Composer  Paul  Moravec

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Paul Moravec (born November 2, 1957), recipient of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in Music, is the composer of numerous orchestral, chamber, choral, operatic, and lyric pieces. His music has earned many distinctions, including the Rome Prize Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, three awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation. A graduate of Harvard College and Columbia University, he has taught at Columbia, Dartmouth, and Hunter College and currently holds the special position of University Professor at Adelphi University. He was the 2013 Paul Fromm Composer-in-Residence at the American Academy in Rome, served as Artist-in-Residence at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, and was also elected to membership in the American Philosophical Society.

We met at his guest room in a private club in Chicago at the end of October of 2006.  He was in very good humor, even relating a joke or two as we were setting up to record . . . . .

moravec Bruce Duffie:   Does a sense of humor help in the composition of music by showing up in the tones that you put down on the page?

Paul Moravec:   I can’t remember who, but someone pointed out that the sense of humor is all about a keen sense of proportion.  What we think is funny is either too big or too small for a situation, or just out of place, and that
s what strikes us as funny.  It’s the inappropriateness of the scale of something, and music is nothing if not about a very keen sense of proportion.  It’s all about making audible the passage of time, and having a very keen sense of how long things should go on.  It’s also all about ratio.  It’s all about proportion.  So, I think that a sense of humor is connected subterraneously somehow with a musical mind in that regard, because it’s all about judgment.

BD:   Do the ratio and proportion come in when you’re first laying out the piece, or does it affect the little sections of the piece, or both, or all, or none?

Moravec:   [Laughs]  The way I work is that I have a very general sense of the scale of the piece when I begin.  In a very general sense, I know what the various sections will be, but that can change radically once I get into the actual composition of the piece, and very often it does change radically.  I really do make it up as I go along.

BD:   But when you’re starting the piece, do you not know that it’s supposed to be twenty minutes, or ten minutes, or an hour?

Moravec:   Well, I certainly know that. particularly if it’s a commission that specifies the length, and some sense of what the performers have in mind for me.  So, I need to bear that in mind.

BD:   Are you obligated to hit that on the nose, or to be relatively close, or is it just a ballpark suggestion?

Moravec:   It’s a ballpark suggestion, basically, unless there’s a recording involved, in which case you can’t exceed 75 minutes on a CD.

BD:   Have you written something specifically for a recording?

Moravec:   Actually, I just thought of that because I’m working right now on a big oratorio for Opera Omaha, and I need to keep it under seventy-five minutes for the recording purposes.  [More about this work, and a photo of the CD cover appear near the end of this interview.]

BD:   If the recording was not a consideration, would the seventy-five-minute time limit be something that entered your mind?

Moravec:   As a basic time-frame benchmark, yes.

BD:   I just wondered if the constraints of another presentation would help or hinder.

Moravec:   No.  In performance, it’s pretty elastic.  It’s just that when you’re dealing with finite CD time-span, you need to be careful about it.  You need to just bear that in mind.

BD:   So, it becomes a seventy-five-minute piece?

Moravec:   It will on the recording, whether I like it or not.  The performance in concert could go on longer, but it probably won’t.  But if it does, I’m going to have to make a few cuts in there to make it fit.

BD:   Should the concert program say that this performance includes bonus material?

moravec Moravec:   Yes... a special deal.  [Laughs]

BD:   How much does this, or any other practicality, enter into decisions that you make in terms of the music that goes on the page
the phrasing, the ideas, and the thoughts in terms of the performance realities of the music?

Moravec:   It’s a case-by-case basis.  I’d have to speak specifically about some works.

BD:   But all pieces have to have certain generalities that will hold true, do they not?  Or is each piece absolutely unique?

Moravec:   Every piece has its own DNA structure.  I do think every piece is unique in some way, and what I have to do, as a composer, is follow what that genetic structure seems to be telling me it wants to be.  The hardest part in the process of writing a piece is early on, because I don’t know what I’m doing.  It’s a blank page.  You start with a blank page, and then begin to fill it in.  That can often be quite agonizing.  But the fun part, and the most pleasurable and really joyous part is when the piece starts to tell you what it wants to be.  In other words, it matures to the point that there’s enough material for it to start to assume its own personality, to the extent that it starts to tell you what it wants to be.  Then, it’s a lot easier.

BD:   Are you starting to follow it?

Moravec:   Yes, exactly.  When all is going well, that happens.  If it doesn’t go well, it doesn’t.  But that’s the most joyous part of being a composer
the process of composing.

BD:   Does this discovery that it’s taking over usually happen early or late in the process?

