Composer Olly Wilson
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
|Olly Wilson's richly varied
musical background includes not only the
traditional composition and academic disciplines, but also his
professional experience as a jazz and orchestral musician, work in
electronic media, and studies of African music in West Africa itself.
His catalogue includes orchestral and chamber works, as well as works
for electronic media.
Born in 1937, the St. Louis, MO, native completed his undergraduate
training at Washington University (St. Louis), continuing with his
masters studies at University of Illinois (returning later to study
electronic music in the Studio for Experimental Music), and received
his Ph.D from the University of Iowa. His composition teachers included
Robert Wykes, Robert Kelley, and Phillip Bezanson.
His work as a professional musician included playing jazz piano in
local St. Louis groups, as well as playing double bass for the St.
Philharmonic, the St. Louis Summer Chamber Players, and the Cedar
Rapids Symphony. He has taught on the faculties of Florida A&M
University and Oberlin Conservatory of Music, as well as his current
position of professor of music at University of California at Berkeley,
where he has taught since 1970.
Wilson's works have been performed by major American orchestras such as
the Atlanta, Baltimore, Saint Louis, Detroit, and Dallas Symphonies,
along with such international ensembles as the Moscow Philharmonic, the
Netherlands Philharmonic and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra. He has
received commissions from the Boston, Chicago, and Houston Symphonies,
as well as the New York Philharmonic and the American Composers
Orchestra. He has been awarded numerous honors including: the Dartmouth
Arts Council Prize (the first international competition awarded for
electronic music for his work Cetus); commissions from the NEA and
Koussevitzky Foundation; an artist residency at the American Academy of
Rome; several Guggenheim Fellowships; a Rockefeller Foundation
Fellowship; and the Elise Stoeger Prized awarded by the Chamber Music
Society of Lincoln Center. In addition to being a published author
(Wilson has written numerous articles on African and African-American
music), Wilson often conducts concerts of contemporary music. In 1995,
Wilson was elected in membership at the American Academy of Arts and
Olly Wilson's music is published by Gunmar Music (G. Schirmer, Inc.).
In February of 1991, Olly Wilson was in Chicago for the premiere
of his work Of Visions and Truth. It was
commissioned by the Center for Black Music Research in 1989 with
funding from the Borg-Warner Foundation for the Black Music Repertory
Ensemble. While he was in the Windy City, I had the privilege of
speaking with Wilson at his hotel. Here is what transpired that
afternoon . . . . . . .
Bruce Duffie: You are both composer and
teacher of music. How do you divide your time between those two
very taxing occupations?
I discovered a long time ago that in this country the university is
really the patron of the arts — at
least patron of the composers. I happen to really enjoy the
university, so it worked out very well for me. I’m fortunate
enough to teach at a university that recognizes the necessity for
creative time, and the teaching load is such that I’m able —
and indeed expected — to do creative
work. So because of that understanding, I’m able to focus on my
creative work at the same time I’m teaching. Right now I’m on
sabbatical leave, so I’ve got the entire year to focus on writing
BD: At the
university you’re teaching composition and theory?
teaching composition and theory, and I teach courses in the whole range
of theory and analysis and composition. I also teach courses in
African-American music, so that that’s another part of it. But I
rotate my teaching schedule so that I’m able to still write music as
BD: By rotating the
courses can you keep each one fresh?
BD: In the
theory and composition courses, are these training more composers or
are these training musicians who want to understand music more?
both. On the undergraduate level, it’s the general student.
It’s the general music major, as well as, occasionally, a course for
non-majors. Then on the graduate level, we have a Ph.D. program
at Berkeley. These are really very, very sophisticated composers,
people who have really committed themselves and are usually fairly
sophisticated about the craft at that point. So there is a
judicious balance between the somewhat esoteric technical side of
things and the general thing for the general student, and a continuum
BD: Do you
think it would be a good idea for any performer — a
fiddle player in an orchestra or just a general music teacher
— to take a course in composition?
OW: I think
it’s probably a good idea, depending upon what their expectations are,
to study with a composer to see how the composer thinks, what
parameters interest the composer in working on a piece, and to find out
about the range of things that a composer deals with in creating
something new. I think would be interesting for a performer or
the general listener, as far as that’s concerned, assuming that both
the composer who was teaching the course and the student understood the
dimensions of the course, so the composer wouldn’t expect more
creativity out of a person who simply doesn’t have that kind of
creative bent, and the student didn’t expect a different kind of thing
out of the composer.
