Composer  Thea  Musgrave
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Keen-eyed readers might have noticed that the name attached to all of my work is Duffie, spelled with an "ie" at the end, rather than the much more usual "y".  My family comes from England and Ireland, but also from Scotland, hence the less-familiar way of spelling.  I mention this only because it was that much more special for me to have the opportunity to chat with the Scottish-born composer, Thea Musgrave.

Born in 1928, she has distinguished herself as a leading proponent of music which is both new and different, but also available to the ears of a large public.  Unrestrictive in her style, she also limits herself to no one genre.  Thus, her catalogue includes orchestra works, vocal pieces, operas, solos and even some electronic works.  A few have become somewhat famous and are played regularly, and more and more appear on commercial recordings.

We had been trying to get together for a couple of years, but the composer's travel schedule never brought her to
— or even near —  Chicago.  So in 1988, on one of my very infrequent trips to New York City, it happened that my first day there was her last day before flying off on another engagement, so she graciously allowed me to come to her apartment.

Despite having a new couch delivered earlier in the day
— a piece which only then was discovered to be larger than the elevator could accommodate, much to the chagrin of the movers who then had to carry the piece up several flights — we were able to have a very amicable conversation. 

Bruce Duffie:    Let's start out with a very easy question.  Where's music going today?

Thea Musgrave:    [Laughs]  I haven't the slightest ideas!  I'm just afraid that it's on a jet plane, going in all different directions and nobody quite knows where it's going to come down.

BD:    Should we know where music is going?

TM:    No, I don't think we should, actually.  I would hate to know exactly what I'm going to be doing in two or three or four or five years from now.  It's nice to have a general idea, maybe, of where one's going and head in a sort of direction, but then I think it's exciting to discover things and be able to react to new discoveries, and then run with it, rather than have it all pre-planned.  I don't believe in predestination!  What happens in general is that you hear things that interest you technically one way and another, and it's good to respond to that.  Not immediately; I think you need a little bit of time where you take it in and let it become your own, and then respond to it.  I don't mean that you hear something one day and out it comes the next day.  There's a bit of a time lag there, like jet lag.  [Both laugh]

BD:    Then how long does it gestate, or is it different for different pieces?

musgraveTM:    It's different for different pieces.  Sometimes I have been thinking about a piece for a long time, and for one reason or another I haven't been able to get to it.  Perhaps I have been finishing off something else, so it has to go into cold storage.  I hope that it doesn't lose some of its savor for me when I take it out and begin work on it.  Take, for instance, Narcissus
[(1987), for flute and digital delay system].  I had the idea for that really quite a long time before I was able to start work on it, and I couldn't wait to start.  That piece did make use of something not very new, technologically, because in the old days it used to be tape loop or tape feedback.  Now, of course, it's done by digital delay system, so new technology creeps in there, but it's not, actually, a very new idea.  To write a 15-minute piece for solo flute is quite a tall order to make it really carry, and I didn't want to do a flute-and-piano piece; I wanted to do something different.  The idea came to me that if I used this digital delay or echo feedbackwhich you hear on practically every television adand it was about Narcissus, it would work because the live flute is Narcissus but the feedback represents his reflection.  So it works dramatically as an idea, as well as making use of a new technology.

BD:    When you've been thinking about an idea for a long time, do you write it down as sketches, or do you just keep it in your mind?

TM:    The concept I held in my mind, but I didn't know exactly how I was going to work it out.  I went to a store and I bought myself a digital delay system, and then I futzed around with it to see exactly what it could do.  It has several features, and I wanted to explore it.  Then I incorporated it into the Narcissus myth.

BD:    You obviously took it much bigger and much deeper than in a television ad.

TM:    Oh, sure.  It's just using that particular technique of repeating something, and making it, hopefully, something which is an artistic expression of something.

BD:    This opens up one of my favorite questions.  In music, where is the balance between the artistic achievement and the entertainment value?