Moravec:   About halfway through.  Let’s say I work on a piece for two months.  It’s at about the one-month-period that I begin to feel it.

BD:    Do you start looking for that to happen, and then, when it does, do you think, “Oh, good I’m half-done”?

Moravec:   Yes, pretty much.  I don’t always think of it that literally.  These are very elastic time-frames, but basically, that’s the shape of a compositional process.  Some pieces of mine take not very long to write.  There’s one called The Time Gallery
which was recorded here in Chicago four years ago with Eighth Blackbird.  It’s about forty-five minutes, and it took about three months to write overall.  So, that’s fast.  That’s a lot of material for me in a short period.  Then, some pieces of a larger scale will take six years.  That’s not all I do for those six years...  I put it away, and then come back.  But every piece has its own gestation period.  You can’t force it.  It will be ready when it’s ready.

BD:   What happens when the deadline is nearing?

Moravec:   That’s what keeps you up at night!  [Laughs]  But I’ve been pretty lucky in timing my deadlines.  I know where the music comes from now.  I’ve been doing this long enough, so that I can time the work periods pretty closely to deadlines.  I don’t miss deadlines.  If I do, it will only be two or three days, or a week, but I don’t miss deadlines.

BD:   Do you impose the deadline yourself a few days before the performance?

Moravec:   No, it’s up to the commission.  Very often it’s in the contract.  It will say it’s due on a certain date because they have got to start rehearsals then.  Part of the mystery of composition is the unconscious level on which most of it happens.  To me, the conscious process of composing is solving one musical problem after another.  That’s all you do all day, consciously.  Unconsciously though, the work continues, and it can happen when you’re doing your laundry, or walking down the street, or running errands, or whatever.  The process continues.


See my interviews with John Adams, and William Bolcom

BD:   Do you get a sketch pad to make notes, or do you just remember?

Moravec:   I just remember.  In fact, I don’t think I’m even aware of it, but I know the calculations are continuing.  The problem-solving continues while I’m not paying attention, or when I’m doing other things.  There’s a line from a John Lennon song where he says that life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans.  Very often, composition is something that happens while you’re making other plans.  You’re thinking it’s happening, and it’s just going on.  Sometimes when I’m writing a piece, especially in the late afternoon, I will get very sleepy.  If I hit a snag, I can’t solve a problem.  I don’t know what I’m doing, and I’ll get sleepy and just take a nap.  It’s partly a way of just avoiding the problem, but actually, what’s going on is that something in me says, “Now you have to be in touch with your unconscious mind.”  You just have to relax.  The mechanism has begun solving the problem, and you go to sleep.  Then, when you wake up half an hour later, very often a solution that pleases me will emerge consciously.

BD:   How do you know when a solution is THE solution?

Moravec:   You feel it in your spine.  It moves you.  It touches you.  It does what you intend to do at that moment.  It swings.  It’s whatever it is you’re trying to do at that moment.  Or, it’s just cool.  You come up with solutions and you think,
Wow, that’s really cool.  Why didn’t I think of that earlier?  You were trying to think of it, and you needed to go into some other state of mind and then come back to it.

BD:   You don’t go into a trance, do you?

Moravec:   Maybe...  Yes, I think so.  There’s a Polish psychologist
, Mihaly Csikczentmihaly, who wrote a book called Flow, where he talks about this process of creativity.  It’s not on like a trance.  When things are going really well in the creative process, you sit down, you when stand up, three hours have passed.  You have a ton of material, and you don’t know where it came from.  Somehow you just sort of vomited it out.  There’s an ease to it, and an inevitability to it.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (born 29 September 1934) is a Hungarian-American psychologist. He recognised and named the psychological concept of flow, a highly focused mental state conducive to productivity. He is the Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Management at Claremont Graduate University. He is the former head of the department of psychology at the University of Chicago and of the department of sociology and anthropology at Lake Forest College.

His family name derives from the village of Csíkszentmihály in Transylvania. He was the third son of a career diplomat at the Hungarian Consulate in Fiume. His two older half-brothers died when Csikszentmihalyi was still young; one was an engineering student who was killed in the Siege of Budapest, and the other was sent to labor camps in Siberia by the Soviets.

csikszentmihaly His father was appointed Hungarian Ambassador to Italy shortly after the Second World War, moving the family to Rome. When Communists took over Hungary in 1949, Csikszentmihalyi's father resigned rather than work for the regime. The Communist regime responded by expelling his father and stripping the family of their Hungarian citizenship. To earn a living, his father opened a restaurant in Rome, and Mihaly dropped out of school to help with the family income. At this time, the young Csikszentmihalyi, then travelling in Switzerland, saw Carl Jung give a talk on the psychology of UFO sightings.

