Composer Juli Nunlist
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
In the summer of 1987 when I first wrote to Juli Nunlist about doing an
interview for the radio, she responded with a detailed four-page letter
and a few xeroxes of other items related to her career as a
composer. One of those extras is shown above.
She also sent one of her recordings, indeed the only one which she
wished to be used on the air. There were a couple of other items
on vinyl at that time, but she explained why those were unworthy, and I
respected her wishes and did not use them. The LP she did send
was quite nice, and the biographical material from the back of the
jacket is reproduced below.
Besides her musical compositions, she is also a published poet, as can
be seen here . . . . .
She also spent a great deal of time with dancers. This balletic
endeavor included the daunting task of trying to bridge the gap of
understanding between the musicians who were offstage or in the pit and
those performers on the stage.
Even though she seemed pleased to have heard from me, several times she
was self-deprecating both in our conversation (most of which I have
omitted from the text) and in the last paragraph of that letter . . .
Needless to say, I followed through and made the phone call for the
interview, and our conversation is contained on this page.
Much of what she told me in the letter was discussed during the call,
but one further item of particular interest was left unsaid, and has
been added at the appropriate place in the text below.
She mentions a few other composers, and those whose names are links
refer to my interviews elsewhere on this website. She also
reminded me that she was, at that time, nearly 71 years old.
Here is what was said in 1987 . . . . . . .
You started out playing piano, then
it, and then you came back to it. What,
specifically, kept you involved with music in between the times when
you were studying it?
My mother’s family was very
musical. She and her brothers were both naturally gifted, and
without having studied, played the piano very well. Therefore we
had a piano in our home which my mother played, and that was how I got
started taking piano lessons. I stopped because they made me be
recital, but I didn’t stop playing around with it. I played for
many years off and on, mostly at my own things, messing about and
composing songs and little piano pieces and so
on. Eventually, through meeting with Barbara Weisberger, and the
that my daughter began to study ballet with her, I became interested in
ballet and dance, and eventually ended up composing eight children’s
ballets for the Wilkes Barre Ballet Theater, of which Barbara was the
director. A friend of our family saw the last
one that I did, and suggested that I should study music, and
that’s how that got started.
BD: How are
the pieces that you wrote before you
began to study music formally different from the pieces that you are
JN: Of course, in
the beginning they were quite
simple, although my husband’s step-mother was a musician. She was
a graduate of the San Francisco Conservatory,
and she heard me doodling at a little contrapuntal piece one day in
their home. She asked what it was and I told her it was a piece
that I wrote, and she said, “You really
should study music.” This was before I was even married. I
wrote songs in German and English, not in French
until later, but I wouldn’t change some of them now. Some
of them I would, of course, but for what they were I was pleased.
those of a one-handed pianist, in a way, because I wasn’t a very good
pianist, and the right hand did a lot more than the left hand. I
had to learn a lot about that when I
started studying music. When I started studying
the piano seriously, which was about a year and a half before I went to
Manhattan School, David Jatovsky was my piano teacher. He was a
great musician and a great teacher, and I learned an immense amount
from him. Knowing that I mainly wanted
to compose, he taught me not only how a piano should be
played and how it should sound, but that it was in itself an
orchestra. That is, it had all the range of the orchestral
instruments. I was shown how to use that because I always
composed at the piano, and he showed me how to use it not as a pianist,
but as a person thinking in terms of chamber music, orchestration and
things like that, and I’m very grateful to him for that.
BD: He had
the foresight to use what talent and
abilities you had, rather than just forcing performance on you?
Yes. Yes, indeed. I was able to play
much better than I thought I ever would at the time, but his main idea
was to help me become a better composer through understanding what the
piano had to offer.
BD: So then
you always had faith in your
JN: Yes, and
I still do. The music I write now
different from the music you have on the record. The first six of
songs were written in the year that I was being prepared by David and
his son, Steven J, to go to Manhattan. The seventh one was
written after I’d been in school several years, and I
wouldn’t change them. I’m very fond of them still, but the
music I write now has moved. There are no keys
anymore, but it’s not atonal. Everything is in a tonal area, very
melodic, really romantic, but it’s not at all like the music I wrote
I went to school. It’s more complex. It has much more
dissonance in it, although it’s not far out at all. It’s very
BD: You don’t
reject the idea of far out music,
JN: Not at
all. I use it in teaching the
choreographers and dancers, and dance teachers.
I’ve used all kinds of music — electronic
music, far out music, minimalist music, whatever you want
— you name it. I’ve tried
to use as broad a spectrum as I can. I have used everything from
Gregorian chant and 12th Century Spanish music to, well,
everything. It’s best for the choreographers
to be exposed to as wide a spectrum as possible.
BD: Where, if
any place, do you actually draw
the line between music and just sound?
that’s a tough question. I’m not sure
I’d like to be forced to draw that line, because one
reaches a place and time in life when it is perhaps not possible to
hear. The best way I can explain that to you is by telling you a
story of a very dear friend of ours, an elderly New England
lady named Wheeler who was a very fine violist and violinist. I
met her through
my participation in the Performing Arts School of Worcester. She
was a sponsor of that school and was very generous to it. At one
had a program of all my music done at the school, and it
consisted of the two piano pieces that you have on the record, and the
Seven Songs, and my string quartet. I asked Miss
please to come to the concert. I told her that she might not mind
the two piano pieces, that she would love the songs, and that she would
hate the string quartet. [Both laugh] She was a doll.
