Composer / Performer  Dika  Newlin

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


Dika Newlin, 82, Punk-Rock Schoenberg Expert, Dies

By Douglas Martin
The New York Times, July 28, 2006

Dika Newlin, who composed a symphony at 11, became a distinguished composer and musicologist and emerged, in her 70’s and 80’s, as a most unlikely punk rocker, died on July 22 in Richmond, Va. She was 82. The cause was complications of a broken arm she suffered on June 30, said Sabine Feisst, a professor of musicology at Arizona State University who is writing a book on Dr. Newlin.

“It is hard to find out about me because I’m involved in so many different things,” Dr. Newlin said in an interview with The Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1996. One continuing thread: she was a professor at various universities, until her retirement from Virginia Commonwealth University two years ago.

Her latest incarnation was as leather-clad, bright-orange-haired punk rocker and occasional Elvis impersonator, belting out songs like “Love Songs for People Who Hate Each Other,” which she wrote herself. Her flamboyant image was not exactly dulled when she posed in her 70’s for a pinup calendar.

Dr. Newlin’s earlier prominence grew out of her studies as a teenager with the composer Arnold Schoenberg. Dr. Newlin, among the last surviving pupils of Schoenberg, wrote the entry on him for the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Dr. Feisst called Dr. Newlin “one of the pioneers of Schoenberg research in America.” Dr. Newlin’s doctoral dissertation was published as the book “Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg” (1947, 1968). She also translated Schoenberg’s works from German to English, and her publication of diaries she kept as his student provide some of the most intimate glimpses of him.

Dr. Newlin’s own compositions reflect Schoenberg’s innovative approach. Those works include three operas, a chamber symphony, a piano concerto and numerous chamber, vocal and mixed-media works. In 1999, she sang in a costumed performance of Schoenberg’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” in her own English translation, in Lubbock, Tex.

In her punk incarnation, Dr. Newlin appeared in horror movies produced by Michael D. Moore in Richmond. In “Creep” (1995), directed by Tim Ritter, her character, clad in a leather motorcycle jacket, poisons baby food on a supermarket shelf.

Dr. Feisst confessed to finding this sort of thing “puzzling and disturbing” but said she came to view it as “all part of the package.”

Mr. Moore also directed “Dika: Murder City’’ (1995), a documentary about Dr. Newlin.

Dika Newlin, an only child, was born in Portland, Ore., on Nov. 22, 1923. Her name, chosen by her mother, refers to an Amazon in one of Sappho’s poems.

Her parents, both academics, soon moved to East Lansing, Mich., to teach at what is now Michigan State University. Dika could read dictionaries at 3, played the piano at 6 and began composing at 7.

She entered grade school at 5 and finished at 8. At 11, she wrote a symphonic piece, “Cradle Song.” Three years later, it was performed by the Cincinnati Symphony, with Vladimir Bakaleinikoff conducting.

She finished high school at 12 and was accepted as a college student by Michigan State, where, The New York Herald Tribune said in 1939, she had the highest I.Q. score in the school’s history. At the time of the article, she was in New York to hear one of her compositions performed at the World’s Fair.

After graduating from Michigan State at 16, she settled with her mother in Los Angeles so that she could attend the University of California at Los Angeles and study with Schoenberg, who taught there. She kept a diary, which she published as a book, “Schoenberg Remembered: Diaries and Recollections (1938-76),” in 1980.

Reviewing the book in The New York Times Book Review, Joan Peyser marveled at its “absolute ingenuousness,” saying Dr. Newlin seemed to have censored nothing.

In one entry, she tells how Schoenberg, an Austrian émigré she called Uncle Arnold, criticized her string-quartet style as “too pianistic.” She replied that she knew it wasn’t the best writing. The entry continues, “He replied, ‘No, it is not the best, nor even the second best — perhaps the 50th best, yes?’ ”

She earned her doctorate in musicology from Columbia at 22. She studied piano with Artur Schnabel and Rudolf Serkin and made a half-dozen piano recordings in the United States and Europe. Many years later, in 2004, some of her punk numbers were released on an album called “Ageless Icon: The Greatest Hits of Dika Newlin.”

Dr. Newlin, who never married, leaves no immediate family members. She has a surviving cousin and was close to her cat, Spot. She once kept eight or more cats. Reporters noted that she slept on a mattress on the floor with a medieval suit of armor dangling above.

She told The Richmond Times-Dispatch that she had always wanted to have a rock band, and hers surely carried her own brand. Who but Dr. Newlin could have taken the text Schoenberg used for the fourth movement of his second string quartet to use as punk lyrics for “Alien Baby”?

“I feel like a child more than I did as a child,” she said in an interview with People magazine in 2003. “I try more and more to live day by day, to do something because it feels good.”

This conversation took place on the telephone in February of 1987.  The first half was published in Sonus Magazine in the Spring issue of 2008.  That section has been slightly re-edited and the rest has been added for this website presentation.

Bruce Duffie:    In the last few days I have been reading quite a bit about you, finding out all of your many and varied talents and interests.  You are a composer, teacher, historian, so where is the big emphasis in your career, or does it change from one of these fields do the other?

Dika Newlin:    It changes from one to the other.  I do not see them as ever mutually exclusive.  At one time I might be concentrating more on one area, and at another time a different one.  Right now my principal interest is crossover music, and particularly working with my own rock band – performing, singing, playing percussion, and writing my own songs for the band.

BD:    Then the big question is how does someone who worked with Arnold Schoenberg end up in a rock band?

