Composer  Nicholas  Maw

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Nicholas Maw

(November 5, 1935 - May 19, 2009)

Nicholas Maw is one of Britain’s most admired composers.  He was an acknowledged master in whatever genre he expressed himself, and one whose musical language is instantly recognisable.  Born in 1935 in Grantham, Lincolnshire, he studied at the Royal Academy of Music, London (1955-58) with Paul Steinitz and Lennox Berkeley; and in Paris with Nadia Boulanger and Schoenberg’s pupil, Max Deutsch.  His career as a teacher has included positions at Trinity College Cambridge, Exeter University, Yale University, and latterly he was Professor of Composition at the Peabody Conservatory, Baltimore. Prizes and awards he has won include the 1959 Lili Boulanger Prize, the 1980 Midsummer Prize of the City of London, the 1991 Sudler International Wind Band Composition Competition for American Games, and the 1993 Stoeger Prize from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

Maw received commissions from many of the major musical organisations in the United Kingdom such as the BBC, the Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, the Philharmonia Orchestra, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, the Royal Opera House, the Nash Ensemble, the English Chamber Orchestra, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the London Sinfonietta, to name but a few, and he has been the featured composer at the South Bank Summer Music Festival (1973), the Kings Lynn Festival (1985), the BBC ‘Nicholas Maw Day’ at the South Bank (1989), the Bath Festival (1991), the Park Lane Group and the Royal Academy of Music’s British Music Festival (1992), the 60th Birthday Malvern Weekend (1995) and the Chester Festival (1999).

His extensive and varied catalogue includes much chamber, vocal and choral music, two comic operas (the chamber opera One Man Show, 1964, and the three-act The Rising of the Moon, 1967-70), solo instrumental works, and music for children.  Maw is, however, most celebrated for his orchestral music: his reputation being established when, at the age of 26, he produced Scenes and Arias (1962) for a BBC Prom, which immediately put him right at the forefront of the British musical scene.  This BBC commission is now recognised as one of the most outstanding British works of its decade.

In addition to fulfilling other numerous commissions, from 1973 to 1987 Maw composed Odyssey for orchestra: the single, unbroken 96-minute span of symphonic music which has been unanimously lauded since its initial performance in 1987 at a BBC Prom in London.  The EMI recording by Simon Rattle and the CBSO was nominated for a Grammy Award in 1992 and cited by Classic CD (June 2000) as the best recording out of a hundred recommended releases in the decade. Leonard Slatkin and the St Louis Orchestra gave the American premiere of Odyssey in St Louis and New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1994.

Other important orchestral works by Nicholas Maw are his lively and joyous Spring Music (1983), the orchestral nocturne The World in the Evening (1988) and his lyrical Violin Concerto (1993) premiered by Joshua Bell, Roger Norrington and the Orchestra of St. Luke’s in New York, and the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, under Slatkin in 1993, which was recorded for Sony and nominated for the 2000 Mercury Prize.  Other recordings include: American Games (Klavier); Dance Scenes (EMI Classics); Ghost Dances, Roman Canticle, La Vita Nuova (ASV); Odyssey (EMI Classics); Piano Trio, Flute Quartet (ASV); Sonata Notturna/Life Studies (Nimbus); Hymnus/Little Concert/Shahnama (ASV); Sophie’s Choice DVD (OpusArte).

Since 1984, Maw divided his time between Europe and the United States.  There has been a resultant upsurge of performances in the US from many major American ensembles, soloists and orchestras: such as the orchestras of Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Indianapolis, Minneapolis, San Francisco and National Symphony (Washington DC), and the Lincoln Center Chamber Players.

At the same time he was very much a part of musical life in the UK.  He had commissions in 1995 from the BBC (for which he produced Voices of Memory) and from the Philharmonia Orchestra for their 50th Birthday Gala (Dance Scenes), and in 1996 the BBC announced it was co-founding a Royal Opera commission to the composer to write an opera based on William Styron’s novel Sophie’s Choice.  This work was premiered in the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in December 2002 under the baton of Sir Simon Rattle in a production by Trevor Nunn. It was also staged in Berlin and Vienna a few years later – a production also seen in Washington DC.

Perhaps the warmth of the reception in America can be most aptly summed up by Richard Dyer’s comment in the Boston Globe that ‘for generations people will be buying tickets to hear his music’, which echoes earlier words from the British critic Malcolm Hayes on Odyssey: ‘There are very few post-war works whose substance, technical control, sheer range of thought, wonderful playability and - above all - whose magnificent attitude look set to ensure that they’re still going to be played in 50 years’ time (and beyond).  I think Odyssey will be one of them’.

--  From the website of Faber Music (slightly edited) 
--  Names on this webpage which are links refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

In anticipation of his upcoming 60th birthday, I made contact with Nicholas Maw, and since his plans did not involve a return to Chicago, he agreed to have a conversation on the telephone.

So, in mid-July of 1995, I placed the call, and when he picked up we had just a bit of chit-chat while I made sure the recording was going properly.  He asked more about the use to be made of the interview, and I told him that besides airing on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, a copy would be placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University . . . . .

Nicholas Maw:    Oh, good!

Bruce Duffie:    Their area of specialization is twentieth-century music, and they’re very interested in all the interviews that I do!  So I make copies for them of the conversations with composers, and the performers who specialize in new music.

NM:    Right!  They actually have a manuscript of mine!  They have a manuscript of Scenes and Arias.  They bought it about twenty years ago.  There’s a very nice guy there who was the librarian, named Don Roberts.

BD:    Yes, he’s still there.  I worked with him a little bit when I was in graduate school in the very early
70s and I’ve maintained my connection there.

NM:    Yes, right.  He’s a great wine man, I remember!

