Address to the Graduates

Northwestern University School of Music Commencement Convocation
Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, Evanston, Illinois
June 16, 1990

By Bruce Duffie

Dean Aliapoulios, Members of the Faculty, Distinguished Guests, Parents and Friends, Graduates of the class of 1990:

First, let me just say what an unexpected honor it was to be called upon to speak to you today.  I was born here and grew up in Evanston, so Northwestern has always been THE university.  After completing my own Master's Degree here in 1973, I've been fortunate to be able to stay in the community.  For 2 years, I worked with children in the classrooms here in Evanston, and now for 15 years I have gone into many people's homes on a regular basis on WNIB, Classical 97.  Even as a small child, I knew I wanted to be in music, which, I assume, is the case with most of our graduates here today.  I learned a lot about a great many phases of the art and its presentation, and I can't think of better preparation for my current employment.

Over the last 20 years, it's been both my pleasure and my obligation to work hard for the living composer, specifically those of the United States.  I am sure there are a few here today, but for the moment I'd like to speak directly to everyone else.  That is, those people here who are involved in careers as performers or teachers or administrators, and even our guests who are simply, to use an economics term, music "consumers."  Those "consumers" by the way, are really the most important segment anywhere because they are the ones who buy the tickets and attend the concerts.  Any time performers think they are unnecessary or even a nuisance, remember where you'd be without them!  But I digress . . .

Despite the strides we have made in getting the message out, the general opinion of the public still remains - composers of concert music are white, male, European, and dead.  Every time performers give a concert which includes only works by those who fit those four preconditions, the stereotype is reinforced.  And the trouble is that the performers themselves are often completely unaware that they are reinforcing this stereotype.

I am the first to admit that many - perhaps even most - of the concert music which is deemed worthy for public repetition comes from the pens of long-dead Europeans, and I would not for a moment suggest that these masterworks be omitted or slighted.  But I am asking - well screaming, really - that the balance be shifted a bit.

Having read about these giants, and having spoken with some of the great lights of our own time, I fully believe that those long-dead composers would be among the first to cheer on the composers of today no matter what the rest of the public thought of the sounds.  Those departed souls whose music is heard and heard again and again would not be fooled by anything musically fraudulent.  But they would be applauding the efforts of those who today struggle to carry on what they started generations ago.  So, when you as a performer put together a program with the standard configuration of music, remember that the big names of yesteryear would, if they could, suggest or even insist that you include a representation of what's happening in the art of music today.

To those of you here this afternoon who will be teaching, please balance the old and the new.  If you're instructing a class of 3rd graders, mention the composer-in-residence of your local symphony and call attention to music being created right there in that city.  If you're struggling with a recalcitrant violinist or trombone player who can't seem to hit the pitch accurately very often in the studio, take a moment to talk about the concerto that was just premiered.  If you're helping those who need therapy that music can provide, allow someone in your own address book to be part of that miracle.

As I think about the word "teaching," it actually can apply to everyone here no matter what their relationship to music.  Just going to concerts broadens your own knowledge, and your enthusiasm is then transmitted to others.  Perhaps the next time you'll take an acquaintance, and presto, you've made a new friend for concert music.  I've seen actual instances where an enlightened word to a companion in the lobby at intermission is overheard, and that thought had a profound impression on the eager music lover who happened to by passing by at that moment.

There are thousands of Americans who compose music these days and I certainly would not think that all of it could be heard even by the most diligent researcher.  But don't let that sway you from selecting some pieces or a couple of composers to include on a regular basis.  In many ways, we are luckier today than we were even a few years ago because the explosion of styles being penned means that no matter what you enjoy, there will be several exponents writing something tailored for your desires.  If you are the conductor of a small orchestra in a rural community, it will take courage to program something unfamiliar.  But that courage pays off - especially when the pieces are presented along with masterworks that everyone knows, or at least has heard of.

All of this is not just idealistic dreaming.  Here in Chicago, we have symphony, opera, choruses and chamber music groups that are acknowledged to be the best in the world, and they are all showing their commitment to new music by performing these works and commissioning even more.  Ardis Krainik and her vision "Toward the 21st Century" has been universally heralded as both daring and brilliant.  The Chicago Symphony's schedule this season and next has numerous premieres sprinkled throughout the various series.  Susan Lipman of Chamber Music Chicago virtually insists that each group bring something new and exciting whether it's on their general tour program or not.  And William Ferris, himself a composer, includes premieres and recent works in generous proportion throughout the season.  These are just the major-budget groups.  I'm glad to say that a similar adventure is to be found in many other organizations at lots of different venues.

