Composer Melinda Wagner
Two Conversations with Bruce Duffie
|Melinda Wagner (born February 25,
1957 in Philadelphia) is a winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize in music. Her
undergraduate degree is from Hamilton College. She received her graduate
degrees from University of Chicago and University of Pennsylvania. She also
served as Composer-in-Residence at the University of Texas (Austin) and at
the ‘Bravo!’ Vail Valley Music Festival. Some of her teachers included Richard Wernick, George Crumb, Shulamit
Ran, and Jay Reise.
A resident of Ridgewood, New Jersey, Wagner won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for
her Concerto for Flute, Strings and Percussion.
The Chicago Symphony has commissioned three major works - Falling Angels (1992); a piano concerto,
Extremity of Sky (2002) for
Emanuel Ax; and a
forthcoming work. Extremity of Sky
has also been performed by Emanuel Ax with the National Symphony, the Toronto
Symphony, the Kansas City Symphony, and the Staatskapelle Berlin. Other works
have been performed by a number of orchestras, including the New York New
Music Ensemble, the Network for New Music, Orchestra 2001, the San Francisco
Contemporary Music Players, and many other leading organizations.
Wagner was also commissioned by the New York Philharmonic for a concerto
for principal trombonist Joseph Alessi, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln
Center, the Barlow, Fromm,
and Koussevitzky Foundations, the American Brass Quintet, and from guitarist
David Starobin. She has received a Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship,
an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, an honorary degree
from Hamilton College, as well as a Distinguished Alumni Award from the University
of Pennsylvania. Her other performances include the Dallas Symphony, the
American Composers Orchestra, the Women's Philharmonic, the New York Pops,
and the US Marine Band.
Wagner has taught at the University of Pennsylvania, Swarthmore College,
Syracuse University, and Hunter College. She has lectured at many schools
such as Yale, Cornell, Juilliard, and Mannes. She resides in New Jersey with
her husband, percussionist James Saporito, and their children.
-- Throughout this page, names
which are links refer to my Interviews elsewhere on my website. BD
When doing interviews with classical musicians over the years, quite often
a conversation would end with us agreeing to meet again in about ten years
for an update. Sadly, it only happened on a few occasions, but this
page does, indeed, present one of those fortuitous times.
Melinda Wagner has been given three commissions by the Chicago Symphony,
and as of this moment (December of 2016), two have been presented and the
third will arrive this coming June.
On her first visit, in February of 1993, I had the chance to speak with her
a few hours before the first concert of the series. Then, just over
ten years later, in May of 2003, we met again for our second conversation.
Both of those encounters are presented on this webpage. She was also
in Chicago in March of 2001, and though we did not have a formal interview
at that time, we did see each other again at a private reception, and that
gathering is documented in the photo at right.
It was between the two interviews, much happened in her life. For one
thing, she won the Pulitzer Prize, and I am pleased to have interviewed her
before she received that distinction. I certainly would have asked
her after the fact, and indeed, a number of composers have sat with me after
having reached that milestone. But there is something special in making
the request before the accolade, and indeed, one composer, Roger Reynolds, actually
told me that he only allowed me to speak with him because I had asked him
before the announcement was made. When you think about it, there is
a joy to being known as an accomplished composer before everyone else rushes
to meet a media star...
In any event, I found it most interesting to speak with Melinda Wagner both
before and after she had won the prize. On that first meeting, she
was not only with a new piece of music about to be launched, but with a new
baby about to be born.
Bruce Duffie: You’re
doing the pre-concert tonight?
Do you like doing pre-concert lectures?
MW: I do.
I’m very comfortable talking in front of people. I get nervous, as
most normal people would, but I enjoy especially questions from the audience
because usually they’re very intelligent questions. The people are
also usually happy to receive honest answers. It’s funny, so that kind
of a rapport I really enjoy having with the audience first. People
are scared of composers!
MW: I found this
to be true everywhere. They say, “I can’t imagine putting a note on
a page. What’s it going to do?” Well sometimes I can’t imagine
BD: Are they surprised
you’re not dead?
MW: They’re surprised
I’m not dead, and they’re surprised that I’m willing to talk to them.
I’m sure some of them are stand-offish, but most composers are human beings.
BD: If the person
is stand-offish, does that make the music stand-offish?
MW: No, there’s
not necessarily any connection at all.
BD: So then the
reverse is also not true — if you’re personable, that doesn’t necessarily
mean that your music will be personable?
That’s true. You could find my music very cold and desolate, but that’s
up to you. I don’t think it is.
BD: Do you have
any expectations on the part of the audience when they receive your music?
MW: Of this audience?
BD: Or of any audience.
MW: I hope they’ll
be moved in some way, and I hope they’ll have a strong reaction.
BD: Either strong
positive or strong negative?
I usually expect them to have some kind of distinct reaction, which has been
a response either way on occasion. But if somebody really dislikes
my piece enough to come up and talk to me about it, it’s almost gratifying
in a way because at least I got to them. It is not my aim to get to
anybody, but at least they will listen.
BD: Okay, what
is your aim?