DN:    Just lucky, I guess.  That is a long story.  To give you a brief summary, a few years ago here in Richmond I happened to meet a potential lyricist who turned me on to getting interested in working in pop music.  I had not done that before, although I was sort of getting interested in it for some time but just did not have the motivation.  We worked together for a number of years and turned out some songs.  However, I felt I wanted to go in another direction and work with someone who was more currently active in pop music.  That is what I am doing now through my students and former students who have been active as rock musicians and have worked in many bands.  I found that this side of my career moves much faster, and since November I have had this band, Apocalypso, with which I now regularly work.  In fact we gave a big concert last night.  We are giving another one in the middle of March and we look forward to doing more performing.  Right now we are performing primarily in Richmond (VA), but we look forward to performing in other places and ultimately producing a record.  So we will see where it goes.

BD:    The other members of the rock band are your students or former students?

DN:    Yes, the principal person who collaborates with me is a young man named Brooke Saunders who came to me a few years ago wanting help notating his rock music.  As you know, most of the rock musicians are not necessarily into reading and writing music.  He wanted some help along these lines, so we worked together and I helped him to score his things.  Through that he became interested in my songs and wanted to promote them in clubs, and encouraged me to go out and perform in night clubs solo which I did and still do.  Then there arose this opportunity to form this band.  Two of the members worked with me briefly this past fall, and one has not worked with me besides collaborating in this band.  Interestingly enough, none of these players are music majors in the university.  They all major in other subjects.  Our music school here is more geared in a classical direction.  Although we do have a very fine jazz department, there is not a great deal of encouragement for developing the kind of thing that I am doing.  So I decided that it was time for me to do it.

BD:    Let me ask about the artificial line which has been drawn between the concert audience and concert producers, and the rock audience and rock performers.

DN:    I hope that is breaking down.  I do not know what is happening in all the cities of course, but I can speak of Richmond because I am active here.  We do have a number of clubs where there is a very good mix of the audiences, partly because of people like myself and Brooke who do have experience on both sides.  Last year we put together some concerts called the “Avant Classic Nights” in the night club “Rockets” which emphasized this very idea of bringing in people who are doing avant-garde things.  One of my students, a young man who has developed his own nineteen-tone system for the guitar and keyboards has performed this kind of music, as have a number of the electronic composers who put their music alongside rock musicians.  This attracted a large body of people of all kinds.  You would even see people from the symphony audience and from the classical side of the music school.  Overall you would see a terrific variety.  Still later, the club called “The Flood Zone” also in Richmond has been putting on Tuesday nights, which are extremely varied including contemporary, serious drama and dance, where anyone who wants to can come and perform.  These have become extremely fashionable, and attracted a very mixed audience.  I would like to think this is not just something that is happening in Richmond, but perhaps all over.   Along the same line, I notice when I visit many of my young friends that their record collections do not just include Rock, but you will see also some Vaughan Williams or some Bruckner or whatever.  In other words they have a mixed and varied taste, so I hope this barrier is breaking down.  Music education and music schools could do more to help.  Many music schools and music departments seem to have a vested interest in keeping the barrier there, and I think it is too bad.

BD:    So you are trying to get both the rock audience to go to classical concerts as well as classical audiences going to rock concerts?

DN:    Oh yes, definitely, and to have concerts of a mixed nature, which I think is important.  I hope to encourage people to listen to all kinds of music, and to not say
serious or popular, but to judge music by the proficiency of what the composer has achieved.  What has the composer or performer set out to do?  Did they do that with competence?  Did they move their audience?  Did they achieve their aims?  If so, it is a good piece and I do not care what file it is in.

BD:    Music as music then?

DN:    Yes.  Listen to it as music and listen to many kinds of music.  I might mention that a year ago I introduced for the first time at Virginia Commonwealth a special survey course in what I call “Aspects of American Popular Music.”  This has gone over very well.  There are quite a few students who are interested in taking it and getting a little more exposure to the different styles.  The interesting point, however, is not so many of the classical musicians get involved in it.  Some do, but basically those who take it are those who are already convinced that popular music should be taken seriously.  I think that too will change.  I hope to continue giving that course.

BD:    So you are not really winning new friends, you are reinforcing old friends.

DN:    I am reinforcing old friends, but also making some new friends.  Both happen.

BD:    In your opinion, what is the ultimate purpose of music?

DN:    Ah!  That is a very big question!

BD:    [With a sly nudge]  In twenty-five words or less…

DN:    To move, to uplift, to make a difference, to bring change, to give us a foreshadowing maybe of the next life….

BD:    And this can be done in any setting?

DN:    I think so.  I do, definitely.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    In
crossover, are we saying that one audience goes to the other music, or is the music itself expanding to incorporate both in one and the same piece of music?

DN:    The music is very definitely expanding.  For instance, when I write rock songs, I try to expand the harmonic base.  As you probably know, many popular rock songs that we all know and love have just three chords
tonic, dominant, and subdominantused many times in that order again and again.  They also feature a basic rock rhythm of repeated four beats which is driving, repetitious and of course has very great hypnotic power.  I am trying to expand the horizons using quite a few moredifferent harmonies and more chordsand then also by injecting some metric variety.  Once in a while we might throw in a measure of another meter.  I find this challenging.  I bring a new song to the group and it is “Oh my! All these chords!”  So we have to work on that, but they are challenged enough by the situation to try to work with it to learn it until they really have mastered it.  The same happens with the rhythmic flexibility.  Sometimes that is a problem but they will work until they get it.  Also in my solo songs, which are more of a cabaret type, I have gone in a variety of directions.  I have done some which are simply adaptations of classical music or contemporary concert music.  I have a version, for instance, of one of Schoenberg’s cabaret songs in which I have not basically changed the harmony but have modernized the text.  I have written a contemporary English text.  I have played this many times in night clubs to good success, and I think should Schoenberg come back and hear this, he would probably enjoy it very much!  After all, he wrote for cabaret and clubs himself around the turn of the century.  I have a waltz song, “What Love is All About.”  I am looking at the citation on the office wall at this moment which I received for this in a Nashville “Music City Song Festival” contest.  This is going very far harmonically from what we usually think of as a popular song.  I like to characterize this particular one as “Max Reger Meets Richard Rogers.”  The interesting thing among many competing songsI do not know how many are sent into these contests, but it must be thousandsis that this one received a recognition.  So I must be doing something right.  Generally I find that audiences will accept, will enjoy, will tolerate, will get involved in much, much more than perhaps managers and producers think they will.  They are not just looking always for the same old clichés, the same old clones.  People are ready to hear something fresh, and I have found people to be very receptive to what I am doing.