Csikszentmihalyi emigrated to the United States at the age of 22, working nights to support himself while studying at the University of Chicago. He received his B.A. in 1959 and his PhD in 1965, both from the University of Chicago. He then taught at Lake Forest College, before becoming a professor at the University of Chicago in 1969.

He is noted for his work in the study of happiness and creativity, but is best known as the architect of the notion of flow and for his years of research and writing on the topic. He is the author of many books and over 290 articles or book chapters. Martin Seligman, former president of the American Psychological Association, described Csikszentmihalyi as the world's leading researcher on positive psychology.

In his seminal work, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Csíkszentmihályi outlines his theory that people are happiest when they are in a state of flow—a state of concentration or complete absorption with the activity at hand and the situation. It is a state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The idea of flow is identical to the feeling of being in the zone or in the groove. The flow state is an optimal state of intrinsic motivation, where the person is fully immersed in what they are doing. This is a feeling everyone has at times, characterized by a feeling of great absorption, engagement, fulfillment, and skill—and during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self, etc.) are typically ignored.

In an interview with Wired magazine, Csíkszentmihályi described flow as "being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you're using your skills to the utmost."

BD:   You don’t have to be specific, but are there ever times when you wanted to go one direction, but it’s taking you another direction, and you fight with it?

moravec Moravec:   Oh yes, and that can go on for weeks.  I try not to do anything twice.  I’ve written about ninety pieces, and I wonder, What I haven’t I done before?  It’s a test.  Let me see what I can do that I haven’t already done.  Of course, I have a certain signature that will come backcertain chord progressions, or whateverbut I’m always looking to just do something I haven’t done before.  Sometimes that can make me try to be too clever, and when you’re trying to be too clever, sometimes the piece will just snap back at you and say, “No, just relax.”

BD:   You want novelty for novelty’s sake?

Moravec:   Yes.  I don’t really know what
novelty is.  At this late day in Western music, who knows?  When people talk about ‘the cutting edge, it’s a marketing mantra, basically.  It’s a marketing tool.  This is how we sell cars.  This is how we sell shoes.  This is how we sell fashion.

BD:   This is not how we should sell music?

Moravec:   No!  Certainly not at this stage.  There might have been.  One hundred years ago, it’s quite possible you could have legitimately talked about genuinely new ways.  Debussy, for example, was genuinely novel in some very strange way.  Stravinsky did a few new things.  Not a lot, but he did some things that were just crazy.  Then there’s the very strange Schoenberg.  There are folks like this, but it doesn’t happen very often.  In any event, in the year 2006 it’s a different ball game.  Now, if somebody were to show me a compositional technique which is genuinely new, I’d be thrilled.  If you want to show me something that’s genuinely new and hasn’t been done before, sign me up.  Let me see it.

BD:   Would you embrace it, or just look at it?

Moravec:   I just want to know what it is.  Nobody has done this, in my view.  Do you know anybody that has?  When I ask people about this, they say they don’t know.  They’ll get back to me about it...  [Laughs]

BD:   Are we, the public, looking to you, the composer, to come up with these cutting edge things?

Moravec:   I don’t know, but this is what I’m saying. 
I’m trying to define what the term cutting edge means.

BD:   Should you be trying to find a
cutting edge’, or should you be doing something, and then all of a sudden say “Oh, yes, that’s cutting edge”?  Are we getting the cart before the horse?

Moravec:   We’re getting the cart before the horse.  First of all, if you stumble upon something that is genuinely technically innovative, I would like to see what it is.  But secondly, I don’t care primarily about innovation.  Berlioz, for example, was an innovator in some ways.  I don’t care about Berlioz, or his innovation at this stage of the game, because it’s the mid-1800s.  It’s past.  It’s over.  I do care about his originality.  That’s why we care about Berlioz.  That’s why we care about the Symphonie fantastique.  On the plane over here from New York, I was listening to Harold in Italy, which is a terrific piece.  It’s as fresh the hundredth time you hear it as it is the first time you hear it because it has a quality of originality that does not pale.  It does not go out of date.