MW: I may be repeating
myself, but it is really to somehow move the audience. They’re very
important because they complete the work. I can’t put the work on a
wall, and stand back and look at it and have it be done. In a sense,
the audience has to put it on the wall, and stand back for me.
BD: So just the
notes on the page don’t make it a complete piece?
MW: They do to
someone who is a very good score-reader, but it’s the difference between
reading a poem to yourself and hearing it read aloud. When a poem is
read aloud, you react — hopefully positively — to the reading, to the interpretation.
BD: Rather than
just the internalizing it?
The words are the same, but the poem comes alive when someone reads it.
So it’s also true of music. It’s not stagnant, but it’s static on a
page. [Laughs] At least I hope it’s not stagnant!
BD: Do you expect
it always to be alive, whether it’s on the page or in the air? When
does it take life?
MW: I’m not sure.
We’re going to talk about chickens and eggs here. I think it starts
to take on a life — that hopefully lasts a long, long time — when it is in
the hands of an ensemble, and particularly a conductor who is gone over the
score and figured out how he or she wants this piece to sound. Sometimes
it goes slightly against what you’ve written.
MW: Oh sure.
People take liberties with tempi all the time, and that’s expected.
BD: Then who’s
right — the composer or the interpreter?
MW: I don’t know.
Often the composer’s not right. They say that there are several composers
who turn to conduct later in their careers who are some of the most horrific
interpreters of their own music. I won’t name any names, but if I was
asked to conduct, I don’t want to. When applying for grants and things,
they ask the duration, and my timing is often off by minutes, which is significant.
It’s because my concept of musical time is out of my field somehow.
BD: You can’t just
put a stop-watch to it, and say a quarter note is 88 and then multiply it
by the number of measures?
yes, but when you look at a score of mine — this one in particular — the
meter changes every few measures, so I’d be doing math figure it all out.
BD: I’ve often
heard composers say that music and mathematics are linked. Do you find
MW: [Thinks a moment]
In a way that’s perhaps different. Thinking mathematically, especially
when figuring out an equation that’s going to explain something, is very
important. It takes the same little spot in the brain.
It’s a very creative thing to be doing, and it also necessitates being able
to step outside of your body for a little while, and imagine what a world
could be like. Composers are doing that all the time. A lot of
people say that the rigor of math is like acoustics or intervals. Maybe,
but I’m not that kind of person.
BD: I would think
that math would be an exact science, and music is such an abstract perception.
MW: Yes, but mathematicians,
at least the ones who are out there to do new things, are very creative people.
So in that way I think they’re very similar.
BD: Now you’re
a young composer...
It’s great to be hearing this word over and over again!
BD: How do you
then start to become an emerging composer, since it’s the title that has
been given to you now that you’re received an award from an Emerging Composer’s
MW: It’s funny
because I did emerging for a few years! [Both laugh] I hope to
keep emerging! What can I say? I don’t think any of us will be
landed, and based on a conversation I had with Shulamit [Ran b. 1949] today,
she would feel the same way. We’re always emerging. If you have
a piece that’s very well received, and then you go to the next piece and
say, “I’ll write it the same way because last time they liked it,” you’re
not emerging anymore.
BD: Then you become
MW: Right, I think
BD: Do you feel
you’re part of a lineage of composers?
MW: That sounds
so lofty. Sure. First of all, most of us who study composition
in the United States are brought up in a very Germanic tradition. We’re
taught Bach and Beethoven, later Mahler and Berg and Webern. We really
cut our teeth on that stuff first, so in that sense there’s a lineage there.
I started playing the piano when I was little kid, and it was Bach and Czerny.
But I’m fortunate enough that my teachers enjoyed listening to it, so I think
I’ve been very influenced by that. One of them, of course, is Shulamit,
and the other is Richard Wernick. I also studied with Jay Reise (1950
- ) at Hamilton College, and I listened to him a lot when I was younger.
He also introduced me to some of my favorite composers, so I’ve been lucky.
My mentors have been terrific people and great composers.
* * *
BD: Now you are
doing some teaching. How do you divide your time between composing
MW: It is a three-ring
circus sometimes. I haven’t taught for a while. I’ll start this
fall for the first time in four years, but when I was teaching, composing
had to be pushed off to the evening — which is not usually a good time.
Composing does get shoved around a lot when you have a ‘day job’, but the
pay-off is that teaching is very inspiring, and students keep you young in
your thinking. Actually, the four years during which I haven’t taught
have been a bit of a challenge. I’ve had more time, and that requires
more discipline. It’s easier to read a magazine than to think about
something that’s actually intelligent.
BD: [With a gentle nudge] You mean to say
that music, as we know it, is intelligent???
MW: [Has a huge
laugh] It keeps the juices going. You have to think about it
when you listen to it.
BD: All music,
or just concert music?
MW: Concert music,
yes. It makes you think, and you have to think about listening to it.
It doesn’t just wash over you — at least not me, anyway.
BD: We’re kind
of dancing around a little, so let me ask the big philosophical question.
What is the purpose of concert music?
MW: That’s a hard
one, and at the same time an easy one. People are incredibly moved
by music. Nobody really knows why, but it just continues to pay off.
