Composer / Pianist Robert
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
In mid-December of 1987, Robert Muczynski was back in Chicago to visit
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 . . . . .
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
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...
[Looking at the record and reading the title] “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.
a sticker on the back of the jacket] “This
record pressed with the new American Quiex Vinyl for extra quiet
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.
Yes. This was a big undertaking.
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?
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?
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 time — but 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
[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
feel — your intuition tells you — there’s
something there that’s worth salvaging or sifting out.
BD: Is that
where most of the music lies — in the “maybe”
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 up — in
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.
you’re working with a piece of music — or even
just a part of a piece of music or a phrase — how
do you know when it is right, when to put the pen down and say, “That
[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 whatever — you’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.
BD: 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.
piano music be pianistic?
RM: Yes, I
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?
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
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
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?
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?
RM: 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.”
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.
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?
fluctuates, but I would say that the most difficult period was during
the Vietnam years.
because of the whole situation?
Yes. There was a very ugly feeling in the air, an
anti-establishment attitude. You could almost taste it.
we’ve gotten over that now?
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
BD: I wonder
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
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?
Yes. One is operating a pizza parlor.
[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
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
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
you’re writing a piece, are you in control of it or is it in control of
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
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 ten — or ten times out of
ten — you’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?
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.
RM: 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?
[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
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?
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
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?
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.
BD: 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?
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
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
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.
expect it to last, then?
Expect? I don’t think one can expect anything.
BD: You hope
that it will last?
sure, I hope it will last. I know I won’t last, so I hope it will
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 contrast
— either have the slow then going to the fast, or else vice
versa — that 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!”?
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.
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
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
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.
someone should commission you and say, “We would like it when it is
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
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?
RM: 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
Tilson Thomas, and my Interviews with Dennis
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
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
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
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?
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.”
[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?
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?
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?
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
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?
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
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.
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
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.