TM:    Well, it's both.  I don't know that people just go to a concert to be entertained, I think they go to be grabbed!  And I don't think "entertainment" needs to be a dirty word.  You go to get out of yourself in one way, to think about something on whatever level.  And why not?  The artist should be able to do that, and it can go in various degrees, from musicals to Broadway
which is perhaps more "entertainment"to a symphony concertwhich is perhaps more seriousbut hopefully it always grabs you.  You become involved in this other world that's being created.  Actually, a friend of mine in Norfolk is a doctor and a specialist and is a great opera fan, so when she describes to me how going to the opera is very important to her, she says it's like a catharsis.  To go to the opera, and to have one's emotions totally there on stage, something happens and it's worked through by the composer.  That, for her, is very important as a contrast to her scientific work, with its enormous detail.  Going to the opera is very important, so I guess on the very highest level, music can do this for people.

BD:    Does she get a different kind of catharsis if she's going to Fledermaus as opposed to Parsifal?

TM:    [Thinks for a second, then bursts out laughing]  I will have to ask her.

BD:    These are the obvious extremes, but should those two pieces do different things?

TM:    I guess.  Sure.  Fledermaus would be more "entertainment," and Parsifal a much deeper experience.

BD:    Within that spectrum, then, where does the music of Thea Musgrave fall?

musgraveTM:    Ohhhhh.  Well, I guess somewhere in the middle.  Some of my pieces are lighter and some of my pieces have more serious application.  For instance, in the opera I certainly hope to grab people.  In fact, in Norfolk, when Mary, Queen of Scots was done, somebody said they really liked the story.  They weren't quite sure they understood the music, but they really liked the story.  Now I was very pleased by that because I made story, after all, and what they didn't realize was that the music actually told the story.  The story is there, of course, but the music really held the story together.  They hadn't realized that, but they were held by what was happening on stage.  So I was pleased because it meant that they had taken the first step; something had grabbed them, and I hoped they would go back.  Maybe they would then hear more of the music.  So it was a first step for somebody who was not very familiar with contemporary music, who didn't know the style particularly well, and nevertheless was held by something.  So that I was pleased with.

BD:    Much of your music is in a more accessible style than some other composers; is this a purposeful device on your part, or is this just the way you have to write the music?

TM:    It's the way I have to write.  I don't think you can set up to write accessible music, because there would be something a little phony in that.  Now I have to make an exception immediately.   I don't like to write down to people in any way; I think that's a kind of insult.  On the other hand,
when I write for young people, you do have to write more simply.  Technically, you know, small hands can't reach large intervals on the piano, for instance, and they can't usually do very technically difficult things.  So you write more simply so it would interest them and be a challenge to them, but yet it would be possible for them to perform.

BD:    What are your expectations of the audience that comes to hear your music
either a new piece or an old piece?

TM:    To leave their prejudices at home, and to come open-minded and with a certain curiosity; they may like it or they may not like it, but not to come prejudging me.  To come and see what we've got here and to give it a try!  More you can't ask!

BD:    You don't want them to prejudge it by saying, "I've liked your stuff in the past so I hope I like this new piece"?

TM:    Oh, well that would be nice.  Sure!  Oh, that would be very nice.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I assume that you are always swamped with a lot of commissions.

TM:    [Nodding wistfully]  Ummmm, but I don't always say yes.

BD:    So how do you decide which ones you will accept and which ones you will either postpone or decline?

TM:    Just what grabs me.  Right at the moment I might be interested in a particular medium and I wouldn't be able to do it right now; it'd have to wait a year or two.  So I have to think, "Would I be interested in this particular work in a couple of years?"  I usually have a good feel about that.  There are just certain things that I'm not interested in at the moment, and other things that I am.  So I don't accept things that I don't feel I would really be interested in because then you don't write a very good piece.  [Chuckles]  It's got to be something you really go for.

BD:    Does every piece you write have to be a good piece?

musgraveTM:    You try to make it a good piece; it doesn't always happen.  It's something you don't have total control over.  Like with all artists, you really try to make it absolutely the best that you can at that particular moment, but for one reason or another it may not quite work out the way you had hoped.  In my own case, and I guess with a lot of people, it goes in kind of waves.  You get on a roll and you write a certain number of pieces in that kind in style, and then there comes a patch where it's more difficult, where you're changing.  New things are coming into the style, and you have to find new things.  You're finding your path, and maybe one or two pieces at that stage are much more difficult to write because you're finding new ground.  You work through that and get on another roll.  That I don't have control over because I don't want to go on writing the old piece.  You have to forge on; you have to allow yourself to explore new things, I believe.  It has to be fresh and new and interesting, always.