Concert music is something that we hope will endure many, many, many performances,
and live for many years without losing its allure. People go because
they want to be moved, and hopefully they still think a little bit about
it. I remember being overwhelmed by watching Star Wars and the incredibly slickly-made
movies that are a little bit easier to get to these days. But it’s
not the same. It’s not haunting and lasting the way a wonderful piece
of music is.
BD: So you strive
to make sure your music is not slickly-made?
MW: I don’t think
about that. There’s nothing wrong with being slick. If your craft
is polished, there’s nothing wrong with that.
BD: Then where’s
the balance between the inspiration and the craft?
MW: If we’re talking
about emerging composers, that’s something that we strive for. It’s
always changing, because hopefully your inspiration grows and changes as
you get older. You have to hone your craft accordingly, but on the
other hand, one reason for going to school is to learn the basic craft, like
writing counterpoint. All that comes in very handy for one’s whole
BD: So you learn
the craft and then you utilize it?
MW: When you need
BD: Do you ever
find that the craft takes over from the inspiration?
MW: Yes, but it
often pays off if you stay with an idea that’s worked. Often you discover
a new road that you wouldn’t have thought about if you’d been waiting for
some ‘light from heaven’. They play off of each other very easily.
BD: When you’re
sitting there with the page completely or partially blank, and you’re writing
notes down, do you always control the pencil, or are there times the pencil
leads your hand?
MW: Oh, wouldn’t
it be great if I could tell you that the pencil led my hand! But never,
no, no, no! [Laughs]
BD: So you’re always
MW: No, I’m not
saying I’m always in control, but either I am, or if I’ve had a bad day I’ve
had to start over the next day.
BD: So you scrap
what you’ve done?
MW: No, I usually
don’t. I usually shelve what I’ve done for the future use. It’s
funny... I’ve rarely used those things, but somehow their existence is important.
I don’t know why.
BD: When you’re
writing and scribbling and touching up everything, eventually you put the
double bar down. Then you alter things, and you futz a little bit.
How do you know when to say it’s done, it’s ready?
Well, there’s just a certain chilliness. This is a very vague answer,
but there is a feeling of satisfaction that it’s complete. I must say,
though, that sometimes months or years later the double bar that you put
there at one point doesn’t sound right at another point. The piece
is kind of three-dimensional that way, or four dimensional...
BD: It does exist
MW: Yes, and as
you grow you see the mistakes you make, so theoretically you can go on changing
a piece for ever. It’s a question of discipline sometimes. I
must end this now! I’ve got to stop revising this.
BD: Should you
revise the piece, or would it be better to write a new piece?
MW: There are two
schools of thought for that. I’ve met as many people who would say
the former as the latter. I always go to a new piece because I just
feel that’s right for me. Some people want to be represented by perfection.
BD: Is there such
a thing as musical perfection?
MW: No! [Laughs]
Let me revise that. I think probably Mozart and Beethoven got pretty
close, Mozart in particular.
BD: But you strive
MW: I guess so.
BD: Is there such
a thing as perfection in performance?
MW: No. I
don’t think it’s a word that should enter the arena because something can
be technically perfect right down to the last grace note, and be wooden-sounding.
One interpretation can be technically perfect and very musical, and another
can be technically perfect and very musical and be totally different.
BD: So you expect
some creativity on the part of the performer?
MW: That’s the
most exciting thing. It’s great, and sometimes they have better ideas
that you. “Why don’t you change this note here because it’s more idiomatically
for the instrument?” or “Actually this note is quite awkward. Why don’t
you change it?” The wonderful thing about being a composer is that
we are alive. Actually the most fun I have is working with the musicians,
even with an orchestra. That’s such a big group and anything can happen.
BD: Do you view
yourself as more than just a springboard?
MW: Yes, I have
control over it. If someone is really awful, I certainly let them know.
* * *
BD: You wrote this
piece for the Chicago Symphony. Does that preclude it being played
by a lesser orchestra?
MW: I hope it’s
not! I hope it’s played by a very good orchestra in the future, but
a notably lesser orchestra would have trouble with the piece. It’s
kind of tricky, and I’m not talking about for the orchestra members necessarily,
but for the conductor. It’s a tough piece to put together, and Daniel Barenboim has
been just wonderful. He really understands the shape of the piece,
and I think a less experienced conductor who has to change to the metronome
markings and so on, might be too intimidated by all the directions, and do
a disservice to the piece.
BD: Is this your
advice then to conductors — to use what’s on the page as a start rather than
MW: It’s a start,
yes. As a student, I hadn’t gotten this whole idea of interpretation
straight. I wanted my
interpretation. That’s what I wanted to hear, and I used to put just
layers and layers of directions to the instrumentalist about how to play
this musically. I used to do everything from phrasing the lines for
them to asking them to play it with this emotion. So I’d get the most
flat performances because they were so busy looking at directions and trying
to figure out what I meant. Also they were annoyed that I would insult
them that way.
BD: So you eventually
got to leave them alone?
MW: I had to learn
to leave them alone, yes. It is a little bit like sending your kid
off to first grade.
BD: I was going
to ask, now that you’re with child, is this going to influence the music
that you’re writing in the next few days and the next few years?