She came, and when the
concert was over she came up to me and she said, “You were absolutely
right, Juli. I didn’t mind the piano pieces. I loved
the songs and I couldn’t hear the string quartet.” She didn’t use
the word “hate.” She simply said, “I couldn’t hear the string
quartet.” This is the way I feel, that perhaps I have
reached a place where I can’t hear this music. I have a marvelous
book, The Lexicon of Musical
BD: Oh sure,
[The book is a collection of negative
criticism of works by famous composers now regarded as standard
Yes! Well, those people couldn’t hear that
music, I’m sure of that. Otherwise they wouldn’t have said
the things they said! And I have the feeling that I cannot hear
much of the far out music. I’ve talked to Ronald Perera
about this. He’s head of electronic music and a professor at
Smith, and a marvelous person, a marvelous teacher and a very fine
composer. I acknowledge that there are some marvelous sounds
that can be made that are not playable on ordinary instruments, and I
hear them. Some of them are used on TV in the National
Geographic things and so on, and they are beautiful, but I’m old
enough, maybe, or so old that I like music that can
actually be played on a real instrument. I had a talk with Otto Luening a good
many years ago about that.
He came to Cleveland when I was there with Babbitt, and Rzewski. There
was a flute
suite, with flute sounds electronically modified, and it was a lovely
thing. It was delightful and charming! I loved it, and I
argued with him later that if I were a flutist I couldn’t go to the
store and buy it and go home and play it. It had to be canned,
and that troubles me, frankly. I want human
beings to be able to play music on whatever kind of instrument, but not
to listen to something that’s a machine.
BD: Let me
probe this just a little bit
further, then. What do you feel is the ultimate purpose of music
along with the arts, all the
arts. They are the core of education to me, and they are the most
needed and most valued thing that any society can have. Without
them the society is lost, as far as I’m concerned, and that’s not just
music. It’s all art. It’s the old Greek thing.
They are the core of all education, and there is certainly going to be
experimentation in all areas of art. I remember Mr. Giannini
saying once that there’s an immense spectrum in any era of music.
was talking then, of course, about music, but it goes for any
art — painting, poetry, dance, whatever. There’s going to be a
fringe on either end of that spectrum that’s going to fall away and
wither and perhaps just be lost, but there’s a main, broad part of it
that’s going to continue living century after century because people’s
ears will be opened and they’ll begin to hear new things and yet not
discard the old ones. It has a great virtue, a great moral
value, a great educational value. I don’t think anyone is
complete who hasn’t been exposed to some art and had the chance to try
to develop it. I believe everyone has the seed of creativity in
him or her. I don’t mean they all
can be great artists, but if it’s
properly nurtured they all can
understand creating art and
take a part in it and be better people for it. It’s a
marvelous discipline. I don’t know that I can say any
BD: Let me
pursue a different track of this same
idea. Where do you feel is the balance between the
artistic achievement and the entertainment value, either in music or in
any of the arts?
JN: They both
have their place, of
course. When you say entertainment, what do you mean?
BD: Well, do
you differentiate between art and
JN: Oh yes, I think
so. Maybe it’s a
gray area. I have Aaron
Copland’s book, What to Listen for
in Music. I use that in teaching, and it’s the history of
levels of musical consciousness. First, the sensuous one where I
students, “You all do your homework or other chores to music you
like. It’s entertaining and you love it, but you don’t even hear
it. You’re doing your homework, but you’re in this bath of
sound, and then suddenly you hear a piece that you love.
It’s your favorite, and you drop your homework and you listen.
You’re entertained. Then when that piece stops and the rest
goes on, you go back to your homework.” The second level, as he
says, is the level where you see the
children playing, or the rainy day, or the funeral procession.
I’ve forgotten what he terms it, but then the last
level is the musical level, and that’s the level where you move into
art. Everyone can be entertained at some time by listening to a
piece he loves, but it’s not the same thing as deliberately composing
it or listening to a Mozart symphony. I’m not sure that there’s
a line I can draw. I am, if you wish to use the word, entertained
when I listen to great music. I don’t know whether it’s the use
of the word that troubles me or not. I am moved and uplifted, and
if you wish, entertained. I have a youngster now
who wants to “learn to play the piano.” I’m not a piano
teacher. She works for me a little and she wants me to show her
how to play the piano. She starts out with the theme song of The Pink Panther because her father
likes it. She brings me that music, which she has
borrowed from a girlfriend, and I say, “Fine, we will
start, and you will learn how to play the theme song to The Pink
Panther.” Through music that is entertaining to her I hope
to draw her into music
that will mean more to her. One of the reasons I stopped taking
lessons myself when I was seven or eight was that I was studying the
recital pieces which were The March
of the Dwarfs and The
Norwegian Dance by Grieg. They were very difficult pieces
seven year old, and I don’t know how I played them. They must
have sounded terrible! But the reason I stopped wasn’t only the
recital; it was because I was in love with Vagabond King,
which was just new when I was seven, and I wanted to learn to play some
of the music
from it. But my teacher wouldn’t hear of it. She was so
rigid! She said, “I won’t help you with any of that,” and I
said, “Then I won’t work with you on any of the
others.” I think she made a mistake, but I’m not sorry she
made it, because I think she was a very bad piano teacher! [Both
laugh] But I don’t think it’s a good idea to look down
on something that is entertaining. I was in an Operetta Club in
Montclair when I was in high school, and we did all the D’Oyly Carte
and we did Victor Herbert and Rudolph Friml and you name it. I
was happy as a clam and I loved doing it, and it brought me a
lot closer to music.