BD:    Yes, he’s the Vini-Meister some place in the depths of Germany.

NM:    Right, right!  [Much laughter]  I actually visited the school there on one occasion, and I also met Alan Stout.

maw BD:    Good!  Let’s begin our discussion just a little bit about that manuscript.  Is that the definitive score of Scenes and Arias?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my Interviews with Anne Howells, and John Shirley-Quirk.]

NM:    It’s the orchestral score of Scenes and Arias, and it’s either the sketches and or the vocal score as well.  Actually I didn’t make the vocal score.  I just tidied it up, but I think it’s the sketches and the orchestral score, yes. 

BD:    Is this something that you relish, knowing that scholars, years from now, will look at your sketches and see how you arrived at your various final versions?

NM:    I have to tell you in all honesty that I do myself have questions about this.  I feel a little at sixes and sevens about it at sometimes.  Brahms, for example, destroyed all his sketches.  He didn’t want anybody to know what was going on in the kitchen.  He just wanted to serve the meal, wonderful and complete.  He just didn’t want anybody to know how it was made.  So there are no sketches!  There may be one or two tiny bits and pieces, but there are no significant sketches for any of the major works, as far as I’m aware.  For precisely that reason he really didn’t want people delving around in his subconscious, as it were. 

BD:    But then do we have to try and reconstruct it inaccurately?

NM:    Do we need to reconstruct it?  Nowadays there’s such an industry of course.  The answer to that in many quarters would be ‘yes’.  I have some doubts about this, I really do.  I feel a little concerned about it, though a lot of my manuscripts are in various places.  There’s one in the New York Public Library, there are two or three in the British Library, and the rest of them I still don’t possess myself.  Some of them I house in the Britten-Pears Library at Aldeburgh.

BD:    Why do they not stay with the composer at least until his death?

NM:    In my case, the answer’s very simple.  There was such a trunk-full of them, and when I came over here to the U.S., it was something I didn’t want to lug around the world with me, as it were.  I just wanted them to stay in a safe place.  In the case of the manuscripts in the British Library, they’re both there because I gave them to an organization in London for them to sell at an auction house to raise money for this organization, which in fact is an organization dedicated for the performance of new music.  They were then bought by the British Library.

BD:    I assume that’s where you would really want them to go?

NM:    Yes, I’m happy about that.  But the question is whether you want all your manuscripts to be in one place... not that one usually has very much choice about this.  The world makes up its own mind.  [Laughs]  They get bought and sold unless you very specifically put them in one place.

BD:    Is it necessary that we have the manuscript if the published material is accurate?

NM:    Well, of course, manuscripts are always interesting.  The point is probably going to become moot soon because one seriously asks oneself the question of how long there are going to be manuscripts in the old sense of the term.

BD:    Then we’ll have to deposit our computer discs!

NM:    Exactly!  It’ll all be done on computers, and it already is in many respects.  The fact that I actually write everything out in long-hand on an orchestral score makes me to be something of an oddity in the world!

BD:    You’re a dinosaur!

NM:    I’m a dinosaur, yes, yes!  I shall soon be extinct!

BD:    Is your music ever going to be extinct?

NM:    I can’t answer that.  [Bursts out laughing]  Again, the world will decide that.  It has a very extraordinary way of sorting these matters out, and from the point of view of the composer, what one sees is very paradoxical.  During the early stages of a work’s life, very often all sorts of unmusical reasons decide whether it gets performed or not
how difficult it is; whether it’s too long or too short; what the size of the orchestra is; who knows it; whether it’ll go in with a certain program at a certain time, etc.  In other words there are all sorts of reasonsaesthetic and political and financialbut eventually those reasons become less and less important, and what actually matters is the quality of the work.

BD:    Those reasons are for performance.  Are there ever non-musical reasons
that a piece of music would sound the way it does, or get composed the way it does?

NM:    Non-musical reasons? 

BD:    Political things, or exigencies.

NM:    Oh, yes!  There’s plenty of examples of political music in the twentieth-century, particularly of all kinds of people.  Stravinsky made the point that the music itself does not sound political.  There’s no way of making it sound political.  It’s only by attaching a text or a program or something else to it that it becomes a political act.  If you just listen to the music by itself, would this have any extra-musical meaning?  Sometimes it would if it were a bombastic march or something like a battle scene, but how would you know what is what?

BD:    Then what about the music of Nicholas Maw?

NM:    There are no reasons why pieces of mine sound political, though I would say there are reasons why pieces of mine sound the way they do for purely practical reasons.  This is the case with nearly all composers.  You get asked to write a piece for a certain group or a certain kind of musical line-up, and so the piece turns out to have a certain sound because of this.  Put at its simplest, if you’re asked to write a piece for a string quartet, you write a string quartet.  There it is, it’s for four string players.

BD:    But if you get an idea that you know would be stylistically better on the piano or for a trombone, do you save it, or do you try to work it into the quartet?

NM:    I try and save it.  As a matter of fact, you’ve put your finger on something rather interesting.  I often find that students sometimes make mistakes about this, and they are sometimes inept at realizing what is the best context for their ideas.  You learn to find ideas which actually belong to that particular context, and I really do think that’s a matter of experience.  I made mistakes in this respect myself when I was a young composer, and, heaven knows, I may have made mistakes when I’m not such a young composer!  [Laughs]  But it’s something that I do actually think about when I’m writing the piece.

BD:    When you sit down to write a piece
either on commission or if you’ve just got an ideado you know in the beginning how long it will take to complete the compositional process?