MW: Oh, I’m sure
I will. I’m not going to have any time! [Has a huge laugh] As
for what’s going to happen, I’ll have to let you know. I plan to stay
with it. That’s the best I can tell you. I think I’ll have to
write smaller pieces for a while. Orchestra pieces are just such a
huge and long undertaking that even a short piece is quite a project.
BD: Have you been
composing in the last six or seven months?
MW: No, I did a
lot of proof-reading, and the kind of business which is attached to composing,
but during this time I was quite morning sick!
BD: I just wondered
if having the child inside you was going to influence what came from your
MW: [Thinks a moment]
I don’t know. I’m very happy in general, but my music is happier than
it used to be, so I can say yes, it has affected me.
BD: [Noting that
she is almost thirty-six years of age] Are you pleased at where you
are in the music world at this age?
I am. I have a lot of younger colleagues who are much further along
than I am, but I can’t compare myself to them because I’m a sort of a late
bloomer! I said this to Shulamit when I was twenty-three, and she turned
bright red in the face because she knew that twenty-three was a baby!
But to me, twenty-three was ancient. But I still feel like that’s true.
Maybe if I come into my own, if that’s not happening now, it’ll happen maybe
ten years from now.
BD: Is this the
first child for you?
My husband is a freelance musician so he’s not tied to a nine-to-five schedule.
I think we’ll work things out.
BD: Is being involved
on a very close personal basis with another musician helpful or a hindrance?
MW: Oh, it’s great
because we’re so different. He’s mainly a jazz musician, plays percussion
and drum set, and his world is as a player. Even if he were a hundred
per cent ‘legit’ player, his world is still very different from mine, so
we complement each other that way. He often helps me with my notation
and things like that by saying what is clear and what is not. If both
of us were composers, though, that might be very strange, but it’s been wonderful
being able to talk to him about it and not having to explain things.
I know he feels the same way about me.
BD: [Having looked
at the score prior to the interview] I noticed this piece is littered
with a lot of percussion. Is that the result of his influence?
Not his influence only, but going to rehearsals with him, and all of his
friends who are percussionists are my friends. I sit in and I’ve learned
a lot just by watching. So it’s fun. Percussion instruments
BD: Have you written
a piece for percussion ensemble?
MW: No, I haven’t
but I will. That’s one plan.
Lots of luck with this, and lots of luck with your continued success and
MW: Thank you very
A little over ten years later
we met again . . . . . . . . .
BD: It’s been about
ten years since we chatted, and a lot has happened to you. You’ve done
a lot of writing, you’ve won the Pulitzer Prize, you took a tour around the
world... Is your career going in the direction and at the pace that
MW: I don’t think
I anticipated it going as fast as it’s gone recently. But I’m very
happy with the direction in which it has gone, and I’ve certainly learned
a lot along the way. I also had family to take care of, which was true
ten years ago, and so learning to juggle all that has been a challenge, and
has been very humbling!
BD: This may not
be politically correct, but is it incumbent upon you, being the wife and
mother, rather than the husband, to do more to take care of the family?
MW: We’re both
musicians and we both are hands-on parents, so we try very much to both do
our part with the kids. It’s difficult because his schedule as a free-lance
musician is very unpredictable, but we somehow manage to work it out.
If the children are sick, then they gravitate towards their mom. I
have to say it’s the one thing that’s sort of built in nature.
BD: Have you ever
thought of writing a piece of music for a sick child?
MW: [With a huge
laugh] That’s a good idea! Maybe I’ll try it.
BD: I’ll license
the idea! [More laughter]
MW: I won’t forget
BD: Perhaps the
most notable thing for you is winning of the Pulitzer Prize. How, if
in any way, has that changed you as either a performer, or a composer, or
as an all-round musician?
MW: It really hasn’t changed me at all, I have to
say. I feel the same person I was. I feel like I have the same
foibles that I’m forever working on trying to get rid of. Maybe there
are new foibles and I’ve gotten rid of the old ones, but there are always
weaknesses in my work.
BD: Have they moved
to another level?
MW: Maybe the weaknesses
have become more sophisticated! [Bursts out laughing] But I feel
the same insecurities and the same belief that it’s part of what it is to
be a composer — to never quite be where you want to be. You’re always
looking to the next piece, and trying to improve upon yourself, so none of
that changed. I never had the sense that I had arrived or anything,
and it was such a huge surprise for me.
MW: No, I had no
idea. I might as well have landed on the moon, I was so surprised.
It wasn’t that I was expecting it for many years, or hoping for it.
I really didn’t think about it very much.
BD: Now that it
is something that is part of your portfolio, are you then expected to come
up to that level more often?
MW: I really try
hard not to think about that because unfortunately ‘Pulitzer Prize Winner’
is attached to my name now wherever I go. That’s very, very nice, but
it’s also a little scary if I think about it too much. So I try not
to think about it at all, and just proceed as I was before. It’s been
four years now, and the piece which Chicago’s doing tomorrow was in the works
before the Pulitzer, which is really nice. I really like that, and
that makes me feel good. Some of the other projects I’m working on
now were also in the works before. On the other hand, I’m grateful
for this wonderful honor. It was thrilling, and it still is, and I certainly
am very grateful. I’m not saying it’s nothing because it really is
BD: Now you mentioned
that some of these things have been going on now for a long time. You’ve
had things in the works. Is it good to have something that you plan
and work on, and its performance day is way in the future? [Vis-à-vis
the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Sir Andrew Davis.]