BD: You could
design a course that’s just the mechanics of composing.
right, or perhaps periodically have a person sit in on the composition
seminar that a composer is giving to other composers, even just
observing the energy exchange that goes on — the kind of things that a
composer attempts to center in on. In the creative arts, you
can’t really teach creativity. What you can do is to try to
understand what a young composer’s attempting to do and try to help him
or her do it better; to develop the technique,
the technique being the ability to bring to fruition, to bring to
reality what you imagine. The real task is to make the
imagination real. Teaching compositional technique is teaching
those kinds of skills, so that the person who imagines something is
able to write it down, or is able to express to the performers in some
kind of way what he or she wishes them to do.
BD: Where is
this delicate balance between the inspiration and the technique?
OW: It’s hard
to exactly pinpoint that. In some aspects of a composition the
focus is on technique — such as if you wanted
something to be effective, but you wrote something that was impossible
for the performers to do, or you over-scored it or it was too
thick. You expected it to be clear. If you wrote three or
four lines and you wanted each of them to be heard, but they’re all in
the same register — say in the lower register,
especially the trombones — you’re not going to
hear them. [Both laugh] So understanding that and knowing
exactly what to do and how to re-orchestrate that, or how to redevelop
that or how to change the texture, the timbre, in order to create the
musical gesture that you intend, is really the secret. On the
other hand, sometimes there’s inspiration to the basic idea. It’s
possible to have technique and not have any imagination, and as a
result you have something that might be interesting as an exercise, but
doesn’t capture one’s imagination, or more importantly, it doesn’t
communicate anything to the listener.
BD: Then that
becomes not such a great piece of music?
right. It becomes very mediocre if you aren’t able to inspire.
BD: So each
person has to have both of these talents?
BD: Is this,
perhaps, what contributes to the greatness of a piece — when
both aspects have strength?
OW: I think
absolutely — when they both are at a sublime
level. When you have both the mastery of the technique and the
imagination, then you’re able to really communicate something.
a little bit about inspiration, when you’re sitting at your desk with
the blank score and all the lines are waiting to be filled in, are you
always in control of the pencil, or are there times when the pencil is
controlling your hand across the page?
constantly this idea to get in contact with what someone has referred
to as a ‘sonorous image’ — your inner ear, the
ability to hear things, to imagine things in sound. What you do
with the pencil is to simply write that down so that you have an
abstract representation of what you have imagined.
you’re more than just a copyist, are you not?
OW: Oh, much
more, much more than the copyist. The imagination is what you
hear, but then you are doing it, creating it, writing it down.
There are different kinds of composers. Apparently Mozart was the
kind of composer that had such a brilliant sonorous image that much of
his writing was almost like a medium. It was so clear that he
could simply write it out as the first copy and things were
perfect. But that was certainly the extraordinary
exception. There are very few musicians like that.
Beethoven, on the other hand, was the kind of composer who
struggled. He wrote something and then he changed it; he wrote
something and then he changed it again. He was attempting to
reach that ideal state, but he reached that after many trials. I
think most mortals are closer to Beethoven in terms of that
relationship of trying to realize that ideal that you have imagined, as
opposed to Mozart who apparently didn’t struggle that much at all but
was just able to let it flow out. I certainly am a composer who
works over and over, although I’m sure all composers have certain
moments of inspiration when they hit that one idea. Frequently
for me it’s the beginning kernel of the idea after I have tried to
decide how I am going to start the piece. As you said, when you
confront this blank piece of paper and you’re starting on a new piece,
what do you do? Well, you pray for rain. [Both laugh]
You seek to try to invoke some kind of inspiration, and you do that in
a number of different ways. People have a number of different
schemes they do. Sometimes they study other music.
Sometimes they might sit at the piano and improvise. Sometimes I
might just take a walk or I might try deep reflection. At any
rate, you keep doing that until you are able to get something and you
say, “Aha, this is the idea. This is what I want to do.”
You get your concept. Then the process of composition is making
that concept clearer and clearer. Part of that process is
sometimes writing things down, and rejecting and accepting and
rejecting and accepting and honing, much like an artist or a sculptor
does. Then other times, once you have the clear idea of what it
is, then you’re working it out... and that’s also an acceptance and
rejection kind of process.