sing in the
chorus or play in the orchestra?
JN: I sang in
the chorus. My two best friends
in high school, both girls, were also in it with me, and one of them
very good. She was an understudy sometimes when I was simply in
the chorus. I never got beyond the chorus, but I had a marvelous
time! I sang and sang and sang, and I know it helped bring me
closer to music. It was more than sheer
entertainment. It was just glorious! I love those old songs
now. They mean a great deal to me and also to my mother before
she died. We used to go to every Jeannette McDonald and Nelson
there was when she was in her eighties, so she could hear those old
songs again. I can’t hear, for example, rock music. It
doesn’t mean a
thing to me. In the first place, I get deaf if I even start to
listen to it. But my youngster
goes to every concert at the Centrum in Worcester. I ask her how
she can stand the noise and she says, “You get used to
it.” I say, “It’s going to hurt your hearing,” and she just
shrugs. But that, to me, is not music. But it is to a lot
people, and who am I to say?
BD: For you,
greatness in music?
Brahms, and Beethoven, for
BD: What did
they have or what did they do that
JN: How can I
say? If I knew that, maybe I
could do it myself! They speak a language
that is special. It’s like Rembrandt and Shakespeare and
Who can explain what they did or what they had? I’ve never
tried. I’ve never thought about it that way. I love certain
— for example,
— and I’m trying to write poetry all the time.
Because I couldn’t write the way
they did or as well as they did, if that made me not write poetry then
something wrong. I know I’ll never be a Bach or a
Beethoven or a Brahms or a Stravinsky or a Bartók, but I have to
the music I have to write, and it doesn’t bother me. I don’t
think of it that way. It’s something you have to
do, and you do the best you can. I remember when I was getting my
bachelor’s degree from Manhattan, the
student orchestra had to play the graduating seniors’ pieces, or parts
thereof. We were only allowed ten minutes, and I had written a
twenty-five minute symphonic tone suite based on the poems of Warren
Ramon Jimenez. [Nicolas
Flagello was a composer and faculty member at Manhattan School of Music
from 1950-77.] Flagello just chopped off the last ten
about four or five of the eleven pieces, and that’s where they started
and they played it to the end. I was in the girl’s room just
before the concert, and two of the violinists were in there fixing
their hair and I heard them say, “Oh, God! Why do we
have to play this stuff when we could be playing Brahms and
Beethoven?” I said, “Look, they were local boys somewhere,
sometime. Everybody has to start somewhere. You don’t
know. Of the seven people whose pieces you’re playing tonight,
one of them, maybe someday, will end up being a great composer.
How do you know they won’t?” Nobody thought particularly much of
Bach. His sons were more
famous than he was. He was just a respectable old gent turning
out a lot of music. I worried to Mr. Giannini one day about that
and he said, “If it was good enough for Bach to be conservative and old
fashioned, it’s good enough for us, Juli.” I had a teacher once
told me that if I didn’t write twelve-tone music I was not a musician,
not a composer. Tonal music was written out, and if I didn’t
twelve-tone music, all was lost. I said he had no right to
say that, that no one knew what was going to last in music or who was
going to last in music, and certainly using one tool only to write
music was a very cramping thing. I thought that then and still
decides what music will last
it the public, the publishers, the group of
musicians that constitute the musical world?
JN: It may be
a little bit of everything. If
nothing gets published or played, how will anybody
know? I’m writing a symphony now. I don’t know whether I’ll
ever finish it, but I doubt if it will ever be played. So how do
you know? Publishing has something to do with it and performing
something to do with it. Now that we have radio and television,
that has something to do with it, and the people have something to do
with it. I’ve had experience with some of the dancers I’ve
taught at the New London Dance Festival some years ago, all modern
dancers — except
a very few who took a few ballet classes, and they were
very much against what I was doing for the first few weeks. But
they discerned and perceived what I was getting at, and
they came over. The school, Connecticut College, had a music
program every Wednesday night. Their own top advanced students
were playing, and I urged my
dancers — there were a whole lot of them; I taught three classes and
there were maybe nineteen or twenty in each class — to go any Wednesday
and hear this live music. My accompanist
and I used to go every Wednesday night to see if any of them did, and
gradually, as the seven or eight weeks went by, we found more and more
of them attending the
concerts. John and I used to hide because we didn’t want
them to see us. I remember hearing one girl as she came out of a
Mozart program say to another, “I thought when she was taking
that music apart that it was going to ruin it, but did you hear those
extensions? Weren’t they wonderful?” I said to John, “If we
didn’t do anything
else all summer but reach that one girl, we had achieved
something.” She was listening to music in a different way, and
that’s what I try to get the choreographers and dancers I teach to do
— to listen to it on that third
level, the musical level, and hear the
music that’s going on inside the music, the wonderful counterpoint and
all the evaded cadences and extensions, and to be
aware of the dynamics and what’s going on.
