Composer / Conductor  Ray  Luke
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


(May 20, 1928 - September 15, 2010)

Ray E. Luke, 82, passed away Wednesday after a brief illness. Born in Fort Worth, Texas on May 30, 1928, Luke was the son of Ray H. and Dorothy Luke. At an early age, he demonstrated a talent for music and played trumpet in many area ensembles. Luke earned bachelor's and master's degrees in music from Texas Christian University. He taught briefly at Atlantic Christian College in Wilson, N.C. and then returned to Texas as a music faculty member at East Texas State College. During his 13-year career at East Texas, he developed a flair for arranging that led him to make his first efforts at composition. In 1957, Luke was accepted at the University of Rochester's Eastman School of Music where he studied composition with Bernard Rogers. Luke earned his Ph.D. in composition in 1960. In 1962, Luke joined the faculty at Oklahoma City University, where he became chairman of the instrumental music department. A year later, Luke became music director of the newly created Lyric Theatre and conducted there for five seasons. In the late 1960s, Luke became associate conductor of the Oklahoma City Symphony Orchestra. Upon Guy Fraser Harrison's retirement in 1973, Luke served as music director of the orchestra for one season. Harrison premiered the majority of Luke's orchestral works, a practice continued when Luis Herrera de la Fuente became music director. During a compositional career that spanned more than 40 years, Luke composed more than 80 works for orchestra, band, chorus, opera, ballet and chamber music. In 1969, his piano concerto won the top prize in the Queen Elisabeth of Belgium competition. In 1979, his opera "Medea," which featured a libretto by Carveth Osterhaus, won the New England Conservatory Opera Competition Award. Luke conducted the world premiere in Boston. Among his other awards are the Oklahoma Musician of the Year (1970), the Distinguished Alumnus of TCU (1972) and the Oklahoma Governor's Arts Award (1979). For more than 25 consecutive years, Luke was honored by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. The ASCAP Award is presented for outstanding work in the area of serious music composition. Luke's legacy as a composer and his influence on countless student musicians are a tribute to his tireless efforts to make the finest music possible. After 35 years at OCU, Luke retired in 1997. He was preceded in death by his parents and his sister Helen Osier. He is survived by his wife of 58 years, Faye, daughter Lisa and husband Matt Mayfield, son Jeff and wife Kim, grandchildren Lauren, Justin and Madison Mayfield, Jason and Jessie Luke, four nieces and a nephew. The family will receive guests at the funeral home from 6 to 8 p.m. today. Services will be at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Spring Creek Baptist Church, 11701 N. MacArthur with interment in Rose Hill Burial Park. Memorials may be made in Ray Luke's name to the OCU School of Music Scholarship fund. Arrangements under the direction of Hahn-Cook/Street & Draper Funeral Directors, Oklahoma City, OK.

--  Published in "The Oklahoman" on September 17, 2010 

In addition to the details listed above, here are a few more from another source . . . . .

Ray Luke is nationally significant as a composer of contemporary classical music. The hallmark of his highly original work is a distinctive and unusual combination of techniques and styles. He composed prolifically, encompassing orchestral music and chamber pieces as well as opera and ballet. His works include Dialogues for Organ and Percussion, Sonics and Metrics for Concert Band, Plaints and Dirges for Chorus and Orchestra, Prelude and March, and the ballet Tapestry. From 1960 through 1973 the Oklahoma City Symphony premiered seventeen of Luke's works, including Piano Concerto and Compressions for Orchestra. The Tulsa Philharmonic commissioned and premiered Third Suite for Orchestra in 1989, and OCU commissioned Cantata Concertante in 1991. In 1995 OCU premiered two of Luke's one-act operas, Drowne's Wooden Image and Mrs. Bullfrog, both based on stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne.

As noted in previous presentations of this series, I started my musical life as a choral singer, and then took up piano and bassoon.  It was the double-reed instrument which was the focus of my training for many years, and even after going into Music History and teaching, and then announcing classical music on WNIB for a quarter-century, the
“clown of the orchestra” still holds a very special place in my heart.

lukeI bring this up because it was a recording of the Bassoon Concerto by Ray Luke which piqued my interest in the composer.  I had, of course, the LP issue, with its professional but uninteresting cover (seen at left).  The photo farther down on this webpage shows a later edition on CD with an appropriate cartoon depicted.  I figured that if he had written this delightful work for my favored instrument, he must be a nice fellow.  So I made contact with him in July of 1989, and my assumption was proven very true. 

Certainly not a huge name, and with only a couple of commercial recordings, he became part of my coterie of
“oddball composers”as one of the major Chicago critics dubbed them.  A wonderful gentleman with knowledge and experience to spare, he gladly gave me his insights and opinions, as well as uplifting thoughts about our favorite topics.