BD: Are you
ever completely surprised by where an idea will lead you?
OW: Oh, sure!
At least I sometimes have a preconceived notion of what a piece is
going to be. I’m starting a piece and I’ll think in terms of its
overall form, and initially I might do it a number of different
ways. I try to get the broad picture first — an
overall concept of what I’m trying to do in the piece — and
I may even use a graphic kind of notation, a graphic kind of score just
to draft out what I want to do in large terms so I won’t lose the big
picture while I’m working out the little details. That will be
the beginning of the idea, and this is sort of a broad representation
of what I want to do musically in the piece. Then I go to work
out the piece. By then, hopefully there’s at least enough of the
clear concept that I know what I’m trying to do. In the process
of realizing that sort of conception, the broad picture sometimes
changes, and the idea, perhaps, doesn’t want to move precisely in the
way that you thought it was going to want to move. Then you have
to follow the idea and let the idea make sense. So it’s a
constant reinforcement — moving back and looking
forward as you work through the direction of the
BD: As you’re
working on the piece, or even when you start, are you conscious about
how long it will take to perform the piece?
general I usually am at first. After you determine what the basic
idea is going to be, then you have a general sense of the overall
length. But then again that might vary because the idea may be
made in further working out. Then you get involved and you say,
“Oh this needs to go this way.” So you work that out, and as you
work that out suddenly the piece becomes longer. Or it may be
that you do a piece, and then after you’ve done parts of it you realize
that your intentions would be better served by making certain overall
changes. The piece that I’m doing that’s going to be premiered on
Wednesday night is a case in point. This piece is a song cycle,
and originally it consisted of four songs. But in the course of
working out the songs, I discovered that I really needed some
instrumental interludes. I had the four songs — the main part of
the work — and then I realized for a number of different reasons —
pacing, tempo, the character of each song — I shouldn’t have Song A
following Song B. I needed to have something in between. So
I then wrote several instrumental interludes and now it’s a larger
cycle. There are interrelationships between the interludes and
the main body of the work.
BD: So it all
you’re working with a score and you’re tinkering with it, how do you
know when to put the pencil down and launch the work?
sometimes difficult to let go, but when you decide, “That’s it, I’ve
said all I can say; I’ve done all I can do in this particular
composition so I’d better just let it have its own life,” then you turn
it over to performers. Hopefully you’re fortunate to shepherd it
through its first performance, to help the performers and the conductor
understand the conception that you had initially.
BD: Do you
want the performers to play it exactly right, or is there a little room
OW: I want
the performers to follow my directions. I’m very conscious of
what I’ve done, and I want them to do it exactly that way, but I also
recognize that any performance is, to a certain degree, a
collaboration. One hopes for a musical and sensitive conductor,
such as Kay Robertson who’s doing this piece, and outstanding
performers. Here I’ve got William Brown and Donnie Rae Albert and
Bonita Hyman who are all outstanding performers. I recognize
their musicianship and their interpretive skills, so within the
framework there’s a certain amount of leeway for them — how long are
you going to do this phrase, how do you turn this phrase, how phrase
one is related to phrase two, slight increments of intensity. I
might say mezzo piano in the
first phrase and fortissimo
in the second phrase, but what does mezzo
piano really mean in absolute terms? So it becomes
relative, and a sensitive performer is able to take those directions
and shape them. If they really understand your conception, maybe
they will even show you different ideas about the conception that you
hadn’t thought of exactly in that same way. Each performance is
also a revelation for the composer.
BD: Tell me
the joys and sorrows of writing for the human voice.
OW: The joys
are that it is the most marvelous instrument. It’s so
intimate. It’s so close to oneself. It is able to express
the most profound sentiments in the most significant ways. On the
other hand, it is a human voice and is subject to the frailties of
individuals. Because it’s so intimately connected with people, if
they have a cold or if they aren’t feeling well that day, it’s not like
an instrument that you can play and you control completely.
Although instruments, really, in the broadest sense and in the best
hands become an extension of the person’s sentiments, the human voice
has some very dramatic and interesting possibilities. It has some
limitations, and there are certain things that are very difficult to do
— although in this century, I, along with many other
composers, are certainly pushing the voice to its limit. You find
fantastic performers that are able to achieve almost anything you ask
them to do.
BD: How do
you know when you’ve pushed the voice too far?
