Composer / Pianist  Robert  Muczynski
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


In mid-December of 1987, Robert Muczynski was back in Chicago to visit his sister.  It was at her home that we met for our interview. 

As we were setting up to begin the conversation, I was looking over the stack of LPs he had brought for me to use on the air . . . . .

Robert Muczynski:    This record was the first encounter for me with the Laurel Record Company.  It was performed by the Western Arts Trio.  They commissioned piano trios of these three composers. 
Malcolm Williamson is Master of the Queen’s Music in London, now.  [See my Interview with Malcolm Williamson.]  David Baker is at the University of Michigan and he’s sort of a jazz-classical composer, and mine is the Second Piano Trio.  I have just finished a Third Piano Trio, which they’re going to be premiering in January.  Herschel [the producer, Herschel Burke Gilbert] got the notion that he would like me to record just about all of my solo piano music for his label, and invited me to do so some years later.  I did Volume One...

Bruce Duffie:    [Looking at the record and reading the title] 
Muczynksi plays Muczynksi.


RM:    That was his idea.  We didn’t do the things chronologically.  For example, this record has the Third Piano Sonata and the First Piano Sonata, and on Volume Two we did the Second Sonata

BD:    [Reading a sticker on the back of the jacket] 
This record pressed with the new American Quiex Vinyl for extra quiet surfaces.

RM:    His productions are very fine.  I was at Rose Records on Wabash a couple of days ago and they had most of them there.  [Picking up another LP]  This is with the Arizona Chamber Orchestra (who were members of the U of A faculty), and I’m represented by two works
Dance Movements, which was commissioned by Thor Johnson back in ’63, and for this album I wrote this short piece called Serenade for Summer.  There is also music of Bloch and Creston.  [Going to the next LP]  Then this is an album of twentieth century clarinet trios played by the Mühlfeld Trio, the resident trio at the University of Washington in Pullman.  They’re excellent artists and they play superbly.  This is one of my big chamber pieces, the Fantasy Trio for clarinet, cello, and piano.  [Picking up the next one]  Then the most current album has clarinetist Mitchell Lurie and flutist Julius Baker playing the Time Pieces and other works of mine.

BD:    You’re the pianist?

RM:    Yes.  This was a big undertaking.

BD:    You’re also to soloist on the old Louisville record of the Piano Concerto.  Are you basically pleased with the recordings that have been made of your music?

RM:    Basically yes, I think I am.  In a live performance you are somehow permitted to drop a few more notes because it’s not frozen in time.  The most crucial and devastating thing about recording work is that one cannot tolerate those mistakes on the record.

BD:    Even the slightest blemish must be corrected?

RM:    I’m afraid so.  That’s the way it’s gotten. 

BD:    Is that the way to do music?

RM:    I don’t know.  It’s not up to me, though.  [Both laugh]  Herschel seems to have a fixation about accuracy.

BD:    Does he also have a fixation about musicality?

RM:    He is a musician and has a fine ear, so I trust his judgment.  It’s just something we have to live with.  I remember when I recorded the First Piano Sonata there was some technical mishap with the equipment
which we didn’t realize at the timebut when we went to do the mastering it showed up.  Something conked out and we suddenly realized that we were not getting stereo.  It was in mono.  That was a big, very difficult work for me to record, so Mr. Gilbert said, “Would you like to do it over this afternoon?”  I said, “No.  I’ll come back and do it another time.”  I’m glad I did, because when I did come back I was fresh for it.  It’s very difficult to record an album of solo piano music on which both sides all totaled would be about an hour’s worth of music.  That one hour or so of music took about twenty-two hours of playing to get it.

BD:    [Surprised at that amount of time]  Really???  That much?

RM:    It’s not that I wasn’t prepared; it’s just that one has to be very particular.  Some of those takes were fine.  There was nothing wrong with them per se, but you feel we perhaps can do better.  There’s always that striving.  If you’re lucky enough to have four acceptable or good takes, then you listen to those.  In a maddening way, you make that decision as to which is the best.  It’s not that you’ve made, necessarily, note errors.

BD:    How did you decide, then, to use one take over another?

RM:    Here I’m serving as both the composer and then the performer, sort of straddling both.  The problem for the composer is he has to be aware of what needs to be done.  He has to have his head on straight when creating.  He has to have this intuition.  For example, I think of composition as primarily a search and discovery act.  That’s really what it is
search and discovery, and perhaps refinement after the discovery.  When you’re searching for this material, you’re actually inventing.  Stravinsky said, “I’m an inventor; I’m not a composer.”  I think I understand what he means.  You’re inventing something that never existed.  So I think of it as search and discovery, and then when I’m putting myself through that ordeal — it’s mostly an ordeal of searching for that material — it’s either yes, I like it, no, it’s terrible, or maybe there’s something there.  So to me, it falls into three cut and dried sections.  The easiest, of course, are yes and no; those are the black and white.  The most torturous ones might be the maybes, because you feelyour intuition tells youthere’s something there that’s worth salvaging or sifting out.

