Composer  William  Mayer

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


One of the most fascinating things about the creative process is the part that is unseen, namely the working out and changing and modifying and honing until it's just right, or, as I sometimes say to my guests, "ready to be launched."  On some occasions, we can observe a portion of the process by comparing the first versions of works with later versions.

Music compositions are fully-formed ideas that are worked out by the single creator with adjustments and compromises for the specific circumstances of each premiere.  A conversation about the process is quite different.  Consideration of ideas and response to questioning is perfectly valid at one age and equally valid at a later age, with hindsight and foresight that takes into account experience and just the years of living on this confusing planet and in our ever changing society.

On May 23 of 1987, I had the distinct pleasure of chatting by phone with William Mayer.  In most ways, it was a typical interview for me.  I asked probing and provocative questions, and he responded with thought and humor.  It was, and remains, a look into his mind and reveals his philosophical and practical resolutions of that time.  And, as always, I used portions of the conversation, along with selected musical examples, several times on WNIB as part of my series devoted to, "mostly living, mostly American composers," as I used to tell everyone.

Nineteen years later, I was asked to prepare that conversation for New Music Connoisseur.  I contacted Bill and allowed him to look over his responses from a generation ago.  Being a consummate communicator, he offered to update his ideas, and I agreed to let him touch things up.  However, he responded by re-thinking all of his answers and putting them into the context of his added experience.  A few of his earlier thoughts remain, but much of what he sent me was recast from the very start.  The ideas and conclusions resonate and give us insight into his creativity, and he told me that he hopes the intervening years have made him wiser.

William Mayer was born in New York on November 18, 1925, and received his B.A. from Yale.  He later studied with Roger Sessions at Juilliard and Felix Salzer at the Mannes College of Music.  He has composed a wide range of orchestral, choral and chamber music.  John Rockwell of the New York Times wrote, "Mayer's work sings out with real beauty, both in the vocal writing (he is especially known for his operas and songs) and the instrumental settings."  Among other honors, he has received the Lifetime Award of Achievement in Music from the Center for Contemporary Opera.  In addition to his compositional output, Mayer's son, Steven, is an accomplished pianist who also was recently praised by the New York Times (July 21, 2006).  He also now has a website

What follows is the revision of that conversation with William Mayer.  As we were preparing to begin in 1987, the composer was lamenting the fact that some of his (then) most recent compositions were not (yet) available on recordings, which prompted my first question . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:  You are not ashamed of your past, are you?

mayer William Mayer:  If I understand your question correctly, it asks if I am embarrassed by my earlier compositions.  The answer is yes and no.  Yes, when I sense clumsiness of craft in carrying out ideas or feel that the ideas themselves lack distinction.  No, if the older composition has brought something fresh into this world though it may no longer sound quite so fresh.  Why, I wonder, do we place such importance on the ability of a work to stand up under repeated hearings?  In life, we cherish certain experiences despite their ephemeral nature.  First love should qualify.  So even if something is a "flash in the pan," what a flash it might have been.  In a sense, a moment of illumination or exhilaration becomes more than a moment, available for many moments of recall (as long as our memory holds!)  Admittedly, there is added value in a work that continues to move one after repeated hearing.  For me, Barber's ubiquitous Adagio for Strings is such a work.  Conversely, Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue fails to have that staying power.  I now back away when I hear its opening clarinet squeal.  But, at the same time, I can't downplay the glorious, sweeping freshness that once engulfed me when I first heard it.  As for my own music, I wouldn't disown a work that has lost its luster for me if the luster was once there.

BD:  Is there a continuity running through your works despite having been written over a considerable time span and for diverse media?

WM:  I'm sure there is, but whatever links exist between my works can best be detected by an outside observer.  It would seem that core characteristics of one's writing are so engrained and can flow so automatically that the author is barely aware of them.  The reverse is true, I believe, as regards new directions the author is taking.  We composers are understandably excited by new paths that we are breaking (or think we're breaking!) and are apt to measure progress by how far a new piece departs from older ones.  I suspect, however, that similarities outweigh the differences.  As for my own music, I think I can safely say that recurring traits include a plaintive lyricism, motoric drive, humor and a suggestion of great distance, whether of time or space. Amerigrove also notes a frequent juxtaposing of opposites:  "Mayer's style is characterized by a contrasting of transparent textures with humorous, highly rhythmic and densely scored passages."

BD:  Is music, perhaps, going in too many directions today?

