Composer Robert Moevs
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Robert (Walter) Moevs (2
December 1920, in La Crosse, Wisconsin – 10 December 2007, in
Hillsborough, New Jersey), studied with Walter Piston at Harvard
College (A.B., 1942). Along with other leading American composers
before and after, he studied with Nadia Boulanger at the Paris
Conservatory from 1947 to 1951, and at Harvard University (A.M., 1952).
From 1952 to 1955 he was a Rome Prize Fellow in music at the American
Academy in Rome. He held a Guggenheim fellowship (1963-1964).
Moevs taught at Harvard University from 1955 to 1963. He was
composer-in-residence at the American Academy in Rome in 1960-1961. In
1964 he joined the faculty of Rutgers University in New Jersey, where
he was a professor from 1968 to 1991, and chairman of the music
department at its New Brunswick campus from 1974 to 1981. In addition
to his activities as a composer and teacher, he made appearances as a
pianist, often in performances of his own works.
Robert Moevs is part of a generation of composers who came of age
musically in the years immediately following World War II. Bold new
works of Béla Bartók and Igor Stravinsky, heard amidst
the upheavals of the war, inspired many to take a next step: to reject
much of the past, forging a new musical language which built on the
path-breaking atonality and compositional rigor of Arnold Schoenberg
and Anton Webern. He was well placed to become a leading American
representative of the post-war international movement in the world of
music. After serving in World War II as a pilot in the United States
Air Force, Moevs’ formative years were spent in Europe, first as a
student in Paris, and later as a recipient of the coveted Rome Prize.
In close contact with the tightly-structured works of Pierre Boulez, and
stunned by the raw sound of Edgar Varèse, Moevs synthesised
these styles into what he termed “systematic chromaticism.” Perhaps
because of his deep-seated love of the music of such masters as J.S.
Bach and Beethoven, Moevs never adopted complete serialism. Based on
intervallic procedures that could be heard and recognised, his music
retains a compelling and visceral dynamic impact.
As a composer, Robert Moevs developed a compositional method based on
intervallic control as opposed to specific pitch sequence that he
described as systematic chromaticism. The creator of a rich body of
orchestral, chamber, vocal and instrumental music, he has received
major performances by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, Erich Leinsdorf
and the Boston Symphony, and Leonard Bernstein and Symphony of the Air.
World-wide recognition came in the form of the Stockhausen
International Prize in Composition, which he was awarded in 1978, for
his Concerto Grosso for Piano,
Percussion, and Orchestra.
Moevs’ style has been described as “an extremely rich resource,”
because he found a unique way to combine identifiable tonal centres
with serialism, creating a musical style the excitement of which arises
out of the underlying tension between the realism of tonal centres and
the abstraction of serialism.
-- From the Bach Cantatas
-- Throughout this webpage, names which are links refer to my
Interviews elsewhere on my website. BD
It has always been one of my greatest joys to be able to feature
lesser-known musicians of the Classical field. First on WNIB,
Classical 97 in Chicago, and now on my website, these ‘oddball
composers’ (as John von Rhein described them in the Chicago Tribune) usually elicited
positive response from listeners, and now readers.
One such distinguished composer is the man who is featured on this
webpage, Robert Moeves (rhymes with waves). His music was on some
recordings that also featured my other guests, so naturally I
endeavored to meet him.
Family considerations brought him to Chicago at the end of
1988, so we arranged to get together at my home.
As we were setting up to record our conversation, I was going through
the recordings I had of his music . . . . .
These are the records that I have of your music so far.
Oh, you’ve got the flute piece too! [Record jacket is shown farther down on
Yes! I don’t usually don’t enjoy pieces for solo and instrument
unaccompanied, but this one I really enjoyed.
RM: Good! I have
two pieces for solo flute. This one I wrote back in the ’50s,
and I have one much more recent than this – also much more difficult.
Then there is the Concerto Grosso.
That’s a big piece for piano and percussion and orchestra. On the
other side is a piece called Windows
by Jacob Druckman.
They are both done by Arthur Weisberg and the Orchestra of the 20th
Century before it faded.