BD:    Is that where most of the music lies
in the maybe category?

RM:    Quite a bit, I’d say.  I wouldn’t know what percentage.  It depends on the material; that’s another factor.  In the sifting process in the
maybe music, one has to discover what it needs.  That’s what a composer has to know how to do, or we hopefully have trained ourselves to do.  Many things must come into play.  You must think there’s something there, but it’s sort of a diamond in the rough.  I hope it’s a diamond, anyway.  You figure out what needs to be done.  Perhaps the note values are wrong.  Perhaps the rhythm is off.  Perhaps there are many notes and some have to be sifted out or removed.  It is that kind of polishing.  Then you can shape that.  You have to take the idea and shape it into something coherent and seemingly spontaneous.  I think that’s where the art is.  If there is an artistic thrust, that’s where it shows upin the ability of the composer or the creator to make a primitive statement, to polish it in such a way that it appears to have come to him out of the heavens in a pure state.  So he must remove the impurities and make that statement pure.

BD:    When you’re working with a piece of music
or even just a part of a piece of music or a phrasehow do you know when it is right, when to put the pen down and say, “That part’s done”?

RM:    [Laughs]  Unfortunately some of us don’t, and the music goes out, perhaps, ten or fifteen minutes too long.  I can think of many living and dead masters that I could accuse if I wished to.  I prefer to lean toward the more succinct or terse kind of writing.  I just feel there is no point in padding this piece.  If I’ve made my statements, then let’s get off and that’s it.  I prefer that to huffing and puffing.  Upon completing a lengthy work
let’s say a sonata or whateveryou’ve faced all of these problems that have come up.  Problem after problem has come up, and you have solved those musical problems.  You’ve made all these decisions and you’ve reached the end of the piece.  Then you decide some time later to face the next piece.  The frustration is that all of those problems and all of those solutions to those problems that you encountered in the previous piece you can’t apply that to the next piece because very frequently the problems do not match.  They’re not the same, nor are the solutions.  So it’s always very new, and perhaps that’s what makes it exciting.  It is always an adventure when you undertake the next piece.

muczynskiBD:    Are you a better composer because you are also a performer?

RM:    I don’t know about that, although I do not like that old saw that so many toss around, that composers don’t play their own music well!   [Both laugh]  I don’t think that’s necessarily true.

BD:    Do you play your music well?

RM:    As well as I can!  [Laughs]  But there have been some superb, I mean really superb, performers.  I’m just thinking right off the top of my head, Rachmaninoff is one the foremost examples of a superb performing artist and composer.  I have not perhaps heard recordings of all of them playing, but most of the composers I can think of are pretty good pianists, I believe.  So as to whether or not it makes you a better composer, I would only guess that because my instrument is piano or the keyboard, I feel that I do at least write better for the piano than I would have had I not had that experience.  In my composition students, for example, I can generally tell when a person is not acquainted with the keyboard because very awkward things emerge.  It’s not that they’re difficult; that’s another thing, but it’s just non-pianistic.

BD:    Should piano music be pianistic?

RM:    Yes, I think so.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Really?  It shouldn’t be just music that happens to be played on a piano, instead of, say, an orchestra?

RM:    For me to say what it should be would be awfully pompous.  It depends on the direction you’re taking when you’re writing.  For one thing, I’ve done a piano concerto many years ago.  The thing I dislike about so many piano concertos is that so many composers feel duty-bound.  They’re thinking they’re writing this for a master, virtuoso soloist who wants to show his stuff or her stuff, so they feel duty-bound to write the most fiendishly difficult, virtuoso passages.  To me that is too bad because it gets in the way of the music very often.

BD:    Then for whom do you write
for yourself, for the audience, for the people who commission it, for posterity?

RM:    I don’t know if there’s a posterity.  I hope I’m writing for today.  Of course I write for myself.  I think we all write for ourselves.  I’m certainly hoping that my music will touch someone, or communicate with someone in the audience.  A composer needs feedback.  He needs a performer; he needs an audience.   A composer has needs.  We all have needs, and that often brings up that question as to whether, if you were the only living person on the planet, would you continue to write your music?

BD:    Well would you?

RM:    I’m not the only person living, so I don’t know!  [Both laugh]

BD:    But if you were on a desert island, or on a deserted planet, would you continue writing music?

RM:    I don’t think so.

BD:    What would you do?

RM:    Swim and try to find somebody else!  Then I’d start writing again.  [Laughs]  There have to be two, two to tango, and all that.  Is this adding up?  It’s very difficult to verbalize some of these things.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’ve been teaching for a long time.  Do you find that you learn things as much as your students learn things, just by going through the process so many times?