NM:    No!  Usually I never do.  I can estimate to some extent, but never really accurately.  I wouldn’t describe myself as a very fast composer, although I can write quite fast sometimes.  But on the whole I’m one of those composers whose ideas come through getting enmeshed in the process.  I think out certain aspects of pieces before I sit down and write them, but I don’t think out a lot of detail and then just simply sit down and write it all out.  In other words, it means that I’m elaborating on that as I go along.  So this is possibly a slightly longer way of composing.

BD:    So you start out with a general idea?

NM:    I start out with a general idea, yes.  I usually know what kind of formal shape I want the piece to be in, but that very often gets changed as the piece goes along.

BD:    Is it you that you are purposely changing the piece, or is it the piece that is changing itself as it is being written?

NM:    Ah!  That’s a good question.  It’s a sort of six of one and half a dozen of the other.  Sometimes the piece will change itself.  Sometimes it simply takes over and turns into something somewhat different than what you imagined.  An idea comes along and seems to run very well with what you’ve done already, and it pushes the piece in a new direction... though that’s unusual, I have to say.  If I think out some really large scale plan, it is rare that I will deviate from that.  Say I’m writing a piece in several movements, I will probably stick to the plan of writing the piece several movements
though some of those movements might turn out to be somewhat different in character from what I’d originally envisaged.

BD:    Is this really some of the best music that comes from ideas you don’t expect?

NM:    I think actually I could probably lay my hand on my heart and say yes to that.  There’s a wonderful phrase of Stravinsky’s when he talks about writing music at the piano
which I also do myself to some extent — but he said, One of the things I like about it is that my finger may slip and I will play a wrong note, and by playing a wrong note I will make a discovery.

BD:    Serendipitously!

NM:    He is implying that the discovery is what is magical.  Actually I agree with him about that.  That’s what one is always looking for
the moment when, in a way, it does take off by itself.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    When you’re working with it and you’re fleshing it out, and you go back and tinker with it, how do you know when to put the pen down and say,
It is ready?

maw NM:    That’s another good question.  I’m always asking students how they know when a piece is finished, and it is a good question.  The only answer I can give you is that there’s some instinctive thing about realizing your imagined and envisaged form.  There’s some instinctive thing about you deciding you’ve realized this to whatever extent you have realized it.  Although, when you have to deliver up the manuscript, sometimes you feel that you have not achieved this
that you have not managed to realize the form that you envisagedand it usually makes one very unhappy.  It makes me unhappy.  Of course there are some things when it is very simple to know when the piece is finished.  If you’re writing a song or anything with a text, that answers itself.  But if you’re writing just pure music, the question is much more difficult, and the best answer I can give you is an almost instinctive feeling that you’ve realized the form, and that you have fully, as it were, accounted for the material that you’ve invented in the piece.

BD:    You said that sometimes the deadline comes up too fast, and you need to deliver the piece when you’re not quite happy with it.  Do you then go back later and revise it, or punch it up a little bit?

NM:    I do that, to the great unhappiness of my own publishers because this causes havoc with orchestral parts and things like that.  But I’m afraid composers have always done this, and you just have to do it in order to get it right.  Mahler, for example, was doing it all the time.  Every time he conducted one of his own symphonies, he made changes
sometimes really quite extensive changes!

BD:    Is there ever a time when it really is right?

NM:    Yes, but in the case of a large orchestral work you can’t even phrase the question in quite those terms because what is going on there is so complex.  You always have doubts, and you always have second thoughts about what you’ve done.  You not only have second thoughts, but there are certain things which get into print you that you wish fervently actually had not managed to get into print.

BD:    And then someone comes and says,
Oh, but that was a stroke of brilliance!

NM:    [Laughs]  Yes, so who am I to say?  I’m only the composer, you know!  [Both laugh]  Other people have other ideas about these things.  It’s very interesting, though, when you think of a composer like Ravel, for example.  One always thinks of him as being the most astoundingly accomplished person.  That is to say, if any music written in this century really sounds polished, sounds finished to the last degree, it’s Ravel.  But he was always hyper-critical of his own work, and he was always saying to people there are things which he didn’t like, and things that he would have done differently.

BD:    It sounds like it’s an impossible task.  Does that mean you
re always unhappy?

NM:    Well it is.  It is the sort of the Myth of Sisyphus in way.  You’re always pushing the rock uphill and it always rolls down again.  You’re not necessarily unhappy because there are passages which sound good and that you’ve got pretty close to what you want.  All you can hope for is that you get pretty close, and what you’re always looking for is to try and realize the sound that you first imagined.

maw BD:    Are you ever surprised by what you hear?

NM:    Yes, actually, sometimes!  I’m less surprised than I used to be now, but actually there are still surprises, and if you’re worth your salt as a composer, you’re always trying to venture out into new territory in some form or other.  So you’re always taking risks.  You’re always making experiments.  Some of them are pleasant.  Some of them are not so pleasant!  Yes, you do have surprises.  If you don’t have surprises, there must be something wrong with you as a creative artist.

BD:    When you get the piece finished, and this time the deadline has been such that you’re very happy with the way it is.  Do you expect some interpretation on the part of the performers, or do you want them to perform it slavishly exactly as it is on the page?

NM:    The answer to this is rather long and complex, but I’ll try and boil it down.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  I’ve plenty of tape!

NM:    This is where I very definitely part company with Stravinsky.  He always used to maintain that there was one way to perform his scores, and that was that.  I don’t think so.  If you have two different performers, and they give different interpretations of the piece, if the music is good enough it is large enough to contain different interpretations.  It should be large enough for interesting, well-formed performing personalities to be able to realize themselves in the music. 
Even for a figure as powerful as Beethoven, there are many ways of actually performing his music.  On the other hand, if the music is of a rather secondary rung, or even a third rung, there are very few ways of performing it.  As a composer, one is preoccupied with trying to get the piece across for the first time, so what you’re trying to do is set some kind of norms.  You’re trying to set possible performance standards for the piece.  For example, I’ve had conductors and others say to me that they’ve listened to a tape of something of mine, and they’ll say, “He took that rather fast, didn’t he?  Did you approve of that interpretation?  I say that’s how it turned out on that date, as it were, that it was an interpretation.  That is a way of playing the piece and that’s how it happened on that occasion, but it’s not the only way of doing it, and I don’t want this set in concrete.  It’s not like that at all. 