Frequently, if it’s too far the vocalist will let you know. [Both
laugh] If you don’t know already yourself, the vocalist will let
you know. But adventuresome vocalists who are on the cutting edge
will frequently encourage you toward pushing it to the cutting
edge. William Brown, who is a tenor, is a person with whom I’ve
collaborated for several years on several different pieces. One
of my strongest pieces is called Sometimes
for Tenor and Electronic Sound. It’s about a twenty-five minute
piece and is a tour de force for the tenor and electronic sound.
I ask the tenor to do a wide range of extremely virtuosic
techniques. He’s all the way up to about a C and D and a falsetto
E flat, and at the same time rhythmically he’s asked to do a lot of
very, very interesting, complicated things.
BD: Did you
write it with William Brown in mind?
OW: I wrote
it with William Brown in mind, as a matter of fact, and on Pieces for Voice and Tape, some of
the tape includes pre-recorded vocal parts that he actually
performed. So it was really his piece. It has been
performed by other people, though, because it’s been around since
1976. He’s performed it a number of times, and there are other
performers who have also performed the piece.
worked quite a bit with electronics and electronic tape, and you had a
piece that actually won the first competition of electronic music.
wonder... can there be a competition for the ‘best
piece of music’ in any given framework?
[Laughs] Of course not, but human nature being what it is, people
decide periodically to have contests of various sorts. People
enter them for various reasons, and this was in the early years.
The piece won in 1967, and it was quite an experience. It was
actually my first piece of electronic music I had written. But at
the time, electronic music was relatively new, so I was very pleased
with the piece. Of course, the technology now has moved light
years away from the technology that we were employing at that time.
BD: Are there
things you can do now that you couldn’t do then, or is it just simply
easier and faster to do those effects?
Both. It’s easier to do them, and of course with digital
synthesis now, it’s a lot cleaner. You don’t have the ambient
noise and the tape hiss that you had with the old equipment. The
signal-to-noise ratio was much higher in those old tapes, and yet there
were some interesting things about it. But the technology now
allows you to do different things, and to do some of the older things
faster. Yet if you go back and listen to some of that early
electronic music — even going all the way back before tape manipulation
to the musique concrète
of the forties and fifties, and then moving up to the synthesizers in
the sixties and so forth, there are certain qualities about that music
that you can only do with that music, with that media; so it’s
different. It’s certainly a lot more sophisticated now than it
was then. I haven’t been writing that much electronic music for
about the last ten years because I’ve been fortunate to be asked to do
several orchestra pieces.
BD: You don’t
feel that writing for orchestra is looking back, and writing for
electronics is looking forward?
necessarily. I’ve always felt that the composer controls the
message independent of the media. Certainly the media does effect
how you do something, but the basic thrust is determined by the
composer. For a single composer writing in electronic media who
also writes in the acoustical media — let’s say
traditional orchestra, chamber groups or whatever — the music would
probably have more in common with one another than another composer who
only wrote in one of the media. I’ve felt that the ideas
determine what you do, and you use the media as a means of projecting
that idea, taking into cognizance the peculiar qualities of each media.
BD: I was
asking you before about interpretation and leeway on the part of
performers. When you write an electronic piece, it will be
absolutely the same each time it is played. Is this a good thing
or a bad thing, or just a thing?
OW: I think
it is just a thing, and it depends on whether it’s a piece only for
electronic tape, or for electronic tape and live performer —
or whether it’s a piece for electronics to be performed
live. It’s capable of doing that now. As a matter of fact,
one of the things that’s happening in electronic or digital synthesis
of sound now is the development of what’s referred to as interactive
performance. This is the kind of technique where an electronic
sound source can be programmed to respond to the nuances of the
spacing, the tempo, and the dynamics of a live performer.
BD: So then
you’re getting electronic interpretation?
getting electronic interpretation, according to certain rules, and
that’s an interesting challenge. I’ve seen some examples. I
have a colleague, Barry Vercoe, who works at MIT, who’s been working on
this quite a bit there and at IRCAM in Paris. He’s developed this
interactive system where you can play a Bach suite on the flute, and
you have a Yamaha-like instrument — a
harpsichord, for example — to accompany the
flute that plays live. It’s programmed so it responds to it as a
live accompanist would. It’s really fascinating, some of the
technique that’s going on.
BD: Will it
put a lot of keyboard players out of work?