BD: How much
of this detail and how much of
this technical business should the actual public be aware of? The
performers, obviously, should be aware of much more...
JN: Yes, they
more a person is aware, the deeper will be his or her understanding,
enjoyment, and interest in the music. You can listen to
it in absolute ignorance, as my mother did, for example. She
refused to study music. She was very musical. She listened
to it and she loved a lot of it, but some of it was not for her.
For example, she would
tell me, “I don’t see how you can stand listening to Bach. There
are no melodies.” I tried to get her to study toward the end of
life, but I didn’t succeed, and then I just let it drop. But if
she had known something about the music and had been able to hear some
of those things I’ve been talking about, then I think she would have
enjoyed it more. Some of the music that she loved and
enjoyed, she loved and enjoyed in total ignorance of what was going on,
but something of it reached her. I think she would have loved and
enjoyed it even more had she known some of the things that the composer
was doing, but it’s not entirely necessary. It’s ridiculous to
think that everybody should
know everything about music in order to enjoy it. That’s
outlandish. But the more you know about it, the more
you do enjoy it.
BD: Is this,
perhaps, one of the things that
contributes to making a piece of music great
— that it has so many
things to learn and enjoy?
necessarily. One of the greatest
songs ever written is Im
Wundershoenen Monat Mai, [the
first song of Dichterliebe by
Schumann] which is
about four phrases long, and there isn’t a heck of a lot in it.
Simplicity — that’s one of the things I also teach and talk
about. Simplicity is a very, very wonderful thing, and some of
simplest music is among the greatest. I don’t think it’s
complexity. I just want people to know what is there, not just to
listen to the tune. That’s in my teaching choreographers and
dancers and dance teachers, because they don’t listen that way.
Of course, most
people who aren’t musicians hear very superficially, and I
think they’d enjoy it more if they knew more.
BD: Tell me
more about your special ideas of teaching.
JN: I only
and dance teachers and dancers. I did teach composition when I
was at the Hathaway Brown School in Shaker Heights, but that was an
experimental course given to kids who knew nothing whatever about
music and had never even touched an instrument. They came up with
some fabulous things. One youngster wrote a perfectly beautiful
lullaby on the piano, and at spring festival we had professional
musicians play the things these kids wrote. Her mother
was dying of cancer and the family knew it, and the mother asked that
the berceuse be played at her funeral.
Another girl wrote a lovely Christmas carol. It was actually
lovely, and the whole chorus at the school played it. But what I
teach now is not music to musicians or composition to musicians, but
music to choreographers mostly, and that’s through the Carlisle
Project in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. It’s headed
by Barbara Weisberger, who founded and directed the Pennsylvania Ballet
Company for twenty years.
BD: So you’re
teaching them the understanding of the
music they use?
JN: Yes, yes,
and sometimes it’s the music they
choose. Sometimes it’s the music that I hand to them and they
to use it whether they like it or not. That’s very interesting,
and opens their eyes and ears. They discover that I’m trying to
doors and windows for them, and also widen their own musical
spectrum. Some of them, for example, still use Minkus and
Tchaikovsky, and some of them are
all for nothing but minimalist music or electronic music. Each
of these extremes has shut its ears, so to speak, to the
other. I try to put them all together in a bag and shake them
up. At the same time, I teach them what to listen
for, as Copland puts it, and how to hear it, and then how they can make
use of it choreographically.
BD: I assume
there’s no one answer to any one of
indeed, there isn’t. There are many,
many answers, and that’s also what I try to show them. It’s not a
matter of ‘Mickey Mousing’
or ‘Scotch taping’, or
going up when the music
goes up and down when the music goes down. It’s knowing what’s
there, that you may use any aspect of what the composer has done if you
wish, that you may counter any one or more of those aspects, if you
wish, or you may ignore them altogether. But I don’t think you
can do, in choreography, any of those things with as much artistic
integrity and success if you don’t know what’s there to
be used or countered or ignored. When I say ignored, I mean using
the music as a
kind of scrim behind which to dance, or a backdrop before which to
dance, or simply a sound environment within which to dance.
you feel that the music you use for the dance can also stand on
its own without the additional movement of bodies on the stage?
course, it’s not my music they’re using.
BD: I mean
JN: Oh, yes.
Oh yes, of course! I love
poetry, so I’ve written a
great many poems as songs either for piano and voice or for chamber
instruments and voice, or now this choral symphony or choral
music. I have always had the feeling when I’m studying a poem
that what I’m doing is trying to pay a tribute to the poem,
to give it another dimension, and it’s because I think the poem is so
wonderful. Perhaps that’s egotistic, but I
feel as if I’m paying homage to the poem, and I do the best I can to
express what the poet has expressed in my medium as best I can, and
that’s what I want them to do as they honor the music with the
dance. They don’t just use it as a crutch or something to count
to. It’s an equal partner; it’s another leg. It’s not just
something that has a beat that they like or a tune that they like, and
somebody would look nice in mauve dancing to it, or it
would fit a story that they like. They should treat the music
with great respect.