Here is that conversation . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You are composer and conductor and teacher.  How do you divide your schedule amongst those three very different activities?

Ray Luke:    Well, they’re not totally different, although each demands its own time.  I’m afraid that composition often takes the back seat to those other two, because they’re scheduled events.  There’s no way to avoid the time that they require.  The orchestral conducting has really had a lot to do with my composing.

BD:    Are you a better composer because you are a regular orchestral conductor?

RL:    Oh, I think so.  Certainly, I’m a better conductor because I’m a composer.  That’s the way I got into it.  I was thinking that they were closely related.  I always wanted to write, and didn’t have an early opportunity or urge to do so, and I started conducting very young.  Then having done so much of that, I thought it would be nice to be able to compose.  I arranged music very much before, and used it for my own purposes as a conductor and as a teacher.

BD:    Was that how you taught yourself orchestration?

RL:    Yes. 

BD:    Now you spend so much of your time conducting, and I assume you’re still teaching?

RL:    I’m still teaching, but in 1987 I retired from conducting.  I’m teaching and composing now, which is really wonderful.  It’s the first time I’ve ever had my own time, my own schedule, to do what I want to do.

BD:    So now are you getting enough time to compose?

RL:    Yes, I am.  Sometimes that’s not as good as it sounds.  Sometimes I think we compose better under pressure and under stringent time demands.  That may or may not prove to be so, but I’m about to find out how much I like having that much time.

BD:    [Laughs]  Set up some artificial deadlines for yourself!

RL:    Oh well, I do have to do that.  And of course, I often have commissions which have deadlines, and I’ve known for a long time that they help very much.  But I do make my own deadlines.

BD:    When you get a commission for a new work, how do you decide if you’ll accept it or put it off a little bit, or even decline it?

RL:    I’ve declined as many as I’ve accepted, probably.  Maybe it’s because of the demands on my time.  I’ve never felt that I could set out to compose something that I didn’t really want to do, and so I’ve avoided commissions which would force me to write something at a given time which really wasn’t at the top of my list.  I want to write some of everything in my time
— chamber music, orchestral music, choral, everythingbut sometimes someone wants a woodwind trio now, and a woodwind trio isn’t my most interesting project.  Perhaps I really don’t feel that I’m the type person to do it, nor do I have the time to write things that aren’t at the top of my list.

BD:    How does something get to the top of your list?

RL:    Sometimes the commissioning party has a lot to do with it.  If I’m anxious to write something for that person or those people, it can get me very interested in it.  A good time frame helps.  If someone wants something a year from now, I’d be more likely to write it than if they wanted it three months from now, because I’m probably in the process of writing something now, and don’t want to put it aside to get on something new. 

BD:    So three months is really a good time frame, but not this three months?  Perhaps three months, six months from now?

RL:    That’s right.  I’m sure I won’t spend more than three months composing the piece.  That would be remarkable if I spent that much time on one.

BD:    Do you always compose quickly?

RL:    Yes, I do.  It seems I should have composed more, in fact, because I compose fairly quickly.  I didn’t start until late in my life, so I’ve done rather well in the time I’ve had.

BD:    Have all of the pieces that you’ve written been performed?

RL:    Yes, except the one on my desk right now.  I’ve really been fantastically fortunate in hearing good, and in most cases, professional performances of my work, which has been a great boost to me.  I’m sure there are times when everyone feels that I maybe shouldn’t continue trying to do this, but when you’re getting good performances of your work, it really encourages you to go ahead and do more.

BD:    Have you basically been pleased with the performances you’ve heard of your music over the years?

RL:    Remarkably, especially since I’m a conductor myself.  Others think I should be interested in conducting my own work, but I’m really not because I’m most pleased to hear what others do with my work.  In that sense I’ve just had a wonderful time hearing my music played by other people.  I must say that the person that gave me the big start, and the person who encouraged me for so long, Guy Frasier Harrison, who was conductor of the Oklahoma City Symphony, did more to encourage young composers than anyone who ever lived.  He performed most of my orchestral music in the time that I was associated with him.  So, I got good performances from a very sympathetic conductor and a very sympathetic orchestra, too, because we sort of grew up together.

BD:    Were there times when he, or others, found things in your score that you didn’t know you’d hidden there?

RL:    [Laughs]  Once in a while.  We got to be rather close, and once in a while he would say, “Just change that note.  I don’t think you’ll know the difference.”  He was always saying, “We found a wrong note.”  He wasn’t a critic, but sometimes he would drop a little comment that would make you think maybe you’d done about all of that particular thing that you should do in your work.  He was very perceptive in that way.

BD:    What about discovering good things in your score?