OW: No, live
keyboard players need not worry about that because it’s a different
kind of thing. But it is interesting and it is interactive, and I
think that’s more the wave of the future.
electronics are continually developing?
OW: Oh, of
course. Technology always does, and technology always has its own
rules and its positive things. But it’s not a panacea.
Electronic music has been around for years. I first became
involved in the early to middle sixties, and now, almost thirty years
later, ninety per cent of the music and sound that you hear on
television is produced electronically one way or another. But
still, live instrumentalists are thriving and performing in all kinds
of genres of music because it is something special. There’s
something about the quality of the human spirit that also loves the
acoustic sound. It’s not an either/or; I think it’s clearly a
BD: So you’re
optimistic about the whole future of music?
yes. I’m optimistic about the whole future of music. I tend
to be an optimistic person. There are a lot of things that I’d
like to see be better. As a composer I’d like to have more
performances. I have been fortunate recently to have a number of
performances, although the Chicago Symphony hasn’t performed my work
yet. They’ve got to do that! They ought to do that.
perhaps inundated with commissions. How do you decide which ones
you’ll accept and which ones you’ll either postpone or turn aside?
OW: I try to
accept those commissions that I really would like to do. At this
point in my life I am fortunate to have a number of different
commissions, and of course the biggest problem is time. Even
though I’m on sabbatical and even though at the university I do have
this balance of teaching as well as creative work, still I have other
responsibilities and it does take time. I’m not exactly the
fastest composer in the world anyway, so I try to judiciously accept
commissions that I really want to do.
BD: Then what
is it you look for?
A lot of times it has to do with the ensemble. The best
commissions are the ones that are sort of carte blanche, “We want you
to do a piece,” especially a piece either for orchestra or for chamber
group. Right now I have a commission from the National Endowment
for the Arts to do a viola concerto for Marcus Thompson. That was
something I wanted to do, and I applied directly to NEA. That’s
something Marcus and I had been talking for about for a long time, and
it worked out. So I’m
beginning that now that I’ve finished this piece for the Black Music
presents world premiere of Viola Concerto by Wilson
July 12, 2012
Marcus Thompson, Robert R. Taylor Professor of Music at MIT, presented
the world premiere of the Viola Concerto by composer Olly Wilson with
the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra on June 2. The performance, under
the direction of Arild Remmereit at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theater, was
presented as part of the 40th International Viola Congress held at
Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y.
Stuart Low, reviewer for The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, wrote:
…“Olly Wilson’s Viola Concerto, dazzlingly performed by Boston soloist
Marcus Thompson, was a more serious affair. Skillfully and innovatively
written for the instrument, it often calls for hammered or vigorously
scrubbed bow strokes that help the viola’s dark tone project. The
concerto’s atonal lines tend to unfold in tight, chromatic steps — a
great help to a violist zipping around this large instrument in quick
runs. Wilson, a highly acclaimed Berkeley, Calif., composer, also takes
advantage of the viola’s lyrical side in the concerto’s elegiac middle
section. Searing and haunted by turns, it was eloquently delivered by
Wilson’s Viola Concerto was commissioned by the National Endowment of
the Arts and written for, and dedicated to, Marcus Thompson. Wilson is
professor of music at University of California at Berkeley. He has
received numerous honors and awards from the American Academy in Rome
and the American Academy of Arts and Letters and Guggenheim and
Rockefeller Foundation Fellowships. His works have been performed by
major American orchestras and international ensembles.
Then I’ve got a commission from the New York Philharmonic. As
part of their one hundred fiftieth celebration I’ll be doing a piece
for them. And there are several other pieces that I’m
commissioned to do within the next couple of years.
BD: So you
say you haven’t done anything for the Chicago Symphony yet, but you
have had the Boston Symphony and now you’ve got New York!
New York, Cleveland, Saint Louis — almost
all of the major symphonies have played some of my music, with the
exception of Chicago!
BD: I hope
it’ll happen, but the point I was making is that there are many
composers — even those who have recordings
— and they don’t get any of the big orchestras to play
their music. So you’re very fortunate.
OW: Yes, I am
fortunate and very pleased by that. I have been fortunate in
having had conductors who supported my work. One of them who was
very supportive was Seiji Ozawa, who performed my work in San Francisco
and then did it in Boston. He then commissioned me and recorded
the Boston piece that you have. [Photo
at left. See my Interview with John
Harbison, whose music is also on that CD.]
advice do you have for young composers coming along?