BD:    You say people are looking for something fresh.  Is that also true in the concert hall?

DN:    I think so.  There are various audiences, and basically the more conservative symphonic audience is probably not.  But those who go to more varied things
who might go to chamber music, who might go to a variety of events which are not always in the conventional concert hall situationare certainly looking for new things, for new ideas.  I am not so sure about the symphonic audience.  I have noticed in many places that symphonic audiences are getting smaller, and many symphony orchestras are in trouble.  One reason could be that they have followed instead of leading an audience.  They have not introduced fresh things because they think the audience might not like it, thereby they lose an opportunity to get a new audience.  Then, as the older audiences die out, they are in trouble.

BD:    In concert music or pop music, where is the balance between art and entertainment?

DN:    I think any good piece of music is both because whatever is presented before a public is in some way entertaining.  After all, if you did not mean it to be, you would not present it to an audience.  But the component varies.  You might have the simplest thing which is based on very, very simple harmonies, and very, very simple rhythms.  You might have something more complex which has a larger intellectual component and makes different kinds of demands, but it always is making some kind of intellectual statement, some kind of emotional statement, and is giving making some kind of a challenge.  In other words, art can be entertainment and entertainment can be art.  I do not see a dichotomy there.  Schoenberg might not like what I am saying.  As a matter of fact, in one of his essays he writes, “If it is for all it is not art, and if it is art, it cannot be for all.”  It may well be true because I do not think any of us would assume that any composition is truly for everybody.  That might be very difficult to prove or to establish, but I do know that much more than is commonly believed, Schoenberg did care about popularity.  He said once in one of his letters, “I would really like nothing better than to be accepted as a more modern sort of Tchaikovsky, only I hope a little bit better.”  Certainly, when he scored his great opera, Moses and Aaron, he was very well aware of stagecraft and what can turn on an audience.  For instance, in the second act in the famous orgy around the golden calf which calls for strippers and dancers, the whole scene calls for many circus animals.  I saw this at Covent Garden where the circus animals of all kinds were being brought in the from the Whipsnade Zoo to be seen in that production.  That was the hottest ticket in London and you could not get in.  So he cared about popularity, he cared about reaching people, and he certainly cared about being entertaining.  Otherwise he would not have done all that.

BD:    When you are composing a piece, are you conscious of the audience who will be listening to your music?

DN:    Oh yes because many times, as I am composing these songs today I am going to be performing them myself.  So yes, I am very conscious of who will be hearing this particular song.  I might not do every song in every situation.  There might be some songs where I might be gearing this to a particular group, so perhaps a certain song which is not as appropriate to that particular group would not be included... but I might include it some other time.

BD:    Is the feeling of writing the songs the same as when you were writing concert music some years ago?

DN:    This is more immediate because I know that there will be near-instant feedback.  In other words, I am now writing for specific occasions.  Right now, for example, I am preparing with the band and also solo, a particular concert for St. Patrick's Day which is being put on for the Summer Irish Children’s fund.  This is the fund for bringing Irish children from Belfast to various American cities for a few days of rest and recreation.  So of course I am thinking in terms of Irish material and what I have that I might use.  Right off I discovered a couple of songs which I had done a few years ago on the suggestions of my former lyrical partner on and around the poems of Tom Moore.  So I am updating these a little more and will be presenting them.  Then I looked back on my own family history and remembered my ancestors were from Ireland.  In fact my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather, Nicholas Newlin, was an Irish Quaker who came to this country to be in the freedom and the new atmosphere which the William Penn Quaker colony would provide.  He came here and had many interesting adventures which are told about in our family history.  So for this particular concert I am writing The Ballad of Nicolas Newlin which is all about him.  Now I might use this in other concerts or I might not.  This might be a one time thing.  We will see how people like it.

BD:    Do you feel your concert music is something that will last longer than your songs of today?

DN:    Well, I hope it will all last.  After all, we certainly know of many beautiful popular songs which are what you would call ‘contemporary classics,’ and I certainly see no reason why the best of mine may not be in that category.  They will of course be recorded and published, and people will be able to turn back to them to play them on their piano or on their guitar or whatever.  Sure, I think they will last.  Then there are other pieces which may be of a more topical interest which might or might or not last.  I do not think topicality necessarily prevents their lasting.  If they were written for an occasion and that occasion is something which can arise again in our history, then sure they will last.  So long as the music is good, the lyrics are good and well crafted, I think they will last.

BD:    So then you are trying to inject your own craftsmanship into everything that you write?

DN:    Oh yes.  That is all important.  I must use all of the craftsmanship that I have no matter what the particular musical item might be.

BD:    Where is the balance in your music between the craftsmanship and the inspiration?