BD:   [With a smirk]  Yet some people call it the world’s longest viola joke.  [Both laugh]

Moravec:   Right.  It’s neither fish nor fowl.  [The work is neither a symphony, nor a concerto.  Written as a commission from Paganini, who had just acquired a Stradivarious viola, when he saw the score, he told Berlioz that there were too many rests.  He expected to play continuously, and would not premiere it.  He did not hear the work until four years later, when he was so overwhelmed that he sent Berlioz a letter of congratulations, and enclosed 20,000 francs.]  It’s just a great piece.  [Anticipating the next question]  What is greatness?  It may have to do with innovation, but it may not.  I’m not convinced that Bach innovated anything, but he is profoundly original.

BD:   Are you profoundly original?

Moravec:   It’s not for me to say.  I don’t know.  I’m just doing the best I can.  I would like to think that I am, and I’d like to put faith in that supposition.  But if you’re asking me a serious question about it, I can’t say.

BD:   Are you pleased with what you see on your pages, and what you hear from the performers?

Moravec:   Yes, otherwise, I wouldn’t release it into the world.  I throw away a lot.

BD:   When you’re working on something, and you’ve got a piece going, you’re making decisions as to what’s going to stay in the piece.  Then you get to the end, and you have put all the notes down.  You go back and tinker with it, but how do you know when it is done?

Moravec:   Sometimes it goes out into the world because the performance is coming up.  Then, if I have the opportunity, I will revise it after the premiere.  There’s a piece on the CD that just came out (shown below) called Atmosfera A Villa Aurelia.  It’s was a string trio originally when I wrote it last year, 2005, for a premiere in Rome.  There were two violins and a viola, and then the Lark Quartet asked me to make it into a string quartet, so I did.  I think now it’s a perfect piece, and I don’t say that cavalierly.  But this eleven-minute piece I can’t make any better, and it can’t be any better.  It’s the best that I can do.  That’s as close to perfection as I’ve done in this time scale.


BD:   So, a string trio should not try to play the original version?

Moravec:   They could if they want to, but it just took a while for it to get to its ideal form.  If you look at it in platonic terms, it’s as though the string quartet version exists in its ideal form, and the first version was an approximation of that ideal.  But according to Plato, you can never have the ideal.  Everything is imperfect in this world.

moravec BD:   Have you ever really achieved an ideal, or is this just the next step in terms of good and better of what you’re doing?

Moravec:   I always think of it in terms of simply getting better.  That’s all I can do.  Stephen Albert, who died tragically (at age fifty-one), was a great guy and very fine composer, who
s best work was still ahead of him.  It’s a real tragedy.  In my opinion, knowing what he was up to, he was really taking off.  I remember a conversation with him about twenty-five years ago.  I was complaining about some professional thing.  I can’t remember what it was, but it was some career thing that was pissing me off.  I told him about it, and he didn’t want to hear about it.  He said, “Don’t think about these things.  Just keep getting better at what you do.”  That’s the best advice I ever heard from anybody about anything.  It’s not just about being a composer.  It applies to anything.

BD:   Do you feel a special closeness to him because you and he are part of this select group of holders of the Pulitzer Prize?

Moravec:   No.  It actually has nothing to do with that.  I just liked him.  He was very interesting, with a quirky personality.  He could be pretty salty in his assessments of things he didn’t approve of, or people he didn’t approve of.  So, for some people he wasn’t necessarily the most beloved character.

BD:   But we don’t need to know that when we hear his music.

Moravec:   No, I’m just talking about him as a personality.  I just really liked him.  He was very straightforward, and very clear.  He cut right to the chase, which sometimes could mean he’d tell you things you didn’t want to hear, but he was right.  He said things that were spot on.

BD:   So, you respected what he said.

Moravec:   For sure.  I thought he was terrific.

BD:   Again, without naming names, are there a lot of other composers you respect, or just a few?

Moravec:   You mean currently?

BD:   Yes.

Moravec:   You ask hard questions.  I think that this is a golden time for contemporary music.  I know something about Britain, just a little bit, and Italy a little bit, but basically, all I know is the American scene, and I think it’s an extraordinary time.  For one thing, the standards of performance are very high.  The technical compositional standards are also very high, but technique doesn’t make you a great composer.  There are some other qualities involved, but there is a basis on which things rest now, which is that there are certain assumptions about skill which are being taught.  This wasn’t the case a hundred years ago.

BD:   Is this performers, or composers, or both?

Moravec:   Both, but performers more so because you can’t fake being a performer.  It’s easier to fake being a composer, because there’s more room for pretension, especially in the short run.  In the long run, though, there’s not that much more room.

BD:   For performers, it’s quicker to see that the emperor has no clothes.

