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 . . . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    You started out playing piano, then abandoned it, and then you came back to it.  What, specifically, kept you involved with music in between the times when you were studying it?

Juli Nunlist:    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 in a 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 fact 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 writing today?

nunlistJN:    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.  They were 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?

JN:    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 own ideas?

JN:    Yes, and I still do.  The music I write now is very different from the music you have on the record.  The first six of those 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 before 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 conservative.

BD:    You don’t reject the idea of far out music, though?

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?

JN:    Oh, 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 time I 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 Wheeler 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 Invective.

BD:    Oh sure, by Nicolas Slonimsky.  [The book is a collection of negative criticism of works by famous composers now regarded as standard repertoire.]

JN:    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 just have 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 in society?

JN:    It’s 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.  He 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 more.

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 entertainment?

nunlistJN:    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 tell my 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 for a 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 operettas 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.

Did you 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 was 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 Eddy movie 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 of people, and who am I to say?

BD:    For you, what constitutes greatness in music?

JN:    Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven, for example.

BD:    What did they have or what did they do that others lacked?

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 Leonardo.  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 poets
for example, contemporary poetsand 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 there’s 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 write 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 minutes, 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 who 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 write 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 think now.

BD:    Who decides what music will last
— is 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 has 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 doto 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 should.  The 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 her 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?

JN:    Not 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 the 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 teach choreographers 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 have 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 open 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 those questions.

JN:    No, 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.

BD:    Do 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?

JN:    Of course, it’s not my music they’re using.

BD:    I mean any music.

nunlistJN:    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 to understand 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 to 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 succeeding?

JN:    Oh, 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.

JN:    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 there’s no way the piece can be counted in a straightforward enough way so that they can use the counts that Copland has put there, the beats, the meters.  They have to find their own way.  I had one young man 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 couldn’t under any circumstances have understood it if he had tried to count them as a musician would.  He scrawled all over the page these immense, “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?

JN:    Copland 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 thema 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 played 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 two 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?

JN:    Marcel 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 once.  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.  I would 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 to!

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?

nunlistJN:    [Laughs]  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 and never 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.

BD:    That 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]

BD:    Of 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 man?

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 onI 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?

JN:    A 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 acceptand most people seem to acceptthe separation of the sexes, but not in anything else.

BD:    There’s 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.

JN:    Yes.  I understand why those terms have developed in the period through which we’ve just been living
the black and the womanbecause 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 of times 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.  [Laughs]

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 performer.

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 it?  How could there be too much of it?

frost poemBD:    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 and excellent and good poetry.  There’s a poem by Robert Frost, called A 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 nothing but that string quartet which has the great nocturne in it with the marvelous canon, I would consider him a great composer.  [Laughs]  I 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 enormous body.  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 symphony 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, twenty 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, anyway.

BD:    Oh, 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 an orchestral 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 familiar with both of them.  Of course I have to finish the thing first.  It’s about three-fifths done.

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

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 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 was so 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, but I always had.  I wrote all the time, and that’s my advice to anyone who wants to write
just do it all the time.

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.

JN:    [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 five-minute opera 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 been performed?

JN:    No, it never has.

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.

JN:    Well, 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 world is The Songs of the Wayfarer of Mahler, and they are orchestrated.

BD:    Would you be adverse to someone else orchestrating your work?

JN:    Well, yes, unless I knew that person.

BD:    Either now or, perhaps, in twenty-five years?

JN:    In twenty-five years probably anybody could because I won’t be here.  But, for example, if Ronald Perera wanted 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 at Northampton.

BD:    I 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.

JN:    Well, 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 website at that time.

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.