DN:    I hope they are both there all the time.  Read the essay by Schoenberg again on Heart and Brian in Music where he raises this same question.  It is very interesting how he presents it because he offers certain examples from his work where people think, “Oh my, this is terribly complicated.  This must have taken you many, many hours to compose,” and it came actually very spontaneously because he had the craftsmanship which comes to him as an inspiration.  On the other hand, sometimes something that comes very simply might take a long time to get that simple.  So it isn't that easy.  I would say that some of my songs have occurred to me in a very short time and I have been able to write them down complete
the first version at leastin not much more time than it would take me to get out the paper and pencil and put them down.  I sometimes might write several songs in a day for instance; another time it might take longer.  Of course, once the song is written it is subject to change and refinement.  As we work with the band, besides myself, there are two other who composemy friend Brook and a very gifted young man Paul Block – so we play each other’s songs.  Somebody might bring in a new song, then we try to take it over and there are modifications that take place simply as we work.  Something might be more effective in a certain waya chord, for instance, might be re-voiced to make it simpler for the guitar.  I am not a guitarist so I depend on the guitarist for this.  I might do some rewrites on a song simply as I go through it myself in terms of its effectiveness for an audience as well.  Changes constantly do occur.

BD:    Does the band only play music that one of you has written?

DN:    I am glad you asked that question because this is a very interesting point.  We play mostly music that one of us written, although we do play a few covers.  You may not know that today it is sort of difficult for a band to make it only playing its own material.  Bands which play in many clubs are constantly called upon to play covers, to play what people know, and we get some of this.  We will go into a club and somebody will say, “Led Zeppelin,” or, “Play The Beatles.”  Our standpoint is that there are lots of bands who can do that, and we too have a repertoire of these things that we can pull out when we absolutely have to.  But we much prefer to play our own songs and to establish the idea of, “OK, you could hear those things in any club, but for our things you must come to a special place.  You must come to hear us in order to hear this.  You are hearing what you cannot hear in any other place.”  Richmond has been very good to us in this respect, but I must say this is not always true.  For instance, I read quite a few of the rock magazines from around the country, and have read that in Oklahoma City many clubs have in their contact which the band will sign, “No Originals.”  They are not allowed to play originals in those clubs.  We have only run into one club situation where we were criticized, where the manager really wanted to pull the plug on us because we were playing originals.  Interestingly enough, that club is now closed.

BD:    That is your revenge!

DN:    So I think people are getting a taste for this.  They are getting involved in wanting to hear originals.  It is interesting that our band has only been in existence for a short time
since Novemberand we are already getting many calls and many engagements.  Obviously people who are engaging us know what it is they are going to hear.  They know they are getting originals!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    I would like to talk a little bit more about your concert music.  I noticed that the Grove Dictionary says you have written three operas.  [See my Interview with Stanley Sadie, Editor of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.] 

DN:    That is right.

BD:    Tell me about writing an opera!

DN:    Writing an opera today is certainly a pretty chancy proposition because there are many opera houses which concentrate their repertoire mainly on the large, well known 19th or early 20th century ones.  Before you called, I was just listening to Rosenkavalier from the Metropolitan.  It is somewhat chancy to write opera, but I decided I wanted to write some, so I did.  I wrote a short one on the Hawthorne story Feather Top.  Then later a full-length one on Scarlet Letter by Hawthorne, but I did not keep that one.  In terms of what I thought of it later on, I decided I did not want to go to the trouble of re-working it in a more contemporary style.  So I simply discarded that one, but I also have my most contemporary opera which I think I may rework more in terms of a musical at present.  Incidentally, I am thinking of another musical at some point.  We have a couple of good musical theaters right here in Richmond which would be excellent launching pads for such a thing.  So that is one of my thoughts.  I do have already the opera with another one of my collaborators, Julia Morrison, called Smile Right to the Bone which is a more contemporary piece.  I finished it and put it aside because I wanted to wait until I felt there was the exact right moment where I can offer this to an opera house and be sure there will be a production, and that there will be a good production.  At present, both of us have some different ideas about that work, and as I say we might rewrite it today more in terms of Broadway, more in terms of something like Sweeney Todd
which you can take more as a musical or more as an opera, depending on how you want to go at it.

BD:    Do you feel that opera as an art form is dying?

DN:    I think it has its limitations.  Of course there’s going to continue to be theatrical music.  There always will be theatrical music but we may not necessarily call it
opera and it may not be done in opera houses.  With the exception of someplace like Santa Fewhere they have done the Schoenberg works and other contemporary works, and even there they do a good share of the more conventional repertoiremost major opera houses today are primarily custodians of the classic repertoire.  And I think the opera public is geared that way, too.  So there always will be new theatrical music, but maybe not produced in opera houses.

BD:    So if someone were to come to you and say, “We’d like you to write an opera,” you might decline the commission?

DN:    Yes.  Well, if somebody comes to me and asks me to write an opera, I’ll write it, sure.  You never say never.

BD:    But you say the operas you have written were not on commission.  They were things that you felt you had to write?

DN:    Yes, that’s it.  That’s true.

BD:    Is this also true with much of the other music you have written?  Rather than waiting for a commission, you write because you have to write?

DN:    I don’t wait for a commission; I write what I feel like writing.  Usually as I write I probably have performers in mind, and my work always has been performed rather readily.  There are two recordings now.  The one of the Piano Trio, which the Czech Trio performed for Composers Recording Incorporated, and the other written for a specific group in which I was playing, the Gamelan Son of Lion, which at that time was centered in Livingston College of Rutgers University in New Jersey.  I wrote a piece specifically for them called Machine Shop, and that is on the Folkways recording.

BD:    Let me ask you about the impact of recordings.  Do you feel that performers and audiences have been affected in a good way or a bad way by the proliferation of recordings today?