BD:    When you're writing, are you in control of the pen, or is the pen in control of you?

TM:    It sometimes seems as if the pen is running on ahead as if somebody is dictating to me.  Of course that's nonsense, but that's the way it feels.  When that happens it's great, and I allow it to happen; I allow the pen to just write on and see what it gives!  Then the next morning or the next week or whatever, I will look at this and say, "Now what have we got here?"  The craft and technique come in to fashion that and to make sure that it's what I really want.

BD:    Are you ever surprised where it takes you?

TM:    Sure!!  Oh, yeah!  And I think it's good to let that happen, to be surprised and then see what we have got, and then to work with that.  What is amazing is that sometimes the subconscious takes you into amazing places, but the incredible thing is that it does usually make sense.  But you have to discover it after the fact.  I don't know if this makes sense, and it doesn't always happen that way, but it's usually great when it does.

BD:    Are you ever horrified by where it's led you?

TM:    Oh, yeah!  Then it goes into the wastepaper basket.  [Both laugh]

BD:    Are you always right in the ideas that you decide to save, and those you decide to throw away?

TM:    Probably not, but one can only go with where you are at that particular moment, and make the best decision you possibly can for that particular moment and where it fits in.  Actually, I usually don't throw things out; I was joking a little bit.  I usually just say, "That won't do," and I put it to one side, and sometimes it creeps back in, in another way, later on.

BD:    In the same piece, or into another one later on?

TM:    Either into another piece, or into the same piece in another form or at another moment.  Sometimes it doesn't work at all, and you have to know where to abandon something
something even that you might really like and think that's a great idea, but it doesn't work at that piece at that time.  You have to cut it away to make room for whatever you feel is right for that particular moment.

BD:    How do you know when to put the pen down?

TM:    Before you've quite finished, so that the next morning when you start work again, you know where to start.  It's the sort of inertia of the next morning, and you get through it immediately.  You don't quite finish.  You almost finish, but don't quite finish.

BD:    How do you know when you've finished tinkering with all of the spots and are ready to launch the piece upon the world?

TM:    Finishing is actually a matter of timing, usually.  What I usually find I have to do is to play it through on a keyboard out loud.  It's very funny, I don't seem to be able to read it through to myself and feel the weight of the piece without a physical sound to react to.  So even with an opera, I sit down and play it through.  It's only then that I really feel the proportions of the piece, and how long it needs to be before we get to that double bar.  And you can have some surprises, because when you are actually working on it you might write five, six, eight bars, and that seems enough; when you have a play-through, that is simply not enough.  I'm reminded of the end of a Beethoven symphony.  He has all those chunking chords which in themselves are not very interesting, but they are absolutely necessary for the proportion of the piece.  So it's that kind of process.  You have to feel the weight of the cadence before you can write the double bar.

BD:    Do you ever go back and tamper with scores once they're finished?

TM:    Sometimes; it's not a very good idea, but I do sometimes!  [Both chuckle]

BD:    Are there going to be versions that historians will to fight over?

TM:    I don't know.  Sometimes in operas I have gone back and revised things, but with very few exceptions, I don't allow things to be published until I've heard them.  Basically what is launched onto the world is something that's been tried out, and hopefully is right.

BD:    As you look back on works that now are ten, twenty, thirty years old, are you pleased with those pieces also?

TM:    Some I like, and some I like less.  Some seem to stay the course, and others I think, [sighs] "Not so good."  Or, "That was a transition piece, and I can see what I was trying to do, but if I'd only done it this way instead of that, it would've been better."

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You've written several stage works.  Do you like to be considered an opera composer or more of a symphonic composer, or just simply a composer?

TM:    A composer!  I do chamber works, I do orchestral works, I do opera, I have done ballet, I've done songs, unaccompanied choral pieces
all sorts of things.  I like to do different things, so I don't really like to be pigeonholed.  There are even some electronic thingsmostly with live music, not on its own.

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

TM:    Basically, yes.  Yeah.  Basically I've had very good performers, people who have been very dedicated and given of their time and energy and artistry.

musgraveBD:    What about the recordings?

TM:    On the whole, mm-hmm.  I'm not pleased with the way that they eventually get deleted!  They don't tell you in advance.  When they've been in the catalog for ten years, they eventually delete them and they don't tell you in advance, so you can't rush off and buy a number of copies.