BD:    Just as a sidebar, let me interrupt for a moment.  In the first performance, are you trying to set a standard, or are you trying to make it such that the public and the performers will want to hear it and play it again?

NM:    I think you’re trying to do both.  I think indeed you do.  I want the performers and the public to get enough out of the piece on the first occasion.  They’re obviously not going to grasp everything about it on the first occasion, but you hope that there will be enough in the piece which will be attractive enough to make them either wish to play it or hear it again.  But inherent in that statement is that the piece must be played to a certain standard even to be able to do that.  The two sort of go hand in glove.  They can’t be separated, really.

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

NM:    Recently, on the whole I have been pleased.  Yes, I have!  One of the more agreeable aspects of growing older is that performances of one’s music on the whole improve, and that certain pieces have already set performance standards for themselves.  The critics know that it should be at least played to a certain level, and performers do, also, and even listeners as well.

BD:    Is this that we are learning ‘you’?

NM:    Yes, yes, exactly.  Not so much in this country yet, because there have not been enough performances of my works on the whole, but in England, certain of my works have got to the stage where there is a body of people who know them well enough that one could say they’ve set some kind of performance standard for themselves.  This can sometimes have a depressing affect as well.  In certain cases, if a piece has been performed too well, particularly in the early stages of its life, there are some people who won’t want to take up the challenge of trying it themselves because it might show them up.  That doesn’t happen very often, but it does happen from time to time.

BD:    This begs the whole question of recordings, because they will come across the ocean even though a performance might not.

NM:    Right!

BD:    Are you basically pleased with the records that are out?

NM:    Yes, on the whole I am.  I didn’t quite finish replying to your previous statement...  Actually in the early stages of my career there were some performances which made me extremely unhappy.  I can recall first performances of things which were a long, long way away from what I had imagined the work to be.  Though, as I say, that has not happened for really quite some time now, fortunately, I’m happy to say!

BD:    I’m glad to know that we’re getting better at playing ‘you!’  [Both laugh]

maw NM:    Yes, I think so.  Another thing is that in some cases I’ve been around long enough now, and some of my works are on their third generation of players.  As a new generation comes along, they seem to solve problems which had been very serious problems for their elders.  They just play the piece, and this has something to do with a gradual rise in certain performance standards, I guess.

BD:    It’s generally acknowledged that there has been a rise in the technical ability of the players.  Is there a commensurate rise in their musical ability as you see it?

NM:    No, no, I don’t think so.  [Becomes his own interviewer briefly]  Is there a rise in the number of musicians of quality?  Probably not.  I’m a little unsure about the answer to that but probably not.

BD:    Is there any rise at all in the musical quality, or is there actually a decline setting in?

NM:    In some cases we know that there is decline, though these things seem to go in cycles.  For example, there seems to be a very remarkable young school of violin playing which seems to have really reached some of the standards of the past.  There is Joshua Bell (b. 1967) who played my Concerto, and Gil Shaham (b. 1971), and there is this young man from Russia, Max Vengerov (b. 1974).  These are very really outstanding players, and there are several others, too.

BD:    Do you take advantage of that and write sonatas and concertos for these people?

NM:    If you can, yes, indeed you do.  You hope that there is some way of involving them in your music, and sometimes one is happy to do that.  Sometimes it’s not possible, I’m afraid, for all sorts of reasons, but one hopes that one can indeed get hold of a performance of this quality.

BD:    Do you have any advice for performers in playing and presenting the works of living composers? 

NM:    [Thinks a moment]  I always hesitate to give advice, but the only advice I have would be to really put yourself behind the work, and put the whole of your technique, your ability, your understanding, your experience into playing the work.  In companion with many composers, I much prefer a performance of a piece of mine which has the spirit of the piece in it
even though it may be technically far from perfectrather than a performance which is technically quite accomplished but is a long way away from the spirit of the piece.

BD:    Of course this is exact opposite of the philosophy of the recording producer.

NM:    [With a certain British stoicism]  I’m afraid so, yes!  [Both laugh]  The recording industry has taken over so many of the aesthetics of the music profession.  But performances have tended to become like that too, and I think that is a decline, and I’m sorry about that.  Performances are expected to be a certain kind.  However, because there’s this famous phenomenon whereby you have to play the piano a certain way, and you have to play piano concertos in a certain way in order to win these international competitions, and frankly that is deadly.

BD:    It makes all the pianists all sound the same.

NM:    Quite, yes!  It makes them all sound the same, and the ones that don’t sound the same shine out like stars.  They really are to be cherished.  Maybe that will pass, but I don’t know.  I hope so.  There are pianists who don’t play like that, I’m happy to say.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I’m going to dare to ask you for one more bit of advice.  What advice do you have for composers?

maw NM:    [Laughs]  Of course for different composers you give different advice!  The only advice that I would give to composers is to try and put down what you hear.  That sounds blatantly obviously, I know, but we’ve just passed through a period of musical history where that has not been considered the most important question.   I happen to believe that it is the most important question.  It’s the only thing which is really worth pursuing, so that’s the only piece of advice that I would give them
just try to put down what you hear, and try to hear what you put down.  They are like heavenly twins.

BD:    Is that becoming simpler or more difficult with the use of the computer
that you can put down something and it will produce at least some kind of sound pattern?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, also see my interviews with Sir Andrew Davis.]