RL:    I took it as the highest type of compliment that he played my music, and though he wasn’t a critic, still I knew that he refused to play some music, and that maybe just his playing it was an endorsement of it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You got lots of first performances of pieces.  Have some of them been taken up and been played elsewhere?

RL:    Not as much as we would like.  That part of it is very discouraging.  Chamber music, of course, gets around quite a bit, but in the first twenty years of my career I wrote a tremendous amount of orchestral music, and it’s awfully difficult for it to make the rounds.  Most conductors just don’t want to investigate new music, both now and earlier.  They’re not as interested as they might be.  Of course, we know there are legitimate constraints on that in most places.

lukeBD:    Is there any chance that maybe there is simply too much new music around?

RL:    Oh, my, yes!  Of course.  We could not hear in a lifetime all there is around, even if it were available to us; and conductors couldn’t examine all that is around.  They must get discouraged, thinking they have to look at rooms full of music to discover one piece that they would really like to perform, and it might be a piece of music we haven’t heard.

BD:    What should we do to help in the sorting process?

RL:    What you do, of course, and people like you would help very much.  The composer’s dilemma is very simple
he is going to write the music.  Sometimes he’s going to bend, to write music that is more easily performed.  I don’t mean necessarily more accessible, but music which is in demand by more kinds of groups or performers.  He’s going to compose it and just hope that some of it will be performed.  It’s not likely that a composer these days is going to become famous, thereby insuring that his work will be performed.  Andy Warhol said that all of us will be famous for fifteen minutes, and I think that end is more the attitude of composers these days.  Of course, each one would like to have his music performed as much as possible, but the writing of it is very important to most composers.  I have already confirmed what I thought before when I had the orchestra almost as my own toy to write for and to hear them perform.  I had said that I believed that I could continue to write even if I didn’t hear my music performed.  It’s been a while since I’ve had any notable orchestral performance, and I’m still writing.  In fact, I’m writing a work right now for two full orchestras and a percussion orchestra.  The likelihood that it’ll be performed is the same as the likelihood on anything else I wrote.  I wrote it, and then somehow it was performed.

BD:    I thought the commission came first with the guarantee of performance.

RL:    This isn’t a commissioned piece.  I don’t write only on commission.  I write what I want to write, and if a commission falls within that demand, then I accept commission.  I don’t have to have a commission to live, and that’s one of the nice things about teaching and conducting.  When I did that, it was quite a comfortable livelihood, and yet it seems to others to push composition into the background.  But for me it’s the opposite.  It gives one freedom to write what he wants to write.

BD:    You have written in all forms, even an opera.  I would think that would be especially difficult to get that mounted.

RL:    Well, that’s a good example.  That and a piano concerto are good examples of works I wrote with no performance whatever in mind.  I wrote it, as it were, for me.  I wanted to write it.  It was time to write it, and I did.  The opera happened to have been completed at a time when I heard about a Rockefeller Foundation New England Conservatory competition for a new American opera, and I sent it in to them.  It won the contest and was performed in Boston.  I conducted it.  So I had no reason to hope it would be performed, yet I thought there was a pretty good chance.  The piano concerto was exactly the same.  I completed it and decided to send it to the Queen Elizabeth competition in Belgium, and won that competition.

BD:    You were the first American to win that competition?

RL:    Yes, I was.  The fact is that it’s been performed here in this country only mounted once.  John Ogden performed it with the Oklahoma City Symphony.  But it’s being played all over Europe and I can’t find out who’s playing it.  I know where, but not when and who is playing it.  [Laughs]  But those two works, at least, I wrote with no hope of performance.  Obviously, I cared that it be performed, but I had no right to hope that it would be.

BD:    When you’re sitting at your desk writing, whom do you have in mind
the performers, the public, yourself?

RL:    I definitely have the performers in mind.  I want that to be a bridge to an audience.  I certainly care about the audience very much.  It’s my job to grab that audience and cause them to listen, but it’s through the performers that I can achieve that.  I’m very much aware of their part in this process, and if they don’t want to perform it I don’t stand a chance.  Some performers will perform it even if they fear an audience might not want to hear it, and I think maybe we do a lot of that now.  But I most definitely am offered encouragement by response of performers to the music.

BD:    Are you also encouraged by the response of the audience?

RL:    Yes and no.  I’m not encouraged by the response of the critics, and very often that affects what an audience thinks
in retrospect at least.  But I’ve been privileged there, too.  Having heard a dozen or more of my orchestra works performed here in Oklahoma City, they think I’m pretty special, and the audience responds to that very well.  On the other hand, there’s that danger that I’ll become provincial in some way, and not write for a wider audience.  I don’t mean a more commercial audience, but an audience in more areas of the world.  I can’t say that I’ve ever been in an audience where I heard one of my works that I didn’t get a good response.