BD:    Are you pleased with the recorded sound that you get, as opposed to sound in live theater or concert hall?

TM:    A lot of the recordings are not digital, so now you get much more picky.  Now we have CDs and all that; the older recordings did not have the advantage of that, so that is a loss.  I think recordings are great, however it's a little bit like eating canned food or frozen food; I like live food, I like music live.  You always run the risk that you can't retake one note or one chord, so there are going to be imperfections.  But the fact of having living music is more exciting just because there's an element of risk in there.  Musicians take risks when they know they're not being recorded; just to do a little bit more with that phrase, or go for the high note with a little bit more oomph.  You don't do that in a recording; you play safe because if one person makes a mistake, then everybody has to redo it.  So they don't do that.  You always play just a bit more safe, and it sort of shows.

BD:    Then in performance do you encourage this risk taking?

TM:    Sure!  If I'm conducting, sure!

BD:    Are you the ideal conductor of your works?

TM:    Oh, no; I don't think so.  Maybe in the first place.  If something is new and there is some of the sort of new notational things, I can explain what I want, and if it's not clear then I can put it right very easily.  Then I can be sure it's marked in the score and parts to make it clear for later performances.  But no, I'm not the ideal conductor.  I think there are lotsa wonderful conductors.

BD:    Do conductors or performers often find things in your scores you didn't know you'd hidden there?

TM:    Uh, not usually.

BD:    In opera, where is the balance between the music and the drama?

TM:    That's the tightrope, isn't it?  All through history it's a tightrope where one has to work or the other has to work.  The difficult thing about writing operas, actually, is writing the libretto.  Since Mary, Queen of Scots I've done my own.  I always seemed to be on the wrong side of the Atlantic with the librettist, and I decided it was too complicated, so I took on that function.  I very much enjoy the planning out of the libretto in terms of the dramatic structure, and building it as I go.  I get an overall plan and write several drafts, but I always leave a few loose ends in the detail
not in what the scene is about and who is confronting who and what's going to happen; that I work out as a wholebut in the detail of how long a particular speech will be, or what the dialogue will be.  I don't finalize it till I get to the music, and the music tells me what I need and how long it should be.  I can adapt to that because it is a balance of how long, dramatically, something needs to be and how long musically it needs to take to work out.  You have to balance the two so that they both don't feel cheated.

BD:    As you're crafting the words, are some of the musical ideas coming to you?

TM:    Sure, or some of the colors.  Sometimes it's musical themes, sometimes there will be colors, and sometimes I'm beginning to think of what sort of orchestra it's going to be and what the scoring is going to be.  You have to decide that in advance because I score as I go along, usually.  I don't like to write the vocal score and then score it; I score as I go along, scene by scene.  I hear the colors and I don't like to forget it, so I like to score it while it's fresh in my ear.  I do a big chunk and then score it, and then move on, so the orchestra has to be very clear from the beginning.

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

TM:    It depends very much on the kind of opera, and also on the television producer, the director.  I'm not sure that it always works just straight from the stage, although I'm glad that sometimes we get Live from the Met, and we get to see these productions.  Sometimes they're very good with their camera angles and getting close-ups, like the Turandot.  I think that one worked wonderfully on television.  I didn't see it in the house, I only saw it on television.  But other things I wish that we had the money to take them into the studio and really make use of film techniques.  Whether it's shot on videotape or film is not an issue, but it has to be done with great skill.  It bothers me sometimes when you're miles away from the convention of the theater; I'm not sure how far along that path one can really go.  It's a very delicate balance, always.

BD:    Where do your operas fit in to this scheme?

TM:    Well, I would love to see Mary, Queen of Scots done in Holyrood and Edinburgh Castle and France to gain some of the realism of the setting.  On the other hand, that opera is really about people; it's really about confrontations, and the settings are incidental.  So I guess that means it would be quite good if we saw it in Holyrood and had the murder scene actually there in the place.  I remember seeing the room as a kid.  They had red paint on the floor which we were told was Rizzio's blood!  [Both laugh]  I'm sure they painted it fresh each tourist season.

BD:    Do you want your operas translated when they're done in non-English-speaking countries?

TM:    I think so.  I don't know!  Supertitles have just come in.  I'm not sure whether it would be preferable to hear the sound of the original language.  I always prefer to go to a movie and hear the original language, and have subtitles.  I like to hear Italian or Russian or whatever it is, as long as I can understand what's going on!

