Composer  Lawrence  Moss

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Lawrence Kenneth Moss (born November 18, 1927 in Los Angeles, California) is an American composer of contemporary classical music.

He holds a B.A. degree from the University of California, Los Angeles, an M.A. from the Eastman School of Music, and a Ph.D. in music composition from the University of Southern California, where his instructors included Leon Kirchner and Ingolf Dahl.

He has taught at Mills College, Yale University (1960-1968), and the University of Maryland, College Park (since 1969). His notable students include Jeffrey Mumford, Liviu Marinescu, and Susan Cohn Lackman.

He has received two Guggenheim Fellowships (1959 and 1968), a Fulbright Scholarship, and four grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Moss has composed operatic, instrumental, and electronic music. His music is published by Theodore Presser, Association for the Promotion of New Music (A.P.N.M.), McGinnis & Marx, Alfred Publishing Co., Roncorp Inc., Northeastern Music Programs, and Seesaw Music Corp.

His music has been recorded on the CRI, Desto, Opus One, Albany, Capstone, Orion, EMF, Spectrum, Advance, and AmCam labels.

In early September of 1987, to prepare a program celebrating his 60th birthday, I arranged an interview with Moss on the telephone.  He was very enthusiastic in his responses to my questions, and presented ideas and opinions without hesitation.

It is interesting to note that when Moss spoke of large numbers
— the amount of the National Endowment, or the US population — he was very accurate, just slightly under the exact figures (which I looked up when editing this interview for presentation here.)

moss A
s always, names which are links refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website.

Here is what was said that afternoon . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   You’ve been a professor of music for quite a number of years.  Is this theory and composition?

Lawrence Moss:   Yes.  I’m technically a professor of composition, but it is theory and composition.  I teach theory, too.

BD:   You’re one who instructs young composers?

Moss:   Yes. That’s what I do, mainly.  I’m the senior composer here, and I have more compositions than anybody else.

BD:   This is a question I like to ask composers who teach composers.  Is music composition something that really can be taught, or must it be innate within each young student?

Moss:   Some things can be taught, but certainly not creativity.  Technique can be taught.  That is a way to logically manage and manipulate ideas, to coordinate them and continue them.  All that can be taught in order that one could write a piece that would be coherent.

BD:   Who is the one who decides whether it is logical or not?

Moss:   The way I teach, I offer criticism, and the students are free to take it or reject it.  I don’t believe there’s any one way to compose.  I don’t espouse any particular school.  I do always try to show the operation of logic, such as saying,
“At this point I would expect to change, or, I would expect something different, or, I think you’ve used this idea as much as you can get out of it now.  These would be typical comments.  Or, as part of the logic, I’ll say, “What you’re doing here doesn’t seem consistent with what you did at the beginning.  Do you want a contrast, or weren’t you aware of it?  Sometimes, that will point out something they didn’t notice.  That’s the way I would go about it.

BD:   Is music supposed to be logical?

Moss:   Well, that’s the part that can be taught.  That’s technique.  The appreciation of logic would be the technical part.  Obviously, you cannot teach the talent part, so what could be taught would be the writing of a coherent piece, what people would say was a well-written piece, with all that may be both positive and negative.  That could be a put down, because it’s just a dodge, but that’s all you could ever teach.

BD:   In either your music or other’s music, where is the balance between the inspiration and the technique?

Moss:   That’s the mysterious part.  There are times where great talents seem shorter on technique in the sense of control and coherence, and then there are others that seem overly-controlled.  Off the top of my head, I would say Charles Ives would be a good example of man placing a great deal of emphasis on intuition and creative spark, and often doing fantastic things.  Yet, because of less interest in control, and maybe his whole attitude towards the establishment and music theory in general
which I think is pretty criticalhe thought anything he did was good.  I love his music.  I think by all odds that he was the most important American composer, but there’s a lot of it that just seems too much as though he was very easy on himself.  Then, on the opposite extreme, a man like Hindemithwho had technique to burn, and often just spun things outthey’re always well-written, but they’re not always interesting to listen to.  It’s probably my own interest, but I would much prefer to err on the side of Charles Ives types than Hindemith types.  I’m obviously a romantic, so maybe my interest in logic is an attempt at seeing my own need for that.  I’m very sensitive to it because it’s something I have to work at.  I think logically, but I tend to relish intuitive ideas and spontaneous ideas.

BD:   When you’re giving all kinds of suggestions to your composition students, do you then heed those suggestions yourself in your own work?

Moss:   That’s an interesting point.  Yes, I actually tell them always to do what I’m doing.  Students, like all of us, tend to be lazy.  I remember that when I was a student, once you
sweat it over a piece, you like to think you’ve finally gotten it.  You feel that once you spend enough time, then it is written, and it is finished, even though you have a gnawing suspicion that it isn’t quite right.  I often tell them to do as I do, which is to just start all over again from the beginning, and take a fresh look at it.  I certainly stress with the students just to get away from it, to distance yourself, so you can see it objectively.  After you’ve written the piece, the amount of time that you’ve spent writing it consecutively means that you will probably be less familiar with the beginning than the end.  When you go back to the beginning, you sometimes see lots of things you didn’t see before.  You spent all that time, and yet, since you’re away from it, you can see it in a much fresher way.  I tell them to heed any kind of misgivings they have at that point, because they’re probably good ones.  They’ve written a piece, and they really know something about what they’re trying to do.  Then, they should apply what they know after writing the piece to the piece itself, which means another version.  I do that myself all the time.  It’s very healthy to accumulate a huge pile of backup sketches.