MW: Just in general,
deadlines are really good because they help you plan your life, and they
give you extra impetus to keep going. I don’t like to have them too
far ahead because it’s easy enough to put off starting a little bit.
Starting is my least favorite part of writing music.
BD: Then instead
of giving you a ‘dead’ line, they should give you a ‘live’ line to start
That sounds pretty good to me! No, right now I have all my ducks in
a row, and I know what I’m supposed to do when, and that’s very comforting.
And it’s a lot! I have a lot to do because things would happen suddenly,
BD: Do you have
enough ducks, or too many ducks?
MW: I have enough,
but not too much. One more would be too much. I’m right where
I want to be.
BD: With this premiere
tomorrow night, does that mean that duck is no longer in the row, and it’s
now out on its own?
MW: That was a
really big duck! [Lots of laughter] It was a wonderful project
to work on, but a very challenging project. Writing for the piano is
quite difficult. There’s such a huge number of things that can be done
with the piano. The range in terms of pitch and sonority is just huge.
BD: Is it your
responsibility to get everything out of the piano, or do you select the kinds
of things that the piano can do that you want to incorporate into your piece?
MW: If I took the
approach that I should really expose everything that the piano was able to
do, and try to exploit that, I would not be able to compose a note.
So I ended up writing my music, and it came out that in this piece that I
have a lot of huge chords and a lot of scale-passages which sound a whole
lot like Prokofiev and Bartók. So in a way it’s a very traditional
piece, and pianistically it’s quite traditional-sounding.
BD: But that’s
the way you wanted it to sound?
MW: I didn’t plan
it that way but that’s what came out. So somewhere in there that was
in my ear, and it’s not surprising since big chords and scales have really
gotten out of the piano, especially when Emanuel Ax is playing.
BD: Did you design
it all differently because you knew Ax was going to play as opposed to, say,
some other pianist, good or bad?
MW: Yes, and I’m
thinking of one part in particular. He has such a lovely touch, especially
with quiet, more lyrical music, so I was sure to be very careful to include
something which would show him off that way. But there’s an awful lot
of really loud blustering.
BD: Would you be
pleased to have it taken up by another pianist?
MW: Hope springs
eternal. It would be very interesting to hear someone else play it.
This was not a consortium commission, so there are no other orchestras signed
up to do it. It might never be performed again for all I know.
Of course, I hope it will. I’ll keep my fingers crossed!
BD: When you hear
it tomorrow night, are you then going to go back and tinker with it, or is
it done, finished, complete, and that’s the end of it?
MW: If I do tinker
with it, it would be very minor because now I’m already working on other
things. I’ve already written a piece since I finished this one, and
I’m working on the next one. I feel I’ve moved past it in a way that
would make me feel a little strange about going back. If there
are mistakes — not only copying errors but mistakes in terms of my calculating
balance and so on — I might go back and tinker with that, but I don’t tend
to do that.
* * *
BD: Now you say
that this was finished, and then you went on to another piece, and now you’re
back to this one again. Is it at all frustrating to come back to this
one which is yet to be born?
MW: I’m kind of
used to doing that, but I did have to go back and relearn the first movement
because I had finished that quite a long time ago. I had to go back
and actually remember what I’d written, and do a little homework.
BD: That seems very odd. Usually we have stories
about the ink still being wet on the page!
MW: No way!
[Laughs] No, I try very hard to get things done in time so everyone
could woodshed a little bit. But the first movement was a little dusty
BD: Did you send
it to the pianist in pieces, or wait to send the whole thing at once?
MW: I sent him
movement by movement, but I sent him a score at first, and then my copyist
sent him a full part. [Thinks, then continues] No, my copyist
sent him the second movement, which is the fastest and the most technically
difficult one right away.
BD: When you started
to write this piece — or when you start to write any piece — do you know
how long it will take (a) to compose and (b) to perform?
MW: I had a guess
that this would be twenty-four minutes long, and actually now I don’t really
know, but it’s more than twenty-four. I timed it at one point and it
BD: But that’s
MW: That’s pretty
BD: Would you have
been horrified if it had been just twenty or maybe thirty?
MW: Not at all.
BD: Because it
was just what you wanted it to be?
MW: It did what
I wanted it to do. I’m not sure I have it in me to write big epic pieces.
Maybe thirty is over-doing it for me.
BD: So if someone
asked you for a two-hour piece...
MW: I don’t think
I’m that kind of composer. My music is dense in a way, and kind of
organic, and it goes to seed for a while. It can grow only so far,
and then it is done. I’m not interested in writing an opera, for instance,
even though opera’s very much in vogue right now, and possible to produce.
BD: Not even a
MW: I’m just not
interested right now. Maybe sometime...