WM:  The fact that there is no longer one reigning orthodoxy - i.e. Americana, atonalism aleatoric music, minimalism, etc. - gives the composer assurance that he will be judged primarily on whether he is putting forth a new voice.  Though many works these days are eclectic or even have borrowed material, there is room for a fresh voice to break through.  But, in a collage-like work, the composer must be careful not to substitute variety for individuality.  One danger today is that we can be so intrigued by electronically produced sound that we let structural aspects fall by the wayside.  A composer may be beguiled by random sounds as he runs his fingers over the electronic keyboard.  Fine and good.  But hopefully he will reserve a quiet time for his imagination to dream up sounds and patterns on its own.

BD:  Is music composition something that can be taught?

WM:  I'm sure you're aware that Bartók always felt that it could not be.  He would teach piano, but he would not teach composition.  My own feeling is that a teacher can help - somewhat.  He can at once be encouraging about strong points and put his finger on trouble spots.  Roger Sessions, my first composition teacher, would immediately compose his own solutions to a problem I was having and then refuse to let me use them!  His approach was more contrapuntal than mine and opened up some new doors.

BD:  I tend not to ask composers where their ideas come from, but I will ask you this - for whom do you write?

WM:  Mainly for myself, even when I'm fulfilling a commission.  This may sound cavalier, but if I like what I'm writing, I can't help feeling that others will too - or at least some others!  Conversely, if I'm not fully happy with the notes that are emerging, I can be one hundred percent sure that the audience's attention will start drifting.  One might ask, "How can you compose for yourself and at the same time satisfy the requirements of a commission?"  I think the trick is to internalize whatever special needs or limitations come with the commission.  When I'm writing for an audience of children, I somehow succeed in becoming the child I  was.  So whatever reactions I have might be called those of a child.  What doesn't work is to consciously calculate what kinds of music children would like.  Such an approach risks "writing down to kids," and the music will probably sound calculated.  Unexpectedly, four early works that I wrote for Young People's Concerts - The Greatest Sound Around, Hello, World! which was narrated by Eleanor Roosevelt, One Christmas Long Ago, and The Snow Queen - helped launch my overall career.  Well over a hundred orchestras were performing these pieces.  The Philadelphia Orchestra devoted seven seasons to my children's music.  Part of that success was due, of course, to the popularity of educational concerts themselves.  Parents enthusiastically - or dutifully - took their offspring to the Young People's Series.  Whether those parents themselves went to regular subscription concerts is another question.....  At any rate, I had gotten a bit spoiled and was unprepared for the fact that getting one's "adult music" programmed was a lot harder.  Certainly I can't complain.  I've had magnificent performances of my most ambitious scores led by such conductors as Leopold Stokowski, Gerard Schwarz, Kenneth Schermerhorn, Lukas Foss, Stanislaw Skrowaczewski, Mimi Stern-Wolfe, Max Lifchitz, Gregg Smith and Robert De Cormier.

William Mayer (left) with lyricist Susan Otto (right) recording
Hello World!  narrated by Eleanor Roosevelt (center) in 1958

BD:  Once you are happy with a piece and the audience reacts positively, is critical acceptance important?

WM:  It would be unrealistic to say that critics are not important.  A rave review which appears in a prominent journal can't help but enlarge a composer's reputation.  Conversely, a scathing review doesn't seem to permanently derail it, provided the composer has a sizable talent and a deep belief in himself.  In my own case, I found that getting a good review is a pleasant experience but not an ecstatic one.  Such a review becomes far more meaningful if the reviewer hones in on what's best in the piece.  But most satisfying is hearing a moving performance of the work and sensing that the players are "into" the music.  Occasionally one gets applause from the players after the rehearsal.  This is especially heartwarming.

BD:  Do you try to just ignore a poor review in the paper?

WM:  Would that I could!  For me the effect of a bad review can be knife-like, if short lived, affecting my mood if not my composing.  But how one reacts to negative comments is not always  predictable.  I remember receiving discouraging words from a respected teacher and composer at Juilliard when I announced I wanted to become a composer.  I had recently received a BA in History from Yale and shortly thereafter experienced a kind of emotional freeing.  My longstanding interest in music surged and the sounds almost seemed to be exploding out of me.  The teacher, who was also a family friend, came up with a perfectly reasonable assessment and told me it was really too late to think of becoming a professional musician.  I was 23 at the time and had spent two years in the U.S. Army Counter-Intelligence Corps.  Oddly that teacher's efforts to dissuade me had the opposite effect, and I plunged headlong into my new field.  I entered the Mannes School of Music, composing "serious music" by day to fulfill school assignments, and then, unbeknownst to my teachers, I wrote musical theatre songs at night!  The Juilliard teacher who had earlier cautioned me against going into music had the flexibility to revise his opinion.  The fact that nothing seemed to deter me impressed him, and he said that was an important sign.  "Composing might be the right profession for you after all," he told me.