BD:   By coming back to the beginning and altering it, wouldn’t that necessarily alter the direction of the piece?

Moss:   What I do in my own work is to write it, and every piece I have written I’ve rewritten.  It’s just a coarse sketch where I’m having to copy it, but I’ve had a much closer idea.  This is when I think pieces had worked particularly well, and I have then gone over them.  I do this more now than I used to.  I like my more recent work because it has more coherence.  I have a basic idea, and I am not afraid to bend everything I’m doing towards it.  In a sense, there’s a certain simplicity which I relish very much that comes from doing it.  You have a more decisive structure of the piece, and you see a direction to it.

BD:   How do you know when you’ve come to the point to put the pen down and release it?

Moss:   That’s a good question.  Everybody has their own way.  I find myself frankly sick and tired of it, and I am making more and more unessential changes, cosmetic changes.  I know I have sometimes gone beyond that point.  It might have something to do with the next piece, but when I’m working well, I’ll just know that this is about as much as I could do with this piece.  It’s very subjective, and that’s an important part of technique
knowing when you reach that point, and not to overstay your welcome.

moss BD:   Do you work on just one piece at a time, or do you have a couple of things going?

Moss:   I used to do that, but lately I’ve had some things where people wanted a piece while I was engaged in another one, so I dropped it and went on to the piece that had a deadline.  I found that was very helpful for me.  I used to think it wouldn’t be, but sometimes for me, it worked as a corrective just to go to something else.  A totally different piece clarifies my mind, and that then allows me to go back to the piece I was working on with a fresher view.  I’ve gotten away from it, and maybe even thought of some new things while writing the other piece.  What I worry about is growing stale on a piece, which I have a tendency to do.  We all do that.  You can get awfully compulsively bound up with a piece, and just thrash around more and more over less and less.  It seems terribly important, but when you get away from it, you realize it was just details, and you missed the whole idea of what you were doing, or missed lots of opportunities to do things which are really exciting because you were so worried about what you could just see very close up.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Have you basically been pleased with the performances you’ve heard of your music?

Moss:   [Laughs]  Some.  It varies.  I certainly think more and more they’re right.  Once I’ve heard a piece well-performed, I can feel good about that piece.  I feel it’s gotten what it needed.  I tend to always feel that the piece is a neglected child if I’ve never really had a chance to hear it right, as though I never really had a chance to see what it was up to.  Once I have, then, for better or for worse, that’s the piece.

BD:   Are you ever surprised by what you hear?

Moss:   Sometimes, but I would say not really.  More and more now I can predict.  I mentioned this to my students.  It’s strange because it’s a very puzzling reaction.  Terrible as it is, it’s almost predictable that when I finish a piece I’m overjoyed.  It’s what you expect.  You’re very excited about it.  Then, there comes a point not too much after that, when I’m totally disgusted.  I’ve never written a piece, no matter how much I like it, that there wasn’t something repulsive almost about it.  In my case, I get so wrapped up in it, but I feel there is always something that’s going to disappoint.  It is never exactly what you might want.  Then, there comes a nice time later, when I get away from it and hear it, and this is relevant to what you’re asking.  Sometimes I hear performances, and I find things I’d forgotten were in the piece, and I’m very pleasantly surprised.  Sometimes I hear things that I haven’t even thought I heard when I wrote them, but that’s usually further away, and also when somebody whom I didn’t know takes the piece.  For instance, I wrote a string quartet for a local group which really didn’t like new music.  They were distinguished players, but they didn’t know what to do with the piece, and they did a terrible job.  Individually they were very good, but they played it so much slower than I’d written it that it really never worked.  I think tempo is very important.  I’d much rather have a correct tempo and wrong notes, than just to have something played.  My music seems to need a correct tempo.  They were just afraid.  They really didn’t care that much about it.  They had to do it, because it was a commission.  I don’t know why they even asked this group, but that’s another matter.  So, I felt very badly about that piece, and for years I was trying to get a decent group to take it on.  Then, I got two performances.  Both were excellent, and one of them was from a German group which I hadn’t even rehearsed.  They were very young people, and they did a beautiful job.  They did it differently than the American group, who had also done a superb job, but whom I had coached a bit.  That made me feel very good, that a totally foreign group could take it, and without really any input from me, do a performance that was really very exciting.  That made me feel that my technique was adequate, and that I’d at least put down on paper what needed to be put down.

BD:   What do you expect of the audiences that come to hear your music?

Moss:   It’s a good question.  I hope they like it, and I expect them to be interested.  I usually get good reactions because my music is not off-the-wall.  It’s certainly mainstream, and I’m very much concerned with expression.  I am thinking of an audience when I write.  Maybe today it would be an elite audience made up mostly of composers and new music enthusiasts, but I’m not writing to prove any theories.  I definitely want to express something which I hope the intelligent sympathetic listener would get.

BD:   Are you pleased with the audience reactions?