OW: I think
young composers should follow their own muse and study as much as they
can. By study I mean listen — my advice is to listen to as much
music that interests you and to study as many scores as you possibly
can. My musical background is steeped not only in the European
classical tradition, but in the African-American tradition. I
found listening to a great deal of music — in my case a great deal of
jazz and so forth, and playing and getting involved, immersing oneself
in the musical experience as much as possible — is
the best way for inspiration. It sensitizes you a great deal to
what’s going on around you, and it makes you critical. Any
creative person has to be critical. You have to be critical of
yourself, and in order to develop that kind of skill you have to know a
lot. You have to listen to a lot. You have to have
experienced a lot. This is done by playing music and making music
— either as a performer or a conductor — listening
a lot, reading a lot about music, and immersing yourself in all of the
traditions as much as you can. I find inspiration comes from a
wide range of sources, and you can’t always predict where it’s coming
BD: Does it
come for you even from your students?
sure! It comes from my students and from my colleagues at the
university. You asked earlier about the university and how one
juxtaposes or balances the responsibilities of a professor and at the
same time fulfills the drives of a creative artist. Even though
they recognize, as I did, that the university is the twentieth century
patron of the arts, I have colleagues who say that they could never
survive in the university because there are too many other things that
are distractions. In my case, I don’t think of it that way.
It’s not a distraction; I find that it’s intellectually
stimulating. I find it also inspiring because of the fact that
you can go and here somebody giving a lecture on the latest advances in
physics, or somebody talking about philosophy or an entirely new
approach to geopolitics. I find that all stimulating, and in
funny ways I think it keeps you alert. It certainly becomes an
inspiration for me to pursue my art.
BD: As an
African American composer, whenever we listen to a piece of yours, are
you helping to express African American ideas, or is it just simply
part of the universal music that you are presenting?
OW: Music is
experience consciously transformed, and because my experience has been
an African-American experience, I think it expresses that. But
that is a very, very complicated kind of thing which is
inclusive. It includes a lot of different things including the
full range of human experience at the end of the 20th century living in
the United States. Having said that, if you listen to music on
the other side, there may not be discernible aspects of that music that
you say, “Aha, that’s clearly from African American tradition.”
In some instances, in some of the music, you might be able to discern
it and in other instances you aren’t able to discern it. I would
hope that you would be able to discern something that made sense,
something that communicated something of the human spirit. To
that degree it’s universal, but the universal always comes from the
particular. What really makes it universal is that somebody has
looked very deeply at their specific human experience — which
is very culturally bound and culturally based. But
what comes out of that is something which has meaning to you, and that
becomes universal because the human experience is so common in so many
BD: Is the
music that you write, or any concert music, for everyone?
course. The idea of a creative person — certainly
my idea — is to attempt to communicate.
There are two drives a creative person has. One is to create, and
the other is to communicate. You want to communicate to anybody
who can hear it and anybody who can appreciate it, so you’re constantly
dealing with that. The first drive, I think is primary because
even if you weren’t successful — even if I had
no commissions, even if I were not fortunate enough to have my work
performed by outstanding ensembles like the excellent repertory
ensemble that’s performing Wednesday night — even
if that were not the case I would still create because I’ve got an
inner drive to create. I also want to communicate, but I want to
communicate on my terms. The difference would be though I want to
communicate, I don’t start with the fact that I want to communicate,
figure out what people like and then try to do that. I start out
with my inner drive, my inner concept of what makes sense, and then
hope that people will understand what I’m attempting to do.
BD: Do you
have the audience in mind at all when you’re writing?
OW: I have
the audience in mind in a general sense, but not in a specific
sense. I’m so involved with the dynamics of trying to make sense
out of this musical universe that I’m trying to create. I’m also
the audience, and I’m also listening back and saying, “This works and
this doesn’t work.” If you’re fortunate to reach that moment when
you say, “Ah, this really works,” then I assume that’s going to work
for the audience, too. But I’m not consciously thinking about the
audience when I’m writing a piece. I’m consciously thinking about
the piece and what makes sense within that piece.
BD: Do you feel
that you’re part of a lineage of composers?