BD:    That's your musical ear!

TM:    Sure!  But I like to hear that.  When we've done operas in Norfolk, we usually do them in the original language and have supertitles so the audience can really understand what's going on.  And it's easier for the singers; they don't have to learn the sixteenth translation of the opera which may or may not be very good, and which never totally fits.  Translations go out of date, and they don't really fit the music.  Mary, Queen of Scots was done in Germany in German, which I didn't hear, 'cause we were on tour in the Far East at the time.  I would've been very interested to hear how it worked.  If it made the audience more involved and understand more, I think it's good.  On the other hand, when you hear operas in whatever language you don't necessarily hear all the words.  If it's in German for the Germans you don't necessarily hear every word, just as if it's in English for the English.  When Beverly Sills gave the Argento opera,
Casanova's Homecoming, at the State Theater, she had supertitles, even though it was in English!  And why not?  Although the diction was actually very good and the singers were very good, there were one or two moments of ensemble where there's no way of hearing everything.  So I was glad for the supertitles.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    What, for you, constitutes greatness in music?

TM:    That's a hard one.  I'm not sure how to answer that.  I think some kind of greatness of vision, greatness of aspiration, not necessarily to go for the easy way, though sometimes it can be that.  I think Schubert and his songs, which are simple in one way, are great!  They just are absolutely right.  What constitutes rightness?  I don't know.  You just know it's there when it's right, and people on the whole will respond to it when it's right.  It must be something truthful.

musgraveBD:    Is the music of Thea Musgrave great?

TM:    I haven't the slightest idea.  I would like to think so, but I don't know.

BD:    What, in your view, is the purpose of music in society?

TM:    It's very important.  It's all those things of the human spirit that you need!  It's not the scientific side, it's not the practical, day-to-day living side; it's the other side of man or woman which is the imagination.  It's all those things which my friend was calling the catharsis.  It's the poetry, the aesthetic sense
either visual or auralthat we need!  Even people in a very much more simple society needed it.  You have cave paintings even for people way back when!  We need it too, though I think we often forget it in our computerized world.  We also need the poetry and those other things in life that make it worthwhile.

BD:    But you don't look on the arts as being strictly useful, do you?

TM:    Not useful, no, but it's essential!

BD:    What advice do you have for young composers coming along?

TM:    [Thinks for a moment, and takes a breath]  Don't!  [Both laugh heartily]  Don't, unless you really have to; then they do it anyway.  They have to get a very good craft.  They have to really know what they're doing and learn all the technical things.  But at the same time as doing that, they have to let the imagination go to explore and find new things, and not to be afraid to really go for it.  They need to hear a lot of things, particularly when you're young.  Go to a lot of opera, to ballet, to whatever.  Go and hear new things; go and hear what other people are doing.  Look at scores, listen to recordings so they have a width of experience to draw from.  Then they find out where they stand within that and forge their own individual path out of that.  Nobody can tell them what to do; one has to find it for oneself.  One can't be told; one shouldn't be told.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music?

TM:    Oh, sure!  As long as people are around, sure because, as we just decided, it's essential.  What form it will take, I don't know!  I don't think one can possibly know, but the artistic expression is essential.  As long as we're human beings who talk to each other and have means of expression, it's going to be there one way or another for sure.

BD:    You work a lot with young people.  Do you do any teaching at all?

TM:    I've just started to teach, and I really love it.  I've discovered I really love it.  It's very interesting and challenging, but it's something quite new; I just started in September.  I teach at Queens College in New York.  These young people are so different from each other, with the backgrounds that they have and different experiences that they have.  They come from different countries, and it's interesting to try and see where they're at a particular moment, and how to help them.  Also I'm glad because Queens has a very good theory background which they have to have.  I don't do that, but they need to have that.  You need something to build on.  You can't build on sand; you've got to build on rock, the rock of theory.  So I hope they have that when they get into my composition class.  I try to encourage them to be imaginative and to explore things, and see what we get!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You mentioned Mary, Queen of Scots a couple of times.  Is this work particularly close to your heart, being a Scot?