BD: Does it
then become visual poetry?
JN: Oh, I
don’t think so. There’s always this
never-ending argument about the dancer is the dance, or
shouldn’t the dance all be done without music and stand on its own, and
so forth. I have lots of
reasons why choreographers use music, why dancers use music. One
day as I was leaving to go teach I asked my husband, “What’s another
reason that people use music for dance?” and he
said, “The box office would drop off if they didn’t.” [Both
laugh] There are lots of very good reasons for using
music, but I don’t like to think of them as using music. I like
to think of them as marrying their art to the art of music. One
of the things that I’ve been trying to do for twenty-six years is
to get musicians to understand dancers, and dancers and choreographers
musicians. A lot of musicians, at least in my
experience, tend to look down at dancers, because dancers don’t count
the way musicians count. They don’t at all, and they
shouldn’t. They needn’t. Their counting is different and it
must be different, and it’s perfectly all right that they differ.
But the thing that I want them to do is understand how the musicians
count so they can meet the musicians on their own ground. They
need to explain to the musicians, “I understand that this is an
anacrusic beat, and you’re going to count it as 3-4-1, but I am going
count it as 1-2-3, and this is my reason.” They have a perfectly
good reason for it, and I try to get this gap between musicians
and dancers closed as best I can.
BD: Are you
heavens! I’m only one person in a great
big bucket! [Laughs] I don’t
deal with the musicians, I’m dealing with the choreographers, so I have
to work it from one side only. If I could get a bunch
of musicians together and show them what dancers mean by their count,
that would be fine, but I’m only one person, and I have a lot of other
things to do, and it’s the dancers I’m involved with. So I try to
get them to understand musical counts so that they can at least show
the musicians they work with that they do. Then they can also
make a case for their own way of counting. They do have a
legitimate way of counting and it’s very strange, but it’s perfectly
effective and usable. It’s
just I’d like them to understand musicians’ counts, and if I
could get a whole bunch of musicians together, I’d like them to
understand dancers’ counts, too. If I ever get finished with the
book that I’m
supposed to be trying to write, then maybe some musicians would
understand, because I have some marvelous pages of music on which
dancers have scrawled their count in inch-high pencil marks, and it’s
fascinating to see what they’ve done.
BD: So it’s
to take the scores that the
musicians know, and then see how the dancers view them.
Yes. For example, if you
take something that’s very straightforward, four bars, eight bars, and
it’s all in 4/4, 2/4, that’s just fine. But when you get
something like Copland’s Piano Sonata,
the second movement changes
meter darned near every measure and goes all over the place.
There’s no way in heaven that a choreographer can teach his dancers
that count. The dancers are up there on the stage and they
don’t have anything to look at. They don’t have any map, and
way the piece can be counted in a straightforward enough way so that
can use the counts that Copland has put there, the beats, the
meters. They have to find their own way. I had one young
last summer who was absolutely marvelous! He
found a way to count that with dancers’ count so that his dancers
understood completely what was going on in the music. They
under any circumstances have understood it if he had tried to count
them as a musician would. He scrawled all over the page these
“A one-y and a two-y and a three, four, five and a one-y and a two-y
and a three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, and a
one-two-three.” It was fantastic! His dancers
understood immediately and they heard it in the music. What
he was doing was listening to the motivic elements that Copland was
using, and he was getting the kids to listen and hear the development
of those motivic elements.
BD: Is there
any reason, then, to transfer this dance
counting back to the musician to understand the music better?
probably understood his music well
enough. I don’t think a musician could use a
dancer’s counts, no, if that’s what you mean, but if they could be
brought to understand if
they could have seen and heard what I saw and heard last summer with
Chris Fleming, who’s now in Bogota, Columbia, as director
of some ballet company there. They would then understand very
clearly, I think because it only takes one really good example, and he
certainly gave me one.
BD: Tell me
about the particular joys and sorrows of
writing for the human voice.
To read my Interview with Phyllis Curtin, click HERE
To read my Interview with Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, click HERE
JN: One of
the sorrows in the
beginning is that I always wrote everything down where I could sing it,
and since I sang with the tenors and basses in the high school glee
club, I always put it too low for women and too high for men. So
the first songs that I wrote — and there must be
a hundred of them — a
lot of them would have to be transposed to get anybody, male or female
human, to sing them. But it’s always a joy to write for the human
voice, and it depends
on who sings it and how well they sing it, where the joy lies in
hearing it. It’s always wonderful to hear your music, but I agree
with something Mr. Giannini said many years ago when we all trooped to
Carnegie Hall to hear a first performance of one of his
symphonies. We rushed down from the balcony afterwards and met
him coming up the aisle to tell him how wonderful it was. He was
beet red and he said, “Whenever I hear my music, half of me
wants to sit there and listen, and think ‘Gosh, I wrote that,’ and the
other half of me wants to be up on the stage beating the musicians into
doing what I want, and the other half, the third half, wants to be a
thousand miles away.” And that’s how you feel if it isn’t done
really well. But I am grateful when it’s done at all because I’m
not an operator
and I don’t get a lot of it performed. But when I hear it, I’m
extremely happy to hear it, and I don’t really mind if they blow it
a bit here and there, except on the two records
that I never tell anybody about.