NM:    In some sense it’s becoming simpler because you can year everything
that is to say you can hear some simulation of everything.  But then you have to bear in mind that it is a simulation, that it is, to some extent, a distortion of what it will sound like if indeed the piece is written for normal instruments.  So in one sense it is simpler because it’s possible for you to be able to put into the computer the complete sounds of an orchestral score.  But, as I say, they are simulated sounds.  They’re not how it’s going to sound, but I’m sure that computers eventually will get it very close to what it really will sound like.  Then the question will arise as to whether one actually needs an orchestra or notwhich has already arisen in the case of theater pit orchestras.  They now nearly all use a synthesizer, and frankly I view this with alarm.

BD:    Is your alarm because of the performers, or because of the music, or just because of the stifling of the creativity on the part of the individual players and conductor in the pit?

NM:    Yes to all of that.  Music is a collective activity.  I hate to say that it’s a social activity because that pushes into a boundary that I don’t really want to.  We all know that in some sense it is a social activity, but let’s just call it a collective activity, and the problem about this kind of music production is that it becomes less and less a collective activity
— as indeed it does with all forms of reproduced sound, including records of course.  It becomes much more a private activity, and I view this with concern.  We know that to some extent in the past music was a private activity, particularly chamber music.  It was played to very small groups of people.

BD:    It was Hausmusik?

NM:    Yes, but the whole point about orchestral music or large-scale choral music is that it is a big, collective, public occasion, and the way things are going we’re in danger of losing that.  The whole computerization of the world is, in all its aspects, turning the world into a much more fragmented and private sort of place.  It’s getting people out of a market place and into the home.

BD:    We’re all retreating into our caves!

NM:    I’m afraid so, yes we are.  We can communicate with each other on an astonishing level anywhere on the face of the globe, but how much meeting is involved when you meet through a computer?  I don’t know.  It’s an interesting question.  [Again, posing his own question]  How much of the experience of great orchestral music do you get when you listen to it on record?  I don’t know.  I don’t think I can answer the question, but the question is certainly worth posing.  I know that there are grave problems in any public presentation of whatever kind, and certainly of music.  Whenever I go to a concert, I’m afraid I find myself subject to the most intense irritations of people shuffling and not listening attentively, and coughing and all this kind of thing.  I feel like walking out on it in exasperation, going home and putting on the disc!  But there’s something missing from that experience, also. 

BD:    We have danced around it a little bit, so let me ask the big question straight out.  What is the purpose of music?

NM:    [Thinks a moment]  I don’t know whether there is a purpose for it in that sense.  The only purpose that I can think of is that is it a means of expression and communication which is so basic, so atavistic, that we can’t escape it; that the base is at absolute rock bottom.  I’ve always believed music goes back to singing and dancing; that we feel this need, as human beings, to sing and dance.  The singing is the melody part and the dancing is the rhythmic part, and of course it gets so much more complicated than that.  The whole of the world’s music has developed in multifarious ways, with extraordinary complexity and differences.  But at absolutely rock bottom, they all share that necessity to sing and dance.  So the purpose of it, in so far as one can actually say, is it’s a shared experience
which is necessary on whatever levelwhether it’s rock music, or symphonic music, or whatever.  It’s also a way of interpreting the world and making the world whole for us, or realizing a certain world, an interior world.  I don’t consider myself to be very adept with words, but words are notoriously inadequate when dealing with music.

BD:    [Re-assuringly]  But you are bringing your thoughts across very well.

maw NM:    Good.  The great power of music is that is goes straight into the bloodstream.  You can’t escape it in a sense.  It has a tremendous power entering into your consciousness and taking over, and in my view, much of it is more so than a visual experience.  I don’t say there aren’t other things which are as powerful as this, but music is very powerful in that respect, and it appears to be necessary for us as human beings.  It actually goes back to that latent function that I was talking about of singing and dancing.  That’s about as near to a purpose as I can get at the moment.  [Laughs]

BD:    All of what you say speaks directly to the idea, so let us go a bit further.  You say the singing is the melody and the dance is the rhythm.  What, then, is the purpose of the harmony?

NM:    I was thinking of music at its most primitive level.  The harmony is basically a function of putting more than one melody element together, and making them work in a way that seems satisfying to us.  This has developed in many different ways.  For example, if you listen to Indian music, there is no harmony in quite the sense as there is in Western music.

BD:    Our music is much more vertical.

NM:    Exactly, though harmony is not entirely a function of Western music.  There is harmony in Far-Eastern music
in Chinese and Japanese music, with their pentatonic scales and things like that.  And there is harmony in Balinese music.  It is a different sort of harmony, but there is harmony there, and they clearly think vertically.  That’s part of their thought.  The harmony is a way of organizing more than one singing voice at rock bottom.  Eventually, of course, when Western music was at one of its great moments in the Classical period, harmony became much more than that.  It became one of the prime organizing forces of the form.  That is to say, you started off in the home key, and then you went to the dominant, and came back to the home key again.  These forms were built around this process, and it was all developed from our Western idea of tonality; of how music is one key, or mode, or whatever you want to call it.

BD:    For you, are these strictures and structures liberating or restricting?

NM:    For me, on the whole, they are liberating, and I tend to think in a way allied to the old tonal system.  There are fairly well-defined harmonic areas in my music, and sometimes these appear just as straight tonality.  It’s usually rather more complicated than that because we’ve all gone through the experience of a period of music when there was no tonality.  You can’t just discount that, and so that affects my music
not the same way, but I share the fact that my music is affected by that experience in just the way any other composers is nowadays.  But my music has fairly strongI won’t call them tonal centers, but certainly harmonic centers, which the piece is built around. 