Moss:   Usually, but not always.  It’s interesting... it depends on the audience.  I probably do rather well with general audiences that are going to concerts where the offerings might be a mixed bag, where they would do traditional contemporary music, the classics of the Twentieth Century, plus new music because my music fits pretty easily into that tradition.  Where I don’t do so well has been in some European, fairly avant-garde audiences, where my music probably seems much too conservative.  Those people were not interested in the kind of expressivity which I am interested in.  They were really interested in the avant-garde, and the exposition of new theories.  That kind of approach, is where they probably are mostly interested in just the latest... I don’t like to sound bitter, but maybe the latest fashions in music.

BD:   The latest fashions or the latest fads?

Moss:   The latest fads, right.  I have had some not-very-responsive audiences on that level.

BD:   Is it safe to say that you write the music because you feel it has to be written?  That you write the way you want to write?

Moss:   Oh, yes.  I don’t feel that I belong in any particular
school, but I do have certain composers I like.

BD:   Do you feel you’re part of a lineage of composers?


See my interviews with Ernst Krenek, Arthur Weisberg, and Charles Wuorinen

moss Moss:   Yes.  I like to be performed on concerts that would include the great figures, such as Stravinsky, Bartók, Schoenberg, Webern, any of these people.  These are the ideal repertoire for contemporary music.  I’m not so sure that we do composers a favor by putting them on programs of exclusively music written since 1980 or 1970, because it all can tend to sound very much alike.  There’s not that much great music, so I like to be on concerts where there are masterpieces, pieces that are superbly written which will anchor the program.

BD:   Would you rather be on a program that has just contemporary masterpieces, or a smattering of older masterpieces and newer masterpieces?

Moss:   I prefer the latter.  It’s hard to tell... it depends on which ones.  When I say contemporary masterpieces, that would include all the great names, great people this century.

BD:   Let me ask an impossible question, then.  What is it that constitutes a masterpiece?

Moss:   That’s a difficult question.  That word is very much out of favor now.  I’ve used it way back when I was a member of the ASUC [American Society of University Composers, later called the Society of Composers, Inc.], and I got all kinds of sneers.  [For a bit more about ASUC and SCI, see my interview with Elliott Schwartz.]  Using that word was considered very bad form, and it shows how distant I am with these people, because it’s a term which I think is a valuable one.  There are certain people who just knew exactly what they wanted, and created pieces which expressed those desires.  We can learn a lot from them by studying those works.  A
masterpiece would be a piece that turned you on rather consistently, in and out of season.  I can think of many people in the Twentieth Century, as well as earlier ages, and I like being on programs with them because they sort of tune up the audience.  It’s very exciting to be on a program where there are rather familiar pieces.  One of the nicest programs I heard was pianist Ursula Oppens on the Baltimore Chamber series, doing the Piano Fantasy of Carter, which she co-commissioned.  Then, she did the Waldstein Sonata (Beethoven), too.  [Both laugh]  That’s a wild idea, but she did the Waldstein differently than most.  She’s a fine pianist, and she did certain things probably because she’s played so much new music.  I found that exciting because I listened to the Waldstein in a new way.  It was very good, and it reminded me of something.  I remember Schnabel said he never played new music, but he once claimed that he played old music betterand I’m sure he thought he played it better than anybody elsebecause he was amenable to new music.  He was a composer, and he did keep in touch with Schoenberg and all those people, even though he never played any of his own music, nor theirs for that matter.  That’s the idea why I like to think of the traditions and contemporary music both revitalizing each other.  I definitely feel there’s room for the tradition, but what equally turns me off are concert series devoted only to those old stale pieces, as a tradition which just gets staler no matter how great they are, because they’re always heard the same way and in the same company.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’ve written a couple of operas, and before we get to the specific works, you make a differentiation between operas and theater pieces.  Is this a conscious distinction?

Moss:   It’s just a term I use to describe what I’ve been rather consistently trying to do with concert music, and that is to accentuate a kind of theatrical element.  That’s one thing which one can do today with all the elements, the new materials we have
tape and visual slide-projections, movies, maybe even video.  It’s a resource of today.  Maybe its just reflected negatively because my ambitions had been somewhat thwarted.  So, I’ve turned those instincts to the concert stage because I do have a feeling for the stage.  Although I’d like to do it in an opera, I try to do it in a concert.  I’ve written two operas.  The first one was a chamber opera which is done quite a bit.  It’s one of the earliest pieces that I would still want to hear, and I think it’s a charming piece.  It’s a little comic opera, and it always works because it’s funny, and the story is charming.  The music does the job well, and it was quite a success.

The Brute was written during my first Guggenheim Fellowship and is dedicated to the Guggenheim Foundation.  It received its premiere at the Yale University Norfolk Summer School in 1960 under the baton of Gustav Meier, with Jan de Gaetani in the role of Mrs. Popov.

Under the sponsorship of the New Haven Opera Society (Herta Glaz, Director) it received a grant for performances in the New Haven Public Schools, where it was paired with the stage version of Chekov's play, The Bear on which Erich Bentley based his libretto.

The Brute was chosen to represent the United States at the 20th International Youth Festival held in Bayreuth, Germany in 1970. It received its European premiere there in the Bayreuth Staatsopernhaus.

It has been performed in New York City and elsewhere in the United States. A videotape of its premiere in Chicago, under the baton of Ralph Shapey, was broadcast by CBS television in 1964.