BD: I don’t
keep up with all those various groups. It’s no longer around?
RM: No, no,
but it was for a number of years in New York. They put out this
recording and a couple of others, so for larger-scale forces, that’d be
BD: When I do
the program for you, I want to be sure and have a balance — a
large work and couple of small works.
Right! Since I’ve written quite a bit of orchestral music, there
should be something.
BD: Are all
the works that you write on commission, or are there things you feel
you just have to write?
RM: Most of
them are on commission; almost everything. But whether they were
or not, I would certainly be writing. Right now, for example, I
finished this woodwind quintet, which was not commissioned. It’s
now being published by Press Air without my having heard it, and I’m a
little nervous about that because that hasn’t happened before!
BD: I would
think that you would insist that you hear it once to make sure the
parts were correct.
RM: Yes, but
I haven’t! That was a piece I wrote without a commission.
People are saying they might play it, but it won’t be until next
year. The piece will be out by that time.
BD: Are you
ever surprised by what you hear when people play your music?
RM: You can
be surprised, but I’m usually not upset, though, because in recent
years I’ve had good performers and I discovered that being good
performers they approach the piece with seriousness, and their own
sense of what it means. If I tamper with that and say, “No,
it really should go some other way,” they will do
it, of course, but it will sound less convincing because they have
heard it the other way. So I’ve learned not to interfere so much,
unless there’s something really wrong — wrong
notes or misinterpretation, or something important. But for
nuances and articulation, I can often go along with what they want to
do. I’m a little leery about interfering with it.
BD: So there
is a little bit of a broad spectrum of acceptability in your work?
RM: There is
some, yes. I always think there is very little, but it was just a
practical matter. If I insist on doing it exactly the way I want
it, sometimes it sounds less convincing when they play it.
They decided it had to be their way, and you can feel that in the
performance. Sometimes, of course, when it comes to things
like whether something should be played staccato or legato, at that
level there’s no question. I’m clear about that, so it’s more
subtle than that.
BD: So you’d
rather have the piece played even if it is a little different than what
you imagined as long as it’s convincing?
BD: Do they
ever convince you so that you change your mind?
RM: I don’t
know if it goes that far. You mentioned this flute piece,
for example. It says at the beginning of it senza rigore, which is to allow the
player a certain latitude in how he organizes it rhythmically and for
tempo. I’ve had some players who have played it many times, and
they tend to grow into the way of performance, so that there’s an
inherent possibility of some rubato-type playing. They will, as
time goes on, do more and more of that, and make it more and more
extreme in the rubato character. That way it sounds good!
It sounds very personal that way, and very committed. Maybe
that’s why you liked it. Karl Kraber must have played that
hundreds of times, and as time goes on he tends to play it faster, and
with more rubato.
BD: At what
point is it no longer your piece?
RM: It never
reaches the point where I don’t recognize it! [Both laugh]
My own daughter was an excellent flutist, and she’s played some of my
flute music, and she has that same tendency. She realizes if you
put in an apostrophe to take a breath, it is also to help the
articulation. So you don’t have to rush pall mall into the
following notes. You can take your time, and thus become more at
home with the music. She would take more and more time in such
places, and would give a sense of articulation, which I thought was
very good. It makes me wonder if I shouldn’t put her initials
over those apostrophes! So you tend to learn from how they do
it. Perhaps it would have been better to put a fair amount of
rubato and let them take their time.
BD: Do you
ever go back and revise scores?
RM: I have
done that. Usually that means going back and crossing out
Tightening it up?
Tightening it up. As the time goes on, you return to a piece and
feel that you don’t need so much time to make that point. There
might be some repetition or some reiteration in general, and after a
certain amount of time, I become impatient with that. So I just
cross that out and eliminate measures. That’s what it usually
you’re creating a piece and you’ve got the ideas flowing, are you
always in control of that pencil, or are there times when then that
pencil is controlling your hand?
[Laughs] I’ve always had the feeling that the music is dictating
what has to come next. I always feel as if I’m a man who answers,
and that music is telling me what has to come next.