Moravec:   Yes.  If you get up and try to play a Chopin etude on the piano, and you can’t do it, right away the gong sounds and you’re off the stage.  You get the hook.  It’s obvious you can’t play.  That’s not the case, necessarily, with composition.  You can have some kind of bells and whistles going on, even when there’s not much really going.

BD:   Would it be better for composers if there was a way to hear the gong and get the hook right away, rather than spending a lot of time with trivial ideas?

Moravec:   It would get rid of some of the stuff that’s coming up, sure.  But that’s true of any field, not just composition.  Certainly, in the visual arts there’s a lot more B.S.  That’s just my opinion, because musical talent is more exclusive.  Don’t take this the wrong way, because I know how it sounds, but anybody can draw a paint brush across a canvas.  Physically, you can do that.  But not anybody can play the flute, and not anybody can write a fugue.

BD:   But now we’re getting more people who can get something out of their computer.

Moravec:   That’s another matter.  The role of technology is a whole other subject to talk about.  I use Sibelius as a compositional tool, and I think it’s terrific.  I brought my computer with me, and it’s just a fantastic thing, because I like to hear what I’m doing.  I don’t have a piano in this hotel room, but I do have this thing.  I can input what I want to hear, and play it back immediately.  Then, if there’s a wrong note, I know it immediately.  I don’t have to waste time finding this out later.

BD:   So, it saves time in rehearsal?

Moravec:   Oh, tons.  These programs are fantastic in terms of preparation of score parts and so on.

BD:   You’ve done this from pen-and-ink on paper, and now you’re using the computer.  I just wonder if are we short-circuiting the next generation of composers who will start with Sibelius.

Moravec:   Yes, I think so.  I had to do it the way it was done in the Middle Ages, because that’s all we had.  That’s important, and I wish my students, and students generally, were forced to write on paper.  It’s very important to at least know how to do that, and then you can go on to computers.  It’s a part of one’s apprenticeship to notate by hand.

BD:   Are you optimistic about the future of music, both your music and also the music of future composers?


Moravec:   Sure.  I can’t see the future, but I’m not pessimistic.  Let’s see what happens.  There’s a strange sort of oligarchization going on in our culture, which is connected to the way that the country is becoming split economically.  In other words, we have this class of the super-rich, and then the pretty rich, and the middle class is having real problems now.  Then there are the people living in poverty.  I’m not optimistic about our popular culture.  I think the popular culture is terribly debased right now.  I know I’m sounding like a middle-aged fogey, and every generation says these things, but I’m going to say it anyway.  I think our popular culture is appallingly stupid.  Then we have this other world that I’m talking about, of highly-trained conservatory performers and composers.  There’s a critical mass of them.  There’s enough that there’s more activity than we almost know what to do with.  That’s great, but it’s cut off from what should be its roots in a truly popular culture, and that concerns me.  That’s an oligarchical situation that I don’t consider.  I’m not comfortable with what is supposed to be a Democracy.  Now, if we were in ancient China, that would be another matter, but we’re not.  This is America, and that’s a different situation.

BD:   Should American music be different from music from a country which has a monarchy or even a dictatorship?

Moravec:   I hope so, but not necessarily.  I do have a sense of what America can be.  I have an ideal.  When people are nostalgic about the past, very often it’s a past that never existed.  They’re simply imposing their own wish on something that is unverifiable.  You can’t go back in a time machine and check and see if it actually happened.  Was it really this way?  You never know, so you’re off the hook.  You can be safely nostalgic about just about anything.

BD:   Or maybe we just ignore the problems that were there.

Moravec:   Yes, exactly.  One of the strengths of American culture is evidenced in my favorite writers, like Herman Melville and especially Mark Twain, and poets like Wallace Stevens.  These are very eloquent, elegant writers, especially the poets, who use the energy of the culture of America.  This is something that also comes out of the English poet Wordsworth.  In Britain, you speak the language of your time and speak real language.  Don’t write fake poetry.  It’s got to be grounded in something.  That was Wordsworth’s point.  It’s in his prose introduction to his major work, he talked about what he was trying to do, and it was a quiet revolution in the way that people wrote poetry.  In our country, it was Mark Twain and Walt Whitman.  It was a revolution.  They’re grounded in the culture, somehow, and my concern is that our popular culture is so appalling.  Is this what we want?  Is there anything really to base things on?

moravec BD:   Are you part of the solution, or is this off someplace else and you can’t do anything about it?

Moravec:   I don’t know.  I’m stupefied by it.  A big part of the problem is the 24/7 mass electronic entertainment industry, which is just ubiquitous, and unfortunately I see this in my students.  This is all they know.  This is their culture.  Their culture is not Huckleberry Finn, or a close knowledge of something of real substance.

