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?

RL:    Well, it’s ten o’clock.  It must be Bruce Duffie!

BD:    We radio people are so accurate...  [Both laugh]

RL:    It’s good that we can depend on something.

BD:    [With a sly nudge]  You mean to say that music is not dependable these days???

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 kinds of 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 specific composer 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 concerts of new music.  You just don’t know what you might hear that will be very exciting.

BD:    So then it’s the thrill of discovery for you?

RL:    Yes.

BD:    You mention the word entertainment.  In music in general, or your music specifically, where is the balance between an artistic achievement and an entertainment value?

RL:    Just speaking 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 concerts?

RL:    Yes, I would say that people have an emotional response.

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 it!  [Laughs]

BD:    Talking about writing music, I assume the ideas for compositions are always floating around in your head?

RL:    Yes.

BD:    How do you sort out which ones will go in which specific pieces?

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?

RL:    In general I try to take the commissions that come my way because they’re challenges.  It keeps me a little breathless at times, but I 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 into it?

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?

RL:    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?

RL:    Sometimes 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 cleansing 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 piece 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.

BD:    When you’re working inside the piano, does that require a harp technique?

RL:    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?

RL:    Yes.  There’s always a recipe page in the front.

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 another one, 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.]

RL:    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, for instance.

lomonBD:    I see.  So, you’ve got to get out of the chair and go around?

RL:    Generally 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 just from the bench.

BD:    Is there a possibility that you might eventually demand piano four hands, with two on the keyboard and two inside 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 your 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 group.

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 with, and 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 rescue.

BD:    Just as we have the virtuoso pianists and oboists and violinists, are we going to get virtuoso DX-7-ists?

RL:    Good synthesizer 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 assign different 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.

BD:    The crudeness, I assume, is just the lack of detailed technical ability?

RL:    Yes, that’s right.

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?

RL:    Well, 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 it.

BD:    So then, you’re constantly learning?

RL:    Yes, 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 complicated...

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 this 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 think 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 music?

RL:    They’ve 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 very 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 bells, and 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 sunny.

BD:    Would Native American performers be at all able to perform that music, or is that something that takes a western-trained musician?

RL:    No.  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 imagination fly?

RL:    That’s right, yes.

BD:    And then you filter that through all of your experiences?

RL:    That’s 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 unfolding of 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, definitely!

BD:    Does this make you at all schizophrenic?

RL:    [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.

lomonBD:    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 works.

BD:    Is there a chance that colleges and universities are turning out too many young composers?

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 needed, and 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 so.

BD:    What advice do you have for a young composer coming along?

RL:    It’s 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, really.

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?

RL:    Luckily 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 man?

RL:    Exactly.  So I’m awfully glad I heard the tape before the performance!  But you can imagine the shock that I had.

BD:    Let’s turn the 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 music.

BD:    Because you are both a fine performer and a composer, are you the ideal interpreter of the music you write for your own instrument?

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 know 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 else?

RL:    Oh, 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.

BD:    The performer in you is screaming at the composer in you?

RL:    That’s right!  [Laughs]  I don’t perform very much anymore now.  I 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 a piece.

lomonBD:    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?

RL:    Well, 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 levelsintellectually, emotionally, even physically getting your fingers into the keys.  It’s wonderful!

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?

RL:    That’s 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 wonderful 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 fluctuations within 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 bit of 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 then 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 own ideals?

RL:    Oh, 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 performances, too.

BD:    How are audiences similar or different down there in the southwest, as opposed to a more cosmopolitan audience up in Boston?

RL:    There isn’t a saturation.  We’re just talking about contemporary music, because I really wouldn’t be 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 hear contemporary music.

BD:    Is there enough?

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?

RL:    Most 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.

BD:    When 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 into that.

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 course not.

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 nature. 

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’re approaching your sixtieth birthday.  Are you today about where you expected to be, or where you want to be in your career?

RL:    No.  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 catch up.

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]

lomonBD:    There are some recordings of your music.  Are you pleased with those particular recordings because they have a wider circulation than a single performance?

RL:    Oh, yes.  Yes, I certainly am.  Particularly Rosemary’s performance of Masks has certainly 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.

BD:    [Being 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 label.

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?

RL:    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 playing.  So 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.

BD:    You mentioned Women and Music.  You’re a woman composer; you can’t get around that.  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.

BD:    It becomes very tenuous.

RL:    It 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 Louise Talma.]

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 century.

BD:    Who has just gotten some recordings!

RL:    Yes.  Exactly.  The ones you’re talking about are people who are 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.

RL:    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 of where recordings are very helpful.

BD:    Do you help to champion some of the other women composers of the previous generations?

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 optimistic 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 music.

BD:    Is composing fun?

RL:    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.

BD:    That’s 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.

BD:    While 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 composer.

RL:    Well, thank you for inviting me to talk with you.


© 1990 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone on August 9, 1990.  Portions 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.

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.