DN:    Both.  The good side, of course, is that you can hear practically anything today that you might want to hear, and you don’t have to wait for a first performance.  You don’t have to wait for a second performance.  There are many first performances but there are not always so many second performances.  But with the recordings you can take that piece.  You can get it home and you can listen to it again and again and again and again ‘til you really feel it, you really feel familiar with it.  On the bad side I would plight two things.  First of all, maybe just because of this tremendous prevalence of music, music becomes considered almost as a background, and that could almost devalue music.  How many times do you go to a party and the phonograph is just on, or the tape recorder is on as a matter of course?  Music is always there, which detracts from the idea of simply sitting quietly and listening to music, which of course rarely, if ever, happens at any club.  If you play at a club or a party, as we do, we play against the background of conversation, against the background of drinking, against the background of people coming and going.  This might not exist as an attitude where people are not accustomed to hearing records all the time as simply a background.  Then there is the old matter of home taping, and everything which has grown out of that.  I do have mixed feelings on that subject.  On the one hand, since I will be having a record out shortly myself, I might worry about the fact that one will be sold, and twenty people might not pay for that.  On the other hand, I perceive the reasoning behind those who are interested in taping for themselves, and who indeed may sometimes, through taping a record for a friend, encourage that friend to go out and buy more recordings by the same individual.  So you see it works both ways, and certainly if a recording is commercially unavailable, be it a library recording or whatever it might be, I see no reason why that should not be taped.  It’s the same thing as Xerox.  You will Xerox something if there’s no other way you can get it if it’s not going to take money out of somebody’s pockets.

BD:    Going back to the business of interacting, do you want the audience to interact with your performance?

DN:    Yes, at this point very much so.  In fact, that is built right into the situation.  Very much so, and you get all kinds of interaction that goes on.  People may call out things sometimes, and we deliberately solicit some interaction.  Sometimes you get hecklers, and the best thing to do with a heckler is call their bluff, get them right up there on the stage and make them perform!  [Both laugh]  They usually become sort of quiet after that, for some strange reason.

BD:    Do you expect the same kind of interaction on the part of the concert audience?

DN:    That depends on the work.  If works do not call for it, the interaction has to come in a different way.  I can’t quite imagine, for instance, somebody in the first movement of Beethoven’s Fifth calling out after the oboe solo, “Hey, Ed!  Take a pause!”  It might be fun if that happened, but it won’t.  Sometimes I wish people would interact a little more.  For instance, think of the beginning of the finale of Beethoven’s First Symphony which is so very humorous.  I always think of it as, “I can’t get started now.”  [Sings the tune]  This is hilarious if you stop to think about it, and people sit there with solemn faces not appreciating the humor.  This is classical music so we mustn’t even smile, whereas there’s so much humor in the classics that we could appreciate and enjoy.  Of course how much interaction there is and how people can respond in a concert hall depends on that particular situation and the behavioral parameters of that particular situation.  But I like a lot of interaction where my music is concerned, and in doing what I’m doing now I certainly get that all the time!

BD:    Of course.  But if the Richmond Symphony were playing the Beethoven Fifth, would you encourage the audiences that you normally get in your cabarets to go to see that performance?

DN:    Sure.  They can go and I would hope they would enjoy it.  I would try to show them, as I do show students in my classes, some of these little humorous details, some of the things which humanize this music, which make it what it really is, which may have been sort of covered over by all of our mystique about what classical music is.  But I would hope they wouldn’t applaud in the wrong place simply because that will upset the majority who are there.  I would hope they can control their audience interaction in this case, but I’d like them to be able to go and enjoy any kind of music, sure.

BD:    Controlled interaction — I like that!

DN:    Yes.  Interactions are always controlled to some degree. 

BD:    Even at big rock concerts?

DN:    Even at big rock concerts, since after all, what is the security there for?  It has to stop someplace.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You’re also a teacher.  Are you teaching composition or are you teaching music history?

DN:    Everything.  I teach graduate music history courses.  I teach one semester a year the course in bibliography and research, which is basically how to use the library, what kind of resources there are, and how to find the information that you need for whatever research you are doing.  Right now I’m teaching a number of the private composition students, and I will be continuing to do that.

BD:    Is musical composition something that can be taught, or must it be innate?

DN:    It has to be innate, but you can teach techniques.  You can teach people to refine upon what is already there.  You can’t teach talent and you can’t teach character, the two essentials, but you certainly can help people to say better, more efficiently, more directly, more cogently, what it is they want to say in their music.

BD:    Are you encouraging your composition students to write concert music, or to write rock music, or to write whatever they want?

DN:    To write whatever they want within the curriculum.  There are certain kinds of works which we want them to write in terms of a formal recital in the senior year and this kind of thing.  However, most of my students — in fact I think all, at this moment — are likewise involved in the popular scene, writing popular songs and are involved with bands.  Some are doing electronic music.  One of them is doing nineteen-tone music.  So they do a variety of things, and I encourage them to do a variety.  I encourage them to do some of the more contemporary classical concert music kinds of things also, not only because this is a good experience for them, but it broadens their base.  Sometimes I have to do a little convincing of my compositional faculty colleagues that we really know what we’re doing in here.

newlinBD:    [Laughs]  You seem like somewhat of a renegade.

DN:    Yes, that is true.  That is how I’m viewed, I would say.

BD:    Is there competition amongst concert composers?

DN:    Competition?  Do you mean for space or for reputation or for what?

BD:    For performances and for reputation.

