Composer Tera de
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
In November of 1995, it was my distinct joy to be introduced to the
Dutch composer Tera de Marez Oyens. She is one about whom I had
no prior knowledge, but after meeting her and experiencing her music, I
count it among my lucky events to have been able to learn about her,
in turn present her on the radio and now on the internet.
Basic details of her life and career are in the box at the end of this
interview, but unknown to me at the time was her illness which would
claim her life less than a year later.
Here is what was said during that interview in Chicago . . . . .
Let me start out by asking a very
dangerous question — do we still need to refer
to you as a woman
Tera de Marez Oyens:
No. [Laughs] I am a composer. I am a human being, and
happen to be a woman.
BD: But I notice,
for instance, one of the CDs that you gave me is a collection of women
composers. Is it good to have programs or records of music by
some instances I think it’s very
important, especially those women who otherwise would not be
performed. Fortunately, I am being performed also in normal
programs, but there are a lot of women who really need such support
to be performed. As you know, it’s very important to be
heard, and to hear yourself — your own pieces — to get further.
Otherwise you turn in circles if you never hear yourself.
BD: Would you
rather be performed on all-contemporary concert, or in a
mixed program with music of the older masters?
an interesting question, and I must say
that mostly I am performed in combination with other old masters.
But I don’t mind being in an all-modern program, too. I have no
BD: You do
some teaching along with your
Officially I stopped teaching in ’88
because I had so many commissions that I had to compose at night and
teach during the day — that’s not a good combination. For
me, composing is really the most important, so I stopped
teaching. I had a very prestigious job at a music academy as
professor of composition and modern music. It was
ideal because I was the first to have this position, and I could do as
pleased as I saw fit to do, so I did a lot of wild
performances with my students. It was great, but I stopped
teaching then, and I am now a staff docent of the Wien Sommer Seminar
für neue Musik in Vienna.
BD: For just
a few months in the summer?
and I give workshops all
over the world where I am asked.
BD: I often
ask my guests if when they’re teaching they
have enough time to compose. Obviously for you the answer is no.
me, it was decidedly no. I compose all
the time, but it was too heavy.
BD: When you
compose, are these all on
commissions, or are these things you just have to get out of your
TdeMO: It’s a
combination. I have to compose every
day, otherwise I feel sick. But fortunately I have a lot of
commissions to work on, and I prefer
that. In the first place, you get being paid; in the
second place, you know that it will be performed, so these are two good
BD: Both very
important. When you get a
commission, how do you decide if you’re going to say yes or no?
don’t know. I think I have only
once said no, because I have to exist on what I earn by these
commissions, so I have to say yes, even if I don’t like it so much.
BD: Do you
force yourself to like it?
TdeMO: I got
commission for accordion concerto. Now this instrument is not
one of my favorites, at least the way I had heard it until then.
Then I started studying the possibilities of the instrument, and I
discovered so much and such wonderful sounds that with great pleasure
I worked on this concerto. It has been performed three times
already, so you can discover a lot of things.
BD: Is that
enough of an inducement that you would
accept another commission for another work for the accordion?
yes! Oh, yes. I really am now
enthusiastic about the possibilities of it.
you’ll be their savior! [See my Interview with
Accordionist Robert Davine]
[Laughs] No, there are a lot of composers working
BD: When you
have a commission, obviously it
has a deadline. Do you always meet the deadline, or do you ever
ask for a little extra time?
painful question. [Laughs] Mostly I
can meet a deadline because I’m very disciplined. I start every
day at 9 o’clock in the morning; I sit down and I compose
six hours per day. I have to be ready at a certain point,
and I meet it, but once in a while I don’t succeed, and I ask
for a little bit extension of the time.