BD: May I ask
briefly about those so I will know why you dismiss them?
JN: I’m not
happy with them. Mr.
[Arthur] Loesser was marvelous to me, and at the rehearsal he not only
them beautifully, but he showed me where I’d written something
wrong. He said, “You don’t mean this?” and he played it the
way it was notated. Then he said, “You mean this, don’t
you?” and played it slightly differently, and I said, “Oh, yes.”
So he said, “Then this
is how you should notate it.” So I learned, and I learn every
time, and that’s without fail. I’ve learned every time anybody’s
played my music how I could notate it better, what’s wrong with the
notation, and what would make it easier for the performer.
Anyway, he played them beautifully, and then the day that they were
recorded by that company, he performed
other music on the record, and he promised
us he wouldn’t teach. But he taught all day long. The other
composers, whose music he played, were there in the recording studio,
working with him, and I had to be in Jersey. My mother had fallen
and broken her hip.
BD: Who were
the other two composers?
Dick and Jane Corner Young. They
were there, and he played their music over and over
again. He was very tired, and he only went through mine
He apologized later, and said he wanted to do
them again because he did them very badly. He said that
himself, and he wanted to record them again, but the Cleveland
Composer’s Guild could not afford to do another recording of
them. So I don’t ever tell anybody about that disc. On the
other one they
only did four of the six pieces, which was uncomfortable anyway.
have loved very much to have all six of the whole cycle done. The
tenor soloist was a shade flat, and then a perfectly dreadful thing
happened at the end. The sound was all right. It was dry
and clear and good, and the chorus was not bad, but this chap, who
had promised not to do it, put this echo chamber sound on it and ruined
it. It’s dreadful! I played it once many,
many years ago and I’ve never played it since. I can’t stand
BD: Now you
have this new recording out, and I
assume you’re pleased with it?
JN: Yes, I
am. It could be better,
but it’s the best I’ve had, and I’m pleased with it.
BD: Have you
basically been pleased with
the other performances you’ve had of you works?
JN: In some
sense, yes. Sometimes
they’ve been done with real TLC and I have been happy with them, but
none of them has been perfect. I don’t suppose anyone has a
perfect performance, but none of them has been. Even when there’s
been a pretty good performance, I’ve never had a
really good taping. Something always seems to
be slightly amiss, but I think that’s probably generally true of
everyone, unless he or she has reached a place where truly professional
performances with truly professional recordings are done. I’m
always happy to hear it, but I would like it to be even
better, and more of it, but that’s human.
BD: I want to
ask you a question that
you may not be able to answer. Is it harder being a woman
composer than being
a man composer?
It is impossible to say. It’s
probably a lot easier now for women, and growing easier all the time
partly because of people like you and things like the American Women
Composers. Many more women seem to be writing music, or at least
having a chance. Maybe lots of women wrote it in earlier times
had a chance for anyone to know it. That’s quite possible, but
probably more women are writing now and
more women are being recognized as composers and having their works
performed and published and recorded. There’s a recording company
that records a lot of women’s music. I’ve
forgotten the name of it at the moment, but I met the woman who
started it at one of the conferences of American Women Composers.
sounds like it would be Leonarda.
JN: Yes, just
as the Alice
James Books in Cambridge publishes mostly women’s poetry. Things
are looking up for women in the arts and in composition
especially. In any event, I don’t know what it’s
like to be a man composer. [Both laugh]
course! Perhaps an easier question would be is there a noticeable
difference between music
that has been written by a woman and music that has been written by a
JN: Not to
me. There was a panel
about that at an American Women Composers conference at Boston
University a couple of years ago when I had a couple of my choral
pieces sung. It was a three or four-day conference, and there was
a panel “Is there a difference, and can you tell the difference?”
and nobody could make up anybody’s mind on that. Some people
thought there might be a difference, and some thought there might not
be a difference, and some didn’t know whether they could tell and
didn’t know that it made any difference. I don’t know that I
could tell. If some of my music was played and you
didn’t know I’d written it — especially,
perhaps, some of the symphonies
that I’m working on — I don’t think you could
tell what gender had
written it. I really don’t.
BD: Do you
want to be known as a woman composer
or simply composer?
composer. It’s just like asking if you want to be called a
poetess or a poet? I would rather be a poet, and not a woman
poet. The only time that that feminine ending seems to be
acceptable to me is ‘actress’.
Katherine Hepburn or Maude
Adams are great actresses, and so-and-so is a great actor. There
I seem to accept — and most people seem to accept
— the separation of the
sexes, but not in anything else.
no such word
as composer-ess, which I suppose is very good. [Both laugh]
JN: Yes, it
is. It’s very good. I think
probably the use of ‘woman composer’
is partly because they are just
beginning to flourish. I hope it dies out in the end, and that Ruth
Lomon is just a composer, or Emma Lou Diemer is just a composer, or
whoever it is they’re talking
about is just a composer and not a ‘woman composer’.