musgraveTM:    Yeah!  Yeah.  But on the other hand, another recent opera was Harriet, The Woman Called Moses, which is very different from my experience.  What grabbed me about that was the universality of that experience.  It can speak to everybody.  [Harriet, The Woman Called Moses (1984), opera in two acts; libretto by the composer based freely on the life of Harriet Tubman; commissioned jointly by the Virginia Opera and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden]  I think that that's something else that an art can do
transcend time and space.  With time, hopefully through seeing Mary, Queen of Scots, one can understand something about her even though she lived so many hundreds of years ago.  Harriet for me is a big space difference.  Coming from Scotland and talking about slavery in Maryland is a long way from my own personal experience, yet there's something that's universal about the kind of courage that she had that can speak to everybody.  That can hopefully be a universal experience.  People can speak to one another through an art and reach another kind of understanding which goes beyond just words.

BD:    Is there any parallel at all between trying to get freedom for the black people as a group, and now trying to get freedom for women as a group?

TM:    I think of freedom for anybody, from whatever kind of oppression, whether it's as a group or as an individual.  You can use it as a metaphor for anything, but the important thing is to go for the freedom.  How she did it was what was moving to me, and why I felt I wanted to tell the story.  Something which seems totally impossible and totally out of reach can be reached by somebody with enough courage to do it.  It's wonderful!  It's really wonderful to think that just one person who was totally uneducated
she wasn't allowed to be educateddid what she did!  It's fantastic!  So I think there's a moral there for us.  Not that I wrote it to be moralistic, but it's inspiring.

BD:    Have women composers come far enough now that they no longer need to be classified as "women composers"?

TM:    [Nearly without hesitation]  Oh, surely.

BD:    I'd hoped so, but I just wanted to make sure, because occasionally I will talk with a woman composer who will say that not enough has been done yet.

TM:    But I don't think there's enough done for composers!  I don't think it's a matter of sex, I think it's not enough done for composers.  Until the concerts have much, much more 20th century music of today in them, everybody's neglected.  You look at any concert program, it's a huge preponderance of the Classical and Romantic period!  Now a little bit of early music is coming into its own, very early music, but not 20th century music for the most part.

BD:    Whose fault is that
is it the audience, the managements, the composers?

TM:    Box office.  People don't promote it right, and it becomes a whole financial problem; all the business side of it, all that awful part of the arts which I hate.

BD:    Wasn't it Barnum who said, "If the public won't come, no one can stop 'em"?

TM:    That's true!  On the other hand, we have such a tradition that's been built up over a number of years, that music in the concert halls is mostly Classical and Romantic.  If the public had been brought along to keep up to date, things might be different.  People go to galleries and look at the far-out things visually, but on the whole, it's only the brave ones that go and listen to the far-out things in concert music.  They listen to jazz or rock music, which is pretty much up there.  If it's part of a film score, without them knowing they've heard a lot of things which are actually as far advanced as most music!  So sometimes it happens.

BD:    How can we get more contemporary music on the various concerts?  Or is that not your problem?

TM:    I wish I knew the answer.  It is my problem, but I don't know what the answer is.

BD:    Obviously not enough is being done.

TM:    I don't think so.  But I don't know what the answer is.  It's where the funding has to happen; there has to be more funding for the arts compared to the money that we spend on all sorts of things.  The arts need actually a very tiny proportion of that budget, but they do need it.  The orchestras and the opera companies need more money to exist; they're all fighting for that tiny proportion that they get, and they have to do all this fundraising.  But they feel they can't take risks as far as box office is concerned; they have to play safe, otherwise they go out of existence, and that's not good artistically, either!  I'm exaggerating a bit.  Obviously some orchestras do more new music than others, but it's a problem!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    What is next on your calendar?

TM:    Tomorrow I'm going to Israel, where I've been invited to conduct the Jerusalem Symphony in a concert of my works.  I will start off with one of my earliest orchestral works and finish up with one of the more recent ones.  In the middle I'm doing something called Monologues from Mary, Queen of Scots, four excerpts out of the opera which I'll be doing with a young Israeli soprano.  So that should be exciting.

musgraveBD:    Do you enjoy the travel all over the world, taking your music to new places?