BD: So you’re
just a conduit?
right. In sense what has to be done, what the music requires is
important, because if you don’t have that feeling you’re too likely to
impose a system that can be arbitrary or artificial. Naturally I
do work with systems of various sorts, but it has to follow the
dictates of the music. If it doesn’t, it’s a warning sign.
you’re fighting against that plot?
RM: You can
feel it, yes, if not that day the next day.
you’re working on a piece and you’re letting it flow through you, how
do you know when it’s finished?
usually tells me. It’s the same
thing! I finished the first movement of a string quartet a couple
of weeks ago, and I wasn’t really sure that I was near the end because
I was going on. Then I realized at one point that this is the
place to end. The music has to say this much, and that’s all that
has to be said, and it’s right.
BD: Is there
ever any distress about breaking it off and leaving it, and knowing
that you’re never going to tamper with this again?
RM: I try to
prevent that by being very careful as I go along in the course of a
piece. I perhaps waste too much time doing that, because
sometimes there are alternate paths. There can be two choices.
BD: Each one
RM: It seems
so, and perhaps in fact it is so, but I try to find which one is
slightly better than the other. I can spend a lot of time at that
because one slight change can take you in quite a different direction
as time goes on, especially with rhythm. Most of these are
rhythmic questions — whether this note should
come in after a beat and a half or into the second beat — trying
to get that sense of timing. It becomes important because
although that’s a detail, when you take the longer version, for
example, that could have consequences to make everything which follows
longer, and then the whole piece gets substantially longer. It’s
very difficult to correct that if it turns out that it’s becoming
verbose or too attenuated in time. The only remedy for something
like that is to go back and redo it, and I hate to face that. So
I spend a lot of time trying to make sure that it’s tight enough on the
one hand, and allowing enough time for the effect to be felt and the
rhythm to be felt, and to arrive at just the right point. A lot
of the problems in composition come down to that kind of decision.
talking about timing and ending. Before a piece begins or when
you’re starting to think about a piece, are you conscious of how long
it will take to perform it, or does that evolve from the natural order
of what comes onto the page?
RM: You must have a
sense of that, too. For some things, like this string quartet, I
was simply told that anything twenty minutes to a half-hour would be
fine, so I don’t have to worry about that. I simply allow the
music to go. Last year I had to write a piece for solo
harpsichord, and the time was supposed to be four minutes and thirty
BD: Did it
come out to four minutes and thirty seconds?
how it came out, and I was very glad it did! I’m not quite sure
how that happens. [On
the recording shown at right, the performer takes it very slightly
slower, accounting for the addition twenty-three seconds!
Vis-à-vis that disc, see my Interviews with Mel Powell, Ned Rorem, Samuel Adler, and Robert Muczynski.]
it’s the right piece.
RM: I had an
internal sense, an internal chronometer I suppose, because I didn’t lay
out measures that would take four minutes thirty seconds to
complete. I started at the beginning and wrote it with that
sense, and it came out like that. I don’t know how to explain
that, so there is some kind of control. It must be a sense of it
which you develop over the years. I’ve been doing it for a long
time. For some people it’s a perfectly good way, and others will
lay out a certain number of measures at a certain tempo which they know
will take a certain number of seconds to perform.
BD: Then they
fill in the blanks?
RM: They work
down from there, yes.
BD: It seems
like that would eliminate a lot of possibilities.
systematic, yes, and it’s organized. I can’t do it because I feel
it’s too mechanical, but that helps to solve all these problems that I
anguish over. I can sympathize with people who start at the other
end and lay the whole thing out, say, eighty three seconds’ worth of
music, and then start sub-dividing in proportions until they get down
to the sixteenth note.
BD: But I
would think that then the music becomes mathematics.
RM: Music and
mathematics are always rather interconnected, you know. What I do
is mathematical enough! [Both laugh]
protesting] But you approach mathematics from the interpretative
side and the creative side, rather than from the theoretical side and
the practical side.
RM: Yes, I
feel inhibited by filling in blanks, let’s say. I don’t like to
operate that way.