That’s what I would hope.
BD: I put the
same question when I interview black
composers, and most of them say they want to be just simply composers.
Yes. I understand why those terms have
developed in the period through which we’ve just been living
— the ‘black’
and the ‘woman’ — because
these groups are just really beginning to
surface. The way to get around that when you’re talking about the
composer is that you use
the words ‘she’ and ‘her’,
and then they know. But you won’t have
labeled the person as a ‘woman composer’
or a ‘black composer’.
I don’t know how you can get around it with
a black person except by putting a picture out that shows, and
even then you can’t always tell.
BD: A couple
I’ve been surprised one way or the other.
JN: Yes, so
have I with choreographers.
BD: I assume
that you are pleased with all the
strides that music has been making in the last many years?
JN: Oh yes,
indeed I am. With all
the experimenting and all the whatever’s going on, and the more that
it’s played and the more that it’s listened to and the more that it’s
published and the more that it’s recorded, the better I like it.
BD: Is there
ever a time when we get too many
composers writing, or too many recordings being made?
JN: I don’t
know. It would be the sort
of thing that Giannini meant when he said that the vast majority of
things that will last will last, and the rest will be lost in the dust
heap. Of course you can always say that there are the wonderful
ones that aren’t discovered. Bach wouldn’t have been
discovered if Mendelssohn hadn’t done it.
BD: Are we
throwing a joker into this
now with the business of recordings where nothing is
actually lost? We no longer have to take a piece of music off the
shelf and perform it. You can put a platter onto a disc machine
and hear the music even if you’re not a particularly good
JN: Yes you
can, and that’s a wonderful
thing. I have all my stereo equipment and listen to
great music, and I think that’s wonderful. People who didn’t have
that in other centuries lost a lot. They had to go to live
performances, and very often couldn’t. But to be at a live
performance is a very special thing.
BD: That is
still the best!
JN: Still the
best, yes, although I wouldn’t give up
my records and tapes and everything else that I have because I
live in the Boonies and it’s very hard to get even into Worcester in
the winter. So I forego a lot of live performances for that
reason, and because of the weather and the ice and so on, but I have
the music at home and I don’t think
there can be too much of it. Why would there be too much of
could there be too much of it?
BD: Well, at what
point does the avalanche of
material just become too much for people to explore in a lifetime?
JN: Well, you
could say that of the whole world. I can’t explore it all.
I have to explore very little of the world,
but I’ve explored what I could, and surely I will have
missed out on some marvelous music that I’ve never heard of, but I
can’t help that. I’ll explore what I can, and the fact that
there’s a whole lot out there that I’ll probably never hear doesn’t
mean it shouldn’t be out there for somebody else to hear. I’m
limited in what I can buy, where I can go, what I can get to hear, but
that doesn’t mean that a whole lot of other stuff shouldn’t be out
there that somebody else can buy or get to hear. It’s like saying
can there be too much poetry. There’s going
to be good, bad and indifferent poetry. There’s going to be great
excellent and good poetry. There’s a poem by Robert Frost, called
Minor Bird, and why should his
song be less important than, for example — and here I’m leaping
around a bit — Borodin? If he had written
but that string quartet which has the great nocturne in it with the
marvelous canon, I would consider him a great composer.
would consider Schumann a great composer if I’d never heard anything
but Im Wundershoenen Monat Mai.
You can have one gem and be great. You do not have to write an
Many did, and praise be. Thank the Lord!
BD: Is Juli
Nunlist a great composer?
JN: Oh, I
don’t think so. I would never
presume to say that. I would like to be a good composer, and I
think some of my things are very good. If I can finish my
and the French songs I spoke of, I would die happy... although I have
the feeling they’ll never be
played. I can envision my wonderful, lovely daughter-in-law,
or thirty years from now, finding the manuscript on a shelf and saying
to her husband, “Oh, Mark, we need this space. What’ll I do with
this?” and they’ll both say, “Heave it out!” It’s biodegradable,
no! I would hate to think that all of
your labor on the symphony would be lost.
JN: Well, I
would hate to think so, too, and I’m
going to endeavor that it not be. I have gotten some very good
advice. There was a very interesting lecture at that conference
on Ruth Crawford Seeger. It appeared that she had been granted a
Guggenheim Foundation fellowship for $5000 to complete a
symphony, and she had never completed it. I went up to a
woman afterward who had been part of the
panel and I said, “Do you think it’s possible that at the time she was
granted this $5000 that she did not finish her symphony
because she thought, believed, or knew that it would never be
performed?” and the woman agreed. She said it’s quite possible
that’s why she never finished
it, because in her day to play a woman’s symphony would have been just
extraordinary. I told her that the reason I was asking was
that I was working on a choral symphony, and she immediately
said, “When it was finished, do not show it to
conductor. Show it to a choral conductor. He will want his
chorus to sing it, and he’ll
badger some orchestral conductor into performing it so his
chorus can sing it.”