RM:    Yes, because in teaching you must nail down everything.  You have to be partly a dreamer — I mean hang onto your dream state
— but you must also verbalize.  You must try to find the way to express, or get across to your students just what it is that is required of a composer, whether a young or old composer.  There are certain basics that have to be learned or assimilated and communicated.  I remember my teacher, Mr. Alexander Tcherepnin.  When I brought my earliest pieces in he would say, “These are very primitive pieces, but somehow I find that attractive.  I like it.  Too often, when a composer gets older he tends to get too complex and withdrawn, and tries to get too sophisticated.”

BD:    Do you warn your students against this?

muczynskiRM:    There’s no point in warning students about anything!  [Both laugh]  I tell them, “I don’t have the stone tablets, but you’ve come to study with me and you must trust my judgment.  Otherwise, why come to me?  I will just call the shots.  I will just tell you from my own experience.  I’ll call it the way I see it or hear it, and then you can either take it or leave it, whatever I say.”

BD:    Is composing something that can be taught, or must it be innate within each young composer?

RM:    There has to be the talent.  I remember when Aaron Copland came to the University of Arizona in 1979 in the Artist’s Series, he spoke to the composition students.  One of the students raised his hand and asked Copland, “In addition to great talent, what in your opinion is the most important thing a composer should have?” and Copland said, “Tenacity.”  I agree with that.  It’s no place for wimps if you’re going to be shattered and destroyed by a bad review or a rejection slip from a music publisher.  You just have to develop a thick skin and just carry on.  I think that is not only true of music, but any profession.

BD:    During the thirty years you have been teaching, has the raw talent that’s been coming to you been getting better?  Is there any direction that you’ve been seeing as you draw a line over thirty years?

RM:    It fluctuates, but I would say that the most difficult period was during the Vietnam years.

BD:    Just because of the whole situation?

RM:    Yes.  There was a very ugly feeling in the air, an anti-establishment attitude.  You could almost taste it.

BD:    Have we’ve gotten over that now?

RM:    Yes.  It’s just the total extreme now.  I have students writing these very passive, pastoral, slow pieces.  Not that I can’t get anyone to write other styles, but most students tend to write slow, expressive music — which is fine
— but I can’t get anyone to cut loose and do something audacious or fast music with allegros.

BD:    I wonder why?

RM:    It’s easier to write slow music, in a sense.  Not to be facetious about it, but let’s say you sit down and you write a hundred measures of adagio or lento or largo — slow music.  So that piece, then, for that reason, because of its tempo being slow, those hundred measures will probably last maybe eight minutes, or whatever it’s going to be for that one movement.  Now a hundred measures of all allegro or presto music will go by in fifty seconds, or something like that.  That’s what I admire so much in composers such as Martinů, because he loved to write those allegros.  It’s so difficult to sustain that, to do that.

BD:    Are the students looking for more result, just to have a longer piece of music, just to have something more there with the same amount, or even less work?

RM:    I don’t really know.  I’ve taught composition on a classroom basis, which is impossible.  I prefer it on a one-to-one basis.  But I remember Tcherepnin telling me about the ratio of receiving an enormous talent, which he thought was one student every ten years.

BD:    Have you had your three?

RM:    I’ve had two.  [Both laugh]  Maybe three, but just because one speaks of an enormous talent doesn’t preclude that that person is going to go out and pursue it.  There have been people vastly talented that I’ve taught, who unfortunately for one reason or another decided not to pursue the profession.

BD:    They put their talent elsewhere?

RM:    Yes.  One is operating a pizza parlor.

BD:    [Genuinely disappointed]  Do you think he’s really getting as much reward operating a pizza parlor as he was getting notes on the paper and sounds out of instruments?

RM:    I hope so, but it’s a very tough profession.  There are many young people who become bitter.  I don’t mean to be discouraging about this, but we’re turning out young musicians like sausages, and we’ve reached the saturation point.  Where are all these people going to go?  There are only so many teaching positions.  There are only so many symphony orchestra positions.  There’s only room for so many in the big leagues on the concert stage.  On the other hand, what has not really been investigated and what I find very exciting, at least from where I stand, is that with the spillover, not everyone can be in New York or in Chicago or in San Francisco — these big league places, cities, artistic capitals.  So as a result, the smaller towns, in some cases the so-called boondock places, are opening their arms, and many of these very fine, beautifully trained musicians and talented people, are being assimilated.  They are serving those communities and working with and training young musicians, and sharing their knowledge and their training.

BD:    Has the propensity of recordings, and the availability of television and radio everywhere helped this?

RM:    Oh, I think so, yes.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the whole future of music?

RM:    In what respect?

BD:    Well, let’s break it down into two large sections
the creating and the performing.  Let’s start with creating.