OW: Yes I do,
very much so. As an American composer, I feel very much a part of
the tradition of American composers, and specifically African American
composers — a tradition which is much older than
many people are aware. It goes all the way back to the early part
of the nineteenth century with composer-performers like Frank Johnson,
who was an excellent band leader — one of the
first band leaders and composers, writing music that was both
quasi-popular and at the same time was also outside of the popular, for
the salon as well. It goes all the way up to the end of the
nineteenth century with Dvořák and Harry Burleigh, and through
the twenties with William Grant Still and William Dawson, and later on
with Howard Swanson and then people of my own generation like George
Walker, Hale Smith and T.J. Anderson, and people who were my
colleagues and contemporaries, and some former students like Wendell
Logan. [See my Interview
with George Walker, and my Interview with Hale
Smith and T.J. Anderson.] All of this
is in addition to being part
of the general contemporary American music movement. Obviously
there’s been an impact from Stravinsky and influence by a number of
other composers who have been active. There has been the impact
of Varèse on my work in various ways, and I’ve been influenced
by the music of Berio. [See my Interview with Luciano
Berio.] But I’ve also been influenced by the music of Charlie
Parker and, to different degrees, John Coltrane and Miles Davis.
So it’s all of those things that have been the sum total of my musical
Is composing fun?
is fulfilling. It’s fun and it’s also frustrating. It’s a
challenge — in Michelangelo’s terms, ‘the agony
and the ecstasy.’ It’s both of those. When you come to
those creative solutions for problems that you have, it’s just
absolutely ecstasy! It really is marvelous! On the other
hand, when you are struggling to achieve that goal you’re your own best
critic. When you know that this is not quite up to the standard,
it is agony. So it is both exhilarating and also capable of
casting you into utter despair at times. You can understand both
sides of it, and you try to maintain an equilibrium and say, “Well,
today I didn’t do so well, but maybe tomorrow I’ll do better,” and you
keep at it.
BD: Do you go
back and revise scores?
OW: I don’t
do that very much. I try to move on to the next piece.
Occasionally if there’s a real miscalculation in a performance — maybe
the orchestration wasn’t right — I may make some minor changes here and
there. But I have not been the kind of composer who does a lot of
serious revisions. As you know, history is full of composers
who’ve done that. I don’t do that very often. I think,
“This piece reflects the way I was feeling at that time. Even
with its imperfections, let’s move onto the next level. The next
piece is a new opportunity.”
BD: So rather
than fix an old piece, you’d rather write a new piece?
Exactly. And in most instances, by the time I’ve finished with a
piece I’m satisfied with basically what it’s done. There may be a
little thing, something here or there that is minor, but for the most
part I’m pretty satisfied with the output before I release it.
BD: [With a
gentle nudge] There are no pieces lurking in the early part of
your catalog that you want to disown?
OW: No, but
there are pieces in the early part of my catalog that I say, “Yeah, but
I was a student then.” [Both laugh] There are pieces that I
wouldn’t do now that I did in 1959 and so forth, but there are some
early pieces which I still consider inspired, so it’s good.
teaching at U.C. Berkeley?
Right. I’ve been there twenty years, as a matter of fact, since
BD: Is there
a real difference between the west coast school and the east coast
OW: I don’t
think so. Given the nature of communications and the ability of
people to travel back and forth, I don’t think there ever was a real
strong difference. In the sixties and the seventies there was the
presence of several strong figures in the west coast who approached
music differently, and some strong figures in the east coast. If
you recall, in the sixties in terms of contemporary American music,
probably the leading intellectual leader was Milton Babbitt at
Princeton with a certain kind of approach toward composition. The
whole notion of the post-Webern total serialism, total determination
and so forth — these ideas were prevalent certainly in the eastern
academies. At the same time in the west, particularly around San
Francisco and also, to a different degree, in LA where Schoenberg was
living, you had a number of people who were supporters of John Cage who
were also adherents of applying more indeterminacy. [See my Interview with John Cage.]
As a result of that, people began to associate Cage and a prior
California composer, Cowell, who was also iconoclastic, and also looked
to the east and different ways of approaching these ideas instead of
the extension of the Germanic tradition. At least
philosophically, perhaps some ideas were redefined and reinterpreted
because they weren’t precisely the way they were from Asia, but grew
out of Zen Buddhism. [For more on the Asian influence, see my Interview with Lou
Harrison.] At that time there was such a clear difference in
philosophical approaches to composition, and ideas associated with the
east coast and the west coast, people thought of it in terms of east
and west. But at the same time that was going on, Roger Sessions,
who represents another trend of very deterministic music, was also
living and working in California, at Berkeley, as a matter of
fact. So that’s never been absolute, and there’s always been a
certain amount of exchange. Since then, there have been a number
of different ideas that sort of co-exist on both coasts in different
ways, so that at this point there is no single dominant school or idea
that informs and determines contemporary music, even within the academy.