BD: Then for
your compositions, where is the balance between the technique and the
RM: You can’t
do anything unless you have a good technique. Technique is
essential, and it has to be competent, otherwise the result will never
be musically valid or satisfactory. I don’t think that’s
possible. That doesn’t mean you don’t have a feeling you want to
express, an emotion or sense that you want to convey. You must
have that. That’s how you start. But I try to work
those two aspects out so the music helps to determine what’s going to
come next, and how the proportions work out. I don’t claim to
rationally understand all this. There’s something mysterious
about it, intuitive or something about how the brain functions, and all
these details. It’s not so easy to analyze. It’s easier to
lay out a system and fill it in.
obviously you don’t find that as fulfilling.
RM: I don’t
find it as satisfactory. It’s not that much of a challenge, and I
don’t feel as if I’ve expressed myself sufficiently to make it
worthwhile. That’s what it really comes down to. If I’m not
expressing myself in the way that I feel is adequate, I begin to lose
the point of doing it.
BD: Let me
pounce on this idea and ask the big philosophical question. What
is the point of music?
RM: For me
it’s the way of communicating my sense of essential feelings, emotions,
sensations, states of mind. Even a moral sense can become
involved, a sense of right and wrong, a sense of condemnation or
salvation. It becomes universal. It really does, and in the
process of expressing yourself honestly and deeply, you touch on what
is part of the universal sense, and that should be effectively
materialized and communicated. That’s an important task. I
think that’s the justification. Of course it doesn’t always have
to be so serious I suppose, but basically that’s what keeps us
going. It requires dedication and honesty.
BD: You say
it doesn’t always have to be so serious?
It can be lighter, but in this same concert vein, not frivolous.
RM: Yes, you
can do this lightly, too. Talking about what I’m doing
right now, I stopped in between movements of that quartet and I wrote a
piece for two pianos which was two minutes long, which is based on a
twelve-tone set composed of triads, but they interlock. Each hand
is playing its own succession of triadic notes, and starting off very
slowly. A quarter note equals 30, and then proportionally
going up until it ends as a quarter note equals 175. The two
hands of each piano have to cover the entire length of the keyboard to
find their notes, and that’s going to be quite a sight to see!
BD: It is for one
piano four hands, or two pianos?
pianos. They would kill each other on one piano!
why I asked! [Both laugh]
RM: I had a
great time doing that, and it was certainly a light piece. But at
the same time it says something about order and meaning, too.
BD: Is that
music, or is that a puzzle?
RM: I think
it’s music! It’s diverting because people should be able hear the
diverting character that’s going on. But it’s still organized,
and communicates a sense of clear order. That, of course, is
pretty systematic, more so than I usually do, but it was enjoyable to
In the end, is composing fun?
RM: That two
piano music was sort of fun! The String Quartet
is too serious to be given that label. There is a great
when you feel that it’s working, and you feel exhilarated and
That’s certainly a kind of enjoyment, isn’t it?
BD: Does your
family put up with your music, and your compositional quirks?
RM: Oh, I
think they’ve learned to! Yes, they’ve been great champions of
mine, which is very helpful in a world that is not always
talk a little bit about the state of concert music today. How do
you see it?
RM: It’s hard
not to get discouraged and depressed over the situation. You can
look at it in two ways. The positive way is to say that in the
current scene everything is open, any avenue can be explored. You
can draw on material from any source on the globe. Any approach
to art will be considered valid, and there is a total freedom in the
choice of what you decide to call art in the first place. All of
this can lead to the development of a new approach to artistic work in
the future. That’s one way of looking at it. You can look
at it the other way and say that any sense of responsibility to art has
been canceled because anything should be considered possible. In
view of that fact, any judgment or decision on what is artistically
viable or competent or acceptable is limiting, and therefore cannot be
accepted. With this kind of negative attack on a sense of
standards it in the traditional sense, the practice of the art as a
craft, taught and mastered by the artists, is impossible. This,
then, is tantamount to saying that we’ve reached the end of our
cultural age, and that art as a bona fide expression is coming to an
BD: I take it
you don’t subscribe to that theory?
depends on how I feel when I get up in the morning! [Both
laugh] For myself I can’t feel that way because I would stop, and
if I stop, life becomes empty and loses its meaning. So the
result is that one continues following one’s own sense of what is right
and what is competent regardless of the acceptance, or lack thereof, in
the outside world. In other words, that means isolation.