==  From the composer's official website  

Then, emboldened by that, I wrote a serious opera, which is yet to be done in its entirety.  I have been very disappointed.  At one point, I was on a fellowship from Yale when I wrote it, and I had free time.  I even got a special grant from Yale to copy all the parts.  But after I went through all of that, still it was never done... although, Gunther Schuller did do a two-piano arrangement which was semi-staged with great singers.  It was Nathaniel Merrill who did the staging, and Gunther conducted, so as far as it went, it was very exciting.  It proved to me that this opera really would work.  There’s a happy note there, though.  We have a new man at Maryland named Leon Major, a new opera director, and he’s quite an exciting person.  He hadn’t seen it, but he said he was very excited about it, and he was very excited about the idea of doing it at Maryland.  That looks hopeful, so we’ll see.  [Review of the production, which was done two years later, is shown at right.]

BD:   What advice do you have for the person who wants to write operas in the late 1980s?

Moss:   In spite of the fact that I have had some good experiences, I think the form is antiquated.  I’m not convinced of the validity of any operas after Wozzeck, really, or even Lulu, which I admire.  I just think that as a medium it’s so bound up with conventions which don’t apply now.  It has some very great people in this century, principally Berg, but Britten to a limited extent, and others.  Even though they have used this form, I don’t see at least much potential.  This is why I see music theater pieces as having much more of a potential.  For instance, I would love to work on the stage with tape, particularly digital tape.  I just got a Kurzweil, which is a very sophisticated kind of synthesizer  Maybe if I could get the resources together, like Boulez has in Paris with IRCAM and that environment, where you can use all kinds of projections, and coordinate all these things, I think you could get very exciting results.  [
IRCAM (Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique; Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics/Music) is a French institute dedicated to the research of music and sound, especially in the fields of avant garde and electro-acoustical art music. It is situated next to, and is organizationally linked with, the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Much of the institute is located underground, beneath the fountain to the east of the buildings.]  It wouldn’t be opera, but it would be something for the stage, probably using electronic means, and singing, but not the conventional kind of singing.

BD:   You say that you feel opera is rather antiquated, and yet the works written previously to 1935 are still very popular, and are attended regularly.

Moss:   Yes, but you could also say that about the symphonic literature.  It doesn’t really prove anything to me.  There are some great works.  I’m a great Verdi nut.  I love opera.  I just feel that the motive of most people hearing these operas is not one of exploration.  First of all, it is intrinsically beautiful, and there’s a nostalgic pleasure they get from seeing it.  It reminds them of something else, or it’s a release from the every-day grind.  It’s very hard to make that kind of opera really exciting unless you get a new interesting kind of staging.  I love to hear and see Mozart and Verdi, two of my great favorites.

BD:   So, you feel it’s an antiquated form, and you really can’t add anything new to it?

Moss:   Yes.  I feel it’s a closed circle.  I don’t find it really being capable of growth.  It doesn’t have that much living tissue around the edges.  I can’t see new things growing out of it.  What it needs is a different kind of stage.  Opera is so bound up with the proscenium stage, that the kind of place it needs would be more idiomatic of electronic music, which means a free-floating environment.  I’ll tell you what I have in mind.  I never saw it, but I think it would have been very interesting to be in that famous setting for Poème électronique of Varèse at the Brussels Pavilion at the Worlds Fair.  The idea was by Le Corbussier, with all these crazy array of slides.  He had several hundred slide projectors going, plus the same number of loud speakers, or more, and you were supposed to pass through the thing like a cows stomach with various chambers.  You can get a total theatrical experience which would be unlike anything you get from standard opera, and this was thirty years ago.  It was a free space where the audience walked around.  That’s the kind of space which will be idiomatic for the new resource.  I can see very exciting things coming of that, and very theatrical things, too.

BD:   Is the public ready for that kind of thing?

By the early 1950s, Varèse was in dialogue with a new generation of composers, such as Pierre Boulez and Luigi Dallapiccola. When he returned to France to finalize the tape sections of Déserts, Pierre Schaeffer helped arrange for suitable facilities. The first performance of the combined orchestral and tape sound composition came as part of an ORTF broadcast concert, between pieces by Mozart and Tchaikovsky and received a hostile reaction.

Le Corbusier was commissioned by Philips to present a pavilion at the 1958 World Fair and insisted (against the sponsors' resistance) on working with Varèse, who developed his Poème électronique for the venue, where it was heard by an estimated two million people. Using 400 speakers separated throughout the interior, Varèse created a sound and space installation geared towards experiencing sound as it moves through space. Received with mixed reviews, this piece challenged audience expectations and traditional means of composing, breathing life into electronic synthesis and presentation.

[Photo at left]  The Philips Pavilion, designed by composer/architect Iannis Xenakis, at the Brussels 1958 World's Fair, where Poème électronique was played.

Moss:   I think they could be.  I guess they were probably ready for the Varèse piece.  It was pretty successful.  I know my folks saw it, and they were rather excited about it.  Unfortunately, I never saw it.

*     *     *     *     *

moss BD:   You wrote an article about fifteen years ago, On Writing a Libretto.  I have not read the article, but do you still subscribe to the theories that you put forth at that time?