BD:    Is this part of the return to tonality in general, or is it just strictly your own invention?

NM:    Actually, I started to do some things in the
60s which certain other people have become interested in doing as well subsequently.  There is, indeed, a seeming need to return to some kind of method of musical writing where there is a fairly well-defined area around which the piece is written.  Sometimes this is a tonalityD major, or A major, or whateverand sometimes it’s something which cannot be pinned down in a key like that.  But nevertheless there is a strong harmonic aura, shall we say, around a certain area where the piece seems to rest itself.  If you think of a map of a town, particularly an old town, and you think of the market square in the town as the center of the town, it becomes the main harmonic area of your piece.  You can go out into the streets on any side of this, and you can go right out to the edge of the town, but you still know where the market square is, and you always are able to relate to your position to that market square.  That can describe normal classical tonal practice, but it also can describe the practice of a composer like myself.  I think in those terms, even though on the whole I don’t use straight D major or F minor, or whatever.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Are you optimistic about the whole future of concert music?

NM:    [Laughs]  Sometimes I am and sometimes I’m not!  One thing that I welcome with real open arms and open heart is the fact that there is what might be described the demise of dogma in music.  When I was a young man in the
60s, there was abroad in the world a kind of dogma which demanded that there was the one way of writing music, and this is the only serious way of doing it.  That no longer exists.  There is a multifarious idea of musical languages, and this makes the whole scene much more confusing in a sense.  But on the other hand, it’s much more lively.

BD:    I think it’s good for people, such as yourself, who can cope with it, but perhaps not as good for people who are less able to be as creative.

maw NM:    Do you think so?  Do you think, for example, that what is paramount in their minds is the confusion?

BD:    I’m sure for some, yes!

NM:    You’re probably right, but even in confusion there are certain musical personalities who will stand out simply because of the strength of what they have to say.  Sometimes you will get a movement
like ‘minimalism’, for examplewhich has got all kinds of proponents.  People can relate certain ‘minimalist’ composers, and unfortunately a lot of them get too dogmatically-related to it by writers and others.  A composer like Arvo Pärt is a very different sort of composer from, say, John Adams, but in some sense they can both described as ‘minimalist’, even though they really are two very, very different creative figures.

BD:    I’ve always had this thought that perhaps in the
60s and 70s, and into the 80s, music was getting so dense that it was almost like one of these black holes — an intergalactic thing that collapses into itself and nothing escapes.  Then all of sudden it had to explode, and that ‘minimalism’ now is almost a starting over from the basic primordial unit.

NM:    Right.  I think there’s been a recognition.  What you say, though, is very true.  One of the characteristics of the music at that time is what might be described as an overload of information.  This is quite apart from the language, but there was so much going on in these pieces all the time.  One had to question, finally, just how much of this enormous amount of activity was really significant.  You had to ask yourself the question, for example, of how can you tell fast from slow music any longer, and indeed, can you tell fast from slow music?  One of the things I revolted against as a young man was the fact that in that particular musical language
that particular vocabulary — it was not possible to write truly fast music.  You could write music where there was a great speed of events, but it wasn’t really fast because it didn’t really move fast.  So because it wasn’t possible to write fast music, it wasn’t possible to write music which was graded through all the other tempi as wellandante, moderato, largo, whatever.  So in that particular sense alone, it seemed to me that certain characteristics of music have become diminished or denigrated.  One of the problems about the music of that time was that music has always been associated with memory.  When we are listening to a piece of music we know and love from the past, you’re presented with some material which you then remember, and you follow the adventures of that material through what the composer does with it until it comes out at the other end where something very significant and different happens.  In the music of the 50s and 60s, that didn’t really happen any longer.  Indeed, one could say that what it was concerned with was really, in most cases, only what was happening at that very second.  There wasn’t material which was graspable in that sense, and which you followed in some kind of narrative way right through the piece.  It was much more sculptural, and it was concerned with sonic events.  It was almost as though you were able to walk around the piece like a piece of sculpture!  Therefore, the whole quality of memory got suppressed in music, and as a young man I reacted very strongly against that, too.  I couldn’t articulate it very well at the time.  I didn’t really quite know what was going on.  It was only later that I was able to really decide what it was that I was so unhappy about, and in my own music I’ve tried to reinstate this quality of narrative that music has always had.  When I say narrative, I mean musical narrative, not an extra-musical narrativethough in some cases one can have an extra-musical narrative as well if you’re writing an oratorio, or an opera, or something like that.  But I’ve tried to reinstate this sense of traveling through the piece from one end to the other.  The piece creates its own musical time, but you have an experience of time and memory as you’re actually going through the piece.

BD:     A musical Odyssey, shall we say [referring to Maw
’s piece of that name]?

NM:    Yes, like that!  That’s very much concerned with that.  That’s actually very much concerned with that.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    In your music, or music in general, is there a balance between an artistic achievement and a pure entertainment value?

NM:    There should be a balance.  It’s not for me to say whether there is a balance, but one does, indeed, look for that balance.  A healthy musical culture will also be able to produce really good quality light-music, good quality entertainment music, like they did in the past, for example in the late nineteenth century.  You not only have Johannes Brahms, you also had Johann Strauss, and they were both tremendous admirers of each other.  So I would describe that as a healthy musical situation.  There was no opposition between what might be considered ‘high art’ and very high quality entertainment.

BD:    Even in this century we’ve had the great songs of Jerome Kern and Richard Rogers. 

NM:    Exactly, yes.

BD:    Are we losing that now?  I can’t see the modern pop audiences and rock audiences and rap audiences going hand in hand with the symphonic tradition.