RM:    I got very discouraged somewhere back in the sixties or so.  I was never one to write an off-the-wall type music.  I didn’t mind if that was somebody else’s bag, but I just didn’t feel that was what I trained myself to do, and I didn’t feel that I could honestly change my fingerprints and go that route.  I wondered what kind of artistic integrity is that if I just chuck everything and say, “That was all wrong.  I’m going in this direction now.”  So I’ve never been trendy.  I just am interested in good music, however it’s done, whether it’s good jazz, or good concert music and so forth.  But there is no question that was a very difficult period for composers such as myself who showed more of a traditional bent in their writing.  We were snubbed or disdained for still writing melody, and having the nerve to use rhythm and counterpoint and all those old-fashioned things.

BD:    But you had the tenacity to stay in there!

RM:    I guess I did, but others did, too.  But there was this feeling in the air that if you didn’t go a certain direction, then you were out of the picture.

BD:    When you’re writing a piece, are you in control of it or is it in control of you?

RM:    Are you asking me which is preferable?

BD:    No, I’m asking which is taking place.

RM:    It goes both ways, really.  Sometimes, initially when you’re doing the search work you feel nothing is coming.  Maybe there are days and maybe weeks when nothing really emerges.  Then suddenly, sometimes when you least expect it, something will pop out and you’ll say, “Oh, there it is!”  Then you start doing that detective work as I call it.  Mozart and Schubert, those wonderful, supremely gifted people could do it all at once, but most of us have to forge our music as so many musical links.  Perhaps eight measures or ten measures will come to you in a chunk, in a pure state where you won’t have to sweat it, but most of the time the job is to assemble that piece in such a way that it gives the illusion of being a spontaneous thought; as though you just sat down and did it as an improvisation.  Improvisation and composition — I’m sure they’re not one and the same.  I admire improvisation, but the procedures are very different.  I think of improvisation as more akin to what it would be for a performer who is sight reading
— something impromptu in the rough.  That is improvisation; it has to be done right on the spot, whereas composition is something you have to ponder.  You have to let it gel.  You have to let it mature, just as a performer who is performing for the concert stage, playing at Orchestra Hall or wherever has to prepare that in such a polished state that there’s hopefully no slip-up.

BD:    Is the public becoming too acclimated to the perfect recordings, and then expecting that same perfection in the concert hall?

RM:    There was a period of that, but I don’t know if that’s so prevalent today.  I tell performers that I’m not a devotee of safe performing or safe playing
at least of my own music, or even of other people’s music.  I like the excitement of somebody walking the tightrope and taking chances.  I’m just speaking of my own instrument, the piano.  There are ways of negotiating passages that nine times out of tenor ten times out of tenyou’ll play them accurately, but somehow they come off bloodless.  I’ve heard recordings of Shostakovich playing his music, and sometimes there are physical inaccuracies, note errors, but the playing is so damned exciting that it just thrills me.

BD:    So you want some life in your music?

RM:    Yes, it has to have sweep.  It has to have blood.  Unfortunately I’ve heard many performances of my music where I’ve felt it needed a transfusion!  I would like to have helped it along, and I have to be honest and say that sometimes I mess up.  We all have off nights.  When I’ve played my own music in public sometimes I have not been fully happy with the way I did something.

BD:    But are there other nights when you’re overjoyed and ecstatic about it?

RM:    Yes.  It has something to do with full moon, and, I suppose, energy level and what you ate and how you slept and who knows what else.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Is composing fun?

muczynskiRM:    It’s very hard work.  Certain kinds of pieces are fun.  I’ve written many collections of short pieces, or miniature pieces, and I like to do those.  It’s the type of writing that Robert Schumann did so much of.  Even his larger-scale pieces give the illusion of being large-scale pieces structurally; I’m thinking of pieces like Carnaval and Kreisleriana.  They’re really short pieces sewn together.  Or Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition where you have lovely short pieces unfolding.  They are very satisfying, and there’s a great deal of variety and color there.  It’s a nice journey.  I like to do that kind of writing, especially after having worked for nine months on one piece where you have to wait about eight to nine months before you see the end of the tunnel.  You think,
God, will this piece never come to an end?  Will I never finish this piece?  In that lecture he gave here, Copland said, “For most of us, it’s no big deal to come up with two minutes or three minutes of new music.  But if you’re aiming to write a piece that’s twenty-five, thirty-five, forty minutes, then you’ve got to know how to fill up that musical canvas.”  Canvas is a good word because I’m an amateur watercolorist.  I know the problem.  When I sit down with paper the size of piece of typewriter paper, I put my subject in the center.  The painting I do is usually very square, and then I think, well, there it is.  I look all around in the border, and I think I’ve got all this space here.  It’s not filled in.  How do I fill that in?

BD:    Do you fill it in, or cut off the space?

RM:    [Facetiously]  I take a Brillo pad and dip it in the paints, and do this in desperation. [Taps the table as if dabbing the pad onto the paper]  [Both laugh]  Maybe I do that musically, too...  No, I don’t, but it’s a problem that young composers in universities or colleges face.  I remember that my big hang-up was how to face writing a piece in a large form.  When I did the first or second piano pieces that I wrote for my teacher at the university, he said, “This is very nice, but you’ve got enough different ideas on this one page for about ten different pieces.”  He went back to the first four or five measures and said, “You should have taken this material and developed it, but instead you ran out of steam suddenly, and then you jump and go into something else.  So it’s like a broken sentence, rather than one whole coherent sentence that’s developed.”