DN:    Oh, sure, I think so, just as in any field.  My own personal standpoint is the more good composers of any genre there are around, the better for everybody, because it simply improves and enriches the whole musical climate.  I don’t think we should have just one or two people getting all of the prizes, getting all of the recognition, nor in fact, is that the case.  If somebody else gets this particular performance, I will get the next performance, so I don’t feel terribly possessive about all of this.  However, some of the composers do, and they are competitive in these ways.  I would like to see, not only in composing but also in terms of performing, perhaps less emphasis on the contest mentality.  This can be very destructive.  We had a recent example of this in Virginia, where the Virginia Museum put on a contest for Virginia composers to write a festive fanfare for its opening.  Indeed, this contest was held, and there was a winner
quite a good onewhose work was played, although I don’t know how much of it was heard because it was played at an opening reception where all the dignitaries were willing around, which is too bad.  I didn’t hear it myself; it probably is a very good piece.  But in response to that, I developed the notion last year that there probably are forty other good pieces on this contest that were turned in.  How about us at Virginia Commonwealth University putting on a concert of some of the other fanfares which were on the concert?  We don’t just have one winner and forty-nine losers, but we have some other people who deserve to be heard!  Well, we did that, and it was extremely successful.  In fact, one of our principle music critics, Francis Church, said why don’t we have something like this every year?  We should have the recognition of the Virginia composers; put on a festival, put on a symposium every year in our big theater.  There were forty-nine other people, probably forty-nine other good fanfares, and in terms of our concert and the financial grant we got to put on a concert, we could play only ten.  So the sad part was that we had to select again.  So there were still people who were rejected, which is too bad.  But with the constraints, we had to ask how many players can you afford to pay for with the grant that you got?  Who should be included?  Can we include people who wrote this particular type of literature and did not enter it into the contest, and so forth?  Should we include the student composers?  In the final concert only one was included, so I made an arrangement for some of the student works to be heard in an alternate concert at one of the clubs, and probably those will be played again later this season.  Anything which excludes artists, anything which keeps good artists from being heard is not good, so just having a contest and one winner and everybody else forgotten about, I think, is really not a very good way to do it.  History bears this out.  Take the list of Guggenheim composer winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, Prix de Rome winnersalthough this is a notorious example — and sure, some good people did win these awards, but you also will find a lot of non-entities among the prizewinners.  You will find great names, such as Arnold Schoenberg, who applied for a Guggenheim and did not get one.  I forget who did get composer Guggenheims the year he did not get one, but they were not what we would call today major composers at all; they were rather minor names.  So, who wins a prize does not always depend on quality.  There are all kinds of things enter.  Max Reger, who I love to quote, said about this, “The greater the prize, the bigger the flop.”  So a prize is not always a guarantee of something.

BD:    Is there a chance, perhaps, that there are too many people trying to write music today?

DN:    I don’t think there can be too many.  So long as somebody has something to say, so long as somebody has a message to give in music, they should be writing it and should be playing.  No, I don’t think the market is glutted or ever will be glutted with good music.  As far as we’re concerned in the university situation, everybody who really has the desire to want to try to be a composer should be encouraged to do that, should be helped to do that, with the proviso, of course that they have to understand they may not make a living by it.  They have to have other alternatives.  Very, very few have made a living as a concert composer.  Stravinsky did, Copland did, but not many others.  Traditionally, going way back to Bach and before, they had always taught as a concomitant to writing, and I think it’s one of the best things because you learn from your students.  I certainly have learned from mine.  Schoenberg wrote in the preface to his Manual of Harmony, “This book contains what I have learned from my students.”  This is so true!  But if you don’t want to teach, or you don’t have a gift for teaching, then you need to be looking at other alternatives.  Today I find young composers doing such things as wanting to be a sound man or working with computer programming.  There is a variety of alternatives which they have.  Of course, they can be like Ives and do something totally different.  They don’t have to earn their living in music.

BD:    Then that limits the time they have for the music and the exploring of ideas.

DN:    It didn’t seem to hold back Ives too much, although what he said is true for trying to carry on two careers at once, “Ultimately you do what you have to do.  You do what you have to do.”

BD:    One of the things you had to do back in 1952 was to found the Music Department at Drew University.

DN:    Yes, I had the opportunity to do that, and I found it a most exciting experience.  There had not been a full Music Department there before, so I built up the whole undergraduate curriculum.  This has remained as a very small situation; I think there are two or three there now on the faculty, and they always will be a small department within that particular setting.  This is a small liberal arts college, and this is the Bachelor of Arts in Music.  Music very much is a part of the liberal arts.  We did, of course, teach performing, but the greater emphasis was on the historical courses, which I taught, and also those things which a composer needs.  I have had some very good composers come out of that school, though they were not necessarily always majoring in music.  We did not have the music major at first, so people were taking these courses and majoring in something else. One of my best composition students from there is now professor of composition in Spartanburg.  He started out as a math major, but went on and then got his undergraduate degree in music, eventually.  I think he took another undergraduate degree in music after leaving us.  Then he pursued to the doctorate at Indiana, and has gone on to very high things as a composer.  We’ve also had some very outstanding musicologists come out of that school, whom I likewise trained.  So having a small department, a small facility, certainly did not hurt quality.  In fact, may have helped, in some instances.

BD:    If you were asked to start another music department, is there anything you would do differently today than you did thirty-five years ago?

DN:    I think a lot of things would be different.  After all, it is thirty-five years ago.  Today I don’t know that I would want to start another music department, simply because music departments have become big business.  You can’t really run a department and be a musician at the same time, in my estimation, and if I have to choose, I prefer to be a musician.  So I would rather work in the framework of a department being directed by someone who is capable of taking care of the administrative side, who I would hope had had the right musical training so that she or he would understand what the processes are that are involved, and would be able to work compatibly with faculty.  But there is too much that has to be done with this today, which really doesn’t at this point have bearing on what I consider my principal mission to be.

BD:    Should music departments, or even concert groups, be run by a musician who has picked up business, or by a businessman who has picked up music?

DN:    I would hope that we’d find the person with talent in both directions, and indeed now there is a trend toward music business training in certain schools where you can get a music business degree.  I hope that this may produce some good people to fill these kinds of positions.  I would hope that you would not get, however, the syndrome of the failed musician who turns to administration, because that can make for a very frustrated person who does not do a good job with faculty and does not do a good job with students.  I have been in some such situations, so I know whereof I speak, and it is not good for anybody.