NM:    Yes, unfortunately I have to say that I think we are losing it.  There are some lone survivors who try and keep the tradition going, rather courageously and bravely like Stephen Sondheim and people like that, but on whole popular music has lost a lot of its melodic quality.  One of the things that still makes the Beatles a very potent force is the shear melodic quality of their best work.  Some of it’s very high quality indeed, like a song like Michelle, for example.  It’s really extraordinarily good.  I couldn’t agree with you more that the great American song writers
the great Broadway tradition of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, and Richard Rogerswas a very great achievement, and to what extent it was allied with what was going on in the concert hall I find that a little difficult to answer.  In some respects it seemed to exist in a world of its own, although Gershwin was extremely interested in what was going on in what might be called ‘serious music’ at the same time.  I’m trying to remember where I read or heard this... I think I was reading a review of something where somebody said it made him melancholy when he thought of the enormous pleasure that popular music was once able to give, and doesn’t seem to be able to do this any longer.  Where has it all gone?

BD:    Let me turn the question on its head.  Is the music that you write for everyone?

NM:    I would hope so, yes.  I say this quite straightforwardly, that I’m not interested in a coterie audience.  I’m interested in appealing to as wide an audience as possible, and that means in some cases I’m also interested in writing entertainment music where I consider it to be necessary or appropriate.  At other times not, but I’m interested in finding as wide an audience as possible.  Whether there is still such an audience, I’m not sure but I always live in hope.

BD:    Does that in any way influence whether that you will accept or turn down a commission?

NM:    Not usually, no.  There are several things, but what usually influences that is whether the commission is from an organization, or a group, or musicians who I have a high regard for.  It could also be if it is something that I haven’t tried before, and I would like to have a go at it.  For example, a work that I have to write in the coming year falls into that category.  I’m going to write a piece for a large chorus and orchestra, which I’ve never done before, and one of the main reasons for my accepting the commission was that I had never done it before and I wanted to have a go at it.


BD:    It’s interesting they would want to see where you’re going rather than have something that they already know.

NM:    Yes, it’s a compliment to them, I must say.  It really is.  But if I just completed a string quartet, which in fact I did last Fall, and somebody immediately asked me to write another string quartet, I would usually say no.  I like to get away and do something different when I’ve written a work in certain genre.  I like to do something completely different, and that enters into my acceptance of commissions very strongly.

BD:    When you’re working on piece, do you work on just one exclusively, or do you have a couple of them going at the same time?

NM:    I usually work just on one.  From time to time I have worked on more than one at once, but I usually work just on one.  To be quite honest with you, I usually have to do this because of the constraints of deadlines.  I haven’t got time really to do anything else.

BD:    You’re composing and you’re teaching.  Do you get enough time to compose?

NM:    Yes.  I’m very fortunate in that I have a job here at Bard College in New York State where I teach in the graduate program in the summer.  This only takes place for two months during the summer, so I have more or less the rest of the year to do my own work.  So I’m very fortunate.  I can’t complain about that.

BD:    That’s just about backwards from just about everyone else who’s a ‘summer composer’!

NM:    I’m afraid so, yes.  [Laughs]  That actually is a bit of a nuisance because the summer is becoming a more and more important time for musicians and for composers.  A lot of music festivals are on, and even this year I’m having to miss at least three performances of major works in England just to teach in this program.  But one has to do this.

BD:    Despite all that, is composing fun?

NM:    Sometimes!  Sometimes it is wonderful fun and, of course, that’s the best time.  Other times, I have to tell you in all honesty, it’s sheer hell because you might get stuck, and you have to have something done in time.  That can be really misery-making.  Also there is an element of sheer labor involved.  Many people will not realize the sheer physical labor involved in composing and writing out an orchestral score.  It’s a most appalling task.  The whole process of writing music is not good for you physically.  It’s very demanding.  It’s not surprising, for example, that Bach and Handel went blind, because in those days the light was very, very poor.  Reading music is renowned as being bad for your eyes because you’re not only reading horizontally, you have to read vertically, and the eye has to take in so much.  It’s very bad for your eyes, but at its best it’s absolutely wonderful, and indeed is fun.  It’s sometimes a great deal more than fun.  It’s really wonderfully joyous and soul-satisfying, and that’s how it should be of course.

BD:    That’s good.  I hope that there’s a lot more to come from your pen.

NM:    Well, so do I!  [Laughs]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’re about to hit ‘the big six-oh!’  Are you at the point in your career that you want to be at this age?

NM:    There are certain things which, for one reason or another, I wish I had done differently or I wish I’d had the opportunity to do.  One of the greatest regrets of my life is that I have never been asked to do a dance piece, which frankly rather surprises me because some of my pieces have been used as the basis of ballets.  But I have never been asked to do a collaborative dance work, and I really do regret that.

BD:    Is there any way you can put the word out?

NM:    Possibly on your program!  [Both laugh]  I do love the dance, and actually America is one of the great places for dance.  It’s in a wonderful state in this country.  The other thing is I’ve written two operas, and I’m possibly going to write another one.  But I haven’t written an opera for twenty-five years, and I sometimes wonder if I made a mistake there; whether I should have had a go at another one in between.  Of course, opera is notoriously difficult to pull off.  How did Dr. Johnson describe it?

BD:    Exotic and irrational.

