get some very nice
audiences for contemporary music. But for smaller groups it’s
dependent upon population.
BD: Do you
feel that your music
travels well from center to center across the country, and perhaps even
across the world?
people have centers where
they’re more appreciated than other places, and places where
their music seems more at home and where they will get continued
performances. Mostly it’s a question of the performers,
and if performers like to play your music, and they put it into the
repertoire, then wherever these performers are going, your
music is going. I’ve been very lucky with a few performers who
have done this with my music. Certainly, Rosemary Platt has
played my piano music all over the place, and Susan Allen, the harpist,
has done the same thing with my harp music.
BD: I have
enjoyed Dust Devils very much.
RL: Oh, thank
you. That also was inspired
by being out here in the southwest, as you might have guessed from the
title. And Pat Morehead in the Chicago area
has played my oboe music. I’ve written two pieces for her.
you’re sitting down to write a
piece, is it easier to write it for a specific performer, rather than
just any nameless oboe player or nameless pianist?
RL: I enjoy
collaborating with people, especially, for instance, with the first
oboe piece that I wrote for Pat,
which is called Furies for
oboe, oboe d’amore, and English horn. It is written for her
talents on all three instruments, and she
plays them live and with parts electronically recorded so that she can
switch instruments. Working with her, I had written very little
for winds at that time, and it was just a great pleasure to work with
someone and to really know first hand whether you’re doing things that
will work. I did a lot of multiplonics and a lot of extended
techniques in that piece, which I wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t had
somebody to work with and could see whether my ideas really would
follow through into a performance.
BD: At what
point do you try to work
with the talents of this or any other performer, and at what point do
you have to say, “This is what I want; make it work?”
RL: It’s all
very well to say,
“This is what I want; make it work,” if it can be done. But
sometimes one has to back off and
let the performer tell you when something really can’t be done. I
haven’t had that experience, but I can certainly imagine it.
BD: How much
interpretation do you expect on
the part of the performer who takes up your music and will play it?
RL: I expect
them to have some fair input
BD: [With a
gentle nudge] You don’t expect every performance of any
piece to be exactly the same as the previous???
RL: No, of
BD: Let me
cut through all of this, then, and ask the big philosophical
question. What is the purpose of music in society?
RL: I think
it has more than one purpose, and
we listen to music on many levels. Hopefully, it’s reaching that
part of you that is deepest and most expressive. Again, I think
that a lot of things that touch us very much are psychological in
approaching your sixtieth birthday. Are you
today about where you expected to be, or where you want to be in your
I always feel like I’m struggling to
finish the next piece, or I always feel like I’m behind. It comes
from the years when I
wasn’t able to get to do much composing, and so I have this desire to
BD: Do you
think you ever will catch up?
RL: No, I
don’t imagine that’s possible. I’m trying to learn to live with
the angst! [Laughs]
BD: There are
some recordings of your music. Are you pleased
with those particular recordings because they have a wider circulation
than a single performance?
yes. Yes, I certainly am. Particularly Rosemary’s
performance of Masks has
interested people to buy the score, which is put out by Arsis
Press. The same was true for the piece that Susie
Allen has put on her record of new harp music, but you probably
realize that the label, 1750 Arch, has gone under.
hopeful] Yes, it is now defunct, but the record is still
around, and we will be playing it on the radio. People
occasionally can find it in used record stores, and there’s
always the possibility it will be reissued at some point on some other
RL: Yes, but
it certainly is helpful to get your
music out on recordings. I think that’s very helpful.
BD: Are there
more recordings coming along?
Yes. There is going to be one of an organ
piece called Seven Portals of Vision,
and that will be performed by Dr. Joanne Vollendorf who is at Ann
Arbor, Michigan. I
met her at a conference that was held at Michigan
University on Women and Music. She was one of the performers, and
I was just
bowled over by the performance and the music that she was
we collaborated on a piece the following year, and
out of that came Seven Portals of
Vision. Part of her doctoral
thesis was on working with composers. That was a very fine
collaboration, and since then Arsis Press has published the piece, and
it will be going out on a CD.
mentioned Women and Music. You’re a woman composer; you can’t get
Do you want to be referred to as a woman composer, or just a composer?