BD: We now
have this instantaneous communication, as you were talking about, and
something that is played in Berkeley can be heard even simultaneously
in New York and all over the country, and indeed, all over the world.
BD: Is this
helping to coordinate music, or is it breaking down the individual
styles and making it too homogeneous?
OW: On one
hand, one might suspect that, because that’s what technology does
often. If you look at folk cultures and look at popular cultures,
it certainly does do that even on an international level. In the
written music tradition, that’s not necessarily the case because we’re
so historically self-conscious that people are so aware of being
different. Instead of there being a single line, there are now
multiple lines at the same time. Five or ten years ago, John
Rockwell in The New York Times
declared that minimalism was the way to go, and a number of composers
such as Phil Glass and Steve Reich rose to ascendancy. [See my Interviews with Phillip
Glass, and my Interviews
Reich.] But even at the same time that was going on, Elliott
Carter was still going strong, and there were still composers who were
influenced by his way of writing one way or another. [See my Interview with Elliott
Carter.] The fact of the matter is that there are many, many
composers who are not swayed by any of those major movements, or highly
touted movements, but simply follow their own muse. In fact,
we’ve got a creative eclecticism, and I think that’s sort of the norm
now. I serve on juries for various kinds of things for young
composers, and I don’t see any one single line. I see composers
feeling free to listen to the music of George Crumb or Copland or
Babbitt or Schuller, or to the music of T.J. Anderson or Olly Wilson,
and they come up with their own solutions. [See my Interview with George
Crumb, my Interview with Milton
Babbitt, and my Interviews
with Gunther Schuller.] I think that’s healthier than the
days when people were so conscious of style that they felt they had to
adhere to either this style or the other style.
BD: So you
encourage young composers — or any composers,
really — to stick to their convictions?
exactly, because I don’t think you can create unless you are convinced
by your own conventions.
BD: When you
serve on juries, what do you look for in a new musical work?
OW: You look
for some individuality. In the first instance you look for
competence in working for the media that you have chosen. Then
you look for individuality, a creative spark that is unique and
stimulating and that reflects a particular perspective.
BD: But you
don’t want it to be different just to be different?
OW: No, not
different just to be different. That path has already been gone
down. That was one of the things that used to happen in Darmstadt
in the late sixties and seventies. Every year somebody would come
out with innovations for innovation’s sake, which became absurd after a
while, and nobody came anymore because it became so far out. You
look for a real creative spark, something that communicates musically
and artistically in sound. That’s really the ultimate
criteria. Now for a person who’s able to do that in an innovative
way, that’s fine. Or a person who’s able to do it working within
a more traditional or more conservative means is fine.
BD: Is there
any chance that we’re getting too many young composers coming along?
OW: I don’t
think so. I think society has a way of taking care of
itself. A number of people come to the university to study
composition, and the world can only support so many composers. So
by the end — after graduation, or certainly after a master’s degree
— they move to something else. Some people drop out
of music altogether, but having had that discipline and that
experience, they listen to music and frequently support music.
That’s important, too.
It’s obvious that the technical proficiency of performers is getting
better, year after year. Is their musicianship getting better
OW: I don’t
know. Since I’ve been so impressed at the difference between
young performers now and the way it was, say, twenty or twenty-five
years ago, it appears that the musicianship is getting better.
But I think that has to do with attitude and technical
proficiency. Twenty-five years ago, to find young performers
right out of the conservatory or right out of the university who were
willing and able to perform very, very difficult music and with the
same kind of aplomb that they approach the traditional repertoire was
few and far between. But now you can find them, so I’d like to
believe that it’s probably a combination of those factors.
BD: Thank you
for coming to Chicago. I’ve been wanting to meet you for quite a
while, and I’m glad that you’re here.
OW: Thank you
for having me.
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© 1991 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded in his hotel in Chicago on February
4, 1991. Portions
were used (with recordings) on WNIB in 1992 and 1997, on WNUR in 2005
and twice in 2012, and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio in 2005
and 2009. This
transcription was made and posted on this
website early in 2013.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
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
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.