BD: [With a gentle
nudge] What have you got against the voice? [Both laugh]
MW: Nothing at
all, nothing at all! I’m just having too much fun doing what I’m doing
BD: Does it ever
surprise you by what you’re asked to write?
MW: Not yet.
Most of its pretty civilized, and no one gives me any conditions, which is
very nice. They might ask for something in terms of fifteen or eighteen
minutes, but beyond that I can pretty much choose my instrumentation, and
that’s very nice. But getting back to the time you asked about, this
piano concerto took longer than I thought it would take. I had to drop
it for a while and then resume writing again.
BD: But you’d obviously
left yourself enough time.
MW: Yes, I did,
and I was able to get it ready. I knew when the copyist needed to get
the material, so I’m pretty good about predicting when I can finish.
BD: You get up
in the morning and you sit down with the paper. Do the ideas always
Oh, absolutely not!
BD: Do the ideas
MW: An awful lot
of it is a process of elimination. I never think of composing as being
an additive process, meaning putting pieces of clay on the face of a sculpture.
I’m carving away to make the shapes.
BD: You have the
solid rock and you take away everything that’s not supposed to be there?
I have a lot of really, really bad ideas, and the work is carving those away
and deciding which ones I can use. So it’s a very disorganized way
of working. I don’t know why it evolved that way, but I have a box
full of just the noodling and the notes and the stuff that I threw away.
For this piece, the box weighed about twenty pounds, an enormous amount of
BD: Did you go
back into the box once in a while?
MW: I go back to
check. Sometimes if I feel I’ve made a copying error, I go back and
check the very original idea as I had written it the very first time.
It’s really ridiculous.
BD: When you’re
writing it and you’re tinkering with it, how do you know when you’ve got
this phrase right?
MW: That’s a very
good question. It is when I like it! It’s really very subjective,
and if it works in terms of the pacing, which is really very important to
me, then I’ll go with it.
BD: Now if this
phrase works, and this phrase works, and this phrase works, does that guarantee
that those three phrases will work together?
MW: That’s really the core of composer’s work,
to make sure that the parts of the piece link up in a most honest way.
For instance, it’s awfully easy to write very loud and dramatic music, but
I would feel dishonest if I hadn’t done a lot of preparation compositionally
for a big climax in a piece. It’s easy to ‘wow’ listeners by using
a lot of cymbals and timpani and a lot of brass, but you have to make that
BD: You don’t just
want to be ‘showy’?
MW: No, no.
I believe in transitions. I believe in preparing and winding down,
and in the different functions of music — the middle music, the beginning
music, the end music — and somehow making it clear how that music is functioning,
and where you are in the piece, and how you can navigate through it.
BD: Are there times
though when ‘showy’ is good?
MW: Oh, yes, absolutely!
There’s a lot of ‘showy’ in this piece. I spent a lot of time preparing
those sections, but I try to make them organic and part of the body of the
BD: Do you ever
share your work with husband or friends or teachers, or do you wait until
it’s all done and then present it?
MW: The former,
certainly. I have a wonderful relationship with my former teacher,
Richard Wernick. He’s been incredibly generous about looking at my
work, and now we look more as colleagues and friends. He shows me his
work as well, but he always has great suggestions. He’s very supportive
but honest. If there’s something isn’t ringing true, he’ll say, ‘“Well,
you can do better than that,” which is actually very comforting because I
know that I have the second guess. I’m very fortunate to have someone
like that, because composing is mainly very incredibly lonely and isolating.
BD: Are you able
to shut everything out — family, children, and everything else — enough to
concentrate on your work?
[Sighs] That’s a great challenge, it really is, because music is a
part of who I am, and my family, obviously, is part of whom I am. Those
two things pull at each other a lot because I wouldn’t be able to drop composing,
but I certainly wouldn’t be able to just drop the kids either. It’s
very interesting for music be competing with the experience of pure love,
which is what you have when you have children. But I do shut it out,
and that’s part of the attraction, too, because I’m not writing about my
BD: What are you
MW: I feel when
I’m sitting in front of the paper that I’m writing about music, and trying
somehow to tell the story, but it is an idea that has absolutely nothing
to do with anything that’s happening in my life. Sometimes I can go
back and look back on an older piece and see connections, and I remember
how depressed I was when I wrote that piece, or how elated, or whatever.
But I don’t feel the connection at all, so in a way it’s a very nice, comforting
thing to do, especially when things are very hectic in life.
BD: Now you’re
saying you’re writing musical ideas. Are these musical ideas that you
have created, or are they musical ideas that you’ve discovered?
I try to create the carrot at the end of the stick, and then the music sometimes
leads me along by the nose. Open-ended ideas are great because you
can take them in this direction, and you can go down a rather long path with
them for a few days and realize that you’ve gotten to a place where it doesn’t
work. I like working that way, but it’s very painful and heart-breaking
when you realize it didn’t work because you have to back-track and go back
to that open-ended spot and try another direction. But that part of
it’s real fun too.
