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
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
His work as a professional musician included playing jazz piano in local
St. Louis groups, as well as playing double bass for the St. Louis 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 Letters.
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
Olly Wilson: 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 several commissions.
BD: At the university
you’re teaching composition and theory?
OW: I’m 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 well.
BD: By rotating the courses can you keep each one
OW: That’s right.
BD: In the theory
and composition courses, are these training more composers or are these training
musicians who want to understand music more?
OW: It’s 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 in
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.
OW: That’s 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
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?
OW: That’s right.
It becomes very mediocre if you aren’t able to inspire.
BD: So each person
has to have both of these talents?
OW: Exactly, exactly.
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
BD: Thinking 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?
OW: There’s 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
BD: But 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 piece.
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?
OW: In 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 hangs
OW: Exactly, yes.
BD: When 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?
OW: It’s 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
BD: Do you want
the performers to play it exactly right, or is there a little room for interpretation?
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?
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.
* * *
BD: You’ve worked
quite a bit with electronics and electronic tape, and you had a piece that
actually won the first competition of electronic music.
BD: I wonder...
can there be a competition for the ‘best piece of music’
in any given framework?
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
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?
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
OW: Not 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?
OW: You’re 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.
BD: So 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 both/and.
BD: So you’re optimistic
about the whole future of music?
OW: Oh, 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.
* * *
BD: You’re 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. [See my Interview with 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 Repertory Ensemble.
presents world premiere of Viola Concerto by Wilson
July 12, 2012
Violist 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
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
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!
OW: Boston, New
York, Cleveland, Saint Louis — almost
all of the major symphonies have played some of my music, with the exception
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
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.]
BD: What 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 from.
BD: Does it come
for you even from your students?
OW: Oh, 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 levels.
BD: Is the music
that you write, or any concert music, for everyone?
OW: Of 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
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
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 experience.
Is composing fun?
OW: Composing 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?
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.
* * *
BD: You’re teaching
at U.C. Berkeley?
I’ve been there twenty years, as a matter of fact, since 1970.
BD: Is there a
real difference between the west coast school and the east coast school?
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
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
with Steve 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,
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?
OW: Sure, exactly,
because I don’t think you can create unless you are convinced by your own
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
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 also?
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
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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.
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.
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.