BD:   So, you’d like to go back to the days when you would go to a concert, and that was your musical experience, and the time before and after would not have music in it?

Moravec:   No, because there are advantages to the Naxos Music Library, for example.  [According to their website it is,
The most comprehensive classical music streaming platform.  An invaluable resource for universities, public libraries, schools, music professionals, and collectors.]  It’s tremendous.  My school has a subscription to it.  When I can’t remember how a certain musical idea goes, there it is.  I don’t have to go anywhere.  It just comes up on my computer, and I can listen to it with a score.  This is an astounding resource.

BD:   But you have to know enough to ask for that piece.

Moravec:   Yes.  My concern is best described by T.S. Eliot, who asked, “Where is the wisdom we’ve lost in knowledge?  Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”  We live now in an info-tainment information age, which is electronic.  Kids get it on the internet, and mostly on TV.

BD:   And now the computer. 
[Note that this interview was held in 2006, and in the fifteen-year period from then until 2021 (when this was prepared for my website), the platform has shifted through the computer to the phone!]

Moravec:   [Being amazingly prescient]  That’s the whole point.  It’s stupefying people.  It makes them docile, and it’s not even information.  It seems to me as maybe being one third information.  The other two thirds are disinformation and misinformation [terms which are, in 2021, being utilized heavily].  These are things that are just wrong.  And then there is the propaganda.  Somewhere there’s the information that’s useful and accurate, but how do we know?  How can we distinguish that without real knowledge?  And how can we have knowledge?  What use is knowledge if we don’t have wisdom?

BD:   All that comes from experience.

Moravec:   Or somebody tells you.  Somebody teaches you, and I think that schools have abandoned that task.  They’re just not doing it anymore.

BD:   We’re dancing around it, so let me ask the real easy question.  What’s the purpose of music?

Moravec:   The first and foremost is pleasure.  I’m a complete hedonist in that regard, but it’s hedonism.  It’s an epicureanism, really.  It’s sensual pleasure.  It’s intellectual pleasure.  It’s spiritual pleasure.  It’s moral pleasure.  These are all very important criteria.  When something satisfies you on a moral level, you have pleasure, and if something really bugs you, and if you’ve done something wrong, your conscience is displeased, and you are displeased.  Your conscience is forcing you to make it right.  These are aspects of morality, so I’m using
the word ‘pleasure in that regard.  What satisfies you?  What pleases you in your existence here on Earth?  I don’t know about an afterlife, and I can’t even speculate about it.  This is all I know, and music is very important in that regard.  I think that music has a moral dimension, a very, very powerful moral dimension.  That’s a big aspect of what it is we do as artists.  I believe that artists are teaching values.  It’s not pedantic to say not to do this, or don’t do that.  It’s not about taboos.  If anything, it’s about a lack of censorship.  It’s about freedom.  But nevertheless, within that world, I think that we are teaching values in an otherwise inarticulate way.  A musician does it through abstract sound.  A great work of art is a moral statement, and it’s valuable.  It’s a valuable part of a culture.  It is a pillar of that culture and that civilization.  It is worthwhile in that regard.  That may be its greatest use in the noblest sense, in the grand tradition.  That may be the greatest purpose of art, its moral dimension.  Again, my caveat is not to misinterpret what I mean by morality because it is not propaganda.  I’m not talking about that.  I’m not talking about instructive art, because I think that’s death.  Mostly it’s boring, but the fact that it’s boring tells you something about it.  The fact that it sucks, or is basically creepy, is the tip-off.  A great work of art is a kind of model of sanity and moral health, and a remarkable thing about a great piece of music is that it’s non-ideological.  It has great spiritual strength even when it’s not religious.  Music can make a very important distinction between spirituality and religion.  We all know that religion can be spiritual, but not necessarily, and spirituality can be religious, but not necessarily.  But a great work of art can work on, and be very valuable, in a spiritual level.  It may be a religious work, but not necessarily.


BD:   Do you try to write these morals and these ideals into your music, or do you just hope that they are there once the piece has been created?

Moravec:   It’s all about aesthetic judgment, basically my aesthetic judgment.  We come back to proportion.  Should this phrase be four measures long?  Should it be five measures long?  Do I need to make this a 3/4 bar or a 2/4 bar?  All of these calculations go into getting it right, and when it’s right, when it feels right, that, to me, then has this moral dimension to it.  There’s a resonance, and sometimes the resonance is the difference in the presence of a quarter note or its absence.  It might just be some tiny little detail.  Mark Twain said that the difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.  One little detail, and if it’s absent, it doesn’t work.  Put it back in.  It’s like magic.  It’s like the lights going on.  That’s the art of composition.  You’re trying to get the right effect.  I don’t think music is really about sound.  We experience it as sound...