BD: Have you ever
gone off where you didn’t think you would, and then it becomes a separate
MW: [Thinks a moment]
Sometimes I write at the end of a piece first, or I think I know what it’s
going to be and I write with that end in mind. That’s a very nice carrot
because there’s certain comfort knowing where you’re going harmonically and
dramatically. But sometimes when I actually get there the piece has
transformed, and the end isn’t appropriate anymore. But it’s served
its purpose as being that carrot. I never throw anything away, but
I will discard it and put it somewhere else and write a different end.
* * *
BD: I may have
asked you this when we met before, but I’m always curious. What for
you is the purpose of music?
MW: That’s another
tough question, but for me as a listener, it’s a way of appealing to the
best we can be, or the best our minds can be. To really listen to music
and be transported by it, we’re engaging the most sophisticated beautiful
part of our mind. I don’t think we can live without it.
BD: I know I can’t!
MW: And that goes
certainly for all art. It takes us away from the horrible things on
Earth. It all sounds rather lofty, and there’s certainly entertainment
involved in music, too. Music is completely abstract, and yet most
people understand what I’ve been talking about.
BD: Do you purposely
try to balance the lofty and the entertainment, or do you just let it happen?
MW: Oh, I don’t
think about that at all. I just try to get notes on a page, and hope
they’re the best notes that I can put together. I couldn’t possibly
set out to move someone, but I can hope that I move them — in either direction.
If they really, really adamantly hate my piece, in a way that’s good because
I’ve made an impression. But I don’t think about any of that, truly.
BD: You’re never
conscious of the audience before a piece is done?
MW: No, but I think
very much about performers, and I think about writing music that they will
like to play and enjoy digging into. I love that relationship.
I always feel there is a collaboration, and they always bring something.
They bring their interpretation to your piece. In a sense, they really
finish it for you and give it life because it’s different every time it’s
BD: Does that please
MW: Oh, I think
that’s so cool! [Both laugh] It really is not your piece anymore
after you let it go.
BD: Are there ever
times when they take the piece and it’s completely theirs?
MW: Oh, absolutely!
Sometimes they’re very possessive in their interpretation. They say
things like, “Now we’re going to do it this way! Don’t you really think
that it would go better this way? Maybe I should use the mute here,”
and then it does become theirs, certainly! Composers are notorious
for having a strange sense of tempo. I have a good sense of time.
I can perform myself without rushing terribly, and I can keep time pretty
well, but when I’m choosing tempo for my own music, if it’s a really cloudy
day it might be a very slow. Then the next day I would look at it, and
it’s totally wrong. Performers help enormously with that. They
tell me when something does not speak very well at this tempo, or if it just
doesn’t fall into the groove, so to speak. So they’re very important.
* * *
BD: Let’s come
back to the ducks in a row for a moment. You mentioned that the one
big duck is now about to be set aside, so that leaves room in the line for
another duck or two. Do you have several offers that you’re going to
pick from, or do you wait for the right thing to come along? How do
you decide what is to be the next duck?
MW: I’m actually
working a piece now for a wonderful group in Philadelphia called Network
for New Music.
BD: Is that one
of the ducks which is already in the line?
MW: That’s in the
BD: OK, but I’m
asking about what’s now going to come into the line to fill the vacant spot,
to take the place of the duck that’s no longer in the line.
MW: There are no
vacancies till about 2005, which is really nice. I’ve had to turn some
things down because there were no spaces in there, and that was painful because
they are things I would have enjoyed doing. But when I’m finished with
group of projects, I don’t know! I don’t know what will happen.
BD: I guess I instinctively
assumed that it’s like a shooting gallery. You have, say, five ducks
going along, and when one gets premiered, then you have four and you can
put another one in the line. So are you waiting until all five are
done, and then you’ll gather a new set of five?
MW: Oh, no, no,
no! I don’t know how it’s going to come along. These just
came along at the same time, and I had juggle a little bit in terms of the
schedule. They were very anxious to get that settled because they have
their program brochures and their calendars and everything to think about.
No, that’s just the way it happened to come along. In five years I’ll
let you know what happens next. [Both laugh]
BD: Are you able
to balance big orchestral works with chamber works?
MW: The piece I
wrote right after finishing this orchestral one was a choral piece, and that
was really nice.
BD: [With a gentle
nudge] So you do like the voice!
MW: I do like the
voice. That was so much fun to work on something so different, and
it was really perfect timing. Now I’m writing a piece for piano trio,
which is another small setting, and that’s fun too. But I really do
think I prefer writing for orchestra. When I was writing the orchestra
piece I was thinking it would be nice to do a piece for solo flute!
BD: So the grass
is always greener — or the notes are always brighter — on the other side!
MW: That’s sometimes
BD: You don’t need
to mention a specific work, but has there come a time when you get in the
middle of a piece and just say, “I don’t like this piece anymore,” and scrap
MW: Oh, gosh, that
would be really hard. I have a couple of pieces that I knew were not
going to be my best pieces, and afterwards I didn’t like them...
BD: But you persevered?
MW: I persevered
because I had to. They were waiting, and I did my very best, given
all of those circumstances, but I’ve not pursued other performances of those
works, and they’re on the shelf. I don’t throw anything away, as I
said, because they’re just as important as part of the fabric as pieces that
are more successful, or that I like better I should say.