But it can't be taken for granted.  Let me tell you a little secret.  For a year and a half, I had the privilege of selecting music for the in-flight programs on several airlines.  That is not a secret - especially as I announced the program myself on United Airlines and gave my real name.  But how I put those shows together is the secret.  The entertainment package includes movies and about 10 different audio tracks with a similar variety of formats that is found going up and down the FM dial.  Radio used to be called broadcasting, but with the single-mindedness of each special interest target audience, we often now think of it as "narrowcasting."

But back to the airlines.  I was asked to put together programs of concert music for the production company.  Every show ran 58 minutes, and aboard United I was contractually bound to include at least one recording by the Chicago Symphony.  Naturally, I relished that obligation.  But the selection of pieces was completely up to me so I began by deciding what piece by which living American composer would be included.  Naturally, I couldn't play a long, difficult, heavy work, but there was still a huge amount of material to pick from.  I was even able to drop in about two minutes of interview with that composer.

Oh we got a few complaints, but also some positive responses and the captive audiences knew that even if they didn't care for this piece, there'd be something else by the time the flight attendant came by again.  But many people didn't have an opinion.  They just heard a show of concert music, and subliminally they understood that one of the writers was living in a city they just flew over!  And I did this on every show.  I started with the American piece and then fit the rest of the music around it.  Do you really think it mattered if I played the Haydn 94th or the Mozart Bassoon Concerto or a Beethoven overture?  That decision was made strictly on the basis of playing time - whichever fit into the segment was used.

And I followed a similar plan with other shows, even when there was no time or agreement to do interview material.  Delta Airlines presented as part of their in-flight entertainment package two programs.  One was similar to the United program in that it featured about three big standard concert works during the hour - and I made sure one of those pieces was by a living American.  The other Delta show was made up of 10 to 12 short pieces.  Along with a few overtures and a couple of waltzes, there were selections by Americans.  Ironically, the production company did not have American Airlines among their clients, and my keen sense of business ethics told me to avoid using the actual word "American."  So I introduced "So-and-so born in Boston," or "Our next composer who lives in Detroit..."  It became a game, but I always won - or rather the American composers won and so did the passengers.

I tell you all of this so you know that I really put my reputation where my beliefs are.  I play a lot of music by American composers on WNIB, but as one of the sages from this very university told me, "That's expected at a radio station!"  He was impressed, though, to have it carried all over the world on the airlines.  The package aboard United Airlines, by the way, was also placed aboard Air Force One, the President's plane, so in my own small way, I was able to take this message right to the top.  I'm not sure if President Reagan or President Bush ever tuned into my channel, but it was there nonetheless.  Maybe some of the press corps listened to the programs once in awhile.  The production contract is now with a different company and I hope they are presenting the same kind of balance.  If not, write them letters demanding the inclusion of American composers!

During these remarks, I've been addressing myself to everyone except the composers in the audience.  Now it's their turn.  I've gone to bat for you and will continue to do so as long as I'm able.  But you must also do your part, and most of that task involves the lonely and isolated labor to get the scores written, and then the infinitely more difficult task of getting them played on concerts.  But don't for a moment forget those who have gone before you.  Just as you try to compose with balance and contrast in each work, make sure that your outlook toward life has that same balance and contrast.  Too often I've heard young composers making condescending remarks about classic and romantic composers - even the great ones.  They slaved just as you are doing, and it's never good to lose your credibility by casting aspersions on your forebears.  In order to be part of a continuing line of tradition in music - or in anything - you need to see that the line is secure in both directions.  You're not going to replace anyone, but you can, if worthy, take your place along side everyone.

I admire those who create music and those who perform it.  I share with those who attend performances the joy of discovery and the thrill of experience.  I count as my friend anyone who participates in this process, and I hope that everyone here is, and will remain, my friend.

Thank you very much.

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To see some photos taken at this event, click  HERE .