BD: We have a
couple of fine ones in this area,
of course — Margaret Hillis and
also Thomas Peck
JN: Yes, I’m
both of them. Of course I have to finish the thing
first. It’s about three-fifths done.
advice do you have for the young composers
JN: Work hard
and write a hell of a lot. I
don’t suppose you can put that on the air... [I reassured her that her word was not
something I would need to edit out.] Keep working and
working. When I was in school, I was old enough to be
the mother of all the six others in my class, and I went along busily,
working at everything everybody gave us to do. We had five
composition courses. Giannini taught harmony and counterpoint,
and Flagello taught orchestration, and Ulehla taught ear training
and form and analysis. We met once a week
and had homework for each of those subjects each week. At the
same time, for each of the three teachers we were writing a
composition, and it wasn’t the same. You couldn’t write a sonata
and have one movement for Flagello, one movement for Giannini and one
for Ulehla. You had to write your string quartet for Giannini,
and your piano pieces for Ulehla, and your opera
scene for Flagello. So we were just drowned in things to
do, but it was wonderful because you were never blocked. There
much to do that when you got stuck you could just turn to another piece
or another bit of homework and do that. I remember I worked
and worked and worked and worked, and I had a
marvelous time! I always did my
homework, always, always, always for all of them. One time toward
the end of my first year, something happened in my life, I’ve forgotten
what, and I
couldn’t do Mr. Giannini’s work for that week. I went into school
feeling perfectly dreadful. I had a migraine headache and it
must have shown. I was almost ill in his classroom, and before he
knew me very well he said, “Miss Nunlist, what is the
trouble?” He took me over to a little room that had a daybed, and
he put me down, got me some water and an aspirin and asked, “What
is the matter?” I said, “Mr. Giannini, I couldn’t do
your work,” and he just shrieked! He hooted with laughter and he
said, “Haven’t you noticed how all the rest of them have been
saying, ‘This isn’t your week, Mr. Giannini,’ or ‘This isn’t your
week, Miss Ulehla’?” They hadn’t done the work week after week,
always had. I wrote all the time, and that’s my advice
to anyone who wants to write — just do it all
BD: Do you
take your own advice to this day?
JN: As much
as I possibly can, yes.
BD: I want to
be sure and ask you
about your opera.
[Laughs] Oh, my opera. That was
funny. That was a Flagello assignment for a five-minute opera
scene, and everybody else did exactly that — a
scene — but I didn’t. I wrote a
fifty-minute one-act opera based
on Chaucer’s The Pardner’s Tale.
It didn’t occur to me to stop
once I got started. I just finished the whole thing, and
Flagello liked it and the class liked it. One of the young
men who was very gifted said, “You’ve written a
real American folk opera.” But the funny thing is I was in a
music school where there were hoards and hoards of girls studying
voice, and my opera is for six men. The only possibility for a
woman-part would be
for the young lad who is the tavern boy, the servant in the tavern, who
could be an alto who looked boyish. It’s ridiculous to write an
opera for all men, but I did.
BD: Has it
JN: No, it
BD; Do you
want it to be performed?
JN: Oh, I’d
love to have it be performed. At
the moment it’s only in a piano edition; it has only a
piano accompaniment. I’ve never scored it. For years I’ve
said that someday I’ll score it for chamber orchestra, and then
maybe some college would do it, but I’ve never done it. I’ve just
been busy doing other things.
BD: When you
get finished with the symphony, maybe
that’s your next project.
that might be so. I also have started
a suite for a youth string group, and I would like to
finish that. I’ve also got another project that I’d love to
do, and that’s a choral piece with a whole bunch of little prayers and
curses. I would like to do that.
BD: Would you
ever orchestrate some of these songs
that are on the record? That was one of the first things I
noticed when listening to them — that
they would sound wonderful as orchestral songs.
JN: Oh, I’d
love to do that. One of my most favorite compositions in all the
is The Songs of the Wayfarer
of Mahler, and they are orchestrated.
BD: Would you
be adverse to someone else
orchestrating your work?
yes, unless I knew that person.
now or, perhaps, in twenty-five years?
twenty-five years probably anybody
could because I won’t be here. But, for example, if Ronald Perera
to do it, sure. I’d let him in a minute. He’s a wonderful
composer and teacher and human
being, and has been great to me. He’s the person I go to.
He’s a sort of mentor, and I bring him my music and we discuss it, and
he shows me how to enrich my orchestration and things like that.
If somebody like that would do it, it would be
marvelous. But he’s busy teaching and composing at Smith College
appreciate your spending the
time with me this afternoon. This has been just a wonderful
conversation. I have learned a lot, and I’ve become very much
inspired by what you’ve had to say.
thank you very, very much. It’s been
a great pleasure to me, too.
This CD (released in 1998)
contains the 12 Bagatelles for Solo
Flute by Nunlist.
To read my Interview with John Cage, click HERE
To read my Interview with Vivian Fine, click HERE
© 1987 Bruce Duffie
This conversation was recorded on the telephone on
August 28, 1987. Portions were broadcast on WNIB in 1997.
This transcription was made in 2014, and posted on this
at that time.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975
its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His
interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since
and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well
on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a
century ago. You may also send him E-Mail
with comments, questions and suggestions.