BD:    It’s good that you’re well received in your own community.  Most times the prophet is not heralded in his own land.

RL:    My principal composition teacher was Bernard Rogers at Eastman School of Music.  He was quite a discerning and sensitive man, who was great influence on me.  I had occasion to need his recommendation some time after I left there, and I called him and asked him if he would help.  He said of course he would.  He had tried to keep up with what I was doing and was quite impressed, but asked if I could I tell him exactly what I was doing now.  I told him that this recommendation I was asking for would give me an opportunity to get out of Oklahoma City for just a short time, to find out how I’m fairing outside of this area.  I used the word “region” two or three times while I was talking with him, and he, with his nice, cultivated lisp, jumped through the telephone at me and said, “What are you doing down there
— writing folk songs of the plains?”  I said, “No, I’m not.  I’m sorry if I left that impression.”  Yes, it’s wonderful to be accepted in Oklahoma City, especially if you can feel that you have a fairly sophisticated audience, and that you’re not writing down to them.  I don’t think I’ve ever been guilty of that.

BD:    When you write, are you trying, perhaps to stretch them just a little?

RL:    Oh, yes.  If you heard the succession of my music, you can tell that I’m rather fearless in stretching them.  Others around the world would call me conservative, but I’ve grown in a very personal way, and so has my audience.

BD:    The two pieces which have been recorded are somewhat on the conservative side, which is now coming back more into fashion.

RL:    Yes.  I might have to get back to some of that!  [Laughs]  You’re right.  It is very interesting to me that all of the change I’ve gone through has still held me to some of that recognizable conservatism.  I am not an outrageous person at all, and I recognize the fact that by many standards my work is conservative.  Those works which you’re speaking of were written in the 1960s.  I realize that I’m quite different from that now, but I still respect those works.  I still like those works, and I am happy that audiences and musicians in general are interested in hearing music that is not just cerebral, not just technical on display, but there’s something a little more real, perhaps.

BD:    We’ve been kind of dancing around this question, so let me ask it straight out.  What is the purpose of music in society?

RL:    It has to be something that actually is made to be listened to by an audience, and part of the problem is that we’re not sure of where our audience is.  We know that there is a great gulf between the experience of the composer and the experience of the audience.  Maybe that’s not so in Chicago, but it certainly is true in our part of the country.  The gulf is there.  Sometimes it seems the only way you could minimize that would be to quit what you’re doing and change to something else, and composers really don’t do that well.  In fact, they shouldn’t do that.  But being aware of the audience
even if it’s in a dramatic way, even if it’s in a way that grabs the listener and compels him to listenthen that the job is being done.  A lot of different kinds of music can do that.  I think the worst kind is that which does nothing to an audience.  I frankly think that a few works go too strongly in the other direction and do nothing except bore an audience.  If we’re going to get close to an audience, I think we have to try to sense what would cause that audience to listen to us.  There are some venues in which our music would not be listened to at all, and we recognize that.  It’s not going to be listened to on a pops concert, so we would not wish to have ourselves placed on that concert and judged or accepted by those standards.  On the other hand, we can find ourselves, with my music, in situations where it’s sneered at a little bit because it is deemed to be commercial in some way.

BD:    Do you feel that the concert promoter should try to get some of the pops audience into the hall for standard-type programs?

RL:    That seems to be the attitude these days, but I have not seen much carry-over.  I was conductor with the Oklahoma City Symphony for twelve years, part of that time as associate conductor, part as music director and conductor, and some as a principal guest conductor.  Part of the associate conductorship was to do some pops concerts and some children’s concerts, and what we called run-outs or short tours, and some of those programs are geared to that particular audience.  Part of the attractiveness, supposedly, of the pops concert was to get more people into the concert hall, but we didn’t see very much carry-over.  I’m sure there’s some, and maybe there’s more in what we did for the young people’s concerts.  Perhaps they grow into listening to an orchestra, but some people who attended pops concerts and then came to the symphony concert were terribly shocked that they were not the same.

BD:    Taking this one step farther, should the concert promoters be trying to entice, say, the sports fan into the concert hall?

RL:    Yes, if possible, but I sometimes think that by the time a person is mature in his likes and dislikes, there’s very little that can change him.  Our symphony here has played at hockey games and at circuses, at baseball games, mall openings, everything imaginable, and I’ve felt that in many of those cases the orchestra was just out of place and it was not doing any good at all.

BD:    No even in just letting everybody know that there is an Oklahoma City Symphony?