BD: When you
sit down at 9 o’clock in the
morning, do the ideas always come?
course not. But if I don’t sit, they
also don’t come. But when you compose, you have
to do so many things that don’t ask for inspiration. When
you have a whole page of sixteenth notes, you have to cross all the
dots. You don’t need inspiration for that, but it has to be
done. Or you have to work out a motif that you have firmly
notated already; it’s fixed, and you can work on that without too much
BD: So if the
ideas are coming you compose fresh, and if the ideas are not coming
you do some of the busy work?
there’s no wasted time.
No. It’s important that you sit
down and work on it, and then while working you get ideas that bring
you’re working on a piece, do you
ever get ideas that won’t fit so you save them for the
tried it when I was younger, but I
discovered it doesn’t work. I used to have a notebook with me,
and whenever I was somewhere and I had an Inspiration, I would write it
would take it home and would find I could do nothing with it; it
was just an isolated thing. So I don’t do that anymore. I
have discovered that when it’s really important, you remember. Of
you have ideas when you walk around, and if it is an important
idea, it sticks with you. You don’t forget it.
what defines it as an
BD: When you
sit down to write, are you
conscious of how long it will take to complete the compositional
process, aside from the fact that there is the deadline?
I am a pretty good guesser how long it
will take me. For instance, for an orchestra work of moderate
length, I take mostly half a year. That’s the outer limit; I
can do it quicker, but I take a half a year for that. But of
course there are always surprises, and it happens many times that I’m
halfway and I am not content, and I start all over again.
That’s not such a good thing for the time. [Both laugh]
BD: But then
you’ve learned what not to do.
BD: Are you
aware when you start how long it will
take to perform the work?
TdeMO: That’s mostly
included in the commission, but I must admit that I am
not always correct on the time element. I once had a commission
from an American ensemble. It was a piano quartet, and they
wanted a piece
of twelve minutes to fix in a program. When it was finished,
it was ten minutes. I phoned them, but they said no, I should try
to make it
longer. So I tried to extend the end. It didn’t work, and I
tried to put something in the middle. It also didn’t work.
So in desperation I sent them a piece of ten minutes, and
it worked all right.
BD: I would
think that would be certainly close
enough to their request.
wanted twelve minutes, but in the end they played it a little bit
slower than I intended, so it was twelve minutes. [Both laugh]
BD: Are there
ever occasions where you
get working and working, and you find that the musical ideas just will
not fit the time — either it’s much too short or
much too long?
happens, but then you have to change what
you are doing if it really is a big difference with what the commission
mentioned that they played it a little
slower. Do you write into your music the idea that there can be
interpretation on the part of the performers?
I write metronome numbers, but
sometimes I just write vivace,
or something that calls for
difference in speed.
BD: I assume,
though, that it really makes no
difference how fast it is, as long as it’s relatively faster than allegro or adagio.
BD: Do you
want each performance to be an exact duplicate of the best
performance, or do you want different interpretations as the
piece is played by different groups?
an interesting question. Mostly I am very fond of the first
performance, and whenever somebody
else performs it differently, I keep hearing this first performance
and longing for that one. Of course everybody has a right to
give his or her own interpretation, but sometimes it’s
difficult when it is far from what you have in mind.
BD: Is there
such a thing as a perfect performance?
think so, yes. I
hope to get one at this upcoming concert!
you’re writing and tinkering with the ideas, how do you
know when it’s ready, when it’s done?
problem is that you are never ready
and you have to force yourself to stop working on a piece. If
you don’t do that, all the time you can change things. Just
before I came here, there was a performance of an orchestra work which
I wrote as a very nice commission for 50 years of the United
Nations. It was performed by the Rotterdam Philharmonic
Orchestra. The score had to be ready by June for the
publisher to make the parts and so on. It was halfway done by May
already. I was not yet finished and I wanted to get to the end,
but something stopped me. I kept changing and I kept
changing, and really I had to slap myself and say, “Now you
have to go on, otherwise it will be too late.”
BD: After the
first performance of any work, do you ever go back
and revise the scores?