Moss:   Actually, that was a lighthearted article, and yes, in some ways I do.  It was really based on my experience of writing The Brute.  One thing which is very important, when I counsel beginning composers who are setting words, they tend often to be gripped by the rather long and abstruse poem.  A classic example would be a Shakespearean Sonnet.  These have a great deal of imagery.  They have very beautiful words already, and I point out to them that often these are the words which are most difficult to set to music.  Because they are so complete themselves, and so complicated, what can music do for them?  In fact, the words often get in the way because there’s so many of them.  I often recommend shorter, more compact, more concentrated forms.  Try to get phrases rather analogous to what your classic Italian opera buffa librettos would be about, where a very short phrase can be twisted around in various ways to serve different ends.  It has a neutral quality.  It conveys a sentiment, but then allows the music plenty of room to take over, and to use it, and ironically play with it or intensify it emotionally.  Those kinds of rather colorless, but concentrated ideas often are very successful.  That lesson has come about very often in teaching.  It’s a perspective about what’s the appropriate verbal material.

BD:   It’s interesting that a composer of music would then talk about writing a prose libretto.
 [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Alan Hovhaness, Ezra Sims, Daniel Pinkham, and Yehudi Wyner.]

Moss:   It can be done.  I used Erich Bentley’s translation of The Brute, but I wrote my own libretto.  I gave him credit on it, because it was his translation.  He had in mind a much more flowery kind of tone, and I just paired it down.  I think it worked well.  I was participating in a seminar on the narrative, with a few other professors at school all from different disciplines.  I was trying to show how the narrative works in opera, and they got the point.  It was interesting.  We looked at my opera, and we looked at Wozzeck, two very different kinds of operas.  I was also thinking of another article, an earlier article I wrote, which was called Towards the New Theatre.  It was a visionary view of the way I thought these theater pieces would go.  I was discouraged by what had happened to The Queen at that time, and I was thinking about what it could be like with electronic music.  I didn’t know very much about electronic music, but this was a program I would have liked to see.  Looking at it recently, I found that it’s still what I would like to do.  I’m still enthusiastic about that kind of theater.  It’s my more idealistic and visionary mood.

BD:   I assume that you are continuously writing music?

Moss:   Yes.  I work pretty much all the time.

BD:   Are most of the pieces you write on commission?

Moss:   No.  Some are, some aren’t.  Often, I just write something I’d like to write.  I usually find people who are interested in doing it.

BD:   When you do get commissions, how do you decide whether or not you will accept them or decline them?

Moss:   It depends on how sympathetic they would be.  Lately, I haven’t had that many commissions.  I just keep doing things I want to do, and then find people that want to perform them.  I know people and I know what I want to do, and I tell them that I think they would do it well.

BD:   Coming back to your students, you’ve been a professor now for a number of years.  Are the students of composition getting more inspired over the years, or less inspired?

Moss:   They’re changing.

BD:   How?

Moss:   This is part of the whole general realignment.  It’s considered much more possible to be influenced by the popular world.  That’s more acceptable than it was when I was at school, and they feel quite easy about incorporating those elements.  In some ways, they are less prepared.  Yes, I would say they’re definitely less prepared.  They hear much less music, they go to fewer concerts, and they are lazier about going to concerts.  By and large, they’re more innocent in that sense.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  But with all the recordings, and all the broadcasts and everything, they would have heard so much.

moss Moss:   Yes, but for me, recording is not a substitute for going to concerts.  I’m of that generation that feels there is something about the excitement of seeing performers, going to rehearsals, and studying the score, which is important.  These kids have lots of records, but very few scores.  This is just the opposite of my library, which is lots of scores and very few records.  That’s typical of my generation.  It was certainly true of my teachers.  I love to look at scores.  Certainly, I value a recording to refresh my mind, but I find the most exciting thing is looking at the score.  I agree with what Roger Sessions once said, and that is once you heard the recording, the next time you can predict what’s going to happen.  It’s lost that excitement.  Although, I must say, driving around and listening to the radio shows like yours, I am sometimes bowled over, by recordings I didn’t know about.  It’s very exciting, particularly when I tune in during the middle, and don’t know who’s doing it.  I just wonder, who could be doing this.  It’s a very exciting thing, and I love to turn on the radio, and imagine.  At first, I’ll guess what it is, and then listen to it and see what’s going on in the performance.

BD:   I assume it’s more than just a mental exercise.

Moss:   Oh, yes.  Sometimes I re-evaluate lots of things.  I hear things and pieces I would never have heard before, and I like the idea of not having chosen the piece.  It just comes unasked, and very often I hear things that I never knew before.  Some of them are very amusing...  One time, two of the
good music stations here were playing the Tchaikovsky and the Brahms Violin Concertos at the same time.  They are both in D major, and it was fascinating to switch from one to the other.  I was having a great time, because these two men, who detested each other, were writing very independent music.  You could tell that very easily.  It was a wonderfully stimulating lab into the working methods of Brahms and Tchaikovsky.  You could see the elaborate working out of Brahms, and the much simpler, and in many ways more pedantic, working out of Tchaikovsky.  Yet, when he had an ideaand they were good ideashe milked it.  It was just very interesting, and something that can only happen if you’re driving around and listening to your radio, because you probably would never switch from station to station otherwise.

BD:   What will historians find when they look into the lab of Lawrence Moss?