BD:  I'm glad you found the right path in spite of that early counsel.  All these years later, do you still find composing fun?

WM:  That is a harder question to answer than one would think.  Certainly it is fun - more than fun - when good ideas spring up.  Such an idea is generally but a kernel, perhaps no more than a progression of one fresh sounding chord to another.  But with the happy wonder that one feels at having something new and glistening show up comes a sense of responsibility.  The composer becomes a guardian with a keenly felt obligation to shepherd this good idea to its fullest realization.  The problem is that you often don't know at the time where the idea wants to go.  A shadowy plan of "becoming" may be waiting in the wings, but it is often elusive.  Certainly one's conscious mind can play a role in realizing the potential of an idea, but the ratio between rational planning and impulsivity varies greatly.  Usually one's rational side is called upon when one's instinct seems to falter.  So, to return to your question, fun and excitement are surely present at the early stage when intriguing ideas appear, and continue if the development of those ideas is going well.  When it's completed, I feel a sense of gratification, a touch of relief.  What is decidedly not fun, however, is a nagging sense of guilt that arises if I don't go on to develop promising ideas jotted down in notebooks.  They can be entombed for years, and I feel like a neglectful parent when I run across them again.  Happily I can reconnect with a number of those old thoughts and they finally find a safe haven in a new score.

William Mayer in 1995 outside Calvary Episcopal Church

BD:  Do you ever go back and revise works after they've been performed, or even published?

WM:  Occasionally, but not too often.  I think this is because I do a lot of revising and changing while the piece is being written.  In a sense it's been pre-tested.  As might be expected, I've made more changes in my operatic works than in my instrumental ones.

BD:  Is there any chance that your first ideas are actually better and should be re-examined?

WM:  This is both a good and painful question.  One hates to entertain the thought that one has lost more than one has gained in revising, but I now believe that such was the case when I eliminated the role of the narrator in my opera A Death in the Family.  After its premiere I was persuaded that the impact of the drama would only be diluted if it were filtered through the eyes of a third person.  This was airtight logic, but it didn't hold true when tested in a second production.  At times the stage action had become too direct.  In one scene, family members are laughing uncontrollably shortly after learning that a kinsman has been killed in an automobile accident.  The audience may find this inexplicable, or, even worse, funny.  But if a narrator is present, his painful expression will help the audience realize that the family's laughter is a safety valve for letting off unbearable tension.  So my first instinct was right.  The narrator clarified the action and added an extra dimension to the opera, deepening its emotional impact and saving it from melodrama.

BD:  Is it wrong for an audience to expect every new work to be a masterstroke?

WM:  Hopelessly wrong, not only in terms of the odds because a masterstroke is such a rarity, but wrong in terms of what an audience should be looking for.  A listening experience is not a "rating" experience.  It is pathetic to think of an audience member asking himself if the music being played is a masterpiece, and fretting about how he would know, and wondering if he should spend his time listening to it.  This need to assure oneself that the new work is nothing short of perfection comes, I suspect, from a sense of insecurity.  The listener may not have the inner freedom - courage, perhaps? - to let himself go and react instinctively to the music.  He may not trust his own responses.  It is far easier to speculate whether a new work reaches that exalted status than to open oneself up to its emotional power.  Even if the composition turns out to be the wished-for masterpiece, it's full value is not always apparent on first hearing.  I've often been taken by just one arresting passage that I've yearned to hear again.  More common, of course, is for a work to have golden moments in conjunction with less inspirational ones.  I might say, "So what?" to those who point to a work's imperfections while rejecting it despite some fresh and intriguing passages.  We are willing to accept less than perfect friends, so why not be as generous with works of art?  Of course, some new works are bound to disappoint.  I skirt using the word "failure," for we all know of examples of great works which were considered failures at their premieres.  Sitting through pieces that are less than engrossing is the necessary price that audiences must pay to discover truly remarkable ones.

BD:  Are you ever surprised where the compositional process takes you?