RL:    Yes, that helps, and in all honesty the management has to do what management can to support the budget of an orchestra, and very often those activities make it possible for an orchestra to present an expanded subscription series.  That in itself is justification enough for doing it, but so far as converting people to that kind of music is very difficult to do.  There must be a way, but on the other hand, the younger person is more susceptible to learning to listen to that music, or wanting to listen to that music, than older people in these other circumstances.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’re doing some teaching.  Is this theory, or conducting?

RL:    I’m teaching both.  I’m teaching theory, both graduate and undergraduate.  It’s the first time I’ve taught undergraduate theory in a long time, and I’m really enjoying it because you have some budding musicians there.  I also teach orchestration, though not all of these at the same time, you understand.  It is one semester or the other.  And I teach the upper level of composition and one conducting class.

BD:    Is composition something that really can be taught?

lukeRL:    No, no.  Well, it can be taught to that person who’s showing a first interest.  He can be introduced to all the many styles and possibilities.  I remember when I started to try to compose, I had to find out what’s going on and what was there available to me.  I asked how could I write if I wanted to?  Which could I choose?  Where can I go to find something to choose for a way to write?  Some of those things can be taught, but certainly just above that beginning level we’re talking about a coach; someone who can encourage, someone who can perceive difficulties or who can sense directions that need to be taken, can guide listening, and frankly, help develop the technique.  It is necessary that the composer have technique.  He can’t just sit down and start rambling in some way.  That can be taught, but certainly it’s a matter of guiding.  You’re teaching always through the music that the student is composing.  So he has to do his writing and then be criticized and helped with it.

BD:    Where is the balance, then, between the individual inspiration and this creative technique?

RL:    Oh, it has to be in the middle.  If a work is only a demonstration of technique, then it’s not worth the paper it’s on.  On the other hand, inspiration
— or the better word, I think, is excitement — the excitement of trying to make music is absolutely necessary, and there’s no way to substitute for that technique.  Technique is merely the method for doing what one wants to do.

BD:    Are you impressed by what you see and hear coming along from the young composers?

RL:    Sometimes yes.  When you’re working with young composers, you hesitate to guide them in a direction which you would like to hear.  Sometimes you think that in ten years that young man or that young lady will probably discover some things which will make him or her a better composer.  To see that impulse, to see that seed beginning to be nurtured is really nice.  Every young music student should try to compose because there is something very special in trying to put something on paper and then hearing it performed.  There’s nothing more special than that.  It’s like a conductor getting his first live group, and hearing the result of what he’s doing with his arms and hands.

BD:    And being surprised?

RL:    [Laughs]  And being very surprised!  There’s no one more easily surprised than a young composer.  We’re talking about developing ear, developing that instinct for sound, of harnessing it and making it serve a compositional end.  There are a lot of mistakes to be made, and a lot of surprises.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Are you, as an experienced composer, ever surprised by what you hear?

RL:    I might dare answer that!  If I say yes, it would only be in small ways.  I am aware of the medium for which I am writing more than a lot of composers, and therefore I’m not often surprised.  I’m not surprised at the balance of an orchestra in a certain passage, or the way a piano sounds in what I wrote for it, or a woodwind quartet or string quartet.  They don’t surprise me.  The big surprise, and one which I have never been able to master
— and I think other composers have this problem, toois the mastery of time, of the occupation of time with music.  It begins, and it goes to a certain point, and I’m often disappointed by the progression of energy which I’ve been able to produce to go to a point, and that point will be exactly where it should have been.  That surely is the biggest problem in the making of music because it’s a passive act, sitting at a desk making energy that’s going to be projected into time.  If I’m going to be uncomfortable in an audience in hearing my music, that’s what I’ll be uncomfortable withthe length of the piece, or wishing I hadn’t done that idea quite that long and thinking I should have changed a little sooner.  It has to do with something that affects time.

BD:    Then do you go back and make a small cut or other alteration?

RL:    I didn’t start composing until I was thirty, and I’ve never felt I have time to go back and re-work a composition.  I move on and try to learn from what I’ve done, and write something else.

BD:    Are you conscious of the amount of time a piece will take to perform when you’re starting to write it?

RL:    Oh, yes.  I usually have some parameters in mind.  They’re not inviolable, but there are some time limits, some time demands.  If I’m going to write a symphony, I don’t want it to be just five minutes long, and if I’m going to write an opera, it might as well be a large one as a small one.  [Laughs]  Then when you get it performed, you will have had a large one performed.  But even the shape of the piece is designed in a loose way as one starts.

BD:    So when you’re sitting at your desk and you’re working, you’re putting down all the notes and you get to the double bar.  You go back and tinker a little bit, but how do you know when to put the pen down?