BD:    Was he right?

RM:    Yes, and it was important to be told that, to be made aware of that.

BD:    Do you ever go back and revise your scores?

RM:    Just about never.  It’s not a conceit, it’s just that when I’m writing the pieces I’m so very particular while I’m doing the writing, and it takes such a long time to do it that I’m not sloppy.  That doesn’t mean that the end result is a masterwork, but it’s got to be of a certain standard, and it’s got to pass my security.

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

RM:    I don’t think in those terms, no, but people are always bound to make comparisons.  So many music critics, if they don’t know a composer, an unknown or relatively unknown composer — such as when I was in my twenties — then they say, “Oh, it sounds like this.  It sounds like that.  It sounds like this one.”  But the only way to really get a handle on a composer is to know virtually his whole body of work; to get an overview of where he’s been, not just by one isolated piece or two pieces, but to look at and listen to just about everything he’s done... if that’s possible.

BD:    How can that be with the composer who’s only written a handful of pieces thus far?

RM:    I’m speaking about later on, because there are critics who are not acquainted with the more mature composers, who’ve been around for thirty years, frankly.

BD:    You’re an American composer.  Is there anything about your music that is particularly American, or is it just music?

RM:    That reminds me of something that Virgil Thomson is supposed to have said.  “If you want to write American music, and if you are American, all you have to do is sit down and write any kind of music you damn please.”  [See my Interview with Virgil Thomson.]  There are only so many cowboy tunes around and so many jazz licks around and so many piano rags around.  I can’t believe that is the whole act for American music.  Those things are charming and that’s part of the American scene, but we’re talking about a melting pot kind of country.  My grandparents came on the boat through Ellis Island, as so many did.  Look at all the foods we have.  What is American food, you might say.  Pizza is now American food.  Pizza is supposed to be the most popular American food now, but it wasn’t born in America.  It blossomed in America.

BD:    Is this what’s happening to our music, it’s blossoming in America?

RM:    I hope so.  It goes through this metamorphosis.  That’s what’s happened in the last fifty or sixty years with the very early composers.  Edward MacDowell’s music has a very German technique and it sounds sort of like Franz Liszt.  Then where did Gershwin come from, one wonders.  That was a very big original.  Many of us have wondered where Gershwin would have gone, what direction he would have taken had he still been living into his later years.  He was so young when he left, and so red-hot talented.  A composer starts with a model.  Ravel used to tell his students, “Imitate somebody you like.  Choose somebody you like and imitate that person.  Then if you have something personal to add to that, you’re one of the lucky ones.”  I think that’s good advice.  I think that’s all we can do.  For a long time there was this quest for originality.  I’m not an innovator; I’m not a pioneer, a trailblazer, any of those things.  But I am probably closer to a kind of philosophy I just read not long ago.  Francis Poulenc was accused of not being an original or an innovator, so he said, “I like to think there’s room in the world for composers who borrow other composers’ chords.”  Yet when I hear Poulenc’s music, I can spot it like that. [Snaps fingers]  When I hear Brahms’ music, I realize here is a composer who never invented a new chord himself.  Yet he used everything that was passed down, and there he is; he jumps out at you.  What is it?  For me, it’s the strength of the personality, something distinctive in that personality, and the ability of the composer to project that personality in such a vivid way in musical terms.  Of course that manifests itself in various ways.  We all have our favorite intervals.  We all have our favorite little thises and thats.  It’s the way we use those things, ultimately, that makes us sound individual.  It’s not by crashing your elbows on the keyboard or jumping off a ladder onto the strings.  That’s fun, maybe, but that’s not original.

muczynskiBD:    So what, for you, is the ultimate purpose of music in society?

RM:    I’m sorry to quote so many different people who are more brilliant than I, but I just thought of Oscar Wilde’s famous quote.  He said, “All art is absolutely useless.”  Of course he was being facetious and audacious, but I understand what he means.

BD:    So what does he mean?

RM:    I’ll tell you another more current quote to answer that.  Spencer Tracy was supposed to have said, “Acting, that’s nothing.  Anybody can do that.  Plumbing is important.”  In other words, what is needed, I mean really needed in terms of living.  We have to have food to subsist or survive.

BD:    Do we have to have music?

RM:    Some people don’t seem to have to have music, but everyone has to have food.  I cannot speak for others, but I would say it would be very dreary for me without music or without painting or without beauty.  I’ll just hark back to about fifteen years ago when I was talking about these things in an orchestration class.  I told them about some of my unhappy experiences in the profession, and a student raised his hand and said, “May I ask, Mr. Muczynski, why people like you bother?”  [Laughs]  Ugh, you know!  The only answer I came up with was, “Because there has to be more to life than eating, sleeping, and going to the bathroom.”  [Both laugh]  These are very difficult questions to answer.  Great thinkers of the world have written books about it, and philosophize, and come up with their views and speculations.  I don’t know if there are any absolute answers in this.