WM:  Definitely, and sometimes alarmed.  An unlikely theme can pop up which seems at odds with the material one is working on.  Maybe a frivolous clutch of notes that seem hell bent on interrupting and skewering a lament that, until then, was proceeding in a stately manner.  On a rational level, a composer might well shelve the impudent motif or save it for a different piece, or at least for a different movement.  But the composer might be making a mistake.  Like dreams, there can be a subtle logic linking seemingly contradictory material.  This proved true for my piano concert Octagon, which was premiered by Leopold Stokowski and pianist William Masselos, both champions of contemporary music.  As I was composing the concerto, I got one idea after another, each of which seemed to interrupt the one which preceded it.  Still, the work felt right and the overall structure was forming, paradoxically, into one that was based on interruption.  This is not to say that a conscious plan or outline can't play a positive role in the compositional process.  It can give a preliminary sense of direction and create a sense of security by suggesting limits and borders.  But more often than not, some unexpected material shows up.  At such a crossroad, it would be my inclination to accept the new material even if it threatens the previously constructed outline.  The original plan, overthrown, has served a purpose, even a perverse one.  At this juncture, a composer may recapture the adolescent joy of breaking the rules and revel in the sense of freedom that comes with it!

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BD:  You wrote an article for The New York Times Magazine in February of 1975, and I was wondering if you think we've made progress since that time.

mayer WM:  Unquestionably, but as 30 years have now elapsed, it would be disheartening if we hadn't made significant strides.  In those days, programming new works tended to be token affairs.  In demand were pieces that were slight and light, such as overtures and fanfares.  Exceptions were pieces celebrating the opening of a new hall or marking anniversaries of the famous.  In 1958, for example, I fulfilled a commission commemorating Theodore Roosevelt's sesquicentennial, and the piece was premiered by the Chautauqua Symphony.  Festivals of American music that stood outside the regular concert series also provided a showcase for new works.  And some substantial works not tied to a special occasion did make it through the screening process, but the composer or the concerto soloist had to have strong box office appeal.
    In looking through today's orchestral programs, it is an exception not to see a contemporary work listed with older ones.  At the pinnacle is the American Composers Orchestra, which does nothing but 20th and 21st century works.  A number of orchestras have inaugurated a kind of "adventure" series where the composer is present.  It is particularly effective to have him talk about the piece after it has been performed, followed by a repeat performance.  In my experience, I almost always find more coherence in the work as I hear it for a second time.  However, even though I may understand it better, it doesn't necessarily mean I'll like it more!
    Chamber ensembles have made even greater strides.  Virtuosic chamber groups in particular thrive on contemporary music.  Their motto seems to be, "the harder the better."  In my opinion, the most significant innovation has taken place in the field of opera, and that is the use of supertitles.  General audiences, often wary of opera, are no longer befuddled in the theaters.  Knowing what's going on, they can appreciate how words and music become one.  Surprisingly, supertitles have turned out to be helpful even when operas are sung in English for English-speaking audiences.  Admittedly, supertitles come with a price.  Following the text on the screen can't help but steal one's attention away from the stage.  I suppose the ideal solution is to know the libretto by heart.
    A quick word about recordings.  Record companies have been admirable in making available "serious new music."  But, alas, FM stations are playing less of it.  The internet, downloading, etc., have cut into CD sales.  The little labels, who have done so much for the contemporary composer, are dwindling.  Stalwarts such as Albany, Bridge, North/South Consonance and a few others remain.  I am personally and acutely aware of CRI's demise, having served as trustee for close to forty years, including a stint as Chairman of the Board.  Happily, that company, which has issued more contemporary recordings than any other, is now allied with New World Recordings.  It will make available all of CRI's material in addition to its own diverse repertoire of American music.

BD:  Despite the problems in the recording and broadcast fields, are you optimistic about the whole future of concert music?

William Mayer with conductor Mimi Stern-Wolfe
at his 80th birthday concert, November 17, 2005

WM:  I'm optimistic about the creational side, but we're faced with the ever growing aggregate of scores.  We're able to record and store everything being written.  Therefore each new opus has to contend with ever growing competition to catch the public's attention.  The three Bs are just as new to a ten year old as something being written this instant.  Granted, music of our time may carry special relevance, yet even here we may be running into a surplus.  There is an acknowledged composer explosion, and the time consuming tasks of notating by hand and copying parts have been taken over by computers.  Scores and performers are even being bypassed completely when the composer goes directly from the electronic keyboard to the audience.

BD:  At what point does the mountain of material simply become too big?

WM:  No amount of already-existing material should discourage composers from writing new scores.  Knowing firsthand what compels a composer to write, I would bet that even a mountain approaching the height of Everest wouldn't discourage them.  As a radio programmer, you must be especially aware of the huge number of recordings available.

BD:  I try to play as much different material as possible.  Plus exchanges like the one we're having now seem to add to the public's interest and excitement for lesser-known material.