RL: I think
anybody would just want to be
referred to as a composer, but in the numbers there’s strength, and
certainly by banding together and producing concerts, and also making
the public aware of the fact that there are women composers and always
have been women composers, we’ve helped ourselves. For
instance, our mission statement of American Women Composers is to put
ourselves out of business. In other words, it shouldn’t be
necessary to have a group called American Women Composers. You
should be able to make concerts in any form that you want.
BD: Are we
getting closer to that goal?
RL: It would
seem so at the moment, but it just takes a small reversal in the
economics of a country to
have things change very radically. When times are good, things
are good for women. You know how it is in the art
world at the moment, with all this problem with funding the NEA.
becomes very tenuous.
becomes very tenuous, and everybody’s
scrambling for the crumbs under the table. I think that
women are probably scrambling a little bit more.
BD: Is this
particularly a women’s problem, or
is this just a problem that all contemporary composers have?
RL: At the
moment it’s a problem that
everybody has. I don’t think this is something that’s related to
gender. But on the other hand, it has been only recently that
it’s been recognized that there is a large body of work by women
composers, and even young women that I teach are not aware of how much
difficulty there was, say, thirty years ago. They take it for
granted that this is their right, which of course they should, but also
there’s the danger of history repeating itself if they aren’t tuned
into the fact that women have repeatedly been written out of the
history of music.
BD: We’ve got
to remember Mary
Howe and Miriam Gideon and Louise Talma, and all of those
who’ve gone before! [See my Interview with Miriam Gideon,
and my Interview with
RL: Yes, and
I’m thinking of
periods from the Venetian and the Florentine school of music, and
people like the great German, Hildegard von Bingen, of the eleventh
BD: Who has
just gotten some recordings!
Yes. Exactly. The ones you’re talking about are people who
still very much with us — Louise Talma and
Miriam Gideon. But I’m really thinking back more to
more historical perspective.
BD: It seems
that when you think of women composers,
after you get beyond Clara Schumann and Fanny Mendelssohn, there are
very few names that just pop up.
Yes. As you start doing programming, it’s like anything
else. Once you get sensitized to it,
it’s amazing how many one does find, and certainly there’s an example
recordings are very helpful.
BD: Do you
help to champion some of the other women composers of the
RL: Oh yes, I
certainly do — not as a
performer, because as I say, my performing is very limited these days,
but certainly when I was doing a lot of teaching, I regularly taught
women composers, and even more so for contemporary
people. I try to assure my students of performances, and try to
make them conscious of all the things that go into
writing, so that their music will be performed — not to think of it as
paper music, but to think of it as ideas that they are trying to put
down that they want somebody else to come along and pick up and play
it. They must, at all times go the extra
mile to make sure the manuscript is able to be understood by the
performer and not to leave things to chance.
BD: Are you
about the future of music?
RL: Yes, I
am. I think one would have to be. Things get sorted
out. The good stuff stays, and you just have to look back in
history to see how much is good! I would just project that
forward to say that
there’s bound to be lots of excitement and new things happening in
Sometimes. Most of the time it’s a real
joy, but there are times when it seems to take all day to get one small
measure down correctly, just saying what I want to say.
always the big
question — how do you
know when it is right?
RL: Only you
can tell, but you can also change your mind when you hear its
performance, and feel
that there are parameters that need to be changed.
you’re working on this new commission, I
assume you’ve got a couple others lined up beyond that?
RL: Yes, I
have. I have a slew of piano music
to do, and that should be great fun.
BD: Is it
comforting to know that
you have the work in front of you?
RL: Yes, but
on the other hand, it’s also a challenge
to write just for yourself, just to have that opportunity to
do something that you feel like doing at the moment that appeals to you.
BD: Thank you
for being a
thank you for inviting me to talk with you.
© 1990 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded on the telephone on August 9,
were used (with recordings) on WNIB in 1990, 1995 and 2000. A
copy of the unedited audio was placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University. The
transcript was made and posted on this
website in 2014.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
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
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
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century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.