BD:    Are your answers to these questions in your music?

RM:    If there are answers, I prefer my music to speak for myself.  I feel this is me.  This is as close to me as I can give you folks in sound.  I have to dig within myself, and if you’re interested in me, then I would like to share this with you, and I hope you get it.

BD:    Do most audiences get it?

RM:    I’ve been pretty lucky with audiences.

BD:    What do you expect of an audience that comes to hear a new piece of yours?

RM:    I hope they won’t leave the hall.  [Laughs]  No, I don’t have any trouble like that.  I don’t think I expect anything, really.  If I do expect anything, they are just basic things such as their concentration, their attention and that sort of thing; not to come with any prejudices, not to come thinking that it’s going to sound like Tchaikovsky or Sweet Lemonade music.  I am really a lyricist in many ways, but then there certain angry pieces or movements that occur as well.  I’m a rather laid-back, maybe gentle person, but then I have rages, too, and all of these things that I am must, I suppose, ultimately find their way into my music.

BD:    So much of your work requires you to be in isolation.  Is it almost an invasion of your privacy, then, when you have a performance with a public there?

RM:    No.  It’s very difficult, though.  Today everyone wants you to speak about your music.  I’m sorry to tell you that, but if a composer is invited to have his music played at a university or a college, invariably they want you to speak about it, to verbalize.  I don’t mean that I hate doing that, it’s just that sometimes it’s almost impossible because you might be speaking about a piece you wrote twenty-five years ago.  It’s very difficult to recover, to remember or retrace your footsteps in that piece.  Whereas with a piece you did last year or five years ago, it’s not so hard.

BD:    Are you ever surprised by what you sounded like, twenty-five or thirty years ago?

RM:    The music?  Not really.  There were some student pieces I would rather have forgotten about entirely.  I would like to think that there is a certain progress.  I don’t want to do the same piece twice.  I always hope with each piece I undertake that it be something different or new.  That’s why composers who are very, very prolific, who write so much
ten symphonies and fifty sonatas and so forth — you’re almost bound to repeat yourself a great deal.  But if you’re less prolific?  I’m not eager to fill up the world with more symphonies and concertos.  With my concertos and symphonies I would like to write the best music I can, and to take my time writing that music so that I won’t be ashamed of it twenty years from now if I’m still around.

BD:    You expect it to last, then?

RM:    Expect?  I don’t think one can expect anything.

BD:    You hope that it will last?

RM:    Well, sure, I hope it will last.  I know I won’t last, so I hope it will last.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You mentioned that one of the pieces was something you wrote for the recording.  Did that influence it at all, or was it just another piece that you knew happened to go on the recording first?

RM:    It was a happy circumstance.  You’re talking about the Serenade for Summer.  It’s just the type of piece I wanted to write for small orchestra.  By the way, when I called it Serenade for Summer, a friend of mine said, “Oh, Delius!”  [Both laugh]  I said, “Look, Delius didn’t have a monopoly on summer, and it’s not a Delius piece.
  But it is, however, kind of a smoky reflection.  It might be my Chicago youth in that piece, somehow.  It’s just one movement, about seven and a half minutes, slow, sustained.  It was the type of piece that I wanted to do.  I’m so used to doing pieces with contrasteither have the slow then going to the fast, or else vice versathat in this case I just wanted to do it as a single slow movement.  It could have been, perhaps the central movement of a three-movement piece.  It could be used that way, in fact.

BD:    Are you ever going to write the outer movements?

RM:    No, not for that.  I just said what I had to say in that piece.

BD:    Would it please you if you went to a performance of this, and someone in the audience would say, “Ah, Muczynski!”?

RM:    Oh, yes!  Well, that’s very funny.  I realize there are lots of people who have not heard of me or heard my music.  But at the same time, it’s been my experience to learn of other composers — for example, Arnold Bax.  That is a composer whose works came to me late in my life.  I’ve just been enjoying his symphonies so much in the last five or six years.  Those works are not played much at all in this country, and until recently they were not too easily available in record stores.  Now they’re coming out in new recordings on British labels, and they’re very popular.

BD:    We’ve played quite a number of them on the station, and had good response.

RM:    I’m very fond of his work.  I like quite a few of the British composers.  [Wistfully thinking about his own works]  I had two big bags full of reviews and programs.  I was kind of sloppy about maintaining a scrapbook because it’s very tedious and boring after a while.  So I got into the habit of having two big bags in my clothes closet, and throwing my clippings in them.  Finally, a couple of years ago, I was reminded that these bags were filled up already, and that I was going to have to make a decision as to what to do with them.  I said to a friend, “I’ve either got to burn them all, or else save them all and put them in a book.”  I was persuaded to save them.  But it was very painful in some cases, not because the reviews were bad, but sometimes the realization that what you thought happened five years ago was more like fifteen years ago.  [Laughs]  Time is moving forward and there’s work to be done.