WM:  What you're doing has been a great boon for composers, all the more so now that so many FM stations are eliminating or restricting broadcasts of concert music.

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BD:  Let us return to the opera world for a moment.  I know it interests you greatly.

William Mayer (left) receiving an award for A Death in the Family, [Best Musical Theater Work of 1983]
from the National Institute for Music Theater at the Kennedy Center, presented by Harold Prince

WM:  Yes, but this wasn't always so.  In my earlier years, opera sometimes embarrassed me.  It seemed silly and overblown, a cardboard exaggeration, and therefore a distortion of life.  What I've come to realize is that the reverse is true.  Opera dares to tap an inner world that thrives - and sometimes seethes - below the surface of everyday life.  What is unreal is not opera, but the careful conventional life we settle for to help keep our outsized emotions within bounds.  The operatic stage furnishes us with a safe and glorious outlet.  And it seems especially compatible to dreams and visions, the more fantastic the better.  The medium of music itself has always been a natural outlet for imaginative flights onstage that might come across as stilted if music were absent.
    In my opera A Death in the Family, a scene that worked out particularly well involved a family car trip.  All was seemingly jolly and collegiate, but family members expressed their true feelings by voicing lines from Let us now Praise Famous Men, also by James Agee.  They felt forlorn and lonely.  The fact that they had sung their thoughts seemed natural.  I don't believe this would be the case if they had simply spoken them.

BD:  What are the particular joys and sorrows of writing for the human voice?

mayer WM:  A special joy is transmitting your emotions directly to the singer and then to the audience, all without the mediation of a mechanical instrument.  The voice produces ineffable nuances immediately picked up by the human ear.  Another joy is creating a fresh new entity when words and music become one.  Now for an endless sorrow:  words are so often lost when sung.  Composers sometimes compound this problem in writing an orchestral accompaniment that covers the voice.  Unfortunately keeping the orchestra quiet won't guarantee that the voice will come through.  Similar timbres in the same register as a singer's - sustained horns come to mind - blanket the voice.  What does work is having dissimilar patterns between voice and accompaniment such as legato versus staccato.  A skillful operatic composer can find ways to have the accompaniment sound full and rich and still not drown out the singer.

BD:  It does seem that the opera composer has to juggle so many things at once, much more than 'simply' writng for instruments alone.

WM:  (laughing) Absolutely!  It means that you have to work closely with the conductor, the stage director and the soloists, none known for small egos.

BD:  Then how much leeway do you want to give them, particularly the stage director?

WM:  You need to discuss differing points of view at an early stage to prevent a brouhaha later on.  An early exchange can be more than an accomodation.  Unexpectedly, new ideas can be hatched.  However, in a new work, the composer has to have the final authority.  Audiences can't separate the work from the performance and since he is going to be the recipient of their praise or blame, the decisions should be his.  Alas, it doesn't always work out that way.  A lot depends on the composer's experience with stage matters and the director's sensitivity to the score...  and who has more clout!

BD:  Then let me ask the Capriccio question.  In opera, where is the balance between the music and the drama?

WM:  It is generally assumed that in opera, music is the dominant force.  The question then becomes how dominant?  In preparing lectures on American opera for the US Information Agency, I very much wanted to include Porgy and Bess, but pondered whether it could be considered a bona fide opera.  Weren't the arresting lyrics and powerful plot in which the crippled hero murders his rival just as important as George Gershwin's music?  Wasn't the work, rather, an extension of a musical?  Hugely moving, but a musical nonetheless?  Then I had a moment of illumination.  Porgy and Bess worked.  It simply worked whatever it was.  The balance between music and drama suited the unique needs of the material, or, more correctly, the composer's personal stamp on that material.  The fact that it didn't fit neatly into a category might be further evidence of its originality.  An odd progression of thought occurs after we make up terms of convenience such as "opera," "operetta," "musical theater," etc.  We begin to treat these classifications as if they had independent lives of their own.  We assume they were born whole and rigidly set, and arrived, perhaps, before composers did.  Let me also mention the lighting.  Its power to evoke can match that of the music, and when lighting contains movement - evolving slowly or suddenly changing - it is, in its own way, very musical.  When opera attains the lofty heights of melding its diverse elements into a new, indivisible whole, questions over which element predominates become academic.  It is the alchemy that results from their coalescing that counts.

BD:  Thank you for being a composer!

WM:  And continuing thanks to you for bringing composers' thoughts, as well as their music, into the light of day.

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©1987 & 2006  Bruce Duffie

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.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interivews, 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.