BD: You don’t
feel that it’s elitist, do you?
RM: I don’t
know really what that means to say that. If you adhere to your
sense about doing things that are right, that are correct in terms of
the medium for the work that’s in hand, and doing it with the technical
skill, then you’re fulfilling your function. There are many ways
of escaping from that demand. If you do escape, you can say that
the art is of lesser value. Perhaps it’s not art at all. I
don’t know where we’re going to go in all of this.
BD: Are you
RM: At the
bottom I have to be optimistic, yes, because I know there have been
periods in the history of man where cultures have been
eliminated. That doesn’t mean that mankind is going to be
eliminated. I like to think about the Middle Ages now.
Everything was dormant for a while.
Everything was dormant. The Roman Classical civilization was
pretty much destroyed, and yet not totally. Great mastery came
out of that with Gregorian Chant. All the masters of the Gothic
period, and so forth, kept things going in this new way. Unless
we’re blown off the face of the earth, I don’t think
now that we’re as bad off as that. So I think something must come.
BD: Let us
focus a little bit on the other side of your career. You’re both
a composer and a teacher?
RM: Yes, I’ve
been teaching for a long time.
BD: How do
you divide your time between the teaching and the composition?
Most of what I’ve been teaching in recent years have been composers,
and fugue writing for the graduate program. I do that mostly when
I have scheduled times at the University, and I try to find time to
work in my own studio on the other days, or in the mornings of those
BD: Do you
get enough time to compose?
no. Sometimes ten days or a week will go by when I have to be
there all the time, and it gets just too hairy. But I always try
to keep my hand in and stay with it. Then there are days when I
can get into my studio most of the day, and then it’s fine. So I
try to keep going. In the summer time, sometimes we do traveling,
but if we go to Rome, as we usually do every summer, I have a piano
there, and I can work there too. So I keep music going that way.
BD: Is the
Roman climate particularly conducive to composition?
RM: I work
well there, yes. Fortunately, I have a place that is quiet
enough. For many years I went to the American Academy where I had
a studio, and it was quiet there, relatively speaking. I wrote a
lot of pieces there.
BD: How have
the students changed from when you started teaching to now, if at all?
things remain fairly constant because they belong to the mentality of
people who are fairly young in their experience of composition
— the problems of overdoing, redundancy, clichés,
things which are stylistically derivative — this
kind of thing. They’re generally characteristic, so the task is
to help them hone out all these imperfections and arrive at a style of
their own which will be not only personal but more musically valid.
BD: How can
you, as a teacher, make sure that the style they’re getting is theirs
and not yours?
RM: You can’t
be sure about that. As a rule, I don’t use my music as an
example. I teach them. What I do is insist on intervallic
integrity in what they do, and insist they do go at their composition
with a sense of the intervallic meaning that they have. Their
choice of intervals has to be conscious and somehow be organized.
That’s what I do, so in that sense I’m sure that’s true, but the ways
of arriving at a personal statement from that premise are
infinite. I have some Oriental composers, and I like working with
them because they seem to have inherently that sense of intervallic
perfection. Maybe part of that is their Oriental
background. With the encouragement of insistence on this
intervallic control, they sometimes produce the most interesting and
original results. It’s fascinating to see.
BD: Have you
learned from your students?
RM: At that
point, you begin to at least become confirmed in the possibilities of
composition. They all fall into a certain way through habit of
doing things. But this kind of thing can help to remind you that
there are many avenues that can be followed, and that sometimes I can’t
help them. Even there it sometimes will take too long, or they’ll
do something a second time and it didn’t need to be done. So it’s
interesting to work with them.
BD: While we
are talking a bit about working with students, there is this huge
proliferation of recordings, and the availability of everything.