TdeMO: I used
to do that a lot, to the desperation of my
publisher. But gradually you are so routine that you know what
you write down and how it will sound. There are a few changes,
mostly in the dynamics. It’s, “The brass sounds a little bit too
or, “The violins should play softer,” but major
changes do not occur anymore.
BD: You could
almost expect those kinds of adjustments to be made on the
part of the conductor or the interpreters.
and it happens many times that I don’t
change the score. I leave it to the conductor to hear that it
should be a little bit different.
music is taken all over the
world. Is the music that you write for everyone?
TdeMO: I hope
so, but I’m afraid not. [Laughs] I’m not a
composer in an ivory tower. I really want people to like my
music, but I cannot write in a way that I am sure they will like
it. I have to write my own language. Fortunately, a lot
of people who are not so attuned to modern music nevertheless like my
music, so in that case I am very happy. But there
are a lot of people who don’t like my music, or think it’s too heavy
and too complicated. The funny thing is when I compose,
I really compose kind of intuitively. I have, of course, my
techniques and so on, but it comes really from the heart. Then,
when a piece is performed and people say, “It was nice,
but it was so intellectual,” I am so surprised! I am really taken
aback then because I didn’t compose it that way.
BD: You write it
from your heart to their heart?
what I hope. But then when it
doesn’t come to their heart, I’m surprised a little.
BD: Let me
ask the big question. What’s
the purpose of music?
my! [Laughs] You want an answer right
will say that music is the only art that has the possibility of being
able to touch a person right away, to lift the spirit up or to shock,
but really to touch a person. Maybe that is the
purpose of music, to go right to the center of a person. But it’s
a very dangerous question to ask, just
out of the blue.
BD: You work
with it every day, so I’m trying to find out where your thoughts are
They might be different tomorrow.
right. But I
think music has a terrible power.
good, or terrible bad?
TdeMO: It can
be both ways. I think there is a
kind of music that really calls for the worst in a person, and I
think that there are other kinds of music that can lift a person up.
BD: Do you
purposely write music to lift
No. I don’t think about it when I write.
BD: What do
you think about when you
problem is to write down exactly what
you hear in your head, and that is a very complicated
thing. You have the perfect sound in your head, and
when you write something down that is close, but not perfect, you
cannot stop there. You have to go until you find the real
thing, and that takes so much thinking that I can’t have anything else
on my mind.
BD: The sound
that you’re trying to
write down — the sound that you hear in your head — have you created
or have you discovered this?
mostly have the feeling that I
get it from somewhere. I didn’t invent it; that’s nonsense.
All sounds are somewhere already, and I have the feeling that I
just pick the notes and gather them together. It’s not that I
discover, I invent them.
BD: But you
manipulate the combinations?
Sure. Workmanship is needed to get it on paper.
the balance, then, between the
inspiration and the technique?
don’t say that there is only one
percent inspiration and the rest is perspiration, as many people
say. I think the inspiration is a bigger part, but it
is not so that inspiration is only in music. You can have
inspiration in anything you do. The whole day can be full of
inspiration, and it asks for a kind of opening up of yourself, of
peaceful mind and being open to whatever comes your way. Then the
day is full of surprises, and if you are in that state of mind, the
composing goes easy.
BD: Let me
ask one other
balance question. In your music, is there a balance
between the artistic achievement and an entertainment value?
don’t think so much about the entertainment
point, actually. I am just busy creating something that satisfies
what I want to make. I have, of course, an aesthetical ideal in
my mind, and I want to reach that. I hope people are entertained
by my music, but I am not thinking about that when I am composing.
BD: You are
also a pianist. Are you the ideal interpreter of your own works?