RL:    I have to be as convinced as possible, and at that stage I will alter, I will insert, I will throw away.  I will take that double bar off and extend or change it to be sure at that point.  I may have spent a month, two months, three months composing that piece of music, and for the sake of a few days of re-thinking and working at it, I could leave a piece of music in some unsatisfactory shape.  Even then, when I hear something in my music that I think could have been better, my thought is that I wish I had spent two days more thinking it through.  So I do re-think at that point, but once I commit it to manuscript, I’m through with it.

BD:    Especially once you have heard it, if you know that a section would work well with a small cut or even a small extension, I would think it would be worthwhile to put it in so that the piece is right.

RL:    I have put small cuts in.  I think if I ever got to the point where I was not comfortable with composing new works
if I’m old enough or dull enoughit would be very interesting to go back and examine my works and see where they could be improved.  If it seemed to be a good idea I might do that at some stage.  I have a ballet, for instance, that works very well as a ballet, but when I hear the music, I wish that some parts of it could have been better.  We’re so conscious of how often ballet music is asked to stand on its own, that sometimes I think if I would go back and devote a few days or weeks to parts of that I would have both a satisfactory ballet and perhaps a satisfactory concert work.

BD:    [Being encouraging]  Maybe you should do that.

RL:    I might.  Maybe you’ve caused me to think about that.  [Laughs]

BD:    If I can cause you to do something that would get your works more widely performed, then I’ve helped you a little.

RL:    I can’t tell you what a boost it is to know that my work is going to be played, especially with some purpose.  You make some kind of format in which you present it.  That is, the music is presented to an audience, and someone out there, at least, will know that I’m composing.  That matters.  I’d like for more than my wife and my son and daughter to know that I compose, but if not, that would be all right, I suppose.  But to know that it’s being performed is important.  A while ago I said with some feeling that I did not know who was performing my music in Europe and Asia.  I would like to know because that does mean something to me.  On the other hand, it’s almost impossible to get a work recorded without being in some kind of vanity production situation.  Publishing works do not necessarily help.  I have works published by Oxford University Press and Carl Fischer and others, and they don’t necessarily circulate.  The Bassoon Concerto probably circulates better than anything I’ve written because there are a lot of bassoonists out there and very few bassoon works.  But to hear that it is going to be performed on radio in a good situation is very, very encouraging.

BD:    I’m very glad that I can be a booster in that way.

RL:    I sensed even from the first time I talked with you that there was something special here, that it was a chance for my music to be heard almost as if it had its own audience.

BD:    We have a big audience, and the music will be listed in the Program Guide, so people will see that it’s there and tune in to listen to it.  A lot of people seem to enjoy the programs.  They’ll listen to a piece and then hear some of the commentary from the composer.

RL:    That’s really very nice.  Just that you heard these works and made contact with me feels very good.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    We were talking about the Bassoon Concerto.  Tell me a little bit about this work since it is one of the two that have been commercially recorded.

lukeRL:    This was commissioned by Guy Fraser Harrison in the Oklahoma City Symphony for Betty Johnson.  It is Elizabeth, but everybody knows her as Betty, the principal bassoonist of the orchestra, a consummate artist.  I think that I have not heard a bassoonist that I enjoy more than I enjoy hearing her.  She has retired from orchestra playing now but still is a wonderful bassoonist.  I sensed an opportunity to hear something performed very well.  At the same time, I had another work commissioned, Symphonic Dialogues for Violin, Oboe and Orchestra.  This is one of those times when I took on more than I should have.  The symphony had given me deadlines on both of those works, and in December I was looking at a March deadline for both works.  They were not moving very well, so I booked quickly an opportunity to go to the McDowell Colony.  It was in the winter, and it took me three days to quit looking at the snow and the squirrels playing in it.  I composed the Bassoon Concerto in three weeks, and the Symphonic Dialogues in ten days.

BD:    So a lot of it is just getting in the right frame of mind to let the ideas come?

RL:    Yes, it is.  It’s a matter of focus.  The desire is always there.  I can get up early in the morning on any day, and say, “I wish I could compose some music today.”  As I’m talking to you I’m sitting in my study, which is a very private place, a very nice place.  I’m looking at beautiful trees and the view out the back.  I learned that from the McDowell Colony.  But there’s something about the ability to focus, to put the pencil on the page — not to hold it above the page, but to put it on the page and see that music is made — that comes only under pretty strict circumstances.  One doesn’t just walk around and begin to compose.  So that circumstance served me very well at that time.  I had written maybe forty pages of the Symphonic Dialogues before I went there, and after having finished the Bassoon Concerto, I felt that I was composing better.  So I threw away all that I previously composed, and did better with the work that proceeded from there.

BD:    When you’re sitting there and the notes are going onto the page, are you always in control of that pencil, or are there times when that pencil is really moving your hand?