One of the most often-quoted descriptions of opera is that of Dr Samuel Johnson, who famously defined opera in the mid-eighteenth century as ‘an exotic and irrational entertainment’. Johnson’s response to opera was at one with a prevailing English attitude of curmudgeonly roast-beef-and-ale xenophobia presented as bluff common sense, and was aimed primarily at Italian opera. His suspicion of Italian opera was shared by writers such as Joseph Addison and Richard Steele in The Spectator, the poet Alexander Pope (who represents opera as a foreign ‘harlot form’ in The Dunciad), and the painter William Hogarth, who satirized the Whig aristocracy’s cultivation of Italian opera (and other such foreign affectations) in prints and paintings. The literal meaning of exotic is, indeed, ‘foreign’ (as Johnson’s own dictionary explains), and this may be all that Johnson implied when he used the term, in this instance quite accurately; for, despite indigenous attempts at the form in the seventeenth century, by the eighteenth century opera was perceived as an essentially foreign import to Britain, being largely performed there in a foreign language with foreign performers. And for most countries in the world for the first two centuries of its existence opera would be exotic beyond Italy since, France aside, it was generally assumed that opera was Italian per se. The majority of opera composers were Italians, many working in countries outside of Italy; but many non-Italian composers such as Handel, Gluck, Haydn or Mozart predominantly set operas in Italian, usually outside of Italy too.

NM:    Exotic and irrational entertainment.  That’s right, [laughing] and indeed he never said a truer word! There is something extraordinary about it, and in some curious way opera seems go on existing.  It seems to be in a rather healthy state in so many ways.

BD:    Is this healthy state just new operas, or is this just the state of presenting the museum operas?

NM:    Yes, quite!  There are a surprising number of new operas being written and presented.  I’m very surprised when I see how many there are, and there are several new ones being presented here this year including a new one at Santa Fe, and there was one in San Francisco...

BD:    ...and here in Chicago we’ve made a concerted effort to have this series Towards the Twenty-First Century where we’re presenting old works and new works of this century each season.

NM:    That’s wonderful.  Opera seems to be incredibly popular.  I’m not quite sure why because it’s so expensive, but it does seem to be extraordinarily popular, and seems to be going from strength to strength in so many ways.  It’s true that it is still sustained by all the old ‘museum operas’, as you call them
although I don’t think of them as ‘museum operas’in a way which was not the case in the past.  When Verdi was writing all his operas, he was the person who was largely sustaining opera in Italy.

BD:    Of course, but I was by no means denigrating Verdi at all.  Some operas are well-known and everybody loves them, but perhaps they’re a little more apprehensive when attending a new work.  But, as you say, it’s in a healthy state, at least in this country. 

NM:    I think so, I really do.  It’s really … I’m not quite sure how it happened, but it’s also the same in Europe.  There’s an enormous amount of operatic activity, and there’s really quite a lot of new operas presented every year.  Not many of them stay the course, alas, but even in the past they didn’t either.  We always forget that, and we just listen to the ones that survived, but there’s an enormous stack of works which were written which didn’t survive.

BD:    Is there an inordinate amount of pressure upon you, as a composer, to make each work that you produce a masterpiece?

NM:    [Thinks a moment]  Sometimes.  I have to say that sometimes one does feel that, yes.  I have a publisher who gives me wise advice from time to time.  She’s says I don’t have to think that everything I sit down and write has to be a masterpiece!

BD:    No, but I would think that would be where most of the pressure would be coming from.

NM:    Yes.  It’s good advice, but one does feel sometimes that they do expect a masterpiece every time.  It can’t be done, I’m afraid.  The world decides certain things are masterpieces at certain times, and then at other times they decide that other things are masterpieces, even within the oeuvre of one composer.  So yes, it would be true to say that one feels a certain expectation that you’ve got to produce the big ones, and this is a little daunting.


See my Interviews with Rod Gilfry and Dale Duesing.

:    Is working with a text liberating, or is that restricting at all?

NM:    Usually liberating, at least certainly for me!  I love setting language, I really love it.  It’s something I’ve always liked doing.  I like also writing for singers, for the voice.  It’s something which I just always got enormous pleasure from doing.  It also has to be said that it’s a great help, actually, when writing work.  You’re already provided with a framework on which to hang the music.  It means there’s a certain amount of base-work that you don’t have to do yourself.  [Laughs]  You know it’s got to be about this text!  It’s related to this text in some very intimate way.  The text is like this, therefore the piece is going to be like this.  Just to mention students again, if one of them gets stuck or goes in what seems to be the wrong direction, I very often suggest to them that they might consider setting a text, because it helps.  It unglues certain things.

BD:    And then it refocuses their imagination?

NM:    Yes, and indeed, yes.  Also, there are some very, very significant settings of texts by great composers which have pushed music in an entirely new direction, or have been a great summation.  Just a few which come to mind are the B Minor Mass, Don Giovanni, the Ninth Symphony, Tristan and Isolde, and Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire.

BD:    Those seem to be the pillars that stand above the rest.

NM:    It’s interesting that they’re all allied to a text.

BD:    I hadn’t thought about gathering them that way, but you’re right.

NM:    Yes.  My old teacher in Paris pointed that out to me.  He said it’s very interesting that so many significant works in the western musical canon are in fact settings of a text, and he’s right.  Also the great works of Strauss as well, such as Elektra and Rosenkavalier.

BD:    I certainly appreciate being able to chat with you this morning.  You’ve been most gracious.

NM:    Well, it’s a pleasure!

BD:    I’m glad we finally got together.  I’m sorry it wasn’t in person but this has been very good.  I’ll be putting together a show for your sixtieth birthday, and I will play your recordings more often now that I have met you, and use your interview several times.  I’m looking forward to this very, very much.

NM:    That’s very kind of you indeed.  I appreciate it very much.  I’m very touched that you should do this, and that you should celebrate my birthday!  I really am very touched!   Are you going to do this around the time of my birthday?

BD:    Right.  I can’t hit it exactly because my programs of new music are on the weekends, but I try to place it as close as I can.

NM:    Very nice to talk to you, Mr. Duffie, and once more, thank you very much indeed for all your work on my behalf.


© 1995 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone on July 13, 1995.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB four months later, and again in 2000.  This transcription was made in 2017, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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.