[Laughs] Well, not always. I wrote a piano
concerto, which I couldn’t possibly play. It’s too
difficult. I used to play a lot of piano and I used to perform
all the great classics such as Mozart and Beethoven, but I stopped
doing that because also here, as with teaching, it took too much
time. I cannot be half a pianist and half a composer. I
want to be
a real composer, and if that means not being a pianist at all, that’s
okay with me. So I only perform my own works, and those
that I can perform, I think I am the ideal performer.
played the works of the older
composers, does that make you a better composer yourself?
don’t think so, no. It’s such a different thing to perform those
and to compose yourself. What is essential is that you have a lot
of repertoire knowledge when you compose. You cannot just start
out from nothing. Everybody builds on the old masters.
BD: Are you
part of a line, a lineage of
course. I think all composers are part
of the line, but I hope you are not asking me which line that
would be, because I wouldn’t know.
grown up and have spent most of your life
in Holland. Is there anything particularly Dutch about your music?
don’t think so. There was a time you could hear a typically German
— heavy — sound
or a typically French — light — sound,
but that stopped years ago. The Earth is so
small now. Everybody knows everybody, and you are influenced as
much by Japan as by Alaska. It’s not anymore so that you are a
typically Dutch composer.
BD: Is it
good that we know instantly what is done in
Australia or in Holland or in Chicago or in Japan?
TdeMO: I like
it. I like to have a feeling that
we know each other. We’re just one big family.
BD: So music
is music is music?
but there is, of course, a lot of
difference still. When you think of India, the real Indian
music is something else that you cannot compare with any Beethoven.
BD: You are
speaking of the traditional Indian music, of course.
and the traditional Chinese music or Korean
music that has all the sound of its own.
BD: But a
composer living in Bombay, who’s working in
a similar idiom to a composer living in Beijing or a composer living
in Chicago or a composer living in Hilversum — it’s all going to be
much, much closer together.
Yes. The problem is that
in India, you have this fantastic traditional music, while in Holland
there is not so much traditional music on which we can fall back.
maybe that is why I don’t feel “typical Dutch.”
BD: Is there
something that audiences
should know about composing, or should they just experience the music
as the pure sound when they hear it?
think it’s a little bit dangerous to explain
too much. I’m always flabbergasted when I see how much composers
want to tell the audience. The audience comes to listen, not to
what the composer thought and what he ate when he was writing and
what colors he prefers. I think that background information is
much overrated. What is important is that the
audience knows a little bit of the background of the piece —
it was written, what was the intention of the composer — and that’s
all. The only thing that counts is how it sounds, not
what the composer wanted to do with it. That’s not
important. Also, if I may go on with this because this is one of
my hang-ups, some people think it’s so important to know what technique
was used. Was it dodecaphonic or was it not total dodecaphonic
or a little bit serial? It’s totally unimportant. What
makes good music or bad
music is not what technique was used but what kind of composer it
is. If you take Schoenberg and give him a dodecaphonic
series, he makes a beautiful piece out of it. But if you give it
to Mister X who doesn’t know how to compose,
nothing will happen!
BD: You’ve also
worked with electronic music?
BD: Is it fun
to work with electronics?
used to be enormous fun. I worked in the
Institute of Sonology in Utrecht. I don’t know if you have heard
of all the great work there. This was a big,
old-fashioned studio with walls full of apparatus, where you had to
plug in and you had to turn knobs, and it was really a sport
to work there! You could discover things. I must say,
now that we all have computers and you need a technician to sit there
and work on your piece, you tell him what you want and the fun is a
bit lost on me. I liked the old-fashioned way better.
BD: Should we
take some of your older
electronic music and make sure it’s played on “original
the fun is that you don’t have to have
these instruments. It’s on tape, so you don’t have
to create it again. It’s finished.
BD: Do you
view the electronic sounds that can
be created as more colors on your palette?
and magnificent colors,
too. With electronic sounds, you really can get anything you
want. I started all that because I hated
electronic music! I had heard it and found it so cold and
and it didn’t mean a thing to me. Then I got a musical
prize and I had to do something cultural with it. So I thought,
not find out what I hate about this electronic music?” So I went
to a course of Gottfried Michael Koenig, and I was not longer than two
weeks in this course and I was totally turned around. I loved
it and I saw the possibilities. It’s really very fascinating to
work with it.