BD:    Are most of the pieces you write now on commission, or are they just things you have to write?

RM:    When one is unknown, as I was in my twenties, and you have nothing on the boards, nothing published, nothing recorded, then no one’s going to ask you for a piece.  After you have been around for some time and your works have circulated and seem to be thought well of and are performed and recorded, then one seems to develop or acquire a name.  It is then people start asking for pieces, or commissioning you to write pieces.  So in the last fifteen years especially, I’ve been doing more and more commissions, but it’s not my most favorite way of writing.  I enjoyed it the most was when I was very young.  I enjoyed being unknown.  I sat down and I thought,
“Well Bob, what shall we write now?  I commissioned myself.

BD:    When you get a commission now, how do you decide if you’ll accept it or turn it down?

RM:    I’m very wary these days.  I’ve been burned a number of times in a number of ways.  I will not take on a commission now if somebody says, “I want it by five p.m. on May 22nd of 1988,” or that sort of thing.  I just don’t want that kind of stress. 

BD:    Even if what they’re saying is, “We have a performance set up for that day and we’d like it for that performance”?

RM:    I don’t care!  [Laughs]  That’s their problem!  I want the piece to be as strong as I can make it, and it seems to be ridiculous to push that through a sieve just to get it on the boards.

BD:    So someone should commission you and say, “We would like it when it is finished.”

RM:    Yes, and most of the people are very gracious about it.  When Mitchell Lurie commissioned the work for clarinet and piano, I wrote him and said, “It’ll probably take me some time.”  He said, “I don’t care how long it takes.”  When I had three of the four movements, and he had already waited quite a long time for that piece, I wrote again to say, “I’m sorry to tell you, but I feel it needs another movement to balance the piece out.”  He said, “Whenever you feel the piece is finished, then it’s finished.”  That’s the way I like to work.  So, it’s not a question of trying to be difficult or temperamental.  It’s wanting to be reasonably proud of this piece when it’s done.  It is on that record [see photo below], and I was at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in Washington, DC last week when it was done again.


BD:    Are you ever surprised to find that your piece is being done here or there or someplace else?

RM:    It’s funny you mention that!  No.  You know what is very strange?  The Sonata for Flute and Piano was written in Oakland, California, in 1960 and finished in ’61.  Now certainly when I was writing that piece so many years ago I certainly never had a notion, or had it in my mind that it would become a standard.  First of all, I had no idea whether it would ever take off, whether it would be published, whether performers would want to play it.  I just wanted to write that piece.  But the thing that fascinates me is that over the years, once it is released and when it does catch on, when it does seem to be wanted or needed that the piece is suddenly here and it’s there.  Suddenly it’s all over the place, even in Europe.  That fascinates me.  Another thing that fascinates me is like when a friend of mine in Tucson said to me, “Has it ever occurred to you that there are people walking the streets in various parts of the country who are carrying your music around in their heads, or performers carrying your music around?”  That seemed very spooky, almost, to me!  It’s as though they’re walking with part of me in them.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Are you constantly working on pieces?  When you put the double bar line down, do you go immediately on to the next?

muczynskiRM:    Oh, no.  I’m not a faucet, but there was a period in the sixties when I was writing quite a bit.  My publisher in New York was a German director of this publishing house and he said, “Ach, my God, you’re like a rabbit!”  But I don’t want to be a rabbit.  I’ve taken on some very difficult kinds of pieces to write, certain kinds of repertory.  Especially in this country people do not like piano trios.  There are not too many piano trios or clarinet trios — that’s clarinet, cello, and piano.  There just aren’t too many of those.  There are certain kinds of chamber music that seem to be more rare.  I’ve written a great deal of solo piano music and I’ve written a great deal of chamber music.  I have three piano sonatas, the Sonata for Cello and Piano, Sonata for Flute and Piano, Sonata for Alto Saxophone and Piano, Italian Pieces for Clarinet and Piano, and so forth.

BD:    Any vocal music at all?

RM:    No, just some choral music.  I’ve written some orchestral music, but orchestral performances are very difficult to get.  These days we don’t seem to have a conductor would champion a particular composer’s music such as Kousssevitzky or Stokowksi.  At least I don’t see it.

BD:    There are only a few conductors these days that really do anything with contemporary music
— Leonard Slatkin and Michael Tilson Thomas and Dennis Russell Davies come to my mind.  [See my Interviews with Leonard Slatkin, my Interview with Michael Tilson Thomas, and my Interviews with Dennis Russell Davies.]