BD:   ... but it’s what happens after you’ve heard the sound?

Moravec:   Exactly.  That’s the whole thing.  What is it?  Where is it?  If we’re just about sound and giving us pleasure as a sonic experience, so what?  Who cares?  It’s okay insofar as it goes, but it’s how it infuses our being, how we feel, how we think, how we dance to it.  That’s what music is really about.  Hitchcock talked about the
MacGuffin in his thrillers.  It’s a great idea.  It’s a great explanation for what he was doing.  [In fiction or film, a MacGuffin is an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself.]  In North by Northwest, James Mason is trying to get microfilm out of the country, and the CIA is after it.  They can’t allow this to happen.  So, in this case, the MacGuffin is this microfilm.  Everybody’s out for the microfilm.

moravec BD:   [Remembering the film]  It’s in the little statue!

Moravec:   Yes, it’s in the statue, but we, the audience, don’t care about the microfilm.  We care about the actors, how they feel about the microfilm, what they do to each other to get it, and how they feel about each other.  In other words, it’s the mechanism by which the plot is activated.  In Casablanca, which is not a Hitchcock movie, it’s the letters of transit.  Everybody wants these pieces of paper, but we don’t care about them.  We care about Rick and Ilsa.  So, in a metaphorical sense, music is not really about the sound.  We care about the sound, but the MacGuffin is the sound of the music.  What’s really important is feeling an intellectual and spiritual resonance, all the dimensions of these things that we have been talking about.  It’s a strange analogy...

BD:   ...but coming from a working composer, it is interesting to delve into a mind that has done this, and made it successful.

Moravec:   Yes.  This is a popular culture metaphor.  It grounds me, somehow, if I can think about what I’m doing in terms of what happens in the Alfred Hitchcock movies, which give me great pleasure.  By the way, I think he’s a very great film director, much greater than he’s given credit for.  He may be the greatest ever because he makes it look so easy.

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BD:   Are you pleased with where you are at this point in your career?

Moravec:   Yes.  Things are going well.  Particularly since winning the Pulitzer two years ago, things have gone considerably better in terms of opportunities.

BD:   You’re probably getting so many offers.  How do you decide yes or no?

Moravec:   This is the first time in my life that I’ve actually said no to certain opportunities, simply because I can’t physically do them all.  It is extraordinary as I say it.  It’s unprecedented in my experience.  You know how hard it is for composers to thrive.

BD:   Will you still be able to write the music that you want to write?

Moravec:   Yes, but that’s not a question which is entirely answerable.  For example, the American Brass Quintet asked me to write a piece for brass quintet and organ.  This wouldn’t have occurred to me, but it was the commission, and it’s been successful.  I’m very pleased with it, but it was their idea.

BD:   You wrote it because you thought, “Oh, that sounds cool”?

Moravec:   Yes, it was a great idea.

BD:   If you had said, “Oh, this sounds awful,” would you have still written it, or would you have said no?

Moravec:   I probably would have written it because it’s the American Brass Quintet.  They’re the best in the world.

BD:   You were trusting that?

Moravec:   Yes.  It’s a natural thing to include organ with brass quintet, but if they’d asked me to write a piece for brass quintet and piccolo, or ocarina, or something else, I would have tried to do that, too.  It would have been completely something else, but why not?  Try it out and see what it is.  This oratorio that I’m working at right now has a very unusual text, which was presented to me.  It’s by a poet named Ted Kooser, who just stepped down as the Poet Laureate of the United States.  He’s from Iowa [later spending much of his life in Nebraska], and he codified the survivors’ accounts from the 1888 blizzard, which was a Katrina-like event, except, unlike Katrina, they didn’t see it coming at all.  It’s like the Hand of God just came down and wiped out thousands of people, and ruined their lives.  It was just a horrifying thing, and it’s a very unusual text.  It’s something of a stretch for me, and that’s good.  It’s a great text, and it makes me think outside my own box, and that’s good.  [Photo of recording shown below-right]

moravec BD:   I wish you lots of continued success, and hope you continue thinking outside your box, so that your box gets bigger and bigger and bigger.

Moravec:   You don’t want it to get too big, or it will fall apart.  But yes, things are going well.  I say, facetiously, that before the Pulitzer Prize in 2004, I couldn’t even get a residence position, [laughs] which is not entirely true.  I wasn’t completely unknown in the music world.