BD:    Are you optimistic about the future of music?

DN:    I think it will always be with us!  I like to quote Mahler.  He and Brahms were standing on a bridge looking down over the river and Brahms was being pessimistic about the history of music, thinking maybe this was the last generation of real composers.  Things looked pretty gloomy to him and he thought things were coming to an end.  So Mahler suddenly points down at the river and says, “Look, Maestro, look!”  Brahms looked and said, “What?”  Mahler said, “Look, the last wave!”  [Both laugh]  The beat will go on; the waves will go on.  Music is always going to be part of our lives in some form, and I’m sure there will be forms in a hundred years that we haven’t even dreamed of today.  So it’s always exciting to stick around and see what’s going to happen next.

BD:    One of your books is entitled Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg.  Who should then be the next in that sequence?

DN:    All right, you need to read the book by René Liebowitz, which I translated, called Schoenberg and his School, which tells of Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern.  That is the logical sequence.  Going on beyond that, there are so many composers who have grown out of the minimalism school, for instance.  We have a bewildering variety of styles of composers of all kinds of music activity going on today, and it’s perhaps difficult — in fact, I find it impossible at this point — to identify any new composers about whom we might say, “These are the giants, as were Schoenberg or Stravinsky or Bartok.”  Maybe that isn’t the way music is going today.  Maybe instead of that, we have simply a very large variety of fine composers, and not any one, two, or three that we would single out as giants more than all the others.

BD:    That fragments the composers.  Does that fragment the audience also?

DN:    Let’s go back to what I was saying earlier, that you have certainly many people in audiences today who are cognizant of, and tend to attend a wide variety of concerts; who know about lots of kinds of music.  I would hope that would continue, and that you would have not just people who would say, “I listen only to rock music,” or, “I will listen only to minimalist music,” or, “I will listen only to neo-romantic music.”  I would hope that they would explore all of the goodies that there are, and not just be looking for a few “big names.”  I would hope that would be the case.

BD:    And yet you have the whole publicity crew trying to do exactly the opposite of what you are saying.

DN:    That’s right!  So, we have to deal with that.  Supposing my band gets a Madison Avenue agent, for example, and they are going to put out hype for us.  I certainly am not going to put a stop to it.  We are manufacturing our own publicity at the present point.  We do our own special pieces, which I write or my friend Brook writes, and we’re going to make this as interesting and attractive to people as possible.  However, we’re not saying, “Hey, we’re the only band in the world.”  In fact, a good part of our strength base in Richmond is the fact that we do collaborate with other bands.  For instance, we played a show last night and there was another band there as well.  Naturally, we share equipment and sometimes we share players.  It’s all along the idea that there’s a good climate for music, and there are lots of good musicians doing lots of good things, not just a very few.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Music being basically an aural art, do you feel that it works well on the television or on the video?

DN:    I think it can.  I have not watched, as yet, a lot of the music videos.  I watch TV very little, largely because I simply don’t have the time.  I’m too busy out doing it myself.  But sure, a well chosen visual stimulus can add to music, and naturally we honor this in band performances.  Certainly an important part of the impact of a group that plays, in terms of the concert, is how they look.  What does the look they have, have to do with their music?  I think this does add an impact.  So certainly, the visual can be very helpful.  Sometimes, of course, it can get in the way, and I’m sure we’ve all seen examples of that.

BD:    [Laughs]  Of course!  Thinking now primarily about your concert music, have you basically been pleased with the performances that you have heard of your concert music?

DN:    Yes I have because I have chosen players carefully, and I have been pleased with the fact that those who did play it knew what they were doing.  I like very much to get the music to performers, and then not be sitting on their heads all the time telling them how to do it.  For instance, my piano music, which of course I play myself, or my songs, which I sing myself, I’m very pleased if somebody takes this and comes up with a totally different idea, a totally different interpretation.  If the piece is strong, it will only be helped by that.  But basically I have been happy about performances, and I think that’s because I’ve been writing for, and presenting the works to people whom I know.  I know what they can do, so I don’t think there are any problems.  Once a work is published, once it’s out in the world, you can’t control that anyhow.  I can’t possibly sit on every performance of my work which might happen, and that will be less and less true as the works become better known.

BD:    Has there ever been a case when you feel the performance has gone completely wrong-headed?

DN:    No.  Thank God, no.  No, really not.  Even if we play in the band and sometimes for some reason something goes wrong
— somebody might be momentarily distracted, or whatever — this is where our improv ability comes in and we can sometimes pull out a performance which is even more exciting than what I intended.  Of course pop musicians are much more willing to admit to that than classical musicians are.  I think classical musicians are taught to believe practice, practice, practice, practice, practice.  If you are a very good little girl or boy, you eventually get to Carnegie Hall and you must always play this exactly the same way.  If you have a memory slip and play a wrong note, this is a great tragedy, etcetera, etcetera.  The pop world, of course, is much more freewheeling.

BD:    You keep talking about the pop world and the concert world.  Do you think they’ll ever come together?

DN:    Well, as I say, I think it’s happening.  Obviously the requirements are different, and that has to be recognized.  We need musicians, and the schools are now getting musicians who are able to, or who want to, deal with all these kinds of requirements, as different as they might be.  It is more difficult for vocalists, I must say, because of the very different kind of vocal production which is demanded.  I come across this all the time.  I happen to share a studio building with voice teachers who aren’t here on the weekend, but I hear the voice lessons, and I hear the mi-mi-mi-mi in the hall and I hear the beautiful pear-shaped tones.  My singing is totally the opposite of this.  There’s been some failure of meeting of the minds between me and the classical singers, many of whom are my very good friends, as to just what does constitute good singing in a particular situation.  What you do as a blues singer or as a club singer is totally different from what somebody would do as an opera singer.  It has been a big mistake for opera singers to say, “Oh well, everybody’s crossing over so I want to cross over, too.  I will make a pop record or I will make a blues record,” whatever it might be, and it’s pathetic because they don’t know the style.