Has this made your job easier or more difficult as a teacher, and their
job easier or more difficult as a student?
certainly made it easier in the sense that if you have a point to make,
you can usually find a recording of something that will illustrate
it. For example, if you feel they should be putting some
percussion in their pieces, now it’s fairly easy by turning to
recordings of percussion music. Certainly when we were
starting, back at the time of the World War, there weren’t very
many percussion recordings. Varèse’s
Ionisation had come out, which
was sensational. We all seized on that, but since then there have
been very many more... and also for all the instruments and the
different combinations. Even the electronic aspect and all these
things are available. Of course, it also means that if a student
brings in a passage which seems rather trite or old-fashioned, it’s
fairly easy to ask them to go listen to a recording of
Bartók. It’s all been done, and more skillfully, and they
should go on from there.
BD: Even if
it’s trite, if the student arrived at it himself with no prior
knowledge it should not be used?
that’s the big problem of operating in a vacuum. You think that
it’s great, not realizing what’s been done.
BD: What if
it is great, but not original?
RM: It can be
for him, but then when you realize that Bartók or Hindemith or
Stravinsky or someone has done these things, that gives you a big boost
to go on from there.
doesn’t then close off an avenue that the new composer might have
explored even better or differently?
RM: I hope
not, but he should be aware of it so that what he does can be played
off against what already exists. That’s important. That’s
the difference between operating in a closed environment and one which
is open to cultural influence.
BD: Have you
basically been pleased with the performances you’ve heard of your music
RM: I have
had some very good performers, yes.
about the recordings? Have you been pleased with them because
they have more permanence and more distribution?
RM: Yes. In
general, I have, yes. They’ve been good performances.
Usually they’ve been pieces that have been played quite a number of
times, and gone over and adopted by the performer in the way we set it
at the beginning, so that’s fine. The Concerto Grosso was played
beautifully, but the recording, as it turned out, was somewhat
disappointing because it should have been clearer. Certain things
were in the score and were played, and you don’t hear them in the
BD: So it’s
an engineering fault?
RM: Yes, and
that upsets me. You work hard to get it right, but you can’t
hear some things which were important to me — the
harp for example.
they’re not so important that you would withdraw the record from the
RM: Oh, no,
no, no. It’s just that there are details that you don’t
hear. I suppose that dates me because partly I was there at the
recording session. I wasn’t aware of the fact that those things
weren’t being registered. Perhaps I should have been aware, and
stopped the session and had them start over. It’s been on my mind
BD: The only
way is to go back and and re-edit it from original multi-track tape?
RM: I wonder
if you hear them even on that. They did a number of takes of
various passages, and we listen to all of them and we took the
best. Even so, when the record came out, some things you just
didn’t hear. Of course the performance was very good.
BD: Is there
any chance that this cut-and-piece method then becomes a fraud?
RM: Oh, I
don’t think so. Why should it?
it’s not a true performance.
RM: It’s like
a succession of performances in a way, and very often it’s neither I
the engineer who’s complained. It’s the performers who will
stop. I’ve had that happen many times. They say, “I
don’t want that to be heard on that record,” so
they’ll go back and play it again until they say, “All right,
I’m willing to let this be heard.”
BD: Are they
usually right! It’s intonation problems
usually, and if it’s not quite in tune, they don’t want to have that
immortalized, and neither do I! [Both laugh] So they’ll
play it again until they’re satisfied. There’s nothing wrong if
you have the chance and it’s all part of a performance that’s there in
the mood. So the possibility of doing that is legitimate.
Of course there are recordings made of actual public performances in
which that doesn’t happen.
BD: One shot
and that’s it!
RM: Yes, and
there you have the sweep of the music without interruption, without a
change from beginning to end. I suppose you can hear that, too.
BD: Which is
better, or should they both exist side by side?
RM: I find
the difference so subtle that if there is a mistake or something that’s
not heard at all, it’s worth it to re-do it and get it in there.
That’s just what’s been bothering me about that piano recording.
BD: What do
you expect of the public that comes to hear your music?