Moss:   That’s a good question.  I don’t know.  I’ll leave it up to them whatever they find.  [Laughs]  There’s not much I can do about it, anyway.  It’s probably true that historians tend to find things very different from what one thought was going on.  Wagner is probably a classic case.  This megalomaniac, extraordinarily talented man, who’s had his ups and downs
just like Mozart has.  For Wagner, certainly during the Nazi period in Germany, what was really important was that Wagner was the ideologue.  What we like now is the great creativity, but also the considerable technical expertise and much more.  I think that even had he known, that would have conflicted with the idea of the revolutionary.  When they work, Wagner’s pieces are beautifully put together.  The Prelude to Tristan is a great piece of symphonic music.  On the other hand, when he gets very tedious, very long, the miasmic vapors of the music drama are very risky.

BD:   You have a special connection with Wagner, having had your opera done by the Bayreuth Music Festival.

Moss:   Right, although not in the great Festspielhaus.  This was in the Staatsopernhaus, the local opera, which was great because it was the only time I have ever had an opera done in an opera house.  That’s one of the nice things about Europe.  We’re just a different culture in America, but every little German town has its opera house, and it’s fairly routine.  If you are a composer living in Germany, it would be much more likely that if you’ve got an opera done, it would be done in an opera house rather than a school auditorium.  Here, it is just the opposite.  It was very exciting there.  When I came out on the stage, you look upstairs in the boxes, and they’re applauding.  Some people bring roses to you.  It’s pretty heady stuff, which doesn’t happen in academia.

BD:   Was your opera done in English or in German?

Moss:   It was an international festival, and I know our cast couldn’t have learned it in German.  They just did it with my libretto, but there was a translation available.

BD:   Do you like this new gimmick of having supertitles in the theater?

Moss:   Yes, I guess it’s useful.  I don’t like it in some ways, but I have mixed feelings.  I don’t like the idea of being extracted from the stage.  On the other hand, particularly in Mozart comic operas, such as Figaro, so much is happening so fast that unless you know the opera, as well as knowing Italian, you are missing an awful lot of what Mozart really counted on your knowing.  It would only add to the deliciousness of the music to know about all these subtle things that he’s portraying, which change quickly.

BD:   Would the opera be better if it is sung in translation, or should we have the original with the supertitles?

Moss:   I don’t know.  That question is so much debated.  In general, I prefer to have it done in English, or the language of the country it’s in.  As you know, we are unique in not doing that.  I have spent quite a bit of time in Germany.  I was in the army there on a Fulbright in Vienna, and it’s just routine for Italian operas of Mozart and Verdi always to be done in German.  They have built up a loyal opera public that way, and there seems to be a connection between having a real opera audience and having operas in their own language.  English could be sung as beautifully as German.  We have a lot of neutral ugly sounds, particularly in our American English, but it’s amazing.  I’ve been talking to opera directors, and one can navigate one’s way to skillfully avoid this.  There is a way to both write and also direct opera in English which would make it quite acceptable.  Benjamin Britten solved that problem very well.  He’s not one of my favorites, but he certainly knew how to set English for the voice.

BD:   Do you feel that opera works well on the television?

Moss:   Yes.  I remember when they televised the Met production of Lulu.  I saw that a couple or maybe three times, and I was quite excited by it.  I also was quite excited by the very controversial Ring production of Patrice Chereau.  Despite a lot of things I didn’t like, there were some changes that showed things I didn’t remember seeing on the stage.  These were interesting things such as close-ups, things that TV can do.  There’s a lot that was lost, too, but if you’re going to do it on TV you have to just recognize that.  Go for more close ups, which show the emotional impact you can get from really seeing details that you don’t see on stage.  But you lose the pageantry, and the sense of scope of the stage.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   What do you feel is the purpose of the music critic?

Moss:   [Laughs]  Are you a music critic?

BD:   No.  I like being able to promote concerts and artists, and then enjoy their performances.

moss Moss:   They write musical reviews, but the music critic can be pretty a powerful influence actually.  Here in the Washington Post, we have Joe McLellan, who’s a very sweet man.  [Notice that this interview was held before the production which he reviewed!]  He’s a very bright man, and he writes practically always very enthusiastically about new music.  He’s consistently that way.  He’s not critical.  On the other hand, he’s enthusiastic, and he’s been very helpful in getting people to come to things they might not come to otherwise.  He probably sees himself as a patron of a newer kind of music.

BD:   Let me ask the great big philosophical question.  What do you believe is the ultimate purpose of music in society?

Moss:   Wow.  That’s a difficult one.  I never really thought about it.  I can almost answer with something flip, like if you have to ask, if it is not self-evident, then maybe there isn’t any great need.  Actually, it’s an important question.  We reached a point where our popular music, our mass music, is on such a low level that we may very well raise a generation which hears something that is so unintellectual, so undemanding in any way, except in getting vibes and pulses through their bodies.  It
s hard to know, and it doesn’t bode very well for serious music in any form.  Jazz, and the popular music when I was growing up is such that I think its a great art form.  But I see very little redeeming value in most of the rock, and punk rock, and all the stuff that comes out these days.  My kids all listen to it, and they like good music too, so maybe it’s just one of those things that really make you feel old.  It’s a generation gap.

BD:   We seem to be blurring the lines between concert music and popular music.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Donald Harris, and Gilbert Kalish.]

Moss:   Yes.

BD:   Is this a good thing?