RM:    I don’t bump into these people.  I don’t see them in the lobby of hotels and I don’t have my score readily handy under my arm.  But mentioning Stokowski, when I was twenty-four years old I had the temerity to sit down and write a First Symphony, thinking I should do that.  I never did hear that piece, but a year or two later I was in New York and I had somehow gotten the telephone number of Mr. Stokowski at his hotel.  I gulped hard, dialed the number, and I thought that a secretary would answer.  I heard, “Hello?”  I recognized his voice, because I had seen Fantasia!  [Both laugh]  I said, “Is Mr. Stokowski there?”  He said, “Speaking,” so we talked a little bit.  He said, “Are you a composer?”  I said, “I’m afraid so.”  He said, “Don’t be afraid.  Bach was a composer and he was never afraid.  What kind of piece is it?”  I said, “It’s a symphony,” and immediately he said, “What else do you have?”  I don’t know if symphonies were not in or if he preferred program music, or what.

BD:    Maybe he was looking to see what else you had done, to see what other experience you had.

RM:    Well of course I was so green, and so young.

BD:    Did he look at it?

RM:    Yes, and then he wrote me that he’d made permanent notes about this for future performance consideration.  But as I look back, it was a rejection!

BD:    Is this something you encourage young composers to do
seek out conductors and hand them their scores?

RM:    I have no advice on that.  I just don’t know.

BD:    Do you think idea of having a composer-in-residence for a symphony is a good idea?

RM:    There’s nothing wrong with
anything that helps the composer, and gets the composer’s music to the orchestra and to the audience.

BD:    Is having a composer-in-residence getting more music to the orchestra, or is the orchestra just shunting off whatever responsibility they have onto this poor fellow?

RM:    I have not really thought about this, because I’m not one of those composers.

BD:    You’re a composer-in-residence at the University of Arizona?

RM:    Yes.

BD:    Is that a good title, or is that just something that they hung on you unwillingly?

RM:    It’s just sort of a label.  A label is a label.  I am a composer and I am in residence, so it’s not a false statement.  It does seem silly because you don’t say, “I’m a plumber-in-residence at the University of Arizona, or in Tucson, Arizona,” or, “I am grocer-in-residence at Safeway Mart.”

BD:    [Searching for an optimistic way of looking at it]  Isn’t it, in a way, saying that being a composer is sort of a national or even international thing, and yet you are in residence here for a while so they have you for while?

RM:    Well, they’ve had me for a while because I’ve been there since ’65.  I will be leaving this May for all sorts of reasons.

BD:    What are you looking forward to the most?

RM:    Freedom.  [Laughs]  I would like to own my own time.  I’m not ancient, but not everyone lives to be 75 or 80, and at this age I have to be very realistic about it.  I don’t know how my health is going to hold up.  Some of my friends who were my age and younger are already planted.  So who knows?  One has to get a little bit selfish (in a good way) at a certain point in life.  Not that you step on people, but I’ve got a certain limited amount of time left to do the work I want to do, so let’s do it.  And it’s not just the composing.  I want to do other things.  I want to see who else I am.  At the completion of every piece I do, I feel that I’ve learned perhaps a little more about myself.  It would be nice to think that, anyway.  Last week, the clarinetist who played the Time Pieces in Washington, D.C., Charles Stier, and I were seated in a bar and he said, “You realize, don’t you, Muczynski, that you and I, people like us, we are warts in society.”  [Laughs]  I said, “Well, thank you very much for that.”  He meant that we’re kind of a rarity.  We don’t really fit in with the norm. 

BD:    Would you want to be someone who fits into the norm?

RM:    No.  I like cooking, for example.  I find it a great deal of fun and relaxation, and a nice adventure especially when I get frustrated and nothing is bubbling with the music.  Then I can do something bubbling on the stove and take out all my frustrations there.  But when I go to the grocery store, I’m surrounded by all sorts of people.  There are bound to be people who are white-collar workers who say, “How’s it going at the office?” or factory workers who ask, “How’s it going?”  But I can’t.  I’m squeezing the lettuce and I can’t look left or right and say, “How is your symphony going?” or, “How is your sonata going?  How’s the cantata down there?”  We are in a rare kind of minority group.  What’s hard to swallow sometimes is that we are faced with this thing of supply and demand.  Perhaps we’re a supply that there’s no demand for, or not enough demand for, unlike the rock scene or the country scene.

BD:    Is that real demand, or is that just artificially manufactured?

RM:    I don’t know, but when I walk into a record store, I see before me what is the most needed, and most rewarded!  Not rewarding, but rewarded.

BD:    Should we try to make Robert Muczynski a hot commodity?

RM:    Oh, God!  Spare me!  [Both laugh] 

[At that point I thanked him for the conversation and we enjoyed some of his sister
’s homemade cookies.]

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© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in Chicago in mid-December, 1987.  Segments were used (with recordings) on WNIB in 1989, 1994 and 1999, and on WNUR in 2007.  A small segment was also used aboard United Airlines (and Air Force One) as part of their in-flight entertainment package during May and June of 1988.  The transcription was made and posted on this website in 2013.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

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.