RM: I always
hope that what I consider to be the nice and expressive sounds will be
appreciated also by the listener. I know some of my friends who
say it’s just too remote and they can’t respond to it. I don’t
understand that because to me it’s a direct and clear
representation. So all I can say is listen again. I don’t
know what else to do about that. Some people become enthusiastic,
of course, and react the way I tend to react. But certainly every
person brings his own cultural baggage to a performance, and we can
only hope that we’re communicating in a positive way.
Whether or not we can ever communicate exactly, I don’t know. I
suspect not. Sometimes, when I’ve been to performances, there’s
noise in the auditorium. People are shuffling and the fans are
going and I get the sense that maybe twenty per cent of the energy I
put into that piece is coming back, which is painful.
not enough, is it?
RM: But I
think even for the greatest composers that must be true. Think of
Beethoven, for example. We listen to him. From doing it
myself all my life, the amount of energy that he must have put into a
piece in order for us to get as much as we do is staggering. I
don’t think we could ever know how much energy he had to generate to
put into to produce it, and how much is actually conveyed to us.
There’s a kind of entropy that sets in. But he wrote that energy
into the original.
BD: Is any of that
lost because of over-hearing and re-hearing his works so many times?
RM: I’m sure
after a while one becomes callous, even in the Seventh Symphony, which is like a
dynamic explosion. It’s hard to conceive of that amount of energy
in one man. I suppose, though, if we had it as background music,
it could be exploding there and you could go on eating your
dinner! [Both laugh] It’s all in the outside world.
You can’t prevent that dissipation. It’s too bad, though, because
it certainly does cross my mind when I’ve experienced it myself.
I know the amount of energy I put into something, and you can feel in a
performance that only a fraction of that is being conveyed or
received. There’s such a loss en route. I wonder sometimes
in poetry or painting, whether the situation is the same.
BD: Do you
ever feel you or your music is competing against the Beethoven
— or another work — on the same
program, or a work they might have heard at the last concert, or a
record played last night?
RM: I don’t
feel that. I haven’t had a sense of competition from Beethoven
because I learn from him, and I mention him as he is close to me.
I learn from him, and I see how he solves his problems and how he
handles proportions, so I don’t feel any sense of competition. Of
course, what an audience responds to is up to them. They can just
wait until the new piece is over, and then settle back and let the old
piece wash over them. I can’t do much about that.
proportion of concerts should be new pieces?
RM: You mean,
BD: Either a
single concert or over a season.
RM: It seems
to me that each concert should have a contemporary piece on it to show
which century we’re living in. I don’t think that it’s necessary
to have concerts of all contemporary music, though I must say that in
New York those are the kind I generally attend.
BD: There you
can get a smattering of a number new things all at once.
Yes. If the standard concert has a Mendelssohn and a Grieg, and
then a piece by somebody new, I won’t bother.
you’re a specialist.
RM: Yes, so I
suppose I’m not the best person to ask.
BD: I would
think that for the general public, the Mendelssohn and the Grieg would
bring the people in, and they get the bonus of hearing New Composer X.
that’s the theory, but I find that maybe they’re already inclined that
way. But a concert of all contemporary music, especially chamber
music, tends to be much more alive and interesting, and generating more
response than the other kind. For example, if you went to any of
these performing groups in New York — and there
are a number of good ones — who will include a
nineteenth century work at the end after doing these contemporary
pieces, everything seems to fall flat because the interest has
BD: I guess
those are the people who just want something new. They don’t want
to hear anything they’ve heard before.
didn’t earlier audiences want that? Audiences of the nineteenth
century usually wanted new things.
the way it used to be
BD: When did
we lose it?
I don’t know! At one time if you started playing sixteenth
or seventeenth century music on the program, nobody wanted to hear
that. They were too strongly biased the other way, certainly.
BD: Now the
pendulum has swung completely the other way.
RM: Now it’s
swung completely the other way, yes.
BD: Is it
coming back to the middle again?
RM: When you
asked me my view of the future, this is part of my thinking.
It’ll have to swing back somehow, because as the past recedes and
becomes more archaeological, eventually it will disappear. In
fact, that will be the end of the culture, and that’s an unacceptable
termination seems to me. So something will have to happen.