Moss:   Some of it could be.  The intrusion of popular music has always been when it itself is an art form that has always been very productive.  This is the way it’s always been.  Waltzes, mazurkas, all these things were popular music, and they fertilized the great composers.  It’s still very exciting to hear Chopin’s mazurkas played like dances.  When I was at Yale, you could see people doing mazurkas.  It’s a kind of hopping dance, and if you think of that, it makes the performance of Chopin give us a certain lilt that it might not have otherwise.  Popular music, such as ragtime, can be very valuable, and it’s really been very helpful to a lot of American composers.  Where it doesn’t work so well is where it
s simply and shamelessly exploited by people of not very great talent.  Just being mechanically repetitious, and with words that are just a rehash of everything else in it is where it ceases to be a very creative thing.  That’s when I think it’s dangerous.  As long as it’s a creative popular art, I think it’s very helpful.

BD:   Let me ask another balance question.  In concert music, where is the balance between the entertainment value and the artistic achievement?

Moss:   It should always be entertainment.  I don’t think people should go to concerts because they’re good for them.  They should go because they really want to go, because they find it exciting.  When they’re no longer exciting, this is often the case with concerts which tend to simply create a museum of
masterpieces in the pejorative sense.  One doesn’t go to hear Beethoven, one goes to hear Karajan, and I find that disgusting.  Where the intent comes just to notice fine differences and interpretations of two conductors, something has been lost there.  You’re not really interested in the piece so much as the way it is done.

BD:   Is it really lost, or is it simply overkill?

Moss:   Maybe overkill, or maybe the purpose of the concert seems to have been changed dramatically from the excitement of rediscovering something, which is one reason why we probably shouldn’t hear so many of these very well-known pieces.  It’s hard to make them sound fresh and exciting.  What one tends to do in that case is to remember how so-and-so did it last year, or last month.

BD:   Are we then putting a value judgment as to one being better than the other?

Moss:   We want to very much.  That’s the usual comment I hear.  
This isn’t nearly as good as so-and-so, and it’s usually very little about the piece itself and much more about the way it’s being done.

BD:   Are the concert audiences becoming a bit jaded because they don’t hear in the concert hall what they hear on their records at home?

Moss:   That’s a very big thing, the unfair competition from edited performances on records.  But part of it is also that concerts tend to become increasingly boring affairs.  Certainly, here in Washington where we have a very conservative environment now at least with the National Symphony, Dorati was much more experimental in new music than Rostropovich.

BD:   Of course, Dorati is also a composer himself.

Moss:   That’s right.  Between us, not a very good one, which is an interesting thing.  You don’t really have to be a good composer, but if you’re interested in new music it’s helpful, and he did a lot of new music.  It was always something fresh and unexpected, and we still get things sometimes, but not as often as it used to be.

BD:   Being a composer, good or bad, helps one to be a better conductor?

Moss:   Yes.  It’s an interesting case, because I didn’t find his music to be of much value, but I thought his leadership with the symphony was a great value, at least from the standpoint of repertoire.

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moss BD:   As you approach your 60th birthday, what is perhaps the most surprising trend that you’ve seen in music over that time?

Moss:   Probably the big trend in the past decades has been the widening of what’s possible to serious music, the widening of the scope.  This includes the serious consideration of the popular ideas.  When you go to
serious concerts, you’ll hear minimal music taken seriously, which it was not when I was younger.  I’m sure there was minimal music on concerts when I was a kidobviously Cagebut what’s happening is there may be a more ecumenical attitude, which is healthy.  Speaking specifically about Los Angeles, in the old days, you would hear concerts by Cage devotees, then you’d hear the serious stuff of Schoenberg and his group, or Stravinsky and his group.  You could get these three different Los Angeles-based movements because they all were working there.  You could hear them rarely in the same concert, except maybe on the Monday Evening Concerts which was a special case.  If you go to a gathering of a group of composers, like the American Society University Composers, you’ll probably hear all these influences... though rather rarely the influence of Schoenberg.  Serialism is pretty much on the outs now.  It’s considered rather conservative, even though it was so radical when I was a kid!  You will hear lots of pieces that would certainly be minimal, and then a whole bunch of pieces that would be loosely based on rock or popular music, with its insistent beat and one chord.  These would be art music if you listen to it as such, by mostly the composers who were in the audience.  I’ll get a better idea of what is being done out in Ohio, at the Bowling Green Festival.  Forty or fifty pieces will be done there, and I’ll probably hear a great variety of approaches, more than I would have heard ten or fifteen years ago.

BD:   You started out on the West Coast, then you spent much of your life on the East Coast.  Is there a huge difference between the composers and the publics of the two coasts, or as much as we’re led to believe?

Moss:   At least between the two archetypical cities of LA and New York, there might be that sense.  New York tends to take itself very seriously, and there are many different kinds of New York audiences.  There is a serious academic audience there, which still carries the torch for Milton Babbitt, Roger Sessions, and those people.  LA has always been kind of looser.  It’s been a place where there’d be a lot of different influences.  These are just general things, and there’s a lot of experimental music going on.  There’s much more music going on in New York, as far as I know, just by looking at the concert programs.

BD:   Is there ever a case where the mountain of material is simply too much?

Moss:   It probably is.  I hear from people living there that it’s impossible.  Every night of the season you have to make your choice.  You could go to something interesting every night of the week, and the result is you never stay home to compose or practice or anything.  It’s maybe too much of a good thing, but it’s such an important center to have work done.  It still is, by all odds, the music capital of the country, and it
s important for your career to be heard there, and also be reviewed.