RL:    If we were in total control, we wouldn’t throw anything away, and I throw away a lot.  [Both laugh]  No, I must say that sometimes I’m not thrilled with the direction something has gone, and I have to make a decision as to whether I want to keep that or allow it to go on that way.  I usually don’t allow it to go on, so I would like to think that I have control of it.  But my control is more an aural control.  I do write some serialized passages in my music, just to solve a problem technically.  I might turn to some kind of serial device, or the opposite, some kind of random device.  But most of what I do is strictly an aural process.  I hear what I’m trying to hear, and I write it down.  So my ear might lead me in directions I might not want to go, but my pencil doesn’t do that very often.  When I first begin to write a composition, I might start fifty little sketch pages before I’m happy with what I might be stuck with for a while.

BD:    [Startled]  Do you really feel you’re stuck with your music???

RL:    You have to believe in it, and you’d better or nothing is going to come of it.  So once one commits to it, yes, you either stay with it or throw it away.

BD:    You’re composing at the same time that you’re teaching.  Do you ever give yourself a composition lesson?

RL:    It’s strange.  When a student is having difficulty getting along with a composition, I can think of fifty ways in which he can go forward.  That’s the objective, detached approach to solving a problem. When I’m stuck in maybe even a similar situation, I have to thrash it through the same way he does.  I have to find out why it won’t go, and usually it’s because I’ve led to a point from which I find it difficult to depart.  A student always finds that.  He’s writing himself into a brick wall every day, and it’s easy for me to help a student get over those hurdles.  It’s almost a glib tongue that allows one to go with his work, and that kind of thought process is very valuable to me.  As I help students solve their problems, it’s giving me more experience in solving mine.

BD:    Are you optimistic with where music is going these days?

lukeRL:    [Pauses for a moment]  I think so, only because I know that when it gets off in the wrong direction, it changes.  The history of music is change, and change is inevitable.  It’s not always good, and sometimes it goes in directions we are not in great sympathy with, but that evens out.  I don’t know whether it will in my lifetime or not, but I enjoy seeing where music goes, and I enjoy seeing where my music goes.  It’s for someone else to decide whether that’s where it should have gone.

BD:    Then let me ask where is music going today?

RL:    If you’d asked that twenty years ago I don’t think I could have said, but I do now feel that music is going to pull together all of the many splintered techniques that have been available.  I feel it coming together to make one kind of music, and once that one kind of music appears, there will be a lot of very capable composers to take that and go with it.  That’s what I expect.  In the last twenty years we’ve gone through all this music that is strictly, totally aleatoric, random in nature.  We’ve gone through nearly a hundred years, maybe seventy or eighty years of some very strict twelve-tone compositions.  Now we’ve entered a time when it seems very popular to work with minimal materials, the least material possible for the longest amount of time.  You’re going to see fewer and fewer works that are just random in technique, or just serial in technique, or just minimal in technique.  I think that’s where music is going, that these will become amalgamated into a language that will be the language of the late twentieth century.

BD:    It’s fairly well known that the technical ability of performers is getting better day by day and year by year.  Do you feel that the inspiration and the actual musical ability of students is getting better at the same rate?

RL:    There are a few students that are, that have the advantages that allow them to be at that point in the early part of their student careers, but I see a long process in the development of students.  I have a son who has just finished a master’s degree, and he’s an extremely good musician.  He’s a better musician than I was when I got through with my degree, and he’s had more opportunities.  He’s had better teaching and better instruments.  He’s developed his ear in the same way I did, but he’s been able to apply it in much better ways.  In composition, if we’re not careful, we will get people who are not as good as performers, and that defeats one, if that’s what he’s trying to do.

BD:    You also teach conducting.  What advice do you have for young conductors coming along?

RL:    Just do it.  [Both laugh]  No, they have to find themselves somewhere where they can hear and see music at its best.  Vision is what we all need, either as a composer or a conductor, or even as teachers and especially students.  We need the vision to be able to see what is possible there.  My son played with the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood yesterday.  That’s so far beyond my imagination when I was his age!  He is a trumpet player, and I can’t even fathom his doing it.  But the fact is he’s had a vision.  He’s been permitted a vision.  He’s been permitted experience, which has allowed him to think that might be possible.  It may have been improbable from a practical standpoint, but still, it’s possible for a young person to achieve that.  It’s possible for a young composer to get a better start, an earlier start, and I understand that around the country there are some exceptional young composers.

BD:    I hope they all get the chance to be heard.