BD:   You had a couple of records out.  That’s how I knew about you.

Moravec:   Yes, but nothing like the celebrity of the Pulitzer Prize.  My name is in every newspaper.

BD:   [Sternly]  I want you to know it was NOT because you have the Pulitzer Prize that I asked for the interview.  I knew you as a composer from these recordings.

Moravec:   Good.

BD:   A number of composers that I have interviewed have been winners of the Pulitzer Prize, but many others have not...  I remember asking Roger Reynolds for an interview, and it didn’t work out just because of time.  Then he won the Pulitzer, and when he was coming to Chicago he was willing to do the interview with me because I had asked him before he won the Prize.

Moravec:   So, he has pre-Pulitzer friends, and post-Pulitzer friends.

BD:   He told me he wouldn’t have been interested in me if I was just part of the bandwagon because of the Pulitzer.  I’m very glad that I’ve interviewed many of the people who have won the Pulitzer Prize over the years, some very late in their career, but many of them before they win.

Moravec:   I see his point.  But on the other hand, Prizes are to be used, and as long as you’re clear about that, fine.  If someone gives me an opportunity, I can usually tell where it comes from, and what it’s based on.  If it is based on the fact that I won the Pulitzer Prize, fine.

BD:   If you utilize these opportunities, then you’re okay.

Moravec:   Yes, as long as you’re clear about what’s going on.  It’s when you’re not clear about it that it can be confusing.  Then you really should be more guarded.  But basically, in a certain sense, Prizes are worthless because they don’t make an artist better than they may or may not be already.  Talking about myself, I still have to work as hard as I ever did to get ideas out, and formulate them, and codify them, and so on.  It doesn’t make me a better composer, but what it does is open up a whole bunch of opportunities that may not otherwise ever appear in my life.  So for that, I’m eternally grateful, and feel it’s just wonderful.  That’s what prizes are for.  They are to be used wisely.  The MacArthur Fellows Program doesn’t even do this, necessarily, because the MacArthur is in all fields.  [According to the foundation's website, "the fellowship is not a reward for past accomplishment, but rather an investment in a person's originality, insight, and potential".
]  It could be for anything, but there’s nothing like the Pulitzer Prize for Music.  There’s a Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and Poetry, and so on, and they have their own reality and their own setup.  But the Pulitzer Prize for Music is unique, in that cab drivers in Chicago will know what it is.  If you say to them you won the Pulitzer Prize for Music, they’re impressed.  If you say you won the Grawemeyer, it’s like who cares?  [The Grawemeyer Awards are five awards given annually by the University of Louisville. The prizes are presented to individuals in the fields of education, ideas improving world order, music composition, religion, and psychology. The first award, for Music Composition, was presented in 1985. The award for Ideas Improving World Order was added in 1988 and Education in 1989. In 1990, a fourth award, Religion, was added as a joint prize between the university and the Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. Psychology was added in 2000, and was first given in 2001. In 2015 a special award, the Spirit Award, was created for the awards thirtieth anniversary.]  Nobody knows what it is.  The prestige of the Pulitzer is because it’s actually a journalistic prize.  So, newspapers have really pumped up its value.  But in any event, in terms of using the Pulitzer, it gives a composer such as myself a platform where one can step outside of the ghetto of new music, and speak to folks outside of the ghetto, and be an advocate.  That way it’s very, very useful.  There’s a leverage to educate regular folks about what it is that we do, and let them know it’s not that mysterious.  It’s not that bizarre.  There’s a cognitive dissonance for me between the central importance of the arts in the human condition, and its marginal role that it seems to play in society as a whole.  Rationally, I understand it.  I know why the arts are marginalized, and have become more so as a whole since the 60s.  But emotionally and spiritually, there’s a cognitive dissonance.  I don’t understand it.  I don’t get it.  Something that is so central to the human condition as artistic expression is not available to everybody.  Or, it is available to everybody, but they don’t know about it.  So, I would like to make it more generally available in that regard, and the Pulitzer Prize, because of its general prestige, gives someone a platform.  It’s an opportunity.

BD:   Thank you for utilizing that opportunity, and thank you for the conversation today.

Moravec:   It was a pleasure speaking with you.  Thank you.


See my interviews with Paul Sperry, Libby Larsen, Daron Hagen, and John Corigliano

© 2006 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded in Chicago on October 28, 2006.  Portions were broadcast on WNUR the following year, and again in 2018; and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio in 2007, and 2014.  This transcription was made in 2021, and posted on this website at that time.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.