BD:   Are there, perhaps, too many composers working today?

Moss:   I hate to think that there is.  Somebody estimated the number of what they consider professional composers is something like 20,000 to 30,000.

BD:   Yes.  Schuller was talking about that some years ago.

Moss:   I didn’t know he had said it, but out of the population of 230,000,000 it doesn’t seem like an excessively large amount.  [US population in 1987 was 242,290,000.]

BD:   But the opportunities for any one of them to get performed are limited.

Moss:   Yes, and much less so than they would be in Europe or anywhere else in the world, not even excluding Canada.  I guess we’re unique in the different attitude we have towards our composers.

BD:   How do we get the public or the managements of concert halls to be more accepting toward the new music?

Moss:   It’s interesting.  Basically, it’s just that we are the one society which still prides itself on the free enterprise approach to art, which I don’t think has ever worked.  There were always patrons, and in Europe the aristocratic patronage has been taken over by the governments, just using tax dollars to spread it around.  This is accepted by those people, but isn’t accepted by us.  It has been sort of accepted, but certainly not in the present climate where we’re getting a reaction against it.  We have a decrease in federal funds to anything like this, so that’s a problem because we have a lot of talent.

BD:   Do you feel it’s really a desire to decrease the funding, or is it simply not having enough to go around?  If there was an unlimited amount of funds, there’d be no problem?

Moss:   The funds themselves are such a minuscule part of the budget.  It’s not a desire to decrease, but it’s an indifference to whether it’s there or not.  I think the figure for the NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] was maybe $160,000,000.  [The actual figure for 1987 was $165,281,000.  This was more than any previous year, and it would continue to increase each year until 1994, when it started to decrease until 2001, when it started to increase again.]  There were all of the fights, with a famous congressman, Sydney Yates, always defending the arts budget.  Considering the federal budget, a lot of words were exchanged over what was a trivial amount of money.  Maybe there is a kind of anger at any kind of support of the arts.  Probably it’s a safe political thing to say that the average American doesn’t think the government should be supporting the arts at all.

BD:   You feel that the government should?

Moss:   Well, a good case can be made that probably one thing worse than no support is a government is like you see in Russia, where you have a government which uses its very strong arm to direct the artistic line.  But there has to be a way of doing it as they do in every other civilized country in the West, where there is certain amount of money made available, and they take their chance on bureaucrats too cynically playing favorites, instead of allowing a cross-section of the country
s composers to be heard.  I’ve talked to a lot of the struggling composers over there, but even the ones who think the system is terrible can always get commissions from the local radio station orchestra, or government-subsidized movies.

*     *     *     *     *
BD:   What is next on the calendar for Lawrence Moss?

Moss:   I’ve got a few performances in October, and I’m working on a woodwind quintet now.  As soon as I learn how to work out how to artistically use this very elegant synthesizer I have, I’d like to do a lot more with tape.  My big goal would be to do some technically more sophisticated theater pieces.  I would like to have the kind of tape quality to work with, and maybe an environment where I could try some more sophisticated things in terms of the visual part.

BD:   You don’t feel that working in a tape medium removes the interpretive powers of a live musician?

Moss:   I would actually be working with live voices and tape, and maybe one or two instruments.  It’s not as though I would want to exclude the human performer.  I find that this kind of theater still interests me very much, and that’s one area I don’t think has really been very artistically explored completely.  A lot can be done when one finds the right means.  I wrote another article (which I haven’t re-read for a long time) about a new theater, but I do think about it all the time. Maybe it’s better if I don’t re-read it... I might find I disagree with it.  [Laughs]  That’s one of the things in the next decade I would like to see myself doing
working towards the new kind of theater.

BD:   If you disagree with it, maybe you should write a new article defending your new position.

Moss:   I might just do that, but I’m less interested in writing articles now than I used to be.  I haven’t written any articles for quite a while.

BD:   You’re more interested in writing music?

Moss:   Yes, I find I really am.

BD:   In your teaching schedule, do you get enough time to write music?

Moss:   I’ve got a pretty good schedule.  All of us have been able to raise things here, so that we just teach three days a week, and we have more time to pretty much do our own thing.  So, I can’t complain.  I do more composing in the summer time than in the winter time, naturally, but it’s not unreasonable even during the school session.  I like teaching, anyway.  There are parts that I don’t like, but I find myself stimulated by the students.  One of the ways I like to teach this class of analysis is always looking at what I consider masterpieces.  I use different ones each time, so if I didn’t have this class, I probably wouldn’t read new articles and try to test them out against the pieces they’re analyzing.  So, this class gets me over that laziness, and I find it often is very stimulating.  I learn something about pieces I thought I knew a great deal about.

BD:   It forces you to keep up?

Moss:   Yes, it does.  Teaching can do that.  You hardly go into that detail just doing it for yourself, whereas in a class you need to condense and make a case for it.  So, you go into it much more thoroughly.

BD:   Thank you for being a composer.  I appreciate your spending the time with me today.

Moss:   Thank you for taking an interest in me as a composer.

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© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This conversation was recorded on the telephone on September 5, 1987.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB two months later, and again in 1992 and 1997; and on WNUR in 2007 and 2013.  A copy of the un-edited audio was placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern Univeristy.  This transcription was made in 2020, 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.