RL:    Right.  I hope they get the chance to be heard.  Young people have a way of creating the chance.  They’ll scrape together their own orchestra some way and hear their music.  Maybe they’ll write for what they can assemble, and learn that way.  Older composers have to write for friends just to hear their music sometimes.  Maybe that’s how young people will hear their music.  I know that’s how young conductors get a chance to conduct very often
make a group and begin to conduct it.  But a conductor getting started must study.  He needs coaching.  The technique itself, of course, is not terribly complicated, but the musical understanding behind it certainly is extremely complicated.  The sooner he can discover that he must be a very good musician and have a very good understanding of the medium with which he’s working and the kind of music that he’s trying to conduct, he’ll be a better conductor.  If he can do that very early on, then he stands a good chance.  It’s not as necessary today, as it was fifty years ago, that a young person go to Europe to learn to conduct.

BD:    There are more opportunities here now?

RL:    I think so, yes.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let’s talk about the other work of yours which has been recorded, the Second Symphony.

RL:    The Second Symphony was written under the most stressful circumstance I can imagine.  I had just finished my doctorate at Eastman, during which I wrote my First Symphony.  I’d gone back to teaching at a small college, from which I had taken a leave of absence.  I found myself doing almost everything at that college.  I was so busy, I was buried.  I was doing things I didn’t want to do, and here I had my new PhD and I resented that somewhat.  So my solution was to compose.  I did it after midnight almost entirely, and I completed the work during the Christmas holidays.  My wife suffered while I banged around and I completed it.  I happened to be in Dallas in February, and Guy Fraser Harrison was walking down the sidewalk and said, “Luke!  Have you any new music?” and I said, “Yes, I’ve just completed a Second Symphony.”  He said, “Send it to me and I will perform it.”  There’s no way to tell you how significant that was to me, because I may not have composed another note if that hadn’t have happened.  I was really buried, discouraged, and may have just given up.  After I came to Oklahoma City to stay, I got to teach here and be around the orchestra, and he performed the work again.  There was a fine musician here playing with the orchestra during that time, Paul Doktor, the violist, who heard the work.  Paul was going to Louisville the next week to perform and record the Piston Viola Concerto, and he asked if he could take the Second Symphony with him.  He took it to Louisville, and they picked it up and recorded it.  So, I have a great deal of affection for that work because of what it meant to me and in my life.


BD:    It was really a turning point, then!

RL:    Yes, it was.

BD:    It’s amazing, the set of fortuitous circumstances that could have missed at any point.

RL:    Yes, it was just an accident that I encountered Harrison in Dallas.  I didn’t go to Dallas very often in those days, and he was there to conduct an all-state orchestra.

BD:    And he just said he would play it without having looked at it?

RL:    Oh, yes.  He had already played my First Symphony and my First Orchestral Suite, both of which he found in the Fleisher Library in Philadelphia.  I don’t know any conductors who go looking through the Fleisher Collection, but he found those two works and had already performed them.  I think if he had not found it feasible to perform the work, he would have said, “I’m sorry.  I spoke early.  We are not going to be able to do your Second Symphony.”  But he was that sort of person.  He would take a chance and did, and I came to Oklahoma City to hear it.  I had already done that with my First Symphony and my First Orchestral Suite.  I was convinced that he was the greatest person on earth that would take a chance on fledgling composer.

BD:    I’m glad it all worked out.

RL:    Yes.  In fact, when there was an opening at Oklahoma City University, I called Guy Fraser Harrison to see if he thought I should make the move.  He said, “Yes.  Why not?”  So I moved to Oklahoma City.

BD:    That really made the rest of your career, then.

RL:    Yes.  It’s been a very good career.  I’ve been here twenty-seven years, and I’ve had opportunities to move to larger and more prestigious universities.  I never really cared to conduct professionally any more than I did with that orchestra.  I prefer university work.  I conducted the university orchestra and opera for all of these years, but I would rather have worked with that than anything else because I think it made me a better teacher; it made me a better university person; it made me a better composer.  Two years ago I could give up conducting without really missing it at all.

BD:    One last question.  Is composing fun?

RL:    It’s fun to have completed a composition, but it isn’t always fun to write one.  There is the tension involved, the frustration, the lack of progress at times.  You might work for days and not be happy with the progress you’ve made, and then maybe it’ll break loose and you’d be happy for a few days.  But for me, trying to complete a work on a schedule — I’ve already told you I often do that quickly — when one is frustrated for a few days can really strain one’s relationship with the family and the colleagues.  So it’s not always fun, but it is wonderful to see a work completed and stacked in front of yourself and say, “There it is.  I did it.  I don’t know whether it’s the greatest work in the world or not, but I did it, and it’s important to me that it’s finished.”

BD:    Thank you so much for speaking with me today, and for all of your music and performances.

RL:    Thank you so much.  I appreciate your being attracted to the music, and I appreciate your putting it on the air.

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© 1989 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone on July 15, 1989.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1996, and his recordings were used on the air (without interview segments) several times both before and after that date.  This transcription was made in 2014, 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.