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
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 website
-- 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.
Robert Moevs: Oh,
you’ve got the flute piece too! [Record
jacket is shown farther down on this webpage.]
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 the recording.
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.
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 measures.
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 amounts to.
BD: When 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
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
RM: That’s 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.
BD: Then you’re
fighting against that plot?
RM: You can feel
it, yes, if not that day the next day.
BD: When you’re
working on a piece and you’re letting it flow through you, how do you know
when it’s finished?
RM: It 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 equally
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.
* * *
BD: We’re 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?
RM: That’s 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.]
BD: Obviously 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.
RM: It’s 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]
BD: [Gently 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
BD: Then for your
compositions, where is the balance between the technique and the inspiration?
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.
BD: But 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
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
BD: It is for one piano four hands, or two pianos?
RM: Two pianos.
They would kill each other on one piano!
BD: That’s 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 do it.
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
exhilaration when you feel that it’s working, and you feel exhilarated and
alive. 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 championing.
BD: Let’s talk
a little bit about the state of concert music today. How do you see
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 end.
BD: I take it you
don’t subscribe to that theory?
RM: It 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 optimistic?
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
was dormant for a while.
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 days.
BD: Do you get
enough time to compose?
Well, 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?
RM: Certain 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
BD: How can you,
as a teacher, make sure that the style they’re getting is theirs and not
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?
RM: It 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?
RM: Yes, 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
BD: That doesn’t
then close off an avenue that the new composer might have explored even better
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
* * *
BD: Have you basically
been pleased with the performances you’ve heard of your music over the years?
RM: I have had
some very good performers, yes.
BD: What 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 recording.
BD: So it’s an
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.
BD: But they’re
not so important that you would withdraw the record from the market?
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 ever since.
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?
BD: Because it’s
not a true performance.
RM: It’s like a
succession of performances in a way, and very often it’s neither I nor 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 right?
RM: They’re 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
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
BD: That’s 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.
BD: What proportion
of concerts should be new pieces?
RM: You mean, single
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.
If the standard concert has a Mendelssohn and a Grieg, and then a piece by
somebody new, I won’t bother.
BD: But you’re
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.
RM: Yes, 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 dissipated.
BD: I guess those
are the people who just want something new. They don’t want to hear
anything they’ve heard before.
BD: But didn’t
earlier audiences want that? Audiences of the nineteenth century usually
wanted new things.
RM: That’s the
way it used to be
BD: When did we
RM: [Laughs] 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 ‘important?’
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 d’être.
BD: Even though
greater numbers of people might use the machine than would listen to a piece
RM: The machine
would be certainly useful. It can be useful but when it’s not destructive,
BD: Is music useful?
RM: 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
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
BD: Are there some
of your students who have emerged and are now making names for themselves
in the compositional field?
RM: I should mention
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 by now.
BD: Some of them
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.
BD: You’ve written
in all styles, for most combinations?
RM: Pretty much by now, except opera.
BD: Why no opera?
RM: Mainly because
no one ever asked. It’s not something I would embark on by myself.
BD: But 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.
BD: Now you’re
in the midst of the string quartet.
RM: Yes, I have
to get back to that now.
BD: Then, 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?
RM: It’s 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!
Well, I’m glad I’ve been allowed to be one!
BD: Thank you for
spending some time with me this evening.
RM: Thank you.
It’s a pleasure to talk with you. You’ve been asking interesting
© 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 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, as well
as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other
interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also like to call
your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather,
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You may also send him E-Mail with
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