BD: Do you
still work in electronics?
problem is that Sonology moved to The
Hague and is connected with the conservatory there, and in Hilversum,
where I live, is a studio joining to the broadcasting companies.
you only may work there when you have a commission from the
broadcasting companies. If I have a commission I’m happy and
I work there, but if not, I’m also satisfied with the normal writing.
BD: Are your
electronic, or do they combine electronics with live
TdeMO: I made
only one purely electronic piece, and then
when it was performed at a concert I thought, “I will never do that
again.” People want to look at something when
there is a musical concert, and if there is only a little apparatus
turning things on it, what should you look at? So you look at the
ceiling or at your feet, or you yawn or you close your eyes...
read the program notes?
Yes. So that was actually the reason that
I started to combine it with things, but then I discovered that it
gives an extra element. It’s nicer to combine it with acoustical
BD: Might you
write an electronic piece specifically
for a record rather than a live concert?
would be possible, but actually I don’t do that. When I write
music, I always write
for listeners who are in the concert hall.
BD: Tell me
the joys and sorrows of writing for the
TdeMO: Do you
mean solo or choral music?
BD: If you
care to speak of either or both.
TdeMO: Why do you
expect sorrows for
writing for the voice? For me, it’s only a joy! I love the
human voice, and you can do wonderful
things with it.
BD: Is it
just another color on your palette?
an instrument with its own
timbre, but with an extra timbre because it has the human soul behind
it. I always like to write for voice. When you get
and a singer is singing your lines, I always am extra moved. I’m
always moved when they play my music, but when it’s being sung, it’s
BD: Do you
use the voice as a unique instrument,
or do you treat it like a clarinet?
TdeMO: No, of
course not. A voice is not a
clarinet. It has its own possibilities and
colors, and I try to make use of that. I don’t write
instrumentally for the voice. I also like to write for choir,
which is actually very difficult. There are only a few
professional choirs in Holland; most are amateur
choirs, so you have to tone down a little bit your technical
extravaganza. But that is very healthy when you are bound by a
like it very much to write for the voice, so I’m curious now what were
the sorrows you were thinking about?
composers have responded that it’s difficult to
deal with the voice, but this is why I ask, because
each response is different. I come with very few preconceptions
as far as what responses I will get. I don’t ask questions to
elicit pre-determined answers.
[Smiles] That is an excellent way to do it!
another of my favorite inquiries — what advice do
you have for younger composers coming along?
listen and listen and listen to music.
Hear a really lot of music of all kinds — not
music, but all the classics going back to Monteverdi and
Palestrina. That way you get a feeling of what it means to
compose. Then to work hard, because composing in hard work.
BD: Too hard?
too hard. I wouldn’t do it for forty
years if it were too hard. You see, when you are writing you are
on your own because it’s a lonely profession. You can only write
when you are alone. There is actually nobody
who is encouraging you. You have to do it all by yourself, and if
you are not very convinced that you on the right way, then life can
say having composed is fun. When the
piece is ready, then it’s fun of having composed. While you are
wrestling with it, it’s not always fun. Really it’s hard work,
and what people sometimes forget is that it’s also physical hard
work. When you see big scores, remember that before I had the
computer I had
to write all the notes down. I even had a tennis arm from
once. I had a deadline, and I wrote hours and hours in a
too-fast tempo, so I couldn’t use my arm for a long period. But
now I have the computer and the Finale
program, which is very
good. But you won’t believe it — I
also had a mouse arm!
BD: But I
trust the computer doesn’t do
any work for you. It just eases your task, but it doesn’t do
any real thinking for you.
course not, but the score looks nicer. You don’t need to actually
publish it because it looks like printed when you have it on the
[Sarcastically] That’ll make all the engravers very happy.