BD: Now that you
have more experience, would you go back and perhaps tinker a little more
with them and straighten them out?
MW: Oh, absolutely
not, no. I dislike them immensely. [Laughs]
BD: So what happens
when someone picks the score up and plays it brilliantly?
MW: They won’t.
I have the only copies. I’m somewhat neurotic that way.
BD: How much control
do you want to exercise over these or other pieces?
MW: Oh, not anything
like that. I’m not worried about how I appear, but there are pieces
out there of mine they don’t like as well as others, and that’s fine.
BD: I assume though
that you like most of your pieces?
No! Most composers are kind of strange about that. We can fool
ourselves into thinking we’re absolutely brilliant during the creation of
a piece, and no one else has ever come up with this idea, and then when it’s
performed you cringe a little bit. “Man, that was awful,” and, “I wish
I hadn’t done such and such.” Well, onto the next thing. I always
go through a stage where I really detest my music, but that keeps me on the
ball, keeps me honest. I know a lot of composers who are self-flagellating...
BD: So I guess
it’s better that we have this chat just before the premier rather than after.
MW: That’s right.
I’m more up right now! [More laughter] I’ll be very depressed
next week when I’m sure my career’s over.
BD: Will you still
be depressed when people come and tell you this was a wonderful piece, it
was a great performance, and everybody liked it?
MW: Yes, unfortunately
I’m not persuaded by what people say, but it’s okay. I’ve accepted
that personality quirk, and I have many friends who share it.
* * *
BD: You have a
couple of pieces which have been recorded. I assume that you like the
way those sound?
MW: There’s a wonderful
recording of my Flute Concerto,
done by the Westchester Philharmonic [which
is shown farther up on this webpage], and I’m very happy with that.
BD: That’s the
piece that won the Pulitzer Prize?
MW: Yes, which
is not to say I’m happy with the piece. I’m happy with the performance.
I go back and forth on that.
BD: Are you happy
at all with the chamber work that’s on the other record?
MW: Yes, I like
that piece. I very much enjoyed working on that piece. I wasn’t
in an artists’ colony, but I might as well have been. I was staying
in a little cabin that had a piano, and I was by myself. I could go
for walks and there was no phone ringing. It was very pleasant to write
BD: Do you need
isolation to work?
MW: No, I don’t anymore but, at that particular
time in my life, that was very nice. Perhaps that is what’s needed
right now. I live with two drummers who play in the basement, and it
comes up through the heating system. I’ve gotten used to composing
while I’m hearing Gene Krupa downstairs, so it’s pretty interesting in my
when you’re writing a string parts!
Actually my music has gotten more beat driven than it used to be, and I’m
wondering about that... I’ll look back some day and figure it out.
BD: It’s just sort
of seeping into your subconscious?
MW: It might be!
I don’t know. [Laughs]
BD: I wonder if
at some point you’ll either try to fight it off, or just invite it all in?
MW: Whatever wants
to come in is fine by me! [More laughter] I am really very open
to all suggestions.
BD: Do you have
any idea where your music is going?
[Thinks a moment] I’ll let you know. [Thinks a bit more]
It’s less thorny than it used to be, and I allow myself more in terms of
style. I was pretty rigid some years ago with what I could do and with
what notes I could choose, but that was also the way it was for everyone.
I can go freer now, so definitely my music is reflecting that.
BD: I was going
to say, there don’t seem to be strictures at all anymore.
MW: Yes, really
one can do whatever one feels like doing. It is really nice.
BD: I’m glad that
you feel like doing music.
MW: Oh, yes.
I’m just very grateful to be doing what I love doing, and not having to punch
a clock. It’s great!
BD: Are there some
more recordings coming along?
MW: I can’t tell
you exactly when, but I have a little solo guitar piece that will be coming
out on a CD with many other little guitar pieces, brilliantly played by David
Starobin [also shown farther up on this
webpage]. I also wrote a brass quintet for the American Brass
Quintet two years ago, and they recorded that this past Spring, and that
will come out soon too. I’m looking forward to that. They did
a wonderful, wonderful job. [This
is shown immediately above.] Then I’m at the early stages of
a CD of my chamber music, but I have to write another piece first!
[They laugh] So I have to work on that, and I’ll have a piece after
I’ve finished the one I’m working on now. I hope that one works out.
BD: I wish you
lots of continued success.
MW: Oh thank you!
BD: This is your
third trip to Chicago?
MW: This is my
third trip here, yes. The Chicago Symphony has been very, very good
to me — incredibly generous and I’m almost in awe. I’m so sure I don’t
deserve it, but it’s very nice indeed.
BD: I’m sure at
some point you’ll realize you do deserve it, and then we’ll see if your music
changes! [Both laugh]
MW: I’ll still
be the self-flagellating composer. [More laughter]
BD: Thank you so
much for the conversation. It’s nice to chat with you again.
MW: Thank you very
much for coming.
© 1993 & 2003 Bruce Duffie
These conversations were recorded in Chicago on February 4, 1993,
and May 21, 2003. Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1995, 1997, and
1998, and on WNUR in 2003 and 2005. This transcription was made in
2016, 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.
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.
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.