BD: I was
reading in your biography that there’s an article on ‘important
composers’ with your name attached to it. What makes a composer
[Laughs] I would say that if you are trying to communicate
something the way we were discussing before, and that’s of value, and
you succeed in communicating it and setting down a new statement, then
that becomes important, and that becomes the most important
thing. It’s more important than putting out a new product in
machinery, for example, because it makes a statement about our position
in the world, in our life, which is more germane to our
existence. It is our raison
though greater numbers of people might use the machine than would
listen to a piece of music?
machine would be certainly useful. It can be useful but when it’s
not destructive, of course.
BD: Is music
does not intend to be useful. Music intends to explain, and to
communicate a sense of truth. It goes on another plain, so the
question of utility is formed — or should be, as
a general rule, of course. There are uses for music. Music
can be put to various uses such as marches, and at the circus...
BD: It’s like
imposing an occasion on the music, rather than the other way round.
RM: I would
think so, yes,
BD: Do you
feel you’re part of a lineage of composers?
RM: Yes, I
do. I hope I come right within the main western tradition,
certainly starting with Bach and Beethoven — composers
everybody’s heard of. I think I'm part of the tradition that we
epitomize. Stravinsky, for example, was saying that he came from
a Russian off-shoot, or a Slavic off-shoot of the main tradition
because he embraced the Russian nationalistic features, which he got
from Rimsky-Korsakov. He said he had started out in a marginal
reference to the main, but he did his best to correct that —
if you want to call it a correction — first
by his neo-classicism, and then his serialism, which are all part of
the main thrust.
BD: Are there
some of your students who have emerged and are now making names for
themselves in the compositional field?
RM: I should
Wilson, who first started studying with me at Harvard. Then
when I went to Rutgers, he came to graduate school there, and he’s been
doing very well. He’s a very good composer and pianist. He
runs the Vassar music department, and has a large body of compositions
BD: Some of
them are recorded?
RM: Oh, yes,
of all sorts — orchestral, chamber, piano.
He’s certainly been a very good composer who has maintained his
activity unflaggingly over the years. And he’s a fine person.
written in all styles, for most combinations?
RM: Pretty much by
now, except opera.
BD: Why no
because no one ever asked. It’s not something I would embark on
you’ve written that BA Brief Mass.
RM: Yes, and
I’ve written dramatic music for voices and orchestra.
BD: Tell me
the joys and sorrows of writing for the human voice.
RM: I rather
like to write for the human voice. You can take advantage of the
text most of the time, which helps to guide your sense of what you
should ask the singer to do rhythmically, and also melodically,
according to the scansion of the text, and the accentuation, and the
meaning. It’s interesting to work with that kind of frame.
I find it useful. Then it’s easy for music to express or to back
up and support the images and sentiments of the text. If a
listener is hearing it and can understand the words, then you have a
clearer sense of what the music is portraying. So it’s rather
nice to be able to take advantage of that. You can do things, and
the text will explain, and the listener can respond.
BD: So it’s
an additional driving force?
RM: Yes, it
becomes a supporting force. Of course, it’s easy to overdo that,
but if done with care it can be nice.
you’re in the midst of the string quartet.
RM: Yes, I
have to get back to that now.
have you got an idea for a piece after that? I was just wondering
how far ahead you plan.
RM: At the
moment, no. That’s as far as I’m going right now. I’ve got
to decide whether to have a third movement or not of the string
quartet. I suspect that’s what’ll have to come, knowing what’s
happened so far. So I’m concentrating just on that now.
BD: Do you
get an idea when you’re on a train or in a car and jot it down?
never as expressive as that. I try to keep it in my head all that
time, so when I do get down to work I’ll have some sense of what I
should be doing. It’s more like that.
BD: Thank you
for being a composer!
[Laughs] Well, I’m glad I’ve been allowed to be one!
BD: Thank you
for spending some time with me this evening.
you. It’s a pleasure to talk with you. You’ve
been asking interesting questions!
© 1988 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded in Chicago on December 28,
1988. Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1990,
and again in 1995 and 2000.
This transcription was made in 2016, and posted on this
at that time. My thanks to British soprano Una
Barry for her help in preparing this website
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.