TM:    I don't like to do that.  I like to travel a little bit from time to time, but basically I need to be in one place for a certain period of time in order to work.  I can't work on the train or on the plane.  I have to be somewhere and have a work situation.  At the moment my life is between New York and Norfolk, but I go from home to home.  I have a studio in each place and I'm set up for work.  But when I go to Israel, I probably won't be able to work very much.  I'll work for the concert and conduct, but I doubt that I'll be in the mood for composing very much.  I'll enjoy being in a country which I've never visited before, and when I get back, hopefully I'll have a lot of ideas to work on.

BD:    If you get a really good idea when you're there, I assume you'll jot it down.

TM:    Oh sure, or file it away in my memory.  I might take some work, but I'm not sure whether I will do very much.

BD:    I asked you about advice to composers; what advice do you have for performers of either music in general or your music in particular?

TM:    I hope the performers come with it with a fresh spirit, and audiences come with an open mind.  Don't prejudge it; let's see what happens.  I'm always particularly pleased at rehearsals for a concert if the performers like the work.  Sometimes if a thing is new and unfamiliar, a public finds it more difficult.  But if the performers really like it, I'm very pleased.  If the public may take a little longer to come to it, that's all right, but if the performers don't like something, that's not good.  They may take a little while just to get into it, to get over the notes, but then you really want them to like it.  I do, anyway.

BD:    If the performers like it, that's really half your battle!

TM:    Absolutely, because they have to play it and are committed to it.  So you need to convince them.  It's one thing is to get right notes and right rhythms, and all that.  The other thing is the dramatic part of it.  A lot of my orchestral works have a kind of dramatic function, and the idea is to make that work.  If it's in front of a mike, it doesn't matter so much, but in front of an audience, it is important to make it look right by encouraging them to stand out with a certain panache if that's what's needed, or to act out just a little bit.  And it's not just for the sake of being a performer; I think they play differently if they do it with the right spirit.  If they stand out with a certain zest, it'll sound that way as well.  I like them to stand when I need them to stand because it sounds different.  When you stand to play, you play with a little bit more freedom, and because you're standing, you're more visible than if you're sitting.  I work with that kind of thing in some of the orchestral pieces, so it's important they stand with the right spirit, and aren't sheepish or apologetic about it in any way, and also at times to enter into the fun of the thing.  It's not all deadly serious.  Sometimes it should have a spirit of fun and playfulness as well.

BD:    One last question.  I
s composing fun?

TM:    Yeah!  Usually; sometimes not, but on the whole, it is.  Well, "fun," I don't know, but "involving" and "interesting" perhaps are better words.  So I guess that's fun. 
It is actually, it really is!  Otherwise, you wouldn't be so crazy as to do it!  That's why I would say to a young person who asks what he or she should do to be a composer, the answer is, "If you have to ask the question, don't!"

BD:    So then we've lost the days of, [with exaggerated pathos] "I must suffer for my art"?

TM:    Well, sometimes you suffer, but it's because you have to do it!  It's not that you really suffer; you sort of suffer.  You tear your hair out when it doesn't go right, but it's because you're after something and you haven't got what you wanted.  You have to be determined to get it!

BD:    Thank you for being a composer, and for spending a few minutes with me at this very hectic time.

TM:    It's hectic at the moment, and you ask some difficult questions!

BD:    I try to encourage my guests to think.  There's no point in asking superfluous questions.

Born in Edinburgh, Scotland on 27 May 1928, Thea Musgrave studied first at the University of Edinburgh and later at the Conservatoire in Paris, where she spent four years as a pupil of Nadia Boulanger, before establishing herself back in London as a prominent member of British musical life with her orchestral, choral, operatic, and chamber works. In 1970 she became Guest Professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, which anchored her increasing involvement with the musical life of the United States. In 1971 she married the American violist and opera conductor Peter Mark, and has resided in the U.S. since 1972. In 1974 she received the Koussevitzky Award. She has also been awarded two Guggenheim Fellowships, in 1974-75, and again in 1982-83, and was recognized with honorary degrees by Old Dominion University (Virginia), Smith College, Glasgow University and in May 2004, the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. She was awarded a C.B.E. on the Queen's New Year's Honour List in January 2002. As Distinguished Professor at Queens College, City University of New York from September 1987-2002, Musgrave has guided and interacted with many new and gifted young student composers.  For more information and a full list of her works, visit her official website.


© 1988 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded in the composer's apartment in New York City on March 21, 1988.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB two months later, and again in 1993 and 1998.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2011.

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.