BD:    So then you feel some of them are incapable of this?

DN:    Yeah, and maybe those genres have to be kept separate and have different voice training in order to do these different kinds of things.  I myself have not had any vocal training whatsoever.  What I do with my voice is self-taught, with a few hints from other singers as far as voice placement, microphone usage, and so forth.  But basically I have never had formal vocal instruction.

BD:    What about electronic music?

DN:    It’s very much with us.  I was in on a lot of that at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey, where Max Mathews started computer programs which led to many interesting electronic developments.  That came about, incidentally, indirectly through me.  When I was at Drew University in New Jersey, the university where I founded the Music Department, one of my missions there was to put on a Sunday afternoon concert series, where I often played myself.  I used to play Schoenberg’s piano music.  I played all the twelve-tone pieces.  This university is not very far from Murray Hill, where people like John Pierce, who invented Telstar, and Max Mathews, whom I’ve mentioned, and many others were.  John Pierce and Max Mathews came to one of my concerts one afternoon, and they heard me playing twelve-tone music and talking about it.  They became aware of the mathematical manipulations that were going on.  Max left that concert, and said to John
as I heard only much, much later on“You know, the computer could do something with this.”  Some years later they began producing very simple computer music, and then it became more complex.  Then they began to have a regular program whereby composers came in as resident visitors in acoustic research and composed in that laboratory.  I was one of the ones who did, and only at that time, ten years later, did I find out that my little Schoenberg concert at Drew University had set Max off in this direction.  So certainly electronic music is a consideration today, both in the pop field and in the contemporary concert field.  Most schools of music now attempt to have some kind of electronic program, and to encourage or even to require young composers to take the electronic courses and have some skill in the manipulation of this.  Right now I am not working electronically, except sometimes I use a Casio keyboard in our band performances.  I’ve found frustration in working with electronic equipment, simply because it so often is down.  It so often is out of order.  At least a pencil and paper are never out of order!

BD:    Here you’re talking about electronics in conjunction with the live performance?

DN:    Yes.

BD:    What about the making an electronic piece and then having it always be the same and never having an interpretive possibilities?

DN:    This obviously is one possibility, so the piece is an artifact which is repeatedly heard and which indeed is always the same.  And you know, that has advantages, obviously.  The composer knows that it always is going to be exactly the same; it’s not going to depend on the vague areas of a performer.  This may be a strong point.  It might also be a weak point if you are looking for more human interaction.  It’s no accident that very early on, the electronic composers began writing music which was interfacing with live performers, so that you have this live performer element on the stage, or with visuals.  But I do not feel electronic music has dehumanized music, as used to be said, especially considering some of these other aspects which I’ve just mentioned.

BD:    You view electronics as just adding more colors to your palette?

DN:    Yes, I do.  This is giving you possibilities.  It’s making it possible to play sounds that had not been conceived by anybody else before.  In thinking of electronic music, I prefer to see it as a means of finding new sounds, rather than just trying to synthesize the sounds of instruments which already exist.

BD:    What are the big changes you envision that music will undergo in the next thirty-five years?  Gaze into your crystal ball momentarily.

DN:    Well, that’s very difficult to say.  I can see more of crossover happening.  I could see more interface between “computer style” and “contemporary concert style.”  I could certainly see further developments of the use of the computer, of the use of electronic music, both live and otherwise.  I could see, perhaps, a further pursuing of the minimalist school, which has proved to be extremely popular.  I can foresee more pursuit of the new-romantic school.  I could see a great deal of human interest filling music.  I can see more technical facility developing.  I could see people constantly honing their skills, whatever these might be.  I can see something very important, which you haven’t mentioned yet
less emphasis on the act of writing down music.  I can see more emphasis on creating music directly as sound without the score as an intermediary.

BD:    That’s very interesting!

DN:    Yes, I’ve found this interesting as a teacher.  This has been a revelation to me, having been very much brought up on the manuscript and the printed music and so forth, to find that my popular colleagues really are very, very little interested in this.  They’re not interested, particularly, in seeing music written down.  When I first came with my scores and my piano sheet music, they were very puzzled by this.  For them, it really got in the way.  I think they even get nervous if they see a music stand on the stage!  I do now make lead sheets for these people.  That much I will do, but many times they just prefer to learn it by ear, and are not that interested in particularly learning to write down an elaborate score.  So this, in terms of my teaching, has been a revelation, and something which I had to learn to deal with.  How do you manage this if the writing is to become of lesser importance?  In fact, sometimes they really resist learning to write.  I have insisted that they learn to write as much as possible because I still think it is an enhancement, but I just mention that as the fact that there’s now less interest in the actual act of writing down music.  Electronic music has had a great influence on that, for there are many sounds which would be difficult, if not impossible, to write down; also the fact you no longer need to prepare a written score in order to copyright anything.  You can copyright a sound recording, so there isn’t as much motivation to do it.

BD:    This has all been fascinating.  I really enjoy talking with someone who has not only kept up with the times, but is really leading the times, rather than just following the times in music.

DN:    This has been fascinating for me, too, to verbalize some of these things that I think about every day, that I do every day.

BD:    Thank you so very much!

DN:    Wonderful to talk to you, Bruce.  Thanks so much.


© 1987 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone on February 21, 1987.  A transcript of the first half was made and published in Sonus Magazine in the Spring of 2008.  The rest was transcribed, and the entire conversation was edited 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.