BD: Are we
getting to the point where engraving music
is going to be obsolete?
old-fashioned way of making it
with copper plates will be extinct. But I
am still happy that I have a publisher, because I can give him a
floppy and he has an easy task of publishing it. But all the
channels of the commerce I leave gladly to my publisher, and
don’t delve in that myself.
BD: Are you
optimistic about the future of music?
ask such difficult questions!
[Laughs] Let’s say I am optimistic that there will always be
music because we need it. But will the music always
be nice? That I don’t know. Sometimes we try to be too
original and come to a dead end. Then we have to turn back a
little bit and
go in another direction. This turning back is a process which
composers don’t like. So if people stay open all the time and
are willing to try something else than they were doing, then maybe
there is a good future for music.
BD: I assume,
though, it’s right that we explore
all of the alleys, even though some of them are blind alleys.
you have to try everything. That’s why I even composed, for a
whole summer, just
dodecaphonic music — to discover that it was not my way. But I am
happy that I tried it nevertheless.
BD: You had
to work with it and use it in order to find out for yourself?
Sure. Only then can you find out if it is
your way or not.
BD: So it’s
not your bag?
No. [Both laugh]
BD: Do you
like traveling all over the
world with your music?
do. I like traveling, although sometimes
it gets a little bit too long, and then I get homesick. But all
in all I like traveling, and I especially like meeting people and
learning new things and new cultures. I was in Korea, and I
enjoyed it very much. I did a crazy Dutch
folksong with all these Korean people. Really, I wish I
had filmed it. It was an experience never to forget! Then
they tried to teach me a Korean song. I
wasn’t as good as they were. [Laughs]
BD: Thank you
for coming to Chicago, and for
sharing your music with us.
you very much.
|Tera de Marez Oyens (5 August
1932, Velsen – 29 August 1996, Hilversum) was a Dutch composer.
De Marez Oyens was born as Woltera Gerharda Wansink. She studied at the
Conservatorium van Amsterdam with a major in piano. Here, her talent
for composition was discovered as she wrote her first pieces. These
included chamber music and song cycles. After that she came in contact
with youth groups, for whom she also wrote individual pieces.
She then became the cantor of the Reformed church community of
Hilversum. Because of this she was very busy with church music. She
wrote 14 melodies for the church songbooks that appeared in 1973. The
lyrics for these songs were supplied by, among others, Muus Jacobse,
Willem Barnard and Ad den Besten, whom she knew personally.
In the sixties she experimented with the tone poem and electronic
music. Sound and Silence
(1971) and Mixed Feelings
(1973) are pieces of electronic music she composed, and Pente Sjawoe is an example of a
work in which the tone poem plays an important role.
In 1977 she became an instructor at the conservatory in Zwolle. Her
lessons focused especially on the development of the student's own
style. But she wanted to continue to write her own pieces and after the
death of her second husband she became a full-time composer. At that
time she wrote The Odyssey of Mr.
Goodevil (1981). In 1988 she contributed pieces to the
international cello competition in Scheveningen, and in 1989 she was
composer in residence at the Georgia State University in Atlanta.
She wrote over 200 works of music, many commissioned by the Dutch
Ministry of Culture and various broadcasting networks. In 1995 she was
asked to write a piece (Unison)
for the 50th anniversary of the United Nations.
She had been married to Gerrit de Marez Oyens and Menachem Arnoni.
Despite the fact that she had become seriously ill, in 1996 Tera de
Marez Oyens married the renowned cartoonist Marten Toonder. She died on
29 August of that year in Hilversum.
© 1995 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded at her
hotel in Chicago on November 6, 1995. Sections
were used (along with
recordings) on WNIB in 1997, and on WNUR in 2002 and 2007.
It was transcribed
and posted on this
website in 2012.
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
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.